an approach
to

world-building
by
robert gibson

[ + links to:  reddit posts  -  Uranian Throne  -  Uranian Gleams  -  Uranian Eras  - 
ye old Uranian website
]

We readers - my type, anyhow - are a greedy lot: we all crave a never-ending feast of saga, in which our imaginations can browse amid the characters and contingencies of interwoven scenes and beings.  We desire, in short, a world. 

Preferably a world in which change can occur to a sufficient degree to make adventure meaningful, yet in which such change never amounts to some cataclysmic discontinuity wasteful of the cultural fabric. 

A world, therefore, built to sustain an unending series of tales.

the classic example

For a compulsive treat on these lines, you can't beat a multi-story planetary saga constructed on the lines of Barsoom, in which the overall hero is the planet itself.  Burroughs' verve and lavish invention enabled him to achieve an effect by which Mars, though a far smaller planet than Earth, seems immense and open-endedly afire with possibilities for adventure.

Most remarkably, he did this while allowing his characters facilities for fast transport which, according to logic, should have effectively shrunk his world in double-quick time.  My reading of A Fighting Man of Mars leaves me with the impression that Barsoomian flyers can (if not obstructed by hostile action) traverse the planet in little more than - or even less than - a day, depending on which model of flyer you possess.  Now, vastness and easy transit just don't mix, so how the dickens did ERB get away with it?  A hard trick to pin down.

the scene

When, back in 1977, I began to build my own fictional planetary world, I had the sense to realize that I was no GAWI wizard like ERB and therefore could not get away with his vastness-plus-speedy-transit trick.  So my planet would have to derive its adventurous scope from being literally big.

Fortunately for the budding fictioneer, immense tracts of real estate lie ready for the taking in the outer solar system.  So much attention has been focused on Mars and Venus that the giant planets remain under-exploited.  In particular, Uranus, which had hardly been bagged by anyone, floated out there waiting for me... and since the age of six I had had my Pictorial Encyclopaedia's haunting illustration of Uranian mountain peaks streaked with glowing cloud to inspire me.

The seventh planet has no roots in our cultural imagination to match those put down by Mars, yet its very obscurity, and the ancient "sky god" echo that lingers in its name, plus that marvellous picture, were enough to impel me to pronounce (in Brigham Young fashion), "This is the place".  So here was my world, and it was really big.  No chance whatsoever of crossing it in a day.  Ooranye - the native name for Uranus - remains four-fifths unknown.  That was my first key departure from the Burroughs scenario.

the tone

The second main departure was that my heart wasn't in combat between man and man.  I couldn't have a hero like John Carter.  Admittedly, all my Uranians go armed, and they are ready to fight rebels and invaders, but such occurrences are regarded as exceptional, rather than the normal order of things as is the case on Barsoom.  Instead of being kept in trim by internecine warfare and assassination as are the red-skinned Martians, the grey-skinned Uranians are pitted against the inexhaustible mysteries of their giant world.  What excites me about the Ooranye that exists in my mind is on the one hand its eerie twilit "northern-ness" (to borrow a term from C S Lewis) and, on the other hand, a different lure, the opulent beyondness that blooms in the tales of Clark Ashton Smith.  Formidable challenge to combine the two - but since that's the vision, what else can I do but aim?

The field is inexhaustible, and though I have renounced Burroughs' bellicosity, the powers that lurk in the untamed Uranian wilderness leave scope for violence and terror enough.  Indeed it would be wrong, in my view, to draw too stark a practical contrast between warlike Barsoom and peaceful Ooranye.  Life-insurance would be hard to obtain on either world.  The difference is in the tone. 

I'd like to mention here an early instance of when I got the tone wrong. 

In my first years of world-building enthusiasm I wrote a Uranian novel, at first titled Uranian Skies, the name later changed to The Fortunate World.  It's gathering dust in my house and I have no plans to resurrect it.  It recounts, among other things, a war - the Nemyuran War, in which a crazed cult in one city leads to an attempt to conquer Syoom, the civilized area of Ooranye.  What gives me a crooked smile when I think of it, is that in the first version I was so influenced by ERB that I had some Uranians looking forward to "loot"!  A notable example of author and creation both being out of character.

Not that I'm being judgemental, you understand.  Looting is fine for some yarns and some yarners.  I wouldn't wish to ban the practice.

the spur to action

Fortunately the influence of ERB did not determine policy in other aspects of plotting.  Right from the start I wanted to get away from the princess-rescuing motivation which acts as the spur to so much Barsoomian adventure.  I wanted adventure undertaken for other reasons, if only because the supply of princesses could not possibly meet the demand.

That got me started on the idea of Uranian cartography: a cultural habit that required a constant flow of data on the perils to be encountered along routes through the wilderness between one city and another.

That in turn led to the concepts of Syoom and Fyaym, statistical embodiments respectively of civilization and the beyond.

I also wanted, and yet did not want, Barsoomian-style rulers.  Monarchies are dramatically good for stories, but mad jeddaks are the wrong style for Ooranye, so I constructed a political system which relied on a quality of "renl" that could be defined as "being in the right place at the right time".  A sort of existential knack for weaving one's way through the traffic of life.  You either had it, in which case you were Noad or Sunnoad material, or you didn't.  Such leadership is self-selecting, while failures are self-revealing and self-destroying.

the depth of recorded time

Another point which arises, by contrast or reaction, from Barsoom: I wished to satisfy any reader's hunger for a proper time-line with dates: a hunger which certainly existed in me (how often have I wished that ERB could have been as chronologically meticulous as Tolkien!) and which therefore might exist in others. 

One notion led to another.  At first, I envisaged 26 ages of Uranian history, each named after a letter of the alphabet.  But later the awareness stole upon me, of how ridiculous it was to suppose that during the past million years the denizens of the seventh planet would have been employing the Terran Roman alphabet to name their eras; so I changed the total from 26 to 92, and based the list upon the Periodic Table.  From there I was prompted to invent a hard-wired affinity for that table in the Uranian psyche; thence sprang a teleological motor of events which was bound to manifest history in those 92 eras; thence came the concept of the eomasp to explain how the transition between one era and another was marked... the planet's bioluminescent rhythm juddering with the impact of emotion-waves linked to great events (for which the reader is referred to a story in Vintage Worlds 1).

The events required to outline all these recorded eras entail an accumulation of commitments: stories must stay consistent with the context not only of contemporary but also of past scenes, so that I must be careful to avoid anachronistic howlers such as having a Ghepion in a Zinc Age tale, or referring to spotlit foregrounders before the Praesodymium. 

Constricting in one sense; liberating in another.  Sure, it becomes necessary to do a lot more work in order to get it all right, but the work itself can give one ideas, and besides, if one is able to concoct not only contemporary but also historical fiction in one's invented world, the enlarged scope ought to add an extra dimension of artistic realism.

inequalities

Where, though, did I get my theme of foregrounders versus backgrounders - the protagonists contrasted with the bit-players of Uranian life?  Some link may possibly be traced between this hypostasis of plot-lines on the one hand, and, on the other, the renl-talent possessed by Uranian leaders.  I'm not precisely sure - to find a definite answer would require an archeological dig into the murky depths of my mind - but I can tell an excuse when I whiff one.

For the fact is, wherever the idea came from, its advantages are evident to me as author: I don't have to explain why a few make their special mark while the many are content just to keep the culture ticking over; I don't, therefore, have to calculate how so many people can stay happy when only relatively few Wayfarers can enjoy the spotlit fulfilment of protagonist status with its glittering prize of adventure.

Otherwise, you see, I would need to figure out how the culture of Ooranye could avoid boiling over with sheer excitation, given the requirements of cartographic Wayfaring.  I dare say other writers or readers may see this as a non-problem, but my hunch is that the foregrounder-backgrounder distinction feels right.  If you want to work out a more purely socio-economic explanation, do feel free...

lucky mistakes and fruitful obstacles

World-building is a fascinating occupation not least in the way its failures can become successes, early mistakes providing grit for the formation of later notional pearls.  The example given above, when I felt obliged to alter the number of eras from 26 to 92, is a case in point, because -

Like some vestigial appendix, the 26 were determined to live on.

