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WorldBuilding: Designing the Multiverse of Speculative Fiction

Betsy James,

Cada mente es un mundo: each mind is a world. 

The worlds built by our culturally-conditioned minds differ, mostly unconsciously, from the demonstrable world of molecules. What happens when we examine the verbal/visual worlds of speculative fiction, then consciously build our own? What do we discover about nature, culture, and personal bias? 

The multiverse of speculative fiction—novel, graphic novel, screenplay, illustration, map, you name it—provides cultural thinking tools and arenas for syncretic experiment. Want to explore your understanding of this world? Build one yourself. You can’t build convincingly unless you’ve thought about the myriad ways in which a world might be put together, from geology on up: ecology, society, and ethos, all expressed, finally, in the behavior of its denizens. 

In this course you’ll read and write short speculative fiction and pertinent works of nonfiction; examine and experiment with maps and diagrams, both realistic and symbolic; explore illustrative and narrative art, including your own diagrammatic thinking. You’ll compose your own short works and critique them as cultural constructs, good writing, and interesting documents.


In addition to short fiction, graphic novels and essays, you will read and discuss a selection of such longer works of fiction and nonfiction as: 

The Secret History of Fantasy, Peter Beagle 
American Gods, Neil Gaiman 
The Beginning Place, U. K. Le Guin 
The Tricksters, Margaret Mahy 
The Moon and the Sun, Vonda McIntyre 
Among Others
, Jo Walton 
You Are Here
Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, Katharine Harman 
Cheek By Jowl, U. K. Le Guin 
Architecture Without Architects, Bernard Rudofsky 
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan 
Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin


You will touch on selected speculative fiction book/cinema/graphic novel crossovers such as McInyre’s The Moon and the Sun, Itimaera’s Whale Rider, and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, as well as a range of related graphic art. Nationally published authors of science fiction and fantasy will visit the classroom for presentation and discussion, as well as professionals in fields where speculative fiction provides outside-the-box insight.


Daily and weekly assignments require reading, writing, and experiments with graphics—no artistic skill necessary—followed by peer critique and/or guided discussion. A choice of longer projects will range from writing or writing-illustrating fiction, through graphic novels, other graphic experiments, and self-led field experience. Because its tools include peer critique and in-class discussion, this course is interactive and highly participatory; attendance is mandatory, and both absence and lateness will affect the grade.


Betsy James is the author and illustrator of seventeen books, and numerous short stories, for adults and children. Among other honors, her books have been named: New York Public Library Best Book for Teens; Voices of Youth Advocates Best Book; Junior Library Guild Selection; Canadian Children’s Book Center Best Book; International Reading Association Children’s Choice; and Tiptree Award Honor Book. She has taught and presented on fiction and speculative fiction for more than twenty years, and leads workshops nationally and in Mexico. She lives in the North Valley. (older readers) (younger readers)