A world’s theme determines how well everything in the world meshes together into a greater whole. Sometimes, this means facets of the setting that are aesthetically related, like the four elements in Avatar: The Last Airbender. In other cases, themes use established genre conventions. There’s no logical reason that a prevalence of steam power would lead to greater use of airships,* but airships are clearly in theme for most steampunk settings. When the theme is broken, it makes the world feel slapdash and arbitrary, like the author threw stuff in at random. This makes suspension of disbelief harder, as the setting feels less and less plausible with each clashing element.
Despite the downsides of breaking theme, some authors can’t help themselves. Either they don’t realize that they’re about to damage their world, or they get so enraptured by a shiny new idea that they don’t care. Either way, the result is a damaged world, and we have plenty of examples to look at.
Like the Firefly series before it, Serenity is a space western, which gives it quite a few setting tropes to employ while staying in theme. Most space-opera elements are allowed, from ships and laser cannons to advanced medical tech and floating chandeliers. Likewise, Wild West fixtures feel at home, so long as they have either a technological element or are set on remote frontiers. It’s perfectly natural for the heroes to ride horses when they stop at an impoverished planet that doesn’t have much infrastructure or fly through the holographic replica of a saloon’s glass window. Even River’s psychic abilities are reasonably in theme, as such powers are easy to find in space opera.
The major break in theme arrives with the villainous Operative. Or more specifically, his signature weapon: a sword. Not a special tech sword either, just a regular one. In a world of high-powered firearms and laser weapons, this guy relies on a sharpened piece of metal. This weapon doesn’t fit into either of Serenity’s genre lineages, sticking out as antiquated and impractical. While the Operative is a great villain, he achieves that in spite of his main weapon making him look like a wannabe ninja.
What’s more, the Operative doesn’t even get much use out of his sword. He executes a few civilians with it, but when he actually fights Mal the Big Damn Hero, the weapon is useless. First, he has to wait for Mal to lose his gun, and once they close to melee range, our big bad has trouble drawing his weapon because there’s no room. That’s something a lot of authors miss about swords: they’re not actually designed for fights where the combatants are inches apart, as they need room to maneuver.
Eventually, the Operative does get his sword out, and he even stabs Mal right through the gut. Somehow, this does nothing. Despite being literally impaled, Mal walks it off. He even pulls the sword out and uses it himself for a little while.* Later in the fight, the Operative temporarily disables Mal with a special nerve strike. Sure, being stabbed was no big deal, but pressure points are a real problem.
Bad fight choreography aside, I suspect the sword was added to give the Operative more novelty. Ironically, it wasn’t needed. This bad guy is already very novel thanks to his philosophizing and special nerve-strike techniques. If he needed a signature weapon, I’d have given him a fancy space gun, maybe something that causes big explosions so Mal would feel like the underdog with his normal revolver. That way, the Operative could have gotten a cool weapon without damaging the setting’s integrity.
Supernatural’s early seasons have an admirably consistent aesthetic. This is a gritty urban fantasy world where everything is small-scale and anything supernatural hides in the shadows, occasionally emerging just long enough to eat someone. Hunters aren’t well-funded government agents; they’re blue-collar freelancers who get by on old cars and credit-card fraud. Monsters don’t have complex cultures like they do in World of Darkness or Dresden Files. Even the fully sapient critters usually operate alone or in small groups. Demons working together for the apocalypse is the one major exception, and it’s absolutely vital for the story.
Then season three introduces Bela Talbot, a thief who steals supernatural relics and sells them to the highest bidder. Already we have a problem: who is she selling the relics to? One of Supernatural’s core conceits is that no one with significant resources knows about magic. If they did, at least some of them would be interested in stopping monsters, if only out of self-preservation. That would mess up the hunter aesthetic of being loners scraping by on the edges of society. Nor can Bela’s clients be the monsters themselves, as they must also be perpetually without resources. If the monsters had money, they could hire private security or simply have the hunters arrested.
Compounding the problem is Bela’s characterization. She’s written to be glitzy and posh, someone who treats the whole supernatural situation like a game rather than the deadly serious conflict it’s supposed to be. She feels like a character who wandered in from the James Bond franchise. That isn’t the only reason viewers disliked Bela, but it was a major contributor. It’s just difficult to see how a character could maintain an attitude like that in a world as dismal as Supernatural’s. Bela’s last few episodes try to course correct, turning her into a more grounded and sympathetic character, but it’s too little, too late.
