Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ursula K. Le Guin and the art of building worlds

The first book of the New Year that I read was "City of Illusions," by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's a slim volume - not quite 200 pages, but man, does it pack a punch.

Le Guin is one of the icons of classic Sci-fi. To my mind she was the Ginger Rogers of her era, doing everything that the boys were doing, but backwards - and in heels. Her book, "The Left Hand of Darkness," is one of the most engrossing explorations of gender and power I've ever read.

But I think that where Le Guin and others of her generation truly earn my respect is in their ability to create fully-realized worlds within a few sentences. They are like the masters of Japanese ukiyo-e, using small strokes of the pen to create scenes that fire the imagination.

And let's make no mistake, world-building is hard. It requires a massive amount of thought and research. You have to think through everything from weather, to food, clothing, housing and even the cultural attitudes of the people. Those who live in harsher climates may tend more towards aggression than those who do not.

Author Jon Sprunk lists some of the best worlds of science fiction - in his Tor.com blog. He includes two of my favourites: Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" world and George R. R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" world. I would add Jaqueline Carey's Terre D'Ange, and Orson Scott Card's re-imagined America of the "Alvin Maker" series.

The masters make it look easy. They dispense with long-winded explanations or tortured comparisons and they tell it. And the very best of them keep us coming back for more. That's why someone had the good sense to invent sequels - and trilogies.


  1. in no particular order:
    Steven Erikson's worlds in his Malazan series
    Freda Warrington's Blackbird series
    Frank Herbert's Dune
    Star Fall by David Bischoff

  2. Nnedi Okorofor does well in the YA novels of Zahrah the Windseeker and the Shadow speaker.

  3. @Anonymous: How could I forget Frank Herbert's Dune? Classic world-building right there.

    @Myne: You are absolutely right. When I grow up, I want to write just like her!