This post is about my experience researching a science fiction world building project. It’s the summary of my learnings, while also being vague about the results.
There’s no two ways around it. World building is a challenge. There’s the risk of being over-ambitious and providing too much detail. The world building can slow down the pace and get in the way of the dramatic action.
If the world building is completely ignored, just lazy or under-ambitious it can result in a story that lacks a convincing, interesting and immersive environment. Not having a unique and realistic environment makes a story feel generic and inauthentic.
World building is a balance between describing the world while also giving the characters enough space to live out the drama within it. With science fiction genre stories, the writer owes the reader something to get their teeth into with the world building. It’s an intrinsic part of the genre and it’s what science fiction genre readers expect.
What is ‘world building’?
Stories naturally incorporate world building in one form or another. Because science fiction is an ideas based genre it usually involves quite specific world building. There the way the world looks as well as how the world works. Quite simple differences between worlds can have a dramatic effect on how a world looks and feels and operates. A world powered by coal will be very different from a world powered by advanced fusion energy reactors.
It’s important to understand how the world works in order to produce a convincing story.
World building in science fiction not just about stuff, and things. The stuff is there to impact on the characters. Technology doesn’t mean anything without the characters to give it context. The world building is part of who the characters are in the story. It informs what they are fighting for and fighting against.
I found it really useful to know the general direction I wanted to go in and also what I wanted to avoid. I started off with simple images in my head, and then I developed those pictures into a rationalised framework. It was useful to keep an open mind, to give space for the ideas to develop. Some of them grew and I was able to refine them. Other ideas led to a dead end I had to jettison them because they didn’t fit into the rest of the world building.
It’s important to look beyond the cliché. Readers want new ideas or at least old ideas dressed up in a different and compellingly fresh way. I’m a fan of Blade Runner but I wanted to avoid the look and feel of the film. The cityscape is too dense for what I had in mind for my story so it wouldn’t have been appropriate anyway. Even if it was right, I would probably have done my best to avoid it. As much as I admire Ridley Scott’s work, I didn’t want to write a Ridley Scott fan tribute. While staying clear of cliché it’s also important to stay within genre expectations.
The future is the past reimagined
Most visions of the future or alternative realities in science fiction are thinly disguised and reimagined versions of the past. George Orwell had the 1930s in mind when he wrote 1984. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (even if it’s a fantasy story and not technically set in the future) harks back to a pre-industrial England. The Handmaid’s Tale references the historical precedent of the New England witch trials and Puritanism in the 17th Century. Writers use the future in science fiction as a wrapper to reinvent the past. Science fiction is the past, set in the future, dealing with today’s issues.
Science fiction worlds are versions of Heaven and Hell
I’d argue that the science fiction and fantasy genres originate from religion and religious texts. The earliest examples of science fiction and fantasy date back to religious texts where characters travel with angels through space and time. These theological inspired thought-experiments were devices designed to explore faith, Christian values, and spirituality.
Science fiction and fantasy offers a secular version of religious texts about morality, society, the afterlife, heaven and hell, damnation and paradise. A secular mindset might argue that religion invented science fiction and fantasy before science fiction and fantasy existed. Jesus is the ultimate superhuman character. Science fiction worlds are secular extensions of religious worlds. They acknowledge change and transformation of culture, society and technology in a human-centric post-Christian story.
So, why all this detail in a simple post about world building? Because it helps to know what function the world building serves before diving into it.
To simplify the religious origins of Science fiction even further, it’s a retelling of the conflict between heaven and hell. Or its about characters living in a form of hell. It’s rarely entirely about heaven because that’s usually a less compelling dramatic story.
- Heaven — Hell
- Clean — Dirty
- Peace — War
- Intelligent — Nonsensical
- Works — Broken
- Utopia — Dystopia
- Enlightenment — Dark Ages
- Love — Hate
- Communication — Violence
- Equality — Inequality
- Unity — Division
- Order — Chaos
- Kindness — Cruelty
- Truth — Lies
In science fiction the contrast between heaven and hell is developed into something more sophisticated and nuanced than a choice between one and the other. Nuance in storytelling allows room for grey areas where characters can change, and loyalties can be tested. Cultutres in science fiction are often set up with a plot twist. They appear to offer a version of heaven while possessing aspects of hell. The culture we identify with (which is usually human) has troubling failings. An apparently evil society also displays positive traits or a valid reason for acting that way.
In what’s perhaps a cliché now, the heavenly culture faces off against the hellish culture. In the heavenly culture the people are enlightened and everything is shiny and works. The hellish culture is dysfunctional or violently barbaric. It may be a physically dirty place where things don’t work. The heavenly world is light and bright and the hellish world is grimy and dark. This simplistic setup is often subverted to make the primitive culture tolerant and humanistic while the advanced culture is revealed to be repressive and cruel. In the ‘post-religious’ science fiction genre paradise tend to have a catch.
What kind of world am I building?
With science fiction offering secular snippets of heaven and hell, the question any writer faces is where to locate their story on a line between paradise and damnation?
- How shiny and clean is my vision of the future?
- How much of a nightmare dystopia is it?
