How to Get Started Worldbuilding with Hard Science

The questions we’ll ask in my upcoming book will open up almost infinite possibilities. They won’t tell you what your alien planet, species, or characters are going to be like: they’ll give you millions of possibilities.

So how do you shape this mass of scientific possibilities into a story? Well, if you’re reading this series of blog entries, it’s probably because you already have a story you want to tell. What is it?

We write science fiction for many reasons. It might be to explore the social, philosophical, or spiritual implications of a new discovery or technology. It might be to explore a question or theme through an alien perspective, or safely removed from our own society and placed in an alien one. It might be to carry that question or theme to its logical conclusion, and explore it that way.

For me, I do a little bit of all three. Some of my driving forces are:

  1. Exploring the question of individuality vs. communality and unity through a species that literally creates temporary, purpose-build individuals to serve a greater whole. 
  2. Exploring the outer limits of technology by giving my transhuman characters access to the most advanced genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and cybernetics we can currently hypothesize about. 
  3. Exploring the question of genetic memory and the interrelatedness of all things through an alien species that literally passes down ancestral memory from generation to generation.

These end goals arose as a result of my study of the sciences – of learning that neurology theoretically permits separate individuals to merge into one, that cybernetics and bioengineering could fundamentally change what it means to be human, and that we probably do inherit some ancestral memories in our DNA.

But these choices of theme and concept were also motivated by questions of great personal importance to me and my society. 

What is the proper balance, or the greater virtue, between individuality and service to the greater good? 

To what extent should we modify ourselves using technology, and what methods or protocols would allow us to do this in the safest and most beneficial way? 

Sexual reproduction makes us biologically continuous with our ancestors, and yet also makes each of us an entirely new combination of history and traits. What if we had more direct access to knowledge of our family history than we currently do?

So before we move on, I’d like to invite you to write down the three most important questions you’d like to explore in your science fiction work.

What Discoveries?

Many of us are inspired to write science fiction because we learn about a new discovery or invention. This new thing raises possibilities that we’d never previously considered. Possibilities, maybe, that no one has ever experienced.

What’s really interesting, of course, is how these new possibilities inform our understanding of what’s possible for the experiences of humans, and of other living things in this universe. Our interest is in the experiences, thoughts, and feelings – but new experiences, thoughts, and feelings are all made possible by new discoveries.

For this exercise, I invite you to write down three scientific or historical discoveries or technological inventions you’re already aware of whose potential you’d like to explore. Try to choose pieces of knowledge that are relatively new to you, or whose experiential reality and implications you haven’t explored thoroughly yet. 

For example, my list might read:

  • The discovery of possible genetic memory in lab mice and other animals. Do humans have genetic memories we’re not aware of? What if we were aware of all of our ancestors’ life experiences? 
  • The discovery of animals that reproduce by budding – are their offspring really new individuals, or are they continuations of the parent organism? 
  • The potential of brain-computer interfaces to change everything about humanity. What can we do if we can instantly interface with all the information on the Internet, and directly interface with the thoughts of others?

If you’re having a hard time coming up with new discoveries, you can use the Internet to search for whatever type of discovery news interests you most. Archaeology news, history news, technology news, biology news, and astronomy news are just a few fields that can yield fertile ground for science fiction exploration.

Now that you’ve got some exciting new facts to work with, what do those facts and possibilities mean to you?

What Themes Do You Want To Explore?

You can come back later and choose infinite questions, of course. But starting with your top three will help to guide your choices when you find yourself at crossroads choosing what kind of environment, biological needs, senses and emotions, and social structures your aliens will have as you read through the upcoming book.

Do you want your aliens to be survivalists who have been hard-tested by the hostility the universe so often seems to have toward living things, and hence forced to develop razor-sharp abilities? Or do you want them to live in primeval harmony with their surroundings, having found a way to sustainably procure plenty from their ecosystems?

How do you want your species to react to its environment? As we move on to discuss anthropological findings on Earth in the later parts of this blog series, the ways in which successful species adapt might sometimes surprise you. 

