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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-05-20 05:56
Subject: [process] Some notes on worldbuilding
Security: Public
Tags:books, mainspring, process, writing
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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Rafe: Get Off My Lawn!
User: etcet
Date: 2010-05-20 13:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Get Off My Lawn!
I have to say that the most annoying monoculture I've stumbled through is that of the pig people* in OSC's post-Ender stories following that half of the original book's cast.

The insect culture, by contrast, passes the sniff test for a plausible monoculture, since there is a single sentience guiding the billions of individuals that comprise it.

* I refuse to use the book's term for them, because I will not be soon forgiving the author for turning into a socio-political butthead, nor for my reaction to those books being dreaming in Portuguese for two weeks, when I don't speak the damn language.
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it's a great life, if you don't weaken
User: matociquala
Date: 2010-05-20 14:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
this. yes.
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Elizabeth Coleman
User: criada
Date: 2010-05-20 14:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yeah, I walk the hellish line of accurate worldbuilding and suspension of disbelief too often, myself. It's why a lot of urban fantasy bugs the heck out of me, even though the concept is something I love. It's why my own urban fantasy novel keeps stalling. (I'm all, "Aghh! I'm getting the worldbuilding wrong!! Everyone's going to notice!!! No. No, they're not.)

TV Tropes calls it Fridge Logic, and apparently it's why you should never talk to Harlan Ellison about jelly beans.
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Ulrika
User: akirlu
Date: 2010-05-20 16:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
World building is something that I often argue with in my head when I read speculative fiction whether fantasy or SF, and is something that I think very few writers ever get dead on. If you think about it, it's an impossible task, or nearly so. Every reader brings their own background knowledge to the reading and some readers will inevitably know more than the author about some aspect of practical life or historical fact, whether it's the importance of coal extracts to Victorian society, or the history of Portland cement, or the crucial influence of the fall of Valencia on the development of Gothic architecture. Therefore some readers will find some aspects of the built world implausible, different aspects for different readers, if they stop to think about it. The writer's job is to make the characters engaging enough, the story compelling enough, the pace impetuous enough, that the reader is too absorbed to stop and quibble. An engrossed reader will forgive a lot of worldbuild fail. A bored reader will forgive very little. So there's a balance between world building and plain old storytelling -- the weaker one is, the stronger the other had better be.
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Amanda
User: cissa
Date: 2010-05-24 04:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
An excellent point.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-05-20 16:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Are you channelling me? Your comments on the Temeraire books are exactly the objection I had to a book the came out to great critical acclaim here last year. I was the only reviewer that I know of who did not rave, because the world building had a big problem in it.
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Ulrika
User: akirlu
Date: 2010-05-20 16:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I wouldn't think effects on the local dairy economy are the big puzzle piece to worry about with the butter tower, by the bye. Butter wouldn't be a major commodity in a village where most people get their dairy products from their own cows and even if it were, the butter wouldn't stay eddible long enough to constitute a long term impact. The danger posed by the immediate collapse of the butter under its own weight, and the horrific stench of that much rancid butter once it gose bad, those I would grant you.
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kellymccullough
User: kellymccullough
Date: 2010-05-20 17:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not sure that with big picture changes, dragons existing from prehistory, random magic that's been around for centuries, etc, that it's even possible to work out the details beyond making a bunch of wild-ass-guesses. Between what chaos theory tells us about even small changes to complex systems, the laws of unintended and unforeseen consequences, and the sheer size of the problem of building a whole world* the conceit that you could realistically project forward from your original departure point is as much fantasy as any magic.

I suspect that in most cases the best you can do is figure out what story you want to tell, or follow what details you're interested in (depending on whether you're a plotter or a pantser) and spot-patch and hand-wave the rest. If the story is compelling to a reader they'll forgive you the implausibilities. If not, no amount of careful thinking out of the broader economic impacts of the introduction of magic on the cost of true color dyes is going to do you a lick of good.

*Honestly, the amount of detail needed just to look realistically at the impacts of a relatively minor world change on say 100 years in the life of a small town is almost too complex to imagine. Tiny factors cascade pretty quickly when you look at things at the level of the likelihood of any given sperm/egg combination producing a given individual.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2010-05-20 17:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
What you said. Not only would the extrapolation of an old change involve a lot of wild-ass guesses, it would rapidly turn into something that bears so little resemblance to real history anyway, you might as well have just written a secondary world instead.

Like akirlu above, I'm absolutely willing to forgive worldbuilding in the other direction -- "I want to mash together Anne McCaffrey and Patrick O'Brian; okay, work out how that world would function; okay, now work out some history for it" -- if the result is sufficiently engaging on points of character and plot. And frankly, I would generally choose Novik (or other examples along those lines) over an author who spent all their time on rigorous worldbuilding, to the point where that thought experiment ends up trumping the story. Then again, I also prefer SF that tells me a ripping good story to SF that's anxious to prove it's worked through the math of its FTL.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Rafe: clank
User: etcet
Date: 2010-05-21 17:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:clank
If your road trips involve FTL travel, I would like to know the make and model of your vehicle, so that I may procure one.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2010-05-20 17:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
Commented on the worldbuilding thing elsewhere, so this one's for the monoculture part of the post, to which I can only say: word. My Nine Lands setting (which I really need to get back to working in) was a reaction to one of the fantasy manifestations of this, which is where there's an enormous continent it takes months to ride across, yet somehow everybody speaks the same language. And usually the other cultural differences are cosmetic as well -- or else they're a jigsaw puzzle of multiple monocultures, with absolutely no transitional zones between them where cultural borrowing happens.
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Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2010-05-20 18:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's the problem with magic in some fiction. Few writers tend to work out the long term effects. However, as your example provides, readers often don't care and lap it up, so what can you do?

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A large duck: books
User: burger_eater
Date: 2010-05-20 19:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:books
Sorry, but I find the question of "How does all that butter affect the local economy?" utterly uninteresting. Why does it matter where it goes? Why does it have to be addressed in the story? Can't we just assume that it had an effect and leave it alone?

If I wrote a story about taking the bus to work today, you be bored if I included bus schedules, county biofuel proposals, and the process of molding plastic seats... Actually, maybe you wouldn't. Maybe you'd rather read an article about public transportation.

But if I'm writing a story, it's a story about characters, not about a setting. If there's a throwaway line about some supernatural element, can't a reader just assume that it's dealt with, or does it all have to be neatly explained?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-05-20 19:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't need the butter question answered inside the story, anymore than I need the bus schedules detailed inside the story. But I need the world to make sense. A world that looks just like ours, where buses run on time makes sense. A world that looks just like ours, where tons of butter magically appear to no visible consequence but a few laughs, doesn't make sense.

If there's a throwaway line about some supernatural element Depend on the throwaway line. Lots of magical elements are not profoundly world-changing. "And then his hair turned purple for month, and sparkled in the wind!" for example. Large scale transmutation on a random basis is profoundly worldchanging. I'm the kind of reader that wants the world change acknowledge or accounted for, ideally in the subtleties of setting or character.

As always, your mileage may vary.
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User: dsgood
Date: 2010-05-20 19:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What bothers me: organizations which run exactly as they're supposed to. Why do engineers write sf with governments which operate exactly according to specifications and with no friction?

That kind of person wouldn't say that. Non-Americans getting US English wrong (and this sometimes includes Canadians.) Americans getting the speech of other kinds of Americans wrong. Wrong professional jargon. Wrong political jargon.

And: In Connie Willis's "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know," there's snow in every city in the world. An expert on weather/climate hears that there's snow in Honolulu and says that it never snows in Hawaii. It does, fairly regularly. Only at very high altitudes, but an expert wouldn't say that.

Fantasy in which it's obvious the writer doesn't realize there's a difference between feudalism and absolute monarchy.
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Max Kaehn: H1D20
User: slothman
Date: 2010-05-20 20:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:H1D20
I got into the habit of looking for tight internal consistency as a game master— if I don’t patch the holes, the players will certainly exploit them! It can be trouble when dealing with a universe written by others— I wound up coming up with a huge amount of material for Shadowrun, enough that half the adventures I created were just built to highlight the patches.
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blitheringpooks
User: blitheringpooks
Date: 2010-05-20 22:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
All I can say is that my worldbuilding for a magical Regency ended up taking me four centuries backward, trying to figure out how we got to a certain place, then 2,000 years backward, and even forward as I tried to figure out what would eventually result. I am not an organized, detail person and so this level of research has been weighty and I don't even pretend people will ever read my books and say, "Wow, those are really well researched." Mainly because most of it will never show up on the page, because I find it boring.

But I had to see it in my own head first. I had to have history that made sense in my own feeble mind.

So, yeah, what you said.

BTW, in full disclosure, I found Temeraire to be quite charming in a boy and his dog sort of way, though I have never read the sequels. Why do you name Novik but not the author with the tower of butter? Just curious...

Edited at 2010-05-20 10:16 pm (UTC)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-05-20 22:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Because I don't know if the tower of butter story ever got published. Plus I was careful to praise the Novik books (in all sincerity;I've read and enjoyed them all), so at least by intention my mention of her was balanced. I didn't really have the same balance to offer on the tower of butter story, and was concerned that I'd just come off snarky.
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blitheringpooks
User: blitheringpooks
Date: 2010-05-20 22:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That makes sense.

I listened to Temeraire on audio. It's part of what I've been doing to try and capture "voice," listen to a lot of period Regency. I was frustrated that to continue the series I'd have to use 2 credits per book, and never did listen to more, but have always intended to eventually. Or read, of course. As I said, I thought it charming and only my own miserliness kept me from going forward with it.
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Amanda
User: cissa
Date: 2010-05-24 04:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As a reader, I would tend to appreciate that level of thoroughness in world-building.
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Amanda
User: cissa
Date: 2010-05-24 04:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
To my mind, Jane Austen with Zombies worked exceedingly badly as alternative-world fiction.

I do like the "Mainspring" universe and find it fascinating- that's why I've read the books. I think you did a good an interesting job of thinking through what this would MEAN- and I love that.

And that is my problem with the Novik novels; the dragons change things a lot, but they're not changing things in the novels enough. Dragon suffrage, for example, is something that thus far has been touched on but not pursued, and it would make these insanely more interesting for me.

ETA: About the JA+Z: the world stopped making sense in them. There is no possible way- absent serious authorial explanation which did not exist- that JA's propriety and the zombie-killing worked together. It COULD have, I think. but the author preferred making "balls" jokes.

Also: in P&P Mr. Bennett was a neglectful father; in P&P&Z" he was both a neglectful father AND a father who was intimately involved with his daughters' martial-arts training. Both cannot co-exist.

/end ETA: And, yeah, the butter- where did it go? That much butter would be a sort of toxic waste if it were not dealt with in some way, just like an oil spill....

Edited at 2010-05-24 04:41 am (UTC)
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