In regular fiction, we get the world for free. We get physics for free, biology for free, chemistry for free, and human psychology for free. Heck, we don’t even have to pay a naya paisa for any metaphor that happens to catch our fancy. Everything in language has been custom-built for our lives on this pale blue dot around an unremarkable middle-aged sun orbiting a perfectly average galaxy converging, like so many others, towards a “great attractor”, one of the tediously many, in the cosmos.
Few things are free in science-fiction. The author has to build their worlds. If it rains, for example, you can’t assume things get wet. Your characters– let’s pretend we know what that word means– might be on Jupiter, in which case, it’ll probably pour diamonds when it rains. You don’t get wet on Jupiter when it rains. Which means all those rain poems need to be rethought. Metaphors aren’t free.
For some authors and in some readers, this may feel like an unmooring of all that’s human, perhaps even repellent. But for others, a patient, mutant, drought-resistant breed of literature lovers, these limitations are tools for freeing the mind and for moving beyond the Homo sapien-centricity that is so pervasive in literature. We aren’t limited to the worlds we are born into. We can build better ones. Or just different ones.
In his essay, Gautam Bhatia discusses such worldbuilding. Gautam is one of the most thoughtful writers currently working in science fiction. His novels The Wall and The Horizon were based on a beautifully detailed and interesting world whose central question had to do with what it means to be confined by visible but incomprehensible structures. Much like our world, one might say. Perhaps. But science fiction is the literature of horizons. It is our pleasure to offer an essay on the writing of this literature by one of its best practitioners.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Weaving the Rainbow: Worldbuilding and Speculative Fiction
. Table of Contents
Stephen King recently tweeted “World-building is a phrase I really wish would be retired. Not only is it sloppy and lazy, it has become trite.” King’s slinging of the guns at the term “world-building” triggered a chorus of responses: smug nodding of the proverbial heads, passionate agreement, earnest disagreement, derision, mimicry, the works. One striking feature, though, was that some of his interlocutors seemed unable to agree about what one of the oldest tools in speculative fiction’s toolbox really was.
In a sense, this is unsurprising: the kernel of truth in King’s somewhat reductive tweet is that “world-building” has come to mean many things to many people. Of course, all fiction involves world-building: if nothing else, a character’s interior landscape – a staple feature of most fiction – is a world unto itself. Nonetheless, world-building in speculative fiction is special. Perhaps the difference can best be explained through a euphemism: in speculative fiction, the world is a character, rather than the character being a world. And as a character, it demands a character arc: an origin story, a history, an occasionally stable but often unstable collection of traits, a future. Perhaps that is why we see speculative fiction writers devoting great energy to the task of world-building, and sometimes even falling in love with the worlds they’ve built, with the perils that that brings (much like an author falling in love with their character(s)!).
World-building takes different forms within the genre. For instance, the world-building of a sweeping, secondary-world fantasy is quite different from that of a near-future science fiction dystopia. In the former, a lot turns upon what Lin Carter described as “the illusion of depth”, in reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s world-building. Think of it as looking out from a mountain peak, into a valley wreathed in mist. The mist allows you to glimpse some forms, and your imagination does the rest of the work. The challenge before the epic fantasy writer, then, is to provide just enough snippets of information to create the “illusion of depth”, and get the reader’s imagination working – neither more, nor less. However, as Tolkien’s own appendices show, to achieve that, the writer must compose for their world a history, a mythology, and – sometimes – even a language: in other words, the illusion of depth cannot exist without the existence of depth – at the very least – in the author’s own imagining.
Different considerations are at work in a near-future dystopia, where a lot of the world-building is in service of creating a “this is how we plausibly got here” effect upon the readers. For example, in Anil Menon’s Half of What I Say (near-future India), Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits (near-future Delhi), Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s Analog/Virtual (near-future Bangalore), and Varun Thomas Mathew’s The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay (near-future Bombay), world-building is an enterprise in extrapolation: it takes elements of the world we already know, seeks to identify the underlying logic connecting those elements, and then extrapolate them into the foreseeable future. The success of the world-building in such stories depends on how persuasive that extrapolation is, and whether the reader feels that thrill of recognition on experiencing the world: “I can see how we’d get here!”
