Telling Stories in a Big Galaxy

Some worldbuilding and character notes from a fiction project.

 So, earlier today I posted a short story on my Patreon, with a working title of "Bluffing on a Strong Hand". I think the title's going to change, it's very much a draft story (though a good draft), especially since I conceived of it as part of something bigger.

I'm participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year by simply trying to write more, with writing a novel as sort of a backdoor goal. My main goal is to write more. One of my avenues for approaching that is to try to write a series of connected stories involving a character and a setting I have spent about a year thinking about, off and on. It might wind up being a book. Who knows? I'm excited.

I'd like to talk a bit about the setting for the story, which I'm calling the Big Galaxy in my head. The line "It's a big galaxy" is one that crops up in a lot of my drafts, and helps explain a lot of the world building choices.

The Big Galaxy is a fictionalized version of our galaxy, the Milky Way, which I'm well aware isn't necessarily large as galaxies go. Of the two galaxies that first spring to mind when I try to think of galaxies, it's the smaller one by far, and yet it is unfathomably vast to human reckoning. "A hundred thousand lightyears side-to-side," as Eric Idle once sang, and that's only a one dimensional measurement. 

If we assume an optimistic future for humanity where we survive what we're doing to our world and move off it, with faster-than-light travel and transport and the technology to live anywhere in the galaxy... what would that "world" look like? Isaac Asimov's vision of a rise and fall of a galactic empire (chronicled throughout his Robots, Empire, and Foundation books) was, in my opinion, one of the better attempts to deal with the sheer scope and scale of a galactic human race, but even it fell short.

My starting point is to look at life on earth in a world with seven billion people, unevenly distributed rapid transit, and nearly instantaneous communications, including mass communications, and then try to imagine that becoming bigger and more complex.

Human beings living in the Big Galaxy have strings of numbers, usually between three and five digits long, after their names. Like Jean Valjean 24601 or Beverly Hills 90210. These numbers are part of their legal name, though they're not often referred to in day-to-day conversations, but almost always included in interstellar communications. I don't have a fixed name for them yet, but they're not "version numbers" for clones or counting how many people have that name. In a world in which there might be a million earths and even more small outposts and installations and people who have just made their lives and their living endlessly plying the void in between, there could be millions of people with the same exact name.

The numbers are a kind of administrative grouping that are mostly assigned at the family level, but that's family as "core unit" and not "ancestral lineage". If you're part of the family Cleopatra 2525 and you pick up your life and move to a different cluster of space, you create a new fork and are given a new number. Records and messages addressed to you at your old designation are auto-updated/forwarded. But other generations of Cleopatra 2525 who stay in the same system keep the same number.

It's a bit like zip codes or area codes for people, and while it's possible to glean some location information from it, it's not always accurate. The system is more something that people opt into for convenience than something imposed by a central government for tracking, though much like social security numbers in the US, it can be hard to do business without them, whatever the original intent was.

One character in the story effectively drops his identifier when he decides to set his addressing as "The Outlaw ____ _____", knowing no one else is going to be addressed that way. But he's not rebelling against the numbers specifically.

The lack of a central authority imposing the numbers is part of a general lack of a central authority. Sovereign statehood basically doesn't work on levels bigger than a single star system, though the most powerful ones frequently have protectorates. Interstellar traffic and commerce is mostly policed by consent, with the understanding that it would be hard to have any without some rules. 

The vast majority of humanity in the Big Galaxy, just like today, is born on a planet and will live their whole lives on that planet and die on a planet. When they watch the news, it's news about or relevant to their planet (and satellites/nearby planets it controls). When they read history books, it's the history of their world, with stuff about earth treated as the ancient history of their world in a "how we got here" sense and only galactic events that affected their world mentioned. There's no general study of galactic history or galactic politics as more of an overview because it's too big a subject. It's a big galaxy.

The Galactic Council for Peace (Galpax) is like the United Nations and Chamber of Commerce FOR SPACE! and they have the largest and most powerful fleet, to the point that it would take a hundred worlds' fleets united to defeat them... but there are thousands of fleets large enough to pick from, in making up that hundred. 

