The Cathedral Galaxy setting is now complete with a full set of regional maps, each highlighting a particular area of the galaxy and an aspect of the setting. Extra lore and artwork are scattered throughout, in addition to the larger overview map and establishing descriptions of each region posted here. Enjoy!
My next step is writing a story in this galaxy. I will not make any statements on how long that will take!
In addition, I’ve had a few people ask me about setting role-playing games in the Cathedral Galaxy. That idea intrigues me, and I’m happy to learn that players are interested in using my universe for their games. So, I have put together some lore and gameplay reference materials that you may use. Click through to read more.
The Cathedral Galaxy: so named to evoke an awe-inspiring structure; something built over generations. Eons before the advent of starflight, the Ancients – Progenitors, Precursors, Archaics, Elders – constructed a galaxy-spanning civilization. They learned to harness energies, manipulate matter, and gather information on a vast scale, ultimately building a network of wormhole passages across the galaxy. At the height of their power, they encountered a malevolence from outside the galaxy: some think an evil intent, some say a natural phenomenon. Nobody yet knows what happened to the Old Ones. Perhaps they died. Perhaps they absconded. Perhaps their essence remains embedded in the constructs they left scattered through the galaxy – some still functioning at mysterious purposes, some long torn down by the forces of gravity and radiation. Perhaps the Elders even remain alive. After all, ages after empires have risen and fell and risen again, no one has penetrated the dense, irradiated Cathedral at the galaxy’s heart.
Thousands of years ago, the first modern peoples discovered the principles of spatial trajection. With this starflight capability, a ship could disappear from normal space and, a fixed time interval later, reappear some light-years away. They soon found ruins of the Prior civilization. Eventually they located the Founders’ great Anchors, entry points to the wormhole network, providing instant transit – much better than time-consuming and energy-intensive trajector jumps. Many other peoples followed suit, and the wormhole passages thus became channels of commerce and information allowing galactic civilizations to be built again. Through their history, the peoples of the galaxy have always been keenly aware of those who came before – and all that has been lost, exemplified by the nonfunctional wormhole gates drifting near many of the active Anchors. Now, the galaxy has reached a relatively stable state. Decadent empires, considered republics, brave adventurers, learned researchers, inventive scavengers, and noble warriors make their home in this galaxy, from the populous core nations to the empty frontier fringes.
It is a galaxy of both promise and stillness at this moment in time. After eons, what is an extra nova in the uninhabited core? What is a rumor of new Anchors opening, or existing Anchors closing, but a rumor? And what is an archaic megastructure activating instruments, seeming to seek for something outside the confines of the galaxy, but a relic running an obsolete program…?
I have been mulling an improved map of the Cathedral Galaxy for some time, and finally bit the bullet. (Here’s the original.) For this improved and expanded version, my method was to draw the line art in black pen on white paper, then invert a photograph and color/manipulate it in Photoshop. I’m pleased with the result.
Amseile, a proud young realm nestled in two star-forming nebula regions. After uniting from several independent systems in 18k450, Amseile fought a devastating war with Shobah with lasting effects on galactic politics to this day.
The Axiom Republic, a large, baroque state of learning and cultural achievement. The Republic’s central location in the galaxy means that it contains many Precursor artifacts such as the Spire and Taron’s Throne, as well as celestial phenomena like the emission nebula Twin Idols, dust clouds of Onyx Space and Silver Run, the active Sapphire cluster, and the end-of-life star Khalkeus that sheds heavy elements.
Harrow’s Core, home of two enigmatic peoples who believe, among other strange ideas, that the galaxy itself is a living organism. There are rumors that a secret and powerful Archaic weapon prevented other polities from absorbing the Core during their expansionary phases.
