Bad Advice: Single Biome Worlds

It’s one of the great cliche responses to science fiction. “Earth has dozens of different biomes, but every planet in sci fi is just one thing, either it’s all desert or all frozen or…”

It’s easy to see why this bothers so many people watching science fiction movies. It’s very true that Earth has a wide range of climates and terrain, from snowswept mountains to dense, fetid swamps to arctic deserts and mist forests. When a planet in a work of science fiction is homogeneous from pole to pole, it feels like the creators are taking a shortcut. They’re being lazy.

But there are very good reasons why we keep seeing single-biome worlds in fiction. For one thing–as shortcuts go, it’s a great one. If you have multiple planets to depict, as in Star Wars, it allows you to instantly set them off from each other. You know by simple lighting cues and color palettes if a scene is set on Tattooine or Dagobah or Hoth. You don’t need to keep putting titles on the screen telling us where we are.

Furthermore it allows you to develop a landscape even if the characters move from place to place on the same planet. A consistent setting can grow and develop depth, whereas you just don’t have room to describe fifty different biomes in the same book, say.

This concern over single biome worlds didn’t start with Star Wars. It was old even when Dune was at its heyday. Arrakis is desert from pole to pole. It’s literally called the “Desert Planet”. This makes it the butt of one of the oldest tropes in sf criticism. Yet Herbert wasn’t trying to create a lushly diverse world in Dune. He was specifically trying to create a world which appears to be empty and hostile to life. What J.G. Ballard would call “psychic zero”–the same desolate landscape that is the setting for most of the Bible, a place where his zensunni warriors could test themselves both physically and spiritually. He also wanted to show the life cycle of the sandworms, which is so complex they may be the only living things on Arrakis, pre the arrival of humans. It’s funny that Dune, which is often called the first ecological science fiction novel, started this trend of worrying so much about biological diversity.

Looking outside the science fiction world, we can find a pretty solid defense of the single-biome planet as well–we need only look at the actual universe we live in. While Earth is home to multiple habitats and giant variations in its weather patterns, it turns out that it’s the exception, not the rule.

Wherever we look in our own solar system, we find nothing but single-biome worlds. Mars is cold, dry, and dusty. The polar caps are slightly different, but only slightly. Mercury is even more homogeneous, with maybe a few patches of water ice in craters at its poles–otherwise it’s nothing but sunblasted rock. Venus is shrouded in such a dense atmosphere that its entire surface is just molten rock and maybe liquid metals.

Beyond the orbit of Mars, diversity in planetary surfaces drops off considerably. The four giant planets are nothing but unitary weather patterns. Their moons are almost universally made of ice and rock in equal measure. Titan has methane lakes and deserts of electric sands, but again, it sticks out for its incredible wealth of biomes (two, maybe three). Beyond Neptune, there is nothing but an endless succession of Hoths. Worse than Hoths, because they lack the atmosphere to even have variable weather.

The criticism that worlds in science fiction are too samey, too much of a piece, is perfectly legitimate when we’re talking about planets exactly like Earth–planets with incredible genetic diversity, planets where life has sculpted the environment into biomes that favor individual species’ reproductive success. But please, when you’re creating worlds for your own sf stories, don’t feel obliged to throw rain forests onto your alpine planet. You don’t need them, and despite what anyone says, they aren’t all that realistic anyway.

The Dreaded Infodump

Exposition is a crucial part of any story. It’s how you create your world and how you share it with your reader. Yet it’s also a great way to bring your narrative flow to a crashing halt and bore anyone who was kind enough to pick up your book. Writers often decry the “infodump”, the long, uninterrupted section of pure exposition which sits in the middle of your tale like an undigested lump of carbs. Yet it sometimes seems like a necessary evil. If you’re writing about a secondary world, especially, you need to convey a lot of setting and character information in a hurry, information your reader cannot be expected to know on their own.

There are a couple solutions to this problem, none of which are entirely satisfactory. One is to simply not do it–to shift the burden to your reader. William Gibson is famous for never explaining any of the crazy concepts he dumps on his readers. I remember reading Neuromancer for the first time and having to constantly check dictionaries and encylopedias to figure out what he was talking about–and nine times out of ten, even that wasn’t enough. Gibson expects you to pick things up from context clues. There’s a good reason why he does this, and it’s not just to frustrate his readers. He writes his stories from the perspective of his characters–characters who already know what an Ono-Sendai Deck is for, and what carbon fiber is and why you would build an airplane out of it. He shoves you into their headspace and this builds an incredible sense of immediacy and presence. He makes you live in his world. He’s a master of this, and lesser authors trying the same trick usually fail. Their work becomes impenetrable and mystifying, and not in a good way.

A more common technique is to use “infodrips” instead. Rather than just blurting out setting data in long multi-paragraph dialogue sections, you can deliver your exposition just a little at a time. A sentence here, a few words there, spread out across action scenes and great character moments. This technique helps keep your readers from feeling like they’re cramming for a pop quiz, and it can be effective–assuming it’s done with proper timing. Infodrips are fine in the first act of a story, and can be used sparingly in the second act. If you’re still delivering vital world-building information in the third act, your readers will (rightly) feel like you’ve been holding out on them. Oh, it turns out that the Sword of the Deathmuncher can only be destroyed by stabbing it into the heart of the Night Glacier? A fact which we don’t find out until the Swordruiner is actually on top of said glacier? Your readers will feel cheated. Additionally, infodripping can make your readers feel like you’re holding their hand as you cross the street. Like you don’t trust them to “get” your story unless you’re constantly explaining every little detail.

The best solution, in my experience, has been to avoid exposition wherever possible. Not by leaving everything obscure, but by grounding my stories to the maximum possible degree. Secondary worlds are wonderful places to get lost in, but by tying them closely to the real world, they become richer and they resonate better with the reader. The fewer things you need to explain, the more your readers will sink into the actual story. Cut back as much exposition as you can. If your character is carrying a Kandisian force-glaive, could you achieve the same effect by saying they’re holding a plain old halberd? Does your story need a High Hierophant of the Seven Tyronian Mysteries, or can you get away with calling them the Space Pope? Maybe you can’t! Maybe there’s a real difference, one super important to your plot. More often than not, however, you can easily use a simpler term or a more relatable concept to the same effect.

Look at your story, at what you’re trying to say with it, at what effect you want to achieve. Think about how to achieve that sense of mystery or emotional truth with more grounded ideas. If you do absolutely need to put something in your story that has to be explained in depth, that’s fine. But do you really need two such things? Three? High concept notions are fun, and can make your story stand out. Putting too many of them in one story, however, leaves you scrambling to explain how they work and how they interact–robbing you of time you could be spending on character arcs and building suspense. Infodumps are evil, kids! And the trick to fighting necessary evils is to isolate them and break them down into smaller problems, whenever possible.

From Twee to Grime: Tone Gone Bad

Tone is the psychological setting of your story. It establishes the ethos of your world, that is to say the prevailing philosophy. It is one of the key elements in giving weight and gravity to your story. It’s also very easy to get wrong.

Wild tone shifts are a problem, of course, though if handled skillfully they can be useful: they get the reader’s attention, for good or ill. What I really want to talk about today, however, is the danger of unmodulated tone. Of tone which is so thoroughly consistent from scene to scene that it becomes oppressive.

Into every life a little rain must fall, but it also can’t rain all the time. There need to be moments of tension in your story, but also moments of relief. It must fell as if the characters have some chance–no matter how slim–of changing their world. They have to be encouraged sometimes, and discouraged at others. An iron-clad consistent tone removes this possibility. Consider the grimdark story, which has become popular of late, where human life is often futile and its activities meaningless. Such stories rarely have satisfying endings–because the tone has already set the reader up to believe that there can be no satisfaction in such a crapsack world. If every signpost along the road reads DEAD END, a happy ending will feel forced and unrealistic. At the very least you need to show a time, perhaps in flashback, when the character was happy. A pleasant interlude, that makes the grittiness that much more unbearable. Absent any kind of hope or redemption, your world isn’t gritty, it’s grimy. A story that makes readers feel like they need a bath afterward. Was that what you wanted? If not, indulging too much in a dark tonal palette puts you at risk of ruining the emotional payoff of your story.

The converse, of course, is just as bad. Twee stories take place in a world without consequences, where the characters can screw up as badly as they like but the author will pick them up afterward, dust them off and bandage their boo-boos, and everyone is home in time for dinner. Such stories feel saccharine and unenjoyable. Not because they’re so unrealistic but because they’re weightless. There are no stakes, so there’s nothing to earn.

There is one kind of story where I think unrelenting tone works well, which is the naturalistic story, where the intent is to create a world so absolutely authentic and believable that it feels perfectly realized. Such stories tend not to have anything like a traditional plot, and often revolve around following a character through their daily routine. They are extremely difficult to make satisfying, however, because they eschew all the normal strategies of fiction. Not to say it can’t be done, and done well, but it may be one of the greatest challenges in writing.

Overly-consistent tone, as with any element of writing, draws too much attention to itself. It becomes the point of the story. Which is not always a bad thing–think of the witty froth of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, or the airless horror of The Road, for examples from either end of the spectrum. Books I love dearly, but which make no attempt to deliver a satisfying beginning/middle/end structure.

Think about what kind of story you want to write, and how you want readers to feel about it. If all you want is to convey a mood or emotion, absolutely run wild with tone. But if you’re more interested in having readers relate to your characters, or to put them through a roller coaster of a plot, step back a little from your tone, now and again. In what will become a refrain in these musings, my advice is to give your story room to breathe. On the eve of the climactic battle, let your characters have a friendly game of cards to soothe their nerves. In the midst of your story about the best birthday party ever, don’t be afraid to let a mouse run through the kitchen, scaring the birthday boy, for comic effect.

Tone is a tool. It is one of many in the writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it effectively and it can add enormous color and life to your story. Let it run away from you, and your story will suffer. It is well worth sitting down, before you even start plotting, and think about how you plan on using tone.

Writing: Little, Big

The emotional impact of a story is almost always inversely proportional to the size of the story.

It might seem counter-intuitive. Big books, with lots of characters, settings and set pieces engage the reader on a more intellectual level. Worldbuilding becomes predominant–the reader’s enjoyment of the story is more about being immersed in a place and a time. But this always comes at a remove: the reader is constantly reminded of the activity of reading, of the experience of hearing a story. The characters become functions and parts of that world, and the reader is distanced from them, less likely to identify directly with them, for better or worse.

A small story, though, that holds to the Aristotelian unities–one character, events that take place over one day in one setting–forces the reader out of this objective mindset. They have no choice but to relate and identify with the singular voice and viewpoint. Events become enlarged in significance and charge: we know that, since we are alone with the character, everything that happens to them is important, is meaningful in a way we feel more intensely. Our experience becomes more subjective, more immediate. More emotionally resonant.

There are, of course, ways to problematize the difference. Books like Game of Thrones work great at playing with the intersection of these two levels–while there is a huge world out there, with a story rich in incident, each character is given a deep interiority. As a result readers can choose which character they want to identify with the most–who they “root” for. It’s one of the things that makes the book so powerful.