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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

GUEST POST: More Than Seven Days by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Official Shadows of the Apt Website
Read FBC Review of "Empire in Black and Gold"
Read FBC Review of "Dragonfly Falling"
Read FBC Review of "Blood of the Mantis"
Read FBC Review of "Salute the Dark"
Read FBC Review of "The Scarab Path"
Read FBC Review of "The Sea Watch"
Read FBC Review of "Heirs of the Blade"
Read FBC Review of "The Air War"
Read FBC Review of "The War Master's Gate"
Read FBC Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky

It's a weird thing but "world building" can be a dirty word(s) in some corners of the genre. To spend time and effort lovingly crafting a setting for your characters and stories to play out in is regarded as a bit juvenile, I sometimes feel. There's a suggestion it's all a bit Dungeons and Dragons (and is that necessarily bad?), and not the occupation of a serious novelist, and people look down their noses at the maps and apparently feel the whole business relegates your work to a sort of lesser canon, not fit to contend for a Hugo, and most certainly not Literature. The setting, such a standpoint seems to suggest, should be a mere hobbling servant whose job it is to bring the lounging characters the cakes and wine of plot. "Excuse me, m'lord, but might I recommend the magic '72?" It's has a fruity symbolism and an aftertaste that acts as a foil to your inner nature..."

Or something. Enough hyperbole, anyway, but it's a harsh truth for a writer of epic fantasy that people get damned sniffy about fantasy worlds sometimes, and the level of detail that writers such as yours truly, like to put into 'em. It's as if a detail that is not direct and immediate fuel for the surging locomotive powerhouse of the plot is nothing but wasted words. They look at the big tomes of the epics, I sometimes feel, and tut tut tut, surely there are 20,000 words of description that could have been cut with nobody being the wiser. Dear oh dear...

Well, OK, my last few have been rather big, I hold my hand up on that one. It's not because I spent too long staring at the scenery, though, honest.

I am a writer who spends a great deal of time on my setting: the history and political entities; the factions, philosophies and races; the magic and metaphysics. For me, that's a big part of fantasy fiction. This also goes for me as reader. I love a well-crafted, immersive setting. It is not a crime to take that world away with you, as a reader, and want to return to it. It's perfectly all right to want to know more than the writer tells you. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that good settings are a major reason that the genre is popular. People remember great characters, certainly. They remember moments of high drama and tragedy. But equally they remember settings, and it is the settings that mark out fantasy. They are where the author's imagination is unleashed to its very fullest.

Counter-argument. A setting indulged for its own sake, for the author to show how very clever they are, how well-researched it all is, how elaborately constructed, that's toss, surely? Well, yes, I suppose it is, and probably it is a thing that happens. I just don't think it happens anywhere as often as the naysayers say. But it is true that setting is often used in a way that does not serve story in a direct and simple way. Setting creates somewhere for the story to happen, yes, but very often it is the minutiae of that setting that makes the stepping stones without which the story would either fail, or be simply far more mundane and less remarkable than it is.

Setting often provides the toolkit for both author and characters to navigate the story, provides the 'why' to the fantastic elements to prevent them seeming contrived and jarring, and opens the door onto any metaphor and meaning whereby the work reflects the real world. And is it truly an offence against the writer's craft to suggest that an immersive, living world is in itself a piece of art? These are the worlds that extend beyond the trammels of the pages themselves, the worlds that have a history and a geography and an existence that doesn't stop where the story stops - the worlds that let you know there's more than you've seen, ergo the worlds that you can return to, speculate about, write fanfic about. These are the worlds I love to read about. These are the worlds I try to write.

This is, for me, the core of fantasy fiction, the fount of possibility. Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo, Aragorn & etc, but it is also the story of Middle Earth; A Song of Ice and Fire is about Westeros (and the wider world) as much as any individual character; Perdido Street Station and its sequels are set in a vast, rich world of intricate detail. These are worlds of the imagination in the truest sense, because they become worlds of the reader's imagination. They are in no way lessened or made trivial by this fact.

Such settings are grand and complex memes all on their own. And, very often, they are made so by those little throwaway references that serve only the setting itself, and so open a brief door onto that wider world, so that when Martin writes of Asshai falling "under the Shadow", or Mieville of the difficulties of acquiring the wings of an assassin beetle, there is a moment of connection with a greater creation. And even if that greater creation has never been formally set down by the author in any notes or schemes, it is still there. The single reference creates that mental space between reader and writer, to be populated by the dreams of either, a kind of Schroedinger's Nation unless and until the author chooses to collapse the waveform by going there on a later visit.

In "A Tough Guide to Fantasyland" Dianne Wynne Jones talks about those fantasies where every inch of the map gets visited in the heroes' slogging progress towards prophecy-assisted catharsis. For me, it's always about the places you never go, but that you know are out there.

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Adrian Tchaikovsky is the pseudonym of Adrian Czajkowski, a British fantasy author. He was born in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire and studied zoology and psychology at Reading, before practicing law in Leeds. He is a keen live role-player and occasional amateur actor and is trained in stage-fighting. “Empire in Black & Gold” was his debut novel and since then he has gone on to write eight more books in the Shadows Of The Apt series. He currently lives in Leeds with his family.

NOTE: All cover art pictures courtesy of Stefan of Civilian Reader blog and Adam of The Wertzone. Author picture courtesy of Adrian Tchaikovsky and Jo Perridge.


Rick Robinson said...

Those skip the world building, just give me the plotsnobs are fewer and newer to the genre than you surmise, I think. What would Tolkien be without the maps to show us what is where? World building, in both science fiction and fantasy is a time honored and very desirable occupation, and no apologies need be made! If readers want books that only aim for an award, or to be or be like "literature" then let them go find some happy literature and leave the world builders to their essential task.

Alexander Gordon Jahans said...

I am probably one of those elitist snobs, even though I'm still at university and nowhere near published. I don't like descriptions, they bore me both as a writer and as a reader or listener. They slow things down to a crawl, ruin the pace and tell me how I should imagine something. That's why I don't like the TV adaptions of Discworld books. The people who make the adaptations read the descriptions and as a result when I watch them I see a world I didn't imagine and think looks naff.

I acknowledge however that world building has its merits and as a result I am trying to learn how to do so effectively, instead of just making it up as I go along. I feel that while the world should never ruin the pace of a book, the very fact that it is there and you know how it ticks makes the piece better and can create merchandise fans will greatly appreciate.


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