A World, Building

I have some thoughts on worldbuilding and what seems to work and what doesn’t, but perhaps now would be a good time to add a general site disclaimer: When I write about books, what I’m writing about is taste, and here’s why: I follow a lot of writers on Twitter – for advice, banter, detangling, support, solidarity (and writers are terrifically generous with all those things, my God how they give) – but I always break into cold sweats when they start discussing the mechanics of writing. I can’t jump into that conversation (or indeed, most of their conversations) without sounding like a LOLcat. Iz plots? Wat is pacing? I can haz 4shadowing?


This is because my background – shamefully? not shamefully? I dunno – is science. I don’t have their education. I did molecular genetics first, where 80% of the writing is in symbols and 20% is in rhetorical questions such as “Who finished off the last of the agar broth and didn’t make any more?” Then it was environmental science, where 50% of the writing is good, sharp, technical writing, and 50% is “Who took my banana knife?!” (NB: after two degrees, it became evident that journal-quality research is a vanishing minority of what scientists write. Most of it is angry notes on paper towels.) So I don’t have any training in the kind of writing that I actually want to do for a living. And it’s the same with my art – I couldn’t take an arts degree. My parents would have killed me; I chose life. So all my painting, all my drawing, is exhausting – it never comes easy. I took a scientific illustration class a couple of years ago and worked myself to the bone reading up on, and practicing, techniques that it was assumed I already knew.


I took English 101 (and bluffed my way through it with the help of a professor who only showed up once a week); I took English 239 (Shakespeare, which taught me only that I was right to love Shakespeare). Most other English options didn’t fit into my schedule. So these conversations happen in Twitter and I’m like: I can’t contribute. There is nothing I can say. I know nothing. Everything I know about writing I learned from Martin Amis’ ‘The Information.’ I don’t even have good taste. I have my taste.


That’s the disclaimer.


The only thing I do know is that I read like a motherfucker, and so I’m able to compare my writing to writing I both like and dislike, because there’s so much of it out there. I mean, if we go all the way back to Gilgamesh, there’s like a thousand years of writing I’ve missed out on. I don’t know about writing, but I know about words.


And I know about worlds. Or let’s say: I know about the type of world I like, and how I like it to be presented.


One of the best books I read last year, China Mieville’s ‘Railsea,’ is a great example of the kind of worldbuilding I love and really get dug into (ha!) (wait, it’s only ‘ha’ if you’ve read the book) (nvm). You’re tossed into the action with a brief explanation of the goal, but none of the world you’re about to enter; nothing is given to you, not even the use of ‘&’ instead of ‘and,’ which is a great neologism and exemplifies the world’s language use. Of course language is going to change if it’s another world, or if it’s far into the future; and of course the language will have to be shaped by the world in which it’s been created and is intended for use. (This is also really well done in Mary Doria Russell’s ‘The Sparrow,’ where the linguistic analysis isn’t just a subplot but ends up as a huge part of the action.) Desert people have a lot of words that relate to traveling. Islanders have a lot of words that relate to sailing. A world shaped by rails, in which bare ground is the enemy, will have to have a lot of words related to railways. ‘Railsea’ builds the world around you via context, the same way the world was built around you as you grew up. It lacks, thankfully, the text equivalent of those grim movie placards where words appear mistily on a black background while bagpipes skirl in the distance, showing something like “IT IS 1063. THE CLANS HAVE BEEN WARRING FOR 25 YEARS. THE LEADER OF CLAN MCDONALD, GEOFFREY MCNUGGET, HAS PROMISED HIS LANDS TO THE HAMBURGLAR OF THE EAST…” because if you can’t show the world of your movie inside the movie, you’ve got a bad script. Same with books.

I happened to read ‘Railsea’ right before I read a similar book, of the Plucky But Impoverished Teenage Boy Gets Roped Into A Mysterious Quest And Everything Is Steam-Powered school (there must be a couple hundred of these out by now), Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines.’ I didn’t end up finishing the first book in the series, despite it coming highly recommended from a writer that I really like (also a good friend, which I think is relevant) – the worldbuilding was too clumsy and obvious for my tastes. It’s like a portrait – yes, a face needs eyes, but you can either paint them so they blend in, or you can go the self-adhesive googly eyes route. Even in a kidlit book, it’s painful to watch. People don’t look at the world around them and soliloquize on its history, provenance, and meaning (unless you’re doing some wanky postmodern surrealist shit, and even then, blechh). No one passes a Jeep on the highway and records it as “The Jeep changed gears and dropped behind me, as I reminisced fondly about how the American government had created general-purpose vehicles for World War II, which was from 1939 – 1945, and had been abbreviated from GP to ‘Jeep’ by the servicemen who grew very fond of the tough little vehicles. I sipped coffee from my travel mug.”


If you’re building a good world, it builds itself around you, rising organically scene by scene. It doesn’t drop into the conversation like the narrative on a self-guided walking tour.

Other books that I think did it well:


  • The ‘West of Eden’ series by Harry Harrison – the murgu know about the history of the world, the humans don’t.

  • The ‘Book of the New Sun’ series by Gene Wolfe – literally the best example I can think of.

  • ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood – excellent job of describing a dystopia from within the dystopia, without being obvious about it.

  • ‘The Gone-Away World,’ by Nick Harkaway – also great job. This book is probably going to get referenced again and again, by the way.

  • The ‘Hyperion’ twobookology (I refuse to use the word ‘duology’) by Dan Simmons – again, the action is explained, the characters are explained. The setting has to be figured out by the reader.

  • The Culture series, by Iain M. Banks – how is it that the reader knows all about the Culture? Anecdotes, conversations, instructional manuals, training courses, secret missions, games, dinner parties, job descriptions, historical memoirs referenced in the books. These books have their flaws (don’t get me started), but the worldbuilding is solid, solid, solid.


This kind of worldbuilding is something I strive for in my stories, even more so than my novels – it’s hard to get the balance right between a very confused reader, and a very bored one. I never want to spoonfeed my readers. I want to stretch their brains out like a bowstring; but I want to do it in a way that leaves them sure of their place in this world, and in the world of the book.

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