This article is by Zaivy Luke-Aleman, and is presented by Worldbuilding Magazine.
Transportation can reveal the quality of life, stage of development, and interconnection between cultures in your setting. Like all things in worldbuilding, small details can reveal a lot of information. For something so incredibly common in everyday life, transportation has many opportunities to influence your story. To show this point, I want to go into a small case study with a world I’ve been building. In it, magic users in the Anderlin area typically live isolated from people who do not use magic. Far to the west, non-magic users are rapidly developing technology, but not in a way that exactly matches how we might in real life. Where Earth citizens made carriages or wagons, the Anderlin people used a different vehicle.
About half a century ago, non-magic users went to war with the sorcerers. As a result, the scientifically-inclined soldiers from West Anderlin became curious as to how this magic was created. After the war, they used their memories of the magic they had seen, created theories around it, and developed technology influenced by it. Although they did not have the ability to use magic because of their exposure to it, their ways of thinking changed.
Sorcerers enjoy convenient travel on a hovering, blank platform. Their spell makes it so that the platform can move through the dense forest without any trees hitting them. However, it only works horizontally, so they have a parallel platform to block falling seeds or leaves. In West Anderlin, rather than developing carriages, the people were so perplexed by this platform that they developed a similar creation. The West Anderlin people travel on flat platforms suspended on parallel cables; it is a vehicle that is powered by a unicycle-like addition, similar to paddle boats on Earth.
Since this invention was inspired by what non-magical people saw during war, there is a counter movement to magic-influenced designs. The strongest opposers demand for there to be no more inventions at all based on a philosophy that magic has tainted non-magic users, and thus any new creation will be an offense to their people. In this way, the most radical can be likened to an extreme version of Old Order Amish culture through the intense preservation of traditional culture. However, its convenience and positive influence on communities has made platform transportation accepted in many areas of West Anderlin. As a result, the movement opposing magic-influenced inventions has dwindled over the years with a few radical groups scattered across the landscape.
What influences transportation in your world(s)? A few different factors could come into play here. The kinds of resources available might be worth exploring. If your characters do not have enough access to strong timber, how might they adapt rather than using wood carriages or wagons?
In addition, whom these modes of transportation are for will likely affect these vehicles. A horse for a king might have a lavishly decorated bridle and saddle. Meanwhile, a horse for someone with less financial standing might use a plain or improvised bridle. Here we can see the possible class differences in transportation. While my example tries to show an internal influence, using modes of transportation found on Earth is a great way to quickly communicate your setting to your audience. For example, say you include a system of horse and buggies; this might show that your world is similar to Europe prior to the invention of the car, and in doing so, you could imply the level of technological advancement in your society without saying it out right or going into too much detail.
How do previously isolated groups of people inspire one another? Cultural exchange can interrupt or save time in developing technology. In my world, such exchanges interrupted and altered the course of development. However, say two cultures have similar resources. If one develops trains before the other, by learning or through observation, the other culture might create their own trains. If not, it is also possible that this other culture instead hired people to design and build trains for them.
Media also has many examples that can inspire your world’s modes of transportation and how you can think about travel. In “Every World Needs a Platypus” (season 1, episode 9 of the Worldcasting Podcast), the hosts discuss the creative and unique ways in which beasts function as modes of transportation. Instead of a horse, why not branch out into giant lizards? Avatar: the Last Airbender has a wonderful example of unique transportation with the legendary shirshu. The blind beast is an excellent tracker because of its strong sense of smell, and it has the ability to paralyze prey; its large size also allows it to carry a person. The shirshu has characteristics similar to moles, komodo dragons, and sharks or hounds on Earth. This combination makes it the perfect form of transportation for June, a bounty hunter in the show.
How does this idea of creative transportation extend into science fiction? Cowboy Bebop is great at showing both the unique aspects of space travel as well as class differences through the characters’ modes of transportation. In the show, the main cast often complains about not having enough money to buy new ships, and sometimes it is difficult for them to make repairs as well. The corporate-controlled gate systems they use for travel provide the backbone for the age of their world, setting both the tone and displaying the influence of corruption by the wealthy. In Cowboy Bebop’s grungy bounty hunting setting, transportation reveals truths about the characters in the context of the world, as the main cast hops from one planet to the next to make ends meet; plus, the details of how people travel, and how certain groups control that travel, also provide insight into the political and economic influences at work in the world.
Star Wars and Ender’s Game each use some form of light speed travel, a classic trope in space-based science fiction. While Star Wars’ light speed travel often takes place in quick cuts, Ender’s Game’s light speed travel—while faster than typical space travel today—still takes place over the course of nearly the entire first book. This contrast is a helpful example of taking common tropes and finding ways to make them different. When including a trope of your own, take into consideration what parts of the tropes you will use and what aspects of them you can make unique.
