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Worldbuilding: The Role of Science in Fantasy

Lethologica's picture

“Of course, no other world was carried through the starry infinity on the backs of four giant elephants, who were themselves perched on the shell of a giant turtle. His name—or her name, according to another school of thought—was Great A’Tuin; he—or, as it might be, she—will not take a central role in what follows but it is vital to an understanding of the Disc that he—or she—is there, down below the mines and sea ooze and fake fossil bones put there by a Creator with nothing better to do than upset archaeologists and give them silly ideas.”
                                             —Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic
        There have been great arguments throughout the time of this class about how science and literature might intersect. We have discussed to great length the thought that evolution can be applied to both, tracked through both, and I have even come across forum discussions about how fiction can inform science. What I have not found, however, is how science can be used to inform fiction. There is a whole genre dedicated to this phenomenon (read: Science Fiction), where science and imagination directly coexist—sometimes logically, and sometimes so illogically that the thought of it cannot even be properly entertained, but nevertheless the two seemingly incompatible subjects have still managed to get together to create a third subject with such great depth and breadth as to be indispensable.
        The line between science and fiction becomes considerably more blurred when you move out of the realm of science fiction and into the realm of, say, fantasy—but it is possible. Many readers might not consider it in this way (and I don’t necessarily know what other authors think) but I feel that science, and in particular evolution, can be very useful in the conception of fantasy. What follows is a test of this theory.
        A world within a snow globe. A perfect, growing, thriving world—small enough to fit within the crystal dome that is this paper, yet large enough to weather time long enough to encompass a story. This is a world that must make sense, that must be sound enough to stand up against our own perceptions. It must have its own set of rules, if it won’t follow the ones that govern our own reality (which it doesn’t have to, if it’s fantasy). It needs its own laws of physics, and topography, and geology, and biology. It needs to be fleshed out, if it is going to be believable and interesting. What better way to create these than to start from scratch, working your way up from the bottom, and evolve the world into being, in much the same way as our own was?
       It is best to start with the most basic components—the elements. Our world is filled with a myriad of elements, ranging from carbon to lead to oxygen to radon. This is a fact of life, covered early in our education with our chemistry and Periodic Table of Elements. These are the basic components of our world: we need oxygen to breath, and carbon is the initial building block for every living thing. However, the world being created is a fantastical one… it doesn’t have to follow the same patterns as ours does. The question, then, to start off with is this: what kind of world do I, as the author, want? Where do I want it to begin? Our world is a product of a Big Bang (as far as we know), so I think I’ll make this world a product of an entirely different big bang. This world (I think I’ll call it Roz, for the sake of brevity) will not, in fact, be a totally different world from our own (as so many are) but rather something that was once our world, and isn’t anymore.
        Some say that World War III will be the war to end all wars. For the sake of the story, and the world, this statement will be true to some extent. The big bang that will start the process of evolution for Roz will be the last bomb that decimated our reality. The primordial melting-pot of elements that our world grew out of will be replaced by a seething cesspool of radioactivity and destruction and aftershock that is left over by the obliteration of the world as we know it. In this world the Earth is very much alive and sluggishly sentient (taking care of the Creator dilemma: yes, there is a Creator!) and she is not ready to die, causing her to use the meager leftovers of an earlier age to initiate the creation of a new existence. She creates four basic elements, made out of the twisted and compressed forms of the leftover energies, and pulls whatever resources she has available together to form a Pangaea like continent (you can see this continent in the attached document). She pushes and pulls at this initial landmass, creating valleys, hills, mountains, and vast stretches of space. This landmass takes up approximately half of the earth; the rest is comprised of simply ‘water.’  After pulling the earth back together she lets the process of evolution take charge, but guides it along its way, gently, like a worried mother. The following are the most basic elemental building blocks of Roz:




Used to form the basis of the earth itself, it is the most solid of the elements
It is the heaviest element, a single unit weighing exactly 3.67 times the weight of Ignilent
It is the slowest moving element


The element that provides the atmosphere of Roz
It is the life sustaining element
It is the lightest, weighing 5.998 times less than Hydryn
It is the fastest moving element


