Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Forging a Universe: Worldbuilding Physics

This is the second installment in a continuous series on worldbuilding for speculative fiction. Throughout the series, I'll be making my way through the primary elements we use to construct a universe. I'll attempt to keep things broad enough to apply to both sides of the sci-fi/fantasy coin, but some topics will undoubtedly lean more toward one genre than the other. I should also say before we get underway that most entries will assume the top-down method, primarily for the sake of ordering them in a coherent way. If you're not sure what I mean by that, check out my introductory post.

We're starting with what I consider the most basic step on the ladder of worldbuilding: defining the physics of your universe. This might seem like a small step, a simple precursor to the big decisions you'll be making down the road, but it's actually a very important one. Acknowledging how your setting will reconcile with real-world physics can dramatically alter the events that take place in your story, even if you're writing in a genre that comes with a high expectation that the reader will be willing to suspend disbelief at the door. In many ways, this decision can set the tone of your entire story.

Fantasy: Degrees of Magic

In a fantasy story, the question of physics is one that revolves around the amount of magical elements present in your story, since these elements don't generally adhere to the laws of our universe. Many fantasy stories present a world with the same basic physical properties as ours on the surface, whether it's set on an unnamed planet with a perpetually pseudo-medieval culture, or present-day New York. For the most part, it will be a world we recognize and can identify with. Then a wizard shows up, and all hell breaks loose. With a flick of his wand, a tilt of his staff, or a mutter under his breath, the laws of physics as we know them bend and break at his command. Depending on the style of magic employed by the author (something we'll get into in another entry down the road), there may not even be any explanation for how or why the magic does what it does; it just is. It's a force of nature all to itself, and can do whatever the author needs it to (within reason).

Of course, it's not just your sorcerers and mages that dictate how faithful you are to real-world science. It's also a good idea to keep physics in mind when populating the imaginative flora and fauna of your world. For instance, I love dragons . . . but the sad truth is that physics is not on their side. The enormous dragons we've seen soaring through the air in movies and books would never make it off the ground in the real world; their wings would be purely for decoration. The same goes for a ton of other fantastic creatures, from giant crustaceans to insect people. No matter how awesome and exciting they may be, they just don't measure up to a higher standard of realism. In physics, size matters.

Does this mean you can't have dragons in your story? Of course not! That's where suspension of disbelief comes in. But make sure this is a conscious decision on your part, because it will have a big effect on reader expectation. I don't think anyone wrote J.K. Rowling angry letters about snakes not having vocal chords in real life. But she undoubtedly knew the kind of signal she was sending when she put a talking animal in her book. She was saying to the reader, "This is the kind of story you're reading; don't act too surprised when people start flying around on broomsticks."

Science Fiction: Degrees of Hardness

For obvious reasons, physics is often a much more conscious element in a science fiction story, especially if there is space travel involved. There are exceptions, but for the most part, the standard of realism is going to be much higher in a science fiction story than in a fantasy story. For instance, if you have a story or setting that hinges on the existence of some kind of faster-than-light travel, you must address the problem of physics in some way, even if your way of addressing it is the equivalent of saying, "I'm not going to address this, so deal with it. Hyperspace."

Again, it largely has to do with reader expectation. In science fiction there is a "hardness scale" that determines how rigorous the author's application of real-world science has been. As the genre has grown and evolved over the years, a large, vocal camp has risen within science fiction fandom (especially literary SF) that seeks hard science and loves to criticize works that fling too much phlebotinum. This is why it's important to address how you will be handling physics in your story, and to make it clear to the reader. Much like J.K. Rowling's talking snake in our fantasy scenario above, it's important to send the proper signals. As a reader, I enjoy both soft SF and hard SF (as long as the physics lectures aren't too long), but even I get frustrated if everything is nice and plausible for most of the book, then the science takes an inexplicable left turn into crazy-town for the convenience of the author's limitations on research.

It should be noted that there are certain sub-genre conventions that come with their own set of expectations. If you're writing a space opera, chances are readers aren't going to take you to task for violating physics every time your pilot presses the big red button. In these kinds of stories, things like faster-than-light travel are expected, to the point where a novel idea of getting around the natural limitations involved will net you cool points, even if the idea itself involves breaking yet more laws. Most sci-fi fans are rad that way. Give them something really cool, and they won't yell at you about science.

