Back when I was at Mysticon in February I talked to one of the attendees who said he didn’t care for Game of Thrones (I don’t either). He commented that the world of GoT was a horrible place, a world he wouldn’t want to live in. Then he added that nobody seems to create worlds we’d want to live in any more. I don’t think I agree on that last part, though he does have a point — there do seem to be more grimdark settings out there than there used to be.
Lots of successful writers are famous for creating worlds we’d love to visit. For many modern readers, part of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes is the Victorian setting, with hansom cabs, gas lighting, railways and old-fashioned manners. Wonderland, Oz, Middle Earth and Narnia have enchanted millions of readers. Conan’s Hyborian place looks like it would be great to live in, at least if you were a rogue such as Conan (“want to live in” any world usually comes with a clause about “if you had a better life than a scullery maid or a serf.”). Not necessarily safe worlds or consistently happy worlds, but worlds that somehow seem … fun. I’m not sure anyone thinks that about GoT. It’s the difference between a world that looks exciting or entertaining and one where even for the rich and powerful life is nasty, brutish and short.
I think there are still lots of worlds around that look fun to live in. While RS Belcher’s Golgotha is a creepy place, it’s so gloriously bizarre, I must admit I’d love to visit, at least. Whispers Beyond the Veil‘s 19th century tourist town appeals to me too. And there have always been specfic worlds one wouldn’t want to live in — H.G. Well’s dystopias, Lovecraft’s mythos.
For some fans, the problem is politics. Writer Brad Torgerson, for example, has complained that instead of books where the brawny barbarian or the daring space explorer is the hero, specfic has sold out to the social justice warriors and gives us books that are lectures on colonialism, racism or sexism. As noted at the link, I disagree. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books are rousing adventures, but they’re also about colonialism and the way England exploits its dragons as beasts rather than intelligent creatures. City of Blades is about colonialism and empire but it’s also a great story.
It may reflect that we’re less optimistic about the future than we used to be. One article I read while working on Now and Then We Time Travel found SF films set in the future had become increasingly bleak as we moved from the 1950s to the 1980s. Or consider the limited series Marvels and its sequel tracks the Marvel Universe from the sunny optimism of 1960s superheroing to the bleaker tone of the Bronze Age and the 1980s.
From the writer’s perspective, does it matter if our worlds appeal? Obviously it’s not a deal breaker for readers or Hunger Games wouldn’t be a hit. Even though the resistance overthrows the Capitol and President Snow, it’s not a setting I’d like to be in, even as the hero. It’s still awesome.
But an appealing world can be a selling point. One of my writing group friends told me that she loved the setting of No One Can Slay Her and she hoped I’d do more books set in the same world. That reaction is obviously a good thing.
I think it’s also possible to have a setting that’s neutral. Pharisee County in Southern Discomfort is a pleasant enough place (when not being hit by floods or half-elf killers) but I don’t think of it as one of those small towns readers fall in love with. And that’s okay too.
Like so many other things in writing, it’s a judgment call.
#SFWApro. Cover by Raymond Swanland, all rights remain with current holder.