Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Pale Rook

ErinThe Pale Rook is the blog of Johanna Flanagan, fashion and textiles lecturer, historical costumier and doll maker.

I can’t pretend. I don’t like dolls. Never have. But Johanna’s creations are things of beauty. Quirky rather than cute. Each has their own character.  I like how she presents them – her photographs gives them their own life.

Her blog  makes an interesting read too, particularly the posts on being an artist in a commercial world and learning to value oneself and one’s work when others don’t.

Ella (detail)Lucie and GildaSybil






Delving into Hell’s Ditch with Simon Bestwick

Am looking forward to reading “Hell’s Ditch” by Simon Bestwick. Here’s his Q&A with Ray Cluley about the novel.

Jeffrey Alan Love

Illustration for Fabulous Beasts by Jeffrey Alan LoveI was delighted when I saw the illustration for my novelette, “Fabulous Beasts”, not just because it’s beautiful but because I recognised Jeffrey Alan Love‘s work from the covers of Simon Ing’s novels in my local bookshop, which were what drew me to pick them up.
I’ve been lucky enough to get the man himself to answer some questions.

Priya: I think there’s something very mythical about your work, even when you’re illustrating a contemporary piece. Where does this come from?
Jeffrey: My early childhood was spent in Germany, and I think a large part of the work I do today was seeded with my experiences there – walking through dark, ancient forests, running about crumbling castles pretending to be Robin Hood or King Arthur, seeing Mont Saint-Michel rising up out of the mist as we drove down a coastal road in Normandy. I was (and still am) a voracious reader, and getting to see Stonehenge while reading about the druids, seeing Frankenstein Castle while reading Frankenstein, having memories of being in Greece and Rome while reading about their gods and myths made it so that myth is in a way a very real thing to me, something palpable, a feeling that I have experienced and try to include in my work. A large step towards finding my voice as an artist was deciding to make work that reflected who I was as a child – the sense of mystery and magic in the world, the sense of Other, of Magic, that there is something out there wonderful and unexplainable that cannot be put into words – but perhaps it can be put into a picture.

Jeffrey's illustration for the cover Wolves by Simon IngsJeffrey's illustration for the cover of Hotwire by Simon IngsJeffrey's illustration for the cover of Hot Head by Simon IngsJeffrey's illustration for the cover of Headlong by Simon Ings

P: Your style is unique- I love the controlled palette and the textures that you use. How did this develop? When I look at your work, it makes me feel that it’s a paper led process but is there a digital element?

J: Thank you for the kind words. The way I work now in large part owed to moving to San Francisco for a year with my wife, and suddenly having to work in a much smaller space. Whatever I could fit on top of my folding table was what I would use, so working mainly with just black and white paint on paper was a way of working simply and comfortably within the restraints of my studio space. Also, for quite a while I had tried to work in a more painterly manner, drawing inspiration from Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and George Inness, but struggled to have the paintings get to where I wanted them to be by the deadlines – it was only when I accepted that Rembrandt & co. could take months or even years to finish a painting, while I felt lucky if I was given longer than 5 days to finish a piece, and that I should embrace the pace of modern illustration instead of fighting it, that I started to develop my current way of working which satisfies my clients needs for short deadlines and my own need to feel artistic fulfillment. Everything I do now is paint and ink on paper, the only digital element is scanning it and erasing all the cat hair that my cats smuggle into my scanner.

Jeffrey's illustration for Combustion Hour by Yoon Ha Lee, published on

P: What’s your method of springboarding from a piece of fiction into creating your own unique vision of what it’s about? What happens if you are commissioned to illustrate a story that you find it hard to connect with?

