One of the things that took me by surprise when I created SciFi Ideas a few years ago – and subsequently began delving into the creative processes of other writers – is how much thought and effort some writers put into the creation of fictional worlds. I’ve always known that writers are passionate about creating fictional environments for their characters, and being able to “flesh out” a setting with fun little details is one of the most enjoyable aspects of working in this genre, but until that point I’d been underestimating just how seriously some people take their “worldbuilding”.
To science fiction writers, “worldbuilding” (or “world-building”) can mean two different things – although they are really two wavelengths of the same spectrum. In the first instance, worldbuilding is about adding those interesting details that make a wider setting, and therefor a story, feel more real. Names of places the protagonist may never visit, people he or she might never meet, curious facts he or she might not know, myths and religions that are fiction within fiction. These details may or may not have an impact on how the story moves forward, but they help the reader to believe that a fictional world is a real place.
This first definition of worldbuilding is common to most writers, and it’s quickly becoming a part of the language we use to talk about movies and TV shows too (Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you). But in the science fiction writing community, “worldbuilding” can mean something much geekier, much more intelligent, and altogether much more challenging – the creation of scientifically plausible worlds from the accretion disk up using real scientific models and concepts.
This second type of worldbuilding is as much a science as a writing practice. In fact, some worldbuilders aren’t writers at all; some are create worlds simply as a hobby (think of it as a model railway on a massive but purely theoretical scale) or as a fun way to educate themselves about complex scientific principals. A few create worlds in the hope that compelling and realistic stories will emerge from the theoretical chain of events they set in theoretical motion (sort of like how the epic story of World War II is the result of a chain of geopolitical events stretching back to the formation of the our sun).
Carl Sagan once said, “if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” This aptly describes the approach that serious worldbuilders take to science fiction writing. It’s less about the “what if” and more about the “this is how.” (Although sometimes it’s about “what if” too.)
After a few years of interacting with the strange wizards who’ve taken to worldbuilding as a hobby, I’ve come to two conclusions:
1) Every science fiction story set anywhere other than Earth could benefit from a touch of worldbuilding science, and all science fiction writers would do well to learn about scientific worldbuilding if they are to create more realistic – and therefore more compelling – fictional worlds.
This type of worldbuilding raises the bar, and we should all endeavour to cling on with our fingernails as it rises. Sci-fi audiences have never been as scientifically aware as they are right now. Likewise, they’ve never been so critical.
2) Serious scientific worldbuilding is tough, and it’s complicated. Science is tough, and it’s complicated. Using science creatively is even harder. To make matters worse, seeking useful and relevant advice and information about worldbuilding isn’t always straightforward, especially for those of us starting out with only a basic level of science education.
So, if we want to create realistic worlds to feature in our science fiction stories, where do we start? Should start studying for degrees in astrophysics, chemistry, planetology, geology, cellular and evolutionary biology, and climatology?
This is where the Artifexian YouTube channel comes in. Artifexian’s videos provide clear and accessible information about what turn out to be deceptively simple worldbuilding concepts. The series is designed to be a beginners guide to worldbuilding science, and the videos succeed in delivering some genuinely fascinating nuggets of information in a way that even a wasp could understand.
Here’s how Artifexian’s Edgar Grunewald introduced the show, neatly summarizing everything I’ve just said in his own characteristically concise way:
To encourage you all to think more about the scientific realism of the worlds featured in your sci-fi stories, I’ve decided to feature the entire series of Artifexian videos here on the SciFi Ideas website. We’ll be sharing one episode of the show each week for the next couple of months until we catch up, and then as the new videos are released.
If you haven’t already done so, please subscribe to SciFi Ideas to receive notifications of these videos and all our other articles. The more eager of you might want to go straight to the Artifexian YouTube channel where you can watch all the videos released so far and subscribe directly to the source.