Building a Science Fiction Universe: Sources

(pic source: Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”, copyright 2014 Walt Disney Studios)

Whether or not you intend a SF universe to be “hard”, that is, reflecting actual science and eliminating things we know won’t work given our current understanding of the real world; or “space opera”, in which anything goes (for the most part), your reader/player/viewer/consumer will expect you to establish some ground rules and to be consistent.  In Star Wars, we know there are certain ground rules regarding The Force, and we know that hyperspace requires calculations, can’t be entered while sitting on the ground, and takes time to travel through.  Star Wars takes it pretty loose, though – slightly harder is Star Trek, where there are rules as to how fast a ship can travel in warp, transporters have a certain range, etc – although the rules with transporters got looser and looser with each new series or movies.  In the latest films in the Abrams canon, transporters seem to be limited solely by plot requirements, which is a quick way to lose the respect of your SF audience. “Harder” settings like Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse have a lot more rules, and have weapons, defenses, and sensors approaching what exists in today’s world.

My “UES Achilles” setting is intended to be “harder” still, and that means lots of research.

I started creating this setting under the name “Spacelanes” in 1995.  I have several hundred megabytes of data dating back to the beginning with lists of ships, details of star systems, the jump network, history, deckplans, maps and 3D renders – all kinds of stuff.  During the past 22 years, I’ve changed what I wanted to create several times.  I was going to write an RPG, then a novel, then a wargame, then a series of novels.  It’s been my “goofing off” project since Navy boot camp in 1987 when it was a more space operatic setting with a reactionless drive.  I’m finally taking steps to create the setting proper, and write one or more novels, probably self-published.  For the purpose of providing an example for would-be authors, I want to walk through the process, and much of my prior history with this creation, so that other content creators can draw ideas for their own works.  Partly because I want to, and partly because I believe there are very few SF spaceship creations which have a “realistic” feel, or which explore the consequences and ramifications of their technology, sociology, thermodynamics, economics, and energy.  We’re going to break a few rules along the way, but the plan is to know when and why we’re doing so, to call it out, and to keep it to a minimum.  There’s a few references I’m going to make heavy use of, because they are top-notch:

Atomic Rockets – Winchell Chung’s original claim to fame was a drawing of a tank – The Ogre, a futuristic tank created by Steve Jackson Games.  Later, he penned other notable gaming illustrations, and in the late 90s, he started the first serious reference for Starmapping – 3D Starmaps.  Not long after that, he began working on Atomic Rockets as a repository of knowledge on creating spaceships.  It was something I always wanted to do and never got around to – and I’ll always be a bit jealous of that.  Atomic Rockets is unmatched as a resource on its niche topic – Winchell Chung has possibly one of the greatest private collections of spacecraft articles, designs, and artwork informing his site.  We’re going to make extensive reference to his site, because he’s laid a lot of groundwork.  I’ll note that I am not an unbiased observer – I contributed a fair amount of discussion on sfconsim-l (see below) during the early days of Atomic Rockets which eventually made it into the site in one form or another.  I’m still referenced by name in the section on crew.

Traveller – Mark Miller’s Traveller is a game known among almost any “old school” tabletop gamer for its “harder” take on SF. (and among many literary/grammarian folk for its misspelled title) The old “black book” 8-1/2″ x 5-1/2″ original version holds a special place in gamers’ hearts, and in addition to spawning 5+ versions of the game, has also influenced novels, movies, and TV shows.  A Firefly line uttered by the character “Wash” (“Hang on, travelers”) may well be a reference, and the Firefly universe closely resembles many aspects of the Traveller game, including the vast difference in tech levels on the Core worlds versus the frontier.  The Expanse universe could easily be used as a Traveller game setting, and indeed, The Expanse was a series of Role-Playing Game sessions before the creators wrote the books. (which is why the crew of the Rocinante feels so much like the traditional RPG “party”)

