One reason I am drawn to speculative fiction — both reading what others have written and creating it myself — is its potential for radical what ifs. By that, I mean that speculative fiction is uniquely positioned to wonder about and critique the current world in which we live. It offers an alternative to and an escape from existing paradigms. Really good worldbuilding requires a kind of mind that understands how societies are currently structured, how they may be structured elsewhere, and what those structures may evolve into.
I believe I’ve said before that I write fantasy in large part because I love worldbuilding. I like the sandbox quality of spec fic, and specifically fantasy; the possibility of creating a universe from scratch is very exciting to me. But nothing happens in a vacuum. Nothing can ever truly be objective. I see the world through a particular lens, my choices are informed by my experiences and ideas which resonate with me. We all have what I think of as foundational texts — those narratives that define elements of the world to us and can become a lens through which we makes sense of life around us.
I first read Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (click through for full text) when I was 18 years old. Prior to that, I had been reading tons of Marx, tons of Trotsky and Lenin. And I’d been perturbed that Marxist theory never seemed to dig quite deep enough. All oppression is connected — so how do material conditions get elaborated into class structures? And I found this book, devoured it, and it became a primary lens through which I make sense of the world around me.
Engels’ work explores how ecological conditions (scarcity, surplus, the availability of resources) define the social relationships of a group. If there’s not enough to go around, when there’s no surplus, there’s no private property. And when there’s no private property, there’s no inheritance. But when a surplus happens and an inheritance becomes a thing, people want to make sure what they have gets passed to their kids. Now for the one doing the birthing, it’s pretty easy to keep track of who is and is not your kid. For the other parent — the one who supplied sperm and is not directly involved in the whole birth thing — there appears to them to be a reason to control the womb-haver’s body and to make sure their sexuality is kept in check lest all those scraped together resources get passed to kids who are not, in fact, the sperm-haver’s.
The thing that draws me to this line of thought most is how Engels deconstructs biological essentialism. No, women are not just naturally nurturing so they should stay at home with babies. Maybe we say that, but that’s not what’s going on. Engels would say instead perhaps we’re sequestering them so there’s little opportunity for men to be cuckolded. Maybe that’s what’s going on.
When I’m embarking on building a new world, I work actively to a) avoid essentialism and b) build a culture (literally) from the ground up.
Essentialism — or the belief that differences between groups of people are fixed and unchanging — is a way to reify the boundaries of one group against another. Gender differences are often explained through biological essentialism (men and women do different things in society because they are just built different). Given that essentialism is so incredibly pervasive in our cultural understanding of the world, it’s not at all shocking that I see a lot of essentialism leak into speculative fiction.
The thing about essentialism, both in terms of fiction and real world thought, is that it is lazy. The human mind and the human experience are incredibly multi-faceted. We are enormously complex beings who live in nearly unimaginable complexity with each other. Nothing about us just is because it is. In worldbuilding especially, essentialism is a mark of an uncommitted writer. It signals to me that an author just checked out of that part of their world. “It just is, ok? Don’t look too close” is what they seem to say.
In my own worldbuilding, I am very much drawn to the margins. I like to write about those on the outskirts of respectability, of society, those who don’t quite fit. But in order to do that well I have to make the story about that individual’s positionality against a larger cultural framework. It’s not that this person is just an inherently amazing person, it’s that this person is forced to navigate choppy cultural waters with a sometimes incompetent boat. The drama is in the tension between that person and the context (or their boat and the ever-changing ocean). And contexts are dynamic. They are anything but stable. Why do they change? How do they change? Who changes them, and do they change back? These are the kinds of questions that often have unsatisfying answers if you are relying on essentialism to explicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings.
From the Ground Up
The other major thing I pay attention to is the ecological material conditions in which a culture exists. Cultures are fascinating because they are, in essence, both a tool to shape the environment around you in a collective way and a collective reaction to the environment. Whenever I am building something out and I’m not sure why/how it came to be, I take it back down to the material context. What is the food like? Is it scarce? How dense is the population? What are the resources available — stone, wood, minerals? Sorting that stuff out often gives me an insight into why a population may have moved from one part of the world to another, or what kind of relationship they have with the natural world down the line.
In the case of one of my cultural groups, it has been useful to understand how their culture and their understanding of their culture has changed due to a vicious and devastating war. With a literal fraction of their people remaining, having been disenfranchised and quite technically blown back to the stone age, how do they deal with, say, abortion? Is it possible that it could have been not a big thing before and is a Huge Deal now? The conditions are different, and cultures either evolve or they die.
Engels and Magic
I would advocate this materially grounded approach to understanding cultural development to basically any writer. Want to write characters from a different positionality than your own? Engels might be able to help. Want to explore a cultural context you did not grow up in? Do a lot of research and think about what questions Engels might ask you to push you deeper.
But I think his approach is especially fruitful in spec fic. In Aerdh, I have essentially a secondary earth but one in a universe where there is an additional natural force of magic. The fabric of reality is, essentially, just a little bit more malleable in certain places, which can be capitalized on by those with certain capabilities. Plugging Engels into this idea forced me to think through things like following:
- what would make one culture approve of magic and another disapprove? how much of that approval/disapproval is related to the movement or access to resources?
- how can magic be commodified (or not) as a resource?
- how does the expression of magical abilities interact with other biological processes to create vulnerabilities for a population? (for example, if magic increases longevity, there may be a concordant reduction in fertility rates to keep populations from exploding. and if that happens, the comparatively smaller number of magical beings might be at risk for colonization by mundane beings).
Do you draw on a particular discourse or framework when you are elbow-deep in crafting a world? What thinkers do you return to again and again for insight? I’d love to here from you in the comments!