Tag Archives: Dev Agarwal

Emotion Pictures, A Film Review by Dev Agarwal

My thanks to Priya, for the invitation to make another visit to her blog.

This time I’d like to discuss three films that I saw (relatively) recently.

The first one I saw by accident rather than design, and was Skull Island. The film we planned to see was sold out (Logan).  That’s not a ringing endorsement for any film — go see it if the main screen sells out.

Skull Island is the latest incarnation of the King Kong story.  Kong’s first screen outing was in 1933.  He has come around almost generationally, and is famous enough to warrant his own wiki entry.  This observes that his cinematic visits range from “a rampaging monster to a tragic antihero.”

Skull IslandIn this version, Kong falls somewhere in between.  There’s an environmental angle to the story, and much pyrotechnic noise.  I saw this film with my friend Nik.  He observed that the story moved fast and didn’t waste a lot of time on build up. It jumped straight in, treating the audience as either mature enough, or familiar enough, not to have to lay many foundations. This is a film built on well-established Kong lore and an audience that knows what it’s about to get (even if that includes not getting into Logan).  It’s pretty efficient in moving Kong from rampaging monster to hero and it sits firmly between the other two films that I can report on, The Magnificent Seven and Get OutSkull Island is determinedly middle of the road, successful on its own terms, and trimmed of most narrative fat.

Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele, was described by The Guardian as a “comedy-horror hybrid.”  That could put it as a relative of Skull Island. In another sense, it definitely is if we apply the critic James Baldwin’s observations of the original RKO Kong of 1933.  That film, Baldwin observed, was an overt riff on black representation as hysterically animalistic and savage.

Get Out also arrives at a time when science fiction contains loud voices decrying diversity and criticising those writers whose stories include non-white characters.  Those voices reject the benefit of such stories and argue that they are examples of “virtue signalling” and message fiction.  Message fiction, its critics say, is where the message outweighs all other considerations, especially in telling the story and making the film (or novel) entertaining.  As one commentator has said, “Let’s shove more message fiction down their throats! My cause comes before their enjoyment!”

The schism in science fiction is magnified into the far greater one in western society itself.  We are in the age of extremes: Brexit, Corbyn, the near miss that was Le Pen in France.  Long held certainties are in question.  And, of course, looming over everything is the remarkable phrase, President Donald Trump.

And none of this is fiction.  Not even the most outlandish science fiction.  In this context, where fiction is outdone by fact, Get Out posits the story of a black man, Chris, driving from his comfortable middle-class New York home to Alabama.  Chris has been invited to meet his girlfriend Rose’s family.  Rose’s family live in a huge estate in Alabama.  That premise could be lifted from Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from 1967 — then projected through the lens of both horror and science fiction.  I’ll avoid any spoilers, which will hamper how far I can discuss the film, but what makes Get Out work for me is a combination of its confident construction, its understanding of pace and its ability to be relevant (you know, having a message) to our modern concerns.  This might be distilled down to having a story worth telling, telling it well and entertaining the audience at the same time.

Small details established early on become crucial by the end of the film.  At the same time the film is not just a horror story, or a series of attempts to make the audience jump.  This is because the film’s Director, Jordan Peele, asks us to emotionally invest in the characters’ lives.

A staple of horror is that things begin very normally — Chris’ life is urban, comfortable, even humdrum.  Things then begin to steadily deviate from normal.  In this case, as we journey further south and closer to Rose’s family.  On the drive down the couple hit a deer — a jump scare and also a distressing and bloody encounter.  A policeman arrives and immediately asks Chris for his ID.  It’s Rose who challenges the white police officer, criticising his attitude to a black man.  So we’ve encountered two events — the death of an animal and the threat of a police officer.  Neither instance is fantastical, and yet they add to the accumulation of tension and discomfort.

On the estate, the awaiting family ranges from the enthusiastically liberal to the loutish and offensive.  In between are those family members who find Chris awkward to be around.  These reactions were the ones Chris anticipated at the outset.  So far, the story is more social drama than horror.  However, by this point we’ve already been given cues that will resonate later in the film (thus demonstrating the novice film maker Peele’s confident control of his material).

Get Out PosterAlmost everyone Chris meets is white, and the setting resonates with the memory of a former slave state in the antebellum South.  The black characters are mostly servants and they remain distinctly uncommunicative, or weirdly out of sync in their behaviour.  Indeed, it is the black characters, and their disjointed presence, that creates the gateway into the horror as the skin of normal white culture is increasingly peeled back.  It’s this aspect of the narrative that is most important, as its details accrete like coral.  It’s built out of the black servants’ disturbed presence and the reactions of the white characters to them.  Soon the film steps entirely off the path of normality and reveals itself as a genre piece.  The genteel veneer hides menace, the minor characters hide secrets and the smallest details imply warnings of the looming terror.

Most audiences have been satisfied with the jump scares and surprises, while more schooled genre viewers have taken the extra pleasure that the film provides with its understanding of horror and SF tropes.  Peele presents more “otherworldly elements” — hypnotic suggestion, out of body experiences and experiments on human subjects that would fit within David Cronenberg’s body horror films.  We even get grainy video footage of the 1980s that looks like the Dharma Project from Lost, or that moment in Quatermass where a major plot development is explained by silent film footage.

As I said earlier, I am constrained by not spoiling the film by talking about its details.  But I can add that the film could not be more relevant in the current climate.  This may explain Get Out’s numbers: it cost $4.5 million dollars and took $33.3 million on its opening weekend.  It’s now surpassed the $165 million mark in the US alone.  In financial terms, Get Out is a success, but as a film it also understands its genre and respects its antecedents — in a more sophisticated echo of Skull Island’s relationship with the original King Kong.

