Worldbuilding – A Journey Into Scifi

I’ve been working on science fiction stories for a long time, and with that comes the desire to support your ideas with as much flesh as you can. Scifi is a strange genre simply because by its very nature it requires more thought and exposition; the context in which you place your stories can in fact end up being the entire substance of those stories. This means that wherever possible, you need to be able to recall an interesting piece of galactic lore, or try to simulate grand politics in an interesting and engaging way.

This is where worldbuilding comes in. The pursuit of spending inordinate amounts of time on crafting a setting is all about creating a context which can organically make your stories come to life; as a dungeon master for many DnD groups through the years, there is nothing more annoying, or so able to break the flow of a story, as being unprepared for a twist. As a writer, when you’re actually writing your story, you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go when you’re writing it. This is one of the joys of writing; with your notes you can set little milestones in your story, winding avenues where you know your characters must end up, but it’s those misty in-between parts where your instinct and indeed cunning as a writer must shine through.

Incidentally, you can make yourself seem a lot more skilled and a lot more cunning if you do most of the work in your setting beforehand, and that’s why we’re here; you want a nourishing soup of interesting facts and lore to draw from when you’re putting your characters in compromising situations.

Anyway, I began the journey into my setting a few years ago when I was working nights at my old job. I had some cleaning and restocking to do, I worked on my own, but after that I had atleast 2 hours a night to do whatever. Over the course of a few months to a year, I filled first an A6 notebook with tons of ideas for a history, then an A4 notebook that codified everything for me; in here I went into a ton more detail and actually wrote out the timeline for my setting’s history and fleshed out some of the more interesting ideas I had for the landmark events that really defined the setting.

Something that really stuck with me was a piece of advice I believe said by Jim Butcher – the writer of The Dresden Files. I will now butcher (no pun intended) that advice by paraphrasing it: “Ask yourself when you’re writing your story, whether you’re setting it at the most interesting time in your history, because if not, why not? Why would your reader want to hear second-hand about that interesting event rather than read it?”

The reason I bring this up is because these “interesting events” are what you should be looking out for when you begin worldbuilding; it’s these that should naturally turn into your stories. You’ll know them when you find them.

I’m writing scifi, so I began my setting’s history at the time when the timeline diverged from our own – conveniently, this was around the present time at which I was writing it, so 2017. I then went forward crafting a history which would catapult humanity to the place I needed it to be to have humans in my story. I went back and forth quite a lot on whether I should make humans the focus, or aliens; personally, I love the idea of aliens, but felt in the end that it would end up being more relevant if humans were the “main protagonists”. I actually go back on this later, but this decision paved the way for some really key decisions in my worldbuilding.

So after going through year by year, then decade by decade and eventually century by century, I got the the “present day” of my setting; this is the time in which all of the stories that take place in my setting will happen. At this point, I revised all the history which had been laid down and highlighted some of the more key moments: many battles and tactically interesting maneuvers took place in the huge upheval that brought humans forward and I wanted to make those events reference points from which I could craft exposition later on.

I also finalised who and what will be the main players in my story and every time I inserted another main player or race, I had to go back and quietly slot them into the story, or make a reason as to why they weren’t in it up until that point; it’s all quite a challenge, but incredibly fun when you feel like a decision you’ve made about your setting really clicks and creates some amazing ideas you hadn’t seen before.

For instance, I wanted a robotic race in my setting; I think the idea of AI is being explored more and more, so I’d love to be able to do some of that in my stories. Now, because I had waited until I had most of the history written before I put them into the setting, I had to figure out a reason why they were removed from most of the galactic history I had up until this point (almost 500 years). I did this by coming up with a little conceit – that they came about by accident: humanity, once they had conquered most of the galaxy, sort of began forgetting about most of the pusuits they had undertaken over the years. Humans had so many resources that they could open a huge mining operation for instance, then when it turned out not to be profitable, instead of taking all the robots and machinery with them, they just left it.

A group of scientists were studying a curious type of crystal that only seemed to exist in this obscure system at the edge of known space, the whole team end up dying from a radiation burst from a nearby star; this radiation burst also energises the crystals and kick-starts their sentience. They then access all the records from the scientists, learning earth’s history and also the plans of the scientists, namely that if this experiment were to result in sentience, they would dispose of the crystals and the budding life within. Eventually this crystalline race who are able to interface with technology reach out and discover the robots and primitive AI which had been discarded wantonly by the humans.

I came up with all of this after about 70 percent of the history of my setting was complete and it ended up being a hugely influential part of the story. To me, this just goes to show how having an idea and taking it to it’s logical conclusion, even if you believe that you might be “shoe-horning” your idea into the setting, is worthy and should be pursued.

I hope this little dive into how I crafted by scifi setting was interesting. I’ll be working on all of this for my upcoming entry into NaNoWriMo.

See ya!

