It’s difficult enough to choose a setting for a realistic story. The place you grew up? Went to college? Vacationed? The first home you chose as an adult?
When you’re writing fantasy you can make your world whatever and wherever you want it to be, but then you need to color in the outlines and make it feel real.
Right now I’m grappling with a third type of setting challenge: I’ve got a space colony tugging at my mind and I have to figure out where in the universe to put it.
There’s a reason they call it science…
Although it’s a time-honored solution to invent an earth-like planet and assume we can get there, I’m thinking about locales to which we can conceivably travel without worm holes and warp drives. And that’s going to take a little work.
Unlike creating a fantasy world, I can’t simply make up a climate for Mars or the density of bodies in the asteroid belt. And when it comes to describing the colony and how my characters got there, I need to try to project, on a very basic level, how current technology might develop in a century or more.
In hindsight I wish I’d chosen STEM courses as college electives rather than Introduction to Eastern Philosophy. (Young writers, take note. Or not. I didn’t listen either.) Luckily I’m a good researcher, and I love that part of writing. And there are a lot of highly accessible books written for non-technical people by extremely patient scientists. And an internet.
…but also a reason they call it fiction
Science alone does not good sci-fi make.
In my quasi-humble opinion, for example, Andy Weir, author of the very popular The Martian and Artemis, gets so caught up in the technical details of his books that he totally misses the importance of things like plot and character.
I figure I need to have my background facts straight, but I don’t need to pretend I’m an astrophysicist (not that that would work). People want a story, first and foremost.
That said, here are some of the things I’m thinking about to present my space colony in a realistic light.
Thanks to space exploration, we already know quite a bit about how a colony in the closer reaches of our solar system would need to function.
Mars and Earth’s moon are considered by many experts to be the best candidates for a colony, given their proximity to Earth. Also, although they are barren, without our friendly protective atmosphere, they are not as inhospitable as some of our other neighbors, such as Venus and Saturn. (The jury is out on Mercury.)
More on humanity’s favorite extraterrestrial addresses in a future installment.
Let’s talk asteroids
Scientists—and authors–have also been intrigued by the potential of the main asteroid belt, which occupies an area lying roughly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Asteroids are irregularly shaped bits of rock thought to be the crumbs left by the dawn of the solar system. The largest known asteroid in the main belt, Ceres, is big enough to be classified as a dwarf planet and regularly shows up in literature and legend. Eros also gets its share of attention as one of the largest near-Earth asteroids.
Forget those scenes where space pilots dodge in and out of hurtling rocks; asteroids in this belt are not nearly as dense as movies like The Empire Strikes Back would have us believe. While impact is possible, it’s not, according to my sources, a show-stopper. It’s just one more thing my colonists will have to worry about if I put them on an asteroid.
Miners in the sky
Asteroids possess water and minerals, including precious metals such as nickel, iron, and titanium. This suggests that they would be of great value to future colonists, whether we settle on them or just mine them.
Original Star Trek and various novels have given us a meme of the rugged space miner. He (I haven’t yet seen it be a she) often looks suspiciously like a denizen of earth’s gold rush in a space suit. Image courtesy of startrek.com.
Just as with the Moon or Mars, settling the asteroids would present plenty of challenges. Staging a story in space brings up questions of transportation of people and supplies, energy supply, food source, protection from radiation, and a ton more issues, before we even face the human side of the equation. While there’s no need to go on ad nauseum about these details, they form an important backdrop to the story.
Luckily, as writers we get a lot of creative license. After all, sci-fi authors managed to reach for the stars long before the launch of the Hubble Telescope or the first Mars probe. But I hope Jules Verne would agree that it never hurts to root our visions in the facts we have available.