Thursday, August 11, 2011

Verisimilitude: Evolution and World Building

Reading thuRsday

I took a course, lo these many moons ago, whose subtitle was, "The future isn't what it used to be." We studied a historiography of futurists (people writing about the future for various reasons). One of the professor's most telling observations was that in virtually all the visions of the world of tomorrow there was no evidence of the past: not a single decrepit or historic building sullied the prospect of the gleaming City of the Future enjoyed by its residents from their flying cars.

At first it didn't bother me, but as I continued studying Cities of the Future I found them, like the latest Japanese androids that look almost but not quite human, uncanny. Without historic reference points, I couldn't place them in respect to the world I knew. Was the architectural fantasy of domes and monorails decades or millennia away?

The world in which we live is the product of processes acting over time. From the broad sweep of geology and evolution (to be understood here as the study of change over time, not origins), to the conscious and unconscious effects of people living their lives, the present is an amalgam of the past.

When asked for his advice on world-building, Scott Westerfeld said, "Pay attention to how this world works, and how complicated it is."

Much of that complexity arises around points of contact where different forces, be they natural or social, collide. Add the dynamics of ebb and flow to the forces and you have the natural recipe for a complex web of competing interests that ring true. Think of the intertidal zone, alternately flooded and exposed, and the profusion of life you find there.

In contrast, particularly among those of us who tell fantastic stories, the setting often becomes simply the ground (literally) on which we compete for the most outlandish vision. Without any thought to the processes and forces that could have given rise to such a thing, we're playing the same uncanny game as the architects of the City of the Future.

The best way to ratchet up the verisimilitude of your world is to give it a history and fill it with evidence of the past. You don't need to turn your fantasy adventure into a fantasy history textbook, but if you show your readers evidence of things in your world that have changed over time, they'll be willing to believe that, like our own, your world has been around long enough to feel real.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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