Terraforming the Imagination: How to Build a Convincing Fictional Universe

Fantasy and science fiction writers do it all the time—build a world, sometimes an entire universe, which is different from our own. But it takes a certain verve and finesse, a particular ability to imagine the crucial, yet prosaic, dimensions of a society or a civilization so that it is completely believable. You want that world to function in a way that is so convincing that you understand the history, economy, politics, ecology and overall structure that informs and produces a dystopian future or fantastical dimension.

There are innumerable examples of how to go about doing this world building. There are pieces like Poul Anderson’s “The Creation of Imaginary Worlds: The World Builder’s Handbook and Pocket Companion” (1974), which addresses the physics and biology of worlds themselves, urging writers to conduct enough scientific research so that their new galaxies aren’t scientific impossibilities. He urges, “The writer must then go on to topography, living creatures both non-human and human, problems and dreams, the story itself-ultimately, to those words that are to appear on a printed page. Yet if he has given some thought and, yes, some love to his setting, that will show in the words. Only by making it real to himself can he make it, and the events that happen within its framework, seem real to the reader” (Anderson 1974). Ursula K. LeGuin, the acclaimed science-fiction writer, is a consummate world builder. No doubt her education and her father’s anthropological influence made her acutely aware of the minute details and narrative strategies used to construct an alternative reality for her readers. She’s written articles on world building–Dancing at the Edge of the World (1997)–and constructed both fantastical and dystopian universes like The Dispossessed (1974) and Always Coming Home (1986) through elaborate myths and folklore embedded in her imagined cultures and communities, as well as mapped out interplanetary colonization based off of utopian ideals of the economy and human behavior. World-builders have to anticipate and contend with all the possibilities and contingencies of an entirely new fabrication of the universe and natural order. Naturally incest is not taboo if humans are intersex and siblings can demonstrate the sexual characteristics of male or female, as in The Left Hand of Darkness, and officials would need to find a way to anaesthetize laborers from their economic oppression and dispossession through drugs or soma, as in Brave New World. For Ayn Rand’s Anthem, to strip her fictional subjects of autonomy or self-awareness, she not only had to alter social hierarchies or forms of labor, but also had to radically transform the human language, excising personal pronouns from the population’s vernacular. If an element of the universe isn’t strategically planned out and synched with the organization of the rest of the world, the entire fiction falls apart.

For fantasy writers and philologists like J.R.R. Tolkien, you build entire languages and histories to explain and establish the fictional present of Middle Earth—the dispersion of elves, men and dwarves, and the role of magic in politics and regional domains. Then there are writers like Frank Herbert, who so subtly reveal the intricate connections between ecology, the market, political fiefdoms and alien biology that learning about the planet of Arrakis is half the delight of reading Dune (1965). Different writing processes engender different tactics to world building. According to author George R. R. Martin, there are two kinds of writers: the architect and the gardener. He says,

The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. (Anders 2012)

Despite being a gardener, though, Martin’s world of Westeros is composed of highly sophisticated cultures and clans that each maintain their own internal logic and verisimilitude within the seven kingdoms.Then there are writers like China Miéville concerned with urban planning, engineering the world of Bas-Lag (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council) like an architect, using the space of the cities and towns themselves as characters.

New Crobuzon, a city-state in Bas-Lag. (http://www.curufea.com/games/crobuzon/crobuzon.gif)

New Crobuzon, a city-state in Bas-Lag. (http://www.curufea.com/games/crobuzon/crobuzon.gif)


About these ads
Fake Geek Girl by Andy


This is the last installment of this series. You may read the foreword to this series, As Always, it Started With Star Trek: A Study On Geek Girls, as well as parts 123 and 4.

In part 4 of this series, I expressed that we will have to revise the history of geek culture altogether to understand how women have been involved in it and how they have contributed to it. I also questioned preconceived ideas about female participation in geekdom.

In this concluding part of this series, I address some of the avenues of investigation I previously identified in light of the fake geek girl debate.

Documenting Women’s participation in geek culture

While I was analysis the fake geek girl debate, I paid attention to the initiatives which were born in reaction to it.

  • The Doubleclicks created a song, Nothing to Prove and asked geeks to contribute to the video. They also created T-shirts and other products which read: ”There are no fake geek girls only real jerks”.  All proceeds of the sales go to AppCamp4Girls.
  • Sarah Clarke created the Fake Geek Girls! (The Show) and successfully kickstarted it.
  • The Unicorn files is an ongoing project which features geek women: anyone can take part in the project, so go right ahead and invite all the women you know to do so.
  • The Geek Girl Project is a site by, for and about geek girls.

As I conducted research about female involvement in geekdom, I discovered more and more women whose contribution to the culture had been significant, yet not commonly known.

In light of this, I decided to create a list on this blog, the pioneer women of geekdom list, on which anyone could add the name of women who had contributed to geek culture. Interestingly, I did not know a great many of the women who ended up on the list after I invited TGA’ Twitter followers to contribute.

