Geological History in World-Building

World-building is an important part of science fiction writing.  You can’t make a world without geographical setting, political environment, socio-historical backdrop, and so on.  What about the geological history of a planet or region?  Back in the 1800s, the discovery of a past that included Ice Ages, Dinosaurs, and pre-life epochs and eons captured world imagination.  But do such discoveries impact modern day stories or events?

 Write a few words on how some component of geological history might be a significant element of a science fiction story. 

This is intended as a discussion area for the college course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer”, beginning in Spring 2016, but, please, post some thoughts for the students to consider!


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26 thoughts on “Geological History in World-Building

  1. There are many ways that geological history could be the basis for a science fiction story. One of the first things that came to mind was the history that we can read from rocks, and how they can tell us about the environment in which they formed. In a science fiction story, this could be used in conjunction with time travel. What if whenever someone picked up a rock, they were transported back in time to the environment where it formed? Picking up hunk of sandstone and being transported back to a low-energy beach might not be so bad, but picking up a piece of basalt and suddenly being in the middle of lava flowing out of a volcano would be pretty bad. They would have to learn a lot about what rocks formed where in order to avoid being transported back to potentially dangerous environments.

    • Evangeline,
      This is a very interesting idea! I could see some type of paleontological murder mystery where the hero has to traverse across both time and space to find the culprit. Anyone up for another Indiana Jones sequel? Indiana Jones and the Teleportation Outcrop, where our hero has to use Ordovician shale, Mississippian sandstone, and a slew of other rocks to stop an evil genius from harvesting live DNA from prehistoric creatures to bioengineer attractions for a theme park.

    • I love this idea. It is fun to play with “if I picked up this rock where would I end up”. I really don’t want to pick up those igneous rocks- might end up in the mantle or in a volcano haha!!

  2. Geological history tells us about how climates changed, whether due to catastrophic events or large changes over time. The rocks tell us how hot the area was, whether it was above or below sea level, how much pressure was applied, etc. All of these things shape our idea of what happened and when at that time. I am not a science fiction fan, but if there are stories written with some truth then the author would obviously study those geological ideas. I think about science fiction movies when I reflect on this question. Futuristic catastrophic events suggest huge climate change in a short period of time. These types of stories are based on things from the past that have been proven by geology.

    • Kara,
      I think you are thinking in the right direction! All of the different layers tell us what kind of environment was once there, a story of its own!

    • Kara,
      I think you are on the right track! Each layer of rock tells us what kind of environment and sometimes even the type of living organisms that once lived there!

  3. Many years ago, I read a book called The Transall Saga (1998) by Gary Paulsen. Paulsen is one of my all-time favorite authors and was better known for his wildnerness adventure books like Hatchet, but this was a science-fiction adventure. Briefly, a teenage boy is “abducted” from Earth while out hiking and is transported to a strange world in which he must survive. One particular scene I remember is that the main character finds a Coca-Cola bottle that had been buried in the ground. Soon after, he realizes that he was actually transported to the future on planet Earth – which is now a strange, post-apocalyptic world.
    What he really did he is stratigraphic analysis. He looked to the ground to solve a mystery. In this case, a piece of debris made it clear to him where he was in time and space. Similarly, geologists look at various “debris” in the soil and rocks, like fossils, to gain an understanding of past worlds.
    I can envision this concept being an important part of a science-fiction story. The hero arrives on an alien planet and finds no life. He hikes to a rocky outcrop, and sees vestiges of a past civilization buried thousands of years ago. He analyzes the artifacts and finds out that the civilization is not unlike that of the current civilization to which he belongs. He realizes that this finding represents a chilling but important truth: civilizations end. Returning to his home planet, our hero has compelling evidence to encourage his fellow citizens to live wisely and not recklessly destroy the planet that supports them.

  4. When I think about a a world in a Science Fiction story, I think about the dystopian genre. While Collin mentioned a book he read, my thoughts also stem from a novel. Young adult literature is an excellent source of utopian/dystopian stories. Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi, is a dystopian novel set in the future after a major storm sweeps the East coast of the US. All the oil, metal, and other resources are gone, and poverty-stricken families are forced to scrounge the sandy, dusty beaches and the oil ships that have broken open and spilled into the ocean. The people along the beach have been genetically modified because of the oil spill and the food sources are scarce.

    I enjoyed Ship Breaker because its plot was something that could eventually happen and its setting was also plausible. One very important factor in science fiction writing is an accurate sense of scientific details, especially having correct facts.

