Worldbuilding: a question of depth – Sabrina Chase

*The resident blog owner is frantically packing her office, so she can frantically unpack her office at the other end and then frantically finish a book.  How in h*ll this move feels “surprise” I don’t know, except we didn’t expect the deal to go through till last minute.  And because it was a short sale, I’m on phone to contractors twenty four seven, even in my sleep, mostly trying to get estimates.  It was hilarious to have the doctor come in late to her office, and I’m on the phone.  I think she appreciated the irony.  there was a little smile.  On that front, I have had a steroid shot, I’m on antibiotic, but they didn’t have the steroid cream anywhere in town, so I’m waiting on that. The shot worked to the extent it’s now merely a very bad auto-immune attack, not a near-fatal one.  OTOH Dan threw out his back, so I REALLY have to go and do stuff.*

Worldbuilding: a question of depth – Sabrina Chase

A really good story is one that you keep thinking about long after the last page is read—where you think about living in that world yourself, or worry about what happens to the characters later on. As the proud recipient of a fine collection of reviews from readers complaining that I “made them” keep reading until the wee hours or demanding further adventures, I think I may have figured out one or two ways to suck the reader in and keep them submerged. Happily.

Make your world consistent:

If there is an impediment in chapter 1 it had bloody well better be an impediment in chapter 20, or you must present a really good reason why it isn’t any more. No waving of hands, either. Somebody will have had to work at solving the problem, and usually on-screen. E.g. in the Sequoyah series, there is no FTL data transmission. Every message has to be carried on a physical courier ship, and the delays from the frontier/war zone are on the order of weeks. This has the effect that in some instances, the characters can’t call the high command for instructions when an emergency comes up. They have to use their initiative and really, really hope they are right when the board of inquiry convenes.

In a similar vein, if the Holy Bunny Slippers are the most important religious artifact in your world, the characters should act like that all the time—or feel very daring and wicked when they make tentative jokes about wearing them. Nothing makes the reader surface like an exploding submarine faster than being told something is important, and then seeing it treated like a stale sandwich.

Oh God, the dragon is moulting again:

What do ordinary people in this world worry about? Most of the action in the Sequoyah series is in artificial environments—either space stations or ships. (or a planet, Bone, where there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe all the time). So, people worry about air a LOT. Think about our expletives. They tend to feature things we feel a sharp spike of emotion about. Sex, violence, blood, religion. So, to the Fringe people, anything to do with compromised breathing environment is a Bad Thing. Expletives I used in the series are things like “hissing leak”, “leaky gasket”, “pissing air”. And then, see step 1 above, BE CONSISTENT. Do not have people acting all nonchalant about leaks later on.


Crimes are committed by people who want what they can’t get, for whatever reason. In a fictional world, you can have new stuff they want, or you can have ordinary stuff that for some reason is very hard to get. If you have a scarcity that is unusual in our world, there won’t be a corresponding crime wave here-and-now. But in your alternate world, this need will have people finding criminal ways to scratch the itch. Example: on the Fringe, labor is scarce. And people can restrict mobility easily, by restricting access to spaceships for escape. Ergo, slavery happens. It has happened enough, and is enough of a temptation, that it is a capital crime in this world.

Biological science is also much more advanced. Therefore gene theft is a real thing, and also has severe punishments. Culturally, people regard it in the same light as sexual molestation—a violation of a person’s privacy and body. Moire, from our time with our mores, thinks her crew will not be willing to take the risk of rescuing the artificially created human slaves, but the crew thinks of it a gene theft and wonder why she thinks they wouldn’t take action.

Don’t change everything:

Assuming your characters are human, there will be some universals. Parents will still brag about their children and show the equivalent of pictures to all victims that can’t get away. Interactions will still involve status evaluation and negotiations. People will still get lonely/jealous/bored. Every large human gathering will have the equivalent of CMOT Dibbler trying to make a fast buck. It might be mimmoth on a stick, or Venusian mudgrub, or a cultured protein nodule, but the basic concept remains the same. The credulous and the bored will read gossip magazines with highly improbable stories—only the details of what is improbable will change. Sequoyah has the equivalent of the National Enquirer, and it features “deranged gestational facility worker switches babies” (advanced biotech=artificial wombs, but people still worry about getting the right baby back from the hospital, oh yeah, and some people are just plain nuts) and “pirates attack” (that is a hardy perennial from all eras. Everyone worries about Bad People doing Bad Things to them.) And of course, the bureaucrats you shall always have with you.

There are other ways, but these have worked for me. I hope these prove useful to you, as well.

214 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: a question of depth – Sabrina Chase

  1. To go along with this, the writer has to know a lot about his/her “world” but the reader doesn’t always need to know the “nuts-and-bolts” unless it directly impacts the story being told.

    Of course, David Weber is known for his infodumps but there have been situations where he doesn’t infodump something and his readers “think he’s made a mistake”. 😉

    1. And when you do infodump, try to keep it to something that the character would plausibly think. For example, this “Susan glanced over at the holoscreen. Ten minutes until the meeting. Switching it to mirror mode, she checked that her clothing was presentable, then spun her image around and zoomed in on every part of her cloak, checking for rips. Many people no longer bothered to dress up for meetings, since nobody could tell a holo-cloak from a real one unless they were physically in the same room, but Susan felt that they were missing something. Feeling an actual Negotiator’s Guild brooch against her skin gave her a certain confidence; she could see it in how her image stood just a little taller, and she was sure the clients would see it too.”

      Rather than spend five pages about the history of holo-clothing, and how telepresence technology led to the fall of governments and the rise of interlinked guilds… just let the character think about the only parts of that history that are relevant to her situation.

      1. This very thing impressed me enough in the free sample of True Grit to mark it for future reading. Not only were the infodumps unobtrusive, but it was told so much like a person telling a story from their youth, with the infodumps as short rabbit chases, that it drew me right into the story.

      2. That’s almost on the level of “The door irised open”, where the character simply USES the fantastical technology instead of Gee Wizzing about it.

        1. OTOH, you can run that backwards, having the character “Gee Whiz” over obsolete technology, such as mariners using sextant and complex calculations instead of just asking Garmin.

            1. I don’t remember the title offhand, but it was Asimov. He also wrote a book on how to do complex arithmetic in your head.

              He also wrote a book on how to use the slide rule. I’m fairly sure that one got traded off, but I still have the old Keufel&Esser deci-trig in its slipcase. Someday I will make a nice wooden case for it, with a glass front. It will have a brass hammer hanging from a chain, and a plate saying “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS.”

              1. I could do that too. I have my dad’s old bamboo slipstick, I DO know how to multiply on it, but the other scales are beyond me at the moment.

                1. Okay, now I’m getting a mental picture of what an “Adult Novelty” shop in Diagon Alley would be like.
                  I need to go bleach my brain.

                2. There’s resources on the web. A search on the brand and the type might bring up something.

                  They’re a blast, and they went away so quickly. I’ve used slide rules before pocket scientific calculators, but my supervisor, who was a year behind me in school, never has.

                  1. My folks have theirs. I knew how to do basic calculations once. Probably need to re-learn. Because you never know . . .

                  2. I think I’ve seen a slide rule once, but I am sure I would have learned to use one had my father gone into engineering instead of having to leave school after 10th grade to work on the farm. The TI-30 became popular sometime during high school.

                    1. Summer of 1972 (just after I graduated out of high school), I saw one of the first engineering hand calculators in the book store of the engineering school in Terre Haute Indiana.

                      IIRC, they were asking $500 for it.

                      Bet I could find one for much less now. 😉

                    2. I have no idea how to use a slide rule I doubt I’ve ever seen one and I had to look it up just to know what you all were talking about. I feel lost.