So they mostly answer distress calls and mediate disputes. Because participation in the Galpax is voluntary, they mostly broker deals. Ina  galaxy this size, that often means making a chain of deals among multiple worlds who all want and need different things. The Galpax uses a system that reduces petitions and complaints and distress calls to series of abstract symbols, which are then fed into matrices that look a lot like a gem-matching game, which allows them to distribute the work of finding matches among the interests of the various worlds to bored students and office workers throughout the galaxy. 

The system automates as much as possible, and trained diplomats and experts audit a fraction of the results, but if, for instance, one planet demands recompense for a food shipment damaged through the perceived negligence of another planet, the Galpax system may deliver the results after having matched something the offending planet needs with something someone else has and arranging them to get it in exchange for voluntarily paying the fine. It's basically constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

Outside of sovereign space, broad "international law/law of the sea" style agreements are mostly tended to because no one's strong enough to stand against everyone, should anyone rile up all their neighbors at once. Ships are considered to be the soil of whatever state/world they're registered to, which doesn't necessarily mean it's the same as being on that world because most worlds pass specific laws for ships in interstellar space.

No world has authority to police another world's ships, but for things like piracy the offenders are rejecting the law of every world and thus have no protection of flag. A ship that isn't registered to a world (which includes "flying the flag" of one that rejects the Galpax completely) is considered to be "estrastellar", and there are whole extrastellar communities of pirates and libertarians and the like who reject the Galpax. When found, they are either shunned or crushed, depending on if they seem to be a threat, (and unless the world that found them considers them useful), but... it's a big galaxy.

For interstellar legal disputes (meaning one involving more than one "flag world" of the Galpax), most enforcement action is handed by Space Hunters, licensed bounty hunters and de facto marshals who are regulated by the Galpax and receive many orders from them but are but not controlled by them. The nuance is a fine point but one which allows them to operate without the many separate sovereign systems feeling like the Galpax or anyone else has too much of a say in things. Like bondsmen in the United States, the Space Hunters are able to operate in many legal gray areas, including having latitude to effectively break the law in pursuit of their targets. 

But, again, nuance: a Space Hunter can't order a ship carrying their target to halt, can't force it to submit to a search, etc. The ship's security forces can't arrest them for trespass or whatnot, but how much cooperation either side gives the other when there is a conflict of interest will vary with the politics of the situation.

Travel between star systems takes place in two main ways: Slow FTL and Fast FTL. 

Slow FTL involves creating a rippling energy field that briefly compresses space ahead of the ship as it moves into it, making the distance shorter... a quick-and-dirty SFnal version of a technology that has been investigated in real life. It allows travel at speeds approaching or exceeding the speed of light. Doing it below light speed is called slowcrawling, and is used for traveling within a star system, where it makes travel time take hours where it might otherwise take days or weeks. Outside star systems, it can exceed the speed of light, and is called lightcrawling.

Fast FTL is also called warping, and involves traveling through folds in space, deformations created by gravity. Where crawling involves creating wrinkles in space-time ahead of you, warping is like imagining space is a very crinkly map that has been balled up and shoved in a pocket, and you can move faster by following the wrinkles or jumping from one point on the map to another that is touching it. Not all of the wrinkles are navigable, and you have to follow where they join with other wrinkles, so it's not a simple matter of pointing your ship in the right direction and going to warp... you're either exploring in a completely random direction or following a well-known and well-marked path others have explored before.

Knowledge of warp routes is crucial because you can't just enter or exit the wrinkly spaces at will and a ship that runs out of power without an exit is in a bad place. No one knows all the warp routes (it's a big galaxy!) and they complicate the "geopolitics" of the galaxy because they mean that two worlds that are not at all near each other in linear three dimensional space may be next door neighbors for trade purposes, and some world you've never heard about might have a backdoor into the vicinity of your world.

The natural on-ramps and off-ramps all occur "near" large, dense masses in space, but the sweet spot at which you can move from one state of transit to the other is not actually that close in human terms, so you can't enter or exit warp in what we would recognize as being inside the bounds of a star system, so it's not a question of having a ship that is a warper vs. a crawler... not every ship can warp, but any ship that warps can also crawl.

So, again, the point of the Big Galaxy as a setting is that it is huge. There is no point in the distributed empire of humanity that you couldn't get to in weeks if you had the resources (or much less than that if you personally had the resources to not need to find ships already going where you need to go to make all the hops you need to get there), and yet even with genetic modifications and futuristic medical technology that allows for a lifespan of centuries, nobody could ever see all of it, or even one percent of it. 

