Worldbuilding Part 2: Worlds Upon Worlds
It may seem a little backwards, but my second post on world-building is actually going to talk about worlds. (See the first post here) While geography / celestial cartography is important, I don’t think it’s the foundation of building your universe in SF. Why is that? Well, you need to know how easy or hard it is to get there through technology, know how people will react when they do get there through culture, and who the players are by knowing the people.
The rest, as to what’s actually there? That’s going to influence those things in return, but it’s still not quite as central. The earlier post was about preparing the conditions to tell the story you want. This one is more focused on developing the actual setting.
Writing science fiction gives an author an amazing set of possibilities. As writers, we can explore distant worlds that can be whatever we think up. Those can be desolate waste-lands like Tatooine or thriving paradise planets and everything in between.
This is all about determining the setting and this is where a lot of the Science Fiction greats did things really, really right. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a book where the planet itself is a character, which at various times tries to kill or save the people in the story. On Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the Moonis every bit as central to the story as anyone else.
Whether your worlds are arid, airless rocks or a lush tropical planets, you need to determine what your story needs. A survival story set on a paradise planet might not be nearly so interesting as one on a world where literally everything is trying to kill you. The Martian is a great example of a science fiction survival story where the writer makes the planet’s conditions central to his story.
If course, the conditions of the planet may tie into other things…
The system’s star or stars can be a huge element of a planet’s habitability. The movie Pitch Black explored this in a pretty interesting fashion, creating a star system where a planet existed in continued light… right up until it got dark for a very long time.
Asteroids, comets, moons, other planets, all these can be important to your story. Maybe the system has not just one but two or three inhabitable planets, maybe they’re claimed by different nations, maybe one of those worlds is undergoing a cataclysm of some kind. The Dragonriders of Pern series had a rogue planet that brought terror with it’s return every few hundred years. David Weber’s Honor Harrington series has a set of wormholes that made Manticore an economic powerhouse due to their central positioning for trade.
The physical world and setting is going to directly impact your characters. Society, technology, and people will indirectly shape them, but the physical world is what they’ll see, taste, touch, hear, and feel. If a planet is a garbage world, does it smell? Do people from there lack a sense of smell because it has been burned out?
Beliefs and Themes
Lastly, we come to one of the non-physical elements of setting: beliefs. This is a product of the physical and societal elements and it in turn shapes both. What do the various cultures and sub-cultures believe in?
Has humanity spread out with a manifest destiny? Do they shove aside non-Earth life, terraforming worlds in their own image? Or is there a fundamentalist religion that has taken over a culture, instilling them with a reverence of all life, prohibiting violence for any reason? Has faith in science driven a group to pursue all manner of otherwise unethical experiments, delving into human modification and genetic engineering upon their prisoners? You decide, you shape it based upon the history and setting you’ve built, and then decide what you need to tell the story you want to tell.
While developing the technology level, cultures, and people of your setting was the foundation, this is like the basement. This is the structure that supports your book. It’s there, its visible and the characters will interact with it all the time. Building stuff here gives you the tangibles that readers will notice and that will ground them in the worlds. Fill out these details for the story you want to tell. Next week, we’ll tie it all together in Part 3!