Logistics in Strange Worlds

“Lembas. Elvish waybread. One small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man.” – J R R Tolkien.

My sister works in the Canadian North, a defence attorney on circuit around the vast, rugged territory of Nunavut, which encompasses some of the coldest, roughest, and most remote places in our land. This week, as she ventured out on a new circuit for the first time, she ran into a cascading series of travel issues that resulted in her being late to court, missing baggage and clothes, and then stranded in a the small community of Gjoa Haven. While she was there she reflected on how different the inconveniences of travel made life in the North, especially for permanent residents. Here is an excerpt from her ruminations:

“In the South (In this case she is referring to southern Canada, Ontario to be exact), we have so much choice. So much cheap and abundant choice about just about everything, from where we shop to who we have as our dentists to how we wish to travel; plane train, or automobile. When I lived in Ontario, I lived in a small town called Shedden, west of London Ontario and more than 200 km from Crieff, where my parents live. To get home, I turned right on the 401 and then right again on Hwy 6 South. It took me about an hour and a half on good day, less on a really good day. I could pursue my profession where I wanted and still see my parents and grandparents regularly, all thanks to the ease and low cost of travel in the South.” – Deanna Harris.

This got me to thinking. Travel is something we take for granted in modern day, but often serves as a plot device and an integral part of world-building in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Magical and mundane methods of travel that differ from our can drastically alter the feel of a setting. If a science fiction setting does not include some method of faster-than-light travel then it will limit the size of any Galactic empires. Here are a few logistical considerations that I think are key in world-building.

1) Speed — How far can a person travel in an hour/day/month/year? This is perhaps the most important travel question in any setting. Towns and inns will often be set up along major routes at intervals based on a day’s travel by the dominant method of travel (or the dominant method of travel when they were founded) and where major routes cross. If you have instantaneous travel like warp-gates or planar portals you can bet your bottom dollar that the dominant powers will build some form of post to control travel there, if only to prevent their enemies from catching them by surprise. Even road quality can make a difference: the Roman Legions were able to exert control over such a large area partly because travel within the Empire was made easier and faster by their roads. These roads also encouraged trade because they were safe and faster than dirt paths. The legions were also disciplined enough to march for long periods which allows them to cover a much greater distance during the day than most armies at the time. Speed is essential to any narrative involves a lot of travel. If travel is slower it means that rare resources from distant places command even higher prices from those who need them. Slower travel also means greater regional variation between dialects, languages, and culture. It makes central education and control harder as well.

2) Cargo — A ship might be slower than a horse, and even have to take an indirect route to get to a particular destination, but it can carry a hell of a lot more. This obviously matters a great deal for trade. Extensive trade systems involve moving massive quantities of goods. In areas where ships are impossible it might mean a need for massive caravans. Caravans carrying precious cargo attract raids and need guards and so on. In the Terminator, the titular character is unable to bring anything back into the past when he travels, which means he has to search for weapons and clothing immediately. Lack of cargo capacity can make a big difference in construction: it is hard to build a palace out of imported marble if you can’t bring it in by ship or some other form of bulk transport.

3) Fuel/Limitations — Gas stations are a ubiquitous sight in modern day. Expect something similar for whatever fuel is required by your dominant modes of transportation. Helium and Hydrogen stations for Dirigibles. Fueling stations for certain kinds of space ships. Fuel, as we can see with oil and gas, can become a plot point in an of itself in narratives with large scale conflicts. This is true even of muscle-powered travel where food is fuel. Fuel can limit travel on extended trips, especially into areas where provisions are hard to come by; even foot travelers will have to carry more food while vehicles rapidly become useless if no fuel is available. Cargo can make a big difference in this case, as can means variation. Brandon Sanderson does away with conventional logistics of large medieval armies in the Way of Kings, with certain types of mage being able to conjure food if they have an uncommon, but easily portable type of resource in the gem-hearts. Other limitations, like a need for a landing strip for a plane or the difficulty of a magic ritual can alter a method of travel, and how it changes the world, significantly. A steamship has different limitations than a sailing ship, and so on.

4) Knowledge/Exploration — It helps to know where you are going. In some cases a map or special can be more important than a method of travel in a story. Treasure maps, knowledge of where the next oasis is in the desert, and even hints of what exists where you are going can really effect logistics. Language barriers also effect travel and while their effects on world-building may be obvious on other levels, it is not often taken into account with travel and trade. Knowledge is something we take for granted in the modern day, even in our well-mapped fantasies, but it posed a real challenge to people moving beyond the thresholds of their homelands in the ancient worlds.

