There’s something exciting about this podcast. You could say it’s electrifying, which is fitting because this week we’re talking about some of the many energy sources that can populate your world. Are you the kind of person who spends hours wondering how castles are heated and how spaceships get their fuel? No? Too bad! We’re talking about all of that, plus more about cranks than you ever wanted to know.
Generously transcribed by Steven. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Wes: Welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is…
Wes: Make sure your batteries are fully charged or you’re plugged into the wall and get ready, because this podcast is going to zap you full of energy, because we’re talking about how power and energy affects your worldbuilding today.
Oren: Wow, my hair is standing on end.
Wes: Oh, I know, full of electricity. And right out the gate: We are not experts in how power is made, we just are fans of it. And so we’re going to be wrong about probably several things on here.
Oren: I am going to talk like I’m an expert, though.
Wes: Yes, yes.
Oren: I’m going to be very confident about the things I say.
Wes: I’m just getting this disclaimer out of the way. And it’s done. We are consummate professionals on how this stuff works, so let us tell you.
When we’re talking about energy sources, this very much leans into either the magical or the technological level of your world. But I think it’s kind of an important thing to focus on. If you have the means of generating power, then those means can affect the world. Not only just how the power is extracted or used, but any side effects from the power and how much power is around also affects just exactly what your characters can even do in the story.
Chris: So, here’s a question: Do you two think it’s possible to have a resource scarcity with infinite energy?
Wes: No, not a meaningful one.
Oren: What is infinite energy sandwich discourse?
Wes: Tony Stark made it in the second Iron Man movie and then he jealously hoarded it.
Oren: You’re going to need to get pretty specific. This is a problem that a lot of very high-tech Star Trek type settings have. Not technically infinite energy, but they have so much that it’s effectively infinite. So, they do one of two things: They either ignore that and just hand wave it or they carve out exceptions. Like, we can make almost anything because we have infinite energy, but there’s this one special, hard-to-make-anium substance. And we need it, because otherwise we’ll die of the hard-to-make-anium deficiencies.
Chris: Or dilithium crystals or something?
Oren: It could be dilithium, although they never really used dilithium for that. There’s a couple of mentions of dilithium mining, but it doesn’t come up that often. You can have a thing where it’s like, we have this thing that produces a ton of energy, but to use it we need this specific catalyst, and the specific catalyst is very rare.
So you can do stuff like that. But if you have a machine that just spits out infinite energy, you are going to have a harder time generating resource scarcity.
Chris: I think something interesting that you could do, is have lots of energy, but have trouble transporting that energy. Because we don’t think about that much. That’s why batteries are so important. But battery technology is kind of separate.
So, if you have a world that has a natural geothermal on steroids or something, people have to be in specific areas to harvest it, it’s much harder to transport it. The farther away you get, the less energy you have.
Oren: That’s why we don’t generally harvest lightning as a form of power.
Oren: Yeah, it’s too bad really. I read a couple articles on this and assuming they are correct, the argument they made is that we do have the technology. If we spent a lot of money, we could create a system robust enough to absorb and store the energy from a lightning bolt. But this thing would be extremely expensive and huge and it would just sit there anytime there wasn’t a lightning storm.
Chris: This is the issue with wind, but it would be more so if we actually needed a lightning bolt.
Wes: I’m trying to imagine just how big this thing would be to absorb 1.21 gigawatts.
Oren: My favorite story about energy production is Final Fantasy VII. I just love that story. It’s a great game. It’s one of my favorites and it has this whole thing about how in this world, everything is run on mako power, but mako is bad for the planet because it comes from the life stream, which is what everything needs to be alive. So, they’re kind of harvesting life energy to power everything.
And it’s like, all right, I’m totally with you. This is a very cool metaphor. I’m into it. And they’re like, you know what we need to replace mako energy? Good clean coal! That’s like, oh boy.
