Thursday, August 30, 2012

Future Worldbuilding: Pop Culture and the Fourth Estate

For the last bit of Future Worldbuilding, lets talk about culture.  Specifically, Pop Culture.

This is a hard thing to do at all, let alone get right: predict where music, entertainment, fashion and public whims are going to go in the coming centuries.  It's hard to even guess what form the media will be.

The various Star Treks kind of throw their hands up and give up on the idea.  They envision a future with no pop culture of its own; the Federation of the 24th Century is filled with nostalgia for the 16th-20th centuries.  Its citizens are fans of Shakespeare, Victorian lit, '40s noir, classical music, '20s jazz, '60s Vegas, and on "movie night" on the NX-01, classics in the Paramount vault.  What's their own?  Holo-novels-- interactive fiction, essentially, where they recreate old Paris, early 20th Century Space Opera, westerns... again, mired in the past.  Voyager did feature two pieces of "new" work in Holo-fiction, but both were meta-works, essentially autobiographical about life on Voyager.  On DS9, Jake Sisko aspired to be a writer-- he even had a highly celebrated novel and short story collection in one alt-future.

Babylon 5 did a bit better.  I thought their use of "Rebo and Zooty" as a recurrent bit of pop culture, even having Penn & Teller show up as Rebo and Zooty, was somewhat clever.  Now, the "comedy" of R&Z was inscrutable, and the audience was mostly in the same position as Capt. Lochley, just "not getting" what's funny about them.  The creators of Bab5 defended this, claiming that the comedy of R&Z is a pop-culture product of its time, and thus makes little sense out of context.  I can accept that intellectually.  I imagine future generations will look at, say, the collected works of Friedberg & Seltzer with utter bafflement.*

Babylon 5 also did a decent job with the news media, devoting two episodes to news broadcast presentations, one of which was constructed as pure propaganda.  This was an area that Treks largely glossed over.  The only acknowledgement that the Fourth Estate still existed in that universe was some lip service towards Jake Sisko being "a reporter" for a some news organization, but for all the impact it had, he may as well have been an unread blogger.

Of course, Battlestar Galactica went to the opposite extreme, in which a nearly-extinct humanity apparently had a press corps that was comprised of about 5% of the total population.  Admittedly, this was because one of the few survivors in the fleet was a press corps ship, but still: how many news options did a population of under 50K actually need?**

My underlying point is, when thinking about the future (or the past or secondary-world fantasy): pop culture matters.  News sources matter.  Neither one should go away.
*- Not that I don't now.
**- I could probably construct a rant on BSG and how most of the civilian population never seemed to understand the dire circumstances they were living in-- like continuing to do pre-apocalypse jobs and being baffled when expected to do something else.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Future Worldbuilding: Aliens, Form follows Function

Alien life can take all sorts of shapes and sizes.  When it comes to the various flora and fauna of other worlds, there's no limit to where your imagination can take you.

But, when you start talking about intelligent, civilized, technological aliens... then you need to have some limits.  Specifically, in terms of physical form.  For a species to reach the stars, they have to have the capacity to create the means to do so.  So your intelligent, star-faring species HAS to had a similar physical capacity: able to dominate its ecosystem enough to acquire its caloric needs and survive to reproduction, and with the fine motor necessary to build simplex and complex technology. 

So, on some level, I am fond of going to the Humanoid shape: humans are unique on this planet in that they are the only species that can run a mile, swim a mile, climb a tree and throw a rock, let alone do calculus, build microchips and post on Facebook.   It's highly functional and adaptable.  Is it the only one?  No, but don't dismiss it.  Yes, most shows and movies went to the humanoid well most of the time for aliens, but that was mostly because actors who are otherwise are notoriously unreliable in learning their lines.*

Some other forms that I use, as a basis for alien building:

Bipedal: Technically different from "humanoid", which implies two legs, two arms, a body trunk and a head on top.  "Bipedal" just beans two legs, and the rest of the design might be quite different.  It should, however, maintain bilateral symmetry. 

Tripedal: Three legs, and I usually have this also mean three fine-motor arms as well, if not full on trilateral symmetry. 

