Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.15: The Environment, with L.E. Modessit, Jr.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. joined us at LTUE for a world building discussion centered around the way the environment informs the story. We talk about lead in Roman plumbing, water lilies in Las Vegas sewers, and coal power in the British Empire, and how these examples can help us more effectively use the environments in our stories.

Liner Notes: We mentioned both Americapox, The Missing Plague, (a YouTube video) and the excellent book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Homework: Come up with a fantasy fuel that has extreme, but unintended consequences.

Thing of the week: Solar Express, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr, narrated by Robert Fass.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Environment, climate, underlies everything. Its effects, pollution, can change the whole structure of a culture. Beware the city in the desert — how does it get water and food? “Everything we do in any society is an interconnected ecology.” Think about the ramifications of the environment on technology, economy, class structure, etc. Think about what the environment allows, and what it prevents. Consider the distribution of minerals and resources in different regions. Even the stars and their influence on navigation are worth a look!

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 15.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Environment, with L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have back to the podcast one of our best friends and the greatest writers around, L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
[Lee] Glad to be here.
[Brandon] We are so happy to have you on, Lee, because you are like a genius about a lot of things that writers normally aren’t geniuses about. Because you’ve like had seven careers before you became a writer… I’m exaggerating. But those all inform your writing.
[Lee] You’re not exaggerating, unfortunately.
[Lee] We’re not talking about how successful I was at some of them…

[Brandon] Now, you pitched the environment quote unquotes, as a topic for us to do on Writing Excuses. Can you tell us why you were passionate about this idea?
[Lee] Well, part of it has to do with the fact that I worked on the environment for like 15 years as a professional. But the other thing is that the environment underlies pretty much everything that nobody ever thinks about. What your environment is, call it your climate, what you do informs things in terms of pollution. Sometimes it changes the whole structure of a culture. I mean, basically, if you think about the fact that… what lead did to the Roman Empire, in essence internal environmental pollution, in essence brought down the elite of the Roman Empire. Because the higher up you were, the more likely you were to have your wine flavored with lead.
[Lee] That has a tendency to do things to your brain cells. Insanity, occupational insanity, among the Roman elite was rather high in certain circumstances. Which may have led to the fact that many of the later Roman emperors actually came from the provinces, where they didn’t use as much lead.
[Brandon] Having had many conversations with you about these sorts of things, what’s impressed me is that you like to backtrack when creating a story, or at least, you like to get down in the minutia of the economics and the environment and let that shape your culture in a very science-fiction sort of way, even when you’re doing a fantasy. Although you do both, science fiction and fantasy.
[Lee] Yeah. That’s true. I mean, I doubt if anybody has ever made the cleaning of sewers by mages an occupational training requirement before.

[Brandon] So, let’s just go down with some of the things that writers get wrong. What are some of your pet peeves in this area, or any of the podcasters, when the environment is considered? What do a lot of fantasy and science fiction writers goof on?
[Lee] Well, I think a lot of them tend to goof… Well, my biggest personal pet peeve is the city in the middle of the desert.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Lee] There have only been, in human history, two cities in the desert that have actually succeeded. Now there are several turned into cities in the desert because of environmental degradation. But there are only two that actually started out as cities in the desert. One of them was Petra in the Jordan Sinai. Which existed only because the Nabataeans developed one of the most sophisticated forms of rainwater engineering. You can still supply literally thousands of people, even though the system is currently broke… Is partly broken, from its rainwater collection, and that’s in the middle of the desert. The second factor was it was on the intersection of caravan routes from the trade from the Middle East to Egypt. At that time, Egypt of course was one of the most prosperous areas.
[Brandon] Didn’t they hide the Holy Grail there, too?
[Brandon] I watched a movie about that.
[Howard] Well, in Belioch [But go on?]
[Lee] They filmed it there because it’s one of the few lovely relics left that you don’t have to pay rental fees for, but I don’t think they actually hid it there. The other one, by the way, is Las Vegas, which was only enabled by another great massive waterworks, otherwise known as the Boulder or Hoover dam. Neither city would exist without those modifications of the environment. But you aren’t going to have a city in the middle of the desert, because you have to have food. You can’t grow food in the desert. You can’t ship it over all of that sand without an incredible price to it, and you can’t afford it.
[Dan] Las Vegas is such a great example of this, because it’s modern. I know a lot of people think, “Oh, well, maybe you couldn’t build cities in the desert before, but you totally can now.” Las Vegas has the most rigorous water conservation policies of any city in the country. The woman who’s in charge of it has come up with just an absolutely brilliant system of controlling who has water, who is allowed to use water. It’s really, really interesting to read about how they keep that city functioning even today.
[Lee] And, not that anybody really cares about this, but I actually worked with the Las Vegas sewage department when I was a consultant.
[Mary] Did you use mages to clean it?
[Lee] No, we actually used water lilies. The sewage plants drain into a series of artificial marshes, which have water lilies and other things which naturally purify the water so that it can be at least used for agriculture and other things. Call it non-culinary water, after it’s gone through all the sewage plants.

