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Sunday, 7 October 2012

World building or...

And on the Eighth Day >insert deity< made >insert race/planet<
PR Pope

Part of the fun of writing stories in the Science Fiction genre is the opportunity to play at being a god (of course, many of the comments I’ll make here are applicable to other genres, especially other types of Speculative Fiction such as fantasy; but I’ll be concentrating on what I know best).

My current project is a trilogy set, mostly, on a planet called Antares, far away across our galaxy (far far away but not long ago!)  It is, of course, imaginary – that is, although the planet may actually be there orbiting a star that we call Antares, nobody knows what that planet is like or if it is home to any form of life (and at this point I must admit that, although my online biography suggests otherwise, I do not actually come from Antares!).

There is a debate raging among science fiction authors, albeit sotto voce [Ed: - how can it be raging and sotto voce at the same time?], between what you might call the ‘risk-taking’ and the ‘cautious’ camps.  The risk-takers launch into their story and play it by ear, visiting a planet here, passing a star system there, meeting interesting alien races, getting their hero(ine) into a situation where they need some exotic technology to extricate themselves.  Along the way they will introduce some suitable back-stories where necessary.  The emphasis is on the fiction, the science is merely a useful tool at times.  By contrast, the cautious authors – or perhaps more accurately, ‘organised’ – ensure they have planned consistent worlds, races, technology etc.  I am in this camp (you’d already guessed, hadn’t you?).  Some might be considered to take this to extremes (okay, I’m holding up my hand to this too).  I want to be sure that I know the geography, history, flora, fauna, technology, culture and religions of my invented worlds.  Much of this needs to be established long before the story itself is written, although inevitably it will get expanded and refined as the actual story-telling gets underway.  Hence, as the story unfolds – usually in unexpected directions once the characters take over and begin to assert themselves – throw-away references can be included without fear of earlier or subsequent contradiction.  Minor incidents from one storyline can become crucial events in another – difficult to manage if you haven’t laid down a consistent background in the first place.

Is it really that important, you might be asking yourself.  Isn’t this guy just being a bit obsessive-compulsive, or anally-retentive?  Perhaps he’s just trying to pander to the popular image of extreme nerds/geeks – portrayed in exquisitely caricatured detail by Jim Parsons as Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory?  Why does he keep putting words in my mouth, and making me ask questions?

There are two pertinent responses to those questions.  The first, of course, is to ask why you’re questioning a blog that’s already been written – it’s not interactive, you know [Ed: - Uum, it IS actually, there may be comments and you’re expected to reply].  The second is to point you at a couple of landmark works of speculative fiction and suggest you consider how significant consistent world-building was to their impact: Tolkein’s Middle Earth had much background material that was never intended to be published, but which ensured that the stories were internally consistent (even to the extent of inventing languages and alphabets); while one of the great pleasures of reading Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books is that minor characters in one book can be the main characters in another (and vice versa), with distant events from one story being related by a harper as part of the atmosphere of another entirely separate story, all adding to the sense of a real environment with concurrent events coloured by diverse viewpoints and perceptions.

You might not have considered how much assumed or implied background there is to any story.  When your characters have a shared culture with your readers, then words, concepts, places, pets and even brands all contribute to the reader’s experience (and hopefully understanding and enjoyment) of the story.

Jack and Jill / went up the hill / to fetch a pail of water. / Jack fell down / and broke his crown / and Jill came tumbling after.” 

In most of the English-speaking world, readers know (or think they do) that Jack is a boy and Jill is a girl.  They have a mental image, probably, of a hill as distinct, say, from a mountain or a tumulus.  They know what a pail is (although they might normally call it a bucket).  Of course, they may wonder why the young (?) couple/siblings are going up a hill looking for water rather than down to a river in the valley – perhaps there’s a spring on the hillside?  Everyone can empathise with Jack when he falls and injures himself (younger readers, though, may wonder why he’s wearing a crown – is he a prince?).

One of my friends is an archaeologist who comes from Libya.  After meals when people are sitting around telling stories, he often regales everyone with traditional stories from his childhood.  A different culture, yet many of the themes are, of course, universal, although names and other details may be unfamiliar. 

Nawaf and Nawel / went to the tell, / to fill their girba / with maya / ...” 

Okay, so I cheated slightly there, by not translating maya into water, just transliterating it.  But without the proximity to the Jack and Jill version a few lines earlier you may not have understood what was happening.
Now suppose you have a story set on an imaginary world.  There can be no shared culture with your readers, everything they know about your world will come from you.  What’s more (as every writer knows) you have to show, not tell.  So your readers are experiencing an unfamiliar world through your characters.  You may ask, how is that different from a story set in an exotic location?  (There you go with the questions again...) [Ed: Stop it!]  On the face of it, it’s much the same.  Except that some of the things we can take for granted anywhere on Earth might not be true on our planet: gravity may be much reduced, with all sorts of resulting anatomical effects, not to mention walking gait; daylight might be a very different mix of wavelengths, resulting in colour perception being altered or even non-existent or other senses being far more acute; the atmosphere might be thinner, or composed of different gases, with radical effects on the likely flora and fauna; and so on...  Then there’s the culture – just because Western Europe was shaped by wars, conquest and powerful religions, that doesn’t mean that your planet followed the same path.  The order in which certain key technologies are developed can be crucial to the overall shape of the economy, industry and society in general.  Steampunk is a genre predicated on the radical alterations in society and history because of a slight variation in the development of technology.  Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is the iconic world where technologies develop in different ways – in his case with hilarious results – as well as being another perfect example, like Pern, of a world where events in different books overlap in a way that adds depth and realism.

So, having done to death the argument that world-building is essential, how does one go about it?  I can only tell you what I do, and I will use Antares as an example (mostly because it is freshest in my memory!)  The story required the people to have quite an advanced technology – after all, three children have to be accidentally teleported there from Surrey.  So a timeline was needed back through their history to provide a believable developmental route from a small tribe to a powerful race, (many misspent hours playing Sid Meier’s Civilisation finally paid off!)  Having a reasonable timeline for the technology would require the culture to develop alongside it, and hence things like religion, language(s) etc.  To plot out these timelines of course, raises questions of periodicity – how long is a year (an orbit of the sun, or in this case an orbit of a binary star, giving them two suns and an eccentric orbit), how long is a day?  Because of the binary star it seems likely that twos, fours, eights and sixteens would have been significant to the early tribes, when the basis of counting and time keeping was being established.  So a year is divided into 16 months of 16 days; a day is divided into 16 hours, and so on.  An easy-to-use conversion table followed next, to enable Earth time and Antares time to be related (if you’re interested, an Earth second is 5.3 Antarean seconds, an Earth week is 3 Antarean days, an Earth year is 10 Antarean months and 1 Antarean year is 584 Earth days).  Is it important to the story?  Well, as I mentioned earlier, three children from Earth have been teleported to the planet so they will notice these inconsistencies, and so will the readers. 

Once time has been conquered, as it were, space is next.  So, although the scientists on Antares would use measurements based on physical properties of matter and the laws of the universe, just like they do on Earth, the majority of people would use traditional measurements based on, often forgotten, ancient practices.  So, a basic unit of measure is a cubit, originally the distance from the chin to the tip of an outstretched hand (okay, not very original name, but a very common measure across cultures).  A cubit is 4 spans, (hand’s span) and so on.  The longest measure of distance is a parade, originally the distance between the royal palace and the city gate designed for ancient royal parades, consisting of 1024 cubits (hints of an Egyptian influence in my world building, there).  After distance comes money, with 1 crown equal to 2 half crowns, 4 quarters, or 64 marks.  The military (yes, they are advanced technologically, but still need the military – they almost did away with them but then got attacked) is organised into platoons (64 soldiers), companies (4 platoons), battalions (8 companies) and brigades (8 battalions).  The ‘enemy’ army is similar but has cohorts instead of companies.

