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World building 201: Heuristics

More thoughts on worldbuilding in fiction.

The first thing to note is that there's more than one way to do it. Which is to say: worldbuilding in SF and fantasy is by definition a divergent process, because no two people are going to come up with the same visualization even if you give them the same goal ("you're going to write a space opera in which our hero, raised by poor but honest folks on a small farming planet, goes forth to discover his destiny ...") — give me that brief and I'll come up with something utterly different from George Lucas, I promise!

So here are some rules of thumb I use, tending towards an increasingly narrow focus. (Sorry if you were expecting me to address the broader uses of confabulation as a fictional tool; this is very much a set of practical guidelines rather than an examination of the theory behind the activity.)

1. Humans are interested in reading fiction about humans.

Constraint #1 on any work of fiction is that it needs to provide an environment in which recognizable human protagonists can exist. If they're not human (e.g. "Diaspora", by Greg Egan; "Saturn's Children", by me) you need to provide some sort of continuity with the human and give the reader reasons to feel concerned for them. Or you can go for the "they're not human, don't look human, and they have no connection with us", but what you get is either borderline-unreadable at best, or suffers from human-mind-in-a-giant-land-snail-body syndrome (which risks demolishing the reader's willing suspension of disbelief).

So I'm going to focus on providing a human environment ...

2. In general, High Fantasy steals its dress from pre-modern history; Urban Fantasy buys off-the-shelf in TK-Maxx: and Science Fiction goes for that bold futurist look.

Which is to say, if you're going to write a trilogy with a young soldier on the rise and a throne and an evil emperor, you can do a lot worse than plunder the decline and fall of the Roman Empire for your social background. Note, however, that you'll do a lot better if you read some social history texts rather than believing what you see in the movies.

It's quite common for future-oriented SF stories to loot historical backgrounds and settings. I think this is in general a huge mistake unless there's an explicit reason for our future society to have suppressed a raft of useful technologies and social trends. Suppression of the modern does happen (look at Iran, 1979-84, or the abandonment of firearms within the Tokugawa Shogunate) but it usually seems to follow some kind of massive social trauma (like 200 years of civil war, in the case of Japan) and requires draconian enforcement, because people don't like giving up the triple-ply quilted toilet paper and bittorrent downloads.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and vice versa.

The first chunk Clarke's third law (aside from my three word extension at the end) is familiar and hard to argue with. Show an iPhone (working, in its natural internetty ecosystem) to a scientist from the 1930s and they will boggle. The components inside the glass-and-steel shell are so small that the individual circuit tracks on the ICs are barely visible to an electron microscope of the day, and the rare earths that contaminate the chips are present in such low concentrations that the analytical equipment of the pre-war period would probably be unable to detect them. An iPhone 4 is, in fact, way ahead of the 1960s SFnal vision of a Star Trek Communicator. By extrapolation: the future will be full of stuff that works by means that we probably don't have the theory background to understand — seamless exotica. (For a good fictional depiction of this, I cite "Rainbows End" by Vernor Vinge.)

The extra clause I added is, I think, less often explored in fantasy: we generally treat our technologies as if they are reliable, predictable, cheap pieces of magic, so it behooves the author of a fantasy to ask — why wouldn't their protagonists treat readily available magic the way we treat technology? Either magic needs to be rare, unreliable, erratic, and a bit feeble ... or it's going to be everywhere in chains.

Now I'm going to focus on near-future SF ...

(Near-future SF is SF set in the future, but close enough to the present that the author risks a serious ribbing when the date rolls around and their more bizarre predictions haven't shown up.)

4. The future is going to be like the present, only with extra layers.

Let's face it, history doesn't get simpler with time (unless you live in very interesting times indeed, such as those of the First Emperor). Current events take place against a backdrop of old assumptions and grievances, and add their own framing context to tomorrow's events. A story set in Egypt in 2031 is going to inevitably reflect the echoes of the overthrow of Mubarak, and also of today's elections (and the military counter-revolution in train), not to mention tomorrow's subsequent events, which will take place within the frame created by the Arab Spring.

The same goes for technologies. New technologies almost never destroy old ones — unless they accomplish the same task in a manner that is clearly better. DVDs replaced VHS video cassettes once writable DVDs became commonplace because VHS tapes are bulky, more expensive to manufacture, and don't provide random access (youngsters: after you watched a movie you had to press the "rewind" button and wait for a couple of minutes as the tape rewound before you could start watching it again). But TV/video/DVDs didn't kill off cinema — the big screen in a theatre remains a different social experience. And cinema didn't kill off the ancient art of the theatrical performance. Musicals didn't kill off opera, either. All of these older entertainment methods exist today (albeit in reduced niches, because we have so many more alternatives) because they are non-interchangeable.

Only technologies with directly substitutable replacements that are clearly superior go to the wall (for example: pocket calculators killed the slide rule market due to improved precision, DVDs replaced video tape due to size and quality and random access, diesel and electric locomotives supplanted steam traction on the railways due to being more fuel-efficient and not requiring huge amounts of water resupply infrastructure).

5. People evaluate the new using the cognitive toolkit they acquired in the past.

We train our children. In particular, we (or our neighbours, or our schools) train our children early to aspire to a consensus vision of the Good Life. This is based on the assumption that what was achievable in the past is achievable and desirable in the future: grow up, do well at school, get a degree, get a job, get married, buy a house, have children, work, enjoy a long retirement and decline, hand the torch of heredity on to the next generation. This isn't necessarily a bad vision (it worked for the ancestors) but it's an example of a backward-looking one. Break it down into its component sub-stages and they reflect what was necessary to achieve a comfortable/successful life a generation ago.

If you drop a futurist stone in this reflecting pool, the ripples it produces will bounce off the surface of those historic aspirations. For example, if you posit a cheap and effective cure for the ageing process that gives everyone indefinite youth prolongation for the cost of an aspirin a day, it's unreasonable to expect most people to suddenly abandon the milestones by which they and their parents measure life progress. Most of them will continue to dance the degree/job/marriage/home ownership/work fandango because it takes a lot of effort to interrogate one's unquestioned axioms, and it's even harder to let go of them if they are found lacking: and people don't like externally imposed change. Again: the global uptake of the internet didn't, for the most part, change human behaviour. What it did achieve was to break down geographical barriers so that isolated people with outlying interests could interact for good or ill, and to act as an amplifier for some types of social activity. (It also turned out to be the equivalent of hydrofluoric acid for supply chains, but that's another matter.)

Yes, there are outliers. In every society, there are some people just waiting to throw all the old ways out in the trash and experiment with new and exciting ways of organizing their lives. But there's also a similar proportion of stick-in-the-mud reactionaries, who see history as being on their side. Both factions are right and wrong: the ratio changes depending on external circumstances.

TL;DR version of this axiom: people are people. You're welcome to write a near-future story populated with New Soviet Men or frictionless and perfectly spherical libertarians; don't expect it to be convincing.

6. The shiny bright City of Tomorrow is also full of slums and favelas.

We get stuff wrong. Property development magnates build gated communities for billionaires that open for business just as the real estate market crashes. The office buildings of a booming middle eastern emirate go up so fast that the municipal sewage system can't cope so skyscrapers end up being serviced by huge queues of sewage trucks. Country dwellers migrate to cities that can't expand fast enough to give them adequate housing, so they end up in favelas and shanty towns. And people keep driving ancient automobiles long after Ford or General Motors would like to have sold them a new one.

This isn't just a subset of rule 4: rule 4 is about the tendency of the present to embed the past. Rule 5 is about the tendency of the present to embed the past's mistakes.

Arbitrary business or design decisions made in the early stages of a boom or a new technology field get locked in as the field expands. Consider which side of the road vehicles drive on: in some countries (the UK, India, Japan, various African states) drivers use the left, while in others (the USA, most of Europe) they use the right. While it might seem sensible to standardize on one side, everywhere, in practice changing over is a really big deal. Again, other mistakes early in a field have given us much grief: the alleged opposition of the NSA to transport-level encryption in TCP/IP during the 1980s bequeathed us an insecure internet. The decision to use null-terminated strings in the C programming language, which allowed any number of buffer overrun attacks. On a large, culture-wide scale: the decision to criminalize and persecute the use of some intoxicating substances (opiates, cannabis, hallucinogens) while regulating and tolerating others despite their arguably deadlier side-effects (alcohol, tobacco).

Part of the problem is that we build rafts of infrastructure on top of existing design decisions. Which means that fixing a bad decision requires the abandonment of lots of stuff that depends on it. In the case of the war on drugs, the gigantic police and punishment industries would be hard-pressed to justify their existence without Prohibition. In the case of driving on the left, all the road signs would need to be replaced, markings at junctions revised, traffic flow around gyratory and roundabout systems reversed, and all the drivers would need to be re-educated. A study proving conclusively that driving on the other side led to a reduction in traffic accidents could come out tomorrow and it would still be very difficult to make such a far-reaching infrastructure change.

7. The ratio of the near future is: 90% of it is just like today, 9% is stuff that is on the drawing boards, and 1% is unutterably strange and alien and unexpected.

Consider this: it takes time for new technologies and products to make their way from the design agency to the production line, and longer still for them to make an impact in the wider world. The gap is usually measured in single-digit years; if a new design stays in development hell for a decade then it's highly likely that it's there because turning it into a product is either not profitable enough to repay the development costs, or because of some pre-existing infrastructure with which it is incompatible. Even when there's a huge sales draw (consider high definition flat screen TVs) whatever it replaces (tube TVs) may linger for many years. So although it was possible to buy a flat plasma screen TV in the late 1990s, it took over a decade for the big flat screens to become ubiquitous and even today, you probably own, or know someone who owns, a 20 year old CRT. Again: in the year 2030 there will almost certainly be some cars on the road that were built in 2010, or earlier. So the near future mostly resembles the present, with added inclusions of stuff that's come out of the technology pages of the fishwrap.

And then again, sometimes there's stuff that simply wasn't predictable. If our horizon for near-future extrapolation and worldbuilding is 25 years, then looking back to 1986 some aspects of the world of 2011 are simply not obvious. Oil shortages, climate change, revivals of 1970s or 1980s fashions, genetic engineering — those would have struck a 1986 reader as being properly science-fictional and reasonable in that time frame. But other changes were less obvious. the internet in 1986 existed as a tool for connecting large corporations and universities, but computer communications were still largely modem and bulletin board based, and the web hadn't been invented. The idea that by 2011 around 50% of adults would meet their sexual partners via the internet would have been flat-out ridiculous, much less that the internet would eat the retail supply chain. And the proposal that by 2011, new automobiles would leave the factory gate with over a dozen computers and ten million lines of code aboard would have indeed seemed science-fictional, but not in a good way: why on earth would anyone do that? The reader of 1986 would complain. The colour revolutions of the early noughties, the War on Terror (triggered indirectly by the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent end of the West's use for Saddam's regime as a proxy tool in the cold war), not to mention the Arab Spring of 2011 ... would seem alarming and arbitrary an anarchic, to a reader conditioned by forty years of Cold War duopoly. Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union took almost everyone in the west by surprise. As William Gibson remarked, if he'd tried to sell "Zero History" in 1985 (a novel set in 2001), the only part of that mainstream-ish novel that would really cause his editor to question his sanity would be the collapse of the USSR.

Anyway, that's it for now. I'll try and continue this thread when I have something new to say, but that's enough for one morning ...



And it's never bad to note that when plotting galaxy-shaking disasters that many people begin to act _oddly_ under stress.

Expecting the masses to sit quietly in fear while the hero swoops in to save the day is unreasonable, unless it's a very short timespan. The poor hero might wind up in competition with an assortment of would-be tyrants, demagogues, general opportunists, religious revivalists...all trying to "fix" things.


Just a quick point - surely the calculator replaced the slide rule also because it was easier to use straight out the box? I do recall trying to work out how to use my dads slide rules and having a great deal of trouble, whereas most calculator functions are obvious.
Which makes me think that even in the future, people will do what is easiest for them at the time, no matter how amazing their technology.

An example of number 5, evaluating using an out of date cognitive toolkit, includes part of creationism, and climate change denialism.

I also suspect that changing the side of the road to drive on would result in a lower accident rate.
For the first few months as people took care because of the sheer wrongness of it.
But once people got over their intial caution the rate would rise back to normal.


Just amplifying your point about cars (and probably any personal transport long term). My mother drives a 1921 GN in 2011. My brother drives a 1920s Ford Model A as his primary motor; my sister-in-law havers between her own Model A and a slightly more modern Ford Galaxy depending on how many kids she has to transport and how far. At least one of my brother's (he sells tyres for vintage and classic cars) customers has a 1920s Vauxhall 30/98 as his only car.

