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WORLD BUILDERS

by Chris Wayan, 2006
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Creating imaginary worlds is an urge that's always been with us, but it's exploded in the last century, largely because for the first time we understand in at least a general way what makes a biosphere work (even if politicians ignore that hard-won knowledge). Still, what follows is just a list of personal influences while building Planetocopia; my omission of most mythic and utopian worlds is arbitrary. And I've stuck mostly to books; for websites; see Kindred Links: Planetology.

FICTION

I learned the art of world-building from science fiction writers. In a field this complex, amateurs can often outguess specialists, for planet-building is like juggling: you must toss many factors around in an even-handed sort of trance. The moment you over-focus on any single ball, it all falls down.

Some pioneers of the art:

OLAF STAPLEDON (1920s)
Star Maker: the history of mind in the universe as a whole, as it integrates on higher levels until as a world-spirit it meets its creator. The only novel I can think of whose protagonist is consciousness itself. And his Sirius is one of the best early portraits of an intelligent nonhuman. What I learned from Stapledon wasn't specific techniques but simply that you can make species and civilizations and ecosystems your characters; you can think big.
J.R.R. TOLKIEN (1920s-1960s)
Tolkien as science fiction writer? Sure. History and linguistics are sciences, and Tolkien's massive research shows; Middle Earth, unlike earlier mythology and fantasy, has the complexity and (more important) consistency of a real world.
I also recommend his long essay "On Fairy-Stories", the nearest thing to a guide for the literary end of the world-building craft. He argues that creativity is literally playing God, is exactly analogous to divine creation--the same thing on a smaller scale (and is sacred, not sacrilegious). The creation of another world is fundamentally different from mainstream fiction's selective evocation of the given world, and requires a different pace, framing and focus--almost as different from "fiction" as science is. Notice how The Lord of the Rings isn't a linear tale, but fractal: self-similar, with motifs and digressions echoing on different scales. Mapped, the narrative looks more like a snowflake than a line; and those digressions in space and time define his world.
POUL ANDERSON (1940s to 1990s)
A hard-science craftsman who grasped the way a world's orbit, chemistry, size, tilt and so on could shape not just its climate and biology but its people's biology and psychology. He literally wrote the book on it: the first formal guide to world-building, though I've never found a copy. Instead I learned from his fiction, like The Man who Counts and People of the Wind, plus short stories like "The Longest Voyage." My world Lyr is a tribute to him.
URSULA LEGUIN (1960s- )
The Dispossessed is one of very few novels to describe a workable alternative to capitalist democracy. It was a tribute to anarchist Emma Goldman--giving her her own world, the moon Anarres. My own Serrana is in turn a tribute to The Dispossessed--a biosphere with half a dozen intelligent species exemplifying Kropotkin's ecologically based anarchism, just as Le Guin embodied Goldman's ideas on social cooperation.
Also recommended: her essays in Language of the Night map the gulf between realism and fantasy, and has solid advice for any world-builder, particularly on names, style, and scope vs. intimacy.
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON (1990s- )
Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. An eco-anarchist saga, strongly idealistic (after a savage first chapter that scared off half my friends). Impressive travel-writing, too... No? You try to describe a place you've never been, based only on satellite photos! My Mars Reborn is a tribute/critique of Robinson's terraforming job, and an attempt to supply the one thing the books lack: a good map.
The Years of Rice and Salt is my favorite alternate history. What if the Black Death had decimated Europeans the way smallpox decimated Native Americans? How would Earth have developed sans Christianity, the Renaissance, conquistadors, colonialism? Robinson keeps it personal by following the same handful of rebel souls through incarnations in six centuries and a dozen cultures.
M.J. ENGH (1990s- )
The Wheel of the Winds. My Biosphere Variations don't cover every possibility. Karin Johansson Sällberg recently asked why I'd never explored a tidelocked world with a thick atmosphere smoothing out the temperature gradient of the endless day/endless night. Well... I'd considered it, but it seemed redundant. Wheel of the Winds explores such a world more thoroughly and entertainingly than I ever could.

