I may have said it before, but I like the Lord of the Rings a lot; and of it, my favorite part overall are the Appendices.
Also, as delicious as novels of alternate history are, there’s something stronger, tastier in Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail, a textbook from an alternate history of the United States and Mexico… excuse me, from the history of the Confederation of North America and of the United States of Mexico. (Point of divergence: if the dastardly American rebellion against his most sane monarchy of George III went splat instead of hurrah.)
Every bit of fantasy, alternate history and science fiction that goes on, needs to tell of the world it goes on in; and for some reason those worlds often interest me more than the tales told in them.
It’s something of a problem that the wider reading public, and the publishing industry that serves it, does not seem to feel likewise. When I try to think of books that have worldbuilding and false history in them, without all those meddling heroes and plots and character development (or that at least zoom out enough), I don’t come up with a long list. The Lord of the Rings appendices; A Song of Ice and Fire appendices (at A Dance with Dragons length they begin to count), David Eddings’ Rivan Codex, the World of Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time and a few other fantasy-epic “compendiums”, and a wide variety of roleplaying manuals. For Want of a Nail is the only book that’s the thing in and of itself that I can recall; and that pisses me off, now and then. (Then I go surfing to some wiki or other; also, I’ve never watched a single episode of Star Trek, but Memory Alpha sure is fine reading.)
Surely there should be enough people that read streamlined factual history for fun, even without the injection of plots; surely I’m not the only fan of fantasy that’s always hoping for more background. There are fans of portraiture, and fans of landscape painting because not every landscape needs to be a backdrop to a portrait; why not likewise with books?
* * *
I just note that usually when I scribble something fantasy-related down, it’s not an engaging character or a dramatic quest — no, it’s a weird local habit or a line on dragon-related economy or a note on lineage, and if I try to expand on it I get king lists and essays on manners and warfare and bloody witcheries; but I don’t get much plot.
Maybe someday I’ll fish out my world-sketches of the place where Angala and Amida fought their terrible hundred-year war, and Tyrion Shimonda and Ablen Aotha and Tion Gomennaich raised the Southern Empire, the genius and the grunt and the adopted son made a god; where Kor’s trader ships glide through dark waters into Tivyania (all of whose three millennia of history I could recount, emperor by emperor, and disaster by doom, the immortal first emperors and the troubles caused by their children, fallen into shadows and forgotten but not dead), and through poisonous coasts, haunted by serpent shadows and bone-filled temple ruins and the Lovecraftian beginnings of a Forgotten Realms-ian world, into the central sea where the three empires of Falyon rose and fell (and now girl knights laugh at the opposing shore’s sputtering patriarchs), until Aen’s military orders, Angala’s wayward children, rose with their massed soldiers and their denial of families and their not-quite-human knights; where the Codakian Civil War continues, the magistrates of Drakkenport scheme, and the magistrates of Thonport thrive, and magic is not a convenient entropy-reversing thing but an electric socket for probing fingers of iron; where… ah, hell. You see the problem? Millennia of history, ideas and theology (and a third fact wherever two clash), and never enough time to detail it all — even those few brush strokes are just the first of what I recall off the top of my head.