World-building is frequently mentioned as a vital aspect of science fiction and fantasy alike. According to certain critics, it’s what distinguishes standard, forgettable fare from the all-time great works. They will write paragraph after paragraph praising a book for solely this trait.
And yet, while an important element, I have found that it’s far from the most crucial one. Like a movie with great cinemaphotography and soundtrack, but nothing else, a book with excellent world-building can fail. To demonstrate this, let’s look at two books renowned for it, one good and one bad.
For my money, no science fiction book has ever built a world as intricate, detailed, and interesting as Dune has. It’s a genuine masterpiece, the sum total of Frank Herbert’s life and creativity. The effort and research spent on the ecology of Dune alone is more than most writers put on a whole novel. And that’s before one considers the deep history, complex sociopolitical structures, or the many new words and concepts Herbert introduced. Certainly, this imbues the book’s events with a grandeur it wouldn’t otherwise have.
Who doesn’t like a good fantasy? Dashing knights, greedy dragons, fair maidens, odious goblins, perilous elf women, cunning trolls… it doesn’t get any better than that!
But it sure can get a lot worse. And it certainly has. From the inspiring heights of Dunsany, Howard, and Tolkien, fantasy has descended into grime and incoherence with each passing decade. In the silver age it had to pay tribute to sticklers, hecklers, modernists, and socialists– slipping under the radar as “science fantasy” as it did under the hand of authors like de Camp and Pratt. And don’t get me wrong, some good stuff was created in this period to be sure. Luckily fantasy winter didn’t last too long and writers like Leiber, Moorcock, and Zelazny made the signature works of the bronze age.
Not everyone saw this correction in the fantasy marketplace as a good thing. And if critics like Joanna Russ didn’t quite declare epic fantasy dead, then they certainly declared it bad and would have gladly pushed it back underground again like it had before the swords & sorcery revival if they could. But Tolkien being amply available in paperback format combined with the sensational cargo cult that was Dungeons & Dragons ensured that the genie was more or less permanently out of the bottle: the iron age dawned with works like Sword of Shannara, Lord Foul’s Bane, and the veritable deluge of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels.
A woman with the power to raise the dead. A man stranded on another world, fighting all alone for a lost cause. Zombies invading New York. Alien artifacts. Sci-Fi battle angels. Samurais fighting demons. Interplanetary detectives and lost unicorns.
Featuring Dragon Award nominees Declan Finn, Kai Wai Cheah, and L. Jagi Lamplighter
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The Happy Castaway by Robert E. McDowell* appeared in the Spring 1945 issue of Planet Stories. It can be read here at Archive.org.
Jonathan Fawkes wakes to a beautiful woman standing over him. He’s crashed on an asteroid while hauling seeds from Mars to Jupiter. Turns out he’s crashed on the same rock where over two-dozen women being sent to the outer system to be wives for colonists have been stranded. Fawkes risks being torn apart by the twenty seven women who haven’t seen a man in three years or by the alien centaurs that roam the flat-lands.
I’m tempted to write this off as “a typical example of the man stranded on a world of women” subgenre, but is it? I don’t really know, because after thinking about it for a bit, I realize that while I’m aware of several examples, haven’t really read many(any?).
It’s a kind of story that can provide some interesting tidbits that contrast with what one might expect from notional harem comedy.
The opening shot of Star Wars with its slow reveal of a truly gigantic Star Destroyer is arguably the finest single shot in science fiction movie history. It’s so powerful, it not only changed the way blockbuster movies were made from then on. It turned nearly an entire generation into science fiction fans over night!
Of course, those newly minted fans looking for more of the same were in for a shock. There just isn’t anything really approaching an epic space battle in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. (The battle cruisers of the second volume are completely impotent against the “dead hand” of Hari Seldon.) Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 opens with divine intervention in man kind’s evolutionary prehistory and culminates into a baffling conclusion that not even the novel can satisfactorily explain. People that turned to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers got their nuclear powered infantry, sure. But they got half again as much lecture on why they needed to spank their puppies.
But no, this middle brow and vaguely “serious” take on the field may be synonymous with written science fiction fans of a particular age range. But it sure wasn’t primary to people that sat down to make the first wave of role-playing games. There you got the gritty “bullets and blades in space” of authors like H. Beam Piper, E. C. Tubb, Poul Anderson, and Jerry Pournelle for what would inspire Traveller. Or you got the wild and freaky science fantasy of post apocalyptic mutant adventure from authors like Andre Norton, Sterling Lanier, and Brian Aldiss for what would inspire Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha.
