Over the past few weeks I’ve blogged about the basics of an ecosystem, the four simple needs of an ecosystem, and apex predators. Today, Brooke Johnson is going to kick off a series of guest posts about civilization building. She’s going to bridge the gap from basic ecosystem to flourishing civilization.
When I first sat down to write The Brass Giant, the first book in my Chroniker City series, I never could have expected that this simple idea that popped into my head one late night of insomnia would somehow develop into this vivid alternate universe, sprawling with characters and stories. All I knew was that I needed to tell this one story, about a young girl who wants something impossible for her time—and how she makes that dream possible. I never imagined that Chroniker City, the fictional city in which series takes place, would grow so far beyond my original idea.
The city sits twenty miles off the southern coast of Wales, built onto a small island of rock eight miles west of Grassholm. In our world, a remote lighthouse stands there, built in the late 1850s. However, in my alternate timeline, a wealthy German engineer by the name of Gumarich Chroniker instead chose the location in the early 1830s for his greatest engineering project—a mechanical, self-sustaining city that would eventually become the technological hub of the modern world.
What I didn’t realize, was that in the course of writing the novel the city would evolve beyond that original world-building. As I delved deeper into the setting, the city gained history and layers and several different dynamics that I did not expect.
And I love that the world came alive like that. I love that this city started as nothing more than a simple what if… and then became this multifaceted world—from the subterranean levels of engines and boilers beneath the city to the leading polytechnical university of the modern world.
But one aspect of the setting stands out from the rest: the subcity. In The Brass Giant, I spend a good number of pages beneath the streets of the city proper. My main character navigates the dangerous service tunnels and networks of pipes to sneak into a restricted workshop, she visits her brother in the subcity boilers, and even uses her knowledge of the subcity layout to escape prison and go into hiding when she’s accused of espionage by the Guild. There’s much less of the subcity in The Guild Conspiracy, the second book in the series, but that doesn’t diminish its importance.
It’s this colossal, subterranean engine room that drives power to the city above, recycling water from the surrounding ocean to fill the boilers beneath the city streets, using the high temperatures from the active machinery to separate the salt from the excess water so that it can be used for plumbing, selling the leftover brine as an export. Fishing is a large trade, being an island city, and because of its close proximity to the mainland, the city has access to farms for importing poultry, meat, and produce.
As for the rest of the city, it operates heavily on trade, labor, and public service jobs among the lower and middle classes, with the upper classes usually involved in international or imperial business, trade, and financial investments. The Guild, the elite establishment of engineers, employs scientists, academic professionals, and engineers in order to develop new technologies and meet imperial demand for their creations. There is a lot of money in Chroniker City, but most of it remains in the hands of upper society.
The unique ecosystem within the subcity is what brings Chroniker City to life for me, transforming what could have been yet another ordinary London-esque setting into a fully mechanized city, a character in its own right, with many secrets hidden in its deep, dark hollows. This city is alive, and I hope that some small hint of its depth and mystery reach readers as they venture through its streets so that Chroniker City comes alive to them in the same way it exists in my head.
Brooke Johnson is a stay-at-home mom and tea-loving author. As the jack-of-all-trades bard of the family, she journeys through life with her husband, daughter, and dog. She currently resides in Northwest Arkansas but hopes one day to live somewhere a bit more mountainous.
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