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World building 101

(Yes, I'm working today ...)

One of the unusual features of SF and fantasy genre literature is that they rely on worldbuilding to an unusual degree. (I note in passing that the SF Encyclopedia doesn't have an entry for worldbuilding yet, hence the wikipedia definition.)

When we write fiction in the realist mode, set in the present day, we can rely on the author and reader's shared experience of the world they live in to sketch in a lot of background details. There's no need for a mainstream author to work out the constitutional structure of the British government, for example, unless they're writing a thriller about British constitutional law; likewise, they can refer to a Ford Transit in the knowledge that readers will know what one of those is. (Except they can't — the brand name applies to two hilariously different families of vehicles in Europe and the United States. But that's a localization issue.)

This consensus reality breaks down under certain conditions. American readers need background details if they're reading books set in Europe, and vice versa. Western culture readers again need more orientation cues if reading a book set in, say, Afghanistan or Botswana. Names, places, the appearance of everyday things from roads to government buildings to cooking pots — the physical trappings of human cultural life — may warrant description that can be elided if the setting is familiar.

If you leave out the background details, a reader unfamiliar with the culture being depicted may have problems. When I was a pre-teen I didn't know that in America, people drove on the right; consequently, any number of action scenes in books didn't make sense to me. I lacked an essential piece of consensus knowledge. This isn't to say that it's necessary to state explicitly which side of the road your protagonist is driving in every work of fiction — but when I write I always have the ghost of a notional target reader hovering behind my shoulder, and occasionally they ask, "what's that?" And I have to go back and describe something or other that previously I had merely named, and which they are unfamiliar with.

And that's just the physical stuff: what's inside human heads is much stranger. People who speak different languages, adhere to (or grew up with) different religions or belief structures, or who simply come from parts of the world where the flow of history is different (for example, where there has been a civil war or military coup or invasion in their own lifetime) will have different attitudes and outlooks to people in the relatively rich and peaceful nations of the EU and North America. Do people in this culture trust their government to protect them, or fear it as an imposition? Do they trust strangers in the street to share their own culture and assumptions, or do they remember the bad time 25 years ago when fascists with clubs were battling students with bricks in the street and anyone might be an informer who could have you dragged away and tortured in the Colonels' prisons on the basis of a rumour?

If you're writing a mainstream novel for, say, a British or US audience that is set in 1970s Greece or Argentina, you're going to have to deal with the fact that the British and American experiences of government in that decade, turbulent and confrontational though they were, vanish into insignificance compared to tanks in the streets and Dirty War disappearances and mass graves. And your audience are going to need a whistle-stop tour of those aspects of the setting, insofar as they impact your story.

We haven't got to SF and fantasy yet. Nowhere near, in fact.

Historical fiction is the first genre we come to where world-building is essential to the reader's comprehension. Not only are the physical trappings of life (clothing, transport, houses) significantly different in appearance and design, but many of the conveniences of modern life are absent — requiring, in turn, awareness on the author's part of the in-conveniences they freed us from. And that's before we get into the characters' heads.

The past is another country — go back just 1-2 human lifespans (150 years) and it's an alarming one. Around 50% of newborn infants died before the age of 5, so merely achieving a stable population required a TFR over 4.0. Life expectancy once people were past the terrible toddler years was better than many imagine, but nevertheless infectious diseases killed up to 30% (a figure today associated with cancer in the developed world). Energy sources other than muscle power were crude, inefficient, and rare: much labour was hard, grinding manual work. And today's basic social security structures didn't exist anywhere prior to the 1870s. In combination, these factors imposed severe economic and personal constraints on how people lived; today's Islamic Republic of Iran is, in many ways, less alien to us than Great Britain in the 1850s. That's without considering the other aspects of "1850s Britain" as a world-building exercise that an author trying to depict it to modern eyes would have to take into account. And it only gets worse the further back and further away you go.

So what of the literature of the fantastic?

I propose that worldbuilding is the primary distinguishing characteristic of SF and fantasy (at least at a superficial level). Get the worldbuilding wrong, and your readers won't be able to get a grip on the story line or the motivation of your characters. Or worse — they'll get a grip, and realize that your story is, at best, a western or an age-of-sail yarn with the serial numbers filed off: that the trappings of the fantastic are only there to add a spurious sense of exoticism to an everyday tale.

Worldbuilding in classical or high fantasy usually creates societies that in structure and trappings resemble ones drawn from history; indeed, if you take an historical novel and add homeopathic doses of magic you get something like Harry Turtledove's Videssos books, and if you take a fantasy novel and strip out the magic you might end up with a blow-by-blow re-enactment of the Wars of the Roses.

Worldbuilding in urban fantasy ... well, there usually isn't very much of it: urban fantasy is for the most part our own inhabited world, with added supernatural fauna.

Science fiction usually attempts to extrapolate in the opposite direction. But we have no cognitive models for societies that have access to technologies that don't exist yet, so our visualization of future cultures is frequently cloudy. A Victorian novelist might come up with the idea of antibiotics — drugs that magically banish infectious diseases — as a conceit for their great novel set in the 1990s, but they're unlikely to anticipate the resultant demographic transition, the rise of nursing homes as warehouses for the elderly, or second wave feminism. (All of which, arguably, are among the second-order effects of the huge reduction in infant mortality between 1900 and 1950.) Similarly, we can look at the emergence of 3D printers and Maker culture in the west as a side-effect of the outsourcing of bulk mass production to global centres of excellence and the hollowing-out of our own local industrial base ... but how do we guess what it's going to lead to, or what it's going to make possible? What the political and social consequences are going to be?

(I'm going to get round to that in the next part of this ongoing brain dump, when I get round to writing it.)



and if you take a fantasy novel and strip out the magic you might end up with a blow-by-blow re-enactment of the Wars of the Roses

Which is much of what I actually like about GRRM's fantasy project A Song of Ice and Fire. Happily it's not a blow-by-blow re-enactment, but it does have a political atmosphere to it that one feels would be very familiar to the Houses of York and Lancaster.

(But he's got more factions around, and a major world-threatening Big Bad, and so much more.)


Or take some well loved Sci-Fi, strip out the starships, blasters, and mutant, to reveal Edward Gibbons. Of course Mr Asimov never made a secret of the fact.


Or a certain well-known SF series with a heroine who's initials are HH, strip out the tech, and get Hornblower.


That particular example has always irritated the hell out of me: there's no constraint in that universe that presents Admiral Hornblower from being confronted by the Red October, except perhaps for an authorial lack of vision.


Er, in the later volumes, they sort of have.


That along with the lost fleet series are a brilliant example for me of authors who have little clue how to worldbuild and write good SF. It's depressing that so many authors write US Navy/European Empire in space stories. It's particularly irritating when these authors don't even have the common sense to use wikipedia to fact check basic things like acceleration, velocity etc. I've thrown more than one book in the bin when the author starts talking about spaceships with top speeds.


Actually, that happened in the last book. The bad guys invented a comprehensive stealth technology that essentially replicates the submarine.

That being said, I suspect that you and I could have a lovely discussion of the inadequacies of world-building, character development, and the history of science in that particular universe.

My big complaint is that the missiles in his fiction are so goddamn dumb!

Nonetheless, his books are a minor guilty pleasure.


" ...but they're unlikely to anticipate the resultant demographic transition.. "

This is why Frank Herbert's Dune is still such a compelling read - consequences of fuel monopoly versus oligopoly ... jihad, planetary ecology as a rallying force and weapon, etc.

Same with Heinlein's non-YA novels - right on the money on quite a few sociological trends and developments.


But all spacecraft do have top speeds ...

Ignoring warp physics and even the absolute max of light speed, while you may think you get asymptotically close to c, you don't.

Instead you get closer and closer to seeing that space is not quite so empty after all, and the momentum of gas and dust collisions means you need a streamlined vessel (a la Alastair Reynolds, I think), and then the photon background starts doppler-shifting towards X-rays and doing nasty things to your ship.


I have to say that the author in question does a decent job on the issues of velocity/acceleration, orbital mechanics, etc. It may not be perfect, but at least he's aware that spaceships are not airplanes, that spaceships cannot turn, that one must use equations to calculate where one is going and how to get there, that turning around requires thrusting in the opposite direction, and that the need to apply thrust to change vector and speed creates real limitations.

As a layman, I can't speak to the accuracy of the depictions in these particular books, but the issues are at least considered carefully.

And unlike some other fictions *cough*StarTrek*cough* the military rank structures are always the same, military orders are generally followed (and if they aren't there are consequences,) and technology behaves consistently from book to book unless someone invests time and money in making a series of incremental improvements, or spends massive amounts of time and money to make a real breakthrough. I should also note that there isn't much retconning.

I would definitely agree that there is a lot to dislike about this particular author's work, but there are also some good things.


Regarding basic mistakes: I remember one of the late lamented Anne McCaffrey's less good books where, after peace breaks out, a mighty space fleet does a majestic 360º turn and headed for home. Sigh.

Regarding the actual article: world-building is fascinating, and surprisingly hard, and as such it tends to get a lot of focus. But in terms of the actual craft, the area I have the most trouble with is plot construction. I have a decent world; I have some interesting characters; now I need to construct a plot which I can push my characters down which interacts with the world and those characters to a satisfying conclusion. It's an area I've rarely seen people discuss, but if at any point you want to do an essay on that, I'd be delighted...


For the benefit of those who haven't read every SF novel ever published, could you please name the books you're referring to?



+1 from another puzzled reader!


"Or worse — they'll get a grip, and realize that your story is, at best, a western or an age-of-sail yarn with the serial numbers filed off: that the trappings of the fantastic are only there to add a spurious sense of exoticism to an everyday tale."

And this, friends and comrades, is why Alastair Reynolds is a better Space Librettist than Peter F Hamilton; why Dr Who in all its regenerations is better SF than Star Trek in all its voyages; why Ursula LeGuin, CJ Cherryh, Mary Gentle, and Marion Bradley (as long as you ignore the Arthurian bollocks) are, in very different ways, Heroes of Literature; why Pratchett, Pullman, Gaiman, and especially Wynne-Jones, all wrote better mildy humorous fantasies about the education of magic-users than Rowling did; why China Mieville's little finger is a more urbane fantasist than Charles de Lint's entire imagined Ontario; and most of all why Tolkien - even when not at his best - is better than all the hundreds of trilogists the bookselling business spawned in reaction to his success.


Well, "some things should not be mentioned"[1] I guess, but a more googlable clue would be appreciated.

[1] Some authors have really deranged fans. Don't let Google funnel them here.


These would be the monstrously bestselling books about a very honorable naval officer and her treepony.


I'd go further back than that, and observe that EE Smith's Lensman series actually has its spacecraft "topping out" due to drag, and being designed with streamlining. Advanced if not prophetic stuff indeed for the 1930s.


Let's not forget that at 10% of c your average neutral helium atom innocently minding its own business at rest in a cubic centimetre of vacuum packs the punch of an alpha particle. Or that at somewhat higher energies electrons and gamma radiation are more or less interchangeable. Not to mention that a 1mg dust grain at a Lorentz contraction of 0.5 (around 0.86c) will release kinetic energy equivalent to half its rest mass on impact -- or around 10.5 tonnes of TNT.


When I was a pre-teen I didn't know that in America, people drove on the right.

How is that possible? Did you not watch any imported US tv shows or movies before you were 13? I have to assume you are exaggerating to make your point.


Which is why I will merely point out that the author in question was the Guest of Honour at the 2011 Eastercon.

Well, the one that was an author and wasn't Peter Hamilton. I'm fairly sure I remember him sharing a panel with OGH at one stage, but I may have been getting a bit bleary.

Personally, it's not to my taste, but nor particularly is Hamilton's work. But chacun a son gout - if everyone liked exactly the same thing, life would be very boring, and it'd be a bitch getting into the decent gigs.


Blasted computer/etehr eat my post ...

But, in DW's lates, it is sjown that said bad guys are also space Nazis, breeding themseleves as new galactic Ubermenschen.

As noted, in real-space a spacecraft must have a top speed, if only because of particle-ablation as one approaches c in sensible quantities.

Echoing Ke @n 13 (before the words evaporated) - a word for Ule Guin - that's the way to do it!
A complaint against OGH's friend Mr Hanemieni, who writes a blast - but I really cannot get my head around the action, because there are seriously not enough anchor point and clues as to what is rally ahppening, and the structure of the society/environment described.

As for OGH's last question, I can tell you that.
The politicians will discreetly drag their feet (unless they think there's loadsamoney to be made, of course).
The religious will do exactly the same as they've been doing since 1517.
Scream, kick and oppose any motion at all, every nanometre of the way.


We have US imports projected reflected right-to-left when shown here.

I tease. But bear in mind that (a) a relative minority of stuff shown on TV was US imports, (b) of that a relative minority explicitly shows modern road traffic moving in both directions, and (c) when the brain knows something, it's remarkably good at ignoring evidence to the contrary, when such evidence isn't being made explicit.



I've never heard of him, but he seems ... prolific.


I recall reading as a teen my first exposures to early 'evolutionary psychology' treatises, where our motivations and behaviors are supposed 'adaptations to recurring problems in the ancestral environment'. Though such meta-analysis is still fraught with an element of controversy it gave me pause to wonder how much of our behavior is triggered by elements hidden from conscious view.

So if we still have these behaviors such as status seeking, mating drives, etc., then when extrapolating a society you can choose to see how our current 'baggage' executes in a science-fictional environment, oh and hope to get the details right.

However, getting the details right and making it interesting can be hit or miss. It's rare that I have found one that is more than just entertaining (say thought provoking). Just seeing how the US or UK (or whatever current society) executes in a science-fiction environment is getting boring.

Since reading this Benford post:
'The Love Affair Between Space Fiction and the Transcendental'
I have been wondering what would constitute a 'BDO' equivalent for world-building?

Could the commonplace changing the brain chemistry or re-wiring in the human brain via daily supplements shift society into realms of super-fluidity? Versus just executing our current behavioral patterns with a changed sci-fi element? Would a virus changing the wiring density in an area like this be a BDO equivalent change for society?

'connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the amygdala'

All that just to say: change some element of what makes us human too, don't just put the same 'us' into a sci-fy env.... Long before we make it off the earth we're going to have mods to what makes us current humans. Some could be really dramatic.


This may surprise you Alex, but no, I didn't.

Growing up, we had a black and white TV, showing three channels: BBC 1, BBC 2, and ITV. My parents' first colour TV was the one I gave them when I got out of university. They still don't have a VCR or DVD player or cable TV.

Back in those days most TV drama shown in the UK was produced in the UK (the most notable exception I can remember being Star Trek -- the original series, that is). And I was never much of a TV viewer anyway. One week in my early teens I timed my TV viewing, out of interest because I'd heard the average Brit watched 17-20 hours a week: I watched five hours. However, three of them were a documentary series I was following -- a once-in-a-year event for me.


but how do we guess what it's going to lead to, or what it's going to make possible? What the political and social consequences are going to be?

I think you cannot. While Karl Schroeder implied that you could on one of his guest blogs, I think he is fooling himself.

Even if technology was static, social systems will change, possibly in response to unique events caused by unique people. In effect Asimov's Mule happening constantly to upset the dynamics of psychohistory. [I would argue that the "Arab Spring" uprisings that have been suggested as being supported by enabling technologies is wrong. It may well have happened anyway].

What I do think is that well thought out consequences, whether correct or incorrect, make for a much more immersive story, as the world feels like it is more than a facade, having real, if illusory, depth. It is the literary equivalent of trompe-l'oeil.


I was trying to formulate a thought along the lines of:

Good science fiction either has good world building or good ideas -- the average reader will forgive the story a lot if the world is vivid enough, or forgive a less vivid world if the story is compelling enough; but great classic SF that stands the test of time has to have both in spades.

The old examples of Lord of the Rings and Dune support the second half of this, but I'm trying to think of good examples to support the first part.


This, and what Charlie posted in response to you, is true but not what I meant. I meant more when it is described/implied by the author that a top speed is a limitation because of the sophistication of the engine, or the mass of the ship etc.


I agree and disagree with you. It is better than a lot of other fiction, especially of the star trek variety. Having said that it is only marginally better. For example; whilst the author deals with the vastness of space and accelerating/decelerating etc he still tap dances around G force with artificial gravity and inertial dampners, has forcefields on his ships and a plethora of bizzare statements like "ships can't fight at more than 0.2c closing speed because the targeting sensors can't deal with relativity".


still tap dances around G force with artificial gravity and inertial dampners, has forcefields on his ships

That sounds more like a mundane manifesto than anything else. I like some of the mundane science fiction writers, but I don't insist on a mundane approach. For me, this fails as an objection.

"ships can't fight at more than 0.2c closing speed because the targeting sensors can't deal with relativity".

Agreed. This author's grasp of computer science is problematic. And why are the missiles so dumb? Also, have you noticed that he has major trouble converting from Metric to English and vice-versa? I think one of his major characters was less than four feet tall.

A big part of the problem grows out of the author's idea of presenting an age-of-sail broadside duel in space, and the adjustments he created to manage that. This was fine for single-ship engagements, but once he scaled up the action he ran into some major issues.


ITV was a major importer of US shows, and both the BBC (1) and ITV showed movies, much of which by then was US.
Cinemas showed mostly US movies. I would have thought that it would be hard not to know that the US (and almost everywhere else) drove on the "wrong" side of the road.

OTOH, I arrived at University in 1972 at the tender age of 17 with the impression that there were lots of dark, "satanic" mills "up north", until my north England friends disabused me of that silly idea. I think I was also surprised to learn that most people did not have central heating either, but little fireplaces in the the bedrooms. That was the bubble I grew up in.


I meant more when it is described/implied by the author that a top speed is a limitation because of the sophistication of the engine, or the mass of the ship etc.

But there will still be a top speed as long as the power source is finite. Even assuming that a ship uses something like anti-matter, we're stuck with the issue of running out of fuel. So a ship still must fuel up with anti-matter, accelerate until roughly half the anti-matter has been used, then use the rest of the anti-matter to decelerate. This implies a top speed.


Frank Herbert's Dune is still such a compelling read

I would make exactly the opposite point. The technology is so obviously not embedded in the cultures that it seems to come presented on silver platters. No one seems to be educated to understand it, or fix it, or build anything. Only the Tleilaxu, and they don't build everything.

I think Dune was clearly a very influential book at the time it was written (I read it on release and loved it) but I think with hindsight, the world building was not that well done.


Yeah this is true but again not what I was saying. My objection is when authors impose a top speed because of a lack of understanding i.e. treating space vehicles like boats or planes.


Yeah the space battles are some bizzare fusion of naval and air combat with fleets flying in formation through each and round each other with high maneuverability.


Without wanting to sidetrack into a discussion of Dune, I always got the impression that the majority of the population in the Dune universe had abdicated their understanding of technology as a reaction to the Thinking Machines and the Butlerian Jihad against them; technology was useful, but everyone was a bit wary of it, except for some specialists.


I have the same impression as you do. But consider if that happened in our world today. Could we enjoy a high tech world with just a few companies producing a few standout products, or in reality, does it require a dense ecosystem of products and R&D? I think the latter is as important to technology, as it is to biology.


It's been a while since a read Dune, and even longer since I travelled the bumpy road of the sequels (tried the prequels, left unpleasant taste in mouth, not going back there), but I also seem to remember that the technology in Dune was pretty static, and had been for a long time -- stratification and specialization were key elements of the civilization, and the fear of breaking those bounds was one of the key plot drivers.

I agree with your point about "a dense ecosystem of products and R&D" in our reality, but surely part of the world building in Dune was to create a rich but stagnant civilization?


I'd say there are two main different types of world-building, the speculative (X becomes true - what happens?) and the justificational (vampires on Napoleonic ships in space - how can that make sense?).

You can have a perfectly good book, providing lots of world-building-based enjoyment, in the second category. A book that does that well is different from a book that does speculative world-building badly, just as both are different from a book that doesn't try to world-build at all.

For a heroic example of the latter, see Walter J Williams Star Wars novelisation, which very nearly succeeds in justifying Star Wars spaceship combat and galactic politics.


Memory does play tricks. This site has a few tv listings for the UK from the deep past, and certainly there are few US shows and movies listed as you say. My memory however tells me that I watched a lot of US movies particularly on Saturday or Sunday afternoons with my father, and I clearly recall lots of US tv series that had at least scenes outside and were not studio sitcoms. Of course there were a lot of westerns too, but that wouldn't help with the driving issue. But six shooters seemed to have a lot more that 6 bullets in them!


"but they're unlikely to anticipate the resultant demographic transition, the rise of nursing homes as warehouses for the elderly,"

Unlikely, but that example isn't totally beyond their mental horizon. To really grok how weirdly a Sci-Fi writer needs to think, lets suppose our Victorian (British?) author managed to foresee all that: Now try to imagine him postulating that the world would be saved at the last moment from the resultant catastrophic labor shortage by a brilliant cadre of Japanese robotics engineers.


world building in Dune was to create a rich but stagnant civilization

Which raises the question is that possible? With simple technologies, I think so. We have a history of that and can even define cultures based on their technologies. But since the industrial revolution, I doubt it. Remember Charlie's post about 1950's technology being about the limit in some areas to recreate - like jet engines? The more complex the technology, the greater the ecosystem of enabling technologies to support it. Even things that seem to be simpler, like CPUs require a host of supporting technologies to allow manufacture. Maybe this will change with fabbing or technologies that can be "grown:, but I'm not holding my breath. All this seems to be missing in the Dune universe.

