The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Bridging The Gap Between Sub-Genres (SF)

Posted by BigWords on August 13, 2009

(note: I don’t normally do BIG SF, so this idea is likely to change.)

There’s a lot to think about when you consider introducing the actual nuts and bolts of space travel into a science fiction novel. I would have said ‘story’ there, but ‘novel’ makes more sense, ’cause there just isn’t room in a short story to get into the how’s, why’s and where’s that would give those big ‘ol spaceships a bit of depth. I’ve been thinking of applying a fresh take on the ancient trope of interstellar combat, but the technology has been bugging me since I started thinking about space travel seriously three or four years ago.

My concepts so far run to extrapolations of current technology and a few sensible adjustments of naval terminology. Everything needs to connect in a way which makes sense of the complications which would arise, though there is damn few things which work across both hard SF and space opera, the two sub-genres I would like to tie together in a way which doesn’t negate either approach. Yeah, it’s asking a lot from the reader to believe 100% in the world and get away with epic storytelling at the same time, but it shouldn’t be this hard.

I’m getting ahead of myself, because we need a chunk of space to drop spaceships into before the mechanics of the universe can be dissected.

The Basics

I’ve started a bit of the basic outlining, such as working out how large the known universe will be, which side the hero will be on, and where everyone is in terms of alliances and emnities. The worlds which I have decided will be used are full of humans, getting rid of several added layers of complexity and staying true to the hard SF side of the mix which has evolved through the story. I’m going to let you in on how I come up with the names of the planets, because it’s only fair that some techniques get aired for future reference.

The colonies are given six-letter names, alongside a numerical reference used for diplomatic and astrological reasons. The numbers are (loosely) based on a three-dimensional grid combined with elements lifted from a Victorian map of London. It’s an eccentric approach, but it seems to adds a layer of realism to the numbering. The names on the other hand, which is what the planets will mostly be called, is pure imagination combined with a level of geekery that I am ashamed to say runs to my core.

So, you’re wondering about the names? Try these out for size:

Reofje, Cilide, Masoun, Yebroa and Maoste.

They are some of the ones which remain in the text (there are more, with even obscurer origins), and serve well to demonstrate the naming of large numbers of objects / places / ideas when I have better things to do than concern myself with minutia. I’ll tell you how I did it now…

I’ve been using a form of shorthand for the better part of a decade now, mostly because I can write incredibly fast when I get excited about an idea. My handwriting goes to shit when I’m typing fast, and is impossible to read past three or four pages. Nuts and bolts: The shorthand eliminates ‘the’ from sentences, using t/ in its place, and unique words or phrases are compressed into a few letters.

So, in this vein, Return Of The Jedi becomes ReOft/Je. When I take out the t/ I am left with ReOfJe, which gets standardized into a normal word, and “Hey presto!” I have the name of a planet, without having to discover everything about the people living there to get the ‘perfect’ name. As if I could actually come up with something better, right? Actually, this isn’t so far from the lame way in which aliens were named in Alien Nation, resulting in characters named after dead actors and cartoon characters. The guys who would name planets would get bored after a while and start calling them whatever cruddy names they felt like.

Which means I now have planets, though the planets need governed. I’ve used a loose appropriation of US politics, mingled freely with 18th and 19th Century British Empire thinking, to create a governmental system which can be seen as both horribly oppressive and wonderfully free without contradicting myself. All colonies are regarded as equal, but those with more natural resources are better than the ones which just come in over the basic requirements for the sustenance of life. It saves building factions and competing powers.

The Space-Docks

When I decided on giant space cruisers as a primary mode of transport I found myself thinking about size. Guys do this a lot, because no matter how often we are told otherwise we will obsess about size. It matters. The bigger the better, right? Well, in deference to the laws of physics I decided that the manufacturing of these behemoths would be done in space, where the issue of weight isn’t a concern. It’s still problematic, because without friction anything which begins to move will keep moving until it hits something.

Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.
Pablo Picasso

I’m taking technologies which exist, so – postulating the advances in technology combined with human ingenuity – I decided that the sensors used in cars to avoid crashes would make the process easier. There is a commercial running at the moment where a car automatically brakes when it comes up behing another car, so that is a nice example of the technology in action.

But the light from the sun is going to make things difficult… Which is where simple manufacturing robots come into their own. I pointed out the ROS being used now, so robots will have hopefully become cheap enough to mass-produce when we finally get into space. I’m not sure they will ever attain sentience, so Data from Star Trek, the annoying gay butler and the Tourettes-suffering dwarf from Star Wars (and even Arnholt from the Terminator films) can be ignored. No droids in my story thankyouverymuch.

Which brings me to A.I., and one of the worst assumptions in film I have seen. Every robot looks the same (sorry for spoiling the film if you haven’t sen it), yet in the real world there is always competition. Numerous companies trying to outdo each other is one of the cornerstones of innovation, and the idea that one single company has cornered the market so completely that no alternatives exist strikes me as ‘off’ somehow. Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex handles the idea much better.

But I said there would be no robots chatting with my main characters, so the point is moot.

To be continued…

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