While working on growing this list, I eventually discovered several projects which had been created with the objective of highlighting and celebrating female involvement in geek culture or specific areas of it. A quick exploration of kickstarter produced interesting results: Womanthology is a wonderful book which celebrate the work of women in comics. It was kickstarted in 2011. The She Makes Comics documentary has a similar goal and was kicksarted this year. Lightspeed Magazine’ Women Destroy Science-Fiction was another great project with a highly succesful kickstarter campaign in 2014.


I started writing down the names of such projects, and the names of women who had contributed to geekdom as I was reading books about the comic book industry, science-fiction, and other geek areas of interest. I added the list of recent projects which had emerged in light of the fake geek girl debate.

And then I realized that keeping a list of women pioneers on the blog would require a lot of work because there are so many of them.

I also eventually felt that keeping a list is redundant: there are already several great books, series, documentaries, websites which celebrate their contributions, and more are on the way. So while keeping the list was an interesting way to conduct research, and while I appreciate the contributions of our readers, I took down the list from our website, and instead encourage you to check some of the project I mention in this piece and others I hope to bring to your attention in the future.

My impression that women have always been an important part of geek culture but that they have been invisible or ignored, which I explained in part 4, seemed to be gaining additional credibility at this point. Two questions remained to be addressed: had the demographics of geek culture truly changed with time, and why do geek girls enjoy so little visibility?


In part 4 of the series, I highlighted a consensus which was left mostly unquestioned in the fake geek girl debate: that female participation in geek culture used to be very low, and that it has drastically increased. I also stated that there is, to my knowledge, almost no demographic data about geek culture which could either allow us to confirm or infirm that women have always been a minority in geek culture, or that their participation is increasing.

So I set out to redress this hole in demographic data about geekdom.

I knew from the beginning that the best way to do this would be to select groups (fandoms, fanclubs, local meetups, online forums, readership of certain websites, etc.) and conduct in-depth ethnographic work. Such research would involve looking at how persons were involved with geek culture over the course of their life, and what their experiences in the culture have been. Such research, if conducted in several geek groups, would build a clearer portrait of geekdom over years of research. It would allow us to better understand changing definitions of ”geek”, ”geek culture” and other concepts, learn more about how certain factors (skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) can influence one’s experiences in geekdom, better understand the process of mainstreamisation I mentioned in part 4, to name only these few elements.

Needless to say, this is a long-term plan which will require the participation of several researchers, in several contexts, over long periods of time. 

So I decided to start with a humble survey which could potentially help me identify elements worth investigating in relation to geek women. I had a few theories I wanted to test and I also planned to use the survey to identify women who have been involved in geek culture for a long time and whose life-journeys in geekdom could provide useful insights into matters related to demographics, misogyny and harassment.

And so it was that the Geek Girl Survey was born. With this project, I set out to revise the history of geek culture, one life-story at a time.

The results of the first wave of data collection will be presented on the blog shortly. I will also be recruiting for a second wave, so look out for an invitation to share your own story!

All monsters are human, from American Horror Story: Asylum

The Devil in Disguise: Modern Monsters and their Metaphors

Throughout the past decade or so, we’ve had a resurgence of monsters. Werewolves, vampires and zombies have all experienced their zeitgeist moment, capturing the public’s attention and circulating through television spin-offs until the next monstrous trend took over. The latest incarnation of our fears, Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain, will premiere on FX on July 13, featuring a new breed of vampire. Other shows, like Hemlock Grove, Salem, and In the Flesh feature a horrifying panoply of nightmarish creatures. But it might be useful to think about why pop culture is raising the dead, and what it says about our contemporary fears.

Monsters have for centuries been manifestations of society’s fears and anxieties. As Stephen T. Asma explains in On Monsters, Monster derives from the Latin word monstrum, which in turns derives from the root monere (to warn). To be a monster is to be an omen […] The monster is more than an odious creature of the imagination; it is a kind of cultural category, employed in domains as diverse as religion, biology, literature, and politics” (2009:13). More often than not, monsters stand as symbols or emblems of a culture’s nightmares. China Miéville posits,

Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds. (VanderMeer 2012)

One of the most famous monsters in Western history is that of Frankenstein’s monster, crafted by Mary Shelley in a Gothic, epistolary tale that has been said to represent concerns about morality, the social responsibility of science, and the changing role of capital and labor during the Industrial Revolution. Frankenstein’s cobbled-together, Promethean creature has haunted the Western imagination for centuries, but the monster’s immortal ability to frighten also reveals his protean abilities to represent different kinds of terror throughout history.

During Episode 3: “Resurrection” of Penny Dreadful, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster Caliban provides a metacommentary on the mutable metaphors he has cut since his creation. He confronts his creator, saying, “Did you not know that was what you were creating, the modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil? Who is the child, Frankenstein?” (2014). Within Penny Dreadful, his visage is imagined as a product of an industrial accident, the hazards of a modern technological society in transition. He is a creature made by his cultural and historical context, and yet each time Frankenstein is recast in contemporary society, he is reanimated by the latent fears and horrors of his current creators.

