Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts pt. 2

Firstly, I am going to acknowledge a major source of inspiration for this series:

I have spent a lot of time looking at resources for developing science fiction worlds, and this video by Guy over at How To Be a Great GM is one of the best, most well thought-out presentations on the topic.

I am using this video as a jumping-off point for a lot of the articles to come.

I do think the video misses a couple of useful attributes of Science Fiction settings, and so I will be building a lot on top of its framework.

I am also drawing a lot on classes I took with Dr. Deborah Wills back in University, whose work on analyzing the structure and social context of Science Fiction helped bring Pulp and genre literature into Academic discourse as something that is both a legitimate art form, and that has important things to tell us about our culture.

And I will be including insights I've gained by paying particular attention to how certain science fiction TTRPGs present their settings.

With a liberal amount of reference to both popular literary science fiction books and TV sci-fi series, of course.

On Genres

As I am talking a great deal about Science Fiction, it pays to establish an important context of the genre as a whole.

Genres of literature art and media as we understand them now are relatively new construct. Before the 1950s most publicly available creative works for either considered "Art" or "Trash"; "Classical Music", "Traditional music", or "Popular Music" (said with disdainful undertone.) 

It was, essentially class-elitism, but these divisions also had some dimension as to whether the story lionized good morals, embraced Classical or Enlightenment values, and whether it was made to provoke thought or to sell. 

(There is actually a fascinating and complicated history on how and why Western culture divided Art from Trash, but I shan't get into it here. Suffice it to say that the Peloponnesian Wars, trade with the Byzantine Empire, the British Raj, and the French Revolution all figure in.)

In literature, we saw the emergence of books aimed at people who enjoyed crime stories and lurid subject matter, but absolutely did not want to be preached to by upper class twits in the form of the penny dreadful at first, and later in the emergence of cheap pulp magazines. In literature our equivalent to"Trash" was "Pulp."

Pulp magazines, interested in selling stories to people who are intellectually curious enough to read, but not particularly inclined to read exclusively the classics or Haute Couture, often value imagination, strangeness, or unconventional ideas.

Pulp became the place where writers could build on the ideas of authors like Mary Shelly, Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, or Bram Stoker without having to make their work also need to fit the whims of aristocratic publishing moguls. The traditional publishing houses of the time tended to refuse to publish anything too strange or imaginative if it didn't also at least pretend to have something to offer the intellectual elite or serve as a morality tale.

By the 1920s the stories of the bizarre, magical, otherworldly, grotesque, or alien had almost entirely been ghettoized into either children's literature or Pulp. And the most imaginative material tended to be lumped together as a subset of Pulp called Weird Fiction.

Genres, as we generally use them, evolved as a marketing tool through the 1940s. Pulp Fiction in general become popular at pace with rising literacy rates. Along with liter the cultural impact of The Great Depression and WWII, and the first wave of New Age culture the demand for Pulp became high enough that magazines could afford to specialize in stories of one particular style, or inspired by one or two Pulp authors who had reached cult status. Weird Fiction was popular enough to spawn quite a selection of competing magazines.

Horror, Science Fiction, Sword & Sorcery, and Fantasy are the evolutionary offshoots of Weird Fiction pulps if the 40s and 50s. In reality the line between any of these genres is blurry and paper thin. They were defined more by loose clusters of audience preferences than by hard rules 

As magazines, and then small publishing houses, and finally imprints of larger publishing houses began to emerge to serve these specialty tastes, certain authors became definitive examples of the style and their work set bars of imagination, quality, and style 

At first, there was no style guide to tell you how to write science fiction, what must be in it, and what not. It was as many early luminaries of the genre such as Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Philip K  Dick, Michael Crichton, Joe Haldeman, and Isaac Asimov wrote that they established the gold standard And in the process, narrowed how the genre was defined and written.

The Proliferation of Genre

After a while, style guides began to evolve in the publishing houses that were promoting Science Fiction to help writers become more like these top selling authors. And fan discourse that emerged as convention and fan magazines appeared also helped define the genres more tightly.

In fact, fan culture of genres in music and pop culture often make a categorical error. They forget that a genre is a loose collection of conventions that is more defined by the audience than the work itself, and often get lost in debates over whether or not something "belongs" in a genre or not. Whether Star Wars counts as Science Fiction or whether Linkin Park is Heavy Metal presuppose a Bible somewhere that defines an absolute guide if what belongs an what does not 

If such a thing did exist, it is probably the lowest common denominator of the editorial style guides at Marvel Comics, Tor and Baen Books.

