The Richness of Infinity: On Integrating Worldbuilding Across Time and Space

For those of you who loved my podcast Epiphany, guess what? I’m working on a podcast called Ossia right now, and I passed the 32,000-word mark on it this week. It will operate in 5 chunks (seasons?) of 12 episodes each. Optimistically, I will start recording and posting it later in 2018.

But enough of that. I have some brief comments on worldbuilding.

One of my techniques in worldbuilding is to connect everything, at least at an implicit level, because I love solving puzzles. I commented on Twitter that this helps me create enough complexity to occupy my mind. That is true to some extent.

The major reason is more complex. I grew up reading Classical mythology, ghost stories, Star Wars extended universe novels, vampire fiction from the 19th century onward, and occasionally fantasy or science fiction. The way I approach interconnected worldbuilding is most like Classical mythology and historical narrative. It’s less like Star Wars, for which knowing Star Wars is key to understanding or even wanting to read the extended universe (for most people).

Classical myth is deep and wide, and the worldbuilding I do attempts at approximation. In sacred stories, we have the traditional epic cycle of the Trojan War and its aftermath. This exists alongside corpora of other stories. Hermes of the Iliad sits alongside the Homeric Hymn, in which baby Hermes steals cows, invents the lyre, and claims his place on Olympos. You don’t need to read one to understand the other. They all take place in the same divine world — larger than a single story or telos. A key idea in multiplicity is understanding that there is not a 1:1 correspondence between story and setting, that the stories of others exist in tandem to the anger of Akhilleos. The Nile still overflowed its banks each of the ten war-torn years, and people had their own things to do.

I worldbuilt 35,000 years (to varying levels of detail) of the history of Ameisa, which covers the entirety of its habitation, along with the six worlds that became inhabited during the cycles of Ameisi civilization. (On a vague level, I have everything in the 17,000 years before on the planet Jiha.) My worldbuilding includes the idea of civilizational cycles, with mythological histories layered on mythological histories. Traveling among the stars is always in the past because the stars have been reached in the real past, at least for everyone on these worlds. It’s similar to writing in a Classical myth setting because each provides an impressive breadth of stories to create.

The epic I’m writing’s world is Ameisa during a specific historical period that extends from 29964 to the 35500s Objective Count. (Objective Count just means that I have a civilization-neutral calendar dated to the first day humans landed on Ameisa. I convert to specific cultural calendars.) The other six planets only come in tangentially, and even so, their roles in the epic are specifically defined against what is happening on Ameisa during the Blackout Period and its aftermath.

This means that the intricacies of stories on the other six planets don’t often have opportunities to be told. The Blackout is a universal in many of the stories, but most people on Maðz, Atara, Mntaka, Baruwh, Qamaq, and even Ameisa’s sister planet Laseå will live and die during that 5500-year period with no awareness of any events in the epic, having lived out their own lives and stories. (Even the handful of people who interact with the epic know this, and they often resent Ameisa for taking center stage.)

Some of the projects I’ve been working on in addition to the world of 29965-35500 Ameisa include stories on the other planets. It’s refreshing because there’s almost no contact among the planets during the Blackout period, and I get to focus on cultures and languages that I wouldn’t otherwise.

However, I’ve often called stories set in the same universe as The Seven Papers “stories that are set in the same worldbuilding as The Seven Papers,” but I have spent several days reflecting on what that means and have determined that the terminology makes no sense. The Seven Papers is the Ameisi Epic Cycle, and the other stories that have space on the 35,000-year timeline are — what, exactly? They’re not derivative, but they do share a world. I don’t have a word to describe them.

A secondary analogy to make here is to imagine someone writing a historical fantasy novel series set across the vast span of Ancient to Modern Egyptian history who then decides to write a novel about 19th century Tokyo. Tokyo is impacted by Alexandria, but not in a way that most people living out their daily lives would understand consciously. They’re both in the same worldbuilding — Earth history. What happened during the Christianization of Alexandria has a direct impact on the missionary tension in Japan and Japan’s hard line against the cultural violence and destruction that has accompanied Christianity since its cultural revolution ended with the indigenous Mediterranean, Near Eastern, and European religions all but wiped out, libraries destroyed, statues mutilated, and competing polytheistic philosophical schools destroyed. When Christian missionaries converted powerful people in the common era, they often told them that their next job was to destroy the demonic shrines and religious traditions of the places they lived in — and when locals retaliated, the missionaries traditionally played the victim. This has played out everywhere from China (see the Boxer Rebellion) to Japan (see Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was concerned about shrine destruction and European imperialism) to India (just read the news). You cannot write 19th century Tokyo without the geopolitics intersecting with European imperialism, which came out of the Christianized Roman Empire. Someone writing a historical series like that would see the connections, but not necessarily the readers who follow lim.

Writing same-worldbuilding work set in different places and time periods works in a very similar way. One of the novellas is about mountain and death goddesses, family reconciliation, and ghosts. The other is about magic, libraries, and oracles. The protagonists are literally centuries, worlds, and cultures apart (and I finished the first draft of the oracular one at the beginning of April, so go me! 37,000 words!). They will never meet or learn the language of the other. The only place they connect is in their lack of connection, the Blackout silence in the sky.

The principles I used to create the Mamltab and Classical Atarahi conlangs also go by my general principles for the creation of Ameisa-origin languages, which is more subtle. I’ve oversampled for object-verb-subject (OVS) and the types of evidentiality markers that date back to the first language spoken on the planet. The inner unity after millennia is solely based on having the same initial condition, Aòḥám.

And it’s also unbelievably fun to write things that are new and disconnected, to know that the worldbuilding I made has such incredible range that I can use it for extremely different applications. I’m still looking for an elegant term to use in describing these works, but for now, I think I’ll call them co-worldbuilt mythopoetic stories.