[Brandon] Excellent. Can you think of some great examples in fiction, film, or books or whatever, of people who are using this in the way that you suggest that we do it?
[Lee] No.
[Dan] So, the field is open for you, our listeners.
[Lee] Now, I’ve done a couple of them. I mean, about a year and a half ago, I wrote a book called The One Eyed Man. It’s basically an ecological novel about the impact of ecology on, shall we say, anti-agathics. Which is a fancy term for anti-aging drugs. On this particular world, that’s the entire, or the cash crop of the world. But it’s all dependent on interconnected ecology. All we… Everything we do in any society is an interconnected ecology. There are so many examples it’s really [hard to…]
[Brandon] Well, Mary’s got one.
[Mary] So, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl is… It’s set in the future. So it’s not fantasy, but it is one where he’s very definitely thinking about the environment and the ramifications of the environment on the technology, on the economy, on the class structure, and all of these things. That kind of rigor is something that you can apply to a fantasy setting. Actually, I think that Brandon with his Stormlight series, certainly is…
[Brandon] I’m trying to use the ecology quite a… The environment a lot in those. But having this conversation, I keep thinking of new things that you could do. One thing I should bring up, and… We talk a lot on Writing Excuses about various things you can do. This… You can’t do everything in every book. The whole point of the podcast is to level you up certain little areas, so that when you go to write a book, you say, “Oh, this would be a good place to deal with the environment or with fashion.” You can then use this as a springboard into finding things. But one thing I just thought of, a lot of fantasy books don’t deal with the effects of fossil fuels. Now, right now, we’re dealing with really huge ramifications of fossil fuels. But even in the early days, fuel that you would use would have an effect on your city. The burning just of wood would have a huge effect on the city.

[Lee] Okay. Let me bring up one here. Why did the British Emp… Why did England go to coal? England actually went to coal because they were running out of trees. If they started cutting down any more trees, they couldn’t build wooden ships.
[Brandon] Things like this that we don’t think through often enough in fantasy. Howard had something.
[Howard] I was just going to say that the idea of hot and cold running water as a… I mean, it’s such a common phrase that when we were on the ship… I think it was Helen said… Referred to the buffet as hot and cold running food…
[Howard] And we all knew what she was talking about. We take so many things for granted that it’s easy for us to forget how much infrastructure goes into providing those. 13th century London was… The cities were in many cases… I say the cities. London. The road was a foot of poo and cow guts and yuck.
[Lee] Can I bring up one other thing along these lines? This is a historical example of how environment affects a society. There are no indigenous trees on the west side of the Andes. All they have is bushes. Now there are now because the Spanish imported eucalyptus. But that determined the entire fate of the Incan Empire because you cannot build bridges out of rope which is what they do and have wheeled vehicles because they stop any time you’ve got a chasm. You cannot stop a horse because you need a pike. You cannot build a pike if you don’t have a tree.
[Brandon] I’ve been doing a lot of research into the sequel to the Rithmatist, dealing with some of the South American and meso-American cultures. In that environment, really interesting listening to some of these books where they’ll talk about they were really advanced. We… Early European visitors pretended that they were not advanced cultures because they didn’t have some certain things that the Europeans thought were hallmarks of technology. The wheel being the big one. Well, this… Except their calendar and their mathematics and their linguistics were all above what the Europeans were doing. They didn’t have the wheel because they had dense forestation, because of things like Lee was talking about, because they did not have a good pack animal or riding animal. This was a big feature. So the environment prevented certain developments in technology across a long period of time that led to a certain technological advantage warfare to the Europeans. When a lot of the things that the meso-American cultures had learned just didn’t lend themselves well to warfare despite being more advanced. So your ecology, your environment can really influence the development of your culture. You can read Guns, Germs, and Steel if you want to have a good example of that.
[Lee] Excellent, excellent book. [Jeremy Diamond] Guns, Germs, and Steel.

