Following on my reblog of Louise Hallett’s post on the mind-expanding qualities of speculative fiction yesterday, I thought this would be a good time to talk about world building. This is also going to be a fan-girl post. I’ve been reading Finley Fenn’s “Orc Sworn” series for over a year. The series is going from strength to strength: increasingly complex characters and relationships, higher stakes in the battle between the venal humans and the Orcs. The series is extremely steamy and that’s what gets a lot of focus in reviews and reader discussions.
But I want to talk about Fenn’s amazing world building.
What is world building and why is it important in speculative fiction?
World building is the creation of a cohesive setting for the story. I’ve talked about world building before and the importance of doing research, much of which never ends up anywhere near the page, to inform the narrative. But in this post, I want to talk about cohesiveness. Where an author is asking a reader to believe in things outside the normal frame–be it magic or faster-than-light travel or brutally hot but surprisingly caring Orcs–if the setting doesn’t hang together, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is ruptured and the pleasure of reading the story can be lost. All the pieces have to fit, or the whole structure falls apart.
Without wishing to ding masters like Herbert and Asimov, the old “trick” for creating a cohesive, but otherworldly, setting was a rather clunky framing method. Either with a long prologue to the story, or huge chunks of exposition in the first few chapters about what makes this setting different from our daily reality, the author dumps an alternative history on the reader. This alternate history can make enjoyable reading on its own (folks who love Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion,” I’m looking at you), but this framing method can also kill the pace of the story and make the first few chapters a long slog that the reader pushes through to get to the good stuff.
I’d argue that this framing method is one of the things that makes speculative fiction impenetrable to some readers. Not everyone wants to read (or write) chapters of backstory just to understand the rules of magic, or the three centuries of conflict between the Orcs and the elves, or the history of the galactic empire. When I engage with readers about my own speculative fiction, one of the things I hear over and over is that they read to escape and don’t want to have to think too hard about the story’s setting. They want to be immersed in it. They want to setting to be invisible while they enjoy the characters and conflict.
The rise of urban fantasy in the late 1990s and early naughties shook up traditional speculative fiction story structure by plunging readers right into the action. Urban fantasy writers “drip” in backstory to explain the rules of their world. There are few prologues and no “info dumps” of backstory. The world building is invisible to the reader because it’s parcelled out in a wealth of tiny, unnoticeable details. The husband/wife writing team of Illona Andrews in their Kate Daniels series are absolute masters of this form of storytelling. Over several chapters they drop in detail after detail of “the shift” and how waves of magic are now erupting over our once-familiar world. In this setting, there’s nothing unbelievable about lion shape-shifters and ancient Babylonian gods trying to take over the world.
Although the “drip” technique can be initially frustrating to readers trying to find their feet in the “new world” of the story, I’d argue it’s more rewarding in the long-run because the world built by the “drip” technique is more fully-fleshed, more completely realised. The “drip” method mirrors our experience of the real world. We don’t know everything about a new place when we arrive in it. We discover it, detail by detail, until we’re familiar with the place and immersed in a new reality.
The “drip” technique is not an easy path for a writer. It takes a huge amount of imagination to envision a setting utterly different from our own, and a huge amount of talent to convey this world in detail after detail. Finley Fenn has both in spades. When I read the Orc Sworn series, there’s never a moment where I don’t believe I’m inside Orc Mountain. From the emphasis on smells and textures in the descriptions–because it’s dark underground, so characters wouldn’t rely on sight–to the complex culture she’s built around the constant tensions of living together in small, enclosed spaces, Fenn’s world is richly, beautifully, masterfully realised. The setting permeates every part of her narrative. The Orcs are paranoid, isolationist, dominant (and sometimes domineering) exactly because they’ve been squirrelled away inside Orc Mountain, defending themselves against the hostilities of men. Where many stories spin outward from the characters to the setting, Finley Fenn’s stories spin inward from the setting to the characters. That gives Fenn’s stories a depth and realism that’s not always found in speculative fiction and why I’m an absolute devotee of the Orc Sworn series.