                    3. Heh. Robert Heinlein and E.E. “Doc” Smith weren’t big in your reading list, then? A lot of mentions in their earlier work.

                      Note: Slide Rules were also referred to as “Slipsticks” in case you’ve ever run across that term, too.

                    4. Slipsticks were the badge of their profession for engineers, physicists and and real (i.e., STEM) scientists and they could no more imagine shedding them than could doctors imagine foregoing stethoscopes, lab hackets and those little mirror things they wore on their foreheads.

              2. Hmmm. The slide rule book is probably somewhere in the stacks around here. I had forgotten that it was by Asimov, though.

                Still have my K&E steel rule, in a leather case, too. (Trunk in the formerly a garage storage.)

                Should try to get them together, at least – I can imagine my kids trying to figure out what the heck “this doohickey of Dad’s” is.

                1. I have two plastic rules. I had a bamboo one in college (not K&E), long since left behind. I can multiply and divide, but no more. Instructions, if any, loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong gone.

                  1. I don’t find Ike’s book at Amazon. There is one by Nevile Shute, and the cheapest one is on Kindle. They have 8.

                2. Thinking on it, I am not sure it was Asimov, although he did have a story i which manual calculations figured significantly.

                  I’m trying to recall the introduction of Andrew “Slipstick” Libby …

                3. Should try to get them together, at least – I can imagine my kids trying to figure out what the heck “this doohickey of Dad’s” is.

                  I’ve shown mine how a slide rule works and the principle behind it, but the interest has been next to nil.

                  Decades ago now, a coworker’s daughter found slide rules marked down and with architect scales at her college bookstore. We took up a collection, she bought the entire lot, and we distributed them among donators. She claimed one, and us older heads showed her how to run through some calculations. She had fun when Apollo 13 showed on campus and her friends did a “What’s that?” over the slide rules.

              3. I’ve still got the K&E that the Naval Academy issued me in 1971, along with the orange leather belt holster that went with it. I’ve also got a K&E hardcover book on its use, as well as a few other slide rules I’ve acquired over the years.

                I once corresponded with an individual whose first job title (at NASA) was “computer,” and who was issued an 18″ slide rule for the job because you could get one more significant digit out of that length.

          1. Better than that. They didn’t even know what arithmetic *was.* They solved word problems with successive approximations, and the kids were graded on how close they came and how much computer time they used. And this one freak was dividing six apples between three children with *zero* error, using *zero* computer time!

            When he explained how he did it, they were torn between admiration and horror. His parents *made him memorize multiplication tables*??!! Who would be so cruel?

            Yeah, they were already around back then…

            1. Ah. That’s not “The Feeling of Power,” as mentioned above. The one I remember was set in an elementary school.

  2. It’s been my contention for a while that what is wrong with the Star Wars prequel trilogy (aside from awful casting) is that Lucas can’t do believable world building. The first three films used standard backgrounds; Tattoine is a desert frontier, one each. Moss Eisley is a western town, and the cantina is a western bar. And so on.

    For the prequels, Lucas had to come up with a society, and it feels fake. And if you don’t buy the society you don’t buy the story.

    1. Case in point: there are three words that just do NOT go together in any plausible way, and those are: 1) 14-year-old, 2) elected, and 3) queen. (Counting “14-year-old” as one word here). Of those three words, the ONLY two that can plausibly go together are “14-year-old” and “queen”, and only if she has a regent. But she doesn’t, she has a chancellor, so even that bit of could-have-been-plausible falls flat.

      1. Libertarian utopia that deliberately packs what little government it has with people too young to know how to manipulate the system? And has a ceremonial monarch because why not throw another spoke in the gears? Not that such would be in any way consistent with what Lucas did.

        I was too young and inexperienced to have many problems with episodes VI, I, and II. But Mace Windu using the word Democracy in III’s novel was a deal breaker.

      2. A peaceful, harmonious society where the elected queen wears elaborate face paint to make things easier for her body doubles, and keeps a blaster in a quick-draw secret compartment in her throne…

      3. I usually consider it a challenge when I see a strange example of worldbuilding to attempt to rationalize it by thinking ‘what circumstances, if any, would make this work’.

        Consider a quasi-feudal nation with a matriarchal culture dominated by a large number of roughly socially-equal noble families. They find they need a ceremonial head-of-state, though perhaps the position has a couple of rarely used real powers. They decide to elect from among themselves a person to hold this position, with each family having the same vote. Because they have to deal with neighboring nations that have more traditional monarchies, it won’t do for their head-of-state to be seen as being lesser, so they give it the title equivalent to their neighbors heads-of-state, that of queen. The most recent election has been marred by bad blood between many of the major families, such that there is no candidate from among the prominent families with a chance of winning, so the head-of-government, the chancellor, arranges for a compromise candidate from a weak, minor family, a 14-year-old that is viewed as being manipulable by the chancellor, to be elected.

        I had a similar case where I accidentally gave a non-human nation with a history of having no real central government an Emperor, and fixing it actually turned out to make the culture more interesting. The ‘Emperor’ title became the usual human translation, while the actual position, amounting to more of ‘Magistrate General’, became the head of basically a largely-ceremonial national neutral mediation, dispute arbitration and law enforcement council.

          1. The problem was Lucas was so ‘big’ that all his camp followers were unwilling to point out the awfulness of his productions. 14-year old queens with body doubles and blasters ruling a democracy pale in comparison to Jar-Jar.

            1. Jar-Jar Binks was a sin against many rules of storytelling, but plausibility was not among them. His eyeroll-inducing awfulness stems from his personality, rather than something like “Oh come on, an amphibious species on this planet?”. Amphibious species are entirely plausible on Naboo, just as the Ewoks are also completely plausible in their temperate-forest environment. They’re bad ideas for completely different reasons.

              And I believe you’re entirely right about Lucas getting “too big to criticize”. Or else not having anyone around anymore whose criticisms he would listen to, unlike his former wife Marcia, who saved the original trilogy.

              1. He needed what Ceasar had–a guy riding along continually reminding him that he is only mortal, and a big head he should not get.

                1. A few years back Tom Jones was promoting a new album of gospel music he’d done and was talking about being friends with Elvis in large part because a) Elvis knew Jones wasn’t looking for some way to exploit the relationship and b) Jones didn’t hesitate to tell The King when his crown was threatening his bum.

      4. Perhaps. What I did for the kid’s books, was a confederation of sorts where the votes for ruler were cast from a among the heads of member divisions. The rule of each division passed along hereditary lines, but who served as the head of the council, and in effect the ruler of the entire kingdom, was, in theory, not a given. In actual practice, a ruler had to really screw up before the crown was wrested from his family; the last time was generations past and only because the previous ruler left no clear heir and the council feared a civil war. But such things tends to make enemies with long memories . . .

        Anyway, as far as everyone else is concerned, rule goes along hereditary. So even though they don’t like the heir, in their minds an heir is an heir whether they’d be a good ruler or a bad one.

        So when it looks as though the king is unable to rule, the first thought goes to the heir, who isn’t young enough to be actual ruler, not by a long shot, but the assumption is the queen would act as regent until the heir was. Due to old history, the kingdom has against foreign rulers, but the queen is well regarded enough that her acting as regent is a convenient fig leaf.

        Of course, to some, any heir or regent is a very inconvenient thing.

        Since the whole theme was commanded vs. earned authority, that pretty much brought about a council government.

        Realistic, or should I shovel it in the compost pile?

        BTW, while I have a short history, the reader never sees all of it, and it mostly shows up in people’s attitudes. And in the second book, the reader learns why the heir’s ascension to the throne would be questioned by council more so that for others.

