What Makes A World?

Space ColonyOne of the biggest aspects of science fiction is world building. In a homogenized world where there’s something familiar to everyone one just about anywhere you go, contemporary fiction, crime fiction, and thrillers don’t require a lot of explanation. When they do, it’s usually technical in nature. But how to do you convey what world your characters inhabit without massive infodumps?

On the crime side, as Jim Winter, I’m about to drop a novel calledĀ Holland Bay. It takes place in a fictional Midwestern city almost next door to Cleveland. I made it real because the idea fascinated me. What are the historical names that end up on streets and buildings? What are the neighborhoods called? How have some of those names been corrupted over time? (For instance, the former Slavic enclave of Serievo is an anglicized version of “Sarajevo,” a city in Bosnia.) Much of that came from looking at differences between my native Cleveland and Cincinnati, where I’ve lived for 30 years.

But as TS Hottle, I write in the Compact Universe, five hundred years in the future and spanning interstellar space. It’s certain everyday life looks different. The trouble is some people get bogged down in the process. They will have reams and reams of summaries on planets, technologies, politics, etc., but…

No story. No characters. Or they love creating the characters, writing up their bios, even doing the art work, but…

No stories.

Counting on ships, planets, weapons, and all to immerse the reader into a world doesn’t really accomplish much. Yes, many readers are nerds about such things. They want to know how the FTL works or what a world’s gravity is. And all those things do flesh out the world and keep settings from becoming Star Trek’s infamous Planet Hell. However, one must look more at Star Wars to see how to make the world look lived-in. The ships (and droids) are dirty. People drink something blue. Moreover, not everything is going to be super spacey scifi. I used to get really annoyed when someone would ask why I didn’t reference space in the name of every other mundane object. Because my characters regularly go into space the way many of us hop a plane to cross the country. They already know they’re in space. Ask any astronaut or cosmonaut. They don’t drink coffee from space cups. They drink from pouches or bulbs. Or cups if they’re in Houston or Moscow.

Sure the vegetation is different on other planets. Yellow or red or, like Hanar in the Compact Universe series, blue, which makes it hard to see from orbit, but what’s it like to live on the ground? JT and Suicide both live north of an area called “The Townships,” some of which have wild west sounding names like “Dry Gulch.” (Not in the books, but that’s what I get for not having the manuscript handy). Bromdar smells like hot metal and chemicals. Tian looks eerily like Earth with a twin of Mercury in orbit (though obviously much cooler.) Walton, fromĀ Suicide Run, is a planet-wide ghetto, the cities largely abandoned, smaller towns looking like Salem’s Lot, and the countryside covered in aggressive plants.

Probably the most important thing I did was to establish how people communicate over long distances. The first thing the reader sees of humans doing anything resembling picking up the phone is looking at a tattoo on the palm of their left hand (or right, assuming lefties don’t want their dominate hand relegated to video chat and holograms.) Then the Gelt do the same with the back of their hand. Laputans tattoo their forearms. This changes how people talk, see each other, text, and exchange data over long distances. But…

So far, no one’s cracked FTL communications. Every spacefaring civilization is using some form of wormhole travel. So data and news travel between stars via updates through the hypergates or on projection drive ships. As a result, Earth has nearly up-to-the-hour news while a distant colony with no hypergate may have to wait days, weeks, or even months. On-world, it’s the 21st century, plugged in and in realtime. Off-world is the age of sail.

These are the sorts of things that impact how the characters live and work. It’s one thing to design the ultimate warship in space. But it’s hard to connect to characters who don’t have their own version of what we go through on a daily basis.