Worldbuilding: Rapid Transport and Ecology

Contrary to what you may have heard in kindergarten, it’s not always easy, safe, or even possible to put things back where you found them. Just ask the anoles that keep joyriding on my car.

No, not joking. For some reason only known to lizardkind they seem to have decided this year that my car is the perfect place to hang out, sunbathe, look for stray bugs, show off, who knows. Maybe it’s just that this seems to be an awfully prolific year for lizards, they’re all over the place. Maybe it’s just 2020. Who knows.

Whatever the reason, about one out of three times I’ve gone out in the past several months I’ve had a scaly hitchhiker. I’ve tried to get them off the car before I start it, but it’s hopeless. Sometimes they’re in the wiper wells. Sometimes on the wheels. Sometimes under the hood – which, BTW, is exactly where they dart to if I try to chase them off. (I haven’t seen a squashed lizard yet, so they must have some idea what they’re doing. I hope.)

So picture yourself pulling out of your driveway and heading down the road, mentally going over the places you need to hit: mail, gas, groceries-

OMG WTH alien invasion on the windshield!

Anoles, BTW, are not content to rest on their laurels blinking at you after startling an unsuspecting driver into choking on thin air. No. They skitter. Across the windshield. Into the wiper wells. Out of the wiper wells. Across the hood – whoops, footing’s not the best, leap to the wiper blades!

It’s very distracting.

I’m half convinced they don’t really care if the wind’s whipping past them at 50-plus. Pfft, just like a bad thunderstorm, what’s the deal?

Most of the time I seem to bring the anole back with me, none the worse for their little sightseeing tour. But I can’t guarantee that happens all the time. And thus may brown anoles spread beyond their current range.

If characters in your world have means of rapid transport, they’re going to have to deal with hitchhikers.

Fast means of getting around are great for storytelling. With a jet plane, space shuttle, or magic carpet, your character may be fighting yetis in the frozen passes one day and luxuriating on a tropical beach the next. But if they don’t take the proper precautions, their tropical party may be crashed by a very unhappy frosty visitor.

What that hitchhiker is will determine what precautions you need to take, and what might happen if you don’t. The average plant or vertebrate suddenly transplanted from tundra to tropics, or vice-versa, probably won’t make it. Bacteria, viruses, certain invertebrates, and magical critters of any kind, may be a bit… hardier. This might result in anything from introducing a new common cold to a community to undermining an entire ecosystem, as happened in New England. Post glacial ice, there were no earthworms in the area for thousands of years, until agriculturalists brought them. We can only guess at the species that couldn’t survive without deep layers of decaying tree leaves – layers now mostly digested by earthworms.

If your characters are hopping between planets, much less continents, what measures do they take to make sure they’re not bringing anything with them except what they intend to bring? Do they spray everything down with pesticides? Expose the ship to hard vacuum? Use tweezers to pull stray seeds out of the flying carpet?

If you’re just writing a fun fantastic adventure, this may sail right under the radar. But if you’re writing from the perspective of the beleaguered harbor inspector who just had three voidships splash down from the ocean moon with none of their inspection paperwork….

Thereby starts the plot!

24 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Rapid Transport and Ecology

  1. Ooo! That is a good plot point! Or what about transporting water between worlds? One of my favorite SW fics has Obi-Wan negotiate a treaty for planets to supply Tatooine with a tithe of water in exchange for freeing the slaves. (It’s more complicated then that, but it will suffice.) A commenter was saying that planets only work because they’re a closed system and that removing the tithe would upset the balance. I said something only the lines of “water is available in comets and other places like asteroids.” But what about that water? What comes with it? What minerals are or are not in it? How do you store it safely? To save on power, do you just seal the caskets in a transport bay and cut the power?

    And what does the gradual introduction of all of that extra moisture do to Tatooine in the long term? Unfortunately the author admitted they didn’t know enough about ecology to predict. It’s a thought experiment for me to toss around when I’m not doing anything else.

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  2. Don’t forget what happens when gifts are exchanged between nations. Some plants that were sent to the U.S. were vetted, sure, but their passengers weren’t. Hence the stink bug invasion that hasn’t learned to stop invading. 😩

    And that’s not counting the creatures introduced to an area where they previously didn’t exist. Bringing the horse to the Americas was a net positive, but bringing rabbits to Australia hasn’t done the country any favors. *Sigh*…..

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    1. *cues up the ‘weird sort-of trivia she’s run into’ soundtrack*

      “Wild” horses are very destructive, and probably wouldn’t survive without human involvement.

      If you look at the photos of the “wild horses” that were adopted out from the 70s to now, and you’ve got an eye for horses, you can see a massive degradation….because they were not wild, before. They were basically under-the-table free range, generally on public land (because that is most of the open range in the areas they were in) and before they were claimed by the Feds, the ranchers would do medical care, feed them in bad winters, cull the stallions and put out their own so that they could catch the foals.

