On Writing: The World, the Moon, and Smartphones
I don’t consider myself very spiritual, but time and time again, I come to a realisation. Admittedly, this realisation sounds so cliché and banal that it might fit neatly on some uninspired Facebook page dedicated to trite – sorry, “inspirational” – quotes:
Everything is connected.
Consequently, when building the world of a story, I find myself compelled to consider… quite well everything, really. Of course we are only human, despite our best efforts, and no one person – or a hundred – can ever consider everything. It’s not a job for the lazy.
In developing my next novel, I got a bit lazy, and I almost ruined my own story for myself.
In a talk about doing research right in genre fiction, writer Chris Hepler contrasts his work on Star Wars with Mass Effect, a popular science fiction video game franchise.
When writing for Star Wars, Hepler would occasionally ask his supervisors for advice on the science of the universe. The response? “Stop trying to put science into Star Wars. The extent of science in Star Wars is blasters, turbolasers, and boom.” You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who cares about the science of Star Wars, and those who do ought to acknowledge that the science of Star Wars doesn’t work.
In contrast, when given the task of writing descriptions for different alien planets for Mass Effect, Hepler was handed a spreadsheet containing the minimum molecular weights of gases retained by a heavenly body as a function of density and radius, and further told to look up the necessary elements that must be present on a planet for it to support life. It was also emphasised to Hepler that yes, some fans of Mass Effect genuinely do care about this sort of stuff, and more importantly, it’s part of what made Mass Effect so beloved.
When it comes to worldbuilding, I tend to fall into the “details are important” camp. It’s not that I don’t like Star Wars, but I find stories with detailed, well thought-out worldbuilding infinitely more satisfying, and as such that is what I try to write.
But sometimes, being in the “details are important” camp can feel like an exercise in masochism; just see Hepler’s example. And because I, too, am only human, sometimes I get lazy. It’s very easy to stumble upon a convenient solution that doesn’t take much thinking, that doesn’t require many details, and just… roll with it. To Hepler, this would’ve been just going with “ice planet, water planet, jungle planet,” like he was used to with Star Wars. This was thankfully shot down by his supervisor on Mass Effect.
Of all the things that can elevate a mediocre story to be good, and a good story to be great, I think, consistency is one of the most important. Stories ought to have rules, even if the primary rule is “there are no rules.” I can accept and even enjoy utterly fantastical concepts, magic spells and alien creatures and strange philosophies – as long as the story presents them in a self-consistent manner.
You don’t need to explain how the Force works in Star Wars; in fact, fans might get angry if you try. At the same time, however, you can’t just arbitrarily invent brand new Force powers and expect the audience to not be confused; you don’t need to look very long for examples of fan outrage over “force healing” in Rise of Skywalker. That is to say nothing of “bombers” literally dropping bombs… in space. See, even Star Wars needs some basic science.
Carl Sagan once said that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. I don’t think he was talking about writing fantasy or science fiction novels, but I find the quote surprisingly applicable.
If you want a scene in which a character is eating pie, as an author it’s your job to ensure that the pie can exist in the first place. Is the character an unemployed 20-something living alone in a downtown flat with no cooking skills? How did he make the pie then? Did he buy it? Where from? How could he afford it? Is he skipping lunch tomorrow just to have it?
Is your character some Mesoamerican god-king? So what’s the pie made of, then? Who made it? Surely the god-king would never condescend to toil over a hot stove. Would they even have a concept of “pie” the way we understand it, or would they eat some other sort of delicious delicacy?
These are the sort of questions that stand out to me, and if a book forces me to ask too many of them too often, it will completely take me out of the story. I can abide by a few inconsistencies, and I can look aside when the rules are bent a little bit, so long as it is done elegantly and to the story’s benefit. But when the questions pile on top of one another and break the flow of the story, the story loses me.
For my upcoming novel, which I like to describe as a “contemporary dark fantasy with a subtle scifi twist,” I seriously considered making the world flat. A flat Earth, in the vein of ancient myths that were already disproven thousands of years before Christ, like in the tongue-in-cheek Pratchett stories, and as described in one of the silliest conspiracy theories today.
The novel takes place in a world that’s dominated by Sun and Moon-worshipping “pagan” religions, with both bodies, especially the Moon, sometimes behaving strangely. So, inventing a flat Earth where the heavenly bodies do not behave like reality, but instead abide by whatever arbitrary rules I wanted, seemed an easy choice.
But then, in a scene early on, one of the characters got a call on her smartphone. And, because everything is connected, this made the convenient idea of using a flat Earth for my story come crashing down around me.
My first thought was, of course, satellites. Satellites are crucial to modern telecommunications, but in a world where gravity does not work the way it does in reality – a flat Earth would never produce a pull like we experience – putting a satellite into orbit would be impossible, indeed, the very concept of an “orbit” would cease to exist.
