One of the common features of an epic is the "fabulous loci" for the hero to visit. Fantasy novels can have some loci that are quite pretty or terrifying, but science fiction has some that will make your jaw hit the floor. Try comparing the land of Fairie with a ring around a sun with a radius of an entire astronomical unit and a livable surface area of three million times Terra.
Some of them are even from reality, e.g., Saturn's Rings.
This entire page counts as backgrounds and plot ideas for science fiction authors.
A nice standard location is a famous mysterious lost spaceship, especially if it is full of treasure or something. This is commonly part of a treasure hunt story, with the protagonists searching for the ship in order to discover the Dread Secret of its disappearance. In many stories the lost spaceship also has the answer to some old mystery, typically something that the political powers that be would prefer to remain secret because it would shake things up. Examples include The Ghost Line: The Titanic of the Stars by Andrew Neil Gray, J.S. Herbison, All Cats Are Gray by Andre Norton, and A Talent for War by Jack McDevitt.
And in others it turns out that there is a blasted good reason the ship is lost, because there is Something Awful lurking inside. The protagonists who discover the ship are quick to regret it. Examples include Alien, Event Horizon, The Dark Side of the Moon, and ST:TOS Space Seed; which contain respectively the Xenomorph, a Gate To Hell, The Devil and Khan Noonien Singh.
If there are a huge number of lost spaceship, this turns into a Sargasso of Space.
If this is more a Mary Celeste situation (protagonists are not looking for a ship but unexpectedly encounter a recently deserted ship with hot food still on plates), it is called a Ghost Ship. Examples include Polaris by Jack McDevitt, ST:TOS The Tholian Web, The Black Hole, and 2010: Odyssey Two. In the movie Sunshine the Icarus I initially appears to be a Ghost Ship but it is actually a ship with Something Awful lurking inside.
If the ship has been traveling for centuries (sometimes containing a miserable crew that cannot escape), it is called a Flying Dutchman. Examples include Firebird by Jack McDevitt and Andromeda "The Mathematics of Tears".
In old pulp science fiction there is a long history of taking a dramatic and comfortable metaphor and transporting it intact into the outer space environment. Generally the author has to savagely pound a square peg into a round hole, with regrettable results. The classic horrible example is deep space fighter aircraft.
Most pulp falls for the old Space Is An Ocean fallacy along with the related misconceptions.
Many pulp writers figured they were the first to have the bright idea of transplating the colorful legend of the dreaded Sargasso Sea into science fiction. A deadly area of space that somehow traps spaceships who venture too close, only to join the deadly graveyard of lost ships. And not just human ships, a couple stories mention humans discovering wrecks of unknown alien spacecraft mixed in with the conventional ships. The graveyard typically contains everything from recent ships all the way back to historical ships dating to the dawn of space flight.
Some stories populate the graveyard of dead ships with castaways. Who will probably be interested in looting your ship of any supplies it contains.
The original legend dates back to when line-of-sight was limited to the horizon, so a sailing vessel poking at the edge of the sargasso could not see the interior. Not without being caught, that is.
With the invention of radar and the realization that there ain't no horizon in space, writers realized they'd have to make the space sargasso sea more invisible. Usually they'd add on the legend of the Bermuda Triangle in the form of an intermittent "hole in space" leading to a pocket universe. Some kind of wormhole or stargate that would transport the hapless spacecraft to a graveyard of lost ships safely out of sight.
Obviously this is highly unlikely to happen in the real world. But it sure is romantic, in a sci-fi pulp fiction sort of way.
I knew about Dyson Trees but I had no idea that there were enough instances of space-going trees in science fiction that they were considering making it into a TV Tropes entry. They certainly are in Orion's Arm.
The idea is to make a space habitat or spacecraft out of a tree. Not out of wood, but out of a living tree. Now, of course you'll have to genetically engineer the tree so it can live in the vacuum of space, but there is certainly is plenty of sunlight in space to make a plant very happy. Add a comet or other source of volatile gases and the tree will have all it needs. Then all you have to do is tinker with its genes so it naturally grows a habitat module suitable for humans to live in, and you are all set.
