Worldbuilding: Olympics ptooey, we’re all a bunch of wimps

 Last week’s Olympics left me thinking. We’re a bunch of wimps. I mean, not just those of us who sit at home watching ultra-fit twenty-something athletes shatter world records. All of us. Including the athletes.

Humanity has been getting punier for millenia. Footprints discovered in dried Australian mud and dated around 26,000 years ago make clear that one early Aborigine, at least, was able to out-bolt any Olympic runner today. In bare feet.

Not to mention the ancient Egyptian peasantry, who spent their off-season dragging blocks of stone around. Other societies were even more physical. New Zealand’s Maori didn’t have beasts of burden. Everything had to be done with human muscle. Bones have been found with wear marks indicating tremendous development.

Hongi Hika – from a portrait by Major-General Robley.

Early European settlers saw that, too. There are stories of Maori toa (warriors) running huge distances in the 1820s – out-stripping any marathon runner. They regularly hauled multi-ton waka (canoes) overland. Rollers helped, but it was still more physical than the equivalent task in Europe where oxen, horses and pulleys were available. In the later part of the ‘musket wars’ Maori were moving cannon the same way.

Fantastic feats of physical action. Yet, even that was puny from an evolutionary standpoint. Chimps are half our size and four times as strong. Modern humans, H. Sapiens, are even the weaklings of our own family tree - light, tall and puny by comparison with our ice age cousins of just a few dozen millenia ago. Neanderthals were short, rugged, and hugely muscled. Couldn’t sprint, but when it came to clobbering mammoths, they had the biceps for the job.

We survived. They didn’t. How? Nineteenth and early-mid twentieth century thinking pinned it on Neanderthal stupidity versus our intelligence; we were smart enough to survive, smart enough to invent machinery. The evolutionary market had spoken.

That’s still a trope today – but actually it looks as if Neanderthals were as smart as us, in their own way. Maybe smarter. They had sophisticated rituals, they buried their dead, they looked after their sick – this at huge cost to a subsistence hunter-gatherer economy in ice-age climes. But they did it anyway. The latest argument goes that stocky Neanderthal bodies were an advantage in the cold; but our smaller and thinner ancestors didn’t need to eat so much. Better survival chances when the ice age got really nasty – it wasn’t just Europe that was clobbered. Africa and the other human habitats were dessicated by it, which made food very short. The technologies that Victorian age, Tory voting club-attending gentlemen used as a definition of superior H. Sapiens intelligence came later.

There are lessons for writers. If you’ve got a historical setting, what are your characters physically capable of? Realistically. What would that do for appearance? Got magic? Why bother lifting a finger – are wizards couch potatoes? That’s a horrifying thought. Or maybe they use magic to also give themselves the physique of superman. Hmnmn… And where is wimp-inducing modern tech going to lead us?

Arthur C. Clarke put it this way. Should we be more frightened of aliens erupting from their spacecraft, all fangs, roar and tentacles. Or of helpless, weak creatures that lolled about surrounded with gadgets? Clarke was riffing on H. G. Wells’ Martians; and Terry Nation made the idea iconic with his Daleks.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: are you going to watch the Avatar sequels?

News broke this week that two sequels for Avatar will be filmed in New Zealand. Unsurprising. James Cameron’s moved here – he’s bought a farm in the Wairarapa.

I don’t know I’ll bother with the new Avatar films, though. I slept through the first movie. Twice. The main problem was the excruciating Vietnam war-meets-Pocahontas-meets-Dancing-With-Wolves  plotline.

But I wasn’t inspired by the settings. Technically they were fabulous – a triumph for New Zealand’s film industry. It took around 1500 artists and computer whizzes, working flat out for a couple of years, to do them. A friend-of-a-friend of mine had to upgrade the rendering servers – all 8000 of them. It was great to see Roger Dean’s floating worlds brought to life. The starship was cool, if unlikely. The other tech seemed realistic.

