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How Large Is Your World? -- by Rick Ellrod

Perceived distance

A story may tell you it covers vast distances—but the reader’s or viewer’s experience doesn’t always bear that out.

Star Wars, for example, opens with the announcement that we’re in “a galaxy far, far away,” leading us to expect events on an immense galactic scale.  And of course the story does involve travel among numerous star systems.

Yet to me, at least, the Star Wars galaxy feels so small as to be almost cozy.  It never seems to take more than a day or two to get from one planet to another.  (Often the trips are made in X-wing fighters or other ships that don’t even seem to be large enough for a bathroom.)  In The Force Awakens, we even have weapons on one planet targeting other planets, as if they were right next door.  We may be instructed that the beam is traversing vast distances via hyperspace—but there’s no visceral sense of great expanses.

This situation isn’t limited to visual media.  I recently read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, which has been billed as a space opera—a category that suggests vast scope.  Yet almost all the story’s action takes place within a couple of spacecraft or space stations, lending an almost claustrophobic feel to the tale.

In contrast to these surprisingly pocket-size space adventures, consider a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings.  To my mind, Tolkien’s epic does suggest great distances and broad landscapes.  But the actual distances involved are infinitesimal on a Star Wars scale.  Middle-Earth is about the same size as western Europe.  The Millennium Falcon could traverse the whole expanse from the Shire to Mordor in seconds (even without hyperdrive).  But Tolkien’s world feels bigger.  By the time we get to the end of it, we feel as if we’ve been on a journey.

Map of Middle-Earth

The same is true of most high fantasies, which at most work on a continental scale, given their technologies.  Paradoxically, the low-tech locales seem to be better at giving us a sense of epic scope.  Why?

Getting there is half the challenge

The most important factor, I think, is travel time.  We experience distances not in terms of their metric size, but in terms of how long it takes for us to cross them.  This is the sense in which technology has “made the world smaller.”

Tolkien’s world seems large because we cross it, with the characters, on foot.  All that walking!  (It’s not for nothing that the Fellowship is sometimes referred to as the “Nine Walkers.”)  This means that it takes weeks to get anywhere.  Frodo and Sam leave the Shire on September 23 and arrive at Mount Doom on March 24, a six-month journey—albeit with some stops along the way.

Strictly speaking, this factor may be time-relative-to-lifespan, rather than days or years directly.  A six-month trip would be brief for the star-traveling characters in Blish’s Cities in Flight stories; they live for centuries.  It bulks much larger in our own lives.

A related factor is difficulty.  A journey may take a long time, not just because our transportation is slow, but also because we have to grapple with trouble on the way.  Even an uneventful sea voyage from, say, England to America in the 1700s might take seven weeks on average.  But the dangers of storms, limited food and water, and being becalmed made the trip more daunting.  One didn’t do it casually.

Oregon Trail game coverSimilarly, the wagon trains of the American West took the settlers through unknown countries full of dangers and delays.  (Recall that Star Trek was originally sold to studios as a “wagon train to the stars.”)  Even aside from the sheer travel time, these perils made the journey a more formidable challenge.  Anyone remember playing “The Oregon Trail”?  It wasn’t easy to survive the strenuous 2,170-mile trip.

The spice of travel

The wagon-train trek illustrates a third factor.  Variety in the places we pass through also makes a trip more consequential.  An Atlantic crossing might be relatively boring, aside from the weather, if you’re not on the Titanic.  But the different kinds of places we experience on the way—terrains, climates, habitations, cultures—also helps give us a sense of distance, of having come a long way.

To some extent this depends on the unfamiliarity of far places.  If another locale has the same chain stores, the same advertisements, the same customs and fashions, we’ll hardly feel as if we’ve gone anywhere.  Passing through a series of identical places will not give us the sense of transition that we gain from different environments.  But as Tolkien’s heroes traverse the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs, Bree, the Wilderlands, Rivendell, Moria, the Anduin . . .  we feel they’ve really traveled.

This unfamiliarity is itself a function of travel time and difficulty.  If it’s hard to get somewhere, not many people in my area will have been there, or know much about it.  Technology also plays a subtler role here.  If we don’t have the technology for recordings—photos, audio, video—then we are dependent on travelers’ tales, less vivid and less exact.  On the other hand, if we’ve immersed ourselves in the imagery and culture of, say, Japan before we visit, the culture shock will be less.  This is another way advanced technology makes the world smaller.

Star Wars universe mapIn a similar way, the different environments we meet on Star Wars planets do provide some sense of genuine travel—though the fact that each planet seems to have a single climate and terrain makes this variety less effective than it might be.

Taken together, the difficulty and variety factors suggest that the number of incidents on an expedition contribute a lot to our sense of size.  A very long trip may seem trivial if nothing happens.  But a quite brief excursion can seem extensive if it’s packed with important occurrences.

