And Speaking of Worldbuilding…

Since I was talking about world-building earlier, thought I’d follow up with something a little different. Here’s a few ongoing webcomics that I really like that have created truly impressive universes to play in:

1) Girl Genius

ggGirl Genius has been going on since 2002, so if you’re new to it, bank some time to catch up. (Or buy the print copies.) Phil & Kaja Foglio’s “Gaslamp Fantasy” series has been going continuously from the start, with only a few filler strips here and there during it’s run. The world is correspondingly epic, with a vaguely Victorian Europe overrun by mad scientists and their creations. A lot of it is intentionally goofy and amusing, but as Terry Prachett once said, “Funny is not the opposite of Serious.”

2) Gunnerkrigg Court

gcA special child is enrolled in a strange boarding school that seems to exist in its own separate universe. You’d be forgiven if you think of Hogwarts. But if this is Hogwarts, it is Hogwarts filtered through Terry Gilliam and Neil Gaiman. The eponymous Court is a school, but also a city filled with ghosts and automatons, adjacent to a forest where the old spirits live. Including a particular Coyote.

3) Stand Still. Stay Silent

ssssHow many post-apocalyptic stories come with a hefty dose of Scandinavian magic and folklore? One that I know of. All the fantastic elements tie back into the setting, as do the characters. This is one of those stories that could not be removed from its locale. It’s a slow burn, but when the monstrosities start showing up, they are absolutely horrifying. (Though a trigger warning for those who have issues with violence to cats and dogs.)

4) Kill Six Billion Demons

ksbdIf any webcomic ever had the potential to found its own religion, this is it. The world is deep and strange and somehow vaguely familiar all at the same time. The art is stunning and hallucinatory. It’s a story of gods and angels and devils and a heaven/hell that’s suffering severe infrastructure problems due to neglect.

World-building is what you make it. . .

cryptonomicon reamde

I’ve been reading some Neal Stephenson lately and I’ve been reminded of a point that I often try to make when I do my world-building talks. The point being that the skills used for world-building in science fiction and fantasy are not genre specific. I see writers who assume that if they’re not building the universe from the ground up, the whole world-building toolkit is irrelevant. They fail to realize that every writer has to build a world in the reader’s mind, and even if the facts behind the pages are not the author’s invention, those facts still need to inform the story and make it into the reader’s head. The world of Cryptonomicon is no less full and complex and richly detailed as Snow Crash, despite the former being less science fiction than the average Tom Clancy novel.

I’m currently reading (listening to) Reamde. And I’m reminded a lot of a triptych of John Brunner novels; Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider. Like those three rightly classic novels, Stephenson juggles multiple viewpoints to illuminate an incredibly detailed and complex world— even when that world is much more congruent to the one we live in than Brunner’s.

shockwave zanzibar sheep

So I have a fan theory

movie_poster_zootopia_866a1bf2So I noticed that the movie Zootopia is on Netflix now, and it reminded me of a little fan theory I developed back when I saw the movie in theatres.  If you’ve seen it, you may have noticed something that differentiates this film from the typical Disney (or any) “funny animal” story.  In stories of Mickey, Donald and Goofy, the world the characters inhabit is simply a proxy for the real world us humans inhabit.  If species is mentioned, it’s only for the sake of a joke, or as an obvious metaphor for class or race or nationality and we just accept the characters are just humans in funny suits.

Zootopia is very different in this respect. The story spends science-fictional levels of effort world building to show that we’re not just dealing with furry humans. The eponymous city spends vast technological resources to accommodate everything from radical size differentials to having separate artificial ecosystems emulating everything from artic to tropical conditions.  Most importantly, it acknowledges a past history where the animal denizens had the predator-prey relationships we’re familiar with. “Thousands of years ago,” these animals didn’t have culture, technology, or even the anthropomorphic posture they show in the present time.  This is, in fact, a major plot point… Which leaves a question dangling.

How does one get from there to here? Everything about the film is sfnal in its attention to detail, but it mentions “thousands of years” for this transition in the first few minutes.  That doesn’t seem enough to build a technological culture from scratch.  Also, no humans are in evidence. While we could posit this is an alternate Earth where humans never evolved, we still see at least one major character that seems to have developed from a domesticated species.  Also, it seems that these animals, mammals at least, all developed intelligence at roughly the same time, evolutionarily speaking.

brain-wave-coverNow consider the plot of the Poul Anderson novel, Brain Wave.  From Wikipedia:

At the end of the Cretaceous period, Earth moved into an energy-damping field in space. As long as Earth was in this field, all conductors became more insulating. As a result, almost all of the life on Earth with neurons died off, causing the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The ones that survived passed on their genes for sufficiently capable neurons to deal with the new circumstance. Now in modern times, Earth suddenly moves out of the field. Within weeks all animal life on Earth becomes about 5 times as intelligent. The novel goes through the triumphs and tribulations of various people and non-human animals on Earth after this event.

At the end of the novel the humans develop interstellar travel and it’s implied that they leave for the stars. Given how close the apes are to humans, they may have joined them. The super intelligent animals left behind wouldn’t need to develop technology, language, or culture from scratch, the humans would have left that all behind for them. A few thousand years would be enough time to build a culture out of those remnants, and also probably enough time for the animals to self-select, breeding for a more “human” appearance and posture, emulating these long-disappeared humans, their progenitors, who left for the heavens…

Zootopia is a sequel to Brain Wave, set about nine or ten thousand years after the humans left.