Do you use a Mary Sue - niverse?

As SF authors, we make up kingdoms and nations and tribes and societies and civilizations for our protagonists to walk around in. Or fly, or swim, or whatever.

Do you feel that the point of writing these is to show why some social conventions are good or bad? To show that one hypothetical society is better or worse than another? Do you feel obliged to make the fate of these social entities depend on your moral judgments about these ways of life?

In particular, do you get satisfaction from writing about a society you think would be the best society people could get to live under? Do you write exclusively about main characters from such a society, so they can make pithy author-voice comments about why all the other societies they contact are wrong?

In short, are your characters living in a Mary Sue-niverse?

And if they are, are you okay with that? I think making moral points about the society they live in - especially about their society being better or worse than ours - detracts from the depth and decisions of the characters.

From my POV as a writer, I want to make societies and nations that just … are. I’m not asking myself what would be better or worse, I’m just asking myself, what would work, or at least what way of life would be hard to STOP doing, given these people’s circumstances?


Your “Mary Sue-Niverse” concept is honestly confusing.

The entire idea behind Utopian and Dystopian speculative fiction is basically to create entire worlds based upon exploring our societies and also an author’s ethos/morals/ideals.

Based on what you’re saying here, the world Ray Bradbury created in “Fahrenheit 451” is a “Mary Sue-niverse” :joy:

I personally can’t get behind the idea that just because an author has a moral viewpoint or an over-arching theme, that their writing is somehow sub-par because of that.

This also touches upon the constant battle between plotters versus pantsers. It seems to suggest that someone who starts out planning very precise parts of a story to help express a specific message, is doing something cheap, versus someone who just goes with some type of flow that allows for a subconscious message to just emerge.

I think it is possible to go into writing a story with a strong message and build your novel’s world around those ideas, without coming across like a sermon or an after-school special.

If a story is constantly interrupted by “The More You Know” type of asides or aggrandizing/preachy speeches, of course that detracts from the writing.

But there are plenty of great ways to send a message without knocking people over the head with it so blatantly.


Quite the opposite actually - I do not touch worlds that sound completely nice, because then I find impossible for characters to find any motivation even just to breath.
You have to strive for something - and that something usually originates from some imperfection in your universe. (my personality does not find any purpose in playing with unicorns under the rainbow)

1 Like

Oh, yeah, Fahrenheit 451 is definitely in the category.

I guess I should come up with a corresponding term for dystopias, since “Mary Sue” implies something like, “this is just good and it’s the only way to be good and everybody knows it.”

Bradbury on the other hand was writing about the evils of illiteracy, and posited a society that enforced it in F451.

But as a reader, I was tearing my hair out when forced to read the book because that entire society doesn’t effing work! I couldn’t get three paragraphs without hitting a rock that derailed my suspension of disbelief.

My notes listed bullet points like ‘and who trained the mechanics that work on those fire trucks?’ and ‘this character is supposed to be too ignorant to make that reference’, and ‘if any neighboring state does not do this stupid thing, they will inevitably destroy this one’ and ‘unable to sustain the technology base needed.’ and ‘situation arose after mandatory-illiteracy - how did they do the research to come up with this?’ and ‘Consumer-goods safety and standards without package information couldn’t be this good.’ and on and on and on.

The F451 dystopia would simply fail. Some other nation would absorb its resources because it failed to utilize them as well and inevitably would get out-competed. It wouldn’t last even as long as it has lasted in-story, and it couldn’t start because the motivations presented wouldn’t drive it through the inevitable transition phase.

So, F451 takes place in a kind of artificially failed world that exists for no reason other than moralizing about how horrible a kind of failure (THAT COULD NEVER HAPPEN) it would be. I did not consider it to be one of Bradbury’s better works.

