From the bare earth

I’m slowly building a home and a farm. It’s slow because of the famous equation – “You can have: fast, cheap, good – pick any TWO. “ Of course because I’m special I only got to pick one, and that was ‘cheap’ as I spent most of my money on the land. Unfortunately, nobody told the parasites and rent-seekers (AKA government and their clients) that was an option, so they’re still expensive, and make things even slower, for no visible benefit. I bought a piece of land with – as total assets, some fence-posts. Every other thing I have to either make, scavenge or buy and bring in. Now, I’m a former rufty-tufty fish farmer so I can do anything*. If you need to know how to make fire with two sticks, I’m your man**. If you dropped me butt-naked on desert Island I am sure that when you returned a year later I would be in some kind of shelter, with sunburn and a hat and with fish to eat. More, if I was getting all my work done by Friday. My knowledge breaks down a bit above the certainty of ‘fish that you are trying to keep alive, die’, but that’s never stopped me giving it a go.

But it has re-enforced two things I already knew:

1)The pioneer who trekked into the wildness, much maligned and sneered at today, was tough and resourceful, and a hundred times the man that any urban latte-sipper is. It’s HARD. It would simply kill 9 out of ten modern folk – those that didn’t run as fast as possible back to the shelter of pre-existing infrastructure. The only reason I can see for not respecting that is you don’t want to admit he was your physical, intellectual and probably moral superior.

2) EVERYTHING rests on other things – equipment, knowledge, and things others have made. Mr Butt-Naked – has a huge hill to climb just to survive, let alone build up and progress. It’s fashionable to praise primitive tribes who have little material structure or goods, and to sneer at the people (particularly the Europeans) who built all this ‘stuff’. The evidence, of course, is that most of ‘wonderful’ primitive people run towards the ‘stuff’ just as fast as possible. The smart ones keep the goods bits of their cultures and traditions, and appropriate the good bits of Western technology. The dumb ones keep the bad bits of both. You live better, and work less hard to live – when you have a steel knife instead of a knapped stone – especially if you don’t have to make the knife. Try not to misinterpret me on this. I’m the guy who has actually bothered to learn and has –as a result—a lot of respect for these ‘primitive’ skills. I just don’t romanticize and gloss over the little details like child mortality and short lifespans… and just how much hard work digging is when you have a piece of stick, as opposed to steel spade or a JCB.

So: what does this have to do with writing? Well, I particularly wanted to dwell on the second aspect. If you turn your back on all the wicked, evil patriarchal cis-gender patriarchal Western ‘stuff’ and start again, metaphorically butt-naked on your desert isle… Well, good luck with that. Maybe you can scratch out your new language and whatever you invent for symbols thereof with a piece of driftwood (from a naturally fallen tree, of course) in the wet sand. I am sure happiness, fame and wealth (oh wait. You wouldn’t use something as tainted by evil Western Capitalism as ‘money’)… ah. And droogal (which is like money, but is absolutely un-similar, and can’t buy anything) will rush to your door… uh. Your sand. You don’t have doors.

For the rest of us, we build on the ruins of yesterday, cheerfully re-using their stones. But aside from mocking the conceit of the twits who don’t grasp this, what I was thinking specifically about was the ‘world’ or ‘universe’ that writers build for works of fiction.

One can buy a ready-made structure and piece of property. Let’s face it, that’s the easy way. Quite the sensible path, too, and can have brilliant results. BUT… it’s someone else’s design, with the shape and constraints they put on it. The best you can do is with characters (and, if like me writing in James H. Schmitz’s Karres series, not even too much of that). It can still work exceptionally well IF the initial building was sound and allowed for extension.

Or you ‘buy off plan’ – that is to say, write in the real world. That too can work really well. The only down side is that a lot of other people seem to know this too. With a bit of ingenuity you can ‘put your mark on it’

Then, of course, you get to ‘the real fixer-upper, the renovators dream’ the area in which we find almost all sf/fantasy. Whether you’re talking about DUNE or CHANUR or my DRAGON’S RING… or any one of ten thousand high fantasy novels (which are, as often as not, built on a ‘framework’ of LORD OF THE RINGS (which itself draws heavily from Germanic and Scandinavian sources, to name some)) many, many stories take their basic structure from known real historical (or biological) parallels. The one great thing about this is you know they work. There probably is still functioning plumbing and maybe a roof that needs work… but a lot of the basics are done. That doesn’t mean that many authors haven’t managed to turn a habitable universe into a disaster area, transposing horses, and knights and all the bits they fancied into a fantasy world without a vestige of the practicalities that fed those horses or the relentless looting and warfare that existed to create and nurture a hierarchy topped by a knighthood. I’m a practical sort of guy and I have to admit that a lot of high fantasy takes my willing suspension of disbelief, throttles it, shoots it through the head, dismembers it and buries the remains in quicklime. But that hasn’t stopped millions of people reading and enjoying it.

