Okay, everybody, “insert paragraph regarding my love of maps here.” I’ve said all that before. I love maps. I love to make maps. I love to stare at maps. Got it.
Touching back on the subject of worldbuilding, though, let’s talk about why you might at least want to sketch out a map or two for yourself to guide you as you’re writing, regardless of your ability to draw.
Why does it matter what the world looks like?
If for no other reason it helps you, and by extension your reader, understand the distance between here and there.
You might still be asking, Why does that matter?
Well, if it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. Does the fact that the castle is three miles from the tavern make any difference to your story? No? Then it doesn’t matter and you won’t need to specify that. But the space between things can have and enormous effect on your story and characters.
If you’ve got a medieval fantasy world and the hero is in one city and the villain is in another, and the Stone of Amazingness is somewhere in-between and whoever gets it first will either destroy it or open the Gate to Elsewhere, then how far it is from City A to the stone vs. the distance between City B and the stone, and how fast each of your characters can travel, matters a great deal.
True, if both are capable of instantaneous travel, it doesn’t matter. Okay, fine. But otherwise . . . ?
Plot is all about tension. There has to be some question as to who will win the day, the hero or the villain, and ultimately this dramatic tension comes from what you might call “the running clock.” This can be expressed outright, with some sort of deadline: Blow up the asteroid before it crashes into Earth in three days. Or it can be a little more vague: Someone seems to be trying to open the Gate to Elsewhere and if he does, wow, will that be bad.
So if the hero has to get to where the stone is, how far away it is and how fast he can get there makes all the difference in the world.
And it’s not just travel time, but the speed of communication we need to consider. We’ve all become a bit spoiled since the invention of the telephone. It’s not weird for us to be in instant two-way communication with anyone at any given time, but from the wider view of history this is a very new invention.
For the overwhelming majority of human history communication was limited by the speed of travel, or at the very least, the limits of line of sight. Even as late as the nineteenth century here in America, the Pony Express literally hand-delivered messages over great distances by riding as fast as they could on a horse. Native Americans famously used smoke signals to communicate short messages over long distances, but you still had to be close enough to see the smoke. Someone in New York couldn’t wave a blanket over a fire and communicate with someone in Seattle—at least not without an extraordinary series of intermediaries placed at intervals in-between. And the classic children’s game of Telephone can tell you why that might not be the most reliable system.
This idea of the speed of communication is vital to both science fiction and fantasy. Let’s look at both separately.
Starting with fantasy, what is your fantasy world’s available communications technology, either man-made or magical? If anyone and everyone can use magic and there’s a spell that allows you to essentially call someone and have a real-time conversation then you’ve just invented the magical equivalent of the cell phone, and your world will have to change accordingly. If you’re working from a generally medieval idea with less pervasive magic then maybe only a few people, or even only one, has the ability to communicate over long distances. If so then that person has a tremendous advantage. If the evil wizard can use his enchanted mirror to contact his agent in City A and warn him that the hero is about to leave to go after the Stone of Amazingness, and must be stopped, the evil wizard might have at least a head start if the hero doesn’t have access to that magic and has to just ride out to where the stone is hidden without being able to “call ahead.” The possibilities for story are endless.
I recently re-watched the brilliant HBO series Rome again, which included a fascinating sequence in which Titus Pullo was sent to assassinate Cicero, who was warned just ahead of time by a runner. Cicero then sent the same messenger back to Rome with a letter of warning, but that messenger was waylaid along the road and the letter lost.
How would the whole story have changed if Cicero could have just picked up the phone?
How many stories, for that matter, would come to a screeching halt the second someone called 911?
But before we get to that, let’s look at communication and travel times in science fiction.
Science fiction comes in many flavors and there’s essentially an infinite variety of reasons why communication might be instantaneous, painfully slow, or somewhere in-between.
I have a cell phone and most likely in a hundred years, people will have even more advanced communications devices that won’t suddenly get slower. Unless, of course, there’s a terrible apocalypse in the meantime and the power is turned off to the cell towers. Now I have a useless hunk of plastic in my pocket.
And what if I’m trying to call the Proxima Centauri Colony, about four light years away? Via radio that means I say, “Hello Proxima Colony, this is Phil calling,” then wait four years while that radio signal travels at the speed of light to Proxima Centauri. Only then will someone at the Proxima Colony hear me say that then answer, “Hey, Phil, what’s up?” Another four years later I hear that response and answer back, “Not much. What’s up with you?” And it goes on and on like that with four years between each station. Not a terribly efficient way to have a conversation. It’s been twelve years and the Proxima Colony has only just heard my second sentence.
So in your future do you have something like a “subspace radio” so your characters can just call up and talk in real time with a colony four light years away? Okay. You set the rules, but that means that when the horde of insectoid aliens attack the Proxima Colony the colonists can call for help. Everyone on Earth knows what’s going on and can at least prepare for a possible invasion if things go poorly on Proxima.
But what if you have faster-than-light starships but no faster-than-light radio? Well, then you’re back to the pony express. Need to tell somebody something on Proxima? Write a letter and the regular resupply ship will get it there in, say, a week—or however fast you decide your starships can go. Slow by telephone standards, but faster than the eight-year turnaround for a radio signal.
Back to that question, then: How many stories would come to a screeching halt the second someone called 911?
Well, a lot of them, actually.
And this is why authors love to isolate the action. Let’s set our story in an arctic research base during a blizzard (The Thing) or deep under the ocean during a hurricane (The Abyss). In both of these stories the characters on site have to fend for themselves. They have to make the right decisions and fight the good fight without recourse to the proper authorities. This is the disconnect at the heart of the movies Alien and Aliens. In the first movie it was a small group of ill-prepared space truckers vs. a terrifying alien predator. In Aliens we saw what happens when the proper authorities send trained professionals to take care of a problem they have some prior knowledge of. It still goes bad for our Colonial Marine friends, but then there was more than just one alien in the second one. And even in Aliens, these marines were on their own, seventeen days away from reinforcements.
If you look back at the development of technology it’s fair to say that the future is fast and the past is slow. We travel much faster now that we did even just, say, sixty years ago. The telephone and the jet airliner changed the world. Every generation laments that their children seem to be “growing up too fast.” Some people even long for “the good old days” when things moved at a=slower pace.
In reality, I think, if you put any of those people into that famous Frontier House experiment they’d very quickly change their tune. But does this mean that your fantasy story has to be slow and your science fiction story has to be fast?
You are in control of all of that. Magic can speed communications and travel to even faster-than-present-day standards. And vast interstellar distances can drag both to a virtual standstill even in a technological future.
I’ll end with a familiar warning:
Whatever your rules are, either magical or high-tech, you set them. You decide how fast your starship goes or who can cast a Place Long Distance Phone Call spell. But once you’ve set and established those rules in the minds of your readers, stick to them. It’s the consistent application of those invented assumptions that will lend your fantasy world or SF future an air of authenticity, or dare I use the word plausibility one more time?
Oh, I dare!