1. Simon Price

    Simon Price New Member

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    Wrapping my head around the sociopolitical implications of my urban fantasy story's central conceit

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Simon Price, Jul 17, 2017.

    Hey, I was wondering if I could get some help worldbuilding for a story I'm trying to write. It takes place in modern day chronicling the aftermath of a supernatural event in which every human on earth starts developing supernatural abilities, and one of the biggest problems I'm having when working out an outline and a long-term plan for the plot is that I have this feeling that I do not and could not ever know enough about how the world works to accurately depict what these things would do to our world.

    For example, about a month after the powers start appearing, the world finds itself in a situation where everyone over the age of 13 has the power to, if they wish, disable any technology (anything utilizing combustion, electricity or chemical reactions) they have line of sight on. The intention of this is to basically make it so that technology is still available, but it only works when everyone nearby wants it to, allowing my story to have the best of both worlds by keeping modern technology for the most part in a civilian setting while simultaneously forcing the tech level of any combat setting down to a more swords and sorcery style setting.

    The problem is I instantly become paralyzed when I try to think about whether or not I have enough faith in human decency to believe that modern infrastructure as we know it could function if everyone had this power, to say nothing of the mind-boggling impact this would have on international trade, what jobs would still be viable, how quickly the police and military would adjust to and recover from the sudden shock of most of what they fight with becoming useless (everyone's also immune to smaller projectiles thanks to another power, so guns are useless even if you sneak up on somebody)...

    Is there some trick to visualizing the implications of a setting like this? Am I supposed to make peace with the fact that I'd have to be some kind of omnidisciplinary genius to portray this at all realistically and just narrow it down to what's interesting? Or is it a lot easier than I'm making it out to be and I just don't know the right way to do it?
     
  2. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Welcome to the site!

    Everything about how the human body works is an electrochemical reaction. If you can "turn off" every organ in the body (or even just the brain) of any random person you want at any random time, then this world is going to become very very scary.

    Which, if that's what you're going for, then I like :twisted:

    It wouldn't. Even if the irresponsible and/or malicious individuals are proportionately uncommon, they would still by the Law of Large Numbers (example: imagine that the odds of a person winning the lottery are 1 in 14 million, but that 15 million people are playing. Or 20 million. Or 50 million) be incredibly common objectively.

    If nothing else, just remember that any idea that you like now might be replaced by a new idea later that you like better, and that you need to explore every possible side of your current idea in order to find the next ones :)
     
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  3. Robert Musil

    Robert Musil Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's an interesting idea...my general advice would be to not stress about it too much. At least you are thinking about the fact that there would be wider implications, something that never even occurs to a lot of people writing in this sort of vein. Don't feel like you need to rush yourself, or build out a comprehensively detailed world which mostly will never be seen by the reader. I'd say as long as you're consistent with how the rules work, and that the story itself holds together in light of the rules, you'll probably be most of the way there.

    With regards to your scenario specifically, I'd say the big question is whether people know who it is that disables a certain piece of machinery. For example, if everyone riding the train in the morning knows exactly which 13 year old it was who made them all late for work, then there are going to be far fewer such pranks than if the person who disabled the train can remain anonymous (and line of sight means they can be very far away from the scene of their mischief--what if they're looking through a telescope?).

    In the absence of any kind of formal or informal sanctions from society, I think there are enough 13 year old hellions out there that we'd be back to the stone age in no time. Unless people were able to hide some machinery away where no one could see it, and access to technology became a tightly controlled thing that only a few people would be trusted with.
     
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  4. Simon Price

    Simon Price New Member

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    Thank you!

    Yes, I figured that out pretty quickly during brainstorming the power, but I decided that living organisms are immune to it because otherwise I'd be giving everyone on earth a psychic mindgun and that would defeat the purpose of eliminating firearms and nukes and stuff. Basically people start to suspect early on that whoever's doing this is doing it specifically to observe how we behave under certain scenarios, whether for research or entertainment, and took modern technology out of combat specifically to make sure that the fancy powers they endowed humanity with actually got used in a fight.

    Yeah, I'm thinking bare minimum that highways and train tracks are blocked as best as possible from outside view and restricted to essential vehicles like emergency services and the transportation of goods, banning civilian travel. Also obviously planes would never fly again, and inter-continental travel would probably be out of the question for at least a year. I was thinking it might be possible for police to keep infrastructure intact if the people who used this power were easily identified and punished, but now I'm not so sure.

    It honestly seems like it'll be much simpler to just assume that there are too many shit people everywhere in the world for a power grid to remain viable, but ideally I'd like a workaround because I really wanted to explore how social media, the internet in general, and popular culture would be impacted by these powers. But perhaps the two ideas can't go together and I have to give up the modern concept of infrastructure if I want to go through with making sure modern technology stays out of combat.