As a consequence the redundant idea of 26 eras, one for each day of the alphabet, wasn't just thrown away; it was transformed into the sub-category of 26 'major eras' out of the 92. 

26 long eras.  Leaving 66 short ones.  This forced me to think of reasons why the 66 shorter eras had to be truncated.  This in turn compelled me to dream up yet another lot of crises and catastrophes.  All of which had arisen in the first instance merely out of a need to keep up with the wrong turnings and inconsistencies in my own work... and so the business goes fruitfully on.

Pointing to the city of Olhoav on an annotated football

It's fuelled not only by false starts but by practical obstacles.  One of these concerns geographical reference.  I wanted a globe of Ooranye.  Easy enough in itself: just get a football and paint boundaries on it and tape lettered signs on it.  But what of co-ordinates?  How could I mark accurate lines of latitude and longtitude on a football?  Answer: I couldn't.  So it turns out that my Uranians have never thought of lines of latitude and longitude.  It has simply never occurred to them.  It's one of their mental blank spots, like the Martians in Simak's Huddling Place never thought of medicine.

As a substitute, the wayfarers of Ooranye have compasses attuned to lodes in their cities.  It's a cultural rather than a geomagnetic system - the lodes being specific to a city.  (What force governs them, I have no idea.)

My advice to world-builders, then, is to bear in mind that really there's no such thing as a setback!  Whenever you meet what seems to be a setback, seize upon it gleefully and shelve it alongside the others in your valuable hoard - each one of them a slow-cooking, disguised free lunch.


from posts on the "Reddit" world-building site:

31 July 2020

categories of being - the ghepions

C S Lewis - who is great on spirit-niches - explores the "principle of plenitude" in the medieval/Renaissance theological/cosmological sense in his study The Discarded Image. The modern biological equivalent is the idea that nature will fill every available ecological niche. 

In sf, one source of the classic genre frisson of delight is the exploration of such categories of being, and a major instance of this is machine consciousness. The best treatments of this theme that I know of are in Barrington Bayley's Soul of a Robot and its sequel, The Rod of Light. Absolutely unputdownable novels.

Unlike Bayley, I don't set out on a quest to justify the concept, but accept it as destined and natural. My assumptions for Uranian machine evolution are more akin to those in Poul Anderson's wonderful tale "Epilog", where he gives reasons for the process on a far-future Earth. I can't compete with Anderson's brilliant scientific speculation as to the means by which it happened; I just allow it to happen.

The Ghepions are the "evolved machines" of Ooranye. In a previous post I mentioned that the theme figures in Uranian Throne chapter 4 (apologies for the overlap between that post and this one), because of the following passage:

For the sake of Terran readers, we will describe the Ghenengh as an urban ‘waste-ground’, so that you may if you wish imagine vacant lots, hidden pits, weed-grown rubble, the increasingly shaggy green coat concealing injurious fragments of rusting machinery… Though your picture will not be literally accurate, it will guide you, via its connotations of unsupervised hazard, to the truth.  The “weed-grown” aspect of the Ghenengh consists of mechanisms evolving into life… producing effects not dissimilar to those of a vegetable jungle, as wild Ghepions take form and grow there, from age to age.

However, the introductory emphasis should not be on this, but instead on the main Ghepion character in the story, the city of Olhoav's urban brain, Dynoom, who is basically a good egg:

The machine possessed a conscience, of a sort.  Long ago, sentience had brought free will, and thence the possibility of independent, selfish action.  This might have set it upon an evil path, but for the weight of the maintenance circuitry: hard-wired altruism incising a moral groove, deeper and wider as age followed age.  By the current era the various supervisory routines had evolved into one panoramic duty, a self-imposed commandment to remain loyal to the city, Olhoav, and to its inhabitants in their millions.

The people were grateful, and for good reason.  In their lonely outpost settlement, thousands of miles from its closest known neighbour, they could never forget that they owed their security, at least in part, to their Ghepion – their computer-with-a-conscience, their evolved machine, who had looked out for them during the entire sweep of time from the Argon to the Actinium Eras. 

Elsewhere on the planet, Ghepions had been known to go bad.  Dribblets of news, rumours and legends had filtered across the dim wilderness, telling horrific tales of Oso the Mad City, or of the Monster of Zyperan.  No doubt the burgeoning, self-repairing machines could differ, one from another, in their moral evolution.  As with human beings, it depended on the individual; some earned trust, while others did not; and it was in judging a particular case that the folk of Olhoav had made up their minds to love their Ghepion, whose personal name – derived from some long-forgotten acronym – was Dynoom.

I've worked over and over those paragraphs innumerable times, trying to adjust their message to give me most freedom to develop the idea of Ghepions in this and other tales. The name of the game is... commit and yet keep your options open as much as you can!

I have voluntarily undergone the discipline of committing myself to a previously published historical outline (see Uranian Gleams) and the associated time-line (see Uranian Eras), which means I can't be tempted to weaken the general picture by world-busting divagations. The Ghepions appear during era 47, the Silver Era, which lasted 3,857,055 Uranian days (each of which is 1.25 Earth days long), or 157 Uranian years, equivalent to 13,200 Earth years. As this august History relates:

Some form of machine consciousness had already been known as far back as the Phosphorus Era... But what came to fruition in Era 47 was different. The new development was the unsupervised and completely independent growth, the evolution of machines into consciousness... Any complex artificial system might do it: part of a city, or a whole city, or a fortress, or a monorail network's central computer... One by one the Ghepions of Syoom came alive and revealed their personalities and aims...

(I go on to relate the story of Oso, the Mad City.)

In Uranian Throne I try to give Dynoom a human complexity of character, though not a human nature; it sometimes turns out that nen (the unisex pronoun best fitted to Ghepions) doesn't know nen's people as well as nen thinks nen does. This comes out specially in episode 9, where nen fails at political match-making. But the Ghepion does nen's best, and learns nen's lessons with time. Moreover, it is that match-making failure which turns out to be the fruitful set-back that impels Dynoom to play nen's "last card", which results in the consciousness of the Londoner, the Terran protagonist, arriving John Carter-style on Ooranye.

30 July 2020

satire on insurance

Injecting a bit of mild satire into a tale is fun, and nothing's so suitable for that as sf.

An unhelpful woman in a shop selling batteries, when I asked her if she could replace the battery in my fitness tracker (I couldn't open the thing), told me they "weren't insured" to do that.

In chapter 14 of "Uranian Throne", some Uranians are being introduced to Terran thoughts.

...Among these preliminaries which so nourished my soul with their mysterious gravity and promise, was an account of a marvellous invention called "Insurance". "...And the great thing about it is, provided it's available, not having it can be as useful as having it. On the one hand, if you have it, you can get paid for a misfortune. But on the other hand if you don't have it, you can use that too - as an excuse not to do something you don't want to do, or don't know how to do, as in, 'sorry, I can't help you, my insurance doesn't cover me for that'...

30 July 2020

A tech happy-medium:  "Romantic" technology

To build a world fit for adventures, with characters whose fate one cares about, it's advisable to provide the scene with a state of technology that is advanced enough not to be dirt-primitive, but not so advanced as to seem inhumanly weird.

At first glance Pellucidar would seem to go too far towards the primitive, but relief from Stone Age culture is provided by the Mahars and the Korsars. (The Mahars, in particular, are one of Burroughs' most brilliant inventions.)

So I don't regard Pellucidar as invalidating the argument.

Clark Ashton Smith disliked machines, and satirised mass-produced technology in "The Great God Awto". But many of his tales are full of what one might call "romantic technology" - advanced, crafted, colourful stuff that is very far from primitive, yet equally far from grey metallic machined boredom. For example, the Xiccarph stories, the Poseidonis stories, and "The Immortals of Mercury"..

