Worldbuilding: Life on the Rung

Consider the step, in all its permutations; from a niche chipped out of a rock face to grand stairways to the lightest aluminum folding ladder. We think of being human as working with our hands, but we shape a lot of our world for our feet.

As Archimedes said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I shall move the world.” The lever can be pretty near anything long and sturdy enough to take the force you put into it. The place to stand… that can be tricky. Just look at the gallery roads in parts of China’s mountains. I have to picture how someone must have climbed and scrambled to chip out each post-hole, to build another step of the road. A level of effort and risk that only makes sense when you consider the time and effort it takes to climb down the cliff face, and up at the end – and that unpredictable mountain weather means if you take too long, you may not live to make it through the pass. Put in the effort to carve those steps and make a road, and the business of human travel goes on.

Shaping steps out of the landscape or building materials is one thing, but we took it a step further. We abstracted the idea of a step, from a specific shape carved out of earth or wood, to “I need a firm thing to stand on”.

Enter the ladder. And things really step up.

Once you have the idea of a ladder, specific materials become less important. You can make it out of wood. Steel. Memory metal. Rope, if you have to. As long as it’s anchored enough to put your feet on and have them stay put, you’re good. I’d rather be painting from the stable tripod of a stepladder than a dangling rope type, but both will let you get the job done.

Being able to abstract an idea, to move from “I need X specific thing” to “I need something that will allow me to do X”, is a big step. It’s the kind of thing that lets you go from “I need to get over the next hill” to “I want to go to the Moon”. Eventually.

If you’re writing about humans, or creatures that think human-like enough to be characters, you’re writing about people who can create abstractions.

“They’re concrete thinkers!” Well, maybe. Just remember, writing is an abstraction. Math is an abstraction. Colors are an abstraction. Manipulating not just the thing, but the idea of the thing, is how we built our cultures from found rocks to flaked tools to laser-cutting robots.

What are your world’s ladders?

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11 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Life on the Rung

  1. The comment about “concrete thinkers” and “abstract thoughts” reminded me of my biggest problem with the novelization of Total Recall – the aliens who built the earth-type atmosphere generator on Mars…

    …apparently had no understanding or comprehension of “figurative” as a concept.

    Yeah, while talking about math, construction, design plans, and, oh yeah, the “nova” symbol explaining what the machine will do if you attempt to use it wrong.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. The ladders for my worlds, huh? Well, I don’t have any for Tales from the Frontier just yet, but as it’s set during the Fur Trade, they are all probably going to be wooden or rope.

    Not that that’s a bad thing.

    In Draco they are likely to be metal, same for Aether.

    …Though since Aether takes inspiration from Treasure Planet, there will be rope ladders too.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Working in a world where a major character is accidentally sciencing the magic.

    She’s mostly wrong, but is getting a lot right because she’s focused so fiercely on one tiny aspect of magic– which is letting her get enough right to build the concept of How It Works. The “place to stand” bit.

    Helps that she’s using the one type of magic that does the least changing to the person using it. (The caster changes the magic, the magic changes the caster; so a sun mage is going to be very sun-themed, a necromancer will smell like corpse-incense at best, etc)

    Liked by 3 people

  4. So here’s something else to consider, can your magic move?

    Plenty of settings will have the ability to create a magic platform or barrier, and sometimes they use them for stairs, but that brings up the question of being able to move the platform while keeping it intact.

    If you can lift the platform, an presumably the person on it, then you have a lot of options for mobility.
    Lifting them far, lifting them quickly, launching them…

    But if your barriers are a fixed point in space, and you need to create a new one at each location, that’s a bit more limited.
    How many stairs can they climb?
    How many stairs can they climb in 5 seconds?
    How far can they jump, and can they create a platform beneath them as they do?

    Then, once you’ve sorted all that out, it brings up the real question:
    Does a magical platform have friction?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I once had an idea for someone in the BnHA world whose quirk was to make small solid constructions that lasted ~10 seconds. Sounds pretty weak, but if you think about it as steps, they could get just about anywhere they wanted as long as they kept moving.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I just like the though of summoning a brick right in front of you’re enemy’s face.

      They charge forward and slam face-first into a brick
      They can’t see, so they destroy the brick, and there’s another one behind it

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In the WIP the male lead’s fundamental problem is he has no identity, no sense of self, and barely any realization that he should even have one. He has the lever that can move his world, but no solid ground to stand on to even attempt it.

    The female lead has the exact opposite problem. She knows who she is and what she wants, absolutely, but has no ability to attain it. She has the solid ground to stand on, but no lever to move her world. The lever may not even exist.

    And that’s the essential dynamic between them. She finds it almost offensive that he could fix his world yet doesn’t have the grounding to do so. By being about the only person who is relentlessly honest with him, she essentially becomes that firm ground, he can use to move his world, and in turn, he is able to become the lever with which she can move her own.

    There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the essential arc I’m going for.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Then, there are layers of abstractions.

    Lilacs are an an abstraction of all lilac plants, but it’s less abstract than flowering bush, and it ascends through bush, plant, organism, object — abstraction.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Extreme historic geekery and nerdery!

    http://www.engineersclub.org/history/

    I was looking for a picture of the precipitous-looking, but actually very safe-feeling, secondary staircases from the first to the second floor, which are on both sides of the grandfather clock. Unfortunately they only show a picture of the bellows-driven clock’s face.

    But there is so much new-to-me history of Engineer’s Club geekery, that it seems like a good link anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

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