World Building for Science Fiction

Image by Snap­wire on pex­els

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.

Cold Contact

Cold Contact, short science fiction by Torn MacAlester

Writ­ten for: The Fic­tion Foun­tain 4 Aug 2019


Pho­to by Min An from Pex­els


Frank ‘Coot­er’ Ross looked at his books, try­ing to find infor­ma­tion about first con­tact. Where the hell is it? He thought. I know there is some infor­ma­tion here somewhere.

“What’s going on Frank?” said the female voice over the com­put­er line. “You went qui­et and start­ed grum­bling.” The voice belonged to Cathy Soren­son, the space­craft mechan­ic at the far end of the dri­ve sec­tion of the Hootie Bird.

“It’s a book,” Coot­er said. “Details the pos­si­bles fer first contact.”

“Oh,” she answered. “Part of your alien’s on the Moon conspiracy.”

“Evi­dence was there.”

“Nev­er mind,” Cathy answered. “What’s the urgent need for the book?”

“Ya’ heard them transmittin’.”

“Yeah I heard it. But don’t you think it’s a cou­ple of spac­ers with too much time and too many choic­es of drugs.”

“What if they’d been sober?” asked Cathy.

“Low oxy­gen, maybe.”

“It’s impor­tant that we find it way out here.”

“How so?”


“Well,” Coot­er start­ed. “We’re beyond our first con­tact signal.”

“First con­tact signal?”

“Yeah, it’s the ini­tial trans­mis­sion of sig­nif­i­cant pow­er that could be detect­ed by an alien civilization.”


“The minus sev­en­ty-three Olympics broad­cast from Berlin or the minus sev­en­ty two coro­na­tion of King George the sixth of England.”

“Cap­tain Coot­er can you explain for all us Earth­lings? Those are over two hun­dred years old,” Cathy said.

“Do the math Cathy. We’re about two hun­dred and fifty light years from Earth, the sig­nals have not made it out this far. Its Y+145 now, the sig­nals would have reached a max­i­mum of two hun­dred and eight light years.”

“Oh. I for­get that sig­nals trav­el slow­er than the warp dri­ve. We’ve out ran the radio waves from back then. So -”

“We’re out in the cold zone,” Coot­er said.

“Cold zone?”

“It’s the zone where any con­tact with aliens will occur with­out them hav­ing pri­or knowl­edge of our existence.”


“Cold,” said Cathy, “since we’ve not giv­en them any time to warm up to the idea.”

“Exact­ly. It’s a cold contact.”

Coot­er heard Cathy laugh as he adjust­ed the high gain anten­na to point direct­ly at the Union Transat­lan­tique des Nations ves­sel, as the low gain point­ed at the only inhab­it­able plan­et in the sys­tem. They had been sent their to check out the plan­et and pos­si­ble UTAN colony being built on the plan­et. Many oth­er nations had their eyes on the plan­et, but want­ed the extents of the UTAN colony estab­lished before com­mit­ting their own resources. Con­se­quent­ly, Coot­er was hired to take a look.

Hootie Bird made for a good scout­ing ves­sel. Many Moon based spac­ers had tak­en to build­ing and oper­at­ing them after the dis­cov­ery of Alcu­bierre met­ric based FTL warp dri­ve. The basic aster­oid prospec­tor ship design that had been oper­at­ing for decades pro­vid­ed the per­fect design that could use the dri­ve. Many were ful­ly auto­mat­ed, sur­vey­ing the thou­sands of sys­tems brought into range by FTL. Few, like Hootie Bird, were clas­sic crew-of-two roid-rompers.

Coot­er had hired Cathy and com­mis­sioned a new ves­sel short­ly after the dis­cov­ery. He decid­ed that he would go to the stars to look for aliens rather than scour the lunar sur­face to look for the alien base he believed was there. He’d spent decades with noth­ing to show for it, so he opt­ed for a dif­fer­ent search.

“Frank?” Cathy asked, con­tin­u­ing to refuse to call him ‘Coot­er’.