J: As I said earlier, I’m a voracious reader, and my college degree is actually in English: Fiction Writing, so in some ways I’ve been training my whole life to Jeffrey's illustration for Doppel by Lindsay Graham, publsihed by Tor.comread manuscripts. But the way that works best for me is to just read it through and see what my emotional response is. If something strikes me as I’m reading I’ll make a small doodle in the margins, but mostly I just read it through and see if I feel anything. If I do, the question then becomes how can I make that resonate, how can I make that note or notes that I’m feeling expand, so that the viewer will feel something when looking at my art, and, at first, not having read the story yet, be drawn into it and want to read it, and secondly, having finished the story, have that feeling multiply, to find new meaning and depth in the art from the content and craft of the piece of fiction. Sometimes the images pop immediately into my mind, but often it is just a vague sense of what the elements should be within the picture, and I then think of them as if they are players on the stage – what combination and staging of them will be most effective to create the desired feeling/emotion? You don’t make a piece more tragic by painting “tragic”, you make the story a tragedy by varying the relationships of the elements to each other. If one figure towers over another, that tells a story, that creates a response. If the large figure has a knife, that’s one story. If the smaller figure has the knife, that’s a totally different story. If I’m lost I just ask myself what story I’m trying to tell.
Early in my career I struggled with what to do if I didn’t connect with a job, but I’ve learned that I can have a personal response to anything. It is not my job to merely take a photograph of a moment within the story, but to bring my own personal voice and vision to the work, and show it through my eyes. Of course, if it’s something that I feel strongly against (racism, gratuitous violence, chainmail bikinis, etc) I’m comfortable turning down the job.

Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum ,Oliver Solaris BooksP: Do you have any artistic influences?

J: So many it is hard to remember them all. And as I grow older I find that they change and evolve, so that something that I loved when I was younger now fades to be replaced with something I used to feel nothing for. The names that pop into my head now: Rembrandt, Anthony Van Dyck, George Inness, John Harris, Victor Ambrus, Taiyo Matsumoto, Sergio Toppi, Lorenzo Mattotti, Hugo Pratt, Jacques Tardi, George Pratt, Mark English, Nicholas De Crecy, Velazquez, Leonard Baskin, Mike Mignola, Jose Munoz, Edward Kinsella, Leslie Herman, Andrew R. Wright, Josh George, Sterling Hundley, Moebius, Rodin, Schiele, Klimt, Andrew Wyeth, Lucian Freud, Bill Carman, Henry Moore, on and on and on…

P: Do you have a dream project?

J: My dream is to write and draw my own books and graphic novels. I’m currently finishing my first illustrated book that I am writing as well, and have two graphic novels in various stages to finish after that is done. I’ve found a publisher, so my dream seems a little closer to reality.

P: What sort of fiction do you enjoy personally?J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf

J: I love all sorts. Much like the list of artistic influences, my reading is wide and varied. Some favorites: Gene Wolfe, Eiji Yoshikawa, Robert Holdstock, Frank Herbert, Martin Cruz Smith, Derek Raymond, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Joe Abercrombie, Iain M. Banks, Ray Bradbury, Robert Graves, M. John Harrison, Ernest Hemingway, Peter Higgins, J. Robert Janes, John Le Carre, Graham Greene, Hilary Mantel, Cormac McCarthy, China Mieville, K. J. Parker, David Peace, Jo Nesbo, Jeff Vandermeer, Bruno Schulz, Daniel Woodrell, Italo Calvino, Dorothy Dunnett, William Gibson, Max Gladstone… I’m currently reading the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell.

P: In terms of visuals are there any film directors that you admire?

J: For three years in college I was a film major before switching to fiction, so film has had a great influence on me and I continue to study it and often do drawing studies from films I enjoy (later today I’m going to draw from Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” which I watched yesterday.) Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini, Hitchcock, Kubrick, John Ford, Masaki Kobayashi, Ingmar Bergman, Terry Gilliam, Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrew Dominik, Steven Soderbergh, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles – there’s not enough time to watch all the great movies I would like to and study them.

Jeffrey's illustration The Color of Paradox by A.M. Dellamonica, published by

From Jeffrey's sketchbookP: Can you talk about what you’re currently working on?

J: There are a few projects I can’t talk about (but oh how I hope that I am able to sometime soon), a few book covers, my illustrated book, the layouts for a short graphic novel, and the script for a much longer graphic novel.

P:Lastly, thank you for what you did with “Fabulous Beasts”. It’s tremendous.

J: It was my pleasure – I was thrilled to get to work with you.

