Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report: Building back history (declining societies)

I had a very enjoyable hangout today with Barbara Webb and a quick visit from Derek Wade. One of the key things that all of us agreed on was the importance of passion - bringing a passion to what you're creating in order to motivate your pursuit of it and in order to get your audience more involved.

The biggest topic of the day was building back history for a story. Barbara is working on a story set in quite a complex world with declining technology, and was wondering about how to convey that information effectively. We talked a little bit of the nature of the technology decline (I loved imagining force field hovercraft pulled by horses because the propulsion units had died, for example). We established that the attitude of the people toward technology would be generally positive in her world, but tinged with fear that the things that broke could not be replaced. In some respects, this reminded me of Varin, because Varin also is a high technology world in decline, though it hasn't lost as much as her world has. There is certainly the problem of difficulty in finding people to repair things, and in replacing parts that break.

When you have a situation like this, it's really important to think about how the society arrived at this point. Barbara and I discussed a number of different possible causes for the decline, including a loss of qualified scientists, loss of records, war with other groups, or a bad guy bent on causing trouble. It's much easier for a society to get into a position like this if knowledge and the drive for progress is confined to an elite group. Then if this elite group goes into decline for some reason, the knowledge is unlikely to be distributed widely enough for people to maintain it. There can also be denigration of this elite group by others, associated with a general low assigned value for book learning. Barbara emphasized the role of apathy and taking technology for granted, which in a utopian society like hers led relatively quickly to it becoming a post-utopia!

Likely enough, there won't be one single source for the loss, because the fewer losses incurred, the larger and more comprehensive those losses must have been. So we traced back over the history of her society - and I don't mean the last few years, but the last few centuries - looking for possible contributing causes. Arrival on a colony planet brings on certain kinds of dangers that might jeopardize knowledge (in the form of records or people), as does the difficulty of integrating one's own knowledge with the demands of the new environment. Being invaded obviously would contribute more strife and more potential opportunities to have people with great minds literally stolen for the use of one's enemies, or simply taken down in the general conflict.

At this point the question clearly arises: if all of these things happened long ago, how can I as the author possibly convey them to my readers? Well, both Barbara and I wished to avoid infodumping as a technique, so we talked about using close point of view to restrict the complex information of the world, and also to convey key things to readers. Different points of view can have different kinds of knowledge, and the question of technological decline can have different importance for each of them. Knowledge imbalances between characters always provide great opportunities for you as an author to convey information about the world.

I mentioned the Civil War, and its role in American History. Although it occurred more than a hundred years ago, its footprints can still be seen all over our culture. Children are taught about it; it creates a perception of distinct cultural regions in the US that has persisted until the present day; it also gets linked to later events like the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. So one could expect the same kinds of things to happen in a society where large society-changing events had taken place. There will be a name for the large event, and a significance associated with it, an expectation that it will be known, and then a series of other events that have grown out of it by one means or another. The loss of technology may not be the primary event, but may be a side effect of this event (such as the conquest in Barbara's world, which occurred long ago and was repulsed, but did have a significant effect on events that followed it).

You can start with your world, or you can start with your story and build the world behind it. Either way works. It is worth spending some time tracing historical events that contribute to the current state of a society, and trying to tie them together into overall trends. Then, once that has been done, take a look at how central the problem is to the story's main conflict. If it's central, you can spend as much time on it as you need. If it's peripheral, it's best not to put too much emphasis on it - but you can still use the way that people conceptualize social groups, and the way they imagine their historical and national identity, to illuminate past history for the reader.

Thanks again to Barbara and Derek for coming! I'll be having house guests next week, but I'll let you know via Facebook, Google+ and Twitter if I'm able to schedule a hangout. I've heard from a number of people who expressed interest in attending, so I may try to change the date or time to accommodate some of these people's schedules.


  1. I'm pondering at the moment what could be 'pro-apocalyptic' fiction, the idea that a society is choosing to dismantle an order and disassemble its technologies, to slowly, willingly disappear. The possible motivations are where the real storytelling potential is, although the mechanics of the thing could be interesting too.

  2. I'd say there's interesting potential for conflict, but that the motivations would be backstory, and very much based on historical events that didn't occur in the scope of the story (mind you, you could focus on how the motivations developed, but that would be different). An interesting idea to pursue.