Setting: The Key to Speculative Fiction

The prolific Bruce Boston, whose poem “Vampire Fortuneteller” is on sale in our current issue now, visits the blog with an adapted lecture explaining the power of the science fictional setting.

by Bruce Boston

Why do many readers pass over realistic contemporary fiction and choose to read speculative fiction instead? They can certainly find compelling plots and characters in mainstream fiction. There are more books from which to choose, from classics to potboilers, and no lack of adventure, romance, suspense, and conflict. And most literary critics would contend that in the best mainstream fiction one encounters superior writing and greater emotional and ideational depth than in the best speculative fiction.

Yet speculative fiction can offer one distinctive and significant element that is lacking in mainstream fiction: the creation of an imaginary setting. The reason many readers choose speculative fiction over mainstream is because they want to leave the cares and concerns of everyday reality behind and be transported to a completely different world.

Further, an imaginary setting is not only essential to the definition of most speculative fiction, it generally plays a far more important role in it and a qualitatively different one than it does in mainstream fiction. In speculative fiction, setting is less a backdrop for action and characterization and more a key element that is intimately related to plot, character, and the story as a whole. In fact, one might argue that story elements such as plot and character are far less relevant to the success of a speculative fiction story than its setting.

Look at classic SF novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Logan’s Run by William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. In both these books, the conflicts the characters face and the direction the plot takes hinge completely on the environments the authors have created. Huxley’s very human “savage” becomes confused and tortured by his exposure to a hi-tech dystopia based on scientific humanism. Logan must embark upon a journey of discovery beyond his cloistered environment so that he will not be terminated at the age of twenty-one (thirty in the movie). The ideas that resonate through these novels would have been impossible to communicate without the settings their authors created. Both of these novels and many others in the speculative genre, with regard to their thematic content, can be viewed in terms of a dialectic. The setting presents the thesis; certain characters offer an antithesis; the resolution of the plot leads to a new thesis which often manifests itself as a changed environment.

Unlike most mainstream fiction, where the environment is not only a real setting but a relatively static one, the environments of speculative fiction are both imaginary and capable of transformation.

Even in speculative fiction stories where the overall setting remains unchanged, such as novels involving a journey or quest, it is often setting—not plot—that moves the narrative forward. The resolution of plot in such novels, in the broadest sense, is a foregone conclusion. Good will triumph over evil; the journey will be successful; the quest will be completed. What keeps the reader involved and anticipating more are the particulars of the fascinating environments through which the protagonists pass and the adventures they experience as a result of exploring those environments.

Framing a Speculative Setting

One way to approach setting in speculative fiction as a writer is to view its creation in the same way you would the creation of a character. If you’ve published a novel, or even a long story, and you encounter someone who has read it and has questions about it, odds are, if you are inclined, you’ll be able to say much more about the major characters in your story than actually appears on the page. This is because you’ve lived with them in the creation of the work. You’ve chosen certain actions for them and discarded others. You’ve explored their inner thoughts and conflicts, their values, their likes and dislikes.

Thus just as you might give a character long blond hair, a manic desire for revenge, a tendency to be deluded about his/her own importance, and a fear of snakes, you might give your setting automated walkways, a manic desire for consumption, an autocratic social structure, and an indifference to its ecological impact on the world around it. And just as a character might evolve and change as your story progresses, so can your environment.

An obvious example of the identity between character and environment in speculative fiction is the SF story we’ve probably all read at one time or another where a planet is revealed as a sentient consciousness. If you view your environment as a character, as having a kind of sentience that you create, if you bring it to life for yourself in the course of creating it, there’s a good chance it will come to life for your reader and greatly enhance whatever story you are telling.

Mainstream versus Speculative Settings

When it comes to creating a setting, the mainstream writer has certain advantages over the writer of speculative fiction. Suppose my mainstream novel deals with a character who becomes successful in the fashion industry. The action begins in small-town Kansas, moves to Manhattan, and then to Paris. Contemporary readers are already familiar with each of these settings, and with the fashion industry, either from personal experience or the media (movies, television, books, the Internet). The mainstream writer can bring them alive with a few deft strokes that play on this familiarity. If I have a scene where two of my characters meet at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, I don’t need to go into any great detail describing the Eiffel Tower and its surroundings. Most readers will know them already. Just mentioning the Eiffel Tower, and noting that the streets of Paris were jammed with honking traffic that rainy afternoon, will evoke a very specific setting.

This advantage extends beyond specific environments such as Manhattan or Paris to all the general settings of contemporary life. Flying in an airplane, riding in a taxi, sitting in a classroom, buying a hot dog from a sidewalk vendor. Each of these phrases calls up associations for us that we share in common to a large extent.

However, suppose I’m writing a speculative fiction novel set in the 25th century on the planet Tarjel. The action takes place in a city built by aliens. I have two characters meet at the foot of the Centauri Monument. Unless I’ve already described this world, this city and its structures, and the nature of this particular 25th century, I might as well have my characters meet in a vacuum. The planet Tarjel and the Centauri Monument evoke nothing in themselves, except perhaps a vague sense of the alien.

Thus in certain kinds of speculative fiction, you need to build your world from the ground up. If the setting of your story is different enough from what we experience in everyday life, this may need to include the political, cultural, and religious values of the world you are creating.

However, you are not the first speculative fiction writer. You are working in a tradition. If your readers are also familiar with this tradition, which most of them will be, you share some of the advantages of a mainstream author. None of us has ever walked on the surface of another planet, but through television, movies, and books, we have done so many times. If your story is set on the surface of the moon or Mars, even those who do not normally read speculative fiction will already have a readymade image of the setting in their minds. Most SF and fantasy readers will already have experienced sword and sorcery kingdoms, hi-tech mega-cities that cover an entire world, FTL travel to other star systems, totalitarian corporate states, worlds devastated by nuclear holocaust, etc.

Yet the more original your setting — and it should be original, at least in some of its specifics — the more it differs from contemporary realities both in our everyday lives and what we experience through the media, the more you are going to have to include telling details to bring it to life.

One advantage you have over the mainstream writer is that as long as your setting stays true to itself, as long as it complements your story and interacts in the right way with both plot and characters, you can create any kind of world you want. It is sometimes said that writers play God with their characters. As a speculative writer, you can also play God with your setting. In fact, this is exactly what you should do.

The Five Senses and More: Borrowing from the Everyday

We live in a culture that is primarily visual in its perception of reality. We use sight more than any of the other senses to judge and cope with the world around us. As a result, our other senses have to some extent become atrophied, both actually and in the attention we give to them.

One of the most common mistakes I see beginning writers make when creating an imaginary setting is relying exclusively on visual descriptions. If you want to bring a setting alive for the reader, you can use all of the sense impressions of your characters to describe it.

A few weeks ago I attended an arts-crafts fair held in a local park. It was a sunny day and quite warm. Many of the display booths had colorful pennants hanging from them. There were vendors selling food and a variety of other things. I could smell food cooking. I could hear music and the sound of children playing. The ground beneath my feet was uneven in places. In one area that was crowded, several people jostled against me. I bought a pita stuffed with ground lamb and vegetables and it tasted like cardboard.

We’ve all had a similar experience in the real world, and what makes it real is that all of our senses are receiving impressions. The same goes for a setting in fiction. You can see that it would not be hard to transpose an experience such as this to the marketplace of an alien planet circling Betelgeuse. Yet if you limit yourself to the visual, if all you do is describe what the marketplace looks like, it remains one-dimensional, as if your reader were viewing it on a flat television screen rather than walking through it.

There is no need to include sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste in every scene. And visual descriptions will probably remain the most significant and effective in creating your physical setting. Yet if you let your readers hear, touch, smell, and taste the world you are creating, it will become all the more convincing for them.

But that still may not be enough. Our perception of an environment in the real world consists of more than sense impressions. How we feel about these impressions, and what we think of the environment as a whole, are perhaps of even greater import. Is your character pleased by the festive atmosphere of the marketplace or disturbed by the strange mix of odors in the air? Is this a fair that was held for a particular reason, and if so, what? Was it to celebrate a banner harvest? To acclaim the return of conquering heroes from a war in which an entire populace had been ruthlessly slaughtered?

All of the above are available to you in creating your setting. There is no necessity to use them all, particularly in a single scene. But being aware of them as you write, and learning to use them effectively, can help you to create rich and believable environments that readers are going to want to inhabit.

Here are two techniques I have used that you may find of value.

When I’m working on a story with a speculative setting, a world very different from our own that I need to create, I think about the story and the world in which it is taking place as I drift off to sleep each night. With regard to setting, I don’t just consider it in terms of the scenes of the story, but I let my mind take an imaginative journey through other parts of the world in which the story is taking place. In this way you may generate additional information for the story, but more importantly, the world you are creating will begin to take on a broader and deeper reality for you. Again, the more real your setting becomes for you, the more likely you are to convince your readers of its existence and bring it alive for them.

The second technique can be used in concert with the first or on its own. Returning to the idea that setting in speculative fiction is akin to character, give your setting a temporary sentience and pretend that sentience is your own, just as you would with a character. Take on the values of the society you are portraying, the physical characteristics of the world you are portraying. How does this world feel about your characters, about itself? This can lead to some interesting insights, not only in terms of the setting but with regard to your narrative and the story as a whole.

The Setting beyond the Setting

Beyond the physical and cultural setting in which a story takes place, there is another kind of setting that one experiences as a reader. It exists in all fiction, though it comes to the forefront and is most obvious in the work of authors who exhibit distinctive voices and views of reality. When you read Kurt Vonnegut’s work you not only travel with his characters to the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden or share an alien zoo cage with them on the planet Tralfamadore, you inhabit the world and the values created by Vonnegut’s satiric, often dark, and slightly quirky view of reality. When you read Hemingway, you not only travel to a bullfight in Spain or with a safari in Africa, you inhabit Hemingway’s view of the world with his specific code of values and behavior. Surely, if Vonnegut wrote Hemingway’s stories or Hemingway wrote Vonnegut’s, even if the physical and social settings remained the same, the experience of those settings for the reader would change drastically.

This setting beyond the setting, which might be called a meta-setting, applies not only to moral and philosophical perspectives and individual perceptions of reality, but also to simple questions of individual tastes. If you love the rain and dense forests, your description of rain in a dense forest will no doubt be colored in some positive way by this preference. Likewise, if you hate the rain and find dense forests frightening, the reverse will most likely apply.

How much your own particular voice, values, and tastes will become a meta-setting that colors the physical and social settings of your stories is something you will discover in the course of writing. It is also something to consider with regard to the question of whether you are writing a story mainly as a means of self-expression and artistic creation or writing the story to sell to a particular market.

In writing speculative fiction, you can create compelling characters and a superlative storyline, but unless you take your readers to a different world and make them believe in its existence, to experience it as if it were real, you are much less likely to hold their interest. So learn to inhabit the world you are creating. Walk down its streets. Breathe its air. Taste its food. Experience its pleasures and its terrors. Enjoy the imaginative creation of setting the same way you do with characters and plot, and there is a good chance that your readers will, too.

Bruce Boston photo bw 300dpi

Bruce Boston is the author of more than fifty books and chapbooks, including the novels The Guardener’s Tale and Stained Glass Rain. His poetry has received the Bram Stoker Award, the Asimov’s Readers Award, and the Rhysling and Grandmaster Awards of the SFPA. His fiction has received a Pushcart Prize, and twice been a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award (novel, short story). His latest collection, Visions of the Mutant Rain Forest, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.  

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