Sunday, September 10, 2006

Worldbuilding

The other day a conversation among some fantasy writers centered on the question of world building. It can be fascinating to develop things for your invented worlds. But it can be dangerous too.

I was skimming a site I'd bookmarked a while ago, Great Science Fiction & Fantasy Works. It has reviews of various authors whom the site creator considers worthy of reading and studying. The more literary examples within the genre. He has a pretty extended introduction to the site, and I just wanted to mention what he has to say about world building:

There is in this worldmaking business a clear example of the oft-cited observation that circumstances generate their opposites. In years not yet beyond living memory, it was a commonplace of science-fiction and fantasy criticism to assail writers for careless and thus inept worldmaking: suns of impossible color for their size in the sky, cities off in the middle of mountain ranges with no conceivable economic basis for existence, that sort of thing. It was, and apparently remains, an article of faith with science-fiction and fantasy authors that readers care very much about such matters and will recoil in horror from any such inconsistencies. (To me, barring comically gross ineptitude, such flaws are invisible, but I must--as with the joy of drinking tea--take it on faith by report that the phenomenon exists; I suspect, however, that few of the carpers, if such there truly be, are of voting age.) In consequence, a new generation of science-fiction and fantasy writers undertook never, ever to tell a tale set in a world for which they had not worked out exactly the exchange rates of seventeen various currencies, the tidal height at the equator and both tropics, the number and names of all spices added to stews (by season), the geomorphology of five separate continents (if Doctor Watson wishes to distinguish between separate continents and whatever the alternative kind may be, let us not differ), and the sexual habits of uncountably many species of domestic animal. That, in itself, was harmless: idle hands do the devil's work and it kept such folk off the streets at night.
And then a bit later:
What a successful world-maker must accomplish is to fully imagine the world of the tale, then simply tell that tale in that world. Really, that's it: tell that tale in that world. Where the tale, of its own accord, intersects some aspect of that world that differs from our own, there are two basic possibilities: the difference matters to the tale, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, pass on: leave it that the heroine heard the haunting notes of a traditional kabba played mournfully on a drall. Does it matter a rat's ass what a kabba or a drall is? No? Then don't kill trees telling me about them. If it does, then--and then only--in the fullness of time reveal to me these things. Do you suppose Zane Grey devotes pages to explaining how an exploding compound of niter propels a blob of lead out of a short metal tube at so many and so many yards a second? OK, you spent a lot of time thinking through your private Brave New World: get over it.
I love it. I almost want to post the paragraph between these two as well, since it's well worth reading (and is far enough into the essay that I can't just link directly to it), but instead I'll just recommend you go read the essay as well. And then after you finish his introduction, check out some of the authors he recommends. I can't say I agree with all of it, but it definitely includes many of the writers I most respect. (The one problem with the site is that many of the authors don't have the discussion about them posted yet, just their name, a star rating, and the recommended books by them--I'm not even sure if the site is still being updated or if it's simply a relic itself.)

4 comments:

Bibsy said...

Hey, you stole my blog topic! :p

But I didn't have a nifty article to back me up. I'll have to check that out.

Elliot said...

Good quotes!

Daniel Ausema said...

Thanks! It's a great, sarcastic bit of the article (some other parts are a bit dry, I'm afraid). And sorry, Bibsy--you'll just have to wait a couple months and then do this topic again...like you just did with escapism. :P

mscelina said...

*snort!*

As I eye the three binders full of Asphodel world building, I wonder if perhaps I'm just a bit obsessed...