Whether you turn to fiction as an escape from the drudge and stress of daily life or whether you seek in it a thought-provoking exploration of human nature and the meaning of life, one of the main criteria you’re bound to have is credibility: however alien, ancient or arcane the fictional world, you, the reader, have got to be able to buy into it. If the make-believe world is in any way sketchy or inconsistent or anachronistic – if it flaunts or flashes its make-believe nature – then you’ll slip out of the reading reverie and likely close the book.
From the writer’s perspective, of course, creating and maintaining that degree of convincing verisimilitude is hard. It isn’t simply about visual details; a thoroughly convincing fictional world, or time, or even universe, has to come complete with the full complement of sensory minutiae, not to mention internally-consistent physics and biology, politics and language; and if it’s historical, it’s got to mesh with the readers’ potentially pre-existing knowledge of the era. A tall order, when you tally it up, but not an impossible one: here are three stand-out examples of writers whom we think have gotten it not only right, but stupendously right.
Miéville is an English writer whose fantasy/SF work has been described, alongside Jeff VanderMeer and Mervyn Peake, as ‘New Weird’. He’s something of a cult hit, though we like to think of him a cross-genre genius. From the steam-punk SF horror-slash-thriller that is Perdido Street Station to the existential police procedural crime fiction of the super-trippy The City and the City and the comedy of the cult in The Kraken, it’s pretty clear that Miéville casts his creative net wide.
What’s particularly fascinating about him in the context of world-building is just how much detail he invests in each scenario: while Perdido Street Station, for instance, is the first in a (long) trilogy set on an alien world that uses inter-species tensions to explore class warfare and political unrest (amongst other things), The City and The City, otherwise Earth-bound, presents us with two cities that simultaneously occupy the same physical space such that the denizens of each are forbidden to acknowledge the existence of the other. The peculiar logic of this is meticulously explored by both the protagonist and the writer, and while it’s a head-scratcher, it’s internally flawless. If anyone can suck us into a bizarre alternative space, it’s Miéville – and not just once, but in book after book after book.
From the outlandish to the historical: Mantel’s oeuvre, again, is diverse – Irish giants, malcontent priests, contemporary family tragedies, psychics, French revolutionaries and more – and while each and every one of her words is worth savouring, it’s in the Tudor novels – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (and the yet-to-be-released The Mirror and the Light) that her talent for world-building is most evident.
UK readers will likely be familiar with the historical period in question – the reign of King Henry VIII – but international fans will find in these texts an abundance of meticulously researched details, not only of the political intrigues of the time, but also of the sensory environments of the era and of the individual voices of her real-life characters.
As well as consulting the copious correspondence archives of Thomas Cromwell and other political figures of the time, and forging her own intricate neo-Tudor language system (legitimately old enough to add that crucial verisimilitude and conveniently new enough to remain comprehensible), Mantel’s commitment to verisimilitude extends to plotting a lighting-scheme for each of her locations, à la a conscientious director of photography, and working out exactly how loud the backdrop to any scene might be, in an era when, as she put it, cathedral bells were as clamorous as it ever got for most people. Now, that’s dedication.
This immensely talented writer is criminally neglected outside the high-end literary magazine scene: the author of three novels (Gob’s Grief, The Children’s Hospital and The Great Night) and one story collection (A Better Angel), Adrian is also a doctor (in pediatric oncology, no less!) who holds an MFA in fiction and a further master’s level qualification from Harvard Divinity School, all of which goes some way towards explaining the extraordinary combination of practical detail and supernatural grandeur that saturates his texts.
Angels, beasts and demonic children co-exist with exhausted pediatric interns, hospital tamale sellers, Civil War re-enactors and Shakespearean faeries in these books, and, surreal as it sounds, Adrian makes it all worryingly true-to-life: check out The Children’s Hospital for a Noah-meets-Jesus-meets-surgical-attendings mash-up that’s stunning in its gory medical details and its apocalyptic grandness while refusing, also, to compromise on the fiddly details of characterization: even with angels pelting out greetings from the PA system of a floating hospital, this book is still the most heartbreaking exploration of love and loss that we’ve read in years, and much of its power comes from Adrian’s skill in creating and maintaining a delicate and intricate balance between elaborate fantasy and clinical reality. (Plus of course, it’s funny.)
We could go on, of course. Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Ballard’s Drowned World, Richard Adam’s mystical and tragic world of rabbits in Watership Down: these texts linger in our minds because the places, times and people they evoke are rendered with scrupulous care, thorough research and a sensitive attention to emotional nuances – and that, we think, is what makes good writing. Have you got any better examples of kick-ass world-building? Let us know – we’re always after new reading material.
Valerie O’Riordan is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. She edits both The Manchester Review and Bookmunch, and her chapbook of microfictions, Enough, was published in 2012. She runs regular workshops on fiction writing and also works on a freelance basis as a video editor for Belle Vue Productions, following half a decade as an editor with the BBC. She blogs at not exactly true and can be found on Twitter too.