HCW #2: Shot in the dark

Once again, I’ve posted an extended article over at Hardcore Worldbuilding, my Substack column. Or whatever you’re supposed to call them. The topic this time is guns. Specifically, I’m talking about guns and gunpowder weapons in fantasy. Considering how many stories I’ve written in that vein (Hidden Hills, some of the Otherworld episodes, the unfinished Shadows Before the Sun), it’s obvious where I stand on that argument.

Check it out, subscribe, and help me grow. Please. I’m begging you. I need validation!

Seriously, though, it’s one of my better articles, I think. On March 1, I’ll post #3, about the intersection of magic and education. From that point on, new posts will come on the 1st and 16th of each month. February’s short, so you got this one a day early.

The last Dark Age

In the title of this post, “last” means “previous” rather than “final”, for I truly believe we are on the precipice of a new Dark Age. With that in mind, it’s not that bad an idea to look back at the one that came before.

Defining the moment

A lot of modern academics don’t even like talking about the Dark Ages. They prefer the bland descriptor “Early Middle Ages” instead. But that line of thinking is faulty in multiple respects.

First, the given reasoning for referring to the Dark Ages as something else is because the “darkness” of the times was a localized concept. Outside of Europe, it wasn’t all that dark. Islam, for instance, had a bit of a renaissance around the same time, and China barely noticed the troubles of the West at all.

However, this same logic should dictate that the Middle Ages are no less localized. After all, the term comes from post-medieval sources who placed that time between their modern era and the classical period of the Greeks and Romans. Similarly, is referring to the Iron Age (which began around the time of the Greek Dark Ages, starting in 1177 BC) any less patronizing? Iron tools were never developed by natives in the Americas or Australia; what was the Iron Age in Anatolia would have been nothing more than the later Stone Age in Mesoamerica. The Middle Ages aren’t “middle” at all, except through the same lens that gives us the Dark Ages.

The second reason why it’s an error to conflate the Dark Ages with the Middle Ages is character, and it’s the subject of this post.

Beginning and ending

Before we can get to that, though, we need to define the limits of the period. The beginning is fairly easy, because Europe’s decline can be traced directly to the fall of Rome in 476 AD. This event was the culmination of decades of barbarian activity, with the entire empire facing threats from waves of migrant Vandals, Goths, Huns, and others. Those peoples slowly encroached upon Roman territory, nipping away at the borders, until they were able to reach the capital itself. Rome was sacked, and the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, fled into exile. Or was sent there. Conflicting tales exist, but the gist is clear: Europe no longer bowed to Rome.

Things didn’t change overnight, of course. The barbarian kings often paid homage to the Byzantine emperor who continued to style himself Roman all the way to the 15th century. For a time, they considered themselves successors to the western throne, or at least to the provinces it had once controlled.

No, the Dark Ages only truly began once continuity was lost. That was a slow breakdown over years, decades, generations. The barbarian hordes lacked Roman culture. Without an imperial presence in Europe, that culture began to disappear, fading into memory as those who continued to consider themselves Roman aged and died. Later in the post, we’ll look at what that entailed.

As for when the Dark Ages ended, that’s a tougher question. Some might point to the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Indeed, this did rejuvenate Europe for a time, bringing about the Carolingian Renaissance, and the 9th century gave us a few technological advances; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, by Joseph and Frances Gies, details some of these, including the three in the book’s title.

Another date might be 927, marking the defeat of the Vikings by Æthelstan, first King of England. This was significant from both a political and religious standpoint, as England became a unified Christian kingdom for the first time in its history; Spain, for instance, wouldn’t manage that for nearly 600 years. And Æthelstan’s victory over the Danes did begin to bring about the changes that define the Middle Ages, such as the feudal system.

Still others would argue that the Dark Ages didn’t really end until William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. By this point, all the pieces of the Middle Ages were in place, from the manorial society to the schism of Catholic and Orthodox. The Reconquista had begun in Spain, Turks were overrunning Byzantine lands, and the Crusades were about to begin. Clearly, the world had moved on from the Fall of Rome.

Continuum

Personally, I think that’s too late, while the Charlemagne date of 800 seems a bit too early. But it may be that there is no single date we can point to and say, “The Dark Ages ended here.” Rather, there’s a continuum. The period ended at different times in different places throughout Europe, as connections to the past were rediscovered, and connections among those in the present were strengthened.

When the period began, the results were devastating. As Roman rule fell, so too did Roman institutions. The roads, so famous that we enshrine them in aphorisms, began to succumb to the ravages of time. Likewise for the bath, the forum, the legal framework, and the educational system.

The replacements weren’t always up to par, either. One of the reasons the Dark Ages are, well, dark is because of the relative lack of written works from the time. We have tons of Roman-era books: Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Ovid’s masterpieces, the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and even the New Testament of the Bible all come from the Roman world. By contrast, the best-known writings to come from the period 476-1066 are histories like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, religious texts such as those by Bede, and Beowulf.

That’s not to say that people in the Dark Ages were stupid. Far from it. Instead, they had different priorities. They lived in a different world, one that didn’t have much opportunity for philosophy. Even when it did, that was almost exclusively the domain of the Church, one of the few institutions that retained some measure of continuity with the previous age.

With the breakdown of Roman society came a change in the way people saw themselves. While the barbarians did become civilized, they didn’t become Romanized. Gone were the trappings of republic and the scholastic zeal we associate with Late Antiquity. Dark Age society focused more on tribal identity, family honor, and individual heroism. The world, in a sense, shrank for the average person. Some of the changes came from the pagan background of the Gauls, Goths, and others, but they retained them even after converting to Christianity.

The unifying power of the Church may have helped usher in the end of the Dark Ages, in that it created the backdrop for the centralization of secular power, turning petty kingdoms into nation-states. Seven English kingdoms became a single England. Vast swathes of Europe fell under the rule of the emperor in Aachen. And this could be seen as lifting the continent out of the mire. A powerful nation can build bigger than a small tribe; the grand cathedrals begun in the ninth and tenth centuries are evidence of that.

But that didn’t change the fact that so much had been lost. In some places, particularly rural Britain, standards of living (which weren’t all that high in Roman times, to be fair) dropped to a level not seen since the Bronze Age, some 2000 years before. With Roman construction and sanitation forgotten, life expectancies fell, as did urban population. This was the Dark Ages in a nutshell. When Hobbes describes early man’s life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” he’s also talking about post-Roman, pre-medieval Europe. A life without even the most basic trappings of civilization, with little hope for advancement except through heroic deeds, with the specter of death lurking around every corner…that’s not much of a life at all.

Light returns

The Dark Ages did, however, come to an end. As I said above, the ninth century brought about the Carolingian Renaissance, a small uplifting. Much later came the 12th-century version, which brought about the High Middle Ages. Bits of darkness lingered all the way to 1453, when the last vestige of ancient Rome fell to the Ottoman Empire.

