Have you ever been in a room with really awful wallpaper? Poor setting design in a story can have the same effect. And if you’re building a speculative fiction world, you’re working with an empty, minimalist home: every choice matters. Every element is integral to the whole.
Given that I hold this view, I’m routinely surprised by the lack of attention paid to settings in sci-fi, especially those of the gritty noir subgenre. Authors often treat their settings as backdrops–rain, neon, streets full of hopeless-looking people and/or abandoned stuff, falling buildings, NPCs with gaunt faces–because they know their readers have consumed a metric ton of this media before, and they bet on the imaginations of the audience to fill in the gaps and let them get on with the story.
However, the real world isn’t like that. The world isn’t a backdrop. The world is the story. For example, think back to one of those days where you woke up telling yourself you’re going to be super productive–only to get bad news and have the rest of your day thrown into a funk. Things happen in the world, and those things can affect how we get through a day, a week, or our entire lives. When authors don’t take this into account, it makes the story feel shallow and unrealistic. There’s a concept some authors use to describe this: the blank, white room. The characters are doing their thing, but there’s no sense of where they are or how their environment is affecting them. Whether it’s a white room or bad wallpaper, this is definitely something I try to avoid in my own work, the “Aces High, Jokers Wild” series.
When I sit down at the keyboard, I have a guiding rule for writing environmental details: the environment is a character in its own right. I don’t often say this aloud, but in my heart of hearts I anthropomorphize the environment I live in and use for the settings of my works as Lady Colorado: powerful and mercurial, weather-beaten and implacable. Sometimes she wears the face of a patient Ute matriarch whose ancestors began the world here, sometimes the aged-leather face of a European-American woman who’s lived on this land all her life. She does not suffer fools, and She is an indifferent companion to the human race. Fight Her and you will suffer for it. But if you learn to work with Her—learn what plants She can nourish, understand that Her seasons don’t match the Colonial calendar that European-Americans imported from Europe, treat Her precious water with the sparing reverence it deserves—She might just smile in your direction and give you a nod.
My characters are never as explicit as I am above, but as I write about them and their world, I try to open the door for the reader to connect with the environment as another character. In ‘Landmarks’, Robert MacFarlane writes “placeless events are inconceivable, in that everything must happen somewhere.” I want readers to feel like they are somewhere when they read the Aces High, Jokers Wild series.
You’re not in some nameless Mad Max badlands. No. You’re in Golden CO, winding down the road between the low hills and smelling the yellow dust in the air. You’re up the Poudre Canyon, listening to the water gush down the gorge far below and wary of that road whose hairpin turns could drop you right off the side of a cliff if you’re going too fast. You’re on Sixteenth Street in Denver, the high buildings stretching up as if they’re trying to imitate the mountains. (Oh, and somebody just jacked your wallet, by the way.)
So much of science fiction has separated our imaginations from the land. It takes us away to strange places. It treats this land that gives us enough calories for leisure, the paper to make books, and all the resources to build our castles in the sky as somehow unimportant. Mundane. Nameless. A resource to be used. We’re looking outside our world for wonder, because we’ve been stripping the awe from the way we see the land around us for decades.
We stripped the spirit of the land out of our thinking, and we looked up to the stars hoping for magic and wonder. What is under our feet has become raw material. And it will stay that way, inert and degraded in our heads and our hearts, if we don’t change the way we’re telling the story. That’s what I think about when I put my fingers to the keys. I need to write a different kind of story. I don’t want to live in a future where the Earth is without vitality.
For my characters, a food garden is the root of a truly liberated life. Knowledge and resources to grow food rather than steal it is a victory. And speculative fiction doesn’t have to take us out of this changing world. I don’t want to write us out of this world: I want to write us back into it. Back into a healthy balance with it, as we grow resolved to screw up less and do good by the land more. Back into a compact and an understanding with the Land: I’ll understand your seasons and take care of you, you’ll help me put food in my kids’ bellies. And I want to write us into hope: hope that we can learn again to live with our land. To thrive with it. To learn from it and help it grow. I want to write about a world that isn’t easy, but good. A world where people use technology not to poison the water, but to clean it. A world where people build water condensers instead of draining aquifers. Where they put up solar panels and wear voltaic clothes to produce energy instead of spilling the earth’s black blood. A world where we do more good than harm.
I’m writing my books to say, it won’t be easy. But it can be done. It will be done, if we decide to do it. I’m writing to say that we have choices. There is a decision to be made. We can choose another way to live with our land. The decision is up to us.
So come on. Let’s pick up that pen. Let’s pick up the shovel. We’ve got a new story to write.
About O.E. Tearmann
Tearmann lives in Colorado with two cats, their partner, and the belief that individuals can make humanity better through small actions. They are a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, the Colorado Resistance Writers and the Queer Scifi group. In their spare time, they teach workshops about writing GLTBQ characters, speak and plant gardens to encourage sustainable agricultural practices, and play too many video games. Find out more about them at https://oetearmann.com
Macfarlane, Robert. Landmarks. Penguin UK, 2015.