Tuesday 2 November 2021

Make It Feel Big

 A response to this comment on a previous post;

semiurge28 October 2021 at 19:40

This is more a comment/response to all your Trailing Corposant posts than this one in particular: 

What do you think is required to make a fictional universe, fantasy or sci-fi or something of both or neither, feel big? 

I remember when I read the Dune series (Frank Herbert og, no Brian) I was weirdly disappointed on some level to learn that Paul's jihad had conquered hundreds or thousands or however many worlds, rather than the 50 or so I had assumed were settled by humanity when I read the original Dune. It simply didn't feel like it "earned" that scale, or had aimed for it, or something of that like. 

I don't have enough exposure to 40k stuff to make a real judgement call either way, having never played the game or read the novels. It seems from your reviews that there's a divide between the galactic-scale events which involve the same few primarchs, gods, emperors, etc., and the planetary-scale, humanizing stories, each with a unique cast. Is it almost ecosystemal, with a few apex predators and innumerable minnows in tiny ponds? Don't know how to end this question. Thoughts?




Put simply - you can't, if you want it to remain sensible and easily comprehensible to the people you intend to sell it to. BUT THERE IS MORE TO SAY AND I WILL SAY IT! 



The Needs of a Story 

The world itself is one thing and the means by which that world is known quite another. 

Most popular large-scale fantastic paracosm are developed for, and known through, stories. (Will look more at Games in the second part*). With a story told for a popular audience; how much time/cognitive dwell hours do you have? How many channels of information do you have? 

Frank Herberts original ‘Dune’ book had a shitload of story-pages plus appendices where he got to discuss the world in a pseudo-historical high-information style familiar to most RPG nerds. Denis Villeneuve has two and a bit hours of attention but many more channels via which to impart information (sound, visuals, the tonality of IRL performances, costumes etc). 

Later, and this comes in as we discuss Games more, there are things like Lexicanium, Wikis, massive online combined effort sources, Youtube videos and so on, but in most cases these come after the initial strike, the first and usually strongest effort that embeds the fiction in the minds of a sufficiently large or dedicated audience that following up on details actually makes sense. 

So, the story is not the world but at least in this first discussion, stories are the medium through which the world is known 


Families and Familiarity

What drives mass storytelling is overwhelmingly characters and families. I mean often “families” in a kind of technical, or more vague sense in that – not just a group of people connected with each other by blood (though that’s always handy), but a reasonably tight and consistent group of main characters who have close and sustained relationships with each other. 

How many “families” can you have in a single story? Dune has two primary families, who in this case are literal families, and you can expand and break that down depending on how deep you want to go; Corrino, the Fremen, the Bene Gesserit etc. 

Game of Thrones has, well at its core, two main families again, the Starks and the Baratheon/Lannisters, (with Danerys you could maybe say three), and again there are a shitload of other families who come in and out of more or less importance according to the episode. 

Star Trek has the family of the core crew and every story will be related to at least one of them, though the range of possible interactions is huge, albeit, with many repeating cultures and structures. 

Point being; there is a budget for how many groups, how many signs, symbols, hierarchies, behavioural elements, unusual motivations etc, you can get in and this budget is as part of an invisible tacit negotiation between the creators and the audience, a negotiation over attention and desire. 

Our real world has no such limit on the diversity of groups and cultures it can present in total. In a point that will likely come up again and again in this post, there is more strangeness and diversity on our planet right now than in most imagined galactic communities. 




Scenes and Structures 

No space in a story is real and no scale in a story is real. A difference made pleasingly tangible to normal people by comparing opening Game of Thrones to end of series Game of Thrones. 

Even without inventing a whole new scale of action (i.e. just doing stories about people on a normal sized planet with known technology), a huge amount of the illusion of scale is created in the WAY in which the story is told, ranging from the smallest possible thing to the deepest structure of the plot. 

