Adventures and Misadventures in Worldbuilding and Storytelling

8 thoughts on “Adventures and Misadventures in Worldbuilding and Storytelling”

  1. Loved the story. I started out trying to localize the cultural elements (a weakness of mine – the feeling I got was of the space bounded by eastern Congo and the coast of Mozambique) but the glimpses of history and hints of the wider world made clear that the inspiration went well beyond one region, and by the time the Jab Man started talking about Obeah, it was natural. The story and characters were immersed in the world, and it all came together as well as Jason Reeves’ artwork did. I hope there will be more in this universe.

    1. Jonathan,

      Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed it. No, localizing the cultural elements that flavored the story are good. And you were right to hit on eastern Congo and parts of Mozambique–both past and present. And I had so much fun with the Jab Man! Definitely more from this world to come.

  2. Personally, I’ve got a lot of concerns when it comes to worldbuilding. You should check out this great video about the perils of worldbuilding, assuming you haven’t seen it already.

    The Nerdwriter’s critique of worldbuilding is mostly formalistic. He expresses concerns about how worldbuilding trains people to passively accept the stories they’re given, both fictional and otherwise, as just an objective account and not something open to interpretation and critique. I would go even further and argue that worldbuilding tends to slip back into regressive forms of representation. To seize the lowest hanging fruit I can think of, I’d point you to George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels and all the embarrassing racial stereotypes that found their way into those movies. The character of Watto, for example, is clearly coded to be middle eastern despite the fact that he’s an alien. I’m sure Lucas wasn’t intentionally trying to slander people from the middle east as scrupulous, greedy junk men who smell, he just found the stereotype in his brain ready-to-hand and so he threw it in. It’s easy to criticize Lucas as just being a bad writer with some screwed up ideas about race, but I think even a really great writer is going to feel pressure to fall back on those ready-to-hand stereotypes when writing a weird, alien world. How else do you communicate to your audience how they should be feeling at a certain point except by showing them something they’re familiar with from our own flawed culture?

    Regressive forms of representation isn’t the biggest problem that worldbuilding invites though. Those forms show up in more historically located fiction as well, and you can always just criticize them as being inaccurate when they do. The biggest problem is that when we confront George Lucas about Watto, he can always just say “Hey now, it’s only a movie. These aren’t racial caricatures, they’re these wacky aliens from space. Stop reading so much into it.” Worldbuilding invites the temptation to disown the social and historical influences on your fiction. A lot of people just want to write good, entertaining stories that don’t force readers to confront the muck of politics and ideology, but the problem is that it’s impossible to put a pen to paper and not start digging into that stuff, so too often worldbuilding gets used as a tool for writers to try to shuffle up their influences enough just so you can enjoy the illicit reproduction of old social forms without recognizing and being forced to take responsibility for them. That temptation is there even for progressively minded writers in the SFF community. I feel there’s a disturbing trend among authors to put the priority on writing fiction that’s inoffensive as opposed to writing fiction that’s revolutionary, fiction that is so desperate to respect its source material that it refuses to use it in any way that might be socially meaningful or politically effective. I’m wary of worldbuilding that tries to mix up its sources to the point of being unrecognizable and thus inoffensive.

    All that being said, I do still enjoy worldbuilding in fiction and think it can be used to imagine new ways of living that can be useful for people stuck in this world. I think the best way to do that though is to fully own the influences informing your work, not to try to strip them to the point of being unrecognizable. I strongly disagree with Jemisin’s wanting to boil down to the “archetypal bones” of a thing. I think even the most basic archetypes–the mother, the hero, etc–I think are historically conditioned, and you remain most enthralled to those ideas exactly when you think you’ve gotten away from them. You can’t go around history, only through it.

    Philosophical musings aside, congratulations on completing your five year completing _The Things My Mother Left Me_. I enjoyed reading it along with your Tor story, and I’m looking forward to checking out more of your stuff. Cheers!

    A.J. Rocca

    1. A.J.

      Thanks for reading. You’ve laid out some interesting premises here on worldbuilding! I’ve seen the video on the “perils” of the act, and the dependency it can create for fully fleshed out worlds. I get the concern, though I’m not sure I see it as a problem. I’ve never seen anyone so fully and completely create a world that there weren’t spaces left for varied interpretations, additions, imagined histories, etc. beyond the author’s imagination. In fact, I think creating a detailed world can help engender reader/audience desire to continue their own building.

