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.


Z said...

Obsessive worldbuilding is what self-described writers do instead of actually being writers- a category I am perfectly willing to lump myself into, on occasion. There's something of an essential myth when confronting the blank page that if you just execute an exacting process, the fear will vanish and be replaced by text and you never have to sit in a cold sweat wondering if you have anything worthwhile to contribute to the body of literature.

Don't misunderstand- I'm thrilled when an author has a firm grasp of place names, or an earnest consideration of the storytelling implications of technology X. It's simply that on the one hand, the world is filled with a great many accountants who can work out the logic fallout from some quirk and who couldn't write an engaging menu, and conversely, that hard thinking is inherently associative and the most interesting features of a given imagined place are unlikely to emerge until you've devoted the effort to conjuring characters and running them about the map.

Cordwainer said...

Well one of my favorite authors Larry Niven is guilty of of obsessive explanation of the worlds he builds at times, but he never let's it get in the way of a good story and his worlds are quite imaginative. On the other end of the spectrum you have writers like Cordwainer Smith who spend little time trying to make sense of the world's they create and merely gloss over these worlds many wonders in an almost fairy tale like form of exposition. In the end a good story is more about character development than setting, since it is the characters that most readers actually identify with not the science-fiction elements. That being said good science and fantasy elements do help move the story along and give flight to particular niche audience's imagination.

Plus plenty of hard science can be used to describe fantastical world building like terraformed worlds, the Smoke Ring and engineered worlds like the Ring World. Building new worlds might not be that difficult even. For instance you could scale up Bigelow's idea of inflatable habitats to build a mega-habitat with a belt of windows for growing crops. Spin the habitat for artificial gravity, attach tethers and a LH2/LOX fuel depot to make it somewhat useful to passing traffic. Solar panels, electrodynamic tethers and reverse osmosis fuel cells for electric power. Telescopes and sensors for scientific experiments. It make the perfect tourist trap for people on their way to the Moon. A space hotel would be the perfect vehicle for studying the long term effects of living in space on humans and ways to create self sufficient habitats in space.

Similarly you could create a "worldhouse habitat" through para-terraforming. Lower gravity environments and easy access to in-situ resources might allow one to fix the issues that BIosphere 2 ran into. Nuclear power plants to free up oxygen from the soil along with lighter-than-air aircraft and/or a segmented dome with inflatable joints to lift the roof to a high enough level to produce artificial clouds, some seeding of those clouds with moisture might be needed and it would probably be easier to just artificially irrigate your plants. A tall roof offers certain other advantages though; like artificial mountains, skyscrapers and tower mounted sprinkler irrigation systems. Pressurized inflatable supports along with buttressed suspension cables could reduce and distribute the roofs structural forces. Modular habitats would most likely be cheaper and easier to construct but a single mega-roof would have advantages and would illicit the "rule of cool" better.

Mukk said...

Worldbuilding is something that props a story up. If the audience feels the story has a solid world behind it it's easier to suspend disbelief and get lost in the work. It doesn't need to be very complete, just like a stage a theater is incomplete, or an old west movie set is incomplete. You need the facade. You should try to make sure people don't realize the facade has nothing behind it, and you're good to go.

I like to get the broad strokes in. I lay down the story. Then I go back and eye everything to see it fits right.

Conversely world building only comes to the audience's mind when it gets fucked up in an obvious way. Some great stupidity or ridiculousness has to occur that breaks the facade. When the story is good, the audience is willing to explain away a small mistake. Sometimes the explanations get pretty elaborate.

Cordwainer said...

Nice thing about a world roof is you could have environmental control. Maybe air travel by dirigible would be possible if not practical with a tall enough roof.

Another possibility is build a really tall tower and open the top to vacuum or near vacuum. Use the vacuum to squeeze the atmosphere into a tightly confined habitat space and scrub the atmosphere for harmful gases. A rather complicated way to make a pressurized habitat but the energy would be largely free once built and you could add a turbine to generate electricity.

Cordwainer said...

Worldbuilding doesn't need to be plausible from a scientific basis as long as the ideas and characters are engaging enough. Plenty of good science fiction is more science fantasy. Also, if you use alternate universes or virtual realities then anything can be given an air of plausibility. That being said characters and ideas need not be very original, almost all of Shakespeare's characters and stories were formulaic in some sense. People still love soap operas, spaghetti westerns, grindhouse films and comic books. What really matters is whether your formulaic plot and writing style captures the zeitgeist of your particular niche audience.

Damien Sullivan said...

There's Tolkien, who started with conlangs and created a world to justify them, and stories... but kept revising and revising his core stories such that they weren't published until after his death, and even there questions like "what did dwarves eat, and what did anyone eat before the Sun?" come to mind.

Then there's Lois Bujold, who's very good at giving the feel of a detailed semi-hard SF world, but says she mostly makes it up as needed for a particular story. I suspect Pratchett is similar.

Brett said...

I like good world-building, but it's not a make-or-break thing for me when reading a book. What ultimately pulls me in are the characters and the story, and they should always come before the world-building unless you're writing as part of a shared universe that you don't actually own (such as writing tie-in Forgotten Realms fiction).

That said, it does help when it feels like the world could "open up" behind the characters as they move through-out the story. I occasionally read some fantasy literature where the setting feels more like a back-drop than an actual place that these characters could be living in, and while they can still be very readable books, they don't stick with me as much.

