Pantsless Societies - The Importance of Setting for Speculative Fiction and Comedy
In science fiction and fantasy novels, setting is kind of a big deal. Characters are great, blah, blah, sure, what with all their limbs and motivations and such. And yeah, it's always nice if there's a plot, and a nice, crumbly base of theme and subtext to build it on. But setting, man? Setting is where it's at. For many readers of speculative fiction - myself included - setting is the main draw, the reason we open the cover in the first place. We want to fly spaceships through wormholes, and learn the lost secrets of the dragon lords, and kill things with laser swords. "Not so pretty any more are you, you damned dirty Dragon Lord?" is a sentence we ache to read.
More than just providing a place for a story to be told, a good setting can give the impression that incredible stories are occurring just off the page, incredible things the reader can imagine themselves participating in. The very best settings don't just capture us for a single story, they stick with us our whole lives, and can inspire other authors when they create their own works. How many elves owe their existence to Tolkein, how many hackers to Gibson? A lot more than just appeared in those author's works I'll bet. Knowing this, authors of speculative fiction pay a huge amount of attention when creating their settings, in a constant process of evaluation and re-evaluation, checking them for level of detail, internal consistency, and amount of laser swords.
Setting also has an effect on comedy, but in a different, more subtle way. Almost any setting can play host to a comedic situation - consider the vast number of sitcoms set in mundane workplaces or homes. This can be as simple as adding banana peels, but more fundamentally, a comedic setting should be designed so that it can be a home to funny characters. Some settings naturally lend themselves to this better than others, especially ones where a character can plausibly act in a way that wildly conflicts with our current social norms. Science fiction and fantasy have an unusual advantage here in that they can easily depict societies completely different from our own. Aliens by definition have different social norms than we do, and simply depicting their normal, everyday behavior - maybe they have sex with the banana peels? - will look hilarious to our eyes. Think of the incredible number of gags derived from the aliens in Futurama or The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy to get an idea of how this works in practice.
My novel, Severance, is not as good as Futurama. It's also not as good as The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I'm sorry. I did my best. But it is really, really good, and really, really funny, and even if it is just me saying that, I'm required to be funny as a condition of employment, so I know a bit about what I'm talking about. Also, I have slipped on and made love to an unbelievable number of banana peels in the process of writing this novel, so I've done my homework.
In terms of setting, Severance doesn't have aliens, meaning I had to rely on other means for creating an alien-seeming culture. Fortunately humans can themselves be pretty alien under the right circumstances, so my task was thus reduced to simply coming up with some suitably hilarious circumstances to put a group of humans through. I did this by setting Severance on a massive generation ship hundreds of years into its journey away from Earth. As the ship more or less takes care of itself, the vast majority of people on board would have no need or inclination to do anything substantial. Hobbies and leisure activities would become incredibly elaborate, and increasingly puerile, everyone on the ship eventually joining a club, cult, league, or gang of some flavor. Urine based feuding, low gravity community theater, and competitive lovemaking leagues all feature prominently.
And with that playground suitably established, the comedy followed. Although at heart a mystery/adventure, I was able to fill nearly every page of Severance with comedic depravity by simply describing the environment and the population of self-amused simpletons filling it. Around every corner of this ship, someone is doing something stupid, foul, or both, often splashing it everywhere as a result. But, for all the pantsless tomfoolery going on, it is all internally consistent and plausible; there are very good reasons these people became this way, and by the end of the novel, the stupidity of the ship's occupants becomes a key plot point. Without giving away too much, [nude laser sword spoilers removed].
So. If you want to write a piece speculative fiction, an incredible and memorable setting is a must have. If you want to write a piece of amusing fiction, it's also pretty good. Doing both at the same time? Aliens are a useful tool, as, I've discovered, are regular humans with their own tools exposed.
About the Author
Chris Bucholz is a professional video game and humor writer. His weekly column at Cracked.com offers his readers a mix of historical curiosities, short fiction, and spectacularly bad advice. During the day he works as a writer for the video game developer Stardock on various game related projects, including the latest entries in the Galactic Civilizations and Star Control franchises. He lives in Vancouver, B.C. with his wife and son.
Chris's first novel, Severance is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Apex Books. Join him on Facebook or Twitter.
About the Book
Severance by Chris Bucholz
Paperback, 324 pages
Published November 19th 2014 by Apex Book Company
In Severance, the debut novel from famed Cracked.com writer Chris Bucholz, the inhabitants of a generation ark find two unlikely heroes who fight to keep everything together.
After 240 years traveling toward Tau Prius and a new planet to colonize, the inhabitants of the generation ship Argos are bored and aimless. They join groups such as the Markers and the Breeders, have costumed orgies, and test the limits of drugs, alcohol, and pain just to pass the time.
To Laura Stein, they’re morons and, other than a small handful of friends, she’d rather spend time with her meat plant than with any of her fellow passengers. But when one of her subordinates is murdered while out on a job, Laura takes it as her responsibility to find out what happened. She expects to find a personal grudge or a drug deal gone wrong, but instead stumbles upon a conspiracy that could tear the ship in two.
Labelled a terrorist and used as a pawn in the ultimate struggle for control, Laura, with help from her friend Bruce and clues left by a geneticist from the past, digs deep into the inner working of the ship, shimmying her way through ductwork, rallying the begrudged passengers to rise up and fight, and peeking into an unsavory past to learn the truth and save their future.