World Building- Pam Uphoff

*This being late is not Pam’s fault.  She sent me the post on Monday.  This being late is because I need a minder.  I forgot when Friday happened.  No, I’m absolutely serious.  I thought yesterday was Thursday so Today was Saturday.  Until I woke up.  Anyway, we need to get Pam’s computer to talk to MGC so she’s not at the mercy of the ditz of SFF. (which is kind of the Wh*re of Mensa, but much more ditsy.*

World Building

Pam Uphoff


Stop the world and let me off.

I look around, read the news, or worse, entertainment, and I see too many of the wrong kind of strange people. And the ones in control are so far out of touch they’re getting scary.

Well, OK, the world can keep going, but by gum, I’m going to start the framework for an off world colony. All I need as few minor breakthroughs and some engineering, a pot load of money . . .

So. Here I am, a big fancy ass Science Fiction writer, not to mention the degree in Geology. Writing multi-dimensional pseudo-fantasies. I think I need to get my mind back into space. I need to explore the solar system, maybe invent a slow ship to alpha Centauri.

And while I’d love to do this for real, umm, real world constraints are, right now, an insurmountable barrier.

But I ought to at least be able to work this out on paper.

Join me for some fictional “World Building.”

So. The two big questions are Where and Who. Oh, and How. The three big questions are . . . Oh, shut up, I’m trying to be a little serious, here.

Where? Well, with even Mars looking like an, umm, _interesting_ chemical challenge, I think I’ll go with a completely artificial environment. Might start with a nice big asteroid, but it’ll need a whole bunch of work. And I might just move it somewhere else. The only question is, inside the solar system or outside?

No one has a working FTL, yet, and I’m too impatient to wait for a breakthrough that may never happen. So I’m going to plan to go slow, whatever direction I head off in. So I’m not going to want George Jetson’s snazzy little commuter vehicle. Well, maybe a dozen in the hanger, for short jaunts . . . No, I need something a whole lot bigger. Until the FTL breakthrough, I want a habitat, not a space going Winnebago.

So I’m going to start with a big hollow sphere. Or cylinder. Something with a big enough diameter that one doesn’t notice the stuff overhead. Rotating so the centripetal acceleration bears some resemblance to Earth’s gravity. We evolved in 1g, and I’m not going to fight a billion years of adaptations. I could build a sphere, and then weld anything from moon dust to small asteroids all over the exterior for radiation protection and to have a very large source of raw materials on hand at need. Or I could grab a nice big asteroid and hollow it out.

And all this mechanical equipment is all well and good, but when push comes to shove, I want plants. For oxygen, for food, for recycling organic wastes and water, and to feed the soul. So I need lights.

And that means I need a power source. A very reliable power source. In fact, I need redundant power sources. I need a nuclear power plant. I need solar. I need a Casimir generator. I need a long wire to drag through the magnetic fields in space. And anything else I can think of.

Now, much though I hate to admit it, I’d probably best start fairly close to home. While I’d like to think I could get it right the first time, well . . . maybe I ought to keep the option of slinking back home open. But the up side of deciding I can’t (immediately) get to the stars also means that I don’t need as much power as I had originally thought. I won’t have engines and I can use sunlight for the plants.

Oh, my, my! I just found a beauty of a destination! Or given the way it’s traveling, maybe I should say I’ve found my space ship habitat. Some assembly required.

1036 Ganymed. 32 km diameter, roughly spherical with a roughly smooth, homogenous surface. Drops in close to Earth’s orbit at perihelion, and crosses Mars’ orbit and into the asteroids at perihelion. Its period is 4.34 years, so it’ll be back close to Earth’s orbit every 52 months, and every third orbit, every 13 years, it’ll be there when the Earth is in the vicinity as well. The next close (sort of) approach will be in October of 2024.

I love it when reality cooperates. It’s indispensable in the real world, and quite helpful in fiction. Makes it sounds like you know what you are doing.

So in ten years I’ll need to send robotic miners out to rendezvous with Ganymed (Germanic spelling of Ganymede, to differentiate it from the moon of Jupiter.) I’ll have my mechanical minions dig out a series of large caverns and connecting tunnels. Maybe a docking port on one of the poles.

Let’s see. I’m going to have to break out the physics books for the formulae and calculate the centripetal force inside one of my caverns. It rotates every 10.314 hours, so depending on how close to the surface . . . Oh dear. Not much “gravity.” Once I get my mining done, I’ll have to spin up the whole thing. Let’s see . . . Oh my. (Rounding drastically!) If I want something in the vicinity of Earth normal apparent gravity in my near-surface caverns, that asteroid needs to rotate every four minutes.