Centauroid: Four legs, two grasping arms.  Sometimes I might use "Insectoid" for this form as well, if the two grasping arms double as walking limbs.

Quadruped: Four legs.  Now, you still have to deal with fine motor control.  Two or all four legs might double as fine-motor graspers.  Or there might be another method: the Zaaatel are catlike creatures with strong cilia-like tentacles coming from their spines.  A quadruped could also have eight limbs: four walking, four grasping. 

Hexaped: Similar to the "Insectoid" or "Centauroid".  I might use this instead of "Insectoid" A. if the species didn't have a chitonous exoskeleton and B. if all six limbs were walkers and graspers.

Arachnoid: Eight walking/grasping limbs. 

Medusoid: Snake-like body with two grasping limbs.

Centepecoid: Catch-all for any segmented-body with more than eight walking/grasping limbs.

Tentacloid: Catch-all for any species that has multiple tentacles for both locomotion and fine manipulation.  This can vary: the Starkasians have three large-body-trunk tentacles for locomotion, and six fine-motor ones for manipulation.  The Calitras are Winged Tentacloids, with twelve fine-motor tentacles for maniuplation, and wings for locomotion.

Any other important shapes you think I might have missed?  Let me know.


*Farscape, and to a much lesser degree Babylon 5, tried to avoid this somewhat with puppets.  Farscape, being a Jim Henson Studio, succeeded with this to a far greater degree.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Future Worldbuilding: Stellar Map Time

I'm under a bit of a hammer today, so: SPACE MAPS.

Now, I don't have a good way to display the full scope of the 100-light year radius of space that I've defined.  If I make it small enough to fit on a screen, it's to dense to read properly.  I've made some attempts at combining screenshots, which I've found... unsatisfying. Partly because it's showing 3-D space on a 2-D screen. The actual ChView program lets you turn the view on all three axes, so while one can't create a static image that gives a proper sense of the stellar geography, you can move around and get a sense of distance and connections.

But this is still a work in progress.

 Map 1: Centered on Terra (Earth), with a 25 light-year view radius.  (Of course, since the screen is wide, we don't see the full 25 light-years to the top and bottom.)  The white circles with blue trim are homeworlds: Terra, of course, as well as Starkasia, Caraw, Lestri, Krek'ixa and so forth.  The gray circles are colonies: all six human colonies can be seen: Centaurs and Europa Nueva (though their labels overlap, since they are part of the Alpha Centauri binary star system), New Canada, Cygnus 1, Indus and Reijani.  Their are also 15 Terran Fleet Bases (the various TFB's).   In the right corners the edges of Surani and Nirizhi space are visible.  But this is somewhat misleading: One would think that TFB-Bravo and Delta are the closest to Reijani.  In fact, neither are: TFB-Oscar is the closest.
 MAP 2: The same map, with route markers turned on for some sense of scale.  Blue lines means less than 8 light years distance.  Yellow, less than 6, and green less than 4.  But this is also pretty confusing.  Let's spin the image.
MAP 3: From this angle, we get a very different sense of the geography.  We can see how Reijani and TFB-Oscar are in roughly the same direction from Terra now, for one.  We no longer see Surani or Nirizhi space, but Paxin space dominates the right side of the screen.  And the top left shows a few outlying territories of the Triumverate (the strange symbols-- how ChView renders the Greek Letter "Ψ").  
MAP 4: Finally, a different part of space, centered on Quro and Senilac, homeworlds of the Quuos and the Senicala, two species that have been at war with each other for decades.  This is about 40 light-years from Earth, and the scale is slightly larger-- about 30-ly radius.  Some Terran space is visible in the bottom right corner.  The bottom and bottom left is dominated by Triumverate Space, as well as Calitras Terriories.  And up by the top, we see the very edge of Zuthekan space.  Zuth-Ω-81 (another bad rendering of Greek letters...) is only 19 ly from Quro.  That was actually a bit of a surprise to me: I didn't think the Zuthekans came that close to Quro, or Nirizhan space for that matter.  A happy discovery. (Happy for me, the writer, since it's ripe with potential.  Less so for any Quuosians or Nirizhi who may have to deal with Zuthekans.)

