Writing Excuses 4.30: Worldbuilding the Future

Let’s build THE FUTURE! [cue dramatic music]

The Writing Excuses crew explores another angle on the massively multifaceted gem of a topic known as “worldbuilding.” We’ve touched on governments, religions, and magic systems in the past. This time we’re looking at a more exclusively science-fictional aspect of worldbuilding: extrapolating a future setting from what we know about the present.

We start with Howard explaining why and how he went about it all wrong, and then managed to salvage it in spite of that. We move on to strategies for doing this sort of future prediction, and how to employ them in concert to worldbuild underneath your next novel. Strategies include “worst-case scenario,” “best-case scenario,” “the human factor,” and “what’s cool?”

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Empire of the East, by Fred Saberhagen

Writing Prompt: “were-cuttlefish,” courtesy of Dan Wells.

Courtesy of Howard Tayler: those popping noises made by (we assume) the were-cuttlefish.

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40 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.30: Worldbuilding the Future”

  1. Excellent podcast. My current project the one that made me switch from discovery writing to outliner at least for this project is 110% sci-fi and has a ton of world building behind it, and like Howard, it is more political than technical but still has to make sense.

    I made a few choices such as:

    FTL is a “jump” system with no intervening “travel” time in between. So you jump from Point A to Point B in a fairly straight line either using a “Jump drive” or a “gate”. Gates are also use to communicate between systems at superluminal speeds (in concentrated packets of data not unlike the internet today) and that means only systems that are directly connected with a pair of gates (or planets within the same system) have this uber-radio system, others simply have to wait until the data spreads through out the gate system.

    In “real-space” travel is rather is fast, but not so fast as to make gates/jumps obsolete, that is ships with enough power/reaction mass can accelerate up to 1%-10% of lightspeed (with is amazingly fast) but not enough to interstellar travel.

    Space combat is limited by orbital mechanics (the influence of gravity in and around large stellar bodies such as stars and planets) and since sensors are not superluminal, most combat occurs withing the space of a light second (which is approximately the distance between the Earth and the Moon). Pretty far by terrestial standards but ridiculously close by space based measurements (you know, light years!).

    All of that has created some interesting mechanics for the economics, politics and military 2,000 years in the future.

    And of course that is just the beginning!

  2. I’ve been paying attention to these podcasts for a long time, but though I love all your world-building episodes… This is perhaps the one I needed to hear most of all. Thanks!

    However, I’m still waiting for a story-editing ‘cast.

  3. Excellent episode. I especially like the “best scenario” “worst scenario” advice. At it’s heart, I think the core of all science fiction is the question “what if,” and working out the best case and worst case scenarios is an excellent way to create a spectrum of workable ideas.

    Another piece of advice I’ve found especially useful is the “donkey rule” from back in season one. Basically, the idea is that whatever changes you make in your futuristic society, you have to think through all of the practical implications of that change. These implications often lead to a whole other set of implications, which lead to other implications, and THAT’S where I often find my story–not in the idea itself, but the implications of the implications of the idea.

    I think that’s why SF tends to be much more conscious of itself; the new generation of authors are often responding to the ideas of the previous generation, following through the implications of those ideas to their conclusions. Thus we have Orson Scott Card responding to Ursula K. Le Guin’s concept of the ansible with his own take on the concept, or Asimov’s laws of robotics as a response to the classic robot apocalypse stories of the ’30s and ’40s.

    Things get really interesting where the implications could go in multiple directions, and different authors’ takes on the same ideas go in different directions. That’s why SF is so awesome: there are SO MANY possible directions you can go, so many places and ideas to explore. The only limits are your imagination and your ability to write clearly.

    SF totally rocks!

  4. Rafael: That’s very fast, I hope you’ve got some good limits built into your STL travel. It’s so incredibly fast that in your story you could fly to the sun* faster than you could fly to the other side of the globe right now. It’s actually fast enough that you run into the issue of needing to explain why research into FTL continued when you could build a relatively reliable generation ship with STL travel that fast.

