The Strange Alchemy of World Building

Cover art for Double Edged

A Guest Post by Jessie Kwak

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m less than scientific when it comes to my science fiction.

In fact, the reason that I create science fictional worlds isn’t usually because I want to explore a strange alien universe or technological idea. Rather, it’s because I want to build a specific type of laboratory that I can put characters into and watch how they react.

Characters are my corked vials full of alchemical compounds, the world my precisely laid out lab conditions. For me, the fun in the writing process is pouring everything together and seeing what explodes.

In my current series, I knew I wanted to experiment with the idea of freedom. Who has it? What is it worth? What does freedom mean to individual characters, and how far are they willing to go to get it?

To play around with this idea, I needed a world with a variety of interesting constraints for my characters to bump up against.

An easy life, or the ability to make your own rules?

I’ve always loved Westerns, and as I began to put together my universe, I knew I wanted it to have that Wild West vibe of civilization vs the frontier.

The civilized part of the system is the planet that was first colonized, Indira. There, life is easy and water-rich and—of course—such freedom to live a good life comes with certain societal expectations and oversight.

Some people are little bit too ornery for polite society, though. Maybe they decided they’d rather take a risk on the harsh desert planet, New Sarjun, because there were fortunes to be made mining minerals. Maybe they were escaping conscription into “polite” society’s never-ending wars. Maybe they were running from the long arm of the law.

Whatever the reason, they gave up an easy life for one where no one’s looking over their shoulders.

(Although, this kind of freedom still comes with its own rules—and its own cost.)

These two planets aren’t just peaceful opposites, of course. Their way of life is also in conflict. Ever seeking order, the more law-abiding planet, Indira, is constantly trying to get to the rest of the Durga System to join with them in an alliance.

The result would be peace—another type of freedom. One which comes with plenty of strings attached.

A good job, or freedom to live?

Another condition I built into the world has to do with education. I wanted to play with the idea of what it really costs to get an education.

What if, instead of each individual taking out a loan to get a college degree that may or may not land them a job, corporations funded education for the jobs they needed?

That would solve our current problem in the U.S. of a surplus of students graduating with degrees and debts while employees still can’t fill certain jobs. In this system, graduates would know that they’ll take on a certain level of debt to their employer—but it comes with a guaranteed indenture to a stable job.

It seems like a rational solution. But if reading about it made your skin crawl—yeah. Me too.

Because in reality, there are still only a certain number of jobs, and no matter how smart some kid in the slums is, they’re more likely to end up indentured to a mining corporation out in the sticks rather than landing C-suite job at a pharmaceutical company.

Alternately, if your family has money and can pay for your schooling outright? The world is your oyster.

Or, you could do what most of my protagonists have done and turn instead to a life of crime.

Who can afford freedom?

Layering the idea of an indenture system for employment over this dichotomy of a society—free-spirited versus rulebound—gave me another layer to play with. But there’s another layer that affects them both.

Who can afford to be free?

I wanted to build a world where the usual things people get discriminated against for don’t matter: disability, gender, ethnicity, sexuality. I’ve always subscribe to the idea of “write the world you want to live in,” which is why in the Durga System, you can attain an equal level of respect whether you are a bisexual black man, a deaf woman, an Asian grandmother, or an amputee.

(I like to joke that in my world anyone can be a space gangster.)

I didn’t want those things to be variables in my exploration of what it means to be free. Instead, I wanted to play with the idea of wealth and social status. Who has money, how do they get it, how does it buy them freedom?

And if it buys them freedom, will it also buy them respect from people who feel like they came from a better background?

If you grew up in an orphanage and on the streets, or in the slums of the capital city, or out in the asteroid belt with family of space pirates, will you ever have enough money to earn respect from people who were born to wealth?

Pour it together and watch it explode

That sketches out the limits of my laboratory, the constraints of the world designed to force my characters to continually grapple with what freedom means and what they’re willing to pay to get it.

For my protagonist, Willem Jaantzen, fleeing the orphanage rather than taking on an indenture bought him freedom to make his own choices—but the price was life on the streets. And now that he’s built his own successful business empire, will it buy him the freedom of other business owners’ respect?

Meanwhile, his lieutenant, Manu, grapples with the freedom—and the cage—that comes with his work while Manu’s partner, Oriol, learns exactly at what price his own yearning to be free and travel has come. And Jaantzen’s goddaughter, Starla, grapples with the limits her devotion to family places on her personal life.

And around them all, greater political and social forces rub together like thunder clouds—and trouble is definitely right around the corner.

Let’s see what sparks fly, shall we?

About Double Edged

The Bulari Saga, Book 1

Thala Coeur—Blackheart—is dead.

Willem Jaantzen has been waiting to hear those words for almost twenty years. But he was also hoping they’d hold more satisfaction. Because it turns out his arch enemy has died as she lived—sowing chaos and destruction—and when a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep, he realizes she’s sent him one last puzzle from beyond the grave.

As Jaantzen and his crew are plunged back into a game he thought they’d left far behind, one thing becomes painfully clear: Solving Coeur’s puzzle could be key to preventing the city from crumbling back into another civil war—or it could be the thing that destroys them all.

Because this secret isn’t just worth killing for. It’s worth coming back from the dead for.

The Bulari Saga series is part of Jessie Kwak’s Durga System universe, a fast-paced series of gangster sci-fi stories set in a far-future world where humans may have left their home planet to populate the stars, but they haven’t managed to leave behind their vices. And that’s very good for business.

Find more here!

About Jessie Kwak

Jessie Kwak is a freelance writer and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. She writes character-driven sci-fi and fantasy with a liberal dose of explosions, gunfights, gangsters, and dinner parties. She is the author of supernatural Shifting Borders, the Durga System series of gangster sci-fi stories, and productivity guide From Chaos to Creativity. You can learn more about her at www.jessiekwak.com, or follow her on Twitter (@jkwak).

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