NONFICTION

CLIMATOLOGY

JONATHAN ADAMS (1990s- )
A paleoclimatologist, he's mapped pollens found in Ice Age strata and deduced regional climates from them. His maps suggest that as the world grew colder, forests shrank and lands dried. The corollary: global warming may cause a wetter climate than we project. See his maps at http://members.cox.net/quaternary/
Shiveria is a tribute to his work.
MARK BOWEN (2000s- )
Thin Ice describes Lonnie Thompson's ice-core drilling on tropical mountaintops, where a hundred thousand years of climate data will melt if it's not gotten now. Good climatology also disproving the rightwing lie that climatologists are armchair alarmists. Thompson risks his life for this data; wildcatting is never easy, but try it at 20,000'!
AL GORE
An Inconvenient Truth now seems rather cautious about global warming! If anything, polar melting and extreme weather have gotten worse faster than predicted.
CHASING ICE (2012)
A film by Jeff Orlovsky on glacial meltdowns--and on James Balog, who builds timelapse cameras in his garage and risks his neck to place them all over the Arctic. Gorgeous, scary footage proving Gore right. Also proving that individuals matter: scientific institutions, insurance companies and governments aren't collecting this data
WALTER ALVAREZ (1990s)
T. Rex and the Crater of Doom is the classic argument that a large comet/asteroid strike caused climate catastrophe, killing off the dinosaurs. 20 years have only strengthened his case.

ETHOLOGY and SAPIOGENESIS (rise of intelligence)

