Historical Worldbuilding: A Conversation with Kameron Hurley and Ken Liu

Ken Liu and Kameron Hurley are two of the most talented and inventive writers working in fantasy today. The Grace of Kings, the first installment in Liu’s new epic fantasy series, arrived this month from Saga Press, and features shapeshifting gods, bamboo-and-silk airships, and a complex political drama that pits two best friends against each other in their quest for a more just world. Hurley will follow up her acclaimed novel The Mirror Empire with the next installment in the Worldbreaker Saga, The Empire Ascendant, later this year, and her standalone space opera, The Stars are Legion, is forthcoming from Saga in 2016.

Hurley and Liu recently came together to answer questions about the role of research in writing fantasy, how they each approach building plausible, fully realized worlds, and the authors they read when they’re not busy plotting their own fantastic creations.

1. Fantasy is often seen as a “re-imagining” of history, but a long-standing critique of the fantasy genre is that it seems to reinforce stereotypes or just-so stories that replicate power imbalances in contemporary society. How does historical research or knowledge help free your fantasy world building rather than constraining it to well-trodden paths?

The Grace of Kings excerpt Ken LiuKEN: The more I read history (especially primary sources), the more I realize that a lot of our ideas about the past and about historical cultures are wrong. Real history is far more complex and interesting than the simplistic summaries presented in Wikipedia articles. Knowing this allows you to question received wisdom, to challenge “facts” “everybody” knows to be true, and to imagine worlds and characters worthy of our rich historical heritage and our complex selves.

When I wrote The Grace of Kings (excerpt here, with an audio excerpt here), one of the tasks I set myself was to look into the lives of women at the courts of the various Chinese states before the Han Dynasty. The popular conception that the noblewomen of ancient China led only passive lives, or, at best, engaged in endless palace intrigue to curry the favor of the king or emperor is simply wrong. As far back as the Spring and Autumn (771-476 BC) and Warring States (475-221 BC) periods, courtly women in the Chinese states led active, political lives.

One of them was Lady Xuan, who ruled as regent of the state of Qin in late fourth century BC. The official records include the following account: An envoy from the state of Han came to Qin to request military aid to resist an invasion. Lady Xuan answered: “When my late husband, the king, was alive, sometimes he knelt over me during our lovemaking, placing all his weight on me through his thighs, which was very tiring for me. But when we changed positions so that he pressed against me with his whole body, I didn’t feel burdened at all. Why was that so, you ask? Because it was pleasurable for me! Now you ask us to aid your fight against the state of Chu. Yet, if we send a small force with few supplies, it wouldn’t do Han much good. To save Han would require us to burden ourselves with an enormous expenditure, but where is our pleasure?”

Even now, more than two thousand years later, we can imagine the confident, bold expression on Lady Xuan’s face as she employed a salty analogy to explain that she wasn’t going to expend blood and treasure to protect another state without concrete benefits to Qin, her own country. But the sincerity of her reasoning is cast into doubt when the reader realizes that Lady Xuan was born in the state of Chu, the state invading Han. Just where did her true loyalties lie? The official records provide no answer, and we are forced to speculate.

In any event, Lady Xuan was no helpless concubine confined to a harem, but a shrewd politician and audacious diplomat, and real history was full of women like her. They led rebellions, invented machines, composed poetry, and devised strategies that changed the fates of nations. Fantasy fiction that reflected the lives of women like her would be richer and truer to our historical experience.

Researching real history has taught me to be bolder and more imaginative in building fantasy worlds and writing fantasy characters, to seek out the margins of history and the forgotten tales that illuminate the whole, complex truth of our flawed yet wondrous nature as a species.

KAMERON: I had a history teacher who loved the quote, “history is another country,” and it’s really apt when you delve into the history of your own culture, going back even to your grandparents’ generation. Our base emotions may be very similar, but social mores change rapidly, as we’ve seen in our own lifetimes here with the shift to the acceptance of same-sex marriage and women officially being allowed in combat positions in the US military. Both of these things had already happened in other cultures, and in other times, and were and are totally acceptable in those instances; but the wheel of time turns, and you find that we have a tendency to regress on human rights issues all the time. Watching the progression and backlash against feminism even since 1970 will give you a serious case of whiplash.

What history taught me is that societies are not static, and that the straight line of progressive ideals—this thinking we have that a society will just magically become more egalitarian over time—is patently false. It helped me create more interesting and dynamic worlds. If your entire conception of what’s possible in fantasy only comes from other fantasy books, you’re going to go on to create a copy of a copy of a copy. There’s nothing original there, nothing dynamic. Which is fine if that’s your goal, but I’ve always wanted to do something no one else was doing before.

