Constructing a SF Universe


What is Science Fiction?

A working definition of SF

If we define Fantastic Literature as fiction placed in a setting that is divergent from the reality the writer inhabits, then SF is that class of Fantastic Literature where this divergence is the result of a rational extrapolation of a change in the writer’s reality. (i.e. SF opposed to Fantasy— theoretically, in SF, you can get there from here.)

Major elements of SF: Difference and Reason

The foundation of most SF is a sense of change, of a different world, coupled with a rational attitude. Most SF appeals to Reason. SF worlds are logical constructions. The world is assumed to behave by knowable (if not known) and discoverable (if not yet discovered) laws.


Understand how your world is different

First, know what it’s different from

All fiction has as it’s jumping-off point the writer’s own experience. In SF the writer’s extrapolating from some change in that experience, and in order to do that with a sense of verisimilitude the writer needs to know what things are changing from. If you write about changes in physics, know what the current theories look like. If you write about technological advances, know what the state of the art is in the technology you write about. If you write about time-travel or an alternate history, you must be familiar with the period in history you are changing. If you write of stellar or planetary exploration, know the stars and planets you’re using.

Second, explain the difference

As a rule, a reader will allow a writer to alter anything about the universe, as long as the writer explains why what we thought we knew is wrong. You’re job is to convince the reader that you know what you’re doing, and to never allow the reader to believe you wrote something out of ignorance or carelessness.

Third, follow your rules

The core assumption of SF is that your fictional universe has rules, and the reader will expect you to not only know those rules, but to follow them. And, unless the reader is told differently, the assumption will be that the rules in operation are the rules of the non-fictional universe. This is why the you need to understand your departure point, and why you need to explain (at least implicitly) how your universe is different. Once you establish a rule for your universe, you need to follow it.


Develop your world consistently

Consequences, Consequences, Consequences…

Making your world different can be as simple as locating it in that vast unknown territory, “The Future.” But for every element of difference you introduce in a story, there will be a multitude of consequences rippling out from the point of difference. Consider one example: Once computer animation becomes cheap and detailed enough that a lone hacker can produce a feature film, what will this do to the major movie studios, television, advertising, intellectual property laws, politics, culture, and the nature of celebrity?

Utilize unintended consequences

No one can ever fully predict the results of their actions. The same is true of the people in your world. Sometimes people set out to do one thing, and effect something totally unexpected. An example; a stellar colonization effort that sends out ships that are so well-equipped and attractive to the inhabitants that, when the colonists reach the planet they’re supposed to colonize, they don’t want to leave the ship. Unintended consequences are especially rife when talking about technological change. Every piece of technology will eventually find niches other than what its developers intend. (Consider the identification of pagers with the drug culture.)

Beware of contradicting yourself

This is another way of saying you need to follow the rules you establish for your story. Contradictions are a more than simply saying that the planet Frozz has a 23 hour day on page 3 and a 32 hour day on page 15. (Unless Frozz has a variable rotation for some reason.) It’s possible to have elements of a story that contradict each other only implicitly. A writer can accidentally juxtapose elements that lead an astute reader to come to opposing conclusions about the universe. For example, having a protagonist with a hand-held laser for a weapon, who lives in a future midwest that is famine-stricken. The laser implies a very energy-rich society (the only place a laser would be an efficient sidearm) and an energy-rich society would not be prone to famine. (Food production is linked to energy production.) The way to deal with these implied contradictions is to explain why they aren’t contradictory before the reader thinks of it. In the example, the writer might show how the famine was due to political and societal factors, and not solely environmental ones. The writer needs to think clearly how each element fits into the universe as it is added to the story.


Evoke a sense of complexity

Beware the evils of duality

Our world is not a simple matter of black and white, and neither should yours. It is an easy trap to divide your universe into simple dualities: Good Guys/Bad Guys, The Empire/The Resistance, Spacers/Earthers &c. The problem is, this is a simple shortcut, and the reader will take it as a shortcut, and it drains potential richness from the story. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have characters thinking in such terms, it is a common attitude to think in terms of us/them, but your universe should be broader than the character’s impression of it. And, when a character with such dualistic views is placed in a situation that tests those views, it gives the writer a deep well of potential conflict to draw on.

Use the past

When the only information we have about the universe is that which happens within the story, the world will seem sterile and contrived. Every fictional universe has a past, if only an implied one. You, as the universe’s creator, need to know enough of this past to give the reader a sense that this world existed before the story began, and will continue to exist (barring catastrophe) long afterwards. Also, remember that the past is different things to different people. You’re in a position to know the “real” historical events of your world, but your characters are at the whim of memory, historians, propaganda, and official records. When someone in a story has a different view of history than the reader does, the reader will gain some insight into that character’s personality and culture. (Just consider the differing views on the United States’ Western expansion you’d find in a school textbook from 1950, a anthropological paper written by a Berkeley graduate student in 1969, a historical novel written by a contemporary Hispanic author, and so on…)

Remember real life

Think to yourself; What do these people do for a living? What do they eat? Where do they get their groceries? Where do they sleep (and who with)? What do they do for recreation? Entertainment? Even if none of these elements make it into the story, it will show if you’ve thought about them. Like history, it gives the impression that the universe as written extends beyond the pages of the story.