[Brandon] But we should stop here for a different book to pitch before we get too much further, because we want Lee to talk about Solar Express. Give us like the 30 second, 45 second pitch on this book.
[Lee] Okay. Young postdoc astrophysicist stationed on a lunar observatory on the far side of the moon in Daedalus crater discovers a long period comet that turns out not to be a long-term comet which then has to be investigated by the pilot who she’s struck up a friendship with who ferried her to the moon in the first place. Everything is not as it seems.
[Brandon] Excellent. Lee’s books are all very good. I’ve read a number of them. I’ve never been disappointed. I’ve always been engaged. He’s a fantastic writer. You can go to, start a trial membership, and download a copy of The Solar Express… Or just Solar Express.
[Lee] Solar Express.
[Brandon] Read by Kurt Fais or Fass.

[Brandon] Now, let’s go back. It looked like Mary, you had something you wanted to jump in with? Oh, we’ll go to Lee first.
[Lee] I would just want to add one little thing. You don’t even think about some of these things. One of the reasons why all of the Inca buildings fit together like clockwork and there’s no mortar… They couldn’t make mortar. Because you have to have something that burns to fire limestone in order to make the mortar and cement. When you don’t have any trees and you don’t have any coal, you can’t make any more mortar, so you can’t even build stone bridges. Everything has to fit together like clockwork. That changes the whole labor structure as well.
[Mary] One of the things also that this brings up is that when you’re looking at your environment, one of the things that you’re looking at is not just the landscape and the trees, but also what is there like what the minerals are. So in meso-America, silver and gold were fairly plentiful. Iron was not. So they would use silver and gold. It was easier to smelt, you could smelt it at a lower temperature. Meanwhile, in Europe, gold is not common. So it is very valuable. Iron is used for every day things. A lot of that has to do with the fuel. And the availability… Not just the fuel, but also the availability of the raw materials in the earth. So one of the things that is interesting to play with when you’re doing your world building is to think about the resources each region has.
[Brandon] A really great quick video you can watch on something like this. It’s called Americapox, The Missing Plague. It’s by one of my favorite YouTubers, C. G. P. Gray. He talks about how the environment caused European cities to get close together to bring their livestock in, then that livestock caused diseases to jump to human beings. Most of the most deadly plagues we have came from our livestock. If you think about that, it makes perfect sense, because a disease does not want to kill you. A disease wants to keep you… Wants you to live to spread it. A disease that kills you is actually a failed disease in some ways. But a disease meant to make a cow sick, will kill a person if it can jump to people. So we had all of these diseases because of these… Our environment, because of these large cities. So this is why we when… We meaning Europeans like me… Came to America, we brought a bunch of diseases and why there were no such diseases among those indigenous populations to infect them to take back. It’s a fascinating video that digs into this in like five minutes.
[Lee] Which is why actually the Plymouth colony succeeded. Because a measles epidemic swept up from Jamestown the year before, killed almost all of the Indians in Massachusetts, and basically the pilgrims in some cases actually moved into Indian corn fields and villages, because they were so depleted.
[Dan] Another aspect of the environment we haven’t talked about yet is the sky. The stars and their use in navigation. I read a really interesting book about the Chinese naval history that was talking about how in the northern hemisphere, we have the North Star. That makes navigation very, very easy. In the southern hemisphere, where you can’t see the North Star, they have to navigate by the Southern Cross and that took hundreds of years longer to figure out how to use. What that means is that a lot of civilizations were able to develop faster in the northern hemisphere, because they could do shipping lanes much earlier. The southern hemisphere was colonized and explored by those civilizations much later than the rest of the world because they couldn’t get down there. Once you got out of sight of land into deep-sea explorations, it just didn’t work as well.

[Brandon] Well, I’m going to have to call it here, because we are running out of time. I want to thank our audience here at Life, the Universe, and Everything.
[Whoa! Applause.]
[Brandon] I want to thank L. E. Modesitt, Jr. I actually have some homework for us. This is a classic Brandon Sanderson style homework pitch for you. I want you to come up with a fantasy fuel… Not fantasy football, fantasy fuel. Some sort of fuel system in a fantasy world that has some extreme, but unintended, consequences on the environment people live in. I don’t want you to go with the standard ones that we’ve had in our world that we’ve dealt with. I want it to be something weird and bizarre that… Burning this fantasy fuel makes one in 100 children turn into a demon. Or something like this.
[Brandon] Like I want something interesting for your story based around the thing they find in the environment that they can use for fuel. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.

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