Inspiration

Five Underused Settings in Spec Fic

The New Kingdom doesn't get the respect it deserves. Nome Deities by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Oltau used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Speculative fiction has a wide variety of settings, genres, and subgenres, and some get more attention than others. Space opera and European high fantasy have been the top dogs for decades, with up-and-comers like urban fantasy and steampunk taking most of what’s left. But there are countless more options, and some of them barely get any attention at all.

While there’s nothing wrong with using a well-trodden setting for your story, going with something less conventional is a breath of fresh air. It’s an extra push to get your story noticed in the highly saturated market that is the publishing industry today. Countless possibilities exist, but here are five of my personal favorites.

1. World War Two Fantasy

A Korean war tank painted to look like a monster. Day 5, the dragons still don’t know I’m a tank.

Example

Mud spewed out from under the treads of Captain Huyen’s main battle tank. With the periscope slagged, her only option for decent vision was to look out through the open hatch. Trees grew in thick lines around them, obscuring anything out more than a few meters. “Aim for the gap, dead ahead,” Huyen called down to her driver. The tank’s speed increased, exhaust pipes belching black smoke. Huyen squinted into the trees. How could something so large be so-

The forest to her right erupted into splinters and broken limbs. A scaled behemoth barreled through the opening, orange flames flickering in its maw. “Gunner, 45 degrees right!” Huyen called. The turret swung ponderously at her command, the main gun tracking on the charging dragon with agonizing slowness.

While most fantasy settings use a mixture of medieval and renaissance technology, it’s now fairly common to see stories set as far forward as World War One.* It’s also quite common to see fantasy stories set in the modern day, sometimes in the real world, sometimes in a fabricated one with a similar level of technology. But there’s a big gap around World War Two that rarely gets explored. Sometimes the dieselpunk genre covers this era, but even those stories tend to focus more on the years between world wars.

There’s no reason fantasy elements won’t work in a WWII-style setting. In fact, it’s easier to include them alongside P51 Mustangs and Sherman tanks than to explain how magic functions in a 21st-century society. And yet, we have a dearth of WWII fantasy stories. In fact, science fiction makes much more frequent use of aesthetics from the second world war than fantasy does. There’s a reason Star Wars space battles look so much like footage from the Battle of Britain.

And yet, this setting provides many opportunities. WWII technology is at nearly the perfect level to clash with monsters of fantasy lore. It’s powerful enough to match these terrifying beasts but not so advanced as to make the fight completely one-sided the way modern technology does. Fighter planes soaring against dragons, submarines playing hide-and-seek with krakens, sleep spells broadcast over the radio, the list goes on.

These options work regardless of whether you set your story in the historical WWII or a fantasy world that happens to look a lot like it. Because the second world war is so omnipresent in our media, adding fantasy elements is a great way to subvert the familiar and give your audience something new.

2. Stitchpunk

Characters from the film 9. Just sew up any tears, it’ll be fine!

Example

Cutting the old arm’s stitches had been the easy part. Sewing on the new one was proving much harder. Amelia Crossthread wedged her shoulder against her workshop wall and held the new canvas skin in place with her teeth while she dipped a needle in and out with her remaining hand. Yes, she’d been at this for hours, and yes, it was infuriating to watch the arm fall off over and over again because she didn’t have an assistant to help her. But with this new arm, and the razor sharp stitch-ripper built in, she’d win her duel and show them all.

Stitchpunk is a brand new genre, largely considered to have started with the film 9, about a group of tiny homunculi made of thread and cloth. Of course, 9 drew it’s inspiration from older sources, but even so stitchpunk is still in its infancy. Its defining feature is a world where most things* are stitched or sewn together. Other examples include video games like Little Big Planet and Kirby’s Epic Yarn.

Because stitchpunk is so new, people are still figuring out what the genre’s conventions are. This is the perfect time to jump in and help shape what stitchpunk will become, a chance that doesn’t come around every day.

