Worldbuilding, Briefly

All the recent discussion of design in the Star Wars universe has led to a fair question of how deeply someone designing a universe and the things in it has to go to make the thing plausible enough for its task — which, in my opinion, is to keep the audience engaged all the way through the work without once saying, “now, wait just a minute…”

Other worldbuilders will have to answer this one when talking about their own works, but as for me, in general, I try to build my worlds at least two questions deep — that is, you make your creations robust enough to stand up to a general question and then a more specific followup question. Thus:

Reader: Why did you give your genetically engineered soldiers cat’s eyes in Old Man’s War?

Me: Well, relating specifically to pupils, it allows better filtering for the range of visible light the soldiers work in across different planets and environments.

Reader: Okay, but why not just engineer eyeballs to make smaller round pupils?

Me: The scientists in the OMW universe find it easier to work with pre-existing genetic code than develop new code, so they do that whenever possible.

And for about 90% of your readers, that’s going to be sufficient rationale. For about 10% of your readers, it won’t be, but at some point, and simply as a practical matter, you realize that some folks aren’t going to be happy with your worldbuilding no matter how far you drill down, and that you can just sort of accept that as the cost of doing business in a geek-rich field like science fiction. To a very real extent, what you’re aiming for is sufficiency, not completeness.

(Mind you, that’s if you’re creating the way most people do, which is to have the world come out of the story, not the other way around. Tolkien, as an example and if memory serves, did it the other way around, which is that he built the world in detail first, and then told a story (two, actually) inside of it. You certainly can do it that way, and it is frankly awesome when pulled off well. But also it’s sort of the long way around, and recommended primarily for nerdy, vaguely OCD people with secure day jobs and lots and lots of time to kill.)

I think by and large the OMW universe functions at the “two questions deep” level, although I suppose it does depend on which two questions someone asks. To be sure, I know of at least a couple of places where the universe is barely a single question deep, which was bad worldbuilding on my part, and the only thing to do about it at this point is not call attention to those specific places. Please move on, nothing to see here [insert Jedi handwave]. But overall, it’s robust enough (and written well enough, which is a critical point) to get most people through each book without stopping to ask questions about the details therein.

Which is what I want, personally: If you get through the work before you start nitpicking, that qualifies as a victory condition for me.

72 thoughts on “Worldbuilding, Briefly

  1. That’s a good approach (makes note).

    Also, since the Battle of SW Nerdgassing doesn’t seem to be going away, my best wishes to your day’s productivity.

  2. Wait until someone doesn’t like your work, picks it apart in a major forum (Say maybe your successor at AMC if OMW becomes a Big Budget Franchise! (TM) ).

    Then not only will you start feeling the love over on Slashdot, but they will have this blog post to throw back and go, “Oh, yeah? Well, he thought it out and you didn’t. So neener neener neener!”

    In the meantime, continue enjoying the Dark Side of Fanforce.

    And remember, do NOT tease the Richard Hatch BG fans. That’s actually kinda dangerous. (And never mind that Hatch sold out and did the Ron Moore version.)

  3. Tolkien is something like the exception that proves the rule.

    The striking thing about Tolkien is the world he built wasn’t the starting point. He made a _language_ and then built a world to put it in. THEN he found the stories made in the world.

    I know many people hate world building, but I love it. Creating a world or universe, its mythologies, its peoples. My struggle is finding the stories in that universe. But I’m also kinda nerdy and OCD with a love of history and myth.

    Two questions deep sound like it is a good rule of thumb to go by, though. Sufficiency is possible with Sci-Fi and Fantasy fans. Completeness is not.

  4. I am OCD and I like creating worlds with their own detailed histories. Sometimes I’ll knock off a short story set in that world, but usually not. The journey is the reward.

    When I am writing a longer piece, I sketch out the outline then fill in because (and it took a while to figure this out) the characters are the big part. Everything else is frosting.

  5. Sometimes it’s even the small stuff. I have helped a few SF/F writers by answering medical questions. Those questions are mostly along the lines of “Can (X) really happen?” “If (X) gets (Y) disease in a medieval society can they be diagnosed/treated/recover?” “Is (some specific) neurological deficit actually possible? If so, how do I make the characater have it?” These are the funnest neuro consults. :-)

    I guess they want to avoid medical mistakes so that their rabid fans don’t email their door down…

  6. That leads to the question of how much extra energy the chlorophyll in CDF bodies give the Soldier… as far as I know, plants don’t usually move much because you simply don’t get all that much energy from it.

