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Leave out the (Steampunk) Kitchen Sink

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Daneofwar asked a question on Twitter in the middle of Sherlock on Sunday night…

Why are fantasy ideas of settings based on the 19th century always so unoriginal? Steampunk blah blah blah goggles blah blah blah.

I didn’t have time for a long answer then (too busy watching Sherlock) but I think Brian has touched on a more fundamental question.  A question that is important for writers, world builders and setting designers.  Why are so many settings unoriginal? A good answer to that will also answer the question How do you avoid your setting being unoriginal? Or why are so many settings unoriginal?

There are quite a few possibilities.  One of the main ones being settings that are simply rip offs of someone else’s work with the serial numbers filed off.  There is a fine line between parodying a work, producing something in the same genre and simply ripping off the market leader in the hope of making some cash.  Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek and lots of things with Vampires in them rip offs I’m looking at you.  This isn’t the problem I’m interested in tonight.

The problem I’m interested in tonight is the And the Kitchen Sink setting.  There is a real art to knowing not just what to put into a setting but what to leave out.  There is a temptation when building a steampunk setting to include every trope that can be thrown in: flying ships, anachronistic machines, steam mechs, ninja, steam cars, zeppelins, difference engines, mad scientists, clockwork, magic, polished brass, psychic powers, corsets,  gears slapped on everything, monsters, steam powered potato peelers and inevitably goggles.  Of course this isn’t just a problem for steampunk; there are plenty of settings in other genres that have suffered the same fate.

I hate to pick out just one culprit when there are so many around but the game Waste World (Manticore 1997) sticks in my mind for trying to shoehorn as many science fiction ideas into one setting as was possible.

Its very easy with this approach to creating a setting to cram lots of cool stuff in without working out what its impact on the world really would be.  It can become a thick layer of makeup caked over the setting’s pretty face.

Personally I think a sounder approach is to build a setting up in small steps.  Heinlein’s Future History stories are a good example of this approach most add a few changes to the world with each step forward.  To pick four of the stories:

  • The Roads Must Roll – Rolling Roads
  • The Man Who Sold the Moon – Space Travel
  • Delilah and the Space Rigger – Women in an all male environment
  • The Long Watch – Moon based nuclear weapons

There are some that do add more.  If_This_Goes_On— has a post religious revolutions America, scram jets, social engineering and other stuff.  However it  was a novella so had more space to play with the ideas and there were three unwritten stories between it and its predecessor in the series The Menace from Earth.

My personal experience is that its easier to avoid adding stuff than it is to take it out.  Its also easier to take stuff out earlier in the development process than to do it later.  Avoiding adding something in also avoids wasting time on research and writing unnecessary material.

Plus if you’ve left something out and you wind up with a success on your hands you can follow Heinlein’s path and add each new thing in as you go along.

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