    Not that you’d actually make it there before burning up, but at .1C you could get to the sun in an hour and twenty (three) minutes. .01C, your lower speed, still has you traveling to the Sun within little more than half a day. For purposes of comparison, it’s about 50-60 hours between the Sun and Pluto* at .1C, and you’d be taking closer to a three or four weeks at .01C. If that sounds slow to people unaware of the scale of the solar system, a ship going at .01C could get to the Moon from Earth in less than two minutes, which is pretty ridiculous. :)

    *Pluto has a very elliptical orbit so its solar radius varies dramatically.

    On making fun of medical failures: Given that near-universal healthcare is a reality in other developed nations aside from the US, it’s pretty realistic to think that any future failures in healthcare would be for some of the same reasons as today’s failures- bureaucracy capture, (corporate or government or both) patent inflation, insurance protectionism, cost inflation, and inadequate infrastructure. (that last being behind the majority of issues with doing medical care in less developed nations, for instance anti-retrovirals that you need a watch to manage, so it might not make for very good parody of healthcare so much as foreign aid)

  5. The best Asimov short story I’ve read where the focus of the story is not the characters is “The Last Question.” I’ve read it probably 15 times and it still amazes me every time.

  6. Well, reaction mass for one and the acceleration curve is not that extreme, but yeah, it seems that fell for the obvious trap of “sci-fi writers have no sense of scale”. Mind you why take a generation ship if you can just jump from one planet to the next is a pretty good reason not to keep generation travel tech (plus life support as well).

  7. Of course, I could just move the decimal point a notch or two and that would give me relative interplanetary travel and still have viable FTL.

  8. The problem with the were-cuttlefish is the same problem with Aquaman: yes, he’s formidable…but only in aquatic environments. In water, a cuttlefish can change its color and disappear, and its long tongue/proboscis makes a wicked weapon. But on land, it’s just a hunk of sushi. So, like Aquaman, you’d have to provide convenient entrances to aquatic environments in pretty much every scene. I’d say just write it so that the entire story takes place in the sea, but then what happens when the were-cuttlefish turns back into a human?

    You picked a toughie of a writing prompt this week.

  9. Great podcast. My favorite point that came up in regards to SF worldbuilding was Howard’s point: If X exists, then what are the consequences?

    Probably something that, in grand terms, must be ignored in telling an SF story (if you want to tell a story that isn’t a hi-story)… but highly, highly important for understanding how a future-world works and looks, and making it seem believable by addressing its consequences!

    Thanks for another great ‘cast guys,


  10. Well, reaction mass for one and the acceleration curve is not that extreme, but yeah, it seems that fell for the obvious trap of “sci-fi writers have no sense of scale”. Mind you why take a generation ship if you can just jump from one planet to the next is a pretty good reason not to keep generation travel tech (plus life support as well).

    Well, sure, all those times are assuming you’re already at max speed. If it takes a few hours or days to ramp up from zero velocity to .1C, you’re probably golden.

    I’m not saying people would often make STL generation ships when FTL travel is available. (although if FTL is very expensive or requires a relatively small ship, it might still make sense to travel STL to establish colony worlds. You send FTL ‘scouts’ with specialists and survival experts ahead to lay down some basic colonial infrastructure and the bulk of the colonists travel on generation ships, arriving when some basic agriculture or other infrastructure is already in place)

    I’m saying that FTL is an extraordinary discovery and you need a really good incentive if it’s going to be discovered directly- like very slow STL space travel and a society that’s overgrowing. Having very fast STL travel means you probably need your FTL technology to be an incidental discovery and not something that had direct research poured into it.

  11. I’m curious. How does a family impact your (pl.) writing habits? Did having children or getting married force you to reconsider your writing habits? How much more or less time are you able to spend with your family than if you had a “9 to 5” job? How much more or less time do you have for writing now that you have a family?

  12. Well commerce would seem to be a strong motivator for FTL, because what is the use of establishing extra-solar colonies if there is no viable way to exchange ideas, information or goods between them?

    Also, as part of the backstory the first ships were a combination of generation ships with FTL.

    I know, why bother with a generation ship when you have FTL?