  7. Using, “Please move on, nothing to see here [insert Jedi handwave]” while discussing a weekness in your world building–in the middle of bashing Lucas’ world building–well, you have to love the irony.

    I’ll give you the benefit of doubt and assume you did this on purpose.

    P.S. I may have missed this discussion, but why is there a body part(?) in the lower left hand corner of the current background?

  8. P.S. I may have missed this discussion, but why is there a body part(?) in the lower left hand corner of the current background?

    The current background, unless my eyes deceive, is a Photoshopped picture of clouds in interesting sunlight. Lots of light/shadow interplay, etc. I think the “body part” is simply a cloud part in shadow.

  9. NeuronDoc @ 5

    I help out at an Ask an Astronomer site run by my department’s grad students. My friend, who is in charge of distributing questions, will try to give me the ‘I’m a novelist and need to know this for a book’ questions because she knows I like helping writers.

    (Except for questions about relativity and black holes — I’m not so good at those.)

    Conversely, it’s amazing how much I’ve been noticing little details like the moon phase/position in the sky in books recently. Mostly because authors have been getting it wrong.

  10. Did you ask the questions of yourself as you were writing it, or did you go back and adjust the worldbuilding things based on a beta reader saying, “Hey, I spotted some problems.”?

  11. You just cannot burn out the bullshit circuit breaker in my brain. The Matrix tripped it when it claimed human brains “and a form of fusion” powered the robots. Or Reign of Fire where the dragons eat ashes. Um, yeah. If SF writers in any field should understand one concept of science it’s thermodynamics.

  12. The other important thing about worldbuilding is that the worldbuilding shouldn’t be the bulk of the book.

    Case in point: Peter Hamilton. Page after page of description of the trains between planets, the foliage of each planet, etc. etc. Do not like.

  13. Geez. The point of the science in science fiction is to feed the story. A good story with bad science beats a lousy story with good science any day. With sufficiently engaging storytelling, you don’t notice the bad science until some damn critic starts nitpicking.

  14. I think Roger Ebert says something similar about movies. If the gaps, inconsistencies, and whatnot don’t make you say “Hey, wait…” until you are leaving the theater, then the storytelling was sufficient.

  15. The setting or story question first arises for me occasionally. I’m reading Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing Trilogy at the moment, and I’m awed at the detail and background/history of his world. I can certainly see the world being built first in that series.

    It is daunting to me in my writing. I’m not confident that I possess the level of imagination required for such detail. While I’m sure detail and back story such as Tolkien or Bakker is not necessary, when it is done correctly, boy, does it make the story richer IMO.

  16. Miles, isn’t it time to move the discussion past categorical statements of what science fiction is and isn’t?

    The point of the science is different for different authors and different sub-genres across time. Pick some classic examples, like Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Asimov’s robot stories. The role science plays in the stories is totally different.

  17. M. John Harrison wrote a terrific piece about worldbuilding a couple years back. His basic thesis was that too many writers pay so much attention to the world they create that the story suffers. Some SF/Fantasy fans took exception to the piece, but I think that was a product of those readers focusing too narrowly on specific passages and losing the larger message. Unfortunately, I can’t find his original post, and the only extracts I can find are the ones that seemed to offend the most.

    China Mieville also wrote a great piece on finding the balance between worldbuilding and storytelling a couple years ago. And he starts it by discussing M. John Harrison.

    http://runagate-rampant.netfirms.com/books/on_world_building.shtml

  18. The real world isn’t all that different, frankly. At some point you end up with “Because that’s the way it is”.

    Q: Why do your “humans” walk upright?
    A: So they can use their hands for grasping objects.
    Q: Isn’t the spine a lousy design for walking upright? Where did that come from?
    A: Uhh… a holdover from when they walked on all fours.
    Q: Why haven’t they evolved a better one?
    A: Well it’s… um… because.
    Q: Yeeeeeeeeah. I can see you *really* put a lot of thought into the whole thing. Nice work Mr. Super-scientific-person. Next time, why don’t you just wave a magic wand and have them all levitate instead and avoid overloading your tiny brain?
    A: Seriously. Shut up.

  19. I think as long as it doesn’t distract from the story, how much do some of these little details matter? I recall Richard K Morgan discussing in an interview where he uses the “spotlight” method of worldbuilding:

    “The world building was done on the fly, thrown together to provide appropriate backdrop for the characters as they move through the novel–a bit like the way a follow-spot light picks out bits of backdrop scenery as it follows an actor across the stage.”