This ended up being more than I intended to write-- it was just supposed to be, "Here, look at some maps."  But, frankly, once I started checking them out myself, I kind of geek out on my own work.  Silly, no?  But that's how it works.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Future Worldbuilding: How I Love Spreadsheets and Map Tools

All right, so I've talked about mapping things out and alien civilizations, but when dealing with things on an interstellar scale, when you're talking about 4660 stars within a 100 light-year radius of Earth, with 153 alien homeworlds, not to mention colonies, outposts, stations and other holdings, one has to have a way to keep all that straight.

It helps that, when you come down to it, I'm a BIG spreadsheet geek.

About a decade or so ago, I had an office job in which my duties could be boiled down to, "Make Excel do my bidding."  I'm not saying I'm an expert at Excel, but I've figured out a lot of tricks, without which I would never have been able to construct this universe, this interstellar community, to the degree that I have.

One of my biggest struggles is trying to visualize all that data, get a real sense of who is neighbor to who, where borders are.  I'm still a big fan of ChView, which is an old program but has the advantage of being (relatively) easy to import Excel data into stellar maps.  But even with that, it's still challenging to really feel who is close to who.  I've developed some tricks-- being able to define any homeworld as a central star, and then getting the distance from that star to every other star, and then figure out who is close to that.

Also, I like having data at my fingertips that I can use to generate cultural ideas.  Since I used a certain degree of randomization to determine which worlds had life, which life was intelligent, and which civilizations had reached the stars, to then look through that information and say to myself: OK, these three civilizations are all within a (interstellar) stone's throw of each other, so what does that mean?  Are they allies, or enemies?  Or, these two are close to each other, but also relatively close to this more advanced, aggressive species.  So are they united against the common enemy?

I'm curious, does anyone out there have more interesting star-map making tools?  I do like ChView, but it has flaws, for certain-- it's an old program that hasn't been updated in many years.  But is there anything better?  Most of the other things I've seen are weaker in design, or are not capable of importing data in an easy way; I'd have to start from scratch.    Any recommendations?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Future Worldbuilding: New Life, New Civilizations and the Mos Eisley Cantina

What's a Space Opera without some aliens?*  I'm firmly of the opinion that once you've breached the idea of humans going into space, traveling faster than light, aliens are an inevitable, logical step.  Of course, how those aliens are presented, and what they do can vary wildly.

This ties to stellar geography, of course.   An alien species might be a peaceful, enlightened civilization that only wants to make the prettiest baskets in the history of the cosmos, but if they have a highly advanced conqueror species in their interstellar backyard, that's the thing that's going to define them.

Now, there's always an urge to show a vast interstellar community.  Regardless of other politics, there is an urge to showcase places that act as a crossroads for dozens of alien species.  These places are usually bars.  Of course, there is the classic Cantina Scene in Star Wars, and Star Trek, Babylon 5 and especially Farscape have all milked this trope for everything its worth.  And it's fun, and it looks impressive-- though usually that's because the make-up and art design people are having a blast, and not because much thought is put into who any of these people are.  The idea that they could all share a space-- comfortably in the same atmosphere and gravity-- let a lone that a single establishment could easily serve all their needs... that's challenging to believe.  And more to the point, they tend to be just set dressing.  B5 tended to purge the more set-dressing aliens early on, so there were very few random-aliens-of-unnamed-species.  But most of the time, aliens are just thrown out there, with little thought about how or why they are there.

Me, I can't work like that.  Just like I need to know the stellar geography, that includes the political geography.  Neighbors matter.  Tech levels of neighbors matter.  If you have an area where there are several species that are FTL-capable, then any species that is not is dependent on the good graces of those that are. 

