To share or not to share

Comic books have a long history of being set in a “shared” universe, and that has, in recent years, bled over into the movies and TV series made from them. Witness Marvel’s numerous offerings, how they all interconnect. Characters cross over, as can villains and plotlines. Major story events can reverberate through half a dozen individual series. (DC tried this, too, but they can’t seem to get it right the way their biggest rival does.)

In the world of “real” books, this kind of thing is not too common. That doesn’t mean it’s unknown, however. And there are a couple of ways to go about it. One might say that the Dune setting, for example, is a shared universe, as it has multiple authors working in the same world, under the same general constraints of style, characterization, and overall feel. The (now-defunct) Star Wars Expanded Universe is another good example: dozens of books, all able to build off one another, but still able to tell individual, independent stories.

The other option is a single-author universe. In this case, the meta-setting isn’t shared by multiple writers, but by multiple series. For this, the best example has to be Stephen King; The Dark Tower was his way of connecting all these disparate stories. Another example of an author placing lots of stories into the same universe is Brandon Sanderson, with his “Cosmere” setting. Again, the general principle is the same: multiple stories, all acting independent, but with signs that they are, in fact, set in the same world. (Or worlds, in this case.)

Even considering something like this is a massive undertaking, but…that’s just what I’ve been doing lately. And I’m fast coming to the conclusion that I’ve already started creating a shared universe for some of my works.

Let’s start with Otherworld, since it’s my biggest work yet. All along, I did intend it to be a place that could be shared. There’s a lot of worldbuilding and backstory that has absolutely no bearing on the main plot of the lost expedition. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to create a language for a race that won’t even show up in any of the planned 50 novellas and short novels that make up the “primary” Otherworld series. But that’s okay. In my mind, that gives me more room to try other stories. And I don’t even mind others trying their hand at something set in the universe. (Seriously. Just ask, and I’ll tell you all you need to know.)

One series does not a universe make, of course, but that’s where it starts getting bigger. My Endless Forms series of paranormal thrillers will soon see its second full release (next month in paperback and ebook formats), and I have slipped in a vague reference to one of the Otherworld “bridge” stories, specifically “The Control Variable”. It’s not overt, and it could easily be explained away as a chance coincidence, but I know the truth. And I know I should probably regret it. Now that I’m writing the third entry in Endless Forms, Change of Heart, I may end up adding more nods to Otherworld.

So that’s two, but not all. In November 2017 I wrote The Soulstone Sorcerer, the first entry in a series I’ve codenamed Gateway. The timing doesn’t work for it to reference either of the two above—it’s set in 2018, the others after—but I have gone the other way. The Second Crossing and Point of Origin, two of the 2nd season Otherworld novels you’ll see this year, both have oblique references to The Soulstone Sorcerer. Again, it’s not so obvious that you can’t miss it. No, this is nothing more than a mention. But it may grow into something more.

Shared universes don’t have to be connected through direct links like this, though. Thus, if I’m going to be doing this, then I have no problem saying that, for instance, Heirs of Divinity is set in the same world. There’s about 300 years of difference between it and any of the others, but it concerns essentially the same idea as Otherworld, Endless Forms, and Gateway: things on this planet are not as they seem.

That one’s a decision for later. The same could be said for “Fallen”, the novella I released for free last year. And “Miracles”, since it’s a direct spin-off of Heirs. Some others I have on my to-do list might also end up being in this shared setting, but we’ll see.

Obviously, not everything I write can fit this mold. Nocturne and The Linear Cycle quite obviously aren’t set on our planet. They’re fantasy stories in fantasy worlds. Orphans of the Stars is meant to be “harder”, so it’s out, too. The same goes for Before I Wake, although I may have made it a book that exists in the shared setting.

Hidden Hills is a tough one, though. On its face, it fits the fantasy theme the same as Nocturne. If you look at it the right way, however, it might actually be a far-future sequel to Orphans of the Stars. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but if you read the two, you can see how they could, in theory, be connected.

