The Johnny Graphic series of ghost adventures belongs to a genre of fantasy/science fiction called “Alternative History.” And in order to tell these stories, I needed to create a world of 1935 somewhat like our own world in 1935, but different in important ways—most notably the scientific, factual existence of ghosts and zombies. It isn’t world-building from scratch, but it is world-building nonetheless. It’s this fictional framework that makes the story credible and real-seeming.
Recently, the first Johnny book, Johnny Graphic and the Etheric Bomb, received a very thoughtful and positive review on Amazon—the kind of review that warms the cockles of an author’s heart. But it’s the part of the review that compares my “Eight Laws of Etheristics” to Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” that makes me proudest. You can read the complete review here.
The review and the notion of world-building got me thinking about the great world-builders of science fiction and fantasy, from Edgar Rice Burroughs and J. R. R. Tolkien to J. K. Rowling and Paolo Bacigalupi and Neal Stephenson. Most especially, it reminded me of the afternoon I spent with one of the greatest world-builders—Frank Herbert, the creator of Dune.
During my interview with him, Herbert told me he had wanted to write a novel on the desire in Western societies for messiahs—someone on a white horse who comes to fix the sorry mess we’re in. He spent two or three years researching the topic.
Then he wrote a magazine story on how the USDA was controlling sand dunes in Oregon. And he had a eureka moment.
He realized that a world of dunes and its harsh environment would be the perfect place for a messiah to rise and surge out among the vast entirety of human civilization. Thus, Herbert’s amazing world-building.
Messiah + dunes = an incredible, alien future for humanity.
Herbert and I had lunch together that day, did the interview in his hotel room, then went for a long walk in the late-winter rain. In addition to being a great world-builder, he was just a really nice guy. He wasn’t around long enough. But his world of dunes and messiahs and giant sand worms is as close to immortal as any science fiction can be.
You can find my interview with him in my Kindle e-book, Four Science Fiction Masters. For the Epub version, click here. The book also contains my interviews with Fred Pohl, Cliff Simak, and Gordon Dickson.