By Alexandra Duncan
I am terrible at puzzles. Sudoku stumps me. I could not solve the New York Times crossword to save my life. I wouldn’t believe anyone could finish a Rubik’s Cube if I hadn’t seen my uncle do it in front of me. But there is one type of puzzle I love —worldbuilding. I love entering into an utterly believable environment that looks and feels different from the world I know, whether it’s my own invention or someone else’s, and figuring out what makes it tick. Creating such a world on the page is a challenge that usually requires a mountain of research. Luckily, I’m a massive nerd who loves learning about anything and everything, and since I work as a librarian during the day, I have tons of information at my fingertips.
One of the recurring scientific concepts in my new novel Sound is biomimetics or biomimicry, where scientists use naturally occurring phenomena, like the hairs on a gecko’s foot that allow it to climb sheer surfaces, to inspire the design of machines or human systems. I ran across this field of research while watching the PBS documentary series Nova several years ago (see, I told you I was a massive nerd), and thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard. I had to put it in a book. But first, I needed to learn more about the field and what kind of inventions were possible.
I borrowed the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, by Janine M. Benyus, from the library. In it I learned about investigations into self-healing materials, as well as super-strong ones. Benyus suggests that a seashell would make an ideal template for both. It has an overlapping cellular structure that makes it incredibly strong for its thickness, and it’s capable of healing itself if it’s damaged. Wouldn’t that make an ideal material for the skin of a spaceship, which is constantly bombarded with debris? What if the ship itself were shaped like a giant conch shell? And if the ship was made of a seashell-like material, what if it were grown that way, rather than built? The research ship Ranganathan was born, along with the concept for the underwater environments in Sound.
Once I knew I wanted part of the book to take place deep underneath the sea, I started seeking out information about what life is like underwater. I watched the BBC’s The Blue Planet and National Geographic’s Alien Deep, among others. I learned about superheated blackwater vents along the ocean floor, giant tube worms, and divers in poor countries who work underwater with no equipment except long hoses that pump down oxygen from a generator-powered air compressor on a ship above. All of these elements ended up in Sound.
This isn’t to say that every piece of worldbuilding is planned out far in advance. Inspiration comes from research, happy coincidences, and things you read or saw once that have stuck in your memory ever since. For example, many years ago, before I even knew I was going to write Sound, I visited an aquarium that had a tank of jellyfish illuminated by blue and pink lights. When the jellyfish were within the beams, their whole bodies lit up, and I could see that their tendrils reached almost all the way to the base of the tank. Later, when I was mulling over biomimetics and how you could build an underwater city that would be able to cope with changing currents below and shifting ice above, I remembered how earthquake-proof buildings are designed to move with, rather than resist, the quake. Then I thought about the jellyfish. What if you had a city that was able to sway with the currents the way the jellyfish’s tendrils did? This vision of a jellyfish-like city became Ny Kyoto in Sound, the underwater capital of the moon Enceladus.
This isn’t the whole puzzle, of course. There are abandoned space stations, gangsters’ lairs, and dangerously quirky transport ships to explore as well. I hope you find the worldbuilding in Sound as fun and immersive to read as it was to write.