Place, the Protagonist in Science Fiction

Sketch of Larry Niven's "Ringworld"
Sketch of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be just my biased, warped outlook on science fiction, but it suddenly dawned on me that there really hasn’t been any new places in science fiction for quite a while. Now by new I don’t mean variations on a theme, but somewhere so unusual that it surprises the reader.

The last place WOW that anyone got from me was when Geoff Landis proposed the colonisation of Venus using aerostats, followed by floating cities, because at c. 50km altitude its atmosphere is very much like Earth’s at sea level. That proposal is now ten years old.

Before that it was Alastair Reynold’s massive light huggers, a very logical hard science fiction approach to travelling to the stars. Revelation Space of course was published in 2000. And before this? We’re into the ’80s with Niven’s Ringworld and Integral Trees, inside the computer courtesy of Tron and cyberpunk.And before that… well there were lots. So why aren’t we seeing more new places now?

One answer may be because we have explored a lot of places during the middle of the last century and there are very few to find that aren’t a result of a variation of a theme.

But it’s not the answer I would go for. There seems to be a distinct lack of imagination about place in the genre today. I can think of several places I’ve tried to write about that are new… yes really new. But with the trying also comes the explanation and that slows the story down somewhat. So these new places with their sense of wonder are not taken up by the publishers. But I’m sure better writers than me would succeed in smoothing in the explanation much better.

Place should be considered as a protagonist in any story. Mostly it is a passive onlooker to what is going on, but in every story it does one way or another interact with the main protagonists of that story. Take for example the harsh environments of the desert, the Arctic and space and think about each of them in turn. You react differently to each, don’t you? So much so, that it brings out the point that every place engenders a different reaction and there ought to be oodles and oodles of new places in science fiction.

But I come back to the point that there isn’t and to the question of why?

Is it because writers (the professionals that is) have to push story upon story at such a fast pace that they can’t give themselves time to think up new places? Yes, it takes time to develop them, answering the why and what if questions about ‘the world’ you are developing. Could this be the real reason?





One thought on “Place, the Protagonist in Science Fiction

  1. It’s not a suggestion that I am sure I agree with myself on, but I wonder if the change in social environment has something to do with it? Once upon a time (ooh – I think I just started a book there…) post-WWII Earth was a bigger planet and travel although physically harder was less regulated, there was more space, fewer people and fewer regulations and regulatory bodies. Now (the “dark and stormy night”) and in recent decades the feeling is more one of hunkering down, protecting, looking inwards as a society (with obvious exceptions, always). Members of society are taught from birth what they cannot do rather than that they can do anything – where politicians once promised to make things better they now promise to try to not make them any worse!

    The books I’ve tripped across all seem more “Zen” and “inner space” and about thinking or living differently – compromising and accommodating rather than beating environments back into submission.

    Whatever it is, I miss the vast “can-do” optimism of Ringworld and others. I constantly feel as though I want more room – a road that I can drive on in the same direction for months, years into more space. A railway line that takes decades to get to its destination. Too much of current fiction is claustrophobic.

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