Worldbuilding

Six Principles for Becoming a Better Worldbuilder

Worldbuilding is a complicated craft, and with so many possible settings out there, it’s difficult to give advice on the subject as a whole. Fortunately, there are some principles that are useful across the board. That’s what we’re talking about today: best practices that will serve you no matter what kind of setting you’ve dreamed up.

1. Audiences Care About Conflict and Novelty

The Fellowship characters from Fellowship of the Ring Believe it or not, this is new and different to someone.

Some audiences will care about your world simply because it’s part of their special interest. Anything with airships has my automatic attention because I’m complete trash for zeppelins and all their kin. However, that type of interest/subject matchup isn’t common. No matter how well detailed a setting is, most audiences won’t care about it by default. This is why spec fic has a bad reputation for dull worldbuilding info dumps. Authors want to tell their audience all about the world, but they haven’t given the audience a reason to care.

So how do you give the audience a reason to care? There are two widely applicable options: conflict and novelty. Novelty is the trickier path, but it’s also one of the critical elements that makes stories popular, so let’s look at it first. At the most basic, a setting is novel when it has something the audience hasn’t seen before. It’s the excitement of exploring strange new worlds and finding a magical doorway at the back of a wardrobe. If it’s new, it’s got novelty.

Of course, novelty is highly subjective, as different people will have consumed vastly different stories. To someone with no experience of high fantasy, even a factory-standard chosen-one story can seem fresh and cool if it’s surrounded with swords and magic. This is why something that seemed incredibly novel 10 years ago might be old hat now.

To maximize your novelty, you have to look at what other storytellers in your genre are doing, then do something different. Your world still needs to make sense, but a fresh take is what will make it stand out. This can be subtle, like a space opera where everyone has a spaceship as their personal familiar. Or it can be a complete rework of the genre, depending on how much energy you have for the process. The downside is that once a story is published, its world will probably lose novelty over time as more people read it and, if it’s successful, more stories are published with similar settings. 

Conflict is a more reliable method for making the audience care about your world, but it requires getting plot onboard as well. Without conflict, audiences will probably tune out as you spend several pages explaining the life support system of your far-future arcologies. All the research in the world won’t be enough to make that interesting. But if your protagonist is running from the cops and they use the life-support chamber as a place to hide, then it’s interesting. Audiences will listen with rapt attention as you explain how often the algae beds need to be maintained because that’s how long your hero has before someone discovers them.

Ideally, your story will use a mix of novelty and conflict to make the world interesting. Novelty is something you can build in at the concept stage, and it lets you really stretch your creative muscles. Meanwhile, conflict doesn’t depend on what anyone else is doing with their stories. Human drama will always be interesting, so you can use it to highlight your world long after the publish date.

2. Ideas Spread

A map of the Silk Road. Silk Road by Kaidor used under CC BY-SA 4.0

A hallmark of bad worldbuilding is the static setting. In high fantasy, this is a country where no one has heard about the hobbits who sell them pipeweed just a few weeks’ travel away. In scifi, it’s the cluster of nearby planets who don’t have any type of diplomatic or mercantile contact. These seem less like living worlds and more like a series of hermetically sealed bubbles.

The antidote for this problem is to remember that ideas spread whenever they can. Sometimes that means simple information, which is how Han China and the Roman Empire knew about each other despite never sharing a border. Of course, information is often distorted over distance, which is why Pliny the Elder thought there were dragons in India.

Ideas also mean technology, which is why it’s unlikely to find a steampunk empire next to a medieval fantasy kingdom. If a group of people have useful technology, it’s only a matter of time before their neighbors get hold of it. This can happen through trade, reverse engineering, or even parallel development. You can see all three in the proliferation of aircraft after 1903. Some folks bought planes from the Wright Brothers, others studied the Wright Flyers in action and then crafted their own planes, while still others had completely homegrown designs. Technology can also proliferate through good old-fashioned theft, like the time Emperor Justinian paid some monks to smuggle silkworms out of China.

