(Which does not necessarily mean ‘ex-pants’ – but may possibly do so under certain circumstances.)

I’ve been away for the week, taking the hand I was supposed to rest after a 12 pound spiny lobster put a feeding claw through my glove and some of my hand (just a few stitches, should be fine) for that rest.

Running with suitcases to catch your connection because your flight has been delayed is a kind of rest, I guess. Story of my life, really 🙂

I went to South Australia to my son and daughter-in-law, which at least kept me from diving. I’ve returned tired so this is a relatively short post – forgive me. What I wanted to write about was something authors – me too – forget.

Expanse. Just how enormously vast that canvas out there actually is — and what tiny microscopic pieces we actually put into any story. Part of that came from flying over the vastness of Australia. I thought we were flying relatively low (for a jet aircraft), letting you see the patchwork of fields… until I managed to spot not a house but a whole town. Then I got it into my head. Those ‘little patchwork fields’ were bigger than a lot of cities.  They were miles big long.

And all of that was brought under the plow, originally, by blokes with shovels and axes. It’s a scale of work that makes a bloke who has cleared and cultivated a few acres feel humbled and insignificant. Most people who have never cleared land can’t really come to terms with how much work must have gone into places… where now the food for a lot of the country and elsewhere comes from – and very few people actually live. Story stuff – whether popular or not these days, but it must have been harsh and hard.

Then, for my sins I found myself in the city. Adelaide is not a particularly spread out city, and not, as cities go particularly large or even crowded and nasty – relatively. All things are relative (even relatives) and I had managed to forget that there were probably 10 times as many people in the airport alone as on my island – and how few of these people are reading and buying books (if they all were buying a book a month…).

I knew all of this. But I had managed to quietly wall it off in my mind. And that I suspect is fairly common among writers. Firstly we lose the whole ‘scale’ of the world. Our heroine is saving the world… man, saving one person is a whole book. And secondly, I picked up a ton of new material listening to people whose lives I don’t live, and whose world-experience I barely touch. I soaked up places and scenes I hadn’t known.

There’s an expanse to write about. And that is without the expanse of the universe, or the multiverse… or the space in one’s imagining.

But I am glad to back home.




  1. You’ve hit on two complaints I’ve had about a lot of modern genre fiction that I never realized were connected until now.

    First there is what I call “runaway threat escalation”, where every crisis has to be bigger than the last until it’s not enough that the villain is threatening a city or even a world, but has to be on the verge of blowing up the entire universe (*cough, cough* Infinity War *cough, cough*).

    Then there is “global monoculture”, where a land (or a planet, in the case of Space Opera) is all one piece. This is the Elf Nation, all big trees and patchouli, there is the Mountain Kingdom full of Werebear Viking Berserkers, This is the Ice Planet and the Jungle Planet and the Planet Full Of Disreputable Smugglers.

    I see now that those are two parts of the same issue–a lack of scalar detail. The places on the map are just filled in (like using that paintcan tool in MS Paint) instead of being drawn.

    And it is individuals that an audience is going to care about. If all of the inhabitants of Desert Planet Hawtsand are essentially the same character, that only counts as one person, emotionally. Shooting one desert lizardoid or blowing up a whole planet full of them is the same.

    I am going to have to chew this over for a while, I think there is something deep here.

    Thank you.

    1. tvtropes calls it the “Planet of Hats” trope. As in, everybody on the whole planet wears the same style of hat. Which is clearly different from the hats they wear on the next planet over.

      Made perfect sense, when I was ten. Now, though…

    2. I recall walling a book by Goodkind, with a rant about a character only getting to save the world *once*.

    3. So it’s the same mystical thinking in some of the ‘save the environment’/’change the world’ attempts?

    4. There’s also the distances involved that can do that. “America is a bunch of cowboys” “France? Wine and snails.” “Canada? Real polite, eh?” and so forth. The detail’s there, if the people in question think about it, but that’s not the first thing that jumps to mind. The further away a place is the more likely the ‘mental placecard’ is likely to be all that’s known about it. So the ‘Desert Planet’ might invoke surprise in the guests when they pass over a lush jungle to land in the city at the edge of the desert (where the mineralogical or biological Handwavium is mind or grown.) “But I thought!” “Yeah, we’re working on it, we just haven’t gotten there yet…” And the guy who slept through the landing just sees the desert, so the desert is all there is to be seen. Again, if he thinks about it he’d probably go ‘Yeah, I bet there’s something other than Desert here, They’ve got oceans right? I bet there’s at least a little green there.”

      Then of course you’ve got That Guy for whom “Desert Planet” is the most fascinating ever, and did you know they’re actually MOSTLY jungle? And it’s the strange interaction between THe Wierd Mountain Range The Geologists Haven’t Figured Out Yet, The Jungle, and the Desert that makes Handwavium possible? Oh! And there’s this funny little bird kind of thing that… (at which point most of his audience starts glazing over and only gets ‘Desert Planet, not so desert and has funny mountains.’)

      1. I wonder, how do Euros (etc.) react when they attempt-insult with “Cowboy!” only to get the response of, “Why, thank you!” ? It must happen from time to time.