Make your world essential to your story.

“If it’s a western, it ain’t SF.”

It is by no means a consensus, but there is a large body of thought that says that a story has to have more than an SF setting to be SF. In other words, if the characters and plot can be successfully transplanted to a non-SF setting, it isn’t really SF. If all you’re doing is setting a western in a post-apocalyptic setting, you’re probably better off simply writing a western.

The plot should rely on your world’s difference

What happens in the story should be the direct or indirect result of the element that makes your universe different from ours. This is obviously the case in stories of alternate history, first contact, or technological discovery, but it is less obvious in more generalized cases set in the future, or on other worlds. The question to ask is, if things weren’t different, could this happen the same way? (i.e. can you change the setting and leave everything else pretty much the same?) If the answer’s no, then your story is tied to your world.

Use the characters who inhabit your world

What is true for the plot is true for the characters. There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as seeing a native of Galactic Culture a millennia hence behaving exactly like a late-20th-Century American. Remember, character is extrapolated from culture, and if the universe is different, the culture is as well, and your characters will not behave as we do.


Special cases to consider

Aliens aren’t human beings

Star Trek to the contrary, a good SF alien is not a neurotic human in makeup. An alien should be different, and different in a way that is consistent with its planetary environment, its evolutionary history, the culture it comes from, and its own personality. Each of those developmental factors feeds into the next in a descending hierarchy that results in the being’s behavior, and each should be consistent to the prior. Even subtle differences in the evolutionary history (assuming all things being equal) will lead to wholesale changes in the culture an intelligent species develops. It is probable that we cannot truly write from an alien point of view, but we can develop our alternate people in a logical consistent manner. If you want to write an alien that is different in some specific manner from us, then work to find an evolutionary reason for its difference (why it would aid the species’ survival, or the survival of its evolutionary progenitors) and create a homeworld where such developments make sense.

Change happens over time

Technological and cultural changes do not happen overnight, even though it seems so sometimes. (Even though the internet seems to have sprung into existence full-blown in the public awareness over the past two years, it’s actually been around about half the time computers themselves have been in existence.) This is true of most developments, “overnight” changes are usually the result of a long ripening process. With technical developments, the step from idea to experimental prototype, from prototype to commercial development, and from initial commercial development to universal use can usually be measured in decades. (Thus it will be around half a century before a completely novel technological idea sees universal use.) Cultural changes, in some cases, can be measured in generations. (The attitude toward race in the United States is a prime example) If you need swift changes, you need to place your world under a lot of stress; Protracted war, plague, economic collapse, catastrophic environmental change and so on.

Planets are complex entities

Before you consider writing about the Jungle-Planet Frozz, consider how complex the environment on our own world is. Any planet that generates life will be as varied in climate, terrain, and environment as the Earth is, if not more so. Anything as large as a planetary body will not be reducible to a single description. Even the terrain on the moon is varied. Also, remember the changes wrought by fiddling with planetary dynamics. Even something as subtle as placing an earthlike planet in an orbit around a brighter F-type star (at a distance where it receives the same energy output from its sun as our own planet) causes radical changes on the surface. The seasons will be longer (a more distant orbit), probably increasing the extremes in temperature, and will suffer more UV radiation and more solar flare activity. That alone would make the life there different than Earth’s.


Three exercises in worldbuilding and extrapolation

Imagine our world after some major single social, political, cultural, or economic change has happened, then:

Answer the following questions

  1. Why did this change happen, what brought it about?
  2. Who enjoys/benefits from/favors this change?
  3. Who dislikes/suffers from/disapproves of this change?

List the following consequences

  1. Think of at least three ways the average person’s daily life is different.
  2. Think of at least three ways that “official” public life is different.
  3. Think of at least three ways that people’s behavior has changed.

Imagine a way that some intelligent alien species might be different from humans, then:

Answer the following questions

  1. Why would this difference make evolutionary sense?
  2. On what kind of planet would this evolve?
  3. What does this imply about the other alien life on their planet?

List the following consequences

  1. Think of at least three ways this difference would affect their culture.
  2. Think of at least three ways this difference would affect their technological development.
  3. Think of at least three ways this difference would affect their family life.
Imagine a new technological development, then:

Answer the following questions

  1. For what purpose was this technology developed?
  2. Who developed this technology?
  3. Who opposes this technology’s development?

List the following consequences

  1. Think of at least three uses for this technology other than the intended one.
  2. Think of at least three professions this technology will create or alter.
  3. Think of at least three ways this technology can be abused.