Saturday, October 11, 2008

Creating New Worlds

Part of the fun of writing--and a big part of the reason I gravitated to D&D, I'm sure--is the building of new worlds. Tearing down worlds can be fun and interesting, too, and any society is growing and dying at the same time, in different ways.

The USA, right now, shows incredible growth in terms of small business and a growing consciousness of independence, as well as death in its institutions and religious tradition. (In institutional terms, "death" is less about non-existence and more about atrophying in a way that strangles society.) This intricate balletmosh pit is one of the things that draws me to simulations as well.

In writing, however, the interesting part is figuring out how society would emerge given a particular set of conditions. One of my first novels was focused on robots, and how humanity would deal with a world where robots did everything and what sort of humans would interact with this world while at the same time rejecting it. This was done in a hard-boiled detective style--probably overly derivatively so--but Troop might have liked it, because one of the premises I came up with was that human servants (and particularly hookers) would be a tremendous luxury.

I wrote another short story that prefigured The Matrix. Only the way I had it worked out, humans hadn't been enslaved by machines, they had just preferred virtual reality and retired into it. (The Matrix had a better movie plot, for sure. I had the Devil's own time creating drama out of a planet of couch potatoes.)

Since I can't put (metaphorical) pen to paper yet on my Cowboy Barbarian Sex Yogurt Unicorn novel, I've been thinking about the sorts of societies that would exist, given the conditions I've set up for the story.

I don't want to spoil too much so let's look at, say, Deadwood. David Milch went over the top in his portrayal of the town, which was far more civil--and certainly didn't swear like that. (But I realized instantly, and have since confirmed, that the whole point of the swearing was because the actual swearing of the time would have created outright laughs at critical points.)

But the basic premise--what a lawless 19th century city would've looked like, especially with some seriously ethically impaired characters in power--was solid.

I'm looking a lot to the 19th century for the "cowboy" part of the story, and thinking of how morally rigorous the Old West was, at least in places, but also how the morality adapted to the times. For example, most people know that Mormons traditionally allowed polygamy, but few people seem to realize that one of the chief stimuli for it was the limited options a woman had when her husband died.

Another important issue: In the Old West, there was more space than anything. The Cowboy Mythology, like Horror Mythology, relies on isolation. (In Horror it's usually an isolated individual or small group.) The great empires of Europe were densely packed by comparison and had a lot of trade traffic, at least relative to the sparsely populated Old West. And America was less held together in the early years by the circulation of officials and more by the idea of America.

In other situations, the same space would yield what? Fiefdoms, I'd imagine, or small communities much like the little towns of the Old West, but perhaps with walls like medieval Europe (depending on the hostility of the surroundings and the level of technology).

But the technology is the thing, isn't it? Old West communities didn't have walls, unless they were forts. However hostile the Indians and outlaws might have been, it wasn't enough to (in most cases) keep people from settling out in wide open spaces. Guns are probably to thank for that. So what if they didn't have guns?

In D&D, magic is primarily focused on stuff that comes in handy while adventuring. But if magic technology were something that could be developed, and if there were artifacts to be found, the most prized magic would be the stuff that emulates industrial and post-industrial revolution technology: You'd have spells for more crops, disease and wound curing, transportation--well, what in D&D were largely clerical spells. (D&D and other RPGs introduce a kind of mass-market magic without ever really exploring how it changes the world.)

It's not just high fantasy, of course: If we had Superman available to us, wouldn't we use him to help bail out the economy? 10 years until we could get oil? Ha! Superman could get it in 10 days, and he'd know exactly where to drill, thank you X-ray vision!

Now, here's an interesting question for the Economics types: What are the defining circumstances of a situation? In other words, given a universe with a particular set of properties (fecundity and variety of animals, plants, humans; quality and quantity of physical space, materials, technology; nature and depth of philosophies, religions, morals), what creates a particular community?

For example, the Jews were able to do in Israel what the Arabs never cared to or were able to. The new Israelis had nothing other than a mindset--including a sense of ethnic survival risk--that the Arabs didn't, or couldn't have gotten. (The Palestinians even trashed what the Israelis had build when it was turned over to them.)

Or, the Native Americans had two huge continents to roam over, yet settled in only a few places, and evolved a bloody and pessimistic worldview. Or did they have the worldview, and that kept them from settling?

Of course, sometimes I just sit down and write without thinking of any of this kind of crap. But there are still 3 weeks to go. Heh.


  1. Lonesome Dove is one of my favorite books. Augustus McCrae has to be one of the greatest characters ever created.

  2. If you want to read a great Western Novel with Mormons and the type of questions you are raising, read Louis Lamour's novel Bendigo Shafter.

  3. I'm mostly going off of source material for the Mormon stuff: Letters written by women who were out there evaluating their prospects.

    I do need to read something, though. Hmmm.

  4. Well the whole question is are you going to go into the whole Porter Rockwell Avenging Angel thing or not. I mean there is a lot of source material. In Harry Turtledove's alternative history he has the Mormons rebelling after the Civil War and fighting against the Union forces much like the Palestinians do today with suicide bombers and the whole ball of wax.

  5. This will not be historical or alt-historical.

    That's good material, though. There is a lot to that history that's reminiscent of at least one of the setting's I've got.

  6. In SM Stirling's Dies the Fire series when everything goes to pot local natural leaders or various strongmen start little societies based on their own fantasies. One was a "Celtic" clan; another was Norman knights with castles and the whole nine yards.

    The more you describe the novel, the more is sounds like William Forstchen’s series called ‘The Lost Regiment” where a Union Army regiment is transported to world dominated by a race of aliens who view humans as food. Various groups from human history are transported lock stock and barrel to this world including Russian Boyars, Romans, Chinese peasants and other groups who are basically cattle who are preyed on by the Horde who are basically Mongols. But super big Mongols who delight in ripping off a human’s limbs and chewing on them like a drum stick. Some of the descriptions can be pretty hairy. But it kinda sounds similar to what you are setting up here.

  7. Yes, you're definitely getting warm with those ideas.

    There will be radically different societies and Our Hero is going to try to navigate them all with some serious handicaps.


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