JAL_webJeffrey is a prize winner illustrator whose client list includes Gollancz,, Scholastic, HarperCollins, TIME, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Solaris Books, Science Fiction Book Club, Jurassic London, Nautilus, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Scientific American, to name a few.
His accolades include:
• Gold Medal (Books), Society of Illustrators 56
• Academy of British Cover Design Award (Best Series Design with Nick May/Gollancz)
• Academy of British Cover Design Award (Best Science-Fiction/Fantasy with Nick May/Gollancz)
• Nominated for World Fantasy Award – Best Artist (2015), BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award for Best Artwork (2014) , Spectrum Award (Books, 2014), Spectrum Award (Institutional, 2014)

Jeffrey’s website

Jeffrey on Twitter

Jeffrey on Tumblr

Jeffrey on Drawger

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Guest Post by Dev Agarwal: Nightrider

A Voice From Our Science Fictional PastNightrider by David Mace

Hello everyone. I’ve been invited to post a guest blog on Priya’s site. As a long time reader of Priya’s fiction, I’m very pleased to join you here.

In the other post for today you’ll find an article I wrote for the British Science Fiction Association’s magazine, Focus, which discusses Priya’s novella, ‘Rag and Bone’ as a state-of-the-art example of world-building and scene setting.

In this post, I’d like to invite you on a journey to a forgotten era. Back to the 1980s, in fact. Britain had a Conservative government, it faced the threat of global war, was experiencing the rise of home computing (the ZX 81, no less), and David Mace was writing science fiction.

Roll forward a generation to today and we find ourselves in a peculiar mirror of those times. The Conservatives are back in power, we’re at war across the globe and the computer revolution has arrived (for real this time).

Which brings me to my segueway into David Mace.

On the face of it, Mace may be a tough sell to readers at Priya’s website — for he cut his teeth on military SF thirty years ago. But I’m still keen to talk about him here. Firstly, he may not be well enough known to readers who will find much to enjoy and second because he infused his work with his felicity for character, setting and world building.

I would also say that his SF was ahead of its time in his blending of genre tropes with literary conceits. This should chime with the debate around the recent hotly contested Hugo Awards where at least one tranch of fans has insisted that there is an uncrossable divide between so-called boring literary fiction and exciting adventure fiction. One response to this would be, read more David Mace.

An insider secret I’ll impart here: when you write you spoil the experience of reading for yourself. You don’t mean to, but writers constantly unpick what they read, they analyse and inspect in an annoying reflexive manner. Getting past that reflex to enjoy the writing for itself is a very tough job.

But on the other hand, if the best writing is a symphony that combines the essential ingredients of story into a seamless whole, then the reading experience becomes so immersive that we don’t even notice its mechanics. Detail builds on detail until the story surrounds us and all we know is that we’re carried safely into another world (as in the worldbuilding of Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg — or Priya Sharma).

Writing that captures our attention both viscerally and intellectually is a real challenge. It may not even be a learnable skillset — as instinct is an essential component of it.

On the face of it, Mace’s Nightrider is a novel about future war. Its elevator pitch might be: humans from a post apocalyptic Earth wage war on rebel colonies outside our solar system.

Mace opens the novel by expanding on this pitch. Rather than a simple didactic opening prologue (such as an omniscient narrator) he aims for a lyrical immersion into the story:

“Nightrider fell from the Sun to Hades.

Nightrider fell through the empty dark, fell upwards and outwards from the Sun, retarded by the gravitational pull of the star and all its little planets so far behind. Nightrider slowed infinitesimally, approaching the null point where the pull of Hades would start to win. Gravitational drag is politically neutral. The Earth and the Moon slowed Nightrider’s course just as much — proportional to their mass — as did the scattered Outsider colonies on their gas giant satellites, on Mars and on Mercury. Two political camps disputing the oh-so-important human future while united by natural law. So it has always been.” p9.

Nightrider is both a spaceship and a weapon travelling to commence a war. Onboard are seven men and women, representing the military government from Earth.

Travelling off-Earth and fighting aliens is classic space opera. But at the same time, the crew of seven characters are not merely pilots or soldiers. They are people held together in close confinement for a journey of hundreds of days. They have been filtered for “crew specialisms” as NASA or ESA would do today, but more radically, for sexual history and compatibility. This leads one of them to say about completing their journey, “Really…we should celebrate by having a good long seven-way orgy.”

This is not necessarily remarkable in 2015, but bear in mind that this book was written in 1985 when discussion about sexuality and bi-sexuality was much less mainstream.

