Friday, November 20, 2015

Hard SF Space Opera: The Story Part

We now continue with the process of creating a Space Opera setting that doesn't completely insult the intelligence of all the physicists out there.

In our last post, we discussed my rule of science fiction, which states that the harder the SF is, the more the story is influenced by realistic technology and the limits of natural law. That being said, in order to capture the romance of no-medieval grandeur and adventure you have to include tropes associated with medieval grandeur. And decide what you mean by “medieval”. And “grandeur”.

You have to start from scratch, in other words.

I'm going to get a wee bit meta for a moment, as one of the discussions I'm having to make involves selecting a type of rule system I want this setting to be powered by. Even if I was just planning on writing fiction, I may have included this step, as it can give me a consistent framework for designing spacecraft, planets and systems, and all sorts of incidentals. This can be more important than you think; consistency, after all, is just as important to good SF as realism. People are usually more forgiving of bending the laws of physics, especially when it gives them FTL and whatnot, but if that FTL moves “at the speed of plot” then you're going to get emails...
Weapon of choice.

Anyway. I've chosen the rules for the Traveller RPG, by Mongoose Games, as my framework. Despite being a hardcore D6 fan from back in the day, and more recently a publisher of White Star/OSR material, I chose Traveller for good reasons. First, The design sequences, for planets, starships and trade, are some of the best for an RPG. In this case, “best” means, “detailed enough to get the job done, strict enough to provide consistency, and simple enough that I don't have to spend days making the damn ships' stats”. Another reason I chose Traveller is because the games' official setting, the Third Imperium, is well thought out and specifically designed to create a certain “feel” for the universe while maintaining consistency. That's important – by studying the nuts and bolts of the Imperium, I can get a feel for how to develop my setting with the balance of structure and romance I'm looking for. Now, the reason I chose the Mongoose edition of Traveller is in fact because I want to release this setting as a game, and the Mongoose edition of the game is OGL. I would actually, had I my druthers, use the orginial, as-old-as-I-am Classic edition, because it more closely captures the feel I'm looking for, but I can't publish for that.

Having selected that rules system, I can now move on to the more literary inspirations I would love to incorporate into my new Space Opera setting. Not all of my literary inspirations are actually literary, of course, but, know. Anyway, here are a just a few of the works that have elements I would like to add to my setting:
Bad.  Ass.

  • The Third Imperium: I mentioned this one once before, but to go into detail, I like how the FTL technology was made to create an empire that had a lot of lawless frontier but could field massive numbers of well-disciplined fleets.
  • Space Skimmer: This empire runs on pragmatism and the free flow of information. Or did, until it collapsed. Space Skimmer explores ideas such as the “ungovernable galaxy” and pantropy.
  • Space Viking: H. Beam Piper's opus starts with a desire for revenge and ends with rebuilding interstellar civilization. Its got a lot of good fluff, on uplifting primitive civilizations back up to space faring levels.
  • Star Wars: Well, duh. But not like you think; when it comes to world building a galactic empire, the supplemental information about logistics, the ratio of barren, strip-mines systems verses populated ones, and the actual size of sectors in space make for fascinating reading. Works like the Essential Atlas, the Essential Guide to Warfare, and the website Star Wars Technical Commentaries provided much inspiration.
  • Dune: Again, not for the reasons you may think. The organization of the Padasha Empire – a tripod with the Great Houses and Emperor, the Spacing Guild, and CHOAM all in balance against one another is what is useful to my work. And the idea of a monopoly on interstellar travel.
There are also a lot of real-world historical backgrounds that I want to explore, partly for the added realism they can offer my setting, partly because I've been fascinated by the ideas for awhile:

