Title Posted
How the Safehold Series Won't End (Joke Post by David) Aug 2014
July 2013 Honor Harrington Movie Update Jul 2013
You know that old question about what actress should play Honor? Sep 2011
Guest Professor David Weber! Jul 2011
Tuscon Festival of Books Schedule Information Feb 2011
Thank you, everyone! May 2010
One More Goodbye Dec 2009
Creating the Matrix, Part II Sep 2009
Creating the Matrix, Part I Aug 2009
Capability, Credibility, and the Problem of Mistakes Jul 2009


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David's Essays

A collection of David's thoughts, musings, and writings that didn't really fit anywhere we collected them all and put them here for you to peruse at your leisure! 

Creating the Matrix, Part II

  • Series: General
  • Date: September 22, 2009

          So, okay, I'm a geek boy where all that military stuff is concerned, and that gives me lots of raw material. But how does all of the raw material in question get turned into a literary universe for my characters to run around in?


          Well, first of all, I spend at least a little time thinking about what it is I want to do in a given book. I write military science fiction, true, but I'm not really interested in simply writing about big, spectacular explosions. I'm interested in what's going to happen to my characters, which means I have to figure out who they are, where they fit into their world, and what it is they need to accomplish. In the Safehold books, for example, my characters' ultimate goal is to prepare humanity for the inevitable moment when it meets the Gbaba once again. That's the absolutely essential, gotta-get-it-right-or-were-all-gonna-die consideration. But how do they get from pre-industrial technology to that stage on a planet whose church and basic society have been specifically tailored to prevent that from ever happening? What does Nimue do? What are her resources?


          And while that's the ultimate objective of the characters, the real focus of the books for me is the struggle between spiritual and intellectual despotism on the part of the Church Of God Awaiting, on the one hand, and people like Maikel Staynair, the Brethren of Saint Zherneau, Cayleb and Sharleyan Ahrmahk, and Nimue herself, on the other hand. I guess you could say that it's a struggle between people who believe in individual human dignity and worth and the freedom of conscience which must come with those qualities and those who . . . don't. So the effort to progress to higher levels of technology is actually secondary to the primary struggle I'm really focused on.


          I knew going in approximately where I was going to put Safehold's technological capabilities, and I also knew there was no direct parallel between the society and tech base I was creating and anything we've experienced here on Earth. Similarities in certain aspects, yes; direct parallels, no. Although Langhorne and Bédard went out of their way to prevent the emergence of the scientific method and specifically outlawed anything that didn't rely on wind, water, or muscle power, they were going to have to create at least some "technological capacity" if the colonists they were leaving behind were going to manage to expand to claim the rest of the planetary surface (or, for that matter, survive). So how did I get that accomplished? And what "technological capacity" was I going to give them? Where were their metallurgy capabilities going to lie? What sort of population levels could their agriculture support? Did they have disk harrows? What about chemical fertilizers? And if they did have chemical fertilizers, what about the at least empirical knowledge of chemistry that implied? What about public health and hygiene? Sewage treatment? Preventive medicine? Diet? What about waterwheels? Canals? Horse-drawn railroads?


          None of those questions had been answered in my own mind when I sat down to begin actual work on the novels. They were all still bouncing around, and they really had to be set in place and answered before I could figure out what kind of military technology I needed to manufacture out of all that stuff floating around in my brain.


          Since this time around the focus of the conflict I was really most interested in was going to be restricted to a single planet, unlike the majority of my science fiction, I decided it was especially important to get the planet right. I also decided that I wasn't going to choose between military technology sets until I knew what the planet actually looked like. Was it going to be one whose geography lent itself best to land warfare or to naval warfare, or to some combination of the two? It seemed most probable that it would be "some combination," but where and how was the balance between the two going to work out?

          I decided the logical first step was to build the planet, and I also decided that I wanted to avoid "manufacturing" a planet which was going to be overwhelmingly biased towards one type of warfare. I also wanted to avoid a situation in which the planet was too . . . regular. In which the land masses were too symmetrical, which I think often happens when you simply sit down with a piece of paper and start drawing continents. So I got out a piece of gaming software called "Fractal Mapper" and let it build the planet for me. I had no more idea what Safehold was going to look like when I started than any of my readers could have had, but when the software finished, I knew what the land masses looked like, I knew roughly where the major mountain ranges were going to be, I was able to decide what the basic wind and weather patterns were going to be, and with the length of the local day established, I could lay out a map with time zones to help me keep chronology straight. And, with all that done, I could start thinking about things like technology and political units.


          Once I had the map in front of me, it seemed pretty apparent to me oh, joy!) that I was going to have the opportunity to finally do a series of science fiction novels where really-oh, truly-oh sailing warfare was going to be critically important. Or, at least, where it could darned well become critically important. Given my love for naval history, it took me about, oh, three heartbeats to decide to put my Good Guys on one of the smaller island continents and concentrate the bulk of the population -- and the iron core of the Church's authority -- on the larger, linked land masses.