Odoacer’s sack of the imperial capital in 476 brought about, in a sense, the end of the world. When Mehmed II did the same thing to the other Roman capital, Constantinople, a millennium later, the effect was quite different. Instead of a new Dark Age, the end of the Byzantines fanned the flames of the Renaissance. The true Renaissance, the one which deserves this name. By then, so much of classical times had been forgotten by Europe at large, but it was now rediscovered, the bonds reforged.

Dark Ages end when light shines through. Or when enough people decide that they are destined for greater things. In Europe, the three centuries after 476 were a period of stasis, even regression. What little of our modern media touches on this period tends to focus on heroes real or invented: Vikings, The Last Kingdom, and so on. That’s understandable, as the life of the ordinary Saxon in Winchester, the Frank in Paris, or the Lombard in Pavia is relatively dull and uninspiring. The ones whose names we remember are those who rose above that. Heroes exist in every age, no matter what the society around them looks like.

Darkness, in this sense, can be defeated. This is a darkness of ignorance, of barbarism, of tribal infighting. Knowledge is the light that washes it away. To this day, we still can’t recreate some of the progress of Antiquity: we don’t know precisely how the Romans made their concrete, the composition of Greek fire, or the purpose of the Antikythera Mechanism.

Those secrets were lost because continuity was lost. The passing of culture from one generation to the next stopped, breaking a chain that had endured for centuries. With our interconnected world of today, it’s easy to think that can’t happen anymore. After all, we can call up an entire library on our phones. But what happens when that chain is sabotaged? What happens when culture and history are intentionally altered or buried? The result would be a new Dark Age.

Culture and history forgotten. Waves of migrants. Cities sacked. The loss of classical education and scholasticism. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Otherworld and reality

For the most part, I try to make my stories natural. They aren’t necessarily believable, as many of them are set in fantasy worlds, but I strive for realism of the sort that can make a reader feel drawn into the world. So characters act like people. Dialogue is sometimes halting or rambling, depending on the situation. And the settings get a lot of love from me, because I just enjoy worldbuilding.

Otherworld, the setting of my largest series (31 parts and counting!), is no exception. Really, it’s the poster child for my “hardcore” style of worldbuilding, as I’ve stated on numerous occasions. I started developing the world in 2013 as little more than a conlang playground, then redesigned it in 2015 as part of my serious writing push. Through it all, I’ve tried to keep one goal in mind.

This could be our world.

Sometimes, that doesn’t work out. Nobody could have predicted the coronavirus panic this year, that the entire world would shut down for months. So Otherworld stories don’t talk about that; for them (and my other “Paraverse” novels, such as the Endless Forms series), it was nothing more than another swine flu scare. Likewise, the characters don’t have to worry about riots when they’re on Earth. Even the original deus ex machina for getting them away from our planet didn’t materialize: Tropical Storm Chantal was late last year, and it didn’t go where I predicted it would seven years ago.

Despite those flaws, I try to keep Otherworld as close to reality as possible while maintaining the dramatic aspects of the stories. It fits “in the gaps”, so to speak. We don’t know that these things don’t exist. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The big one

Of course, keeping that fiction alive is hard to do when you look at the overarching hypothesis of the series. To sum it up, the Americas were inhabited long ago, far longer than our theories (as of 2013) suggest. The original inhabitants were advanced, and possibly not even fully human—the truth of that remains a mystery even to me. They didn’t have an empire, but they did create numerous points of civilization that have since been lost.

This culture was far better adapted to the cold, dry climate of the Ice Age. When it ended about 12,000 years ago, their largest settlements sank beneath the rising seas, which is the main reason we can’t find them. (Yes, it’s an Atlantis riff. Sue me.) Seeing this catastrophe, they evacuated, using a set of ten mysterious sites containing wormholes. These linked to corresponding sites on another Earthlike planet, a colder one in general, where they set up shop.

Along the way, they brought the plants and animals they were familiar with. Some of those we know: Otherworld has corn and potatoes, New World raccoons and squirrels, though nothing not native to the Americas, with the possible exception of bottle gourds, which may have come over during the Ice Age. But it, unlike Earth, did not suffer the Pleistocene extinctions. So there are mammoths, sabretooth cats, dire wolves, and a few others.

This ancient civilization also interacted with the “first” Americans. Indeed, they traded with them, taught them, respected them. When their perceived apocalypse arrived, they took some of their neighbors with them to their new home. Thus, Otherworld’s natives are cousins to America’s natives. They aren’t the Aztec, Maya, Inuit, or Iroquois. They’re their own people. But they’re related, and they’re much closer to these than they are Europeans, Africans, or Asians.

Once they crossed over, the two races mostly returned to their dynamic. The ancients continued to learn and teach, even going as far as genetically engineering new sub-races of humans. The less-advanced natives accepted their wisdom, in some cases deifying them.

That worked until Otherworld began to snap out of its Ice Age about 4500 years ago. The ancients, now with nowhere else to go, retreated to high mountains and the Arctic counterpart, pushed along by one of their created races. (One small part of this tale is told in my free novel Seasons Change.) Whether any of them remain is an open question, one I have yet to see a need to answer.

Keeping it real

So that’s the backstory. Almost none of it really matters to the main plot of the stories, except that the characters from Earth are trying to piece it together out of curiosity. Still, I wanted it to be something that sounded plausible and wouldn’t be debunked easily. Yes, I’m aware that we’d probably have found evidence of advanced technology before now. And there’s not a millennia-old temple hidden around Soto la Marina, Mexico. Or Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Fossil, Oregon; Pelican Narrows, Saskatchewan…

Still, there could be. So what about the rest of it? Specifically, the timeline. How does that hold up after nearly a decade of new research?

Pretty well, in my opinion. The “gap” trick continues to work, keeping my ancients safely away from debunking. Even better are some of the findings that have come to light in the past three years.

We used to know the timing of the first Americans. It was a done deal. Call it about 13,000-15,000 years ago. They walked across a land bridge where the Bering Strait is now, then kept going through a narrow corridor between the glaciers in western Canada, following the plentiful game as they rapidly spread out through the two continents. Within a thousand years, they were everywhere from Alaska to Argentina, known by the distinct stone artifacts first found in Clovis, New Mexico.

By 2013, that theory was already beginning to crack. Now, it’s dead in the water. Spear points predating the Clovis style have been found in a number of locations, most notably Gault, not too far north of Austin, Texas. Bone tools in the Yukon site of Bluefish Caves go back a full ten thousand years before the earliest Clovis theories—they’re twice as old as the end of the Ice Age!

I’ve incorporated some of these into the Otherworld series. The remains of a child in Alaska showed DNA markers distinct from any extent Native American populations; she became, in my telling, a possible member of the ancient civilization. A similar find in Mexico dates to the “evacuation” period of my setting, and I’m on the fence as to whether that one represents an ancient or one of their neighbors who stayed (or was left) behind at the end of days.

So far, there’s nothing that really destroys the worldbuilding. In fact, some of the archaeological finds can actually be seen as strengthening it. None of them do so as much as last week’s.