For example, among humans living in extreme environments, cultures of hospitality, cooperation. and generous mutual aid toward strangers and friends can coexist alongside the most violent and warlike raiding traditions towards designated enemies. Among humans living in fertile environments, peaceful social democracies can grow up alongside militaristic societies that believe members of their own tribe must be sacrificed to the land to sustain the cycle of creation.

These survival strategies of mutual aid, self-reliance, cooperation, and sacrifice can take on intriguing new meanings in alien settings – heck, the survival strategies used by humans right here on Earth and their real, physical effects and relationships to our own ecosystems have been under-explored in sci-fi.

For that matter, your species may have different genders (cultures on Earth have sometimes recognized more than 5 different genders as different ways of dividing socially necessary labor and desired virtues and behaviors), and even different biological sexes if they reproduce through budding, or eusocially, or have reproductive cycles like those of many slime molds, plants, and fungi (mushrooms, for example, can have hundreds of different potential sexes based on different reproductive methods used by a single species under different environmental circumstances).

Your species, like any other, will have to decide the best way to handle cultural differences, since different groups will adapt different survival strategies in response to different environmental conditions on their home planets. Human societies give us enough models to draw on to speculate about what survival strategies and cultures might arise on planets with different environments (and what the pros and cons of each might be), but things could get especially interesting if your aliens’ environment or their relationship to their environment is fundamentally different from ours in some way.

What meaning do different cultural differences or ideas take on if your species has a symbiotic relationship with one or more other species? What if they can choose who to endow with strength, intellect, or reproductive ability through some biological mechanism we don’t have? What if their reproductive strategy requires reproductive partnerships between two or more sexes, or the sexes of newly born children can change in response to environmental conditions?

Not all of these are alien mechanisms. On Earth, for example, the sex of some reptile babies is determined by the temperature at which the eggs incubate. Some fish can change sexes if a shortage of males arises, and some species can reproduce sexually or asexually, depending on environmental conditions.

So what themes or questions do you want to explore in your work? 

What would it mean to you if it turned out that most planets in the Universe hosted their own indigenous life, for a total of hundreds of billions of different origins of life? What would it mean to you, and to humanity, if they didn’t, and we were all alone or extremely rare? 

What if we showed up to an alien ecosystem to find that it was incredibly hostile toward us, or operated in ways that fundamentally defied what we believed about our own abilities, independence, virtues, and vices?

Do you want to explore war, and the need to be prepared for it? Peace, its benefits, and how to keep it? The need for and benefits of respect for individuality? The need for and benefits of working for the greater good? Do you want to examine the pros and cons of science vs. religious tradition as means of transmitting knowledge?

Are there two types of cultures whose interaction you’d like readers to see through fresh eyes by seeing them in alien species? Are there questions of sex and gender you’d like to address through aliens who actually reproduce differently from us? Do you want to explore questions of ecology through ecosystems whose own changes may be a little bit faster or more dire than our own?

There are, of course, countless ways to explore any theme you can imagine. So it might also be useful to think about…

Aesthetics

If you’ve studied film, you’re familiar with the ways in which producers use lighting and color palettes to produce a particular tone, style, and “mood” for their films. You can make films exploring the same exact themes and questions which “feel” extremely different, and attract different target audiences, based on these choices.

For this exercise, I invite you to think of a couple of films that you’d like your book or story to “feel” similar to.

Now, watch that film or look at screencaps from it. What’s the color palette? Is it warm, or cool? Tinted red, yellow, blue, or another color? Bright, highly saturated colors, or neutral, muted colors? Is the lighting sharp, harsh, and high-contrast, or soft, gentle, and mystical?

Manipulate_Audience_Emotions_Color_Featured

The image is from this lovely and relevant article on using color palettes in film.

Now, what if I told you that your own lighting choices and color palette can be influenced by the star and atmosphere of your alien world?

Your planet’s parent star is essentially your stage lights, and the atmosphere is the filter you put on top of those lights. 

As we know from living on Earth, there’s a vast array of effects that a single Sun can produce, depending on the time of day, the latitude, the season, the weather conditions, etc..