    Because the first FTL drives could only breach the space between stars, and you would jump from the edge of one star system to the other, not from one planet in a star system to the next (that’s why the gates are so important, as well as a way of communicating at FTL speeds). So while jumping from one star to the next was instantaneous (or nearly so) making “star fall” that is traveling into the the star system itself toward planets inside the system could take weeks, months and or even a few years, not to mention that each expedition would carry everything it needed to terraform a world or at the very least construct orbital platforms to sustain life.

    Of course, you can go the soft sci-fi route, apply a lot of handwavium and be done with it.

  13. As a note, going from Earth to Pluto in 8 days with out some sort of jump drive implies 17g acceleration continuously, that’s not really something humans are good at. 1g continous acceleration would take just over a month. Not that 90% of readers would notice, it’s just that when discussing normal space STL travel acceleration is actually the number you want to pay attention to, not “top speed” which in general space ships don’t really have.

    http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/ has pretty much everything the budding rocketeer needs to maintain plausibility.

  14. Thanks for the link Onymous. And no, I don’t expect someone in my universe to travel from Earth to Pluto in 8 days (or less).

    Also, we have ignored a very important point that Howard brought up, the social impact of technology.

  15. Unless you come up with some sort of reactionless STL drive, your top speed is effectively based on your available reaction mass. Being able to reach a given speed with half of your reaction mass pretty much defines your “top speed”, assuming you know where you’re going. But you’re right that acceleration matters much more- you can tell I write soft scifi when I’m not doing fantasy, right? :D

    @ Rafael: STL colonies have the same point as intrasolar travel- exploration, diversification, development, etc…

  16. Matthew, you could decelerate at the other end with a slingshot, allowing you to use more than half your reaction mass for accelerating.

  17. Actually Delta V is the important number. It’s a combination of exhaust velocity, and shipmass/reactionmass which basically can tell you where you can go and how fast, but the standard issue handwave when dealing with torchships is to basically assume infinite delta V, which means either infinite reaction mass (say mass driver on an asteroid) or ridicuously high exhaust velocity. Either way it means you can get to and from any where as fast as your engine/shipmass combination will let you. And it’s one of those things that even the hardcore hard sci-fi fans will ignore.

    Oh and for some reason I was using 91 AU for Pluto, the actual numbers are 14.5g for a week and 30 days for 1g

  18. Onymous, in fact, that’s not correct (or not complete). As you approach the speed of light, the reaction mass you push out will create delta-mv, not delta-v, since as you approach the speed of light your mass increases. And the higher your exhaust velocity, the better, especially since if you accelerate it to near-light speed, its effective mass actually increases.

  19. True Mathew, but only if you can travel effectively to and from each colony, otherwise it is a one shot evolution which negates any benefits except perhaps the old escaping a doomed planet scenario.

  20. @AlanHorne: Why assume the story is about a human? Maybe a clownfish was bitten and infected by the dread were-cuttlefish.

  21. @Ed, well sure but if you just want to tool around your own solar system you never get up to relativistic speeds. At 1g it’ll take 270 AU to get up to 0.1 c, well outside the solar system. Unless you’re trying to fly to the oort cloud with STL (and a ridiculous delta-v budget) you’ll never need to worry about mass dilation.

    And the statement still stands that most sci-fi fans are completely willing to grant a writer infinite delta-(m)v.

    Also… what if were-cuttlefish can breath in air… or don’t need to breath. As long as we’re talking about the future and were-cuttlefish why not have them in free-fall/micro-gravity. Stephen Baxter had intelligent squid piloting spaceships in Manifold Space(Time?).

  22. Double post:

    Really what I meant to say the first time is that if you’re trying to summarize a ship’s ability to go places and do stuff with a parsimony of numbers delta-v is the best.

  23. I’m suprised you didn’t mention the demolition man. for what it was they did it well.

  24. Excellent episode, very timely for me. Keep up the good work, guys!

    Amused by AlanHorne struggling with the writing prompt. Had the same problem at first. It certainly was a terse one–not even a complete sentence. It did come with sound effects though, so that’s a plus. Not like I’m wedded to complete sentences, myself.