In other words, even the notion of a shared setting can lead to false friends, stories that look like they’re linked, but really aren’t. Also, I have to resist the temptation of drawing stories closer together when they’re meant to remain separate. I’m not ready for crossovers. I don’t think they’d fit my writing style at all, and they feel a little too…campy for my tastes.

Still, it’s something to think about.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 3

The world—rather, the universe—of Orphans of the Stars is not quite ours, but it’s meant to be much closer to that than some other futuristic space settings. To that end, I’ve gone into my usual serious level of detail in worldbuilding, in hopes of creating something that stands the test of time. While I’m well aware that no setting can be completely without fault, I like to think that I’ve avoided most of the more obvious flaws.

The important places

Aside from Earth itself, which only appears directly in the Innocence Reborn prologue, the galaxy is a vast expanse full of interesting places. Obviously, the most prominent features of our Milky Way (and the slightly different one of the setting) are the stars themselves. Ours is one of billions, and a fairly ordinary one. Sure, it’s in the top few percent in terms of size, and it’s the only one we currently know of to hold habitable and inhabited planets. But that’s a limitation of our present technology. Future telescopes and instruments will be able to find “Earth 2.0” out there, and one of the primary assumptions of my Orphans setting is that the so-called “Rare Earth” hypothesis is dead wrong.

But let’s back up. As I said, we’ve got billions upon billions of stars out there. All of them, however, are quite far away. To reach them in any reasonable amount of time requires bending, if not breaking, the known laws of physics. That’s one of the few times I explicitly do so, and I’m not afraid to admit that I employ a bit of hand-waving to get there. (Remember that the stories are from the perspective of children. They wouldn’t know the specifics. Yes, that’s intentional on my part.)

I do give FTL travel a number of limitations, mainly for storytelling purposes, but also following some fairly obvious rules to make the process seem more realistic. For instance, it’s limited to the ship, not the surrounding space. There are no hyperspace pathways or subspace tunnels. And that means spacecraft moving faster than light are isolated from “normal” space. They can’t communicate, because they’re outrunning light itself, including EM signals. And radar, so they’re also flying blind. It gets them where they need to go, but there’s always a margin of error, and it sometimes happens that a ship has to spend more time finding its way once it reaches its destination than it needed to get there in the first place.

Those destinations, wherever they are, share one common feature: they’re meant to be plausible, given the assumption of terrestrial planets being common, but advanced lifeforms coming around much less often. The colony of Marshall, seen in the prologue of Innocence Reborn, orbits a star that really exists, one that has no known planets as of 2017. Maybe TESS or Gaia will find something that completely invalidates my efforts, but I hope not.

The same goes for Malacca Colony, the next destination of the renamed Innocence. I described it in some detail in the last part of this series, but now I’d like to talk about it from a wider perspective. Again, it may not be real. It almost certainly isn’t, in fact. But there’s no data I know of (as of this writing) that proves it can’t exist. And that was my goal.

Port of call

Since the world named Malacca figures so heavily in Innocence Reborn, I think it deserves a bit of screen time here, as well. First off, it is a colony world. It’s only got a few hundred thousand people living on it, and they all do their best to prevent contamination of the local biosphere. For the planet does have native life. Not much, and almost none on land, but there’s something there.

Canonically speaking, Malacca Colony suffered a very recent (in geologic terms) mass extinction event. That killed off what little land-based life there was, especially as this particular event was part of a “Snowball Earth” type state. Based on the planet’s orbit around its star, as well as influences of its neighbors and the other two components of the system (it’s a trinary, and the other two stars were only resolved as distinct in 2015), I saw this as highly plausible, and a good explanation as to why humanity felt comfortable “invading”. The colony of Pele, constructed on a volcanic archipelago, has a research center dedicated to studying the extant marine life, and that may come into play later.