        1. That sounds similar to our electoral college, with clans in stead of states (keep in mind that many states are politically controlled by dominant families, or have been) or the feudal practice of the High Lords cooperation (or lack thereof) with the crown (look to the Wars of the Roses or Papal politics for historical example of the importance of alliances below the level of the Crown.)

          Also consider that in a sufficiently bureaucratic state the actual power is wielded by those charged with writing and enforcing the enabling regulations, viz. Nixon’s failure to sic the IRS on his enemies on contrast to the success of LBJ and BHO.

          1. Y’all know that a lot of German states chose their kings by election. The electors were nobility, bishops and rabbits and abbesses, and some of the royals.

            1. Yes, I hate predictive spelling. For the record, it said “abbots”…. and just now it tried to change it to lepuses again!

              The Irish elective kingship system had a group of close male kin of the king, all of military age with none too young or old, voting for one of themselves. There were a couple occasions in Viking raid times when candidates got so thin on the ground that they elected abbots as clan kings, whereas that couldn’t happen in the German system. (I think.)

        2. There have been similar organizations, historically, Kevin (actually, we’ve tried just about everything historically, including anarchy for brief and localized periods).

          Sounds more stable than most, less stable than many – ’bout average…

      5. Elected queen is merely an extrapolated projection from elected kings. Historically fairly frequent.

        1. I don’t have a problem with elected queens or 14-year-old queens. It’s the combination of the three that causes everyone to say “WTF?”

        2. While this is true, I was actually unaware of the history of the Holy Roman Empire (and other countries that practiced elective monarchy) at the time when I saw the first prequel. And so I recoiled from the words “elected queen”. If Lucas had spent a bit more time on it it might have helped, but the way the characters talked it sounded like a classic modern democracy was what he had in mind, except that they elect a ruler for life. I don’t believe there are any countries today that practice that. (And yes, that’s what Alexander Hamilton had in mind, but he was outvoted. By a lot.)

          So it still had the effect of breaking my suspension of disbelief, and I never got it back. By the end of the first prequel I was considering Naboo to be non-canonical, and the less said about the second film, the better. (Except that the dialogue was SO BAD that I never watched the third film at all.)

          1. Oh, yes, that’s a problem. I was once thrown out of a story where a king was called “Your Grace” when that was accurate medieval style.

          2. I don’t believe there are any countries today that practice that [elect a ruler for life.]

            Cuba. Venezuela. The Soviet Union effectively practiced that, as do North Korea and several Middle Eastern democracies.

            At least, they have “democracy” or “democratic republic” in their names, and surely they would not claim that were it not so.

            1. You notice how North Korea has the dynastic system. This is useful because the skills developed living as one of the peons in a tyranny often are not the right set for tyrannizing yourself.

            2. And also the U.S., from time to time: Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Roosevelt, and Kennedy.

                1. I don’t know, Bush was much better than Roosevelt or the Kennedys, and *wanders off down rabbit trail* Lincoln was hereditary? *goes off to google that*

      6. I had the same kind of problem with the world in the background of old AD&D; the economics just. Didn’t. Work.

        Basically, as I remember, prices looked like TSR figured a gold piece wa about he equivalent of a 1970’s twenty dollar bill. No freaking way. Maybe – MAYBE – in a town with a gold-rush type boom going on. Otherwise, forget it Edgar.

        I knew just enough social and economic history to spot the problem, and nowhere near enough to fix it.

        1. Actually, it was openly and explicitly described as an economy with a gold-rush equivalent from the adventurers, because otherwise the treasure wouldn’t be impressive.

        2. The implied world building of the original dungeons and dragons does not make sense as a steady state. As Mary says, boom town levels of economic distortion.

          The later generic fantasy setting with adventurers’ guilds, treasure and monster hunting as stable economic activity over generations is a great departure.

          As far as making sense, imagine a solitary human civilization that is either expanding or contracting as a result of a destabilizing event. (Part of D&D’s success is probably the resonance with our stories stemming from the expansion across North America.) People went beyond that searching for fun with more options. That wasn’t wrong, but it means that searching for verisimilitude in the later material gets a bit silly.

          ACKS has a heavily redone economic system that is at least partly based on history. You may find it more plausible.

          1. “D&D was originally as artificial as chess: ill-assorted groups of ‘adventurers’, patterned vaguely after the Fellowship of the Ring, wandering through improbably spacious underground complexes excavated for no clear reason, practising aggravated assault and grand larceny on an omnium gatherum of exotic monsters. Any attempt at ‘realism’ is an advance on this in a way, and in another way it only shows up the silliness of the original conceit. The Palace of Versailles was built round a royal hunting-lodge, and takes much of its asymmetry and structural inconsequence from that. Well, D&D is like a palace built round one of those astoundingly tacky hot-dog stands in the shape of a giant hot dog. It is a brilliant testimony to the skill of the architects, but less creditable to their judgement.’

            Our own Tom Simon. Read the full thing here, it’s worth it:

            1. Log Horizon (anime, manga, and a series of light novels) has a big chunk of story explaining the magical origins of dungeon gold. It ends up making a lot of game sense.

              1. The author has a reputation for economic world building. I have a superficial impression that his thinking is contaminated with Marxist influences. Like Dresner’s essays on the economics of later D&D rule sets and implied settings.

    2. Nod.

      Lucas has an Order where the members of it can’t get married but Lucas stated that the members don’t have to refrain from having sex. 😦

        1. A powerful society of poorly socialized warriors, kidnapped as children, kidnapping children in turn. No normalcy in their lives from either a foundation of family or future hopes of forming their own.

          Yeah. That’ll work just fine.

          1. After painting the Jedi as this Great & Good order in the first movies, it seemed that Lucas wanted people to hate the Jedi in the prequels. 😦

            1. I have to admit, I didn’t feel so bad about the destruction of the Jedi order after watching the prequels. They actually struck me as more than a little evil.
              I would have loved a Jedi order partially composed of long standing families, like hereditary Knights of the Round Table. Most knights would be youth sent by individual systems to train up into peace keepers for their home planet.
              Anyway, I guess the disappointment comes from seeing how the whole series could have been so much better than it was.

              1. IIRC that’s how the Corellian Jedi had it informally arranged in the novels – they married and had families, but kept their mouths shut. Which was yet another sign of how shaky things had become within the Jedi, and why Corran Horn had such a healthy disrespect for Luke Skywalker.

                1. I’ve read that Lucas was on record as saying that he wasn’t paying attention when Luke got married in the Star Wars novels, and would have stopped it if he’d realized that Luke was tying the knot.

              2. Is SJW equivalent, then, to Stupid Jedi Warriors: an order convinced of their own moral superiority and bent on wreaking disaster on those merely wishing independence from their “enlightened” rule?

                In the case of Star Wars it seems clear that that which was good was not of Lucas and that which was of Lucas was not good. Like baseball’s Angry A’s dynasty of the early 1970’s, the franchise succeeded in spite of the owner, not because of him.

                1. I have been left with the impression that Lucas just doesn’t understand what his fans love about the original trilogy.
                  Otherwise the prequels would have been very different.
                  And while episode seven wasn’t all it could have been, I’m happy to see it out of Lucas’ hands.

                  1. Yes – Lucas was trapped in what he thought the original movie was, the movie he wanted to make – a recreation of the saturday matinee space serials, a la Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers – when what he actually made, and what his audience fell for, was a complex, not-scrubbed, un-pristine, lived-in universe with space travel and robots and true heroic heroes, imperiled yet plucky space princesses, and true villains, where (most importantly) nobody stood around explaining what would be everyday things to the inhabitants (“As you know, Luke, the Galactic Empire was founded twenty years ago when Senator Palpatine took control of the Senate…”), they just tried to go forward like ordinary people do, even in extraordinary circumstances. Pure narrative momentum carried the series forward through the second movie and part of the third, but you can already see George Lucas Not Being Told When His Ideas Are Crap in ROTJ.

