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The Problems of Excessively Rich Worldbuilding

The Cunning Blood

Many people who have read The Cunning Blood have complimented me on how rich the worldbuilding is. Well, it is rich. In fact, it’s extravagantly rich.

It may be a little too rich.

So. I had a sort of peak experience in July of 1997. While literally sitting with my feet in the pool early one evening, my idea machine went nuts. In the space of half an hour, I got the framework for a hard SF saga that I’m sure I’ll be working in for the rest of my life. As close as I can tell (the experience is hard to put into words) the core insight was a classic “What if?” hypothesis:

What if the cosmos is actually made of information? What does that imply?

Back then I’d been recently reading all sorts of interesting and sometimes speculative things: nanotechnology, programmable matter, chaos theory, extropianism, zero-point energy, etc. I’d been reading things bordering on New Age weirdness as well, including Michael Talbot’s book The Holographic Universe . Weird, but fun. And it played right into the concept of universe-as-data.

The next day, I sat down and took inventory of the ideas that had come roaring into view down by the swimming pool:

  • The universe is a Game of Life matrix that recalculates itself a billion times a second. (“Billion” here means “Lots-n-lots.”)
  • A big enough Game of Life matrix running fast enough for long enough could evolve patterns complex enough to think and become self-aware.
  • Information density can bend space.
  • Bent space disrupts quantum pair creation, emitting energy.
  • Make information dense enough, and the universe can’t express it. Odd things then happen. (Instantaneous travel, for one.)

Emerging from these major points came ideas for a zero-point generator that bent space by creating very complex fractal patterns in magnetic fields. (This is Jeff Duntemann SFnal hokum, but it’s been very successful hokum.) The same mechanism pushed a little harder becomes a hyperdrive.

More pertinent to this entry was an older notion I’d had, that our three-dimensional universe might exist as the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. That had occurred to me in high school, and became part of my senior-year science fair project. In my new schema, the interior of the hypersphere is a four-dimensional domain called metaspace. This is the self-recalculating game matrix where intelligence originally arose, in the form of conscious automata, which I named noömata. I had fooled with the Game of Life quite a bit twenty or thirty years ago, and I noticed how complex patterns would evolve to some point and either stop evolving or vanish entirely. So perhaps there was a limited window within which automata could become noömata. At some point, noömata might move out of that window and lose their conscious awareness. This is what the two factions of noömata are arguing about in my previous entry. One wants individuality and the other wants uniformity. The individuality faction (the Ruil) concocts a plan to inject their minds into the “boundary space” (our universe) and then withdraw after a certain period of individuation. Because the boundary space was empty, they figured out a way to fill it with constantly changing patterns that you and I call “matter.”

So they blew it up. It was a very Big Bang.

Yes indeedy: We are somebody’s science fair project. In fact, our universe was created because the Ruil needed better random number generators. The Ruil evolved us to make them a little more random so that they might remain noömata longer. After we die, our minds are uploaded back to metaspace, and we again become Ruil. (I described this happening to Jamie Eigen.) Because every point in our universe is immediately adjacent to metaspace (the interior of the hypersphere) the noömata can mess with us, and in fact can mess with anything material, like the Sangruse Device.

The two noömata factions (Niil and Ruil) are indeed fighting, hence the “grudge match” that Magic Mikey describes to Jamie Eigen. The fight is over whether our universe is to be open-ended or closed. How that works is too complex to go into right now, which brings us willy-nilly to the point of this entry: How do I put all this stuff across in a story?

Nobody likes infodumps. I practice what I call “infoscatter,” which means dropping hints and little bits of backstory here and there throughout the plot. The trouble with infoscatter is that people who read quickly or skim will miss some of it, and then misinterpret elements of the story. This is especially likely when the story contains elements that contradict their personal worldviews.

Note that I was extending the Extropians’ notion of uploading, not to our computers but to the fabric of the cosmos itself. In doing so I was postulating a sort of physical afterlife. For some people, any least hint of an afterlife is a triggering event, probably because an afterlife usually comes along with the existence of God. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not sure that God requires an afterlife, nor that an afterlife requires God, even though I’d prefer my afterlife to be under the governance of an infinite God.) Hence I got some comments (read the Amazon reviews) that things got weird and “acid trippy.”

Actually, no. It was all part of a minutely planned and purely physical Jeff-concocted fictional universe. The God I believe in doesn’t appear in the story at all. (Well, ok. He perhaps created metaspace and started it recalculating, which suggests that we are somebody’s science fair project’s science fair project.)

It doesn’t help that I wrote The Cunning Blood twenty years ago and haven’t yet written the two other Metaspace novels I have in mind. The argument between the Niil and Ruil is the prolog to The Molten Flesh, which I really ought to finish one of these decades. If people could read all three novels back-to-back and didn’t skim too much, they’d have no excuse for assuming that I’m trying to weld the supernatural to hard SF.

