Red Suns: Faster than Light

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.

Settlements end up clustered around major trade routes, even if the planets aren’t ideal.

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.

Red Suns: Early Ship Design

In my last post I shared the design for my Lunar Cold War bunker built just before the beginning of world war three. This time, I thought I’d share my vision for some of the space craft that would have existed around the same time period.

The image above is meant to be applicable to both NATO and Soviet spacecraft designs. The specifics might be different but the general idea is the same.

My thinking with this design is that the vessel would carry five crew members; one pilot, three gunners, and one radio operator. The craft has two rotary cannons that make up its primary armament and also has a pair of missile pods that could be used for attacking space stations and other relatively immobile targets.

Also, you’ll notice that this vessel doesn’t seem to be designed with landing in mind. For the most part, this should would have operated from space stations or been reached by small cargo modules launched from Earth bring fresh crew and supplies.

For the most part this ship would operate in Earth’s orbit. The insides are cramped and the engines slightly under-powered, by that’s alright for a ship that will rarely go past the moon. Ships of this type might find themselves going on patrol, escorting larger ships, repairing satellites, disabling enemy satellites, and attacking orbital launch platforms.

I think it’s really interesting to envision the types of craft that would exist if we imagine the space race continuing beyond the moon landings. I have a few more ideas for these early ship designs, and I’ll be posting the setting’s FTL mechanics soon. So stay tuned for more updates!

What do you think about these worldbuilding ideas? What would you do differently? Let me know on twitter @expyblog.

Red Suns: A Retroscifi Adventure

Lately I’ve been working on a little side project titled Red Suns. It’s a retroscifi setting where the Cold War turns hot following a malfunction in one side’s early warning systems. By the time anyone realizes what happened it’s too late. Earth has been devastated by nuclear war and the conflict continues in orbit and on the moon’s surface.

Before the war began both the Americans and Soviets had been building an extensive infrastructure in space and on the moons surface. This included defensive lines on both sides of an agreed upon Lunar Demilitarized Zone. On the American side a large number and variety of defensive installations were built before the war started, the Soviets on the other hand were still in the process of building their fortifications when the war broke out.

After the war Earth ceased to be a viable home for the human race and efforts to explore space were quickly accelerated. As humanity spread throughout and beyond the solar system it continued to be divided along the old NATO/Pact line, with a handful of neutral and independent parties caught in between.

Some details still need to be worked out and I want to eventually insert it into some kind of lunar landscape. But you get the idea.

This particular bunker was designed with anti-vehicle operations in mind. A 20 mm auto-cannon and a trio of surface-to-orbit missiles make up its main armament. It had a crew of just four, who were rotated out regularly using the train seen in the bottom left.

Power was supplied by a small nuclear reactor that runs off of easy to handle uranium cartridges that can be switched out as needed by the crew. This reactor was capable of powering both this bunker and it’s neighbors in the even that the larger grid is disrupted. The bunker was also home to fairly powerful computer that provide’s guidance to the bunker’s missiles.

There were a few but not many options for crew comfort, you will notice a small kitchenette in the habitat section, and if you zoom in far enough you’ll see some personal items in some of the bunks.

This design did come with several issues however. While most supplied could be brought to the bunker by train, the missiles could only be reloaded by crews working on the surface. Similarly, while the turret could be operated and reloaded internally, most maintenance could only be conducted from the outside. In this timeline, these bunkers did their job until they eventually fell victim to orbital bombardment.

I’m still ironing out some of the basic ideas of this setting and I am interested in hearing you ideas. For example, the specifics of FTL have yet to be worked out, but I am currently mulling over slow(ish) modes of travel with a handful of faster “express” lanes. If you have comments or suggestions feel free to get in touch on twitter @expyblog.

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.

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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.

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