                    George Lucas Not Being Told When His Ideas Are Crap is all there was in the prequels.

                    The best thing Disney did was say “so long and thanks for all the fish” to the cult of George Luces, Super Genius.

                    1. > not-scrubbed, un-pristine, lived-in univers

                      What did it for me was the Millennium Falcon. It was dirty, and access panels were missing and wiring hung out, and it wasn’t exactly reliable. For cinema, it was whole new thing.

                    2. Yeah, but Dave Filoni and the Clone Wars animation team got a lot of good stuff by listening to Lucas. The difference was that they didn’t just include all his crazy ideas; they talked out his ideas with him and figured out ways to make them work.

                      Also, Lucas is the kind of boss who says what he wants, but does not actually know what he wants until he sees that one thing among many alternatives. The prequel trilogy people never did all the discussing and narrowing down with him;they just did stuff and slapped it in.

                      I feel sorry for him. He is a genius, but he is useless without other smart people to bounce things off. He is really a sort of film engineer, not an auteur, but Hollywood told him different.

              3. Main reason why I always liked the first movie best. “Empire Strikes Back” has its points, but it gives more information, and with Star Wars, as far as I am concerned, more information has always been bad.

                So I like the first best because it hinted more than it told, and I could imagine better alternatives than what we were given when we got told (or shown, but especially the prequels are also rather guilty of telling more than showing).

                Besides the galaxy of Star Wars also seemed larger – almost like a real galaxy… or at least like a cluster of stars in one small corner of a real galaxy… – in the first movie. It seemed to shrink rather drastically already in “Empire”, not to mention everything which has come after that. No matter what kind of hyperjump or whatever technology you are supposed to have different systems and their planets should not give the impression of being right next to each other if not in each others’ backyards. Perhaps it’s just me, but for me that takes out a lot of the magic from the story.

                1. The size (so to speak) of the galaxy is one of the problems I had with the latest film. Luke has been missing for umpteen years, and they’ve traced his path only so far, and an entire sector is missing from their map until R2-D2 wakes up with the remainder of the path and the star map of the missing sector.

                  First, given the size and population of a world, how did they manage to track him even as far as they did? And if they could do that, why couldn’t they go further? Maybe official spaceports are few in number, and thus manageable for interrogating staff, but how often in the other movies do we see people landing somewhere other than a spaceport?

                  Next, their map of the galaxy has this one hole in it? Why?

                  Then, if they’re trying to track Luke’s progress over the past however many years, how come the droid who’s been inactive all that time already knows? Wouldn’t R2-D2 more likely have had the first planets on the itinerary?

                  I’m giving them knowing how to find Luke on one small rock in the ocean, because the size of the rock and lack of obvious crops/herds indicates that he’s in regular contact with someone.

                  It’s a similar problem to the map in Starship Troopers that shows the path the rocks thrown through normal space by the Bugs take to Earth – it implies that they went to war with us before we evolved.

                  Space is too big or too small, and often both simultaneously.

            2. The prequels really hurt the character of Yoda. He goes from being this awesome, wise, mysterious, powerful character to a clueless, hidebound traditionalist. He reminds me of the old Nelson era Admirals opposing steam engines & metal armor for the RN.
              In Yoda’s case, you have a being trained in the post Sith Wars/ Ruusian Reformations era, working to make sure the traditions remain unchanged

            1. And the Janissaries became a big problem for their “Master” even to the point of them telling their “Master” what to do.

          2. Which is actually a trope from most martial arts movies: The Shaolin Temple, home to ascetic and celibate monks, recruiting the orphans, kids the families can’t feed, runaways, and training them in a complicated and mystical combat system / way of life. See Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu..

            1. Except with Star Wars the impression is that they took everybody with strong force abilities if they found them young enough, not just kids who had no real families or whose families could not take care of them. Perhaps not openly by force, I don’t remember if anything much was said of it at any point, but considering the impression I did get I thought that maybe it was meant to be a sort of tradition – a jedi comes into your home and tells your baby has the ability and you give him up because if you didn’t your whole neighborhood would hate you because you bucked tradition and both make things difficult for your whole family, and especially more difficult for said baby because then everybody would be scared of him and worry he might fall into the dark side when older, having no discipline in the force and so on.

              One of the things which really should have gotten a bit more thought and attention in the prequels.

        2. Jack Campell has that in the Pillars of Reality series. The difference is, he doesn’t paint that group as good guys.

        1. Not genetically; midichlorians….. The Force as a bacterial infection…. or a plague of fleas…..

          1. Mhmmm… I’d always taken the whole “midichlorian” thing as being due to someone’s half-ass understanding of mitochondria and the role they play in cells…

            Which, if you fleshed out the idea, might begin to make some damn sense–Midichlorians being some kind of nanotech equivalent to mitochondria with built-in hooks to the physical universe, which might be a damn holographic projection or simulation. Force adepts being people who have a path into the long-forgotten command and control pathways for the midichlorian sensor-effectors, akin to what Vernor Vinge did in “A Deepness in the Sky”.

            Unfortunately, the odds of that being something you could try to explain to Lucas are slim and none. I’d love to do a Star Wars where the whole damn thing turns out to be a very advanced version of a LucasArts shared-universe game, though…

            1. I played around with a shadowy order of renegade Force users who split off from the Jedi about the time midichlorians were discovered. They were all set to study the things and try to figure out how they related to the Force and to the physical universe.

              And the Jedi Council decided the things were to be worshipped instead.

              “The first time a Jedi Master said, ‘Trust your feelings, my young Padawan. The midichlorians will tell you what to do.’, the Schism became inevitable…”

      1. I keep vaguely wanting someone in Star Wars to see a planet with a climate that is affected by latitude and go “Oh, weird, it’s striped!”

        …Too much lampshade, I expect.

        1. Well, the 2nd KOTOR game had a planet with two terrain types. Hmm, three actually. There was the bombed-out wastelands, the areas that were restored (temperate) and part of the quest line led to the polar regions.

        2. If you wanted to turn Star Wars into a planetary romance, the only difficulty would be translating the moments where they use jumps to hyperspace to vanish. Everything else would slid neatly into place — a desert, an arctic region, a swamp, a forest, a city instead of worlds — airships instead of space ships — etc.

            1. Yup.

              Saw a poster for STAR TREK as planetary romance once. Kirk in blue with brass buttons and a cocked hat, Spock with a turban, Scotty in a kilt, Uhura in full Victorian with a hat out to THERE, etc.–with the Steam Airship ENTERPRISE in the background. Beautifully drawn, and it WORKED…

  3. OTOH Dan threw out his back, so I REALLY have to go and do stuff.
    I’d hoped some of my luck in snagging a home would sluff off onto you, but too much of my bad seems to be heading there too.
    Hope the both of you are doing better in the very near future, and now you can stop stressing about the house deal!
    I’m off to move a few things, and do some electrical work.
    Y’all behave (HA!)

  4. Pirates may attack, but the method and targets of the attacks will be consistent with the technology and scarcities of this world. Thus pirates might eschew raping women as a poor source of readily transportable biomaterial and instead turn to draining men’s sperm.

    Indeed, prohibitions about promiscuity might be wholly inverted. Extrapolate from reports in our society of professional athletes being instructed to always use condoms, always use their own condoms, and always take the used condoms when they leave.

    1. Or you may have what was once critical to protect the population become a tool for social control long after genetic tinkering and medical technology make it unnecessary. “The elders and medical people must check the compatibility of a couple because of a genetic bottleneck” becomes after a few thousand years “The Elders Council will determine if you have met the requirements and will assign you a partner, and if you disobey it is a capital offense as well as a sin.”