Turning to the enemy, I described them as aliens. They are — even though they’re also human beings. Mace’s Outsiders manifest their alienness through their ability to adapt to life in a non-terrestrial home. The Outsiders are also physically different from Earth’s warriors. One of Nightrider’s crew, Yasmin, observes them as having: “Smooth synthetically sun-brown legs…smooth shoulders and arms. A smooth scalped, smooth faced woman…Yasmin looked from the woman’s face to the others, from one to the next. There were only two faces among them. Two men and three women, but only two faces, each one moment male and the next female. The confusion was perfected by the lack of hair.” p166

The Outsiders are clones and Mace creates the sense of their difference and indeed, eeriness. We might also note the repetition of “smooth.” Deliberate, sensuous, and with the control of a poet. Not, I’d suggest, what you’d normally get in military SF. Mace is a lyricist using the convention of the subgenre to propel a story about human beings surviving on the very edge of physical existence.

The Outsiders live both outside our solar system and also outside the political regime that controls the Earth. The Outsiders are also alien in a different sense. They’ve evolved an alternative human culture. That should feel very relevant for us as readers in 2015, when Isis in Syria and Iraq is equally alien in their mindset and their culture of destruction and slavery.

Mace’s Outsider society is based on peaceful expansion and colonisation. So if that’s an alternative, what is the Earth norm in this future? What’s the society like that initiates the war on a peaceful colony?

Another crewmember, Kim, reflects on the crew’s background: “The others had all grown up through their childhood and teenage years seeing some level of violence and killing on Earth — most of all Samson in Trinidad, least of all Sandra in Westamerica where the state had mostly organised it all cleanly out of sight.” p185

The characters are products of years of violence on Earth (of varying intensity). Akira, of Japanese origin, has never seen Japan. That’s because it no longer exists, destroyed entirely in one war. The Earth has survived a series of overlapping, disastrous wars before becoming unified into one global ideology: “pragmatic rationalism.”

As another character reflects, he “had grown up under the delegated care of the Earth’s newer guardians, a system of informational oligarchy that permitted the magical application of organisation, that was already consolidating and extending its power amid all the utter chaos.” p36

In post-Snowden 2015, we have caught up with “pragmatic rationalism,” with our own notions of using information for control and governments that tell us of the need to protect us from terrorist “chaos.” I feel like I live in an “informational oligarchy” built from NSA intercepts, encryption, and spying. These increasingly bypass national boundaries and democratic accountability.

Pragmatic rationalism, as imagined by Mace, is more than informational oligarchy. It brought stability to the Earth, but unfortunately, it did so through violent totalitarianism. Sandra grew up in the still affluent West. “When I was a kid…one of the Westamerica Directorates drafted people’s prostitution staff…and then the next Directorate executed most of the prostitutes. Back then the pleasure principle totalitarianists and the moral radicalists were still purging each other. Then the economy went the way of everyone else’s and pragmatic rationalism came in.” p22

Pragmatic rationalism, while neither communism nor capitalism, is a dictatorship. It’s an ideology that believes it has no ideology — it is just commonsense. Therein lies its threat — as it is just commonsense, you need neither democracy nor dissent. Who needs to vote when the state’s decisions are always commonsense? Everyone would logically follow pragmatic rationalism — so there’s no need to debate its value. And besides, everything else the Earth has tried has failed. This form of government has brought stability, but it has come from the psychosis of perpetual global war and revolution.

And it strikes me that the world Mace describes has the feeling of what Winston Smith’s life might have been like in Nineteen Eighty Four, seen through the prism of space opera. We learn of Nightrider’s crew, that “none of them were volunteers. Volunteers, like heroes, were a part of the past.” Nightrider makes the technological jump that Smith’s Oceania aspired to. And having done so, it uses the technology of space travel to pursue Oceania’s perpetual war.

Having established “pragmatic rationalism,” Mace is careful that the ideology, and discussion of it, does not overload the narrative. Initially, the ideology performs the motivation of why Earth’s government goes to the vast expense of building its warship. The totalitarian state cannot accept any dissent, either by its own ship’s crew or by the Outsiders. The war is a dispute over “the oh-so-important human future,” as Mace cued it up in his opening.

The plot involves the ship arriving in orbit around the ice planet, Hel. Mace develops several narrative elements — one centring on Nightrider itself. It is part spaceship, part weapon and part AI. In keeping with space opera, the AI aspect proves to be a danger to the crew. However, to look at just one aspect of the novel, we follow the crew as they attack the Outsiders.

