The Wonder of Scale in Fantasy and Sci-fi

Making things or settings really big is a sure way to capture my interest.  There’s a marvel that comes built-in to such an imagined accomplishment.  For example, the mental woah from seeing the two giant stone statues at the gates of Argonath in Lord of the Rings.

A big part of my own reaction to things of such scale is the incredulity that the culture actually accomplished it.  Either I was prepared to think the culture was too primitive, or I respect the culture’s capabilities but underestimated their ambition.

In either case, we’re talking about the gap between what we expect and what we see.  Stories like Ringworld essentially start by proving to you that you have absolutely no ability to comprehend how big this thing unless it is explained in its components, working the scale in or out, depending.

You can evoke this sense of wonder in your own work by making sure you recognize what sorts of things are actually at the core of the spectacle.

Artistic accomplishment

At a golden age, a civilization might have very little else to do but chase the extravagant.  This could mean anything from fussy architecture to continent-sized cultivations.  What would the culture in your story do if all external conflict was essentially stomped out?

Now ask yourself a few questions about the time before and after that golden age.

  • What were the early signs that civilization was heading toward such feats of art?
  • Were there “failed” prior attempts at such large designs?
  • What strata of the public began to harbor a distain for the perceived waste of that failure (you know there’s always someone)?
  • When the golden age begins to wane and all attention slides back toward conflict, how are these creations repurposed or leveraged?  Could monstrously oversized art halls be reclaimed to house refugees?
  • Does the architecture push through a stale period of self-parody before returning to something simpler?
  • What natural difficulties are overcome (risk of natural disaster, for example) to bring such a creation to the world?

Despite the civilization seeming unified in such a period, remember that it is not.  What picky offshoots of the artistic themes arise?  What obligations do the people feel they have to one-up their last creation?

Growth born of war and conflict

War creates an imperative for protection.  What happens when civilization invests heavily in offense versus defense?

Of course we could expect there to be some compromise of the two, but we’re looking at taking the base case to the extreme:

  • Mountain chains converted to militarized perimeters
  • Sprawling construction facilities
  • Star ships the size of solar systems
  • Military swarms with units numbering in the millions
  • Weapons the size of a world (that’s no moon)
  • Defenses the size of a nebula

I’m leaning toward sci-fi on this one because the potential for scale is so staggering, but anything that could be seen as disproportionate to the expected will have the same effect.

External pressures

Without assuming that only apocalypse scenarios send humanity to the stars in ark ships, what does civilization look like once it is free of a planetary ball and chain?  Do civilian ships go it alone in the universe, bastions of culture and peace, or do they enlist the protection of a military unit?  Is the city in the stars itself a combination civilian-military operation?  Is the space habitat actually equipped to defend itself at the first sign of trouble, despite mundane appearances?

I like to examine what risks the civilization might feel the need to address.  Losing a habitat to external aggression ought to be devastating.  It should be inconceivable that a culture would ignore the defense of such things unless the threats to them are equally inconceivable.

  • In the scope of just one world, what does the rapid expansion of a civilization do to the political map?
  • Without dipping back into war, what measures do the more desperate nations take to expand their livable capacity?
  • Build up?
  • Build atop the ocean?
  • Marry their royal family into an alliance that allows such things?
  • Do they face dissolution of their political system to merge with another?
  • Do they expand castles to fit thousands in a flourishing royal family?
  • Could there be cities dedicated to housing certain work forces or family lines?

Conceptualization of such things has to start with a base case: civilization builds a space habitat.  Now increment the population by adding a zero to the end of the number.  Now bump up the quality of living.  Introduce a technology that is so demanding on contemporary power that expansion begins to feel the strain to keep up with everyone’s idea of the status quo.  Look thousands of years down the timeline and consider just how much the world can change in a fraction of that time.

Interacting with creation

Now that you have staggering creations, they should be a part of the history and identity of your story.  It’s no good to have a continent set aside as a peace garden unless you can get some reference of it across.

Your story doesn’t have to make these things integral to the plot, however.  Simple mentions are sometimes just as effective.  None of the characters talk about the bulldozer in Avatar the size of a downtown block of skyscrapers—it’s part of the set and although we see it there, it’s not in an of itself the point of the story.  Its presence creates a sense of extreme investment in the planetary settlement.

  • What do your world’s creations contribute to the mentality of the characters?
  • How do these creations set a backdrop for civilians?
  • How do visitors react to the feats themselves, and to the blasé attitude of the locals?
  • Is there confusion on the part of the civilization itself for the utility of these massive creations?


I avoided speaking of the use of resources until the end, because it’s a world-building topic  pervasive enough to touch all varieties of grand accomplishment.

Consider all types of resources, not just raw materials:

  • talent
  • labor
  • disposable wealth
  • alliances that yield materials or political protection

You might not be writing an economic exposé of your fantasy or sci-fi culture, but you should make an attempt to consider where all of the raw materials come from.

  • What kind of system would have to be in place to procure so many resources?
  • Who is making so much money from it that their family won’t miss a meal for the next 400 years even if it were to all collapse tomorrow?
  • What technology could develop to facilitate the growing need for more?
  • What kind of maintenance cost is there?
  • Does that cost lead to changes in the kind of expansion witnessed by the civilization?
  • How do they cope with half of their grand creations being behind the now-modern curve?


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