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by Chris Wayan, 2006

Back to Planetocopia


I start with a hazy idea--size, heat, wetness, atmosphere, ruggedness. Then comes the math--before a model, before a map, before anything. Math is the bones. Not every detail, but the major features. They must be solid and consistent before I can go on, because they interact. For example, satellites affect tidal drag affects internal heating causes vulcanism affects carbon dioxide affects surface temperature affects water content affects water vapor affects temperature again... on and on. I can't convey the complexity of these feedback loops in words; here's a sketchmap of some of the more obvious factors:

diagram of some factors affecting biospheres: water, temperature, etc.

Like the title said: juggling weasels.

The checklist to determine whether a world encourages complex civilization is, paradoxically, much shorter:

It sounds very naïve, but they all boil down to these. The devil is in the precursors: the multiple factors leading to these simple things. So the construction process involves lots of adjustments until the numbers look reasonable. Even if no bugs show up, building something as detailed as a world is a long process.

But not a sophisticated one, exactly. You can do it with simple arithmetic, no higher math and not much physics, either: just extrapolate from the figures in any pocket guide to our own planets. Just be careful: each factor affects so many others. Sudoku in space!


Here are a few basics for beginning deities:

My personal workflow looks much like the above: I rough out the idea astronomically, then zoom in on the planet's mass, gravity, size, density, atmospheric pressure, total water, approximate temperature, spin, and so on. I need this foundation first. Chris Wayan sitting by Lyr, a big papier-mache planet in blue and white (the land's still unpainted).

Next I get physical. I find an old globe, razor off its mountains, gesso it thinly (I like the meridians to show through faintly) and start adding relief. It's white on white still--just a spherical abstract sculpture--and the patterns have to please before I'll go on. When I'm sure of the sea level (which can take a while since more than water content affects it--remember temperature and glaciation), I paint in lakes and oceans, covering them with gloss varnish. Next, I just stare and spin. The globe, I mean. For months. My unconscious is trying to work out all the tangled feedback loops determining climate. Each region depends on all the others (the "butterfly effect") so this is slow.

Only when I'm pretty confident of the overall pattern do I start coloring the land: red desert, green woods, golden prairie, white snow... more months! Takes me nearly an hour per square inch--not the first time, but after you factor in all the repainting as I correct the system. And it always needs correction.

When the globe's done, photograph it before a black backdrop. Correct the contrast, add atmosphere and stars in low-orbital shots.

Oh, and start drawing a world map--it'll be revised a million times, so get started early.

Here's a piechart I use to track in a glance what's completed in the workflow. I've scrawled the approximate order of tasks as I meander through the pie. An intelligent person would rearrange it so tasks are in chronological order, but I never have. Instead it's divided by content:

  1. SCIENCE: basic facts and numbers; consistency
  2. MAPPING: physical model; world map; regional maps
  3. TOURS: safe routes; list of features seen; local maps and orbital photos; sketches of scenery, local people, culture; anecdotes, adventures, travel advisories, plausible chronology
  4. CREATURES: a chart of all species with thumbnail photos and capsule descriptions leading to full articles on each species with portraits and a range map
  5. REFERENCE TOOLS (in center): links and navigation bars; names; a gazetteer listing the location, character and size of every named feature; latitude and longitude; scales for the maps; definitions of special terms.
complex pie-chart of the work needed to build a planetary model: theory, globe, maps, creatures, tours, indexes

Back to the computer now! Invent some names--planets are big, so you'd better coin hundreds of them. Try it! Not so easy after the first few dozen, is it? And they'd better sound natural--languages that the critters of this new world could pronounce. Now convert these bare lists of names into dictionary entries and links to (not yet written) regional tours. Add latitudes and longitudes and the scale of each feature--height, depth, area... Tedious! But you need to know your world. Write descriptions of each feature. These will be the bones of your tours soon, so get them right. Any unusual terms need defining? Probably.

