Why Use Hard Science in Worldbuilding?

Welcome to the first installment in my blog series based on the presentation we didn’t quite get to finish at Flights of Foundry! Here I’ll be covering a blend of useful principles about storytelling, planetology, and biology, and how to combine them all seamlessly in your science fiction work.

“Science fiction” has attracted people since the day we realized it was possible to put those two words together. As a rabid reader of compelling stories and science books throughout my childhood, my mind was blown the first time I realized it was possible to do both things at once.

I remember my first science fiction novel very clearly: it was Jack Williamson’s “Firechild,” in which the creation of a genetically engineered organism opens discussion about not only what is possible scientifically, but also what is possible emotionally, philosophically, and spiritually.

We are emotional and spiritual creatures. We don’t experience life just as a cascade of facts and sensations. We experience life as having meaning. Arrangements of matter are not only that: some of that matter is alive, and it’s having emotions, experiences, and relationships.

For that reason, in this blog series we’re going to cover both tips about writing – about crafting a compelling experience for your readers – and how to use hard science in that. The temptation to engage in exposition by regaling the reader with walls of scientific fact is tempting – but there are much better ways to do it.

Science fiction enchants us because it tells us what is really possible. By basing its corpus in real discoveries and inventions, it raises real possibilities. These new possibilities have important implications for the characters who experience them, and for our understanding of the nature of our world. If they’re not like anything we’ve ever seen before, they’re also terribly exciting.

There’s a formula I like to use for what creates the most profound and memorable science fiction:

Real + Important + New = Compelling

In this book, we’re going to discuss all three components of this formula. We’ll discuss:

  • How to make sure your fictional constructions are based in revelations about reality, such as new scientific discoveries or technological inventions. 
  • How to keep your eye on what’s important to the reader – questions about who the reader is or what their society is like, as illuminated by how they respond to new possibilities, and what these revelations tell them about the nature of the universe and their place in it. 
  • How to incorporate new elements – scientific discoveries that are unknown to most laypeople, but which really exist in the kingdom of life as we know it. 

Now, it’s easy to write an essay on any of these topics. You can tell your reader that something is possible, but there’s a problem. They might not believe you, unless they experience it for themselves.

Anyone can make a claim about what’s possible or real. That claim can be truthful or not. That’s why we don’t automatically believe anything someone tells us is possible. Our brains have a built-in bullshit filter, and they filter out unsupported claims.

Instead, we respond much more strongly to stories and experiences. Why? Obviously, we can only experience something that really exists. If we’re experiencing something in a high degree of detail, and that detail is internally consistent and self-supporting, there’s a good chance that the thing we’re experiencing is real. How and why else would someone go to the effort of making it up?

This is true whether we’re having an experience in daily life, or an experience conveyed to us by the written words on a page. If we’re having a vivid experience, we’d better pay attention to it and learn from it. Our brains are very well-designed to help us do what’s good for our survival, so they even deeply enjoy learning from new experiences. If we can provide a reader with a detailed experience that’s unlike any they’ve had before, we have them booked.

The second-best thing to a lived experience is a story – a simplified account, but one that still claims to report events that happened to a real person. Again, there is a good evolutionary reason for this: a story about what happened to Grog in the next village over when he tried to eat the fruit of a particular plant is more likely to be based in fact than someone’s random assertion that this plant is delicious, or poisonous, without a story to back it up.

So in our hierarchy of readability, we have:

  1. A fact, statement, or claim. Not very compelling. Why should we believe you, author? Why does your fact matter to us, even if it’s true? 
  2. A story. Oh. This is something a character experienced. I should take note. The same thing might happen to me one day. 
  3. An experience. Oh! This is something that’s really happening, right now. If it’s detailed and real and like nothing I’ve experienced before, I’d better pay a lot of attention.

So how do we move our fictional constructs and our stories from tier one of readability to tier three? We use the following formula:

Detail + Consistency + Novelty = Addictive Reading

Why does this formula work? Because, when we execute it properly, the reader’s brain gets the message that they are now experiencing something that is real and also brand new to them. So they’d better learn all that they can about it. 

Let’s break this formula down.

Detail

Real life is extremely detailed. We often don’t realize how much these details mean to us. We might go on autopilot through our waking up in bed, stretching, and getting our morning cup of coffee.

But what if we’re from another culture? These morning rituals might seem strange – even alien – to us. We might also find hidden significance in them.

What does this ritual tell us about what American humans find comfortable? The sorts of comforts they’re able to form? Their sensibilities? Why is coffee considered tasty, even though it’s bitter? Why do we need a mildly psychoactive compound like caffeine to get through our daily responsibilities?

For that matter, who do we have coffee with? Is it a solitary ritual, or a group ritual? Who do we miss as we’re having coffee if they aren’t there? Who makes our coffee for us? What do we hope for, or dread, as we sip our coffee?

