I’ve been studying the science behind the worlds of science fiction with the intention of using it for world building. I’ve written a series of articles introducing these science concepts. My intention as a science fiction writer was to build a setting where at first glance paralleled the real universe. Consequently, I tried to use the results from SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and related searches to bracket the extent and technology of alien civilizations that appear in my stories.
The worlds of science fiction are introduced in the article: World Building for Science Fiction.
My approach mirrors some of the discussion presented in this Screen Craft article by Ken Miyamato from 2021: THE CRAFT AND RULES OF WORLDBUILDING IN SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY. I start from a real world present approach by asking: what does science tell me about X? X in this case is alien civilizations.
As some additional information, it might be useful to look at the SETI Institute web site: SETI Institute
Another article reports about some limits established my astrophysics studies: Forbes Article
The Fermi Paradox is an important question for worlds of science fiction, providing estimates of the expansion of a civilization. I have continued the articles with this on specifically on this question: It Starts With A Paradox.
ScienceTime has produced an interesting video about the Fermi Paradox.
The Kardashev Scale is a measurement for worlds of science fiction, providing estimates of technological progress. I have continued the articles with this on specifically on this measure: It’s All About Power.
InsaneCuriosity has produced an interesting video about the Kardashev Scale.
The Drake equation is the foundation for worlds of science fiction, providing estimates of alien civilizations. I have continued the articles with this on specifically on this equation: The Drake Equation
Andrzej Dudnik has produced a nice video that provides a nice summary of the Drake Equation.
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.
Part 3 of World Building for Science fiction
In case you’ve missed the previous posts in the thread, Part 1 begins here.
The previous post in this thread, Part 2 is here.
The Kardashev scale measures the technology of a civilization. It expresses the details in one parameter: the power generated by the civilization. The power delivered to the Earth from the Sun (approximately 1016 W) is equivalent to 1 on the scale. We call this a type I civilization. Since the power level is planetary equivalent, a type I civilization refers to a planetary civilization.
The type II civilization results in number 2 that generates the energy from a typical star (1026 W). Another ten billion times more power is the equivalent of a small galaxy. This type III civilization has number 3 on the Kardashev scale. The current level of humanity is about 0.7 on the scale. (We provide the detailed mathematics of the Kardashev scale here.)
An advancing civilization generates more power, which means building bigger things. Animal power allowed humanity to grow more food. Excess power evolved into a transportation system that distributed goods to larger distances. This is true for advancements over the history of humanity.
For our science fiction world building, we assume that the same. Admittedly, there are other means of measuring the technology of a civilization. For instance, science fiction role-playing games use a different scale of tech level.
We expand on the idea to make another definition. We define a scale of power per individual. This scale shows that a Type I civilization and roughly Earth population has about 1 MW per individual. We set this level 0 on this new scale. Positive numbers show more power per individual and negative numbers show less (see the mathematical supplement here).
As part of the Drake-Kardashev-Fermi concepts, the Kardashev scale sets the speed limits in the Fermi paradox. It measures the civilization’s ability to change the limits in the Drake equation. We will explore this idea in future posts.
In the next post, we revisit the Drake equation and present a term-by-term overview of this famous equation.