The realms of what the core nations call the Exiles, nearly cut off from the rest of the galactic network by a quirk of the arrangement of wormhole passages: Babylon, a decadent theocratic empire; the Free Worlds, a xenophobic and militant confederation; and the Underworlds, domain of a people stereotyped by the rest of the galaxy as the Dead Ones – according to one legend, the last of the Ancients, but robbed of their faculties. The Panther Nebula, a dust cloud with an obviously recognizable shape from throughout the Burial Grounds, signals adventurers away from this region.
The Far Reaches, a spiral arm of the galaxy with a sparse population but many lesser Elder relics.
The Imperium of the Triumvirate, once a vast empire, now reduced to three closely allied provinces each under its own despot: technologically advanced, aggressive, and lacking restraint. The Imperium’s skirmishes are not always with other nations. Aoreu is known for the exotic star-forming Menagerie, but the true symbol of the Imperium is the Coliseum, a Progenitor-built sphere surrounding a white dwarf, where biomechanically modified beings battle for citizens’ amusement.
The Mariner Worlds, a loose affiliation of wanderers, not all native to this sparse region or even to the galaxy itself. Among these worlds are Harbor, a focusing construct partially surrounding an unusual dwarf star that appears on the verge of collapse to a neutron star; Haven, a resource-rich protoplanetary disk; and the Lighthouse, an array of transmitters and instruments aimed into the extragalactic medium.
Shobah, a nation of rigid structures and protocols, home to a sect of Librarians who believe that the Ancients discovered all knowledge it is possible to find, and therefore focus all research on the ruins scattered throughout the galaxy. Knowledge gleaned from the Ancient wrecks helped Shobah fight off Amseile’s incursions in the war.
The Traders’ Rim, where the layout and performance of the Channel Anchors make the region vital for speeding commerce and communication among the central galactic states from the Imperium to Shobah. Traders are some of the few people grudgingly accepted into the Free Worlds, making them a tenuous link between that region and the inner galaxy. Prominent landmarks in the Rim include the blue giant Azure, the black hole Point of No Return, and the planetary nebula Mokid’s Eye.
The Ramparts, filled not only with ancient artifacts from the First Ones, but also with the remains of several civilizations that died out before contact with others.
The Sea of Relics, a span with a high proportion of Elder artifacts – many of them still functioning, such as the cryptic information repository at Bastion. Radiation from the active jets of The Pillar keep this region relatively uninhabited. The Burial Grounds, on the other hand, collects fragmented wrecks of Archaic constructs after gravitational tides and cosmic radiation have weathered and broken them down.
The Well of Ghosts, a devastated region scattered with burned worlds and detritus from the Amseile-Shobah wars. It stands as a monument to the terrible power of starflyers’ weapons.
Not all peoples of the galaxy are rooted to a location. The Waygehn had the misfortune of evolving close to the end of their star’s life, and are now spread throughout the Axiom Republic, Traders’ Rim, Imperium of the Triumvirate, and Amseile to form their own political super-entity. Many Waygehn located functional-but-inert relics and retrofitted their own systems onto the ancient hardware to form great arkships and wandering space stations.
I had been trying to sell this story for a while now, but was not successful. There’s a bit of a catch-22 to selling a short story for the first time: without any feedback from editors and readers, there is no way for me to tell whether a rejection was because the story didn’t align with a publication’s interest at the time, or whether they didn’t think the story was very good. (And if it wasn’t very good…what it did wrong.)
This makes me sad, because I got lots of positive feedback from people who went to graduate school in a technical field. I think that maybe that’s the problem: the story appeals to too much of a niche crowd.
Anyway, here it is, the version of the story I most recently tried to sell. It’s about a young scientist presenting her findings at a research conference, and the unexpected reception she encounters there. It was inspired by some of my own experiences in grad school.
The numbers didn’t match up. Ceren Aydomi tapped her desk, frowning at the resonance spectra before her. The projections cast pale purple and green light over Ceren’s face, spilling down the front of her body and glinting from the polished glass surface of her desk. The peaks of each spectrum marched onward, rapidly deviating from her calculations. And the Three Hundred Seventy-Eighth Channel Interstice Studies Meeting was only two days away. Continue reading Original Fiction: “Conference” (final draft)→
Well, since I just had some discussion about orbits and other fundamental physical concepts in science fiction, here’s a short scene I’ve been sitting on. It’s set in the Cathedral Galaxy, and I’m not quite sure what I want to do with it yet.
