Essay: Sci-Fi and the Trick to World Building in Creative Fiction

Georgia Peppe, BFR Editorial Staff

Sci-Fi.

An abbreviation that has the power to invoke utter joy or disgust given the beholder of the topic.

I personally used to be one of the blind that discredited this genre as gimmicky and meritless. Though I appreciated the concepts and imagination, I never considered anything even faintly classified as science fiction to be “literary” or of “literary merit.”

That was until my mother put Pastoralia, a collection of short stories by George Saunders, in my lap. Tenth of December soon followed.

These anthologies had no boisterous, graphic design cover art or obsequious font, so I doubted that this was in fact science fiction.

What I like specifically about Saunders-esque science fiction is its subtlety; how the science fiction aspect of his writing does not come from blatant exhibitions of, or references to, subjects preordained as science-y.

His literary trick is best described as continuous discontinuities. For Saunders this manifests in some of his short stories in an extremely unnerving manner.

The difference is this:

In most science fiction, the reader is presented a fictional world where everything is different. It is garnished with flying cars, dinosaurs, etc. There are innumerable rules governing the world and not all of them are cohesive when put in place next to each other. How this world exactly works gets confusing because the ambiguity surrounding what is different about this world is not consistent. Too many extrapolations, additions, twists, and throw away, last minute explanations that shoddily fill in gaping plot holes. In other words what is different about the world from ours, the discontinuity, is not continuous.

In Saunders’ worlds, it is typically difficult to first perceive the slightest difference between his literary world and our own. He chooses and places perversions of the expected in a setting the reader is all too familiar and comfortable with: a world without flying cars or dinosaurs, a world that is otherwise their own. Except for the twist.

I personally prefer Saunders’ more subtle approach, but, subtlety aside, even mainstream action-centric science fiction could stand to observe his skill.

A Saunders’ twist is the discontinuity, and this discontinuity is continuously integrated into the world it inhabits, creating a new world for this fiction to take place in. It is an eerie alteration of what we know so well. Though it is not as outrageous a presentation as mainstream science fiction, it leaves much more room for metaphors and allegories, but most of all, a real fear of that world which is only a slight deviation away from our own.

Continuity is crucial to world building. But of course we all knew that.

What is even more crucial is the continuity of a discontinuity. Being meticulous about your representation and presentation of an aspect of your world that defines it and distinguishes it from “reality.”

You, as a writer, want this discontinuity so well integrated that your reader is taken aback when it surfaces, when they finish your story and are left with a discomfort,  an eeriness regarding how clear and permeating that world felt.

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