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.