Worldbuilding: Ephemera & Epigraphs

Reading The Butchering Art, with its record of snarky arguments in medical journals, gave me an idea.

The setting for my stories about Miska, along with all the various Andre & Jerome stories I have, is a complicated one. It’s big, in-depth, and just enough like our own world that it regularly leaves people guessing when I try to explain it. Perhaps I should try to simplify some of the setting, but… I think the perverse complexity and deep similarities to our own world are what makes the setting engaging and exciting. It’s a what-if, a thought experiment, and a sometimes-grim sometimes-hopeful social commentary.

Part of the similarity is in geography and place names. That’s the thing that trips up folk the most, I think, and the thing I’ve considered rewriting time and again. The world is—mostly—our own. The continents are mostly the continents we would recognize from our own Earth. As such, I have regularly used our own world’s historical names for cities that match up with a city’s location in this setting (e.g. Paris and Marseille). At times, when I’m trying to convey that there’s something distinct from our own world, our own expectations, I change a city’s name (as I’ve done with most bodies of water). But I know that’s confused readers even more, at times.

It doesn’t help that I’m not totally consistent about it, or haven’t always settled on names for some places.

But those shifted names still don’t address the shift in social conventions, or the difference in histories. Explaining why I’m using some of our own world’s city names doesn’t give a reader any understanding of the detailed history of this alternate Earth. In some ways, I think it actually makes understanding the setting harder for readers—which wasn’t my goal at all.

Enter my flash of inspiration.

The snarky medical journal arguments presented in The Butchering Art conveyed so much more than their surface disagreements. They served as a touchstone for the culture of the time, and they contained such startling similarity to modern academic sniping—and comment section flame wars—that I immediately felt like I had a better connection to, a better read on the world depicted by the book.

So I started writing in-setting documents for this world. Some were the stiffly polite and horribly condescending disagreements of people writing to various society papers’ opinion sections. Another was an excerpt from a personal letter between two people involved in city politics and what might be called clandestine activity. Every so often I have another idea and try it out.

With this, I think I’ve finally found the way to give readers a window into the setting. This material can preface some chapters or stories, or serve as introduction to a section of a book. What I’ve written so far feels clunky as an epigraph, but I think this can finally give enough context to ease readers into the world. Better yet, I can showcase in-setting struggles and disagreements, political squabbles, and personal opinions. I can reveal information that some of the characters might know, or comment on at some point. And, I hope, I can do some of the world-building work that would otherwise clog the rest of my story with exposition.

So here, enjoy the first idea that came to me a while back. It won’t be nearly enough on its own to show you all of this setting, but maybe you can enjoy peering in through the cracks.

***

Letter on the latest troubles of the Inner Sea, to the editor of The Parisian, first and finest of the continental ladies’ magazines

Regarding the recent abuse levied against the fine Doctor Gilarien of our daughter-city Marseille, this writer must protest heartily. It is by no means sensible for any to wage too harsh a battle against the natural allies of our fine city, and this is precisely what La Fleur du Sucre proposes to do. Our daughter-city—along with her denizens—is our responsibility to protect and guide, and the true proof of Parisian majesty will be evident in the beauty, grace, intellect and fortitude of her daughters in the face of the dangers of the world. Certainly I would hope that La Fleur du Sucre would not be the type of mother who so admonishes and smothers her children that they never learn to fly from the nest of their own accord. No, what is needed here is not chastising whip-tongue remonstrations, but rather the gentle guidance and support of a mother for her child. We may prune back ill-reason and train the growing limb of intellect to our trellis where we know it will be healthy and bear fruit.

The estimable Doctor Gilarien is entirely correct that our city’s agents operating as they are, along the coast of the Inner Sea, have brought forth suffering amongst the many tribes present there. But the good doctor must recall that these tribes have long allied themselves with the Ones to the East, the very same who sought to maintain “Enlightened” dominion over all of us despite the wishes of the Good Masters. Given these tribes’ warlike disposition and their frequent exercises upon the borders of our allies, it would be insufferable for us to not interrupt their works, lest they grow too numerous and powerful and form once more the armies that they once were. For let us not forget that those selfsame tribes, the ones the good doctor feels such concern for, were once the engines of destruction which drove the burning of Köln, Rotterdam, and even our lovely Paris. Thus it is that one would do well to balance the—admirable, and well-reasoned!—concern for innocent life made more difficult by our own actions, against the cost of allowing such hostile forces to regain their strength and organization to rampage across our continent once again. This writer is entirely certain that the good doctor will agree that the actions of Paris and her agents must, in the greater balance, come out the lighter price to pay.

