Wednesday, October 15, 2008

World-Building in Speculative Fiction - Astrid Amara

We're waving the Flag today for Astrid Amara

What is it that excites readers about speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, horror)? Is it the sense of escapism into a world that is almost like ours, some place familiar and yet different enough to awaken the dormant explorer within us? Is it the expression of imagination, striving to define not only characters, but the very nature of the society in which they live? Or is it an opportunity to derive meaning through metaphor?

As a reader, I am most enchanted with spec fiction that takes me to a unique alternate universe - a place where the basic rules are different. Where the devils of hell won the battle in heaven. Or where the machines are run by biological components instead of the other way around. Or where the glittering future of space is sooty and tarnished with the messy detritus of our industrial past.




As a writer, I strive to create realistic worlds that are similar enough to our own that I can feel comfortable in them, and yet with enough difference to transport me outside my own realities. In Intimate Traitors, I visualized a plausible future of nanotechnology, oppressive governmental regime, and computers embedded in end-users to present a world that seemed plausible and yet foreign.



Similarly, in A Policy of Lies, I took trends in computer development and transported this to a satellite in space, complete with mining moons, all-powerful corporate oversight, and a futuristic insurance agency where if you sign a life insurance policy, the company literally owns your life.

Both of these are exaggerations of modern realism. It is world-building on a small scale. Nearly real, but different enough to add a challenge as a writer to create more than just plot and character – to create society, and cityscape, and political structure.



But it was with my fantasy novel The Archer's Heart that I had the most fun, creating a complete universe from scratch. Although based heavily on Indian epic tradition, I created a world and a society where caste defines all, where mystic powers are wielded by the nobility, and immortal demons themselves are transformed by the power of words into weapons of mass destruction.

In fantasy, the setting must become one with the story itself, and therefore, if the world-building is dull, then the story itself suffers. The two should build off each other, enhancing the quality of the character's journey until even the oddest settings become the only settings that story can take place in.

In my latest release, Hell Cop, I worked with two talented authors, Nicole Kimberling and Ginn Hale, and together we created three novellas that interact in the same alternate world. This gritty urban setting has a sorcerer-elite class, demons whose parts run their technology, and whose psychic powers can unravel mysteries. This was a great experiment in world-building; can three different authors make up a new universe and have all the rules apply equally? I think we pulled it off, and had a lot of fun doing so!


When I'm writing, I constantly ask myself the question: has this been done before? Because I want something fresh if I'm going into another world. And then I ask, am I faithful to the realism of my own world? Because nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than breaking one's own rules within the setting.

And the beauty of world-building a story with the author's unique mark is that it can be so much more than mere setting. It is the metaphorical power of fantasy and science fiction that allows for a world to be twisted around the character's experience, and serve as allegory for the theme of the story as a whole.

In realism, we see a person react to specific circumstance and illustrates the economic, political, and social conditions of our world today.

But since so much of fantasy is archetype-based, readers get more than just plot; they get a psychological journey, and an opportunity to question universals. It represents more than just one person, but what it is to be human, and the vivid, raw truth of what it means to live and breathe, fall in love and fight for one's dreams.

Wow. I didn't even mention that all my stories involve hardcore anal sex, did I?

Heh. But they do that as well. And again, that's the beauty of speculative fiction – if you're going to write an anal sex scene… why not put it on the moon? Oh the glories of fiction!

So there's my rant, but monologues are boring. What do you think? What is it that you enjoy most about stories set in alternate universes? When is some fabrication too much? And what are the worlds that stick in your mind as real places, as real as the emotions, the situations, and the characters themselves? I'd love to hear from you!

And I would be remiss if I didn't now thank Jeanne for the honor of being a guest blogger! Thank you so much.

About Astrid Amara
Astrid is the author of four science fiction/fantasy novels, all with gay protagonists:
Intimate Traitors
Hell Cop
(all available through Loose Id);

The Archer's Heart available through Blind Eye Books
She is also the author of two short stories in the gay fantasy anthology, Tangle, also available through Blind Eye Books.

Check out her website at: http://www.astridamara.com/ and help her Porn for Ponies campaign! That's right – every porn-y novel you buy puts more money in her savings to rescue an old, decrepit, bite-y pony!
Astrid's blog: http://astridamara.livejournal.com/

41 comments:

Jeanne said...

Hi, Astrid
I'm going to start the ball rolling because I am dying to know more about the world of The Archer's Heart. Even the cover is intriguing!

astridamara said...