The plan is to destroy the Outsider’s colony from orbit. As with all adventure narratives, things go off-beam and the protagonists fight to adapt. Instead of remaining safely in orbit, the Nightrider crew occupies the base and are brought into sharp contact with the Outsiders.

That sharp contact does not go well for the Outsiders, leaving three of them dead.

A conventional action narrative might move from one violent encounter to the next, with the advantage swinging to and from the protagonists. That happens here, but crucially, Mace adds a layer of emotional depth as well. The Nightrider crew reflects on what the Outsiders had planned for their colony on Hel. Hel would “be a full colony, with planned births…In fifteen years it would be as big as Ganymede, in ten more years the Outsider capital. And the same twelve people who have crewed the base from the very start, the same two clone groups, would still be there, senior administrators and proud eldest citizens of the newest and greatest colony, the successor to Earth and the inheritor of the future.

Would have been.

Now three of them were already Hel’s first murder victims. Hel’s first corpses.” p197

The Outsiders ran into Earth’s pragmatic rationalism and their future was destroyed.

What struck me in reading Nightrider this time was how carefully Mace establishes that the Outsiders are peaceable. They’re trying to develop their colony in a very hostile environment and trying to expand the reach of the human race. And the warriors from Earth crashed into them, destroying their base and killing them — because Earth’s ideology could not allow dissent. There was no need for this war, except that Earth is governed by a totalitarian regime that refuses to accept another independent state.

That makes the Nightrider crew, who are our protagonists, aggressors and basically villains. Increasingly, we come to realise this about them as the mission begins to disintegrate and the Outsiders fight back. The novel therefore manages to combine classical military SF — spaceship battles, futuristic weapons and guerrilla war inside an artificial environment — with speculation about social evolution, totalitarianism and the impact of extreme politics on people.

By the time we reach the ending, the question Mace seems to pose is, who are the aliens? Whose behaviour and society and very existence is antithetical to our own?

The idea of hostile totalitarian regimes laying waste to humanity is a topic that spans much science fiction and fantasy. A random sample would range from Lord of the Rings to Starship Troopers to Star Wars. It is particularly prevalent in military SF circles. But how often do you see the protagonists becoming aware that they are the enemy and that they are laying waste to humanity?

That’s the trick Mace pulls off, neatly subverting both the genre and our expectations as readers.

Pragmatic, rational Earth cannot tolerate dissidents expanding and colonising. So they destroy them. In doing so, they view the crew as entirely expendable and expose the truth of all totalitarian regimes — that the regime as an entity is far more important than any of the human beings in it. This was what we learned in of Nineteen Eighty Four and what Mace shows us here. Mace guides us to that conclusion through the conventions of space opera and hard SF. Despite it being a novel that embraces the tropes of future war, there is something for everyone in a novel like Nightrider.

Dev AgarwalDev Agarwal is a science fiction and fantasy writer. His fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies in Britain and overseas. Dev is an associate editor for Ireland’s Albedo One and has recently begun editing Focus, the magazine on writing science fiction, for the British Science Fiction Association.


The Power of World Building by Dev Agarwal

Many thanks to Dev Agarwal, who has very kindly allowed me to reproduce his article which appeared in the British Science Fiction Society‘s magazine Focus in 2014. I am thrilled that Dev has mentioned “Rag and Bone”, my story which appeared on in 2013, in the latter part of this (see below).

I am very proud of this story, set in beautiful Liverpool, which was reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror:2014, Ed.Paula Guran (2014), The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 8, Ed Jonathan Strahan, Solaris (2014) and translated into Polish for Steps into the Unknown, Ed. Miroslaw Obarski (2014). It also was on the 2013 Locus Recommended Reading List, Honorable Mention Longlist in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 6 (2014) and 2014 storySouth Million Writers Award notable stories.

Previous posts about “Rag and Bone”.