Next, sit with the globe and figure out how to divide it into regions to tour. On some worlds you have obvious geological or ecological regions, and the only problem is to choose scenic routes that'll link together into a seamless web. But on some desert worlds and sea-worlds, tours aren't easy: you must design flyways, caravan routes or shipping lanes that cover your globe without killing your tourists!

sketchmap of the dangerous points on the flyways of Lyr, a sea-world with scattered islands.
For example, on Lyr (my original sketchmap, above) the natives fly between distant continents along island-chains; but tourists in strap-on wings will lack their endurance. I had to calculate the widest island-gaps and consider prevailing winds to work out what tour routes were even possible without murdering all my readers. You're the guide; it's your job to keep 'em breathing. Sometimes literally. On rugged, thin-aired Tharn, many passes are so high even the locals would asphyxiate...

When you have safe routes, string together the gazetteer entries you wrote until you have a logical narrative sequence describing the ground features along each path. Just an outline now; style and color can wait. Drop in roughs of any orbital photos or maps that you need; and start sketching landscapes where they seem appropriate. chart of possible placement of illustrations in a web tour of a model planet

Your world's still empty. Write up a simple evolutionary history--just what sort of place is this? Do you have a sense of who lives here and why? Make a table of creatures, with thumbnail descriptions. As this firms up, you can start drawing portraits. As the info on each species expands, start a page for each one and collect your ideas there. Make a miniature of your world map and clone it into small maps where you can mark the range and origin of each creature. Now write detailed articles on each species, linking them to the table. More portraits? Sure.

About this time, I make a chart of my illustrations and the (multiple) places they might be used; for example, a portrait of a centauroid might be appropriate in the article on its species but also in a couple of regional tours too. When you'll have dozens of pages and illustrations, such a chart really helps. It's just what databases are for, but I've always just used pencil and paper. Chaque a son gout. Here's a sample from Lyr, with the page-names along one axis and illustrations on the other.

Inevitably, all this time, you'll be expanding and revising those tours as you get to know the locals better, and have more illustrations to add... All these tours need regional maps, too--do you have them? Blow up sections of the world map and add details. I save maps in GIF format despite its limited number of colors; JPG format blurs text, and your names need to be clear.

Keep the file sizes down; not everyone has a fast web connection! No image should be over 100K. So compress JPG images as much as possible, and limit GIF colors to 16 at most--it'll cut the file sizes in half.

Rewriting and adding illustrations can go on for months. But when it feels done at last, test all the links...


So far I've just described techniques and workflow. Craft, not art.

Now comes the issue of style. But that's so subjective it's hard to address. My last big art project was deeply personal--the World Dream Bank and its book offshoot, Dreamtales. I stripped myself naked on that one--dreams, whew! Planetocopia is a reaction, I guess--something lighter, more... deniable? Objective, or at least with a mask of scientific plausibility! So I build worlds I'd like to live in--pleasant, scenic, furry/multispecies, pacifist, feminist. Your artistic needs may be quite different. My point is, know your biases. Not to repress them--to indulge them! That's what makes your world interesting. Just get the numbers right too; that makes your world convincing. You want both.

I'm still struggling with the issue of presentation-style--even going back and changing earlier planets. The only advice I have is negative:

  1. High-end animation and intense interactivity are expensive and time-consuming to do right, and you can't possibly compete with the slam-bam seductiveness of games or Hollywood films. So why even try? On the other hand, they're weak on ideas. There, you CAN compete. A cretin could. So focus on text and simple illustrations--they're the most efficient way to convey your ideas.
  2. Stylistically, obvious is good and humor helps. You're showing complex unfamiliar data; you can't afford sophisticate literary devices like, say, the Unreliable Narrator. Science fiction writers struggle with this all the time, and their rule of thumb is: the more alien the content, the plainer the style... or you start losing readers.
  3. Bad vibes are common now. Good vibes are rare. Check any science fiction shelf; dystopia outnumber utopias ten to one. Economists tell us rarity creates value. So why not stand out?

Planetocopia, home page for all my biospheres: Tilt!, Futures, the Biosphere Variations, and Caprices

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