Now, a tree might not be a durable as a habitat made out of titanium or something, but it does have all the advantages of an organic object. Self-healing, does not need repair technicians or imported spare parts, self-reproducing, that sort of thing. But from a science fiction author's point of view they are a very romantic and fabulous location. Perfect for space elves or other mythological creatures that traditionally live in trees.
Examples of space trees in science fiction include:
- Manifold: Space by Stephen Baxter (the protagonist finds himself in a dyson tree at one point)
- The Dirty Pair (in the episode "Run From the Future" there is an outlaw habitat called Nimkasi which is a dyson tree)
- The Fountain movie (the "space traveler" sections are set in a space-going tree)
- The Genesis Quest series by Donald Moffitt (he calls them "Space Poplars", the spacecraft version have silver leaves used as organic solar sails)
- Orion's Arm (dyson trees and dyson tree "forests" are called orwoods)
- Tree House by Rachel Pollack
- Comet by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (not science fiction, science fact)
- Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (the "Greenfly" infestation that is depicted taking over the galaxy in Absolution Gap is shown to be billions of self-contained biospheres containing trees and tree-like plants.)
- Hyperion by Dan Simmons (the Ousters fly around in "Treeships". The main one is of course named Yggdrasil)
- Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick (in the story "dysonsworlders" have established tree settlements in the Oort Cloud)
- Tenchi Muyo (the Jurai utilize trees that can live in space as ships)
- Transhuman Space roleplaying game (includes a dyson tree endeavour on Yggdrasil Station)
An arcology is a titanic multi-level building containing a population of around one hundred thousand people who live, work, and play without ever leaving the building. These were popular in science fiction in the latter half of last century, back in the days when people were frightened that our civilization would be destroyed by runaway overpopulation. Nowadays in industrialized nations, people have started worrying about the opposite. Apparently this has caused science fiction stories about arcologies to become unfashionable.
In science fiction, a domed city is usually what the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls a "Keep." It is basically a glorified gated community. The citizens live inside the dome in a paradise, while the dome keeps out the riff-raff / less-than-perfect weather / annoying bugs and dirty animals / post-apocalyptic wasteland / brain-eating zombies / global plague / or other undesirables. The idea is to exaggerate the contrast between the marvelous lives of the privileged inside and the nasty-brutish-and-short lives of the unfortunates living outside.
And in science fiction with the standard morality-play plot, the fun generally starts when something from outside manages to sneak in.
Cities that use domes to keep out nasty weather are a contrast with Stratified Cities where the elite upper-crust get natural weather while the ghetto dwellers live in dark shadows under the mega-skyscrapers or even underground.
And as a side note, undersea cities traditionally are under domes as well. Since water is so hard for humans to breath.
When the ultra-rich upper crust wants to really look down on the lower classes, nothing can beat living in a floating city. Or even if there are no miserable peons living in slums below, the view will still be spectactular. If there are slums, the combination of floating city above and ghetto below is called a Stratified City.
Come to inner space! Undersea cities are a time-honored trope in science fiction. And cinematically dramatic to boot. A domed city on the ocean floor with zillions of fish, squids, and other sea life swimming by; how cool is that?
In older science fiction, a common trope is for oceanic explorers on Terra to stumble over the lost continent of Atlantis. Which is typically inhabited by humans descended from the original inhabitants, who either have learned how to breath water or who quickly became good at building air-tight underwater cities. In Lester del Rey's Attack from Atlantis the Atlanteans accidentally discover how to make unreasonably strong force fields, which is a good trick since at the time they hadn't discovered electricity yet.
Most science fiction movies featuring underwater cities are pretty abysmal (sorry). These include City Beneath The Sea, City Under the Sea, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, and The Underwater City. Oh, and in Star Wars there is Otoh Gunga, but I didn't want to dredge up any unpleasant memories.
"City Beneath The Sea" was obviously a poorly disguised pilot for a proposed TV series. Sank without a trace. The TV show seaQuest DSV lasted two and one-half seasons before they pulled the plug. A few episodes featured underwater colonies. And there was that old animated series Sealab 2020.
Don't forget the underwater city of Rapture in the video game BioShock.
