Things I Don’t Know About My Own Universe

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.

44 Comments on “Things I Don’t Know About My Own Universe”

  1. That’s one of the BEST answers I have ever seen/ read/ heard from an author.

    Wll done AGAIN John.

  2. That seems reasonable to me. Then again, you don’t really need to be worried about whether or not I find something reasonable, just readable.

  3. Like most things, worldbuilding seems to be a continuum thing. Sometimes people at the Tolkien end of it use worldbuilding as a form of cat vacuuming, because deciding that the catpeople of ancient Buklemia were freed from the Great Ball of String in 347 TE by the wizard-queen Ghlaghghee is clearly more fun and less stressful than getting Acho and Hissy through the next chapter. On the other hand, too little worldbuilding and someone will say, as a certain writer once said to me, that the world seems to end ten feet from the road. Seems to me you’ve struck a pretty good balance to suit the way you work.

    And anyway, x gazillion killed and Y planets controlled is that kind of detail that doesn’t matter until it matters, when you need it to set up that cook plot twist in Chapter 11. Until then, pffft!

  4. Well, there goes the OMW MMORPG, if you haven’t even built a universe.

    On the plus side, you won’t have fans conducting weddings under canon rules and language. They will have to fall back on Klingon or Elvish.

  5. I can completely understand not knowing details like how many of something there are until that number is needed. However, I was wondering whether there are any sorts of details of your universes which you do come up with and don’t make it into the books, i.e. why jump points will only work well away from gravity wells (or at Lagrange points if you have the right type of drive)

  6. Karen, the cook should apologize. He should have known better than to serve mint at the banquet for wizard-queen Ghlaghghee. Catnip is in the mint family.

    The tale of the banquet catastrophe will be banned in Boston, but top the best-sellers lists.

  7. Clearly it’s a quantum universe and you are the only observer.

    *geek overload*

  8. I’ll just assume from reading Old Man’s War that it’s just a ridiculous number that would probably boggle the mind to contemplate anyway (the deaths I mean). OMW is bloody enough as it is and I find that sort of detail rather pointless. You painted the picture well enough: lots of people and aliens die. They get blown up, shot, etc. Besides, who the heck keeps count in a war anyway? Okay, so there are people that do keep count, but I really don’t think the main character really has time to think about that. “Hmm, I wonder how many people just died…is that a big alien about to eat me? Oh, well drat”. Yeah, I think death counts aren’t on his mind :P.
    On the other side of things, I can see why that would be interesting. I agree, it’d be neat to see stats, but if you don’t give them it won’t ruin the reading experience. I don’t need to know that 5 trillion humans have died in the alien wars. I can just assume it’s a large number anyway.

  9. I know I’ve wanted to ask the “how many planets do the humans have under their control” question. I just assumed that when the Great Scalzi wanted us to know, we would know.

    This one I might have missed in the text, but is the age of the CDF ever revealed?

  10. zzatz @7: Well, to be fair, it’s not entirely the cook’s fault. Her Majesty specifically asked for mince, and the cook had suffered from tinnitus ever since the Great Gravistorm two weeks earlier. Besides, the royal children seemed to genuinely enjoy hanging from the ceiling like that.

  11. Wow, did I want to read that. But then you started talking The Last Colony and I just haven’t read that far. In the interest of your book sales I decided to stop.

  12. But why do giant cockroaches get to be the master race? Not that a race of giant singing cockroaches who take a faintly bemused view of the scurryings of the other 412+ races in known space isn’t totally awesome, but… When did you decide to make them so much more advanced?

    Also, I’m looking to have my marriage performed in Obin, so you know, whenever you get the chance, just the ceremony is fine, I don’t need the advanced grammar. <– Tongue in cheek. Please don’t rant on me. I’m too delicate for the full Scalzi rant. A gentle mocking is probably all I can bear.

  13. awake on a train:

    Don’t worry, the discussion of TLC is non-spoilerish.

  14. Karen @ 5

    “Um, that was meant to be a cool plot twist. The cook got involved by accident. He says he’s sorry.”

    I was less confused by that then the reference in your original comment about “cat vacuuming”…

  15. I believe cat vacuuming is an expression for “doing anything in the world to avoid work, even unnecessary chores”.

    The only caveat I have for this discussion is that the number of worlds the CDF has under their control must be fairly large, because they seem to win or lose one every year at least, if not every few months. Given that it must take several years at best between “last fought over” and “net producer of goods”, there’s got to be a lot of other planets out there supporting the fleet. I don’t think their economy could handle 10% fluctuations every year.

  16. @18: “At 6:40 am?”

    Dude, I went at 6:50 a.m. and there was a line. A long, slow line up to a very cheery and chatty and — did I mention s-l-o-w? — 80-year-old poll volunteer.

    But, yes, my precinct just north of TheOSU probably has a slightly different dynamic than yours.

  17. Scalzi said

    Most of its parts exist in clouds of possibility that only coalesce if and when I need them to.

    Pretty much how everything else works, why not here?

    It’s a quantum effect….

  18. @6 – Having seen that kind of literary device before, I’m going to confidently say that the reason you can’t warp out of a gravity well is so that warp-drive is confined to space travel and you don’t get people taking jump drives across town or out of the middle of a firefight.

  19. That’s a new take on world-building! Seriously, you got it right–who wants to spend a lifetime developing 5,000 years of history, multiple languages, etc., etc. before actually writing a story? Not me!

  20. “”And how many guys zilched out?”

    “Two grillion, m’lud.” The Clerk sat down. A hydrospectic photo of him at this point would have revealed that he was steaming slightly.

