28 August 2009

Spec Fic Tools I: World-building

We're going to take a tiny break from the first page contest to talk about one of the tools in the speculative fiction author's arsenal: world-building.

Perdido Street Station (PSS) by China Mieville was nominated for the 2002 Nebula Award, the 2002 Hugo Award, and won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2001 British Fantasy Society's August Derleth Award, as well as other awards. How did he do it? I believe one outstanding aspect of Mieville's novel is its complex many-layered world.

Of course, one component of world-building is the physical world, Bas-Lag, with its geology and geography, also referred to as its setting. While we don't know when the events take place, in PSS the physical realm and its descriptions are very important. Mieville explicitly tells the reader this via the Philip K. Dick quote which states losing contact with "the city" is a "form of dying". Right from the beginning, Mieville shows he has done his world-building homework with the New Crobuzon map, with its rivers, hills, woods, and various city neighborhoods. The city itself is "Perched where two rivers strive to become the sea, where mountains become a plateau, where the clumps of trees coagulate to the south and ...are suddenly a forest."

Mieville's imagery is ubiquitous and utilized very effectively throughout PSS to describe the physical setting. The first words we read "Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the river's edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark." evoke sensory stimulation. The author also often effectively evokes olfactory 'images' with his many references to "rotting stew of detritus", "the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot", "pungent smoke", and especially sewage.

Mieville makes excellent use of similes (as above) and metaphors, e.g. "I ...step into the vastness of New Crobuzon, this towering edifice of architecture and history, this complexitude of money and slum, this profane steam-powered god." to describe this physical world.

A world also includes its denizens. PSS contains such a large variety of species, Mieville refers to A Bestiary Of The Potentially Wise: The Sentient Races Of Bas-Lag. The characters include humans, Khepri (human bodies with beetle heads), garuda (bird people), Remade (re-constructed people), intelligent constructs, slake moths (giant brain sucking moths), the Weaver (a giant scissor-handed spider that lives in multiple dimensions), and many, many others. The characters interact with one another in human ways, which include having sex, cheating, betraying, and killing one another. The author also utilizes dialog in an interesting way. Most of the creatures speak or sign in typical human ways with the exception of an interesting few, such as the Hell-Daemon with his echoes from hell, and the Weaver--this effectively singles them out as more alien. For example, the Weaver says things like "...FOUND THE REAVER TEARING WORLDWEAVE OVER THE BLISTERING GLASS AND WE DANCED A BLOODTHIRSTY DUET EACH SAVAGE MOMENT MORE VIOLENT I CANNOT WIN WHEN THESE FOUR DASTARDLY CORNERS SQUARE UP TO ME..."

Speaking of language and words, Dr. Albert W. Wendland of Seton Hill has said "One easy method of world building is simply the transformation of creation of new words that produces an aura of otherness."(personal communication) Mieville is quite adept at transforming and creating new words; some already mentioned in this document include "Bas-Lag" and "Remade".

The culture of the Bas-Lag creatures is very complex. The physical aspects of culture includes architecture which in New Crobuzon "...moves from the industrial to the residential to the opulent to the slum to the underground to the airborne to the modern to the ancient to the colourful to the drab to the fecund to the barren..." In my opinion, the culture of Bas-Lag is perhaps its most interesting aspect with its mix of "science" aka chymistry, magic aka thaumaturgy, sociology and art (e.g. Lin's spit art). The steam-punk technology e.g. difference engines and crisis, A.I. clockwork constructs, dirigibles is particularly intriguing.

I could probably go on and on describing the world of PSS because it is so rich. For example, New Crozbuzon has an interesting government and a flourishing criminal society. All the aspects of Mieville's world-building work well because the multiple layers reinforce the each other. Clearly, Mieville is a master world-builder.

What do you all think? Has anyone else read PSS? Can you think of other good examples of world-building?

6 comments:

David E. Hughes said...

I agree this book creates one of the most interesting and unique worlds I've seen. However, I thought the novel would have been improved with a more engrosing plot instead of relying so heavily on the world to hold my interest.

KM Wilsher said...

Mieville sounds interesting. Great post.

I just started Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I enjoyed The Eye of the World. RJordan's descriptions were amazing - just a couple of images and I was right there in his world with him.

lesleylsmith said...

Dave, that's why I'm not talking about Mieville's great plot! :)
Thanks for the tip KM, I'll have to check out the Wheel of Time. :)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I have those if you want to borrow them.

lesleylsmith said...

Thanks, B! :)

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