Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds
by Michael James Liljenberg.
'And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light.
God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light 'day', and the darkness he called 'night'.
And there was evening, and there was morning-the first day.'
Day 1: Let There Be Light: Physics
As the creator of the world in your story you get to determine the laws of the natural universe, electromagnetism, gravity, or even elements like fire, water, earth and air. You need to have at least a cursory understanding of the physics of your world. Like theology and religion are often a minor issue to the sci-fi writer, physics is usually a minor issue to the Fantasy writer because the fantasy writer assumes a universe that physically behaves identically to our own with just the addition of a little magic or non-existent elements (like mithril). For the Sci-fi writer Physics is often the 'magic' of the story. It is how the characters interact and manipulate the world around them. How faster than light travel works is often at the core of any sci-fi universe. What role does cyberspace play? How do energy weapons work? Shields? Nano-technology? Psychic abilities? Are there spiritual/magical aspects to the 'Physics' of the world (like the Force of Star Wars)? How mechanistic is magic? How do the magical and technological elements interact?
Magic is frequently dependent on a sentient soul, while manipulating physics is performed by machines. Often crystals form a bridge between the two. The quartz crystal vibrates so precisely under an electrical charge that we use them in clocks to keep time. The ever popular 'Dilithium Crystals' of Star Trek fame used to be said to have a 4th dimensional matrix which was part of how they worked in the Warp engines. Other crystals may respond to vibrations in fields of magical energies. Some of the source material for Star Wars suggests that the crystals that focus the Light Saber are formed only under the proper influence of the force. Therefore the light saber blade projected by the crystal is also an emanation of the Force, not just plasma. That is why they can deflect even high-powered energy beams and cut through meter thick blast doors a turbolaser wouldn't dent. Or like the Materia crystals in Final Fantasy 7 that are tuned to the mystical forces of the world and empower technological machines, weapons, and armor with a wide array of side effects from boosting strength to summoning dragons.
Often scientific and magical forces cannot co-exist. For example, in the Harry Potter stories there's a degree of separation between the magical world and the muggle world imposed by the interference magical forces cause with electrical devices.
If you're creating a sci-fi world one of the first issues you need to consider is how to get characters from one planet to another. I find that your ship's drive systems are a good place to start to develop the rest of the technology level in you universe. Propulsion technologies are often at the forefront of technological development whether it's the wheel, the steam engine, or a hyperdrive. It gives you a base line against which you can compare other technologies, like counter-gravity generators, weapons technology, force fields, power systems, computers and robotics, and the like. It also gives you a baseline to compare cultures in your world that have different technology levels.
If you are going to use esoteric, mystical, and wholly invented systems of propulsion, those sciences will effect all technology throughout your world. If your FTL drives require a psychic to guide the ship through hyperspace, for example, you need to develop psychic abilities in a wide array of technologies, like law enforcement or medicine. In Disney's mediocre Black Hole, the robots are able to communicate with telepathic humans if real-time, with no radio lag.
Let me throw a few numbers at you:
1 Light Second = 186,271 Miles or 299,760 Kilometers
1 Light year = 5.9 Trillion miles or 9.4 Trillion Kilometers (the nearest star is over 4LY away).
1g = 32 feet/s/s or 9.81 M/s/s
That means that to reach light speed (300,000 Kilometers/second) accelerating at 1G (0.01 Kilometers/second/second) would take almost 8500 hours, that's 353 days, almost a whole year. (That doesn't include relativistic effects.) Rocket engines like those on the shuttle or the Saturn V that went to the moon run about 4-7G acceleration (so it would only take about 2 months burning your rocket at 6Gs).
Now just imagine how much fuel you would need to power a conventional hydrogen/oxygen rocket at full acceleration for 2 whole months given that the entire fuel tank on the space shuttle runs out in about 60 seconds. Don't forget, when you get to where you're going, you need to decelerate for two months at 6Gs to get back down to orbital speeds.
Solid Fuel Rocket: Solid fuel rockets are not exactly spacecraft engines because the gunpowder, paraffin, or whatever fuels you use needs oxygen to burn. Either you have to have liquid oxygen, or some other chemical like Nitrous Oxide to provide the oxidizer.
Liquid Fuel Rocket: Since there is no air in space to provide oxygen for burning, you need to take your own oxygen with you. This requires the technology to refrigerate oxygen and hydrogen into liquid. But even condensed into liquid, oxygen and hydrogen take up a lot of space, meaning HUGE fuel tanks for anything farther than a trip to the nearest planet.
Heavy Fuel Drive: This engine relies on a nuclear plant to create heat that flash-boils some heavy element, like mercury to create thrust. The atomic density of mercury means that you will need significantly less volume of storage to get the same level of reaction mass. This rocket appears in some of Robert Heinlein's early stories.
Solar Sail: The simplest drive system. A thin foil sail large enough to catch the solar wind and pull the ship through a solar system. If you introduce esoteric particles and energies in your universe the sail might be able to catch Neutrinos, Tachyons, or made up FTL particles, or ride gravity waves or other kinds of electromagnetic fields.
