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How I Built Lyr

by Chris Wayan, 2007-8

For Cheryl and Marie, who thought of the negative template that kept Lyr from becoming an amoeboid blob

Lyr (home) - map - creatures - cultures - evolution - climate - geology - gazetteer - nomenclature - definitions - building Lyr - more worlds? Planetocopia!


Some art projects, like planets, have rocky beginnings. Lyr was different. It had gaseous beginnings. Seems only right, for a world so big it nearly ballooned into a Neptune. But the gas I mean isn't hydrogen but hot air--mere talk. Lyr is my first purely digital world! Pure web text, with no physical model--until after the fact. Strange as it seems, the globe came last, and still isn't done--as I write, the seas around the Borthu Islands are still wet paint.

If you're looking for a (pseudo)scientific explanation of Lyr's features, you want Lyr's geology (especially my confession on chaos), and then climate and evolution. This page's title is literal: it's on what it took to build an oversize model of an oversize Earth.

I've described how I plan worlds before, in Carpentry Tips for World-Builders. Normally I build a physical globe before drawing detailed maps or writing tours--those are elucidation, not creation. But Lyr was done backward. No globe! I did my best to generate a chaotic terrain digitally and then treat the resulting screenmap as my only guide. Here it is--Lyr without oceans.

Topographical map of Lyr's sea beds, seamounts and trenches.

You do see the problem. This isn't a tiny, screensize map generated from a large dataset. This is it. All I had. All the regional maps and tours had to be convincingly derived from this low-resolution map.

But a tiny flat map of a huge oblate spheroid isn't much to go by. Near all the edges of the map, the distortion got severe. Without a globe, I wasn't at all sure how well things fit together--or if they even did! And, well, I also hungered for orbital photos to make Lyr visible, tangible.

So in the end, once I finished all the tours, I decided to make a physical globe. But one to scale! Lyr's over twice the diameter and five times the area of Earth, and to see Lyr's sixty mainlands in any detail they needed to be as big as the continents on a good Earth globe. So I set out to build a giant globe that'd reflect Lyr's true size next to the Earth globes ubiquitous in America (31 cm or 12" wide).

I had no idea what I was getting into.


My first try at building a giant globe of Lyr was by spreading papier maché on a tightly inflated exercise ball. Of course that meant the ball would probably have to die (or be entombed alive like the guy in A Cask Of Amontillado) so my housemates weren't enthused about lending me theirs. I went to a close-out sale at a sports store and bought a surplus ball. Out on our deck, I pumped it to the max. It kept rolling, so I used a cement tortoise to prop it up, then realized I'd just proved Terry Pratchett right--the world IS held up by a giant turtle!

The papier maché was incredibly messy, and it dried rather slowly due to damp cloudy weather. But for a few days it seemed to be working. In fact I nearly had a complete sphere and was thinking about deflating the ball and pulling it out a polar hole (the Pellucidar Hypothesis is correct: planets are hollow, with polar access holes for inspection and repair. After all, who's more credible, mere scruffy explorers or eminent scientists like Edgar Rice Burroughs?)

But the next day, the sun came out at last. And...

Household hint: if YOUR alien planet has an inflatable ball instead of a solid nickel-iron core, don't leave that sucker out in the hot sun! The greenhouse effect is bad enough on Venus, but at least it never went BOOM. "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble," maybe, but not... dare I say it? Ahhh, what the hell:


Oh, the casualties were almost worth it, just to be able to say that in absolute truth.

As you can see below, I ain't quittin'. I scrounged a new, non-explosive armature made of dinged-up, useless bike rims. How recyclish can you get? And the Planetbusters will have a harder time trashing the new Lyr, I think.

A papier-mache model of a huge ocean-world called Lyr, burst open, showing girders.
I wonder how often other apprentice gods have these problems? Not toddlers like me, still playing with papier-maché--I meant the grad students who get to work on a planetary scale, like the ones who built our shoddy Earth outa scrap iron, gravel and graywater.

Still, the same frustrations dog us all, kindergarten to college: you've got a great little ecology cooking along, and then the sun burps and it all collapses like a soufflé. Shoulda picked a calmer star, Little Yahweh! But E for effort...


Well, I inserted the bike rims without too much extra damage. Next I got some thin sticks, steamed them in the shower until they warped, taped them and bent them round, and inserted them too. Now I had a crude skeleton--not beautifully spherical like the exercise ball, but not prone to explosions either. Papier maché, dozens of layers--remember, I had to hide all those craggy ribs. And round wasn't enough; I had to build an oblate spheroid, 4 cm thicker all round the equator.

It's hard to measure curved objects and make them true. My girlfriend Cheryl and her daughter Marie suggested a negative template--a plywood sheet with an ovoid arc cut out of it. "Just anchor it at the poles and turn the model inside it."

