Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How do you create an alternative world?

I've been reading Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam (the third installment of the trilogy), and marveling at how complete her post-apocalyptic world is--how thoroughly thought-out, how detailed, how true to its own internal logic. How the hell, I ask myself whenever I encounter such a world, does a writer accomplish this?

For Bigfoot and the Baby, I did end up creating a somewhat alternative world, mostly but not entirely like Southern California in the 80s. Apart from providing a sort-of habitat for a sort-of real Bigfoot, that world differs from ours by containing a domed city in the Mojave Desert. So I had to posit a technology to do that, though I don't explore the technology's plausibility in any great detail (it's not that kind of book). Other than that, I don't remember setting out to build an alternative world as such; it just sort of arose, over time, from the needs of the narrative.

I don't know if that's how Atwood proceeded. And I really don't know how, say, China Mieville created the far more alien world of Embassytown, or how any number of so-called "hard" science fiction writers do it. You probably have to know more than I do about ecosystems, architecture, ancient civilizations, high tech, low tech, organizational psychology, and everything else besides.

One strategy I've heard of, which I suspect came from the Poets and Writers writing prompts page, is to consider a world exactly like our own, except with one difference. That difference, I suppose, could be big or seemingly small--an entirely different government in the US, or people walking on four legs rather than two, or trees having black leaves instead of green. This difference becomes a seed that, as it grows and sends tendrils throughout your story, changes almost everything in subtle or enormous ways.

You could probably go really small-scale with this, too. Say, imagine the room you're in, with one thing different. My God, what if this very room were ... clean?

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