Bombshell

The paper is “Evidence of human occupation in Mexico around the Last Glacial Maximum” by Ardelean et al. Written in 2018, it was published in the online edition of Nature on July 22. Six days ago. You don’t need much searching to find a copy…if you know where to look. (I’m not supposed to link to such sites, of course.)

Chiquihuite Cave is in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. Right in the middle of cartel country, I’ve read, so you can imagine how hard it is to run a dig there. Inside were found nearly two thousand stone artifacts: cores, flakes, blades, points, you name it. A bit of charcoal made from a Douglas fir, found near one of the points, provided an estimated date, and it’s unbelievable if you’re a “Clovis-first” adherent.

28,000 years ago. No joke. Twenty-eight thousand. In other words, about as old as the Bluefish Caves bone, which not only guts the theory that the Clovis points represent the oldest inhabitants of the Americas, but also drives a big nail into the coffin of the “Beringia standstill” hypothesis. That states that the first Americans came over from Siberia during the Ice Age, then settled down in Alaska and northwest Canada for a few millennia, sometimes ranging down the Pacific coast in boats.

Of course, the odds are astronomical that these are the oldest human tools south of Juneau. More likely, they represent a snapshot of a culture that lasted for hundreds or thousands of years, which only pushes the migration date further back in time. So we’re really looking at 30,000 years or more.

The population probably wasn’t very high, and these are nomadic hunter-gatherers we’re talking about. Not the ancients of Otherworld at all, yet Chiquihuite is evidence that people were living in the Americas—all throughout North America, for certain—not only at the end of the Ice Age, but at its height. The climate would have been much harsher then. Cold and dry in general, with a lot of erratic patterns near the glaciers. Sea levels were a hundred or more meters lower than today, so as much as three to five hundred feet, which pushes the coastline many miles out from what we see in the present. In other words, plenty of room to hide an Atlantis.

And that’s what I take away from the Ardelean paper. Beyond the groundbreaking discovery itself, I’m happy to see that my outlandish worldbuilding of seven years ago still survives to this day. With upheaval all around it, my creation stands. It grows. I already consider Otherworld to be my greatest creation. Now, though, I can take even more pride in what I made, because it’s…prescient, in a way.

I hope future discoveries can further enrich our knowledge of the earliest Americans. I don’t hold out hope that we’ll find wormholes and genetics experiments, as that’s too crazy even for me. But any evidence that the indigenous peoples of this continent were growing along similar lines to their brethren across the ocean is welcome. Add in the intriguing possibility that the Chiquihuite culture isn’t related to any known Native Americans, and then you start to wonder what else is waiting to be found. Who were the first people to settle in what’s now the US, Mexico, Central and South America? What kind of world did they inhabit?

Were they more than we believe?

Revisiting religion in writing

(I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing a bunch of “woe is me” posts about depression, anxiety, and the like. Outside of release announcements and the Summer Reading List Challenge, that’s all PPC has been for months. Sure, 2020 sucks, but…I’m tired of wallowing in the mire. Let’s get back to worldbuilding and theory-crafting. “I do not wish to evade the world, but I will forever build my own.”)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since I wrote a post titled Faith and Fantasy. In that post, I talked about how the fundamental assumptions of “generic” fantasy (that it’s a feudal pseudo-medieval Europe, but with magic) are incompatible with the religious framework that authors insist upon. In other words, you can’t have Middle Ages Europe without Christianity. Change the faith of the people, and everything else changes, too.

All of my worldbuilding posts, that one included, come from my personal beliefs about creating a setting in any genre of speculative fiction. I have a “hardcore” worldbuilding mindset, in the vein of Tolkien and Sanderson, and I believe that the benefits of a cohesive setting far surpass the cost of research necessary to create it. I also practice what I preach, as you’ll see.

Recap

To summarize the previous post, the structures of the medieval West stem directly from Christian orthodoxy. Serfdom and the divine right of kings both come from Biblical interpretation. Other religions, if put in the same situation, would create different societies.

We see this in a few historical cases. During the same period, Islam tended to be more autocratic, for instance, without a hierarchy of kings, princes, dukes, counts, and barons. But the changes are even more subtle than that. To take one example: Islamic beliefs prohibit idolatry, which was quickly extended to any depiction of Allah or Muhammed, any engraved lettering on the Koran, and so on. Thus we find the elaborate geometric mosaics in mosques, as opposed to the crucifixes, frescoes, tapestries, and portraits in contemporary Christian houses of worship. Religion influenced art, and this was by no means confined to sacred spaces.

Likewise, the East had, at times, long periods of stability and hegemony. Chinese state religion has always been…hard to pin down, especially for those of us on other continents. Suffice to say, though, that the emperor was believed to have a divine mandate to his rule. (Except those times when he didn’t, which just so happen to coincide with periods of rebellion. But that’s a different post.) But there wasn’t the same faith behind that mandate as Rome had, so you don’t see the same results. The Chinese people didn’t have a belief system based around salvation from sin; while Buddhism, for example, does have recognizable concepts of heaven and hell, it emphasizes actions more than beliefs. Therefore, you don’t see Chinese cathedrals. They don’t go on a pilgrimage to Nanjing or Chengdu. And so on.

Out of this world

Take a fantasy setting, now, and you can see the problems arising. Even the best authors tend to “make something up” for their worlds’ faiths. In some cases, that’s because they’re trying to make a point. The Prince of Nothing series I used as an example in the previous post is intended to evoke the Crusades era, so it almost has to have analogues for Christianity and Islam. A Song of Ice and Fire has a number of religions, from the animist Old Gods of the north to the heptatheistic faith of the majority in Westeros, and their conflict ties into the overall plot.

Others don’t even bother with justification. The stereotypical D&D settings (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms) are built around polytheism. Gods are active in the world, and they’re really just beings who have a very, very high character level. Okay, but then how did they end up with a social structure that’s so close to the High Middle Ages? Clerics of Mystra aren’t going to be chaste because of the words of Christ. Call 4th Edition non-canonical if you like, but its lore has it that the Raven Queen was a witch who killed the god of death, Nerull, and took his place. If people can aspire to that in this life, they’re not going to be satisfied with a society where the greatest rewards for most will only come in the next one.

Games are games, of course, but some novels also take things that far. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, for example, follows the RPG tropes. The former emperor ascended to become the new god of shadows. His henchman/fixer, appropriately enough, became the patron of assassins. That happened within the books’ current generation, so there isn’t enough time to show any direct social evolution, but the unnamed world of the series shows a number of similarities to Earth. You have a mercantile empire, an island where the warrior caste is all but worshipped, desert-dwellers fighting a jihad…

Fantasy religions are as varied as their creators, but few authors go to the trouble of truly analyzing the effects their made-up belief systems would have on the societies housing them. I am not always immune to the lure of the cop-out, I’ll admit.

Introspection

Ignoring those novels and shorts set in the “real” world (including paranormal stuff like “Fallen” and the Modern Minds series), my fantasy worlds have religions with varying degrees of depth.