The survivors built a community and called it Hope. After eight years, they allowed themselves to think that the zombie scourge was ending; the hordes fading away in the face of time.
But the enemy they thought extinct was evolving – growing faster, stronger, and more cunning. The timely return of the much-depleted 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, US Marine Corps helped turn the tide of one battle. The prospect of renewed war against a different type of enemy will require sterner stuff and serious firepower.
Now, they must go far beyond the overgrown wastes they call the wild in a desperate attempt to recover vital military equipment that will determine whether the future of mankind is one for the living – or for the dead.
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Reader Praise for A Place Outside the Wild:
“World War Z meets Rot and Ruin.”
“The zombies in A Place Outside The Wild make the ones in The Walking Dead look like fuzzy little puppies.”
“The author knows how to take you real quick from comfortable to gripping your chair with your fingernails, in a way that reminded me of the movie Signs. The last 10% of the book is such a frantic rush of nonstop burning action that you’d better hope you’ve got time set aside to read through it all, because you won’t want to stop.”
“This book purposely has what other zombie books I’ve encountered lack: a sense of existential hope”
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Don’t miss the 2017 Dragon Award Finalist, A Place Outside the Wild:
Sir Percival Jones, 54577B, Age 30, Scout (3 terms, mustered out), Pilot 1, JOT 1, ATV 1, Vacc Suit 1 Elect 3. He’s cash poor, but, a lucky chap who’s survived 12 years as a scout and the service appreciates it by loaning him a ship. He’s playing Galahad on for a mother (Astrid Anderson) and child (Frelser Anderson) on the run from the Psionic Institute authorities.
Mirin Beg, 354848, Age 50, Other (8 terms, retired), Brawling 2, Gambling 2, Cutlass 3, Mechanical 2, Bribery 1. He’s got a shady background but, he gets things done. Last job he had was with Mainstar Mining Company. Now, though, he’d like to take his retirement and find a nice quite planet to relax on.
Hugo Abe, 647897, Age 26, Other (2 terms mustered out), Auto Rifle 1, Cudgel 1, Forgery 1. Something of a thug, he’s looking to make himself scarce from local organized crime groups; perhaps start a new life on the off-world colonies. Turns out he’s been bonding with Frelser and helping him during his seizures during jumps.
Jeffro already covered this session in this post here. But, since he focused on mechanics, what follows is an over all summary of the session. We began with Hugo and Mirin interrogating the captured Psionic Agent Roger Carlson. See last session. That and Percival finishing up his Psionic Detector (used as both an alarm and as a tracker of psi potential). They pilot the stolen air/raft and Roger back to the port. There, they bribe the port guards and hie away to ship to watch the effect of their exploits on television.
Worlds Collide. Enemies Unite. Heroes Fall.
As the last battle draws near, Chase’s confidence is shaken from losing Zeus and Olympus. As tensions arise between Chase and those in his group on how to proceed next, he cautions against rushing to Erevos against everyone else’s wishes.
Meanwhile, the Emperor is tasked to reclaim the Gorgar home world with the help of Ryonna, Tar’Lock, and Keera. But they soon discover many things have changed since their last visit.
Arakan returns to his home world, overconfident that he can take on anyone that’s standing in his way. But something dark is looming over Erevos; a malevolent force that will stop at nothing to get what it wants.
This edition contains the previously unreleased bonus book, Damocles Fall.
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Reader Praise for Universe in Flames:
“It’s been a long time since I have lost precious sleep over a series but this is one you just can’t put down. The whole series was a page-turner.”
“Non-stop action. Bringing all my favorite myths to life. It was over way too soon.”
“Plots within subplots keep me on my toes and coming back for more!”
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Start from the beginning with the first two Universe in Flames omnibuses:
In an Empire beset by internal rebellion and ferocious yaomo, the elite Shenwujun stand ready to defend human civilization. Among the Shenwujun there is none finer than Ensign Zhang Tianyou, who earned the nickname Zhang the Invincible. During a mission to quash a nascent rebellion, a Shenwujun detachment discovers evidence that the Grand Union is supporting the rebels. Zhang is tasked to investigate and destroy this new threat.
But will Zhang the Invincible meet his match at the hands of the rebel called Han the Demon Sword?