Of course the ‘renovation’ required varies a lot. Some authors settle for roughly filing off the serial numbers and adding a few bits of gratuitous sex and violence, or a few tack-ons of magic that has no basis in logic and lacks internal consistency… and still sell well. Plainly that is what their audience are happy with. Good for them, they got it right. It’s not to my taste and so I neither buy it nor write it, but it works.

At another level entirely come the great renovators. Tolkien. C.S. Lewis, Frank Herbert and Gene Wolfe spring to mind. They used a few stones (often from several older ‘buildings’) added a huge amount of their own and the structures they built were so superb – and with such attention to detail, and solid construction, that they far eclipsed the structure/s they were built on and from. They were so good that others used them to build on. But… well… yeah. Start young and construct your own languages and complex mythology… and you still have to be the writer with the skills and knowledge of JRR Tolkien. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you think that’s you. The one thing I am sure of is it isn’t me.

And finally there’s the bare bit of land with, at most a few fence posts. Man, this is HARD. Hal Clement’s A MISSION OF GRAVITY – but that suffered a little in that the aliens thought rather like humans. Robert L Forward’s DRAGON’S EGG is truly brilliant in this respect. I’d rate Niven as a first rate creator of ‘new’ aliens which have little material from other ‘buildings’. I hope you can do this. I’ve enjoyed the results enormously… but it’s a MOUNTAIN to climb. Mount Lookithat. It’s how many things depend on and inter-relate with other things to make an internally consistent universe that is terrifyingly hard. It’s not a whole lot easier on my little farm, and I am grateful I can import material from elsewhere. I’ve just put in about a quarter mile of poly-pipe which has meant I can have water at my orchard. If I had to do that by drilling the knots out of bamboo-stems… or by digging a ditch with a sharp stick… yeah well. I’d be carrying water, and making something to carry it in. There is clay there…. About 4 foot down.

So: I find myself in the writing world at least working mostly on ‘fixer-uppers’. The key here is looking for good underlying structure (and, er, ‘location’ – in a genre that has appeal and growth potential. Not something overstocked and under-popular. The writing suburb ‘Likelytowinnahugo’ may be undergoing gentrification, but it is overpriced and not a growth area). Choose a location you like, and remember you can gather materials from diverse prior ‘buildings’ – as long as they fit together or at least don’t conflict. For instance, I took the aliens of RATS, BATS & VATS – for the Khorozhet, biology from starfish and sea-urchins, and of course the rigid hierarchy from Byzantium. The politics I cobbled in from pure communism – the ‘magh, to Shavian Socialism for HAR’s two tier society, to the utter libertarianism of the ‘Rats’… It’s a question of looking at what you have and working out how you can possibly fit it all together, and make it work.  A bit like my building – where I have the remains of three houses and a chook shed for materials.

I might manage to rebuild the chook shed…

*Just not well, or successfully.

** Make sure one is a lit match.




43 thoughts on “From the bare earth

  1. You speak a truth that the reality is, while we’re all much better off these days, we’re also a lot softer. I read a bit of a book that is about the pioneer women of the Americas, and they were strong, strong in ways that would have them stare in speechless disbelief at how their descendants comport themselves.

      1. I don’t envy our foremothers because of all the children they’ve had to bury, having had to bury two of my own in succession, over the last four years. That part, and the ease of our work, is something they would envy.

        I do think though, that if they were faced with the antics of today’s rainbow-haired, pussy-wearing feminazis, at the very least they would be appalled at the inanities that these ‘modern women’ consider hardship.

        1. My condolences 😦

          I agree that they’d be shocked at those antics, and probably wonder how easy life has to be to support them.

  2. Filing off the serial numbers. I find myself doing that a lot. Of course I try to steal from the best. It is a hard slog especially if you want to use the rafters from another house. There’s the forming and fitting and then the nailing. If you do it right the rafters won’t collapse in the first snowfall.
    Now metaphors aside. There are a lot of the same ideas out there. How each person approaches the story solution is different.
    Yeah, I know it’s going to be a hard slog. At least I got my boots on.