Other than that, the world orbits at a greater relative distance, making it colder than Earth overall, and that factors into the colonial experience. Kids get cranky when they’re cold, and that shows in the narrative. But there are other effects, too. The same goes for the planet’s lower gravity, about 70% of Earth’s. People who live their whole lives there tend to be taller. Falls aren’t as painful. Combine that with the lower body temperature (another adaptation), and it’s not too great a leap to posit that they tend to have better cardiovascular health than their homebound counterparts. On the downside, it’s harder for them to adapt to the heavier pull of Earth, and so it goes for a bunch of still-growing children who live there for months.

Beyond the physical characteristics, there’s not a lot to say. I’ve already mentioned the five colonies, and the book itself goes into the reasoning behind that, albeit from a story-internal point of view. From the outside, I’ll say that I wanted the opportunity to have competing factions, even if I didn’t use them. And I think it shows an important part of the setting: humanity is not unified. We—or our descendants—are not exploring the galaxy as a single race. Our divisions, as we know them today, might not exist, but division itself is a constant. With what happens at the end of the sequel (which I won’t spoil for you, as it’s not finalized just yet), that may turn out to be a mistake.

This series isn’t, though. It’ll keep on going, because I’ve only scratched the surface. And I like talking about this kind of thing. I like throwing out my ideas in these behind-the-scenes specials. So I’m going to continue this, but probably not every month from this point forward. Whatever happens, I hope you’re enjoying this look into a possible future as much as I’ve enjoyed creating it.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 2

So I’m back. Since the last post about this series, I finished the draft of the second novel, Beyond the Horizon. It’s a little different, in that all the flashy space battle action is at the beginning. That, I think, gives it more tension, because you’re expecting more with each new step. I also left the story on something of a cliffhanger, which means I really should work on Book 3.

But that’ll come later. Today, let’s delve deeper into the setting of Orphans of the Stars. First, we’ll start on Earth. Home sweet home.

Lay of the land

After five centuries, you might expect Earth to be unrecognizable. After all, 500 years ago, there was no USA; there were barely even colonies in the Americas. China wasn’t communist, because communism didn’t exist. The Middle East was a different sort of morass than today. And so on. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a modern conceit to think that our current institutions are stable, that they’ll last forever.

For the Orphans setting, I’ve gone more towards that latter end of the spectrum. There are changes, but the broad strokes aren’t too different from what we know today.

First up, the US still exists in my version of the 26th century, and it has mostly descended into the corporate-controlled dystopia whose birth we’re watching in our era. California and New England remain bastions of liberalism (in both senses of the word), evangelical Christianity has lost a lot of its support, and the extreme polarization of nowadays has come and gone. Americans in the setting still hold both the First and Second Amendments in high regard, pointing to them as proof of American exceptionalism, even if they have been weakened severely through the centuries.

Across the pond, while the EU eventually broke up in my extrapolation, it reformed mostly along the same lines. Britain is in a curious spot, as it asserts its independence (Northern Ireland, I’m assuming, rejoined the rest of Ireland) and leadership of a Commonwealth trade pact, while also considering itself a member of this “new” Europe. Many of the other countries of the continent are in much the same position as today, if a bit more extreme. The Scandinavian nations, for instance, have an even heavier focus on quality of life. (Earth’s oldest living human at the time, as I mention briefly in the first chapter of Beyond the Horizon, is a Danish woman.)

Outside the Western world, things are a bit more hit or miss. Russia fell into decline, China gobbled up North Korea, some Pacific islands sank due to rising sea levels (and new ones appeared when the waters receded during a cold snap circa 2300), and so on. Essentially every equatorial nation profited from the rise of cheap, accessible spaceflight: Ecuador tried—and failed—to build a space elevator, while a spaceport in Luanda is the only reason most people even remember Angola exists. And the Middle East, well, it’s still the Middle East. Even 500 years isn’t enough time to fix that.

Slip the surly bonds

An adventure story set in space really needs places to go in space. And, since I’ve already established that Earthlike planets are common in the galaxy, and that FTL travel exists and doesn’t cause any ill effects to the universe at large, it’s only natural that humans would eventually begin to build colonies away from the mother planet.

