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Worldbuilding Part #1: A Universal Act

As an extension of an article I recently write about visualisation and goals, I wanted to add something about worldbuilding, but by that phrase I probably don’t mean exactly what you think I mean.

'Worldbuilding' is normally thought of as the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe. You’ll probably be familiar with the idea as associated with the fantasy and science fiction genres — an author literally builds a world (or universe), including history, geography, ecology and occasionally systems of physics or ‘magic’. You’ll often get maps, backstories, genealogies, races, languages — especially from anyone imitating the Grandmaster of Fantasy Worldbuilding, J. R. R. Tolkien (which includes a lot of authors). Constructed worlds can be created to enrich works of fiction or just for personal amusement and are part of the world of video and role-playing games.

One instance of this is Ursula Le Guin’s so-called ‘Hainish Cycle’, which consists of several science fiction novels and short stories. The background is an alternate history/future history in which civilisations of human beings on planets orbit a number of stars in relatively close proximity, including Terra (Earth). In the course of these stories by Le Guin, some of them are contacting each other for the first time and establishing diplomatic relations, with the purpose of setting up a confederacy under the guidance of Hain, the oldest of the worlds. According to Le Guin in this set of books, human beings did not evolve on Earth but were the result of interstellar colonies planted by Hain in the ancient past. Then, for a long period, interstellar travel ceased, cutting off these colonies from each other. Hainish experiments in genetic engineering on these various colonies have created people who can dream while awake, a world of androgynous people who only come into active sexuality once a month, and other variations. The Hainish novels include The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) which have both won literary awards, as has the novella The Word for World Is Forest (1972). Le Guin had a fairly liberal interpretation of alternate history and some elements of this universe are vague, but it’s still an example of science fiction worldbuilding at its best.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of this kind of sub-created universe and world in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, including Eragon’s Alagaësia, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, the worlds of Narnia and the Field of Arbol penned by C. S. Lewis, Asimov’s Foundation universe, and so forth.

However, this is not quite what I’m talking about. It’s part of it, certainly — but the concept of world building goes far beyond the boundaries of fantasy or science fiction genres. I would argue, in fact, that it’s pretty universal amongst writers to build worlds: in fact, it’s a fundamental, often unexamined, of what writers do.

Even when a writer writes a piece of flash fiction, he or she is of necessity building a world. Take, for example, Giuseppina Leyland’s piece of micro-fiction. ‘The Psych’, which appears in Gleam: The Inner Circle Writers’ Group Second Flash Fiction Anthology 2019. It’s so short that I can reproduce it here for examination:

‘She fell asleep on me,’ Lara lamented. ‘Micronaps. Three times.’

Amalia took a sip of her cappuccino and peered over the black-rimmed spectacles which had slipped down her nose.

‘Well, it does get boring listening to people whine about their problems...’

OMFG! thought Lara. You are so not my friend.

It’s just fifty words, as opposed to some of the created universes of science fiction or fantasy, which are sometimes fifty books wide. But it might serve to point out how ‘worldbuilding’ is what writers do.

Whereas an author like Tolkien, for instance, started creating languages which then required the careful and painstaking putting together of imagined peoples to speak them along with entire invented mythologies and histories, this piece of flash fiction gives us two points of view — hardly even ‘characters’ in the usual sense — having a micro-conversation. We have to include the story’s title to get some kind of context: ‘The Psych’ indicates helpfully that Lara’s opening statement is probably about a session she has had with a psychologist or psychiatrist. The syntax and use of the word ‘lamented’ extend our understanding of Lara’s words into the realm of emotional tone: this viewpoint ‘Lara’ is clearly upset and not happy with her session.

More context is spooned in through the next sentence — it becomes clear that the two viewpoints are meeting, perhaps in a coffee shop, a chat between friends. Amalia’s spectacles slipping down her nose subtly indicates perhaps an inattention on her part; certainly it gives her a small dose of humanity. Her comment in reply to Lara’s lament challenges us to take sides — is Amalia right? Is she hinting that she also is a little bored? Then we get inside Lara’s head for her judgement. What we are to make of that judgement is hinted in an understated way — the use of the socially superficial ‘OMFG’ delicately hints that Lara is perhaps a shallow type of person, and that the more ‘human’ Amalia should have our sympathies.

It’s a forensic inspection of fifty words, I agree. But look at the world that’s been created: a coffee shop or bar or living room has sprung up around these disembodied voices; a backdrop of modern times, with psychs and chats and social media shorthand (‘OMFG’) and cappuccinos places us gently in a recognisably modern milieu. It’s like one of those old Polaroid snapshots — it swims into focus as we read the fifty words until we have a simple picture. It’s a micro-world.

All stories build worlds. Some authors build worlds more explicitly than others: from Trollope’s Barsetshire and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, to George Orwell’s 1984 nations, to William Morris’s utopian Nowhere (or, for that matter, Sir Thomas More’s original ‘Utopia’), the act and art of world building is a fundamental of what writers of fiction do.

We’ll be exploring the ramifications of this in forthcoming articles.


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