As to the fine doctor’s points with regards to the treatment of the prisoners of war captured amidst the strife along the Inner Sea, this writer must surrender to their local experience and expertise. It is the doctor’s knowledge of the prisoners’ circumstances which must, clearly, take precedence here, and La Fleur du Sucre would do well to recall that one’s daughters will only grow into their own skills of reason if they are trusted to observe and report their own findings in all earnestness, and assess proper courses of action from there on—with their mother’s guiding hand, of course. Therefore to the doctor this writer suggests that it would be to everyone’s benefit if some documentation could be made of the present circumstances of the prisoners during their transportation. There is no course by which the transportation may be stopped—it would not do to domicile prisoners too near the fighting, nor to leave them anywhere they might escape unsupervised, and as such the verdant gardens of the New Sea must be the best solution—but perhaps the transportation might be made less onerous and perilous to those transported. Certainly there is no need to torture, as the good doctor would have it, those who have surrendered or otherwise been captured. After all, these vanquished foes are not insensate beasts, but merely the doughty and fearsome battle cadre bred and trained from birth to serve in the Enlightened Ones’ armies.

Lastly, this writer must commend the good doctor’s dedication to the ethics of the profession; surely the doctor’s presence in this world is of considerable value to all, and a guiding light for all others of the daughter-city who might seek the health and well-being of their fellows. If this writer lacks any merest atom of knowledge of the arts of medicine, may it nevertheless be that this writer is able to remind the fine doctor of Marseille to think beyond the simpler personal suffering of a vanquished few and to encompass the greater wellbeing of free civilization upon the continent without the dominion of those who once held us all in bondage. It would be a foul sickness indeed were we to squander the freedom granted us by the Good Masters, and fought for by our ancestors, by failing to protect it from the encroachments of those who may wish us ill.

With love and kindness,

A Parisian Mother

The Butchering Art, by Lindsey Fitzharris

This reminded me strongly of The Poisoner’s Handbook, another semi-biographical history of medical science (forensic medical science, in that case). Much like with The Poisoner’s Handbook, I can’t recommend this book if you’re not comfortable with reading about gore. If you don’t know what gangrene looks like, maybe you’ll feel better reading about it than I did (don’t look that up casually).

That said, I finished the book in the course of slightly more than a day. Clearly reading about evocatively gruesome and painful medical history does not deter me.

But a huge part of what makes this book so excellent, in my mind, is the way in which it clearly conveys the total transformation in the technology and technique of surgery over the course of the 1800s. That the book does so while also giving us a window into the personal life of the man who worked so hard to transform medicine is a lovely added bonus.

The Butchering Art opens with the grim realities of surgery in the early nineteenth century, in which each operation—usually an amputation—was sudden, painful, and likely to result in post-operative infection. Speed was vital in part because patients were not anesthetized, and they often struggled under the blades and saws of their surgeons. Even if a surgeon operated successfully, patients often died of post-operative infection afterwards due to the frequent foulness of surgeons’ hands, instruments, and operating conditions. These infections were so common and expected, and so frequent in hospitals, that the collection of diseases and infections were simply called “hospitalism.”

Yet by the close of the book, we’ve seen the development and spread of modern antiseptic (and eventually aseptic) technique, the spread of anesthesia, and the complete transformation of the butchering art (excellent title choice).

It’s really quite wonderful seeing the way in which Dr. Lister (the main focus for most of the book) finally comes to his realizations about post-operative infections. His fight to convince others of his discoveries is both encouraging and disheartening at turns, but not surprising. I’m not sure to what degree my appreciation comes from my love of nerdery, and to what degree it comes from Fitzharris doing a good job of walking us through Lister’s explorations, realizations, and struggles. Either way, it works well.

I should also note: I’m not an expert in the relevant historical period, and I found checking Fitzharris’ sourcing difficult in the ebook version I read. But she makes frequent use of primary sources, including a plethora of personal letters and Dr. Lister’s case notes, and manages to do so in a way that feels far more convincingly researched (and more widely sourced) than some other historical non-fiction I’ve read recently.

If you’re looking for historical non-fiction and you’re intrigued by the growth of modern medical science, I absolutely recommend this book.

Enjoy.