First of those is Mars. The oldest and largest Martian city, in my setting, is actually named Tesla. (Because of course it would be Elon Musk that started it.) There are others, started by offshoots of the initial colonial push or later ventures. Terraforming remains a distant, if obtainable, goal. (For Mars, it’s considered okay, because there’s no discernible native biosphere.)

The Moon, by contrast, doesn’t have much of a permanent population. It’s more like Antarctica today, or offshore drilling platforms. People live there for a time, mostly to run experiments or oversee resource extraction, but they don’t stay there. That’s partially from the lunar dust problem, but also because of the known existence of other terrestrial worlds. Our nearest celestial neighbor just isn’t prime real estate.

The same really goes for most of the other parts of our solar system. Jupiter’s moons are interesting, the asteroids are valuable, and Titan continues to enchant those who ponder its mysteries, but my setting (as opposed to, say, The Expanse) makes interstellar journeys possible before in-system colonization really gets off the ground. Thus, most of the Sol system is left to automated mining and collection, with a few manned research stations and the occasional torus or O’Neill cylinder construction for those who really do want to live in space.

Economics of colonialism

That, more than anything, is my main assumption. With the galaxy (or at least our little corner of it) open to humanity, wars over living space really have no need to exist. Rather than fight a bloody war with only the barest hope of success, separatists, if they don’t mind packing up and leaving, have any number of places to go. Which brings us nicely to the colonies themselves.

Human colonization of the stars, in this setting, proceeded in waves. First, the initial push was more of a “can we do this?” kind of thing. Terrestrial planets in the Alpha Centauri and TRAPPIST-1 systems (I hope nothing in the next few years makes these impossible!) were first, because they were known quantities by that point, as well as good testing grounds. A few others then followed, once good news came in. This, I assume, would be in the latter half of the 23rd century.

Next were the profit-seekers. Larger corporations in our time have values exceeding the average country’s GDP; in future centuries, absent a revolution in the way we think, I see no reason why that would change. Thus, private spacefarers began setting up their own colonies in the systems that looked most profitable, a land grab and gold rush combined. For the most part, they would stay somewhat close to Earth, if only for the ability to easily escape if things went wrong. But one colony, named Marshall, was founded specifically to be on the frontier.

For the most part, the early 25th century continues that trend, though the attacks on Marshall (the prologue of Innocence Reborn) ultimately result in a 50-year moratorium on claiming new planets. Instead, new colonies are only allowed on worlds which already have a human presence. They’re big enough, after all.

The end of that ban, however, changes the game just a little. Now, instead of one group running off to take a new planet entirely for themselves, Earth’s governments (national, corporate, and larger organizations like the UN) have agreed to restrict the practice to partnerships. That’s why Malacca (the main “base” colony for the second half of Innocence Reborn) has not one colonial government, but five.

That’s the “current” era of colonization, in terms of the setting. It ends up being slightly cheaper overall, so the corporate bean-counters like it, and there’s less risk of a catastrophe, so risk-averse types feel a little better. And that opens up the many worlds to smaller groups. Marginalized sects were some of the first: Palestinians, Rohingya, Marxists, supremacists of every stripe. Utopia-seekers also joined in, as well as experimentalists who wanted the chance to try out different social philosophies.

I specifically designed Malacca to house one of each type of colony, purely to illustrate that. Rosaria, where the orphans make their new home, is a fairly typical corporate state, a company town projected into the future. Yuan Yang is the (Chinese) government-run colony, which keeps both its culture and economy very close to home. Windmore is a social experiment run by Brits wanting to try out direct democracy; it has the most distinct cities, but they’re all much smaller, and that’s how they like it. Pele is the research center, run by North American universities, with the feel of a college town. And Little Eden, though it hasn’t appeared on screen just yet, showcases the utopia option—specifically, that’s a retro-revival of older forms of Christianity.

All in all, with hundreds of colonies in existence at the time of the “main” storyline, there’s plenty of room for a writer to play around. And I fully intend to. I would like to do a few shorter stories set in different parts of the Orphans setting, those not touched by the all-kid crew of the Innocence. And I wouldn’t really mind if others wanted to do the same. Just ask, and I’ll be happy to help.

