When writers build worlds, we [are supposed to] give at least a passing thought to water supplies and waste management, and all the handy physical infrastructures that support our characters. We also [are supposed to] spare a thought for social infrastructures like bureaucracies, economies, families, and so on. It’s usually possible to gloss over most of these things – much exposition can be safely left to the readers’ assumptions – and when that’s impossible, it’s usually still wise to attend primarily to the details of the setting that lend context and veracity to the plot.
That said, there is a tendency to retreat the setting to the background to such a degree that characters merely strut their half-hour upon a stage; a practice that leaves many stories reading like the pilot episodes of failed sitcoms.
Then again, there is an equally unfortunate habit – particularly in epic fiction – of elevating the setting to the point that it upstages the players. In examples of this, readers must follow puppets along the three-hour tour demanded by too-formidable scenery.
In stories with depth, there is an interplay between agents and their environment. This repartee is best carried out in the middle ground: Yes, there is political intrigue on our generation ship, and yes our happenstance main character must expose the villainous parties before Voting Day, but what about the music? What earworms has she been enjoying or suffering, lately? What’s the current musical controversy? What’s losing traction on the playlists? Musical divergences reflect broader social shifts, and signs of the times tend to be broadcast in popular music. Generally speaking, party music is big while the populace is happy with the course their ship is on. But if everyone’s singing the blues? Expect change.
Nuancing the middle ground – the field of play between foreground and background – is the technical equivalent of granting that even futuristic cities (and generation ships) must include alleys and graymarkets in their design to function believably. For the writers among us who particularly enjoy devilling with the details, this layering approach to story-building may sound like child’s play. For everyone else, it may seem like a shortcut, a hack, or a magic trick. Better yet: Music to their ears.