Wes: I like how then in Final Fantasy IX, Mist Continent that makes people kind of irritable and can start wars and mutates things that can all live in it for too long. Some of the people are like, well, actually, that’ll power these engines. We can have our airships run on mist as long as they’re still kind of touching the bottom of the fog. So, it’s kind of cool because it’s, you know, a boat on a sea of fog. Toward the end of that game, you realize that the mist is just souls.
Chris: Whoa. Got super dark and edgy very quickly there.
Wes: Yes, because the whole point is a second planet was dying and they want to like colonize the main planet of the story. So, they set up this organism to create the mist that prevents the souls from presumably being reabsorbed into some kind of life-stream-type thing. So, they just float, and cause trouble, and also power engines. I remember finding that out and I was just like, uh, what?
Chris: What a downer to find out at the end of a game. Sounds like somebody is really into their edgy shocking twists.
Wes: Yes, of course, you know, previous to that, they did develop some airships that worked apparently on just normal engines. They don’t specifically say coal, or anything fun like that. It’s a good way to say we can move past powering our ships on the souls of the dead.
Oren: There is no ethical consumption under Square Enix. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m totally in the clear to sail my skyboat across a sea of ghosts.
Wes: I do like those problematic energy sources, but the Elder Scrolls games do that with soul gems. It’s like, oh, so you want to enchant things? Well, you need soul gems. Well, what’s in a soul gem? Well, it’s a soul, of course.
Oren: I mean, that’s probably just a euphemism. That’s a thing they call it. Probably like a little static charge or something that’s in there.
Wes: If you don’t want to power things on the souls of the dead, you might consider cool ways to harness the energy of the planet without sucking its life force dry. Chris mentioned wind. Solar’s good. I’m a big fan of the tidal ones that aren’t really doing that well yet because, you know, salt water and all that stuff. But I think that’s a cool way to kind of take advantage of ocean tide. Pretty much you just need to figure out how do I spin this turbine to create a charge?
Oren: All right, so hear me out. Skeletons.
Wes: Go on.
Oren: Just get some skeletons.
Chris: It is a leveling up of human powered machinery, which is a thing like human powered water mills and all that stuff used to be in common use.
Oren: You all forgot about the Necro-Industrial Complex, but it’s back, baby!
Wes: Oh, man, how could we have forgotten?
Oren: Cast raised dead on a bunch of skeletons who can work forever and never get tired and don’t need to eat and don’t need wages or anything. So, you just make a bunch of skeletons and you have them turn a crank. And it’s easy-peasy.
Wes: But now I’m wondering: What level of sentience do these skeletons have?
Oren: That’s not something you or the ethics board needs to look into. But I mean, there’s clearly a demand for more stories that have a lot of renewables in them for, I would assume, obvious reasons.
Solar punk is a very popular aesthetic. There aren’t that many solar punk books. Not yet. There are some. I just read recently A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys. That’s definitely a solar punk novel. It has a huge focus on people coming up with efficient, non-carbon burning energy sources and trying to make those viable and using those to preserve things that we need, while also not cooking the planet.
Chris: I think another good thing to think about when we’re talking about renewables versus fossil fuels—besides just that fossil fuels obviously are very dirty, they’re bad for our health and bad for the environment, all that—is just the different dynamics of having a fuel source that is ready to go, that you just grab from the ground, versus most renewables, that take a lot of skilled labor. You have to set up machinery, you need technicians, People have to maintain them.
And the difference there is that for renewables, the wealth is actually shared a lot more. Whereas whenever it’s something that’s just ready to be ploughed in the ground, what you have is a resource that is valuable, that people would be more likely to fight over. Then the people who benefit from that are more likely to be a small group. Honestly, it encourages things like colonialism and other atrocities. Because if you can just go and grab somebody’s land and take their fossil fuels, that’s different than, no, we actually need to develop a labor force and have skilled labor in here.
The other thing about renewables is, the difficulty transporting it also means that the skilled labor is local. So that just creates two very different types of economies.
Oren: You say all that, but just wait until I set up my giant mirror over your solar plant that redirects all of the light over to my solar plant. There you go. I have now imported fossil fuel conflict into the renewable industry.
