Rocket Man! Nick Bradbeer on Spaceship Design for Writers

Of all the people I’ve ever met, no-one is as qualified to talk about designing sci-fi spaceships as Nick Bradbeer. He’s a naval architect, a sci-fi geek, and a charismatic public speaker. So when he gave a talk on Space Design Considerations for Writers at Nine Worlds, it was bound to be good.

How History Shapes Our Writing

The reasons we imagine the world the way we do are always fascinating. Nick started out by delving into this territory, talking about the history of how authors have depicted spaceships.

Before the 1950s, space could be whatever the writer wanted it to be. No-one had been there and the reading public had few preconceptions about how space flight should work.

In the 1950s, writers started depicting spaceships in a style similar to airplanes. Rocketry was the hot new thing, jet planes were in the skies, it was natural to see this advanced new technology as the future of space. This led to the Star Wars style winged fighter ships, but also to some more realistic designs based on real rocketry.

Then came Star Trek and with it all the trappings of a navy. The bridge as command point. Crew structures based on those of warships. Bulkheads and metal beams.

It’s a model that’s continued to the present day because it’s familiar. It’s something we recognise from the real world and so can easily wrap our heads around.

But space isn’t really an ocean and that model isn’t inevitable.

Maturing Technology

To understand how technology will be shaped, we need to know who’s shaping it.  This was the next part of Nick’s talk.

Borrowing from the Rocketpunk Manifesto blog, he discussed how technology goes through four stages of maturity:

  1. Experimental – It’s unusual, sometimes unreliable, and almost no-one has it. Like space flight in the modern world.
  2. Government / megacorp – The technology is mature enough to be replicated and used, but so expensive that only the largest organisations in the world can have it. Like submarines or a weaponised Boris Johnson. (I’m kidding. We all know there’s nothing mature about Boris Johnson.)
  3. Commercial / rich – The technology is common but ownership of it isn’t widespread. It’s owned by large organisations and the rich. Like airliners, or maybe access to Boris Johnson. (Just because it’s costly doesn’t mean it’s worth having)
  4. Personal / ubiquitous – The technology is cheap enough to be widely available to individual people. Like smartphones or a platform from which to make cheap jokes about Boris Johnson.

Technology generally moves down this list as it matures. Look at how portable communication devices have gone from the toys of the wealthy to something most people rely upon in the western world. To understand how space travel fits into your setting, it’s important to think about where it is on this scale.

Design Fundamentals

The further down the tech scale something is, the more freedom people have in designing it. They aren’t just bound by function anymore. Aesthetics can play a larger part.

Which brings us to the fundamental factors to consider in ship and so spaceship design:

  1. Role – What is the spaceship meant to do? What features does it need to do that?
  2. Sizing – How big is this spaceship? How big does it need to be to fulfil its role? How much space do you have for all the people and gadgets you want?
  3. Layout – How do the parts fit together? What’s the most efficient way to do this? For example, should the stores be near the galley? Do you want ammunition easily accessible from the big damn gun on the front, or do you want it mostly stored further away to avoid destructive accidents?

Having taken that into account, you get into issues of structure. What is it built from? Is it a skin of some material over reinforced beams, like in real life ships and planes? Does that structure show?

And then there’s your near-inevitable faster than light drive. It’s the big damn lie powering any sci-fi spaceship. But hey, this is speculative fiction, you need a few of those lies.

The People Side

And then there’s the people side. As Nick said, “Technology miniaturises but people don’t.” People need somewhere to sleep, to eat, to work, to rest. They need to exercise. They need meals. They need air. They need to be protected from the heat created by engines and from the icy void of space.

Odds are, people and their needs will take up a lot of space on your ship. Are they given lots of space because it’s a luxurious cruise liner, or crammed in together in a dystopian manufacturing fleet? How does this affect the ship’s size and other requirements?

And something that wasn’t touched on in the talk, but that fascinates me – how does that affect the behaviour of those people? What dynamics arise depending on how a ship is laid out?

Questions About Space

This talk didn’t provide answers to the question “what should my spaceship be like?” Instead, it provided something far more valuable – a host of questions for writers to consider when designing their ships. It was a great talk with lots of food for thought.

Here’s hoping Nick can be persuaded to do one on airships next year.

A C Macklin on Narrative Techniques – a Nine Worlds Talk

One of my highlights from Nine Worlds was seeing my friend A C Macklin talk about narrative techniques. She did an excellent job of getting into the technical nitty gritty of things I’ve seldom even considered, but that are important in shaping a story.

You can read the slides and Macklin’s commentary on the talk here and I heartily recommend reading it. But here are a few things I picked out during the talk, useful points to consider as a writer.

Firstly, storytelling is about getting a particular reaction. You can get different reactions by varying:

  • narrative structure
  • level of emotional engagement
  • level of self-awareness
  • level of deceit.

Building an emotional bond between the narrator and the audience is important. People instinctively want to bond with other people and things, and this is a powerful tool.

Some types of narrator to consider:

  • Dramatized narrator – they’re deep in the action.
  • Reflector narrator – the sort who speculates on the perspectives of other characters instead of just showing their own.
  • Observer/frame narrator – someone entirely outside the story.
  • Self-conscious narrator – someone telling you the story with a reason or agenda.

Each of these will draw different emotional reactions from readers and give you different narrative tools.

Unreliable narrators should generally be reserved for when you want to feature a particular twist. They can be unreliable for a bunch of different reasons:

  • amnesiac
  • naive
  • misled
  • blinkered
  • delusional
  • in denial
  • speaking with an agenda
  • outright lying.

I never realised there were so many options for unreliability until this talk. Now I half want to invent a bunch of stories just to try them all.

And perhaps the most useful overall lesson I took from this – consider the balance between the audience’s bond with the narrator and the space they need to reflect on what’s happening. The bond is useful and powerful, but that doesn’t mean it should always dominate. It depends upon the sort of story you want to tell.

Nine Worlds, One Zombie Apocalypse

One of my favourite talks at this year’s Nine Worlds was Ric Crossman’s presentation on the mathematical modelling of a zombie apocalypse. It’s sadly not a talk I can do justice to. I’m not enough of a mathematician to coherently explain the models, and half the joy of the talk was Ric’s entertaining delivery. That said, here are three points I thought were worth sharing for zombie fans out there:

  1. If you get a chance to hear Ric’s talk, go to it. It’s very entertaining.
  2. If you’re interested in accurately modelling a zombie apocalypse (and who isn’t?) there’s a whole book on that out there. It turns out that quite a few serious statisticians are also the sort of geeks who like zombies (surprise surprise), and Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his name) edited a book of essays on the subject. If you’re researching for your planned book on the zombie apocalypse, or you like to be able to bring pedantic details to pop culture conversations, this is one for you.
  3. If human beings survive a zombie apocalypse, there’ll be two phases – one where things are changing and one where we reach an equilibrium, a balance between the zombies and humans that is self-sustaining. A stable place, if you will. So as a writer, you can focus on the period of collapse or the period of stability and rebuilding, or one after the other. But be aware, not all equilibriums are stable. In an unstable equilibrium, if something disrupts the equilibrium then that same balance can’t be achieved again. And how people cope with that, as they frantically try to restore something forever lost, could be a story in itself…

Representations of the City in SFF – a Nine Worlds Panel

I love cities. Maybe it’s a symptom of my suburban childhood, when the only way to find interesting things was to head into town. Maybe it comes from reading too much cyberpunk in my youth. Or a reaction against all that Tolkien. Who knows. But one thing’s for sure, if you put on a panel about cities at a sci-fi and fantasy convention, you’ll get my attention.

And the panel on cities in sf+f at Nine Worlds was well worth that attention.

A Mix of Perspectives

The best commentary usually comes from jamming together ideas from different fields. That’s why I love Idea Channel videos so much – where else would someone use jazz and Magic the Gathering to comment on each other?

This panel did a great job of creating that mix. The chair was Amy Butt, an architect. There were two authors, Verity Holloway and Al Robertson. And it was rounded out with Jared Shurin, an editor and reviewer whose work in marketing gave him some fascinating insights into how the environment shapes how we think.

I’m not going to try to reproduce everything these smart people said. But I made a lot of notes, so here are some highlights…

The Nature of Cities

The way that cities shape and are shaped by our behaviour was a recurring theme in the panel. Who is allowed to go where and under what circumstances? How do we move through space? How do we use it to negotiate power relations?

As Jared pointed out, just moving into a place changes our behaviour. Marketers use the effect of the environment on behaviour to sell us things. But as writers, there’s a lesson here in how character shifts with circumstances. Entering the city could make a huge difference to your character’s comfort and confidence. Moving around the city might transform who they are.

Al talked about how we get into habits. From a writer’s point of view, this means that characters won’t notice their surroundings until they’re shaken out of their familiar routine. But it goes beyond that. Amy mentioned Foucault’s concept of the panopticon*, of the awareness of observation changing our behaviour even when we aren’t actually being observed. For me, this was one of the most useful things to draw attention to. The expectation of being watched is unavoidable in a city. It shapes social norms and makes the city a hotbed for transforming human behaviour.

Both Victoria and Al talked about how we’re always being watched in cities. This can create a paranoia that’s great for horror or noir. There’s a paradox that moving to the city is a way to lose yourself, yet someone can always find you there. It’s a dichotomy of anonymity and observation that Jared highlighted and that I’m still caught by a week later.

Different Cities

The different experiences people can have of cities came up a few times.

In the early modern era, cities were a place you could go to reinvent yourself. Before modern record keeping, no-one could prove that you weren’t who you said you were. To some extent, reinvention is still a possibility, but in the age of the computer, your data trail now follows you. So a Victorian city has different meaning from a modern one.

Similarly, cities are different at night from during the day. There’s an invisible infrastructure there, people with secret lives that most of us don’t see but who ensure that you can buy McDonalds at 4am and wake up to clean streets.

At one point, the discussion highlighted a really interesting contrast in the way people approach cities. Victoria talked about Corbusier, who saw the city as a living thing to be perfected through design and who tried to do away with such useless elements as decorative art. In contrast, Al raised the interesting issue of how we deal with ruins and the old. Any city a writer creates should have remnants of the past. How they show will make a big difference to how a city feels.

Constructing Fictional Cities

After lots of fascinating talk about cities in general, the panel came around to talking about how they’re constructed in fiction. From a practical point of view, Al pointed out that mundane details are often the best way to make a city seem real, while Victoria highlighted the need to know the city’s past – what it used to be, what it wants to be, and what it doesn’t want people to remember.

There are limits to how real you can make a city. As Jared pointed out, reading a novel is an orderly, linear process, while living in a city is messy, confusing, and conditional. Few books will ever capture that feeling. You just get as close as you can.

But it was a comment from Victoria that, for me, really nailed down our relationship with cities: “Writing and art is a way of making something your own, especially if you don’t have control over it.” This is part of why we write cities, trying to bring them under control. But it’s also a feature of cities, something we can show in fiction. From political authorities throwing up statues to youths daubing a park with graffiti, art within cities is almost always, on some level, about that control of space. When we make art about cities, if we show the art of cities then we can humanise the struggle to live in and control them.

Cities shape us, but we also shape cities.




* This won her my undying favour. Foucault is my all time favourite philosopher, and not just because he was a cool French bald guy. His theories transformed the way I understand power and human interactions. He is, as they say, the man.

Philosophy and Final Fantasy at Nine Worlds

As I’ve mentioned here once or twice (or a bazillion times), I love conversations where philosophy and high culture tackle pop culture. Using geeky narratives to explore deep issues is my idea of fun. And I’m going to be doing it in public on the 4th of August on a panel at the Nine Worlds convention. If you’re going to be at Nine Worlds then please come hear me pontificate and other people share real wisdom. And if you’re not, hey, maybe next year.