No, I’m not going to break into song — crooning while riding a magic carpet over vast lands… but, then again… I want to talk about world building. As a fan of fiction the principal element which attracts and keeps my attention is “story.” I can forgive all sorts of crap if the story is good; even more if the characters are well done, but underlying the whole experience is the world in which the story and the characters exist. This is a little more than setting, a little deeper. I’m talking about the foundational tapestry upon which all other elements of the story are woven.
I just started reading James S. A. Corey’s latest novel in The Expanse series, Cibola Burn, and the thing that got me immediately was the familiarity of the world in which the story takes place. Over the years I’ve visited the world of The Expanse a number of times; enough to know the trappings of this science fiction world immediately upon entering it. Corey’s done a fabulous job of dressing The Expanse universe in such a way that I find it immediately recognizable and (in spite of the in-world perils) comforting — that is to say: I know when I step into this universe that I’m going to recognize the laws of the world and the feel of the macro-setting (Can we call it that? What the hell, this is my blog after all…), beyond the immediate setting like the helm of a space ship, or a colony on an asteroid, or whatever. The world should be as familiar as my own.
This isn’t limited to fiction, of course, you can find this engrossing element of world building in may other entertainment sources like video games, TV series, feature films, and table top RPGs; to name just a few. I immediately think of the Final Fantasy worlds and the Fallout world for video games; The Walking Dead for TV and comics (since I really don’t watch much TV and The Wil Wheaton Project doesn’t exist in its own universe… at least I don’t think so…); the Marvel Super Hero movies for feature films; the Forgotten Realms for table top RPGs. The examples all have one thing in common: excruciating and exacting detail baked into the worlds from which these stories are told. One of the most common gripes I hear about George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is that he spends too much time describing banquets and other minutiae about Westeros, but without that level of detail the series would be nothing but dicks and death.
One of the things that I absolutely love about Ed Greenwood’s The Forgotten Realms setting for Dungeons & Dragons is the amount of careful detail Greenwood has crafted into his creation. For me, excellent world building really demonstrates a creator’s love for his/her creation. World building is a massive investment of imagination — there is no other way, I believe, to interact so intimately with the imagination of another. This is magic in the real world, a conjuration that far outstrips any petty chicanery ever attempted by a magician. Read any of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle series novels and allow yourself to be steeped in a world so richly imagined you will swear you can smell the damned air and count the damn money (Rothfuss has created one of the most complex systems of currency ever!).
The source of this line of thinking comes from a book I borrowed from the library (and which I will soon own) called Wonderbook: The illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction by Jeff VanderMeer (who also wrote a ridiculously creepy book called, Annihilation — read it because it’s all kinds of good). Wonderbook is a beast of a book. Ever since my health bullshit got in the way of my writing, I’ve been looking for stuff that will help me reignite the pilot light in the old brain furnace. The cover of this book alone totally grabbed me:
As did the book trailer:
I would be happier to report that my writing got immediately back on track, but alas it’s going to take a little more to turn my morbid fascination away from the stuff I’ve been shoveling into my brain lately… although the new James S. A. Corey book had just the sort of lure I needed to bring my attention back toward fiction. This is a very good thing because I’ve been missing some good stuff… I’ve allowed some good books to slip through my fingers… books I’ve been dying to read. My brain simply isn’t in it right now… but it’s getting better.
When I do write fiction, one of the big traps I have to work to avoid is getting too lost in the world building… I purposefully steer myself away from going too far into minute details because I can easily get completely lost in that aspect of the creative act. Often this expresses itself in a very “mecha-fish” kind of way. (What do you mean what am I talking about? You watched the book trailer, right? Right?) That’s something I’m trying to beat which translates into a lot of work… but creative work is good work, and I really want to get back to it… soon… because I dislike intensely this much less desirable path upon which I find myself. I was too filled with triumph when the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance grilled Dr. Mehmet Oz like a fucking fish over coals about his deceptive dietary recommendations. It’s good to lambaste snake oil salespersons, and I’ve felt that this dude’s pants where on fire for some time now… but this shouldn’t give me this amount of pleasure. Unfortunately it’s where my attention happens to be at the moment.
I’m subjecting myself to fiction therapy and I expect to make a full recovery. Reading inspires me to write, and between Cibola Burn and Wonderbook, I think I have a pretty tasty recipe for inspiration in my hands right now. All I want and need is to have the switch flipped to “on.” I’m happy when I write, and I want to be writing a lot. I guess this is what’s commonly referred to as “writer’s block.” I think I’ll call it, “An unfortunate collision between reality and imagination.” It sucks. Too much reality ruins everything.