Science for SciFi: Jargon

a man doing an experiment

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Writers want their smart characters to sound smart. Making a character sound smart sounds hard. But really it just requires a surface-level understanding of the topics and an understanding of keywords.

As a scientist (a chemist) and a writer, I understand this challenge well. So I thought I would help by explaining some basic concepts, keywords, and tools used by scientists. This will be the first in a series of posts highlighting interesting parts of science (mainly chemistry) for writers looking to beef up their technobabble.

My own experience and knowledge of chemistry has biased much of this. My fellow scientists who are reading this and feel their favorite topics have been ignored can resolve this grievance by submitting a guest post or leaving a comment.

The “Three” Branches of Science

There are three basic branches of science, but each of them has many subfields and specialties each with it’s own quirks, norms, and standards. Do not mistake these fields as exclusive. Each field may have it’s own focus but in truth the are better at denoting specialties than limits. The lines that separate these fields are becoming blurrier as time goes on and science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary.

Physics – the “most fundamental science” according to Wikipedia. Physics aims to study force, energy, and motion to understand the fundamental laws of the universe.

Chemistry – the “central science.” Chemistry fills a space between physics and biology. Sometimes it is hard to determine where one begins and the other ends. In general, chemistry is concerned with reactions between different chemicals, or analysis of chemicals and their behaviors.

Biology – this field is concerned with the study of living things. Many think of counting fruit flies and dissecting frogs when they think of biology. Much of modern biology shares techniques with biochemistry as scientists have tried to pull apart the secrets of smaller and smaller systems.

Common Vocabulary

Accurate – often confused with precise. To say that something is accurate assumes that there is a “true” value.

Aliquot – a very specific portion taken from a larger sample of liquid sample.

Amino Acids – amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are twenty common amino acids and all share some common structural features.

Atoms – atoms consist of a nucleus containing protons and neutrons, and are surrounded by a collection of “orbitals” where the atom’s electrons are found. An atom is composed primarily of empty space.

Atomic Orbitals – regions of space around an atom where an electron is likely to be. Orbitals that farther away from the nucleus contain higher energy electrons.

Bacteria – ubiquitous and mostly harmless microorganisms. Normally we only care about bacteria when we are sick. Bacteria inside our bodies perform many vital functions that are not completely understood.

microscopic shot of a virus
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Deoxyribonucleic Acid – nature’s data storage. DNA tells cells how to build the proteins that keep them functioning.

Elements – an element is a pure substance that contains only one type of atom (not counting isotopes). Elements can now be created artificially. Many of these are unstable and decay quickly, but some researchers have speculated about a potential “island of stability” hiding among the undiscovered high-mass artificial elements.

Evolution – the theory of evolution is a theory, as far too many would like to say. You can read more about that later. But it’s worth remembered that evolution is a fact. If you can’t wait a few million years you can watch it happen in a petri dish. The Theory of Evolution is simply out best explanation of how it works. Another vital thing to remember is that evolution has no pre-determined direction. “Good enough” is enough for nature.

Functional Groups – a segment of a molecule that determines is properties in a reaction. Examples of functional groups include hydroxyl groups, carbonyls, and much more.

Hypothesis – a hypothesis is an educated guess. A scientist takes known information and uses this information to predict what will happen in their experiments.

Inorganic Molecules – defined simply as “not organic,” inorganic molecules can contain both metals and non-metals.

Ions – ions are atoms that have lost or gained electrons and have a positive or negative charge as a result. Paired positive and negative ions form ionic salts.

Isotopes – isotopes are rarer forms of elements that differ in the number of neutrons contained in their nucleus. Natural samples contain a mix of isotopes in different rations depending on purity. Isotopes will vary in atomic mass and stability. These properties make isotopes useful in many applications.

Law – a law describes a known truth about the universe. Theories explain how laws work, laws do not change when a new theory is devised.

Light – both a wave and a particle. Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Light interacts with matter in a myriad of interesting ways. Scientists often take advantage of these interactions to study properties of matter that are invisible to the naked eye.

Molecules – molecules are built from atoms. Most things we interact with are some kind of molecule. Bonds within molecules are the result of interactions between electrons and atomic orbitals.

crop chemist holding in hands molecule model
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Organic Molecules – the components of gasoline are organic. Organic molecules make up all living things on earth and many dead or inert things as well. Carbon and hydrogen are the primary elements that make up organic molecules.