Jupiter rising over Io – a picture I made with my Celestia installation

But the big problem was Pandora – an Earthlike world orbiting a gas giant at ‘goldilocks’ distance from Alpha Centauri A. We already know no gas giant exists there. Furthermore, gas giants are shrouded with radiation belts – and tidal heating effects mean any Earth-sized moon orbiting them will have very different conditions, even in the ‘goldilocks’ zone, from Earth. Always assuming that a moon that large – with the right blend of silicates, metals and so forth – can form around a gas giant. Disbelief wasn’t properly suspended.

Are there other Earths out there? The science is still coming in – mostly Kepler data. Not one planet so far, it seems, is like Earth. Not one has been confirmed capable of hosting ‘life as we don’t know it’, still less life as we do. Part of the reason is that we’re only detecting certain types of systems, because of our technology. The really cool observatories were cancelled. But the other reason is that world characteristics are an emergent product. Look at Jupiter’s moons – all products of the same planetary formation, in the same area, with identical laws of physics – yet wildly different from each other.

The other problem, for me, was Pandora’s flora and fauna. Wonderfully realised and drawn, but it was really Earth with a different skin. Same plant/animal divisions, herbivores, carnivores, and one intelligent species (bipedal in a system of hexapods!) that had mastered horse analogues. Just now we don’t even know whether complex ecosystems will always emerge. Life on Earth consisted of bacteria and slime for two billion years. And it’s only luck that tetrapods and pentadactylism dominated – look at the Edicarians. Weirder than Pandora. And as for intelligent life, who says there will be just one species?

I figure the one thing we can be sure of is that alien worlds won’t be like ours. Certainly not the way Hollywood imagines. John Haldane summed it up in an oft misquoted phrase - ‘the universe is not only queerer than we imagine. it’s queerer than we CAN imagine’.

In the practical sense, the Hollywood vision is framed by entertainment – anything too alien wouldn’t attract audiences. But writers still need to stretch people’s imaginations. And if movies won’t, there’s plenty of room in books.  I can think of a half dozen SF ideas right now from Lem’s intelligent ocean to Clarke’s cryo-life. The onus is on writers to take that further. What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: what now for ‘The Hobbit’?

Peter Jackson held the wrap-up party for The Hobbit the other week. Principal shooting’s finished for both movies, and the first will be released at the end of this year. I have to say that despite the buzz in Wellington about stars in our midst, I never saw any. Except Billy Connolly, who turned up briefly on the other side of a hotel foyer.

I didn’t rush over and say ‘Oooh, you’re Billy Connolly’. He knows that. And Kiwis don’t do that sort of thing anyway. Personally I can’t wait for the movies. And yet – and yet, somehow, I get the feeling these won’t be kids’ movies. I’m not the only one to wonder how Jackson managed to turn a 240-page childrens’ book into two epic movies which, if they are typical Jackson length, will probably top 180 minutes each. One of the ways, I suspect, has been to cover plot lines incidental to the book. In the original story, Gandalf left Bilbo and the dwarves at the entrance to Mirkwood and rode off south to deal with the Necromancer.

This was a plot device, irrelevant to the main story of itself – the purpose was to strip the dwarves of their protector and allow Bilbo to grow as a character. But there are mile-wide hints – including the fact that Sir Christopher Lee has reprised his role as Saruman – that this has been filmed. We’ll see. That, coupled with the clips released as teasers, makes me wonder – has Jackson made a dark version. An adult version. One that is of the same tone as The Lord of the Rings? And is that spoiling things?

The Hobbit itself was very skilfully crafted childrens book. Tolkien absolutely nailed the tone of the narrator, the plot, even the illustrations. And yet there is some evidence in his letters that he was not happy - it could have had a darker and more serious tone, more in line with the other stories he was writing about his mythos. He also – initially – saw it as a one-off, a dead end.

