Wednesday, January 29, 2014


The World So Far: An uncharted and largely oceanic world, dotted by islands and coastlines, full of strange wonder, abundant resources and tropical beauty. An incoming force of humans, from a number of distinctly 16th century-feeling cultures, have voyaged to this strange place to begin colonization and eventual exploitation of these resources. The local inhabitants, however, are powerful undersea kingdoms, full of dynastic struggle, ancient tradition and military might, and quite unsure how to react to the presence of these foreign colonists.

In my continued efforts to put the cart before the horse, it's time to talk about this world's technology!

One of my very favorite series, Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastard Sequence, utilizes fantasy fiction technology in an innovative way. While sorcery is both extant and reserved for use by a select few, the arts of alchemy and artifice fulfill the same purpose to the common, nonmagical people. In Locke's world, it's made readily apparent that a piece of clockwork engineering or an alchemical hybrid is no less fantastical than a spell or an enchantment. Indeed, because of the constraints of verisimilitude placed on a technological wonder, rather than a magical hand-wave, those pieces of flavor and worldbuilding always feel that much more concrete, that much more justified, than what little sorcery his stories do employ.

I think this conceit, that magic's an unnecessary part of fantasy fiction, will be core to my setting. The world's fantastical elements will arise from its impossible locations, its inhuman inhabitants, its unimagined technology. Were the missus reading this, this would be the moment she'd whip out the Arthur C. Clarke.

That said, the logical assumption from here would be there are two distinct threads of technology that, perhaps until now, have not merged. One strain of technology would belong to the Colonists, our 16th-century European interlopers and adventurers. Beyond basic assumptions of agriculture, infrastructure and craftsmanship, our aesthetic guidelines for the Colonists would include such advances as:
  • Tall Ships
  • Gunpowder
  • Steel Weapons and Armor
  • Advanced Nautical Navigation
  • Printing Press
  • Metallurgy
For the setting's needs, tall ships and advanced nautical navigation seem vital.  While earlier styles of ship, such as longships or triremes don't really appeal, somewhat more advanced ships (here's looking at you, ironclad) actually kinda do. A clunky, slow, thickly-armored warship feels like an acceptable and tonally accurate leap forward. Turns out, the Korean turtle ship arrived on the Yellow Sea in the early 15th century. While not an ironclad, per se, the notion exists around that time period and a mere continent away. Tall ships, I think, still form the vast majority of the world's traffic, but the occasional ponderous warship adds some variety and anachronistic flavor.

Presumably, a warship requires armor to deflect cannon fire, which brings us to gunpowder. This one gives me some pause. The arquebus is a major component of the conquistador's aesthetic appeal and I'd be loathe to lose it. Plus, sea battles are especially undramatic without the smoke and impact of thudding cannons. Add to that the justification of the ironclad and it seems a dead assumption. Something's sticking in my craw, however.

I think I'm hesitant to include real-world gunpowder sight unseen. I think it needs some fantastical sprucing.

The first confluence of gunpowder and fantasy I can recall is viewing Princess Mononoke for the first time at a 5th grade sleepover. Awestruck by its colorful bizarreness, my memories are surprisingly few; a samurai's arm nailed to a tree with an arrow, boars mud across their hides as warpaint and, inaccurately, brightly colored gunpowder shot. My doughy, ten-year-old mind somehow extrapolated blasts of bright purple, yellow and green from the strange, primordial firearms used in the film and that image's stuck around with me.

What if gunpowder was exceptionally general term? What if the science behind the creation of gunpowder allowed for a great number of variations? To use an extremely basic and elemental example, I could imagine blue powder freezing enemies and even seawater around an enemy's ship. Green powder might burn like acid, eating away wood and sailcloth. White powder could create a sudden starburst, more meant to disorient and confuse an enemy than actively harm them.

This seems to add a new and interesting variety, while maintaining the general aesthetic of warships studded with cannon snouts and conquistadors propping cumbersome rifles against their shoulders.

Lastly, we're brought to steel weapons and metallurgy. Another component of the classic conquistador is the breastplate and axeblade helmet and it seems a natural to assume they'd have advanced smithing techniques. The problem, of course, is considering how nautical the campaign is, armor would do nothing but ensure anyone overboard died a horrible, suffocating death. I'm tempted to apply the same logic I used on gunpowder to smithing.

Imagine new compounds, new alloys that advances in metallurgy and access to fictional ores and irons could grant. Hell, what about a buoyant allow? That would not only prevent soldiers wearing breastplates of the stuff from drowning, but it would actively serve as a life preserver, studding the water between battling ships with bobbing and rifle-wielding adversaries. A buoyant allow, in the continued theme, suddenly makes an ironclad warship make tons and tons of sense. That's just one example, too – there could be dozens of kinds of specialized metals and compounds.

I think, in general, that's the key to the Colonist's technology: superficially, it resembles something you recognize; tall ships, muskets and metal armor. Upon closer inspection, however, it's actually a good deal more fantastic.

The other strain of technology, obviously, would belong to the Kingdoms, the underwater empires a good deal more ancient and established than these seafaring upstarts. I think, in keeping with the world's overall conceit of strangeness, I want their technology to be completely inscrutable to the Colonists. Maybe, in their ages, it's magic, but, in true Arthur C. Clarke fashion, it's simply unknowably different. Which seems to make sense, however – none of the above three technologies (ships, gunpowder or floating armor) would be of any use to someone living on the bottom of the sea.

Considering this post's considerable length, I'm gonna cop out and conclude here, with the following pledge. I want the Kingdom's technology to be so strange and unknowable, that it may require some outside brainstorming. I reserve a future post to discuss this, once I've had some time to percolate privately.

I think we've been cerebral long enough, don't you? Next week, let's draw some maps!

Next Wednesday on Worldblogger: Geography!

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