Laurence of Arabia - a big long film about big empty spaces. Why does it feel big? and why does it feel bigger if seen in the cinema? One of the many many reasons which come to mind; 

The way the camera is set and the desert captured; (the famous super long scene in which a guy just gets closer and closer in the distance and the camera doesn't look away except now and then at characters who in turn peeeeer into that same distance trying to make out this slowly approaching shadow), this is a long long shot (relative to the cinematic norms and the rest of the film which reasserted those norms). That means if feels long, though in comparison to waiting for a bus in real life, it wasn't. A long shot in a long film full of long shots. 

Wear and tear, emotional distress, logistics, permanence of emotional separation, ease or difficulty of communication, the face of friends when greeting someone who has been a long way away and the response of the group as compared to someone who has been to the shops, the Great Return scene, or the Great Setting Off scene. The they-are-knackered-but-the-challenge-just-increased scene (oh shit we have to go through Moria?? We’ve already been walking the whole film!). 

Fuck it, the Indiana Jones lines on a map scene. WE ARE LITERALLY LOOKING AT A MAP! 

In plays or films, maybe even books, - the point at which a main or expected character enters the scene; 

"hey Shakespearian character- has that message from/for the King arrived?" 

"No I am looking at some offscreen ships and whatever right now and no horsemen have apparated" 

"Ok lets have a comedy interlude" 

half way through, lord grimtides enters - "Forsooth that was a long fucking way from the previous scene guys" 

shocked bit-players - "My lord tis the middle of the night or a party is on or whatever, clearly your arrival is a disruption to the social milieux" 


Indiana  Jones - "Marcus I need to go and find the Lost Ark" 

Marcus - "Do you need to be literally fucking packing for the journey as you are talking to me? It’s the 1930s 5 minutes won’t cost you much." 

Indiana - "Marcus it might be the 1930s but this film is only two hours long and the next scene is in Tibet! I need to signal distance using immediately tangible and available behaviours and actions or they will realise that Tibet is a sound stage about 30ft away from here!" 

I think I've probably only just scratched the surface. 


Relativity in Space Travel – the Imagined Galaxy 

For some reason it seems reasonable for use to imagine Galactic Travel via Faster Than Light engines, but less so multi-galactic travel. It makes intuitive sense according to our sense of what scale is; yes you could link a nation with one technology, and need another to link a continent, or a planet. You could have an Agean Empire with gallies or whatever, and if you develop different ships, an Atlantic or global empire. 

But if you have broken the speed of light, so far as we know, you have already broken a universal constant so surely many galaxies to visit makes as much sense as one? 

But maybe that would be a scale too large for us to easily encompass even as a work of imagination. Like Shakespeare could say; “Hey, there’s this distant, magical island, like the ones you have read about in shipwreck reports”, and the audience might say ok a bit whacky but we will see where it goes. But it Shakespeare had said; “There’s this whole other PLANET” (an idea which, conceptually at least, is as within his abilities as out own), the audience would just have gone what the actual fuck I don’t understand. 

Likewise, we live in an age where we think we can reasonably imagine galactic polities, or polities in galaxies other than our own, but multi-galactic polities seem a bit silly or strange to us. 

Anyway, back to the main point of this section which is that there is no mass popular sci fi setting that I can think of where the way relativity effects storytelling, and in which the conjunctions of multiple characters and different cultures accelerating away from and then towards each other and meeting and interacting across different personal time scales is accounted for. 

You can lampshade it; “as you know this complex thing where time gets weird was addressed by the doop de doop box”, or isolate the crew from a larger culture; (are the crew in the ‘Alien’ films returning to anyone they know?), or just go wo  wooo its warp shenanigans, but to fully integrate it would disrupt the way the story is told so much that it would be a real challenge to get across to a normative audience. 

(Of this generation - there is a slow creeping deepening of sci-fi knowledge in the general audience across generations - look back at old 60s sci fi and see them explain what seem to us pretty basic concepts. There are probably very few normies in the west today who would need the concept of a 'parallel world' explaining to them for instance. So it’s more than possible that one day relativistic storytelling to a mass audience might become possible) 




The Scale Of Time - The Impossibility Of Presenting It So 

Time is more powerful than we are aware of from our histories or our stories. 

Time destroys but stories require that it not do so, or at least not so much. 

