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Why The Vastness of Space Workshop…

Because It Is Fun To Learn and Use In Fiction…

Really is that simple. Problem is, so many writers (and I have read three just lately) who do not know space terms and measurements, or do not know how to fake it, or go around it. And using a term wrong is deadly to a story.

The problem is that for almost all humans, understanding real distances in space is just almost impossible. Unless you work on it and are interested in it, your mind will not even pretend to grasp the real distances of space.

But this does not mean you can’t write space opera and science fiction. Quite the contrary, you can write great science fiction stories. You just need to know how to do it, and thus is the reason for the special workshop in the Kickstarter  COLLIDING WORLDS campaign for a 100 of Kris and my science fiction stories. (Only place to get this workshop is through that.)

For example, 95% of all top science fiction writers over the decades just use a generic propulsion system to get them from point “A” to point “B” in space. Like a car. They don’t know how a car works, it just moves them around. Spaceships are the same way.

But you still need to know some basics and some tricks to get readers to follow along. You need to know how much to talk about the engine or how little. And so on and so on. Just a balance. Tricks of writing.

But what you really need is to understand terms and distances. For example, the entire Voyager Star Trek show was caused because the ship got into another section of the galaxy and even at top Warp drive, it was going to take them hundreds of years to get home. 7 years that show lasted until they finally figured out how to jump home.

That was in the same galaxy. Since the Federation is based on Earth, that is the Milky Way Galaxy. And the Federation exists only in a small area of the galaxy. A very small sector, but they make it feel huge to viewers and readers.

And the problem with near-future space science fiction is the fuel and the engines and so on. Lots of tricks on that.

So this Vastness of Space workshop is going to work on a number of areas in the three weeks.


How long does something take to travel and how do you write yourself past that problem? Of course, time to travel is where you get generation ships and deep sleep ships and robot ships and on and on through a ton of sf plots.

And also keep in mind that time is critical at sub-light speeds. Say you get up to 95% of light speed. You would be experiencing Time Dilation, a principle (proven) from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Basically at 95% the speed of light, if you went out one year ship time and came back one year ship time, upwards of fifteen years would pass on Earth. Star Trek ignores this problem with what they call Impulse drive.

Most science fiction writers just ignore all sub-light speeds.

And speaking of time, gravity can alter time in the same way as near light speeds. The closer you get to a gravity source, the slower you will experience time in comparison to someone away from the gravity source. All writers in science fiction, almost without exception, ignore this.


Again understanding distances in space is not required as long as you get the terms straight. For example, the continually joked about mistake in the first Star Wars movie where one character was bragging that he did some jump in 5 Parsecs. Problem is a parsec is a unit of measure, like a mile is a unit of measure. Oops. Actually a parsec is 3.26 light years in distance.

Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, so a light year is how far light will travel in one year.

But most sf writers just figure it isn’t worth explaining big numbers to readers, so like you are traveling from San Francisco to Las Angeles by car, you just get in the car and get there. But you got to be careful because most general readers will not know you are missing explaining the distances, but if you try and get it wrong, yikes!!

So this workshop will help with understanding how to write distances in space so readers will just go along with you.


This is something you might want to just commit to memory if writing science fiction and then be really careful that if you use a term, you use it right.

Most everyone knows what a planet or a sun is. Stars are suns of different types.

And most everyone gets a solar system, which is a star with a bunch of planets circling around it. But the edge of the solar system is not the orbit of the outer planet. Nope, there are a ton of things out beyond that. Most SF writers again just ignore all this stuff like the heliosphere, where not even the Voyagers have reached yet and they have been going for a very, very long time.

Light takes 8.3 minutes to reach Earth from the sun. And 4.15 hours to reach Neptune. That’s a lot of distance if you are writing science fiction inside the solar system. Time and distance are critical and there are tricks to writing it well.

Beyond that, you are traveling out in the stars to other alien planets. That’s when the distances get impossible for many to begin to hold.

And the numbers go stupid as well.

You have to know the difference between a solar system and a galaxy and a universe. Critical and in the workshop I will help you make sure you have those right.

Our galaxy is the Milky Way Galaxy. It is a medium-sized spiral-type galaxy. It is from 150,000 to 200,000 light years in diameter. That means light left the other side of our galaxy 200,000 years ago. (So we are basically looking at light that left far before we evolved on this planet.)

How Big Can It Get?

You have no concept of how big it really is out there. But as a sf writer, you need to know what to avoid and where your mind just shuts down and you start making stupid mistakes.

