Thursday, November 7, 2013

Roads and Infrastructure: A 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout report with VIDEO!

Our hangouts forge ahead, in spite of sometimes odd technical conditions that had one participant looking like a pair of shadowy floating glasses...! I was joined for this chat by Erin Peterson, Harry Markov, and Brian Dolton.

When you think of roads, I'm sure a lot of associations come up. Road to Glory. Silk Road. All roads lead to Rome. Highway to Hell. Path to Redemption. Armies walk a lot faster on roads, which was one critical factor in the success of the Roman empire. Erin remarked that soldiers, news, and commerce all can travel on roads. Whether those things get mired in mud makes a huge difference to their success. Roads can hurt the land, but they can also cause towns to spring up (railroads were mentioned especially in connection with this). Towns spring up to feed people as they travel, and give them places to gather. It's actually good to look at the travel patterns around a town and ask why the town would be there in the first place - the reason probably has a great deal to do with roads. Harry said roads are about progress. Stable infrastructure makes travel and trade more reliable. It certainly helps if you're not in danger of losing an entire ship full of goods at sea!

Take a look at how your roads are constructed. How are they made? How much work is required to create them, and how much to maintain them? Are there choke points on the road, like bridges or forests? Those points are most likely to be targeted by bandits who may demand tolls from those passing by (governments can also use these points similarly!). Brian suggested that one should not provoke the authorities. Roads are not always safe. People, wild animals, stampedes, weather, and washouts are all potential dangers to travelers and to their cargo. Erin remarked that when one is on a road through the wilderness, there are not always a lot of support structures for travelers.

I remembered how in Tolkien there were roads... but that Frodo was encouraged to stay off them. I always got the sense that this was somehow a magical problem, but certainly, a road will make your  path far more predictable. Indeed, even if you are traveling through a wilderness, everyone who must travel will probably be on the road, so the road itself may be more populated than you think. Brian said that Tolkien underpopulated his landscpe. Wilderness is a big thing in fiction, but there isn't all that much of it. The American Pioneers may have seemed to be going into an area with no population density, but that was unusual because smallpox and other diseases had devastated the local populations. In Europe, the plague sometimes left entire villages empty.

Climate is important to roads. Dirt roads don't last, even in the desert, unless you maintain them. Asphalt breaks down after 30 years. Erin remarked that there may still be signs that roads once existed, but that doesn't mean that they are usable, or even passable. We discussed Alan Weisman's book The World without Us, which talks about how quickly things break down when nobody keeps building them up again. (Answer: more quickly than you might think.) People scavenge from things.

We talked about the movie Cars, which took the road as one of its central concepts. The road acts like a river, following the contours of the landscape. New technology allows the road to cut through the hills, and changes the area and its surrounding towns. Those places no longer accessible by the main road (i.e. the biggest road) can "dry out." Erin mentioned the town of Butte city, which was once a place where barges were loaded, but when the transportation changed, the city dried up.

We talked a bit about ports. In modern ports, cranes transfer giant boxes from ships to road vehicles.

Harry mentioned an island community with a mine. The town there was for miners and their families who were shipping materials out. When the mine stopped producing the entire town and port were abandoned. A similar situation is depicted in the Miyazaki film Castle in the Sky, where the skill of mining the most valuable material has been lost and the mining towns are struggling to find any more of the lesser materials, causing the towns to decay.

We talked a bit about the cultural significance of roads. Diners are designed to be next to roads, and can become the social center of an entire community. Roads can create environments where the people who meet are all travelers. We didn't touch on this in the hangout, but there was a recent fascinating article about gender and roads, talking about how when a man steps onto the road, his story begins, but when a woman does, her story ends. You can read it here. Brian mentioned how crossroads have been culturally significant for thousands of years, even featuring magical spells that can only be performed there, gods of the crossroads, and traditions of burying people - or murdering them! - at a crossroads. Lonely crossroads appear a lot in horror.

Fine-tuned cars run on fine-tuned roads (US roads and the Autobahn come to mind). Harry wondered about flying cars and how roads might work in the sky. In movies, you might see cars traveling roads in the sky, going over and under one another without any traffic jams or collisions. How would you enforce those roadways? Brian remarked that air traffic corridors were like roads in the sky already, because for example the I10 highway in the southern US is a route traveled by cars, but above it is the plane route, which is almost the same. One reason that planes need to travel predictably is a control issue. Car collisions are bad; air collisions are a disaster. You have to be able to control the flow so that nobody gets lost (which is much, much easier in the air!). Ships on water are slower and much less likely to collide. On the other hand, maps of shipping do suggest "roads" of a sort. Winds and doldrums are somewhat predictable, and it is always valuable to travel through known terrain (or sky, or seas). If you have trouble, someone will be coming along. In the era of the pioneers, hundreds of wagons would set off each day, because they were restricted by the seasons and had to leave in spring in order to reach their destinations before winter (the Donner Party learned that lesson the deadly way).

Erin said air traffic mirrors ground traffic. She also mentioned hazards and how horses, which can think for themselves, are able to avoid crashing into each other most of the time. Cars crash more and at higher speeds. This leads to a need for stop signs, traffic lights and modern traffic laws. Brian remarked that paving was originally intended to make maintenance easier, but now it's for speed. I talked about how when I was on a panel about the 7 wonders of the world, and how Paul Chafe had mentioned that the modern highway system was a wonder of the world, even though it was unlikely to be viewed as such. Erin noted that the rules for roads etc. evolve as the need for them evolves.

In science fiction, "roads" have other issues. Erin said she was always bothered by instantaneous information exchange across interstellar distances. She prefers the model where travel leads to information flow. Brian says he doesn't mind faster-than-light travel but prefers information to travel FTL rather than instantaneously, because of the way it affects communication. Until the telegraph was invented, information traveled at the same speed as people on Earth as well. We talked about how CJ Cherryh's Merchanter universe has an interesting variant of this, where the ships have black boxes and nobody messes with them, because every time a ship arrives it brings a flood of information with it.

This led us to talk about communication. I mentioned Nancy Kress' sunflashers, from Probability Moon. We also talked about Tolkien's beacon fires, which were really cool but seemed implausible inasmuch as they would have had to be maintained as permanent camps with supplies etc. in those remote and nigh-inaccessible locations. We remarked that people can skip technological "steps," as in modern Africa where laying networks of cable is being skipped in favor of cell phone towers. We imagined Google wifi balloons. So when you are thinking about infrastructure, make sure that you consider how your world got there - they may not have taken all the same steps our world has. My Varin world has messengers to get information to travel quickly, but not because they are low-technology. They used to have cable telephones, and then developed a wireless method for communication and recycled all the old cables. The problem is, they then lost the ability to repair the wireless technology, and by that time all the cables were gone. So they're stuck with people running or driving across town with notes! Erin said that in her parents' community, they don't have cable, but they do have satellite dishes. Peripheral areas in the US won't have cable sometimes - infrastructure varies from place to place.

It was only at the end of the hangout that we started to move off roads, and we certainly didn't get to everything! That's why we'll be discussing water today, and power generation shortly!

I hope to see you at a hangout soon! Thanks to everyone who attended this one. And here's the video!



  1. You mentioned towns often being located to service people travelling. They're also to service the methods of transportation. Many of the towns in western Canada were founded by the railroads, and are located where they are because of nearby coal and water. Some grew because of other resources discovered nearby. Banff grew from a minor whistle-stop to a major tourist town because of the discovery of the hot springs.

    1. Excellent point, R.E. Thanks for the comment!