I don't know if I am smart enough or well read enough to fully go into this or argue the point but our understanding of History s being broadly coherent, making moral sense according to our values, even "telling a story", and of hanging together as something of a structure, is largely wrong. 

The coherence of history is a semi-illusion created by our obsessive re-investigation and tale telling about those few things we have some data on. In a sense our histories are half-lies, or at least, tacit deceptions, because they are made up only of the fragments of knowledge that have not yet been destroyed by time. 

We have no real way to conceptualise the vast amount of "lost history" there is, all the events which happened to humans we don't know about, and we find it hard to fully describe the intense partiality of history, its fractured and particulate nature, we need it to be a "fabric" to understand it, for moral and perhaps simple cognitive reasons, and it isn't one. 

We can't tell true-seeming stories across insane reaches of time because time destroys stories

and, in relation to scenes and structures bit above, big mass stories for us have to be about the familiar and coherent and the true reaches of time make things unfamiliar and incoherent. 

Imagined Example; 

Author; “Welcome to book six of the Ultimate Super-War saga!” 

Reader; “Hello excuse me, I am a big fan of the Ultimate Super-War Saga” 

Author; “Yes, good. Thank you. Did you enjoy Book Six – Further Ultimate Super-War?” 

Reader; “No! I read the book and the language, characters, moral schema, even the purpose of events, the technology, almost even the spatial structure of things, all of these were completely different! It may as well be a book from a completely different series!” 

Author; “Yes! Its set six THOUSAND years after the previous book in the series (Ultimate Super-War Five; Nightmares of a Darkened Floom).” 

Reader; “So what happened to Leader X and his enemy Supervillain Man, and their great conflict over the Floom Prophecy?” 

Author; “Well.. six-thousand years later all those conflicts are ether resolved and forgotten or unresolved and still forgotten and if you look really really really carefully you will notice in the structure of the societies and moral arguments between individuals in book six, a very slight TRACE of the result and resolution of the Floom Prophecy situation” 

Reader; “This is not what I paid for.”



Ink Blots 

There is probably a limit we cannot perceive, or fully conceptualise, to our ability to imagine new things. 

A drop of ink falls onto a clean page and expands outwards. Every individual drop of ink will be unique, it can expand and expand, making strange and irregular forms, but it’s almost impossible for the original impact point to not be near the centre of the final blot. 

Everything we think and imagine, no matter how intelligent and perceptive we are, or how creative, or how deeply we can cast out minds into the future, all is based on this lived experience, here on this world, in these bodies. 

So we can think and imagine and think and imagine, conceiving of wilder and wilder realities and possibilities, things that, at the point when we began thinking, would seem beyond imagination. 

But no matter how much we imagine we are still constrained by that first drop of ink hitting the page, the point where we begin. It sets a kind of invisible boundary, not so much to how much we can imagine, but to how much we can think about what we can think. We cannot “get ahead” of the expanding boundary of the ink blot and the ink blot is always broadly centred on the point where it first fell. 

Specific example here is that all we know of humanity is from this planet, and so whenever we imagine new stuff, no matter how far or how deep we imagine, THIS PLANET and our experience here remains very close to the centre. 

This actually fits well with galactic-expansion paracosms, because in that case, all human life also comes from here and so the expansion is all from this human norm, but it still has to be imagined by one, or a small number of human minds. So; 

***** how much do you really think you can understand another culture? **** 

As an example; Josh Reynolds a writer who up into recently used to work for Black Library, the Games Workshop in-house publisher. 

He wrote a bunch of books for Age of Sigmar. His 'religious stormcast' Hallowed Knights characters have an unusual life and vibrancy, especially in the way they enact, think about and embody the various forms of faith. 

Why? Probably because he is from the American south and grew up in faith communities. How many other Black Library writers did? I think probably none. In fact I would lay a bet that almost every BL writer is a white male, British, lib-left, university graduate from an upper-lower middle class family, that has never or hardly ever gone to church and who voted Remain. 

So - considering the very slight variation between Josh Reynolds and every other BL writer, something that’s easy to see when looking at a small specific community separate to you; expand that understanding to a general scheme and apply it more widely. 