    • Kelley,
      When reading your post I immedialtly thought of how different minerals beside each other can also mean another mineral is close by. Not sure how your book goes but I could see the people using this type of a concept to find true food not altered or find a way to recreate the food they can find in parts of rocks or fossils.

  5. Like Kara said, climate change can affect rocks. Another thing that can determine which rocks are which, are things like where they are found, how fast they cooled, the particle size, and the energy found in their environment of deposition. Using this information about the past, can tell us information about the present and what may lie ahead in the future.

  6. This makes me think back to watching the movie avatar and how that planet really focused on its environment and resources (government was now destroying their planet by sucking theirs dry of resources). But for a movie like that to be more realistic it had to include all the geologically framework to make it make sense. What kind of rocks were there, what stories did they tell- I think they were looking for oil (could be wrong) but if they were looking for oil they would want to find areas where organics could have built up or if they were looking for coal low energy environments where organics were, etc. This geological history plays into these films and books.

    • Nice point brining up Avatar! Your post made me think about the newest Mad Max movie, and if there’s any reasonable geology in it. That too focused a lot on a fictional world and resources within it. I didn’t really pay attention the first time I saw it, but maybe I’ll have to rewatch it again.

    • In the movie Avatar they were looking for a mineral that was below the surface of Pandora. But your explanation is valid if they were looking for coal. To me its nearly impossible to create science fiction without geology because the setting of these environments are so detrimental to the details of the story. and science enthusiasts will most definitely call you out about not having your facts straight or your storyline not making sense.

  7. The science fiction story that comes to mind when I think of geology with science fiction is Jurassic Park. Preserved mosquitoes in an amber rock give the scientist the DNA to create dinosaurs. We know that fossils form from pressure and heat and can preserve plant life and animals. From this idea we can also think of other ways the science fiction work can use fossils. Maybe they preserve an animal of every variety to bring back when animals become extinct. It could also be used through plant material in preserving clues to a future generation.

    • This is a really interesting idea! I wonder if this kind of science has ever been tested before. I know they identified King Tut’s mummified mom by a small piece of DNA still detectable in his mummified femur so anything is possible!

  8. Geological history tells us about the past environments that once was occupied that space. Not only the environment, but it tells us the kind of creatures, living organisms, etc. It tells us about the climate change in that specific place whether it was over a long period of time or shorter. Whether geological history is a significant element of a science fiction story, I would have to say yes.

  9. This is a really interesting topic. I am a huge science fiction fan but for some reason the only example that I can think of is Star Wars. Every planet that the creators of Star Wars show us has a different environment. Rocks tell an important story about the environment and creatures on that planet. And every creature on those planets have certain characteristics to live there. It would be very interesting to study the rocks on another planet to see what they could tell us. Who knows what we would find.

    • I thought about Star Wars and all the different environments of each planet too. It would be fascinating to delve further into Star Wars’ geological history by seeing the fossils of the past creatures in the rock layers on each of those planets- the living ones are already so bizarre and interesting, it would be very cool to see their predecessors!

  10. For science fiction writing to be credible and create a vivid image in a reader’s/viewer’s mind, it needs a setting that is richly detailed but not so far-fetched that one rejects it as outrageous. This is where geological history can play a major role. If the background incorporates accurate elements of geology and history, like the discovery of elements in certain layers (like the unobtainium in James Cameron’s Avatar) or the unique terrain of a given planet (like the harsh desert terrain on Tatooine in Star Wars), it makes the science fiction world far more believable. Geological history can also play a major role in plot lines as well. Igneous rock could indicate to characters where an ancient volcano once was or fossils could hold the key to the entire story line (like in Jurassic Park).

    • really like the idea about plot lines. like how in Jurassic Park the fossils and other rocks can tell what the environment was,

  11. Geological history is important to science fiction because it creates an understanding of when, why, and how things were created. It gives a clear picture of what went on during a certain time.

  12. Science fiction writing really is a very great way to draw people in to something that is imaginative and help people visualize a place. When you think about the rocks that could be in relation to this science fiction world the rocks might tell us the stories of how they came there or how long they have been there. anyone that can write a good science fiction world will make you feel like you are there and like you know everything about it.

  13. Geological history is based on how climates switched from time to time.Geology is an explicitly part of science fiction. Any time a different world is imagined, geology could be used to build a world that makes sense. However I’ve rarely seen an imaginary world that makes geologic sense . From my point of view, don’t think science fiction is particularly good at promoting science. Frankenstein as an example where it show us lot of science fiction seems to reveal a fear of the unknown, a fear of tampering with nature or with going too far in trying to understand something

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