    1. eh, stealing from the worst has the advantage that you can see many ways to improve it and so file off the serial numbers. Of course, that only works if you steal a single idea and crystallize the story and its world around it.

  3. Learning every day. For some reason, I had never heard of a “chook” shed. (Neither has my spellchecker, apparently…)

    Excellent analogy, though. I thought that this place just needed a little bit of redecorating – then found that structural beams need moved, electric needs to be beefed up, and so on, and so on, and so forth…

    (Creating an alien race that is biologically socialist – and still manages the feat of an advanced civilization – painful. Still a WIP. Fortunately I only need the framework roughed in for the time being.)

  4. I think it’s also important to know what skills you have and what you need to contract out. As a writer it makes sense to play to your strengths and use the skills that you know work in the real world to build your fantasy world.

    Tolkien was a linguist and a historian. He studied existing sagas and epics for years, which is why he was able to write his own–he started with “What if we rewrote Wagner’s Ring Cycle from the POV of the dwarves” and then mutated from there.

    Frank Herbert was an ecologist. Dune was based on his real world work in desert ecologies. Robert Forward was an astrophysicist. Hal Clement was (I think) an astronomer with a heavy mathematical background. Larry Niven had a dual major in mathematics and philosophy. John Wyndham was a botanist. Michael Crichton was an MD who used his leisure time to continually educate himself in all aspects of science. John Grisham was a lawyer.

    It’s less “Write what you know” and more “Use what you do know to make what you don’t know more plausible”.

    I know buildings. I’ve done maintenance most of my life, and I’ve got a good working knowledge of plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and so on. It doesn’t mean I only write about maintenance men (although many of my protagonists are in some blue collar trade associated with construction) but it does mean that when the fire-breathing dragon bathes the protagonist’s house with flame I have a pretty good idea what would happen and how to describe it clearly.

    Or if I’m designing a space station I’m going to be thinking about how it’s put together, where do the pipes and cables run, how do you access the critical systems in the event of a power failure, what safeguards are in place for a hull breach, and so on.

    Granted, I may take this too far–I’m currently working on an S&M lesbian ghost erotica story and had to stick in a reference to ADA compliance.

    The problem that I see is that a lot of writers try to emulate the work of other writers without having the background that those writers had. They want to write something “just like Tolkien” but they don’t understand why Tolkien made those particular worldbuilding choices. They want to write Science Fiction but they don’t know Science well enough to know when they are breaking the laws of physics.

    1. Granted, I may take this too far–I’m currently working on an S&M lesbian ghost erotica story and had to stick in a reference to ADA compliance.

      Wonders how lesbian ghosts have issues that the ADA can fix….

      No doubt when you publish the book I shall find out, but it does sound intriguing

      1. The issue came up when I explained why the haunted building is no longer in use–it was built in the 1920s and has no elevators, and it would be prohibitively expensive to install them.

        1. You can get those buildings from the 60s as well. Like my office where we can’t do relatively minor remodeling projects to make it more useable without bringing the building up to code. 1) no sprinklers, 2) no elevator and the main door is half a floor from BOTH the real levels, 3) and asbestos in the floor tiles and ceiling tiles which is fine if you don’t touch them but remodeling would mean full abatement and point 1 means touching every ceiling…

          Suddenly that 10k$ remodeling of the break room is a multi million dollar project that requires everyone and everything moving out for months!

          1. Before the Buyout of my job, the owner wanted to do some remodeling of the plant to add desk spaces. It was cheapest to just buy a modular office space and install a ramp to it than touch the building’s office space for that very reason. adding an elevator and inside stair being brought to code was impossible.
            After the buyout, they did do stair work, and had to get some exemptions.
            As usual, the “improved” design closer to the ADA code was harder for those with limited mobility and they preferred using the old ones, and had to use the warehouse stairs for their own safety. We had more regular folks trip and nearly fall with the “better” design as well.

            1. Sometimes it’s more cost effective to shut down a building than to bring it up to code, which is bad news for businesses, but is nice for horror writers looking for creepy locations.

              1. That was what they were planning to do to us and build a new place nearby. Well, they did shut the place down. Nearby turned into over 1,000 miles away for me, and 330 for the fab folks. Some of the office people are still in DFW. Place is still empty and an EPA/TXDEQ monitored area to go with the poor office space.

