Hello! This is Part Two of our Vectors discussion about Favorite Fantasy Worlds. You can read Part One here.
My favorite fantasy world is the one in which I wake up tomorrow morning and I realize I’m out of debt.
Oh, but you meant in other people’s fiction.
The nostalgic part of me will always hearken back to Arrakis and Middle Earth, but these days my favorite fantasy world is Bas-Lag. This is the dark, gritty, mind-bending world of China Miéville’s New Crobuzon novels (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The Iron Council). Miéville describes it in loving detail. In the case of Bas-Lag, the details make your skin crawl.
For instance, within the first few paragraphs of Perdido Street Station you come across “houses which dribble pale mucus.” From that sentence onward, Miéville had me hooked. Look how much he’s accomplished with just those words. You know these houses weren’t build by human hands. They might not have been built by hands at all. It might have been an ovipositor that put them there. So now you know that something inhuman lives in this city, and whatever they are, they live side by side with the human residents. (Because had you encountered this structure on its own, you’d probably call it not a house but a hive. Miéville is supremely sensitive to that sort of word choice.)
As soon as I finish a chapter of Perdido Street Station, I want to go wash my hands with lava soap. That’s why Miéville has become my role model when it comes to world-building: anyone can make you see setting, but Miéville makes you feel it.
Now I’m not out to give you the heebie-jeebies. Bas-Lag couldn’t be more different from the sixteenth-century Japan that I write about, and I’m not going to make you worry about getting house-mucus on your shoes. But I do want you to smell the steam coming off the tea and hear the wind whispering in the bamboo trees.
Childhood favorites aside, David Walton’s Quintessence completely sucked me in.
I’ve got a huge soft spot for the cultural side of world building. Magic systems and cosmos are awesome; seeing the way a particular culture interacts with them is even better. Quintessence is set in an alternate 14th century where explorers are chasing the horizons for quintessence, the mysterious fifth element.
The characters have universal concerns — survival, family relationships, the search for knowledge — but they’re not just 21st century Americans awkwardly jammed into a 14th century world. They debate whether or not dissecting the human body should be a heresy. If being an atomist leaves room for God in the universe.
And, yes, the scientific-magic exploration of this fifth element is engrossing. The way the characters cleverly utilize their new knowledge is oh-so-satisfying. At its heart, this is a book about exploration, and there’s no shortage of wondrous details.
But to me, the book is truly magical because the author took as much care building the world of his explorers as he did the fantastical. As soon as I turned the last page, I knew I wanted to read this book again.
Michael R. Underwood
Steve stole my answer.
I adore the Bas-Lag setting. But because I love Bas-Lag so much, I’m going to talk about it anyway. So there! But I’m going to talk about the rest of Bas-Lag.
Armada, the flotilla city – hundreds of ships tethered and bolted and bridged together to form a pirate micronation. A place where people can make a fresh start, as long as they avoid Possible Swords and the fickle ire of the Lovers.
The Cacotopic Stain, a patch of pure change – almost like magical radiation.
The Iron Council, the Renegopolis, the moving, communal, desperate, flawed attempt to make something beautiful out of a terrible situation, where workers rose up for one another, then realized how totally screwed they were, having gone against The Man.
Bas-Lag had all of that and more – sound golems, cactus people, Quantum-plurality-cutting Possible-Swords, the Avanc, the Remade, Jack Half-a-Prayer, the Handlingers (scary-badass magic spiritual cousins to Thing from The Addams Family), and more. Mieville’s concept work and setting ideas alone would have been enough to make his reputation in the SF/F world.
The fact that Mieville matched his incredible worldbuilding with baroque, mind-blistering prose and challenging politics only served to further amaze readers and writers like yours truly. I was in undergrad when I first came to Mieville’s work, and the timing could not have been better for me. The political immediacy and conceptual audacity of Bas-Lag felt so real, so relevant to my world, that I wanted to find the dingy, oozing wardrobe that would take me to his mad, marvelous, dangerous world so I could help the Iron Council finally return to New Crobuzon, then see what happens next.
Please comment here or on Part One and join the conversation. What are your favorite fantasy worlds?