I learned from Mobile Suit Gundam.
Or at least the fundamental principles of consistent world building in fiction, to be more precise. I was writing fiction from a pretty young age, in one form or another, but prior to that my typical approach was just to crib liberally from established works and fling it at the wall to see what stuck.
Hey, if it worked for J.K. Rowling…
Mobile Suit Gundam came out not too long after I was born, and is considered the father of the Real Robot genre of anime/manga in Japan, which is to say that it took the concept of giant robots and made it slightly more realistic. Instead of the robots being one-off hero characters in their own right, battling other robots or monsters in a “Freak of the Week” style arrangement, Yoshiyuki Tomino, the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam, envisioned them as simply weapons of war, no different than a tank or a helicopter, placed in a considerably more nuanced setting of interplanetary conflict.
More than just the shift to a more realistic setting, however, Tomino did something that I’d never consciously encountered before; he tried to make it all make sense. It’s not to say that I’d never read or watched anything with an internally consistent logic before, but the way it was executed there was enough to make me aware of it in a way I had never been before.
Because what Tomino wanted to do was to make a universe where giant robots were at least vaguely plausible war machines.
Out here in the real world, despite fandom’s consistent love of the idea, they’re not. Not at all. Not in any remote sense of the word. Taking a tank, turning it vertical and then putting legs on it simply makes it impossible to armor effectively, incredibly easy to disable, and much harder to conceal. Powered armor makes a good deal of sense, but the instant you move from infantry to vehicle, you’ve almost invariably crossed into the realm of fantasy.
So what did Tomino do?
Well, to begin with, his mobile suits are space fighters, not tanks. They often get pressed into service in ground combat, of course, because things like that happen in war, but at the heart, they’re spacecraft.
Why do they have arms and legs then? Why not just a simple sphere, equally armored from any angle? Well, he thought of that too, justifying it by virtue of the fact that it allows them to reorient their facing without burning fuel. Making them into a humanoid shape allows for intuitive control of that motion, since people, oddly enough, know how the human body moves.
Why are they flying around in space hitting each other with freakin’ light sabers? Well, he wrote out an entire branch of physics based around a particle that not only allowed for the creation of compact fusion generators to power his giant space robots, but also acted as a sort of continuous electromagnetic pulse when dispersed. Radar doesn’t work, circuits exposed to the field degrade quickly if unshielded, even radio communication becomes impossible. In effect, Tomino created a world where the only possible combat was visual range combat, a bizarre hybrid of World War tactics, biplanes flying from aircraft carriers to engage in point-blank dogfights.
These are all contrivances, of course, and there’s hardly anything unique about them. But there were reasons for everything, and particularly in light of how silly the notion of Gundam was, that made me realize not only how Tomino had crafted his world, but why he’d done it.
Rather than simply generate excuses and rationalizations for each fantastic thing that showed up, he worked backwards, figured out what he wanted to create, and then hinged it all on a single, internally consistent system, in the form of Minovsky Physics.
In effect, instead of having his audience swallow a continuous stream of premises, he asks them to believe just one. If A is true, then B, C, D, and E are also true.
If the audience suspends their disbelief and accepts the Minovsky Particle exists, and has the properties described, then all the developments that occur downstream of that are much easier to believe.
David Weber does much the same thing in his Honor Harrington series. Where Tomino wanted to create something similar to the aerial knights of the Great War, Weber instead carefully crafted a world where combat between naval vessels was something more akin to the age of Horatio Nelson, who is unsurprisingly the inspiration for the Honor Harrington character herself.
The opposing nation is, at one point, led by a man named Robert Stanton Pierre, who seizes control in a violent coup.
Robert S. Pierre.
Rob S. Pierre.
Did I mention he served as the head of the Committee of Public Safety?
The point, what I learned, was that doing it right doesn’t have to start at the beginning, if you work backwards carefully enough. That you can figure out a way to justify the world you’re trying to build, and that the more consistent that justification is, the better off you are. And most importantly, once you’ve got all that figured out, once you’ve got your universe built, don’t break it.
No matter how convenient it might be. No matter how easily a little bit of handwavium might fix the conundrum you’ve written yourself into.
Don’t do it.
Work within the system, find a new way, whatever it takes, but don’t start down the path of just generating excuses every time you want to introduce something that doesn’t quite fit. It’s the easy way out for you, but it’s also the easy way to push your audience out.
If someone is already suspending their disbelief, it’s unwise to start strapping weights to their ankles.