Why Even Space?

Treasure_Planet_Poster_by_Aedirl_DemonIt occurs to me that a lot of science fiction stories revolve around the notion of people discovering or exploring an unknown place, but that the location and nature of that place doesn’t actually matter all that much.

The setting of a story can provide a lot of things; it can add extra interest through the creatures that live there, scientific and speculative detailing, dramatic atmosphere, etc. Yes, sometimes these details are integral to the plot, or they can provide unique plot points, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the only thing that matters is that your characters go somewhere, anywhere. They’re heading into the unknown, and it’s dangerous.

So why is this unknown place usually another planet? Why must sci-fi characters always venture into space?

OK, so space is pretty damn cool, and visiting other planets gives us writers a chance to explore and describe something really unique. This also gives us a chance to put our characters as far out of their comfort zone as possible, and that makes for great fiction. But space exploration has been done to death in fiction. You might even say that space exploration has become ‘old hat’ (I realize that’s a controversial thing for somebody like me to say, but it’s all in the purpose of rhetoric).

How many works of fiction have you encountered that see astronauts land, or crash, on a boring little planet only to discover that it’s just like every other planet, or that the planet really isn’t important to the plot? How many times do astronauts find themselves in a pickle that could actually unfold in any given location, providing that location is far from home? Did the writer choose Mars, or Europa, or Deltron 4 just because space is hip? Because they like using phrases like “urine-recyc” and “preparing to initiate burn”? Perhaps they are just working on the misguided presumption that all works of science fiction must involve traversing vast distances through a vacuum, even if the destination ends up looking exactly like southern California, and its inhabitants like people from… well… southern California.

I’m being facetious. I love space. But sometimes all that pesky space travel can get in the way, and I think we’re missing a trick that could give our stories a little out-of-the-box pizzazz.

Ask yourself, does your story really hinge on travel to another planet, or is it more about “interesting characters go to X and then lots of awesome stuff happens”? Is X variable? I think changing X to something completely different could really help your story stand out, while adding a little spice to Y and Z too. Here’s how:

OK, so we’ve run out of places to explore on Earth. And we know there are no <<insert science fiction concept here>> in Australia or Antarctica, and the North West Passage is turning out to be something of a disappointment too. Of course, you could set your story in Earth’s past, but Hollywood has been there a few times already, and a historical setting would probably require research – and that’s just a pain in the <<insert science fiction pun here>>.

But what if your story wasn’t about humans at all? What if your characters were aliens? And what if they were setting out to explore/discover/become stranded in an uncharted corner of their own alien world? Not only does this give us a chance to explore a new world – a world with exciting science fiction possibilities – without having to fall into the regular “preparing to initiate hyperdrive” traps, it also allows us to explore this world through the eyes of interesting alien characters.

So instead of boring astronaut types we have alien characters, and they’re setting out to explore the alien equivalent of the New World, or Australia, or Antarctica. Perhaps, like Chris Columbus, they plan to circumnavigate their planet and just happen to stumble upon a previously unknown landmass. This means we’re talking about the alien equivalent of the 15th, 16th, or 17th Century, right? Sail ships, primitive scientific knowledge, superstitions, bad hair cuts? Well… maybe.

The fun part is how much you can shake this up. By the time your alien civilization sets out to explore this new continent, they might be more or less advanced than we were during our own age of discovery. Or they might be more advanced in some areas and less advanced in others. The aliens could be an analog of a particular human civilization (think steam punk and alternate history), or they could have made scientific, philosophical, and material discoveries in a completely different order.

If you’d rather your characters exist in a world that’s more on the modern side of the enlightenment, there are a number of excuses you could make for them only just discovering this part of their world. Perhaps most of the planet’s landmass is concentrated in one area (perhaps one continent), and so they never had any reason to suspect than there might be other continents out there. Perhaps this even led to a common believe that there were no other continents.


Perhaps they live exclusively in the northern hemisphere and have only recently begun to consider the possibility that there could be land to the south.


Superstition can be a powerful force, but so can chance. Perhaps they’ve already circumnavigated their world several times but happened to miss the particular corner of the world in which this small continent sits. Perhaps it’s not until they launch rockets into space that they’re able to look down on their world and say, “hey, what’s that big green blob down there?”


Perhaps the aliens believe their world to be mostly dessert, and their civilization is centered around a single sea. Modern climate science might be the only clue that there are other seas and other fertile regions on the other side of the globe.


The more isolated the setting, the greater the possibility for science fiction strangeness, weird creatures, danger, and that “out of the comfort zone” feeling that makes exploration stories so appealing. The more isolated the setting, the greater the plausibility of an advanced society only recently making the discovery.

How do your alien characters get there? Sail boat, steam boat, nuclear submarine, jet plane, hot air balloon – take your pick!

Perhaps the aliens don’t even live on land. Perhaps their civilization exists on the ocean floor, and exploration of dry land is to them as exploring space is to us. (Or you could opt for deep sea exploration, but that’s another trope has been largely bled dry.)

Here are some more randomly generated world maps that would suit this scenario:



Images generated using the Planet Map Generator here: http://topps.diku.dk/torbenm/maps.msp

  • Cassidy Frazee

    If you look at the Hugo awards for the last twenty years you’ll see that few of winning novels have anything to do with space, save for “Redshirts” which is pretty much “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” in a psudo-Star Trek universe. True, these are novels voted on by fans, but the Nebulas–voted on by authors–sort of stay away from space a lot as well. Look at “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”, which, as they say, won all the awards back in 2007.

    Stories about space were the prevalent subject back when I first got into science fiction, but that’s because it was unknown: there was so little known about what it was like “out there” that people wrote on. But even then there were a lot of character driven stories where space, if used, was just a background, sort of like London was for novels written in the late 19th and early 20th Century. “The Xeelee Sequence” stories were a lot like this, with space acting as a backdrop for the characters that lived a thousand years from now.

    And why do I have a novel set there? Because I needed a place to put my crazy characters twelve hundred years from now. Though the story really isn’t about space, it’s about a group of people, two who are somewhat messed up and have a strange relationship. Oh, and they’re lesbians: never forget the lesbians. Even in space. 🙂

    • True, there’s a lot of really great non-space sci-fi out there, but when exploration or isolation are involved space is still the default for obvious reasons. The aim of the article really was just to encourage writers to consider alternative settings for these stories

      • I think also it’s more of a problem with movies than literature (limited imaginations, budgets, and audience expectations are probably to blame there).

        Treasure Planet really is the best example to use for the picture. As much as I enjoyed the movie, I don’t understand why they took a non-space story, changed the setting to space, and then had space be nothing at all like space and more like the original setting.
        It’s like making a cheesecake without the cheese but still calling it a cheesecake. It’s just cake with a weird name.

  • Steven Lyle Jordan

    As we learn more about the real limitations of space, the more our sci-fi may look inward, back to Earth. There may not be a lot of [[insert science fiction concept here]] on Earth now… but look a few years in the future, and you’d be surprised how much [[insert science fiction concept here]] turns up.

    I’ve written a number of novels set on Earth, and I’ve found there’s plenty of rich material right here for conflict and adventure. Depending on how the future works out, we might find plenty of mysteries to be solved right here on our own planet.

  • Christmas Snow

    Planet geography and geology always add intriguing effect on the social habits of its inhabitants. Here are a few scenarios:

    – Super-Earth with high gravity: Planet geologically active for longer and has more plate tectonics. Space launching is more difficult and advances may be delayed. However, the more frequent earthquakes, tsunamis and higher gravity is an incentive for breakthrough and innovation in architecture and civil engineering.

    – Large and close moon: Tidal effects turn into tsunamis circumnavigating the globe, causing sea-level fluctuations with no parallel on Earth. This may limit living space on land. Inhabitants will work-out less conventional solutions, such as floating cities.

    – Thick atmosphere: may accompany a higher gravity. The atmosphere is thick enough to support large flying creatures. Inhabitants will face danger from above: cities must be domed to protect them from predators.

    – Tidally locked planet: Native population faces the same problem we do: Over population. There is one solution: dedicate sun-facing side to agriculture, inhabit the dark side instead. The constant wind blowing between dark and lit side are a good source of wind power. The inhabitants will light-up their cities and even farm on the dark side with artificial lights. Add natural resources on the dark side along with harsh conditions, and you have a technological challenge for the early civilizations.

    – Low gravity: By the time inhabitants develop technology, they realize their atmosphere is thinning-out, as the atmosphere slowly escapes into space. The inhabitants are not more advanced than us, but they are well advanced to know what is going on. They even embark into a project: Launch airborne sheets and join them to encase the atmosphere into a shell. In other words, they have not yet mastered space travel, but already have their hands on terraforming, gaining that experience by working on their own planet.

    – High axial tilt: A planet tilted almost 90 degrees like Uranus may be common after all. Imagine how seasonal fluctuations are high, generating winds stronger than a hurricane on Earth. The strong winds pose an environmental stress on all plants and animals, making life pretty hard. Is farming on such planet considerably harder than on Earth? Can the inhabitants develop beyond the hunters-gatherers stage?

    • Awesome! We should turn that into an article – “6 Ways Planetary Geology Can Affect Social Development”

  • rgwgwgwr

    for aliens exploring unknown continents on their own homeworlds the only way i can imagine this not taking place until a post-enlightenment civilisation is if the new continent is rather small. it might be plausible for an alien race to think of a large swathe of their planet as all ocean until they launch satellites with decent cameras for mapping but this unknown land would have to be rather small.

    if it were larger then the few ships going round would probably have come across it already, if there were many islands at at a range of distances from the home continent then exploration ships would have been there already. now such a continent could have unrecognised lifeforms maybe even a second civilisation the two of which had never made contact but it would still have a breathable atmosphere and environmental conditions that were survivable with only minimal protective equipment. of course undersea exploring (or on land exploration for a submerged species) gives more environmental hazards and even today humans have barely mapped the sea floor so it will remain unexplored long after all the continents. however i think in many ways using space exploration is a better setting for a story as the technology needed is more complex and cutting edge for the civilisation doing it (whilst an expedition to another continent will be using technology already well known and proven to work over shorter ranges) and also gives the further from help situation, for undersea exploration help is a few miles above at the end of one (or probably several for reliability) cable. space also gives new and unique environments and allows an author to use interesting physics and phenomena that we already know to occur up there. i’d rather read about astronauts, and don’t say they are dull!

    one more point, we instinctively write about “humans” because we are human so think like humans. for aliens on another world to develop thoughts and culture like those one would write about will really strain plausibility.