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How to live in a science-fictional universe

How to live in a science-fictional universe (Photo credit: McBadger)

I recently had a breakthrough when it comes to me and world building.  As I’ve looked around for stuff to read, I’ve found that I have a hard time getting into most stories set entirely in fantasy worlds.  When I read fantasy or science fiction, I’m always asking myself the question, “Do I have a reason to be more interested in an adventure set in this world than I would be about an adventure story set in my world?”  If the answer is no, I feel a little bit cheated and usually stop reading.

Don’t get me wrong, a good alternate universe can be wonderful, but when I take the time to learn the rules of a story world I want to have at least some idea why that world was created in the first place.  If the only reason was to re-imagine Tolkien then I think I’m better off with Lord of the Rings.  If the writer could have set the story in the real world and kept the story line essentially the same as or parallel to the one originally used, the otherworldly scenery better be fascinating.  You don’t need to be in outer space to have an evil empire, a princess in distress and mystic religion, but the novelty of and groundbreaking technology behind the setting the first Star Wars movie made it compelling.  However, now that space travel is no longer a novel backdrop for films, few space movies would have the same appeal for me as Star Wars unless the plot of the story was affected by the nature of space travel.

What I’ve recently realized is that while an exotic, original setting is sometimes a good idea, an alternate world doesn’t necessarily have to be complex or entirely original as long as the story line springs from it directly.  If you can use the world you made to say, “This story couldn’t happen in our world, but doesn’t it make you think about other things that do happen in our world?”  then it’s a good world to work with.

Also, a simple idea for an alternate world doesn’t nessesarily lead to a simple world.  Just one deviation from reality as we know it could have enormous effects on every aspect of the lives of people in that world.  So depending on the story sometimes it’s a good idea to start a world simply, because simple differences can lead to a complex world very different from ours.