The hapless protagonists in the novel Dome have to learn real quick how to convert their temporary underwater lab off the coast of Hawaii into an underwater colony. It seems that the political situation on the surface deteriorated rapidly, and a global war using biological weapons had rendered life above water impossible for the foreseeable future.
The people in Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson's Undersea Trilogy live in underwater cities with magic force fields. The novel series is sort of like Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet set underwater. In Kenneth Bulmer's City Under the Sea the protagonist discovers what a cut-throat industry underwater food production is.
For a more scientifically accurate underwater colony there is Hal Clement's Ocean On Top. Predictably, since Hal Clement has a reputation for writing hard science fiction. The colonists use geothermal power, and live in a special oxygenated liquid to cope with the ocean pressure.
Back in the day there were a few underwater cities set on the planet Venus, because back in the day one of the leading astronomical theories was that Venus was totally covered in oceans (a "pelagic planet"). Of course back then astronomers thought Mars had canals. The classic was the Keeps series by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. Others include Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr and the Oceans Of Venus and Roger Zelazny's The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth.
There have been a few novels with extensive underwater research labs in the oceans of Europa or other Jovian moons, ever since scientist figured out the Galilean satellites had sub-ice oceans and might even have black-smoker type ecosystems.
Cyclopean installations always make the readers sit up and take notice. Even more so in TV or movies, since the show cannot resist displaying dizzying scenes of bottomless drops with no guard rails. Something to make acrophobics close their eyes and tremble. These scenes commonly use one-point perspective with the vanishing point set to "down".
Such installations can usually perform some cosmically powerful function:
- The Krell Machine: allows any Krell citizen to desire something to be so, then use the power of 9,200 thermonuclear reactors to make it happen
- Project Tic-Toc: a time machine, how cool is that?
- Tractor Beam Controls On The Death Star: all it does is demonstrate that OSHA does not exist in the Star Wars galaxy
- The Living Computers of Xandar: holds the still living brains of every Xandarian who has lived for the past ten million years. Contains all of Xandar's history, science, and other knowledge
- The Great Machine: this does several things; such as controlling and widening temporal rifts, projecting the operator's mind into deep space, boost a tachyon signal over dozens of light years, and scan and project images. And it also has a defensive system capable of obliterating any warship in orbit which has less than First One technology
When you are trying your hand at worldbuilding, please try to avoid ice planets, desert planets, swamp planets, farm planets, volcano planets, and other single-biome planets. The pejorative term for this mistake is Monocosm (term invented by Roz Kaveney). Jerry Pournelle parodied this trope with the phrase "It was raining on Mongo that morning"
The most famous is the planet Trantor from Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (but given a much more detailed description in Donald Kingsbury's pastiche Psychohistorical Crisis). Trantor is famous among those literate in science fiction, the SF illiterates are familiar with the concept mostly from the planet Coruscant from the Star Wars series of movies.
There is a wide variety of life living in the free fall environment of the smoke ring, including a colony of humans. There are even aquatic creatures living in huge spherical floating ponds. (The Integral Trees, The Smoke Ring by Larry Niven)
Ah, the good old Planet Of No Return! Where the environment is slow death, the geology is full of earthquakes and volcanoes, the plants are poisonous and carnivorous, and there are more animals that can kill you than Australia.
But do try to have a bit of internal self consistency when you create your death world. In the old Lost In Space episode "A Day at the Zoo" they become trapped on a planet along with a native teenage alien named Oggo. Another alien notes that the life expectancy on the planet is about fifteen minutes, which leaves the puzzle of how the alien teenager got so old.
People who call a Killer Planet "Home" tend to be called "The Most Deadly Warriors In The Entire Galaxy." If you can survive there, you can survive anywhere. Naturally such warriors are in high demand and get top dollar.
The heavy-gravity constant-earthquake tsunami-prone planet Pyrrus is home to plants and animals that evolved telepatic communication and cooperation in order to survive. The high background radiation ensures that it does all its evolution very quickly. Basically the entire ecosystem is a hive mind.
Regrettibly, the first human colonists inadvertenly made the ecosystem very very angry.
