Posted by: kshayes513 | November 15, 2009

A Worldbuilder’s Benchmark Part 1: Science Fiction

I was clearing out a stack of old writing magazines when I came across a mini interview with Gordon Van Gelder, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which, if you don’t know it, is one of the oldest and most highly esteemed of the print genre magazines.  He was asked, what kind of stories was he most interested in seeing? Here’s what he was looking for in 2004 (and probably still is):

“A science fiction story that does something different with the SF elements (most of what I’m seeing lately reads like its written for a TV program).”

“A fantasy story that reaches the level of myth.”

These requirements seem to me to be as relevant for worldbuilders as they are for fiction writers, especially if you’re interested in creating an unusual world or an enduring one.

These standards probably mean something different to everyone who reads them. I’m going to talk a little here about what they mean to me, and what worlds they make me think of.

“Doing something different with the SF elements” is in a way, almost impossible to define.We don’t know what’s different until someone comes up with something new and we recognize it as such.  I haven’t been reading much SF lately, so I’ll have to give examples in terms of film and TV.

Take the alien arrival scenario. Nearly always in recent movies or TV, it’s done as hostile invaders coming to take over by military conquest (War of the Worlds, Stargate SG-1, ) or by subversion (V, Threshold). Then there’s District 9, where the humans herd the aliens into a refugee camp and keep them there for 20 years while the government experiments on them and their weapons. Now that’s a different take on the alien invasion!

A couple of other really original SF scenarios:

Lost, with its time bending stories and its secret organizations-and who’d ever think of being marooned on a tropical island as a science fiction scenario?

Children of Men, a post-pandemic story which is not about the heroic scientists finding a cure, but about an ordinary man in a world that has lost hope for the future, as he tries to protect the only pregnant woman in the world.

And one more, a short story I read in one of the online magazines (if I can find the story again, I’ll post the link here) that used advanced holographic technology, not for games or military applications, but to commemorate a suicide bombing by recreating the image and movements of every individual present just before the bomb went off.

If you have seen other remarkable story or worldbuilding uses of the usual SF material, post them here so we can all enjoy and be inspired.

In Part 2 I’ll discuss what I think it means for a fantasy story to reach the level of myth.

Update: The short story I mentioned is “Until Forgiveness Comes” by K. Tempest Bradford, published on Strange Horizons a year ago. On rereading, I find the recreation is a religious ritual, not holography as I remembered, but it doesn’t matter. It’s an extraordinary story. Go read it!


  1. Use of three dimensional worldbuilding

    I’m torn by the lack of three dimensional development in the movie District 9. On one hand, the lack of developing three dimensional characters and social groups defies the usual goal of story construction. But on the other hand, the misuse could be a technique to demonstrate the horrors of racism.

    No one appears embodying a complex character. The protagonist, Wikus van de Merwe, fails to grow as a character even when his life is threatened. He doesn’t have the ability to step inside the shoes of the alien, Christopher, even though his life depends on a mutual understanding. His only driving force is self survival. His wife and father in law show little depth in going beyond personal gains. The Multinational United (MNU) and media also seem narrow in focus. They can’t probe deeper than the obvious to discover why the aliens have landed or how to help their human population when the aliens expand.

    Yet maybe those are the very reasons a lack of three dimensionalism exist. The real story is showing the face of racism. Racism ignores logical evidence, and a broad view of problem solving. The tone might pervade to hit viewers with the weight of oppression as a person reels under the yoke of a powerful system that sets up barriers at every corner.

    I question though, that should writers not describe this type of worldbuilding with a display of three dimensions? Why couldn’t they show the weight of oppression as they set up a more complex way the factions and people exist with shades of grey? Would that approach have defeated the impact of the tale?

    What are your thoughts?

  2. Lots of stuff to think about here, Tom, thanks.

    First, I think it would be helpful to define what we mean by 3-dimensional worldbuilding. You do give some indications here. Maybe I’ll take up the challenge in a new post.

    As for District 9, I think that a 2 hour movie inherently limits the amount of complexity any story can hold. The more alien the culture, the more the filmmakers have to stick to basics, just so the audience can follow.

    I disagree that Wikus doesn’t grow or change here. He begins as a complete corporate tool, who will do whatever he’s told in the hope of promotion, and without a single serious thought about the larger ethical implications of how the prawns are being treated. Until he starts to become a prawn himself, and gets sucked into that same corporate machine. Its a big moment for him when he refuses the first order to shoot at the helpless prawn in the weapons lab; probably the first time in his life that he’s been able to identify with someone really different, not to mention the first time his conscience has ever exerted itself. Admittedly, he’s still a long way from an altruistic hero by the end, but he has made progress!

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