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The
Challenge
of
World-Building

By Eric Layman

[This article was published in the November/December 1999 issue of The Voyageur. One of Eric's Hlugot stories, "Too Much Like Us," appeared in the September/October 2001 issue.]

Few pursuits expand the imagination like world-building. In science fiction, it's more than fun; it's essential. This article highlights what I've learned about it through practice, in the hope you'll find my guidelines useful.

World-building is for any creative talent—actor, decorator, designer, engineer, whatever. It encompasses everything from Tolkien shaping Middle-earth to someone working within the Star Trek universe to make costumes.

Around age 9, I invented a continent discovered by Odysseus on his final voyage, with a history from antiquity to the 1950s. I drew maps and pictures, invented languages, and made stories about this place.

Since childhood, I've made a hobby of inventing languages. Most, I've soon dropped; but in summer '92, I rose to the challenge of giving the next language a long-term effort, to make it feel like a living tongue with its own world, speakers and evolution.

I wasn't aware how far this project would lead.

For one thing, it meant research, not just on language, but fields as diverse as economics and planetology. To feel real, a language must encompass every aspect of life: not just written laws, etc., but non-linguistic facets like colour perception.

The friends I told about this project felt that for my imaginary world to come alive, it also needed stories. Life is action, and action is expressed in narrative. (If you don't write stories, you might work with someone who does.)

At the time, I hadn't written much fiction, but being a history buff, I created an imaginary history. You needn't begin with language or history, though; start with any field you know well.

Many writers, like Hal Clement, start with science, base a possible world on it, then imagine people and stories that belong there. Other writers create characters, then build worlds around them. A painter might paint landscapes, then imagine stories which could take place inside the pictures.

Back in '92, my imaginary people were Terrans on a one-way starship, colonizing a planet without other sentients. Due to accidents and payload restrictions, they had to found their colony at subsistence level, with primitive technology. However, they retained literacy and some science.

I worked out details of the colonists' early history, and showed a friend, Jim Roberts, samples of the language. And this led to a major change.

Jim pointed out that if the colonists spoke English on setting out, and remained literate, their language would change less than my samples did. Living written languages remain relatively stable, even over three or four centuries.

An imaginary world has to be plausible; so what to do? Scrap the language and start over? Lengthen the timeline, and/or have the first generations lose literacy, so the language could change more? Create a new, alien species whose major language sounded remarkably Terran?

Being plausible doesn't necessarily mean avoiding the impossible; it means internal consistency. Whether for dragons or faster-than-light travel, your world needs its own causality, which entails limitations. Anne McCaffrey's dragons need rest after fighting Thread.

By spring '93, I decided what to do. I loved my project too much to scrap it. I welcomed the challenge of creating a species much like Terrans, yet different in important ways; and I wanted to write from these aliens' viewpoint. Thus were born the species called the Hlu.

I call their language Hluglot. I continually add vocabulary and idioms, and do some writing in it, to help envision how it feels to be a Hlu.

Besides history, dictionary, grammar and science fiction, the Hlu project includes drawings, maps, poems, songs and mythology. To make my universe as rich as possible, I have to be diverse in my productions.

Even if you're not shaping a new world but filling in details of an already created one, diverse interests are an advantage. Filkers writing Klingon songs might want some knowledge of Klingon hearing range and vocal apparatus.

You revise as you learn. Hluger, the Hlu homeworld, has greater climatic extremes than Terra, which I once thought required a more elongated orbit. On learning that climatic differences depend mainly on axial tilt, I gave Hluger greater tilt instead (30 degrees, compared to Terra's 22-23).

Don't revise too much, though; you can't always follow advice. Your world should embody your values.

A case in point:

The "real" languages I know belong to the Indo-European family, with members as diverse as Sanskrit and English; and Hluglot uses Indo-European word roots. When I met Marc Okrand at Toronto Trek 13 (1999), however, he advised against Indo-European roots: they don't sound alien enough. Is he right?

I love Hluglot too much not to use it—besides which, I retain it well enough to use it as a living language, e.g. in a diary, without continually consulting my dictionary. Marc had a point, but I'd already decided how to deal with Hluglot's resemblance to Indo-European languages. Hlu and Terran scholars debate the issue:

Is the resemblance coincidental? Didn't some Terran writer say the most improbable thing would be a world without improbabilities? Parallelism? Hluger and Terra have other historical parallels; why not language?

What about The Forerunners, the ancient, perhaps mythical species who either colonized the galaxy or accelerated the development of sentient species? Might the Forerunners have brought language with them?

The scholars are still talking...

Major References

  • Aliens and Alien Societies, by Stanley Schmidt; Science Fiction Writing Series, ed. Ben Bova. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books, 1995. This book gave me some good ideas, and confirmed some I'd formulated. The companion volume on alien planets, I haven't read.
  • Timescale: An Atlas of the Fourth Dimension, by Nigel Calder. London: Chatto & Windus, 1984. By outlining human evolution and scientific/technological progress, this book helped me decide and explain where the Hlu resemble Terrans, and where they differ.

A full list would include tomes as diverse as Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and Rostovtzeff's Rome. As to fiction, I've learnt most from writers I enjoy: Roddenberry, LeGuin, Gotlieb, Norton, Heinlein, Turtledove, Robinson, McCaffrey and Clement, to name a few.


Other articles by Eric Layman on this site:


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