[GUEST POST] Jack Campbell Says Sometimes World Building is About What You *Can’t* Do

Jack Campbell” is the pseudonym for a retired Naval officer (and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis). He lives with his family in Maryland.

In THE LOST FLEET series, wouldn’t it be nice if…Actually, no, it wouldn’t

by Jack Campbell

I once listened to another student giving a report on an ancient battle. “He should have used a lot of cavalry to outflank his opponent,” the student said of the losing general. But, the professor pointed out, the losing general didn’t have a lot of cavalry. “He should have,” the student persisted.

I have seen that a lot in discussions about history. “He should have done this.” “She should have done that.” But, they couldn’t, because (for them) those “solutions” were out of reach. That is history in a nutshell. It isn’t what people wished they could accomplish, it was what happened when people did what they could with what they had.

Which really does have something to do with writing.

Writers build the worlds of our stories. In SF, that means establishing the technology and science that exist in that future or alternate reality or whatever. Usually, that is thought of in terms of what the tech and the science can do. For example, the jump drives in The Lost Fleet allow human spacecraft to travel between adjacent stars within periods of days or weeks. Such capabilities set the stage for the story.

But it is at least as important to decide what your science and tech cannot do. The limits on those things are often critically important to the story. Think of it in terms of real-life (or history). “If Lee had reconnaissance aircraft at Gettysburg, he would have won.” Maybe. But he didn’t have aircraft. He had to fight the battle with the army he had. At any point, what cannot be done is as critical to what happens as what can be done.

In The Lost Fleet, that translates into decisions like enforcing the light-speed limit in normal space. That doesn’t just mean that spaceships in a star system are limited in how fast they can go, it also means that communications and their view of everything around them is similarly limited. By deciding on that real limitation instead of using some mysterious means of instantaneous communication across light years, the sheer enormity of space comes across in ways otherwise hard to explain. “1,079,252,848 kilometers away” doesn’t mean anything because we have no way as humans to relate to such distances. But if I say it takes a hour for light to get from here to there, that’s something we can all grasp. It also throws in real complications caused by those distances. How do you coordinate action, how do you know what is happening, when you are seeing events which are an hour old and it will take an hour for your urgent message to reach someone there?

The importance of limits on what characters can do is immensely important to any story. Drama and conflict come from what we can’t do even though we wish we could, and from what we have to do instead. In The Lord of the Rings, most of the characters want to either use the ring for good, or destroy it immediately, but neither of those things is possible. Frodo has to take the ring to Mount Doom because other (easier) options are impossible. An internal limitation is the most important of all. Frodo (like Bilbo before him) can’t bring himself to kill Gollum. In the end, that saves the day.

In The Lost Fleet (and SF in general) this plays out in terms of saying what your tech cannot do, and what actions it then forces upon the characters. Just as in real life, wanting something and having something are two different things. And, just as in real life, having to make do with what you have requires sometimes tough and always imperfect decisions.

Sticking to that forces me to write better. Characters who find themselves in a tough situation have to find a way out consistent with what their technology can do and consistent with what they (as people) would or would not do. In Victorious, I realized that a major battle was shaping up as simply too easy for the good guys. So I came up with a trap for the bad guys to spring. It was a great trap. It was such a great trap that I couldn’t figure out how my characters could win. It took me months to figure out a solution, but that solution was entirely consistent with the tech in my universe. The battle became a tough one, victory uncertain, and the story much stronger.

In my new book Guardian, the war has been won and the characters just need to get home. But it won’t be easy, because of what they can’t do, and what their enemies can do. Just like real life.

One thought on “[GUEST POST] Jack Campbell Says Sometimes World Building is About What You *Can’t* Do”

  1. “If Lee had reconnaissance aircraft at Gettysburg, he would have won.”

    Not if Meade had AA guns and SAMs!

    But in all seriousness, very well said – and not something I had really ever considered.

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