Saturday 17 July 2010

Making and breaking worlds

Sam Sykes, author of Tome of the Undergates and Angriest Man Alive, has nailed me to a cross and raised me up as a banner in his new post on worldbuilding (and there was me thinking I felt rough this morning due to last night's alcohol intake).

It's an interesting post, which asks how the question "how are authors meant to go about worldbuilding?"
"We’ve seen excellent examples of it. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is set in the midst of high-rolling, power-playing nobles with grudges and ambitions that affect the whole world and this lends it an excellent reason to explore the vast and detailed world he’s created. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora revolves around a city that’s basically its own character, and we’re just as happy to know it as we are to know Locke and Jean.
And we’ve also seen poorer examples. Some people will decry The Wheel of Time series for its encyclopedic references to things that don’t affect the story (while others embrace the series just for that). And there’s always going to be those who point to a new book and say: “He’s no Tolkien.”
Worldbuilding can be quite a divisive topic in the online genre community - you only have to look at the fall-out from M. John Harrison's infamous "clomping foot of nerdism" dismissal to see that.

I'm not interested here in discussing the importance of it all, as that topic has been done to death. I just thought I'd give some brief thoughts on what I like to see in a novel in terms of worldbuilding.

Despite often calling some authors' worlds bland and derivative, I'm not looking for something utterly mind-blowing and unique (which is just as well, because you very rarely see examples of that). But I do like to see something a little bit different, because after all there's no real limits with fantasy and it's nice to see authors taking advantage of this. Yet at the same time I like a world to have a certain degree of familiarity - I don't want it to be so unusual that I'm struggling to put it in context or understand it (because that then can detract from my enjoyment of the novel).

This reasoning - my desire for a world that feels familiar, yet fresh at the same time - explains why I like the worlds that feature in John Marco's Tyrants and Kings trilogy, Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series, and Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun series.

Marco took a familiar world of knights and castles, but threw flame-throwers and acid-launchers into the mix. He made his capital city an industrial hellhole where smoke billows from the chimneys of countless factories that are constantly developing new war machines. The result is that intriguing mix of the familiar and fresh that I'm looking for. His trilogy is unmistakably epic fantasy, just with a different sheen.

The same sort of balance has been achieved by Tchaikovsky and Newton: both have created worlds that on the surface appear familiar, yet scratch beneath that and you find something a little different (people with insect characteristics and abilities in Tchaikovsky's case, a dying world of misunderstood technology and bizarre creatures in Newton's).

The application is just as important as the end product. I don't want to be bombarded with countless names and references to the world's history, as without some sort of context they're meaningless. Sentences like "The palace was an exquisite fusion of architectural styles: turrets from REGION X, battlements reminiscent of PLACE Y, and spires in the image of LOCATION Z" just don't work effectively if there's been no previous mention of these places. You can't evoke a sense of place just by pulling names out of a hat. It's a cheap, unsubtle way of saying, "Hey, my world is really big and has all these exotic places in it." Yeah? Well tossing names about isn't really demonstrating that.

The old adage of "show, don't tell," to my mind is far more pertinent to worldbuilding than characterisation. I want to see the world through the eyes of the characters, not be told about it in long passages of exposition. I think the best worldbuilding is achieved through little glimpses and minor touches, rather than chunks of exposition.

Look at this example:

At some distance on, he passed the disaggregated body of one of his Night Guard - and could tell it was Voren by the elaborate bow cast to one side. Doglike black gheels lingered around the corpse, their triple tongues and double sets of eyes shifting in rhythmic twitches around the wound, in a ritual as old as the land itself. 

The above snippet is from Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur. Look at how there's no needless exposition. Newton doesn't bash the reader over the head with unnecessary information about the gheels: what they are, where they come from, and so on. We just see them. They just happen. And in three lines Newton's shown us a glimpse of his world and given it a shade of intrigue.

Now look at this example:

Suddenly I heard a menacing growl behind me...I turned my head and there was a garrinch, devouring me with the insane glare of its white eyes. 
Garrinches live far away in the south, in the Steppes of Ungava, almost on the borders of the hot Sultante. The creatures are magnificent watchdogs, especially useful against lads like me. Getting hold of a live garrinch cub is incredibly difficult, almost impossible, because the price is simply sky-high. They say the king's treasure house is guarded by two of the beasts. 
What a garrinch resembles most of all is a huge rat, the size of a well-fattened calf, covered with snakes' scales instead of fur, with a magnificent set of teeth that can saw straight through a knight in armour, and two white gimlets for eyes. Killing one is extremely difficult - unless, of course, you happen to be a magician. 
The ceature snorted and stared alertly...

That snippet is from Alexey Pehov's Shadow Prowler. It's the polar opposite of Newton's approach: Pehov reels of a load of tripe about where the creatures come from, how hard they are to kill, what they look like, and so on. Who cares? I don't. Anyway, much of this information could be made apparent by the character's confrontation with the beast - showing us, rather than telling us. Worse, he throws a couple of meaningless place names into the mix. Worse still, the long passage of dull exposition breaks the tension of the scene; the worldbuilding gets in the way of the story, and that just can't be allowed to happen.

A little bit of subtlety goes a long way.

This was meant to be a brief post and somehow it's morphed into a bit of a monster. Oh well. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I consider good worldbuilding to be where an author mixes intrigue and freshness with familiarity, and reveals the depth and dynamics of their world in glimpses rather than regurgitating chunks of their world's history that they've ripped straight from their notes. And perhaps most importantly, reveals their world without interrupting the story. Because ultimately the story should be about people, not the world they're in, although they do of course have a symbiotic relationship.


Swinefever said...

Interesting post - from yourself and from that nice Mr. Sykes - I agree wholeheartedly about not letting the worldbuilding get in the way of the story but there are exceptions and Sykes points out a beauty in his post, Scott Lynch. Lynch can write about Camore forever and a day as far as I'm concerned because the city is so much a part of the story and, more importantly, his writing is that good that he can hold you enthralled with the most mundane detail.

There are others who can do this but without labouring the point I guess what I'm saying is it's where and how you do your worldbuilding that counts, not how much of it you do. A good writer can give you reams of colour, texture and shape, can describe sights and smells and all to the good, a less able writer cannot, and as we all know, the real difference between those two extremes is the amount of effort expended in getting the balance right.

James said...

Rob, I totally agree - I could read about Camorr for ages as well, because Lynch brings it alive without forcing reams of unnecessary detail down your throat. And we *see* the city, rather than hearing about it - his world comes alive by things happening, rather just tiresome exposition.

Sam Sykes said...

You will note, too, that Newton does what's important (which I said before, genius that I am) and points out the creatures as they appear to the character in terms of importance.

If faced with a dead compatriot, the first thing a guy is going to notice are the THREE-TONGUED DOGS EATING HIS FUCKING CORPSE OH GOD. He'd probably consider where they came from after he was sure he wasn't going to be devoured.

Motive! Importance! Character! THIS IS HOW IT GOES DOWN.

Dan Smyth said...

Great post, James. I couldn't agree with you more on this topic. Sounds like I need to up my timeline on starting the Red Sun and Shadows of the Apt series. Tomes is coming up on my TBR list as well. Will be interesting so see how Sykes does it, after reading both of these posts.