For the most part, I try to make my stories natural. They aren’t necessarily believable, as many of them are set in fantasy worlds, but I strive for realism of the sort that can make a reader feel drawn into the world. So characters act like people. Dialogue is sometimes halting or rambling, depending on the situation. And the settings get a lot of love from me, because I just enjoy worldbuilding.
Otherworld, the setting of my largest series (31 parts and counting!), is no exception. Really, it’s the poster child for my “hardcore” style of worldbuilding, as I’ve stated on numerous occasions. I started developing the world in 2013 as little more than a conlang playground, then redesigned it in 2015 as part of my serious writing push. Through it all, I’ve tried to keep one goal in mind.
This could be our world.
Sometimes, that doesn’t work out. Nobody could have predicted the coronavirus panic this year, that the entire world would shut down for months. So Otherworld stories don’t talk about that; for them (and my other “Paraverse” novels, such as the Endless Forms series), it was nothing more than another swine flu scare. Likewise, the characters don’t have to worry about riots when they’re on Earth. Even the original deus ex machina for getting them away from our planet didn’t materialize: Tropical Storm Chantal was late last year, and it didn’t go where I predicted it would seven years ago.
Despite those flaws, I try to keep Otherworld as close to reality as possible while maintaining the dramatic aspects of the stories. It fits “in the gaps”, so to speak. We don’t know that these things don’t exist. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
The big one
Of course, keeping that fiction alive is hard to do when you look at the overarching hypothesis of the series. To sum it up, the Americas were inhabited long ago, far longer than our theories (as of 2013) suggest. The original inhabitants were advanced, and possibly not even fully human—the truth of that remains a mystery even to me. They didn’t have an empire, but they did create numerous points of civilization that have since been lost.
This culture was far better adapted to the cold, dry climate of the Ice Age. When it ended about 12,000 years ago, their largest settlements sank beneath the rising seas, which is the main reason we can’t find them. (Yes, it’s an Atlantis riff. Sue me.) Seeing this catastrophe, they evacuated, using a set of ten mysterious sites containing wormholes. These linked to corresponding sites on another Earthlike planet, a colder one in general, where they set up shop.
Along the way, they brought the plants and animals they were familiar with. Some of those we know: Otherworld has corn and potatoes, New World raccoons and squirrels, though nothing not native to the Americas, with the possible exception of bottle gourds, which may have come over during the Ice Age. But it, unlike Earth, did not suffer the Pleistocene extinctions. So there are mammoths, sabretooth cats, dire wolves, and a few others.
This ancient civilization also interacted with the “first” Americans. Indeed, they traded with them, taught them, respected them. When their perceived apocalypse arrived, they took some of their neighbors with them to their new home. Thus, Otherworld’s natives are cousins to America’s natives. They aren’t the Aztec, Maya, Inuit, or Iroquois. They’re their own people. But they’re related, and they’re much closer to these than they are Europeans, Africans, or Asians.
Once they crossed over, the two races mostly returned to their dynamic. The ancients continued to learn and teach, even going as far as genetically engineering new sub-races of humans. The less-advanced natives accepted their wisdom, in some cases deifying them.
That worked until Otherworld began to snap out of its Ice Age about 4500 years ago. The ancients, now with nowhere else to go, retreated to high mountains and the Arctic counterpart, pushed along by one of their created races. (One small part of this tale is told in my free novel Seasons Change.) Whether any of them remain is an open question, one I have yet to see a need to answer.
Keeping it real
So that’s the backstory. Almost none of it really matters to the main plot of the stories, except that the characters from Earth are trying to piece it together out of curiosity. Still, I wanted it to be something that sounded plausible and wouldn’t be debunked easily. Yes, I’m aware that we’d probably have found evidence of advanced technology before now. And there’s not a millennia-old temple hidden around Soto la Marina, Mexico. Or Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Fossil, Oregon; Pelican Narrows, Saskatchewan…
Still, there could be. So what about the rest of it? Specifically, the timeline. How does that hold up after nearly a decade of new research?
