Between blogging, my various jobs, and the general grind of the season, I am afraid that I have no world-building thoughts to share this week. Rather than scrape together something underwhelming, though, I thought I might try something a little different and recommend a few sources which show a variety of forms of world-building which might help to broaden some horizons.
‘Five Letters from an Eastern Empire’
This is a short story by Alasdair Gray. As the title subtly hints, it takes the form of a series of letters from an empire to the east. The tone is surreal, but the philosophical and political undercurrents are clear. The world-building is unusual in that, in addition to being highly subservient to the needs of a short story which is not primarily a fantasy adventure, it is told through the highly subjective lens of the epistler. Print copies are not especially easy to find, but an electronic version should cost little. Without wanting to spoil anything, it can serve as a handy introduction to the building of a culture, as well as being a good, if sometimes disturbing, read in its own right.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is probably most famous for the way in which it handles its thought experiment: what are the consequences of being able to predict the course of human history? However, it can also be read in a way which makes for an introduction to the sci-fi equivalent of a “hard” magic system, as well as an introduction to how sci-fi cultures can differ, or how human cultures could diverge as a result of social diaspora, as well as technological progression and regression.
‘Heart’ and ‘Spire’
The creations of independent RPG-makers Rowan, Rook and Decard, Spire and Heart are stories of doomed resistance, taking place in the eponymous locations, where a new lick of paint is given that old edgy fantasy standby, the drow. Standard fantasy classes have also been given a fresh aesthetic and mentality: the creepy midwives make an excellent alternative to the stereotypical RPG paladin, and likewise the deep apiarists to druids and so on. The tone is not always consistent: a lot of these terrifying pseudo-cryptids are given names apparently calculated to undo all the hard work of describing them in the first place. Likewise, there are a few real-world cultural artefacts and dead horse tropes (“gods and magic are all just cosmic energy, man”) haunting the cthonic tunnels. Nevertheless, there are already few gas-lamp, high-fantasy tales of resistance and rebellion, and both Spire and Heart do a good job of juggling the themes whilst maintaining a distinct identity.
‘Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri’
Known affectionately (and sometimes worryingly appositely) as SMAC, this sci-fi re-imagining of the Civilization series has not aged well at all. However, the in-game world-building is very cleverly done. The murder of the ship’s captain causes humanity’s first attempt to colonize another solar system to fracture, as surviving officers, suspicious of one another, gather like-minded individuals into the escape pods and make for the surface. As they start to tame the alien wilderness, the ideologies they brought from Earth are forced to respond, first to their immediate situation, then to emergent technological and sociological phenomena, and then to the possibility of a non-zero number of alien intelligences. It is logical to see how Miriam Godwinson’s religious beliefs cause her to react against her situation, just as it is to see how Deirdre Skye’s eco-philosophy, or Sheng-Ji Yang’s communist mysticism, end up in such extreme positions, and all three are equally fascinating and terrifying. SMAC as a game might not have aged well, but its philosophical pretensions, as exemplified in the in-game datalinks are surprisingly nuanced considering when and where the game was made, and it puts many later games to shame.
From the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Small Gods shows how to use world-building and fantasy for comedy, an art which is sadly underexploited. He also shows how to incorporate world-building of religion without a) It being a flat parody, and b) It being an incisive parody. That is, Pratchett (a humanist) was able to show precisely what his beef was with religious spirituality without it just being a list of his bugbears pouring from the mouths of cardboard cut-outs. He gives characters space to make their arguments, no matter how illogical, arcane, or self-defeating, and follows through. My only real gripe about the book is how often the comic lines are presented as the philosophical ones by fans who did not quite get it.