Next month, the series continues as we take a look at the cosmology of your fictional universe.

photo credit: placbo via cc


  1. I think one of the reasons I steer clear of fantasy and sci fi is because of the fantastical (fantasy) and physics lectures (sci fi). I feel like I'd get bogged down in the explanations too much so to enjoy the story.

    However, I can get highly involved in genre games for both. I play high fantasy RPG games and Star Trek's original RPG was awesome! So, I don't understand why I'm turned off by the genre fiction. Is it because of the hardness factor you speak of in this article? I'm not sure.

    1. That may be, Diane. Games are definitely a different beast altogether, so I could see enjoying SFF games but being turned off by the literary equivalent.

      How about trying your hand at some speculative short fiction? There tends to be less density overall on the short story side of things (for obvious reasons: word economy, etc), and at least if a story is not your cup of tea it's not a giant commitment to finish. And there's tons of great markets that are free to read, too. Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction . . . I'm proselytizing, but I could go on and on.

      At the end of the day though, maybe it's just not your cup of tea. It happens! I won't hold it against you. ;)

      Thanks for reading, Diane!

  2. Now you know why I write space opera - I'm all about the soft science fiction.

    1. I'm with you, Alex! I like hard SF too, but I'll always have a soft spot for a nice, meaty space opera epic. Give me ray guns and dogfights, damn it!

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Okay...this is embarrassing...I've never notice the fact that a "real" dragon would be too heavy to get off the ground. Lol!

    I love plowing through a story and showing the reader how the magic works instead of just explaining it. I'm definitely a "this is just the way things are" kind of writer. If the main character just has to know how something works, I'll get another character to tell them.

    I find it interesting that we find out in the second Harry Potter book that the snake wasn't actually talking, not in human words anyway. And I love that Harry wasn't at all disturbed by this.

    1. No reason to be embarrassed. Only nerds like me notice that sort of thing, I think! And even I don't stop to think about it at any point if a dragon comes swooping into a story. I'm too busy thinking, "Yes! Dragons!"

      I love the various kinds of magic systems in different fantasy books, whether it's the super complicated ones with lots of laws and rules or the open ended Gandalf-style, "we don't exactly know what this guy can do, but he's clearly awesome" type. I think just like sci-fi has it's hardness scale for science, fantasy has a hardness scale for magic. And my inner geek loves it all, when it's used well.

      Thanks for stopping by, Krystal!

  4. "I'm not going to address this, so deal with it. Hyperspace."




    I also get frustrated if a story switches its internal laws in the middle of the story, for lack of a better plotting device. It's particularly annoying in science-fiction, because the possible outcomes of the story are hugely dependent on the story-physics (even in soft sci-fi), and changing the rules effectively changes the story. It's like buying cheesecake and midway through, it suddenly starts to taste like a week-old tofu burger. Yuck.

    According to the hardness scale of science-fiction, I write something between soft and hard sci-fi. I explain technology, but by referencing background knowledge (of cosmology and particle physics, as well as biology, computer science, electrical engineering, and a bunch more) so those who have the knowledge will connect the dots, and those who don't can simply move on after those couple of "sciency-sounding" paragraphs and get on with the story. I hope this way of avoiding info dumps works, 'cause I just can't convince myself to remove the explanations entirely.

    Awesome post, James! I love this worldbuilding series!

    And I can't wait for the cosmology post. *giggles maniacally*

    1. Well, I certainly don't know what a week-old tofu burger tastes like, but that sounds like an apt metaphor to me!

      Your spot on the hardness scale sounds right down my alley, and sounds about right when it comes to my own sci-fi (at least when it comes to that big, galaxy-spanning epic I hope to write one of these days). Like I said above, I can enjoy work just about anywhere up and done the scale if it's in the hands of a good author, but I definitely feel like there's a sweet spot somewhere in the middle that lets you capture that sense of wonder without turning any of your chapters into a science textbook. I can read the hardest of the hard and enjoy it, but only in moderation!

      Thanks, Vero! I knew this stuff would be your cup of tea. ;)

  5. Very good points! There are certain recipes for certain worlds that should be --at least somewhat -- followed. Fans come to expect a certain something from their target genres, and if you veer away too far from that you're going to disappoint their expectations. It's like creating a grocery store romance novel that has fire breathing robots slapped into the middle of it. Nice post, JW--another nail on the head!

  6. Thanks, Randi!

    That's a great way of putting it, haha. Who wants robots in their grocery romance?


Thanks for reading!