This doesn’t mean technological development will be uniform across a setting. Some areas are bound to have more advanced tech due to wealth, available materials, and technical expertise. But if one country in your setting has flintlock muskets, it’s extremely unlikely that the people a few countries away won’t know what a gun is, even if they don’t have the incentive to use guns much themselves.

The most common way for ideas to proliferate is through travel. In lower-tech settings, travel is often difficult across land or water, but it will still happen. Natural barriers might reduce travel, and thus the spread of ideas, but they won’t shut it off entirely unless they are completely impassable. If someone can cross a barrier, they eventually will. This same dynamic holds true in scifi settings where space travel is expensive. Interstellar voyages might be rare, but if the tech for them exists, they’ll still happen.

In other settings, information itself can go farther and faster than any traveler. This happens via phone lines, scrying pools, ansibles, and all the other flavors of advanced communication out there. In these settings, distant people would not only be aware of each other, but they’d be in constant communication. That’s why it feels so weird when Star Trek or Star Wars characters don’t know what’s going on a few sectors over. It’s been specifically established in those settings that long-range communication is common; why isn’t anyone getting on the space phone?

3. Conflicts Arise Over Resources

A vampire and werewolf from Twilight. In Underworld, werewolves and vampires fight for… reasons.

Conflict is necessary for storytelling, and the best worldbuilding incorporates conflict at the ground level. These conflicts can be anything from all-out wars to simmering class disputes, and they provide a lot of benefit. Not only do they help get audiences interested in your world like we talked about earlier, but they also save you from having to create extraordinary circumstances to launch your plot.

As handy as built-in conflicts are, they have one common problem: Why does the conflict exist in the first place? Why do vampires and werewolves hate each other, exactly? What caused the rift between tree-dwelling elves and tunneling dwarves? If it’s not clear why two sides are fighting, the conflict feels contrived, and all the benefits are lost.

It’s easy to assume that the solution is describing just how much the opposing factions hate each other. Vampires will go on about how smelly and uncouth werewolves are, while the lycanthropes will howl about vampiric arrogance until the audience is drowning in urban fantasy clichés. The problem with this approach is that big conflicts rarely occur from hurt feelings alone.

Big conflicts are just that: big. They’re a lot of work, whether that’s feeding and equipping an army or paying for a public-relations blitz. People don’t usually go to that kind of effort just because of animosity. There has to be something tangible on the line, and that’s where resources come in. Sometimes these resources are physical goods like gold and salt. In other cases, different factions might be fighting over access to fertile farmland or setting tax rates.

In spec fic stories, the resources might be more exotic. If all supernatural creatures require supernatural gemstones to fuel their powers, that’s something vampires and werewolves could easily fight over. In the far future, interstellar republics might come to blows over access to subspace apertures. You have a lot of freedom here, as long as it’s something both sides benefit from having.

Once you’ve got the research situation figured out, you can add social, political, and even religious justifications on top of it. Dwarves and elves have been fighting over mithril deposits for centuries, leaving a lasting enmity that is not easily overcome. Dwarves see elves as brutal plunderers who take what isn’t theirs from the earth, while elves insist that dwarves cavort with dark powers in their deepest tunnels.

As a final note, this doesn’t mean all conflicts are going to be rationally measured and calculated. Humans fight over tangible gains, but they’re still humans,* so there’s a lot of room for error. Wealthy aristocrats, for example, are very good at acquiring more wealth in the short term, but sometimes they take so much that the populace rises up in violent revolution. From a purely rational perspective, it would be better to take a little less and ensure long-term dominance, but that isn’t how people do things.

4. What the Audience Sees Is Most Important

The front façade of a sheriff's office with a horse tied up next to it. “Spectre of the Gun” shows us what happens when you change what the audience sees.

