A Matter of World-building

My dear friend and I both recently finished reading a book and had a very thoughtful, stirring, and often unintentionally hilarious discussion about it. To put it lightly, we were both rather disappointed with key aspects of the book, especially since it was by authors we adore, whose previous work we very much enjoyed.

One of the issues we had was with the world-building and in talking about it with my friend and later briefly with Alz (briefly because Alz hasn't read the book yet), I got to thinking about something. In a fantasy, when does a setting that is BASED ON a real culture/society/people/time period/etc. become just that culture/society/etc. but with a fancy foreign name? As in, when your story is set in what appears to be medieval Europe, what makes it in fact NOT medieval Europe? When does Victorian England cease to be Victorian England and become instead something else that only reminds you of that time and place while not actually BEING that time and place?

My friend and I knew before we read the book that the setting - an empire in a fictional world - was to be mainly based off feudal Japan. We were also given indications in the preceding book that this empire was Asian-based (names of places for the empire indicated something of an Asian mixed bag, with locales sounding Chinese and Korean), but we knew very little about it.

This book was supposed to enlighten us about a fictional empire.

This book told us we had walked straight into Japan.

At first, my friend and I were willing to sit back and adjust to the, in a sense, culture shock; maybe we just weren't expecting the empire to be quite so Japanese and hey, it's kind of cool that there's so much detailed cultural practices and stuff in here. However, we realized as we continued reading that while the cultural tidbits and what not were impressive in terms of giving you a sense of this empire and its people, it wasn't anything, well, different. We realized we were in Japan and we couldn't see what made this fictional empire NOT Japan.

Sure, once in a while, a Korean-sounding or Chinese-sounding named character would pop up among the mostly Japanese named ones, and perhaps this was supposed to make us feel like the setting wasn't just Japan but in fact a holistic Asian super-empire, but those names just felt out of place. Because other than the names, everything else about that empire was incredibly Japanese: the social customs, the food, the government, the weaponry (oh yeah, there were katana), the theater, etc. Faced with this, my friend and I were left to wonder if this empire was just based on feudal Japan or if it actually was feudal Japan.

Plus, we both were at least a little irked by the Asian super-empire itself because of what it implies about Asians by tossing the major East Asians together into one big empire, but I'm not going to get more into that since the Asian American Studies Minor in me will probably get waaaaay off topic (and of course, we're sure it was unintentional, though no less bothersome).

So we talked about how a lot of fantasies are based in recognizable Western time periods and cultures (e.g. medieval Europe). We thought maybe we were just so used to such Western settings in fantasy books that we didn't notice it. Maybe lots of fantasies, when read with a specific time and setting in mind, turn out to sound like THAT time and setting and not terribly like an original fantasy place at all. Maybe.

Really though, what often helps to make a fantasy world just "based on" a real place rather than "it IS" the real place is that fantastical element. This book sort of had it, but never expanded upon it enough to give it any weight. It was like "Oh, it's Japan...plus magic...except not because we barely ever talk about it."

So I guess, the question is still what makes a fantasy setting "based on" a real time/place and what makes a fantasy setting just a real time/place dressed up in Fantasy clothes?

Because seriously, it was straight up Japan.