Peer Review – When a scientists completes a project they write up the results and submit it to a relevant journal in their field. The editor at that journal decides whether the topic is relevant to their publication. If it is, they send the article to reviewers, who are normally other experts in the field. These reviewers look at the article, comment on its merit, and specify what in the article needs to be changed or corrected. An article might go through multiple rounds of corrections before the reviewers decide it is worthy of publication.

Precise – often confused with accurate. Precision is about consistency. Repeated measurements of similar value are said to be precise. We can’t always expect to be accurate, so we aim to be precise instead.

Precipitate – a precipitate is a solid that forms out of a solution.

Proteins – these are how living cells do things. Proteins serve as structural elements, transport molecules, catalysts, and many other things.

Polymers – large chains of molecules constructed from smaller subunits called monomers. Polymers have many useful properties. Kevlar, nylon, spider silk, cellulose, and all plastics are polymers.

Redox Reactions – redox reactions are a huge part of chemistry and biology. The word redox comes from the two related reactions, reduction and oxidation, that are part of every redox system. A useful mnemonic is LEO the lion says GER. Lose Electrons = Oxidation. Gain Electrons = Reduction.

Ribonucleic Acid – DNA’s less popular cousin. RNA carries out several functions inside of a cell. For example, mRNA carries instructions from the nucleus to the ribosome.

Solutions – solutions are everywhere. Solutions have two parts; the solute and the solvent. The solute is a solid that dissolves into a liquid, the solvent. A good rule of thumb when making solutions is that like dissolves like. Polar compounds dissolve in polar solvents, nonpolar compounds dissolve in nonpolar solvents.

Theory – these explain how a particular phenomenon works and why.

Viruses – bits of DNA or RNA bundled up in a shell of proteins and sometimes lipids. Viruses can only survive for a short time outside of a host and reproduce by hijacking the machinery inside of host cells to make more of themselves.

Qualitative – qualitative measurements are somewhat vague. They care about quantities like bigger, smaller, lesser, greater, and so on.

Quantitative – quantitative measurements are exact. They yield a specific number and should have all kinds of statistical analysis to go alongside them.

Quantum – science fiction writers frequently abuse this word. Which is understandable, many trained and experience scientists struggle to grapple with quantum physics because of how unintuitive it is. At this scale the classical physics described by Newton is no longer adequate to model what we observe. So we have a separate branch of physics called quantum physics to describe the behavior of particles on the subatomic scale. Quantum physics is based on probabilities and energy. We can’t nail down the precise location of an electron, but we can determine where it is most likely to be.

Common Laboratory Tools

Balances – many people will recognize these as scales. Many classrooms still used old fashioned balances not unlike the scales found in a doctor’s office. Modern laboratory balances are electronic and can measure mass with a high degree of accuracy.

Dewar – a vacuum insulated container that can be filled with liquid nitrogen, dry ice, or ice water. A dewar is useful for a keeping a sample cold for extended periods.

Gloves – there are two reasons to wear gloves. To protect the scientist from the sample, or to protect the sample from the scientist. The same properties that make many chemicals useful also make them dangerous to human life. Just like many bacteria and viruses that are of interest to scientists are also dangerous. In other cases it is the scientist who could damage the sample. Humans are full of DNA, proteins, and all sorts of other things that could contaminate biological and forensic samples. Gloves are an important part of this. Another important thing to remember about gloves is that the material matters. Nitrile gloves are probably the most common but not all chemicals are compatible with nitrile. Some chemicals may breakdown nitrile or soak right through. Gloves made of other materials are available for those instances.

crop faceless person in outerwear putting on latex gloves
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Glove Boxes – for samples that must be rigorously protected from oxygen, or for samples that may be dangerous to the user, glove boxes are the best option. Glove boxes are exactly what the sound like. A large box, with a glass window and a pair of large rubber gloves. The inside of a glove box is filled with an inert gas like argon or nitrogen.

Heating Mantle – chemists use heating mantles to drive chemical reactions by converting electricity into heat. Heating mantles are controlled by a variac that regulates the supplied voltage. Some heating mantles have a built-in variac, but in most cases the variac is a separate component. Heating mantles are often placed on top of magnetic stir plates.

Hot Plates/Stir Plates – hot plates are another option for heating solutions and materials in lab. Many have a built-in magnetic stirring function that can make a magnetic stir bar inside the reaction vessel spin.