With this summary, Kit Sun Cheah (an alias of Castalia House author Kai Wai Cheah) introduced Invincible, his serialized novella that won an Honorable Mention at the Q1 2017 Writers of the Future contest. Through its seven chapters, he brings the fantasy genre of xianxia to English-speaking audiences, mixing generous portions of pulp action and military fantasy into the Chinese setting.
Most xianxia fantasies feature magicians who cultivate their internal energy to perform a dazzling array of magical and martial feats as they ascend a near infinite ladder of power levels, most far beyond the reaches of mere mortal cultivators. The primary drive for these characters is to gain more power, through such means as making contracts with magical beings, raiding treasure houses, or clashing with bandits and rivals. This leads to proud and selfish protagonists taking what they want because no one can stop them. Invincible‘s Zhang uses some of the same techniques, as he draws on the purifying methods of cultivation to remove fatigue, enjoys the blessings of his contract with the celestial phoenix Hong Er, and has earned his reputation as a skilled magical warrior on the battlefield. But Cheah upends the usual wish-fulfillment fantasies of xianxia by placing Zhang under military discipline. Duty, not power, becomes the driving force for Zhang, who must fulfill the duties to his country, his regiment, and his celestial partner as he pursues monsters and men who might as well be monsters. For each duty may grant privileges, but also demand obligations in turn. And, as Zhang finds out, sometimes these obligations conflict with each other. Read More
I never read the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid. The movies were good but I didn’t read the books until early this year. And after reading them all I wish was still a kid.
Okay, a lot of people know the story so I’ll make it quick. It’s World War 2, the Nazi Germans are bombing Britain, and bunch of kids take refuge in the countryside. One of the kids goes inside a wardrobe and finds a portal to another world called Narnia, a world of mythical creatures, talking animals, magic and Christian symbolism. The sequels continue the children’s adventures alongside their friends, relatives and some schmuck and his talking horse.
“So what exactly is so great about these books,” I asked myself while reading. I think it’s because one, it’s a fantasy. Not the popular Tolkien fantasy of elves, dragons, wizards and dark lords, it’s a fantasy that explores the imagination and the unknown – specifically the fantasy that amazes a child: magic, Greek mythology, talking animals and colorful worlds. All of it is in the Chronicles of Narnia and they bring a great scent of childish charm and innocence to them and I think that’s why the books are great for kids. Second is how surprisingly mature the Chronicles are. It’s not just the symbolism, there are some strong themes of responsibility, redemption, loss and some pretty dark moments. Narnia does a good job at making a bridge between kids and adults.
The latest issue of Astounding Frontiers is here! Check it out and you’ll find an all new retrospective by yours truly. If you got to the end of Appendix N and just wanted more, then this (along with Cirsova issues 1 and 3) is the place to go!
One of the things I did as I worked my way through Appendix N was scour the internet for any and every review or blog post about the books I was opining on. I used this as a “check” on my work. Sometimes I would find confirmation for my speculations. Sometimes I would find out about things I missed. And sometimes I’d find out that I was the only person saying something that had until then seemed completely self-evident to me.
Now that I’ve covered the first issue of Planet Stories for Astounding Frontiers, I can now do something similar: compare my assessment to the original science fiction fandom of 1940! Let’s see what they had to say:
Another ship travels from humanity’s bleak future, targets a populated planet … and lays it waste in a fiery apocalypse. Nothing survives, and the ship disappears. In the midst of the recovery, Admiral Jack Mattis finds more questions than answers as he tracks down the dreadfully powerful enemy ship.
But the most pressing question: why are these mutated humans from the future relentlessly attacking us? What do they want? And at what cost?
And are these the same creatures created by the genetic research corporation exposed by Mattis on the planet Chrysalis?
The answers lie at the root of a deep conspiracy that goes beyond governments, beyond corporations. A conspiracy that will stop at nothing to succeed, and achieve ultimate power over humanity.
And as the deadly ship prepares for its final catastrophic strike, Admiral Jack Mattis and the crew of the Midway are the last defense between us, and our last dawn.
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Reader Praise for The Last War series:
“From beginning to end this novel is a thriller with mature, well written characters engaged in complicated and bloody conflict.”
“This is a fun read for anyone who loves space battles. Nice background political mystery.”
“Cold War intrigues, politics, aliens, and almost non-stop action! It doesn’t get much better than this!”
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Follow Admiral Mattis’s adventures with the first two volumes of The Last War series: