Aliette de Bodard On Worldbuilding, Patchwork and Filing off Serial Numbers

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Several weeks ago I listened to a podcast of Aliette’s short story entitled Immersion.  Immersion is a smart deeply layered piece of fiction that spoke to me on so many levels, and judging by the comments made at the Clarkesworld website, it touched many others as well.  Imagine how happy I was that Aliette agreed to write this guest post.

Aliette de Bodard

I want to talk about worldbuilding. It’s a subject that’s been on my mind a lot lately; it’s the basis for much of Science Fiction and Fantasy–to create new worlds and playing grounds against which the stories can unfold [1]. The thing is, about worldbuilding just as much as fiction, is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and for two reasons.

The first is the most obvious one: worldbuilding, which is done by the writer, produces a world that is under the control of the writer.

Some of the features of this world are a conscious decision: I can decide to make a world deeply inequalitarian to women in order to explore what it would mean for women’s rights. But other features aren’t. Others simply reflect the writer’s views and beliefs: for instance, I have trouble envisioning worlds in which family doesn’t loom large, because I believe that family is important; and my worlds always tend to have zones where cultures mingle and merge and fight each other, because it’s also part of my fundamental beliefs that cultures will always interact in that fashion, and also that such zones are more interesting to me as a writer than other parts of the universe.

The world you build is shaped by your beliefs; and while some of those beliefs are personal and deeply considered, others are much less considered. Others are simply reflections of the society/sub-society you move through. Take, for instance, my faith versus my deep dislike and cynicism of nationalism. One is a process that was weighed and considered and reflected upon, and I’m generally aware of it when I’m writing. The other is a knee-jerk reflex–because I’ve always been told, as I was growing up, that nationalism caused the disasters of the 20th Century from the World Wars to colonialism, and it’s a belief that is shared by mainstream French society.
The second reason is also obvious: fiction impacts the world.

Let’s clarify this: I don’t believe that I, as an individual, can write a book that will cause measurable shifts in opinions and in actions; or even that my work as a whole will have that effect. I’m not that arrogant. What I’m referring to is the mass effect: the cumulative weight of books that all present the same vision of the world and that, by doing so, reinforce it. If all the books that you read and media that you consume all depict sexism as perfectly acceptable, and women as hysterical over-emotional people; then they will also, somewhere and on some level, create a little switch in your brain that goes, “oh, but sexism is perfectly OK, and women are hysterical” (especially, but not only, if you’re not a woman). Similarly, if all the books that you read present Chinese communities in the US as being obsessed with hierarchical authority and generally inferior to forward-thinking white people, then there’s a great chance you’ll integrate some of that description–it can range from swallowing that depiction whole and genuinely thinking all Chinese-Americans are like that, or having doubts but unconsciously integrating it as a trope in your repertoire; or worse than that, being Chinese-American and still end up internalizing the sheer racism of this presentation [2]. Again, let me clarify: I’m not saying fiction brainwashes you, or that it’s outright propaganda (though it can be); but simply that the repeated presentation of a worldview causes people to integrate it into their thought patterns, one way or another.
There is also another, even more obvious impact of books: they can hurt people. The worlds they present can make people feel excluded–reduced to the role of walking clichés, of screaming women ready to be rescued, of American Indians magically in tune with nature, of East Asian people being geeky and good at math and obsessed with academic success… (and please don’t think that, as a writer, you can get away with “oh, but if you’re not happy, you should check out other books”. All too often, there are precious few books that meet the criteria of, say, being set in Cambodia, or featuring a main character who is, say, French-Algerian).

All of these together mean that writers have responsibilities. That they should think about what they’re putting into their worlds and where it’s coming from; and of where it’s going and what effect it will have on readers.