    2. While pirates may source genetic material from men, I think it is a universal constant that if the pirates are human men, and the target is mixed human victims, raping the women is always going to be somewhere in the mix. Save possibly a Ann Leckie novel where after the first three ‘her’s turn out to be men, the pirates give up in frustration.

      1. Would a *really* sex-starved pirate let a lack of lady parts get in the way of a bit of the ultra-violent in-out, in-out? viz. a recent IRL example of a ‘sexual emergency’.

          1. Trying not to go there. I mean I am *really* trying not to go there, though the way things are trending it is looking less likely that I will be able to avoid it. A couple of nights in jail (for not mowing my lawn*) was bad enough.

            * OK, it wasn’t for not mowing my lawn but for ignoring a summons from municipal court regarding what the city inspector *thought* was an unkempt lawn. Seems judges *really* don’t like it when you ignore them, whether by intent or happenstance . . .

        1. OTOH, would space pirates necessarily be sex-starved, unlike historical pirates in pre-infotech eras? Given the high level of computer technology necessary to calculate orbital maneuvers, rendezvous, etc. in real-time to surprise and attack another spacecraft, it’s completely probable that space pirates would have computers sophisticated enough to run sophisticated cyberspace simulations for training, and those systems could also be used for cybersex.

          However, it’s also possible that the typical games-level AI will leave the user feeling like “I can still see the strings moving the puppet,” such that cybersex could even leave a person unsatisfied and frustrated. Or there are powerful taboos on the development of AI beyond a certain level, due to past disasters, and even the scum of the galaxy dare not let their hackers push beyond it.

          The takeaway is that technology has a range of applications beyond the ones it was originally designed for, and a failure to develop applications needs to be accounted for within the framework of the imagined world. The writers of the space operas of the Golden Age can be forgiven for failing to foresee the transformative and disruptive effects of such technologies as the microchip, and assuming that computers would remain huge, expensive, and rare. But someone writing today really needs to think about the whys that keep the imagined world’s tech at certain levels, within the world.

          IMO David Weber does a good job of creating in-world reasons for why the humans of his world are still using Mark-1 biological bodies not that different from the ones Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard took into space, in spite of enjoying space hardware as far advanced beyond the Vostok and Mercury spacecraft as today’s aircraft carriers are beyond the ships Homer’s heroes sailed upon the wine-dark sea. In the Honorverse, Earth’s Final War was so horrifying that it produced a taboo so profound against anything that would fundamentally alter the human body that things like mind uploading are completely unthinkable, and even such trifles as life extension had to be very carefully presented by the Beowulfan scientists to reassure everyone that they would not turn people into inhuman horrors, where people who miss out on Prolong because they lived on a poor world during the critical period but later become extremely wealthy just accept that they’re SOL and will die young, because it’s Simply Not Done to buck those taboos and find alternative methods of life extension.

          And then the trick is to convey the power of that taboo, quickly and effectively, so that you don’t have to spend enormous amounts of time and energy individually locking all the doors of possibility, boarding them over, and bricking them up. Even then, you may well have the determined someone who finds the door of possibility you never even imagined and determinedly yanks it open and declares a huge chunk of your premise invalid.

          1. I confess to a peculiar perception of human behaviour, but recognizing that one of Edison’s first six motion picture cameras was reputedly purchased by a Brazilian group that immediately invented “blue” movies and considering the notable contribution certain illicit web content has made to internet penetration of American households it has long struck me as probable that the most common use of Star Trek holodecks would tend to require careful sanitization pf the suite afterward, irrespective of the markets developed by Mudd’s women.

            I won’t even do more than touch on what uses amorous lovers might make of Harry Potter’s polyjuice potion beyond the new interpretations given the phrase “Now you know what it feels like!”

            Worldbuilding should always keep in mind the effects of the most basic of human urges.

            1. There isn’t a single technology that Humans have developed that they haven’t tried to find a sexual use for…. I used to joke that the second book off the Gutenberg press was porn.

            2. eh, that’s a problem that would fix itself after a few generations.

              Only the people who really prefer really doing it would pass on their genes.

              1. Only if they didn’t turn the technology also into collection and delivery of sperm between users. I can imagine a man and a woman in different rooms of their house having their own fantasy, and still “getting the package delivered” by the holodeck system.

                A little hacking of this could also be used for the genetic theft mentioned far upthread.

                1. I had the start of a story where all the men were in space, all the women were on Earth, and they used little sex androids to do the collection.

            3. Okay, now I’m getting a mental picture of what an “Adult Novelty” shop in Diagon Alley would be like.
              I need to go bleach my brain.

            4. Long, long ago I was on a panel about what was just then being called “virtual reality.” The topic was “what would be the VR ‘killer app’?” People were talking about auto mechanics, realtors, teaching aids, etc.

              I got uninvited after saying “pornography.”

              I still think so. At the time I said that (mid 1980s) the claim was that more than half of all pre-recorded VHS tapes sold were porn. Given the relative production cost for porn vs. even a B movie, I’d guess 90% or better of the profit in recorded tapes went to porn.

              1. A company that builds lifelike female sex dolls has already announced that it’s working on a commercial “sexaroid”.

                Though given current technology, “animate doll” will probably be a more accurate descriptor.

              2. I think that is why I never reread the second Elijah Bailey / Daneel book. OK, the society has given up interaction between humans – but has this taboo against using the robots for sex, too?

                Just doesn’t work, at all.

                1. Asimov wrote “The Naked Sun” in 1957. Likely the word “naked” in the title was racy enough to lose sales.

                  1. Asimov ‘s general idea was that a society that hates and fears touch would hate and fear anything that looks like touch also. So realistic robot bodies would be the last thing they would want. I mean, if you hated snot and blowing your nose, simulated snot would not sound any better.

                    If you told me they had elaborate hidden air current machines, OTOH, it might be reasonable. Because it would not involve anything actually touching them.

          2. “sophisticated cyberspace simulations for training, and those systems could also be used for cybersex.”

            But one would have access to such things without becoming a pirate. The appeal of piracy — to a cruel, sadistic bastard — would be the frequent opportunities to torture actual living beings.

            1. OTOH, there are ways for a cruel sadistic bastard to get their jollies without the risk to life and limb inherent in piracy. Of course these usually involve being able to “groom” one’s victims and the people who ought to be protecting them from predators, which suggests that a person who would go into piracy specifically for the opportunity to indulge such urges would also be too impulsive for the concerted efforts necessary for said grooming — but would such impulsive people be able to maintain the necessary level of discipline to operate a spacecraft, let alone use it to intercept and capture other spacecraft in flight?

              That’s the problem with spending so much time writing near future and alternate history space technology — it makes it so much harder to suspend one’s disbelief in so many of the standard Space Is an Ocean tropes of space opera, like space pirates that are translations of the Spanish Main into space (as opposed to the hacker space pirates of my Gus on the Moon timeline, who gain illegal access to the controls of robotic cargo spacecraft and redirect them to new destinations). I keep thinking about all the practicalities like maintaining life support, operating in a three-dimensional environment with gravitational effects, etc.

              1. Eh, the very dangers of space lead to the conclusion that in the far future, much of it will be automated past the ability of even pirates to bungle.

                Though I did like how Andre Norton’s space pirates were known as Jacks, for the obvious reason that they were generally hijackers rather than pirates, who indulge in ship-to-ship combat.

          3. Re: Weber’s Honorverse and the reasons for the taboos on various biotech.

            Now that I think of it, I suspect the Mesan Alignment’s machinations are going to end up making things worse for genetic engineering. Oh look, a bunch of genetically-enhanced people secretly plotting to conquer known space and “bless” the rest of humanity with their ideals of How Things Should Be. Yes, that will end well and people are going to be so enthusiastic about the wonders of genetic modification afterward.

