Monday, December 01, 2008

"A Heretic By Degrees" - by Marie Brennan

Creating a Heretic

Driftwood is, hands-down, the weirdest setting I have ever invented. It started from the idea of borders: a place that is nothing but borders, where worlds come together so closely that you are constantly crossing from one to another. In other words, Driftwood started with the Shreds, the region Qoress traverses in his quest to heal his king. The Edge, where his world currently resides, came later -- when my subconscious told me that Driftwood is where worlds go to die.

So that established two things about the setting. The first is that it's kind of inherently nihilistic: everything comes to an end there, and there's nothing anybody can do to stop it. Your world has its apocalypse, its Ragnarok or whatever, and the last surviving fragments come to Driftwood to finish collapsing into nothingness. Cheerful, huh? This is the first story I've published in the setting, but I have others I'm playing around with, and it would be easy for them to all be grindingly depressing. But there's a whole wealth of stories to tell about how people choose to face that end: some despair, some adapt, some live in denial.

(And then there's Last. When I said everything comes to an end, I lied. You'll see more of him in future stories.)

The setting may be nihilistic, then, and all the stories in it will have to deal with that in one way or another. But really, it's just an exploration of entropy. I realized after I had created the setting that there were two concepts at the heart of Driftwood, those being liminality and entropy. Borders, and the eventual breakdown of any closed system. I'm glad I didn't think of that until after I had the world in mind -- if I had created it with that in mind, I'd probably have something much stiffer and less interesting -- but as an after-the-fact observation, it's one with near-endless potential for exploration.

The second thing my idea established is that this is my world-building playground. I was trained as an anthropologist, and I try to build detailed, coherent worlds, where all the elements fit together. But you know, that's a lot of work, and sometimes you just have random wacky ideas that don't fit with much of anything. Driftwood lets me fling those around at will. It's a place of fragments; if I come up with some weird religious custom or clothing style or type of dance, I can toss it in there and not worry about what it means, or how it relates to anything else. I can't tell you anything about the magic of the place where Qoress meets Last except for the thing with the spit, and I don't have to; heck, that might be the only functional piece of magic they have left. Who knows?

Writing in this setting, I often feel like I'm getting to indulge much more than usual in one of the features of our genre: I can make up weird and colorful things, anything that sparks my sensawunda. (Or amuses me. Which is sometimes the same thing.)

As I said, this is the first Driftwood story I've published, but I have several others half-started, and I hope to do more. After all, there's always more worlds to destroy . . .


Marie's story, "A Heretic By Degrees," is in issue 10 of Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, available now.

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