Disclaimer: what follows is some world-building notes from a fantasy setting I’ve been developing for the past year or two, primarily in short fiction.
As my captors will never deign to write their history themselves, let alone read it, I, Yrelliel Dawnsbreath, the last of the the elves, take up my quill and scratch this missive in the diluted blood of my own people. So that people, one day, may know.
The wars were lost. This much is obvious. The kingdoms of humanity were crushed, the dwarven empire ground to dust, and the immortal courts of the elves slaughtered and forgotten. This was over a century ago now, though the pain of it is still keen. Know you the old human proverb, “time heals all wounds?” Not so for the children of the twilit world – we elves remember. We remember as it was yesterday, and for all time. I envy my ancient human friends now, long sent to their rest, leaving scarcely a ghost to haunt me.
But my monitor – a hobgoblin named Fether – grows anxious. He believes me to be writing something I ought not, which indeed I am. How fortunate I am that he cannot read my calligraphy. Oh, how my mother would laugh. She always found my penmanship abysmal. Now, after the world I knew has ended, how funny it is that such terrible handwriting would serve as my primary defense.
But, to business.
All orcs are born goblins. This was not commonly known in the World Before, but now it occupies my thoughts at all times. The species, which we once thought four distinct races, is really one. How arrogant of us to never learn this. How steep the cost of such pride.
Goblins are wretched creatures. Usually discarded by their mothers shortly after birth, they grow quickly into vicious, adaptable little creatures who know nothing but hunger and terror in equal measures. But I will say this: their cruelty is not genetic. Many have been the young goblins set to bring me food or spy upon my rest or run this or that errand of my captors who has looked at me not with revulsion and hatred, but with curiosity and wonderment. I see in their red-rimmed gaze the same innocence and eager energy I remember among human children, though goblins are physically the most superior children ever born. By the age of five summers they can sprint as well as any elf I can recall, and their nimble little fingers are capable of great feats of ingenuity.
Goblins survive on their wits and their will alone. Orc society shows them little mercy. They are servants, slaves, and even more wretched things in this world, and it twists them to become their worst selves or, as is often the case, kills them before they can ever amount to anything worthwhile.
The species is always growing, always feeding. The more a goblin eats, the larger they get. Eventually, they grow large enough to depart the title of “goblin” altogether, though when exactly this occurs is subject to some debate, I gather. In any event, food is strictly controlled, strictly rationed. Only those goblins that prove themselves worthy of their masters’ affection are fed, and the rest eat only what they can steal. If they are very lucky, they become hobgoblins.
Hobgoblins are the managers of orc society. Their chief responsibility lies in keeping the labor force (the goblins) in line, by lash or by hook. They are granted greater privileges by their orc masters – regular meals, a degree of protection from other orcs, access to equipment and training. Aboard a leviathan, hobgoblins act as reliable foot soldiers, as only they have a degree of loyalty to their orc masters. Like goblins, they are clever and ingenious, devising the vast bureaucracy that allows Orcdom to function and constructing the huge machines that gave it the capacity to overcome the world of old. If they are met with success, they are permitted to attend the feasting table of their orc master and are showered with food. In time, should they continue to impress their masters, they will soon grow large enough to become an orc themselves.
The orcs, of course, are the warlords, rulers, tyrants, and masters of this society. Huge, bulky, violent, and only occasionally cunning, they live for conquest, whether in the military or civilian arenas. Their hunger is, of course, their defining feature. Whatever civilized traits they once possessed have long since been beaten out of them by their hardscrabble climb to the top of the social pyramid. They are without imagination, as imagination is seen as a threat to their society. There are no artists in this world of theirs. No poets. Scarcely any scholars worth the name.
Just an elf with poor penmanship chained in a tower.
There is, of course, one more evolution beyond that of the orc. It is rarely spoken of in orc society, as the orcs fear what the greatest among them become. Should an orc be unusually successful, whether at war with other tribes or even as a merchant or ruler or otherwise, and should they gorge themselves on feasts that would embarrass even the most gluttonous human king of old, they will, of course, continue to grow. As they grow – and indeed along their whole history of growth, from their birth as a goblin onwards – their hunger becomes more and more part of who they are. The orcs are balanced (barely) between the intelligence of their former self and the barbaric hunger that has gotten them this far. For trolls, they have fallen off the precipice.
Trolls are gigantic creatures, standing ten or even fifteen feet tall and weighing as much as four or five horses. They are nothing but unrestrained appetite, eating everything they come across, regenerating even the most grievous wounds, and leaving behind them a trail of destruction. They are a thing apart in orc society – more beast that being – and bear with them a kind of religious awe. Indeed, I have heard of whole troops of dispossessed goblins, hobgoblins, and even orcs that follow in their wake, worshiping the passing of the troll and feasting upon that which was left behind. These fanatical bands are a scourge upon the order of this society, but one that Orcdom insists is necessary, for some reason. I cannot understand it. In my old life I would not have wished to. But now?
Now, there is little I have to do but to understand this new world in which I live. To marvel at its perversity and its strange vitality. And to write it so that my orcish captors will never truly know what I write of them.