      On making worlds with unrecognizable sources: I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I tend to make my influences more blatant. The purpose here is political. I think diversity in SFF should also highlight the diverse histories and cultures of our world–that has too often gone ignored. So if I’m drawing on the Kingdom of Kongo or medieval Somali Sultanates, I want readers to get that. It may not be *our* world. And I may not want to beat readers over the head–but I want them to understand/feel/experience that I’ve quite intentionally moved away from the more Eurocentric norms. This ain’t Westeros I’m creating.

      On the other hand, I enjoy worldbuilding that’s not always recognizable immediately, because then I have to do some sleuthing to get at the influences. I don’t think, for instance, Jemisin is moving away from those influences. Dig a bit, and you’ll locate them. She even points them out in blog pieces. I think you read Inheritance Trilogy and it certainly mirrors distinct aspects of *our* history (slavery, colonialism, religious zealotry, etc) though through a very other wordly lens. Reading her work influenced how I engage my own worldbuilding–even though I take a somewhat different tack.

      Think every writer is going to choose their own path.

      1. “I’ve never seen anyone so fully and completely create a world that there weren’t spaces left for varied interpretations, additions, imagined histories, etc. beyond the author’s imagination.”

        You’re probably right, but I do think there is a marked trend in that evolution to eschew altering the narrative structure, themes, metaphors, and other more socially constructive aspects of the story in favor of just working the interior logic of the world to death. Speaking for myself personally, I take a lot of guilty pleasure in clicking on videos exploring the Star Wars extended universe. I don’t even really care for the movies that much anymore, but goddamn, that lore. Tell me more about the planet where the lightsaber crystals come from and how the breathing apparatus on Darth Vader’s suit works. This obsessive need to know, this fill-in-the-gap syndrome which Disney seems to be milking for quite a lot of cash atm, always leaves me feeling kind of icky when I indulge it. There’s just a general temptation for us lovers of fiction to want to dive ever deeper into our fictional worlds and to escape this one, and obsessing over these little details is a way to find in world explanations for things in the story to avoid confronting their real social/historical origins. We get so absorbed with the fictional breathing apparatus behind Darth Vader’s voice that we forget to ask why George Lucas decided to use the voice of a black guy for one of the greatest villains in movie history. I don’t think that fill-in-the-gap syndrome is the worst thing in the world–everyone needs a little escapism after all–but it’s something to be aware of for people trying to challenge the tropes of SFF and what they embody.

        “And I may not want to beat readers over the head–but I want them to understand/feel/experience that I’ve quite intentionally moved away from the more Eurocentric norms. This ain’t Westeros I’m creating.”

        I think it’s extraordinarily hard to get out of Westeros. Even researching and using the history of non-western cultures and histories, the fantasy genre itself is completely immersed in it, and it’s very hard to escape the shadow of our literary forebears. It’s impossible not to write in reference to the genre’s conventions and tropes even when you’re reacting against them. This is particularly problematic if you’re trying to help forge a new, positive black identity that doesn’t repeat the original sin of eurocentric culture of defining black in reference to white. That’s a problem I really have no idea how to solve, maybe you’ve got some ideas.

        Apropos to all this, something I’d really like to hear you comment on is why in _A Dead Djinn in Cairo_ did you choose to put Fatma in a bowler and Englishman’s suit? It struck me as such a curious choice that you did that and that you took special pains to explain it in the context of your world where Egypt had successfully managed to repel European occupation. Fatma’s in world explanation is that she’s doing it as kind of a way to mock the failed European conquerors who would sometimes dress up in Egyptian garb, but my reading of it was that you were writing kind of this funky steampunky story, and it ain’t steampunk if there ain’t a bowler in there somewhere, so you just had to sneak one in. Maybe that’s an ungenerous reading, maybe you were more self-aware about it than I’m giving you credit for, but whatever the case, that bowler still found its way in. Even in this story written to get away from Europe’s cultural hegemony we still find the prints of that hegemony.

  3. Thank you for writing this story!!! I loved they way Tausi had to *think* before/as she kicked butt! Plus, those giant pangolins are *cool*

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