    Interesting piece of advice, thank you!


    Yeah, it's starting to look like some kind of identifying flag will be necessary if I want this to work. Currently the way the power works is that once an hour you can instantaneously blast a spherical area as big in diameter as your average two-lane suburban street is wide, and the blast can affect unseen things as long as you can see the spot where the center of the blast is, and that area will basically be inert to combustion, electricity and chemical reactions for two hours. The only identifying factor right now is that what powers a person has are displayed as a sort of glowing tattoo on their inner forearm and any powers that have cooldowns (like this one) have a sort of "loading progress" pie chart thing around the symbol showing how long until it can be used again. Would that be enough or do you think I need to add a way that it's blatantly obvious who did it?
     
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2017
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  5. daleydale

    daleydale New Member

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    This may not help you, or maybe it will. But really it's YOUR story, and YOU get to define the rules. So if you want something to work in a specific way, then just say it is so and then it is. :)

    It seems like you've thought of ways to combat the no-gooders, anyway. As you write, more will come, I am sure of it. Plus, the more I read your explanation, the more I understand that it would work. If people can just turn technology off at will, people will stop using it because the inconvenience of using it will outweigh the convenience. And that's the goal, isn't it? Eventually terrorists or people with ill intentions would find ways to disrupt technology use, and that would help push society back to a time of no technology.

    Going back and reading your explanations though, it seems like the point is not quite to get rid of technology altogether, but more to prevent its use in war. In that case, why not make a condition of the power that they can only cause warfare technology to stop working? Or is that too simple/obvious?

    Anyway, I would read this book, for sure! Sounds super cool.
     
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  6. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ooh boy sociopolitical implications! My favourite!
    Anyway. My first question would be why you want the swords and sorcery style in combat. Is this central to the feel you want? To the initial idea you had? If this is a later, less important thing it might be better to abandon it than force it to happen.
    I think than in this scenario though, it would definitely impact technology. Especially in scenarios with lots of powers being flashed about. But does the power work in reverse/ there is a counter power? And besides that, everyone has these power right? So it would simple to organise police and military efforts to control the impact. So tech would still be around. Another thing is innovation being what it is, the question becomes when does someone figure out how to block this ability in some way? Whether an implant on tech or redesigning tech. It could make for a great political story to have some large business or advanced country in particular to get such an advantage first. This could mirror stories of the past where tech development is unequal. It immediately raises the possibility of conquest. If they can use it well enough without others getting it they could leverage a real power. And just think of the way that affects social perception of the country regardless of whether they conquer anyone. The jealousy. The view develops of them as snobby elites among many circles, and they may well become snobbier because they have a new pride item. If it's a corporation imagine the demand of others to get use. And the fear of greed's consequences when possessing such an advantage. Anyway that's enough for now.
     
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  7. Simon Price

    Simon Price New Member

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    It's an important part of the story's feel. Basically I want to keep the powers reasonable and not remotely at comic book superpower level while still making the powers actually make a difference in how wars are fought rather than simply being outclassed by our modern technology. I also prefer medieval weapons to modern ones in the sense of it having a more interesting competitive balance with more of an emphasis on individual ability and worth.

    Yeah, I don't like supernatural elements with no real physical logical consistency to them. I like it to be, if not physically clear, at least logically consistent how it works and not anchored in purely human concepts. Take vampire invitations for example. How on earth does magic anchored in such human concepts as property rights and not in any physical attributes of the house itself work? Is there some kind of army of magical lawyer fairies obsessed with defining what is a piece of property, where the boundaries are, what qualifies as an invitation, and who has the right to give it, and they insist on using their magic to play god over where Vampires specifically are permitted to go? If not, then how does any part of it function?

    Even though this mysterious entity(s) could in fact selectively make any technology suddenly not work when used for combat on a case by case basis, I want their influence over the world to be kept strictly to powers they give to humanity.

    What I'm thinking is that since the power doesn't actually interfere with electricity's transit, just its ability to convert that energy into anything that influences the outside world while its traveling through a "deadened" object, power lines and cables in general are largely unaffected and they only have to worry about protecting the plants and the cell towers and the servers and such. I know it's probably more complicated than that and that those metal boxes on utility poles probably do something important in making sure the power flows properly and that if they were to stop working then the electricity would probably set the cables on fire or something the instant the electricity traveled back into normal space, but I think that might be an acceptable break from reality just so that even if vehicles are either no longer a thing or heavily guarded and regulated for the sake of securing our delivery lines, they still have the internet and phones (at least until I decide the latter is narratively inconvenient and the heroes' phones get blasted). Because the internet and mass communication in general are really important to my story. It's how the powers all get consistent names, it's how the system of which powers are legal are not is properly spread to the world, and also I really want to explore how these powers would impact online culture.
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2017
  8. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale "Cue the artillery" Contributor

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    Have you thought about having people be able to counter the effect? If you've got just one person who wants to shut down the train, could the willpower of the other 300 people on it keep it going? If the range of both the original power and the nullification of it was limited, it would still put a stop to most mechanized combat.