People retain affection for the strangest things and it's a safe bet that the last car on the road won't be a Ford Focus or it's future equivalent. It'll be a Ferrari 250 GTO or a vintage Bugatti or some such thing.


A variation on rules 4 and 5 (touched on in the hydrofloric acid comment) is that technologies will tend to die out when something sufficiently cheaper can replace it. Sheetrock walls are an example of this.


Show an iPhone (working, in its natural internetty ecosystem) to a scientist from the 1930s and they will boggle.

1930s? For the vast majority of even technologically inclined scientists, the iPhone in 1970 is pure magic - the energy density and display alone are deep dark magic, and if you stood in front of said scientist in 1970, summoned Siri, said "what is the definite integral from zero to 1 of cosine of x squared" and showed them what happened, they'd consider killing you to have that wonderful object.

So, not only would the iPhone be pure magic, it'd make a very useful MacGuffin.

In 1975, maybe a majority of scientists will stretch current computing enough to accept the iPhone, but we still haven't seen the 1977 Trinity appears (the Commodore PET, Apple ][, and TRS-80 Model 1) and I'm wondering if a majority of homes in the US even had color TV at this point? (On preview -- possibly, but the last network stations to have B&W broadcasts were 1972, and a number of small market stations were still broadcasting B&W through 1979. B&W sets were still being made in the early 1980s, but they were moving to niche markets.)

1980? For the science and tech clades, they'd probably be recognizing the iPhone as merely a very advanced computer, but for the vast majority of humanity, it's still very deep, as in "burn them, they're a witch" deep. Hell, the iPhone looks vastly more advanced than most of the computers on the Enterprise of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Of course, several of the in-jokes in Siri are going to fall flat -- though at least a small fraction of a percent of humanity would have known Eliza.

By 1985, I think, thanks to the Macintosh commericals, I think the iPhone would, at least in the US, move from pure magic to sufficiently advanced technology.

TL;DR version of this axiom: people are people.


I wonder -- I know TL;DR is common on Metafilter, but I've personally only seen it there, and here (and I know where you've been.) I wonder if this is more MeFi slang than Internet slang as a whole.


Just a quick point - surely the calculator replaced the slide rule also because it was easier to use straight out the box? I do recall trying to work out how to use my dads slide rules and having a great deal of trouble, whereas most calculator functions are obvious.
I'd agree, not least because I've seen people who had learnt how to use a sliderule pick one up after 3 or 4 years of non-use and struggle to use it. [decides not to visit the questions of accuracy, precision, and how to create rounding rules for "safe" rather than maths).


Steam engines disappearing in #4 is actually a manifestation of #5 where the only management concern was lowering maintenance costs and diesels are spectacularly cheaper to maintain than steamies. It was a fixation, really.

When you own the network that transports the fuel and water, your wholesale costs are so cheap that nothing can compete in that arena. Nobody gets cheaper coal than the railroad, to the point that you may as well consider it free. Commodities are cheap if you're the supply chain...

#7 also applies... take my G-G-grandfather who worked for the railroad, tell him two guys are all it takes to run an engine other than a quarterly inspection, and this fits deep into the 1%. Crazy talk, could not be imagined in that era.


Regarding switching traffic from one side to another, it's very, very expensive, but remarkably easy to do as Sweden demonstrated 1967, when they switched from left-hand side to right-hand side in one single day.

Oh, and what's the colour revolution? I seem to think it either means that everyone started to wear Earthtones instead of the gaudy stuff of the Nineties or the various political revolutions around the world, usually rather less successful in bringing less corrupt people in power (orange revolution, red revolution/yellow revolution...)


surely the calculator replaced the slide rule also because it was easier to use straight out the box?

Another point: technology doesn't always advance. Modern mountain climbing gear doesn't fit as well as the stuff that Mallory and Irvine used, because theirs was tailor-made.
And, more relevant to the calculator, the musket didn't replace the longbow because the musket was more deadly. A Waterloo musketeer could fire three rounds a minute, effective range 100 yards. An Agincourt longbowman could fire twelve rounds a minute, three times as far - and much more accurately.
But it takes you ten years to build a longbowman and two weeks to train a musketeer...


Metafilter? Whazza?

(tl;dr though is something with which I'm familiar)


I doubt if I could do much more than simple multiplication on my old slide rule now. If I even knew where it was. I was so proud of it. It was wonderful. It was Scientific. I felt a lovely sense of identification with all those clever boffin chaps in old films and the heroes of Heinlein books. It was a really complicated affair with all sorts of special features provided by two slides and dozens of scales and little grades on the transparent plastic thingy that moved up and down. And it was obsolete before I had owned it for more than about two years, as the first scientific calculators came out the year before I did my O-levels.

> 6. The shiny bright City of Tomorrow is also full of slums and favelas.
> 7. ... 90% of it is just like today, 9% is stuff that is on the drawing
> boards, and 1% is unutterably strange and alien and unexpected.

One thing I liked about the film version of Minority Report (there was a lot not to like) was they way, I think, they got the housing right. The poorest and homeless still lived in slums and shacks and odd corners like they do now and always have. Ordinary workers lived in newish modern apartments, clean but boring. Well-paid workers - like the protagonist - lived in immense high-tech futuristic shiny tower blocks with autoimatic 3d tranport systems moving them around wherever they wante4d to go. But the *really* *rich* live in the same houses they do now. Why demolish them? So in the film the Georgetown of 2054 looks almost identical to the Georgetown of 2004 - and not that different from 1954 or 1904.

> 2. In general, High Fantasy steals its dress from pre-modern history;
> Urban Fantasy buys off-the-shelf in TK-Maxx: and Science Fiction
> goes for that bold futurist look.

"In general", yes. I loved the way Mary Gentle's "Ash" and "1610" seemed to fool some readers into thinking they were reading historical fiction first, then maybe some kind of magical fantasy, when in the end both are pretty much hard SF. Just hard SF (mostly) set in a world before humans invented large automatic machines.


Erik - I have never visited metafilter, but tl;dr is common everywhere there are geeks. Think I first saw it on StackOverflow


@ajay regarding muskets and climbing equipment:
On the other hand, today's mountain climbing gear is lighter, cheaper more reliable and better useable in wet conditions (I extrapolating from the usual properties of artificial material vs. leather/hemp/linen/waxed cloth, as I'm not a climber).

But I see (and bemoan) your underlying point that we sacrifice superior fit/lifespan of items for cheapness and ease of use.

With muskets vs. bows it was not only the training (although it was a major factor). A musket needs less/easier maintenance and you can replace the most prone parts very quickly and cheaply in the field, while restringing a bow is a rather expensive undertaking, as is making one. Same with the ammunition, which a simple soldier could make himself with very simple tools vs. specialized workers and high-quality resources needed to make an useable arrow. You could also carry a lot more ammunition - as long as you taught the soldiers to keep it dry - and supply it very easily in large quantities (ball, priming, powder etc) while also making sure the opponent couldn't use it against you (different bore size) effectively/immediately (he could recast them of course).

The smoke and loud noise helped to unnerve the enemy (and not only natives unfamiliar with these weapons), a musket with a bayonet (a rather late invention admittedly) proved to be a very versatile weapon - making a musket infantry formation able to withstand a cavalry charge, fight ranged (effectively under 60 meters though) and fight close-combat without the need of carrying specialized weapons or even relying on specialized support units (pike formations, cavalry) like archers and crossbowmen before.


Re Siri in #5: It wouldn't work in 1970 - all the heavy lifting in Siri is done on backend servers. Phone just compresses the voice and ships it to the server over 3G/Wifi and the server comes back with the smart responses.


Gah! Must read more carefully. Forgot that the internetty ecosystem was included.


Re: Muskets, steam engines and calculators.

I suppose that'd be one other thing to note- there are waves of advancement based on making things more "shiny" and powerful...and then waves that make things logistically easier.

Take Wal-Mart as an example- not shiny, no ooohs and ahhhs about it...but in terms of shipping logistics, supply chain management and such? I imagine they've got techniques that would make merchants from the fifties kneel in awe.


Although I seem to remember reading that the Swedes did post snipers on top of the parliamentary buildings in Stockholm, to ensure that people didn't carry on driving on the wrong side of the road after midnight... so they must have felt there had to be some fairly strong incentives for everyone to pay attention...

No-one knows where it originated, apparently...


There is a niche where specialized slide rule is still very much alive:


Fred Pohl got the shape of the future very, very right in his novel "The age of the pussyfoot". The joymaker every citizen carries is pretty much what a standard mobile phone is going to be like in 10 years or less.

Unsounded's magic system is very well thought out, in a way that reminds one of object oriented programming, "aspects" that describe an object can be switched around and manipulated by sorcerers. Pymary (magic) is totally integrated in everyday life through pymaric, that is magic that is bound to first materials that make the effects permanent. But first materials are a non renewable resource...


Can we make a list of non-human-centered stories that work? I'm fond of Tiptree's "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death," which works because the non-human protagonist has affects that we can identify with (IMHO).

Or do you, CS, take that to be an example of "human-mind-in-a-giant-land-snail-body syndrome"?


But it takes you ten years to build a longbowman and two weeks to train a musketeer...

...which was the reason for the Tokogawa Shogunate's ban on muskets (and musketeers).


Re: Rule 1
Stretched significantly by Robert Asprin's "The Bug Wars," which lacks a single human character and whose protagonist is quite alien, though still close enough to be sympathetic in many ways (member of an honour-bound warrior culture, mainly).


I'd also submit John Brunner's The Crucible of Time, which has aliens which are sufficiently human for us to understand, but which also have pheromonic forces that act on them in a way that is almost unimaginable (except that JB did imagine them for you).

And oh, no connection that I could spot to our world. Humans might exist somewhere elsewhere in space or time, but the possibility of our existence is, IIRC, unmentioned.


Or you can go for the "they're not human, don't look human, and they have no connection with us", but what you get is either borderline-unreadable at best, or suffers from human-mind-in-a-giant-land-snail-body syndrome (which risks demolishing the reader's willing suspension of disbelief)

Or you get a Tiptree who can write "Love is the plan, the plan is death". (That might be hard to sustain over the length of a novel).

My question is. How far do readers like to identify with characters who are not "normal"? (e.g. Gully Foyle, or James Bond). At what point does real world sociopathic behavior (like that of corporate executives) become difficult to identify with?


The old saying about bowmen goes something like this: "Do you want to train an archer? Start by training his grandfather."


Charlie, there's a beautiful primer on worldbuilding here, put together as a form of science education by one of the local professors. It's really aimed at very smart children, but any science fiction writer could go down the list and do a very good job on the technical end of his/her worldbuilding.

It's very detailed, including information on calculating orbits, Roche Limits, albedo, calculating your planets gravity, etc. We home school, and I may use it for my kid's science education.


How about "when their intent is to cause harm (intended or collateral to mass numbers?"

OGH is on record as saying that he thinks Bond (I presume Fleming's print character, not James Gardner's or the film version) is a Mary Sue. I'd suggest that the target audience should identify with Mary Sues.


If the author's good...never. Your James Bond example is good- total narcissist who took the "license to kill" part of the job as easily as most of us would order doughnuts, at least in the novels.

You can have a sociopath protagonist, he just needs to have _panache_.


Actually, when your railroad owns the supply chain, any coal that you burn comes straight out of your profit margin...

No argument with you on the labor costs of diesels versus coal-fired steam, except that closing the coal and water depots let management send even more expensive employees home.

One of the largest reasons for switching to diesel power, however, was automation. By the late forties in the US, steam locomotives had gotten as large as was practical. Trains had reached their upper size limit, as bigger locomotives could not negotiate some curves and were threatening to overload the track roadbed itself. Multiple diesel locomotives could be slaved to a single set of operating controls, enabling the creation of enormous trains with six locomotives pulling and two pushing.


Really? I feel you exagerate things slightly. Yes, Bond felt he could kill without much trouble when required, but he was hardly the phsycopath you suggest he is. He is portrayed in the books as suffering a variety of mental problems to do with the violence he dealt out and recieved. The better example is the films, where he generally appears both cool, collected and uncaring.

BigHank53 - the whole automation thing reminds me of seeing a program about steam operated boats, and wondering why the restored original one from the late 19th century still required a human to shovel coal from a bunker into a firebox. Why had nobody replaced the shovel with a conveyor belt at an earlier time?


