World Building for Science Fiction

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Part 1 — Introduction

I want­ed to share some insight into the world build­ing process that I am using in my sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries. First off, most would call my sci­ence fic­tion as ‘Hard’ sci­ence fic­tion because of my use of sci­en­tif­ic rig­or when devel­op­ing my sto­ries. For myself, it’s part of the rea­son for sto­ry­telling. The sit­u­a­tions I like to con­sid­er an inter­est­ing sci­ence or engi­neer­ing prob­lem as part of my sto­ry. As part of that effort, I try to keep the sci­ence as cor­rect as possible.

The ques­tion that every sci­ence fic­tion author faces at some point is how to han­dle aliens with­in the sto­ries. Their exis­tence con­sid­ered and the impli­ca­tions eval­u­at­ed. To eval­u­ate the exis­tence and impli­ca­tions, I rely on three con­cepts used by astronomers to dis­cuss alien life. They are: The Drake equa­tion, the Kar­da­shev scale, and the Fer­mi para­dox (DKF). The DKF con­cepts imply a lot for world build­ing in sci­ence fic­tion. They relate to the num­ber of civ­i­liza­tions, their tech­nol­o­gy, and the con­se­quences for the first emer­gent civ­i­liza­tion. It turns out that these three have inter­play with each other.

The first of the DKF con­cepts is the Drake Equa­tion, named for Dr Frank Drake who devel­oped it as a talk­ing point for the first sci­en­tif­ic meet­ing on the search for extrater­res­tri­al intel­li­gence in 1961. The equa­tion com­putes an esti­mate of the num­ber of civ­i­liza­tions in the galaxy at a time. It depends on 3 types of terms: astro­phys­i­cal terms, bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion terms, and civ­i­liza­tion tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment terms. We can con­nect the terms to phys­i­cal process­es. These terms were spec­u­la­tive. How­ev­er, recent obser­va­tion­al results, specif­i­cal­ly about Earth-like plan­ets in the life zones of stars, have made the astro­phys­i­cal terms spe­cif­ic and mean­ing­ful. In future arti­cles, I will take each term and illus­trate the cur­rent esti­mates and how a sci­ence fic­tion assump­tion may alter the estimates.

The next DKF con­cept is the Kar­da­shev scale that estab­lish­es the lev­els of civ­i­liza­tion based upon their tech­nol­o­gy, named for the Russ­ian astro­physi­cist Niko­lai Kar­da­shev who pos­tu­lat­ed it in 1964. How­ev­er, the mea­sure of the lev­el depends upon the ener­gy usage of the civ­i­liza­tion. Typ­i­cal­ly, we talk about 3 lev­els: type 1 or plan­e­tary, type 2 or stel­lar, and type 3 or galac­tic. A plan­e­tary civ­i­liza­tion uses a pow­er of 1016 Watts (about the solar ener­gy land­ing on the sur­face of the Earth every sec­ond), a stel­lar civ­i­liza­tion uses the pow­er of 1026 Watts (the pow­er out­put of the sun), and the galac­tic civ­i­liza­tion uses the pow­er of 1036 Watts (the pow­er out­put of the milky way galaxy). We note that type 0 are sub plan­e­tary (1012 Watts the cur­rent lev­el of earth) and we could have a galac­tic clus­ter (Type 4 civ­i­liza­tion). Each of these kinds of civ­i­liza­tion can affect the terms of the Drake equa­tion, as the tech­nolo­gies can affect the envi­ron­ment. Even a class 0 civ­i­liza­tion can affect the envi­ron­ment either to their ben­e­fit or detriment.

The last DKF con­cept, the Fer­mi para­dox, gives a scale of activ­i­ty and the time it takes for their influ­ence to spread over a dis­tance. Enri­co Fer­mi pos­tu­lat­ed the para­dox in 1950 as a way of show­ing that the prob­a­bil­i­ty of extrater­res­tri­al intel­li­gence seemed high though there had been no detec­tion of its exis­tence. It bases the exam­i­na­tion of the prob­a­bil­i­ty of how quick­ly civ­i­liza­tions will come in con­tact with each oth­er, e.g. an expan­sion rate. Sup­pose that a tech­nol­o­gy makes it pos­si­ble to trav­el at 1 tenth of the speed of light, then the galaxy cross­ing time reduces to 1 mil­lion years. The scal­ing gives a trav­el time, then a time nec­es­sary to repli­cate the tech­nol­o­gy and trav­el to 100 bil­lion suns to find the oth­er civ­i­liza­tions. Or by exten­sion for a Type 4 civ­i­liza­tion, the time to explore the observ­able uni­verse. A sub-top­ic of the Fer­mi Para­dox is the galac­tic census—what have we observed and to what dis­tance. How long does an all-sky sur­vey take, and how much infor­ma­tion will they know?

Through these, they tie the whole ques­tion of an alien civ­i­liza­tion to the laws of nature. DKF are a sci­en­tif­ic way of enabling the dis­cus­sion of an alien civ­i­liza­tion in a math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el. Though we will keep the dis­cus­sion as sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly rig­or­ous as pos­si­ble, the rea­son for the arti­cles is for sci­ence fic­tion. We’ll look at past sci­ence fic­tion and impli­ca­tions for sci­ence fic­tion world build­ing for writ­ers and games. My plan is to explain the DKF, so expect mul­ti­ple arti­cles on this sub­ject. In some arti­cles, there will be some equa­tions. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this is unavoid­able. How­ev­er I’ll try to warn the read­er to skip those sec­tions and go to the summary.

Next, we’ll take a look at the Fer­mi para­dox in detail. I expect a rate of about one arti­cle every two to three weeks.

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