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[GUEST POST] J. Kathleen Cheney on Worldbuilding Underground in DREAMING DEATH

J. Kathleen Cheney is nothing if not versatile in her story telling, but weaving through her work is a common thread, that of the improbable heroine. From worlds set in humanity’s distant post-apocalyptic future to alternate worlds of today or of the near past, Kathleen’s heroines include a siren who with help from a gentleman of the city must stop a regicidal plot, the neglected daughter of an absent king coming to terms with her shapeshifting ancestors, a blind teenager who dreams of others’ deaths and who uses her gift of touch to find their killers, and the widow of a trainer who with a most unusual horse must save her farm and way of life. All use their unusual gifts and talents to overcome obstacles and find their place in the world.

In 2005 Kathleen decided to pursue writing as a full-time endeavor and has since enjoyed seeing her stories published in Shimmer, The Sword Review, and Baen’s Universe. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2011 Nebula nominee. Kathleen twice attended the summer Writer’s Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction under the tutelage of James Gunn. She lists C. J. Cherryh, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Georgette Heyer among the writers who influenced her most–as well as Ansen Dibell, whose ghostly fingerprints can be seen all over her work.

Worldbuilding Underground

by J. Kathleen Cheney

What exactly happens when you’re going to bury a people? When they’re going to be put in an enclosed structure, not to emerge for…well, a very long time? We don’t have a lot of precedent for that, and while a submarine might be comparable in some ways, one is usually only there for a span of months, not centuries.

In my new series, the Palace of Dreams novels, one race of people, collectively known as the Six Families, live in ancient underground dwellings called Fortresses. Having those Fortresses underground meant that I had to make a lot of decisions before starting to write. I had to consider the location of each Fortress in terms of geologic stability, geologic composition of the nearby land, and where the Fortress stood in relation to groundwater. Then came all the aspects of construction, both physical and psychological that make such a place feasible. It’s actually quite daunting.

I wasn’t too surprised to find that there are people out there who research underground dwelling, often in the interests of reducing population pressures. There are a lot of books that cover the topic; not only the difficulties of building a lasting underground dwelling, but also the psychological effects on the inhabitants. In fact, my favored textbook on the subject (Underground Space Design, by John Carmody and Raymond Sterling, 1993) split the text between those two imperatives. While Sterling tackles the physical building, Carmody talks about the psychological effects of living and working in such a building. It’s from the two of them that I took many of my cues.

Some things stuck out as more important than others to me. For example, there should be a safe refuge on every level, a place to which residents can retreat to escape fire, water, or problems with the ventilation in other sections. That part should have its own ventilation, which means the building must have not only two ventilation systems, but also at least two ways to get back up to the ground. Therefore, I had to think of how that would be set up in my Fortresses. The Fortress also needs to have a simple layout due to the lack of visual landmarks to guide visitors. Too many twists or turns and it becomes a maze. They need spacious halls and enough stairs to allow for egress in emergency. A lot of safety considerations figured into my mental layout of my Fortresses (although an awful lot of that worldbuilding does not make it into the first book.)

But there are psychological ramifications of being underground to consider as well.

The lack of windows, sunlight, and variability in temperature all mean that there are lower levels of stimulation often leading to that dissatisfaction with the environment. Workers generally feel more isolated and unhappy in underground work spaces. (Oddly, one of the underground facilities that bucked the trend in a 1983 study was the complex near Kansas City–now called SubTropolis–where workers were comparatively satisfied with their workplace, apparently due to its novelty.) Then there’s the worry about collapse, claustrophobia, and a lack of spatial orientation (because if you can’t see the building, it’s more difficult to create a mental map of it.)

So if I’m trapping my characters in there for centuries, I had to make an effort to make the place livable for them. Studies found that underground workers often feel claustrophobic, so they need large open spaces. They need artificial sunlight. That not only helps with their mental state, but allows for plants to be grown underground as well. Since many workers feel a greater sense of isolation when working underground, they need the capacity to work together in groups.

And then there’s that lack of stimulation issue. Underground you won’t have weather or any change with the seasons. The temperature tends to be static. Since there are no windows, you can’t look outside and watch traffic moving or children playing. Therefore, for my setting I started off with inhabitants selected for their ability to tolerate low levels of stimulation. Over many generations, they’ve honed that serenity into a skill. By the time they become the guardians of the Anvarrid, their tolerance for…well, boredom…makes them excellent watchmen. (It also makes them easily over-stimulated, but that’s a totally different topic.)

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the same psychological factors came into play in a spaceship or space station, where you could never truly escape that unrelenting sameness of a man-made world. In fact, there are now skyscrapers being designed to be enclosed cities (look up the Shanghai Tower, for an example of that) that share many of the same design elements as those needed for underground buildings. So if you’re considering the design for a space station, a massive domed colony, or a giant enclosed city, you might start with looking into buildings that already exist, because when I started researching, I was surprised by how many of these underground complexes there already are.

And not all of them are recent. People have been living in cave systems and in mines for ages. If you’ve any doubt about that, look up Derinkuyu in Turkey, the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland, or the Underground City in Iran (about which I can’t seem to find much information, drat it all!). In fact, there’s a TV series on the History Channel called Cities of the Underworld that, while a touch overly dramatic, can kickstart a love affair with the underground in almost anyone. So if you’re looking for an interesting place to be (or read about) try thinking about what’s under your feet.

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