Late last night, I received something phenomenal – a starmap. Not just any starmap, though, but a map that shows every star within forty light years of Sol, all connected according to the FTL rules of the setting, specifically that the maximum travel range is 8.7 light years. (Where did I get that, you ask? Out of thin air, I say! I needed a limit, and that gave a reasonable number of stars within a single jump of Sol.) The map was provided by the amazing Winchell Chung, of Atomic Rockets fame, and he's given me a tool that is going to mean that a top priority of mine is going to be attained – accuracy. I want this to feel right, and getting the mapping spot on is a big part of that.
Playing around with the map today has been enormous fun; I now know what it would be like to be operating the big holo star-charts at Triplanetary Fleet Headquarters. I could almost see the fleets moving from star to star, could work out routes for expeditions, raids, key strategic points. Giving rules to this setting makes all that possible – if it was just 'go to wherever', then a big part of the reality of the universe is lost. As it is, I have 462 stars to play with. That should be enough for a good few books, I would have thought! This becomes a priority as I begin to work on the third book, which deals with a mission of exploration, which means I have another element to consider, what I believe to be the last big hurdle I have to jump over. Aliens.
The setting has had aliens in it since the first conception; in my personal opinion, they are synonymous with a science-fiction setting (there are exceptions, and good ones, but I like 'em). This does not mean pointed ears or strange facial appliances, it means actual aliens. From worlds not like ours, that have developed in a different way – but that still are understandable for the reader, that are still 'human' enough that their motivations and intent can be appreciated. If they are simply part of the scenery, then having them as 'unexplainable forces' is fine, actually rather interesting. If they are part of the story, then I feel that more is needed. Here comes the hard part, and here is where I hit the books, because right now I have a lot of ideas, but need to polish them into a usable form. The hard part.
Darn this map is good. Ultimately, battles are going to be fought on it, which means that the priority is working out where the strategic chokepoints are. I need to 'survey' them – look at the key systems where battles and wars might be fought in greater detail, start working out what – or who – might be there. It will save me a lot of time, but more than that – I need to make sure I get into the heads of the characters. If I, a 21st century author, can work out that star system 'X' is critical to the defence of the Triplanetary Confederation, then certainly they will know that as well! Which means that they will be priorities for exploration, colonisation, settlement – all of these are key. Of course, complicating it is that I know where the 'bad guys' are, but they don't have the benefit of that foreknowledge; they have to protect themselves from all manner of potential threats, from worlds as yet unreached by humanity. Certainly enough to make one think!
More than this – I can see the stars where worlds may exist suitable for human settlement. By this time, it's a safe bet that at least all the planets in nearby systems will have been charted, though moons and asteroids will be interesting surprises; but all the details on their content will be very difficult to detect at long range. Spot an Earth-like planet with the right sort of temperature and decent spectroscopy? Fine, we can do that. Spot the weird alien monsters that would eat the inhabitants of the colony ship we're sending off? Nope, that's more of a problem. In all seriousness, even by this time there is nothing that will beat putting ships into orbit, and ultimately boots on the ground – even if they are robotic boots being tele-operated. (Though realistically, a lot more would be automated...the human drama comes from those boots on the ground. A compromise is needed here, but humans are still extremely flexible, even if backed up by robotic support. Drones and rovers, really, are the key here.)
Got some reading to do, I think. If I'm going to be using drones a bit for the next few books, I should re-read 'Wired for War' and get around to reading 'Martian Summer'. Not to mention the books on aliens to read, though I at least have the planets for the systems I am visiting in book 3 pretty much worked out...and no, I'm not giving any spoilers! I don't know all the details myself yet – discovery writing is great that way!