The Art of World Building

What I like to think sets my work aside from other superpower fantasies is its world. Andala is, very simply, an entire civilisation where everyone has their share of these abilities. Aner is not the special gift of a chosen few. It belongs to everyone.

Think about that for a second. Everyone can do it. All of them. Not just the mighty élite, but the lowest of the humdrum everyday ornery. And then we arrive.

My peculiar interest is in just this kind of culture shock. From its destructive effect on the traditional tribal lives of the Bushmen, to its broader impact on the very foundation of our global history: this stuff is right up my alley. What little I know of super heroes tells me what I’m doing is quite distinct from the norm. Where episodic adventures require a rhythm and a routine reset to the way things were before, I can explore a whole different horizon.

There’s something that really appeals to me in the idea that aner – that unsettling, uncanny, and essentially un-human power – is so perfectly natural on Andala. Marie’s described the first time that we saw it. Aner is startling, terrifying and baffling stuff; a veritable deus ex machina of course. And my hesitance to work on it is as just much a metaphor beyond the book. But there it lies. The focus and the magic.

The world, then, is where I see my best work. It’s a playground for my own games of consequence. There is one continuity in this story. One timeline! (And a relativistic one at that; as long as I can keep the details straight.) Everything the characters do is done for good. Change is eternal, as it is in reality. Anything less doesn’t feel the least bit right. Dodgy prequels and the like have torn the patience out of me!

But what’s a culture like when everyone is Superman? I’ve spent a good while wondering about this very question. Andala is my attempt at answering it. The only way you can: one piece at a time.

From out of those a world is made. No more, no less.


Über

It’s often said that you can tell when something is worth doing when doing it is hard. You know, the idea that we have to push ourselves beyond the tried and tested. Beyond our limits, or never break our routine. Climbing up on giants’ shoulders isn’t easy, but it is the only way to see what’s still to come.

In writing, the hard begins with resistance. Creating stories can be an open ended, solitary affair; naturally suited to long doubty nights of the soul. Not least the way I do it. And so I’ve been spinning my wheels a bit of late, trying to look into my work and decide quite what it is.

Truly at the heart of my persistent doubts is this hanging question: Magic? Really? What is this thing I’m writing other than another puerile fantasy of flying folk and awesome rays?

So says my resistance.

Well? What’s the least bit wrong with that? Why shouldn’t I explore the genre? What is there to fear about fantasy in the first place? Even if I love to deck it out with all the trappings of science fiction; why fear it, why avoid it, why this persistent awkwardness?

No answer. That’s the way with these things. Unless you dare to press the point.

My trouble with super heroes boils down to inexperience. Simply, I just didn’t read the necessary comics as a kid. In fact, I was much more into science fact and real world history at the time than all of fiction; an oddity of mine I’m sure shines through in what I’m making here. It’s not that I’m at all against a great epic of a story, but that I’ve old prejudice lying unquestioned in the back of my mind. There’s no irony in the fact that Andala is rooted right there in the epicentre of my life-long doubt. It was an unexpected effort to put things right, from out the deep itself, I suppose. And no matter that I struggle with the notion even now, it still is.

Guess, try as you might, you can’t fight your muse. Indeed, to get anything done at all, you’d better go wherever she takes you.

The inimitable Rands had this to say about his favourite archetype in heroic form in the face of America’s painful week past:

When a twisted someone believes that they are delivering an important message by blowing up innocents in a city that is a cradle of our liberty, I choose hope. I choose unrealistic and unbounded hope. I choose Superman.

Superman is a story. It’s a great story. It’s an unrealistic story full of fantastic elements that appeal to our desire to be intensely good humans, to perform amazing feats of strength, and to live forever. These stories, while unrealistic, give us direction, they temporarily relieve our burdens, and they give us an ambitious plan forward.

He puts his finger on the very source of my doubt right here. The idea that these fantasies are vapid, pointless escapades without a higher purpose:

Perhaps the biggest critique you can make of Superman is that because he makes it look so easy with the flying and the invulnerability that doing the impossible is somehow easy or even achievable. It’s big. It’s over the top. It’s unrealistic and no one human can ever complete the feats of a single Superman. But it’s not the individual feats of Superman we care about, it’s that we, as a group of humans, working together, can do anything, even though it’s never easy.