    Isn’t one of the keys to good writing to make it “real enough”? You might do tons of research but only a little of it is squeezed in to give the necessary verisimilitude. It’s only really necessary to have when the fanboys come by and need to know the nitty-gritty (see GalaxyQuest) that it matters.

  20. I really like this approach.

    I’ve had some trouble with getting mired in details on a few aspects of worldbuilding (nothing specific, it changes from story to story), not being entirely sure of how deep I should go and how much I could skim over, and then getting frustrated because I was getting stuck in these few details and not moving forward.

    It’s kind of silly that it’s so easy for me to second guess myself and only now that I see it laid out so clearly here is it so simple and obvious, but there you are. Another case of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

  21. Re: #17 (Daelin82)
    I’d be more impressed with Bakker’s worldbuilding if he’d actually explained or provided rational reason for the fact that except for one incestuous mother, one prostitute (with a heart of gold, natch), and one sex slave, women are completely invisible in his world. Even Tolkein had the occasional sister.

  22. AlanM has a good point: start looking at the real world that actually exists and there’s a lot of bad worldbuilding there.

    One example: the battleship HMS Dreadnought, the revolutionary warship that changed naval construction forever, had a spotting bridge on a big mast (so you could see your enemy a long way off) positioned right behind the main funnel. This meant that, most of the time, the coal smoke would blow up around the spotting bridge and make it impossible for the directing officer to a) see the enemy or b) breathe.

    Put that on a cover illustration and the fans would be all over you.

  23. My current novel involves a lot of before-the writing-starts world building, but most of it grew out of conceptual notes, to see if the world was deep enough a foundation to support the story I had in mind.

    My first book, I made up the world on the fly and stumbled into a variation of the two-questions-deep standard (my OCD flared up from time to time and I went three or four questions deep, but eventually I remembered it was just a story I should really just relax).

  24. ajay and AlanM: my favorite bad real world building: 2000 years ago, the Romans decided that the optimal width for a road was just wide enough for two horses to pass one another, each pulling a chariot. This determined the standard axel width could only be as wide as a draft horse’s stance. This is also the reason for the diameter of our rockets: their components have to fit on the flatbed of a truck and so can’t be any wider than the road.

  25. Keep the reader reading is a valuable lesson, and shouldn’t be forgotten. In my Analog stories I’ve done a great deal of extensive worldbuilding, especially in the language and culture areas, but I think it’s important to keep that sort of thing on the subconscious level. Putting too many words on it distracts from the main thrust of the story. I guess you could say that you don’t want your readers having to ask more than two questions, because it would drag them off the story thread! At the same time, I do value a story where I can feel the depth of the world in it. Thank you for this interesting post.

  26. Here’s a storytelling principle that might be worth throwing into the discussion (and I wish I could remember where I heard it): It’s better to have something which is plausible but impossible than something which is possible but implausible.

    So all you really need is a sufficient stock of high-quality handwavium.

  27. I’ve always wondered why one reads so many, many complaints about (nominally or otherwise) worldbuilding, and so few about slack or inelegant prose. Do SFF fans choose to overlook matters of style for de gustibus reasons?

  28. If my memory serves, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, then built the languages, then built the history of the world to support the development of those languages (being a historical linguist himself). A lot of the tales he wrote in that process were posthumously published as The Silmarillion (the biggest bob-file publication in history). Then he wrote The Lord of the Rings.

    This process made it easier for him to pop in little cultural references as he went along, and not have to go back and make sure they were consistent; he could rely on his vast background.

    One important bit of language-building went (I think) before The Hobbit. He took the Old English for ‘hole-builder’, which is *holbytla, and ran it through the regular historical sound changes of English, coming out with the modern word hobbit. (BTW, if you do the same thing starting with ‘housewife’, you get OE huswif and Modern English hussy. The answer isn’t always obvious.)

  29. My favorite bit of worldbuilding in “Old Man’s War” was the FAQ about the new green bodies which gives a prominent place to the question “does my new body have a brand name?” or some such.

    So utterly not what the person in the new body wants to know. So exactly what a corporate client would insist on putting in to stroke their own egos.

