Chris Wayan interviewed about planet-building, summer 2009, by David Cole
More artist-interviews? See David's Whose Fault Is That series: whosefaultisthat.net
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David: When did you first discover world building?
Wayan: Age five or six, reading science fiction and fantasy. The term is common in sf circles, though of course they usually mean building a world entirely of words. On the physical side, I think I was most influenced by Poul Anderson and (more recently) Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars books; they showed how planetary-scale factors interact to shape quite local matters--even the shapes of bodies. On the sociological/cultural side (and also presentation and style!), Le Guin and Tolkien were my role models.
They all kept it just words on a page, though. Only Tolkien had decent maps that supported the tone of the book and yet gave vital information--cartographically, the Red Mars books and Le Guin's Dispossessed disappointed me. So imaginary maps were a logical step and I started doing that in my teens. Then in the seventies I saw an an art-magazine article on two Italian metalworkers who built a skeletal alien planet several meters across, with girders for meridians, seas of empty air, and continents of steel. I can't remember their names now--one was Remo, I think, because they named a continent Remolia. What got me wasn't their world's features or plausibility, it was just that they built their imaginary world on such a big scale. It felt almost pornographic to me--dangerous to parade your fantasies so openly, so solidly. Out of the closet!
Then in the nineties, in San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences built a walk through time. Each geological era had a room of its own, with fossils and dioramas and a globe showing Earth as it had been in that era. They were terrible! Puffy continents colored battleship-gray, with vague mountain ranges--they looked like moldy bread dough or scabs or wet cement. No icecaps, river systems, or hints of climate or vegetation, so they didn't give you any sense of the times--was the world hot, cold, wet, dry, covered in ice? Couldn't tell by these suckers. But they were art, not mere maps--for they DID express emotion. INSTITUTIONAL emotion. They expressed fear. The fear of making a mistake, or offending someone's pet theory, or suggesting knowledge where there's only guesswork. The fear of looking unscientific! The result was more misleading than any opinionated speculation could ever be.
That was a deep lesson. I wanted to build a better planet, a vivid, specific, opinionated planet...
David: When did you realize it was something you could do? What was your first planet like?
Wayan: Well... one weekend in late 2001, I biked by a flea market behind Cellspace in San Francisco and saw an old globe. I bought it for a few bucks on a whim. I started playing with it--pried it off its stand, tilted it so the tropics turned polar and poles turned tropical. Suddenly an intellectual problem snapped into focus: "We have one pole on land, one under the sea. So we have one cold pole--Antarctica--and one mild. Could Earth be tilted so we had two Antarcticas, or none? ARE there orientations where land or sea is under both poles? How would all that ice--or lack of it--affect sea level and climate?" It turned out there were a couple of solutions for each. So I got out my drill...
That first globe became Seapole. With no polar land to build up big icecaps, just sea ice, it was a warm place, almost a vision of Earth as it will likely be in a few centuries--yet the climate changed purely from geography, not from high CO2 levels! Surprised me.
Next I found an old globe in a thrift shop, and built a world with land at both poles. Shiveria! These two were a paired study in contrasts. Done fast, with relatively simple painting and relief.
Projecting their surreal conditions, and mapping them out, was fun. I was hooked.
So I did two more tilted, alternate Earths--Turnovia, a simple upside-down globe that turned to have not-so-simple climatic consequences, and Jaredia, an exploration of Jared Diamond's ideas in Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse.
Then came a projection into the future: Dubia. This took much longer since it's by far the most painstaking and detailed projection I'd done so far. I knew it had to be, since it was so explicitly political; people would nit-pick if it wasn't exact. Took an hour per square inch. Weeks of that! And it was emotionally hard; I was showing the result of our suicidal fuel-orgy. Dubia burned me out.
By late 2002 I was ready for something different. I'd just read Robinson's RED MARS trilogy and wished it had decent maps of terraformed Mars... so early in 2003 I did Mars Reborn. Took a long time, like Dubia: thousands of craterlakes, and they had to be accurate.
I thought Venus Unveiled would be similar. Wrong! It was a much harder project--NASA's maps were rougher and patchier, harder to interpret, and its features were little-known and needed more explanation. Also, the terraforming was hell. Mars rolls over and begs; Venus spits acid in your eye, you know? But because I invested so much time in the research, I wanted to show it off with really detailed, ground-level tours. It grew into the first true webmaze, the first novel-length site. Became the model for all the rest, really.
In 2004 I tried my first fictional world: Serrana. But I gave myself training wheels by making it a tribute to Le Guin's anarchist world in The Dispossessed. Geologically and ecologically it's different, but the coastline and general layout are recognizable--the Anarres that Le Guin might have conceived today, with thirty years of advances in planetology.
