Fictional Geography by Karen Lord
When I hear that term worldbuilding, I can’t help but think of Tolkien the academic. He provided the template for fantasy worldbuilding: maps, languages, eras-worth of politics and history, genealogies, unique flora and fauna, and peoples with all manner of costumes and customs. Science fiction has its academics too—Asimov, Benford, et al—tweaking stories out of real or slightly adapted quirks of physics, astronomy, chemistry and biology. Speculative fiction is the geek paradise—the place to be as a reader if non-fiction thrills you as much as fiction, if you need but the slightest excuse to research dead languages, distant cultures, far-off planets, whispers of future technology, and legends ancient and urban.
(Nothing nearby, nothing too well-known and contemporary, please. It’s interesting enough when a mystery is set in modern-day Paris, but what really catches the attention is the ‘what-if’ of an alternate Paris with its underground passageways and catacombs populated by the not-quite-human; or New Paris on Earth’s second successful extrasolar colony, with the megasized, grav-boosted replica of the Eiffel Tower.)
Of course, the problem with worldbuilding is that too rich and detailed can be just too much, and yet the components of the made-world must be as multifaceted as the real world to be as convincing. It’s a talent that needs a balanced set of skills, both an eye for detail and a sense of simplicity. I’ve read authors who are brilliant at describing alien landscapes, futuristic architecture and intricate artefacts of magic and power, but then have their heroes travelling through suspiciously verdant lands in which it hardly, if ever, is seen to rain. It may be strange, but I am as delighted by the midges of Midgewater Marsh as I am by the artistic strokes of Elvish runes. You can’t go cross-country adventuring and not get bitten by something!
I love geography, both the commonplace and the fantastic. I wonder sometimes what a speculative fiction novel written by a geographer would look like. What real-world phenomenon would I be inspired to research after reading it? Would there be cataclysmic events galore, or processes both subtle and slow? I’d prefer the latter. I was fascinated by Krakatoa after an episode of The Time Tunnel, but now, surfeited with comet collisions, sudden-onset ice age and other radical scenarios, I want something a little more nuanced, not geography-as-crisis, but geography as crucible.
I’d like to see a story where rather than serving the plot, geography directed and influenced the narrative, pervaded the description, and showed its stamp on the dialogue, dress and physiology of every denizen. I want solar eclipses that simply happen without conveniently saving the protagonist from being sacrificed by surprisingly ill-informed sun-worshippers. How about a heroine whose skin cracks in the dryness of cold winters, or a hero burdened by a severe allergy to pollen. Show me a town where people must wear waterproofs, or else risk pneumonia.
I want the rain to fall often on the green land, and yes, I even want the midges to bite.