I’d like to talk about two science fiction properties today, one of which I like quite a bit and the other which I actively despise. These properties are the Netflix Lost in Space reboot and the abysmal, frenetically empty Rise of Skywalker. In an effort to keep this from becoming a rant on RoS (because that could go on for a while), I’m going to try and focus the conversation here and use the comparison to Lost in Space to draw out certain elemental weaknesses in Episode IX that make it, very basically, a terrible movie and a story poorly told. Spoiler alert, of course, but honestly it’s really hard to spoil a movie that’s about nothing. So, mostly spoiler alert for Lost in Space.
The reason I think this comparison should work pretty well is that Lost in Space has a lot of the same weaknesses that Rise of Skywalker has. Namely, the technical details of the story don’t make
any sense and the pacing is frequently breathless and frenetic. For example:
In Rise of Skywalker
- The idea that the Sith planet is hidden and yet hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people need to have traveled there to build the secret fleet makes no sense.
- The idea that a fleet of Star Destroyers could just be hidden underwater while being built makes no sense.
- Lightspeed Jumping makes no sense
- The whole thing with the Sith Dagger makes no sense.
- The fact that Poe’s helmeted friend from that rainy planet gave him the Only Way Off The Planet and then managed to get off the planet anyway later on makes no sense.
- Palpatine’s plan to have Kylo kill Rey only to have him not kill Rey so that Palpatine could not kill Rey only so that later on he could kill Rey MAKES NO SENSE.
In Lost in Space
- Sailboats don’t work like that.
- Re-entry doesn’t work like that.
- Ice doesn’t freeze that way.
- What the hell did the horse eat on the space station for 7 months?
- You mean to tell me nobody thought to look for the kid on that space station for SEVEN MONTHS?
- Everybody’s got computers on their wrists collecting all kinds of data about them but not BIOMETRIC DATA?
- What did the raptors on the desert planet eat before humans showed up?
- So that whole forest is, like a year old? WHAT?!
Both properties have the characters in near-constant peril, sometimes arbitrarily. There is always somebody yelling something at somebody else, such as “GET BACK TO THE SHIP!” or “HURRY UP!” or “RUN!”
And yet, Lost in Space is a hundred thousand times better than Rise of Skywalker. When watching LoS, I am usually at the edge of my seat, holding my breath, cheering, and so on. In Episode IX, I was laughing at the movie, throwing my hands up in frustration, and rolling my eyes. The big question, then, is why?
In Lost in Space the peril is always character oriented and the moments of downtime are spent setting up character relationships. In Rise of Skywalker the peril has very little to do with any of the characters and the downtime is spent setting up the next set-piece or maguffin-related errand.
Look, we all know that none of the Robinsons are going to die (well, I’m pretty sure – not all the way through Season 2 yet) just like we ALL know that Rey, Poe, and Finn are going to live. We all know the good guys are going to win in the end – it’s light space opera, so it’s basically guaranteed. When that’s the case, the trick to getting the audience invested in the peril that you’ve devised is getting you to hook into the emotional state of the characters themselves. You, sitting on your couch at home, are well aware that the Robinsons live through this, but because you are so connected to the Robinsons on an emotional level, you are still anxious for them. You have empathy for their situation. It builds this empathy with flashbacks to the kids’ relationships with their parents back on Earth, with tender moments among the family or even by themselves (the Christmas celebration! Penny’s book! Will’s toy robot! Don and his pet chicken!). The “clever” plans that save the day? They come up with them in seconds and implement them through montage and then whammo, we’ve turned a spaceship into a sailboat and (hand waving) it works or something.
See, we (the audience) don’t ACTUALLY care about the technical details of a story that much. I know, I know – right now you’re trying to marshal arguments to the contrary, about how this or that science fiction movie or book or whatever had crappy science and it knocked you completely out of the book. And here I am, calling you a liar.
That’s right, I said it.
You know what beloved scifi franchise has shitty science and NOBODY CARES? Firefly. Garbage, guys – just straight up crappy world-building on several intersecting levels. Do you care? No.
You know what else has garbage technical details? Star Trek. YES, STAR TREK. The holodeck? C’mon now.
You know what else? EVERY SINGLE STAR WARS MOVIE, YES EVEN THE GOOD ONES!
Even The Martian hand-waved away crucial details to make the plot work!
The reason technical details knock you out of the story is not because the technical details were bad – you’ve forgiven those before and you will again – it’s because you didn’t connect or engage with the emotional content of the story or the characters’ conflicts.
Consider Rise of Skywalker, then. For the first 45 minutes of the movie, almost no one gets to finish talking without being interrupted (I timed it). Any character relationship building that is established is rushed, hasty, and clearly playing second fiddle to the external conflicts. Christ, look at poor Finn – he’s gone something important to tell Rey and the movie literally never gives him the opportunity to say it. What the fuck is that about? We want to hear what he has to say! No, we need to hear what he has to say or we’ll NEVER CARE ABOUT IT! And caring about what happens to the characters is literally the only thing that matters in any story, or, if not the only thing, the thing that needs to happen first before anything else will work.
