Science Fantasy or Hard SF?
As my first story, Madverts, is almost finished, I started worrying about what setting I should really go with. I was faced with a worldbuilding dilemma, which could be summed up as a simple query, paraspace or lighthugger? Or in other words, Science Fantasy or Hard SF? Because once it’s published, that’s it, my characters are locked in that universe and I can’t retrocon.
By Science Fantasy, I mean being able to go faster than light, which I present as moving through another universe where FTL is possible , hence Fantasy and low realism. The story would then take place in a normal timescale (say twenty years), but include other dimensions, magic, etc. The story revolves around Interstellar empires, the galaxy is just the Earth writ large. This is Star Wars, Star Trek, etc, or in other words, Lord of the Rings but in space. Numerous plot devices are needed to explain why Technological Singularities don’t convert the universe to computronium, or why nanotech doesn’t eat up the universe . Although this can be answered if it’s assumed rigid/diamondoid nano can’t translate into higher dimensions. There is mostly uniformity and limited evolution. But as there are also other universes and, if I want, elves, orcs etc (as in WH40k but more rational). I can also put in as much esotericism and metaphysics as I want.
By Hard SF (lighthugger) I had the idea of a reactionless drive vessel which travels so close to the speed of light that time dilation comes into effect, so the story takes place over thousands or even millions of years (deep time) although to the characters time passes normally. In this high realism, hard science scenario, there is interstellar trade, and interstellar civilisations, but no empires (because of times needed to cross the distance between stars) , the Galaxy is very different to Earth writ large. There is much more isolation and much more evolution, and limited uniformity. Every colonized star system re-visited is a new and sometimes dangerous surprise, because who knows what happened since the ship last visited, centuries ago? Metaphysics here is more limited, science more rigorous, time is deep, and the story takes place in realspace.
I asked my friends on facebook which one they preferred, and the two answers were: whatever suits the story (in this case the story can fit with either) and Hard SF.
Initially I was disappointed that no-one had opted for Science Fantasy, as I’d created quite a fun theosophical-magical universe, with all sorts of new weird stuff. But thinking about it, the essential underlying theme of my storytelling is Sri Aurobindo’s message of the transmutation of this world of matter into divine consciousness, while retaining its material status. And if the universe is already a magical place, the tension and the message is blunted. Whereas if the universe is a grimdark, crapsack world of oppressive laws of matter, it makes more sense.
Reactionless Drive or Conversion Drive?
Once I decided to scrap the high fantasy elements in favour of a hard science setting, my original idea, inspired by Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space/Galactic North Universe was Relativistic ships using an Alcubierre (warp) drive. In this scenario, warp drive is for STL reactionless drive only, this helps avoid the problems of Hawking-Unruh Radiation and Gamma Ray Bursters associated with the Alcubierre metric when travelling FTL.
Unfortunately for this option, I soon discovered that there is no time dilation in a relativistic Alcubierre ship, as space is flat within the warp bubble. So there is the problem of decades or centuries long voyages that would be avoided with time dilation.
Next up was checking out the Orion’s Arm page on Reactionless Drive, which gives a good coverage of different types of Reactionless Drive using “void bubbles”. These are like the classic Alcubierre warp drive, and are presented in a way that make them look like a plausible and elegant option for hard SF worldbuilding.
In the end I decided to go with a slightly less advanced (relative to the Alcubierre drive) and less complex ship design, the Conversion Drive . (The name Conversion Drive refers to the conversion of matter to energy with 100% efficiency, like an amat drive without the danger of the whole thing going critical if magnetic confinement fails)
The Conversion drive will feature in the Shummanite, the ship in the main setting of my story (The Alcione will be a larger, diametric reactionless drive ship that appears later in the series). All the hard science technical details are provided by the Orion’s Arm folks, this being is the update of my original 100% handwavium “Singularity Drive” in the early Orion’s Arm.
This being a reaction rocket, and more specifically a torchship, there can be some nice Star Trek ambient background noise effect when the engine is firing (whereas a reactionless drive I expect would be totally silent other than the hum of the machinery maintaining it). I suppose for a ship with limitless range you could have a dark-matter or photino ramscoop or some equivalent handwavium tech at the front, but I want the Shummanite to be more of a tramp spacer with less bells and whistles rather than a top of the range model.
Orion’s Arm meets Spacepunk
While I’m returning to my Orion’s Arm hard science worldbuilding roots, the Alcioneverse has a very different ambience, one that, for sake of a better word, I call Spacepunk. It’s a more fragmented and hostile universe, with a much longer time line (several hundred thousand or even several million years, with cultures built on the ruins of other cultures, I haven’t yet decided on an actual timeline), yet also with more human (and alien) agency.
Posthuman cultures and civilisations are more limited and not as long-lived (this is a plot device to prevent the entire universe being converted to Computronium), transapients and transingularitan beings are not invulnerable, as they can be killed even by simple nukes. And, in contrast to the Banks-type post-scarcity utopia, higher toposophics basically see lower civilisations as equivalent to cockroaches, if they notice them at all.
And, yeah, I still don’t have an answer for the Fermi Paradox, so I’m not sure how that will play out.
When I set up Orion’s Arm in June 2000 with a few friends, I had in mind the juxtoposoption of mythopoetic space opera (actually I didn’t know the word “mythopoetic” then) and transhuman-based hard science. The problem is I couldn’t create a human-relevant, mythopoetic narrative. It’s a fact that nerd scifi worldbuilding is much easier than human-centric creative writing, especially if you are somewhat autistic (as I am). Also, I no longer hold to Transhumanist memes. It seems to me that Transhumanism, with its promise of singularitan technorapture, and emphasis on mind emulation uploads in place of the Afterlife, to be just another secular religion. This is not to discount a lot of transhumanist ideas which I still consider valid, just that it’s not what I want to write about (and many people who have written about it or made movies about it have the problem of scenarios that seem naive and simplistic).
So what I am trying to do now is (a) balance the hard science worldbuilding (of which Orion’s Arm is still the most encyclopaedic and imaginative example) with humanistic centric storytelling, (b) replace the more optimistic scenario with one slanted more to grimdark, (c) at the same time incorporate an overall aurobindonian narrative as the grand story that underlies this, (d) have lots of philosophy and metaphysics within the narrative, and (e) scale down the magic nano stuff by having nanotech more biological (this is also the way real nanotech has developed anyway).
Most of my first book Madverts is already written. I just need to finalise the worldbuilding details. The actual “Young Adult” story (about a teenage professional shopper) would be the same, regardless of whether the worldbuilding is science fantasy, medium-hard, or ultra hard science. It’s like how Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings could very easily be retold as a space opera (it would be very like the original star wars). I often think about this, how the story remains the same, and only the details of the setting change