The best complex structures, natural and created, get that way by following a few simple rules. I like to think Phoenicia’s Worlds follows in that vein.
I’m not the first sf writer to posit the idea of travelling through wormholes to get through interstellar space quickly. Or even artificial wormholes. Or wormholes that require an artificial terminus at either end to stabilise them. But how do those termini get to where they are meant to be terminating? Ah, yes. For that you still need the traditional slower-than-light starship to ferry the terminus to its destination.
And once the terminus is switched on and people are crossing the multi-lightyear gap in the blink of an eye - what happens to the ship? Well, it’s still there …
And thus the idea arose of a multi-world civilisation that has arisen, wormhole by wormhole, as ships head out from Earth in all directions. Each ship is at the head of a line of worlds that it has settled. Every time it carries people to a new world it then goes into mothballs until a new expedition party comes along to take charge and head further off into the dark.
Nice background, I thought, but I didn’t want to write a series of “then we settled the next world” type novels. What could make this really interesting?
Well, say that the world at the end of one of the lines is barely habitable - the humans have only been there for a few decades and right now they are heavily dependent on terraforming supplies from further up the line. All pouring in through that wormhole. Which, one day, goes phut. The world is isolated … (A tip of the hat here to the backstory of Bujold’s Barrayar series.)
Only one thing for it: get into that ship and go back to the last world with a new wormhole terminus to re-establish contact. But that will take decades. What will happen back on the world they’ve come from in the meantime? And just how glad will the people on the destination world be to see them?
At this point we’re no longer really talking science fiction, just people: human beings with politics and motives, doing what humans do, which is generally to maximise their own interests, maybe or maybe not in the genuine belief that what maximises their interests maximises everyone’s. I wrote more about this in “How the SOE and Pinochet ended up in a space opera”.
To tell the two stories - what happens on the starship Phoenicia, what happens back home - I needed two protagonists. So make them brothers, why not? Yes, I’ve read Heinlein too.
Tell me more about this ship, you say. Well, even when I was writing His Majesty’s Starship nearly 20 years ago, even then I was instinctively shying away from the Trekian concept of a crew, on the ship’s bridge, staring at the stars on a screen. When I wrote the sequel The Xenocide Mission a couple of years later, I minimised the number of scenes in the ship’s control room. Even a modern ship of the floating variety barely needs the humans who swarm around it to get from A to B: it finds it handy to have carbon-based units with hands to do the fiddly stuff but other than that it can pretty well take care of things itself. And of course I’ve read Iain M. Banks. So, Phoenicia is its own crew: a consciousness embedded within the structure with an army of drones to do its will.
Again, I’m not the first here.
How do the humans get about onboard the ship? Freefall? Magical artificial gravity? Big centrifugal spinning thingy? Again, standard tropes. Well, the ships of His Majesty’s Starship had big spinning thingies and I would have quite liked to give it magical artificial gravity simply to distance this book from that one - maybe an artificial black hole or something like that. But then, if my heroes had access to that kind of technology - or rather, to the kind of energy that can fuel that kind of technology - then they wouldn’t be in the deep poo they find themselves in. So, big spinning thingy it was.
But for all of that, I found the story just wasn’t working, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. It took, literally, years - though I had other distractions to keep me away from it - but with good quantities of reader feedback and a lot of mulling over, two problems became apparent. One, I was trying hard to make it a series, so trying to force an ending onto it that did not logically flow from the story. And so, I went where the story was leading, writing it as a standalone, and that was a whole lot better. (And, guess what, I now have ideas for a naturally flowing sequel.) Two, the tale of two worlds at the far end of a line lightyears from Earth was just too removed. I can make myself interested in the problems of one made-up place that doesn’t exist, but two was one too many. If one of those worlds actually was Earth, however, then suddenly the whole thing became a lot more grounded in the reader’s (or at least my) experience and interest.
So, drop the idea of the multiple lines (well, not entirely; there’s always the possibility of sequels …) and have just two worlds. Earth, and its first colony.
Immediately the colony began to take shape in my head. I already knew it was stuck in the middle of a grim ice age: that’s part of the plot. Now I could also get a grip on its ethnicity. I firmly believe that the supremacy of the white western world here on Earth has had its say, and any believable future can only be multi-ethnic. Of course, both Earth and my colony world, La Nueva Temporada, have cultures that I have entirely made up, so I can’t be accused of cultural appropriation - but it helps to know where those cultures came from. Now I could settle my world, La Nueva Temporada, with the descendants of displaced Europeans, giving it plot-friendly social strata and hang-ups, while on Earth the dominant powers are African and Asian.
This also enabled the final bit of background detail that I think makes the book work: there are no other starships. Phoenicia was so big and expensive to build that it bankrupted the Earth-based dictatorship that built it (a tip of the hat to Allan Steele’s Coyote series here). The dictatorship is gone but the ship is still here - self-sustaining infrastructure, one of its kind. The industrial base needed to build something that size is gone and there won’t be another one like it.
So, one starship, two worlds and a cracking read, though I do say it myself.
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