How much do you really actually think you can understand a different culture? Even one culture? 

It’s probably much less than you think, and even then, you have to present it to a mass audience in a way that is coherent and tangible to them considering their cognitive load and available dwell time, and how do you do that? 

You can't. You have to play upon known stereotypes or familiar constructs, produce theatre-of-difference scenes, have explainer characters, have people mirror their tech and environment in a way they don't always do in real life, and why - because you don't HAVE THE FUCKING TIME. 

Herbert had a huge series of books written specifically for a high-difference-desiring niche audience and even he didn't have the time. 




A Synthesis 

(Herbert did USUSUALLY WELL on a large number of these axis, he failure wasn't really a failure compared to other humans, only compared to the immeasurable scale of the task) 

to make a version of "Dune" that *felt* like it was at the stated scale Herbert would have had to

- tell a super long story with not may connections between parts

- invent even more cultures than he did (and he did unusually well)


- have space travel totally fuck time in the ass

- have almost all of the start of the story forgotten by the end (even though YOU the reader have not forgotten, and were kind of hoping for a real story in which the end relates to and rounds off the beginning, which history definitely does not do). 

If I have a synthesis here it’s that the desired scale of epic-style storytelling is in conflict, perhaps fundamental, perhaps simply unavoidable conflict, with the very structures and methods which form the stories, which in turn make up the primary medium through which the scale of the imagined world is sensed. 

Just because its impossible doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to try. 

The Audience can change and learn. Like I said, Herbert does unusually well - and him doing that well both expanded the possibilities for others and "trained" his audience to deal with some new freaky shit, and now there is a Dune Movie which is pretty popular, so Feudal Future Sci-Fi is now more possible with a mass audience. So “failed” efforts might advance a culture, or at least present new challenges. 

The needle can be threaded more or less beautifully with more or less skill, and can call upon more or less imagination, more or less power of systemic creation. Example; Tolkien - insanely detailed languages, limited economics. Other writers I'm thinking here of someone like K.J. Parker, might do very well with politics and economics but deal with language in a limited way, so though every human effort might be limited and flawed, they could still be notable and original achievements of unique minds. 

And it’s fun. 




(* In fact, I do not look into games at all because I ran out of steam. Sorry!)


  1. You can't really have a story that spans 6000 years, unless there's some clear continuity, otherwise you are just trolling your reader. A story is not history. A story is a narrative, while history is a biased random generator (see also: Dwarf Fortress Legend mode).

    That said, a world can, indeed must be bigger than any story set in it. More than 6000 years separate the fall of Angband and the second fall of Barad-Dur.

  2. I have to ask myself why Star Wars: A New Hope and SW: The Force Awakens are objectively playing in the same scale of 3-4 star systems and a few deep space settings but ANH seems so much more expansive.

    It's probably because TFA's auteurs pay no mind to any aspect of space and time apart from how we are going to get from one dramatic setpiece to the next. An example is when the people on Casino Planet look up in the sky and see the death ray from Death Star Planet making its way over to destroy Victim Planet. WHAT? That doesn't even make sense if the three planets are in the same solar system unless it's a once-in-a-century conjunction.

    1. I think this is a JJ Abrams issue. His Star Trek films also feel tiny and cramped in scale compared to, for example, TNG or the TOS films. He has very low expectations of his audience: the emphasis is on STUFF HAPPENING at all costs.

    2. Nothing extra to add but yes, Abrhams has no understanding that any of his tries are based in a coherent imagined space, and in addition to, and compiling with that, abandons many of the subtle tricks that older film makers used to infer or suggest a breadth of space and time which, considered rationally, the film doesn't have literal time for.

  3. The Enders Game cycle is one of the better stories I've enjoyed that treats the trouble of time and relativity as a central part of its story, and even then it's usually more to do with 20 or 40 or so year scales, with stories told focused on individual stories and small tightly knit communities.

    1. I've only read the first one but will bookmark the rest. Fear my days of getting deep into large sci-fi series may be over though!

