I don’t write, or even read, much sci-fi, but I do have a trilogy planned that takes place on another planet. I don’t know if it qualifies as sci-fi since the inhabitants are as human-like as hobbits and face very human problems. Really it’s just an excuse for me to give free rein to my imagination by writing a story about humans without the constraint of respecting earthly reality.
But of course they inhabit a world which has other constraints, so I’ll have to decide how much of that world to describe. In other words, the world-building issue. We always have it, but a story set on earth can rely on shared assumptions about how the world operates. Not so on another planet, where we can make the world as we want, but then we have to replace those unwritten assumptions with explicit information. What will my inhabitants eat? How will they dress? Travel? Communicate? What are their towns and cities like? The list is almost endless.
Here are a few thoughts on the matter from some proper sci-fi writers:
Alastair Reynolds. My approach to world-building is a bit smoke and mirrors – there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.
Nnedi Okorafor. My stories tend to start with the characters. Then I look through their eyes (or however they “see”), minds, perspectives to observe the world. Typically this happens the moment the character exists. So I know the world not long after I know the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, listen to the gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history through various perspectives, and so on … I experience it.
AnnLeckie. I try to choose details that are real – the whole of human history and culture is fantastically varied – and that seem to fit together. In real life, cultures and histories are full of things that contradict each other. There will be one common narrative of how things happen, how people live and eat and so on, but people won’t actually always do things that way. I try to include such moments, because it makes my world more three-dimensional. I also leave some things unexplained or just referred to, as though the world is much bigger than just this one story and won’t all fit in the pages.
Kim Stanley Robinson. I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing – it’s a term out of a vocabulary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diagnostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspension of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.
These are just excerpts – the full article is here. It’s given me some useful pointers on how to set about it. But I’m sure you have others – whether you write sci-fi or not, how do you build your worlds?