Apropos Dianna's review of the various manifestations of Dune, I thought I'd throw in a thought on my own tastes.

(Completely stupid tangent that you can safely skip: I can't use the word "Apropos" without thinking of the Three Musketeers. Aramis! Porthos! And Apropos, the musketeer who builds on the accomplishments of other musketeers!)

Dianna makes mention of Dune's extensive appendices. Its glorious appendices. I've read Dune a couple of times, but I've read its appendices dozens of times. This leads me to probably my favorite aspect of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy novels: world building. Plot, sure, vitally important, a force of nature and all that. Characters, great, fleshed out, the rounder the better. But what really wins me over is the world. I don't just mean a high concept (Howsabout a planet where apes evolved from man?). I mean books where we don't just get a place, we get the place's geography, its races, its ethnicities, its religions, its cultures, its political forces, and, most importantly, its history. I probably care more about how the world got to be the way it is than I do about how it is now.

In some ways, I feel like good world building expands the value of a novel beyond the confines of its particular circumstances. A well-made world is a playground for the imagination. You can read and appreciate the events of the novel, sure, and see them as a sort of starter adventure, but once it's done you're free to explore your own ideas for grand political intrigues and smaller personal dramas.

That's one of the reasons, moving on to lower-brow science fiction, that I love Star Wars. Not the movies, even the original trilogy, none of which are amazing. But there is an extensive secondary literature surrounding the Star Wars universe that fleshes out the important figures, the groups, the races, the planets, the history, etc. It's one of the most well-developed science fiction universes out there. My big disappointment with the prequel trilogy was that the history I'd constructed in my mind of the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire based on the robust secondary literature was so much grander than the tale of adolescent rebellion that George Lucas gave us. But who cares? I still have my Star Wars Encyclopedia and Ship Schematics Manual. I can make my own fun with that.

That's also why I tend to buy a lot of manuals for pen-and-paper role playing games, even though I hardly ever play them. I haven't really found a group to play with, but I can have hours of fun leafing through the supplemental books on regions and groups and deities.

I realize I'm pretty far out of the mainstream on this. Seldom do readers say, as I have, "I'm bored with this character! Tell me about the hats these people wear, along with the 500 year history behind their appearance and symbolic meaning. And, if you have time, include a Foucaldian analysis of the way in which the wearing of hats subtly reinforces the society's dominance structures." On the other hand, I feel like a well-built world can be useful even within the context of a single novel, without outside imaginative play coming into it.

For starters, a thoroughly imagined world has more immediacy and interest than one simply slapped together from stock cliches. You can certainly carry an adventure in a generic fantasy world on characterization, but they'd better be some damned lovable characters. It also makes the reader care a lot more about the plot. They come to know and care about a deeply sketched world a lot more, and will be more likely to throw their emotional weight into their reading. It also, I would imagine, helps the author in plotting to have a thoroughly planned world in which to work.

Obviously, though, this world building needs to be integrated smoothly into the plot. It doesn't matter if there's a fascinating story that you've developed about why all your elves have exactly nine toes and eleven fingers if it never gets mentioned in the book. At the same time, it can't be done ham handedly. "Lord Flostrand shook the elf's six-fingered hand. By the way, have I mentioned why elves have eleven fingers? It's a fascinating story... (Here follows six pages on the elves and their hands, before we finally get back to the beleagered Lord Flostrand, who by this point has gotten bored and gone home, taking the reader with him)." Appendices seem like a nice compromise for getting all of your favorite world-building points in that you couldn't fit into the actual novel, and they avoid burdening uncooperative readers with tedious exposition about matters not directly relevant to the plot. On the other hand, they are a bit of an awkward kludge, and it's obviously better to seamlessly integrate everything you want into the actual novel.

So, there you have it. Effective world-building is a strong positive, provided it is handled in a deft manner. I would argue it's important in both science fiction and fantasy, but even moreso in science fiction, given that much of the point of science fiction is to explore how our world would be/will be different if certain things develop in a certain manner. And even Science Fiction not of a speculative bent benefits (What if, in the future, we traveled through space by folding it in the minds of special humans mutated by a spice which only grows on one planet in the universe, and the universe were ordered along feudal lines, and also there's a cult of witches who have a great master plan to breed a messiah who can bend space and time without the spice? And also...). In fact, Dune is arguably a novel in which the speculative elements have been entirely thrown out in favor of world-building.