Robert Heinlein did this a lot, in most of the stuff he wrote. His notion of “the” virtuous society - mostly armed, mostly ungoverned, driven by capitalism without any reservation - has been shown, over and over again in real life, to lead directly to collapse. The distribution of wealth becomes so drastically skewed that there’s no point for the few dozen oligarchs left in producing anything for the vast majority who are now unable to buy them. If only the oligarchs’ families can afford an education, then nobody has both the skills and the motivation to develop new products and services, and the market collapses. If you want to see how that kind of capitalism really works, look at Cuba in the 1920s when the American Mafia was taking over the place.

(Under the heading of ‘no wonder they had a communist revolution’, look at what their experience of capitalism had been…)

The idea that the peasants could ever be allowed to keep their weapons when nobody who matters needs their consent, is ludicrous. So is the idea that a bunch of people with no hope of advancement can have free universal access to weapons without a bunch of them going nuts and trying to kill each other. As we see happening in the US these days.

So Heinlein’s utopias, although they sound plausible and the causes of failure are more subtle, and they’re intensely satisfying for those who imagine that they are the kind who would naturally be among the “winners” and conflate that imagined success with virtue, are just as false as Bradbury’s dystopia. He winds up making a forceful, convincing argument for a system that DOESN’T EFFING WORK. And now that I’ve actually studied a bit of history and a bit of economics, I run into the same kind of problem - where something is supposed to be serious but it’s impossible to take seriously.

1 Like

Well we can agree to disagree about the Mary-Sue-niverse of it all…

There is always some level of suspension of disbelief in reading any fiction. Otherwise we’d just be reading fact. Things don’t always have to be 100% perfectly mapped out. It’s okay if there are moments when we question a system and ask “How would that work?” Or “How could that happen?”

For me that’s the entire purpose of speculative fiction - the speculation (forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence)!

So if an author explores ideas, engenders questions, and starts conversations around some message that they are passionate about, then I wouldn’t feel that makes them a “Mary-Sue-niverse”

Personally I very much enjoyed reading F451 as a kid. It’s not just about the evils of illiteracy, it’s also about the dangers of technology. How mindless entertainment can make us complacent. And I think it’s quite interesting how much of what Bradbury speculated on in that story has come to pass in real life ways (large video screens, smart home type of tech, etc) Also it’s less about understanding all of the nitty gritty parts of how that society came to be and the mechanics of how it functions, and more about the idea of speaking out against censorship and breaking out of complacency.

I also enjoyed CS Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” as a child, and those books have very strong Christian themes.

“Lord of The Rings” was influenced by Tolkien’s time at war… the message that power corrupts and that only through bonds of friendship/brotherhood can we defeat the greatest evils, is imbued within his world.

So if you’re not sending a message in a story, then you’re essentially not saying anything - and then I’m not sure what the purpose of writing it all out is for anyway… that’s just like playing with models or dollhouses or legos - you’re just world-building all day long and not really communicating anything.

Or maybe that feels like a soap opera or reality tv to me - mindless, pointless, never-ending, simplistic entertainment. I suppose it has its place in our life sometimes, but not all the time.

I personally prefer reading novels that have a viewpoint, versus one with none at all.


I guess maybe we disagree on how the message should be conveyed?

It is important to “say something” in a story - or at least make a story that can provoke important discussion as well as standing as entertainment.

But I think it’s cheating to use a setting that simply fails.

I have a story that is, in broad terms, about free will, self-determination, and use/abuse of the power to design and control sentient beings and living things. And it’s going on, in the setting, at a lot of different levels. From the pirates and slave traffickers on the bottom end, to the protagonists who are, arguably, living as the ‘pets’ of the giant AI who runs their city.

But I don’t have to make a straw dystopia, or a straw utopia, of anything, or go off on preachy rants about the virtues of a this-ocracy as opposed to a that-ocracy to do it. I don’t have to make representatives of some places of VERY different ethos be enemies - or for that matter friends. I don’t have to make those aspects of their ethos the things they fight over, or for.

Ray, I don’t use world builds to support philosophical positions much at all. I do like to explore them somewhat if features of them play the part of hurdles to support plot problems/goals occasionally. But in general I just don’t do Atlas Shrugged stuff. I have done a couple fables, to experiment with the form, but for the most part, I leave that sort of thing to others.