Mortar and Pestle – a frequent component of imagined alchemy labs. Mortar’s and pestles remain useful tools in chemistry and biology labs.

Pipettes – pipettes transfer small volumes of liquids. Some pipettes are carefully calibrated, others are little more than fancy eye droppers.

crop chemist using modern equipment during work process
I’m not sure what they’re trying to do in this photo. I have no idea why anyone would clamp a volumetric flask like that. Or why they would use an open flame instead of a hot plate (flammable vapors make an open flame dangerous in many labs). Still, it’s a good illustration of a pasteur pipette being used to add approximate amounts of a certain chemical.

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Spatulas – spatulas are used to move solid chemicals from one place to the other. For example, from the bottle to a balance or from a weigh boat to a reaction flask. Metal spatulas will be common to most undergraduate, but some labs use disposable plastic spatulas.

Syringes – syringes are incredible useful. Biologists may find many uses for syringes in drawing blood or injecting drugs. Syringes are used to work on air free reactions. Syringes are fantastic for piercing septums and adding or subtracting aliquots with minimal interference from surrounding oxygen.

Common Laboratory Instruments and Techniques

Some instruments are available from commercial sources for thousands or millions of dollars. Others are so specific that they need to be custom built by the user.

Centrifugation – centrifuges separate sample components by density. The centrifugal force causes high density sample components to move outward and form layers.

crop unrecognizable cosmetologist taking test tube out of centrifuge for plasma in modern clinic
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Chromatography – chromatography separates sample components. All chromatography involves a mobile phase and a stationary phase. The mobile phase carries the sample through the stationary phase. As the sample interacts with the solid phase it becomes separated into its components. Many techniques pair chromatography with another analytical technique such a spectroscopy or mass spectrometry.

Electrophoresis – electrophoresis describes the movement of charged particles in an electric field. Multiple separation techniques use electrophoresis to separate sample components such as gel electrophoresis or capillary electrophoresis.

Fluorescence Spectroscopy – some molecules absorb light at one wavelength and emit light at another. Fluorescence is useful in many instances and especially in biology and biochemistry. The strong signal given by fluorescence makes it easy to distinguish from background noise. This is its main advantage over absorbance spectroscopy.

Infrared Spectroscopy (IR) -heat is transmitted through infrared waves. When those waves hit a molecule, parts of that molecule vibrate in characteristic ways. These vibrations are like finger prints for different functional groups.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) – probably one of the most useful instruments in modern chemistry. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance takes advantage of the “spin” that is an inherent property of subatomic molecules like protons and electrons. Basically they behave like tiny magnets. An individual spin has a value of either +1 or -1 and when opposite spins are paired these spins cancel each other. Certain isotopes of common elements have an odd number of subatomic particles in their nucleus resulting in a non-zero spin. NMR works by placing a sample inside of a magnetic field. The unpaired spins then align with the field and the instrument hits the sample with radio waves of a specific frequency. The unpaired spins then flip as they absorb the energy from the radio waves and release energy as they return to their original orientation. The environment surrounding each unpaired spin affects the signal they emit, allowing us to determine the structure of molecules. Proton and Carbon 13 NMR are most common, but isotopes of Oxygen, Fluorine, Phosphorus, and more can also be targeted. Special, expensive solvents have to be used for liquid samples to avoid interferance. The same technology is also used in MRI except in this case the density of spins is used rather than the individual behavior of those spins.

person holding silver round coins
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Mass Spectrometry (MS) – another incredibly useful instrument in modern science. Mass spectrometry begins by injecting a sample, ionizing it, and shooting it at a charged plate. This results in peaks that show us the mass-to-charge ratio. Mass spectrometry can do a lot. So much that mass spectrometry research almost constitutes its own subfield, but it is useful to all other niches of chemistry.

Ultraviolent/Visible Spectroscopy (UV/Vis) – UV/Vis instruments are used to study a sample’s interactions with light in the visible and ultraviolet range. There are two basic types of readings we can get from this: absorbance and transmission. Absorbance is how much light the sample absorbs, transmission is how much light passes through the sample. Accurate readings depend on knowing the emission profile of the light source. Basic instruments assume that this profile is constant, more sophisticated instruments take constant readings of the light source. Interference in these experiments may come from fluorescence in the sample or form surrounding light sources.