    Dunno, just my 2yen.
     
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  9. Simon Price

    Simon Price New Member

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    Thanks for the suggestion, but actually, I think I like the idea of vehicles in general no longer being viable aside from highly regulated government and corporate use for essential things like emergency services and the transport of goods. As long as I can reduce the parts of the infrastructure vulnerable to this power with my "electricity still moves" excuse to justify why this power can't utterly cripple the infrastructure network itself, I actually don't mind if modern vehicles also go out of fashion along with tanks and bombers and battle copters. Especially since one of the things I'm planning on doing is, well...

    ...Okay, so I was pretty inspired by Shadowrun's take on fantasy races where they just kinda appear one day, shaped out of previously human stock by magic due to bizarre births and spontaneous forced shapeshifting. I thought that would be an interesting idea to do, except here it'd be a voluntary process brought about by a few of the powers granting the ability to shapeshift into a member of a new species. Anyway, one of these races is functionally similar to a centaur in the sense that they're humanoid from the waist up and highly mobile and fast, but supremely ungainly when it comes to doing anything but moving along a flat surface, and if modern transportation were severely limited, it'd be fun to work out the role these beings could play in the newly developing economy.


    So I guess the issue I have right now is if anyone has any advice on any strategies they have while worldbuilding to make sure that I don't miss any obvious consequences of the things I put into this world.
     
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  10. Robert Musil

    Robert Musil Contributing Member Contributor

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    I mean, it's not really for me to say, since I don't know what story you're trying to write. Again, the most important thing is to remain consistent with whatever you decide.

    One other thing, which may just confuse you more but I hope I put it in a way that makes sense--maybe focus on the one most basic difference that your fantasy elements add on top of a world which is otherwise just like ours. The description you gave of how the power is used was very cinematic and entertaining, but in terms of plotting out the story we don't need to know that there's a cooldown progress bar, you know? We just need to know that it leaves a visible mark and takes time to recharge. All that visual imagery you can add later, but for thinking through the implications focus on just the most basic things you can. It'll help keep things consistent like I said, because you have less to keep track of in your head (for now), and also I find that the more simply you can conceptualize the fantasy rules the more logically the implications (in terms of society, etc.) will flow, which makes it easier for the reader.

    That's all a bit abstract...the point is I think there's a tradeoff between cool imagery and powerful storytelling devices (like superpowers). You need both to some extent, but you have to balance them. And it's just one of a million tradeoffs you'll have to balance and there's no shortcut or secret formula for how to do it. Sorry.
     
  11. Trish

    Trish ......Lost Contributor

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    I wondered the same as @Iain Aschendale. Or maybe put a limit on it of some kind? Like they can do it but only for 30 seconds.

    Or, even better, they can do it, but they can't control the outcome. Like, they want to shut down one particular thing, but it actually shuts down everything in the area, thereby potentially causing themselves more problems than it's worth? Kind of a self-limiting feature. Like, your superpower is that you can fly, except that you can't control your landing - so, you're going to be a lot more careful about when and where you choose to fly.
     
  12. Commandante Lemming

    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Welcome aboard!

    And no, you don't have to be an omnidisciplinary genius to pull this off. You do have to be willing to do arcane and weird research at times, so there certainly is a jack of all trades aspect to doing something like this (or writing anything frankly), but the big part of that learning curve is learning how to learn just enough to write about something - rather than trying to ingest the entire subject. You're also writing fantasy, so you get a bit more license to make stuff up (only truly HARD SF doesn't have elements of "well, I'll just paper this hole over with fun nonsense.")

    I think your central conceit is fun. Depending on how far you've developed the plot, I think you may have answered your own question on how to develop it by expressing fear about whether humans are decent enough to continue functioning in that scenario. IF that's what scares you about the whole thing, then maybe you've stumbled into your own central philosophical question. It strikes me that it's entirely likely that there would be people who do use this power badly, and people who have a deep sense of altruism and band together to use the power wisely. Exploring the line between those two things could be a lot of fun, especially if your main character is also questioning whether humanity can pull this off.

