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

15.47: Worldbuilding Science Fiction, with Cory Doctorow

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Piper, and Howard, with Cory Doctorow

Worldbuilding is something you do to some degree in everything you write. Cory Doctorow  writes (among many other things) near-future SF, and he joins us for a discussion of extrapolative worldbuilding.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Make a list of transactions in your life which have no reciprocity.

Thing of the week: Walkaway: A Novel, by Cory Doctorow.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Extrapolating to make futuristic parables? Think of a throat swab, one factor to focus on. Take one technology or phenomenon and build a world around it. Enduring issues are that we only know how to make one kind of computer, and that encryption works, so computers are colonizing everything. Or consider organ transplants from something like pigs. Take a single point and follow logical causal chains and branches to see where it goes. What about worldbuilding for stories set in the present? For example, romance writers need to think through their setting, even a small town. Worldbuilding gives you opportunities for conflict and to add depth to characters. Don’t forget economics! What do people do, what are their jobs?

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 47.

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Worldbuilding Science Fiction, with Cory Doctorow.

[Piper] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Cory] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Piper] I’m Piper.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Cory] And I’m Cory.

[Mary Robinette] So, we’re talking about worldbuilding and science fiction. Most of the time, when we talk about worldbuilding, it’s very fantasy oriented. But worldbuilding is actually something that you need to do, regardless of what kind of fiction you’re writing. Since Cory writes science fiction and is… often near future, just around the corner science fiction, the worldbuilding that he does has to tie pretty tightly to what’s going on in the real world. So how do you get there, how do you extrapolate?

[Cory] Yeah. So extrapolating is a good word for it, because I like to be really clear that it’s never predicting. Right? There’s nothing more fatalistic than the idea that we can predict the future, because one thing I believe, and that kind of animates me, is that we can change the future based on the choices that we make. So I like to feel like futuristic parables are a good way to understand the present, but they only work as parables if they feel plausibly futuristic. There are some good cheap tricks for that. I often analogize near future SF to going to the doctor to get your throat swabbed. Right? The doctor goes… The doctor takes a swab of your throat, she puts it in a petri dish, she gives it 72 hours. What she’s got then is not an accurate model of your body. She has this, like, usefully inaccurate model of your body. Where she’s taken one fact of your body she wants to use to understand a factor that is otherwise drowned out by the noise of the thousand other processes going on in your body. She’s reified it so it’s the one fact in this little world in a bottle. As science fiction writers, we can reach into the world and we can take a technology or a phenomenon and we can build a world around it in which that is… Has a centrality that isn’t… It isn’t predictive, because there would be all the confounding factors that would go into it. But by elevating it to this like… To the center of a narrative, we can equip the readers to understand the subtle effects of that technology as we’re living in it now. Which gives them a benchmark to understand it in the future. It becomes a kind of emotional architect’s fly through of a 3D model of what it would be like if… As this technology becomes more significant, more important.

[Howard] Worldbuilding strep.

[Cory] Yeah. Well, exactly. So, drones are never going to be the only important thing in our world, but drones are going to have a big important effect on our world. You could write a drone story where drones had a centrality that would let you think through some of those issues and let… Give readers a vocabulary for comparing the world that they’re in to it, in the same way that we can say that mass surveillance is Orwellian. You might be able to say that it’s Robinette-Kowalian, or Doctorow-vian, or whatever. For Drake-ian. If you found the right narrative and hooked it up the right way. So that diagnostic tool, that kind of predicting the present for me is a really useful way to think about science fiction and its role in the world.

[Howard] I bought some solar powered sidewalk lamps at Walmart for like five bucks. Opened them up and realized they had AA rechargeable batteries in them. What I had was a six dollar solar powered AA battery charger.

[Cory] Right.

[Howard] It forced me to rethink every post-apocalyptic thing I had ever read, because, now, boy, the lights aren’t going off until I run out of rechargeable batteries.

[Cory] Right.

[Howard] Because… And I’m not likely to run out of those soon, if it’s like a zombie post-apocalypse. This kind of extrapolation is so much fun, because we are living through some fun tipping points. The tipping point of solar and renewable, tipping points of surveillance sue-valence drone technology. Extrapolating these things just 20 years forward is fun.