New authors often ask me how much of their world they should build. There’s an appeal to having an entire setting mapped out and populated, with detailed descriptions of every location and the people who live there. However, that kind of intensive worldbuilding takes time and energy, two things most writers don’t have in abundance.

Fortunately, that level of planning is rarely necessary or even beneficial for most stories. Audiences care about the part of the world they actually see, and that’s it. They won’t know that you spent countless hours fleshing out a city that the heroes never visit, and chances are the story won’t be any different for it.

In general, the most you need is one or two degrees of separation from the setting elements that are directly relevant to the story. If your story is about a war in the Kingdom of Unnamedville, then the most you need to figure out is what countries lie on the border and maybe an overseas trading partner or two. There’s no need to do detailed write-ups on the three continents that don’t play any direct role in the war.

Naturally, the more epic your story’s scope, the more worldbuilding you have to do. If your heroes travel the globe, then you’ll need to expand on all the places they visit. If your story is about an interstellar summit, then you’ll need some development for the various factions, even if their homeworlds are never shown onscreen. This doesn’t just apply to locations either. If your story is about conflict in wormhole trade routes, then it’s important to figure out the specifics of interstellar trade.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean you can’t do more worldbuilding than your story strictly needs. For some of us, worldbuilding is a fun and relaxing break from the hardships of plot and character. And if you’re planning to tell multiple stories in the same setting, then laying a firm foundation at the start can be very helpful down the road. So long as you don’t fall into the trap of including something in the story just because you spent a lot of time working on it, you’re good to go.

But for those of us who don’t find worldbuilding inherently fun, you only have to flesh out what the audience sees, and that’s it. You don’t need to simulate an entire world in your brain, or even an entire city if your whole story takes place in a single house. The worst thing that’ll happen is that some fan will ask about an obscure setting element and you won’t know the answer, at which point you can just smile mysteriously and ask them, “What do you think?”

5. Elites Won’t Hinder Themselves

Cover art from The Way of Kings The Way of Kings has a patriarchal society where men aren’t allowed to read. Sure.

Cultures are complex things, dependent on a seemingly endless number of factors that no one can keep track of. Fads often sweep through with no apparent rhyme or reason, leading some authors to throw up their hands and conclude that it’s impossible to be realistic with their cultures. As someone who lived through the inexplicable Pogs fad,* I sympathize. But there’s one constant that nearly always holds true: elites don’t create rules that hinder themselves.

This is something I most often see in stories that are trying to create weird cultural rules for the purposes of novelty. To make their fantasy or scifi culture seem strange and different, the author decides that reading has been completely banned: oh no!* That’s certainly strange and different, but it’s also totally implausible. While a sufficiently tyrannical elite might try to forbid the lower classes from reading, they would never give it up themselves because reading is too useful. Can you imagine a bunch of rich people deliberately choosing to turn every email into a Zoom meeting? I shudder to think.

Beyond imposing new rules, this dynamic also applies when powerful people want to do something that existing rules don’t allow. Early in Christianity’s history, charging interest was strictly forbidden, but then rich Christians realized they could make a lot of money by charging interest. At first, they found workarounds and loopholes, like getting Jews to handle the actual interest,* but eventually the restrictions fell away entirely. Note, this doesn’t mean that elites will always react the same way. A number of Muslim-majority countries employ interest-free finance, and the rich people there have different ways of maintaining power and influence. The point is that if privileged people want a rule changed, it tends to get changed.

Beyond off-the-wall ideas like no one being able to read, the most common way I see this problem manifest is in magic. There’s a common idea that magic exists only in the folksy wisdom of marginalized people;* rich people would never use it, sometimes because they believe in science too much, sometimes because they’re just not very smart. This always feels wrong because it’s the opposite of how rich people actually act.

When the rich and powerful find something useful, they don’t ignore it because it doesn’t fit their aesthetics; they exploit the heck out of it. In 99.9% of spec fic stories, magic is simply too useful for the rich to ignore. They wouldn’t ignore or disdain it; they’d buy out the mana supplies and jack up the price for witch consultations until no one could afford to get their hexes treated. The only way that doesn’t happen is if someone makes a dedicated effort to stop it, which is a great premise of a story, but not something that should happen in the background of worldbuilding.

