Setting doesn’t occupy as important a place as other elements of a good yarn, but it influences the story in subtle ways. Unnecessary details about a planet or universe may detract from fast action and a driving narrative. Some readers loathe details; my wife is one of them. She loves Steven King’s plots but detests the lengthy prose that drives them.
You probably don’t need a detailed description of your setting unless it’s a plot element. Still, we see in many instances the inclusion by the show-don’t-tell crowd of something like this:
The sand that blew around the deserts of PitfallWorld was a fine, gritty sand. It entered through every unprotected orifice in the body, and the howling winds propelled it across the flat spaces in huge storms. But this didn’t concern Cameron, because he was inside a heavily armored research station. The howl of the impotent winds was something drowned out by copious soundproofing on every wall.
If you’re like me, I’m thinking, “Is the sand important? If not, I want to forget it and move on. If it’s important, point it out. If it’s not, you’re wasting my time. Or maybe the sand is mentioned because Cameron is about to find himself ejected from the cozy station and the writer was doing a camera shot of it for our benefit so we understand just how big a pickle Cameron is in when it finally happens. The sand! The sand!
You may notice while reading many sci-fi books that most, not all, sci-fi novels take place on a 1 G normal earth-like planet (and all the planets are like that… ah, the garden-like planets of home. So nice) -or- the environment is deadly earnest in trying to kill you with lots of interesting gases in the atmosphere that are not pleasant to breath.
I thought, it ought to be mapped out before I write, because the planet will have some unusual characteristics that’ll make it interesting. Humans need a 1 G or close environment to prevent health problems. And they need that 15-20% oxygen mix. And they like certain temperatures between 10-33 c.
Solar System Creator
I went searching for a program to autogenerate a solar system of planets, and discovered this:
Cool, huh? And to interpret it, there’s a PDF manual that will teach you about actual astronomy, all in the setting of a book for a role-playing-game. The Cosmos-2 booklet is here:
You will need to either just decide what you want as you go along, or roll some dice. I was able to automate a bunch of tasks for this in excel, and now my spreadsheet will generate the amount of time it takes the planet to circle its sun(s), and it gives me information such as the circumference, how many hours in a day, axial tilt, and where the planets in the solar system are in relation to each other during this snapshot (by degrees on a compass, 1-360). I can also fudge those results if they don’t work.
Example Star System
For example, I ended up with a red giant K star, which is much bigger than our sun. It pumps out more heat and light, and thus a habitable planet is 16 AU from it. And that planet takes 60 years to orbit its sun, AND it has an axial tilt and a mostly circular orbit (perihelion and aphelion are not too far apart). I figure each season is approximately 15 years long, though I suppose I should consult an expert on how much heat hits what where and how the long seasons are affected. Gravity is .9, so everything is 10% lighter. And the days are 36 hours long. I tried to wrap my head around creating a 24 hour system to run up against the 36, but essentially you have completion of a regular 24 hour 4 day cycle every 3 natural days. It’s not that hard, but try living in that. It’d be like permanent jet lag.
Winter is cold and dusty, because it’s arid. Plant life would have to adapt to a new climate every 15 years or so, though come to think of it, it’d be a fusion of each season since it’s incremental.
And the solar system around it is notable – 3 asteroid belts, and various other planets scattered in the system to provide more easy meat should the story require it. It doesn’t require it, but I could if I want to.
I love the flexibility of a solar system creator. Need a solar system? Grab a newly generated one, and boom. You can adapt your characters to fit the environment, or you can change the environment to fit your characters.
Again, this doesn’t mean I need to slug the reader with all those details in a information dump. It’ll come out in dribs and drabs from different characters, mentioned in passing. No one wants to read a science paper, so we’ll keep it light and breezy and on track.