Serrana focused even more than Venus on evolution, species, culture; and I started drawing and tossing in way more sketches of landscapes and creatures. I have a lot of affection for that one. But then I'm an anarchist; they're kindred spirits.
The first purely original worlds were Lyr and its living moon Oisin, then dry little Tharn and bigger, wetter Pegasia, all conceived around the same time, but built gradually over several years. The detailed tours took much longer, especially for Lyr, whose sheer size was a challenge: building flyways around this immense sea-world that wouldn't drown my tourists. And just covering a world with five times Earth's surface was intimidating. Hundreds of pages, pictures, maps...
Little Tharn was the most fun of all, because the landscape was so dramatic. It's really three worlds in one--near-Martian highlands, quite Serranian plains, and deep trenches rich in winged life--Lyr in miniature.
Pegasia is a gorgeous, lush, but still mostly-uninhabited landscape, since it's meant for reader participation--design a species! (I mean it. Continents still available, operators standing by!)
Xanadu is a little side project I snuck off to when I got overwhelmed by the immense complexity of Lyr. I did a burst of work on it as the early data about Titan poured in, but when those tempting ethane seas turned out to be just dried-up basins I was disappointed and slacked off. I'm waiting until the polar lakes are properly mapped and then I'll go back to it, I think.
Except they really are getting to that point, and they really are seas, almost, sorta. I ought to... guilt, guilt, guilt.
After painting that giant globe of Lyr, with oceans seven times the area of Earth's, I was getting really sick of blue. So I started a realistic globe of Io for fun. Wow, those colors! Lilac, white, rich browns, black, mustard, brick red, even lemon-yellow (sulfur is weird chameleon stuff). And changing with every eruption! The ultimate in painted deserts: a desert that repaints itself.
The sculpting was fun too--mountains eleven miles high! Second only to Mars, and way steeper. Spectacular, if you could stay alive long enough to see it.
Io's the first straight realism I've done. Well, there's some guesswork and interpretation--one hemisphere's photos aren't as good--but it's basically scientific portraiture.
This is its unveiling, two years late. I never listed it in Planetocopia, didn't even build a page for it til this week, since it wasn't strictly Planetocopian--no what-if premise, and no sentient life. Unless the silicon fish in that hidden sea of molten sulfur are cleverer than we think--and can you IQ-test them before you melt?
But oooh, that color. Blues, begone!
The Caprice series (Siphonia, Abyssia and Inversia) are half-done; geography worked out, but biology and culture embryonic. I'm slaving away on Siphonia's regional maps and tours at the moment, feeling a bit constrained because it's just Earth 90,000 years from now, on the rebound from a surreal catastrophe--90% of our water's gone. So the land's fascinating--undersea formations--but the creatures and societies can't be as fanciful. I keep feeling grumpy that I can't change the gravity and make up too many exotic critters...
Abyssia is an upside-down world. Our abysses are Abyssia's height; only our deeper sea-floors and trenches become land. The globe and local maps are done; now I'm writing skeletal tours of Atlantis and Pacifica and the rest... and sketching landscapes and portraits of the people--four to seven intelligent species, I think.
I need an easy one before tackling Inversia, which will be tough. I have to research and describe 2.5 times the land area of Earth, even more than Siphonia, and my mental model of Earth (very detailed by now) leads me astray--on Inversia our lands are seas and vice versa. My brain keeps doing flipflops.
On the other hand both Abyssia and Inversia have counterfactual premises, so while the geography and the climate are constrained, their evolution is wide open. I get to invent species freely to fit the new worlds' conditions. And while Abyssia is mostly Earthlike, Inversia won't be. As rugged, extreme and strange as Siphonia, and has been for 4.6 billion years...
Three new globes are still just roughed in:
|CAPSICA explores life in the hot half of the Goldilocks Zone. Well, the middle at least: average temperature 323 K, 50 C, 122 F. See? Juuuuust right! Halfway between freezing and boiling, what could be more comfortable? So far, my only firm prediction about a world of scalding-hot tropical seas (and body temperatures) is this--Capsican scientists know intelligent life will never evolve on frost-damaged worlds like Earth! I've got a globe, world map and a few local tours, but one whole hemisphere is pretty sketchy.|
|LIBRATIA will show how a tidelocked world with even modest orbital eccentricity has a huge zone with diurnal cycles--larger than the perpetual-day or -night zones, in fact! And the whole dayside is habitable. Because warm often means wet. Evaporation's high, warm air holds more moisture, cloud layers can be dense, and rains heavy under those shielding clouds. Welcome to the Carboniferous! But the only tours so far are of Libratia's solar system and a (bundled-up) journey across the nightside. I'm stuck there because I miscalculated the tidal forces and need to move Libratia further out; a lot of work.|
|KAKALEA had a simple premise so I'm moving ahead fast. It's a world so Earthlike by the numbers that it should be ideal. But through sheer geographical bad luck, its continents are mostly barren--wrong latitude, wrong shape, mountains blocking storm tracks. Australias and Antarcticas! The globe and maps are done, but most tours are mere outlines.|
Here's a group photo of them all, to scale... Wow, forgot just how big Lyr is. Mars is just a Post-it.
