Poe, Satire and Worldbuilding

Once upon a time I set out to write about the future of humanity. I called it The Divided Futures, a title born mostly from my disdain for the notion that humanity will ever unite under a single government (or if it does, stay that way for long) in it’s pursuit of the stars. The entire storyline was a mix of speculative fiction, political theory and sci-fi nonsense. The entire experiment was born out of a desire to mess around with ideas born of the political situation at the time I wrote it and I wanted to satirize some of the responses I saw being proposed to some issues by pushing them to ludicrous degrees.

All this was born out in the rather convoluted future timeline I put together to explain, step by step, how humanity would go from the early 2000s to 2082, the time of Emergency Surface, the first story I would write for The Divided Futures on this blog. (Some aspects of the setting got worked into earlier stories I wrote elsewhere that were unofficially canonized as I was doing the worldbuilding.)  Eventually I lost interest in the series as other ideas took the forefront but it was a thing I wanted to return to at some point. For a while.

But I had a really hard time working up the enthusiasm for it when I finally got around to it thanks to Bill Nye.

Satire was a big part of what I was shooting for when I put together my speculative future of the next fifty or sixty years. But satire presents a problem, typically codified as Poe’s Law. This law states that, no matter how extreme, satire of extreme movements will be impossible to differentiate from reality. One aspect of the political culture of the last decade or so that I hope to satire was the dangers inherent in extreme environmentalism, particularly the fanaticism around “man made climate change.” I don’t intend to delve too deeply into that particular issue here, the main point I wanted to make was that the climate change cult (as opposed to the environmentally minded) sees any disagreement with their point of view as inherently malicious.

I wanted to show the potentially damaging overreaches that could come from that mentality so I jokingly created a penal colony where all the people who objected to future climate change laws would wind up. I put it on the bottom of the ocean because that’s an idea that’s always appealed to me and it seemed like a good, non traditional place to set a near-future scifi story. What I certainly never expected was for Bill Nye to suggest imprisoning political dissidents as a good idea.

Now I get the logic – if you really think the world is going to collapse tomorrow because of a little carbon I can see why you might go to extreme lengths to solve the problem. But you’d have to think that in spite of all the predictions made about disappearing islands and coastlines in the last thirty years that haven’t come true so I just couldn’t see it happening.

Poe trumps Nye, it seems.

By the same token, an important event to the future of the underwater colony was fact that the existing United States of America no longer exists, having split in a second civil war in the late 2030s. What caused it? The Supreme Court legalizing the euthanization of children with disabilities resulting in a paramilitary group forcibly removing an eight year old with Down Syndrome from Federal custody. Sound far fetched? Because the Netherlands is considering making assisted suicide for totally healthy people legal and that’s probably a more extreme step.

One problem of trying to predict the near future is that it’s always becoming the here and now – and it does that pretty fast. And in the case of satire it seems that means that, no matter how over the top you were aiming to go, you probably won’t go far enough. If you want to do satire you better do it fast.

Does that mean I’m never going back to my goofy little near future setting? I may poke over there someday. I still think it’s full of fun story ideas.  I really want to write some about colonizing the solar system and ridiculously large mass drivers on Mars. But I think I’m going to phase directly satirical elements out of future worldbuilding efforts. It’s depressing…


Worldbuilding: Deep Space Terminology, An Overview

World building is a complex and demanding process. I’m not an expert on it but it is fun to share all that work from time to time and for me, one of the things that means is sharing the dictionaries and lexicons that start to accrue over time as I write stories and come up with new concepts.

This week’s world building log is on The Divided Futures, a series of stories about humanities future and what kinds of challenges it’s going to come up with for itself. Specifically, here are some common terms from the Extrasolar age, the age of interstellar colonization and increasingly difficult national relations. Terms like:

biocomputer – A kind of upgrade to the human brain that works in two ways. First, it allows the human brain to enter a state similar to the fight-or-flight reaction people already possess. They experience time and a much slower relative speed, usually seeing things moving at one half or one quarter the normal rate. Digital computers can also coopt the incredible processing power of the brain to carry out their calculations with, sending the person who’s brain serves as the biocomputer into a sensory deprivation state. The most invasive versions of this technology allow people to experience time at 32x – they perceive time at 1/32nd normal rate – and function as the core of incredibly powerful processing engines. But the human brain cannot adapt to the most advanced forms of this technology past a certain age. This used to be around the age of twenty but, as the changes biocomputers impose on brain matter and function grow more and more pronounced, that age has fallen to fifteen.

cetacean ballet – The term for large space vessels moving in precise patterns via tesseract technology (see below). It generally refers to either the traffic patterns of large passenger or freight ships around a spaceport or the movements of large war vessels engaged in a pitched battle.

