Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

1 Comment

On Worldbuilding: or Why Station Eleven nearly Hit the Wall

The more I write and read SF the more I realise that the world in which a story is set is a character in the story – that background matters to me as a reader and a writer very much, and I think this is true of many other readers.

Worldbuilding is thus an essential element of any book that is classified, whether by writer, readers or critics, as science fiction. It’s a curious skill, not unlike scientific research in some ways. You have to test your world against a variety of questions or thought experiments. If you want a scenario where evil space mining corporations want to strip mine a planet for valuable metal ores you need to explain why they can’t just do this with metal rich asteroids and avoid the (necessary to the plot) oppression of the natives.

Similar questions should be asked about the worldbuidling in fantasy as well. If you have knights wandering around in huge numbers to make your battlefields look spectacular you have to explain where their food and water come from, who made the arms and armour, and who is paying for it all.

This process isn’t just a matter of making the world deeper and more believable, it can also be a route to generating plot ideas. If a battalion of knights get their food supplies cut off there could be an interesting subplot where they have to live off the land and come into contact with the peasants who are suffering to pay for and supply their noble battles. How they interact with the peasants is a great opportunity for character development.

Worldbuilding can be hard work. For recent short stories I’ve published I know far more about their worlds than is on the page. Some of this may emerge in future projects – I’m sure this is a reason why genre writers often set several stories in the same universe – but that is far from guaranteed.

None of this should be news to writers working within the genre, though it is certainly true that some are better at worldbuilding than others. Problems arise, though, when writers who are not as experienced in the genre pay us a visit.

This brings us to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, winner of the 2015 Clarke Award.

I bought this largely on the strength of the award, which has made odd choices in the past but which usually picks something interesting. It’s been on my to-read shelf for a while and I finally got round to it this week.

The majority of the book (I am told) is set 20 years after a plague has devastated the world’s population, but with frequent flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of the plague. This is all ‘I am told’ since I didn’t get beyond the first ~30 pages.

The writing is certainly good, with nice characterisation and well described events and locations (one in fact not dissimilar to something that happened to my Dad several years ago). But there’s a severe problem with the plague that just bumped me out of the whole thing and broke the relationship I had with the book.

The plague that changes the world in ways necessary for the plot is very infectious and very fast acting. From the information in the first chapter it seems you can go from infection to death in about 8 hours. This isn’t without precedent – the 1919 flu pandemic apparently took some people from healthy to dead in 45 minutes – but the Station Eleven plague seems to do this to everyone.

However, the disease is brought to Toronto, where the opening is set, from Moscow on a flight that lasts 10 hours. Anybody who has ever flown knows that it’ll take you rather more than the flight time to get to the airport, check in, wait around departures, arrive, get through immigration, find your luggage and then get out of the airport. Toronto’s patient zero would thus probably have died on the flight and many of the other passengers would already be exhibiting symptoms on arrival, triggering medical alerts, quarantine and the end of the plague.

Of course this also ignores what happened back in Russia before patient zero boards the plane. Why aren’t people dropping like flies there? Or in Georgia where it is meant to have started? Are the Russian authorities so stupid that they want to ignore this problem in the hope that it will just go away? Books that rely on people being universally stupid to drive the plot don’t last long with me.

The problems don’t end there. A deadly and highly infectious disease is certainly something to worry about, but a disease that rapidly kills most of those who catch it is more easily dealt with than one that has a long incubation time (like AIDS). Quarantine works fantastically well for this. You take a hospital with infected patients, stop anybody leaving, and leave it for 48 hours before you send in the teams in hazmat suits. If it takes 8 hours to kill someone infected, after 2 days the only ones left will be survivors (or in Station Eleven‘s scenario, probably nobody). The same principle can be applied more broadly.

A city or nation-wide curfew for 48 hours, even if only weakly enforced, would have a huge impact on the spread of the pandemic, probably stopping it in its tracks. In the context of the book this would be even easier since Toronto is in the grip of a snow storm when the outbreak kicks off. Yes, many would die, and the world afterwards would be different, but the empty world of Station Eleven would not be the result – it would be more like the aftermath of the disease in the film Contagian than what the author was looking for. What gets into the book is a far more implausible plague scenario than the film Outbreak.

Working it out is not difficult. One single afternoon playing Plague Inc. can teach you this, which is why those of us who play the game are so happy when we manage to infect New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Madagascar.

When worldbuilding flaws are as deep and obvious as this I lose confidence in the entire fictional project. Yes, Mandel’s purpose with this book was not to write a virus-beating thriller. The plague is there to provide a backdrop for the changed world she wanted to work with. But if she can’t get simple things write about epidemiology why should I have confidence in anything else the writer is doing, from Shakespeare to the characters? To me, some fundamental contract with the reader is broken with the basic errors made in the first 30 pages.

And these flaws could be corrected fairly easily. The plague could simply work more slowly. If you want a sudden die off then it could be a two stage disease, with mild early symptoms and then a devastating collapse later, with the interim being a period of high infectivity. By the time people start dropping like flies it’s too late. There are actually disease that behave this way – anthrax is one, and there are more twisted options as well, such as syphilis and some of the herpes family. If the author had spoken to some scientists about her scenario this could all have been fixed. This is something I do with the Science for Fiction workshops.