5) Means Variation — Different people have access to different methods of travel. If one group has access to a form of travel that others cannot match it can give them a tremendous advantage. This advantage can create Empires: think of British Sea power, Druids traveling between stone circles, or Dragon riders: their mobility is as much or more of an advantage than brute force because it allows them to leverage their assets over a much wider territory. Those with access to special forms of mobility will almost always be in the dominant classes, either because they can afford that rarer form of travel or because they can use it to gain power or wealth. Just think of the advantages that a man with access to a horse or cart-oxen would have in the old days over someone who did not. The navigators in Dune have tremendous power because they control much of the means of travel (though not the fuel)

6) Local Variation — Local variations in travel will change the way a specific place feels. A crossroads town that sees a lot of traffic will be more worldly than a mining town. A port will pick up some of the customs of the sea and attract faraway travelers.  You are unlikely to find a cosmopolitan place that is hard to travel to. Variation often depend on local resources. Terrain itself is the most important local variation. A desert is hard to traverse because of lack of food and water, as well as the difficulty of travelling on sand. Thus there are few cities in deep deserts. Mountains and swamps pose entirely different problems. In Science Fiction this often represented as planets/places that have access to space travel and those that do not. In Fantasy magic can make a difference as well, with magical barriers isolating communities or strange riding beasts that only live in one area. I was particularly enamoured of the Stiltwalkers in Morrowind, huge creatures that could traverse the island very quickly.

Other issues of logistics are equally important as the travel question, Middle-Earth or Westeros may be cool but we’d probably miss indoor plumbing after a while (Among other things). Crossing a desert or a mountain pass are rarely arduous in modern day, but can easily be the focal point of an entire book in a medieval fantasy setting.

1) Communications — is communication faster than travel? Instantaneous communication is still changing the modern world. The impact of being able to share information across vast distances is staggering when you think about it. If communications aren’t faster than travel methods it makes detecting invading armies more difficult, which leads to things like castles and stronghold to keep a permanent foothold in important territory. There are plenty of unusual methods of communication in fantasy and sci-fi each with their own quirks which influence the setting. Astropaths in 40k are living beacons that help guide ships and communicate over vast distances, but their rarity and the danger inherent in their powers inform the setting, making it isolated and grim.

2) Food and Weather — even if food is not the primary means of fuel, it is still a necessity in long distance travel. Water is an important consideration as well. Almost no cities were built away from convenient sources of food and water outside the modern era. Ease of travel has alleviated this, somewhat. Weather is another consideration for travel and local custom. In Europe, warfare was nearly impossible in the winter months, and “General Winter” is still credited with many victories even as recently as WWII.

In Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale the Chosen have access to many unusual methods of transportation. Steamships, magically enhanced horses, and even airships make an appearance. These methods of travel, combined with sophisticated communications, allow the Chosen to rule over a vast Empire. Gladiators are forbidden from using most of these methods of travel and communication because of lessons learned in past rebellions, which means they often have to travel by foot. The fact that the Gladiators have to travel with Grey-Robes also serves as a limitation. The Gladiators often feel out of sync and isolated from the rest of their world, and the limitations on their communications and travel are as isolating as the walls around the Gladiator’s quarters which separate them from the rest of the Domains.

The same is true for individual Domains in some cases. Chosen Eudora prefers to keep her Domain wild, which makes it very different than the rest of the Empire, and far less inhabited. Chosen Moltar’s Domain is isolated by cultural barriers and laws as well as mountains, very easy for men and women to travel to, but sometimes hard to leave. Because of their mystical prowess many of the Chosen are able to build and maintain structures in places that others could not, such as Brightsand Halls, raised on stone pillars,  Chosen Giselle’s garden fortress in the desert.

Overall the citizens of the Domains have an easier time getting from one place to another. The roads are excellent, and winter only limits travel for normal people in a very few places. Magical roads, steamships, and well organized trade routes make travel within the Empire much easier than in the world outside. Trade is very important within the Domains, and regional variations are such that goods are moved about with great frequency. I’d rank it as close to 19th century real world, but with much closer to the classical age in terms of contact with the outside lands and cultures outside the Empire. Other factors that influence travel are the dangers of the taint and frequency of attacks in any border area. One of the flaws of the first Bloodlust book is that I should have had an ambush or attack to demonstrate the occasional dangers of travel off the beaten path. Next book I guess.

In the timeline I am writing about the Domains are slowly adopting new technologies as the magic of artifice becomes more and more available. The Chosen are long-lived, which I have decided acts as a general hindrance to adopting new technology. However, they are now on the cusp of a revolution in travel with Steamships and trains and so on becoming not only possible for individual Domains but adopted by the people of Krass. The main effect of this will be to make it easier for the Empire to expand. New methods of travel make for better ways of bringing power to bear at distant borders. Of course, a new Chosen will need to carve out their own territory…

Edit: I have no idea why I originally wrote Brian instead of Brandon… oops.


