Worldbuilding From the Ground Up

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


After four years of living eyeball-deep in a historical fantasy series, I am at last returning to my original stomping-ground, which is secondary-world fantasy — stories set in a world that is not our own.

In the case of my new series, I’m aiming for a bit of a hybrid. The world is not our own; unlike, say, Jacqueline Carey, whose Kushiel books take place on familiar geography with unfamiliar history, I’m not building in any point of connection with the real past. But I am borrowing real cultures in modified form, because one of the central points of this series is to play around with the colonial and exploratory aspects of the nineteenth century. The heroine comes from a country that looks a lot like England, and will be going to places that resemble Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, the South Pacific islands, and more. Just, y’know, with dragons.

I could do this as alternate historical fantasy, the way Naomi Novik did. But after four years of the Onyx Court, I’d have a hard time letting go of the little voice in my head that points out when things don’t make sense. If I wanted an independently industrialized Japan, that voice would remind me Japan has very little in the way of coal deposits (whereas England has quite a lot). If I wanted pastoral native societies in North America, Archaeologist Brain would kick in and start asking questions about how they avoided the near-total die-off of megafauna (large animals) at the end of the Pleistocene. Nah, better to chuck that and just build a world to my own specifications.

. . . oh yeah, that’s going to be SO much easier.

There’s a climatology textbook sitting downstairs in my living room, waiting for me to read it. I have tabs open in my browser on topics like orogeny (the formation of mountains — a word I didn’t even know until I went on tonight’s Wikipedia research dive). I bought an inflatable globe so I could more easily see how our world fits together, complete with latitude and longitude, and bonus ocean currents. For the love of god, I am teaching myself PLATE TECTONICS.

The problem is, you can’t fling things around and expect them to turn out the same. I’m contemplating putting my world together such that the Europe-analogue would be considered the “Eastern world” and the Asia-analogue the “West,” just to screw with our usual associations with those terms. But I can’t just flip Eurasia around, redo the coastlines, and call it a day. In European latitudes, the prevailing winds blow from the west, which means they come in from over the ocean. This affects climate. Great Britain lies further north than Sakhalin, but Sakhalin is colder, for a whole host of reasons I won’t bore you with. And if I had a mountain range like the Urals partitioning my “Europe” off from my “Asia,” the former would be a heck of a lot drier than it is in our world. Working through this the other night, I found myself wondering if I should flip the freaking rotation of the planet — except that if I have the sun rise in the west and set in the east, then I think I’ve officially Gone Too Far.

The other day my husband sent me a link to this image. I think he meant it as a joke. Me? I want the answer key. Those rectangular mountains in Mordor have bothered me for ages, but if there’s a real explanation for how they could happen . . . (Dammit, Jim, Tolkien was a linguist, not a geologist.)

Of course, not all readers would even know whether my world made sense. If I were writing an adventure-fantasy series like my doppelganger books, I could probably convince myself not to worry about it (too much). Unfortunately, the narrator of this series is a natural historian, traveling around the world for the scientific study of dragons. For that story to work, the biology has to work — and the biology bone is connected to the ecology bone, and the ecology bone is connected to the climate bone, and so on down through geography and all the rest until you find yourself contemplating plate tectonics.

I should have stuck with historical fantasy, man. However much effort it is to look stuff up, making it up is way harder.