Worldbuilding Part 1: Foundation
When building your planet, be certain to select a good solid base to begin your construction… Oh, wait. Too literal, huh?
Jokes aside, this is going to be the first of three posts about world-building / universe-building in science fiction. This isn’t a be-all-end-all guide, this is a process I follow while I develop the world in which I’m writing.
And yes, I’m starting with the foundations of the universe you plan to write in: technology, cultures, and people.
The tech of your setting is a determining factor for what’s available in your writing kit. One of the first questions I ask is how advanced is this setting? Is it near-future, far-future, post-apocalyptic, tech-retro… what is it? Science Fiction draws a lot of its inspiration from possibilities. What is possible in your universe? Most of my SF universes have the possibility of Faster Than Light travel being not only a possibility, but being relatively “easy” given readily available technology. But look at a lot of science fiction and that’s not the case. FTL Travel opens up a broader canvas: more worlds, more star systems, more potential species and cultures to encounter. On the other hand, if you want to limit your canvas to a smaller scale to focus on the characters or story in one location, then FTL may not add much to your story. Or maybe the discovery of FTL, those first intrepid explorers going out is what you want to use for your story. Whichever it is, establish the rules so you know what they are. Hard, Easy, or Impossible, and try to determine how long it’s been that way.
The mode and method of FTL travel can be important, too. In my Shadow Space Chronicles series, FTL travel is possible by entering a non-euclidean parallel dimension, one with multiple layers of which only certain talented people can even perceive. In my Star Portal universe, FTL travel is achieved through development of advanced warp-drives as closely based off current physics models as I can manage. Both of these methods have their own rules and using those rules in the stories and future ‘histories’ of those universes helps me to build a richer universe, one where characters can use their technology to solve problems.
There’s a variety of other technologies that can be important to the story you want to tell. Artificial intelligence, Genetic Engineering and Cloning, Cybernetics, Faster than Light communications, and even psionic abilities, these are just a few of the things you may want to consider. A lot of this, too, comes to genre. Dystopian Cyberpunk stories may be focused on Earth where humanity never made it out to the stars, whereas military science fiction novel may involve vast fleets clashing in interstellar space. You should already know what kind of story you’re wanting to write, this is about establishing what’s possible and why.
What cultures are dominant and which ones are important to your story? In my Shadow Space Chronicles series, the Chinese and Russians got out and colonized the first extra-solar planets and therefore reaped the benefit in cultural and technological advancement. A second wave of colonists to thousands of other worlds had to travel further at greater expense or to colonize marginally inhabitable planets, which meant they were often more poorly equipped and often were economically exploited by wealthy corporations or powerful individuals. They were also easily dominated by a coalition of the core worlds, what became known as Amalgamated Worlds. This led to a lot of hate between the outer colonies and the inner ones, not only did they have different cultural backgrounds, but the disparity of wealth and technology made for flash-points of revolution.
See how technology and culture fed together to give me some story fodder? Conflict between haves and have-nots is a pretty easy idea that most people can easily relate to, it also can provide conflict for characters within a story or a good background to set a story against. Developing cultures isn’t just for humanity. If your story is going to involve alien races, then this is also where you can plot cultures. Try to avoid making them too monolithic. Every society has its outliers, every nation has its internal divisions. Developing those internal cultures can give you ideas for your actual story and can help ground that story for a reader.
People are where you’re working toward with this foundation, they’re what your story will rest upon, they’re the meat and potatoes of your story. Not in a Soylent Green way, either. (Well, maybe, you write it how you want)
Societies and cultures are made up of people. Individuals stand out as the representatives of your worlds. Developing a cast of people, past, present, and even future, can help you to build out your world. These aren’t necessarily characters that your POV characters will meet, see, or interact with. These are important people that shape the worlds and that you may mention. People like the inventor of the FTL drive, or the person who built Skynet, or the traitor to humanity who gave away our defense codes, or the first genetically engineered person. They’re names that you can drop into the story as you’re writing and just knowing a little about who they were and why they were important lets you keep writing and develops the world that much more.
Knowing what cultures they came from, what shaped them, and what pressures they were under to make those decisions can be a tremendous benefit. Maybe the guy who gave away Earth’s defense codes was in it for the money or maybe Earth’s dictatorial rulers had just had his family purged. You decide, and then you can use that to build your story.
Knocking out these three things will let you focus on the next steps, building out your universe so that you can then write that great SF story you want to tell. Remember, though, this isn’t the final product, you world-build so that you can write a story. Don’t get too caught up in world-building that you don’t actually do the part of putting words on page for your story! Next week I’ll dive in with Part 2.
For other posts on worldbuilding, check out my steampunk and fantasy worldbuilding posts.
4 thoughts on “Worldbuilding in Science Fiction: Part 1 Foundations”
Indeed, getting readers to sympathize with your slime mold neighbor from Glia 8929—whose flirki keep digging under your E-Mag fence and eating your gladitunias—requires first pulling them into your believable world.
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Thank you. Your tips are very helpful.