I spent a great deal of time studying revolutionary movements, particularly in Southern Africa, and it taught me a lot about complexity, and how our ideas of a thing aren’t at all what it actually was about. I remember thinking I was going to find this great feminist sensibility in these women fighting against colonialism, and yes, it was there, but at every turn, in every movement, they were encouraged to subsume that goal in service to the greater Struggle. And it got me to thinking what would happen if that wasn’t the case—if you had a movement that didn’t just make some progress when it came to sexual equality, but really overturned the existing order of things—what would that world look like?


2. What are some of your favorite fantasy worldbuilding techniques that you would recommend to other authors?

Kameron Hurley The Mirror Empire excerptKAMERON: I think Ken and I will probably be on the same page here, based on our answers to the first question, and that’s to tell people to read about actual history. Not the history you get presented in high school, or the just-so stories you get spoon fed on television, but how people actually lived in the past, in cultures familiar and otherwise. I’d had people take me to task for “inventing” third and fourth genders in The Mirror Empire (excerpt here), but the reality is that there are a lot of real world societies that have non-binary genders folks get to choose from. Dragons existing at the same times as humans is way, way more fantastic than the idea of all-women military units, which also existed and exist today. I like to challenge folks to take what they learn and build on it and remix it with other things. I took societies with multiple genders, consent-based cultures, flesh-eating plants, and the parallel worlds theory and mashed them all together for The Mirror Empire and came up with something completely different. If you aren’t throwing new ideas into your fantastic fiction, if you’re just using these watered-down versions of the fantastic that you’re seeing on the bestseller shelves, you’ll never create anything new, and you’ll never know what kind of art you’re capable of making.

Needless to say, I spend a lot of time at the library, which I think folks are doing less these days, and that’s a shame. You just aren’t going to get the kind of depth you need reading a couple articles on Wikipedia and calling it a day. There’s a richness you miss when you confine your knowledge of the world to a Best Of list.

KEN: Indeed, I echo Kameron’s emphasis on research. Creativity requires a certain level of basic knowledge about the world so that you can see connections between (apparently) unconnected things and craft variations that are genuinely new—the more you know about the world, the more raw material you have to work with.

I also want to note two specific techniques that I find really helpful. One is to focus, to the extent possible, on primary sources. Secondary sources always filter and summarize the primary sources to some extent so as to advance a particular narrative, and there’s no substitute for the primary sources—annals, poems, period essays, census records, manuscripts, paintings, pottery, carved steles, etc.—in terms of richness of raw detail and thinning the levels of mediation between you and the men and women who created those primary documents and artifacts.

For The Grace of Kings, I read Han Dynasty historical records in Classical Chinese, which allowed me to get a sense of the complexity of the politics and the “surprisingly modern” reactions of the historical figures to recurrent problems of state administration. The result was a level of insight into the thinking of these historical figures—models for characters in my fantasy epic—that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. And since the aesthetic I wanted for the novel was “silkpunk,” I researched antique Chinese engineering drawings and math handbooks and accounts of great inventors. I also looked into old American patent filings to get a sense of how technology evolves over time in a better-documented comparative context. The result was again a fuller, deeper understanding that gave me more ideas for inventing wild-yet-plausible bamboo-and-silk machines.

Note that I say “thinning the levels of mediation,” not “eliminating.” It is not possible to completely eliminate mediation between you as an observer and the history you are trying to understand. “Authenticity” is a deeply problematic concept, and the colonial gaze and other forms of privilege and internalized prejudice color our interpretation even of primary sources. However, the likelihood of achieving insight is strongest when you approach primary documents with an empathetic mind.

Relying on primary documents is not always possible, especially when you don’t know the language of the historical period or culture you’re researching, or if specialized, technical knowledge is necessary (e.g., specialized scientific papers). In such cases it’s important to try to be aware of the biases and limitations of secondary accounts, and to the extent possible, consult secondary sources from different cultures to highlight such problems for yourself.

The other technique I rely on is to write encyclopedias for the fantasy world. Modern inventions like the personal wiki make this relatively easy to do, and it’s a great way to ensure that the worldbuilding is solid. A mini-wikipedia makes it easy to track details about etiquette, language, fauna, flora, technology, and the thousands upon thousands of details that must be kept consistent over hundreds of thousands or millions of words. The earlier and more systematic you do this, the more you’ll thank yourself later.


3. In developing complex fantastic societies, are you concerned that your worldbuilding will overpower the story and characters, or is the world a character in and of itself?

KEN: I do think it’s possible to get too wrapped up in worldbuilding that you end up with only a fantastic setting for a story and no story. In fact, I think that is the problem with many contemporary scifi films and games, where it seems 99% of the effort has been put into designing a world that is visually lush and believable, and the characters and the story are mere afterthoughts.