X-Ray Spectroscopy – of all the electromagnetic waves X-Rays contain the most energy and are the most destructive. These high energy rays frequently ignore anything outside the nucleus. Various forms of X-Ray spectroscopy are used to determine the structures of solid crystals and identifying the elements and isotopes in a sample.

NATO Forces in the Independence System

Awhile back I posted about a system named Independence, a part of my retro-scifi setting Red Suns. Independence is important because one of it’s planets, Franklin, is capable of supporting human life.

Because planets like this are so rare, the system is coveted by many factions, several of which maintain outposts in the system and two; NATO and the Neo-SOVIET have agreed to share Franklin. The relations between these two factions are often tense and both sides have dedicated considerable resources to securing their interests in the system.

This is the first of several posts where I provide an overview of the ships, people, and places of the Independence System. Beginning with an overview of NATO military assets in the system.

Ship Weapons

Rotating rings are great for providing consistent gravity but are incredibly vulnerable in combat. For this reason most frontline combat ships are built without rings. “Gravity” is provide by constant acceleration and crew have to deal with frequent shifts in acceleration and orientation.

NATO ship design hides most weapons emplacements inside armored bulbs. Everything from anti-missile counter measures to missile chutes are enclosed in armored bulbs that only open during combat.

These autocannons, suitable only for close-range combat or intercepting missiles, are a vital part of every ship’s defenses. Most combat however, is done with missiles at extreme ranges.

These missiles can carry a variety of payloads good for everything from orbital bombardment to anti-ship slog fests. The one pictured here is a generic load, but NATO armorers are more than capable of switching warheads out at a moment’s notice.

Missiles

Siegfried Class Battleship

The newest, most advanced ship in the NATO fleet, and only a handful are currently available. It takes over a decade to finalize the design of a new battleship, and years more before new ships are fully distributed in all the systems where NATO has interests. The Independence system has an unusually high concentration of these new battleships. Equipped with new, rapid launch missile silos and state-of-the-art target tracking. A Siegfried can make short work of most ships.

Siegfrieds carry close to 2000 personnel, including enough dropships and marines to take over a small surface settlement or large space station. Each ship is a self-contained city. NATO spacers compete fiercely for a posting on a Siegfried because they know that they will spend years, or even decades on that ship and a Siegfried is one of the safest, most comfortable ships to be on in any fleet.

Challenger Class Battleship

There are a bit smaller than the Siegfrieds. Let’s say a crew of about 1000.

Somewhat older than the Siegfrieds but by no means out dated. The armament on modern retrofitted Challengers is similar in almost all ways to a new Siegfried. The main differences in armament come from a less sophisticated guidance computer and a set of four drive cannons mounted at the top of the ship.

These drive cannons fire huge projectiles at enemy ships and moons in medium-range confrontations. These cannons require a dedicated reactor and are placed away from the main hull to increase their field of fire. At the time of the ship’s design it was thought that these cannons would be a part of the ship’s primary armament. Technology had other plans. As guidance computers and targeting systems advanced it became more and more practical to engage enemies at extreme range. Despite this, the Challengers remain competent warships.

Recently, several of the Challengers in the Independence system have been given further refits that have improved their guidance computers. Engineers expect to see a far greater degree of accuracy from the drive cannons as a result. This has not yet been tested in combat conditions.

Marshal Class Destroyer

This is the smallest warship that NATO is likely to assign to long-term missions. Marshal Class Destroyers are often seen far away from NATO systems.

In locales such as the Independence System the Marshal Clase Destroyers are commonplace due to the buildup of forces. They are frequently seen escorting larger ships or leading customs patrols.

Marshal Class Destroyers carry enough firepower to hold their own in a fight and carry multiple Pioneer Class Dropships. Enough to perform small boarding actions and land marines on a surface.

Multi-Vector Attack Unit (MVAU)

Outside of atmosphere fighters are uncommon. The smallest combat craft operated by NATO is the MVAU, a broad class of small vessels crewed by between two and five crew.

MVAUs are an important part of the larger fleet, but their pilots must be carefully selected, as their positions require them to spend many weeks or even months alone.

MVAUs are mainly valued for their ability to go relatively unnoticed. Their small profile makes them difficult to distinguish from the vastness of space and they often go for long periods in a “dormant” state.

In combat MVAUs are limited. Their main armament consists of projectile weapons, useful for intercepting missiles or attacking unsuspecting targets. An MVAU may carry one or two missiles but for the most part are considered the outermost part of a fleet’s defensive screen.

