Palmer to Bennett on Worldbuilding

Editor’s note: Here is Philip Palmer, in an email dialogue with Robert Jackson Bennett. (Publisher’s note: Don’t these guys ever do any work?)

Hi Robert

I finished Mr. Shivers a couple of days ago, and I’ve been mulling about it since.

Why does it make me think of the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil?  That’s not the story of your actual novel, but it has that feel about it.  Very haunting. And I loved the sequence in which [THIS SENTENCE IS A SPOILER AND HAS BEEN DELETED – The Guy from Orbit].

What made you pick that world?  And how did you research it?

One of the things I’ve been aware of in the last few years as a science fiction novelist is how ‘world building’ is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing because creating a world from scratch –  naming planets, creating civilisations, inventing styles of clothing, and sometimes even making up  jargon – is a joy.  And it’s a curse because, well, you can get lost doing that stuff.

My secret fear is that one day I’ll enter the realm of Debatable Space, sit down in a bar with a bunch of spooky aliens and scary space pirates, and never return.

World building is something only SF and Fantasy writers do.  Literary writers and historical writers and crime writers observe worlds. They read books and newspapers, they check facts, but all the real work has been done for them.

But SFF writers have to make it up. We are realist writers of imaginary worlds; and we work much harder than those literary guys.

The curse of world building though is that you have to be consistent.  Dates have to match.  The Future History has to be consistent and coherent.  And that can be fun; but it can also can be dampening to creativity.  One solution is to have lots of parallel universes – not for any valid creative reasons, but simply to excuse any inevitable errors.  Okay, in this book it may seem as if the writer has blundered by saying that Betelgeusans have six legs and four eyes (instead of four legs and six eyes, as they had in the previous novels); but that’s because it’s a parallel universe!

And, in one of these parallel universes, science fiction writers never cheat, or cut corners, or tell lies, or drink too much. But not in this universe.

Anyway, that’s what we  SFF writers do for a living: create universes from scratch. In other genres, however the world is already built; someone (God), or some thing (emergence and evolutionary forces) has already done the heavy lifting.

In my previous career I wrote mainly crime dramas, and research was my god. I used to read books on crime, and meet police officers and criminals and hear their stories. And learn about their worlds. That’s always fascinated me; how different sub-cultures and groups create their own reality.  If you’re a copper, you live in copperland; if you’re a criminal, all your friends are criminals and all your value systems are skewed accordingly.

That research keeps paying off, since a lot of my SF stories and characters are influenced by criminals and coppers I’ve spent time with.  Because those people are, frankly, much more interesting (oops! should I say this?) than my actual friends.  My friends are almost all writers; they watch telly in the evening and sit at the computer all day. Like me, they don’t do anything.  But cops and robbers and murderers are always out there, breaking or enforcing laws, and often putting their lives in peril.

They are, in short, the stuff of which heroes and villains are made.  In fact, now I come to think about it; I really miss spending time with these guys.

And the thing which intrigues me about this whole ‘worldbuilding’ concept is this: Which worlds do we build, and why?

They are never, let’s be frank, nice worlds. Look at the world of Avery Cates, created by Orbit author Jeff Somers – it’s crap! People are very violent.  Our main character is a career criminal and an assassin, and we’re meant to condone his behaviour, and root for him.  It’s a dystopian world, not a utopian world; because that’s what readers want to read about.

Imagine a future in which men and women live together in harmony, and treat alien species with respect, and there is no war, no injustice, and no appalling bloody brutal murders.

How dull would that be!  There are in fact a number of SF books with such utopian visions; but they tend to bore me rigid.

No, to build a world you’ve got to take all the most awful, ghastly immoral aspects of our actual world and place them in some exotic (even if it’s grimly so) setting.  It could be a medieval type society with warriors killing each other; or a future world in which war and genocide are a matter of course.  That’s the real trick of world building; you don’t build just any old world, you build a really scary world.

And I guess the trick you play with Mr. Shivers is to find an historical world in which things were really crap for very many people.

This was my challenge with my newest novel, Version 43. Without giving too much away about the predecessor novels, Debatable Space and Red Claw, I would just say that it’s not entirely out of the question that the good guys win.  So, it occurred to me, what then?

If the Clanton gang are all killed, peace arrives in Tombstone; and who wants to watch that movie?  If the Evil Empire is defeated, it can be replaced by the Really Nice Liberal Democracy: bo-ring.

So with Version 43, I had to invent a new universe – the Exodus Universe – where the bad guys are still in charge.

And then I had to name the planet on which my story takes place – and I called it Belladonna, which is a pretty word with a deadly connotation.

And then I had to visualise the architecture. Decide on the transport system.  Choose a clothing style for the characters.  Invent a system of government.  And decide on the language.  In Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess devised his own language and vocabulary for his characters; as Orwell did in 1984. But Orwell was clever enough to have a  future world in which evolved English is spoken – so only a few words are different. In far future worlds – anything beyond the 23rd century – language may have changed enormously, and be incomprehensible to anyone alive today.  But no publisher is going to publish a novel in a language no-one speaks; so a cheat is always needed. There needs to be a flavour of difference in the language, enough to give a tang; but essentially it has to be in the reader’s language, or the game is up.

I play a trick in Version 43, to explain the retro feel of the clothes and some of the vocabulary.  I like tricks; they keep the reader on his or her toes.

And after writing that novel, I realised; worldbuilding is more than half the fun.  So rather than writing novel after novel with the same Future History, I’m aiming to ring the changes with my future books. Yes,  I wasn’t entirely kidding about those parallel universes….

Anyway, Robert; that’s all from me for now: I have to create a universe before lunch….

– Phil