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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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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Riots & Rebellions Part 2: Revolutionaries

Whether an attempt at revolution succeeds depends very much on who is fighting it and what their goals are. Can they convince others to follow them? Do they have the skills to lead or are they a good enough judge of character that they can choose others to lead for them? What is motivating them? Is there a limit to how far they are willing to achieve their goals? All of these are important things to think about when plotting your world’s next great uprising.

Leadership

Not every revolutionary needs to be charismatic, but it certainly helps. So many uprisings come down to a single moment, a spark that sets off the rest of the powder keg. Your character either needs to be someone who can capture and channel that energy or have someone willing to take the stage on their behalf. Lot’s of people look back at George Washington as a great general but he actually didn’t win that many battles. Rather he excelled in picking good generals to advise him, getting people to work together, and keeping their moral up. The revolutionaries you design should have their own failings just like he did.

Whatever their brand of leadership may be, make your to leave room for them to make their share of mistakes. Make your character an brilliant planner, or a charismatic speaker, or maybe just someone who is too stubborn to give up. But also give them failings, bonus points if these failures are very public. Put your characters through the wringer and make them prove to the people that they deserve to lead the revolution.

Ideology

Revolutions are often preceded by decades of debate, philosophizing, unrest, broken promises, and even failed revolts. Competing ideologies are bound to spring up amidst all of this disagreement. Your characters may find themselves forced to work together with opposing factions in order to bring down the current regime, leaving pesking details like who will be in charge for later.

There may also be a fair number of martyrs in your setting’s revolutionary history. To your characters these martyrs might be serve as memories to rally around of a painful part of history that people are afraid of seeing repeated. These memories of failed revolutions can range from lost battles in the field and dissolution due to infighting to overzealous investigators guillotining everyone. A lot of this may not make it into the final story, but it makes for good worldbuilding and can be useful for figuring out how your characters will interact with their world and with each other.

Circumstances

You’ll need to decide very early on what your character’s background is and make sure that it is consistent with the cause they are fighting for. Their past should contribute to their motivations and why they want to see the current regime brought down but that does not mean their goals at all need to be noble. Some might become revolutionaries because they want glory or riches for themselves. Your revolutionary could just as easily be an army officer who was passed over for promotion or a foreign merchant who would rather see those annoying tariffs go away.

And what about revolutions that come from the top down? Say an altruistic monarch in your setting decides its time to implement a constitution. Will the country’s elite go along with these changes or will they fight to keep business as usual? Will the populace rejoice or will they suspect ulterior motives? Most people just want to keep food on the table and their families safe. They might well distrust someone who rocks the boat to much, even if they have good intentions.

Limits

If you are writing a story about revolutionaries then it’s probably safe to assume that you have them fighting for good cause, but how far are they willing to go for this cause? Is no price too high for the sake of the revolution, or are there some lines they simply will not cross? Better yet, is there a difference between where they say the line is and what they actually do?

You may want their adherence or lack thereof to influence their success. Making a choice that goes against their normal values may alienate supporters. Otherwise, your character refusing to do something that goes ‘too far’ might cost them an important victory. Values that limit their actions may drive a wedge between them and their allies who may come to see their morals as an obstacle in the way of their goals.

Vision vs Outcome

You should keep in mind what your revolutionary thinks is their end goal. Say they succeed in toppling the old regime. What will they do then? Do they want to lead the new government and build their ideal world or would they rather retire and let others carry the torch.

A revolution’s reality often does not live up to its promise. How will your character react when other revolutionaries have other ideas, or when they find themselves contradicting their beliefs for the sake of victory. Conflict requires hard choices and those choices might not always be the most appealing to your character’s moral compass.

Finally, if the revolution prevails will your character have the skills needed to build their envisioned future?

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.

The World Building Potential of Old Warships

Lately I’ve been interested in the history of warships, and by lately I mean the past year. More specifically, I’ve been interested in the ironclads and pre-dreadnoughts that nations were building in the late 1800s.

Most people reading this probably know about the USS Monitor. During the Civil War, the American government hired John Ericsson to build a ship that would be a match for the South’s new ironclad; the CSS Virginia. The Monitor represented a major advance in ship design, and its construction resulted in forty patentable inventions.1

Photo of the USS Monitor at Sea. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Monitor#/media/File:USS_Monitor_at_sea.jpg)

The Monitor was just one of many designs that were tried during this era, and the sheer variety in designs is what I find so fascinating. It was a time of great technological advancement, and designers were looking to both the past and future when building these ships. This hybridization of new and old ideas can be seen in the inclusion of rams on many pre-dreadnaught warships, which went on to encourage new innovations in damage control onboard ships. 2

The French Cruiser Dupuy de Lome. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Dupuis_de_Lome-Bougault.jpg)

Finally, there were ships like the Mikasa, Japan’s flagship at the battle of Tsushima in 1905, that more closely resembled what think of when we imagine a battleship. For a time she was the most advanced warship in the world, but that title was soon lost with the coming of the new dreadnought battleships.3

If you want to read more about these ships, Wikipedia has a wealth of information on the many ships of this era. For me though, that wasn’t enough. Whenever I start to develop an interest in something I start looking for books on it. I’ve referenced the three books I’ve found on the topic so far, and if you’re interested in reading them I’ve cited them at the bottom of this post.

So what use are these ships to world building? First off, many ships of this era have a unique aesthetic that can help set the tone of your setting. Seemingly anachronistic designs lend themselves well to steampunk settings, or to periods in which your world is undergoing rapid technological advancement.

I have also found that outlining a nation’s warships helps me wrap my mind around where its priorities lie, and how it’s going to interact with its neighbors. The reason for this is that warships are expensive, and their presence is an easy way for countries to show off their military and industrial might. If your country should find itself in possession of a large colonial empire, it’s going to need a large and modern navy to protect all of its territory. On the other hand, a fleet of older warships might help to showcase a country’s lack of resources, or otherwise help to illustrate the outdated thinking of its leaders.

From a story telling perspective warships have a huge potential for adventure. A good ship could take your characters around the world and back. Encounters between old and new warships can show the reader what sort of changers are occurring in your world.

Researching historical designs will help you get an idea of what these ships is capable of. This information can come in handy if your character’s ship runs into trouble. What the ship can and cannot do are going to determine whether your characters will be able to stand and fight, attempt a retreat, or find a way around the obstacle.

What sort of research have you done to build your worlds? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. Warships of the World to 1900 by Lincoln p. Paine p. 108-110
  2. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Battleships: From 1860 to the First World War by Peter Hore p. 38.
  3. Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare by R.G. Grant p.252