Worldbuilding is a major challenge for science fiction creators — building a plausible world from scratch involves thinking about lots of variables. But sometimes, to imagine the future, the best way is to look to the past. Classic literature can help you build a world more believably alien than anything you've yet imagined.
I'm currently making my way through War and Peace. This is not an easy task, as the book involves a huge cast of characters, each of whom has three formal names, a half-score of nicknames, and usually a title. Those characters get up to a lot of things in the 580,000 words they have to parade around the world that the book constructs.
And what a strange, alien world it is.
How To Make a World
Tolstoy is rightly given credit for being an objective observer, showing his characters' good and bad characteristics without judging them. The closest thing the novel has to villains are the Kuragin family, all money-grubbing members of the nobility. The patriarch, Vasily, is a schemer and a manipulator. His son is thoughtlessly cruel. His daughter, Elena, is a stupid, vulgar woman whose sole talent is the ability to show off her beauty in such a way as to make other people want to think the best of her.
Elena's husband, Pierre, was in the middle of one of his tormented inner monologues, arguing with himself about Elena's perpetual infidelity, when I began thinking about Elena herself. Certainly I would not want to spend time with her — but then again, I wouldn't want to spend time with her husband either. Despite Pierre's good heart he is, especially towards the beginning of the book, an insufferable chump. Elena's family was in financial straits, and by marrying him, she was supporting them. She was supporting them in the only way that was open to her.
While the men in the book could do things like take a job as an officer in the army, or an official in the government, Elena's only way to make a decent life for herself was marrying well. It was, in essence, her job, and she did it admirably. She was a celebrated hostess and, as far as the general public was concerned, a prize of a wife. While Pierre, and most of the other male characters, could arrange his professional and personal life to suit him, Elena couldn't exercise the same privilege. It was unfair, I thought, to make marriage a woman's only career one that she will be locked in to as a teenager — and then morally censure her because she wasn't enthusiastic about the job.
Then again male characters didn't have all that much freedom, either. Some were trapped, by their love for elderly and female dependents, into making the same kind of loveless marriages as women did. Perhaps, if they were willing to take a few steps down in lifestyle, they might have supported themselves by other means. Take too many steps down in lifestyle, though, and one might become a serf. Tolstoy only touches on them, but their exploitation and misery, if I thought about it, eclipsed any sad little thing the nobility was going through. Why should they suffer so terribly when the people above them spent their time worrying about the meaning of life while redecorating their Saint Petersburg estates?
Elena's situation was not isolated. The entire society of the novel was based on a system of interconnected roles. Once the reader starts wondering about the morality of Elena's casual adultery, it's not long before the Bolsheviks are rioting in Petrograd.
Or, to put it in the perspective, Tolstoy has created a coherent moral universe. It has its quirks and its injustices, but tug at one moral thread and the whole story comes apart. Either you take it as a whole, and accept its rules of right and wrong, or you stay outside the story.
World-Building in Science Fiction and Out of It
Tolstoy wasn't trying to build a world that's different from the one we occupy now. He was describing, somewhat acidly, the world he occupied. Some of the characters in the novel are real people under their real names, and most of his invented characters are based on people in his social circle. While there's no science fiction element to the story, its morals and social structures have become alien – if not entirely unfamiliar. This world might be compared to the worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, or Margaret Atwood. Time does the work of authorial imagination.
The difference between classic works that describe a socially alien world and contemporary social science fiction is that the classics don't wink at the modern reader. They can't. It's only contemporary science fiction that can demonstrate, for the reader, how different, or how similar, this fictional society is to their own. Sometimes that's good. A lot of works, especially those of Orwell, aren't just painting the portrait of a skewed society, they are showing how that society might spring from our own. It's meant to put contemporary society and the fictional society next to each other, and let the reader compare them. But a lot of current science fiction isn't meant to be a lesson to the reader. It's meant to show a different world, and this is where reading some older classics can make all the difference.
Reading classics gives readers an unparalleled education in that old literary motto, "Show, don't tell." The authors don't need to tell their readers what's appropriate behavior, what the current state of morality is, or how society is organized. They assume their reader knows. As for the modern reader, we figure it out very quickly — not because it's explained to us in exposition, but because we see how the characters act.
After reading a few scenes in which a character travels only in the presence of her relatives, we understand that it would be unthinkable for her to travel any other way. If one character interrupts another whenever the second character begins talking about a certain subject, we understand that bringing up the subject is considered rude. If the second character brings it up again, in another setting, and is allowed to talk, we realize it's only rude in certain company.
