Worldbuilding from the Coffee Up – a guest post by Jacey Bedford
World-building from the Coffee Up
I write both far future science fiction and fantasy, so building new worlds for my characters to play in is a task which crops up early in my writing process. I say early, but it’s not the first thing. Setting, character and plot are inseparable. One drives the other. In Empire of Dust, a space opera set five hundred years in the future, the first scene that came to me was of a lone telepath, in fear for her life. The surroundings that coalesced out of my imagination were bleak and grey, utilitarian and largely featureless except where humans had tried to imprint their personality with improvised artwork on the doors of their one-room apartments. A space station, I thought, and the rest grew from there.
The big picture is (usually) easy. Broad brush strokes quickly conjure a canvas of space ships, colony worlds, interstellar trade, transport hubs and jump gate travel. Then I have to interrogate the setting to find out how it got to be that way. I need to know more about politics, history and economics. What happened to human history from the present day to the time of the story? A third world war? Climate change? The Middle East aflame? Russia marching into Poland? Catastrophic meteor strike? Eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone?
In a story that contains multiple worlds I have to figure out what colour the skies are on each of them, whether there are any strange creatures such as my trikallas, weird floating beasties, lighter than air and with a taste for copper, and whether the basic topography of a place is going to drive the way my human characters interact with it. Are there earthquakes or volcanoes? What are the weather patterns? Is there potable water? How long are the days? Are there any wild seasonal swings? How many moons? How do the moons affect tides? How will the planetary ecosystem react with imported flora and fauna? What natural resources are available? What steps might have to be taken to protect native wildlife and ecosystems from the invaders?
In Empire of Dust most of the colonies are controlled by one or another of the megacorporations which have become more powerful than any one planetary government, even that of Earth. Some colonies are well established, home to humans for three hundred years or more. Others are raw; their first generation settlers still struggling to come to terms with a new (and sometimes hostile) environment: fifty hour days; solar storms that render simple radio transmissions unreliable; incompatible botany and biology.
That’s all part of the broad canvas, but what about the detail?
My morning ritual is a small bone china cup of milky coffee laced with honey and topped with a layer of double cream, plus a warm pain au chocolat. Healthy breakfast? Hey, I’m a writer. That is a healthy breakfast. It contains two of the five major food groups, coffee and chocolate. Three if you count the bread.
So when adding the detail into Empire of Dust I wondered what my characters, Cara and Ben, would drink in the morning and what the logistics, politics and economics of providing their preferred beverage might be.
If there’s a trade in coffee the Megacorporations will want their cut. They have grown powerful following on from what’s historically known as ‘The Great Colony Grab.’ (Earthlings take note: that’s what you get for not investing in national space programmes; the commercial boys take over and do it bigger and better.) Since pioneer Abelard Henning made the first successful foldspace jump between Earth and Mars using a pair of prototype jump gates in 2190, humans have spread across the galaxy. But there’s a technical problem that no one has yet been able to overcome.
Platinum is required as a catalyst for jump gates. Unfortunately with each jump a small but significant amount is lost. Platinum is found everywhere, of course, but only in small quantities. It takes eight to ten tons of raw ore (and six months) to produce just one pure ounce of platinum. Even now in our pre-jump gate society, platinum is used in commercial applications in about 20% of all consumer goods, yet platinum-flow is tight. In fact, if platinum mining ceased today, we would have above-ground reserves of less than one year. All the platinum ever mined throughout history would fill a room of less than 25 cubic feet. Add jump gates and interstellar trade into that equation and the ceaseless quest for platinum is going to be brutal.
Platinum keeps the whole interconnected colony system functioning. If my guys want to drink coffee and eat chocolate on a space station, there’s a cost in platinum of getting it there, so it had better be worth it. The cheapest beverage to transport is made from dehydrated powder, vac-packed, and massively concentrated so that a pinch is enough to make a pot-full. Does it taste good? That depends on your viewpoint.
Cara Carlinni is an Earth girl even though she grew up being dragged around the galaxy by her parents, a marine biologist (Mum) and a hydro engineer (Dad). Her tastes run to real coffee when she can get it, but if she has to settle for CFB (coffee flavoured beverage) she’ll make it nice and strong. Otherwise, if it’s all that’s available, caff will have to do.
Reska (Ben) Benjamin grew up in a farming community on Chenon drinking readily available (and cheap) CFB. He likes it. Real coffee tastes bitter to him, so he’ll sweeten it with whatever’s available and soften it with cream if he has to drink it at all. Yes, he knows most people consider it a luxury import, so if they serve it up he’s going to be polite and choke it down.
Where does coffee come from? Not from Earth–not any more. The best coffee-growing regions were devastated when the geography of central Africa, the Americas and China was rearranged by multiple meteor strikes in 2375. One huge meteor was shattered on its way inbound. Most of the fragments missed our planet. The ones that didn’t miss were (eventually) survivable. However there were several years of no summer leading to global devastation that would have knocked humankind back to the stone age without help from the colonies.
The best coffee now comes from a planet called Blue Mountain, in the Tegabo system. It was settled by a breakaway bunch from Drogan’s World, so it isn’t owned by, or affiliated with any of the megacorps. That means there’s an extra tax if they want to distribute coffee via the regular trade routes. Fortunately for them there are some irregular trade routes courtesy of independent shippers. Smugglers? Who said anything about smugglers? Let’s call them entrepreneurs or free-traders.
Is all that in the book? Not really, except for Cara and Ben’s opposing taste in beverages and the pressing need for platinum. The thing is, dear reader, you don’t need to know all that to enjoy reading the book, but I need to know the background in order to write it. I need to know all of Earth’s history from the first successful moon base, engineered by the Chinese in 2041, to the Five Power Alliance which emerged as a global federal government in the reconstruction following the meteor strikes.
And what has happened to humans in five hundred years? Some have been genetically altered to be able to survive on marginal worlds, others have brain implants which enhance psionic abilities. And then there are those who haven’t had their genes tweaked, or artificial enhancements, who consider themselves pure. That in itself is a starting point for conflict.
Writing far future science fiction offers an unlimited number of possibilities and as I write the second book in the series (Crossways, due from DAW in August 2015) I’m able to explore more new worlds and new situations as my characters pursue a seemingly impossible goal.
Empire of Dust
DAW, November 2014
Is there anywhere in the galaxy that’s safe for a Telepath who knows too much?
Implanted with psi-tech technology, Cara Carlinni is on the run from Alphacorp, a megacorporation more powerful than any one planetary government. She knows her ex-boss can find her any time, mind-to-mind. Even though it’s driving her crazy she’s powered down and has been surviving on willpower and tranqs, tucked away on a backwater space station. So far, so good. It’s been almost a year, and her mind is still her own.
But her past is about to catch up with her, and her only choice is run or die. She gets out just in time thanks to Ben Benjamin, a psi-tech Navigator for Alphacorp’s biggest corporate rival, however it’s not over yet. Cara and Ben find themselves battling corruption of the highest magnitude. If they make a mistake an entire colony planet could pay the ultimate price.
Jacey Bedford is a British author published by DAW. Her first novel, Empire of Dust, the first book in her Psi-tech Universe, launches on 4th November and her second, Crossways, a sequel, is due in 2015. She’s agented by Amy Boggs of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She’s sold short stories on both sides of the Atlantic and you can find out more from her website at http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk, or her blog, Tales from the Typeface http://jaceybedford.wordpress.com She’s one of the co-organisers of the Milford SF Writers’ Conference in the UK http://www.milfordSF.co.uk