Good morning! The Archer's Heart is set in an ancient-India like environment with jungles, temples, bustling urban sittings, chariots, and full of warriors. It is a world ruled by the Triya caste, and where the lower classes - especially the untouchable Jegora - live subject to the whims of their masters.

The Triya maintain their power using shartas, magical weapons which are curses - when they are uttered, they transform an individual Yashva (an immortal demon who resides in the Yashva demon realm) into a specific weapon on earth. Each demon has its natural form in its own world, but in the human world, usually only resides as a force or destructive energy. The ability to harness these shartic powers is what gives the warriors of the nation of Marhavad their powers.

So for example, one Yashva man, when his name is uttered on earth, turns into an explosive wall of fire. Another may turn into a glittering spear.

For each curse, there is a counter-curse, often more difficult to recite, but the only method of withdrawing these dangerous powers.

The story focuses on the political and social battles of three men - Jandu Paran, third in line for the throne and an egotistical warrior who excels at wielding shartas; Keshan Adaru, his cousin, a man who is half-Yashva himself and who has visions of a future where the Triya caste (his own caste) are eliminated; and Tarek Amia, a lower caste archer who must prove his worth without the powers and prestige of his leaders.

Jeanne said...

Fascinating!
It's such a different setting from anything I've seen before.
Now, I'm even more curious.
Was there any specific reason why you used this inspiration?

Josh Lanyon said...

Hey there, Astrid! Just stopping by to say hello.

I'm no great expert on spec fic, but my personal preference is that world building be a subtle and natural background for The Characters.

Nothing is more disappointing to me than when the characters and their relationship suffer because the author falls in love with his/her world-building.

Jeanne said...

Hey, Josh!
There he goes leaving me wanting a bit more about what he meant when he wrote:
that world building be a subtle and natural background for The Characters.
So, does this mean a world only slightly different from our every day or a world where you're not deluged with info dumps?

astridamara said...

my personal preference is that world building be a subtle and natural background for The Characters...Nothing is more disappointing to me than when the characters and their relationship suffer because the author falls in love with his/her world-building.

I agree - there needs to be a balance. I really think that good world-building makes it so that the story and the setting are dependent on each other. If you have all trumped up setting but no plot, you get boring. If you have an interesting story and cool characters but a bland, under-developed fantasy world, then it does nothing but make me go "ho hum, let me guess, we're in medieval England again, aren't we?" Or at that point, set it in the real world and don't bother with the fantasy. Maybe I'm being harsh - but honestly, I'm tired of the same old fantasy settings, and want something fresh, new, and complimentary to the plot.

astridamara said...

Was there any specific reason why you used this inspiration?

I am a closet Indian epic scholar. I read the Bhagavad Gita at 16, and once I read the Mahabharata at 18, I was hoooked. It's the most amazing story of heroes and morals and battles and betrayal and so it was definitely my inspiration for The Archer's Heart.

Jeanne said...

That was one of the many reasons I found your settings intriguing. I think if given half a chance, exotic worlds are addictive!
For someone like me unable to afford to travel - hey, I can hardly afford a trip to the nearest Wal-Mart - journeying through the pages of the book is the next best thing!

Jeanne said...

"I am a closet Indian epic scholar."
Aha! I am a closet Indian food lover. :~D Seriously, besides using books to satisfy my cravings for travel, I also love foreign food and music.
Growing up in NYC, I found a plethora of Indian restaurants and I continue to cook Indian food for my dha and me.
I also enjoy tabla music.

astridamara said...

for someone like me unable to afford to travel...journeying through the pages of the book is the next best thing!

Oh I definitely agree! That is probably a huge part of my love of science fiction/fantasy - the unknown world and bumbling around in it. There's nothing that makes me happier than standing in the middle of a crowded train station where I can't read the signs, speak the language, and I have no idea where I'm going or what I'm doing. It's the most freeing experience, and since I can't really afford to travel like I used to, now I just have to make up destinations in my head. :)

Ginn said...

Good Morning!
What an interesting subject.

I agree that subtle, organic world building is ideal, but how do you do that when you have a really foreign setting, like the one in Archer's Heart?

Jeanne said...

Welcome, Ginn!
Happy you stopped by. I do agree. How can you be subtle in a world that is so foreign to readers?
And I am guilty of enjoying convoluted story lines as long as the reader can follow along.
Sometimes, folks are so impatient

Jeanne said...

Astrid,
I have to break for awhile but please feel free to discuss in detail any stories you may have in the works for your readers.
I'll check back later this afternoon!

astridamara said...

...subtle, organic world building is ideal, but how do you do that when you have a really foreign setting, like the one in Archer's Heart?

