* World building 101 — an SF author's take
V Why do we build worlds?
* It's all about the story-telling.
* Many stories are set in our own world, using the off-the-shelf reality all around us.
* Many more stories are set in the past, using settings very unlike our own, but which can be studied from available records: we call these works "historical fiction", and they're also off-the-shelf.
V SF and Fantasy are usually set in a secondary, imagined world which is a-historical.
* Such settings permit stories impossible in our own, either in the present or in a historical setting.
* You don't have to invent a secondary world to write SF/F, but if you don't, you end up with a restricted repertoire.
V Purposes of using a secondary world:
V Alienation of the reader from the lived experience
* Force the reader to re-examine their assumptions
* Let the author "bend the rules", both scientific and cultural, to artistic or conceptual effect
* Give us a tour of a world we've never seen before
V Fiction is written for an audience, and the audience (here today) is WEIRD
V We're products of What social psychologists call a WEIRD society—"Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic"—and this is an anomaly.
* Democracy is not the historical norm under which most people lived, even in the past century
* Roughly 95% of all wealth/capital accumulation took place in the past 200 years
* Industrialization is a phenomena of the post-1712 world (first atmospheric engines)
* Literacy used to be for the aristocracy/priesthood
* We call our prevailing culture and its assumptions "western" and our unspoken assumption is that this is "normal"
V Note that historical fiction may also serve the purpose of alienation—people saw the world differently in the past, and acted accordingly
V Sometimes authors take a historical period and "file off the serial numbers"—the path of least resistance
* Example: Harry Turtledove's Videssos books. Set in an imagined secondary world that is very closely modeled on the Byzantine empire (he holds a PhD in Byzantine history), with the names changed and a little added magic.
V Some periods of history are unbelievably alien to us anyway: no renaming needed, just take them at face value
* Example: the Aztec empire (provides a setting for Aliette de Bodard's "Obsidian and Blood" trilogy (Aztec detective stories: in which the Aztec gods and their magic are real ...)
V Sometimes we obtain alienation by projecting our WEIRD acculturation into places it's never been
* Example: Star Trek—in which the cultural assumptions of American liberals boldly go where no American liberals have gone before
* Used to examine the dissonant intersection of our way of thinking with those of other imagined cultures, OR
* Examine how our own WEIRD culture might deal with new technologies or social developments—"if this goes on" extrapolation
V Occasionally we extrapolate non-WEIRD cultures into our own context
* Examples: "Red Dawn", "Arslan", novels of invasion/alien conquest
* (This was a particularly fertile field during Cold War paranoia days, now in eclipse)
V Examination of the human condition under a microscope
V The four main sources of conflict in storytelling:
V Person vs. Person
V e.g. just about any superhero narrative
* (Superhero stories leverage classical mythological archetypes)
V Person vs. Nature
* e.g. "The Old Man and the Sea" (mainstream)
V e.g. "The Martian" (SF)
V In SF, "Nature" doesn't have to be natural but can be a non-human environment/situation where survival is in doubt:
* "2001: A Space Odyssey"
* "Ringworld"
V Person vs. Society
* e.g. "1984", "We", "The Hunger Games", any dystopia you care to mention
V Person vs. Self
* e.g. "Dying Inside" (Robert Silverberg), "Glasshouse" (me)
* In SF, Person vs. Self can be a metaphorical struggle (as in mainstream literature) or an actual struggle mediated by unreal augmentations (e.g. telepathy, brain implants)
V Conflict lets us stress-test our humanity (via fictional protagonists)
V We can play with larger-than-life protagonists
* For wish-fulfillment or escapism
* We can play with human-scle protagonists in a non-human scale setting
* Imagined worlds give us new arenas for such stress-testing to take place in
* I'm going to focus on worlds over characters in this talk, because the subject is world-building—but don't forget that in storytelling, your characters reflect and refract the world around them.
V The world is a character in SF/F
V Sometimes the story is as much about the world as about the characters
* (This is a variant on the "Person vs. Nature" story)
* Example: "The Lord of the Rings" as travelogue
V Rarely: Stories in which humanity does not appear at all (or is explicitly extinct)
* Very hard to write—readers want a viewpoint to empathize with
V It's hard for an author to instill empathy for a non-human viewpoint
* Furry animals are easier (e.g. "Watership Down")
V How to build a world
V First establish what you need from your imagined world
V Can you tell your story in the present-day world? If so, do you even need to invent a world for it?