That’s me told. Superman as metaphor: for the collective genius of all of us. Whatever would Nietzsche say!

My family loves Superman because he is an unrealistic and impossible creature. We know that. We know he sets an impossible bar, but we need that bar because that is how we dream big, that is how we aspire to something great, and that is why we choose hope.

The impossible. The supreme. The wholly literal Super Man. I can see the power in it. An archetype we’ve been chasing all along. I shy, though, from embracing it quite as freely as Siegel and Shuster. I like my heroes dark, and I like my characters at every level as fallible as man. Perhaps what I’m writing, for all its “powers”, isn’t much like caped super heroes in any case. Or rather, this is my translation, taken from the one place and put somewhere wholly else. Run the experiment some many generations and you might just find Andala.

You know, once I make it.


Forward March

Amongst the infinite dichotomies by which you can split man, lies the one about perseverance. There are those who stride ever onward, guided by goodness knows what, drawn in every step by a passion they themselves might not be able to describe, ever seeking the way of the future; and then there’s the rest of us.

I took up Jared Diamond’s epic answer to Yali’s Question as an exercise in broadening my own perspective. Oh, it worked all right. His book is rich with consequences for my own project. So much so, that I’ve found myself thrown back in introspection. I can take a while to digest what I read, but this is something else, and by no means any one else’s fault.

I’ve not given up on Andala. I’m not sure, after all the times it seems I’ve tried, that such a thing is possible as long as I am still around. But I do find myself in the midst of something of a breather. One of these things where it’s not my own initiative, but the realm of the unconscious muse.

Truth be told, I suppose it is the way I’m telling Proteus that’s at the heart of my doubt. That backstory has been out of control for as long as I can remember. I meant for it to be a fragmentary report of distant discovery, but it’s already about as long as I mean Alpha itself to be, and showing no sign of a conclusion. When I’m writing it, though, I do like Marie’s story. Coupled with my apparent inability to pull the reins and steer where she’s going, you get where I’ve been headed. The choice between it and the central story that I came here to tell is one I seem unable to take. Or in the right direction, at any rate.

All of which is to say that Guns, Germs and Steel isn’t at fault for my time off the keyboard. And, in fact, that I am well pleased for the most part by how suited my little fiction of a world matches the analysis Diamond wrote there. I haven’t thought at all of ancient man’s spread around our own planet, before the rise of farming and subsequently everything else, being drawn to Sumer for my inspiration more often than not. But now that he’s explained it, I see the implications of prehistory around us everywhere. For whatever reason, they’re more or less as snug on Andala. The details of which I’ve some reading yet until I can describe.

If you’re like me: you think in writing. Seems to be the only way. Just as music is to dream, and reading is to see.


Progress’s Progress

To write, you must read. Given quite what I’m knee deep in at the moment, I’ll say it is so. As in the history of our world, painted afresh, I’m finding a wealth to consider for my own.

Jared Diamond’s crucial point, if I may make it for him, is that history did not and indeed could not unfold at the same rate for everyone the world over. There is a range to progress’s progress. He goes to great lengths to spell out the likeliest, most plausible, ultimate reasons. The farthest reaching of which being the comparative shapes of the continents. It’s a fine read as he pulls at the consequences’ threads. His book is a grand exercise, and to his credit, he did the work such a challenge requires.

If playing more Civilization than makes sense counts as work, then I did a little too, in my own way. I’ve designed a few worlds (in simple tile form) and played through the results, cobbling up my own alternate histories as my eager conquests and bitter withdrawals scorched imagined earth on a quaint computer screen. It’s been a while (and many versions of that game) since I did, yet I can’t help but think of the experience while reading Guns, Germs and Steel. As trite as it is to say that empires fall in a day, and that history turns in a moment, there is some inevitable truth to it. Not least when the rivals are from what may as well be different planets.