Thumper: A slang term for a drive system that works by detonating nuclear explosives behind the ship. The drive is essentially a huge shock absorber and radiation shield that can absorb the energy of the explosions and covert it into smooth acceleration. The Messiah spacecraft from Deep Impact used this drive.
Photon Drive: Similar in concept to the solar sail, but the ship carries it's own light source. The photon drive works by converting the pressure of photons on the drive reflector into forward momentum. The drive reflector has to be enormous for this engine to work.
Ion Drive: Ion drives work somewhat like a particle accelerator in reverse. The engine creates a stream of charged ion particles that are projected out the back. Even with the small mass of the ions, their near-light speed will be able to accelerate even fairly large ships. The TIE (Twin Ion Engine) fighter from Star Wars used this drive. NASA's deep space probe launched in 1998 used an Ion drive. With current designs, you can eventually achieve high top speeds, but they only accelerate very slowly.
Plasma Drive: This type of engine uses electric arcs or lasers to create a stream of magnetically focussed plasma. Thrust is provided by the expansion of the reaction mass into plasma and the mass of the stream.
Fusion Drive: One step up from a plasma drive, a fusion drive heats and focuses the plasma enough that the nuclei in the plasma begin fusing. This dramatically increases the level of thrust you can get out of the reaction mass. It also creates a lot of neutron radiation.
Anti-mater Drive: Instead of using plasma, a stream of matter and anti-matter are directed at each other. The energy released in the matter/anti-matter annihilation provides the forward thrust.
Gravity Drive: Now we're entering territory well outside our current technological know-how. This type of drive works by manipulating gravitational fields around the ship to propel it forwards. This is often the drive system of choice. It requires no reaction mass, so all you have to fuel are the reactors that power the ship. Scientists, in answer to some surprising observations about the expansion rate of the universe, are proposing that there is also an anti-gravitational force that repels matter. David Weber's latest book In Fury Born the ships project a black hole in front of themselves that pulls the ship along. This makes for some interesting games of chicken.
Tachyon Drive: Tachyons are theoretical particles (there is no proof they exist). Just like the speed of light is impossibly fast for normal matter, for the tachyon, the speed of light is impossibly slow. You'll just need to invent a way to create and control them.
Liljenberg Field Drive: Hey, you're the creator of your own universe. You can make up totally non-existent forces and energies and ways to control and direct them. You can extrapolate from known science. If you get a lot of energy splitting atoms, what kind of energy could you get from splitting the quarks apart in protons? What if you could break apart electrons? What if you could harness the power of a black hole? You can also bring in the magical forces (if any) you cooked up in the previous chapter.
FTL drive names are often used very interchangeably. Many different writers use more than one technique even in the same universe. I have given the names most common for a particular FTL method, but it is not uncommon for people to mix and match FTL techniques. In a number of books what they call a 'warp drive' works like what I call here a 'jump drive'. You also can put all kinds of wrinkles in the mix to make FTL more dangerous; a common side effect of translating between normal space and hyperspace is nausea or insanity.
Warp Drive: Yes, right out of Star Trek. This is a fairly conventional FTL method, the warp drive projects a field that creates a multi-layered bubble of normal space around the ship inside which the ship is never exceeding C, even though the bubble is. The ship can still see and be seen by objects around it. It can still collide with physical objects in normal space.
Hyperspace: Probably the single most common FTL technique, this involves crossing into an alternate plane outside or beneath (hence the common name 'sub-space') Einsteinian space/time where your ship is free to violate the C speed limit. Hyperspace may not be a totally separate dimension, so objects like planets, stars, and black holes and their gravitational fields will still effect hyperspace. Hyperspace can be a complete space; that is, a ship can enter at any given point and travel in any given direction. Or you can limit it's scope to special pathways and vector lanes (which is rife with strategic implications).
Jump Drive: The Jump Drive is another common FTL techniques. The idea is that the drive instantly transports the ship from one location to another without the ship actually moving. Usually this works by folding space (sort of like the engine moves the whole universe around the ship rather than the ship itself) or by crossing in and out of an alternate dimension (this technique frequently requires some sort of psychic navigator). Usually you need to put on a variety of limitations, like limiting the range of the jump to 30 LY (like in FASAs Mechwarrior universe), long drive recharge times, large interstellar objects can block the strait line trajectory, etc.
Ether Drive: There are scientists who deny Einstein's C speed limit and continue to debate his whole concept of linking space with time. In this view breaking the light barrier in the interstellar ether is analogous to breaking the sound barrier in an atmosphere.
Wormhole/Warp Point: Wormholes are natural phenomena that have so warped the fabric of space/time that they connect two distant points in space. As such they are usually associated with gravity fields. Warp points usually connect to only one other warp point, but some stories allow you to travel to different warp points depending on your entry vector.
Stargate: Essentially an artificial wormhole, the basic idea is that the power requirement of opening a door into hyperspace or the physics of a wormhole necessitates a permanent, relatively stationary facility.
Dimension Hopping: This one is more common in fantasy universes and usually does not require a vehicle. These devices or magical spells allow characters to transport to wholly different dimensions and realities where even the laws of physics may vary. Like the D'ni linking books from Myst or the D-hoppers from Robert Asprin's Myth books
Time Travel: Leave yourself no end to the worlds, technology levels, and cultures you can explore. Have fun with temporal paradoxes, alternate events, and the nature of causality.
