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August 10 to October 12 (9 weeks)

Facts-based Fictional Worldbuilding

with Moiya McTier of Columbia University

From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass to Star Trek to Legend of Zelda, fictional worlds have entertained, educated, and comforted us for centuries. A fictional world might be a universe that obviously differs from our reality because it has magic or advanced technology. It might also be a world where the differences are more subtle. Maybe a particular historical event, like the sinking of the Titanic, never happened. Or maybe the world zooms in on a real historical time period, like ancient Greece, but takes some creative liberties to flesh out the details. No matter how different a fictional world is from our reality, they all take time and effort to build. The people who create these worlds aren’t natural-born geniuses; they learned the skills necessary to make an imaginary world feel real. This course will teach you those skills.

There isn’t just one way to build a fictional world. Some creators build a world with a specific story in mind and craft the rules of their world to drive that story forward. Others start with an interesting question – ”What if we couldn’t see the color blue?” – and craft a story that answers it. Above all else, skilled worldbuilders adhere to the logical and physical laws of their worlds, even if those laws are different from the ones that we follow here on Earth.

Facts-based fictional worldbuilding relies heavily on scientific research to motivate the creation of imaginary worlds. It starts by creating the environment of a world, the physical setting where a story takes place. The next step is to think about biology, which depends on environment and also a lot of randomness, so there’s plenty of room for imagination. The final step is to think about culture, a huuuuuge umbrella term that encompasses every aspect of life from what we eat to the stories we tell our children when we tuck them into bed (if we even have children or beds to tuck them into). Culture depends on both biology and environment, so it’s important to decide things in this order, but also recognize that all three can inform each other. For example, humans have grown taller as we develop ways to access nutritional foods year-round, and the pollution we put into the air has influenced which diseases are most common.

Over nine weeks, you’ll learn the steps of this particular approach to worldbuilding while also gaining factual knowledge from subject-matter experts. Through this interdisciplinary course, you’ll not only build your own fictional world, but also gain an appreciation for ththiere inner workings of our reality.

About the Instructor

Moiya McTier

Moiya McTier (goastromo@gmail.com, @goastromo on twitter) is an astrophysicist and folklorist who specializes in facts-based fictional worldbuilding. She studied both astrophysics and folklore mythology at Harvard University and is in her last year of a PhD program in astronomy at Columbia University. In her astronomy research, Moiya studies how the motion of the Milky Way affects populations of planets throughout the Galaxy. She recently started a podcast called Exolore, where she invites experts to help her imagine life on alien planets.

Moiya’s first experience with facts-based worldbuilding was her undergraduate senior thesis, a science fiction novel set on an exoplanet she studied. She wanted the world to be as motivated by her research as possible, and soon found that it didn’t make sense to stop at accurate planetary science, so she talked to biologists and psychologists to make her fictional world seem more realistic. The planet orbited an M type star, a kind that’s much more magnetically active than our own Sun. Moiya knew that water was an effective protection against stellar magnetic activity, so she created creatures who spent most of their evolutionary history underwater. This meant that their biology was inspired by marine life here on Earth. Over time, as the star became less active, the creatures left the water but weren’t used to the exposure to their star, so they burrowed underground. You can read the novel here.

Course Structure

There will be one instructor-led session each week, running for 2 hours with a break at the midpoint and an optional additional hour of instructor Q&A. Each session will start with a quick ice breaker/brainstorming exercise. We’ll then move on to a discussion of the assigned reading/viewing material. Next I’ll give a lecture (often with an invited expert guest) about the week’s topic. The session will end after a discussion of how you plan to incorporate information from the lecture into your fictional world.

In addition, students will meet in smaller groups several times a week for further discussion and collaboration. Each student will build a facts-based fictional world of their own as the final project (details in the Final Project section below).

The course will admit around 20 students. It will cost $750/student, but there are slots reserved for students without the financial means to pay, so don’t let the cost dissuade you from applying. If you would like to be considered for a fee waiver, please select that option on your application.

Note that the Silver Beach Institute is not affiliated with Columbia or any other university, and students will not receive any credential, degree, or official certificate at the end of the course.