Much like in the initial Abrams Star Trek reboot, any sympathy or connection we have with the characters in Rise of Skywalker is largely residual – we like them because we already know them from previous properties. There is just about no character building that occurs in the movie itself, with the possible exception of Rey and Kylo (and even that was inhibited by all the planet hopping and macguffin chasing, rather than aided by it). To make matters worse, the few moments where something happens that might affect how the characters think and behave are all erased by the film shortly thereafter. Chewie? Alive. 3-PO? Gets his memory back. Poe’s old flame? Makes it off the planet. Finn’s secret? Doesn’t matter. Hux’s betrayal? Not only nonsensical but discarded arbitrarily in the next scene. That kiss? What the fuck was that about?
Peril, danger, external conflict does not work if the audience has not invested in the characters on the screen. And that is an investment you need to keep investing in. You can’t do in once and expect it to ride for the next three films or six episodes or whatever. The audience is a fickle beast, sitting there in their comfy chair eating Raisinettes and popcorn, and looking for any opportunity to check out of your nonsensical thrill ride. However, once you hook them, suddenly you can violate the laws of physics (or even your own world-building) and almost nobody will care because, like it or not, we are creatures of the heart more than we have ever been creatures of the mind.
(Author’s note: what follows is a bit of world-building for my current novel project, tentatively titled The Iterating Assassin)
There is a simple and clear distinction to be made between the Great Races of our Union and the Lesser Races. The Great Races are those species who have overcome the Great Filter and achieved interstellar civilization. This has most commonly culminated in the achievement of FTL travel with slipdrive, but not necessarily. The Voosk, for instance, achieved it with slowships of incredibly ingenious design and the Bodani with sublight, self-propagating probes, even if both species went on to steal slipdrive technology later in their development.
Those species who have failed to achieve interstellar civilization are, by definition, lesser than those that have. This can be seen as unjust, but this is not a question of justice, but merely a practical question of social and intellectual maturity. The Great Filter is the single most important challenge any civilization faces, and any civilization that has never grappled with it and won cannot be considered equal to those who have.
So, the Filter exhibits as a series of converging crises. Any one of these crises can destroy a planet-bound or even system-bound civilization utterly, and every one of them is inevitable. These crises are as follows:
The Resource Crisis
Any successful civilization reaches the point where it uses more resources than any given planet or star system can reasonably provide via what we shall generously term “conventional” means (i.e. means outside of quantum or dark matter sources). Without tackling the Resource Crisis, the civilization will starve itself out of existence.
The Belligerence Crisis
Any sufficiently advanced civilization has at its disposal weaponry able to destroy itself. Civilizations that cannot find a way to cooperate and avoid self-destruction obviously will never overcome the Filter, as they will become extinct.
The Population/Travel Crisis
Advanced civilizations will have a positive birth rate. Inveitably, this birth rate will exceed the civilization’s capacity to provide for that population. This can be a direct side-effect of the Resource Crisis, but even if provided for materially, the growing population will lead to added instability, exacerbating both the Billigerence Crisis and the Contact Crisis. There is some argument among scholars whether this is a distinct crisis at all, but rather just a side-effect of other crises. This is also called the “Travel Crisis” for some, since this crisis can be alleviated (however temporarily) by being able to escape the confines of a single planet or series of planets.
The Contact Crisis
Advanced civilizations often will make quite a lot of interstellar noise. This attracts the attention of interstellar species, who frequently seek to make contact. In the best case scenario, a system-bound species that encounters an interstellar species is quickly overcome and becomes a vassal state to the more influential and more powerful species. In the worst case, one of the planet-eating Marshals discover the civilization and consume it.
So, the barrier to becoming a Great Race involve solving the Resource, Belligerence, and Population Crises before the Contact Crisis happens and the civilization in question reaches a satisfactory resolution to said First Contact episode. This is a rare thing indeed, and hence there are only six Great Races (eight if one counts Skennite and the Marshals).
And what of the Lesser Races? Well, that is a complex tale, perhaps best illustrated with a case study: the Quinix of Sadura.
The Quinix are arachnids of great size and intellect. They seem to grow indefinitely, but the largest specimens have
been recorded as being some 3.5 meters in diameter, from leg to leg. On average, they are between 1 and 2 meters in diameter, with eight legs, each of which sporting a three-fingered “hand” of remarkable strength and dexterity. They have six eyes and can see deep into the infrared spectrum, which serves them well in their very dim natural environs.
Quinix are omnivorous, but have a noted preference for meat. Like most arachnids, they digest their food outside their bodies using a venom injected via their fangs. Given their large size, their fangs are not of considerable size. The Quinix do not kill with their fangs, but usually use tools or even their thread and cables to kill prey before eating.
The Qunix have spinnerets, like many arachnids, and are able to weave fibers of incredible strength and elasticity from their bodies. A single adult Quinix can weave several kilometers of fiber before exhausting their stores and needing to rest. When working as a group, they are capable of building complex structures of all manner of shape and size, all with their bodies.
