I don’t do much world building these days. Most of what I need is already done, and I feel I have a good grasp of how my setting works. Lately, there’s really only been one thing bothering me: cars.
On the surface, my setting is your regular, bog standard fantasy world. It’s got elves and magic and dragons and all that. What sets it apart is that it’s not stuck in the middle ages, but has continued to develop until it’s at roughly the same stage as the real world of today.
There are cellphones, TV, internet, and all that regular stuff that you and I come across in our everyday lives.
What’s been bothering me for a long time is that I’ve had this idea that I don’t want people to have cars. You shouldn’t just be able to jump into your car and drive somewhere. If you want to travel you’d have to take the train, or something.
I don’t have a perfectly good explanation for why I want this. I just do. It feels good.
The issue has been that I haven’t had a good explanation for why there aren’t any cars. I’ve come up with several half-decent ideas, but they’ve all had their shortcomings.
I could have made fuel rare and expensive, but eventually someone would have come up with another option to power cars (batteries, for example).
I had a great idea that I called Critical Instability, which explained why regular internal combustion engines wouldn’t work. It’s an interesting option, but wouldn’t work for jet stream engines. Already today there are cars that use jet engines, so it’s not too far fetched to assume the technology would have developed in my setting too.
I tried to think of some kind of political reasoning for why cars wouldn’t be allowed, but that just got a bit too absurd.
Eventually, and thanks to a good friend, the idea of Soul Friction came up. In short, Soul Friction is an effect that limits the speed at which a person can travel before their soul starts taking damage.
I’ll explain in more detail, but first I’ll need to explain a little bit about more about how the world I’ve created works.
All living things, and some things that aren’t, have a soul. Your soul is a part of you. Exactly what it is and how it works is still uncertain, but there’s no doubt that souls exist and that they’re vital to life.
Your soul may be attached to another, new-born, body when you die, allowing for reincarnation. It could be the soul gets merged with your god when you die, or it may go on living its own life in the aether once your body dies.
Exactly what happens with your soul when you die is unclear, but most likely it goes on in some way – without your physical self. If your soul is damaged that may not happen, and if the soul is destroyed, well, then it can’t happen (also, you die).
Damaging your soul is bad.
The soul is also used for channeling the aether, which is a requirement for being able to wield magic. In fact, it is only through the soul that living beings are able to interact with the aether in a controlled fashion.
The aether is the fuel that powers magic. It exists everywhere on the planet in one way or another.
The properties of the aether depends on your geographical location as well as on your altitude. At the poles, the aether is almost completely stable, making it very hard to channel and manipulate. The closer you get to the equator the less stable it gets.
At the equator itself the aether is so unstable and chaotic that mere thoughts (including dreams) of untrained magic users can set off magical effects. This is why travel between the northern and southern hemisphere is risky enough as to be practically impossible.
The aether is also affected by altitude. At sea level, the aether is dense and thick. There’s plenty of it to go around. At higher altitudes the aether gets thinner.
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s only through the soul that living beings are able to interact with the aether. It stands to reason there’s some kind of connection between the soul and the aether.
When a living being passes through the world, its soul passes through the aether. Unfortunately, the soul can’t pass through the aether unhindered. There is some friction. If the soul travels too fast through the aether the friction becomes too much and starts to erode the soul.
A little bit of damage can be recovered, and the soul can heal, but if the soul travels too fast, too far, or too often, the damage becomes irreparable and the soul becomes permanently damaged. If this continues, the soul can, and will, be destroyed completely (and that’s bad).
The amount of soul friction varies between different living beings, but is generally assumed to be a function of the speed the being can achieve on its own without outside help.
For example, a falcon diving towards a mouse can reach significantly higher speeds than a turtle, and the falcon’s soul is a lot more tolerant to soul friction.
It’s when you start to move at speeds which are not natural to you that you begin to endanger your soul, like for example if you were driving a car.
Cars are technically possible, but driving one for any considerable distance, speed, or regularity, means you’ll end up damaging your soul, possibly beyond repair. This isn’t a risk many people are willing to take, and because of this, cars have never really taken off as a mode of transportation in the world.
Now, why would trains be okay, but not cars? Trains can travel both far and fast, and the people staffing the trains are onboard all the time. Would they not burn out their souls pretty fast?
The trick with trains is that they’re “grounded” through the rails they run on.
Exactly how this grounding works I haven’t fully worked out yet, but I feel like that’s a relatively minor detail. It’s something that can be worked on.
It may be that the vibrations in the rails caused by the oncoming train destabilises the aether around the track, making it easier for souls to pass through. I’m not entirely pleased with that being the only explanation, but it could be a factor at least.
Another factor could be that train will gather a larger number of passengers (souls) and that souls have an easier time passing through the aether as a group. Perhaps they gather some of the surrounding aether to themselves and use that as an insulating layer to protect themselves against soul friction?
Yes, there are questions left to answer, but at least I feel like I’m on the right track here (yes, pun intended).
Another mode of transportation is by airship: zeppelins, blimps, dirigibles – that kind of thing. These travel at speeds higher than what any human can achieve on their own, but still slower than a train.
The reason they’re able to travel that fast without being grounded is because of the altitude. The higher up they are, the thinner the aether, and the less of an issue soul friction becomes.
Like I mentioned above, there are still questions to be answered about the details of Soul Friction, but I feel they’re relatively minor compared to what I had before.
Before, I had no good reason for why there weren’t cars, and now I do. The issue I have now is that I don’t have a fully satisfying reason for why trains are still practical and viable as a mode of transportation.
That’s something I’ll figure out along the way at some other point.