Sci-Fi: The Setting is the Thing

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A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…..

In fiction, setting includes the time, location, and everything in which a story takes place, and initiates the main backdrop and mood for a story. Setting has been referred to as story world [1] or milieu to include a context (especially society) beyond the immediate surroundings of the story. Elements of setting may include culture, historical period, geography, and hour. Along with plot, character, theme, and style, setting is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.[2] A setting is the time, place and social environment in which a story takes place.

Setting is a critical element in any story, and none more so than in science fiction. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of science fiction (and it various sub-genres) is setting. In fact, writers spend countless hours creating the setting the story, in a process called “world building.” The setting tends to define not only the exact time and place, but also the technology and size of the overall setting, from twenty minutes into the future in city to 40k years in the future in a galactic spanning empire. All the details about politics, science, religion, war and technology fall into or are connected to the setting. These details both define and are defined by it.

Setting has two principal elements: Time & Place. In upcoming post I’ll discuss the particulars but today I’ll give you a rundown of some of the most popular:


  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: This runs the gamut from 5 minutes into the future to a decade or two. Important when the author wants to present a world not unlike our own (in terms of politics, fashion and the like), but with technology extrapolated from current time. Can quickly turned into a situation where science marches on, or predictions of social/technological changes don’t occur as predicted if at all.
  • X Years From Now: Normally it is between one two three centuries in the future, although thousands or even millions of years in the future. Just enough time to create a buffer between our time and the time of the story. Gives free reign to the author to invent anything he likes when it comes to fantastic science, such as FTL travel, genetic engineering, exotic planets or whatever else he may desire.
  • Alternate History: Common in plots that involve Time Travel, Secret Conspiracies and Ancient Astronauts. Something happened in the past from aliens meddling in human evolution to cross timeline war between powerful entities that makes the setting different from ours. Also a common device to keep stories that used the Twenty Minutes set up by simply explaining that what was once a future event now it is a divergent event and that is the reason why the event did not occur in our time.


  • Planetary Scale or Smaller: A small town, a vibrant city or a colony in a far away world. The action takes place in a restricted area within a much larger universe, although that in no way means that the setting is not rich in detail, lacks character(s) or is not worth exploring. Authors looking for a tight space to act, which affords them maximum control of the setting without worrying about the larger repercussions.
  • Star System: Often seen in stories on the harder side of the sci-fi scale, because the universe is a really big place. Travel between planets can take from days (to an orbiting satellite) to years (nearby planets.) Technology is restricted to direct analogs of modern technology and extrapolations there in and the laws of physics (as we understand them) are apply ruthlessly.
  • Galactic Scale: From a “sector” (a given region within the galaxy) to the entire galactic expanse. When an author wants a big milieu to set her story, a galaxy is big enough to have anything she wants such as countless planets, multiple alien races and whatever else the story needs. A perfect setting if your story calls for a ship to visit a new planet every chapter or book (or every episode of a show.)
  • The Universe and Beyond: Multiple dimensions, multiple realities, multiple galaxies and even multiple universe. Reality in its entirety is the author’s canvas. Entities with phenomenal powers struggle to define reality itself. It tends to blur (or obliterate) the line between science and magic.

These are just examples, and are not set in stone and more often than not the specifics of the setting depend on the writer’s tastes and the story needs.




2 comments on “Sci-Fi: The Setting is the Thing

  1. Voice can really add dimension to setting, too, don’t you think?

    Happy Star Wars Day, Rafael! 😉


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