Hugh said...

I wonder if the combination of television series and publishers demanding book trilogies has increased the level of world building in recent years. Tolkien seems to have been exceptional in the first half of the 20th century, and it seems pretty clear that the Star Trek original series writers didn't have a 'Series Bible' to work from.

Do longer forms demand more world building to be convincing?

Oh, and don't underestimate Terry Pratchett. His stuff may be fantasy and comedy, but he does his research. The non-fiction books about the science and folklore of Discworld show just how much weirdness from real history goes into his books. Like other great authors, he leaves the detail under the surface.

jollyreaper said...

It all comes down to the kind of story you want to tell. If it's a straightforward love story, it could be in an American office park just as easily as mysterious Arabia in the 17th century. Sometimes the setting is simply for color. Yeah, it's a revenge story, it could be told as a western or in Renaissance Venice but I'm choosing feudal Japan.

Sometimes the story is so particular that a time and place are of utmost importance. You couldn't have the story anywhere else.

Geoffrey S H said...

"Do longer forms demand more world building to be convincing?"

I don't think I've ever heard of some major sci-fi tv series ever not needing a universe bible, especially after the first few seasons. The New BSG managed with one written for the first two seasons for quite a way through season 3, but things became very strange by early season 4.

For another example, Star Wars has been around for at least 30 years now, and the sheer amount of material already there has required some reference books to be made just to guide authors and keep consistency. Sometimes world building is needed just to keep a franchise together.

On another note, sometimes world building provides the inspiration of a story. Orson Scott Card apparently had the idea of battle school, developed it, and then came up with the characters for Ender's Game.

Then again, works in more mundane settings don't always need something so substantial. A few notes on how characters are to be developed and potential episode ideas for example, if its something like Hawaii Five Oh.

jollyreaper said...

There's also the question of character arcs which can factor into the world-building.

Let's say I'm doing a romance with a love triangle between a wealthy merchant's daughter and two suitors, low-born and high-born. Let's say that I want magic involved and we're in the middle of a revolution where it can become industrialized, harnessed on a massive scale. The high-born suitor believes the wizards have held a monopoly on magic and believes he can bring it more cheaply to the masses. The low-born suitor is a traditional wizard and is impressed with the thaumaturgical advancements but considers his rival to be ignorant of the consequences.

With a story as such, I would have to determine the topics I'd like to explore. And because essays are boring, I'd have to thrust my character arcs squarely through those topics to make sure they have context and emotional weight.

If both the suitors are right in some ways and wrong in others, what's the common ground they end up on? What's the role of the merchant's daughter in all of this? Is she just a piece of meat to be fought over or will she have her own arc as someone other than the future Mrs. so-and-so?

If I didn't have anything bigger I wanted to say in the story, then it just devolves back into classic "rich kid/poor kid" dithering damsel romance and that's pretty boring.

There's a point of diminishing returns on world-building. People who aren't good at it shouldn't bother. Obligatory XKCD: number of made-up words by author vs. chance book is any good.

Geoffrey S H said...

"There's a point of diminishing returns on world-building. People who aren't good at it shouldn't bother. Obligatory XKCD: number of made-up words by author vs. chance book is any good. "

Indeed! There might be some ways to get large numbers of made-up words in, but you need a lot of prior thought to make it work:

1. If the technology is so different from previous items that describing it with a more familiar name might not make sense- for example, planes: if it doesn't have jet engines, but a more exotic form of propulsion, then don't call it a jet.

2. If you want to distinguish something from a previous era- a future combination of oceanic aircraft carrier and battleship that fires kamikaze robot planes might not be called by either name- sea dragon, battlecarrier, etc.

3. Something that is self evident as to what it is- a "war-blade" might be a sword. The reader can complain that it isn't called a sword, but they aren't entirely left in the dark either.

4. A word that tells us something about the setting/story it appears in. A post apocalyptic story might refer to a nuke silo as a "house of the great judgement of fire" or something (a reading of Riddley Walker may be a better example here).

That said, it is very notable that G R R Martin, for all his world-building, seems to keep invented (or old English) words to a minimum. A galley is a galley and a castle is a castle. Tolkien really is an exception here.

Unknown said...

World building and character building can be mutually exclusive at times, especially in the opening moments of the story. You have to introduce both new characters and the world in which they live, and in science fiction that world is sometimes dramatically different from the world of the reader.

An interesting way I've tried to do this is to build the world out of the character's own perceptions. If, for example, you're writing a story about a colonist on Ganymede you would describe it from the main character's point of view. That way you introduce the character and the setting at the same time, and most of the world building can emerge almost second-hand from the character's descriptions of them. It's something you kind of see a lot in Doctor Who, where the travelers end up thousands of years in the future and the Doctor has about fiteen seconds to describe the universe they've just emerged into, which he does, almost poetically, and it's back to the story.

