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Writing Excuses 7.3: Fauna and Flora

Writing Excuses 7.3: Fauna and Flora


Key Points: If it's the right kind of story, do what's awesome and don't worry about what's scientific or realistic. But do think about whether there's some way this could evolve. Think about what would happen. Balance empathy, awesome, and all. Consider hanging a lantern on it! Don't forget the story!

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode Three, Fauna and Flora.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we were not smart enough last time to do this in one episode.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm still not smart enough, but we're going for it anyway.

[Brandon] We thought that there was enough in the last podcast to keep going. So we're going to start this podcast by talking about examples where we think people did flora and fauna wrong in a fantasy or science fiction setting. Then we're going to actually do some brainstorming, see what we can come up with. But first off, I actually want to add a caveat, or a retraction, from last week. It's... In science fiction, we often pick on the one ecology planet, like Star Wars does. The ice planet, or this planet. Actually, we were talking about it. Those are space operas. They are saying what is awesome. Not what is realistic. In those stories, what is awesome is actually what they're shooting for, and I think it works just fine. So, listeners, if it's the right type of story... If you just want to write a story about a jungle planet and that's awesome to you, and you're not worrying about is this scientifically rational, go for it. If it's the right type of story.
[Dan] I admit that it was not until I was in college, taking ecology class, before I realized that the one ecology planet was ridiculous. Because it was just so awesome, that of course it's true.
[Brandon] Dune was able to pull it off. So it is possible to do it scientifically, but if you're writing an adventure story...
[Howard] Even with Dune, there were different desert ecologies...
[Brandon] Yes, there were.
[Howard] Between the poles and the equator. I would argue that if you're going to do a one ecology planet, try and do it like Dune did. You want to do a jungle planet? Okay. There is a swath of planet that is jungle and the rest is ocean. Maybe between the jungles, there's different jungle ecologies. If you can come up with a good reason for it to be a jungle planet, that might be the story seed that your adventure needs.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think you can do it a step up. Though again, to give Lucas credit, he doesn't have time in the 15 minutes they're on Hoth to go about doing that. He gets a bad rap for that. I think that he did a good job with that.
[Mary] To be fair, we have ice planets in our solar system.
[Brandon] Yeah. Exactly. All right, let's go ahead and...
[Howard] You just can't breathe outside.
[Mary] Right.

[Brandon] That caveat made, and that could probably be applied to a lot of the things we're going to talk about here... Let's talk about some of the books or films we've seen that have actually done a poor job and why.
[Dan] Okay. Here's the most egregious example that I love to come back to, is the movie Pitch Black with Vin Diesel. Which I actually quite like. As a science fiction horror film, it's great. But this is a planet that is incredibly barren. Has no significant plant life. No animal life as far as I can remember, except for the hundreds of thousands of apex predators who can all fly and see in the dark which they somehow managed to evolve into on a planet that is only dark one night out of every who knows how many decades. The rest of the time it's always light. There is nothing to eat, so I don't know why they're huge and fly. It's just ridiculous. The evolution that created the monster is the most ridiculous thing ever. But it makes for a cool monster.
[Howard] The monsters... They burst out of the ground every 10 years and they say, "I wonder if anybody's crash landed here that we can eat this time?"
[Dan] That's basically it. For all I know, there's backstory fiction existing somewhere that explains that they were genetically created and planted there. I have no idea. But it's a silly, silly monster that kept pulling me out of the story, because that can't exist under normal nature.

[Mary] I have a similar problem with Twilight. In that you take vampires, which... Immortal predators, prey on humans, and historically, they have this flaw, which is they can't go out into the sunlight and they are undead. They can't actually reproduce except by biting other vampires... I mean, creating other vampires by biting people. But in Twilight, she's gotten rid of the "they can't go out into the sunlight because they will burst into flame." So they have no natural flaw, they have no predator, and they can interbreed with people. So I'm like, "Why is the planet not overrun..."
[Brandon] Not all vampires.
[Mary] It would totally be...
[Dan] Because they're all sad.
[Mary] If they sparkled more, they wouldn't be sad. [Carebear laugh]
[Dan] We forgot to mention that we have a care bear sitting in with us today.
[Mary] I just love vampires.
[Dan] She took away their vulnerability to sunlight and gave them a deep vulnerability to ennui.
[Mary] You're right.

[Howard] Actually, I think the ecological problem with vampires, and the reason for all this... They're controlling their own population because millions of years ago, when the planet was absolutely covered with them, all of that sparkling resulted in massive global warming, and they just didn't like it.
[Mary] Right.
[Dan] Now, on the flip side of that coin, and I cannot remember the name of this movie, but Ethan Hawke had a movie just this year which was a future Earth in which the vampires have literally overrun, and they come into a food shortage problem because there's not enough humans left to drink, and they start ranching them. Which I thought was a brilliant premise for a science-fiction horror movie.
[Howard] There's a comic by Chris and Bobby Crosby, I think, called Last Blood. Similar concept, where you've got vampires who have basically overrun the humans. Then we have a zombie outbreak, and the vampires realize if we don't save the humans from the zombies, we're all dead.
[Brandon] We have nothing.
[Howard] So the vampires and humans have to save up... Or have to team up in order to survive the zombies. The humans really have no choice.
[Dan] That's awesome.