The Hidden Hills books do fall into the polytheistic feudalism trap, I’ll admit. The people of Stada (the primary kingdom of the books) follow about twenty different gods, each overseeing a different segment of life. Despite this, they have a Europe-like system of lords—one of the main characters is the son of a viscount. I justify this in the text by not justifying it at all. That’s the way things are, and nobody really bothers to think otherwise. Speaking as the author, however, I can say that the polytheistic faith derives in-setting from a combination of ancient tribes’ animist beliefs and the guiding principles of an advanced civilization.

That’s much the same as for Otherworld. There, the primary character focus is on the Virissea, descendants of Native Americans (Paleo-Indians, technically) transplanted from Earth at the end of the Ice Age. Going to another planet didn’t entirely disrupt their beliefs—not that we know much about them—but some came to glorify, then outright worship, the creators of the mechanism which took them there. In the present day setting, the Virissea are monotheistic, but they consider those “Altea” to be of a higher level than common human beings. Not quite demigods, but even modern Christianity posits that some people have greater rewards than others. Look at St. Peter, for example.

Otherworld has other races, however. And these are physiologically distinct, far more so than what we consider races. One such people has a kind of spiritual pantheism. Another follows a dualist good-versus-evil faith somewhat similar to Zoroastrianism. A third uses meditation and strict moral codes derived from what they believe to be the rational principles of nature itself. And that’s not counting the distinctions outsiders gloss over or just don’t notice; not all Asians are Buddhists, after all.

My other fantasy setting where religion plays an important role is the unreleased Occupation Trilogy. Here, the crusade is the start of the story. The Hevestine peoples follow the dictates of God’s chosen prophet, who has been slowly deified over the course of nine centuries. They have a central church, a collection of saints who are believed to have performed miracles, and a lot of other Catholic trappings. And their society reflects that, though it’s more of a post-feudal Baroque Europe.

Against them are the Ihneti. They’re…pagan, for lack of a better term. They believe in magic, don’t follow the right teachings, and they’re just all around bad people. Well, they aren’t, but they’re the target of a six-year war and decades-long occupation because, hey, that prophet said to carry the light of God to every corner of the world. And if they would just listen, they’d realize the undeniable truth, and they could be saved, too.

I’m consciously aware of the contrasts in these settings. In a way, they represent three “levels” of worldbuilding. Hidden Hills took the easy way out, as religion isn’t a fundamental part of the plot. The whole point of Otherworld is to explore the interaction of our modern American culture with one alien, but still recognizably human, so the beliefs of the natives are important, but not pivotal. And the Occupation Trilogy is meant to make you think of the Crusades and colonialism, so I emphasized the faith of the believers and how they see their foes as heathen.

Any one of these approaches can work. You don’t have to explore every nuance. There just isn’t enough time, and I know you’d rather write the story. But a little bit of extra thought when you need it, and this aspect of a fantasy society can become so much more real. Five years ago, I stated this as a hypothesis. Now, I can confirm the truth of it.

From the memory vault: Atlanta 2012

Growing up, I never really “got” gaming, not in the RPG sense. That only started to click in my head once I began looking into D&D and other games like it, which wasn’t until the early to mid 2000s. The first time I bought an RPG book was in 2006: d20 Modern. I saw it at the bookstore, thought it looked interesting (it had stats for modern weapons, among other things), and had the extra money, so why not? Although I didn’t buy it there; I instead ordered it from Amazon, because that was quite a bit cheaper, and not nearly as socially awkward.

It’s hard to believe that this happened when I was 22, and I’m now closing in on 35. It’s even harder to believe that the first idea I had for a campaign of my own, inspired by what I read in the d20 Modern handbook, is set in a time closer to then than now.

I’m bored and not very inspired, so that’s what this post is for. This is my chance to throw out an idea that came to me before I ever started writing fiction. I called it “Atlanta 2012”, and you’re about to see why.

The premise

Back in those halcyon days of 2006, we didn’t have to worry about the polarization of discourse, or social media privacy, or ISIS, or anything like that. We had the political turmoil of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, of course, and the violations of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, but nothing like today. Thus, such troubles hadn’t seeped down into fiction yet, or into the mind of a young man whose head was already too full.

One thing that did interest me then was all the hubbub about the Mayan doomsday prophecy. If you’ll recall, the world didn’t end in December 2012, but far too many people thought it did, because they couldn’t fathom the idea of a calendar running out. Never mind that we were only a few years removed from the Y2K hysteria, which boiled down to the exact same problem. No, they were convinced the apocalypse was coming, and that the Mayans knew it down to the day.

The d20 Modern system, for those who don’t know, was an attempt at making a present-day adaptation of 3rd Edition D&D. (This was before 4E and Pathfinder, when everyone was making supplements, thanks to the OGL.) It wasn’t exactly the same, but it was pretty close. I don’t remember all the specifics now, but some that stick out are the wealth system—skill checks instead of tracking currency—and the horribly low damage that most guns did. If I did a game set in the present now, I’d probably use GURPS or something like that, but I was young, and I didn’t have the same resources at my disposal. This was what I had to work with.

These two threads tie in together, because they form the two sides of my campaign idea. The setting would be 2012, starting a few months before the presumed doomsday. I chose Atlanta as the “base” city because it was close enough that I knew a little about it, but far enough away that it wouldn’t be obvious I was doing a “hometown” RPG. Plus, it’s big, really big. There’s a lot of places to hide, a lot of gaps where stories can go. (For the same reason, I’ve used it as the main character’s effective base camp in my Endless Forms paranormal novel series.) The six years between play time and game time would give my players—my brother and a couple of my stepdad’s nephews were who I originally intended, as I would be the GM—the chance to play as either upgraded versions of themselves or fictitious contemporaries. And such a short time gap meant that technology wouldn’t change too much…except that I didn’t predict Facebook and ubiquitous smartphones, but you can’t win ’em all.

So, the game would take place in Atlanta, starting mere months before the end of the world. And that would be the first big storyline. My imagination had the players hunting down clues as to the nature of the apocalyptic event, culminating in a trip into the jungles of Guatamala and the Yucatan. Since you can’t very well stop time, the big day would come and go, so Act I was a bit of a forced Bad Ending. But my idea was that the players wouldn’t know that yet. The effects would only show up later.

In the d20 Modern handbook, there are a few setting sketches. The authors never went into any great detail, because they expected you to buy worldbooks to fill those in. (I don’t think they ever wrote them, though.) Basically, you had a generic “real world” setting, one where psionic stuff was prevalent, and “Urban Arcana”. That last was the key, because it was described as not much more than “D&D in our world”. You could have orcs on a subway, or trolls walking down Peachtree (or Broadway, but I was using Atlanta, remember). You could have magic, even. There weren’t fixed ways of using it, but the leveling system of 3E meant that your modern-day hero could take a wizard level if he wanted—and if you had the book—and there’s your spells.

Putting it all together, that was the outline I devised. Part 1 was a detective mystery, with the players hunting down clues as to the nature of the apocalypse, then coming into contact with a shadowy organization that wanted to bring it about. Then, when the designated day arrived, Bad Things would happen. The superficial victory hides the greater threat emerging: magic, fantasy, mythology. The world would slowly open up to the supernatural, in all its myriad forms. The latter half of the campaign, then, is all about that. I don’t go in for horror, but I thought I might be able to mix it in a little, especially when the players first confronted something obviously inhuman. My plans never got to mind flayers and beholders and the like, but that’s because I eventually gave up on the whole thing.

In a sense, however, I didn’t. A lot of what made Atlanta 2012 actually went into Endless Forms. The same city is the focus. Instead of a team of investigators, I’ve just got one, but he is still investigating. There’s no overt magic, but supernatural creatures lurk everywhere. So, while I did abandon the RPG campaign, the story seed went into hibernation, sprouting a decade later. Funny how that works.

Future past: computers

Today, computers are ubiquitous. They’re so common that many people simply can’t function without them, and they’ve been around long enough that most can’t remember a time when they didn’t have them. (I straddle the boundary on this one. I can remember my early childhood, when I didn’t know about computers—except for game consoles, which don’t really count—but those days are very hazy.)

If the steam engine was the invention that began the Industrial Revolution, then the programmable, multi-purpose device I’m using to write this post started the Information Revolution. Because that’s really what it is. That’s the era we’re living in.

But did it have to turn out that way? Is there a way to have computers (of any sort) before the 1940s? Did we have to wait for Turing and the like? Or is there a way for an author to build a plausible timeline that gives us the defining invention of our day in a day long past? Let’s see what we can see.

Intro

Defining exactly what we mean by “computer” is a difficult task fraught with peril, so I’ll keep it simple. For the purposes of this post, a computer is an automated, programmable machine that can calculate, tabulate, or otherwise process arbitrary data. It doesn’t have to have a keyboard, a CPU, or an operating system. You just have to be able to tell it what to do and know that it will indeed do what you ask.

By that definition, of course, the first true computers came about around World War II. At first, they were mostly used for military and government purposes, later filtering down into education, commerce, and the public. Now, after a lifetime, we have them everywhere, to the point where some people think they have too much influence over our daily lives. That’s evolution, but the invention of the first computers was a revolution.

Theory

We think of computers as electronic, digital, binary. In a more abstract sense, though, a computer is nothing more than a machine. A very, very complex machine, to be sure, but a machine nonetheless. Its purpose is to execute a series of steps, in the manner of a mathematical algorithm, on a set of input data. The result is then output to the user, but the exact means is not important. Today, it’s 3D graphics and cutesy animations. Twenty years ago, it was more likely to be a string of text in a terminal window, while the generation before that might have settled for a printout or paper tape. In all these cases, the end result is the same: the computer operates on your input to give you output. That’s all there is to it.

The key to making computers, well, compute is their programmability. Without a way to give the machine a new set of instructions to follow, you have a single-purpose device. Those are nice, and they can be quite useful (think of, for example, an ASIC cryptocurrency miner: it can’t do anything else, but its one function can more than pay for itself), but they lack the necessary ingredient to take computing to the next level. They can’t expand to fill new roles, new niches.

How a computer gets its programs, how they’re created, and what operations are available are all implementation details, as they say. Old code might be written in Fortran, stored on ancient reel-to-reel tape. The newest JavaScript framework might exist only as bits stored in the nebulous “cloud”. But they, as well as everything in between, have one thing in common: they’re Turing complete. They can all perform a specific set of actions proven to be the universal building blocks of computing. (You can find simulated computers that have only a single available instruction, but that instruction can construct anything you can think of.)

Basically, the minimum requirements for Turing completeness are changing values in memory and branching. Obviously, these imply actually having memory (or other storage) and a means of diverting the flow of execution. Again, implementation details. As long as you can do those, you can do just about anything.

Practice

You may be surprised to note that Alan Turing was the one who worked all that out. Quite a few others made their mark on computing, as well. George Boole (1815-64) gave us the fundamentals of computer logic (hence why we refer to true/false values as boolean). Charles Babbage (1791-1871) designed the precursors to programmable computers, while Ada Lovelace (1815-52) used those designs to create what is considered to be the first program. The Jacquard loom, named after Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834), was a practical display of programming that influenced the first computers. And the list goes on.

Earlier precursors aren’t hard to find. Jacquard’s loom was a refinement of older machines that attempted to automate weaving by feeding a pattern into the loom that would allow it to move the threads in a predetermined way. Pascal and Leibniz worked on calculators. Napier and Oughtred made what might be termed analog computing devices. The oldest object that we can call a computer by even the loosest definition, however, dates back much farther, all the way to classical Greece: the Antikythera mechanism.

So computers aren’t necessarily a product of the modern age. Maybe digital electronics are, because transistors and integrated circuits require serious precision and fine tooling. But you don’t need an ENIAC to change the world, much less a Mac. Something on the level of Babbage’s machines (if he ever finished them, which he didn’t particularly like to do) could trigger an earlier Information Age. Even nothing more than a fast way to multiply, divide, and find square roots—the kind of thing a pocket calculator can do instantly—would advance mathematics, and thus most of the sciences.

But can it be done? Well, maybe. Programmable automatons date back about a thousand years. True computing machines probably need at least Renaissance-era tech, mostly for gearing and the like. To put it simply: if you can make a clock that keeps good time, you’ve got all you need to make a rudimentary computer. On the other hand, something like a “hydraulic” computer (using water instead of electricity or mechanical power) might be doable even earlier, assuming you can find a way to program it.

For something Turing complete, rather than a custom-built analog solver like the Antikythera mechanism, things get a bit harder. Not impossible, mind you, but very difficult. A linear set of steps is fairly easy, but when you start adding in branches and loops (a loop is nothing more than a branch that goes back to an earlier location), you need to add in memory, not to mention all the infrastructure for it, like an instruction pointer.

If you want digital computers, or anything that does any sort of work in parallel, then you’ll probably also need a clock source for synchronization. Thus, you may have another hard “gate” on the timeline, because water clocks and hourglasses probably won’t cut it. Again, gears are the bare minimum.

Output may be able to go on the same medium as input. If it can, great! You can do a lot more that way, since you’d be able to feed the result of one program into another, a bit like what functional programmers call composition. That’s also the way to bring about compilers and other programs whose results are their own set of instructions. Of course, this requires a medium that can be both read and written with relative ease by machines. Punched cards and paper tape are the historical early choices there, with disks, memory, and magnetic tape all coming much later.

Thus, creating the tools looks to be the hardest part about bringing computation into the past. And it really is. The leaps of logic that Turing and Boole made were not special, not miraculous. There’s nothing saying an earlier mathematician couldn’t discover the same foundations of computer science. They’d have to have the need, that’s all. Well, the need and the framework. Algebra is a necessity, for instance, and you’d also want number theory, set theory, and a few others.

All in all, computers are a modern invention, but they’re a modern invention with enough precursors that we could plausibly shift their creation back in time a couple of centuries without stretching believability. You won’t get an iPhone in the Enlightenment, but the most basic tasks of computation are just barely possible in 1800. Or, for that matter, 1400. Even if using a computer for fun takes until our day, the more serious efforts it speeds up might be worth the comparatively massive cost in engineering and research.

But only if they had a reason to make the things in the first place. We had World War II. An alt-history could do the same with, say, the Thirty Years’ War or the American Revolution. Necessity is the mother of invention, so it’s said, so what could make someone need a computer? That’s a question best left to the creator of a setting, which is you.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 3

The world—rather, the universe—of Orphans of the Stars is not quite ours, but it’s meant to be much closer to that than some other futuristic space settings. To that end, I’ve gone into my usual serious level of detail in worldbuilding, in hopes of creating something that stands the test of time. While I’m well aware that no setting can be completely without fault, I like to think that I’ve avoided most of the more obvious flaws.

The important places

Aside from Earth itself, which only appears directly in the Innocence Reborn prologue, the galaxy is a vast expanse full of interesting places. Obviously, the most prominent features of our Milky Way (and the slightly different one of the setting) are the stars themselves. Ours is one of billions, and a fairly ordinary one. Sure, it’s in the top few percent in terms of size, and it’s the only one we currently know of to hold habitable and inhabited planets. But that’s a limitation of our present technology. Future telescopes and instruments will be able to find “Earth 2.0” out there, and one of the primary assumptions of my Orphans setting is that the so-called “Rare Earth” hypothesis is dead wrong.

But let’s back up. As I said, we’ve got billions upon billions of stars out there. All of them, however, are quite far away. To reach them in any reasonable amount of time requires bending, if not breaking, the known laws of physics. That’s one of the few times I explicitly do so, and I’m not afraid to admit that I employ a bit of hand-waving to get there. (Remember that the stories are from the perspective of children. They wouldn’t know the specifics. Yes, that’s intentional on my part.)

I do give FTL travel a number of limitations, mainly for storytelling purposes, but also following some fairly obvious rules to make the process seem more realistic. For instance, it’s limited to the ship, not the surrounding space. There are no hyperspace pathways or subspace tunnels. And that means spacecraft moving faster than light are isolated from “normal” space. They can’t communicate, because they’re outrunning light itself, including EM signals. And radar, so they’re also flying blind. It gets them where they need to go, but there’s always a margin of error, and it sometimes happens that a ship has to spend more time finding its way once it reaches its destination than it needed to get there in the first place.

Those destinations, wherever they are, share one common feature: they’re meant to be plausible, given the assumption of terrestrial planets being common, but advanced lifeforms coming around much less often. The colony of Marshall, seen in the prologue of Innocence Reborn, orbits a star that really exists, one that has no known planets as of 2017. Maybe TESS or Gaia will find something that completely invalidates my efforts, but I hope not.

The same goes for Malacca Colony, the next destination of the renamed Innocence. I described it in some detail in the last part of this series, but now I’d like to talk about it from a wider perspective. Again, it may not be real. It almost certainly isn’t, in fact. But there’s no data I know of (as of this writing) that proves it can’t exist. And that was my goal.

Port of call

Since the world named Malacca figures so heavily in Innocence Reborn, I think it deserves a bit of screen time here, as well. First off, it is a colony world. It’s only got a few hundred thousand people living on it, and they all do their best to prevent contamination of the local biosphere. For the planet does have native life. Not much, and almost none on land, but there’s something there.

Canonically speaking, Malacca Colony suffered a very recent (in geologic terms) mass extinction event. That killed off what little land-based life there was, especially as this particular event was part of a “Snowball Earth” type state. Based on the planet’s orbit around its star, as well as influences of its neighbors and the other two components of the system (it’s a trinary, and the other two stars were only resolved as distinct in 2015), I saw this as highly plausible, and a good explanation as to why humanity felt comfortable “invading”. The colony of Pele, constructed on a volcanic archipelago, has a research center dedicated to studying the extant marine life, and that may come into play later.

Other than that, the world orbits at a greater relative distance, making it colder than Earth overall, and that factors into the colonial experience. Kids get cranky when they’re cold, and that shows in the narrative. But there are other effects, too. The same goes for the planet’s lower gravity, about 70% of Earth’s. People who live their whole lives there tend to be taller. Falls aren’t as painful. Combine that with the lower body temperature (another adaptation), and it’s not too great a leap to posit that they tend to have better cardiovascular health than their homebound counterparts. On the downside, it’s harder for them to adapt to the heavier pull of Earth, and so it goes for a bunch of still-growing children who live there for months.

Beyond the physical characteristics, there’s not a lot to say. I’ve already mentioned the five colonies, and the book itself goes into the reasoning behind that, albeit from a story-internal point of view. From the outside, I’ll say that I wanted the opportunity to have competing factions, even if I didn’t use them. And I think it shows an important part of the setting: humanity is not unified. We—or our descendants—are not exploring the galaxy as a single race. Our divisions, as we know them today, might not exist, but division itself is a constant. With what happens at the end of the sequel (which I won’t spoil for you, as it’s not finalized just yet), that may turn out to be a mistake.

This series isn’t, though. It’ll keep on going, because I’ve only scratched the surface. And I like talking about this kind of thing. I like throwing out my ideas in these behind-the-scenes specials. So I’m going to continue this, but probably not every month from this point forward. Whatever happens, I hope you’re enjoying this look into a possible future as much as I’ve enjoyed creating it.

Languages of the Otherworld: Virisai grammar overview

I don’t really want to get too deep into grammatical minutiae in this series, so I’ll instead make this post more of a high-level overview of the grammar of Virisai, the most central language of my Otherworld setting.

How it looks

As I’ve previously stated, I didn’t want this conlang to be anything too extreme. It’s spoken by humans, even if those humans aren’t from Earth. And while some parts of this world (the Americas, Australia, etc.) do indeed have some hideously complex languages, that isn’t necessarily a given. Especially with a literate language, there’s definitely a tendency to simplify. So Virisai doesn’t go overboard on the weirdness, and that’s by design.

Word order is about like you’d expect, broadly similar to, say, Spanish. Nouns come before most adjectives, verbs tend to sit between subject and object, and you’ve got a series of prepositions. But that doesn’t mean it’s a typical Indo-European language. Oh, no.

Virisai has no case for most nouns or adjectives, yet it does have different case forms for gendered nouns and pronouns. In the latter, it’s a bit like English: the triad of maa/maare/mei, for instance, essentially matches I/me/my. Gender, however, is only marked on nouns that represent humans and certain animals, typically those that have been domesticated. (Due to the timeline, Vistaan doesn’t have animals brought from the Old World, but it does have those that existed in America prior to the Quaternary extinctions at the end of the Ice Age, such as the American horse, faal, or even the saber-toothed cat, oceigal.)

Technically, Virisai recognizes four cases, but the accusative and dative are often merged, especially in the western dialect. The fourth case, the genitive, is even weirder. Instead of being marked on the possessor, as is normal for languages like Latin, the genitive marker -es appears as a suffix on the possessed, head, noun: he roun “the house”; he rounes vira “the man’s house”. Possessive pronouns don’t change this, either (rounes mei, “my house”), which points to it being a later development.

On the verbal side of things, there are a few other wrinkles. Virisai has no real progressive aspect (as in English “I am walking“); those cases where I write native speakers using it should be understood to use the more basic present—rather, non-past—tense instead. Concord exists, much to the dismay of students, and it comes in two forms, subject and object. The object concord markers aren’t strictly necessary, and are completely absent in the third person, but they’re considered a mark of formality.

Beyond that, I’ve got a mostly complete sketch of Virisai grammar, including a number of different derivational affixes, rules for adverbs, numerals, and prepositions, as well as much more. But I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’ll give you an example of text in the conlang, and what better text than the one everybody uses?

The Babel Text

  1. Gyor, et graaten peis tei heis radvet ai et croin aat.
  2. Asta a besaalsar jaastal, hein danyetel he brel am e’taante Shinar, e sialanel trate.
  3. Asta hein radel almedenta a, “Jaasi! Vecrettei rouzin e peissar paitei heire.” E hein tei verouz mid vecaal, ai ciobren mid hamet.
  4. Asta hein radel a, “Jaasi! Esdeire sauteltei he tiran, ai h’alettis, vos mieses oos am et nin, e esdeire vecrettei he caar, a andeser deire fin kecoolit cie et damises et graaten peis.”
  5. A fied re virisin sauteleste e’tiran ai et alettis, et Laton ducselal.
  6. Asta et Laton radal a, “Fiesi! Hein saa heis mal, e tai heis radvet; asta heid pries saa et ilbares re yeten det h’id. Re raacen mos, gyor saa molyoris heire.
  7. Jaasi! Ducseltei, asta trate gulgortei et radvetes heiz, a hein mu cormenen ket et alrades almedin.”
  8. Hegis et Laton trate kecoolal heire cie et damises et graaten peis, e syukenel a sautel e’tiran.
  9. Hebal, oore fin carir Babel, ebra trate et Laton gulgoral et radvetes et graaten peis, e trate et Laton kecoolal heire cie et damises et graaten peis.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 2

So I’m back. Since the last post about this series, I finished the draft of the second novel, Beyond the Horizon. It’s a little different, in that all the flashy space battle action is at the beginning. That, I think, gives it more tension, because you’re expecting more with each new step. I also left the story on something of a cliffhanger, which means I really should work on Book 3.

But that’ll come later. Today, let’s delve deeper into the setting of Orphans of the Stars. First, we’ll start on Earth. Home sweet home.

Lay of the land

After five centuries, you might expect Earth to be unrecognizable. After all, 500 years ago, there was no USA; there were barely even colonies in the Americas. China wasn’t communist, because communism didn’t exist. The Middle East was a different sort of morass than today. And so on. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a modern conceit to think that our current institutions are stable, that they’ll last forever.

For the Orphans setting, I’ve gone more towards that latter end of the spectrum. There are changes, but the broad strokes aren’t too different from what we know today.

First up, the US still exists in my version of the 26th century, and it has mostly descended into the corporate-controlled dystopia whose birth we’re watching in our era. California and New England remain bastions of liberalism (in both senses of the word), evangelical Christianity has lost a lot of its support, and the extreme polarization of nowadays has come and gone. Americans in the setting still hold both the First and Second Amendments in high regard, pointing to them as proof of American exceptionalism, even if they have been weakened severely through the centuries.

Across the pond, while the EU eventually broke up in my extrapolation, it reformed mostly along the same lines. Britain is in a curious spot, as it asserts its independence (Northern Ireland, I’m assuming, rejoined the rest of Ireland) and leadership of a Commonwealth trade pact, while also considering itself a member of this “new” Europe. Many of the other countries of the continent are in much the same position as today, if a bit more extreme. The Scandinavian nations, for instance, have an even heavier focus on quality of life. (Earth’s oldest living human at the time, as I mention briefly in the first chapter of Beyond the Horizon, is a Danish woman.)

Outside the Western world, things are a bit more hit or miss. Russia fell into decline, China gobbled up North Korea, some Pacific islands sank due to rising sea levels (and new ones appeared when the waters receded during a cold snap circa 2300), and so on. Essentially every equatorial nation profited from the rise of cheap, accessible spaceflight: Ecuador tried—and failed—to build a space elevator, while a spaceport in Luanda is the only reason most people even remember Angola exists. And the Middle East, well, it’s still the Middle East. Even 500 years isn’t enough time to fix that.

Slip the surly bonds

An adventure story set in space really needs places to go in space. And, since I’ve already established that Earthlike planets are common in the galaxy, and that FTL travel exists and doesn’t cause any ill effects to the universe at large, it’s only natural that humans would eventually begin to build colonies away from the mother planet.

First of those is Mars. The oldest and largest Martian city, in my setting, is actually named Tesla. (Because of course it would be Elon Musk that started it.) There are others, started by offshoots of the initial colonial push or later ventures. Terraforming remains a distant, if obtainable, goal. (For Mars, it’s considered okay, because there’s no discernible native biosphere.)

The Moon, by contrast, doesn’t have much of a permanent population. It’s more like Antarctica today, or offshore drilling platforms. People live there for a time, mostly to run experiments or oversee resource extraction, but they don’t stay there. That’s partially from the lunar dust problem, but also because of the known existence of other terrestrial worlds. Our nearest celestial neighbor just isn’t prime real estate.

The same really goes for most of the other parts of our solar system. Jupiter’s moons are interesting, the asteroids are valuable, and Titan continues to enchant those who ponder its mysteries, but my setting (as opposed to, say, The Expanse) makes interstellar journeys possible before in-system colonization really gets off the ground. Thus, most of the Sol system is left to automated mining and collection, with a few manned research stations and the occasional torus or O’Neill cylinder construction for those who really do want to live in space.

Economics of colonialism

That, more than anything, is my main assumption. With the galaxy (or at least our little corner of it) open to humanity, wars over living space really have no need to exist. Rather than fight a bloody war with only the barest hope of success, separatists, if they don’t mind packing up and leaving, have any number of places to go. Which brings us nicely to the colonies themselves.

Human colonization of the stars, in this setting, proceeded in waves. First, the initial push was more of a “can we do this?” kind of thing. Terrestrial planets in the Alpha Centauri and TRAPPIST-1 systems (I hope nothing in the next few years makes these impossible!) were first, because they were known quantities by that point, as well as good testing grounds. A few others then followed, once good news came in. This, I assume, would be in the latter half of the 23rd century.

Next were the profit-seekers. Larger corporations in our time have values exceeding the average country’s GDP; in future centuries, absent a revolution in the way we think, I see no reason why that would change. Thus, private spacefarers began setting up their own colonies in the systems that looked most profitable, a land grab and gold rush combined. For the most part, they would stay somewhat close to Earth, if only for the ability to easily escape if things went wrong. But one colony, named Marshall, was founded specifically to be on the frontier.