    The truth is, I’ve never actually been able to use any of the writing prompts, in all my months of listening to these. I’ve always had other cuttlefish to fry. But this time…

    The episode itself reminded me of the classic “what if this goes on” element of SF, and I just happened on a link to a piece about “the most under-hyped, but most important, technology since seat belts,” which is about certain newer cars (2010 Prius, for example) using anti-collision radar in conjunction to the cruise control so that you can automatically follow traffic at whatever speed is possible.

    So while I was mowing the yard and mulling this over, thinking about the gradual effects of taking away the fallible autonomy of human drivers and replacing it with the presumably less-fallible autonomous control system, I thought about how society might react.

    Perhaps posted speed limits might be higher for robot-controlled vehicles. Maybe a special lane, like the HOV lane. People might be taxed or fined for buying “old style” cars that don’t have collision avoidance systems. At some point maybe they wouldn’t be allowed on the Interstate at all.

    This would be very unpopular at first because most people like to think that they are good drivers–nearly everyone says they’re above average drivers. But it would be very popular among “tough on crime” sorts who would like yet another thing to prosecute or harass those under-average drivers for. Maybe your first DUI offense would result in a fine about half the current fine, with the other half going to retrofit a mandatory collision avoidance system in your vehicle. (Thus there would be no second DUI offense). Maybe it would be extended to any traffic violation. (Some of the systems can already parallel park your car for you–low speed collisions would be a thing of the past, and do you know how many lives of puppies and kittens this would save? You don’t want to risk the life of a puppy, kitten, or heaven forbid, child, do you?!).

    Existing drivers would be presumed competent until proven otherwise–then they’d have to get with the times and go autonomous.

    A lot of what ifs to explore… and then I thought… [i]what if the newest autonomous system is based on the brain of a cuttlefish[/i], perhaps because of their ability to navigate in three dimensions and their unique perceptions? (I’m thinking of Stephen Baxter’s intelligent squid as a starting point for this mentality). And what if the autonomous systems are linked together so that they can communicate traffic info, even the health of their occupant (“Help, clear the road, my driver is having a heart attack and I need to get to the hospital!” or “Help, clear the road, my driver is having a baby in the back seat!”) or other vital info? And what if they are given a little “self-improving” software to learn the unique driving conditions in your locale?

    And what if the cuttlefish brain software can [i]hack the brains of any other autonomous system on the road[/i] via this communication channel and turn it into the cuttlefish brain version?

    Freakin’ were-cuttlefish cyborg cars! Yee haw! I can already see the movie version!

    (Oh wait… maybe that’s the script for Transformers 7, The Prequel that I was envisioning. I was still out there mowing the yard in the Texas heat when all this came to me, after all.)

    So I think the writing prompt was great this week. You just left out one word–[i]cyborgs[/i]. I’m gonna go back and see how many of the other writing prompts I can salvage (or savage) with that one word.

    “A man stumbles through the desert and is aided in some way by a headless monkey [u]cyborg[/u].”

    For some reason I like the things a man stumbling through the desert is likely to do with a headless monkey cyborg better than I like the things a man stumbling through the desert is likely to do with a headless monkey. Just sayin’.

  25. One stumbling block for the “car that drives itself” idea is that not only does the car have to follow the road and take other cars into account, it also has to assess road conditions – are there potholes, ruts? What about ice and snow? Will it be able to scan the side of the road for deer about to make suicide attempts? (Yeah, I’m rural).

    Another great episode!

  26. Yeah… and will it be able to differentiate between said deer (lock the brakes!) and an empty 50lb feed sack blowing in the wind (no need to lock the brakes–yeah, I’m rural too)?

    But people aren’t so great at that either, at least not when there’s only a fraction of a second to react. A computerized system can react orders of magnitude faster–milliseconds versus tenths of a second. Will it be the right reaction? After much trial and error, eventually it’ll mostly be the right reaction–more often so than the best human drivers. Especially if your system has the visual acuity of a Cuttlefish™ brand autonomous system! Wait… it needs a cuter spelling for marketing purposes…


    I’ve read a lot about autonomous systems–Popular Science often has stories about them, i.e. the DARPA Challenge, so for me it would be a good “write what you know,” at least on the autonomous system end. Cuttlefish I don’t know as much about, but I can has Google.

