SFF Settings

(From Middle Earth to Dying Earth: how to create SFF settings)

Stanley Kubrick’s Passion for Dressmaking

Stanley Kubrick, when he’d decided to film Thackeray’s novel Barry Lyndon, spent some time researching eighteenth-century costumes. Then he went to all the major film and theatrical costumiers, but was unsatisfied with what they offered him. His research had shown him that eighteenth-century ladies’ gowns were stitched in a particular way which wasn’t reproduced by modern costumiers. Only with the authentic eighteenth-century stitching, he concluded, could the gowns be made to hang authentically. So he ignored the costumiers, and had the  ladies’ gowns for Barry Lyndon made to his own specification.

Eighteenth-century Europe was almost as alien as an SFF setting. (The past is another country.) Kubrick’s film depicted it more accurately than probably any other film has done, because he insisted on getting the detail right. I believe the most important single thing, when creating any setting, is the quality of the detail. Of the small components.

I’m writing this more from the viewpoint of a reader than an author, since I only have experience of two novels – FAITH, and the second one I’m writing now – but my comments are based on what I’ve admired in the settings of other people’s novels, and what I’ve tried to put in the settings of my own.

A book can drill down to the detail from a pre-existing big vision, or build up from it layer by layer to create the big vision, but it’s always the quality of the detail which convinces. It’s the detail which makes the reader see how a setting is on an ordinary day, not just on a special day when spectacular things are happening. It’s the detail which makes the reader see that the setting has an everyday existence. Imagination has to create a setting first, but detail builds it. The small components make it work, and make it move.

Good detail helps to create internal consistency. Internal consistency is more important for SFF settings than for conventional settings. When Kubrick was re-creating eighteenth-century Europe, he was re-creating a setting which had actually existed, so its internal consistency was implicit; he just had to make sure his research was sufficiently thorough (which, being Kubrick, was a given).

For SFF settings, which of course haven’t existed, the internal consistency – how the setting works, how its components interact, day by day – has to be engineered in. This doesn’t mean everything has to be explained, through info dumps, glossaries, introductions or Jack Vance-style footnotes. The best SFF settings I can remember, as a reader, are ones where I’d stop to wonder what would happen if a certain set of circumstances arose, and find that the answer’s already there in the setting. The circumstances don’t even have to occur in the book – but, if they did occur, the reader would know that they wouldn’t threaten the setting’s reality.

Another thing about settings which I always notice as a reader is how convincingly the book’s characters interact with them. However wonderful a setting may seem to the author creating it, to the characters inhabiting it it’s everyday. They shouldn’t keep remarking on its wonders.

And, returning to minor components: I think a setting always works better if the author takes time off to describe a minor part of it  which doesn’t otherwise impinge on the main characters or story – a minor lifeform (if the setting is an ecology) or a minor day-to-day regulation or custom (if the setting is a society). It gives more texture.

Some examples of settings which, as a reader, I thought worked well:

Philip Dick :The Man in the High Castle
Thomas Harris: Fatherland
Margaret Atwood:The Handmaid’s Tale
Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere
Cyril Kornbluth: The Syndic
Keith Roberts: Pavane
China Mieville: Perdido Street Station
Brian Aldiss: Hothouse, Helliconia trilogy
Hal Clement: Mission of Gravity

All of the above is of course wrong, and amounts to little more than a pile of dingo’s kidneys, if applied to the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Douglas Adams proves it’s all wrong, and then tosses away the proof. He painstakingly creates a setting, then casually adds something (often no more than a phrase in brackets) which completely contradicts it. Sheer insolence. With a mere flick of a subordinate clause he will negate an extragalactic empire, or nullify millions of years of galactic history, after he’s spent paragraphs building them up. Sometimes he’ll go off on a frolic of his own, inventing and describing a new cosmology which supersedes Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg and Planck, and then finish with “All of this is, of course, completely impossible.”