I think that if this happened due to some event, the technology would just regress, rather than remaining static.


There are some things that are not foreseen because they would not be socially acceptable to the readers. The contraceptive pill and abortion and subsequent social changes would not have had rave reviews in a Victorian SF novel. Or even one set pre-1950 probably.


My take on Dune -- NB: haven't re-read it in years, and gave up on the sequels as of #5 -- was that somewhere the background was begging to have vast, planet-sized factories churning out specialized widgets for the galactic empire: sort of like the huge Foxconn factories that churn out iPhones (factory complexes that employ entire cities) only vastly, vastly bigger and more miserable for the inmates. (Because the political framework portrayed in Dune is reprehensible and vile from top to bottom, its stasis supported by the machinery of mass repression. But that's another matter.)

If anything, keeping different production specialities on different planets (and a choke-hold on travel and trade) would make repression easier: if principality X rebels, just shut off their flow of specialized infrastructure equipment from Y and Z until they die. It's like having a hydraulic empire, only with multiple different types of water.


Personally, when I was a pre-teen, I think I was only vaguely aware that in Britain we drove on the left-hand side of the road, let alone what people on the tellybox did. (Michael Knight had a talking car! That talked! And drove itself! Who cares what side of the road it was on?)


I always thought that Dune was set in a pretty dystopian repressive universe, not a place that anyone had a lot of fun living in. Perhaps I'm wrong, but the theme I picked up on in the novel was that the Atriedes wanted to change this, but ultimately Paul failed and was always destined to fail.

If I remember right, the sequels actually tried to fill in a lot of the detail of the universe, including planet sized factories, and how the specialisation empowered the repression. They still weren't great.


I'd say there are two main different types of world-building, the speculative (X becomes true - what happens?) and the justificational (vampires on Napoleonic ships in space - how can that make sense?).

Not only is that correct, it strikes me that there should be established terminology to distinguish between the two - but I don't know it. Perhaps I simply haven't been having the right kind of discussions lately. But it seems that people talking about world-building should be able to differentiate between extrapolative and back-filling modes, and the old 'top-down vs bottom-up' comparison isn't useful here.


While it's been a while since I read Dune, I think that the technological setting implies quite the opposite conclusion.

The nature of space travel in it, with its monopoly on space travel and the numbers of Navigators dependent on the supply of spice lends itself well to a feudal system in the purest sense: Principalities, in this case solar systems, which aim to be as commercially self-sufficient as possible, only importing goods which they are unable to produce domestically.

The major export powers in the series (Ix, Bene Tleilax, Arrakis, and so on) seem to validate this view, since they all supply either essential space travel infrastructure or otherwise rare, luxury goods, not items an ordinary imperial citizen would use every day.


Charlie @ 43
You DO realise you've just described a key aspect of the soviet system?


Aren't world models in SF more about what we (authors and readers) can accept, working from our current world models rather than what is likely to be any "real" future?

If you started working with search patterns, mind maps, word distances and semantic analysis in the early nineties, would all you hoped for only have been really dumb algorithms and "rainbow table"-like lookups compiled from past searches?

While I'm somewhat happy with what we can do now, I would have considered it cheating when we got started. Meaning: It's nice what we can do, but how we do it is a complete washout.

If my internal SF narrative had been anywhere near to what I had to be reasonable enough to accept somewhere along the way I wouldn't have started working in this field in the first place.

In fiction I think a somewhat plausible exciting idea is better than dull future reality.


The Soviets inherited it from the Russian Empire.


Technologists, scientists and engineers would be very put-off by inaccuracies based on existing technologies, SF for me is mostly about capabilities and consequences. I don't expect a how-to guide for building future technologies.

A lot of sci-fi books and movies set 100-200 years in the future fail because they're too focused on the engineering how-to aspects of a specific technology - trying to make it 'real'. Often, such novels then go on to assert a homogeneous up-take of technology - which is utterly 'unreal'. C'mon .. the future is not distributed evenly, and previous infrastructures/technologies are rarely completely obliterated or abandoned. If anything, the trend has been toward expanded choice with more alternatives rather than complete and direct substitution with each new product alternative, over time, finding its niche and used for a much narrower 'best-for' application than its designers/engineers intended. Why else do so many people still prefer to burn meat (BBQ) when they could more easily, quickly and inexpensively microwave it, or use pottery, copper, glass, wood etc. when they can get any container/cookware in stainless steel.


I'm just reading a book about Hungary, "The Phoenix Land" by Miklos Banffy, which claims exactly the same thing in the old Austrian Empire: "...the many different countries over which they ruled were expected to serve the same goal, each according to its geographical position and capacity to contribute to the common ideal. Moravia, trhe Czech people and the two Austrias - Styria and Carinthia furnished recruits to the army, silver and iron..."

The British Empire had its "martial races" and its plantation islands as well.

And accusations that Britain deliberately supressed industrial development in India. They were supposed to produce the cotton that was spun in Manchester, not spin it themselves. And to buy the pottery and machinery we made, not make it themselves.

Even the "white" colonies in the southern hemisphere were considered as mainly sources of raw materials. At the outbreak of the Great War, Canada was probably the only overseas Commonwealth member with a world-class industrial manufacturing capacity.


ITV also sent some of their output across the pond in the westward direction, which should have helped me avoid the reverse of Charlie's problem, right?

Well, sort of. The Avengers did feature enough motoring to allow one to grasp the essentials -- sometimes even on roadways sufficiently wide to make clear that one kept left to dodge oncoming traffic. [1]

(True confessions time - hide the kids!)

OTOH, SPACE: 1999 was certainly no informative source vis-a-vis upon which side of the carriageway rightpondians drive. It's a good thing that the series never needed to convey this information, what with Cmdr John bloody Koenig's record for scragging any every Eagle which he actively piloted for more than two minutes. (ISTR they even got ejected Luna's spin backwards... unless those reversed projectors were also used in the US.  ;^)

bellinghman @21:
Even when learned knowledge is in-one's-face explicit, it still can take months or longer to unlearn habits such as looking left-then-right before stepping into traffic right of way. Reprogramming neck muscles is a stone bitch.

1. To this USAnian, the lane widths (width?) and/or road surface conditions frequently shown suggested that such choice was more an on-the-spot decision by one or both drivers than a convention enforced by law.


Part of the conceit of that particular series is that space battles will recapitulate the history of naval warfare at sea. That is, broadside duels under sail, then submarines, then carrier warfare, including the change in ships from "main combatants" using cannon to missile platforms.

I'm not sure the conceit actually works in any kind of one-to-one mapping, but my knowledge of naval history could be put into a thimble with room left over, so I just enjoy the books despite their weak points.


One spin-off from the difficulty of world building in SF and fantasy is the highly generic nature of both. Genres, essentially, are labour saving devices for both authors and readers, with the inevitable consequence that they disproportionately appear where the cognitive load involved in world building is high. Thus, somewhat ironically, the very aspect of SF that makes it a progressive literature often retards innovation at an aggregate level.

Of course, 'realist' literary fiction is no less genre ridden either; but the literati have decided that their genre is the right one ...


A lot of the Avenger's driving (as was The Saint's) on country roads barely wide enough for 2 cars. As a transplant to the US, I am now so use to wide lanes that I can no longer even contemplate driving in London where 2 cars can barely pass each other on off main street roads without clipping the wing mirrors.

OTOH, I was familiar enough with transitioning to continental roads that getting used to US driving (and crossing roads) was easy. Rarely, on a country road with no center line, I find myself wanting to drift over to the left... ;)


Wikipedia has a nice list of US tv series with dates. Series that I recall watching back in the 50's and 60's in the UK with many outdoor scenes with cars and roads (even if the roads were relatively empty) include:

77 Sunset Strip (1958–1964), crime drama
Batman (1966–1968), action
The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–1971), sitcom
The F.B.I. (1965–1974), crime drama
The Fugitive (1963–1967), drama
The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (1966–1967), espionage
Hawaii Five-O (1968–1980), crime drama
Hawaiian Eye (1959–1963), drama
I Spy (1965–1968), espionage
The Invaders (1967–1968), sci-fi
Ironside (1967–1975), crime drama
Mannix (1967–1975), crime drama
Mission: Impossible (1966–1973), espionage
Perry Mason (1957–1966), legal drama
Route 66 (1960–1964), drama
The Twilight Zone (1959–1964), science fiction anthology


"I propose that worldbuilding is the primary distinguishing characteristic of SF and fantasy (at least at a superficial level)."

I'm taking a science fiction course this semester; at the beginning of the course, we tried to put together a simple definition of "Science Fiction", and this was one of the key characteristics we came up with. It's really a central part of the genre. SF has to be at least slightly logically coherent, and if science or technology drive the story in some way it will also drive at least part of the setting.


The reason that a lot of SF, esp in movies, is like 19th Century naval battles is simply a real engagement in space would be... nothing much happens, then either victory is announced or you're dead. And nothing much in between as it's all handled by the computers against a foe out of visible range.


Dude, you missed the key point: I did not watch much TV when I was a kid. In fact, I spent less than 20% of the average time spent in front of the glowing box. And I wasn't big on foreign drama serials: "Horizon" was more my thing.


See heteromeles' (of this parish) Scion Of The Zodiac for a somewhat example of the former; the narrator is a bit dry (for a good reason) but the world is so compelling it drags you along until you figure that out.


Ford Transit? I'm still baffled at Honda rehashing Odyssey as a name.


Iain M Banks latest, Surface Detail, has a great illustration of this (slight spoiler ahead). After spending several chapters building up to a climactic space battle between a psychotically enthusiastic Culture warship and a fleet of adversaries, and several pages detailing the precautions the ship takes to protect its sole human occupant, the entire conflict is described from the human's point of view, and is literally a bump and a few sudden turns -- about a paragraph or two of prose. The ship then proudly shows the whole battle to the bewildered woman, who at first thinks she's watching in real time, and slowly realises the whole thing is a replay slowed down by many orders of magnitude -- this time the description lasts for a page or two. I just felt that it was a terrifically handled illustration of what space combat would really look like to the average meat sack.


The first thing to come to mind is Borges' line that he could recognize an authentic Arab story because there were no camels in it.

Interesting to think about world building as being as much about what is left out as what is put in.

How many books actually talk about what characters eat? How few talk about how they eliminate, or a thousand other details of life as lived. (I know older scifi better than the current scene -- Space Merchants and Caves of Steel leap to mind.)


I got that the first time (really). The comment you are referring to is the tangential issue of whether there were in fact as many US import shows as I remembered, especially with the amount of car driving as I recalled. Even if there were none, there were enough movies that would have driven home the idea.

I do find your particular blind spot somewhat unusual, but no more so than the odd family I knew in the late 1950's who had no tv or even telephone (both devices to be kept out of the home on principle - at least that was what my friends told me when they came over to watch a program after school).

But it does reveal a point about cultural knowledge assumptions.


Here's a pointer,

People are being coy about directly naming the author because it's not really fair on Mr Stross us critiquing a fellow member of his trade on his blog.

No matter how tempting...

-- Andrew


Exactly. This is a bug frequently found in hard SF novels. Add in that the majority of hard SF authors never bought into the idea of 'the street finds it own uses for things' and that their characterization is often weak and totally without flaws and it gets old fast.


I read a bunch of 'onor 'arrington novels because I ran out of Vorkosigan books, and there were a few superficial similarities.

The mileu is pretty transparently drawn from historical similes, be it the Russian and French revolution, as well as naval warfare, I never found this hard to accept, the biggest problem I had with these books was the Mary Sueness of the protagonist.

Personally, I've been reading superhero comics so long that I find it easy to suspend my critical faculties when it comes to inconsistent mileus. If you are too demanding in this area, I find, you can cut yourself off from some interesting stories.

Something I also enjoy is the kind of trick Alan Moore has specialized in, which is when an author retools a simplistic story to be more internally consistent/profound.


A fanfic writer's perspective on the whole "worldbuilding" thing: I write fanfic for worlds, rather than characters. As a writer, I like worlds which are sufficiently realised that I can put original characters into the odd little corners, and come out with a story which still says something to fans of the originals.

Of course, I have what I term an "overthinker" brain - I tend to stop and consider matters of logistics and timing and similar. For example, one of the interesting little quirks I find in the wizarding world of J K Rowling is that there are standardised exams for British wizarding students, even though there only appears to be a single school for young British wizards (Hogwarts). Now, is this an artifact of good worldbuilding (in which case, it's a relic of an earlier time, before the rise of Voldemort, when there was more than one school for wizards in Britain, and standardised exams were necessary to ensure a normalised curriculum was being adhered to) or is it an artifact of poor worldbuilding (in that she's thought up an analogue for the O-levels and A-levels and whacked it in there with a slightly altered name, but no thought about the reason for why these things exist)? Still in Rowling's Wizarding world, what are the wider implications when apparently the entire school-aged population of wizards in Great Britain can fit into four standard-sized classrooms per year (so in Harry's age cohort, we have a total wizarding population of approximately one hundred and twenty people... at the start of his first year, when he turned eleven. There have subsequently been a few reductions, but this gives Hogwarts an approximate student population of between six and nine hundred students. By contrast, the suburban high school I attended in Perth, WA, had a population of over a thousand students) - and what does that imply for a country like Australia, where the total population of the entire country is about the same as the population of Greater London?

World building is what makes my hobby as a fan fiction writer either interesting or hard. The intriguing worlds are the ones where there's sufficient undeveloped "open space" for me to be able to erect a little shack of my own conceits and notions. The one I'm currently spending a lot of time on is the world of Final Fantasy VII (in the pre-original-game era, when the Shinra Electric Power Company bestrode the world like a Colossus), because I enjoy playing around with the sheer complexity of a single company which is large enough to have its own military, and the consequent bureaucratic nightmare that the place must be to work in. Because let's face it, somewhere in Shinra, there's a section which is responsible for the mundane, day-to-day business of the place - things like connecting power supply to houses, setting up the metering, doing the billing, and getting the money out of people. Somewhere in Shinra, there's an entire building dedicated to the financial jiggery-pokery necessary to keep the place running. Somewhere there's a print house and copy room dedicated to creating the paperwork. And somewhere there's a huge archive section, where everything is filed just in case it might be needed later. There are a gazillion stories in the Shinra Archives, and the story behind the events of the original game of FFVII is only one of them.

Or another interesting one, going back to an old favourite. In LOTR, if you'll look at the maps, you'll note Rivendell's location isn't marked. It's supposed to be a secret haven of the elves. So, how the heck did Boromir get there (never mind getting there just in time for the big conference)? The most logical destination for him to be seeking elves at all in the north-west is probably the Grey Havens, a known elven port. The most reasonable route is to leave Gondor, cross the Ridermark, and head north along the North Road (pausing only to note that at some time in the past few centuries, the Sarn Bridge has fallen down, and nobody's bothered to mark the new ford on the maps) to Bree, and then turn left, to get to the Grey Havens. He doesn't mention having been sent from the Grey Havens to Rivendell (and given Boromir's character, I strongly suspect had he been given the run around in such a fashion, everyone would have known about it - his Dad would have heard it loud and clear from Gondor if he'd bothered to open a north-west facing window), so clearly someone intercepted him along the way and explained he needed to turn right at Bree and keep going east until he got stopped by elven guards. So who did this? And why? I doubt it was Tom Bombadil (Boromir really doesn't strike me as the type to cope well with information delivered in heroic couplets).

One of the joys of worldbuilding for me is that there are these little gaps where a fan-fiction writer can set up their stall in between the established plot points. We can have our little characters dropping hints, or patching plot-holes, or just dealing with the sheer size of the world as it exists, and the complexity therein. I can extrapolate from the fast healing of SOLDIERs in FFVII, and wind up with a regrettable side-effect of the SOLDIER process being its tendency to result in auto-immune reactions (i.e. food allergies) which make menu planning into a nightmare. Or I can put a woman with a bit of Dunedain ancestry on her mother's side into Bree (she works as the barmaid at the Prancing Pony) at the right point to catch a lost prince of Gondor, and make sure he heads east instead of west (because that's the direction Strider took those hobbits off in a couple of weeks ago, and Strider seems to know something about elves). I can create a great-niece of Minerva McGonagall's who happens to live in Australia, and get her talking about the joys of trying to deal with wizarding life when you're dealing with a minuscule population base.

Along the way, I've learned a lot about world building, and what works and what doesn't. Some of my favourite writers are actually ones where I don't stop and think about these sorts of things - where they've done the world-building right the first time. Where the world they show me is a complex and interesting place from the get-go, where the complexity is visible in the sheer lack of reference to it, where occasionally the author stops and actually points out an interesting bit of the mechanism and explains how it works (the best example of this I can think of is in Pratchett's "Night Watch", where Vimes muses on the nature of Ankh-Morpork not just as a place, but as an ongoing process, where things are happening all the time in the background, and how the slightest disruption immediately moves this process from the background to the foreground). A sign of good worldbuilding is that an author can explain the why of things at great length. Good worldbuilding is the stuff which doesn't have me waking up at three am going "hang on...!" about obscure plot details and how it couldn't have worked that way.


My worldbuilding experience is all for gaming. So you might count it as game-board building.

For tabletop RPGing, what I concentrated on were things like making the names internally consistent and pronouncable by the players, and providing the world with a LOT of situations just about to go critical, so any DM could come along and easily start a campaign that would build in scope at a rate compatable with PC's advancing powers.

(I'm now going to mention Stephenson's _REAMDE_. I promise if I ever go to his blog, I'll mention Charlie over there at LEAST as often as I mention Neal over here.)

In _REAMDE_, there's quite a bit about world building for a MMORPG that rivals World of Warcraft. Since this new game bases itself on the unintentional economics of WoW, they use minerologists to "logically" seed where gold comes from. And there's a lot of effort in languages and such.

But what do the players do? Instead of taking to the in-game definitions of good and evil, they start banding together based on a tweak to the player character outfitting programs. The brighter-clothed people attack the earthtoned ones.

Not that this all has much to do with worldbuilding in novels, except that game worlds have to handle characters whose actions the world authors may not have anticipated.


Having read the HH novels, the first couple of books of the Lost Fleet series, I read a John Ringo book and have decided to boycott the whole right wing military SF genre out of disgust (and determined to be more discerning in future). Characters and civilisations full of cliches about Europe/America (whether for good or ill) and extrapolations of libertarian/survivalist American breakdown wet dreams (Brin had the rights of this mob in The Postman).

The ridiculous space battles - nuff has been said. Stross covers off what happens when paradigms meet in Singularity Sky.

There are only so many times I can re-read Stross, Banks, McLeod, Mieville or Reynolds though for my classy science fiction fix.

Extrapolations of future trends for world-building purposes are difficult. Kennedy, an 80s futurologist said that the 21st Century would be the Japanese Century. Little or no mention of China. The staglation in the Japanese economy in the 90s rendered this dominance unlikely within 2 years.


Your comment about things going on in the background reminds me of the Eddie Izzard sketch about an exchange between Darth Vader and the checkout guy in the Star Wars canteen. To paraphrase:

DARTH VADER: I'm your boss!

CHECKOUT GUY: You're Mr. Stevens?

DV: Who's Mr. Stevens?

CG: He's in charge of catering!

When you think about it, the Death Star *must* have a huge support staff, presumably including minimum-wage food servers. You just don't see many futuristic stories told from their point of view. Part of the world-building process.


Talk about the age of sail made me think about Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, which is one of my favorite acts of world building. O'Brian's simulation of the age of sail is much more odd and alien than some science fiction I have read. At the same time, there are definite limits and blind spots in O'Brian's massive construction.

Built worlds are tools for entertainment and edification. If a built world doesn't explain where the food comes from or how come gravity is not an issue, that's just a sign of the author's limited ambitions.

Every novel is an act of world building, which is why critics have enjoyed diving into the slavery and colonialism that are just barely off stage in Austen's Mansfield Park. The stuff put in and left out demonstrate the blind spots of author and audience, and also the deliberate choices of authors and the points of attention for readers who don't share the author's context.

(Hope I'm not just rambling.)


Pratchett did a nice job of showing us that sort of thing in his recent _Unseen Academicals_.

You think the University's candles dribble themselves?

77:'s French revolution...the earlier books wore this on their sleeves somewhat as the Haven politicos had names like St Just and Robespire from the Reign of Terror.

The ships were much closer to Napoleonic ships of the line originally featuring rigging and masts to go into hyperspace and the like. This all became very muted in later stories.

When I saw the title of this thread I was thrown into
thoughts of Hal Clement and Poul Anderson, a pair of masters of planetary design. I'm not sure if Mesklin or Mirkheim would have actually worked in our universe but I sure hoped they did.


