Recently I’ve been researching and world building for an upcoming novel and came up against an interesting problem. If you’re writing science fiction that’s set in a galaxy “far, far away” then you can just make up any setup you want, but my novels are intended to be more realistic than that and so I need to reference real star data.
If it was just a case of setting the story on another planet around another star, this also wouldn’t be too much of an issue. There are numerous very good star charts and references available online or for download, and if you want something less outwardly shiny, there are also plenty star catalogs with all the astronomical information you could ever need.
The problem with these systems is that they don’t let you see very easily how things connect. Although they are in 3D they often limit the manipulation of the star fields. They also don’t allow you to add in your own information, such as the Stryxx homeworld actually orbits 20 Leonis Minoris or that Bob is exploring Gliese 414 nearly 15 light years away in that direction. Or maybe I want to plot trade routes or document an expanding Terran empire.
In these cases more traditional astronomy software doesn’t help. Up to now I’ve managed to avoid this necessity, but this latest story is taking me right into the mire of needing realistic, flexible mapping and positioning of stars as well as the ability to plan out star systems, worlds etc. In other words I need a realistic science fiction world building tool.
After much frustration and searching I finally found NBOS’s AstroSynthesis 3.0 software. This appears to have been originally designed for those in the role-playing game community, but it works well for scifi writers too.
The software provides a 3D viewing space similar to that seen on many movies and games and allows you to select the stars in the view to examine details about them. If that were all it did though it would have little over the more usual star catalog software. Where AstroSynthesis stands out is that it not only allows you to add your own notes to star systems, but you can mark them for such things as political groupings, population, check travel distances and lengths, and even generate entire star systems complete with realistic planet formations. What’s more you can customize these by adding ships, space stations, fleets, and many more items that will help you track what is happening in your universe.
As for the star systems and their positions, you can generate them using built-in random routines. Or there are several downloads available from the site that make use of real-world astronomical data and include information such as a star’s mass, size, spectral type and much more.
With that in mind I downloaded one of the star data packs and started customizing it for my story world. The process is somewhat involved, but easy enough once you get to grips with the software’s idiosyncrasies. Overall the software does pretty much what it claims, but I found it a little unstable and would recommend saving your file frequently. The view navigation is a little limited too and it would be nice to have a mouse controlled “slide” feature. This would make it easier to see the area around your star(s) of interest (there is a “slide” feature, but it doesn’t do that).
One area the software falls down on is being able to easily filter the views. For instance it would be extremely useful to have a configurable distance filter (again to help with clarity), but this isn’t available and the somewhat fixed view center (as mentioned in the slide comment above) is also troublesome.
A useful feature that helps overcome some of these limits is that AstroSynthesis contains a built-in scripting language, so you can program your own additional functions and filters. This is based on VBScript so should be accessible for anyone with a little development experience. Unfortunately this is also one of its weak points, as the documentation on the scripting is poor and lacks information, though so far I’ve been able to puzzle out everything I needed.
Support also seems weak. There is a customer forum, but it seems to get little response from the developer and its basic functionality seems troublesome (even after registering I couldn’t manage to even post a question for example).
One unusual feature is the ability to program animations traveling through the 3D starmap and rendering them out as video files. I’ve not really got a use for this at the moment, but it’s certainly an interesting “extra.”
Given these short-comings I can’t recommend AstroSynthesis without reservation. If you can live with it’s limits and have some development knowledge, you’ll probably be fine. If you haven’t, then I’d suggest doing a thorough evaluation to ensure it will meet your needs.
That said, all in all it’s looking very useful–certainly the closest I’ve found to a good science fiction world builder and worth the money — 3.5 stars