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[process] Some notes on worldbuilding

Reading the Science in my Fiction blog lately has gotten me thinking about worldbuilding again. That’s a topic never far from my mind, and is perhaps the first aspect of fiction craft I became formally aware of, as a reader during my teen years. (I blame a combination of Robert Heinlein ret-conned future history and the release of First Edition AD&D for this.)

I might try to make this a regular series of posts on the blog, because I have a lot to say, but I don’t yet have an overarching thematic structure in which to embed my thoughts. Ie, random musing.

For today, point the first: Monocultures.

Science in my Fiction recently had a post on single-biome planets. I don’t completely agree with them, I can imagine several situations where a single human-viable biome is present on an otherwise inhospitable planet (think Larry Niven’s A Gift From Earth for one example), but the general point is very well taken. But I think the point applies just as much to monocultures as monobiomes.

It’s a trope in SF (and to a much lesser degree in fantasy) that an oppressed or defeated or otherwise marginalized culture flees to a place of new opportunity. Consider the US grade-school version of the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts as an example of this. In SF we see entire planetary civilizations dedicated to a single purpose. A good version of this in fiction is Gordon R. Dickson’s Childe cycle, with the worlds of the Exotics, the Friendlies (sic) and the Dorsai. Yet, much like the Pilgrims, historical and sociological evidence strongly suggests that monocultures do not long survive their charismatic (or traumatic) foundings. Schisms occur. Persecutions lead to diaspora, which leads to competing centers of civilization far from the original core.

In order for a monoculture to make sense in an SF novel, it would have to be fairly young, fairly small, and very tightly controlled. Which could certainly be true in the early years of a new colony. Or in a very resource-constricted environment where one entity has control of both information and critical resources. Think North Korea, for example. Or in a dying colony. But in general, with any substantial population and a decent surplus of resources, people will find things to argue about. That’s what we do.

So I find monocultures, especially allegedly long-term monocultures, dubious at best. I tend to lose story trust very quickly when presented with such, unless a valid (and interesting) rationale is presented as well. Besides which, they don’t usually work well in fiction except as allegory (Dickson’s intent, surely, in the Childe Cycle), and allegory is difficult to pull off well.

Point the second: Societal impacts of magic.

I was in a workshop years ago where a very good writer (who is now a Bigger Name than me) presented a charming short story which was, essentially, Jane Austen with magic, during which, as a complete toss-off line, someone mentioned that the South Tower of the manor had previously been turned to butter by a passing magical storm.

Everybody else in the workshop thought it was a terrific story. I got totally hung up on the butter question. Where did twenty or thirty tons of butter go afterward? What happened to the local dairy economy when the lord of the manor went to dispose of enough butter to feed half of England for months? What was the value of the labor spent to build and then rebuild the South Tower in a world where all that effort could be randomly erased at any moment? If transmutation were so random and simple, what was the value of any material good? If the gold in the vaults could suddenly become gravy, who would keep gold in vaults? Etc.

The workshop patted me on the head, told me to take a pill and lie down, and carried on. But that conversation bothers me to this day. It’s a trope in some kinds of fantasy that we see the world-as-it-is (or was) with this one magical element introduced. As a reader, I understand the appeal of that. As a writer, it makes me nuts.

Naomi Novik’s excellent and entertaining Temeraire series is a startlingly clear example of this. The books take place in the Napoleonic world, with dragons. Dragons have been around since prehistory, according to internal evidence in the text. Which leads me to think that if the Phonecians had dragons, they’d have had deepwater navigation thanks to over-the-horizon reconnaissance, and the Romans would never have risen as they did. Or if the Romans had dragons, would they have been more successful in repelling the barbarian invasions during their decline? Etc. I find it almost inconceivable that the world of Napoleonic Europe could have evolved with such an overpowering historical inflection. Had the dragons appeared just a few dozen years before the narrative present of the story, it would have all made sense. Which isn’t the point of the Temeraire, of course, but it bothered my world-building self intensely.

I can make the same criticisms of my own Mainspring series. That there should be a Victorian England as we knew it in an Earth where the equator is impassable and therefore the British East India Company is much a reduced or nonexistent beast, for example, is ludicrous. I make some efforts to explain this away in the world-building, which I hope are successful, and (like Novik) I did this for a reason, but it still doesn’t make sense. Given that the Mainspring universe is about a light-year wide, and contains one solar system driven by clockwork, it doesn’t have to make a lot of sense. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

My larger point is that when you introduce magic, any kind of magic, it’s impossible to imagine that society will simply stay the same. Randall Garrett did a good job of this in his Lord Darcy books, showing a society familiar enough to have that frisson of interest to the reader, but also quite distorted from our own in both the narrative present and the internal history by the presence of the magic. There’s a huge temptation when working at the high concept level to say, “It’s just like Little House on the Prairie, with werewolves!”, and that obviously works commercially — Jane Austen with Zombies, anyone? — but if you’re attempting or even pretending to SFnal rigor or internally consistent fantasy, work out the plausibilities first.

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