by James Burke
Worldbuilding is one of the most difficult challenges a speculative fiction writer can face. It’s difficult to balance the believability, research, and discretion necessary for it to be effective. It needs to be believable; it needs to be well-researched; and it needs to be the setting, not the story. The existence of Worldbuilders’ Disease speaks to this difficulty, as we’ve seen over and over again in the past.
One of the best examples of worldbuilding in the last decade is the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Specifically, the world of that show as seen in its sequel series, The Legend of Korra. Things brought up or implied by the first show are explored in-depth in the second. What happens when populations whose genetic powers are different start intermarrying? Where can you go with metalbending? And how does rapid industrialization affect these cultures politically? The show has answers to all of these questions, and they’re delivered elegantly and quickly, without the show ever patting itself on the back for its own cleverness. Of course families are now mixed, metalbenders often do police work and industrial jobs, and the previous class system is stratifying.
The success of The Legend of Korra’s worldbuilding is how it extrapolates from its original source without any overt motives. Nothing’s shoehorned in, hand-waved, or half-explained. The connective tissue is already there, if you’re willing to see it.
Which is why I’m thinking of the show after reading Connections, James Burke’s 1978 companion to his documentary television series. Connections was recommended me on the fact that Burke follows inventions from effect to cause, showing us a different but necessary way to look at human history. Specifically, Burke takes a single invention and follows its cause effect from its inception to the modern present day of the late seventies, especially highlighting how said invention paved the way for other inventions.
For instance, the book opens with a discussion of how the invention of the plough is the reason that the vast majority of humanity cannot actually farm. With the plough, which streamlined farming, communities began to be able to support non-food producing members. According to Burke, this is how civilization starts: bureaucracy soon follows. Centuries later, we’re dependent enough on technology that, were Skynet to descend tomorrow and we combatted it by disabling all electronics, we would be in serious trouble. Burke highlights a few more stops on the way from plough to technologically dependent, but I think you get the idea.
As someone much more interested in social history, I learned a ton of new things from Connections. Europe’s Little Ice Age led to private rooms (much easier to heat than an entire hall that the community slept in) and the aftermath of the Black Death saw an increase in spending power (since people inherited a lot from the waves of the dead), among many others. I did try to keep up with the more scientific chapters, but that’s where Connections reveals itself as a tie-in. A lot of the description Burke uses for a variety of devices (and the subtle improvements to said devices) went over my head. I imagine that actually seeing the darn things in the documentary would have them make a lot more sense. Presumably, Burke doesn’t make too much of an effort to make said passages punchy, given the book’s copious illustrations and the documentary. (Said illustrations are gloriously and wholly seventies. There are more modern editions of this text, but I always enjoy reading something in as close to the first edition as humanly possible.)
But what’s really stuck with me from Connections is how haphazard human innovation can be. At several points, he mentions that an invention or technique was already discovered—but because there wasn’t an immediate use, they were set aside, only to be rediscovered later. Burke warns against conflating innovation (defined in this context as the point an invention becomes useful) with invention itself. If human invention is based on a vast network of connections, there’s bound to be a few misdirections in the lot.
I rented this book from the public library.