The “What If” Foundation of the Shenraq World

I was going to do a post jotting out my thoughts about building up the image of the tapestry that will be my header image, but I realised that  in order to to explain why the weaver would weave a certain tapestry, the context in which she weaves needs explaining. The context, in this case, means the world she inhabits.

For me, the whole purpose of world building and the fantasy/speculative fiction genre is to explore the possibilities of a “what if”. What kind of challenges will you face if you were a reincarnating saviour of the world? (Avatar: The Legend of Korra) What would you do if you learn that the world we inhabit is not physically real but a virtual reality to placate us? (The Matrix) What if Gods travel with their believers, and their power is based on how fervently they are believed in? (American Gods)

Having said all of that, I’m cheating slightly by altering the question to a “how can”.

“How can we tell stories about the genuine complexities of cultural contact, and the various dynamics found within cultural contact?”

Cultural contact sounds like a fancy term, but it just means “when peoples from different cultures start mingling and living with each other to greater or lesser extents”.

Cultural contact can take many forms. In our day and age, things like temporary migration for work or study are not uncommon. Historically there are plenty more:

  • Trade between two centralised states of different linguistic and/or cultural groups equally (e.g.) or unequally
  • Trade between two centralised states of the same linguistic and/or cultural groups equally (e.g.) or unequally (e.g.)
  • Technologically advanced but numerically inferior group of people conquer a numerically superior group of people in the Old World (e.g. European imperial conquests of India, Egypt )
  • Conquest of non-centralised states by centralised states (e.g. Rome over the Celts,
  • Conquest of centralised states by traditionally less-centralised states (e.g. Manchu over the Han, Mongols over the Khwarezmia)

And the relationship dynamics to be found in these contexts are clearly many. And an extension from that, the types of lived experiences are just… vast.

Basically I’m wanting to tell stories about intercultural co-existence, and historical memory. That’s just a fancy way of saying “stories about people from different cultures living together, and exploring how those cultures’ histories affects the people’s present.” A lofty sounding topic, right?  It’s the kind of stuff that historians, sociologists, anthropologists talk about… but I think they are fascinating and really important topics that can be and should be explored in fiction.

The world I’m building:

The Shenraq: A cultural contact zone of four major civilizations, each drawing inspiration from “Asian” civilizations in our world. My current official blurb goes something like this:

At the cross-roads of civilizations stands a vast dynasty built on conquest. One hundred years after its foundation the conquerors are once more poised for invasion of foreign lands. But murmurings of rebellion can be heard throughout the empire, and the descendants of the conquerors are dying of a mysterious wasting illness. Traverse the vast worlds of secretive deserts and howling plains, the corridors of power and humble peasant villages. You will then piece together a picture of the events that will sway the future of this diverse world.

If you are a world builder, what is your “what if”? If you are a fiction lover, what “what ifs” tickle your fancy?