This is all quite simple stuff, but necessary to be sure that everything remains consistent.  However, it’s still too soon to plot out the timelines.  The culture develops as a result of location, climate and living conditions, so the next requirement is for things like flora and fauna, identifying pets or other wildlife, and the plants that they forage.  Of course to do this the basic geography needs to have been identified, so an outline map of the region (if not the whole planet) is essential – where are the hills, mountains, plains, deserts or ice-fields, lush pastures and urban areas?  Once we have the terrain mapped we can populate it with life. 

So, for example, a Flaarn is a large lumbering creature that lives mostly in the Southern Uplands of Antares.  It eats grasses and leaves and creates a lot of dung.  The dung is used to make paper.  The tyrant Ramose kills Flaarn for sport, although it’s not much sport as they are even slower and fatter than him.  Flaarn blood is also used to make a cheap ink, but it fades quite quickly and has a disgusting smell.  The Tangen plant has leaves used to make the best ink, with a beautiful deep colour that doesn’t fade.

At last, having established the ecological infrastructure, as it were, the people’s timeline can be put into context.  Starting with pre-historic tribes that gradually evolve better tools and language, until they develop some form of writing and hence a record of history.  They name their land Antares.  At a crucial date, subsequently known as N1, a future Queen, called Nuit, is born with a genetic mutation that makes her a natural healer.  This is the start of the royal line that gives the series its title “Queens of Antares”.  A potted history of Nuit and her family sets the ground for much myth and legend as well as cultural terminology.  Key dates in the next 10,000 (Antarean) years establish crucial cultural and technological milestones, providing the skeleton over which to lay the history of all and any aspects of society, culture, science and religion.

Finally, culture and history impact the attitudes and speech of the people.  So, for example, the people don’t talk of death or dying but going to join the Aten – originally (about 500 years Pre-Nuit) there were two ruling gods (binary star, remember) who eventually (by N1) had been combined into two aspects of the one true god Aten (Egyptian influence again).  After a few thousand years (about N5000) science had developed to the point where creation myths were no longer believed and a creator god seemed unnecessary.  Many people abandoned religion.  But within a few hundred years (N5500) it became clear that people needed something to believe in and concepts to help them govern their life; there was a resurgence in religion but with less emphasis on god and more on morals.  By N10000 peace had become the most important concept, there had been no war with the enemy for some hundreds of years as technology managed to keep them at bay and under surveillance, so the armies were disbanded, leaving the people largely unprotected and incapable of defending themselves five hundred years later when an upstart rebel raised an army and attacked from within.  That rebel was Ramose and he established himself as tyrant and wiped out the whole of the royal bloodline (or so he thought).

And that provides the setting for the story, which starts in the year N10602!  I have only given the merest outline of the world creation here.  My notes go on for pages, with the hierarchy of the religions, the scientific community, the royal family, the technological devices that are still operating and those that were destroyed by the scientists before the tyrant could gain control of them. 

Maybe I am obsessed with the detail, maybe I am pedantic and stifling spontaneity.  But readers are pedantic too, they will spot an inconsistency with greater relish than a mere typo.  I know, ’cos that’s what I do ;-)

Thank you for listening (well, reading), it’s been quite therapeutic.

Queens of Antares 
Bloodline returned  
What would you do if you found out your dotty old Gran wasn’t from Surrey after all, but from a planet six hundred light years away across the galaxy? Not only that but she’s really an exiled Princess from a Royal family that has been virtually wiped out by a tyrannical usurper. Would you believe it?

That’s the situation in which Caroline, Alex and Emily find themselves when they accidentally get transported across the galaxy.

Would you join the fight for freedom against the tyrant, if that was the only way to get back home to Earth? Now you understand the dilemma facing Caroline, Alex and Emily.

What would you do?

PR Pope has spent many years perfecting the art of avoiding being noticed.  Usually to be found just outside the centre of attention, he has been present at most of the recent decades’ significant scientific breakthroughs.  

Now that he has decided to commit some of the tales from his home planet to paper and ink (or pixels as the case may be) he is being forced to be less reclusive.  However, convinced that no-one ever reads author biographies anyway he feels it unlikely that anybody would be able to use this information to track him down.  But for the benefit of any such intrepid (or sad) reader he describes himself as four Roman cubits tall, one point six gigaseconds old with a mass of approximately sixty four thousand yottadaltons.

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