Each morning, when the weather is nice, I sit on my porch and eat my snack while my second cup of coffee perks. It’s now late June. The yard looks lush and at peak greenery. The mountain laurel are flowering—white and pink snowballs covering the bushes. The smaller sheep laurel dots the surrounding green with deep red/purple flowers.
In the gardens, some flowers have already gone by—the pussytoes and violets—while others are just beginning—spiderwort, with its spikey leaves and gorgeous blue flowers—and the penstemon (aka beardtongue). Hummingbirds flit from bloom to bloom. I took down the nectar feeder after the cold spring mornings gave way to hot days. You have to worry about the nectar getting moldy and making the birds sick. Not so with the real stuff—flowers.
Robins and catbirds and phoebes and towhees and warblers hunt worms and insects for their babies. Foxes hunt voles. At least I hope that’s what they are hunting. Better not be baby birds!
What does this have to do with worldbuilding? Were you expecting an essay on creating fictional worlds? I can do that too. There are a lot of similarities.
In my yard, I’m planning, creating a world. One that birds and butterflies and bees and caterpillars will thrive in. Lately there’s been a lot of news about the loss of birds over the decades, the loss of insects. “America is having a bird apocalypse,” “The insect apocalypse.”
The two are not unrelated. They don’t call it the web of life for nothing. Insects feed birds. Chemicals that kill insects leave nothing for birds to eat (even seed-eating birds feed their babies caterpillars). Non-native plants are not good food sources for local insects (that’s why gardeners like them, they don’t get eaten and so stay beautiful), and their berries don’t provide enough or the right kind of nutrition for birds, especially in the fall when they have to bulk up for a long migration.
Poisons that kill rodents also kill the animals who prey on them. Massachusetts lost two bald eagles last year to rodenticide. The Wildlife Clinic at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine found that 100 percent of red-tailed hawks tested at the clinic had rodent poisons in their systems.
So it’s not surprising we don’t have to clean off our windshields as much anymore (in fact, I’ve noticed the fluid no longer touts it’s ability to remove bug guts but instead focuses on not freezing). And maybe there’s less birdsong than there used to be (or masked by suburban and urban noises).
I live in an area that is for the most part woods or farm fields. What’s missing is the mid-range “understory” growth that many birds prefer. So I’ve been planting shrubs and small trees to fill in that missing niche. And when I say “I,” I really mean my wife does the research and planning and designing, and I dig the holes and erect the deer-proofing fences. But call it worldbuilding.
We research the area—what’s native, what’s missing, what provides the best bang for our gardening buck (oaks, but we already have those). We learn about bird habits—where do they nest, what do they need? What bees are in danger (hint: not the European honeybee common to beekeepers, despite recent losses). Design a mix of plants to provide habitat, food, and safety (e.g., thickets instead of “specimens” standing alone in a field or, worse, lawn), flowers for different bees. Pull out nonnative invasives (a never-ending task). You get the idea.
In my writing, it’s all me doing the worldbuilding. And I get to sit inside instead of getting all sweaty (though I actually like that part a lot). Endurance is set about 150 years from now. I sensed a missing niche. A lot of science fiction is set far into the future with many alien worlds dotted around many exotic galaxies. It lends itself to wonderful worldbuilding—you are literally building everything from scratch.
But how do we get there? What comes between Apollo 11 and, say, Murderbot? With Endurance, I started with an idea, a “what if” and made up characters, gave them childhoods and families. I created a “history” that is something of an extrapolation of where we might go in the next 100 years (hint: it’s not very good; devastating war, climate crisis, nuclear clusterf*ck), but Endurance isn’t about that, so I focused on a possible future once we get past all the icky stuff (like patriarchy).
I created a timeline, both backward and forward, to set the story in a specific time and place. Sort of like how I (aka my wife) looks at how the local climate might change and what plants that are now at the limit of their range could actually thrive here in 40 years, or vice versa—what not to bother with because they’ll never make it in a hotter Massachusetts.
In both worlds, you have to understand what came before in order to figure out what happens now and how people (or plants or birds or insects) will react to that. Will they thrive? Will they suffer?
The world I created in Endurance is still an icky world because you can’t look at what’s happening today and think the next hundred years are going to be wonderful. Climate models end at 2100, climate change won’t. Politics are on a slide toward worldwide catastrophe. I’m not hopeful for this world, so I created one I can find hope in. Good people rising from the ashes to put things back together. Not as it was, but as something humans can survive in and stop the cycle of killing each other.
Then, maybe, when we do reach for other stars, we’ll be a tad wiser. As the fictional Diana says, “Why does everything need to be conquered?”
A lot of science fiction in the past simply continued our bad behavior, often as metaphors for the Cold War. It’s illuminating that there’s also science fiction that replaces war with the worst of capitalism.
We often phrase current events through a lens of, what would an alien think of this? I’m interested in finding out. Topic for another day. Enjoy this one.
More about Endurance here. If you read Endurance and like it, please tell someone! Preferably where other readers can see it, like an Amazon or Goodreads review.
America is having a bird apocalypse. Here’s what can be done before it’s too late. (in The Hill, of all places)