The main lesson from Bela’s failure is that Supernatural depends on its core premise of isolated hunters working in a fairly unconnected world. If the heroes find a rumor of something bad operating two states over, they can’t call up the hunter headquarters and have an elite strike team deployed. The good guys are on their own, so if the problem is two states away, then they’re driving across two states. Likewise, if the supernatural creatures have a functioning society, then the story quickly spirals into war between humans and supernatural entities rather than individual hunts. Bela isn’t the only time the writers forget this rule,* but she is certainly the most blatant.
3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Like Supernatural, Buffy is an urban fantasy show. However, this show takes a much broader approach to the genre, including just about every urban fantasy trope ever imagined. This gives Buffy a far less focused setting, but it does mean that the writers have more freedom to get creative without breaking theme. All they have to do is avoid something really outlandish like high-tech robots and they’re fine.
So naturally, they add high-tech robots. In fact, they add a whole bunch of them. Sigh. The first robot we meet is a monster of the week who tries to be Buffy’s abusive stepfather for some reason. Later on, the military-backed Initiative uses robotics* to create Adam, the main villain of season four. Then we meet Warren, a guy who can just make sapient robots whenever he feels like it. Oh boy.
At first glance, these robots don’t look any less plausible than the show’s other speculative elements. Willow seems to learn a new spell every week, so what’s wrong with Warren being able to create superpowered androids? It all comes down to background. For good or for ill, Buffy’s world is established to have a wide variety of magical effects for the heroes and villains to use. It has not been established to have the tech necessary to make robots. In fact, the show’s tech level is exactly as high as the real world at the time of filming, meaning that Warren’s robots run on Windows XP.
Without that background, the robots are obnoxious intruders in our urban fantasy adventure. There’s a big reveal moment where we learn that Buffy’s abusive new stepfather was actually a robot, and it’s clearly supposed to wow the audience, but instead it’s just irritating. Adam’s robotic parts are supposed to make him scarier, but they contribute to his feeling of total blandness, as he feels more like a collection of random ideas than a real villain. Warren just leaves us wondering why he hasn’t sold his robot-manufacturing tech and become a billionaire.
If Buffy’s writers had really wanted to, they could have established the background necessary for advanced robots, but it would have been a waste of time. Everything robots do on this show could easily be done by something magical instead. Warren in particular could simply have created magical constructs or homunculi. They would have fulfilled the same role in the plot and not required muddying up the setting.
4. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
Christopher Paolini’s (yes, that one) 2020 novel first appears to be a fairly standard space-opera setting. Humanity has spread throughout the stars, terraforming planets over decades rather than centuries. While some of the tech is clearly influenced by The Expanse, including gravity generated by a ship’s thrust, most of it would be right at home in Star Wars or Star Trek. Ships have faster-than-light drives and antimatter power while medical technology can fix almost any injury short of a destroyed brain. Some of the tech is awkwardly introduced, like the sudden arrival of a character whose entire body is robotic, but it still feels plausible in a space-opera world.
Then we find out that despite FTL trips usually taking days or possibly weeks, it’s standard procedure to be frozen in cryopods. That seems odd. The main point of cryosleep is to mitigate the passage of time on voyages measured in decades or centuries. Why go to all the trouble just to skip the equivalent of a transatlantic ship crossing? At first, the justification given is that it conserves food, which is difficult to believe. However efficient cryotech is in this setting, it can’t possibly be less bother than storing a few extra soup cans in the ship’s pantry.
Later, we’re given the actual explanation: ships can’t vent heat in hyperspace, so they use cryopods to keep the temperature down. That’s… hard to judge, as it would require figures on how much energy a cryopod uses and how effectively insulated it is. Keeping things cool is often very energy intensive, and air conditioners can actually heat up cities where they’re used. But it’s at least plausible that a few well-insulated cryopods would produce less heat than leaving the crew awake and active. Even so, this is a lot of explanation for something readers didn’t expect to see in the first place, and the only benefit seems to be that Paolini doesn’t have to describe travel sequences. That’s probably not worth the attention cost of adding so many unusual elements to a space-opera setting.
But if you thought the FTL cryopods were breaking theme, wait until you hear about the space wizards. They’re called Entropists, and since there’s no magic in this setting, they use advanced tech in a way that just happens to resemble fantasy spellcasters. They even wear robes and put on fireworks displays at idyllically rural villages, in case there was any doubt about whom they’re supposed to resemble.
The Entropists’ first problem is that they feel very silly. In a fantasy setting, it’s easy to accept that wizards are secretive and unknowable, possessing knowledge not meant for common folk. In a scifi setting, anyone who hoards knowledge for their own benefit is selfish at best. It’s not like they’re hiding the Original Name that might undo all of creation. They just have more sensitive laboratory equipment and they won’t share. It’s also highly unlikely that wizardly accoutrements are the most efficient shape for any advanced gadgets.
The second problem is that technology does not work that way. Magical secrets can be garnered by a few individuals, either because only they have inborn talent or because they happened to dig up the right tome from an ancient library. Technological development requires resources, usually from a government or corporate body. Who is funding the Entropists, and why don’t they expect any return on their investment? It’s always possible that these space wizards are running a profitable business on the side, but that makes them more like modern tech bros than wise mystics.
5. Fires of Invention
This novel is officially middle grade, but, honestly, it reads more like YA, and it has a big ol’ mechanical dragon on the cover. From that image, you’re probably expecting a steampunk world full of magic and fantastic inventions – but no, none of that here. Instead, the story is set in an underground city called Cove, where people retreated when the surface world became unlivable. Other than the occasional mention of a gear or sprocket, there’s no steampunk to be had, and the tech is largely mundane. Nor is there anything supernatural. Just people living underground.
The plot is a mystery story, with the 13-year-old heroes trying to solve a suspicious death. The dead man was an inventor, and in true YA fashion, Cove’s authoritarian government has banned invention and creativity.* While that could have a steampunk element, it doesn’t. None of the banned inventions seem unusual or beyond what modern tech can do. We also learn a little more about what devastated the surface, but not much. We’re told that Cove was built to avoid vaguely worded “disease” and “destruction.” This gives the impression of some kind of plague or maybe environmental collapse.
Before long, the mechanical dragon is largely forgotten.* Then, at the halfway point, we learn that the dead inventor was working on something big: building a giant mechanical dragon. That’s pretty jarring, as it really doesn’t seem like Cove has the technology for something like that. A mechanical dragon isn’t just one invention, especially if it’s capable of flight and breathing fire. It would require lightweight materials, a very efficient power source, and some kind of flame projector. All of Cove’s technology is bulky and awkward, and they don’t seem to have any advanced weapons on hand. Where were the parts for this dragon supposed to come from?
Nevertheless, our heroes decide to build the dragon, though it’s not clear what they hope to accomplish by doing it. Bragging rights, maybe? From a reader’s perspective, it seems likely that they’ll use the dragon to defeat the authoritarian government and bring freedom to Cove. If you can get past the break in technological capability, that’s not a bad plot either. Getting the parts for their mechanical dragon also provides a decent conflict, and the book continues on.
Then, near the end, the heroes break into a government archive and discover the reason they live underground: dragon apocalypse. It seems that around the time of World War I, dragons emerged from somewhere and destroyed human society. Real dragons, not mechanical ones. The mechanical dragon is meant to fight them. This is so out of left field that I have to admire the author’s nerve even as I explain why this is a terrible storytelling choice.
Nothing in this story has even hinted that the supernatural exists. There’s no foreshadowing to indicate where these dragons might have come from or how there could be enough of them to destroy civilization. The reveal could have been aliens or ghosts and it would have made exactly as much sense. What’s worse, this retroactively breaks the government’s restrictions on creativity. Before, we could assume that whatever destroyed civilization, it was at least tenuously linked to technology, so the survivors banned any new inventions. But no, it was dragons the whole time. So they banned inventing because… I dunno, dragons have tech-seeking radar?
There’s also the fact that a single mechanical dragon would be useless against an apocalypse’s worth of scaly beasts, especially if the real dragons could overcome machine guns and artillery, but that’s honestly small potatoes compared to the jarring reveal. You read through almost the whole book with no mention of anything magical, and then suddenly you’re ambushed by dragons. Amazing.
Theme breaks can be small and subtle like swords in a scifi setting or huge and attention-grabbing like a sudden dragon-pocalypse, but they all cause damage. So when building your world, stick to your theme as much as possible. Your readers will thank you.
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