World building fantasy mirrorAt a recent conference I discovered that Georgette Heyer has had a considerable influence on science fiction and fantasy authors.


Restrained, witty, convention-conscious Georgette and the Trekkies? Really? How? Above all, why?

Because of her world-building.

Hang about, I thought. But isn’t that what all novelists do, build a world? Many create a world that is bigger than just one book. Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Nancy Mitford, Ian Rankin, Lesley Cookman…

The best (Insert Name Here) build a world that is bigger than all their books put together. Readers walk around in these worlds. Other authors inhabit and explore them. They live.

Georgette Heyer’s World-building

World-building Georgette Heyer's Regency WorldHeyer was definitely one of the latter. From Regency Buck (1932) onwards she was building a mirror of the world we have come to call Regency Romance.  Really, though, it is an Age of Enlightenment world, embracing the Georgian as well as the Regency.

She was an avid researcher and revelled in details of manners, clothes, slang, gambling and other entertainment, even furnishing and fabrics. She culled them from contemporaneous sources: letters, diaries and magazines as well as printed books such as Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

And, of course, there were the novels, of which Jane Austen’s work was paramount.

Jane Austen’s World-building

World-building Austen PersuasionIndebted though she was to Austen, Heyer cast her net more widely. Servants, virtually invisible in Austen, are a vivid presence. Sometimes they even contribute materially to the plot.

Aristocrats abound, in contrast to Austen who tends to use them chiefly as a source of anxiety or a challenge for her main characters. Lady Dalrymple swishes through Persuasion and we heave a sigh of relief when she’s gone.

We always assume that Austen was reflecting the world she knew. But I bet it was pretty damn different from that of many, probably most, of her own contemporaries, including those who read her with pleasure.

Princess Charlotte's wedding, world-buildingConsider Byron, who was lionised, hotly pursued by Caroline Lamb, driven abroad by marital scandals and died as a Greek revolutionary. Or poor young Princess Charlotte, with her publicly warring parents? How politically and sexually unsettled must her personal world have been in comparison with Jane’s? ( Jane pitied the Princess’s mother and wrote, “I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman and because I hate her Husband.” Didn’t show in her books, though.)

Charlotte herself identified completely with Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. “You feel quite one of the company,” she wrote. “I feel Maryanne & me are very alike in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c., however remain very like.”

So Heyer’s Regency world embraces Jane Austen’s but takes in London High Society, aristocracy, masquerades, battles, balloon ascensions and even the Prince Regent as well.

Science Fiction World-Building

I read Science Fiction in spurts. I started with H G Wells and Jules Verne, both of whom had a heavy concentration of boys’ toys. But then came the poets, the philosophers, the what-if merchants and the what-next worriers: Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Philip K. Dick.

World Building in Fahrenheit 451Bradbury, I think, comes closest to building a whole and believable world in his seminal Fahrenheit 451. Written in the McCarthy era, it confronts censorship, brain-washing-by-soap-opera, disillusion, betrayal and personal rebellion in a dystopian future where the job of the Fire Department is to burn books.

This is as much about the urgent issues of Bradbury’s day, as it is about a complex world with its own principles and habits. Guy Montag, the protagonist fireman, goes on a journey of philosophical development. But the other characters? Not so much. At least in my view.

Science Fiction [Fantasy*] World-Building

cover, Left Hand of Darkness, first edition, Ursula Le GuinAnd then there came Ursula Le Guin. Her Left Hand of Darkness was the first science fiction/fantasy novel that I read which showed me a profoundly different society. The outsider-ambassador Genly Ai, through whose eyes we see this strange gender-fluid world, has become one of my favourite characters in any genre.

He starts detached, as observers must. The ambisexual population regard him, as they do all consistently single-gender individuals, as perverted. He keeps reminding himself of this, as he struggles both to understand the extreme formalities of Karhdish society and to learn to trust individuals. Once he does, his resulting relationship with Estraven is profoundly moving.