A person might be famous in their system and famous within a bunch of overlapping networks throughout the galaxy, but no one is universally known. A Space Hunter like the main character X-37 (her name doesn't fit the pattern because like the aforementioned The Outlaw, there's no other X-37s in the galaxy) will deal with the same people most of the time when communicating with the Galpax because they're part of a network of people who include her, but that doesn't mean she's physically close to them, and if she "calls through the main switchboard" she could get a different person every time even if she did so every hour of every day.

It's like how on a social media network like Twitter, you might see the same people and the same memes and the same discourse and the same new stories all the time, and everybody you know seems to be seeing the same thing... but then you start talking to somebody new and realize that even though they're on Twitter, they don't get your references, and what, have they been living under a rock?

Right now worlds also have a number suffix, though I might change them to alphanumeric just to make it clear that they're not the same set of number designations people use. It's just that if at some point in the past a lot of people thought "Palm Springs" was a good name for a vacation destination, there might be 10,000 beach vacation planets called Palm Springs now, and you need to be able to be clear which one you mean.

When I say "beach vacation planets", I don't mean a planetary monoclimate… not Tatooine but with oceans. Another feature of the Big Galaxy is that while there are a million earths, there's exponentially more worlds that are mostly empty outside of space port cities that service as a hub for industrial installations, tourist spots, etc. It's a big galaxy! Full of planets. When the economy favors expansion, people go out and claim some of them. Any of those nearly empty habitable worlds may grow to be a fully inhabited world in time, but there's no rush.

All the numbers I'm using here are arbitrarily large, by the way. There's probably not literally a million worlds with rounds-up-to-ten-billion people on them. 

I haven't really explored much with the concept of sapient alien life in this galaxy yet, though I'm going with the assumption that "Goldilocks planets" (not too hot, not too cold, not too big, not too small, etc.) are rare, and most worlds with life are something like the oceans of Europa and most inhabited worlds are ones that weren't necessarily hospitable to anything but extremophiles before terraforming.

So there are, for instance, floating squid-like intelligences that dwell in certain "temperate" (for them) layers of gas giants and whom don't compete with humanity, and with whom communication is kind of murky because of a lack of common reference points.

I have a vague idea for an interstellar community outside the human Galpax that consists of species who are slightly bemused that humanity left their planet behind and immediately started recreating it, whereas the Spacefarers (as a placeholder name) made it to space and now they live in space and find the idea of moving into a planet a bit like taking a step backwards.

And even with humans having spread from one end of the galaxy to the others, there could be entire civilizations of aliens that have yet to be contacted or encountered in any way. It's a big galaxy!

But within the family of humanity, there has been genetic modification that in some cases approaches speciation, as a mixture of generally pursuing augmentation along different lines and the simple fact that it can be cheaper to modify humans to live in an environment than to completely overhaul the environment. So a space port cantina might look like something out of Star Wars or Star Trek, while still not holding anyone who doesn't have a human genome at their core. 

X-37 is a BMO, a biomimetic organism. Biomimetics in this context is a subset of genetics that involves trying to create lifeforms from scratch, reproducing an existing phenotype (lifeform) from a completely purpose-built genotype. Like, you look at a chicken and you say, "What are the characteristics of this that make it useful?" and you design an organism with genes that will cause it to grow into something recognizable as a chicken. A designer chicken, which can then be tweaked more easily for your purposes because its genetic code is considerably simpler than an actual chicken, which was assembled by accident over billions of years, with a detour through being a tyranosaurus.

Most BMOs incorporate some genetic material from the "target" creature, if not a literal organic sample then genes manufactured from the same plan, but the purpose of the X series experiment was to make something that would appear human and could function as human, starting entirely from scratch, not even using the same genetic encoding as terrestrial DNA in order to make it biologically incompatible for purposes of things like infection. It was an experiment done by a consortium of factions from different worlds with an eye towards various applications (military, industrial) that would benefit from having "non-human humans", and as X herself often says, it was a terrible experiment. People often mistake this as her criticizing it on moral grounds, but she means scientifically. Because basically every faction with any pull, upon learning of this blackbook operation, decided to try to steer it towards their own purpose or take advantage of all the shiny new tabula rasae to perform their own side experiments on evolution, cognitive development, psychology, etc.

