Exploring What’s Real in an Imaginary World

by Kali Wallace

 

The setting of “The River of Blood and Wine” [on sale in our current issue] is a world founded on the profitability of murder. That is not how its inhabitants see it: they believe themselves to be colonists taming a wild frontier, and that includes hunting and killing the animals that roam the land. They ignore, dismiss, and cover up evidence that the creatures they hunt are intelligent beings with a culture of their own—right up until they can’t hide it anymore, and their way of life must end.

That is the initial seed of an idea I had when I first began writing this story. I often begin my stories with little more than a vivid image and a “what if . . . ?” premise to hang onto. In this case, the images I had in mind were a broad, slow river snaking through a vast plain, a man returning to this troubled home after years away, and a native species so alien a society might choose to see them as mere animals.

Starting with that scenario and those three nexus points, I began to see the world growing and stretching, becoming more real in my mind, before I even knew how I would populate it. Even more than the geography, I began to get a feel for it—what kind of world this was, what it might feel like to walk beneath its sun, what dark memories a child of this society might take with him when he left. What it might mean for a person’s greatest act to be driven by personal demons as much as altruism.

The setting is a distant planet in an equally distant future, but it’s a world that borrows a lot of its imagery and atmosphere from real places here on Earth. The savannas of East Africa, for example, or the plains of North America, these broad open spaces full of wildlife that have so often been used as shorthand for adventure, exploration, individualism, and rugged prowess. A place to prove one’s mettle against nature.


For incomers, that is. For colonists. For invaders.


It was part of a writer’s work to think not only about what we’re writing, but also to think very deeply about what kind of story we’re trying to tell. In this case, I had to take a step back from the imagery and science fictional ideas that captivated me and realize that my first emotional engagement with this idea was one that required some examination. I was wary of telling a story about invasion from the point of view of the invaders, which is what I was doing by centering the point of view of a human in this planetary colony.

This is where the “What if . . . ?” that formed the spark of my story idea had to expand and grow. It isn’t enough to think about a scenario humankind might encounter in a science fictional future, on a distant planet. It is often said that science fiction is the literature of ideas, but ideas cannot be separated from the people who hold them, and social systems cannot be separated from the people living within them. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying. See, for example, narratives about good slave owners, or loving domestic abusers, or promising and accomplished young rapists, or egalitarian billionaires. To live in our world is to expend a great deal of energy grappling with narratives that insist upon separation between flawed systems and the people who benefit from those flaws at the expense of others. It is, and always has been, a false division.

In the same way, stories cannot be separated from the world in which they are written. When I was turning my own ideas over in my mind, I realized that I could not separate the violence of the culture I was creating—both implicit and explicit—from the sort of people who would create and preserve that culture. It requires people thinking themselves superior, drawing lines around who deserves to live and who deserves to die, creating categories of who even gets to be called people and placing only themselves inside. It starts, as Granny Weatherwax said, with treating people as things. That is where systemic violence comes from.

I did not set out to write a story about the nature of evil. Nor did I set out to write a story about domestic violence. I started with nothing but an idea about what humans might encounter in a distant future, and the feeling of a world I could not quite define but wanted to capture. I wanted to describe big open spaces—because, indeed, sometimes a story is born out of an urge no more complex than wanting to explore a specific idea in a specific place, then searching for a way to bring it to life.

But that’s where it begins, not where it ends. A story only becomes a story when it turns toward the people in it and the forces that define their lives, then reaches out to the readers to urge them to consider those same forces in reality. It seems so obvious, so silly and mundane, but I often feel like I am reminding myself of this every time I sit down to write something new. When the sun shines on a character’s skin as they walk across an impossible world in an imagined future, what they feel, and why they feel it, are always going to be shaped by the experiences of readers in this one.

 


Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees and the middle grade fantasy City of Islands. Her first novel for adults is the science fiction thriller Salvation Day. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, F&SF, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.

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