As far as writing fiction goes, I'm doing as poorly as ever, but I've had some fun recently doing some universe building.
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(1) The Science Fantasy universe. This universe is exactly like our own, with two differences. First of all, the laws of geology make subterranean caverns a hundred times more numerous. Secondly, there are three extant species in genus Homo. The most numerous is Homo sapiens, normal, modern humans.
The second species is Homo aelfens, the elf. Elves have about twice the lifespan of humans, stand on average six inches shorter than humans, have pointy ears and delicate features. Elves come in all colors, from pale white to dark black, with less pink or yellow color than humans. Culturally, elves are as diverse as humans. Most elves tend to avoid living ion close contact with humans unless forced by circumstance.
The third species is Homo gobelinus, the goblin. Goblins tend to be shorter than elves, and more heavily built than humans. Goblins have round faces, pointy ears, and a greenish tint to their skin. Their culture tends to evil. Goblins consider humans and elves to be inherent enemies of their species.
Both goblins and elves have been slowly pushed out of the way as human technology has advanced over the last few millennia. Since the neolithic agricultural revolution over ten thousand years ago, the human population has been exponentially growing, but the population of goblins and elves has grown much more slowly. There may be at most a few million of each.
Elves and Goblins tend to live in mountain caverns. For example, the large cavern system under the alps has been home to one of the greatest elven kingdoms in history, but is also home to a large nation of goblins. These two groups have been at war with each other for thousands of years, with much of the fighting taking place underground, outside of knowledge of humanity.
What do elves and goblins eat, if they aren't agrarian societies? They are very efficient hunter-gatherers. At some point, elves started specializing in particular non-agricultural trades. Elven crafted items, such as weapons or ornaments, are much prized by humans who often trade large volumes of grain and raw materials for these things. Goblins are less inclined to trade, tending more often to raids on human towns. When humans seek retribution on goblins, it can either end with the humans wiping out all of the goblins in the area (since humans almost always have a numerical advantage) or the goblins manage get away with almost no casualties (since they can hide in and easily defend their caverns).
This universe has no magic, but humans have traditionally assumed that elves and goblins possessed magic. For example, elves are on average several IQ points smarter than humans. Elves developed something like the scientific method much earlier than humans. Two areas where this had a big impact were metallurgy (after elves learned iron-working from humans) and medicine. Since elves don't particularly like humans, they never had any desire to dominate or enslave humans (good for us) but also never wanted to teach humans anything (bad for us). The so-called magical skills that elves had were things like teleportation (hiding and being quiet in the woods to avoid persecution by the more numerous humans), making magical (id est high-quality) swords, or magical healing (Elvish physicians learned to wash their hands before surgery about four thousand years ago. They invented antibiotics three thousand years ago.)
The setting is the early twenty-first century. The plots might involve a human's very rare visit to an elvish city and involvement with "the underworld."
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(2) The Galactic-Civilization universe. Aliens have built civilization that spans the milky way over the past few billion years, but since it uses wormholes that must be moves at very slow speeds to get around, they only got around to visiting Earth in the early 21st century.
Between 13 and 14 billion years ago, the universe began to expand from a hot, dense place to a (on average) cold, empty place. We call this the Big Bang, and it's still going on, with the expansion of the universe continuing to accelerate.
The first stars to form (the so-called Population III stars) tended to be large—for some reason I still don't understand—and consequently short-lived. They quickly went supernova and ejected heavy elements into space. The next stars to form had more heavy elements in them, and were often small, long-lived, and had planets.
All this happened in the first billion years of the universe.
Between 12 and 13 billion years ago, what we would call biological life evolved for the first time in the Milky Way.
Between 10 and 11 billion years ago, the first intelligent people showed up, on one of those planets that evolved life early on. These people called themselves "People," but everyone since that time has called them the Precursors. They built a great civilization, and explored the galaxy, moving at speeds that rarely exceeded a few percent of the speed of light. They left behind their second greatest invention: the first galactic wormhole network.
The Precursor Wormhole is elliptical loop of cosmic string a dozen meters across that sustains multiply-connected space, without significantly distorting spacetime in its vicinity. It requires vast sums of energy to produce, but the machinery that protects and sustains the cosmic string doesn't require energy and has been known to last for up to 10 billion years.
Precursor wormholes implode when subjected to strong accelerations or tidal forces or when forced into a closed time-like curve.
The Precursors used their wormholes to return quickly to their home planet after thousand-year voyages through interstellar space. In the end, they did not colonize space, but instead all returned home and eventually disappeared from the universe. Over the years, other species have used and extended the wormhole network.
More recently, the Travelers have explored this region of the galaxy and discovered via long distance astronomy that Earth was possibly habitable, owing to the rare existence of free oxygen in the atmosphere, and sent a wormhole termini from the closest point in the network—over a hundred light-years away.
