Worldbuilding the Cool, the Romance, and the Fantasy into my Space Opera Setting

The Hunt for Count Gleichen’s Treasure is now up to 13,355 words, the Venus section accounting for most of the additions. But rather than bore you with an incremental update on my novel, I will offer a change of pace by outlining a concept for future stories in a very different setting from anything hitherto explored in this blog.

For a real change of pace, a more fantasy-like setting is something I’ve been thinking about. In a previous post I mentioned the idea of going all-out for a very romantic world, a lush world with huge habitable moons and planets in the sky, multiple suns, comet storms, and regular prominent auroras, a world filled with gods, portals, and fantastic creatures and people. This can of course fit into a science fiction setting, if the “gods” are technological rather than magical, and if the portals are in fact wormholes.

A Space Fantasy in the Style of the Age of Sail

One premise that I really like for this setting is a spaceborne recreation of swashbuckling, the Age of Sail, and all the tropes associated with the Golden Age of Piracy, and I mean literally the Age of Sail, as in wooden ships, canvas sails, muskets, and swords. Such a culture could easily exist on such a fantasy-style world, and would need somehow to acquire faster-than-light propulsion technology from a more advanced culture to become an interstellar culture befitting a space opera.

For this sort of setting one possibility is departing from my main universe, where wormholes are the method of faster-than-light travel, and setting it in a different universe that has hyperspace as the method of faster-than-light travel. If hyperspace has currents, they might be at once gentle and swift enough to propel canvas sails through it. Indeed, sailing might actually be the only viable way to travel in hyperspace, making it roughly analogous to the open ocean. If they meet up with a race or culture that has the sort of technology usually associated with spacefaring they might consider them to be gods!

If the technology in question can open up a portal to hyperspace or function as a hyperdrive, it might even be miniaturized enough to fit inside a ring a man can wear on his finger. This would be an interesting spin on the old mythological trope of rings granting special powers, most famously used by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. In this case the power granted would be entry to hyperspace.

The Romance of a Sailing Fantasy in Space

A fantasy-like spin on the idea would be for the ring of travel, hyperspace ring, or whatever it’s called to end up in a dragon’s lair or some such, needing to be recovered by a brave dragon-slaying character. It might end up in a scientist’s hands, perhaps through dueling. If it its method of operation isn’t already known, the scientist might labor for a long time to discover the correct activation sequence. One idea I’ve thought of that is quite romantic is for a song to be what activates the ring, having perceived through either incredible intuition, deep research into long-lost legends, or a vision from the divine, that a song is the correct way to call forth its powers.

Even more romantic would be for the song needing to be sung by a maiden pure in heart in order to activate the ring and enter hyperspace, though this would need a higher degree of intelligence on the part of the ring. Another idea I have is to have a character who believes himself to be a reincarnation of a mythical lover or has some sort of divinely-ordained destiny, and who either gets a hold of the ring himself or is led to the scientist by divine influence to join with him on a search for his destined or long-lost lover. He might be recruited by the scientist, as the scientist enters old age, to be his apprentice.

The scientists presumably would conduct experiments to determine the nature of this realm, and would know that a sail is required, much as Johannes Kepler described the possibility in the future of sailors braving the heavenly winds in space. At this point the scientist and apprentice would assemble a crew to explore the new realm; ships could probably have been made reasonably airtight during the Age of Sail, so loss of breathable air shouldn’t be too much of a problem, assuming they have access to an Earth-like planet to refill their supply after a while.

A conflict might ensue between the scientist, who wants to use this power for peaceful exploration, some sort of warrior, who wants to use it to conquer his own world, and the apprentice, who wants to use it to find his destined lover. There might also be a conflict between the man who has enough faith in his divinely-ordained destiny to go on despite all obstacles and a crew that believe they’re on a suicide mission. More interesting still might be encountering pirates or some other hostile party from a more advanced culture later on. Obviously they wouldn’t stand much of a chance, but they might be saved by their gods. Indeed, hyperspace itself could easily be the realm of the gods in this setting.

One twist on the idea would be for the maiden pure in heart to be the one doing the searching through hyperspace for her destined lover rather than the man, or perhaps they could both be searching simultaneously somehow. There are quite a few possibilities.

Making romantic Worldbuilding more Science Fictional

Among the possibilities is incorporating this setting into my harder-science-fiction space opera setting by turning the hyperspace portals into wormholes. What the currents would be is not entirely clear, although if there were a network of wormholes that could be accessed, there could be a nexus of fixed wormholes in some sort of thick nebula with swift and gentle currents of gas that can take even a wood-and-canvas ship between wormholes. If it is mostly oxygen gas for whatever reason, a phenomenon that might occur somewhere in the cosmos much like the Smoke Ring from Larry Niven’s Integral Trees, the ambient atmosphere might even be breathable without the need for spacesuits.

This is a setting that would easily fit in a more distant part of the universe isolated from the main part of human civilization in the “main” space opera world I’m imagining now, and since this idea preserves the essence of the hyperspace currents while remaining true to my main setting’s premises I just might go with this concept for this bout of “romantic” worldbuilding.

Of course, after the discovery of such a place, an oxygen-filled wormhole nexus providing them a shortcut across vast distances, it would become an extremely valuable volume of space for anyone who controls it. Our fantasy civilization might expand into this volume, and it might become a gateway to the colonization of other worlds, and contact with them, assuming there are no other races much more advanced than them already trying to occupy it. This version of this sort of setting is somewhat different from the previous outline. In this version, the “gods” would not reside in hyperspace but rather in the vast oxygen cloud containing the wormhole nexus.

