Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Worldbuilding #7

(Previous Article Here)

I do briefly discuss future sex here! I do so very non-specifically, but if that makes you uncomfortable then just know what you’re getting into.

After two weeks’ intermission while I gathered ideas by using some of the ones I’ve been posting here–yes, I do actually follow my own advice! Quite stupid of me, no?– I’m giving the go order for Project SpaceChat. This will be the largest undertaking ever featured on this blog, except probably the 6000-word trilogy of articles I just did on lightsaber fighting because I felt that horse wasn’t atomized sufficiently. If it wasn’t clear, I’ve given up trying to be succinct on this blog because I’m just not able to compete with the BuzzFeed method. Wordy as all hell, that’s me. But is that also your aliens?

Please ignore the grammar there, it’s not really important right now. Yes, we’re here to talk further about crafting your very own Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, Future-Fantasy or Look, It Has Robots so Fuck Genre, Okay?… universe. Combat will be the next article, because combat isn’t quite the given in Sci-Fi that it is in Fantasy. If I were to guess, that’s because we expect the future to contain some degree of progress. Let’s examine that idea, shall we? As much as a certain sapient citrus-man with a tarnished copper toupee might like you to think otherwise, the world we live in today is by far safer, more prosperous and more cultured than eras past.

In spite of the World Wars and subsequent Cold War, the overall trend in recent centuries has been towards greater civilization and a better human species in general. If you think World War II was bad, remember that from 1206 to 1240 the Mongols went from a tribe of nobodies scrounging for survival in a desert to the rulers of the largest and most powerful empire on the planet. In the process of getting there, they effectively annihilated dozens of kingdoms from China to the Middle East and even Russia.

So, when I said I was going to talk future, why have I started talking the past? Well, that’s simply because we don’t know the future. We can only guess at it by looking at the events that have brought us to where we are and using our imagination to poke holes in the veil of time. There is some degree of constancy in the universe, or at least in our universe. However, as much as we like to think that one of those constants is that higher knowledge brings with it higher humanity, that’s obviously not 100% true.

As an example, Stephen Hawking’s an asshole. He’s a brilliant man, but still an asshole. And he doesn’t get away with being an asshole because he’s brilliant, he gets away with it because he’s a celebrity. If our physicists can be dicks, with physics being the root of some of our most advanced technology, then clearly technology and know-how alone don’t necessarily make us better people. Time isn’t the whole story either. I mean, other than time encompassing history, which is literally the whole story if you count the unrecorded bits. Still, we regressed pretty significantly when the Roman Empire collapsed, so advancing time obviously doesn’t guarantee better technology or better society.

So one of the first things you’ll need to consider is just how much progress has happened in your universe, particularly for the societies your story centers on. Even if your universe has nothing to do with this one, you can still do this. Just remember that your readers are more likely to take umbrage with shittiness in a completely fabricated universe than one based on our own reality. Of course, if you’re doing something along the lines of Warhammer 40K where the awfulness is in support of a badass heavy-metal album war without end, that changes things. Side note, 40K is the only universe I can think of right now which I wholeheartedly endorse referring to as badass. If you don’t understand why, we’ve nothing more to discuss.

Anyway, you should try to get a feel for the overall “level” of your universe. I do mean “feel.” I’m sure it’s technically possible to do this by rote rules, but you’re going to drive yourself insane doing that. This feeling should encompass the technological and moral baseline of your universe, which certain species will rise above or sink below depending on… well, honestly just depending on your arbitrary decisions. Worldbuilding is nothing more than the art of explaining your godlike whims to your readers.

Concrete examples: does teleportation exist? If so, is it limited? Does it reliably plonk your molecule-clone down where it’s supposed to, or is the double-you prone to appearing lodged in a rock with only its eyes and nose exposed, doomed to an agonizing death by exposure or internal sewage buildup? You’re welcome for that idea, by the way. How long a range does teleportation have, and must it be between two teleporters or can it be from one teleporter to pretty much anywhere? Does it actually bend the fabric of space and time to move the exact person to a new location, or does it technically kill everyone who uses it and generate an indistinguishable copy of them at the next spot? And if your universe features an afterlife, what kind of hellish joke will teleportation make of it? I pick the teleportation example because it’s a very common bit of technology whose horrific existential implications generally fly below the Omniscanner (<–future Jargon humor).