The Quinix are clan-based organisms by dint of biology. Quinix females only lay a single egg during their lifetime (and the process of laying the egg and caring for it is usually fatal for the mother). If successfully fertilized, that egg hatches to produce many hundreds of offspring who are, as of that moment, a single social entity. These young clans receive guidance from their father’s clan and revere their mother’s clan as holy and sacrosanct. A complex web (please pardon the pun) of social and clan relationships governs Quinix society, tied together by a mind-boggling network of relationships. Mortality on Sadura is high (the vertical environment, the constant tectonic activity, the predators, and wars between so-called “oblique” clans – clans with no familiar connection) and therefore population numbers are low, overall.
As the Quinix live in a subterranean environment (and have to – the surface of Sadura is a radiation-soaked wasteland thanks to its proximity to its red giant sun), they have no conception of night and day. Indeed, they have a very poor reckoning of time in general and, to the extent that they do tell time, it is only via generational figures (clan related, again). They follow erratic circadian rhythms that are difficult for other species to tolerate, and do not seem to rush to do much of anything.
Additionally, their concept of life and death are likewise complex. For the Quinix, one’s life includes not only the animate existence of their body, but also the continued existence of their woven cables and webs. Without destroying the cables that they wove in life, a Quinix is still considered “alive” by all social standards. Therefore, buildings woven out of Qunix fibers are quite literally “alive” in a sense difficult for other species to understand or appreciate. Cutting a cable on purpose is an act of fatal violence.
Due to the confluence of these physiological and social factors, the Quinix have not and never will be able to exceed the Great Filter. While they developed metal-working technology (made difficult by Sadura’s highly flammable high-oxygen environment), their natural building abilities hampered their interest in exploring more complex materials science that would have allowed them to progress from the construction of iron-based tools and trinkets. They therefore have never and would never develop the technology capable of destroying themselves, are not successful enough to have a resource shortage, have (or had) a near-zero birthrate, and would eventually have been discovered and consumed by a Marshal if they ever developed a radio transmitter.
Fortunately and also unfortunately for them, they were discovered by the Dryth Solon, Kaskar Indomitable in C30.10, and have spent the last two and a half cycles as a Lesser Race under the auspices of the Union of Stars. This means they they will not be haphazardly eaten by a passing Marshal (good), but also means that any further technological or social advancement will be under the influence of the Great Races that have come to their planet. They are in a permanent state of arrested development.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more unfortunately, the changes wrought by the Union to make Sadura more hospitable to the Great Races has had an exacerbated effect on Quinix society and Sadura’s ecology. Stabilizing the tectonic activity has permitted huge cities to be built, resulting in a spike in the Quinix birthrate but also nowhere for those Quinix to go except into off-world settlements. They are a servant species on their own planet, their old clan wars and dreams of dominion crushed beneath the off-worlder’s technological superiority. The Quinix are gradually losing their cultural identity and are no longer masters of their own environment. It is difficult to say what will become of them, but whatever it is, they will never again control their own destiny. Unjust? Perhaps. But also inevitable and unavoidable for those who fail to overcome the Filter.
All things considered, being relegated to a servant species is vastly superior to many of the other alternatives: ecological or military extinction, or possibly being devoured by a void-dwelling macroorganism.
Saw a tweet from Sam Sykes the other day which has been kicking around in my head ever since. I tried to find it to post, but I can’t seem to track it down, so you’ll just have to put up with a loose paraphrase. Essentially, Sykes, in response to the newest Star Wars movie, Solo, observed that he kinda preferred not knowing exactly what the Kessel Run was or what Han and Chewie got up to. He worries that this “obsessive canonization” cheats the audience out of their own imaginations, which are more evocative and powerful anyway.
The thing that stuck with me here is the simple fact that I love worldbuilding (and I get waaay too obsessive about it), but I also very much understand that worldbuilding does not create story and, in fact, it can potentially take away from story. I think Sykes has a really important point there – leaving spaces in your world building allows the reader to fill in blanks in potentially wonderful and exciting ways. As a writer, you shouldn’t even try to explain everything – you merely need to fill in enough so that the audience can do the rest.
Reading is a collaborative process. That sounds weird – reading is done alone and writing is done alone, so how is this possible? Well, the reader and the writer are still engaged in a kind of collaboration, just one that is separated by space and time. If you read a book of mine, you are getting my end of a story. You, however, as reader fill in many of the gaps in that story. And furthermore, you fill them in typically in a way that makes the story more interesting to you. The more I fill in for you, the less work you have to do (which can be good), but also it makes your imagination do less for you. Imagination is key, though – as a writer, you want your book to set the reader’s mind aflame with possibility and wonder. Too much detail can kill that magic.
Star Wars is a perfect example of this. Much of the magic of the original trilogy was rooted in the fact that it hinted at a much larger world, but didn’t bother to codify that world. You were left to wonder what Kessel was, why Tibanna gas was valuable, what the Old Republic was like, etc., etc.. For every mystery it revealed, it hinted at more mysteries. People sunk themselves into that world because they wanted to explore (and they could explore!).