His publishers, Allen and Unwin, prodded him into writing a sequel. That eventually turned into The Lord of the Rings, a very different book. Later, Tolkien produced a back-story and supplementary material to go around the tale of The Hobbit, some of it published in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. In effect, he built a world around The Hobbit post-fact, integrating it better with the darker plot of The Lord of the Rings; the Necromancer was Sauron, the enemy of old. He also made amendments to later editions of The Hobbit – especially the Gollum riddle game – to better fit his later vision of The Ring.

So it would, I think, be quite possible to make The Hobbit as a darker film without moving far from Tolkien’s eventual writings, ideas and intentions.

What do you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

***Update – 16 July 2012: Jackson hints at Comic Con, San Diego, that The Hobbit might be turned into 3 movies, not 2. To me, that’s pushing it even given the above. Thoughts?***

Worldbuilding: Britain’s cannibal captain

My book Convicts - New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past is being published tomorrow by Penguin, and today I thought I’d share one of the stories. It had to be assembled from dissonant pieces of documentary evidence - an example of how non-fiction is also world-building. This story is a good one. Betrayal, deceit, murder, treachery. And more.

The funny thing is, it wasn’t perpetrated by a traditional convict. Though the man who did it should have been convicted – and would have been, if the British had been luckier.

His name  was John Stewart, captain of the brig Elizabeth which came to Australasian waters to trade in 1830.

This tale has been told before – but not the way I have in this book. You see, there is not one story – there are many. No two accounts match in detail, and the traditional histories inevitably give us one or another of the versions in an effort to find a ‘single’ or ‘final’ truth. Unfortunately it’s not possible to actually render things down so precisely; this tale has not one truth – it has many, and the more interesting part is matching the versions up against each other, revealing a good deal about how each witness saw events.

The general thrust is consistent, of course. The story began in the late 1820s when the Ngati Toa chief Te Rauparaha – composer of the Ka Mate haka used now by the All Blacks – began extending his loose empire from Kapiti island, off the southwestern corner if the North Island, into the South Island.  He promptly ran into trouble with Ngai Tahu, the main iwi (tribe) of the region – itself a loose conglomerate, at the time, of other iwi. In 1830 this culminated in Ngai Tahu capturing and eating a Ngati Toa negotiating party at Kaiapoi.

That demanded revenge. Te Rauparaha, or one of his associates, came up with the idea of hiring a British vessel to take a hidden raid directly to Ngāti Rakiamoa chief Tamaiharanui, also one of the pre-eminent chiefs of Ngai Tahu and – Te Rauparaha considered – responsible for the treachery. The problem was persuading a captain to do it. But Stewart, it seemed, was the man. His price was a cargo of processed flax.

In November 1830 Stewart and his crew took the Elizabeth to Akaroa, on the South Island’s east coast, enviegled Tamaiharanui and his family aboard – and sprang the trap. Then they joined raids ashore. And then they sailed back to Kapiti with their prisoners and a cargo of human flesh. Some of it was cooked in the Elizabeth’s galley and eaten aboard by the Maori – and one story suggests that Stewart ate some of it. But whether he did or not is immaterial. The fact was that while Te Rauparaha was behaving scrupulously according to Maori values, Stewart had broken British law. Actually, he had not only broken it, he had jumped on the pieces and thrown them overboard.

The problem was prosecuting him. New Zealand was outside British jurisdiction. But Sydney authorities had a good go – a story as interesting as Stewart’s, and one that went all the way up to the Colonial Office in London. The British absolutely were not going to let their citizens get away with this sort of thing.

Stewart did, though. After the case fell over, Sydney authorities could not hold him, but he was washed overboard while rounding the Horn on his way back to England a few months later. Or maybe he collapsed and – reeking of rum –  was tossed over the rail by his crew. A better fate for a British cannibal, perhaps, if he was one. Those versions again.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: what UFO – yeah, THAT UFO – teaches writers

Does anybody remember UFO? Gerry Anderson’s first live-action sci-fi series, made around 1970 and set in a modish ’1980′. A romp of a tale with mysterious green-skinned aliens, a talking satellite named SID, spandex-clad moon women with purple wigs and a heroic alien-fighting commander named Ed Straker.

When I was 8, I used to get Commander Straker haircuts. Not because I asked, but because that’s what the local barber thought was ‘in’ for fair-haired kids.

It’s been released on DVD. I caught up with a few episodes recently and was pleasantly surprised. Barry Gray’s end credit theme, a haunting Ondes Martinot electronic realisation, is not to be missed..But three things particularly impressed me on re-view – with, I think, lessons for writers. One was the way Anderson looked to a world free of bigotry – but not in the ‘future perfect’ Roddenberry sense. Anderson gave it a twist. In his ’1980′, everybody had truly equal opportunities. But the targets of old biases knew bigotry hadn’t truly gone.Today we have maybe reached that practical point in places. And just as Anderson imagined, the bias remains. Was Anderson prescient? No. But he understood a lot about the human condition. Lesson #1 for writers. Make it believeable by understanding the human condition.

The special effects by Derek Meddings were just fantastic. This was w-a-a-a-a-ay pre-CGI. They didn’t even chroma-key. It was all done with models, backdrops and meticulous attention to detail. And they stand up today. Largely, I think, because of that attention to detail, and the fact that the scenes were being filmed live, not composited from models on blue-screen. Lesson #2 for writers. Attention to detail works.

What impressed me most was the story telling. An object lesson for any writer. The scenario was hokey – Battle of Britain with moon women taking the place of Hugh Dowding’s WAAF’s, coupled with Earth scenes usually set somewhere in southern England near the secret base, despite the world-wide scale of the threat. That could have been awful. But it wasn’t. Anderson came up with stories that – by TV standards of 1970 – tackled edgy themes. Work-life balance; racism; sexism; family values; how people crumble under stress; and how people react when put in the hot seat.

These are universal human experiences that still speak to us today. And that’s what made the series so good. The audience didn’t worry about the contradictory Anderson motifs of extreme secrecy juxtaposed against colossal engineering achievements, the often stilted dialogue and the overstated stage acting styles of 1960s TV. (“Did anyone order a LARGE HAM?”)  Today that same human story aspect allows us to get over the excruciating set and costume designs - up-to-the-minute 60′s mod that’s dated faster than last week’s cheese sandwiches. Disbelief is well suspended in UFO, and it’s done through the human story. Lesson #3 for writers. Story counts – and it has to be about people.

Not bad lessons from a show that was mis-scheduled on Brit TV – mistaken for another Anderson kiddy model-and-explosion show – and canned after the first season.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: card characters for novelists

Ever been stuck sorting out characters for your story? Especially secondary characters that you can’t put too much time into but which still need that realistic edge. Today I thought I’d share an ideas trick that might work for you. A card game.

That’s right. A card game. Alice in Wonderland style, slightly. Here’s how. Make a set of (say) 20 blank pieces of card or paper. Not too large. Write down a coherent list of names, characteristics, actions and so forth, one per card. Ssort the cards into topics, one pile per topic. Shuffle – not really necessary, but we’re playing cards here. Lay them out, face up and find the character names. Set them out in a row. Then add a physical description and one or more action cards beneath each. Mix them around a bit.

Now have a look at what you’ve come up with.  Naturally a random fit like this will produce some pretty weird combinations. But it isn’t a ‘character generator’ The aim is to provoke – get you thinking.

Let’s say you have Roger the Shrubber, whose characteristic is ‘introverted and cautious’, but who gets an action ‘wild partying’. OK. Why? Can you think of a reason? Yes? Great. Write it down. No? OK, shuffle again. What now? Keep doing it. Add cards if ideas float in. See what comes up. Write down the new thoughts on a separate piece of paper if you need to.