Since the 1980s, our culture as has become obsessed with genre as mass media has become a larger and more varied market. People want to know exactly what they're going to get before they buy. And so genres are becoming more constrained in there are more of them. Older broader genres are divided into subgenres to market media to better-targeted audience.

Fantasy has been divided into High, Low, Urban, Dark, etc. Metal into Thrash, Speed, Dark, Doom, Death, Gothic Romantic, Grind ore, and Hair (at least). Science Fiction into Space Opera, High Concept, Psychedelic, Cyberpunk, Space Wester, Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian, etc. Each with a wide selection of exemplars, conventions, and fandoms that are forever trying to further define what is that they want that label to mean.

Ultimately, these remain marketing tools to keep you from being surprised when you select from a staggering selection of media options that require your limited time and money.

They are never meant to be hard and fast rules. If they were, it would signify the death of Art as we know it.

Science Fiction

Science Fiction as a genre lends itself well to complex philosophical exploration. For the author who wants to make a change in the world, Science Fiction allows them to take a page from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to show the reader a possible future if the events and events of today remain unchanged. Consider Farenheit 451 as an example. To someone who wishes to a commentary on problems of the present, they can make aliens, technology, and places stand in for modern problems. Phillip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly is a great example of this latter approach.

Most Science Fiction can be said to have a Thesis, a singular idea or question that everything about the campaign world is designed to help ask. The thesis of A Scanner Darkly might be "Can anyone stay sane if they have to constantly put on a false persona in order to get along in the world around them? Are we who we think we are inside, or are we the person we must always pretend to be? And what happens if we lose our privacy so that we can't even be ourselves at home?"

There is a strong Russian influence on science fiction in this respect. Before Science Fiction, Russian literature used fiction as a means of discussing politics and philosophy because both the Czars and the Soviet regimes punished artists who were overtly and undeniably critical of those in power. The only safe way to express your ideas was to codify them in literary characters in a novel.

If you want to see a Russians philosophizing about morality, consider reading The Brothers Karamazov, as you will not find any equivalent to Locke's  Two Treatises on Government.

Using literature rather than direct argumentation frees the author to explore emotional depth, edge cases, extremes, and logical outcomes in a way traditional, linear philosophical texts cannot.

As the Playground of Ideas, Science Fiction at first encouraged, and now demands a quality of thought and imagination. And thanks to the world-building prowess of Jack Vance, Ursula LeGuin, and Frank Herbert, the setting world of any Science Fiction is expected to richly support the ideas presented in its foreground.


In the 1990s there was a push to rebrand Science Fiction as "Speculative Fiction" to capture the idea that the "real" function of Science Fiction was not to predict advancements in technology through science, but was instead interested in exploring ideas through imaginative fiction. Trying to predict the actual world of the future and it's attendant social problems was, after all, never the point. Very few authors are particularly concerned about ensuring that the technology of their setting is scientifically plausible.

This didn't take, and "Speculative Fiction" as a concept was expanded to include most of the descendants of Weird Fiction that were interested in playing with ideas in general.

This rebranding was one of several symptoms of Science Fiction's fandom's desire to be seen as an intellectual community. Another was the push to create a hard line between "real" Science Fiction and Sci-fi.

"Sci-fi" started as a 1980s pejorative for media, particularly video games, television, and movies that include tropes and devices for Science Fiction, but is more interested in providing pure entertainment and weird ideas without having any strong philosophical thesis. Sci-fi was seen as "Science Fiction lite" with all the space ships and none of the sophistication.

The irony of Science Fiction fans ghettoizing some forms of it because it was meant to entertain rather than educate should not be lost on anyone who understands the history of Pulp Fiction.

While there are certainly films and comic books that wear science fiction drag well being nothing but good popcorn fodder, I would say that in the current cultural climate, being entertainment for entertainment's sake alone is a radical and subversive idea.

Moreover, some of the media that has been ghettoized into Sci-fi have been worthwhile cultural investigations that simply have been in the wrong media to please influential fans and academics.

