Terraforming: Worldbuilding for Sci-fi Authors

From Writers in the Storm:

There are few more liberating genres than science fiction. Unfettered by petty limitations like technology or the laws of physics, a sci-fi setting can be crafted to suit the whims of the storyteller and the needs of the story. But anyone who has consumed more than a few pieces of sci-fi literature can tell you that the limitless potential of a sci-fi setting can quickly spiral out of control if care isn’t taken to craft it with depth and consistency.

Let’s go through a quick crash course on how to build a sturdy foundation for your sci-fi story.

Hard Sci-fi vs Soft Sci-fi

A good place to start when crafting your setting is the simple question of how hard or soft you want your sci-fi to be.

Hard Sci-Fi

For the uninitiated, Hard Sci-Fi refers to science fiction with firm roots in reality as we understand it now. There’s still plenty of fiction in a setting like this, but the science is as near to fact as the author can manage. The Martian, for example, is a rock-hard sci-fi story. Everything from the launch date of a Mars mission to the nitty-gritty of orbital mechanics is mapped out with mathematical detail to find the intersection of the realities of science and the requirements of drama.

Hard Sci-Fi comes with a lot of benefits.

First and foremost, the more realistic underpinnings of the setting will make for a world far more familiar to the readers. The technology is likely to look and feel like something that exists in the real world. Even when the technology is futuristic, the reader will generally be able to feel the evolutionary connection to things they work and play with every day. It also takes some of the world-building pressure off the author’s shoulders, as a big hunk of your story bible can be found in science textbooks.

However, if its concrete basis in fact is the greatest strength of hard sci-fi, it is also its greatest weakness. Hard sci-fi is a version of science fiction that you can get wrong. And because hard sci-fi fans tend to be science buffs, chances are very good you’ll hear about it if you forgot to carry a one on that power to mass calculation. This means you’ll be doing loads of homework to get things to align correctly, and bending reality to suit your narrative can become a bit of a puzzle, teasing the laws of physics into just the right configuration to get your characters where they need to go.

Hard sci-fi also is much more likely to feel dated.

Basing it on known and understood scientific principles favors setting it in a near future. This means that as science marches on, it could trample all over your speculative technology by surpassing it in a fraction of the time you’d predicted. Alternately, you could extrapolate your future tech on a theory that could be abandoned or disproved, retroactively making your hard sci-fi much softer than you’d intended.

Soft Sci-Fi

That brings us to soft sci-fi. In short, this is sci-fi where you get to fill in the gaps between what we can do and what you want to do with physics-defying mechanisms of your own concoction. Here’s where you get things like warp drive, bionics, and assorted other forms of applied phlebotinum. Nothing is off the table, so long as you can assemble enough technobabble to convince your audience that it’s plausible within the setting.

The assets of a soft sci-fi setting are clear.

The entire setting can be a playground for your imagination. You never have to worry about a desired plot becoming impossible. Soft sci-fi is where you get space operas of magnificent scope and unbridled adventure. It gives the writer a full palette of colors to paint their masterpiece, rather than simply those offered by Newton and Einstein. It’s what many people think of when they think of science fiction.

There is a dark side to soft sci-fi, however.

Most often, it comes when a writer fails to realize that “new rules” does not mean “no rules.” A soft sci-fi writer should, ideally, be creating a universe with its own laws of physics. Sure, they allow for things like time travel or faster than light travel, but the mechanisms that allow these divergences from our reality must be consistent and believable. If exceeding the speed of light requires a Carpinelli Drive, don’t have someone crossing the galaxy in six minutes using a standard rocket unless you’ve got some really compelling technobabble to justify it.

Taking away all limitations or changing the rules at the drop of a hat will confuse and frustrate readers. In the worst case, this could completely defuse any attempts at creating tension or stakes. Why should we worry if the heroes will reach the imperiled planet in time to save the day if you’ve already established spaceships don’t have to follow their own rules?

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

11 thoughts on “Terraforming: Worldbuilding for Sci-fi Authors”

  1. Mostly good, especially the stuff about backstory.
    But the final part is rushed and simplistic. Understandable since there are entire books devoted to *aspects* of SF writing, but still…
    Big miss on “only” optimistic vs cynical.
    Waayy too reductionist. Especislly since plenty of stories are both–one vs the other–or (even better) neither.

