Machine Ghosts and Space Walks:
World-Building and Science Fiction Part 2
When dealing with near-future science fiction, we have to first figure out what direction man has taken.
In a progressive future, there is no world-changing event that caused a crux-point. This is a natural future, with extensions of current trends. This is a good idea for warning stories of things the author decides need to be explained fully. In Equilibrium, Strange New World, and other totalitarian works, the authors decided to push current governmental trends into their worst possible conclusion. This is a tool for forcing the audience to consider where their current choices are heading.
In an apocalyptic future, there has been some major event that changed the natural progression of the world. Most near-future stories have this in their timeline, whether a World War, or some ecological disaster, or any combination of weapons, wars, and disaster. This was an especially popular tactic in the mid 20th century during the Cold War, as the threat of nuclear holocaust became very real to many. Illustrating life after the bomb was intrinsic to the culture of science fiction.
All of near-future science fiction can be classified between these two. Deciding which one may help you begin to identify what makes your science fiction special. However, for the purposes of our investigation, we’ll keep the full world building to a minimum and explore what we need for the story, as each character is a reflection of their surroundings.
Firstly, identify the main technological advancement that touches the characters. Usually, but not always, this is not Faster Than Light travel, which hereafter will be abbreviated FTL. In something like Star Trek, we have FTL, but it was assisted with alien races. We’ll cover FTL in Far-future next week. Most main technological advancements would involve a new form of propulsion, nano-technology, or human mutation. While any combination of factors can be advancements, it’s handy to start with one and build from there the approximate level of technology in your world. Note that in near-future science fiction, the audience tends to expect a sense of realism to their science. Finite laser weapons and energy-to-matter conversion are difficult concepts, since they bear no resemblance to today’s science. They’re best left to far-future, where science has yet to even dream of treading. It pays to do your research in this endeavor. Isaac Asimov was famous for his realistic work, and to this day it’s been used as a blueprint for scientific exploration and robotics. Is this only fifty years in the future, where smart cars have been finally standardized to the point of driving lanes where humans can set it and forget it? Implanted phones that still lose reception, some exceptionally expensive compartmental living on the moon or a space station, and sensory or voice-activated computers are logical for a technological level. AI may still be somewhere in the future, or right on the cusp of exploding. You may find several factors of your plot simply by identifying technology.
Secondly, quantify the type of living arrangements the characters come from. At this stage, identifying the society is also useful, but we’ll be covering society building at a later time. Can the origin world still support life? If not, how has humanity coped? Environment bubbles, space stations and satellites, and compartmentalized living are all viable. Teleportation devices and other molecular movers are uncommon in near-future science fiction, and usually are considered cutting edge and probably expensive as opposed to an everyday form of transportation.
Thirdly, we come to the inclusion of another species. We see aliens as a natural part of science fiction, but this isn’t always the case. Arthur C. Clark famously said, ‘Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying’. Consider that to include an alien race in your world means that society-building and environmental factors will be doubled in your pre-writing workload, but it can be wonderfully satisfying. Remember that an alien race cannot exist in space without being equally as advanced as human society – for the most part, an alien race will be as multifaceted and varied as our own. The races of planet Earth have never managed to agree on one world governmental style, culture, or practice and for the most part never will. Even a totalitarian government has to quell rebellion and ride on the coattails of an unimaginable disaster to function. To paint an alien race with only one face appears two-dimensional and cheap for the most part unless it’s accounted for in the culture and society of the new race.
With these three factors decided on, the world should begin taking shape. It’s the first step. When you’ve created this much, consider placing your rat in the maze. Put your character in the setting and see how they react. Your character should already have a job. Write a 500 word blurb. If they’re a doctor, force them to react to a medical emergency. If they’re a pilot, watch them get called to the pilot’s seat. You’ll be surprised how quickly the rest of the quirks and day-to-day life take shape by letting the character flesh out their own experience once you have a ‘populated room’ for them to play in.
If the 500 word blurb feels natural, don’t forget to catalog the new little quirks to let other characters share it. In the Fifth Element, we see how day-to-day living leaves us with a sense of the world. Beds are wrapped in plastic, cigarettes are mostly filters, and cars still have a manual control. Aliens exist, and they have touched and integrated in our world, though they still seem to be struggling to be treated as anything but the strangely beautiful or the terrifyingly distant. Mankind has been shoved into tiny living spaces, and even their travel must by necessity be in very small boxes. The details make the universe, and can sometimes be very important.
Don’t forget. The stories have all been told before, in some iteration. The trappings of the world and the personalities of the characters are what will really draw in the reader.
Your homework is to write your 500 word blurb and post it. Whether it ends up in the final manuscript or not, you will always refer to it as the first time your character opened their eyes and moved around their surroundings, like a child discovering their nursery. It will evolve.
Next week, we’ll be examining far-future science fiction, FTL travel, the true idea of space, and complex societal structures.
Post back, and feel free to discuss!