So when you’re crafting the rules and traditions of your new setting, keep in mind who they affect and why. If the only metals in your world are radioactive, it’s reasonable that people of all classes would use stone and wood instead. But it’ll seem pretty silly if the nobility just declares that they don’t use metal anymore because its malleability is an affront to the gods or what have you.

6. Sometimes No Explanation Is Best

Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files Dresden doesn’t waste time asking why no one else sees the demon; he just blasts it.

The hard truth is that a lot of the tropes people love to read about are inherently implausible. Masquerades, for example, are nearly impossible to explain without resorting to “god did it.” In the same vein, there’s no good explanation for why people wouldn’t use guns in most urban fantasy or postapocalyptic stories. Not only are firearms far more effective than other weapons, but they’re fairly easy to make, even by hand.

Knowing this, authors often tie their world in knots trying to explain the unexplainable. Vampires can only be killed by a wooden weapon to the heart, and demons are really old so they’d be slow to adopt new technology. That totally explains not using guns, right? Sadly, no. For one thing, it’s not hard to make wooden bullets. Even without that, high-caliber firearms would be perfect for putting vampires on the ground before staking them. As for demons not adopting new tech, after the twelfth or so demon is mowed down by a machine gun, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t give the new-fangled firearms a try. Pushing it past that will just make them seem laughably incompetent.

When worldbuilders realize these inescapable truths, it’s easy to despair. What are we supposed to do, never tell stories along the lines of Supernatural or Road Warrior ever again? Don’t worry, there’s a better option: just don’t explain it. I know, that sounds weird. We’re worldbuilders; explaining stuff is what we do. I’ll explain.

In a vacuum, making a world more plausible is always a good thing. But in the trenches of storytelling, there are lots of things audiences care about as much or more than plausibility. Popular tropes like masquerades, urban fantasy fist-fights, and human-piloted space fighters are some of those things. Audiences want those aesthetics despite how unrealistic they are, because they’re just that cool.

The trick is to employ these implausible yet accepted conceits without drawing attention to them. The Expanse does this for its spacecraft. Given the advances in AI and UAV technology, it’s extremely unlikely that any space warships would have human pilots. Not only do computers have much faster response times, but they don’t need all the dedicated life support systems that organic beings do. And yet, audiences clearly wanted to see the heroes pilot their ship in epic space battles, so The Expanse employs human pilots and counts on suspension of disbelief to do the rest.

The Dresden Files takes a similar approach with its masquerade. It never explains why people don’t know about the supernatural; they just don’t. So long as the books don’t make a big deal about Dresden trying to expose the magical world, readers have no trouble accepting it. If there was an entire book about Dresden having to stop the local newspaper from telling people about magic, that would call attention to the conceit and readers would stop suspending their disbelief. Likewise, if The Expanse had an episode about Alex competing against an AI pilot, that would raise questions about why AI hasn’t already taken over. Fortunately, both stories know better.

So long as a popular trope doesn’t send harmful messages, there’s nothing wrong with putting it in your world and counting on your audience to accept it. You’ll need to judge which tropes are popular enough to get this treatment, but that’s all part of the worldbuilding gig.


The beautiful thing about worldbuilding is the near-infinite time you can spend researching for it.* With so much information just a search away, it’s easy to bury yourself in the minutiae of Bronze Age Mediterranean pottery or the construction of pre-Columbian road networks in the Andes. But before you do that, it’s helpful to get the basic principles down right, so you can be sure to build your world in a constructive direction.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    When it comes to influential people who don’t read, a little remark on history.