The world building should also sort of reflect the character's place in it. If your character's an angsty teenager living in a frontier town, you should build an angsty teenager kind of world:

"Sentinel City covers the eastern slope of Sentinel Ridge like a bunch of mushrooms on a dead log, which is also about how the Colony Corporation treats us. Most of the inflatable habitats were setup here by people who weren't happy was wage slaves and hitchhiked to the frontier to work the platinum mines, the rest were built from old spacecraft hulls that couldn't take the pounding anymore and it was all they could do to keep them airtight. Four hundred people live huddled together in little corners of what fifty years ago were supposed to have been temporary shelters, like mice trapped in a meat freezer in a bankrupt restaurant. There are worse places in the solar system than Ganymede, but they don't send you there unless you kill someone."

Damien Sullivan said...

Tolkien is unusual in making up entire languages. He's not unusual in making up words, and GRRM certainly doesn't prove that he is.

Martin has his own coinages, for that matter: smallfolk, small council, master of coin

Made up words can be well done. _Watership Down_. _The Golden Compass_, where "experimental theology" and "anbaric energy" point at the alternate history, as well as being a fun exercise in alternate etymologies.

Anonymous said...

Geoffrey: I think there is another way to put huge numbers of made-up words into a story; a character uses made up words every second sentance so that the reader knows that it's satire; or, another character keeps observing that the first is just spouting nonsense. I know, humor in a story, what a concept...
Anyway, my opinion is that if you can engage the readers' imagination, then they can fill out the detail in your world.


Thucydides said...

Worldbuilding is a good exercise for flexing your imagination, but how much to do will depend on the story you want to tell.

A YA novel set on Ganymede and dealing with teen angst could get away with the settlement being a small town or suburb lifted from the modern world and repackaged in old spaceship shells (if you were transporting a trailer park) or nice Bigelow inflatables if this is a suburban setting.

OTOH, if the setting defines to the story, then a great deal of world building needs to be done. The Hunger Games suffers a lot from a fairly slapdash and mediocre world building; the author apparently took an idea ("children in a gladitorial contest!" and tried to transform a future America into Imperial Rome without really understanding how Imperial Rome worked. Watching it as a movie may be tolerable, the action is flowing fast enough that you don't have time to really absorb the flaws (kind of like riding over a bad piece of road fast enough that the bumps become a background blur. The movie makers did manage to steer around the biggest potholes).

Firefly also has many of the same issues.

OTOH, sometimes the story is more of an allegory than hard SF (think of Ursula LeGuin), an exercise in story telling virtuosity rather than a story itself (The Cloud Atlas), or a mapping of some region of an authors mind (Philip K Dick; Thomas Pynchon), in which case world building is very secondary or even irrelevant.

Unknown said...


My point was that world building can be done very efficiently when framed from the point of view of the main characters, as this lets you keep the story focused on the characters themselves. As you yourself mentioned Firefly, this is actually one of the reasons why the relative lack of comprehensive world building didn't subtract much from the story: almost everything we know about the Firefly universe is presented from conversations and circumstances of the main characters, sometimes in the form of narration, but mostly in the form of discussions and/or fist fights over a particular historical event or over what's going on with the government or a certain planet. We don't actually know all that much about the Firefly universe, but we know the parts that are relevant to the main characters, and at the end of the day that's all we really ought to care about.

That Ganymede scenario, as another example, could describe the exact same setting in completely different terms depending on who the main character is. A pissed-off teenager who had to live in this place because his parents moved there would naturally describe it as a kind of a shithole; a pioneer who moved to this place looking for a better life would describe in more romanticized terms and might compare it to Wild West settlements in movies, while a priest or a social worker might spend more time describing the relationships between the people who lived here and make mention of how close-knit they all are, how they all know each other, how they all have to trust each other to survive.

World building doesn't have to be just about describing the setting. You could simultaneously describe the character's relationship with that setting, which would tell you almost as much about the character as it does about the world he lives in. The best stories, after all, are about PEOPLE, not places.

Geoffrey S H said...

@ Ferrell:

"Geoffrey: I think there is another way to put huge numbers of made-up words into a story; a character uses made up words every second sentance so that the reader knows that it's satire; or, another character keeps observing that the first is just spouting nonsense. I know, humor in a story, what a concept...
Anyway, my opinion is that if you can engage the readers' imagination, then they can fill out the detail in your world."

I'd have a maximum of 7 made up words in a story, used regularly. If the novel was anything less than door-stopper length I'd have maybe 3 or 4.

Thucydides said...

While I agree with what you are saying from the story telling POV, unless you have some understanding of the world the story takes place in, you will eventually fall into a pothole of one sort or another.

Generally this manifests itself with the writer writing themselves into a corner due to logical inconsistencies and having to invoke deus ex machina or "hey look, a Unicorn" to extract themselves.

Other times, the author may not even attempt to do so, with the frustrated reader going "really?" If the Solar System is opened up with cheap fusion power and nanotechnology, why is the teenager on Ganymede living in the equivalent of a trailer park? (There could actually be a logical reason, but the author must be aware of the reason and the possible consequences to the story they want to tell).

So while world building needs not be overt or to the sort of detail Hal Clement or JRR Tolkein did in creating their worlds, the author does need to have some sort of mental image of the world in their head.

Cordwainer said...

The discussion on Tolkien brings up an interesting biological point. What did things eat before the Sun? Scientist have had to theorize a whole branch of extremophile organisms that operated on chemosynthesis versus photosynthesis back before Earth's atmosphere thinned and became oxygen-nitrogen based.

Cordwainer said...