Even at this early stage, it’s clear that stitchpunk has a lot of potential. For one thing, it’s just inherently creepy, as it brings to mind images of Frankenstein’s stitched together monster. That makes stitchpunk perfect for horror, with spine tingling tales of two characters sewn together into one, or a pair of ghostly scissors that snip a victim’s threads in the night.

Alternatively, stitchpunk can tell a story where everything is modular, even the people. If a stitchpunk character wants to be bigger and stronger, all they need to do is find more muscular parts and sew them on.* That’s practically a built in quest right there, be it the protagonist’s quest to better themselves or the villain’s quest to become powerful enough to dominate the land.

Finally, it’s just cool to see a genre that draws its primary inspiration from something feminine-coded like sewing. Too often, spec fic is heavily grounded in masculine coding, and genres like stitchpunk help balance the scales.

3. Bronze Age Empires

Example

Ajax planted his feet on the prow of his ship and squinted against the sun’s glare. Ten days and nights at sea, tossed by winds so powerful the oars had been useless, but at last he and his raiders approached the walls of Old Shalhine. Even from here, Ajax glimpsed the city’s markets, crowded with merchants and wares ripe for the taking. He raised his spear until sunlight glinted off the bronze head, a signal to his other ships to put all oars in the water. They would feast well tonight.

Fantasy focuses on the past, but only a narrow slice of the past. Go further back than the Middle Ages, and pickings are slim. At most, some stories will be set in the Roman Empire or its equivalent. But human history is longer than that, a lot longer. Before there was a Roman Empire, before there was even steel or iron, there was the Bronze Age.

This age stretched for around 2,000 years and was characterized by a heavy reliance on bronze, because historians are not the most creative when it comes to naming. But bronze wasn’t the only major invention of the time. Alongside the smithing of copper and tin came writing, large scale agriculture, and organized warfare. This was not a time of small tribes and isolated villages. In the Mediterranean at least, vast kingdoms rose and fell. You could be forgiven for not knowing about them, as Egypt is the only one that’s still famous today.

These kingdoms traded and warred with each other on a regular basis. Travel was common for people of means. This cultural mixing, often with violent results, creates the perfect recipe for an epic story. The time scale of the Bronze Age, thousands of years passing without major advancements in technology, also plays well with fantasy tropes of largely static civilizations. Plus, if you want to get really epic, there’s always the Bronze Age Collapse, in which multiple civilizations around the Mediterranean fell in quick succession. It’s not known exactly what caused this collapse, but theories range from attacks by mysterious Sea People to a devastating shortage of bronze to something called an Earthquake Storm.

Of course, setting your story in the Bronze Age isn’t as simple as replacing all the steel with bronze and calling it a day. While bronze weapons are easier to make than iron ones, they’re also far more fragile. Even the best made bronze sword will break after prolonged use. Ships will be much smaller, and literacy will be far less common. But once you account for those differences, you’ll have a fresh fantasy setting with lots of potential.

4. Underwater Civilizations

Example

Captain Al-Zad stared at the sonar display as dozens of deadly points approached her ship. Each point represented a merfolk soldier, now well inside the Neptune’s torpedo range. Within minutes, they would cut into the hull, flood the ship, and take it for their own. With the Neptune’s torpedoes in merfolk hands, Atlantis colony would be easy pickings. She had only one chance to stop that from happening.

Al-Zad turned to her bridge crew. “Abandon ship.” As officers and sailors leapt to obey, Al-Zad took the helm control and entered in a new course that would take the Neptune to crush depth, so far down that not even the merfolk could retrieve it. Someone would need to stay behind to execute the dive, but Al-Zad had always known the deeps would be her final resting place.

Speculative fiction places a lot of emphasis on exploring new lands and the final frontier of space, but rarely does it look beneath the waves. At best, the ocean depths are the source of eldritch horrors that humanity cannot comprehend. Usually, the sea is ignored completely. That’s too bad, because beneath the waves lies potential.

One option is to go the human route, with colonies on distant waterworlds. Jupiter’s moon Europa has the potential to be such a world, right here in our own solar system. These dome cities would face many of the same problems as space stations. How do they keep the air breathable? How do they keep the water out? What about food and power? If the colony has been established for a while, are its inhabitants engineered with gills or other adaptations to their watery environment?