          2. Yeah, that happened to the company that bought the building across the way from where I work. They were going to turn it into a hotel and leave mist of the downstairs tennets (shops restaurants etc. Alone.) Then they discovered asbestos that the previous renovations hadn’t bothered to renovate out… So now they had to shut down the people they had told could stay. Wound up about 3 years behind schedule with a lot of very angry people around them.

    2. I’m actually facing that last problem in a particular project. It is an imitation of or heavily inspired by a particular story. That author has knowledge I don’t have yet and knowledge that I can’t match. I don’t understand every part of the inspiring story. All I can do is a) research b) put together stuff based on my own knowledge c) make sure it works as a story to the best of my ability.

    3. “Hal Clement was (I think) an astronomer with a heavy mathematical background.”

      Hal had Masters in astronomy, wartime experience in the Army Air Corps and then peacetime in the USAF reserve, years as a private school science teacher, and was an artist as well as an author.

    4. This can be fun when you have a background in metaphysics and are trying to work out your world-building. 0:)

  5. Start young and construct your own languages and complex mythology… and you still have to be the writer with the skills and knowledge of JRR Tolkien. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you think that’s you. The one thing I am sure of is it isn’t me.

    At the risk of being heretical (as if that had ever stopped any of us), by Dave Freer standards Tolkien was a failure. In a thirty year career, he published 13 books of fiction ( That is fine for an Oxford Don with tenure. But for somebody in your position, who needs to bring in money from writing (you can make or find a lot, but not everything you need), it would be irresponsible.

    1. It’s possible that if Tolkien had had more time (hadn’t been teaching full-time) he might have produced more books. Financial necessity might have forced him to write more. But would they have been as good as what he did write?

    2. It depends on whether you see writing one book selling 20 million copies as more successful than 20 which sell 20K a piece. The former is certainly more of a gamble.

      1. 20M copies is better than 400K copies (I’m mercenary at heart), but I think a lot of that difference comes not from quality, but the level of competition in the market. There were considerably fewer fantasy books to choose from back then.

  6. > Hal Clement’s A MISSION OF GRAVITY – but that suffered
    > a little in that the aliens thought rather like humans.

    That was deliberate, and sort of the point. Clement created the most alien environment and species he could, and then showed that the Mesklinites were still bound by the same imperatives as humans – food, shelter, family, trade… he could certainly have made them more “alien”, but the showpiece of the story was Mesklin itself, not its inhabitants.

  7. IIRC, Niven’s Moties were derived from a bone; his plan was, I believe, to have an explorer find the bone in a desert, and extrapolate the moties & their society from that.
    No way do I want to be a subsistence farmer, which was my dream at age 18 in 1971. It was supposed to be so simple, right? Bull! Again, using Niven as a source, we have the Shire in Lucifer’s Hammer, in which Hugo’s people had a dream of returning to nature, until the bugs ate the crop. There was a getaway retreat in Footfall, as well, where they composted the inquisitive journalist. But that had a LOT of prep behind it.
    Nope. I want to live in a place where I don’t starve to death just because SugarBelly stole the bacon I was going to eat as a snack.

    1. Because I grew up on a farm and we did garden and preserve food, but only a little, I know very well how much work is involved, how much a person would have to grow if you couldn’t open a can of corn you bought at the grocers, and how much bugs, mold, and rodents can eat. Consequently I sort of go nuts when farming is done wrong in fiction or when some post-technology situation has a village with a garden in the center of it to feed the people. Or heck, that silly “Divergent” franchise where the farmer group are one fifth (?) of the people and they wear pretty colors and wander the rows of lush vegetables filling baskets. Clearly the writers have never actually grown anything.

      But science fiction does it too, all the time. Yes, it’s nice that the ship has hydroponics so people can have fresh lettuce. But I’ve done rough figures on max per/foot yield of wheat and figured out how much greenhouse space will allow a dinner bun a day per person. I brought a five foot tall cherry tomato plant into the house when it got cold and I’m the only one eating the tomatoes and I’m keeping up with it with a handful a day. Any actual food production, taking into account the probability of occasional crop failure, means that a colony somewhere or a habitat in space will be majority agricultural with a few people and a bit of other stuff on it.

      1. Fresh food in space does present problems. It makes sense for treats and aesthetics but for day-to-day eating not so much. And water. Do you really want a hydrologic cycle going on your space station? Keeping it all tucked away in pipes will reduce all sorts of problems (e.g. rust).

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