Your “feel” should encompass all of this and a wealth of other info. In time it’ll become too nuanced for short terms to describe it, other than “that fits, this doesn’t”. No matter how incisive your thinking, worldbuilding ultimately sells itself on feel. Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and so on: these universes have a feel, and their worldbuilding always reinforces it. Don’t worry about whether your fans always get it: the feel is for your benefit as the writer. Everyone else just has to keep up with you.

Continuing with teleportation, it seems reasonable to me that FTL travel would be invented before teleporting (FTL is just faster, teleporting is instant), but that doesn’t have to be how you do it. Unless you explicitly link two technologies together, they don’t have to be linked. This is another reason you need the “feel,” though. In a technical sense, there’s no reason I can’t have energy-to-matter conversion but no teleporting, or vice-versa. The two share some similar concepts, but they’re not really the same thing. That said, if I include teleportation but say that energy-to-matter is impossible, I may start raising some eyebrows. My own system at present is that energy-to-matter and teleportation are both fairly imprecise. If you just need a solid block of steel, science will do that for you. If you want a perfectly-tempered, master-polished katana, you better find a guy to forge it for you because otherwise you’ll just get a huge blob of silk, metal and wood all fused together in a vaguely sword-like shape.

Once you include a piece of technology, though, you need to account for every possible use it could have within the story. For example, I have to bend myself into pretty impressive contortions to say that the battlecruiser Wistful Oblivion is out of ammo for its gauss rifles, because gauss rifles fire solid metal slugs and the ship’s energy-to-matter converters should be able to crank those out no problem. Missiles, on the other hand, require precise assembly so it’s more reasonable that the battlecruiser doesn’t have enough of those. On a less violent note, energy-to-matter might be just precise enough that we can finally have our meat and our cows to, so that’s one cheery effect I get from it. Of course I also have to account for the rich assholes who’ll have bulls slaughtered because they simply must have “real” steak, even though the “fake” variety is probably better quality.

As for society, whether things in a given one have progressed, regressed or stagnated is something you should decide firstly based on what provides the better story, secondly on what you like better, and lastly based on what issues you want to talk about. If you want to address ethical quandaries like AI rights and robotic sentience, you’ll need to go have AIs and robots on-hand. The second part’s not exactly a tall order since we already have them, but none of our current electronics are sentient (at least, I hope.) If you want women’s rights to be an issue, you need to have at least one society that hasn’t solved the issue of women’s rights. I would definitely advocate you don’t have too many violent misogynists floating around, though, because technically the problem could be solved this instant if all the women-haters would look at themselves in the mirror and stop hating women.

Never make the mistake of suggesting people can’t control themselves just so you’ll have a talking point. Everyone is responsible for their own asshattery; if you write a universe that (absent good reason) has failed too much at social progress, you’re almost suggesting that it just can’t be done. That’s a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy that we’ve had too much of already, so careful you don’t propagate it by accident.

On a broader note now. For every species you include, you must have a reasonable amount of history. I personally don’t subscribe to the “archetype” model of a species. Among humanity an archetype represents only one facet of one subculture within one country out of our entire race. Why should aliens be any different? You don’t need to come remotely close to listing out every single shade and sliver of nuance within that species, however. Just make sure that all of your races get the same consideration.

A species as a whole should have only a broad emphasis, such as on knowledge or community or independence, and it’s only an emphasis, not an exclusive focus. You’re writing a book here, standards for “well-thought out” are astronomically higher than in any other medium. Well, er, maybe you’re not writing a book. I suppose nothing in the title of this serial says anything about books in particular, does it? Still, you’ll never do harm to your writing by putting more consideration into it, so always do that.

By way of getting more concrete, I don’t just write a species as a “warrior race.” The closest I’ll get it is, “The Oiruse put strong emphasis on fighting skill and courage in battle,” before I address how living on a less-temperate planet has made them more prone to fight for resources. Then I’ll lay out that the Oiruse still have strong social bonds within a community, but are distrustful of people outside it. They aren’t xenophobic, it’s just that none of the other species have currently earned a place in the greater Oiruse “tribe” so to speak. The Oiruse revere artists because they see a parallel to soldierly discipline in the artist’s willingness to sacrifice her own well-being in the pursuit of a masterpiece, and their society is matriarchal based on the practical fact that Oiruse males do most of the fighting and it’s not productive to have one’s leadership killed off on a regular basis. That said, the fact that the Oiruse are quasi-reptilian with females much larger than males may also have something to do with it. Not everything the Oiruse do correlates with human logic, because they’re not fucking human. The connections they make should seem strange to human readers; if they don’t, you probably haven’t set them far enough apart.