Just as Get Out has its antecedents, so does the third film.  That is Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven (originally filmed in 1960).  I watched the original film many times as a child and note, slightly to my surprise, that it’s well over 50 years old.  The original is also too slow by today’s standards and while good, it’s not a film that transcends changes in taste to remain wholly accessible (in the way Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Searchers do).

The remake did everything that the previously mentioned Sad Puppies would hate.  The remake is still an adventure, and still a western, but it’s aware of cultural change, the concept of discrimination and that a film can be both a western and bring a message.  The new Seven are a careful mix of minorities, including Chinese and Native Americans, and are led by a black man (Denzel Washington).  The film ticks further boxes, effectively it’s The Magnificent Eight, with the female lead (Haley Bennett) fulfilling an active, gun-toting role that may leave the Puppies conflicted as she’s a woman who fails to stay in the kitchen, but at least she respects the Second Amendment.

The remake replicates the original in that three of the Seven survive.  There’s deviation The Magnificent Sevenin exactly who, with the Steve McQueen/Chris Pratt role getting a heroic death this time around.  Watching the remake, without knowing too much detail, I felt confident in identifying that the Native American was going to survive (a cultural apology for their historic slaughter).  Similarly, it was unsurprising that the villains are carefully not Mexicans, they’re white men.  And worse than white men, they’re capitalists — it’s the railroad men that menace the town now.

My objections to the film don’t really relate to any of the above.  The remake is in some way treading the same ground as the other films — conscious of history and current contexts and also addressing the original film’s lack of strong parts for women.  More fundamentally, however, the film fails in the areas that Get Out and even Skull Island excelled at.  Seven‘s mechanical execution is dull and lacks any flair.

Fuqua is a workmanlike director but Training Day and the Equaliser are both better thrillers.  More surprising for me was that the film was co-written by Nic Pizzolatto.  Those unfamiliar with his writing will be pleasantly surprised by series one of HBO’s True Detective.  But, similarly to The Magnificent Seven, they will find series two less pleasant (or rewarding).  Pizzolatto appears to be talented by uneven.

With the Seven, as you know not all of them will survive, it’s the quality of their deaths that distinguish them.  Here, Pizzolatto and Fuqua missed the boat.  There are two prominent Indians, the good one and the bad one (which itself is reductive).  In this version, the villainous Indian is dressed in the US Army’s uniform, denoting that he’s sold out other Indians in the past and as an ex-soldier, he’s part of the same military-industrial complex that brings the threat of the railroad.  He menaces the town’s white women but it’s OK because they’re rescued by the good Indian.  The two Indians fight and the good one kills the bad one.  That recounting summarises my emotional investment in that moment.  That fight, if thought out more carefully, could have been more dramatic, more complex and more satisfying.  And therein is the problem with the film as an entertainment.  In terms of understanding the Native American relationship with Americans (either then or now) would require another film entirely.

That leaves Get Out firmly top of the heap from the three films considered here.  But it would be on top of just about any heap this year.

Dev Agarwal

Dev Agarwal

Dev 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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Breaking Ground by Speaking Volumes

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Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions’ 2017-18 initiative, the Arts Council England-funded Breaking Ground project aims “to sheds light on how it makes social, political and economic sense to back UK writers of colour and to put them centre stage. Taking British black, Asian and minority ethnic artists to Europe as well as making samples of their work available in translation, Breaking Ground offers the chance to build international networks and connections and to develop writers’ careers across borders and languages.”

Breaking Ground

As part of Breaking Ground a booklet of 200 BAME writers has been launched today at the London Book Fair. This includes 200 contemporary British BAME authors and Speaking Volumes hope that the booklet will be a valuable resource both at home and overseas, demonstrating the wide and varied literature of the UK.

It contains poets, novelists, screenwriters, essayists and playwrights such as Monica Ali, Biyi Bandele, Malorie Blackman, Helen Oyeyemi, Sathan Sanghera and Kit de Waal. I am very proud to be included, along with my genre writing friends,  V.H. Leslie and Dev Agarwal.

View the entire booklet online.

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Speaking Volumes is an organisation dedicated to live literature events
around the world. They have worked with the European Commission to produce a number of literary events in translation and collaborated with EUNIC London (the Heads of the European Cultural Institutions) to produce European Literature Night at the British Library.

Their clients have included the South Asian Literature Festival, The British Council, The Dutch Arts Council, London Book Fair and Free Word Centre. In 2012, they ran Poetry Parnassus on Tour, the largest UK poetry tour of international artists ever produced, in partnership with Southbank Centre. SBC has asked them to programme a number of Parnassus events for the London Literature Festival in 2013. Their future plans in addition to AfroEuropes 2013 include a 100 Poet Festival in Seoul, South Korea in 2013/14 and a tour of Botswana with Afro-European artists

Speaking Volumes was set up by Sharmilla Beezmohun and Sarah Sanders after leaving PEN International in May 2010. The team also includes Nick Chapman, who previously worked as a Project Assistant for the British Council’s Literature Team.

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Focus No 66

Writing non-fiction isn’t a natural fit for me, so thanks to editor Dev Agarwal for accepting “Heart of the Labyrinth: Myth as the Starting Point for Story Telling” for Focus.

Focus is the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine on the art and craft of writing, particularly science fiction writing. Both Focus and Vector ( a review magazine) are published twice a year and are free to BFSA members.

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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.

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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 Tor.com 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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