Monday, January 4, 2010

Lost in Space: Assumptions of setting in genre fiction

If I'm reading a book and and the author drops the words "joust", "castle", "squire", "knight", I can immediately place myself at a medieval joust. Knights in shining armour. Girls tying ribbons to their suitors' lances. The steep walls of the battlements. The colours, sounds and smells. I don't need too much more description. I'm there.

On the other hand, if on the first page of a book I read "jump-ship", "holoscreen", "phaser", "air-lock" all I see in my head is vague grey shapes. How big is the jump ship? What colour are the uniforms? Where in space are we? What time period? What will the phaser do to someone and what the bally dickens is a holoscreen?

As most of you know, I've started reading sci-fi recently: some Lois McMaster Bujold, Orson Scott Card and so on. It's very exciting as there's a whole new genre for me to explore. I've always been fond of sci-fi television shows and movies such as Doctor Who, Sliders, Earth 2, Battlestar Galactica and most recently V (V is so freaking awesome. More please!); the Aliens films, Event Horizon, Contact, Moon and so on. I expected that making the switch from sci-fi visual media to books would be easy as pie, but not so. I'm rather lost. The problem seems to be that authors assume that the person reading their book has read hundreds of sci-fi books before picking up theirs and they only need to drop one or two descriptive words so the reader can retrieve right sort of sci-fi setting in their mind. Um, not this little black duck. But not only that--I'm used to dealing with settings of a few hundred or thousand miles square like those in fantasy novels, not multi-planet systems and deep space. The size of things and their relation to one another is critical to my understanding and enjoyment. If the MCs travel from Vertlop to Pillon 5 by jump ship, I'd like to know, for example:
  1. Where the two planets are in relation to one another; the distance between them; their size; their atmosphere/population/composition/social organisation etc.
  2. What a jump ship looks like/how big it is/how it works/the sounds and sights that the crew will hear/how long it will take
  3. Where the crew sits/what they're doing while on board/what their uniforms look like and so on and so on.
How much time an author spends on each of these, or whether they devote any time at all, will depend on the sort of story they're writing. Of course, I don't need to know these things every time a ship makes a jump, but if the author has their MCs making jumps every few chapters, I'd like to get a sense of what it looks like, at least the first time, instead of "the ship made a jump to Pillon 5" which is wholly unsatisfying and horribly frustrating.

I think I find myself lost when reading sci-fi compared to fantasy because so much of a sci-fi setting is man-made and extra-terrestrial (ie. not of Earth). Fantasy, on the other hand, is often set in Earth-like places with historical structures, ie. the castle in a psuedo-medieval setting. Add some magic and robes and other trimmings and we're done. But battle rooms and space stations and holoscreens, they either don't exist or very few people have seen them up close. No one has been past an asteroid belt, or seen the dark side of the moon (actually someone has seen this!), or skimmed the rings of Saturn in a space ship. All these are very interesting things and places and I would love to be taken there in a book, but I need to know what they look like. If I don't, I can't imagine it and the book just flops.

I imagine my current experience would be similar to a teenager's: they won't have read hundreds of sci-fi books either; Ender's Game, for example, might be the first book of its type that they pick up. (I don't have many gripes about setting in Ender's Game, by the way, but it would have been nice to know what the human's space station was orbiting, what colour the flash suits were and a little about the bugger system. But this stuff wasn't critical to understanding; it would just have been interesting to know.) The only assumption a young adult author writing sci-fi should make about their audience, then, is that this is probably the first, or one of the first, books of its type that a given reader is picking up. Therefore, setting is critical. I've read one sci-fi book that didn't even bother to tell the reader if, in this universe, Earth exists, how far away it is and what time period it's currently at. Maybe I'm a high-maintenance reader but I think this information is important.

Consider if Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn series, had assumed that all her readers were familiar with The Chrysalids by John Wyndham and Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien, two key post-nuclear apocalypse books for young adults, and had also lived through the Cold War--as she had. She wouldn't need to talk in detail about the wide-scale destruction of nuclear war, the mutations caused and the threat of the rediscovery of the war machines. Obernewtyn was written at the tail end of the Cold War, but one of the reasons it's still so popular today (and when I was a teenager) is because you don't have to know anything about the threat of nuclear war to understand the book. Carmody includes everything you need to know in her descriptions of the setting.

Last week I read Alien Secrets by Annette Curtis Klause, a middle-grade novel from 1993.

Puck, expelled from boarding school on Earth, is on her way to stay with her parents on the planet Shoon. On board the spaceship she befriends Hush, a native Shoowa who is also returning home in shame. He is desperately seeking a stolen treasure that was entrusted to him, a symbol of freedom for his people.

Puck and Hush must find the precious Soo before they reach Shoon. But who can they trust? And how will they save their own skins as they hurtle through space on a ship haunted by terrifying ghosts?

This shall suffice as my review: it wasn't a very good book, but kudos for the cute cats and the setting. Klause gets her characters onto a space station from which their jump ship is launched (Card points out in How to Write Sci-fiction and Fantasy that this is a fuel-effective way to launch as the ship is already in space and just needs a wee push to get it going); then they fly along for a while before making the jump into hyperspace. The jumps themselves are critical to the story and Klause gives quite a lovely description of the mechanism:

"And this is the place where our jumps are co-ordinated," the captain said. "The nerve center for hyperspace navigation."

