To keep things plausible, you may want to take a couple of months and peruse the TV Tropes list of "So You Want To Write A..." links and examine the ones relevant to your science fiction novel/game. Such as:
- So You Want To Write a Science-Fiction Story
- So You Want To Write a Hard Science-Fiction Story with Space Travel
- So You Want To Create Believable Aliens
- So You Want To Design an Alien Mind
- So You Want To Write an Alien Invasion Story
For science fiction authors and game designers who need a quick plausible scientific non-obvious background to inspire their next novel, there are one or two in this website. Here is a list of links that will send you directly to them.
In his article Staying on the Cutting Edge of Science Fiction, James Wallace Harris notes if you study the history of science fiction ideas, they break down into a limited number of areas:
- Interplanetary travel
- Interstellar travel
- Alien life forms
- Artificial beings (robots, AI, digital life, artificial life)
- Predicting future social structures
- Predicting future politics
- Impact of new technology and inventions
- Impact of new science (anti-gravity, multiverse, higher dimensions)
- Post-apocalypse and collapse
- Post-humanism (mutants, clones, mental powers)
- End of humanity, end of the world
The focus of this website is on interplanetary and interstellar travel. But I have a few odd pages devoted to some of the other ideas.
Here is a mind map of one possible way to divide up science fiction ideas:
- Created Beings
- Interplanetary travel
- Interstellar travel
- Galactic Empires
- Wormholes (reduce the distance to the starship's destination by exploiting an external space warp, natural or artificial)
- Space warp (reduce the distance to the starship's destination by ship's engines warping space)
- Matter transmission
- Hyperspace (make starship's velocity faster than light)
For authors, creating the background for a novel from scratch is a daunting task. Authors writing historical novels have all the work done for them, they just have to read a few history textbooks. Science fiction novelists on the other hand, have to roll their own. That's a lot of work.
This is why noted SF author Ken MacLeod said "History is the trade secret of science fiction." It is fairly easy to take some real-world history, make the cities into interstellar planets, change the ocean-going ships into starships, and rename all the terrestrial civilizations with names suitable for galactic empires. This was pioneered by grand master SF author Isaac Asimov, who re-used Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the background for his Foundation trilogy. This has been done by may SF authors since, including Ken MacLeod and David Drake.
But what if you want to actually make your own background, not re-use history, but are not sure if you are up to the challenge?
The answer is simulation. There are mathematical techniques that can indicate historical trends.
I can see your eyes glazing over already. But don't panic. If you are allergic to mathematics, there is a simpler method that is far more fun. What if you made it a game?
Submitted for your approval are two role-playing-games: Microscope (should get both Microscope and Microscope Explorer) and Diaspora (latest version). Microscope creates the historical background, while Diaspora's cluster creation system creates the map.
These are table-top role-playing-games. In practice, they are simply more structured versions of the childhood game "Let's Play Make-Believe." The archetypal TTRPG is Dungeons & Dragons, you may have heard of it.
There is a slight complication. To use technique to generate worldbuilding information for your SF novel you will need two or more creative people, counting yourself. It doesn't work well if you try it solo. The point is that a small group can make a much more interesting and multi-leveled background than any single person can (unless you are J. R. R. Tolkien, in which case you can stop reading right here). In fact, with a good group the creativity level goes up as the square of the number of players (e.g., three players are nine times as creative as one player, not three times as creative). So using these particular RPGs makes the group like a very focused brain-storming session, bouncing ideas off each other and everything. The fact that these are games means the process is a lot of fun for everybody involved.
For either of these games, the author will have to recruit at least one other player. The players must be creative people. It helps if they are also frustrated story-tellers. Best of all is when the players are other authors. Both games assume that the players have strong narrative skills. Both games also assume that the players are good at inventing plot twists and other interesting complications.
Obviously friction is reduced if they are a personality that plays nice with others. Also obviously it works best with extroverts, introverts who are afraid of speaking up will not contribute much. As a side note, it might be prudent for the author to get the other players to sign some sort of legal document about ownership of the intellectual property being created. Just in case.
The purpose of a Microscope RPG game session is to create an epic history.
The supplement book Microscope Explorer has a chapter "World-Building: Games Collide" with notes on how to adapt the game into a process to generate a background history for a novel.
