My name is Sean Wills, and I’m here to convince you to set your next YA science fiction novel somewhere other than Earth! By the time I’m finished, you’ll see the value in choosing an extra-terrestrial planet, moon, orbital colony or generation ship as the setting for your magnum opus.
I can see that you’re skeptical, and with good reason! Earth is the default milieu for all manner of YA speculative fiction, after all. Dystopians? Set on Earth. Post-apocalyptic? Post-apocalyptic-Earth, more like. Science-fiction? For the most part, there’s not a spaceship in sight.
People. We need to do something about this.
What is it about science fiction that makes it unique? Why is it so enduringly popular? You could give a hundred different answers to those questions, but for me, SF’s appeal lies in its ability to push every boundary you can think of when it comes to setting. A writer can produce SF stories set at any point in time from the beginning of the universe to its hypothetical end, and at any point in space from a specific location on Earth to the entirety of a multiverse. You can do anything. You can bring the reader anywhere.
The best works of science-fiction manage to produce in readers the same kind of awe experienced by astronomers when they consider the larger structure of the universe. There are astronomical events happening all around us that rival anything from the annals of fantasy in terms of sheer majesty. Taking a longer view of history, the universe is eventually going to become a very strange place indeed. Here’s a brief plot description for an upcoming game that takes advantage of that fact:
In 1988, a brand new deep sleep cell was released, compatible with all popular 16 bit computers. Unfortunately, it used big endian, whereas the DCPU-16 specifications called for little endian. This led to a severe bug in the included drivers, causing a requested sleep of 0×0000 0000 0000 0001 years to last for 0×0001 0000 0000 0000 years.
It’s now the year 281,474,976,712,644 AD, and the first lost people are starting to wake up to a universe on the brink of extinction, with all remote galaxies forever lost to red shift, star formation long since ended, and massive black holes dominating the galaxy.
Goddamn. This isn’t some hand-wavy ‘Magic is vanishing from the world’ fantasy stuff we’re dealing with here – it’s the real death of our real Universe, and it’s actually going to happen eventually. (According to some models of physics.
My point isn’t just that this kind of scenario is more incredible because it’s ‘real’, but rather that the reality of the universe so often trumps anything we humans could imagine. (Exhibit A for me being almost any of the images generated by the Cassini-Huygens mission.) Yes, you can set your story on Earth, but you don’t need to; you have at your disposal anything that has been revealed or suggested by modern science. The world of your novel can be the interior of a vast generation ship or the moon of a gas giant. It can be a planet lit by the twin suns of a binary star system or a research vessel orbiting a black hole. It can be anything and anywhere. You have the biggest sandbox imaginable to play around in.
There are a few more practical concerns as well. You might have gotten the impression that I take issue with the worldbuilding in a lot of YA dystopian novels (“Never!” gasps the comment section), and an awful lot of that can be chalked up to the fact that those books are set on Earth. At some point, you’re going to run up against the problem of how our present became your book’s future, and it’s going to take a gargantuan effort to make the two gel together if you’ve created a particularly outlandish fictional society. Set your story on another planet, and suddenly that’s not so big an issue; your society can be brand new, constructed according to the whims of its founders, or else it can be the remnants of an interstellar colonization attempt. Either of those scenarios (and you could easily come up with a dozen more) neatly bypass the need to explain how our own world morphed into the one in your book, because there’s a fundamental disconnect between the two (the movement of settlers from one planet to the other). I’m not saying you should think of it as an easy solution to complex worldbuilding problems, but…well, you totally could. If you were so inclined.
‘Think big’, is the short version of my pitch. Science fiction doesn’t just have to be about the ‘when’ – it can also be about the ‘where’, and that can be more compelling than anything our world can provide.
And now to bring you crashing back back to Earth (pun fully intended) by listing some of the difficulties inherent in setting your story on another planet. You’ll want to think about some or all of these before you decide to write about the settlers of Gliese 581b.
1) We know about the composition of a lot of near-Earth solar systems, and most of them probably can’t support life. Yet another case of science ruining fiction for everyone! Before deciding which star your fictional planet is going to belong to, you may want to make sure it’s not one that’s already known to be orbited by nothing but massive gas giants. (Although remember what I said up above about the moons of gas giants. If James Cameron could do it, then by God, you can too.)
2) Stars are really far away. Like, really far away. If your settlers are going to get there without using some form of stasis or a generation ship, they’re going to have to be leaving Earth at a time when we’ve got some pretty advanced propulsion systems. Intergalactic travel is orders of magnitude (literally) more difficult than the interstellar variety, and should not be attempted by any but the most audacious writers.
3) Alien planets probably aren’t going to be very hospitable. A lot of science fiction basically ignores this problem, but it’s nice to at least acknowledge the problem of evolved-for-Earth humans living on a planet whose ecosystem will likely be radically different.
4) You can’t entirely get away from Earth’s influence. If your settlers are first or second-generation, they’re going to have brought some of their culture(s) from Earth with them. If that’s a problem, you might want to set your story long enough after the planet’s first colonization that its population will have had time to develop a culture radically different to anything found on Earth. For extra bonus points, be sure to suit their culture to the physical conditions of their lives on Planet Whatever.
So, are you convinced? Not convinced? Give voice to your ire in the comments section! Also feel free to list some of your favourite YA that isn’t set on Earth.