The Feel of a World

I started reading Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver the other day. It's part of my strategy to read any book that makes both the Hugo and Nebula awards ballots. I'm only forty pages in but I can already recommend it to just about anyone.

As a newbie writer, I've noticed something about the world Novik has created. It isn't just coherent and richly imagined. It's emotionally recognizable. And that's something I hadn't thought about before.

One of the writing lessons that blew me away when I grasped it was that the setting of a scene needed to have an emotional identity, just like a character does. Your reader needs to have an emotional reaction to the setting itself. Maybe "needs to" overstates the case, but certainly your setting is a wonderful opportunity to play with the reader's emotions. As a newbie writer I'd been mostly concerned with creating settings that were plausible and coherent. Now I know that I can stop obsessing over accuracy and detail so long as my setting has an emotional punch.

But Novik has made me realize that this principle applies on a grander scale than just the setting of some one scene or other. In sff we are usually creating an entire new world and that world itself needs to have an emotional load for the reader if your story is going to be as engaging as we all want our stories to be.

High fantasy, for example, derives a lot of its appeal from the emotional seductiveness of the generic, fantasy world. The appeal of the particular story itself is almost secondary. Just stepping into these magical realms of kings and queens and horses and knights immediately frees us from the insane rationality of modernism and late capitalism. Romance, in the capital "R" sense of the word, is returned to the world and most of us respond to it immediately.

In scifi, the emotional power of the world itself isn't so dominant in the story. One exception is the sub-genre of noir scifi, like Blade Runner or Altered Carbon or cyberpunk. In those stories the emotional load of the world itself is a major player in the story. And, of course, in the early days of scifi the very notion of travel to other planets was as Romantic a notion as anything high fantasy has to offer. Heinlein offers a different twist here; his space settings often gave us a return to the world of the American pioneers where a man (sorry) could build a life for himself by taming a new world. From the perspective of late capitalism you can't get more Romantic than that.

A lot of current scifi that I see in the magazines misses the emotional importance of the world. Yes, we're in spaceships and we're traveling to other planets but we've seen that world so often that it feels normal and boring now. You can't create Romance, or any other emotional reaction, just by putting a story in outer space. And Novik has rubbed my nose in the fact that that's a real missed opportunity. Your fictional world can have an emotional impact of its own for the reader, over and above the emotional impact of anything that happens within the story. If we, as writers, neglect that opportunity then we're just leaving money on the table.


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