That can’t be right . . . scribble, scribble . . . Ahem. Forty minutes. Been too long since I had to actually sit down and do Real Math more complicated than my checkbook. This is rather important in world building. Drastic rounding is one thing. Order of magnitude off . . . can really change things. Irritates the readers and makes one look like it’s time to turn the checkbook over to one’s spousal unit.

So, four and a third years of mining out the major living spaces, and now on the next pass, I’m ready to rendezvous with some important stuff. Starting with a large fabrication unit that can use the asteroid for its raw material. Note that I have not yet spun the asteroid up, so all the mined materials are sitting around on the surface to be used.

If I haven’t got a big enough fabricator, and in fact, even if I do, I will have brought a certain amount of stuff with me. Optical cables to take light from the surface of the asteroid to the “top” ( ie coreward side) of the caverns, for natural light. A big metal docking ring to stick on the tunnel entrance at the pole. This way, ships coming to dock will just have to spin at 1.5 revolutions per hour as they come in to dock.

I’ll need some internal safety doors, in case of emergencies and so forth.

Now, since I have been experimenting extensively in LEO with growing plants and balancing ecosystems, I’m sure I won’t have any trouble getting my gardens and orchards growing. Mainly because I really did experiment and toss what didn’t work, and improved what did. Tossed a few theories, too, which other scientists might want to think about before they totally destroy their credibility.

So, Ms. Hotshot SF Writer. You’ve done the easy part.

_Now_ you have to add _people_ to your world.

This is where the Real World and the Fictional World part ways. For me, “building” my world has taken a few hours. Peopling will take some serious work. In the Real World, the building is a near-insurmountable task. The people already exist. You just pick the ones you want, need, or are forced to take along.

Hmm. Forced . . . why? Fictionally? Your financial backer has inside information about . . . oh, an alien invasion? Solar Flare? Nuclear war? And he wants his totally ditzy twin daughters safe. Real World? PC. Must have racial/gender (all 16)/age balance or some such.

The fiction writer has to be (1) realistic and (2) extraordinary. Because for interesting fiction, the reader has to believe it, but you need to have a problem, and that will probably involve something going wrong. This could be some big snag during the construction. Or you could start your story with the completion of construction and the beginning of whatever use you are going to put your big asteroid base to.

My Ganymed base might work for a transfer mechanism from Earth to Mars or asteroid belt. It might work really well as a traveling hotel for asteroid miners and Martian scientists for years, or even decades. All it really needs is a dozen of so semi-permanent crew.

But maybe you’re not into hospitality, and just want a small mostly independent community. Keep up a bit of trade with Earth, rare metals from the asteroid belt in exchange for chocolate and coffee, perhaps.

Maybe it’s all a cover for a slow gradual departure from the solar system, never to return.

You need to pick your crews differently, for different circumstances. :: cough, cough :: that is to say, for plot purposes.

This is true of every story. Your characters need to make sense to the reader.

I have to explain the twin ditzes, if they’re aboard. And either resign myself to the possession of comedic relief, or they can grow out of it. And then I need to avert the disaster they’re here to avoid, using my cool asteroid ship. Remember? This is a story, it has to make sense.

The possibilities are nearly endless, though. Is this a slightly mobile platform for scientists who need to study the outer solar system close up? Or is there _something_ out there that they want to sneak up on with a slightly modified asteroid? Hmm, alien spy satellite? Natural wormhole? (Ooo! Lost In Space!)

Beats the heck out of the Real World.

In real life, the ditzy women become rock stars and get _worse_.

You can’t leave the destructive leaders behind. Hell, you’re lucky if you can get them voted out of office.

In real life, we have to keep our eyes open. Change what we can, adapt to what we can’t. Embrace the new technology that is changing the world under our feet. Use it to help ourselves, help our friends, our industry, our nations. Use it to make the forces of destruction unimportant. Unable to damage us and our culture.

In real life, we can educate our children with online resources and local expertise. We can publish books ourselves, and sell them though outlets of our choosing, or sell them ourselves. We are getting very close to practical, affordable, 3D print manufacturing in our homes. I think we’ll see more people becoming self employed. Contractors to companies that are mostly managers, picking up and dropping contract workers as needed for each specific project. We’re making and distributing our own music, our own movies. Don’t forget that people have to design the patterns for the 3D printers.

So we’re both becoming more independent (from government and the industrial style organization of work) and becoming more dependent (on our tech.)

Rather like my asteroid world. We’re free of the earth, and at the mercy of the working of our artificial ecology.