Then there’s the option for a story about beings that are native to the water. These can be alien life forms akin to sapient octopuses, or they could be the more humanoid merfolk of fantasy. Either way, they face unique challenges. If they are a technological society, how do they generate heat? Fires won’t burn underwater, and heat generation is vital for technology as humans understand it. How do these aquatic beings explore the surface world? Can their bodies even support their own weight outside the water?

Then there’s the issue of transportation. In a water world, everyone can maneuver in three dimensions, it’s just a matter of how quickly and at what depths. What kind of special vehicles would these water dwellers use to explore the crushing abyss? Answering these questions will keep the worldbuilding part of your mind very happy.

5. The Magic-Industrial Revolution

A steampunk style factory. Like this, but with more fireballs.

Example

Archmage Chusel straightened his robe and made sure his beard was properly pointed. The anarcho-sorcerers had a strong presence in the press pool today, and he had to look his best to deflect their questions. No doubt they’d hammer him on the increased rate at which his bone mills were raising worker-skeletons and make noise about how he was contributing to critical levels of negative energy on the material plane. Chusel smiled a toothy smile. They could whine as much as they liked, so long as the gold pieces kept flowing.

Stories of an industrial revolution in a world with magic are very common. In fact, they probably comprise a majority of the steampunk genre. But almost never do we see the industrialization of magic itself – that is, the use of magic on a large scale. Even though this is something that would almost certainly happen, it rarely comes up. Instead, most authors act as if magic is inherently opposed to industry.

A magical-industrial revolution would probably be precipitated by some advance in magical knowledge. Perhaps an enterprising sorcerer discovers a spell that controls the weather, and it’s widely adopted by farmers in dry areas. Or a clever necromancer might realize that animated skeletons can do the work of a human without needing to be paid. From there, market forces and financial incentives will do the rest.

At first, this scaling up of magic will seem like an unqualified good. With spells readily available, families can summon food from the air instead of spending hours on dinner. Golem-plowed fields can produce more food at cheaper prices than farms that still use expensive horses. The general standard of living rises, and the land prospers.

But there’s a dark side to all this magic. Perhaps industry-level casting drains the life from wizards, sparking an evermore intense search for new talent. Or maybe the vast labor force of undead is slowly leaking negative energy into the world.

That’s one option, at least. You could also focus on the magical-industrial revolution as a way to disrupt aristocratic control. For a long time, nobles had had all the magic, and thus all the power. But when potions of fire breath can be bought in bulk, the common folk have a new advantage. Whatever form your revolution takes, it’s a chance to play out an evolving society without losing the magical elements that made it interesting in the first place.


Authors are always looking for ways to add novelty to their story, and an unusual setting is a great way to do it. As long as they’re consistent, settings are much more flexible than character arcs or plotlines, so authors have a lot of options. These five are just the tip of the iceberg, and I have no doubt you can think of many more if you put your mind to it.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I really like the magical industrial revolution one.

    I can also imagine that magic would leak from the factories and workshops and would cause mutations in the vicinity, in plants, animals, perhaps even non-magical humans.

    And can you imagine what worker’s unrests would look like, if those workers were capable of slinging fireballs instead of cobblestones or ripping machines apart with levitation skills?

    Or imagine a mage gaining control over the undead/artificial workforce … workers who can’t be killed and are far stronger than humans. It would take a real hero to bring him down before he controls the whole country.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The workers must seize the spell slots of production! We have nothing to lose but our caster level requirements!

      • I, User

        Exactly! Is it a mere coincidence that bourgeois rhymes with magrocracy?

    • SunlessNick

      If magic comes from the gods, what do organised religions make of its industrialisation? Does it become a form of worship, with them taking the role of industrialists and inventors?

      For that matter, what do the *gods* think of it? Does a society where they’ve become the means of production basically enslave them?

