I have a great idea for a novel. You know what would make it even better?…
This page contains notes on the fictional world where our story takes place.
Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, and travels between star systems. However, there are no warp drives, no wormholes, no hyperspace, no end runs around the speed of light barrier. Starships travel by simple acceleration (energy source tbd – any ideas?). Human beings within the ships are kept alive by a combination of suspended animation and the time dilation that occurs at relativistic speeds.
People have populated the galaxy through the slow, painstaking process of exploring star systems one by one to find habitable planets. When an artificially intelligent colonizing ship finds a suitable planet, it wakes its colonists up. The process could take thousands of years. People might be motivated to embark on these journeys by war, religious persecution, environmental collapse, any number of reasons. Technological, political, and cultural development vary immensely from world to world. A colony might or might not be successful in establishing itself well enough to maintain the scientific knowledge, and in any case, many aspects of a civilization are determined by resources, culture, and historical contingencies, regardless of the level of scientific knowledge available (as can be see on our own planet in the present day).
I am agnostic at this point about whether human beings have encountered intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy. There is native animal and vegetable life on the planets humans inhabit. Also, the animals that people brought with them, and indeed the people themselves, have adapted, in some cases dramatically to their new environments.
There is a galactic Government, but since both people and information can take thousands of years to travel from one world to the next, the Government is seen as mythical, or utterly unknown, on most planets.
The Government has accumulated laws, precedents, and constitutional amendments for millions of years, so its workings are incomprehensible to human beings. The giant, computerized ships that shuttle Government envoys back and forth between stars communicate with one another to determine which planet they need to go to, what broad goals they should have when they get there, and so on. Since they spend much of their time in suspended animation traveling at near-light speed, Government envoys live incredibly long lives. If an envoy visits a planet twice it will be at 2 different epochs of the planet’s history. While pioneers desperate to find new planets to settle must trust themselves to the artificial intelligence of their ships, Government officials would are more cautious with their own safety.  They bring with them Employees who sleep in shifts, and age some fraction of the subjective time of the trip, sometimes living out their whole lives in a single journey.
The Government is not an Orwellian, totalitarian entity, or at least it doesn’t intend to be.. The Government envoys do not arrive on a planet hoping to dominate it, but to ensure peace, prosperity, equal rights, better health and safety standards, etc. The originators of the Government fed the same kind of well-meaning ideals into the supercomputers of the starships that one could hear in a political speech or party platform today. Over time, every conceivable right that a person could have, and every other good intention whatsoever, has found its way into the Government’s constitution.
The Planet Where Our Story is Set
The planet on which most of the action of our story takes place was settled long ago by a colony that narrowly avoided extinction. Little cultural knowledge survived the struggle for survival, but some efforts were made to preserve scientific knowledge and other important cultural artifacts.
The true story of the original colonists has been lost to history, but stories of ancient Pioneers are found among all of the peoples of our planet. They are seen as the semi-mythical founders of nations, like Romulus and Remus, as the originators of important institutions, or the inventors of certain technologies.
The alchemists are found in every nation. They are the caretakers of scientific knowledge passed down from the Pioneers. They probably have their origins in the attempts of an early Pioneer to teach the first generation of children born on the new planet the rudiments of scientific knowledge through a sort of catechism of the most important facts about the physical world: matter is composed of atoms, light is both a particle and a wave, the laws of thermodynamics and so on.
The alchemists consider these facts as sacred doctrines, and attach spiritual significance to them.
There are other belief systems, certainly some form of monotheism will have survived. I’m still working through these.
One of the most unique aspects of life on our planet is that some animals have developed the ability to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen, and store the hydrogen in a bladder. This bladder allows light animals to float on the air, and facilitates flight for animals that would be too heavy to fly otherwise. Gigantic airwhales once roamed the skies on this planet, but they were hunted to extinction long before the novel opens. A giant floating creature like an airborn  deepstaria enigmatica survives. These floating jellyfish are predators that disguise themselves in clouds, using squid-like blue-and-white strobing skin.
Under the tutelage of the Alchemists, the inhabitants of our planet have reached the technological sophistication of late 18th century Europe. With the example of lighter-than-air fauna to inspire them, the humans of our planet have made great use of  balloons and sail-powered airships.
The city that is the focal point of the action of the novel is the capital of the most powerful empire on the planet. Using a process devised by the Alchemists, the leaders of this city have perfected the manufacture of hydrogen and built an unparalleled fleet of airships.
Weather and Geology
So far, I’ve worked out the rudiments of the area immediately surrounding the City (as yet unnamed) that will be the focus of the action in the novel.
The City that is the focus of our action lies at the eastern edge of a high plateau called the Piedmont. The City looks out over the Cloud Sea to its east.
The Cloud Sea
Thermal  vents and volcanoes are plentiful on our planet, particularly at the lowest altitudes. The lowest areas on the planet are covered by mists and clouds, not oceans, because rivers flowing downhill eventually meet hot spots that turn them to steam. Humans inhabit high mountains and plateaus.
To the south of the City are low lying areas on the plateau called the Hollows. Valleys in the Hollows allow the mists from the cloud sea to roll in and condense in pools and rivers, making the Hollows a swamp-like environment. In the lowest parts of the Hollows, the inhabitants use rafts for travel, and carry weapons to protect themselves from the  dangerous swamp creatures that live there. Night birds are plentiful. Foxfire (phosphorous wood that emits a faint glow) can be found and used as a makeshift lantern in the dark foggy nights of the Hollows.
1From Cat S
2From Michael P
3Nate from the WorldBuilders guild at DeviantArt directed me to this wonderful trove of fantasy art. Some of the images that have served as inspiration:
4NC Pendergast gave me the idea of Iceland and volcanos for geological inspiration. http://ncpendergast.wordpress.com/
5From John H’s dream of a ” school whose main hall consisted of a swamp in which you had to row down on a raft a-la Tom Sawyer. Teachers were equipped with shotguns to protect the students from the large water snakes and crocodiles.”