[Brandon] All right. Other stories?
[Dan] Okay. Here's one that I want to talk about, because I think it does some things very poorly, and it does some things actually really, really brilliantly. Which is the movie Avatar by James Cameron. That gets a lot of bad rap for being kind of a cliched story, but the ecology that he presents is actually pretty well thought out for the most part. I thought that the concept of the interconnected web of consciousness in the planet was actually fascinating.
[Brandon] Yeah. I thought he did a good job. He mixed the visuals of "Gee, this is awesome" with some nice science. What are the parts you didn't like?
[Dan] Well, one of the things that bothered me was the fact that the aliens... The Na'vi or whatever they're called, are bipedal. Every other creature from whatever obvious...
[Howard] Hexapodal.
[Dan] Related family were... Had six limbs. The humans didn't. This is something that maybe we want to talk about. Because he made that for a very marketing choice.
[Brandon] Yes, he did.
[Dan] It's kind of going back to the "if it's awesome, do it anyway." He needed something people could identify with...
[Mary] Yeah. The design choice that they... And this is a quote... The design choice... Question that they kept coming back to when they were looking at her... Because they designed her first... Was quote "would you want to do her?" So they kept making her more human. Which meant that although everybody else had nostrils on the sides of their neck, she got a nose.
[Brandon] Now he did... I'll play Cameron advocate. Well, not really, but I'll mention that he did come out and say, "Okay, I intend sequels and I'm going to explain how the Na'vi got human DNA or whatever mixed with them to turn them into bipedal humanoids."
[Dan] Which is kind of cool.
[Brandon] Which... He said that, but we'll see. If that's just backpedaling... But it is... It does pull you out of the story. That's what we're talking about right here.
[Howard] In Mote in...
[Brandon] The issue is, it pulls you out of the story. If they had just hung a lantern on it... This is something maybe to suggest to you listeners. You want to do something because it's awesome or because you need it to have empathy or whatnot... Adding one line where someone says, "You know, this is pretty weird. I wonder what the reason for this is?"
[Dan] It only would have taken one line.
[Howard] That's all we would have needed.
[Dan] That movie was three hours long. There could've been one spot where the dumb Marine who doesn't know anything says, "So, wait, why do these guys all look like us?" And someone says, "Well, we're looking into that." Okay. I'm fine with it.

[Howard] In Mote in God's Eye by Niven and Pournelle, we have intelligent life that has to arms on one side of the body, one arm on the other side of the body, and two legs. When they get to their planet, all of the lower lifeforms are hexapodal. They have six limbs. The reasoning behind this is that these folks actually had a nuclear war, and the survivors had a mutation that gave them one really strong arm on one side of the body, which proved to be, for them, a survival advantage. So the higher life forms all shared this one mutation and were markedly different from all the rest of the life of their planet. Very fascinating.
[Mary] I will say that Mote in God's Eye is actually a really interesting book to look at for flora and fauna. As ways to take the "ooo, this is a really cool idea" and run with it.
[Brandon] Yeah. Well, Niven and Pournelle, I felt, did a really good job in a lot of their books with the ecology world building. But let's actually stop for a different book of the week that we are going to promo, and we are going to hand this to Howard.

[Howard] This week's book is Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. The plot hinges around fascinating biology stuff and ecology stuff. The relationship between the animals... Basically the relationship between the flora and fauna is much different than what we are accustomed to here.
[Brandon] People who read... Pick up Speaker for the Dead expect it to be Ender's Game again. It is not. It is a brilliant book with a completely different premise. It's almost as opposite from Ender's Game as you can get. Don't go into it expecting Ender's Game. Whether or not you like Ender's Game. If you love it, love this one for a different reason. If you hate it, give this one a try because it's actually a serious sort of anthropological slash xenoblahblahlogical slash ecological study.
[Howard] Murder mystery.
[Dan] Xenobiological.
[Howard] Xenobiological murder mystery.
[Brandon] Yes. There you are.
[Dan] And just brilliant, brilliant book.
[Howard] Head out to Kick off a 14 day free trial membership, and Speaker for the Dead or any other of the fine books that audible has, you can have a listen to for free.

[Brandon] Okay. The second half of this podcast, we are actually going to do some world building ourselves with the flora and fauna. I'm going to bring us back to our world where meteorites fall from the sky and give people the power to mutate others.
[Dan] Awesome.
[Brandon] I'm going to force the podcasters to come up with some cool flora and fauna for this world.
[Dan] Okay. Well, there's different places we could start. One is we could go back and look at what was the baseline here? Was it bipedal, reflected bilaterally, kind of lifeforms like we have on earth? Or was it something else? The other option is we could just start looking at what's cool, and going with that.

