by Don Sakers
The last time we talked about worldbuilding (in the January/February 2018 issue) it was from a reader’s viewpoint. This time around, I’d like to talk about different aspects of worldbuilding that we find in the pages of science fiction.
To begin with, worldbuilding is the process of creating, constructing, and presenting an imaginary world (or entire universe). The practice and techniques vary from writer to writer. Thousands of essays, panel discussions, classes, and even computer programs have been produced on the topic. Still, there’s no one right way to build imaginary worlds. However, there are some general factors to consider.
One question writers ask themselves sounds like an old chestnut: which comes first, the world or the story? Some writers prefer to create a world and then let the world’s constraints determine the details of the story. Classic SF writers such as Hal Clement and Poul Anderson were masters of this technique: they would postulate a planet with a particular gravity, orbit, planetology, and chemistry, and from that deduce the kind of life that could develop in that environment. In the extreme, this approach can determine the history and culture of the planet.
Other writers start with a story or characters. Ursula Le Guin and David Weber are good examples of this technique. Once you have a story, a protagonist, or an alien being, you can reverse-engineer the sort of environment that would produce the desired qualities.
In truth, most worldbuilding involves a constant back-and-forth between these two approaches, as one postulate implies a condition that requires a change in another postulate. By the end, the writer may not even be conscious of where they started the process.
There are many levels of worldbuilding, but we can group them into two broad categories. Physical worldbuilding deals with physics, chemistry, astronomy, planetology, and other forces that shape the physical world. Social worldbuilding involves culture, societies, history, psychology, and similar factors. Again, there’s no firm line separating the two, and few authors stick exclusively to one side or the other.
For the physical aspects, a writer must be fairly rigorous . . . especially if writing a story aimed at an Analog-like audience. Fortunately, it’s easy to find equations governing things like orbital dynamics, surface gravity, and tides. Basic chemistry, weather patterns, and geological processes are a bit more complicated . . . but still within the grasp of the average SF writer.
Things get a little shakier with the biological sciences. Creating a consistent, scientifically plausible lifeform is not a task for the faint of heart. This difficulty, more than any other factor, is why we see so many aliens based on Earth lifeforms in science fiction. Such is the vast diversity of terrestrial life that writers can find enough weird and unusual organisms to make interesting aliens.
Often a writer can avoid too much physical worldbuilding. Many a fine SF tale has been set on a generic Earthlike world, or on Earth itself. There’s a sort of Occam’s Razor to worldbuilding: if the story doesn’t require a vastly different background, there’s no reason to create one.
The social levels of worldbuilding allow writers a bit more latitude than the physical ones. We have no equations to govern cultures and societies; there are no equations expressing the Three Laws of History. As long as a writer can make a persuasive argument for their interpretation, they’re less likely to be called out for simple mistakes.
All the same, social worldbuilding is much harder to avoid. The essence of science fiction is difference; even if the world is recognizably the same as our present-day, there must be some aspect that makes it different.
To be sure, writers can cheat by taking elements of past or present Earth cultures and moving them to the future or another planet. Too much of this, however, treads uncomfortably close to cultural appropriation. Far better is a mix-and-match approach that draws on many different models.
All this being said, if the writer does their job correctly the mechanics of worldbuilding should be all but invisible to the reader. The best science fiction gradually introduces salient features of the world, often by giving the reader sufficient clues to work out the important details on their own.
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Tor.com, 160 pages, $19.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (e-book)
Genre: Afrofuturism, Mythic SF, Psychological/Sociological SF, Visitors From Space
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Nnedi Okorafor is a multiple award winner—both Hugo and Nebula for Best Novella in 2016 (for Binti), Hugo in 2020 for Best Graphic Story (LaGuardia), Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book in 2018 (Akata Warrior), among others—and one of the hottest names in science fiction today.
Born to Nigerian-American parents in Cincinnati, Okorafor’s childhood featured frequent visits to Nigeria. She has a master’s in journalism from Michigan State University, and both master’s and Ph.D. in English from University of Illinois, Chicago. Her work draws on her dual heritage, combining Nigerian and other African backgrounds and traditions with the tropes and themes of American science fiction and fantasy. For marketing purposes, her stories are often categorized as for adults, teens, or children—in reality, Okorafor is one of those writers (like Ursula K. Le Guin or Madeleine L’Engle) whose work transcends age categories.
Remote Control is a short, powerful tale of alien technology impacting ordinary human beings. Set in a near-future Ghana, it tells the story of Fatima, a little girl whose life was transformed by a seed that fell from the sky during a meteor shower.
She kept the strange seed as one of her treasures, until her father sold it to a corrupt politician. Subsequently a thief stole the seed from the politician, and now she had no idea where it was.
A year later, Fatima’s life changed. A terrible fever transformed her into something beyond human: an avatar of death. Her touch, even her glance, could kill. Electronics will not work for her. Temporarily forgetting her name and her past, she takes the name Sankofa. All she knows is that she must find the alien seed, the source of her transformation.
Leaving her family and village dead behind her, Sankofa walks off and keeps walking, searching for the seed. In the years since, she has become a figure of myth and legend, inspiring fear, hatred, and worship. Ordinary folk give her food, clothes, conversation—but never friendship, never love.
Okorafor presents her near-future world meticulously, conveying a thousand perfect little details in a way that makes the unfamiliar and the outré seem unremarkable.
Ostensibly a quest story, Remote Control is also a parable of advanced technology and the changes it brings to the lives of ordinary people. Well worth reading.
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Candlemark & Gleam, 496 pages, $24.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $7.99 (e-book)
Genre: Humorous SF, Satire SF, Space Opera
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Ever since Jonathan Swift, SF writers have been wielding satire as deftly as a space marine wields a laser beam, eviscerating society’s sacred cows and treasured assumptions. Leonard Richardson, computer programmer and SF writer, is a well-practiced satirist. In his first novel, Constellation Games (2011), Richardson skewered both the computer gaming industry and the alien invasion genre with a hilarious story of a game programmer who manages to save the Earth by communicating with inscrutable aliens through the language of gaming.
In Situation Normal Richardson tackles the interstellar-war type of space opera that’s so common nowadays.
In a galaxy teeming with intelligent alien races, two opposing interstellar empires are locked in an eternal power struggle that frequently breaks out in meaningless wars. This time around, the point of contention is Cedar Commons, an uninhabited border world. In the average military space opera we’d focus on the crews of one or two battleships, the generals directing the war, and/or the Byzantine politics of the capital worlds.
Situation Normal follows the war through the views of a number of the “little people”—draft-dodgers, merchants, spies, smugglers, runaways, and the like. These are the folks whose lives are impacted by the war for better or worse; the ones who are there to either prevent or profit from the conflict; the ones who want to use the war to advance their own ends.
Of course, war is notoriously unpredictable, and things quickly go off the rails. In the ever-shifting landscape of superpower conflict, one has to be nimble indeed to turn a profit . . . or even to survive.
Situation Normal is an entertaining look at the question of what war is for, as well as a clever demonstration of the supreme power of chaos.
From a worldbuilding perspective, Richardson does a fantastic job of portraying the various alien beings who populate the book. Through ingenious use of language, particularly in dialogue, he evokes multiple different and distinct cultures and tongues. The background of each species is obviously well-thought-out and consistent in a level of detail unusual in space opera. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Richardson explore this universe in subsequent works.
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How to Mars
Tachyon, 240 pages, $16.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.49 (e-book)
Genre: Humorous SF, Mars
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David Ebenbach is a fairly new writer in our field, and Analog readers were in on the ground floor. His short story “Welcome to Your Machines,” which appeared in the May/June 2019 issue, was only his third published story (another was in our sister magazine Asimov’s in 2018, and his first in the small press magazine Not One of Us in 2016).
In How to Mars Ebenbach expands on “Welcome to Your Machines” to chronicle a Mars expedition like no other.
The notion of combining a Mars mission with reality television has been in the air for quite a while now. A supposedly serious effort to fund such a mission—called Mars One—was announced in 2012 and dissolved in 2019 (to be fair, some consider the organization to be simplistic or even fraudulent). Ebenbach runs with the idea by showing the many things that could go wrong with such a project.
The Destination Mars company sends six scientists on a one-way mission to the red planet, stars of a top-rated reality show back on Earth. At first everything is wonderful: they’re comfortable in their habitat, their explorations yield amazing discoveries, and they’re all world-famous.
Two years into the mission, though, things have changed. Ratings dropped and the show was eventually canceled. The pace of discovery slackens and boredom sets in. The cramped monotony of the habitat wears on everyone. Tempers flare. Finally, astrophysicist Jenny becomes pregnant—something that’s completely against the rules.
Preparing for a child proves to be a considerable challenge, adding further stress to the small settlement. And when the producers on Earth find out about the pregnancy, they re-launch the show, which soars to the top of the charts.