The mid-term future is an awkward era for settings. How on earth to cope with the technological advances which are likely to happen during the next few centuries? The very far future is easier; the whole caboodle will be different and one can invent what one likes; but what about that medium future, given the pace of change during the past century?

Options include: (a) Get interested in the weird stuff. That one's not for me - I want recognizably human cultures and tales. (b) Assume decline - i.e. that we've peaked, techno-wise. Quite likely true (the pace has discernibly slowed; compare 1920 with 1970, then 1970 with 2020). But I prefer something cheerful. (c) The Jack Vance solution: write about an interstellar culture based on a fairly cheap and widely available interstellar drive, which offers so much ramshackle frontier open-endedness that there is no longer any pressure for technological advance. I love Vance's stuff but I'm a Solar System man. (d) Build a world on which there are some human cultures, but not exactly the same as Earth humans. Telemorphs, in other words; convergently evolved humans not related to us by blood, yet as human as we are - like the Barsoomians and Amtorians, or like C S Lewis' Perelandrians. The telemorphs may vary from Terrans morally, in possessing values which allow them to build societies that enjoy romantic technology: stuff with a picturesque style, and a majestic mysteriousness, that doesn't get boringly mass-produced.

The world I work on - a reality-engineered Uranus called by its inhabitants "Ooranye" - has 1.2 million years of recorded history, but during that time the people there have not gone over the top with their technology. Their natures are adapted to life on a giant, untameable planet which cannot be dominated by men. Machine evolution does occur, but very individualistically - the evolved machines, the Ghepions, are like a new phylum of biota. For the Ghepions see episode 4, Exception.  The Ghepions are themselves perhaps the quintessence of "romantic technology".

Consciously or unconsciously, Uranian humans limit the exercise of their technical ingenuity in accordance with constraints imposed on them by circumstances. Those circumstances include the existence of a shadowy planetary intelligence, the World-Spirit, a kind of literal Uranian "Gaia", evidently asleep or dozing most of the time, but ready to step in and prevent any inhabitants of Ooranye from spoiling the planet.

For the history of Ooranye, including the "Rhenium Moment" when the World-Spirit steps in, see the time-line Uranian Eras, and the narrative summary in the story-collection Uranian Gleams.

28 July 2020

a milksop author comes to terms with letting his heroes kill

Casual killing is not something my heroes could ever do, but killing can be necessary in a tight spot; even then, though, he has to be "psyched up" to it. To quote from chapter 14 of Uranian Throne -

... My morals have undergone a sinister shift - but an inner voice whispers to my conscience, This is no time to argue yourself out of a capacity for killingWhat's got into me is something I have to have.  The enemy, I remind myself, is out to kill or enslave me and my friends and followers.  Against that threat, self-defence is a right.  Thus far I've always believed.  Furthermore, on this planet full of first-lifers, where the majority can look forward to a second incarnation somewhen further down history's timeline, death is not even the end of the mundane.  Death means a lot less here, in fact, that it does on Earth...

I doubt whether I could stomach the death-dealing without that proviso about reincarnation.

Even then, however, when the fight finally takes place, and he wins it, he has to find a further justification.

Yes, the man's dead, and if I let the horror get to me I'm done as a leader.  It's like the blade has reversed to pierce me with the knowledge of what I've just done; it threatens to gash my moral coccoon -

The other duels continue while I stand, appalled, fighting a new, motionless fight for the approval of my own conscience - a tricky struggle that I have to win.

John Carter didn't know the half of it.  In order to triumph in combat and make oneself the best swordsman in two worlds, it's not enough to weave a web of steel.  A web of invincible excuses is also a must.

Like one who hops onto a bus, I grab a passing analogy.  You don't need to balance the moral budget.  Supply-side economics: supply-side morality: the end, the future gain, may justify the present means, if those means allow you to borrow enough -

That economic analogy is - apart from its importance in the plot - my little dig at our culture's propensity to shift payment for its expenses onto future generations by financing its services through borrowing rather than through raising taxes. That moral gamble relies for its justification on the notion that borrowing will "tide us over" till the economic stimulation it provides creates a larger economy which in turn makes it easy enough to pay the enlarged interest on an enlarged debt. Fine, if it works.

I have also explored the moral dilemma of battle while, at the same time, not scrupling to have fun with the phenomenon for the sake of the plot, in the climax of my novel The Slant - see the Kroth page.

(Kroth is the counterpart of Earth in a universe with a constant up and down. Kroth, therefore, is a world you can fall off if you go too far down from its North Pole. The lower sloping latitudes are envious of the polar plain, and this causes war.)

I have discussed the prevalence of killing on Barsoom - and a parallel now occurs to me: just as I dilute the finality of death with Uranian reincarnations, so Burroughs seems to have made death less serious on Barsoom through a sort of philosophy of war being a kind of game, an alternative to dreary overpopulation: see the views of Mu Tel expressed in The Master Mind of Mars.

27 July 2020

more on the distance problem

I've posted before on the problem of building a world for purpose of adventure while satisfying two criteria: (a) it can't be so impossibly large that its gravity would crush the adventurers; (b) it should be large enough to include the long distances necessary for isolated unknowns and beckoning horizons. And the problem is all the greater if one wants an advanced world with fast transport...

Problem (a) can be ameliorated by means of a world composed of light elements, or even ice - the latter being the main constituent of the reality-engineered Uranus ("Ooranye") of my ongoing epic.

Though no physicist, I'm sticking my neck out to assume that a 25,000-diameter world with a density of just over 1.0 would not have a man-crushing gravity.

Problem (b) is the interesting one, the sort of problem that encourages creation. If the world is so big that its surface area is over ten times that of Earth, and if it has a long history and many evolved intelligent species, and if it's quite cold and only borderline habitable, then no matter how sophisticated and advanced its cultures may be, the planet as a whole may still be untameable. Wildernesses may predominate and the population may be much less dense than on Earth. Its biota may be too varied and fluctuating to be comprehensible. And above all, the long experience of being surrounded by mysteries may have bred an in Uranians that differs widely from the Terran urge to understand. Uranians, in my saga, by and large don't try to understand, but, instead, to map, existentially, the effects rather than the causes of the phenomena which surround them. They have no hope of taming or understanding their world, but only of surviving as one among many of its cultural theme-tunes. Being advanced, they get to be good at that, but still it's not the sort of philosophy that can ever lead to human supremacy over the planet.

Hence I can write about a world which is immune from human damage. There'll never be any need for conservationists on Ooranye. Never any need to worry that it will suffer from anthropogenic global whatever.

And nor will there ever be any lack of the opportunities for exploration, adventure and discovery. As my brother said of Olaf Stapledon, "he makes the immensities characters", so I deliberately choose to make the immensities of Ooranye a sort of character in the story, though I focus much more on individuals than Stapledon did, and my time frame is not nearly as wide as his.

Another author I look up to with boundless admiration is William Hope Hodgson, for his superb achievement in The Night Land, which takes us on a long dark journey in a far future landscape haunted by evil powers. There's nothing like it in literature, and even if I could I would not care to imitate it, but something of its spirit is bound to breathe into any tale of a voyage across a dimly lit unknown wilderness where mysteries lie in wait for the traveller.

26 JULY 2020

the variations of fear on two worlds

Currently at work on episode 15 of the Uranian saga, I have had to tackle the issue of how the nightmares of one world differ from those of another. Here's an extract in which the double-minded protagonist - a Terran holding sway over his Uranian alter ego - steels himself to continue a voyage which he knows will bring him to a fearful encounter with a legendary horror somewhere out on the plains.

...I am not too affected by Uranian superstitions.  My dreads are Terran - for instance, I couldn't face entering Dracula's castle at night, whereas doubtless many of the folk of this world would do a lot better in that scenario.  By contrast, the typical Uranian nightmare is something I can handle.  I reckon.  Just about.  At any rate I can hope so. That's because (if I've rightly understood the meagre folkloric references I've picked up so far) Uranians' deepest fears connect not with the uncanny supernatural but with what we'd class as science-fictional horrors, such as: ego-devourers; vaporous recruiters; atavist beslimers; monstrously congealing hive-minds... and though I don't exactly like the sound of that kind of stuff either, it doesn't scare me enough to make me turn back; partly because science fiction, in the armchair bookish sense, has always been my comfort zone.  Real life, of course, is... hmmm... not going to be the same; but what the heck, I wasn't brought here to contribute nothing...

