Worldbuilding: The Natural World

“Are we still in the Zone?” Arkady found it hard to believe.

“Yes. What you can see from the road is a horror show-Pripyat, the buried villages, the red woods-but much of the Zone is like this. Now slowly stand.”

Both deer went still as Arkady rose. They balanced more particularly but held their ground.

Alex said, “Like the hedgehog, they’re losing their fear.”

“Are they radioactive?”

“Of course they’re radioactive, everything here is. Everything on earth is. This field is about as radioactive as a beach in Rio. There’s a lot of sun in Rio. That’s why I wanted you to turn off your Geiger counter so you would hear more than that little ticking. Use your eyes and ears. What do you hear?”

For a minute Arkady heard nothing more than the mass drone of field life or his hand slapping a bug on his neck. By concentrating on the deer, however, he started to pick up their thoughtful chewing, the individual transit of dragonflies amid a sunlit cross fire of insects, and in the background, a squirrel scolding from a tree.

Alex said, “The Zone has deer, bison, eagles, swans. The Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion is the best wild-animal refuge in Europe because the towns and villages have been abandoned, fields abandoned, roads abandoned. Because normal human activity is worse for nature than the greatest nuclear accident in history. The next greenie I meet who tells me how he wants to save the animals, I’ll tell him that if he’s sincere, he should hope for nuclear accidents everywhere. And the next poacher I find here, I will do more than break his toy crossbow. If you do find any poachers, will you please tell them that? Don’t move. Be absolutely still. Look over your left shoulder, between the two pretty birches.”

Arkady turned his head as slowly as possible and saw a row of yellow eyes behind the trees. The air grew heavy. Insects slowed in their spirals. Sweat ringed Arkady’s neck and ran down his chest and spine. The next moment the deer bolted in an explosion of dust and flower heads, took the measure of the field in two bounds and crashed into the woods on the far side. Arkady looked back at the birches. The wolves had gone so silently that he thought he might have imagined them.” – Martin Cruz Smith, Wolves Eat Dogs

Science Fiction is often about built environments, about starships and technologically advanced cities and abandoned ruins of ancient civilisations. But equally often, Science Fiction is about strange ecologies, alien worlds and even strange weather (HT @Faithfull_M).

Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the better known examples of an alien world. Arrakis is described with excruciating attention to ecological detail, with a salutation to dry-land ecologists included in the dedication. Survival in an unforgiving climate is an overwhelming leifmotif, which drives the way in which the human characters interact and their competing societies clash, with the Fremen being painted as hardened, half-crazy survivalists in comparison to the rest of humanity.

Alan Dean Foster is another example (a favourite SF Author of mine, highly prolific and endlessly inventive if not exactly a towering, seminal figure), who compulsively creates new worlds, ecologies and cultures in his work. In ADF’s case, it also has to be said that his descriptions of these worlds tend to overshadow both plot and character on occasion, although that doesn’t detract from the many wonderful scenes showing predation and the environment-appropriate life-cycles of his inventions.

As in non-speculative writing, place can be a character in itself, a plot element and most importantly, the chief repository of mood and nuance.

Let’s take this from the general to the specific.

I took the bare bones of a world in the system of “Veedze” from the game Frontier: First Encounters. The generation mechanisms of the game aren’t necessary to detail here, but suffice it to say that the planet’s details were essentially random rather than being deliberately and conscientiously designed by a programmer.

The matters of interest to me in the game description of the world was that

a) it was deeply cold, and had a year of 622 “earth days”
b) it was remote from the centres of “civilisation” in that universe; and
c) it was listed as an “Anarchy”

Now we’ll leave the latter 2 for a later entry, as they relate far more to the issue of the built environment.

So it’s a cold world. Did that mean it was barren and lifeless, or that life would be a totally pitiable struggle? That didn’t suit my views of a place with its own sustainable, if miserable climate. I wanted my characters to interact with that environment, not be cooped up in buildings or geodesic domes or space stations (although there is some of that).

So the world had life, during a presumably brief summer during which exterior life for humans was indeed possible. Given this, I envisaged a wooded, hilly environment similar to northern North America or Scandinavia  one in which life waited, hibernated, and then emerged to frantically forage during the good season. Although there were probably tundras and semi-frozen seas, I didn’t envision any of the action in this novel being set in those areas, so feel comfortable keeping that information vague.

In writing alien worlds, there are two traps it is very easy to fall into. The first is the trap of making the world just an analogue of a real-world environment. The second is making it different from a real-world environment just because you can. I’m going to try very hard not to link to TVTropes in this blog, but “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp” sums up the potentially cringeworthy outcomes of the former approach. 

Originally, I’d planned to give the world its own sentient beings, adapted to its environment, semi-civilised and deeply suspicious of all interlopers. I dropped this due to limitations on the narrative (if I added them as anything more than a footnote, I have to deal with it seriously, which would throw up a lot of annoying questions… see my previous post on Shandification).

In my first draft – still inching painfully towards conclusion – I’ve left references to local fauna very general, which I will probably need to flesh out somewhat in the second iteration (probably with a bit of research on cold-weather ecologies). I DO refer to “the large predators that stubbornly resist extinction by human encroachment”, but the main threat to the human population on the planet is simply the planet itself, and its chill. So ice and snow became motifs to work with, as are the various human sensory interpretations of cold. Visually, I’ve also painted the days as being short, with long dusks and dawns (granted, the time period of the story is late spring). So that leaves the natural environment dim and cold, which represent two things that humans instinctively fear, with our furless bodies and diurnally adapted vision.

One thread I have running through the narrative is the oppressive nature of the cold, and the existential threat it poses to human survival. Humans are blow-ins on this world, and have to meticulously design their lives and their culture in order to survive its challenges. Long winters, where “outside” is essentially uninhabitable, have big connotations on how the built environment needs to be designed and what kind society you can populate it with. Fritz Lieber’s “The Snow Women” does a great job with these elements (though adding a distinctly malevolent magical element), crafting the environment into something that is only barely held back by human technology and intelligence.

In my MS, I would not go so far as to call the planet a character in its own right. It makes no dramatic moves, there are no storms, lightning-strikes, treefalls, floods or wild animal attacks which change the course of the plot. But it is fair to call the natural environment a glowering presence hanging over the world, to whom all must pay obeisance or risk a slow, cold, ignoble death. There are a few sources of potential grimness in my story, but the natural environment is perhaps the most implacable, and therefore from a literary point of view, the one with whom none of the characters can prevail against.

Finally, a hat-tip to m’learned literary colleague John Harper, who was kind enough to mention me in his podcast. John is a great writer, writing endorsed Frontier:Dangerous fiction, and is proceeding with astonishing professionalism and candour. Support him if you can, it’s not just him you’ll be doing a favour for.

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2 Responses to Worldbuilding: The Natural World

  1. John Harper says:

    Great Post, Ben. Your attention to detail is always obvious in your writing. I assume this is Red’s last trip in his Constrictor you are talking about here?

    Thanks for the ping back!

    • redravens says:

      Yup. Constrictor, bounty hunting lifestyle and all. As I think I’ve mentioned, I’ve sketched out an FEU novel or two for Red with a very different style (Spoiler: He gets involved with the militant wing of the Association for the Appreciation of Alien Artefacts), which is perhaps more your traditional Space Opera. But who knows if I’ll get time to write that. All seemed to easy before the kids…

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