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.

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Using Pseudoscience to Beef Up Your Technobabble

All good genre fiction needs its technobabble. However wacky and unreal you want to make your universe is okay so long as it is backed up by consistency and enough internal logic to make your readers suspend their disbelief for a few hours.

History is full of discredited theories and failed hypotheses. Some were just plain outlandish when they were first proposed and still are, others seem to make sense at first but fall apart under scrutiny. Even though they have been debunked or misrepresented, these five examples of pseudoscience may serve as starting points for those worldbuilders looking for a way to justify their strange tech and magic spells.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Linguistic relativity began as the idea that the language a group speaks influences the way that its members look at and think about the world. Forms of the hypothesis varied from declaring that language determines the way the speaker looks at the world to merely influencing a speaker’s world view. Debates about this topic have been going on since Plato’s time but for the most part the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis appears to have been discredited.

Arrival used the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to explain the alien language that changed its user’s perception of time. Source

Even so, the idea that language can influence a speaker’s mind is incredibly compelling and gives us a great starting point for explaining magical languages without necessarily invoking true names. Might some industrious wizard have designed a language to shape its speaker’s mind to better accomodate to spell casting or to lessen the risk of magical misfires? What I like best about this idea is that it allows for competing magical traditions. I love magic systems built around true names like in Earthsea but they make it hard to imagine different cultures having different approaches magic. Using something like Sapir-Whorf lets us have different cultures each with their own magical languages, or schools of wizards devising languages optimized for their particular niche.

Phlogiston

There was a time when people thought that combustable materials contained a unique element that was released when burned. They called it Phlogiston. Unlike the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which sounds convincing at first, the flaws with Phlogiston theory are immediately apparent. That said, it would provide a great explanation for all manner of steam punk goodness.

Need an explanation for why those little brass cylinders are able to power your automatons? Just use Phlogiston! All you need is for some mad scientist to find a way to extract and bottle phlogiston and you have a ready made battery for all your science fiction needs.

Quantum Physics

Unlike the other examples on this list, quantum physics is a very real but also very misunderstood part of science. I personally cannot think of anything that is misrepresented to a greater degree in science fiction than quantum physics, and I’m not sure many people actually understand it either. At a certain scale, we’re talking protons and electrons and even smaller, classical physics no longer describes what we are able to observe. Quantum physics describes interactions on this subatomic scale. That’s it.

We can only calculate the probability of an electron being somewhere and not its exact location. I’ve often wondered if this could be used to explain the Heart of Gold’s infinite improbability drive. Source

Yet it has been used in many works (and by modern day snake oil peddlers) to explain many apparently magical effects. And if you’re writing genre fiction then that’s perfectly okay! Quantum physics has a lot of weirdness to it that is unintuitive for most and science fiction is all about science that has yet to be discovered, so don’t feel bad if you use quantum entanglement or tunneling to explain away your new warp drive. The audience wont mind.

Luminiferous Aether

It was once thought that light needed some medium to travel through on its journey between the Sun and Earth. In the nineteenth century there were some who proposed that some luminiferous ether existed between the planets that allowed light to travel. This was of course disproved, but like phlogiston it holds lots of potential for writers of steampunk fantasy.

What might the ether do if it could be harnessed? It could hold the key to powering giant brass spaceships, or be tamed to craft constructs from hardened light.

Vitalism

There was a time when it was thought that living matter was fundamentally different from inert materials. This was disproved when urea was successfully made from inorganic starting material. That said, the idea that living things contain a “vital spark” is hugely useful in fantasy fiction.

One doctor once tried to determine weigh souls by placing terminal patients on a scale as they died. Like any mad science experiment it was packed with flaws. Maybe your characters will have better luck. Source

Immediately it provides a power source for spells, justification for ghosts, a way for enlightened characters to sense the presence of others, and has lots of avenues to be exploited by the villains. What happens when a character’s vital spark is stolen? Can illnesses affect their spark? Does losing their spark kill a character or just make them husks of themselves? Can sparks be recycled?

