Planetary romance – the Hero and the local civilization

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In the previous post (here) I’ve promised to write about the possible results of the arrival of our imaginary hero on the new planet. This is about the basic tropes of this sub-genre and the choice to turn up the dial, in order to get some more from this kind of narrative.

The first level of differences is about the habitants of the new planet; are they humans (or human related), are they aliens (intending anything that differs from our form) or do we have a mixed situation? The human-dominated hypothesis is the easier, our hero will have fewer problems to find his/her way in such a world. The worst situation, of course, is to find the world where different lifeforms dominate. Our hero will be in real trouble to adapt to a very different environment, with the constant challenge of a different culture in any aspect of life. It’s the worst, but the most promising in terms of telling a different story in the subgenre. The mixed situation is almost a classic, think about the Barsoom (Mars) depicted by Burroughs. Our hero could side with the humans or not, but the scene is open to any kind of conflict and potentially rich in terms of different directions for storytelling.

There’s more, of course. One of the basic tropes is about languages; the hero often finds English-speaking populations or some useful device able to translate (not to mention magic or psych powers). What if this does not happen? Learning a language requires time even to the most efficient scholar, even without considering the cultural differences (more on the subject later). Nonetheless, the time spent by our hero learning a language could be very useful to explain to the reader a lot of the local society and/or about the history of that society. Adding to the mix the alien factor could be even more interesting. Do the aliens use the same phoneme? What if they got a different way to create sounds and/or they use a whole set of different frequencies? What about different means of communication? A human can’t easily cooperate with a language based on colors or on perfumes.

It’s a safe bet to say that local culture and local society developed in a different or unusual way. This is often skipped in the subgenre, presuming some kind of schematics that “must” be common in the rise and fall of civilizations. Even setting aside the aliens, this is quite a shortcut for the writer. The opposite trap will be to describe something completely illogical, just to show off. Again, this could be a key point for developing a lot of plot in a novel; the hero could easily become an outcast, an enemy of the state, a pariah for the local religion (s) and much more. The juxtaposition between the hero and the main antagonist could be played in many different ways, just following this part of the plot. Another consideration on this topic is about the balance between the space used to describe the local society and the space reserved for proper action / dialogue; if there is too much world building, then the rhythm of your novel will fall apart.

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At the extreme side of the comprehension spectrum, we also have a scenario where our hero is unable to fit in any way in the local society. His/her struggle to come home or to reach any objective will become far more difficult, with the concept of “one-human-against-the-world” pushed to the limit. Even a hero with a wide range of super powers (i.e. the DC’s Superman) will face overwhelming odds in such a situation. I think it will very difficult to create a working plot with this kind of premises.

Of course, we have the best case scenario at hand; the hero is able to handle easily any cultural difference, the local language is no barrier and the presence of a stranger is widely regarded as positive in the new planet. So it looks like there’s a red carpet for our main character, who’s ready to rock’n’roll his/her quest in the new world with minimum effort until the all-end-well conclusion. Well, it could a good tale for the insomniacs. Without the side effects of any drug, so to speak. Maybe it could be the starting point of a humorous take on the subject, like “Rick, the yawning adventurer”.

For all the gamers out there, it’s possible to combine the basic factors and generate by chance the conditions that our hero will find in the new world. All you need is a dice and a paper sheet. More on the subject? What about new world technology? It will be the starting point of the next post.

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