Worldbuilding – my responses to Jasne

Worldbuilding - my responses to Jasne

I my last writing post, Jasne as me a whole heap of really good questions (a big thanks Jasne :) ). I was going to respond to his comment and then realised that my response would make a really good (or at least average) post. So here we go. I will put Jasne’s comments in blue italics and my responses in Klingon plain text. Note that there will be some spoilers for my novels in here. Also, all my responses will probably be long winded, so flee while you can. :)


Hi Greg! Worldbuilding is my love, so I couldn’t walk past a request for feedback 🙂

First off: I like your backstory and I think it has a lot of potential. I’d just like to reiterate that before I start picking stuff apart ) Everything I say below is more of… consideration than criticism, ok? 🙂

1. Collapse of a Civilisation

About the defence system and the collapse of civilisation caused by its shutting down.
I can see weird alien defences isolating the planet, easily. What I have hard time seeing is “within the month their entire civilisation mysteriously collapsed”. What do you mean – collapsed?

The way I see it, a civilisation can collapse Roman-Empire style: over several centuries, with decadence, periphery breaking off, barbarians coming in, that sort of thing. Or it can collapse Soviet-Union style: rapid paradigm shift and clumsy economic restructuring with a heavy dose of corruption leading to utter mess. But, I mean, even Soviet Union took several years and there were signs of a disaster coming for a couple of decades before that. So I just have hard time picturing what a mysterious collapse within a month would actually look like. Did they suddenly lose their energy and their machinery ground to a halt? Did they have an epidemic and die out? What constitutes collapse of a civilisation?

The as-yet unnamed civilisation that cracked the defences in-fact had not. The defence system was a trap among other things. SoulThief knew that while his own mausoleum’s systems were designed to evolve, there was a strong likelihood that eventually a superior technology would come along. He designed the systems to quickly play dead in face of a superior technology, then infiltrate and destroy. It did just that, completely shutting down most advanced systems in that civilisation (including their portal system that linked the planets). Hence a technological destruction that had huge socio-economic repercussions. Imagine if all our technology crashed overnight and could not be resurrected?

The Canal Builders are basically a civilisation that developed from the ruins. In some cases they used technology from other civilisations that had not belonged to the collapsed one. In other cases they rebuilt from scratch. They never reached the same heights and, in fact, were deliberately held back by a combination of post-humans and AIs.

As I suggested too, their own use of magic also stifles innovation. This idea comes from the ancient world. When I did my history degree I was astonished to discover that so many inventions had existed in rudimentary form in the ancient world but slavery stifled too much investment in technology. After all, why develop a steam engine when you already have slaves to do things for you?

Back to plot, SoulThief did not anticipate the extent to which any superior technology could overwhelm his, so while he did take out the “enemy”, his defences never fully rebooted. Hence the fact that this new group of aliens can infiltrate to some degree, hence triggering some of the ancient defence AIs.

The collapse of the ancient civilisation in one of the stories that I have parked for another series some time in the future, as I have the struggle to overcome the post-humans and AIs who are deliberately stifling humanity.

This world has been in my head for a couple of decades, though the story is a recent add-on. I first started thinking about it in the 80s while doing a university subject called “The world turned upside down” – all about the collapse of Rome. I didn’t want to do just another Foundation, or create some fairly boring future dystopia, so its been sitting there in my mind evolving until a story came up. :)

 

2. Economy

About that “economy based upon recovering and repurposing items from the rest of the planet’s surface”. I can see how that could work if somebody came in after the defences were shut down, re-discovered the planet, and started a new community based off scavenging and trading with the rest of the galaxy.

However, you are saying Shade was settled (over a thousand years ago, since it happened before Dreamers came) by the indigenous people (for a given value of indigenous – descendants of the Canal Builders). They must have had some sort of economy before they came to Shade. Even if they were forced to come into Shade because of some sort of disaster in whatever part of the planet they inhabited before – you still need food and shelter as you migrate and settle down. So, they already had an economy and ways to produce food more or less locally (the same ways that were in operation while the planet was isolated by the defence system – except on a smaller scale).

I could see that old economy slowly dying and being replaced by trade… except that replacement must be fairly recent. If they live purely off scavenging, they would have scavenged everything they could within reasonable distance. Besides, over a thousand-plus years they _someone_ was bound to start a local economy, especially if they’re up to 18th century technological levels. Either that, or the planet would be long abandoned by now and all you’d have left is a spaceport city where scavenging expeditions from other planets stop over. But they wouldn’t be limited in technology, so that’s not it.

The Canal Builders had quite an extensive and complex economy, and every time they opened a portal (or Lock as I call them in the story) they added more complexity. Don’t forget that are long after the original civilisation that collapsed. They are thriving. Also note, it is the economy of hundreds of unique worlds linked by the obvious bottleneck of the Locks. Some Locks are massive and some are small. The Lock leading into Shade is a minor one, as is the one leading out. An analogy for trade along the Mistress is probably 17th transatlantic trade with all its limitations. It does not really sustain the planets in most cases, just provides less common (higher price) goods.

My original inspiration for the Canal Builders were the Hansa of medieval Europe with a bit of Venice thrown in. That has changed a bit now.

Now for Shade and it’s place in this mix. I have an unfinished short story from way back about a group of people using these portals to discover new lands. (Yes, it was a complete rip off of Star Gate). In the story they find a ghost planet and something starts killing them off one by one. (Here it changes to an Alien rip-off). In the end a botanist escapes with a pod, while a heavily armed contingent of soldiers enter the lock to do battle with the thing. I never finished the story because I could not work out how the soldiers destroyed it. But I always had this story lurking in the recesses of my mind. When I started writing Tempting in Shade my old story began to resonate. Shade is that haunted planet, but now. The people who reactivated the portal to get there were the Canal Builders. It all made sense! (At least in my mind it did.) I still have not worked out exactly what happened, but I hope to discover that along the way.

This said, the people who settled Shade – think of the nineteenth century gold rushes. Think Deadwood and the wild west. However also throw in concepts from large Indian slums (as in Indians from India) who strip apart junk and repurpose it. And, as a last aspect, throw in those Renaissance Italian cities full of lords, each of whom lived in towers and had private armies. That is Shade society, apart from the Gnossians who live in their won city within a city.

Shade is a society constrained to one Grand Canyon sized valley (historically this canyon is the product of a weapon used in one attempt on the planet). The rest of the planet is too dangerous. At each end of the valley is a Lock and the Mistress runs down it. Food comes from a number of sources (because the Mistress and the Lock are not viable sources of food). The giant valley has fungus growing everywhere in it. The fungus is edible, if not precisely tasty. The walls of the valley house huge spaces and corridors that lead to other huge spaces. They spaces have water (through ancient pipes) and light/heat (also from ancient technology – these used to be starship hangers). Inhabitants have brought soil to these places and grow crops here. There is conflict over ownership of various spaces (the Lords in their towers etc). This is also the remnant of a failed short story from bygone years :)

3. Technological levels

Speaking of which. I have extremely hard time imagining a civilisation permanently stuck – for thousands of years now! – in 18th century technology. Yes, even with an excuse of “magic stifles technology”. Because the thing is, most of technology we – or, at least, I 🙂 – would think of 19th century, like revolvers and mechanical clocks, were actually invented – and used – much earlier. Even in Europe itself. So what exactly is it that magic is stifling that permits revolvers and mechanical clocks, but doesn’t permit, say, semi-automatics?.. Especially if your magic, from what I understood, is just a seriously advanced form of technology. If they have ability to make a revolver, they have the ability to improve the revolver.
So I’d say you either need to lower the technology levels or come up with a better explanation why they’re stuck. Perhaps their magic-like abilities render more advanced technology redundant somehow? Or perhaps they have authoritarian/theocratic government that hogs all the research results and common people never get to use them? Or?..