GENERAL
VIRGINIA MORELL: Animal Wise: Brief overviews of a dozen sample species. Ants, fish, rats, parrots, elephants, dolphins, chimps, dogs/wolves. Neglects other apes, other cetaceans, octopi/squid, ravens, cats of all kinds. Focuses on social intelligence and our shared emotional palette; less on tool use, language, art or other kinds of smarts.
TEMPLE GRANDIN: I recommend not Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human (though they're not bad) but her early book Thinking in Pictures for its portrait of her own autistic thoughts and feelings, how they differs from typical language-based thought and feeling, how well she reads animals, and her conclusion that animals think and feel much as she does--cinematically, imagistically, not in language. As an Asperger myself I mostly concur; though I suspect some other brainy species do have functional languages---elephants, cetaceans, parrots and ravens, and possibly wolves in undisturbed packs.
CON SLOBODCHIKOFF: Chasing Doctor Doolittle: On animal languages. So-so at first: limp theory and apologies for asserting animals could have language at all... but once he just starts detailing how complex and diverse each species' signaling is, it's worthwhile. I'm shocked how few words have been translated. Begin to suspect it's our fault: twin sensory problems! 1: our sound-processing hearing is unusually specialized, supersensitive to our own phonemes, because our intraspecies language is even more vital to us than for most animals; they need to learn others' warning calls almost as much. 2: creatures of different sizes live and sense at different speeds. Really need to slow down birdsong and speed up whalesong, and just listen listen listen. Staring at sonograms doesn't work. And stepping down ultrasonics might make Delphinese comprehensible--if we'd just quit approaching it scientifically, trying to quantify and objectify, and just try to figure out what's being said--a translator's pragmatism. Pidgin if necessary, but once you have a bridge...
ELEPHANTS
CYNTHIA MOSS: Elephant Memories: African elephant society. Much turns out to be cultural; groups only flourish if led by experienced elders who know the territory and the neighbors.
KATY PAYNE: Silent Thunder: the discovery of elephant infrasound and its implications for communication.
BARBARA GOWDY: The White Bone: a elephant's-eye view of African elephant culture--and its genocide at human hands. Fiction, but well-researched and convincing--her description of elephant intuition may seem mystical to urban readers but it parallels how nearby human tribes use dreams and intuitions (and closely reflects my own Asperger reliance on dreams and intuitions to navigate a non-Aspie world).
RAVENS
BERND HEINRICH: Ravens In Winter: strange and brilliant minds. Aerobatics where one ballets while partner voices--sounds like narrative dance to me. Certainly functions socially like human dances--adolescents get to know each other. Heinrich's a sharp observer, though he focuses more on raven economics and status games than worldview, play or art (oh, dance isn't an art?)
BERND HEINRICH: Mind of the Raven: what we call "wild" ravens are actually survivors recently abandoned by their longtime symbiotes--us! Ravens were scouts for packs of wolves and humans. We were essentially their hunting dogs! And food testers. Raven oddities make sense in this light--e.g, Ravens read us better than we read them; ravens fear carcasses humans didn't kill but trust food we offer, though most wild animals mistrust human offerings, with good reason.
PARROTS
IRENE PEPPERBERG: Alex & Me. Moving but with a weird caveat near the end--"I'm not saying parrots are people with reduced language and math skills". When that's exactly the impression I got of Alex! But then I can't expect Pepperberg to define "people" as broadly as I'm forced to. To ME, with an Asperger brain, Alex seems a person--a sheltered and immature one, with odd parrot appetites, but no weirder than Irene. I have to define personhood more broadly! Being an animal mind myself.
Alex is not a parrot! He was robbed of parrot culture, language and environment more thoroughly than even circus tigers--their circus "families" are large, diverse and interact with a still larger world. Alex is a lab specimen, trapped, deeply dependent, with only a tiny flock: the lab staff and a few parrots more ignorant and cut-off than he is. He's not even a feral child raised by wolves (and look at their linguistic and social deficits!) His nerd friends, being nerds not parrots, myopically teach him only nerd-skills--numbers and color names--not words for emotions and intentions, language enabling him to participate in his mixed flock as an equal. We'll never know how far THAT experiment might have gone! So, yes, Alex seems impulsive, unreflective. That doesn't mean parrots (or other animal minds) are.
Irene says Alex once tore up a grant proposal and implies it was pique at being ignored for paperwork--but that he couldn't have explained why. Did she think to ask? Is Alex the limited social thinker here, or Irene? She almost seems to lack a theory of mind about Alex at times--he must be childish. Failure of imagination, scientific caution, or was she thinking "dialog about feelings wouldn't be quantifiable, so why have it?" As if their friendship only matters if it yields usable results!
She writes movingly of being blindsided by grief at Alex's death. And yet... a random pet owner or a flock of feral parrots might have served Alex better--been more openminded. What social/emotional insights he displays, he developed DESPITE his tiny, nerdy flock. I can't blame Irene. She too lived in a sterile cage (poverty, sexism, bias against her findings, Alex's fragile health) denying her basic tools she needed to do more. Just like Alex.
I've ordered but not yet read The Alex Studies; no doubt I'll modify my critique above.
ELIZABETH MARSHALL THOMAS: chapter at end of the Hidden Life of Deer on communication with her parrot. VERY thought-provoking. She suspects a sort of parrot intuition, neither linguistic nor Grandin's thinking-in-pictures exactly, something looking more like ESP. For me this isn't absurd; my Asperger brain has a couple of senses normal humans rarely report: a weak electromagnetic compass, and a direct sense of others' moods as a sort of aura, even at considerable distance. Thomas's parrot sensory world sounds a lot like mine!
CANINES
FARLEY MOWAT: Never Cry Wolf. Revolutionary in the 1960s and still the best intro. Especially intriguing: his Inuit informants' claim that undisturbed wolf cultures (already rare then, even rarer now) have a true language including basic terms for time: "Caribou northeast. Meet noon tomorrow." (Many modern researchers still ignore enculturation, assume wolf cubs tossed together in a compound are in fact wolves. Try this with human infants and you get mutes. Or mutts.) And note the great courtesy shown him by his wolf informants--one mom with vulnerable cubs lets a wild human into her burrow without biting him! As with ravens, wolves read us better than we read them.
ELIZABETH MARSHALL THOMAS: The Hidden Life of Dogs. How canines see each other. Particularly striking: her anecdotal evidence that at least some dogs have a theory of mind--indeed, can on occasion grasp human humor.
ELIZABETH MARSHALL THOMAS: The Social Lives of Dogs. How canines cope with us. Much of what researchers think of as intelligence testing is really, to a dog, awkward problems of etiquette. Is it OKAY to solve that puzzle and grab that treat? Doesn’t the human still want it? They went to such trouble to hide it...
BIG CATS
ELIZABETH MARSHALL THOMAS: The Tribe of Tiger particularly her observations on Kalahari lion culture and on circus tigers (cramped conditions, but fulfilling jobs. Showbiz!)
PETER BEAGLE: The Lady and her Tiger on Hollywood animal trainers and the animals who train them.
CYNTHIA MOSS: Portraits in the Wild: Animal Behavior in East Africa. Lions are even more sensual/sexual than they seem. Males aren’t parasites: their manes just stand out too much for easy hunting. They’re guards and nannies, and despite their reputation for cub-killing, cub survival rates plummet in a pride without adult males. So the policy of letting tourists hunt males because "they're just deadbeats" is disastrous.
APES and MONKEYS
JANE GOODALL: In the Shadow of Man (2000 ed.) and The Primate Family Tree
DE WAAL and LANTING: Bonobo. Hippies in the trees! We aren't doomed to be chimps! Whew! OK, it got hyped and bonobos may not be saints, but read these first-hand observations and judge for yourself.
DIAN FOSSEY: Gorillas in the Mist. We forget how much our view has changed because of her. Yeah, our view of chimps has modified too; but gorillas were savage monsters before Fossey; the revolution in our view is rivaled only by wolves, before and after Mowat.
PENNY PATTERSON: The Education of Koko; video A Conversation with Koko. The most convincing posterchild for animal personhood, and rightly so.
CHENEY and SEYFARTH: How Monkeys See the World: they argue intelligence is best characterized not by the cleverest things you do but by the dumbest. What do your behavioral gaps reveal?
CETACEANS
JOHN LILLY: Mind in the Waters and Communication Between Man and Dolphin: the Possibilities of Talking with Other Species. These are ancient (and reviled by some behaviorists). Anyone have recommendations for more recent booklength studies of cetacean intelligence? And not just bottlenose dolphins. What of orcas and spermwhales? Biggest brains on the planet, and who's paying any attention? Beyond trying to establish bare population figures, sigh...
OCTOPI AND SQUID
M. MOYNIHAN: Communications and Noncommunication by Cephalopods is the only book I know of and it's from 1985. Anyone have better suggestions?
EQUINES
CYNTHIA MOSS: Portraits in the Wild: Animal Behavior in East Africa contains a fascinating chapter on zebras. They aren't horses with stripes. Way more individualistic! “Herds” are really clusters of cliques based on selective friendships, rather than a pecking order or harems and patriarch. Not just mother-child bonds as in elephants, either; stallions don’t drive out young males, they befriend them. Fighting's not too severe and zebras help others even against packs of predators. Leadership's shared between sexes; a lead stallion can be deposed and rejoin a bachelor group and later come back or join another group of mares. The stripes function as bug-repellent and nametags, not just as predator-confusing Op Art.

