“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” –Carl Sagan
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth (otherwise known as the late 1970s) a documentary series aired called Connections, narrated by James Burke. It was about a bit of everything, but mostly about how the inventions and materials that shape our lives have unexpected and often vast interdependencies. What does this have to do creating ecologies for second-world fantasies?
I’ll get to that.
Now James Burke’s documentary series may not have always been factually correct and certainly had an extremely Eurocentric point of view, but the series was mind-blowing to me as a child. The major lesson I pulled from that show was not ‘fact,’ but process: the idea that the consequences of a decision, invention, or material all ripple, multiplying far beyond the initial triggering event. If you’re obsessed with creating worlds, as I was and still am, that has some serious ramifications. Because, not to put too fine a line on it, matter matters. What the everyday objects in a story are made from reflects the world it is set in.
To flip that quote from the late, great Carl Sagan: if apples don’t exist in your universe, you can’t have apple pie.
Anytime a writer sits down to write a story, they’re faced with decisions about worldbuilding. And if they’re writing SFF, that question often starts with: how much like Earth is it? And if it is like Earth, which parts and when? The ecology of the Pliocene era would be vastly different from what’s available now in the deserts of New Mexico, but that was indeed a question Julian May grappled with in her Pliocene Exile books. Or perhaps, like Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga, the ecology might be so different from Earth’s that there’s no chance of confusing the two.
So why does ecology matter? Does it matter?
Like most worldbuilding, the answer is: it matters as much as you want it to.
Certainly, there’s no requirement to create a unique ecology for a story. Plenty of writers skip that part of worldbuilding and jump to what ‘feels’ right. But there is a potential landmine to that: because what feels right is often deeply cultural and subject to forces that you may not even realize are shaping your preconceived biases. The number of TV shows and video games set in medieval Europe or Asia which feature potatoes, tomatoes, or corn because they’ve become so ubiquitous that we rarely remember these crops simply weren’t to be found on those continents prior to the invasion of the Americas is hilariously plentiful. Likewise, coconuts wouldn’t be ‘exotic’ if your story takes place in a Polynesian-centered setting, would they?
A second-world fantasy isn’t limited to these real-world constraints, but even with worlds where tomatoes evolved in Westeros, the processing of materials requires consideration. We give little thought these days to the climate and technological requirements of processing wheat, how sugar was considered a spice in Europe for most of the middle ages, or how often pie crusts weren’t meant to be eaten at all.
But wait. Why am I talking about materials and products when I’m supposed to be talking about ecologies? Why am I talking about apple pies when we really should be talking about apple trees?
I suppose the obvious answer is: because you can’t have one without the other. The ecology of your world supports the economy of your world. It all starts with the wilderness, the plants that grow, the creatures that survive on them, etc. From a writing perspective, therefore, the things you probably will mention—the animals your heroes ride, the clothing they wear, the food they eat—hinge off the things you probably won’t, such as what are the staple crops and how sophisticated are the trade systems. What kind of fruit does the local ecology support? How difficult are the crops to grow? Who makes what and how well?
This may all sound incredibly dull, but trust me, from a writing perspective this is pure opportunity, best not squandered. Wars have been fought over the fact that country A has resources (better soil, better water, salt mines, those pretty flowers) that country B wants to possess. (I refer to this as the “I like, I’ll take it” rule of invasion—always popular in Europe, especially in their dealings with anyone who wasn’t in Europe.) Strip all the magic and morality from Tolkien and I still have no trouble believing Sauron wanted to invade Gondor. I mean seriously, would you want to live in Mordor if you had the option of invading the green and pleasant land next door?
When I originally sat down to create the world of Ompher (where my A Chorus of Dragons books are set) the first thing I did was work up a map, the currents, and the climate. The second thing I did was figure out what the ecologies looked like, which drove the economics, and that in turn set up who’d invaded each other, who hated each other, and perhaps most importantly: what was for dinner? Could my hero have apple pie? (Sort of. He can have apples, as it turns out—an expensive import from parts of the empire with the colder climate to support them—but nobody’s thought to use them in a way we’d describe as ‘pie.’)
So, it’s worth it to take a moment to ask yourself some questions about your world. What do the staple crops look like? Where do they grow? What is the wilderness like and what are its herd animals and its apex predators? It’s perfectly acceptable to have T-Rexes running through your forests, but they need to have a food source large enough to keep the engines firing. And that food source needs to be able to survive too. Also, while apex predators don’t always compete with each other, they often do. We don’t have hyenas in Europe because we do have wolves, and so hyenas never had a chance to adapt to the different climate.
Whatever you do, make sure you think through the ramifications of your changes. If you have no horses in your world, and people ride three-legged lizard creatures, what about all of the other equine beings that aren’t, strictly, horses? Do zebras still exist? How about donkeys? WHY did the people domesticate three-legged lizard creatures, when water buffalo were probably right there? (Assuming that is in fact the case.)
Consider the domino fall of each decision you make. If you don’t have horses, or something very close to being a horse in its speed and carrying capacity, then it’s less likely the stirrup is created in Asia, eventually to make its way to Europe. And, depending on whose theories you’re listening to (it’s controversial), that means you don’t have the medieval knight. Oh yes, and you don’t have Genghis Khan, who encouraged a spread of technology which absolutely and unarguably changed the world. It also means nobody reopens the trade routes between Europe and Asia. And that means you probably don’t end up with a teensy pandemic better known as the Black Death, which (besides wiping out a hefty section of Europe) also helped usher out feudalism and usher in the Renaissance.
All that because you got rid of horses. Whew.
But that brings me to my last point about second world fantasy world ecologies, which is this: it’s not Earth (because otherwise it wouldn’t be second-world, now would it?). You don’t need to worry about when potatoes made their debut outside the Americas. If you want chocolate and roses growing in the same climate, no one can stop you. There is no such thing as ‘anachronistic’ or ‘inaccurate’ when you are creating the whole universe and all its history. The only thing you should worry about is how your changes internally link to each other, and the consequences of those changes. And once you’ve done that?
Well I suppose you might want to get around to writing the book. At the very least, enjoy your apple pie.
Jenn Lyons lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, three cats, and a nearly infinite number of opinions on anything from mythology to the correct way to make a martini. The first three novels in her epic fantasy Chorus of Dragons series—The Ruin of Kings, The Name of All Things, and The Memory of Souls—are available from Tor Books.