by: Alexander Limberg
How to create your own world in science fiction….
Deep inside, we all want to be gods. Not adhering to rules, but defining them. Maybe that’s the reason why you, writer, acting as a reader at this very moment, and me, writer, are drawn that much to creating fiction. Where else can you build your own world, do as you please with any individual, rescue or kill him just according to your personal tastes and even bend the laws of the world to your liking?
In fiction you can. Any world of fiction sets its own rules, even if it’s just the angle it is coming from. In a thriller, for instance, there is very little room for laughter, everything is looked at from a factual, suspense-driven angle. In a comedy, everything is supposed to be funny. You might have noticed though that in real life funny and tragic moments often take turns very quickly and even come as a package within the same experience. All this just supports the idea that your TV set is not a true reflection of real life!
Of all genres, the two which rely most on creating their own worlds are definitively fantasy and science fiction. For his fantasy world Middle-Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien went so far as to invent not one, but several languages! Diving into a world that detailed and miraculous must feel very tempting to a lot of people, and so the masses pilgrimaged to theaters to watch Lord of the Rings a decade ago. No doubt these adoring fans would rather be guided by Gandalf than by their own employer.
Science fiction on the other hand represents a harsher, less elfish and cozy world. Whereas fantasy suggests This could be, science fiction proclaims This will be, which is a call much more threatening to make, and thus we feel more personally affected by science fiction.
Ok, so you want to be a young god or goddess, create your own science fictional world, kill everybody, and let the rest live to your liking. Now, how do you go about it, you ask? What tips and guidelines can I provide you with on your honorable world building quest?
First and foremost, there is the question about your world’s background. What world do your characters inhabit? Spend some time on a detailed outline, because the more you can wrap your reader up in the feeling of a real world, the more they will care about your story. For example, is your story “fantastic” science fiction with many curious races involved, like Star Wars? Is it a high-tech futuristic environment drifting through the vast reaches of space like Star Trek? What does it feel like? Which aspect of science fiction does it highlight?
Remember the 80s movie Blade Runner? It’s a perfect example for studying background, for it consists mainly of atmosphere! Lawrence G. Paull’s wondrous production design, the highly acclaimed cinematography of Jordan Cronenweth, and Vangelis’s gloomy score all come together to create an extremely moody environment.
Blade Runner outlines a dark cyberpunk world and emphasizes the somber, haunted aspect of science fiction. It’s a cold, lonely, alienated world, one in which you can’t be sure if your opposite is human or an artificial clone looking like a human1.
Of course, you could go an entirely different route and make your world a friendly place with aliens that resemble SpongeBob, feeding you grapes all day long. Whatever floats your boat. The SpongeBob version would render a completely different context and statement to your story, and would of course require entirely different details and procedures (see below).
But whatever background you choose, here is the trick: Give it a healthy balance between a world well known to the reader and a completely unknown one! Lend it certain items and processes that seem familiar to your audience, embedded in a new, futuristic context: Queueing at the register in the supermarket (a familiar, slightly annoying feeling, but in your world it’s done resting on hovering chairs), meter parking (in your world the city wants your karma). For if all your reality depicts is entirely new, your readers won’t recognize themselves in it anymore. But if your reality is too close to the known world – well, it’s not science fiction any longer then, is it?
Everything that’s true about people in our world should be true about people in your invented world as well. After all, basic human psychology never changes.
Next, there is the purely physical level. Based on your background, what does your world look, sound and feel like? The future appears streamlined, sounds mechanic and feels waterproof – at least that’s what the popular convention in science fiction wants to make us believe.
What the audience “sees” and “hears” right away is the uppermost layer of your background. In the case of Blade Runner, do you remember all of the tubes, consoles, screens, scanners and the feeling they gave you? Do you remember the dark, threatening details of that world, whether it was an abandoned, deranged apartment block or stacks spitting huge clouds of fire?
The idea behind science fiction is technology taking over our lives. Technology, by default, is artificial. Science fiction worlds are user-friendly, repellent, made of plastic and metal. Have you ever seen an iPad made of raw meat? Me neither. These worlds are all synthetics and steel.
Typical science fiction design looks streamlined, reflecting, immaculate. It sounds mechanical and automated, like a clicking, a buzzing, a laser-like swoosh. It feels smooth, firm and cold. Minimalism and functionality prevail throughout. Everything is made for quick use and to save time. Keep this in mind when you are describing your world and what the characters see, hear and feel.
Then again, all of this is just an idea, a stereotyped label. Yes, just go ahead, be bold and have fun. Create some science fiction with overwhelmingly furry surfaces for instance!
Think about the technological changes you worked out for your version of the future – what’s ridiculously easy for people to do now? Do they beam themselves to work? Read each other’s thoughts instead of listening to them for easier access?
From the purely technological advance you can then extrapolate the social, the logistical, the bureaucratic changes and many other areas more. Throughout the centuries, technological changes have always brought along changes in all other aspects of life. Take the law, for example. We have the internet now and people have access to never-before-seen technology to exploit each other on a whole new level. So as a society we need to come up with a whole new set of rules, e.g. against cyber-criminals. Think of all the areas of life the internet has had a major impact on: Commerce (online sales), love and sex (online dating), financials (online stock exchanges), and many, many more. With the advent of the Internet, technological advance brought massive shifts in numerous other areas of life with it.
But let’s consider law again for a moment. Say if people read each other’s thoughts to save some time – where is the legal limit? Do thoughts exist that nobody is allowed to read, private thoughts? How is thought reading controlled and what’s the punishment for stepping over this line? What’s the legal consequence of reading a policeman’s thoughts? The government’s notion to control its population always brings new threatening elements with it – that’s fertile ground for any science fiction story and some healthy paranoia.
If we re-examine the Blade Runner world again, its citizens have to undertake complicated emotional tests to expose if they are replicants or not. Replicants that are uncovered will be retired (executed). See how new technology (production of replicants) inevitably leads to new social and legal ramifications?
And sometimes, just once in a while, technology backfires too – wasn’t the internet invented to save us a lot of time? And how much time did you waste on Facebook this week? This is the irony of progress.
Finally, remember, that new universe of yours has to be imaginative! Had your reader the desire to read about the trashcans and trees behind his house, he would have just studied an essay about waste recycling in Dipshit, Ohio. Instead, not only give him something he doesn’t know and won’t ever know about, but give him something nobody has ever experienced before.
What is it that makes science fiction so appealing?
It’s just that we love to imagine what the future has in store for us! This is how human beings are wired. This is the dream of humanity, to live without boundaries! So hand out some literary candy to the reader. Which unimagined possibilities he wouldn’t dare to dream of in real life will he encounter in your story?
Is it time traveling to tell his younger self about the pitfalls of life’s journey? Is it a robot who does all his homework for him? Free-of-charge sex with a clone? In Blade Runner, we have an object as mundane as a video device reacting to vocal commands. We have flying police cars – which admittedly sound more like a nightmare than a dream to the average traffic participant – but at least they are every policeman’s wet dream!
So there you have it, the future is limitless and time is incomprehensible to the human mind. Humanity will always wonder what the future has in store for them and people will always be fascinated by science fiction. And when the future finally arrives – it will be past us within the blink of an eye… and a new future will be awaiting!
Alexander Limberg runs a blog about creative writing at www.ridethepen.com. Ride the Pen performs the trick of taking apart the texts of famous authors (Shakespeare, Kafka, Ibsen,…) to take a close look at them; in the end, you will always find a writing prompt. Alex likes polar bears and orange juice.
- Known as a replicant. [↩]