Not to get off subject but I have rockets on the brain. I was wondering how efficient and powerful a MEM's like bipropellant microrocket system could be made. Current estimates put them at possibly topping out at around 500 newtons. If you could come up with a fuel efficient and heat efficient enough design then you might be able to get VASIMR like performance. Maybe bundling them into concentric rings around an aerospike shape might allow for better attitude control and heat efficiency. It might have some advantages. Onboard LOX oxidizer could be used to provide pressurized atmosphere for long journeys. Current designs use alcohol but one could use hydrazine or methanol instead which would make for easy storage for long term spaceflight as well as a good feedstock for fuel cells. With those weight savings along with a possible 1000:1 thrust to weight ratio might make for a much better Lunar Shuttle or Mission to Mars vehicle than a nuclear powered VASIMR.

Anonymous said...

First, I'd say that the best world building is invisible -- like Heinlein's story of spending days manually calculating the shape of an orbit for a rocket that went into one sentence of Space Cadet. Or the way you can read and enjoy Lord of the Rings without knowing anything about all the massive amount of made-up history and language that Tolkien painstakingly worked out over decades before he started writing the trilogy.

Good worldbuilding is there, underneath the surface, giving depth and texture to the story, but it never gets in the way of the story. You can feel its presence but it never calls attention to itself.

Second, I'd say that world building and storytelling draw on two very different skill sets. Worldbuilding is logical, intellectual, based on an OCD-ish attention to detail. Storytelling is intuitive, emotional, and based on an instinctive sense of what works as a satisfying narrative and what doesn't. Which is why, having spent much time figuring out all the details of ships and the world you're writing about,
you're finding yourself ignoring all that and instead going where your characters are leading you.

Anonymous said...

To clarify what I said earlier, building a frame work and allowing your reader to fill in the details through his imagination, while you concentrate on the storytelling might be the best strategy. At least, that's how I write stories. Basicaly, I think that whatever technique you feel comfortable with, should be the way you write.


Hugh said...

"World building and storytelling draw on two very different skill sets"

Babylon 5 Crusade and the new Battlestar Galactica both had scientific advisors in the credits, who seem to have regularly worked with the writers during story development.

Does this kind of thing happen with science fiction books? Should it?

Anonymous said...

I know that it's not on topic, and is an answer to a question made not in this tread but in the old thread here referenced regarding galleasses, but a small trivia is that the name galley, from wich galleas, galeon and so on come, derive from galeos, the greek word for shark.
Afterall it was an appropriate name for the first galleys, long, thin, fast predators of the sea.

Cordwainer said...

Many science fiction writers are scientists or engineers with degrees of there own.(Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clarke, Steve Barnes, Jerry Pournelle) That being said many of them do talk to other experts in various fields. Freeman Dyson and Robert Bussard have made various contributions to science fiction in the past. Larry Niven and Terry Pratchett consulted various experts in sociology/anthropology as well as environmental sciences for "RainBow Mars". Collaborations are quite common in the field, particularly when you want to check the facts of your world building to make sure it doesn't have any real major flaws.

Geoffrey S H said...

Sometimes it seems that there isn't enough history in world building. Too many WW2 ripoffs. Even a small "universe bible" could be improved with the reading of a university level text book and its broad sweep of the history of a nation. Something like the Portuguese / Dutch Seaborne Empire by C. R. Boxer would demonstrate how in only s few pages a humongous amount of scope for culture, trade and migration could be fitted in for not too much effort. It would only take a few thousand words of world building.

With luck, it could add a few lines for the actual novel that really brings the period/area to life, even if its about yet another war to save humanity from extinction by Scary Dogmatic Aliens.

Thucydides said...

Tolkein is easy: Before the Ages of the Sun there were Ages of the Lamps, Ages of the Trees and Ages of the Stars to provide illumination.

But this is best summed up by what glaurung-quena said:

[i]Good worldbuilding is there, underneath the surface, giving depth and texture to the story, but it never gets in the way of the story. You can feel its presence but it never calls attention to itself.[/i]

Thucydides said...

There is one exception to the rule that I can think of off hand:

Patrick O' Brian did incredible research and put in tons of nautical detail in his Aubrey-Maturin books. This actually fit very well and worked with the story, because the HMS Surprise and the other ships were very much characters in the books.

Geoffrey S H said...


"There is one exception to the rule that I can think of off hand:

Patrick O' Brian did incredible research and put in tons of nautical detail in his Aubrey-Maturin books. This actually fit very well and worked with the story, because the HMS Surprise and the other ships were very much characters in the books"

Indeed. Your world building centres around whatever characters there are. If a nation state or vehicle is a "character" whose rises and falls we read about eagerly, then naturally some detail about it will come up in the story.

Anonymous said...

The amount of world building you need depends on the story. In my case, I developed a sketchy background for the society and politics for my own twist on a 'space marines' story (the phrase 'space marines' will never actually appear in the text). It's a complex political background, but short on details.

Then I started writing and I noticed a big flaw in the background. What kind of tech do the heroes use? What's the actual sci in my sci-fi? I started playing around with ideas and kept coming up with things that didn't work well together. I wanted something more Niven-like and less science fantasy, but I found that was harder to do than I thought.

Then I discovered Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk Manifesto.

My basic background is still light on details, but I have a solid grasp on the sci-fi tech that is available to the characters. I should be able to avoid those 'that doesn't make sense' moments that can ruin a story.