            (…and I suspect they are going to fail. Despite all their careful planning, they seem to have an… arrogance that makes them overconfident. Like the people who bleat about being on the Right Side of History. They’ll likely do a ton of damage before being stopped, though.)

            1. Of course the Mesan Alignment is going to fail. They’re the designated villains with author against them…

  5. I think the most credible world building starts small and familiar, then builds out. Both in physical places, the characters, and the special circumstances.

    I’ve started with three young women clearing rocks in a field. With magic. Tossing the rocks down slope to the road, where grandmother and younger witches will fill holes. The road to the village. The village, with an inn, houses, a garden where the Goddess of Heath and Fertility grows herbs . . .

    Or a kitchen. A cooking show . . . :: click :: all a hologram, the perky cook was just a program on a computer . . . or is she something more?

    A courtroom. But the defense lawyer seems to have scales . . .

    Going back to the Star Wars, start with a whiny teenager working in his uncle’s farm . . . Irritating, but so familiar, we believe this place, that boy, exists. Build out from there, and we keep believing.

    I’ll have to rewatch ep I sometime and analyze why it didn’t work, right from the start. I don’t even remember the start.

    1. TPM didn’t work for a whole host of reasons, mostly having to do with George Lucas getting protection from editors.

      1. Anakin. I don’t blame Jake Lloyd for this nearly as much as I blame Lucas. It was his idea to make Anakin nine, which is what necessitated aging Padme down to fourteen, caused the Jedi Council to lool even worse than tbey might have otherwise when they denied him training, and resulted in dialogue that sounded ridiculously obnoxious.

      2. The directing. Liam Neeson carries most of the movie, and he wasn’t up to the task. Lloyd wasn’t going to do it, Ewan McGregor tried his best but was limited by his role as a sidekick, and Lucas should have been arrested and tried on charges of egregious misuse of Natalie Portman. Jar-Jar barely even tips the scales.

      1. No real main character is one problem. Liam Neeson’s was closest, probably, but he was still just one of several. And yes, young Anakin should definitely have been a bit older than nine when we first met him. Or alternatively, maybe just a baby or a toddler and used as the MacGuffin instead of being an actual character.

      2. The Phantom Menace didn’t work because Lucas couldn’t tell a story or come up with one if it was to walk up and expositionally bite him.

        The original Star Wars worked; and I think that it worked mostly because he was cribbing from an already existent template, namely Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. Once he had to extend the metaphor, he was screwed.

        What irritates me about the whole thing was the sheer waste of it all; we got schlock instead of story, and some really weird changes to the basic universe. Midichlorians, anyone? Star Wars could have been so much better than it was, but what we got was ineptly conceived and poorly implemented. Most of this, I suspect, is because Lucas and the executives at Disney have about as much SF background and care for the genre as any other MBA–It’s just an impersonal way for them to make money. They have no real connection to the ideas, and they’re like blind men trying to do paint-by-numbers.

        Not to mention that they are about as stone-ignorant when it comes to science as it is possible to be… That line about “parsecs” being used as a measure for time? Yeah… Even at the age of 13, which was how old I was when the original movie came out, I was disdainful of the ineptitude they displayed with that one. The visuals, though… Wow. That’s about the only thing Lucas has talent for, and I have to give him that. Story? Meh. Dude can’t tell a story to save his life.

        1. You canna’ blame Disney for anything before 2012 when they paid him $4B and showed him the door.

          The prequels were pure Lucasfilm.

          1. I’m lumping them all in together because they’re all equally bad. This latest installment is virtually a rework of the original story, and has about as many damn plot holes in it as it did. Given that the other Star Wars movie that’s in production is undergoing extensive re-shoots, I’m going to extrapolate that it is about as bad.

            In short, Disney is about as bad as Lucas.

            1. Reshoots on tentpoles are as predictable as rain in Texas – when they don’t happen, they are remarkable.

              And I completely and utterly disagree that the Ep VII 2015 incarnation was anything like the prequels. While it certainly had its flaws and was far from perfect, it was not a gloppy mess of stupid and audience abuse like Eps I-III, directly from the Mind of George, were.

              1. The only tow things that tossed me out of VII were 1) a moment when my historian’s brain said “Oh, no, you didn’t” because I’d just finished sorting through scenes of _Triumph of the Will_ to use in class and 2) a moment where my science brain started asking questions. I was able to quash those and go back to enjoying the film. Not so the prequels. I got kicked out and stayed out.

                1. VII is another iteration of stupid, period. I don’t demand perfect science, but c’mon, now–An entire planet converted over to being a weapons platform, and firing planet-killing rounds across the galaxy from it?

                  Star Wars movies have always been visually glorious, and crap science fiction. I’m sorry, but there it is: I love watching them, but I have to deliberately turn off my brain when I do. And, sadly, I can’t quite manage that feat with the prequels. I gave VII a chance, but I seriously doubt I’m going to spend the money to see anything else Disney does.

                  For the love of all that is holy, why the hell can’t they take the money they’re spending on these things and hire some decent writers, ones who have some knowledge of and affection for the genre? Space opera should be something that is easily accessible and comprehensible–It’s not so damn hard to come up with a decent story, and maintain its internal consistency as well as some slight plausibility.

                  1. If I may pick just one nit from the original trilogy: the War Dogs.

                    In what universe does that make sense as a) weapon of war b) effective expenditure of military credits?

                    On point a, I would think a centipede or scorpion a far more effective, far less vulnerable weapons platform.

                    On point b, surely the Empire is not without some limits on what it can spend on their toys? Did they select such an inferior platform design just so Palpatine could shout “Let slip the dogs of war”?

                    1. The Imperial Army is a counter-insurgency force. Having a troop carrier that can be seen coming from a long ways away is a benefit, especially if you have the power plants to armor it against anything short of an orbital strike – yes, Hother exposed a weakness in the design, but it cold be easilly remidied by adding some point defense blasters or cutting blades on the legs. Legs are far more adaptable to terrain than other form of locomotion, and seeing the remnants of their foward units drip off the feet is going to have a negative impact on morale.

                      The AT-STs in Ep. VI, on the other hand, are just dumb. To big to perform effective reconnaissance, too weak to provide decent fire support.

                    2. Yeah, my take on the Stormtroopers was always that they made more sense if thought of as a militarized police force, rather than as a true military force. If the Jedi are the Star Wars equivalent of something between a Texas Ranger and a trenchcoated detective, the Stormtroopers are the riot squad decked out in body armor, helmets, and gas masks. The AT-ATs are like the tanks in Tiananmen Square; not militarily the best choice, but scary as heck.

                      Star Destroyers glassing the planet from orbit are how the Empire in Star Wars plans to fight a real war (when they don’t, you know, just Death Star the whole thing into a navigation hazard).

                      It makes the COPS parody TROOPS all the more funny if you think of what the Stormtroopers in Episode IV actually do on Tatooine. They check the crash site for evidence, check the aircars in Mos Eisley for contraband, and respond to the fight in the cantina.

                    3. What Jeff said. (No reply button on his, so…)

                      And Hoth didn’the really show up a weakness — the Rebels aren’t your typical insurgents. That kind of equipment usually isn’t a problem.

                      The AT-ST also works — as riot control and smashing small guerilla bands. Think about twenty or thirty guys with hunting rifles being chased around by a couple of those. Like an armored car machine -gunning a peasant village. Now think of someone watching. Demoralizing on both ends. Again, the Rebels are something new.

                      Not that I think Lucas thought it through that far…

                  2. Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It’s fantasy set in space. I will always have respect for Lucas solely for the Force; he found a way to sneak magic into a sci-fi type environment without imploding suspension of disbelief.

