Just got an e-mail from a reader who had two questions about the Old Man’s War universe: How many humans, solider and civilians, have been killed in the wars the Colonial Defense Forces has fought, and how many planets do the humans have under their control.
My responses, respectively: Lots, and depends on the day.
Now, you may be thinking wow, Scalzi’s a jerk, but the fact is these are the most detailed answers I can give, because when it comes right down to it, I have absolutely no idea how many humans have been killed in the alien wars, and I have only a fuzzy idea of how many planets the Colonial Union has under its control at any one time. Why don’t I know these things? Because they haven’t ever come up in the course of writing the books in the series. If it doesn’t come up in the course of the writing, I tend not to think about it. So, honestly, I just don’t know.
Conversely, when I do know a specific number of something in the Old Man’s War universe, it’s because I have a reason for knowing it that comes out of the process of writing itself. For example, in The Last Colony, we learn that the Conclave — the big U.N.-ish like entity of alien races — has 412 races in it. Why 412? Because there’s a scene in the book where a ship from every race in the Conclave shows up above a planet at the same time. I needed to know how many ships that was, and I needed it to be a fairly impressive number of ships. 412 seemed like a large enough number of ships in one place at one time. So: 412 races in the Conclave. Really, that’s why.
Now, I realize this sort of de-romanticizes my world building process: those of you who imagine I have a detailed bible of the entire history and ethnography of the OMW universe will be undoubtedly disappointed to learn that I mostly just make stuff about that universe, as needed, as I go along. But what can I say. We can’t all be Tolkien and develop three different languages and five thousand years of history for our worlds before we feel sufficiently comfortable to tell a story in the place. Nor, really, would I want to be: That’s just too much effort.
For me, when I need to introduce a new element to a universe I’ve created, here are the two questions I ask: Does it make sense in that universe? And: Does it conflict with anything else I’ve written about that universe? If the answers are “yes” and “no,” respectively, then everything is groovy. I like working this way because it leaves the maximum number of options open for when I write myself into a corner and need to extricate myself from my own foolishness.
Does this mean I make everything up on the fly? Well, no; there are some plot and general universe backstory that I have floating in the back of my head, which have an influence on how I put things together. What I don’t have, and am not in a rush to create, are lots of fiddly details that don’t have practical application to something specific that I am writing at that very moment.
In this regard, the Old Man’s War universe is strongly anthropic: Most of its parts exist in clouds of possibility that only coalesce if and when I need them to. To a large extent, what I know about that universe is what anyone else who reads the books knows — the stuff that’s in the books. I just happen to know it a lot sooner, and I happen to know it first.
So if you ask me something about the OMW universe or any other universe I work in, and I answer you “I don’t know,” I’m probably not trying to be a jerk; I’m probably trying to tell you the truth.