Castles, spaceships, and high tech cities are all great, but they can get a bit repetitive after a while. Fortunately, despite spec fic existing for centuries (at least) by this point, we’ve still only scratched the surface of all the possible settings out there. Today, we discuss just a few options that can single-handedly up your story’s novelty value, and without any appropriation either!
- Understanding Appropriative Worldbuilding
- The Quantum Thief
- Babel 17
- The Expanse
- Underwater Settings
- The Abyss
- Crescent City
- The Irregulars
- Steven Universe
- Broken Earth
- Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland
- The Light Brigade
- Infinity Train
- Lincoln in the Bardo
- Jade City
- Greta Helsing
- Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts
- Gently Down the Steam
Generously transcribed by Nikki. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening theme]
Chris: You’re listening to the myth green podcast. I’m Chris and with me is
Chris: Welcome to a world where there is nothing but three disembodied voices that are very angry about stories for some reason. I’m not sure this would make a good setting for a novel, but it makes an ok setting for a podcast.
Oren: I mean, I can’t think of a better setting for a podcast to be perfectly honest.
Wes: It’s got everything you really need.
Oren: It’s extremely novel.
Wes: Voices, anger, anger, lots of novelty. [laughter]
Oren: The characters are all very handsome.
Chris: So this time we’re gonna be talking about unusual settings; settings that don’t get used as often.
And I have run into writers who are nervous about using a setting that is not popular, but usually that’s a very good thing. It makes your work stand out. Now, granted, occasionally publishers want something that’s already been done, but usually that’s for a very brief period in time where, one story got super popular and then they’re searching around for, you know, copycats because that’s actually in demand.
We want stories that are copying it and other stories, but in most cases, what happens is that writers are inspired by what they consume. So they tend to repeat those things, even if the market is already saturated and their story just doesn’t stand out and get any attention. Not that those stories can’t be good, but generally doing something unique, again, helps you add more novelty to your story and makes things more fresh and interesting.
And you can see this if you look historically; there’s a lot of books that you might wonder, how was this so popular? It’s so bad. And many times the answer to that question is that when they came out, they were the first to do something. They were first to have a moon colony. They were first to show you the inner life of a vampire. Those are two we’ve talked about recently, and that’s what made them really appealing. So doing something different oftentimes really does pay off. I think Oren has some downsides as well.
Wes: Oooh, beware!
Oren: Uh, ok. So first of all, a lot of [skeptical] “unusual” settings are just appropriation, it turns out. I’m looking at you, most stories about Asian fantasy by white people. Be careful of that. There’s nothing wrong with a story that is set somewhere that is not based on Western culture, but that does not inherently make it strange and different.
If it’s a story about fantasy feudalism, giving everyone Katana’s instead of long swords, doesn’t immediately make it different and strange.
Chris: Right. Be very wary of adding novelty by taking things from marginalized groups or other cultures. It’s novel to privileged people. To those groups that’s normal – some of those things are normal to them and they don’t want them to be presented as weird and strange. Other times they do want those settings; they just don’t want white people writing them, because we write them badly, or what have you.
Oren: So, you know, that’s a whole thing to be aware of. And we’ve talked a lot about that, so I’m not going to go too far into it; just be aware of it.
Unusual settings also mean you have to explain more because your audience is not as familiar with them. And of course you can make this better or worse by having more or less complicated settings. Two stories that come to mind that are both very strange and also just really hard to keep track of are The Quantum Thief and Babel 17, which are probably about, I don’t know, 50 years apart in publishing. But both of them are just like, what is happening? What is going on in these stories? Because they’re so weird and out there.
In The Quantum Thief , they kept mentioning the Spikescape. It was this thing that the characters kept seeing. And I was like, what is the Spikescape? And at some point it finally explained that Jupiter was destroyed in an event called the Spike, and that the Spikescape was the remnants of Jupiter. And I was like, that’s been here this entire time? What?
Chris: Good information management in many cases can clear up these problems? Managing like making sure your terminologies are easy to understand, and how you introduce information, and all that. But certainly you’re making it harder for yourself when you have lots of new unfamiliar things that are complicated, especially if they have to be explained.
Oren: The other thing to just think about is. That if you are going to the trouble of trying to make your setting unusual and different, you should embrace it. Cause if it feels like that was just for window dressing, then it’s just going to be kind of disappointing. And it might even seem contrived.
If you set your story underwater, but everything feels like an above ground story, like you describe them, traveling in a straight line, or avoiding obstacles they could easily swim over because it’s underwater. Or you have them stop to light a kelp fire that they all sit around. At that point, what you clearly wanted was a traditional fantasy story where they walk through the woods and light a campfire.
