Lotto Winners

This story was also posted on Wattpad.

“Begin final boarding. Take off in twenty minutes.”

Marshal and Alice leapt up from their molded plastic seats and into the scragly excuse for a line that was forming quickly in front of the gate. The city’s disheveled dreggs, the last to board the evacuation flights, who had been waiting over a week to find out if they would even get a spot on one of the last flights out, now seemed ready to fight each for a spot in line. It didn’t matter that all their spots had been guaranteed by their ticket purchase. Everyone in that line, Marshal included, still feared the prospect of being left behind or being told than an excess of tickets had been issued.

He wondered what he would do in that case. He of course liked to think that if it came down to it he would make sure his wife got aboard even if he did not. Marshal imagined such a thing happening and pictured himself muscling his way past the attendant only to be gunned down by the two marines who stood guarding the gate. Fortunately, suicide by marine did not seem to be in store for him, he managed to insert Alice and himself in about the middle of the line, well within what he thought must be the ship’s margin of error.

There were still other concerns of course. The military could find a sudden need to commandeer the ship and leave them all stranded. It had happened to a few others already. Or their ship could suffer some crippling malfunction and leave them stranded. It was after all, not actually built for its new task. Only necessity had made them resort to converting battered freighters and loadings docks into passenger liners and lobbies. If the colony was not staring at certain ruin the same room where Marshal, Alice, and all the other passengers were currently jostling for a place in line would instead be full of crates of generic drugs and ingots eagerly awaiting to be loaded onto a ship for some out-of-system buyer.

The whole thing was tragic, and a little ridiculous. Marshal couldn’t help but be sad about it. New Bismark was hardly the pinnacle of civilization, but generations of his family and everyone else’s had worked hard to build it. Now they all had to flee because of war that didn’t really matter to anyone living in the colony and because, as many would argue, it shouldn’t have been built to begin with.

Marshal’s great, great grandfather had been one of the original colonists. Back when telemetry data was still unreliable and warp engines even more so. When the original settlers had reached their new home, they had found it to in fact be in an irregular orbit around its gas giant. This coupled with the moon being so small that its own gravity just barely held itself together meant that the colonists had not been able to count on anything even approaching geological stability. But the settlers hadn’t had enough fuel to go anywhere else, so they resolved to make do with what they had. An impressive system of dampeners and glorified springs had been built to keep the colony in one piece, and New Bismark had fared surprisingly well since. Over the decades it had grown to become a modest but respectable trading center on the edge of the NATO sphere. Until the bombardment.

No one living in New Bismark had ever really expected the Neo-Soviets to come knocking, but knocking they came. The initial attack had been repulsed at great cost and after a bit of callous accounting work had been done the admiral commanding the 23rd Battle Group had decided that New Bismark simply wasn’t worth what it would cost to defend. That the bombardment had destabilized the moon’s already unstable tectonics did not help the colony’s case. And so, after a few days of deliberation the decision had been made to evacuate everyone who could be evacuated. That there were not enough ships to carry everyone was seen as unfortunate, but unavoidable.

Marshal had spent the next month watching his home fall apart. Anyone rich enough to own their own ship or important enough to warrant a seat on an outgoing fleet ship left first. Then private companies began offering seats on luxury liners, those were snapped up quick, leaving still thousands without an out. Finally, a lottery was announced. Evacuees would be chosen at random with appropriate weighting given to skills, age, and family size, and those that won would be able to purchase tickets on converted freighters like the one that Marshal and Alice were currently in line for. Marshal hadn’t been concerned. He had pulled out his savings early, before the rush on the banks. He had figured that with his two years in the service and six years as an engine repair technician, and Alice’s master’s degree in ecological design that they two of them would be shoo-ins for one of the early departure groups.

Weeks had passed. He had watched scores of people that weren’t him be selected by lottery, and even more get rejected. Finally, he had woken up in the middle of the night to message on in terminal that he and Alice had won a spot on the last ship out. With just minutes to spare on their purchase window he had reserved for them one of the last private cabins on the Majesty, a battered old container ship that had been converted for the evacuation and would be their home for at least a year. Looking at it through the terminal’s windows Marshal could wondered if it would even get off the ground. He had worked on several of the other ships and knew that some had been destined for the scrap heap before the attack.

Alice squeezed his hand as they approached the gate and he felt his own pulse quicken. All the anxieties that he had kept down since the attack surged forward. It was ridiculous what was happening to them. Here the two of them were, in the middle of the city that their families had helped build, leaving it with only each other and what they could carry on their backs. It was a scene reminiscent of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, not the twenty sixth. It shouldn’t have been happening, but it was.

The attendant smiles and scanned both their boarding passes, checked that they matched their biometrics, and waved them through. Marshal felt the hard gaze of the marines boring into him as he walked past. Up close he realized they were just as tense as he was. Did they expect another riot? Or even a bombing? There had been several attempts by fringe groups to disable the evacuation ships so that all of New Bismark would have to face them same fate together. Some of those attempts had been successful and their would-be passengers had been left trying to figure out what they would do next.

Marshal’s agoraphobia kicked in as they walked through the vestibule. It was a common enough condition in the colonies that he had thought his time in the service had trained out of him. But the combined anxieties were too much to bear. He caught himself staring through the windows into the abyss of the blast chute. Only Alice’s tight, steady hand allowed him to keep his composure long enough to make it across.

Once inside, he saw that the Majesty’s cavernous hold has been cut up and subdivided by sheet metal bulk heads and rough plastic panels. It was a sloppier job than he had seen on the ships he had helped to retrofit. The air was filled with smell of setting epoxy and new air recyclers. Exposed conduits and pipes told him how their plumbing and electrical systems would work.

Following the directions on their boarding pass brought them to Cabin 241. The number had been painted hastily on a plastic sliding door set in the metal bulkhead. It shuddered as Alice pulled the latch and slide the door open. Marshal didn’t say anything, but he knew both of them were thinking about all the atmosphere that the door would fail to seal in if the ship suffered a hull breach.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Inside was a ‘common room’ that they would be sharing with another couple. The room was barely the size of a standard elevator, with just enough for a set of folding chairs, a collapsible table, and a shower unit that unfurled from the wall. Their private room was 241A, to their left behind another shoddy sliding door.

