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Issue # 57
Publisher and Editor
Margaret McGaffey Fisk,
Senior Associate Editor
Table of Contents
A Year of World Building, Part Three
By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2010, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved
Welcome back to more world building! Once again, we're going to cover more of the basics that people sometimes assume or overlook. This sort of material may not appear in a concrete form in your story, but will add richness to your background so that your characters aren't moving against a hastily sketched in world. It will also help you create trouble that is logical to the framework of your setting.
There are two intertwined aspects of civilization which new writers may not deal with in any adequate way -- transportation and communications. Most people think it enough to saddle a horse or hitch them to a wagon and away they go -- or jump in the aircar and take off. Visits to modern-day foreign countries are no problem in finding transportation. Stories set in the real world of today have it easier, but even so, people sometimes overlook simple things like car maintenance and back country roads.
In communications, word often somehow arrives about things happening in other places just at the right time without any real thought about the difficulty of getting it there.
With a little more care, you can add just a touch more realism and a few spots where you might add more trouble to your story. More trouble is always good, right?
7. What are the modes of transportation?
If your characters have to travel from one place to another -- any distance more than they can comfortably walk in a few hours -- how do they get there?
This seems like a very easy question. However, for every simple answer there are a number of underlying factors that you need to consider. Let's start with a fantasy world. Let's even make it a nice, generic little medieval setting. Horses, wagons, all of that....
Except that unless your characters are all nobles of some sort, they won't own horses. Horses were very expensive to maintain. Oh, and that horse you use to plow the fields and occasionally ride into town? That's an ox. Horses could not be harnessed to plows until late in history because no one had invented a harness that wouldn't choke them when pulling something so heavy. Maybe you have such a thing in your fantasy world. If so, you better make some show of it, because otherwise people are going to assume 'Basic Medieval Setting' and know you got it wrong. Mules (hybrid between horse and donkey) were more often used for travel than horses. Even some chariots were sometimes harnessed to mules and donkeys. An ass, by the way, is an undomesticated version of a donkey.
Oxen were often hitched to wagons as well as plows and they were even used for crossing the plains in early American history. Oxen are strong, stable beasts. Not very fast, though. Still, it will get you there. They could cut across the open plains without a lot of trouble. But elsewhere, they need roads.
There is the next part of transportation that most people don't consider. Roads don't just happen. Paths, usually narrow, do often exist between one place and another, but roads take people maintaining them, even if they are little more than rocks pushed down into the dirt. Someone has to take the time to fix the mud holes that can ruin a wheel and pull up errant trees trying to take advantage of the cleared space. Don't forget bridges. Many small streams and most brooks could be crossed without a bridge, but larger water paths became true barriers for travelers. Small streams can also become raging torrents in the spring, especially if they are fed by mountain snow melt. It would not take huge rains to make a stream of that sort a problem if the melt came from upstream. Deserts are especially bad for sudden floods through the arroyos and wadis.
You will also need people to patrol those areas and even so, it's unlikely that single people or even small groups will travel much. They'll gather in larger groups for protection. There will be inns and such along the roads, even between towns, at a day's journey.
A person on foot can travel up to approximately 25 miles a day if he is in good shape and pushing it. A strong person on a good horse might make it 40 miles.
Water transportation is another matter. It depends not only on the technology level of shipbuilders, but also on the skill and knowledge of the sailors. In ancient times, craft did their best not to leave the sight of land, and came into a dock each night. When tools like the sextant became available, a pilot could take readings of the sky. The instrument has a 60-degree arc and is lined up celestial bodies to determine location on the water. Portable clocks later helped refined that ability. Travel by water is not as simple as it may sound.
What about a science fiction world? You can extrapolate from what we have today for public transportation on new worlds. Surely the more advanced will have transit of some sort -- train lines, subways, etc. What powers them? How reliable are they and where are the computer controls located? Are they in-city only? What does it take to get to another city on a new world where the first settlers didn't build roads?
And there's something else to consider. We build our cities to accommodate cars and trucks. Old World cities often have small, twisting streets that were built before cars were invented. What about a world where cars are not the norm and never have been? If street level transportation is with a transit line of some sort, and everything else is in the air, what does that do to the layout of the city?