I think that a certain dose of coherent universe construction has its place but it is totally worthless if it is not enmeshed tightly with plain good story telling and with the essential ingredient of any SF, the sense of wonder.

Which leads me to praise an unlikely writing duo.

Up until the year 2001 I had never been able to finish anything written by David Weber. His universe was coherent (though somewhat unlikely) , but it had zero sense of wonder, and barely minimal story telling craft. I had been able to finish some things written by John Ringo but I was always groaning, all the way.

Then, in 2001 the two of them co-authored "March Upcountry". It was tight, tight, tight. The story moved along at the exact pace needed to create a suspension of disbelief when the holes showed in that universe's coherence. Also, there were just enough doses of a sense of wonder to keep me interested. I had the impression I was reading an ancient classic of SF like Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey". It was great. The sequels were less interesting and simply not crafted as well (something which I can also say of the Dune sequels) but I am still grateful to Weber and Ringo for having taken the pains, doing the hard work needed to craft "March Upcountry".

So, if you're a SF author don't waste too much time building that coherent universe. You'll have to tear parts of it down anyway to accomodate good story telling, and you'll always have to check up to see if the sense of wonder is coming through, between the words.


One thing I'd point up is the inverse correlation of worldbuilding to dickheads.

The greater the level of worldbuilding required, the greater the level of black and white characters that inhabit it. Whereas in contemporary real world fiction the characters are all flawed, complex and multidimensional dickheads - the characters tend to be either noble, or moustache twiddling evil when worlds get creative.

In the real world, the real people that do big things tend to be dickheads. Different shades of dickhead, but they aren't the way public narratives try to paint them (cf Jobs). That means there really aren't 'good' individuals and 'evil' - just dickheads with different drives and objectives. True, socialpaths exist, but from their warped perspectives, they are the good guys - and the mismatch between worldviews is even greater than that between your worldview and the worldview of the 1800s.

It's almost as if the creative muscles are worn out and can't manage complex persona after creating a different physical structure.


On the subject of world building, I'd like to reccommend the webcomic Unsounded, by Ashley Cope

Cope is a very highly skilled artist who has developed a tightly constructed fantasy universe through a decade of freeform online roleplaying, using it as a springboard for her webcomic. The magic system, the world geography, nature, politics and religion, are all very carefully thought out.

Currently the comic is in hiatus for a couple of weeks but she is allowing readers to ask questions of the main characters through formspring, and it's clear the depth you can see in the story is no fluke.


To hang a left at your mention of these two series; I find them a fascinating example of two ways of handling what I think of as the Ratchet to Godhood in extended series; if you have a ten-ish book series, and you want your protagonist to achieve something at the end of each book, how do you prevent them turning into a demigod by about book eight.

In the HH series, the answer is you don't. By book eight or so she's SuperAdmiral of one Navy and honorary ExtraSuperDuperAdmiral of another, as well as being adopted into a couple of royal families and becoming psychic.

In the MV series, the protagonist has three seperate 'career tracks', and Bujold takes a gleeful pleasure in knocking him a down a bit on one every time he makes progress on another. This (to me) allows a satisfying amount of character advancement over an extended series, without the protagonist beginning to look like Mary Sue or the second coming of superman.


Peter Hamilton was mentioned a few times upthread, and his worldbuilding seems thorough, but he insists on letting you know about it: what trees grow on each world, what animals, what the sweater on each woman looks like. Duller than dirt.

Do your worldbuilding research, but it should be sufficient to let it be there for your story without bashing the reader over the head with it.

The opposite of that is much of C.J Cherry's work (the early Union/Alliance more than the recent Foreigner books -- she actually has chapters rehashing the politics in the latest of those, which surprised me). She'll drop the reader and the protagonist into an alien situation where little is familiar, and both the reader and the protagonist must figure the world out. The author knows, most of the characters know, but we don't. That works much better... but it can be more work to get into a novel like that. "Serpent's Reach" and "400000 in Gehenna" are probably the epitome of those.

Social implications aren't lost on her either: the use of cloned slaves (also handled well in Marusek's Counting Heads) ripples through all the U/A books, and the language/numeracy issues in the Foreigner books influences almost every page of those.


"Similarly, we can look at the emergence of 3D printers and Maker culture in the west as a side-effect of the outsourcing of bulk mass production to global centres of excellence and the hollowing-out of our own local industrial base ... but how do we guess what it's going to lead to, or what it's going to make possible? What the political and social consequences are going to be?"

One answer would be to look back at the Arts and Crafts movement, which in some ways prefigured what is being called maker culture. The A&C movement failed on a hard rock of economics: the craftspeople could never make enough for each other, only for a tiny wealthy minority. The end of the A&C movement came with the realization that industrial workers could be paid enough to buy what they made, and therefore industrial production could support, and would work best with, a broad middle class.

With what one might call algorithmic production an in-between zone has opened up, between mass production and craft production. It may be that this can be made to support a broad middle class, but it remains to be seen. So far, the new computer-controlled production technologies--not just 3D printing, but also subtractive technologies like computer-controlled milling machines--are cool new solutions that are being used to solve problems in old ways. Even technologically, what they will enable is not clear, but one might seek some guidance in the end of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the emergence of Modernism. What can algorithmic production do that industrial production cannot, and that is compelling? Where is the killer app?


IMHO, there is only two "must read" authors in the entire catalog of that particular publisher. The first is anything by Lois McMaster Bujold. She does brilliant characterization, and her prose is astounding. (She's also not a right-wing nincompoop.) Her world-building isn't particularly good and she doesn't have a brilliant grasp of even basic science as far as I can tell, but her work is completely brilliant. I'd particularly recommend "Memory," "Komarr" and "A Civil Campaign."

The other "must reads" from that catalog are a couple of Eric Flint books, "Forward the Mage" and "The Philosophical Strangler," both of which are funny, clever, thoughtful and generally very good reads. Eric Flint is also not a right-wing nincompoop. (He's actually a flat-out commie.) "1632" is also a very good book, though I wouldn't classify it as a "must read."


The ridiculous space battles - nuff has been said. Stross covers off what happens when paradigms meet in Singularity Sky.

I should mention one more thing in reply to your post, and that is that the point you make about Singularity Sky is one hundred percent to the point - Charlie got it absolutely right on that one. But did you notice the way all the bits on board the New Republic's flagship satirized The Other Series in a truly brilliant way?

I like both authors, but Charlie sure as hell won that round!


I really liked "Unsounded" but I was very turned off by the way the site navigation worked, so I haven't been back since my first visit.


The main theme of the Dune series (as opposed to the first novel, and ignoring those written by other than Frank Herbert) was that centralized power is oppressive. There was some indication that he was also saying that it must be repressive, but that was less clear. Then theme at the ending was "If someone can find a hold on you, you are not safe." Not pleasant. Paul and his son were considered to be the only truly moral characters in the main thread of the action. Examples are given that could argue in favor of the entire Atredies family (i.e. the descendents of Jessica and Leto) But consider, e.g., the Bashar. He's "the slave of duty", who devotes his life and descendants to the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. Because that's what he was taught to do. And, essentially, kills himself to escape that duty. Certainly Paul's son Leto (the "God Emperor of Dune") must be seen as a slave of duty. He sees a fate that will destroy humanity if he doesn't prevent it, and so he takes a path that even Paul (Muad'dib) had avoided in revulsion, not because of it's result, but because of personal consequences. (Or so it seems. One could argue that there were other reasons, but if so he never talks of them.)

This fits in closely with some recent psychological experiments that apparently show that to the first order, all people are corrupt when given power without consequences. Even over a fairly short period of time.


"1632" is also a very good book, though I wouldn't classify it as a "must read."

I struggled through the first one because it seemed like an interesting conceit but gave up on the series because it pretty much exemplifies poor world building to me - the historical characters and setting were utterly unconvincing.


Megpie 71 @ 70:
Well in MY (very-late-printing) First Edition of LotR, Rivendell is clearly shewn on the mapps.
It wasn't "secret" just well-tucked-away in a side-valley on the West side of the Misty Mountains.
At which point, the rest of your argument collapses.
Sorry about that.

Chris O'Neill @ 72
Is DW really that right-wing?
He portrays the reactionary aristos of Manticore with obvious contempt, and the Mesans are fairly obviously well-away, off down the Herrenvolk road. Note also how he really seems to hint that the initial revolution on Haven (France) was probably necessary, and then, as these things do, gets out of control when St-Just takes over.
The moderate lefties (if I can hi-jack that phrase) like Usher, Pritchard and Cachat are portrayed quite sympathetically. Um.

Andrew Cummins @ 76
Agree about Hal Clement - wonder what someone like that could do, now we know a lot more about exoplanets?

Ian Smith @ 78
Be very careful. You've just labelled JRRT as a dickhead - which he plainly wasn't.

Morat @ 80
Ferpectly correct - except that HH is also paying a price in emotional drain, and loss of family and friends along the way. What's it like to be the "lone survivor"?

Dune and Herbert ...
Well, FH was a serious believer in conspiracies, and as said, the corruption of absolute power.
"Hellstrom's Hive" is perhaps the scariest example, but it also shows in thing like "The God Makers".
I find the basic premise of the Dune-worlds set (& I've only read those with actual FH input) that computers are effectively, banned as so improbable as to crash the whole thing.
Of course, when he started writing the series, and my battered copy says "1965 copyright" (46 years ago!) computers were the prerogative of the rich and powerful ONLY. Which might explain the Butlerian Jihad, then. Subsequent developments have crashed that possible-future completely.

Which brings us back to Charlie's original question, similar to the one at the end of Randolph @ 82
"What's the killer app?"


Dune - as i understand it the prequels were written based on Frank Herbert's notes for the world building (and i've always assumed as an attempt to 'warm up' for writing the last, unwritten, book). Not high on the list of books i'd recommend but if the universe of dune bothers you then they do go some way to filling in the background of near and early history. The universe ends up making some sense, even if the stories and characters are not the best. I'm left wondering if the most relevant thing about dune to the original thread is that Frank Herbert did LOADS of world building that he never published (and Brian Herbert would probably have left alone if he though he was good enough to write the final book when he took over).


#27 and #33 - Sorry Ryan, but spacecraft having a top speed which is defined by the density of the medium they're travelling in, the available thrust (even given infinite fuel/power reserves you will still never achieve vertical take-off from Earth if your thrust ot mass ratio is not greater than 1.0), and the ship's cdA (all aircraft have a top speed defined by their drag co-efficient, wetted frontal area and thrust) is correct, and as I noted much earlier, was first correctly stated/predicted by Dr EE Smith in the 1930s. This technically is rocket science, and I actually am a rocket scientist! (not joking)

#74 Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, which is one of my favorite acts of world building - er no, it's a particularly good piece of research, followed up by good writing.


>and most of all why Tolkien - even when not at his
>best - is better than all the hundreds of trilogists
>the bookselling business spawned in reaction to his

I'd somewhat agree that as an author Tolkein is difficult to surpass in the high fantasy sub-genre. But the idea that Lord of the Rings doesn't have it's arse(ass) kicked by various series of books that came after it is pretty bogus. The authors of those books have almost certainly all read Tolkein's work and treat it as a foundation while understanding it's flaws.

JKR and Harry Potter have been mentioned in this thread already, even in her simply structured kids books she manages to kill major characters in the middle of battles without them 'deserving' it.

GRRM's books (so far) are depressingly good at the same feat while being much less stuffed with the 'good' guys/'bad' guys issues mentioned in the the thread above. It does suffer from the monarchist issues that haven't been bought up in this thread but have on the site before (listed as an issue of practically all high fantasy).

Steven Eriksen (admittedly NOT a trilogist!) is currently my pick as high fantasy 'king' - most people here have probably got NOWHERE near enough time to read his books which have just finished a series of 10 1000 page doorstops (and the world building was done with someone else who ALSO writes books in the same timeline, which i've not yet read). As a series this stands out as an exemplar of current fantasy:
No monarchist rose tinted goggles
Plenty of 'grey' charachters to go with the occasional 'black' and 'white' ones.
Pretty reasonable and random attrition rate in the battles
Diverse cultures avoiding the usual racial/religous sterotyping.
Does suffer from being a bit LONG in places!

Honourable mention to Ian Irvine and Sean McMullen.

Of course if you're the person who wrote in a thread on Amazon 'I want some good fantasy to read. I love LOTR, i've tried alot of the new stuff and I hate it, all my favorite characters keep dying.' You'll disagree with me.....


Actually, the main theme of the first Dune trilogy was more along the lines of "trying to tell the future is bad" and "trying for absolute certainty is bad" and finally "Having one true leader is bad because when they get it wrong you all go over a cliff".
Reference - my (admittedly possibly faulty after a few years) memories of Tim O'Reilly's book on Frank herbert, which is available free online:

Peter Hamilton was mentioned a few times upthread, and his worldbuilding seems thorough, but he insists on letting you know about it: what trees grow on each world, what animals, what the sweater on each woman looks like. Duller than dirt.

I'd argue that there's a very important difference between good worldbuilding and writing down a pile of random facts about your world. Worldbuilding is about coherence, not about being able to say that character X wears Paisley but character Y prefers Argyle. I usually use JKR to demonstrate the distinction, because while she (famously) has dozens of notebooks full of trivial details about individual characters, her world as a whole makes no sense at all. The schools/exams problem was mentioned upthread, but there are plenty of others. Consider food, for example:

The Potterverse contains wizards who are capable of really impressive magic, but nonetheless starving. This, we're told, is because you can't transmute things into "food". But you can transmute rocks into living animals; that's something the schoolkids do without any real trouble in about book three. And if I can transmute those rocks into chickens, and conjure clean water and fire (both canonical), then I'm not going to go hungry unless I'm too lazy and stupid to boil eggs.

Or there's the whole problem with silent spell-casting, which is a special power available only to a few really superduper wizards (to show how special they are) for most of the books. Then it's suddenly taught to Harry's year in the lower sixth, despite the fact that no previous bunch of sixthformers has been able to do it.

And so on.

Worldbuilding is much more about systems and interactions than it is about individual factoids. (Something, as noted upthread, that pTerry Pratchett has commented on explicitly in at least a couple of his books.)


The very fact that so many different themes can be teased out of Dune, that so much can be debated, I think illustrates its depth -- and that is thanks to both the world-building and plot complexity (to go back to my first post about what makes a timeless classic). It's also pretty clear Frank Herbert was more insterested in the politcal and social processes in the Dune universe, rather than the technology or physical processes of the universe (should this be another type of world building, where technology is taken for granted and not explained, but the socio-political landscape is highly developed?). Given the focus of the story (almost all of the characters are at or close to the apex of the power-structure), I think it's fair that very little time is spent on explaining the technical details -- how often would people at this level in this society really consider the technical details of their tools (human or otherwise)? To bring in that level of detail would have broken the old authorial rule of "show, don't tell" -- something that grinds a lot of specualtive fiction to a shuddering halt (not Our Gracious Host's, I hasten to add!).

The above is just general musing, but I wanted to make a specific reply to Greg @88 who said: "I find the basic premise of the Dune-worlds set ... that computers are effectively, banned as so improbable as to crash the whole thing". One of the main parts of the Dune universe is, that since Thinking Machines (not computers, there are indications that computational and data storage devices are in use -- just not sentient or autonomous) were banned three groups sprang up to focus on developing the capabilities of the human mind and body through highly selective and controlled breeding, and that this activity had been perfected over the millenia since the Butlerian Jihad (the timescales in the Dune timeline are loooong) -- I suppose we could think of it as a forerunner to the now extremely common trope of genetic and nano engineering being used to create post-humans.


I’m not sure there needs to be a Killer App and I think that’s the first killer app.

I think there is a lot of mileage in bespoking household objects. Given that the cost differential between a bespoke item and a mass produced item is negligible and delivery times are potentially much shorter I can see lots of demand for common or garden objects made to fit your hand. Why have a pen that doesn’t quite fit your hand when you can have one that balances in your fingers perfectly?

So far, so not novel.

I think this demand will be significant enough to support a large volume of 3D assembly technologies and technologists, ironically giving the industry economies of scale, or perhaps the deep and complex ecosystem required to support it. (And I’d recommend Michael Porter’s work on the Competitive Advantage of Nations. I think there might be some read across to non-national cultures and ethos)

I think the Killer App is that these technologies have sufficient pent up demand for stuff that is not novel that the technology and the associated culture just roles out naturally as the cost of the machinery comes down.

The other Killer App might be geo-political. These technologies reduce the amount of unskilled labour in the production process significantly. This erodes the competitive advantage of low-wage economies. This might be an effective selling point to nation-states suffering the disadvantages of economic dislocation from the industrialisation of e.g. China.


I always liked that PTerry didn't at first believe that he was world building, that he was just making it up as he went along, until people started to want make maps and guides, and he suddenly discovered that there was a lot of internal consistency to Discworld that he hadn't planned (he did admit that there were a few gratuitous inconsistencies too) -- it seemed to rather catch him by surprise.


thank you for crystallising my frustration with the Maker Movement. I grew up around light manufacture, Practical parents and a Friend who won Apprentice of the Year back when they still had those. I'm a very poor engineer, started off with buildings now textiles and bits and bobs. But I _understand_ that everything starts off with grubbing in the mud.
The 3D printer people seem to come across as if no one has ever made anything, ever, anywhere before: everything comes out of a (magic) container from China! This I hope is not true, but possible if my understanding of zoning laws in the US is correct, and the type of education they had. Obviously there is more than one stand of development here, before lathes were computer controlled it was all done by hand. Either that or Aliens as I once heard an electronics student maintain!

In the Uk now there's lots of concern about NEETS (not in education, employment and training) and youth (un) employment. So I'm thinking a lot about the acquisition and retention of Skills. Those that aren't teaching are missing a trick – As long as its the correct type of teaching. Which is?

Yes the philosophy Arts and Crafts movement was very important, and still exerts an influence over some Art Schools. And lets not Forget that pinko Morris. Maybe his News From Nowhere is more relevant today, as well as being totally wrong on specifics, but that's world building for you.

The other aspect that stands out about the Makers, is the perceived separation with any kind of past, but where - we might ask ourselves, in their efforts to remake the world - are they going to connect with it. And here we find a different kind of world building.


Good Luck to you all,
All I want is a work space big enough to set up my equipment in and then I can be a productive member of society again


Well, what about World building 102? I think it should be summarized as "You can have too much of a good thing."

GRRM has been mentioned in this thread as a good example, but I think it's the opposite: the more GRRM has tried to expand the scope of his world, the less focused his narrative got, which really hurt the series starting from the fourth book: the sprawling mess that ASoIaF has become is proof that focusing on 'worldbuilding' instead of tight plotting is not always a smart decision. For me, book 3 had enough closure (rocks fall! most everyone dies!) that I can erase the shit that was the following installments from my mind and write the series off for good.


If everyone sparks up their 3D printer at the same time we destabalise the Grid, black out the lights and stub our toes on the damn thing looking for the candles.


Instead you get closer and closer to seeing that space is not quite so empty after all, and the momentum of gas and dust collisions means you need a streamlined vessel (a la Alastair Reynolds, I think)

I realise that this is going up against an ESA astrophysicist on his home turf, but that never really convinced me. You don't need a streamlined shape to minimise friction or collisions; you could do that with a shape with as narrow a cross-section as possible (a very long thin cylinder) and a big collision buffer on the front (which lighthuggers have in the form of ice). You need streamlining to minimise drag from moving through a fluid medium, and I am rather doubtful that the interstellar medium is a fluid in that sense rather than a lot of isolated particles.


The most reasonable route is to leave Gondor, cross the Ridermark, and head north along the North Road (pausing only to note that at some time in the past few centuries, the Sarn Bridge has fallen down, and nobody's bothered to mark the new ford on the maps) to Bree, and then turn left, to get to the Grey Havens

Boromir, though, being a bloke, will be convinced that he knows an indirect route that is much quicker and avoids all those nasty tailbacks round the Fornost Erain gyratory system.


Streamlining, even with individual particles, can reduce resistance. With a flat front, impinging particles are at worst bounced back ahead. A pointed front though need only defect particles out to the side, thus requiring less momentum transfer, and with a point (or a blade), much of that momentum transfer vector can balance against the other side of the point.

Any particles that are absorbed rather than reflected are a problem, but there's more of a chance of them bouncing off an acutely angled slope than off a flat plate of ice.


And he won't stop to ask for directions.


Trouble is, at anything within an order of magnitude of relativistic speed we're not talking about deflecting particles so much as about absorbing ionizing radiation. A large block of ice strapped to the nose of your starship will protect whatever is behind it by absorbing the radiation, but to actually deflect crap before it hits you requires something like a forward-pointing high energy laser to give stationary particles an energetic kick.


" but to actually deflect crap before it hits you requires something like a forward-pointing high energy laser to give stationary particles an energetic kick."

and the faster you travel the less time you have for the deflection because the laser light is still travelling at c. Yes? Or is this when time dilation kicks in. Help!
Not that you have much time to begin with in finding inter-stella dust against a dark back ground.


