Sources of any kind can help visualize what doesn’t exist

Anybody who knows me has probably heard me reference the Traveller RPG and anyone who’s read a few articles on this site must be sick of the references to it by now. There is a good reason for it, however, I do believe that Traveller is the best one-stop shop for figuring out science fiction worlds (and it will get better with Traveller 5, due at the end of the year, by virtue of its comprehensive creation system for anything you can think of: characters, ships, worlds, weapons, vehicles, items, etc.). Whenever I’ve needed a place to start in describing a future setting, I think of Traveller. Traveller is rather open in terms of the universe that comes out of the box – everyone has their Own Traveller Universe (OTU), which always seems to drop down from whatever SF books they read, movies they watched. They read the Traveller rules and see their own universe emerge as they digest them.

So it should come as no surprise that now I’m writing my own SF novel and stories (as opposed to other people’s SF projects), that I come back to Traveller for that cornerstone to build from. In this case, it has been for spacecraft construction.

My idea of what star/space ships “should be” is a conglomeration of Star Wars, Star Trek, Chris Foss paintings, Syd Mead, Jim Burns, Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Peter Elson, John Harris… you get the picture. I want a bit of this, a bit of that, I want stripes and checkerboards and I want something that looks like its been engineered and built, rather than just dreamed up.   But when you get down to it, that just doesn’t cut it when you need to write about it. Sure, you can describe its general aesthetics, but the details just aren’t there. When you need to write about something, you need some hard facts.

How big is it? What shape? Could it possibly enter an astmosphere – will it need subsidiary spacecraft to get passengers to and from it? How many landing feet does it have?  How big is its cargo bay? How many people are needed to run it? How many people are needed to run the people? How many staterooms does it have? How many people can eat at the mess at one time?

Each of these questions leads to second guessing of one of the others. For e.g. I wanted a large ship that could take a lot of freight from one planet to another, which led to “how big is big?”  My first ballpark figure was 200 meters long. In terms of human space, that’s not that big. That’s just down the road to the shops. Then make it 40 meters across, 30 deep…  The largest water ships ever built by humanity measures 460m by 68m x 38m.  So I felt that was too big for what I wanted: the stereotypical “space opera freight vessel”, just a bit larger. Looking at “real SF ships” like the Nostromo from Alien  (243.8m x 164.6m x 72.5m = HUGE!! 50k tons on normal load!) helped me define what was too big, or not big enough, based on what sort of jobs they do and limitations of the hardware: how graceful a landing, how powerful are the engines, how much would it cost (which led to who owned it and why) and also helped define the level of technology behind it. The Nostromo is gigantic, but can’t float down to a planet like a Star Wars ship might with anti-gravitic technology, for e.g. its size and sheer amount of room given over to machinery implies that it is a workhorse and low-technology compared to say, the Sulaco from Aliens, or the Starship Enterprise.

A Great Reference for spaceship/vehicle design idea mining

Luckily, science fiction role playing games – in my case Traveller – usually have extensive rules to construct, and thus visualize, spacecraft.  I bounced around between a few Traveller rule systems to get different dimensions and rough requirements. GURPs Traveller (not my fave, I’m a Classic Trav dude, but I had the book out) gave me round numbers, but used feet (!) for math, Traveller 5 used meters so suited more, but the hulls only went up to 2500 tons and I felt like I needed something bigger – this wasn’t the Millenium Falcon!   There’s an amazing resource in Fire, Fusion & Steel, which although it is for one of the worst received versions of Traveller (IMHO), it covers in depth a wide variety of technologies and systems for vehicle construction.

Using either of these would have gotten me what I wanted: rough numbers for volume/mass for engines/machinery, fuel, crew rooms, computers etc. The exact details weren’t important, but the fact that I was thinking about the different elements in a rational fashion was.  I wanted my prose to seem as though it was describing real things, even though the amount of details behind it were possibly total bullshit.

There are of course, die hard Traveller (and other SF RPG) gamers out there who think nothing of designing the whole ship and basically figuring out everything there needed to be for it, (trust me, I’ve been there and might still do it with this project) but I’ve found that for prose specifically, you just don’t need it all.  If I was doing a video game based on this, I’d be drawing up floor-plans, so a level could be made out of it, perhaps even break out the D6s and have game of Azhanti High Lightning on it.  In many ways, it is just set-dressing, but important nonetheless.  If an SF writer’s job is suspension of disbelief, then this stuff has to make sense and be consistent within your world’s own rules, however weird they might be.

Writing – and specifically world building – is about finding out the right details and seamlessly blending them into the work in order to make something believable. You could engineer the whole damn thing and write that into the novel, but not everyone will be interested in it and it will be a major speed bump for the reader. Info dumps, as they are known, should be avoided unless you have a point in using them.  Its hard for me, as an aviation and engineering loving artist and writer, not to slap in some juicy details about this or that, but I have to fight it every time.

By the time I was done (well, I’m never really done, at least not until the floor-plans are drafted), I had a crew roster, enough dimensions, preliminary sketches of the ship (ultimately a pretty boring/functional streamlined flattened cone hull), with some Chris Foss style patterns daubed on it… and most of all, something to draw upon while writing about it.

As a gamer and SF fan, this is fun. As a writer/word builder, this is research.  As an exercise, you could fill out the entire process, from dimensions, to detailed crew rosters, to its performance envelope, to its operating procedures and even what buttons to push in order to get off it in case its about to blow up. If you do you could publish it as a gaming aid for SF RPGs in case your SF novel doesn’t quite go as well as you’d hoped.

Related Articles:

Starship Construction for Writers 102

Starship Construction for (not just) Writers 103