Monday Motivation: You are your own props master

 In Monday Motivation

Scratch a science fiction fan and you’ll find someone inordinately ready to suspend his disbelief.  We’re willing to throw ourselves into alternative universes in which intelligent gas clouds rove the ambiguous surface of a Jupiter-like planet; in which portals are discovered that lead from our iteration of reality into a multiverse in which other earths exist with subtly different physical properties; in which giant sandworms roam the waterless dunes that cover an entire planet…*

We only require one thing to plunge willingly into these manifestly non-existent environments: a writer who takes care to create, in sufficiently credible detail, the architecture of their inventions.

We don’t ask that they give us the mathematical formulae that underpin these constructions. We don’t ask that they explain just how their spacecraft manage to leapfrog the limitations imposed by Einstein’s insistence that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

All we ask is that they make their worlds believable.

Well, how do they do this? One example springs immediately to mind.

Blade Runner, which I saw over the weekend, inhabits the world of 2049, after global warming has done its worst. Sea levels have risen. Giant walls protect a gloomy Los Angeles from the encroachment of the Pacific. A thick haze of pollutants obscures every view. The population – what’s left of it after most have escaped to a series of planets both in our and other solar systems – is made up of a few humans, and a majority of “replicants”: human-like androids that are indistinguishable from humans but for serial numbers stamped onto a few of their bones, and tucked under the lower lid of one eye. Farmers in a desolate landscape run protein farms which produce maggots by the ton. Prostitution abounds. Three dimensional advertising runs riot.

Now what is remarkable about the film (and this is true of its predecessor as well) is that it makes no attempt whatsoever to explain how such a dystopian society can actually survive; who or what governs it; how humans can survive the daily insult of an atmosphere so thick you can slice and dice it.

What it does offer us is detail: an extraordinary mass of detail. And the closer the camera zooms in, the more convincing it becomes. Dust covers the tables of a long neglected casino. An ancient pair of granny spectacles perched uneasily on a character’s nose is just slightly off balance, one arm bent out of true. The vehicles – powered by what energy source we can only imagine (and we do!) – are battered, their metal scoured by years of (what again we imagine is) exposure to acid rain.

All this is the work, originally, of the writers, of course, but realized by the production designer, the art director, the set builders, the props masters, the set dressers, the costume designers. One critic rightly praised the cinematographer Roger Deakins and the production designer Dennis Gassner for, between them, conjuring “a future world breathtaking in its decrepitude, a gorgeous ruin” of Ozymandias dimensions.

As scriptwriters, we can rely on the genius of the production team to translate our hints into fabulous cityscapes.

As writers for the page, we have to do all these jobs ourselves, providing just enough detail to convince – not too many to explain. We won’t be seduced into describing in exhaustive detail any aspect of the world we’ve imagined into being. We will give the significant details of that world, however, mentioning the seawall as our hero soars above it in his flying car; we will describe a maggot convulsing on a table in the farmer’s kitchen; we will insert references – but not explanation – in the characters’ dialogue to the mass migration that has stripped earth of much of its human population.

Happy writing,


* In sequence: The Algebraist, by Iain M Banks; The Expanse novel sequence by James S.A. Corey (really two writers: Daniel Abaraham and Ty Frank); and finally, Frank Herbert’s Dune novels.


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