Other RPGs require one player to be the "Game Master", but in Microscope there is no game master, only players. In addition to the game manuals, you will need some 3x5 (or smaller) index cards plus pens or pencils. Microscope requires two to five players, it seems to play best with three or four players.
Unlike other RPGs, the players will not have a set character they play. Instead they will mandate historical changes, and role-play pivotal people at key points in the generated history.
You also will not play the game in chronological order. You the player may know about "future" events but be surprised by events happening in the past.
The history is built from the outside in. The players start with the big picture: the grand scheme of history, then focus on carving out the small details. In other words: the history is built like a fractal.
It is also possible to use Microscope to flesh out a pre-imagined history. You just have to establish the part that are set in stone.
Unlike using Diaspora to make the map, using Microscope to make the history means you have to play out the entire game. Using Diaspora to make the map means you can stop playing at the end of the pre-campaign universe creation phase.
Here is a good over-view of Microscope, from a person who was intending to use it in the creation of backgrounds for campaigns to be used in other RPGs. Reviews are here and here. The game is played with index cards on a table, but there is an iOS app Microscope Journal.
Diaspora is based on the FATE RPG system. The Diaspora game book is the only manual you need to play. It is easiest to play using special FATE dice, but it is possible to use ordinary six-sided dice. Diaspora is best with three to five players. As a side note: Diaspora is a game intended to resemble the old Traveller scifi RPG using the FATE system as a foundation.
Relevant to our interests is the first part of a new Diaspora game campaign. In it, the players do not role-play their characters in an adventure. Instead they create the layout of their game universe, and create their characters.
This is unlike most other RPGs. In those, the Game Master creates the map, situation, and other parameters of the campaign (either by inventing them or by purchasing a pre-made campaign module from the publishers). In Diaspora, the campaign is created by the players in a collaborative process. In this respect (as with other aspects of the FATE system), much of the power and control of the game lies with the players, not with the game master as is common.
As another side note, I will observe that this is a stroke of genius. The players become quite emotionally invested in the campaign background, since they helped create it. The result is also much more rich and multi-layered than any single game-master could possibly make all by themselves (this is the feature that made me alert to the possibility of using the game as an aid to science fiction authors). I have read many reviews of Diaspora where the reviewer started (as per the rules) with the players creating the campaign. The reviewers noted that the players fell in love with the campaign background they created, and vowed to use the background even using a different RPG than Diaspora to play with.
Most other RPGs have the players "roll-up" their character's stats and write their back stories independently. This means when they meet for a gaming session, their characters do not mesh well. The game master starts with some lame introduction along the lines of "all you rag-tag individuals just happen to meet in a bar one fine night...". But in Diaspora, as part of the character creation process, the characters start out with some history with each other.
Now remember that I said Microscope was used to make the background history, while Diaspora was for the map.
The above image is a Diaspora Cluster map. A, B, C, D, E, and F are solar systems, places the players can visit. They are connected by "sliplines", which are basically wormholes. The wormholes are fixed. This means that a starship at system F can jump to system C or system E, and no other. Poor system A only has a wormhole to system B. Transport hub system C has wormholes to B,D, E, and F.
Since the length of the wormholes are all the same, the above diagram is a type of graph called a node map. The actual positions of the solar system is superfluous, the important thing is their connections.
Note this is an abstract representation. In the game the circles are solar systems. But for the author's purpose they can be planets, space habitats, continents, city-states, the turfs of various street gangs in a city, etc. Further abstractly, they can represent political connections between noble families, lines of control between organized crime gangs, lines of communication between bureaucratic agencies in a government, alliances between interstellar empires, the power structure of factions in a War of the Roses style dynastic struggle, the structure of urban districts and suburbs in an Akira-like cybertech city, warring Medieval fantasy kingdoms, etc.
The best number of systems is from six to ten, divided up among the players to write their backgrounds and local color (with input from the other players). The connections and basic attributes are established by die rolls but the rest is all pure creativity.
In Diaspora terms, the creatively made descriptions are in the form of game "aspects." These are pithy one-liners describing a major feature of the location. An aspect is a free form descriptor of something notable about the planet or whatever.