Transportation Hubs in the Oxygen Nebula

At strategic points along the routes to and from the wormholes people might set up transportation centers floating in the air, rest stops for weary travelers, functioning perhaps as the equivalent of the taverns commonly found in fantasy settings. Of course this oxygen cloud, like the Smoke Ring in Larry Niven’s Integral Trees, would not have any gravity, not being located on a planetary surface, so any residents and visitors would float in weightlessness without the use of centrifugal force to generate gravity.

These transportation hubs might be very interesting places, with people coming in from all over what this civilization considers to be the known universe. There could be characters that stroll around these places’ docks much like the flâneurs that were first described as a literary type in 19th century Paris, drawn into all sorts of interesting adventures.

One possibility is for there to be some sort of indigenous or introduced life, perhaps after colonization from our fantasy world begins. Dyson Trees, genetically-engineered trees that grow out of a comet in the vacuum of space using its raw materials, are a fascinating and very fantasy-esque concept, but unfortunately wouldn’t work in this scenario, unless this space was already filled with comets. It is possible that eventually they could harness a comet, but this would require them to master regular spaceflight, and so the setting wouldn’t be quite so fantasy-like anymore.

Making Sense of this Setting

If they get into this wormhole nexus through the discovery of how to use a ring of power, it is an open question how this monopoly would be used. Given a single point of entry into the wider cosmos, the spacefaring these people conduct would seem to be extraordinarily vulnerable to disruption. This problem might be solved by granting the gods of this setting the power to ultimately control the ring, so that if they want the humans to have access to the wormhole nexus then access cannot be turned off. The ring might also be made indestructible by any method known to the humans.

It is also possible that, following the example of the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings, the ring has a will of its own and for whatever reason wishes itself to be activated at this particular time. It might also be possible to combine the two ideas and have the ring’s will, perhaps actually driven by an artificial intelligence, connect with the gods.

I mentioned earlier that the world these people come from originally will be very “romantic” and fantastical, with the sky being full of habitable moons and planets in the sky, multiple suns, comet storms, and regular prominent auroras. Add planetary rings onto that list too. Supermassive black holes, stellar superclusters, globular clusters, and huge nebulas are other possibilities. If there is a nexus connecting these people to other worlds, each world might have a distinct romantic and fantastical set of phenomena in the night sky, as well as distinct fantastical flora and fauna.

The predominance of romantic or dramatic worlds in this network is easily explained by the network’s builders having access to unlimited-range wormhole drive. Given an unlimited choice of worlds, why wouldn’t you pick the rarest, the most beautiful, or the most romantic ones? Given an unlimited choice of where to put your wormhole nexus, why not a freakish gas cloud that has human-breathable air? It may very well be that this nexus was built and the god-like machinery that maintains it was left there by humans of the distant future of my space opera setting who then abandoned it, like the alien precursors of so many science fiction worlds. Perhaps the humans that built it suffered some unfathomable disaster that necessitated them abandoning the project, leaving the humans that live there now behind to rebuild their whole civilization from scratch, or perhaps they merely went on to other locations and only use this particular installation rarely.

Biological Spaceflight: no Technology needed

Another aspect of this sort of setting I could imagine is the possibility of biological spaceflight. Even if the denizens of this world don’t have the technological means to take to the void, it is not inconceivable that animals could evolve the capability of flying into space. After all, animals evolved the ability to fly in the atmosphere multiple times in Earth’s history. All that’s really needed to achieve spaceflight is more thrust. The Bombardier Beetle provides an example of animals mixing two chemicals together to create something peppy.

A setting that, like this one and like Thalassa, that extends the same principle to dragons could easily also have biological rockets. Indeed, I stopped short of granting the gasbag life-forms of Thalassa spacefaring abilities because that’s not where I wanted to go with the setting; after you get above most of the atmosphere even a rather unremarkable biological launching mechanism similar to that seen for spores today can launch at least seeds and spores onto a suborbital trajectory, let alone something more sophisticated like a biological rocket. The same principle could be extended even to orbital or interplanetary spaceflight; it would be more than enough to get between a planet and its moon, for example.

The two ideas could even be combined, with a spore’s center being evacuated and filled with air, personnel, and cargo before being made airtight, lifting up with its parent to the upper atmosphere before launch into an orbital trajectory. It could even be part of some fantastic migration route.

Biological Rocketry: for the ultimate Mount

Another possibility is for creatures to have biological rockets capable of making the trip on their own power, presumably with enough oxygen on board to provide the creature’s air needs for the trip. A large enough creature could be ridden by humans from planet to planet, perhaps in an air-filled shell on its back similar to a hermit crab or a snail, either natural or artificially strapped onto it.

This sort of wildlife and spaceflight method would comport nicely with the low-tech fantasy-like nature of this world, and neatly explain how they can get from the wormhole mouths, which would presumably be located in space with the possible exception of the ring-generated portal on their own planet, to the planets that are near them. They could even ride these sort of creatures all the way through, although this sort of dispenses with the whole wood-and-canvas sailing idea.

Then again, perhaps the capacity of these creatures is limited, and although they start out using these creatures as their exclusive means of spaceflight, they eventually use their Age of Sail technology to build larger vessels to carry them through the currents of the wormhole nexus. It might be analogous to the relationship between lone horseback riders and horse-drawn carriages, with one being used for fast trips of one or a few people and the other being used for slow trips of bulk cargo and large numbers of people.

This version, that is wormhole-centered and could incorporate these fantasy-like stories while still remaining true to my main setting, is my favorite, and might prove very fruitful for generating fascinating stories and other forms of art in the future. I suppose this is an example of what you can do when you try to make the best of fantasy work within the bounds of the best of science fiction.

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