ISTR a 4-10-2+2-10-4 Garrett?

That was running into issues with turn radius along the boiler rather than the 10-wheel drive sets.


Don't forget that while old technologies do linger, those that are dependent on a support network are in trouble when their support network goes.

Let's take gasoline powered automobiles. Assume for a second that scientists come up with a super battery technology that has an energy density comparable to gasoline. This battery can get its energy from any of a range of sources, where gasoline comes from fossil fuels. Electricity gets an economic advantage over gasoline as oil becomes more expensive, and so electric cars become cheaper to run over gasoline cars.

Now the gasoline car is dependent on a network of gasoline fueling stations. As the number of gasoline cars on the road crumbles, it becomes increasingly uneconomic to run a network of gasoline fueling stations. As the number of fueling stations goes into decline, gasoline cars become increasingly difficult to use as a general transport vehicle.

Yes, there will be antique car fans, and there will probably be gasoline supply places where one can buy fuel to run those antique cars, but the fact is that those cars are not going to be a viable transport option. It's not impossible that at some future date all the cars on the road will be electric even if the gasoline cars are still drivable in theory. Without the gasoline fueling station network to support them, the cars themselves are of limited utility.


1930s? For the vast majority of even technologically inclined scientists, the iPhone in 1970 is pure magic

So, this makes Alan Kay a magician? There's a lot of shift in what is considered reasonable over time -- based on changes in understanding the underlying problem sets. You happened here to choose precisely the wrong dates and subject matter, though, because the form factor and interface equipment used in the iPhone were being proposed in the late 1960s (even Siri is a good match for Engelbart's description of an intelligent computerized assistant).

The iPhone would have been more magical in 1980 than it was in 1970.


Great topic ... some thoughts...

1. Humans are interested in reading fiction about humans.
The definition of ‘human’ has expanded considerably so that as of 2011 heroes/antiheroes can be females, non-Caucasians, non-Christians, gays, any age, have any variety of health conditions (in-born and acquired), possess and show a broader spectrum of emotions, attitudes, occupations, educational backgrounds, etc. Biggest difference in the real world is that the Lone Wolf has been mostly supplanted by the itinerant Team Player – permanent affiliation is on the verge of disappearing. Apart from Wild Cards haven't seen this much used in most fiction yet. (The group persists even though individual members come and go.)

2. In general, High Fantasy steals its dress from pre-modern history; Urban Fantasy buys off-the-shelf in TK-Maxx: and Science Fiction goes for that bold futurist look.
This tends to go hand-in-hand with what that society feels about the purpose/role of clothing one's body. For example, the inside-out quality/aaproach about ‘dressing’ and self-adornment that really took off within the last 10-15 years. In a society where everyone wears jeans, hair and nail coloring/length, tattooing, body piercing now serve to distinguish individuals.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and vice versa.
And people will stubbornly hold on to their world-view (science vs. magic/religion) regardless of evidence, experience or education.

4. The future is going to be like the present, only with extra layers.
The trick/fun is in exploring what gets old and dumped, and why. Can’t think of any housing developments that boast that they have the newest in outhouses in the gorgeously already landscaped backyard. People least resist change if it’s handed to them on a plate and are also promised that they never ever will have to do/learn anything to access its benefits. And they most readily accept change that provides instant gratification provided this comes along with no pain, no work.

5. People evaluate the new using the cognitive toolkit they acquired in the past.
Current Western societies accept that the cognitive toolkit has expanded and is more varied – an extension of Rule #1. Acquiring new knowledge and especially new attitudes may become easier given recent advances in neuroscience. The cultural/generational values war of blind adherence to old age/wisdom versus mindless acceptance of new ideologies (capitalism)/technologies is being played out in PCR (China). New ideologies is leading for now ... .

6. The shiny bright City of Tomorrow is also full of slums and favelas.
Infrastructure is at the heart of this and I wonder why we haven’t adopted a more flexible, modular, less expensive approach – what I believe ITs call ‘better interoperability’ between infrastructures. This would be an extension of the Just-In-Time inventory management principle which was adopted quite rapidly once U.S. car manufacturers realized JIT gave Japanese auto-makers a huge advantage.

The PCR’s new mega-cities will also provide interesting data on this: the relative flexibility of an infrastructure model vis-a-vis appearance of slums.

7. The ratio of the near future is: 90% of it is just like today, 9% is stuff that is on the drawing boards, and 1% is unutterably strange and alien and unexpected.
As more and more windmill farms spring up over here, I wonder what old (abandoned) technologies will resurface dressed up in new togs to make them more palatable/sellable to consumers who equate ‘new’ with ‘better’. So the future at this point is also more accepting of our entire history.

Overall, I think that the future is likely to feature faster and broader testing and consequently acceptance of ideas. In pre-Internet generations only a small fraction of any population could see for themselves what the ordinary day-to-day merits of any system/technology were. As awareness building is near-instantaneous now, societal changes (that are not dependent on physical infrastructure) are likely to speed up. Google data will become increasingly valuable.


Not so sure about parts rule 5. Specifically: "We train our children. In particular, we (or our neighbours, or our schools) train our children early to aspire to a consensus vision of the Good Life."

The evidence suggests that kids pick up a lot of their culture from their peers and older kids, more than their parents.

If you think about it, this makes sense. Immigrant children typically blend in a lot faster than their parents do, and immigrant children typically create creole languages out of the pidgin of their parents.

Moreover, there's some good evidence that segregating children in same-age classes promotes bullying. Children compete with same-age peers, but they take care of kids who are younger than they are. This may be why middle and high schools are so hellish, but college isn't. In college (aside from required freshman classes) people of all different grade levels take the same classes, and it's easier to get along.

Now, I don't disagree with people evaluating the present with the cognitive toolkit they gained in the past. It's difficult to do otherwise, even if you're doing science and actively trying to expand your toolkit. To me, the issue is how you gain the tools. AFAIK, the history of that toolkit is much more recent than what parents want, and it comes more from peers and teachers than it does from parents.


Excellent post, really makes me want to see what a Strossian take on popular crap (*cought star trek/wars *cough) would look like. It would be even more interesting to use such a resource to point out to people the inherent flaws that they overlook in these works.


I'm currently reading Watt's Starfish [a great recommendation by a number of commenters on this blog a while back]. I personally find it very hard to identify/empathize with the main character Lenie Clarke. Conversely, I find it easier to identify with Dr. Scanlon, not a very nice person at all.

I wonder if Clarke's mental states are so different from mine that she is, to all intents and purposes, an alien?


As I understand it, being the fireman involved much more than just shoveling coal.

He had to make sure the fire was burning evenly, without hot spots or holes, to reduce wear, and predict several minutes in advance exactly how much steam would be needed, and when.

The boiler reacts slowly, and he had to strike a balance between not enough steam (bad, if you can't get up that hill) and too much steam (wasting water by blowing off the excess).

In between that he had to maintain the water level in the boiler and do all the other small things that keeps a high pressure steam monster happy.

Basically, he did all the work, and the engineer got the bigger pay check. As usual in life.


Did you ever read Hal Clement's "Mission of Gravity"?

It's not the characters being human or descended from human that makes or breaks a book. The characters must have qualities that allow one to empathize with them. In mission of gravity the human characters where not people, they were props. The people were small caterpillar-like creatures. Who were merchants, explorers, and sailors all wrapped into one. (Not entirely on purpose. They'd gotten caught in a storm, IIRC, and blown to someplace they hadn't intended to go.

Hal Clement was one of the great exponents of World Building, occasionally going so far as to build models. And he had many viewpoint characters who were non-human and not human descended. (Usually they interacted with humans, admittedly.) The key feature is that psychologically they were essentially human.


Second the recommendation of Brunner's The Crucible of Time for non-human aliens with no connection to humans anywhere. (The fact that we seem to be able to think of one counter-example suggests your heuristic is right on.)


What are "The colour revolutions of the early noughties"? I can't guess what this is a reference to.


Martin @33: see: vintage cars and leaded petrol today.
SFReader @35, point 6: because there's feck all money in it. The only large-scale project I've heard about putting effort into infrastructure is IBM's Smarter Cities, and that's just data mining and presentation for civic management.


See also: TV. (",)


Start with the Orange Revolution and go from there. You didn't really miss a lot though, given that the politics haven't really changed there - however, it might be an indication of future developments that will.


Case 1: "aliens which are sufficiently human for us to understand" is kind of the same thing as saying "stories about humans".

The point is that "aliens which are NOT sufficiently human for us to understand" (Case 2) while probably the more likely case, is difficult fiction to read

It is also the same rule essentially as "People evaluate the new using the cognitive toolkit they acquired in the past."

This rule limits brain and thinking modification, also not very likely in the medium term in my opinion, however it is again about not moving from Case 1 to Case 2 and becoming untreatable.


Well, yes, TV is another part of the cultural programming now days. (Talk about regulatory capture!)


Terry Carr's short story "The Dance of the Changer and the Three" shows exactly why writing about non-humans is hard, and not very popular. Carr went to a lot of trouble to create what amounts to a shaggy dog story that doesn't make sense to humans, but would to the aliens he describes.


The rec.arts.sf.written FAQ mentions the following stories as not having human characters:

* Robert Asprin's BUG WARS
* John Brunner's CRUCIBLE OF TIME
* Mary Caraker's WATERSONG
* Arthur C. Clarke's "Second Dawn"
* Diane E. Gallagher's ALIEN DARK (mostly)
* Raymond F. Jones & Lester del Rey's WEEPING MAY TARRY
* Ross Rocklynne's SUN DESTROYERS
* H. Beam Piper's FIRST CYCLE
* Robert J. Sawyer's "Quintaglio" Trilogy: FAR-SEER, FOSSIL HUNTER, and FOREIGNER
* Robert Silverberg's AT WINTER'S END and THE NEW SPRINGTIME
* Olaf Stapledon's STAR MAKER and NEBULA MAKER
* James Tiptree's "Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death"

Given the amount of science fiction that's been written over time, the list above is very, very small. The 4-5 books from the list which I've read list essentially featured "humans in rubber suits" rather than truly alien beings, so I would have to conclude that Charlie is correct. (Or at least mostly correct.) The obvious problems with building an alien go something like this:

1.) An alien we can understand - that is, can the alien's form of communication (note I did not say "language") be translated into something like a human language.

2.) Do the aliens have emotions that work enough like ours that we can parse them somehow? What are the alien equivalents to love, hate, jealousy, vengefulness, etc., Someone once wrote a story in which there were aliens that did not get horny. Instead they experienced worse and worse pain which they could only relieve by mating... Interesting and memorable. For that matter, do the aliens have some equivalent to emotions?

3.) Does the alien understand its environment in a way we can relate to; that is, are the alien's perceptions of gravity, motion, light, heat, inertia, translatable into human terms. For example, an alien who lives in an ocean might have a float bladder. It has two different directions in which it experiences gravity, and which "gravity" it experiences can be controlled by tightening a muscle. Then there is the problem that some objects fall "up" (float) and some objects fall "down" (sink) and some objects fall either up or down then STOP when they reach a place of neutral density.

4.) What about the alien's biology? How do they reproduce? What do they eat? Do they have tentacles? Do they swim, fly, float, or walk? (This is the really easy one - if you only change this you've probably got a human in a rubber suit.)

5.) What about the alien's environment? I've read successful stories set on (and in) a neutron star, in water, in vacuum, in the clouds of a Jovian-type planet, but what else is there?

6.) What about the alien's ideas of cause and effect? Life and death? Time and duration? How many dimensions do they perceive? Diane Duane did some interesting stuff with that in one of the Star Trek books she wrote.

It seems to me that if you change only one of these, (particularly # 4) you end up with "a human in a rubber suit. If you change two of these you've got a relatively-easy-to-understand "good" alien. If you change three of them you've got something really different, a hard to understand alien that readers might not perceive as "good."

But a real alien? You should probably change all six, plus whatever issues I haven't thought about.

BTW, has anyone else read Vinge's Children of the Sky? I really though the Tines were well-envisioned, particularly the bit about what constitutes a Tinish "romance."


Charlie #1
"The Gods Theselves" by Asimov?
Brunner - oh - someoene else spotted that...
#2 The roll-over of Chinese or Egyptian dynasties?
"Welcome to the new boss (almost) like the old boss...."
#3 That's what Eddings did with his two series.
Magic was usable, and there were lots of practioners, of differing degrees of skill.
H. Beam Piper was well aware of that nasty little secret.
Driving on the Left is almost certainly safer. Most people are right-handed, and a huge majority are irght-eyed.....
#7 "Again: in the year 2030 there will almost certainly be some cars on the road that were built in 2010, or earlier." Mostly built in Solihull, too! (Land-Rover) Ahem.

