Bob Billing, Associate Editor, SF
Issue # 2: 03/01/01
and Using Language in Fiction
write for the same reason I breathe - because if I didn't, I would
- Isaac Asimov
of whatever kind, is about
people. And the art of writing fiction is the art of making life difficult
for your characters. Specifically, science fiction - at least the kind
that I write - is about the way a combination of high technology and low
stupidity can drop the entire cast into the sort of pickle from which it
takes 120,000 words of fast-paced action to extract them.
means designing future technologies and giving them properties which make
them useful - but not too useful - to the characters.
specialise in the sort of SF that has space travel as a major theme, so
I'm going to keep referring to that genre. But a lot of what I have to say
applies to any imaginary world.
time things take to happen is the first useful property of your future
technology. It's interesting to examine a few classic SF novels and note
the times that the authors have picked for interstellar journeys. Isaac
Asimov chose one of the fastest speeds for his ships - he placed nearby
stars less than a second apart in journey time. This gave him a vast
canvas on which to draw the rise and fall of galaxy-spanning
civilisations. Other authors have gone slower - both Larry Niven and H
Beam Piper set the time between adjacent stars to be days, and told
stories of independent human colonies with widely differing customs and
societies. Going even slower still as in Harry Harrison's "Captive
Universe" or Niven's "A Gift from Earth", restricting
interstellar ships to sublight speeds, leaves little islands of humanity
almost completely cut off from one another. Niven incidentally twice wrote
about the effect of accelerating interstellar travel - the discovery of
FTL itself and then the "second quantum" - a big jump in speed.
This let him examine the effect of opening up contact with a previously
has the same sort of effect - but I think it's a mistake to take a story
that works in one environment and simply try to scale it up to a larger
frame. Different orders of magnitude of distance have different flavours
of problems associated with them - and
simply changing the scale, but keeping the story the same, will ring
me illustrate. Let's say you are writing a story set in the 1930's, on an
ocean liner. Someone falls off into the sea, wearing a lifejacket. The
ship stops and goes back to look for him. The liner would have been
travelling at a speed comparable to a car in traffic, and in the time it
took to turn around it might be miles away. But the search area would be
only a mile or so long, well within what a lookout with binoculars could
scan, and our hapless character would have a decent chance of being picked
move the same story to an interstellar liner on passage between Earth and
Alpha Centauri - a very local run in interstellar terms. A character in a
spacesuit falls off. Let's pick a speed for the liner of one thousand
times the speed of light, so that the passage time is about a day. Once
again we know to a minute or so when our luckless friend fell off. He's
floating along in his spacesuit, screaming blue murder on the radio - but
now the search area is a thousand light minutes across - about twice the
size of the solar system. If the lookout is in exactly the right place and
looking in exactly the right direction it won't help because light and
radio waves will take the best part of a day to get from our casualty to
the ship. Without an outrageous stroke of luck, or some really clever
technology, you're never going to see the character (or the space suit
rental deposit) again.
course this can be used to advantage in plotting - one of my characters
said, "There's no chance of my being rescued unless I do it
myself." It's this shift towards being alone and out of contact
with fellow humans, and thrown back on one's own resources, that's one of
the advantages of this sort of SF. You can get characters more lost in
less time, and with bigger problems getting home, than anywhere else in
been talking rather glibly about travelling faster than light, even though
that's something we can't do at the moment. But interstellar distances are
so big that some way of breaking the light barrier is going to be needed
if we are going to be able to tell stories at all. I'm ignoring for the
moment both multi-generation ships, where distant descendents of the
original passengers arrive at the far end, and special tricks such as
freezing the passengers. These have been done very well in several classic
novels, and are a distinct sub-genre all to themselves.
go faster than light we need a "black box" of some kind that
will let us suspend or bypass some of the laws of physics for the duration
of the story. And by choosing the properties of this box carefully, we can
set up a whole series of problems for our characters.
are three really important properties to the black box:
easy is it to make?
fast does it go?
does it cost to run?
by deciding these we can more or less set up any environment we want for
the box is really difficult to make, and requires a lot of specialised
machinery, we'll only find a few factories that produce them. This would
make the entire business of interstellar travel terribly vulnerable to an
attack on one or more of these plants.
