8 min read

Building Beyond: The End

Looking back at a year of worldbuilding

A couple of weeks into 2021, I launched a series called Building Beyond.

I’ve always been a bit intimidated by worldbuilding — my interests tend to lie in character and story, so I dwell on those things more. But this year I set out to draft a new writing project that requires more intricate worldbuilding than I’ve ever deployed before, and I had no choice but to dive deep into the process.

As I worked, I realized that worldbuilding is simply human nature. The more I thought about it — the more I paid attention — the more I saw that we build worlds together all the time. I also started to see the way worldbuilding and activism connect; imagination is crucial to the process of trying to change the world we inhabit.

So I put a new series together. I mentioned in a few places that I was looking for folks to chat with about worldbuilding. The volume of responses totally overwhelmed me — for the majority of the year, Building Beyond contributors were pulled from that list of intrepid volunteers. I also reached out to a few people to finish filling up the roster; I can’t adequately express my gratitude to both the volunteers and to the people who said ‘yes, I’ll be part of this weird little project of yours’.

This undertaking was, as it turned out, gargantuan. Running the series involved coming up with an original, flexible worldbuilding prompt, tailored to two contributors who were often from different fields, and coordinating communications with both of them — almost every single week! I often found myself staring at my computer and asking myself what on earth I’d been thinking, taking this on.

But then I’d get an email with a response that was absolutely dazzling, or a friend would share their kids’ response to the prompt from dinner-table conversation time, or someone would drop me a note saying that the week’s prompt had reinvigorated their passion for a languishing project, and I’d think: worth it.

Looking back at the eighty-eight responses to prompts that came in throughout 2021, I am overwhelmed by the fact that all of them — all of them! — were wonderful, unique, and evocative. Statistically there really should have been a dud in there somewhere! But no: every single person who I had the opportunity to chat with over the course of the year created something stunning in response to just a few simple questions about a potential world. I can’t believe I got to elicit so much brilliance from so many people.

If I could do it again, there are things I’d do differently. When I set out to make Building Beyond happen, I didn’t think of myself as an editor — largely because, well, I’ve never been an editor, and it didn’t occur to me that I could trip and fall into the role. It wasn’t until halfway through the year that I realized I’d put myself in that position. If I’d approached the project a little more thoughtfully and responsibly, I would have requested demographic information from respondents, to make sure the people I was featuring included balanced representation across several different axes. As-is, I pretty much just worked with whoever said they were interested, which simply isn’t an acceptable way to balance things.

I’d also, in hindsight, be less shy about asking colleagues if they’d be interested in participating. It’s easy for me to forget that an invitation is rarely an imposition, and I spent far too much time fretting and hemming about whether so-and-so would be irritated at me for making demands on their time and attention. The fact is, chatting about worldbuilding with other people is fun, and in my now-extensive experience, most folks like doing it. Maybe I’ll be a little more courageous in the future, with this project to look back on.

Below, you’ll find links to every installment of Building Beyond. The prompts are there, and just like I’ve said every week, they’re yours to do with as you please. Use them as story seeds if you want, or throw them at friends over drinks to see what their imaginations produce in response. Think about them when you can’t sleep or when you’re on a long drive. Read them and then forget about them! This world is yours to build as you see fit, and you decide how you inhabit it.

Thank you so, so much to every single person who participated in this series. Thank you to everyone who read it and shared it. Thank you to my intrepid assistant Jen, who helped me organize myself when I was overwhelmed by the project, and who stepped in to handle some communications when I couldn’t.

Thank you, reader. If you’re here, then you’re part of this project. It couldn’t have happened without you.

Now,  let’s see what we built together.

The Embezzler – Christina McClendon and Ryan Boyd
You’re walking through a fantastical forest full of Weird Stuff. You come across a nonhuman creature called an embezzler. Tell us about it.

Robot Dating - Brian J. White and Suzanne Walker
You’ve matched with a giant robot on a dating app. Tell us about the restaurant you end up at?

Move MountainsKacie Winterberg and Alex Acks
How do you go about communicating with a mountain to prevent it from pursuing its ambition of becoming a volcano?

Space StrikesTessa Fisher and Shahrzad Samadzadeh
You live on a space station. It is advanced, but you live in close quarters, and everyone present has jobs that are absolutely necessary for the station to function so everyone can stay alive. You are part of a budding movement toward astronaut unionization.

Outside the BoxMarina Berlin and Asha Sanaker
You live in a fantastic world in which every person is given a box at birth. Each box is unique and fixed to that person until the moment they open it.

Tater TotsElle Tee and Sarah Loch
In this world, instead of gestating placentally, babies are grown underground like potatoes and are subject to communal harvest and care.

ArtpocalypsePaul Emily Ryan and Elisabeth Moore
The big scary apocalypse happened a generation ago. Society hasn't recovered yet; there are survivors, but not cities or towns. You and your band of survivors meet an artist.

An Ocean of ResistanceRick Innis and Shana DuBois
Every major body of water on earth recedes in unison by one meter, to reveal a carefully-laid message, written on the shore in every language there is: YOU HAVE ONE DAY TO RESPOND TO OUR DEMANDS.

The Church of the Embodied Self – Anne Hueser and Marianne Kirby
There is a totally egalitarian society that is organized around The Church Of the Embodied Self – a religion that is focused on the experience of being alive in a human body.