          That gave me a basic pattern which was going to provide the possibility of all sorts of similarities -- at least initially, and in gross terms -- between the Kingdom of Charis and Great Britain. Because I needed to give my Good Guys an edge to offset their numerical inferiority, I decided to also -- as with Great Britain -- put them on the cutting edge of the Industrial Revolution (Safehold style), and I gave them a degree of mercantile dominance that even Great Britain could only have dreamed of at that point in the technology curve. I think it's also true that maritime powers tend to evolve along more humanistic lines -- that they tend to offer greater degrees of economic opportunity, which allows those outside the local aristocracy to acquire power, which, in turn, pries open access to the levers of political power -- and that, too, was going to work well with how I conceived the Good Guys' basic worldview and attitudes.


          So, with that much in place, I sat down and began writing the essay I always write myself when I began to create the background for a novel or a series of novels. In the case of Safehold, I didn't have to be quite as explicit and detailed as usual where the military hardware was concerned because so much of it was already stored away in my memory. It was going to be more a question of when and where I introduced advances to weapons or tactics (or the analogs of weapons or tactics) which were already firmly established. Of course, it was also going to be a question of which of those technologies I chose to introduce when (and who I was going to give them to when they arrived), which gave me the opportunity to create mixes of weaponry and tactics which never actually existed in our own history.


          With the geography already established for me, I started by laying out the Church of God Awaiting. I actually built the Church before I built the Kingdom of Charis, because I needed to answer those questions about what sorts of technology the Church would permit and which it would deny, and how it would go about trying to make that situation permanent. I decided that in their search for a model, Langhorne and Bédard would look around for an institution which had displayed great longevity. And since I'd already decided that they were going to base their restrictions on religious prohibitions, it was natural that they should be looking at religious institutions. Both of them also came from a Western tradition, so I decided that it was natural -- indeed, inevitable -- that their eye would light on the Roman Catholic Church.


          Let me say at this point that despite the resonances (many of them deliberate) between the struggle on Charis and the Protestant Reformation in our own history, I never intended the Church of God Awaiting as any sort of commentary on Roman Catholicism. There are certainly aspects of the papacy at its most corrupt which are echoed in the Church of God Awaiting, but that's because I believe such corruption is pretty much inevitable in a closed system which enjoys that amount of power. In other words, it's a general human failing and not one which is in any way specific to or unique to the Church of Peter, which I happen to deeply respect. I should also point out that the Church of God Awaiting happily embraces a situation in which Vicars are also openly great feudal magnates and the intermingling (and abuse) of secular and temporal authority is taken not simply as a given but as being in accord with God's will. So, yes, there are some similarities between the Church of God Awaiting and the Roman Catholic Church, but I believe there are far greater differences once anyone penetrates below the surface.


          Once I'd built the Church, structured its great orders, defined its relationship to the secular authorities, figured out how its semaphore system was going to work, and decided where to put Zion, it was time to turn to the political organization of the rest of the planet. Once again, with the geography already in hand and Charis already located, it was relatively simple to lay out all of the other nation states, at least in terms of their boundaries. So I did that, and then wrote myself a brief sub-essay on each of those kingdoms, empires, etc.. I established how they were governed, how the internal balance of power was laid out for each of them, what their economic strengths and weaknesses were, how monolithic they were, what basic "flavor" their military came in, etc. At this point I still wasn't thinking in terms of who was going to become a logical ally for my Charisians and who was going to become a logical opponent. I was simply building the pieces, and once I'd built them would be plenty of time to decide who was on which side. In fact, delaying that decision until after I'd already structured the various political units, their interests, and their capabilities was one way to keep from deliberately building allies which would fit too smoothly into the Charisians' needs.

          By the time I finished that, the planet had very largely taken shape. I deliberately didn't try to refine the geography on a detailed basis at this point, since I could always go in and do that when I needed to, but I could see where it seemed to me the basic patterns of shared interest and rivalries would naturally fall, which suggested in turn where "natural alliances" were likely to form. And, with that in mind, and once I'd gone ahead and decided -- which I'd done in the course of writing my "nationstate essays" -- what the essential technological capabilities would be, I found the military establishments of the various potential opponents and allies taking shape very naturally.


          At that point, I had established the basic matrix into which I would insert Nimue. I knew where she would go to set up her own headquarters, and I'd already decided that she would decide from the outset that she had to provoke a native Safeholdian move towards a rational, scientific explanation of the universe around them rather than simply appearing as (yet another) "superhuman messenger" to announce (yet another) New Order. Safeholdians needed to learn to think, not to rely upon an oracle who was simply replacing the Church as the fountainhead of knowledge and authority. That suggested what her basic tactics would have to be, which, in turn, helped to suggest her transformation into Merlin as a way to gain the access she was going to need. I still didn't know exactly who she was going to meet, how she was going to interact with them, who were going to be reliable good guys, who were going to be bad guys, or any of that stuff, but I had my world. I had Safehold, the canvas -- or, perhaps, more accurately the frame -- for everything that was going to follow. I had it worked out, I had it written down for consultation to maintain continuity, and I had worked out the details to a level that made Safehold real for me, which was (I think) the most essential single ingredient in making it real for my readers, as well.


          And that, Pablo, is how I did the research and the heavy lifting involved in creating the books' background.

          Aren't you sorry you asked? ;-)