Their private quarters had two parts. The first was a narrow, arched section just inside the door. One side of this arch housed a sink-toilette combination with a small curtain for privacy. A kitchenette stocked with frozen and freeze-dried foodstuffs too up the rest of the arch. Marshal opened the cabinet and saw that the liquor he had ordered had already been stored there. That small luxury had been painfully expensive, but there was no guarantee his money would be worth anything once they reached their destination, and he saw no reason to be sober during their forced exodus. The second part of their little cabin had two narrow seats that faced each other and would fold together to form an approximately twin sized bed with room for their bags to be stored underneath.

As an afterthought he noticed a space on the wall where a collapsible crib folded out. For the first time in their marriage Marshal was thankful for Alice’s insistence that they wait for her to be established in her career before they had children. Caring for a child in such a small space would have been a nightmare.

The single luxury in their cabin was a small display hanging on the wall from a swivel mount. After they had stowed their belongings Alice fiddled with the controls on the side and feeds from the ship’s hull cameras flickered into view. Turning a knob at the base cycled through several cameras and a few channels playing preset movies on a loop. Eventually she settled on the feed from a camera pointed directly down the blast chute before finally taking her seat.  

“I hope my parents will be okay,” she said, and produced a microfilament library from her bag. Her neutral expression did little to hide the concern in her voice.

“They’ll be alright,” he said trying to sound reassuring. “They’ve always been resourceful, and in good health.” That part wasn’t wrong. Alice’s father was a retired marine and her mother an engineer. Only their age had disqualified them from the lottery. “They’ll be fine. We’ll see them after the war, once it’s safe to send ships here again. The admiral promised, the fleet will be back.” Even as he said them the words felt like a lie. There was no guarantee that there would be a New Bismarck to come back to, or that the war would end for that matter.

“Uh huh,” Alice said into a book.

Marshal stopped talking. Burying herself in her work was her way of avoiding unpleasant truths and this truth was not one that Marshal intending on making her face for the moment. In a way he was lucky, both his parents had passed. That didn’t make up for the void that had existed at their wedding or a dozen other life events, but it was a small comfort that Marshal chose to hold on to as he kept watching the feed from the blast chute.

A count down appeared in the upper right corner starting at sixty seconds. He held his breathe and waited while he envisioned all the unfortunate possibilities of the next few minutes. A timed explosive could disable the engines, or the launch could shake their improvised cabins to pieces, or the turbulence of launch could tear open the old hull and kill all of them. There was a horrible moment when the counter reached zero and thought one of those might have happened. Then a massive explosion of light erupted across the display and he felt the unmistakable rumble of take off.

Marshal squeezed his hands around the armrests until his knuckles turned white while Alice continued with her pretense of being absorbed in her book. Once they took off the blinding light on the display receded and Marshal could see New Bismark shrinking until it was nothing more than a smudge of silver on the surface of a pock-marked moon.

Soon the moon itself would be nothing more than a smudge, then the planet and star with it. And then what? Marshal had been on in a ship under warp before but had never looked outside of one before. Would there be anything to see? More likely, he thought, their options for entertainment would just decreased further as most of the cameras would be rendered useless. He thought about his own collection of books that he had brought and realized after some thought that it wouldn’t be long until they were forced to socialize with their cabin mates.

He sighed and waited.

Gravity returned once the Majesty reached far orbit and the ship’s acceleration stabilized. He stood up from his seat and picked a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet. They were going to be on the ship for awhile, he might as well make friends with the neighbors.








I made a One-Page RPG!

Making an RPG is something I’ve been thinking about doing for awhile. A few months ago I started compiling a short setting book for Sprawling Iron, but that is taking awhile and it will be quite some time before I get all the writing for it done and finalize the maps. In the mean time, I’ve made this 1 page RPG and plan to make a few others as I have time. This one is called Before the Mast, and is set in Catatera, a mobile city made up of hundreds of loosely affiliated ships that endlessly circles the globe.

I’ve included the pdf here for anyone who wants to try it. There has been exactly 0 play testing, so any feedback would be very welcome. Find me on twitter @expyblog and let me know what you think!

Pirates…In Space!

Who doesn’t love a good brigand? Whether they are a robinhoodesque crusader or someone who is only looking out for number one, we seem to love pirates. So what about pirates in space? A lot of science fiction seems to treat space like an ocean. There are plenty of reasons to love these tropes, but they do present a challenge for worldbuilding. There is no reason why your science fiction can’t have hordes of swashbuckling brigands, but you should still attempt design your world in such a way that allows their escapades to make sense.

Treasure Planet had a wonderful age of sail aesthetic. Unfortunately, it does require a lot of worldbuilding to make believable. Source

For piracy to exist there needs to be something that is worth moving before star systems. Travel between planets, or even star systems, would be horrendously expensive, dangerous, and may take years depending on what kind of FTL your universe has. With so many risks inherent in moving goods from one place to another there has to be some reward.

In order for piracy to work there need to be reasons for a ship to stop. False distress calls are one way to do this, but might quickly reach its limit. The other way is to create a universe where FLT is accessible but still has logical choke points. There are a few ways to make this work. Portals are the easiest.

Portals provide natural choke point. Areas where ships have to pass through in order to get from on planet to then other. In the case of The Protectorate or Star Gate this is somewhat artificial. But in a setting like the one we see in The Interdependency naturally occurring portals can be found. Here Scalzi presents a universe where ships are able to travel between stars thanks to what amounts to a series of interstellar tunnels that still require large chunks of travel time between portal and planet. While traveling between portal and planet, a ship may fall victim to pirates or to mutiny, but one would hope that designated exit points would allow the navy to keep a close eye on affairs.