  30. @ Xopher

    Tolkien began inventing the languages and myths of Middle Earth in World War I, so they do indeed predate the Hobbit by quite some time. Tolkien did, however, have to retrofit a lot of names in the Hobbit to match the rest of the subcreation after LotR was published.

    He started the Hobbit with no particular aim of bringing it all together with the larger mythos, so he wasn’t nearly as strict on himself, hence why the dwarves all have names that come from the Norse Eddas. ;-)

  31. Keith @26 – usually the Romans-influencing-the-modern story is told in relation to railway gauges of 4ft 8.5in. As an interim, 18thC English roads and carriages were said to be based on the Roman design decision. The Snopes article on this says, essentially, that rather than everything flowing from a Roman decision, all these decisions were based on similar facts and physical constraints, for instance that before steam or petrol engines stuff to be transported, whether in 60AD or 1760AD, had to be hauled by beasts such as horses. (Similarly, our shirts have two sleeves to them not because we are trapped by some mediaeval design decision but because we have two arms).

    Ancient pre-existing roadways and property rights do help explain things like post-1666 London (after the great fire) being rebuilt on the same old mediaeval plan instead of being reimagined with wide boulevards, as some people wanted. But the existence of such roads didn’t prevent the building of brand new railways or indeed wide new motorways across the country if the will was there (and new ports, airports etc).

  32. Sugarpunk @#23 The thing about Tolkien is that his women were few but awesome. Galadriel? Badass ringbearer. Eowyn: Serious skillz. Even Goldberry had some sort of secret power that kept Tom in total thrall. Arwen? Well, she wasn’t really in the books, so… It’s like he knew he had to make up for the general lack of XX by making the ones he had count for double. When I read it, I mostly skimmed ’til I hit a part with chicks.

    Regarding worldbuilding, it’s interesting that to me, it only matters if it matters. I can ignore the whole “human battery” aspect of The Matrix and all the Star Wars stuff, but every time I think about the colonists’ initial acceptance of the ecology of Lusitania in SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, I wonder that they all didn’t flee in fear seconds after first surveying the planet. Here’s a hint, guys: no matter how green it is, a planet with a biological diversity quotient you can count on two hands is a SCARY, SCARY place, and you need to run away as fast as your little rocketship can take you.

    Still loved the book, but those terraformers needed to be fired tout suite. At least in SOLARIS, they knew enough not to land.

    I guess it depends what your particular hot-button issue is. I studied Geology in college, so I tend to notice that stuff more, and just go with the flow when Star Trek tells me about Red Matter and Warp Cores.

  33. Also to follow up on the roads / carts thing…

    Rockets were 8 foot diameter or less for a while, but that ended a long time ago. The Saturn I and V were both considerably larger diameter. The Shuttle’s tank is the same diameter as the Saturn V – about 30 feet. The Shuttle solid boosters are 12 feet in diameter – limited by railroad delivery, which is less limiting than roads, but still limiting.

    If it’s too big for an old road, use new ones. If it’s too big for railroad, build and use it near coasts and use barges or ships. If it’s too big for a ship, then you build it on site, or make whatever it is float and be its own ship or something.

  34. Well, as an avid reader of Science Fiction (five novels this past week, but unemployment does give one lots of free time) I can say this about world building. There needs to be just enough detail that the reader can imagine the world the characters exist inside, but not so much that it replaces the story the author is trying to tell.

    In my case I like not knowing everything about the world because it encourages me to want to read the next book in the series or by the author to learn more.

  35. This made me think of the tv show “Defying Gravity” and how much time they spend explaining why they can walk normally in their space vessel and why their hair doesn’t float.

    Clearly they are not taking ‘suspension of disbelief’ for granted, but for me, it draws my attention further to the show’s title which seems less than ideal if you can’t afford the production costs to show it consistently.

  36. On the other hand, surely the only valid answer to a question like “How does the Force work?” is “It’s magic. Now get lost.”

    Instead of, say, “See, there’s these things called Midichlorians…”

  37. Ok I have a 2 level deep question for OMW that I can’t answer.
    1st level: “Why do soldiers have green skin”.
    Answer: “To be able to use sunlight for photosynthesis and live longer in the field without food”.

    2nd level: “They wear armor, don’t they? They have to keep it on as much as possible because of possible hostiles? Is the armor opaque? Can it become transparent in some way?”