Pioneer Class Dropship

Large shuttles that glide to a safe landing are preferred for ground operations. But not all planets have suitable atmospheres or are safe for shuttles with such drawn out atmospheric trajectories.

Dropships can carry many tons of supplies, or about forty marines, on a meteoric trajectory towards a planets surface. It’s fall is only arrested at the last moment by a set of powerful maneuvering thrusters.

Ground Forces

Forces stationed on Franklin’s surface have the luxury of not needing to carry bulky life support systems and armored exoskeletons. But they do have to content with the possibility of protracted surface combat.

Because Franklin is capable of naturally supporting human life the surface is worth preserving to both sides. This means that large scale bombardments are unlikely and the soldiers stationed there will have to endure a protracted ground campaign if war breaks out.

NATO soldiers on Franklin are equipped with a stripped down version of more standard armor kits painted in shades of white and grey to blend in with the chalky off-white gravel and stone that covers the planet. For the harsh, dry winters a mask with breathing filters also suitable for protection against chemical warfare agents is supplied to each soldier and worn as needed. These masks offer protection from the massive storms that sweep across the surface each winter and pummel victims with showers of dust, gravel, and ice. Also useful in the winter is a bundle of heating circuits incorporated into the uniform that when activated can help to keep a soldier’s core temperatures up.

Most soldiers carry the same service rifle used on other planets and in vacuum. These rifles are deadly, but are mostly small caliber weapons designed to allow soldiers to carry enough ammunition as possible.

For support, ground troops have access to a selection of armored vehicles, all built in local factories. Most of these vehicles are hover craft or have extremely wide treads into order to navigate the mud slurries that cover much of the surface during the wet season.

You Should Watch Gilmore Girls

I grew up with shows like the Gilmore Girls playing in the background. My mom really liked the show when I was younger and I don’t think she realized that I was actually paying attention. Then, a few months ago, I was looking for a new series to watch with Emily and my mom decided that it should be Gilmore Girls.

Emily was unsure, but I know a trick that works every time. All I need to do is put the first episode on and Emily will watch it. She wont say anything, she might even pretend not to be interested. But then I let a day or two pass and before too long she asks if we can watch another episode. Works every time.

So that’s what we’ve been watching on and off the past several months and we’re on season three now. Although the show was aired in the early 2000s, which is basically forever ago, it’s still a good show if you are looking for something fun to watch that wont force you to pay too much attention.

Here are some reasons.

It’s About A Single Mother And Her Daughter

Gilmore Girls is unique because it follows a single mother (Lorelai) and her teenage daughter (Rory). They are also best friends, and this is really the main premise of the show. The important thing about this is that they are independent to a fault. Both of them are completely comfortable being themselves and the people around them love that for that (although the grandparents do get annoyed).

Lorelair and Rory are mother and daughter but also best friends. Source.

Dating comes up frequently, but it’s not the focus of the show. Mother and daughter try to help each other navigate various social and romantic situations but there is never a need to have “man of the house.” In fact, both characters chaff when male characters try to assume that role.

The Grandparents Are Hilarious

Richard and Emily Gilmore are Lorelai’s wealthy and oftentimes estranged parents. In the very first episode Lorelai is forced to her parents to ask for money for Rory’s education and in exchange her parents require her and Rory to visit them for dinner every Friday.

At first their relationship is very antagonistic but later evolves as the elder Gilmores learn to be more accepting and a little less stuck up all the time while still making it clear how they think that Lorelai should be living her life. On second thought, no they don’t act less stuck up, but they have their moments and are endearing in their own way.

We haven’t actually seen this episode yet but this picture was too good to pass up. Source.

The dynamic between the two when Lorelai first asks for money is what I enjoy most. For the most part Richard Gilmore has a friendly demeanor and rarely gets as involved in the family bickering. He is more than happy to write Lorelai a check, it’s Emily Gilmore that wants conditions placed on the money. I like the idea that he and his newspaper are just along for the ride.

Kirk Will Make You Grateful You Don’t Know Him

Kirk is a reoccurring character who does all sorts of odd jobs around town. At various times he works as an exterminator, amateur photographer, skin-care inventor, and a lot more. He is also insufferable. Everyone in town is annoyed with him about 95% of the time.

