It’s all about me | Imaginary Atlas: Part 3

It’s all about me

Since the dawn of history, and likely a lot further back than that, people have thought of our world as the center of the universe. In the Ptolemaic model, it was literally at the center, and all the other bodies in the heavens revolved around it. This model held sway in Western thought for the better part of 1,500 years, and was quite popular with the Roman Catholic Church, greatly influencing the evolution of Christian cosmology well through the Renaissance.

Of course, one of the reasons the idea of the world being the center of the universe was so popular was that, at its heart, it meant that we — humanity — was at the center of the universe. One of the reasons that the church so greatly opposed the idea of Copernicus’s heliocentric model was that it removed humanity from this exalted position. And although they have had to admit defeat on the idea of Earth literally being the physical center of Creation, theists and various other mystics still struggle to convince everyone else that humanity is still, metaphysically at least, at the center of all things.

In this installment, I’m going to move away from the sociological considerations of this world building project and start outlining some cosmological concepts. When I’m creating a fictional universe, I like to think of the cosmology as much the same as the framework of a new house — you’ve got to have the framing done before you can hang up the sheet rock, and you’ve got to hang the sheet rock before you can paint. It just seems like a logical place to start. Of course, you don’t have to start here on your own world building projects; there’s no reason you can’t start small and then fill out the big picture as the needs of your story require, or even just not worry about these sorts of issues at all. Still, this is the way I like to do it, so this is where I’m going to start.

Growing a nomenclature

Having done this sort of thing a few times already, I’ve developed a common naming convention for different aspects of my fictional creations. Again, these aren’t terms you have to use yourself; I’m just throwing them out there as a way to keep things straight on this project.

My preferred term for a complete fictional setting is continuum. Why continuum rather than universe? Because it’s not unusual in the sort of pulpy fictional backgrounds I design for there to be more than one universe. I think of a continuum as a container into which all the stuff that makes up a setting goes, and just because I’m rather anal this way, I like to give each continuum a distinct name. This name is often some arbitrarily selected project name that serves as a placeholder until I find the setting’s “real” name, something like Continuum Alpha, which was later re-christened Luminous, or Paranormal Continuum, which eventually became Fabularium.

It may not seem important to you, and perhaps in the way you work, it isn’t, but I’ve always cared about what things are labeled. A name is a powerful concept — traditionally, for example, knowing someone’s true name could give you power over that person. Giving anything, even a fictional setting, a name makes it somehow more real to me. Once it has a name, it starts to form in my head, even if that name is only a placeholder.

For this project, I’m going to stay with what I already know, and name this continuum Imaginary Atlas.

It doesn’t really matter, anyone can see

In the real universe, in spite of all the rending of cloth, gnashing of teeth and thumping on various book covers, we really don’t matter. Humanity, Earth, or entire solar system has no effect on the universe as a whole. What we do matters to us, sure, and perhaps to other living things that share the same biosphere, but if humanity were to disappear right now, it simply wouldn’t matter to the rest of the world, let alone the rest of the universe.

That very lack of relevance has kept any number of priest, charlatans, brewers and distillers in business for a very long time. People don’t like to think that they don’t matter, that life is purposeless, because existence without purpose — at least without some purpose enforced from without oneself — is meaningless. People not only want their lives to have meaning, they want their lives to have meaning in a way that affects all of Creation. That, of course, is where fiction comes in.

People have told stories from time immemorial, and one purpose of these stories has been to give people the sense that there is meaning and purpose in the world. This is the cornerstone of religion, the need to give people a sense of direction even if that direction isn’t actually real outside of their own imaginations. From a dramatic perspective, having a setting in which the actions of the characters matter on a cosmological scale is enticing, and that’s certainly the sort of big drama that I’m going for in the Imaginary Atlas setting.

A problem with this sort of idea, at least for me, is one of scale. We live on the surface of a ball of rock that is roughly 40,000 kilometers in circumference, with just a surface area of more than 500 million square kilometers. Our sun is so far away that it takes light over eight minutes to travel from its surface to our planet. Our solar system exists in a galaxy that is about 100,000 light-years in diameter, and which contains approximately 400 billion stars. There may be as many as 500 billion galaxies in the universe.

