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The Reference Library

by Don Sakers

Of the many factors that distinguish science fiction and fantasy from the rest of fiction, perhaps the most fundamental is worldbuilding.

I expect Analog readers are fully aware of the term, but just for the record, worldbuilding is the process of creating, constructing, and presenting an imaginary world (or entire universe). Worldbuilding appears in stories, novels, TV shows, movies, and games. In fantasy, these imaginary worlds are frequently called “secondary worlds” (a phrase coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in his 1947 essay “On Fairy Stories.”)

The term “worldbuilding” predates the SF genre. It first appeared (as “world-building”) in 1820 in the Edinburgh Digest, and was used in 1920 by physicist A.S. Eddington for the process of constructing thought experiments in universes with different laws and constants of physics. It wasn’t until 1965 that SF literary critic Richard A. Lupoff used “worldbuilding” in the sense we understand it today (in his book Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure.)

We call fiction that isn’t SF/fantasy “mundane” fiction, and that’s not meant to be an insult—”mundane” is used in the sense of the Latin original, mundanus: of or related to the earthly world (as opposed to the heavenly or spiritual world). In mundane fiction there’s no need to construct imaginary worlds; the world already exists, and the challenge is to describe or depict a reality that exists (or in the case of historical fiction, one that existed in the past). If a mundane fiction writer needs to answer a question (i.e. How long does it take to get form New York to Kinshasa? or What did people usually eat for breakfast in 1941?), the way to find the answer is research.

In almost all SF and much of fantasy, the answers to equivalent questions (How long does it take to get from Benden Weyr to Fort Hold? or What do people usually eat for breakfast on a generation ship halfway to Alpha Centauri?) don’t exist . . . they must be created.

Discussions of worldbuilding are generally of the how-to variety, aimed primarily at writers or game creators. In almost a century of genre SF and fantasy there’s an enormous amount of received wisdom; a quick search reveals tons of books and articles on the subject. Tools available range from equations and dice-roll lookup tables to computer apps and websites. Some of the field’s best practitioners have shared their theories, methods, techniques. In short, if one wants to learn how to build worlds, one can find plenty of resources.

Beyond the simple building of worlds, there’s the process of presenting one’s constructed world to the audience without slowing the story down with many pages of exposition (aka the dreaded “info dump”). Again, one can easily find advice, techniques, and best practices galore.

What we seldom talk about is worldbuilding from the reader’s perspective. When we read an SF or fantasy story, we go through a process of worldbuilding-in-reverse: from the hints and clues the author gives, we must build up in our minds an image of how the world appears to the senses, and an understanding of how the world works. (Some of what I have to say here also applies to a movie/TV or gaming audience, but in these media the visual and audio dimensions make things smoother.)

As soon as we start reading a new story, we enter into a mostly-unconscious dialog with the author. Our minds are open to all possibilities, and we immediately start narrowing things down.

Two men sit in a room. (Indoors, and there appears to be gravity.) A hatch swings open and a much shorter woman enters. (Hatch? A vessel or secure building.) The men fall to their knees and bow their heads. (A culture with a social/political hierarchy, and the woman is of higher status.) She waves for them to stand; they rise but stand tense, half-crouched. (Is height a factor in status, the shorter the better?) “Get me some water,” she says. One of the men goes to the dispenser and gives the machine his thumbprint to cover the charge, then hands her a bulb of distilled water. (Water is scarce enough to be metered, and comes in bulbs . . . to prevent spillage? Is gravity variable? Are they on a spaceship?)

This dialog goes on throughout most of the story. As readers, we’re adept at putting together hundreds of puzzle pieces to reveal a coherent picture of this universe. Along the way, we’re helped by literary tropes and conventions large and small—for example, names can reveal a lot about a world (a future character named Mohammed Cohen tells us something about geopolitics), and a term like “hyperspace” carries a large set of assumptions that we can take for granted until the author tells us otherwise.

