Worldbuilding is a fascinating subject rife with arguments and factions. It’s obviously a topic that the SFF community will never be quiet about (not that it should ever shut up about it), and I’m here to do my part screaming into the void about it. Most folks are probably familiar with the large, beautifully written tomes that spend hundreds, if not thousands of pages unveiling intricate worlds that are candy for reader’s eyes and brains. Just look at our breakdowns of many science fiction and fantasy series such as Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Witcher, and The Culture, and you’ll see that we love a good world. When there is more room in a series, or even a single book, there is more opportunity for the world to take on a life of its own. It’s fertile ground for intricate plots to grow. It’s a place for characters from all walks of life to collide and bounce around like suspended solids in a solution.
I love watching a universe be created before my very eyes by an author. Waiting for them to flick that first domino after watching them set it all up. Knowing that I’m either watching something fall completely apart or waiting for the reveal of an intricate design. Where we are has such an impact on who we are as people, it’s only fair that worlds in stories have the same weight. And an easy way to amplify and showcase the impact of that weight is time, ink, and reams of paper. One wants to make the reader feel that the place is alive, so that when characters act within it, it doesn’t feel like a toy, or a backdrop. It should feel like it has its own will and need to survive in the same way a character does. So while I sometimes lambast the need for extravagant and indulgent worldbuilding, I also wholeheartedly love it and admire the authors that put the effort into creating such satisfying realms.
But, it is a double edged sword and worldbuilding is something that can very easily spin out of control, filling pages and pages full of information that can be placed in a misguided fashion. There is a veritable arms race within the genres as author’s try to create and explore ever more unique worlds based on the cultures they come from, or cultures they find interest in. And while I love watching systems grind characters into paste for the reader’s enjoyment, I have read some books recently that took a step back from the intricate and zany worlds we have all come to love.
Both Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer, and Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro provide rich character stories, through clever and efficient worldbuilding techniques. They do it differently, to varying affect/effect, but utilize some of the same tools. Instead of blasting you with a full review of each book, I wanted to take a sharper look at how they handle the world through the character’s specific experiences. This isn’t to say that big shelf breaker volumes are unnecessary, but to explore what can be accomplished with minimal, yet dense worldbuilding.
Jeff Vandermeer is a known and established force within SFF/horror/weird literature with a well deserved popularity. His Southern Reach trilogy was my first foray into the weird genre, carving out paths within systems of the human psyche that left unforgettable marks. Since it was given to me as a gift(our very own Cole, actually he got me both of these books), I picked up Veniss Underground with delight. And wouldn’t you know it, looking back at Vandermeer’s humble beginnings has been a revelatory experience. The story is told from three different perspectives, each given a unique voice based on their position within the story. Nicholas, told from the first person, explodes into the first couple of chapters, slang dripping off of him like a good summer sweat. Vandermeer smashes into your imagination, forcing the reader to play along, and accept the world for how it’s seen through Nicholas’ eyes. He’s practically begging you to come along for a ride, but you don’t know if it’s a roller coaster, carousel, or an elevator to hell.
Nicola, Nicholas’ twin sister takes up the mantle shortly afterward, told through second person. Often, the “you’s” can feel accusatory(one of the best parts about second person in my opinion), but here Vandermeer ingratiates the reader to the world. Gone is the shock of Nicholas’ slang, replaced with a hand guiding you through the world. The various aspects of the book’s world slide by you as if you are walking the streets yourself. Information is delivered in an offhand way that feels like it’s always been a part of your knowledge base, and of course it has, “you” live here. You feel a little more comfortable, but then along comes Nicola’s former lover, Shadrach. Told from the third person perspective, Shadrach is accompanied by a talking meerkat he has named John the Baptist. Information is sometimes delivered by this despicable being, but done in a way that purposefully alienates the reader. You, like Shadrach, don’t belong underground. It is a world not meant for humans, and while Shadrach seems to understand this, and know aspects of it, he still experiences the underground’s indifference to his cause. His observations of what’s going on around him focus on what he needs to do to find Nicola and rescue her, and so the mysteries remain mysteries. You are tagging along for the ride.
It was fascinating to read Vandermeer’s descriptions because he focused on limiting the perspectives and what they were able to ingratiate within their mental portrait of the world. Their journey’s weren’t about discovering the world, but ingratiating themselves just enough to achieve their own goals. Shadrach walks into a full scale war in the underground at one point, and because it didn’t involve him or humans in any sort of manner, there was no real reason to get involved. Sure he asked a few questions, but the answers didn’t sway him to care for either side. As the reader, I didn’t feel compelled either. Sure, the curiosity itch existed, but I wanted to get out of dodge as fast as Shadrach. It didn’t matter who won or lost, why they were fighting. Even in the subsequent scene, where the quest reaches its climax and the “villain” reveals his plan, there is a resigned indifference on the part of the villain. The world is too big for Shadrach, and his part too small to play. The cosmos is crushing already, the weight of the world is salt on the wounds.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, accomplishes a similar efficiency, but increases the interiority of the character’s headspace, while dialing back on the information. Kathy is a student at the vaunted Hailsham. She has her set of friends, and goes through the motions of being a student at this school. Told through a retrospective as Kathy looks back on her life, a lot of assumptions are made by Kathy in her telling of the story. Words like “Carer,” “Guardian,” and “Donor” are capitalized in her head, clueing the reader into a different meaning than they are used to. Questions about the school that the reader might have are unasked by the students, but even weirder stories and questions replace them. Things happen, and while the reader and characters are left to wonder, the school fails to produce answers.
Even though the world of Never Let Me Go exists in the margins of Great Britain, it has its own geography. The various places the characters live in have their own names and textures. They serve as waystations through their lives, waystations that really don’t have much of a point beyond this is where they should be at specific times in their lives. Again, the questions are there, just beyond the page. But much like real life, it feels stupid to ask them. It gives the reader an uncanny valley feeling. We know this world as much as we don’t know it. And it successfully makes the characters more understandable, more reachable on an emotional level. It pulls you into their struggles by holding a warped mirror that is fuzzy in places and cracked in others. Ishiguro doesn’t rely on your knowledge of the world so much as amplify your feelings and experiences within it. The world wraps you in its complexity by revealing very little about it. And in that mystery it will devastate you.
Included with my copy of Veniss Underground is an afterword by Vandermeer himself. In it, he has the original kernel of the story from the perspective of the book’s “villain,” Quin. It’s a sort of behind the curtain explanation of the world the character creates. And it stops dead, mid sentence. While Vandermeer himself describes his journey of understanding his own world, a journey I appreciated, I distinctly felt my eyes slide over the Quin section. Knowing that Vandermeer himself recognized that was not the right story or perspective only solidifies my understanding. These stories aren’t adherents to a strict school of thought, but good examples of worlds built just enough for greatest impact. They feel as if they exist outside of the experience of the character’s limited point of view, but it’s all the reader has. That distinct lack contours so much more when handled deliberately and deftly. The perspectives become a candle within a darkened mansion, highlighting what they have time to see before the wax runs out. Where the dark halls of the Veniss Underground left me in awe, the sparse parlors of Never Let Me Go left me crushed and sobbing. If you haven’t you should check these books out. They are great reads, and who knows, maybe you’ll see the world in a different light.