Getting There from Here
Part of world building is explaining how the world got the way it is. Really good authors manage to work this in slowly after simply presenting the world as-is – I never feel like Iain Banks has to explain the civilization of Culture to me. I play a bit of catch-up, but never so much that I’m lost. Ideally, the author gives you enough that you still want a little bit more.
In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, we are very clearly in a post-meltdown United States, but we never find out how the “Rusties” collapsed – if it was disease or nuclear holocaust, or excessive garbage in the air suddenly coming down all at once. Holly Black’s White Cat presents an alternate history U.S. in which a certain number of people are able to curse others. They’re out in the open, but subject to legislation (a la the X-Men in Marvel Comics). Suzanne Collins, Janni Lee Simner, and Catherine Fisher also all posit civilization-ending traumas. In The Hunger Games, the result is a technologically advanced kind of feudalism. Simner’s The Bones of Faerie takes place after a cataclysm between the world of faerie and the world of us – all events previous to the war a generation ago being called generically “Before.” Fisher’s Incarceron disallows advanced technology through a more or less rigorously enforced Protocol that keeps everyone sort of seventeenth-century-ish and happily WMD-Free.
The advantage of the catastrophe is that the author can ground her characters in this world and in a future defined by the technology (or in Simner’s case, by the magic) that’s left over. There are advances and there are setbacks.
My set up is that we are in our world and we are now. Kiersten White does the same thing with Paranormalcy. The Wachowski brothers did it with The Matrix. Authors taking this route have to explain how normal folks going about their daily lives don’t see everything around them. The Matrix explains that we’re living an illusion, and once you break out of the illusion you see how the machines have us trapped. Hell, the Terminator franchise does the same thing by dressing up its cyborg killers to look like humans. In Paranormalcy, our heroine Evie in fact works for the organization tasked with keeping track of the paranormal critters running around – werewolves, vampire, hags, et cetera and so on. But people themselves don’t do magic. Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse has an uneasy truce with the knowledge – Buffy’s high school class acknowledges how often she’s saved people from dying, but everything starts over a bit once she goes to college.
I have my magic-employing folks keep a low profile out of self-interest. The group that uses talismans (positively: Method workers; pejoratively: artificers) don’t gather in large numbers because the last time they did that, in the Middle Ages, every single last one of them got killed. The Black Plague may have killed 1/3 of Europe’s population in general, but it killed 100% of the workers. The group that makes deals (known to themselves as contractors; known to Method workers as shamans) go a bit bonkers over time, so they have trouble knowing whom to trust. Neither group, I’ve decided will be or can be monolithic. Neither one can take over the world. Those aren’t going to be my stakes.
What I do have to figure out is how they keep themselves secret. How mermaids and toad-things and ouroboros really appear. Why there aren’t vampires or werewolves. How everyone talks to one another, and how they’ve advanced along with our own civilization.
And I’ve got to figure out how to explain it so that it makes you want to turn the page.