Conclusion

There are plenty of other examples of pseudoscience that I could have referenced here. Just one example could be the topic of an entire book. These are just a few that I personally find to be especially interesting. The point I am really trying to get at is that history is filled with misconceptions and while they turned out to untrue in our world the “what if?” part of worldbuilding allows us to explore settings where the unreal is real. Many of these ideas are specific to particular eras in our own history, most of the examples I have used would not be our of place in our 19th or early 20th century. In many cases they show a desire to better understand our world and a desire to fit classifications and causes to observable phenomena. Crackpot theories and pseudoscience show a world where science is advancing, it’s up to you the writer to decide how accurate they are.

Have a favorite superstition that I didn’t mention here? Find me on twitter @expedition_blog to let me know!

What if the Church Ruled the World?

Asking “what if?” is an essential part of world building. What if Germany won the war? What if John Wilkes Booth had failed? What if bagels had never been invented? Single and sometimes insignificant events can have huge implications if you explore the lines of possibility. So the other day on reddit a user was asking for thoughts on a world where the Church dominated and it got me thinking about what such a world would look like. Before I begin I should say that this is not an especially detailed outline, you’ll notice that I also did not pick a point of divergence from our own timeline. This is because I wanted to focus more on the “big picture” concerns. Now, with that out of the way, let’s get into it.

First, could it actually have happened? Well, maybe, and that is a big maybe in my non-expert opinion. to start, the Church would had to come out of the Protestant Reformation mostly unscathed, and then it would have had to achieve at least the appearance of control over government. Then it would have had to greatly expand its influence outside of Europe which comes with its own set of challenges. Of course, in this timeline the Reformation might never had happened leaving the Catholic Church relatively unopposed in western Europe with Orthodox Christianity in the east left as the

If we take the view that world-spanning theocracy would have been possible then we will have to be a little loose in what we describe as “world spanning.”

Image medieval Europe. Do you picture devout citizens attending witch burnings and risking punishment for minor sins? Historically this was not the case and it would be unlikely to be true in our imagined theocracy. There were of course many instances of religious violence and punishment but that does not mean the church was all seeing or enjoyed universal jurisdiction. Making laws to regulate morality are one thing, enforcing them are another.

Next, let’s look at the medieval Catholic Church. In many places the Church owned a great deal of land and Bishops would rule over estates much like the rest of the aristocracy. Even up until the later half of the nineteenth century the Pope ruled a small area of Italy referred to as the Papal States. So from these examples we do have some idea of what it would look like if the Church ruled the world. It even caused some issues in 1848 when the Pope was forced to balance the popular pressure for a unified Italy with a reluctance to be seen to oppose the interests of the catholic Austrians.

Saint Peter's Basilica
The Catholic Church is still the largest Christian Church in existence with 1.7 billion members as of 2017. Source

We also see what it is like when the Church becomes a path to power. When joining the priesthood became a viable career path for younger sons of the nobility the Church found itself having to compensate for the tastes of these upper class acolytes and wound up declaring that beavers are fish so that they could be consumed on fast days. Changes like this allow the letter of Church law to be followed while forsaking the spirit of them and I think we would see a lot of this in a world-spanning theocracy.

Finally, we should look at the many smaller schisms, aberrations, and the “pagan” practices that were absorbed into Christian tradition. No matter how wide spread the Church became it was always difficult to completely erase pre-existing traditions.

From these three things we can draw a few conclusions.

  • Religion and politics rarely coincide.
  • When religious service becomes a pathway to power compromises will be made.
  • Uniformity is hard.

If we assume that it would be possible for the Church to have gained control of Europe before moving on to the rest of the world that control would be far from uniform. It is unlikely that the Church would be able to supplant all rulers and instead we might expect to see a Church-led coalition where direct Church power in strong in some places and weak in others and Church decrees are rarely carried out in full.

I think true devotees might be rare in this scenario. But I would not be surprised if a few leaders like Mozgus emerge in response to what they might see as rampant secularism. Source

Now, if we them assume that the Church expands outwards from Europe and conquers the rest of the world how will that go? We will have to assume that it occurs in piecemeal. In some cases European rulers will likely embark on wars of conquest in the name of the Church as a way to settle old scores and achieve personal goals. Especially in North Africa and the Middle East. Elsewhere, Church sponsored missionaries and trading expeditions will spread economic and religious influence to the rest of the world. The challenge here is really to figure out how long it takes and how tightly this Christianization of the world takes hold.