Think, then, of the let-down that the prequel trilogy was. We saw the old republic and fought the clone wars and they were, well, kinda lame. The Jedi were dull. Even Palpatine was a bit of a bummer. Anakin Skywalker? We didn’t even like the guy. The desire to reveal too much about the world – to canonize even more – was a killer. When you throw in the obsessive canonization contained within the EU, we quickly arrive at one of the major reasons The Last Jedi got such negative reactions from hardcore fans. They felt as though they already knew what could and should happen, and then the movie changed that. They felt as though they were dealing with an already explained world and that TLJ was breaking the rules. And, in a sense, they were right, except that the world they thought they knew was being rewritten, and so all the old stuff doesn’t apply anymore. This, incidentally, is good for the long term health of Star Wars, but it doesn’t seem that way to people who have gotten themselves invested in what is “canon” and what isn’t.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that every detail you nail down in a story is a detail you can’t change later very easily. The more you nail down, the less can change. The less that can change, the more stale the world becomes until, at last, it is rigid and boring and only appeals to those old hardcore fans (who are always the minority, anyway). As a writer, then, it becomes an important challenge to figure out how much to reveal to keep the story evocative and immersive and how much to leave blank so that the audience can build an even better world into their imagination.
Part of the whole point I (and many others) read science fiction and fantasy is that we really love going to new, alien worlds and living there for a while. Exotic landscapes and bizarre technology and magic are part of that, and if you read in these genres, you get pretty good at acclimating yourself to weird new worlds. There are, however, limits to how far we are willing to go. Stuff can get too weird.
Case in point, when you get to the last two books of the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, shit goes seriously sideways. You’ve got aliens now, and Severian is traveling through space/time, and becomes Archon (or Emperor…or something) based on no clear reason and the whole of everything you’ve read previously becomes dreamlike and vague. To be honest, I have trouble even remembering what happens in the end of that book thanks to how bizarre it is.
Even when the storytelling is trying to be concrete, however, there are ways a world can knock you out of the immersion just by how alien they want their world to be. I have a lot of trouble, for instance, getting acclimated into worlds where there is no common units of measurement or time. Bad enough I need to balance a dozen different alien species and understand how psychic symbiotes work, but now I also need to know how long a “krandak” is?
Now, I totally realize that in far-future scifi and secondary world fantasy there is no good reason for people to measure things in miles/kilometers, do things on “Thursday,” and drink tea. Obviously, since these worlds are so far removed from our own, there would be very few common threads. However as authors we also need to remember that this is a story intended to be read and understood by the people of Earth. If you’re going to be writing the book in an Earth-language anyway, you can take a bit more translator’s license and talk about “inches” and “noon.”
There is a balance here to be struck, of course. The author wants to create a new and unique world and they want it to feel weird and alien at first. They still want you to be able to connect and understand what’s going on, though. If they go along and eliminate every single reference to our 24 hour day, we are going to have a lot of issues understanding what day and night are and what they signify (or, at least not without a lot of work on the part of the author). If this is central to the plot and to the concept the book is trying to explore, then this is fine. But if it’s incidental – if it doesn’t really matter – you should probably leave well enough alone and let the people live in a world with grass and trees and call them such. I’d even argue that leaving a few things of common reference makes the rest of the world seem more real and even more exotic, since you have something to compare it to.
I’ve been struggling with this kind of world-building myself for a little while now. On the one hand, I’ve created a scifi setting in which there are no humans (or even descendants thereof). Everything is very weird in a lot of important ways. As a compromise, I’ve decided that this alien culture is going to use hours, minutes, seconds, and the metric system. Should they? Well, no, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be able to describe anything to anybody if I don’t. On the other hand, I’ve got a fantasy setting that is an ancient world (say, ~800-500 BCE) in which there is no sun or moon. There are things that give light up there, yeah, but they aren’t the sun or the moon. This is proving to be wildly difficult to explain in any kind of elegant way, since nobody in the world itself would find this weird and yet everybody reading would find it fantastically alien. My solution (thus far) is to not bother explaining it unless I absolutely have to. But, you know, pretty soon I’ll have to. So, by way of balance, I’m doing my absolute best to make sure a lot of the other things the characters wear, say, and do are recognizable and clear. There’s only so much weirdness the reader can take, after all.
And now it comes time to discuss our own species – the Thraad. If it has taken long for me to reach this topic, it is not without reason. We Thraad understand that to know oneself, you must first understand others. If this seems counter-intuitive, give it time. You are young yet.
We are an evolutionary descendant of gastropods, though we are a significantly more complex organism than most common snails or slugs. We have a functioning circulatory system, for instance, and a six-chambered heart. Over the aeons, we have lost the ability to grow thick shells (artificial shells are worn instead, as clothing). Our locomotion is still by means of our single, muscular foot and made easier by the secretion of waste slime to reduce friction. We have two eyes on muscular stalks that can rotate and can even look in two directions at once without distress. Beneath our chins are four tentacles we use for the manipulation of objects, both fine and coarse. We are omnivorous and are hatched from eggs.
