Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
 

Empire of Sand

Review

 
Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang
 

Sword of Kaigen

New Release Review

 
Silent, Simple, Trouble: Corin Hayes Omnibus by G. R. Matthews – Cover Reveal
 

Corin Hayes Omnibus

Cover Reveal

 

Worldbuilding: More Than Just Maps

When we think about worldbuilding, we tend to think of it on a grand scale: maps of continents in the front of fantasy novels, or astral charts showing rival galactic empires. But worldbuilding is deeper, and more subtle, than that. A novel can have a huge cast and be set in a huge background, but can also be extremely shallow.

Eternum Map by AugustinasRaginskis

The truth is, worldbuilding is going on all the time. When a man writes his diary out of view of the secret police, or a woman disguises herself as a knight so that she can fight—these are elements of worldbuilding, because they are showing the reader what it’s like to live in this world.

Depth As Well As Width

Dune by Frank Herbert (detail)It’s not just scale that matters in worldbuilding, but detail. To take a very simple example, there isn’t much water in a desert. Therefore, owning water becomes very important. On a world where there is nothing but desert, it’s easy to imagine how people would fight and die for possession of water, and the lengths they might go to in order to preserve it. This is one of the fundamental concepts of the society on Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune. But Herbert doesn’t stop there. He shows just how important water is to the locals—the Fremen—by giving them rituals involving it. At one point, a Fremen representative makes a solemn promise by spitting on the table. The off-worlders present are appalled—until they realise that the man is symbolically sharing water with them, to denote the sincerity of his word.

Often in writing, if a statement is made by a reliable source, readers will take it to be true. So, when Ben Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that Mos Eisley spaceport is a hive of scum and villainy, we have no reason to doubt him, and share Luke’s trepidation as he ventures into the town. If it turned out that Ben was wrong, or lying, that would be an important point about his character as well as about Mos Eisley itself. Worldbuilders should be aware that first impressions tend to last.

Mos Eisley Morning by Claire Hummel

Consistency

But this also establishes a more general feeling: Mos Eisley shows us that bandits and thugs exist in the Star Wars world, and if we can have one fight in a seedy cantina, we may run into another. It’s showing us not just the literal setting, but the tone and style of the story to follow. It’s easy to see that the Mos Eisley cantina and Jabba the Hutt’s palace could exist in the same fictional universe.

Huntress by lucas-reiner

So, we’re also talking about consistency and internal logic in worldbuilding. If it’s illegal for a peasant to carry a sword, how can he lead an army? The answer must be that he either breaks the rules or changes them. If it’s already been mentioned that he cannot carry a sword, something will seem wrong if he suddenly acquires one and nobody cares. Maybe people just assume that he’s a knight now, or maybe he’s got special dispensation from the local lord, or from the Church: the point is, the rule has been established, and it will look weird if it’s just forgotten.

An Example: Aliens

Aliens (poster)One film that builds its world really well is James Cameron’s Aliens. Although mankind has travelled to the stars, for practical purposes, the setting of Aliens is quite small: it’s the marines, the aliens, the colony and a vague corporation somewhere in the background. But in the ten minutes or so between Ripley waking up on the Sulaco and the dropship flying off to LV426, Cameron skilfully sets up the characters and shows us what we can expect from this setting.

The technology looks clunky and is military green, so not so much different to today. Nobody will be teleporting out of danger. But there are androids—who may not be wholly trustworthy—and mechanical loading suits with big pincers. Like Chekov’s gun, a lot of this is being set up for later use. But then that’s what good worldbuilding does. When Ripley fires up the power-loader at the end and punches the alien queen in the face (assuming it has one) we don’t think, “Where did that come from?” That element of the world has already been established, and it doesn’t break the logic of the setting to bring it in.

Aliens - Ripley in Loader

So, at one end of the scale, there are maps like Tolkien’s famous drawing of Middle-Earth. And at the opposite end is a tiny line from Aliens, which I find intriguing. Burke refers to the android, Bishop, as a “synthetic”. Bishop replies, “I prefer the term ‘artificial person’.” This line, with its obvious nod to the way that real-life racial descriptions have changed over the years, implies a lot. Bishop seems to be human enough to want to be referred to in a certain way. Burke seems to respect him enough to agree. It throws up all sorts of questions about what Bishop is and the status he has—none of which the film answers—but gets the viewer wondering exactly what they can expect from Bishop. Even the dialogue, when used correctly, builds the world.

In Conclusion

I don’t think it’s possible to separate worldbuilding from the rest of writing. Every element of a novel builds its setting, which is why they all need to mesh together properly, like cogs in a machine. Get it wrong, and they clash glaringly—but when it works properly, you’ll have created an immersive alternative world.

Title image by Anna Forlati.

Share

Leave a Comment