  • The Punic Wars: The first clash of the Whale vs the Elephant. Which is ironic, considering Hannibal's trek across the Alps.
  • The Norman Invasion: Basically its the first development of Feudalism in the British Isles, and it was fairly well documented. Gold.
  • Life in Chaucer’s EnglantoThis is a book I got that goes into extreme detail on life in...Chaucer’s England. It even lists the approximate numbers of nobles in England prior to the Plague. Its a good spring board for building up my own aristocracy.
My list of inspirations for my Space Opera setting looks, at first blush, pretty white. I suppose its understandable – I'm pretty white, when you get down too it. On one hand, I've got a wealth of information already in my library that is very Euro-centric, and I understand it and am comfortable with it. On the other, if I'm not careful, my setting may look like retro 1920s SF where the future looks bleached. One of the main reasons my setting has such a western European bias is (apart from my fictional inspiration having such a bias) that I'd like to include a Monolithic Church-type organization that has helped preserve the more counter-intuitive knowledge needed to resurrect space travel. Such an organization, with its potential monopoly on space tech if not space travel, offers intriguing story ideas.

Anyway. I have some strategies for countering the trend toward “King Arthur in SPAAAAACE!!!” that I hope will work. For one thing, I have no interest in using Euro-centric terminology to describe my nobles, setting or what have you. To the extent that is possible, I want to give the impression of convergent evolution, not copying the mythic past. Another thing I plan on doing is making not one new empire, but many. There will be many opportunities to include different cultural influences that can be felt and explored. This is especially important to me because there are a couple of central themes that one can build a space faring civilization around, and they all need and deserve equal time. Finally, I'm going to try my best to avoid implying, as much as possible, that one culturally inspired polity is “good” and a different culturally inspired polity is “bad”. In my opinion, all governments are morally ambiguous to a certain degree, do things both shameful and noble, and generally get on the nerves of the average citizen.

And what's the point of designing a bitching space fleet if you don't have another equally bitching fleet to fight against?

Next time RocketFans, we'll tackle the opposite side of the story – technology equation. That'll be sometime next week, probably.

Also coming out soon is another pair of White Star products! Some of you (especially my Patreons) will remember my first forays into Space Opera products: the Monarch Courier and Starwell tanker. These two ships are soon to be available with all new White Star stats! Each PDF has full deckplans, detailed descriptions, and adventure seeds available, so those of you White Star fans that haven't gotten a chance to use my starship products before should be in for a treat.

But that's next week. Until then, enjoy!


  1. I'm in the process of planning something similar - inspired by the elegance of laser-launch systems, relativity, and the "horses don't need United Steel" argument, I have the framework down for a setting in which humanity has spread to dozens of Earth-like planets (although "Earth-like" doesn't mean like the more pleasant parts of California - you're just as likely to get Antarctica or the Outback as anywhere with country club weather), but there is no interstellar government. Instead, there exists a private enterprise called the ITC (Interstellar Transport Corporation), which has a de facto monopoly on space travel (sure, third parties can own and operate their own spacecraft, but ITC's laser launch infrastructure is all but impossible to compete with, but they've done everything in their considerable power to ensure that no one else has interplanetary or interstellar travel capability). I envisioned a setting with lightsail-propelled starships making 10-70-year trips at relativistic velocities, of planets starting out rustic and then eventually rising to post-industrial, of a future history where the private space programs that exist today and are yet to come eventually fold due to terrestrial protectionism and a shortage of eccentric billionaires but lays the foundation of a new golden age of space travel, but for the longest time I couldn't think of a way to turn it into a story.

    Eventually, it occurred to me that if interstellar cruises are decades long, then the focus should be on their destinations, which means a return to the Planetary Romance style of storytelling. That, coupled with the rustic planets idea, has led my planned story to essentially be a space western, with a touch of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" - in which our protagonist (a well-educated young woman from high-technology, post-industrial Earth) is sent on assignment by ITC to a world that, beyond the spaceport, looks like 19th Century Utah Territory.

  2. Sound fascinating. And good to hear from you again!

  3. I've been trying to make hard sf spacecraft that are part of a similarily medieval to renaissance setting, current craft include a 'viking longboat' type craft,

    a primitive carrack/cog type craft

    and a very large 'galleon' type craft.

    Each is meant to indicate the way technology develops within the setting. They probably aren't very accurate (especially the sizes of the propellant tanks) but I hope they might provide some useful ideas for you.

    If they aren't useful then I apologise for bothering you with this.


Questions, comments, criticisms? All non-Trolls welcome!