Building the world of Pangaea

book cover

What would have happened if humanity had grown up on the single landmass that preceded the continents? Acknowledging the scientific challenges of that scenario and nonetheless asking “what if?”, this is the question that Michael Jan Friedman sets before us in the introduction to Pangaea. In the pages that follow, Michael and a baker’s dozen of other writers present stories in this world.

In some shared-world anthologies the stories are independent — the world is agreed upon, and each writer does his own thing within that setting. And some novels, presenting a single story, are collaboratively written. Pangaea is a collection of short stories, sometimes interlocking, that also tell an overall story. The result is a collection that is more than the sum of its parts — engaging stories that stand on their own and a mystery to solve that runs through the entire book.

The World

Editor Michael Jan Friedman leads off with “The Breaking”, showing us the capital he envisioned on the shore of the inner sea, in Aristaya. The technology level is approximately modern; the culture is tribal, with power moving from one group to the other and back again over time. The leader is not President or Prime Minister but, rather, Liberator — as in liberation from the people’s past slavery. We learn a little more about that past in the final story of the collection.

Lineage is important in Aristaya, and so is having your ancestors present for important times in your life. I don’t mean “present” in that metaphysical sense that some cultures have where your ancestors are always there; I mean physically present. I wonder what the effects in this culture would be of having somebody lost — truly lost — in battle or at sea.

Not that “at sea” is much of a thing in Pangaea. There is the inner sea, ringed by land, and ships sail it (probably along the coast, though we’re not told). But the risks of being lost would come in sailing the outer sea, the Great Nothing, as we learn in “A Dearth of Dragons” by Adam-Troy Castro. The story, set on the lone island off the coast of the continent proper, shows a community caught between the continent and the nothingness, unable to explore further. Everybody who’s ever sailed away from the safety of Pangaea’s outer shore has vanished. That’s the backdrop for an entertaining story in which a pair of teens find themselves face to face with dangerous men arriving in a boat.

I said that the technology level is approximately modern — we see energy production (including underwater), continent-wide television, and the Internet. This last is presented in “Everything You Know”, by Glenn Hauman, in a way that made me both laugh and cringe. Yes, Pangaea has forums, like the Pangaea Information Exchange (Panix), and forums have information, misinformation, conspiracy theories, Farlanders (who think Pangaea isn’t the only land on the planet), and trolls. That comment thread was spot-on. But one technological area not evident is satellites. With satellites we would expect the world to be completely mapped, yet there is uncertainty about what’s beyond the sea and, in one story, about the existence of other islands. And travel is overland or by train or (on the inner sea) by ship; we don’t see planes (a prerequisite for satellites, I would think). Pangaea has modern conveniences, but not all of them, and thereby manages to feel familiar yet different.

Not everybody on Pangaea is a fan of technology, either. In “The World Together”, Michael A. Burstein opens a window into a community that prefers a simpler life, one spent without technology and — always — with other people. To want to be alone in Wymerin is nearly unthinkable, even a sin — and in a strongly religious community such as this one, that matters. The protagonist, a teen with a special “alone place”, finds out she has a kindred spirit — from the rival sect. We get glimpses of the religious schism and I’m left wanting to know more; the theme of ever-present companionship, however, is very well-developed and intriguing to this introvert. No, I don’t want to live there — I just want to peer through the windows occasionally.

The other stories in the collection present interesting cultures too — people of the desert, people whose whole society is built around contracts, the differences between urban and rural life — a variety of human cultures. But humans are not the only intelligent race on Pangaea.

The Brows, as they are derisively known to the oh-so-superior humans (according to the humans), are the descendants of the Neanderthals. As Michael Friedman explains in the introduction, on a world without the competitive pressures of our world, Neanderthals might have been able to survive. In Pangaea we see them in isolated groups, preferring the outer mountains. They are intelligent and alien; because they are also strong and slow of speech most humans (“Citizens”) dismiss them as dumb brutes, according them a social status not much higher than dogs. Dismissing them, we will learn, is a mistake. The Timeless, as they call themselves (because they do not perceive events in linear order the way humans do), are introduced in “Three Halves Ambition” by Lawrence M. Schoen, where we see how shrewd and savvy they can be.

Building the World


Map credit: Jacob Bascle, used with permission

When reading Pangaea I got the sense that each writer had considerable latitude to develop part of the world — and yet it all fit together. How, I wondered, did they accomplish that? I spoke with Michael A. Burstein about their process. He wrote:

Michael [Jan Friedman] provided a world “bible”, a document that laid out his concept of Pangaea, the different countries, and the precipitating events that could affect all our characters. Then he let us decide what we wanted to write about. We ran our ideas by him, and he worked as the project editor to make sure that our stories were not in conflict with each other or contradicted each other. He actually gave us a lot of leeway in world-building, something that I was not expecting at first but was very glad to have.

The editor both provided the foundation and validated the ideas proposed by individual authors. There was room for considerable latitude within those bounds; the editor had not done all the worldbuilding himself. Pangaea is a big place, so authors could choose where and what they wanted to develop. Every author contributed to the worldbuilding.

How detailed was the description of each country? I asked about Wymerin, the setting for his story. He told me that Michael (Friedman) had described Wymerin as a country that was religious and eschewed modern technology, and he took it from there. No other writer initially chose Wymerin, so he was free to develop the culture; when more than one writer chose the same setting they worked more closely. Several stories involve the capital, and the close coordination between Michael Jan Friedman’s opening story and Peter David’s closing one is clear.

We sometimes think of worldbuilding as distinct from storytelling — or, at least, that the world comes first because, after all, you need a setting for your story. With the Pangaea team, that initial “bible” about the world also included key events — not just key events in history, but key events for the present story. A key event occurs in the first story, is reacted to in the second, and is further expanded upon in several others. The Timeless and how they came to be affected several stories, as did some religious themes and some of the tribal strife.

And what about the actual writing collaboration? Did writers work directly with each other as they built out the world and the story? Michael told me:

Many of us wrote stories that were mostly independent of each other, although there were a few that connected and many of them had characters reacting to the inciting incident. In the second book [forthcoming], however, we have had a chance to become more integrated. Lawrence Schoen, Robert Greenberger, and I decided to write stories that connected very strongly, almost forming a trilogy. My characters appear in Lawrence’s story, and Lawrence’s characters are mentioned in mine. Robert’s main character appears in my story as well. Each story can be read and enjoyed independently, but when read all together in Pangaea 2, it will display how much is changing in the world for everyone.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the team takes this story in volume 2, due out later this year.