Or the plague, like the war in McCarthy’s The Road could simply just be something that happened in the background, with no real details of how it happened. People could just start dying. No need to invoke the Russians, an impossible patient zero flying from there to Toronto, just a sudden devastating worldwide die off produced by an unknown infectious agent that doctors and scientists are too busy dying to determine or cure. I can buy that – the characters in the first 30 pages have no reason to know more than that. Only the writer wanted to tell me how it happened and got it wrong.

Station Eleven didin’t hit the wall but it nearly did. I’m actually rather surprised that the Clarke judges didn’t have the same reaction.


Edited: title misspelling corrected

Leave a comment

Can UK Science Survive Outside the EU?


Leaving the EU would be a disaster for UK science

Originally posted on In the Dark:

Please watch the following video made by the organization Scientists for EU. You could also read the document referred to in the video (“International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – 2013”) which can be found here.

View original

Leave a comment

PS: Smearing by Mensch, an afterthought

Originally posted on Edinburgh Eye:

I haven’t written anything about the Hugo Awards on this blog, despite having a vote at the 2015 Worldcon, because the extraordinary mess that a few hundred people made of a popular-vote award really seemed to have nothing to do with UK politics, which is, mostly, what I write about here.

Hugo Award 1946 retroThe Hugo Awards are a set of science-fiction awards nominated and voted for by members of the World Science-Fiction Society (WSFS) annually, and presented to the winners at the World Science-Fiction Convention (the Worldcon). Any paid-up member can nominate any eligible work: the works that receive the most nominations are short-listed (generally five works to a short-list, though a tied vote can give six to a short-list). Any paid-up member can vote for any or all of the works short-listed in any category, and the work that receives the most votes wins the Hugo Award for that category. They’re…

View original 1,422 more words

Leave a comment

Science is (even more) Vital (than ever)


The bleak outlook for UK science funding…

Originally posted on In the Dark:

It’s almost five years since I participated in a rally in London to protest against proposed cuts to the UK science budget. Since then research funding has been heavily squeezed by a “flat cash” settlement that threatens the survival our science base, with consequent damaging effects on the long-term future of the economy. This graphic, from a post by Stephen Curry, says it all:

science is still vital

Back in 2010, most of us were relieved that the outcome of the Chancellor’s spending review was a level funding in cash terms, although the decline in real terms funding since then has been enormously challenging across the board. The forthcoming spending review puts us in an even more dangerous situation. After the 2010 election the Coalition government announced a “ring fence” that protected science spending from cash cuts for the duration of the last Parliament (although this has, as the graphic above demonstrates)…

View original 224 more words

Leave a comment

Dodging a bomb: How Hitler tried to kill me from beyond the grave.

I live in London’s East End, in what some my think is a concrete brutalist block of flats not far from Bethnal Green. The block has quite a good community feel and we have an emailing list for discussing various things, including flats to let, good electricians and complaining about our managing agents.

I’m not there at the moment since I’m at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Honolulu. I was thus rather shocked to read in email two days ago that there were police cordons, fire engines and people from the Army surrounding the local neighbourhood.

A bomb had been discovered during work in the basement of a building not far from home, a 500lb German bomb from World War 2. It was probably dropped at the same time as the bomb that levelled the Victorian buildings on the land on which my block was built.

A cordon of 100m was set up around the bomb and everyone inside was evacuated.


Army bomb disposal experts worked on the bomb, to defuse and remove it, but were hampered by the fact that the bomb was inside a building and would have to be taken out through corridors and up stairs.


Sometime on Monday night, at about midnight, it was decided that the cordon should be extended to 300m, taking in my block and some of the major roads in the area. Police went round my building and told people to leave, though their coverage of the building seems to have been rather partial, since some of my neighbours slept through the whole thing. Those evacuated spent the night in a nearby school with facilities provided by Tower Hamlets, our local council.

Eventually, sometime on Tuesday, the bomb was finally defused and removed.


Everything is fine now, but the bomb was described as being capable of ‘mass destruction’ if it had gone off.


An overseas PhD student in the UK speaks out

I thought I had posted this already, but it seems the iPad WordPress app ate that post (apologies if it somehow arrives twice).

Anyway, this account by a overseas (ie. not UK or EU) PhD student in the UK demonstrates how the Home Office’s xenophobia, motivated by a wish to pander to the gutter press and UKIP, is making the UK universities actively hostile to them. Far from the stated position of wanting to attract the ‘best and brightest’ to the UK, the Home Office now is trying to make life as difficult as possible for them, and for the institutions hosting them.

More than that, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has told universities to develop a financial basis that is less dependent on overseas students fees, and is making it far harder for overseas PhDs to get jobs in the UK after qualifying. I know several PhDs who want to stay and contribute to the UK – one who even had a job lined up – who worry about or who have had to leave the country because of May’s new restrictions. These are just the people that industry and research need – the best and brightest of the world – but May wants them sent home.

Higher education is a UK success story now being put at risk by short term, short sighted xenophobia from the Home Office.

Vince Cable was prepared to fight May on these issues in the last parliament. What hope do we have now when there’s a strong chance she’ll take over from Cameron in less than 5 years?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 881 other followers