The Travelers are a long-lived species of skinny humanoid starfarers engaged in exploration and trade. They control this region of the wormhole network, keeping lines of communication open, protecting commerce, and collecting tolls. They purchase Precursor Wormholes from the group that controls the Precursor factories that make them and thus extend their reach.
The Travelers are not themselves great scientists, builders or conquerors, although there have been such in their history. Instead, they are patient and curious.
I suspect that the Travelers were happy to find Humans living on Earth when they got here, as much as they give the impression that they found humanity primitive and potentially dangerous.
The Travelers brought a large comet from the outer solar system to the inner solar system to use as a base of operations. By shading the side of the comet facing the sun, they keep it from boiling away. The shade is covered in photovoltaics to provide power to their small base. The wormhole termini is kept in a nearby orbit.
Traveler needleships are skinny enough to fit through the eye of a wormhole, and run on efficient energy accumulators that accelerate the reaction mass to around 30 million m/s. The comet base provides a place for needleships to refuel and recharge, before exploring the solar system.
They opened communications with the human race, but were not particularly interested in providing much technology to humanity, preferring to wait until humanity was rich enough—on a galactic scale—to pay for it. And the Travelers felt that it would be irresponsible to allow humans access to the galaxy through their wormhole, considering how violent and unpredictable humanity could be.
But even as they were explaining this to the representatives of the major nations, they implied that there might circumstances under which they would take humans to the stars.
A small group of humans convinced the Travelers to help them found a colony in another star system. The Travelers knew about a race called the Stone Builders who were making a oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere on a young lifeless planet. The Stone Builders leased the human colony a large island on their planet and helped them establish earth flora and fauna on that island. In 2012, over a thousand human colonists left earth in a skyhook carrier that the Travelers brought into the system for that purpose. The colonists were loaded onto a needleship and sent through several dozen wormholes. Most of the supplies the colonists needed were provided at their destination by the Stone Builders: prefab homes, prepared soil, et cetera.
Why did the Stone Builders and the Travelers spend so much money on humanity? First of all, it was structured as a loan to colony—not to Earth— who was not allowed to forget their debt to them, and secondly, humanity very well might mess Earth up badly—and no amount on intervention on the part of the Travelers would be likely to help them out.
In some ways this is similar to the universe in The Algebraist.
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(3) The Space-Opera universe. I created this because there are many stories that simply can't be told in universe #2. The universe also exists as an answer to the Star Trek universe, which is—in so many ways—poorly thought out.
I wanted to get humans into deep space as quickly as possible, so I allowed the discovery of a damaged light-drive-powered alien probe take place early in the twenty-first century. This gave Earth the light drive: a method of traveling at exactly the speed of light to any point in space with zero proper time. The energy consumption of the light drive is proportional to the mass being moved. For example, to leave the solar system from earth orbit, the energy consumption of the engine would be larger than the difference in gravitational potential energy between those two points in space. This is similar to Ken McLeod's "Engines of Light."
The light drive allows humans to explore and colonize other star systems during the late twenty-first century. These early colonies tended to become isolated from the Solar system because of distance.
In the early twenty-second century, the first human-built super-thruster rocket is built, again, copied from alien technology. The super-thruster uses high-energy-density accumulators to produces an exhaust velocity near 10 million m/s and eventually are designed to produce high thrust as well. These accumulators are extremely expensive, but manage to revolutionize the energy economy on Earth.
In the late twenty-second century, a new type of space drive, the hyper-drive is built. This uses a very different physical principle than the light-drive. Under the hyper-drive, a star-ship moves through hyperspace at a speed determined by the efficiency of the hyper-drive, without relativistic effects. The physical laws governing hyperspace require a single privileged reference frame which corresponds roughly to the reference frame of the cosmic microwave background. The earliest hyper-drive ships allowed a speed around 35c. Over time, this speed increased geometrically.
The hero of many of our stories is an astronaut-explorer from the twenty-first century whose travels enough by light-ship that he is still relatively young by the early twenty-third century, when he returns to Earth on his last light-drive trip. He then joins the crew of a hyper-ship whose mission is to reestablish contact with lost colonies and explore unexplored star systems.
One of the conceits of the universe is that national politics on Earth don't change much over two centuries. In the US, NASA still is in charge of space exploration, and the NASA Astronaut Corps is still around, but by 2050, it has a new rank structure.
The spaceships of the twenty-first and early twenty-second century tend to be modular, assembled in low earth orbit as needed. Humans normally travel in capsules similar in design to an Apollo or a Soyuz capsule. Fuel tanks, FTL units, rocket modules, and consumable stockpiles are usually launched to orbit in separate low-cost unmanned rocket flights. Once the super-thruster is developed, the launch vehicles become smaller, easier to fuel, and reusable, until pre-assembled spaceships become the norm with the first hyper-ships.
Copyright 2008 Hal Canary. All rights reserved.