Orphans and the family in fantasy

It is the holidays and family is on my mind. My brother and sister are far away and I miss them.

One of the truly brilliant aspects of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the use of family. Mr Martin creates sprawling, complex familial relationships that spur the story into a forward motion that few books can match. He captures the dynastic, incestuous aspects of aristocratic families in a feudal society particularly well. It is one of the reasons why I love the first three books of his series like few others; that rich tapestry of what power, blood-ties, and betrayal can do to a nation is so vivid in my mind.

But this is not the norm in Fantasy. Most modern fantasies start with a protagonist who has no family, quickly loses their family, or whose family is never mentionned. The orphan is quite common in fantasy works, both intentionally as a device being used by an author and or through omission in some cases. Writing a character without having to detail their family can narrow the scope of a work to a more manageable level. In some cases, like Tolkien, family is implied or never really discussed. Frodo’s parents drowned in a boating accident which is pretty disturbing when you consider that the ring was in the shire at that point, and the parallels to Smeagol and his brother discovering the ring, but family does not really play into the story that much, although one could argue that the positive aspects family in Lord of the Rings is represented by the Shire and the four hobbits as a whole while the more complicated and darker relationships appear with Theoden/Denathor and their children. It bears closer scrutiny, but I won’t get into it here. (If you want to see some really dark aspects of Family in Middle-Earth the story of Hurin and his Children is very GRRM)

True orphans, who have lost their parents in tragic accidents, are so common as characters in fiction that it boggles my mind now that I consider it. From Batman and King Arthur to Superman and Kvothe, it is one of the tropes that everyone uses. Here are some of the advantages, aside from narrower scope, of the Orphan protagonist.

1) Built in Tragedy. Most Orphan protagonists lose their parents in horrible ways. Avenging their family often provides the main impetus of their lives in this case. A young prince who survives a royal massacre has a ready built tale to tell, and a motivation that is crystal clear and compelling to almost every reader. Batman is a great example of this, and it shows up in quite a few Fantasy characters as well.

2) Isolation. Not having a family can reinforce the sense of isolation in any narrative. People often take having familial support for granted, but those who do not have it or can’t rely on it suffer a tremendous disadvantage. This can be used effectively for heroes who need stand apart from society for dramatic purposes, like Superman. Gavin falls into this category, as Gladiators in the Domains are separated from their parents at birth, for obvious reasons. It helps me invoke some sympathy for his circumstance and reinforce the idea that the Gladiators are cut off from the rest of the world.

3. Demonstration of independence. An author can also use the lack of familial support to reinforce the character’s ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

4) Freedom of action. And here we come to what I feel is the real reason most authors employ an orphan protagonist. In gritty literature/movies it is common to use threaten to hurt an character’s loved ones as a form of leverage. Families are an easy target in such cases (often leading back to #1), and a portagonist with less attachments is immune to this kind of threat. It forces his or her enemies to act against them in a more direct fashion. Even in brighter, happier stories, having fewer relationships allows a character far greater freedom to wander and do what they wish. It is an intoxicating kind of escapism to follow the adventures of a person who does not have a tangled, complex personal life with far fewer responsibilities than our own.

However, when I think of Game of Thrones and other forms of literature, where the family is often front and centre I can see how authors might be losing out by relying on the orphan protagonist. Here are a few points in favour of family in Fantasy, and more complex webs of relationships and responsibilities.

1) Brutal Antagonists: Take any of your favourite, nasty villains. Imagine them as the protagonist’s father, mother, brother, or sister. That makes great fodder for a story.

2) Broken Background: A suffering or broken family can easily be fodder for a more complex tragedy. In this case it is more of an ongoing, messy part of the narrative, but provides quite the hook if pulled off well.

3) Allies and Rivals: family creates bonds between characters. It comes with a set of implied responsibilities that are immediatly accessible to all readers. It can thus be used to create interesting rivals and allies for the protagonist.

4) Worth Defending: Families provide a character with vulnerabilities as well. A lone-wolf who takes on an assassins guild pales in comparison to a protagonist who takes on the same guild while having to keep his family safe, in my mind.

It can go either way, but the orphan is very common in the books I am reading. It reminds me of my early days as a game-master, and how every game started with a burning village.Perhaps Game of Thrones has to be credited for showing us a different path in regards to the role of the family in Fantasy fiction. I shall have to mull over it and get back to you. Have a great Christmas/Happy Holidays!