[Cory] Yeah. I also want to say that if you want to give your work an enduring legacy, if you want to make it continue to feel realistic in the future or at least salient in the future, one really good way to do that is to understand that computer science theory is actually pretty static. Computer engineering is a very fast moving field, but the theory on which it’s built is pretty static. Like, since the war years, we’ve known how to build really one kind of computer. It’s the Turing complete computer, that can run every program that we can conceive of. Now, this has been a huge boon, because it means that if you can make computers faster and smaller, then any program you can think of can run on them. It means that computers colonize everything. The device that you’re listening to this on is a computer. The house that you’re in maybe a computer at this point, in the sense that if you took the computers out, the house might become uninhabitable. If you have a pacemaker, you have a computer in your body. Your car is definitely a computer if it was made in the last 10 years, and you trust your body to it. It whisks you down the road at 80 miles an hour. 5 miles an hour if you live in Los Angeles.


[Cory] That computer design, the one computer that can run every program, also has this major downside, which is we don’t know how to not make it run undesirable programs. Right? We don’t know how to not make it run programs that pirate copyrighted works, and we don’t know how to not make it run programs that are malicious, and we don’t know how to not make it run programs that are… We don’t want criminals to have access to like encryption technology. There’s this move now to restrict access to encryption technology, so that criminals can’t have conversations in secret, and it’s somewhat of a moot question, because you might say, “In this country, we don’t let you run that program.” But how do you stop people from downloading that program and running it on their computer? We don’t know how to make a computer that can’t run the program period. We don’t know how to make an iPhone that can’t run software that’s not blessed by Apple. So this is a really interesting point, because our closest approximation is the Apple solution, which is a program that has spyware running on it that checks to see whether you’re doing something that the manufacturer disapproves of. If you try to do it, it says, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.” So that fact, that’s a really important fact that like plays out in our policy all the time. Then a related fact that I alluded to is that we know how to make encryption that works and we know how to make encryption that doesn’t work. What we don’t know how to make is encryption that works only when we need it to stop working.


[Cory] Right? Like, when criminals use it. Like, we keep trying. It is a catastrophic failure, because encryption is how we make sure that the firmware update in your pacemaker doesn’t kill you in your boots. If we say, well, we’re going to ban working encryption, then what we really say is that we’re going to make it so that we can’t validate the payloads that we send to your pacemaker to make sure that it’s getting new firmware.

[Howard] We can keep criminals from conspiring, we can’t keep them from killing you with the thing in your chest.

[Cory] Right. Indeed, they will continue to conspire.

[Howard] Right.

[Cory] So, both of these facts, and then the third fact about technology is that governments are really struggling to come to grips with both of these two other facts, that encryption works and that we only know how to make one kind of computer. They will not cease to struggle with it because computers are colonizing every category of device, which means that they’re central to every policy problem we have. Which means that they’ll keep making this mistake. If you make any one of or all three of those facts central to your fiction, it will continue to be a parable about all the bad things going on in our world, unfortunately, for the entire foreseeable future. That means that you can have a book like Little Brother, the novel of mine that I’m really best known for, that I wrote in 2006, that continues to be cited as an incredibly, like, gripping futuristic salient tale that has something to tell us about our present day only because it has this techno-realistic element to it.

[Piper] You can also take a look at science from another aspect as well. That’s from medicine, which you touched on with pacemakers. But you think about what we can do with DNA at this stage. For a while there, we wouldn’t… The main basis for why the FDA wouldn’t allow organ transplants and organs to be grown in something like porcine, like pigs, was because pigs had a retrovirus that could potentially be transferable to humans, which was… Would be terrible, considering the timeframe and what it could do. But now we have the ability, now, in today’s day and age, to adjust their genetic makeup and composition to eradicate that virus in that string of pigs. Therefore, making it safe. We do now… There’s a company that does it, that grows kidneys in pigs and have gotten to successful transplants in primates, and has proposed to potentially go to successful transplants for humans. Which could change the lives of people who are on the list waiting for kidneys. Now that doesn’t take that much more in terms of steps forward to imagining what that kind of science, that kind of medicine, can do to change the near future. Or, if we play with the zombie apocalypse, because at least one of my series has done that, we look at vaccines, like, BSE is a major thing that I do in my day job, or not do. But that’s related to what I look at in terms of data in my day job keep it safe. It’s bovine spongiform encephalitis. It is nontransferable to humans. But. What if it became transferable? What if that virus became transferable? You have zombies now. You have people with brains that look like Swiss cheese when you take a cut of it. So…

[Howard] Delicious, delicious Swiss cheese.

[Cory] I mean, we have [garbled cases of it?] already, right? That’s the human form of it, but it’s thankfully, very, very rare.

[Piper] Very rare. But still, it’s not that far in the future, when you can see the zombie apocalypse coming out of that.

[Mary Robinette] What you’re basically talking about here is taking a single point and following logical causal chain to see where it goes and the branching effects as you move forward. In many ways, what you’re talking about is treating technology like a magic system.