TL;DR Uh? You what?
Ah, got the link - thanks.

@ 32
Biggest Beyer-Garrett's were 2-8-2*2
Biggest evah "Big Boy UP railroad USA 4-8-8-4 Mallet simple.


I'm of the opinion that Clarke's third law is too strongly worded.

Sufficiently advanced technology might seem like magic, but it shouldn't behave like magic. The 1930s scientist, while baffled at what a iPhone can do (especially since it's a solid object with no moving parts), would still notice it produces heat and has a power source that gets depleted after too much use.

Clarke's third law is too often used in lazy worldbuilding as an excuse to handwave in any kind of magictech. Future technology might go against some scientific theory we currently get wrong, but it's unlikely too run afoul of every laws of physics at once.



Zero History is set in 2011, best I can tell.

If Gibson really intended it to be in 2001, then I've misunderstood just about everything that happened in all three books.


Some technologies offer something new, cheaply. Everyone expects it to be commonplace... and it just is not taken up. The prime example is the videophone. Feasible for the past 40 years, zero effective cost now, but most people prefer voice only.


s/Zero History/Pattern Recognition/


From my post on world-building 101:

change some element of what makes us human too, don't just put the same 'us' into a sci-fy env..

At the risk of running afoul of #1, I still think most authors are missing out on extrapolating out what changes in basic mentality brought on by chemical or genetic wiring changes would do to society. You could do your what-if novel entirely near-future but regarding the follow-on implications of some major brain wiring change to subsets of humanity.

One of the better examples of this would be Stephen Baxters "Destiny's Children" series:


Re: Surprising 1986 readers with the fact that by 2011 around 50% of adults would meet their sexual partners via the internet... Kraftwerk fans might disagree :)


Regarding the War on Drugs, while I agree with you that one of the barriers to change is the entrenched selfish interests of the members of the enforcement apparatus, it is (as always) even more complicated.

A few years ago Steve Yegge wrote an insightful essay specifically about how legalizing pot would much more complex to implement than one would guess at first glance.

It is "Have you ever legalized marijuana?" at


I am in fact aware of the complexity of legalizing cannabis. (Personally, I'd be more inclined to follow the Portuguese example, wrt. all illegal drugs: i.e. to decriminalize simple possession of small amounts and to allow users to voluntarily opt into education/treatment programs as an alternative to prosecution for minor offences. Then broaden out from there, for example by making heroin and syringes prescribable for registered addicts -- as they were prior to 1970 in the UK.)

But yes. One corollary of rule 4 is that the future is going to be more complex than the present. (Either that, or drastically simpler in a gnawing-on-thigh-bones-in-the-post-nuclear-ashes sense.)


Re #7, an old saw says that a large enough quantitative change is a qualitative change: make something ten times bigger / smaller and the entire object has changed character. A ten pound moggie changes to a hundred pound mountain lion, not nearly so cuddly in your lap.

So even stuff on the drawing boards can change the world to something quite foreign. This particularly applies to cost: the film Wall Street looks quaint these days when Gordon Gekko is shown on the beach talking on a brick-sized cell phone; the scene was to underscore his Master Of The Universe access to high technology, but it no longer plays as intended when every teen girl has a mobile.

For that matter, pad computers are cheap enough that one toddler is nonplussed when she sees a print magazine:

Consider renewable energy: photovoltaic costs are expected to reach grid parity sometime between 2015 and 2020. What might happen then?
1) lots more rooftop solar in sunny climes
2) reduced coal demand, with knock-on effects in mining towns
3) a shift in political influence from fossil fuel providers to renewable manufacturers

The base technology was known in the 1970s, but incremental improvements drove down prices to the point where panels may be ubiquitous in a decade.

You don't need ray guns or flying cars to change the world - merely dropping prices on technology by an order of magnitude makes it more accessible to people who, as William Gibson said, have their own uses for it, and who are far enough outside the mainstream to come up with all kinds of previously unimagined ideas.


On Clarke's Law, consider some of the corollaries. The people who think their internet boxes or cars or credit card servers 'just work' aren't going to be more understanding when the AI climate control or West European Teleport Network starts glitching. Magic can be closer to home than you expect.

(A friend of mine jump-started a stalled van in a parking lot a few weeks ago. She was thrilled to show the little girl in the passenger seat that all that machinery inside could be understood and fixed without having to call a wizard or sage.)


Interesting constraints.

I find number 1 to be the most relevant - people like reading about people. This is part of why world-building is only part of good writing. George Lucas is a world-builder par excellence, with detailed visions of each of the worlds and cultures in the Galactic Empire he's writing about, but unfortunately the man has a tin ear for dialogue, and can't write a believably "human" character to save his life, which is why the best of the Star Wars movies is still the one which was written for him by other people (Number V - "The Empire Strikes Back", distinguishable from the others by the lack of cheesy dialogue, and the actual characterisation which occurs).

Number three - I think Pterry covered this with Hex - a piece of sufficiently advanced magic which does act like technology (an ever-evolving bit of technology - it started out being about the complexity level of a desktop PC, complete with "Anthill Inside" sticker and occasional BSOD equivalents in "Hogfather", but quickly advanced to the point of becoming a SF-AI style "magic" computer on the level of HAL-9000 or greater, only with the equivalent of readily available therapy in the form of Mustrum Ridcully hitting it with a big stick). He also covered it with things like the various Dis-Organisers that Commander Vimes winds up with - expensive, complicated, and at least half of their functions consist of offering explanations for why they don't do so well with the other half; similarly imp-driven watches tend to lose a lot of time each day, and only tend to be accurate to the level of "eight-ish", or thereabouts.

It's a bit like the whole "kitchen whiz food processor whizbangery" problem. Yes, the food processor can do about twenty different functions, and it can slice and dice and mix and crush and puree and all the rest. But what you save on elbow grease on one end (the food prep) you spend at the other end (dismembering the apparatus, washing and drying it, and then re-assembling the bastard to put it away), and sometimes it can just be quicker to grab a knife and a chopping board and cut things up the long way. Pterry's vision of magitech captures this particular dilemma of the "modern inconvenience" perfectly - yes, the magical technologies can do it, but most of the time it's quicker and easier to just do the damn job yourself.

Number five - this is, I think, at least part of why the Russian revolution eventually fell in a heap and reverted to being Tsardom 2.0. It was an example of what Pterry called "the wrong sort of public". Time is shallow, and at the time of the Russian Revolution, there may still have been people alive who were born into serfdom. Certainly there were people still alive whose parents had been serfs, and lots of people still alive whose grandparents had been serfs. Families build up their own cultural toolkits, which they hand down just like the more tactile forms of inheritance - and the toolkit which is useful for a family of serfs is different to the one which is useful for a middle class family in the same overall cultural millieu. So basically, when the Revolution occurred in 1918, what happened is that the new overlords found themselves in possession of a vast underclass of people whose culturally ingrained reaction to any form of political chaos at all was basically "keep your head down, and wait for the new boss to say what they want". It's very hard to take orders from people like that, but very easy indeed to give them out... and thus was a revolution sidetracked.

Number six - We can see the roots of this one in things like city maps. Have a look at the street map of any old city (as in "two hundred years" or more). You will almost certainly find blind alleys, odd corners, and bits and pieces of road where past needs have influenced design. So yeah, the city of tomorrow is going to be built on the city of today (because people don't like moving that much) and as a result, it's going to inherit the problems of the city of today (because people also don't like throwing things out, just in case they might be useful).

I suspect the really unexpected 1% is likely to be knock-on effects of the understandable 9% interacting with the existing 90%. For example, there's that fascinating human question which has been asked regarding just about every single piece of technology known to humankind: "(How) will this help me get sex?" And sometimes the answers are obvious, and sometimes they're less obvious, and in other cases you really have to turn things on their heads sideways at forty-five degrees to the existing reality to get the angles right.


"I find number 1 to be the most relevant - people like reading about people."

I would extend that to:
"I find number 1 to be the most relevant - people like reading about people like themselves"


An extension - people like to read about people they can imagine themselves to be.


Re: alien and human points of view.

What was the story I read a few years ago, that started as a tenured professor trying to assert his seniority over a newly arrived young rival, that gradually turned into something more alien to human experience?

It started very mundanely, to the point where one wondered what it was doing in an SF anthology (or magazine, I forget which), then gradually veered off into unknown territory. I'm trying not to give spoilers, but it was a massive brain-fuck (in a good way (if you like that sort of thing)) when the author made clear what was really happening.


It seems to me that any discussion of how human one must make one's aliens really should touch heavily upon C J Cherryh's work. She makes exploring the differences between her aliens and humans (and in some of her work, alien humans) a constant theme in a very large portion of her work and it's often through the eyes of her aliens.

I suppose that really expands upon the implied underlying point, though. Her work is about humanity, even when it's through the lens of her aliens' differences.


One of the things I love about Steven Brust's Draegara books is #3 here; they really do treat magic like technology.

To phrase it another way, whenever I look at some marvelous fictitious magic (like spell-casting, or replicators in Star Trek), I think "Okay, but what would a Player Character in an RPG do with that?"

Because people are gamers, and we'll always try to use whatever we find to win. I mean, that's pretty much what technology *is*.


We should also give some credit to Rebecca Ore, for her Becoming Alien trilogy back in the 1980s. She had a lot of fun attempting to imagine how a multi-species Federation might work if the species were reasonably alien.


On a similar note, Mieville's lovely (if slow) "Embassytown"- directly highlighting the differences between alien and human thought...and the interaction between them.


heteromeles @ 67
"Hospital Station" ??


I think canals are an example of this phenomenon. Economically out-competed by first railways and then road transport the network of canals in the UK was under maintained and many were abandoned until they become economically useful again as a leisure activity and / or as an environmental improvement project.


On #5 I think that the way people perceive problems is one of the bits of cognitive tool kit that people inherit from their parents or wider culture.

Problems are gaps between where someone is and where they want to be. Both where people are and where they want to be are framed by perceptions of the Good Life and by what is possible. Crassus could no more fly to New York and back in a day than I could fly to Mars. He could no more buy a cure for malaria than I can for Alzheimer’s. Where a problem is far beyond solvable we have no choice but to accept the outcome. I suspect we might all be Stoics at the margin.

I wonder what problems we accept as unsolvable. What gaps do we observe between the currently possible and the potentially possible without labelling them as problems?

One of the questions I would like to ask a Classical Greek or Roman is whether they expected technology and the way people lived to change or not. I think we in the West in the 21st Century would be very surprised, nay anguished, if technology didn’t improve our standard of living. I wonder if a 1st Century European would think the same.

I like SF that looks at how people might re-frame the gap between Is and Could Be in the light of changing technology. That’s an exploration of the alien.


The economic and financial advantages of the musket over the longbowman are a quadruple whammy.

Not only do you (the state) avoid the cost of training and maintaining a longbow force but you also get to keep the people who would otherwise be longbowmen in the fields and factories producing taxable goods and services. From the citizens’ point of view they spend more time in productive work for themselves or at leisure rather than training every Sunday afternoon with a bow. Fourthly, you (the state) can scale your military response to match the crisis in months rather than decades.

So overall more productive work is done and shared amongst society.

Also, you (the state) don’t have to keep lots of well trained, well armed men sitting around idle, wondering why it is that they don’t live in the nice big houses.


The arrow versus musket ball argument usually fails to consider parabolas and in a stand-up battlefield situation as existed in the 17th and 18th centuries the musket ball wins because of its flatter trajectory.

To get any sort of range with a longbow the big slow arrow has to be fired at a high angle to get decent range of a hundred yards or more. That means when it reaches the target area it is descending steeply. It is only effective in the last six feet of its fall i.e. when it can hit an enemy soldier and if it hits the ground in front or behind him then it is wasted. It has only a small zone of effectiveness. A musketball at the same range is much faster with its flatter trajectory hence it drops less as it reaches the target meaning its effective zone is much longer.

Both weapons were not particularly accurate, they were usually fired en banc in the general direction of the enemy at range rather than picking individual targets. A rank of musketmen was a very large shotgun in effect but in level fire it had a much higher hit rate on an enemy rank than a similar number of bowmen could achieve.


Also cannon - don't forget how they had improved in all respects over time, so that in theory a group of bowmen could stand off and try and massacre the gunmen, the artillery would make it costly work for them.


That's a good point, and well made.

