What is it about secondary world fantasy and science fiction that draws readers in? Why do readers seek out stories that take place in worlds not our own? There are many reasons (possibly as many reasons as there are readers) but one such reason, and the reason I most identify with, is the powerful thematic resonance that can be evoked by effective worldbuilding.
I am thinking in particular about settings like Eärwa from R. Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse series and The Stillness from N.K Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. These are settings that seem specifically constructed to highlight specific themes of interest to the authors. I’ll briefly touch on them each in turn.
In The Second Apocalypse, one of the themes that Bakker is dealing with is the theme of religious zealotry, specifically how extreme faith can lead to atrocious, horrifying evils. Eärwa is a world in which the gods and demons are very real, a world that is literally sustained by an eternal song sung by the creator god. Those who use magic are literally damned (in fact, some characters can see their damnation). God exists, and the evidence of its existence is indisputable. And yet religious violence (so, so much violence) exists in this world, because it isn’t the belief in god itself that motivates violence, but the capacity to create in-groups and out-groups based on doctrine which justify the dehumanization of the heathen and the sacrifice of the self to morally dubious causes. If Bakker had told the same story in a historical setting, when the existence of divinity might be in dispute, or even in a fantasy setting that was not so well designed to bring this theme into stark relief, he would not be able to explore it so intensely. Every character in Eärwa must confront the reality and absurdity of religious violence, because their world is inextricably bound up in it at a foundational level.
I am somewhat less familiar with The Stillness of The Broken Earth trilogy (having not yet read The Obelisk Gate or the forthcoming conclusion, The Stone Sky) but there are clear thematic resonances between Jemisin’s characters and her setting in The Fifth Season, the first book in that trilogy. The Stillness features a hereditary magic system called Orogeny, which is insanely dangerous and strictly controlled by those in political power. Essentially, Orogenes are enslaved and used as tools. They are forcefully bred with one another in order to produce more powerful Orogenes, who will then be enslaved. Jemisin does not shy away from the horror of this situation–far from it, she tackles the trauma of generational enslavement and the dehumanization suffered by enslaved populations head-on. Her magic system, a key element of her setting, is specifically designed to create the problems that her characters will overcome, the problems which will bring to the forefront the themes of Jemisin’s story.
There are other great examples out there. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle is a masterclass in thematic worldbuilding, as each book in that series introduces new setting elements specifically tailored to the themes it means to explore. “Planetos,” as the setting of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is lovingly called by fans, represents a heightened and magically enhanced version of 15th century England specifically to highlight the themes of realpolitik, ambition, and the real cost of war that GRRM wants to focus on. The magic system of Brandon Sanderon’s Roshar setting highlights the themes of virtue-as-ethics that The Stormlight Archive explores and the tripartite metaphysics more generally explored by the entire Cosmere.
Now, that is not to say that effective worldbuilding and thematic worldbuilding are synonymous, only that thematic worldbuilding is a particularly powerful tool that offers fantasy and science fiction writers a unique ability to layer the themes and philosophies of their work. But by creating a setting that works alongside characters, fantasy and science fiction writers can draw out the many facets and intricacies of a complex theme in a unique and interesting way. It’s possible to do worldbuilding well and create what Kate Elliott describes as “a fully realized world” without crafting your setting with theme in mind, but I can’t help but think that unity of theme between setting and character can only make a story stronger.
PS: Issue #231 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which features my short story “The Broken Karwaneer,” is now available for subscribers and for purchase as a single issue from Weightless Books! If you’re interested in reading it early, you can get issue #231 for $0.99 USD, or subscribe to a year’s worth of BCS for $15.99 USD. Or you can wait until the issue comes out for free at http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com. Thanks for reading!