I think of worldbuilding as merely a storytelling technique. What ultimately moves readers is an empathetic understanding of the character’s emotional journey and identification with the character’s motivations and thought processes. I consider worldbuilding to be successful when it’s done in sufficient detail to allow the reader to understand behaviors and choices that may seem strange in our world but are absolutely justified and sensible—even inevitable—in the world of the book.

Compelling worldbuilding should, I think, cast a spell upon the reader by revealing another country as strange as history.

KAMERON: I hear this question a lot, generally from writers who don’t care to pay much attention to setting. I know there are writers who fall in love with setting to the detriment of plot, but if you’re doing it right, the setting itself becomes a character that drives conflict and informs character (and those characters, in turn, drive conflict).

I do try to ensure that I’m using the setting as much as possible. If you’re going to create an entire economy powered by bugs, that fact should play a roll in the story itself. Worldbuilding isn’t just scenery—it’s the way the society operates, how people interact, how conflicts and disagreements are resolved. It’s law and order or lack thereof. And all of that is going to feed your story. I suspect that it’s when you forget this—when you’re spending page after page describing trees that have no bearing on anything in the rest of the story—that it becomes a problem. But, again, I wouldn’t call that worldbuilding so much as simply over-description.

It’s been said that a novel isn’t everything that happens—it’s every important thing that happens, and that goes for the worlds where those things happen, too. I don’t need to tell you all about some country’s tax laws if it’s never relevant to the plot.


4. Do you feel that there are any taboo topics in fantasy fiction? Are there particular tropes or stories that you won’t include or won’t write about?

KAMERON: I don’t know that there are any taboos, only tired old things that bore me. I don’t like to write about things that bore me, and that means I steer far clear of writing books that are just like what’s on the shelves. I like stories and characters that are complex, stories and characters that surprise me.

I’ve said in other places that tragedy is a sort of comfort food for me in the same way that maybe cozy mysteries are for other people—I love to see the terrible train coming, and knowing that no matter what characters are trying to do to avoid it, they’re going to get smashed irreparably by it. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time grokking a lot of bestsellers. What I find interesting and joyful in my reading is actually the tragic, challenging stuff, and that’s what I write about. It just so happens that’s… not what a lot of other people are reading for.

I hear other writers talk about “fun” a lot and how we should write “fun” fantasy, and I’m like… I find my fiction super fun! But I like grim, weird little stories about people who dig themselves into deep, dark holes and have to live with themselves afterward. I guess it feels more true to life, to me. We do and experience some terrible things sometimes, but surviving means having the ability to get back up again. I find it deeply comforting to read about characters who have gone through far worse things than me who persevere regardless.

And I’d say I certainly don’t pull my punches when it comes to finding lots of sticky taboo things for them to overcome.

KEN: I don’t think there are taboo topics particular to fantasy either. There are certain tropes and conventions that I dislike intensely and avoid in my own work: e.g., every member of a certain “race” behaving exactly the same way; “good” and “evil” nations or races; villains who have no inner life and thus offer the reader no insight into why the villain does not consider himself or herself a villain; and so on.

Instead of taboos, I do think there are topics which I hope to see more fantasy explore. For example, a great deal of fantasy dwells on the meaning of leadership in a feudal or monarchical context, but I think it would be interesting to see more fantasy about democracies. The problems of democratic governance and decision making are rich with possibilities for fantastical treatment, from a pantheon of democratic ideals to a bestiary of our baser, selfish instincts. I’d love to see the logic of literalized metaphors that fantasy is so good at being applied to these issues.


5. Who are some of your favorite authors writing fantastic fiction today?

KEN: As usual, there are simply too many writers whose work I love to give a full listing, so I’ll just pick a few from my recent reading list. I think Kate Elliott and Elizabeth Bear are pushing the boundaries of fantasy in amazing ways and conjuring brand new vistas for us. I also enjoy the short fiction of Usman Malik and Alyssa Wong, who are using fantasy tropes to tell stories that we simply don’t see enough of, reminding us of the weight of history and our responsibility for structural inequality. Finally, I want to mention the work of Alex Shvartsman and Anatoly Belilovsky, whose ability to combine lighthearted, humorous fantasy with heavier, darker themes have led to some profoundly moving stories.

KAMERON: I agree about Kate Elliott, and I like Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy. Sofia Somatar’s A Stranger in Olondria is also very high on my to-read pile. I’m a big fan of Angela Carter and Genevieve Valentine. I’ve recently read Seth Dickinson’s new novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which is excellent, as is Robert Bennett’s City of Stairs, and anything by Felix Gilman. And of course Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is tons of fun. There’s such a wondrous range of work out there that it can be difficult to keep up. I miss the days when I could read three books a week on the train, from Jacqueline Carey to Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet to Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed books. It’s a fabulous time to be writing in the genre. There’s lots of exciting stuff out there, and plenty more boundaries to push… and imaginations to set on fire.


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