Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d assign for Worldbuilding 101 (or maybe 202)

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This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

Worldbuilding is something that’s really important to me as a reader; I think it really comes right after character and before even plot in terms of things I care about when reading. A marvelously built and depicted world will make me more engaged with the story, while one that falls flat or doesn’t consider implications can really bring a book down. Now, there’s a difference between my favorite fictional worlds and what I would assign to people who want to understand worldbuilding. The worlds I love tend to be on the immersive side, where there are few infodumps and the reader is expected to follow along. This isn’t really worldbuilding 101, but I’ve put a few on here anyway. (Of course you can also learn a lot by dissecting interesting failures, but I have left these off this list.)

The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh: The Foreigner books are really a study in how to show immersive worldbuilding, especially interactions between aliens, humans, and within different groups of both. Cherryh writes other cultures with a deep sense of history, religion, and politics that make the worlds she writes richer.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette): I have a lot of emotions regarding this book, but mostly I loved how detailed the world is. Not everything is laid out for us, but I loved the mechanics of the language, the court systems and culture.

Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: So, both of these books are amazing from the point of view of worldbuilding in that imaginative, thoughtful way that makes for great scifi. I love all the everyday details, as well as the wider brushstrokes. But I want to highlight Ancillary Mercy because it takes a detail of the world created in the first book and delves into the background, the implications, and the systems that make it possible.

The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston: I often get impatient with alternate history type books, because they sometimes seem to cherry-pick what from our world will stay and what will be different. But E.K. Johnston does a wonderful job of thinking through what her choices mean and making sure they all cohere into a fascinating world that looks a little like ours–but isn’t.

Medair by Andrea K. Höst: I’m a big fan of Höst’s books, and I think she does a marvelous job of worldbuilding in general. But I wanted to highlight Medair because it sets up a conflict between two cultures. This is fairly standard, but in this case, there’s a kind of Rip Van Winkle situation going on and the two cultures, rather than being two nations or worlds, are the past and present of a country. The details of what changes and how that affects Medair are really great.

The Agency series by YS Lee: I have sung the praises of the Agency books on many occasions. But I wanted to highlight the fact that although we usually think of worldbuilding as vital for SFF, it’s actually really important for historical fiction as well. (Arguably, it’s important for all genres, but usually goes unnoticed in litfic.) Lee does a wonderful job of supporting her world with details and research without getting bogged down in it.

Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells: I have to admit that I’m putting this on the list mostly because I love it and love the worldbuilding Wells describes. But I think this one also does a beautiful job of creating a world that feels inhabited.

Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce: This one I would put on the syllabus for two reasons. First, it’s playing with American rather than European influences and I think that’s worth highlighting. Second, it’s fun and I think it’s too easy to think of worldbuilding as serious somehow. It often is (and often should be) but Wilce’s riotous wealth of details shows that it doesn’t have to be.

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow: I loved Sorrow’s Knot so much, but here I would use it to examine what happens when you set up a world, with all of its big background pieces: politics, religion, family dynamics, etc, and then challenge those assumptions. What happens, in fact, when the world you build is on a tipping point?

The Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: This is a collection of short fiction, which I really loved. The worlds that Lee creates are fascinating, vivid, and complex. I would assign this one to point out that WASP culture is not the default and that our culture does imbue our decisions and assumptions.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d assign for Worldbuilding 101 (or maybe 202)

  1. I also picked worldbuilding as my topic! But I think your title is right and your list is more Worldbuilding 202. 😛 From your list, I’ve only read Medair, Sorrow’s Knot and The Goblin Emperor. I loved the first two and agree that they have great worlds but unfortunately, the last one didn’t work for me.

  2. Range of Ghosts! Elizabeth Bear’s trilogy has fantastic worldbuilding, really suitable for WB 202.

    Right now I’m reading Kate Elliot’s Cold Fire trilogy; that also has very impressive worldbuilding, although it might be a bit cluttered — a mashup of alternate history involving not just mage houses, but zombies and the intelligent descendants of dinosaurs . . . yep, cluttered. But so cleverly done.

    • Maureen Eichner

      Ooh, yes, quite right about Elizabeth Bear! And I should have thought of her, since I just finished the second book recently.

      I had the Cold Fire trilogy on my long list, but I wasn’t so impressed by it that it bumped any of my top 10 off.

  3. Pingback: August 2015 round up | By Singing Light

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