I believe worldbuilding is the characteristic that most distinguishes SF/F from other styles of literature. All other genres rely on the reader’s understanding of the world as it is or has been. In SF/F, the writer must first build the world—a process that includes environment, geography, history, politics, culture, and religion, as well as technological and/or magic systems—for both the story to exist and the reader to engage with it.
And as an avid reader of SF/F, as well as an author, there is nothing that rocks my reading and SF/F-loving world quite like a truly fantastic bit of worldbuilding. So in the spirit of #monthofjoy here are five of my favorites – although there are, of course, many, many more.
Note: I should add that I am deliberately excluding both Middle Earth and Narnia, simply because they are so well-canvassed in the zeitgeist, but you may take it as read that they’re definitely right up there for me.
Very few authors get to define a subgenre (“cyberpunk”) through their worldbuilding, but William Gibson did so in the cyberspace realm of his Neuromancer “trilogy”. Cyberspace is the world that exists within the internet (the Net) in a near-future, near-dystopian (but not post-apocalyptic) conceptualisation of “our world”. It’s a world of hackers and cyber-jockeys, AIs, and ghosts-in-the-machine. Cyberspace is also about the interaction of human beings with the ‘Net: from Sim-Stims (where the viewer experiences a film-style story through the perception of its stars), near-space development (the Well), and body-hacking through both genetic and cyborg modifications. It’s an absorbing, all-immersion world.
Damar as it is appears in The Blue Sword blew me away from the outset. This Damar (it’s very different in The Hero and The Crown) is a desert landscape and a colonial—part colonised, part independent—world, and I love the way McKinley evokes the Raj and the initial possibility that this could be a period out of history and a “country-not-so-very-far-away.” She captures this through technology (trains, rifles) and culture (again, the Raj and its social conventions), but also the tribal cultures of free Damar, i.e this is not a traditional “medieval Western European” fantasy world. And it’s fabulous.
In terms of worlds that colonise the imagination, Elidor was the most influential Fantasy world I encountered as a junior reader—aside from Narnia. The land of Elidor was (literally) dark, frightening, and dangerous, especially since it was juxtaposed with an equally dark, uneasy, and terrifying—the more so because it was, at one level, “real”—post-World War 2 Manchester. The darkness and danger of the world was compelling but offered no certainties in terms of happy endings, despite being junior fiction, which also made it memorable.
One of the aspects I really love about Southland in the Dreamhunter duology (Dreamhunter; Dreamquake) is the Edwardian cultural, technological, and social ethos in a landscape that is recognizably New Zealand. Southland also exists in juxtaposition with an alternate world called The Place, which is where hunters go to capture dreams that can be shared with the Southland populace. (Think picture palaces, only with shared dreaming.) The Place is eerie, elusive, and potentially dangerous, a fabulous juxtaposition with the historical-realist Southland.
I consider Tiamat one of the most fascinating worlds I’ve encountered in Science Fiction. The world has prolonged (150 year) winter and summer environmental cycles that have created rigid social and political cultures within the population: the intellectual, urbanised and technology loving Winters, and the antitech, agrarian Summers. In addition, Tiamat is the only source of the life-prolonging water of life and exists in proximity to a stargate that only opens during the Winter season. It is during this time that the off-world empire known as the Hegemony arrives to exert its rule and extract the water of life. And then there’s the sibyls…I suspect you may be beginning to see why the worldbuilding in Tiamat is as complex and compelling as the ecology and cosmology that underpin both it and the story.
So that’s my five faves for today. But how about you, what are your favorite SFF worlds?
Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night quartet, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. Helen is currently working on The Chaos Gate (working title), the fourth and final novel in The Wall of Night series. She posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and monthly on the Supernatural Underground and also hangs out on Twitter: @helenl0we