Arrakis. Tatooine. Mars. The desert is a compelling setting in science fiction. Some of our greatest stories are told against the backdrop of dry, baked rock and harsh sands. And that is by no means limited to the scientific. No, all types of literature have ventured into the desert for a good tale. Modern fantasy (Deadhouse Gates, The Thousand Names) loves the setting. Movies old (Lawrence of Arabia) and new (The Mummy) find it to be the most spectacular of scenery.
Why? What is it that draws us to the desert, this most inhospitable of climes? And how, as writers, can we make use of that? Read on for my thoughts on the matter.
Full of emptiness
One definition of “desert” is any region averaging less than 250 mm (10 inches) of annual rainfall. That doesn’t require extreme heat, like the Sahara or the Mojave; the Gobi is a desert, as is Antarctica, but you’d never confuse either of those for hot. This lack of precipitation, though, makes the desert what it is: a seemingly barren, lifeless stretch of emptiness.
But we know it isn’t. Life on Earth is ubiquitous, finding a foothold everywhere we look. Even in the harshest, driest regions, life finds a way. Dig down into the Sonora or Atacama, and you’ll find bacteria. And on the macro scale, you often have cacti, carrion birds, and the like. So the desert isn’t lifeless. It just looks that way compared to a lush grassland.
Already, we see one part of the desert’s allure. That emptiness, that loneliness, can be a powerful reflection of the same feelings within oneself. Here we see a place not conducive to the kind of life we live, and that leaves us feeling alone. Deserted, to put it bluntly.
Deserts evoke loneliness not just for the lack of notable flora and fauna, but also for the lack of civilization. Maybe it’s different for, say, Bedouins, but Westerners, I think, see a desert as a stretch of nothing. We see endless sands, perhaps some broken hills, and the occasional oasis. It’s not like in more hospitable lands, where we can walk a mile or two to find a new farm or town. Even in older days, when civilization wasn’t as urbanized, when populations weren’t as densely packed, you didn’t have such barren wilderness between settlements.
Thus, a desert is, in a sense, a metaphor. Someone lost in the desert is alone, wandering. Cut off from civilization, from the simple pleasure of another person’s company. That’s powerful.
Deserts are also dangerous. Not just from the heat or lack of water, but what wildlife there is tends to be aggressive and deadly. It has to be, in order to survive. So deserts are the abode of scorpions and snakes, of prickly, poisonous plants. That, again, draws us to them.
Maybe that doesn’t make sense at first, but think about it. Some of the most gripping tales of humanity are those of survival. That’s why we can have a movie like 127 Hours, or a whole subgenre of reality TV dedicated to people wandering around lost in places no sane person would ever go, drinking their own urine and eating whatever insects landed on them during their first nap in three days. We like seeing people survive. We want to see the odds beaten.
Nowhere on Earth are the odds more stacked against us than the desert. There’s almost nothing to eat, nothing to drink. There are no amenities, not even the most basic. Friendly faces are few and far between. When our intrepid heroes finally do make it out alive, we cheer that much more.
This even extends into a class of stories that might best be described as “campaign fiction”. Most common in fantasy, these are the stories of a military or paramilitary unit making not a last stand, but a death march. It may be the main thrust of the tale, or just a subplot, but the chronicle of this doomed army makes for a wonderful read.
Cut off from supply lines, forced to forage in a foreign land where that just isn’t possible, they must make their way to some distant, dubious goal. Along the way, they face trials and conflicts, whether from their surroundings, the locals, or themselves. People die, from hunger and thirst, from battles, from knives in the dark. Every stop—usually an oasis, spring, or abandoned village—sees the force whittled down a little bit more, until, battered but not broken, they reach the end, where their final test awaits.
As a reader of fantasy, I’ve seen this one quite a few times. Some examples include Dany’s march in A Clash of Kings (George R. R. Martin), the epic Chain of Dogs sequence in Deadhouse Gates (Steven Erikson), and the Holy War of The Warrior Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought (R. Scott Bakker).
To be fair, these grand adventures aren’t limited to deserts. You can have a death march on a tropical island, or across forested hills and valleys. (Bataan and the Trail of Tears are examples from the real world.) But the desert heightens the danger. Here’s a place where one wrong step could be the end, and you’re forced to make all wrong steps. When you reach the end, the payoff is that much greater.
Using the land
If you want to use a desert as a setting for your own works, keep that in mind. Deserts are harsh, unforgiving, and yet they possess an undeniable beauty. As a backdrop, as a location, you need to retain all of those qualities, while still juggling the needs of your story. It’s tough, but doable, and the reward is a moving tale of human ingenuity under duress.
Remember to set the stage. People from wetter lands going into a desert are, in a sense, entering an alien environment. Thus, you probably want to use environmental storytelling to show off how they react to their surroundings. (Or, sometimes equally important, how their surroundings act to them.) If this story is supposed to involve an extended stay in the desert, without the benefit of civilization, technology, or other aids, then survival will likely play a large role. That goes double for a desert march or military campaign.
As the desert is a lonely place, it also makes a good environment for introspection. Without outside pressures, it’s perfect for setting up small-scale interpersonal drama. And the hauntingly beautiful views are a great place to practice your descriptive prose. All in all, the desert is the writer’s paradise. It’s strange, really, that such a barren land can be so fruitful for an author. It constrains, yet that somehow makes it liberating.
Not every story, not every genre, can benefit from the desert. But many of them can. It’s a wonderful place, one we come back to again and again, and there has to be a reason for that. There’s something in the desert that speaks to us, something that makes a good story great. Maybe it’s a mirage, or maybe it’s why we keep fighting in the Middle East. Whatever the reason, it is a great place to escape to, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.