Last night, I revisited one of my old favorites, the Star Trek novel “Uhura’s Song”, by Janet Kagan (I own the English version). And it set me to thinking how much worldbuilding one has to do, and how it can be done in a clever way.
Especially in Fantasy, worldbuilding often involves maps, the creation of several kingdoms or states, the naming and placing of cities. (I could probably write an entire post about the placing of cities!). While “Uhura’s Song” is SF, it sends the famous crew to a planet never seen before, and not seen in the series, either. (I find it a real loss that such deep and long novels are no longer allowed by Paramount.) It also doesn’t provide a map. In fact, the whole area covered shows basically two camps of a nomadic people, and the path travelled between those camps. This feels smaller than a county in England.
On another level, however, Kagan does an enormous amount of world building, which is probably the biggest reason why I enjoy this novel so much. The inhabitants of this planet are fascinating partly because they have such a rich culture. (And, of course, … cat people!) The whole book revolves around a cultural split that happened far back in the past, causing half of the population to leave the planet. That split is a taboo in both cultures, setting up the problem for our heroes to solve. But Kagan doesn’t stop there. She invents an illness, several songs, two very different yet similar traditions, an initiation ritual, and – what impressed me most – a whole set of phrases based on feline body language. Let me give you an example: Instead of “pulling a leg”, those people “pull a tail”. And in order to describe a human dressing down, they use the phrase “cuffing with words”. (I admit it, my focus at university was on linguistics.)
Personally, I think this painstaking attention to small things, the effort to delve that deeply into an alien culture of intelligent beings, combined with a large dose of humor, all this is what makes this particular novel so enjoyable that I kept it out of several dozen Star Trek novels that came my way. This level of worldbuilding may be more properly called culturebuilding. And it is this that makes the cat people come real to me as people.
Now I’m curious. How much culturebuilding do you do in your novels? Do you plan these things or do they happen by accident? Are there songs, rituals and special phrases in your tales?