By J.A. Kenney
World building is one of the keystones of fiction. As vital as plot or characters, and as necessary to a cohesive story as grammar or spelling.
However, in most genres world building starts with research into real world settings, times, or myths, which have inspired the fictional location and characters. New York, Victorian England, ancient Rome, all of these have already been defined for the reader and the author can build upon that knowledge. Even in fantasy or paranormal fiction the worlds and creatures are usually based upon some fairy tale or myth. A vampire, ghost, elf, all are part of the common mythos of our society and when mentioned in a story the reader automatically has some association. The same is true of high fantasy, where the world is often very similar to a far distant historical reality.
In these genres, the key is to stick close to that common store of knowledge and to define any variations in a way that the reader will accept.
In Science Fiction, there are additional complications.
First: Alien Worlds
Whether it is a far distant future earth or a true alien planet, an alien world is a pure product of the imagination. The geography, plant life, animal life, even the very atmosphere must reflect the fact that it is NOT present day Earth.
The heat of a vast sun beat down from above; the rocks, plants, even the sky had taken on a reddish tone as the expanding star scorched the planet’s surface. The super-giant monster covered a third of the sky, its surface heaving and spitting radiation and plasma into space. (Excerpt from Slivers of Silver)
Second: Alien Creatures
For more detail here see my earlier post Writing Alien Species. However, to sum up aliens can be anything from the standard humanoid alien of classic television to aliens that are so different from us we would not be able to recognize them as living things.
Time was a true fourth dimension. Ages and epochs made long sweeping circles across the void, and immortals traveled between those rings like icebreakers smashing through a frozen sea. So we died just like everyone else, a truth that I thought a glaring irony. However, we came back, born again into new flesh, and in this new vessel, I could forge ahead in the eons long war against the Purists—a war that raged across the whole of space and time. (Excerpt from Silver Strife)
Third: Alien Technology
Whether, based in an alien or a future human society the technology that fills the fictional science fiction universe is all but a character in and of its self.
Current science theorizes a universe where faster than light travel cannot exist, and long distance travel in space is all but impossible. Within the fictional world of science fiction these physical laws are often ignored, for the simple expedient reason that without practical space travel, most science fiction plots are simply not feasible.
Without interstellar travel, interacting with alien life is highly unlikely. So too human colonies in space would be completely isolated and unable to trade or even keep in touch. Energy based signals would take years (the nearest star to our sun is 4.24 light-years away) and actual travel to that near neighbor using current technology would take 40,000 years. A generational ship that managed by some miracle to travel that far would not remember or be able to relate to the humans who remained. Human history as we can record it is only 10,000 years. We can only imagine that 4 times that length would do to a group isolated and alone in the galaxy.
So, science fiction writers have long chosen to overlook or even break the rules of modern physics in order to create a universe where these things would be possible. Worm holes, faster than light drives, etc…
The key to doing so is to create a satisfying technological construct that while it might break the laws of physics does it consistently and in a believable way.
“Number three reactor status critical. Catastrophic failure imminent.”
The looming disaster revealed by that flat unemotional voice overwhelmed any elation I felt about those out of date codes working. I pulled up the reactor’s diagnostics and surveyed the painfully bleak outlook. A reactor explosion would destroy engineering and several decks worth of equipment and personnel, while shutting the reactor and connected engine down for maintenance would weaken the already strained energy shielding and flood the ship with deadly radiation. There was no time for whispers in the Admiral’s ear or covert planning. I had to act. (Excerpt from Dark Silver, Coming Soon)
Fourth: The Known Universe
While some scientific facts are regularly ignored or altered by science fiction authors, there is one area where I and many other authors try to stay as close to reality as possible. This is the action, structure, nature, and appearance of the universe.
What a black hole looks like, for example, is something that I have worked very hard to accurately portray. So to, the nature of planets, stars, and space itself needs to be presented as accurately as possible, both to give people a real glimpse into that far distant place, but also because it is never a good idea to unnecessarily ignore the science in science fiction.
Some stretches of current theory are necessary to craft interesting worlds, but such things should be used in moderation and only when necessary.
The vista visible from the ballroom extended across the horizon, streaks of burning matter flashed past where I stood to join a golden whirlpool decorated by random flashes of light. Trailing streams of superheated gases spiraled in from the nearby star and into a far distant pinhead of black nothingness. The dark spot was flanked by jets of energy that exploded out into space like dual geysers. Stars shifted in the background as we orbited the steep gravity well, as if an entire night sky had been time lapsed to show a planet’s rotation. (Excerpt from Dark Silver, Coming Soon)
Building a science fiction universe has unique challenges, but a well-crafted story is its own reward!