Building my Universes, One Word at a Time

I am in the process of writing a novel. More precisely, I have written the first draft of the novel and I am now busily patching the holes in the novel. The novel is story about a man named Eric Stapleton who is pulled out of his world during World War II and inserted into a future world that is in many ways radically different. It involves time travel, largely because I love time travel stories and because I think time travel provides an interesting background for examining other things. There are, of course, characters, conflicts, drama, and various plot twists. This particular blog post is not about any of those things. This post is about building a universe, or more properly because the story involves parallel timelines, multiple universes.

I spent the majority of my career before my retirement, building software systems. Most of these software systems were large and complicated with many interacting subsystems. Even in those relatively rare cases where there was a clear set of requirements, there were competing aspects that need to be balanced off against each other. Ease-of-use oftentimes was played off against security. Reliability and availability often played off against raw performance. Multiple players with different roles played off against the need to have a consistent approach for future maintainability. There was never one way that was the right way.

On the better run projects, we asked the question “what does done look like?” That is, when we are all done with the project, what things will be true? We used the answers to that question to drive our process. I use the plural form of answers because the answer might well change over the course of the project. Virtually every project that I was involved with was something that cut new ground. No one had ever done a project exactly like this or in some cases even close to this. Often, we had to muddle through. In other words, the project would pick a likely direction, take a couple steps in that direction, stop and look around, and decide how we wanted to change direction. We might end up retracing our steps (“throwing away the code that we just wrote”) or just making some adjustments in the direction we wanted want to go. The project would take a few more steps, stop and look around, and use the knowledge to make more decisions to adjust the direction. Rinse! Repeat! The idea here is to get the maximum amount of information that you can with the minimal amount of investment. The phrase often used today for modern Internet projects is “fail fast!”

There are an awful lot of parallels between this approach and the process of writing a novel. When I set out to write the first draft of my novel, I had a pretty good idea of what the plot was going to be. I knew what chapters I wanted to write. As I wrote those chapters, I made adjustments in my outline. The most common of adjustment was to split chapters into two or three smaller chapters. I had in mind a specific objective or “single responsibility” for each chapter, in the sense of what information I want to impart and how I wanted the plot of the novel to advance in that chapter. Some chapters tried to do too much and got too big. I went through and split those chapters into smaller chapters such that each of the chapters would have a specific objective. In the real world, principles like “topic sentences” and “single responsibility” are routinely bent and often broken. These top-down decompositions of information are appropriate for imparting information in a form which is readily digestible. Writing a novel is a bit different from that. In works of fiction, the texture of the words and the emotions that they invoke are oftentimes just as important as the “objective realities” of plot and place.

But I’m writing a science fiction novel. What that means is that the plot and the emotional context of the action within the novel are set within a world that while “made up” must have some internal consistency and logic. It is just not reasonable to say that anything could happen at any time for any reason. If there is magic in the world, there must be laws about how that magic can be used and what the costs are for making magic. There cannot be a free lunch. Works of speculative fiction such as science fiction and fantasy must abide by some set of laws for physics, chemistry, economics and magic.

And indeed the need to operate within those laws oftentimes drives the plot. We can kill the dragon which is laying waste to our lands, but the “logic of the universe” requires that we have to sacrifice one of our own to accomplish that. Who and how shall we pick? Do we have the right to force the sacrifice? What will be the Implications of the sacrifice once the corpse of the Dragon lies moldering in the field? How will people live with what they have done?

What I have been worrying about over the last couple of weeks is the mechanics of time travel. As I was writing the first draft of the novel, I was sketching out how time travel worked within the universe that I was building. The difficulty is that it was merely a sketch of some concepts that changed over the course of writing the various chapters. The result was inconsistencies between various parts of the novel.

One of the biggest problems was the chronology. The story takes place over several millennia. Rather than take time to calculate dates and durations as I was writing, I just made up some numbers. As a part of my world-building exercises, I am going back to figure out exactly when things happened. There are several hundred dates in the narrative that need to be nailed down. These dates have to stand in certain relationships to each other to make the story work properly. I started off with a simple Word document to keep track of all this, graduating to an Excel spreadsheet as it got more complicated, and finally to a C# program with some moderately complicated logic to generate the dates in the spreadsheet. This is probably more work than is really necessary but I spent a major part of my life engineering software and I cannot escape the habits that I have developed over that time. Internal consistency is to be strived for if never actually achieved.

The chronology, in turn, grew out of a need to write the back story of time travel. In the first draft of the novel, I had passing references to the history of how time travel had been invented. There were obvious holes and inconsistencies in my narrative. In an attempt to sort those out, I have written over 50 pages about the history and principles of time travel. I am still the process of completing this.

There are three other aspects of the novel which will probably get similar treatment, perhaps with a little bit less detail.

The first is the concept of total surveillance. In this future, everything is recorded and is available to anyone who wants to take the time to look at it. The notions of privacy in the sense of hiding things from other people are nonexistent. There are several points in the plot that hinge upon the existence of this complete record of everything. I suspect I’ll end up writing 10 or 20 pages of background material on this. But then again I thought that the time travel background would be 10 or 20 pages and it’s going to be at least 60 or 70 pages.

The second aspect is the extensive use of artificial intelligence. In the future that I am constructing, great parts of how the society works are handled by artificially intelligent machines. There is no great “over mind” that is out to destroy or even control human beings. The artificial intelligences are there to help but again with everything there are costs that ultimately must be paid. I’m in the process of reading several books on artificial intelligence and I suspect I’ll end up writing 30 or 40 pages of back story in this area.

The third aspect is an economy of abundance. The machines produce virtually anything that an individual might want. There is no economic reason why people have to work, but they work anyway for psychic rewards. This abundance changes the way that society works. It changes how the plot advances. I expect to write another 10 to 20 pages about this topic.

There are several reasons to go through this world-building process. First, it is just fun to do. One of the things that has attracted me to science fiction is the notion of “if this goes on, what will happen?” In other words if we extrapolate certain trends, what is likely to be the final outcomes for each of these trends? The outcomes for society as a whole, the outcomes for individuals, and the impacts of those outcomes on day-to-day living. Second, it is the desire or perhaps an obsession to ensure that the future that is described is one that is coherent in the sense that it is entirely consistent. I have certainly demanded that consistency from the authors of the books that I have read. I certainly do not want to fail a consistency test for my own work. Third, I think that it is important that the plot, and the universe in which it takes place, fit together. In my experience, really good science fiction involves characters trying to navigate through the logic of the constructed world. What are the politics of time travel? What are the technological implications of a world in which the overwhelming majority of the infrastructure is handled by artificial intelligent machines executing software that was built millennia ago? What are the psychological implications of a world in which everything is known and there is no place to hide? What are the implications of an economy of abundance? How does it affect the people in that world and how those people in turn affect the world?

The final question is how all of this back story affects the completed novel. What I have to do is figure out how much of the stuff will actually show up in the final draft of the novel, how much will be alluded to, and how much will simply be knowledge that I have as I write the novel that informs the text but is not really visible to the reader. Clearly, I have to be able to show the reader the parts of the world that are critical to how the plot unfolds and how the characters are affected. But I also have to create a sense in the reader that there are things around the corner or over the horizon that are unseen but still present and affect the world in which the narrative takes place. And that is one of the things that makes all of this so much fun.


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