You see where I’m going with this? Our universe is incredibly vast, and we are beyond miniscule in comparison. I find it quite difficult to imagine coming up with a satisfying fictional background that mimics the real universe and yet allows people to matter in something like a cosmological sense. Oh, sure, characters could matter to each other, just as real people matter to other real people here in reality. That’s not the look and feel I’m going for with this project, however.

Nuts to you

In looking for a model for a universe on something of a more compact scale, one only has to look at history.

In the 2nd century CE, Claudius Ptolemaeus developed what became known as the Ptolemaic system. This geocentric model of the universe held sway in Europe and the Middle East for nearly 1,500 years until it was successfully challenged by the work of Copernicus and others. In the Ptolemaic system, Earth was at the center — a sphere, not flat — and was surrounded by (in order) the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars Jupiter, Saturn, the Sphere of Fixéd Stars and the Sphere of the Prime Mover. To explain things such as why some of these bodies, such as Mars, sometimes moved backward — a phenomenon called retrograde motion — the Ptolemaic model includes the idea that planets revolve around Earth on an epicycle, basically revolving around a fixed point that, itself, revolved around Earth.

The Roman Catholic Church rather liked this model of the universe so much that it placed Galileo under house arrest for writing a book that advocated the Copernican view, banned the publishing of his work until 1718 and did not publicly admit that it was wrong about Galileo and his work until 1992. To this day, the charts created by astrologers are based on the Ptolemaic model, and a Gallup poll taken in 1999 showed that nearly 20 percent of Americans still believed that the sun revolved around Earth.

Of course, for my purposes on this project, the fact that the Ptolemaic system was wrong isn’t the point; the point is that it worked as well as it did. If the assumptions and measurements that went into this model had been correct (the sun in the Ptolemaic system was smaller than Earth), then there is no reason that it couldn’t work. (Well, actually, I’m sure that there are lots of reasons it couldn’t work, but that’s neither here nor there for our purposes.)

The only problem, then, with using the Ptolemaic system as a model for my fictional universe is that I’ve already used it before — twice. It might be a novel and entertaining concept to you — or not — but I’ve been there and done that.

That being said, there’s no reason that I can’t take some ideas from the Ptolemaic system and mix them in with other ideas, even a model of our real solar system.

One reason that the Ptolemaic model is so appealing for the sort of continuum I’m working on in this project is that it is a closed universe, and a relatively small one, at that. My desire to have a small stage upon which the dramas I’m interested in telling can strut and fret works well with this sort of model.

For obvious reasons, we don’t have a word in English for a closed universe. We have the phrase “closed universe,” and other descriptive phrases such as “pocket universe,” but these are, well, phrases. They weren’t satisfying to my anal retentive nature when I first started playing around with the idea of creating a fictional closed universe. So, in an attempt at creative linguistics, I decided to make up my own word.

Being visually inclined, I attempted to find a good visual metaphor for a closed universe. After considering and rejecting a number of possibilities, I settled on the image of a nut. Yes, it’s not a perfect image, but the idea of a shell surrounding its contents was pretty reasonable. Then, like an decent wordsmith in Western civilization, I went back to our linguistic roots and looked up the Latin and ancient Greek words for nut. Latin wasn’t all that helpful, as its word for nut is “nux,” which didn’t thrill me. It did, however, serve as the root for our words “nucleus” and “nuclear,” so that told me I wasn’t the first to use this particular metaphor. A bit more searching turned up the ancient Greek word for walnut, “karydia,” which also served as the root for a variety of English words such as karyon, or the nucleus of a cell. Combining various permutations of “karydia” and “universe,” I eventually settled on the term “caraverse” to describe the sort of closed universe I wanted to define.

I was framed

So, I’ve made a start defining the physical environs of the Imaginary Atlas continuum, which consists of a caraverse of limited proportions, rather like the frame of a house under construction. Next time, I’ll get even more into the excruciating detail that I love so dearly about world building as I continue to flesh out the physical environs of the setting.

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