There are between 200-400 BILLION stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Yes, that is billion with a “B.” Our sun is a yellow dwarf star, which are common, but not as common as red dwarf stars. Still, there could be upwards of a Billion (with a “B”) yellow stars in our galaxy like our sun. And most, because of how stars are formed, will have planets around them.

(You want to play with the idea of where are all the other alien races, look up the Drake Equation. Great fun if you want to lose a few days.)

Yes, I told you the numbers get crazy.

Again, sf writers us this abundance of life, but do it carefully and only in small sectors of space to be safe.

Bigger still?

The Milky Way has upwards of over 50 satellite galaxies associated with it. Galaxies of all shapes and sizes that hold from hundreds of millions of stars to a billion stars.

Bigger still?

The Milky Way is part of what is called “The Local Group” of galaxies that includes a couple other spiral galaxies. Andromeda is larger by a ways than the Milky Way and it has satellite galaxies around it, as do some of the others in the local group.

Bigger still?

The local group is part of the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies. It has over a hundred galaxy clusters in it, which the Local group is just one. There are millions of known galaxy superclusters.

And it goes from there. To sizes that are just impossible for most to even imagine.

Most people can’t imagine how far it is from the Earth to Mars. Or even how you would need to understand orbits and planet speeds to get there.

But science fiction writers don’t need to know all this to write great science fiction stories. However, you do need to know the terms and the concepts, just like when you get in a car to travel somewhere, you need to know the concept of gas and steering wheel and brakes and mirrors. Same thing.

And that’s what this workshop is all about, to help you understand the concepts, the terms, so you don’t make massive blunders that will get a reader or an editor to just put your story down. It isn’t hard once you know what to look for.

And actually, the more you know, the more story ideas come from the knowledge. So don’t miss this workshop in Colliding Worlds Kickstarter.

And you can add on my first seven Seeders Universe novel if you want to see how I played and made clear working at galaxy spanning distances. (Not planet spanning… or star spanning… galaxy spanning…)



  • Xander

    Time dilation isn’t even a science concept that only applies to large-scale space travel in the sci-fi future. It has an impact on everyone’s life right now.

    GPS satellites in their geosynchronous orbits are so far away and orbiting so fast that they experience time slower than us surface dwellers. Because GPS relies on very accurate time measurements to triangulate the position of the receiver the clocks on the satellites need to be constantly updated. Ground stations across the globe are constantly doing this.

    This means that if for whatever reason the updates stop the accuracy of GPS would eventually degrade beyond usefulness even if the satellites are still there. There are probably papers out there which calculate this degradation if you want more accuracy in your post-apocalyptic world.

      • Nathan Haines

        But Dean, you already mentioned this in your summary! Compared to a clock on the Earth’s surface: general relativity predicts that GPS satellites (due to their high orbit, where the Earth’s gravity field is weaker) will be about 45,900 nanoseconds faster per day. And special relativity predicts that due to their orbital speed, they’ll tick 7,200 nanoseconds slower per day. So they’re resynchronized twice a day, but GPS receivers also compensate for the Doppler effect as the satellites they listen to zip around the Earth, heading towards or away from the observer.

        Interestingly enough, these relativistic effects actually happen on the ground, too. Earth bulges a little at the equator because of its spin. If you use a clock at the north or south pole as a reference clock, a clock at the Earth’s equator ticks slower because it’s moving faster than the clock at the pole (because it’s further from Earth’s center of mass) but because it’s further from Earth’s center of mass, the gravity is weaker and it ticks faster.

        But here’s the cool thing: Earth’s shape is determined by its spin rate, so those factors are related, and it just so happens that these effects cancel each other out perfectly. A clock at sea level, anywhere on the Earth, ticks at the exact same rate.

        GPS satellits have thus proven both general relativity and special relativity, but it also proves that by knowing the concepts you’ll teach in the workshop, a writer can intuit these sorts of things without having to know the specific details!

        • dwsmith

          Yup, that’s the point. Just knowing the concepts are there allows a writer, any writer, with any level of science skills, to write great science fiction without ever needing to dig down into the science of it all.

          However, grasping real distances is something that that most writers just cannot manage. And yet can still write great science fiction, including great space opera. Basically this workshop is sort of a reaction to me hearing people say, “I can’t write science fiction because I don’t know anything about science.” Yup, critical voice wins again.

    • Kate Pavelle

      So that’s how they update the clocks – that’s neat and makes sense. A quick note – from what I have read, the clock correction has to be done because the Earth is a gravity well and we experience time slower than objects in orbit. Not because of the satellite speed, which are still moving at Newtonian speeds.
      If I am wrong, somebody set me right 😉