Worldbuilding: Ecologies & Economies

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Ari Meermans

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Tor•Com has an article up, "How to Make an Apple Pie: Ecologies and Economies in SFF", and it was a coin toss whether I'd post my recommendation to read the article in SFF or here in RT. While the article primarily addresses secondary worldbuilding, the implications of those considerations do affect the worldbuilding of our stories here on Earth, as well. In historical novels and contemporary novels, as much consideration must be given to the time and place of the novel as for an SFF secondary world; for instance, if your novel includes writing about the historical network of trade routes called The Silk Road, you have to know conditions that existed at the time of your novel—the second century BCE would be vastly different than the fourteenth century CE, for example—as well as conditions along the specific network(s), the where of your story.

Anytime a writer sits down to write a story, they’re faced with decisions about worldbuilding. And if they’re writing SFF, that question often starts with: how much like Earth is it? And if it is like Earth, which parts and when? The ecology of the Pliocene era would be vastly different from what’s available now in the deserts of New Mexico . . .

. . . but process: the idea that the consequences of a decision, invention, or material all ripple, multiplying far beyond the initial triggering event. If you’re obsessed with creating worlds, as I was and still am, that has some serious ramifications. Because, not to put too fine a line on it, matter matters. What the everyday objects in a story are made from reflects the world it is set in.

It's an interesting article that opens up additional questions and considerations wrt the worlds of our stories.

What sorts of things do you routinely consider in building the worlds of your stories? How do you determine what matters and what doesn't for your own story?
 

ChaseJxyz

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What I like to think about a lot is the cultural differences for things. For example, just because your world, objectively, has a group of gods that rule everything and control the forces of nature, it doesn't mean that everybody knows that to be true or believes in that. Even if a god showed up and told somebody the objective truth it doesn't mean that every single person in every corner of the world is going to think or act the same way. Even within the same country or ethnic group there are going to be differences and that's an important thing to think about.

Objectively, there was a Chernobyl-y event in the recent past of my WIP. For people who live far away, they only have their observations of the global nuclear winter in their part of the world. One of these societies is highly scientific, so they think that it must be a volcanic eruption that caused this. The people who live in the country it happened believe some crazy stuff, like the earth is flat, so their reports that this was caused by a giant, rampaging phoenix and is extremely magical in nature just cannot be true! There has to be a logical, rational explanation for this! Nothing like this ever happened before, except almost 20,000 years ago, but that has to just be a myth! Lots of cultures have mythological explanations for natural events, so this just has to be the same thing. And I'm sure that the species that live in corners of the worlds who've never met a bird will have their own explanations as to why the sun was gone for 2 years, which will reflect their own understandings and beliefs of the natural world.
 

Woollybear

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What sorts of things do you routinely consider in building the worlds of your stories? How do you determine what matters and what doesn't for your own story?

I get very hung up on things like transportation and mileage. To write a SFF story where you expose themes of culture and class (which many SFF do) you usually want characters to travel. Without air travel, you quickly become limited in how big your story world can be to allow this sort of effective travel (...toward mixing of cultures and ideas and experiences.).

And yet, because it is SFF we assume that what we see is the entire *world.* So, in practicality, it is hard to have the 'story-world' be more than five hundred miles from one end to the other. If you limit to horseback (which I try to do) it gets worse.

That's about the size of California.

It's a problem because then, the issues that you want to argue are global, actually probably aren't. They're local.

In other words, Middle Earth was about half the size of Europe. But the story feels like all of human experience, 'the world,' all of elvish and dwarven and other experience too.

It's just a challenge to make distances/travel fit with themes. I suppose it is the opposite of a space story cooking up warp drive to explain why you can hopscotch around from planet to planet.
 
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katfeete

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What sorts of things do you routinely consider in building the worlds of your stories? How do you determine what matters and what doesn't for your own story?

Well currently I’m digging through stacks of cookbooks building cuisines for seventeen different worlds but I don’t know I’d call that NECESSARY so much as “really fun procrastination”.... :p

More seriously though I do tend to think a lot about food. I work in agriculture and, well, that’s something that’s been driving me nuts about SFF for years: where the heck is this food coming from? You’re eating steak dinner on a space station how? Where did King Whatsisname get grapes in the middle of winter? Why is everyone drinking coffee? Do you have any idea how resource intensive it is to grow dang coffee?

Ok, maybe I think a little too much about food....
 

TulipMama

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I tend to think of technology and the effects it has on the surrounding culture.

The very first thing I have to decide is power. If technology is a goldfish, power is the fishbowl that technology grows to fill before it can grow no longer. I'm I writing a low magic fantasy, where the horse is the ultimate in power sources? Industrial age, where steam and coal fuel the world? Modern nuclear? Near future bio-reactive algae? Far future 'pocket sun' reactors? Once I have an idea of power, I can map out the technology better and how people in my 'world' adapt around it.