By the standards of other species in the Union, we are foul-smelling, slow, and ugly. But they know well enough not to underestimate us. Our home planet, Thraador, is very large by the standards of the Union and we evolved in an environment of extreme gravitational forces. Though we usually stand no more than 150 cm from foot to shell, we are the tallest and largest creatures on our world, which is flat, wet, and hot. Bipeds and quadrapeds never evolved on our world, as standing upright requires too much strength and affords too few advantages. When a fall of a few meters is fatal, walking on two or even four feet is risky. We Thraad are steady on our foot – we seldom falter and we never fall (remember this always, as it speaks not just to our physiology, but to our culture and heritage as well). Furthermore, thanks to the intense environment of our home, we are extremely strong by the standards of the other species. Though slow, we are unstoppable. Though ugly, we have wisdom.
We Thraad are a more unified people than most. Long ago we cast off petty nationalistic rivalries or affiliations of House or Cartel. Introspective by nature, we seek consensus in all things. Perhaps thanks to the harsh environment of our homeworld, we are disinclined to take action unless absolutely needed and not until it has been deeply considered. We are not flighty or given to impulse.
Our government is decentralized and simplistic: a council of elders of no specific size meets to decide things and, should the deliberations be wise, the people follow. This sounds chaotic to other species, but they do not understand our temperament. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter who speaks it. If the elders are wise, and history shows that they are, then they will speak well and we would do well to take their counsel. We are not a species of rebels or petty criminals. In the rare instance that one of our number is committed to folly, they are simply ostracized and cast out of the community. It is that simple.
This, of course, has its disadvantages. Though scientifically curious and always willing to learn, our society changes slowly and our capacity to react to calamity is limited. This makes other species think of us as harmless “armchair academics.” But our anger is no less bright than others. Our weapons, though perhaps not as flashy as those of the Dryth, are no less deadly. History is filled with the plague-ridden corpses of those who underestimated us.
We do not maintain distinct family units, even though we are a sexually reproducing species. Eggs are hatched centrally in any given community. The care of young ones is the equal responsibility of all – hence my speaking to you now. It may be that some of you are my biological children, but we Thraad make no distinctions between such things. If you are young and a Thraad, you are my offspring, to be treated the same as any other. If female, you will one day make periodic visits to the hatchery to lay. If male, you will make periodic visits to fertilize. That is all.
There is a sense among us, I feel, that we are cheated by our nature. Some of us look out from our flat world to gaze with envy upon the doings of the other Great Races – the romance of the Lhassa, the passion of the Dryth, and so on. But, in the end, all Thraad return to Thraador. After some years adventuring in the light gravity of the outside world, we long to return to our swampy homes. We are sensible like that.
Thraad civilization began some 16,000 sidereal years in the past. There is too much to know to sum up in this precis, but suffice to say that we took our time developing our cultures, our technologies, and our knowledge. There were wars, yes, but they were primarily waged by proxy: animals and plants and microbes we had trained or engineered to pursue our interests in one way or another. We are, of course, famed for being the masters of what is called “ecological warfare.” It is a slow way to defeat one’s enemies, yes, but quite effective in the long run.
We sought the stars, as all species do in time, but not because of the damage we had done to our environment (like the Lhassa) or because of our desire for conquest (the Dryth). Rather, we left our planet to learn. To explore. The history of our species is one of slow, gradual exploration – the meticulous building of a body of knowledge. We are a curious people.
Of course, our steps into the stars were not without problems. We warred with other species and lost. We discovered that our technologies and our habits were too slow to compete with the likes of the Dryth and Lhassa and Lorca. By luck, we “met” Skennite, and found in it a kindred spirit. The period of our history known as “the Hastening” began – we discovered the secrets of slipdrive, we expanded our influence. When again war came, we were ready. Our biological and chemical weapons were terrifyingly effective, our well-planned strategies invincible. We made the galaxy tremble. Of course, we are not a warrior people in the manner of the Dryth and we are not so numerous or prolific as the Lhassa, and we in time lost again. But we had secured ourselves a place as one of the Great Races, a privilege we continue to enjoy.
We joined the Union gladly, happy to escape the endless wars that ravaged the stars. Now our role is as diplomats, scientists, and merchants, not warriors. We are happier this way. Let the Lhassa and the Dryth and the others struggle in violence and pain for their pieces of the universe. We Thraad shall stand by, patiently, for the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into somewhere essential, just as we always have.
I just re-read Dune over the past few weeks, prepping to teach it in my scifi elective class come spring semester. This is probably my fourth time reading the book and, at this point, it all seems very clear and straightforward. Herbert’s world-building is marvelous as ever and I’m excited to teach it. However, as with any time I read a book with a mind to teach classes on it, I tried to keep in mind just how accessible the work is to a casual reader. If you’ve ever read Herbert’s work, “accessible” is perhaps not the first word that comes to mind. The world of Arrakis is densely layered and context clues to how everything works are relatively rare; there is a glossary and appendices included at the back of the novel for a reason.
So, okay, my students are going to struggle with it a bit. The question becomes “is that a bad thing?”
Part of the purpose of scifi and fantasy is to challenge the reader’s preconceived notions. The author seeks to create a new and alien place for you to inhabit for a while to get you thinking about the real, actual world (even if only subconsciously). Some do this with worlds that are just a touch off of our own (much of the cyberpunk sub-genre, for instance, or near-future hard scifi like The Martian). Some do it with wildly different worlds so far removed from our own, the comparison is more abstract and less direct – works like Herbert’s Dune series or even Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.
