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Three-peat Hugo award winner N.K. Jemison spoke to Ezra Klein of Vox Media about her approach to worldbuilding. My crime, of course, is that I’ve never read Jemison before, and although I’d seen her name on Twitter for months, she never came to my attention until winning this year’s Best Novel award. Much like Ezra Klein during his latest podcast, I’ve come to admire her more than I thought possible.
As Jemison acknowledges during the segment, “worldbuilding” isn’t a radical concept for most people who write. We do it intuitively as we learn what kinds of stories we want to tell, and discover how the environment our characters occupy shape their politics and morality, even the kinds of food they eat. “Worldbuilding” is the practice of thinking critically about the world we currently occupy so that we can create plausible fictional worlds. Jemison is quick to distinguish between plausible and logical, however, because humans are motivated by much more than common sense.
By the end of the podcast, Ezra recognizes that Jemison’s process necessitates a vast knowledge of not only the topic of whatever fiction one happens to be writing, but also of sociology and human behavior in general. A great fictional world demands that writers become Renaissance people who recognize the multifaceted nature of human experience. For Jemison, she attributes some of this skill and experience to her frequent travels with her father. For those who can’t manage to travel around the world, I think the takeaway is that writers should be voracious readers, and should thirst for knowledge, and must be willing to immerse themselves in different cultures and modes of thinking. The phrase “write what you know” shouldn’t limit one to writing only about their personal experiences; it should motivate us to learn as much as we can about our place in the world.
You can listen to the podcast here. Meanwhile, I’ve gotta start reading a Jemison novel right away. I just learned she wrote a Mass Effect novel.