It was while reading War and Peace that I realized the difference between very bad behavior and absolutely reprehensible behavior. When a child acts very badly, his mother talks about how she will tell his father. When that same child acts reprehensibly, the mother declares that she will never, ever tell his father. Reading a story about something the author already assumes we understand shows us exactly how much a reader can put together without any kind of explanation.
Which isn't to say that we don't get lost occasionally. Classic literature can guide us into areas that were common knowledge at the time, but are incomprehensible now. Often this involves the mechanical stuff that has, in the meantime, become obsolete. We might be able to follow the subtleties of a drawing room scene, or a battle, but the workings of a sleigh or a steamboat might as well be written in Greek. This, also, is useful to the science fiction writer.
Wading through references to unknown technology we begin to understand the cut-off point for our comprehension of alien technology. We can also understand how to extend that cut-off point. Readers begin to come to grips with what a mechanical part does over several allusions to how the characters use it. Do you need to take time to explain your warp drive, or your gene-creator, or can you simply mention it once during an inspection scene, once in a scene when it is working well, and then once when it's malfunctioning – and assume the reader knows what it does by the time it malfunctions? Even our reactions while reading about a mechanism we never understand are important. How soon do we tune out when reading about a technical detail? Do we hang in there longer depending on the situation, the verbal style of the person explaining it, the importance of the scene to the plot?
Finally, the characters of classic novels are rooted in the thinking and morals of their time and place. They might not always like that thinking. They may even lean towards modern ideas, but those ideas are generally clumsy and inarticulate. People who are, in retrospect, progressives, are having thoughts and making arguments that no one in their society has ever had before. A refined philosophy, to indicate that the character is "right," isn't in the cards. Even if people don't agree with the mindset of their time, they are part of it. They understand it, like we understand how close to stand to people we are talking to, and why there is a certain facebook etiquette.
When you read classic books, look at the way that even the most enlightened or progressive people fall in line with the popular philosophy of the time. It can keep your own book from being about a two-tiered society where the good guys are completely "right" according to modern standards, and the bad guys are completely "wrong."
The Classics To Read
We've covered War and Peace pretty extensively, but for those who don't have a few extra months to read one of the longest novels ever published, here are some other great classics that explore a new world.
Dangerous Liaisons, written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was widely burned in its era. The subject of many movie adaptations, of vastly differing quality, it's about a pair of cruel French aristocrats who seduce and manipulate other people for their own amusement. It's epistolary, told entirely in the letters exchanged between the characters. It's also an education in comparative morality. The two main characters are nearly entirely without morals, but are only honest about that when speaking to each other. In letters we see the tone they take and the values they express when they write to characters of widely differing moral systems.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Age of Innocence are two other books that look at by-gone moral systems. The difference between then and Dangerous Liaisons is, when these characters defy the moral systems of their time, they are becoming, to modern eyes, more moral rather than less. Mark Twain's most famous book features Huck, who for much of the book believes he is in the wrong for helping Jim, the runaway slave. Huck's basic good nature and sense of personal loyalty win out against his sense of social justice, causing him to do what he truly believes is wrong when he fails to turn Jim in, or when he treats him with respect and humility. We, and of course Twain, see it a different way.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is about a woman fleeing an intolerable marriage, and a man who loves her and wants to help her get a complete divorce. The problem is, while no one in their social circle believes the woman was morally wrong for leaving the marriage, divorces are simply not done. Even the man who tries to help her is chagrined by the fact that he's doing something outré. The story follows the two throughout their strange relationship. The couples' choices seem absolutely morally correct to them – and completely baffling to us.
The House of Mirth is Edith Wharton's second appearance on this list. The book, a depressing affair, follows a woman's slow descent from the top of society to the bottom – or at least near it. She is past her sell-by date for marriage, and continually making foolish choices that keep her descending the social ladder. This is a good look at how to illustrate the manners and living style of the different levels of a class system.
And finally, we have that sprawling, inter-generational novel, Wuthering Heights. From a modern perspective, there is some real villainy going on in this novel. From a historical perspective, there is some real villainy going on in this novel. Granted, it was set in the 1800s, but even then, people had legal recourse in matters that involved kidnapping, severe beatings, and forced marriages. And yet we see multiple characters witness these events and consider stabbing the culprit through the heart, but not going to a legal authority. If you want to look at a novel that shows that the stated values of a society are not the actual values of a society – without the discrepancy ever being acknowledged - look at this book.