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How to Find Worldbuilding Inspiration in the Desert

Science fiction and fantasy books take us to all types of different worlds: forests, deserts, even the stars. Michael Johnston, author of Silence of the Soleri, joins us to talk more about the setting of his latest book and his own desert narrative.


By Michael Johnston

Let’s start with a simple proposition. The desert is another world, or maybe it’s as close to another world as we can get without, you know, actually visiting another world. If you’ve spent any time in Joshua Tree National, you know what I’m talking about. The place feels alien. So when I picture a fantasy or a science fiction world, my mind turns to the desert. For me, it’s a place that’s filled up with a sense of wonder. So let’s talk about why I love to read about the desert and why I chose to place my Amber Throne novels (Soleri and Silence of the Soleri) in the desert.

Let’s start with a little history. When we talk about desert civilizations, we’re immediately forced to consider issues of ecology. Just how did that civilization flourish in the desert? For Egypt, the answer was the Nile. Egypt was often called the breadbasket of the ancient world. Imagine that! A civilization in the desert was known as a chief supplier of grain.

It was all due to the annual flooding of the Nile. Everything depended upon the river overflowing its banks each year and enriching the soil for growing. And if the river didn’t flood, there would be trouble. Life in the desert is a high stakes game, and if something goes wrong, disaster is bound to follow. When I decided to write about an empire in the desert, I tried to capture that same sense of urgency. In Soleri, we encounter an empire dependent on a single crop, the amaranth. The plant is sort of like the Nile, it helps fertilize the land and without it there is no way to farm and no way for the empire to eat.

Survival isn’t always easy in the desert, and that’s where my favorite desert novel enters this story. Given its popularity, there probably isn’t an aspect of Dune that hasn’t been discussed, but I still think it’s worth mentioning and I’ll keep this one short. In Dune, I learned about ecology through science fiction. Honestly, after I read it, I started doing a hundred little things to save water. I was probably twelve at the time, and the novel had a huge effect on me. I found myself taking shorter showers, and turning off the faucet as often as was possible. I was struck by the shear focus on conservation in the novel, the way the stillsuit preserved every drop of water in the body, the way the water of the dead was valued.

When we write fantasy and science fiction, I believe we are fashioning metaphors. We are providing ways for readers to digest and understand their own world. For me, Dune showed me what a world without water might look like, and it made me value the water in my own world. It was the first time I really thought about the conservation. Dune trained me to think about how I used natural resources. And when it came time for me to write my own novels decades later, I came back to that same focus. In Soleri, we see what can happen to a world where the balance of resources is out of whack. For me, that’s a desert story.

And that brings me to the last thing I want to talk about: my own desert narrative. I guess it began when I was a kid. Like most people, I probably had my first encounter with the desert in a movie (Tatooine) or maybe it was a book (Arrakis or John Carter’s Mars). As a kid, I had an image of the desert, and it was mostly based fiction. It wasn’t the early 2000’s that I started actually visiting the sand, and I immediately fell in love with it. I bought a house and started living there part-time. What came next was a bit of a surprise. As I would learn, the desert is a really is a hostile place, and for me, it turned out to be particularly unfriendly. The heat and dry air made my eyes and mouth dry. I found I couldn’t read. I needed a humidifier in every room, and I seldom ventured outside in the summer.

During my first year, my health problems multiplied, and it was clear that the desert was behind most of them. I got the feeling that humans (or maybe just this one human, me) weren’t meant to live there. The desert lacks that one thing we need: water. Okay, arguably, we need air more than water and there is air in the desert, but when it’s heated to 125 degrees, it is almost unbreathable. The desert is hostile. The plants are studded in spikes, and the ones that don’t carry barbs are often poisonous. Those rolling sand dunes that I discovered in fiction were a lot less friendly than the ones I met in real life. I left the desert five years later, but I still visit during the cool, damp months. It’s pleasant in December and January. As for my interest in the desert, it’s come full cycle. The desert went from a place I’d only dreamed of to a home I was forced to leave. And now, it has a third location in my consciousness. Having completed the two Amber Throne novels, it’s a location I mostly just visit in my books. It’s safer that way.

Michael Johnston is the author of The Amber Throne saga. The most recent addition, Silence of the Soleri, is on sale now. 

Order Silence of the Soleri here:

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