Further multiplying the low-skilled operator advantage of the musket.


the low-skilled operator advantage of the musket

Ah, yes. The match-lock musket was so simple to use, you should try it some time.

Seriously, it was hideously difficult to use compared to a bow. A full description of the process of reloading a match-lock musket shows that your ideal musketeer could do with four hands[*]. If you look at the French musketeers in the 17th Century, at the time that Charles D'Artagnan was the commander of the first company, you find full time professional soldiers, the elite troops of the day. They had to be really, really, well trained for the musket to have much effect.

[*] Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach legendarily fought with lit matches threaded into his beard, supposedly to scare his enemies. I suspect it was merely his solution of where to keep them. Reloading a musket requires one to hold the match, to hold the musket, and to hold the powder dispenser, and definitely not to let the first and third get anywhere near each other while tamping the powder with the tamping rod in the fourth hand. This is why the rate of fire for a musket was so low compared to that of a bow.


It sounds credible, but I'd like to see some numbers or citations.

In particular I can see how it would maybe work for a single line of targets, but for a column - a block of packed troops - you've got the problem that muskets can only hit the front rank or ranks, while arrows can hit everyone.

Very simply, if I'm charging your 100 men in line with my 100 men in a 10 by 10 phalanx from 100m off, you get one volley of 100 bullets, only 50 or fewer of which will hit (according to tests; - which will riddle my front ranks but leave the rest untouched - and then I'm on you. (Yes, muskets were really, really inaccurate. A lot of the bullets your men fire are bouncing down the barrels and coming out at all angles, probably going over my men's heads or into the ground between us.)

But the alternative, if instead you have 100 archers, is that you get four volleys of arrows, a total of 400, which will be much more evenly distributed through the block of my troops thanks to their high trajectory. And any archer worth his pay should be able to hit a 30m by 30m square target 100m off!


Ah, yes. The match-lock musket was so simple to use, you should try it some time.

Seriously, it was hideously difficult to use compared to a bow.

Not really. To use a longbow properly you had to train for years to build up the muscles in the arms and back. They can identify archers' skeletons because their bones are different shapes - huge attachment points on the scapula and so on for the muscles. Yes, the knowledge required may not have been so great, but the time it took to become one was much longer. It's like saying that driving a car is more difficult than being an Olympic sprinter because all the sprinter has to do is run really fast and a car has gears and indicators and things.


Which is presumably why they were replaced with flintlocks and why drill sergeants replaced generations of practise on the village green.


Battlefield archery and naval archery required a lot of trained muscle and endurance and that was the part that took years of regular yeoman practice. Using a musket is less of a physical drain on the body. Training to use a musket effectively took more than a couple of weeks but it didn't require years to build up the necessary musculature. What did work with musketry was rigorous drill and discipline, the necessity to stand resolutely in rank and fire on command while receiving fire from the enemy. Drill also "programmed" the soldier to load and fire his weapon by rote in what was otherwise a confusing and terrifying environment. That could only be done by employing the soldier full-time so the drilling could be continuous and sustained.

Two rounds a minute was a good pace for trained musketmen in rank; raw recruits would be lucky to get one round a minute and there were a number of bad mistakes they could make in the heat of battle that would stop the musket working, things like loading the ball before the powder charge or leaving the ramrod in the barrel when firing it. There was a recorded case of a US Civil War musket found on a battlefield which had more than ten loads in the barrel, one stacked on the other. The unfortunate soldier had been loading the weapon automatically but failing to fire it, probably due to panic or fear.


Musket-equipped soldiers fought in ranks, not phalanxes which were only really useful for contact attacks, block on block using spears, pikes, swords, axes etc. By the time the longbow had been succeeded by the matchlock and later flintlock soldiers were deployed in long thin lines to maximise the shotgun effect of their own fire and also to minimise the damage done by round shot from artillery.

An arrow coming down at a 30-45 degree angle has to be heading for the ground within a couple of feet of a rank of soldiers to have a hope of hitting one of them. The much flatter trajectory of a musket ball at the same range means it is much more likely to pass nearly horizontally through one of the unfortunates on the other side.


The interesting thing here is that the huge musculature required is because of the sheer size of the English (or Welsh) longbow. Go for a lighter bow, and you don't need such overbuilt shoulders.

And why did the longbow develop? Not as a reaction to the musket, but as a reaction to something else, the sheer punch of the crossbow.

So, why did the crossbow lose out to the musket?


Also, you (the state) don’t have to keep lots of well trained, well armed men sitting around idle, wondering why it is that they don’t live in the nice big houses.

Except some bright spark invents universal military service (conscription) and it turns out that's exactly what you wind up with. Or worse. (See also the Weimar Freikorps, or what happened in Iraq after the US occupation sent the Iraqi Army home.)


This is quite easy to see in Edinburgh.

There's the Union Canal (connects Edinburgh to Glasgow) that runs all the way into Tollcross; once the unfashionable centre of town, now rebuilt into posh offices. With a nice water feature outside. I do wonder whether we'll eventually see a lawyer commuting to work by powerboat or jetski (difficult, as it's a narrow canal used by rowing clubs).

There are the remains of various 19th century railways dotted around; most of these have been converted into footpaths/cycle paths, which make it possible to cycle across the North of Edinburgh faster than you could drive without a flashing blue light.

We're trying to rebuild an Edinburgh tram/light rail infrastructure (at huge cost) and the Waverley line out to the Borders (can't wait, I live near the proposed route) that was only dismantled forty years ago.

Meanwhile, we've seen Leith (absorbed into Edinburgh nearly a century ago) go from "thriving port" to "deprived part of town", and it's now en route to "gentrified destination for cruise ships". I do wonder whether the maintenance requirements of offshore wind will lead to further industrial expansion...


I think once one state has decided to keep a certain percentage of the young adult male population permanently in harness everyone else is (or thinks they are) obliged to follow suit. So eventually you end up with large standing armies or large bodies of militarily trained former soldiers now unemployed.

It might be obvious that this would happen in hindsight, or even predicable if you really thought about it in advance, but people tend to make decisions incrementally and to solve the immediate problem at hand. But from the point of the view of a monarch who is anxious about having to rely on a small group of highly trained and unreliable nobles and a bunch of hard to reproduce specialist longbowmen that’s maybe a risk worth running.


Performed better in the same use-case?


I do wonder whether we'll eventually see a lawyer commuting to work by powerboat or jetski (difficult, as it's a narrow canal used by rowing clubs).... Illegal too, unless they travel at 5mph or less.


Not interchangeable with a pike, perhaps?


I think the crossbow and longbow were both responses to the heidbummers starting to wear plate armour instead of collections of holes tied together with metal rings!

The musket and mass-produced (relative term) cannon took penetration power to the point where it was just too easy for the ranged weapon to penetrate the armour for armour to be anything more than a "target this guy" signal.


It's the age-old story of battlefield rock-paper-scissors. My archers will defeat your pikemen; your cavalry will defeat my archers; my pikemen will defeat your cavalry.

I wouldn't be surprised if you saw crossbows, longbows, and matchlocks alongside each other in some army. Each has its advantages and disadvantages (vulnerability to rain or wind, rate of fire, training requirements, logistic burden) so that having a mix may well have been one of the solutions, at least until you can afford an army fully-equipped and trained with flintlocks backed up by mobile cannon. "Can afford" is the operative phrase - in 1939, there was only one fully-mechanised Division in service anywhere, and it was British. The Wehrmacht lost the mobility of its artillery at Stalingrad when the horses used to pull the guns (foraging in the land to the west of the city) were cut off from their units by the Russian encirclement.

The concept of the "beaten zone" of a weapon is still around today; the longbow has a very small and circular effect at long range (because it arrives at a steep angle), the musket has a longer and elliptical one (because it arrives at a shallower angle). You see the same thing with modern fire support; in an attack, you would use artillery (with its circular beaten zone) on the enemy position until your troops are inside its splinter distance, then you would switch to machine guns (with their long, thin beaten zones, but shorter ranges and awkward logistics) so that your own troops could close with the position.

Longbows have more artillery-like characteristics; they can fire over your own troops' heads. Muskets and early cannon are definitely direct fire, which means you can only use them in the attack for fire support if they are firing from the flanks of your army (hence, horse artillery - watch the King's Troop, and think about their original purpose,_Royal_Horse_Artillery).


I'm not aware of the Xbow, longbow and lock mixture you postulate, but certainly bow/lock and pike units could be mixed and/or train together so that each could support the other.


The Spanish Tercio for example.


Matchlocks first appeared on the battlefield in quantity in the Hundred Years War but they were typically employed by companies of mercenaries to protect pike blocks on the move from raiding cavalry, not for offensive use per se. It was very uncommon for arquebusiers to exchange fire in that period.

As for crossbows they were a transitional weapon, with the armour-piercing steel-bowed arbalest most like the matchlock and later flintlock in terms of flat trajectory and rate of fire if not range. The crossbow and arbalest were best used from cover as individual or small-squad weapons -- siege defence was one of their stronger points until cannon made solid walls useless and wars became more a matter of manoeuvre with fewer fixed defences and sieges. The final evolution of massed musket companies in the late 18th century was the defensive square which couldn't be broken by cavalry assuming disciplined and drilled troops equipped with the ring bayonet. Unfortunately light field cannon that could run with the cavalry came along and that was the end of the square (at least in "civilised" countries).


#3: we generally treat our technologies as if they are reliable, predictable, cheap pieces of magic, so it behooves the author of a fantasy to ask — why wouldn't their protagonists treat readily available magic the way we treat technology? Either magic needs to be rare, unreliable, erratic, and a bit feeble ... or it's going to be everywhere in chains.

To me that's a very good question, but far too strong an answer. It only covers the admittedly common cases where magic is effectively technology powered by some kind of shiny.

The Art Magic or elvish craft, taken seriously, suggests a far different sort of society. Suppose that a spell is not like making a device, but like making a song or painting, or for that matter a brilliant conversation? Suppose, moreover, that casting a perfectly decent spell isn't so much like singing a perfectly decent song, as like the act of composing one.

Any fool can plausibly then produce the magical equivalent of My Lovely Horse or Flame Mass, but this isn't clearly a useful ability. Nor for even a real magician is the juice necessarily on tap, or predictable in its quality or effect. A Shakespeare of sorcery might manage ten or twelve history-changing spells in her lifetime, and suffer ten or twelve years in a row when she could only irregularly light a Roman candle, let alone turn the Earl of Oxford into a toad for being a cheeky bastard.

If the high spots were high enough, and the forgettable wandering buskers/hedge-wizards more or less useful enough on balance, it's not clear to me that a scientific worldview would readily develop. The difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug might be just too unpredictable and resistant to analysis.

Without some such wildness in the magic, yes, it really should converge quickly on "thought-actuated technology with a psychologically satisfying user interface".


"Another point: technology doesn't always advance. Modern mountain climbing gear doesn't fit as well as the stuff that Mallory and Irvine used, because theirs was tailor-made. "

That's comparing tailor-made to off-the-shelf. I'll bet that current custom mountain gear is vastly superior to what Mallory and Irvine used.


Musket-equipped soldiers fought in ranks, not phalanxes which were only really useful for contact attacks, block on block using spears, pikes, swords, axes etc.

No, not really. You used line for defence, but column for attack. Column represented exactly the kind of broad, deep mass of attacking soldiers that I am talking about.


"So, why did the crossbow lose out to the musket?"

Rate of fire. IIRC, the rate of fire for a heavy (cranked) crossbow is something like 1 shot per 2 minutes. And it'd have mechanical complexity adding to the cost.


OTOH the Mongol recurve bow was powerful, light and very effective. In mass warfare accuracy was not needed. It would be interesting to know what the outcome of major historical battles would have been if one side had used those.


It was also a light cavalry (and I think hunting) weapon, rather than something intended to overcome metal armours as crossbows and heavy longbows were.


The experiences of Crassus and Mark Anthony against the Parthians* suggests that light cavalry with light bows does very, very well against heavy infantry when fighting in open plains.

When fighting in broken ground the boot appears to be in the other face.

*origin of the phrase "parting shot".


The best way to viscerally understand the effectiveness of light cavalry is to play the video game "Rome: Total War." Parthians are bastards, especially when one can't give instructions the UI doesn't support (i.e. use pilae as pikes).


For a moment there, it sounded like you were setting up for a near-future fantasy.


Re bows / muskets ...

I have in the past been a hobbyist archer, with some family land that gave up to 200 meter varying altitude shot lines, and own and sometimes use muzzleloading firearms.