    Mmh I think I need to revisit a chapter or two to make sure…

  38. Sometimes the pissing and moaning over lack of “reality” in worldbuilding is taken too far. If it’s fantasy or science fiction, it’s already lacking “reality” in some areas. I have no problem with super science (Doctor Who, for example) or magic rings that defy explanation. Often, the magic works because it’s not explained.

    (Those damn Midichlorians, anyway. The least Lucas could have done was explain what they look like, what they eat, how they procreate, how they evolved, and how they generate that energy field called the force.)

  39. Here’s a couple that have always bothered me:
    1) Dune. Eating spice allows spaceship crews to see far enough into the future to dodge rocks &c. Spice comes from Dune. How did humans get there in the first place? I can think of a couple of plausible answers, but he never said.
    2) Star Wars. Why build a Death Star? It’s the size of a moon; think of all the structural members it would take to hold it all together. Why not just start with a moon and dig out all the rooms you need and attach some big engines?

  40. There’s “This is the assumptions set for this story”, which is one thing. You need that for fiction, and for any speculative fiction.

    Then there’s “We didn’t think this out any further than ‘Oh, this is a cool visual / driveby description’, what do you mean there might be logical / physics / legal / social / econonomic / political / sexual consequences of introducing that into our story’s world?”

    There’s also the type of story you’re trying to tell. All the barmaids / farm women / nuns / female soldiers swooning in the hero’s arms for a night of wild passionate Hugoing in a high fantasy is one thing. If you’re writing a detailed, gritty, realistic sounding universe with lots of detail in other areas, you should really think the consequences through – if they’re falling for the hero, they’re also falling for other people, and the proportion of children growing up who don’t know their fathers is going to be rather higher than the norm. Does the society you posit support that well? Some real ones do – Iceland, for example. Most fantasy or sci-fi universes don’t. Are there STDs in this setting? If so, how many has your hero caught so far? Can he safely go back to any of the villages that he impregnated the village priest’s daughter, or is half the kingdom now going to string him up on sight? How does the King feel about his hero making half the women soldiers in the regiment he sent to help with the quest come home pregnant and unavailable for nine months (plus the day care costs, plus the ones who will retire from the service when the kid arrives, plus…).

    Reality has consequences. If you don’t think the first question through, as John said, you really need to focus on very character driven writing, as your setting will not be solid enough to support close inspection. If you think a couple of questions out, and are well educated and well rounded, you probably can head off reasonable holes (“The Ringworld is Unstable” ended up taking graduate physics level analysis to find, for example, and no author in their right mind could be expected to check that beforehand, even the ones who are PhD physicists…).

  41. Hank @ #45:

    I’ve always taken it to be that Dune was discovered before the Butlerian Jihad and space-travel at that point was mostly done using computers. Discovering Spice gave the anti-machine peeps some guarantee that they could continue being bad-arse space dudes even without machines and WHAM.

    But, then, I have yet to read more than roughly two Dune books without trying to rip my head apart, so there may be something, somewhere, that tells me I am wrong, thazt I have yet to see.

  42. Mike@7:
    Using, “Please move on, nothing to see here [insert Jedi handwave]” while discussing a weekness in your world building–in the middle of bashing Lucas’ world building–well, you have to love the irony.

    Oh, for frak’s sake, Mike, I love that Scalzi isn’t so far up his own arse that he’s incapable of making a joke at his own expense, and assume his readers are smart to get it without any assistance from him.

  43. Photosynthetic skin is one of my absolute pet peeves. There is a reason why animals don’t tend to photosynthesise unless they are tiny, transparent and aquatic (i.e. it pays them to house symbionts), and that reason is aptly pointed out by Richard@6.

    Consider the surface area and time a plant has to invest to keep itself alive and produce a few measly seeds or bulbs ;)

  44. Look at the skin from the bean counter’s point of view. Even if it’s only providing .5% of what the soldier needs that’s like only having to feed 200 out of 201 soldiers. Multiply that out by 3 meals a day by the number of soldiers in the army and you’ve made an accountant somewhere very happy.

    Wow, I really don’t handle my free time well do I?

  45. joelfinkle @14 Thanks for saying this. If I ever see the phrase “enzyme bonded concrete” again it’ll be too soon. Ok. I get it. The enzyme bonding makes the road harder. You can just call it a road now.