    Something I’ve been imagining is once every car has the system, kids deliberately jumping in front of cars to make them lock their brakes, then running away laughing at the people in the car with spilled drinks in their laps. Of course if not every car has the system, the kids who do this would become expert in recognizing which makes and models had the system, in a kind of natural selection process where the kids who make mistakes get the “Darwin Awards.”

    The autonomous cars would get good at telling each other where these “brake teaser” kids hang out, and at recognizing when it is about to happen. The cars have cameras and connectivity (a kind of OnStar on steroids)–so they can call police and parents if they get a recognizable photo. So these kids would wear face paint to confuse the cameras. (There are already face paint designs online for fooling current facial recognition software). But that’s another tell–if you see kids wearing face paint, slow down well ahead of time. The system learns to tell the difference between, say, a mime’s face paint and face paint with a more insidious purpose. Although… hm.

    Autonomous systems would have their own challenges, but they would eventually be so much more reliable than often distracted, sleep-deprived, or drugged human drivers that it isn’t even funny. Except when the Cuddlefish™ take over and start killing all the mimes.

    But that’s another story and I’m out of excuses. Mostly out of excuses. I’ll go write! After breakfast. Write after breakfast. Is my medication working? Oh… I forgot to take the pill this morning that helps me focus on doing things like taking the pill that helps me focus. On the other hand, I think I brainstorm a little better without the Adderall. Fewer boundaries. Obviously. What would be the software equivalent of ADHD? Or the cuttlefish equivalent? What would happen if you gave a cuttlefish Adderall? You’d have a very aware cuttlefish. Very a-ware. Vary a were.

    Were was I? Oh, brakefast!

  27. Whenever I think of doing a story in the future, the thought of coming up with all the advances. When thinking of fantasy, the What If element is isolated inside a world with otherwise known parameters. When thinking of the future, however, you have to think of the big What If’s consequences AND the ramifications of other technological advancements. With the rapid pace of improvement and innovation, going even 20 years into a hypothetical future leads to an unimaginable number of advancements that need to accounted for. Maybe I’m a stickler for this sort of problem in a novel but this is one of the big reasons my WIP is a Fantasy novel.

  28. To Tymcon: I really like your idea for autonimous driving vehicles. As I have a visual impairment, I am bound by the limitations (and occasional benafits) of the public transit system. Technolagy is already heading in that direction in fact. THere’s a driving system being developed particularly focused on blind drivers. A scary thought to many I’m sure, but it has marrit. Such tech could likely be implimented in part to the sighted world too, as it uses a lot of sensory stimulation as well as a certain level of autonomy.
    Unfortunately Mostly is write…mostly. There are many things one must take into account. But one could say that about any new technology. All it takes is time and determination. I think the sociological applications of autonomous vehicles would be a greater hurtle than the technological restrictions.
    P.S. This was a very interesting podcast. I’m trying my hand at Sci-fi for the first time though not THAT far into the future), and one of the things I’m having the hardest time with is making it believable. For instance, with the change from fossel fuels and oil to other forms of energy, the world’s energy is being depleated rapidly. We’re already suffering a bit of an energy crysis, so what would happen in sixty years if fuel was no longer used? I thought, maybe research has led to a means of harnassing the strongest of our base emotions and converting it into a power source. I admit I’m more interested on the personal impact this would have on the characters in my story than the technology on a larger scale, but I’m trying to make such an idea realistic enough to be plausable. I don’t want my readers to read too much into it, but I can’t and won’t assume readers are stupid. They’re not.

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  30. @Rafael – 110%, really? :o)

    @AlanHorne “But on land, it’s just a hunk of sushi.” – lmao

    Excellent episode, makes me want to stray from Fantasy back to SF. The four strategies for extrapolating provide an excellent starting point for story development, thank you! Incisive, enlightening, inspiring – you guys rock.

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