This is a creation-provocation exercise – a start-point, not an end point. You won’t get final characters ouf of this, or even characters of any depth, particularly. But these may not be your main characters; these could be a secondary individual who needs some kind of feature to set them apart. Or maybe this exercise kicks up something brilliant that can turn into a major character. Certainly, with luck, the card-shuffle will get you thinking. It’s designed to create a framework – to provoke ideas, to be flexible along the way. Later, all that has to be fleshed out via donkey-work. But you have to start somewhere.

Do you have any character-creation systems you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Top tips from Tolkien – iteration vs planning

It always strikes me as odd, in this age of you-must-plan writing, that the greatest novel of the twentieth century wasn’t planned at all

Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings grew, as he explains in the preface, with the telling. At times – as when he had got his heroes to the gates of Moria, he had no idea what would happen next.

Yet at the end of the process the novel was brilliantly structured, the quintessential definition of epic. The story was also very broadly supported in a huge mythos – Middle Earth – which grew up as Tolkien wrote his masterwork.

How did Tolkien do it? That became evident later when his son began publishing the first, second, and twentieth drafts. Tolkien tinkered. He re-wrote. He re-re-wrote. He pondered the story and re-structured it. Repeatedly.

Tolkien also wrote vast supporting material which only partly saw the light of day in the appendices – though much of it has been published since. That too went through iterations. And that was why the writing took so long.

That was also why the quality of the fantasy world he built was so high. By the end of it, Tolkien had crafted a tale of astonishing depth, and part of that came from the fact that he had worked, re-worked and re-thought the story over such an extended period.

It seems to me that this kind of depth cannot be obtained any other way,

But does this mean that we should dump our spreadsheets and shoe-boxes of index cards, our Scrivener files and all the other ways we plan?

Not at all. One of the things we forget about Tolkien was that publication was incidental to him. He had to be prodded into finishing anything. He was a hobbyist. He could afford to tinker, make false starts, re-cast, and re-cast again.

Can we? Probably not, if we’re serious about wanting to write in today’s world. I’ve argued before that Tolkien probably wouldn’t have been published in today’s market. The Lord of the Rings was marginal anyway – the publishers broke it into three books, and if you look at the early print runs, it didn’t do sparklingly well for a long time. Today the pressure is on, the bar has been raised – it’s much, much harder to break in. Even self-publishing doesn’t change that, because a bad self-published book will certainly vanish. Whereas a really good self-published book has a chance of being found and floating to the top.

So how can we reconcile that with Tolkien’s big lesson – that repeated iterations, musing and pondering pays dividends in the very long run?

To me the answer – as always – is ‘do both’. Plan the novel. Set it all out. Write it. And then stick it in a drawer for a while. Take it out again – ponder, reconsider, and re-write it. That will take time. But the story should be well ahead in the first place, because of the planning.

Best of both worlds. I like it. Do you? What works best for your own writng?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: Tolkien wrote from experience too

Writing from experience is usually the first lesson that writers have hammered at them. Write what you know. It’s certainly the most important part of building a credible world for your story. But what does that really mean? Does it mean that we should write about our own lives? Of course not.

Take J R R Tolkien. I looked last week at how he became iconic. He created the deepest, best developed and most thorough fantasy mythos of the twentieth century. He had everything from languages – several of them – to alphabets, deep history, mythology that echoed – but did not repeat – western-northern mythic stories and symbolisms.

A vast work of a vaulting imagination that set the standards for every fantasy since. Not everybody’s cup of tea, and his work took time to pick up sales momentum. But when it did – wow.

The thing was that Tolkien, too, wrote from his experiences. And the way he did it shows us how great writers use their experiences to fuel, enrich and colour their stories.

He used what he saw around him to add narrative colour. His descriptions of the Shire in particular – and of many of the lands around – echoed what he knew well from his homes in Oxford and, earlier, Birmingham. The Old Forest was Moseley Bog. The mill at Hobbiton was actually a mill in his childhood home village of Sarehole. Old Man Willow was a tree he knew of. Perrott’s Folly apparently inspired some of the towers – Orthanc and Minas Tirith especially.