Another option for navigation to be difficult enough that everyone uses the same well mapped trade routes. Star Wars works this way. In Star Wars, or at least in Legends, trade is focused on a series of major hyperspace lanes. This means that finding new hyperspace lanes or knowing of secret ones has incredible value, and that a blockade of a given lane or the ability to intercept ships in transit can wreak havoc with the local or even galactic economy. While pirates are not likely to have the ability to stop ships in transit, common and well traveled routes makes travel predictable and gives pirates the opportunity to intercept ships as they drop out of FTL.

Star Wars features well mapped trade routes and interdictor ships capable of pulling vessels out of hyperspace. It makes finding new or secret routes an important plot point, even if travel times seem a little too brief. Source

Now that we’ve covered how goods might be moved between planets, let’s talk about the why. What could be worth flying between stars?

Information can be transmitted between stars, and even if data needs to be moved on some physical media there is not really a reason to send a person instead of a drone. A story about software pirates would be hard to pull off, so we need a universe where moving physical goods between stars is worth the immense costs and risks that come with it.

Ideally, every new colony will be founded with the goal of one day being self-sufficient. Over time the settle core of systems should become major producers of food, finished goods, and raw materials, and this settled core should then be connected to the newer colonies by a network of trade routes designed to prop these new colonies up until they can support themselves. This begs the question of why the core planets care about founding and propping up these new colonies. For this reason I think for most pirate settings it helps to assume that trade occurs between a mix of developed worlds and struggling colonies, that colonies are set up with the goal of producing a specific resource, and that monopolies prevent many colonies from becoming fully self-sufficient.

Now let’s go through some good space piracy tactics. Assuming that colonies are dependent on their home worlds for support.

  • Distress Calls – space is huge, and dangerous. If a ship malfunctions in transit there might be little chance of rescue or of witnesses. A distress cal would not be out of place, and might even be seen by less than scrupulous captains as an opportunity for some illicit sabotage. All our pirates need for the ruse to be convincing is a an appropriately derelict ship. Once within range the pirates will be free to disable the approaching ship, or wait until a salvage team boards and can be taken hostage.
  • Sabotage – the easiest and safest way for pirates to operate would be to have contacts back on the home world. A few port workers on the payroll could ensure that incoming freighters come loaded with all manner of malfunction. Then when a freighter’s engines fail and its left drifting in space our favorites brigands will approach ready to “help.”
  • Mutiny – a mutiny could happen for a variety of reasons. The crew could be under paid and overworked, or could have cut a deal to steal their ship’s munitions cargo and sell them to local rebels, or might be trying to steal the ship’s load of vital pharmaceuticals to help their families instead of the local oligarchs. Mixing motives here offers opportunities to put a mix of corrupt and sympathetic characters in the ranks of the mutineers and play their conflicting personalties against each other.
  • Ambush – many flavors of FTL result in natural choke points. This is especially true if portals are involved. Incoming ships would have little idea of what is actually waiting for them just beyond the portal’s exit, and would have to trust in local security. In developed systems the jumping off point will likely be well policed, but worlds that exist on the periphery are much more likely to experience gaps in protection. FTL systems that require cool down times will result in similar, but likely more dispersed choke points. This gives pirates an opportunity to ply their craft with less threat of detection. Although locating targets would be more difficult in this situation.
  • Privateers – people love to make money and governments love to save costs if they can. Disrupting an enemy’s supply lines can be hugely advantageous, but in the vast expanse of space no force will be able to be everywhere at once. Privateers offer a low cost option to hinder the enemy’s activities without putting a faction’s own ships at risk. There are other advantages as well. In a setting where spaces are vast and travel times long, armed conflicts could go on for decades. Employing privateers allows governments to put distance between themselves and the actions they take against rival factions.

There are almost certainly other strategies for our space pirates that I have over looked. Technological advancements would surely create new opportunities for our brigands. If you have any ideas for how pirates could work in the far future I would love to hear about them on twitter @expyblog.

As an amazon affiliate I may make a small commission from qualifying purchases made through links on this site.

Five Tips for Fantasy Map Makers

1. Mind the Rivers

Some worldbuilders spend years getting their plate tectonics and ocean currents just right. All of this can be fun, but you can make a convincing fantasy map without it. The thing you should really focus on is rivers. No one really cares if your ocean currents are off or your mountains aren’t in the right place. Rivers have an intuitive aspect to them that no other geological feature can match and because of this mistakes are easy to notice. To put it simply, rivers flow from higher elevations to lower ones. Most often rivers will flow into lakes, oceans, or other rivers. Rivers do not flow into a lake, wait around awhile, and then flow into a different river.

This is important because an incorrectly drawn river is jarring to look at even if you don’t know why, and because rivers are hugely important to civilization. Most major cities are built on rivers in order to take advantage of the farmland and transportation that they provide. This means that rivers can serve as a vital plot device, and as such their portrayal should not be ignored. Of course all of this can be ignored, it is your world after all, but I would advise making sure that you have a good reason for doing so.

2. Make Your Map Fit Your Story

People grow to fit their environment. You wont find horse-mounted nomads living in the mountains or naval powers in the middle of the desert. People do the best they can with the hand they are dealt. In fiction, we can decide what that best is and determine a hand that will enable it. There is of course fun to be had in drawing a map and simulating the evolution of civilization from the stone age to now, but that is not what most of us are doing. Most of us have a story we want to tell or an idea for a world we want to depict. There is no reason then to design a landscape that does anything other than to enable the story you want to tell. If you want your countries to be fighting for control of a major sea lane they there better be access to water and natural choke points. If you want your characters to venture to a distant mountain and fight a dragon then you better include a mountain or two within reach.

3. Choose a Realistic Scope

A lot of us like to think big. We draw a map of an entire world, solar system, or even galaxy and then set about filling all of it in. The problem here is that you probably wont use most of what end up writing. Trying to fill every corner of a world with detailed is fun, but ultimately futile. Above all remember that map is meant to be a reference for your players or readers, and the focus of the story is likely to only concern a small corner of the world.