CMD – Stands for Cochran Mass Drivers. It’s an unofficial unit of measurement for mass driver technology that still finds widespread use in U.S., Russian and Chinese colonies. One CMD is equal to the amount of mass the Cochran mass driver on Mars can launch from the surface of the planet into orbit in a single firing. Because of it’s age the Cochran mass driver tends to be pretty weak by modern standards and most colonies have local planet to orbit launching systems that average 2-4 CMDs per firing. Constant retooling and upgrading by the Cochran Foundation means that the value of the CMD is almost always in flux, which is just one reason why it’s not an officially recognized unit of measurement.

CODSpace – Slang term for the U.S. Combined Orbital/Deep Space forces (see below), primarily used by other branches of the U.S. armed forces or English speaking foreign militarizes.

ComODS – Slang term for the U.S. Combined Orbital/Deep Space forces (see below), primarily used by people within that branch of service and the media.

downwell – Refers to moving towards the center of a gravity well or magnetic field. Usually attached to a descriptor if there are multiple large gravity wells or magnetic sources in the area. “Downwell Jupiter,” for example, means, “I am moving towards the surface of Jupiter” as opposed to towards one of the gas giant’s major moons. The opposite of upwell (see below).

Exo – Pronounced like the letters “X” and “O”. This refers to an atmospherically sealed suit built around a self propelled exoskeleton that allows people to move and work more effectively in super low pressure environments. They range from simple exoskeletons that give a person enough strength to move components massing twice as much as they do to complex armored weapons of war used by soldiers in low microgravity combat.

hash – Refers to an area where gravity’s effect on spacetime distorts it to the extent a tesseract drive can no longer create folded space. This is usually found in the center of a gravity well such as that created by a planet or a Hawking reactor (see below). Gets its name from the way the relevant space is hashed out on most realtime space charts.

Hawking reactor – A method of generating power created some sixty years ago and widely accepted by humanity, a Hawking reactor uses Unified Field Theory to create a microscopic flux in spacetime – essentially creating a miniature black hole. It then harvests the resulting Hawking radiation to create power. Physicists assure the public that black hole evaporation will prevent these singularities from ever becoming true black holes and that they vanish even if the reactor is not shut down safely, but some people view them with a large measure of distrust regardless.

McGee – US ComODS slang for microgravity (see below).

MGI – MicroGravity Infantry, refers to a ComODS branch that specializes in fighting ship to ship, repelling boarders, boarding and seizing hostile ships and making space to planet assaults. The last doesn’t technically take place in microgravity but the name still makes more sense as calling a fighting force in space Marines…

microgravity – Refers to regions of space where no large stellar object, like a planet or a moon, is close enough to produce gravity noticeable to humans. The effects of an object’s gravity never really disappear, they just become so minuscule as to be meaningless, hence the term microgravity is usually preferred to zero gravity, even though they are functionally the same in most cases.

rad cloud – The heavily concentration of stars near the galactic center, a place widely considered too dangerous for exploratory work, much less colonization.

spacetime – Refers to a mathematical construct that unifies space and time for the ease of higher mathematical functions.

tesseract drive – A method of “propulsion” that folds two distant points in spacetime together and allows a vessel to pass from one to the other in effectively no time at all. The “speed” a space vessel can reach is only determined by how much distance can be covered in a single folding of spacetime and how quickly its generators can recharge the drive and repeat the process. Tesseract drives have existed for nearly one and a half centuries but that doesn’t mean they’re trusted technology. The fact that process of folding spacetime leaves it distorted for several minutes or even hours afterward, to the point that a ship cannot tesser again until it “clears it’s own hash (see above),” is frequently used as an argument that the technology might be permanently damaging spacetime in ways not yet understood.

Unified Field Theory – Often shortened to UFT. A mathematical system that has succeeded in relating three of the four “universal forces” in quantum physics, namely gravity, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. The strong nuclear force continues to resist physicists efforts to bring it into the theory with the other three. UFT serves as the foundation for many modern technologies, including artificial gravity, tesseract drives and the Hawking reactors that feed it all.

United States Combined Orbital/Deep Space Forces –  The branch of the U.S. Military charged with securing the spacelanes and defending U.S. Exoplanetary States and Territories from foreign threats. Considers itself the most powerful vacuum-ready fighting force in existence, although the British and Indian space arms both have their own thoughts on that.

upwell – Refers to moving away from the center of a gravity well or magnetic field. Usually attached to a descriptor if there are multiple large gravity wells or magnetic sources in the area. “Upwell Jupiter,” for example, means, “I am moving away from the surface of Jupiter” as opposed to away from one of the gas giant’s major moons. The opposite of downwell (see above).

