by wjw on January 12, 2019

Escher's_RelativityThere follow some thoughts on setting, inspired by the earlier discussion on corridors.

Setting is a character in fantasy and SF, or should be if the author knows what he’s doing.  This is particularly true in fantasy, where the setting can become this big, unwieldy character with which the protagonists have to wrestle in practically every scene.  The setting in fantasy has rules (there are elves, there are dragons, there is magic, there are Portals), and the setting itself can have personality: it could be angry, mysterious, blustering, loving, passive, poisoned, or inhabited by eagles who can rescue the characters at the very last minute, thus bringing about a eucatastrophe.  (A really complex fantasy world, like Middle-Earth, it could have all of these features, and in Middle-Earth there is also a strong No Sex rule.)

In fantasy, every scene can be a discovery in which some new aspect of the setting is revealed.

Setting can reflect the people who live in it, as with Miss Havisham’s house, or Wuthering Heights, or any haunted house you can name.  Penetrating a haunted or mysterious house is to explore the mind and personality of its builder more or less distorted by its incarnation in the world.

As with relations between people, relations between the setting and the protagonist can have a long, fraught History.  This allows an opportunity to see how both the setting and the protagonist change over time.

Setting can feature mysterious but powerful symbols, as for example a white whale or the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.

In any case, setting should be interactive.  The characters should be seen observing, reflecting on, and moving through the setting, which will provide a better understanding not only of the setting but of the character.

Setting should also reflect a character’s state of mind.  If he’s moody or depressed, put him in a room with crepuscular hangings, and a chaise-longue on which he can drape himself in an attitude of despair.  A sunny garden is appropriate for a cheerful person, and if your protagonist is in the throes of love, every single item in the room will remind her of the loved one.  Taxidermy is as appropriate for some characters as wrought iron is for dungeons.

Setting can serve as foreshadowing.  (Remember that crack in the House of Usher.)  And if you’re in a Tolkien novel and clouds cover the sun, you’d better take a tighter grip on your elven sword and hope the eucatastrophe happens sooner rather than later.

Science fiction can be less dependent on setting than fantasy, in part because in fantasy, each scene can include a discovery of the rules by which the fantasy world works, whereas SF usually assumes that the setting operates by the same rules as the world inhabited by the reader, and that those rules are called Science.

But like fantasy, and maybe more like historical fiction, SF shows us a world that isn’t ours, and the whole point of the exercise is to stimulate a reader’s imagination and sense of wonder by tossing out the mundane restrictions of our real world and presenting something else.  In the course of the work the reader should experience a sense of discovery, and that sense can be transmitted through careful use of setting.

SF can be filled with lush descriptions of alien worlds and environments— see Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe— but sometimes the setting can be an idea, as with Ringworld and  Riverworld, or the world in Asimov’s “Nightfall,” or anything described as a utopia.  Story and character aren’t so much neglected as overwhelmed by the idea/setting, which is so much bigger.

Because SF can take place in a world much like our own, or in a completely artificial setting like an asteroid colony or a starship, there is a decided temptation to skimp on describing the setting.   “Everyone already knows what a corridor looks like.”  “Everyone knows what a command center looks like.”  (I always default to those on Star Trek, myself.)

I wouldn’t say it’s wrong, but I think the author is missing an opportunity.  A few well-chosen details can illuminate the setting and character as well as any painter.

“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black.”

“He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher— the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.”

“The sun in the hollow center of Kybele is supported by six Eiffel Towers.”

Well you know right where you are, don’t you?  And you have a pretty damn good idea of the sort of people you’re going to meet there.  And that’s only the first sentence.

All description is a Portal to bring the reader into the action.  And the best thing about a Corridor is that it will inevitably lead to a Portal.

John F. MacMichael January 12, 2019 at 3:38 am

These are all good opening sentences because each one leaves you wanting to hear the rest of the story. I recognize your second quote as the opening sentence of Kipling’s “Kim”. Anybody out there who can identify the sources for the first and third?

-dsr- January 12, 2019 at 5:55 am

The first is Hard Times, Charles Dickens.

The third is The Man in the Tree, by Sage Walker, published in 2018.

John F. MacMichael January 12, 2019 at 4:59 pm

Thank you -dsr-.

Etaoin Shrdlu January 13, 2019 at 6:05 am

On the other hand, a depressed person in a sunny garden goes to show just how frogging depressed he really is. . . .

Robert M Roman January 15, 2019 at 9:30 am

Were I a frog, I would be depressed, sunny or not.

pecooper January 15, 2019 at 9:54 am

“I always default to those on Star Trek, myself.”

As I write, I’m looking into the control center of a major utility and I notice that you have the area operators in the front, seated at semicircular consoles with keyboards and displays. They are facing a big curved display wall showing the state of the power lines throughout the state. There is a raised section behind them. In the center, sits the system operator, master of his domain, with his own set of consoles, overlooking the operators and the display wall. Behind him and on either side of the control room are the specialists and engineers at their stations, all providing specialized knowledge and expertise to running the system.

The center was built in 1995. I’m sure that the layout is just a coincidence, though.

Susan January 15, 2019 at 11:53 am

I usually address “world building” in my reviews of fantasy & science fiction and find it grating when the author doesn’t spend enough time on it so I can immerse myself in the novel and be transported to another place that is not ours.

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