At the same time, don’t use cultural relativism to avoid answering tricky questions. The Oiruse male rite of passage requiring that only one brother of any family survive can still be condemned by the galactic community. That said, it makes sense in their culture since it ensures that only the best males survive for consideration as mates, and as long as the total number of females remains unhindered then the effect on the population is pretty negligible.

For that matter, if humans are involved then give careful consideration to how you portray us. My stance on this shifts a bit over time, but in general I tend to view humans as pretty high up on the overall violence scale. Remember, we attained sentience by descending from the trees and developing spears. Our hominid ancestors got the protein they needed to evolve into us by stabbing a bunch of animals that seem at first glance to have had a way better shot at top critter. Then, because our ancestors were tired of taking shit and wanted to make a statement, they learned to start fires and then almost immediately took to plunging the corpses of their slain rivals into those fires. The fact that cooked meat tastes amazing and is easier to digest was just a fortunate accident. The real reason is that those stupid lions needed to learn not to mess with the weird scrawny hairy things on two legs. Lions didn’t learn this, which is probably why we still kill them. Or, um, our species still has a lot of growing up to do. More likely that second part.

Again, that history I just mentioned is something you have to think about when writing the future. Every species needs to have the feeling of a history like that. Obviously you can’t reproduce the equivalent of the entire field of Anthropology for every species you write. Or if you can, stop taking my advice because you’re obviously a way better writer than I am! All you need to do is get things on-par between all the species you involve.

Before I forget: when evolving social mores, don’t address sex at all unless you’re prepared to address it in a mature fashion. You don’t have to go into the nitty-gritty of all the newest perversions (in fact, we can debate just how mature that is), but you’ll need to acknowledge how perceptions of sex change from one species to the next. Not everyone will share humanity’s romantic associations (not all humans have those, in fact!), nor in fact will all cultures be okay with the idea of casual sex to the same extent. Remember also that the significance of specific sex-acts can shift wildly from one society to the next. There might very well be societies where Missionary is considered demeaning for the woman, for example. Perhaps there are today, I don’t know!

I’m not exactly a ladies’ man if that wasn’t clear from absolutely every individual page on this blog. If the future-sex rabbit hole is one you’d rather not go down (never has this metaphor been more alarming) then you’ve every reason to avoid it entirely. Just don’t try something imbecilic like sticking in an all-female species that spends its first three hundred years of life sleeping around with anything that looks vaguely intriguing and then try to pass it off as “cultural.” Yes, I am slamming Mass Effect for that. The Asari are not a well-realized species, and I don’t care that they’re the oldest surviving species or whatever. They’re still basically a 13-year-old’s fan-fiction and I at no point felt there was appropriate justification given for the fact that they’re basically written in as sex objects.

The last of the notes for now, decide how grounded your universe is going to be. In general, the closer you have it to “reality” the harder things will be for your main characters and the easier they will be for everyone else. More importantly, in a more realistic store you can’t make your clever character seem clever by making everyone else a nitwit. You’ll have to actually write a clever character. Now, not every element has to be grounded just because of them are. It’s totally acceptable (if done well, as always) to have a universe in which every person behaves the way we’d expect them to (or could accept them doing) if they were a real person, but in which the events don’t follow the normal rules at all. That’s going to give you something closer to Star Trek. Alternatively, having both your events and characters larger-than-life will give you something closer to Star Wars, and so on.

For my part I write most of my characters as quasi-realistic, some as quirky and some as outright ridiculous. In general, the more outlandish a character’s abilities, the more their personality follows suit. The world itself is grounded, but grounded to a much more varied and often nuttier set of rules than our own. That is, it often appears insane to newcomers and then begins to make sense. If you think back to being a child, that’s actually how entering any world for the first time works: it never really gets more logical, you just match your crazy to its particular brand of madness.

As always, the most important part of worldbuilding is internal consistency. After that, the rest is up to you. Next time I’ll talk more specifically about starships and that favorite depressing subject of mine: future war. And, um… space magic, apparently?

(Part 8 Forthcoming)

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