One element missing in SF worldbuilding is clothes.
There is a tacit assumption that clothing will remain much as it is now, apart from exotic stuff like spacesuits and so forth. I suspect that a century from now clothing will be more like an intelligent adaptive animal than a passive wrapping.


If you think what I think you think, then yes, but not the way you think.

The time dilation factor doesn't change the closing speed, but it does increase the time you need to take to react to the detection event because you're no longer acting in siderial time.


But that's not true. At least in SF movies, they always try to create exotic sciency clothes. And boy do they suck.


and the faster you travel the less time you have for the deflection because the laser light is still travelling at c. Yes? Or is this when time dilation kicks in. Help!

If you're tooling along at .99c, then a stationary particle in your path will seem to you to be closing in at .99c. So you won't have much time for deflection. But from your point of view the light from your laser will still travel at c with respect to you.

If you can detect a 1 mg dust particle, say, 30 km away, you will have 0.0001 seconds to react and deflect it before it hits you (or, rather, you hit it) with a force of several tonnes of TNT. This is a challenge. If your ship is 100m across, you'll need to accelerate the dust particle at about (s = 0.5 at^2) a million metres per second per second to get it clear of your path before you reach it.


At least in SF movies, they always try to create exotic sciency clothes. And boy do they suck.

None more so than the "Knees Over The World" outfits in "The Shape Of Things To Come".


They are still just passive wrapping


I refute you with "Back To The Future 2".


That all depends on what technologies work/ are permitted within the world and societies that you are imagining.


There has been lots of refinement in manufacture and quality of clothing, but what percentage of the population wear clothes day-to-day that are substatially technologically or functionally advanced over the last handful of centuries? (OK, we have more artificial fibres, but they don't necessarily change the function or look of clothing significantly).

There *are* clothes that are more technologically or functionally advanced, but mostly (to my observation) they're only used in specific jobs, environments or sports.

I'm not convinced that lack of advance in clothing technology in SF is necessarily an oversight -- unless there's widespread uptake of a particular advance, clothes are likely to remain much the same. It would take something to be a lot more convenient to make, wear and maintain (as well as offering some killer new functionality) before a big chunk of the population are likely to give up on garments that are much the same as what we wear now (excepting changes in style and fashion).

I'd also say that of all the background detail, clothes are likely to be the most taken-for-granted aspect of any constructed world; unless a plot point particularly hinges on clothing, or the author really wants to draw attention to some aspect of clothing (remember: show, don't tell), to me it doesn't seem to be something that *needs* to be described or even mentioned.


I am willing to be shown that I'm talking complete rubbish here, by the way.


I imagine that in the relatively short term we will see clothes capable of displaying static pictures or video across the full surface, possibly solar powered. It might even be possible now with eInk, at vast expense.

Later, clothing that is manufactured on the molecular scale capable of size adaptation, variable insulation and permeability. Further on, incorporating pseudobiological functions eg self cleaning, drug/vitamin/other synthesis coupled with skin contact medication.


The kind of issue that I see with the development of clothes in these directions is that they're all going to be expensive to manufacture and expensive to buy to start with -- will these improvements offer enough incentive for a high level of demand in the general population? Without this demand, prices will not drop and allow general uptake, advances will remain comfined to specialist uses (or the very rich), and everyone else will carry on wearing what we're wearing now with some, probably unexpected, fashion differences.

Oddly, out of all the advances you listed, I think the "video clothing" is perhaps the most likely one to reach the biggest market. Certainly in most post-indutrial societies we seem to primarily see clothes as an extension of our personality and a statement about ourselves, rather than primarily about functionality (until we really need to) -- something that makes changing your look easier is likely to be the most appealing selling point for technologically advanced clothing.

Looking at it again from the point of world building: Even if the clothing in $future_world does the self-cleaning, adjusting, drug adminstering bit, unless it's vitally importnat to the plot, it's not likely to impinge on the characters' point of view very much, and so doesn't really need to be mentioned. In the spirit of the whole thing, I'm trying to think of second order (and more) consequences of this type of clothing -- again, they're certainly going to be there, but unless the plot hinges on them, they're not like to enter into the sphere of the narrative.

In short, I don't ever remember reading an SF story and thinking: If only the author had spent more time envisioning the advances in clothing; but at the same time, I do admit that it probably could enrich the world detail to do so, so long as it didn't wrench us out of the story, and the details made sense.


I am rather doubtful that the interstellar medium is a fluid in that sense rather than a lot of isolated particles.

However, if space really is, at the quantum level, just seething with particles being created and destroyed, then at high relativistic velocities, space might be like a fluid. Just a thought.


I am rather doubtful that the interstellar medium is a fluid in that sense rather than a lot of isolated particles.

If you have a frontal area of 10_000ft^2 moving at 0.5c it suptends a fair old volume per unit time, and each particle is going to hit you like hitting something weighing 10.5t at orbital velocities.


OTOH, SF novels do seem to have people travel for a long time without every changing clothes or even taking a shower. How realistic is that? (even if clothes were self cleaning...) ;)


So, what occurs to me is that the killer app. is the one that allows you to accurately measure your hand, and resizes the model of the pen to fit.

This falls into two main parts. First get your measurements, as accurately as possible. Second, you have to work out how to resize the model of the pen to fit those measurements. This has to happen for almost everything you want to have bespoke made.

Hmm. Perhaps I'm in the wrong business...


I think it depends on the focus of the story; but yes I agree that sometimes issues like that can suddenly pop into mind while reading and really pull your suspension of disbelief out from under you.

Some stories go in the other direction. Off the top of my head, I'm sure I remember some of Stephen Baxter's stuff being fairly graphic about what space vehicles their occupants would smell like after long periods of travel/occupation (most involved more contemporary level tech, though).


They also frequently never mention the characters eating several times a day (unless action happens during the meals some characters go without food for months at a stretch), deficating (although that's not so surprising if you never eat or drink), sleeping (unless action...the sleep period some...without sleep for...a stretch)...

ISTR that in Star Trek the Galaxy class starships were the only ones to carry any toilets, and they only had one for a crew of 1012!!


My sarcasm detector is pinging loudly now -- I hope it's not broken!


> Of course if you're the person who wrote in a thread on Amazon
> 'I want some good fantasy to read. I love LOTR, i've tried alot of
> the new stuff and I hate it, all my favorite characters keep dying.'
> You'll disagree with me...

Other way round. When I was about seven years old and read "The Hobbit" one of the things that really impressed me was that some of the good guys died. Including some of my favourite characters. Unlike most kids books, but like real life, good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people. And also the various good-guys are suspicious of each other and put each other in prison. For a kids book, its full of grey characters.

LOTR is not a kids book but the same is true there, and even more so in the Silmarillion. Its hard to think of a major non-divine character who who isn't morally ambiguous. Apart from Beren and Luthien who are cut out of shiny cardboard Christmas decorations of course - which is why Turin's story is so much better.

And no, I have not ever yet read another heroic fantasy of that sort that approaches, never mind surpasses, Tolkien for the world-building - the languages, cultures, history, theology, whatever - which is after all what this thread is about.


Second order effects of video or adaptive clothing:
a) Opportunity for offensiveness, provocation and possibly violence
b) Extremely difficult to follow or identify someone in future spy/police stories
c) Super urban camouflage, and resulting accidents


I would say that LOTR is unique in how it came about though, as Tolkien himself explained: The book was realy an outgrowth of his world-building, not the other way round, and the world-building itself was actually an consequence of his passion for linguistics, when he wanted to create a framework to study how language developed based on the culture it existed in and the influences of history and other cultures. Not to mention that the story was written over a period of many years, at a pace that Tolkien set himself, without a deadline or even much thought of publication.

I'm never really sure that it's fair to compare any other modern work of fiction with LOTR, for these reasons.


... and one more, soon coming to a high street near you.
d) Running you clothing in strobe mode at flicker-fit frequencies


Sorry to disappoint you, Charlie, but though "Transit" and "Ford" may, in wikitheory, be connected in the US, in fact you'd just get a blank look from anyone else in my neck of the woods if you used the name.

I was born and dragged up in Coventry during the 70s so I know what a Transit van is and, more importantly, how much Womble Fur can be added to the inside of one before it crosses the line between Hot Car Knocking Shop On Wheels cool and Ridiculous Scrap Heap On Wheels ridicule.


I like those ideas (number two sounds very like the suits in A Scanner Darkly -- can't recall the name), and I agree that there are definitely stories that could revolve around or at least include future adavances in clothing.

But I'm still not convinced that common items of clothing, commonly worn by the general public are likely to change significantly in most futures, and as such are likely to be amongst the least noticed of background details in constructed worlds.


Oooooh! Posted before I saw this one -- that does open a very interesting can of worms.


Yes absolutely – that’s the kind of ecosystem thing I was thinking of. And that’s where the skill comes in; being able to develop easy to use software and hardware that can make those adjustments. Then there is the semi-skilled service element of the salesperson. The value becomes about creating a product that is as close to perfect for the individual as possible rather than creating a product that is so cheap that individuals will tolerate the fact that it isn’t quite right. Rather, the value is in creating something that will easily allow you to create those products.

For pens I wonder if it’s that hard. Narrow down your selection of pen by general weights, balances and shapes then refine. Squidgy touch senstive pen-shaped thing to find out how your grip works. Second pen-shaped thing with adjustable weight so you get a feel for the balance.

Perhaps not worth it for a biro but if you are going to spend a few hundred quid on a pen (as some do) worth the effort perhaps. But instead of buying one hand crafted pen you invest in the bespoking and anytime you lose a pen you can replace it as cheaply as a biro and thereafter, every biro you write with can be as much of a pleasure as a hand crafted Mont Blanc.

Probably more scalable and easier for things like shoes. My left foot is a 10 ½. My right foot appears to be a 10 ¾’s. I’d pay good money for a pair of shoes that wasn’t a pair.

Or dining room chairs. I am of almost exactly average height for a white middle class male but with short legs. My wife is slightly shorter than the average white middle class female. My daughter will top six foot by the time she’s 18 and is quite leggy. We all sit down to eat on chairs that are identical.

I think there is gold in them thar hills.


what percentage of the population wear clothes day-to-day that are substantially technologically or functionally advanced over the last handful of centuries?

Interesting question! It's true that I'm sitting here wearing clothes made of cotton and wool and linen and leather shoes, just like my forefathers two or three centuries ago, but there have been some significant changes as well:

Off the top of my head, I'd note:

chemical dyes - cheaper, faster (in terms of sticking to the cloth) and less likely to fade, and available in any colour you like

machine-sewn, machine-woven and machine-knitted clothing

tougher synthetic materials for clothing, linings, stockings etc

rubber-soled shoes which are quieter, more comfortable and more waterproof than leather ones

stretchy synthetic material that makes clothes better fitting - not just Lycra, but elastic as well

waterproof breathable synthetic fabrics for raincoats, etc

zip fasteners, Velcro etc

recently, microbicidal fabrics with silver nanoparticles to cut down on odour

I am sure that there have been others - in tanning, for one thing, and in womens' clothing for another - but I'm no expert.


Off the top of my head, I'd note:


Or rather, the lack of them. A couple of generations ago, people wore hats outdoors. These days, they don't.

And before anyone points out exceptions, yes, some people do wear hats — if you look to the left, you'll notice that that number includes me — but the majority has switched from wearing to not wearing.


One area that has seen vast improvement is footwear, esp boots. Consider these (I wear Magnum):

or even a good pair of modern trainers. Anyone remember plimsolls?


Some other aspects of the supply chain have been affected over the last few centuries.

The cotton in my shirt is likely to grown using irrigation that in turn depends on fossil fuel powered pumps on land enriched with artificial fertilizers and shipped to the factory in China and thence to Scotland in a diesel powered ship with a crew of 12 and 1 navigation computer.

So even tho’ the shirt is substantially the same as one my great, great-grandfather might have worn the way it has been produced has been affected by technology in a way that makes the cost of the shirt and the consequential care and maintenance and re-use a different experience. For example, I would sew on a button but I wouldn’t turn a cuff.


Computers were not banned in the Dune universe, AIs were, and then only the AIs that "could think like a man".

How else could the technology of the universe have functioned without high-order computational devices of an extremely small and ubiquitous nature (though the vision of what would be done with them was, as in all SF, a product of the years it was written in)?

Consider the case of the hunter-seeker. It had a human for guidance, but the tech to get everything else about the thing to "work" must imply sub-miniature data-processing electronics.

Herbert wrote Dune before the great digital explosion in electronics in the mid sixties - before then it was impractical to design consumer goods to use digital designs, and for a good while after the power consumption of such devices was unhelpful. This is why his text isn't salted with digibberish as so many modern SF stories are.

But in the Dune universe, much as in Stross' Accelerando one, the tech has gotten out of the way and is an almost-ignored factor - like the high precision tooling that makes your car possible, but isn't necessary to understand for you to drive.

(As an aside, if you want to be gobsmacked, nip over to and see how "they" make bolts, which I guarantee isn't how you might think it is done. Click on Rotary Broaching Demo and be amazed at something you don't give a second thought to in your everyday use of things held together with bolts.)


You think?

Clothing is a very odd field.

Currently we live with accelerated fashion fads because for those of us in the west clothing is cheaper than it ever has been before -- fabric is cheap, manufacturing labour is ultra-cheap. In real terms, a pair of Levi 501s today cost around £40; if the clothing industry wasn't locked in a deflationary spiral, a straight-line extrapolation from manufacturing costs in 1900 would have them selling for £400-500. Prior to 1900, fashion changed slowly, over decades or generations; the idea of new shapes, patterns, fabrics and silhouettes on an annual basis would have struck people as profligate and bizarre.

Even so, most clothing is still hand-made (albeit with sewing machines, sergers, and exotica such as laser pattern cutters). Building a robot that can sew a jacket or a shirt is an exercise that challenges the cutting edge of AI and robotics.

My guess for what's coming is, initially, more of what's already available at the fringes: shops where your measurements are taken and emailed to a factory in the developing world so that a week later the item you liked the look of on the store dummy arrives, tailored to fit (rather than arriving in one of a limited range of pre-planned sizes that only fit 80% of the market remotely well). As for wired-in intelligence, we mostly don't need wires (personal area networks are wireless) but there'll be lots of compartments for your gizmos: like, oh, one of these. Add nanoparticulates for antimicrobial/anti-odour/water repellent finishes.

Medium term: as and when we get tailoring robotics that work and are competitive with cheap developing world labour ... things get interesting. (When does stitching stop and weaving begin? What are seams for?) And there are options we haven't explored; for example, is it possible to use a variant on inkjet printer technology to "print" felts using very short, fine fibres?

Longer term you may be correct -- but not in the next decade or two. And in the meantime, most peoples' clothing choices will be driven by fashion and social signalling rather than protection from the raw environment.


I would say that LOTR is unique in how it came about though, as Tolkien himself explained: The book was realy an outgrowth of his world-building, not the other way round, and the world-building itself was actually an consequence of his passion for linguistics...

Then some smart-arse goes and shows you this.


Those are good examples, but what I think is important to world building is not just how cool the new stuff is, but the answers to questions like these: How do these improvements change our lives? What narrative devices can exist in a world with these advances that couldn't exist before? What narrative devices could exist before but are no longer possible or have been altered? Why would these changes make clothes more important to a character in a given narrative? Essentially: Why would the author want to draw our attention to the characters' clothing as a result of these advances?

(Dirk's already answered some of these)


How many science fiction authors have built a world from near scratch? Larry Niven - Ringworld - Integral Trees; Arthur C Clarke - Rama; Hal Clements - A Mission of Gravity; um... ah... I'm sure there must be more... Help anyone?


There is a difference between eating and changing clothes. Food can be purchased easily. Novels and movies may well have scenes in a such an establishment. Clothes are different matter. You either need to return to your home to change, carry changes of clothes in a bag, or you need to buy new clothes and discard the old ones (especially underwear) - that takes time. In movies the convention is easy, just have the protagonist appear in different clothes.

As Mary Roach notes in "Packing for Mars", if you don't wash, a garment is practically rotting after a week or two.


OTOH, SF novels do seem to have people travel for a long time without every changing clothes or even taking a shower. How realistic is that? (even if clothes were self cleaning...) ;)

I agree. What with the blue-shifted 3cm radiation == gamma rays thing, you'd think at least a mention of clean underwear would be made as the ship's Bergenholm cut in.


> Peter Hamilton was mentioned a few times upthread,
> and his worldbuilding seems thorough, but he insists on letting
> you know about it: what trees grow on each world, what animals
> what the sweater on each woman looks like. Duller than dirt.

Worse than that I'm afraid. He doesn't do his homework. His aliens are sort of OK - well the ones in "Reality Dysfunction" and sequels are - but his planets are simply bits of Earth through stereotype-tinted lenses. There is no depth to anything. I was *especially* pissed off by the trees. They are just fake trees. No life to them!

And when they get back to Earth and visit London his supposed future megacity of hundreds of millions of people in a large arcology turns out to be, well, London. His streets and shops and neighbourhoods are bloody well navigable with a knowledge of London as it is now. In some ways his London of 2610 is more like the London of the 1990s, when the books were written, than the real London of 2010 was. Its absurd. I wonder if he had just given up on new ideas by the time he got to write that part. The books are so long...

(Actually the point he really made me riled was when he has his Fletcher Christian character express surprise and confusion at the idea of orbits and gravity and so on - he almost makes him think the world is flat - the real Fletcher Christian worked as a Master's Mate in the Royal Navy in the late 18th century - he'd have had to pass his exams to do that - and he worked with Bligh who was possibly the greatest navigator in history - he'd have known celestial navigation (certainly) and possibly ballistics, and understood about resolution of vector forces (though not using modern teminology because you need to to sail the ship - the chances are he'd have been able to plot a course for an orbiter by hand)

> The opposite of that is much of C.J Cherry's work [...]

Hear! hear!

> She'll drop the reader and the protagonist into an alien situation where
> little is familiar, and both the reader and the protagonist must figure the
> world out. The author knows, most of the characters know, but we don't.
> That works much better... but it can be more work to get into a novel
> like that. "Serpent's Reach" and "400000 in Gehenna" are probably the epitome of those.

"40,000" is in some ways her best book. Certainly her best aliens. Some of the best aliens in SF.

One of her problems - everyone has them - is that too many of her aliens are humans in masks. Nothing like as bad as the Star Trek franchise and its spin-offs, many of which became unwatchable because the aliens were so obviously stereotypes of various human groups. But pretty bad. A dead giveaway is when an alien is descibed or depicted in a way that makes them sound sexually attractive. Unless there is a backstory of recent migration these folk are less closely related to you than you are to seaweed. If you don't fancy chimpanzees - which share 99% of our genetics - how are you going to fancy Hani like Chanur, or Mri, who are presumably far less like us? And unlike TV's Vulcans/Romulans, a book doesn't even have the excuse of a low budget. On the other hand it is possible that some of Cherryh's earlier SF is deliberate homage to goldenage Space Opera and riffing off its tropes and perhaps deliberately rather retro - "Hunter of Worlds" struck me like that.

> Social implications aren't lost on her either: the use of cloned slaves

Yep, she's good on that. The most characteristic AU book, Downbelow Station, is a space war largely written from the point of view of minor bureaucrats forced to cope with an influx of refugees. Which is a great way to write a novel - just not one that space operas usually take.


ISTR that in Star Trek the Galaxy class starships were the only ones to carry any toilets

This issue is addressed, pointedly, in one of the out-takes from Galaxy Quest.


Combining 'apps' and 'clothing', consider the marketing implications by affiliation/status.
Many celebs already have their own 'designer label' clothing lines plus they're also soliciting Twitter followers. Imagine a clothing technology that combines the two: the cheapest subscription (via download) would automatically download whatever colors your idol of the moment is wearing, the most expensive subscription (download) would re-architect your clothing to exactly match your idol's. (Developers will be in demand to create knock-off/clone apps.) The celeb can then literally use the clothes off his/her fans to generate even more money by selling ad space directly or by pinging directed ads in various locations.

Functionality in terms of environmental, medical, and therapeutic benefits will likely continue to be subordinate to fashion in driving the apparel industry.

In other words, teens/young adults/singles will continue to drive this industry.


Harlan's World.

E.E. Doc Smith did a bunch that don't stand up to rigorous investigation.


Gehenna. Pell. The Atevi world. Cyteen.

Actually, it would be hard to think of an SF author who doesn't do the worldbuilding boogie at some time or another. I imagine it's a big part of the fun of being an SF author.


Possibly the most detailed of all SF world-builders: Brian Aldiss, Helliconia.


Interesting. But I did open with "I would say", indicating that what followed would be at least partly subjective and possibly littered with bad assumptions and terrible factual inaccuracies. (I'd put a smiley face in here if I didn't loathe them!)

But I think my point stands about it being a very unusual way to build a world, and that comparing constructed worlds in other modern fiction with Tolkien's creation, is not necessarily an exercise in fairness.