I didn't do archery enough with big bows to develop the musculature, but I could put 50% first-arrow hits on man-sized targets out past 150 meters at my peak of training, with 10 or so second turn-sight-estimate range-draw-steady-release cycles, on "unknown range" targets (i.e., not firing from my usual firing spots at usual target spots, but wandering randomly up or down a hillside to some spot and firing at wherever I'd left the target). Unrifled musketry hit ratio at that range was significantly poorer.

Yes, angle of incidence and all, but until you rifle it the dispersion is for crap, and most of the dispersion at those ranges is down below or up above, and you get clean misses, even on a line of soldiers.

The training argument works, I seem to be unusually good at hitting things (not "professional grade", and I don't stay that much in practice these days, but good). I can understand why serious draw strength longbows would take decades of strength practice, and large numbers of archers would on the average take decades of serious training. Given a finite time to deliver effective firepower to a battlefield, you probably get more hits on target by July with an army of musketeers.

I suspect that if you make militia service a mandatory activity, say a hour a day of archery for all able bodied men and boys (and, if you're less historically accurate, all women and girls), the society will as a whole be more effective at ranged combat by far.

I.e., you can't conscript archers, you have to conscript musketeers.


Very early high-end climbing gear (as worn by Mallory and Irvine) was mostly wool, gabardine and silk (possibly oiled), so actually pretty comparable to modern gear as regards weight and usability in the wet. Some early mountain tents, in particular, were very light. Down clothing was only just starting to become available by Mallory's day (early pattern books include addresses in Scandinavia which your tailor could send off to for eiderdown!); this is now de rigeur for high-altitude gear, so on average modern gear is warmer than Mallory's. Modern boots are also much warmer, since they lack heat-conducting nailed soles. But the main advantage of modern mountain clothing over high-end Edwardian kit is that it's much cheaper and more widely available. Barry @95: you're right that it's not really fair to compare bespoke kit with mass-market kit, but AFAIK there just isn't a bespoke mountaineering-clothing industry any more.

Modern ropes, cams, nuts, ice screws, pitons and other fall-protection are a completely different matter: they're hugely better than what the pioneers had.

If you're interested in this stuff, I enjoyed this book on the subject:


if you posit a cheap and effective cure for the ageing process that gives everyone indefinite youth prolongation for the cost of an aspirin a day, it's unreasonable to expect most people to suddenly abandon the milestones by which they and their parents measure life progress. Most of them will continue to dance the degree/job/marriage/home ownership/work fandango because it takes a lot of effort to interrogate one's unquestioned axioms, and it's even harder to let go of them if they are found lacking: and people don't like externally imposed change.

I have to disagree, at least partially. Look how many people in First World already amended that "fandango" by not marrying and/or postponing children or going "chlid-free" altogether -- and we do not even have anti-aging treatments yet! With your hypothetical, I expect it would take at most 30 years before something like Peter Hamilton's Commonwealth society emerges, where only those who really need children (for whatever reason) have them, and schooling stretches for decades. I use 30 year figure as in "a generation grew up with anti-aging a fact of life".

Incidentally, home ownership (which you include as part of "fandango") is currently on the decline, in US anyway, as more young people come to see a mortgage as a millstone that keeps them from seeking better opportunities. In a society you postulated home ownership might make a big comeback, as paying off a house becomes a relatively small part of one's expected lifespan.


Ahem: your 30 year time frame exceeds my "near future" time frame by a decade.

I expect if we had a sudden outbreak of life prolongation then about 20 years later we'd run into a season of revolutions and uprisings that would make the Arab Spring look like a vicar's tea party. As the folks who were 20-30 when the "cure" came out hit 60 and realize the folks who were 50-60 and running the place are now 80-90 but are still healthy and expect to still run everything for the foreseeable future.


The longbow developed

"And why did the longbow develop? Not as a reaction to the musket, but as a reaction to something else, the sheer punch of the crossbow."

Reeeaaalllyyy? I'd like to see some actual evidence for that. Apart from the neolithic or so longbow they found in a bog, the medieval English longbow does as far as I am aware originate with the Welsh and welsh borderers, who were introduced into his armies by Edward the 1st, and thereafter developed as a ranged offensive weapon through the next two or three centuries. Exactly why the longbow took off in England and Wales but the continent used the crossbow, I am not entirely sure. The best wood for longbows had to be imported, as probably did crossbow bows. It seems to some extent to be an accident of culture.
Besides, it makes more sense from use on the field for the longbow to be kept in use as an anti-mass infantry weapon (See battle of Falkirk and a number of other Scots vs English battles) and later on as a kill the horse so that the knights have to fight on foot weapon in France. Modern tests show that a longbow arrow can pierce most types of armour available in the late medieval period, and of course the crossbow could as well. But ultimately you try moving your army forwards when the less well armoured rank and file have their feet nailed to the floor by arrows.
All of which says nothing about the crossbow, so I wonder where you get the idea it was a response to the crossbow?


Expedition wear for well-funded professionals is generally vastly better now than at the time of Malory - with exceptions - I understand his silk underwear was superb. The sheer volume of stuff required for an expedidtion has gone down greatly.

As for amateur climbing and hill-walking gear, that's improved beyond measure in quality and availability. I don't recommend a winter's night on Helvellyn in tweed that when wet weighs as much as a small but tubby child.

With equipment, in the 1950's most of the great rock climbers were using clothesline and nuts and bolts from the shed, we've come a long way.

Hell, it's not that long ago I used to lug a Vango Force 10 around and think it light. These days a Laser Competition weighs less than a kilo.

A better example of improving technology not producing increased quality might be books - when production costs were higher more care was taken with materials. My paperbacks are ageing much faster than pre-war classics. Or is that because all the shoddy old stuff has already worn out?

But in general, if something costs a couple of quid, who cares if it only lasts a few months? (e.g. cheap cotton trousers).

On the subject of trousers, world-building and historical longevity, trousers are a relatively recent invention.

Finally, for a quick and dirty start for physical world-building, the tabletop RPG Traveller went into great depth over the years. There are mistakes, but it's a good starting point.


No sure about that: consider the mid-1960's when women entered the workforce en masse effectively increasing it by 30%-40%. Despite this influx (which had not been anticipated even 10 years earlier but should have been because of available post-secondary enrollment data) the first world economies did not fall apart.


What I mean is that it depends on what attributes the new work force entries bring into the market. The women referred to in the mid-1960's tended to be more/better educated.

Accordingly, if the older workers are able to keep pace with developments in the marketplace, technology, etc. then yes, they'll probably also keep their dominance. However, if the market/workplace changes in some way that favors younger (possibly more suitably educated) workers, then the younger cadre will displace older workers. This is also exactly what happened with IT in the 1990's, boosted by the very rapid adoption of the Internet.

So we've seen the workplace market tossed about at least twice in our lifetimes --- and at neither time did the economies implode.


I'd dispute #3. We already have ~3 million years worth of layers, but layers get less influential the farther down you go. In practice, layers more than ~70 years old get muted and often lost.

In other words, the history of the last 15 years is defined not only by the layers that were added (the war on terror, etc.) but by the layers that were forgotten: e.g. the death of the Depression generation paved the way for us to repeat their mistakes. Laurel and Hardy, large chunks of the Bible, Morse code, and WWI are only a few of the things that made up common knowledge fifty years ago; they're pretty much forgotten these days,


In reply to Jay @112

Actually, what happens is that cultural layers >70 years old tend to either accrete into "tradition" (or in other words, they become part of the standard "because that's the way we've always done it" line) or they get mixed into the mess in other ways. My own interpretation of the biblical adage that the sins of the fathers will be visited nigh until the seventh generation is it's a pretty apt statement of how long it takes to get something integrated into a cultural framework.

Person X does something (for example, trimming the shank of a leg of lamb before roasting). They pass this sideways to their peers (generation one), and if it's useful, they and their peers pass it on to their children. Generation two is the children of the adopters of the alpha meme, and their peers who may or may not adopt the alpha meme themselves. Generation three is the grandchildren of the initial adopters who are having the alpha meme reinforced not only by their parents, but also by their grandparents. This is the last generation which is going to be able to give a sensible answer to the question of "why do we do things this way?", because they're the last generation which is likely to be able to go to the originators of the whole thing and ask about circumstances (turns out the shank needs to be trimmed because otherwise the leg of lamb won't fit in grandmother's roasting dish). The children of generation three (who are part of generation four) are more likely to get the answer of "this is just how it's done", particularly if all the members of generation one have already died off, although there may be someone who'll pass on the information about the circumstances in which the meme was generated (or who inherited their grandmother's roasting pan). Generation five gets more of "this is how it is done", and by now they're the grandchildren of the grandchildren of the meme originators, so even if there is a family story of what started the whole tradition, by now it's getting a bit of wear and tear (and great-great grandma's roasting pan has probably rusted through, so there's no way of checking). But they pass it on to their children (in generation six), and also to their grandchildren (in generation seven), telling them "this is the way I was taught to do it by my grandmother, who was taught to do it by her grandmother", with the implication that this is the way it's always been done, down through history.

If we take as a reasonable measure of time the "grandfather" measure proposed in the "Science of Discworld" books (fifty years, as a measure of time between a person being a child, and having their child's child asking questions) then genuine cultural integration or disintegration of memes takes approximately two hundred years, or four grandfathers (seven generations). It certainly lends some perspective to social change, and it's one of the things which makes me more inclined to look to the very long term in relation to things like social activism.

However, in the short term, I'm fairly hopeful. The "egalitarian" meme has been floating about in various cultural forms now for well over two hundred years, and there are signs it's starting to become pretty dominant. Certainly there's a greater degree of resistance to various theses which argue that any out-group is an out-group because they deserve to be, which is a good sign. An even better sign is the resistance to the theses which argue a powerful group is powerful because they deserve to be powerful. We're getting there. Slowly but surely, we're getting there.


Not just "cavalry on open ground", it still applies.

If you look at how terrain drives the most basic parts of military culture, you'd notice that Western European forces have always had "broken ground" to hide in - valleys, hills, streambeds, narrow fast-flowing rivers. Line of sight at ground level can be quite short. By contrast, Eastern Europe tends more to the rolling open plain, low hills, wide slow rivers.

When you look at the armoured vehicles and tactics developed for each, they're rather different. UK tactics tend to assume the presence of broken ground, availability of a hidden approach, and dissimilar situations each time; and so stress stealth and camouflage to hide intent. Russian tactics tend to assume the absence of broken ground and cover from view, largely similar situations from place to place, and a resulting need for speed and heavy fire support to hide your intent and prevent enemy interfering.

So, Russian armoured vehicles were lighter and faster, supported by more artillery; and their tactics emphasize speed of reaction, and more "templated" solutions to a given problem.

In the first Gulf War, the Coalition used tactics that were far closer to "classic Russian" than to "classic British".


I used to quite good with the Long Bow.
VERY rapid rate-of-shoot. Suprisingly flat trajectory for heavy draw-weight up to 100 metres. Lots of training required.
Lost out because of light CANNON becoming available - look up end of English occupation of SW France.
Muskets slow, heavy, less training and musculature required.
Watch any Brit Civil-war recreators at work - and then go back to the bow - seriously.
Crossbows have a longer range, and greater penetrating power.
BUT excepting specialist post-classical Greek monsters ( Palintonon ) rate of shoot is VERY slow.
Now solved with modern composite-prod and lever-action tensioning.
Material science has caught up. The modern crossbow is a really basty SILENT weapon.

@ 77
- even with a modern light target bow, I could hit a target ( a round boss about 2m across) at 100 m, in light airs, 5/6 times .....

Ajay @ 97
Otherwise the French would have beanten old "nsey" every time - but they didn't, did they?

Jay @ 112
WWI is largely forgotten (except on 11/11, perhaps?) And, er - those who forget history will be condemned to repeat it.


Wellington used squares, but he was clever enough to use the ground to his advantage and site them on the back side of a slope so that French artillery couldn't easily pound them into dust.


Sorry - rather bad wording on my part there. I was looking at the longbow as used on the battlefield, and comparing it to the as-then-yet unmentioned crossbow rather than to the musket. Yes, the longbow per se had been around since forever, and was unchallenged until the crossbow came along. At that point, the two weapons are competing.

The interesting thing about the longbow is that it's a cheap weapon to field, if you've planned far enough ahead. Production cost for a longbow is a small fraction of that for a crossbow (or for a musket), and though training is something that takes a long time, it's something that you get your peasants to do when they've got nothing better to do.

