META: Musings on What Science Fiction Is

Adrian J. McClure mrfantastic7 at
Fri Aug 3 21:00:22 PDT 2012

On Monday, July 30, 2012 7:37:58 PM UTC-4, Andrew Perron wrote:
> Not that this is news; fourth-grade English starts off by teaching you that stories are made of plot, setting, and characters. But we forget this, every so often, treating setting as "okay so we're going to be in a Vancouver forest this week" instead of "the world in which we live presses upon our every action, and vice-versa". So, let's reiterate it now: The setting is part of the story, and you can't say "this story is X or Y" without considering it.

Oooh. This is a very interesting point. The thing is, I think not a lot of superhero writers are attentive to setting, Setting was always an important part of SFF, maybe even the main part of SFF--for a long time SF wasn't really attentive to characterization, because the characters were just a focus for the setting and/or a central high concept. Superheroes, on the other hand, started out as being about bringing the extraordinary and alien into our world.

Which doesn't mean that setting didn't become hugely important to the genre as it developed. First there were the fictional cities that developed over time in the DCU. Batman's the most obvious example of this; he's become inextricable from the city of Gotham and a whole lot of stories have been written about their tangled relationship. Marvel set themselves apart by putting each of their heroes in a single real city rather then giving them each their own fictional cities. New York was a very important character in the early Marvel comics, a palpable presence that gave their stories life. It also provided a poweful contrast to more fantastic settings like Kirby's Asgard in Thor or the Negative Zone and other strange new worlds in FF and Ditko's surreal dreamworlds in Doctor Strange.

Alan Moore took the exploration of setting to a whole new level in his body of work. Marvel was supposed to be set in "the world outside your window," but he realized that as soon as you introduced superheroes to it, that world would change radically. In Watchmen and Miracleman he built rich and complex stories around all the implications of this. Frank Miller, the other most influential creators of the 80s, didn't put as much conscious thought into worldbuilding (or anything--his work runs on pure id) but his work still stood out because he created different kinds of settings--the nightmarish post-apocalyptic Gotham of the Dark Knight Returns and (together with David Mazzuchelli) the more grounded version of Year One. (One of the more 

It seems like more recently people have stopped doing interesting things with setting in superhero comics. In the late 80s and early 90s the Millerite city became the default setting for superhero comics, in much the same way that the pseudo-Tolkien pseudo-medieval European world came to dominate fantasy. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself--it provides a common language for creators to build on--but in both cases it often becomes a tic and an excuse for lazy settings rather than something that's worked through consciously. A lot of today's superhero comics seem to be set against flat, empty backdrops.

Of course one writer who did work through the conventional fantasy setting and took it in some very interesting directions is Terry Pratchett. Just as Star Wars applies a fantasy sensibility to a science fiction world, Pratchett applies a science fiction sensibility to a fantasy world. And, to bring us back to superheroes, his use of worldbuilding as metacommentary and vice versa was brought to superheroes by Saxon Brenton. The LNH had already built up an interesting setting through little bits added by many different people, but Saxon gets a lot of credit for centering his stories around it. It's been a very fruitful approach, and it's influenced a lot of my work since coming back. I've noticed that just about every LNH story I've written lately has introduced some new aspect of the setting.

Another important aspect of that is exploring different perspectives on the setting. One of the things that made early Marvel comics stand out were little scenes with civilians and crowds reacting to superheroes, and Watchmen expanded on that by interweaving the superhero story and the ordinary-people story. In LNH20, I've made a point of exploring the world through the eyes of non-net.people in the Spoon of Destiny issues. This isn't so much the case in Ultimate Mercenary, as that series is mostly in his point of view, which is firmly embedded in the net.hero world. Next issue, however, will have him interacting more with ordinary people.

Adrian (going home from vacation now, back to the heat and the busy work)

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