You know how last week I insisted that writers have to make themselves take a break? 24 hours after posting that, I ended up in the hospital. A month of not really sleeping mixed with flu culminated in an inability to breathe or see while driving my kids from school. Nothing like a trip in an ambulance to get one thinking about one’s priorities.
So, after a weekend of Bo telling me to sit still, Bash snuggles, Blondie stories, and Biff reading ad nauseum about trucks, I’m…still kinda sick, but not, you know, idiot-sick.
Seriously, people: take breaks.
This year, I wanted to dedicate a chunk of my “Lessons Learned” posts to an element of writing dear to my heart, one that can make or break a story set in a land not our own: world-building.
In a way, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy takes place on our humdrum Earth (or does it? Dunh dunh DUUUUUNH). Something has come to Earth and transformed a stretch of coastal landscape in the United States. It has created a border. It does not let what is inside return…unless it wishes to. And those that return are never the same.
Annihilation, the first book of the series, strictly focuses upon the twelfth expedition into beyond the border into the place now labeled Area X. Here is where the world-building plays to Vandermeer’s favor. He needs to make Earth unearthly. He needs to engage and invest the readers into exploring this place.
He accomplishes this with the first paragraph:
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.
Let’s dissect this a little. Look at that first line: “The tower, which was not supposed to be there.” Already, our narrator has come upon something unexpected. “Plunges into the earth“: I love that word choice of “plunges.” A strong action, driven action, and yet not violent, as opposed to “pierces” or “penetrates.” The terms for the landscape fit our narrator, whom we learn in the next paragraph is a biologist. The paragraph itself ends on two contradictions: “untroubled landscape” is certainly not what one would think of when it comes to an otherworldly invasion on our planet. “Could yet see the threat” counters the “untroubled” while also agreeing with the first line of a tower not meant to be there.
One paragraph in, and we already have a sense of what is both familiar–“black pine forest,” “marsh flats,” etc–and what is foreign–“the tower.” VanderMeer utilizes natural details readers can easily visualize while “plunging” a singular uniqueness into the scene, an entity guaranteed to taint all the “normalcy” around it, therefore turning the entire scene into something abnormal.
I’d like to share two other paragraphs, both from the first chapter, that further build on this natural/unnatural mix of detail.
Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge directions, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning.
The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.
So many sensory details are given here. The middle of the paragraph provides the pretty visuals with the moss and the trees, but the water detail unsettles you, doesn’t it? Because “normal” water isn’t still like that. VanderMeer also pulls a smooth move on readers with the moaning line. He begins the paragraph with it, but then spends time on other details before returning to the moaning, as if to show us the “normal” touches that are once again infected by the singular foreign element. The last line of this paragraph is a killer-subtle bit of foreshadowing, as you’ll see in the next paragraph from later in the chapter.
The biologist and another member have ventured into the tower, where they find words written on the wall. Those words are made of living organisms. Here VanderMeer makes use of his narrator’s skill set to build a world inside a word:
So I stepped closer, peered at Where lies the strangling fruit. I saw that the letters, connected by their cursive script, were made from what would have looked to the layperson like rich green fernlike moss but in fact was probably a type of fungi or other eukaryotic organism. The curling filaments were all packed very close together and rising out from the wall. A loamy smell came from the words along with an underlying hint of rotting honey….I leaned in closer, like a fool…someone tricked into thinking words should be read…Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the W chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out.
I think you know where this is going: something gets into the biologist, something she does her damndest to hide from the others.
In this paragraph you get a taste for the level of natural detail our narrator takes in, one who has the experience to see and understand what is natural to Earth’s ecology, and what is not. As readers, we are gripped by the mystery of Area X–as Vandermeer planned, I’m sure. Even though I haven’t given you the whole chapter, the fact that “fernlike moss” is growing to create not only words, but cursive words in English, should be enough to send a shudder through you. Something foreign is here, and yet knows enough to communicate with our own language. It has taken what we thought unique to humanity, and transformed it into something new, just as it has with everything previous expeditions have left behind…including the expeditions themselves.
You’ll have to read the book to appreciate that last point.
VanderMeer’s balance between the relatable and the alien sensory details is spot-on throughout the trilogy. In the first chapter of the first book, where this balance is at its most precarious, Vandermeer takes the greatest care in luring readers to follow him, lulling them with the familiar, until the subtle strange beneath the black glass water floods the way back and we have no choice but to enter the tower, and descend further into his world.
Your own world need not be built from scratch. Dig your fingers deep into the earth and build the trench to set your land apart. Claw out the flora and fauna. Now, with all set before you upon this table, what shall fill your world? What will your readers know, and what will they look upon with a stranger’s eyes, wide and watchful?