[process] Some notes on worldbuilding

Reading the Science in my Fiction blog lately has gotten me thinking about worldbuilding again. That’s a topic never far from my mind, and is perhaps the first aspect of fiction craft I became formally aware of, as a reader during my teen years. (I blame a combination of Robert Heinlein ret-conned future history and the release of First Edition AD&D for this.)

I might try to make this a regular series of posts on the blog, because I have a lot to say, but I don’t yet have an overarching thematic structure in which to embed my thoughts. Ie, random musing.

For today, point the first: Monocultures.

Science in my Fiction recently had a post on single-biome planets. I don’t completely agree with them, I can imagine several situations where a single human-viable biome is present on an otherwise inhospitable planet (think Larry Niven’s A Gift From Earth for one example), but the general point is very well taken. But I think the point applies just as much to monocultures as monobiomes.

It’s a trope in SF (and to a much lesser degree in fantasy) that an oppressed or defeated or otherwise marginalized culture flees to a place of new opportunity. Consider the US grade-school version of the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts as an example of this. In SF we see entire planetary civilizations dedicated to a single purpose. A good version of this in fiction is Gordon R. Dickson’s Childe cycle, with the worlds of the Exotics, the Friendlies (sic) and the Dorsai. Yet, much like the Pilgrims, historical and sociological evidence strongly suggests that monocultures do not long survive their charismatic (or traumatic) foundings. Schisms occur. Persecutions lead to diaspora, which leads to competing centers of civilization far from the original core.

In order for a monoculture to make sense in an SF novel, it would have to be fairly young, fairly small, and very tightly controlled. Which could certainly be true in the early years of a new colony. Or in a very resource-constricted environment where one entity has control of both information and critical resources. Think North Korea, for example. Or in a dying colony. But in general, with any substantial population and a decent surplus of resources, people will find things to argue about. That’s what we do.

So I find monocultures, especially allegedly long-term monocultures, dubious at best. I tend to lose story trust very quickly when presented with such, unless a valid (and interesting) rationale is presented as well. Besides which, they don’t usually work well in fiction except as allegory (Dickson’s intent, surely, in the Childe Cycle), and allegory is difficult to pull off well.

Point the second: Societal impacts of magic.

I was in a workshop years ago where a very good writer (who is now a Bigger Name than me) presented a charming short story which was, essentially, Jane Austen with magic, during which, as a complete toss-off line, someone mentioned that the South Tower of the manor had previously been turned to butter by a passing magical storm.

Everybody else in the workshop thought it was a terrific story. I got totally hung up on the butter question. Where did twenty or thirty tons of butter go afterward? What happened to the local dairy economy when the lord of the manor went to dispose of enough butter to feed half of England for months? What was the value of the labor spent to build and then rebuild the South Tower in a world where all that effort could be randomly erased at any moment? If transmutation were so random and simple, what was the value of any material good? If the gold in the vaults could suddenly become gravy, who would keep gold in vaults? Etc.

The workshop patted me on the head, told me to take a pill and lie down, and carried on. But that conversation bothers me to this day. It’s a trope in some kinds of fantasy that we see the world-as-it-is (or was) with this one magical element introduced. As a reader, I understand the appeal of that. As a writer, it makes me nuts.

Naomi Novik’s excellent and entertaining Temeraire series is a startlingly clear example of this. The books take place in the Napoleonic world, with dragons. Dragons have been around since prehistory, according to internal evidence in the text. Which leads me to think that if the Phonecians had dragons, they’d have had deepwater navigation thanks to over-the-horizon reconnaissance, and the Romans would never have risen as they did. Or if the Romans had dragons, would they have been more successful in repelling the barbarian invasions during their decline? Etc. I find it almost inconceivable that the world of Napoleonic Europe could have evolved with such an overpowering historical inflection. Had the dragons appeared just a few dozen years before the narrative present of the story, it would have all made sense. Which isn’t the point of the Temeraire, of course, but it bothered my world-building self intensely.

I can make the same criticisms of my own Mainspring series. That there should be a Victorian England as we knew it in an Earth where the equator is impassable and therefore the British East India Company is much a reduced or nonexistent beast, for example, is ludicrous. I make some efforts to explain this away in the world-building, which I hope are successful, and (like Novik) I did this for a reason, but it still doesn’t make sense. Given that the Mainspring universe is about a light-year wide, and contains one solar system driven by clockwork, it doesn’t have to make a lot of sense. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

My larger point is that when you introduce magic, any kind of magic, it’s impossible to imagine that society will simply stay the same. Randall Garrett did a good job of this in his Lord Darcy books, showing a society familiar enough to have that frisson of interest to the reader, but also quite distorted from our own in both the narrative present and the internal history by the presence of the magic. There’s a huge temptation when working at the high concept level to say, “It’s just like Little House on the Prairie, with werewolves!”, and that obviously works commercially — Jane Austen with Zombies, anyone? — but if you’re attempting or even pretending to SFnal rigor or internally consistent fantasy, work out the plausibilities first.