But while you’re choosing your planet’s star and atmosphere type from scratch, you might as well consider what moods different types of lighting are likely to produce in human explorers and readers. Different star types offer options like:

  • Warmer, more red- or yellow-tinged lighting from cooler suns vs. colder, more blue- or violet-tinged light from hotter suns.

    This effect is also mediated by atmosphere: thicker atmospheres scatter more red and green light, yielding a “warmer” color temperature, while thinner atmospheres scatter less light, resulting in more blue and violet light reaching the surface.

    Exotic choices of chemicals or dust in the air can scatter additional light, producing lighting casts of any conceivable color if you work the particle and chemical compositions right. 
  • Softer, more diffuse, lower-contrast lighting from cooler stars vs. harsher, sharper, more high-contrast lighting from hotter stars.

    Again, atmosphere plays a moderating role as well. Thinner atmospheres scatter less light, producing harsher lighting and sharper, darker shadows, while thicker atmospheres scatter more light and make it more diffuse. 
  • Brighter sunlight and thinner atmospheres may producer brighter-contrast colors, while thicker atmospheres, dust or fog, and dimmer or further-away stars may mute color perception and skew your palette neutral.

By using these principles together, you can produce color palette combinations such as:

  • A planet orbiting a red star with a thin atmosphere might combine “warm” or “hot” red light with harsh light and sharp, high-contrast shadows. The combination of the color red with sharp, harsh lighting may produce a sense of alarm, tension, and danger in the readers and characters. 
  • A planet orbiting a white or blue-white star might experience similar sharp, hard-edged light, but with a cool, uncaring, indifferent cast to it. 
  • A planet with a thick atmosphere may have colors that feel warmer and fuzzier, producing a sense of being embraced and enveloped by the environment – for better, or worse.

    Warm, bright light may produce a nurturing feeling, while dark, cloudy skies or skies shifted far into the red from a cool star may feel oppressive and stifling.

Which one of these color/lighting palettes sounds most interesting to you? Is your story best-suited for bright, vibrant colors, or neutral, understated tones? A warm palette or a cool palette? Harsh, high-contrast lighting or diffuse, mysterious lighting?

Additional landscape elements such as snow and ice, jungles and forests, deserts or mountains, and  landscapes that transform drastically with the changing seasons can add additional layers of “look and feel” to your setting. Every sensory experience your reader has on this planet can add to the feeling they’re experiencing, and every feeling they experience tells them a little bit about the world and themselves.

IceMoon

This gorgeous alien landscape by StealthHawk won an art contest at the BlenderNation art community.

alien-landscape-gary-tonge--science-photo-library

And this one by Gary Tonge is for sale in print form. Not gonna lie, I might buy it.

For this exercise, I invite you to write down three components of the look and feel you’d like your current project to have. Remember that the colors and lighting will directly correlate to the reader’s emotions. Warm vs. cold lighting in your descriptions will translate to warm vs. cold emotional experiences in the reader; neutral colors vs. vivid colors will translate to subtlety vs. intensity of the readers’ emotional experience.

My three attributes might be as follows:

  • I want my settings to feel exotic, and recognizably different from Earth. It doesn’t matter to me whether the light is colder or warmer, brighter or dimmer, as long as it feels quite different. 
  • I want my lighting to represent a wider scope of experience, beyond our everyday lives on Earth. Whether it’s fusion-powered sun lamps that are brighter than Earth’s light or the dimmer, redder light of a more common red dwarf star, I want to stretch the reader’s experiential horizons. 
  • For these stories, I do want harsh lights, because my style is harsh realities and vivid experiences. I’m not writing subtle, understated stories right now.

What palette choices do you want to make in your current work in progress?

1 thought on “How to Get Started Worldbuilding with Hard Science

  1. Hard science is a tough one, and this article really helped me understand what goes on behind it. I myself prefer making stuff up because I can’t handle the responsibility of making sure that things are actually possible. Thanks for sharing this informative piece!

    Like

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