    Judiciary Pag gazed once more around the courtroom, wherein were assembled hundreds of the very highest officials of the entire Galactic administration… This was the most momentous occasion in legal history, and Judiciary Pag knew it.

    He took out his chewing gum and stuck it under his chair.

    “That’s a whole lotta stiffs,” he said quietly.”

    Sorry John, couldn’t resist.


  21. Alex: “Two grillion” is going to be my new “bazillion” (although lower numbers will probably remain “eleventy-three”). Thanks!

  22. My 2 cents on this is that whilst I often enjoy a overly detailed universe, does it really have to be so overpopulated with minutiae? Is the amount of overinformation in a Robert Jordan or a Janny Wurts book really necessary? “Rich and Detailed” is the quote often used to describe books like these, but that’s like saying “New & Improved”; leaves you a little suspect, until you notice that a full 25 percent of the book you bought is Glossary, WITH pronunciations even. Give me a story not heavy with overindulgence, please and thank you.

  23. I use the same technique in both running RPG sessions and my writing. “Don’t define anything before you need to.”

    The reason is simple, and it’s not about wasting time to create it because world-building is often its own reward. All too often the problem arises because you’ve got a great idea for a scene or setting and you can’t use it because something that you wrote down a long time before and has never come up makes it impossible. Once that’s happened enough times, you’ll see the wisdom of leaving details until they’re needed. That way they won’t contradict things that are far more important.

  24. Scalzi said:

    Most of its parts exist in clouds of possibility that only coalesce if and when I need them to.

    Borrowing Schroedinger’s Universe? It’s only there when you need to refer to it?

  25. So I take it then that the Big Book of Consu Theology won’t be arriving in stores any time soon.

  26. Thanks for saying this. I don’t know if it’s just science fiction, but there does seem to be this odd stigma about creative people being… y’know… creative. You’re not supposed to start writing unless you’ve ironed out every last detail of a fictional world. Silliness.

  27. I figured that not filling in those details performed the dual function of avoiding one more thing to trip yourself up with, and also allowing you to fill it in with whatever you need if it becomes a convenient plot point.

  28. When I first read your response, John, I thought more along the lines of :
    There are planets being fought over constantly, so a. the number is spinning so fast, that it’s only description is A LOT. and the planets change hands so quickly that the number isn’t fixed. Trillions, and dozens.

  29. Your penultimate paragraph is one of the best-drafted parts of a blog post I’ve read in ages. From the nice use of the word “anthropic” to the imagery of a universe coalescing from potentiality when you need it to, it really is a wonderfully vivid description.

    Apart from that, I like what you have to say. I’ve gotten bogged down in minutiae too many times when trying my hand at fiction.

    Do you do any formal plotting or outlining when you sit down to write? Also, how do you check continuity for your more recent stories (e.g., using your 412-worlds example, is that in an OMW Universe bible that you keep handy? Or do you go back and do word searches in the electronic drafts of your previous works?)

    I love getting glimpses of how the creative process works in other people. Thanks.

  30. Michael @28…

    “Is the amount of overinformation in a Robert Jordan or a Janny Wurts book really necessary?”

    As much as I enjoy the books, David Weber sometimes kills me with his infodumps in the Honor Harrington series. I forget which one it was, but I swear between two lines of external dialogue, one of the books had at least four pages of internal dialogue/backstory sandwiched in between those two lines of dialogue (which were something along the lines of “Hello” and “How are you?”

    After reading one of those (again, as much as I enjoy them), I have to sit back with a couple of Arthur C. Clarke’s or Clifford D. Simak’s just to enjoy the economical story structure again.

  31. Sounds like you approach world-building the same way I do. It’s not quite a necessary evil, because it’s kind of fun, sometimes, but it shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of writing either. IMHO, anyways.

  32. I just recently read OMW and the Ghost Brigades. Interesting, and now that I know that there is at least one more in the series, another book on my to read list. A criticism that I read somewhere about mixed sex units did not seem too relevant in OMW. There was sex, there was jealousy (the reason usually given to not have mixed units), but it seemed everyone got “over it”. The fact that the newbies were given time to get used to their new bodies (and each other) helped with the unit cohesion and getting over the jealousy. GB it seems had more sex in the units, but then the personalities were constructs that mostly did what their creators told them to do. Do keep up the good works.
    @ Fred – David Weber does go on and on at times. Not as bad as some authors whose names escape me (never read Jordan or the other). You would think that he gets paid by the word. I wish the books were shorter so I could read more of them more often. That, and not go off creating more universes (even if they are new and shiny).

  33. 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.

    Where did you get the idea that Tolkien needed a huge back story before he felt comfortable enough to tell a story?

  34. I´d have loved to buy “The Ghost Brigades” now, since i just finished reading “Old Mans War” my HTC Touch Dual.
    But it isn´t available anywhere as eBook.

    Half the marketing gain from TORs free ebook program goes down the drain because the don´t have the sequels up and ready.

    And no, I wont bother to buy the sequels in dead tree format.
    I read fiction only on my PDA, and don´t want to be bothered by a cumbersome useless hardcopy.
    Plus I want to read it now. NOW. Not in 2 days or 2 weeks when the hardcopy would be delivered.

  35. TGB is available in Kindle format. Otherwise I don’t know what to tell you.

    As a point of information, I have very little say regarding the electronic formats. Tor has the rights and they are doing what they are doing. Posturing to me about how you won’t read dead tree books doesn’t do anything other than annoy me. Send an e-mail or write a letter to Tor directly, please.

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