Writing Talk: Interplanetary Civilizations (Case Study: the Galactic Alliance) Part 1

Recently, a set of blog posts over at Planetary Defense Command was brought to my attention, and before I knew it I’d read all four parts. The posts in questions, the first of which is linked here (and each part has a link to the next in the series) discusses a very interesting sci-fi related topic, namely, the Galactic Empire (and interplanetary civilizations in general) as a concept.

I felt like talking about them in relation to my own approach to the topic, and as it happens, I believe I can combine talking about this series of interesting posts along with a bit about the setting of my debut novel, A Greater Duty, which will be released, G-d willing, in late March. (Just as a note, there will not be any spoilers for events in the book here, as that’d be silly of me, and not all of the background info given here will be in the book itself, due to the nature of the story. See the concept of worldbuilding as an iceberg, where only the tip is seen in the book, with the rest beneath. Here’s a lecture by Brandon Sanderson on worldbuilding, which I regret I haven’t listened to in full, but I’ve heard the short form of it from him in the past. The whole series of videos of his writing classes are worth checking out, especially for newer writers.)

First, let’s discuss the first part of the series, which focus on the nature of the galactic setting, and the,  I suppose, practical implications of it–which were what first piqued my interest, they are things I did think about, at least to a degree, when crafting my own setting. First, he discusses the actual size of a galaxy, and the implications of that. According to at least some scientific estimates, our galaxy has anywhere from 100 billion to 400 billion stars, 1.2% of which might have habitable planets, though three quarters of those would be tidally locked, making them not ideal for most forms of life. However, because in sci-fi life doesn’t need to fit within the strict scientific parameters any researchers are judging this by, we’re looking at a good few hundred million potentially habitable planets.

From the perspective of a writer who wants to set a story in a galactic setting, this poses an obvious problem. Such a setting cannot be done justice in a book, or even in a franchise. As an example, take the Star Wars galaxy. According to (now non-canon) sources, specifically a “galactic atlas”, that galaxy does have 400 billion stars, 180 billion star systems, and between 5 and 20 million sentient species. However, had a reader been told this in a piece of fiction, it’d either be meaningless or a lie. The simple fact is, we can’t create that many worlds, that many species, and we can’t tell a story, series, or even multiple series in such a setting that would justify the insane amount of time it’d take to create something like that. Even with all the contributors to the old Star Wars Expanded Universe (now Legends), there weren’t more than a couple hundred named intelligent species in total, and several hundred names worlds, despite statements in stories listing the Empire or other galactic governments of controlling millions of worlds–which, according to the largest available numbers, would only be a fraction of the galaxy. Some Galactic Empire. Planetary Defense Command also draws on real-world empires, and what percentage of the world they controlled, and compares that to hypothetical galactic empires, and what angles could be taken, story-wise.

As I said before, I did take into account the real size and scope of galaxies when creating my galaxy, but for me, the needs of the story take precedence over scientific accuracy–especially for a character and plot focused story like mine. I’m not writing hard sci-fi, after all. And, as a side-note, since this is sci-fi, one can always craft a reason why a particular galaxy might have fewer habitable planets and species than the real mathematical studies might imply, such as some past cataclysm, or some other form of outside influence.

As such, I chose to do two things, at least for the first book in the series, A Greater Duty. First, I elected to set the story, for now, at least, only in a portion of this galaxy. Enter, the Galactic Alliance.

Now, you may already be asking, “didn’t he just say the story only takes place in a portion of the galaxy? So what’s this Galactic Alliance business then?” There are several parts to that answer, but the most relevant one is that the name of this interstellar alliance itself tells you a bit about the nature and attitude of this civilization. It is very comfortable, secure, and yes, full of itself–something which plays a role in the background of one of the main conflicts.

To be more specific, the Galactic Alliance controls somewhere around one third of this spiral galaxy, branching out from a number of core systems in a contiguous area, with defined borders. The Galactic Alliance is made up of 27 systems, with a total of 69 inhabited planets. Additionally, there are a pair of systems in this space that are not members of the Alliance for SPOILER reasons, so in total there are 75 inhabited worlds in 29 systems with space-faring peoples on it, and a total of 13 intelligent species (along with 3 that are not part of the Alliance). I went with this size because it worked well with the story, was large enough to be a satisfyingly full setting, but at the same time small enough as to be manageable enough for story purposes, and I hope to be able, over time, to give as much of this setting I’ve created proper attention throughout the series.

While this is the extent of the setting for A Greater Duty, the scope will later expand to most, if not all of the galaxy down the line. For now, though, there is one other defined civilization, known as the Revittan Empire, which’ll be a fairly proper interstellar empire. One day I may do a similar post on it, once I’ve fleshed it out more and the story reaches that point, but not for quite some time. It’s only important here to give a sense of the size and scope of what I’ve built. At the time of the story, they have a very tense truce with the Alliance, somewhat akin to the Federation and the Romulans in classic Star Trek. each civilization is aware that the other exists, but have little desire to get to know the other, and a neutral zone has been established between them that none crosses–if it is crossed, it’d be considered an act of war. Thus, I get to focus on something smaller for now, while not disregarding the rest of the galactic setting.

Which leaves us with just our friends the Galactic Alliance to focus on, and we will continue to do so in part 2, where I’ll take a look at some (maybe all) of the other parts of Planetary Defense Command’s post, in addition to elaborating more on my own creation.

So until next time (hopefully not long from now), keep on reading, writing, and check out Planetary Defense Command’s website, which has lots of great content.

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