THE FANTASY AUTHOR’S EXERCISES IV: A Brief History of the Alpha Centauri System

This series of posts was inspired by an edit. Cut out of the final edition of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction was a short appendix that began with this paragraph:

We’ve learned a lot over the last few hundred pages or so, and I know you’ve been paying close attention all along. But just when you thought you were done, now comes the hard part—actually doing something with the wisdom you’ve gathered here. In order to get the creative juices flowing, here are some exercises designed to help you put some new ideas and skills into practice. Don’t wait until after you’ve finished your novel to start on these—go ahead and write a log line, a cover letter, and so on for a book you think you might want to write, or something you’re making up off the top of your head, then do it again when you have something specific to talk about. You might be interested to see how different they are.

There were only so many pages in the book, but on the infinite elbow room of the internet there are homework assignments:

Write a Brief History of the Alpha Centauri System

Alpha Centauri is the closest star to our sun, and has been a setting for so many science fiction stories for so long I doubt there’s any way to accurately count them. Even though it’s “close” by astronomical standards, everything is actually really far away when measured in astronomical standards, so as of the writing of this no one has actually been there. There’s actually a pretty good chance that there is no life to be found there. I’m not even sure of they’ve found any big exoplanets there. I suppose I could Google that and find out, but I’m not going to. That’s not the point.

Okay, I Googled it after all. Good news!

The point of this exercise is to do some worldbuilding, starting with a science fiction setting. In later exercises we’ll do some fantasy worldbuilding, but for now, let’s keep it within the broad spectrum of science fiction.

And anyone who’s read The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and some of my other musings on the subject, know that I recognize—and celebrate—that that’s a very, very broad spectrum. Again, I like to think of science fiction as a ratio, science:fiction, or “science-to-fiction.” So-called “Hard SF” will tip that ratio in favor of science, where more loosely imagined subgenres like “slipstream” will tip the scales dramatically in the direction of fiction. This is the history of your Alpha Centauri, so by all means, balance that ratio in whatever way you desire.

I want you to actually sit down and write this, but don’t go crazy. You have other writing to do. Fill up one page—and by now you know what I mean when I say one page.

Don’t feel as though you have to cover every last tiny detail of thousands of years of history. Think very carefully about the high points. If you had to distill our own history down to one page, what would you include? Would you concentrate on invention and technology, starting maybe with fire and the wheel and ending with the iPad? Would you concentrate on religion and philosophy from early animism to . . . what? The rise of radicalized Islam in the Middle East and reactionary Christianity in America? Would you be more interested in developing social systems, from slavery through the women’s movement and on into the post-privacy internet age? Is Earth’s history about agrarianism vs. industrialism? Statism vs. individuality?

I bet you’ll end up with some mix. It’ll be hard not to mention most of those things at least in passing, but as you’re thinking about our own history and your invented history, start thinking—even though you may never write the story itself—about a short story or novel set in your Alpha Centauri system. What would you, as an author, need to know about the history of the Alpha Centauri system in order for you to tell your story? What would be most significant to your character and the situation he finds himself in?

Then let your imagination fly. Who lives there, an indigenous species of intelligent life or colonists from Earth—or both? What makes this an interesting place, what are the potential conflicts or dangers that exist there that could add interesting elements to your story?

And keep in mind that all we’re working on here is the history of the system. For now, go ahead and leave some elements unexplained. If you were doing this “for real” (and again, you’re certainly free to keep going and actually write the story) you’ll need to know more than a history lesson, but that’s all I’m asking for here. I don’t need to know how their spaceships work, what they eat, when they pray, and how they make little Alpha Centaurians. Future exercises might ask for you to create a fantasy religion, invent a military structure, or describe an ecosystem, but leave those things out of this one.

Look for inspiration everywhere you can think of. Look at encyclopedias or almanacs, for instance. How do they treat, say, the history of the state of Illinois in less than a thousand words? They do it, largely by relying on some common experience (it’s safe to assume that someone reading an encyclopedia entry on Illinois will already know what the United States of America is, might know who Abraham Lincoln is, has heard of coal mines, knows what an airport is, and so on) then just editing like crazy, until just the most significant high points are left.

And do not forget what might be the most important part of all this:


And when you have a page that you think is pretty cool, that sparks your imagination, paste it into the body of an email and send it to me at:

Please be advised that anything you send there may be posted here, at my sole discretion, and no money will change hands. I’ve set up that email address especially for this series of exercises, and will only check it a couple times a week until December 21, 2010. That’s eight weeks to get back to me. At that point, I’ll stop checking that email account (until we start a new exercise) and start reading and thinking about what to include in a follow-up post. I might get a bunch of emails, and won’t be able to post them all, of course, and I can’t send you email critiques back, but I’m sure they’ll be great learning opportunities even if they aren’t shared. If they are, I promise not to rip you to shreds—good editors don’t do that. We’ll learn from each other, and we’ll do it in an atmosphere of respect and shared experience.

Okay, then, get busy!


—Philip Athans





About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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