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
World-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 second-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 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