For the most part, the early 25th century continues that trend, though the attacks on Marshall (the prologue of Innocence Reborn) ultimately result in a 50-year moratorium on claiming new planets. Instead, new colonies are only allowed on worlds which already have a human presence. They’re big enough, after all.

The end of that ban, however, changes the game just a little. Now, instead of one group running off to take a new planet entirely for themselves, Earth’s governments (national, corporate, and larger organizations like the UN) have agreed to restrict the practice to partnerships. That’s why Malacca (the main “base” colony for the second half of Innocence Reborn) has not one colonial government, but five.

That’s the “current” era of colonization, in terms of the setting. It ends up being slightly cheaper overall, so the corporate bean-counters like it, and there’s less risk of a catastrophe, so risk-averse types feel a little better. And that opens up the many worlds to smaller groups. Marginalized sects were some of the first: Palestinians, Rohingya, Marxists, supremacists of every stripe. Utopia-seekers also joined in, as well as experimentalists who wanted the chance to try out different social philosophies.

I specifically designed Malacca to house one of each type of colony, purely to illustrate that. Rosaria, where the orphans make their new home, is a fairly typical corporate state, a company town projected into the future. Yuan Yang is the (Chinese) government-run colony, which keeps both its culture and economy very close to home. Windmore is a social experiment run by Brits wanting to try out direct democracy; it has the most distinct cities, but they’re all much smaller, and that’s how they like it. Pele is the research center, run by North American universities, with the feel of a college town. And Little Eden, though it hasn’t appeared on screen just yet, showcases the utopia option—specifically, that’s a retro-revival of older forms of Christianity.

All in all, with hundreds of colonies in existence at the time of the “main” storyline, there’s plenty of room for a writer to play around. And I fully intend to. I would like to do a few shorter stories set in different parts of the Orphans setting, those not touched by the all-kid crew of the Innocence. And I wouldn’t really mind if others wanted to do the same. Just ask, and I’ll be happy to help.

This is the end of this part, but not the extended postmortem that is this series. I hope to be back soon, because there’s still so much left to say.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 1

With the recent Patreon release of my novel Innocence Reborn, I want to take a closer look at the setting I’ve created for the series as a whole. After Otherworld, it’s second in terms of level of detail, and being a futuristic science fiction setting means it requires a completely different sort of worldbuilding. So here we go. This may or may not become a regular miniseries. We’ll just see where it takes us.

By the way, this post is obviously going to have major spoilers for the book, so you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Timeline

Although it’s never explicitly stated in the text (mostly because I don’t want it to be too obvious when I get it completely wrong), I do have a sketch of the setting’s timeline. The Innocence Reborn prologue, for instance, is supposed to take place in the year 2432, while the main body of the story is set over a century later, in 2538. Plenty of time to develop technology, etc., but not so much that humanity is completely unrecognizable. That was what I wanted, though I did have to make a few assumptions to get there.

Almost all of those are currently backstory, and we’ll get to them a bit later. Before that, I do have to mention one of the most fundamental conceits of the setting. See, it’s intended to be slightly “harder” than a space opera, in that most things are within the laws of physics as we know them. There is faster-than-light travel, because that’s central to the story I wanted to tell. And that causes a bit of trouble with causality and even basic timekeeping. So 2432 is the time on Earth, but current physics tells us that ships traveling FTL would effectively be going back in time, which makes things difficult.

Well, that’s because of relativity, and the handwaving for Orphans of the Stars is that relativity isn’t quite correct. You’ve got a few loopholes, so to speak. (Behind the scenes, the story universe is, in fact, a simulation that explicitly or accidentally allows such “exploits”. The characters don’t know this, of course.) It also means there’s something like a universal or preferred reference frame, which may or may not solve the timing problems.

Assumptions

Now, on to those assumptions. The other ones, I mean.

As I said, FTL travel is possible in the Orphans universe. It’s not instantaneous, but it is possible. That opens up the galaxy to human exploration and colonization. And that leads to the next big assumptions. First, Earthlike planets are relatively common, especially around G, K, and M stars. This is a simple extrapolation of current findings; estimates using data from the Kepler mission indicate that the Milky Way could host billions of terrestrial planets, with a fairly good percentage of stars having them in the habitable zone. And that’s not counting those slightly smaller than Earth orbiting medium-size stars like ours.

Second, and less supported by the data, is the idea that life is also relatively common in the universe. The vast majority is single-celled (or the equivalent); sentient, advanced aliens are considered fiction even 500 years in the future. Spoiler: boy, aren’t they surprised?

Other assumptions include simple, workable fusion power, ramped-up manufacturing capabilities (including orbital and deep-space), ubiquitous computing, usable cryogenic suspension, and quite a few other technological improvements. On the other hand, I assume that genetic engineering doesn’t become a huge thing—it’s mostly used for treating diseases and disorders rather than making wholesale physiological changes—and AI never gets to the “destroy all humans” stage. Yes, there are expert systems, and automation has made many jobs obsolete, but human decision-making still beats that of computers. It’s just that AI simplifies things enough that even a bunch of kids can fly a spaceship.

More importantly, there are a few sci-fi staples that don’t exist in this setting. Chief among those is artificial gravity: when the Innocence (or any other ship) isn’t accelerating, the people inside are weightless, and that causes problems. Well, problems and opportunities, because we are talking about a bunch of kids. Also absent are tractor beams, shields, transporters, and other such “superscience”. Terraforming is possible, but it’s been avoided so far out of respect for native biospheres. Antimatter is horrendously expensive, and more exotic particles are as useless commercially as they are today. Nanotechnology hasn’t advanced quite as much as one would expect, and cybernetic augmentation, including direct neural interfaces, ultimately turned out to be a fad.

Reasoning

I could have gone all out on this setting. I could have made it one of those where it’s so far into the future that it’s effectively magic. But I didn’t. I didn’t think I could pull it off.

Mostly, this series started out as an idea I had when writing Lair of the Wizards, a fantasy novel I’m putting out next month. That story is set in a borderline-Renaissance world where people with advanced technology existed, and they left some of it behind. It’s Clarke’s Third Law, but seen from a different point of view, one where we are the sufficiently advanced race. By and large, the characters are children, adolescents, or young adults, and that made me wonder if I could write an adventure-filled, yet still scientific, space drama revolving around characters of similar age.

As it turns out, I can. Maybe it’s not good, but I like it, and I’ve always said that I write stories primarily for my own enjoyment. The same is true for the settings themselves. Just as Otherworld is my linguistic playground, the Orphans universe (I still need a catchy name for it) has become my futurism playground. It’s where I get to play around with the causes and effects of science and technology, then go and write books about what happens when a bunch of kids get involved. And that’s what I’ve done. In fact, two days before writing this, I finished the sequel to Innocence Reborn, titled Beyond the Horizon, and I’m already coming up with ideas for Book 3.

Settings can be as deep as you want to make them. With this one, I’ve found one where I just want to keep on digging, and so I will.