A Connected CityA.Z. Louise and DongWon Song
There is a city that was designed and built to prevent government officials from being able to avoid frequent contact with the people they represent.

See You In Hell – Amanda Hamilton and Brendan Williams-Childs
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.

A Birds-Eye ViewMar Statford and J.M. Coster
At 12:00pm Central European Time on Wednesday, May 12th, 2021, the Global Raptor Alliance (formerly the Hawk And Falcon Cooperative) will announce the opening of the Avian Museum of Human History. This museum will feature a bird's-eye view (literally) of human civilization.

Orca You Glad to See MeJo Ladzinski and Ryan Boyd
You are a freelance image consultant. You have been hired by orcas to help them repair their image among the seal and penguin communities.

Invasive EconomicsK. O’Keefe Thomas and Rem Wigmore
The ecosystem that is the global economy has fallen victim to an incredibly invasive species.

Written in BloodRhiannon Rasmussen and Ryan Van Loan
You live in a thriving city-state that is powered by blood magic. The magic is spread throughout the city via the distribution of zines.

The CandlemanJasmine Stairs and Leane
It is nearly your child's fifth birthday, and it is time for you to have The Candleman Talk with them. You are hoping to have this conversation without scaring them too much.

Space Mouth-ainChristine Sandquist and Martin Cahill
NASA has discovered a massive open mouth floating just beyond the edge of our solar system. It's just a mouth. And it's open.

Cold Hard GeckosJulian Stuart and Tim Minneci
Lizards are currency.

Optimus Prime TimeElizabeth Kestrel Rogers and Julian Stuart
The AI uprising has come and gone and after a brief period of discomfort, we're all mostly pretty cool with each other at this point. There's a television network that is strictly dedicated to entertainment by robots, for robots.

Liquid AssetsWen Wen Yang and Meg Elison
The Cosmic Orb has issued a new Natural Law: at random intervals for the rest of time, the wealthiest 10% of humans in the universe will spontaneously dissolve into potable water.

N*DeadTyler Hayes and Gillian Morshedi
Zombie boy band finally hits the big time!

Intergalactic BrawlAlasdair Stuart and Matt Wallace
First contact has been made! The aliens have invited us to send a representative... to an intergalactic brawl.

Billionaires in SpaceLark Morgan Lu and C.D. Goodman
They did it! All the billionaires went to space! And we immediately cut off all communications with them.

Leaf Me Alone – Stephen Rider and Amal El-Mohtar
The global forest community has decided to cut off all economic and trading ties with the outside world. From now on, forest-based resources are for the forest alone.

Lost in TranslationM Evan MacGriogair and Sara Norja
Universal translators have invented themselves and presented themselves to every sentient creature for immediate use! They work almost perfectly. Unfortunately, there's one thing they don't quite seem to be able to process: metaphors.

Worldbuilding, LiterallyBee and Shing Yin Khor
You get to build a world! Like a planet. With your hands. Congratulations, you're all-powerful!

The Ghost VoteLuke CJ Smith and Emma Mieko Candon
Ghosts get to vote.

Over the MoonPhoebe Barton and Suzanne Walker
The moon has fallen in love with a human being on Earth.

Mycorrhizal NetworkingCasey Lucas and Arkady Martine
City planners in this civilization rely on fungus to help them do their jobs.

Nepenthes ReaMarguerite Kenner and Sarah Hollowell
A pitcher plant is on trial for murder.

That’s Just Super – Sophie Lee Mae and Jaxton Kimble
Exposure to fluorescent lights gives people a 98% chance of developing a superpower under conditions of duress.

Truth SerumVicky Hsu and Hester J. Rook
The only way for a human being to achieve an inebriated state is via dishonesty: We get drunk on lies.

Fashion For EveryoneMaggie Tokuda-Hall and Max Gladstone
Every creature is sentient and wears clothes. This includes paranormal creatures.

The Rule of Threedave ring and Steve Shell
Between birth and death, every person is guaranteed to encounter three monsters.

NosFeraTuAlyshondra Meacham and Alexis Hall
Behold the rise of VampCoin, the first ever Cryptidcurrency!

Ice Ice BabyHunter Ford and Cam Collins
An Antarctic ice shelf has split open. It's free at last.

Mask On, Mask OffGreg Kasavin and Nome
Over the course of every person's life, they grow a mask.

Mirror MirrorSeanan McGuire and Emma Osborne
Every time a person looks in a mirror, something about them changes.

Political Horse RaceStephanie Wood Franklin and Sara A. Mueller
We fixed politics! A horse picks the president.

Unfathomable DepthsSuzanne Walker with Hunter Ford and Natalie Zina Walschots
A deep sea diving expedition finds a long-abandoned dome.

Vestigial NatureVanesa L. Perillo and Neil Sharpson
We figured out what the appendix does, and it's incredibly dangerous.

Mossing AroundReed Mingault and Carrie Moore
Everything was perfect on a utopian island nation... until the invasive hallucinogenic lichen arrived.

Toxicity – Viola E. Helmers and Laura Kojima
Half of all animals on earth are venomous now. The other half of all animals are toxic.

Wishing HourAmal El-Mohtar and Becky Chambers
At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, three living things (human or not) around the world will be fully granted their hearts' desires.