As I’m procrastinating from some of my other projects, I thought it might be fun to go through the worldbuilding process instead of only writing about doing so. This will be the first post in a series to do just that.
Initial disclaimer and caveats
There are many different ways to go about the process of worldbuilding, approaches and philosophies of creative work, foci and areas of interest in fleshing out a world, etc. I make no claim to be doing things the “right” or “best” way. I’m going to do this in the way that I’ve discovered works for me. I hope it helps you, even if how it helps is in causing you to do things a different way. Failing that, I hope it entertains.
A Starting Place: Purpose
We have a few high-level choices to make before we really get into it. The first is what we’re building a setting for. As I’ve mentioned many times, Avar Narn is the world I’ve been building for a long time and the main setting for much of my writing. Here, I’m going to try to do something different. To a great extent, I foresee that there will be some similar themes and ideas in both settings simply based upon the things that interest me. However, I’m going to try to keep this from being a rehash of the exact same ideas.
Those sidebar comments…aside…I’ve decided that I want to build this setting for a combination of creating a space to write in, a setting to use for roleplaying games should I so choose, and also simply for the enjoyment of the process. You might note that this hits on the main three reasons for worldbuildng I’ve discussed in other posts. The attempt to equally address these concerns I hope will make this series more helpful for others seeking to glean ideas from it.
Knowing my purpose, I’m going to now pick a loose genre. The emphasis is on “loose” here because I really like mixing genre conceits, as is already somewhat and will become more evident in my Avar Narn writings. As Avar Narn is loosely fantasy, this setting will be loosely sci-fi.
A Guide: Genre
A sci-fi setting for writing, gaming and art for its own sake. So far so good. There’re a lot of subgenres in sci-fi that are important to audiences, so I’m going to make some additional choices here to help allay what could become future obstacles.
I like my stories to be closer to the personal, the “realistic” (whatever that is) and the gritty. I’m not a scientist and, while I like theoretical physics and the like, I do not want to have to do any more math than is absolutely necessary. Consequential decisions: I will lean toward “hard” sci-fi but not slavishly so. I’ll try to avoid anything that blatantly violates the laws of the universe as we understand them, but I won’t avoid occasional handwavium if it serves the setting as a whole.
I’ve also decided that I’m going to use the shortcut here—so that the majority of my creative focus remains on Avar Narn—of using a future version of our world (and worlds beyond) rather than creating a sci-fi universe whole-cloth.
A Mission Statement: Theme
The setting needs a good core theme or set of themes to tie it together, much like an organization’s mission statement or the thesis of a scholarly work. We could just create bits of the world and see what themes float to the surface, but I find it far more efficient to decide what you want your world to do and then fill in the details to align with that.
Fortunately, I have a few themes to address with the setting:
- If humans have the technology to recreate themselves, what does that look like? How far will humans go and what are the reasons they’ll have for doing so.
- How does ideology (philosophic, religious, political, moral) drive history and individuals? What about vice versa? What makes us choose (or leave) an ideology? Do we choose our ideologies for emotional reasons, or practical ones, or something more complex? How strongly are we committed to ideology—what ideologies will we kill and die for, and why?
- Control—over culture, technology, relationships, even self. Do we really have it at all? If so, how do we take (or relinquish) control? What is the morality of control?
- The macro versus the micro—should humans prioritize large-scale constructs (governments, societies, institutions) or individuals? What do different prioritizations look like?
Four is plenty of high level themes, I think. This will give us a lot to play with but still have enough coherence for the setting to avoid the “kitchen sink” approach.
Assembling Building Blocks: Influences
And now I plan a heist. I’ve already spent a lot of time casing my targets, so it’s just a matter of infiltrating, stealing what I want, and getting back out. Here are some of the sources I’ll steal ideas from:
Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) – billed as “hardboiled cyberpunk”, this fast-paced sci-fi noir story hits a lot of my sweet spots and (as far as I know) inspired the Eclipse Phase game mentioned below. As we’ll parse out later, I have some serious conflict about the idea of digital-brain transfers, but there’s much in this novel that inspires.
Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) – Both of these novels have influenced me—both as writer and a theological thinker, believe it or not—so I can’t imagine but that I’ll draw some inspiration from them, though I think my own preferences and approach vary significantly from Stephenson.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – I’m a big fan of almost all of Phillip K. Dick’s work (strange as some of it is), but this one seems to fit some of the themes and ideas I’m interested in for this setting well.
Old Man’s War (John Scalzi), Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card), Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein) – I love military sci-fi and, based on the themes above, there’s a significant role for military conflict to play in this setting.
World War Z (Max Brooks) – no, I don’t intend to have zombies. What I want to draw from this book is how it starts from a fictitious situation (here, zombies) and builds rational and believable sociopolitical events and histories on top. Please, for the love of God, ignore the movie.
Embedded (Dan Abnett) – I like Abnett’s writing for the Warhammer 40K universe, and this military sci-fi novel does a lot really well and has a feel and setting with a lot I’d like to use.
Future of the Mind, Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible (Michio Kaku) — Kaku has for some time been a popularizer of scientific ideas, particularly through his TV appearances. These books contain speculations from the well-researched to the wild and almost certainly unfounded—perfect for sci-fi.
Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems & the Economic World (Kevin Kelly) – a Wired magazine editor’s part celebration, part warning about future technologies.
Movies and TV
Alien Series – I love the industrial look of spaceships in these films, where (if I’m to think about it perhaps overmuch) the ship reminds us of the horrors of a soulless industrial society that places profits above people just as we’re faced with an alien threat.
Blade Runner and Minority Report – As I said, I’m a big fan of PKD and while the films often miss some of his more poignant inquiries, they perhaps make up for that in inspirational visuals.
Inception – as we come closer and closer to virtual reality—and virtual reality difficult to distinguish from real reality being soon to follow—this film has plenty of ideas in it that makes sense in almost any sci-fi setting (especially when combined with the sort of nasty tortures and interrogations that virtual spaces are used for in Altered Carbon).
Firefly and Serenity – while I want to steer clear of the “Western in Space” idea (despite it working so well for these stories), there’re are many ways in which FTL travel would create some Old-West-like frontiers, and stories one might not think of—like Revenant (in SPAAAACCCEEE!) could also abound. In fact, why are there so few “classic” wilderness survival stories in sci-fi? Plenty of spacefaring hard-sci-fi survival stories, but not so many in the wilderness (unless I just don’t know them).
Battlestar Galactica – I have to say that, despite greatly enjoying this series, there’s a lot from it I wouldn’t use in my own sci-fi stories. Nevertheless, I’m sure there’s something to glean from the dross, I’m sure.
Infinity – if you haven’t seen the 28mm skirmish game (and upcoming RPG) Infinity, take a look. I typically have a hard time getting into anime, but despite the anime influence on this setting, it’s fascinating and I love the art style.
Shadowrun – this game was really my introduction to the cyberpunk genre and there’re some cool ideas here. As I mentioned above, though, I don’t intend this setting to be strictly cyberpunk, despite some of the influences mentioned.
I take a lot of my writing inspiration from visual experiences, so the art style and consequential “feel” of film and games often helps my creative juices flow. When I think of doing a sci-fi setting, I think of Mass Effect (how could one not), Dead Space and Titanfall.
To a great extent, I think calling oneself a futurist or futurologist is a way to indulge in sci-fi imagination while still retaining some scientific credibility. Regardless, there are a number of futurologists whose reports provide ready fodder for thinking about human society and technology in the near future. I’ll be drawing on futurist reports, articles, speculative timelines, etc. for inspiration.
As I said above, I’m very visual in my imagination, so I spend a lot of time creating collections of inspirational art and photos, most often pulling them from DeviantArt.com. For this setting, the two artists there that immediately come to mind are Shimmering-Sword and StTheo. Careful going down the DeviantArt rabbithole—you can lose hours wandering through the works of all of the talented artists there (or sorting through the crap that gets posted alongside them).
TED Talks will also play some role I’m sure, as I tend to enjoy listening to them and they do relate to technology, after all. To some extent, I may find other podcasts or programs with something to contribute.
NEXT TIME: Some high-level choices about the particulars of the setting.