I suppose many readers would disagree with the idea that world-building is an undervauled element of speculative fiction, so perhaps I’m only speaking for myself. Generally, when I think of books I love, I think about the overall “what happened.” I may also think of the main character and how he changed or grew or learned. And yet, when I think of the books I love best, I realize they have one thing in common–they transport me to another place and time. I live in that world.
Certainly most of us speculative fiction readers would recognized the world-building of J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings and of C. S. Lewis in Narnia. We are most likely as familiar with Middle Earth as if we had grown up there and with Narnia as if we took all our vacations there. Those worlds are so rich they practically take on character status.
It is that richness, I’m realizing, that makes me lose myself in a story. Yes, I want to keep reading when a character captures my interest or my heart, when danger threatens him and he must find a way to overcome. But there are stories that take me further.
These are ones that cause me to blink when I put the book down and re-orient because I expected to find Gandalf standing nearby or a white wilderness outside my window.
I’ve had that kind of strong reaction to a few books–though certainly not all the ones I have enjoyed. Most memorable was Watership Down by Richard Adams. Perhaps the very otherness of the world Adams created caused me to be lost in the rabbit warrens along with Fiver and Hazel, Bigwig and Silver. How often do you think like a rabbit, after all?
Another author that transported me to a different world was Stephen R. Donaldson in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Here’s an excerpt from Lord Foul’s Bane in the chapter in which the main character, who believes he’s dreaming, first encounters the fantasy world into which he’s come.
“Have you been to our Stonedown?” [asked Lena.]
“No.” [Thomas] was tempted to ask her what a Stonedown was, but he had a more important question in mind. “Where–” The word caught in his throat as if it were a dangerous concession to darkness. “Where are we?”
“We are upon Kevin’s Watch.” Springing lightly to her feet, she stretched her arms to the earth and sky. “Behold . . . This is the Land,” Lena said joyfully, as if the outspread earth had a power to thrill her. “It reaches far beyond seeing to the north, west, and east, though the old songs say that High Lord Kevin stood here and saw the whole of the Land and all its people. So this place is named Kevin’s Watch.”
In just that small sample, it’s apparent that world-building that transports a reader is more than a place with different sights or strange names. First there are people and they have a history and geography. They have songs.
The latest book to transport me so thoroughly to another places was Captives by Jill Williamson. This dystopian story actually has two distinct cultures, which makes it all the more believable. Here’s an excerpt told in the point of view of one character making the transition from his primitive culture to that of one steeped in technology.
“You juicing, shell?” Skottie asked.
“Skottie’s mustache looked like two strokes of paint going out from each nostril. “What?”
“Stims, joy juice, hard candy, vapes. Uh . . . narcots?”
“Narcotics?” Omar asked, recalling the word from Old movies.
“Skottie bobbed his head. “That’s what I said.”
“The guy thought Omar was on drugs? “Someone killed my father! And it was because of me.”
“Ahh, premie lib,” Skottie said.
Omar looked over at Skottie. “Premie what?”
“Going on to the next life after reaching your age limit. I hear having someone go through that can be tough. How old was your friend?”
“Omar rubbed his scar. “My father was forty-six.”
Skottie shrugged. Past his time then. Safe Lands used to liberate at fifty, but they changed it to forty back in seventy-two. It’s for the best. No one wants to get old.”
The best? “But I just left him there. I should go back. Bury him maybe. And the others. Can we turn around?”
“Walls, no, shell.”
Books that transport me somewhere else have a dense culture filled with rituals, slang, moral right and wrong, tradition, art, entertainment, bureaucracy, and so much more. Captives has it all.
What books transport you somewhere else? How do you think the author pulled that off? How important is world-building to your reading experience when it comes to speculative literature? Do you think it’s undervalued?