MISCELLANEOUS BIOLOGY/ECOLOGY

COMPETITION versus COOPERATION
CHARLES DARWIN: On the Origin of Species: the surprisingly nuanced classic.
PETER KROPOTKIN: Mutual Aid: The best Darwin-critique. Kropotkin's fieldwork was in Siberia, where the problem's the environment, not your neighbors. Altruism and cooperation pay off better than dog-eat-dog.
SEX
OLIVIA JUDSON: Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation. This collection of advice to the lovelorn does for nonhuman sex what Mary Roach did for human sex in Bonk. Funny, eye-opening, if at times stomach-turning...
ISABELLA ROSSELLINI: Green Porno (several dozen short Web videos). An actress/ethologist's comical take on the weird sexual arrangements of your neighbors. Funny and yet she's careful to get the facts right.
TREES
RICHARD PRESTON: The Wild Trees, on the temperate rainforest canopy 100 meters up in the redwoods--and the zero-budget maniacs who explore them. Shoestring science at its grungiest! Echoes Chasing Ice in extolling the role of crazy, slightly suicidal amateurs.

CULTURE and (ALTERNATE) HISTORY

JARED DIAMOND (1990s- )
His Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs and Steel explores the environmental factors leading to social and technological progress (or lack of it, in his follow-up Collapse). In some cases sheer geography alone explains progress (for example, a narrow east-west strip will progress faster than a north-south one: crops can spread faster. And a crossroads may suffer more wars, but also collects innovations.) My world Jaredia is a tribute, as well as a thought-experiment using his theories in a world they weren't designed for...
L. SPRAGUE DE CAMP (1960s-1990s)
The Ancient Engineers on the surprising early history of technology--and on the social matrix that fosters or hinders progress. Intriguing subtheme: he argues, caustically, that religions are technology--they're social machines generating power for leaders and comfort for followers--at a high social cost.
HELENA NORBERG-HODGE
Ancient Futures: a real-life utopia. The people of Ladakh in the Himalayas, before the invasion of modern "improvements," had flexible marriages, rough sexual equality, economic egalitarianism, communal ownership, village democracy, individual freedom, local independence and self-sufficiency, recycling, omposting toilets, constant parties, serenity and a vivid sense of fun, highly ethical behavior (almost no crime) and near-vegetarianism (almost no animal exploitation). She points out that most "underdeveloped" communities aren't: they were invaded and shattered. Ladakh is one of the few intact never-colonized cultures left for us to learn from--and it looks weirdly futuristic.
REBECCA SOLNIT
A Paradise Built In Hell. How do people really react in disasters? Instant self-organizing. Joyful empowerment. They had FUN rebuilding after the San Francisco quake of 1906, the explosion in Halifax in 1917, the London Blitz, the Mexico City quake of 1985, the Twin Towers in 2001, and and Hurricane Katrina flooding New Orleans in 2005. Sociologists studying disasters now concede Kropotkin was generally right--cooperation is our default setting. Yet even disaster agencies that should know better still assume (against evidence) that people regress--and acting on that belief, THEY riot! The army in Frisco killed and burned far more than saved; it was nearly as bad in Mexico, and worse in New Orleans. Even in 9/11, the 'heroic' police and firefighters were less effective than amateurs on the scene, who self-organized with amazing speed and efficiency.
Solnit argues that the lie we revert to savagery has multiple roots. Elites assume it. News spreads it: if it bleeds, it leads. Writers too: the lie's more dramatic. Hollywood disaster flicks are all mob panic, survivalism, lone heroes. Science fiction crawls with dystopias. Apocalyptic fantasy sells. TV characters are famously apolitical and selfish. 'Reality' shows are rigged so backstabbing pays. Economic theory declares us solitary, selfish consumers--against the evidence! The truth is, we're cooperative improvisers.
COLIN WARD
Anarchy in Action: describes how well anarchist societies (the city of Kronstadt; nearly the whole province of Cataluña) actually functioned, and how much ordinary life is already anarchist and self-organizing. He broadens Solnit's point beyond crises into daily life.