[Cory] Sure. And not trying to… Yes, it’s good to have lots of texture in their other technologies, but not trying to play Nostradamus.

[Mary Robinette] Right. Yes.

[Cory] Instead, trying to make a little parable.

[Mary Robinette] Well, let’s go ahead and pause here for the book of the week.

[Cory] Sure.

[Mary Robinette] Which is one of yours.

[Cory] Yeah. I wrote… The most worldbuilding-ish novel I wrote, I think, is called Walkaway. It’s the one with the fewest of what Karl Schroeder calls the Backless Maiden, from the Arthurian legend of the knight who meets the beautiful maiden, but she never shows her back to him, and then she steps in front of the fireplace and the fire flickers through her eyes and he realizes she has no back. That’s really so much of our fiction doesn’t have a back to it. Walkaway I really thought a lot about what was going on behind the scenes. It’s an optimistic disaster novel. A utopian disaster novel. It’s about people being good to each other in times of crisis and working to rebuild. It’s not a world in which there are good people and bad people. It’s a world in which there are people who think the world is made up of good people and bad people and people who think that the world is made up of people who think that there are good people and bad people and people like themselves who know that most people are just a mixed bag of goodness and badness, and that incentives and structures and exigencies determine whether we’re good or bad at any given moment, and who are trying to make a world that brings out the good in everyone. It’s full of people doing things like using drones to find our bridge in blighted climate wracked badlands and then using software to figure out what kind of fully automated luxury communist resorts they can build out of garbage and then moving into them and then reveling in how cool it is until weird oligarchs come along and say, “Hey, that’s my garbage.” Then they walk away and find some more garbage in another blighted brownfield site to build on. This is kind of their journey. It goes well until they have a shot at practical immortality, which they acquire from scientists from the oligarch classes who decide that they’re not going to be complicit in speciating the human race into infinitely prolonged plutocrats and mayflies disappearing in the rearview mirror, which is the rest of us. They steal the fire from the gods, bring it to us so that we can be immortal too, and when rich people realize that they’re going to have to spend the rest of eternity with us, they cease to see these walkaway communities as like cute bohemias that they can steal fashion and art from, and instead, bring out the hellfire missiles. That’s when it kind of all gets interesting and kicks off.

[Mary Robinette] So, it’s a simple novel?

[Cory] Yeah. It’s got a lot of moving parts, that book, for sure.

[Mary Robinette] It’s a really fantastic audiobook, I have to say.

[Cory] That’s very kind of you.

[Mary Robinette] It’s very good. I’m very picky about my audiobooks.

[Cory] I produced the audiobook myself. The readers are spectacular. The bulk of it is carried by Amber Benson from Buffy. But also we have Wil Wheaton on it and Mirron Willis and Gabrielle de Cuir and a guest appearance by Amanda Palmer. It’s really a terrific audiobook.

[Mary Robinette] So that’s Walkaway by Cory Doctorow.

[Mary Robinette] So, let’s talk about worldbuilding for stories that are set in the present, because this is a thing that I think a lot of people overlook. They forget that you have to establish a world for people in the real world. Especially if you’re tweaking things a little bit. Whether that’s adding a single technological element to your present day or just even establishing a world within a closed ecosystem, like a high school or a corporate structure that doesn’t actually exist. So what are some of the ways that you think about worldbuilding when you’re used to… Doing something in the present day?

[Piper] I will say, and this is kind of a dangerous thing, but I will say that romance writers get a lot that we don’t have to do worldbuilding. Because…

[Mary Robinette] That’s not true.

[Piper] Exactly. Particularly contemporary or romantic suspense romance writers, because of the fact that it is set in the modern-day or contemporary times. But we do. One of the best worldbuilding that I can think of right off the top of my head is the Lucky Harbor series by Jill Shalvis because it is a small town. It is a made-up small town in the Pacific Northwest. It feels so real that you think the town is there. The people are real, the bed-and-breakfast is real, you go into town, the diner is real, and buildings feel real. You almost have a mental map in your head of where everything is. That’s because the worldbuilding is done so very well by that author. Because the author took the time to think about where this was going to be, what the weather was going to be, even what the highway would be like driving up to it, and how long it would take to walk down to the bed-and-breakfast. That is one of the key points. And what the actual focal points around the town were that built up over the course of all the books in the series. The series itself is successful, but it’s going to like, I could be wrong, but I think it’s around 9 to 12 books. That’s pretty amazing for a contemporary romance to have the kind of worldbuilding where people… You think you know where, like, the Ferris wheel is, you think you know where the pier is, you think you know where the boat is docked that they hanky-panky’ed in, in this book, and then the tree that they fell out of that the person broke their leg in.