Photo of a big papier-mache egg, mostly white, some newspaper still showing.
Unfortunately, the new improved steel-reinforced Lyr (bigger, tougher, not available in any store!) was a bit heavy to do this, and the poles weren't so easy to determine... But gradually, as I built up layers, the ribs and bumps and hollows smoothed out, until I had...

SNOWBALL LYR A big gray-white ball with meridians marked on it. A cloth measuring tape dangles from its north pole.

At last, I had to switch to something smoother and stronger than papier maché; I tried a lot of things, and finally chose a spackle that's part plaster, part acrylic. A dozen layers, smoothing and correcting until Lyr was as close to a true oblate spheroid as I could get. Prime with many layers of clear acrylic, then white... It started looking dangerously like Snowball Earth, 650 million years ago... Brrr!


Next came a lot of calculations and measurement.... on Earth, degrees of longitude vary locally, shrinking as the meridians crowd in near the poles; but at least degrees of latitude are always constant. But on Lyr, both scales vary! Since Lyr isn't a sphere, but flattens visibly, the poles are 6% closer to the core than the equator is. So even a north-south degree in the tropics is nearly 6% larger than at the pole.

All this made laying out a grid of meridians nightmarish. I finally used a cloth measuring tape pinned to the pole to get latitude lines, and just carefully divided the circumference by 24 to get longitudinal meridians, and prayed the cumulative error as I crept around the world wouldn't be too big when I returned to zero.

Less than a millimeter. Whew! Good enough for webnut work.


Applying twenty thousand layers of goo is messy. So for three months, a dinosaur egg lived out on our back deck, only coming in when it looked like rain.

Unfortunately, the Lyr I saw during the day isn't the only Lyr. Nocturnal visitors saw another. They saw home. I didn't realize that, until one night I surprised a monstrous molluscan invader crawling out of the hole at the North Pole!

A brown snail crawls out of a hole in a huge white globe.
Looking through a hole into a hollow papier-mache sphere with steel and wooden ribs.

To scale, it was 500 km tall and nearly 2000 long, leaving a trail of slimy devastation the size of California... Eww.

Despite my lifelong Darwinism, I decided in that moment of horror that there are times when a deity's just gotta get hands-on. And this was one. I banished the monster to the back yard garden.

The God of Lyr is a suspicious God. Were there more of these monsters? I shone a flashlight through the polar holes, inspecting the planet's interior. (Hey, NASA! Try this shortcut on Europa. Forget drilling through all that ice; just find the hatch. Cheap!) I saw steel girders, wooden ribs... and secret messages scrawled on the guts of the world. How strange to think of my planet-sculpture as a time capsule! Perhaps a future civilization with no concept of art will see poor Lyr as a sort of cultural geode, a blue node meant to protect crystallized history--ads and articles from our mythic times. Ugh, I can hear that smarmy announcer now: "Back in the misty days when Harry Potter was new..."

But first things first. Alien snails lurking in the architecture? No! I spotted not a single slimy lurker, thank God. I mean thank Me.

Unfortunately, the God of Lyr is an incompetent God. Snails are smarter. Over the next few nights I caught three more of these mega-monsters emerging.

At last I started keeping Lyr indoors, rain or shine. We'll see...


Well, I haven't spotted any further invaders, so I hope they've all been banished to the Garden. Jeez. This all sounds so Judeo-Christian!
Chris Wayan sitting by Lyr, a big papier-mache planet in blue and white (the land's still unpainted).


Time for paint! New problems to solve--simultaneous visual equations.

1: Lyr's seas are so huge and shoreless, it's hard to precisely locate the shallows and continental clusters. And they must be geologically convincing--a mix of Earth's plate-tectonic sea floors and Venus's more rubbery, bubbly surface. You'll notice a lot of regions with arcuate (curved) ridges and huge shield volcanoes, neither sea-floor or continental; these may look fanciful, or a crude imitation of Martian volcanoes, but they're not. Such a stringy, bubbly, mud-pot terrain (with bubbles hundreds of km across) is common on Venus, where magma is relatively hot and plastic. So a fair amount of similar terrain shows up on Lyr, around hot spots and wherever pressures run high; but in cooler regions you get more blocky, Earthlike plates and trenches. Flame me for waffling if you like, but at least give me credit for thought-out waffling...

2: My maps of Lyr weren't nearly detailed enough. I thought they were, but wrong, wrong, wrong! As a land animal, I'd focused on the continental clusters--and only 4.5% of Lyr is land! Oceans the size of the Pacific had maps only a square inch or two. Painting some of these seabeds full-on was like painting a full-size portrait of your Auntie Em from a blurry little group snapshot where she's off on the edge in the shadows...