Travel from world-to-world must be defined by the type of space ships you have. If you do not have FTL capability in your universe, then you're people are not going far from Earth. Light Speed ships won't get you very far, either. They must be Faster Than Light in order to explore far and have a linked civlizaion.
What are two different modes of transportation in your story? What does it take to maintain them? How long does it take to reach the nearest destination?
Imagine what differences it would make in your story if one of those transportation methods were not available. How would it change the dynamics of the story and relationships between the characters?
And then ask the question a writer should always ask of everything in their story: What can go wrong? If it goes wrong, what does it take to fix it?
8 What types of long range communications are used?
Fantasy stories often rely on curriers, magic or homing pigeons (or all three) to get information passed from one place to another. These are all reasonable enough, if you take some time to work out the parameters.
The first thing to ask is if your fantasy setting has a regular mail system of some sort. Are letters sent between educated people on a regular basis? How are the letters passed? The Romans had a well-maintained system of roads specifically because it was important, in such a far-flung empire, that communications passed swiftly to the capital. It as an official system, and anything that a person might want to send in secret could not, obviously use such a system. Traders might transport mail, but would it actually reach the other end? Trust had to be part of such a system.
Even the Persians had a system that sounds a great deal like the Pony Express of the American Wild West days. Ancient China also had an extensive postal system of sorts. Having one for a fantasy world is not far-fetched, and yet it is something most often ignored or overlooked. It would be the most economical and logical use for communicating in a non-tech world.
Working out the logistics will not take much. A courier with a change of mounts might make as much as 50 miles in a day. The size of most countries could be measured in a few hundred miles at most. We take distance for granted in a day where traveling 50 miles might take less than an hour. Remember that a country was only strong as the communications that tied it together and the ability to respond to a problem in a timely way.
Magic may make communications easier in your story, but you don't want it to be too easy. Magic should always have a cost to the user. Zapping messages back and forth like they're using a cell phone may look reasonable -- but remember that even cell phones run out of battery power. Also, unless everyone in your world has magic, such communications are going to be limited to a few powerful people, and they may not be willing to share.
And that brings us to homing pigeons. First, homing pigeons have to be trained. They're started young and first taken a short distance from their roost and turned loose. Some never make it back home. They are also quite limited in the amount of weight they can carry. And, last of all, they have to be given to someone else to use to communicate with the owner. The owner then has to have a pigeon on hand that belongs to the other person so that he can send a message back. Eventually the pigeons have to be carted back in exchange again. Homing pigeons head of home. They do not make round trips.
A science fiction story with multiple worlds faces the same sort of problems as a low-tech fantasy world might face. While on-world communications might be fast, communications even within the same solar system are going to face delays. Radio waves would only be used for short distances because sound waves move very slowly. Everything else would be translated into light pulses and translated by a device at the other end.
For long range communications, either you have to invent a faster-than-light communication's system, or all communications will move at the speed of your ships, FTL or otherwise. A ship coming into a system could dump info in a fast light 'packet' but you still must take into account the time it would take to reach the world.
Communications between ships is also subject to distance. A battle in space has to take into account that orders cannot be sent as quickly as they would be on the phone, unless the ships are quite close together. In most cases, battle plans and timing may be far more important than orders at the time of battle.
Obviously, the most important aspects of communications are technology, time and distance. Language is another consideration. Quite often, a powerful country that has existed for a long time will bequeath its language as a 'trade' language that has spread across large areas and is understood by many people. Sumerian was one such language and Latin another. Both survived as a commonly understood language long after the respective countries had ceased to be powers. This helps to facilitate understanding because a 'dead' language is not subject to the mutations of a current one. The words were already set and they were not going to change. This meant if a person could read and write Latin, he could communicate with anyone in any other country who read and wrote Latin, irrespective of the languages they spoke in everyday life. A note from someone in a foreign county (or alien world) will need to have either been written in the language of the person who receives it, in a trade language or needs to be translated. That in itself can cause a problem, as can people writing in languages they don't fully understand.
Discuss two types of communications that work within your stories. What is used by the common people? What is used by the government? How reliable are either of them? How long does it take for news of something more than a day's travel away to reach the common people or the government? In what way does government communicate with their own people?
What happens when there is a break in communications and people are not receiving important information? How would they go about establishing contact of their own? Modern day disasters have shown how fragile communications can be. Don't overlook that possibility for fictional stories.