StarFight: Chronicles – Part One – Awaken To Dust

Neko’s eyes flickered open and she squinted as several red lights blinking angrily at her. She could hear nothing but a dull buzz in her ears; she quickly surveyed the information panel of the emergency Lifecapsule she found herself in.

Well that’s a surprise, I’m alive.

The red lights indicated that a number of systems inside the ship were destroyed or broken in some way, but Neko could feel no acceleration, so she assumed the ship must have landed somewhere on the dust-ball of a planet she’d been scanning. Time to think; the Lifecapsule wouldn’t release her until it knew she was safe, so either she would have to wait until the emergency sensors completed their sweep, or she would have to override the controls and just take the chance.

She reached up tentatively to the console and accessed her vitals; the fact that she wasn’t feeling any pain could be misleading, her Lifecapsule would have shot her full of drugs pre-emptively, but sure enough she was pretty much fine: two bones in her left hand were fractured and she was massively bruised on her left side but there was no internal bleeding, no dislocation and no nerve damage. She accessed the emergency sensors and the sweep was stuck on 60 percent; the node must have been damaged, but she knew from her earlier orbital scans that the planet was breathable and the surface gravity was almost one gee.

Nothing for it.

She punched in the override code, every button press was followed by a visual and auditory warning, but with a whine and a pop, the explosive bolts fired and the door flew away, smashing into the far bulkhead and going no further; strong magnets in the door held it firm.

She pushed herself forward and took a sluggish step into the cabin. Her body felt heavy due to painkillers but her mind was sharp enough. She needed to know if the computer was still working; it was dark in the ship, she reached for her mag light but felt only bare thigh, she had forgotten that the Lifecapsule tore every scrap of cloth from anyone inside, to easily access the patient. No problem, her spare was in a compartment on the opposite wall.

Which is now magnetically sealed behind the capsule’s door.

Neko groaned and felt her way towards what she hoped was the cockpit, her night vision was beginning to kick in, but it didn’t have a lot to work with; windows in spaceships are a luxury this model did not possess. Neko cursed her sluggish footsteps as she thunked into a wall, her hands ran over the metallic surface and her finger found a long groove, she pushed hard and after a second the mag-lock released and the door to the cockpit slid open with a grinding noise.

That didn’t sound good.

Red light washed over her as she stepped inside and surveying the scene, she was glad to find it was more or less intact; two bulkheads looked to have buckled slightly, causing control panels and storage compartments alike to burst open, strewing cables, clothes and food all over. Neko waded her way through the morass before her stomach jabbed her mind and she knelt to pick up a ration pack before continuing on.

Neko practically fell into her flight chair, the painkillers seemed to be wearing off and she started to feel like she’d been beaten with an angry stick. Reaching forward she keyed in her passcode before tearing into the ration pack and waiting for the bootup sequence to finish. She was chewing on what seemed to be some dried meat analogue when the computer made a happy sound and the screen flashed up.

Neko made a low whistle as fifty two errors pulsed politely in the top left corner of the screen, she filed through them: Engines, weapons, navigation, most of the sensors, peripheral systems and all but two external cameras were dead. She accessed the functional cameras, the first showed blackness and the next showed her surroundings.

It looked as if she’d crashed belly first into some kind of muddy lake, she swivelled the camera, it would only turn sixty degrees or so but on the edge of it’s vision she could see some sort of thick vegetation. Okay, not such a dust-ball after all. The small yellow sun shone harshly down onto the now drying mud that had piled up in front of the craft. With the realisation that she was in no immediate danger, she slouched back and took another bite of the meat stick while idly keying a few buttons.

Ofcourse the air conditioning is broken.

The ambient temperature prediction was 96 degrees in the next 6 hours due to the sun’s oppressive rays. She was going to boil alive in her own ship unless she got out soon.; at least it looked as if the fission cells were operational, she had years of power if she needed it.

I really hope I don’t.

To be continued! This has been part one of the first chapter of my scifi epic – Starfight: Chronicles. I’ve been working on the setting for quite a few years and I’m happy to finally present it publicly. I’ll be posting more soon!

Rock And A Hard Place – A SciFi Story – Writing Prompt Inspired.

Chief Science Officer Vlarg’s heavy steps resounded on the metal grating of the gangway as she marched hurriedly out onto the main viewing platform. Director Gulurk stood, tentacles held behind her back, looking out from the faint green force bubble which surrounded the criss-cross of scaffolding upon which the platform lay. The stars, which were also tinged green, reflected mystically in her large and beautiful eye. As Vlarg approached, she could see an imperceptible movement in the director’s stance; a flick of her eye downward and across towards her, a carefully hidden flinch that brought her back from whatever far-reaching thought she was previously absorbed in. Gulurk was known for remaining impassive to a fault. Vlarg had always wondered whether her taciturn nature was due to the fact that she was a carefully trained politician who had also served as part of the governmental special forces, or as Vlarg had always suspected: that she held deep and personal secrets hidden far beneath her icy surface.