Horror writer Scott A. Johnson does a masterful job of this in his novel Ungeheuer (Bloodshot Books) while introducing a character who goes on to become a monster-slaying hero:

“Richard awoke to pain in his midsection, a gift of his overactive bladder and the weight of the seven-year-old boy sitting upon it. 

“Time to get up, Daddy!” Ethan bounced up and down, oblivious to his father’s agony. 

“Settle down,” grumbled Richard. “What’re you, excited or something?” He yawned and reached for the clock. 

Seven in the morning. Dandy. 

“We’re going,” he said. “You promised. We’re still going, right? Please?”

“Yeah,” said Richard. “Just gimme a minute to get up. I need coffee.”

“I can make it!” Ethan leapt off his father and ran out the bedroom door. 

A stab of fear lanced through Richard’s groggy system. The last time the kid made coffee, it came out like sludge. And, because he tried to be a good father, Richard drank it anyway. The kid never knew Daddy was on the toilet at work for an hour while concentrated colon-cleanser blew through his system. He’d better get up. 

“Why don’t you get your stuff together, champ?” he called. “Let me make the coffee today, okay?”

“Okay!” Hurried footsteps thudded back from the kitchen and into Ethan’s room. Disaster averted.

The cold tiles made him clench his toes as he waddled to the toilet to relieve his bladder. Too much alcohol the night before, too little self-control. And it didn’t even work. The rum didn’t dull the pain. All it did was make him let the floodgates open. He’d sobbed on the couch for an hour before he went to bed, and the aching in his bladder was nothing compared to the jackhammer in his head.”

By showing us what medical challenges the character has, who is making his coffee, and who isn’t there to make it, we get an instant and poignant idea of who this character is. We believe he could easily be a real person.

Imagine using the same principle to describe an alien going through their daily routine. How much information about their species’ social structure, their emotions, and their society, could you convey simply by sharing a detailed scene from their daily life? 

These details are incredibly informative. They’re also difficult to make up from scratch. For that reason, when the reader reads them, they perceive the scenario as being real.

Here we see how the details of everyday life can illuminate not just our alien culture, but our individual character. 

If they contain some bizarre scientifically relevant detail, so much the better – maybe coffee has to be drunk from a squeeze-bulb because your character is in zero gravity, or your alien creature eats a psychoactive fruit or the raw eggs of a neighboring species from the next valley over instead of drinking coffee in the morning.

Exercise 1

Choose a human character of yours. If you don’t have one yet, make one up. What does their morning ritual tell us about their culture, and about them as an individual? Before you start writing, ask questions like:

  • What is this character’s morning ritual? Do they prioritize putting their appearance in order, simply nourishing their body, or cultivating a particular mental state for the day ahead? 
  • What is the scenery like? What do the shapes, colors, and temperatures tell you about this character’s personality or the society they live in? What memories are in this room? Did a loved one once sit in an important chair, or is the memento of a crowning life achievement hanging on the wall? 
  • Does this character love or hate the work they’re about to do today? Do they view it as having sacred or profound importance, or do they resent the forces that are making them do it? 
  • Who is part of this ritual? Who does this character miss, if they’re not there?  
  • What important character backstory events such as fears, hopes, or losses can you communicate in how they behave and feel as they prepare for each day? Do they have pictures on the walls of the role models they hope to emulate? Do they miss someone who isn’t there?

Exercise 2

Now, answer the same questions for an alien character. To distinguish this character from a human character, ask yourself questions like:

  • What is their sleep cycle like? Are they nocturnal or diurnal?  
  • Where do they sleep? What makes them comfortable? Are they in a nest made from natural materials, or made to simulate it? Are they in a pod because space is scarce?  
  • Do they sleep alone, or with lovers, family members, or fellow workers or warriors?  
  • What do they do to stimulate or nourish themselves when they wake up? Do they eat food? Is it psychoactive in any way, like caffeine or alcohol? Do they view media? Do they meditate? Do they have an exotic metabolic need to eat minerals, absorb sunlight, or inhale a certain type of gas?

In my upcoming worldbuilding book and YouTube talks, we’ll cover how to create aliens with very different food tastes or metabolic needs from your average human based on the science of life forms we already know about. We’ll also discuss what things like social structure and diet might have for an alien species’ character traits, emotions, and perceptions.

If you missed my talk at Flights of Foundry and you’d like to sign up to be notified when my science and writing talks become available on YouTube, you can sign up for my newsletter here. It goes out once a week, and is guaranteed to contain at least one goodie in the form of a blog entry, video presentation, or invitation to a live Q & A talk about using science in worldbuilding.

Stay tuned for Friday, when I’ll be posting the first in a series of blog entries about building alien planets and life forms around different types of stars!

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