Posted by: kshayes513 | October 7, 2012

Which is harder, real world or imaginary world?

Wyatt Earp

My short story “The Dodge” started with a childhood hero, Wyatt Earp. An episode of Wild West Tech once featured a duster he had worn in a gunfight. The tails of the coat were shot to ribbons, but the most famous lawman in American history survived that fight and every other fight of his life, without once being touched by a bullet.  And I wondered, what if he had the power to let bullets pass right through him? I thought it would make a good superhero story, but since Gods of Justice didn’t allow historical characters, I started “The Dodge” with the idea of a fictional Wyatt Earp-like Western sheriff.

Except… this was to be a stand-alone short story, and I didn’t want to do tons of historical research just for one story. And here’s where fantasy is easier than reality. If  I set the story on a space colony, then I wouldn’t have to do all that research, nor explain anything other than why they still use 19th century technology, and why the hero has this strange ability. Having a hyperactive sun took care of both very nicely.

So for this story, imaginary world was much easier than real world.

Just one problem with that: the world proved so interesting that by the time I finished writing “The Dodge,” I was already spinning out a 70 year timeline of colonial history on this planet. Which means I have a lot more stories to tell here. And suddenly, creating an imaginary world doesn’t look any easier than recreating a real one. For me, it’s probably harder. Writing a story about a superhero of the Old West would require historical research, which is cake and ice cream for me, since I majored in history.

Creating an imaginary planet 200 years in the future – that’s an entirely different meal. I have no problem with the politics and the history, because I can make it all up. Even the geography isn’t too bad, since New Colorado is inspired by Mars as it might have been if it had always had liquid water. And Curiosity is puttering around Mars right now, providing fresh inspiration every day for the landscape.

The rest, though, involves hard science. Lots and lots of hard science.

Here’s my short list of questions I need to research, to create a scientifically realistic alien world:

  • How does solar radiation affect electronic equipment?
  • How does bamboo grow and how would it need to be modified to grow on a different planet?
  • What domestic animals might colonists bring, and how easily could they be modified so they can digest alien plant life?
  • What would make the sky greenish?
  • What minerals or other natural resources would be so rare and valuable that a 10+ year trip from Earth is worthwhile?
  • What kind of weather would be created by shallow seas and wide, arid planetary surfaces cut by vast canyons?
  • What kind of plant and animal life would believably evolve here, and how do humans interact with it?

Virtually all of those questions involve hard sciences: physics, astronomy, macro- and microbiology, genetics, geology, chemistry and more.

And here’s what you might not know about me. I love real science, to the point where the ‘eccentric scientist’ movie character annoys me more than almost any other stereotype. I love reading about new scientific discoveries in almost any field. I love science, but I also suck at it.  I read the news stories for non-scientists, but whenever I try to read actual scientific papers, I’m lost. Less than two minutes after I start reading any hard, highly technical information about almost any science, my brain suffers the equivalent of a software crash.

So I’m back where I started, with a completely imaginary world that demands a lot of real world research to make it into good science fiction. So much for easy!

What’s easier for you, starting with the real world, or starting with an imaginary world?


  1. Little known fact…. on a very calm evening at sea, just as the Sun finally sinks below the the horizon, you will see a green flash. It’s a real phenomenon and is to do with refraction of the sunlight through the air. Does this help?

  2. Rosie, thanks for joining us and commenting. I do know about the green flash (even before the Pirates movies made a fantasy version of it famous), but my research shows that is an effect of atmospheric refraction directly on the limb of the sun when it’s close to the horizon. I will have to figure out what sort of atmospheric gases would scatter more short wavelength visible light than ours, to give the sky of New Colorado its greenish tinge.

    By the way, the Maths page on your blog is exactly the sort of reading that causes my “brain software crash!”

  3. First of all, I see a novel in your projected work – why not go for it! I did the same thing – I started with the draining of the East Anglian fens but invented a world to avoid all of the nitty gritty of the actual history; then, in researching the setting, technology, economics etc of “that kind of world” in order to have a solidly detailed setting, it got complicated. The key is that I adored the research, like you love science, which lightens the load as you invent your world. Don’t forget mapmaking!

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