People made their way into the book too. Treebeard’s hoom-hom voice was parodying the way Tolkien’s friend and fellow Inkling C S Lewis spoke.  A lot of Tolkien’s settings also reflected his First World War experiences, especially his portrayal of the Dead Marshes. That, really, was a description of the Western Front in all its horrible detail. Including the smell. (I discussed this connection in more detail in my book Western Front (Reed, Auckland 2004)).

Tolkien also portrayed the rough-house talk of soldiers, via his orcs – particularly in the sequences where Frodo and Sam were sneaking into Mordor. This was pure British troops-walking-to-battle speak. In a way it was inevitable. Tolkien was in the trenches of the Western Front when he began writing the Silmarillion. The environment framed him in ways he perceived.

The brilliance was the way Tolkien abstracted everything. He took what he knew, filtered it through his fantasy setting – and created a world that embodied the fantastic, yet which also carried a haunting familiarity for readers. It was one of the reasons why The Lord Of The Rings did so well. And that shows us how to write from experience – and still be creative.

Tolkien also used his experiences to create the philosophy of his story, particularly the nature of evil, attitudes to mortality, and the way people confront their fortunes. Is it coincidence that his Numenoreans are obsessed with extending their lives, that Elves are immortal – in a fantasy setting originally framed by the slaughter-house of the Western Front? I think not.

After The Lord of The Rings was published in the mid-1950s, critics suggested his tale was metaphor for the Second World War. It wasn’t. Tolkien always insisted there was no particular meaning. Actually, meanings did intrude – but they were metaphors for the issues of the First World War and pre-1914 England. Most of it came from the fact that Tolkien had infused a lot of what he knew into the book.

Here are a few links to some of the places – and to Hobbiton, which really exists in New Zealand, near Matamata. Peter Jackson had it built in wood, concrete and durable materials:

http://bardscribe.hubpages.com/hub/Interesting-and-Little-Known-Facts-about-JRR-Tolkien
http://www.cromwell-intl.com/travel/uk/oxford-lewis-tolkien/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/centralengland/739039/Sites-that-shaped-Tolkiens-Lord-of-the-Rings.html
http://www.hobbitontours.com/

As always, Tolkien has shown us how it should be done.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: how writers can be iconic like Tolkien

Most authors dream of following on from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – writing a novel that becomes not just wildly popular, but an iconic pillar of western literature.

Why was The Lord Of The Rings so iconic ? Tolkien himself had no such ambitions. He had to be prodded to finish and publish the book. For him the pleasure came from the creation – not the publishing, and certainly not the fame.

The Lord Of The Rings was released in three books during the mid-1950s. It sold OK. But then, in the mid-1960s, it was published in the US – at first illegally, then in an authorised and revised edition. Instantly it took off. I think there were several reasons:

1. Tolkien accidentally keyed into the counter-culture.
The mid-1960s was the age of the counter-culture, who consciously rejected the industrialised, mechanised values of their parents in favour of romanticised fantasies about pre-industrial life. Tolkien’s Hobbits – with their rustic, rural settings – keyed directly into hippie fantasy imagery of a perfect, de-industrialised world. So did his immortal, moonlit elves.

The link was clear enough at the time; Beard and Kenney, authors of the brilliant 1969 LOTR parody Bored Of The Rings, skewered the whole accidental LOTR/drop-out culture connection with their send-up of Tom Bombadil. Well, Tim Benzedrine and his wife Hashberry.

The actual origins of these themes and icons in Tolkien’s work was significantly deeper; he was harking back to earlier ‘counter-culture’ ideas of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, including the ‘Merrie England’ fantasies of pre-industrial Britain.

2. Tolkien deliberately keyed into our culture at many levels
The links between Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth and western thinking ran far deeper than just hippie dropout culture.  Tolkien had quite consciously written a mythology for Britain – a land which, he felt, lacked it. His broader themes and ideas struck chords with a much wider slab of the populace than the drop-out movement. As I have outlined elsewhere, he drew from his own experiences in England and on the Western Front to lend colour, depth and emotion to his writing. These ideas were shared by a very large part of his generation.