ANTI-RESOURCES

PETER WARD DOUGLAS (1980s- )
Rare Earth argues that intelligent life (indeed, anything more complex than bacteria) requires a rare combination of factors, all of which must be quite Earthlike. Douglas ignores how many of his factors can affect each other--differences can even cancel each other out. My doubts led to the series The Biosphere Variations, showing ways that worlds unlike Earth might support life, even intelligent life.
Life After Man and Future Evolution are fun speculation but Douglas treats human civilization as a fluke, ignoring other brainy species who might evolve if we quit hogging the niche. Being a human supremacist (uniquist?) is an arguable stance, but an extreme one; he needs to explain why no other big-brained critter would exploit "our" niche, in deep time. I'm not convinced. Diverse lineages of big smart critters have co-evolved in the last few percent of Earth's history--we're pushing each other. If the lead singer quits, others will step forth!
LARRY NIVEN (1960s-1990s).
Niven uninfluenced me too. He's a well-known world-builder (even gives workshops on it) but his characters and cultures leave me cold... as do his right-wing politics. His best-known creation, Ringworld, feels to me like a big empty downtown with no street life--he's an engineer, but no architect, and the book reveals the difference. Niven taught me to avoid sterile macroengineering. Get the numbers right, yes, but you have to explore daily life on another world to really convey its nature.
ALLEN STEELE
Coyote, on colonizing the moon of a gas giant, is a stunningly bad SF novel. Bad math, bad science, bad prose, implausible (and vague and unexplained) geography, unconvincing characters, and a cringeworthy Southern folksy wisdom. But the New York Times liked it, so it must be good! (I list it here mainly to show that mainstream literary reviews of SF are as clueless now as in 1965--or 1920. Look for Hugo, Nebula or World Fantasy Award nominations instead; the worldbuilding will at least not be incompetent.)

VISUAL ART

HENRY DARGER (1960s-70s)
A few years back, a San Francisco museum exhibited pieces of the massive fantasy world Henry Darger created in his Chicago apartment. I was moved and impressed by his epic fantasy about children rebelling against adult abusers with the help of strange angels--part human, part mountain sheep, part dragon. I recognized a kindred spirit. The exhibit bristled with notes arguing the old man's obsessions didn't prove he was a psychotic child molester... the exhibitors' utter incomprehension of what he was doing taught me I was a Darger too... and might as well get used to it.
ECO GLOBE (1983?)
An article in the Minnesota Review showed a sketchy, hollow alien planet several meters wide, with girders for meridians, seas of empty air, and continents of steel, welded by two Italian metalworkers (one named Remo--he named one continent Remolia. Modest!) I've been unable to trace it on the Web so far; but I never quite forgot their world. Not its details, or style, or plausibility--but just that they did it--and on such a scale.
A WALK THROUGH TIME (1990s)
But those are indirect influences. What directly inspired these globes were some really bad ones! Through the nineties, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco had a "walk through time": each geological era had a room of its own, with fossils and some pretty nice dioramas and a globe showing Earth as it had been in that era. Only not! These globes had puffy continents (too vertically exaggerated) with vague mountain ranges--they looked like bread dough or scabs, except they were colored battleship-gray. There were no icecaps, river systems, or vegetation to indicate climate--either regional or global. The only thing marked was the border of the United States! Ah, yes, it existed before the dinos, and will endure to the end of time... Americans, ever modest.
Not only were all the continents like wet cement, making you feel like Earth never really firmed up into a real place until wonderful we came along... they didn't even give a sense of their geologic era--was the world hot, cold, wet, dry, covered in ice? Couldn't tell by these suckers. Still, 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 went home all hot to build a better planet, a vivid, specific, opinionated planet...
...and I just couldn't stop. I tell you, they're like potato chips.
Photomontage by Wayan of 19 hypothetical planets and moons from space, ranging from 5000 to 30,000 km across.


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