Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Worldbuilding #6–The Final Fact-tier

So, as was promised in the ancient prophecies left by the Precursor Races, I am ready at last to ascend to the stars! Here, after uncounted millennia about a year, I shall reveal to the patient the means by which the very fabric of reality and the laws which bind it may be rewritten! We begin, my newly-fledged Spacegods, with the pitiable guidelines which mere mortals call the Laws of Physics!

Firstly, though, when writing SciFi you don’t just tack “space” onto things unless it makes sense. “Spaceship?” Yes, that’s fine. “Space gun?” Uh, we may get into that in the next article. “Space Marine?” Well, now you’re being silly. “Space casino?” I hope your career dies slowly while you watch, helpless, from an unfulfilling 9-5 desk job, you adjective-abusing– whoa, apologies. That got hostile. You know what else is hostile? Space (brilliant segue ends). I’m serious. You may already be aware that space is riddled by an infinite number of laser tag games which never end. In the time it took you to read this, our space stations have been bombarded by an incomprehensible number of weirdo particles and rays of energy. Many of these are not good for humans, doing screwy things like rearranging your DNA and actually just murdering you, depending. You will not get Marvel comics powers from these particles. If you’re writing SciFi, this is the kind of stuff you need to start thinking about immediately. Especially if it’s “hard” SciFi, where everyone expects you’ll manifest Saganesque understanding of how our universe works.

Why do we start here? Before you can include other planets, you have to understand the factors that affect them. Before you can have people travel there, you have to know how many horrible degenerative cellular conditions they’ll develop if they travel unshielded. Before you can travel faster-than-light, you need to know that it’s supposed to be physically impossible. In short, before you do anything else, you need to decide if you and the laws of physics are going to play nice or not. My own futuristic pieces include mind powers, hyperluminal bullets and literal magic, so there’s my answer for your consideration. This is a simple yes/no decision that determines the entire course of your writing and will prove increasingly hard to go back on the further you go. So don’t worry, just make the decision right now without thinking about it. You’ll hate whatever conclusion you reach and try to go back on it multiple times, so don’t worry about it!

It seems I’m in a cynical mood. Regardless, here are some things you’ll want to consider as far as physics go:
1. Is this our universe or another? If it’s another universe, the laws of physics are whatever the hell you say they are. Does light move at infinity miles an hour? Damn straight, you don’t even see it coming! Are gases denser than solids? Well, they are full of hot air. Is gravity a hallucinogen?… I don’t have a pun for that, so just imagine a pink elephant having a metaphysical experience. If it’s our universe (or your version of it) you can take two angles: This is a semi-alternate universe in which the people and places are the same but the physics are different, or else human science in the 21st Century turned out not to have everything right. Once you’ve got this sorted, you can start drafting physical laws (or researching them if you’ve gone the Our Universe/Hard SciFi route, you friggin’ masochist)
2. Is the speed of light a universal speed limit, or just the speed limit on light? If starships can travel superluminally in real time, how do they avoid obliterating themselves and unsuspecting moon resorts in accidental collisions? If they can’t, how do sentient beings cover the light years at a decent pace? For that matter, can sentient beings do that, or do we just cryogenically freeze ourselves and arrive at our destination knowing that our ship’s three centuries obsolete, our entire immediate and extended family is dead or has forgotten us, and some other species has probably taken the planet we were going to colonize? If you choose the latter, be prepared to spend a lot of time dealing with how much it sucks to travel.
3. How many dimensions and/or planes of existence are there?
4. Are the laws of physics in general actually laws, or just rules to constrain lesser beings while greater ones bend and break them at will?
5. The implications of absolutely all of this for your writing.

Starting to get the right mindset? Right, let’s move on to more general rules. First, who’s top dog in the known universe? And don’t say “nobody,” that’s a lame answer (unless you handle the lame answer really, really well, as per usual.) “These guys, but not by very much” is totally fine, though. Someone’s always going to have an edge, and the less of an edge they have the harder they’ll try to keep it. Were there “precursor” or “forerunner” species in the mix? Also, both of those names have already been given to at least a dozen different species in as many SciFi universes, so you may want to name them something else. Are these ancients still around, or no? Did they leave technology behind or just traces? For that matter, have the newer species superseded their technology or not? It’s all well and good to dig up a Grand Dreadnought of the long-vanished Hisilri Conglomerate, but if its drive engine is four centuries behind the times and its beam generators don’t work against newer shields, only archaeologists and asshole trillionaires would bother.