However, cell phone networks can function perfectly well without satellites. I believe that the modern conspiracy theorists explain this trivially with phone towers; satellites simply do not and cannot exist on a flat Earth, so consequently our telecommunications rely on towers, according to the people who subscribe to such philosophies. Conveniently, on a flat Earth without a curvature, tower signals can carry much farther than reality, not being shaded by the Earth, which explains why you can still make a call in the middle of the Pacific.
So what’s the issue? Clearly my character could very well take a phone call on a flat Earth.
Well, maybe not. I still have to ensure that a cell phone could exist in the first place. At a glance, this doesn’t seem difficult; there is nothing to imply that you couldn’t build a factory staffed by underpaid labourers to solder transistors onto a circuit board to make pocket-sized computers that can also transmit voice, which is what a modern smartphone essentially is.
I emphasise the role of the transistor because the transistor is what makes modern, miniature electronics possible. The transistor is a fairly recent technology, and it is the reason that computers no longer take up an entire room.
Transistors rely on an intimate understanding of semiconductors to function. You may remember from elementary school that metals tend to become worse conductors of electricity as their temperature increases. Due to their unique atomic makeup, semiconducting materials behave the opposite way (to a limit): as their temperature rises, they conduct electricity better. This quality, combined with other, precise means of altering the atomic makeup of the material, makes the transistor – and thus, the smart phone in my character’s pocket – possible.
Needless to say, modern science is inseparable from the science of electricity, or more broadly, electromagnetism. If I want my character to take that call, humanity in this world, like ours, needs to understand electromagnetism.
In the broadest of strokes, the study of electromagnetism can be traced back to ancient Greece, where people noticed that certain materials – such as amber, famously – gain some interesting properties upon being rubbed: they can pick up and move particles of dust or even light objects like feathers or, amusingly, human hair. Although they knew of this phenomenon, they never did find out what really caused it, and for all their merit, the ancient Greeks aren’t famous for their knowledge of electromagnetism. In the grand scheme of things, for many centuries, the strange attractive potential of amber and substances like it remained little more than a curiosity, just one of many strange quirks of a largely mysterious world.
What the Greeks – and virtually every civilisation that came before and after them – did study extensively were mathematics, geometry, and the motion of heavenly bodies. Even the ancient Egyptians, thousands of years before them, built their temples and pyramids such that the Sun would shine through the right window at the right time of the year.
The history of astronomy is long and intriguing, but if we try to keep it very, very short, it can be summed up something like this:
We figured out very early that the Earth is round. We also naturally assumed that the Earth is the centre of the universe, with other bodies, including the Sun, being much smaller than the Earth and relatively close to the surface. Some people contested this geocentric worldview, from ancient times – such as one Aristarchus of Samos in 300 BC – and all the way into early modernity – famously Nicolaus Copernicus in the mid-1500s – but the idea of heliocentrism never quite caught on until at least the 1600s. Then, on the magical day of December 25th, 1643, Isaac Newton was born, and there was light.
Most people know the anecdote of Newton and the apple. Much fewer people know why his discovery of the universal law of gravitation is such a monumental accomplishment of science; indeed, in a sense, Newtonian gravity was the foundation of science, and Newton and his peers can fairly be called the first “real” scientists, not “just” natural philosophers.
There is a question that is so fundamental to our understanding of the universe that the overwhelming majority of people today do not even realise that it could even be a question: if an apple falls from the tree, why doesn’t the Moon fall from the sky?
To that, even the average layperson would immediately answer, “Well, it’s in orbit, duh!” – but much fewer people could sensibly answer the obvious follow-up question: what is an orbit? How does it work?
See, for the overwhelming majority of human history, it was abundantly clear that the heavenly bodies follow rules that are different from the rules to which earthly bodies are subjected. Clearly, the Moon does not fall from the sky for the simple reason that the Moon exists in the heavens, and as such isn’t affected by the quaint “rules” observed down here on the surface, like “things that go up also come down.”
Newton’s law of gravitation isn’t just called “Newton’s law of gravitation” – its proper name is “Newton’s law of universal gravitation.” The word “universal” is what makes Newton’s discovery the seminal realisation of science from which all of modern science is derived: Newton proved, in exact, unquestionable, mathematical terms, that the heavenly bodies follow the same, simple rules as the objects down here on Earth.
The Moon and the Sun are not magical in any way; they are not mysterious; they are objects, like anything you can touch and feel, and their apparent movement as viewed from the Earth’s surface are explained by the elegant inverse square law as described by Newton in 1687.
In 1705, as one final confirmation, based on Newton’s theory of universal gravity, one Edmond Halley predicted that the comet that now bears his name would return… in 1758. Halley died in 1741. Halley proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt – and indeed beyond the grave – that Newton’s law was not just some abstract concept, but something that points to the fundamental truths of the universe.
For the first time in human history, we knew the heavens. And if we could know the heavens… what couldn’t we know? This spurred a frenzy in the world of science.
If you’re willing to wrack your brain just a little more, you might find these little nuggets of knowledge in a dark, cobwebbed corner of your recollection:
Newton’s law of gravity is most commonly given as follows:
Whereas Coulomb’s law of electrostatic force is commonly written as such:
Even without interpreting the letters, it is plain to see that the two equations are virtually identical. It’s also worth noting that Charles-Augustin de Coulomb first published the law named after him in 1785 – with some generous rounding, a hundred years after Newton published his theory of universal gravity.
