The Edge of Thought


Vision 9

The Edge of Thought


Bob Billing

Copyright © 2002, Bob Billing, All Rights Reserved

Do you really need all that worldbuilding?

I have an opinion, based on nearly forty years spent reading science fiction: to write good SF or fantasy you must build your imagined world in eye-straining detail. Then you must ignore it completely and get on with telling the story.

Let me try to explain by using a few references from outside SF.

Nevil Shute Norway was an aircraft designer in the 1930s, and the founder of Airspeed Ltd. As a hobby he wrote novels, using just Nevil Shute as his pen name. Most of his books are intermittently in print, more than half a century after their initial publication. The fascinating thing about Shute's fiction is that he takes readers by the hand and leads them into the world of pre-jet aviation. More than that, he takes them behind the scenes into the cockpit and the maintenance hangar.

To do this he calls on his extensive experience in the aviation world. How often an engine needs to be overhauled, how it's handled and what tools are used, all are second nature to Shute. That's what he spent his working life doing,  so he has no need to do research.

And that's precisely why the background detail doesn't intrude into the story. In Round the Bend he tells the story of Shak Lin, a ground engineer with an interest in philosophy, who develops a new religion. It's a fascinating novel, one that I re-read every few years. It's a matter of levels. Shak Lin is trying to come to terms with his own ideas - and pass them on. Meanwhile Tom Cutter, who owns the organisation that employs Shak Lin, is trying to escape from his feelings about his wife's death. The book tells the story of the creation of the Shak Lin cult - and by implication examines the process through which all religions are created. Yet it tells the story in terms of nuts and bolts, spanners and fuel pipes, simple things that the reader can easily learn to understand.

Learn is the operative word here. Shute's trick with the explanations of the technicalities is very simple and very effective.

He explains nothing.

What he does is include the characters' reactions to what is going on. This way the reader learns how events touch their lives and by implication what significance those events have.

Shute isn't the only author to do this successful. Dudley Pope in his historical novel Ramage's Signal has this line: "The tower, sir. There! It's - well, it looks as though it's winking!"

What the unfortunate sailor is reporting to his captain is that he's seen one of the first semaphore towers. It has shutters near its top and they're being opened and closed to send a message to someone several miles away who is watching through a telescope.

What Pope has done is describe the semaphore very lightly and then let the characters react to it. It's at this point, the very edge of thought, where the real or imagined world brushes across the characters' lives, that the details are interesting.

Now let's apply this to science Fiction. In our worldbuilding, we're making intelligent guesses about how the future will be put together. We weave from thin air the politics and diplomacy, the sports and music, the manners and dress codes of our imagined worlds. We try to do it consistently, we look at how human beings have behaved in the past and we guess that, in similar situations, they'll behave the same way again. They've always made money and spent it, fallen in love, started fights, and kept pets. And as long as people are still people, they'll go on being cruel, selfish, loving, and slightly dotty. Nothing's going to change that.

In a sense, a lot of our imagined future is history in fancy dress. That's why we can describe it very lightly and touch on cultural ideas that already exist in the readers' minds. Doing this well requires a gentle hand; it's too easy to slap in references which may mean nothing to many readers or to force political preconceptions into the story. I haven't kept a tally of how many stories start off with "There was this evil empire..." as their premise, but there are certainly too many of them.Why do empires get such bad press? Why can't someone have a benign empire for a change? Star Trek more or less managed it with the United Federation of Planets. I suspect that it's because "colonisation" and "imperialism" are the current fashionable hate-words and that once the fashion changes again we'll have something else to attack.

So if we're simply going to dress up the past as the future, why bother to write SF at all? Why not write historical novels and have done with it? To my mind there are three valid reasons for going into the future:

First, it's possible to leave the reader's preconceptions behind. I've just written a story about a man and a woman who hate each other but are trapped in the same escape capsule when the starship they are on explodes. This triggered a debate in our local writers' group - should it be SF at all? Wouldn't it have been better to stay on Earth and have them trapped in an elevator or a lifeboat?

I still think I was right to make it SF. Let's say I'd set the story in the 1930s and dropped the hapless pair in a small boat when a transatlantic liner went down. At once the reader will bring to the story a lot of ideas about the social class of the characters, the blameworthiness of the captain, and the way the boat's put together. Take them forward a few centuries and all that disappears. I've changed the rules of the game; the reader knows nothing outside the story and is willing to go along with whatever I say.

There is of course a temptation to say everything, rather like the organist who can't resist pulling out every stop. It's only too easy to drown the story in detail, pour in the whole design of the escape pod, how its artificial gravity, life support and electronics work. In the end I could go down to the pipe fittings and wiring colours.


I have to design in detail, get the pod clear in my mind so that I know what's going to work and what isn't. But all the description it gets in the story is that there is a radio which is broken, artificial gravity, some controls, two couches, and a locker with food. The artificial gravity's only there because zero-gravity scenes are confusing to read.

The second reason for going into the future is also the reason stories sometimes fail completely. It's possible to introduce elements that simply don't exist in our world. You can have interstellar travel, non-human intelligences, telepathy, mind-enhancing drugs, robots, and galactic empires.

However, it's too easy to put so much effort into designing the future that leaving out even a tiny bit is utterly heartbreaking.

So go and break your heart.

You may suffer for your worldbuilding. The reader doesn't have to. Except where the future technology impinges on the characters' lives, you must leave it out. I've spent a few amusing evenings designing faster-than-light drives, looking for a little crack in the mathematics of relativity into which it might be possible to poke a new discovery. I've got pages of notes on the subject, yards of equations, all of which are very useful for working out what the drive might do under various circumstances. But unless the plot needs this sort of detail, I simply don't use it.

So why bother doing it at all? Why don't I save myself the work and make it up as I go along? The answer is that if I did I'd never be able to make it consistent. The temptation to change details in one place to suit the story would be too great. I have to sit down and design everything from buildings to spaceships in great detail. Then I won't touch the drawings again. The characters must take the locations as they find them and make the best of them. To my mind this adds a level of realism that "making it up as you go along" can't offer.

The third reason for going into the future is that it's the ultimate tourist destination. You can take your reader to see sights that only exist in the eye of the imagination. The choices are endless. H. Beam Piper can sit a small, friendly, and very furry alien on you knee, while Anne McCaffrey can sit you on a dragon. Colin Kapp invites you to visit a planet so strange that the laws of simple arithmetic break down, while James Blish lifts whole cities from the Earth's surface.

Close your eyes and open your mind. What do you most want to happen? What one thing does the future really need? Telepathy? Immortality? Time travel? What would happen if we had it? Would it change the way live? Or as Richard Lupoff suggested in Space War Blues, would human stupidity ruin it?

Think yourself into the changed world. Imagine the sort of people who live there. Ask yourself how the change would impact on their lives.

Now start writing. And if you win the Nebula, let me know.

There is of course another way of telling a story. Brian Lecomber wrote a novel with the title Talk Down, which starts off with a simple opening problem. A young man takes his girlfriend up in a light aeroplane. He gets up to cruising altitude, engages the autopilot, has a stroke, and passes out. The girlfriend gets on the radio and screams. A flying instructor in another aeroplane hears her and gives chase. He has a few hours to teach her to fly well enough to make a landing before fuel and daylight run out.

The fascinating thing about the novel is that as the plot develops, Lecomber teaches the reader to fly. He shovels in technical detail willy-nilly, explaining it to the girlfriend as he does.

A few years after the book came out, a passenger in a Cessna was in a similar predicament - the pilot suffered a heart attack.

The passenger had read the novel. He pulled off a perfectly good landing at Elstree.