Guest Post: “On Worldbuilding” by Simon Morden

mordens-authorpicOne of the joys of writing novels over writing for the screen is that your budget is infinite and your imagination is unfettered. You don’t have to worry about the cost of the number of suns your planet orbits around, nor about the practical effort required to have half a dozen alien races, none of whom conform to a basic upright and bipedal morphology, appear repeatedly and interact with your human characters.

In Down Station, when I blew up London – which in and of itself is a somewhat technical task, involving setting fire to the Underground and melting the streets around Mayfair – I needed somewhere for my survivors to run to. That somewhere was Down, which has more in common with Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Julian May’s Pliocene Earth than it does C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. I wanted Down to be both eerily familiar and surprisingly different: you can, of course, read the Books of Down and not worry about what happens under the bonnet, but as the author, that’s exactly what I had to do – open it up and tinker with the engine until I was happy with how it all worked.

Consistency is the key in world-building. It doesn’t matter how seemingly strange certain events are: what’s important is that there are rules, and that I stick to them. The way the world works shouldn’t just be part of the scenery, but it should be woven into the story itself, behaving as the cloth on which the plot is sewn. The warp and weft of the fabric, the slubs and stretches, are natural parts of the whole. An author can’t pretend they’re not there, any more than a dressmaker can.

The differences I wanted to put in were revelations to the characters. Down doesn’t work like London does, even though Down appears to be mapped out onto the city in a strange, symbiotic way. The first inkling in Down Station that things are different is the appearance of a sea-serpent, but the hammer-blow of “we’re not in Kansas anymore” comes with the first night, and the first moon-rise.

I love those photographs that make the Moon seem huge on the horizon, with buildings or people silhouetted against its pale surface. It’s all done with trickery and illusion: a narrow field-of-view and a long focus. Wherever you are in the world, the Moon covers pretty much the same angle of arc – you can cover its face with a fingernail at arm’s length. But I wanted to make a statement. Down’s moon is huge, almost big enough to fill the sky. Yes, it breaks all sorts of our-world physics (tides and the Roche limit to name but two), but it orbits Down in a regular fashion, and that it produces eclipses in a predictable fashion was something that assumes a great deal of importance in both Down Station and The White City.


Then there’s ley lines. Ley lines are alignments on the land of geographical features and structures, tied together possible ancient trackways. Except in Down, they’re actual lines of power, to be mapped and used. If I’m going to have portals, I’m going to have power flowing between portals, and I’m going to have lines crossing, and I’m going to have a whole pseudoscience of how to manipulate that power. I’m going to have pseudoscientists too. And they’re going to be terrifying.

And over all of that, I put a dreaming intelligence. Down is alive in a way that Gaia is not. Down is active in shaping the lives of those who come there – hence the comparisons with Solaris. Down dreams of us, and gives us gifts, both wanted and unwanted, whether we’re deserving of them or not. We have a tendency to become what we are, just more so. Sometimes that manifests itself in actual bodily changes, the ability to shapeshift, which is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes that manifests itself in character traits – the already brave become almost foolhardy, while the bitter become spiteful and vindictive.

Casual magics are abundant, great works less so. But deus ex machina events don’t happen: they cheat the reader and make for lazy plotting. Because the rules are already in place, you can drop the catch on the bonnet and get behind the wheel, safe in the knowledge that someone’s got a map. You can just enjoy the ride.


Simon Morden‘s Down Station and The White City are published in the UK by Gollancz. He is also the author of Arcanum and the Samuil Petrovitch trilogy, published by Orbit Books, as well as a number of stand-alone novels. For more on Morden’s writing and novels, be sure to check out the author’s website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.

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