Indigenous wonderworks are neither strictly “fantasy” nor “realism,” but maybe both at once, or something else entirely, although they generally push against the expectations of rational materialism. They rooted in the specificities of peoples to their histories and embodied experiences. They make space for meaningful engagements and encounters that are easily dismissed by colonial authorities but are central to cultural resurgence and the recovery of other ways of knowing, being, and abiding. They insist on possibilities beyond cynicism and despair.Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, p. 154
Speculative fiction and Indigenous new media are exciting not just because of the stories they tell, but because of the worlds they create. SF authors have been imagining universes for ages, but world building is a particularly big part of the current storytelling zeitgeist. Think of the Marvel Universe, Middle-earth (Lord of the Rings), even the magical places that hides in plain sight in Harry Potter. What makes these spaces “worlds” or “universes” (the more popular terminology these days) is that they adhere to a shared reality, with its own rules, laws, technologies, histories, etc. A reality that extends across the time-space of the narrative (sometimes multiple narratives) and applies to all characters and all environments equally. A speculative fiction world is the “structural bedrock,” to borrow from Paolo Bertetti, from which all fictional references within the text are derived. In this sense, a world is not simply a “setting” (at least not in the sense we are taught as early literary scholars). While we might not always notice it, the “world” is the ambient material that allows us to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in story. It is the set of rules that make magic, or intergalactic space travel, legible to us as readers. It is at the level of the “universe” that I believe new media and speculative fiction intersect most directly: not in the representation of content, but in careful development of form: that is, the universe that gives that content life. If we are careful readers, we see the presence of form just as much in a world like Lisa Jackson’s Biidaaban as we do in Little Badger’s Elatsoe.
Good storytellers, like Little Badger and Jackson, spend as much time conceptualizing the worlds their characters occupy, as the characters themselves. And those worlds, I argue, play a significant role in allowing us to “imagine otherwise,” because they present a fully realized space for us to inhabit, breathe, and embody as denizens of the otherwise.
The exercise we are doing today is about unpacking Elatsoe so we can carefully study and consider its individual elements, thus better understanding the world that Little Badger creates. We are guided in our analysis by a simple research question: What kind of world is Little Badger building in Elatsoe and how does it add to our understanding of Daniel Justice’s wonderworks?
When unpacking the world of Elatsoe, consider the world-building concepts I have listed below. These are standard questions that SF authors contemplate when they begin world-building. In fact, there’s a whole practice around there that you can dive into (and never come back).
In your group, try to answer the questions I offer in as much detail as possible. We’re not looking for quantity of responses, but quality. Start where ever you are inspired in the list. As always, linearity need not apply. When writing down your answers, provide as much detail as possible, with page references and specific quotations where available. If there are other categories you see represented in Little Badger’s world and they are not listed here, by all means, start your own headers. The most important thing is that, as a group, we develop a robust understanding of the Elatsoe universe that we can carry with us into the study of other course texts.
At the end of the initial in-class session (I give students about 45 minutes with this), we reconvene as a group to discuss the elements each has chose to focus on. Following the discussion, groups must design and submit a traveler’s guide to Elatsoe based on the information they have collected.
The students take the most salient points from their analysis of Little Badger’s world and build it into a narrative intended for a visitor that is entirely new to that place. The guidebook is less of a “destinations” list, than a taxonomy of the lived environment, and how to survive and thrive within it–as written for someone from our universe.
To anchor the assignment, I ask the students to list five specific places to visit in the guestbook. The places give them activation points to focus their analysis and close reading. That said, I am clear that this is not just an exercise in describing setting. They must dig into the ideas and characteristics that make their chosen places specific to Little Badger’s world, and be prepared to defend their choices. The list I provide below helps to them to further develop their arguments. They must also author an introduction to the guidebook, which should illustrate a specific perspective on the world. For instance, their guidebook might be specifically for physicists, and therefore look at the mechanics of space and time, or it might be for foodies and therefore focus on plants, animals, and food customs. It should also include a works cited, with in-text citations.
