First off, next week is the long-awaited Spectrum of Speculative Fiction Blog Hop! Roughly 15 SF writers have banded together to build and man a U.S.S. Stareship to take the One Ring and throw it into the Sun, then build a Death Star, fit it with Nova Bombs to take out the Sun to finish the job, and then come back to Earth and Nuke the Site From Orbit to remove any last vestiges of the Dark Lord’s face-hugging forces, you know, Just to Be Sure. Meanwhile, on this journey, we’ll write about our respective sub-genres and give you the chance to win FREE stuff. Stuff that was on the starship taking the One Ring to the Sun. I mean, come on, what’s not to like? Everyone loves stuff.
Since that’s still a week away, I thought I would lead up to that by switching gears from last week’s World Modeling/RPG-analysis series and instead talk about world-building and its integral nature to SF. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the more awesome game systems after AD&D in future posts.). This week is somewhat appropriate to next week’s theme in that this article was sparked by reflecting on the post of fellow SF author and Blog-Hop crew mate, Tammy Salyer. Well, that, and a few sessions of pipe smoking while thinking about the importance of setting to Sci-Fi, and whether Dumbledore could beat Gandalf in a pipe-ring-ship-shape blowing contest. It’s a genre where good characters alone won’t get you from point A to B (especially if A is Earth, and B is dropping the One Ring into the Sun).
Tammy Salyer, editor and author of kindle military-sci-fi books Contract of Defiance and its newly released sequel, Contract of Betrayal, hit on something in her recent article titled “Worldbuilding for Non-Planetary Engineers.” She stated, “the specific world you build is as much a part of the plot as the plot is.” This precisely nailed it, and I thought I could say in lot more words what she so efficiently rendered in a few. At any rate, this sparked thoughts…
Setting is important to Speculative Fiction (SF) (I’ll use this as an umbrella term to encompass both sci-fi and fantasy) in such a way that I think it’s essential to the genre. Whether we’re talking sci-fi or fantasy, there is something about the setting, the world, that is different from our own. It might be a small difference, such as a technology that doesn’t exist. It might be a medium difference, such as the presence of the supernatural in the modern world. It might be a huge difference, such as a completely different planet, galaxy, or dimension). Either way, big or small, there is a difference.
And, the unique character of the world must impact the plot.
Let’s call these differences “SF-elements”. These SF-elements could be external to the characters (e.g., Aliens, where the characters are no different from you or me), or they might be part of the characters themselves (e.g., any alien race, or superhero, or supernatural character.) Without that, I would argue, we don’t have SF.
But, let me take that a step farther. If either the character development or the plot itself is not intrinsically affected, in some way, by the SF-elements of the setting, then it’s not SF. In other words, if you’re writing a sword-and-sandal story set on another world, but there’s no magic, or no world feature that sets it apart from Earth (magical or not), then it’s not a fantasy. If it could be set on Earth with no appreciable difference in plot other than to FIND-REPLACE location names, then it’s just historical fiction in a made-up location. Not SF.
It’s an old aphorism that good stories have good characters. It’s not enough to have a great world if the characters themselves aren’t interesting (however you define it—there’s certainly some subjectivity to that). But, characters don’t exist in a vacuum. The whole “nature vs. nurture” paradigm comes into play. Characters have their inner natures, but they and their growth are affected by the setting in which they find themselves.
Not every SF-element has to be central to the plot or character development. For example, in Star Wars the reality of hyperspace is a defining factor of the world, but it doesn’t really have a crucial impact on the story. You could tell the Star Wars story on a single planet, or in a single star system. This is not a criticism—I like SF-elements as special-effects “flavor” as much as the next SF fan. However, I think to have a good SF story, some of that flavor needs to engage and drive the plot, characters… and as a result, the audience. In the case of Star Wars, it’s the Force. The rise and fall of the Empire, and the symmetric counterpoint of the fall and rise of the Skywalker family, is directly and essentially tied to the Force and people’s interaction with the Force.
Star-Trek is a little different. It doesn’t have a single unifying SF-element around which the story revolves. Not only that, it’s a little tougher to find the pure window-dressing as well, since technology in Star Trek is more essential to the stories than in Star Wars. However, I propose the following: the “standard” sapient alien races (Klingon, Vulcan, etc) are the “special effects” elements. None of the stories involving the races are driven by the being aliens (as juxtaposed against Giger’s Alien), because they’re not really *alien*. Roddenberry wanted all his aliens to share an essential humanity. However, the technology, the space distances, the implications of radically different cultures, time travel, the Q, the wormhole aliens, commander Data… all of these mix to combine the core SF-element that *is* integral to the plots and character development. It is the spirit of exploration, not just of space, but of what we can achieve as a people (technology *and* societal).
The Lord of the Rings is clear. I would argue that little of it is “window dressing”. Tolkien is good about interweaving elements of mythology and history that it all culminates to central character that defines the world and shapes the characters. And, of course, with the Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is the central unifying force around which all other elements of the story polarize.
It should also be noted that not all “elements” are SF. There are Real-World (RW) elements, like religion, racism, war, romance, discrimination, etc, that make their way into SF stories. To come back to Star Trek, the SF-elements provide a framework on which many RW elements are explored. I would argue that a good SF story has a blend of SF and RW elements that drive the plot and characters forward, and I like the way SF-elements can provide an angle for perspective on RW-element issues. If we only see SF elements, the characters can become less relatable. If we only see RW elements driving the plot and characters, we can get a great story, but may question whether it needs the SF window-dressings. However, I would take a RW story with SF elements applied for pure fun factor over an SF story with no RW elements that make it relatable or bring the characters to life.
Ok, that’s probably enough for now… next week, craziness ensues with the Spectrum of Speculative Fiction Blog Hop!
Now I must go back to my scanning console and make sure those face-hugging troops of the Dark Lord don’t cause viral breakouts that create zombie orcs… or worse, My Little Predators. (Huh. If male fans of MLP are called Bronies, would that make for Brodators? Stop, Kyle, now you’re just being silly.)