I don't want to spoil every aspect of the backstory here, but effectively they created sapient, human-shaped beings who have several baseline physical and cognitive enhancements over humanity, and also the ability to consciously alter their own genetic code (a slow process, not like "grow fangs because someone has you in a headlock"), and were raised/educated as part of multiple conflicting psychological and sociological  experiments without any kind of ethical oversight, and also just plain have different brain structures inside their actual skulls.

Some of them wound up becoming, for lack of a better term, monsters, and escaped the laboratory.

X-37 was dubbed the most "successful" one of the series, in terms of her physical and mental abilities and her ability/willingness to interact with humanity, and so when the project was scrubbed and the prevailing opinion was that the remaining subjects should be "recycled", she was approached by the Galpax (who had swooped in when things went to hell, as the whole thing happened in interstellar space) with a deal where she would be freed and given all the legal rights of a human being in exchange for hunting down the escapees.

She refused the deal and offered a counterdeal where all sapient BMOs, including but not limited to the members of the X line, would be recognized as persons, which under the law was the basis for rights (the law refers to "persons" and "people", not humans), and she would hunt down both the escapees and any other ones who were then criminals in the eyes of the law, because they were criminals, not because they were escaped laboratory experiments.

This was not something her creators/handlers had counted on because they had been very careful to *not* replicate the parts of the brain recognized as responsible for empathy and altruism. As she explains it, it's still self-interest: as a special case, she has little protection from the powers-that-be turning on her, and no use once her escaped siblings have been brought down. Establishing legally that a "homosapient" BMO is a person the same as homo sapiens makes her one of a class of people guaranteed rights rather than conferring a special status on her, which is harder to revoke, and also creates an ongoing potential need for her abilities.

The points she raised about the future were probably the biggest things that swung the decision in her favor, as in a big galaxy, what one shady consortium did once would doubtlessly happen again and again and making it illegal to create faux-humans would be trickier to legislate and enforce compared to a memorandum clarifying the meaning of "person" that made the worst of such experiments illegal and many of the ones that remained unprofitable. 

This makes her a folk hero to BMOs and other artificial persons (her coup bolstered existing rights movement for androids and AIs, who had achieved piecemeal workings of rights before she effectively changed the standard from "human rights" to "personal rights") but also sometimes a feared figure because she's the designated Galpaxian angel of death when one of them is seen to step out of line..

But it's a big galaxy, so she's not exactly recognized by humans everywhere she goes. On a world the size of earth, the incident that resulted in redefining the concept of human rights so completely would have made the history textbooks, but there's too much history made every day in the galaxy for that to merit a footnote on most worlds. 

There are over a hundred other Xs living their lives in the galaxy, some of them quietly assimilated among humans and some of whom have basically founded their own species (they weren't supposed to be able to reproduce, but they were also given the ability to rewrite their own genetic code, so life, uh, finds a way). By many measures they are the most advanced genetically engineered organisms in the setting, allowing them to serve a sort of "gods and monsters" role. 

Not all of the escapees have been brought in or taken down at the "present time" in the story. The most violently destructive ones have, because they were easy to find, but some of them took a more subtle approach to things. The mastermind of the escape, X-73, is still at large, and he was known for having changed his face and appearance completely multiple times in a relatively short span during the experiment, so no one knows his current appearance.

The story sequence I'm working on now is not so much about the X series backstory or the hunt for X-73 or the politics of personhood, but more about X-37's life as a Space Hunter - while she's obligated to use her talents on behalf of the Galpax in the area of "parahuman" law enforcement (as opposed to transhuman, posthuman, or metahuman, all of which have defined meanings in this setting), there's not enough demand for that to fill her time and they don't actually pay her, but the same skills and traits she uses for that serve her well as a hunter, and the legal status is also useful for when she has to hunt a rogue parahuman.

So that's the gist of the setting and the main character. I've got one draft story posted and some others in progress. You can follow my Patreon (with or without becoming a patron) to get further ones, but I'll probably continue to link new content posts I make there here.

Thank you for reading!

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