    During the early middle ages, a lot of nobles could, indeed, not read or write. The reason for that, though, wasn’t a law. They weren’t forbidden from learning it or something like that. It was just not considered important enough. Male nobles had to train for battle and had to rule, they simply were focused on other lessons than their ABC. For women, it wasn’t considered necessary, either, and they spent their time ruling in their husband’s absence and keeping a tidy home (meaning absolute control of the house – even their husband would not interfere with their decisions). Scribes were ten a penny (well, ten a currency-of-the-time), they were easily available for that job. That changed, though the more the work of a noble shifted from fighting to administration, because then writing and reading became useful.

    Funnily enough, even Charlemagne, the ruler who instituted the first grammar rules and the first ‘standard script’, could only read and write on a very low level and learned most of it in his older years.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      For sure, material conditions can effect elites too.

      • Cay Reet

        I think it had a lot to do with the ‘value’ of the ability to read and write. Until kindoms et al became a lot larger and administration a lot more complex, it wasn’t so hard for a ruler to get by without knowing how to read and write. Scribes were available, writing and reading was a relatively small part of the work. As I said, once that changed, so changed the rates of literacy among the nobles.

        • Esq

          Which is why the idea of absolute monarchy only became a thing in the early 17th century. Before that, few monarchs in Europe or really anywhere had the administrative capacity to be an absolute monarch. They were either limited by a lack of literate officials to carry out their commands, poor communication technologies, or their kingdom or empire being too big to rule in an absolute manner. The 17th century was when the conditions for absolute monarchy started to exist in Europe. Even then it was more of a theory than a practice.

          • Cay Reet

            Very much so, yes. The rulership of most kings, emperors etc. was theoretical to a degree, because the local lords had the actual power. Unless they made it very obvious they weren’t accepting the ruler above, they could very much do as they pleased.

  2. Paul C

    Great world-building caveats!

    A note on #6: The newest Dresden novel, Battle Ground, confronts the masquerade explicitly. No Spoilers (I hope) — a large section of Chicago engages in battle against demons/gods/goddesses, etc. The next novel will need to resolve this.

    On #5 and #3: The idea that reading is prohibited for ruling males and, by golly, dwarves just hate elves (of course, who doesn’t?), makes me think of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels. A poorly built world makes a fantastic world for political or cultural satire. I mean, really, when you eat a soft boiled egg, shouldn’t it stand on the large end? Small end? Perhaps Sanderson has written a satire?

  3. GeniusLemur

    Where #5 breaks down is in dealing with other elites. Knights and samurai had extensive lists of extremely restrictive rules that they were never allowed to break (or at least get caught breaking), but they were about dealing with their social equals or superiors, and sticking to the rules benefited both sides.
    For instance, if a knight wishes to fight another knight, he has to wait for the other knight to get geared up, rather than attack immediately and take his opponent at a disadvantage. But his opponent isn’t some random person, but a part of the same military fraternity the knight is, and letting his enemy gear up now may pay off down the road when he’s in the same disadvantageous position.

    • Cay Reet

      I have a world in which superheroes and supervillains exist, but their interactions are based on strict rules both sides adhere to – such as the sanctity of the home (you’re not allowed to attack your nemesis in their registered residence). There are also rules as to how to treat a damsel (that’s actually a profession) or how to engage in a fight (only help from teammembers, not from other heroes/villains in the area).

      That actually allows me to play around a little with the usual clichés of superheroes and supervillains – especially given that my MC is a villain from an old heroic bloodline and her family is breaking the rules to ‘bring her in’ and ‘bring her back to the right side.’

      • El Suscriptor Justiciero

        The premise reminds me of ‘Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain’ (which I haven’t read).

        • Cay Reet

          I have read it (the whole series, as it is) and there are similarities. Yet, there’s also a lot different in the settings. Penny (the MC of the series) has to keep her supervillain identity secret from her parents, my MC doesn’t even try.

          Yet, a lot of that has also to do with your average comic superhero.

      • Nowan

        I remember the Worm webfic having a similar set of rules, though I can’t recall exactly how well they hold up to scrutiny.

