Imagining Place: Worldbuilding As

If you’d told me exactly one year ago that I would be sitting in a house in Seattle, WA with my guide dog in his bed, planning to see my gentleman caller for a dram of scotch in the evening…I would have laughed. That would have felt impossible. After all, I was married. I owned a house in New Jersey.

If you’d told me we’d be in the middle of a pandemic, I would have scowled, but believed you. After all, the world has been waiting for one.

When you explained that I was divorced, that I had moved across the country by myself, that I had rented a house and created space for myself. That it would be so worth it…I would have needed you to show me how we got there.

Sometimes we can’t imagine the future that is best for us, because it feels too far out of reach. Because the path is beyond our imagining.

That’s a little how I feel about writing genre fiction right now: I can’t imagine the stories I want to write, because I don’t know how they come out of the horrible reality that is. I don’t know how to build new worlds out of the ashes of the one that we are rapidly losing.

How do we imagine new worlds—better ones—when the building blocks that we’ve been given tell us things are going to suck for a while?

I started this year planning to finish a cyberpunk project of mine—a novella with five disabled cyberpunk characters, fighting to keep disability in their world.

Now I’m not sure how their world comes to be. I can still see it, but the worldbuilding has to shift, the story has to change, because of a global pandemic I didn’t see coming. I wasn’t surprised by it, but I didn’t think it would be like this. I should have, maybe.

But it is possible to create hope and to create better things when the world is at its worst for you. Here’s how we start: We stop asking when things go back to normal. We start to imagine how things could begin to feel normal once again, but with adjustments for this new world of ours.

I’ll give you an example—it’s small, but it helped me.

I invested in masks that would coordinate with my favorite clothes. One is white with blue flowers, another is teal. They go with the clothes that make me feel like myself again.

In a present where we all must wear masks all of the time…that’s a small slice of normalcy. My cloth masks match my clothes. Especially since no one can possibly see my lipstick (that’s one of those side effects I didn’t expect, lipstick stops being useful unless I’m inside my house.)

We can’t predict what the world will be like in a year, but we never really could. That’s the thing I learned this last year: predicting the future is a fool’s errand. We can only build things with intention, try our best, and recoup when things get bad.

We can choose to wear masks, to protect the people around us. We can choose to dismantle white supremacy in our communities. Our leaders can choose people over profits.

We worldbuild with every choice that we make, with every decision, with every action. We worldbuild as a community.

And as for the fiction? We can do that too.

We can tell stories that give us hope again—we can dream of cures, of new social spheres.

I walked out of New Jersey and spent half a year rebuilding myself. I didn’t know this was the life I would have, or the result of choices I made a year ago, but I knew that if I kept going I would find out. I had to worldbuild my reality, making choices based on what I wanted, but there was nothing to guarantee I’d succeed in creating that reality.

But here I am. The rain is falling on my front walk, the scotch was delicious, and the world I’m building—even amid this crisis—is so much better than I could have imagined.

Imagine the places you want to be. Imagine the worlds you want to hold out hope for. Imagining place is an act of hope and an act of living.


Elsa Sjunneson

Elsa Sjunneson is a Deafblind author and editor living in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and nonfiction writing has been praised as “eloquence and activism in lockstep” and has been published in dozens of venues around the world. She has been a Hugo Award finalist seven times, and has won Hugo, Aurora, and BFA awards for her editorial work. When she isn’t writing, Sjunneson works to dismantle structural ableism and rebuild community support for disabled people everywhere. Her work includes her debut memoir Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, her Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla novel Sword of the White Horse, and her episode for Radiolab “The Helen Keller Exorcism.”

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