Amidst all this pressure, the scientists face a plague of inexplicable equipment failures, and they begin to suspect that the producers have more control than they knew. And then along come the native Martians. . . .
How to Mars is funny, poignant, and a perfect example of how not to settle Mars.
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Rich Man’s Sky
Baen, 320 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
Genre: Adventure SF, Psychological/Sociological SF
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A new book by Wil McCarthy is always a cause for celebration. Formerly a flight controller for Lockheed Martin, McCarthy is an engineer and inventor (holding multiple patents in seven countries), a science journalist, author of nonfiction for magazines and television, and an accomplished SF writer. In the field he’s best known for his Queendom of Sol series (beginning with The Collapsium in 2000). He’s made several appearances in these pages, with both fiction and essays; his novella “The Last Biker Gang” in the May/June 2018 issue carried off the Best Novella award in 2018’s AnLab voting.
Rich Man’s Sky, set in 2051, is set in a future where the high frontier is ruled by a handful of robber baron trillionaires. Earth’s laws end at the edge of the atmosphere; space has become a dog-eat-dog, no-holds-barred anarchy where self-indulgence and nihilism go hand-in-hand with limitless resources and ultimate power.
All this chaos has its effect on Earth. Bankrupt governments are bought out by wealthy pharmaceutical corporations; great migrations driven by climate change trigger continuous wars across the planet; poor, hungry masses sell themselves into indentured servitude just to get off the beleaguered planet.
As one of the rogue trillionaires deploys a solar shield large enough to block sunlight from Earth, the remnants of the United States gather an elite military team of women specialists. Their mission: disguised as colonists, they must infiltrate the shield project and bring it to an end before it can cause the deaths of millions.
The action of the book moves across the inner solar system, touching a high-end brothel in a space station, a Lunar monastery, a reality show set on Mars, and half a dozen other absurd projects. At stake is nothing less than the future of the entire human race. It’s crazy fun, and you’ll never look at today’s billionaires the same way again.
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At the End of the Journey
Charles E. Gannon
Baen, 304 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
Series: Black Tide Rising 8
Genre: Military SF, SF Horror, Zombies
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Zombies are a theme that transcends genre; they appear in horror fiction, romances, mysteries, historical fiction, and even westerns. They entered science fiction in the mid-1950s in print (e.g. William Tenn’s 1954 classic “Down Among the Dead Men” or Immortality Delivered by Robert Sheckley, 1959) and in film (Creature With the Atomic Brain, 1955). George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead set the fashion for modern SF zombies.
John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series is one of the most popular zombie stories in today’s science fiction. The series started as a simple trilogy by Ringo, but grew (one might say, almost like a zombie invasion) into a shared-universe consisting of (so far) eight novels and two anthologies. The first four titles were written by Ringo solo, the next two with coauthor Mike Massa, and the most recent two (including At the End of the Journey) by Charles E. Gannon.
In the previous book, At the End of the World, a group of six misfit teenagers led by a grumpy old British captain embarked on the ship Crosscurrent Voyager for a summer cruise to South Georgia Island in the remote South Atlantic (all the good destinations were already taken). About a week into their voyage, a worldwide plague strikes, turning its victims into bestial zombies driven to feed on the living. Spared the plague, the teens complete their voyage, hoping to find other survivors and a safe place to live.
At the End of the Journey starts with the teens and their crusty captain setting off onto the ocean again, with only a faulty GPS system for navigation. South Georgia Island is unfit for permanent habitation, and they’ve discovered another group of survivors who have an audacious plan. Their destination is French Guinea, where an abandoned European Space Agency launch facility might just provide a means of escape from an increasingly deadly world. To reach that facility will take every bit of courage and skill they possess, plus a huge helping of luck.
Suspenseful and exciting, At the End of the Journey is a most atypical zombie novel, and a great deal of fun.
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Candlemark & Gleam, 290 pages, $24.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $7.99 (e-book)
Genre: Epic Fantasy
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Here’s an epic fantasy novel that reads like science fiction, a worthy successor to L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt’s Harold Shea series, Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy mysteries, or Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. If our late, lamented sister magazine Unknown were still in publication, Water Horse would be a good candidate for a serial.
Water Horse takes place in a well-drawn, meticulously-presented world where a finely-codified technology of magic is based on music and oaths. The world has a long, eventful history and a baroque social-political structure to rival David Weber or Catherine Asaro. Melissa Scott stirs all of this worldbuilding into her tale very artfully, in ways very familiar to science fiction readers.
