Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Ursula K. Le Guin and the art of building worlds
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.