The Kite stretches his solar wings wide, spanning over five hundred meters. He fans out his array of electromagnetic membranes, thermal structures, transceiver antennae, and weapon emitters, flourishing. The Kite’s voice booms out over the electromagnetic spectrum, mingling with the others in the Coliseum, as they announce themselves to the assembled spectators:
“In salute, we die and live by the will of the Imperium!”
The Kite pulls one solar wing out from the light flux to tack. He wheels around, scanning and assessing his competitors. He catalogues their capabilities but pays special attention to their faces – distended from all the grafts and alterations, stone-gray and glassy-eyed from the environmental treatments, yet still faces. The younger competitors growl and sneer at him, while the more experienced repay his cool appraisal in kind. Today, The Tiger and The Worm worry him.
Silence falls across the EM bands, leaving The Kite with only the intermittent discharges from the Coliseum walls. His stomach (though no longer really a stomach) lurches in anticipation. A moment drags on in the flickering silvery shell of the Coliseum, buried in the sparse mist of an orange nebula. This could be the day, thinks The Kite, when I die. Again.
The Kite pulses an electromagnetic field, launching himself away from the spherical inner surface of the Coliseum. The others do the same. Continue reading In the Arena→
(Pardon me for the hiatus. Had to fly to Houston to do some flight testing at NASA.)
I spent a pretty good weekend doing some world-building. Since discovering the maps in the first pages of The Lord of the Rings, Redwall, and the like, I have really enjoyed sketching out maps of imaginary worlds and outlining details of the cultures and histories that play out over those maps. My maps started as knockoffs of Tolkien’s (with the bad guys sequestered in a nice, rectangular wall of mountains around some barren lands) or parallel-universe versions of the terrain around my house. Since then, though, I’ve started to inject a lot more realism into the worlds I create. Want to know where the tectonic plates and prevailing winds are on my map of Oghura? I could show you!
Beyond the maps, some of my imagined cultures have fully fleshed-out languages, religions, and customs. Slowly, slowly, I’ve been compiling reference documentation on the Oghuran desert and people, the fantastical Cathedral Galaxy, and the future-universe of the Four Colonies. This weekend I was spending my time in the Cathedral Galaxy, putting together a master list of the major galactic regions and polities, along with distinguishing characteristics. Now I know a bit more about why the Imperium of the Triumvirate is split in three, how the far-from-galactic-center Traders’ Rim came to be populated by merchants and entrepreneurs, and the tumultuous history of conflict between Amseile and Shobah. I’ve also got the beginning of a couple more stories – one concerning an Imperium gladiator’s bid for freedom and another describing the Waygehn people, who evolved to sentience near the death of their star and outlived the event, leaving them homeless in the galaxy. That’s one of the most fun things about deciding to build a universe purely for short stories: I get to invent worlds, and then immediately show them off with snippets of detail!
Though the Cathedral Galaxy has some distinctly space-fantasy elements, I decided early on that it would be a universe based on hard science – though not necessarily our hard science. My short story “Conference” illustrates the point, as it shows that there are technical concepts built upon technical concepts – but at the level that Arthur C. Clarke would have described as “indistinguishable from magic.” I have no idea how the Channel Network could be set up, and building planet-size structures is clearly fantastical. (And none of you know yet what’s in The Cathedral!) But I made sure that the story was relevant to us Earthdwellers, and I lean strongly on plausible concepts to describe things like astronomical bodies or planetary orbits.