* A story about a bank robbery aboard a space station that makes no use of the setting or the effect of the setting on the characters might as well be set on Earth. If it relies on a traditional safe-cracker using contemporary tools, it doesn't need to be SF at all, and the SF setting is actually a distraction from the story.
* A knight on a quest in a mediaeval world doesn't require magic, monsters, and names with apostrophes in the middle to be a compelling story—if framed as a historical one.
* Imagined worlds should add something to the story; something without which the story can't work.
V What variant story elements require an imagined world?
V Changes to the human condition
V A story that examines racism/sexism by positing all humans share similar skin colour/features or otherwise modifying variables
* e.g. "The Lathe of Heaven" (Ursula LeGuin)
* e.g. "Ammonite" (Nicola Griffith)
V A story in which human life spans are dramatically longer
* e.g. "Back to Methuselah" (George Bernard Shaw)
V A story in which the ability to feel some emotion has been eliminated from the human psyche
* e.g. "War Games" by Brian Stableford
V A story in which humans are eusocial organisms, group minds, or otherwise undergo changes to their identity
* "Hothouse" (Brian Aldiss)
* "Hellstrom's Hive" (Frank Herbert)
* "Ancillary Justice" (Ann Leckie)
* Any biological or cognitive change that modifies the way protagonists see things
V Changes to the human environment
V A story set in an overpopulated world
* e.g. "Stand on Zanzibar" by John Brunner
* e.g. "A Torrent of Faces" by James Blish
V A story set in a post-disaster world
* e.g. "Dreamsnake" by Vonda McIntyre (and too many others to enumerate)
V A story set on a space colony, space station, or Big Dumb Object
* e.g. Much of Iain M. Banks' work
V A story set in a society with radically different politics
* e.g. "The Star Fraction" (Ken MacLeod)
V A story set in a world where artificial intelligence interacts with humans to generate complex emergent outcomes
* e.g. "The Red" (Linda Nagata)
* e.g. "Neuromancer" (William Gibson)
* Any setting that changes the world in which the protagonists can act
V Changes to the non-human environment
V A story setting on another barely-life-supporting planet
* e.g. "Cyteen" (C. J. Cherryh)
* Of necessity, some of these categories overlap; you can have any or all of them in a single story, and indeed some of them feed into each other: a changed environment usually results in changes to the way people live there.
V Textual fiction has different—restrictive—requirements from visual or other media (e.g. music, games)
* You can't show visual, textural, auditory, or other somatic information without describing it
* This can interfere with the pacing of a narrative
V In writer's shorthand, it's best to rely on "showing, not telling"—avoid infodumps
V An infodump interrupts the flow of narrative to drop an indigestible nugget of exposition into the story.
* (If you read "Dune", those "Encyclopedia Galactica" entries at the top of every chapter were classic Infodumps. Ditto, every episode of first generation "Star Trek" began with a "Captain's Log ..." entry to set the scene.)
* A close relative of the bare-naked infodump is the "Tell me, Professor": as in, "tell me, professor, how does the ecosystem of this wonderful new planet work ...?" Which is usually followed by an hour-long monologue distinguishable from an infodump only by the quotation marks around it.
V "Showing not telling" drip-feeds the information in the narrative, e.g. by slipping bits of background colour in adjectivally or discursively. At it's best it is seamless. Or it can be cunningly disguised as a reverse-tell-me-professor.
* A classic is the opening of "The Steel Beach" by John Varley (won the Nebula award in 1991): "In two years the penis will be obsolete, said the salesman". This delivers by implication that the story to come is set in a society with advanced, easy biological engineering and a very different attitude to sexuality; before we even get out of the first sentence!
V The author needs to know more about their world than the reader
* Viewers are sensitive to the frame around the picture
* Similarly, a reader will gain a sense of complexity and depth if there's more to the world than the author shows them—the author's prose will imply depth
V Part of the reader's task in assimilating an SF or Fantasy text is to decode the ground rules in which the story is set
* Much like a whodunnit: but the clues point to the nature of the world rather than the identity of the killer
* The world is a character in its own right
* When writing fiction you generally need to know more about your characters than you tell the reader: imagined worlds are no different.
