I was reading a big fat space opera the other day. You know the kind. You’ve already read about this future. It’s the clunky 1970’s future full of dead rocks, long haul shipping, out-of-control corporations, more-or-less traditional gender dynamics glossed over by the inclusion of some “strong female characters,” and, absurdly – smoking in space stations(!?).
When I went to the Clarion writing workshop back in 2000, I had an instructor tell me that one of my stories suffered from “a failure of the imagination.” If you take a real hard look at most SF/F, you can probably say the same thing. There’s a conservative, comfortable bulk of the genre that just keeps writing about the same future, and exploring the same past. There’s good reason for this. People like comfortable fiction. They like seeing their present reflected in the future. Most importantly, it sells well.
But it’s lazy writing.
For me, the most satisfying part of what I do as a storyteller is to interrogate the assumptions we have about what it means to be human. As spec fic writers, we have this fantastic canvas we totally cut up, rearrange, back over, throw mud at, or burn down on command. The world is literally a blank page, and all that limits what we put on that page is the narrowness of our own thoughts and expectations.
I remember being told as a teen that I needed to read Bradbury’s Mars books. I tried. I really did. But when the guy Martian was sitting in the living room reading the paper while his wife made him some breakfast, I just… couldn’t. I mean, seriously. You took us to Mars and all the people acted like some 1950’s sitcom? Seriously? That’s… really all you’ve got?
If the stories you tell are limited by your assumptions, then building better worlds is about questioning your assumptions. It’s saying, “What if the expectation is that all women are physically powerful killers?” or “What if the sand in the desert ate you?” or “What if the world was powered by bugs?” And most importantly, it’s not just asking one of these questions, throwing the answer into a story, and then painting up a whole world around it that’s completely incongruent with that aspect of the world. So many people are content to just build a world around one idea. “What if children were all raised in government compounds?” Well, that’s nice, but it’s not terribly interesting in and of itself. You have to decide what kind of world would create that kind of situation, and who the people would be who lived in that world. And then, if you’re insane like me, you start piling other stuff on top of that. Ok, what if children are raised in government compounds, and all the vehicles run on blood, and gravity is half of ours, and people form multiple marriages that function like corporations, and there are six seasons, and sometimes acid rains from the sky?
And then you go back again and you say, OK, cool. Now, based on all that, who would the people be who were raised in this world? How would these aspects of the world interact with each other, and how would they change other things? Would people interact differently? How would the economy work if blood was fuel? If acid rained from the sky, how would you build your houses? If these corporation-marriages aren’t formed to raise children because the government does that, what do they leverage all those resources and power for? Is there a need for contraception, or is fertility tightly controlled? And how does that affect sexual relationships?
This is intense, immersive worldbuilding, the stuff that goes beyond “Papa read the paper and mamma made toast and oh yeah we have two moons.” This is stuff that opens with a sentence like, “The night Pavan escaped his sixty-person marriage, he got his first job milking orphaned children for blood and selling it at the local fuel station. Those were the best days of his life.”
That’s a dynamic world. It’s one you probably haven’t seen before. And it’s my delight in exploring worlds like these – the ones that bend and twist my brain and challenge me to think in news ways – that’s the real payoff for me in reading SF/F.
It’s also why I build the kinds of worlds I do. There just aren’t enough imaginative worlds around. And if you think that’s baloney, try to remember the last time you read a best-selling epic fantasy novel with a woman warrior who wasn’t presented as an anomaly, or a space opera with no such thing as a “pod” or “shuttle” or “cruiser.”
There are vast, amazing, powerful, imaginative ways to see the world. It’s heartbreaking that even in a genre that promises us the fantastic, we very often get the mundane.
So be bold. Think bigger. You won’t regret it.
Kameron Hurley is the author of the award-winning novel GOD’S WAR and its sequel, INFIDEL. Her third book, RAPTURE is forthcoming from Night Shade books in fall 2012. Learn more at godswarbook.com. For more of her rants on the writing, the universe, and everything, visit kameronhurley.com.