The Power of World Building by Dev Agarwal

Focus No. 62 Summer 2014World-building at its simplest is about creating a sense of place. In our genre, the writer normally also has to describe the ‘rules’ that their world operates by. Writers normally utilise a range of methods, from expository info dumps to more unobtrusive ‘salting’ of key details. Obvious world-building exercises include the setting of Rama, the vast alien spaceship in Clarke’s seminal Rendezvous with Rama, and the worlds of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Le Guin’s Earthsea.
Arguably, world-building is not just part of the science fiction writer’s business, it is the business. It forms the core of SF. In the genre, it might be said to be our obsession. If you’re enjoying any story within SF, you’re experiencing the writer’s world-building. At its most overt a writer may craft a baroque landscape from high fantasy or the far future. On the edge of the genre that takes place in contemporary settings – horror or urban fantasy, for example – we’re often lulled into thinking we’re experiencing our own world, only to have it twist out of the mundane into something more bizarre. That’s world-building too.
Francois Dominic Laramee sums up the challenge as: “The goal of world-building is to create the context for a story. Consistency is an important element, since the world provides a foundation for the action of a story.”
The skill is to develop the world without overwhelming the story. Lucius Shepard began his story, ‘Shades’, with a striking example of world-building:
‘This little gook cadre with a pitted complexion drove me through the heart of Saigon – I couldn’t relate to it as Ho Chi Minh City.’
This perfect jump into the story immerses us right in the action. As a reader, this is a favourite story of mine. In the very first lines we’re in motion, literally as the narrator is being driven, and his voice is immediate – angry and racist. We know where we are – not just in a named city but one with emotional and historical resonance. It’s post-Vietnam War Saigon, with the city renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the victorious Communists. The protagonist knew the city as Saigon, and by declaring his resistance to its name change he implicitly rejects the fact that America lost the war.
And we know he’s racist with just one carefully chosen word, ‘gook’.
Another adage is that characters are the essence of the story. Without characters there is no true story, only events unfolding inside a plot. Another, linked adage is that the landscape can become a character in its own right. Just as we move from characters who are prisoners or kings and turn them into the Count of Monte Cristo or Paul Atreides, so landscapes can similarly be wholly realised. If done correctly, a generic fantasy city becomes New Crobuzon, for example, and a desert planet becomes specifically Dune.
In exploring the idea of landscape as a character, we might look at Ursula Le Guin and her series of stories about the planets Werel and Yeowe. Her world-building and shaping of the landscape is so seamless that it almost defies analysis. In ‘Old Music and the Slave Women’, Le Guin takes us to Werel, the slave world, at a time of rebellion. The world-building has to work more than one street, first establishing Werel as a slave-world, then describing the effects of the rebellion on it. Her point-of-view character, Esdan, observes Werel from the outsider perspective of an anti-slavery culture. There is a lot going on, just in landscape and context, before we get to the plot, yet Le Guin manages to embed her expository details in an entirely accessible fashion. Esdan (known by the titular nickname Old Music) is captured and held prisoner on a plantation. The plantation has fallen into ruin, with many slaves (assets) run off. He sits looking out at the garden, on the Yaramera estate:
‘The room looked out from the second floor over the gardens of Yaramera, terraced slopes and flowerbeds, walks, lawns, and a series of ornamental lakes and pools that descended gradually to the river: a vast pattern of curves and planes, plants and paths, earth and still water, embraced by the broad living curve of the river… The grass of the terraces had dried to soft gold. The river and the lakes and pools were all the misty blue of the summer sky. The flowerbeds and shrubberies were untended, overgrown, but not yet gone wild. The gardens of Yaramera were utterly beautiful in their desolation. Desolate, forlorn, forsaken, all such romantic words befitted them, yet they were also rational and noble, full of peace. They had been built by the labor slaves. Their dignity and peace were founded on cruelty, misery, pain. His mind contained the beauty and the terrible grief of the place, assured that the existence of one cannot justify the other, the destruction of one cannot destroy the other. He was aware of both, only aware.’
Le Guin begins her description with a series of ‘factual’ observations. The garden is grand but familiar, made up of terraces, flowerbeds and landscaped lakes. Then, running through these details is the essence of what makes it an emotional space. Le Guin describes the once elegant landscape with particular details. Grass has ‘dried to soft gold’, and the colour of water mirrors the blue of the sky. These are carefully chosen words that resonate with the reader.