And that’s not the biggest problem I’ve seen in spec-fic, but it can happen. If you have a story that just feels like it doesn’t use any of your unusual setting material at all, then that’s probably a problem. Be passionate is what I’m saying. Pick something you’re interested in.
Chris: So should we list some unusual settings?
Oren: No, we’re not going to.
Wes: Podcast over.
Chris: Are you two getting back at me for introducing the two of you in the wrong order? Is that what it is?
Oren: What matters Chris is that I subverted their expectations.
One setting that I actually very much appreciated was The Expanse, which is very popular now and has spawned a huge swath of books that take place in similar settings, if not exactly the same. But you know, the whole concept of infinite fusion drives, which we use to create gravity because the ship is basically a building. The floor is the direction of thrust, so when the ship has moved is accelerating at one G you have one G of gravity inside the ship. People loved that, and lots of authors have taken it and run with it, which is not a bad thing, but it does show that if your story uses a setting that is not familiar to a lot of readers and becomes popular, it can have a huge impact.
Chris: Wes, I choose you.
Wes: Oh boy. We mentioned underwater and we have a whole podcast on underwater environments because they’re under utilized in their grades. And on that podcast, of course, we talked about The Abyss because it’s a fantastic movie that actually makes the setting incredibly important to what goes on; but I like how they deal with the pressure, the water, the cold, the movement, air. That one stuck with me, obviously, I just view that as like the end all be all. Granted, it might as well be outer space also, because they’re so deep, and there’s aliens, but I guess they’re terrestrial. They’re water terrestrial, aquaterrestrial aliens. I’m not entirely sure how you go with that.
Another story that was set on the bottom of the floor was Michael Crighton’s Sphere. And that, I think, was on the ocean floor just because that’s where the sphere was. It didn’t have to be there. And most of the plot took place in their own heads because of the powers the sphere gave them. So I didn’t like that one so much, but-
Chris: It did have a swarm on jellyfish.
Wes: Yes. There we go. I just want to vouch for… a good unusual setting is the ocean. And please try to come up with cool stories. Cause I always want more
Chris: Think about the undiscovered trenches with glowy bioluminescent life in there.
Oren: It’s all kinds of weird stuff there, man. Probably not Megalodons, but all kinds of weird stuff.
Wes: I know; who knows what the dwarves discovered when they dug down that deep? Chris, what about you?
Chris: At first I’ll just go into what I’m considering now to be the new hotness. Because I think it’s, I think it will get more. Of course I have no data for this, I’m just saying it: other world urban fantasy. We’ve covered this recently in the form of the Crescent City best-selling books. Basically what it does is it takes the modernisms, and the modern witticisms, and cell phones and other things, but you transplant them into a different world that is not Earth.
And it gives you the same feel that urban fantasy has, but generally there’s no masquerade. You don’t need it to explain why the world is the way it is, which if you were to do Earth urban fantasy, generally, that’s one of the services it provides. But it makes the world a lot more complicated. So you just don’t deal with that; everybody is openly elves or what have you, elves or witches, whatever you want. And it’s also neat because it’s so Earth-like, and it feels like modern Earth. You can change basically as much or a little as you want. If you want, you can just rename everything. Or you could make it a very different world.
I also think that even though the theming is very different, Hilda is basically this type of setting.
Oren: Yeah, Hilda is like it takes place in a modern ish setting, but like, you’re not going to find Trollberg on any map. It’s clearly some kind of alternate fantasy setting, but it’s also, you know, light and whimsical in a way that a big, a big urban fantasy novel might not be.
Wes: Its theming is good because it keeps the urban component, but you get this sense that unlike this world we live in, in Hilda’s world there’s far more wilderness than there is civilization. They have the advancements, they have phones and things like that. But they haven’t tamed the wild as much as we certainly have now.
Chris: Again, the uniting factor is they both take things that we’re used to in the modern day and technology and phrasing. Again, there are so many writers… like we were just watching The Irregulars and it’s supposed to be in Victorian London. And they’re using all of these words that are, would not be a thing in Victorian London. And sometimes it takes you out of the story, But for writers, they really want to have like witty snarky dialogue. And it’s just so much easier to do that if you can use modern phrasing. So, you know, this enables you to just take all those modern things and then frees you from the constraints of writing on Earth and, you know, go whichever direction you’d like with your speculative fiction aspects. And again, Hilda looks very different from Crescent city, cause they have very different themes, but they both have those uniting factors.
And so I think we’re just going to see more of that. It’s still not super common right now, but I think we’ll see more and more.