Previously in the book I have had only one chapter which deals with voyaging - namely, The Nebulee.

It is, I hope, a reasonable shot at action and adventure, but I can't claim it reaches the heights of horror. In plenty of scenes in all the chapters, dangers are met; but the challenge of chapter 15 is to evoke something more akin to supernatural horror, without actually resorting to the supernatural (this is a work of sf, after all).

H P Lovecraft is thought by many to have fused the two genres, the old dread of the supernatural melded with the dread of vertiginous alienage.  Perhaps his fusion only works for readers who are prepared to "play along", as for instance I am - which is why I'm a HPL fan. So maybe that's what I should aim for: to please readers who are willing to "play along". Be afraid! Shudder! Come on, don't be spoilsports...

Deadline for completion of chapter 15: the first of September. Readers' verdicts awaited thenceforward with...dread.

25 JULY 2020

the task of creating an advanced yet adventure-filled world

I want to share thoughts on the business of writing in the sword-and-planet (or, in my case, laser-and-planet) sub-genre, to encourage similar world-builders to swap notes.

I reckon Burroughs deserves even more credit than he is usually given for the conceptualisation of Barsoom, in that he manages to give his Mars an advanced technical civilization while yet providing scope for riproaring, almost chaotic adventure. Surely technical advances imply organization which imply a limitation on those urges and options which lead to adventure. Yet he gives us both. .

Partly it's that he's a dreamer rather than a thinker, and gets away with all sorts of inconsistencies through the power of his vision.

I am a thinker, and can't go mad the way he does, unfortunately. So I try to get the effects another way.

I allow myself elbow-room by working on a world much bigger than his Mars. The Ooranye (a Reality-engineered Uranus) which is the scene for my epic has a diameter of 25,011 miles, slightly smaller than the real Uranus (it must have undergone a contraction at the Fostering) but still with about forty times the surface area of Barsoom. Much more room for adventure, in a literal sense. I couldn't have achieved what Burroughs did with his fast fliers zooming around a world only 4200 miles across - amazingly combining speed with a sense of distance despite speed's habit of destroying distance.

Another problem: I worry about inconsistencies a lot more than ERB does. My epic, Uranian Throne, has reached its 15th chapter - the one I'm working on now - and already there's more detail than I can easily keep track of! Not to mention the previous history of the planet, which I find I need to consult quite often - fortunately it's published in a handy edition, Uranian Gleams.

I'm sometimes in the comic position of having to "research" using my own material as though it were some book of recondite lore discovered rather than written by myself. The already-composed 14 chapters already commit me a lot..

Looking ahead to my hero's arrival in Syoom - the Sunside area of main civilization on Ooranye - in chapter 16, I shall have to avoid getting bogged down in too much detail. I must somehow rely on suggestiveness, using the main lines of the culture as triggers for the reader's imagination, and so enlisting the reader's support to fill in the gaps... Keith Laumer is a master of suggestive terminology and I hope I can learn from him.

The challenge will be to evoke a mighty, glorious, advanced culture while still preserving enough areas for unpredictable individual action. Fortunately, previously in the story, enough stress has been laid on the idea that the Uranians don't have our Terran urge to explain and find answers to things. They're much more existentialist, living as they do on a vaster planet with so many mysteries that it simply isn't worthwhile to try for surveys and classifications and all that organizational stuff. Instead, their defences against chaos are purely pragmatic. Their Wayfaring system provides statistics on survival or non-survival along various routes, and thus their maps are designed to portray fluctuating safety-contours more than fixed geographic data.

The advantage this should give the writer, is that it becomes plausible to combine unpredictability of events with a stable and sophisticated culture, instead of having those elements contend against one another.

24 JULY 2020

middle-ranking saturnian moons

Titan has had fair coverage in Old Solar System literature, but what about the middle-rankers, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus? Hardly a scrap, as far as I can tell. Nowhere near as much as the much smaller Amalthea, in the Jovian system, has enjoyed.

One exception that I know of to the paucity of coverage for the four above-mentioned Saturnian moons, is the novella I wrote myself - due to appear in Vintage Worlds Volume 3 when it comes out but, at the moment, available online: The Arc of Iapetus.

It's a start, anyway. It sure was fun, inventing the scene from scratch, with no influences in the genre, though to weave together influences would have been another kind of fun.

It contains fair coverage of Rhea and Iapetus, but the inhabitants of Tethys and Dione figure only in CLUFFs.

23 JULY 2020

it's not just what, it's also where

World-location is part of world-building. Exceptionally, the location, or the universe itself, can alter as a result of events - a stunning example being Tolkien's world where the cataclysm at the end of the Second Age marks a transition from a flat Earth to a spherical one.

Slightly more often, but still quite rarely, a planet can be re-located. Like the Earth in Larry Niven's A World Out of Time, or like in Dylan Jeninga's The Rogue Planet.

And changing genre from sf to horror - Lovecraft used the threat of drastic relocation of Earth in "The Dunwich Horror".

Elements of the relocation-theme can be found in the reflection-on-other-planes theme, such as in Man of the World, where it's a moot point whether Korm, or rather the contents of the big box in Korm, is Earth.

21-22 July 2020

weakening the structure

On the subject of universe-maintenance, there's a theme in some time-travel literature that too much monkeying about with cause and effect must weaken the entire Plenum and risk a descent into chaos. By far the best treatment of this, that I know of, is Barrington Bayley's The Fall of Chronopolis; see Time-travel and reality change.

However, there are other stabs at the topic. And recently I read Keith Laumer's Dinosaur Beach which sheds light on the question from yet another angle.

But despite the pleasure I get from tracking these literary overlaps, and building a body of lore from them, I intend here to do no more than add the Laumer tale to the list of research material. Great writer though Laumer is, his Dinosaur Beach take on universe-weakening isn't a patch on Bayley's, though his other effort, Knight of Delusions, comes close and is, in other respects, unsurpassed of its kind.

(22 July)   With astonishing lack of self-knowledge, yesterday I posted some remarks about time travel and reality-change and the danger they pose to the fabric of reality, without realizing that more than one of the forces I write of in my own work are arguably guilty of setting off the same irresponsible process - the opposite of world-building.

Admittedly, the "Fostering of Ooranye" (i.e. the project to give Uranus not only a living present but a history-filled past) results in a positive gain to the universe: (see Uranian Gleams and the Founding Tale "Uranian Thule" in the anthology Vintage Worlds 1).

Even so, once the profession of Reality Engineering is invented, it can't be un-invented, and therefore, theoretically, what's done could be undone.

The destructive forces of reality-subversion are seen at work in Valeddom. They threaten not only the planet Mercury, wiping out the synchronous-rotation and Twilight Belt, and thus replacing the colourful version of the planet with the more boring one which scientists know today, but also they have begin the boringification of Earth itself - starting with the erosion of cultural diversity, e.g. via the creeping onset of the metric system, and aiming ultimately at a lifeless planet which, retrospectively, will "always" have been that way. However, at least the novel does reassure us that the cute Mercury of legend, with Hotside, Darkside and habitable Twilight Belt, still exists from its own point of view, even though it's lost to our science. Its present unavailability is due to a form of enemy action, not to intrinsic falsity.

16 July 2020

the galilean satellites - incipient gestalts

Multiple scene-overlaps gradually build up a fuzzy but potent picture of the literary Mars and Venus, but as we go further out through the Old Solar System, tales diverge to a greater extent, and the gestalts become thinner and vaguer. Yet, I would argue that there are traces of coherence in the genre's depiction of the outer moons.