What Diamond proposes is, piece by piece, quite sensible and already apparent. It’s when you see the whole thing as a cohesive package that its power is clear. I’m learning a great deal about our origins, an ever favourite subject of mine, and that alone is music to my ears. But unlike the histories I’ve devoured before, this one has a master narrative subtle enough for me to agree with. Our past is not the triumph of any one empire, any single leader, or the victory of any supreme ideology. The lesson, again and again, is that might is right. Beware the ones who have it. By the lasting fate of ancient dice.

If you’re wondering where all of this will show up in Andala, join the club. For the moment I’m reading, and letting this stuff work itself in. Certainly, I can design my own world quite as I want. Nothing is beyond first draft yet. The experience I’m trying to put my finger on here is that the continents are shifting, all right. I’m just not sure whether it’s the land or the people.


In Absentia

Fermi’s Paradox looms as large as space itself. If we aren’t alone in the universe, then why does it look that way? There are a number of reasonable answers, all speculation of course. My favourite in reality is an appeal to the fact of scale. We live so very, very brief lives; and we are so utterly, vanishingly small. To rule out alien life after so feeble an effort as we have made so far is, surely, solipsistic folly.

Another answer, however, is that life truly is just as rare as a cursory glance to the night sky stubbornly suggests. (Not to mention everything we’ve seen thus far in astronomy, or the results of our painfully early adventures out there for ourselves.) Our sister worlds in the solar system have sorely disappointed as of yet. Who’s to say that the first few million stars we should venture out to might not fail us too?

There’s a trope for this: Absent Aliens.

Done for a variety of reasons:

  • Not every sci-fi plot requires aliens
  • Isolates humanity in the depressing void of space
  • Makes humans even more special
  • Saves on the effects budget.
  • Makes it easier to make characters relatable and believable.
  • Is consistent with the fact that no aliens have yet been found. (See Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness.)
  • In an attempt to be different and appeal to those who “don’t like sci-fi”.
  • Even if aliens did theoretically exist, in settings where the population is confined to a single star system and there is no FTL, neither humanity nor the aliens would be in any position to encounter the other.
  • Theoretically, intelligence could be a rare evolutionary fluke, rare at least elsewhere in the Milky Way. Even if intelligence evolves on other planets, it may be extinct by the time humans leave the Solar System, or alternatively, humanity could be extinct by the time aliens leave their home system. Thus, even interstellar civilizations may be separated by immense distances or timescales, and unlikely to interact.
  • Nobody talks about it much, but the existence of other intelligent species would raise uncomfortable questions about whether or not humans are the chosen species of God. On the other hand, the Catholic church is open to the idea.

Glad to see the brotherhood and keepers of the trope have thought about this before me. As it happens, my story does feature precisely one alien world, by which it takes its name. Granted, alien life in any shape or form casts us and our world in quite a different light. The questions of human uniqueness and creation come fully into play. And I do suppose that, ultimately, I’ll be dabbling in them. But they weren’t my motive, in all honesty, and I surely don’t want to multiply my troubles with a galactic zoo to tear me from my point entirely.

Beyond us, of the Earth, and they, of Andala, space is void of life in my story. So far as either of us have explored it; which is to say but a nook of our shared galaxy. In other words: not so vastly different to where we begin, back here in reality. It’s never definitive, by its nature of seeking to prove a negative, but Andala aside, Fermi is still in play.

Wait just a moment, though. Andala aside? Why do I even think of it as any less than a full blown alien world?

Well, because I made it so, of course. Andala is more familiar to us than our own world was in many an age of its past. Not only the atmosphere and the landscape, but the life as well. Andala’s our eerie twin right down to its people. Our ancestors looked less like us than they do.

All the better to question its origin. And by doing so, as always, to cast a look at ours.

I have my reasons then to picture our stellar neighbourhood as a tabula rasa. First among them is the sheer amount of work to do. You might have noticed that I’m a nit-picker. I’d rather a concentrated focus, where I can pile in the detail, instead of a diffuse metaphoric sea of destinations, to be mentioned and forgotten whenever.

So Andala, alone, it is. “One world well.” And the rest, a mystery, lost in the unending deep. Space may well be the place, but I’m well aware that I can only forge a certain part of it. Constraints, of all things, in eternity.