Worldbuilding a Space Opera Setting of My Own

It looks like I’ve had science fiction and space opera on my mind lately, and I haven’t stopped since the last post, so I thought I’d share with you my thoughts on a science fiction world I’ve been building for myself. That is somewhat different from the more general worldbuilding content I usually blog about, though it does continue the theme from the last post.

For some background, as I mentioned in “Thalassa or Proxima Centauri b: The Pale Green Dot”, the science fiction setting I’m currently working on the most is also an alternate history. In this case the point of divergence is 1900 or so, and centers on an earlier discovery of the transistor, advancing computer technology by almost 50 years; this, together with the avoidance of the World Wars (though a short general European war in 1914 does occur), the Great Depression, and the Cold War leads to a much richer, more scientifically and technologically advanced, and freer world, bearing a closer resemblance to the best parts of the 19th century spreading globally than it does real life. This better and brighter world will still of course have problems, but technological stagnation, totalitarianism, and a loss of self-confidence in the value and virtues of Western civilization won’t be among them.

The upshot here is that this alone is a fruitful setting for speculative fiction, and the alternate history aspect enables me to write stories and include elements that are already alien or divergent from real life even without needing to set them in the future, with the concomitant higher-than-today technology levels. Through this alternate history the backgrounds of near-future developments, characters, and organizations can stretch back well into the 20th century without straining plausibility. Alternate history has sometimes been characterized as a genre of speculative fiction that reimagines the past because its authors have given up on the future, but since any science fiction setting that diverges in the present or near future eventually becomes “honorary alternate history” anyway, why not create a setting that gives me much more flexibility when I write stories for the 21st century and later? It enables the present day and near future to be much more alien and thus more interesting while still retaining plausibility.

That might be easier for me to say, because my main point of interest is in the part of my timeline’s history with future technology levels, the traditional province of science fiction, which in this timeline is basically the late 20th century and later, though some elements still thought of today as futuristic such as flying wing jetliners emerge as early as the 1930s. Spaceflight really takes off in the 1940s, including a manned moon landing near the end of the decade, and space colonies exist to some degree throughout the solar system by the end of the 20th century. This where much of the thinking in my blog post “Worldbuilding Near-Future Space Demography” comes in, and I will lean on this in the “solar-system-centric” phase of my setting’s history.

The phase centered on our own solar system will start to transition to an interstellar phase in my setting as early as the 21st century with the deployment of space probe fleets to the nearby stars and the first colony launched to Proxima Centauri around 2040, arriving around 2060. This will be a relatively small colony, with a population definitely under a million, but will be the first of many. Alpha Centauri A and B will of course be colonized, but in my setting Proxima Centauri is a more attractive target due to the breathable atmosphere and the abundance of alien life there, some of which is intelligent.

Thus begins the slower-than-light (STL) interstellar phase of my setting’s history, where colonization and transportation will occur at interstellar scale but will be limited to light speed. This is a fruitful part of history to explore, because the isolation engendered by the great distances will encourage independence and self-sufficiency and will ensure great cultural divergence between solar systems. I am planning in my setting for a Cambrian explosion of cultural diversity and political entities to occur even in our own solar system; multiple solar systems separated by years of communication lags will amplify that tendency even more.

The Political Landscape of Space

Needless to say any real interstellar government will be impossible, though strong ties of affinity to a given culture might enable the cultures of each solar system to stay synchronized even if the central government is extremely decentralized or (much more likely) nonexistent. In my setting the political system in the solar system and even on Earth is more and more resembling crypto-anarchy, so “legacy governments” on Earth are finding it harder to rule to the extent they had become accustomed to. There is a good fundamental reason to believe this might be the case: no matter what level of technology you have it’s always easier to encrypt than it is to decrypt, so the users of cryptography consistently staying a few steps ahead into the indefinite future is plausible enough, though of course realistically this will not immunize them from all forms of coercion.

As for the space colonies of the solar system they would be more or less independent anyway even without cryptography providing the last nail in the coffin of the idea the mother countries could control the space colonies. Diplomatic, legal, and economic struggles between colonies striving for autonomy or independence against the mother country’s government asserting its traditional privileges will begin in the late 20th century after the most advanced colonies achieve more economic self-sufficiency but will only really take off as a major theme in the 21st century. Wars of independence and secession will become commonplace, as is often the case in near-future science fiction.

Such considerations won’t apply as much in other solar systems, since the norm of independence and autonomy will be much less contested. Advanced spacefaring technology will enable a group of people, a family, or even an individual to easily leave a big space habitat or colony and homestead another asteroid, comet, planet, or other body without much of a hit to their standard of living. This will ensure a generally high degree of individual freedom, since oppressing the population is difficult if each individual can leave you and go somewhere else without much cost to them. This was the norm in the Paleolithic, where you could hunt just as easily in one valley as you could another, in stark contrast to farmers that depended on crops in fixed locations that bandits could threaten to destroy; once “extraterrestrialization” takes hold in this setting that norm will stage a comeback.

For storytelling purposes, there will still be plenty of conflict and plenty of goals for characters to attain; this setting only ensures that running away and starting over is nearly always an option, as it was in the ancient and prehistoric world. The infinite expanse of space ensures that, unlike on Earth, it will remain an option forever.

Space Law: from Arbitration to Dueling

For those who don’t want to run away from their problems, disputes will be settled as they are always settled, by either force or mutually-agreed arbitration. The desire to avoid the unpleasantness of resolving wrongs by force is in fact the foundation of law; after all, if everyone was content to resolve their disputes by force there would be no need or desire for legal processes. In more primitive cultures where people submit to arbitration to avoid suffering a violent feud this is much more obvious, but even in our own time harsher coercion comes into play e.g. for people who refuse to comply with court settlements in lawsuits. A much more direct analogy would be sovereign states in our own time; they employ negotiation and arbitration to settle disputes and redress wrongs with war being the alternative option looming over them and thus keeping them cooperative. A future, as this one is, with a far greater number of sovereign polities, some of which are lone individuals, will still rely on the same fundamental principles and work in more or less the same way.

The particular shape violent conflict takes can of course vary, and will vary in this setting. In the vast majority of history to date, warfare has been limited by custom to being between soldiers rather than between peoples, the likes of the Second World War being one of the horrific exceptions. Such customs will persist or develop anew in my spacefaring future setting. The logical culmination of this tendency is for violent disputes between groups to be resolved by dueling rather than full-scale war; considering that an Iraqi Vice President actually proposed this in 2002 it may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Duels between individuals could also easily return if “honor culture”, as opposed to “dignity culture” or (and this is the one emerging today) “victim culture”, regains its former strength; I am planning in my setting for just this to happen, at least in the vast majority of cultures. A culture that encourages consensual duels of honor between individuals could easily, and in my setting actually will in most cases, extend the same principle to governments.

So as I said earlier, there is plenty of conflict and storytelling potential, perhaps in a much more dramatic and personal way than even our own time despite the lack of oppressive social structures creating conflict you see in so many dystopian or even present-day stories. I think this is due to the lack of bureaucracy and the consequent increase in personal responsibility for what happens in society. Indeed, this is one reason why people are attracted to fantasy, and one of the reasons why so much science fiction uses future technology to restore the trappings of a pre-modern society.

Human Races of the Future in my Setting

In any case the slower-than-light colonization phase will of course proceed slower than light, at first the 22% of light speed attainable by nuclear pulse and near-future solar sail technology, with faster speeds being achieved over time. Even in the 21st century laser beam installations will be capable of beaming microscopic or very small cargo at relativistic speeds, and the same principle might be extended to manned vehicles. Antimatter, rather than fusion, power is another possibility.

In my setting, I am planning for this STL colonization phase to last for at least a few centuries. This gives plenty of time for cultural and even genetic divergence to take place, including the possible effects of genetic engineering. I am still undecided as to whether to limit it to a few centuries or more on the scale of millennia. Millennia gives plenty of time for genetic divergence and evolution to occur even naturally, or mostly naturally.

One aspect of this that is overlooked is the (near-)universal human preference for lighter skin; people of a given skin tone sexually prefer people fairer than themselves. In places where the environment has permitted it, melanin has virtually disappeared. This has happened in northern Europe and northern Asia, and would have happened in northern North America if humans had occupied the region long enough. The presence of parasols, sunscreen, and the like remove the environmental pressures against lighter skin, enabling light skin preference to take over. Over thousands to tens of thousands of years we should expect the vast majority of human populations to converge to the skin tones of the Irish or the peoples of arctic European Russia.

The fair and exceptionally diverse hair and eye colors that evolved in northern Europe apparently have been spreading in recent evolutionary history, perhaps because it looks pretty and exotic. Red hair, the oldest of these hair colors (and a trait the Neanderthals may have also possessed), independently evolved at least two times in the past ten thousand years or so in Europe. Blonde hair is younger and is common enough in Europe; interestingly, it also independently evolved among the Melanesians. In my setting this trend is taken to an extreme over the very long term, with not only Nordic skin color but also Nordic eye and hair colors becoming dominant across the human population.

This setting will not be a white European power fantasy, however, since the same attraction toward white European skin, hair, and eye colors does not extend to facial features; therefore, for example the fair-skinned blonde-haired blue-eyed people of African descent that populate parts of this setting will retain African facial features and will obviously be of African heritage. This will add an atmosphere to my setting that will distinguish it from what you usually see in science-fictional depictions of the future of present-day racial groups. Genetic engineering will likely only accelerate this development; although I’m inclined to posit a slow rather than fast development of the technology, over centuries to millennia it will certainly realize a lot of its potential.

Choosing between a few Centuries and a few Millennia of Language Change

One aspect that will probably prove decisive for me is the rate of language change. While rates of language change vary, they do have certain tendencies that can act as a guide to what is or is not plausible. Morris Swadesh created a list of 100 core vocabulary words to compare languages, the “Swadesh list”, and posited that these words are replaced at a rate of 14% per millennium, a proposed law of glottochronology. Unfortunately it appears the actual rate of change varies considerably, from as low as 4% to as high as 20%. Nevertheless, this data constrains the natural rate of language change; at a 14% rate, languages spoken 20,000 years from now will only retain 1 out of 100 core vocabulary words and thus will be completely unrecognizable to their modern-day speakers.

A 4% rate of replacement by contrast would only reach that level of divergence after 75,000 years, while a 20% rate of replacement would reach that level in 13,000 years. Language branches likely change faster or slower in different time periods, so perhaps over geological time scales there is a sort of mean reversion, but nevertheless even a very progressive language will still retain core vocabulary words even after 10,000 years of change.

Mutual intelligibility is retained for only a few thousand years at most, usually less. Changes in accent, pronunciation, grammar, and language drift (changes in the meaning of words) all conspire to change the language into an unintelligible new stage over time. If you take an English sentence and look up the German cognates of each word they’re actually similar, but the meaning having changed over 2000 years of divergence makes them unintelligible to each other, despite strange grammar being the only other real obstacle. Changes in pronunciation, on the other hand, are the one thing that would make Old Norse hard for an Icelandic speaker to understand, even though the Icelandic speaker can still read Old Norse without much trouble.

In my setting similar changes occur into future centuries, with the standard English of our time ossifying into a “classical English” standard that is taught and widely understood so people can still communicate with each other and understand old records but is not anyone’s native dialect anymore, much like Latin in medieval Europe. By the time a thousand years or more have elapsed the common and scholarly varieties will become mutually unintelligible. Contrary to what is often supposed mass media is not homogenizing languages, as the spread of regional divergences that didn’t even really exist before mass media such as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift demonstrate. In any event the cultural divergences from space colonization will lead to linguistic divergence, especially at the interstellar scale.

A Russian Substrate for my Space Opera Future

Another aspect I am planning on adding to my setting is to have the English-speaking world and the western European part of Western civilization decline over the very long term; Russia and the eastern European part of Western civilization will rise in its place over the next millennium. Oswald Spengler in his studies of the rise and fall of civilizations, or “Cultures” as he called it, basically posited that each Culture has a thousand year life cycle with distinct stages much like a plant or an organism, and proposed that western-European civilization, having started its cycle in the High Middle Ages, is in its later stages now and will end its cultural cycle and become no longer relevant (in world-historical terms) in a few centuries. This might take the form of a real collapse, as happened when the Greco-Roman civilization collapsed, or transition into a prolonged stagnation as in the case of China. Whatever else you might think of Spengler or his views on civilization, the model is a useful tool for worldbuilders who wish to contemplate future evolution of civilizations over very long time scales.