This is the end of this part, but not the extended postmortem that is this series. I hope to be back soon, because there’s still so much left to say.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 1

With the recent Patreon release of my novel Innocence Reborn, I want to take a closer look at the setting I’ve created for the series as a whole. After Otherworld, it’s second in terms of level of detail, and being a futuristic science fiction setting means it requires a completely different sort of worldbuilding. So here we go. This may or may not become a regular miniseries. We’ll just see where it takes us.

By the way, this post is obviously going to have major spoilers for the book, so you can’t say I didn’t warn you.


Although it’s never explicitly stated in the text (mostly because I don’t want it to be too obvious when I get it completely wrong), I do have a sketch of the setting’s timeline. The Innocence Reborn prologue, for instance, is supposed to take place in the year 2432, while the main body of the story is set over a century later, in 2538. Plenty of time to develop technology, etc., but not so much that humanity is completely unrecognizable. That was what I wanted, though I did have to make a few assumptions to get there.

Almost all of those are currently backstory, and we’ll get to them a bit later. Before that, I do have to mention one of the most fundamental conceits of the setting. See, it’s intended to be slightly “harder” than a space opera, in that most things are within the laws of physics as we know them. There is faster-than-light travel, because that’s central to the story I wanted to tell. And that causes a bit of trouble with causality and even basic timekeeping. So 2432 is the time on Earth, but current physics tells us that ships traveling FTL would effectively be going back in time, which makes things difficult.

Well, that’s because of relativity, and the handwaving for Orphans of the Stars is that relativity isn’t quite correct. You’ve got a few loopholes, so to speak. (Behind the scenes, the story universe is, in fact, a simulation that explicitly or accidentally allows such “exploits”. The characters don’t know this, of course.) It also means there’s something like a universal or preferred reference frame, which may or may not solve the timing problems.


Now, on to those assumptions. The other ones, I mean.

As I said, FTL travel is possible in the Orphans universe. It’s not instantaneous, but it is possible. That opens up the galaxy to human exploration and colonization. And that leads to the next big assumptions. First, Earthlike planets are relatively common, especially around G, K, and M stars. This is a simple extrapolation of current findings; estimates using data from the Kepler mission indicate that the Milky Way could host billions of terrestrial planets, with a fairly good percentage of stars having them in the habitable zone. And that’s not counting those slightly smaller than Earth orbiting medium-size stars like ours.

Second, and less supported by the data, is the idea that life is also relatively common in the universe. The vast majority is single-celled (or the equivalent); sentient, advanced aliens are considered fiction even 500 years in the future. Spoiler: boy, aren’t they surprised?

Other assumptions include simple, workable fusion power, ramped-up manufacturing capabilities (including orbital and deep-space), ubiquitous computing, usable cryogenic suspension, and quite a few other technological improvements. On the other hand, I assume that genetic engineering doesn’t become a huge thing—it’s mostly used for treating diseases and disorders rather than making wholesale physiological changes—and AI never gets to the “destroy all humans” stage. Yes, there are expert systems, and automation has made many jobs obsolete, but human decision-making still beats that of computers. It’s just that AI simplifies things enough that even a bunch of kids can fly a spaceship.

More importantly, there are a few sci-fi staples that don’t exist in this setting. Chief among those is artificial gravity: when the Innocence (or any other ship) isn’t accelerating, the people inside are weightless, and that causes problems. Well, problems and opportunities, because we are talking about a bunch of kids. Also absent are tractor beams, shields, transporters, and other such “superscience”. Terraforming is possible, but it’s been avoided so far out of respect for native biospheres. Antimatter is horrendously expensive, and more exotic particles are as useless commercially as they are today. Nanotechnology hasn’t advanced quite as much as one would expect, and cybernetic augmentation, including direct neural interfaces, ultimately turned out to be a fad.


I could have gone all out on this setting. I could have made it one of those where it’s so far into the future that it’s effectively magic. But I didn’t. I didn’t think I could pull it off.

Mostly, this series started out as an idea I had when writing Lair of the Wizards, a fantasy novel I’m putting out next month. That story is set in a borderline-Renaissance world where people with advanced technology existed, and they left some of it behind. It’s Clarke’s Third Law, but seen from a different point of view, one where we are the sufficiently advanced race. By and large, the characters are children, adolescents, or young adults, and that made me wonder if I could write an adventure-filled, yet still scientific, space drama revolving around characters of similar age.

As it turns out, I can. Maybe it’s not good, but I like it, and I’ve always said that I write stories primarily for my own enjoyment. The same is true for the settings themselves. Just as Otherworld is my linguistic playground, the Orphans universe (I still need a catchy name for it) has become my futurism playground. It’s where I get to play around with the causes and effects of science and technology, then go and write books about what happens when a bunch of kids get involved. And that’s what I’ve done. In fact, two days before writing this, I finished the sequel to Innocence Reborn, titled Beyond the Horizon, and I’m already coming up with ideas for Book 3.

Settings can be as deep as you want to make them. With this one, I’ve found one where I just want to keep on digging, and so I will.

On the sea

Ah, the sea. The boundless blue. What is it about this trackless expanse that so captivates us? For the entirety of human history, bodies of water (oceans and seas alike) have been a fixture of our most timeless tales. From the ancient flood myths of the Near East and Homer’s Odyssey to more modern tales such as In the Heart of the Sea, storytellers have turned to the waters for help in their art. But why is that? And how can we, as today’s generation following in the footsteps of the great, do the same?

Into the blue

The sea, of course, is the true birthplace of life, in more ways than one. Life itself arose in the seas, as we know from science, but we can also say that civilization was birthed by the sea. While early humans started out in Africa, they quickly found their way to the coasts, and many of our oldest artifacts are related to fishing, to reaping the bounty of the sea. All around the world, we see the same pattern, and it’s no wonder that the Mediterranean, an ocean writ small, is the backdrop for Western advancement. Much later, in the Age of Sail, Europeans took to the vast Atlantic, then the Indian and Pacific; others had already been there, of course, and their stories are equally interesting.

Even today, when so many of us (myself included) focus on that more infinite sea above, the oceans of the world tug at the imagination. I can’t even swim, and I find myself amazed at the America’s Cup. As well, one of my favorite survival stories as a teen, alongside Into Thin Air, was that of Tony Bullimore, whose yacht capsized during the Vendée Globe around-the-world race. Add in The Perfect Storm and a few others, and you’ve already got quite the repertoire just in the last couple of decades.

And that, I believe, is because the sea fills a very important niche. It’s a wilderness unlike any other. Even the most hostile desert gives us a place to stand. A mountain has an easily recognized goal. The barren tundra of Antarctica still lets us control the direction in which we move. Yet the open ocean does none of that. It’s a true blank slate, and a place where (until the advent of steamships) mankind was so obviously out of place that he had to surrender to the mercy of the terrain.

The sea, then, can almost be like a metaphor for life. We don’t always know where to go, what to do. And even when we do, that’s no guarantee that we have the power to get there, or to even take the first stride in that direction.

And the sea is also a living thing. It has moods, as any sailor would tell you, as well as its own set of dangers. Storms are the most notable among those, whether hurricanes, cyclones, or merely the random squalls of the tropics; any good sea story is going to involve a storm at some point. Rogue waves, once believed to be sailors’ tall tales, really can strike, and they hit with a force as great as any weapon. But then we must also add the paradox of sea travel: the calm. Where else can good weather be bad?

Salt and sand

For a story, it might be best to think of what you want from the sea, and that requires you to think about what you want from the story itself. First of all, what’s the setting?