Regarding switching traffic from one side to another, it's very, very expensive, but remarkably easy to do as Sweden demonstrated 1967, when they switched from left-hand side to right-hand side in one single day.

Doing it in a single day as opposed to...? ;-)

More seriously, Sweden is not very densely populated and in the late 1960s car ownership was probably not universal. They spent months educating the population and making other preparations. Doing this over 40 years later in the more densely populated UK, where there are now typically two or three vehicles per household, would be significantly more difficult. Even if we had the cash. Which we don't.

One random problem which springs to mind is that I'm fairly sure our motorway entries and exits are not symmetrical: you'll have a short exit lane and a longer entry lane. Not to mention limited access junctions. The list goes on....


"NO Otherwise the French would have beanten old "nsey" every time - but they didn't, did they?"

I didn't mean to imply that column always beats line! Just that a line of archers would be even better than a line of muskets...


ajay @ 119
Apologies for even-worse-than-usual typing.
No, but:
1] Nosey did win every time, and the "Brits" had a not-so-secret weapon-&-men-stystem to break up Frog attacks.
2] Which was, the 95th (and the "Light" division generally) The Baker rifle, in skilled hands, was ALMOST as fast as an untrained musketeer, but horribly deadly accurate out to 200-250 metres.
3] When Nosey did attack (like Vitoria) the lines advanced, and enveloped the Frog columns - the wings folded in, to give fire from 3 sides.

An aside on driving-side-of road.
Railway "handedness" is even more fun ...
French keep left (except the Metro which keeps right)
Germany keeps right - and so does SNCF in ALsace-Lorraine - guess why? AUstia keeps left.
The historical reasons for these is fascinating.


Hell, it's not that long ago I used to lug a Vango Force 10 around and think it light. These days a Laser Competition weighs less than a kilo.

A couple of things regarding outdoor gear and price/hedonics - a relative-of-sorts six years younger than me recently went on a swing through several festivals and threw away his tent afterwards on the grounds that it wasn't worth packing back to the UK.

Secondly, when I donated the 2 man ridge tent I've had for years to Occupy, their housing group looked at it weirdly because it had a ridge pole and a fly sheet.


Suppose, moreover, that casting a perfectly decent spell isn't so much like singing a perfectly decent song, as like the act of composing one.

Once composed, any basically competent magician can use it and indeed tinker with it. Oral traditions don't have copyright protection, and (as on the other thread) writing only just does.

And there will be ones you can only attribute to "trad. arr so-and-so", as well as the Bob Dylan ones that are technically original but sound a hell of a lot like the folk stuff. (There's a thought: Alan Lomax discovers some of the texts he's carefully writing down and some of the songs on the 90-odd pounds of reel-to-reel tape he's lugging around South Carolina have special features. This is 1957, so the CIA is bound to get involved.)


Another interesting and this time Erik Lund-inflected thought. Archery == bodybuilding + target practice + presumably some drill. If not essential, lots of protein certainly helps you bulk up.

So Agincourt can be read as a case study in pre-modern defence procurement. The English chose to raise cattle on their damp lowland grass and feed them to archers. The French chose to raise horses on their lowlands and use them as remounts.

Although, weren't the British Isles net exporters of horses? So perhaps the sheep on the moors come into the equation?


Wikipedia suggests that the Baker could do 2 rounds per minute; sure the British could do 4 rpm from the Brown Bess, but the British line musketeer was the elite of musketeers; 2 or 3 rpm would be more typical of French musketeers.

So I'd say that you're giving the musket a bit more edge on rate of fire than it deserves.


OK, that makes more sense. Although I'd be interested in knowing how much cheaper a longbow is supposed to be compared to the others - it does take quite a few hours work to make a proper heavy longbow and is rather a skilled job. Whereas I would have thought a blacksmith could at least turn out a crossbow one in an hour or two, especially with a tilt hammer.
As you say, cheaper to get the peasantry to practise with it, as per endless English (And Scots) promulgations of compulsory longbow practise every Sunday.

The other topic I don't know so much about is the growth of the longbow - for hunting you often don't need more than a 60lbs pull, whereas the full grown warbow was up to 190lbs or so, and basically before the 13th century or so people used shorter bows in war, see the Bayeux tapestry for example, which were not as powerful as the longbow. Which would be one reason maille was still used for so long, because a decent later medieval longbow will rip straight through it and come out the other side, no matter what sort of point you have on it.
Somewhere I have a copy of Skirmish magazine with an article showing a longbow versus armour experiment. Not even the most powerful longbow possible either, and using modern replica armour as close to original as possible. They shot off a number of arrows with different heads, swallow tail to armour piercing.

The mailled clad dummy was completely dead in every possible way.
The plate dummy was badly injured if not killed by at least one of the heads and injured by another.
Interestingly the brigandine clad dummy was arrow proof, except for one which managed to find a gap. It seems the growth in use of the brigandine was as an effective anti-arrow armour, since the multiple small plates were able to absorb and dissipate the energy of the arrows.


Presumably, if the arrows are mostly plunging/indirect fire, and the plates overlap from the top, there's a pretty good chance that they hit somewhere two or more plates overlap...


In Modessit's Spellsong Cycle it was a combination of both -- there were various limitations of course.


Once composed, any basically competent magician can use it and indeed tinker with it. Oral traditions don't have copyright protection, and (as on the other thread) writing only just does.

What is this copyright of which you speak? The Government and Bob Dylan may care about it: the mapping from your mental state to the real-world effect is most unlikely to give a fat damn. This does point up one interesting matter: independent invention of identical or very nearly similar spells would necessarily work just as well every single time, but copying or filing the serial numbers off an already known one would not - or, if effective, would not necessarily have the same effect.

I do like the virtual Alan Lomax story.

I wonder if, in the universe described, the folk process would function constantly as a source of bog-standard tie-your-bootlaces-level spells, with frequent failure and occasional unpredictable flashes right up to the tie-your-superstrings-level?


I think it was more the gap round the armpit or the join at the side, I can't recall exactly and am not sure where the magazine is now. (Some brigs were side fastening, others front. There's a nice front opening one in the Royal Armouries at Leeds)


I'm not at all sure I buy your 30 year interval. If you look at the length of time it took industrial Western societies to move from very large families as a hedge against infant mortality and an economic good to small families, often with no children, because children are a net economic drain, I think you'd find it's more like 2 or 3 generations than 1, at least 50-60 years. Part of that is because the benefits flow from the top down; rich families feel the pinch of dividing the wealth among their children first because the medical and preventive techniques become available to them first. Also, it takes about 2 generations for major social traditions to be overcome: look at the time required for the change in economic status of women in Western Europe for instance.


I have a sub-1kg single-skin tent that I bought for a fiver in the supermarket. Not brilliant, but adequate for a week's cycle-touring last summer. For a proper mountain tent you're still looking at several hundred pounds, but that's a much smaller fraction of a skilled worker's wage than an oiled-silk Mummery tent (660g, but with no floor, and ice-axes for poles) would have represented in 1900.


Layering of cultural and technological ideas continues for a long time; things don't disappear so much as get compressed so that the individual layers are indistinguishable. English common law from centuries ago is firmly embedded in US legal tradition, for instance, and unless you're a legal scholar it's often difficult to figure out what piece of legal principle is English, or American, or even inherited from the Danelaw.

The reason for all that is just that most human cultural components are path-dependent; the present would be different if the past had been otherwise: the present is necessarily embedded in the past.


Speaking from personal experience, I know a family quite well. The adult generation moved to the US in the 1970s as children, and they are from a family with five (now adult) children. Of the five, two have two children, one has four, and two have no children at all. This averages out to 1.8 kids/couple at present.

Based on this, I'd say it can take one generation to change. The family with four kids is strongly religious, and all five of the parent siblings are middle class Americans. It's that interplay between economics and religion that matters in child numbers, I think.


And what happens when you have a spell made entirely of floating verses?


Megpie: I certainly agree that some elements of past layers become encoded into tradition, but being encoded into tradition is only a brief respite on the way to getting lost. Traditions are the things that we do until either a compelling reason to stop doing them appears, or until the context changes so much that they're obviously inappropriate.

For example, when I was born, my father gave out cigars marked "it's a boy". It was traditional. But hardly anyone in my social class smokes anymore, and that tradition faded away. We lose traditions at about the same rate that we make them.

Or consider technology: by bizarre happenstance, I'm one of the very few Gen Xers who've worked in the vacuum tube business. I learned from some of the masters, before we all got laid off (and the masters died). There's a lot of practical engineering to vacuum tubes, but it's fading fast. Further examples can be found on any episode of Antiques Roadshow.


Megpie: one extra thing. I don't know about you, but I'm half-Irish. My family is populated by notorious liars (storytellers, if you're being polite). It makes delving into our traditions more interesting, but less explanatory.


If you look at the length of time it took industrial Western societies to move from very large families as a hedge against infant mortality and an economic good to small families, often with no children, because children are a net economic drain, I think you'd find it's more like 2 or 3 generations than 1, at least 50-60 years.

In some cases, you can have fairly rapid changes. Spain went from a total fertility rate of almost 3.0 (typical of presnt-day Egypt, India, or Cambodia) circa 1965 to ~ 1.2 circa 1995. Most of that change was actually after 1975 (when the TFR was still 2.8).


I think it will depend on how quickly the conditions change. If you're Britain, then you get some progress towards social egalitarianism and social mobility, then you get antibiotics, then you get the birth-control pill, then you get the Green Revolution, all spaced out.

If you're a developing nation, you might have gotten all those waves arriving on your shore nearly at the same time. If you had three or four siblings who died in childhood, and your first two kids are healthy and fit thanks to antibiotics and increased crop yields, wouldn't you opt for the cheap family planning that's also just become available?


Fred Pohl is very smart. I have a 1966 issue of Galaxy where he predicts the impact of Print on Demand technology on the bookselling supply chain.


Well, once in a while maybe you get the Tried To Do My Housework, Damn I Cast A Mass Charm, Blues!

(See that spider crawlin' up that wall? He's crawlin' up there just because your spell is creepin' the hell out of him...)


See the Spellsinger series by Alan Dean Foster, somewhat. ",)


re: disposable festival tents

There are a few groups that collect unwanted tents at festivals for charities - at Reading last year thousans were sent to oh, I can't remember, some deserving trouble spot.

re: world building:

There's a PC app here that does all the orbital zone calculations etc, leaving the writer more time for the difficult biology/sociology stuff. Windows, but shouldn't be too hard to get going in an emulator for those with "grown-up" computers.

It's got a few wrong assumptions to do with stellar types as it's based on a dated ruleset, but it's not fundamentally broken, hopefully it could be of interest.


A few thoughts:

You don't need an apocalypse to get massive degradation of, if not technology, at least the infrastructure needed to maintain it. Ditto for social "advancement". Consider that I'm writing from a country where the elected government is busily trying to dismantle (1) 50-odd years of communications and social development, (2) 70-odd years of social support and public education, and (3) 200-odd years of governmental checks and balances. "What do you mean the King can't order one of their citizens killed! How else is he supposed to keep the commoners from overthrowing him?"

Social and technological continuity are both heavily dependent on education -- if only a few people understand something, that something can easily be lost to the next generation. (One could argue that's what's happening to the American Bill of Rights....) Consider that computers still need to be programmed by experts, and not everyone is capable of learning how to program computers. Similarly for science. If the American educational system gets restricted to the rich, and the Internet gets locked down, our technology level may no longer be viable even as imports.

On the flip side, even when a technology goes away, some of its artifacts, and its side-effects, do remain. When the Roman Empire fell, they left a network of roads across Europe (and their standardized axle length still persists in our cars). the Britannia and the former "Gaul" broke up, but into bigger chunks than had existed before the Romans taught those tribesmen about actually keeping peace treaties. Forests cut down by the Empire didn't just grow back, because now there were people farming there, and so on.

Similarly, if modern civilization collapses, our sturdier utensils will be usable for generations (though not replaceable), and some of the methods we've developed will prove simple enough to be remembered even through a collapse. (Gunpowder comes to mind, vaccination might also qualify.) But on the flip side, global climate change will continue for decades or centuries, and the easily-accessible resources will still be mined out. But forget about computer chips, because that takes global infrastructure. (So those "self-replicating" machine-tool suites are a goner, because they depend on computer control.)

Re: family structure and fertility rates, humans always have an eye for the main chance. In practice, we find that when we introduce reliable contraception and lower childhood mortality into a society, the fertility rate goes down fast. Female bodily integrity (that is, they get to choose whether to have sex) makes it happen faster.


(and their standardized axle length still persists in our cars)

I have heard this being applied to the railway standard gauge, which is at least consistent, but not to car axles before. And indeed, as I look out of the window, I see different width cars with different length axles.

As far as the railway gauge is concerned, people have confused a common solution as preservation of an original solution. There is a good reason why railways and Roman carts had much the same wheel separation - the width of the backside of a horse. Both were pulled by horses, and that means you want to build the trailing load to that width.

But cars? No. They often don't even have the same width between front and back. For instance:

BMW 5 Series: Front: 1600 mm. Rear 1627 mm.
Chevrolet Sonic: Front & rear: 1509 mm.


Oh damn. You're writing from the US? Where the word 'cars' doesn't mean what it means here where this blog is written?

If you're referring to 'railroad cars', then please disregard the entire bit about 'automobiles'. But do check out the Snopes treatment.


You're writing from the US? Where the word 'cars' doesn't mean what it means here where this blog is written?

I'd be very surprised if this were true -- the primary meaning of "car" in the US is "automobile", with "railroad carriage" a secondary, less common meaning. Is it really different in the UK?

(Thanks for the Snopes reference, by the way.)


The typical UK perception is:-
UK Car == US Automobile.
UK Railway carriage .or. freight truck/wagon == US Railroad car.


Hmm, so that Pixar film wasn't about railways? Oh no, so it wasn't.

(The sequel is the only Pixar film I've been totally untempted by.)

In the UK, 'car' almost exclusively means the road vehicle rather than the railway one, and we refer to the rail vehicle as a 'carriage'. Having encountered the US usage of 'car' to mean the latter, and another term for the former, I saw a possible ambiguity.


Can I ask why? Cars 2 is very much a spy film featuring most of the Radiator Springs gang and further re-imagining of the world to make it work with wheels rather than legs, rather than something hugely NASCAR-centric (Although I've still not figured out who Chick Hicks is based on).


I understand that there is evidence to suggest that in the early medieval period roads in England were in generally better condition than 500 years later, simply because of the legacy of Roman roads.
Then the later medieval folk spent a lot of time building bridges, improving roads etc, but it was always hard working out who was responsible for what and it took until the 18th century before road making was really sorted out.


Also note:

UK ---> USA

car ... automobile
lorry ... large truck
truck ... large truck
pick-up ... truck
estate car ... station wagon
bonnet ... hood
boot ... trunk
hatchback ... compact (*)
compact ... "you can sit in that? I thought it was a toy!"

[*] hatchbacks are common in the UK and fit the equivalent of the US compact car niche; whereas hatchbacks seem to be rare in the US -- folks who would have hatchbacks in the UK would typically drive a minivan or a small SUV in the US.


Narrow boat on wheels ... Lincoln Town Car?


I thought a Lincoln Town Car was so called because it was the size of a small town? ;-)

And in that vein:-
Typical UK luxury car - Lexus LX400
Typical US compact car - Lexus LX 400.


I have driven a Lincoln Town Car. Up Highway One from San Francisco partway to Portland. Shudder.


A few more thoughts:

While you don't need an apocalypse to get massive degradation of technology through infrastructure collapse, it is often surprising which technologies do or do not disappear in any particular case. For instance, pottery had been produced in Britain since the Neolithic but in the aftermath of the collapse of Roman Britain, pottery production apparently ceased completely until its reintroduction by the invading English. Conversely, watermills were apparently a Hellenistic invention, introduced to western Europe by the Romans who seem to have used them almost exclusively in large-scale projects. Technology, one would have thought, that only relatively few people would understand - but smaller watermills first start becoming common in the British Isles (including Ireland) in the immediate post-Roman period.

By the way, the complete collapse of pottery production in post-Roman Britain rather suggests that, however well the Roman roads survived, they were for some reason not easily usable in the immediate post-Roman period. The Romans seem to have gone in for industrial-scale manufacture of pottery on a regional basis, with potteries several dozen miles apart and selling their wares over areas of several thousand square miles. When Roman Britain collapsed, the distribution networks for pottery also collapsed and the potteries rapidly became economically unviable - and traditions of making pottery on a small scale had been lost. The collapse of the distribution networks strongly suggests that at least what was to become south-eastern England disintegrated for a few generations into smaller chunks than in pre-Roman times, even though enough peasants seem to have stayed put and continued to farm (though less intensively than in Roman times) for most of the forests not to grow back. But there does seems to have been far less disintegration in the northern and western areas of former Britannia, which however were less culturally Romanised - and Gaul both stayed distinctly Romanised and far more integrated than any other part of western Europe (which explains in part why most of the best-known French and German wine-producing regions seem to be at the furthest points north that the Romans could produce reasonable wine). Though even in Gaul, the Roman educational system had effectively collapsed by the sixth century.

So while, if modern civilisation collapses or even hits the kind of bad patch that Europe has largely avoided since about 1650, I would expect a lot of modern technology to disappear (with now-unreproducible objects continuing in use until they completely wore out), I would expect some surprises both in what survives and in what is lost.


@ 155
Sewing needles
Both hand and machine are made (IIRC) in TWO places on the planet.
The slightly inferor product comes from somewhere in Japan.
The rest come from ... Redditch.

IC's are made, where, exactly?

Very few places make WHOLE aircraft any more.
Parts are made all over the place, then transported to an assembly plant (which usually also makes one of the larger "bits" also).
Ditto trains.


There was a lot more to Roman infrastructure than the roads.

The bulk of Roman commerce went by boat, not on the roman roads. The Roman navy protected sailing vessels from piracy and Rome maintained lighthouses along the coasts. There are still remnants of one at Dover.

Pottery kiln clusters were by the sea or on major rivers. They floated boats down the rivers to the sea where sail could take them further rather cheaply. This is why it was possible to have large scale production and distribution of breakable products like pottery. The primitive carts of the Roman times would have broken too much of any shipment trying to use the bumpy roman roads.

After the legions left, there was nobody to maintain all the lighthouses, and they needed a lot more regular attention than the roads. Pirates took to the seas again when the roman navy gave up its patrols.


Many of the plants making the "bits" of aircraft, as you say, could make a whole aircraft easily. But when you need a solid presence around the globe to convince countries to buy your costly planes it makes more sense to spread the construction. If the world market for planes collapsed but demand still existed in a few countries it would be easy to resume building "WHOLE" aircraft in just about any country with an industrial base. As long as those planes aren't supersonic!

ICs are made in plants called fabs, or more precisely semiconductor fabrication plants. Here's where they are:


In Japan, "electric car" (densha) = "train". This word includes the few diesel-powered locomotive sets and DMUs running on some remote lines.


At the worst, a musical instrument factory can make an aircraft in about a week to carry 2,000lbs 1,000 miles at over 350mph. (as long as someone else is making some of the fiddly bits). It won't be a jet liner, but it's a start.

"The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building" - Reichsmarschall Hermann Meier

@134: And spells that are dances, or sung in the round? Magical accumulators? Terrible things happen if someone breaks the loop.. (a ceilidh can be completely wrecked by someone dropping out mid-dance).


Your comment about musical instrument factory assumes that modern production techniques are as flexible as they were 60 years ago. I am pretty sure that is incorrect, and that you would have great difficulty in turning a modern musical instrument factory into an airplane factory because the equipment is optimised to produce musical instruments. Whereas 60 years ago the factory had more workers who could manipulate wood and metal in the best way and learn to make something new much quicker than the modern ones.
Anyone know how modern instruments are made?


Each book in the Bigend trilogy is set approximately six months prior to the publication date.


My last job before retirement was 2 years at a church organ manufacturer (it turns out church organs are Linux computers with some specialized audio hardware). The wooden parts were built with NC tools that were setup and housed for the size range of the pieces that they needed. It would have taken some work to set up for airplane-sized parts, I suspect. Coincidentally, the plant was right next to a General Aviation airport: the back fence of the parking lot abutted the end of one of the runways.


Thank you: great quick rules of thumb for exploring the possible futures and how they evolve. Sad to think how many years of graduate work in futures studies and applied practice since it's taken for me to compile a similar list. You also might want to add: any new technology artists will take and transform into a medium for art and art practice; and children will take and transform into a game. Also, old and outmoded technologies, if cherished, become luxury items and indulgences for the wealthy.


Interesting discussion of aviation-related terms in various Englishs:


#160 Para 2 - {chuckle}

#161 - The relevant point was about the woodworking and cabinet-making skills, rather than the large wooden cased instruments. Steinway & Sons could still be converted to make Mosquito airframes fairly easily, but Yamaha's silver/brass factory coudn't.

#165 - Cheers.


Videophones don't do eye contact yet. Until they do they're strictly of sociopaths. And management.


...and I can guess exactly where that quote got discussed :) " can call me Meier". Got a strap-line yet?

As for "a ceilidh can be completely wrecked"? Nope, most ceilidh dances are fault-tolerant. If you want a good laugh, read the title story within George Macdonald Fraser's "The General Danced at Dawn" - the character list for the participants would indicate otherwise... (IIRC, it included Officers, Arabs, and DAK prisoners awaiting repatriation)


Note to self: If working very important magic that requires social dance, skip the ceilidh. Try the Playford lot instead.


Another: "Suppose, moreover, that casting a perfectly decent spell isn't so much like singing a perfectly decent song, as like the act of composing one."

Alex: "Once composed, any basically competent magician can use it and indeed tinker with it. Oral traditions don't have copyright protection, and (as on the other thread) writing only just does."

I think that the idea was, what if spells were not casually replicable or repeatable? If using spells were always a one-off thing, with considerable amounts of creativity involved each and every time?


"You don't need an apocalypse to get massive degradation of, if not technology, at least the infrastructure needed to maintain it. Ditto for social "advancement". Consider that I'm writing from a country where the elected government is busily trying to dismantle (1) 50-odd years of communications and social development, (2) 70-odd years of social support and public education, and (3) 200-odd years of governmental checks and balances. "What do you mean the King can't order one of their citizens killed! How else is he supposed to keep the commoners from overthrowing him?""

With business elites reacting to the previous crash by making a second (and worse) crash more likely.


"There is a good reason why railways ...."

IIRC, this is a myth; standardized railway gauges were introduced well after lots of railroads were built. It came down to standardization being so profitable, and non-standardized railways being unprofitable.


And ...
If railway gauges are more than 6"/15cm apart, you can interlace/mixed guage the track.
What has turned out to be important recently is the LOADING gauge.
US track is the same width as ours and Europe's.
Look at the different train-szes .....


ISTR that there are some places on Western Region (Bristol Temple Meades, where I've only been once springs to mind) where you can still see remnants of the Gooch Broad Gauge (7 feet rather than 4'8"and some change between rails), mostly in the width of the trackbeds.


Yes, so.

But why did they pick (well, some of them, we'll ignore all those narrow gauges, and foreign places, and IKB) the rail gauge they did? More to the point, what made that gauge exist to be a candidate?

The answer is pretty much a case of it being an existing solution to various pressures. Not too narrow (unstable, difficult for horse pulling in the beginning), not too wide (trackways take up more space, tunnels are more expensive, etc.).


And then (ignoring GWR) the first commercial, and first successful nets were UK standard gauges (track and loading) so the system built weight because you could buy relatively standard stock to fit those gauges "off the peg". After that, it was what we used, so it was what we sold the Empire...


TGhere were two "standard" Tramway gauges pre-1825.
$ft & 5ft. Tramway rails (As then understood were flanged on the outside, with flat iron wheels running inside them.
Gradually, in ther period 1816-25 the idea of "edge" rails originated, with the vewhicles running on top, and flanges on the wheels, on the inside.
You can make the rails tougher, and points/switches are a LOT easier with edge-rails.
Start from 5" outside gauge, and you end up with 4'8.5" edge-rails.
Game over.


I've read that Canadians used to drive on the left (presumably influenced by the UK), and various parts of it switched over to driving on the right. (Presumably for the same reason Canadian money is dollars rather than pounds: US influence.)

There was at least one problem: In Novia Scotia (if I recall correctly) the time of the changeover became known as "The Year of Cheap Beef." Oxen weren't bright enough to be retrained to use the other side of the road. (This problem apparently didn't occur in Sweden.)


The article on Wikipedia indicates that (a) the majority of Canada always drove on the right anyway, including Ontario and Quebec, and (b) the remainder switched back in the 1920s.

Make that 'a few Canadians', and you might be closer.

As for the oxen problem, well, that's the difference between switching in the '20s and doing it in the '60s.


Thanks for the correction!



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on November 28, 2011 9:53 AM.

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