World-building is a key task for any writer of speculative fiction. The writer of realistic fiction has a world ready-made (the real world, in which we all live), and the writer of historical novels has a world that existed once upon a time and now waits for the storyteller to dust off the historical record and bring it back to life. But the speculative writer must cast his imagination toward an undiscovered country, which may be far different from anything our world has yet seen.
At first glance, it may seem that the fantasy writer has a more massive task of world-building than the science fiction writer does, because he must invent a world from the whole cloth, as it were. The culture, politics, language, dress, and manners of the fantasy world must all be invented “from scratch,” and may bear little or no resemblance to what is found in the real world. In fact, the only real limit to the fantasy writer’s imagination is that the invented world must be internally consistent if we are to believe in it. One might say that, of all types of fiction writers, the fantasy writer has the greatest freedom, if not the easiest task.
The science fiction writer (construing that term in the broadest possible way) must, on the other hand, walk a rather fine line. His fictive world must seem “realistic” in the sense of being plausible, given what we know about the way the universe actually works, even though it must possess some scientific, technological, cultural, or social advancements that have not yet, in fact, been achieved. Time travel, contact with aliens, faster-than-light interstellar travel, human cloning, a world in women must survive without the male of their species — these are all plausible premises upon which the science fiction writer may build a tale, but first he must convince us that the conditions making such things possible can occur in the universe we know.
Basic premises of my fictional universe
As soon as I chose science fiction as the genre for my first novel, I had to start thinking about the way the world of my story would be different from our own. I decided early on that I wasn’t interested in the “science” of this science fiction world — my story would not be about the gee-whiz factor of new scientific discoveries, yet I wanted the freedom to make use of futuristic technologies. (This was sheer laziness on my part — I didn’t want to have to do any research to make the science plausible.) I decided that the best way to deal with this problem was to put the story so far in the future that any technological advancements would already be old hat for my story-people – yet not so far in the future that world in which they lived in would be unimaginable or unrecognizable.
My second decision was that there would be no intelligent alien races in my story. This was partly because of my own taste: I find “space aliens” awfully tedious to read about, much less to create. And I find that stories which focus on the weirdness of alien races often ignore the fascinating peculiarities of our own species. The best stories in any genre, it seems to me, are those that focus on human struggles, and that was what I wanted for my own story. Whatever the circumstances that gave rise to those struggles, I wanted my characters to have to deal with problems that my readers could relate to on a human level.
Once I had set up these two basic parameters, I could start thinking more about the kind of story I wanted to tell. Every story runs on conflict, and in science fiction the conflict usually arises from the special circumstances created by imagined developments in technology or social changes. Since I didn’t want the story to be primarily about science or technology, that left cultural and social changes as the grounds for conflict. My future universe had to grow plausibly out of our present world, which (given the state of our present world) immediately suggested a dystopian future. But it seems to me that there are far too many dystopian novels crowding the lists of science fiction titles. Anyway, I didn’t want my story to be dreary, but full of hope. So I decided to set it in a post-dystopian future, after humankind has survived a failed attempt to unite all inhabited planets under a single totalitarian, technocratic government.
There was one further key decision I made about the fictional world of my story: unlike many futuristic tales, I wanted mine to show that, many centuries from now, religious faith and practice will continue to be a normal part of human life, as it has been from the very beginning of human existence. In fact, I wanted to show that this religious impulse will survive every attempt to suppress or deny it. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to make religion the sole, or even the main, focus of the story. Faith should be woven into the story’s fabric, but not be its overt subject.
The need for a “future history”
The results of all this reasoning produced a vision of a future whose contours, though still vague, were beginning to come into focus. I began to imagine that, starting from our present day, things get worse for a time, as many of the unfortunate tendencies of our modern world play out. But then, at some point, things change and the technocratic oppression that has been growing worse for centuries finally loosens. Perhaps once humankind develops the ability to travel to new planets, it becomes more difficult for any government to keep people under the thumb of the State. Or perhaps things change because many scientific “advancements” finally prove to cause more problems than they solve, and people become disillusioned. Science loses its romantic glow, and people find they still have plenty of problems that science and technology can’t solve.
Under the influence of these intriguing possibilities, I began to imagine a “future history” in which they would play out. I call it a “future history” because, by the time my story begins, it will all be part of the settled past. Yet, contrary to the modern myth of progress, we can never put the past entirely behind us. The past is part of who we are, while history records the process by which we have become who we are. I wanted to weave this truth into my story, to show that every “now” is built on the past, even as we look to the future. So as I began to develop my story concept (which I’ll discuss in future posts), I also began to elaborate this “future history,” which describes how I got from our present day to the “now” of my story.
Although most of this future history will never be explained in the story itself, nonetheless, it forms the very ground upon which the story is constructed. But fear not, dear reader — I will tell some of it to you, here on this blog. Stay tuned, by which I mean, “Subscribe to this blog, so that you won’t miss a thing.”
Future history is coming, along with many other secrets of the Sancta Futura universe.