“I’ll need at least thir­ty min­utes before I can restart the reactor.”


“Okay,” Coot­er not­ed. “Anoth­er forty-five before the dri­ve is ready, then.”

“Yes, but I’ll make it twenty.”

Coot­er looked at the poten­tial mis­sile launch­es and trav­el times from the UTAN plan­et and ves­sel. He not­ed that they were safe from the plan­et, but some of the pos­si­ble shots from the ves­sel were mar­gin­al. It all depend­ed upon the fuel in the vessel’s tanks. They could make a large burn and put Hootie Bird into a missile’s flight envelope.

Coot­er ner­vous­ly mon­i­tored the clock and lis­tened. No news was good news. He wait­ed, hop­ing for some more chat­ter from the UTAN. He want­ed to know more about these Aliens the ves­sel had report­ed. Could it be true? Had they made contact?

“Navire six, aller au silence radio,” said the radio chan­nel from the UTAN colony. Coot­er didn’t need the trans­la­tion to under­stand they want­ed the UTAN ves­sel to go silent. A moment lat­er a very large radar pulse hit Hootie Bird.

“DAMN IT,” yelled Coot­er. “Firin’ up the RCS. Hold on Cathy, we need to Burn hard.”

“Don’t kill us.”

“I won’t,” Coot­er said, burn­ing a sig­nif­i­cant part of their fuel. “You’ll get a bonus if you can make the twen­ty min­utes on the reactor.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“That pulse came from the plan­et,” Coot­er explained. “That burn will put us out­side of any of their fir­ing solu­tions. They’ll have to tell the ves­sel to tar­get us – they’ll have to maneu­ver to shoot. I hope to engage the warp dri­ve before that happens.”

“You’re crazy, Frank.”


“Obvi­ous­ly,” Coot­er grinned, and fell silent watch­ing the displays.

After five min­utes, silence con­tin­ued on the radios. Laser com­mu­ni­ca­tions, he thought, the tight beam would be impos­si­ble to inter­cept. They’d be get­ting instruc­tions from the plan­et. Maybe ten min­utes, they’d burn to get a fir­ing solution.

Coot­er looked through the scope, point­ed at the last posi­tion of the UTAN ves­sel. – still there. No evi­dence of a burn.

The min­utes ticked off…

Coot­er glanced at all the con­trols. No mes­sages from either the UTAN ves­sel or colony. No flare of engines engag­ing, nor the launch of a missile.

“Nut­tin’ Cathy,” Coot­er said at length. “Sta­tus on the reactor.”

“I can fin­ish or talk, Frank, your choice.” Cathy said.

“Keep workin’,” Coot­er said. “I get nut­tin’ from them. It’s like they’re ignorin’ us.”


Coot­er looked again. There was no activ­i­ty. “It’s just like I would do it.”

“Do what?”

“Make us doubt every­thing that had occurred.”

“Three more min­utes on that reac­tor.” Cathy said, “Give me time to get out of here before you fire up.”

“Sure,” Coot­er said. “They just made us believe and dis­be­lieve the alien first con­tact at the same time. A true cold contact.”

The Science of “Golf and Outgassing”

Repub­lished from APRIL 14, 2018


It’s dif­fi­cult to talk about the sci­ence involved in a sto­ry with­out actu­al­ly dis­cussing some of the aspects of the sto­ry. So as a fore­warn­ing, I rec­om­mend that you read the sto­ry first and come back to this arti­cle. I’ll con­tin­ue with the arti­cle in the next para­graph. The sto­ry Golf and Out­gassing is avail­able here.

* * * * * *

Golf and Out­gassing is a sto­ry regard­ing the return to the moon some­time in the next decade of an alter­nate his­to­ry.   It revolves around the land­ing site Fra Mau­ro, the loca­tion of the 1971 land­ing of Apol­lo 14 i ii. The title itself is sug­ges­tive of the event end­ing the two-day stay of Apol­lo 14 — Alan Shep­ard’s famous lunar golf shots iii. The out­gassing piece is from part of the pre­lim­i­nary sci­ence results for the mission.