The meaning of monsters changes throughout time. Zombies have typically been interpreted as the manifestations of Capitalism gone awry, or what happens when workers are so alienated from their labor that they become nothing more than shambling, undead slaves. Anthropologists Isak Niehaus (2005) and Wade Davis (1985) have both written about zombies and capitalism in South Africa and Haiti, respectfully, and David McNally has written about the invisible occult economies that dehumanize laborers and keep them enslaved in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2012). As Annalee Newitz writes in her book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, “One type of story that has haunted America since the late nineteenth century focuses on humans turned into monsters by capitalism. Mutated by backbreaking labor, driven insane by corporate conformity, or gorged on too many products of a money-hungry media industry, capitalism’s monsters cannot tell the difference between commodities and people. They confuse living beings with inanimate objects. And because they spend so much time working, they often feel dead themselves” (2006:2). (more…)

Book Cover for Sexual Generations by Robin Roberts

Review / 2: Sexual Generations: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gender by Robin Roberts

While deep down an internet rabbit hole one day I came across a catalog listing for a book that sounded like a must-read for me: Sexual Generations: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gender, by Robin Roberts, who at the time she wrote this book, was a professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University.

Before I go into what I thought Roberts’ most interesting observations were, I have to acknowledge three big flaws about the book.

First, I think the book is inaccessible to people who aren’t dedicated fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A reader should have, at minimum, an understanding of the main characters, their appearances and personality traits, and preferably be able to recollect significant episodes throughout the series. An average geek interested in feminist media analysis might be at sea.

Second, a reader should also probably have at least an undergraduate degree in Gender Studies to appreciate Roberts’ analysis, which draws heavily on French structuralist feminist theories that were popular in the 80s and 90s, when TNG aired. Reading at least a little of the seminal works of the “big three” French feminists: Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva, was definitely part of my Women’s Studies major at UBC, but it required a lot of grappling with as it involves discussions of psychology, philosophy, language, and bodies.

To put it as simply as possible, the theorists Roberts draws on point at the language our society tends to use and characterizes it as masculine: created by men, for men. Feminine language or écriture feminine is supposed to destabilize and deconstruct what we know. It should particularly centre around women’s bodies and sexuality and should exemplify fluidity and collectivity while resisting hierarchies. Continue Reading!

Menstrual Signs

Fantasy and the Female Body

Tamora Pierce has assumed a canonical place in fantasy literature, especially for younger readers. Pierce’s stories are usually set in feudal-type fantastical universes, populated by mages, dragons and other mythological creatures. But the element of her narratives that often sets her apart from other fantasy writers is her exploration of gender roles and the function gender plays in society, feudal or otherwise. Many of Pierce’s protagonists are strong-willed women who aspire to break or bend ascribed categories laid out for females within their world and endeavor for lives of intrigue, adventure and empowerment. These women push against the stereotypical tropes of damsels in distress.

Source: http://images.fanpop.com/images/image_uploads/Page-tamora-pierce-58982_602_800.jpg

As a middle schooler, I picked up Pierce’s book Page, Book Two in the Protector of the Small series, which follows Kel in her journey to become a knight. Though Kel does not have to conceal her gender from her fellow Pages, as Alanna does in Pierce’s book Alanna: The First Adventure,, her plans are complicated by the arrival of her menstrual cycle. In “Chapter Six: More Changes” Kel feels a “trickle of wetness in her loincloth” only to discover later, “Blood was on her loincloth and inner thighs. She stared at it, thinking something dreadful was happening” (2000:43). I remember being completely shocked that Pierce had included a section on a woman’s period in her book. It seemed to me, at the time, as taboo and licentious as a sex scene; for all that I had read by that age, an inclusion of Kel’s “monthlies” seemed the most controversial and revolutionary. I had never before read anything that even mentioned a woman’s reproductive anatomy or her monthly cycle; I had never even had an open conversation about it with my friends. It seemed the sort of thing that should only be discussed shamefully, covertly, once the boys and the girls had been separated during health class. I was still young, and hadn’t yet experienced my own blooming, but it was a watershed moment when I realized that women’s issues can be talked about, in young adult literature and otherwise. This lack of discussion or exposure to media about menstruation is, however, very much a product of the culture I grew up in and emblematic of the larger social and political conditions that suppress and render invisible experiences of the female body.

Mary Douglas has devoted a large part of her career to investigating the role of bodily fluid within societies. Certain bodily fluids, from culture to culture, are considered contaminated or polluted, and these fluids often serve as symbols for the larger social structures and systems of permissible behavior within that culture. As Douglas wrote in her book Purity and Danger (1966):

The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures. We cannot possibly interpret rituals concerning excreta, breast milk, saliva, and the rest unless we are prepared to see in the body a symbol of society, and to see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body. (142)

Continue Reading!