It’s important to first have a discussion about the colonial implications of travel. We look at Indigenous Tourism BC Trip Planner App as a way to think about Indigenous engagements with tourism and, depending on the class we read from Daniel Francis’s Imaginary Indian, which has a very good chapter on the linkages between colonialism and tourism. That said, damage control should not be the focus of this assignment. I want students to focus on the world itself and concern themselves with understanding and unpacking the complex and sophisticated place that Little Badger constructs in Elatsoe.
As with most of my assignments, I find that drawing and visualization helps students to dig deeper into the ideas, so the guidebook is meant to a visual document. I’m not too concerned about how this is taken up. I do bring a few traveler’s guides to class, so students can see how the genre looks, but they can make their books by hand (i.e. zine style with pencil crayons and cut and paste aesthetics, in Power Point, Photoshop, Adobe, Canva, etc.). I do caution that this is not the time to learn a new technology, so if no one in the group users Adobe Illustrator, this is not the time to take it up. However, if they have existing skill sets, say they do layout for the university’ newspaper, then they are very welcome to put them to use. I set the stakes for the creative element fairly low by making that a small piece of the total points, but I do find that getting students to think about layout and formatting also helps them to see the strengths and weaknesses in their writing.
Reverse-Engineering a World
We start the assignment, in class, following the below prompts, which I’ve adapted from a variety of sites that claim to help authors develop their own fantasy/sci-fi worlds. As stated on the University of Auntimoany website (in Conjunction with the College of Geopoesy; I highly recommend reading through the entire post; it is delightful) these are questions “which the student of the arts of the geopoet might find useful in the perfection of their invented worlds and cultures.” For this assignment, however, we use the same questions to reverse-engineer Little Badger’s world. I’ve found the prompts to be very useful in getting students to start thinking exactly what goes into the development of a complex fantasy universe while giving the the tools to see and unpack those elements.
1) Physics / nature
- Are the laws of nature / physics different to earth? How so?.
- What is nature like? What is the climate like?
- What are the seasons like?
- What are the animals like? Are they thriving or are they under threat?
- What kinds of relationships do characters have to animals/nature?
2) Geography and Natural Resources
- How are the countries laid out?
- What does Indigenous territory look like? How is it described?
- Are there borders? What do they look like?
- What are the natural resources? Are the abundant or scarce? Is pollution or climate change an issue?
- If the story is slipstream, what subtleties distinguish the narrative environment from the real world?
- What are the natural landmarks? How are they named? What are the significance of those names?
3) Death and Funerary Customs
- What is the distinction between life and death?
- What customs surround death and burial?
- Are there lands set aside for burying grounds?
- Do people visit the dead?
- Are the dead feared, revered, or ignored?
- Does magic exist? What constrains it?
- What can magic not do?
- How is magic distinguished from cultural knowledge?
- Are there any magical creatures? Describe them.
- What is the relationship between science and magic?
- To what extent is magic a learned skill or an innate talent?
- Is magic a specialist, elite skill or is it used easily by commoners?
- What is the price / cost of using magic?
- Do magicians need to meet any specific criteria? To us a certain kind of magic does one need to be from a particular family/race? Do they need to go through a ritual?
- Is magic admired / respected / feared / something else?
- What is magic generally used for? Is there anything it should not be used for?
- Are there non-human sentient species? Describe them. How are they referred to in relation to the protagonists?
- What is the relationship between the different species?
- Are certain species under threat? Why?
- Do certain species hold more power than others? Why?
- What languages to people speak?
- How is language itself talked about?
- Do most people speak more than one language?
- Are Indigenous languages represented? How?
7) Family and Kin
- Does family/kinship play a significant role in an individual’s life?
- How is family/kinship configured?
- What are the politics between families/kinship groups?
8) Gender and Sexuality
- Is sexuality an important part of identity?
- How is gender represented
- Are certain tasks/roles assigned to certain genders?
9) Storytelling and belief
- What are the founding myths/stories of the world? Where do they come from? How are they referred to in the story?
- What are the creation stories?
- What other stories play prominent roles in the mythology of the universe?
10) History and Politics
- Does the past play a significant role in the present?
- Are people strongly connected to their heritage?
- What are the major historical events?
- How is colonization and/or decolonization represented?
 For a more detailed list of questions see: The University of Auntimoany Ethnographical Questionnaire: Questions for World Builders, Conculturers, Writers, Game Makers and anyone else who travels through the realms of Faerie.