Wayan: Spotty and mostly self-taught. Courses in anthro, botany, zoology, but I didn't major in the sciences. I audited a lot of environmental science classes at UC Santa Cruz, not for credit, just because I was fascinated; though that was decades ago when the science was primitive.
A turning point for me was Ken Norris's class on marine mammals. One day he described a couple of puzzles about sperm whales. Why such a gigantic "melon"? [a huge chamber in the skull full of tons of oil]. Yes, it's an echo chamber, generating a long train of clicks, but why's that better than single sonar pulses? And why do sperm whales have such long jaws they can open incredibly wide, at right angles to their bodies? Can't get great leverage like that and it's a hydrodynamic drag.
In a flash I saw that click-trains of that sort would be unique--each whale's slightly different in size. If you had a directional antenna that was exactly the same length, it'd resonate preferentially to your own click-train; other click-trains, even slightly off, would damp out. The long jaw matched the length of the "melon", the resonator, almost perfectly! The jaw may be a directional antenna! It wouldn't amplify so much as tune out OTHER whales' sonar. In a pitch-dark melee of whales and giant squid that could make all the difference...
I mentioned it to Ken in passing, but I was just a humanities student sitting in on his class after all. I realized if I wanted to prove it, I'd have to switch to environmental science, spend the next decade fighting to convince professors I was serious, struggle for grants, build models and/or get cold and wet for a few years, to test my solution. Or I could leave it for others to verify, and get on to the next puzzle! I was better at pattern recognition than follow-through and I suddenly knew it. I just didn't have the patience for science. What I was, though I couldn't articulate it then, was an artist whose raw material was science.
I keep up on ethology (animal behavior), but I ignore theory, just collecting stories from the leading fieldworkers so I can draw my own conclusions.
I try to keep up on paleoecology. Not every detail, but I want to have a general idea what Earth looked like--flora fauna geography climate--over the last few billion years. Might as well be several alien planets--the only ones we're likely to touch specimens from in my lifetime.
I'm finally learning to consult Wikipedia on physical chemistry, where I'm weak. The math? Mostly by hand. Just a few dozen core facts let me estimate most parameters of other planets. Our atmosphere's greenhouse effect is about 15 degrees Celsius, surface temp increases as about the fourth root of insolation, gravity by the cube root of a world's mass (assuming the same density--fat chance!); air pressure on Mars Venus and Earth vary by 10,000:1 while gravity's range is barely 2.6:1, so postulate way more atmospheric variation than gravity...
David: On your website you state you're not human. What effect does that have on the worlds you build?
Wayan: A lot. What I meant is that both my self-image and my orientation--sexual and nonsexual--are not (very) human. Such declarations are common among furries, and though I guess they sound extreme, there's a lot of truth in it. I identify with other species more readily than most humans since I can't see a gap between animals and me. I find it easy to imagine how I'd behave if I had to rely on sonar, or I had a light-triggered migration instinct, or a strong estrus cycle, and so on.
But I mean it in a non-furry way too. I'm mildly autistic--my own sensory and mental world is very different from the average human's. For example, I recognize people mostly by their voices and movements not their faces--I can't recognize friends or even relatives that way. Normal human brains have a module dedicated to distinguishing and remembering faces. Apparently I don't. On the other hand, patterns--music, art, even puzzles--leap out at me.
Temple Grandin describes the results very well in her book Thinking in Pictures, and to some extent in Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human. Not all autistics understand animals especially well but I happen to be more like Grandin than most--and she's used her autism to help her build animal care facilities. My mentation seems a lot like animal thinking amped up--an animal that's learned to use human language as a sort of pidgin, but who feels his way to solutions along very different lines. Even when I do math I don't use formulae; I sniff all around it like an otter, hop all around it like a nervous raven. Lots of wasted motion in human terms but I need a feel for the whole situation.
I generally read and understand animal emotions better than human ones.
What it all means for worldbuilding is that I don't struggle to step outside my culture and species. I'm already half-outside.