It should also, of course, be mentioned that a lot of renewable technology still depends on other resources that may not be hydrocarbons, but that are difficult to acquire and that can have its own set of ethical concerns. Which, I’m not an expert on, it’s a thing to be aware of.
Chris: I do like the fact that non transportable energy gives you a justification for people being in weird places. Imagine you were harvesting energy from deep sea trenches and so you had to have technicians down there.
Oren: In some kind of abyss, you might say.
Wes: It’s true. I mean, you get the cool environment and that level of skill to extract the stuff brings in natural element of risk.
Chris: What if all of your cities were around some kind of supernatural energy source instead of being on rivers? You could kind of change the geography and where humans tend to settle.
Oren: If you’ve got big magic crystal formations and the magic crystals are what power your magic system? Yeah, absolutely. You’re going to have settlements form up around magic crystal deposits.
One thing also to keep in mind is if you want to get really into the technical weeds of this, which a lot of people won’t, I don’t usually, but it’s still interesting to think about, is that beyond the source of energy, do you have a way to harness it to create something useful? Because it’s not immediately obvious how being able to boil water is going to allow you to have an industrial revolution. There are a few steps in between there and you need different kinds of cranks and the ability to spin different things and then ways to harness that spinning to do useful stuff.
There’s a book that I should have grabbed before we started. I’ll put it in the show notes that describes this, and it talks about how one of the reasons that we didn’t have industrial revolutions before the actual industrial revolution is that it took a number of technologies existing at the same time in order to make that possible. It wasn’t just as simple as, well, you figured out how to boil water, so steam engine time.
Most stories don’t need to go that far into it, but if you’re one of those people, you know who you are, who’s really into the technical stuff, then that can be really interesting.
Wes: Well, it just fleshes it out too. If you’re determined to say that steam power is what my world is going to run on, I think that’s what’s going to happen. What are all the techs involved in making that happen and what helped make that possible in the first place?
Oren: It can help with realism a bit. It’s why you’re probably not going to have a steam industrial revolution in a society that doesn’t have access to a fair amount of metal working. It’s hard to make a steam engine out of wood. I’m not saying you can’t. I don’t know if you can or not. I’m just saying it’s probably pretty difficult.
Chris: I also think it’s worth thinking about what are the differences between what society looks like before and after industrial revolution that could change if you add a lot of energy to your setting and you want to make it realistic. With that much energy and of course technology to harness it, we can have big factories, but also efficient transport, so that we can have bigger markets. If we don’t have the energy to do fast transportation, it’s really hard to engage in widespread trade or have commodities.
That’s why in a fantasy setting, we have our local smithy and our local cabinet maker and those town craftspeople because you need all of your goods to be produced in town because you don’t have tons of shipping. And so then, once you have energy, you can produce things on a mass scale and also ship them on a mass scale. And so, we don’t have that fantasy town feel anymore.
Wes: Yeah, that’s a good point. Even large cities that are powered by magical energy. Yeah, the bigger the industrial complex, regardless of the fantasy or the sci-fi of it, more people are going to go to the cities and there’s going to be less of those specific jobs that you just noted kind of lose that small town fantasy feel naturally. Or you probably would, and people might notice the differences.
Chris: In some ways, it’s a little sad because having cheap consumer goods probably raised the quality of a lot of people’s lives. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t actually a decline in quality of a lot of goods between when you had a person who was investing tons of time making something that was expensive, but then it was really important to make it last because it was so expensive, to when you have cheap commodity goods.
Oren: I have read some interesting back and forth on to what extent mass production decreased quality, and there’s apparently a lot of disagreement about that.
It’s worth thinking that when we think of a handmade artisanal craft, we’re usually thinking of something that a person is spending a huge amount of time on and really using their expertise to make it as good as possible. In most cases for us, if you have the income to do that, the reason you’re doing that is because you want a really nice one. Otherwise, if you didn’t care, you would just go and buy something that’s mass produced.
It’s worth noting that that isn’t always the case if you don’t have access to mass production. Like, you still need a shirt, and you might not be able to afford to have a really good tailor make a really good shirt that will last you a long time. You might just get a crappy shirt that some apprentice made. And if that’s the case, then having mass production of shirts might actually increase your quality of shirt.
Chris: I think people probably got a lot of hand-me-down shirts too. I mean, there was also a lot of reusing and patching and those times.
Oren: All I’m saying is that, I have read different accounts of to what extent the quality of goods does or does not drop based on automation.
Wes: But all this for the world, the presence of shops and services and goods and all that stuff, definitely would have been a bearing perhaps on your main character, your other characters and skill sets that they might have or not have otherwise.
Chris just made a good point about hand-me-downs and stuff. So maybe there’s not a great tailor around or there’s just not an accessible opportunities to Amazon a bunch of stuff to your farm. You probably would be handy with a needle, among other things.
If you’re in a higher energy environment with better transportation capabilities, you might not have bothered with something like that. It just wouldn’t be a known skill because you don’t have a use for it. So that’s another way to consider how your energy needs can affect just basic skill sets.
Oren: Zooming back out for a minute. One of my favorite tropes, if you’re looking at power sources, is to have some kind of supernatural or otherwise magical power source in your setting that has adverse effects, but like, fun adverse effects. Because in real life, we have plenty of power sources with adverse effects. But—
Chris: I don’t want to read about it.
Oren: That’s going to be a little bit more somber than maybe you want. Instead, you can have some kind of weird glowing metal that is used to create these really futuristic-y reactors. But it has the minor problem of it kind of weakens the dimensional barriers where it’s being used. And so then demons come out. It’s like, that’s fun, now we can have a fun demon adventure. And it can kind of be a global warming parallel if you want just a more exciting one.
Chris: That’s definitely more fun than the Star Trek warp global warming parallel.
Oren: Oh, my God.
Chris: Gotta adhere to the warp speed limit. It’s like, hey, guys, so the entire premise of our show is exploring space at warp speed. What if we introduce an episode where we said, that was bad and you shouldn’t do it? It’s like, well, I don’t think that’s going to last very long. It’s like, hey, guys, what if boldly going where no one has gone before was actually bad for space? And it’s like, well, that’s kind of our whole thing, man. What do you want from us?
Wes: Any story they’re deciding to say, OK, we’re going to have a problem with the power in this one. And it’s like, well, has there ever been a power problem before? And they say, no, that’s a bad idea. The Star Wars movie where they run out of fuel. They’re running out of fuel? What?
Oren: Yeah. Suddenly in Last Jedi, fuel is a thing you can run out of. Let me put it this way: I’m not against the possibility that ships in Star Wars could run out of fuel. I am bothered by the fact that in Last Jedi, they run out of fuel extremely quickly, which has not really been a thing before. You need to put a little more thought into it.
Chris: I think in any story, if you’re going to use resource shortages, you have to make sure that you are consistently thinking them through and not just using them when it’s convenient for you to use them. Or they don’t feel real anymore. They just feel like a plot contrivance every time it happens.
So, if it’s like you have your characters wandering around in their ship for weeks, without stopping anywhere, and they’re having no problems with fuel, and then another ship goes for a day, and they’re like, oh no, we’re out of fuel. That doesn’t feel real. Whereas if you actually are rigorous with it and make it consistent, then that can be really interesting at that point.
Oren: It’s rude to personally attack Star Trek Voyager like that, Chris.
Chris: Voyager, which manifests new shuttles whenever it wants to use the…
Oren: New shuttles, new torpedoes. Voyager is a thing where they just had a bunch of conflicting desires. In the early episodes, they wanted the idea of, okay, our ship is trapped far from home, which means we have limited resources. We can’t just go back to a star base whenever we’re low on space gas. And okay, sure, that’s a decent premise for a Star Trek show.
But they still want to do their regular Star Trek episodes, which include holodeck episodes and replicators. And so, they just kind of ignore it whenever it was annoying. They’re like, okay, well, we can just use the holodecks because they run on a different power source than the rest of the ship.