Course Objectives

At the end of this course, students will…

Final Project

Throughout this seminar, you’ll be building your own fictional world piece by piece. At the end of the seminar, you will submit

I will meet with each of you individually halfway through the course to discuss your plans for your final project and suggest any necessary adjustments.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Introduction to Worldbuilding

Assigned Media

  1. Podcast interview between Ezra Klein and N.K. Jemison

  2. How to build a magic system for a fantasy world

Week 2: Building the Solar System (Astronomy & Astrophysics)

Assigned Media

  1. Weep for Day by Indrapramit Das

  2. Interview with Kip Thorne, science advisor for Interstellar

Week 3: Building the Planet (Geology & climate science)

Assigned Media

  1. The Tamarisk Hunter by Paolo Bacigalupi

  2. Why is climate fiction so important?

Week 4: Building Life (Evolutionary biology, ecology & evolutionary psychology)

Assigned Media

  1. Love is the Plan the Plan is Death by James Tiptree Jr.

  2. SciFi Reasons for Humanoid Aliens

Week 5: Introduction to Culture (Anthropology & Sociology)

Assigned Media

  1. Body Ritual Among the Nacirema by Horace Miner

  2. Cultural Appropriation in Fiction

Week 6: Building Myths and Religion (Folklore & mythology)

Assigned Media

  1. The Christening by Guy de Maupassant

  2. How to Use Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales in Your Fiction

Week 7: Building Technology (History of Science & Technology)

Assigned Media

  1. Clockwork Fairies by Cat Rambo

  2. 8 Pieces of Modern Technology That Science Fiction Predicted

Week 8: Building Politics (History & Political Science)

Assigned Media

  1. The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen

  2. Why Dystopian Tales like Elysium Often Fail

Week 9: Peer Feedback

Each student will share details of their world and creative project and receive constructive feedback from the rest of the group.

Equity, Inclusion, & Accessibility Statement

When we discuss biology and culture in the context of other worlds, it reveals our own experiences and the biases we have about our own world. And when we start sharing and critiquing each other’s worlds, it can feel incredibly personal. To facilitate the most effective and inclusive learning environment possible, here are a couple of guidelines we’ll use in our discussions:

When providing feedback, use “I” and “we” statements instead of “you” statements. In other words, talk about your reactions to a piece instead of the person who created the piece.

Please resist acting surprised when people say they don’t know something. Feigning surprise has no social or educational benefit. An example of this is, “Wow, you got #4 wrong? But it was so easy!”

Avoid subtle (and, of course, overt) racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other kinds of bias. These “-isms” can make others feel uncomfortable and affect their ability to do work.

If you find yourself breaking one of these rules, please apologize, use it as a learning experience, and then move on. If you notice someone else breaking one of these rules (especially me!), you can point it out to the relevant person, either publicly or privately, or you can ask me to say something. Please don’t hold it against someone if they make an honest mistake, as long as they apologize and learn from it. After all, this class is a learning environment.

If it comes to my attention that you have made repeated egregious offenses in our discussion, you will be barred from future sessions.

I have done and will do my best to make this class accessible to all students, but if I have overlooked something, or if there is anything I can do to better accommodate you without sacrificing the integrity of the lesson, please let me know.


About the Silver Beach Institute

The Silver Beach Institute runs small, intensive, web-based research courses during which 18-20 students with diverse backgrounds and varying levels of experience are immersed in a particular topic, engaging with both seminal and cutting-edge research work in order to start substantive projects of their own. These courses last between 5 and 16 weeks, and are built around semi-structured discussions led by an academic researcher or leading industry practitioner doing important work in their field.

We are not a university, nor are we affiliated with any university. Students do not receive any credential, degree, or official certificate at the completion of a course. The point of our courses is to put people on the path to doing original work of their own, not to certify that they've learned facts in a curriculum.

If you have questions, feedback, or suggestions, feel free to email us at contact@silverbeach.in.

Our educational philosophy

Our research-course based approach comes from the fact that most of our team's best learning experiences have come from being immediately immersed in detailed discussions of work in a field we're interested in, then starting small research projects as a way of engaging more deeply with the field's methods, conventions, and literature.

Somewhat counterintuitively, we've found that this can work well even for students who come in without a lot of background in the field — once intense interest in a particular topic is sparked, or a research project is begun, it is usually possible to work backwards to the necessary fundamentals using online resources such as free textbooks and course videos, as well as by asking questions to slightly more advanced peers.

We think that this kind of learning experience is among the most effective ways to put people on the path to doing substantive new work of their own that advances the frontier of human knowledge, which we see as the ultimate goal of all education.

Unfortunately, these sorts of research courses are not widely available to students outside of research universities, and in many cases are not open to even undergraduate students at such universities. That’s where we come in: the Silver Beach Institute exists to democratize access to learning experiences of this kind. Our courses are centered around semi-structured instructor-led discussions, ambitious student projects, and the forging of intellectual & social bonds across backgrounds and disciplines. We hope that these courses, which are each taught by a researcher or practitioner who is actively doing important and exciting work on the topic they teach, will seed a distributed research community where our heterogenous group of students can learn from each other and collaborate on substantive projects that make significant positive contributions to human society.

Our first course is Facts-based Fictional Worldbuilding, led by Moiya McTier of Columbia University.

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