In today’s world, as well as more futuristic times, we don’t think of the oceans as being all that important. Other than The Perfect Storm (which took place in 1991) and a number of heroic WWII accounts, the last century has seen a kind of turning away from the sea. When we look ahead, we think of space instead. So, for a modern or postmodern setting, you really have to try to make the sea distinct, if you’re going to use it as something more than a backdrop. Why are your characters on a boat, for instance, instead of taking a plane? For a disaster tale, it’s a bit easier, but that obviously doesn’t fit every work.

Going back in time, it becomes ever easier to work the sea into your story. As recently as 100 years ago, crossing the ocean meant actually crossing the ocean. Five centuries ago, even that was almost impossible. In between, we have the golden age of sea travel, where we find pirates and explorers, buccaneers and missionaries and the great naval battles of history. For that era, the sea was the frontier, as space is for us today. It was the board on which the games of power were played. A story set in those days can be about a voyage at sea, and it can take advantage of the distance, the disconnection, of being out of sight of land.

That time also neatly intersects with the typical fantasy timeline. The High Middle Ages in Europe were before the compass, before the galleon, before the other advances that tamed the ocean. Yes, the Vikings sailed to America a millennium ago. On the other side of the globe, Polynesians had colonized hundreds of Pacific islands by that same time, some thousands of miles away from any other land. We can have some fun with that, but the more “traditional” fantasy cultures are going to look at the sea as more of a boundary than a frontier. (Unless you start adding in advanced seafaring races, in which case they’ll be more like the Age of Sail.) Thus, an exploratory voyage could make an interesting story in its own right, as in Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God series.

Mostly, stories set on the high seas tend to have some element of warfare involved, if only because that’s how we see this exotic locale. That is a function of our history, but also of necessity: out there, there’s not much else to do. And fighting on the ocean, out of contact with the homeland, frees characters from the rules of engagement. After all, who’s going to know?

That doesn’t mean that every sea story has to have cannons or swashbuckling rogues, but it is common. Equally common is the disaster, whether a ten-story wave slamming into a ship, a hurricane battering it for hours to days, or just the simple lack of winds leaving it adrift. Like the desert, the sea can be an excellent place for a tale of survival. In a way, it works even better, because it adds the conundrum of being surrounded by water that is effectively poisonous. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Last, the sea can be a setting, a place where the action unfolds. An anthology-like story might involve island hopping, because islands in the ocean can be far enough apart—especially in pre-modern times—that news can’t easily travel between them. Much like a space opera where the crew skips from one planet to the next, the sea provides the perfect reason for why these adventures are independent.

I could say much more, but I’ve rambled on long enough. Hopefully, I’ve given you something to think about. Our world is 70% water, and that majority portion really can seem endless when you’re standing on a beach or pier. But our imaginations truly are without boundaries. Put the two together, and it’s no surprise we have turned to the sea for some of our greatest stories throughout the ages.

On mountains

The mountain looms large in our imagination. We speak of summits and pinnacles and peaks as though anything could be compared to a mountain. We use them in logos (Paramount) and brands (Denali) to represent quality, immovability, toughness. Mountains have a majesty, and they always have. The Greek gods had their abode on Mount Olympus. Noah’s Ark is said to be on Mount Ararat. Frodo had to take the One Ring to Mount Doom.

That last, of course, is a purely literary creation. (Some would say the others are, too, but that’s not the point of this post.) And that naturally brings us to the question of how to use mountains in a story. What is so special about them? What makes them stand out in literature? Read on for my thoughts.

Reaching the peak

First, I think that a mountain, more than any other geographical feature, represents achievement. In a way, that’s because we often hear tales of mountain climbing, but those tales only came about because people saw mountains as things to be conquered. And that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Only in the past few decades has it really become a major source of adventure.

But it’s perfect for that. Climbing a mountain can be a grueling, demanding task. For the tallest and most remote peaks, you need some serious training and preparation. The environment is inhospitable at best, deadly at worst. Just catching sight of the summit is an accomplishment. Reaching it is a true achievement, and the flanks of, for example, Everest are littered with stories of failure.