Lately I have preferred to start with a single region or country that is going to be the focus of the setting. Once I have a solid idea of what that country will be I start to fill in its neighbors. Unless I have good reason to, I try to avoid writing detailed histories of these neighbors. I make a brief summary of their current state and history, and after that I try to only flesh out the aspects of this neighbor in areas where they intersect with the story I want to tell.

4. Pay Attention to Natural Barriers

Rivers aren’t the only feature on the map that shape a civilization’s development. What hinders movement in your setting can be just as important. Swamps, mountains, deserts, and seas are all important in imposing limits on an empire’s expansion, providing shelter for smaller groups, and providing places to hide all sorts of interesting dungeons.

Once barriers are in place, routes to circumvent them gain immense strategic and economic importance. Mountains, swamps, and other remote areas might also be where your world’s exiles and hermits choose to live away from society. Both of these provide opportunities for interesting conflicts or quests in a story or campaign. Characters and armies can be sent to secure and defend mountain passes, or might discover that the old hermit living in the swamp has the answer to all of their problems, but reaching him can be an entire adventure in itself.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Things

Getting wrapped up in the worldbuilding is easy. It’s also easy to be disappointed. The finished product rarely resembles the initial concept and there is nothing wrong with that, except of course if you are not happy with it. If you getting into your worldbuilding and you realize that you put a mountain in the wrong place or your cities are too far apart. If you begin to get the feeling that your map is keeping you from writing the conflicts and plot lines that you want then by all means change it. Starting a new project by drawing a map can be a great way to start, but that map should not be a cage. Sometimes we need to make revisions, and it doesn’t do any good to get too attached to a map you have drawn. Keep it of course, even discarded ideas can be useful later on. Don’t be afraid to retcon the entire map if it no longer serves its intended purpose.

Subreddits For Creatives

Reddit is one of the biggest sites online these days with so many subreddits available that you are almost guaranteed to one tailored to your interests. Think of any hobby or weirdly specific meme format and there is probably a subreddit for it. So what if you’re a writer or worldbuilder, what are the best subreddits for you?

Worldbuilding

It should really be no surprise that r/worldbuilding ranks among my favorites. The subreddit has grown significantly in the past few years and welcomes worldbuilders of all levels of talent. New artwork, discussion posts, and resources are posted daily. If you stay on long enough you’ll begin to see who the regular posters are and get to watch their work grow and develop over time. My preferred way of browsing this subreddit is to sort by new and look for discussion posts. Participating in brain-storming sessions or answering questions about your own world is a great practice and a good way to finally flesh out parts of your setting you may have overlooked and been putting off for later.

Imaginary Network Expanded

The Imaginary Network is a cluster of related subreddits dedicated to posting all sorts of art with credit to original artists. I like to browse through it when I’m facing off with writers block. My personal favorites are r/ImaginaryBeasts for making up new flora and fauna, r/ImaginaryBattlefields for thinking up climatic showdowns, and r/ImaginaryStaships for when I need my daily dose of SciFi.

Writing Prompts

When you feel like writing but don’t know what or you’re just looking for a challenge, r/WritingPrompts is sure to help with its long list of user-submitted starting points that range from established fandom to completely originial premises. The subreddit also hosts contests from time to time and has been the route through which many users have gotten their writing noticed. Writing a response to a popular post it can be a good way to get your writing more exposure online. Several frequent posters maintain personal subreddits to showcase their writing. Unfortunately, popular promts are often highly specific or tied to a certain fandom. If this is a deal breaker to you prefer something with a little more freedom then try the less popular r/SimplePrompts.

Map Making

If you’ve made a battle map for your D&D campaign, a fantasy island, a political map of your alternate history scenario, or you just like making maps then r/mapmaking might be the place for you. Like r/Worldbuilding it’s welcoming of all skill levels and is a great place to post if you’re in need of advice or feedback. Just make sure you have all your rivers drawn right before you post.

How to Build a Country

A lot of us like to bang our heads against the wall trying to design sprawling worlds to rival settings like Forgotten Realms or Middle Earth, but attempting a project with such a large scope takes time and may very well lead to disappointment when progress doesn’t come as quickly as hoped.

The good news is that you don’t need to design and entire world. Plenty of interesting stories can be told that take place only in a single valley, forest, city, forest, or even house. If you are designing a setting for your stories to take place in the you need to be honest with yourself about the story’s scope. Figure how much space your characters need and stick to it, make a few one-line summaries about far off lands that you can expand on if needed. Doing this will help you keep your goals in mind and prevent your worldbuilding process from taking over your writing process.

When it comes to worldbuilding there are two basic methods; Top Down and Bottom Up. The process I am describing here is called Bottom Up, where you start by building up a small corner of the world and then expand in scale to fill in the rest of the map. If you have a story to tell and don’t need an entire world to do it, this is where you would start.

For me, if I am going to build a world Bottom Up then I prefer to start at the national level. Even if I only have need of one or two locations in it, I like to have an idea of where my characters might be from and a general idea of events elsewhere that may have an influence on the course of their lives. This approach also makes it easier to focus on a world’s minutia, if that’s what you’re into, rather than getting distracted by what might be hiding in distant lands.

This list of questions is meant to help focus the scope of a worldbuilding project, and help you to decide on what matters in your setting and what does not.

Where is the country located?

Where a nation is plays a huge role in its success and failure. Just as it is hard to become a major naval power without easy access to the sea, it is also hard to build significant influence abroad if your tiny kingdom is sandwiched between two giant superpowers.

Rivers create avenues for trade and enable farming, mountains provide natural barriers and refuges for outcasts, forests and swamps provide a ready source of timber and place to hide all the things that go bump in the night.

Once you know what stories you want to tell, you can design your geography to create the setup to make it possible.

Where are the people from?

Mass migrations and invasions are hugely influential in our own history and can create divides within a populace that can last for centuries. A small group that speaks one language ruling over a much larger population is a situation that is almost guaranteed to spark conflict. Migrations can also explain why certain languages are spoken, or why your country has five different holidays on the same calendar day.

Going back further, these migrations can play a vital role to constructing the country’s mythos. Perhaps these people were once nomads and settled down after receiving the sign from the gods. Or maybe some of your characters are refugees that have been taken in and are trying to survive in an unfamiliar and possibly even hostile land.

Where are the major cities?

When your farmers go to market, where do they go? Where are the train junctions? Where do people send their children off to school? Where do they go on pilgrimage? What are their industries?

Besides the obvious points that major cities are home to centers of military and political power, they may also be the centers of regional rivalries or home to minority ethnic groups. People from different cities might speak different dialects, wear different cloths, celebrate different holidays, or speak with different accents.

Regionalism is an important part of this. No country is truly homogenous. The monolithic nation states today only seem that way because of decades if not centuries of effort expended to create a sense of national identity. In reality separate regions within a larger country may be fierce rivals, and may even hate each other. Or may compete for lucrative contracts and trading partners. In a nation with less centralized authority, these cities may even enter into their own treaties with foreign powers.

What do the people believe?

Religion can serve to unit a populace around a core of shared goals and values, or it can serve to drive a wedge between different segments of the population. Deciding what people believe goes a long way towards explaining their motivations and their biases.

Similarly, consider whether this country as some sort of national mythos around its creation. Does it see its history as a long and drawn out struggle for freedom, or do its leaders preach a vision of the future in which they dominate the continent? Just like religion, founding mythis can act as powerful motivators.

Who is the government?

Few things tell you as much about a country as who gets to participate in government and there are lots of interesting spins that can be put to make an established system of government unique.

First decide who has the power, the people, hereditary nobles, the king, the church, the rich. The possibilities are nearly endless here and you are free to imagine all sorts of checks and balances, traditions and laws surrounding voting, and even past civil wars that have shaped politics in the country’s “present.”

Once you know who calls the shots, you can start to imagine who might be demanding a larger voice in government.

Who are the country’s neighbors?

I warned before against trying to create an entire world when you only need a small corner of it. That said, it’s important to know where the nation stands. A quick list of what countries border this one, who its allies and enemies are, and who buys what from who will help you get a clearer picture of that larger world.

If the country’s neighbors are likely to play a larger role in your story you might spend a few more paragraphs on past conflicts, customs, and clothing so that you can quickly create foreign characters for your protagonists or player characters to interact with.

Armed with this brief outlining you’ll be able to quickly incorporate one line references to far off places. Small details like this are a huge part of what gives a setting sense of size and depth.

Conclusion

Do you prefer this approach, or would you rather build your worlds from the top down?

There are many more questions that can be asked to facilitate this Bottom Up approach. Find me on twitter if there is one that you’re especially fond of or wish I had included.

Ten Books to Sum Up the Decade

One of the most important things that a writer can do to improve is read, so in celebration of the new decade I have assembled a list of ten books I have read between 2010 and 2020 that have influenced what I aspire to in my own writing.

Dune by Frank Herbert

There are more printings of Dune than I care to count, but it’s hard to go wrong with this. Source

Now is a good time to be a fan of Dune, and a great time to start reading if you haven’t. With a new movie coming out next year and the recent re-release of the classic board game there is a lot to be excited about. Frank Herbert crafted a feudal and self-limiting version of the future where humanity has been cowed by its failures and found comfort and stability in its past. Travel between planets is controlled by the influential and mysterious Spacing Guild and technological advancement has stagnated thanks to humanity’s fears of what it created in the past. The novel focuses on Paul Atreides, heir to the house Atreides which claims to trace its origins back to ancient Greece. The novel begins with House Atreides having been given ownership of the planet Arakis, a desert world of great importance, and an obvious trap.

What makes this book and its sequel so interesting is that it is not the story of a man trying to reach some imagined future. Paul knows the future. It is the story of a man who knows his fate and knows the terrible things that he must do. Even as he works towards this terrible future Paul does his best to divert it. In several cases he opts for the lesser of several evils or makes choices different from his visions simply to prove that he can. All the while he creates the very future that he fears. He knows what must be done but he does not want to be the one to do it. Psychic powers such as reading the mind and fortune telling are often depicted at having a terrible cost, but I know of no other narrative that more vividly and creatively captures the horrible price of power.

Codex Alera by Jim Butcher

Wild furies or furies whose masters have recently been killed become a problem for the characters at several points in the story. Source

According to the author the idea for this series began as a dare; write a good book using two bad ideas, Pokemon and a Lost Roman Legion. He succeeded in crafting an engaging high fantasy world with easily understandable but endlessly interesting magic system and culture that is familiar but has shaped by the world it found itself in.

Like with many of my favorite books the magic and the worldbuilding drew me in. Jim Butcher created a coherent and engrossing world out of what was supposed to be an impossible dare. He created a society where everyone could do magic and that magic is taken to its logical conclusion and used for everything from quickening the pace of armies and chilling food, to creating human artillery and magical airlines. To me creating this vibrant world from what was supposed to be a pair of terrible ideas speaks to the author’s skill as a writer and makes it an essential read for anyone looking for some good, modern fantasy.

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I find this to be unusually vibrant cover art for a nonfiction book. The author also has a biography of Stalin for those interested, which is also fantastic. Source

This may turn out to be the only nonfiction book on the list. I have included it because I find the topic fascinating and also because of the way in which Montefiore portrays the character of the various Romanov Tsars. In some ways this book is a history of Russia. For about 300 years the whims and desires of this family determined the fate of millions and given the autocratic nature of the Russian Empire a history of the Romanovs might as well be the history of Russia.

Montefiore manages in this book to paint a vivid picture of the personality of each Tsar. Instead of an ancient and dusty portrait we get a glimpse at a living breathing human who held the fate of millions in their hands. Many of them were deeply flawed, but all of them were human. This I believe presents a lesson not just of history but for any worldbuilders who want to write a compelling despot. Each Tsar presided over an incredibly inhumane regime, but not all of them were bad people. None of them chose to be born into the imperial family. Montifiore portrays many of these Tsars as very relatable and sometimes tragic individuals. Although we sometimes feel bad for relating to people we might want see as evil I think this is the most important lesson of the book. Anyone could be a dictator given the right circumstances.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Depictions of a lone figure in power armor are especially appropriate for this book. As time goes on Mandella finds himself increasingly alienated even from the other soldiers, who are from vastly different time periods. Source

Science fiction authors have the opportunity to imagine and explore an entire universe and all too often they still manage to make it feel small. Joe Haldeman did not have that problem. When the book begins we see humanity in the early years of its travel between the stars, getting ready to go to war with an enemy they know nothing about. The books focus is on William Mandella who was chosen as one of the first to go off-world to fight the Taurans. In each battle the time dilation means a relatively short time passes for him while years go by on Earth. The interest that accrues while he is gone makes him and the other soldiers rich, but each time they return to Earth they find that it has changed drastically from what they knew and the alienation convinces many to reenlist each time they return. A lot of this makes you wonder what the point of the war is, decisions regarding strategy are made years in advance of an actual battle taking place and by the time the battle is fought the decisions made may no longer be relevant. As occurs at the end of the war when many soldiers return to Earth to find out that the war has already been over for years.

Haldeman’s work is a reflection of his own experiences in the Vietnam war. The alienation Mandella feels on returning to Earth is a reflection of the experiences of him and other veterans when they returned home from Vietnam. The futility of the war between Humans and Taurans can also be seen through this lens. After centuries of war all of Earth is reshaped to support the war effort and in the end it is revealed that the war began as an understanding. Mandella returns from his last battle to find Man and Taurans living together in peace and this is something that we later see many veterans of the Forever War unable to accept. In this way Haldeman takes the reader through his own experiences in Vietnam and helps us to understand the alienation felt by many veterans by depicting the drastic changes seen by soldiers of the Forever War who were taken out of their own times and forced into others.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Each book’s cover art does a fantastic job of capturing the mood of the novel. Source

Old Man’s War treats space travel in a very different way than The Forever War but I always felt like there was a common thread. Old Man’s War features many more aliens than The Forever War but the battles seem just as pointless. In it humanity is locked in a state of constant war with other species over the handful of habitable planets available in local space and rejects any proposals that would establish a lasting peace. Soldiers from Earth are recruited when they reach old age and are given new engineered bodies designed for combat. When their terms of service are up they are rewarded with a new younger body and a home on a new colony world. This is the only way for many on Earth to have a chance at seeing the stars.

Like The Forever War, the characters in Old Man’s War are made to fight aliens who did not need to be humanity’s enemies until the Colonial Defense Force made them such. The novel makes you think about whether we are entitled to the land we take, the ethics of consciousness transfer, and the value of learning more about the people you consider to be your enemies. One alien race, the Consu, are seen as a complete mystery until John Perry thinks to look deeper into their motivations and this becomes critical to the resolution of the conflict in the first book.

Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

In order to protect themselves from malignant spells many in Earthsea hide their true names and go by monikers. Ged’s is Sparrowhawk. Source

If you want a book that features subdued yet powerful magic then there are few better books to read than Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin imagined the world of Earthsea as a vast archipelago surrounded by vast oceans. The people who live on these islands are described as having darker skin, a notable deviation from much of fantasy that normally focuses on characters who resemble white Europeans. Magic in Earthsea is performed by learning the True Names of things, and training a full wizard on the island of Roke is shown to take many years. Most of the books are related in some way to the story of Ged, the main character of the first book who later becomes the headmaster of the school on Roke.

What I think the series does best in terms of magic usage is enforce consequences. We never really see a limit to a wizard’s power although it does seem that some are stronger than others. Many limits are self-imposed by wizards who unwilling to disturb the balance of the world. Indeed, the conflict in several of the books is caused by wizards (including Ged) not heeding this balance and leaving everyone else to deal with the consequences.

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

I really love the understated covers used for the newer printings of the Culture Novels. The first chapter of Hydrogen Sonata can be read over at Orbit books, which is conveniently the source for this picture.

I have not read all of the Culture novels, and my reading order has been sporadic, but as far as I can see the Hydrogen Sonata is my favorite of the bunch. Banks does something in his books that I would never have thought to try; he wrote about a post scarcity society. We see societies like this in science fiction all the time, but often they start to show their cracks when we look too closely at how they are structure. In his novels Banks showed us the Culture, an extremely advanced anarcho-socialist civilization where every need and want of the populace is provided for by hyper-intelligent AI called Minds. The Culture has no central government and people are free to leave and join it at will. Events are steered by committees of AI acting on their own initiative and by the mysterious group within the Culture known as Special Circumstances, although we are told that many large-scale decisions are made via public referundum. Banks’ ability to imagine the conflict that would matter in this society and portraying them with a unique mix of wit and seriousness really show off the skill he had as a writer and worldbuilder.

The Hydrogen Sonata was the last Culture Novel that Banks wrote before he died, and is named for a song of the same name that one of the books central characters has decided to dedicate her life to learning. As the book starts the Gzilt civilization is getting ready to sublime, an action undertaken by certain advanced species in which the ascend to a higher plane of existence. Some choose to stay behind, others try to make their last days into an endless party. The books tone is equal parts melancholy and anticipation. There is a bittersweet aspect to subliming as a civilization leaves behind all it has built as it goes into the next, and possibly last, stage of its development. A fitting end to a great series and a great career.

The Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan

One of the great things about these books is that if you are interested in the lore you can find a lot of backstory in the RPG, which can be bought on the author’s website. Source

I love fantasy that takes place in periods other than the medieval, and especially fantasy that gives you a sense that the world had changed over the time. The Kingdom of Adro is one of a cluster of nations known collectively as the Nine, which seem in some ways comparable to Europe in the 18th century. In Adro, the books begin with a coup staged by Field Marshal Tamas, a brilliant commander who has now turned on the country that he served so dutifully for so long. In the course of his rebellion he comes in conflict with an ancient oath and gods that had been long forgotten. We get to see the birth of a new, democratic Adro that emerges from an explosion of violence and bloodshed. Politic intrigue and personal rivalries are as often an obstacle to the protagonists as the armies that block their path and even protagonists are not free of their own selfish motivations that can and do lead to the deaths of thousands.

