Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.
At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, three living things (human or not) around the world will be fully granted their hearts' desires.
Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry, and criticism. She is the science fiction and fantasy columnist for the New York Times Book Review and the co-author, with Max Gladstone, of This Is How You Lose the Time War, a novella which has received several honours including the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, and Locus Awards. She lives in Ottawa.
My own wish was that I’d be telling you about how a sea turtle wished to never encounter another plastic bag in the ocean at the precise moment that a polar bear wished it had more ice to stand on, and consequently all the plastic in the ocean turned into ice overnight, stopping or reversing decades’ worth of global warming and giving us all a fresh chance to avert climate catastrophes and dismantle the corporations determined to ensure them.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, dispersed and distributed as it is, would become a single, giant floe 300 nautical miles across (and require glossaries to coin new terms for pack ice, because “giant” heretofore referred to a floe 5.4 nautical miles wide). The Arctic—boasting the highest concentration of microplastics on the planet—would suddenly find itself shored up, bolstered, bulked, by more than 12000 particles of wish-ice per liter of sea ice.
But I am not an ecologist and could not begin to tell you how the sudden reappearance of trillions of tons of ice in the ocean would, in and of itself, affect our weather patterns and coastlines; I am not a marine biologist, and could not do more than speculate about how the icy transformation of microplastics inside the bodies of marine life might abrade their organs in the moments before melting into fresh water; I am certainly not a physicist or mathematician with a napkin or envelope to hand, able to scribble formulae to approximate the consequences of these transformations, or how swiftly the supermassive ice floe in the Pacific would melt at that latitude, and whether the Arctic would be renewed enough to offset that, or whether we’ll all just drown a little faster when the wish-ice melts.
So often the desire to return to a lost past elides the necessity of upheaval—elides the cost, and who pays it.
But let us grant (as it were) that at any given moment millions of creatures are obtaining their heart’s wishes without supernatural intervention. At any given moment, a tree longs for sunlight and receives it; a hawk’s talons enclose prey; a rabbit escapes an owl; a small boy paints his fingernails a bright, beautiful colour; a hungry woman in a warm room devours a huge bowl of pasta; a brilliant, generous writer asks their friend for some wishes.
So I’ll return to my own wish: my wish to tell you about the sea turtle and the polar bear and the ice and plastic. My wish to tell you about them is not an ecologist’s, or a biologist’s, or a physicist’s or a mathematician’s; it isn’t an expert’s, and it isn’t knowledgeable about very much. It’s a storyteller’s wish, and a reader’s wish, for a happy ending—for the anchoress’ promise that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
I wished to tell you that the plastic vanished, the ice appeared, and everything turned out fine.
And that wish came true too.
Becky Chambers is a science fiction author based in Northern California. She is best known for her Hugo Award-winning Wayfarers series. Her books have also been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the Women's Prize for Fiction, among others. Her most recent works are The Galaxy, and The Ground Within (the fourth and final Wayfarers novel), and A Psalm for the Wild-Built (the first of her Monk and Robot novellas).
None of them knew where the plane tickets came from, any more than they knew who had arranged the hotel reservations, or placed the notes containing a time and an address and a line of instructions upon their respective pillows. All of them should’ve stayed home. It was a stupid, dangerous thing to do without question. But sometimes, when you get stuck, the only things that make sense are stupid and dangerous. Sometimes, that’s the right thing to choose.
They sat at a picnic table in a city none of them had been to before, and it took no time to figure out that they didn’t share a language. There were three of them: a woman discovering adulthood, an elderly person nearing the end, and a man in the middle, his hair peppered gray. They all had their phones in hand, and were hurriedly punching translations into the requisite apps, asking if any of them knew what none of them did. They made small talk, if you could call it that, uncovering scraps of each other as parsed through awkward algorithms. They learned each other’s names, and did their best to say them correctly. None of them pulled it off, but no offense was taken. On the contrary, the silences were incredibly comfortable, and the strange company felt safe. Whatever this was, there was no reason to fear.