I really want to know how he figured out just how dangerous his “skin care” products are. Source.

Every time Kirk makes an appearance you just know that he’s about to make someone uncomfortable. He’s the kind of character that is fun to watch and great to not know in real life.

One more. I couldn’t pick just one. Source.

Luke Has The Best Tantrums

Luke owns the local diner and is a close friend of the heroines. Lorelai and Rory go to his diner just about every day so that Lorelai and Luke and can verbally abuse each other while Lorelai drinks what Luke is sure is too much coffee.

Luke serves as Lorelai’s “love interest” for much of the show. Or at least he’s the one everyone thinks/knows should be her love interest. More important are Luke’s constant fights with Taylor. Taylor is the man who owns the local grocery store who is far too uptight and has far too much influence in town. Luke hates everything Taylor represents, or at least acts like he does. I’m not sure. Doesn’t matter really as long as the fights are fun.

It’s Relaxing

I like serious shows. Emily doesn’t. I probably watch too many serious shows. Gilmore Girls is a great show to relax while watching. It’s a nice slice of life that lets you follow the characters’ ups and downs. It’s also a lot of fun. Stars Hollow, where the story takes place, is a quirky small town that the show makes you wish it exists.

Really though, just watch it. The troubles and anxieties of the characters are endlessly relatable and entertaining. You wont regret it.

This post was a little different from what I normally do. If you want to see more Gilmore Girls content let me know on twitter @expyblg or shoot me an email at charlesm@charles-m.com. If you really like this content and want to help me make more you can buy me a coffee or visit my store on Redbubble.

The Final Frontier

I’ve made a few posts about a one-page roleplaying game that I’ve been working on called The Final Frontier. It’s a simple tabletop roleplaying game perfect for any tired game master who just wants to run a quick oneshot with their players.

While I was designing the game I tried very hard to imagine scenarios that could be solved without violence. The game is meant to put players in control of characters not used to daring adventures and life threatening situations. Instead, players are challenged to use mundane skills to solve the problems before them.

I like to think that I succeeded. In the past few weeks I played several encounters with my players.

In the first one, players encountered a cult worshipping an alien hiding under the ice of Europa. The alien was infecting members of its cult with a psychic virus that allowed it to control them. Its goal was to get enough cult members to build a ship capable to taking it back home. My players didn’t care about any of this. They got back on their ship and left the inhabitants of the Europa colony to their fate.

In the second, my players encountered a strange alien object passing through the solar system. Though they didn’t know it at first, the object was an alien probe designed to test any species it encountered. After years of intercepting transmissions from Earth the object used the harvested data to present puzzles to the characters to help its algorithms ensure that it has been interpreting the data correctly. By the end of it only player character achieved their desired surge in internet popularity and another experienced what he believed to be a revelation and left ready to found a whole new religion.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the game is finally posted on itch.io! You are free to name your own price for the game so please, go check it out be sure to tell your friends about it.

Tales From The Golden Fleece Inn

“Stupid,” Sarah mumbled to herself as she trudged along. “That was stupid.”

She shouldn’t have gotten involved, should have done a better job of hiding those papers. Now all her accounts were gone, and she was alone and cold. She touched her hand gingerly to the side of her face. It was still tender. Would it bruise? Probably.

Where was she?

She looked around. She had taken off running from her apartment and how she was on a street she didn’t recognize, and she was severely underdressed for the weather. Her watch said it was nearly midnight…

This is the first story in a series set in The Golden Fleece Inn, an ancient establishment located outside of the material plane. Continue reading on Wattpad.

Geopolitical Conflicts: Using Geography to Add Conflict to Your Setting

The first thing I do with every setting is I decide on two or three countries that I want there to be. I imagine what their economies and governments will be like, and I decide if I want them to be naval power, a steppe empire, an isolated enclave, or whatever else. Then I get to work on the map and I design the map so that themes I want for each country are complemented by its surroundings.

I benefit greatly from hindsight here. While the future of a nation is not predetermined, its geography can play a huge role in its development, and I can draw on the events of the past to design the geography and conflicts I want for my setting. So let’s look at a few examples.

A Small Country with a Big Impact

Land mass doesn’t always correlate with influence. It can help of course. Russia for example is huge and benefits from a wealth of natural resources. But Britain is smaller than some US states and yet at one time it ruled much of the world. Give a small nation a resource or circumstance that it can exploit and it can play a huge role in world events.

