June 2018 ♦ Robot Unicorns

The other night at a writers’ group, the question came up of whether writing fantasy might be less restrictive than other types of fiction. With fantasy, the author is freer to make up the facts, details and history of their world. The author is also the ultimate arbiter of what makes sense. By contrast, contemporary or historical novels are grounded in our own reality. There are always readers who will know a lot more about the places and facts depicted in a book than the author does. So authors often do a lot of research to be sure their stories ring true.

It’s reasonable to think fantasy authors don’t spend much time researching or preparing their worlds. For a lot of books it’s probably true because the stories just don’t require a lot of “world structure” to support them. On the other hand, if you think about classic series like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, you know the authors put in some work researching and envisioning their magics, mythologies and settings.

Some authors travel to research their books. If you’re reading a story set in a particular place and you notice a bunch of local references, you can bet the author either lived there or took a working vacation to explore the place and experience its people. With fantasy, we don’t get to write off a two-week stay at the Bard’s Inn at the edge of the Dark Forest. (Actually, it looks like fun but I didn’t see any orcs or dragons in the video.) Instead, a fantasy author builds their world in their mind asking and, yes, researching answers to questions along the way.

At the risk of revealing spoilers to a series I may someday finish, here’s a screen grab of browser bookmarks for some of my research. Now, be honest, if you had a choice between traveling to Bermuda to research the setting for a murder mystery, or reading about the feasibility of landing an interplanetary spaceship while considering Sanderson’s First Law of Magic, which would you choose? Exactly! You’d be a fantasy writer, right? Clearly we’re on the same page.

Now, here’s where this really gets interesting. Those bookmarks with the symbols that look like Saturn are from the StackExchange site for Worldbuilding. If you’re not familiar with StackExchange, you’re in for a treat. They have more than 170 unique sites in which people ask questions and thoughtful members provide and comment on answers. These are actively managed Q&A sites with rules and lengthy discussions frequently ensue.

I first ran into StackExchange from a computer programming angle where it proved to be a rich how-to resource for figuring things out. But there are StackExchanges for just about anything. (At least one reader of this blog may want to check out the Music Practice and Theory site.)

Back to world-building, if you want to stretch your imagination and indulge in some fascinating reading, pop on over to the Worldbuilding site and just browse. As I write this, some top questions are: “What could people notice about someone who is two times as dense as a regular person?”; “How large could my sea serpents be?”; and “Why might a robot’s memory be unreliable after the Apocalypse?” You may be surprised by the rigor and depth of the discussions and you’ll probably want to read those books if and when they come out! This is what research looks like for fantasy and sci-fi authors. Plus there’s also Google.

Of course, the internet can be a horrifying place too. One question I was researching had to do with how many people an isolated colony would need to guarantee enough genetic diversity to thrive. I inadvertently stumbled onto a European white supremacist site that studiously ran through the calculations. They wanted to establish an isolated colony somewhere, believing non-whites were going to overrun and destroy society. Looking at something like that makes you feel like you’ve actually touched evil. That a type of illogic wicked force exists in our world, controlling people and trying to extend its influence. I scrubbed my computer with a full scan but it’s not enough.

On a brighter note, there are also plenty of good, smart people in our world working together to figure out how to destroy evil incarnate and whether it’s possible to genetically engineer unicorns.

We may not have built this world we live in, but each of us is a world-builder. Our own choices, beliefs and regard for one another help mold the world that surrounds us. When we are gone, the world we leave will be of our own creation.

Next time we’ll talk about magic!

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