  46. Or the word “polymer” in the Saga of the Seven suns by Kevin Anderson. Just say plastic…sheesh.

  47. It all depends on how efficient the photosynthesis is, doesn’t it? Solar energy at the earth’s surface is roughly 1 kW/m^2. A human has something on the order of 1 m^2 of skin and uses about 100W, so the math more or less works. If you assume photosynthetic efficiency as good as or better than the best plants (10%, say), and if you assume that people are naked and outdoors whenever the sun is shining, it probably could provide a large fraction of our energy needs.

    Maybe to get that sort of efficiency we’d have to use something other than chlorophyll, and maybe we’d want black skin instead of green. Do the Atevi photosynthesize?

  48. Ingvar @ #47 and Hank @ #45:

    There are other drugs in the Dune universe with similar effects to the Spice, but all the substitutes are inferior, often in many ways… and once you get addicted to Spice, like all the Guild navigators and Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers are (not to mention a good chunk of the Empire’s highest nobility), going back to those is impossible.

    So, during/after the Butlerian jihad (which definitely did not involve any crazy AI tyrants or cyborgs), people used those drugs to get enough controlled prescience so they could fly a heighliner to the next star without slamming into a hyperspace singularity or something… And then someone finds Arrakis, and gets high on worm poo, and the fate of the human race is forever changed.

  49. The part of OMW that I had a tough time with was characterization. The ‘old’ folks in OMW don’t really think or talk or act like old people. They think, talk and act like…. 30-something snark artists.

    Granted, the author is himself a 30-something and (also sometimes) snark artist, so we must allow for the fact that his voice will bleed into the characters’ voices.

    And, granted, the psychological effect of having a super-human, young body given to you in your twighlight is liable to have some profound effects on your psyche.

    But even so, I thought John Perry and Co. should have possessed a lot more gravitas than they did.

    My wife and I spent our first year together working in a retirement home one step removed from the nursing home. As I read OMW I kept hitting a mental block because I kept trying to put all the people I knew from the retirement home into the same situation as Perry, and while I could very much believe that a few of them might act, talk, and behave as written in the book, most of them would not.

    Also also, I don’t know how many retired servicepeople would be willing to get demoted back down to Private-slash-peon, even if it meant getting a new super-body. Most of us, upon attaining some kind of substantial rank, would sooner cough up a lung or lose a gonad. You work hard for that rank, especially mustangs who have spent life on both sides of the coin. So some of the prior service characters didn’t ring true, to my experience anyway.

    But these are picky-points, not huge faults. Seems to me when we get down to tearing apart worldbuilding, we’re at the picky-point level. And it’s at the picky-point level where you can generally distinguish fans of story from fans of geeknology. And virtually all SF of any sort, even the hardest, can eventually be shredded by an astute geeknologist.

    But then, I’ve never really understood that mentality — loving something so much, you destroy it?

    SF is supposed to be fun, right? How come some people shred the franchises they love, because the science is not 100% accurate, or occasional inconsistencies crop up?

    The wife and I took our daughter to go see STAR WARS — episode IV, not the unspeakable prequels — at a late screening at a local historic theater. Lovely place, the old theater. Makes me realize how depersonalized and bland the megaplexes have become, with their black box ‘rooms’ devoid entirely of character. But I digress….

    STAR WARS has lasted so successfully, as a film with notoriously bad science, because it operates excellently at the story level. There are deep, classic themes in that movie, not to mention a few components of thriller — and you thought the Battle of Yavin was about fighter battles? Hah! It’s a ticking bomb race against the clock — all of which overcome the “rubber” factor. Especially for common audiences which aren’t going to care if the science is flawed.

  50. Matt@53: where do you get those numbers from? To me they look out by a good order of magnitude. Nor would chlorophyll tweaking of human skin yield any return remotely like that of the most efficient plants.

    But more importantly, this would only hold true if our soldiers were naked and sunbathing, not if they were clothed and running around. Maintaining chlorophyll under those conditions involves a net *cost*.

    So I call sloppy worldbuilding, I’m afraid ;)

  51. Denni@56: I know wikipedia isn’t allowed as a reference, but pages Solar_constant and Basal_metabolic_rate will more or less substantiate those claims.

  52. I find that Tolkien and O’Brian (of Master & Commander fame) OVERdo the world building to the point where I
    either pull myself out of the action to go double-check something or I start skipping paragraphs, muttering “I read technical stuff for a living, I don’t need to read it for fun.”

    Fortunately, I don’t HAVE to read techy stuff for work any more…unless I want to.