                  3. … c’mon, now–An entire planet converted over to being a weapons platform, and firing planet-killing rounds across the galaxy from it?

                    Yep. Taking the entire output of a star, concentrating it into a miniscule location on a planet, and when it goes wrong, there’s not an instantaneous explosion/vaporization of the entire planet? Personally, it sounds like a recipe for instant nova or black hole to me.

        2. The parsecs thing in Star Wars WTF’d me when I first saw the movie. But Armageddon, decades later, had someone leaving near orbit and soft-landing a nuclear weapon cluster on the Moon. With a spacesuit and its safety thruster…

          Hollywood still couldn’t be arsed to run a script through a junior high level science critique…

          “We don’t care, out viewers are all idiots anyway.”

      1. Darn you. I get back from eleven days of travel only to find myself addicted to a new web comic. Washing the bug guts off the vehicle will just have to wait until tomorrow.

    2. “I’ll have to rewatch ep I sometime and analyze why it didn’t work, right from the start. I don’t even remember the start.”

      Someone already did that. Just check youtube for red letter entertainment plinkett star wars reviews. Then thank me later.

  6. Going along with (1), one thing that has always been an irritant to me in fictional worlds, whether fantasy/sci fi or not, has been the availability of information. Too often, something is a “mysterious forgotten secret” until the protagonist/reader finds out about it, at which point every man on the street knows the truth. This has shown up a lot of places–Harry Potter had a number of “rare” spells that were only rare until Harry learned about them–but the one where it most bothered me was the Recluse books. We start out with a legendary story about how a certain city was founded by angels. Then, the author goes back and writes a book about the actual founding of the city. Okay, fine, it’s not perfectly consistent with the legend, but you wouldn’t expect it to be–there’s been a thousand years of history, records weren’t terribly accurate, things got distorted. However, every reference to the founding of the city that came in books written after that one until I got bored with the series were 100% factual and consistent with the book about the founding. That bothered me. Make up your mind, author: either the details of what happened have been forgotten and distorted or they haven’t, you can’t change your mind half-way through.

    1. I did have an instance where the protagonist and friends thought they had discovered a deep, dark secret, only to learn it was freely available knowledge, just one that wasn’t advertised for obvious reasons.

    2. Yes. It gets very silly. I read a book in which there were a great array of powers, and one character explained to another how he had worked out that really they were combinations of six basic types. This was novel and surprising.

      Every other book thereafter, everyone had always known it. Indeed, one character finds a book where she figures out the title for a certain power because the other woman had the powers of this title, plus another, as broken down by that character. It’s at the same time as the man who figured it out, and the book is described as old.

    3. Hm. Wonder if someone could have that “forgotten” secret be something only the main character thinks is a big secret, but everyone else knows and are exasperated at the main character’s antics?

      1. That’s one fun take and ‘lost forgotten knowledge’ in one region/era could be quite common in another. Example: I’m having an irritating time trying to find the exact methods of making rose water in the medieval times. Why? Because everyone and their sister knew how to do it. It was rather like asking ‘how do you boil an egg?’ Most cook books just start with ‘boil the egg, then chop it finely before adding it to…” and so forth. So no one wrote it down.

        1. I often run into the same problem when using an old cookbook. It will either have an ingredient that isn’t commonly used anymore, or list a method of food prep that is not in the modern vernacular.
          (Cookbooks from the 40’s or 50’s. I inherited a lot of awesome books from my grandmother.)

    4. Even Tolkien nodded sometimes. Gandalf told Pippin that only the Wise knew of the Palantirs; but both Faramir and Denethor spoke of them.

      1. Not necessarily author error — Denethor was certainly counted among the wise of that era,

        “He is not as other men of this time…by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him, as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.”
        The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, “Minas Tirith”


        ‘He [Denethor] must have guessed that the Ithil-stone [Sauron’s palantír] was in evil hands, and risked contact with it, trusting his strength. His trust was not entirely unjustified. Sauron failed to dominate him and could only influence him by deceits.”
        Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (2012). Tolkien, Christopher, ed. Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 526–527.

        As steward of Gondor it is as unlikely Denethor would have not known of the palantíri as the American president not knowing of the NSA’s reach.

        1. And the last bit would also explain why Faramir (and likely Boromir) knew about palantirs as well. Denethor at some point would have explained that they had the stone, what it did, and why it was dangerous to use. He wouldn’t have wanted one of his sons to succeed him, accidentally discover what the stone did, and end up dominated by Sauron as a result.

          1. It could be taken as Tolkein commentary on the limits of wisdom, but that might be unwise.

  7. Very well explained. I always appreciate someone delving into the craft like that.
    Thank you.

  8. Just avoid what the TV Tropes people named “Calling a Rabbit a Smerp” i.e. renaming something, but ONLY renaming it to make it somehow fantastical.

    1. It pre-dates TV Tropes but it’s a good thing to avoid.

      Oh, I had in one of my unwritten stories, a pack animal that’s behavior is very similar to an Earth dog and fit into the alien society in the same ways that dogs fit into human society.

      It resembles the Raptor Dinos and was called a smerp. 👿

    2. Very true…but don’t forget the useful analog, the “fish out of water” where someone from a culture or planet without rabbits encounters one for the first time. I love it when an author does that well, because it makes something I am perhaps bored with new again–seeing it with fresh eyes. Doris Egan did that in one of the Ivory books, describing eyeglasses to people who had never used them or seen them used. Hilarious. “No, you see *through* them! Really!”

      1. I enjoyed playing with that at the end of _Elizabeth and Empire_. “No, dear, you put the bent pieces over your ears, like this . . .” Not that I have a family member who fought getting reading glasses tooth, nail, and claw for several years, noooooo.

  9. Sarah, my cell phone is out, in a way I don’t understand. Please call me at the store number before 4 today or before 4 tomorrow. And I’m free Monday if you guys need help with the move.

  10. The thing that annoyed me with Terry Goodkind’s early books (before he lost me completely with his preachiness) was his tendency to establish a piece of worldbuilding and then completely, utterly forget it in subsequent volumes.

    1. I have to agree with you there. It was like we got this brief view of an impressive vista, but then never revisit that glimpse.

      1. Mind you, his worldbuilding problems run pretty deep. Darken Rahl banned fire. Fire. How in the blue blazes would that even be enforced? How would metal objects get made? How would food get cooked?

        1. All activities using fire would have to be done through specified representatives of Darken Rahl, or by getting a permit. Communal firepits for cooking, government/royal blacksmiths at every major town/city.
          It would look very communist.
          Honestly, short of introducing modern electricity, you can’t. It would be pre-stone age, and that’s not a kingdom worth ruling.

        2. It’s a metaphor for ‘renewable’ energy. /habitual literary apologetics

    2. Oho, one of the worst cases I know of is Anne McC’s changing the source of Thread.

      She very clearly says it is from the Red Star in DragonQuest. We even get to “see” Thread on the surface of the planet. Then in Dragons Dawn she does a switch and says “oh, it’s really from the Oort cloud” it just trails the Red Star. ARRRRGGGHHHH.

      1. Heh, did you hear about what happened when someone asked her if all the men who rode the green dragons were gay, since green dragons are female and their riders used to be exclusively male? You see the green dragons were quite ‘feisty’ and prone to frequent mating flights and since dragons and their riders share a mental bond… It was interesting to say the least and supposedly part of the reason she started trying to scrub fansites from the internet.

          1. Yes, that’s true. The problem arose when a fan did the figuring and came to the conclusion that there were more green and blue dragons than homosexual men considering that those two colors of dragon are most common. Her explanation was that men turn gay from having gay sex and will come to enjoy it so that there would never be any issue of a green dragon’s rider not wanting to take on a feminine role in a relationship. The fans were not amused, largely because of how convinced she was that in homosexual relationships there was always a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’.

