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One of the challenges the WIP presents me with is living up to the potential of the setting's central conceit without getting catastrophically sidetracked. I could write stories in even the setting as it is as the WIP opens for the rest of my life without exhausting its potential, though this is unlikely to happen because, as usual, what I'm most interested in doing is taking a good hard look at said central conceit and then breaking it. What I really need is a thriving fanfic community to do the work for me. Sign up in the comments.

For those of you just tuning in, of which I am pretty sure there are none, this conceit is that periodically stuff falls from the sky that any untrained sophont¹ can cause to turn into more or less any noun -- objects, creatures, and abstract things like 'my ability to fly' or 'the fourth primary color' or 'Beethoven's Fifth'. Most of this stuff is not around any more because some idiot made a type of creature that can replicate itself (given access to more stuff from the sky) and, once it's replicated enough, has both the ability and the inclination to establish a hegemony over all or most of humanity, whittle down the numbers of or outright exterminate other sorts of creatures, and track down most of the objects and the more annoying abstract concepts and destroy or repurpose them.

Aside from the rings of the gas giant it orbits being partly made out of magic stuff, the physics of this world are mostly as you'd expect, and the only ways to break the laws of physics are to be made of magic stuff or have the assistance of it (q.v. 'my ability to fly'). However, that leaves a tremendous amount of room for things that could not come about without supernatural assistance but which are not themselves supernatural, and the tone of the setting demands that these things be fairly bizarre. The second type of weird creature introduced in the first five hundred words of the WIP is a kind of semi-sentient biological aerostat that looks roughly like a ctenophore, which is a category so diverse that this comparison is actually, technically, accurate. I had assumed initially that they were magic, but outside of my prejudices about creatures that no sensible evolutionary process would give rise to, there's no reason for them to be. It's quite possible to turn magic stuff into creatures that can produce mundane offspring, or to turn it into a factory for producing such things -- I've mentioned cornucopia machines before.

This becomes a problem because there's no reason for the setting not to be seething with weird shit of varieties that I don't want to deal with. What's the first thing you'd do if you had a machine you could configure to produce any one thing? I'd start making sex toys, because that's where the money is and, well, because my interests are fairly narrow. But I don't want to have to deal with a self-reproducing race of robot girlfriends. There's a whole book in that, for one thing, and for another thing, a dozen people have already written that book.² More importantly, I want to write this book, which does not have room in it for me to deal with the implications of robot girlfriends; yet I can't ignore those implications if I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror.

Some of it I can handwave. Robot girlfriends that you can breed in your backyard are ... extraordinarily disgusting, I realize now that I've written that phrase, but they're also bad for business. Things that can reproduce are probably more along the lines of weird A Wizard Did It-style biological experiments. The cultures that had robot girlfriends, and I'm sure some cultures did, have been dead or subjugated for between twenty and a hundred years; most of those things are probably out of commission now, because planned obsolescence. I can deal with one or two robot girlfriends, just not one in every driveway.

Hmm. I may have just talked myself into feeling better about this.

Now that I'm thinking about it, this raises questions about Nishimura's friend the revolting monster. He is designed to have some specifically conditioned magic stuff plugged into himself; he can function without it, but it's as basic a drive for him as eating. It's also fantastically illegal, and he could care less about that, but it makes it damn difficult to get ahold of the magic stuff he needs. He is probably my primary villain, though there is another contender for the job. I had assumed he belonged to some race of magic-stuff creature that is given just enough stuff not to go extinct³, of which there are several, but he may actully be some kind of weird android. I'm not sure I like that, though. It makes his appalling physical appearance seem improbable somehow -- which is an arbitrary, irrational judgement, but, well, it's my party.

On the other side of the coin from all this I have the problem of making sure there's enough weird shit in the world for the conceit of the setting to feel sufficiently explored. Nothing drives me crazier than an interesting premise that the author never goes anywhere with. I don't have enough thoughts about this to make a full paragraph, it turns out. There it is. This irritates me, because my brain usually spits this stuff out in something very close to essay format; I feel like I've tried to step up onto a stair that isn't there. Good thing I'm not getting paid for this.

Nor do I have any closing remarks!

¹ But training helps, if you want consistent or precise results.

² I'm sure a couple of people have already written this one, but I have yet to encounter their versions of it, and until such time as I do, I don't care.

³ He needs more stuff plugged into him because he is supposed to be, more or less, a human being with magic powers of some kind I haven't devised yet, and it's impossible to make anything that complex from a single unit of magic stuff. You can make a full-featured human being (or other sophont with a biology), but as soon as you start adding supernatural abilities you have to compensate by taking away other types of complexity, like the personality, or the fingers. And that's if you have a really good unit; it would actually take about one and a half of an average one to make a human being. This is all relevant to the plot.

4 Who I don't even like. I was so disappointed. I was halfway into Perdido Street Station before I felt like the plot had started, and to get there I had to wade through piles of dialogue that is frequently horrible. Aspects of the setting are delicious, but none of them are central enough to Perdido Street Station to keep me reading. Are his later books better? Did he ever, say, figure out that nobody fucking talks like that?

Date: 2008-11-16 05:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is one of the problems I had with my gay steampunk anime changey-things setting. That people (especially 'white' people i.e. vaguely white, vaguely Asian, vaguely anime people who, being the dominant race and culture who thoroughly suppressed magical abilities in other races and cultures, therefore called themselves white...and there's the tip of another aspect of the setting that got terribly unwieldy to deal with) could change Stuff at will gave rise to the central conceit of a class of magic-users who were feared and persecuted for their ability to change souls. But it also meant I had to deal with the implications of an entire society of people who were both post-scarcity and in some ways tremendously 'technologically' advanced without giving them too much power. Not to mention just what it meant to change 'souls' in the first place. Goddammit, I just wanted to write about my exiled prince's mysterious abilities and his hot steampunk assassin boyfriend!

If it makes you feel any better...if a magic something-producing machine is designed without perfect specifications as to what it makes (the creator focusing more on the effects than the appearance, for example), I don't see why its products shouldn't look like revolting monsters. Nothing particularly amazing about pretty human-shaped things, as far as the universe is concerned.

As for China Mieville, who you seem to have left out your initial reference to, leaving only a lonely footnote hanging there like a haunting, no. His later books in that setting actually get progressively worse than Perdido Street Station. I did like his book of short stories, though, or at least most of it. The vampire/mirror-people one, you had to wade entirely through in order to discover that it had no ending.

Date: 2008-11-16 05:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Goddammit, I just wanted to write about my exiled prince's mysterious abilities and his hot steampunk assassin boyfriend!

Why can't I eat my waffle?

As for China Mieville, who you seem to have left out your initial reference to, leaving only a lonely footnote hanging there like a haunting, no.

Oops. Apparently the reason I felt like there was more to say that I just couldn't locate was that I deleted a phrase that was making this sentence awkward, and then forgot to put it back in somewhere else:

I have the problem of making sure there's enough weird shit in the world for the conceit of the setting to feel sufficiently explored, without looking like I'm trying to be China Mieville.

I'm so amused by this that I'm going to leave it the way it is.

The vampire/mirror-people one, you had to wade entirely through in order to discover that it had no ending.

Oh, my god. I try hard to separate my opinions of people other than Frank Quitely from my opinions of their work, but fuck it: anyone who does that is a bad person.
From: [identity profile] (from
If people can do this, and the stuff has been falling from the sky for just ages, why hasn't it been evolutionarily incorporated into the setting?

There would be all manner of metabolic pathways for the magic stuff; little crawling beasts that need three chunks to go from being a blind salamander in a cave to Ancalagon the Black, perhaps not, but trees that make ants to eat the aphids seems entirely likely.

It's very tricky to make magic a separate thing, that came into being strictly when sophont creatures did, and noticed it, if you also have an evolutionary context, since in that context there needs to be something being exapted as the basis of the ability to manipulate magic.
From: [identity profile]
There's a lot I still don't know about this setting yet, and one of those things -- partly because the only major characters who may care I don't know much about yet either -- is whether there was a biosphere on this moon at all before some sophonts showed up (through whatever means) and installed one. It's not out of the question that the entirety of what biosphere there currently is is directly the result of magical and other tampering. In the no-biosphere scenario, the sophonts would have arrived to find a lot of magic stuff just lying around. Also a fairly horrible landscape: many of the rocks that fall from the sky are just rocks, and these tend to be the big ones. Aside from the business with the magic, this moon is not exactly a plum.

Presuming the existence of a biosphere pre-sophonts, that magic stuff would still be lying around unused: it responds powerfully to sophonts but only to them. The jury is still out about what exactly constitutes sentience; for the purposes of argument I'm going to arbitrarily define it as the ability to interpret and construct recursive sentences on the fly, not because that is itself relevant but because it's symptomatic of the presence of a number of other cognitive tools. This means magic stuff wouldn't work for, say, a chimpanzee, or a crow, or an elephant. Trees are right out. (It also might not work for a monoglot Fith (, which demonstrates a flaw in the model.)

There's probably some kind of very intense anthropic principle thing happening here. If you put on a blindfold and throw a handful of magic space rocks at a group of sophonts distributed randomly inside the range of your throw, every rock will hit a person. Almost all sophonts will prefer fiddling around with magic space rocks to other elective activities.