Guest Post: Jonathan L. Howard – Sea, Stone, Submarines, and Danger: Worldbuilding “Russalka.”

jonathanlhoward-katyaswarAt WFC I had the pleasure to meet Jonathan Howard. I was really stoked to speak to him about guest posts and the writing of them, especially as I’d already contacted Strange Chemistry for a guest post in honour of the publication of Katya’s War, the second book in the Russalka Chronicles. Jonathan wrote me the following fascinating post about how he went about creating his water world of Russalka. I’m really pleased to share it with you today and it’s made me look forward to reading Katya’s War even more than I already did! 

Sea, Stone, Submarines, and Danger:
Worldbuilding “Russalka.”

If Star Wars ever did a great disservice to science fiction as a whole, it was strongly placing into the public perception the concept of single environment worlds. Tatooine is one big desert, Hoth is all ice, Dagobah is endless swamp. Such monoclimactic worlds as seen in Star Wars are, of course, hangovers from the films’ adventure serial forebears in the ‘thirties and ‘forties, where Buster Crabbe would turn up in his rocketship to discover Frigia the Ice Planet one week and, a cliffhanger intervening, be chased around Vulcan the Fire Planet the next.

In reality, worlds in a star’s “Goldilocks” region (i.e. not too hot and not too cold to support life) are likely to have varied environments, especially if life has, indeed, evolved there. One likely exception to this will be waterworlds. I base my confidence that such worlds exist, by the way, on mathematical likelihood that since humanity has already found one in the person of the snappily named “GJ 1214b” some forty light years away in the constellation of Ophiuchus, there will be others.

I have always been fascinated by the sea, so the idea of setting a story on a planet made hostile by a global ocean, wracked with storms that make living on the surface difficult, appealed to me greatly. Back in the ‘eighties, I developed a detailed background to a planet for a Traveller RPG campaign that I was running, in which the action took place on a cold oceanic world where the icecaps extended almost to the equator, leaving a wide equatorial band of open sea littered with icebergs. Some of these had been fitted out with drive systems to act as vessels, moving to sites where mineral concentrations in the water were high enough to make electrolytic extraction economically viable.

I’d enjoyed creating that world, but its keynote had been the deadly cold, whereas I wanted it to be the experience of submarine living for my novel. Thus, Russalka’s icecaps stay at the poles and it is the weather that forces most below, that and the need to be physically close to the mineral wealth being extracted from the sunken mountains of the planet. Yes, minerals again, but there had to be a rationale why people would volunteer to live out their lives on such a hostile world, especially when other colony worlds are so much more pleasant.

There’s an old rule of thumb that you are permitted to handwave your way past one or two (or three, if you’re trying your luck) pieces of extraordinary technology, and still be permitted to regard yourself at the harder end of science fiction. I plumped for the perennial favourites of faster-than-light travel and gravity control, although I then made them so expensive, unreliable, and uncommon that they don’t feature much. There are also some artificial intelligence systems, but nothing that I don’t think is potentially possible based on current technology. Indeed, just about all the technology featured in The Russalka Chronicles exists or is conceivable based on what we have. The submarines themselves, for example, have better materials but are otherwise nothing that would baffle a modern submariner. Masers, the standard Russalkin small arm, are a real technology that recently took a step closer to the portability seen in the book. Energy isn’t a problem throughout human space, and I put that down to practical cold fusion being common. Hot fusion recently took a step closer to becoming a reality, and I’m nothing if not an optimist that the cold version might one day become practical.

Life in the submarines and the underwater environments is pretty much what you might expect; it rapidly becomes mundane. The notable thing is the Russalkin are just a little more careful about everything than we are. This is drilled into them from an early age; carelessness kills. They live in an environment that is as deadly as space. Indeed, a catastrophic hull failure in a submarine will kill faster than the same thing in a spacecraft. So, throughout the Russalka Chronicles you will find an obsession with safety; running though checklists, making sure bulkhead doors are kept shut, a profound distrust of alcohol or anything else that might result in stupid decisions, and a respect for the sea that verges on fear.

I created Russalka to be a hard, difficult world, but one still filled with wonders and excitement. It is a planet where mysteries dwell and the truth is often unclear. It is the home of Katya Kuriakova, and – if you haven’t visited yet – I hope this encourages you to do so.


jonathanlhowardBio (taken from the Strange Chemistry website): Jonathan L Howard is a game designer, scriptwriter, and a veteran of the computer games industry since the early 1990s, with titles such as the ‘Broken Sword’ series to his credit.

After publishing two short stories featuring Johannes Cabal (Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day and Exeunt Demon King) in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was published in 2009 as his first novel.

This was followed by Johannes Cabal the Detective in 2010 and Johannes Cabal the Fear Institute in 2011.

He lives with his wife and daughter near Bristol.

Jonathan can be found on his website and on Twitter.

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One Response to Guest Post: Jonathan L. Howard – Sea, Stone, Submarines, and Danger: Worldbuilding “Russalka.”

  1. I loved Cabal, but I honestly had no idea this series even existed.

    Strangely enough I have always been bothered by the single environment worlds as well. And it is weird timing because earlier today I was discussing the other Star Wars quirk that drives me nuts; single personality alien races. Really Star Wars started (or made mainstream) a few things that drive me nuts.

    Ok, sorry to read your post and then focus on the throwaway SW stuff.

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