"Currently we live with accelerated fashion fads"

Do we? The clothes I see actually being worn around me now aren't that much different from the ones I remember from the 1970s. And they are a *lot* less different than 1970s clothes were from 1930s clothes. Or than 1930s from 1890s.


I just want to elaborate on CHarlies rather broad sweep comment regarding fashion.
Certain caveats apply though - I know most about western Europe, medieval into Tudor times.
Now the generalisations that he made are incorrect, although it depends rather upon the social level you are. In Tudor times, the royalty and high nobility did in fact have fashion changing on a yearly or 2 yearly trend. The lower the social scale, the less your fashion changed, so that it was indeed ona generational scale at the lower end of society (Of course that actually covered the bulk of the populace, but I guarantee that the plebs would have had some idea of the changes going on with the rich people, since they'd see them at special occaisions)

In fact the profligacy was not bizarre - it was tied into status and social necessity. An important or rich person aught to dress to show their status, and if that meant new styles of clothing every year, so what. Conspicious consumption was important, partly because they couldn't store wealth the way we can now with modern banking.
Now I'm not entirely sure about the victorian era, but again I'm pretty sure that the upper classes were on a yearly fashion cycle, and throughout the century (judging by pictures I have seen) there was a tendency for faster turnover of fashion spreading down through the various classes. Basically it was a function of the cost of cloth and tailoring. The cheaper things get the more often they can be re-done for new fashion. The invention of the home sewing machine is probably extremely important in that sort of thing, and that undoubtedly was influencing things long before 1900.

And the comment about "if you don't wash a garment is virtually rotting in a couple of weeks". Oh really, tell that to polar explorers and others. Now the precise lifespan of clothing will depend upon the circumstances, but again that is a huge sweeping generalisation. (Not to mention the merino wool underwear which is specifically advertised as still smelling nice after being worn for months on end)


INterestingly, I suspect that the accelerated fashion fads Charlie is talking about apply only to certain segments of the populace, namely those who have the ready money to spend at the high end, and those who have a short attention span and need to show off at the bottom end. Hence the rapid duplication of high end fashion looks by cheap chain stores relying on cheap foreign labour.

Meanwhile the rest of us just buy the same old stuff until it stops being made, whereupon we complain bitterly about it, and how the cloth in jeans is thinner now than it used to be, and so on.

And I'm thinking that the only way to get my own ideal winter coat is to make it. I was thinking of something in the style of a British warm or a late Victorian Ulster. Finding the right cloth going cheap is of course a little harder.


"Currently we live with accelerated fashion fads" Do we? The clothes I see actually being worn around me now aren't that much different from the ones I remember from the 1970s.

Yes, we do -- your observation demonstrates it. For most of the past thousand years, the recurring fashion cycle ran with a period of around 150 years (two lifetimes) between repeats, not 30 years!

Meanwhile the past couple of decades have seen a mainstreaming of sportswear as day-to-day casual fashion in a way that last happened a very long time ago.


Quick question for Charles:
When I post a URL to illustrate something (like the jacket I wear) I just go to google images and pick the first image that seems close enough. Now, bearing in mind the number of people reading your blog, and its potential for incidental advertising, should I be a bit more careful and actually select something I consider "good", or at least "good value" rather than what is effectively a random pick?


Much as I hate pulling up blog owners for their own comments, my search online for the 150 years thing has found Laver's law. Unfortunately that seems to be phrased that a fashion is found to be beautiful 150 years after its time. Not repeated. During its time it is merely smart. Before its time it is indecent, then shameless, then daring.
I can't see any actual comment about it holding for the last thousand years, and would not agree with any such idea anyway.


Now to try and drag my so far rather negative comments back onto the topic...

If SF and F are defined as being fiction which uses worldbuilding, we then enquire as to what is so important, good and interesting about worldbuilding.
Well, it allows you to ask what if, why and how.
In the case of fashion, we can ask why it was that rich late medieval people changed their clothing to follow fashions more often than the rest of society. We can look at how the clothing was made, and what it was good for. And these points can then feed back into the world itself, the characters and their motivations and so on.


@138 and other clothing comments
Cotton shirts
Until the invention of the mechanical cotton gin, cotton was a luxury fibre. The seed cases had to be removed by hand, an incredibly difficult and tedious job. Efficency wasn't helped by most of the non subsitence production in the western hemisphere being produced by slaves. The development of the spinning jenny also helped to reduce the cost of production of cotton thread, increased the rate of production and enable the industrialisation of all steps of production, This happened in a complex interrelation of developments and advances.

In short until the mid nineteenth century your shirt would have been made of linen and would be large and relatively untailored. You wouldn't have owned many, but changing them would have reduced the need to wash your over garments. The sewing machine was developed from french millitary demands during the empire period: all those uniforms to distribute. The industrial development of soap also changed society's expectations of the appearance of clothing. No cricket or tennis whites with out bleaches or bluing.

Also Jeans weren't blue until synthetic vats dyes were developed

Fashion like language changes/ emerges in the youth. As a cohort ages they take their fashion with them and it rises up the social standing. Fashion in this way is a reaction to orthodoxy. later it becomes fashionable. Ponder a moment on the difference between trendsetter and lifestyle icon…
Most people are not interested in being fashionable, but dressing within the bounds of their social milieu. The expression of that milieu will change over time, partly due to the expectation of the members, but also there will be influence from external technological elements. Fibres, yarns, weaving, knitting machines, finishing, pattern cutting and assemble. Money can be saved in all sorts of cunning ways that end up with trousers you can only stand up in to t-shirts that twist around your torso.

There have always been designers interested in futuristic ways of making and wearing clothes such as APOC (a piece of cloth) But people can be quiet conservative when it comes to 'expressions of their social milieus' so you need to watch out for those who dress the next generations of youths…


Like I said, not a "must read." For myself, I really liked the fact that it was a very hopeful book, but I wouldn't advise anyone to bother with the sequels unless you really like historical sci-fi.


The cotton gin took the 'intelligence' out of the process, and so until a mechanical power source could be incorporated the use of slave labour became more efficient. Thus removing one of the bottlenecks in the production process.
In addition the short stable of cotton, maximum 2 inches, was completely unsuitable for the existing spinning technologies in N Europe. Fibre stables here historically varied between 4 inches and 4 feet. Merino is a very fine short fibre. In a way this made it easier to develop new technologies because there were no existing interests to compete with.


I think DW believes himself to be a right-winger, but if he was given some kind of well-designed attitudinal test, he'd score someplace in the middle-left.


One of the big problems with worldbuilding, in general, is how ignorant most readers are. There's almost the equivalent of an uncanny valley in worldbuilding, where a world can be so realistically alien that only a few people want to read about it.

For example, Honor Harrington was obviously inspired by the Napoleonic Wars, age of sail in space. I strongly suspect that was part of its appeal. Even its "exotic" elements (such as the Grayson swords) were westernized.

Compare that, with, say, the Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 1500s. There are some spectacular battles and technical innovations on the Korean side, like the hwachas and the turtle ships, plus a whole new set of martial arts imported from China, that let them finally beat of the Japanese. Nonetheless, AFAIK, no SFF writer uses these as a setting, even just by filing the serial numbers off. Why not? Partially it's writerly ignorance, but mostly it's because the western SFF audience hasn't a clue what I'm talking about without reading those Wikipedia links. That makes such a setting a barrier for a writer, rather than a help. The setting in the HH series definitely made it easier to read.

Similarly, there's language. To pick on Korea again, AFAIK they don't have terms for aunt and uncle. There ARE terms for mother's older sister, younger sister, etc, not really generic terms like we have in English. Similarly, Korean has politeness tenses,so that grandparents rank higher than people of one's own age. You use different verb tenses when speaking to anyone's grandfather. This sounds weird to western ears, and anyone trying to make a pseudo-Korean society in a SFF setting has to either westernize the language used, or deal with the fact that most western readers are going to be annoyed by the way the people refer to each other.

It's not that South Korea is a medieval country, either. It's more wired than the US. However, it's unknown enough to most westerners that basing a SFF story on Korean history would be a feat. Not that this should stop anyone from trying. Personally, I'd love to see a shallow space turtle ship.

I won't even get into the science of worldbuilding, but the general acceptance of size-changing ships in Star Trek, or size changing Godzillas in Tokyo, makes it hard to have much real science content in science fiction. And don't get me started about biology. Most people are so ignorant of the fauna and flora of Earth that there's no point in making a realistic alien world. Even using a setting that's a clone of Papua New Guinea or the Amazonian Andes will be too uncomfortably alien for most people to want to read about it.

It's probably safer and simpler to recycle Star Trek/Wars aliens (or D&D monsters), and keep the reader happily flipping pages. Personally, I'm not fond of safe, but then again, I'm not earning a living as a writer, either.


That would be Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's End


DW glorifies a militaristic Constitutional monarchy where the aristocracy is ascendant in politics, inheriting power and influence from their military ancestors. As far as I can tell there is no US-in-space in the HH universe even though the Napoleonic wars postdate the formation of the US and its representative democracy by a generation or more.

As for his personal politics he Tuckerised President Clinton as an incompetent junior officer (named Rodham) but as far as I know no Republican Presidents received the same treatment.

When you think about it, the Death Star *must* have a huge support staff, presumably including minimum-wage food servers.

Until recently, all military services solved this problem by using low-rank enlisted personell as drudge laborers, food servers, servants to higher-ranked personell, and other general labor. They're so much cheaper than civilian hires and require so much less consideration (minimal benefits, no union, no real redress or complaint mechanisms, highly effective means of punishing undesired behavior1). That this has changed in the last generation is primarily a result of the need on the part of First World countries like the US to fight wars without conscript troops (lesson learned from the social upheaval surrounding the Vietnam War). The Empire's politics clearly allow for arbitrary conscription of civilians (I would be surprised if they hadn't imported the institution of slavery from the Hut worlds). So Darth Vader is much more likely to be talking to a stormtrooper on KP duty than a civilian, and I would guess that soldier is going to be very careful about how he talks to his commanding officer.

1. A service buddy of mine spent the second half of his year in Vietnam on patrol in hostile territory every 3 or 4 days because he pissed off his company first sergeant.


There's a reason why Moscow is sometimes called "Fourth Rome".


Heteromeles and others, its not just the Koreans. Kinship systems vary hugely between human societies. It was one of the favourite topics of 20th century anthroplogy.

(There is some discussion at - and a slightly OTT fun model at )

Its more complicated than most people think and more different between societies than most people think.

The great writer (not just great SF writer) who most often gets this *right* is Ursula LeGuin. Her human societies often seem more alien than most writer's alien societies - but they are very often no more different from the assumed reader than the societies billions of real humans live in.


Vernor Vinge - Tines World. (I wasn't impressed with the world building in the first book, but the second book really gets into the biology and sociology of the Tines and I thought that was really cool.)

Larry Niven - You forgot The Mote.

John Varley - Gaea.

Roger McBride Allen - The Sphere

David Gerrold - The alien ecology in the Chtorr Books (Hurry up Dave!!)

Roger Zelazny - Creatures of Light and Dark, Lord of Light, Amber, Isle of the Dead plus damn-near anything else he wrote.


So the type of engineering that will drive Maker technology isn't the development and selling of individual designs, but the development and selling of algorithms and programs to modify designs for individual needs. Bespoke designs will be (at least semi-)automatically produced by these programs, and the success of the Maker technologies will be dependent on just how automatic and effective those algorithms are, and how easy they are for non-designers to use.

To create that ecosystem we need metatools that are to existing CAD design tools as compilers are to programs.

(When does stitching stop and weaving begin? What are seams for?)

Weaving is being used to create 3D objects from carbon fibers, ISTR one bicycle manufacturer building wheels this way; probably the only thing preventing using the same technology for clothing is the cost and (to date) custom design of the weaving machines.


Oh, come Now...Not so far out in real terms when you look at Mini Skirts, Hot pants and so forth from the ..60s to the 70s of the last Century and then google for those same fashions for Men as of Now.

I wish it to be KNOWN that, although I am of the generation that was ambulant at and around those long ago times ..I NEVER EVER wore flared or bell bottomed Trousers or Jeans ! And furthermore I only ever wore suits when I had to ... as Executive Battle Dress.

'Things to Come ' was merely extrapolating a RETURN of fashion for men towards kilts ..I seem to recall that Robert Heinlein Had Men in Kilts in more than one of his Future Histories ..just a way of telling us that it was .... The Future ,and Thus it WAS and Was to Be ..STRANGE.

And so lets look at a possibility of approach from a high class Robot Tailor ..'What Side do you wear your Blaster on Sir ?'

The clothes I see actually being worn around me now aren't that much different from the ones I remember from the 1970s.

I guess you never wore Quiana shirts.


DW also obviously dislikes religious fanatics, corporate/political corruption, sexual or racial prejudice (you did notice that Queen Elizabeth is dark-skinned, right?) and I suspect that he's a decent guy, though I've never met him. Despite the obvious flaws in the books, including characterization, worldbuilding, and the lack of really alien aliens, Weber also has a clear historical grasp of the real basis of evil.

To elucidate upon what I said earlier, DW embodies one of the real problems in US politics. He's a guy who clearly has many values which an intelligent, neutral observer would describe as "liberal." However, he believes himself to be a conservative, and probably votes against the very values he believes in, while expecting that his votes are helping propel his values in the direction he prefers.

When people in the US are polled about their values and attitudes without reference to politics they tend to support liberal ideas and policies in a very large majority, something around 65-70%. However, when specifically polled about their politics in terms of the politicians, parties, and proposals they prefer, they tend to poll conservative. IMHO this is the result of the very intense and ugly propaganda we receive in the US on a daily basis.

You might also consider disconnecting the author from the stories s/he creates - the character/story/setting does not necessarily speak for the author. Maybe it allows a story the author finds funs or interesting, or the author is subtly working against the setting... you don't know until the story is over.


I think so.

I think that's where the money is to be made.

The ingredients are commodities. One off designs are one off. The machines might make themselves.

I think the design software that lets you easily & quickly flex a basic design; to tailor it, is the hard to reproduce element.


" LOTR is not a kids book " .. Oh yes it was! It was first taken up as an Enthusiasm by Students at Oxenford University and it continues as an Enthusiasm to this day and if you don't think of University students as being Kids then you haven't known many students at a codicil; I used to advice worried teenagers that ' know you needn't fear Mature Students for they are more afraid of you than you are of them

Tolkien was a Very Romantic creature and that is why his books will always have appeal and those of us who Loath Aristocracy and fictional longings for Rural Medieval Themed Heroics/High Fantasy - Kings! What a GOOD Idea !! Lets all bend the Knee to The Once and Future KING ! - are doomed when denouncing all and every High Fantasy Epic. Its the Wolf/Ape Pack Call of the Wild towards the simplicity of Hierarchy and The Leader of The Pack...Things Will Be SO much better when HE/SHE sorts them out as in days of Yore.


Well spotted.


I think you are just not attuned to styles. 70's styles would stick out like a sore thumb, even with men's clothing. If you don't believe me, watch a tv show from the 1970's and pay attention to the clothes. They are very distinctive.

While fashion cycles are seasonal, the latest trend (in women's clothes) is to ignore the cycles and just create new designs constantly, using very low cost as the driver to volume.

A very obvious change in the fashion industry is the lack of conformity since the 1960's. Today the variety of styles, fabrics and designs on sale at any given time is vast, whereas 50 years ago, it was quite narrow. Again, movies (and tv) show this very well.

What I would hope for is more rapid, inexpensive tailoring. It should be possible for a machine to measure you (or have your measurements on a card), have a design you like in a store tailored to your measurements and delivered within a week (or less). You should be able to see what it would look like on your body before you order/buy it - perhaps with a "smart mirror". If computers could ever convey the details and the feel of fabrics (or you get a sample delivered), then the whole process could be done online too.


Your mention of slavery reminds me of one other way in which the supply chain has changed without the basic finished commodity changing much.

Ethical considerations seem to be a larger consideration when buying clothing and other things than they used to be.


" I think you are just not attuned to styles. 70's styles would stick out like a sore thumb, "

A 'Sore Thumb ' is the least of the potential Fashion Victims problems ...


Yes 70s styles would stick out now, but its a matter of degree. Compared with the changes in the previous 30 years, its less.

And as others have said the rich always had rapidly changing fashions. Nowadays you would need to be a specialist to tell an 1884 dress from an 1885 dress, but the wealthy women of 1885 certainly knew. And I suspect that the differences were at least as great - probably a lot greater - than 1984 to 1985.

For a example bustles came in in the 19th centiry, mutated, went out of fashion, and did it again in a different form later - so if you know what you are doing you can tell what year, sometimes even what season of the year, a bustle comes from. It dates a dress to within months.

Of course most women never got the chance to get near such things.


use of carbon fibre:
if we are talking about woven or braided carbon tape rather than a non woven ,blown textile held together by glue, you still have to cut it up and embed it in a matrix to provide it with ridigity and anything other than tensile strength.

A much more flexible means of manufacture is a five bed knitting machine. A loom will make sheets or tubes. the kniting machine can meld these together i.e knit a jumper in one piece or anything topologically simmiular. I think it would struggle with manipulating concentric tubes. However these machines only knit one 'jumper' at a time so unless its very important to have your 'body' as a singluar unit it is probably cost effective to make items up from lots of flat sheets. That is until current technologies need replacing.

the human body is a very odd shape and the human body in motion is even harder to model successfully. That's why you can't raise your arms in cheap suit jackets or do the splits in cheap trousers. I remember seeing a laser tailoring booth on TV at least 20 years ago. The biggest problem not just the supply chain but the way we buy clothes today. It's expected that you can walk into a shop and pick up what you want. Either another half dozen t-shirts plain iike you've bought the last ten years or the latest shinny thing that you've seen in a fashion rag.
In the past if you were rich you had a tailor if you were a man and a dress maker if you were a lady. Urbanites might visit a salon and order clothes from a designer. In the country, fashion circulated slower by word of mouth or by fashion plates or doll. Little details like cuffs and button etc might change the most. But you would only visit these people once or twice a year, save for special occations. the poor made their own clothes or wore hand me downs especially if they were in service. Unless you got the reverse flow of influence when sporting clothes became de regure. People haven't always worn trousers and fitted shirts and short jackets, and what ever happened to the waist coat. bare in mind that the modern uniform of t-shirt and jeans comes from work ware and under ware. Will we all be walking around in florescent plastic trousers and wife beaters in 100 yrs time!

180 daniel

what I was trying to say was without slavery and automated machinery we wouldn't have cotton goods at all. And all the rest of the triangle trade and the early industrial revolution and the destruction of the local textile industry in India (although I'm not sure it was up to supply the world in addition to local demand) and all the rest of world history would be radically different. sure we'd have something else it wouldn't be what we have now.
But this is just an example of how even little assumptions like Randolph's assumption that he was wearing the same items of clothing as his forbears is all part of the world building/understanding thing OGH was talking about


> the need on the part of First World countries like the US to fight
> wars without conscript troops (lesson learned from the social
> upheaval surrounding the Vietnam War).

A bit of localism there! Lots of countries never had conscription in the first place. It was no secret that a volunteer army was what you need for fighting foreign wars. Even countries that had conscription in the 18th and 19th and 20th centuries often used volunteers for overseas imperial adventures. What else was the French Foreign Legion for? Conscripts were for defending France, not conquering Vietnam.

Like so much else that changed in 1914, but the British Army never liked using conscripts. The British Empire was built on a volunteer army (and sort of kind of a volunteer navy, though the press gang existed until 1814). There was general conscription in the Britain (but not Ireland) from 1916 to 1919, and again from 1939. That continued after 1945 until 1959 or so for political reasons - it was supposed to unite the country or something - then abandoned, largely because the Army had no use for them.


Something brought to my attention by Dave Lee on his blog:


Perhaps the Maker movement should be compared to other creative industries:
Music went from being a done-once event (public performance) to an on-demand item. Movies too. Production of music and movies has gone from something you had to be pretty wealth to do to almost trivial assembly on computer (rumors of parts of The Avengers being shot on iPhone are apparently just that, but lenses excepted it's not too far-fetched).

If entertainment drives adoption of technology: what would get millions of people to want to have a 3D printer? I don't need an endless supply of tchochkes, much as Cory Doctorow might think I do. (3D printer recycleries, that make new filament/toner out of old thingies, would be worth investing in). Print-your-own sex toys is likely to be a market: porn drives a lot of tech too. Would having a starlet's bits available for you to play with, without having to go to a store or have FedEx deliver increase sales? Probably.

But that's not enough of a market.

How about board games? I've never played Carcassone, and I know it's a pretty-good sized investment in entertainment bucks (compared to a first-week Blu-Ray or album of music). If I could print out a board and pieces, I'd probably play it.

Kids' toys in general is a good bet: Gotta Catch 'em All is an awfully powerful marketing scheme... but perhaps this makes it too easy.