Fra Mau­ro high­lands is a region on the east­ern edge of the Ocean of Storms, near the cen­ter of the disk of the full moon. It was select­ed because of the rel­a­tive­ly recent (and deep) impact crater called Cone Crater. Cone Crater seemed to be deep enough that it might have punched through the under­ly­ing sur­face geol­o­gy and blast­ed pieces of the bedrock dur­ing the impact. One of the sci­ence goals of Apol­lo 14 was to trav­el to the rim of Cone Crater and sam­ple the rocks from with­in. The bulk of the sec­ond EVA involved Alan Shep­ard and Edgar Mitchell work­ing their way up the Cone Crater slope iv v

The rest of the sci­ence back­ground for the Golf and Out­gassing sto­ry is the Apol­lo Lunar Sur­face Exper­i­men­tal Pack­age ALSEP vi. One of the ALSEP exper­i­ments detect­ed water vapor. This occurred weeks lat­er after Shep­pard and Mitchel had depart­ed the moon and returned to the earth. An exper­i­ment called the Suprather­mal Ion Detec­tor Exper­i­ment vii (SIDE) detect­ed the water sig­na­ture viii. It’s like­ly that the result was con­sid­ered void because of no equiv­a­lent event at anoth­er Apol­lo land­ing site. Also, the dry moon par­a­digm became stan­dard. It remained in effect until the Clemen­tine mis­sion sug­gest­ed oth­er­wise ix.

The crawler, or pres­sur­ized rover, is based on a vehi­cle that has been con­sid­ered by NASA as part of the can­celed Con­stel­la­tion pro­gram. It had been devel­oped as part of the desert rats exer­cis­es. The crawler’s capa­bil­i­ties enables lunar explo­ration in a shirt sleeve envi­ron­ment, leav­ing EVA’s to han­dle spe­cial cir­cum­stances that could not be han­dled by robot­ics x

The exis­tence of a sky­light cave struc­ture under Cone Crater is made up for pur­pos­es of the sto­ry. There are sky­light caves on the moon, dis­cov­ered by the Selene (a Japan­ese Lunar Mis­sion) xi They are expo­sures of sub-sur­face lava tubes. Like polar craters, a lava tube could act as a cold trap, allow­ing the volatile sub­stances such as water to accu­mu­late inside of the caves. The expla­na­tion that is inferred in “Golf and Out­gassing” is that the water detect­ed by the SIDE was from a cave con­cealed under Cone Crater that released vapor after the Apol­lo 14 mis­sion. If such a cave exist­ed, dis­cus­sion about return to the moon would like­ly include Fra Mauro.

Ref i: NASA Apol­lo 14 page. 

Ref ii: Wikipedia Apol­lo 14 page 

Ref iii: PGA News Lunar Golf Shots 

Ref iv: Fra Mau­ro land­ing site

Ref v: Report on Geol­o­gy of Fra Mauro 

Ref vi: Apol­lo 14 Sci­ence Experiments 

Ref vii: Suprather­mal Ion Detec­tor Experiment 

The Science of Morgan’s Road


Repub­lished from DECEMBER 14, 2017
It’s a lit­tle hard to talk about the sci­ence involved in a sto­ry with­out actu­al­ly dis­cussing some of the aspects of the sto­ry. So as a fore­warn­ing, I rec­om­mend that you read the sto­ry first and come back to this arti­cle. I’ll con­tin­ue with the arti­cle in the next para­graph. The sto­ry “Mor­gan’s Road” is avail­able here.

* * * * *

Mor­gan’s road began as a sto­ry about the lunar regolith. Regolith is essen­tial­ly lunar dust. Due to repeat­ed bom­bard­ment by objects rang­ing in size of moun­tains to micro­scop­ic grains, the moon’s soil has been beat­en down into tiny dusty grains. This dust is every­where, and as expe­ri­ence by the crews of the Apol­lo land­ings, it gets onto every­thing. Most of the sam­ple con­tain­ers returned to the moon did not seal prop­er­ly. Con­se­quent­ly, there was sig­nif­i­cant con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of the soil by the atmos­phere of the space­craft and lat­er the Earth­’s atmos­phere [1].


