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23 April 2011 @ 09:13 am
A Whole New World  
I have this idea knocking around for some fiction. It's likely to be light fantasy (some possibility of changing it to light sci-fi). By the time I actually get around to spending time on this (a couple years) I'd like it to be at Z-man's reading level, but also be interesting for adults. Not exactly easy, and with my track record on these things by the time I get it figured out I won't have any interest anymore.

There' a lot figured out about plot and format which I'm not going to share. I've been told (and observed in myself) that if you express too much about your ideas you don't actually want to do anything with them.

The funny thing is that it's the world-building that I'm feeling a bit stuck on. That is normally my favorite part. And I know that the plot is going to flex quite a bit as the world develops... maybe having so much of the plot figured out is actually an impediment to world-building, because I'm too tied to my little plot to give myself the freedom to break the plot with the world.

Either way, I know there's plenty of folks here who might enjoy brainstorming with me. And I do mean brainstorming--at this point, I want ideas that are contradictory, crazy, or incongruent because approaching this by rationally building from what I already have has gotten me a bit stuck.

The core of the idea is the Roanoke Colony actually passed through a gate to another world called Croatan. Native American tribes were intent on destroying the colony, so they escaped through this gate and destroyed it so their enemies could not follow them. The plot of the story takes place in the modern day, so centuries have passed since this event.

Since then the colony has expanded, discovered other people from other cultures who have also come through other such gates. However, in modern times anyone who passes through the gates now is hunted down and attacked by a mysterious force.

But still, there were only a few people in Roanoke. Even with immigrants and centuries to expand, there's only so much potential for population. So one foundation point is that Croatan looks a lot like North America (including for the most part North American ecosystems and climates), but a North America that has a very sparse human population.

Because we are so haunted by the Enlightenment, what interested me here was to take a group of people from a culture on the verge of the Enlightenment, and let them develop on their own. What results, I think, is very similar but with some notable differences. One of those difference is that representative democracy as we understand it doesn't develop. There's a governor who still claims authority based on the king of England, whoever that may be, although there are representative institutions which do not hold authority over the governor but do represent the people's interests to the government.

What I'd like to do is take themes and myths from around the 17th century. Here's a list of the ideas I'm playing with, and if you'd like to add to it I'd love that.

  • Hermetic magic and alchemy (quasi-scientific approaches) vs. herbalism and folk magic

  • Related to the above, accusations of witchcraft

  • Individual choice vs great chain of being

  • Secret societies

  • Forgotten knowledge from ancient societies, esp. ruins thereof

  • Exploitative exploration and the romanticization of exoticism, both anthropological and geographic

  • Gothic romance (or rather, how does that particular impulse represent itself in this alternate cultural timeline?)

  • Fairies, goblins, other minor quasi-spiritual entities

  • Religious conflicts

  • Piracy

  • Mountain Man culture

  • Fountain of Youth

  • El Dorado

Beemer: Dream of Bingodr_tectonic on April 23rd, 2011 05:09 pm (UTC)
Thoughts, mostly science-y:

The ecosystems of North America would actually be very different without human populations. There's evidence that what we think of as the unspoiled New England forests were actually heavily cultivated by Native Americans. If there were never *any* humans, you might still have mammoths and giant sloths. But even if other colonists had wiped them out, you'd probably still have the huuuuuge flocks of passenger pigeons, herds of bison, etc. that were around before firearms.

100-some original colonists is a population bottleneck that gives you a very strong founder effect. So it would be not at all strange for some normally rare genetic anomaly to be quite common in the descendants. It could be a disease, or it could be some kind of beneficial mutation -- or both.

Population growth is exponential, so starting with only 100 colonists, at average rates of growth you'd have a couple hundred thousand descendants by 2010. But if something doubled the growth rate (i.e., population doubling every 20 years or so), you'd hit a couple hundred million.

One factor that might affect growth is that ithout contact with much larger population pools elsewhere in the world, communicable disease will be pretty rare. But when new people do come through from Earth, they could be carrying diseases that are commonplace in the our world (chicken pox, e.g.) but turn into horrific epidemics (50% mortality or worse) when they hit virgin populations.

Roanoke vanished basically before the start of all modern science. With such a small population, they'd certainly never keep up with the advances of our world. So while they might be developing their own Enlightenment, I think they'd still be quite a ways behind. Unless they get jump-started by the occasional new wave of immigrants. It would be almost like our world was running faster than theirs...
ng_nighthawkng_nighthawk on April 23rd, 2011 08:23 pm (UTC)

Some of this I had in mind. I had the idea that Native Americans before the Roanoke incident were able to pass pretty easily between the two places. You had to get to a gate, and they were not common, but their locations were widely known and became important points of commerce and immigration between worlds. But it's sort of like a circuit in series--once the colonists broke the one in Virginia, they all stopped working.

So basically the environment impact of human remains at 1690 levels, so no mammoths or sloths. Although, maybe rarely in a few pockets, since it's in my mind that the population in Croatan has always been less... ooh, although it wasn't part of enlightenment mythology, a sort of Ice Age version of "The Lost World" could be a cool geographic feature.

Also, in regards to lower populations, I was thinking that they have basically advanced to roughly the level of culture and technology that was present around the time of the American Revolution. Roughly a century of our-world development over the last three centuries. In many ways, Croatan becomes a kind of window into revolutionary war times, albeit slightly different.

To allow for a more episodic, travelling plot, I'd like the population to be dispersed into a wide range of isolated settlements rather than concentrated on the coast. To allow for that, I think I'm going to need some kind of alternate technology that would allow better exploitation of resources by fewer people and better trade between remote locations. In other words, I need an alt-steam engine. This is where I need to decide fantasy vs. sci-fi/alt-steampunk.

I had forgotten passenger pigeons, but considered earthworms and bison. I'd also like to point out both sides of this difference: the bison herds are majestic and it's tragic that they were lost, but how do you farm the plains with them around? High, strong fences or walls, I'm guessing. Of course, I can look up how people tried all this. Research is part of the preparation I need to do.

I was aware of the pre-scientific seed culture of the colonists. I was considering that hermetic and alchemical practices become the approach to studying phenomena, but they have found better ways to make that successful without a scientific method exactly. This alternate way of looking at the world will be a subtle but important difference in how they understand their world and how to exploit it. There's also this subculture of herbalism and traditional magic, which is a counterpoint to this other approach and like hermetic practices hasn't been as thoroughly sidelined as in our world. However, they've found ways to make this approach more successful, as well.

The details that go into fleshing out this last paragraph will determine the fantasy/sci-fi split. I think after considering all of this, I'm leaning in the direction of alt-steampunk. That would at least be novel. The only question is what takes the place of the steam engine... because with the steam engine, you're basically in a standard 19th century economy.