Waterways are one of my favorite ways to do this, and we can look to Turkey, Panama, Egypt, and Iran for real world examples. Istanbul’s location on the Bosporus allows whoever owns the city to control the sea lanes that pass through it. This brought the Ottoman Empire into conflict with the Russian Empire on multiple ocassions. Russia was denied the warm water ports it craved for as long as it lacked control of the city, and Ottoman control of the straits allowed them to cut off Russia’s connections with the allies in WWI. The other countries meanwhile control major canals or straits vital to world trade, and their ability to constrict that trade gives countries that might otherwise be only a regional power a way to exert influence on a global scale.

Technology and political convenience can also grant influence to an otherwise small country. Imagine if Google had been founded in Cuba. More likely though, in a world where superpowers are vying for influence, a small country that happens to have something that a superpower wants can extract a lot of concessions from them.

The weakness of this later approach is that the benefits a country reaps will be be greater in the short term than the long term. Sea-lanes have been vital for centuries, but technological superiority or political priorities might shift in a matter of decades. Of course this could be a conflict as well and you could choose to focus on a country that is struggling for relevancy in a changing world.

A Big Country with a Big Impact

Big countries with lots of resources and ample space have a lot of room for population growth. The hard part is their size. With such long borders and so many people inside them there bound to be lots of neighbors to pick fights with and lots of internal dissidents. The country better have a robust communication infrastructure or it’s going to be hard for orders from the center to reach the periphery.

The type of government is going to be important here. Are the leaders able to address the needs of the people? Are they able to keep the peace between all the different regional factions that are bound to be present? A large country with a lot of resources can have a big role in world affairs, but without a strong foundation and internal stability it’s bound to fall apart if enough pressure is applied from the outside.

One of the challenges with a such a large country is that there’s a lot of detail to be fleshed out, but there are also plenty of small stories that can be told. Or you could write up a few vague descriptions and leave the Big Country as a boogyman that your characters sometimes have to deal with.

The Isolationist Island

Island nations are perhaps the only nations in the world that actually have a decent chance of keeping all foreigners out. A coastline can be fortified and defended in a way that no land-based border can.

This isolation may not be complete. There may for example be designated ports where foreigners are allowed to trade, but if the island has enough natural resources they may be able to keep their isolation going for a long time.

The problem of course is that it’s easy for the world to pass them by. Sure the citizens might be happy living on their island, safe from the problems of the world, but before long the world is going to come knocking and the island might very well find itself out-matched.

There are a lot of opportunities for story and conflict here. Perhaps the island is experiencing a civil war and trying to hide that fact from outsiders. Maybe the island regularly sends agents out into the world to gather information and new technologies and your character is one of them. Or maybe the island has suddenly been thrown open to the world and its people have to adjust to a new and possibly frightening reality.

The Island Superpower

Maybe an island nation wants to isolate itself from the rest of the world, or maybe because of its small landmass it lacks the natural resources it needs to compete in the modern world. Luckily for them both goals can be achieved through a powerful navy and an aggressive foreign policy. Why buy when you can take? And why tell everyone to stay away when you could just sink every ship that drifts to close to your shores?

The sea is a natural focus for any island nation, it’s the only way for any would-be invaders to reach the island after all. With a strong seafaring culture and a little know-how it could easily grow into a naval super power. Because it’s power depends on naval supremacy however, it may sometimes get dragged into conflicts it would otherwise stay away from. Britain in the early twentieth century entered into a naval arms race with Germany thanks to their policy of always having the biggest navy. The arms race was expensive and helped to ratchet up tensions between the two countries. For Germany building a strong navy was just part of joining the international community of major powers, for Britain making sure they outpaced everyone else in naval development was a matter of survival.

You might also write this as an isolationist island nation that has decided to become a superpower, or at least a major power like Japan did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. An island superpower might grown out of a previously isolationist nation that has decided that it must grown and expand in order to be able to compete on the international scene.

Again here there are lots of opportunities for conflict. Isolationist factions might dislike the large navy and feel that it does nothing but get the country involved in foreign affairs. Traditionalists might pine for a return to the “old ways.” Some might think they country isn’t aggressive enough. Or the formerly downtrodden might see all this shipbuilding as a chance to see the world and make their fortunes…at the expense of whoever they might run into.

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The Golden Fleece Inn

First established in Rome during the reign of Augustus. For nearly two thousands years the Golden Fleece Inn has been a nexus of the supernatural community.

