I have started painting some sci-fi miniatures. This is great fun, because I love sci-fi generally and sci-fi novels particularly. There are all sorts of sci-fi miniatures available – you really are spoiled for choice. But the question is – what setting do I paint them for? Now – maybe this sounds odd. 'Just slap some paint on them!' I hear nobody cry (because nobody visits my site really… and if they do, they get distracted by the nude photography section). I need a setting however because I like to paint 'characters'. While I am painting I like to think about the personalities, motivations etc of the little people I am painting. This is also applies whilst I am sculpting – and I'd like to sculpt some sci-fi minis soon too. In order to get a feel for who/what I am painting/sculpting, they need a 'universe' to live in.
The first range of miniatures and accompanying universe that springs to mind is rather obviously the big 40,000 kg elephant in the room. And I have to say a big resounding NO! Hang on….whooomph! I sense…. a great disturbance in the net, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in fury and raged on and on and on…. Yes yes, get over it. That oh-so-popular universe is boring. No – I am not going to read 50-100 novels of law that proves just how ‘brilliant’ and ‘deep’ it all is… I have seen every edition come and go…. it bores me. And I am about to explain why.
Let's take a step back and look at what I like in science fiction universes. Firstly, there has to be a point to existence. Maybe if you are somewhere between 15 and 25 then a grindingly bleak, facist reality where there is only war might appeal to you (goodness knows why, but I assume there is a sort-of childish lack of empathy and a nerd's desire to hit back at the popular kids with waves of oddly uniformly-dressed chaotic hordes). But at the grand old age of 42 I start thinking… why on earth would anyone want to live in such a place? Why does the average man or woman get up in the morning? 'Honey…. I'd like to be on top today!' – in bursts the inquistion and shoots the happy couple for being corrupted by eldritch gods. I wouldn't want to live or role play living in North Korea, where they apparently have lists of 'acceptable, government sanctioned haircuts', any more than I would want to spend any time in that particular universe which is facist, po-faced and unspeakably bland and boring. I want more than war! I want humour, love, art (that isn't painted on a war banner), freedom, music… Now a setting could have one of these lacking – and that would maybe give it an interesting edge. But replacing all that with war. Nooooo.
So – a setting with love, art, freedom, music… basically with a living breathing culture that makes life worth living. Let’s look at some examples of popular universes that might serve as settings or at least as inspiration. Star Trek for example. Star Trek is a mixed bag. Sometimes you get the feeling that you have two choices – life in Star Fleet aboard a starship – or life in some strange alien community wearing flowing orange and pastel clothes. The Star Trek universe has so much potential – especially (oddly enough) in the original series – strange colonies, alien races and cultures, lonely gods on abandoned planets, a post-scarcity society… and yet, for me, so much is muted by the budget and rating constraints that made so many colonies on so many planets seem identical. I am afraid that, although I enjoy Star Trek, I don’t feel a huge to use it as a setting. But this is where we can start cherry picking.
What is the coolest aspect of Star Trek? For me – the alien worlds of the original series with small colonies of miners or scientists, strange alien killers on the loose – I love those rich greens and purples, the dramatic lighting, the shonky feel of the sets. That is not enough on its own for my 'universe' though. I need to flesh it out a lot more. For this I need to look around a bit and ask myself what else really appeals to me in various sci-fi franchises, films and novels?
- Firefly: The smuggler/trader, border-world, rough bonhomie of the crew of Serenity.
- Star Wars: The hives of scum and villainy found in the Star Wars universe – cantinas full of smugglers, bounty hunters, criminals, weirdos and cool music! In fact – there is loads to like outside of the films. The neon glare of Nar Shadaa, ancient temples on deserted worlds holding the relics of the Sith. So much to cherry pick here.
- Dr Who: The giant corporate space ships, far from the nearest help, involved in something like gas mining, the crew unwittingly having disturbed some alien intelligence.
- Babylon 5: The struggle against the creeping dictatorship of Earth. Children in a galaxy still inhabited by aliens so powerful they might as well be gods.
- Barbarella: Wonderful costumes! Sexy, cheesy. I love the decadence and design of the sets. Not everything has to be gritty, grimy and worn down – sci-fi universes can be as different as you want!
- Dune: Prophecy, religion, economics, ecology, sinister organisations with long-term hidden agendas… so many options to choose from.
I could go on and on (and get very niche), but this handful of options shows just how varied and wonderful sci-fi can be.
So, armed with lots of inspiration, I now need to start building my universe and identifying suitable miniatures. I don't intend to copy anything too blatantly from any particular setting, but rather use them as inspiration and see what grows from this fertile ground. And that is what I am going to do in a coming article…