The element of heat
It is the animating element
It weighs 3.67 times less than Terracon and 1.24 more than Hydryn
It is the fastest changing element


The base of all of the liquid of Roz
It weighs 5.998 more than Aer and 1.24 less than Ignilent
It is the slowest changing element

        Because of the nature of these elements, something unique arises from their interaction as the world begins to evolve. This something is ‘magic,’ an easily malleable kinetic energy that has fashioned itself at the lowest level after the four basic elements. For some reason the existence of these elements has caused the climate to become completely stabilized throughout the whole continent. The elements themselves begin interact, sparking new phenomena. Hydryn and Aer interact in different ways and different quantities to form cold, mist, ice, cloud, water and rain. Aer and Ignilent cross to form heat, flame, light, lightning, and sound. Ignilent and Terracon form the first living organisms, and Terracon with Hydryn form the first plant spores. All of these hold a spark of magic. As the world evolves, every living thing by nature continues to live off of this magic, and is a part of this magic. Every plant and animal, every species as it develops and changes and disappears, is formed out of different combinations and quantities of the different elements. However, Roz is small, and can only fit so many different species on her face. By the time that the ‘present’ of this world is reached, Roz has passed through barely a few hundred different species of plants and animals, most brief and fleeting in their existence, but a few are more enduring as they persevere through the trials of evolution into the modern age. Modern Roz (nine-hundred years after its creation) only holds nine different species of animal, and twelve species of plants. They are as follows:





Tall, deep green fibrous structures. Spaced evenly along an initial base-stem are long, curling fronds. The tallest and first form of plant life. Remains unchanged from the beginning of the evolutionary period. Very long lived. After it passes its ‘sapling’ stage, the stem becomes of a similar consistency to stone, though it can be softened with water.

Terracon, Hydryn


Low creeping, but wide plant, often found around the bases of Teetops and Peltns. Is vine like in structure, the stem a deep green and its leaves nearly white. Is often used as a form of sustenance by herbivores.

Terracon, Hydryn


Appearing similar to the Cus, its only differences are in its height and the stiffness of its vines, which behave like branches. These vines and strangely dexterous and will sometimes attempt to snag small animals if it feels it is not getting enough sunlight.

Terracon, Hydryn, Ignilent


Small, singular flowering plant. Has several subspecies in different colors: T. Ap is light blue and edible, T. Du is crimson and poisonous, T. Tel is green and an antiseptic, T. Cor is white and edible, T. Su is red and edible (but generally avoided, for obvious reasons). They reproduce incredibly quickly, releasing hundreds seeds several times each season

Terracon, Hydryn, Aer


Aqueous plant. Black in color, they tend to grow in small clumps where their long, flexible spindles and spines tend to twine together. Poisonous to most life forms, it appears similar to another aqueous plant, that is coincidentally not eaten either.

Terracon, Hydryn, Aer


Aqueous plant. Dark green in color, it appears similar to the Alltip. While it is not generally eaten by any sea-creatures, it is often used by small classes of them as shelter. Its spines become stiffer when it senses danger.

Terracon, Hydryn, Aer, Ignilent


A purple plant that grows in long, single vines. The darker stem is poisonous, but the lighter leaves are edible and the black flowers cause sleep. It is always seen hanging off a Teetop. It does not sprout roots.

Terracon, Hydryn, Aer


Long, frond like aqueous plant. Is dark purple in color, but lightens towards the tip. The darker part is edible, but the lighter part is unpredictable. Larger plants tend to be solitary, but smaller ones tend to remain in clumps. They migrate.

Terracon, Hydryn


Similar to grass in appearance, it is not edible, but incredibly soft. It can range from three inches in height to thirty inches. It is a soft yellow in color, with a dark brown stripe down the middle. Longer strands are used to create clothing by the humans.

Terracon, Hydryn, Aer


Interspersed with Suna, it grows in large clumps. It is edible, but has been known to attack larger life forms, as it is also carnivorous—because of this it is actually very nutritious. It is a soft purple in color, and can be approached with only the greatest caution.