Electricity – the curious “pulling” effect of a rubbed bit of amber – was a side note in the realm of human understanding until the 1700s. Only then, as dedicated scientists began experimenting with electricity – the word itself derived from the ancient Greek and New Latin words for “amber” and “like amber” – did we discover that the electric force, too, diminished with the square of distance, just like gravity. The scientists of the time openly credited this realisation to Newton’s elegant law.
In other words, if Newton hadn’t laid the mathematical foundation for gravity, we may never have found the mathematical foundation for electricity. If we didn’t have that, we would never have discovered or understood semiconductors, much less been able to manipulate them on an atomic scale, which is required to build transistors. And if you can’t build transistors, you can’t have a smartphone in your pocket.
For Newton to develop his theory of gravity, he relied on the detailed observations of astronomers around the world; for that, astronomers relied on their advanced telescopes that were able to resolve images of the heavenly bodies with unprecedented clarity; for Galilei to make leaps in the world of telescopy – which in turn started a revolution all its own in the field of optics – and to discover that planets other than Earth can also have moons, he needed to lean on Kepler’s calculations of elliptical orbits; for Kepler to come upon the idea of elliptical orbits as opposed to perfect circles, he needed to draw upon the millennia-old tradition of observing the heavens; if the ancient civilisations hadn’t ascribed religious significance to the movements of heavenly bodies, the common person might not have cared about the dots in the sky.
If gravity was not universal – if the heavenly bodies did not abide by the same laws of motion as the objects on Earth’s surface – if the Earth wasn’t round – we would not have smartphones.
Or, at the very least, if the Earth wasn’t round, then the course of science would have been much, much different. If the heavens remain unknowable and fundamentally different from the earthly world, science would have to take a different course, and it already took us a century to figure out electricity after figuring out gravity, when, as it turns out, all we had to do was copy Newton’s homework.
If gravity isn’t universal, if the world is impossible to know, what use is there in trying? How would you even begin? If we lived on a flat Earth, where the Sun and the Moon do not abide by gravity, there is virtually no chance that we would have smartphones and electric cars and same-day shipping, not the same way, not on this date. What are the odds that a world where gravity doesn’t work properly would give birth to WiFi by the early 2000s?
Perhaps science and technology could develop on a flat Earth. But it would have to happen differently, and, in all likelihood, much more slowly. It’s an interesting thought experiment, perhaps worthy of a blog post all its own.
What matters is, for the purposes of my novel, where technology is intended to be largely analogous to reality, the flat Earth idea is a non-starter. Whatever their technology would look like, chances are it would be vastly different from reality, and that’s just not what I want for this story.
This realisation, of course, forced me to come up with a less convenient, more robust, but far more consistent setting for my story.
For example, if the Moon suddenly started shifting into a different orbit, or suddenly slowed down or sped up, as it sometimes does in my story, wouldn’t that cause freakish tides? How can I include the effects of a sudden tidal shift into my story? As it turns out, the devastating tidal effects of abnormal lunar movement actually opened new doors in the story that I’ve never even considered before. How does early society reel from a very real, almost Biblical deluge? How does it affect their cultural development, what does it do to established power structures? I was forced to ask – and answer – all of these questions and more in a sensible way.
Suddenly, when the Earth was round in my story, when the Moon was real, with all of its very real, realistic effects on the world, everything suddenly… clicked. The technology. The tides. The religion.
Contemplating the history and development of science and technology, and how it relates to this fictional world, really led me down a rabbit hole, and probably halted all progress on the book for a week as I reorganised the world’s entire history.
At the end of the day, however, the story is better for it.
The new, robust cosmology opened doors in this story that I would never have considered on a flat Earth. It forced me to be creative in explaining the strange celestial phenomena, without being able to use the flat Earth conspiracy theory as a crutch. Not only that, but it also made me appreciate history, science, and the history of science all that much more.
Because everything is connected. The shape of the planet. The phone in your pocket. The lens used by the camera of your phone. The way light of the flash propagates from the camera to your significant other and back. The intricate circuit board inside the phone that allows you to save your awkwardly lit picture to an online cloud.
Everything is connected. When you’re building a world for a story, you need to consider everything. Even if none of it ever makes it into the book – I don’t plan on ever having a character turn to the proverbial camera and explain why the universal theory of gravity was so important for smartphones – it’s important that you, as a writer, are aware of your own story’s rules and limitations.
Internal logic can sometimes feel constraining. I wanted the Moon to move randomly across the sky, dammit! But finding smart solutions that already exist within your internal ruleset is much more satisfying than just handwaving it all away, both to you and the audience.
As an author, you are making that apple pie from scratch – and for that, you must first invent the universe.
(“On Writing” is an experimental blog series where I aim to help other prospective writers by providing insight into my personal writing process.)