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.
How do you go about communicating with a mountain to prevent it from pursuing its ambition of becoming a volcano?
Kacie Winterberg’s mom once told her that the most interesting people were the ones that didn’t know what they wanted to “be” when they were 20, or 30, or 60, since they led the most interesting lives, always reinventing themselves. Kacie has been a teacher, an animal trainer at a zoo, an elementary school vice principal, and a designer. Here, she offers a helpful script for approaching a difficult conversation.
Winterberg: Well this prompt was very tricky for me because, in general, I try not to spend too much time convincing my friends not to pursue their dreams. And I absolutely consider all mountains as friends. But I do understand that volcanoes can be very dangerous and that perhaps it is a good idea for me to convince a friend not to do something that would endanger themselves or the general multitude. So yes, I will talk to my friend about this choice.
Hey buddy [always start with a familiar greeting. You cannot be sure that this mountain hasn’t already become a volcano, so start on friendly territory]. Volcanoes seem so cool and powerful, right? Let me offer something that is even cooler though… a dormant volcano. Now that might seem like I am advocating a sedentary, lounge-about in your jammies lifestyle, but I think you’ve got the wrong idea of dormancy. A dormant volcano is the ultimate in power. It could wreck untold havoc, but it chooses not to. Know why the Blair Witch Project was so scary? You didn’t get to see the witch, so it was left up to each person’s imagination to picture the ultimate scariness. That’s what a dormant volcano is—the paralyzing fear of each person’s worst imaginings.
An active volcano, though? It’s a mess. Sure, you’re thinking of something like Pompeii or that Icelandic volcano, but more often than not active volcanoes are just constantly belching up magma and gases and it’s not in the least bit terrifying. It’s embarrassing. Mountain, volcano, person, it doesn’t matter. Burping is rude. We’ve decided to pretend we don’t have gas, and you want to go along with that social construct, it helps you keep and maintain friendships.
Perhaps I can introduce you to my favourite dormant volcano, Mt. Rainier, and you two can develop a mentoring relationship. That is one classy volcano. Very good looking (because it is not constantly erupting). Very tall (because it is not constantly erupting). Lots of vegetation and animal life (because it is not constantly erupting). The people of Washington are obsessed with it (because it is not constantly killing them). I guess one of the best things about Mt. Rainier is that IT IS NOT CONSTANTLY ERUPTING. That is a choice you can make too.
Alex Acks is an award-winning writer and sharp-dressed sir. Angry Robot Books published their novels Hunger Makes the Wolf (winner of the 2017 Kitschies Golden Tentacle award) and Blood Binds the Pack. Murder on the Titania and Other Steam Powered Adventures was a 2019 finalist for the Colorado Book Award, and the sequel Wireless and More Steam Powered Adventures is available from Queen of Swords Press. They’ve written for Six to Start’s Superhero Workout game and Zombies, Run! Alex lives in Denver (where they bicycle and twirl their ever-so-dapper mustache) with their two furry little bastards.
Acks: Communicating with a mountain in general is the easiest part of the equation. Rocks are deeply attuned to compressional waves—that's part of how they communicate, themselves, via earthquakes. Sound as we perceive it is also a compressional wave. The trick is just slowing down the sound that needs to be used the pace a mountain will comprehend and putting enough power into it that it will echo through rock. Powerful speakers that are functionally massive pistons to hammer against stone might do the trick.
The real challenge in this equation is changing the mountain's mind. Mountains are, unsurprisingly, very stubborn. And what is the root of this ambition, to become a volcano? Maybe it's a pursuit of glory, since mountains that aren't famed for their height tend to be famed for their deadly, explosive eruptions. It's difficult to turn someone away from a thirst for fame, though it's possible to argue a mountain into considering what else makes it unique in the world, even something as small as the type of bird that nest in its trees or the wildflower that grows above its treeline, found nowhere else in the world. Young mountains in particular haven't had time to become deeply acquainted with and protective of the life that lives on their slopes, and that can convince them to choose slow, steady development over potential disaster.
The real difficulty is when it's older mountains that decide they want to pursue this course. It's part of a mountain's life cycle to stoop with age and be slowly worn away until nothing but a memory remains in the landscape. If there's a chance of regeneration with layers of lava, why not pay a price in temporary destruction to gain millions of years of extended life? It's an understandable selfishness, and a small one when the scale of millions of years versus a few decades or maybe a century at most for animals and plants. Letting go is hard, finding peace with the natural progression of life can be difficult, and a slow disintegration to nothingness sounds frightening.
All you can do then is ask a mountain what it really is, in its deep and crystalline heart, and why it wants to make this change. Is this who it really is, who it wishes to become, or what it reaches for in fear of the unknown? After millions of years of life, not knowing what is next can't be easy. But we all have our place in deep time, even mountains, especially mountains, and the bones of the old mountains are what birth the young upstarts. No mountain is truly gone as long as the tides roll and the earth breathes and the new ranges grow into the clouds, crowned with limestone and trees.
My mountainous intervention would be accomplished through song. Mountains are notoriously acoustic and also deeply self-conscious. By taking advantage of the echoes that are possible at high altitude and with the right strategic placement of singers, I could make a mountain think that thousands of people are clamoring for it to NOT BECOME A VOLCANO-cano-ano-no-no. Using thousands of IRL-sockpuppet-accounts to bully a mountain out of changing the course of human history with a violent eruption seems like a foolproof gambit to me. What could possibly go wrong?
All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Kacie’s plan is the foundation of a story told through a lifelong correspondence between a mountain and its caring, cautious friend. Alex’s plan is the start of a deeply moving exploration of the way the concept of the self changes over time. My enrichment scheme is the start of a story about bad ideas that get out of hand fast.
How would you go about moving a mountain? What would you say to make it change course? Would your approach work?
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.
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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.