And really, when you think about it, there’s no reason to bother. The whole thing’s a fruitless pursuit, a pure adventure with no true payoff. Why do people climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. That’s it. No other reason at all, but that it’s something to do, a visible goal we can strive towards.

In that, the mountain serves as the perfect metaphor. Even better, climbing quite naturally gives us a definite climax, as well as the perfect opportunity for a “false ending” where the presumed climax isn’t actually the conclusion of the story. After all, sometimes the hardest part is getting back down the mountain.

But back to the metaphor…well, metaphor. It really does have a lot of levels, but they all find their way back to that same inescapable conclusion: there’s a peak, and we have to reach it. If you’re a writer who can’t find a way to make that work, then you might be in the wrong line of work. You don’t even have to put a volcanic chasm at the top, as Tolkien did. Any mountain can evoke the same sense of accomplishment, of achieving one’s aims.


Beyond that, mountains can also make for good scenery, even in written form. Visually, as you know, a jagged line or solitary, snow-capped peak can be downright stunning. Described well, they can make the same impact in a novel, too. But you have to go about it a different way.

In my opinion, mountains as scenery, as backdrop, work best when they’re integrated into the story, but not the primary focus. A mountain is rugged, remote, inaccessible. It’s not the kind of place that is often the center of attention. Thus, it can fade into the background while still casting a shadow over a setting.

Who knows what lurks out there? Mountains can be the abode of gods, monsters, or just backwoods hill folk. Whatever the case, we’re talking about beings who don’t normally visit the cities and towns. They’re wild, but a different sort of wild than the denizens of, say, a forest. Mountains, because of their harsh nature, imply a harder life. We have the stereotypical image of the “mountain man”, as well as legendary creatures such as the Yeti, and these both speak to the myth of the mountain.

All alone out here

Another thing that follows from the idea of mountains being remote is their isolation. They’re the perfect place to get away from it all. The taller ones are bleak, seemingly lifeless, while shorter peaks may be covered in trees, but they share that common bond. The mountain is a retreat.

Today, we might think of that in terms of ski lodges, campgrounds, or hiking trails, but there’s a deeper history here, one that plays into fantasy and other fiction. If you want to escape, you head to the hills, whatever your reason for escaping in the first place. Monasteries (or their fantasy equivalents) work well in the mountains, and what alpine story doesn’t have a secret hideaway somewhere up above the treeline? Nobody knows about these places for the very simple reason that they’re not meant to be found. So what better place to put them than the one nobody would think to look in?


Finally, mountains are a great setting for disaster, whether natural or man-made. Obviously, volcanoes are exciting, dangerous spectacles. Avalanches are more sudden, but their aftermath can make for a good survival story. Flooding (possibly from melting snow) can provide a relatively slow, yet no less unstoppable, threat.

On the highest mountains, it’s the storm that is the biggest, most cinematic of disasters. The snowstorm that struck Mount Everest in May 1996, for instance, spawned the book Into Thin Air and the more recent movie Everest. Once the mountain gets tall enough where climbers need oxygen tanks, then that’s a consumable that can run dry at the exact wrong moment. Add in blinding blizzards, hurricane-force winds, deadly cold—you get the picture.

On the artificial side of the disaster aisle, you have the fantasy standby of the siege, especially when the defenders in their mountain fastness are heavily outnumbered; think the battle of the Wall in A Storm of Swords, although that, strictly speaking, wasn’t an actual mountain. Combined with the idea of a hidden society shut away behind the rocky faces, and you have a lot to play with.

Last on the list, in a strange twist, is what was actually the first mountain disaster movie I ever watched: Alive. The true story of the 1972 Andes plane crash is a gripping tale that needs no embellishment. Weeks of cold, of starvation and injury and general privation, ended in death for most, miraculous survival for a very few. The same story could be told on a deserted island or in the middle of the ocean (In the Heart of the Sea works for the latter), but the mountain setting of this disaster gives it a starkness that anywhere else in the world would lack. For beating the odds, it’s hard to beat the peaks.

On deserts

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.

Warning signs

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.