Do people press buttons and food magically appears on a plastic tray, or do they have to kill and eat one another to get some lunch?
The classic Star Trek series conforms to the clean and clinical version of the future where the shiny white spaceship, The Enterprise, is commanded by an enlightened leader who’s fighting for an egalitarian and rational world view. There’s something almost quasi-religious about their mission. It’s literally an environment where people don’t wear creased clothes. Star Trek represents a vision of high civilisation (it reflects how America saw itself in the 1960s).
In the tale of two cities heaven battles against hell. The Enterprise would be fighting against violent and self-interested alien species lacking any morality.
In the hellish nightmare world, Captain Kirk would be sexually harassing members of his crew, running an illegal drug smuggling ring, and planning to take control of the Federation for his own selfish purposes. The hero would be a person low down in the pecking order, coping with the hellish world they’re in, fighting for survival, trying to escape, maybe even trying to change it.
The hellish world is personified by films like Alien. Instead of speeding through space in the shiny Enterprise, the Nostromo resembles a rusty cargo freighter. The mission is behind schedule and the crew are liable to have their pay docked, next thing they know there’s a demonic creature onboard and they’re facing a short future.
Is there a connection between cultural optimism and the kind of world that the readers are attracted to? In less optimistic times, like economic downturns audiences, audiences are supposed to prefer optimistic stories. The history of the musical is a classic example of this. Audiences want to be distracted from their fears. But it’s also true that audiences want to explore their fears, which is what the horror genre is all about. People go to stories to find escapism, to explore their fears, to find solace and hope.
Science fiction and fantasy stories like Star Wars make great vehicles for achieving these goals.
One question I ask myself is, does my world building environment offer a place for the reader to:
- Be optimistic
- Experience fear
- Feel hope
What is society like in this world?
Stories need problems that require solutions. Injustice must be fought. Tyranny reversed. Truth and love must flourish. A story without problems is in trouble.
Hollywood films take this to an extreme. The villains are intent on taking over the world. The planet faces an existential threat from alien invasions and mutant super-humans.
I’m mostly optimistic but when it comes to researching the world building, I mangled to reach deep down into my inner pessimist. I managed to surprise myself. At the same time, I was conscious that I’m turned-off by relentlessly pessimistic stories. In a crazy world, I need stories to give me hope and faith in humanity.
Will my science fiction world be democratic or authoritarian? Will it be a Theocracy or a police state? How will a contemporary audience relate to the values expressed in that world?
My research took me to Apartheid era South Africa, the state of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the decline of the Chinese Empire, post-Roman Empire England, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, just to name a few.
One of the few constants about the futurology of science fiction world building is the unknown. The future will be surprising in surprising ways. It won’t turn out how we expect.
There will be cultural norms in the future that we consider abhorrent. To people in the future our culture will look primitive or decadent. We come from a post-World War Two order that assumes enlightened social progress, or at least increasing prosperity. These assumptions are underpinned by fading models of economic wealth and political stability.
Philip K Dick nailed the weirdness of the future in his science fiction. He achieved this by putting in a load of bonkers ideas into his novels.
What about the culture itself? Culture changes but human needs remain the same. People will still be people in the future. Hopefully. They will still have the same flaws and weaknesses, craving for social status, ambition, impulses and desires. Good and bad.
Len Deighton created wonderful spy worlds in his novels. Legend has it that Len Deighton chose the world of spies and spying because it allowed him to completely invent the world for himself. He didn’t know anything about police procedure, which stopped him from writing a detective crime novel. He based his spy world on what he knew — the business workplace, the office, and office politics. Part of what makes Len Deighton’s novels so impressively realistic is that they’re based on an real-life workplace that’s been cleverly wrapped in a spy genre story.
Here are some of the issues that people are concerned about today (not in any order):
- Inequality (wealth, power, and influence)
- Injustice (abuse, unfairness, repression, exploitation)
- Racial injustice
- Gender inequality
- Sexual politics
- Social inequality (poverty, food banks, homelessness)
- Environmental pollution
- Global warming
- Nuclear war
- Balkanisation (binary thinking, and tribalism)
- Fake news
- Job security, maintaining living standards
- Global pandemic
- Government and organisational incompetence / corruption
- Communities, identity and inclusion (having a sense of belonging / not belonging)
As someone researching a science fiction genre story and not writing literary fiction, I had to consider the implications of dealing with, or not dealing with, those subjects. Going back to science fiction being about the past, set in the future (or an alternative reality) and dealing with today’s issues, I had to include them. The simplest way of achieving this is to make some or all of them the story. To explore these issues in ways that give readers pause for thought, and hope.
The Expanse ignores the subject of racism by taking place in a post-racial identity world. Racial and ethnic identity have been supplanted by location-based identities: Earther, Belter, and Martian.
Whatever the issues and values I explore in my fictional world, the protagonist must share similar values, hopes and fears to the reader. They must face dilemmas the reader can identify with.
What does the world look like?
One of the facts about any moment in time, the past, or the future, is that any world with people has to have human ergonomics. It has to support children, education, social lives, the need to exercise, and day-to-day factors like that.