Or more than half. Sometimes I peer in the window enviously like Peter Pan, but not often. So crowded in there! All those humans. I'd get claustrophobic.
David: When developing a new planet you said you paint the oceans, spin the globe and let your unconscious work out the complex systems like climate. What is that like? Can you describe what's happening or simply how it feels?
Wayan: It's strangely like interpreting a dream. Or maybe the early phases of songwriting. I'm not claiming this mental state is unique to the arts; it's also how Darwin assembled his case for natural selection, I think. Not the "Aha!" phase, but the slowly bubbling stew before it. You have to absorb the data and let it steep like tea, deliberately refrain from premature theorizing, coming up with a too-simple answer. In a complex system (like building a world) there are so many variables interacting there's no logical way to solve the equation. If you hurry and single out any thread you'll lose others--or their implications. So I suspend judgment and just sit with the whole, visualizing it all as vividly as possible. Slowly pieces of it come clear, usually the ecological extremes first--icefields, deserts, rainforests. Then I feel my way toward the center. It's slow. Like untying a knot...
Wayan: I imagine living on them, of course; I can't build them if I don't.
Love? I always love the one I'm working on the most. Or hate it. The obsession can get frustrating. I got tired of building Pegasia--all those empty continents crying out for species--but a few months ago I started adding regional maps, expanding tours, and dozens of sketches of scenery--and fell in love with it again.
But over time I get perspective. What am I proudest of? Venus, Lyr, Tharn, Serrana perhaps. Not Dubia though I get so many comments on it. But anyone could have done Dubia; I'm puzzled they hadn't already, since it's such a persuasive shock to see in detail just how alien Earth may look if we go on as we are. Seeing your home town under water... But the more exotic ones are closer to my heart.
Love... where would I live, if I could? Oh, somewhere I could fly, with lots of different peoples--terraformed Venus, or Lyr, or the trenches and crater-oases of Tharn. Or Pegasia, if only some of you readers would submit some simpatico natives to inhabit it (plenty of room still, hint hint! So far they're all kinda lizardy... nobody I'd date. Well, maybe those matriarchal bird people on Continent 8...)
David: What kinds of responses do other people have to your worlds?
Wayan: what are the most common? Lemme think. In random order...
1: Enthused, clueless gamers. "Great maps! Where are the guns? You can't kill hardly anybody! Your aliens need bigger breasts!" A minority ask to use the landscapes and maps to base (usually war-) games on.
2: Readers who resonate with one particular planet or species. Lots more closet centaurs out there than you'd think. I find their comments quite insightful--and I suspect it's because they come from the same place my building the planets comes from. I'm not objective--I see myself there and feel my way into what my urges and loves and hates and habits of thought ARE as a tree-squid or taurlope or lebbird. It's fun to talk with readers who do the same--experience it from the inside. Personally I think these people are the ones with the potential to become interesting f/sf writers; technical skills you can build, but empathy's vital. Without it, you get stiff dead models, just a blueprint.
3: People who just find the orbital photos beautiful. They often want to know what computer program I use to generate them.
Ha ha. Right.
One curious quirk: quite a few of these readers find the planets lovely but a little unconvincing because I show so many coastal deserts. Don't I know that rain comes off the sea and deserts are inland? I puzzled over this a long time. Earth has lots of coastal deserts, so why would so many people deny their existence? My best guess: because almost no one lives there. Southern California's about the only heavily settled coast and the real desert's to the south. I'm sure my Baja readers, all one of them, believe in coastal deserts! And gdye to y'all down in the Kimberly, and the Namib, and Western Sahara and Atacama... But city people really don't live on Earth. They live on Human Earth--a much smaller world.
4: Requests for help from other planet-builders, or fantasy/sf writers wanting maps or help with existing lands that don't feel right. I love these requests, they're so interesting. But I'm slow to answer, cuz I often have to feel my way into the problem and that takes a while. So be patient, I WILL come through...
5: Suggestions I fix errors, about half of which I decide really are errors. The worst I've made was that on Tharn and Pegasia I extrapolated carelessly from Jupiter's system (self-taught, remember?), got caught with my orbits down around my ankles, and had to rewrite whole tours... I still have doubts about nutation and tides there, though I think they'll be far less that some physics-literate readers have warned; they forget that the warm rock of these giant, tectonically active moons is very flexible. Continents will bulge too. Tides will be only a fraction of the theoretical maxima--but those are huge, it's true... I will still probably build a tidal map of Pegasia and add warnings to the regions suffering from strong currents and tides bigger than the Bay of Fundy's.
