A view of Earth rising over the Moon's horizon, taken from the Apollo 11 spacecraft.

Building a Universe, One Piece at a Time

I write fiction as a hobby, which means I don’t have a lot of time for it aside from work and other activities. Still, it’s a nice creative outlet that I enjoy a great deal when I do find the time.

Actually, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the stories I’m working on even when I’m not writing. In particular, I enjoy the world building aspect of it. Since my genre of choice is Science Fiction, the world building is usually a fairly big part of it, too.

Sometimes my brain just won’t stop thinking about it. I may get up after going to bed just to write down some new idea. Or, I have to pick up a notebook first thing in the morning, before I do anything else, to get an idea on paper before I forget it.

Extrapolating the Future

While Sci-Fi obviously doesn’t have to be set in the future, it often is. It certainly is in my projects. I currently have two large ones, possibly multi-novel, and one novella. Assuming the story is set on Earth, one needs to at least do some extrapolation on the current global and political situation.

One particular project I’ve been slowly building for years is set in the 22nd century. A new cold war is a part of the global political backdrop, but doesn’t play a significant part in the plot itself. Still, it influences where my protagonist is in her life, and why she ends up where she’s going. It is the political force that drives the events she get caught up in.

I’m fascinated by cold war tensions as a plot device in fiction. Maybe partially because I was a teenager when the actual Cold War ended, and it was very present in my mind at the time. Especially with all the historical events occurring at the end of it when I was old enough to understand the news.

Although I came up with the core of this particular story about a decade ago, it is not lost on me how our world is moving towards a potential new cold war, and also how surveillance is becoming an increasing part of our every day life. It is creeping into every aspect of it through our technology – relying on our tendency to allow convenience to slowly erode our freedoms. Yes, it’s a Sci-Fi trope, thanks largely to George Orwell I suppose, but it is also a highly relevant one.

There’s actually a lot of fictional history baked into my world building here that seems a lot less original now, a decade later, due to actual changes in global politics. It’s depressing.

Anyway …

Future Tech

On a lighter note, though, extrapolating technology is another fun part of Sci-Fi world building. It’s a whole art on its own. I pay a lot of attention to how other writers do it.

The benefit of written work is that the risk of getting the design of technology wrong is a lot smaller. That said, I just love the now dated 1960s futurism with flashing lights, moving dials and big buttons. It no doubt looked very high tech at the time. I have spent four years at CERN, so I’ve seen a lot of it left around in the real world too. Most of it is replaced by computer screens these days. A lot of computer screens actually – at least at CERN. The main control room consists of four large circles of screens, with the walls on either side of the room covered in larger screens.

A child playing an educational game of matching colours and shapes on a futuristic transparent tablet.

A screenshot of a tablet from The Expanse (s01e05) / SyFy Network

Still, I think perhaps current Sci-Fi design concepts underestimates the need for tactile feedback in the controls and instruments we use – even when we’ve moved to point and click on screens rather than knobs and buttons. We even emulate tactile feedback it on touch displays. Recent Sci-Fi like the Expanse TV-series’ take on hand held devices is interesting though. It feels right, and just enough ahead of our current technology to be believable as well as relatable. I love the little detail of the characters being able to flick something from their device onto a larger screen on the wall.

There is also somethings to be said about the durability of simpler components. I particularly like the design choices of Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined series) which has a very military robustness to it, despite being faster-than-light tech. I also think Star Trek TNG was more conscious of their design choices than the Original series was in terms of future-proofing it. It still more or less holds up as “futuristic”.

Living in Space

This leads me to my final point, which is the technology we need to live outside of Earth – an important driver of many Sci-Fi stories, including my own. In my story I have an important space station between the Moon and Earth, preliminarily named “Midway”, and also several colonies on the Moon itself.

But what is at least as important as the question of how these facilities work, is why we have them in the first place. What is the point of living on the Moon? Certainly the novelty of it won’t last that long. Research is one obvious reason. Exploitable resources may be a reason too, and there may be some strategic values of having a presence there. It is real estate after all.

If I can convincingly justify in my world building why people are living on the Moon, or at least stationed there for longer periods of time, I think I can also justify having a large space station in Earth orbit. It makes for a logical layover and launching platform for travelling in the inner solar system.

The cold war situation I mentioned also helps me justify the presence in space. If Earth is divided up into super powers, then it could easily lead to a new space race with potential militarisation. It would be less about technology like it was last time, and perhaps more about presence and domination. Especially given another 100 years of technological development. There are already such tendencies related to going back to the Moon.

What About Physics?

Since I am a physicist by education, I won’t go as far on technology as many others have. Sure, I am likely to hand wave at certain things, and exploit some very hypothetical or speculative concepts of physics when it suits me. Technology is essential to drive a Sci-Fi story, and as always, driving the plot takes precedence over scientific accuracy in many cases.

Personally, I prefer a balance where the laws of physics are adhered to as much as possible on the small scale, with some more leniency on the larger scale. I think the Expanse authors struck a reasonable balance here. Star Trek generally does not (although I enjoy Star Trek physics a great deal on its own). I think one of my favourite authors, Alastair Reynolds, who’s also a physicist, has found a good balance as well. His writing is an influence on how I think about my own Sci-Fi stories in general, but also in his approach to physics in particular.

In any case, I need to go back and work more on my space station design. Since I don’t have any of those fancy graviton emitters, I need to calculate the station dimensions and spin gravity, and make sure my protagonist doesn’t get sea sick!


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