It should be safe to assume that the first few expeditions to the Americas will bring the same mix of old world diseases as they did in our timeline. Establishing both Catholicism and control in these lands were most of the prior inhabitants are dead or greatly weakened should not be terribly difficult, although it may take a few wars and centuries to see through to the end.

It’s the rest of the world that is the major stumbling block in my mind. Regions that have established powers, their own religions, and some measure of immunity to the diseases that follow the Europeans. Of course in our history the European powers managed to conquer or establish spheres of interest nearly everywhere they went so I think it is safe to assume that things would turn out the same way in this alternate timeline.

Remember though, in this scenario we’re not just looking at political or economic control of the region, but spiritual as well.

Religious domination will take considerably longer than other processes. In all regions there are bound to be missionaries and converts. In this scenario we are assuming that a Church-led coalition dominates Europe and the rest of the world. The Church’s claim to authority will rest on their ability to claim the majority of their allies’ subjects as members of the Church. As long as there are sizable populations of non-believers a ruler who wants to split with the Church can claim to be acting in the interest of these subjects when they do so. If this is the case then it might be in the Church’s best interest to settle for imagined rather than actual conversion. Getting subjects to play the part of good Catholics in public would give the Church the numbers it needs to keep bargaining with secular authorities.

What I think this will end up creating is a world where the Church cares more about the appearance of faith rather than actual piety. We have already established that making the Church into a political power will mean that the clergy will be split between those who joined out of faith and those who want power for themselves. We also see that mixing religion and politics will force one half to compromise at times to appease the other.

In this scenario I believe that political convenience and the inherent challenges that come with attempting to replace all native religions would lead to a world dominated by the Church and its allies where practicing one religion in public and another at home is normal and maybe even expect in some places. Even in areas where large segments of the population converts the new christians are likely to bring many of their former religious practices and customs with them.

We now have a world that began much like our own, where the Catholic Church was able to place itself at the head of a coalition of European powers before these same powers began colonizing the rest of the world in earnest. This marriage of religion and the state will force compromises on the Church.

Finally, let’s imagine what living in this world would look like.

If you live in this world, your town will either be under the direct control of the Church or controlled by a ruler who has some sort of allegiance to them. Church attendance will likely be expected and if not required by law there will certainly be a great deal of social pressure to attend. That said, how seriously the priests take their sermons may vary. Some are bound to be truly pious, but once priesthood is bound to politic authority there will be no shortage of those who join for the sake of social advancement.

The Church will claim universal authority and try to appear as if the clergy is completely unified, but there will always be areas where control is weaker than others. There might even be countries which do not fall under the Church’s direct influence and survive this way through political arrangements or simple geographic isolation. Island nations like Britain, Iceland, and Japan come to mind as ideal candidates for independent entities.

Competing factions within the Church, each with their own interpretation of scripture, are also likely. Human and civil rights, ethnic and national concerns, and alternate modes of worship might all come into play as this Church-led world advances in the modern age. Isolated Bishops may begin to run their diocese as miniature kingdoms if left alone or may start to prioritize local concerns over the greater needs and goals of the Church.

How will the Church handle dissent? The larger it grows the more likely a schism will occur. New believers and new discoveries will bring no shortage of new ideas to the Church. If the Church is willing to allow changes or accommodate different sects under the Catholic umbrella then I think the status quo could be preserved for some time in this scenario.

Feel free to reach out on twitter to talk about how you would design this world or what stories it might be filled with.

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Summer Reading 2019

We all make promises to ourselves that we can’t keep. We say we’ll go on a diet or go to the gym more, or spend more time outside. If you’re like me you probably tell yourself you’re going to read more. That’s what I told myself at the beginning of the summer and I did, but not as much as I had hoped. I told myself a similar lie when I said that I would get this written over a month ago. And yet here we are.