Personally, while I don’t dislike the more realistic tales, I really dig a good wild ride in a totally alien universe. The price for entry into these wild settings is high, though. It takes a while to get settled in Iain M. Banks’ Culture setting, for instance, though the pay off when you do is proportionally greater (for me). Novelty, of course, is a special thing in literature of any stripe, and any world as wild and strange (and yet fully realized) as Leckie’s Imperial Radch or anything in a China Mieville novel is something to be treasured and a challenge to be met.
In rattling off these names of books and authors, though, you might have noticed that some of them are easier reads than others. This leads me to my last rumination for the day: where, exactly, should the line be drawn between the alien and the familiar? Let’s be honest: there is a real, actual limit to how strange your world can be before it becomes essentially unreadable. A book no one reads is not the goal of any author, no matter how avant-garde they want to be, so where do you hold back? How weird is too weird?
I haven’t much of an answer to give you, I’m afraid. I don’t know that this is something easily solved by a set of hard and fast rules. I can say, however, that you need something at the heart of your tale to ground the audience in the familiar, otherwise you’ll lose their interest. Paul’s relationship with his parents in Dune is sufficiently understandable to carry you through all the bizarre chat about the Kwisatz Haderach and folding space/time with psychedelic spice. Likewise, no matter how strange the Culture seems, Banks (usually) populates it with main characters who are, in broad strokes, not too different from us in attitude and behavior, even if their cultural background is very strange and their appearance off-kilter. Both of these authors, though, cross the lines in some places. Herbert’s later Dune books are very, very weird to the point where they’re hard to connect to. Banks, likewise, has certain seventh dimensional plotlines circling around the doings of super-intelligent AIs that keeps the reader at a distance. As interesting as those books are, readers tend to love with their hearts, not their minds.
Though my current series of novels isn’t that off the beaten path, I grow restless anyway. One of my earlier novels was a multiple-reality/quantum causality thriller which was, frankly, too weird to work so I toned it down into a stock adventure novel and then it also didn’t work. If I go back to it (and other) ideas I have kicking around that are not the standard fare, I’m going to have to think long and hard about how to balance the strange with the familiar, the bracing with the comfortable, if I plan on selling the idea to anyone. Maybe then I’ll have better luck.
There are but three things in the lands of Nyxos:
The Sea Beneath,
Sky Above, Land Between.
There are but three creatures: Gods, Men, and Beasts.
Those who live are New Men, humans, born of
what was, inheritors of what is now.
For ages long and in time now long lost,
When Gods dwelled in vaulted sky halls. Proudly
they stained the Earth with their bloody wars and
the Sea grew crimson and the Land barren.
Dusty bone fell upon the mountains black,
and fields howled empty.
She of the Earth wept bitter tears for
those children lost to the petty duels
among brother and sister, Gods and Men.
“This cannot stand, this warring state above!
Go forth, my Sons, seek aid for us in deep
places, where no god nor man hath tread.”
And so her son, the Lord of Secrets, found
a deep well, beneath Sea and Land alike.
Whispers into dark places set free
the wild forces of madness and chaos.
Gods and Men turned their arms to the new foes,
But She of Earth had loosed a fire too mighty.
The Gods burned.
The Citadel, beacon bright and high,
could not stand before the raging blaze.
The chaos would consume the world entire.
Mountains flowed like wax, the sea seethed,
The stars fell.
The Citadel was left as madness howled,
and the last God spoke a curse to avenge
his end and the ends of all of his kind.
“Let my tower burn for half of all time,
Let my gate stand empty the rest,
and so let the world know what it
once had and now has lost forever.”
With his spear, he clove through the Citadel,
and the Chaos was dismayed.
The treasures of the gods fell down to Earth,
into the well of fire Secrets had tapped.
Sealing the world, saving it, even as
it died away.
In time the Age of Men arose amid
the ruins of the Gods and Elder races.
The Tower still burns above every day,
The Gate glows empty each and every night,
And the peace of death descends upon all.
Save in dreams, where bloody battles old,
are fought in sleep by wretched mortals frail,
to caution Men of how they may yet fail.
And so we come to discuss the Dryth.
The Solons, and all that they have done and will do, no doubt dominate the minds of every being in the Union. Beings of almost mythical power and unlimited wealth, each independent and unique, each equally as likely to be savior or destroyer.
But today is not the time to discuss the Solons. No doubt you have heard ballads enough of their exploits. No, today we discuss the Aigythi, the Dedicated – the armies of the Solons. Who among us has not borne witness to an Aigyth on patrol? Who has not been confronted by one, armor-clad, face obscured by that eyeless helm, and not quavered at their invisible gaze? But what are they? How can they have come to sacrifice so much of themselves to the service of their Solon?
The answer, like most good answers, is a complicated one. It asks that we look at the very roots of Dryth culture and mythology as well as the technical and practical limitations of the Solons themselves (blasphemy, I know, I know – and yet, if I am to educate, I must occasionally blaspheme). Though the Aigythi are a relatively new phenomenon, they are an offshoot of a much older tradition.
