The BBC just finished an amazing project called A History Of The World In 100 Objects. I’m still working my way through listening to the podcasts. The idea is that each short programme takes an object from the British Museum’s collection and talks about it in the context of the society that created it, and the wider context of world societies at the time.
This, as you can imagine, has given me plot bunnies galore. I really want to give some magical society its own version of the Silk Road with competing kinds of magic at opposite ends. But it also leads into my main point, which is that the world around us is both really, really complicated and internally consistent.
And that makes worldbuilding hard.
Let’s take the complication first. When you’re writing your first SFF novel, it is fatally easy to give your home culture enough depth and difference to hold a reader’s interest, but to surround it with a generically evil kingdom on one side, some impassable mountains inhabited by winged humans on another, and room for a possible expansion pack to the south. It’s also fatally easy to get distracted into describing the exact shape of the llama mummification sheds of the eastern tribes and the genealogy of the Archking of All The Rats’ adopted daughter and never write a book at all.
It’s hard to get it right. And if you get it too wrong in either direction, your readers will gripe at you. Of course, if you’re J.R.R Tolkien, you may well find people who love your setting even more than they love your people; and if you’re one of a handful of more modern fantasy writers I can think of, readers will love your characters even if the medieval kingdom they’re living in is paper-thin and the bird people all have names like Featherwing. (I always rationalised that kind of thing with ‘clearly their naming system is something that’s sacred and not explained to outsiders, or they hate hearing their names mispronounced, or they don’t attach the same baggage to personal names that #genericwesternmedievalkingdom does, or it’s a joke on the ridiculous thick-boned ground-dwellers’, but then I think too much about this kind of thing).
So, yeah, I can take paper-thin worlds for what they are, and if I’m in the right mood I’m also happy to read overspecified universes and appreciate the depth of detail that the writer’s put in there, even if I do occasionally think ‘I wish this was a RPG supplement instead, so that I could just immerse myself in all the crunchy detail and not have to concern myself with these people on a quest’.
Internal consistency, however… that’s a big deal-breaker for me. If someone’s wearing embroidered silk in a cold climate, I assume that somewhere over the mountains there’s a reasonably peaceful society with a climate that supports mulberry trees and a sophisticated enough culture that people can make a living as embroiderers. If it then turns out that the entire world is an iceball and the kingdom’s only external trade links are with the cave-dwelling Guano Islanders across the bay, it niggles me. (Mind you, the ancestors of mulberry trees and silkworms made it through several ice ages to get here, so clearly the problem isn’t insurmountable).
Worldbuilding is hard. And that’s why I cheated.
Need a leather belt when there is a noticeable lack of herds of cattle, or an electron microscope when the economy doesn’t support factories producing precision tools? It came out of a Retort! Need a language and don’t have the time to come up with a basic vocabulary and work out whether it’s agglutinative or how many cases it ought to have? Borrow Earth languages and adapt, and blame a couple of thousand years of linguistic drift!
Of course, that means that anyone who has a Retort has to defend it against the predatory likes of the Hawkwoods. And if there’s a wider universe full of humans out there, then sooner or later they’re going to come calling.
But at that point it stops being worldbuilding and becomes plot. And speaking as someone who finds inventing characters easy and inventing plot really hard, I’m always glad when plot presents itself on my doorstep.
Just as long as I’m not too busy thinking about the advances in urban planning and the chemistry of concrete and the evolution of the human leg-bones that led to me having a doorstep in the first place.