Infrastructure is expensive, and labor ain’t that cheap. It’s true! I know. I’m a property manager. And through the lens of my experience with infrastructure, a lot of very famous, very wonderful fictive worlds stop making any sense.
Take Westeros. How can the lords go around torturing and killing every peasant they find while warring, and not expect the whole continent to starve when that next multi-year winter comes? Never mind who built that damn wheelhouse from Game of Thrones, or what paved road it traveled on. And just how wide was that river, that every smith in King’s Landing had to work on that boom chain for the Battle of the Blackwater? Why didn’t they already have a boom chain for security anyway? Why didn’t they just keep all of Stannis’s ships out of Kings Landing with that chain in the first place?
And there is no way that anyone would or could ever build a 700 foot tall wall of ice stretching hundreds of miles in length. Ice is water, and topography is not perfectly flat. Even if the Wall had been built by magic, it would move, melt, crack, crumble, and otherwise topple within one years-long summer of having been built.
But I can’t really blame George R. R. Martin for not knowing how things really work. He’s never been a property manager, or a contractor, or a handy-man, and clearly, neither have Joss Whedon or J. K. Rowling. You probably haven’t been either. So I’d like to share a few things to think about when building your own worlds.
Giant Sewers and Air Ducts. I don’t know who started this trend, but my best guess is that it’s Victor Hugo’s fault. If you ever dare the unabridged version of Les Miserables, at some point you’ll find yourself wading through a 50-page essay on the Parisian sewer system. There is a point to this. Two of the main characters (Jean Valjean and Marius) escape from a battle through the Parisian sewers. That means these sewers are big enough for one grown man to carry another grown man through.
19th century Paris really did have a sewer system that roomy, partly because it doubled as both sanitary sewer and storm sewer, and partly because the people who built it were experimenting and had not perfected the art of sewer building. But nowadays any modern city is going to build two separate sewer systems, the sanitary sewer (connected to sinks, toilets, and such), and the storm sewer (which drains rainwater from city streets during a storm so they don’t flood). Contents of the sanitary sewer system go through waste treatment before being released into a waterway, while contents of the storm sewer go directly into the nearest river, lake, or ocean.
This is why I scratch my head when characters hang out in sewers. Be they the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sunnydale’s vampire population, or the kids from Hocus Pocus, they stand a good chance of getting very wet if it rains. And most storm sewer lines are not 6 feet in diameter — our property only has 18-inch and 24-inch storm sewers running alongside it. The sanitary sewer is only 4 inches by comparison, and it empties into a main line that is only 15 inches in diameter. If you go down just any manhole, you likely won’t be able to journey more than a few feet out of sight of people and the sun. No one is going to build a 6-foot storm sewer if the engineering calculations don’t require it — it’s too much effort to move all that earth and pour all that concrete.
And while it may not smell good in a storm sewer, it won’t be full of human waste.
Likewise, most air ducts are too small to crawl through. They do get larger in larger buildings, like skyscrapers, but they’re made out of sheet metal and not designed to support the weight of a human being. I’d love to see a scene where a hero tries to sneak in or escape through the air vents, and the vent pulls loose from its supports and crashes to the floor.
Basically, neither your heroes nor your villains will get very far if they are doing all their sneaking around within sewers or air ducts. And no Lizardman or Basilisk is ever going to fit through a 2-inch toilet line (I’m looking at you, The Amazing Spiderman and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
Security Cameras. Considering that homeless spikes (like bird spikes, but for people) are a thing in England and much of Europe, I doubt that King’s Cross Station isn’t chock full of surveillance cameras. And since the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter series don’t understand AA batteries, I doubt they’d be on the lookout for cameras pointed at their portal to Platform 9-3/4.
Ergo, the secret Wizarding World won’t stay secret for long.
I actually have a lot of problems with the kludgy interaction between The Muggle World and The Wizarding World in Harry Potter. How do their healers justify letting muggles suffer from broken bones, cancer, AIDS, or diabetes? When Death Eaters terrorize muggles, why do none of them end up shot by the police? Why is a AA battery so much more complicated and inscrutable than the Philosopher’s Stone?
And with the advent of security cameras, not to mention satellite surveillance, how does the Muggle World continue to live in complete ignorance of the Wizarding World?
Remember, if you are writing about magic in “the real world”, especially circa today, you not only have to deal with fixed security cameras and traffic cameras, but also everyone on the street with a smart phone. Sure, you can brainwash a certain number of people into forgetting some show of arcane power. But the minute that video of your magic user slinging lightning bolts, flying, or stepping through a magic portal hits YouTube, the whole world will know that magic is real.
Infrastructure is Expensive, and Labor Ain’t That Cheap. So what about if you’re not writing fantasy in a modern setting? You may not have to worry about cameras. Your characters won’t be climbing through any sewers or air ducts, but they will be part of a larger society full of tradesfolk and laborers of every sort. Whatever humans (or elves, orks, dwarves, hobbits, or kender) have was made by someone. People will be more specialized in cities, and less so in towns and the countryside. Many people will be farming, because everyone eats. All goods will have to be moved somehow, be it by road or waterway, by man power, animal power, or with the harnessed elements of wind and river or ocean current.
Houses are still built with the same concerns in mind: they provide shelter and warmth using tried and true methods and materials. Air and light will need to circulate in this indoor space — even if your characters are using candles or oil lamps at night, during the day they will have opened their windows or doors. If chimneys are too advanced, there will be smoke holes in the roof. There will be a water supply, even if it isn’t piped in. They will need to be cleanable — those rushes you’ve certainly heard of on lordly floors weren’t just strewn about, but woven into rugs and then replaced when soiled.
And if the world is violent (it probably is), appropriate security measures must be kept in mind.
Everything will be made by hand by the people of your medievalish world; roads, wagons, ships, homes, bridges, castles, wells, clothing, tools, weapons, armor, candles, furniture, musical instruments, cups, and books. A lot of things quickly become too expensive to have, in terms of labor and materials. Sewer systems are too costly to be built in most cities, which means you have filth in the streets and dedicated individuals who scrape up that filth and cart it out of the city in the nicer quarters. Most people will have few outfits to wear. Most roads will be unpaved. Most people won’t be able to afford multiple rooms in their homes — i.e. they will be used to having no privacy.
And More… I certainly have more pet peeves about the way writers handle the infrastructure of their worlds, but I’ll leave them for another post. Until then, just remember that a lot of effort and thought goes into building a world, real or imaginary. You can have anything you want in your world — lavishly decorated, multi-roomed, hand-dug hobbit holes for instance. But you’d better figure out what made the hobbits so very wealthy in the first place.