    5. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by a recent episode of Krypton where an ethnic group who don’t follow the main Kryptonian religion or speak its language was introduced.

  2. Planets are big. See, for example, ours. They are full of diverse ecologies and economies. I was more than irritated when the loony psychopath (forget his name, but the guy who always did things for venal, selfish reasons but looked a hero) in Battlestar Galactica burbled on about the horrors of being from a dairy planet. Really? A whole planet? Of just dairy farms? It was absurd.

    I have taken great delight in my one WIP of pointing out that the descendants of an original colony are occupying a bit of land of far less area than the state of North Carolina.

    Gaius Baltar. That’s his name.

    1. Ah, yes. The dairy planet.

      Doc Smith, in one of his later series, included a dairy planet. Lactia, he called. To do him justice, it was settled by a corporation specifically because of its huge grasslands, etc. And then he made a wry little comment on the trope–Our Hero went on a psionic mineral survey and found a huge deposit of copper–the first found that could be mined purely by automated equipment. Guess where…

  3. One of the things I’ve heard a lot is ‘you have a lot of stories about a lot of people’. My hubby has a similar knack of getting people to tell him their stories, or tell them something about themselves. I think one of the things we’ve lost is the ability to appreciate stories that are not sprawling epics, but just as interesting and immersive in their own way.

    Something to think on, thanks Dave.

  4. Yup, space is big. Hell, on human scales, even one planet is big. Plan accordingly.

  5. “A whole planet? Of just dairy farms?”
    When all you have is a cow, everything looks like a dairy. These city mice lack all sense of rural scale.

    Then again… why think small?? My nonhumans are scattered across their galaxy, yet they all share the same language (plus or minus dialects with varying mutual intelligibility, the remnants of an older language, and the occasional feral child). Why? for the same reason they don’t have a basic education system: they’re all telepathic to some degree (even those they call ‘deadheads’); consequently language, literacy, and other basic knowledge are literally contagious. (At least up to the equivalent of a middle-schooler, when mental shields start to develop.)

    Beyond that, they tend to be both territorial and highly individualistic. But woe unto an outsider who sees them fighting among themselves and thinks they’re easy pickings. That telepathic under-connection lets them react to a species-wide threat like competing schools of fish suddenly ganging up to run off a shark.

    In other words, if you have a Planet (or Galaxy) of Hats, you better have a durn good reason why it works that way. Or lampshade it as well as did Jack Vance.

  6. It’s hard to show, not just the complexity of climate zones, but the multiplicity of cultures, and then the wild differences in individual people.

    Oh sure, the important figures in the story, everybody gets that. But second and third tier characters need to be at least a little varied as well.

    1. But, but, that takes work! And planning, and making mental maps of the planet or kingdom or empire, and thinking about cultures and, you know, effort. If George Lucas can do mono-environment worlds, why can’t I? 😉

      1. And if I pay attention to them, the story world will eat me. (Which reminds me, I need to get back to the scale maps and language work for one world.)

    2. But then the second and third tier characters turn into a series in their own right. I find the fact that you’re stuck with those ridiculous names increasingly funny as the books go on and on.

      1. Much as I love Pam’s books, the Oner names can be a struggle for this reader at times – especially in a few spots where they’re inconsistent. But even at their worst they are far less frustrating than the creatively-shifted spellings David Weber uses in the Safehold series.

          1. Oh. And I did leave reviews for most of the Directorate books. I may have missed one or two.

            Interesting thing I noticed while doing that: Rating the book on the Kindle when you’re done rates it on GoodReads; it does NOT do anything on Amazon. I spent an hour or so starring everything I’ve read lately on Amazon.

  7. Planet of the Tropes: I see it now… Capital Hatsville, thriving metropolis.

    Reminds me of the time I ran a campaign where I had a large number of towns called Boring. West, East, North, and South. Followed by more, little etc. All justified as the planet had very little potable water.

    It’s the way I roll.

      1. Funnily enough the planet was colonized for mining Boron, but all the water was tainted with heavy metals etc, and when civilization collapsed the colonists needed water, which led to the water wars.

        All of this was backstory for when my players arrived, bringing the promise of technology in exchange for Boron.

  8. part of the issue is a human brain appears to only be able to conceptualize 100 and some people and the land one can walk in a day. All the rest is “Blob” which is what Robert used to call all the places he’d never visited when he was little.

    1. It’s like the area maps in computer games, where the area you visited is a ragged little patch surrounded by black emptiness.

      1. “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

    2. One thing that’s really nice about driving instead of flying is that you get a sense of scope. I can distinguish very specific climates etc. just by mapping them to routes I’ve driven—and how quickly they can change. It was a running gag, when driving to college, that we knew we’d gotten to Spokane County because there were trees—but it wasn’t just a gag. The arid Palouse gave way to scrubby pines within a few miles of the county border, and if you ever drive down the Columbia River Gorge, the demarcation between Eastern aridity and Western rainforest is similarly sharp.

      (Quick geology geek-out; the Grand Canyon was carved over millennia; the Gorge was carved in as little as a few days. The Missoula Floods are fascinating.)

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