3. Success begats success
Once the momentum of sales began – driven by the way the book keyed into our society at so many levels – it kept going. Tolkien became iconic. The result was a marketers dream; a word-of-mouth spread through western culture that transcended any paid advertising.

And all of it – certainly the level to which the book and mythos became such an integral part of western culture – was unplanned and accidental.

The question for novel writers today is whether this feat can be repeated?

I suspect that anybody who deliberately tried – who engineered a book to key into what they suppose society triggers from today – would end up with something obviously contrived. What do you reckon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Postscriptum: I’ve been away on a writing break the last 9 days – had some surprising results (including some wonderful discussions with other writers and people about books). I have some posts to follow – my adventures and some thoughts on the writing processes involved. Plus all the usuals – worldbuilding, grammar and writing tips – and some surprises.

Worldbuilding: putting it on ice

As a kid I was always fascinated by Michael Moorcock’s The Ice Schooner – his version of Moby Dick set on a future Earth frozen from pole to pole. I had the Rodney Matthews poster of the ship on the bedroom wall.

Since Moorcock wrote that book we’ve discovered there was indeed a snowball Earth some 600 million years ago. The whole planet was one giant glob of ice, punctuated with occasional lakes. (Hope I’ve got snowshoes stashed away in my Tardis…)

The more recent ice age – the Pleistocene event – started around 1 million years ago and involved a succession of flip-flops between warm periods and glaciations, themselves punctuated with periods of even more extreme cold. It didn’t freeze the planet pole to pole, though. Our Eurocentric scholarship always leaves the impression of a world swathed in ice. Actually, it was northern Eurasia, Canada-North America, and chunks in the southern hemisphere – including Antarctica. Tropical areas were ice-free. The planet was drier than it is today.

Nobody knows what triggered the ice ages of the Pliestocene. But one thing is clear; the switches happened quickly. Terrestrial climate, it seems, is a meta-stable product of a whole lot of factors. Change one, and the point-of-stability shifts - quickly - to a new equilibrium.

What this meant was that ice advanced and retreated cyclically, sometimes switching from one phase to another in a generation – bringing with it dramatic shifts in the environment, as taiga and tundra moved with the glaciers. Animals had a hard time. Humans had a hard time too – there is evidence that these cycles did in the Neandertals, whittling down their habitats and numbers. The last survived until 24,000 years ago, in Gibraltar. Paleo-anthropologist Clive Findlayson argues it was just luck that the same didn’t happen to Eurasian populations of H. Sapiens,  living further east.

Those same cycles repeatedly locked up vast quantities of water in ice sheets, making the sea levels rise and fall like yo-yos. This was still happening even after the end of the last big glaciation around 12,000 years ago. Changes in climate made it possible for farming to develop around the Black Sea, then a fresh water lake. But a huge area of ice remained in northern Canada – trapping meltwater as Lake Agassiz/Ojibway. Around 8200 years before the present, the ice dam was undermined and the melt-water escaped. Boom! World sea levels shot up by around a metre in just a generation – the Bosphorus was breached, and the Black Sea filled, driving early farmers off.

All this is fodder for writers. Stephen Baxter has set novels in a world where a sea wall kept Britain attached to Europe, via ‘Doggerland’. But jump back a little and we’ve got a whole different world – a Eurasia of taiga, tundra and emerging civilisation. Jericho was flourishing. So was Catal Huyuk. There were villages dotted around the Middle East and into eastern Europe.

Around them the land was undergoing dramatic climate change and sea-level shift. How would the earliest farmers – still using neolithic tools to scythe their wheat – have handled it? Would it have provoked new religions? Brought out the best in people? Brought out the worst? What do those responses say for our own future?

Archaeologists can only partially answer these questions. There’s room for novelists to play – and, maybe, to spring a whole alternate history.I think I’ve just inspired myself to have a go. How about you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012