    2. There's a lot of books, but the two that I'd heavily recommend would be Speaker of the Dead and Xenocide- MAYBE Enders Children if the first two grab you. Each tells a decently complete story, albeit with some hanging threads at the end of each.

  4. The handling of scale in world building is a fascinating problem, and whilst it's easy to point to obvious examples of writers getting it wrong (planets that feel like counties, kingdoms that haven't changed for millennia, galactic monocultures, etc), I think you're right to suggest that there is no easy solution. There's a fundamental tension between the desire for accuracy on one hand, and the need for simplicity and ease of comprehension on the other. You only have to look at the history of any random Swiss valley, and the sheer amount of political, religious, linguistic, and socio-economic variety that can be crammed into a few square miles over a handful of centuries, to realise that any attempt to invest even a moderately sized setting with a realistic level of detail is bound to end in bloated over-complex insanity. For what it's worth, I think the writers who manage to create the most convincing 'large' settings which are nonetheless interesting to read about are those who are adept at brief targeted allusions i.e. peppering their worlds with striking original details and then rapidly moving on, giving the reader the dazzling tips of multiple icebergs and letting them infer the vast unseen mass beneath. China Mieville is quite good at this; when we read snippets about the wineherders or chelonatowns of Bas Lag, we think "these sound like societies with their own sprawling histories and subcultures which could be the subject of whole libraries, but we're moving on quickly now because this world is a big place and we can't explore every byway". His Embassytown universe (and it is a genuine universe, not just a galaxy) also manages to convey a decent sense of scale and deep time, even in one mid-length book which is largely set on a single planet. It's a tricky balance though; hit the reader with too many details which aren't followed up, or aren't interesting enough in their own right, and it'll start to feel like misdirection or incoherent spam. It's also the case that scale is often conveyed by highlighting gaps; that is, by hinting at the things that the characters (or even the narrator) don't know and can only guess at, because the cosmos is too damn large and history too long for them to do more than scratch its surface. The better sort of Lovecraftiana (to which I suppose Mieville's weird fiction is a partial heir) is also decent at conveying vastness by hinting obliquely at the sheer unfathomability of cosmic entities' concerns, though sometimes it lapses into crude editorialising on the subject ("this elder god doesn't care about you at all, DO YOU FEEL SMALL YET?"). I guess what I'm groping towards is the idea that, when worldbuilding at scale, less is often more (which is probably a good note on which to end an overlong comment).

  5. I think Herbert does even better than you give him credit for: when you factor in all 6 Dune books, the story does span some thousands of years, and I doubt there's many people alive by the last two books who could tell you who Muad'Dib was, much less Emperor Shaddam IV. It really does end up feeling like a remarkably cohesive story, too, although shit goes off the wall in the last couple of books.

    1. I must admit I have either not read them all or can't remember doing so.

  6. Very agree about difficulty to imagine something new beyond certain threshold. One of the things of interest to me is development of fashion (as it represents, almost in shorthand, shifts in society and technology), and I am finding it interesting and disappointing how little fashion innovates in movie/video games about the future comparatively to huge changes we had in a past (compare Tudorian fashion to today, for example). Alien fashion (unless aliens are already almost humans) is practically nonexistent.

    1. I have fallen down a tiktok rabbit hole on fashion, styles, and aesthetics for exactly this reason! I don't actually care about those things per se necessarily, but I'm interested in them to the extent that they're novel, or a reflection of cultural systems, and how they can inspire or interact with other creative elements or systems.

    2. Feel like range of imagined styles in "space fashion" or whatever has narrowed hugely in recent years but would be interested in an alternative view.

  7. TavernStoep I am sorry, I deleted your comment by mistake!

  8. Sort of tangential to the main points, but in a setting with FTL travel between stars, time dilation stops being a major concern.

    The cheap-and-cheerful time dilation formula is Δt' = Δt / sqrt( 1 - (v^2 / c^2))

    Where Δt' is how much time the observer in the moving frame experiences.
    Δt is how much time the observer in the reference frame experiences.
    v is the velocity of the moving frame compared to the reference frame.
    And c is the speed of light.