A rather irritating tradeoff, and one we need to keep an eye on. We need to be able to sustain the tech, no matter how squirrelly (or vicious) the governments of the world become. Guarding our tech base is suddenly getting even more important.

But I think the main thing this tech revolutions has done is break us out of the Big Industry mind set. We’re more open to the idea of opening a small business of our own, of contract work, of working from home. Oh, the old ways aren’t gone yet. And there will always be large things that need large companies to make them. But I think they’re going to be rarer, the economy much more mixed.

I think we’re standing on the shore of an incredible sea of potential. On Earth, in space, in our heads. Don’t turn your back on it.

We have a new world to build.



  1. *SIGH*

    Thank you for reminding me why I write more Fantasy than SF. I’m lazy. The plants are over there because that’s where they grew. The mountain is over there and it spews lava because I need something for my natives to make weapons from and someplace to send their captives to and obsidian mines work for both. The ocean is off to the west because that’s where I put it and the poles are cold because they’re poles. See? Easy.

    Even populating my fantasy world is easier. Yes, the MC is a walking contradiction. He’s a greedy mug who helps people when they’re down and contributes to charity while happily crushing the skulls of himself and his people with the same hammer he carves stone with and is a working nobody who is heir to the Clan Magnateship because he’s dwarf. Yup. Now it makes sense doesn’t it?

    As far as the real world, what can I say? The one thing we have in common with every single generation of humanity since the beginning of time is that we haven’t lived through what comes next. You can speculate. You can pontificate. You can even obsfuscate or complicate. The fun comes from trying to figure it out, but the one thing you can count on is that even when we’re right we’ll be wrong. Isn’t it great?

    1. The people I stand in awe of are the Alt History types. They have to get it right, instead of making it up on the fly.

      Yeah, my stuff involves a lot of handwavium (Genetic engineering enabling psychic powers, parallel worlds, Martian lizards, AI and so forth), but there are a few things you do have to get right, when you do a space travel sort of story.

      I’m convinced that most people come back to series to see what their friends are up to, so a setting the reader wants to believe in and characters they like is half the battle. It doesn’t have to make a *whole* lot of sense.

      1. Acutally, I’ve posted about this before, either here or on ATH. Most hist-fic or alt-hist isn’t very accurate at all. It’s more a depiction of what people think a time/place was like than a depiction of what a time/place was actually like. I took a Japanese history class in College where we read a thirty-page dissection of The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. It was brutal.

        1. That’s why I set my version on a colony world. I can run the alt-hist aspect without people fussing because I’m three years off on when the Hapsburgs began arming their household guard with flintlock firearms, say, or if I pick up a battle and move it 114 years later. I did a lot of background digging to get the basic flavor and patterns “right”, then the characters took over. Given the popularity of the seventeenth century at the moment, better safe than one-starred.

    2. Does this mean I can’t do a wulin fantasy in space colonies? Well, beyond anything one could say about my level of writing?

      1. Oh, right. All the trophies you’re collecting? You haven’t noticed the half trophies sit better back against the back wall of the shelf so you can fit the full trophies in front of them?

        OK, OK, be that way. I’ll be, like, the Valley Girl of SFF. Duh!

  2. One of my many hobby horses is the bursting speed of rotating space colonies. Per my copy of the machinery’s handbook, the important factors are rim speed, and the material and construction of the object.

    IIRC, for a given rotation, the gravity at a distance is essentially linear. So, if your living surface is a certain distance from the center of rotation, and you have however much thickness for radiation protection, you can easily calculate the effective gravity at the outside. If that creates more hoop stress than the habitat can handle, pop.

    Which is story material of its own.

    1. IIRC, it looks like there may be some non-trivial issues with getting a full 1 g with materials we can easily fabricate.

      1. See? I can do the physics, but engineering? Haven’t a clue how to calculate material strengths, especially in a natural body that is just about guaranteed to be non-homogenous.

        *But* clearly, my nano bots are crawling through the rock laying a trail of Fullerene Carbon tubes woven through the whole thing . . . Hmm, Ganymed’s an S-type, a stoney asteroid. May have to wait until it’s out in the Main Belt and grab a small type C for the carbon. And water. Very important stuff, that water.

        1. I think I was exposed to ways to calculate material strength. IIRC, at least some had issues with being much higher than the practical value. This is due to defects, which tend to weaken.

          IIRC, this is why stuff like whiskers and really tiny filaments are so strong. They are small enough that they can be made with few or no defects, or a defect causes them to fail entirely.

          I remember much more about measuring material properties, and looking up measurements in books. 🙂

          As for the engineering question…

          If engineering is figuring out how to do things well enough, we probably have to be able to do it in the first place.

