Research! Or, How to Avoid Lazy Worldbuilding

One thing writing the first Exile Clusters book taught me is that my worldbuilding needed some fleshing out. Despite having noodled around with bits of this setting for more than 35 years (seriously, I have notes dated 1980) a lot of things about it haven’t been written down. A lot of what was written down earlier has changed, as both I and my sense of this world have matured. So one of the things I’ve been working on while beta readers take another pass at The Frozen Past has been pulling these ideas out of my head and writing them down. Another part has been doing research to flesh out some of those better ideas that have come along.

Lazy worldbuilding in SFF has really started to tick me off, and generally boils down to stuff that simply Doesn’t Make Sense. These are things about which I’m unable to suspend disbelief within the bounds of the story at hand. I’m not talking about things like getting the details of computer hacking wrong (which applies to almost everyone besides Chuck Wendig and Walter Jon Williams, who get it mostly right). Nor about breaking the rules of science, which is true of most space opera. I’m talking about fundamental ways in which the world behind the story is put together that defy reason. Stuff that would be easy to get right with a little research.

So – I’m trying to avoid that in my own writing. And since I’m postulating a future history in which few of the people who escaped [REDACTED] came from the “First World”, that means my universe is populated with people from outside the US & Europe. Peoples from South America, Africa, South and Southeast Asia predominate the Exile Cluster.

One of the points really impressed upon me during the SFWA sessions at the Baltimore Book Festival last September, and in an earlier conversation with Tobias Buckell, was that you need to do research about peoples you’re not familiar with if you want to depict them accurately, plausibly, and respectfully. I’m extending that to my worldbuilding as well. I want my characters to reflect a plausible image of a future projection of the cultural mashup I’m building. I also want the world they inhabit to occupy a reasonable “probability cone”. In other worlds, crafting the future history that won’t show up directly in the books in a way that makes what does appear seem plausibly organic, and furthermore a plausible outcome of today’s world.

This leads me to my preparations for writing the second book in the Exile Clusters, bearing the working title “The Shadowed Web”. TSW is set on a world populated by a mix of West Africans and Vietnamese. In my original visions, the West Africans came primarily from Nigeria. Why? Well, what I knew at the time is that Nigeria has a huge population, around 180 million. It’s got oil which has brought it wealth, at least until the crash in oil prices in recent years. Africa has huge economic growth potential, and Nigeria seemed like a place where that might come from.

And then I started digging in. What I found is forcing me to rethink a little bit, but is also driving some new ideas into how my future history developed.

Nigeria has a many, many problems. A lot of these are fallout from the colonial era in one way or another. Others come from the kleptocracy, or government by theft, that has dominated most of Nigerian history since independence in 1960. Deforestation, the encroaching Sahara in the north and the prospect of ocean rise in the south, pollution of the Niger Delta from oil spills and other oil-extraction-related problems are just the beginning of the environmental issues. Corruption is rampant, as is poverty. Extreme religiosity impairs rational problem solving and fuels interethnic suspicion.

All that comes from one book, Noo Sari-Wiwa’s excellent “Looking for Transwonderland”, the travelogue of a diasporan visiting her ancestral home.

How do I take a group of peoples in these straits and make them one of the groups that gets off Earth in sufficient numbers to become one of the foundational blocks of the Exile Cluster’s peoples? How do I integrate these people’s histories, traditions, and viewpoints into the cultural mixing bowl I’m creating in a way that doesn’t come off as Western condescension?

I’m working on that. Meanwhile, I’m hitting the books.