All worldbuilding, without exception, is political
Every work of fiction puts something speculative in the world. Even a story steeped in realism asks you to imagine characters who don’t actually exist, living in places that may not exist, experiencing events that didn’t happen in real life, and so on. The difference between realism and speculative fiction isn’t a sharp line, but rather the degree of removal from the world as we know it. Speculative fiction asks you to take a wider leap of imagination — not merely believing in a street that doesn’t exist inside a world that does, but maybe a whole different planet.
And the further you remove a fictional scenario from the laws of the real world, the more necessary it becomes to invent its own laws. How different is life on another planet? What do people in a fantasy world eat? How does it feel to go back in time, live on a spaceship, or be kept under constant surveillance? All those questions are answered in worldbuilding — the craft of setting the laws of the fictional world, before stories can be written within them. Worldbuilding is the bedrock of all speculative fiction.
But while worldbuilding is all fun and adventure, it is also inherently political. How can it not be? When all the fundamental laws of the world are open to reimagination, it allows for some very drastic experimentation that isn’t possible with realism. Governments and social structures that have never existed can be examined for their potential effect. Science and technology that have not yet been invented can be explored for their role in people’s lives. Individuals can be given immense power without its equivalent drain on resources — basically the definition of magic — and observed for the difference it makes. Worldbuilding is about creating large-scale power shifts, and all large-scale power shifts belong in the realm of politics.
It is not surprising that protagonists of speculative fiction stories are often larger than life — rulers, heirs, chosen ones, the first explorer, the most skilled warrior, the smartest scientist, the cleverest rogue — characters who can embody in their actions the large-scale power shifts that the worldbuilding requires. But the politics of worldbuilding is not only embodied through its protagonists.
In a world where all fundamental laws can be rewritten, it is also illuminating which of them aren’t. The author’s priorities are more openly on display when a culture of non-humans is still patriarchal, there are no queer people in a far-future society, or in an alternate universe the heroes and saviours are still white. Is the villain in the story a repulsively depicted fat person? Is a disabled or disfigured character the monster? Are darker-skinned, non-Western characters either absent or irrelevant, or worse, portrayed with condescension? It’s not sufficient to say that these stereotypes still exist in the real world. In a speculative world, where it is possible to rewrite them, leaving them unchanged is also political.
Some astounding works of modern speculative fiction have been created precisely by reversing these sociocultural stereotypes in worldbuilding. The “ambisexual” inhabitants of the planet Gethen in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness present a truly incomprehensible social order for the human Ai, adding greater depth to the notion of “alienation”. Kindred by Octavia Butler is a time travel novel, only its protagonist is a black woman who gets transported to a slave-owning era, and an entirely original narrative emerges simply because the time traveller is not welcomed as a slightly confusing guest but mistaken for an escaped slave. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, expectations from the real world are constantly reversed — rural witches turn out to be wiser than university-educated wizards, popular characters are red herrings for lacklustre characters who perform the real heroic tasks, vilified racial minorities act with more honour and kindness than characters from majority social groups. The impeccable horror of the film Get Out is sprung precisely because it’s the good-looking, well-behaved white family that turns out to be the trap.
There’s a well known idea that there are only six or seven basic plots in the world (opinions vary on the exact number or categorisation), that underlie every story that’s told. Why, then, do we continue to read or be taken by surprise by new stories? It’s because the basic plots are re-contextualised, so what we really enjoy anew is the worldbuilding. So it is worth building our fictional worlds with care, for these are the signage we leave for the people we are and wish to be. And it is always, without fail, political.
Mimi Mondal is a speculative fiction writer and editor, and the first Hugo Award nominee from India
The views expressed are personal