World Building for Science Fiction
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, short science fiction by Torn MacAlester
Written for: The Fiction Fountain 4 Aug 2019
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
Lunar Prospector’s Tenet
Some thoughts from “Thunder Moon Tussle”
Coming soon, a new novel by Torn MacAlester
The Science of “Golf and Outgassing”
Republished from APRIL 14, 2018
* SPOILER ALERT *
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
The Science of Morgan’s Road
Republished from DECEMBER 14, 2017
* SPOILER ALERT *
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 .
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. 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 .
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  capability and the ability to recycle the water .
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 . 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.