Yes, as I said Posthumans and AIs are behind some of this. It’s another old idea that I first pondered when watching the Matrix series. For some reason the machines in the Matrix trilogy wanted the humans peacefully asleep. But why? Realistically if all humans were technologically linked then our brains could be used without us even knowing, and while we go about our daily lives. And it would be sustainable. We would be like dairy cows, except used for our unused mental processing capabilities rather than our milk. So the Posthumans and AI let magic dampen some of our innovation and then they stomp on anyone who gets to far ahead of themselves.

OK – so why didn’t the Posthumans and AIs do this with SoulThief et al all those millennia ago? The original draft of the novel (2013) alludes to a war between the different flavours of humanity. Differences were causing the huge human empire to disintegrate. At the time that all that was happening the Posthumans and AI had bigger fish to fry.  Now they are around and while they exist on what is essentially a different plane to us, they still keep humanity in check because (like the Titans and their children) they have no desire to be superseded.

4. Timeframe

You said the Dreamers arrived a thousand years ago – and to this day they live in a single isolated city that has a pretty small population. They must be very non-human or very inter-bred by now.

Funnily enough you hit one of my sub-themes (is that a word?) because the population of the Gnossians IS very in-bred. In book 1 (Tempting in Shade) the protagonist is half Gnossian and half something else (this something else would take a long time to explain). This is one source of some friction between her and her group of friends who are “pure” inbred Gnossians. Book 4 (Ghosts of the Future) actually addresses this more because it involves Pari’s mother Negan (who is the something else I alluded to). Book 4 also delves into the darker side of the Gnossians. For you see there are mental health implications rather than biological because of ancestral bio-engineering and the technology inherent in their systems that prevents physical deformities. Children identified with mental issues are usually killed. In borderline cases they are not. The motivation for one villain is the unsolved murder of her twins who were borderline and supposed to have lived. The population also has a large attrition rate on the expeditions that they undertake and also frequently commit suicide or tend to leave the society. Their population is about 10,000 and has been consistently that for centuries.

Also, in general, is it really necessary to deal in thousands of years rather than, say, centuries? Human civilisations usually arise, evolve, and die much faster. If you need your characters to have mostly forgotten what really happened, a few hundred years would be sufficient, especially if we’re talking about a collapse of civilisation. I mean, look at Europe. Rome was the stuff of legends by Middle Ages, and it only fell in 5th century. So was the 6th century King Arthur.
Heck, Soviet Union is mythologized to hell and back in modern Russia and that was alive and well in our lifetime 🙂

Actually this is something that I have struggled with quite extensively over the past couple of years. Various incarnations of my timelines have been in centuries rather than millennia. However as soon as I reduce it to centuries the story feels less “epic”. So it is a bit like fairy wings in fairy tales – not realistic but in my mind adds acceptable flavour to the story, even if it is not practical. I feel it adds that feeling of vast canvases. I kind of think of LotR. The Second Age mentioned by Tolkien goes for 3441 years and the Third Age for 3021.

Force your people to barely-survive for several generations – send them hunting-gathering, for example, or get them into a major civil war – and most will end up with a very vague idea what went on before.

Quite a few wars are happening simultaneously across the worlds and this does happen in some places. Verdant (the Pilot who is central to Book 2 Pilot’s Lock) is the former leader of a mercenary company. He has lived a long life and cannot even remember parts of it himself.

By the way, that could be one of the simpler solutions to your technological issue. If the technology-producing civilisation collapsed just a century or so ago, current generation could, potentially, be still using old technology without producing any, or really understanding it. If they lost ability – resources, knowledge, whatever – needed to produce technology, they aren’t likely to develop it, either.

Anyway. Thank you for sharing your backstory. I’m sure you’ll be working more on it – it’s a never-ending process, isn’t it? 🙂 But I feel like you’re on a good track. Good luck and remember to have fun! 🙂

Thanks for responding and being the basis of this post :)

And everyone else, if you have not visited Jasne’s blog then HERE it is.

Greg :)

1 Comment


  1. I can relate to the “epic millennia” thing ;)
    …weird how WP reader only seems to show like half of your posts. I have to visit your site on the web to see them all.

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