Guest Post: Max Gladstone

Two Serpents Rise Gladstone, Max-2

Author Max Gladstone joins today to talk about worldbuilding over the course of a series. His latest release, Two Serpents Rise released from Tor Books on October 29, 2013.

Mosaic Worldbuilding
By Max Gladstone

How much do you really know about our world?

I don’t want to get all Obi Wan Kenobi here, but many of the beliefs we all have about our world depend on our orientations and positions within that world. I’m not even talking about big deal moral opinions—uncertainty goes all the way down to everyday stuff.

The price of gasoline or the distance of a commute or the number of pages in a book might seem objective, sure. But even those numbers look very different depending on who and where you are. Does filling your gas tank cost (a) as much as a Friday night dinner for two at your favorite restaurant, before drinks? (b) as much as you spent on food for the last week? (c) as much as your week’s rent? (d) enough to buy you a hundred liters of beer in a back-alley bar in Beijing? The answer depends on you.

Worldbuilding over the course of a series springs from that principle. A single book lays out some details of a setting, offers certain ‘truths’ about who’s good, who’s bad, who’s ugly, what magic looks and feels like, who the good guys are, and so forth—but those truths are filtered through the lens of a protagonist. To Our Hero Jane Wunderkind, Girl Inventor, the Mad Scientist’s Guild is an oppressive force preventing true social change. But what if the next book in the series focuses on Second Inspector deMaupassant’s conflicts with an insidious designer of self-replicating beetle automata who’s planning to set them loose in the center of Paris? It’s possible to tell an entire story from deMaupassant’s perspective, in which he’s the good guy and Jane’s Collective of Free Madmen (and -Women) are the danger.

Writing further books in a series is partly an exercise in finding and filling whitespace, sure, in extending the margins of the map, but merely filling whitespace leaves many possibilities unexamined. How much cooler to subvert and reinvent? To show the flip side of truths characters in prior books thought they knew? If your characters are big deal nobles and wizards, another book could show that society from beneath, or from the side.

My first book, Three Parts Dead, focused on a junior associate at an international necromancy firm—a young woman with disproportionate power and status for her age. Her life isn’t easy. She’s an outcast from much of human society as a result of her abilities. But she can bend the forces of nature (and supernature) to her whim, so there are consolations to be had. For Tara (my character), magic is awesome, something to be practiced, studied, and employed at every opportunity.

For the second book, Two Serpents Rise, I wanted to show the same world through the eyes of someone without Great Magical Powers™. Caleb, the main character in Two Serpents Rise, is a smart guy, but that’s it—he’s no Craftsman, no necromancer, and as a result the magic that defines and builds his world is a source of fear and uncertainty for him. He has status within his community, as a gambler, as a risk manager, as an employee, but he’s surrounded by forces beyond his control. For him, the fantasy setting verges regularly on horror. Meanwhile, where Tara views Craftsmen as good people discriminated against by a society that unjustly fears them, Caleb sees beings of caprice and immense magical might, that frequently disregard the rights and autonomy of other people as they pursue their own aims.

And that’s just one obvious axis. Characters in Two Serpents Rise have different perspectives as a result of their different historical, sociothaumaturgical, and racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, and classes. The juxtaposition of all those perspectives (I hope!) helps make the world real.

It turns out Obi Wan knew what he was talking about.

Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Two Serpents Rise, his second novel, is about water rights, human sacrifice, dead gods, and poker.


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