Terracon, Hydryn, Ignilent


Growing similarly to Les, it can range from white to dark green in color, the white being edible but not very nutritious while the darkest color is very nutritious. The fronds are tips with three hollow, dark spines.

Terracon, Hydryn, (the lighter colors) Aer


Similar to Suna, it is bright green and edible, but is very hard and prickly. Grows no taller than three inches.

Terracon, Hydryn






Four legged, large, solitary, yellow and brown striped animal. It is on the top of its food chain, but is clawless and fangless. There are two subspecies, one scaled and one furred. Of the two, the scaled subspecies is more vicious, and will attack anything on sight. Both subspecies are capable of spontaneously combusting without harming itself or the plant-life in the surrounding area. Will only eat charred meat.

Ignilent, Terracon.


Small, four legged, black animals. The primary prey of the Hinx, its flesh is poisonous unless cooked. A planes-dweller. Move in packs of ten or more. Able to move at great speeds, they move faster as more individuals join the pack. Furred.

Ignilent, Terracon,


Dark green, forest dwelling animals with bright green splotches threaded throughout their fur. They have two limbs, used as legs, but with the ability to use them to grasp things. It also has a long, very dexterous tail that it uses to swing from tree to tree. Very territorial, they live in families of no more than four at a time—they seem to mate for life. They are quite slow moving, but have the uncanny ability to blend completely into their surroundings.

Ignilent, Terracon,


Four legged, hoofed, forest dweller. It is similar in appearance to a very small, slender deer, fawn in color with a deep green, vine-like mane and tail. Incredibly fast, they are impossible to catch, their pursuers always somehow tripping over roots or crashing into Teetops that didn’t seem to be there before.

Ignilent, Terracon


The only species capable of flight. Feathered and always pure white with red points, they are separated into subcategories by size and habitat. L. Craw are large, ranging from thirty inches to forty inches in length when full grown, they inhabit the sparse mountains and are capable of chewing through the stem of even the toughest Teetop. L. Res are the smallest subspecies at three inches, and living in heavily forested areas they have the ability to fly through things. L. Tunt are the largest at seventy to eighty inches in height, they can only fly short distances while close to the ground, but are very fast runners on their unusually long legs.

Ignilent, Terracon, Aer


Aqueous animal. They are never smaller than five inches, but have been known to grow up to four-hundred inches in length. Extremely long lived, they never stop growing throughout their lives. They do not feed on anything, completely sustained on the element of Hydryn that is abundant in their watery habitats. They hold no distinct color, merely reflecting the color of their habitats. Older specimens sometimes appear to be feathered.

Ignilent, Terracon,


Aqueous animal. Small, numerous, and a bright silver in color, they are edible but can be difficult to find and catch. They travel in large groups, and while they are usually herbivores, they have been known to devour the flesh of other animals when they are in groups big enough to catch larger creatures.

Ignilent, Terracon, Hydryn,


Aqueous animal. Always carnivorous, they never travel in groups bigger than five, or less than two. They are a rusty red in color, and easily spotted, but also incredibly dangerous. Their scales are poisonous, but the flesh underneath holds remarkable healing properties.

Ignilent, Terracon, Hydryn


The most self aware of all the species, they are the only living thing to have a perfectly equal amount of each element within them. Because of this they are capable of controlling, to an extent, all four basic elements, and have even gone so far as to experiment with artificially crossing the different elements to create new ones. They are omnivores, both hunting and gathering.

Ignilent, Terracon, Aer, Hydry

        The process of evolution that these life forms went through to reach their present state is quite different from the processes that we are aware of in our own world. The means for this form of evolution would be strange and unfamiliar to modern scientists, but it is still just as structured, and just as sound. Unlike in our world, where the changing of species can be accounted for by randomness and natural selection, evolution in Roz is caused by the four elements pulling together in different quantities and twisting together in different ways. There is no genetic material controlling the forms and functions of the different plants and animals, so there can be no genetic mutation—the very forms of these beings are caused by the solidification of the molded elements, initiated by a Creator (read: the Earth) that does not want to be destroyed again. She still remembers everything life form that had ever existed on her surface, and uses these memories as templates from which to pick and chooses traits that she likes, mixing and matching these traits then embellishing them. This would be best described through example, but for the sake of brevity I shall only lay out the evolutionary paths of two beings: one plant, and one animal. They are as follows:



Elements (Quantity/Pattern)



Aqueous plant. Dark green in color, they are small, solitary, edible spindle-like plants. Have a strange habit of being not-quite-where-they-were-before.