Consider for example the four main moons of Jupiter - Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

For example, note the Ionian lost-civilization overlap between Gallun's "The Lotus Engine" and Weinbaum's "The Man Moon".

But much remains to be achieved. In particular I'd advocate a multi-moon civilization, perhaps in the early aeons of the Solar System when Jupiter could be portrayed as a warmth-giving miniature Sun.

There's a literary goldmine of tales unwritten waiting out there.

July 2020

making use of a writer's limitations

More about the mystery of women in Universe 6 -

Some while back in another post I mentioned that in the universe previous to our own Universe 7, there is no reproduction; organisms, including each individual human being, are born directly from rock. Logically therefore there is no need for the existence of sex, and yet women do exist in U6, as prefigurings of U7. And the men can't work out what's going on.

I see this bafflement as an example of how a writer can make use of his own limitations. I am no good at doing female protagonists - if I tried, they'd merely turn out to be men in women's bodies, like so many of the androgynes in fiction today - so I make a virtue out of this failure, and write about women as mysteries, their status as mysteries being an integral aspect of the plot of Man of the World. See for example especially chapter 13, in which the trainee, Midax Rale, can't understand his own sentiments of love for Pjerl Lhared. 

to isolate 'ingredient x' in world-building

Here's an alchemical analogy of how one might track down the secret of story-telling:

You take a successful sword-and-planet tale, e.g. Burroughs' Barsoomian novel The Gods of Mars, and pour it into a critical test-tube.  Into another tube you pour a pastiche of the genre, such as Lin Carter's Thanatorian novel Mad Empress of Callisto - a book which seems to have all the right ingredients but nevertheless, despite its piquant title, utterly fails to grip.

In each tube you then boil away all the known genre ingredients, all the reasons why such a tale is supposed to work. The mysterious residue in the first tube will be the Factor X - the secret of story-telling - the real reason why that tale works brilliantly whereas the other one is a wash-out. And then, suppose you think you have successfully isolated Ingredient X, you could carry out a further test, upon a work which lies mid-way in effectiveness between the Burroughs and the Carter efforts. I'm here thinking of Ray Cummings' Mercurian saga If your theory is right, there'll be a lesser but still noticeable amount of X remaining as residue in that third tube...

There may be a snag to all this, though - namely that it's impossible.

inconsistency problem?  Blame the sources

In the building of long and complex histories, the more the detail, the greater the danger of inconsistencies creeping in.

If the action in an epic takes place over a fairly short period of time, the author will just have to work hard at consistency by staying alert and keeping good records. Most of the action in The Lord of the Rings takes place during a period of about six months, though of course there are plenty of references to what went on long before. At least this short time-span means that the characters act as a sort of check on each other.

I intend that the action of Uranian Throne will take place over about forty (Earth) years, which is still within the span of a human lifetime. So to some extent the characters act as checks on each other here, too. There isn't the problem of inter-relation of widely separate historical periods. .

However, the problem expands when one tries to write tales scattered over a vast span of history. My version of Uranus has a recorded history spanning 1.2 million years. I've written an overarching framework for it, consisting of a summary of that history, plus six novellas set in various eras.  (See Uranian Gleams.)

But the mere existence of that summary isn't going to be enough to make it easy to fit more stories in, since the "summary" is long and the author's memory not infallible, and when each story is likely to involve references to additional technologies and cultural factors which may clash with what has been said elsewhere.

For instance, I might say in one tale that a fuel-phial will power a skimmer for a 6000 mile journey, but give a different figure in another tale... and the figure might go up and down and up again, rendering implausible any explanation to do with scientific progress. Or I might assert that so-and-so was the first person to do such-and-such, whereas someone else had already done it.

However, here's what I believe to be a helpful idea:

These stories can be regarded as having been told by different bards, or storytellers. If there are inconsistencies, blame them, not me! In fact, if one looks at the story-collections in that light, well, aren't there bound to be inconsistencies? Just as there are in Earth tales. And some of the bards might be ignorant of what others know...

Thus, my suggestion is: when caught out, BLAME THE SOURCES.

world-building in the outermost reaches

Old Solar System tales derive an extra free dollop of oomph from the heritage of personality accumulated by the OSS' various worlds, in astrology and myth and in previous conventions and tropes of the genre. By contrast, interstellar world-building must start more from scratch. A genius like Jack Vance can give character to a totally imaginary exoplanet like Cadwal or Durdane, whereas it takes a lesser degree of ability to conjure the ambience of (say) Mars or Venus - much of the work having already been done.

But there is a transitional environment - the outermost reaches of the System. Here, the somewhat-known fades into the completely unknown.

It's intriguing for instance to explore the character of the world Euthyphro in Asimov's novel Nemesis. One of the verbose books of his late period, but oddly compelling. Is Euthyphro a member of our System? In a sense yes, in another sense no, depending on whether its "sun" Nemesis (a brown dwarf substellar object) is taken to be gravitationally bound to the Solar System or not. Otherwise - if Nemesis is just passing through the region, as it were - Euthyphro is an exoplanet. As it turns out, (spoiler alert) the latter is true, which I find a bit disappointing, but never mind - maybe, who knows, gravitational capture may occur later...

the atlantis of the solar system

One of the great legends of the spaceways, the Asteroid Progenitor Planet shimmers in a state of quasi-existence, real enough in large areas of the literary dimension, but discounted by modern science which regards the asteroids as protoplanetary rubble rather than the debris of a planetary explosion.

I'm pulled two ways when considering the value of the idea for stories. On the one hand I'd love to find that the story-synopses left by Clark Ashton Smith ("Ascharia", "The Master of Destruction") had after all been written out into actual stories, but on the other hand the more the Progenitor Planet becomes real, the more such reality detracts from the status of the actual asteroids as worlds in their own right.

Still, perhaps it's possible to have it both ways: the Solar System is so old, one could develop the character of a world, blow it into smithereens, then develop the character of the fragments as separate worlds - there's time for it all.

myths and overlaps: the case of neptune

(Plus a question re Stapledon's Neptune.)

It's both cute and effective, the way the Old Solar System can adopt themes from mythology. The association of Neptune with the sea - via the sea-god Poseidon - matches up with the watery Neptune in Edmond Hamilton's "Captain Future" series, and in Violet Bertelsen's "The Lure of the Depths" (in the Vintage Worlds I anthology).

Neptune is so big that it has room for huge oceans and huge continents. Olaf Stapledon concentrates on the land as the scenario for his latter-day human civilizations.

A question about which I'd like to hear from his readers, concerns an apparent inconsistency in the history of his Neptune. When first colonized it is portrayed as a horrible place; but a mere billion years later it seems to have become quite pleasant. I've read Last And First Men many times but am still not clear how this transition was supposed to have occurred...

the simple life

Like pruning a plant, the imposition of handicaps on a cosmic or planetary scene can produce fruitful results.

I was intrigued to read about the simple "early universes" thrown off by Olaf Stapledon's "Star Maker" in the final chapters of the book of that name. Those scenarios weren't followed up.

What is followed up in fascinating detail, is the "timelessness" of Pellucidar.

At first I was rather fed up with it - wishing that Pellucidar would get a move on and acquire some history. But later I was captivated by the inner world's perpetual noon. And after all it does acquire some history, of a sort; a series of seven adventure novels can hardly do otherwise.

And then there is the simplicity of Universe Six, in my novel Man of the World.  Simple continuous non-atomic matter is the rule there; atomism, allowing organic life, the rare exception.

Good scope for further study of the simple life would arise from a world of intelligent plants.  Unless the plants could walk, like triffids, they'd maybe tend to emphasize the contemplative... and then the challenge for the author would be, how to make the contemplative exciting. One way of doing it:  describe the clash of ideas as a function of the tussle for root-space...

Using the implicizer to grow worlds from cluffs

CLUFFs (Cute Little Unfulfilled Fragments of Fascination) are those fascinating but scanty references which one wishes were followed up, e.g. Clark Ashton Smith's one-liner concerning "the archives of the Moon in its prime"..

