META: Musings on What Science Fiction Is

Andrew Perron pwerdna at
Sat Aug 4 16:34:36 PDT 2012

On Saturday, August 4, 2012 12:00:22 AM UTC-4, Adrian J. McClure wrote:

> 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.

It's true, and increasing the focus on characterization is a large part of how SF got into the mainstream in the first place.

> Superheroes, on the 
> other hand, started out as being about bringing the extraordinary and alien 
> into our world.

Indeed! Which, of course, had an assumed setting, and one based on (theoretical) realism - up until the backlash against comics made that untenable.

> 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.

It's true - and I think this may be what makes the Batman Inc. concept work; what would you get if you took Batman-ness out of Gotham?

> 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.

Indeed indeed, though this had its own problems later on with squishing basically an entire universe's worth of heroes, villains, and adventures into one city.

> 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.

To be fair, I doubt he was the first one who realized that; just the first who had the talent and means to create a work based on the idea in an era when you could finally do that.

> 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)

An excellent point, and one that really explains everything about his rise and fall.

> 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.

See, I disagree. I mean, I agree that the "city that's just there" has become the default, but it's been so for long enough that for a while now we've had creators consciously pushing against that. Off the top of my head, I can think of Busiek's Astro City, Moore's Millenium City and Neopolis, Morrison and Millar's Vanity, Manchester, Alabama in Impulse, Coast City in Johns's Green Lantern...

> 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.

It's true; a very analytical one, and one that relies on getting into the details. Of course, it goes beyond that, in looking into how the setting and the people influence each other.

> 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.

It's veryvery true! And mine too; I've been picking up a lot of Saxon's plot seeds, and trying to drop a lot of my own.

> 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, 

Which, as so many positive pieces of setting flavor do, became a cliche in the hands of lesser writers.

> 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.

Indeed! And to go back to Saxon again, I think that the first arc of Limp-Asparagus Lad, with Exclamation!Master!'s arc, posed an ethical challenge to all future LNH writers: Create a world where being a "normal" person isn't an existence devoid of all meaning other than something to be threatened. That's something I've been trying to do with a lot of my stuff.

> 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)

Andrew "NO .SIG MAN" "Juan" Perron is workin' for the weekend.

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