Because our field is constantly in conversation with itself across decades, this process gets easier the more SF/fantasy one reads. However, one has to learn this way of reading stories. And no matter how one becomes accustomed to the process, it’s still work. Oh, some stories are more work than others, and anyone who’s read Analog or other magazines for any amount of time is an old hand at the process.

Still, I believe (and my experience as a librarian confirms) that this worldbuilding-in-reverse is one of the most fundamental differences between SF/fantasy and mundane fiction. It’s why some mundane fiction readers have trouble getting into SF/fantasy; without the inner dialog, they miss clues about the world and feel lost. In mundane fiction, readers are explicitly shown or told everything they might not know about the background; in SF/fantasy, they’re expected to figure out a good chunk of it themselves.

Incidentally, if you want to hear a mundane fiction reader confronting the complexities of worldbuilding, take a listen to podcaster Ezra Klein’s interview with multiple Hugo winner N. K. Jemisin at

So next time your mundane-fiction-reading friends complain about science fiction or fantasy—start them off with worlds much closer to our own, so they can train their own reverse-worldbuilding skills.

*   *   *

Peter F. Hamilton
Del Rey, 565 pages, $30.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-3991-1787-6
Salvation 1
Genre: Space Opera

Peter F. Hamilton is one of the foremost stars of the so-called “New Space Opera,” a mostly-British wave of authors who burst onto the stage in the early 1990s. His SF books tend to be big, full-immersion tales of enormously advanced technology drawn from the limits of physics, complex post-scarcity societies, and galactic unions of many different alien species. Usually these huge volumes are the building blocks of larger series and cycles.

Although Hamilton’s work is obviously in the game of exploring big ideas from disparate viewpoints, his stories are always grounded in believable and sympathetic human characters.

Salvation, his newest novel, is the beginning of a new series, and if you haven’t read Hamilton before, this is a great place to jump on.

The year is 2204. Quantum-entangled jump gate technology has brought a golden age to the human race. Within the gate network, any two destinations on Earth and dozens of other worlds are just a step away from one another. Gates within the sun and other stars provide limitless energy. An ever-expanding sphere of sublight starships establishes gates on the worlds of distant suns, as humanity expands across light years.

Meanwhile, aliens called the Olyix arrive in the Solar System and trade their superior biological technology for energy to power their ship.

Then a gate-bearing starship arrives in the Beta Eridani system, 89 light years from Earth. There they detect a crashed alien starship whose origin is unknown. Earth dispatches a five-member team of experts to assess the ship’s potential.

A large part of the book takes a pattern as old as the English language: tales of the five travelers on their way to the new ship. These tales of the 22nd century, each long enough to have been half of an Ace Double, are engrossing and diverse: espionage story, murder mystery, psychological thriller, and so on. We see how each character brings their own personal advantages and emotional scars to the team.

In between all this are scenes set a few thousand years in the future, as a group of enhanced teens undergo training for their part in a conflict that had its origins in the outcome of the 2004 expedition of the main characters.

Like most of Hamilton’s other books, this one requires some work on the part of the reader. In addition to the complex layers of technologies, races, and worlds, there are also quite a few characters of non-binary genders, with a raft of unfamiliar pronouns to keep track of. The reward for all this work is a multidimensional, immersive experience along the lines of the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons.

Fair warning: our heroes do get to the alien ship, and of course what they find has universe-shaking implications. The ending is satisfactory—nothing as crass as a cliffhanger—but after spending so much time and effort in this universe, the desire to know what happens next is extremely strong. Be prepared.

*   *   *

Melissa Scott
Candlemark & Gleam, 360 pages, $20.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-9364-6088-5
Genre: Clarke’s Law, Far-Future SF

With the exception of her Stargate tie-in novels and an occasional short story or novelette, Melissa Scott has been absent from science fiction far too long. (Her last original SF novel, The Jazz, came out in 2000.) Oh, she’s been busy enough, with two historical fantasy series and fantasy mysteries set in the magic-ruled city of Astreiant in addition to the aforementioned Stargate books . . . but it’s good to have her back.

Finders is based on a novelette of the same title, which first appeared in the 2013 anthology The Other Half of the Sky (reviewed her in the June 2014 issue). Like Salvation, it’s an immersive novel of a far-future universe with technology so advanced as to border on the incomprehensible.

