Strange New Worlds: Ongoing World Building
Today, David Lacelles, author of newly released Gods of the Deep, joins us to talk worldbuilding. You can find the press release, synopsis, and links to David's work at the bottom of the article.
It seems entirely apt to give that title to a blog post in the 50th Anniversary year of Star Trek. It is also apt to mention Star Trek itself as an example of an extended world building project.
Because world building is a process that never ends.
It is easy to think on reading a book or watching a series that the world came into being fully formed, That the writers spent ages beforehand carefully constructing all of the elaborate intricacies of the setting. Actually sitting down to compile a huge document of cultural traditions, technology, how magic works, geography, politics and a host of other details. However, if you think about it for a moment or two you might realise that this is a very demanding and difficult job to do. Not only can it be a rather tedious task – setting out minute details such as the etiquette a particular culture uses to eat food – but the majority of what you write may not ever make it into a story. So, unless you do what authors like Peter F Hamilton* have done in the past and publish a world setting book, all of that hard work will sit on your hard drive unread. Instead, most writers will start out with a broad idea – some notes on what they want a particular culture or place to be in their story – and as they write will expand on this as needed. The details come to light as the readers/viewers have their attention drawn to them by a PoV character. The rest of the setting is vague and unexplored until it comes under focus. The Trek writers have been doing this ever since ToS.
Trek started out as a fun little SF show that was supposed to be based on the concepts of a Western (‘Wagon Train to the stars’ being the original pitch) but it very quickly took on a life of its own. The basic concepts (the Federation, Starfleet, some alien races etc) were in place but most of what we know of as Trek came about through an extended process fuelled by both writers and fans. From that basic concept came a massive bulk of lore on the setting for the series, some of it based on little more than a brief mention in a single episode where the writer needed something to fill a gap in dialogue. Take as an example this scene:
Here there is a requirement to explain a difference in makeup standards between two series, something that could have been a huge continuity error in that episode. It is handled in a way which is not only entertaining but allows the fans to speculate on the real reasons. All of this adds to the depth of the world building partly because it is a fact of life that not every mystery gets solved in a satisfying manner. Therefore, something that basically sounds like the Klingon equivalent of the Kennedy assassination (they don’t talk about it, I am fairly sure every other race in Trek is speculating wildly about what happened) adds to the veracity of the setting. Also, fans love an unsolvable mystery. Had Worf come out with ‘Oh it was a virus’ I feel it would have worked as an explanation but would have lacked something for fans to get excited about.
Several of the races in Trek have also been developed beyond their initial concept with ideas that were not present at their creation. If you watch the early Next Generation appearances of the Ferengi and compare them to that shown in Deep Space 9 you see a sudden increase in the amount of lore on Ferengi culture. In TNG they are a comic relief occasional antagonist, very 1 dimensional pirates obsessed with loot. In DS9, however, you see the development of the background with more detail – the religion, the government, family life, the whole eroticism they have about ears. While the new portrayal has to stick to what the previous writers had created in order to maintain consistency, they are shown to have more depth and sympathy with the audience through a much more involved history, religion and society. None of this was relevant to viewers in TNG but once you have characters in the spotlight you have to start filling out those previously sketchy details.
Many TV series have a similar heritage with regards to their settings, though maybe not quite as involved as Trek. This is because of the way they are written in that it is done slowly over time – episode by episode – and often by different writers. Doctor Who is another prime example with a similarly huge pedigree. In the early series the now well know and discussed concepts of Gallifrey, Time Lords and regeneration were unheard of. Those concepts came in as the series progressed to allow writers to develop their stories. For example, the lead actor retired but the series needed to continue so someone wrote in the concept of regeneration to allow another actor to take his place. The fact that Time Lords only have 12 regenerations did not come in until The Deadly Assassin in the Tom Baker era – a full two Doctors’ worth of series from the first regeneration (and it was only really recently established officially that William Hartnell was the first incarnation of the Doctor). This was again necessary for a plot point – they needed motivation for the Master to want to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations. Again, like our previous examples, we as viewers don’t question this so long as it fits the existing canon – we are merely finding out more information.
Therefore the illusion that this all existed and was intended from the start is maintained.
So how does this help the ordinary jobbing fantasy or SF writer like you or me? We don’t necessarily have the benefit of a long run to build our setting nor active and committed fan bases to interact with to add to it (though this can be aspired to). Nor do we really have teams of writers each doing different stories and bringing a fresh perception to the world. However, it can help by reminding you that you do not need to have comprehensive notes on setting to build a convincing world. Most professional writers work on what is in focus – develop what you need for the story at hand and leave the rest open for interpretation for a later story. A fair few are even guilty of reverse engineering setting info to fit a story, some more successfully than others. For example, I am fairly sure that J.K Rowling had not thought of Harry’s Invisibility cloak being one of the Deathly Hallows when she wrote the first book. I suspect she hadn’t really thought much beyond the ending of that book and getting it published but by the time of writing book 5 she had slotted that idea into her setting as if it had always been the intention. In fact, setting too much down in advance can be counterproductive as it limits your options. Need a culture that has a particular attitude or law that fits the story you want to write? Well, rather than create a whole new culture from scratch and have them turn up out of the blue and never be seen again** work out which of your existing cultures could easily have that law.
This vagueness also has the benefit of avoiding that tendency of writers to splurge out all their world building material in a huge exposition (usually on the first page of chapter one). If you only set the details as and when needed, you don’t have extraneous information lying around waiting to jump into your prose and form inconvenient exposition.
In all, working this way has many benefits. Less preparation time before you start writing words that will actually be in the final product, tighter prose with less exposition and an element of mystery to keep readers guessing.