Cordwainer said...

Recently, I was pondering whether MEM's chemical micro-rocketry technology along with lightweight chemically non-reactive materials technology might allow for quite a bit of military space opera in a near future environment. In other words it might not take gravity control and exotic reaction drives to create a "rocketpunk fantasy", maybe we just need more efficient chemical rockets.

I was also wondering if you could use a swinging pendulum to produce centrifugal forces. Even if the centripetal acceleration is fluid or not entirely constant you should still be able to produce a force at the end of the pendulum that keeps things mostly in the same plane of reference. It might be a little like the rolling deck of a ship at high sea except more constant and less rollicking. It would depend on the length and gait of your pendulum as well as the shape of your floor. Perhaps this might make for a less massive "centrifuge" and also allow one to align the pendulums force with the linear motion of the ship.

Cordwainer said...

I should probably put this in the whimsey blog but I just came up with this "on the fly" so I'll put it down here. I thought it might be interesting to write a story based on the Hakkenden with science fiction elements but less tacky than "Message from Space". Instead of the Eight Warriors being descended from a Tosa Inu you could have them descended from a dog-human hybrid and create some sort of semi-plausible reason or plot device as to why the future is similar to Medieval Japan. You could have Ninja with real "invisibility cloaks" and Samurai with near indestructible armour. That along with a bunch of other technological marvels might force people into close quarters confrontations where an individuals physical finesse or brute force are the prescribed methods for winning a fight.

Teleros said...

I'd consider world-building to be like the foundation of a house: it's important to get it done right, but if you do it right nobody will really notice it because all their attention is on the structure built on top of it (ie the actual story, with actual people etc). Without a solid foundation though, you'll have a rather wobbly structure that's prone to sliding about a bit and even collapsing.

This is true I think no matter the setting. If it's set in the real world, your world-building has to be more along the lines of research about said real world than the invention of something new. On the other hand, I'm sure all the readers here can think of both well and poorly considered sci-fi tech in various universes.

Tony said...

Cordwainer said...

"The discussion on Tolkien brings up an interesting biological point. What did things eat before the Sun? Scientist have had to theorize a whole branch of extremophile organisms that operated on chemosynthesis versus photosynthesis back before Earth's atmosphere thinned and became oxygen-nitrogen based."

While smog-world biology may be interesting as a tudy, let's not make the mistake of thinking it has anything to do with a sunless world. The sun is still there, pumping plenty of energy into the system. The energy transfer pathways are just different.

Cordwainer said...

Well smog worlds would have photochemical reactions occurring at the top of their atmospheres, but most of the energy transfer would result from convection of the infra-red spectrum and tidal forces on the crust of such planets. Problem is we still haven't quite figured out the biology behind methanogens and anaerobic bacteria or the mystery critters that they supposedly eat and that in turn eat them. We've figured out some of the reductive process of their digestion but we haven't really been able to watch their activity in their native environment in real time.

As to world building a story telling sometimes less is more. Allowing the reader to fill in the blanks and use their imagination is all right as long as you can write an engaging enough plot with engaging characters, sometimes a backdrop is all that is needed. Shakespeare and Cordwainer Smith both used almost formulaic "backdrops" drawn from history in their stories. Shakespeare used his backdrops to make his stories more relatable to a populist audience, while Smith tweaked his settings to give them an alien yet familiar feel.

Cordwainer said...

Was looking at possible non-carbon based life and the only one I could come up with that might support the development of intelligent life would be metal oxide life forms that use ammonia-water mixtures as a solvent. Ammonia as a solvent by itself might work but only in thick atmosphere or cold temperatures, which might be inimical to large complicated organisms.

Thucydides said...


You have a good starting point there; a thick atmosphere and cold temperatures might indicate an Ice Giant planet like Neptune or Uranus. We now have a shorthand for the environment and can use this for some world building (any human protagonist will probably be on one of the multitude of moons orbiting the planet).

Just those facts could provide enough worldbuilding room for lots of story ideas. How do the humans interact with the aliens? If humans are scattered across various moons, how do they interact with each other? Do the Aliens realize humans on different moons are from the same species, or interpret the different goals of the different groups as coming from entirely different types of "aliens". How do other groups in the setting's solar system react to the presence of Alien beings in the Ice Giant? Etc.

Maaybe I;ll just slip this idea into my filing system...

Cordwainer said...

Well, if the species use an ammonia-water mix as solvent then their could be a lot of interaction between species since they could essentially operate at relatively warmer temperatures than organisms that use a purely ammonia solvent system. Their could also be a great deal of biological differences in the same environment with some organisms utilizing one solvent over another or using them both for specific biological functions. You could have metal oxide based life-forms utilizing primarily ammonia but operating at high temperatures due to the dilution of water and with a highly active metabolism due to the greater presence of oxygen. On the other hand you could have carbon life that utilizes ammonia for the break down of some metal oxides for use in certain biological functions like those that normally use sulfur, while using water for other functions. For a low gravity world that is semi-tidally locked grown old and lacks the vulcanism and thick atmospher it once had such organisms might have an advantage. The planet could even be close enough to the habitable zone for the planet to have a temperature and atmospheric pressure hospitable to human life, although you wouldn't want to breathe the atmosphere.