  2. What was it with optimism vs cynicism as the only choices?
    After making a point about not having fictional races be one dimensional cardboard cutouts, they make the whole of sci-fi into a 2 two sided coin. Reality (and fictional reality) is much more complex than that.
    Saying the only options are utopia or dystopia is rather limiting and displays a lack of awareness of reality’s complex nature. Decent article, but that one bit made me step back and say WTF?

    • Yup.
      Tried to do too much in too little space.

      There is more to SF than worldbuilding but even ​that narrow aspect ​is more complex than any single column can address. Not only is the real world not black or white, but SF has the option of mixing in all sorts of color. THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE, for one, is built precisely on the tension in the middle space (which any genre can do) but it is the aliens that elevate it above optimist vs pessimist binary thinking, producing a more nuanced depiction of the *humans* and their behavior when confronted with a high stakes quandary and only one shot to get it right.

      The whole point of SF as a genre is going where others can’t or won’t. Nuance and complexity is where it shines. Oversimplifying its scope neuters its power. It might be (somewhat) justifiable if doing paranormal romance (aka, romance in SF drag) or children’s fiction but adult SF shouldn’t pull its punches. The best SF is about *something*. Preferably something multifaceted and worth pondering not superficialities.

      The OP might have been better served if it stopped sooner, say halfways.

  3. There is no such thing as Hard SF. It is all Fantasy.

    – Look to Techno Thrillers for fact based Stories using real technology.

    Using The Martian as an example of Hard SF is totally invalid. Ask the simple question:

    – How did they get all that mass safely onto the surface of Mars.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the movie. I fire it up many times a year, but it is pure Fantasy.

    Read anything by David Brin. He routinely takes incoherent Space Cadet Babble and turns it into coherent narrative. I will read a book like Earth or Existence and say, “You can’t do that,” yet he does.

    BTW, The focus of Utopia vs Dystopia is a false dichotomy.

    Look at The Giver, that is a Utopia. Just because they have to cull and medicate the population to keep the majority happy does not make it a Dystopia. The same with the Hunger Games. When I watch The Voice, I can see that Carson Daily becomes Caesar Flickerman with no problem.

    • Oh, there is Hard SF.
      But it is set in the present and most often not labeled SF.
      (Crichton’s COMA, for one.)
      It is Technothrillers that don’t exist.
      Most follow the “one allowed impossibility” rule that defines hard SF, even when they ardn’t trying to do SF. (Check out something like John Balls’s THE FIRST TEAM or John Ringo’s UNDER A GRAVEYARD SKY and tell me which is SF and which is techno. Or try Niven&Pourndlle’s LUCIFER’S HAMMER. Even their FOOTFALL is still scientifically accurate. It is only the passage of time that renders it historiczlly anchored.)

      Methinks you’re a bit too liberal in applying the Fantasy label; by your standard *everything* is fantasy because everything is set in an alternate universe, even history, biography, and documentaries. Everything is filtered tbrough the creator’s intent.And intent = bias. Nothing propagated by humans is 100% true. (That is why critical thinking and weasle wording are survival skills.) 😀

      The usual guideline for telling SF from fantasy is the SF needs to reflect the world as the creator understands it (much like histories– reflected in the kinship between alternate history SF and counterfactual histories) whereas Fantasy has no such constraint. The only rule for Fantasy is self-consistency.

      The OP does point out that the biggest stumbling block to hard SF is that it is vulnerable to being overwritten. Conversely, some “less hard” stories inch closer to reality than even the creator envisioned. Hard vs “soft” is more really a matter of subject and style whereas fantasy is a different crezture altogether. And what Hollywood peddles most often is neither; not focused enough for SF nor disciplined enough for fantasy. No good examples there. Good entertainment, occasionally, though.

    • BTW, the amount of gear on mars in the martian?
      Less than what is possible.

      You have heard of the SPACEX Starship reusable launch system currently in development in Texas, right? It is a 30ft wide and about 400ft tall and projected to deliver 100-150Tons of payload to low earth orbit where it will be refueled to deliver tbat same payload to the moon or mars.