Remember that one of the major issues with traveling at high speeds in deep space is the constant threat of cosmic radiation and dust. At even orbital speeds crashing into a pebble the size of a pea can blow hole through the outer hull of a ship. The earth shields itself with a huge magnetic field that spreads out past the moon, the moon itself, the Van Allen radiation belts, and a 100-Kilometer thick blanket of air. Your ship will need similar protection.
Science Fiction has a number of classic conventions that are commonly accepted, even though they don't make much sense from a scientific point of view, like shipboard artificial gravity fields. Gravity is the least understood of the 4 principle forces. If you can manipulate gravity at a precise enough level to control it on a room by room basis on board a starship, there should be very little that your civilization cannot accomplish. For example in the movie Aliens, why are people with the technology to create earth type gravity fields on an object as small as a space cruiser (and fully AI androids) using bullet firing machine guns and flame throwers? With that level of technology shouldn't they have personal force fields, silksteel armor, powered exo-suits that make that loader look as clunky as a brontosaurus, microwave lasers, and plasma beams? Basically the whole shipboard gravity field is a function of the ease of filming and nothing more. We simply suspend our disbelief and assume some inventor figured a surprisingly simple way to do it.
Movies also inspire a rather inaccurate view of space combat. In Star Wars, for example, the ships, especially fighters, fly much more like airplanes in an atmosphere, with the nose always pointing forward. In real zero G, where you conserve your angular momentum, a fighter would have its nose pointed to the center of the curve of its turn. (You remember playing Asteroids?) This makes real dog fighting in space a much different procedure than in an atmosphere. As in Asteroids a fighter becomes more like a mobile gun turret. Babylon 5 is the only show that has handled this remotely accurately. Also, in Star Trek you frequently see the ships very close together, just a few miles apart. This is done entirely to get the ships to fit on a movie or television screen together. In reality the ships would probably be thousands of kilometers apart and barely able to see each other with the naked eye. Since energy beams travel at the speed of light and maintain their coherence in the vacuum of space, the effective range of energy beams in combat will be on the order of a light second (that's around 300,000 Kilometers) unless your ships have tremendous acceleration rates. Out of combat, or in a surprise attack, energy weapons could have effective ranges of millions of kilometers. While developing the technology for Ronald Reagan's SDI, NASA used Mars' moons (80 million Kilometers away) as target practice for its particle accelerator weapon prototypes.
I do need to comment on a couple more aspects of science in your world. I've focused in the section on interstellar and interplanetary scale science fiction, but other major fields of technology you may want to develop include
- Gravity: artificial gravity fields, anti-gravity lifters, artificial black holes
- Weapons: lasers, phasers, grasers, death rays, particle beams, energy beams, antimatter bombs, laser blades, energy axes, powered armor, force fields
- Communication: printing press, video, radio, FTL
- Biotechnology: genetic engineering, cloning, cybernetics
- Nano-technology: (the current vogue technology appearing in all the latest sci-fi books) using microscopic machines that can manipulate objects (from human cells to cybernetic armor) at a molecular level.
- Cyberspace and information technology (slightly passe these days), artificial intelligence, virtual reality, hacking, robotics
- Teleporters: How much power do they need? How much mass can they transport and how far? (see day 0 for a description of teleporter abuse.
Ultimately, unless you're writing a strictly 'hard' science fiction book, the goal is not to make a scientifically feasible world. The goal is to lay down consistent rules for your world: What kinds of weapons can penetrate a force field? How much firepower can your shields absorb before collapsing? Do you have to lower your shields to fire weapons? What side-effects do the nano-bots have? How 'invisible' do cloaking fields make your ships? Can you make cloak and shield generators big enough to cover a planet or small enough for a single person? Are Artificially Intelligent computers inherently hostile to their human creators? How much power and range do the teleporters have?
Rules and limits give your world some believability even if your technology isn't realistic. They also set up the tactical situation your militaries are forced to use. They set up challenges your characters must overcome: the invincible super weapon of the enemy, or the impenetrable shield, the bad guy's way of penetrating the good guys "impenetrable" shield, the stealth fields of the raider's fighters, etc.
There's a whole lot more you can say at this point, but as I've already gone way long on this segment I'll refer you to some resources that I've found helpful and very interesting. The best thing you can do is to read, a lot of science literature, magazines, and web sites. Read other Sci-Fi/Fantasy writers to see how they did it. A great source of ideas for integrating science into the world you are creating is role-playing games. Whether you're creating an advanced nanotech society, Sci-Fantasy, or a steam-punk or anything in between, you can find an RPG source book with all kinds of ideas to modify and appropriate at your local game store or on-line.
Only God gets things right on the first go. As you progress through this series, remember that the ideas from one day affect the days to come, and the things you come up with on latter days may require you to go back an modify what you've already done before. Don't be afraid to play around, consider the implications of changes you want to make. Look for subtle ways the changes you want to make will affect everything else in your world. It's usually those little things that make your world more real.