  2. David McKown

    I have an story idea that takes place in the Age of Discovery (1400s – 1600s). My research shows it to start off as surprisingly medieval. It officially began when Portuguese crusaders conquered Ceuta, a north African Moorish city in 1415. The period is rich with historical material. Such as:
    · voyages of discovery
    · The spice trade
    · discovery of the New World
    · clashes between rival European empires
    · colonists vs natives
    · The Reformation
    · The Golden Age of Piracy
    And so on. The fantasy elements could be the creatures in John Mandeville’s fictional travelogue. The maps of the period had illustrations of dragons in uncharted regions and the phrase ” Here Be Dragons.” What if those dragons were real? And why not have flying ships and floating islands? I hope I’m up to the task of writing it.

  3. I, User

    So glad to see this site is still posting articles. #5 inspired me. You see, my fantasy world is going through an industrial revolution but I never thought about how magic might be a part of it. Now I see dwarven magrocrats selling golem-workers to industrialists and even foreign nations. Some of the other magrocrats say that this is next to heresy and that magic should never be turned into a commodity to bought and sold, leading to interesting conflict. I see Errum Sie, a city made out of a living metal that grows and changes over time having factories where the engines literally run them selves with only a single person being able to oversee an entire factory effectively and opening it’s wall to allow trade. I see over in to the kingdom of the gnomes, where they have plant-based magic mages magic seeds that if you put in the ground entire orchids or farms pop up out of nowhere, allowing for the massive surplus of food needed for the massive cities that characterise an industrialised nation. Before I have read your Inspiration articles and not been able to come up with much to fit my world, but this one really did inspire me. Thank you, Oren.

  4. Bronze Dog

    Finally, it’s just cool to see a genre that draws its primary inspiration from something feminine-coded like sewing. Too often, spec fic is heavily grounded in masculine coding, and genres like stitchpunk help balance the scales.

    Had a recent thought collide with this. I’ve heard in Russia, doctors are paid less because most are women, making medicine into “women’s work” and thus less valued. For stitchpunk characters, sewing would be surgery.

    Underwater settings: As I understand it, one of the big obstacles is that we don’t have much context to relate to the bottom of the sea. Most people have trouble visualizing what’s down there.

    • SunlessNick

      There are very few animation aesthetics I like, and unfortunately stitchpunk isn’t one of them. But this article has made me really glad it exists.

      Though I do right now have images of a group of grandmothers secretly unravelling fell destinies and reworking them into something else.

      An interesting wrinkle about underwater environments is that some of its biomes (comparing, say, reefs to abyssal floors to hit vents to cold seeps) are as alien to one another as they are to the surface.

  5. Sam Beringer

    I remember watching an anime film called “Strait Jacket” that is pretty close to 5 (though it also mixes in some steam punk). It takes place in an alternate world — around the late 19th century — where magic is used from building to medicine. The catch is 1) only a few individuals can use magic and 2) due to an invisible contaminant called the malediction, magic users must wear a special suit of armor (called mold armor, but also nicknamed strait jackets) or run risk of having their minds and bodies twisted and turned into demons. And even then the armor isn’t fool-proof; using too much magic will damage it and if it breaks that’s it. The story itself focuses on tactical sorcerists, whose job is to kill demons before they cause too much damage.

    Unfortunately, the story and characters are nowhere near as intriguing as the setting or premise. Which is a shame, because there are good ideas here.

  6. WCMullen

    Harry Turtledove’s 6-book Darkness series is quite literally World War II fantasy in a world where magic is industrialized. Instead of guns, soldiers use weaponized gun-shaped magic wands. Instead of trains, people travel on ley line caravans. Instead of bombers, dragonfliers dominate the aerial battles while rhinoceros-like behemoths act as tanks and mososaur-like leviathans replace U-boats.

    The participant nations are also switched around while retaining their roles in the history. For example, the USA-stand-in is Kuusamo, a country of east Asian ethnicity with Finnish-inspired names. Conversely, the Japanese are Gyongos, which is inspired by the Vikings.

  7. Jeff

    I think WW2 is kind of tricky due to a lot of real world baggage that comes with it. Writers have to be careful in borrowing its imagery without marginalizing some of the darker parts of the war.

