Sunday, July 9, 2017

Masterpieces of World Building

Ever since I posted Junot Diaz's syllabus for a course on World Building I have been thinking about what I would assign in such a course and, more broadly, what I think are the best worlds in fantasy and science fiction. Diaz's list:
J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings”
Star Wars
“A Princess of Mars” by ER Burroughs
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker
“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller
“Sunshine” by Robin McKinley
“V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore
“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by NK Jemisin
“Lilith’s Brood” by Octavia Butler
“Perdido Street Station” by China Miéville
“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson
It's hard to argue with the first two, and they would also head my list.  Otherwise I think only “Perdido Street Station” would be on both his list and mine. Other worlds I love:
Frank Herbert, “Dune”
Ursula LeGuin, “The Left Hand of Darkness”
J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone”
Star Trek
George R.R. Martin, “The Game of Thrones”
Neal Stephenson, “Anathem”
Susanna Clarke, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”
Alastair Reynolds, “Revelation Space”
Neil Gaiman, “Neverwhere”
Too many of those are long books for this to work as a course, but they are the worlds I remember most powerfully right now.


G. Verloren said...

I didn't have much in the way of my own suggestions last time around, but I can think of a few mostly for-fun suggestions.

When I reflect on which constructed worlds have been most personally impactful for me, I end up drawn to non-traditional media, such as board games and video games.

One that particularly impresses me is Dungeons and Dragons, which has several different, highly developed universes and "settings" that games can be played in as preferred. In particular "The Forgotten Realms", which has become the modern default setting over the years, is particularly rich, interesting, and memorable, and demonstrates world building at multiple scales.

The primary focus of most stories in this setting is on a single region called The Sword Coast, and is based in the interactions of the various different countries and city states along that stretch of coastline. But this is just one section of a larger continent called Faerûn, which itself is full of other lands and regions, each in turn fleshed out with a wide and yet believeable array of peoples, cultures, systems of trade, and everything else.

And Faerûn is just one of several continents on the planet of Toril, although the others are less heavily developed narratively, in part because they serve more a secondary mechanical purpose and are typically not the focus of gameplay, but also in part because this a world where distance heavily limits information, and the people of Faerûn and The Sword Coast in particular don't really know all that much about the exotic locales of these distant continents they seldom visit.

And the planet of Toril exists within its own metaphysical framework and cosmology. There is a pantheon of gods, and they're all actual beings who really exist and who meddle in the world from time to time. In fact, there are multiple different pantheons, who also exist seperate from that one, and also meddle, are just as valid and integral a part of the universe. There are good goods, evil gods, neutral gods, and even some that defy categorization.

There are established metaphysical rules that govern the very existences and abilities of the gods. Gods can die and be replaced, and mortals can even undergo apotheosis and become gods occasionally. All the gods reside in their own sort of pocket dimensions, or "demi-planes" of existence, which physically coincide with their aesthetics, moral alignments, and doctrines. There is an afterlife of sorts.

Aside from the gods, there are other sorts of fundamental beings out in the universe. There are devils, akin to "The Devil", evil yet principled, bound by rules and laws and eternally trying to gain power by making contracts with mortals, and by fighting among themselves. There are demons, their chaotic counterpart, more akin to ravening beasts, and existing purely to destroy. There are celestials, cosmic being of good which are not gods, but have their own powers, allegiances, and duties. There are many other things besides.

This is a world with a lot of depth, and it has all been designed to facilitate cooperative storytelling by a group of several different players all co-authoring a story together over the course of a full campaign of game sessions.

Where Tolkien's works frequently alluded to a mythic past and a historical depth that never got explored, the Forgotten Realms setting is meant almost solely to be explored, and even for it be expanded upon. It intentionally leaves room in the margins for the creation of smaller stories within the larger framework, because that's the entire point of playing Dungeons and Dragons.

David said...

Knowing that John is not such a fan of comic fantasy, I'd still push for Terry Pratchett's Discworld as a masterpiece of worldbuilding.

Jack Vance is my other favorite fantasy author, but I'm not sure he qualifies in the champion worldbuilder category. One loves him for other things.

Anonymous said...

David beat me to it with Discworld.


John said...

I love reading Pratchett, but I'm not sure I could tell you anything about Discworld. What are the rules there? What is the society like? The economy? Etc.

Mário Gonçalves said...

Arthur C. Clark strangely, painfully, absent from the list. Rendezvous with Rama ?

David said...

Not sure how you could read Discworld and not find anything to say about it as a world. There's a huge amount one could say! It's all right there!

Actually, I think some of the worldbuilding conceptions from that course are a little too technical, and even dreary and irrelevant. Does one really need to understand the ecology? And who really cares about the economy, unless the author can make it interesting? Frankly, a lot of us read fantasy in order to escape economy. I'm not sure there's any economy to speak of in Middle Earth.

Building a world is about building a place for stories, and the rules are story rules--like, every evil lord in Middle Earth has to delve big pits and fill them with fires. What are the fires for? Who knows? Does it matter? The fires are a kind of symbol. I suspect coming up with technical purposes for the fires would weaken their imagistic power.

Actually, if you want economy, Discworld has more of that than most fantasy universes I've encountered, including a novel in the series called Making Money, and one about resource competition, called The Fifth Elephant, where, among other things, you learn about Igors. Overall, I suppose you could say Discworld is entering a phase analogous to the industrial revolution, brought about in part by Lord Vetinari's enlightened rule, with urbanization and mass migration, including masses of trolls and dwarves moving to Ankh-Morpork, and a right good polishing up of the police under Commander Vimes.

For my money, I guess I'd have to say Discworld is the richest post-Tolkien fantasy world I've encountered. There's certainly more wonder in it than most. The humor is only part of it.

There are some apparently Pratchett approved expository books, such as The Science of Discworld, The Folklore of Discworld, etc. As for the complete Discworld rules, well, you'll need to ask the Auditors . . .

G. Verloren said...

Tossing out another one real quick: Isaac Asimov, pick your favorite piece or series. For a university course, I think I, Robot is probably the right length and complexity.