My first novel is a near future peek at society, capitalism and personal identity. Electricity is chiefly generated via renewables, mostly solar in the states after the south was essentially glassed in the second Civil War. The war sent oilfields to burn for years, causing horrific weather conditions and air quality even the staunchest Climate denier couldn't hand wave away. That lesson settled a lot of countries foibles about renewables since oil-fields became the go-to target for crippling a nation. Now power is cheap. Cars in the city are universally electric and AI driven 'autocabs' that run as a free public service. I have a 'village' of homeless who've tapped the grid to power their underground dwelling and the city utility doesn't even notice because this group of 200 people is such a pathetic drain on their line it equates to pocket change every year. A new, enigmatic power source is used to fuel personal robots made by my EVIL company of Evil evil-doers, and because it's lightweight, functionally limitless and safe, that company rakes in the cash while other personal robotics firms try to keep up with their 6 hour lithium Ion heavy-weight monstrosities. The book walks in at this turning point, where the new powersource has been a known unknown for 30-ish years and there's pressure to utilize it into the next big technology boom.

My second book is modern day, but life has shifted tremendously when 'magic' comes back in the seventies. A lot of research was shifted away from typical technology into transcendental lines of study, stinting what we'd consider technology. It's 2019 and flip phones are just starting to be replaced with smart phones. CGI special effects are functionally non-existent in the wake of glamour magic that works cheaper and faster without green screens or motion tracking software. Simultaneously, research into blending the two is big industry. Sending spells over email, possessing mannequin-esque bodies with spirits to function as robots, transmuting magical power into electrical power. Most of the governments who embraced the changes and worked them into society handled the shift fairly well, some didn't. Overly strict religious governments stymied use of this new resource and were toppled by their people who had no such compunction. States with deeply mystical beliefs still in practice capitalized on their relatively easier ability to accept the shift and elevate themselves to world powers. The People's Republic of the Congo is a massive country that takes up most of the southern continent, stopping just below present day Ghana.

From my perspective, technology (I include magic in technology since it's functionally the same thing) is a huge driving force in the world. Those who have it, those who don't, those trying to get it and those trying to restrict it.

The biggest thing I can say though, is that even small changes can have very wide reaching effects if you put them into human history ala the butterfly effect. If you don't look to incorporate those changes to society, the world comes off flat. It's kind of fun actually, as an exercise, to make a small change and try to think how it might affect a time of your choosing.

eg: Modern day, but humans have always had a mild electric field, about as strong as a pair of AAA batteries.

Obvi, AAA batteries wouldn't exist anymore, why would you need them? Technology would adapt so that holding your TV remote was enough to power it.
Dating may be more about finding somebody with a complementary charge so that sparks literally fly when you kiss.
High acid foods are more common since it's widely believed to increase your electrical potential to the point you can find fancy vinegar at your local cafe.
Pets are basically non-existent for companionship, since we'd shock birds into arrhythmia by petting them, and dogs/cats are sensitive to electric fields so they avoid us instinctively.

Anyway, thems my thoughts.

Tulip Mama <3
 

VeryBigBeard

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I get very hung up on things like transportation and mileage. To write a SFF story where you expose themes of culture and class (which many SFF do) you usually want characters to travel. Without air travel, you quickly become limited in how big your story world can be to allow this sort of effective travel (...toward mixing of cultures and ideas and experiences.).

And yet, because it is SFF we assume that what we see is the entire *world.* So, in practicality, it is hard to have the 'story-world' be more than five hundred miles from one end to the other. If you limit to horseback (which I try to do) it gets worse.

That's about the size of California.

It's a problem because then, the issues that you want to argue are global, actually probably aren't. They're local.

In other words, Middle Earth was about half the size of Europe. But the story feels like all of human experience, 'the world,' all of elvish and dwarven and other experience too.

It's just a challenge to make distances/travel fit with themes. I suppose it is the opposite of a space story cooking up warp drive to explain why you can hopscotch around from planet to planet.

Cultural spread is usually less linear than "distance you can ride on a horse". E.g., farm-boy hero goes to big city, hears scandalous talk of heathen religions amongst traders who move town to town over the course of a year, goes back home, starts local uprising. Everyone's horizons get expanded and the love interest dies tragically.

Also remembering that Middle-earth / Arda is a lot larger than what's commonly depicted. There's the whole west, which was flooded. You can find maps of it here, and there's a Minecraft server/project devoted to reproducing it here, though they seem mostly limited to Middle-earth at present, which I imagine is likely due to the sheer scale of the undertaking.
 

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