Worldbuilding: Letter Rip

How does the mail work in your world?

Granted, this doesn’t seem to come up as a big thing in most fantastic fiction. The thrill of, “will our heroes make it in time?” is totally lost if the bad guys win because of a minion’s email. Yet some of the oldest written documents we have are letters, business and administrative, so you ought to consider how long-range communication works in your world. Or if it doesn’t, why not? Because people have always wanted news from far-off places, and gone to great lengths to get it. Witness the fact that Galileo’s telescope was used not just to observe the skies and start theological brawls with the Inquisition, but for an early form of insider trading. By spotting sails far away, they could tell which ships had made it back from the Indies hours before anyone else, and buy shares and place bets in advance.

In a similar vein people reading accounts of how the Greek oracles of Apollo seemed to have uncanny knowledge of far-off places and events have looked askance at the fact such temples were also known for keeping white doves. Possible messenger pigeons, anyone?

This is also part of what makes Dracula so effective as a written novel. It’s told through journal entries, letters that may or may not have been received in time, newspaper clippings, and even train schedules. The vampire may be rich, supernatural, and a definite Out of Context problem for our Victorian heroes, but through communications, our heroes unite and finally defeat the bloodsucking menace.

(Well, communications, a stake, and a Bowie knife. Gotta love Texans. Even if Stoker had no idea what they really sound like.)

Pigeon mail, foot messengers, Pony Express, radio, telegraph – the tech level of your world may change how communications travel, but they will travel. The question is whether you need to just get information transmitted, or info and a physical object. Radio, telepathy, and so on are fine if you just need a verbal account of what’s going on. But if you need tests run on, say, a blood sample – there’s a good reason one London hospital keeps pigeon handlers employed. The closest analysis lab is on the other side of a river with only a few extremely congested bridges. The birds can take a vial over in minutes, while a truck might take half the day. When it comes to emergency medicine, speed matters.

Pigeon sample delivery is a niche situation, yes. But little niches like that make for neat stories, and intriguing characters that will draw readers back again and again.

And then, of course, there’s always the Mysterious Package Delivery that starts an adventure….

20 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Letter Rip

  1. Space stories, too.

    I want there to be online gaming, but also somewhat limited video connections– long range communication takes a lot of power, which is easily available, but it takes stations…. so I based them on radio stations. You get coverage, and there can be station to station communication…but Bad Guys can also take out stations, and the more information you include, the slower it goes. A higher bandwidth version of signal towers.

    There are longer range communications, so someone can send in a report on space pirates, but the more information they include, the longer it takes– a fast message will be telegram length. Gaming works similarly to modern versions, but people upload massive amounts of information for their games at a station and then BY THE POWER OF HANDWAVIUM it takes only a tiny hint of data to have a fully immersive experience. 😀

    That way, my long range trucker iiiiinnn spaaaaaace can communicate with his family, but doesn’t have daily video calls or anything.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Gaming with significant light-speed lag may well bring about a resurgence of turn-based gaming and play-by-email type games. And even old-school pen-pals.

      One wonders what immersive VR combined with asynchronous communications will look like.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lightspeed limit isn’t a thing in my story universe (handwavium, far enough back that you just get a blank look if you ask about it, and I keep it very vague on if there’s even multiple galaxies involved) but I would imagine it’s a bit like gaming with high lag now– sometimes you get interference and people will freeze, or people will be on a bad connection and they’ll actually blink around oddly.

        So, game design with more of a slight delay after getting hit before you find out if you’re hurt, more seige/tactics points, etc.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s really common to see a character with information without any explanation how they got that information.

    It’s especially noticeable when the heroes have some exceptionally fast method of travel.