Libratia, as I mentioned, has a big error I need to fix; eccentric tidelocked worlds can exist, but only further out than I've shown; I'll have to make a lot of changes.
An error several readers want me to correct is my claim that the dim red light of small suns will tend to evolve bigger eyes. Wavelengths of visible light are so much smaller than retinal cells that readers assume this couldn't possibly matter. But retinas are incredibly inefficient; in mammals only about 1% of working retinal cells send signals the optical system recognizes as useful! Lens problems, too, tend to make eyes blurrier than they should be for their size. It's not easy making cameras from goo. So eyes are at least a hundred times larger than you'd think they need to be for a given "pixel resolution."
Strong evolutionary pressure--as in small birds, who need to keep their head-weight down--can force efficiency and shrink them some, so it's debatable. But my assertion wasn't idle.
Anyway, a lot of folks write in with comments and suggestions based on their specialty. They're often pretty fascinating even if it's really too late to rethink the whole thing, as is true with most of the older worlds. The ones still in progress are the ones you can affect the most.
6: Readers who either love or hate the furriness. Too pinuppy, too cute, or they like it, the sensuality feels welcoming... Maybe the split vote here has more to do with whether you like to mix sensuality and emotion with your intellectuality, or keep them separate. Or maybe it's just a question of taste. Is your sexual orientation and identity strictly human, or not?
I fall in between: I do "weird beasties you'd rather hang with than the jerks next door." I disappoint the claw-and-tentacle fans, I'm afraid. My designs don't go for novelty at any cost. I do appreciate that art--much thought goes into some of those designs. But there's lots of it out there, and I know my limits; I can't compete! They're like race-car designers; at most, I'm modifying stock designs. But I'm not going for bizarre, just sketches of readily understandable organisms. What really turns me on is the behavior and worldview of my creatures, and daily life on my worlds--not exoticism per se.
7: Critiques on the evolution of other beings and societies. These can be fascinating. The most notable strand: readers (so far all male, interestingly) who feel my worlds are too peaceful, too cooperative, too nice to be true. (Maybe I'm repeating myself and these are just the smart end of #1, above). Serrana's page on cultures explores my theories around this. How to summarize this debate?... Here goes.
Wishful thinking? Sure, Planetocopia's partly that. But it's an art project, not pure science. I build possible worlds I like; I don't deny more dystopian worlds are possible. They are; we live on one. I just don't think they're stable; and in deep time, unstable things are rare.
Beyond the question of whether Planetocopia's a representative sample, I just LIKE pacifism, feminism, animal rights, free love, low-tech utopias; I gravitate toward scenarios that interest me and that I don't see much in science fiction today. Sf caters to a human audience raised in a monospecific culture that thinks violence is exciting and machines are where it's at. But building dog-eat-dog worlds is neither challenging nor original. I build hippie utopias partly because others don't.
But I can't deny that writers (of both books and games) building harsh worlds are perfectly justified in doing so; they have a model at hand. But... how many worlds-at-war or singularities near their crest are we gonna see out there, really? They can't last. Punctuated equilibrium makes more sense to me... and culturally, equilibrium has to be mostly cooperative or at least tolerably peaceful.
Anyway, this issue is one that comes up a lot, in various guises and flavors. The lack of violence bothers way more people than the sex. So I'll probably keep creating make-love-not-war societies; it hits a nerve.
David: You write that politicians ignore what makes a biosphere work. What specifically are they ignoring?
Wayan: Well, I wrote that when King George II was still clinging to the throne. The most anti-science president in history! Obama gets it, I think. I hope. But will he ACT on the science? If Detroit can't quit building gashogs then you need to let others take over those factories and build electrics, or solar panels, or SOMETHING. But when the pressure's on, will economic conventionalism trump ecological realism yet again? It usually does...
Hmm. Deeper answer the next day:
I do think all of us do have a hole in the logical grid we seem to use to decide if an ecological policy or action is ethical: we ask if it helps or hurts people and if it hurts nature/other species, ignoring the possibility that some changes to nature may HELP it.
Is that a meaningful possibility? Can nature BE helped? How do we judge? I see at least three rival standards we do in fact gauge ecologies by:
David: Finally, what's next for you? More Planetocopia? Other projects?
Wayan: Just finishing the planets on my plate now--populating and writing full tours for Pegasia, Siphonia, Abyssia, Inversia--will take a couple of years at least. Inversia's so damn big...
I need to know more chemistry to do Xanadu (cold, methane/ethane world) properly. Libratia has big orbital/tidal problems I don't have the math to easily fix... So yeah, I'm afraid I'll be working on Planetocopia for the rest of my life. Like it or not. It still takes more time most days than any other creative project, but I'm also:
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