      It had been going on for at least 100 years in the high desert before it was stopped.

      You can also see on a from-the-air photograph where they have been allowed to over-graze, and how the lack of ability to harvest them to sell for petfood rather than “adoption” has damaged the land they’re on.

      *turns of trivia maybe-someone-will-find-it-useful music*

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  3. On the other hand, are your adventurers the only ones with this fast transport? If fast transport is common-place, then given human nature and probability, you have to assume others have _already brought stuff that shouldn’t be there_. Hopefully some sort of equilibrium has already been reached, but it does make it easier to ignore what the adventurers may have unleashed, if it’s already been unleashed by countless hundreds before them.

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  4. Assuming a fantasy world with the historic cliche of ‘everything was great until we screwed up and it all collapsed’ – popular in the West due to the fall of the western Roman Empire bringing a collapse of infrastructure, clean running water turning out to be _huge_ in terms of making large cities possible without constant plague – there may well have been not only have been international and intercontinental travel/contamination, but inter-planar traffic as well. Although plants and creatures requiring exotic conditions to thrive likely only survive in an interregnum setting in refugia, and perhaps artificial refugia at that.

    I’m reminded of the qanat system that the middle east had, which was largely destroyed by the Mongol invasion. (Turns out that caliphs can be stiff-necked to the point of provoking ‘make a desert and call it peace’, when Allah doesn’t have their back in the face of overwhelming invasion.) I’ve seen a claim that the population was never able to recover, although I don’t know how long it took for the system of underground water distribution to be established in the first place.

    (On the other hand, it gave me a world-building detail for a story on back-burner: A thief promises to teach the king’s horses to sing, it _kinda_ ends up working out, but the Stallion of Virtue that made it possible decides to run away with his new partner. They have to run _fast_, because the water-priests who make sure the qanats are maintained can send messages using the running water as a conduit.)

    Anyway, if the protagonists in a story – or a group of murder-hobos in a game – end up doing damage to someone’s carefully maintained and hard to replace infrastructure, imperiling a national treasure/resource, they could find themselves on the ruler’s list of Things Wot Needz Squishing right quick.


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    1. I’ve said it before… but most medieval ex-Roman cities still had clean running water and good sewers, unless something had happened to their aqueducts (like war) or their other water sources. Usually the cities started having greater water needs in the 1200’s, at which point we had a lot of wooden piping of clean water and enclosure of streams/small rivers. It was in the 1300’s and 1400’s that stuff started getting a little bad, and it was in the Early Modern that all the water stuff started to go downhill.

      But a lot of cities, like Siena, had pretty good water all the time. They only stopped using their nice clean sloping Roman sewers in the 19th century.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. There’s also the normal problems of hauling pets/familiars/animal companions into new climates.

    That Faerie Dragon?
    Only eats fresh fruit.

    The Lynx?
    Doesn’t do so well in the jungle.

    The Druid’s wolf?
    Not housebroken.

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  6. And how/who do you notify if you find something where it shouldn’t be?

    Australian black widows have spread into Asia via imported telephone poles. And we’ve turned 2 “mutant” black widows over to local fish and game centers in Missouri. Oddly enough the mutation makes them look JUST like an Australian black widow, but of course they can’t be! We don’t have those in America.

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      1. And by ‘hungry invertebrate grad student’ they mean ‘Grad student studying invertebrates looking for a paper to write’ and not ‘giant hungry spider that is also a grad student.’

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      2. Heck, they’re even interested in normal bug infestations.

        A couple years back, I had a terrible bug problem on some brassica plant or other. Took a sample in to the university’s entomology department and got them identified. The guy who ID’d them for me wanted to know exactly where they’d showed up, so that they could track occurrences.

        Fun fact: certain varieties of this bug will preferentially target particular types of plant. We narrowed it down to one bug out of two nearly identical ones, because this one preferred kale over cabbage.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Psychotic new ‘my bunnies like it, but no effen clue how to use it’.

    I remembered that the Babylon 5 intro mentions a ‘Babylon Project’, and switched it to ‘Project Babylon’.

    This was middle of the night crazy, so this naturally led to a) Project b) Fate Grand Order c) Magi. The bunnies then reminded me that the Ars Goetia references, and the human trafficking stuff made Gundam Iron Blooded Orphans and Magi seem like they should go together.

    Yet still saner and less destructive than some of the other things I could be working on writing.

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      1. Oddly enough, the protagonist of Infinite Dendogram and his older brother count.

        I forget the specifics, but their family uses the surname translated into English, for their online gaming. So Raye Starling and his older brother Shuu Starling. And the Isekai subgenre is ‘vrmmo connects to a real world’. So the players are all alien, invasive, and Shuu and Raye in particular are destructive. Well, Shuu is definitely destructive, and Raye is unreservedly heroic.

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