I spent a lot of time thinking how my future world would look, especially the towns, and the buildings. What clothing would the characters wear? What would the interior spaces where they live look like? What do they eat and drink? What do they do to relax and forget about work? Are they like us or are they different?
The 2013 film Oblivion went for an impressively slick and classy Modernist look, which is appealing, but that clinical perfection was an aesthetic that I wanted to avoid.
I went back to the idea of the future as a reinvention of the past. I researched Brutalist architecture, concrete structures, East German apartment blocks, Soviet monuments. I explored military fortifications (British military observation towers in Northern Ireland, forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan) and defence structures from the Cold War era.
I spent time researching environmental damage, background pollution, predictions about ‘global warming’, and data about rising sea levels.
I went as far as creating a map of my future world. The map helped me to visualise and understand the world that I was creating. It reminded me of the map on the inside cover of Lord of the Rings, which I enjoyed studying when I was a child. I had to understand the world that I was creating, so the reader could also visualise it.
It was important that the world I was building felt like a real environment. It was a place where people could live out their otherwise ordinary lives.
Weapons, vehicles and aircraft
I was researching for a science fiction action-thriller. Without going into too much detail, the protagonist and the main characters are operating in a violent and dangerous world.
What weapons do they use to defend themselves? Ray guns or sticks and stones? I knew they weren’t going to be armed with either of those, so I had to research the subject to make sure I could describe the weapons. I wanted to make the details realistic, and I didn’t want to make any glaring technical errors.
Future assault rifles in science fiction films tend to look ridiculous. They’re huge and bulky. For inspiration, I researched real weapons systems from the 1960s. There are some weird Soviet experimental weapons like the bullpup TKB-011 and the TKB-022PM. They look strangely organic with their brown Bakelite furniture and remind me of something from Planet of the Apes.
The Heckler & Koch G11 is another futuristic assault rifle, the so-called ‘Kraut Space Gun’. The research helped me to realise that in the future, whatever the technology, people will have to operate these weapons, so they need to be ergonomically practical. And that’s why most of those experimental systems failed. They didn’t offer significant improvements and their ergonomics were terrible.
As my story was set in the future, I had to make judgements about future technology. My way of dealing with some of this was simple. If I wasn’t sure, I simply fudged or avoided the issue. The classic science fiction way of handling this might also be to invent impressive sounding sci-fi lingo and use a bunch of made-up terms.
My characters use weapons described as ‘assault rifles’ and they load those weapons with ‘magazines’. I didn’t go into too much detail beyond that.
The research into the world building process paid off. Even when I didn’t get the exact answer I was looking for, the research helped me to make decisions and come to conclusions that might not otherwise have reached.
While it’s not necessary to have an exact picture of the technology or how it works, it’s important to know what level of explanation I was prepared to share with the reader.
The vehicles in my manuscript were electric. That’s not exactly a wild bet. I did make sure that the characters didn’t refer to them as ‘electric’ because people in the future would no longer make distinctions between electric and petrol engines.
I went down a similar route with my descriptions of aircraft. I used mostly generic terms, adding some specific description where necessary. My research helped me to navigate how they’d function and what they looked like. I researched the interior of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey and used that as a starting point. It’s incredible, these things are full of exposed wiring. I spent time worrying if the vertical lift aircraft should be electric, gas / petrol powered, or use some other power source. I tried to work out if they had jet engines or rotor blades. In the end I just referred their propulsion systems as ‘engines’.
It’s important to know how readers will relate to the technology. Will it be highly advanced and near magical or will they be able to relate to it in much the same way as today’s technology, like driving a car?
My research produced some odd discoveries (that’s part of the research process). There are already science fiction-like weapons in existence today, energy weapons and lasers. They tend to be the size of a house or a truck and require a group of research scientists to operate them, but some of the technology is already here.
There really are directed energy weapons in use. DEWs, and yes, they even have their own acronym. They blast out microwaves and if they were powerful enough, they would ‘cook’ people in much the same way as a consumer microwave machine. Nice, huh? The ones around today don’t have the power to ‘cook’ a person. They are non-lethal and designed for crowd control. The effects of non-lethal electromagnetic weapons include: nausea, breathing difficulties, disorientation, the sensation of skin burning, pain and vertigo.
Discovery through serendipity is a major plus of the research process. Through my research, I developed new ideas and refined existing ones.
Drone technology was another area that I researched. Drones have been around since the Second World War. The US Air Force tested out drone bombers in WW2 but the technology wasn’t ready. Drone technology is now at the same point in its development as the tank was in 1918. Like it or not, AI is coming to drone warfare along with Cold War Soviet military doctrine of ‘access denial’.
Drones have been around for some time in science fiction storytelling. The Imperial Probe Droid from the beginning of Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is a good example with its wonderfully skeuomorphic floating jellyfish-like form.
Bringing it all together
The research process helped me to write a story that takes place in a convincing world. It gave me time to think about the world I was building.
It’s a great way to generate and refine ideas for a story. But the research process is a means and not an end. A novel is nothing without vivid characters to inhabit that world, and a dramatic story to get the best, and worst, out of them.