        I think it was mostly a thing on the lines of “no lethal power, no hurting civilians. This will turn into a bloodbath otherwise, and no one wants that.”
        The system is so deeply encoded in their mentality that, as soon as someone breaks the mold too much they’re basically guaranteed to get both heroes and villains trying to bring them down.
        It also helps that the setting has a constantly ticking “doomsday clock” in the form of gangantuan kaiju-like things that need to be fought on a regular basis, and are strong enough to only be defeated by conjoined hero-villain efforts. If hero-villain relationships grow too sour and they stop having a modicum of trust in each other, the world is pretty much bound to meet a grisly end.

        • Cay Reet

          One interesting part in the stories is that heroes have their place in the League of Heroes (they all have to belong to) very much defined by their popularity and if the general audience learns that a hero doesn’t keep to rules which even villains respect, that’s not good for their popularity.

          Villains are more motivated by ‘I want to have some peace and quiet at home and I don’t want the heroes to do unto me what I did unto them before’. They’re usually pragmatic.

  4. Kit

    Jon Bois’ 17776 and 20020 have interesting worldbuilding in their hypothetical future, but they trip up by inconsistently applying 6. The conceit is that all humans became immortal in the 2020s for a reason that nobody knows or can explain. That’s totally fine, and the audience accepts it since it’s the premise. The problem comes when he tries to explain how humans are immortal and still living on Earth tens of thousands of years later, and how they will do so forever, with one of the explanations being ‘they’ve figured out how to keep the sun going perpetually’ and that the heat death theory has been disproven in-universe. I had been happy to just accept people could live on Earth indefinitely – I wasn’t thinking about the logistics, how the sun would eventually burn out or the inevitability of heat death, but I am now! The justifications for the concept just weakened it, and it was a shame to see right at the end of 17776, because until then it had mostly ignored the issue of ‘how’.

  5. Esq

    3. I think this understates that sometimes, albeit rarely, you get a really big conflict for ideological reasons in part. The high Cold War being a good examples of this,. Many of the Communists sincerely did believe that they were the vanguard of the proletariat bringing forth a new world of human liberation while the different anti-Communist factions ranging from Cold War liberals and anti-Communist socialists to the more vehement rightists anti-Communists believed that they were fighting a totalitarian ideology dedicated to stamping out all that is good and true.

    A more historical and possibly more appropriate for fantasy was the Crusades. There was a time where a lot of historians tended to see the Crusades in particularly materialist terms like a way to plunder the riches of the East or figuring out what to do with younger sons so they don’t muck up the manors in Europe, I think the pendulum basically swung back to the Crusaders really did think that they were waging a just war for Christ. People like to ignore this because it’s hard to grasp for a lot of moderns but this is how people see it.

    5. Elites and magic: I’m wondering if the temptation to put magic with the weak or marginalized is because the authors basically want the readers to love magic and see it as a source of joy, wonder, and wisdom rather than as a source of power. If you have the elites use magic to maintain power than magic at best becomes something neutral without much inherent moral value or even immoral because it is used to oppress and cause harm. Like if you have a bunch of nobles using magic to charm peasants into not minding their place in life and doing what they were supposed to, that isn’t really something a lot of modern readers are going to like no matter what their real world politics are. So you have to place magic with the oppressed, so it is benign rather than malign.

  6. Esq

    For all his faults and what TVTropes calls protagonist centered morality, I think that David Eddings’ Belgarid/Malloreon gets the world building just about right. The reason for the different nations being Planets of Hats makes sense because the different Gods just selected for the traits they were looking for and things followed from people doing what the Gods wanted. The entire conflict is over a particular powerful magic artifact that will give the holder dominion over the Universe.

    Magic is limited enough that you understand why it isn’t put into more mundane utility. I mean there are only a handful of sorcerers in existence and most are preoccupied with the central conflict between the two Prophecies. The other types of magic come with the danger of getting eaten by a demon or something, so it makes sense that people are going to get by without.

