Putting the life back in science fiction

Volcanoes? In Scotland? Shiny!
September 8, 2010, 3:56 pm
Filed under: Worldbuilding

Okay, I admit it. I’m learning how to write science fiction the proper way. By writing.

As I was inspired by a certain author’s novella, I started thinking about time travel. Not quite on his scale, but I thought it would be fun to set a story in the deep past, and a lot less work than my last story. That last story was set on a world that I built in grad school, and I probably could have minored in planetology when I was done with the beast.

So, I said a month ago, let’s set this in the Paleocene. The which? Yes, that little 10 million year period after the Cretaceous. It was sort of like the 1990s if instead of the web, we’re talking about mammals. All these strange little mammals appeared, a bunch of them tried to be rodents and mongooses, and finally some of them figured out how to do it and out-competed the rest. The usual time of radical experimentation. Fun stuff for someone who likes evolution and furiously-evolving furry things. Easy. No big monsters, just focus on the people. Set it in England too, just to point out humorously how things have changed.

One author called it “The Dark Ages,” and aside from one episode of Primeval on TV, no SFF book has touched it, that I know of.

Then I decided to make sure I knew what I was talking about, and I stumbled into a whole new realm of science fiction. Paleomapping! With land bridges even!

Okay, it’s not science fiction, it’s informed speculation. You get to publish it in scientific journals.

It started when I noticed that every map of that era had a pretty different outline for the British Isles. Some just throw in the modern British Isles, which is pretty humorous when you realize how much the Isles have been shaped by glaciation. The others? Well, there’s a lot to choose from. Really, no one knows what most of Europe looked like back then.

What was happening at that point was that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was just about finished splitting Greenland and Norway apart. And rifts are messy places, littered with volcanoes and other weird stuff. When I started reading about flood basalts in Greenland and Scotland, I knew things were getting messy indeed, because flood basalts form things like The Siberian Traps, which put the kibosh on the Permian by directly or indirectly killing 90% of life on Earth. The Deccan Traps were active at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, and probably account for the decrease in dinosaur species prior to the K-T boundary event caused by that little asteroid.

So yes, when I saw flood basalts in the northern Atlantic from the mid-Paleocene, my eyes bugged a bit. Always nice when Earth throws an extinction event and nobody comes.

And yes, there were volcanoes in Scotland at that time. And Ireland. It’s when the Giant’s Causeway was laid down, but I suspect the area looked more like, oh, the Philippines. Or Central Mexico. Or the Cascades. Giant conical volcanoes going boom. Fun stuff!

But flood basalts? And land bridges? Well, that’s what was messing up the map makers. According to the geologists, the Atlantic was open all the way to the Arctic Ocean by some time in the Paleocene. According to the paleontologists, a few million years later in the Eocene, a bunch of mammals came over from North America (via Greenland, which was a balmy Arctic paradise in the early Eocene) and conquered Europe. These included the first carnivores and true rodents. So the magic question is, well, where did that land bridge go? I could ignore it, since the land bridge was in the Eocene, but then some dude incautiously stated that it occurred in the Paleocene, and I just had to know.

It looks like, around 55.8 million years ago or so, a volcano or twelve basically cut off the Atlantic from the Arctic Ocean. That’s my interpretation anyway, although no geologist really comes out and says it. There are matching flood basalts on both Eastern Greenland and Western Norway, and there was a narrow strait there where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge kind of petered out, before extending in the Eocene. So my guess is that when the rifting temporarily stopped, a huge volcanic island formed, one that was big enough to bridge continents (Panama of the Arctic!) and critters started scurrying through. Then the island broke apart, and our climate started rolling downhill towards the Ice Ages. That last was partly Antarctica’s fault, but that’s another story.

And I thought I was picking a quiet epoch for a nice little colonizing and survival story. Hah! And that was before I read that, while yes, the mammals were all small, cuddly, and very, very stupid (they always mention the small brain cases and inefficient limb geometries on Paleocene mammals for some reason), this was the Age of Crocodiles. And giant snakes. And oh yeah, lots of sharks in the water, because whales were still cute little fluffy-cuddly things with small brain cases and four legs.

Even the dullest geologic epoch is a lot more exciting than I was prepared for. Silly me. But I’ve got to finish reading about those volcanoes so that I can get back to the story. Because, you see, I’m a good ecologist, and I know that landscapes always dictate what kinds of stories you can tell on them. Now, I’m thinking on a bit…larger scale. One that goes boom.


2 Comments so far
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As I have aged my taste for transparently didactic fiction has waned. I admit, though, that a SF story (or historical fiction, for that matter) with a sufficiently rich background can suck me in regardless of the cardboard characters or wooden dialog. Sometimes I find myself wishing that the author hadn’t even bothered to tell a story with characters, when that’s not his strong suit, but instead just tell me more about the world. A good sign I’ve encountered one of these authors is when I can’t read more than half a chapter without bringing up Wikipedia or Google Scholar to investigate some digression from the text.

The bad news for my own daydreams of committing fiction is that I recognize in myself the same tendency to want to investigate the consequences of a setting down to the last detail. I don’t start out trying to marginalize characters or what they’re doing, but it often ends that way. If you can get past it, good for you!

Comment by Matt

I know exactly what you mean, and that’s a problem I see too. My Problem (capital P) is that I have trouble imagining people without the context of the world around them.

As I noted in the next post, thought, I’m glad I did the research, as I was greatly ignorant about the Paleocene. There’s more information out there than I thought, and now it looks like a fun place to visit. Hopefully I can manage to convey that in words.

Comment by Heteromeles

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