This is, of course, a reductive summary, but it should suffice to make clear the even within SF, world-building makes different demands upon writers (and indeed, upon readers, who often come to SF with settled expectations). With that context in place, in this essay, I want to talk about my experiences with the craft of world-building within a popular tradition of speculative fiction, characterised by a (largely) identifiable world, which nevertheless differs from ours in a few significant ways.
By way of illustration, one of the classics of the genre is Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall. The story is set on a planet that is constantly illuminated by the light of six suns, as part of a multiple-star system. Consequently, at any given time, there is at least one sun in the sky, and people do not know what night is, or what stars are. Nightfall imagines what happens when night does fall – once every two thousand years – and people see stars for the very first time in their lives.
Nightfall’s premise is simple enough: imagine a world with no night, no stars. But the world-building is not: just think for a moment about just how many cultural and social reference points, embedded in our ways of thinking, of speaking, of being, have to do with the night; think of how many metaphors are connected to the night, how much poetry – poetry that has bled into everyday language – the moon has inspired. And now think of a world without all of that, a world compelled to seek different metaphors and different poetry, a world with a wholly different language. Now things start to get complicated! It is as if the world is a web, or a weave, and pulling on one strand of it – if you pull hard enough – is not simply going to affect that strand, but the pattern itself will unravel in your hands.
I find it helpful to think of this process of world-building in terms of what the philosopher John Rawls called “reflective equilibrium.” For Rawls, reflective equilibrium meant a slow, thinking process through which you bring your abstract intuitions about morality, ethics, and justice in line with your more concrete intuitions about specific issues (say, abortion, the death penalty, and so on). Through the process, as you think more and more, you may need to amend your intuitions at either of the two (or more) levels, until you achieve “reflective equilibrium.” Importantly, the process itself is never over – reflective equilibrium is a temporary and contingent state of mind, always open to being upset by new information, or even a change in intuitions.
World-building in speculative fiction is very much like striving to arrive at a reflective equilibrium between the founding premises of the world that you’re building, and the details of what your character see around them, what they hear, touch, taste, and smell, and how they act. It is a continuing process, one that occupies you through the course of crafting your story.
Here is an illustration of just how dynamic it is: my speculative fiction duology, The Wall and The Horizon, is set in a city surrounded by, and enclosed within a very high wall. If the founding question of Asimov’s Nightfall is: “what if people had never seen the night and the stars”, mine is: “what if people had never seen a horizon?” While that raises a fascinating philosophical question – and of course, questions around language, as I’ve mentioned above (how can you imagine a horizon if you don’t have a word for it?) – it also raises a very quotidian set of questions. For example: as every resource within this City must, by definition, be renewable, what do these people do for metal? After some research, I found that bog iron is renewable, and so my city could have an extended swamp that provided bog iron. Ah, but here’s a problem: bog iron is extremely brittle, and I have to write a scene involving a revolution. I can’t give my characters bog-iron swords. Ah, but it turns out that the Vikings had (accidentally) discovered that bone mixed into bog iron creates a much more powerful ally, and human bone is renewable (albeit in a weird way). So, my characters can have weapons of iron alloyed with their parents’ bones. But what does that do for cultural practices around death, and how is that consistent with an enclosed and walled city? And so on, from the moment you first come up with the bones of your premise, to the moment you write “THE END” and go off to tweet about it.
As you can imagine, this is just one example out of many. In that sense, world-building is truly a bit like unravelling a web or a weave and then reconstructing it. Because the world is a complex system, composed of many complex systems in turn, the writer has to be constantly alert to how one tweak here, one wrinkle there, can spread across the system as a whole.
This should not be taken to mean that the process is completed at the time the story is formally finished – or ever completed, for that matter. The reflective equilibrium that I have described above is not necessarily a stable equilibrium, and indeed, revisability is a key characteristic of reflective equilibrium. It is helpful here to draw upon Gary Saul Morson’s concept of “sideshadowing”, a narrative technique that – invoking Bakhtin – invokes a “field of possibilities” as opposed to logically inevitable outcomes. SF writers are, indeed, known to leave loose ends, unexplained allusions, incomplete backstories – a veritable world-building of dangling modifiers! Vagueness in world-building, then, is a tool to subsume the inevitable inconsistencies that will arise (after all, we inhabit a messy and often inconsistent world, so why wouldn’t our built worlds be equally messy?). To bring it back to the frame of reflective equilibrium: techniques such as side-shadowing are what allow the reflective equilibrium of world-building to be constantly revisable. Just like reflective equilibrium holds space for revisions based on new knowledge, new insights, or even a changed approach to the world, these techniques create that same space in the context of built worlds.