I think I have read all of Weber. He uses war a lot. Well a war is the biggest thing that can happen to a society or a person. But I do think he is being pushed into grinding out books. He will do two or more good reads and find him self in a hole he can't write out of.
Whats the big deal about the newest play clothing? Junk wares out fast. But on the other hand it costs a lot. This is good?
Not all that many Years ago I remember reading moaning about how men would not buy new styles. A man would just buy a coat with two pares of pants. Not like woman who were making people rich by buying what the industry said was the newest thing.
No matter how much money was spent on ads, the men would not change. Well that was then. If your a man you must work hard not to buy what people you would not like to be around say you must. AND ITS JUNK! Once you could do most of what you wanted in 501 Boot Top Jeans. They were work pants and cheap. The cheap part shows how old I am. I don't think there is any real mass production any more for consumers. The fewer made the more profit.


One can certainly argue that about the first two Dune books. With "Children of Dune" it begins to feel like a more general claim is being made. "God Emperor of Dune" makes this fairly explicit. "Heretics of Dune" and "Chapterhouse Dune" focus more clearly on not allowing any possible enemy to get a handle on you. But this was the leit-motif of Siona in "God Emperor", and Leto (the younger) frequently makes statements that harmonize with this meaning both in "God Emperor" and in "Children". Maud'dib doesn't seem to see this as clearly. Leto's claim is that only by teaching humanity to not be controlled will it survive, and he uses this to justify his absolute rule. (Which rule, to be clear, doesn't seem to have been any more oppressive than that of the previous Emperor, except that he didn't allow any renegades to exist. Not ever, really, the Tleilaxu. Whenever they attempted to create a colony, Leto destroyed it.)

The "Idaho" motif I find is something I don't really understand. Particularly not in it's final development. But it's significant that what Leto caused to happen was to break the loyalty to the house or Atreus of it's most devoted servant. OTOH, he reamins someone whose actions Leto could forsee, even as he nominally escapes all control at the end of Chapterhouse.

To me the entire series is an argument that even the most enlightened controller with the most benevolent aims possible is not a survivable scenario. I don't necessarily accept the argument, but it is well thought out and coherent. It appears impossible to have a controller more enlightened that Leto, the God Emperor, and also impossible to have one with more benevolent aims. Or one who is more self-sacrificing.

I consider the series from Dune through Chapterhouse to be one philosophical statement (or argument). The quality isn't equal throughout, and the argument is stated in the forms of analogies that I don't always accept. The human reactions, however, are mainly believable. The only exception being those of Muad'dib and Leto, which are too idealized to be believable. (But they need to be to make the argument valid.)

I will admit that there are large pieces of the argument that I don't understand. I suspect that there are places where if I did understand, I would disagree. These haven't appeared to be too important to the soundness of the argument, however. I have more qualms about the potentialities that he ascribes to unmodified humanity. And, also, about the nature of the universe that he subscribes to. How important these are to his main argument I don't know. (I suspect that the potential of unmodified humanity part of the scenario would kill his argument, but because the its essentially metaphorical nature it's difficult to be certain.)


Thank you, sir!


I still disagree with you. Have you read the book available at the url in my post?
Now I won't disagree that there are various themes in the two trilogies, but I disagree that the main one is "centralized power is oppressive". Rather it is one of many sub-themes, and should properly be phrased 'centralised power tends to opression, and to be captured by special interests close to the seat of power'.
I also find your characterisation of the theme at the end being "If someone can find a hold on you, you are not safe." as similarly lacking in subtlety, since in every story every character has a chink in their armour, a fault, a flaw. This is a theme explored by Paul, acknowledged as a simple fact of life by Miles Teg. The important point which transcends the simple acknowledgement of it as a subsidiary theme is the individual and societies attempts to deal with these facts of life; that you are finite and subject to errors, things up up and then down, there are cycles of growth and ageing, etc. Herbert wrote quite an organic and changing universe, and again a theme of Dune is that trying to hold such a universe in stasis, as an Empire does, is a bad thing which tends to go BOOOOM in a big way. In Herberts case one of the drivers is technology, as is seen most clearly in the second trilogy.
Hence your characterisation of the main theme is simply inadequate, mistaking a buttress for a tower.


Niether. It's good worldbuilding in the sense that they ministry of magic blindly copied the practices of another institution. You could even call it a skit on old style British management.


Jack Chalker's Well World saga has hundreds of worlds varying in technology, biology, ethos, etc. but only a few are described at any length.


I'd point out another interesting trap in worldbuilding that I found out when writing Scion of the Zodiac: it's harder writing about democracy than aristocracy, and it's hard writing about a protagonist who's part of a clan, rather than a lone wolf.

Reason I found that out was that I made the assumption that people living on an alien planet are probably going to put group survival above their own survival, just as a matter of grim practicality (if the group doesn't survive, they won't either). Similarly, I tend to believe that democracy works better than autocracy, especially when a smallish group has to collectively solve many complex problems to survive. Obviously you need people who are good at it making decisions and organizing, but these people also need to get their chains yanked when they over-reach, as they inevitably will.

Unfortunately, when people are less interested in rebelling or distinguishing themselves than they are in making sure their village gets through the next growing season, that makes it harder to distinguish them as individuals.

It's an interesting conundrum, and I think that's why SFF tends to have an aristocratic (or at least strongly hierarchical) bent: it makes the conflict easier to write. Real life doesn't work that way so well, but that's just another way that stories differ from reality.

I think the design software that lets you easily & quickly flex a basic design; to tailor it, is the hard to reproduce element.

There's been work done in this area, but in a different application domain. Due in part to influences like Pattern Languages (which were developed in an architectural context, were picked up by computer science, and have now come back to architecture and mechanical design) there's a growing architectural movement experimenting with generative and parametric design tools. Clearly the kinds of design constraints and the affordances of the materials are different from clothes, but there may be some useful lessons there. See, for instance, Parametric Design


Colonial armies often used native auxiliaries as labor and logistical support; many of them were conscripts, or might as well have been. Some examples are the Tirailleurs Sénégalais in the French Colonial Army, the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, and the conscript laborers used to haul military supplies around central Africa by several European powers in the early 20th Century.

I grant you that most European countries ended conscription of their own people earlier than the US (I know this for a fact, as I was conscripted into the US Army), but that didn't stop them from conscripting others.


Recent real world tech I've seen:

Spray on clothing - this may end up being used more for bandages but the demo I saw sprayed on a t-shirt over a person's torso and the resulting clothing item was claimed to be reusable and whashable. Looked like wearing cotton candy but who knows.

That hydrophobic spray coating for clothing, It reminded me of that Alec Guinness movie, the man in the white suit.

Back to world building, fictionwise I'm always fond of Judge Dredd's mileu, which may not be all that internally consistent but is certainly fun. The canon explanation for the Judge's uniforms being so gaudy is precisely so they'll stand out among the myriad changing fashions of the citizens. Of all the fashions they got the one with ultra fat people toddling around in scooters right, I wonder if ugly fashion will also appear eventually.

Comics in general have to actually show fashions and inventions, they can't get away with prose's use of descriptive generic terms.

Francois Bourgeon and Claude Lacroix created an elaborate world for their Cycle of Cyan series, I don't believe it's published in english but this review shows some artwork


As an aside, I've been thinking about 3d printers and this maker culture stuff, and trying to integrate it into possibilities in the future. The funny thing is that I have trouble working out what is so good about 3d printers.
Yes, you could make some fancy shaped pens, doorknobs, or other items out of plastic. Possibly making new car bumpers out of plastic would be do-able. But the problem I keep seeing is that the more technologically advanced the society is the greater the pyramid of tech needed to make stuff, e.g. high mileage safe cars, condensing boilers, electronics etc. Leaving very little room for 3d printers.
So I suspect we would see the economy evolve into 2 levels, one the international one where a large factory turns out millions of parts into containers which go into ships, get transported round the world and dropped off; and a more local economy based around taking in each others washing/ spare parts replacement/ food and drink.


I think there's a major market in domestic items like kitchen utensils, flatware, and dishes. Currently the prices for those things are fairly low (though if you're outfitting an entire kitchen the total might astound you) largely because we've pushed off the labor cost of manufacture to places like China which have low wages. But that's going to change (it's already started to change: wages in China are starting to increase, and the rate of increase in the Chinese GDP is starting to fall as growth slows down to accomodate that). I'm not talking about tchotckes, but about utility items that just about everyone in the developed nations will acquire at one time or another.


My problem with 3D printers and the future is not so much what you get out of the damn things but what you put into them to get Complex Stuff out.

If you plan to get simple plastic metal composite complexly shaped thingys out as prototypes .. This is What IT will look like ! ... then all well and good, but who supplies the Input Stuff for anything more complicated?

Up till now I don't see the chain of development/design technology that enables you to, say, feed grass cuttings into the Hopper at one end and, say, get Levi 501 jeans out of the Forming Chamber ..or whatever it might be called the other end.

Maybe I'm just far behind the imaginative curve on this but it looks to me as if 3d printers may well be as limited in their function as as laser printers are in theirs.


I suspect you've never been to a PTA (Parent-Teachers Association) meeting or to a town hall or other community decision-making meeting. Democracy means never having to stop talking, in my experience. And it's easy to distinguish the cast of characters: there's Henry, who is incapable of convincing anyone of anything, but keeps talking about how his neighborhood needs traffic barriers, and over there is Hermione, who has all the facts marshaled and can make an excellent case, but the Board of Selectpeople hate her with a passion because she won't kowtow to the Chair Person, whose children keep trashing Hermione's lawn. And so on.

Many of those people are convinced that the battles they fight in their meetings are epics of the scope and magnitude of Gilgamesh or Aragorn, and this makes them fascinating characters for a story (but not fun to deal with in real life).

Maybe I'm just far behind the imaginative curve on this but it looks to me as if 3d printers may well be as limited in their function as as laser printers are in theirs.

I think they may be as unlimited in their function as inkjet printers are in theirs. The basic technology of inkjets (and the devices themselves, very often) has been modified to create structures that can be used as: food, biological tissues and organs, medical prostheses (and this is one important area of work with 3D printers now), biological and chemical analysis equipment, and so on.

As for the input stuff, that depends entirely on how much variation in the output structure you need. For some applications you might need as many as 6 or 7 input materials (3 or 4 rigid structural materials in primary colors for color-mixing, one rigid transparent structural, one elastic structural, one electrical conductive, one thermal conductive), for some you might need only one or two, especially if you can get a range of characteristics by varying the mix. There are commercial 3D printers that can print multiple materials on the same product, even some of the cheap kits can support 2.

One restriction that's not likely to last too much longer is the size of the printing volume. Especially if you want to print relatively flat (say up to 10 or 20 cm) but wide (perhaps 1/2 meter to a meter) pieces, we're starting to talk about making furniture, wall sections, and other parts of buildings.


Charlie (and other authors), do you consider the mindset/pyschology of the population part of the worldbuilding process? I'm thinking of CJ Cherryh's "Wave Without a Shore" which has a very weird human population and society but nothing different in terms of technology or environment.


Parts of buildings? But why bother when you have bricks, breezeblock, steel, wood, insulation, tiles, etc already available in kilotonne amounts?

Actually I can see giant CNC's for wood being possible/ useful - throw a tree in one end, get 15 boards, 8 thingamajigs and a couple of nameplates out the end.
But the point is that its all very well being able to say "a 3d printer can do this" but you have to have an economic setup where it is cheaper and easier to use it than buy it from a shop after it was made on a mass production line 3,000 miles away.

I would like a 3d printer for making originals for lost wax casting, which with the right allows, casting material and furnaces for heat treatment afterwards, as well as CNC's for finishing the final product (or indeed printing in metal or ceramic using the CNC, sintering the metal or ceramic into the right density and heat treating as appropriate). But is it cheaper or easier to use such a setup - can I source the plastic from locally available hydrocarbons, or can I get the metal from the local scrapyard?

Hmm, more reading required.


Which brings us back to the economics of the world you build. Our host has been praised for the economics in some of his books. And the economics are necessary if you are building the kind of story where they matter. All too many fantasy stories have various populations living somewhere with no visible means of support. (KJ Parkers fencer trilogy was terrible for this)
But it can be argued that for certain types of story the economics doesn't matter, e.g. the cowboy story with serial numbers filed off and set on a different planet. As long as it entertains, who cares?


> Parts of buildings? But why bother when you have bricks, breezeblock, steel, wood, insulation, tiles, etc already available in kilotonne amounts?
For building structures on the moon, apparently. Or just things that look a bit like the Sagrado Familia, without the genius architect.

>I would like a 3d printer for making originals for lost wax casting
One of the best uses for the current bottom-end open source 3D printers, in my opinion. They use HDPE (which you can recycle from milk cartons, though apparently there's some quality sacrificed because it's hard to remove impurities in a home-assembled recycler)
> ceramic using the CNC, sintering the metal or ceramic into the right density and heat treating as appropriate).
The RepRap guys are starting to look into laser sintering, it seems. There's certainly open source sintering designs available.

3D printing is currently Linux in the early 90's - no-one's exactly sure where it's going or what's going to happen, but there's hundreds of theories, thousands of possibilities, and huge enthusiasm.


Scramble suits. Also used in Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan, which featured some fantastic pieces of future-fashion: things like this non-static tattoo replacement were just part of the background.


Yep. Anarchy wouldn't be the end of politics. It would be politics everywhere.

I look forward to it ;-)


As a trivial example, I learned the other day that my uncle had somehow broken the power steering fluid reservoir cap on his ~20 year old Jaguar (and his mechanic couldn't figure out how he'd broken it, either). Unfortunately, the part was so old and so reliable that even a specialist mechanic didn't know how to get a replacement. He improvised one with electrical tape and a cap off of an old bottle from his garage, but for some parts you really need the exact doodad.

There's an SF author who made a point of just this in one of his recent books, too.


Thanks for the comment, Bruce. I didn't go far enough in the original remark, but I know what you mean, because I keep minutes for a group every month.

Yes, people talk in democracy. A lot. How many pages of that do you really want to read? For most people, it's not much. I know, because I have a monthly struggle getting people to read those words, along with the inevitable notices and other paperwork we get. Most people would much rather have someone else deal with it, which is why Robert's Rules of Order calls for a secretary as part of the proceedings.

The problem with democracy in novels is about numbers. Every word you spend on democratic dialog is a word you can't use describing, say, your protagonist's internal state. It's a word you can't use directly for worldbuilding (in terms of vision, smell, feel, or whatever). That's the hard part. If you want to spend a lot of words building a world, there are fewer words left for characterization and plot. And vice versa. That's why getting the balance right is a neat act. The more alien the world is, the harder it is to describe that world in a few words, and the harder it is to have complex characters. Adding democracy simply means adding dialog and people.

If you want an example, imagine Occupy Barsoom, where the Martians decide to fight for democracy in Greater Helium. Don't forget to describe their centuries of oppression by the aristocrats. And the fact that they lived those centuries. I'm not sure what the life of a multi-centennarian green-grocer would be like, but bringing that to life, along with those of his fifty closest friends, that would be a worthy challenge for anyone. Especially if Occupy Barsoom is as undefined in its goals as its Earthly counterparts are.


Because printing those parts on site might be slightly easier/more efficient than subcontracting from some obscure workshop/factory a few hundred miles away.

There also might be added benefits to printing a material as a method of production. For instance printing only the exact material required for the structural load needed - for instance in concrete columns (thought I'm not sure how you'd print a reinforced concrete column).

Also 3d printing would cut out a stage in, for instance, producing a concrete like material (ditch the formwork stage) which would free up making more complex bespoke structures either for structural or aesthetic reasons.

Materials and all that might flow out the production methods... ? Or just sit side by side with other zippy high tech applications. But 3d printing definitely seems like a boon to building construction.


I've met DW a couple of times and I certainly regard him as a decent guy (rather to my surprise the first time round). Politically, I'd place him as conservative even by American standards, but definitely a pragmatic, socially liberal conservative - it's the kind of conservatism that shows a firm but not unconditional support for the military, distrusts (but recognises some necessity for) government activities in other areas (particularly welfare), but also believes that good citizens have a duty to pick up on the activities they prefer to keep government out of.

On other points - I've read relatively little DW, but it so happens that that includes a relatively recent HH novel. It seems fairly clear that the part of villain is shifting from Haven to the Mesan Alignment - and while in earlier novels, Haven was effectively a cartoon of Revolutionary France, the Mesan Alignment is not Napoleonic-era at all. Meanwhile, it looks as if Haven may be morphing into a version of the United States. I doubt that I will try to keep up with it - he and GRRM seem to be competing for Western civilisation's most complex multi-volume novel - but others will undoubtedl find it interesting to see how the HH universe stands up to this kind of tectonic shift.


As far as 3D printers go...part of the effect is going to be the _speed_ at which they become practical.

Let's say they went mainstream and cheap in the span of a few years, fairly soon. Economies reliant on export of manufactured goods (China, Japan, Germany maybe) collapse. Copyright wars become nasty, as templates for 3D fabbers become one of the more important trade goods, along with bulk commodities and energy.

A slower transition would give time for the relevant economies to adapt- goods slowly becoming locally-produced, with a chance for everyone to take a stab at getting in on the template game or raw materials gig.


> Aren't world models in SF more about
> what we (authors and readers) can
> accept

Yes. When I pick up something presented as a novel, I expect it to contain a story. Hopefully with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end, and at least one identifiable plot. I don't always get them, but that's the breaks.

I appreciate the work some authors do when they build the backgrounds for their stories, but in some cases they seem to put all their work into the background and not enough into doing something with it.

And, of course, I encounter the opposite, where obviously the author has done extensive homework, but doesn't bother to let the reader in on it, so the novel just leaps from one WTF? to the next. This problem is usually found in conjunction with no beginning or no end; I've sometimes checked the binding to see if any chapters were missing.

Don't get me wrong; a good backstory can make the difference between a way to kill a few hours and something that makes me sit back and say, "Wow!" But the world, or backstory, or whatever you call it, is only part of a novel.


Ever see a section of a prefab house? There's a lot more than just wood and metal. Each section has wiring for power (and could also have phone and cable/internet, etc.) and plumbing (and could also have gas for heating, etc.) I don't know if recent versions also have wiring for fire and CO detectors, but that's also a possibility. Currently it takes a fair-sized factory to build those sections; if you could do it in a single 3D printer that you could carry around on the back of a truck you could fab and assemble a house in place. I see some possible cost advantages there.


Ooops, sorry, that last post should be marked as a reply to guthrie.


You definitely have a point; anarchic and highly democratic societies require a great deal more description than more regimented societies. But I think it can be done; as an existence proof, I point to Chip Delany's Stars In My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand. And then I guess I have to point out that Delany also showed the difficulty by not being able to finish the sequel, The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities.


Dirk Bruere @ 155
ANOTHER Orvis fan!
Their cotton shirts (see Maggie below) are superb.

Maggie @ 160 & 162
"Also Jeans weren't blue until synthetic vats dyes were developed" - TOTAL COBBLERS.
I suggest you look up INDIGO, from Indigofera tinctoria
Been in use since Classical times.

Usual apologia for slavery re. the cotton gin.
"Long-staple cotton" could be obtained from both Egypt (later) and India. Indeed, Indian cotton was already in use, but not imported much into Europe, especially England, at that point, because we were using US southern stuff.
The Civil war produced the "cotton famine" (look it up), which was alleviated by switching supplies to Indian-sourced. After the US civil war was over, the Brits re-started using US cotton, but not nearly as much - and there was a huge expansion of cotton-mill building in Lancashire, as the availability of Indian cotton was expanded.

163 & 167 re. DW
The Manticore monarchy is forced to become militaristic, because Haven is threatening it.
The aristocracy are in the position of 19thC Britain - they have apparent power, but the REAL power lies in the lower chamber - a common mistake made by USians, that Weber has spotted correctly.
Agree about probable personal/actual political leanings
No, there isn't a US-eqivalent UNLESS it's the Solarian League - a US gone completely rotten over the centuries.
Haven MIGHT become a (modern) US as times go by?

Alex R. @ 170
Agree with all of those, especially Zelazny.
Can I put in a word for Eddings, here, especially the fist series (Garion growing up) ...
He carefully built a world, different societies, and some of the "good" guys are decidedly dubious - all the characters have human failings, make mistakes, etc....
Yes, I know, it's pot boiling, but it was FUN pot-boiling.
I liked the cynical Sparhawk, as well.

Alex Tolley @ 179
Clothing... well apart from changing from a tie to a cravat, my dress is vitually identical to that I wore in 1968.
Tweed jacket, comfy cotton shirt, ok, modern tousers (not jeans) with lots of pockets, good shoes (expensive, but worth it) - but then, I probably stood out then, never mind now!

anonemouse ' 205
"3D printing is currently Linux in the early 90's"
Err, no.
It's more like the Sinclair ZX81, in 1981.
Long way to go yet.

Ken Brown @ 207
You don't want to look forward to it.
Larry Niven showed what would happen, apart from historical examples.
Or current ones.
Somalia is an Anarchy, a classic one.
How nice.


DW glorifies a militaristic Constitutional monarchy where the aristocracy is ascendant in politics, inheriting power and influence from their military ancestors.

