Worldbuilding with Specialists, Polymaths, and Dilettantes

I ‘ve come to believe that the main reason I love (and love to write) Speculative Fiction and SFF is the opportunity it gives to explore all possible worlds. You know, the Multiverse. Worldbuilding.

With worldbuilding, it’s all about the details. And when it comes to the details, it’s all about research.

“All the little details.” — Joseph Cotton, Shadow of a Doubt

The great worldbuilders—Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, James S.A. Corey, N.K. Jemisin, and Susanna Clarke, just to name a few—built their engrossing settings stone by stone, with an obsessive eye for all the little details that make up their worlds’  geographies, geologies, cultures, languages, music, art, religions, crafts, and sciences. But, as the old but fitting analogy goes, for every detail that makes its way into the story, there’s an iceberg-like mountain of research beneath the surface to support it.

Thank God, says I, for the Internet. True, it doesn’t always serve up just the morsel of information one needs, from a reliable source, but by way of it we can usually be pointed in the right direction. Say, to a book we can find in the library, or the bookstore, or order online.

The explosion (or implosion?) of Knowledge

Thing is, much as fictional genres have become increasingly niche-ified—can you say “Cat Mysteries,” boys and girls?—the pace at which scientists and scholars are amassing information, and therefore, by necessity, breaking down their foci of expertise into increasingly narrower fields, is breathtaking. It can be daunting for us “independent researchers” who need to know about all sorts of odd things to create convincing characters and worlds. The worst of it is, we almost invariably start out by not even knowing what we don’t know.

(An aside: all this knowledge and information is quite wonderful and spellbinding, but the anxious part of me wonders how much all these specialists are still talking to scholars in other fields as well as their own. A failure to do so, it seems to me, would mean that the human capacity to envision the Forest might be irrevocably lost in the high-def glare of a single close-up image of a tree. Nay, a leaf. Where are we to find “the big picture” in all this, I wonder?)

The Extinction of the Polymath

Roger Bacon, observing the stars from Merton College, Oxford.

Many moons ago I read a biography of Roger Bacon (“Doctor Mirabilis,” 1219-1292) in which the fun fact was discussed that Bacon is considered one of those polymaths of days gone by—a man who by most accounts knew everything there was to be known in his time. (For a wee discussion on the several candidates for this long-extinct title, go here.)

But that was the thirteenth century. Nowadays a polymath can never be more than someone who knows some things about more things than most of us. A dilettante writ large. (Most of us novelistic world builders are just plain dilettantes.)

Tolkien, of course, was an Oxford philologist when he invented the languages and mythology of Middle Earth, and Deborah Harkness, like her main character in A Discovery of Witches, has a PhD in the history of science and medicine. But more typical, I believe, are worldbuilders like Martin, who immersed himself in medieval history and culture for his Ice and Fire world. N.K. Jemisin’s degree was in education, not the geology, seismology, and volcanology she needed to make her Broken Earth Trilogy convincing. That knowledge she had to acquire on her lonesome, with good old-fashioned research.

(I could digress here about the vaguely disturbing hope some harbor that human knowledge can once again become encyclopedic by way of AI implants, which might save us writers a lot of time, but that’s a rant for another day.)

But back to Specialists and Worldbuilding…

What prompted these musings was an article I stumbled upon from the Smithsonian in which I was informed that we now have a scientific specialty known as “Archeogenetics.” This new sub-sub-cross-category of science may, in fact, I realized, play a role in one of the later books in my W.I.P.

nathan-dumlao-ulPd2UCwZYk-unsplashThing is, when I add Archeogenetics to all the other subjects I need to know something about to write these books, Anxious Me blinks awake again. After all, my W.I.P. mixes epic fantasy with near-future speculation, especially about tech and politics. And it’s set in a real location, the Pacific Northwest, not an invented fantasy world. Ergo, I can’t just wool-gather ideas in the same way a pure fantasist might, not if I want to make this “near-future” of mine remotely credible, even by fantasy standards.

The upshot: My list of ongoing research subjects is a doozy. It includes Spec Ops warfare, eVTOLs, Arthurian mythology, the Silicon Forest industry, Ritual and Chaos Magick, Early Modern English dramaturgy, the history of Nazism and the Second World War, the geography, ethnography, and history of the Cascade-Siskiyou region that borders Oregon and California, the history of the Far Right in America, Cryptography, Climate Change, Volcanology, geomythology, the science behind solar eclipses and bolide impacts, Native American history in the Pacific Northwest, speleology, and several languages, just for starters.

Truly, the Devil’s in the details…all the little details.

I think I need a cuppa before I crack open that next book.

Categories: Dana Rail, Science Fiction/Fantasy, STEM, and Writing.

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