What is the purpose of this specific sort of world-building? To borrow from the Russian art critic, Viktor Shklovsky, I believe that one effect that we – as SF writers and world-builders in this tradition – are aiming for is defamiliarization, or enstrangement (in Shklovsky’s words, “making strange”). Shklovsky described his concept of “ostranenie” as “renewing our experience of things by changing their forms, throughout life”, or “of making the habitual strange in order to re-experience it.” Thus, in “Literature Beyond Categories”, Shklovsky would write:
The goal of this device is to place an object into a new semantic field, among concepts of a different order – for instance, stars and eyes, girls and grey ducks – whereby the image is usually expanded by the description of the substituted object.
In essence, within our altered premises, otherwise familiar things become de-familiarised, are made strange. This extends from language (whether it is a language without words for nightfall or without words for the horizon) to the concrete, and to just a general sense, or feel, about the world. Our task is to displace the reader’s settled expectations just so, to make them question the contingency of the things we all take for granted (stars; horizons), and – in Shklovsky’s memorable words – “to make the stone stony again.”
An excellent recent example of an SF novel that does brilliantly with enstrangement is Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea. The Mountain in the Sea is a story of first contact between human beings an a race of evolved, highly intelligent octopi. Under the sea, these octopi have developed their own language, their own forms of social organisation, and their own belief systems (Nayler does an outstanding job of de-anthropomorphising each of these aspects of octopus society, from a chromatophore-based language to a decentralised social organisation modelled upon octopus physiology). But the flash of enstrangement that I particularly want to highlight is a moment in the book where human beings are attempting to communicate with the octopi, by deciphering their language, and speaking it back to them. When the octopi come across this attempt at communication, Nayler suddenly shifts the narrative point of view, and has the octopi marvelling: “how have the monsters learned to speak?”
There is a radical shift in perspective here, from the frame of reference in which human beings are marvelling at how an alien species has developed language, to human beings becoming that alien species that has developed language, and the object of another’s marvelling. The shift in perspective involves the enstrangement not only of our humanity (as a species, we are being seen, instead of seeing), but of the concept of language itself. Language (not any particular language, but language itself) – which structures and shapes our world – is revealed as something contingent, constructed – and therefore, fragile and fungible – rather than simply a part of the natural order of things.
A final caveat: the task of enstrangement does not exempt an author from the obligations of legibility. Shklovsky’s efforts to make the stone “stony” again still presume a common understanding between the writer and the reader about what a stone is; the stoniness, therefore, must still be recognisable, even as it takes “new forms.” This brings us back to the role of reflective equilibrium, and a certain degree of internal coherence that remains crucial to successful world-building.
Constantly striving for reflective equilibrium is not easy, and world-building is perhaps one of the most challenging – and strenuous – aspects of speculative fiction writing. But – when done well – it is also the most joyous aspect of speculative fiction writing. If Keats once complained about the prosaicness of un-weaving the rainbow (by subjecting the magic of its colour to philosophical explanations), think of world-building as weaving the rainbow: using the knowledge of philosophy to weave together what the world will then see as the rainbow.
By way of conclusion, what I have written above is focused upon the internal aspect of world-building, i.e., achieving coherence between altered premises and the everyday stuff of the story. Good world-building has also an external aspect, which is not so much about coherence as it is about how compelling the world is. And it is here, perhaps, that being an Indian speculative fiction writer (writing in English) is interesting: right from our childhoods, we have lived hybrid lives, picking up the Asimovs, the Clarkes, the Le Guins from bookshop shelves (the range is much greater now than when I was a child in the 1990s), while imbibing – almost by osmosis, as it were – the great epics such as The Mahabharata and The Ramayana.
Want a morality tale cautioning against hubris? We don’t just have Daedalus and Icarus, we have the (richer and emotionally more fraught) Sampati and Jatayu. We can pick either of these and weave it into our SF story, or even a mish-mash of the two: the beauty of SF world-building is that once we have achieved internal coherence, we have the freedom to choose just how we want to make it compelling; and here, hybridity expands that range of choices into a bewildering menu.
