May 2018 ♦ Technobabble
Last time we touched on the concept of world-building. Basically, for any fantasy or sci-fi story, the author imagines a place or a time where certain things are different than in our own world. Then comes the fun exercise of speculating on how those differences would trickle through the reality of that world, impacting technology, religion, social norms, food production, power and so on.
World-building for science fiction intimidates me, which is probably why I lean toward fantasy. To write good science fiction, an author needs a healthy imagination and a solid, disciplined grasp of the science behind the fiction. The science ought to be believable and plausible, without getting in the way of the story.
Let’s pick an example. A fundamental challenge in most space-based sci-fi stories is moving a spaceship between solar systems that may be hundreds of light years apart. Physics tells us nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. So, if a solar system is 100 light years away it would take a ship at least 100 years to get there. Probably a lot more.
Fiction addresses this problem in different ways. In Star Trek, ships use warp drive which essentially bends space and time. The ship creates a warp bubble around itself for protection, then sort of gathers up the space in front of it and pushes away the space behind it to reach a different location. Imagine sucking in your gut only to have your butt jut out farther behind you. Well, it’s nothing like that.
In the Star Wars universe, ships use hyperdrive to travel through hyperspace. Basically, they take a shortcut through another dimension to get where they’re going. This method of travel, by the way, was inspired by giant space faring whales known as purrgils. And no, I didn’t make that up.
As a reader who enjoys a good space yarn, you may not be too concerned with in-depth technological justifications of story elements. After all, most of us don’t need to understand the scientific underpinnings of plasma rifles, faster than light travel, carbonite freezing, nanotech, teleporters or light sabers to appreciate engaging drama. But a lot of people do put a lot of effort into explaining how and why these “fictional” technologies might work so, out of respect for their readers and their genre, science fiction writers can’t just make stuff up.
For an example that will test your brain functionality, try this Generation Tech video explaining how hyperdrives work. And here’s a good layman’s explanation of warp speed. For added measure, you might also want to check out this explanation of how Santa’s sleigh works.
Figuring out a plausible method of space travel is just one step in building a vibrant setting for a science fiction story. Think about stories you’ve read and all the alien ecosystems and species, interplanetary politics, advanced weaponry and other crazy technologies. Somebody had to imagine all that and figure out if it made sense! Only then, once they’d built their new reality, could they finally let their story loose within it.
Like I said, the thought of writing sci-fi intimidates me and I feel a little more comfortable letting my imagination loose in a fantasy story. But, fantasy worlds must have rules too! In upcoming blogs, we’ll look at some fascinating (and frightening) places to test world-building hypotheses, and we’ll dig into theories of magic. Hope you’ll come back for more next time.