World-building is a cool part of fantasy, but one of the hardest things to get right.
I like realistic worlds in my fiction. By its very nature, a goodly part of fantasy eschews them. A big chunk of the genre tends to fairly simple settings the better to tell its stories. There’s a real art to writing books like that, and as a narrative style it has its advantages, but it sacrifices verisimilitude. Fair enough, not everyone wants reality in their fantasy. The clue, you may say, is in the name. Who wants realistic fantasy?
Well, I do. I do want reality in my fantasy, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. I’m firmly of the school that the stranger the world is, the more real it has to feel. Construct a real enough imaginary environment and anything seems possible. I love Sword and Sorcery, with its vertiginous sense of deep time and holy-cow weirdness. I like the less grand guignol end of grimdark, as it suggests grubby existences of high infant mortality rates and oppressive lives lived in suffocating cultures. I love worlds with real ecologies, societies, economies and geographies. All of the “ies” Bring me more, so that I might feast upon them! Michael Swanwick, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, Richard Morgan, George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg and of course JRR Tolkien – these are writers whose works I love.
The world of The Iron Ship is inspired by these authors. To be honest, it’s a pretty weird world, very old, wracked by huge tidal forces, and undergoing an industrial revolution powered by the rational application of magic. There a ton of characters, elements of steampunk, epic fantasy, sword and sorcery and more. Therefore I had to make it as real as I could.
Like most readers, I have my own pecadillos, and one is that I want a sense of life, of grand screeds of detail that support the fiction of the world. Heaven forbid you laboriously lay it out for me, though. I’m that particular.
Some writers craft beautiful worlds, then shoot their story through the heart by telling us all about it in spreadsheet-busting detail. It doesn’t matter if you tell me Kingdom A’s major exports are. What matters to me is that Kingdom A feels real enough that you suspect it probably does have a major export, and all the other trappings of a real economy. I love fantasy worlds where you just know somewhere down a crappy alleyway, someone is ruining their eyesight making pins for rich men. That somewhere else, poor land management is screwing up the local fishery, that in another place amateur sorcerers are meddling with things best left alone. You don’t have to meet those people, just have a vague impression that all this stuff going on beyond the story. I call this kind of world a “whole cloth world”.
There are a lot of worlds with one element beautifully described, and that’s usually the magic system. There’s a lot of love in the world for books like that, they’re a sub-genre in their own right, but they’re not for me.
I suspect none of us set out to make a world like this delightfully worded jape in The Toast or like this hilarious map (below), but they exist in profusion.
Whole cloth worlds aren’t for everyone. There are lots of ways to get fantasy worlds horribly wrong, but also lots of ways to get them right. Horses for courses (there are no horses in The Iron Ship, by the way, they are extinct). The Iron Ship‘s world is pretty complex. I don’t immediately explain much of what’s going on if it’s not important to the story. I want the books I write to be like visiting a foreign land, a whirl of colourful experiences, not all of which make sense to you, although they obviously make sense to the inhabitants. The characters have their own frames of reference, and they don’t entirely tally with our own. They don’t sit there and “as you know bob” spoon feed you. Nor do they live in a faux-medieval European reality that’s easily assimilated by people brought up on our own mythical past. On the other hands, there are a lot of things mentioned in The Iron Ship that will be explained in due course, because one of the joys of exploring a new world is slowly discovering why things are the way they are.
So, if you like your fantasy to be a bunch of comforting tropes you’re well used to — and that’s what some readers want, and hurrah for that — I’d steer clear. If on the other hand you are adventurous enough for a trip to an alien reality, with all the potential culture shock that entails, give it go. There are no real adventures without risk, after all.