Recently I came across this conversation that took place sixty years ago between C. S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss. In particular I was struck by what Lewis had to say about his novel Perelandra (aka Voyage to Venus), which is set on a Venus almost entirely covered with ocean:
‘The starting point of the second novel, Perelandra, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labors in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist. And then, of course, the story about an averted fall developed. This is because, as you know, having got your people to this exciting country, something must happen.’
Amis observes ‘that [having to make something happen] frequently taxes writers very much’. Readers want a plot – I do myself as a reader – but it isn’t necessarily what most interests the writer about their book. (The narrator of my novel Tomorrow, who wants to write a book that works without a plot, is a case in point.)
Aldiss, on the other hand, is surprised to learn that Perelandra‘s treatment of the Christian idea of the ‘fall’ was not the starting point, and was only developed in order to make the imagined world come alive.
I was surprised too. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, like his more famous children’s books about Narnia, is so very much infused with Christian themes, that one assumes that they were his original purpose in writing them. But Lewis wanted to write about a world with floating islands. The reason he came up with a story that included those themes, is that he understood the world in those terms.
2 thoughts on “What comes first?”
Haha yes. Worldbuilding is where my attention keeps going. Actually fitting a plot into that world is a great struggle.
I suppose the world itself can give you plots though. How did it come to be that way? How does it change? A world of fortified cities surrounded by zombie infested wilderness is an interesting setting -so how did it get like that from the world of today (yes, this is an actual idea I have, an epidemiological detective story about trying to understand what’s going on, mixing the AIDS and COVID pandemics in many ways)?
I find plot the hardest thing. I’d say that I most often start with a theme, rather than a world, or at least, if I start with a world, its appeal to me tends to come from its being linked in my mind with a theme I’ve been thinking about.