We are told that the plantation is built and run by slaves. Esdan reflects on the enslaved labour that created the gardens and then, after the turbulence of the revolt, left them ‘utterly beautiful in their desolation’. The gardens’ state, either as a place of beauty or ruin, becomes inseparable from their description.
Le Guin moves with deliberate purpose. She imagines what an alien world’s slave economy might be like, starting with the artifacts of slave labour – such as Yaramera’s garden. She then describes what the estate looks like after its heyday, when it’s fallen into disrepair, ‘forlorn, forsaken, all such romantic words’. Then she reveals the underlying spirit of the estate, ‘founded on cruelty, misery, pain’, and that life on Werel is inseparable from its slave economy. Le Guin explores the world she’s created not just as a physical location, concerned only with its sense of wonder, but as an emotional setting as well.
Le Guin invests such depth in Werel’s world-building because of its relevance to our world. The starting point, Le Guin has previously said of Werel, was her visit to a former slave plantation in the American South. Historically, the inhumanity of slavery gave us both the faded splendour of antebellum architecture and the palpable feeling of the suffering endured there. The past was written into the fabric of the place, even centuries later. Therefore, Werel’s world-building is directly linked in metaphor to our own planet’s historic slavery. The best world-building is more than just physical description, and Le Guin uses it here as a device to explore what it means to be human – either as characters capable of enslaving their fellow humans or as people forever changed by slavery’s barbarity.
As Le Guin uses physical location as a jumping off point for emotional exploration, in ‘Rag and Bone’, British writer Priya Sharma artfully reimagines Liverpool as an entity in its own right.
‘I cross Upper Parliament Street into Toxteth. My cart’s loaded with a bag of threadbare coloured sheets which I’ll sell for Rag and Bone. Illustrated by John Jude Palencarsecond-grade paper. I’ve a pile of bones that’ll go for glue.
‘Ra bon! Ra bon!’ I shout.
Calls bring the kids who run alongside me. One reaches out to pat Gabriel, my hound, who curls his lip and growls.
‘Not a pet, son. Steer clear.’
When I stop, the children squat on the curb to watch. They’re still too little for factory work.’
Sharma’s Liverpool is a vicious, brutalising world. This is steampunk with a unique slant – what Charles Stross described as the real steampunk space. Stross has attacked the focus of much of steampunk’s world-building. We all know the subgenre’s aesthetic and the tropes that define it. ‘Wealthy aristocrats sipping tea (and) airship smugglers in the weird Wild West.’ But the reimagined Victorian world can be built more fully: Stross challenges us to forget these tropes because ‘a revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic would… share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s Shilling to break the heads of union members organising for a 60-hour working week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich.’
While Stross was developing this argument, Sharma separately took on meeting this agenda in her fiction. ‘Rag and Bone’ might well be seen as the realisation of Stross’s criticism of the subgenre, taken as marching orders to construct the dark underbelly of the steampunk moment.
In impressively hard-hitting world-building, Sharma manages to turn steampunk on its head and shake loose the predelictions for Victoriana, anachronisms and the past as a theme park, to come up with a vision far more atypical and arresting. Sharma’s narrative voice is indivisible from her world-building, with Tom, the rag-and-bone man, literally hunting bones (and flesh) from the destitute to service the needs of the elite. The rules that Sharma sets for her world go on to define the choices that the protagonists can make. Tom is at the bottom of a ruthless steampunk society. His struggle is in his collision with the forces of wealth and power who take what they want without sanction.
Sharma not only generates the conflict that the drama requires, but also weaves in a narrative that illuminates her world-building. When her characters resist the conventions of their steampunk environment, they reveal more of the world she’s created:
‘My dad would say, We’re free. Never subject to the tyranny of the clock. The dull terrors of the production line. No one will use us as they please.’
In the final act of the story, Sharma takes her subversion to a further level, managing to surprise the reader’s expectations as she explores the human cost of being on the lowest rung of Victorian steampunk.
The best world-building creates depth with a lightness of touch. It seduces the reader with its immersive experience, taking us to a place that doesn’t exist or giving us a new slant on a place we already know. Like any well-crafted artefact, world-building is more than the sum of its parts. It creates a continuum so rich in detail that it resonates with us, and strengthens our relationship to the characters that inhabit it. World-building is not just at the heart of good writing, it is its heart.

Dev AgarwalDev Agarwal is a science fiction and fantasy writer. His fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies in Britain and overseas. Dev is an associate editor for Ireland’s Albedo One and has recently begun editing Focus, the magazine on writing science fiction, for the British Science Fiction Association

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