The trilogy is solid gunpowder fantasy, a newer subgenre in that frequently revolves around political revolutions in a changing world. What I like best about the series, besides the magic systems that change and evolve alongside those who practice is, are the character motivations. In staging his coup Tamas married is desire for revenge with the frustration of his lower-class origins. As Field Martial he reshaped Adro’s army into one that rewards merit instead of noble birth and in his quest to avenge his dead wife he creates a similar but bloodier transformation for his nation. It is a stunning example of how revolutions get wrapped up in personal agendas and force you to question whether all of it is worth it. Tamas creates a new, potentially better nation but sets in motion a chain of events that lead to countless tens of thousands of deaths in a war that he engineers with the neighboring Kez for the sake of his own revenge. The end result is a drastic change in the balance of power and politics on the continent and no doubt many in the new Adro who owe their new prosperity to the revolution would thank him for it. But was his revenge worth it?

The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

The cover art has an esoteric, medieval feel that I think fits the book perfectly. Source

Book one of the Prince of Nothing trilogy took me a long time to get to. A friend had been telling me about it for years but I only recently read it and was very surprised by how much I liked it. The Darkness that Comes Before takes place in a world that was destroyed many centuries in the past. The kingdoms that now exist are mere shadows and echoes of their past and now all of them are headed once again to their doom. I love the feeling of history this book has, we are not told much about the world’s past, but everywhere the characters go feels old and lived in. Everywhere you look there are people desperately holding o to the glories and fears of the past and try to make them their own.

In this first book many of the POV characters are observers rather than actors but we see through their eyes how arrogance, greed, and fanaticism lead so many to ruin. Magic is also handled quite well although we are only shown its power a handful of times. Drusas Achamian is a POV character and belongs to a sect of sorcerers known as the Mandate Schoolmen. In his chapters we are presented with a frustrated, demoralized, and often drunk man who seems to have little control over his own destiny. In much of the book he seems to be more of an errand boy than a powerful sorcerer and we do not see him actually cast a spell until the very end of the book. But we do a glimpse of his power when we are shown how others treat him. Those who know who and what he is are cautious around him. Even the headmaster of the largest sorcerers school does not go to meet him unless under heavy guard. To me this shows a great deal of skill on Bakker’s part in shaping our opinions of the character when so far Achamian has simply been caught up in events and has not yet begun to shape them himself.

Hyperion by Dan Simons

It seems clear that the Shrike and Hyperion have some greater purpose. Whatever it is Simons keeps that secret close to his chest in this first novel. Source

Okay so technically I didn’t read this book, I listened to it, and somewhat recently. But I think that this list meant to sum up a decade might as well end with one of my more recent reads. I was at first reluctant to give the book a try after I heard it compared to a science fiction version of Chaucer’s Catebury Tales (which I have not read) but the frame story format gave Simons a great deal of flexibility in telling the story of the seven pilgrims whose lives have all brought them to Hyperion, and their expected deaths, for a variety of reasons. The novel follows seven people on their journey to undertake a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion where they will meet the Shrike, and most of them will be slaughtered in very painful ways. They do this in the shadow of an impending war that will take place on and around Hyperion. At first this premise sounds absurd. After all why would these seven people have agreed to die? Well, according to legend and the Shrike Church the Shrike will allow one of the pilgrims to make a petition of the Shrike. Each of these pilgrims have something that they wish to do or ask for that they believe that the risk is worth it, and we learn their reasons slowly as the book unfolds.

By writing Hyperion as a frame story Simons took advantage of the format’s unique ability to tell multiple stories at once. There are hints of noir, travel diaries, love stories, and tragedies all wrapped up in the novel and tied together with a bow made of political maneuvering. The pilgrims that are the center of the story are pawns, but they do not know the game they are being used in. As the plot evolves we begin to get the impression that even those moving the pawns are unsure of the game and that each pilgrim may hold the key to unlocking the secret of the Time Tombs in which the Shrike resides. And that the coming war may spell the end of humanity as they know it.

Disclaimer: If you click one of the amazon links in this post I may earn a small commission. Please consider buying something through one of the amazon affiliate links to help keep this site up.

So You Want to Invade a Planet

Look up at the stars. Somewhere out there someone is doing something that makes you don’t like and you want them to know just how angry it makes you. How will you do it?

In this scenario I have assumed that FTL is somewhat slow but still possible and that the end target is a developed Earth-like world.

1. Assemble your fleet.

Decide what your goals are, is this meant to be a raid against the planet or do you plan to occupy territory? Make sure you don’t leave your own world undefended when you assemble this fleet and make sure the fleet is equipped to deal with unforeseen circumstances. The ships may be gone for several years and once they leave resupply will be difficult. At least some of your ships should be equipped to harvest local resources and grow food or manufacture munitions.

2. Get Underway

Timing is important. The planet you’re going to might be years away. The main fleet should leave together so that you don’t scatter your forces too much, but it may be a good idea to send a few smaller forces ahead to scout your target. A lot can change while in transit the early you find that our the easier it will be to change course and make new plans.

You may also consider sending smaller detachments after the main force. These could be mostly resupply missions, spaced out so that the fleet can depend on resupply at scheduled points during the campaign.

Remember that depending on the technology available to you there may be a substantial period of deceleration as your approach the target system. This means your engines will be pointed towards your destination and sending out a lot of easily detectable heat and light. If this is a system that gets a lot of interstellar traffic it might be possible for all of this to be lost in noise, though at this point it would be better to assume that you have been seen and that there will be ships waiting for you when you arrive.

