The Challenge of Setting in SF

I had a roommate once who had never read any SF before we moved in together. She saw my collection of science fiction and decided to give it a try.

She grabbed a book off my shelf at random—a far future, hard scifi title. Pretty advanced for her first exposure to the genre. She found it very frustrating.

She had no problem getting into the characters or the plot. She understood the science well enough and enjoyed how the author extrapolated it. She didn’t get too tripped up over the genre-specific vocabulary, either, although she did have to ask me what some of the acronyms stood for.

The problem was the setting. She couldn’t make sense of the world of the story, the environment. She didn’t know what things were and couldn’t picture them. Presented with an imagined far-future, alien setting, she felt lost and disoriented.

She was frustrated because she thought she was supposed to understand it. She felt like she was missing something, some key that would bring the world of the story into focus. Something to make it all make sense.

She was surprised when I assured her that I had been just as lost and disoriented by the book the first time I read it. She had assumed that as a life-long SF reader, I must have some way to make sense of it all. While I’m far more familiar with the standard concepts and genre tropes than she was, most of the imagined worlds in SF books are just as alien and unfamiliar to me as this one was to her. Each imagined world is different, after all.

The difference between me and her is that I expect to be lost and disoriented when I pick up a book for the first time. I expect to have no idea how the world of the story works. Finding my way through this imagined world is part of the process. I know the setting of the story will come clear if I just keep reading. I’ve learned to be patient with it.

This isn’t something that most other genres of fiction have to deal with. I read pretty widely and I only experience this sort of disorientation when I read SF.

Most fiction is set in the real world, past or present. A world that most readers already know and feel familiar with, at least in its general outlines. Authors need to set specific scenes and communicate relevant details, but the reader pretty much knows how the world of the story is going to function. There’s a built-in foundation of understanding.

In SF, though… Far-future technologies, mind-bending concepts, strange planets, alien civilizations, inhuman beings, fantastical realms of magic and monsters. These worlds are often intended to be vastly different than the real world of the reader.

How do you explain to a reader what they need to know about the world of the story, when what they need to know is literally everything?

The scope of this challenge is unique to the SF genre.

One option is to go ahead and explain everything. This requires a great deal of exposition and it’s what many SF authors do. This is especially true of older SF, but even still of some authors writing today—you end up reading pages of explanatory text.

This can be a functional way to meet the need. Some of the very best SF novels ever written rely on this solution.

In general, though, expansive exposition isn’t the most elegant way to tell a story. It too easily becomes heavy-handed and boring. It’s why I’ve still never managed to get past the first 150 pages of Dune.

More recent generations of SF writers have experimented with these world-building challenges by going in the opposite direction: they don’t explain anything about the world of their stories. They avoid exposition as much as possible.

Instead, they drop the reader right into the middle of it and let you find your own way through. You have to figure out how the world works by experiencing it: how the characters interact with the setting, how the setting imposes itself on them.

This is the kind of novel my roommate tried to read. Give it enough time and it all starts to come clear and make sense. Exposure breeds familiarity. But you have to accept being confused for a while to start.

If I were writing about this for a class, this is the point where I’d refer to the in medias res style of storytelling:

“A narrative work beginning in medias res … opens in the midst of action…. Often, exposition is bypassed and filled in gradually, either through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events.”

(from Wikipedia,, accessed July 25, 2017)

Whereas in medias res is typically used as a plot structure, SF also applies the technique to setting.

But I think it’s more useful to compare it to language immersion. They say the best way to learn a foreign language is to immerse yourself in it: surround yourself with people who speak the language. You’ll be completely lost at the beginning, with no clue what anyone is saying, but you’ll pick it up pretty quickly if you hear it used enough, day after day.

Exposure breeds familiarity.

That’s what it’s like to read an SF novel set in a world that’s completely unlike the real world we live in.

You just have to immerse yourself in it, dive in and know that you’re going to be lost and disoriented for a little while. Keep with it and it’ll all make sense eventually. You learn the world of the story by living in it through the characters. You just have to be patient and get comfortable with feeling lost.

Read enough SF and you even learn to enjoy the process. The disorientation can be fun: the excitement of discovery, the delight in the moment of clarity, the sense of accomplishment. Finding your way through a bizarre fictional world is a unique reward of reading SF.

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