The Dryth homeworld, Odryss, is an inhospitable place. Its arid, radiation soaked surface was slow to give rise to complex life. When we Thraad were inventing mathematics and taming beasts in our First Age, life on Odryss existed only beneath the surface, in the deep caverns of the subterranean oceans. The Dryth, it is thought, are descendants of hardy creatures that journeyed from the warm, dark embrace of the deep oceans to brave the harshness of the deserts. The Dryth evolved slowly, but also steadily. No cataclysms or great plagues hampered their process, no extinction level events diverted their evolutionary path. When we Thraad has risen and fallen twice already, the Dryth grew unimpeded.
For aeons, the Dryth were small in number, as their habitat could not sustain a large population. They were a nomadic species divided into small tribes and constantly warring for sparse resources. By necessity the species was hardy, innovative, and independent. Their oral tradition is rife with tales of individual heroism and courage – clever warriors and powerful shamans, doing battle with the gods and nature for the protection of their people. The Dryth cultural obsession with independence and self-reliance stems from these deep-seeded moments, from a time when their ascendance was very much not guaranteed.
This, then, explains the rise of the Solons well enough: individualistic god-heroes, leaders and self-reliant pioneers, dragging their people along in their wakes. But what of the Aigythi? How does a culture that values independence and individualism so highly support such vast armies of people who are, in essence, enslaved to their Solon’s will?
There is a peculiar paradox among the Dryth. For as much as they style themselves as free and self-sustaining people, their admiration for the Solons – the ideal representations of their cultural desires – leads them to mimicry and imitation. This, ironically, leads them to conformity. In their haste to be “as unique as” their Solon masters, they wind up being but pale representations of them. The culture of the Dryth Houses is dominated by this paradox.
The Aigythi are the prime example of this paradox. Individual Dryth, free to make their own decisions, who willingly give up their minds and bodies to serve the Solon. When the Aigythi puts on the helm, his or her mind is open for the Solon to read. The Solon may draw upon the experiences and knowledge of any Aigythi as if it were their own. The Solon may command and even control any Aigyth body as though it were but another appendage. Naturally, of course, the Solon’s mind is not infinite and cannot control all Aigythi at once, but that is of little import. A talented Solon can lead an army of Aigythi with a level of cooperation and synergy other non-collective species cannot dream of, all while retaining a level of initiative and innovation among its members any collective species would envy. The perfect army led by the perfect warlord.
Now, it does happen that Aigythi retire from service, leave the guidance of their master, or even occasionally betray their Solon. Such, though, are rare. A hundred Aigythi might sacrifice their lives to prevent their Solon injury, even when that Solon would never think twice to abandon them should his strategic aims dictate him to do so. It makes one wonder: at what point does loyalty become madness? At what point does the self become consumed by the group or by the master? The Aigythi armies are, I believe, the most potent example of this paradox, and therefore ought to be studied with care.
But enough blaspheming for one day. Come, let us eat.
Firstly, let me give you a souped-up version of something I doodled in a meeting the other day:
I know, I know–I shouldn’t have been doodling. They were talking about bathrooms for about fifteen minutes, though, so I don’t think I missed much.
Anyway, my spiffy Venn Diagram isn’t why I’m here today. The diagram is a lure – a trap, if you will – to draw your attention to something much more awesome.
This September 24th to the 27th in Dover, Vermont is the 2015 ITVFest (Independent Television and Film Festival). It is a film festival dedicated to the independent film maker, the independent television producers, webseries makers, and so on. To quote from their website:
ITVFest (the Independent Television and Film Festival) is the original public festival and network of the world’s best independent television pilots, webseries and short films.
Every September, we bring together over 1,000 filmmakers, actors, writers, directors, producers, financiers, Hollywood executives and general public fans to relax and connect in the Vermont mountains.
Our beautiful Vermont location makes ITVFest the most unique (and useful) destination TV/web festival throughout the world. Hollywood is a relationship based business and professional producers and studios often look to hire people that they already know and trust when creating a new project. Unlike big city festivals where it can be difficult to interact with the right people, ITVFest in Vermont offers a unique opportunity to meet fellow professionals and make these lasting connections that can lead to prosperous careers.
Studios trust that what they see at ITVFest is the best of what is out there in the expansive digital universe. Quality and talent shine at ITVFest, giving the world’s best filmmakers direct front door access to Hollywood’s best studios and networks.
Technologically savvy and forward thinking, ITVFest prides itself on being for and about the creators of quality content – regardless of industry status. Our content creators range from new filmmakers to Emmy winners.
In short, this is a great opportunity for anybody interested in filmmaking or its associated industries. And you know what makes it even cooler?
I’m presenting there this year!
Yup – Yours Truly will be giving a little talk and presentation on world building in science fiction and fantasy stories at 11:00am on
Sunday Saturday, and I could not be more excited! This festival sounds like it will be tons of fun and I’ve heard good things about previous years. If you have half a mind and are anywhere close to Vermont, you really should come check it out!