And on the Eighth Day >insert deity< made >insert
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
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
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
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
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.