Surfing the Cosmos on an Ironing Board
World-building for Science-Fiction Part 1
So you’ve decided you want to write science-fiction. Whether it’s been a life-long love affair or a recent flirtation, something about postulating the future charms you. The idea of writing grand space operas and gritty struggles is a necessary one – we write science fiction because we need to warn of a future we fear, or to teach a future we desire. Science fiction, outside of almost any other genre, is designed to force the reader to think. Even action sci-fi, a recent phenomenon, still forces ideas deep inside of us.
However, the charm of science fiction comes from a parasitic relationship between its characters and its setting. In most areas of writing, the characters shouldn’t be dependent on their surroundings, and in fact most stories use ‘sets’, a means of understood placement that allows the reader to input their own visuals into the story. Science fiction by its own nature can’t allow set pieces, because the depth of the fiction comes from world-building. World-building is perhaps the most important thing you can do in science fiction. The decisions made during the world-building, even if the readers are never aware of them, color the characters, the society they come from, the understandings they have of the world around them, and how their relationships function. This is how we introduce alien concepts to a reader.
So the first decision to be made is the area of time. There are three basic time-frames to choose.
The first type of science fiction is near-future. In near-future science fiction, the characters know where earth is. They’re more than likely from our own Terra Firma. Aliens may or may not be involved, but they may still feel a little new and scary to the characters (Unless they are the aliens. Always fun to play with that.) and definitely don’t come from earth. Everything from Blade Runner to Johnny Mneumonic would be considered near-future, as would Star Trek, since the origin planet is known and exploration is a main theme.
The second type of science fiction is far-future. There is no ‘origin’ planet. The society has outgrown its own history and has been in the galaxy for as long as anyone can remember, or the origin planet has been destroyed. This allows for wild speculation and involved fiction, but it can be more difficult to allow the readers into the world. Star Wars and Dune would both qualify in this type.
The third type can be called several things, whether Time (though this doesn’t adequately describe it) or Modern (though this doesn’t either) or Alternate (which is closer). In this form of science fiction, something that is already familiar to the readers is invaded and touched by the future or scientific elements that change the game. The Terminator series would be an example, as would Doctor Who. Time Travel falls into this category for the most part, as do First Encounter stories set in modern day, as well as mutation stories and scientific experimentation blowouts. The story isn’t near-future, it’s happening right next door to the readers.
After deciding what type of science-fiction you’d like to write, there are some key points in each type to look into.
Next week, we’ll look at the key factors to world-building in Near-future Science Fiction. After spending some time looking at each type, we’ll focus on society-building from the ground up.
Your homework for the week: What draws you to science-fiction? Do you desire to warn, or praise? What are the basic concepts that you want to place before your readers? Is there already a character that’s making themselves apparent? And if there is, which type appeals to you, and why?
Post back, and feel free to discuss! And please excuse the day late and dollar short - we ended up in a place without Internet last night.