A thousand years ago, the galaxy-spanning Ancestral civilization collapsed. Now, Humanity survives by salvaging bits of their technology from the ruins. Among the most valuable of these remnants are the Ancestral Elements, which are as much computer code as they are physical artifacts. In the spirit of object-oriented programming, these elements are building blocks that can be combined in infinite ways to produce useful machines and apps.

The three most common elements are BLUE, GOLD, and RED . . . but the rarest and most potent is GREEN, which brings “life” to the others.

Salvager Cassilde Sam works with her partner, Dai Winter, barely scraping out a living. When Summerlad Ashe, former lover and colleague, re-enters their lives with news of a new find that could make them all rich, Cassilde and Dai agree to join him. For Cassilde, who suffers from an incurable degenerative disease, a big strike means enough money to leave Dai a legacy after she dies.

Confronting rival gangs of salvagers, Cassilde makes the find of a lifetime: one of the ultra-rare Ancestral Gifts, which transforms her biochemistry—not only curing her, but leaving her with near-instant healing (and potential immortality).

Chased for her Gift, Cassilde descends into a lawless underworld, determined to survive and find Gifts for her partners. There, she runs across a secret that could alter the universe: the power that destroyed the Ancestors and ushered in the Long Dark. The fate of civilization rests on Cassilde’s ability to find and utilize that power before someone else uses it as the ultimate weapon.

This is Melissa Scott at her best, with a story of marginal people confronting questions of power dynamics in society—and it’s also a cracking good story.

*   *   *

Uncompromising Honor
David Weber
Baen, 784 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
SBN: 978-1-4814-8350-6
Honor Harrington 14
Genre: Military SF, Space Opera

It’s been six years since the last Honor Harrington novel (A Rising Thunder, 2012, reviewed here in the July-August 2012 issue). To be sure, Weber has given us other books set in what fans call “the Honorverse,” and even a few short stories featuring the great warrior herself . . . but there’s nothing like a giant novel with her as the star. Six years is too long to wait.

Fortunately, Uncompromising Honor lives up to expectations. T begin with, it’s not just a big book: it’s a whopping huge tome, two-thirds again the size of the previous title. Unless you’re collecting the Honorverse books in print, do your arm muscles a favor and get the e-book.

For fifty years Fleet Admiral Honor Harrington has served with distinction in the uniform of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, one of dozens of Human polities in the galaxy. She’s impatient with the bureaucratic responsibilities of her largely administrative position, but her calm, cautious approach has kept Manticore safe from political ineptitude and stupidity—a struggle that’s as important as the space battles on which her reputation rests.

Meanwhile on Earth, the corrupt Mandarins who rule the Solarian League—an on-again-off-again opponent of Manticore—fume that Manticore has become too powerful, interfering with their schemes and intrigues. Finally they decide that the Star Kingdom must be not just attacked, but eliminated . . . and they begin a brutal war of annihilation.

When Fleet Admiral Harrington learns that the Solarian League has committed an unprecedented series of atrocities—and that among the dead are some of her loved ones—she turns all her military forces, and her own indomitable will, against the Solarian League. It’s the war of her lifetime . . . and Honor Harrington doesn’t lose.

The rest is David Weber’s usual mix of convoluted politics, high-tech weapons and battle strategy, edge-of-your-seat adventure, human compassion, and just the right amount of humor. The story moves quickly; before you know it you’ll reach the end, and hoping that next time Honor won’t stay away quite so long.

*   *   *

Black Triumph
Brendan DuBois
Baen, 288 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8343-8
Alien Resistance 3
Genre: Military SF

Sixteen-year-old Randy Knox, U.S. Army lieutenant, has been fighting the alien Creepers since they invaded Earth when he was twelve. Over the course of the two previous titles (Dark Victory, 2016, reviewed here in the November 2016 issue and Red Vengeance, 2017, reviewed in the November-December 2017 issue), Randy and his K-9 companion Thor have seen the Creepers all but defeated, their orbital battle station destroyed. The long war seems almost over.

