Grey Havens Group Answers: World-building

Some time ago, Charlie, a Grey Havens member, put a fascinating question to the group. Here is the question along with some of our answers. If you haven’t chimed in yet, you can do so in the comments (whether or not you are a regular GHG attendee). The full discussion is even more entertaining than the excerpts I have posted here. To read it, head on over to our facebook page where you might even want to answer the most recent question or post a question of your own. New members are welcome!

Question: One of the skills for which Tolkien is most revered is world-building. What other works of fiction (on page or screen) have given you worlds that seemed so real that they must exist out there somewhere? Would you visit these worlds if you could?


  • Not all are on a planetary level, just FYI): Frank Herbert’s Arrakis (Dune); Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books and Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness; Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books; Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama;Larry Niven’s Ringworld; David Brin’s Uplift novels (first three, anyway); Frederik Pohl’s Gateway books; Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (slow in places, but the purest, most literal example of “world building” I know – but far from my favorite). Many more!
  •  I second Dune, but only the first book is worth reading. It is amazing. The other Dune books are terrible. The complex integration of religion in the cultures is very believable.
  • Dune was what first came to mind for me too. As to Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, I remember the figure of the Shrike more strongly than the world of Hyperion. Another “world” that has stuck with me for 25 years is from Mists of Avalon,  Marion Zimmer Bradley. While it’s got magic and fantasy elements, I don’t know if it’s so much an example of “world building” as “atmosphere building.” Way out in left field, I’ll toss in Carlos Castaneda’s books too, especially Journey to Ixtlan and Tales of Power. (They’re billed as non-fiction, though some of Castaneda’s close associates say he privately acknowledges them as allegory. Fiction, non-fiction, they are a fascinating example of storytelling to build a shamanic world… one that strongly defined my own worldview when I was a teenager.)
  • The fantastic world(s) of Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weiss’ Death Gate Cycle books come to mind first, other than Herbert’s Arrakis from Dune and R.A. Salvatore’s imaginings of the Forgotten Realms setting.
  • It’s interesting: they say music can bring you to a state of mind – a place that will never exist in reality. Same goes for statues or literature. I guess this holds true for any art form. It’s probably part of the reason why humans have art. The ‘objective’ physical world is not enough for us. We need more. Why? I don’t know.
  • My contribution will be in the form of film. The worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest maker of Japanese animation, is where I desire to be even more than Middle-earth. Even Disney animators revere him. They say he is the Japanese Disney. I think it would be more accurate to refer to him as the Kurosawa of animation (“Hayao Miyazaki – Master of Japanese Animation’ by Helen McCarthy).
  • I love worlds that are very much like our own but with a few crucial differences. Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell comes to mind. I also love Mists of Avalon and the Mary Stewart versions of Arthurian legends, books that humanize the myth we all know but that also, from book to book, give the feeling that we are stepping into a world that we don’t quite know. I am also intrigued by the differences between worlds in TV shows and films that were shaped by a number of minds over time (as myths usually are) and myths like The Lord of the Rings that were brought to us from one mind.
  •  Star Wars. (You know you and your friends are nerds when you have heated arguments over which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek. I was a little to hot-blooded for Star Trek as a kid. Give me a light saber any day!)
  • I’m going to set everyone off by saying I never wanted to visit either the worlds of Dune or those shown in Star Wars. While I enjoyed reading the first Dune and watching the Star Wars movies, both were too filled with machines, robots, and deserts to hold me for long. I could however happily visit George R. R. Martin’s world of Westros or Katherine Kurtz’ Gwynned as it’s shown in The Deryni Chronicles. The third alternate universe I would love to visit is St. Louis as it’s shown in the Anita Blake Mysteries by Laurel K. Hamilton. That would probably be the most practical, since I could still have insulin there. I know Hamilton’s alternate world is not nearly as exotic as the others, but it’s still a favorite of mine. I would seriously love to live in a world where your mechanic might be a vampire, or the corner cop might be a werewolf. It gives the teenage gang-bangers something to think about, when they realize they aren’t the scariest thing in the room.
  • I really find the culture of Dune compelling, but the desert of Arakis is not for me. I also thought of J.Strange’s England. Pern. The SW galaxy. Federation planets. Narnia. Emberverse. Westrose. Wonderland. Hogwarts.

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