Best Setting or Sci-Fi Writers Have More Fun

Which book features the best setting?

It occurrs to me that such a question is particularly suited to showcase the delights of my preferred genre, science fiction.  While setting is an integral component to story in any kind of literature, in science fiction, the setting itself usually plays a prominent, perhaps even defining, role in the story being told.   All good stories must offer compelling characters, intriguing plots, well-written narratives.  Yet in addition to these pleasures, the science fiction genre adds the imaginative setting: a medieval world of swords and sorcery; distant planets inhabited by alien races; our own world, decades or centuries in the future, when our daily lives are ruled by robots and computers.  These fantastical settings are, I believe, what either turns readers away from the genre or compels them to it.  I’m among the compelled; I love imagining new worlds, where magic or science creates a new stage for human action.

The question still creates a number of problems.  The most critical of which is simply that I am a bibliophile: I can’t pick just one favorite book.  But slightly less critically, there are a number of ways a story setting may stand out in a book.  It may be the best-realized setting, described in such compelling and interesting detail that it seems completely real.  It may be the setting that contributes most to the story being told, such that the story could not be transplanted to another setting, but only succeeds by having just the setting which the author gave it.  Or it may be the setting most interesting in its own right, distinct from the story it surrounds or the characters who live in it.  Of course, there will be a good deal of overlap between these areas.  After all, a good story setting fulfills each of these criteria to some extent.  But I found it helpful to think of setting in these three ways as I went about answering the question.  Thus, I have three books for you, one which exemplifies each category.


The urban fantasy world of Robin McKinley’s Sunshine felt as pressingly and tangibly real to me as it is to Rae, the novel’s first-person narrator.  Rae’s world is a post-apocalyptic north America, where the apocalypse was a large-scale magical war of sorcerers versus vampires, demons, and other magical creatures.  Magic is as much a part of the daily lives of even non-magic users as technology is for you or me: houses utilize magical alarm systems, and people wear magical charms or tattoos to protect them from supernatural harm.  Rae, of course, is more involved with the supernatural than most people.  In addition to being the daughter of a powerful sorcerer, she finds herself bound to the fate of a vampire named Constantine.  As she is inescapably drawn into a world of danger and magic, Rae describes her world with clarity, humor, and emotion, as well as a plethora of sensory details.  I could see Constantine,  the emaciated vampire with mushroom colored skin, as clearly as if I were prisoner in the ramshackle mansion beside him and Rae.  I could smell the cinnamon rolls Rae bakes every morning at the coffee shop where she works.  Or feel the slight electric jolt as she stakes her first vampire with a table knife.  Rae makes the world real, and I have been there through her.


Frank Herbert’s space opera Dune is the story most shaped by its setting.  Nearly all the action of the book takes place on the desert planet Arakis, called Dune by its inhabitants.  As you might guess, the story centers round the arid desert environment, where water is precious and life is hazardous.  The desert shapes politics, both offworld and on, for the sandworms which inhabit the dune sea are the universe’s one source of the invaluable spice, for which there exists universal demand.  There are great political wars over control of Arakis and it is said, “He who controls the spice, controls the universe.”  The desert is also home to the Fremen, natives of Arakis who hope to regain planetary control from the off-worlders who rule them.  The Fremen culture revolves around the preservation of water.  To weep for the dead, for instance, is a sign of utmost respect; “You gave water to the dead,” the Fremen tell the protagonist with awe when he weeps for the man he has killed in battle.  Even the water from the bodies of the dead must be recycled, thus the rendering of the dead for water is a sacred funeral ritual.  Perhaps most memorable are the still-suits which the Fremen wear for survival in the open desert, suits which collect every bit of water expelled by the human body and recycle it for reuse.  Without its desert setting, Dune would lose the  thrust of its political conflict and the entire flavor of its alien cultures.  The planet itself is a character in the drama, alongside gods and men, prophets and emperors.


Carla Speed McNeil’s graphic novel Finder depicts a futuristic world that is as fascinating in itself as any of her characters.  Finder‘s world is in many ways an extension of our own culture and technology.  People watch TV, surf the internet, use cell phones through wireless implants.  Nearly everyone uses digital readers because paper books are considered antiques.  McNeil’s myriad pop culture references remind us that it may not be long before we find ourselves in a future world like the one she shows us.  Thus far, she does what many science fiction authors have done.  Yet she makes her world new and interesting by the eclectic combination of real-world detail and science fiction imagination.  Anthropomorphic animals, sentient computers, and humans live side-by-side.  Aboriginal and modern cultures clash.  Not only is the world thematically interesting, it’s visually fascinating, too.  Like the lush prose of a master writer, McNeil’s art is filled with details.  It’s a pleasure to dwell on each panel, soaking up the information she’s encoded in each image.  Sometimes the details pertain to the plot, and sometimes it’s simply to enrich the world–a scene on a TV in the background, a photograph taped above a character’s desk, strange faces in a crowd.  Finder offers a world that’s interesting, varied, real, and well worth the visit.


6 thoughts on “Best Setting or Sci-Fi Writers Have More Fun

  1. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld are set in a distant future earth that is amazingly well realized. The sun flickers overhead as though about to snuff out, while thieves, wizards, and demons that are (most likely) the remnants of unimaginably advanced technology wander around below.

  2. You do an excellent job of explaining the appeal and importance of these three settings, though as yet I’ve not read any of those books. I also appreciate your tripartite division, and plan to utilize it (or one similar) myself. I have one inescapable choice that I have to mention, but I also want the chance to feature some other story settings.

    Although, I was a little worried at the beginning when you mentioned science fiction, seemingly to the exclusion of fantasy. But then you seem to have just used it as a catch-all for all speculative fiction. I do think your point is right; that fantasy and sci-fi rely more on their settings than other forms of fiction, and have that as part of their great strength and attraction. Historical fiction can do so similarly, if the writer is good enough, but there’s less room for imagination.

    • Thanks! Yeah, for good or ill, I kind of arbitrarily picked science fiction as a blanket term for speculative fiction. Actually, I brought this essay in to class, and somebody else said “you should say speculative fiction!” But I think “sci-fi” is a more instantly understandable term to the non-initiate; also, sci-fi more easily includes what we refer to as fantasy, while I personally find less leeway applying the term fantasy to some hard sci-fi books. But there’s certainly overlap between the two genres. Really, it’s a big messy grey area, trying to apply terms to these kinds of books!

      • Yeah, the lines between the genres get blurred a lot. In a way, I think fantasy applies better to sci-fi than the reverse, just because so much of sci-fi has bizarre, larger-than-life vistas, ideas, and are often set in futures so far advanced that even the technology seems almost magical in operation (not just Star Wars, but even Star Trek feels this way to me). But then lots of fantasies treat magic in a scientific way. Science is the study of nature, and in some stories magic is just part of nature, while other times it’s supernatural. So it all gets fuzzy, and the layman will probably accept either term to loosely cover the other as well.

  3. Pingback: Conclusion « Egotist's Club

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