Revelation Space Universe (2000-2018); Poseidon’s Children Universe (2012-2015)
My approach to world-building is a bit smoke and mirrors – there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.
I like the idea that you write in such a way that the reader thinks they’ve been given a bit of world-building, but they haven’t – they’ve made it up in their own head, or joined up the dots. That’s the way to do it with maximum economy. Clearly this is something that frustrates a lot of readers, but I like leaving stuff out. Let the reader fill in those missing chapters. I’d far rather go and create other stuff to drive them mad.
As a consumer of science fiction, I love those moments when a character will make some offhand reference and nothing more will be said of it. As in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, when the Doctor refers to the battle of Reykjavík in the 51st century. The idea that he knows this nugget of future history stimulates my imagination far more than if I’d been shown what it was.
World-building wasn’t even on my radar when I started writing science fiction in the 1980s. It’s miraculous to me that the stories I wrote 20 years ago still get people thinking, that they go off and do fan art about spaceships or the characters. I love it, but I’m also very wary of the perfectly natural fan thing of wanting to know more. Trust me on this – the less I give you, the more you’re going to enjoy it.
Binti (2015), Akata Witch (2011), Who Fears Death (2010)
My stories tend to start with the characters. Then I look through their eyes (or however they “see”), minds, perspectives to observe the world. Typically this happens the moment the character exists. So I know the world not long after I know the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, listen to the gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history through various perspectives, and so on … I experience it.
I don’t make notes initially or while writing – I find that distracting. And while writing, I can hold the world pretty fully in my mind … I tend to write first drafts swiftly and nonstop, putting it aside to cool only when it’s complete (which means it carries everything in it; it’s out of my head and on the page). I might draw maps, charts or diagrams while editing. My editing phase is much longer than the writing phase.
My worlds are African worlds. I’d love to take credit for the culture that is in my worlds’ DNA, but I can’t. Those cultures existed long before me; I didn’t have to imagine them. And my stories certainly don’t exist because white male (or female … let’s not forget that white female perspectives also dominate female perspectives in science fiction and fantasy) perspectives refused to imagine them first. My stories aren’t a “response” to whiteness. They exist wholly outside of white-male-anything. These stories that come from my own culture, experiences, from within me, from reflections of specific African cultures. By existing, I’d hope they help bring cultural, ethnic and gender balance to science fiction and fantasy, but that is not my work’s reason to exist.
The Imperial Radch trilogy: Ancillary Justice (2013), Ancillary Sword (2014), Ancillary Mercy (2015)
I try to choose details that are real – the whole of human history and culture is fantastically varied – and that seem to fit together. In real life, cultures and histories are full of things that contradict each other. There will be one common narrative of how things happen, how people live and eat and so on, but people won’t actually always do things that way. I try to include such moments, because it makes my world more three-dimensional. I also leave some things unexplained or just referred to, as though the world is much bigger than just this one story and won’t all fit in the pages.
There’s a particular style of world-building that’s all about filling in all the details, making sure everything fits logically. In real life, people are chaotic and self-contradictory. While I do believe that, in theory, everything is ultimately susceptible to logic, human cultures and activities are far less simple and obvious than some people seem to assume.
When someone thinks they entirely understand the logic of human behaviour, the world-building is very flat, and the shadows that might have given it depth are filled in with the very schematic, simplistic assumptions the world builder assumes are universal truths.
It’s difficult, when you really enjoy a work, not to engage fully with a science-fictional world and wonder about those details, and try to build them out yourself. I can see why readers ask the questions they do about the worlds they read, and I can see why some writers would respond by trying to answer all those questions in advance.
Wayfarers series: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015), A Closed and Common Orbit (2016), Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018), The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (2021)
World-building is both the foundation of your fictional universe and the decorations on the walls. It’s a rulebook and a travel brochure all in one. The only rule in world-building is consistency. Beyond that, it’s your party.
