A few weeks ago I made a post about Flicker Lamps. Magical communication devices used in the early days of exploration in my Sprawling Iron series. While they became an essential part of managing large empires they were hard to mass produce and had several properties that made security difficult. Furthermore, the could only be given to specific individuals and could not be distributed by governors as needed.
This limitation proved to be especially inconvienient when it became more important to be able to communicate with agents sent to unexplored lands or diplomats dispatched to negotiate with local governments. Eventually, sorcerers devised a new means to rapidly communicate over long distances. Sparrows.
These ceramic birds are small enough to fit in the palm of a person’s hand and infused with a minor air spirit capable of animating the clay and providing it the power of flight. A person wishing to send a message via sparrow must first hold an image of the intended recipient in their mind as well as their general location. Once they do this the sparrow will animate and the user can speak their message allowed. After the sparrow hears the message it will take flight and attempt to find the intended recipient, once it does it will repeat the spoken message and be ready to used again. In some cases, written messages and maps may also be tied to small loops on the bottom of the construct.
Sparrows are small enough that ships, armies, and individuals can carry many of them and allow regular reports to made. But they do come with some limitations.
Distance – sparrows have a limited range, typically not more than a few hundred kilometers. For longer messages they are typically sent to a central administrative hub the possess a flicker lamp or telegraph office capable of passing on the message.
Recipient Identity and Location – the sender must know the recipient and their general location. If either of these are incorrect the sparrow will not be able to deliver its message and will not give its message to anyone else.
Message Erasure – once the message has been repeated there is no way to get the sparrow to repeat it. Recipients must be sure that they are paying attention and hope that they are in a quiet place.
To get around these limitations, many governors and administrators have at least one person on staff tasked with receiving sparrows and accurately transcribing these messages. Oftentimes they are given special quarters and offices in secluded areas to ensure that they have access to a quiet environment and are relatively free from intrusion. These sparrow handlers are often targets of bribes and even assassinations as eliminating or compromising them can disable an enemy’s communication network.
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I have always wanted to draw. When I was little I thought I wanted to be an artist. Since then I’ve turned to science and writing, but art has long been an aspiration. I can draw some exquisite cartoon monsters but when I’m trying to worldbuild I struggle to draw the images that are in my head.
Why does this matter? Why can’t I just put the images in my head into words? Despite the cliche, a picture really is worth a thousand words, and a picture can immediately capture feelings that would take pages to describe. When I’m making notes for myself I often make quick sketches for own use that are not at all worthy of being shared publicly. So what is a writer to do?
Recently, I’ve discovered vector art, and it has been a godsend.
Rather than drawing every line with a stylus, you work with a series of pre-made shapes than can be combined and contorted to your liking. Your computer treats these shapes as a series of mathematical functions, which allows you to resize your work as much as you want without any pixelation. At first this doesn’t seem any more useful than PowerPoint’s shape tools. With time and a bit of imagination you’ll see what possibilities the medium offers.
For my vector art I went with Affinity Designer, a low-cost alternative to the Adobe Suite.
My first impressions of the software were a little underwhelming. What was I supposed to do with a bunch of rectangles? This simplicity is the beauty of vector art. You start with a selection of basic shapes, but you can endlessly manipulate these shapes to get whatever design you want. This makes it great for making diagrams or for people with shaky hands like me.
More than anything else, the great thing about this software and this medium, is that it makes it easy for writers and worldbuilders like me to put the images in their head on the screen in a way that you can feel comfortable sharing. You might have seen a few of my recent worldbuilding posts featuring artwork I made with Affinity Designer. Sure, they aren’t going to win any awards, but they’re clean and presentable and that’s really all I’m looking for.
Beyond the few beginner-friendly tools, Affinity Designer has a plethora of tools that are a complete mystery to me. Someone with more artistic ability and the time to tinker can make some really amazing pieces of art as evidenced by countless reddit posts.
So should you try Affinity Designer? For only $50 it’s an attractive option for more casual creators who don’t want to commit to an Adobe subscription. But if that’s too much for you, there are free vector programs like Inkscape that may be worth a look. But if you have the $50, or if the software is on sale, I’d say go for it. Affinity Designer finds a good balance between price, polish, and usability. Plus it’s a lot of fun.
When the nations of Oliad and Danacia began to realize their imperial ambitions they were faced with a challenge that they had never confronted before. As their colonial holdings expanded they were faced with the question of how their central authorities could quickly send directives to their scattered generals, admirals, and imperial governors. This was in the time before the invention of Sparrows and the telegraph, and neither kingdom had access to the Soul Stones used by older empires.