    Also fantasy WW2 has a tendency to cross over into pulp which is its own genre.

    Many writers lack the skill to do so effectively.

    It’s easier with a setting living generations aren’t so familiar with.

  8. Hunter-Wolf

    If someone wants to read a good imaginative story in an underwater setting you can’t go wrong with the comic Low.

    Low is a post-apocalyptic story where the sun forced humanity to go underwater to escape it’s now deadly radiation, humanity eventually adapted to living in domed cities underwater developing new tech and culture around their new life-styles also becoming sort of independant domed city states in the process, but problems start arising and it seems that this new life won’t last for long (it’s a doom-clock scenario).

    The story starts when discovery pods humans sent out into space decades ago to scout for new planets lands into the ocean and is said to have the location of a new habitable world making all factions race to obtain the data on the pod, i highly recommend this comic not just because of the interesting setting but because of the beautiful art and unique underwater creature/technology designs too.

    ====================

    For a story that involves mass scale industrialized magic you should check the anime movie Empire of Corpses, where do i even begin, the setting is alternate history where humanity basically found a way to reanimate corpses (creating really cheap zombie labour and massive zombie armies, death itself becomes industrialized) but it didn’t stop there, humanity then invented ways to reprogram the zombies to do certain tasks or even have a simple personality coded into them using punch cards (used for early computers) and steampunk machinery surgically embedded into the bodies of the dead.

    The makers of the movie (based on a novel in fact) built the entire setting around this idea with great attention to details and showed the huge impact such magical-technology would have on every aspect of everyday life during the prime of the British Empire and colonization, not to mention it looks gorgeous with very high production values and fantastic animatio (not to mention it reuses a lot of both real and fictional historical figures in interesting ways).

  9. steven

    Premise

    Set in a post apocalyptic world where earth reverted to an industrial magic society after a great “event” destroyed the world and combined it with other world’s treating a weird new planet. The imperium is formed by humans who are in conflict with the non humans across the great divide who are lead by a special species of dragon. One day the imperiums leader during a trading summit falls in love with a dragob princess and has a affair with her. She leaves and guves birth to Darin(who can transform between human or dragon) who is raised by his mother and magical teddy bear that gives him wisdom. He is made aware of his heritage and is brought into conflict with his father trying to kill the dragons while his mother is also grooming Darin to be a usurper. He must confront his father and escape both sides who want to exploit him with the help of his father figure and teddy bear. This is about a son coming to terms with his father and learning to become a man.

    Thoughts?

  10. Carolyn McBride

    I love the idea and potential of stitchpunk! A close second is the underwater world-building potential.
    short fiction here I come!
    Thanks, Oren, for a thought-provoking and all-round great article! Keep up the good work!

  11. Adam Thaxton

    I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I regularly run a fantasy post-industrial setting, with the main driver being the scientification (is that a word?) of magical rituals turning out the driving forces behind transference of magical energy. “Dumb” spirits bound in massive nests of pipes and wires to produce power, fantastical equivalents of volts/amperes such that my engineer and electrician players have invented new devices that I’ve added to the setting as things have gone on, biomancy creations based on floating monsters that fill the skies with airships, golems-as-1940s-style-robots, and animistic stuff all over the place. It was “let’s do 20th century America as a setting but instead of European immigrants the locals hit their own stride” initially, and evolved heavily from there. Borrowed heavily from Aboriginal mythology in addition to Pacific, American, African, and East Asian myth.

    They just got done with a second world war, as well. Lots of cold war tension as people realize that they tested their nuke equivalents (weapons that prevent the elemental cycle from completing and separate elements into their pure types, like stopping the five elements in Tao from completing their cycles) in the wrong place (a place with already heavily damaged magical energy) and the true danger in them is in tearing up the background magic for unknown periods of time, and the epicenters are difficult or impossible to reach in order to apologize properly to clean up the effects. Everybody has weapons in their stock that can basically untangle city-sized chunks of reality and time and the horror of that is settling in to countries that would ordinarily be bitter enemies.

  12. I, User

    1 and 5 would be very easy to combine

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