3. Fight Your Way Through the Solar System

Space is big, dark, and cold. Any ship is going to give off a huge amount of heat as it moved through space, especially when it starts to starts to decelerate as it approached its destination. A single ship might be overlooked, but a large fleet will be hard to miss, so don’t worry too much about the element of surprise. You can’t really hide your fleet anyway.

What you can do is make the enemy unsure of your intentions. Split your fleet into several battle groups and send them on different trajectories through the target system. This robs your enemy of a single large target and the potential for a decisive battle and allows your fleet to hit multiple targets roughly simultaneously. An advanced world probably has several populations centers through a single star system and you won’t want give your enemies a chance to attack you from behind while you’re busy landing troops on the planet.

When you do enter the system you should consider employing long range missiles. Unmanned missiles are smaller and can move much faster than manned vessels, giving them a better chance of making it through your target’s defenses. The missiles can be used to strike at targets well in advance of your fleet’s arrival to minimize the risk to your own ships.

4. Establish Orbital Superiority

By the time your ships reach the target planet their defenses will have hopefully been greatly weakened by missile strikes and their fleet will have been dispersed to deal with the multiple battle groups you’ve sent through the system. If the planet has any space elevators or sky hooks now would be the time to seize them. Ships should be positioned so that the entire planet can be observed.

5. Find Your Targets on the Ground

You probably lack the troop numbers and the will to fight for every inch on the planet’s surface. Before landing begins, select targets on the ground that might pose a threat but are also not ones you care about owning yourself. These targets should all be destroyed from orbit before any landing operations begin. Munitions used here need not be nuclear, a few metal rods dropped from orbit should be more than enough.

If multiple continents on the planet’s surface have been settled it may be worth targeting any infrastructure that might connect them in order to hinder the enemy’s ability to move their troops around. Of course this assumes that you do not want that infrastructure for yourself.

6. Deploy Ground Troops

Ground troops should only be deployed to secure targets that you have decided are vital to the success of your campaign; planets are just too big to consider anything else. Power plants, space ports, terraforming stations, and government buildings are all worthy targets as just owning them will give you control of other areas and may yield valuable intel.

The scale of the landing really depends on what your goals are. If you want to disable a few critical systems while securing intel and prisoners then you may not need to deploy more than a few thousand troops. If you plan on holding territory for any length of time then tens or even hundreds of thousands may be needed.

7. Pack Up and Leave

Annexing an entire world requires a massive commitment of resources and millions of soldiers over many years may be required to completely secure a world. If regular bombardments do not phase you then this could conceivably be accomplished with a much smaller force at the risk of rendering large segments of the surface uninhabitable.

If your goal was just to knock the system out of action to prevent them from supporting your enemy’s war effort then your options are much simpler. Once your troops have secured whatever intel or prisoners you wanted on the surface you can extract them, blowing up space ports and even power plants as you leave. Space elevators and skyhooks can be demolished by the fleet once troops have been fully evacuated.

All those space ports and elevators will likely take many years to fully replace, but to hinder outside relief then nothing quite beats a selection of orbital denial weapons (You can keep your fleet in orbit of course, but if this is part of a larger conflict then the ships are probably needed elsewhere).

A minefield in space is not going to look anything like what we see on Earth, and mines as they have been depicted in Star Trek several times would be hard to make work. Space is big and mines are tiny, you want your minefield to depend on more than just chance collisions. Here I think a swarm of small, automated satellites would come in handy.

Satellites could be deployed in order and throughout the system and outfitted with various armaments including missile launchers, rail guns, and gamma ray emitters, and if you’re more a fan of the classics then explosive satellites could be designed that would then release shrapnel to clear their orbits of enemy ships.

FTL and Its Implications

Almost all space opera depends on relatively easy travel between the stars. Deciding on just how characters are able to do this has massive implications for the story being told and the society in which your characters live. FTL travel enables all of the other stories that happen in a setting, so it should be no surprise that deciding on how FTL is achieved is one of the hardest parts of scifi worldbuilding.

Disregarding portals, let’s look at four basic flavors of FTL.

  1. FTL is Impossible: Travel between stars takes a long time. If travel beyond the solar system is possible then it will be primarily through generational ships. Contact between solar systems will be rare if it occurs at all.
  2. FTL is Possible But Slow: As it turns out the speed of light is just a suggestion but spacers can still expect to find that many years have passed since they left. Relativistic effects may come into play.
  3. FTL is Possible and Fast: Travel between worlds still takes time but is not a life sentence.
  4. FTL is Instant: A ship disappears in one place and reappears in another. There may still be limits in how much distance can be covered in a single jump or how long the engines need to cool down.

The in-universe explanations will vary but the results are essentially the same. Some use extra dimensional spaces, others use alternate universes. Whatever the explanation is it will have huge repercussions for the story being told.

Two of my favorite examples in established fiction are John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. In both of these series the methods of FTL travel can be seen to shape the story. In Old Man’s War FTL is accomplished via Skip Drives that resemble Method 4 and we are treated to dialogue in which we see that they are limited by distance with fleets taking time to assemble as ships must first maneuver to systems within a more favorable range.

The Forever War takes a very different approach to FTL travel. For the most part travel between the stars is very, very slow. Soldiers sent off to fight the Taurans might return to Earth to find that while they might have only aged a few months or years, decades or even centuries have passed for everything. Something similar but less extreme is seen in Dan Simon’s Hyperion and we can see how this difference in how spacers experience time might create a group separate from the rest of civilization.

In the first example the limitations of space travel are a strategic challenged while in the second space travel is a societal issue. Although this would still be a massive advancement compared to what we have today it would mean that society would need to figure out how to deal with the spacers and soldiers who find themselves outside of their own time period.

Both of these methods and the rest of the four have their own implications and should explored at least in the world building stages so that a consistent and reasonable narrative can be presented to your audience. Science fiction is just that, fiction, but failing to be consistent about something as integral as travel times can quickly cause the audience to lose interest as the contradictions mount.

So which flavor of FTL is your favorite? Let me know on twitter @expedition_blog.

Disclaimer: I may earn a small commission if you buy something after clicking one of these links.