  7. Dave L

    >it’s something both sides benefit from having.

    Not necessarily. Let’s say Elves power their VERY powerful magic by eating Mana-berries. Mana-berries are highly poisonous to us Humans. But we’ll still fight to control the mana-berry fields, either to destroy (if the Elves are our enemies) or to sell (if the Elves are our allies)

    > If your heroes travel the globe, then you’ll need to expand on all the places they visit

    Though you can cover each place in less detail than if you stayed in one place

    • SunlessNick

      Leverage over the elves could still be considered a benefit.

  8. Adam Reynolds

    One interesting point about #6 is about whether or not we trust the story and the storyteller. While every story has various plot holes and inconsistencies, if we trust the story we easily ignore those minor issues or invent our own rationalizations for them. If we hit a point that we start actively looking for plot holes, then the story has violated our trust. In this context, you can think of good worldbuilding as a currency that buys trust from the audience.

  9. Charles

    Guns are useless without ammo. Otherwise they are just unwieldy clubs. You can cast lead bullets, and they will work ok except in higher velocity rifles. The big problem is powder and primer. Without those you might as well melt down the guns into swords. In a dystopian future, making powder or primers are going to be a huge issue, once the current stock is depleted.

    So yeah, it’s not too farfetched that guns could no longer be a factor in certain settings.

    • Cay Reet

      On the other hand, gunpowder has been around for a long time. Provided you can gain access to the natural resources, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t continue to make it.

      On the other hand, that might be one of the resources which postapocalyptical wars are fought over.

      Cars, on the other hand, will soon go obsolete – not because of the repairs, but because of the complex process of making fuel and its relatively short shelf life.

      • Charles

        Gunpowder requires access to natural resources, mainly sulfur. Unless you happen to live near a mine or vein that is rich in sulfur-containing substances, you will be hard-pressed to refine enough to make black power. Also, getting the chemicals for primers is even more difficult. Without primers, all modern firearms are pretty much useless. You would be forced to make black powder guns.

        • Cay Reet

          Yet, in a society where nothing else is available, even a black powder gun has its advantages.

          Fact is that as long as it’s useful and there are people who know about it, a technology will not disappear. It’s, of course, no longer useful when you lack the necessary resources to make it.

          People with access to sulfur would at least be able to keep a certain level of firepower which would give them an advantage over people who do not have access to sulfur, so you can bet that they’d rather go back to black powder guns than just give up on them.

          • Charles

            That’s a lot of ifs. Do you know how to make primer? Do you even know what is in there? The more advanced a society, the more difficult it would be to go back to lesser technology. Without the internet, getting information would be next to impossible. It’s not about giving up technology, it is about losing it.

          • Cay Reet

            Unless all books are destroyed as well, the information is written down somewhere and people will find it. At any given moment, information necessary is in some people’s heads. We’re not talking about a technology that will not be used for one or two or three generations, we’re talking about people ‘downgrading’ weapon technology as it becomes necessary after the big bang or crash or whatever spawned the apocalypse.

            Yes, information gets lost, but usually over a long stretch of time. Much less information has gotten lost since printing became a thing (because it makes copying information much easier and faster). Without internet, there’s still such a thing as libraries. Any scientific library at any of the many colleges and universities worldwide will carry books about chemistry which will include gunpowder. Any such library will carry books on old weapon technology for engineering or history departments. The information is not gone.

          • Charles

            Books burn, whether because of the intial apocalypse, or from desperation of using paper as kindling. And major cities would likely take the most damage from whatever event caused the apocalypse. Not to mention that large tracts of land would likely be off-limits, either due to radiation or invading aliens, which means travel and communication would be disrupted.

            No, it is very easy to lose information. Also, how many people do you think understand enough about both firearms, mining, chemistry, and manufacturing to be able to make their own ammo? Seriously, do you know how to operate a firearm? Reload? Remember your highschool chemistry enough to perform reactions?