* If you don't know about your protagonist's family background, your depiction of their reaction to encountering other people may seem contradictory or arbitrary to the readers.
* You need to develop a theory of mind for your characters. "What would X do?" is much easier to answer if you know what sort of things X normally does.
* Similarly, you need to develop a theory of mind for your imagined world: how does it accommodate developments in your story?
V What are my rules for designing a world:
* There's more than one way to do it—this just works for me
V Start from the top down
V Once you know what kind of story you want to tell, that'll give you some idea of the scale of the world you want to design
* Some stories require just a single city (e.g. "Perdido Street Station" by China Mieville)
* Some stories require a single country, on the scale of the UK
* Some stories require whole continents with multiple nations and varied geographical regions and climates
* Some stories require entire planets
* Some stories require many worlds
* Focus your effort on the most important parts—the ones your characters will see most of—but be aware of the backdrop fading out beyond them
V Internal consistency is vital
* This does not mean uniformity; as William Gibson remarked, "The future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed".
* A time traveller from the present to the early 1940s would see no signs of digital computers, jet engines, ballistic missiles, or nuclear weapons programs, but all of these things were in existence or under frantic wartime development and would loom large in the public consciousness within another decade or two.
V Rather, it means that if you're going to change the rules, you should change them consistently.
* For example, if writing a space opera, you're probably going to want faster than light travel. But it helps to jot down some numbers on the back of an envelope: how much faster than light can a starship travel, how far apart are the stars orbited by the planets your protagonists intend to visit, how long is the travel time between them.
* Once you've got these parameters, apply them: if it takes seven hours to fly from Heathrow to New York by jet, then if your protagonist needs to rush back again in just three hours, you're going to need to introduce Concorde as a special exception, and justify it.
V Unless you are deliberately writing surrealism, a lack of internal consistency will annoy your readers.
* After all, you've given them a puzzle (the world) to solve: a story with no internal consistency is like a crossword with no solution.
V Complexity adds depth
* The "small farming planet" is a cliche in SF, and it's bogus: how many biomes does Earth support? How many industries?
* Evolved ecosystems are complex. You never have just one species of herbivore and one of carnivore ... unless something has come along and radically pruned the ecosystem by killing off everything that was there before. Like a grouse moor.
* Economies are complex. Take the steel industry at Port Talbot. The headline figure of job losses if the steel works close is 4000, but those 4000 primary incomes go to support a host of local businesses — estimates of local job losses if the plant closes are closer to 30,000, ranging from corner shops to taxi firms. There's no such thing as a single industry in a region, unless it's self-sufficient iron-age farmers who don't participate in long-range trade and don't use money. (We call this sort of political geography the "dark ages" for a reason.)
* "History is the SF author's secret weapon" — Ken MacLeod
V "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce" — Karl Marx (well-known MacLeodist)
* If you want to build a believable world, consider stealing from two historic incidents or periods and remixing them for complexity
* The real world is prone to surreal episodes. Lavish parties where cocaine is circulated on silver platters on the heads of tiny people, dictators who rename every day of the week after themselves (except the one they name after their mother-in-law), Paraguay setting out on a war of planetary conquest by simultaneously invading Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay—history and human affairs are under no obligation to make sense.
V The human condition is not constant and universal; progress is not directional and irreversible
* As noted earlier, we in this panel and audience are WEIRD; our experience is incomprehensibly alien from the perspective of someone in 1716.
* Some aspects of the human condition are changeable: voluntary control over fertility leads to changes in family size, for example, which has huge impact on storytelling (how many siblings does your protagonist have?).
* These changes are not invariably progressive: consider antibiotic resistance as a brake on the brain implants so popular in cyberpunk fiction (who here wants to be the first to install antibiotic-resistant meningitis in their head just for a user interface upgrade?)
* Again, consider what it's like to be a woman living in Syria or Iraq today vs. the Levant three decades ago (under nominally secular one-party states).
* This has been a whistle-stop tour of some of the highlights of world-building in written science fiction, barely scratching the surface. I'm out of time; thank you.