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.

Sunshine

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.

Dune

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.

Finder

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.

Review: Finder

Alright, so this review may have got a little out of hand.  But I was super excited about this book, and wanted to record my thoughts on the subject.  And let’s be honest, once you get me talking about a book I enjoyed, it’s hard to get me to shut up.

This review is dedicated to our dear, late Borders, where I found this book on the shelf, thought, “Ooh, pretty,” and dived in.

Usually, I try to stick to the recommendations of friends or favorite authors when navigating the galaxies that are the sci-fi shelves, but sometimes I happen on a book that strikes my interest and I decide to take a chance.  Finder drew my eye with both its art and intriguing title, but on a preliminary skimming, I really wasn’t sure what it was about.  I actually left it on the shelf that day, but ended coming back for it later and I’m glad I did.

Finder by Carla Speed McNeil

As a graphic novel, Finder’s first appeal to me was certainly the art.  McNeil’s bold, clean style caught my interest immediately.  Her intricate linework without the use of greyscale really appealed to me, and reminded me of the work of CLAMP and Colleen Doran, two other favorite graphic novel artists.  Each page and frame is filled with detail, and certainly merits the reader’s attention.  A well-drawn graphic novel really does ask for a close reading, just as a good prose novel would.  But what I really fell in love with as I read was the fact that McNeil gives great care to continuity; the characters’ appearances tell the story as much as dialogue and action do.  Characters change outfits daily; Jaeger outgrows haircuts and grows stubble; something seemingly out of place in a character’s appearance has an explanation a few pages later.  There’s also tons of detail in the background, and it’s just fun to see the depth McNeil has given each page.

Now that I’ve mentioned him, I supposed I should officially introduce Jaeger as the story’s protagonist.  He’s a Finder, which is sort of an elite tracker or scout whose task is to find those things others have tasked him with.  He’s also a Sin Eater, a profession that is in some ways very much at odds with his role as Finder.  It’s fair to say that he’s very much a man of contradictions.  Jaeger is a half-breed in a world where one’s identity is very much caught up in membership to a homogeneous clan, so he’s spent most of his life on the move.  In fact, his nomadic lifestyle is further complicated by something very unique about him, but I won’t give that away.

The narrative itself starts out somewhat fragmented.  That is, while it is easy enough to follow the action within each episodic chapter, it takes some time to understand how the overarching narrative fits together; and at first, I felt like I was reading a rather odd story.  But things come together well enough once you get about a hundred pages in, which sounds like a lot, but really, Finder was so engrossing that it didn’t feel like a long read.  McNeil reveals details bit by bit, requiring active participation from the reader to make the complete picture, a quality that I really enjoyed.  I love knowing that an author has filled a work with clues, and is asking me to look for them.

While McNeil has filled her story with narrative details, she has also cleverly worked in hundreds of pop culture references, including many of her (which are often my) favorite books, movies, and music.  I’m sure I miss a lot of them, too, but the ones I get make me feel an affinity for McNeil as a storyteller.  (Princess Bride, Labyrinth, Neil Gaiman, Chronicles of Narnia?  We’re already friends!)  Such details give her fictional world lushness and depth.  I also love that she’s incorporated a good deal of aboriginal motifs for a flavor of sci-fi that is rather underdone in the mainstream.

As far as thematic material, Finder, like much science fiction, engages in a lot of social speculation.  It deals with ideas such as social and gender identity, moral responsibility, mental illness, and dysfunctional family relationships (some of which are fairly disturbing).  In other words, yes, it contains some controversial and therefore mature themes.  Overall, I’ve admired McNeil’s presentation of her material.  She raises good questions and objections to societal norms without feeling preachy.  There are a number of scenes of nudity, but no explicit sex scenes (a far cry from most other graphic novels I’ve read).  McNeil does not exploit her characters, and what sex that has been implied has had a narrative purpose.  Also, I can’t say I always fully agree with character’s choices, but I do like that her characters act consistently.  They’re not  paragons of perfected virtue, but they are poignant portraits of the daily human struggles and triumphs of trying to live as well as one knows how.  Thus, while not perfect, I find the characters true pictures of the sorts of people we might meet anywhere.  If we consider that science fiction is often the genre of social commentary, I find McNeil’s work–by turns satyrical, humorous, and serious–a worthy and insightful addition.

Lastly, I have to say that I really appreciated the Dark Horse omnibus edition.  It’s a pleasantly hefty paperback with a well bound spine that doesn’t crack, despite the first volume spanning over 600 pages.  The color gallery of  individual issue covers at the back is a pleasing addition for newcomers to the series.  But the best part is 40 pages of author’s notes.  In addition to clarifying a few confusing passages in the book, they add depth to the story through providing details about the world and the author’s inspirations.  Reading the notes felt like getting to talk to my best friend about one of her stories.

En fin, Finder is a well-written, beautifully drawn, and insightful story, one that I’d recommend to fans of science fiction and graphic novels both. I’m glad it found me.  (And equally glad volume 2 is released in a week!)