More on Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is a craft that not everyone can pull off because it requires simulating the complexities of our own world while not bogging down a story with detail. These worlds can be built from scratch, like in the Broken Earth Trilogy, or be based on our own, as the Xenogenesis Trilogy sort of (barely) is. The study of worldbuilding is a look into the choices an author makes in creating something fictional.

This can be the literal world itself, which sometimes is a planet unlike our own (or in sci-fi, sometimes not a world at all but instead a space ship or other way of being!). The physicality of that world is something that must be considered (this is the reason that many fantasy novels include maps on the inside cover, The Lord of the Rings books being one of the more famous examples of this). It makes it easier, especially in a story that involves a trek of some kind (again LOTR provides a good example) to have an idea of where characters are and the routes they might be taking, and this is true for both the author and the reader. There are examples of fiction where this isn’t the case – The Faerie Queene is one, but because of the allegorical nature of the text, a complete picture of the geography of Faerieland is absolutely not necessary. Thus, the level of development an author puts into a fictional world (in its literal, physical sense of the word) is entirely dependent on what works for the story. The Broken Earth trilogy, because one of the central plot points is earth-based, requires a heavy level of development of the physical world and as such, has a map on the inside cover and considerable effort is put into introducing the Stillness as a concept in the prelude to The Fifth Season. The Xenogenesis trilogy also must do a pretty heavy level of physical worldbuilding when it comes to the Lo, the Oankali spaceships, though when the series moves to Earth, at the very least the non-Lo parts of the world are based on our own world, albeit post-apocalyptic.

However, a world is more than physical. In our own world, a complex system of biases, wars, communications (or lack thereof), migrations, political histories, and more makes up each individual society on scales as small as the individual to scales as large as entire countries and continents.

A very simple example of this is that in the Harry Potter world, British wizards know that Slytherin is the “evil house” based on a shared history, which is why Muggleborns are at such a distinct disadvantage when navigating within the world of Hogwarts. To those who grew up knowing this, the reaction to a Slytherin (positive or negative) is completely instinctive l, whereas for someone outside that culture, there is no implicit reaction to information of this sort. In a well-built world, characters from inside the world should know this shared background and react accordingly. This is known as “storyview” – what characters know and believe about the world (in contrast, what the author knows is known as worldview). These terms are used in Jeff Vandermeer’s guide to creative writing, Wonderbook, and what I will be using since they are very helpful. This could be implicit bias found in the internal thoughts of characters, how groups from different cultures react to each other, or the placement of cities and borders based on this background. We don’t question why France’s border with Germany ends where it does — we accept it because most people from that region and within the Western world know why and even if not, it’s not often that we question basic facts like a border. As a reader, not having an explanation might be annoying, but it also adds to the intrigue. You also can’t expect someone who takes these things for granted to explain unless asked or to have it explained in omniscient narration outside of a character’s thoughts. It is absolutely not necessary and in fact preferable to not include every detail – worldview can affect a story, but it doesn’t always have to be explained unless, returning to LOTR, you are JRR Tolkien and decided that a good use of time is to create the Silmarillion to explain every last detail of your fictional world, in which case, congratulations on changing the face of fantasy forever.

In Jemisin’s world, insiders and outsiders are reframed as non-orogenes and orogenes. The storyview that the characters have is that orogenes are bad because it’s something they’ve been fed their entire lives and it’s the only thing they know to think. Orogenes believe it too until exposed as an orogene, and even self-hatred can be so strongly programmed that they continue to believe it. It takes people who became outsiders and accept that being an outsider isn’t a bad thing — Damaya/Syenite/Essun, Alabaster, Nassun — to be able to critically look at the Sanzed Empire and take it down. They use their own storyview to challenge existing world orders. For Butler, she uses a similar technique in having the humans become the outsiders to the now-dominant Oankali society. Human storyview in terms of the Oankali society is limited to what they are told, where the Oankali know pretty much exactly what Butler knows about their own society, giving them a more omniscient power, which is entirely necessary for the compare-contrast method Butler is using in the Xenogenesis trilogy to critique human society.

And the society of the current iteration of that world, beyond the physical structures and histories of a fictional world, is another incredibly important part of worldbuilding and one that is hard to do well. For the sake of this paper, I’m including biology in society because ultimately, biology is a non-insignificant influence in the ways that humans, and fictional non-humans, organize themselves. Consider the Oankali: their biology of reproduction in threes/fives is how they organize family units, and their need to be close to their mates and siblings heavily affects the way that the Lo are structured and the way they approach raising children. Similarly, their ability to contact each other through the Lo eliminates the need for a government, because they don’t need representatives to think through group decisions – they can do it themselves as a group. Most significantly, their biological ability to feel each other’s pain and other emotions is what drives their species. Self-organization around biology is what gives the Oankali their unique society. They had to be like that in order for the critiques Butler makes in the Xenogenesis trilogy to work. (She also contributes the human’s actions and drive toward hierarchy to biology too, which is very interesting, and something I will have to come back to later with a focus on the contrast between human drive toward hierarchy and the Oankali analysis of this drive and their contrasting mode of life).

As mentioned before, the orogenes are the outsiders in the society of the Stillness, and this is also biological — the characteristics of the Niess and the tuners that they carry, the enhanced sessapinae, are what allows them to do what they do. This gives them power, so the people currently holding power do their best to suppress this power. Collective and individual memory of orogenes – where they came from, what they are meant for, how they are meant to act – comes from stonelore and mythos passed down through the ages. This imperfect storyview (Jemisin certainly knows what actually happened, but the inhabitants of the world, not including the stone eaters, don’t) is what creates a lot of the conflict in the novel. Most of this narrow storyview centers around the orogenes. This is certainly allegorical to the problems Jemisin is commenting on in the Broken Earth trilogy, so studying how Jemisin introduces orogenes and the information surrounding them in this series is certainly a worthy cause because it inherently relates to the social justice themes she is exploring in the novel.

Ultimately, this is just an overview of the parts of worldbuilding that are important to what I’m hoping to do with this paper and tentatively how they link to the books I’m working with. It’s a lot more complex than that (I cannot even begin to imagine how authors start creating fully fictional worlds, but I am also not a creative writer), but doing some narrowing here is fully necessary if I actually want to finish this project.

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