    If everyone is riding around hand delivering messages, and the heroes jump on dragon back and fly at top speed, you’d assume they’d have the advantage of surprise.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Actually, not even the internet is always faster than a pigeon. There’s the famous example in Africa, forget where exactly, where someone put some information on a USB, put it on a messenger pigeon and sent it off. They sent the exact same file by email. The pigeon got there way, way ahead of the email because the internet was that bad and slow.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. There’s the XKCD about the bandwidth of a box of backup tapes in a station wagon going down the highway…

      IRL, Google (as far as anyone knows) actually syncs its data centers to each other by flying cargo-plane loads of actual servers between locations, b/c for the *massive* amounts of data involved, that’s still faster than even the fastest internet backbone link.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. To be fair, with Apollo as a god of learning, etc., I guess there’s nothing that says they _couldn’t_ have messenger birds.

    But tons of people came to Apollo’s temple and talked to the priests about tons of stuff. So the general knowledge of current events was pretty high, honestly.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. I’d note that there have been shifts in the ways that Americans talk, and without reading the book, and without knowing much about the specifics of the changes, maybe Stoker’s information was correct at one time?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Having at least listened to the book, no. At no point during the writing of the book or prior to that did he ever speak even to an East Coast American.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. I’m writing a Dragon Rider story where Dragons are as common as dogs and cats. Sad to say, I had not thought about how mail was delivered just yet.

    Story takes place in a Military Academy where the characters are all university age and up, since I’s so sick and tired of High School Drama.

    The Military Academy is situated in the center of four different kingdoms which each have a differing level of tech. Each nation is like Japan as they are a series of islands.

    I plan for each culture to be distinct from the others. And since the tech level is different for each Nation, mail delivery is going to be different from place to place.

    It’s still in the planning stages, but I have a few main characteristics for the main characters plus a few names.

    The Mailing system is probably going to be rather complex, depending on where a letter is going.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Perhaps the big question is whether your messages can travel faster than a person can. This has big implications for administering justice to fugitives from it.

    But all sorts of things change. Burke, arguing for more respect for American desire for freedom, pointed out that

    The last cause of this disobedient spirit in the Colonies is hardly less powerful than the rest, as it is not merely moral, but laid deep in the natural constitution of things. Three thousand miles of ocean lie between you and them. No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government. Seas roll, and months pass, between the order and the execution, and the want of a speedy explanation of a single point is enough to defeat a whole system. You have, indeed, winged ministers of vengeance, who carry your bolts in their pounces to the remotest verge of the sea. But there a power steps in that limits the arrogance of raging passions and furious elements, and says, SO FAR SHALL THOU GO, AND NO FARTHER. Who are you, that you should fret and rage, and bite the chains of nature? Nothing worse happens to you than does to all nations who have extensive empire; and it happens in all the forms into which empire can be thrown. In large bodies the circulation of power must be less vigorous at the extremities. Nature has said it. The Turk cannot govern Egypt and Arabia and Kurdistan as he governs Thrace; nor has he the same dominion in Crimea and Algiers which he has at Brusa and Smyrna. Despotism itself is obliged to truck and huckster. The Sultan gets such obedience as he can. He governs with a loose rein, that he may govern at all; and the whole of the force and vigor of his authority in his centre is derived from a prudent relaxation in all his borders. Spain, in her provinces, is, perhaps, not so well obeyed as you are in yours. She complies, too; she submits; she watches times. This is the immutable condition, the eternal law of extensive and detached empire.

    Which is not quite so true nowadays.

    The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage covers all sorts of things that such rapid communications can change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true enough though. I grew up in northern Virginia, AKA D.C.’s backyard. The EPA and the education departments in particular would often try out new stuff in those areas before levering it on the rest of the country, because proximity and convenience. Common core was being implemented there at least a few years before it became national policy.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Also remember that in the 19th century, “letter writer” was a profession. Illiterates would go to them to have letters written, or read when received.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. There is an app whose story is based on this concept. Postknight. In a world of mostly small magics, dangerous monsters prevent communication between towns. Postknight are warriors taught to make and use storage scrolls and combat the monsters between towns to deliver mail and vital supplies.

    Liked by 1 person

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