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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