Wes: Do you think Steven Universe falls into that same category too?
Oren: Yeah, absolutely.
Wes: I was thinking about that, cause I guess it’s Earth.
Oren: Hang on in Steven Universe, they actually identify it as Earth. So I guess there is like an alternate Earth.
Chris: Alternate history.
Oren: You know, a very gentle alternate Earth, right? I think at one point they show us a map and it looks like there’s a giant hole in the middle of Eurasia. And it’s like, ok, where did that come from? Another huge advantage of that concept is that it frees you from having to consider things like what were my wizards doing during various historical injustices? You know, that’s a thing that may or may not bother certain readers, but it certainly becomes more of an issue the more you try to make your story diverse, because that brings up these injustices. And that’s a challenge and it’s hard to deal with and you just, you don’t have to, if you set it on a second world fantasy story that you made up, and it’s just easier that way. Uh, and it’s just, it takes a huge burden off of you.
Chris: Oren, you’re up.
Oren: Uh, me again. Um, okay. I really liked the world in Broken Earth. I’m not a big Broken Earth fan. I think people have figured that out by now, but the earthquake apocalypse, I thought that was fascinating.
Wes: Yes. So good.
Oren: The story where the biggest threat is geological shifting. I thought that was very interesting.
Wes: Yeah. I also liked that it’s one continent and then they establish that if you try to live on any of the islands off of it, you will die.
Oren: Because you’re constantly getting tsunamis and stuff.
Wes: Well, just like the concept of, Oh, it’s set on Earth, but Pangea, and I’m like, that’s what Broken Earth kind of did. It’s like, Hey, here’s this world. It’s one continent. And it’s rife with tectonic power. I’m like, yes, thank you.
Oren: That was definitely a story that really embraced its setting. And like everything was built around its setting. And the way society was organized was very different because, it was built on this idea that every so often there’s going to be some big disaster and big centralized states are going to fail as they tend to do during big disasters. And we’re going to have to rely on much smaller self-sufficient units. And so that’s how the towns – they’re called comms, for communities – and that’s how they’re built. And I just thought that was very cool. It had a lot of really cool novelty. It was very deep.
Uh, it had some problems, like this weird thing about nobody uses metal weapons, but they do use metal gates, which I thought was weird. Be consistent about the metal no one uses is all I’m asking. But other than that, I thought it was quite good. It was just a very interesting concept. And I thought that the stories did a great job with it.
I think that’s a big part of the reason why the stories are so popular, if not the biggest reason, is that the setting is just extremely novel. That, and of course, Denison’s wordcraft is always very strong. I think those two things really worked together to make the story, to make the setting feel huge and impactful.
Wes: Kind of funny because I really like this one, but its setting is more like a conceit that you have to go with. And so I’m talking, of course, about Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, which is a fantastic animated movie, but the setting is Nemo’s dreams. And so, I guess what I really like about it is it embraces the chaotic dream logic that we all experienced very well. It starts out with him going to bed and experiencing a dirigible ride to Slumberland, but then there’s storms in the sky because those are nightmares trying to get in the way.
And then there’s the whole Slumberland thing, but he’s abruptly in and out of this as it’s going and getting pushed eventually towards the nightmare that happens. And I just think that that is a cool idea for a setting, as you just have to accept that this is what’s going to happen.
Which is also why I really liked Light Brigade, because the setting of that is as much the jumps as any of the planets, because you can go anywhere at any time. And once you see that happen, You understand that, this kind of transition, this shift is an integral part of the setting and it has a great impact on, what’s going to play out how the story’s going to resolve and that kind of stuff. So I like that unusual concept as setting.
Oren: But Wes, my free will! My beautiful free will.
Wes: No, Oren! Smash your free will with my chaotic dream logic.
Oren: All right, so Wes is a determinist then.
Chris: Well, related to that, and I’ve seen this done in dreams before, is there are some settings that are basically a series of pocket dimensions. And infinity train is a animated show on Netflix that’s like this, where there’s premises that are some big, like, train that’s in some sort of alternate dimension. That you get on, and each car is its own pocket world. And usually each one is very simple and distinct and has challenges to overcome, but isn’t too complex so that the story can move on. Right? If you had a huge pot hook in one of these pocket dimensions, it would feel like the character needs to stay there until it’s over. So they’re usually very simple and memorable and each door novel in themselves. And there’s kind of some overarching unifying factor
Another one that I would put in this category that you wouldn’t normally think about is A Nightmare Before Christmas.
Chris: Because that’s actually based on the idea of these little holiday pocket worlds that all exist, and each one is very strongly themed and very uniform, right? But they have this uniting factor that they’re all holidays.
Wes: They’re like, so, well I can’t say subtle because it’s in your face right at the start, but when there’s the forest and the doors at the beginning, and then that they come back to later, it’s like the whole thing just blows up. Wondering what does Thanksgiving land look like, or any of the other doors, it’s like, what’s going on?
Oren: What’s happening in Easter land? I have questions
Wes: So many questions. I imagine it’s like, Rise of the Guardians. The Bunny’s Australian, like Easter Burrow. A bunch of stone eggs wobbling on their legs.
Anyway, going back to the pocket dimensions, you can easily do this with dreams, right? You’d want to do some head hopping
Chris: But you could jump between different dreams and those could be your pocket dimensions. I think we don’t see that a lot in novels because that’s generally just for a very episodic stories because usually each pocket dimension is like a travel story where instead of visiting islands, you visit a pocket dimension, and again, you solve a problem there and then you move on, but they are fun and offer a lot of variety and make for a nice light episodic story.
Oren: Yeah. I, I think that in general, there is a lot of potential for stories that take place in either nonphysical worlds, like places that don’t exist in the prime material plane, for lack of a better descriptor for it. Like I’m a big fan of, uh, the concept of a story that takes place in the land of the dead, because you just, you just have so many options there, right? You can create so much new stuff that doesn’t really make sense in the real world, but would make perfect sense in the world of the dead.
Chris: Just like in a dreamscape, right, where you can give it some like metaphorical justification or what have you.
Oren: The world of the dead will also have an advantage where it wouldn’t have the expectation to be constantly changing. That’s the biggest thing that would concern me about telling a story in a dream world. Dreams are really chaotic and they don’t necessarily have to be, you can make this work, but if your dream world is too consistent, it might feel a little weird. Whereas, there are other metaphysical options that don’t have that expectation that I think you could get a lot of creativity out of.
Chris: Of course, if you do a land of the dead, you do have to find a way for characters to be in peril.
Oren: Yeah, that is true.
Wes: I have an example. So George Saunders wrote a novel called Lincoln in the Bardo and it’s highly avant garde and extremely challenging to read, but basically it follows president Lincoln when his little boy died, and he becomes a ghost and he’s in this Bardo of spirits and he’s with all these spirits that are hanging out and, you know, some of the veterans there are telling him what’s what, and they warn him because these things come and try to take you. And over time you realize that these are like angels trying to get them to move on. But none of these ghosts like are really accepting that they’re dead. But like the threat is that these angels come and start singing at you so loud and everybody freaks out. And so, I don’t know, I thought that was kind of like a good ghosty take on it. And it’s like, the threat is that they’re coming to help you, but they can’t acknowledge that that’s what they’re trying to do.
Chris: Yeah, that’s cool. You could also have some Beastie drive them down from limbo to hell or something like that.
Wes: Well, they were taken off to get judged.
Chris: Oh, that’s menacing.
Oren: A lot of stories that have a land of the dead type situation, have some kind of double death where, like Ok you died but like you can die again. Your consciousness can cease to exist, right, because if you’re conscious in the land of the dead, are you really dead? [spooky] Wooo.
Another one that I have actually found that can be very handy is there are a lot of decades that don’t get much play in spec-fic, like spec-fic tends to be either pre-World War One or modern day. I have noticed, or, yeah, like Victorian is pre World War One.
Chris: I was thinking medieval, Victorian, modern day to narrow it down even further.
Oren: There was a big stretch of time, like in between the First World War and, you know, whenever the urban fantasy novel of your choice is being written, that just doesn’t come up a lot. And I think that there’s some potential there, like the novel Jade city, for example, has a roughly 1960s level of tech. And I thought that was very cool. It’s like, it’s second world, right? It’s it’s, it’s not based in the real world, but it’s also based on, you know, not Western cultures, but that to me was actually secondary to the fact that this was a setting that had street cars and electricity but not computers, and telephones but not smartphones. That, that was just, I thought kind of neat. And it’s just an era that doesn’t get explored a ton. Because it’s sorta like, at least as far as spec-fic goes, people tend to maybe think of it as like too recent to be mysterious, but also far enough back that not as immediately relatable. And I just think there’s the lost potential there.
Wes: I’ve talked about the Greta Helsing trilogy on here before and in the last book Grave Importance, Gretta goes to south France, to basically take over as the head doctor in residence at a mummy clinic.
Chris: I love that.
Wes: Greta in the first book is running her small clinic for the various undead and supernatural of London. And then in book two, she’s in Paris at a conference for the doctors that treat these supernatural and undead, but then it finally goes to a clinic. It’s just, I mean, there’s definitely parts there like, yeah, Vivian Shaw definitely knows her medical terminology, probably too well. But I just loved that she was just walking around treating these mummies and they’re just, you know, like a mysterious ill illness that’s like affecting all of these mummies and stuff, but all the attention to detail with how they have to care for mummies in a clinic – it made for a really good setting with, you know, they’re prone to falls or their bandages, like come unraveled, like all kinds of different types of things. It was pretty wild. It was far more fun. I still liked the scene where they actually go to Hell. Kind of near the end because they’re that Hell is quite interesting. But just a clinic full of mummies, that was the funniest thing in the world.
Chris: It’s like a medical drama.
Wes: Yes, it was a medical drama, and all these mummies just want to get better and stop like randomly passing out and breaking parts that you can’t replace.
Oren: Gray’s Bandages, eh?
Chris: Speaking of breaking parts, a setting that I would like to see more of – or aesthetic – I would like to see more like stitchpunk or patchpunk, where the characters are dolls. There’s not very many things in this category. There are a few; Toy Story is similar. The toys. It has kind of a different flavor though. It has much glossier plastic toys with like electric push buttons, and what have you. Whereas, uh, the movie Nine is one of the few actual movies with this aesthetic, where all of the characters are like these little golems that have been sewn together. Um, don’t watch that movie. It’s it’s not good. It’s very depressing.
Oren: The short film that it’s based on is better.
Chris: The short film is based on is better. It’s very cool looking.
But there are some games that have this aesthetic, like Kirby’s Epic Yarn. It’s all about being in like a patchwork quilt, and there’s a very cute game called Ilomilo, where it’s actually a three-dimensional puzzle game, where you play these cute little creatures that are trying to meet for like tea in the woods. It has a very, like it’s adorable, has a very patchwork aesthetic. And I just think you could do a lot with having characters that have been constructed and make that really creative.
You can kind of see it in A Nightmare Before Christmas, Sally, right? She has a thing where she’ll dramatically fall from the tower and then her leg will come off, and her arm. But then you’ll see you’re okay, just get out my sewing kit. So myself back together, and it’s just really neat and opens up new possibilities.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, just the concept of having characters who can by default easily modify themselves is very interesting and very different than what we’re used to. And that’s, I think the big difference between something like, you know, stitch punk and Toy Story, cause in Toy Story, everyone is the toy that they were made to be. And the one person who does custom modded toys is [exaggerated] very evil and bad.
Wes: Tell us how you really feel.
Oren: Poor Sid. I feel bad for that kid. He wasn’t doing anything wrong and they just traumatized him for no reason. But in the movie Nine or in these other stitch punk games, your characters can be like, all right, well, we need to get across that river. And you know, if we just try to jump in, we’ll get soaked and carried away, but I can sew some plastic buckets to my feet, and then we can walk across that way. And that’s just cool. That’s not a thing that humans can do. I mean, please don’t. But a patchwork character? Sure.
Chris: I would just like to request… post-apocalyptic stories are almost always desert, because it’s all about resource scarcity and that’s the big theme. And so to emphasize that, so many of those stories take place in deserts. And I would just love to see more overgrown post-apocalyptic like Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, for instance, but there’s just not that many of them out there.
I don’t know if they’re just. Maybe it’s probably that they’re more expensive to make visually on film, because if you do a desert, you can just go to a desert. And if you want to show an entire city that has overgrown vines, you have to actually construct sets.
Oren: Yeah. Plus it doesn’t, it doesn’t look as much like Mad Max and we can’t have that.
Chris: But it would also just feel very different because instead of the same resource scarcity aspect, you would have more living threats. Like for instance, you could maybe put in some carnivorous plants, you know, if you want to cater to the Chris demographic, but I would definitely love to see more of that. It’s just a different way to do a post-apocalyptic.
Oren: I also point out that if you want to read an excellent green apocalypse story, you can-
Oren: -find Gently Down the Stream-
Oren: -by Chris Winkle on Mythcreants.com.
And with that, we’re going to go ahead and end this podcast before we are all overgrown by the carnivorous plants.
Wes: Oh my God.
Oren: I don’t know what sound those plants make, but imagine they’re making it.
Before we go. I want to thank a few of our patrons. Uh, first we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Aymon Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Denita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. And we’ll talk to you next week.
Chris: If you enjoyed this podcast and want to slip us some gold pressed latinum. Head on over to patrion.com/mythcreants. We appreciate it.[closing theme]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?