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Worldbuilding with L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Guest posts for the Ways into Worldbuilding series will appear most Wednesdays through early November. We lead off with L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

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L. E. Modesitt, Jr. is the author of more than 70 science fiction and fantasy novels, a number of short stories and technical and economic articles. His novels have been translated into German, Polish, Dutch, Czech, Russian, Bulgarian, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, and Swedish. He has been a U.S. Navy pilot; a market research analyst; a real estate agent; director of research for a political campaign; legislative assistant and staff director for U.S. Congressmen;  Director of Legislation and Congressional Relations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; a consultant on environmental, regulatory, and communications issues.  His first story was published in Analog in 1973, and his latest books are Solar Express [Tor, November 2015] and the forthcoming Treachery’s Tools [Tor, October 2016].

Aside from expectations, why do you build worlds? Is it more an obligation than a pleasure? If the latter, what is enjoyable or rewarding about this aspect?

I build worlds because (1) I can’t conceive of having a meaningful story without it being set in a consistent and multifaceted world; (2) setting up and deepening the world enriches the story, both for me and for the reader; and (3) it just feels right.  The entire process is rewarding because the details bring a richness and an “aliveness” to the world, at least for me.

How important is worldbuilding in your novels? Is it a goal for you to create an innovative world, or do you favor having the milieu sit more comfortably in the background?

In anything I write, my goal is to have a world that is realistic and consistent in its own terms, and in all of my fantasy series, there’s a key innovative aspect of the magic system which affects everything from the smallest to the largest aspects of people’s lives.  In the Saga of Recluce, magic is based on the conflict between order and chaos, not on a gigantic scale, but because the entire Recluce universe is based on the energy flows between order and chaos.  In The Imager Portfolio, certain individuals have the ability to visualize objects into being, but that visualization requires a great amount of personal energy and great skill, and most untrained imagers die before adulthood.  In the Corean Chronicles, the ability to do “magic” is literally tied to the life-forces of all living things, and in the Spellsong Cycle, magic requires perfectly sung and rhymed spells matched perfectly to accompaniment.

So, in all of these instances, the magic system is innovative, but also almost pedestrian in the sense that it melds with the culture and the geography.

Do you apply any sort of process to worldbuilding? How does a coherent world emerge in your work?

In anything I write, and particularly in fantasy, I begin with the concepts of the world – the technological (and/or magical) level, the geography and climate, the cultures (and all of my worlds have multiple cultures, although in the SF, it’s sometimes not so obvious),and the governmental structures.  For fantasy series, I have a rough map, as much to scale as I can manage, which gets refined as I go along.  Equally important, I build in a history, because every society has a history, and there are references throughout to historical or mythical figures and events.

Describe a milieu from one your works, and the aspects you found most rewarding. Which ones did readers comment on the most?

The world-building in the “Ghost” books was particularly intriguing and rewarding, because those three books, beginning with Of Tangible Ghosts, and one short story take place in the 1990s of an alternative history of our Earth where ghosts are indeed real, and manifest themselves as electro-magnetic phenomena created by violent knowledgeable death.  There are a number of societal and historical implications of very real ghosts that also raise questions about how and why certain societal behaviors exist, and even the impact on population growth and the way war is conducted – or not conducted.

Most likely the Recluce Saga has received the most comments, but I suspect that’s simply because the Recluce books – eighteen so far – have been continuously in print for twenty-five years.  The Imager Portfolio books also receive quite a few comments.

What kind of worldbuilding tropes are you tired of? Please share a couple of worlds that have especially impressed you. (Please take Kenyon novels out of the running on this one.)

I’m tired of high-tech worlds that don’t make sense either technologically or economically, and I’m especially tired of grotesque world-building of the sort that China Mieville often engages in where one of the major points, if not the only major point, seems to be, at least to me, to make the setting both as detailed and as grotesque as possible.  As far as really impressive world-building, I think Ursula K. LeGuin did a magnificent job with The Left Hand of Darkness.  In fantasy, I was impressed with what Aliette de Bodard did with The House of Shattered Wings.

In a series, do you lay in mysteries, trusting that readers will be intrigued and look forward to learning the answer in later books? How do you feel about making the reader wait to learn important world features?

I don’t artificially create mysteries about the world, but I try to let the reader know things as the protagonist either encounters or thinks about those aspects of the world which affect the development of the story.  And often what a protagonist thinks isn’t quite the way things really happen or the way those events will be seen by later generations.  This becomes apparent in the Saga of Recluce because the events in the books and stories take place across nearly 2,000 years, and no one protagonist occupies more than two books.

Any peeks you’re willing to disclose about your next world or what we might learn about your latest world in your next book?

The tenth Imager Portfolio book – Treachery’s Tools – will be out this coming October, and the eleventh book – Assassin’s Price – will be out in July of 2017.   In both these books, and especially in Assassin’s Price, readers will find out a great deal more about the twisted lineages of the ruling family and their ties to the stronger imagers, not to mention the most pivotal murder in the history of Solidar. As for the Saga of Recluce, the next book is Recluce Tales, coming in January, which features 20 stories, all but three of them new, set across two thousand years, one of which deals with the first “Rationalist” colonists.

About this post. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer of 2016 with SFF writers asking about their opinion on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds. Watch this space for upcoming interviews with Martha Wells, Django Wexler, Claire Cooney, Kris Rusch, Tananarive Due, and more amazing writers!


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