Perhaps Spengler’s most interesting prediction is that Russia was in the earliest stages of Culture and will become the dominant civilization of the next thousand years. Since Russia is part of Western civilization, this will not be experienced as a decline of Western civilization so much as its cultural center of gravity shifting steadily eastward. In real life we have already experienced this, with Finland and the Baltic countries going from the back of the beyond to the most advanced in the world. The very long-term trend actually supports this, with the center of gravity of western Eurasian civilization starting in Mesopotamia and then progressing toward areas of higher and higher nordicity, from Greece to Rome to the North Sea and now to the Baltic Sea. The only place in western Eurasia more nordic than that is northern European Russia; from there the logical next step is crossing over into Siberia, with the logical end-point being Yakutia.

Population de-concentration due to technological advancement also supports a Russian, and especially Siberian, population explosion over the next thousand years; if population distribution converges to land distribution, then Siberia, as a huge and sparsely populated region, would benefit and become perhaps the world’s most populous region. In my future setting it actually does at some point in the next few centuries. The culture and civilization having a bright future and the people living in a lightly-populated region are both fundamentals that suggest high fertility rates over the long term, which I include in my future setting. The combination of high fertility and likely high immigration is reminiscent of the cultural and demographic vitality of 19th century America. Russians and Siberians could easily have an edge in space over the long term, and this is accentuated in my alternate history, with the Russians being the first to reach Mars in the 1960s.

This is an aspect that fascinates me that doesn’t seem to be terribly common in science fiction; Dune did something like this with the future culture in that having a strong Middle Eastern substrate, implying that a Middle Eastern culture had become dominant at some point over the next 20,000 years. In my case it will be Russian culture that achieves cultural primacy over the next 1,000 years in much the same way western European culture did over the previous 1,000; aside from any real-life implications I like the idea very much.

One implication of this is that while Classical English will be the lingua franca, Russian and its descendant dialects and languages will become increasingly dominant, perhaps with a variety of Russian displacing English’s dominance at some point. This will be a major inconvenience, as the lingua franca will have switched again after so much effort was expended in previous centuries switching from Latin to English. Nevertheless the Russic languages, and to a lesser extent the Slavic languages more generally, have the potential to be a cool factor, especially given that this means the Cyrillic alphabet will eventually achieve primacy in my setting.

The Wormhole Revolution

After the STL colonization phase ends, be it after a few centuries or a few millennia, technology to harness, stabilize, and greatly enlarge quantum-scale naturally-occurring wormholes will be developed, opening up pathways of negligible distance to anywhere in the universe and perhaps beyond. After querying the Reddit worldbuilding community for suggestions, I have decided that at first these wormholes will require large fixed installations to open, and so will be practically limited to wormholes between existing colonies for which there is high travel demand. Eventually, however, wormhole-opening equipment will be small enough to fit on a ship, enabling unlimited-range instant travel.

The implications of this will be revolutionary and very cool, with humanity spreading throughout the universe. Even a population of a trillion spread out over the whole universe equals multiple galaxies per person, so on this scale will be extremely sparse. The cultural clash created by faster-than-light (FTL) being developed will be volatile, but there will be no shortage of hiding places and cosmic wilderness should someone want to isolate themselves.

Toward writing Far-Future Stories in this Setting

The possibilities of such technology, especially in a context of a thousand years or more of cultural divergence, will not be underestimated, and I believe I will find it of great help in writing stories in the far future of my science fiction setting. I already have some ideas for stories and settings for this universe, and feel confident enough to seriously consider trying my hand at becoming a science fiction author.

One idea I have is for a large ship to be accidentally stranded near an Earth-like planet, pulling together to preserve all the galaxy’s knowledge for their descendants who revert to a quasi-medieval way of life; they become very successful as an independent civilization and when contact is restored they become a force to be reckoned with. Another idea is to go all-out for a very romantic world, filled with “gods” (though technological rather than magical), portals (actually wormholes), and fantasy-style creatures and people; the world would be lush with huge habitable moons and planets in the sky, multiple suns, comet storms, and auroras lighting up the sky on a regular basis.

The instantaneous travel time means that all the most interesting locations in the universe might be visited and colonized at roughly the same time while still being believable. If you want to go to the galactic core, navigate a globular cluster, gaze at a supermassive black hole, or visit planets of extremely rare types like my uranium world idea, it all becomes doable, even probable considering these places are more interesting to visit. That is the power of the far future of my setting and I intend to use this concept, and all the others, to full advantage in telling science fiction stories.

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