While I'm wrapping up the last Embassy book, I’m also planning for what’s next. I’ve long wanted to write futuristic detective stories, so I’m laying the virtual foundation for that, a task that's commonly called world building. It’s not about writing a story, but creating all the support the story needs. World building defines the culture, technology and other overarching things in the background of a story. These things usually don’t make directly on the page, but they can cause things
on the page. In the Embassy books it's things like structure and organization, and history of the Embassy. Job descriptions and titles, and how people might come into those positions.
World building often starts as a reverse engineering exercise. The writer starts with a setting they want to put a story in, then finds reasons for that to exist. I want my new stories set in a world of dangerous frontier optimism, like San Francisco during the Gold Rush only much more futuristic. After considering a few ideas, I decided a burgeoning orbital mining colony was a good place to start. People from all backgrounds would flock to the new and dangerous frontier to strike it rich. Others would go there to prey on the first group. Fertile ground for criminals and those investigating crime.
The next step in world building is finding the implications of the initial work. Legendary SF editor Gardner Dozois has said that a science fiction writer should see cars and cinemas and not only predict the drive-in, but predict the sexual revolution. Few world building decisions are so prophetic, but the job a speculative fiction author is to explore repercussions. For my colony, anything sent up from Earth by rocket would be incredibly expensive, so it seemed clear that it would be interested in becoming self-sufficient as quickly as possible. It has a population of fewer than a million, (and that many again robots) which is still a lot, but not enough to replace every industry run by billions of Earthlings. So, even though these people live in space, they will not have all the comforts of 2018, much less 2118. Knowing that, I start thinking about what industries are vital to living in space, and how much energy and resources they take. A problem real astronauts face is deteriorating eyesight after extended missions. But a contact lens factory is unreasonable in a colony this side, so a lot of people wear glasses. They’re reusable, durable, and can be made with only glass, a grinder, and a polisher, which take up little space and are multipurpose.
World building seems like a lot of work, especially if only the shadows of it will ever make it to the page. But when a writer builds out enough of the world, questions start answering themselves. (Who would immigrate to this dangerous space colony? Mostly people seeking wealth and those desperate to escape the jurisdiction of Earth. Fortunately those people are all great source material for detective stories.)
A common complaint against the worlds built in speculative fiction is that their economies are unworkable, which is often true. But there are authors who make the economics the central pillar of their world. Andy Weir’s latest, Artemis
, started out questioning the economics of a lunar colony. What would make a colony worth keeping, and what jobs would be there? What kind of currency would it have, and what would it buy? Now that all sounds dry as regolith, but it sets the stage for a fun, breezy adventure that ultimately determines the fate of the whole colony. If you’ve read Weir’s previous book, The Martian
, you’ll know what you’re in for. An underdog protagonist, lots of sarcasm, rock solid chemistry and physics, and a lot of improvised problem solving. Artemis
is much lighter than The Martian
, but this time he gives the protagonist other people to talk to, which lifts the mood.
I don’t know if Weir is planning any more adventures in the world of his moon colony, but it would be fun to find out.