In particular, there’s the problem of how to derive inspiration. It’s a common (and human) process to derive SFF societies from existing ones, and mix and match bits and pieces from a variety of places and times–what I call the patchwork process. Again, it’s a process that makes a lot of sense, because it’s hard to completely make up something from scratch (and something that’s indeed completely made up runs the risk of having no connection to how things map out in reality). You take a caste society from India, and put it together with a mandarin examination system like in China; and add a bloodthirsty religion similar to the Aztecs into the mix. Or you set your story in a world exactly like China, except that it has dragons. Or you imagine how modern Vietnam could give rise to a space-faring society.
The problem is… in most cases, the sources of that inspiration are still visible. And this then becomes problematic if you’ve fudged it too much but haven’t filed off the serial numbers enough. This can happen if you’re setting a near-future story in India (where obviously you can’t file off serial numbers too much, but have to use a caste system that can’t have evolved too much from the current one); or if you’re setting a fantasy in a historical British Raj India (again, it’s hard to file off serial numbers). But there are more subtle occurrences: if f your caste society is a caricature of the Indian one, but has kept the basic concepts and is still practiced by people with Indian-sounding names on space stations, then your inspiration is transparent to everyone, and this can be a problem. Likewise if the pseudo-Chinese in your fantasy are all martial arts masters or mystical sages. Thing is, you’ll say, “it’s just fiction, I made it all up, it doesn’t matter”. But it does matter. It does affect people. It can and does hurt.

There’s a line. Or several ones. There is a difference between getting your details wrong when you’re depicting a present-day or near-future India, and when you’re depicting a fantasy world derived from India: it’s obviously much less damaging to get things wrong in a fantasy world (at least as far as I’m concerned. Other people’s opinions might differ), because there is less pretence of sticking to things that exist. Likewise, there is obviously a huge difference between a derivative universe perpetuating horrible cultural appropriation (a book set in a historical China entirely populated by karate masters, ninjas and dragon-hunters [3]), and a universe that puts together enough patchwork and bits and pieces to create something entirely new and not appropriative (like Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, or even Kate Elliott’s Cold Steel, which is an alternate history hugely departing from our world and different enough to avoid the derivative issues). Problem, of course, is it’s not a line. It’s a moving and weaving target; and everyone will have differing opinions of where to put it.

I have no easy answers, or glib pronouncements of truth. I don’t want to discourage worldbuilding, or to say that it’s a bad thing. Just that, like all things, it has heft and weight. Than it means things, and not only to you as a writer, but to the people you reach out to. And I think it’s a good and worthwhile thing to be aware of the problems behind worldbuilding, and to at least do your level best to avoid them.

(with thanks to Kate Elliott, for starting the discussion)

*****

[1] It’s also a significant component of mainstream fiction, but that’s another subject matter altogether!
[2] I’m not Chinese-American. I picked the example because it’s likely to be well-known by readers, but I’m not speaking for that community, of course (that said, I have personal experience of internalizing racism against Asians, so I do know what it feels like and what the risks of such fiction are).
[3] Let me explain the basic concept of Asian dragons. To all intents and purposes, they occupy a spot in the mythology akin to angels. They’re benevolent and powerful and grant prayers (and rain). They are NOT evil beasties that need to be hunted down and slain by knights. Those dragons slain in Chinese/Vietnamese stories are generally executed on the orders of Heaven and because they transgressed, not because some humans got a sword and a desire to prove their manhood.

*****

Aliette de Bodard, writer of fantasy and science fiction (and the very occasional horror piece). Aliette has won the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction, as well as Writers of the Future. She has also been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award.

Her Aztec mystery-fantasiesServant of the UnderworldHarbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published byAngry Robot, worldwide.  The omnibus is now available at Amazon.

Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of venues, such as InterzoneRealms of FantasyAsimov’s, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction.

She lives in Paris, France, in a flat with more computers than she really needs, and uses her spare time to indulge in her love of mythology and history–as well as her love of cooking.

As a Franco-Vietnamese, Aliette has a strong interest in non-Western cultures, particularly the Aztecs, Ancient Vietnam and Ancient China, and will gladly use any excuse to shoehorn those into her short or long fiction.