It's actually a bit worse than that. Manticore is portrayed as being a democratic society, but there is literally no ability for the populace as a whole to change the sitting government via election; it was demonstrated in-universe that their unelected nobles basically can run the nation as they please with no input whatsoever from the electorate or the elected lower house.

They also strip the franchise from you if you're poor. Not that said franchise really matters much. But why take chances?

And this is the society portrayed as the shining beacon of freedom and hope for the entire galaxy.

Also... I can tell you a lot about taxation in Manticore. A lot. Weber has spilled lots of ink on that. Progressive taxation is considered by them to be a great social evil that should only be adopted under duress. Characters have had extensive debates on this weighty issue.

But I can't tell you what rights and freedoms are granted to Manticorans, not in any such related detail. I know they don't have what I as an American would regard as freedom of the press, and that's it. I also don't know how their society treats the least among them; that is handwaved away by them having a super-awesome economy. There's clearly some sort of rudimentary social safety net but, as noted above, you're stripped of a basic right of citizenship if you need to use it. These are social details that aren't really considered worth going into. Same deal with Haven; we can extrapolate that they're basically using the U.S Constitution but they never go into details.

Oh, and then there's his Clinton expys. The Big Bad in his Safehold books is named Jasper Clinton... and his security-chief right-hand man is William Reno. Yeah.

I might be making a mistake extrapolating his politics from this, of course, and he's great friends with Eric Flint, who is basically a commie. But still.


Charlie (and other authors), do you consider the mindset/pyschology of the population part of the worldbuilding process?

Yes, with the proviso that mass psychology is mostly bunk; what you get, at root, is the ordinary range of normal people (including the regular proportion of non-neurotypical) trying to come to terms with their environmental constraints. Which may impose limits on education, social mobility, wealth, access to food and water, freedom from disease, and so on, and in turn cause them to respond differently to personal challenges than those of us with a WEIRD background ... but such responses are context-dependent and background-dependent; who was it who said, "give me a boy by the age of eight and I will give you the man"?


Guthrie: why bother when you have bricks, breezeblock, steel, wood, insulation, tiles, etc already available in kilotonne amounts?

Here's a 3D printer that prints concrete buildings.

(NASA are apparently very interested in this kind of thing for eventual use off-earth ...)

The point, I think, is that barring changes in construction materials and tools, we build buildings today they way they did it back in Rome -- a bunch of guys stack stuff on top of more stuff and glue/weld/bolt/tie it together. Which tends to be labour intensive -- more so, the more detail work the purchaser needs. The appeal of driving in some piles, digging in a ditch for utilities, then plonking an inkjet printer over the hole in the ground and squirting out a finished structural shell (complete with cable ducts, window and door openings, air gaps for insulation blow-in, and so on) should be obvious.


How is that going to be different, in effect, from factory pre-fabs that were popular in postwar Britain? At one point they were expected to be the future of housing given their cost and speed of manufacturing and assembly


One word: flexibility. Factory pre-fabs were built on production lines in standard sizes; being able to extrude on-site means it's possible to make odd or non-standard shapes.


Ah, so they are doing that sort of thing. I couldn't think how you would print concrete, it turns out they are extruding it already mixed, like cake decorators.
But again, the cost issue, we'll have to see how things match up between extruded concrete in a specially setup factory and bog standard breezeblock. That is getting outside my area of knowledge. But if the elites class war against the rest of us carries on the way it has been, the only people who'll be able to have such bespoke stuff will be the top 10% or so.

I am reminded also of the Grand design program I saw recently, where the steel fabricators made a steel framed house, with of course wood and insulation infilling between the beams. The panels were cut and put together at the factory, then lorried to the site. The actual fitting it alltogether bit took only a few days, although obviously finishing inside took longer. Steel has the other advantage that you can always cut a bit off or weld a bit on if things aren't quite right.


The biggest problem with those approaches to housing are land prices and planning laws which only allow you to build a box like everyone else has.


And the obvious of how closely you're packed in with your neighbors. In a rural area, you could probably freely do whatever you felt like. In Manhattan? No.

Assuming you don't have to be as close in to your neighbors to get all of your basic goods, would we see a new urban exodus to the suburbs at least to take advantage of architectural whims?


"Give me a child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man" Jesuits definitely, possibly Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the order).

Wonder what the neuroplasticity researchers have to say about this...


Only if we manage to solve the issues of energy supply and storage for cars, and work out how to keep lots of roads in good condition cheaply.
In a peak oil world, where I note a lot of american areas are letting their roads fall apart because of lack of money to fix them.


I should note that it's also possible (even probable) to dislike Clinton from a liberal perspective. He did sign the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act ending Glass Steagal, which resulted in our current banking crisis and which, IMHO, is making recovery much harder. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act (the anti-Gay Marriage bill) in 1996 and implemented Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Then there was that little problem in Waco, plus the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was heavily criticized by the American Left.

Viewed from a liberal perspective, Reno has had a similarly checkered career, particularly during her time as a State Attorney in Florida. She was also involved with the problem in Waco. Later in life, she appears to have taken a more liberal stance (note particularly her participation in the Innocence Project.)

Viewed from the left, however, both Clinton and Reno have major issues; they're both semi-corrupt old-style Southern Democrats. Not racists, but definitely Good Old Boys (or Girls) and easy to dislike.

Once again, see my comment at #175.


Well, you made a solid point about disconnecting authors from their settings, but you have to actually make a case for that. I've never seen Weber write anything that wasn't a kind of rah-rah jingoism for all things military and authoritarian (although he's gotten a lot better about that as the years have rolled by) so I tend to view him through that lense.

I could very well be wrong about the Clinton thing, but even if I am that was such a minor point.


I do believe there's a whole series of films that test the proposition that "Give me a child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man." They're coming up on 56 up this year.

Apparently class boundaries mostly hold (in 6 of 7 cases), but beyond that, it's not clear how true the statement is.


The whole thing about zoning is really an extension of the idea that "your right to swing your fist ends where it connects with my face."

A recent example I observed was a county plan update, where the fight was whether developers would be allowed to turn more back country ranches into subdivisions, or to force new houses into greater density in existing communities. The plan generally favored urban and suburban infilling, although they are still dealing with the (ahem) exceptions.

The argument that I (and others) made against development was that the county could barely afford to maintain the roads, power lines, water lines, police, and fire protection for existing developments. Sticking more people out in the back country would just mean more people demanding that the county keep them and their half-million dollar homes safe and comfortable, without voting for the necessary tax increases to cover those services.

Should people be allowed to build whatever they want, wherever they want? In my opinion, no. For example, the best known predictor of whether a house will survive a wildfire isn't how it's built (unless it's solid concrete or underground) or what landscaping is around it, it's the house's position in the landscape. Some houses are so badly located that they're effectively impossible to protect against fires, yet developers and home buyers think it's reasonable to expect governments to pay to supply and protect such follies. I think that if you expect someone else to cover your risks and supply your basic needs, you have to live within the limits they impose.


That's not the point. If, for example, you had a plot of land here there is no way you would be allowed to build anything that looked different:


Definitely. From my very lefty perspective Clinton has much more in common with Obama the "Centrist" than with, say, Franklin Roosevelt. His domestic policies were corporation-friendly (and he and his wife certainly had some major corporate investors), and in his foreign policy he was a strong believer in the interventionist style of carrying American democracy (and free-market capitalism) to the "downtrodden". His public analysis (I have difficulty believing a Rhodes Scholar could have so one-dimensional a private analysis) of the various sides and factions in the Bosnian and Kosovan wars was IMO tailored to persuade Westerners to approve the large-scale intervention of NATO troops, and wasn't a lot more sophisticated wrt the actual situation on the ground than that used by George Bush in justifying the way the invasion of Afghanistan was botched.

Which is not to say that the wars in the former Yugoslavia were anything less than savage attempts at genocide on the part of the Serbs; it's just that as bad as the Serbs were, their opponents were nearly as savage at times. And also to say that there were at least 3 sides in the Bosnian war, not just two as the Western press in general seemed to believe. And after all that nastiness, a policy of returning everyone to their original homes was guaranteed to result in still more bloodshed; separating the ethnic groups may not have been politically correct, but it would have been a lot more humane. Clinton kept up the American tendency to step in the most ugly clusterfucks available with both feet and call it shining shoes.


Eh on peak oil- tar sand development seems to be taking off nicely. Ditto fracking, and natural gas development is up. We may be at peak "oil that comes out of the ground easily", but we appear to be at a new plateau based on somewhat more difficult to extract but still plentiful burnable hydrocarbon.

Which might suggest another reason for mass migration- pick someplace the climate isn't going to eat you.


well the last I read a couple of years ago it was impossible for the tar sands to replace the declining production of crude oil. The forecasts merely showed slow and steady production increase for several decades, peaking at a million or two barrels of oil a day. Or was that year? Anyway, not actually so much in the scheme of things.
I don't know enough about fracking etc, but note that its kind of expensive.


Agreed completely about Clinton.


I grant you that most European countries ended conscription of their own people earlier than the US

It's the other way around, actually. The US switched to an all-volunteer army after the Vietnam War; but most Western European countries have only switched in the last five or ten years (Germany only this year). About half a dozen still have conscription.

I think only the UK and Luxembourg preceded the US in ending conscription (though Ireland's military was all-volunteer from the start).


Yes, DW is fairly militaristic, but he also shows some real signs of Liberalism. I'm going to try this one more time. Read 175 again. Note my analysis of American polling. Now put DW in that 15-20% that polls Liberal and thinks they are conservative. Okay? That's what I'm saying about the man.

Note also that I don't think #175 is a perfect analysis of any human being. This is a starting point for understanding the man, not the ending point. DW's ideas about history/society/politics are pretty complex and I'm not going to spend the time looking for cites or cataloging his ideas.


AIUI, DW is an evangelical of some stripe. So you've got an added dimension for cognitive dissonance between humanitarian ethics and politics (and now religious teachings).

But I'd like to kill this line of discussion. Reverse-engineering authors' ideologies from their work is pointless.


What, even John Norman?


Do you think "John Norman" wrote that stuff because (a) he believed in it as a political doctrine worthy of serious consideration, (b) because it gave him a hard-on, or (c) because it made money?

(This is a trick question: the true answer is probably "all of the above", with some sort of ratio the most interesting deducible characteristic.)

More seriously, do you believe Robert A. Heinlein believed every word he wrote in fiction? If so -- in view of his repeated assertions to the contrary -- why?


Agreed with pleasure. The thread has drifted fairly far from it's origins.

Let me suggest The Mote in God's Eye as the canonical example of perfect worldbuilding. Niven and Pournelle have devised an alien species in which there are several intelligent subspecies, all of whom will die if they cannot become pregnant. The authors then isolate the species in a single solar system for a million or so years, and reason out the consequences in terms of politics, religion, and the environment. Having done so, they then introduce the Moties to a militaristic human empire and consider the consequences of said meeting on both parties...

To me, "The Mote in God's Eye" is one of 3-4 best science-fiction books ever written, and essential in my mind for understanding the genre.


What really impressed me about the Gor novels all those years ago was coming across one in the public library, back when I was reading one SF novel a day. Seemed like a sword and sorcery parallel world story so I took it home. Started reading it and... WTF???!! I suspect those librarians get up to some pervy stuff amongst the shelves after closing time.

As for authors writing for sales or art rather than from personal belief, I can go for that. Way back in pre-Net days I once considered writing a porno novel entitled: "No Redeeming Features" on the grounds that it would be an accurate description. Never got round to it though.


I agree on this point too: writing complex, democratic societies on truly alien worlds is possible. It's just not easy. I'd add Robinson's Mars Trilogy as another example.

The other point is that such works are not necessarily more profitable than those with simpler worlds and simpler societies. For example, see the popularity of the Mars trilogy vs. the HH series. I understand authors wanting to take the easy route, especially if they're trying to make a living off their work.


The biology in MOTE is, shall we say, dubious at best. No hormonal contraceptives of any kind, even with a million years of R&D? Even though the way estrogen or progesterone based pills work is by fooling the body into thinking it's already pregnant? Also: no abortion or infanticide? (Those were historically rather common in human societies with limited resources and no room for expansion.) And that's before we get into genetically distinct sub-species with "race memory" derived aptitudes for certain tool-using activities ...


Which brings us to the flaw, for me, in most future based SF.
Once a species can modify itself, it will inevitably do so in my opinion. I do not expect much to remain of H Sapiens in more than 200 years at the outside. Possibly not much in less than 100.


Looks like The may be a useful reference about costs of fuels.


And that's before we get into genetically distinct sub-species with "race memory" derived aptitudes for certain tool-using activities ...

The only other species known with comparable abilities to understand alien technology at a glance are Time Lords.

The biology in MOTE is, shall we say, dubious at best.

Does it matter? Setting up a, possibly unrealistic, situation in order to get a story out of the consequences, or to make a satirical point seems to me to be a legitimate use of world building. Jack Vance is IMO the best example of this.

Having said that Mote is an abomination so many ways and I wouldn't cite it as a good example of anything. The lazy stereotyping is for me the most annoying thing. It marked the end of Niven for me, and convinced me never to start on Pournelle.


I'll take Charlies advice and stop trying to interpret Weber through his work (although I do think it is fair to do that in some cases) because I'd much rather discuss the world-building aspects.

The Manticore monarchy is forced to become militaristic, because Haven is threatening it.
The aristocracy are in the position of 19thC Britain - they have apparent power, but the REAL power lies in the lower chamber - a common mistake made by USians, that Weber has spotted correctly.

This is flat-out not true. The Manticoran aristocracy in the form of their upper legislative chamber has complete control over their political apparatus. It can veto anything that comes out of the elected chamber. It can form a government and exercise elected power without the approval of the elected chamber. The PM of Manticore, by law, must always be an unelected noble from the upper house. Said government can never be turfed out by the results of an election.

The Manticoran House of Lords can form a government that's hostile to the legislative majority in the lower chamber and both not feel compelled to include any members of it in said government, but can still somehow get the lower chamber to look favorably upon its legislation. That tells me that the lower chamber is completely supine.


No hormonal contraceptives of any kind, even with a million years of R&D? Even though the way estrogen or progesterone based pills work is by fooling the body into thinking it's already pregnant?

That issue is discussed on page 369 of the book. It was done once and started a war, plus there are problems with Motie biology in that the cure only works before a Motie has had children. I suspect that the hormonal cure works by keeping the Motie in a state of preadolescence. There is no text evidence for this idea, but it fits what we know about Motie biology.

Once the war was over, you might also note the difficulties Mote society would have with accomplishing this again. Beyond the fact that it might start another war, Motie Doctors are frequently killed because they make population problems worse. (There is clear text evidence of this on page 371 and the idea is also a minor plot point in the sequel.) Further, do Motie Doctors have the influence to cause Engineers to build the necessary infrastructure to look for hormones? I'd rate both of these propositions as dubious. One of the reasons human doctors are able to get their science done is because they are essentially "High Caste," while Motie Doctors don't seem to rate the same respect.

Also: no abortion or infanticide? (Those were historically rather common in human societies with limited resources and no room for expansion.)

The Moties do practice infanticide. This is made clear in both books. But even on Earth not every society that forms in a limited environment practices infanticide. Consider, for example, the very ugly history of Easter Island or the frequent inability of our own species to do something that is both morally ugly and supremely rational (or even morally appropriate and extremely rational.)

I don't think abortion is considered in the first book, however in the sequel there's considerable discussion of how the switch from female to male is stimulated by the passage of the infant through the birth canal. This means that abortion is probably not a safe means of birth control for Moties. (Bury uses the phrase "abortion and infanticide" in the sequel but he is not a biologist.)

And that's before we get into genetically distinct sub-species with "race memory" derived aptitudes for certain tool-using activities ...

The phrases "race memory" and "racial memory" are not used in the book. I searched for the phrases on Google Books (and gimme a break here... Niven is much better writer than that; his aliens are legendary.) The story in the book is that the current Moties are mutations from an earlier form after a nuclear war. (Page 502-504 per Google Books.) The authors also use the phrase "genetic selection." Given the book's original publication date of 1974 I'd see "genetic selection" as something fairly crude, but I could be wrong on this. The book was published well before the idea that one could manipulate genes was taken very seriously.

There might be some weaknesses in the book, but I don't think you've identified them.


Termites are able to create sophisticated air conditioning structures, I'm not sure millions of years of coevolution with high technology wouldn't result in some of the things we see the moties do. It's clear from the book they've tried everything, at some point or another, in fact they have a name for "guy that tries something new", "Crazy eddie".

Possibly the mileu doesn't stand to sharp detailed scrutiny, but I found the concept interesting.

As for the humans being culturally stereotyped, this is lampshaded when one character accuses the other of losing his scottish accent in moments of stress.


Yep ..agree with all of that 'cause I glanced through a couple of the Late Series of the Gore .er ..Gor books ..and was amazed not, by the Artfully contrived Bondage and S & M, but by how far the Author had stretched the Originally Derived concept - clearly stolen, er, derived, from, the Edgar Rice Burroughs MARS/Barsoom books of my childhood - who could object to " A Princess of Mars " as daft as it was it was Fun and the Author was a creature of his time ...

" Burroughs was born on September 1, 1875, in Chicago (he later lived for many years in the neighboring suburb of Oak Park), the fourth son of a businessman and Civil war veteran, Major George Tyler Burroughs (1833–1913) and his wife Mary Evaline (Zieger) Burroughs (1840–1920). His Rice middle name is from his paternal grandmother Mary Rice Burroughs (1802-ca1870).[1][2][3] " and also " By 1911, after seven years of low wages, he was working as a pencil sharpener wholesaler and began to write fiction. By this time Burroughs and Emma had two children, Joan and Hulbert.[6] During this period, he had copious spare time and he began reading many pulp fiction magazines. In 1929 he recalled thinking that:[7] " and so on.

Bloody Hell ..just looked it up.. 1875 ! So he was a child of his times. But the Author of the Gor books has no such excuse .." Most of the books are narrated by transplanted British professor Tarl Cabot, master swordsman, as he engages in adventures involving Priest-Kings, Kurii, and humans. Books seven, eleven, nineteen, twenty-two, twenty-six, and twenty-seven are narrated by abducted Earth women who are made slaves. Books fourteen, fifteen and sixteen are narrated by male abductee Jason Marshall."

Haven read the early sub Sword and Princes of Mars Books by Burroughs I wasn't all that surprised by the rip off that was the early counter earth books of John Norman but I was surprised when, many years later, I picked up one of the later Sword and Bondage of Gor books and glancing through the public library book was caught by the Marketing Concept ..clearly the author -' 'transplanted British Professor ' indeed - knew his target population and the Concept goes on ..there's a web site ! ..

" Mariners of Gor, the 30th book in John Norman's Gor series, is now available, and to whet your appetite, if you haven't purchased the book yet, I thought you might like to read a little from it. So here's a little snippet for you. Enjoy! "

' RULE £$ ', er, cant think how I pressed the wrong, keys there " Rule 34 " of course, Rules.


National Service did not last as long as it did in order to unite the country, whatever one might think of that as a reason. (I happen to think it's a very good one, but that's not relevant.)

It lasted as long as it did because Britain needed a large land army to sit on Germany until other NATO militaries (particularly the Bundeswehr) came up to speed. Strategists believed, with some reason, that the U.S. nuclear deterrent wasn't credible, and thus large land forces were necessary. The Korean War reinforced the point.

A secondary consideration was the perceived need to fight large-scale counterinsurgencies. Large deployments in fact occured in Cyprus, Guiana, Kenya, and Malaysia, with many smaller ones.

It is, of course, quite possible to argue that the U.K. could have and should have immediately withdrawn from the Empire and had no need to station large-scale deployments in West Germany in order to deter the Soviets. But that was the reason. As those reasons faded --- with the rise of the Bundeswehr and the ultimate departure from the Empire's hotspots --- so did the rationale behind a peacetime draft.

In fact, one could argue that it was precisely because the U.K. did not care to use the military to "unite the country" that it abandoned conscription well before most of its partners.


I assume the market for Norman novels is mostly male, between 15 and 25 (at a guess)


Greg @ 217
Dragging up a sub thread that's clearly passed. I admit difficulties with trying to cram several thousand years of R&D in to a short post, so I was ignoring all developments credited to home civilisations and concentrating on the effect that the wide spread introduction of cotton fibres and the resulting technologies had on Lancashire, England, the British Empire and its relations from about the 1750s. Maybe I should have made that more clear.
Indigo is a Vat dye and until its synthesis by German Chemist in the late 1900 would have relative limited availability. Buy it from your friendly neighbour British Raj. There aren't enough fields on earth to grow the plants or peons to stand up to their waists reeking vats of the fermenting stuff.
I am no way condoning slavery.
I don't think it is easy for us today to understand the huge demographic shifts that took place during this time and the concordant demand for household goods to match it.
I was merely trying to point out that there are many hidden aspects of products that we take for granted and in light of Charlie's original discussion of world building it's difficult to decipher what assumptions can be relied on. and what the world was like else now.