Vlarg came to a halt a few metres from the director and a heavy silence drew down like a curtain between them. Doubtless the director knew that whenever the Chief Science Officer sought her out, the news was never good and the small data crystal burning a metaphorical hole in Vlarg’s coiled tentacle proved that instinct correct. After letting Vlarg fidget with respectful anxiety for a few minutes, Gulurk finally rounded, and looking through her with a bored expression, she spoke.

“Yes, Chief Science Officer Vlarg?” A tentacle absentmindedly probed into one of the many pockets of her dark long-coat and pulled from it a small silver box.

“I beg your pardon Director, your adjutant was extremely vocal about your wish for solitude – as she always is, but this really could not wait.” Vlarg then brought up the small reddish crystal, its inner glow mingled with the sickly shimmering light around them, dulling the colour of the stone so it appeared to Vlarg like a clot of worry. The director’s gaze flicked impatiently between it and the silver box but it took vlarg a long time to talk; the director was not a person you wanted to give bad news to.

Despite this the director patiently waited, slowly and carefully opening the silver box, then taking a small pinch of a dark substance from within it she touched the fine powder to her nose and instinctively inhaled, her eye never leaving the small crystal.

“You’re going to tell me that the Shudnok have been spotted on The Moon, correct?”

Vlarg’s mouth fell open. “How did you…?”

Without a trace of amusement, the director smiled and closed the little box with a sharp snik. “I have known for weeks. A fleet is on its way from home to deal with them.”

Vlarg was dumbfounded. “You never told me. Why? People have died, Gulurk, we think they have been sabotaging our research. We think they are preparing an invasion force!”

Gulurk laughed condescendingly. “It matters not. This endeavour, though officially sanctioned on paper as a scientific and fact-finding mission about the strange and primitive lifeforms on earth, has always had a much more important, or rather, political goal. The Council are aware of the unique nature of the human species – as you know, they are incredibly warlike, so much so that they rival even the Gahok.”

Vlarg shuddered inwardly at the mention of their species’ greatest enemy. The Dzarr had warred with the Gahok for many centuries and they were a source of almost genetic revulsion amongst their people. The director took note of the shudder and pressed on.

“Yes, indeed, even with the Shudnok on your back doorstep you still react to the great enemy; well so do the council. There are a great many empires among the advanced races in the galaxy. Some of them would work together to better understand the million mysteries recounted by the ancient archivists. Others, like the near-sighted Shudnok, would enact petty campagns of conquest in an attempt to further their immediate goals. Eventually though, all will be consumed by the unquenchable fire of the Gahok hatred for all non-Gahok life.”

Vlarg looked down in confusion and helplessness at the little crystal which, instead of epitomising all her worst fears as a scientist, now represented only another faceless line of data – fully accounted for by the council and their godlike artificial intelligences. She looked up at Gulurk, who was still smiling mirthlessly and anger flashed in her eye as she held out the crystal accusingly. “I have worked tirelessly for days to ensure that all of our data was intact, that the reports my teams have gathered were sound, that I wasn’t going to feed you incorrect information. All because I thought our departments were inseparable and that your time and attention was worth the effort. I thought we trusted each other, and what we were doing here was important; but yet again the political class shows its colours. We’re all just cogs in the machine to you, eh Gulurk?”

The director, who would by rights have been entirely justified in imprisoning the Chief Science Officer for the outburst, merely turned her back and sighed. Vlarg dropped the crystal and stamped on it; a flash of angry red light shone like a beacon for a second. “What has all this to do with the humans? You owe me that much atleast.”

Gulurk wheeled around, now it was her turn for anger. “I owe you nothing. The lives of everyone aboard this station are my responsibility – if you were unable to use your judgement to bring this to me immediately, despite your reservations about my temperament, then that is your affair. I should never have told you, but my affection for you and your hard work over the years tempers the typical demeanour of my office. Have more respect.”

Vlarg withered under the baleful gaze of this creature, who she now realised was entirely alien to her, even though they shared the same mother. “As for the humans; they are a candle in the dark. You can see even now they war amongst themselves – they have only just put flame to chemical powder, creating even the most primitive firearms and yet tens of thousands of them die yearly in pursuit of petty conquest. It never stops and it will never stop with them. Unless they are brought into the galactic community when they are ready.”

Vlarg, though cowed by her sister, could not suppress the rebel inside. “Sounds just like the council to use non-Dzarr lives as a tool to preserve Dzarr supremacy”

Gulurk turned away again. “You know nothing of these matters, they are greater than either of us. Content yourself with your studies sister, now leave me before the arrival of Supremacy Commander Harlorq. The fleet shall rendezvous here before they scour the surface and root out the Shudnok. You would do well to forget all you learned here.”

Director Gulurk said nothing more and did not turn towards her sister again. Vlarg had no other option than to return to the station; the weight of her own obscurity in the face of the Dzarr empire, her own people, would follow her to the end of her days. She would never truly understand the importance of her work on that small base on that small moon.

END

This story was inspired by a writing prompt found on reddit!