Saturday, 26 May 2012

Exotic Scifi Worlds

One of the great joys of reading science fiction is the worlds writers create. Sometimes I remember these long after I have forgotten the intricacies of the plot or the caprices of the characters, whether Frank Herbert’s dunes of Arrakis or oceans of Caladan, Greg Bear’s shifting landscape of Eon, Larry Niven’s daunting Ringworld, or Jack McDevitt’s precarious planet Deepsix.

True world-building, whether science fiction as above, or fantasy (e.g. Lord of the Rings, or its more contemporary companion Harry Potter, or the more recent Game of Thrones), takes years of conception and crafting, building not only an environment, but a culture that fits that environment.

This is where books can go further than film or television series. The latter in particular (obviously due to budgetary reasons), from Star Trek to Stargate, are often let down by having many episodes shot in a familiar Earth-bound setting, from scrub-land to desert to forest. Fantasy is similar, hankering back to an undefined ‘Middle Ages’ environment of lords and ladies, knights and peasants. Perhaps this is why the film Avatar was so successful – probably anyone who has seen it will remember the alien forests and the floating islands – the film had a visionary director and sufficient budget and computer graphics capability to transport us, for a couple of hours, to another realm. I’m hoping Prometheus (seeing it next week) will do the same.

As an author, I don’t spend years on this aspect. But I do like to experiment with potential worlds, sometimes at the limits of possibility, to try and make the reader think “hey, that could be interesting”. Here's a short extract from Eden's Trial, where Pierre has just arrived in orbit around the Ossyrian homeworld.

Pierre’s quicksilver eyes gazed through the space-portal. The pearl-coloured home world of Ossyria Prime, the Galactic home of medicine, grew larger. It appeared as if it had been cut into a dozen horizontal slices, then re-assembled. Each section turned at a different pace, creating a hypnotic effect. He saw no large masses of water: he’d gathered from the Omskrat orb – his handy Ossyrian encyclopedia – that water was largely underground, and only occasionally precipitated in precise locations via environmental control satellites. It took him back to a forgotten childhood – it was the most beautiful marble he could ever have imagined.

Here’s another one I’m working on now for my third book in the Eden Paradox Trilogy, Eden’s Revenge. Some rather advanced aliens wanted privacy, so built their home somewhere unusual and well-hidden, or at the least, pretty inaccessible to lesser species... 

In many respects it was the inverse of a Dyson Sphere. Humanity had long ago conceived the idea of constructing a sphere of immense diameter around a small star, creating a self-contained world within the Dyson shell, with effectively infinite energy supply. The Tla Beth had gone one stage further and built a home inside a sun – well, a supernova to be precise. Pierre looked upwards towards the reflective shield, indigo in colour, shading the inner asteroid-sized planet in permanent twilight. He had no idea how it worked, but as a defence it was ingenious; even star-breaker weapons were unpredictable against a supernova, and nova bombs would be a self-evident waste of time and energy.
            The ground was smooth granite. With each step its marbled blues and greys swirled, as if the floor was alive, reacting to him. He guessed what it meant. The entire surface was receptive, recording and processing everything. Ukrull had once told Pierre that the highest intelligence was pure perception; apparently the Tla Beth placed a high value on data and information.
            He’d expected a grand city. The Tla Beth were legendary in Grid Culture, and also mysterious, leading to many fables and artistic renditions of a fantastic crystal metropolis in golden skies where they might live. But after an hour of walking, something he relished after being cooped up in the Ice Pick for months, he had seen no structures whatsoever. Ukrull filled him in.
            “Tla Beth energy creatures. Ephemeral. Self-sustaining. Entire planet tech. Makers. If need, supply. Power no problem here,” he said, flicking a claw skywards.
            Pierre did the rest of the math: the ‘planet’ must have an inner core of exotic matter, so the ‘makers’ could fabricate anything – ships, weapons. It could then shrink as the matter was converted, and local gravity would be updated. No, he thought, the Tla Beth themselves were probably tolerant to massive gravitic shifts – it wouldn’t matter to them. He gazed down at the whorls around his feet and understood. The flooring was creating local gravity for him and Ukrull. It represented yet another defence mechanism against uninvited invaders.

My only rule for exotic worlds is that they have to be at least feasible (The Tla Beth are an ancient race with incredible technical prowess, and exist largely in energy form). Such a world would not be favoured by so-called ‘mundane science fiction’, which prefers not to speculate beyond what today’s understanding of physics would tolerate. Not sure Einstein would have agreed with such blinkering, and as a reader I like to have the bounds of my imagination stretched. The other rule is that there has to be an implicit relationship between a world and the people or aliens who live there. In my short story The Sapper, essentially a crime mystery, events unfold on a floating island above old Manhattan. The mechanics of this sky city are not dwelt upon in the story, other than engines are referred to. What I do mix into the story is that only the extremely rich live on these islands – which are being systematically brought down by a terrorist (hence the title of the story: a sapper is an military engineer who brings down buildings, bridges, etc.). What the reader ‘gets’ is that it takes fantastic resources to keep the islands afloat, and that in this unspecified Earth future, the divide between rich and poor (living down below in awful post-war conditions) is far more polarised than today. This gives the piece (and the reader) a ‘social rationality’, even if the physics aren’t explained. The only other rule is to have evocative writing which is highly visual. Here’s an excerpt from the opening of The Sapper, as the Inspector, who doesn’t realise his own life is in jeopardy, arrives for the first time at one of the sky cities targeted by the sapper.

Chief Inspector Alexei Gregorovich sat in the copter, absently stroking the antique fob watch that never left his side, passed down from his great grandfather. The two-man craft hovered still as a humming bird, awaiting docking clearance. He leaned forward until his brow touched the cool glass window, and stared down at New Manhattan Island, one of ten fabled sky cities.
Like most people down below, Alexei had never seen one in real life before. Poised just above the cloud layer, it really looked like an island. Synthetic vines straggled over the terrace’s edge like seaweed, drooping into the sea of water vapour. Azure swimming pools, each covered with a transparent pressurised blister, glittered near the island’s edge. Closer in, four steel towers guarded the central tetra-glass pyramid. The island hung motionless and serene, three kilometres above ground level, directly over old Manhattan, which never saw sunlight. He tried not to think about the power requirements keeping it floating there, when down below brownouts occurred almost every evening.
The powerful, the rich and the beautiful lived in sky cities, where there were no mutations; a rad-free zone. And this one would all come crashing down in the next hour unless he stopped the terrorist known as the Sapper, nicknamed after the quaint term for an engineer who undermines buildings. The Sapper had downed two islands in the past month.
            Alexei spotted two stealth drones buzzing like honey bees around the island complex. He glanced upwards, knowing geostationary satellites armed with lasers could take out any missiles fired at the island. The perma-cloud below concealed automated and fully-armed fogships, always listening, probing with their radar. God help anyone who ascended above base level without the proper security codes.

For the (free) full story of The Sapper, published in Piker Press in 2011, click here.

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ampichellis and Waterstones (UK).

Eden’s Trial is available from Amazon in ebook format, with the paperback version due to be released by publishers Summertime in the Autumn.

Eden’s Revenge is due out Xmas 2012.

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