Creating A Science Fiction Glossary: Steal All The Things

My interests in science fiction have usually ran to space opera. There’s enjoyment to be had in cyberpunk or more transhumanist tales, or even in just classic, near-future type stories. But my heart belongs to rockets and starships and thousands of worlds and tramp freighters and mighty fleets. C-beams off the Tannhauser Gate and all that.

Further Reading

Of course, if you’re looking at writing anything remotely realistic in science fiction – and space opera can be realistic, to a point – you will find yourself drawn to Atomic Rockets, Winchell Chung’s amazing reference site for realistic rockets to space warfare to future money to remembering to respect science. There’s a few sections primarily for authors which pull out the idea of looking to the past to find ideas and story seeds for science fiction. The biggest one on the site is regarding Faster Than Light communication, referencing the birth of the telegraph and the wonderful book The Victorian Internet. That section got me thinking on avoiding the super common Navy In Space and Free Market Capitalism In Space tropes for space opera. The trick is to be close to original when presenting vastly different expectations while not coming across as preachy.

Let’s Call It A Spacy

In terms of Space Navy, I was leaning toward Space Force, but that’s A. an actual thing and B. a massive joke. The other direction is to just refer to the Fleet, and the various branches: Guard, Patrol, Scout, espatier, gropo. It’s just askew enough to work. Battles would be one on one or small unit, due to other considerations, and resemble more galley warfare or naval conflicts of the Imjin War than Jutland or Leyte Gulf. That’s the framework; it will inevitably be either more 3D in nature (lots of maneuver) or 1D (range uber alles, strategic maneuver over tactical positioning).

Economics and Government

For economics and trade, my interest has been sparked by the idea of Minoan palace economies writ large – think planetary center economy. Wealth goes into Earth, say, and then back out to Mars, the belt, Jupiter. I like this for not being a typical model while also being fraught with issues, downsides and peril, ripe for stories and conflict. Combine that with a interstellar polity, and that led me to the madala system from Southeast Asia, with complex webs of tributary agreements and zones of control.

Already I have some worldbuilding done, just by combining those two ideas. Here’s the Fleet, an organization that can’t be everywhere at once in force, maintaining control and exchange of “gifts” and tribute from client states. Would the fleet be involved between a war of two clients? Is there another polity willing to exploit the thin-ness of Fleet coverage in these ares? Something, maybe, like a Sea Peoples (Space Peoples?) invading systems, spreading panic that this polity of worlds just can’t live up to the vassal/lord arrangement anymore?

Great Artists (and Meh Companies) Steal.

I’ve always liked the the word “ansible”, which was created by Ursula K LeGuin, for faster-than-light communications. And then, being an awesome and futuristic word, it was liberally borrowed by other authors. It’s gone so far as to be used now for an automation system used by IT professionals, which makes it mainstream adjacent.

Palantir is another term, from the Lord of the Rings, that’s made the jump to be used by technology companies., in this case the creepy Palantir Technologies. Not being satisfied with just taking Tolkien’s words, Palantir also has the products Palantir Gotham and Palantir Metropolis, for DC Comics fans, and Palantir Night Live as the name of their events.

This isn’t IP theft, or some unfair piggybacking; as terms enter the popular culture (Gotham,:Night Live) they get remixed and reapplied in adjacent situations, as a form of shorthand. Ansible and Palantir, terms classically trained geeks and nerds are familiar with, get applied to geek and nerd cultural projects (science fiction and technology).

It’s a coincedence that both these terms are, at their heart, instantaneous communication devices.

What follows, then, is a list of terms I’ve swiped from various science fiction and other sources, and use unashamedly. In some cases I use the term in a tight, related manner to the original source: like Palantir, a seeing stone, for a spy network. Other times it’s at best tangentially related: like the faster than light Ansible for IT task automation.

Non-Original Work, Please Steal

Palantir: yes, I use it too! In my writing, palantir refers to non-natural jump points, aka stargates, that like core systems together. The gates are too small, in a physical sense, to allow large bulk frieghters or warships through, but just the right size for smaller mail packets, couriers, and diplomatic boats. It’s not instantaneous communication, but it does allow major capitals to have a direct and hard to militarily exploit line to other major systems. They are exceedingly expensive to build and run, require near-constant maintenance, and are “imposed” on systems by decree from Federal bodies. Just the perfect way to know what’s going on and force a vassal/lord relationship on a too big to let go free world.

Sophont: from Poul Anderson originally, and first seen by me in Traveller. Most of my writing is human centric. I have nothing against aliens, I just don’t find them necessary to the stories I want to tell. But I do include a lot of transgenic and modified humans, so it’s good to have a term that applies to humans in all shapes and forms: and some very limited cases to AI.

Highport/downport: again, from Traveller. I like torchships, and I like planets. So it’s obvious I never let the two near each other. The concept of a highport, a space station in orbit or at an L2 point, is a must-have if your tramp freighters all have ecological atrocity or Kzinti Lesson level weapons down in the basement. And thus you also need a downport, that planetside place where your surface to orbit and orbit to surface craft can load and unload cargo and people. Hell, the downport might be built around the base of a beanstalk, for that matter. It’s the connection between the surface and the sky.

Expect this post to be updated as I continue to borrow/steal more phrases from around the universes of fiction.

Eli Jones avatar
Eli Jones
Eli Jones is a spectulative fiction writer and data analyst living in the Cascadia Bioregion.