    Now, as for visualizing implications - I think the only "trick" is to have the realization that there IS NO "RIGHT" WAY TO VISUALIZE THE FUTURE. We don't actually know the answer, and different authors have different views about how things would go under certain circumstances. I do near-future writing, and my near-future looks VERY different from cyberpunk near-futures. That doesn't mean that either I or the cyberpunks are "wrong" (in terms of actual future history, we're ALL wrong) - it just means we're playing with the implications of throwing society down different rabbit holes. Choose a rabbit hole you like and jump down it, and remember that it's YOUR rabbit hole, and that nobody can tell you that it's the wrong hole (If someone tells you that you're miscalculating the societal impact, kindly remind them that all of this is made up, none of it is real - and that if they don't buy your premise, they don't have to read). That's not to say criticism can't help your novel - it can - in fact the harsher the criticism, the better the results. But the one thing you shouldn't budge on is the validity of your world or your characters. It's your world, don't let anyone take it from you.

    In terms of actual worldbuilding. One of the best tricks is to identify your main character and figure out what parts of the world are most detailed to them. A prince will know about jousting and court intrigue, but probably wouldn't know how to make a lance. A blacksmith will know exactly how to make a lance, but is unlikely to need knowledge of the role of jousting in the court. The stuff that your main character doesn't need to know is where you put in less effort - remember, you're not actually trying to build a real world. You're trying to build a CONVINCING ILLUSION of a real world. The stuff closest to the reader needs to be rendered in 3-D detail - but nobody cares if the houses on the horizon are just painted flats, if you get my drift.
     
  13. Simon Price

    Simon Price New Member

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    Everyone, thank you so much for the advice, especially you, Lemming!

    I've been giving it some more thought and thinking about the kind of world I want this to be, what kinds of hardships and difficulties and societal breakdowns would best facilitate conflict and adventure, and I suddenly realized that maybe the "electricity still flows" excuse isn't the way I want to go. Maybe it would be a good idea if exposed power grids become a thing of the past and are so easily disabled that they basically never work. Maybe I should have huge amounts of the world suddenly completely without access to power except for those lucky to have generators or solar panels. I really like this idea, except for one little misgiving.

    I still want there to be the internet. I know that seems weird, but personally the idea of a broken and struggling society still somehow connected by social media really appeals to me, and I want there to still be worldwide communication so that there can actually be standardized names for all of the powers and races and things that happen because of the "event" and connected organized nations can still be a thing. But of course there's no way to have both of these at once.

    ...Except I realized that maybe there is, if I'm willing to bend the rules a tiny bit. You see I recently came up with an idea I might be able to use, since I had a vague idea of a billionaire character who I had never actually decided what he was going to be rich and famous for, and now I have an idea. With just a tiny pinch of sci-fi and a dash of alternate history I can have power grids become a thing of the past but have cell phones and the internet still work.

    Basically this guy invented a form of computer technology that is extremely powerful and energy efficient, but only properly works when surrounded by a vast vacuum. And because of him this story's present has one tiny difference from our own: his technology is used in satellites orbiting all over the planet that allow for phone service and the internet to be completely wireless and done entirely through communication between servers and devices with these powerful satellites sending and receiving all of this data between them, far away from where the humans beneath them can reach it with the techbane power.

    My only misgiving is that it takes away from the "this is our world" aspect to it, and I'm trying to gauge if the narrative benefits are worth it.
     
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  14. daleydale

    daleydale New Member

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    I think that's an awesome idea, and it is worth it! I honestly don't know anything about electrical or telecommunications engineering but from a layman's standpoint, wireless, satellite-base connectivity seems very plausible in "our world". Plus, your story is a little bit sci-fi fantasy so I think you have considerable liberties in what you write. However I would make sure to research a little about the technologies you want to write about if you're afraid of alienating a certain kind of read.
     
  15. Commandante Lemming

    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    That all sounds cool to me. I'd say let it roll around in your head for a few days and see if it sticks or you want to dial it back. Basically, follow your own sense of what's cool, because the key to sticking with a project is liking it enough to power through the hard parts. But I like the way your mind works :)
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2017 at 3:50 AM
  16. Commandante Lemming

    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Also taking the internet all-wireless is a pretty small deviation in day to day life. So it wouldn't make the world too visually different.

    But you're extrapolating well and sometimes the little side realization can build out an entire world and plot. I have one story where the world was based on ancient Manichaeism surviving to become a major religion (really weird belief system). Anyway, one of the little ideas I stumbled on is that if Manichaeans had been the primary colonizers of America, it's possible that the sugarcane industry might never have developed, and along with it the entire concept of candy might not exist (they thought physical pleasure was evil). Now the entire story takes place in a chocolate house in a world where sugar is an expensive luxury good and chocolate is seen as something for the rich and sinful - one of my main character's is the sommelier. So, rabbit trails do have their uses.
     

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