The solution that both nations settled on were the Flicker Lamps. These devices were made by taking a fire spirit and splitting it into many parts. Each part could then be sealed in a glass lamp and sent overseas to important governors and military commanders with at least one remaining in the homeland.
An individual with the proper training could then operate the lamp by causing it to flicker in coded patterns that would then be repeated by every other lamp in the set. This allowed messages to be quickly sent across great distances.
There were drawbacks however. The first being that they were expensive to make and required at least some sorcerous training to operate. Because of this they were typically only issues to important governors and high ranking military commanders who were responsible for passing messages on through more conventional channels.
There was also no way to send a message to just one lantern in a set. A message intended for just one person would be sent to all connected lanterns. Every set of lanterns was expensive to make and traveling with multiple lanterns, especially while on campaign was difficult. To address this most nations using these lamps created special codes that would be known only to certain lamp holders. This was not a perfect system and often led to information leaks when outdated codes were used, but it worked well enough for most communications.
With the later invention of the telegraph and Sparrows these lanterns fell out of use. But they are still kept as museum pieces and curiosities, and sometimes still employed by enthusiasts and secret societies.
This is the first bit of worldbuilding that I’ve posted in awhile. Don’t worry! I plan to post more in the coming weeks. Check out this link here if you want to see what else I’m up to. You can also follow me on twitter @expyblog!
I’ve often said that scale is an important thing to think about, especially in science fiction settings. It should be no surprise then that I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted faster than light travel to work in Red Suns.
For this setting I was aiming for a similar feel to the Forever War, where ships might be dozens or hundreds of light years from home and far from support. At the same time, I wanted star systems to be interconnected enough for interstellar trade and diplomacy to be practical.
Eventually I decided that ships in this universe will move between stars with something called the Bulgarin Drive. These drives work by warping space around a ship in such a way that the ship can move faster than light. Travel still takes time however, and in order to save myself from making any embarasing mistakes about distance I’ve decided that distances will be thought of mainly in the time it takes for a ship to reach its destination and that these travel times are partially determined by the skill of the ship’s navigator.
The effectiveness of Bulgarin Drives are strong affected by nearby gravity wells. Massive objects disrupt the bubble of warped space around a ship and so this determines what routes are possible. Before departure a ship may have to maneuver at sublight speeds for a signifigant amout of time before it reaches an adequate departure point, then it activated it’s Bulgarin Drive. Then months or even years later it arrives as close to it’s destination as local gravity conditions will allow.
This gravity-dependent behavior leads to three points that I am eager to exploit in worldbuilding and in story telling.
The limited number of acceptable arrival points in a star system creates opportunities to ambush ships as they drop out of FTL.
Smugglers and infiltrators can choose to take a longer route into a system if it means avoiding more well traveled areas of space.
In certain regions of space local gravity conditions align in just the right way to allow even faster FTL travel.
This third point is especially important for what I have planned in this setting and I’ve made a quick map of one of these Gravity Hyperlanes below.
Under normal conditions travelling from one end of this lane to the other might take a year for example, but because local conditions are just right the voyage can be accomplished in just six months.
My intention is for patterns of human settlement to be based around these hyperlanes. Easy travel will mean that colonies cluster around these lanes even if the systems are not ideal settlement sites, while the rare handful of Earth-like planets will be able to develop into self-sufficient units even if separated from these lanes.
After reading all that you might wonder how messages are transmitted. If a ship may take years to reach its destination then what about an email? Large amounts of data will still need to be carried by special courier ships, but short messages can be transmitted without needing to wait.
Bulgarin Transmitters, which work according to similar principles as the aformentioned FTL drive, are able to transmit short text-based messages nearly instantaneously with just two main limitations.
Messages have to be short. The transmitters require a lot of energy to work, so ships will have only have their transmitters active for short times. Receives can be kept on continuously however.
Messages need to be encoded. These transmitters suffer from a large amount interference so in order to receive messages intact they are transmitted in short bursts resembling old telegraph signals.
There are likely some flaws with this FTL concept that I’m not seeing, and it wouldn’t work for all settings, but I think it fits my rather well. It gives characters a way to communicate with some limitations, allows them ships to travel with reasonable speed. And most interesting to me, it will make spacers into a separate subculture of their own. Being gone from home for years and aging at different rates due to relativistic effects will quickly set them apart from their friends and family back home and I’m excited to explore this as I continue to build the setting.
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.
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.
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.
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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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!