I am not a religious person, but like many a skeptical millennial, I often find myself wondering about the greater truths of existence. Typically, I would never hazard a spiritual discourse in a blog. There are many heated internet discussion boards for that purpose. However, when I sat down to contemplate this month’s topic of worldbuilding, I could not dissociate from the godliness inherent in its practice. The more I thought, the more evident it became that imagining new worlds- like prayer, meditation, and liturgy- is a deeply religious act that acknowledges a vestige of divinity in man. At risk of perjuring my own agnosticism, I humbly propound that worldbuilding actually a religious rite in humanity’s endless search for God.
So God created man in his own image; in the image if God he created him: male and female; He created them- Genesis 1:27
As a child in Sunday school, I must have heard this verse on hundreds of occasions. Back then, I would never have questioned its meaning. It meant God looked like me, with two eyes, a mouth, arms, legs, etc. But what really is god? Most world religions would agree that a god (or gods) is a creator, an author of being. So, if humans are wrought in the image of God, we are also creators. Indeed, what factor of our biology has contributed more the flourishing of humankind than our creativity? From erecting cities to harnessing the power of atoms, the ability to create has allowed human to make and remake the world in our own image.
Our capacity at molding reality through invention and innovation has made us humans an unstoppable evolutionary force. Still, the ability to alter physical reality has never been enough to satisfy our creative drive. There exists some more profound creative within us to fashion new being from whole cloth. To write a science, history, philosophy, and religion anew. Like a god, we wish to author our own universes. With no great cosmic omnipotence at our disposal, we turn to the only frontier capacious for our personal genesis- the imagination. Here, we are unfettered to write our will into existence.
Worldbuilding is a universal human impulse that metamorphoses through the stages of life. As children, we employ this capacity to transform playgrounds into pirate ships and front lawns into fairytale castles. Humans never really lose this ability, but the rigors of reality often compel us to suppress our propensity to fantasize and focus our imaginative energies elsewhere (like how meet rent or raise a child). Consequently, the instinct of original creation often falls to the custody of storytellers. Our penchant for wordbuilding is entrusted to the novelist, the filmmaker, and the artist to nurture and captivate vicariously.
In a reality where major internet search engines translate Klingon queries and “Jediism” is a census-designated faith group, it is evident that compelling worldbuilding can have a religious effect on culture. One need only examine the widespread worship of George Lucas and Stan Lee to observe the divinity imputed to talented worldbuilders. Indeed, their works have become a type of religious dogma, each laden with its own code of morality, worth, and heroism. They attract a structured congregation of followers, known as “fandoms,” that have their own sacraments, vestments, and religious services (i.e. Comic Cons). Like a religion, these fandoms are built not only on love for the creation and its creators, but also an explicit faith in its unfalsifiable superiority. Sometimes, the disagreement between these disparate fandoms can even result in holy wars (see the ongoing Star Wars vs. Star Trek conflict).
While I’m sure some erudite egghead has already argued that post-industrial humans are substituting pop culture for religion, that is not my ken. I do however believe that successful worldbuilders tap into a religious response by mimicking the alleged creative processes of god. In fact, the Abrahamic creation story provides an excellent 7-step guide to worldbuilding. For those of you who slept through Sunday school, here’s a reminder of the days of creation:
Day 1- God creates light followed by darkness
Day 2- God creates clouds and oceans
Day 3- God creates lands, plants, and trees
Day 4- God creates moon, sun, and stars
Day 5- God creates birds and fish
Day 6- God creates animals and man
Day 7- God rests
Now, here’s how that same 7-day structure applied to building a fictional world. For the sake of example, I will attempt to reconstruct the Star Wars universe with an obeisant “mea culpa” in advance to the holy George Lucas.
Day 1- George Lucas creates spacetime
Just as God defined passage of time by day and night, Lucas establishes a universe that adheres to the linear notion of time (at least until Star Wars: Rebels).
Day 2- George Lucas creates the galaxy
Lucas defines the setting of his story as “a galaxy far, far away…” (from the Milky Way, one can assume).
Day 3- George Lucas creates the laws of physics
Lucas establishes physical parameters of his universe through the creation of different planetary environments (e.g. the dessert planet of Tatooine, the forest moon of Endor).
Day 4- George Lucas creates the Force
Lucas establishes the conflict between good and evil as ultimate driver of the universe that surrounds and influences the course of existence. Just like the sun, moon, and stars, the Force is always present.
Day 5- George Lucas creates smugglers, bounty hunters, and stormtroopers
Lucas populates his universe with secondary characters that have their own implied backstories and histories that reinforce the ultimate premise of his universe
Day 6- George Lucas creates Luke Skywalker
Lucas defines his central protagonist on whom the entire universe is ultimately a referendum. The outcome of the galaxy, planets, the Force, and all secondary characters are all impacted by Luke’s moral decision.
Day 7- George Lucas rests
With LOTS of Republic Credits in the bank….
Not every person approaches worldbuilding identically. Some people work from the universe-in, others build from the protagonist out, while others may start in medias res. Still, the fundamental steps and considerations that go into begetting being appear the same for a man as they for a god. If you are still dubious, then cogitate on this dismaying parallel.
After God had creation in the can, it didn’t take long for humanity to run rampant with his work. The halcyon paradise he made was summarily perverted and corrupted by chaos. Beauty still abounded in the world, but its purity was lost forever. When George Lucas first introduced Star Wars to the world, one can only imagine the immense pride he felt in the adulation of his work. And then the dread iniquity of the Star Wars Holiday Special cast the great auteur out of cinematic Eden and into the pit of weeping, teeth-gnashing fanboys for all damned eternity!
I jest, but one cannot deny that over the years Lucas has all but forfeited creative control of his magnum opus. From decades of Expanded Universe lore to Disney’s controversial spinoff trilogy, Star Wars has certainly strayed from the creator’s initial vision. This same fate has befallen almost every great work of worldbuilding from the Garden of Eden to Harry Potter. But, despite her most fervent wishes, J.K. Rowling is ultimately powerless in the arbitration of her wayward, character-shipping audiences. In the story of God’s creation, the characters and the audience are one in the same.
Christian, atheist, or Ravenclaw, it is impossible for anyone to deny the deific nature of worldbuilding. When we reason something out of nothing, we either imitate god or we become one. Regardless of your faith, the process of creating worlds is always a search for a higher power and deeper meaning- a pursuit at the very heart of the human condition. Whether you earn your bread by the pen, the sword, or plow, you are capable of creating cosmos. Dare to explore that potential. Who knows? You may just find a fractured fragment of divine DNA glistening in your gray matter…