[Mary Robinette] The thing is that this kind of worldbuilding gives you opportunities for conflict, it gives you opportunities to add depth to the characters, it’s not actually just worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. It definitely makes things feel more real and gives the reader some… A way to ground… I read a novel for professional reasons that I can’t recommend and so I’m not going to name, in which all of the love interests were retired baseball players. Like…

[Cory] That narrows it down.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. In a small town. I’m like, the economics of being retired baseball players in small towns, and they were all people who had been forcibly retired. So… But none of them had other jobs. It was like, how does that…

[Howard] This sounds paranormal.


[Mary Robinette] It does, and it was not.

[Cory] It’s the “how do the friends afford that apartment in New York” problem.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. Exactly that problem. Which is why the worldbuilding… It’s like… The only one who had a job was a barrista, as far as we can… I mean, technically, the others had jobs, but it was…

[Howard] The… I talked about it in other contexts, the CBS Elementary, the Sherlock Holmes show, is set in present-day New York, but the worldbuilding… There’s the massive criminal organization run by Moriarity. There’s the massive business organization run by Morland Holmes. These elements, there are callbacks to these things throughout it. The precinct, the officers, the judges, the brownstone that Holmes lives in, all of these details have been overlaid on a New York that feels very real to me, who doesn’t live in New York. But the series gets good reviews from people who do live in New York. They’ve managed to blend location research with some fun worldbuilding and some fun callbacks to the Conan Doyle Holmes from…

[Cory] My favorite example of contemporary science fiction worldbuilding is William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition trilogy. These are science fiction novel that were set about two years before they came out. So a science fiction novel set in 2000…

[Howard] Oh, wow.

[Cory] 2003 that came out in 2005, that sort of thing. They are science fiction novels about people, particularly New Yorkers, after 9/11, living true the rise of the surveillance state. A lot of the characters are spooks, and a lot of the characters are sort of spook adjacent or in the crosshairs of spooks. It’s about people living through a moment of absolute technological upheaval. What he does is he approaches it, this thing that had happened in our recent past, he approaches it as though it were a great technological upheaval that people were living through, which we had. But it had been just long enough that we’d become adapted to it. The shock of them was just spectacular. It reminds me of my favorite Brian Eno aphorism. Brian Eno has this thing called the deck of oblique strategies that he used when he was recording Roxy Music and a bunch of other bands, which were these like gnomic aphorisms that you would draw out of a deck of cards and he would make everyone try and do it. My favorite one is be the first person to not do something that no one else has ever thought of not doing before. There’s so many times where this comes up, when I’m thinking about how you might try something new. Gibson wrote futuristic science fiction about the recent past. He was the first person not to set futuristic science fiction in the future. It was great.

[Piper] Every one of us has our mouths dropped open right now. Yeah, the faces that we have in the room.

[Cory] Brian Eno was a smart guy.

[Piper] Yeah.

[Cory] Came up with the Windows 95 chime.

[Mary Robinette] Really?

[Cory] Yeah. He made the start of music for Windows 95.

[Mary Robinette] I had no idea.

[Mary Robinette] Well, on that note, [hum…] let’s go ahead…

[Cory] I think you mean [huuh…]

[Mary Robinette] Thank you. Let’s go ahead and give our fair listeners a homework assignment. Cory?

[Cory] Sure. One of the things that’s often missing from worldbuilding is economics. I think it was Steven Bruce that observed that you can always tell if a Marxist has written your fantasy novel because the ratio of vassals to lords is right. I wrote a novel about gift economics. Gift economics are economies in which things are not given on a reciprocal basis, that’s barter. Things are given with no expectation of return. We’ve just lived through a kind of forty-year social experiment in making everything transactional. Where there is no such thing as society and greed is good and selfishness produces pretty near optimal outcomes. It’s hard not to reciprocate. But if you think through the things in your life that are nonreciprocal, you’ll find that some of the most important things in your life are nonreciprocal, right? Like, you came out and said to your partner, “Look, the only reason I’m married to you is that I expect that when the day comes and I can’t wait my own ass, that you’re going to do it for me in thanks for all the times I brought you a cup of coffee,” that you would be a kind of human monster. Right? Make a list of 10 things in your life that are purely nonreciprocal, that you do only for the pleasure of giving something to someone else, the intrinsic pleasure of giving something to someone else.

[Mary Robinette] That is a great homework assignment. With that, you are out of excuses. Now go write.