In this third book, jubilation is interrupted by news that a second Creeper battle station has taken up Earth orbit. Randy sets out to return to his home unit—but his convoy is ambushed by Creepers.

Randy, separated from his fellow soldiers and his buddy Thor, is taken as a prisoner of war. Alone, unarmed, he faces the greatest challenge of his young life.

As with previous titles, Black Triumph is an intelligent, nuanced story. Randy, who is narrator as well as main character, is likable and thoughtful, and it’s a pleasure to spend time in his company. There’s plenty of action and suspense, but also plenty of compassion and depth. Even if you don’t like military SF, you should give this one a try.

*   *   *

The Future Will Be BS Free
Will McIntosh
Random House, 352 pages, $17.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-553-53414-6
Genre: Dystopian Futures, Near-Future SF, Teen SF

Will McIntosh has been publishing in SF since 2003. His short fiction frequently appears in our sister magazine, Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, and his first novel (Soft Apocalypse) came out in 2011. His story “Bridesicle” won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

McIntosh’s 2016 young adult SF novel, Burning Midnight, was a finalist for the Locus Award and a nominee for the Teens’ Top Ten from the American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association (ALA-YALSA).

Now he’s back with a second young adult novel.

In a near-future authoritarian United States of collapsed bridges, fixed elections, fake news, and bullying privatized cops, teenage Sam and his crew of oddball friends find themselves with extra free time when their gifted and talented high school closes. They fill their time with music, teenage romantic problems, and using quantum computing to invent an undetectable, totally accurate lie detector.

Thanks primarily to Theo, an erratic genius with cerebral palsy, they succeed. To Sam and the others, the Truth App is a way to make money so they can move into one of the rich gated communities. To Theo, it’s the beginning of a social revolution, the first step on the path to a world based on honesty, a world free of B.S.

When a huge corporation offers to buy the Truth App, Sam and his friends turn them down. That’s when the trouble starts. Theo is found dead, and the kids find themselves targeted by the machinery of the corrupt oligarchy, up to and including four-term President Vitnik.

Sam and his friends decide they must make a stand, exposing the government’s lies and holding everyone accountable. But the B.S. free world they envision has its costs, both personal and societal. And the kids have to confront the possibility that their cure might be worse than the disease.

It’s a fun and idea-packed trip through an all-too-plausible dystopia. Sam and his buddies are compelling and fully rounded, the kind of bright and inventive teens we all would have liked to be. Although the book is aimed at the teen audience, adults can find plenty to enjoy.

*   *   *

The Complete Psychotechnic League Volume 3
Poul Anderson
Baen, 215 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $7.55, iBooks, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8337-7
Complete Psychotechnic League 3
Genre: Adventure SF, Psychological/Sociological SF

Here’s the third and final volume of Poul Anderson’s Psychotechnic League stories. (I reviewed volume 2 in the July/August 2018 issue.) The Psychotechnic League universe (not Anderson’s choice of title) consists of almost two dozen stories and novellas set against a fairly consistent future history background. These stories were mostly published in the 1950s; after 1968 Anderson abandoned the universe because he no longer believed in some of the philosophical and political assumptions (primarily a benign and constructive role for the United Nations).

The Psychotechnic League universe is divided into three main time periods. This current volume is set in the third period, starting around the year 2900 with the end of the Second Dark Age. Earth, under the rule of the Stellar Union and through the instrumentality of the Coordination Service, rediscovers star travel and contacts long-lost colonies on distant worlds.

At roughly the same time, a trading culture develops among the colonies, embodied in the Nomads: fiercely independent family-run merchant ships that call no planet home. Tensions between the Stellar Union and Nomads are constant.

Of the eight stories in this volume, only two of them appeared in Astounding/Analog; the rest were first published in a variety of smaller magazines. The centerpiece is “Virgin Planet,” about the arrival of a male crew on a planet colonized exclusively by women who have been reproducing by parthenogenesis for the past three centuries. And yes, this one didn’t age well . . . it’s about as cringe-inducing as you would expect. As a period piece, or an example of Anderson’s considerable skills in physical worldbuilding, it’s worth a read . . . if only just.

