Worldbuilding is not something we usually have to think too hard about, mostly because it’s something we’re not intended to think about. A well-built fictional world is meant to be seamlessly immersive, or else the story risks being overshadowed by the feeling that something crucial is missing. After all, we inhabit a fully-formed world, and our brains demand the same out of the fictional stories we enjoy. For this reason, many writing blogs, such as this one, suggest that in order to properly build a world, one must“go beyond just outlining the setting your characters live and work in. Think about the laws that govern the world, the way the government works, the world’s history, geography, technology, and mythology. Create your world, and then push yourself to go deeper.”
Obviously, stories have to take place somewhere, and for most fantasy and sci-fi novels, that somewhere is not the current reality of our Earth, so the ability to create a believable world becomes especially critical in those cases, as works that take place on our version Earth come pre-built with a world to take place in. With that being said, the importance of worldbuilding goes beyond just the facilitation of the plot, especially in books that have some sort of agenda or message that relates back to our own world.
In Dr. Fallon’s Renaissance Worldmaking class, we talked about literary responses to the discovery (or a better word might be re-discovery) of the New World. The realization that there were unknown lands and civilizations completely different in design to what the Europeans knew both sparked and enabled a new style of exploratory writing.
To explain what I mean by this, let’s take the example of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, which was one of the assigned readings for that course. The Blazing World focuses on an unnamed protagonist who finds herself aboard a ship that accidentally drifts into the Arctic and then across a boundary into another world – the Blazing World. This text, while it may not seem entirely related to the New World, is linked in a few crucial ways. The first is that, for quite a while, fiction was seen as a lower form of writing, as it is at its essence a constructed lie, and thus generally frowned upon in a then-very religious society. The New World and all of the unknown it represented allowed for authors such as Cavendish, and for another notable example Thomas More with his Utopia, to claim that these stories are true and thus justify their own fiction.
For this reason, the fictional spaces created by authors during this time period are interesting to look at because of this new ability to create fiction that is taken seriously. Furthermore, they often addressed philosophical or political ideas, so these fictional worlds are doubly important to understand. Cavendish’s fictional world in The Blazing World is a fantastical one with different types of talking animals, such as the bear-men and the worm-men, each of which, while possessing the full reasoning capabilities of humans, are uniquely suited by animal-type to certain tasks. The worm-men study the earth, the bird-men study the sky, the spider-men study mathematics and so on. This enables a few different things: first, that the Lady, or the Empress as she is later known, is able to question and create hypotheses on a diverse range of subjects from science to philosophy as a woman (reminder that this was written in the late 1600s). Thus, in creating this fictional world that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, Cavendish gives herself space to put forth new hypotheses and debate the merits of political systems and philosophies with herself. This is sometimes quite literally a debate with herself, as the Duchess of Newcastle, Cavendish’s title, takes part in the story.
There are also notable LGBTQ+ themes in The Blazing World, protected by the nature of the Blazing World as being able to facilitate the intermingling of non-corporeal spirits, which, according to the book, are inherently ungendered. There is also a heavily implied romantic love between the Empress and the Duchess of Newcastle, going so far as to say they are Platonic lovers and describing the deep and intense love and mutual understanding they have with each other. This, of course, would not be acceptable during the time period without the fictional space of the Blazing World to protect them.
The other crucial way that the New World is linked to The Blazing World is that, while ahead of its time in terms of feminism, exploration of gender and sexuality, and the rejection of tyranny as a method of rule, it has a distinctly colonial attitude. After all, the Lady arrives at and almost immediately becomes the Empress of a world that she isn’t even originally from and then reorganizes that society to her own whims. Just as significantly, she uses the denizens of the Blazing World to come back to her own Earth and win a war for her home country, essentially giving them hegemonic power. Thus, in creating the Blazing World, Cavendish can’t help but link it to our own because it is supposed to be a better version, but still can’t shake pervasive sense that conquering other worlds is the best way to run the world and that Europeans such as herself can run other worlds better than the original residents can.
All of that being said, to come back to my original point, worldbuilding matters, and so does thinkING about the ways that the worlds that authors of fiction serve to further their own agenda and reflect the change they want to see in our own world. This type of analysis and thinkING about fictional worlds and how they are conducive to the messages found within are exactly what I hope to be addressing (in much more detail!) in my own capstone project in the context of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy.