I met Dr. Britton when I did a worldbuilding panel discussion for LitCon 2020, then I invited the three panelists back to talk more about the worlds of their stories. You can check out the video to get a taste, or keep reading for a deep dive into the world of his series and his process.
Before we dive in to the nitty gritty, what is The Beta-Earth Chronicles about?
In book one, The Blind Alien, a disappointed history professor from our planet is suddenly drug across the multi-verse to an alternate earth. He is blinded in the capture. So how does a blind human function in a world where he understands nothing as he learns, as does the reader, what Beta-Earth is all about? So the theme of disability is a strong motif in the series.
At the same time, Dr. Malcolm Renbourn learns his new earth is dominated by an ancient plague that kills three out of four male babies their first year. For four books in the series, Renbourn and the tribe he builds explore different cultures around Beta-Earth and endure a series of challenges and threats, especially by the scientists of The Collective. They hope the alien or his offspring carry the cure to the world-defining plague.
In book five, Renbourn and five of his wives cross the dimensional barrier to The Third Earth, home to human pairs that share thoughts and feelings simultaneously. They persecute “mono-minds,” defective humans like those on Alpha and Beta-earths who inhabit individual bodies. So the themes of intolerance and bigotry are explored again on yet another planet dominated by humans.
Beginning in book six, Return to Alpha, we begin to experience tales of the second generation of Renbourns as they come to their father’s home planet forty years from now after the planet has been decimated by weaponized plagues and global warming. That setting is continued in Alpha Tales 2044.
When and where does your story take place? Present? Future? Earth? Somewhere else?
The first four books take place over twenty years on Beta-Earth , beginning with the present. Book five opens about 20 years from now on Certain-Earth , and books six, seven, and forthcoming volumes are set on our planet over forty years in the future.
What are the main differences between the “regular world” and the world of your story?
On Beta-Earth, cultural differences are very evident. Tribes are built around a single male and multiple wives in polygamous relationships. Tribal strength is built by allying your family with others who can build your family strength and importance.
In many ways, their technology is not as advanced as ours. They emphasize means to combat the “Plague-With-No-Name,” the curse that kills so many male offspring. They are more ecologically oriented with solar panels and wind-poles being their primary sources of energy.
Did you invent any interesting technology?
Most tech over there isn’t all that different from ours except the “cross-versal quad-frame” that drug Malcolm Renbourn through the multi-verse.
What is the primary way people travel? Do they move around a lot or mostly stay close to home?
There is a lot of travel. On land, most traffic is in six-wheel “trans” as most tribes are large and need big conveyances. There is a lot of air travel in planes and on boats all over the globe.
Does language play any role in your world? Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety? Did you invent any new slang or terminology during your world-building process?
Language plays a major role in the Chronicles. The primary language for many Betans is Alman, a language Malcolm Renbourn has to learn rather quickly. The cadence and rhythm of “Beta-speak” is extremely distinctive. Some readers have said the speech sounds like Old English, although I didn’t have that in mind. Instead of “I don’t know,” Betans say “I know not.” Instead of “I am certain,” Betans say “I certain.” One common idiom is the phrase “true said.”
There are many dialects that vary from culture to culture. Differences between social classes are shown in diction. For example, poor, rural women say “I be” instead of “I am.” There are other languages on the planet but Alman is the one all my principal characters know and use.
What kinds of climates do your characters experience? Do they see a lot of change or is it always the same? Has your world always had this kind of climate, or has it changed over time?
The climate and seasons are very much like what we know. One exception, which we learn about in book two, was the aftermath of the “Lost Moon” crashing into Beta-Earth millennia ago which cast a cloud of radioactive dust and debris over the planet for ages. It was their version, you could say, of a natural nuclear winter.
The main cast of characters encounter all manner of climates, including surviving a hurricane at sea, as they keep being forced to move from one country to another.
Is there any kind of faith system in your world? Myths and legends that inform the setting or characters? Did you draw inspiration from any real cultures, living or dead?
Most Betans are members of the Church-of-All-Domes” headed by the Mother-Icesalt in the domed city on an island near Pynti. All Betans worship Olos, essentially our Mother Earth. They also revere Sojoa, the sun, the male consort to Olos.
Olos is viewed in many different ways. I admit shaping much of the goddess worship on Wiccan practices. Faith in Olos is a strong motif in the series.
What do people in your invented world do for fun? Are there sports, games, music, or other activities they do in their free time?