      2. I don’t think so, unless we’re talking about truly huge structures. Tensile strength is typically higher than compression strength. If we’re positing the existence of the infrastructure to build the asteroid habitat, we should be able to produce enough carbon nanofiber or sapphire whisker to reinforce it.

        1. Okay, for a moment I read that as ‘sapphire whiskey’ and I thought you were really onto something new. Then I had to re-read it and realized my mistake. Sometimes I think I prefer the illusion.

        2. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of sapphire whisker before. It sounds wonderfully SF-ish. I had decided that my ancient civilization had built their structural stuff out of beryl.

        3. Pam, being the semi anal ex-engineering student that I am, I roughed out some figures for you., Assuming a 1 K shell left, and 17K radius, then leaving 20% for internal bracing, you would have. . . 1.343X 10^10 cubic feet of building material. (that’s 8.39X10^9 cubic miles of material) Just based on material removed, you could do well at selling the tailing, and incidental metals. 0.001% salable metals, means 1.34X10^8 cubic feet. =8-0 You could probably generate a shell, using the rock, to “roof” over the outside. Being a Geo type, you could imagine what could be done with rock, heat and variable weight for forming structures.

          1. I’d probably leave considerably better than 80% of the rock in place. I’m paranoid and want separated, sealable caverns, with the corridors between them the main living areas. Think about your average suburban mall. Think long corridors with shops and apartments, restaurants, small factories, professional services, and business offices. All brightly lit and decorated, landscaped. Periodically, a “crossroads” with four big fast-slide-down sealable doors, small escape airlocks to the side of each doorway. The cross corridors lead to caverns–agricultural, parklands, lakes, swamps, forests, whatever the citizens want. Probably a max of 2K people aboard.

            Now, at the poles, You can build outside, without the bother of the floor being “outward” as there’d be little “gravity” at all, Perhaps for warehouse cargo coming or going from the dock at the pole.

            With a smaller asteroid, or a constructed station, I might consider a shell for protection, but that would pretty much eliminate even slow maneuvering. You know, in case the Aliens attack and I decide that rendezvouing with Earth periodically is no longer a good idea.

        4. Take my statement as being stupidly conservative if you like. I’ve been known to be fairly ‘I will count it as feasible when it is in production and on the market’ for a *mumble*.

          If my memory is correct, my statement might be extremely specific to comparing the numbers for an Island Three cylinder to the book values for bursting speeds of flywheels. (These were mostly or entirely in ferrous materials.) IIRC, some factors cancel out, making for a fairly neat and tidy spreadsheet.

          The flywheel numbers can’t really be treated as valid for something that scale. I’ve very few ideas how to make even a flywheel out of significantly more advanced materials, much less money to experiment for the numbers.

          (You can check for yourself with the 27th ed. machinery’s handbook, and whatever numbers you can find for an Island Three.)

          Running some sort of composite with fibers aligned up with the hoop stress might have the strength. I’d worry then about the radiation and the microasteroid impacts. Absent additional shielding, I expect that might limit the lifespan of the colony.

          If the additional shielding rotates with the living shell, it depends on how thick compared to the how far the living surface is to the center of rotation. If your outer radius is four times the ‘inner’ 1 g living radius, you have something like 4 g there, IIRC.

          I’m wondering about shielding that doesn’t rotate with the ‘living shell’.

          Maybe I’m wrong.

          All I really know, is that Island Three’s six part cross section raises concerns for me.

          I really like the failure mode, so I’m intending to include it in even the story where the structural strength and protection are explicitly magic.

      3. We can build a suspension bridge over a river that supports hundreds of thousands of tons in a 1 g field, Why can we not build a wheel where the outer rim simulates an apparent gravity of 70%-80% earth normal?

        1. When I was world building one setting, I decided that I’d grant them the materials tech to build an Island Three cylinder, but that some of them would have issues preventing them from being safely spun up to a full g.

    2. Oooh. Now I know who to contact if I ever need to talk about orbiting habitats in detail.

  3. Right now I’m writing something set in a world like 16th century Europe. Lots of familiar names, but some can’t be used because of their association with Christianity (which doesn’t exist in this world, though there’s something similar filling the same niche). So I have to be careful which real world names to import, and which to avoid.

    1. Yeah, that another problem for writers. Names have historical contexts and cultural roots. But if you make up all the names, it gets confusing for the readers.

      1. Their religion didn’t come from their Middle East, it came from their Rome. So I could have a name like “Mark” (from Marcus), but probably not “Mary” (from Miriam).