Chris: It’s a very weird premise for a show that basically has a reset button, where we start every episode with everything being fine, and then there’s no continuity. You get damaged in one episode, the next episode, everything’s repaired. You would expect if you’re going to have an ongoing show that’s dealing with resource storage as part of its premise, that things just won’t go back to reset every episode.
Oren: And it also doesn’t help that in Voyager and Star Trek in general, we have no idea what powers their ship. Their ship power just goes. It’s like, we’re going to be low on power. And it’s like, are you? Can you not get more of whatever it is?
Later in the show, they eventually were like, it’s deuterium because they decided to go with deuterium because they decided that the ship was powered by fusion reactors, which has always been in the tech manuals, but the show never really acknowledged it. And so, they were like, it’s deuterium. That’s what our ships are powered by. It’s like, all right, but deuterium is really common. And they even acknowledge that in one of the episodes. So it’s like, all right, this is why we don’t have resource problems anymore.
Chris: Another thing I want to mention that you could use to restrict energy a little bit is just make it require really expensive infrastructure.
Oren: I was going to say human sacrifice, but your idea works too.
Chris: I mean, if we’re getting into the speculative energy sources, we can get all sorts of things like human sacrifice. Maybe you have to do constant rituals. But infrastructure can also create a big off-the-grid-effect.
And if you have a lot of political strife, it can be a matter of do you have the political stability for a large enough group to pile their resources together to make energy infrastructure and an energy grid and maintain that? Or maybe the power goes out every time there’s a war and nobody can keep that power running by themselves. And then as soon as you go outside where there’s a powerful empire or something, that energy’s gone.
Wes: And a good extension of that too is just, is the grid centralized or decentralized? As we experience our current world, things happen to affect power systems. Like in the United States, for example, we see the different effects that that can have on different states and things like that, depending on the nature of the grid. Is it powered by one source or does it have a diversity of sources to draw on? Is it centralized system or is it a decentralized system?
You often hear about that pretty quick, depending on how many people are without power. There can be massive implications there, that could play into a political story like you just mentioned, right? It’s like, well, this state’s controlled by fossil fuel. And so, all of their centralized power systems are done by gas and that’s it.
Chris: I think it would be funny if your power grid ran on divine energy and your God was very fickle. It’s like, oh no, something happened that was in the news, and it pissed the gods off, and all of our clerics are on it. They’re trying to communicate to the God and find out why the power’s out and what we need to do.
Oren: God just went through a breakup. We’re trying to counsel them through it. It’s going to take a little while. Okay. You can expect some more thunderstorms as they cry it out.
Chris: And to patch this, I think we’re going to need a hero to go on this quest to appease this God, turn the power back on.
Oren: That’s one degree of separation away from being the next Three Parts Dead story. Three Parts Dead has a very similar premise to that, which is a book that I really like.
Chris: Another reason I need to read this book.
Oren: No, don’t read it. Then you’ll critique it and I’ll be upset.
Chris: Oh, oh! Should we give Orin a taste of his own medicine?
Oren: No, the whole point is that I give that to other people.
Chris: I’m pretty sure we have lots of listeners that could use some vindication by having Orin listen to his favorite book critiqued.
Oren: Look, Bonnie already had to go through this because she had to hear me critique it and she likes it more than I do. What I’m saying is that it would not be fair for me to have to go through that.
Chris: I have to say the only reason I haven’t read this book is because a certain somebody wrote an article about a plot twist in the book and so it was spoiled for me. And then I was like, I might as well not read it.
Oren: Do you really remember that plot twist?
Oren: That article is like six years old at this point.
Chris: Yes, I do remember the plot twist.
Oren: Well, I’ll bonk you on the head. And then that’ll give you the plot amnesia. That should solve everything, right?
Chris: All right, listeners, if you would like to hear Orin’s favorite books critiqued on this podcast, you can help make it happen by supporting us on Patreon. Just go to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Oren: Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First there’s Plotter, the popular book planning software, which you can learn about at plotter.com. Then there’s Callie Macleod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
This has been the Mythcreant Podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Colton.
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