For me, I think I have to have such a clear vision of the world that I can interact within it without it feeling forced, or without mentioning all the little details so that it seems obvious and overbearing. Even if the world is really foreign I think you still need to apply description in the same quantity and way you would in a story set in a recognizable, contemporary setting, and let the reader fill in the blanks to build out the rest of the image.

What about you? How do you decide how to balance between too much, and too little detail when basing a story in a fantastical setting?

kimnik said...

AA- When is some fabrication too much?

NK- That's an interesting question. The most obvious answer is when the world gets so big and complex that it rolls over the characters and squishes them flat. But that's not always because the world is too big. Sometimes it happens because the characters started out too small or too subtle for the setting.

This can happen in any kind of fiction though. Historical fiction writers are always in danger of choosing characters too insignificant to stand up to the historical action or setting that they've decided on.

So really the character and the setting have to have to match. If your character is strong enough, you can have any number of totally weird settings and occurrances. Cordwainer Smith is a good example of this.

It IS also possible to err the other direction, as well-- (though nobody talks about it much) to have a character too strong for a bland and uninspired setting. I see that a lot, actually.

astridamara said...

If your character is strong enough, you can have any number of totally weird settings and occurrances. Cordwainer Smith is a good example of this.

YES! He's my favorite! And such a master of describing completely insane, wacko settings with minimalism and just enough information to give to the picture, without knocking you over the head with the details.

It IS also possible to err the other direction, as well... to have a character too strong for a bland and uninspired setting.

As a reader, I get disappointed by this more often than the other way around.

Ginn said...

It would be tough being a character too big for your world! *g*
But that does bring up a question I've always wondered about.

As and author do you create the world and then make up the people living there or do you make up a character and then create the setting for him or her?

astridamara said...

As and author do you create the world and then make up the people living there or do you make up a character and then create the setting for him or her?

Mm, for me they are sort of simultaneous, but I usually develop character first and then story afterward. For example, in Hell Cop, it just started off as a name. A guy who is a cop who protects a world from the beings of hell. And then Jay Yervant was born, and all the world details were built around him. But as his world grew more solid, especially since it had influence from you and Nicole, the character had to be altered to fit in - so they both grew up nearly simultaneously. The character birthed the world but then the world went on to define him.

That makes a novel about two guys getting it on sound really deep, doesn't it?

What about you?

Jeanne said...

I'm back!
Intersting discussions, gang.
I also create worlds that are "other worldly".
For "The Shimmering Flame" and its sequel, "A Perfect Symmetry", i had the groundwork of an established universe, the Terran Realm. That being said, especially in the sequel where I explore the balance or imbalance in three menages - two of which involve both gay and bi play, I created two new groups with their own histories that, hopefully, melded in the Terran Realm
Right now I'm writing about the world of the traveling Yiddish theater in Eastern Europe during the late 19th century and several gay characters whose lives connect in this setting.
For many readers, this will be a strange, new world.

astridamara said...

I created two new groups with their own histories that, hopefully, melded in the Terran Realm

So can you tell me a little bit about these groups with unique histories? And does that change the nature of the setting around the story? Curious!

Ginn said...

"Jay Yervant was born, and all the world details were built around him. But as his world grew more solid, especially since it had influence from you and Nicole, the character had to be altered to fit in"

Yes, it's really different to work with other authors in one shared world. You and Nicole were always coming up with detail I never would have thought of. The diversity really made the world feel larger and more real.

kimnik said...

AA- That makes a novel about two guys getting it on sound really deep, doesn't it?

NK- I know this might be very slightly off-topic, but I never, ever think of my own books or the books that I acquire for Blind Eye Books as stories about 2 guys getting it on.

I think that's because 2 guys getting it on is not speculative fiction. Somewhere in the world 2 guys are getting it on every second of every day. It's not a unique exercise to imagine it or to bring that vision into existence in prose. What makes fiction "speculative" IS the world-building, just like what makes fiction "mystery" is the crime.

Ginn said...

The 2 guys getting it on does bring up another world building question for me, and I think both Jeanne and Astrid have a lot more insight into this than I do: How much of your world do you build around the romance in the story?

Are there things you leave out of a romantic story or put in that you wouldn't if the story didn't involve a sexual/ romantic aspect?

Jeanne said...

