Worldbuilding: In a Grain of Sand

Sometimes it’s the very little things that count.

Ask most people what they think of when they hear the word sand, and you’ll probably get a description of a yellowish-pale-brown color of rock-stuff that grits between your fingers, sticks between your toes, and gets into awkward places in your bathing suit.

Which is a fair description, but as incomplete as saying the sky is blue. One stormy day should cure you of that.

On Hawaii you find beaches of black sand, volcanic rock broken down by the pounding waves of the Pacific. On the Emerald Coast, white-sand beaches drift like tropical snow; the sand is so old, millions of years old, that any hint of organic or clay yellow has long since washed away. Some deserts glitter reddish-purple, filled with tiny garnets that remain when thousands of years of blowing desert gales have eroded all else to dust on the wind.

Sand colors the world, and shapes it; eroding stone, sweeping out to sea, burying oases over years, or the length of one catastrophic storm. And sand is used to shape the world. We make it into glass and concrete, and the grit to cut marble and granite for memories that will not fade. The Roman Empire was apparently doing that last before 100 BC, importing fine Ethiopian sand to cut marble with and coarser Indian sand to polish it. That’s right; the Roman empire sent ships thousands of miles for sand. Very specific sand.

This is something to pause and reflect on when you worldbuild. Yes, a planet or a kingdom may have everything it technically needs to survive. That’s like saying so long as you’ve got one screwdriver set and a hammer, you don’t really need any more tools to fix things.

Humans are tool-using creatures, and there is nothing like just the right tool for the job. That tool might be a needle to sew, Vietnamese cinnamon instead of standard to make a sweet dish hotter, or – yes – just the right grade of sand to grit your project.

People will go to great lengths and expense to get exactly what they want, instead of something that’s just “good enough”. Merchants and nations will trade accordingly. And merchants will go out looking for new things, or newer twists on old things – a hotter chili, a whiter sand – gambling that will turn out to be something “just right” for enough customers to make the trip worthwhile.

There is a world in your grain of sand. Build it!

25 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: In a Grain of Sand

  1. Moon sand.

    It’s the opposite of the purple-pink deserts you mentioned– it hasn’t been rounded at all. It’s tiny shards of razor sharp crystal.

    Which behaves like normal sand, otherwise, getting everywhere.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Which is what makes it such a pain to deal with for equipment on the moon.

      OTOH, that *also* makes it darn near perfect for making concrete out of. Not that I expect anyone will ever import lunar sand for concrete, but one of the Dooms certain Doomsayers have been going on about the last decade or so is that our terrestrial sources for good concrete-making sand are in danger of running out (Peak Concrete?). Apparently, sand *needs* to be jagged to make concrete — it helps the grains interlock. And old desert sand, like in the Sahara, is no good, b/c it’s been blown around for so long it’s all smooth and rounded at the granular level.

      Historically, the famous “Damascene steel” stopped getting made b/c the unique deposits of iron with just the right percentage of… chromium?… eventually were mined out. But these days, we can pretty much duplicate its properties at will. Stradivarius violins get their unique sound (some claim) from unique Little Ice Age trees whose wood was denser, which trees no longer exist. But, again, given modern tools, we can probably reverse-engineer and duplicate the material properties.

      So, what happens in your world when Unique Resource X starts to run out? The price goes up. Certain parties start hoarding, and conflicts can start if the resource is sufficiently strategic. People start looking for alternate sources, while other people look for practical substitutes. Coal, oil, magic crystals from the guts of Really Old Dragons….

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  2. One thing to remember about trade is, if selling it doesn’t cover the costs and compensate the merchant for the time he spent that he can’t get back, either the prices go up the next time or it doesn’t get sold over there anymore.

    There’s this RPG supplement that’s supposed to go into how trade works, and it abstracts costs along the lines of ‘the farther you go, the more the good will sell for’ . . . which I thinks needs a _lot_ of caveats. Gotta find buyers willing to pay the extra price for something imported, but in pre-industrial conditions those buyers may be scarce. Besides that, dealing with rulers can be uncertain at the best of times, given that they might just take what they want instead of trading for it.


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    1. Boykin’s Merchant and Magic series.

      More generally, what is the scale of economic and agricultural activity in the theoretical market?

      Transport costs scale with distance, but not in any absolute way. You have the actual labor costs of moving the goods. You also have security costs; whether from banditry. piracy and taxation, or from recruiting and employing your own armed men.

      One thing that can irritate me with the realm building flavor of isekai, a technocratic MC whose projects are handled in a self congratulatory sort of way. One of the things I like about Isekai, is getting away from the technocrats in RL. The thing about successfully doing a non-technocratic realm builder, hinges very much on the economics and the world building. If one starts from the premise that the natives have used wisdom of crowds to find sufficient answers to their economic problems, and then build characters with a eye towards reality, one can make a realm builder that may avoid coming across as technocratic.

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      1. Yeah, and I know the idea, I just hadn’t heard the term before. Very neat encapsulation of a concept that nerds like myself often prefer to ignore, because if the crowd has no wisdom, then we’re better positioned to be sikret keengs.

        Robespierre is a lesson that nerds need to pay more attention to, about our likely fate if given authority.


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      2. The problem with “wisdom of crowds”, tho, is that it assumes everything is analog, and compromise is always good. It does not account for “part of this is right, and part is very wrong, and the same for that other position, but the middle point between them is _even more wrong_, as the right option is part over here and part over there and nothing in the middle”. It also doesn’t account for “if everyone is on one side or the other, and no one is in the middle, then even in the case where the middle _would_ be right, the crowd has not achieved that wisdom”.