So here is my very late list of some of the reading I got done this past summer.

Dune

Every fan of science fiction has probably at least heard of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece and with a new movie adaptation on the horizon it’s bound to get even more buzz. I first read the series back in middle school, it was one of the books I would bring with me every day to read on the bus and during study hall. It’s amazing the details you miss out on when you’re fighting to stay awake on the ride to school because you stayed up too late reading the night before.

I’ve been telling myself for years that I would revisit Dune to take in some details that I missed on my first read-through or that simply went over my head at that age. Well, I’ve finally accomplished my goal, or part of it. Back in July I was gifted the book on Audible and finally gave the platform a try (I admit this is a loose definition of reading). I never thought I would enjoy an audiobook but this really changed my mind. The narration brought the characters to life and some sections of the book even boasted separate voice actors for each character. These different voices helped greatly with immersion, especially in the case of Baron Harkonen. My only complaint is that the entire book was not narrated in this style.

I was really amazed by how many details I missed out on. Frank Herbert crafted a book with a complex setting that feels lived in and distant, but familiar at the same. I thought I knew the story well but I felt as if I was experiencing the book again for the first time. These books certainly deserve more than one read to really appreciate.

Velocity Weapon

I haven’t been doing much to keep up with recent scfi, or keep up much with scifi at all. So when I saw Meghan O’Keefe’s Velocity Weapon on sale I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. Boy do I regret staying away from scifi for so long.

O’Keefe introduces us to rogue AI, a wounded gunnery sergeant and her brother, and a thief living in the slums of her planet’s habit domes. The action takes place across two planets and a space ship, and leaves you guessing for much of the book about how they connect and what is real. O’Keefe does a great job keeping the reader in the reader guessing. Several times I tried to guess at an upcoming plot twist and turned out to be right, but the book keeps its secrets leaving readers to discover deeper plots alongside the characters.

The Darkness That Comes Before

I have a friend that has been trying to get me to read some of R. Scott Bakker’s work for years now and this summer I finally picked up the first book of “The Prince of Nothing” which is in turn the first trilogy of Bakker’s “The Second Appocalypse.” Before going on I should point out however that these books are not for young readers, and certainly not for those who might find gruesome of explicit content in their books disturbing. With that said, I very much enjoyed this book.

I started out unsure of how I felt. The book throws a lot at you in the opening chapters and doesn’t give a whole lot of explanation of what is going on. Overtime we learn a few things, Achamian is some kind of sorcerer who belongs to an magical order called the Mandate. Kellhus is a monk who has been sent out to accomplish some task that we aren’t quite sure of yet. And there is a holy war coming that several factions are fighting to take advantage of.

The book has a lot of things that I enjoy including a deep sense of history. The world we’re shown just feels old and there are constant hints of a greater past that has been lost. Bakker’s characters are deeply flawed and readers will likely be hard pressed to say that any of them are truly good. These are characters who have been shaped by a harsh world and their actions show it.

Magic is shown to be incredibly powerful in these books. At one point we are shown a relatively small group of sorcerers who annihilate a much larger force. With that said, magic is not something that is used frequently, at least in the sections that I have read so far. In fact we are told that Achamian, on of our POV characters, is incredibly powerful. Enough so that even the leaders of other magical schools seem to be wary of him and yet in the entire book we only see mentions of his power but few actual demonstrations. If anything I think this shows his strength more than any spell-slinging could.

The Thousand Names

Django Wexler’s books have been on my to-read list for a long time now and I have to say that I regret waiting. The series takes place in a gunpowder fantasy setting and follows a group of soldiers assigned to their kingdom’s colonial forces and in the beginning of this book find themselves faced with the difficult task of reinstalling the local rulers following an anti-imperialist coup. Their situation is then made more difficult by arrival of reinforcements led by an eccentric commander who has other motives for having requested this assignment.

I really enjoyed the book’s focus on the common soldiers and its portrayal of napoleonic style tactics in a fantasy setting. Even though this is a fantasy setting magic is not seen for most of the book. Features that initially seemed magical later turn out to have much more mundane explanations. Not to worry though, the book’s namesake turns out to be central to the plot later on and my initial impressions of the second book lead me to believe that magic will become a bigger part of the plot as the series progresses.