(This paragraph explains how aspects are used in regular Diaspora game play. If you could care less, skip to the next paragraph) Like other FATE games, playing Diaspora resembles a round-robin storytelling session. The players are basically collaborating on telling the story. During play, a player can attempt to change the story a bit, add a plot complication or whatever. This requires a successful roll of the dice. With any game-required die roll, if any aspect present is relevant to the intention of the roll, the player gets a bonus to their roll. Example: say Player Alfa wants to add a plot complication to the situation. They decide that Player Bravo is going to have their pocket picked by a street urchin. None of player Alfa's aspects are relevant, neither are any of player Bravo's aspects. However, they are at a location called "Mos Eisley Spaceport" which just so happens to have an aspect of "A Great Hive of Scum and Villainy". That is relevant to getting one's pocket picked. So player Alfa gets a plus-one bonus to their die roll, making the chance of success easier.
When a player is creating the system(s) assigned to them, some aspects are suggested by the rating for the system (the randomly rolled values for the systems technology level, environmental level, and resources level). For instance, if the enviroment level is 1 (One garden world and several hostile environments), the player might be inspired by the thought of who is living on these planets and invent an attribute of "The Rich have all the desireable real estate, and the poor are rather upset about that".
Other attributes come straight out of the twisted imagination of the player, e.g., "We all live in flying cities floating over the deadly depths of a gas giant". When the SF Author reads that, interesting plot ideas are inspired. Such as how this makes it very easy to dispose of contraband. Or a dead body. Just dump it overboard and the gas giant will crush it into component atoms, never to be seen again...
Aspects of a solar system might relate to politics (“Balkanized,” “A benevolent monarch,” “Turmoil!”), philosophy (“Hopelessness is a way of life,” “Every man for himself,” “The Law above all”), geography (“One vast desert,” “Basalt plains,” “Underground cities”), hydrography (“Waterworld,” “Poisonous lakes”), local astrography (“Neutron star,” “Deep in the dark nebula,” “Life in an asteroid belt”) or history (“Once was great,” “Won the battle but not the war,” “Remembering the yoke”).
The next step in universe creation is rolling for the placement of wormhole links and creating attributes related to the consequences of the linkages. The player in charge of creating System A notices that it has only one solitary wormhole link. The player decides that System A is not going to get much traffic, and will get zero traffic just passing through. They further decide that one of the consequences of that is the system will be relatively impoverished, with not much interstellar trade to bring in money. After thinking it over some more, they decide that another consequence is this will obviously be a system in the boondocks, a dead-end system out in the sticks. The player in charge of creating System C may or may not conclude that by the same token the system is going to be relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan since they are at the crossroads of the entire network of wormhole links. And so on.
After that, you examine the systems you are creating with respect to the entire cluster, and give each system an aspect reflecting their place in the implied web of trade and politics. The players discuss this among themselves to reach a consensus.
The final step is creating the characters the players will use. The SF author may find some of these characters interesting enough to also use in their novels. The characters start from a one of the systems, which colors their initial personality. For instance, a character born in System A will be from a disadvantaged neighborhood, while one in system C will be more upwardly mobile.
There are stages in defining a given character. Some stages has the player owning the character collaborating with another player. For instance, the stage "Moment of Crisis" is about some life event that changed a character, and it must involve the character of the player sitting to your right at the gaming table. This ensures that the characters have some prior history with other characters.
Yes, all this sounds like a weird way to play a game, but in practice it is a lot of fun and it results in some superior world-building.
There are examples of Diaspora cluster creation here, here and here. There is a description on how to adapt the Diaspora Cluster Creation system to politics or medieval villages here. Standard Diaspora has the circles being solar system, with randomly rolled values for systems technology level, environmental level, and resources level. If the circles are other things, different levels may be needed. For instance if the circles are political parties perhaps the levels are technology level, resources level, and morality level. And instead of wormhole links, the connecting lines could be lines of conflict between parties. There are some other suggestions here.
It is quite impressive the rich maps they managed to create in only a few hours, while having tons of fun doing it. The emotional investment all the participants have in the results are great for game sessions but do not directly help a science fiction author. Unless it encourages the players to eventually purchase your novel since it is set in the universe they created (remember, the author might need to have the players sign some sort of legal document with respect to ownership of the intellectual property created).
Understand that the point of this is to make a background map for your SF novel. Once you have made it, you don't have to play the rest of the game (unless you want to).
