Worldbuilding

Avoiding the Planet of Hats

Worldbuilding is a time-consuming process. There’s all of those governments to decide on, flora and fauna to develop, architecture to design… and when you have to do it for planet after planet in your spacefaring adventure, well, who has the time? Certainly not the writers of Star Trek: TOS, who often sent their protagonists to the Planet of Hats with a few broad strokes of the worldbuilding brush.

The Planet of the Hats is a world that is uniform. If it’s the culture that stands out, every individual will have a weakness for cold, hard, cash; or spend all day delicately manipulating political systems; or, well, wear the same sort of funny hats. Weather systems will be worldwide – creating ice planets or desert planets, but never one with both ice and deserts. There will be one world government, one intelligent alien species, and no factions.

It’s an understandable tactic, especially since Star Trek: TOS usually only had an hour time slot (minus commercials) to tell a story and get their point across: a lot of the places the crew visit are heavy-handed allegories first, and scifi settings second.

That was okay for the 60’s, but audiences today preference more realism and nuance. If you’d like to avoid that old-time science fiction feel, here are some tips.

Keep It Local

poth_featureimg2Your protagonists might be multi-worldly, but they’re still (probably) human-sized. They can only take in so much sensory input at once. Focus on the country or city that they decided to land in. Get specific about that area, and no other. You don’t need to flesh out the entire planet, just the section your protagonist and supporting characters interact with. After all, the United States is only about 2% of the planet’s mass. All of Europe is 6.7%. There are a LOT of unique areas to explore on your average planet.

In A Piece of the Action, Kirk and his crew visit Sigma Iotia II, home of an impressionable and inventive people. A hundred years before, a previous vessel conveniently left a book on the Chicago Mob of the 1920s behind, so now it’s the Chicago Mob World, complete with Tommy guns and weird slang.

After being captured, Spock and McCoy are discussing the state of the planet:

McCoy: One book on the gangs of Chicago did all this. It’s amazing.
Spock: They evidently seized upon that one book as the blueprint for an entire society.
McCoy: It’s the Bible.

From the way they’re speaking, you’re meant to assume that the entire planet is like this. However, it would be easy enough to keep it local, with one small change:

McCoy: One book on the gangs of Chicago did all this. It’s amazing.
Spock: They evidently seized upon that one book as the blueprint for an entire society.
McCoy: It’s the Bible.
Spock: I imagine they must completely confound their neighbors.

Do keep in mind that just because you’re keeping yourself in one small area of a planet, it doesn’t mean that your readers or players have to feel fenced in. You can still…

Give Them Glimpses of Other Places

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Let’s say the planet your protagonists are visiting is advanced enough to have a planet-wide communications network. That means you can easily give your readers a glimpse of another place without having to go into details. Think about how you hear about the world in your life. Marquees on buildings, tv screens in waiting rooms, news headlines on tablets, radios on buses, all of these are full of tidbits of information. Your readers are astute and will pick up allusions to other cultures easily. No need to spell things out, if it’s just for flavor. If your protagonists are based in space, they could pick up radio signals (or other, more advanced communications) from across the world, and patchwork them together into a partial pattern of information.

The TOS episode Friday’s Child is completely focused on the hair-trigger culture of the Capellans. There’s no indication that anyone other than the Capellans live on the planet.

Scott: How long were you stationed on the planet, Doctor?
McCoy: Only a few months. We found them totally uninterested in medical aid or hospitals. They believe only the strong should survive.

McCoy has dismissed the entire planet with one sentence. Apparently he spent his entire duty tour of this planet in one place, dealing with one group. The assumption we’re allowed to make throughout the episode is that this one group encompasses the entirety of the planet. Just make the explanation a little longer, and:

Scott: How long were you stationed on the planet, Doctor?
McCoy: Let’s see, a few weeks with the Aurigans, and then a couple of months with the Capellans. The Aurigans were grateful for the help, and pretty bright, too. The Capellans, on the other hand…
Scott: What about them?
McCoy: They were totally uninterested in medical aid or hospitals. They believe only the strong should survive. I didn’t have the time to convince them otherwise.

The focus is still on the Capellans, but there’s an acknowledgement of other cultures existing on the planet’s surface.

Glimpses, no matter how tantalizing they are, can’t show the whole story. And that’s good, because you also want to…

Leave Gaps

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No one knows everything. Allow your protagonists and NPCs to admit their ignorance about places that are less accessible. Depending on how expensive or technologically advanced cross-country messaging is, it might be difficult or slow to communicate with faraway places. Figure out how fast news travels across your setting, and that will tell you how much the average citizen knows.

Speaking of news – also known as gossip – you might want to consider how true or not-true the information a given character has. After all, “everyone knows” is often a terrible source of accurate information. This is a good way to move out of the realm of worldbuilding and into the realm of plot: when your protagonists or players come across an error in their knowledge, curiosity will itch at them until they correct it.

Leaving gaps can mean that you don’t have to know all the answers and spend all of your time meticulously planning everything out. It also gives you room to create new plot hooks for sequels and interconnected stories.

Since the Enterprise’s mission is, among other things, to explore strange new worlds, they use this method fairly well. In Patterns of Force, the Enterprise is on a mission to the M43 Alpha system to fill in a gap in the Federation’s knowledge – the location of a historian, John Gill. They quickly realize that the gap is larger than they had realized when the Enterprise is attacked by a missile from Ekos:

Chekov: Spacecraft approaching from inner planet.
Kirk: From Ekos?
Spock: Yes, but it must be a Zeon ship. Zeons do have a crude interplanetary capability. Reaction powered. A small rocket. It is on an intercept course. That would mean it has sophisticated detection devices which neither Zeon nor Ekos should have.
Kirk: Have you raised anyone, Lieutenant?
Uhura: Nothing, sir.
Spock: Captain, it’s an unmanned probe which seems to be carrying a warhead.
[…] McCoy: That’s generations ahead of where these people should be technically. How’d they manage that?
Kirk: Maybe they had help. Maximum orbit. Take us out of range of their detection range.
Spock: Most interesting. We were attacked by a thermonuclear missile from a planet which should have no such weapon.
[…] Spock: According to our records, the Ekosians are a primitive, warlike people in a state of anarchy. The other planet, Zeon, has a relatively high technology, and its people are peaceful.
Kirk: We’ve run into a far more serious problem than the disappearance of John Gill. Spock, you and I will beam down.

These inconsistencies drive the plot for the rest of the episode.

 

It’s easy to get sidetracked by little nooks and crannies in your universe, then rush the rest to meet deadlines. But if you keep the scope down to what you need for now, not only will it be easier to stay on target, but it will make your world more intriguing and real to your readers.

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