Worldbuilding: Spun From Glass

What’s the fiberglass of your story’s world?

Every plausible world has at least one; stuff that can be ugly and prickly and hazardous to handle without proper gear, yet just too useful not to keep around. Janet Kagan’s Mirabile has recessive genes as engineered genetic backup as part of all Earth-import plants and animals from their colony ships’ storage banks. Meaning sometimes you get useful surprise fireflies from red daffodils, and sometimes you get biting cockroaches – or deadly Frankenswine. The Roman Empire had concrete.

Yes, concrete. It’s way older than most people think. And by incorporating volcanic ash, the Romans came up with a mix that would harden underwater. We didn’t figure out how to replicate that until fairly recently.

Your world should have things in it that are wonderful, awe-inspiring, and just plain pretty. But if you want it to feel realistic, it should also have things that are… eh. Useful, but not usually seen bare-naked in public unless there’s a major project in progress or something has gone interestingly kaboom. Like fiberglass.

Note, this is a detail to be used sparingly, and with careful attention to the tone you’re setting up. Bare fiberglass is okay if it’s part of a new building going up (things getting done! Improved on!) or if it’s blown to bits over the landscape by a bomb or tornado (oh no, horrible disaster – your heroes are going to do something about this!)

If it’s just… leaking out into view because the siding’s cracked and worn out, or people have prized off the building A/C for salvage, or there’s a hole in the roof nobody’s bothered to fix….

Then it’s a sign of decay, of humans gone feral, of society breaking down. This is treading the edge of Grimdark territory, people. Unless that’s what you’re actually aiming at, steer clear.

You can tell a lot about a society from how much of its nitty-gritty details you don’t see. Keep this in mind when you’re scene-setting. Also keep in mind what POV character you’re using to show readers the place. The hero who sees scattered fiberglass tufts and tenses, because Something Has Gone Wrong, gives an entirely different impression than the barefoot street urchin who just steps around it, as they have for as long as they can remember. And that’ll be different again from the construction worker picking up after a superhero/villain battle, c’mon guys, couldn’t you have waited until the roof was on and we all got paid…?

(Yeah yeah, empty warehouse site, no people, minimal collateral damage, sure. But my paycheck, man. The project’s gonna be over budget now and it’s not our fault!)

And if that’s bad, imagine the construction workers looking at the aftermath of Godzilla.

So when you’re building your world, spare some thoughts about what it’s built with. Your readers will appreciate it!

(BTW I highly recc’ Mirabile. Great setting, wonderful characters, and an excellent model if you’re trying to figure out how short stories should work. And you can’t beat the story hooks. “This year the Ribeiros’ daffodils seeded early, and they seeded cockroaches.” That line got me to outright buy the book when I was a VERY broke college student….)

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16 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Spun From Glass

  1. That bit about “how much of the nitty-gritty details you don’t see” and “treading the edge of grimdark territory” is definitely one of the flaws of much of modern “realistic” storytelling. It’s _not_ more realistic (looking at things like ASoIaF, for example). Yes, some of those details may be things that did happen in reality, but as you note here, they were generally either signs of the final breakdown/collapse phase of some part of history, or they were things “not seen in public” (and considered shocking if they did) or relatively uncommon when the societies involved were actually still vibrant. They were the tabloid story exceptions, not the everyday occurrences, so reading a story that says “this was realistic, therefore this was _all_ there was” feels like reading the stereotype “stupid conspiracy theorist who can’t recognize the difference between tabloids and reality” (not that all conspiracy theorists are that way either, admittedly).

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  2. The project’s gonna be over budget now and it’s not our fault!

    That would be a fun one for the lawyers.

    I don’t think it’s even one that the insurance could deny as an Act of God, since if it were superheroes blowing up your job-site, that’s identifiable human action, and – more importantly – sue-able human actors.

    … I don’t think you could pay me enough to be a superhero of the “massive property damage likely” type.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Didn’t Spidey wind up getting sued after he unmasked himself in the comics? Definitely a good reason to keep up the secret identity, no matter how silly it looks (maybe _because_ it looks silly. Might explain some of the more outlandish costumes–who’d believe X Upstanding Citizen would ever be caught dead wearing _that_?).

        Liked by 2 people

    1. In any mildly realistic superheroic universe, superstrength is a BAD power to fight crime with. Besides the property damage, the realistic end of a fight would be death.

      The ideal crime fighting power is superpower restraints. Freeze the criminals in time, engulf them in bubbles, conjure up magical chains. . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Useful, but not usually seen bare-naked in public unless

    … you’ve got a bunch of feral designers who have decided that having a finished building’s innards on view is “like, more authentic, maaaaan”?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Having a student develop into a brutalist architect is not necessarily a sign of something deeply wrong with society. But, if the funding for construction is only going to brutalists, a bunch of lunatics have grabbed control of the purse strings, and are screwing around, and may wind up not coming to good ends.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Well, there *was* the Brutalist School of architecture IRL….

      And ever see an industrial building whose exterior walls were “ribbed” concrete? Less common these days, but big in the ’80s. Those ribs were the cable runs for pre-stressed concrete — the building’s bones aren’t *quite* on display, but you could certainly count its ribs! (rimshot)

      Or the average hallway in Stargate Command. All. Those. Pipes. B/c sometimes you’re going to need access to those pipes for repairs, *fast*.

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  4. Another thing to consider would be cheaper materials that work as well, if not better than something more impressive sounding.

    A surprising amount of high-end products can be worse than something cheaper in a particular application.

    “This cushion is stuffed with the finest fleece of cloud-rhinos.”

    “It feels like I’m sitting on nothing at all!”

    “Yes, we take great pride in-”

    “That’s a bad thing you idiot. When I buy a cushion, I want it to feel like I’m sitting on a cushion. Not directly on the hard bench.”

    Liked by 6 people

  5. There’s a bit of fun when one world’s dirt common material is another world’s rarity of rarities!

    Everyone always seems to pick water for some reason, which, boring after the 10th time.

    I’ve always wished someone would do that with citrus (which is a fascinating family, nine the least because humans have engineered SO many neat varieties, like lemons). Here we are tossing them in lunches and making common breakfast drinks and even cleaning products out of them, and elsewhere in the universe a tiny vial of citrus oil buys like, an island somewhere.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. elsewhere in the universe a tiny vial of citrus oil buys like, an island somewhere.

      Eh, people choose water because it’s essential to life as we know it. That gives you easy dramatic tension.

      If you choose anything else I think you’d have to explain why it’s so valuable there. Especially if it’s perishable.

      Is it just fashionable? Fashions change, so you’d better get your island fast before nobody wants your citrus.

      Is it just rare? That limits your customer base to people who collect rarities and have an island they’d be willing to trade.

      Is it just useful? If they don’t have any, how did they discover a use for it in the first place, and surely they would need more than just a small vial to do something with.

      Any of which could be a good story hook… might require a bunch of research on how alien cultures (on this planet) reacted to foreign trade goods throughout history.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. If you look at our own history a loaf of sugar about the size of a pinky finger was worth a fine however many course meal in France. Right until it became more common. Aluminum was more expensive than gold for a bit until someone figured out how to use electricity to extract it from its ore.

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