There is one other part of the Diaspora initial creation phase that is useful for SF authors.
During game-play, it is useful to make an Fate Zone Map ("aspect map") of the fine details about an important location: space station, spaceship, skyscraper, neighborhood, spaceport, whatever. "Important" meaning "critical parts of the story plot will happen here". These are usually made by one or two players. The zones are tagged with aspects, which are used for playing the game. But for an SF author, the aspects are useful notes about the general character of the location.
For instance, in the Spire Prodigus aspect map, the location "Flop City" has the aspect "Hide Your Valuables", while the location "Underzone" had the aspect "Anything For A Price." Which tells you more or less all you need to know about those locations, your imagination and sense of logic can fill in the blanks. For a writer the location map will be useful crib notes to help keep the details straight.
If a person can move from any location to any other location, you do not have to bother drawing connecting lines. Lines are only needed if travel is channelized. For instance: you'll need line from the Prison Main Gate loc to the Security Checkpoint loc then to the Main Hallway loc then to individual cells. Make notes on the lines about any special requirements needed to travel on the line, e.g., cannot use line from Security Checkpoint to the Main Hallway unless you manage to pass a security scan. If an individual location cannot be entered unconditionally, but has no line leading to it, just put the entry requirement notes on the border of that location.
In the Audion Station aspect map, the legend in the lower right has aspects for the entire station:
- Just Don't Ask Where We Got This
- The Eyes and Ears of this Space Sector
- Held Together with Spit and Bailing Wire
- Re-purposed Military Hardware
- What Safety Regulations?
Individual locations have all the station aspects, in addition to their own unique aspect(s). Location "Fire Control" has the aspect "More Like Fire Anarchy Amirite?" and the location "Sensor Array" has the aspect "We Are Listening."
For a science fiction author, nothing makes your stories not age well quite as badly as an over-looked assumption. Sadly, they are almost impossible for an author to spot. And in any event the author has better things to do, like writing the story.
The classic example is all those pulp scifi stories where the protagonists unthinkingly light up their cigars and cigarettes inside their spaceships. If they all perish of asphyxiation by fouling their air supply with tobacco smoke, they will get zero sympathy from RocketCat. But for the scifi authors, everybody smoking like chimneys was just one of those over-looked assumptions. An assumption so universal as to be invisible to the author.
Don't be smug, chances are that your stories will contain similar egregious flaws only visible fifty years from now. Even now young children are puzzled by stories where the protagonists use something called telephone directory yellow pages to find numbers that can be dialed into wall mounted phone. And more recent stories have mysterious things called "dial-up" internet connections, which are cut off if somebody else in the house picks up the telephone handset.
More forgivable is when the author makes a good faith effort to predict the future, but badly misses the mark. At least they tried.
The general precaution an author can take is making a diversion. You throw in some very odd futuristic detail to remind the reader that they ain't in Kansas any more. And hopefully distract the reader so much that they fail to notice any over-looked assumption you mistakenly left in. For instance, Robert Heinlein was fond of mentioning in passing how the door dilated open.
A common failing of with those who write future histories is a failure to take into account Future Shock, that is, the rapid progress of technological advancement. Refer to the "Apes or Angels" argument. Consider that one hundred years ago the paper clip had just been invented, Marconi had invented the wireless radio, the Wright brothers had invented the airplane, and the latest cutting edge material was Bakelite. Assuming that technology continues to advance at the same rate, all of our flashy technological marvels of today will look just as quaint and obsolete in the year 2100. And in 2500, they will look like something made by Galileo.
Remember, this assumes that the rate of technological progress remains the same. The evidence suggests that the rate is increasing.
When it comes to futures histories in various SF novels, the main failing I have noted is a failure of scope. While you may read novels with orbital beanstalks, immortality drugs, virtual people living in digital cyber-reality, nanotechnology, transhumanity and post-humans, Dyson spheres, teleportation, zero-point energy, matter duplicators, time travel, cloning, and cyborgs; you almost never find an individual novel that has all of these things (although Greg Egan's DIASPORA comes close, and the Orion's Arm project comes even closer).
This is because future history SF novels are not meant to predict the future, so much as they are meant to illuminate a specific point the author is trying to make.
This topic is gone into in more detail here.