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.