So there you go. You’re probably not ready to jump in and navigate the space lanes just yet, but at least if you wind up frozen in a block of ice and get thawed out three hundred years in the future you’ll be prepared to talk the talk, if not walk the walk. Best of luck!

Language, Language

If you’ve read this Monday’s short story you may have noticed that Dmitri uses the term “Palatinus” to refer to the high ranking official he turns his case over to once his work is done. I have to admit, I was leery of using this term for reasons that are at once very simple and very complex. But before I can talk about that, I need to step back and admit something about the way Dmitri talks and his home in Terra Eternal.

If you’ve read the two stories I’ve done on Dmitri – Monday’s and this one from last summer – along with the Terra Eternal world building posts – here and here – you’ve probably realized that Terra Eternal speaks a language with heavy Latin influences. I made this choice for very simple reasons. Generally, when you’re telling a story, it’s best to give the audience what they expect.

Yeah, sure, you can defy expectations but if its not something that’s central to your story then your failure to live up to them will just be a distraction. Popular culture today associates Latin with magic and fantasy, elements that are central to the ethos of Terra Eternal. Yes, I could have made up a bunch of words of magic, people do that all the time when building fantasy worlds. But part of the schtick is that Terra Eternal isn’t a totally different world, it’s another version of our world. The Endless Horizons are really just echoes of the same world with fundamentally similar people in superficially different circumstances. It’s logical that the languages would be similar as well.

In fact, Sophers that study language in Terra Eternal work by this principle. All the languages they’ve encountered fall into one of sixteen different groups based on the basic rules of sound and grammar involved. These groups are called phonemes (a real word I’ve given a different meaning, another part of writing in this setting) and most public officials like Dmitri understand the basics of at least two of them – their native phoneme and the First phoneme, which is the Latin equivalent of the Throneworlds. The only things that really vary from world to world is vocabulary and pronunciation. Barriers, to be sure, but not as insurmountable as entire different languages.

This is why terms like Regulus, Praetorian and Century are scattered liberally through stories about Terra Eternal. While an empire that touches all or part of fifty two worlds is bound to wind up with a melting pot of a language, and Terra Eternal has stolen a plethora of terms from other cultures as they were assimilated, the bones of the First phoneme is Latin in nature.

That brings me to palatines. I’ve mentioned once or twice that I work in a Genealogy department and one category of records we have is an index of palatines who came to America. When I started there I’d never heard the term before but I quickly learned from context that palatines were some kind of high born people and the word had a good ring to it, so when I started building Terra Eternal I was thinking of using it as a term for a high ranking official. But I wasn’t sure what kind of official they should be so I started doing some research into the term and I discovered I had heard the word before, just with a different pronunciation.

You see, most fantasy geeks would spell it paladin.

Palatines were officials in many European courts, but the most powerful of them was probably Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. Some poet wrote a verse about who twelve of these palatines, the Peers of the Realm, and their great feats upholding the empire and this later became the archetype for the holy warrior, made mighty by his devotion to truth, justice and righteousness. I’m not sure whether the spelling was changed deliberately or accidentally but over time this particular meaning became associated with the spelling paladin until Gary Gygax basically enshrined it with his Dungeons and Dragons role playing game.

So what’s this all mean?

Basically, I’d adopted a linguistic conceit, that the powerful, magic-driven culture spoke a Latin-based language because it was what the audience would tend to expect. But the word palatine was closely associated with the idea of holy warriors by that same audience and that was a concept I wanted to avoid focusing on with Terra Eternal. On the flip side, palatine was a real word with concrete meaning and that’s a resource that shouldn’t be quickly cast aside. I wanted most of the basic social structure of Terra Eternal, the empire’s superstructure if not the local governments, to have Latin terminology and palatine was a part of that. But I didn’t want to give false impressions either – the palatines are just high level bureaucrats, not holy warriors.

Looking back on it the answer should have been obvious but as is so often the case it took me a while to get there. The actual Latin word is palatinus, which is different enough from paladin that I didn’t think confusion was likely. And that is how the character of Palatinus Sollenberg came to have his title and I came to wish that I’d chosen some other language for the basis of an interdimensional empire.

Like sign language.

The lesson for today? Worldbuilding has a lot more to it than you’d ever expect.