Ad Astra Games – Ken Burnside has been creating outstanding space settings since at least the late 90s, and prior to that worked on a number of Starfleet Battles products.  He’s the creator of the most realistic tabletop space wargame on the market – Attack Vector: Tactical.  AV:T was the first space wargame to make 3D Newtonian space combat PLAYABLE.  I’ll note I am particularly biased on this front since I helped develop the setting, did massive amounts of proofreading and some minor editing of the rules and settings books in versions 1, 1.5, and 2, and playtested many of the scenarios. (and wrote a few for follow-on products)  That said, I know of no other game where I can fire and track (realistically) multiple salvos of coilgun rounds and missiles at 2 enemy ships while manuevering in 3D space and do it without a computer and without it taking 6 days to finish the game.  Ken has also written three outstanding pieces dealing with orbital mechanicsthermodynamics, and weapons in space which should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to create a believable setting in space.  Ken also developed a version of the AV:T system for the Honor Harrington universe, and currently markets a “generic” space wargame called Squadron Strike which allows you to fly ships from ANY universe, and answer questions like “What would happen if I took the Galactica and the Enterprise 1701D up against some Star Destroyers and the Andromeda?”

Children of a Dead Earth – I don’t know much about Zane Mankowski / Q Switched Productions, but I will say that he’s created the most awesome videogame of realistic space combat ever made.  I have quibbles with the official Setting, but ship design and realism are top-notch.  This is the flipside of Attack Vector: Tactical, and they are the top of the realism field for tabletop and computer wargaming, respectively.  It’s interesting, because Burnside started with a set of preconceptions and aimed to make them realistic, whereas Mankowski started with no preconceptions, yet both did the math, and ridiculous amounts of research, and came to roughly the same conclusions – the primary difference being that Burnside’s main propulsion is an undefined form of fusion with an implausible amount of Delta-V. (from an engineering standpoint – it’s well within the limits of physics)

sfconsim-l – The Science Fiction Conflict Simulation List was created on Onelist by Chris Weuve in 1997.  Onelist became part of eGroups in 1999, and was acquired by Yahoo in 2000.  Sfconsim-l was moved to Yahoo Groups sometime in 1999.  Chris is a professional naval wargamer, and an SF wargamer, and teaches strategy and several other subjects at conferences involving senior strategists and naval notables.  The list he created has gone on to host hundreds of fantastic discussions which ironed out the basics of realistic space combat, and dashed the dreams of many a gamer, reader, or writer who hoped that the Death Star could work, stealth was possible in space, or that reactionless drives had no serious repercussions. Participants on the list come from all over the spectrum of careers, and the discussions have had input from actual physicists, astronomers, aeronautical engineers, authors and game designers, and people from dozens of random but related fields.  If you want to know what’s “realistic” or not, this is a great place to ask. (although beware of frequently-discussed arguments on the list which have been discussed to death with entrenched sides, the aptly-named “Purple/Green Arguments

Solstation.comChView, and the works of C.J. Cherryh – Jo Grant and Ben Lin are major fans of C.J. Cherryh’s writing, (as am I) and in the late 90s they created an awesome visualization tool called ChView. (Cherryh Viewer) Jo and Ben were very active in the Cherryh fan mailing lists online at that time, and it was the first real tool for viewing the stellar environment from a “3rd person view” rather than an Earth-centric one.  Other tools have come and gone since then, most notably Astrosynthesis.  I still use ChView, however, because I use a MacBook, and ChView will run under WINE.  Astrosynthesis will not. (Astro also has a number of irritating UI quirks – sometimes the simpler tool is better for the job) C.J. Cherryh is one of the great SF authors, and her books are rich with setting and character, and other than jump drive are reasonably “hard” SF.

Rocketpunk Manifesto – Rick Robinson is a freelance writer who over the years has been a frequent participant in sfconsim-l and quoted often on Atomic Rockets.  Rick has a lot of great ideas to spur discussion, and has coined a number of terms and called into question the traditional “naval” model of SF military vessels. I’ll be quoting him from time to time, and I highly recommend checking out his blog and having a look around.

High Frontier – Phil Eklund is a minor legend in the boardgaming community, unless you have certain specific interests, in which case he is a major legend.  High Frontier is Phil’s masterpiece of interplanetary travel and space mining, a strategically DEEP game, and not for the feint-of-heart. Phil also did some early background work on Attack Vector: Tactical, among many other projects.  High Frontier contains a lot of references to various space technologies which can be hard to find elsewhere – although Atomic Rockets now also has most of the information and references that High Frontier makes use of. There is a 3rd Edition which was published by One Small Step Games.  Phil Eklund recently reacquired the rights to High Frontier and is working on 4th Edition incorporating additional space technology not present in the prior versions.

I’ll likely add more to this list as we go along.

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