Generation ships, inside and out

Generation ships provide interesting examples of both types of journey.  Externally, such a vessel covers vast distances—and taking generations to make a voyage is certainly one way to make the reader feel the distance involved.  But the voyage typically proceeds with very little external change:  the ship bores on through space, for years on end.  If events within the ship are not described, the reader or viewer may not gain much sense of distance.  If the people on board are in suspended animation, there won’t be much sense of time or distance at all.  In the 2016 movie Passengers, for example, it’s only once something goes wrong that the story begins.  (Once it does, the passage of time for the characters who are awake is a major plot element.)

Rendezvous with Rama, starship interiorOn the other hand, internally, the world-ship itself may seem a vast environment to the inhabitants.  This is especially true if events have deprived the inhabitants of any high-tech means of travel from place to place within the ship.  A long journey or quest inside the traveling world may thus be a major plot element, as in the novels The Star Seekers or Non-Stop.  Here, again, it’s essential that the characters encounter different cultures or locales within the ship if the reader is to have a sense of scale.

Epic scope

To create a story with epic scope, as in space opera or high fantasy, it’s useful to keep this size issue in mind.  If you want to write an epic, make sure you give it room to breathe.  If that sense of scale is lacking, our grand, sweeping conflict may come across looking like a mere tempest in a teapot.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 27 Jun 2017 at 00:06
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Responses to this blog

Spaulding 1 Jul 2017 at 20:06  
Good article. Thanks. I have to grapple with distance in the opposite way. It's reasonable from our perspective, but daunting for stuffed animals.

My stuffies had to save friends at the dump, but first they had to find out where the dump was. The skateboarder told them it was five miles down the street and the stuffies started running. Then he had to remind them that 5 miles was much further for them to run than for a skateboarder to take them in his backpack.

My next novel in the series starts with them returning home from that dump. They walked. I'm curious if the readers can calculate it took them a couple of days to get there. You reminded me to make sure they're tired when they get there, so thank you.
Blandcorp 1 Jul 2017 at 20:33  
Another great post, Rellrod!

I'd add another factor: "the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million a statistic".

I've occasionally read in space operas about space empires spanning millions of worlds. The population of the Terran empire in Warhammer 40K is some obscene number in the high billions. In the continuation of the Sandman comic, there's some character mentioning they have ended millions of worlds with a spell or something like that (it's been long since I read it and forgot).

I have no idea what any of that means. What are a million worlds, populated by trillions of people? One can throw impressive-seeming numbers around all they like, the fact is that I, and I assume most of y'all, have no intuitive understanding of them. I don't see a million worlds being ended in your story. I see a bag of hot air claiming he ended a million worlds. I do not see the worlds of your empire; they are abstract figures in an accountant book I'm not interested in reading.

So this is another reason why old-school, low-tech stories might feel epic. Instead of investing time in wowing you with numbers, they actually give you a cast of a hundred* characters to keep track of. Something that's just inside that urban-legend number of people that a person, allegedly, can actually keep social track of.

And in so doing, the old school stories fulfill their promises better. Come with us on an epic journey, they'll say. The journey is long and arduous etc, and you will meet one hundred people. Whereas a space opera is going to promise you a galactic empire spanning thousands of light-years. Even if the story then proceeds to develop a hundred characters for you, its self-proclaimed scale will feel like merely empty words.

(EDIT: * I mean many, of course )

Lultwriter 2 Jul 2017 at 00:34  
You make some good points.
What I'd like to add to that is that it is important to make the locations at least a little relevant. I feel kind of cheated if I travel to this grand location (in a story), get a brilliant description of a fantastic sounding place and then nothing happens there, or I don't even spend a full chapter there.
I want a location that I can remember bith for its uniqueness, good description and for what happened there.
@Blandcorp I agree I have a really hard time picturing large numbers. A population could be a billion or a trillion it wouldn't make a difference in my imagination.
Numbers can also become outdated easily. Recently I read an older book where the population just reached 7 billion and it described how incredibly overpopulated the earth was that starvation was everywhere and all food was made of yeast. Numbers that seemed incredibly huge 60 year ago are reality now and will probably seem tiny in 50 years.
Rellrod 6 Jul 2017 at 00:43  
Good points, all!

Spaulding — yes — exactly. Perceived distance is relative to how fast you can move. If you're a six-inch-high stuffed animal, it'll be much greater than for the average human. If you were ant-sized, even crossing a back yard could be epic.

Blandcorp — right. A hundred characters you actually get to know, and it feels like a vast population — George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan territory. A mere reference to billions of faceless people, by contrast, feels like mob painted on a plywood stage set. And this ties in to Lultwriter's point as well. If we don't experience anything memorable at a location, then no matter how well it's described, it won't be . . . memorable.

Oznana 7 Aug 2017 at 09:18  
Thanks for a great post. Loved this comment to Spaulding:
even crossing a back yard could be epic.
My story has enough happening that some readers express surprise at finding the characters were only away a couple of days (mine is time travel "distance").

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