Located deep within the Infinite Staircase, the Inn does not actually exist on Earth, allowing Patrius to remodel every few centuries without regard for building codes or the laws of physics. There are six locations where the Inn can be accessed directly from Earth. Each of these appears as a rundown establishment at the end of an alleyway or a dilapidated part of town and is heavily warded by Patrius to make accidental discovery by mortals unlikely.

The six cities on Earth from which the Inn can be located are Rome, Istanbul, London, Kyoto, New York City, and Jerusalem. No matter which door a visitor enters through they all find themselves at the front door to the Inn next to the bouncer. Each city then has its own exit door somewhere in the Inn, while the front door also serves as the exit to the Impossible Staircase. The Inn is also accessible via a short journey through the Impossible Staircase from St. Petersburg, Baghdad, Chicago, Cairo, and Mexico City.

Some guests would prefer that the Inn accept currency other than silver denarius. The Stiltskin Trust Co moneylender in the corner is normally happy to exchange currencies, but often attempts to trick customers into making other bargains.

Both the owner of the Inn and its staff are notably eccentric and have a strong desire to look after the wellbeing of the Inn’s guests.

Patrius – a human sorcerer of indeterminant age. Patrius appears as a middle aged man with slightly greying hair and is usually wearing a purple button-down shirt. He is an extremely powerful sorcerer who uses earth magic to extend his own life. Most of his time is spent sitting in his alcove where he can listen in on conversations. If a guest attracts his interest he will normally invite them to sit with him where he will ask about them about themselves and make occasional notes in his guest book. In the early days of the Inn he was known to disappear for years at a time without explanation. Nowadays his absences have grown much rarer and last for a few days at most.

Ted – the hulky, shirtless, tattooed bouncer sitting in the broken recliner is a troll named Ted. He takes the Inn’s no fighting rule very seriously and doesn’t care about much else. A few years ago someone introduced him to Chinese food and became addicted. Now regulars often bring him offerings of egg rolls and lo mein. Ted is almost never seen without his trusty silver battle axe which stands almost as tall as he does.

Gib and Gob – the kitchens are run by a pair of scaly green imps named Gib and Gob. No one actually knows which one is which. Regulars insist that their cooking is second to none, and they are right as long as the two have had a few years to practice their new recipes.

Dan – A tall and skinny young demon with four arms and horns growing from his forehead. Dan tends the bar and is an amazingly talented mixologist. His true passion however is for coffee and he has several customs blends that he makes for guests.

Bog/Boggie – the Inn’s resident boggart who takes care of the housekeeping and serves as a messenger for Patrius. It takes the shape of a large cat with a silver collar around its neck and a chain that drags along the floor. When it’s not busy it can be found sleeping in front of the fire in Patrius’s alcove.

The staff are exceptionally loyal to Patrius and the Inn, but the place wouldn’t be the same without its regulars.

Nathan – an NYU graduate student studying creative writing and folklore. Nathan is not magical in least but wandered in by accident on day. He’s been coming to the Inn ever since and it has become his favorite study spot.

The Captain – an old mariner who always smells like fish and wont stop talking about the time he wrestled a polar bear. He appears to be some kind of ocean demigod but has never revealed who his parents are.

Doug – the president of the NYC chapter of the Black Dog Motercycle Club. He and his pack come nearly every night.

Arito Taisho – a shinto priest and talented psychic. He comes to the Inn regularly to play cards with Doug and the rest of the pack.

Belesunnu – a middle eastern woman of few words. She has a talent for wind and earth magic and mostly likes to challenge over-confident men to games of darts or archery contests.

Gerark – an elderly bugbear who works for Stiltskin Trust Co. He sits in the corner most days with his magic circle, ready to exchange currencies and seal magical contracts.

Jasmine/James – a shapeshifting succubus/inccubus who runs a small escort business. They have helped people hide more than a few skeletons and is generally the one to go to for information about the current state of the supernatural. They are often seen smoking with Patrius in his alcove, drinking with Nathan, or giving Dan feedback on his newest coffee blend.

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The Best Things About Bending

Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.

Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.

There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.

Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.

Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.

Physicality

This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.

For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.

What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.

Balance

Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.

Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?

In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.

In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.

Incorporation

Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.

Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.

This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?

It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?

Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?

Conclusion

Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.

It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.

What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.

Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.

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