Background Practice

Designing the Ringworld was the fun part. The difficult part would be describing it without losing the reader!

—Larry Niven

Larry Niven's novel Ringworld is a modern classic of science fiction. It is set on an artificial world built by alien engineers in the form of a gigantic ring around their star, a ring whose size is roughly equal to the size of the Earth's orbit around the Sun: a ring some three hundred million miles in circumference!

The novel is, in large part, an exploration of this stupendous artifact. Yet Niven masterfully tells a story about fascinating characters while he shows off this strange, engrossing world without losing the reader.

In a sense, the background of Ringworld was the novel's main attraction. Yet the background did not overwhelm Niven's story; it provided a magnificent stage on which the story is played out.

In "Sepulcher," the background is not merely the physical setting; there is a more important background suggested in the story, the social background. The story is set in a future time when human civilization has spread through much of the solar system. We are told that powerful corporations have built bases on the moons of Mars, on the asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter, and even as far from Earth as Titan, the major moon of Saturn.

The story draws a picture of vast corporate wars in the depths of space, of whole giant space habitats destroyed in these wars, killing thousands of men, women and children. And there are "little guys" roaming through the solar system, too, such as the family of prospectors that discovers the alien artifact.

All of this happens off-stage, however. It is merely suggested. Only a few lines are devoted to this all-important background. But those few lines are enough to give the reader a sense of the world in which the story happens, the world in which the three characters live.

In "Fifteen Miles" (chapter four) the harsh lunar background served mainly two dramatic purposes: (1) to provide an isolated, forbidding setting for the physical ordeal that the protagonist had to go through; and (2) to provide an appropriate symbolic setting to mirror the protagonist's inner turmoil.

Thus the moon of "Fifteen Miles" was physically like the purgatory of Dante's Divine

Comedy. Not that Kinsman faced punishing flames and devils. But the terraced inner walls of the crater Alphonsus form a natural analogy for the tiers of Dante's purgatory. In fact, hell itself was arranged in different levels by Dante, so it was necessary to have the priest tell Kinsman, at the end, that they were not in hell — which is eternal damnation — but in purgatory, which can be escaped after suffering purifying pain.

So the unnamed asteroid of "Sepulcher" also formed a specific physical background, a setting removed from the ordinary world, a cold, dead chunk of rock with a secret buried in its heart: the alien artifact.

It was not necessary to explain that human technology had reached a point where spacecraft routinely plied the asteroid belt looking for good chunks of metallic ores. Neither was it necessary to go into any detail whatever about how human engineers could build comfortable living quarters inside an asteroid. All I had to do was show the characters in action, and these background details came along with them, with hardly half a paragraph spent on them.

But look at the physical details I did put into the story: the special feeling of a low-gravity environment; colors, textures, tones of voice and other sensory clues to help you feel that you are there, experiencing what the characters of the story are going through. Light is especially important. I used it both to bring out various facets of the characters and in symbolic ways.

One of the symbolic ways I used light was in describing the character Dorn. He is seen entirely through the eyes of Elverda Apacheta, an artist who is at first repelled by the fact that Dorn is partly machine, a cybernetic organism, a cyborg. Despite herself though, Elverda's artistic eyes begin to appreciate the grace and beauty of this man who is half human, half metal. And as she begins to soften toward him, the reader begins to learn more about Dorn's personal background.

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