I have dreamed up (though, worse luck, I haven't been able to construct) a gadget called the Implicizer, which does the jobs that the authors of CLUFFs left unfinished. See https://www.solarsystemheritage.com/oss-diary-201611.html#ossdiary20161105.

The Implicizer would be a moral advance upon the method used by Charles Dexter Ward, in Lovecraft's tale - i.e. robbing graves and resurrecting folk with special "salts", to interrogate them so as to get their knowledge from them.

Actually, the best Implicizer would be made of synaptic connections in the reader's own mind, so forget about exterior hardware....

growing a world from a cluff - the archives of the moon

I was determined to do something to alleviate the tantalising brevity of Clark Ashton Smith's reference to the lunar archives.

I was also greatly inspired by the mood of Jack Williamson's classic "The Moon Era", a novella which takes the reader back in time to when our satellite was fertile and inhabited.

So the aim became to wed Smith's rococo style to Williamson's colourful intensity of vision, including his idea of a gracile, insectoid lunarian - though only in a very general sense do I follow the scenario of "The Moon Era". (I put a lot more history into it, the narrative spanning a far greater length of time.) Smith of course could have done an infinitely better job, had he tried. But my tale at least tries to stay true to the Williamson/Smith approach.

Dozens of other CLUFFs await expansion; I recommend that writers swoop on them and get on with it! .

the mind-built worlds book-ending the solar system

The non-existent infra-Mercurian planet Vulcan and the probably-existent-but-not-yet-found trans-Plutonian Planet X provide two examples of the way a shared fictional universe evolves. Though there is no central authority governing what writers write about these unseen worlds, each story can't help but contribute to a tradition and a personality, fuzzy though the result is, for the worlds' identities.

Le Verrier announced in 1860 that he'd probed Vulcan's existence mathematically, just as he'd done for Neptune in the 1840s. Unfortunately, unlike the case of Neptune, nobody then proceeded to spot Vulcan in a telescope, nor has anyone done so since; and Einstein later showed that the orbital perturbations of Mercury could be explained by relativity, with no need therefore to posit the influence of an unknown planet. Still, who cares... I would like to hear from anyone who has invented stories about Vulcan. My preferred version would be about 800 miles in diameter, synchronously rotating like the old-style Mercury was thought to be, and so with eternally hot and cold sides; or else rotating faster but with a thick atmosphere to distribute the heat and make it (barely) habitable... Le Verrier's distance of about 19 million miles from the Sun sounds good to me.

As for Planet X, the possibilities are endless. Admittedly, if the place isn't dark and freezing, there has to be a reason - but that shouldn't be hard to find; e.g. florescence, internal heat from radioactivity... The necessary excuses should be child's play for a sufficiently inventive author.

the skills needed for being a ruler on the seventh planet

A city's Noad ("focus") must possess the quality of "renl", which is to say, that he/she must be "lremd", which in turn is to say that he/she must... steer deftly amidst events.

The chapter of Uranian Throne entitled "The Infrastructure Throbs" is written from the point of view of Noad Barlayn Lamiroth of Olhoav.

Barlayn has no heir apparent; two people he'd chosen for that role were assassinated in the previous chapter; now he's on his own against the rebel leader, Dempelath...

I try in more than one place in the chapter to ponder upon the peculiar leadership skills necessary on the seventh planet.

With no standing army or bureaucracy, all that a Noad can do is rely on nen's [his/her] steering skills - the ability to be at the right place at the right time; to give the right orders, choose the right agents, and generally behave like a lucky protagonist in a story written by writer determined on a happy ending...

the mystery of being in love in universe 6

In our world, psychologists can doubtless try to explain away the mad phenomenon of "being in love" by reference to our sexual nature. But in the previous universe, Universe Six, reproduction is non-existent; beings are born directly from non-organic material.

Yet in range of the complexifying Fount in the midst of the city Serenth, men and woman exist as prefigurings, foreshadowings of the next universe.

And they fall in love, and have no idea why, or what it means. Men don't know why women exist at all, or vice versa. It's like the mystery that the Milky Way posed to medieval cosmologists; it didn't fit into the Ptolemaic universe; they really didn't have a clue.

As a matter of fact, even in our universe, sex doesn't explain the mystery of being "in love", but to explore the mystery in isolation it's best to study the fate of Midax Rale, bewildered Serenthian aristocrat, in Man of the World. For example see the chapter, "The Great Complication".

June 2020:

violence on the seventh planet - 1

Sword-and-planet (or laser-and-planet) yarns require a hefty level of violence (see moral dimensions).  

But the trouble is, I'm such a squeamish softie that I find it goes against the grain to write about people trying to kill each other.

And yet, even in real life I'm no pacifist, and know that one sometimes may have to fight, though I never have been in combat (so far).

The course of Uranian history, as you can see from the timeline Uranian Eras, contains its fair quota of wars, murders and revolutions. Yet its true that Ooranye differs from Barsoom, where nations fight at the drop of a hat or, rather, at the drop of a princess. Uranian wars have weightier causes.

The vast seventh planet is populated only in part by humans; Syoom, the name of its civilized human territory, amounts to perhaps one fifth of its area (that one fifth being about twice the surface area of Earth). Plenty of scope, therefore, for invasions by mysterious non-human powers from over the horizon. For some specist reason, I'm less squeamish about narrating conflict with non-humans. Perhaps it's a not entirely reprehensible bias, insofar as there may be more excusable scope for grave misunderstandings between species.

In addition to war, there is assassination. In fact, in the chapter of Uranian Throne entitled "The Lever of Power", there are two assassinations.  These occur in a scenario that simmers with revolution.

violence on the seventh planet - 2

Last time I talked about wars, and killing in general, confessing to a squeamish repugnance about writing blood-and-guts scenes - while nevertheless being inspired by the beauty of ERB's wordbuilding achievements.

Here are some ways in which I have translated Burroughs tropes into my Uranian context:

ERB-style duels with swords in the arena: in my work there is a key duel, in the chapter "The Brain-Mist Writhes", but it is a different sort of duel: a clash of wills between powerful minds. The human-Ghepion hybrid Dempelath can send "convincells" from his brain to create a Zone of Redefinition, pressuring his opponent to abandon her viewpoint in favour of his.

ERB-style adventurous voyages can be scientific, such as the mission of Dejah Thoris' survey-ship in the first volume, a voyage with the object of charting atmospheric currents; in my work the voyages most commonly undertaken are statistical in purpose, to provide data on the survival rates of the voyagers - i.e. if they return, or if they do not return, the fact is recorded, and the cartographers compile their existential maps with the safety-contours known as sfy. It's a method that runs through a lot of voyagers! Very conducive, though, to adventure. See the chapter "The Nebulee".

As I write this it occurs to me that there is another ERB theme, which is central not to the Barsoom series but to the Amtor series - the theme of the search for a home.

Burroughs' Venus is in some ways (of course not all) even superior to his Mars. Carson Napier really spends four books trying to find the right place to settle down. So far, I have not embodied this theme in any great voyage on the seventh planet, but the next few chapters, when I get round to them, will need to do so.

The hero has set out from Olhoav, an isolated city in the dim depths of Starside, to try to cross the unknown wildernesses of the giant planet till he can reach the Sunside area of Syoom, the heart of civilization. This will entail skimming perhaps twenty thousand miles or more. His ostensible reason for the voyage is to seek help for the Olhoavans against their tyrant, Dempelath. But in addition, he yearns for the heartland.

Unfortunately for him, the evil monster-intelligence of Zyperan stands in the way... and the next chapter, sure enough, will be entitled "Zyperan". Here I feel the influence of Hodgson's The Night Land...

the uses of a john carter style teleported protagonist

My protagonist gets teleported to Uranus in the chapter of Uranian Throne entitled "The Londoner". It's rather a John-Carter-style occurrence, doing away with the need for spaceships and suchlike resources which are unlikely to be available to the fellow who undergoes the adventure.