4 units Terracon
13 units Hydryn
1 unit Aer


1 unit Aer connected to 1 unit Terracon
3 units Terracon connected to 13 units Hydryn



Aqueous plant. Dark green in color, they are small, solitary, poisonous spindle-like plants.

5 units Terracon
19 units Hydryn


3 units Terracon crossed with 10 units Hydryn
2 units Terracon unconnected
9 units Hydryn unconnected



Aqueous plant. Dark green in color, they are small, clumping plants. They are poisonous and spindle-like in appearance. They are eaten by the Solpur.

7 units Terracon
15 units Hydryn


3 units Terracon crossed with 10 units Hydryn
4 units Terracon unconnected
5 units Hydryn unconnected



Aqueous plant. Black in color, they tend to grow in small clumps. Their long spindles tend to twine together. It is poisonous to most life forms, but is still eaten by the Solpur.

10 units Terracon
14 units Hydryn


4 units Terracon crossed with 10 units Hydryn
6 units Terracon unconnected
4 units Hydryn unconnected



Aqueous plant. Black in color, they tend to grow in small clumps where their long, flexible spindles and spines tend to twine together. Poisonous to most life forms, it appears similar to another aqueous plant, that is coincidentally not eaten either.

10 units Terracon
12 units Hydryn
3 units Aer


2 units Aer crossed with 5 units Hydryn
1 unit Aer crossed with 3 units Terracon
4 units Terracon crossed with 10 units Hydryn
1 unit Aer unconnected
6 units Terracon unconnected
1 unit Hydryn unconnected



       The Humans of this world are bound intimately to and by the Earth—she remembers their brilliance and ingenuity, and is loath to lose them, but is also aware of the dangers they represent. However, that binding is a double edged sword: while they are bound by magic to maintain the balance of the Earth, and protect her, this bond has also afforded them a subconscious access to the memories of the earth. This has caused them to progress much faster than their predecessors, yet has also forced them to follow different paths. Even after only a brief five-hundred or so years the humans of Roz have formed into numerous small, cohesive communities formed around their use of magic. They have become handy at the use of this magic in many walks of life, including crafting, hunting, healing, and fighting. They have strong moral codes, although they tend to differ somewhat from community to community, and highly developed judicial and executive systems, though once again they differ between the different communities. It is in this world that the story would take place.
         A world has been created, whole in form and in history. It is a world that can easily be made into the setting for a story. Most of all, it is a world that is coherent and logical in its structure—to me, at least, it makes sense. This however, does not completely verify the initial hypothesis. Is science, after everything, actually useful in the conception of fantasy? Yes, it worked, so the hypothesis is not immediately rejected, but that does not necessarily mean that I wouldn’t have been able to form just as coherent a world without using this long, drawn out process. I suppose the question to ask, then, is whether or not this process made things easier for the author. I will admit that this method forced me to be more thorough, more ruthless in my own understanding of this world—but just how much of the information I have worked up is useful, or even important? In the situation I have created for the possible characters, will it necessarily matter how the different creatures inhabiting the world evolved, or is it more important just to have those creatures? In the end it seems almost as if I wasted time conceptualizing things that I didn’t even necessarily have to know in order to successfully create the world. I feel that it might have been easier to forego the evolutionary process, and simply make things up. This processes, however, was interesting in its own right, so perhaps what it really is, is a double edged sword. It is helpful, and forces you to thoroughly create a logical, working world, but it also takes a fair bit longer, and yields a lot of possibly unnecessary information. Perhaps, though, it is not what is easiest that is best; by working it though the long way, I managed to create a world for which I knew the whole history. I have always believed that it is good to completely understand a world, if you are going to dare write in it.  

ROZ map.docx19.46 KB