For example, take Heliast, the resort world on which much of “Conference” takes place. Here’s the description that conference-goers got of the world:
The tour guide explains how Heliast is an ancient world with a single moon nearly half its own size, and how that has dominated the history of the planet and made it ideal for resort paradises. A billion or so years ago, the planet spun many times under one orbit of the moon, and the energy input of ocean tides among all the planet’s archipelagoes – Heliast is over eighty percent water – gave rise to life. But nowadays, the moon orbits in tidal lockstep with one Heliast day, the prime factor contributing to the perpetual calm of its seas. The small radius of Heliast’s solar orbit leaves the planet with a reasonable day length, while the dimness of its sun places it in the liquid-water zone. Without tides, with a massive moon helping to protect the planet from asteroid impacts, and with barely any eccentricity in its orbit to create seasons, there have been few selective pressures on Heliast’s life forms. Life on the planet thus failed to diversify much, and after millions of years of evolution with few external stressors, there are now only a few ecological niches on the world. Three or four avian species, eight or ten surface-level swimmers, two or three land animals, and about six land plants are all most tourists have the chance to interact with. The rest of the planet is geological beauty for visitors to enjoy.
So, the planet’s “month” equals its “day,” but there are still many days per year and there is much liquid water on the surface. The dynamics shaped the world’s evolution. That was fun to think of! But, more and more, I am completely amazed by the strange worlds that actually exist in our own universe. Many Earth- and space-based observatories keep returning data on new exoplanet candidates, and in the last few years, the galaxy seems a lot more planet-populous than it has in the past.
This past Monday, I went to a fascinating astronomy seminar on the potential climates of Gliese 581g given by Dr. Raymond Pierrehumbert from the University of Chicago. (He’s preparing these climate models for an arXiv preprint.) Besides tying the Gleise 581 system with 55 Cancri for most number of known exoplanets around the same star (5), this planet is interesting because it falls right smack in the middle of the traditional “habitable zone,” the range of orbital radii necessary for planet surface temperatures that could support liquid surface water. Now, of course, the discovery of Gliese 581g has to be confirmed to become official – and there’s some doubt about that! – but it’s at least got scientists thinking about these dwarf-star systems in interesting ways. Continue reading World-Building and the Real Universe→
Since last February, I have been trying to get my sci-fi short story, “Conference,” published. So far, the score is 0 for 4.
Asimov’s Science Fiction sent me a form-letter rejection.
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction sent me a personalized letter. The editor wrote that “this tale didn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid,” and thanked me for sending it along. I appreciated the thought, at least.
Analog Science Fiction and Fact sent me a two-page form letter containing, basically, their submission guidelines. The editor scrawled a note at the bottom in blue pen, though: “PS: Present-tense narration tends to call excessive attention to itself and is generally best avoided unless a particular story requires it.”
I just heard back from Strange Horizons. They sent a short note that said thanks, but they decided not to publish the story.
I happen to really like this story, and I’d love to see it published. It takes place in the Cathedral Galaxy, a universe I hope to expand with many more stories, but it grew out of my experiences as a grad student. The mundane bits of researcher life. Giving a presentation to a research community. Camaraderie among grad students. Taking advantage of conferences to go sightseeing – and grinning at the crowds of other scientists doing the same. Research advisors, good and bad; on-the-ball and absent-minded. Having different impressions of a scientist from reading their papers and from actually meeting them. Reacting to the presence of the “big names” in a particular field. Even finding love within a technical community – though it certainly didn’t happen to me the way it happened to Ceren Aydomi.
So, readers, since I like this story so much, I’d like to workshop it a little. If you can, take a look. Is it too long? (It’s almost 10,000 words, which is on the big side for a short, but when I read it, it doesn’t feel too bad to me.) Does the present-tense narration bother you? Is the action too slow or too fast in places? Are the characters strong enough, and do they interact naturally enough? If you’ve been to a research conference before, how does this feel as a depiction?
A loner on a skiff, drifting through the Burial Grounds in search of ancient derelicts to salvage, reveals a secret of Galactic importance. This story serves as exposition for the Cathedral Galaxy universe.
I released a significant re-write of this story on 18 Jun 22.