There is all manner of music including whistle-choirs which Malcolm Renbourn abhors. Betans enjoy milaco, their preferred non-alcoholic drink, and pravines, an umbrella-term for all manner of alcoholic beverages.
In order to raise funds to support his tribe, Malcolm Renbourn “invents” all kinds of earth games and markets them on Beta. Card games, board games, ball sports, the like become very popular on Beta. In book four, the tribe even creates a new Monte Carlo where all manner of gambling games create a new industry.
When you build a world, what is your process like? Do you do a lot of research upfront, wing it completely, or something in between?
Depends on the book. For the first four books, each piece of the puzzle was built around specific characters who were all designed to represent various classes from different cultures. So we learn about Beta-Earth by hearing each character narrate their own back-story. I believe many of the characters created themselves after I had a few starting points in mind. For example, Joline came from a cliff-dwelling civilization I based on Mesa Verde in Colorado with some technological advances quite different from the era of ancient Native-Americans. I based some settings on parallel countries on our planet: Alma has a lot in common with England, Kirip with France, Pynti with Italy. At least, my impression of those countries in different periods in history.
Now, creating our earth in the future required me to do a lot of preparatory research, especially regarding the impact of climate change. It’s one thing to build a world whole-cloth, another to base the future on a world every reader knows. I needed to research what the impact on humanity might be after the decimation of our species.
How central is the setting of your story to the story itself? Is it more of an interesting backdrop, or is it integral to the events of the story?
All the changing settings are very important to the story. For various reasons, the Renbourn tribe is virtually chased from one side of the globe to another, constantly seeking governments who will give them shelter from threats from various adversaries. This gave me the opportunity to keep building new settings to give variety to the books and show the growth and expansion of the Renbourn influence on Beta-Earth.
When helping the reader get to know the world you built, what techniques do you use? Do you tend to front load with context so they’ve got everything they need or keep the reader in the dark and feed them only bits at a time? Something in between?
As I said above, the main technique is to let each character enter the stage in their own words and describe their background before integrating them into the tribal timeline. As the setting keeps changing, we learn more and more about Beta-Earth by seeing it from a variety of perspectives as the Renbourn tribe is constantly on the move. As the structure of the first books is an oral history, so learning about the planet and the principal characters unfolds a piece at a time.
How much of a role does realism play in your world-building?
It plays a pretty large role. In some ways, my books are more fictional cultural anthropology than sci-fi as most readers think of as sci-fi. The mysticism is kept to a minimum, the issues and problems are mostly terrestrial, there are no space-ships or exotic weaponry.
That changes a bit as the books progress, as in introducing mutants in book 3. Books six and seven are as realistic as possible, with the obvious exception of the Sasquatch in Alpha Tales.
Do you have any specialized training or background from your “real life” that has informed your world-building?
Well, I’ve been a student of history forever, so there’s a lot of that in the series. As I’m blind myself, that impacted Dr. Renbourn and the blind prophetess, Lorei Renbourn. I’ve read a lot on so many subjects all of my life, so it’s difficult to think of just a few elements that influenced the books.
Being a professor of college English for 33 years absolutely impacted the style and structure of the original novels. I wanted an active flow, a variety of voices, an originality no one would expect.
How do you keep all of the details of your world and characters straight? Do you have a system for deciding on different factors and keeping it all organized, or does it live more in your head?
It all lives pretty much in my head. I think it holds together as it grows organically as each new character adds their world-view into the brew.
Did you experience any difficulties while building your world? Any facts that refused to cooperate or inconsistencies you needed to address while editing?
I remember a Greek doctor telling me I had some medical information wrong. Another medical professional told me the genetic problems shouldn’t be all that tough to resolve, but simplifying that would have destroyed the series.
Do you bounce your ideas off anyone as you’re building your world or is it more of a solitary process?
It’s been largely a solitary process, although I must credit my late wife with suggestions I incorporated into book two. The first six books had various editors courtesy of BearManor Media who made a lot of valuable suggestions. About a year or so ago I joined a local critique group and have gotten lots of input into ongoing stories destined for the next collection.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing about your world. Where can people find you on the web?
I have lots of ways folks can learn about my books online, thanks to my amazing publicist – Karina Kantas – and my long-time webmaster, Cheryl Morris. I’d not have what I got without them.
Thanks to everyone who stuck it out and read this interview! I gotta thank Phoebe for asking so many in-depth questions–made me really think out my world-building–