Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Worldbuilding: The Devil is in the Details


        As I launch into the full-on revision of my novel, The Singularity War, I've been thinking a lot about worldbuilding, specifically, how to convey the scale and complexity of a far future civilization, including all the different planets, cultures, races, technologies, politics, and histories without disrupting narrative flow or pacing. Admittedly, it's a difficult task. In the worst examples I've read, the author just dumped loads of information on the reader, as if he or she simply cut and pasted from his or her notes. But how do you get across what you need to get across without resorting to stilted dialogue where the characters explain everything to each other or dull, monotonous exposition? The trick, I think, is to write as if you inhabit your characters' world. When you read a contemporary novel, the author spends no time explaining economic systems or the finer points of auto mechanics. How stuff works isn't that important, just that it works consistently and believably. The key is to lay down ground rules and follow them to the letter (unless there's a very good reason to break them). But, of course, there are some things that simply must be explained. When that happens, I think it's best to just give the information as quickly and concisely as possible, then get on with the story. 
      When I started writing this novel, I knew very little about the world. I knew it was set in the far future with lots of colonized planets, faster-than-light travel, and real-time interstellar communication. I knew that people lived a lot longer than they do today, could record copies of their minds to be reconstituted in the event of death, and that emergent artificial intelligence was a constant threat. But beyond that, I had little in the way of actual worldbuilding. The story is set primarily on two different planets: the wealthy, cosmopolitan  Calliope, and the desolate, former mining colony Nyx. Each world offers a strikingly different environment. Calliope, while Earthlike, is rife with native life forms, including massive rainforests that span the equator. Due to a quirk in the photosynthesis process, most of the vegetation is purple. Nyx, on the other hand, is a barren wasteland, orbiting a red dwarf star that provides too little light and heat. Its atmosphere is toxic and its surface is scoured by dust storms. Nevertheless, there are native life forms, the deadliest of which are the nighthunters. All of these details came out in the first draft, and now it's time to fine tune them. Why, for instance, is Calliope's plant life purple? I remember reading an article once in New Scientist (or maybe it was an astronomy magazine, I'm not really sure) about how stars of different spectral classes could affect the flora of their planets, producing a range of colors, depending on what wavelengths they use for photosynthesis. If I remember correctly, this included purple. As for the nighthunters, how did such a creature come to evolve? What sort of ecology must exist on Nyx, as barren and lifeless as it appears to be, in order for them to prosper? It's details like this that, though they might not actually appear in the text, I need to work out, so that everything hangs together. 
        As I work through the novel, I find myself constantly questioning decisions I've made (or avoided making). What is the culture like on Calliope? There are numerous references to "mods," individuals who continuously alter their appearance in accordance with a particular fad, and cosmetic technology is so advanced that people change their physical forms as frequently as we change our clothes. This poses some interesting questions about the nature of identity. How closely are we tied to our physical form? When you can copy and transfer your consciousness between bodies, what are you? Is your body important, or is it just a shell for your mind? I'm seeing lots of thematic potential here, and it's all in the details. 
       Everything in the world effects everything else. One's religious belief can affect their choice of clothing, food and drink, social behavior, and even their choice of entertainment. Culture and language have a resounding impact on artistic design, architecture, and sociopolitical systems. What do families look like on other worlds, in the distant future, where reproduction is intrinsically linked to technology and completely ex utero? What does it mean to raise a child, when information can be directly downloaded and traditional schooling no longer exists? How will entertainment change, when severe injury and death no longer carry the weight they once did? All of these questions, and more, are on my mind now, and as I push forward with my rewrite I'm hoping to answer most if not all of them, at least through the actions and attitudes of my characters. Because, if there's one thing I've learned about worldbuilding over the last two years, it's all about the little things, the details, that make the setting come alive on the page.