An example par excellence of this is Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, that draws joyously both from the tropes of “western” fantasy, but is also choc-full of references to the jingles one sees carved into the sides of India’s mountain highways, and to the vocabularies of Indian classical dance). Haroun and the Sea of Stories, thus, is full of the hybrid, external world-building that is perhaps (at the risk of over-simplification) one of the unique characteristics of Indian SF.
It is world-building, then, that makes the speculative fiction story both coherent and compelling. While the word itself may have become trite – as Stephen King fears – the worlds that we are invited to build are anything but. Enstrangement brings with it the sense of wonder and awe that SF is known for; reflective equilibrium provides a framework of coherence within which that wonder and awe can be experienced; and side-shadowing leaves it forever open, forever revisable, and “forever undecided.” Together they are at the heart of world-building, and of the weaving of the rainbow.
 I am grateful to Anil Menon for sharpening this idea, in these words.
 I borrow this phrase from Edward Said’s foreword to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain, in his description of Lebanese and Palestinian novels: “form is an adventure, narrative both uncertain and meandering, character less a stable collection xv) of traits than a linguistic device, as self-conscious as it is provisional and ironic.” Edward Said, ‘Foreword’ to Elias Khoury, Little Mountain (MacMillan 2007), p. xv.
 Lin Carter, A Look Behind “The Lord of the Rings” (Ballantine Books 1969); See also N. Trevor Brierly, “Worldbuilding Design Patterns in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien”, Mythmoot III: Ever On, available at < https://signumuniversity.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Mythmoot-III-Brierly-N-Trevor-Worldbuilding-Design-Patterns-in-Tolkien.pdf>.
 Indeed, the relationship between language and the world has been a recurring theme in SF. See, for example, Samuel Delaney’s Babel-17, the iconic “Darmok” episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation, China Mieville’s Embassytown, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and many more.
 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press 1971).
 See the discussion in Norman Daniels, “Reflective Equilibrium”, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, available at <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reflective-equilibrium/>.
 I am grateful to Anil Menon for bringing this concept to my attention, and its applicability to world-building in SF.
 David Patterson, “Review: Sideshadowing: Ethics, Time, and Narration” (1996) 46(1) CrossCurrents 111.
 Some analysts of Shklovsky go with the more straightforward “estrangement.” See Ben Ehrenreich, “Making Strange: On Viktor Shklovsky”, The Nation (February 5, 2013), < https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/making-strange-victor-shklovsky/>,
 See Alexandra Berlina, Victor Shklovsky: A Reader (Bloomsbury 2016). Svetlana Boym goes further and describes it as “dislocation.” Svetlana Boym, “Estrangement as a Lifestyle: Shklovsky and Brodsky” (1996) Poetics Today 511.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 24. As Berlina notes, this was also a goal of the romantic poets such as Shelley, but Shklovsky differed from them in certain key respects, including on the role of horror in the world.
 Ibid., 102.
 Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917), available at < https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/fulllist/first/en122/lecturelist-2015-16-2/shklovsky.pdf>.
 Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Order to the Army of Arts” (1918), available at <https://my-blackout.com/2019/04/04/vladimir-mayakovsky-order-to-the-army-of-the-arts/>.
 It is important to note here that The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are, of course, Hindu epics, which do not necessarily play as significant a role in the childhood environments of non-Hindus. While references to these epics are ubiquitous in the public sphere, it remains necessary to remind ourselves that hegemony is not the same as universality. I am grateful to Anil Menon for this salutary warning.
 The phrase is – fittingly – borrowed from the logician Raymond Smullyan’s book on Kurt Godel’s logical puzzles. Raymond Smullyan, Forever Undecided (Oxford 1988).
The banner image is from Jie Ma’s Dreamscape. Behance design site has many other samples of his striking work.
Gautam Bhatia is a science fiction writer, editor, and reviewer, based in New Delhi. He is the author of The Wall and The Horizon, an SF duology published by HarperCollins India. Both books featured on Locus Magazines’s annual recommended reading list, and Bhatia was twice long-listed for the Astounding Award for the Best New Writer, awarded annually at the World Convention of Science Fiction (WorldCon). He is the co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons, an award-winning weekly SF magazine, and frequently reviews SF for Strange Horizons, The Hindustan Times, and The Hindu.