Speaking of trillionaires, what’s the overall scale you’re going for? Do we measure large starships in meters, kilometers or hundreds of kilometers? How many people does a planet need to have before its pundits start bitching about immigrants and government overreach? How many planets are colonized? Heck, how many can be colonized? Remember, none of this is arbitrary. You’re setting up all of these things to feed back into the story, and believe me when I say you’re going to want more lifelines the more information you have to deal with. The amount of possibilities in a fantasy world is baffling enough. Trying to take on the possibilities of an entire universe is downright terrifying. By setting some things in stone (or nanite-laced steel, as the case may be), you’ll always have a couple of clear ideas about where you can go.

Cheery thought for you, how violent is this universe? If you want frequent warfare, you better justify it first, you bloodthirsty malcontent, you! If you open a book by describing how peaceful the universe is, readers may rightly question why everyone has so many giant warships on hand the instant fighting starts. And if there’s going to be a lot of violence, decide right away how you’re going to handle it. Will you take things more Star Wars-style, where heroes always have plot armor and the villains can barely aim, or will you be more grounded with things? Does the plucky daughter of the impoverished asteroid miners steal a starfighter and destroy the bombers of the despotic overlord, or does an enemy marine casually break all of her limbs in the middle of the hangar? I mean really, she’s a nobody tackling trained soldiers,  for fuck’s sake, what did the readers think would happen?

Consistency is the key here. Readers are used to giving fantasy a lot of leeway because it’s Fantasy. There’s a heavy aura of the mystical to it even when it includes no magic at all (a la Redwall). But we’re not talking about Fantasy anymore, we’re talking about SciFi or at best Science Fantasy. There’s high technology involved now, and since we use logic and science to create technology people naturally expect that you’ll have more logic and science the more technology you have. No matter how far divorced your futuristic setting is from our reality, your readers are still going to expect it to make sense and explain that sense to them. In Fantasy the rules are just to make the world more unique; here they’re a basic requirement to boot.

Think very carefully about how you handle other species. They shouldn’t be governed by just a single trait. These are supposed to be unique alien races with history equally as vibrant and varied as that of mankind. If they’ve shed some of that variety to grow closer as a species, that’s fine. If they just don’t have variety because you didn’t feel like typing past “The Enesru are a bug-like species who live in a hive-mind and like their pasta al dente,” then we’ve got problems. I don’t care if they are a hive-mind, I’m a single entity too and I have more traits than that!

Last, but certainly not least, don’t take anything for granted or write as if you do. Any time you have a character doing something they would if they lived in our time, consider how technology might change that in centuries to come and rewrite accordingly. On the other hand, don’t force it. “Mirin hopped out of the shower, pulled on her T-shirt and ate some cereal,” is generic and way too present-time. “Mirin stepped free of the nanites, pulled on her frictionless Microsilk jumpsuit and pulled her Canis Majorian Nebula-bars out of the Atemporal Nutrition Pod” is laughable; it’s just too much. Stick with just the nanites. They’re a futuristic way to get clean, sure, but they’re also billions of tiny robots crawling everywhere vaporizing sweat and dead skin with miniscule lasers. They’re creepy enough they need to be digested alone. Metaphorically speaking; nobody needs that much iron in their diet. Of course, maybe these future humans have cybernetic implants that are maintained by the body’s organic processes, and they need more iron because of that. This is the difference between campy “future tech” stuff and deeper material that’ll help your readers believe in the universe you’re creating. Technology can do weird things, but you need to handle the wider consequences of those weird things in a comprehensive manner. At the same time, treat it as matter-of-factly as possible. If people in-universe see nothing strange about needing helium injects to help run the fusion reactors inside their blood-filtering nanites, your readers will be more ready to accept the idea.

For these rules and all the rest, you’re not trying to cover every possibility. Just think of it like the filter in your coffee machine: trapping all those excess grains of thought so only the smooth stuff drips onto the page. Where it will, um… not give you a caffeine high. Words don’t do that or I’d have finished way more books (namely, any).

That’s it for this article. Next time I’ll focus more closely on technology: what it can do, what it should do, and what you want to be very careful about it doing. Be warned: I don’t have a filter, and there’s a chance we’ll cover the most taboo of all topics: future sex.

Truly, the blind leading the blind.

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