Last weekend, I attended the speculative fiction conference Continuum in Melbourne. I deliberately went to several sessions on subjects I didn’t know much about and I came away with my head exploding with What If ideas.
Of course, the challenge after such conferences is how to incorporate all these new ideas into one’s work. For me, I’m at a stage with my manuscript where layering is really important. The following is a dump of the questions raised that will help me to further develop world building in my current novel.
Thank you to the Guests of Honour Kate Elliott and Ken Liu and all the amazing people on the panels.
How does food affect world building?
What do they eat? What foods are available and in what climates? Which people worry about where the food comes from? Who’s growing, making or synthesising the food? Who controls it? What gets thrown out or wasted?
How do they eat at home or in public? Who gets served first? What does food say about your status? How is it used in celebrations?
We assume food is for nourishment but what about food as medicine? Food as a weapon? Consuming food to acquire or lose powers?
Or who is food? What about creatures who define themselves by food, such as vampires?
Does hospitality show relationship or trap? (Red Wedding anyone? Or Edmund’s Turkish delight?)
How is personal identity handled in your spec fiction world?
How do we balance ideas of the individual over the collective?
Much spec fiction today assumes that humanity is the standard to aspire to. The non-human being – whether AI, puppet or alien – is often portrayed as wanting more humanity. But within speculative fiction, humanity is a subset of personhood. Once a being has a certain level of intelligence or sentience, there’s a level of personhood that needs to be considered. Humans are not the only valuable species in existence.
At what point of change is a person not who they used to be – with the accompanying questions of personal responsibility? If our personalities or memories are erased, then who are we – and are we responsible for past actions?
In transformation stories (eg. Werewolves, Jekyll and Hyde), do you retain your humanity during the transformation? Is it your fault you made the Hulk angry?
Or the idea that individuality protects you against the problems of mass evil and mass thinking. Is the cult and mob mentality a form of diminished responsibility?
Why is individuality so important to us? What makes for authenticity as a person? What is the deal about being your authentic self? What is that so valuable? Does that have to do with the soul?
Some traditions are selfless, where people are given over to a collective consciousness. Or individual rights are given up for a collective good.
What about gestalt – the person or being that doesn’t reside in a single body or place?
If people don’t behave in ways we want, we’re quick to dehumanise them and call them monsters. In extreme cases, we refuse to assign personhood to people of different races.
What about sport in world building?
Sport is important in culture but with the exception of martial arts is underdeveloped in speculative fiction. Probably because a lot of SFF writers tend not to be good at sport (yes, that’s me). However, sport can add a telling layer to world building.
Sport can portray a competitive hierarchy – many cultures have contests or games to see who can run faster, jump higher, or otherwise test themselves against others in the group.
Sports can be a way for people to express aggressive, competitive characteristics in non-war times – although games can be used as preparation for war or combat.
Sport is not always for fun but can have a darker side. What about sport as a spectacle or a circus (as in the Hunger Games)?
Who is taking part in sports? Who is excluded? Is it male or female based? What sports do the elite play? The commoners? Using sports can be a great way to world build by saying who gets to do what? Are only men allowed to draw bow and arrow or run races? Do girls get punished for being competitive? These things tell you about the society while being embedded in the story.
Sport can be used to highlight individual rivalries or romances. So you want to contrast a micro-conflict or mimic a great conflict? Do friends become enemies or vice versa? What happens when people who don’t like each other are suddenly on same team and have to work together.
How do sports evolve in futuristic settings? In settings with zero gravity? There’s yet to be a good performance sport in SFF. Someone mentioned “air fountain” sports where you perform on a column of air – I looked up the video below.
What about sports with different sentient species? How would you balance the advantages a gaseous being has with a six-legged species?
Consider the role of sports on how we talk. “Any day the Yankees lose is a good day.”
What about non-monogamous relationships in speculative fiction?
The panel of polyamorous people want to see alternatives narratives to the idea, prevalent in a lot of fiction, of finding “the one”. They questioned a lot of the assumptions around this idea.
What if you have more than one person interested in you? Some people have the capacity to love more than person.
Polyamorous people don’t find love triangles compelling and want to see those triangles collapsed. That is, all parties in a triangle should end up together.
A different idea of family – the family you grow up with, the family you get together with and then the family you decide to have children with.
If you’re world building with polyamorous people, are you normalising it or are you still going against social mores?
In the gay marriage debate, opposition claimed this would lead to people marrying multiple partners or people marrying their dogs. The latter is not possible because dogs can’t give consent.
If a traditional story arc is about showing how two people are perfect for each other, then a poly story arc is about showing how three, four or five people are perfect for each other.
Random cool stuff from Continuum
Phytoplankton apocalypse – where global warming disrupts phytoplankton production in our oceans to such an extent that we end up starved of oxygen.
Sand pirates – so much of the world we live in depends on sand, it’s a much more valuable commodity than we realise. Stealing it and moving it around on our planet has massive economic and ecological implications.
Is disease or illness always bad? The end game should not always be diagnosis and cure. Not everyone may wish to be cured of their disease – not if it gives them special benefits or talents.
Finding out about Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valante. How did I never know there was a book marketed as Eurovision in space??!!