Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.
Hell is an urban metropolis in the middle of a sprawling agrarian underworld. You've just moved to a farm about six hours upstate from Hell.
Amanda Hamilton (she/her) is a chaos scheduler for her spouse, daughter and myriad pets. She’s also a fundraising professional, primarily focused on corporations and foundations these days. When not managing various and sundry to-do lists, she likes to read and nap and read some more.
Gailey: What is it about Hell that made you decide to move?
They always said that if you could make it in Hell, you could make it anywhere. Well, after a decade of (barely) making it, I was done. A decade of fighting for my place in a city scoured with literal dumpster fires, actual black holes to fall into, and over-run with unaltered three-headed dogs (how hard is it to spay and neuter?!), and I am burned out. Figuratively, so far, anyway.
Turning my resignation in was terrifying, but I caught Persephone on a good day and she let me go with only one caveat: that I would take over her farm six hours upstate. Yes, that upstate, the one with all the haunted trees and frequent mysterious disappearances. But better to be maybe-murdered by angry oaks that risk her wrath any further, so here we are.
Gailey: What will you grow on your farm? Will you be able to make a living that way?
The farm hasn't been cultivated in who knows how long and the soil needs turning, but honestly, it's in better shape than I would have thought, given the amount of sulfur that must get blown out this way from the city. First order of business is plant cilantro all around the borders of the field. That demonic herb is sure to keep nosy neighbors at a distance. No one wants their mouth washed out with soap. Once that noxious weed is growing, I'll start planting sulfur-friendly crops, getting garlic and onions in the ground first to pull some of the smell out and away. Scallions and shallots can be second in line behind the barrier cilantro, forming concentric circles. Rows won't do this close to Hell. No telling who or what might take advantage of a straight and narrow path towards a turned back.
After the punguents are all in and thriving, it'll finally be time for our cruciferous babies, asparagus, and broccoli, all to hide and obfuscate the true star of the show, coffee beans. The real reason the farm has to be as close as it is to Hell, for the tropical heat pushing off the city center, all to create those mythical, magical beans. Most people think coffee beans are just a rumor, but I've seen Persephone drink the rancid brown water the beans make, and I've seen how it sharpens her mind and her focus. It's otherworldly and surely dangerous in the wrong hands.
Which is why no one can ever know that's what is at the heart of this farm. Even if it means I have to make enemies of this community of outcasts and escape artists. I can't risk them finding out. Not until I have a plan to overthrow Persephone once and for all...
Brendan Williams-Childs is a fiction writer whose work concerns embodiment, isolation, and the near future. Originally from Laramie, Wyoming, he is now an MFA candidate at the University of Kansas where he works as a collections assistant at the Project on the History of Black Writing. His work has appeared on NPR, in Nat. Brut, Catapult, and in several anthologies including "Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World that Wouldn't Die" and the Lambda-nominated "Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers."
Gailey: What is it about Hell that made you decide to move?
Brendan: First, I love the phrasing of this question. The term "upstate" immediately has me thinking of Hell as a kind of New York City so, first, what's 6 hours upstate from New York? Well, by car that's Canada which means I'm probably growing eggplants or apples, something that grows all right up there. If I'm confined to public transit, Ticonderoga is about 6 hours upstate from New York, which would still have me more likely to be a fruit farmer than a traditional plowman. If that's the case, I might have done it to get back to my family's heritage as apple farmers. Although, if Hell is Hell, like we understand it traditionally, then I'm probably moving upstate to farm with my deceased ancestors as some kind of punishment. Maybe for not actually liking apples as a child.
But! Second - "upstate" in an "underground" society might refer not just to a horizontal move Northwards but a literally vertical move. Like, moving from the core to the crust, so to speak. If that's the case, well, I think I would be going to get light, or get back to light. It's not clear in this scenario if I grew up in Hell or if I moved there from somewhere else, so let's say I moved there from my almost-surface hometown. I wasn't cut out for Hell, I didn't have what it takes (namely, echolocation. It's dark down there!)
Gailey: What (if anything) will you grow on your farm?
Brendan: Well, depending on if I've moved to be closer to light, or moved to escape the hustle and bustle, I might grow the aforementioned fruit or I might grow something that thrives well in the dark. I could see myself as a contented lichen farmer with a small army of pikas for fertilizer but I don't see myself as successful. Sustenance farming is more likely. I'm sorry, I do think I'd have to end up eating at least a few of those pikas. Maybe, anyone else is moving with me, I could convince my longtime collaborator Mar to join me. Ze has kept a basil plant alive and well for months now. I would want zir expertise if I was going to be making a move into vegetables.
Gailey: Is the community you're moving to welcoming? What are the locals like?
Brendan: The community! Well, given how far outside of Hell the farm town is, I think they're probably more welcoming than not. It's not like the towns that are just a daytrip length away where the townies have to worry about the tourists. I mean, the downside of course is that there's no guaranteed cash flow come harvest time because we're not exactly going to attract a huge crowd for the Annual Low Light Crop Festival, but let's be honest, there's no guaranteed cash for those day-trip towns either because there's no guarantee with crops.
The local farmers have to know each other and be willing to help each other out, so there's a strong element of what might be called mutual aid in this community, even if it's purely driven by politeness and necessity. As to the town, there's definitely at least one good bar, one good coffee shop, and one good pawn shop, though, and what else could you want on a Saturday when you have a little bit of time off? Oh, also, the locals might be, like, frogs or salamanders or bats. Just given the underground nature of the place. (I would say they might be cockroaches, too, but that's perhaps a bit too much of Suzanne Collins' Overlander series. Which, an aside, can we talk about how The Hunger Games is a massive cultural phenomena but I have met so, so few people who read Overlander? Like, what a testament to publishing as being a "right time, right culture" kind of thing. Which isn't to say that Overlander wasn't a huge thing, but it wasn't The Hunger Games. Maybe the giant cockroaches scared people off.)
My Hell would be a barely-altered version of contemporary San Francisco, with the capitalism dialed half a notch up (just to keep it zesty). Workers who manage to accrue enough PTO will arrange to take a half day off (still available via email, of course) so they can drive upstate for Curated Enrichment Experiences and Fine Dining Encounters. My farm would be the back-end of a farm-to-table operation: we find out ahead of time what dish a diner is most looking forward to, serve it to the neighboring table, and then tell the diner that we just ran out of that dish. All that's left in the kitchen, we regret to inform them, is nutrient paste. My entire operation is subsidized by the Dark Lord himself, but really, it's a labor of love.
All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Amanda's move upstate is the start of a delicious vengeance story, fueled by caffeine and spite. Brendan's big upheaval represents a lovely tale of community care and resilience. My story would quickly spiral into a bitter, biting satire of elitism in the world of food and the monstrosity of artificially elevating the status of certain foods.
What kind of Hell would you move away from? What would you grow on your farm? Would your escape be permanent?
Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.
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In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.