Three events fuel this worldbuilding-related musing: firstly, the omnipresent Covid-19 situation, which has been ongoing worldwide since December, and in my backyard for the past month or so. Second, my recent dive in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series, specifically the third book, Without a Summer. Third and final, Pesach, and the annual reading of the Pesach Haggadah, including a recitation of the Ten Plagues of Egypt.
Covid-19 has got everyone with disaster on the mind, but in some ways it’s an apex of a common sentiment I’ve seen online for years now, expressing that each year/month/time period is more terrible and disaster-ridden than the last. Memes about volcanic eruptions and wildfires spark both fear and laughter, depending on the reader. For myself, they remind me of the Plagues of Egypt. Because of the timing — a Seder in isolation is no ordinary feat — and because Pesach happens to be my favorite holiday, and I especially love the Haggadah.
For as long as I can remember, I have periodically heard attempts at scientific explanations for things like rivers turning red or frogs falling from the sky like rain. Odd events like this can be seen in the news sometimes, or they show up on Snopes.com with a gentle correction to some of the wilder leaps of logic. This recent article is an example of the former. Meanwhile, while rivers running red as blood seems suitably dramatic and ominous, even supernatural, hail and locust are a more mundane sort of natural disaster. It’s the idea of them appearing in concert, or in succession, over a matter of days that lends the story of the Ten Plagues its awful urgency. Natural disasters are a fact of life. Ten natural disasters in a week starts to feel more like divine wrath.
Which brings me to the third and most important influence: the year without a summer. Following the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia in 1815, Europe experienced a devastating year of abnormal weather conditions, failed crops, and famine. The chain of events associated with the eruption of Mount Tambora is given special significance to this day, often attributed as the root cause for works of art and literature. Famously, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein during this ominous year.
In Without a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal looks into the events of 1816 from a more personal, immediate perspective. The eruption of Tambora is hardly mentioned, as the conclusion linking it to England’s weather conditions is not within the characters’ reach. Instead, the focus of the story is in how the late winter affects London’s coldmongers, specialist glamour-workers who use their art for household and trade purposes, and are vilified for it by a fearful populace. What makes this novel so interesting is that instead of speculating about potential magical causes for known historical events, like many historical fantasies do, Kowal retains the original cause and weaves a narrative of social uncertainty around it.
Here we have a chain link connecting four different phenomena: a distant trigger event causes a cascade of physical consequences. Natural disasters damage human populations through hunger, disease, and the loss of their livelihood. Faced with events they cannot control, swathes of the population choose an interpretation that allows them to feel less helpless; very often, a scapegoat. Thus natural phenomena that are difficult to explain provide a fertile ground for preternatural, mystical, even religious interpretations.
Whether or not Ramsses II’s Egypt experienced an algal red tide or unseasonable hailstorms is unlikely to influence how I, as a modern Jew, celebrate the holiday of Pesach. But it remains an interesting thought experiment, and equally fertile ground for a writer as it is for a would-be prophet. It’s important to remember, as you rain down misery on your poor characters, that the secondary effects of disaster are often more devastating than the root cause. A cloudburst after a drought can cause flash floods and mudslides, every bit as deadly as the original misfortune. Death in battle can be from sepsis, or in siege from epidemic typhus.
The root cause of your protagonist’s suffering may not be within their reach to mitigate. It may be, like the Tambora eruption, half a world away and a year in the past. You may want to saddle your hero with the task not of preventing the disaster altogether, but of stopping or slowing the chain of events evolving from it. Conversely, your intrepid heroes could easily be the root cause themselves, through magical or mundane means. After their first grand victory, they may discover unforeseen consequences to their actions. For a more delicate touch, historical disasters can build and break families, communities and entire nations. The tragedy in a character’s backstory could be a volcano eruption, a famine or a plague.
A writer has a broad view of the events they lay out for their characters to enact. Using the power of time travel implied in our ability to go back and change backstory details, we can enrich both our characters and the world they live in. Characters who are products of their environment, in both the physical and the social sense, make more interesting decisions and create more complex and nuanced conflicts to hinge the plot on. When you ask why a certain character acted like this and not otherwise, the answer might be because they were born in a time like ours.