“If Aliens Spawn, How Does That Affect Architecture?”: Science Fiction Writers On How They Build Their Worlds | Science Fiction Books

Alastair Reynolds

Apocalypse Space Universe (2000-2018); Poseidon’s Children’s Universe (2012-2015)

My way of building the world is a bit like seeing flowers in a fog – only the amount you need to carry the story. I think it’s one of the scenes they used to set up for a cowboy movie: the exterior looks good, but if you walk around from the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewer system works to tell someone’s story on another planet.

I like the way you write that makes the reader think they’ve got some worldbuilding that they haven’t – they’re making it up in their own minds or connecting the dots. This is how to do it with maximum economy. Obviously this frustrates a lot of readers, but I like to overlook some things. Let the reader fill in those missing chapters. I’d rather go and create something else to drive them crazy.

As a consumer of science fiction, I love those moments when characters are casually referenced without going overboard. As in The Claws of the Ong, when the doctor refers to the battle of Reykjavik in the 51st century. The idea of ​​him knowing this piece of future history sparked my imagination more than letting me see what it was.

When I started writing science fiction in the 1980s, I didn’t even notice building the world. It’s amazing to me that the stories I wrote 20 years ago still make people think, and they start creating fan art about spaceships or characters. I love it, but I’m also very wary of totally natural fans who want to know more. Trust me – the less I give you, the more you enjoy it.

Neddy Okorafor

Binti (2015), The Witch of Arcata (2011), Who’s Afraid of Death (2010)

How Nnedi Okorafor Built the Future of Science Fiction Author Nnedi Okorafor and her cat Periwinkle Chukwu at their home in Flossmoor, Illinois, Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. A longtime resident of Flossmoor, she has become one of the hottest science fiction writers in the world.  (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Nnedi Okorafor with her cat Periwinkle Chukwu in Illinois. Photo: Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Binti by Neddy Okolafo

My stories tend to start with characters. Then I see the world through their eyes (or the way they “see”), their thoughts, their perspective. This usually happens the moment the character exists. So I got to know the world shortly after meeting the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, hear gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history from a different perspective, etc… I experience it.

I don’t take notes at first or when writing – I find that distracting. I can keep the world completely in my mind while writing…I tend to write the first draft quickly and uninterruptedly, only setting it aside to cool when I’m done (meaning it carries everything; it takes from me gone from mind) this page). I may draw maps, charts or diagrams while editing. My editing phase is much longer than my writing phase.

My world is the world of Africa. I’d love to take credit for the culture in my world’s DNA, but I can’t. Those cultures existed long before me; I didn’t have to imagine them. My story certainly doesn’t exist because the views of white men (or women…don’t forget white women’s views also dominate women’s views in science fiction and fantasy) refuse to imagine them in the first place. My story is not a “response” to white people. They exist entirely outside of white males. These stories come from my own culture, experiences, from within me, from reflections on specific African cultures. By being, I hope they help bring cultural, racial, and gender balance to science fiction and fantasy, but that’s not my work’s raison d’être.


Empire Larch Trilogy: Auxiliary Justice (2013), Auxiliary Sword (2014), Auxiliary Mercy (2015)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I’ve tried to choose the real details – the whole of human history and culture is very different – and it seems to fit together. In real life, culture and history are full of contradictory things. There will be a common narrative about how things happen, how people live and eat, and so on, but people don’t actually always do things that way. I try to include moments like this because it makes my world more three-dimensional. I also left things unexplained or just mentioned, as if the world is a lot bigger than this one story, and it won’t all fit on the page.

There’s a particular style of world building where you fill in all the details and make sure everything is logical. In real life, people are chaotic and self-contradictory. While I do believe that, in theory, everything is ultimately influenced by logic, human culture and activity is far less simple and obvious than some people think.

When one thinks they fully understand the logic of human behavior, world-building is very flat, and the shadows that might give it depth are filled with very schematic, simplistic assumptions that world-builders postulate as universal truths.

It’s hard, when you really like a work, not fully into the sci-fi world, wondering the details and trying to build them yourself. I understand why readers ask questions about what they do about the world they read, and I understand why some writers respond by trying to answer all of these questions up front.

Becky Chambers

Voyager Series: The Long Road to the Angry Asteroid (2015), The Closed Common Orbit (2016), The Record of a Few Space-Born People (2018), The Milky Way and Inside Earth (2021)

Becky Chambers' long road to an angry little planet

Worldbuilding is both the foundation of your fictional universe and a wall decoration. It’s a rule book and a travel book. The only rule for building the world is consistency. Other than that, this is your party.

I’ll be doing a lot of world building in the beginning, which is important to me because I don’t give an outline to my calligraphy. I’m writing this while sitting on my pants, so I need to know the rules of the sandbox I’m playing. I don’t draw maps, but I live and breathe by my notes. I always buy a new notebook (sometimes two) at the start of a project, and I have a private wiki on my hard drive where I keep all the Wayfarers knowledge.

Wayfarers’ books are intimate, understated stories by design, so I’ve kept my eye on everyday details. I’ve gone into a lot of details about warfare, politics, and evolutionary history, etc., but in the book, I’ve only delved into what makes sense in a normal conversation between ordinary people. I won’t talk to you too much about trade disputes or border conflicts other than a brief note. What I’m going to tell you is what people eat, what the house looks like, and how annoying paperwork is when traveling.

For exotic species, I start with biology. For example, Aandrisks are a reptile-like isothermal species that lay eggs. So how does this affect your architecture, parenthood, home or the typical makeup of your family? From there, I ask how these things affect art, culture, government and philosophy and more. This is my favorite part of the creative process, aside from finishing.

There is always a danger in turning your story into an encyclopedia article, rather than a living ecosystem. It’s easy to get lost in the world-building weeds, and finding the balance between too much and too little is a never-ending puzzle. There are a lot of blanks that I’m content to let readers fill in, either because I don’t know the answer or I don’t want them to know. But how that balance looks depends on writer and reader preference.

Kim Stanley Robinson

The Mars Trilogy: Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996); 2312 (2012); The Future (2020)

The Future of Kim Stanley Robinson

I don’t like the word constructing the world. I’d say there’s no such thing – it’s a vocabulary that came up in writing workshops to help writers talk about novel techniques. But authors should keep in mind that these diagnostic terms are not how readers feel when they read: the reader is reading in a dream where the events of a story actually occur. So the writer should focus on forwarding the story in some way. That’s the only imperative: get “willingly stop doubting” into action and take readers away.

I’ve tried to show the future from the perspective of many different characters who have different perspectives on the situation, so maybe give it more depth. I also usually stick to the laws of physics as I understand them now, which makes what I make up more convincing. And I often write long novels, which gives me more room to build up the realism I describe. Finally, there’s a technique that Roland Barthes calls “real effects,” which consist of little attention-grabbing details that don’t add to the plot, characters, themes, backgrounds, or anything else – it’s just there “because that’s what The way it really happens, so it has to be so careful.” A little bit of it goes a long way, but it might help.

M John Harrison

Viriconium Series (1971-1984); Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy: Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012); Sunken Lands Rise Again (2020)

M. John Harrison.
M John Harrison. Photo: Kevin Nixon/Future/Rex/Shutterstock
The sunken land begins to rise again

Realists validate their work by placing it in a parody of the world, while fantasyists have to build a fake world before the “forgery” happens. We all have to do something to give readers and characters a sense of place. But minimalism — a conversation overheard here, some satirical observations about the shape of houses there — often works better in realist writing: why not see if it also applies to fantasy false realism Woolen cloth?

The author must have a rough idea of ​​where everything is—in fact, where the “where” is. But I like to know as little as possible, whether I’m writing or reading. Too much knowledge blocks my imagination. I don’t want “Day of the Trident” to be a pseudo-accurate walk-through vegetable gardening guide, I want it to be a novel about the middle class united after WWII – sorry, “disaster”. I don’t want to read the operating instructions for the Starship Enterprise; it’s not a vacuum cleaner.

I never planned to make anyone feel comfortable or have an exciting adventure at Viriconium. I believed then that if you took the time to dream about (or enter) a world that was more exciting and fulfilling than this, you would never do anything to change the real world—the one you needed to escape from in the first place. I feel like you’re stuck in a loop there and succumbing to the candied fruit set by real-world political and economic circumstances that make your life less interesting than a Hobbit life. (Indeed, it was so bad that the Hobbit’s life seemed interesting.)

I don’t think the authentication/forgery process is much different in the Yorkshire Moors and the Misty Mountains of Far Gondor. Most of my scene arrangements start from the real thing. I rarely need to understand the economic/industrial base of Fantasyland, as minecraft is usually a direct imitation of us. After that, I think you can add the illusion of depth by leaving enough room for the unexpected when writing. And not just in world building. But the important thing is to go back after the fact and wave your fake magic wand at the accident scene.

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