One of the nice things about writing science fiction and fantasy is that you get to play God/dess and create your very own worlds. On the other hand, one of the worst things about writing science fiction and fantasy is that those worlds you've created have to be believable. Readers have to feel like they're there and that this is a real place, with alien cultures that make sense displaying believable, if very different, behaviours.
It's easy enough to find courses to teach the art of world-building, but I don't think you need to go far to see some stunning examples – both the very best and others where a little more thought would have been nice.
Let's start with Star Wars. Yes, I know the movie first appeared in 1977 and therefore, its making was dictated by the mores of the time. But that's a trap SF writers have to keep in mind, not just when it comes to tech, such as space ships, but how a society may change in the future. There were only two important women in the first trilogy – Princess Leia and Mon Mothma. The Imperial troops were all white males – as were the rebels. Oh – except for one white female in the control bunker on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. At least there were some non-humans in Return of the Jedi but not very many. Disney has addressed that issue so we find a better mix of body types in the last several films, with non-humans in the rebel cohorts. It was one of the things I liked about Rogue One, where female pilots flew X-wings, and non-white people had starring roles. They didn't have to fake American accents, either. Ben Mendelsohn spoke with his normal Australian accent and Diego Luna kept his Latino tones. And different accents are what I would expect from a million different worlds.
Star Trek did much better at diversifying its fleet, despite having aired before Star Wars. Casting a black woman as Lieutenant Uhura was brilliant. Nichelle Nichols became an inspiration for many black girls growing up in the US.
But for both franchises, the world building was often… shall we say a bit ordinary? Just about all the worlds we were shown had essentially the same gravity and atmosphere as good old Earth. No breathing apparatus or special clothing needed, no bouncing around in low gravity. Back in the day, Star Trek's aliens were unconvincing, possibly because of limited special effects capability. Greek Gods seemed to show up quite often, which got around the problem of having to dress up as aliens. It's fun to watch early episodes of Doctor Who with the cardboard sets and the terrible costumes for (say) the cybermen – or even the daleks, who could be evaded by walking (running) up a flight of stairs. Mind you, R2D2 had a similar problem. Which goes to show if you write a good story, the fans will fill in the gaps.
Still, I like it when I don't have to keep reminding myself that it's just fantasy.
Which brings me to the very best fantasy world I've ever come across: Professor Tolkien's Middle Earth.
For me, The Lord of the Rings was a book that I could not put down. I was inveigled into Tolkien's world from the very first page and devoured the words at every waking moment until I'd finished. Then I started again.
|The One Ring inscribed in Elvish script|
Part of the fascination was the setting was so convincing. Hobbits were real, living in a real, bucolic world. Elves were real, slightly ephemeral beings with flowing robes, flowing hair, flowing script, and an affinity with nature. Dwarves were the part of the rocks upon which the mountains are built, short and stocky and strong, with written script to match their architecture. I could follow the adventures on the map. Here was Tom Bombadill's house; here was Fangorn Forest; here the Lonely Mountain; here Mount Doom.
Tolkien was a bit different from your average author. He invented languages – whole scripts – for the elves and the dwarves, although he borrowed from runes and old Nordic, and dare I say, Arabic for Elvish script. He filled in their back story from the elder days, to the extent of writing another book (The Silmarillion, which I confess I could not finish), and he drew maps. I'm not suggesting that authors need to go to those lengths – but the detail is what makes Middle Earth real. That's one of the great things about Peter Jackson's movie trilogies, LOTR and the Hobbit. Using Tolkien's words, Jackson's designers were able to create totally different cultures for the hobbits, the elves, and the dwarfs. For humans, we see different life-styles for the Rohirrim and the men of Minas Tirith.
An author can learn a lot from studying books and movies that worked for them and analysing why. And, as I've suggested, it's worth considering the bits where you consciously decided to overlook that glaring error. For example, Han Solo's famous 'Kessel run in twelve parsecs' remark. Or being able to cross interstellar space without a working hyperdrive. You might not think that little mistakes will matter, but somebody WILL notice.
|Thror's map, with Dwarvish inscriptions|
Drawing maps is a great idea. In Linnea Sinclair's book, Hope's Folly, just about all the action takes place on a space ship and the ship's unfortunate design is one of the issues making the problems the MCs encounter even worse. She drew a picture of the ship for that reason, to make sure the action happened as it should. I drew maps and diagrams for The Iron Admiral so I could see where locations were in relation to each other.
For me, detail is telling. One reason I like Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict series is just that. Benedict is an antiques collector, plying his trade amongst the stars in a far-distant future where civilizations have come and gone, a bit like a present-day collector searching for artefacts from Egypt or Rome. McDevitt gives little details of the history of the objects Benedict collects, and a few sentences about the culture that left them behind. It gives the story depth.
And a story with depth is one a reader will remember and want to read again and again. My very shabby copy of The Lord of the Rings is a testament.