Yes and no. As Alex noted, the Motie subcastes don't have racial memories for anything. The engineer, AFAIK, was effectively an autistic technical savant, the whites were psychopathic leaders, the doctors were autistic medical savants, etc. They seemed blessed with eidetic memories.

And the humans were running something that looked like yet another version of the Napoleonic British Navy with fusion drives. Sigh.

I agree that the genetics made little sense: cross an autistic engineering savant with a psychopathic corporate head, and you ALWAYS get a genius mediator. Instead of, say, Bill Gates. Right...


They're still publishing Gor books? I don't know whether to be appalled or amused. (We could take apart John Norman's worldbuilding, but I don't think it's worth our time.)


Although the thing about Britain is that yes the lower chamber had the power, but throughout the 19th century its members came from effectively the same class and intellectual/ cultural milieu as the upper chamber. We don't refer to the British establishment for nothing, you know.*
Now if the Manticorean lower chamber is genuinely made up of plebs and can pass legislation that the upper chamber cannot veto, then maybe it is comparatively democratic.

*It would be interesting to do further reading on how the British aristocracy married into the newly rich families, and how they in turn took on the protective cultural camouflage of the aristocracy.
Of course there was also change all the way through the 19th century, and it was more democratic by the end than at the start, but you have to recall that Britain didn't get universal male suffrage until 1919.

As an aside, perhaps an interesting topic of conversation would be the way the British military seems to be botching its procurement over the last few decades because of the difficulty of working out what wars it is supposed to be fighting now that their anti-soviet task is finished.


Until recently IIRC the Deedes family had had a member in the House of Commons for the past 600 years.


And the humans were running something that looked like yet another version of the Napoleonic British Navy with fusion drives. Sigh.

On one hand, the Napoleonic Navy is a valid artistic choice under the circumstances. It gives the reader something very ordinary and easily understood in contrast to the extremely odd aliens.

On the Gripping Hand... this is why I don't read Pournelle unless he's paired with Niven. (Whatever Weber has that makes a Napoleonic Space Navy fun, Pournelle doesn't have it.)

According to Wikipedia, the Co-Dominion universe was selected by Niven and Pournelle quite deliberately: "Various features of this society, particularly the form of government, the existence of Alderson Drive and Langston Field technology, and the limited access to Murcheson's Eye on the other side of the Coalsack, were ideal for their purposes."

the whites were psychopathic leaders

I don't know if that's an accurate description, the whites get very little "screen time", but it's mentioned before the mediator caste appeared they were the ones who did their own negotiating so they must have some capacity for empathy, mix that with a generic "savant trait" and you have the mediators. Social insect castes seem to have no problem breeding true and we know moties practise selective breeding and culling.

If anything the masters might've been charistmatic savants, i.e. Steve Jobs natural leader types. I seem to remember one of the humans meeting one and feeling drawn to caress it's mane. Not much to go on I agree...


Regarding machinery for 3D weaving with carbon fibers, and the fuzzy distinction between weaving and stitching... isn't knitting sort of halfway between weaving and stitching?

I was once told about the nose cone of the space shuttle that it's a rather special carbon-carbon composite (i.e., carbon fibre in a vitreous carbon matrix), in which the carbon fibre preform is knitted, not woven, and that they had to get a truly ancient knitting machine out of a museum to do the job. Apparently there were some early industrial sock-knitting machines that finished the toes just like my grandmother used to knit socks by hand: by gradually reducing the number of stitches, instead of knitting a tube, cutting it off and sewing it shut. Somewhere in the technological progress of clothes-making, people figured out how to get a machine to knit a cone onto a tube, and then almost completely forgot about it again. Progress isn't always forward, it seems.


Knitting is far superior when it comes to clothing. Weaving is taking a flat sheet and cutting to fit. Knitting is creating the actual shape.
The difference between wire mesh and chainmail.


Erm, social insects don't breed true, in the motie sense.

Most social insects are kin to each other, sisters and brothers. The reason we see castes is that, as larvae, they get differential attention. Those that are fed more get bigger, is all. Queens get things like queen jelly (in honeybees), and in ants, the workers will all start laying eggs if the queen is killed. In some species, one worker will even become a queen if the queen dies.

If you read Holldobler and Wilson's Journey to the Ants, you'll also see the various and sundry ways ant colonies change and/or fail. It's not nearly as simple as you might think.

Getting back to the Moties, the closest thing we have on Earth to the Moties are dogs and other domestic animals, not ants or termites.

I've also been trying to ignore the parallels between the motie races and a racist/classist interpretation of the old Indian caste system, but it's pretty blindingly evident, right down to the rulers being snow white and the underlings increasingly brown, the more menial they were. Note also that the mediators (the second in commands) are piebald, not, say, cafe-au-lait, so that their partial whiteness showed to anyone who observed them.

This is another aspect of worldbuilding that we do have to watch out for: skin color and racism. How many dark elves, orcs, trolls, and similar have dark skin and/or slanty eyes and/or similar racial characteristics (check Tolkien, AD&D, et numerous cetera)? Sometimes it's not even that obvious. As one example, there seems to be a thread of racism and antisemitism running through the Cthulhu mythos, from the names of the great old ones to even Cthulhu's appearance (the tentacle-bearded high priest of his ancient clan, with the unpronouncable name and a hidden conspiracy of world conquest among the lower classes. Hmmm).


Lovecraft's racism isn't exactly a new idea...

Moties express reliable phenotypes according to specialist class, insects are a real world example of this. It does not follow that moties need to use the exact same mechanisms to achieve this anymore than naked mole rats need to be insects.

BTW, Here's a nice little bit of worldbuilding in a single page story


According to the stories, motie castes are separate, true-breeding species, which is NOT what social insects do. Think Labrador Retrievers and Australian Sheepdogs, rather than workers and soldiers.

To put it very bluntly, ants rarely not breed phenotypically true, in that most of a queen's offspring are not themselves queens. They are sterile workers with a variety of body plans that are based on diet and care, not genes. Moties always breed true, unless they are creating sterile hybrids.


Charlie Stross, #220: "barring changes in construction materials and tools, we build buildings today they way they did it back in Rome -- a bunch of guys stack stuff on top of more stuff and glue/weld/bolt/tie it together."

No. Modern building construction is mass production. We bring the factory to the building site, that's all, and a lot of the making is actually off-site mass-production. Very different from Rome, which used slaves and craft-made materials.

It's not clear to me that there's much advantage in further reducing the labor that goes into buildings; it is not that much any more. But the range of forms that is made accessible through 3-D modeling and fabrication is much broader and design drifts towards a biomorphic charater, as buildings are made to fit their sites, in a way similar to the way plants grow to fit the places they grow.

More when I have more time, maybe.


You're right, the mote is more like planet of the apes, a bunch of cooperating species descended from a common ancestor, Niven already played the "fill the ecosystem with hominids" in Ringworld, this is a variation on this game.

So the true breeding mechanism is even simpler, cheetahs are always going to be faster than lions, and ligers are always going to manifest gigantism so in the planet of the cats the cheetahs are messengers and ligers are pack mules.

Maybe the desirable mediator trait was discovered accidentally because like tigers and lions the hybrids are distinct depending on the specific gender mix (Male lion being liger, male tiger resulting in tigon) and masters just didn't mate with browns when female, as it would result in a useless hybrid, but reverse the genders and you end up with a useful eusocial mule.

Hm, I've ended up writing motie sexual politics fanfiction here...

Clothing... well apart from changing from a tie to a cravat, my dress is vitually identical to that I wore in 1968. Tweed jacket, comfy cotton shirt, ok, modern tousers (not jeans) with lots of pockets, good shoes (expensive, but worth it) - but then, I probably stood out then, never mind now!

Why so many pockets? Is it to store spare hankies?


And just wait until the furries discover moties...


Just came to mention my personal experience with culture shift recently. In Rule 34, actually. The "hingmy"/"hingmies", which originally I thought was a way of saying penis, but is apparently britspeak for "whatchamacallit". The other one was from Charlie Brooker, the "bellend" (US version:"dickhead").

And I can totally see the "drive on the wrong side of the road", because I thought all of Europe is that way, but watching Top Gear, etc, that's not the case at all. (though, happily, it appears that at least parts of the Autobahn have no speed limit, like I'd heard as a kid)


Alex B @ 270
belt-torch, Key-fob, spare side pocket (hanky), phone on belt, camera on belt, purse, billfold, spare pocket, specs in leg-pocket, Swiis-knife on belt-loop into back pocket, spare back pocket.
Equally distributed load .....

Erm .. Indigo was produced in vast quantities.
The "modern" dyes" are NOT artificial indigo, they are completel;y different in chemical structure, and actually mordant onto the cloth. Indigo does not.


Indigo is a Vat dye and until its synthesis by German Chemist in the late 1900 would have relative limited availability.

I think you may be underestimating the historical scale of indigo cultivation in the last few centuries:
And India wasn't the only source: prior the American Revolution, the southern British colonies were major producers, as were several of the Spanish colonies in Latin America (particularly Guatemala) and some of the Caribbean islands.

(Think of all the blue military and police uniforms produced during the 19th Century, for a start. And "blue jeans" is derived from the French phrase "bleu de Gênes", referring to blue-dyed fabric used in the pants worn by Genoese sailors.)


The "hingmy"/"hingmies", which [...] is apparently britspeak

I think you mean thingummy.


"hingmy" is Scots for "thingummy".


"bell end" doesn't mean "dick head" other than in the very literal sense of referring to the glans. (At least, that's its meaning where I come from.)


" .. but I don't think it's worth our time." I agree on that ... save that the continuation of that series does tell us something about Human Nature and pursuit of commercial advantage in Publishing doesn't it?


Bloody Hell! I didn't know that, though I do tend to use ' wot not ' and also ' gubbings ' as the occasion demands and ' Thingy ' fairly freely of course and as for " Altogether Ookey " ..I thought that was ' Adams Family ' until I came upon this ...

It's a Funny old World ..hmm ..good title for a song that ..Strange that no one has thought of it.


I stopped reading Gor books when the mixture between "hot BDSM sex" and "hack 'n slash adventure" went off the rails, and we ended up with 30-page-long conversations between Gorean Males and their slaves about Why It Is Important To Enslave All Women. It was as bad as reading John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged and just as productive. I think that would have been in the early eighties.

I am as much a feminist male as an American man born in the early '60s can be. I'm comfortable with female slavery as part of the cultural background in a fiction story, but when it comes to the fore as a philosophy the author truly wants to push upon his readers... I Am Not Amused.


Aha. So Scots in particular rather than Britspeak.

(It's an obvious filing down of thingummy.)


What used to worry me is that apparently actual real life gorean lifestylers exist, in the real world. Women too, presumably in the appropriate ratios?

I'm rather jaded nowadays so "worry" no longer applies though I suppose "puzzlement" still does to a degree.

I suppose it's a cautionary tale to would be world builders: If you build it in the imagination, some nutter is likely to try it in real life.


Yeah, but if you call someone a "bellend" or "knobend" it has similar implications to "dickhead". They're functionally interchangeable as insults.


#229 and #238 also refer.

I'm surprised that no-one else has picked up in the fact that the Mantie-Haven wars have gone from Napoleonic ships of the line to circa WW2 carrier battle group battles in the space of about 30 years (book time).

Also just what is wrong with the idea of a liberal supporting the idea of us having a strong military in order to "defend our rights from $foreign_scumbags


Because it's usually "defend out interests" from foreigners, and the scumbag tag gets added according to their relationship to said interests, rather than actual ethical failings of said foreigners.

Not quite so liberal, that.


As an aside, perhaps an interesting topic of conversation would be the way the British military seems to be botching its procurement over the last few decades because of the difficulty of working out what wars it is supposed to be fighting now that their anti-soviet task is finished.

Note that in military procurement terms, the customer and the user are separate people. The user is the military; the customer is the Ministry of Defence (one of the frequently-identified problems is that the military staff on procurement projects only stay there for a couple of years before being posted onwards).

With the added complexity of political interference (see: BOWMAN radio assembled in a Welsh marginal; aircraft carriers assembled next to the then-Prime Minister's constituency).

There is also the ability of politicians to set up a Strategic Defence Review that identifies the tasks and required resources; and then fails to fund them properly.

paws4thot@125, Charlie@147 ISTR that in Star Trek the Galaxy class starships were the only ones to carry any toilets

I'll cry "myth" - I can clearly remember seeing toilets in my long-long-ago copy of the Star Fleet Technical Manual :)


"in Star Trek the Galaxy class starships were the only class to carry any toilets that were mentioned by the cast (in or out of character) and/or set designers" then?


Re: democracy in novels

I've been reading a nonfiction book called Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln and key members of his cabinet. What gets me about that is that Lincoln getting the nomination on the Republican ticket in 1860 was the work of decades on his part, marred by disappointments along the way. He had to build his power base, conciliate rivals, and generally keep his name out there.

I'm sure that people have written novels about Lincoln's rise to power, but they would have to be a lot more episodic than a history text. How an author could do this in the context of an SF novel, where *other* worldbuilding has to be done, is beyond me.

defend our rights from $foreign_scumbags$heathen_wogs

Fixed that.


"Lincoln getting the nomination on the Republican ticket in 1860 was the work of decades on his part, marred by disappointments along the way. He had to build his power base, conciliate rivals, and generally keep his name out there ... How an author could do this in the context of an SF novel, where *other* worldbuilding has to be done, is beyond me."

One way to interpret Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles (historical fiction), is as portraying exactly that sort of work of decades (or decade at least) over 3,000 pages or so. Her followup series, which I got bored of after 3 books, is similar. And she certainly rivals Patrick O'Brien for world-building of the historical/research-based type.


Random thought: Commodity 3d printing will totally change the shopping experience of the future. If 3d printers are so cheap/good everyone has one at home then you just need 3DInk (stock, feed, whatever).

Argos won't need to change much, big foot-print stores might (it's called something different in Scotland IIRC, been a while since I lived in the UK).

Just part of the evolution of shopping; it's hard to find a blacksmith these days.


"The Potterverse contains wizards who are capable of really impressive magic, but nonetheless starving. This, we're told, is because you can't transmute things into "food". But you can transmute rocks into living animals; that's something the schoolkids do without any real trouble in about book three. And if I can transmute those rocks into chickens, and conjure clean water and fire (both canonical), then I'm not going to go hungry unless I'm too lazy and stupid to boil eggs."

IIRC, the problem with that sort of magic was that it was temporary. ISTR something about a case where one wizard turned gold into wine, and gave it to another wizard, who drank it, and was killed.


"Efficency wasn't helped by most of the non subsitence production in the western hemisphere being produced by slaves. "

Actually, it probably was, quite a bit. Basically, load a bunch of costs onto the slaves.


"Niven and Pournelle have devised an alien species in which there are several intelligent subspecies, all of whom will die if they cannot become pregnant. "

Which is a failure right then and there, IMHO. They don't go into *why* this situation arose, especially for intelligent beings.


I guess its antithetical to your stated purposes but you really should look into selling those scottevest fleeces directly from here.


Interesting research that might enable long-term space voyagers to come back to full gravity (Earth) more easily: 3-D Printer Used to Make Bone-Like Material



... Stirrings of this sentiment began during the reign of Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow who had married Sophia Paleologue. Sophia was a niece of Constantine XI, the last Eastern Roman Emperor and Ivan could claim to be the heir of the fallen Eastern Roman Empire. The idea crystallized with a panegyric letter composed by the Russian monk Philoteus (Filofey) in 1510 to their son Grand Duke Vasili III, which proclaimed, "Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will not be a fourth"...


If anything the masters might've been charistmatic savants, i.e. Steve Jobs natural leader types. I seem to remember one of the humans meeting one and feeling drawn to caress it's mane.

While it is true that Captain Blaine felt an urge to pet "angora-like" fur of first Motie Master he met, that had nothing to do with their leadership. In fact (and that is explicitely in the book), Motie Masters have no "leadership skills" at all in human sense. They do not need them because lower castes are biologically programmed to obey. One time a Mediator refuses to do what Master demands, the Master has nothing to fall back onto except repeat "Obey!" No "charisma" at all. And that anomalous situation occurred only because Mediator was exposed to corrupting influence of humans.

A Motie Master is more like brilliant chess or poker player -- or like someone who plays a very elaborate online game against a multitude of similarly situated opponents. He/she needs a great deal of planning and tactical skills, skills in wheeling and dealing, an ability to anticipate opponents' moves and to out-maneuver them -- but needs nothing to inspire/motivate his followers because they are as obedient and predictable as game pieces (unless they are Mediators influenced by humans). Nor does any Master ever act as a follower to another, so no skills directed at being leader among Masters ever developed either.


"Niven and Pournelle have devised an alien species in which there are several intelligent subspecies, all of whom will die if they cannot become pregnant."

Which is a failure right then and there, IMHO. They don't go into *why* this situation arose, especially for intelligent beings.

It did not arise "for intelligent beings". "Become pregnant or die" was the case with all higher animals on Mote. Apparently it was such a basic fact of biology, it never occurred to Moties any species could be different.


That "Harry Potter and the methods of rationality" fanfic by Elizier Yudkowsky goes with a fine toothed comb over many of the mechanics of magic, and transmutation his highlited as particularly dangerous, as anything that can potentially evaporate while transmuted and then revert is extremely dangerous.

Nor does any Master ever act as a follower to another, so no skills directed at being leader among Masters ever developed either.

I'm pretty sure they do, even if the hierarchy is familial. They breed just as much as all the others so there must be lots of them about, well less if they produce mediators as children half the time.

Mediators disobeying isn't exclusively a bad human influence thing, crazy eddie is sort of built in to all moties but mediators are especially susceptible, allegedly.


"Become pregnant or die" was the case with all higher animals on Mote. Apparently it was such a basic fact of biology, it never occurred to Moties any species could be different.

Which is a cautionary tale of world building fail then and there; compare the reproductive life cycle of H. Sapiens Sapiens with that of Octopus Vulgaris, Apis melifera, and gonochoristic reef fish such as Heniochus monoceros. They're all drastically different, and involve different reproductive strategies (not to mention mechanisms).

A biosphere where all species share a common reproductive strategy falls into the "small farming planet" trap of excessive over-simplification.


Not really, mote prime is a repeatedly blasted biosphere, moties evolved, wiped everything out (Like we're doing), then blew themselves up to the stone age, rinse, repeat for enough million years that most ecological niches are filled with life descended from a single species.


In fact the planet was repeatedly rendered totally uninhabitable and recolonized from the belt, which accounts for the space living adaptations of even the planetary moties.

I seem to remember "The ecology is too damn simple!" is an actual line of dialogue from one of the scientists...


Ah, right.

But ahem. What about before the first few episodes? Are the Moties so constitutionally stupid that they never noticed?

It's never good for plot to rely on the stupidity of your characters. That applies just as much for entire species.


If you want to be realy picky, the chances of making it back up to modern technology from, say, the iron age after you've been blasted back into it are probably fairly remote given that by that time all the easily recoverable mineral and hydrocarbons have been used up. Sure, dumps will provide some stuff, but I'm sure a century or two of scavenging will use up whats left lying around, and even if you allow for preservation of a lot of ancient scientific knowledge, it'll be a bit hard to apply.

On the other hand re-colonising from space makes a lot more sense in that regard.


It's never good for plot to rely on the stupidity of your characters. That applies just as much for entire species.

It's actually a recurring sub-trope in SF of a particular age: if the aliens are technologically superior, they are nevertheless inflexible/slow on the uptake/stupid and can be out-witted by cunning humans.

If you take such aliens as a metaphor for grubby foreigners then the "cunning humans" slot into place disquietingly well as a metaphor for "white Europeans/Americans" and you end up with something structurally indistinguishable from rather unpleasant colonialist era propaganda.


Moties are smarter than humans, just overspecialized and short lived, they don't have much time for ancient history. The only reason the galaxy isn't overrun with moties is an accident of stellar formation that kept them bottled up in a single system.

But even the degenerate rat-sized watchmakers are able to infest and destroy one of the human battleships so that trope doesn't really apply.

The whole book is basically the moties pulling the wool over the human's eyes about their true nature until the final chapter.

Intelligence not being synonymous with wisdom is a common trope in Niven's works. The protectors were similarly hobbled with high intellect and rigid, destructive instincts.


To say the true, saying declares that Moscow is not forth, but third Rome :)


Replying to @bellinghman at 136

The decline of the hat is a very interesting case of fashion change. I'm pretty sure that the decline of men's hats is related to reduced formality of every day dress and less outdoor work, two trends that are seen in other aspects of fashon.

The really interesting thing is the nigh extinction of the *woman's* hat, which I'm pretty sure is related to Vatican II, which eliminated the requirement for Catholic women to wear hats in church. Before that, every Catholic woman had to have at least one "Sunday best" quality hat, which also kept the fashion industry churning out hats. Protestants seem to have also become less hat-demanding, although more conservative churches still require or recommend headcoverings in church or all the time. I think it may also be related to changing hair-styles.

My point is that the demise of the woman's hat is at least partly religiously related, which I don't think is a factor in fashion that anyone's mentioned yet on here.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on November 24, 2011 12:10 PM.

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