 

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  • John Barnes

    A few small added thoughts: 1. Cool piece. Excellent choice not to arrive at a solution or formula; you’ll disappoint the people who want one and they should be disappointed!
    2. There’s a gray area around the issue Cecile Cristofari raises as well; sometimes you can do your damnedy-damnedest to push readers away from a stock interpretation or stereotype, and they will look right at what you wrote and READ THE CLICHE ANYWAY. It isn’t really practical to hit them with sticks for this, unfortunately, satisfying as it might be. But it drives many, many writers more than a little crazy, particularly if the reader who read what the reader wanted to read instead of what was there then reports it in some other venue, and people begin jumping up and down in anger about what you didn’t write. Maybe we just need longer sticks and a better tracing system, come to think of it. (Mostly harmless example from my own experience: more times than I can count, I make it clear in the 4-so-far Thousand Cultures novels that humans are settled on fewer than 30 planets total, all within 25 light years of Earth, and that each “culture” only has a patch of real estate about the size of Ukraine/Texas/France … but at least five supposedly professional reviews begin with “human culture has spread to thousands of planets across the galaxy …” More harmful version: one I won’t name because the author doesn’t need more annoyance, but an author who put a huge effort into creating a “human spaceman” sidekick in a story where the main protagonist was the alien/main character/hero, discovered that most reviews talked about the “alien sidekick” …
    3. One trick I like but don’t do enough is to tell myself to do one more worldbuilding step than necessary, or to merge 2-3 constructed worlds from very different origins. If you stop as soon as you have analogs to Odysseus, the Lotos Eaters, the Cyclops, Circe, Troy, and Ithaca, you will write something that looks like the Odyssey with serial numbers scraped a little. Replace Odysseus with Abe Lincoln, the Lotos Eaters with the cast of Less than Zero, let Troy and Ithaca be the same place and Circe and the Cyclops be two avatars of the same being, and then embed it in a culture that has a combined Polynesian/Zulu/Roman attitude toward what constitutes a good death … and is coping with some strange new technology … and at that point, you may still write a lousy story, but it probably won’t be recognizably the Odyssey to anyone else. Maybe that’s the solution: worldbuild till people can’t see the boundaries between your starting materials.

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  • Thank you for this.

    About the typical “it’s just fic­tion, I made it all up, it doesn’t mat­ter”: I was reading Michael Riffaterre’s The Production of Text recently, and he has a very illuminating way to explain why this is not only hypocritical, but also complete nonsense. According to him, reading is an operation that consists in rationalising, ie. reading about the unknown and making sense of it by relating it to what you already know. The first instinct of a reader is to think, “I don’t know what this is, but it sounds like X, so it must *be* mostly like X”. Then as you go, you rectify the first assumption detail by detail (“Ah, but it also has something of Y, so I’ll assume it’s a blend of X and Y”… and so on). The entire operation of reading consists in taking apart everything that doesn’t sound entirely familiar to try and make it fit into a familiar pattern. In other words, perhaps the writer “made it all up”, but the reader will “make it up” in their turn from bits and pieces of existing stuff. That’s how it works. You can’t just decide to shut out the real world as the reader knows it, because the reader will bring it all back in.

    Also, when dealing with imaginary worlds, I think that readers have a tendency to go for generalisations: since it’s an invented world and we can’t tell what makes the situation the writer depicts different or unique in the context of that new world (because we have no idea what the whole world is like), we tend to take every particular situation depicted as an indicator of how things work in that world at large. So with that in mind, I think it’s even more risky to try and use cultures that are traditionally perceived in the West as uniform, unchanging entities (cf. Orientalism…): the instinct to essentialise and generalise is twice stronger, and combined to the “rationalisation” instinct, it can yield some pretty dubious representations of cultures the readers (and oftentimes the writer) don’t know all that well in the first place.

    • Aw, thanks for the great answer, Cécile! Hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but both of these do make it worse…

    • khaalidah

      “…when dealing with imaginary worlds, I think that readers have a tendency to go for generalisations…” I would tend to agree with this statement.  Generalizations are a poison, whether in a made up sci-fi world or the real world (I’ve had a recent issue with this at work).  But I think it’s worse in a self created environment because it is a sign of laziness.  We owe ourselves, our craft, and our readers something better than a generalization.

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