Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Worldbuilding and the maker's hand

Worldbuilding has been on my mind recently, following the AULLA Conference at The University of Queensland, this item on the '7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding' on io9.com, and my own efforts at shaping the world of my new novel, A Hangman for Ghosts.

Writers of speculative fiction are often positioned at the forefront of worldbuilding, encouraged to consider everything from consistency to tactile detail. The late Iain M. Banks was a masterful world builder because his worlds were vibrant, present and sturdy, and he could shift between them effortlessly. The Raven's Seal was also an effort in world-building for me, because the city and its society had characteristics that were critical to the mystery, but the true pleasure as a writer was to animate that world and make it feel like a lived experience rather than a static stage-set.

But as I argued recently in a paper at AULLA, I've come to suspect that worldbuilding in conformance to elaborate rules of procedure and solely in service of verisimilitude is in danger of making fictional worlds dull, prosaic, uninteresting even. Invented worlds can never be complete, and trying to catalogue all their features and account for all their internal mechanisms is a mere technical chore. The economy of Airenchester can't be found in micro-economics. The prison colony of A Hangman for Ghosts is not merely an administrative relic. Worlds come alive when we see them not as constructs, but as metaphors, figures, characters. This is something that Iain M. Banks understood implicitly, and this is what drew me to the complexities and wonder of worldbuilding in the first place.