In my setting, there are 11 intelligent species whose homeworlds are within 30 light-years of Earth.  Of those, 5 are of starfaring technology, and three of them were starfaring before humans.  Fortunately for humanity, those three were in alliance with each other, and agreed upon a rule of non-interference with planet-bound species.  We thrived and reached out because they let us.  Some fifty light-years away is the Surani homeworld, and they didn't share that philosophy: the two closest species to them (the Xaedon and the Dalians) were incorporated into their empire, conquered and integrated as servant classes effortlessly.  And within 30 light-years of the highly advanced Rilixa, there are no intelligent species.  Not one remains in what they've defined as their space.

I've done a lot of work along these lines: within 100ly of Earth, I've defined (roughly, mind you, roughly) 153 alien species, of which 69 are starfaring.  For me, this was groundwork.  This was just getting the lay of the land so I could get a sense of the stories I could write. 

Because for me, I have to know where I am, and who's around me, before I really have a sense of what's going on.

*- Firefly or Battlestar Galactica, I guess.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Future Worldbuilding: Geography of the Interstellar

I'm sure my credentials as something of a map geek when it comes to worldbuilding are well established.  I don't know one can seriously do worldbuilding without a sense of where things are, and who one's neighbors are.   In making a world map, one has to have a decent sense of geography and earth science to have the whole thing be sensible.  Expanding this to an interstellar map, the base science understanding one needs to give it verisimilitude also expands.  I, personally, hit a wall at a certain point with higher-math stuff, but I at least try and match star types and Goldilocks-zones and attempt to get the physics of multiple-star systems something approaching correct. 

Of course, how one works their travel from star-system to star-system affects how you do your maps.  For future-worlds that use hyperspace travel, like Babylon 5 or David Weber's Honorverse or Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series, the actual space between stars is kind of irrelevant.  Every star is a key point, and the linking paths matter-- but the result can look more like a subway map instead of islands in an ocean.  That's not bad-- it fits the needs of the world and the story.

What needs to work is a proper sense of scale, which sometimes gets thrown out the window if worldbuilding is done in an on-the-fly manner, as much of the Star Trek verse was.  For all the talk of vast, interstellar distance done on that show, there was still a very real sense that everywhere in the known galaxy was just a hop-skip-and-jump away.  The linked map doesn't show-- possibly because it's nigh-impossible with the limitations of a 2-D map-- what was implied in the series: that Klingon, Romulan and Cardassian space all border each other, as well as Federation space. 

Not that after-the-fact mapbuilding can't yield some interesting results.  Both Firefly and Battlestar Galactica implied that their future-civilizations were in singular star systems, but with multiple planets in each one (twelve in BSG, who knows how many in Firefly).  Someone in the creative department (not necessarily in the shows themselves, but in designing the "official" material for dedicated fans) came up with clever ideas, casting both verses as multi-star systems-- and making some very nice looking maps in the process.

Now, for me, I'm dealing with near-Earth stuff (something most of those other ones didn't deal with much, frankly-- BSG and Firefly dodged the idea completely).  I'm not going to create a map of an interstellar verse that spreads 100 light-years from Earth and not pretend we don't know what stars are in that sphere, and where they are in relation to each other.

Of course, what is happening at each those stars is another matter: dead planets, living planets, planets with civilizations, planets that are home to interstellar civilizations?  The answers to these questions matter, and need to be taken seriously.

But more on that next time.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Future Worldbuilding: Unfolding the Future

One thing I've noticed in most "future timelines"-- be it for books or television or movies-- the worldbuilding tends to gloss over the "near" future.  This, of course, makes perfect sense.  If you're imagining the 24th or 25th or 48th century, what happened in the late 21st century isn't necessarily all that important... unless it's a big deal.  And you don't really want to put a "big deal" too close to the present, else your world is going to be outdated before too long.

Broad brushstrokes is another matter, and can even be pretty crucial.  The Star Trek Universe doesn't have a lot of details about the 21st Century*; beyond the Bell Riots**, a manned Mars mission and Zephram Cochrane/Warp Speed/First Contact, we really don't know much of anything.  Babylon 5 was even vaguer.  Firefly was vague, but in the sense that the past was nearly myth: "Earth-that-was" and such.*** 

But as a writer and a worldbuilder, I'm big on knowing, even if it doesn't ever inform the text.  Just as the names Chuck Yeager, Neil Armstrong or Sally Ride mean something, especially to those in their fields, other milestones would be similarly remembered.  Who was the first person on Mars, and what did they say?  The captain and crew of the first ship to go at hyper-light speeds?  The first human to make alien contact, the first to step on a planet in another solar system?  The names and history matter.

