Sunday, July 14, 2013

Worldbuilding on the Fly?

This blog is devoted in substantial measure to world building. The worlds it assists in building may lavish disproportionate effort on fighting space battles, but this is by no means unusual, and is arguably by popular demand.

For this world building task Rocketpunk Manifesto has implicitly advocated for an exacting - some would say anal - approach, calling for careful attention to background conditions and disciplines ranging from physics to economics.

In none of this is this blog unique, or even particularly original. There is indeed an entire cottage industry devoted to arguing for this approach, and occasionally providing some tools alleged to be helpful in the task.

Yet when it came to actual worldbuilding for a novel (and prospective series) I cheerfully ignored my own advice. I do have a map for Catherine of Lyonesse, and I have worked out (or friends and fans of the book have worked out) some genealogies and coats of arms. But I did not formulate most of my background by writing/sketching it out. The greater part of it thus remains impressionistic, often only implicit, rather than exact and formalized.

For that matter, aside from a handful of specific references there is very little obvious connection between the subject matter of this blog and the subject matter of the book.

Which raises the question of how important detailed world building actually is to SF or fantasy fiction, and what the relationship is between stories and the worlds they are set in.

Could this be a right-brain / left-brain sort of thing? (Does anyone even speak that way any more? Or has all of that gone the way of the leisure suit?) I certainly feel that creating interactions between characters calls on a quite different set of imaginative capabilities from, say, creating the technological characteristics of space warcraft.

These differences are not unrelated, perhaps, to those I have those I have suggested between AI as it was traditionally imagined and AI as it has actually developed. In a nutshell, we supposed that a computer able to play winning chess would do so in the same still-mysterious way that human chess masters win. Instead, as it turned out, plain old brute force - if you have enough of it - is quite sufficient.

And humans are capable of thinking in a brute-force way, which is why we can program computers. Yet computer programming itself remains an art, much to the frustration of management types in the industry.

In fact, Catherine of Lyonesse springs ultimately from the same geeky interests that animate this blog. Eons ago, in college, some friends and I came up with a naval-centric 'world game' based loosely on a 16th century setting. Lyonesse, a loose synologue of Tudor England, was my country in this setting.

The game itself met a common fate: It was too complex to design, much less play, and soon faded away. But in the meanwhile, by way of background flavoring, I had endowed Lyonesse with its loose counterpart to Gloriana, with a suitably period name: Catherine.

And as in actual history, once she is allowed to exist, even imaginatively, Gloriana steals the show. The idea stuck in my mind until I finally decided to try writing it, and found that I liked the results.

And for story purposes, it turned out that Catherine was very much more interesting than, say, her ships. Certainly the ships have their own interest - very much characteristic of what I have discussed in this blog. And I could have written stories about them. But Catherine stubbornly insisted on the story being about her. (Egotistical, yes, but what you expect of a royal heiress?)

So here I am.

In short, detailed world building is at least semi-independent of the stories which it allegedly is designed to support. Like building a model railroad layout, it can have satisfactions entirely independent of stories. And, on the flip side, stories do not necessarily call for that sort of background detail.

Stories - at least in SF/F and kindred genres - do call for some level of world building, or at least world-consciousness on the author's part. We wish to avoid glaring inconsistencies, or plot holes that a containership could pass through.

But the knowledge a story calls for is usually impressionistic. Whether a narrative space battle works will ultimately depend on whether it feels convincing. Technical specifics, beyond what the crews would be thinking about in action, are more likely to get you into trouble than out of it.


The image of Henry VIII's Mary Rose is from the so-called Anthony Rolls. These contained (fairly mediocre) sketches of each royal ship, along with such information as tonnage, armament, and crew. All in all a fascinating precursor to Jane's Fighting Ships, though alas only for the English navy.