How to Set Up an Intergalactic Empire Without Really Trying

How to Set Up an Intergalactic Empire Without Really Trying
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There are a bunch of great articles out there that will help you build your fantasy world from the ground up. The true world builder’s toolkit has a lot in common with a terraformer’s to-do list: crops, ocean currents, trade winds, rain shadow, best locations for cities. This is not one of those articles.

This is an article for the rest of us. We have day jobs, family duties, medical crises, chores, overtime. We’re stealing evenings and mornings around the edges, getting up at 4:00 a.m. and staying up past the last family member or roommate going to bed, because we have to tell this story. It would be nice if we got the rain shadow right, but what we really want is a place for our story to land. A world that works. A world that feels like the truth from a few true details, the same way your brain forms a person from a few sketched lines on paper.

And we’re spending all these hours at work. Why not use that material?

Building the machine

If you work for an organisation, this is a gift. A group of humans doing structured activity is an absolutely bizarre thing, and the more humans involved, the weirder this artificial organism gets. However far-future your evil space empire or mercenary fleet, they have to do pretty much the same things as your average corporation. They need a way to find new people, point them in the right direction, feed them, keep the peace between them, and fix it or hide it when they screw up. The emperor or shadowy steering committee needs diary management and briefings to tell them what to care about today and someone to style them for photoshoots.

Here’s the thing: the rebellion also needs this. If your society is populous, complex and technology-rich, every organisation from the protagonist’s school to their secret society needs to somehow do these things. If you can get hold of an org chart from any real-life group, this can be great inspiration. Consider things like:

  • HR: Who recruits the mercenaries? What training do they go through before you give them a gun? When your captain decks a lieutenant in the corridor over an insult to her mother, whose problem is that to solve?
  • Comms: The laser of public perception is inescapable even for the shadiest government or corporation. If you have a free press, you have a whole team of press officers spinning your actions in friendly or not-so-friendly arguments with journalists. If no free press, then you have a propaganda department! How is the public taking your latest escapade? How do you want them to take it? How does that affect what you do next?
  • Logistics: Logistics is a goldmine of world-building hooks. Not only do materials need to come in — by space and sea and road and rail — but you have people (other employees or, god forbid, customers) who need food and water and oxygen and sewage facilities. They need fire alarms and water cups and cleaning rotas even in the highest-security areas. What happens when any of that goes wrong?
  • Legal: Organisations can be powerful. But whether you have a rule of law or local tyrants, there’s usually someone who can throw a spanner in the works if their wrongdoing gets too blatant. The worldbuilding value of “law” is to set plot limits beyond which characters can’t act without consequences. What activity would sink your protagonists if it was discovered, or hamstring your villains if the protagonists could bring it to light? Which department is supposed to advise you on that, and are they already on your side, or are you wincing and pressing “decline” whenever they call?
  • Your own job: Sure, we’re mainly thinking about side characters and background worldbuilding here, but as Stephen King pointed out in On Writing, people inexplicably like reading about other people’s jobs. We want to know the trade secrets, the shortcuts and frustrations, the satisfaction of a delicate task done well. And no one knows that better than you.

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People and plots

That’s how things are supposed to work. Let’s look at how they actually work.

Job environments are a showcase of juicy things to add layers to your scenes: power plays, stupid decisions, smart decisions, conflicting personalities, and desperate attempts to half-arse things and go home on time. Cover, temp work, or job shadowing can be a short sharp immersion into some weird group dynamics, especially the teams who are so toxic they can’t keep permanent staff. (Incidentally, I don’t recommend putting your actual coworkers or specific projects in your book. If you decide to do it anyway, I can’t stop you, but hide it well.)

These interpersonal dramas, wild strategies, and projects gone wrong can not only help you create a believable protagonist group, but it can also dial back the villain’s evil plots from “cackling” to “plausible.” Diana Wynne Jones wrote the ultimate cast of CEO-level villains in Hexwood: they’re utterly horrible, but they never sit there and gloat. Their multiple board meetings are about getting something done (in this case, trying to kill an ancient sentient artefact that hates them). The fact every board member would happily see the others dead just adds colour.

Another example: a VIP wants to kill a project, but they’re not allowed to kill it outright. Sure, they could manipulate to put someone incompetent in charge of it, but they could also just…block the hiring process. Three failed recruitments can take the better part of a year. Everyone else is doing their damnedest, but without someone with the right authority, that project’s going nowhere. Now what if the project was an interplanetary treaty, the deadline is approaching, and this is the domino that leads to war?

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How things go wrong

The ship sank, the power plant blew up — someone, somewhere, has screwed up in a way that makes normal people lie awake at night sweating when they think about it. The strict definition of failure analysis is limited to machinery, but the broader and more interesting one includes the systems and people. Let’s take an example.

You work in a commercial spaceport. You clock into your maintenance shift one day when your buddy accidentally aims her blowtorch at the wrong fixture and starts a small fire. No biggie, you’ve had fires before. You duck out of the room so the sprinklers can deal with it. Then you realise something is very wrong. And boom. Disaster.

The sprinklers failed. The fire grew large enough to reach the chemical storage in the next room. Now you’re in the med bay with fractured ribs and–oops — a good part of the space station is on fire.

Let’s trace this back, from the point of view of a harassed station inspector: a sprinkler failed. Why did it fail? It was old and substandard. OK, but the spaceport bought it — why are we buying substandard parts? The spaceport’s finance officer was told to bring down that cost centre so we could afford new hull shielding, and he didn’t see anything wrong with cheaper sprinklers. Why didn’t the chief engineer stop him? The chief engineer hates the finance officer’s guts and they barely talk. Ah. Well, we have state-of-the-art monitoring systems, why did nobody notice the fire alarm? Oh, the person who was supposed to monitor it was sick that day. Why did no one cover her shift? Her manager couldn’t get into the janky old scheduling software which regularly locks everyone out, so they just assumed everyone was in. What about the chemicals in storage? Who decided to keep those next to the blowtorch room?

Now replace about half of those steps with deliberate enemy action.

You can take those plot hooks in lots of directions. You might be writing an intricate political story about corruption and sabotage. You might be writing a comedy of errors about the factory buddies. You might even be writing a fast-paced thriller where none of those details make it in, but you know how the fire started — shame about the protagonist’s brand-new spaceship. (The heist story, by the way, is this in reverse: you just figure out how your protagonists made all of this happen.)

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It only gets weirder

Humans in groups with goals are absurd, both in how they fail and how they succeed. But if there’s one thing you can say for sure about your far-future intergalactic federation: it’s unlikely to be less complex than the present day. To be human is to shape our own societies. Inspiration comes from all our experiences as humans. So why not look for it in the structures we know back to front?

And if you do find out where that bloody rain shadow is supposed to go, please let me know.

Everina Maxwell is the author of WINTER’S ORBIT, a queer romantic space opera. She can be found on Twitter at @av_stories.

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell is out today; you can order a copy here.