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.

Reflections on Writing in 2017

Writing-wise, 2017 was an interesting year. This is the part where I talk about a variety of projects related to writing and constructed languages and what happened over last calendar year (and into January 2018).

In 2017 (and January 2018 — I didn’t finish editing a novella until midway through the month), here’s what I did in long-form writing, for a total of ~334,000 words:

  • A novella about sisters, ghosts, and a mountain goddess: 37,715 words (done)
  • Plowing through writing The Seven Papers: 282,509 words (in progress)
  • Ossia (a serial intended for podcasting): 4,530 words (in progress)
  • An epistolary novel set during Ameisa’s Blackout period: 9,320 (in progress)

This doesn’t include all of the hours I’ve spent working on Epiphany, as that was edited back in 2016. There had been an earlier version of Epiphany online before I worked through a lot of the problems I had — primarily with how to explain Tveshi and Narahji culture — and I wrote the original text of Epiphany in my early 20s. I didn’t switch to using GNP in most of my stories about the Seven Gardens until I was 27 or 28, after I had an epiphany (lol) at Smith College ConBust and realized that I could fix translating gender in my stories about those worlds if I just didn’t do it at all.

It’s not going to make it any harder to get published given that my stories are generally about people we would consider queer doing things other than coming out or falling in love. There isn’t a place in the industry for that. What makes the stories better is, ironically, what makes them even less publishable and destroys their market viability — I care more about producing good work, and I have the freedom to do that because I have a full-time career outside of writing. Since I only have 10-15 hours each week that I can commit to writing, I don’t want to waste my time with things I don’t love.

In short form, I wrote 5-6 poems that I would consider publishable — this doesn’t count devotional religious poetry I write because I don’t consider it ethical (for me) if I’ve already given a poem to a deity. The only appropriate venue for devotional poetry would be a self-published collection, and I’d give the proceeds from that to Hellenic polytheism-related orgs.

Technically, I wrote and submitted 5 short stories, but I stopped submitting the 10K one and turned it into a novella. 3 of the other short stories (4,100 words; 6,200 words; and 1,900 words) are set in the universe I typically write in. The final one is … okay, also set in that universe, but is near-to-us future (7,500 words). I’ve also got a gorgon story that I’m editing right now that was technically written in December/January (3,900 words). So that’s ~23,600 words of short story writing. Based on what I’ve submitted places, I’ve tweaked Duotrope to block listings. It’s a weird block list because it consists of everything Orson Scott Card (who is homophobic) is involved in plus markets I have failed in enough that I know they’re a waste of my time.

In summer 2017, I took vacation time and spent about a week conlanging my heart out to produce better versions of Mamltab, Narahji, and Khessi. And then, of course, there was #lexember, when I worked on my Tveshi dictionary and made significant progress in the revisions.

I started submitting to short fiction and poetry publications in March 2017 for the first time since my early twenties. 26 of the 29 submissions I made in 2017 were rejected, 1 submission was published, and 2 are still pending. I find it hard to tell the difference between personal emails and form letters, so I think I checked form rejection in Duotrope for all but 2 pieces. An essay among those rejected actually never received a response, but it was a bit rant-y, and I don’t think many in science fiction or fantasy beyond me care about how poorly worldbuilt or researched most depictions of polytheism are (by admittedly white Western writers).

The published submission was a poem, “What Remains in the Ruins,” which I wrote after reading The Final Pagan Generation and its section on the priests who followed Christian officials around to vandalize and destroy non-Christian religious sites. It focuses on women’s religious experience in Classical polytheism and is a very angry poem.

Poetry is the one type of writing outside of academic articles and essays where I feel an internal locus of control — although the jury’s out on novellas. (I felt really good and in control while writing the one I just finished. I wrote a bunch of novella-length work in my teens and realized midway through the one I just wrote that I have a better handle on novellas than I realized going in.) I won local poetry competitions in my hometown (in my age category) and have written poetry since fifth grade. I went to a several-day writing camp at Southern Illinois State University during summers as a teen, and I surprised the adults with how good the poetry I chose to read actually was. I have always made a clear distinction between the poetry I jot down and the poetry that is appropriate to share with others. My self-esteem folder of nice things people have said about my work is generally about poetry I published in my early to mid-20s under my given name.

The poem I shared at that writing camp, incidentally, is set in the same universe as Epiphany and The Seven Papers. It was written long before I realized that gender-neutral pronouns were the solution to the gender things I was struggling with in the work. It also uses pre-reform spellings of Narahji terms:

Song of Menarka

My heart sings of Menarka as she rises out of time; 
The mist, her hair, flows over her face in a rainbow spray of color.
My heart sings of Menarka; her rocks are overgrown
With the sweet perfume of a thousand flowers.
My heart sings of Menarka, whose walls hold the music
And lifeblood of my world, my Ameisa.
Shall I withhold the sweet ecstasy of her name?
Dare I not cry “Menarka!” at every golden moment?
Menarka is an emerald jewel cascading over the rocks
Of the sharply dropping cliffs—indeed, she is the cliffs themselves!
She is the epitome of all desire, standing before the mountains,
Her white dome glistening in the sunlight and moonlight.
The people cry her name with rapture as they experience her,
Running through her cavernous depth of rock.
Menarka, we have made our homes in your very bedrock!
We have fashioned ourselves from your beauty! We honor you!
See her reflect in the river far below us; see her smile upon us!
Her walls are the most beautiful in the world;
Her greens are the most luscious; they smell of euphoria!
She is my Menarka, rising out of the mists,
Lifting sweet perfume to the air, dancing in the revelry of music!
My heart sings of her unspeakable beauty.

That’s it for Jan/Feb 2018 updates! I’m moving into a new apartment on Thursday, but will probably be on Twitter with banter about conlangs and writing.