More exciting are the other, shorter stories—some of which have been hard to find. “The Pirate,” published in Analog in October 1968, was Anderson’s final story in the Psychotechnic League universe; it’s interesting to compare it to the earlier tales, especially “Entity” (Astounding, June 1949), which was the first published in the series.

Oddly enough, the “Complete” Psychotechnic League volumes are missing “The Star Ways,” a 1956 short novel (also released under the title “The Peregrine”) that focuses on the clash between Nomad and Star Union cultures. Used copies seem readily available; if you really want a nostalgic treat, I’d recommend the 1957 Ace Double edition (back-to-back with Kenneth Bulmer’s City Under the Sea), if only for the cover art.

*   *   *

Wen Spencer
Baen, 343 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $5.38, iBooks, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8347-6
Elfhome 1
Genre: SF/Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

It’s not often that I get to recommend a book with elves and magic in the pages of Analog. If it helps, it’s set in a near-future Pittsburgh and features a genius inventor who uses technology to keep all that pesky magic under control.

Tinker, the first book in Wen Spencer’s Elfhome series, was first published in 2003. Baen Books has reissued Tinker in an attractive and fairly inexpensive edition, especially in e-book format, which means this is a great time to get on board for an adrenaline-charged, enormously fun series pitting a kick-ass SF heroine against the forces of fantasy.

Tinker is a young inventor who works in a salvage yard in a Pittsburgh that exists along a fault line between our world and the realm of faerie. With her AI Sparks, she’s just trying to hold down a job and keep chaos under control. With gadgets of her own invention, she traces and restrains the levels of magical energy that flow in and around her scrap yard.

Then comes the night when an Elven prince appears, chased by magic-charged wargs. Before long, Tinker’s off on an adventure that will bring her into conflict with the NSA, the Elvish Interdimensional Agency, and the royal court of Elfhome. Oh, and there are technology smugglers and an obnoxious exobiologist to deal with. Despite these distractions, Tinker does her best to keep sight of her highest priority—her first date.

With adventure, humor, and scrupulous worldbuilding, you’ll want to follow Tinker wherever she leads.

*   *   *

Fantasy for the Throne:
One-Sitting Reads
edited by Judith K. Dial and Tom Easton
Fantastic Books, 200 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-5154-2330-9
Genre: Reprint Anthologies

While we’re talking fantasy, here’s a little gem. Or rather, here are 40 little gems by as many authors, all packaged in one sweet volume. Coedited by Tom Easton, my predecessor in the Reference Library, Fantasy for the Throne consists of stories short enough to be read in one sitting. Whether you’re waiting in line, riding the bus, killing time while your computer starts up, or even . . . ahem . . . doing business on your throne—this book is there to help you pass the idle minutes.

The list of authors includes such Analog stalwarts as Michael A. Burstein, Marianne J. Dyson, Geoffrey A. Landis, Edward M. Lerner, and Marie Vibbert, as well as many less familiar names.

Editors Dial and Easton have grouped stories by general categories: New Mythologies, Ghosts and Gods, Witches, Magic, Fairy Tales, Dragons and Weres, True Love, The Undead, and Death. However, unless you’re on a mission to compare different authors’ takes on a theme, it’s probably best to read randomly. And I would no sooner read cover-to-cover than I’d eat 40 fine chocolates one after another.

I’m sure most of us remember from childhood the Andrew Lang Fairy Books (The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, etc., 1889—1913), in which Lang and his wife Leonora Blanche Alleyne collected a miscellany of short fantasy tales from a large number of sources and cultures. In a way, Fantasy for the Throne is a modern, grown-up version of one of the Fairy Books (although I’m not going to presume to suggest a color for this one). Definitely fun.

And now, I do believe I’m out of space. See you next time.


Don Sakers is the author of Dance for the Ivory Madonna, The Leaves of October, the Rule of Five serial at, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit

Copyright © 2018 Don Sakers

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