Saturday, 14 March 2015

Ye cannae change the pesky thing, captain!

Being invited onto an epic fantasy writer’s blog to talk about world building…. It’s that moment when the only useful line I know spurts out: You know, I used to be a tour guide in a medieval castle. (‘Tis true. And therefore a pity that I’ve never once, ever, had the urge to write a story based in a medieval castle. My brain is having a laugh at me. You’ll see.)

Since the castle’s out, I thought I’d talk about a different sort of world building, a science fiction world, and how it differs from a fantasy one, especially since I’m in the middle of planning a fantasy trilogy (get me… still no castle, though). It seemed a good time to look at the contrasts.

For me, there is one single ultimate hurdle. Physics. How planets are made. How star systems are formed.

When I first designed my star system, I had a complex political and spatial interlink which was great until one of my beta-readers (a picky one, thankfully) asked me a searching, deep question, which went like: How in the hell can that work?

Well, I said, getting out my pen and paper to draw my star chart. And it didn’t work. It couldn’t. It broke every law of physics.

Cue much revising and thinking, and I had a lovely new system. Two central stars, seven orbiting planets, three systems close to them, four further out. Lovely.

Except the systems further out were less habitable than the central ones. Which isn’t supported by physics – the inhabitation of a star system isn’t reliant on where it is in relation to another, but in where its planets are in relation to its star. Or something.

Another rethink and that’s when the term economics entered my sphere of knowledge. Now, for me, that’s right up there with watching paint dry a spider to the ceiling. But if spatially they can’t be any less developed, it’s got to be money, right? And politics. And suddenly, I’m starting to see why space opera is, generally, up there with epic fantasy in terms of word count and info dumping and Confusing-things-which-must-be-explained-somehow. And, you know, really I just wanted to write about some guy in a space ship.

Which brings me to picky beta two. My sci fi beta. Possibly the only sci fi writer and reader with the patience to not only get through my first drafts but to do so without laughing (openly… I catch the hint of a snigger from time to time), or throwing the book out the window. The beta who asks awkward questions like – how are they getting across this massive stellar cluster (because that, my friends, is what it is: a stellar cluster, no less) with light years between these star systems. And I took a huff because, really, the book’s just about a guy who happens to be on a space ship. Which was fine until my editor asked the same question and I had to actually get off my butt and do something about it.

The upshot is more action happens on space ships than it used to and I had to draw horribly confusing timelines for book two and three which are more space-set than one, and make sure everyone was where should be when they needed to be and not stranded in an airlock somewhere instead of on the planet.

Oh, yeah the planets. Why did I come up with so many planets? With trees and rivers and seas and geology and animals. Which meant an understanding of all things organic, not just bananas. So, my O-level biology (yes, yes, I was a late starter to all this writing lark) had to get dusted off. And then I had to go and do more research. And my head hurt.

In fact, now seems a good time to list the sci fi research topics I remember studying. This isn’t exhaustive, by any means, but here goes:

Spatial distances and how to travel them (we can’t. Not really. But I need to. Which is where either FTL tech or wormholes raise their ugly head and a healthy willing suspension of disbelief needs applied. Frankly without these, space opera doesn’t exist.)

The make up of the human brain, with particular emphasis on the processing centre that has an impact on ASD (read for that, a reason for my psi powers. It’s there. Sort of. I just haven’t yet seen the need to bore the reader with the details.)

Soil structure, including heat exchange and the carbon make-up of plants (which doesn’t, apparently, include lava-resisitant roots, by and large. Darn it.)

Torture. (No FBI searches of my browsing files volunteered.) Rape, specifically of males. (Not nice reading.) PTSD. (All the joys in my little head. Ergo, the book gets dark.)

Callisto. Everything about it. Temperature, gravity, proximity to the Jupiter’s Eye. Best positions to have space sex in. (It’s okay, guys, it’s trunked. Trunked, I tell you!*)

How to fly a spaceship. (This one isn’t fair. Not one bit. Can you veer left, or twist, or do wheelies? No. You have to thrust. Although, having said that, once you get over that limitiation, there is no end to the use of the word thrust with a sexy space pilot at the controls. Believe me, I’ve done the Control+F)

Now, I’m not saying this is any more than any fantasy writer. Most of them (and you know, some of my best friends are…) seem to have an obsession with horses, and inns versus taverns which goes beyond the healthy. It’s just different. And hard.

And what makes space opera so much darn fun.

*But for interest’s sake, having artificial gravity is a good thing, not least for ease of leg, arm and wobbly bits positioning. See? Fun.

by Jo Zebedee, author of Abendau’s Heir

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