Part of the reason a lot of us read fantasy or science fiction is that undeniable attraction of escaping from this world into another. Whether it's stepping through the looking glass or climbing through a wardrobe door there's something absolutely magical about immersing yourself wholly into a well-imagined reality. As a teenager I loved Anne McCaffrey's Pern - I dreamed of dragons! And such worlds can be almost addictive for some people - just ask those who suffered post-Avatar depression at the dismay at not being able to access Pandora in real life - or those who prefer an alternate reality game lifestyle than the every day monotony. The one thing all of these mediums have in common which is SO attractive is an absolutely compelling world . . .so you need someone who's really good at worldbuilding!
But what makes a creator of worlds? And how difficult can it be to share your vision with others? And then allow them to participate in and even add to it? We asked Adrian Tchaikovsky - author of the long-running Shadows of the Apt series what it takes to build your own reality and then open the gates and let the rest of the world in.
After ten novels your world is incredibly detailed and ‘real’ – how do you keep track of it all?
To a certain extent I keep it in my head, and I think I just have the sort of mind that retains that sort of detail, that in almost any other walk of life would be useless. It is a very geeky memory to have – it’s the sort of thing that sets people arguing about tiny, tiny details of obscure Star Trek episodes or Doctor Who tie-in novels. On the other hand, I’ve had to go delving back through my own books for various odds and ends of lore, and sometimes I wish I kept better notes.
What do you find the most enjoyable thing about your worldbuilding – and the least?
I think I love working at the race/culture level most of all. Not just the different kinden, but the way that they’ve split off into various different strands. So you have the Collegiate Beetles, who come from a background of well-meaning and often patronising philanthropy, and the Helleren Beetles, who are a rather modern 1% / 99% of greed and industry balanced by squalid slums for the poor, but you also have the Mynans who are more of a warrior breed, like Ants; you have the Solarnese who ape Spider elegance and finery; the Khanaphir are still living five hundred years in the past as the slaves of magicians they’ve not seen for twenty generations; and of course there are the Beetles of the Empire, who are hardy and ingenious opportunists thriving in the shadow of the Wasps. They are all the same kinden, but moulded into very different ways of life by the twists of history and evolution – then you have individuals from all of these cultures, and some of them exemplify those virtues, whilst others play completely against them.
It’s that level of detail where the culture isn’t the race, the individual isn’t the culture, that gives me most joy.
As for the least enjoyable aspect, I think it’s just all the things I’ve not been able to show. There are large swathes of the kinden’s world where stories are being told, but stories that just don’t touch closely enough on the main action to make it to the page – there are entire kinden we never hear of.
Have you enjoyed the level of contribution your fans have made to your world through short stories and artwork?
I love it. I think it’s a tremendous accolade, as a writer, when someone wants to show their love of a series in that way. I’ve had artwork, I’ve had a fan-made wiki for the series, I’ve had fan fiction (and where possible I’m always for making that canon) – I’ve even had Shadows of the Apt embroidery . Writing is a trade where you don’t necessarily get much feedback – most people who pick up a book don’t let you know how it moved them. It’s always nice to know that your words have meant something to people.
What do you think people get out of contributing to someone else’s vision of a universe?
If there’s a world that has reached out to you and fired your imagination, then it can be hard to leave, just because the author hasn’t got the next book out the moment you put the current one down. When I was younger, before I started writing seriously for publication, I wasn’t aware of the idea of fan fiction, but I reckon if I had been, I would have participated in it. And all writing is good practice, of course. I think that, because readers in our genre do become very invested in worlds, fan fiction also allows them a control and ownership of that world, for their own pleasure, that’s a step beyond reading. It makes them a part of the tapestry, so that this thing that’s important to them becomes theirs, in a unique way.
If you could create a piece of fan art or a short story for another fantasy author’s world – whose would it be?
Now you’re asking. Back when I was just starting to write it would probably be the Dragonlance world – I loved the original Weiss and Hickman novels. Now? If I didn’t think that China Miéville would hit me with a big stick I’d say New Crobuzon, because that’s a fascinatingly rich and diverse world full of all sorts of races and characters and social issues that could stand some revisiting.
Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian series has a similar breadth and living feel to it – I think for me that’s the important thing: in order to move me to contribute, there would have to be a setting with sufficient depth and detail that new stories could be extrapolated from what was written – there would have to be a logic and plausibility to the world, and there would have to be space.
Adrian's Shadows of the Apt website has lots of additional material about his world, including maps, fan art and short stories. It's a great example of a world started by one author and embellished and contributed to by others. What about you? Tell us what your favourite world is and which you'd like to contribute some worldbuilding to.