Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Beyond Worldbuilding: Cosmobuilding, or, The Power of the Space Hoagie

Today, we are thrilled to bring you a guest post from N.K. Jemisin, author of the Inheritance Trilogy. The Kingdom of Gods, the final book in the trilogy, comes out on October 27.

I've talked extensively on my blog and in interviews about the worldbuilding that went into the Inheritance Trilogy -- everything from influences (see interview at the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; see also real-world events) to theology or the lack thereof to history to the minutia of a single demographic to -- naturally -- the world's mythic underpinnings. But now, with the publication of The Kingdom of Gods, I can finally reveal one of the most difficult elements of its worldbuilding.

Well, I shouldn't call this worldbuilding. See, when you write a story centered on the lives of gods -- even if the framing stories are those of the mortals who have to deal with them -- you mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling. I had to build not just a world, but basically the cosmos itself.

I started by researching the cosmologies of existing human belief systems, which as you can imagine are fantastically varied in their ideas for how everything (i.e., the universe) is put together. There were the ancient Egyptians, for example, who imagined eight gods floating around in the floodwaters of chaos. The eight merged to form and push up a celestial pyramid, which produced light (the sun), and began the rest of creation. And many of you are familiar with the Norse concept of Yggdrasil, the World Tree that holds together the nine worlds of creation. There's also Iroquois belief, which positions the earth on the back of a colossal turtle, floating in a cosmic sea; Chinese and Hindu tales echo the turtle theme. And consider the Christian tale of Genesis, in which the universe began as a glob of water, part of which had to be jacked up by means of a giant tent just to create enough space for dry land. Like I said; fantastically varied.

Which meant the first thing I needed to do was imagine a shape for existence, since it seems as though nearly every belief system starts with this. I'm not sure any of us are entirely comfortable with the notion of living within an endless amorpous expanse -- especially given the likely fate of such an unstructured mass per current theoretical physics. So it's unsurprising that so many of our fellow humans would so carefully attempt to draw the universe's map, so to speak; we all want to know where we are and where we're going. And like all maps, those cultures began their contemplations with known points of reference. They started with what they could observe of the world around them, and built the cosmos from there.

So in imitation of this method, I started with modern astronomy. While there are many theories as to how the universe itself is shaped -- ranging from flat, to "the soccer ball," to much the more exotic "five-dimensional spaghetti" -- the depiction that I've seen the most is, well, "the space hoagie."

Or, more formally, the image/model used to depict the cosmic background radiation as detected by NASA and other cosmological scientists -- the CBR for short. Actually this model has several names, none of which are "space hoagie" -- but I have to admit, that's the first thing I thought when I saw it. The "hoagie" is just an approximation of the universe's shape, note; in no way should it be interpreted literally. Still, I couldn't quite help doing exactly that when I started trying to envision the universe of the Inheritance Trilogy. That was pretty much all it took to send my imagination into overdrive.

After all, what if the cosmos is shaped like a hoagie? Makes as much sense as turtles or spaghetti. But a hoagie (unlike the relatively uniform CBR model) isn't homogenous, is it? There are parallel layers of other things: fillings, condiments, garnishes. And maybe this universe has entities or states of reality which intersect the multiple layers of mortal existence; toothpicks, as it were. And maybe these connect the hoagie to additional substances or sub-universes of a different nature. Like, say, a pickle. And what if every french fry sitting beside this hoagie represents an additional layer of the mortal realm, each occupied by a different order of being?

This is actually a shrimp poboy, not a hoagie, because that's how my universe rolls.

Now, for those who don't know the origin story of the Inheritance Trilogy, I'll summarize: at the beginning of everything was the Maelstrom. Since we're working with food analogies, think of It as a Cuisinart of Infinite Size/Speed. The Maelstrom is constantly churning and busy, though whether It's busy making something or just randomly busy is unknown. Regardless, with any churning mixture, there's some loss. Splatter on the sides of the bowl, so to speak. Every so often a droplet of substance gets thrown out of the mass, usually falling back into the bowl -- but occasionally it gets farther, and ends up on the countertop or the wall. In this case, the separate droplet was a conscious entity called Nahadoth, the first god. Nahadoth, perhaps in imitation of his parent, attempted to create his own churning mass of substance, although this did not go well. Imagine the raw material of the hoagie: unbaked dough, fresh meat, raw vegetables, eggs and oil and whatnot, all tossed together like a salad. (Yeah. Yuck.)

Fortunately, along came two other gods -- Itempas and Enefa -- who also fissioned off from the Maelstrom, and who were better chefs. Itempas helped Nahadoth separate the mess into layers, slice the veggies, bake the bread. Enefa was a bit like a sandwich press, not just putting the layers together, but helping the flavors blend in an optimal way.

And the Three looked upon their creation, and knew that it was Good.

Now, to clarify: this celestial hoagie isn't just the mortal realm; it's everything. I think of the bread as the gods' realm: a nearly infinite, rarefied zone in which whatever one imagines becomes true. Only gods can dwell there because they are essentially creatures of nothing but imagination and idea. The gods' realm encloses the many layers of the mortal realm. Only one of those layers -- maybe the arugula -- contains the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, along with countless other stars and worlds and the trackless expanses of space and time. The other layers are also mortal realms, but nothing we would recognize as such. Yeine caught a glimpse of these during The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, when Nahadoth took her on a brief tour of existence, and Oree has passed through a time or two as well. Sieh has not only visited them extensively, he knows their names: the Intentionality. The thoughtwhale sea. And more; all living realms, inhabited by entities that in no way resemble humanity, operating by entirely different rules of matter and energy and consciousness. All part of the Three's creation.

And just outside the hoagie are things closely affiliated with, but not quite of, the mortal realm. In the books, these are referred to as the heavens and the hells -- additional spaces created by Enefa and her brothers to complement life. Because really, what is a sandwich without a pickle?

(Nothing, I tell you. That sandwich is nothing.)

Admittedly I'm being silly here. But this is the essential structure of the cosmos in the Inheritance Trilogy: an incomprehensibly vast gods' realm enclosing a layered and complex (and equally vast) mortal realm, and accompanied by many smaller spaces with a complimentary purpose. All of this sits near a grinding, churning storm of pure creative and destructive energy, which might at any moment pull a "will it blend?" on the whole shebang.

So there you have it. There's a risk in revealing this, of course, as with any pulling-back of the metaphysical curtain in a fantasy world. Harder to believe in the numinous once it's made concrete. But I reconcile myself with this by noting that I've created as many new questions as I may have answered. After all, who "turned on" the Maelstrom, or poured in the raw materials of creation? And what happens if that someone, now that the gods have created this delicious cosmological sandwich, starts feeling peckish?

Things to ponder, and hopefully enjoy, as you read The Kingdom of Gods. As for me, I'm off to get some writing done for the rest of the day. And hey... I think it might be lunchtime...