        Yes, it’s correcting one error, but it’s making a host of new errors that cannot be safely ignored, as happens quite frequently with such “wisdoms”.


      3. Wisdom of the Crowd isn’t a point, it’s a process– it harnesses the power of people to make lots and lots of mistakes and, given an option, learn from them.

        Oddly enough, this just came up over at Mad Genius club for update issues; Apple has a single route upgrade process with no option about when to put them in, which has caused some very serious issues at different times. Microsoft has a million different ones, and which means that every single time SOMEONE has issues with an upgrade… but they chose the schedule they’re on, so they have much more control over when things go wrong, and people with low risk preferences can take very low, and people who will take risk to get shiny new stuff can be glorified beta testers, and it works out better for everyone over the long run.

        The main time that they run into issues is when they have to update a single point of failure.


      4. It relates to the power of central control, or the absence.

        In absence of central control, for a task where you make your own tools, or have them made custom, you have a rather huge amount of choice in how you can do a task. So an intelligent, diligent craftsmen is probably going to vary things at least a little, and find some improved ways to do a thing over the course of their career. A lot of craftsmen, in absence of central control, are going to do a lot of experimentation, even from no other cause than simple human variation.

        Over the whole of the space of ways to do the task, over time, a lot of craftsmen who are making choices and communication, may converge on best answers for a local part of the space. Which is very much not going to definitely be the best answer for the whole of the space.

        Horses and oxen can be understood as good choices for draft animals, and hence relating to what I abstractly label ‘local best answers’. There have definitely been cultures and societies where both are used. I don’t recall that the more realistic fiction in those societies often talks about it being considered useful to swap a mule out for half of a yoke of oxen. Picking one of the two categories of solution for a given application was the sense of wisdom of crowds I was going for.

        If you have a central power forcing a group to adopt a single solution, and if that group gets a vote on the specific solution, and if feuding partisans have their dispute ‘resolved’ with an inferior composite compromise solution, then maybe wisdom of crowds can mean what Ashley was talking about.

        I found the term ‘wisdom of crowds’ in relation to crowd-sourcing and prediction markets. Given how management fads work, I would be very surprised if there had not been a great many ‘implementations’ of the sort that Ashley describes.

        I should expect an isekai world I create to have a certain amount of mess from efforts at central control.


      5. Exactly. In theory, “wisdom of crowds” is supposed to mean “if there’s enough undirected people trying different things, there will be a tendency for useful things to be discovered/developed, and for others to tend to latch onto those and use them”. In practice, when “wisdom of crowds” is cited, it’s almost always taken as “if there’s enough undirected people trying stuff, most of them will be wrong but the average will probably end up close to right, so the midpoint of all the stuff that’s been tried must actually be the most right” or it’s taken to mean “if there’s enough undirected people trying stuff, then there’s probably people trying everything along the spectrum, including the middle (where the right stuff is)”. _That’s_ what I was warning about. Both interpretations in common practice are almost always wrong, both because in reality you don’t usually actually get an “average” scattering of results from “people doing stuff”, it tends to cluster and to miss sections of the spectrum of whatever thing you’re looking at (including a tendency to go towards the extremes instead of the average), and because the “average” actually tends to be “the worst of all worlds” instead of “the best of all worlds” (the “best” tends to be “part of each extreme, but _not_ the middle”).


      6. so the midpoint of all the stuff that’s been tried must actually be the most right

        Which is lazy, and stupid, and easily disproven, since the middle point usually doesn’t even function, much less function the best.
        IRL example, with cattle, in the winter, you either feed first thing in the morning or first thing at night. First thing in the morning is better if there are things which must be done in the warmer afternoon temperatures, and right before dark is better if you need the cows to calve during the day. Splitting the difference would mean you couldn’t do any other big projects, AND the cows would be calving at night. Yes, they really do give birth at different times so they don’t miss breakfast. 😀

        I have very rarely run into that version, probably because folks figure out it wouldn’t work on me– the perversion I run into in appeal to it is either mob rule or a popularity vote, which is slightly harder to disprove due to the whole “destroy those who don’t go along with the mob” thing.


      7. Which is why I noted “when it is cited”. If it’s simply _describing_ “what actually happens in reality” (that on average, people tend to find what works, even if that’s “lots of different things”), then it’s reasonable. If it’s being used _prescriptively_ “we must do stuff this way because it is best” (which is the majority of the time when it is actually brought up “as a thing”), then it’s almost invariably wrong in the way it’s being applied. At least, that’s been my experience with the term and with the concepts involved.


      8. I was being outraged in agreement that the abuse of the term is bad. 😀

        I know that abusus non tollit usum but DANG does it get old! I guess if it wasn’t any good, they wouldn’t bother stealing it?


      1. Largely because just about every culture in the world has taboos regarding the treatment and disposition of dead bodies that even the most mechanical of necromancy interpretations (that is you’re JUST moving the corpse and not calling back the soul/spirit to inhabit it or using other spirits to inhabit the body) would trample all over.

        It’s not an unknown concept though. The Diablo video games have a Necromancer class where the backstory for the character and his entire thing is actually pretty good/heroic, but in-universe are viewed with suspicion and outright hostility because of the whole “reanimate the dead” thing they do.

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  3. If you’ve got fish, sand is also very important. Sand in a fish tank also has to be the right size, the right grit, or the fish can be hurt. Different fish need different types of sand. Sand is also the best for planted tanks, makes it easier to plant it, and some fish like to burrow or otherwise dig in the sand. It makes for easier cleaning, and if you get the right color it looks very striking. A planted tank is also more natural, looks better, and is more stable than one without. It has less algae as well, if you do things right.

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