9 thoughts on “[process] Some notes on worldbuilding

  1. Sän says:

    I hope you keep doing these… Worldbuilding was one of the first parts of craft that I paid attention to as well, but I still struggle with juggling so many aspects at once. I welcome your insights–the monoculture thing has always bothered me, but I didn’t really know WHY until this morning.

  2. Absolutely, we writers can get away with a lot more mischief if we put readers on firm ground in the story. I have a hard time understanding why any writer would want to skip worldbuilding and take their settings for granted. To me that would be like trying to play soccer on a field made of silly putty. If the background is too plastic, it’s going to interfere with the game. Plus, worldbuilding is fun!

    Great post.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Do you ever find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of research searching to flesh out every last detail? I have a hard time drawing the line between enough research and too much. That may be the curse of being a critical thinker, especially where one’s own work is concerned. Thanks for the window into your world…building.

    1. Jay says:

      I tend to balance research and writing, so I don’t usually go down the rabbit hole. But it’s happened… 🙂

    2. Alex J. Kane says:

      That almost happened to me with the story I finished yesterday…even though I know it was only going to be around 10,000 words, there was a lot of medical and technological stuff going on, in a very far-future setting, and I wanted to keep it logical and believable.

      I imagine a person could go crazy writing science fiction and fantasy, concerned as some of us are with believability.

      Looks like you’ve got a really sound grip on the functions and dynamics of society, Jake, and I look forward to more of your insights in regard to worldbuilding.

  4. That’s certainly true. I’ve been working on a short story that has the basic premise of “It’s just like the real world, but with X”, and when I had a friend review it, he had one response that was like “It’s an interesting world, but I’d be interested to see what sorts of differences arise in this world because of the inclusion of X”.

    This made me stop and think for a moment. And as I thought, I realized that I could spend an awful lot of time rewriting the entire history of the world to account for the inclusion of “X”, because, really, “X” changes everything, so that after I’d done this, I’d really be left with something completely different from my original premise.

    But then again, this was meant to be a 10k word short story and not a novel. I couldn’t really justify that level of detail and world-building to account for element “X”, so I just made a few minor changes to the history of the real world that may or may not even be mentioned in the course of the story…

    So, my thought on this is: when is that level of thinking just too much? For a novel, sure, maybe it makes sense. For a short story? Will it make the story better? Or just needlessly complex, as you try to re-explain everything for the benefit of the reader.

    On the other hand, for a secondary world, this level of thinking is basically essential, I think.

  5. Jason Block says:

    The eternal question, “How do all the monsters get air and food on level 37?”

  6. Jason Black says:

    > I got totally hung up on the butter question.

    I’m right there with you, man.

    In my practice as a book doctor, I see world building problems in sf, fantasy, alternate-history, and “our world, but with X!” novels all the time.

    Ultimately, I think it all comes down to a question of suspension of disbelief. On the easy to believe end of the spectrum are novels where X is something completely normal. YA coming-of-age novels are rife with this. Take “King Dork” by Frank Portman, for example (wonderful book). His “X” is nothing more than “there’s a dorky kid named such-and-such, who goes to such-and-such school, and is into heavy metal.”

    The magical realism genre (e.g. “Give Up the Ghost”) moves it up a notch, with X being “yes, there really are ghosts, and by the way our heroine can see them.”

    Then there’s high fantasy and radical sci-fi, which postulate whole other systems of physics (magic) or wholly new systems of technology that our world just doesn’t have. Yet, anyway. X, in those genres, changes things that are more fundamental to how our world works, and thus, assault the basis on which our everyday understanding of the world (our common sense) is derived.

    It’s a lot harder to write for that particular X and maintain that same suspension of disbelief.

    My theory is this: readers know that the whole point of fiction is that the very premise of the book involves an X-factor of some kind, whether mundane or far-out. Without it, there would be no book, so they’ll give you that one for free. They’ll willfully go with you on dragons in Napoleonic Europe or a secret society of wizards in England or whatever else your X involves, because without it there would be no story and so what’s the point? I mean, if you can’t suspend your disbelief about a novel’s particular X-factor, you’re better off sticking with non-fiction.

    But after that, writers, you’re on your own. You get the one freebie that’s core to your premise, but that’s it. After that, everything else (and I do mean everything) had better make sense. That is, everything else about the way the world of your story works had better conform to the logical ramifications of your X.

    Like Jay says, had there been dragons since way back, the whole history of Europe ought, by rights, have been different. We’ll readily suspend our disbelief about the dragons themselves, because hey, cool premise! But as a writer it is then incumbent on you to CAREFULLY THINK THROUGH the ramifications of your premise.

    That’s where so many of my clients blow it. They add X to the world, but they don’t change anything else to match, even things which make no sense in the context of X.

    So yeah, Jay, I’m right there with you on the butter question. You’re right to ask it, and you’re right to demand better from anybody who would postulate that in their book.

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