Lessons In (Dystopian) World-Building

Posted on June 29th, 2012 @ 16:05
Filed Under World building | Leave a Comment

First, I want to point out that I haven’t read the book mentioned in the review I’m about to link to, so I won’t hand out any personal opinion about it. I’m only quoting the review because of what it says about world-building.

This I found on Goodreads, a couple of days ago. It’s a review on Wither by Lauren DeStefano, posted by Moorchild, and focusing more specifically on building a believable dystopian world:

There’s a little thing that a writer should take notice when considering writing a dystopia or science fiction work.

It’s called class consciousness.

Classicism, poverty, and non-privileged people exist. The third world exists. Developing countries exist. Countries other than America exist. They should and must be considered in your vision of the future.

Almost from the start, this review struck me because I’d naturally tend to agree with what it deals with: dystopian societies should be at least partly based on real facts, which is what gives them, in my opinion, their chilling aspect of ‘what if it could indeed happen to our world’. I doubt crafting such worlds is an easy-peasy process for any author, if only because we just can’t know absolutely everything about economics, social science, politics, and whatever else governs or has governed our own countries and societies; we can’t all hold degrees in Economic Science or Sociology. However, what we can do is try, and do our best to keep as many of those things in mind as possible when creating our dystopias…

…or any other world, for that matter, because there are always forces and undercurrents at work in any given society. For instance, the class consciousness mentioned above, factors involving cost vs. return on investment, and so on:

Gene therapy is expensive.

Only the wealthiest individuals in industrialized countries would be able splice and replace their unborn children’s genes. Genetic therapy, this early in time, would be a privilege.

It strikes me as quite logical that anything meant to enhance human beings would first be given to the wealthy ones, the people who can cough up the dough for it—and then only, years or generations later, to the rest of the population, if there’s something to be got out of such a deal for those who’re in control. And if heavy downfalls were to appear in a generation or two, few enough people would be affected for the whole cure/gift/whatever to be promptly shelved before it can endanger anyone else. (Again, I haven’t read Wither; I’m only reacting to the present statement. For what I know, maybe the novel’s author does address such concerns at some point, or will in a next installment.)

Another aspect of the review that I’d like to highlight is the following one:

Where do they get raw materials? Do they salvage the materials from the old cities under the surface? Where do they get gas to run their cars? The guns and ammo? The power to heat and light their houses? Where do these things come from?

When building a world, I think we definitely need to keep such ‘details’ in mind. It doesn’t seem like much, but sooner or later a reader, then another, then another again, is bound to wonder “where do the characters get their money from”, “how do they grow their crops if there’s no land left”, and so on. I’ve run into such problems myself when I created the setting I wanted for Our Darker Purpose (a story of mine I’ll deal with later on, in another post), and it proved quite tricky—and I’m positive there are still plenty of problems and tiny details I haven’t addressed yet, but that will become hindrances when I finally proof-read everything, or when someone else reads it. Still, I’m convinced that if we’re aware of this need for solid foundations, we become able to avoid falling into some of those traps, at least. Maybe in the end, your readers will get to see only 10% of what your world is made of; however, the remaining 90% should be felt underneath (when they aren’t here, that’s when the readers start asking themselves many questions, until they discover the missing links and other flaws!).

I’ll end that post on the same point as the review does:

Also, one final thing: it is important to consider how and why social and religious beliefs change over time.

Here dystopian worlds are probably more likely to be concerned than others, because of the premises on which they’re built—“An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.” When dystopias are set in purely imaginary countries or worlds, it might be a little less of a problem: you can decide that society has always been that bad, or that changes occurred because the earlier setting was already fertile ground for them to appear and stick. On the other hand, in the case of dystopian societies stemming from our own, having beliefs and behaviours as a whole change almost overnight, is bound to raise questions from readers. Hence the need to work out the deep, underlying reasons first, the ones that will explain, among other things, why people react the way they do, why they haven’t rebelled from the start, why most accept their enslavement. Are they even aware of it? If they are, what benefit do they derive for remaining slaves to an oppressive state? Are they being held by sheer terror? By promises for better things to come? Have they been kept in the dark, lulled by lies, for their whole life? Why didn’t they rebel when the oppressive state came to be, was still fragile, and someone could have done something? And so on. (I guess this is why Nazi Germany, and that period as a whole, are full of food for thought regarding such developments.)

It is heavy ground work, for sure. It takes time. It also means that writing stories set in such different worlds isn’t something you can do overnight, if only because there’s only 24 hours in a day, and ideas and reflexions won’t necessarily all come rushing at the exact same moment.

Nevertheless, it is a hefty amount of work that I find tremendously enjoyable—sometimes even more than writing the story itself afterwards (or am I just weird like that?). It’s the kind of work, too, that deserves to be done for every world, not only dystopias.

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