They were in front of a raised dais that held a heavily padded chair fronted by a wall of instruments that gently curved toward the seat. The arms of the chair were studded with controls.

"The hyperspace navigator negotiates the jump from here," the captain explained. "It's a delicate operation that requires vast skill and intense concentration. During the jump a force field is generated to protect the navigator from distraction ..."

"Where does he see hyperspace?" Puck asked ...

Then there's some more description and explanation, and later in the book a description of what it's like for a jump pilot in hyperspace. I could "see" everything and didn't get confused once. (Though I did get rather bored and I don't recommend this book.)

I think that making assumptions about audience is something young adult authors in particular should be careful about, whether you're writing sci-fi or fantasy or even contemporary realism. By mere fact of their age, readers will not have read as broadly as an adult. By no means should concepts be dumbed down or eliminated; but it's important to consider how they are presented.


  1. I'd say it depends largely on the author. That reminds me i have an excellent YA SF book I should lend you.

    Also your blog doesn't allow me to use the arrow keys when writing comments, it is driving me batty!

  2. Well, I'm not much of a SF reader (not that I don't enjoy it, its just not the section I immediately head to at the bookstore), but I think the main problem is that authors a lot of the time have no clue what they're talking about. They exclude the "science" and pump up the "fiction" assuming that their readers are morons. So, perhaps what your referring to is the lack of knowledge and, since the authors don't know what would sound scientific and what would sound stupid, they just kind of skip that aspect. Or something.

    So, theres my two cents.

  3. Rory--It's not just me, I get that on blogger sites too sometimes! Do lend me that book when I see you.

    Dannie--I think you're on to something there. Putting real science in science fiction, and understanding it, is so important.

  4. I'd tend to say it depends on the reader's expectations. I, for one, don't care too much about what people are wearing. Unless it's hard sci-fi (heavily based on speculative science), it's more about the characters and the situations for me. Ben Bova does a great job with both, if you're looking for recommendations.

    Even in sci-fi, if there's not a well-drawn character to care about, there's not a story. For me, the rest is gravy. Your mileage (or kilometerage, since you're on the metric system) may vary. :)

  5. Science Fiction is the one genre that I really struggle with. I always jokingly say that I just don't have the imagination for it-but really my brain doesn't seem to want to conjour up the images described in the books. I have managed to get through a few of Orson Scott Card's Ender Series although I enjoyed his Alvin Apprentice series much more.

  6. I will admit, I am foremost a fantasy reader, but an occasional SciFi will grab me too. I do agree with you that the field is more open and readers need a bit more backstory to wrap their brains around time, place, community etc. Especially for YA readers (or those new to the genre). That said, I also agree with other commenters that characters are what really make a good book. You've got to have a fully-fleshed out character or your story won't go past chapter one no matter the genre.

    One SciFi I'm currently digging is Ann Aguirre's Sirantha Jax series (Grimspace, Wanderlust, Doubleblind). I think I like it because there are many cultural elements that I recognize - in some ways it reminds me of Star Trek - so that makes it easier to visualize the setting. They also have a little dash of romance which never hurts...

  7. Setting can be problematic in any genre, but I can see how Sc-fi would be difficult. I'm working on revisions for a YA historical right now, WW2/Hitler youth era, and I find myself wondering the same thing. How much should I spell out and how much can I assume the reader will just "see" based on how many Germany/war films they may have viewed?

  8. You see a lot of variety in sci-fi world-building depending on whether it's "hard" SF (emphasis on the "science") or "soft' SF (emphasis on the "fiction"). The former tends to leave a lot more to your imagination, focusing more on compelling scientific oh-wow-ness to drive the story. The latter takes its aesthetic cues from fantasy and if anything uses technology to set up an interesting sociological conundrum it wants to explore. Recent reads I enjoyed in the soft SF category include The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell) and Cordwainer Smith's short stories.

    BTW, I have a gift for you over on my blog.

  9. I agree with Michelle's comments. SciFi is an area that could be better tapped into with a YA audience, but it will always come down to the strength of the characters.

    Good post. It's obviously generating some quality discussion! :-)

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  11. I'll try again.

    Cos I am crap on knowing anything about sci fi, i can't really comment on this post at all. BUT i will say that i'll keep such things as assumptions of setting on the brain as I read the sci fi stuff I've got on my TBR in 2010 ;) I fairly think I'll find some real errors now that you've spoken about what to look out for...


  12. Simon--Super cute space suits=waaay important :)

    Tammy--I think that's why sf writers need to work harder, because it is so difficult to conjure the right images in your mind.

    Michelle--there's never any doubt that characters maketh the book. Setting has it's place too however.

    Elle--Wow! What a fascinating sounding book. And a very interesting topic. I see your conundrum. I guess as your book is aimed at a YA audience you'll have to assume that the reader has seen very little WWII footage.

    Laurel--I think you're right about hard and soft stuff. I shall look up the Sparrow!

    Shannon--Yes, the importance of characters. Always worth remembering.

    Aimme--I'm looking forward to your thoughts! I know you've got some good sf on your list coming up.