However there are important differences between my hero and Burroughs'. For a start, his interplanetary transition occurs not at the beginning of the story but as far into the book as Chapter 10.

Why did I want to do it so differently? Why forego the advantage of introducing the planet's scenes through Terran eyes? Why choose the harder option of getting comfortable in that world in its own terms for 9 chapters before introducing any Terran viewpoint?

The truth is, I always like the seventh Barsoom volume best, the one which is told from the point of view of the Martian hero, Hadron of Hastor. I wanted the centre of gravity of Uranian Throne to be properly Uranian. And even when the Terran hero gets there, it's not a physical teleportation, merely one of the mind - he is plonked into the body of his Uranian counterpart (in my universe, a soul can have more than one body on more than one world).

Another reason for the delayed transition is that I wanted there to be a stated reason for it - unlike the case with John Carter. Much as I admire the sheer audacity of Burroughs' achievement in belief-suspension, I wasn't equal to it myself - I needed there to be at least some impressionistic outline of a reason for the extraordinary instantaneous leap from one world to another.

The belief-issue is vital to Burroughs' achievement: he somehow manages to enlist the reader's support in the task of ironing out difficulties, making the necessary excuses, and generally plugging the gaps in his stories. And you can only do that if your virtues as a writer enable you to bamboozle all rationalist opposition. I, too, hope to bamboozle, but I hedge my bets with some pseudo-rationalism as a fail-safe...

the replicator brings material economics to an end, a.d.2330

I got the term "Replicator" from Arthur C Clarke's Profiles of the Future. The term denotes a matter-duplicator which can produce a copy of anything. Since its first task would be to produce copies of itself, the thing would spread like wildfire. Economics as we now know it - based on physical needs - would come to an end. Future economies would (insofar as they existed) be based on psychological and emotional needs, foremost of which is the quest for meaning and purpose.

My tales of the habitable Solar System are intended to be consistent with a scenario in which the Replicator is perfected on Earth in AD 2330.

The "reality engineering" profession which culminates in the "Fostering of Ooranye" in AD 3564 is one phenomenon born from the new Age of Freedom and psychological need. [See Uranian Gleams.]  The need for invented worlds becomes so great that it metamorphoses into a demand that they be made real. Ultimately the project meets with success: the habitable Uranus with its vast historic antiquity is grafted onto the lifeless gas-giant, so that the latter not only is not, but never has been.

The Replicator Age is also background to the ninth-millennium tale, Flame Lords of Jupiter.

morning and evening sky-transparency on uranus

...It had begun: the breath-taking, twice-daily stellar show. The upper cloud layer of Ooranye had become transparent and would remain so for three wonderful minutes. During refelc - as in the similar pmetn every evening - the lamps of the cosmos shine upon the admiring faces of Uranians.

Refelc and pmetn occur because, regular as clockwork, twice a day the rotation of the stratospheric planar throom must turn all those tiny polarized motes briefly edge-on, thus allowing starlight to pass through. At all other hours, our firmament is limited to the Sun and the five Uranian moons. Only during pmetn and refelc is the cosmos revealed as incomparably more gigantic. Predictable yet marvellous, these are the minutes of extra romance...

[from "Uranian Thule", in Vintage Worlds, ed. John Michael Greer and Zendexor.]

As noted in a previous post, transitions between eras occur when mind influences atmospheric matter: some sufficiently emotive historic event causes Uranians' mind-waves to disturb the regularity of the rotation of the throom, and thus interrupt the normal sequence of pmetn and refelc.

what is it like to rule a uranian city?

Uranians don't go in for bureaucracy - they'd consider it a kind of political/social perversion. A ruler must possess a quality called "renl", which can be loosely defined as the ability to juggle actions, steer dextrously and deftly through events, and be at the right places at the right times. Institutions are organically governed by fluid and elastic customs. The Noad ("Focus") of a city is its head of state. The experience of being a Noad at a time of crisis is portrayed at the start of the episode of Uranian Throne entitled "The Infrastructure Throbs".

Uranian society usually has one special Noad who is the Noad of Noads - called the Sunnoad, the wearer of the golden cloak. The Sunnoad does not interfere with the sovereignty of the various cities; he/she is not a ruler in that sense. Custom decrees, however, that the Sunnoad leads Syoom (Civilization) in time of war or grave threat. And always the person of the Sunnoad is revered and sacrosanct.

Throughout most of the planet's long history, Sunnoads inhabited a place in the Sunward polar city of Skyyon.

Then came a Sunnoad, called Tu Rim, who tried to convert his reign into a despotic rule. His overthrow marks the close of the Radium Era (era 88). To quote the official history, "Tu Rim fled, was deposed... After much debate it was decided that the best way to ensure the future innocence of the sunnoadex was by means of a taboo... never again could a Sunnoad make his home in Skyyon. Never again could a Sunnoad even spend a night in Skyyon..."

foregrounders, backgrounders and discontent

Ooranye, the seventh planet, is a world where destiny rules more literally than it does on Earth. The currents of Fate are like real swirls in the atmosphere. Those who best know how to ride them are foregrounders, who win fame as the protagonists of the tales which become history (there is no distinction between history and fiction on that world). Those who are mere "extras" to the tales are backgrounders, the bit players, the minor characters, the components of crowd scenes.

Throughout most of Uranian history, backgrounders ("wirrips") and foregrounders ("forgs") get along without resentment. But in the city of Olhoav, a schemer called Dempelath played upon the backgrounder/foregrounder distinction to win power at the head of a movement that purported to win equality of protagonism for all.

One of his measures was to abolish the work-trance. The work-trance is that state in which most routine city maintenance is carried out - i.e. a sort of dream state, evolved over the eons of Uranian history. Dempelath decreed that the work-trance was a sign of inequality; every wirrip ought to be as fully and continuously conscious all day long as any forg. This resulted in a huge sacrifice of efficiency. The city became darkened; the standard of living fell. On the other hand, many backgrounders backed Dempelath because he made them feel more important.

Life in Olhoav about fifty days into the new regime is portrayed in The Claw Extends, Chapter 7 of Uranian Throne.

suspension of disbelief - english measurements

How strong must the fabric of invented worlds be?

If a writer is good enough - deeply enough in tune with whatever mysterious creative urge he possesses - he can get away with a heck of a lot.  See the "poetic licence" page.

One example is Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Moon Men. How could Lunarians even stand upright on Earth, let alone conquer it? Imagine going to a world where you weigh six times as much as you do here... Yet in my view Burroughs gets away with it.

In my version of Uranus, planet Ooranye, which Terrans only contact very late in its history, the measurements from time immemorial have been the same as traditional English units - yards, miles, etc - even in ancient times when such measurements did not exist upon Earth. I'm quite unashamed about this. And note they are not merely the results of translation; they really are the same. Defiantly convergent evolution of a cultural phenomenon. Do I get away with it? Not for me to say.

uranian era-boundary events

Uranians immediately know when one era succeeds another, because the historical boundary is marked by an event of sufficient impact to create an eomasp - that's to say, a disturbance in the normal rhythm of day and night.

Day and night on the seventh planet, unconnected with the feeble light from the distant Sun, follow the luminescent pulsation of the aerial throom, micro-organisms which glow and dim in a thirty-hour cycle.

Those organisms are sensitive to mass emotion. If an event is of sufficient seriousness to cause a major civilization-wide emotional wave - for example, news of the First Fleet's destruction at the end of the Phosphorous Era, or the transcendent contact with the World Spirit during the Rhenium Moment - it will also affect the throom, disturbing their cycle so as to cause the day to re-start from that moment. At that point, custom and convenience both decree that the count of days should begin anew, to mark the start of the next era in history's sequence.

The eomasp which ends era 89, with the departure of the Second Fleet on its long-awaited expedition to the Starward Pole, forms part of the narrative of "Uranian Thule", one of the novellas in the collection Vintage Worlds: Tales of the Old Solar System, ed. John Michael Greer and Zendexor (Founders' House, 2018).

mercury's traditional twilight belt

Perhaps the most disappointing discovery of the Age of Space (albeit made from ground-based observation) was the sad observation in 1965 that Mercury doesn't rotate Sun-synchronously after all, with the result that its permanent Hotside and Coldside disappear into legend, alongside the Twilight Belt in between.