The short-lived, interesting failure**** Defying Gravity did get this sort of thing right.  The series, set in the 2050s, had already landed on Mars-- a mission that was at least a partial disaster.  Not to mention the fact that the first words on Mars were kind of lame. ("Red Planet, Conquered.")  So when the show, in its penultimate episode, had one of its characters as the first person to walk on Venus, it was an event in the world of the show.  What she said when she stepped off the lander mattered.  History was being made.

And that's what it's all about.  Making history, just forward.

*- Though having the show in the '60s predict the Eugenics Wars in the 1990s was kind of amusing, especially since when the Voyager crew traveled to 1996-- the present when it aired-- there were fans complaining that the Eugenics Wars weren't happening on the show. 
**- Which, frankly, seem scarily possible right now.
***- Though I read a theory that Firefly could be a potential future of the Dollhouse-verse.  Which I can see.
****- I did like the attempt to import the style of a Grey's Anatomy workplace-drama onto a science-fiction setting.  It worked for me in making the SF aspects of living in the 2050s just part of normal life.  But I think the result was a show that really only appealed to the narrow overlap who liked both kinds of shows, instead of either.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Further Smaller Steps For Man

Yesterday was a pretty amazing day, one that gives me a lot of hope for the future of the human race.  For one, Curiosity landed on Mars, and even though there wasn't a lot to see, it did make for some exciting spectacle. Watching the video feed from NASA's JPL was full of intensity, as they would applaud every minor success.  But that's not the only thing: Oscar Pistorius ran in the Olympic semi-finals in the Men's 400m. He may not have won, but he ran.

Just let that really sink into your brain: In 24 hours*, we landed a robot science lab on Mars AND a man with no legs ran in the Olympics.

That's pretty damn amazing, what we-- the collective we of humanity-- can achieve.

Of course, being a writer-- especially a SF/F one-- this puts me in the mind of Future Worldbuilding.  What can we achieve, what can't we achieve, and where are we going to go?  When I've been crafting a Space Opera Setting, one of my goals was to maintain a certain degree of plausibility.**  

So, for the rest of August, it will be Future Worldbuilding Month, with a specific focus on Space Opera.   I'll talk some about my own ideas, compare some to my strong points of inspiration.***

So let's look to the future.

*- I'm pretty sure they were within the same 24 hour period, but it could have been a few hours more apart than that.  But close enough.   
**- In as much as a setting with aliens and FTL travel can be plausible.
***- Including what are, in my mind, the five defining series of Televised Space Opera: Star Trek, Babylon 5, Farscape, Firefly and Battlestar Galactica.  We'll get into all of those.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

August and Everything After

And now summer feels like it's coming to a close, even though that's really not the case.  August always feels like "almost over".  Having finished with the con probably adds to that. 

So what now?  In the "unreasonable goals" department, I had hoped to finish Way of the Shield by the con, but that wasn't going to happen.  Honestly, given what I need to do, finishing by the end of the year might be the most honest goal I can give myself.  And I think I can do that. 

Beyond that?  What else do I work on?  In theory, I have plans for Book Two for Thorn, Holver Alley Crew and Maradaine Constabulary, but until one (or all!) of those are sold, that feels like putting the cart before the horse.  I mean, why work on Thorn 2 if Constabulary is the one that gets picked up? 

I've been thinking more and more about Space Opera.  I have a setting for that, and the story to tell has been slowly forming in my subconscious.  I've had several false-starts at what I called USS Banshee, but the more I tried, the less it worked, and the more it felt like Trek with the serial numbers filed off.  I've come up with some new angles to explore my Space Opera verse, though... and we'll see which one clicks.

So those are the goals for the rest of the year: sell books and write more books.  Sounds simple enough, no?