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Writing a Split World: 99 Problems and a Unified Theory of Everything Ain’t One

Writing a Split World: 99 Problems and a Unified Theory of Everything Ain’t One

I like writing weird, complicated stories. I like reading them too. It’s ultimately why I’m into the SF/F genre. I totally understand that other people enjoy a good romance, in which the big question is ‘will they, won’t they?’, or that some folks just love diving into a historical period in as much depth and detail as possible. But for me, make it weird and make it a head-scratcher. There are so many ways to get this kind of story fix, of course, and so many books I’d recommend if you’re anything like me when it comes to reading: Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy, Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Broken Earth’ trilogy – to just name a few.

These last few years, there’s one specific mind-bending SF/F premise that’s been my focus: the ‘split world’. This term can mean a lot of things to a lot of different stories. Sometimes it’s parallel versions of the same city, such as London in V.E. Schwab’s ‘Shades of Magic’ series or Tom Pollock’s The Glass Republic. Other examples show secret versions of our world that are more fantastical, such as Mundanus/Nether in Emma Newman’s aptly named ‘The Split Worlds’ books. Others still lean closer to a version of the multiverse theory, or an alternate history approach, or chose to have a less obvious split.

Perhaps my favourite split world is in China Miéville’s The City & the City, and arguably it’s not even a split world at all; two city-states, called of Besźel and Ul Qoma, inhabit much of the same physical space. But it is up to the people living there to perceive only the city in which they live, and ‘unsee’ the other. Just think about that for a moment. It’s up to the people to make this split happen, to make it workable – not some arcane portal or piece of tech. It’s a premise that really got my brain buzzing with questions and ideas. Many of these were practical, logistical questions as much as they were imaginative ones. Miéville doesn’t answer all of my questions about of Besźel and Ul Qoma in the book – how could he? The novel still has to move me through a plot, get me invested in characters, and all the other things we expect from fiction. Miéville didn’t write an encyclopedia of this split world, he wrote a detective story in it (though fantasy is a genre that lends itself to such companion texts so who knows, one day an encyclopedia might happen).

So, back in 2016 this was the space I stepped into when I started writing my own split world novel, Equinox. I wanted to explore a number of linked ideas: the fact that people can be in two minds about something; that we can, in a sense, be at war with ourselves; and that parts of us can be so strong while other parts so vulnerable. And as is the classic way with SF/F, I did this by pushing these concepts to an extreme: in Equinox every physical body has two people living in it, one during the day and one during the night. A night-sibling, day-sibling sort of deal. Each personality has the room to be completely different. They can do different jobs, love different people, enjoy separate hobbies, etc, because they live at different times. I say can, because they’re not forced to be different. For example, one of my characters is a priest on both sides of the sunrise. After all, sometimes we as individuals do feel sure about what we want and what we believe.

Now, maybe you followed that explanation of the concept with no problems, or maybe you have a ton of questions already. I’ll be honest, even trying to articulate it like this presents a kind of challenge – even after years with the project. It is, as is my wont, a head-scratcher. Because the more you start to wonder about this kind of split world, the more questions present themselves.

Let’s take love (a complicated enough emotion at the best of times) in the world of Equinox. Let’s say Character A and Character B fall in love during the daytime. But the same relationship doesn’t strike up at night. It could be that Character A’s night-sibling, let’s label them Character AN for ease, doesn’t fancy Character BN. Or, adding in a common complication, what if Character AN is already in a relationship – perhaps even married? That means when Character A wakes up in the morning, when it’s their turn to live in this body, they probably won’t wake up next to the person they love – because Character AN wanted to fall asleep next to their spouse. And then Character AN faces the same thing when they ‘wake up’ for the night. This could be a source of conflict between these two day/night siblings, or between them and their respective partners.

Things really start to get complicated when children are added to the mix. Characters A and B want to start a family. They don’t technically need the blessing of their night-siblings to do so, but not having it could cause all kinds of problems. Character A is planning on carrying a pregnancy to term. Which means Character AN will have to carry the child for nine months of nights too. And labour could start at any time, day or night, and last who knows how long.

That’s just the pregnancy, let alone the actual parenting.

These are the kinds of puzzles I found myself turning over when planning and writing this book. Some were directly relevant to the plot, others just incidental leaps of logic. I resolve, or provide answers for, a number of these puzzles. But many more questions don’t get answered – like Miéville, I wrote a story, not an encyclopedia. That doesn’t make those questions irrelevant or erroneous – quite the opposite – they’re part of the joy of creating a speculative world. One early beta reader asked me, ‘How does inheritance work?’ I had to admit to them I had no idea: it hadn’t come up in the story or my planning.

I’ve become pretty good at admitting to people that I don’t know how everything in my world works; I don’t have a Unified Theory of Everything. They often seem disappointed, but then I remind them I don’t know how everything in the real world works – and I don’t have to come up with that myself, it’s already here. But then we get to share in that joyful moment of imagination, as we both try to think through whatever their question was and consider all the implications. It’s not a game every reader enjoys, and that’s fine, but it’s the kind of thing that energises me as a writer.

Writing Equinox gave me a lot more than ninety-nine problems to work through, but being dull certainly wasn’t one.

Equinox by David Towsey was published by Head of Zeus on 12 May 2022

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