Presenting good secondary worlds in short fiction can be a challenge. There simply isn’t a lot of space for worldbuilding. Writers have waged war on the problem using a variety of tactics, but most often short stories resort to using worlds the reader is familiar with: our own, a commonly-used generic setting with familiar tropes, or a specific, previously-established world the reader is assumed to be familiar with. Yet many of us come to speculative fiction because we want to discover new worlds and new people, and so a meaningful story set in a well-built world is a holy grail.
Presenting good secondary worlds in short fiction can be a challenge. There simply isn’t a lot of space for worldbuilding.
Dean Wells’ novella, “The Goddess Deception,” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #142 (Part 1) & 143 (Part 2)) takes a good hard stab at it, but despite the greater word count allowance, the story gets lost in the world building.
This world has everything: brassy, retro-future cybertech, parallel worlds and aetheric storms, drakes and Tesla bombs, glamour and airships. This stylistic quilt would make Luther Arkwright go weak in the knees, except that it necessitates some kind of explanation every three paragraphs. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. Wells is a fine writer and his hero, Agent Romulus Caul, has an acerbic voice that is charming to read even when he’s explaining aetheric forces and buckler events. But in addition to all the setting information Wells would have us digest, the story takes us on a whirlwind tour of the many Aspects of his Albion Empire. New characters with all their warts and quirks are introduced in every scene, and while they are, individually, great characters, taken together, they become a confusing rabble. It becomes difficult to recall who is who, let alone what their stakes are in the complex plot. It is too much.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s story, “Autodidact” (Clarkesworld #91 (Read here)), brings us into a similarly huge world, a far-future where conquered stars are “nurtured into ships” at a remote station. The leaps in technology and physics that would make this possible are so gargantuan that Sriduangkaew doesn’t bother to technobabble some plausible scientific explanation. Instead, she uses metaphoric language to describe the magnitude of the people who have brought this to be. By sidestepping a literal description of a universe which must defy our understanding, we’re allowed to enjoy the feeling of being in a richly evocative elsewhere without needing to endure a textbook on astrophysics.
By sidestepping a literal description of a universe which must defy our understanding, we’re allowed to enjoy the feeling of being in a richly evocative elsewhere without needing to endure a textbook on astrophysics.
It can be difficult to know where a narrative metaphor ends and where an actual impossibility begins. Srisunthorn Station is an ever-shifting place, built out of tiles which “slide and collate” to form what they need, or what the star’s immature AI – Teferizen – chooses to build. The differences are not merely architectural. Narrator Nirapha encounters leaves and berries in the corridors and meets with Teferizen’s avatar in a landscape from her childhood. The station, or perhaps Teferizen, is synesthetic, mixing senses. At the same time, Sriduangkaew’s language can be synesthetic as well, so when Nirapha muses that Teferizen’s skin is “the texture of new-made guns,” it is hard to know if that is a metaphor for the weapon which Teferizen might become, or if she literally has metallic flesh. Both are likely, and fitting.
Nirapha is concerned with senses throughout the piece, craving graphical input one moment and eschewing gloves for the tactile experience the next. The impermanence of the station’s landscape doesn’t seem to trouble her. The metaphorical meaning of the synesthetic experience provides her with the reality she needs. When ultimately she discovers the ship’s true identity, it is through the memory of sensory experiences that she knows her. Similarly, Sriduangkaew’s metaphors are so carefully and perfectly chosen, that the reader can imagine the essence of this universe better than a more literal telling. We create the impossible physics for ourselves. Self-taught indeed.
Another common way a story reveals a new world is through the discoveries of a child. “Sun-Touched” by LaShawn M. Wanak (Kaleidotrope Spring 2014 (Read here) ) is one of these.
The Princess lives inside a dark hive, the youngest of the Royal Triad comprised also of her mother, the Queen, and her grandmother, the Dowager. She knows very little of her world – only that some day she will be Queen and eventually Dowager; that she will rule her people, the doptera, and that none of them can leave the hive. She knows light is dangerous and their ancestral enemies, the papillons, are dangerous, too. That is all she, and we, know.
The rest we must guess from hints dropped by the Queen and Dowager and discover as the Princess prowls about the hive, determined to become a better Queen than she thinks her mother is. The fights the Queen and Dowager have suggest big plots and a deep and terrible history but the details are obscured from us, just as they are obscured from the Princess. Though her exploration of the hive reveals some fascinating and wonderful things – in particular an orgiastic doptera underground complete with consumables and all-night dancing – what she ultimately discovers is that nobody knows any more than she does. A wider revelation of her world’s secrets will require, literally, the walls to come down and for her kingdom to be dismantled.
Wanak lays down a number of big issues for our Princess to discover, but ultimately many of them come to feel like dropped threads. The Princess pulls back from breaking down and abandoning the hive, but her reluctance to lead a revolution comes at no cost. She finds easy answers to some of her biggest questions. Why is light so dangerous? It isn’t. And the papillons? Not as bad as they thought. The Queen’s reluctance to reproduce and the doptera’s past as a slave race – some of the more complex questions raised – are glossed over or forgotten. The potential of this deep and interesting world flounders after an entertainingly grotesque climax. The Princess, though she becomes Queen, does not seem to have gained enough knowledge to suit the role. The reader may be left feeling similarly bereft.
“The Bonedrake’s Penance” by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #143 (Read here)) succeeds resoundingly using the same tool.
Our unnamed narrator lives in “fortress at the center of the universe” with her adoptive mother, a “bonedrake” which is a technological construction of some sort. This sounds very grand, but the young narrator lives on her own small scale. She explores rooms, tries on spacesuits and eats cupcakes; absorbs her mother’s lessons and picks berries. The story matures as she does. It teaches us history as she learns her history. It grounds us in the story’s moral center as she learns her mother’s rules. We come to meet some of the universe’s other residents when she does, and come to understand the stakes in play as her mother tries to make her understand them, even if we are a little quicker on the uptake than the adolescent narrator. By the story’s climactic encounter, the world feels ten times bigger than it did at the start.
The story matures as she does. It teaches us history as she learns her history. It grounds us in the story’s moral center as she learns her mother’s rules.
All of the lessons about this gloriously-described world are not just informative, but poignant. The narrator’s transition from childhood to adulthood is as fraught and painful as it is for any of us, but we come to see that the bonedrake has more to lose through the narrator’s maturity than most mothers do. “You can’t return to being a child once you become an adult,” the bonedrake warns her. She’s not just being sentimental. Every parent frets about the moment they launch their child into the world as an adult, but for the bonedrake, the stakes are painfully high.
“The Bonedrake’s Penance” is ultimately a story about the pain of motherhood, but given the weight of the best epics through the wonderfully set-up premise. This story has it all: exquisite language, a clear, enthralling, evocative world, fully realized characters and a heart-tugging finale. Highly recommended.