The other thought I had was one that a friend had was a possible world without combustion of any kind. He was pissing his pants that the world was going to end cause of global warming and I tried to explain to him that it would be nigh near impossible for human civilization to exist without some sort of combustion. Yes, theoretically you could get all your power from "clean" nuclear and "green" energy and drive around in electric cars but you would still have to make things that require heat that an electric furnace can't produce. But, who knows maybe some futuristic science could replace heat-based furnaces with chemical and 3-D printing style manufacturing processes, although I doubt it. Of, course then you would have to kill all the little bugs that make methane and who knows if that would even be all that good for the environment. If you can make carbon composites and ceramic metals for cheap then maybe you can replace a lot of the metal we use. Hmm, I think I postulated on this already once about possible high technology on metal poor worlds but what would be the most effective way to do this given our current technology?

Thucydides said...

Notice how Cord's more detailed world building has changed the possible story parameters. Instead of "fishing expeditions" into the arosphere of Ice Giant moons we now have the possibility of more direct interactions. There is now a rather wierd ecosystem where both Metal Oxide and Carbon based life can interact directly, with even a possibility of interspecies conflict (Carbon based life using ammonia to metabolize metal oxides makes predator/prey or parisitic interactins possible. Since [b]we[/b] are carbon based, this might mean the metal oxide based life would look at us with some suspicion).

A world without combustion of any kind is pretty much impossible by definition. Unless all possible reactive materials are somehow sequestered from a particular solar system, no biological reacvtions are allowed and everything is held at cold (read: near absolute zero) temperatures, there will always be the possibility of exothermic oxidizing or reducing reactions.

A rogue planet in the space between galactic arms would fit the bill...

Cordwainer said...

Well, I would tend to think that in the oceans metal oxide life would have the head start so while in the oceans such life would tend to stay near the ocean bottom where metal oxides are plentiful and ammonia concentrations are higher while carbon based life would stay close to the warmer ocean surface. That being said if metal oxide critters develop land dwelling forms the predator prey dynamic might be the opposite on land. I would expect a lot of parasitic or symbiotic relationships between carbon and metal-oxide species with carbon based life harvesting metal replacements for sulfur as well as nitric acid and nitrous oxide for metabolic processes, while metal oxide life would harvest certain polypeptides and ammonia from carbon based life forms. Such an old sulfur poor geologically dying world would make for an interesting "world without black gun powder" setting. Intelligent species on such a planet might develop ammonia fueled combustion engines before they develop the chemistry for "smokeless gunpowder". Crossbows and airguns would dominate as infantry weapons, with repeating crossbows and ballistas for light artillery. Steam and motorized pneumatic or mechanical weapons for heavy artillery.

Thucydides said...

You know Cord, we are falling into the very trap that was spoken about in one of the opening posts: Obsessive World Building. Perhaps that is listed as a disorder among would be writers next to OCD and fear of blank white paper...;)

Still, more possible story parameters are emerging, the Aliens are relatively primative compared to the star faring Earth folk, which constrains interactions to a certain extent (the Earth technology has few analogues in this world, so becomes a form of magic). Earth people also have to figure out the ecological relationships between the various species (which could be even more difficult if there is some form of symbiosis going on).

Why do the aliens have weapons? Do they have similar motivations to ourselves? Are they hunting/protecting themselves from the predations of the alternate ecosystems?

To tell the truth, my brain is already too full trying to extrapolate many of the details of how metal oxide and carbon based life might interact. I may retreat a few steps back and look more carefully into the "Ice Fishing" scenario with MOx based life living on an Ice Giant...

Cordwainer said...

Well, to make you even dizzier you could have large ammonia-water habitat moons around a Super-Earth, Jovian or brown dwarf in the habitable zone, allowing you to have multiple worlds with slightly different ecologies in relative close proximity. The possibility of habitable moons gets more likely with larger than Earth sized planets in the habitable zone, particularly around a star that is metal-rich.

Thucydides said...

I'll stick to the "ice fishing" around an Ice Giant planet, thank you ;)

Still that has actually provided enough plot points to actually start wheels rolling in the back of the old grey matter, but I also look forward to seeing the end result of your work as well.

Thucydides said...

An amazing example of world building from XKCD. I suggest you watch the YouTube movie first then read the article with the backstory.

Warning: the YouTube movie is fairly long, and starts rather slowly, but the movie and backstory really illustrate the points of this post:

Jim Baerg said...

FWIW this
allows you to stop at any frame & slow down or speed up the frame rate so you can check details.

Thucydides said...

Re reading the backstory in Wired, I am pretty amazed at the ratio of "background" to "foreground" in what seems to be a very simple story. The rather ephemeral story telling technique (posting one cell/hour) was lost on me (I really don't have the time/patience for that), but once assembled into a movie it became much more accessible.

But what worldbuilding! Setting it 11,000 years in the future, researching astronomical data and rendering a sky set in the far future with allowance for the precession of the axis and the death of a supergiant star, imagining a civilization cut off from access to easy sources of energy, massive geological events (the Mediterranean Sea being cut off and then rejoining the Atlantic ocean) and even developing enough of a new language that currently none of the writer's fans have managed to decipher it (as different from English as English is from Linear A...), all for the sake of a short story that can be told in a simple 40 min movie.

I'm sure we have all read massive novels without this level of attention to detail, yet it was delivered without an "infodump". Well done

Geoffrey S H said...

The next time someone gets an idea for a hard-sf story that can be adapted for television, they should just ignore fox and go to HBO. At least there's less chance it'll be cancelled after just one season. The producers might even listen to the scientific advisers. Then the writers can get on with developing the setting and story without having to fight their corner wrt the accuracy the whole time.

Sorry, rant over.

jollyreaper said...

I missed it. What show did Fox just cancel?

Ray said...

To me, worldbuilding is not the key for a good story, the story is about the people and events, but worldbuilding does make a big difference because it transcends the story and gives something extra. People who really like a story naturally want more. They buy happy meal toys, action figures, bedsheets and pajamas decorated with the characters from the story. Worldbuilding addresses that need for more, but goes beyond the commercial basics, into the mind.

Good worldbuilding allows you to easily imagine other characters, other stories happening within that world. You can even imagine yourself in it. That gives you something more, something beyond the story itself.

It doesn't need to be technical specifics as such, although they can certainly help. The feel and the dynamics and general concepts are what make it extendable in the imagination. But it may be that a left-brain (or is it right-brain?) brute-forced world is what provides the underlying structure that allows the imagination to play. It provides a playground that gives enjoyment long after you've read a story and thought through the characters and events.

Geoffrey S H said...


It was partly just me looking at the way so many of Joss Whedon's shows have been cancelled, preventing him from getting a good story really going, while also reflecting that the HBO channel has been happy to do "unfilmable" shows like Game of Thrones and The Wire. If they can be done, then maybe someone with a good/accurate sci-fi idea could have a go and ask them for help?

If it did work, would that start a trend of accurate sf shows every few years? After Babylon 5 it was cool to have semi-Newtonian physics in shows following after... might it take only one successful show to clear the way for others?

WRT world building as franchise developing (toys, games etc), it does seem to be that that is where most large scale sci-fi universes are going now. Star Wars has been at it for years, but now 40k, star trek and even dr who are looking to tie in all sorts of elements into a semi-coherent whole. Time will tell how long this trend lasts.

jollyreaper said...

My problem is the large settings tend to not be very good. I don't know why with all the money involved in a movie, for example, they can't bother on making the script any good. I heard the last Superman movie was terrible. Of the last four Spider-MAn movies, I only liked the first Raimi one. The most recent just failed at being anything close to good and entertaining.

Wouldn't it be easier to build a franchise if the films are good? I would still rewatch the first unexpectedly good Pirates movie but the second was so bad I never saw the third or fourth. I'm so sick of Depp at this point I won't watch another film he does.

Geoffrey S H said...

The problem you address may be less down to world building and more to the generally declining quality of rfilms as a whole.

A good way to illustrate this is to compare one critic-hated film from 2000 and one from 2010.

The latter could be, say, Transformers 2, with its endless discordant (LOUD) special effects, endless/ mindless/ worryingly violent action and almost total lack of plot.

Now look at the former, say Star Wars Episode 1. Has alot of loud action, with an overly complicated finale and an annoying main character[s]. Some excessive brass in the soundtrack. But it also has moments of quiet, some surprisingly good supporting characters and moments of relatively sophisticated (for a space opera aimed at 12 year olds) political dialogue and intrigue.

Both are examples of bad films, and yet I cannot help but find earlier examples far superior to later ones. I can't appeal to age and growing cynicism either, being only 23.

I do feel that those stories that do not feature much world building can occasionally appear to be isolated from a wider universe and seem to be taking place in some kind of strange political/sociological vacuum. Some can also seem a little *too* related (technologically, socially or whatever) to the present the writer wrote the book in. Neil Asher and Kevin J Anderson are especially bad at this.

Bad world building on the other hand is sloppy, and doesn't present a setting that is sympathetic [superhero franchises and POTC are perhaps the prime examples here]. Instead of "I don't care about these people", you have "I don't care about these civilisations".

In short, I agree with pretty much what you stated, and if I didn't, I can still most definitely see where you are coming from. Why can't they limit the amount of (LOUD) brass instruments that film orchestras are aloud for soundtracks?

jollyreaper said...

I think there are a couple problems with film. Most of it boils down to money.

Because making films is a business, capital is required. Capital requires strings. And because so much money can be made, this has attracted a lot of money and a lot of strings.

Hollywood is mercenary so if they think they can make money with a movie about talking turds, they'll do it. They'll put anything on screen.

Because so much money is at stake, they only want sure-fire properties. This is why we have so many remakes and sequels. The funny thing is that the biggest hits are usually the ones with the most freedom from studio meddling. Nevertheless, they meddle.

The part I really don't understand is throwing so much money at a movie. Anything that is marginally entertaining seems to make $200 mil domestic so why give it a budget that big? If they need to gross double the budget to break even, why not take the low end of expected gross and say that's the budget?

I thought that Pacific Rim was a good simple scifi movie. Tons of holes in the world building but it was a fun watch. You aren't looking at your watch wondering when something interesting is going to happen. But it has a $190 million budget and studio pig fighting meant they tried to sabotage the promotion to shank the production company. Real nature, right? Anyway, it's meant to be a franchise builder and sequel chances are iffy now.

HBO and cable seems to be the place to go for budget and latitude. Movies seem like a creative wasteland like network television.

Anonymous said...

jollyreaper, you have to remember that the people who are in charge of film studios started in the buisness in the 1980's and 1990's; they have much the same mind-set that senior Wall Street stock brokers have, and we know how many of them operate.


Geoffrey S H said...

"The part I really don't understand is throwing so much money at a movie. Anything that is marginally entertaining seems to make $200 mil domestic so why give it a budget that big? If they need to gross double the budget to break even, why not take the low end of expected gross and say that's the budget?"

A British film reviewer, Mark Kermode, put it quite well when he stated that films now are made sufficiently big that it is unlikely they can fail in terms of revenue gained. You could make a film worse than "Cleopatra" and it would still bring in something. Hell, even Waterworld is still making money through a waterski attraction. Therefore: if films can be made to be too big to fail, can't there be more experimentation and effort to make a good film that is too big to fail?

I'd say more, but there's a good (small budget) Turkish film out at my local cinema I'm about to go see. On a side note, I do wish there were more British attempts at big-budget sci-fi television...

Noclevername said...

My name is Mike, and I have a worldbuilding problem.

("Hi, Mike.")

I love to world-build, I've been doing it since I was a kid, long before I ever heard the word, but my main characters are all me in different suits (or rather an idealized version of me), and I almost always write first person singular. I want to be better at characters and plot, but sometimes I just start a story and trail off with no ending, just because I think of a cool concept. But concepts aren't stories. And I don't want my characters to be flat or too repetitive (how many times has seeing the same hard-ass tough chick or jive talking kid sidekick made you look askance at a film or TV show?)

I have a problem! And knowing that... is the first step.

Anonymous said...

A trick I've learned to do is to not just have the start of the story, but also the ending of the story, before I even start writing.
I've found that this helps me complete stories much more often and keeps me from getting too far off course. I hope this helps.


Eth said...

Another trick I've learned for my characters is, instead thinking first "what would I (want to) do?", to begin with, "what kind of character do I want there?"
For example, you may want to tell the story of, say, a dim-witted but well-meaning hero, confronted to his own flawed will at crucial moments. Or a character who is letting his thirst for vengeance consume him. Or a cold planner that is trying to achieve his goals from the shadows by manipulating people for (what he perceives as) the greater good. Or a big-brawn-small-brain guy who just wants to find his place under the Sun.
By getting some characterization first, even some broad one, I find it easier to avoid this pitfall.

Rick said...

I know this is going to shock you all, but I've actually put up a new blog post.

Also, a very belated addition to the comment thread. One tossoff line caught my eye:

A YA novel set on Ganymede and dealing with teen angst could get away with the settlement being a small town or suburb lifted from the modern world and repackaged

This might end up falling between stools. The kids who think Ganymede is interesting would want some cool stuff about Ganymede - not necessary a story 'about' colonizing Ganymede, but some kind of payoff.

On the other hand, the kids who prefer slice-of-life teen angst would just think Ganymede stuff was a distraction. Pulling in both audiences could be done, but it would be challenging!

(But if it worked at all, it might be really good!)

Cordwainer said...

Also Tony what's your opinion on the future of Skylon and other HOTOL efforts.

Cordwainer said...

Would a Lofstrom or launch loop type technology be worth investing in, Tony?

Anonymous said...

I think that Lofstrom loops would be good for launching cargo or unmanned vehicles, but not so much for human launches, due to their very high G-loads. However, reducing the cost of any type of launches is a worthwhile endevor. It takes a lot of time, money, and effort to develop a new launch system. It took from the mid-18th century to the late 1950's to turn ordinary rockets into launch vehicles. I shouldn't expect any other launch system to take less time to develop, so we have a ways to go before we have a replacement for rocket-powered orbital launches.


TOM said...


Sorry if i am OFF a bit, but i started my own world building here.
(And sent to the plot basics to my friends, although at first i should complete my mayan based roleplay universe)

TOM said...

My personal opinion and experience about the things mentioned in the title : when i storytelled, i didnt care about small details about every non playing character, maps and stuff like that.
I wrote down basics about important NPCs, started develop further details about them on the fly, i dont consider the result were so bad.
It wasnt really good, when i didnt have basics about the important NPCs of the area, then after a time, they become rather stereotypical clone like...
So i think the main characters, organisations, places, and technical or magical constraints of the story should have proper skeletons.

In fantasy world building i encountered questions like, ok so they have mental magic, i cant say they dont have, when hypnosis really exists (although it is not like you can just command someone to kill someone...) does that mean they dont make wrong judgements??

No it wouldnt be good... countermeasures, erase memories, mistrust toward mages.

Teleport means they dont need caravans, fortresses?? No... teleportation requires VERY much sacrifice... also, you need a HIGH level mage to teleport to a place that isnt marked previously, they can make countermeasures against that few mages...

Well i just intended to say, when you introduce speculative breakthroughs you have to care about consequences very carefully.

Maybe hard sci there is lesser problems with that, but still can be a number of things, that can ruin your consistency.

And not just technical details (like the ones i remember you mentioned Rick, so the big mega dreadnought with the laser cannon can blast away anything... what prevents it from getting blasted by planetary defence when they have better waste heat treatment abilities? Or something like that.) but also economical social things, motives of characters.