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
ExampleMud 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.
ExampleCutting 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
ExampleAjax 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
ExampleCaptain 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
ExampleArchmage 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.)