Star Trek (a complex dialectic of race and international policy), The original Star Wars films (a deliberate interrogation of Joseph Campbell and reclaiming of Pulp aesthetics), Babylon 5 (a dynamic exploration of individualism versus collectivism and how both extremes create their own particular kind of hell), and Barbarella (a surreal exploration of women's sexuality in the context of women's lib) have all been soundly rejected by science fiction fans as trash because they are presented on video rather than in print.

Generally, a light and humorous tone is also enough to get you lumped into the Sci-Fi category rather than be considered legitimate science fiction. Consider the Red Dwarf novels and television series (and I highly recommend reading Infinity Welcomes Safe Drivers if you've only ever seen the television series.)  Red Dwarf uses humor to explore the idea of human extinction and what we might leave behind, but because of its general pastiche of other science fiction, it is not taken seriously as a body of work of its own.

Science fiction in TTRPGs

So, how is this useful?

1. As A Guide for Players

First, it's useful to remember what a genre is. It is, in effect, a marketing tool. When you tell your player characters that they are going to be playing in a science fiction setting, it conjures images of starships, laser beams, space travel, and aliens.

If you mention a specific subgenre, you are likely to established different expectations. If you mentioned cyberpunk, player characters are going to expect virtual reality, human augmentation, and possibly artificial intelligences.

Genre also tends to bundle tropes together beautifully.

If I mention faster than light space travel, you're likely to also expect starship combat, space suits, aliens, and planetary colonization.

If I mention artificial intelligences, you are likely going to expect robots, or a world-ending apocalypse. 

If I were to tell you I'm running a sleazy sci-fi game like Alpha Blue or Machinations of the Space Princess, you will expect corrupt starship captions, sleazy bounty hunters, alien prostitutes, and mind-bending drugs.

This gives you an incredible shortcut to building a world. Especially if players are familiar with a genre this can be a good first step. Just as in Fantasy, if you are using a familiar genre, you have to explain more if what makes your setting different than the typical piece from the subgenre.

Unfortunately, this is not a guarantee if you are departing from Space Opera. You can be sure that players know the works you are emulating.

2. To Help in Planning

It can also be useful as a campaign planning tool. Choosing a subgenre can give you a selection of ideas, tropes, plot hooks, and tonal considerations to work with.

This, again, is the problem with Science Fiction as a genre: Fantasy builds on faerie tales, mythology, and history, making it far more likely that your players will understand  the fantasy milieu than the Science Fiction one.

The divide between Science Fiction and Sci-fi is also instructive. Serious Science Fiction often does best when it has a thesis.  If you have an idea that you want to explore, you can build the setting, places, culture, and beings to suit the thesis.

On the other hand, by looking at pieces of Sci-Fi that were built purely for the sake of entertainment, or perhaps as a punk retort to the growing go elitism of Science Fiction, you can see ways to structure a story so that anything you can imagine goes and you can create a setting with both an easy and repeatable adventure structure. 

Ultimately, while a thesis can be valuable for designing a campaign, TTRPGs are never going to be Art in the same that a novel or a film are. They exist for an audience of two to six, and last only as long as the game sessions' total. You may provoke thought with friends, but you are not building up the social discourse. By nature a TTRPG campaign has to exist only to entertain.

On that basis, it is probably best to limit the complexity of your thesis, if you bother having one at all.

3. As Permission

It is useful to remember that genre is not a straight jacket. There are no rules saying you can't do X in Science Fiction, or that if you do Y, it is not Science Fiction.

The fact of the matter is that role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons a rose in an era where genre was not as important. D&D's original setting was a mishmash of Pulp influences from H.P. Lovecraft, to Robert Howard, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Abraham Merritt.None of whom would have strictly defined themselves as science fiction, horror, sword & sorcery, or fantasy, and many of their works dance back and forth over those lines constantly.

Are the Barsoom novels science fiction because they take place on another planet, involve flying machines and air processing plants? Or are they fantasy, as they involve mysterious immortals and astral projection? Or are they sword in sorcery because they feature opposing the evil priests of false gods while battling against monsters in vast underground labyrinths? The answer is that Barsoom is none of those things, and Edgar Rice Burroughs wouldn't have even understood why this is a question. Nor likely cared.

Call of Cthulhu as much a story of an alien invasion as it is a story of a  twisted cult worshiping a terrifying monster.

This understanding free you to include for exclude whatever works for your campaign and lets you best flesh out your ideas.

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