    Local fast stars move at 100km/s (relative to sol).
    Hypervelocity stars move at 1,000km/s (relative to sol).
    c is is 300,000 km/s.

    So already, you can see an order-of-magnitude problem creeping in. The velocity of the fastest stars in the galaxy is several orders of magnitude smaller than the speed of light.

    If you teleported instantly from earth to a star moving at 1,000km/s, spent a whole year there, then teleported back, the total time difference would be 3 minutes.

    Compared to light, the whole galaxy is stationary. Even other fast-moving galaxies (like the Hydra cluster, at 16,000 km/s) still wouldn't have a hugely influential time dilation factor if you could teleport to and from them (~12 days per year). All possible destinations are basically in the same reference frame from a human point of view. It's the travel method that introduces relativity shenanigans.

  9. I've been messing around with some games set in space, a 40k rip-off playing as a squad of grunts in the Army of the Saviour of Humanity, fighting against the Saviour's Army of Humanity (curse that Army of the Saviour!)

    So far I think I've done alright at making it feel big. The squad is fighting on one beach, to approach one city, to help a small number of ships to land from orbit, on one continent, on one planet, in one major battle, of this part of the war, in a series of wars. And so long as I keep making reference to more beaches, cities, ships, continents, planets, battles, wars, the scale starts to become apart. Fractal complexity, and letting the players know that the situation is fractal, means you can keep focusing on "the story" without losing the idea of the "big picture". You never have to *look* at the big picture, just keep an idea of it bubbling around, because if you spend time *looking* at the big picture the story just implodes. It doesn't matter! It may as well never have existed! It'll be eaten by history and context and scale and sanded down by, yes, time, but also... space. Yay!

  10. This issue of "things that feel really really really big" speaks to the most primal longing I have from my childhood, it shivers my goosespine, it's that feeling that "wait, there's still more... but how do I reach it?" It's an infinite striptease - what's exciting is what you can't see, but what's exciting is that you can't see it, and once you do see it then what's exciting is that there's something else you can't see.

    There are 3 very specific things which I associate this feeling with...

    Both of my sets of grandparents lived in, or adjacent to, very large houses with very large gardens, parts of which I only got to go to very rarely, if at all. In dreams I would always discover another door that I'd never previously noticed. I still have these dreams. I have a small roster of dream houses, all loosely based on yet nothing like houses from my past. All of them are infinite, yet painfully constrictive. There are parts which I never reach, but am always coming closer to.

    The Uncle books of JP Martin, my favourite books as a kid. Uncle lives in the castle of Homeward. In each chapter Uncle and his buddies visit a different "tower" of the castle. The towers are wildly heterogeneous, and anything can happen in them (and usually does). The stories are not closed, you can always anticipate that there will be another tower, but once it's revealed, then there will be still another. Uncle's castle was my grandparents' houses, but without me even being entirely sure what the entrance hall looked like, what hidden alcoves might still be hiding in plain sight.

    Viriconium. Mike Harrison explicitly set out to destroy "fantasy with maps", and in doing so he created a paradox: you always want to discover what Viriconium is, but unfortunately Viriconium isn't. This is the running theme through all of Mike's books: the oxymoron that is a "fulfilled fantasy". This only really stuck home to me when I read The Course of The Heart. The blurb for that book described this wonderful liminal county called La Coeur, and I pictured Viriconium on steroids. But the book never reaches La Coeur, it only traces the dismal lives of the people trying to reach it. It was through reading that book (and through subsequent conversations that I've had with Mike) that I learned to "put away childish things" by accepting that I will never map out the infinite labyrinth of my grandparents' homes and that, however strong the desire, time spent doing so will largely be time wasted, or at least time out of the "real" world. That makes me sad, though it also makes me glad. I think this lesson is one that's almost impossible for people much younger than me to learn. Modern life is SO rubbish that as a species we've been forced into a kind of neoteny where actual adults feel that it's important to have opinions about Star Wars and Doctor Who.

    Phew. I'm not sure how much that really had to do with what you're talking about here but, my god, this topic gives me ALL the feels.