So that's it. Writing advice from someone who's never written a novel. Hope it helps!


"I'm bored with this character! Tell me about the hats these people wear, along with the 500 year history behind their appearance and symbolic meaning. And, if you have time, include a Foucaldian analysis of the way in which the wearing of hats subtly reinforces the society's dominance structures."

That made me laugh out loud, at work. Thanks a lot.

Speaking of hats, one of my favorite scenes in the Dune miniseries involved a meeting between the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (I love that name!) and a representative of the Spacing Guild. It was nicely scripted and directed; they circled each other with elaborate casualness while speaking in careful riddles, but the real thing that I loved about it was the hats.

The Reverend Mother's hat had two large petal-shaped wings attached to it, folded out at a roughly 25-degree angle from each other. Viewed from the back of her head, it looked like a vagina.

The Spacing Guild representative's hat was a short, stubby tower rising seamlessly from the top of his head. Viewed from any angle whatsoever it looked rather phallic.

I enjoyed that.


So I'll have you know that your review and all this Dune talk caused me to return to New York from home with a backpack that contained, among other things: My copy of Dune, the novel, my copy of Dune, the David Lynch movie (which I was surprised to learn I own), and my taped-from-TV copy of the Dune Miniseries.

Hooray! Perhaps you'll find things about which to disagree wildly with me, and we can do long-winded counterpoint reviews to the utter exhaustion of the blog-reading audience!

Now, I know you're more inclined toward science fiction than fantasy, but have you ever read the Riftwar books by Raymond E. Feist, or the spinoff Empire books which Feist wrote collaboratively with Janny Wurts? The Empire books are better, to my mind, mostly because of world-building. They are essentially an extended appendix to the Riftwar series, in which the world that was casually created to be "that weird place on the other side of the rift" is fleshed out in phenomenal fashion. Not only do we get the necessary things like geography and politics -- and oh, what politics -- we also get the history, religion, agriculture, economics, etiquette, and mineral resources. It's lovely. And while politics may be par for the course in world-building, the politics of the Empire are truly outstanding and dwelt upon in such loving relentlessness that every time I read them I find myself cackling over how well Person X arranged the forces of diplomacy and political custom to really fuck over Person Y.

The titles are Daughter of the Empire, Servant of the Empire, and Mistress of the Empire. If you're interested I'll even drop my copy of the first one in the mail to you, because I'm very invested in finding someone else who'll appreciate the world-building.

I returned home this evening from my elderly, widowed mother's house (an hour's drive from here), having taken her for her weekly groceries.. (I'm the dutiful only son). I checked the internet only to see that my stocks were way down ..a trend which plagues me endlessly.. . anyway I remembered that the CTV 6 oclock news was going to do a blurb on the merits of rustproofing your auto (it is now after midnite), so I was trying to find it on the station's website when I stumbled onto a story highlighting the latest disgusting rants of Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola. He gives me coronaries ..but I'm O.K. I figured since I had nothing better to do until bedtime that I would find his website and break it to him that he is suffering from dilusions of adequacy that could be quickly and easily remedied with a Drano coctail..when, I stumbled onto a piece written re the above by a self proclaimed heathen by the name of Dianna and I thought gee, I couldn't have articulated as wonderfully as she. The next thing you know, I'm exploring her website and a moment later.. I'm onto your website!! YES, and here I was, exploring your apartment pics. and feeling a bit naughty to boot at peeping into a complete stranger's house! Well, there you have it.. isn't the internet a completely silly and fascinating instrument that let's you go peeping and leaving a meaningless comment in the Comments Box of a complete stranger! Anyway, this has been fun and I have enjoyed exploring your site (and your home.. nice building!), and I'll leave you with this unsolicited parting gift of a literary recommendation .. I am reading a brilliant series comprised of 8 books by author Dorothy Dunnett, the series known as 'The House of Niccolo', a fascinating tale of young apprentice dyer who schemes his way to the helm of a mercantile empire in 15th century Europe. Historically rich and 90% of the characters did in fact exist.
So long, I think the drugs are wearing off..

Much obliged, Jim. Feel free to stop by in the future.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on November 14, 2005 5:26 PM.

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