The land of Allanoth has long been menaced by the Riders, magical emissaries of the Blazing One, ruler of the rival realm of Manan. Three mages—Esclin Aubrinos, Alcis Mirielos, and the Rivermaster of Riverholme—come together in an alliance to defend Allanoth with their combined powers. For two decades this alliance has held.
This year, however, the omens turn against Esclin. Prophecy tells that Esclin’s fortress—along with all Allanoth—will fall when entered by a priest of the Blazing One. To prevent this, Esclin must acquire a special sword made from meteoric iron. Unfortunately, the omens say that when Esclin wields this sword, he is destined to betray his cause.
In a delicious struggle between fate and free will, Esclin tries to evade the prophecies . . . with each step taking him closer to a terrible doom.
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NewCon Press, 305 pages, $15.99 (paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (e-book)
Series: Polity Universe
Genre: Short SF
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The real world of the publishing industry shares one big factor with a lot of science fiction: warped time. Publishing, especially traditional publishing, runs on a number of different and non-intuitive time scales. As a trivial example, these words are appearing in the May/June issue of Analog, which will probably be released in early Spring; but I’m writing them at the end of January.
This type of temporal discrepancy shows up particularly with big, momentous events in the real world. Take the COVID-19 pandemic—only now (my now, not yours) is written SF beginning to reflect the disease’s impact.
Case in point: Neal Asher’s new collection Lockdown Tales. During his enforced time sheltering at home, Asher kept busy by tackling a number of short fiction projects. By June he had five brand-new novellas, plus an older one he’d reworked. This collection presents those stories.
These six novellas are all set in Asher’s Polity universe: a far-future galaxy with advanced technology that borders on magic. “The Relict” is a tale of the Polity’s far future, after civilization has collapsed. “Monitor Logan” takes inspiration from spaghetti westerns; “Bad Boy” explores the hostile lifeforms of the planet Spatterjay and borders on horror.
In “Plenty,” another story of the era after the Polity, a castaway on a remote planet must deal with the results of abandoned bio-technology. “Dr. Whip” involves the mad AI called Penny Royal, a legendary genie-like figure who offers personal transformation that always comes with a catch. Finally, “Raising Moloch” takes a look at the problem of immortality—namely, what happens when the immortal is threatened by boredom and ennui?
If you’re a fan of Asher’s Polity universe, this collection is a no-brainer. If you’re looking for an easy way to get a taste of the milieu, this is the book you want.
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Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Vintage, 128 pages, $15.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
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David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Stanford and a tireless promoter of science for the general public. His PBS/BBC television series The Brain won an Emmy Award. He travels widely and lectures often. He’s written half a dozen popular books on neurology, psychology, and other biological topics.
Sum is an unusual and highly entertaining book of what we might call speculative philosophy. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Eagleman presents 40 short visions of a possible afterlife. The goal isn’t to ponder life after death; just like the best science fiction, the goal is to step outside our everyday lives and look back from a different perspective.
Eagleman’s possible afterlives are hardly based in any recognizable theology. Instead, they’re philosophical thought experiments, each a few pages long with a catchy title.
In the title essay, “Sum,” one’s afterlife is spent reliving the events of one’s life—but re-ordered so that similar types of events happen consecutively. You’ve heard those statistics like “we spend a third of our lives asleep”—the Sum afterlife makes this literal. You spend “Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying your shoelaces.”
In “Mary,” we learn that God’s favorite book is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He puts the author on a throne and gives her dominion over heaven. God Himself withdraws, endlessly rereading the book and identifying with Doctor Frankenstein, a fellow creator of life whose creation turned against him. . . .
“Great Expectations” posits a technological afterlife in which one’s consciousness is uploaded to powerful servers so that the dead can create any virtual reality they wish. Of course, no one has ever reported back, so we’re not sure the process actually works as advertised. In fact, it doesn’t: when you die you wind up in a conventional heaven of fluffy clouds, angels, and harpsongs. Unfortunately you’re bitterly disappointed, because it’s so much more boring than the marvelous virtual worlds you anticipated.
There are 37 other visions, each as provocative as the last. The book is a joy to read; for even more fun you might get together with some intelligent friends and spend some evenings reading random afterlives and discussing their ramifications.
And now, I do believe I’m out of space. See you next time.
Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, the Rule of Five serial at rule-of-5.com, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit http://donsakers.com/sw/.
Copyright © 2021 Don Sakers