Posted by: kshayes513 | August 28, 2009

The Traveling Worldbuilder’s Car Breaks Down

On my way to New Hampshire this month, I drove cross country through a large swathe of rural northern Massachusetts. I was traveling the loneliest stretch of Route 2, miles of woods and hills, and miles between exits, when a touch on my brakes made the whole car shake. Yikes! No brake warning light, no previous indication of problems. The brakes still worked and the shaking stopped as soon as I got below 45mph. But still. Was the car safe? I had no idea, and no one to ask, and I was still 40 miles from my destination.

There’s nothing worse than transportation that doesn’t work, especially when you’re alone in a strange place with no help in sight.

Have you ever noticed that this sort of thing never happens to the heroes of imaginary worlds? In most fantasy and SF that I’ve seen, the transport technology seems to work perfectly all the time. Whether a horse, a space ship or a flying car, the transportation’s role in the story is purely to get the hero to the next adventure, not create adventures along the way.

It’s not unheard of for space ships to break down or run out of fuel in the newer, grittier SF TV shows (Firefly even has an episode called “Out of Gas”). Usually when this happens,though, at least one of the heroes is an engineering genius who can get the ship flying again as soon as the rest of the crew provides the missing fuel or deals with the space anomaly that’s fritzing up the engine. You never see a space ship or a flying car or mag lev train parked on a handy siding or a passing moon, while the heroes try to find a mechanic on a weekend.

As for the most commons form of fantasy travel, anyone who has spent time with horses knows that they can go lame for a gazillion different reasons. People go lame, too, if they have to walk hundreds of leagues over rough country. Yet the horses of Rohan and Valdemar never seem to go lame, and the questing heroes never twist their ankles on broken ground or complain that their feet ache.  How often have you read of heroes interrupting their journey to let the noble steed recover from a strained tendon, or to find a shoemaker to replace the worn-out sole of their Ranger boots?   And heroes never look for a wheelwright to fix their coachwheel – because what self-respecting quest hero journeys to adventure in a coach?

So here’s the challenge: do you take for granted the transportation in your world? How much do you know about how it works, what would make it break down, and how hard it would be for the heroes to fix or find new transport?

If you know of any good worldbuilding examples of transportation that doesn’t always work; or bad worldbuilding examples of transportation that works way better than you can believe, share them in a comment.


  1. LOL! I know just what you mean. I am in the middle of building an alternate world for a middle grade novel so I really appreciate your blog. Are you familiar with John Truby Presents: The Anatomy of a Story? I am finding it quite inspirational. I just open it to different spots at random as I am developing this outline/story bible. I’ve never worked this way before, but so far, it’s a lot of fun.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Linda, I’m glad you like what you’ve found.

    I haven’t come across Truby before, but the Amazon reviews look interesting. For one thing, he must be one of the few screenwriting gurus out there who doesn’t insist on three act structure! That alone makes it worth a look.

    Can I ask how you found my blog?
    And if you know of any really good worldbuilding resources on the internet, please suggest them. I’m looking to build up that section of links as much as I can, so it will be a real resource for worldbuilders of all kinds.

  3. ROFL, I just wrote that scene during NaNoWriMo. (Apart from starting the story with a spaceship crash.)

    So, short answer: No, I don’t take transportation for granted in my setting.

    Long answer: My characters were quite a few lightyears from their destination when the board computer fried itself and blew up the engines (life support and distress beacon were still functioning – yay for redundant systems).

    They had to be towed to the nearest orbital port, after several days wait for the guy who caught their distress call to find a mechanic with the necessary equipment to handle the incident.

    One of the problems – besides their location somewhere in the middle of nowhere – was that their ship was huge and they had to get enough tow-boats with the power to pull and steer the thing. (Picture one of those giant ocean liners being pulled into the harbor by those tiny little tow-boats and you get the idea what it looked like.)

    I’m not going into details on the trouble of finding a new ship, and how they found out that the one they eventually got was merely a prototype…

    Okay, I admit it, that was the very long answer.

    Found you via Worldbuilding School. I can also offer some resources, but it’s a rather big list, so it’ll take a while to compile.

  4. What a great answer, Lex, and thanks for joining us. Please do suggest any resources, you don’t have to send them all at once! Eventually, I want to have enough for a full page of links.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: