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 Off-The-Shelf Worldbuilding

Recent reads have made me think quite a bit about the Guy Gavriel Kay school of fantasy worldbuilding.

Basically, you trawl human history in search of the perfect setting. When you find it -- ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Feudal Japan -- you change the names of the countries and the people involved; you add in witches or dragons, or whatever you're having yourself... and shazzam! A whole world springs into being in a single afternoon's work. Well done, you!

But don't come running to me for praise.

I don't find these worlds to be particularly original and I am always surprised when other people do. You'll even hear things like: "Ooh! How clever, she's using an ancient Greek type world instead of a medieval one. Brilliant!"

It's like when I was younger and all the "originality" lay in the fact that somebody was writing a fantasy book without elves, or with a different kind of elf or fey-folk, living in the woods, calling themselves Jelves. Or something.

Just Write the History!

The first thing that comes to my mind when I open one of these books with an Off-The-Shelf World (henceforth OTSW) is: "Why the goshdarnation didn't you just write historical fiction in the first place?"

There are a few obvious problems with doing that. First off, one of the big advantages of using an OTSW is the amount of sweat it saves, and the last thing you want to do is to pay all of it back in the form of the heavy research necessary to maintain proper academic vigour.

You'll wake up one morning with a mob outside your door. Angry, bespectacled anoraks will be screaming about the fact that Confucius never became Emperor of China, and would have been disgusted at the very thought, blah blah blah.

But you can save yourself the horror by just switching a few names around, and suddenly, there's the great Confusio, settling his philosophical ass onto the Jade Throne of Cheeta without so much as a single piece of hate-mail coming through your door. Brilliant!

The Glorious Harvest

And it's not just about research time saved or the head-aches associated with rigour.

Human history is absolutely crammed with amazing, traumatic, beautiful situations, ripe with drama, that make even the most extraordinary fiction seem pedestrian. These earth-shattering events are begging to be used. So why not exploit them for fun and profit? And the real joy of it, is that you don't have to keep the same ending this time round. Genghis Khan will finally get to enslave the Pope; Robert the Bruce will unite Ireland and Scotland into a single Gaelic Kingdom; Jeanne D'Arc will confess to witchcraft and live out the rest of her life as an assassin of demons.

As an illustration of this, we have R. Scott Bakker's world of The Three Seas re-enacting the Crusades, but with intriguing, vital differences.

Another example, is my current read: Hawkwood's Voyage by Paul Kearney. It starts with the fall of a pseudo-Constantinople to an army of pseudo-Turks while the pseudo-inquisition of a pseudo-Christian church burns pseudo-heretics at the stake... "Yawn," you might say, "I read all this at school. I know how it ends." Except you don't. Very early in the book, the author starts changing historical outcomes. It's like getting to roll the dice all over again with one of our world's most intriguing clashes of civilizations. Anything can happen, just like it could have the first time round, and I'm really enjoying that.

So Peadar, Do you like OTSW or Hate it?

One of my favourite things in existence is that old tummy-tingling sensawunda that I used to get out of SFF when I first started reading it. I love seeking out new life, new civilizations, to boldly... oops, a bit of plagiarism just snuck in there...

However, while I still love that sensation of discovery that only a truly unique setting can give me, there are plenty of other qualities that make an author great.

I doubt that anybody reads Guy Gavriel Kay for his worldbuilding. Where he excels -- and he does -- is in his ability to play me and thousands of other readers like a fiddle, drawing powerful emotions from us with ease. The world he creates is more a tool than an end in itself. Which is not to imply that his versions of ancient China or medieval Provence are badly drawn, only that the source of his brilliance for me lies elsewhere.

I long ago learned that a book achieves greatness, not in doing everything right, but in having one or two facets shine so brilliantly that we don't have to forgive the flaws because we have forgotten them completely.

Worldbuilding, however, is something I particularly enjoy both in reading and writing, so I don't intend to be doing any OTSW work myself in the near future. On the other hand, a great many of the best authors I've read in the genre use them all the time to magnificent effect.

Anyway, what do you think? Have you read any great worlds recently? Or experienced a few OFTWs?


( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 16th, 2010 02:09 pm (UTC)
Few Fantasy worlds push my buttons any more. The best world I've read recently is the real one, as portrayed in Harold Lamb's historical romps.
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC)
I *still* haven't read any of his books... He's definitely on my horizon...
Aug. 16th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
And here I was going to ask if you wanted to read my novel, but it seems you already have. ;)

I think you hit the nail on the head with several of these points. And a lot of worldbuilding just seems flat-out lazy with some of these epic doorstops.

There is of course the alternative: base everything on Tolkien and change the names. Instead of orcs and trolls and ringwraiths, we get trollorcs (trollocks maybe?), and faceless dark cloak wearing baddies.
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
The work you're referring to isn't even the worst offender in that regard ;p
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
I'll tell you why I use cognates fo real-world societies rather than history:

1). I can change anything I want to suit the story and no-one can tell me I'm wrong.

Thats basically it. Now I could try and create social structures and cultures and so forth from scratch - and on occasion I do - but there's an immense amount of work in doing that and sometimes the story frankly doesn't justify it.

I don't expect to have my world-building praised just because I use less "traditional" cultures for my fantasy (in other words, not badly visualised Celts, badly misunderstood medieval feudalism, and badly understood Japan, which seem to form the main triumvirate). Sure, I use the Renaissance rather than the Middle Ages, and I use Asiatic and African and even South American cultures from time to time, but I do that because they are interesting and different enough to get a bit of sensawunda going, not to have people go "wow, you are an awesome worldbuilder".
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:31 pm (UTC)
Ah, "cognates"! There's a word I could have used before I started mouthing off up above. But yeah, the three authors I mention above use nothing but cognates. In fact, they go further and use actual historical events as the basis for their works too. For all that, they are three authors I admire greatly. They all do different things for me. Bakker even manages a LOT of sensawunda -- at least for me.

And again, yeah, it's hard work to build a world, not just for the writer, but for the reader too. This is why my second book went through so many rewrites: none of the editors had a clue as to what was going on in it.
Aug. 16th, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
Ah, GGK. No matter how much I swear up one side and down the other that this time he shall not make me cry, he always does. I don't think his worldbuilding is bad just because it's off the shelf. I still like looking at Leonardo da Vinci or Dürer's drawings, even if their subjects are perfectly mundane, for example. There's definitely something to be said for sheer technique.

As for original worldbuilding, I am rather fond of Jack Vance. I devoured Lyonesse, and can't wait for my copy of "Tales of the dying earth" to arrive. A bit similar in the sheer amount of magic, colours and fireworks in her world is Catherynne M. Valente, whom I really like reading lately - just started "Palimpsest", which is a weird and dreamy world.

And I love it when writers make you think their worldbuilding is one thing, say, an off-the-shelf renaissance world with magic... and then then go and put magic steam-powered trains in it! (That was Sarah Monette's last book, incidentally.)
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC)
I don't think his worldbuilding is bad just because it's off the shelf. I still like looking at Leonardo da Vinci or Dürer's drawings, even if their subjects are perfectly mundane, for example. There's definitely something to be said for sheer technique.

For sure! I read historicals too if I can find an author capable of immersing me in the time and place.

Jack Vance is the best I've ever seen at inventing societies. He made up so many he could just throw them away in a single chapters.

And +1 for the worldbuilding in Palimpsest. Weird and interesting.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC)
I've learned that to my terrible, terrible cost.
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
Great post, Peadar. The reason I've shelved my medieval s/f series is because I realized I had a huge amount of worldbuilding to do, so that it doesn't read as if I just cut and pasted the various cultures from earth history.

I decided it deserves better, and though I haven't the skill yet, I'd rather wait until I do than take the easy route.
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
There's nothing wrong with the easy route as long as you give the reader enough kicks in other areas -- i.e. humorous cats etc. Any book has to have something, anything special about it, other than the fact that it's "more Tolkien" or "more Rowling". I know you know that, of course.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Aug. 16th, 2010 07:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Aug. 16th, 2010 07:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
I think great worlds are the province of SF recently. Except of course when Asimov does the fall of the Roman Empire!

The thing about it is that you HAVE to create a new world there, or it will all fall apart on you!
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC)
Yeah, SF has had some great ones lately. And funnily enough, I had seriously considered bringing up Asimov's Foundation series when writing this post, but didn't want to confuse things. Of course, the real sensawunda for me from that book was the whole "Psychohistory" angle.
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Aug. 16th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 16th, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC)
I don't mind OTSW as long as the rest of the work holds up. But, that shouldn't surprise you as you know I'm a big GGK fan.

I'm trying to think of some recent examples of good worldbuilding that I've read...

The Long Price Quartet is the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps The City & The City, although I wish it had been developed much more.

Aug. 16th, 2010 05:41 pm (UTC)
Lots of people said that The Long Price Quartet was an East Asian OTSW, but I'm with you in thinking that it was an original in lots of vital ways and provided wonderful sensawunda moments with the poets and their "creations".

The City and the City, I thought was amazing worldbuilding, even if Vance came up with the idea first. It was the development of it and the way he tied it in so beautifully with modern life. Great stuff.
(no subject) - regina_of_york - Aug. 16th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Aug. 16th, 2010 06:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 16th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
Great post!

I think OTSW can work, but the author as you say can't copy and paste. There needs to be a history or evolution to the world that changes and deepens the experience, so there are new things to discover for instance the magic system.
Aug. 16th, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)
Yeah, as long as there's something else for the reader to enjoy, there's nothing wrong with an OTSW starting point.
Aug. 16th, 2010 11:56 pm (UTC)
I don't have a particular preference for OTSW or not as long as it's done well and the story is good.

Glad to hear you're enjoying Kearney! I'm re-reading Monarchies myself for the first time and it's a blast.
Aug. 17th, 2010 08:38 am (UTC)
Yeah, I just finished the first book (Hawkwood's Voyage) last night and have already started the second. I'm confident enough now to order the second omnibus in advance.
(no subject) - beniowa79 - Aug. 18th, 2010 04:03 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 17th, 2010 12:52 am (UTC)
Once you read all of the details available in the archives, George's world is actually much more developed than people might think.

But if worldbuilding includes a historical background of significance, other than him and Tolkien, not a whole lot comes to mind. I think Eddings did a better job at this than people give him credit for, although, again, you have to hunt the details down.

I love worldbuilding in terms of creating. I suck at plotlines.
Aug. 17th, 2010 08:39 am (UTC)
Worldbuilding is wonderful fun. But so is playing in other people's worlds. I think that both you and I loved those Tolkien maps in pretty much the same way...
Aug. 17th, 2010 04:44 am (UTC)
There's a YA series called "The Ranger's Apprentice" that is blatantly OTSW, but I don't mind it so much.

We live in a Wiki World, but people don't want to do REAL research anymore. I look stuff up when I want something specific that I want to "steal" from the real world, but that's all.

I'm with you though when it comes to world building being an important element to a good fantasy story. It led to my rabidness for GRRM and ASOIAF.

I always loved the world building in Greg Keyes' Kingdoms of Bone and Thorn, but as that series went on it, as Eddie Izzard once said, slowly collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. And can you talk about worldbuilding without bringing up Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards. Shook my world when I read his stuff.

When I started "Winter," I wanted it to be a cliched, French/English countryside kind of medieval country that I've revised several times over, being very aware of the way societies are actually built and the influence that will have on my characters.

Aug. 17th, 2010 08:42 am (UTC)
I have a lot of respect for the worldbuilding in Spook's Apprentice. The author *lives* in the area he is describing, with the same weather etc. Obviously, witches aren't real. I hope.

And yeah, the more work you put into the society you're creating, the more there will be to appreciate for the reader.
(no subject) - ebenstone - Aug. 17th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 17th, 2010 07:41 am (UTC)
I give you ... medieval Sweden.

No, really.
Aug. 17th, 2010 08:48 am (UTC)
I have responded there rather than here.
(no subject) - after_nightfall - Aug. 17th, 2010 10:55 am (UTC) - Expand
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )

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