  4. Stop the world and let me off.

    You know, Broom Hilda said that one time, and the world came to a screeching halt, and a ladder came down out of the clouds…

  5. I don’t know if it was Niven or Pournelle who suggested it, but there was an idea about creating an asteroid habitat that involved a “tunnel” of water through the asteroid (long ways), spinning the asteroid with the water tunnel as the “axis” and using solar mirrors to melt the asteroid.

    When the tunnel got hot enough to become steam, the steam inflated the asteroid like a balloon.

    Then you allow the asteroid to cool and you have a potential habitat ready to make livable.

    Don’t know if it would be possible in reality but it sounds interesting. [Smile]

      1. From other discussions on the ‘net, the trick is to heat the whole thing, through and through, up to a narrow range of temperatures where it is very . . . is ductile the word? Malleable? But not melted. And probably you’d need something fairly homogenous.

      2. It sounds a little bit like what Ringo used for his Troy books all the way to the solar mirrors, which specifically said it was from science fiction, I think.

  6. There is a reason why people rotate cylinders in space to create gravity and not spheres. The only place you could have a full gravity in a sphere is at the equator — while you’d be at zero gravity at the poles. This would create a huge force twisting the body, and at best would be a long-tern deformational force. The forces would be much less in a cylinder. Of course, I’m a retired hardware geek, and probably know less about physics than a geologist.

  7. The barriers to space are economical and political. If you can accelerate a slow ship above nine tenths ‘c’ time dilation becomes significant.

    Reaction mass can then be anything you can ionize and contain within a electromagnetic field, and accelerate with an electromotive force.

    But the magic of SciFi is you can skip the technobabble by using a Jedi Hand Wave and the Force. When you write about riding the subway, or a bus or flying in an aircraft you don’t have to explain how the technology works, you just swipe your credit card and collect up your boarding pass and take a seat

  8. skandiarecluse, you’re right about most people having no idea how many things actually work. What makes SF work, is having a possibly plausible technology. No one “buys” an Anti gravity flight system based on an automobile engine, for power. But, say it’s Nuclear.Fission powered, and it’s possible. Unlikely, but possible. 🙂
    Having seen Atoms go from electrons, protons and neutrons, to quarks, Bosons, etc., I’m not prepared to say some “hand wavium” is impossible. Einstein built on, and expanded Newtonian physics, and space. Somewhere (now, or future), there is a person/creature getting ready to do that with Einsteinian space/time.theory.

  9. I remember seeing the numbers on Niven’s Confinement asteroid and thinking they sounded a bit optimistic. I actually sat down and did some math on the thing, and IIRC it ended up with a wall thickness of one or two meters. Rather tricky for a heat it up and inflate (uncontrolled!) with steam manufacturing process. Not enough for a breathable pure-oxygen atmosphere with no spin on it at all. Even with pretty high strength steel. The strength/weight ratio of the material being used caps the size pretty hard. A uniform cross-section bar, hung from the top should (I might be wrong, here) be the equivalent of a hoop of the same circumference spun up to the same sorta-gravity on the surface. 4340 steel has a yield strength of 125,000 psi, allowing just under 7.9 miles circumference with it being barely self-supporting. Add any weight or atmosphere inside and the size is going to have to go down to support the extra load. So the whole “Drill a hole through a metallic asteroid and blow it up like a balloon” technique really can’t go beyond 2-1/2 miles diameter in the best of cases. A bunch of small-diameter tubes should be workable. And would have the advantage of being already subdivided into separate pressure vessels.

  10. If anyone interested in world building hasn’t already found it yet, I highly recommend World Building by Stephen Gillett. It has lots of information about the types of stars, habitat zones, atmospheres and oceans are needed to create habitable worlds. It only has a little bit of math.

    I’ve been working on trying to design a miniature solar system as a settings where relatively modest conventional rockets can get between worlds in hours or days instead of months and years. I would appreciate any comments or thoughts.

  11. Ditzy twins, clearly one is expendable. Have the two out on the surface in suits, being ditzy, and have one get absolutely, horribly spluched, preferably at the fault of the other. Have her emerge from her grief determined to NOT be a ditz any longer.

  12. May I suggest NOT rotating the entire mass of your asteroid. Instead, use some 19th century technology: railroading. Carve a toroidal tunnel and put rails and linear induction motors in the track. The geometry matches the “wheel in space” of olde fashioned space stations. And the trains run about 70mph. Transferring on-off at speed is doable, but annoying. Easier to periodically start-stop your ring-rail system. I proposed this idea on this site a year ago and Martin talked me into writing an SF story around the concept. Only real difficulty is the tunnel boring machine. but you’ll need one of those for mining anyhow.

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