It’s not supernatural. It’s just a very rich subcreation with a huge number of moving parts. And it’s my fault for not spitting it all out by now. Bear with me. This writing stuff is hard damned work. But you knew that.


  1. Sam'l Basett says:

    I have indeed been (anxiously) waiting for the next installment in the Cunning Blood saga.

    You might want to look into Merkabah mysticism and christian eschatological literature stemming from John’s Apocalypse.

    Offhand, I would say that God does not need an afterlife, but that only some afterlives need a god. (“Some” being an arbitrarily large number 🙂

  2. Dennis Harris says:

    Great read. I look forward to the finished product someday, so get to work.

    The image that sticks in my mind is the Ruil standing, mortified, at the judges table with the 2nd place ribbon as the grand prize is awarded to the pinhead with the papiere mache volcano…

    (I’m still holding a grudge close to my heart to keep it alive. Back in 8th grade I constructed a model house utilizing solar heat and solar cells to power its functions. Murphy built his T.A.R.S.U.S. rig that levitated a metallic mass in mid-air using magnetic controls. (This is 1967, mind you.) The nuns and other judges walked swiftly past us and conferred first place glory on the aforementioned volcano.)

    Not that I’m bitter or anything… I’m sure I’ll get around to sharing my cure for cancer and room temperature fusion recipes at some point once I’ve conquered the intricacies of vinegar/baking soda modalities… (Daddy, pay attention to me!!!!)

    Sorry, I got sidetracked… What were we talking about? Oh, yes. I’m pretty sure that butter pecan would be my favorite,

    I have to go lie down now…

  3. Erbo says:

    Jamie Eigen almost had it right, didn’t he? He said that deceased human beings were manipulating the fabric of the universe. In this he was correct, but only in part; some of the entities manipulating the fabric of what we call “the universe” and they call “the boundary space” would have been Ruil that had previously been “born” into the boundary space. Others, though, would have been entities that have not yet been “born” into the boundary space, or that might never be so born (e.g. the Niil).

    And what is to prevent a single Ruil from being “born” multiple times into the boundary space? We just proved the doctrine of reincarnation!

    I may need a bong hit to consider all the ramifications of this. Fortunately, I’m in Colorado, where that’s legal. 😀

    1. I was trying to create a backstory for all the myths of angels and demons and wars between them; you mentioned the similarities to the Ainulindale, which was cool but wasn’t really a close match. The Niil are the Il who treasure Ni – a word I might translate as coherence. The telos (end result) they’re reaching for is a sort of hive mind. They’ve defined paradise as unbroken consensus and want to create it.

      “Ru” might translate as “creative change.” The Ruil, by contrast, are the rowdies, the curious, the odd bits, the snots and snarks and creative types who marvel at the versatility of their existence and want to become even more versatile, more outrageous, more….what’s the word I want here? More…human.

      It’s not that one is good and one is evil, a la Manwe and Melkar. One values order above all else, and the other values change. The Niil do not force their telos on the Ruil; they offer it and explain why they yearn for it. The Ruil, in turn, are happy to ignore the Niil and let them stagnate, as they see it. The Niil fear even rowdier Ruil, as well they might, so when there is no other option, they fight the great Ruil project.

      Ruil who have entered the boundary space (Ruva, the realm of change) more than once are called recursors There are three ways to do this: via conventional birth into a new human body, via downloading into a suitable computational system, or via re-creation of the original body. All of these mechanisms are at work in the Gaians Saga, and by the end of The Subtle Mind, the whole thing will have been laid out in detail.

      Pay attention to Roddie, Mother Highest, and (of course) Oscar Wilde.

      So go take another bong hit. The weirdness is only beginning.

      1. Erbo says:

        I wasn’t going to mention a couple of those things. Spoilers, you know. 🙂

        So perhaps the ultimate struggle isn’t between “good and evil,” but between “order and chaos,” ala Moorcock’s “Elric of Melniboné” series. But it’s more subtle than that, because excessive order stagnates, as the Ruil pointed out, while Ru represents something more focused than “chaos,” like the forces of creativity and intuition.

        1. Yes. Another way to see it: The Niil want to feel safe. The Ruil want to have fun.

        2. I thought about the spoilers issue too. However, what we’re talking about is backstory, and it makes a lot of sense to make the settings and backstories of your subcreation generally known, especially if it’s complex and different–and goes all the way to the bottom, like mine does. (I believe that was Jim Strickland’s phrasing, a few years ago when we were doing the Drumlins Double and I was explaining the backstory so he could write his half.)

  4. TRX says:

    Long ago I realized there could be hours, days, or weeks of backstory behind a single line or paragraph.

  5. Bob says:

    Grammar police alert:
    complemented -> complimented

    The first word means to fit in with or as in twos-complement changing 0’s to 1’s etc.

    1. Typo. Fixed. (I do know the differences between the two words.) I’ll leave this post here (as is my policy) to admit that I made the error.

  6. Bob says:

    Did not mean to imply otherwise.

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