3: ...and distorted in a funhouse mirror. Areas near Lyr's poles and the edges of the world map suffer serious distortion! Stretched on one axis, squeezed on the other, and then curved... Like gravitational lensing in astronomy. Relief model of Lyr, a wet world-model with 7 Earth masses. Shown: high orbital view of the Diomedes Cluster, with the Delp Range on the left, the Drakho Sea in the middle, and the low Hark Basin on the right. Seas blue, land white.

4: And the final challenge is to translate it all to an oblate spheroid--a shape with no edges. The far sides of the map must seamlessly fuse on the back side, and to reconcile them, I had some hard judgment calls to make. I painted the Rodonis Islands three times, eventually moving that trench nearly a thousand km... and the risky flyway to the Kyrie Islands looked impossible and had to be redone...

But now it's weeks later. I've done the seas, seamlessly. Oooh, swirly blues and greens! Though I love them, I am SO starved for hot pink, ochre, gold... anything but blue.

The land is still blank white, but at least the coasts are precisely mapped. Now for a little...


I rustled up a very sturdy card table--by now, Lyr weighs a good 18 kg/40 lbs. Steel-reinforced planet! Made a nest of old jeans, lifted Lyr onto it like a roc egg, called a regional map up on screen, and then craned my neck, switching back and forth, as I built up the land, peak by peak, ridge by ridge. I ran out of acrylic sculpting goo, so I'm using old, half-dried-out white paint so thick it makes lovely mountains.

When I finish one tour, it's on to the next region--and so on, for weeks. Slow work! I'm happy if I can finish an area the size of my hand in a day, and this model is BIG--15 square feet of surface. So I'll be at it a while...

To right is a high orbital view of the Diomedes Cluster, with the Delp Range on the left, the Drakho Sea in the middle, and triangular Lannach on the right. It looks so icy. To think it'll soon be rainforest!

Below is Roland seen from low orbit, with Mt Haustein and the Gloria Basin in the foreground, and huge Moonhorn Mountain's caldera and lava flows dominating the upper right. This shot could almost be real, just taken in a very bad winter; Roland is subpolar, after all. Almost real. The heights, yes, but I don't think the coast ever gets THIS snowed-under.
Relief model of Lyr, a wet world-model with 7 Earth masses. Shown: Roland Group from low orbit. Unpainted; bare relief.


As I write this in February 2008, I haven't even started this stage yet! I'll have to reread all the regional tours closely, paintbrush in hand... and wear magnifying glasses, I suspect.

Yes, the fundamentalists are right: God is a hands-on creator. God's work is never done. At least as long as the money holds out.

Um... anyone out there want to buy a big blue egg?

Snails optional.


Now it's April. Every square millimeter's been painted and repainted until the groundcover is consistent with the climate and drainage.

Here's roughly the same view as above, of the central Roland Cluster. Only now, the snows of uncertainty have melted. It's informational summer!

Orbital photo of central Roland: Roland proper in foreground, Barbro (center left), and Polaris (upper right). Olga is just visible on the horizon. Roland is a subarctic archipelago on Lyr, a model of a huge sea-world. Click to enlarge.

Now all I have to do is take extreme close-ups of every island (sharp! and make sure the lightsource is in Lyr's ecliptic: no polar suns!), clean up and color-correct about a hundred shots in Photoshop (add haze on the horizon and black starry backgrounds to orbital shots), then fit those photos somehow into the appropriate regional tours, and correct dozens of maps and rewrite all 27 tours to reflect how Lyr changed in the process of getting physically born. Coasts changed, climates got corrected, flyways shifted...


I declare Lyr done. At least, I'm so exhausted it HAS to be done. 82 articles with over 700 screens of text and images. God, that's like writing two or three novels. Lost in the details, I had no idea.

High orbital photo of Lyr, a sculpted 30

Oh wait, isn't that what that other God said when interviewed by CNN on the eighth day? Let's leave that as my final word on creation, creationism, and creators... divine and not. You bloody well know who you are.

"Lost in the details, I had no idea."

--Chris Wayan, May 10, 2008

Map of Lyr, a world-building experiment. Click a feature to go there.
Gazetteer: index of places, with descriptions. Or...

TOUR LYR! Climb volcanoes, swim seas, meet weird creatures. First: survival tips! Then, pick a region:
Ythri -- Polesotechnic Chain -- Troisleons -- Roland -- Oronesia -- Gaiila -- Flandry -- Diomedes -- Ak'hai'i -- Averorn

Lyr's homepage - map - creatures - evolution - climate zones - geology and geography - gazetteer - nomenclature - definitions - more worlds? Planetocopia!

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