            It was such a mess that she tried to deny that she’d ever said anything on the subject.

        1. Ah, you’re referring to the infamous “tent peg” interview. -chuckle- Yeah, that made waves all through the fandom. I *think* she recanted on that, but I’m not 100% sure. Fort 9 paid little attention to that. (kinda like we did with a few other things that come out after 1990.)

  11. When you’ve done a lot of worldbuilding there is a huge temptation to tell the reader everything, whether or not it is relevant to the story. I’ve seen this a lot in fantasy novels, where the action comes to a screeching halt so that the author can come out and start lecturing.

    “I spent months getting all of these details worked out and you will by God sit down and pay attention now! Seven thousand years ago the First Goblin War forced humans to migrate to the Islands of Forgetfulness in the Sea of Large Squids, and then after that…”

    I think that fantasy writers find it easier to justify on the basis that Tolkien did it, but it’s also prevalent in science fiction. Arthur Clarke, for example.

    With The Book Of Lost Doors I did a lot of background on the world and the characters and the metaphysics behind the Outsider technology that never made its way into any of the books–or at least not directly.

    I know how the “magic” works so that my characters don’t have to. They just know that it does work, and that it works consistently. My narrator James, in particular, often completely misunderstands a situation and so he, and the reader, are surprised by what happens next.

    If you explain too much then you loose that element of surprise and the world becomes predictable.

    1. Part of it is finding the right place to drop crumbs of information. The other part is leaving enough clues so that the readers can infer stuff without needing to have it explained.

    2. Well, you do have to throw some of it in as local color. Otherwise your world starts to look like a stage setting, containing nothing but what is needed to forward the plot. But judgement is needed.

    3. I refer to this as the “I have suffered for my art, and now it’s your turn” trope. On one hand, I understand that an author who has spent all this time working out the details of a world wants to share them. On the other hand, the resulting lecture tends to make me go, “ARRRG!”

    4. Yes, the backstory infodump can be annoying, but at least you can skip over it.

      I’ve read too many that went the other way… it’s fairly obvious the author spent a lot of time in worldbuilding and backstory, and it’s critically important to the story they’re trying to tell… but they were so familiar with it, they forgot to tell the reader. So I either have to make up my own framework to hang their story on, or graft it onto something else to make sense of it.

      If I’m going to do my own world-building and backstory, I might as well write it down and get paid for it. [disgruntled customer mode]

    5. Note that in the actual narrative, Tolkien did not have all of those pesky details. If you were interested in such things as the Elven script, or the history of Beleriand, those were in appendices.

      Pretty much what I am thinking of doing, since I’m writing it all out for my own use anyway (hopefully to avoid truly egregious inconsistencies). No infodumps in the story, but the “internal” documents available at my website.

      What is going to be a poser is that I have five series in the list – and I’m starting with the fourth one in chronological sequence (for what seem good reasons, at least to me). Avoiding spoilers is not going to be easy.

      1. It’s been a long time since I tried to read the books, but I know I didn’t read any appendixes. I do remember starting the second book and all of sudden running into a lot of information about Minus Tirith and Rohan with no good reason why I should care about those places.

  12. Gee, I’m glad that Fluffy uses the Temporal Chamber when he molts: vanishes into it, and a week later for him, a minute for us, emerges with all his new shiny splendor. All you have to do is remember to exclaim, “Wow! You look great! I don’t know what it is, but you sparkle!”

    And both the aardvark and the sea serpent are reliable about that.

  13. I had some profound and witty thing to add to the discussion . . . but I just finished editing the next Cat book and my brain can’t hold a coherent thought longer than— Squirrel!

        1. Thank you! That started as an idea several years ago that germinated and proceeded to get out of hand. I’m blaming Ivan the Purrable. 🙂

  14. Sabrina, you’re awesome. This is excellent, professional, and concise. I’m going to buy one of your Kindle book tonight.

    Sarah, may you any yours get well soon–and stay there for awhile!! And Zen’s story was worth the wait.

  15. History is your friend. Remember, mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal. One of the reasons that all our novels are historical is because no fictional world can possibly compete with the richness, variety, and sheer implausibility of real life. Of course, many of the exact same factors apply with using an historical time period for your novel. You don’t have to worry about things being chaotic and nonsensical, because you can always fall back on the excuse “because that’s really the way they did it!” However, you have to be careful of info-dumps. Also, there is actually an opposite problem with using an historical background which is painting the historical world in terms of modern sensibilities and beliefs. Of course, Sarah has spoken about this at length in regards to her Musketeers tales, but it bears repeating.

    Still, I enjoy working in an historical mileu so much that I am unlikely to stray far from historical times or very lightly disguised historical eras in the future. But, that is just me.

    1. Pretty much, yeah – a reader of my first HF commented on a book discussion thread on another website – that he hated the plot turn in To Truckee’s Trail – because all the men got roped into fighting in a small local civil war, all the time that their wives, children and kin were trapped in the snow, high in the Sierra Nevada. He didn’t think that was … plot-wise, logical. And yet – that what was what really happened. They got suckered into participating – because it was WINTER in THE HIGH SIERRAS … and there wasn’t much else they could do. True historical fact – it’s what they did do. Logical plotting be damned.

      1. Of course, you can also turn that to your advantage. If you know your history, you can have some of your plot points hinge on the outcome of actual events. In this manner, historical accuracy both limits and empowers you. Since you know what happened, you can tailor your story so that it conforms to the real events and make the implausible or fantastic actually seem inevitable. We have a character in one of our books who comes from a particular family, and the reason we are doing that is because a few years in the future from the time of our current novel (along about book four, probably), her family becomes very important, so having our characters associating with a member of the family several years ahead gives our main characters a plausible “in” to the centers of power when things start changing.

        It becomes like a puzzle. How can you take your story, use the actual constraints of history, and make it better? It can be a lot of fun when it is not completely maddening.

        1. That can be tricky. I once read a historical romance in which the hero set out to assassinate King John, and King John’s actual historical death managed to shake him to the depths of his soul and bring about character development. I remember it because it’s so rare. Most historical novels, you can see the joins where the story is trying to work about the reality.

          Which is why I prefer to rip it off. 0:)

        2. And how do you persuade people that an over-the-top character is actually understated compared to the real thing? Peter the Great is fascinating but boy howdy, his second wife was a saint to put up with him. And to keep up with him.

  16. If I really jump into this one, it will have to be later…

    In the meantime – all good wishes to Dan and Sarah, may both recover soon. At least you’re no longer in the “one step forward, two back” mode.

  17. Sarah,face it, you live the NASCAR Talledega life: upside down, on fire, screaming and yet still crossing the finish line for the win.

  18. 1) Build a lot more background than you use. It will add depth of field and authenticity.

    2) If your created society really is different in context from now, the people will be different, and you may not know how to do that authentically. When we look back to earlier eras, we are looking at the path or corridor from Then to Now, and we see what is is common, what connects. What we don’t see is all the stuff around Then, that’s off to the sides. It surrounded the people of Then, but we aren’t aware of it, or how affected them. For example, reading Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, we find a lot of sexual and political intrigue that is familiar. But each section includes a passage recounting, quite seriously, the omens associated with that Caesar’s birth and childhood – an attitude that is alien to us.

    If you can see how the context of your Then would shape people in such ways, and convey it (without being heavy-handed), you’ll be very convincing.

  19. Sabrina, I’m another new fan. Your post was so excellent and so right on target that I had to buy one of your Kindle books to see if you wrote fiction as well as you do non-fiction. I’m halfway through the first Sequoyah book now and delighted to have discovered a new SF writer who will keep on producing through my lifetime.

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