Pretty well, in my opinion. The “gap” trick continues to work, keeping my ancients safely away from debunking. Even better are some of the findings that have come to light in the past three years.
We used to know the timing of the first Americans. It was a done deal. Call it about 13,000-15,000 years ago. They walked across a land bridge where the Bering Strait is now, then kept going through a narrow corridor between the glaciers in western Canada, following the plentiful game as they rapidly spread out through the two continents. Within a thousand years, they were everywhere from Alaska to Argentina, known by the distinct stone artifacts first found in Clovis, New Mexico.
By 2013, that theory was already beginning to crack. Now, it’s dead in the water. Spear points predating the Clovis style have been found in a number of locations, most notably Gault, not too far north of Austin, Texas. Bone tools in the Yukon site of Bluefish Caves go back a full ten thousand years before the earliest Clovis theories—they’re twice as old as the end of the Ice Age!
I’ve incorporated some of these into the Otherworld series. The remains of a child in Alaska showed DNA markers distinct from any extent Native American populations; she became, in my telling, a possible member of the ancient civilization. A similar find in Mexico dates to the “evacuation” period of my setting, and I’m on the fence as to whether that one represents an ancient or one of their neighbors who stayed (or was left) behind at the end of days.
So far, there’s nothing that really destroys the worldbuilding. In fact, some of the archaeological finds can actually be seen as strengthening it. None of them do so as much as last week’s.
The paper is “Evidence of human occupation in Mexico around the Last Glacial Maximum” by Ardelean et al. Written in 2018, it was published in the online edition of Nature on July 22. Six days ago. You don’t need much searching to find a copy…if you know where to look. (I’m not supposed to link to such sites, of course.)
Chiquihuite Cave is in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. Right in the middle of cartel country, I’ve read, so you can imagine how hard it is to run a dig there. Inside were found nearly two thousand stone artifacts: cores, flakes, blades, points, you name it. A bit of charcoal made from a Douglas fir, found near one of the points, provided an estimated date, and it’s unbelievable if you’re a “Clovis-first” adherent.
28,000 years ago. No joke. Twenty-eight thousand. In other words, about as old as the Bluefish Caves bone, which not only guts the theory that the Clovis points represent the oldest inhabitants of the Americas, but also drives a big nail into the coffin of the “Beringia standstill” hypothesis. That states that the first Americans came over from Siberia during the Ice Age, then settled down in Alaska and northwest Canada for a few millennia, sometimes ranging down the Pacific coast in boats.
Of course, the odds are astronomical that these are the oldest human tools south of Juneau. More likely, they represent a snapshot of a culture that lasted for hundreds or thousands of years, which only pushes the migration date further back in time. So we’re really looking at 30,000 years or more.
The population probably wasn’t very high, and these are nomadic hunter-gatherers we’re talking about. Not the ancients of Otherworld at all, yet Chiquihuite is evidence that people were living in the Americas—all throughout North America, for certain—not only at the end of the Ice Age, but at its height. The climate would have been much harsher then. Cold and dry in general, with a lot of erratic patterns near the glaciers. Sea levels were a hundred or more meters lower than today, so as much as three to five hundred feet, which pushes the coastline many miles out from what we see in the present. In other words, plenty of room to hide an Atlantis.
And that’s what I take away from the Ardelean paper. Beyond the groundbreaking discovery itself, I’m happy to see that my outlandish worldbuilding of seven years ago still survives to this day. With upheaval all around it, my creation stands. It grows. I already consider Otherworld to be my greatest creation. Now, though, I can take even more pride in what I made, because it’s…prescient, in a way.
I hope future discoveries can further enrich our knowledge of the earliest Americans. I don’t hold out hope that we’ll find wormholes and genetics experiments, as that’s too crazy even for me. But any evidence that the indigenous peoples of this continent were growing along similar lines to their brethren across the ocean is welcome. Add in the intriguing possibility that the Chiquihuite culture isn’t related to any known Native Americans, and then you start to wonder what else is waiting to be found. Who were the first people to settle in what’s now the US, Mexico, Central and South America? What kind of world did they inhabit?
Were they more than we believe?