      The unmanned cargo version should start orbital testing in March (the first orbital prototype has been ready since octobdf but its being held back by FAA aparatchicks under orders from the WH). Suborbital prototypes have been flying since 2020. Mostly exploding on landing. 😀 Until they finally figured out the calibration of the fuel system. (The earlier Falcon line just completed the 100th safe propulsive landing of that model booster.)

      NASA contracted for a human rated version to land on the Moon by 2024, now 2025. Probably 2026 given the politics of the current occupant’s handlers. SpaceX has a contract with a Japanese billionaire to fly a 20 person party around the moon before then. None of the underlying tech is new. Rocketdyne (now part of Boeing) had a design for a 500Ton big dumb booster in the 60’s. NASA had a reusable propulsive landing prototype (DC-X) in the 90’s. The issue has *never* been the tech but rather the money. Politicians were (and are) afraid of the cultural disruptions. No longer an issue: billionaires are stepping up instead. Hence politicians trying to hamper thd project. SpaceX, however, is also refurbishing two floating oil rigs to serve as launch platforms. The first should be ready by summer.

      Anyway, Starship v1.0 projects to be 100 times cheaper to operate than Falcon 9 which is already cheaper thsn any other sistem by at least 50%. They’re making big bucks undercutting old space. The ships themselves should be relatively cheap to build, more inline with airliners than the space shuttle. As in millions, not billions. With launch costs in the $10 per pound range.

      Current plans are for the first unmanned mars cargo landing by 2030, possibly during the 2026-28 launch window. The idea is to get a CO2-to-methane and oxygen generation plant in place to locally produce the fuel for future return trips. ​The methane production tech will be used by SpaceX in Texas to produce their fuel out of atmospheric CO2 to make their operation carbon neutral.

      None of this was in place when THE MARTIAN was written but since the tech is old good research found it. The only iffy part of the story is the potato farm: martian soil in tbe sampled spaces ix loaded with perchloratd chemicals. Not viable soil. NASA experiments have identified says to treat it, though. That wasn’t known when he wrote the book.

      Now, when Musk talks about sending a fleet of a thousand ships over 20 years to build a self-sustaining colony of a million on mars, *that* is still aspirational at best. But dropping hundreds of tons of cargo on mars is very doable. What his goal needs is a bigger ship and he knows it. His engineers are already scoping out a Starship 2.0, twice the width, 4-8 times tbe payload: 1000 Tons per launch. Doable but bleeding edge.

      Check this: https://www.planettechnews.com/spacex-super-heavy-starship-2-0-might-be-8-times-bigger-than-super-heavy-starship/

      (As an aside, I strongly suspect that a lot of the SpaceX mars talk is sleight of hand to disguise their real near term cash cows in Cis lunar space. A mars colony by 2050 is iffy but an entire orbital infrzstructure and asteroid mining by 2040 is very lijely. Barring a big war. China is aiming for a moon base by 2027, russia by 2030. And a dozen companies from Japan to Europe are working on robotic asteroid mining. Starship 1 can easily get to Jupiter and Saturn so the asteroids and back will be cake.)

      All of the above is hard SF fodder (so is war in cis lunar space), not fantasy. It lacks funding, not breakthroughs. And no amount of future tech is going to render it impossible, just cheaper. And since there are trillions to be made in cislunar space the incentive to bypass the IdiotPoliticians™ or just buy them is very high.
      For now let’s just list it as probable.
      SF only needs possible, though.
      So Weir is golden.

      • The power of seeing that there is no Hard SF, only Fantasy, frees up the Story as the focus rather than getting the technology right. That’s why the movie The Martian gets such a high score on Rotten Tomatoes, despite the obvious impossible moments. It’s all about the guy going step-by-step solving the problems.

        – “So, yeah, I blew myself up.”

        As you demonstrate in your comments, the thrilling narrative — the Dream — is the key.

        “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

        — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

        BTW, that’s why Lord of Light by Zelazny still reads as if it were written tomorrow, even though it was written before man landed on the Moon. He focused on the personal narrative.