Artificial wormholes, like those in Stargate, limit when and where travel occurs, which may be better suited to worldbuilders who prefer rule-based worlds. A wormhole can allow for new environments to create wonder; they can also be used as a form of sabotage in your plot by breaking gates that allow for rapid teleportation, similar to Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, where the characters delay an invasion. Wormholes could cause unique challenges to influence your plot, limited only by your imagination. Imagine the ramifications for your story when you introduce another form of travel: through time. What happens when a character meets a past or future version of themself? Do they personally experience any debilitating effects, or does the environment start to reflect the ripples in the time-space continuum? By creating a system of where and when travel can occur, a science fiction writer can develop a world in a similar fashion to a hard-magic system. For fantasy writers, transportation is a great place to begin dabbling in science fiction. Trying to find answers for these sometimes nebulous concepts can help you develop a knack for writing more hardlined systems, even beyond travel. Still, when creating a mode of transportation, consider also the purpose of it—not only in the world, but also in the framing of the story.
Adventure Time and Horizon: Zero Dawn both have a mix of old-world atmosphere with new-world futurism. The former explores unique travel that is strongly influenced by its world: from inventions of candy-based science to a time-traveling owl and to virtual world exploration; each form of travel feels quirky and fits just right in the context of the show’s setting. However, the main characters typically travel on foot, often surrounded by the natural environment, which creates a surprisingly complementary contrast between the futuristic, old-world, and mystical atmospheres produced in Adventure Time. Meanwhile, Horizon: Zero Dawn exercises less flexibility. People only travel on foot, though the main character’s unique tools allow her to tame wild robotic beasts. The atmosphere of the world gives a stone-age feel to a civilization that exists in an advanced, post-technological society. Both worlds have similar histories, but dramatically different results. Try not to feel limited by previous creators, but think instead of the range of opportunity for your world. Why people travel the way they do can prove just as interesting as how, and you determine how deep the reasoning goes—from simply choosing the most fun forms of transport to weaving plotlines rooted in ancient histories.
The Netflix animated series She-Ra has a character called Glimmer whose magic involves initially short-range travel, which gives her advantages in escaping and complicates fights for her enemies. The show’s combat works in a similar way to the classic anime fighting trope (as commonly seen in Dragon Ball) where characters move too quickly for their opponent to see their enemy. As the attacker appears for less than a second on screen, the defender has to learn how to predict where they will be attacked next instead of reacting to what they can see. When it comes to escaping, if a character begins to fall down a ravine, Glimmer can teleport to her friend and then teleport back into safety. While not as world-spanning as my other examples, the scale of travel is an important facet while worldbuilding. When certain entities in a setting can bypass doors, windows, or walls (and maybe even more secure defenses), how have people adjusted in turn? Is the ability common enough to spawn society-wide changes, or so rare (like some unique superpower) that draws only specific reactions to that individual? More than likely, ideas on the boundaries of travel shift whenever physics is defied, even if only for short distances.
Can the form of travel influence the items or passengers it carries? A typically overlooked vehicle in fantasy is The Magic School Bus. This classic children’s series involves the Bus, which not only served its role as a mode of transportation for a class, but also changed the physical dynamics of those who rode inside it. In a wonderful example of soft magic, the Bus has shrunk characters to incredibly small sizes as well as transformed them into pseudo-aquatic life, among many other fantastical situations. Because of the Bus’s abilities, the characters can travel inside living creatures to understand how their bodies work as well as delve into locales they could not normally, like deep sea or space—the exploration being the series’ central concept. This flexibility adds a sense of wonder to the show that reflects the intention of the overall narrative to educate in a fun and interesting way. The Magic School Bus provides a great example of how to make the mode of transportation central to the story, allowing it to set the narrative tone rather than simply being a tool for the characters.
Transportation is a daily influence in people’s lives. It could become a central focus in your narrative like in Cowboy Bebop or The Magic School Bus, or travel might just remain an aspect of a larger work like in Star Wars or Horizon: Zero Dawn. No matter what you decide, it’s important to give modes of travel some thought. How people or creatures travel in your world can add a layer of nuance socially, culturally, and economically. It also gives your audience something familiar to latch onto if a world has similarities with Earth. Take some time to appreciate the complexity of travel in your own life and then implement it creatively in the worlds you build.
About Worldbuilding Magazine:
Worldbuilding Magazine is a bi-monthly publication which covers a variety of worldbuilding topics. This article was featured in their October release: Transportation. You can visit their website to read full issues and subscribe for free here. Make sure to join their Discord or follow them on Twitter for the latest news. Mythic Scribes is a proud partner of Worldbuilding Magazine.
Cover by Anna Hannon and deificat.
About the Author:
Zaivy (Pronounced like “ivy” with a Z) is an editor for Worldbuilding Magazine. She is currently a graduate student at Pace University studying publishing. You can follow her on Twitter @ZaivyA or email her at [email protected]