The young woman followed her instructions first. Play your song, her note had read. She unzipped the guitar case she wore on her back, and pulled out the second-hand instrument she’d bought with what she could scrounge from a grocery store paycheck. She didn’t need to think about the chords, or the wordless humming. It was always there, on the tips of her fingers and the edges of her teeth. She’d played it for others before – her friends, her co-workers, the few dozen strangers who’d clicked one of her videos before moving swiftly on. The song wasn’t catchy, and it wasn’t pretty. It’s kind of intense, her friends had said. Why don’t you make up something you could dance to? But she didn’t want to dance. She wanted to play this, and she had, over and over, until her fingers ached and her roommates had a talk with her in the kitchen about how maybe it would be best if she practiced when no one else was home.
She played her song for the strangers. She kept her eyes on the frets so she wouldn’t chicken out. She grit her teeth. She let it flow. And when she finished, a little breathless, a little shaky, the other two were looking at her. They were serious, but they nodded, and they asked her to play it again. They understood.
The oldest of their number was a museum guard, and had been for decades. They spent their days in a corner in a too-cold gallery, listening to audiobooks and kindly asking visitors to please not touch. Explain your theory, their note had read. Their hands shook as they pulled the old brick of a laptop from their bag – not because it was too heavy, but because they knew what would come next. It would be exactly the same as when they submitted their endlessly-revised paper for publication, or tried to hand a neatly-printed copy of it to speakers at conferences, or watched their family members glance knowingly across holiday dinners when the topic came up. Rejection, always, no matter if it was laughing or polite.
But they explained their theory to the strangers, using slides and diagrams, letting the translation app speak for them. It was all connected, they explained. Physics and novels, economy and chemistry, trees and symphonies and war and nebulae. If you devoured enough books and stood in the presence of enough art and let it all cross-pollinate, it was obvious – so elegantly obvious – there was a pattern running through. There was a theory of everything.
The strangers listened, intently. They asked questions, pursed their lips, thought hard. They didn’t grasp the particulars, because it was all so new, and they hadn’t read the same things, or seen the same stuff. But they saw the connections, and more importantly, the passion. They understood.
The man in the middle didn’t know what to say. Tell someone, his note read. He knew exactly what it meant. There was no mystery in it. But saying it – that was the hard part, especially in light of what the other two had just done. He’d felt oddly comforted when they’d first shared their jobs, because he worked behind a computer in an open-plan office with huge beanbags and beer on tap, and that seemed cool, compared to what they did, even if he couldn’t explain what the point of his job actually was, because he didn’t really know. But now, now he saw that he was among people both brilliant and beautiful, and he had nothing of equal value to give. He sat there at the picnic table, looking down at the sun-bleached wood, feeling the waiting gaze of people he was sure to disappoint. And he would disappoint them. That’s how it went with everybody, himself most of all.
So he picked up his phone, and he typed out the truth for the strangers. I’m so lonely, he wrote. I’m nothing special. I make nothing. I do nothing. I’m not very smart. No matter what I do, nothing changes. I don’t belong anywhere. I’m afraid it’ll always be like this.
He translated it, twice. The other two looked at him, then at each other. They stood up, and held him, and proved him wrong. They understood.
Both of these possibilities are just beginnings. Amal’s wish-ice is a heart-mending examination of the way our entire world could be transformed by the idle wishes of two creatures who will never meet each other; it’s also an exploration of the way we all make wishes, every day, and we all make our wishes come true in small and huge and beautiful and simple ways.
Becky's wishers, meanwhile, offer a stunning glimpse into the ways we grant wishes to each other – by paying attention, by opening up, and by listening. Even when there are communication barriers between us, we can still try to understand, this story says; it opens up a narrative about connection and longing.
What would your creatures wish for? What might their fulfillment mean to the world you create?
Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.
The fifth and final issue of my debut comic miniseries EAT THE RICH is out in the world! Find it at your local comic shop or order it from the BOOM! Studios webstore! If you prefer digital, EAT THE RICH #5 is also available at comiXology, Google Play, Kindle, and Apple Books.
In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.
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