"So can you tell me a little bit about these groups with unique histories? And does that change the nature of the setting around the story?"
Sure.
One of the reasons I love the Terran Realm and wish more authors would try their hand at writing for it, is the flexibility within the realm.
I based my characters on the gods and goddessess of Celtic myths and ran with it.
In the TR, we have people who can control the elements, Fire, Water, Earth, Air and Spirit. I used these abilities and teansmuted them to the abilities of the ancient Celtic characters. What happened in the sequel was that the Irish Terrans - the group that corresponded to the various gods and goddesses - had one group, the Spirit Keepers, who became the sidhe, those members of the Tuatha da Danaan who went underground. Mach, a Spirit Keeper, accepts and supports the duality of Casey who in thier menage, assumes with him and Eileen, a changing role so that they encompass both m/f/m and m/m/f interaction. Another menage is m/f/m eith earlier characters from the first book. BOth these are perfect symmetries, enhancing the powers of the participants.
Another group of Terrans was introduced through an individual character named Aviva Shiron. An Israeli, she's a member of the Desert Terrans. This group incorporated many of the traditions of the Jewish relgion, but also some earlier practices. Ishtar was an ancient female, Desert Terran who gave her life to prevent her people from falling under the dominion of the demon Ba'al.
I had a blast exploring, expandig and adding to the realm.

Jeanne said...

The sexual aspect of "A Perfect Symmetry", my sequel to "The Shimering Flame" played an integral part in the world building.
But I feel that sexuality can't be written out of any world we create. However we view it as het or gay or bi or whatever. Even the absence of sex impacts on a story.
Of course, I do hae one trilogy where sex creates magic.

Jeanne said...

Gang,
gotta run
It's supper time at my house and tonight I'm making homemade pizza!
Feel free to continue the discussion.
Thank you Astrid for blogging today
And thank you Ginn and Kim for provoking discussion.

kimnik said...

Ginn: "Are there things you leave out of a romantic story or put in that you wouldn't if the story didn't involve a sexual/ romantic aspect?"

Nikki: Yes, I make the characters much better looking in a romance-based story than I ever would in any other kind of fiction. :)

Ginn said...

Ha.
And here I was sure some one was going to mention lube or condoms.

astridamara said...

And here I was sure some one was going to mention lube or condoms.

Ha! I kept it *nearly* clean!

Thanks Josh, Nicole, and Ginn for joining me, and THANK YOU Jeanne for the opportunity to ramble! Hope everyone has a good night. :)

William said...

what's all this thanks and goodnight bidness?! i still got forty-five before i turn back to pumpkins.

to be fair, o little nobles, i don't read much books. but i do get books for carTV, which ain't a shabby lady.

my preferences run to magical realism, which i think of as a world, highly realistic, but with small, dynamic, enchanting variances from reality. but even as i say this, i question it. couple things: one, have loved books on both spectrum ends from this magically malicious point. thinking of, on one hand, the märchen-like or alternately mind-blowing, pastel-faded-scrim a la a colorized-twilight zone of a stanislaw lem. in both cases, simple strokes. a beckett stage play of an alternate world, with two to six actors depending on whether or not you count the visible stage hands. on the other hand, i have relished the ornate alterities of the latter-day margaret atwood. i'm thinking of "oryx and crake". two, the second reason i object to myself, is that--pardon my trite animal--i question the very notion of reality. NEXUSjeanneNEXUS brought this home to me with her comment that sexuality can't be written out of any created world. but it can. it is. it is out of mine. through some perfect storm of puritanism, catholicism, platonism, and failed sixties' mind control experiments, sex is to me just something to be whispered over with baleful eyes and empty G&T tumblers. to insert sex more fully into a narrative read by me would make it by definition high fantasy. and getting-this-off-my-chest aside, i suspect that what could be said about my reality, the diminished import of sex, is applicable to all of us, in many realities. we appear to concur on many basic facts. but it is an appearance built on hubris and lack of self-questioning.

oh yeah. here's that trite animal i promised: a dispassionate reality, narrated by a neutral observer, might look like splotches of color at best. we'd have to pump our protagonists chock full of ungawdly doses or radioactive iodine to even track them. end then they might still merely be blurs in crowds. and who would know, were we truly dispassionate, to even pump them? that is why i shall jump to the bold, and undoubtedly false conclusion, that even when weaving a tale of pure, unadorned history, you are still weaving.

the only important point.

about the alternate reality.

is that.

it pleases.

you.

Savanna Kougar said...

Yep, William, that's why passion and love and sex and that level exquisite and exciting intensity between those daring enough, and sometimes foolish enough, to grab it, love it and live it, or merely bow to the conquering of it in their lives, is always the pulsing and driving and enchanting reality I strive for, nay, accomplish in my novels.
Romance...the very chemistry of why universes survive. Orgasm...the very energy necessary to bring galaxies to life...
Thus, sex or procreation may be non-existent in some worlds...and, it is an aberration which limits the totality of life expressing itself...which may be a beautiful, bad, ugly or good experience unto itself...yet, what fun is it, really?
Goddess or God or Whoever cannot live without sex and love...because, thusly, They would not be expressing Themselves...thus, to be non-existent...and what would be the ultimate purpose to that...since life and living is the final purpose...
Yep, so I pen...
Because, hey, you know what, it pleases me...and Goddess...