    There is an art to how much world-building is proper – and I bow down to those that accomplish it (Scalzi, Heyer, Heinlein, Lee & Miller, Weber, Sutcliff, McCaffrey, etc…).

  53. Lauretta wrote:
    I find that Tolkien and O’Brian (of Master & Commander fame) OVERdo the world building to the point where I
    either pull myself out of the action to go double-check something or I start skipping paragraphs, muttering “I read technical stuff for a living, I don’t need to read it for fun.”

    You’re talking about a different kind of “worldbuilding” when you get into historical fiction. Yes, Patrick O’Brian’s nautical language can get extreme dense (as well a presuming a rather detailed knowledge of the political and historical context), but his actual plots are seldom hard to follow. You can take the detial or leave it. For me, bad historical fiction is laden with the undigested info dump (which is not only patronising to the reader, but bad writing) and characters who think and speak like contemporary middle-class Anglo-Americans in fancy dress.

    Nice that you name-checked Georgette Heyer though — she’s so often written off as the mother of the Regency bodice ripper that she doesn’t always get due props for the enormous amount of skilfully deployed researched she did. And, quite properly, took a great deal of pride in.

  54. You don’t need anything as fancy as looking up the basal metabolic rate. You just need to remember that a usual diet is something on the order of 2000 “calories”/day (which really means kCal), and plug in the conversion ratios to convert calories to joules and days to seconds.

    Giving humans a photosynthetic system slightly more efficient than the best plants does admittedly sound hard — basically you’re assuming that genetic engineers can do better than evolution — but a back of the envelope sketch doesn’t make it sound physically impossible.

    (Actually, though, I missed the bit about photosynthesis when I read Old Man’s War. I assumed the green skin was either a side effect of some other change, or a deliberate marker to set the soldiers apart from the rest of humanity.)

  55. one OMW question or in military sf literature in general. Why can I find any major length stories about space fighters? It seems that there are stories about ground troops, and massive space battles. There is very little in print about dog fights. Any particular reason for this. Do you have a theory on this subject?

  56. Glen, #63

    Because Martin Caidin said everything there is to say on fighter pilots. (And if no body takes that as a challenge I’m going to be very disappointed in people. :) )

  57. On a more serious note, I have a question for everybody complaining about the use of chloraphyll as a source of energy. Is it a soldier’s only source of energy?

  58. Two (longstanding) gripes about OMW (which, (parenthetically [punctuation joke]) I enjoyed immensely):

    1. the miniature people in OMW 1. This theme appeared again and again when I read Asimov’s SF (about 30 [!] years ago). But really, humans are a lot smarter than anything that size.

    2. Food vs mining in OMW 3&4. If you’re really starting a brand new planet with lots of baddies in the sky, you want to dedicate about 5% of the population (double what we do now) to growing food, and the rest to mining the minerals to build and supply the factories needed to build the rockets to defend the planet.

    but since i have no skill at writing fiction (California water law being my area of expertise) I tip my hat to someone who does, and who provided so much enjoyment.

    Thank you.

  59. When OMW first appeared in Hebrew, one reader complained that the novel’s universe works “too perfectly” – he was especially bothered by the Earth/CU relationship, with the former allowing the latter to keep a complete monopoly on interstellar affairs, (almost) no questions asked. Another reader (a critic, actually) commented that the novel describes army and wars in a way that is unrealistically efficient – the million or so mistakes, ranging from the small to the deadly, that accompany ANY army in any war are almost completely absent from OMW (I should note that since most Israeli citizens do mandatory army service, they get to see these mistakes – big and small – done on an almost daily basis).
    What I liked about “The Ghost Brigades” is the fact that this novel actually takes us behind the scenes of this seemingly-perfect universe, revealing that it isn’t as perfect as it seemed in the first novel.

  60. The real reason the soldiers in OMW have green skin is to make it difficult for them to desert and hide among the colonists or (worse) the population of Earth.

  61. Raz @ #68,

    I noticed that too, how the CU military is too efficient and the equipment tends to work too well. Granted, in the future we might overcome the usual bugaboos that plague our current military. But it’s been my experience — in uniform — that there is a certain amount of ‘broken’ that can’t be removed from the military. Files get screw up. Stuff gets lost. Bureaucrats fowl up. People and equipment get sent to Point C when they should have gone to Point A. Some troops are just lazy, or liars, or pathologically fucked. And so forth.

    OMW could have been ‘dirtier’ in this regard, and it would have lost none of its entertainment value. For me anyway.

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