Since then it has been an arms race between the ecosystem evolving new and more deadly flora and fauna and the colonists training themselves and future generations how to be more efficient killing machines out of simple survival. Which means they are super-soldiers.
Naturally it bred super-soldiers. The most deadly are recruited into the dreaded Imperial Sardaukar.
Unfortunatly for them the planet Dune is even more deadly. A total desert planet with practically no water and infested with giant sand worms makes Salusa Secundus look like a resort island. The native Fremen are so ferocious that a Fremen child is more than a match for a Sardaukar.
The planet Trenco takes the cake.
The atmosphere is not air, the oceans are not water. The seas are of a chemical of low latent heat of vaporization, with a boiling-point such that during the daytime it is a vapor and at night a liquid. The air has feeble stopping power, so the nights are icy cold and the days are blazing hot. Which means during the 13 hour night it doesn't rain a few inches of precipitation, it rains forty-seven feet and five inches every night.
There is lightning as well. Not a bolt or to, it is continuous. So much that it warps space. If you shoot a blaster at somebody it is possible for the beam to be bent such that it strikes you in the back.
Did I mention that the wind blows at 800 miles per hour?
And then there are the animals and plants. Who constantly eat each other while they are themselves being eaten.
The planet is Eristan II, which is a killer planet. The protagonists knows all about it, the Ezwal had never heard of it.
The protagonist offers to team up with the Ezwal, saying that together we have a chance of survival.
The Ezwal looks down its nose at the protagonist, says "What do you mean we, white man? How tough could this planet possibly be?", and trots into the forest.
About an hour later the Ezwal come galloping back to the protagonist and pleads for help...
Planets with no life are rather common (just look at our own solar system) and are rather boring. But nothing can beat the grim feeling of mortality engendered by examining a planet that used to have life. Especially if all the life died off rather abruptly.
A Forerunner planet is not too depressing if the culture basically died of old age. No more depressing than your average archeological dig. But if the entire planet still glows blue from an age-old nuclear armageddon, well, the explorers can't help but wonder if the political situation back home has taken a turn for the worse while they've been away.
How can planets die? Let me count the ways. The standard ways are:
- Nuclear War
- Gray Goo
- Stellar Pollution Shifting Habitable Zone
- Planetary Pollution
- Kessler Syndrome
- Total Planetary Destruction
...keeping in mind that most of these methods work equally well for a planetary civilization committing suicide or a planetary civilization exterminated by alien invaders. For more exotic apocalypses go here.
Well, maybe if you converted a Ringworld into a Bussard Ramjet to make a starship one astronomical unit in radius. That would be bigger.
Hang on, you could turn a star into a Shkadov thruster and turn an entire freaking solar system into a spaceship. Please pardon me, I have to go lie down a minute, my head hurts.
Please note that in our galaxy there are some real stars that are moving unusually fast.
Runaway stars are clipping along at around 100 kilometers per second. They are thought to be binary stars which passed too close to another star so one star got sling-shotted out. Or one star of a binary star system where the other blew up in a supernova. For science fictional purposes some sinister alien race converted their sun into a Shkadov thruster so they could go cruising for trouble.
A good example is Barnard's Star aka "Barnard's Runaway Star" or "Greyhound of the Skies". Astronomers measured the lateral speed and the radial velocity to calculate a space velocity of 142 km/s which is smokin'. And it is only 1.8 parsecs away (5.98 light-years), making it the fourth-closest star to the Sun. Jack Williamson used this in his novel The Legion of Space, home of the dreaded giant jellyfish-like Medusae who drive their solar system like a rocketship to invade innocent planets.
Hypervelocity stars on the other hand are screaming along like the proverbial bat-outta-hell. They move at about 1,000 km/s, which is quite a bit more than the galaxy's escape velocity. They are thought to have been sling-shotted by the Sagittarius A* supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. For science fictional purposes they are Shkadov thruster stars with the pedal to the metal, doing their best to get the heck outta Dodge ASAP. The important plot question being: what do they know that we don't? Apparently there is some awful thing that terrifies a civilization powerful enough to thrust their entire solar system up to a thousand klicks a second.