The moon’s lack of atmos­phere has ensured that any dis­tur­bance of the regolith will last for years. In fact, the dis­tur­bance in the regolith asso­ci­at­ed with the Apol­lo mis­sions remain to this day. The lunar recon­nais­sance orbiter LRO, imaged each of the Apol­lo land­ing sites, show­ing the tracks left by the astro­nauts and lunar rovers[2].   Morgan’s road is an exten­sion of this idea of long last­ing or per­ma­nent tracks. Nel­son will be able to track Mor­gan back to his secret – the ice that allows him to sur­vive on the moon. The tracks asso­ci­at­ed with Morgan’s crawler would be a per­ma­nent record of every place that Mor­gan vis­it­ed, includ­ing the source of the ice.


The moon held a secret until long after the Apol­lo mis­sions had con­clud­ed. In fact the sci­en­tif­ic par­a­digm of the era held for a dry moon. Use of radar from the Earth, and the flight of the Clemen­tine mis­sion past the moon revealed hints of water ice exist­ing in the per­ma­nent­ly shad­owed cre­ators of the lunar poles. Lat­er mis­sions, notably the LCROSS mis­sion con­firmed the dis­cov­ery [3].


Part of Morgan’s Road deals with the eco­nom­ics of space­flight in gen­er­al and lunar explo­ration specif­i­cal­ly by look­ing at the issue of Lunar sup­plies. Sup­pos­ing that water was nev­er dis­cov­ered on the moon, any water used by the peo­ple on the moon would have to be shipped there. Includ­ing water and oxy­gen, twen­ty five thou­sand pounds of sup­plies are need­ed to sup­port one per­son for one year on the moon. To put that in per­spec­tive, that is about the mass deliv­ered to the sur­face by the Apol­lo Lunar mod­ule. So, that would mean that the equiv­a­lent of a Sat­urn V launch every year to sup­port one per­son on the sur­face. To make this viable the sup­port costs need to be reduced by in situ resource uti­liza­tion ISRU [4] capa­bil­i­ty and the abil­i­ty to recy­cle the water [5].


In Morgan’s Road, Nel­son pays approx­i­mate­ly a hun­dred dol­lars a gal­lon for water. The price seems extreme, since enough water for a per­son to sur­vive a month would be fif­teen hun­dred dol­lars a month. This would seem almost unsus­tain­able for all but the rich­est indi­vid­u­als going to the moon on their own dime. But its even more finan­cial­ly dif­fi­cult than that. The price per gal­lon in Morgan’s road has to be heav­i­ly sub­si­dized. For exam­ple, to put a pound of pay­load on the moon for Apol­lo was over sev­en­ty thou­sand dol­lars. So at ten pounds per gal­lon, it would cost Apol­lo sev­en hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars to ship a gal­lon of water to the moon. Even the most aggres­sive schemes in the mod­ern era sug­gest that the price per pound to the sur­face of the moon would be about a thou­sand dol­lars.  Morgan’s Road shows that unless there is a sig­nif­i­cant shift of the bur­den of resource man­age­ment, an unsup­port­ed pop­u­la­tion on the lunar sur­face is dif­fi­cult to achieve.


Though it makes for a good sto­ry, Morgan’s secret is hard­ly a secret to us. The moon has water and some inter­est­ing mech­a­nisms for gath­er­ing it. It also has been a sur­prise to find water in the lunar soil at equa­to­r­i­al lat­i­tudes. This dis­cov­ery, using the moon min­er­al­o­gy map­per and the Cassi­ni space probe, changed all per­cep­tions of the moon. The exis­tence of this water is a major game chang­er for the eco­nom­ics of space flight [6]. The water can be used to make pro­pel­lant, which in turn changes the cost func­tion for activ­i­ties in cis­lu­nar space, since that pro­pel­lant does not come from Earth.




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