However, the people who owned them would be rich, powerful,
sophisticated and worth kidnapping. This suggests half a dozen plots at
the other hand, if anyone could make a black box in his garage, there
would be a huge number of unlicenced interstellar spaceships in service,
because space is so big that you'd never catch them. Doing it this way you
have a largely anarchic society in which criminals can easily escape from
one planet to another, young men get shanghaied as crew onto badly
maintained ships, and Nice Young Ladies who go too close to spaceports are
dragged off to the obligatory Fate Worse Than Death and never seen again.
is the next important decision. It has huge effect on the sort of world
our characters inhabit. And since we have no idea of how the black box
might work, we can pick more or less any numbers we like. In general,
choosing numbers towards the faster end, making the galaxy days to weeks
across, will tend to create more cohesive societies - galactic empires if
you like. On the other hand, this choice allows a character to disappear
utterly into a populated area so large that finding her again could take
lifetimes. This might make whoever was in power decree elaborate
documentation and registration.
to the lower end, making even a very local interstellar trip take days
would have the opposite effect. There would be huge differences between
societies on different planets, and little chance of making an empire hold
together. A rebellion could well be over and a colony independent before
reinforcements for the garrison arrived, weeks or months later. But the
relative isolation would tend to make the individual societies more
colourful. If you want to write a "voyage among islands" in the
old sense, a traveller's tale visiting lots of exotic locations with high
adventure and a spot of swashbuckling, this is the sort of thing to go
for. Here you'll find space pirates, shiploads of treasure, and people
being forced out of the airlock at blaster point.
cost of running the black box also has an effect on the type of world you
create. At the most basic level, if you increase the cost, fewer journeys
are made and less freight is shipped. But the cost will also control your
characters' way of looking at interstellar travel. Make it very cheap to
run, and they will go on interstellar jaunts as casually as we would drive
to a supermarket. There would be little or no keeping of logbooks, and
very little question of authorisation to use a spaceship or distinction
between official and private use. Make it very expensive and the reverse
cost of running the box also puts a lower limit on the interstellar
freight rates - the upper limit is defined by what the freighter firms can
get away with charging. This then fixes the proportion of the price of
imported goods which are down to interstellar carriage. Make the box cheap
to run and commodities such as steel or wheat are only produced in a few
places and exported to many destinations. The places where things are
produced then become strategically significant. Make it a bit more
expensive and only luxury goods are worth transporting. Make it a lot more
expensive and we are left with a few urgent, life-and-death cargoes, such
as vaccines, making the trip.
cost of running the box will also influence the degree to which the
economies of different planets interfere with one another. The cheaper
interstellar freight rates are, the more commodities will be shipped
between systems, and the greater the proportion of an industry's products
will be exported off-planet. When one planet has an economic downturn,
they'll stop importing, and the exporters on half a dozen other planets
will see their profits shrinking. But if freight rates are high, only
luxury goods will be shipped in small quantities and economic problems on
one planet won't affect the others nearly as much.
I'd like to look at a special case, one that I've used in my own
is a transitional state where one section of the human race has the
technology to travel faster than light - but the majority does not. A
secret like that couldn't be kept forever, but I think it could be kept
for a very long time. If the society that had the technology located all
its manufacturing on a group of planets which were closed to outsiders, it
would be completely safe from spying - you couldn't get there to steal the
technology unless you already had the technology you were trying to steal.
society that had the technology would quickly gain economic and military ascendancy.
It could be an evil empire, or a benign presence. And from time to time
its officer class might be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice in defense
of the technology.
thereby hangs a novel...