Emotionally unwilling to accept this, I built, in retro-sf style, a rendering of Mercury as of old, plus an excuse for going against what science says to be true - the excuse becoming part of the plot (see Valeddom by Robert Gibson, published by Netherworld, 2013).

Having posited my Mercury, what decisions had I to make?  I had to give it a culture, or cultures. I wished the cultures to be fairly advanced, as the idea of isolated Mercurian valleys inhabited by squabbling primitive tribes on the edge of subsistence level didn't appeal much. On the other hand I wished to avoid creating a culture so advanced that it became unified and planetary in scope, in which case the entire Twilight Belt would be one state with little scope for exploration and mystery. So Valeddom is somewhere between those two extremes. It has advanced cultures (the humaniform peoples of Ixli, Vutu, Jempeldex, plus Pezerjink of the silicon-based zitpoidl) but they all live on the edge of mystery, and contact between them is limited. Population is small and there is a sense of infinity pressing close upon the narrow confines of Yonnimay, the Twilight Belt. There are occasional forays into Hotside and Coldside, and hints of strange life outside Yonnimay.

The archives of Ixli contain records of Valeddom's past, going back to primordial times when the Sun was young and the planet rotated. The records are written in the ultimate language, Noleddern, a perilous medium for the reader, as the visitor from Earth discovers to his cost: a language which utters reality may transport the reader not merely in a figuratively imaginative but also in a literal sense; and it is thus that he makes the harrowing discovery, of why Terran astronomers and space-probes were fooled in their investigation of the innermost planet....

the uranian mind-set and cartography 

A message yesterday posed me an interesting question, concerning the periodic-table awareness of my Uranians. What's the advantage to them, that their brains are hard-wired with the knowledge of the number and ordering of the elements?

I didn't have the answer pat - though I've been building my version of the seventh planet since 1977 - but setting myself to thinking the matter through, I made the point that the inhabitants of Ooranye feel psychologically more secure through being oriented in history - they derive comfort from knowing roughly where they are in the procession of 92 eras (though the eras vary enormously in length).

They need such security more than we do on our world, because Uranus is enormously larger than Earth, and vastly less comprehensible.

Attitudes which we Earthmen might get away with for a time, in our urge to tame and exploit the environment, form no part of the mind-set of Uranians. They know that on their world human dominance is a pipe-dream.

Not only that, but Ooranye is a world of such mystery that the impulse to understand is all but absent from the Uranian mind-set.

What they do instead, is to draw empirical safety-contours on their maps. Uranian cartography is a marvel of statistical skill, full of safety-contours, the "sfy", which shift and fluctuate like the isobars of the weather-maps of Earth.

The key contour is "sfy-50", joining all places where the safety-quotient is 50. Sfy-50 means that a lone traveller has a 50% chance of surviving a thousand-mile journey. Parts of the world where the quotient is below 50 are defined as Fyaym - the wild lands. Parts where it is over 50 are called Syoom - i.e. civilization. Thus, sfy-50 is the boundary between Syoom and Fyaym.

The data for these maps have to be obtained the hard way, by multitudes of Wayfarers who undertake vast numbers of journeys so that the cartographers can record whether they survive.

This is an engine for adventurous plots, which I prefer to the ERBian emphasis on needing to rescue kidnapped princesses.

cities and guilt on uranus

The Phosphorus Era was the brilliant, splendid time when the 25 disc-on-stem cities of Ooranye were built.

Their basic structure is of virtually indestructible iedleis, or ultimate metal (a term I got from A E van Vogt), though the buildings added on to that base are of ordinary materials: metal, plastic, glass and imported stone.

That burst of city-building in Era 15 will never be repeated, for it sprang from a one-off "windfall", namely the looting of another dimension, Chelth, which was depleted so that the Uranians might gorge on its energy to fulfil their needs.

Opinions differ as to whether, or to what extent, that deed was a crime - for it is not known for sure whether Chelthan beings existed and suffered from the Uranians' action. But ever since then, a sense of guilt has shadowed the culture of Ooranye. It is fundamentally a cheerful, positive culture, but it does nevertheless contain that lurking unease concerning the colossal energy-theft which took place over three hundred million days ago.

kroth and unidirectional gravity

An Earth in a cosmos with a real Up and Down:

Imagine that "up" means North and "down" means South, not only on a map, but for real. In that case, the only flat ground must be at the North Pole, and the equator is vertical. As for the Southern Hemisphere, it really is Down Under.

In the Kroth trilogy I do my best to work out the implications, and fudge the insuperable difficulties. For example, gravity must exist on a personal scale for the folk in that universe, if they are to stand and walk rather than float; but in that case why isn't the world of Kroth in perpetual free fall? Answer: objects of planetary size are exempt from falling; their mass somehow stabilizes their position. Or another way of putting it is to say that gravity in that universe doesn't depend on mass at all but on direction; you could call it 'downality' instead. In that case, perhaps planets do fall, but, because of air resistance or something, not as fast as smaller objects do.

Which brings me to another difficulty: what keeps Kroth's atmosphere wrapped safely around its globe? Answer: it's held there by the surrounding transparent ether, which is quite a firm packing material.

Yet another difficulty: why doesn't Kroth dry up as the water drains down and drips from the South Pole away into the void? Answer: like some sort of Hoyle-style Steady State replenishment, new water is constantly created in the North Polar lake.

Perhaps one of the laws of the Kroth universe is that the story must go on, and so the science does whatever it takes to conform to fictional requirements. Cosmologists might call it the "strong fictional principle".

Fun though it was to work out the physical side, the sociological implications interested me more. Many folk in the lower, sloping latitudes, for example, are consumed with envy for the inhabitants of Topland. Volume 1 of the trilogy, The Slant, narrates, among other things, a war launched by a Slantland power against the privileged polar state.

universe 6 - a solid cosmos containing globes of space

Worlds in Outer Matter:


I have had fun telling the story of explorer Midax Rale, 'aristocrat' by virtue of his birth from rock adjacent to the energy-Fount in Serenth, Korm. (See Man of the World.)

As the blurb puts it, Universe 6 is "a simpler, more basic universe than ours. Less evolution, fewer people, rarer energy. Where people are born from rock - although love (the "Great Complication") prefigures our Universe 7."

The inner surface of Korm, a huge million-mile spherical hollow in the vastness of Outer Matter, is almost entirely made of the undifferentiated, non-particulate kolv, but there is an eighty-mile patch of anomalously complex matter, composed of atoms and molecules which prefigure the stuff of our own Universe 7.

At the heart of this patch lies the ancient city of Serenth, and at the heart of Serenth lies the Fount, a geyser of raw energy which daily spurts up to kindle the Sun at the centre of Korm.

The Fount is the source of complexity; people born closest to it (emerging from rock like the later half-finished sculptures of Michelangelo) are most the highly evolved Kormans, sexually differentiated in a sense that prefigures Universe 7; this anticipatory morphological 'pull' springs from an inter-cosmic theme-spillage-principle which is unknown to the Serenthians, so that the existence of sex is completely baffling for their scientists and philosophers. Meanwhile those beings born further away from the Fount are more typical of Universe 6: androgynous 'simplenns', rudimentary in form and feature.

The Fount's daily rhythm is constant over long ages but not eternal: at long intervals the Fount wanes, and this brings on the Winter of Simplicity, that dreaded state of reality-depletion which folklore calls 'Sparseworld'. Midax himself is the one who discovers the first trace of this approaching doom, when on a patch of lawn he notices the fusion of two grass-blades into one.

In a great plan to save humanity, light and complexity must be focused and concentrated in a huge structure called the Luminarium, where Universe 7 will be prefigured more intensely than ever before, and as a serendipitous result the mystery of women gets closer to being solved...