*Or, for a more recent example, create an RPG setting based on your books as Shadow of the Apt’s author Adrian Tchaikovsky is currently in the process of doing.
**OK Trek is guilty of that one a lot… there are quite a few one episode races. However, the point remains that they also tend to rework existing ones to fit a plot idea if it is possible.
Gods of the Deep
Gods of the Deep has been several years in the making. It began life as a short story in the Pirates and Swashbucklers anthology by Pulp Empires that was published way back in 2011. That story, Gods of the Sea, covered the meeting of the two main characters - Rachel Drake and Everyn Crowe – and how they survived a pirate attack on Rachel’s ship using Everyn’s knowledge of the Ethereal realms. After this was published the editor, Nick Alhelm, suggested that I might want to develop a longer story set in the same world. I liked the idea and started working on Gods of the Deep after asking Nick for the rights to Gods of the Sea back so I could include it as the first in what became a series of three stories included in this volume.
Gods of the Sea shows us how they meet, Gods of the Deep takes us deeper into both characters’ pasts and the third story, Heart of the City, is a standalone tale involving a gruesome murder in the city of Berg which Everyn is asked to help investigate. Finally, there is The Final Sacrifice, a story that was originally submitted to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthology but didn’t quite make it, which looks at an event in the wider world Everyn and Rachel inhabit and an old lady who is more than she seems.
While Gods of the Sea was written in record time, literally over a couple of days in small bursts of writing, Gods of the Deep suffered from ‘second book syndrome’ in that it was harder to get written. I would write a section then lose my thread and take ages to get back to it. It languished in my hard drive for a long time before two events triggered me to work to completed it. The first was a visit to Malta and a tour around the medieval cities there. Those narrow, overhung streets were perfect for my image of the city of Berg and it triggered some ideas. The second was the 2016 EasterCon (Mancunicon) where I participated in a number of panels and discussions with other authors and one or two things said in those discussions set of a cascade of ideas which led to the completion of Heart of the City. I cannot tell you what those ideas were because of spoilers but I can say that they really got me moving on this project.
Theories of Magic
Gods of the Deep originated as an idea about a more empirical methodology underlying magic. It is not particularly a new idea, after all it dates back to at least Arthur C Clarke’s concept of ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, but it is one that has always fascinated me. I developed this idea in some of the characters I have played in live action roleplay and started inserting it into my fiction.
It is an idea that can be explored in many different ways. For example, in the Waypoint universe (as seen in some of the stories in Lurking Miscellany) I have a race of aliens who seem primitive and superstitious but whose religion is actually based on ancient technology. Their priests are actually those who understand technology and who can use it to serve their community but the majority are kept ignorant out of a desire to protect them from the dangerous aspects of science. In Gods of the Deep, however, I flip this idea and take a fantasy world where magic is real and have a character who is trying to apply scientific principles to it. That character is Professor Everyn Crowe.
Part of the inspiration for Everyn was Isaac Newton, a man who I see as someone who was trying to make sense of the universe using mathematics as his tool. Newton is considered to be one of the first ‘proper’ scientists – he applied consistent methods to his research in order to gain reliable and repeatable results, something that was largely unheard of at the time. He was also known to dabble in more esoteric arts, being especially known in his later year for his work on alchemy which, naturally, failed but did later lead to modern chemistry. Like Newton, Everyn is seeking meaning through equations and formulae and when we meet him at the start of the story has already had some success in controlling the entities of the spirit realms by the application of such methods. He has designed a compass which allows him to navigate the ethereal realms and has worked on mathematical proofs for many of the properties of ethereal creatures.
Of course, like all academics he needs funding and as always funding comes with a price. In this case, Everyn meets Captain Rachel Drake, owner of Drake Enterprises. She is a merchant venture who is always out for a profit and in Everyn she sees a chance to use his abilities to navigate the ethereal realms as a way to make money. She is initially seen as somewhat mercenary but later shows more of a heart. Through their adventures together we find out more about how the ethereal worlds work and both of them are tested – Rachel finding out what she is prepared to do for money, Everyn being asked to consider abandoning his empirical ways to embrace an ethereal patron as his god. Throughout all these adventures we have the thread of trying to standardise the chaos that is the practise of magic in this world and considering which is better – an empirical approach or total faith in the beings who grant that power.
Professor Everyn Crowe is just a harmless academic with an interest in the Theological and Ethereal Sciences. He’d expected his life to consist of quiet hours in the library and tinkering with his newly invented etheric compass. He is therefore surprised when his studies into the quaint anthropological practises of some isolated villagers living on the coast of his native Creatha result in him being unceremoniously thrown into the sea.
Luckily, Captain Rachel Drake of the Neptune’s Wing is on hand to supply a rescue. If Everyn can avoid being cast overboard by her crew for being a witch, she may have a use for his unusual academic specialities.
A collection of tales of pirates, swashbucklers, demons and adventure.
D.A Lascelles is a former clinical scientist turned teacher. He writes in his spare time and his first short story, Gods of the Sea, was originally published in Pirates and Swashbucklers Anthology by Pulp Empires (pulpempire.com/mag/). His novella Transitions, a paranormal romance novella, was later released by Mundania Press (www.mundania.com/) and he has also released a collection of short stories under the title Lurking Miscellany.
Reports of a Blur/Oasis style rivalry between himself and R.A Smith are always hotly denied as are the almost non-existent rumours that they are one and the same person. They have on a number of occasions been seen standing next to one another at Steampunk fairs which proves both theories wrong. He is also, despite claims made by his students, neither Australian, Hungarian, John Travolta nor Chucky from Child’s Play.