            I had to explain moles and Avogadro’s number to a bunch of lawyers and a judge just so they could understand how hospitals measure blood alcohol concentration. Unfortunately, most people have a very narrow degree of knowledge, and questionable abilities to find more. After all, most people would only know how to Google, and likely would be lost in a library, assuming they are even standing.

            And old firearms technology is not something that a lot of people bother learning about. Sure, there are some black powder enthusiasts, but even they likely don’t bother learning the chemistry of powder, let alone the basic chemistry of its constituents, or how to collect/mine them. You would have to hope that a number of people, all living in close proximity, would somehow be able to find each other, find the raw materials, find the equipment used to refine or make them, and know how to use that equipment, before you could make viable ammunition. And not get yourselves killed in the process. Too many things could go wrong, so yeah, it is easy to imagine a world where most people no longer have access to guns and ammunition, other than what they were able to hoard.

  10. Alex

    A few other comments about #5:

    (1) “The elites” aren’t necessarily a homogeneous class with uniform interests. Sometimes something that is good for one group of elites is bad for another group. For instance, oil company CEOs and airline CEOs are both elites, but higher oil prices are good for the first group and bad for the second group.

    (2) A rule “nobody is allowed to have X” is easier to drum up support for, administer, and enforce then the rule “only elites are allowed to have X”. In the second case, you have to have a rule that defines who an “elite” is, stop individual members of the elite from sharing their X with non-elites, take the hit to public support from the hypocrisy of saying “we should have it but other people shouldn’t, and so on. Depending on the details of the situation, it’s conceivable that the tradeoff might be worth it for the elites to go with the first rule rather than their second, if they were strongly anti-X enough.

    (3) Someone might be willing to accept a rule that hindered themselves, if it hindered their competitors more. A real-world example is occupational licensing. Licensing does hinder people already in the profession (they might be subject to requirements to keep their license current, or it might make it harder for them to switch jobs) but hinders people outside the profession even more (they have to get a license to participate at all), which is why occupational licensing is often supported by those already in the profession.

  11. Fin

    A fine article, one minor teensy teensy point. Even if AI was super advanced I don’t think there’s a nation-state in the world that’d trust an AI with all its warships. Now computers would defiantly do all the actual work onboard a spacecraft like the piloting and shooting, but Im fairly certain humans would still be there for strategic decisions. You miiiight put all the humans in a control ship and keep that a lil ways away, but at the speed of light only goes so fast so you can’t really remote control spacecraft. And anyhow part of a ships value lies in being able to say ferry soldiers to and from habitats so it does seem logical to have your space warships have human crews.

  12. Prince Infidel

    Minor point about Underworld. The original script was written by Kevin Grevioux, a large black man with multiple science degrees & an long career in writing & acting. Grevioux was inspired to use the trope of vampires vs werewolves as metaphor for racism. The story was to be of human coming into this world & being told the werewolves were unruly animals causing violence while the vampires were traditionally beautiful aristocrats trying to keep them under control. It would be revealed that the werewolves had been enslaved by the vampires, & were just rebelling against them for their freedom.

    Basically a society of pale skinned people with wealth & power trying to portray those they’re trying to oppress as vicious animals that need to be controlled or put down. Even had an actual slave rebellion in case it was too subtle (which it probably still would have been for some people).

    Once the script was bought though, the studio had different ideas as how the story & setting should be. Grevioux even has a minor part as large werewolf for the Kate Beckinsale’s character to fight early on.

    If you rewatch the film knowing these things, you can still see the remnants of the original ideas in there, despite the changes.

    • Cay Reet

      I think they put the basics of this into the third Underworld movie, too.

      Underworld might have made for a better movie with the original concept (because its one of the valid reasons for vampires vs. werewolves), too.

    • SunlessNick

      If memory serves, his original idea was also for two kinds of werewolf rather than werewolves and vampires.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.