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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.
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.
Similarly, 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.
In 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.)
On 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.
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.