Jeanne said...

William
Wow!
You left out - how I don't know - the second part of my thought:
"Even the absence of sex impacts on a story."
Thus, the absence of sex in a story plays just as vital a part as the inclusion. By totally ignoring it, you acknowledge its importance.
However, I totally agree with your final sentence:
the only important point.

about the alternate reality.

is that.

it pleases.

William said...

NEXUSJeanneNEXUS,

i thought, perhaps mistakenly, that i was making a distinction from your, "Even the absence of sex impacts the story." if i had written a story totally omitting any mention of baseball, i wouldn't take that as any commentary on the importance or lack thereof of baseball. i wonder if it is only from within the realm where sex plays a pressing role, to which savannah k. has firmly declared her allegiance and with which we can all identify, that it is implausible to see sex as more like baseball and less like breathing.

Jeanne said...

Ahhh...
Ok, in writing about relationships between people, the absence or presence of a sexual component will impact on the story.
Though I do find baseball kinda sexy! :~D

Jeanne said...

btw, what does NEXUS mean?

Ken said...

Again, I'm a little late on the uptake. It happens every autumn!

Personally, I like the ability of a good book to take us away from mundane reality for a few hours. We can escape into someone else's life and follow their adventure. Especially in the case of spec fiction, normal rules no longer apply. There are no annoying scientists trying to burst our little magical bubble at each turn. Anything can happen. Anything can become reality.

I like stories with some plausibility. Even if it's a far stretch, if it technically could happen in even the slightest way, I'm happy. Especially with science fiction, those possibilities are endless. And the frightening part is how much sci-fi could happen. Just a glance at stories from the past 150 years shows us how fiction can become fact.

Originality is the ultimate struggle. And even when we achieve it, there's that nagging "I have to do this before someone else takes my idea" panic. Oh, the stress of it all!

K. Z. Snow said...

Crap, I wanted to post yesterday, but I was dead tired. Holy jamoly, Jeanne, how'd you score some of the best writers in the LI and BE stables? Doing bribery-baking again, are you? ;-)

Astrid, I'm enormously impressed by your attention to detail and your ability to weave history and original mythos together. It exhausts me just thinking about it! I just sort of churn otherworlds out of my head, like a sausage machine. (Well, it's a bit more meticulous a process than that, but nowhere near your ambitious efforts!)

Ginn, I'm at a loss here. Wicked Gentlemen was the most stunning piece of fiction I've read in a long, long time. I was hooked before I finished the first page -- exquisite prose, startling and almost painful (in a good, good way). The world was utterly absorbing; Sykes and Harper, who perfectly reflected that world and operated logically within it, were enchanting. Oh please write a sequel or prequel or some damned kind of -quel, so I'll have another book to gush about.

Josh did raise an excellent question. The only answer lies with authors who, like C. L. Wilson and present company, have a feel for letting worlds and characters enhance rather undermine each other. A kind of organic process, I guess. I doubt the balance can be struck by forcing the issue.

Anyway, I'm truly honored to be joining some of the writers I most admire. At Loose Id, I mean.

(Well, Jeanne, I suppose the cheesecake was gone long before I got here. Story of my life.)

Jeanne said...

Ken: Any time you make it oer to the blog is fine with me!
KZ
Dang, you gound out my secret.
But it's not cheesecake, it's homemade biscuits dripping with butter.
I am thrilled with the folks who've visited The Sweet Flag.
We've had some amazing give and takes.

William said...

i'm thinking nexus as in a connection. a happy buttering up of you, in that you bring us here and bind us in varied ways to this discussion.

i would like to nominate and second some essence in ken's description of escaping mundane reality. but if we can't, even very occasionally, disband with certain basics, are we escaping from the mundane, or to it, or something else entirely? is the fantasy something which we cannot let go? or is the fantasy some kind of upturning of the world as we know it?

i keep thinking the latter. but everyone keeps doing the former.

Sarah said...

Great post Astrid. Very interesting and man I just have to have The Archers Heart, it sounds wicked cool!

Josh Lanyon said...

the only important point.

about the alternate reality.

is that.

it pleases.

you.


I so agree. Provided YOU are the only audience you seek. ;-D