“Soon May the Wellerman Come”: Lived-In Worldbuilding in SFF

As I write this, I am 364 days into my family’s pandemic experience. Tomorrow marks exactly one year since I last saw my students in person, taught in a real classroom, met a friend for lunch, or shopped in a grocery store without a mask. The quarantine began with what my teaching colleagues and I thought would be an extra week of spring break, and then, we’d be back in April.

Last month, with the year-mark creeping ever closer, my daughter (who, at nine years old, has now spent just over 10% of her life in varying states of lockdown) got into sea shanties. She was about a month behind the trend, at that point, but don’t blame her. She’s not on TikTok.

We were playing a board game about stuffing fantastical rescued cats on a boat before a maniac comes to attack the cat sanctuary island (yes, that’s a real thing) and we always listen to music while gaming. “We need boat music,” my husbeast declared and so I found a Spotify playlist.

Ten thousand rotations of  “The Wellerman” and “A Drop of Nelson’s Blood”  later, Deirdre was hooked.

Put aside for a moment that neither of these songs are actually sea shanties (they’re folk songs, and “The Wellerman” in particular is a ballad) and you might find yourself focusing on the phenomenon of the “sea shanty” itself rising to unlikely prominence one long year into lockdown. And, if you suffer the same ailment as me, where nothing can be thought of for even five minutes without thinking of how it relates to storytelling, then you might reach this same conclusion:

The 2021 Rise of the Sea Shanty is pretty god-damned amazing worldbuilding.

In the world of science fiction and fantasy, we sometimes talk about constructing worlds that feel “lived-in.” “Lived-in” is the je ne sais quoi of sff, but it comes down to something like verisimilitude meets story development. If we call a world “lived-in” we might mean that the world of the story has followed a believable arc. If you put its events and peoples and technologies in context, it “adds up.” It has a history (even if we don’t see it all). And, perhaps most importantly, people in that story world behave as if they know that history, their customs, and so on, throughout the course of the story.

I’m fascinated by 2021’s obsession with the sea shanty and folk songs of labor and despair inflected with hope because it’s an example of what the people of a lived-in SFnal world might do, if they found themselves in similar circumstances.

These songs are, after all, monuments to hard, often thankless tasks performed either in isolation or with a small, staunch crew stuck in the same circumstances. There’s the question of whether the tides will ever take you home. Whether you’ll see your ma and da again. Whether the world you finally reach when the sailing is done is the one you hoped to arrive at. There’s the tedium of drinking to make the long nights end a bit sooner, the tyranny of a captain who is just as trapped as you, the fickle storms that come around when things are already bad and knock you on your ass just as you’ve picked yourself up. Everything is repetitive, numbing, endless.

Of course we got into sea shanties.

And, of course, we got most into the (not quite) shanty that went viral on TikTok, a whole worldwide crew of people editing themselves into the video, giving their voices to the layers of frustration and hope woven through all our lives. Of course we got most of all into the song that cries out for small comforts and good cheer. The Wellerman supply ship rep was the DoorDasher of his era. There’s something in a song — a whole body of songs — about repetitive labor, endless-seeming journeys, solace found in long-distant rewards and far-flung friends — that speaks to our present moment.

The fact that we found these songs all over again is an example of deeply lived-in worldbuilding. The current obsession reflects our own awareness that the world goes through cycles of crisis, and that people in crises (private and small or vast and pandemic-shaped) create things as a way to speak their truth about it. 

Does the SFnal world you’re building have evidence of how its people created art in response to things larger than themselves? Does it have a cultural legacy built up through its art? Does it have protest music? Legends of famous, tragic lovers? Work songs? Famous historical figures and their speeches? Scientists who researched the technologies that define the world? Doctors who treated its maladies? Curse words born of its slang or its bigotry? 

The reader doesn’t need to know the origin story behind all of these things (how many people knew before they Googled it what it means for “the tonguing” to be done?). Readers may not need to know anything about these histories at all. (For that matter, you probably need to know less than you fear you do, but that’s a whole other article.) But readers do need to have the distinct feeling that the story world has a history and a culture, a body of art and expression both in the present moment and for describing its past. If you can incorporate such things, you have not just a lived-in world, but a new way to deepen narrative motifs, new kinds of epigraphs to add from poets and politicians who do not exist (consider N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy for a whole host of these), and new ways to explore cycles of lived experience for the people of your story world. You can empower your characters to speak organically of their world, without pausing for exposition. 

Or, if you’re like me with the sea shanties and the cats-stuffed-into-boats game, you get to watch your nine year old expand her vocabulary in surprising ways.

Roll the old chariot along, friends.