Designing Your Monarchy

Monarchs are a central feature of nearly all fantasy. No matter what there is bound to be a king or queen found running around somewhere. Monarchs may occupy the role as both hero and villain in fantasy, and in flintlock fantasy their overthrow may be a central theme.  Knowing which form of government your monarch functions in will give you more options to flesh out your setting and create conflicts to move the story forward.

Feudal Lords

Since many stories take place in their world’s version of the Middle Ages we might as well start with the system of governance that was popular in Western Europe during that time. In these systems the king wont be much more then a wealthy landowner. It’s important here to remember that being king doesn’t necessarily mean anything. What the king is able to do will be limited by their ability to raise funds and convince noble landholders to follow them. You might also see a lack of well-defined borders, and lords of one country may be free to make their own treaties with lords of another.

Robb Stark struggling to keep the support of the Karstarks is a good example there being no guarantee that the king’s orders will be followed.

Autocrats

More powerful than a simple feudal king. An autocrat, at least in theory, wields absolute power. Nobles serve at their pleasure and their authority is backed up by the strength of their armies. All monarchies are beholden to the whims of the ruler, but in an autocratic regime where there are even fewer limits on the ruler’s power, the government will be especially vulnerable to the mood swings and fancies of its ruler.

We can expect these upheavals to be most evident shortly after a new ruler has come to throne and begins replacing their predecessors advisers with their own. If they had any ill-will towards their parents, this would become obvious as they begin to do away with the institutions built by their parents.

For a real life example you can look to the Russian Tsars. They were autocrats with many different styles of rule. Some even believe in enlightenment principles but excused their failure to enact them by claiming that they would never work in Russia.

Elected Kings

The election may be a one time occurrence or a regular affair. A one-time election may happen following the death of the previous monarch. If no satisfactory heir is available to nobility may opt to chose one for themselves. This happens in Adalbert Stiftler’s Witiko and is also how the Romanov dynasty came to power in Russia. In other lands such as the Holy Roman Empire, electing a ruler was more routine. Elections could be bought by paying off electors or otherwise convincing them to vote for a particular candidate. By manipulating this system a single family can stay in power for generations even if the position in not actually hereditary.

Constitutional Monarchs

At one point these rulers were likely autocrats or feudal lords, but since then their power has been greatly diminished. Constitutional monarchs have had their power limited by the imposition of constitution which outlines their rights and those of their subjects. Who wrote this constitution and the conditions under which it was written will ultimately determine the content. A constitution written to preempt an uprising will be far less generous than one pried from the king. What’s most important about these types of monarchies is not necessarily who the government gives a voice to, but who it does not.

Suffrage may be extended to the entire population or only select parts of it, but for our uses it easiest to assume that voting power lies in the hands of the wealthy landowners, nobility, or possibly members of the priesthood. At first the power of these voters and the limitations placed on the monarch may be relatively small. Parliament for example began as a way for the king to raise taxed from the nobility. But what this does is force the monarch to negotiate with the nobility when they need funds, and may be forced to make concessions in order to get their support.

Divine Will

Many rulers in our own history have claimed that their power is granted to them by gods, claimed relation to a god, or claimed to be a god. But in many fantasy settings it’s not out of the realm of possibly that you’ll find deities walking alongside your characters. A civilization ruled by an immortal demigod or an actual deity is going to have a very different political structure than any we’ve seen. How well will a revolution go if the monarch can call down hellfire to smite their rivals?

Usurpers

Every so often someone comes along and decides that they would make a better king than whoever currently sits on the throne. This person may or may not have a strong claim to the throne through family ties and will have come to power by exploiting a succession crisis or and incidence of weak leadership on the part of their predecessor. Once they’ve seized the throne the big question is whether they will be able to keep it. An usurper may seek to marry someone related to the previous ruler in order to legitimize their claim to the throne and generally look for ways to assert their legitimacy. Upon their death the legitimacy of their heir’s claim to power may also be in question.