I do a big chunk of world-building at the start, which is crucial for me because I don’t outline my books. I write by the seat of my pants, so I need to know the rules of the sandbox I’m playing in. I don’t draw maps, but I live and breathe by my notes. I always buy a new notebook at the beginning of a project (sometimes two), and I have a private Wiki on my hard drive where I keep all the Wayfarers lore.
The Wayfarers books are intimate, low-key stories by design, so I keep the focus on everyday details. I’ve worked out tons of particulars regarding wars and politics and evolutionary histories and so on, but in the books, I only dive into those as much as would make sense in a normal conversation between average folks. I’m not going to talk to you much about trade disputes or border conflicts beyond a brief bit of exposition. What I will tell you about is what people eat, and what homes look like, and how annoying the paperwork is when you travel.
With alien species, I start with biology. The Aandrisks, for example, are a reptile-like, ectothermic species who lay eggs. So how does that affect your architecture, or your concept of parenthood, or family, or the typical composition of a household? From there, I ask questions about how these things affect art and culture and government and philosophy and so on. This is my favourite part of the creative process, aside from being done.
There is always the danger of turning your story into an encyclopedia article instead of a living, breathing ecosystem. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of world-building, and finding the balance between too much and too little is a never-ending puzzle. There are plenty of blanks I’m content letting the reader fill on their own, either because I don’t know the answer or don’t want them to have it. But what that balance looks like depends on the preferences of both writer and reader.
Kim Stanley Robinson
Mars trilogy: Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), and Blue Mars (1996); 2312 (2012); The Ministry for the Future (2020)
I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing – it’s a term out of a vocabulary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diagnostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspension of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.
I try to show the future situation from the viewpoints of a number of different characters, who have different takes on the situation, and thus perhaps give it more depth. I also usually stick to the laws of physics as understood now, which will tend to make the things I make up more convincing. And I’ve often written long novels, which gives me more room to establish a sense of realism in what I’m describing. Lastly, there’s a technique Roland Barthes called “the effect of the real”, which is the inclusion of some small striking detail that doesn’t add to plot, character, theme, setting, or anything else – it’s only there “because that’s the way it really happened and so it has to be noted as such”. A little of that will go a long way, but it can be helpful.
M John Harrison
Viriconium series (1971-1984); Kefahuchi Tract trilogy: Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012); The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020)
Realists authenticate their work by placing it in an imitation of the world, while fantasists have to build a false world before “fauxthentication” can take place. We all have to do something to give the reader and characters a sense of place. But minimalism – a line of dialogue overheard here, a couple of wry observations about the shape of a house there – often works better in realist writing: why not see if it would work in the false realism of fantasy as well?
The writer has to have a rough idea where everything is – indeed, where “where” is. But I like to know as little as possible, whether I’m writing or reading. Too much knowledge gets in the way of my imagination. I don’t want The Day of the Triffids to be a pseudo-accurate horticultural guide to walking vegetables, I want it to be a novel about middle-class people pulling themselves together in the aftermath of the second world war – sorry, “the disaster”. I don’t want to read the operating instructions for the Starship Enterprise; it isn’t a vacuum cleaner.
I never planned for anyone to get comfortable or have an exciting adventure in Viriconium. I believed back then that if you spent your time dreaming of (or in) a more exciting and fulfilling world than this one, you would never do anything to change the real world – the one you had so needed the escape from in the first place. I felt that you had caught yourself in a loop there, and given in to the honey-trap laid by the real-world political and economic circumstances that were making your life less fun than a hobbit’s. (Indeed, making it so awful that the life of a hobbit seemed fun.)
I don’t think the processes of authentication/fauxthentication are much different for the Yorkshire Moors and the Misty Mountains of Distant Gondor. Most of my mise en scène starts out real. I rarely need an overview of the economic/industrial base of the fantasy land, because my worlds are usually a direct parody of ours. After that, I think you can increase the illusion of depth by leaving plenty of space for the accidental as you write. And not just in world-building. But it’s important to go back afterwards and wave your magic fauxthenticity wand over the scene of the accident.