        • You can do both.
          If one might ask, how much hard SF have you read?

          Have you read Poul Anderson’s TAU ZERO? It is hard science all the way in tbe service of a story about cultural conflicts between two lovers. It ticks offboxes in several genres while using nothing not known to be impossible. (In fact the central scientific concept grows ever more valid by the year, even if a century or two away.)

          The same is true of The Black Tide Series that starts with UNDER A GRAVEYARD SKY; primarily an early 21st century family survivalist adventure in a time of an artificial rabies pandemic. Nothing physically impossible. And its section on vaccine production is 100% accurate. Lots of guns, though. 😀
          All about the people. Smart ones live, idiots die.

          The same is true of LUCIFER’S HAMMER. A comet impact thoroughly researched and presented is the *driver* for a dozen human stories about facing (and trying to survive) the end of civilization, circa 1975.

          As for THE MARTIAN, what imposibilities did you find in the book? Everything in it was researched and validated. The science is, if anything, conservative. His big mistake was assuming government funded burezucracies is the only way to go to mars. We know better now.

          Again, hard science is a *style*. Added constraints the author chooses to take on. Good writers pull it off all the time.
          Is it harder to get right than freewheeling SF? Yes.
          But it is also harder to get wrong. It isn’t something lazy or unfocused writers even bother with.
          Makes it rarer but more rewarding.

          • If one might ask, how much hard SF have you read?

            I’ve read thousands of books, every flavor of SF, from Hard to Soft, and it’s all Fantasy to me, but I don’t let that stop me from enjoying the Story.

            Books like TAU ZERO are deeply profound. When I catch myself commenting on a SF book violating actual Physics, I remind myself that it’s Story, and dive back in.

            That’s what I keep reminding myself when I’m writing. Don’t get tied up in “nots”. Not this, not that. I remind myself that the physical laws that keep tripping me up, getting in the way of Story, can be overcome by the laws of narrative.

          • As for THE MARTIAN, what imposibilities did you find in the book? Everything in it was researched and validated. The science is, if anything, conservative. His big mistake was assuming government funded burezucracies is the only way to go to mars. We know better now.

            Remember, I love the book and movie of The Martian, I watch the movie many times a year, and read the book now and then. There is a reason why The Martian is rated 91 on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s all about Watney solving the problems step-by-step, keeping people on the edge of their seats. No matter how many times I watch the movie I still laugh in all the right spots, and tear up even though I know how the movie ends.

            – All the while still knowing the glaring errors and flaws in the Story.

            I simply choose not to “see” the glaring errors, or be “that guy” who is always pointing out the glaring errors while watching the movie. No one likes to have “that guy” around when they are watching the movie.

            – Focusing on the movie rather than the book, makes the errors more obvious. The ones in the book merely add to the whole.

            Here is a list of simple questions that point out the problems, ranging from the obvious to not so obvious.

            – How did the crew get to the surface of Mars from the Hermes.

            – How did they get all of that equipment to the surface of Mars: Two rovers, the solar panels, the Hab, the MAV.

            – If the MAV was so unstable, that a dust storm could knock it over, how did it survive long enough for the crew to arrive.

            – How did the other MAV survive dust storms long enough for Watney to leave.

            – How does the MAV link up with the Hermes when the capsule has no thrusters to maneuver.

            And for bonus points:

            – How did they assemble the main ship(the Hermes) in orbit around Earth when they had such limited lift capability.

            The heart of the Story for the rescue was that “limited lift capability”. If they could build the Hermes, and get all of that stuff to Mars ahead of the Hermes, then they could resupply Watney faster and not need to involve the Hermes.

            Every step along the way to make a great Story:

            – the struggle of one man to survive;

            – the crew having to deal with how to rescue him;

            – NASA along with the Chinese Space agency working together;

            – the world cheering them on;

            required that we not see the “glaring errors”.

            BTW, I don’t have the heart to mention the obvious Martian surface suits and how everybody would freeze to death on the Martian surface. The real test for a Martian surface suit would be their routine use in Antartica, and climbing Mount Everest, but I digress.

            I’ve pulled out the book, and will read it next, and then watch the movie.


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