Mountains, Deserts, and Swamps, Oh My: Secondary World Geography

I’ve been thinking about secondary world geography a bit lately for a couple projects. There are tons of worldbuilding and writing books out there that discuss the issues of geography, many with specific reference to geology. At least a couple I have on hand include detailed chapters on geology.

On myriad blogs and other sources, geography and geology are also oft repeated subjects. One of the big examples that gets cited for “bad” worldbuilding in this sense is Tolkien’s Middle Earth, particularly Mordor. The argument goes that: “Mountains don’t form in a U-shape because plate tectonics don’t work that way, therefore Mordor is an example of bad worldbuilding, since Tolkien didn’t pay attention to geology.”

Here’s my response:

If the worldbuild is a variant Earth, then yes, Earth’s geology needs to be followed. Or a damn good explanation for working around our knowledge of geology needs to be in place.

A secondary world? Not so much.

Consider this: our knowledge of geology is based on, basically, one planet. Yes, we’ve conducted relatively minor studies of Mars and have photos and such of a few moons and planets in our solar system. This is still a very limited sample, given the sheer size of the galaxy, much less that of the universe. There really isn’t, at our current level of study, a way to be certain that geology works the same everywhere, until we get out there and see other star systems. We do know that the universe has infinite variation–we’ve discovered extra-solar planets that are theoretically made entirely of diamond, massive Earth-like worlds, planets (gas giants) with their own bio-zones, and both planets and moons with frozen seas of methane.

And that just assumes the secondary world is located in our own universe.

In short, secondary world geology doesn’t need to behave like Earth geology. For instance, look at Discworld, a successful and well built world that follows, not Earth geology, but the author’s “I want to add this feature and it needs to be X distance from Place A for the story.” (Heck, it’s a friggin’ flat world on the backs of four elephants on the back of a flippin’ turtle swimming through space.) A lot of early fantasy and science fiction took the same approach. Somewhere along the way we may have lost some of that sense of wonder and invention, perhaps.

Back to Mordor.

Even assuming an Earth geology (admittedly, Middle Earth is supposed to be a “pre-historic” Earth), Mordor exists in a fantasy world. This means magic. In Middle Earth’s case, potentially very powerful magic.

So. Sauron and Morgoth/Melkor were extremely powerful beings. Tolkien describes the Istari (Wizards) as angels. Sauron and Morgoth are said to be vastly more powerful than Saruman and Gandalf, even moreso than the entire collective of Istari (all five) plus two elf royals (Elrond, Galadriel) with a combined three Rings of Power (all three elf rings, Gandalf, for those who forgot, carries the third). That combined might only served to drive Sauron away when he was in a very weakened state. They, Sauron and Morgoth, each have potentially god-like power at their respective peaks. Therefore, who says that Sauron (before creating or losing the One Ring) or Morgoth couldn’t reshape the land to suit their needs, thereby creating a U-shaped mountain range?

Where are We? – Primary and Secondary Worlds

One of the most important choices to make in fantasy and sci-fi is whether to set the story in a primary or secondary world.  Put simply, primary world means Earth and secondary world means any other world.  That said, like most things, the simple definition merely skims the surface of the question.

The primary world can be overlaid by other worlds—Faerie, a spirit realm, Olympus, the cyberworld (matrix, whatnot)—that may not be perceived by most people.  Seeing the overlaid world(s) may require a genetic heritage (ex. fae blood), magical talent, a particular day of the year, crossing a particular boundary, or special technology (ex. a cyberdeck).  Examples of overlaid worlds: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and Kane Chronicles, anything in the cyberpunk subgenre, Rowling’s Harry Potter series, almost anything by Neil Gaiman.

Secondary worlds become even more complex in terms of options.  To start, secondary worlds may be Earth based or have no connection to Earth.  If the setting is Earth based, the next question is: does Earth still have contact, or has it been lost?

All of these options have their pros and cons.

Primary World—The audience is already familiar with Earth, the cultures are pre-made, and languages are pre-made, and there are a lot of famous/historic people, events, products, and such to potentially reference to add depth.  On the other hand, setting any story on Earth takes a lot of research, especially if the story is set in one or more real locations (chances are someone from the city, country, will eventually read the story).  Likewise, the writer needs to take into account real history (or, if not, figure out why not).  Primary world settings, especially in sci-fi, will also involve extrapolation of technology, culture, politics, and history.  For other genres, such as urban fantasy and superheroes, culture and society may need to be modified, particularly if magic, non-humans, or superpowers are public, thus openly impacting society.

Earth Based—This story does not take place on Earth, but Earth exists and has some influence on the action and culture.  Earth references can be made, the world can be created as desired, and the writer is not “limited” in history and culture.  However, the setting still needs to account for much of the Earth info above, especially who on Earth knows about the secondary worlds(s).   Typically Earth-based settings are used in sci-fi (Babylon 5, Stargate: Atlantis, Star Trek: DS9, C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station and related novels), but it can also work in fantasy (Kevin Anderson’s Gamearth, Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame, Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom of Landover series).

Lost Earth—Earth exists, but has been lost at some point in the past.  In this secondary world, the former presence of Earth can explain Earth-like languages and cultures.  It also has a ready made mythology.  However, lost Earth has been done a lot, the writer needs to determine how much time has passed since Earth was lost, the influence of Earth over that time, and how much cultural and linguistic drift has occurred.  This version has most notably been used by: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and the reboot of Battlestar Galactica (I’m not knowledgeable enough about the first version to comment on it).

No Earth—This is a totally secondary world, universe, in which Earth does not exist and never has existed.  On the upside, it offers total creative freedom.  On the downside, it offers total creative freedom.  Obviously, Earth references cannot be used, so more explanation rather than aiding description with a familiar Earth reference might be needed.  Because the writer cannot reference Earth specifics to add depth, (s)he may wish or need to create an entire pop culture and any sub-cultures from scratch to achieve the same depth of detail, if desired.  The most famous example is George Lucas’ Star Wars (despite using some Earth names—Ben, Luke), others include Steven Brust’s Dragaera (Vlad Taltos series) and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar (Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser).