It 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