The Aesthetics of Setting

by syaffolee

One characteristic of a great story is a memorable setting.  It isn’t required, of course, for a story to have any sort of setting at all–especially if your aim with the story is to focus on the characters rather than the background–but a setting is definitely something that helps one become engrossed in the story.  Sometimes the setting itself can become a character, especially if the plot is basically a man versus nature story.  And even if it isn’t nowhere near the status of character, setting has an indelible influence on characterization by challenging the actions and reactions of the other characters.  Setting dictates the aesthetics and style of how the story is told.  At the very least, it helps ground the reader into the where of the story–which is not the where of the reader’s location.

The example that comes to mind is not surprisingly one of my favorite books, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.  The heroine finds herself out in the middle of nowhere in a colonial outpost, a fish out of water in a hot, desert setting.  The setting itself–implicitly savage and desolate–allows the rest of the story to flow.  It seems perfectly natural, then, that a barbarian king would kidnap her in the middle of the night, that she would sleep in tents and wear flowing garb, that she would fight with swords rather than pistols.

So I’ve been thinking about setting in regards to my upcoming Nanowrimo project.  But, you may say, you’re essentially doing space opera.  There will be spaceships and ray guns and alien parasites bursting out of people’s stomachs.  Who cares about the setting when you need to pay attention to the plot and the science?  Sure, the plot and the science are important–but those two things are intertwined with the setting whether I like it or not.  And no one is going to care about the plot and the science if I can’t even getting the setting right.

Spaceships and ray guns, in of themselves, are merely tropes and clichés in the space opera genre.  In order to incorporate them into the setting without being lazy about it, these items need to be designed with a certain aesthetic.  It’s kind of like in Star Trek when the characters are aboard different vessels.  There’s different design aesthetics which let you know that yes, a Federation ship is not the same as a Klingon ship and also that both of those aren’t a Borg cube.  I guess my aim for the setting in pretty much any of my stories, regardless of genre, is to depict it in such a way that it seems real in an almost tactile way.  I read about a lot of writers saying that they see their stories like a movie in their head.  It’s not like that for me.  And even if it was, I’m not sure that I would even choose to write it that way.  I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, even if I enjoy a movie, there’s a detachment about it because I’m watching, not doing.  Yes, you the reader can still be the observer–but it’s the difference between sitting comfortably on the couch in front of a screen and sitting outside on the sidelines while the sun is beating down on you and being able to just reach out and touch what’s going on in front of you.

The reason why I think I can get away with contemplating aesthetic for a sci-fi novel, rather than designing something that could realistically exist in the future, is that my focus is not on the technology*.  Even though on the face of it the whole premise sounds like an adventure (documentary team travels the galaxy to find alien foods!), I view sci-fi as a reflection of contemporary society rather than what it will really be in the future**.  I might end up exploring themes of priviledged excess, jadedness and ennui due to overstimulation, and self-destruction from an obsession with materialism.  Pretty heavy stuff to be thinking about–and I might not even get to it during November.  But one thing I think will help me weave these themes into the narrative is the setting aesthetic.

So what sort of aesthetic am I going to use?  Well, think of the 1970s western lifestyle and its design aesthetic (or lack thereof).  Now put that into space. Yep. Put on your shades cause there’s going to be sparkly uniforms, mustachioed aliens, shag-carpeted captain’s chairs, and Vogon-grade disco dancing for good measure.

*There’s a difference between technology and science.  I don’t care so much about the whiz-bang gadgets of technology.  But whether anything is actually scientifically plausible?  Yes, that would get the scrutiny from me.
**I suspect the future will be at the same time as banal as today and something so different that we cannot even yet imagine.