[Howard] Start with what's cool.
[Brandon] Let's start with what's cool.
[Dan] Yeah. So if we want to have, for example, the monster race, the orcs or the trollocs or whatever, we could say that they came from a previous mutation the got out of control, and is now taken over because it's an incredibly dominant life form.
[Howard] Well, another thing to look at... We talked about how maybe this meteorite dust accelerates mutation on its own? The higher up on the food chain, the smarter an animal is, the more likely it is to have some ability to influence its evolution. So you've got something the size of a buffalo that is really, really tired of being eaten. Really tired of having predators pick off at the edges of the herd, and it suddenly gets the ability to influence magic. Then another buffalo in the herd mutates and can now carry weapons. Boom, you've got trollocs.

[Brandon] See, I'm going to kind of push this a different direction. I like this. One thing I'm going to put a rule on this is, every cycle of this stuff happening, I'm going to say we only want a few of the mutations to take. Now granted, this has happened thousands of times. So we can have... But what we can have, is instead of boom, this one could carry weapons... I think that's too high concept for even a buffalo. But the buffaloes have armor. They grow natural armor.
[Howard] Exactly.

[Brandon] Or they just really like that food on this tree. So these trees have grown and mutated in a way that the buffalo can eat them in an easier way. Something like that. Let's... What happened to the plant life? Did we have... Early in the sentient lifeforms living on this planet, some children that got this power and made certain plants grow sweet?
[Dan] Made the pizza trees?
[Mary] Pizza trees. And things that grow all year round... The ever bearing strawberry of the world.
[Brandon] Right. Now, the other question...
[Howard] Dandelions. That you blow on them and the little puff of dandelions goes out, and then it catches fire. Because kids want fireworks to grow in the backyard.
[Dan] The Weasley twins got hold of the mutation power.

[Brandon] Law of conservation of energy. Let's hold this. Let's ask this... Are we... How are we going to hold to law of conservation of energy?
[Dan] That's important to think about because if, for example, the buffalo suddenly gets the power to make its food easier to get, does that mean it suddenly de-forests its continent and dies? So there could be a lot of barrenness like this, because you are messing with the balance and throwing things out of whack in fairly catastrophic ways.
[Mary] Yeah. People could decide, "Oh, I want this to be seedless." And then...
[Dan] Suddenly there's no watermelon anymore.
[Brandon] Yup. I think there would be big barren patches. I think you're absolutely right on the. In fact, there would be... Every ecological niche that we have here, there's going to be big swaths of places where 200, maybe 400, maybe 600, whatever years ago during one of the cycles, someone or something changed something that just caused a mass extinction in this ecology. Because they killed off the wrong predator or they killed off the wrong herbivore or even an insect that caused all sorts of problems.

[Howard] You're also going to have... Once you've got those barren patches, you're also going to have the equivalent of mutant space kudzu where somebody looks at a barren patch and says, "Man. I've got this ability, I want this place to be able to grow here so that we can eat it. I'm trying to replant the wasteland." Now you have these things bursting out of the wastelands.
[Dan] We need super corn that can grow everywhere, and suddenly it grows everywhere.
[Brandon] So let's give ourselves just another minute or two. But let's zoom it in on one region. Because we just... One little place. So where do we want to do? Do you want to do the borderland or do we want to do a [inaudible] city?
[Howard] Keep it simple. Go Arctic.

[Brandon] No, no, no, no. Simple meaning one place. But a place that a story could happen.
[Mary] Let's go with something coastal.
[Brandon] Something coastal. Okay. Coastal. So let's put it...
[Dan] Well, before we go on, there's one other thing that I want to point out, is it seems to me, this world would have a wider variety of sentient life than most planets would. That's something to consider as we design one particular ecosystem.
[Brandon] Yup. One particular... You know what, I'm just going to can-of-worms this again.
[Howard] The brainstorming has to go for another episode?
[Brandon] Yeah. We're going to... We won't do it next.

[Mary] Wait, why don't we... We could actually make that our writing prompt.
[Brandon] We could. Let's do that. Writing prompt. Excellent writing prompt, Mary. Let's send people... We're going to pick one region. Just do some world building on your own. Focus on the flora and fauna. Less on the sentient life. But include it. But look at the base plants and the base animals that would exist in this ecological region, in our weird world here.
[Mary] Since this is a shared world, go ahead and post it in the comments.

[Brandon] Yeah, post it in the comments. Someone smart out there create a wiki for us. All right, this has been Writing Excuses.
[Dan] Writing-excuses-tonia!
[Brandon] Writing-excuses-tonia? You couldn't come up with something a little more easy to roll off the tongue, there, Dan?
[Dan] No, sorry.
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing...
[Howard] Fauna-writing-errific.
[Brandon] Writing-excuses-tonia.
[Mary] I think it could just be Excuses-tonia.
[Dan] Excuse-storia.
[Mary] Excuse-storia. Oh!
[Dan] That's a pun in like three different directions. I love it.
[Mary] Please, please wrap this episode and let us out.
[Brandon] Goodbye. You're out of excuses, and so are we.
[Dan] Go write.
Tags: awesome, brainstorming, ecology, flora and fauna, hang a lantern on it, world building

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