Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Web Site Review:

CalState's World Building Course

By Valerie Comer
2004, Valerie Comer


Have you ever sat down to create a backdrop for your new novel, and found yourself stymied as to what key decisions you need to make, and how those decisions relate to each other?  What kind of star should your world orbit?  How about multiple moons?  What about life forms: sentient, monocellular, and the ones in between?  You don't want to be tagged as an amateur by the very first agent or publisher to see your prized manuscript, simply because you didn't do your homework!

Homework.  The word brings to mind schooldays.  What better place to learn the basics and indeed, the details, of building worlds than in a course environment?  What if you could take this course whenever it was convenient to you?  How about if it was an online course, chock full of linked resources? Best of all, what if it was free?

Welcome to http://curriculum.calstatela.edu/courses/builders/ . This course was designed as a college curriculum, but the creators were also keeping in mind teachers, home-schoolers and science fiction writers as key users.

The course is broken up into eleven modules, each with a basic, brief lesson, multiple links for deeper study, and suggested assignments.  Let's have a look.

Lesson One: The Solar System.  In this module you will learn all about where in the universe your world can spin.  It discusses evolutionary theories, as well as details of the various types of stars.  What properties of a star allow it to be the hub of a habitable system?  How far or near does your planet need to be to its primary in order to fit into the 'life zone'?  What size of planet can hold enough atmosphere to sustain life?  What about axial tilt and its relationship to seasons?  Do you want or need one moon, no moon, or perhaps multiple moons to make your story come alive?

Lesson Two: Geology.  This module includes everything from how to create a relief map of your planet to the life of a river and the effects of erosion.  Do you want a crash course in the types of rocks that exist?  Have you always wanted to know about earthquakes and volcanoes?  You are in the right place.

Lesson Three: Meteorology.  Weather and climate are affected by solar heat, air, land, and oceans.  What correlation do the various gaseous components of the atmosphere have with weather trends?  What causes clouds, seasons, and rain shadows?

Lesson Four: Microbiology.  Here is your chance to create life!  This module is very in-depth, with several hands on activities such as duplicating chromosomes and playing with yeast.  Photosynthesis and respiration are covered as ways of processing energy.  What is osmosis?  Mitosis?  How are characteristics inherited?  These are just a few sample questions from the material covered here.

Lesson Five: Algae and Seaweed.  This section will help you to design your aquatic flora.  How does it differ from plants on land?  How can you build diversity into your plan?

Lesson Six: Aquatic Zoology.  This section gives an overview of the aquatic biome.  Some underwater life is not ambulatory, but waits to strain digestible material from the water as it flows by.  Other life goes in search of nutrition.  Discussed are how animals travel and what kinds of animals, including fish, may be present.

Lesson Seven: Underwater Communities.  Balancing the relationships between the various plants and animals that inhabit your world under the sea is a delicate proposition.  Keep in mind the energy pyramid, which explains the components of the food chain, and how much of each kind of life is required to sustain the next level.  Also included are details of the structure of oceans.

Lesson Eight: Terrestrial Botany.  Now that we have a firm grip on the situation under the waters of our burgeoning planet, it is time to go topside.  Decisions to be made here depend a lot on previous decisions, especially those made in Lesson Three regarding climate.  What kinds of plants can survive in the conditions you have already created?  Are there extreme temperatures and seasons?  Discussed are forests (both deciduous and coniferous), deserts, grasslands, and tropical rain forests.  There is also a section on basic plant structure.  Do you know how plants reproduce?  How seeds travel and germinate?

Lesson Nine: Terrestrial Zoology.  The food chain is a complex thing!  Start with which animals can eat the plants that you created in Lesson Eight, and then figure out which animals eat them!  What is animal instinct?  How do your animals mate, and how many offspring result?  Effects of gravity, sunlight, and the process of breathing are also discussed.  And what about 'aliens'?  What would be required to sustain their lives?

Lesson Ten: Terrestrial Ecology.  Once you have designed some basic animal structures in Lesson Nine, think about the variations that can come from them.  Think about how many animals on Earth follow the four-legged plan, or the bird plan, or the fish plan!  Always keep in mind how the various components you have created work together as a whole community.  Each affects the other.  Have a quick look again at your food pyramid.  Do you have enough of the various kinds of creatures needed to sustain a food chain?

Lesson Eleven: Alien Bodies.  What kind of intelligent life does your planet need?  Have you built the required framework over the past ten lessons so that your aliens suit their home?  What do they need to survive?  To thrive?  What senses do their bodies have?  What form do their bodies take?  How are they adapted to their environment?  What are their major survival problems?  What do they eat?  How much land is required to grow their food?  How do they reproduce?

If you are planning a series of hard science fiction novels, you could do no better than to take the time to work through the many levels of each section.  Many of you are writing softer sf or fantasy.  Perhaps you do not require quite as much depth to this facet of your worldbuilding as the hard sf writer does.  Even so, I would recommend a couple of hours at a minimum poking through the site and following links of interest as they spread throughout the internet.  Having a basic understanding of the way the various facets of a world work together will stand any writer in good stead.

One of the rewards of visiting this site is the grouping of over thirty sample planets created by students.  Others that are available for viewing were constructed by scientists; all of them present glimpses into foreign worlds that are the products of someone's imagination.  Where else can you visit the planet Shalimar, and learn about this tropical home to triangularians and waffleoos?  Or learn about the fascinating underwater culture of The Creatures on Loki?  And then there is the planet Epona, which was originally planned to be the basis for a detailed simulation game for professionals in the field.  How about Disco, which has abnormally violent weather and a day/night rotation of only 3.6 minutes, causing its sun to appear as a strobe light in its sky?

Build a world that shines through your novel as a firm and rich backdrop for the stories that take place upon it.  Create a place as diverse in its many facets as Earth is, a place you can see so clearly in your mind and on your screen that you know just what you would find if your spaceship landed on that high mountain plateau of the second largest continent, just to the west of that long lake, or splashed down into the depths of the watery sea.  Use the resources that abound on the Internet.  Enjoy this site. I know I have!