Lois McMaster Bujold is a new recommendation from the conference under reference. A fan of Georgette Heyer’s, she called her Miles-in-love story in the Vorkosigan Saga A Civil Campaign as a compliment to Heyer’s A Civil Contract.

cover of flowers of vashnoi, vorkosigan, by Lois McMaster BujoldSo far I have only read six of the Saga – and they are wonderful. This is not just a world. This is a three-planet empire in a universe of planets, some of them the Imperium’s past or potential enemies. All of them have  highly politicised societies. At least one of them is borderline criminal. And that’s just the planets.

The characters, the families, the politics are a positive explosion of alien culture detail. Completely believable and completely absorbing. The boys’ toys aren’t bad either.  Nobody is all good and all bad.

And this complex world seems to have freed up the author somehow. The books are wondrously civilised. No major character lacks a sense of humour. (I always remember marvellous L M Montgomery describing a sense of humour as “a sense of the fitness of things”. In the truest sense of the word “fitness” I think she was spot on.) Within the Vorkosian Saga there are spy stories, adventure stories, moral dilemma stories, romantic comedies – and she touches on life, death, prejudice and cruelty as well!

Characters and World-Building

When you have a complex and conflicted world, you start off with a three dimensional arena which has already formed your characters and which they must negotiate, along with any other challenges the plot and characters throw in their way. Damerel needs Heyer’s Regency manners and restrictions in order to overcome them and achieve a true friendship with his love. Captain Wentworth needs to recognise the depth of true feeling in Anne, which can only be expressed as a restrained philosophical proposition, expressed to a third party. And she has to overcome her well-mannered reticence and assert her opinion, based on profound experience when she claims that women “love longest when existence or when hope is gone.” Breathtaking.

Miles Vorkosigan is a super hero with an eccentric approach to responsibility, very shaky grasp of the law and the intellect of a genius. He is also an absolute plonker when it comes to romance. I adore him.

Georgette Heyer, who described herself as relying on “a certain gift for the farcical” – which she finessed into near tragedy more times than I can count, as does Bujold, who has already twice had me in tears – has achieved a worthy successor.

And I’m not even half way through the Vorkosigan list. I’m in Heaven.


* To be clear, I’ve always thought of Le Guin’s adult novels as a science fiction and fantasy writing as peopled with sword, sorcery and spirits. Earthsea would qualify. But I am informed that stories which posit intelligent alien life may be so classified. So you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Sophie Weston Author


5 thoughts on “World-building

  1. lesley2cats

    Gosh, I’m flattered, Sophie! And delighted, of course. I think I started appreciating World Building when I was a child with, of all things, Rupert Bear. Nutwood and its surrounds, inhabitants and visitors was , and is, a real and complete place, as the Followers of Rupert will tell you. Yes, I am one. I think that was probably my world’s birth place, and a whole world is, of course, essential for a series of books. Which means that I shall immediately go and look for the first in the Vorkosigan saga…

  2. Sophie Post author

    Nutwood, huh? I had no idea.

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy the Vorkosigan Saga, Lesley. I’m gripped.

  3. Sue McCormick

    In regards to your comment about the difference between Science Fiction and Science Fantasy. At the SF conventions I have attended in the United States, the fans don’t make a great distinction between them.

    I heard Ray Bradbury say he wrote fantasy; the world continues to say Science Fiction. Mostly we fans don’t care. Obviously, when the framework includes “magic” it classifies as fantasy. Espers powers? — on the borderline.

    And — again, we readers mostly don’t care.

    Have fun with the Vorkosigan saga, and then explore the rest of Bujold.

  4. Sophie Post author

    You relieve my mind, Sue. It is just too easy to offend people out of ignorance. Glad that other readers don’t make a great distinction.

    Of course, let in a wizard with a wand and it’s a different matter!

    1. lesley2cats

      There’s one more – Diana Wynne Jones, to whom you introduced me some years ago. Of course.

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