Avoiding flat earths

Christmas06 039hotel copyA few years ago, over the holidays, I stayed at a hotel on a scenic bend in the Riverwalk in San Antonio. It had been build in little over 200 days. How? Concrete cast room units, already decorated, were stacked in place. The rooms were still very nice, just identical. The prefab structure even had little wrought iron demi-balconies that evidently only the pigeons could access as evidence by the multiple layers of white speckles.

Sometimes, science fiction/fantasy authors would like to have the same kind of pre-fab world built. An intriguing, complex world, ready for them to plug in characters and start the action. On the other hand, if they go through the trouble of creating such a world, they tend to continue to add story after story to the same setting.

Part of this trend, of course, is based on public demand. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings at his publisher’s insistence because The Hobbit had been so popular. He based much of his made-up world on mythology – Germanic, Norse and Finnish. But that did not mean that he got away without completing the tedious process of world building, and constructing the physical characteristics, flaws, and temperament of the world and its societies.

For example, in The Hobbit he gave details about the mountain of the dragon, Smaug, but also described the appearance, the habits, even the smell of the beast himself. Tolkien was somewhat restrained by the general ideas about these mythical beasts held by his audience. But this is actually a benefit, which allows him to elaborated even further, giving the dragon personality and explaining his motives for his reign of terror on the people.

Tolkien took this even further in The Lord of the Rings, describing the personalities of regions within Middle Earth – the humble, homey Shire, the angry Misty Mountains, the eerily unnerving Dead Marshes and delicately balanced Isengard, trying to flourish on the border of a wasteland.

For me and many readers like me, reading passages developing the imaginary world is interesting. Basing the world loosely on some existing culture or mythology transported to another time and space, does not do away with the need to flesh out the culture, include ironic details about the society, and describe the uniqueness of the environment. A fictional world can be flat, round or well-developed, just like a character.


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