Well then you just have a problem with poor writing, not really with an author creating a world which communicates a moral or message.

Ray does not need to write a dystopia. He can plot a story of survival, heroisim, achievement, vindication, personal growth or any of countess hundreds of plot goals most books persue. I tend to find most dystopic works to be low hanging fruit, or diarrhea-topias. facile, and usually not as well thought through as the author, who is usually not a social scientist, felt it was in his own mind, Including Heinlien’s, when he went off on this sort of binge. There are a few that are historically interesting, from Alice in Wonderland, and Gullivers Travels and going forward. Anyway, most novels will include situations involving moral judgements and interesting speculations, but novels are driven by a plotted goal, not philosophy 101. Just saying.

While I get that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I quite enjoy stories that are driven by philosophy - like “To The Lighthouse” or “The Yellow Wallpaper” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” :woman_shrugging:


IMO, it’s never the world that conveys a moral message. It’s always the characters making moral choices that do that. A world, simply is. Or is not.

Any kind of moral message proceeds from characters making a choice. And a setting that doesn’t work, can’t present them with a choice that’s relevant to us.

Eh -

The process of some authors it to create their character first and their world second, while others create their world first and then the character who must function in, or disrupt, that world.

So it’s reasonable to think that the moral might sprout from the seed of the world first.

In the real world, we are born into a world that already exists. The setting is already there - the world is teaching us things and sending us messages before we can speak, let alone write a word.

We react to those messages and thus add to it, or subtract from it as we grow… But that equation began before us.

We can only make choices in relation to the world around us. The world isn’t simple. Every society we come into contact with has its viewpoints - it has government, culture, religion, etc.

The two things - the world and the people, or the setting and the characters - do not exist in a vacuum.

You can’t have one without the other.

The message comes from both.


To the extent that it does come from both, I think the Mary Sue-niverse is an elaborate way for the setting to FAIL to hold up its end of the message. It invalidates the characters’ moral choices because it fails to demonstrate that they are relevant, or exposes them as being based on impossibilities.

Moral choices in the context of a clearly impossible or contrived situation lack the kind of meaning and significance it takes to make them matter.

I absolutely love dystopian societies in books, and I love when there’s a distinct moral message behind the story. Not every SF story needs a dystopia to explore morality, but I certainly don’t mind if the setting is your coined “Mary Sue-niverse.”

Red Rising by Pierce Brown depicts a horrible dystopian society in which people are sorted by class and “color,” the poor are used as slaves, and the elite live as gods. It’s outrageous. And yes, obviously we are going to root for the underdog here. But the story doesn’t follow a simple formula of “slavery is bad” / “we stan revolutionaries” – it explores the ethical dilemma of our hero when he immerses himself in elitist society and begins to understand his enemies (and befriend them). It’s complex and meaningful and calls out humanity’s greatest flaws. And it in no way invalidates the character’s moral choices.

1 Like

This is such an interesting conversation, though I do think Mary Sue-niverse (while incredibly catchy!) is a little misleading as a term. Mary Sue characters are generally overly idealized author inserts or audience surrogates, but the scifi/fantasy universes you’re talking about are objectionable because they’re so perfectly, transparently flawed as to illustrate a moral lesson, yes? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

I do agree that it’s a little dull to read retellings of the same old dystopias servicing unoriginal moral messages, simply because those roads have already been paved many times. 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 would not be considered groundbreaking if written today, but they were at their time of publication. I think there’s a solid place for these extended metaphor dystopias in the literary canon, but they do have a distinct flavor that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Dystopia’s just not a genre predicated on subtlety. By design, the setting must be illustrative.

As for your earlier beef with stories like Fahrenheit 451 not having believable premises, I see that almost as a function of the “hardness” of the story’s mechanics. In fantasy and scifi, there is a huge range of explication; some readers just aren’t going to be satisfied with the softer stories that require a greater suspension of belief. I often read the softer ones like fables, with a more casual, childlike attitude. The Hunger Games, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Handmaid’s Tale—all these stories have different tones and target audiences, but I can still appreciate all of them for what they are.

That being said, not all dystopias have “weak” or “soft” mechanics. I think Huxley works very hard in Brave New World to explain how the society functions from the embryo-up, yet it’s hard to find a book with a more blatant moral message.

I think it’s interesting that we also don’t fault historical novels for using “real world” dystopias as a backdrop for moral odysseys. I’d be interested to hear people’s take on whether Nazi Germany, for example, is an overdone setting in literature and movies.

1 Like

The Dystopias are in fact more common, and the term doesn’t really fit them very well.

What I was thinking of with the coinage were the ‘utopias’ that a lot of authors want to use to convince us that this is obviously the only right way for a society to work. Like Heinlein and his settings where there is basically some flavor of Anarcho-Syndicalist or “Free” society and everything else is treated as an exploitation.

Or the ‘Questor’ stories where there’s exactly one moral code that’s right, and it’s obvious to everybody, and the hero knows it absolutely, and if anyone thinks differently or any place is organized differently, they’re being held up as some example of moral failing or villainy.

These ‘always right because they’re right and we’ll only show you anything else briefly to demonstrate that it’s wrong’ straw utopias are what I had in mind when I coined the term ‘Mary Sue-niverse.’

Dystopias entered the conversation because they’re on the other side of that coin and serve the same basic function of setting up a silly situation or asserting that the universe works in silly ways, in an (imo misguided) attempt to make a serious point.

And, (obviously enough in retrospect) bogus dystopias are more common, especially in YA science-fiction, than the bogus utopias I was thinking of.

The central problem isn’t that they’re dystopias or utopias; the central problem is that they’re bogus. I think setting up a clearly bogus setting in order to make a moral point, undermines the moral point.

1 Like

Ohhh, that makes much more sense. I got confused. Yeah, Heinlein gets real preachy for my tastes, especially when he has that one “wise male paragon” character go on his pages-long rants about human nature and whatever. He’s not my personal favorite, but I think there’s a lot to be mined from his works, even if it doesn’t resonate with me that much.

I haven’t seen/read the Questor stories (I did a brief Google and saw it’s Roddenberry’s) but it feels appropriate that a discussion about Mary Sue-niverses would circle back to Star Trek lol. I always enjoyed Star Trek, in spite of and (after a while, fondly) because of its flaws. I think the real trouble with a MSniverse is when its creator doesn’t ever “wink” at the audience, or the fanbase staunchly and ardently follows it like a religion. Then the concept becomes totalitarian, “vilifying” all things that are “other” as you said earlier, in the most ironic of twists. It almost misses its own point. I think that utopias can be written successfully if the inherent absurdity is acknowledged—in fact, it seems vital that any concept or ideology that claims itself “absolute” and “perfect” would retain, at its core, a cultural plasticity rooted in heterogeneity and open-mindedness.

Hmm, I agree that there’s inherent “silliness” to the premises of a bunch of the dystopias we discussed earlier, but I wouldn’t say that detracts from the serious points. These stories are commentary, but they’re also entertainment; the exaggerated worlds the authors create serve to keep readers’ attention as they turn a spotlight on subtler real-world issues. For example, The Handmaid’s Tale takes the notion of women’s subjugation and pushes it to the farthest extreme; sure, it feels absurd to imagine such a government in Massachusetts, but there are women living today with severely reduced bodily autonomy in other countries, which many westerners are apt to dismiss because it feels irrelevant or faraway. And even in America there are many lawmakers and citizens advocating for the restriction of abortion and birth control. The literal words of Atwood’s story are “silly” hyperbole, but her message about the state of women’s reproductive rights is not. Maybe you found her use of dystopia to address such a topic to be cheapening, but I didn’t.

Sometimes I agree, though I don’t think dystopia bears this fault more than other created worlds. Any story that establishes a blatant, black-and-white villain is gonna feel unambiguous and therefore, I suppose, less morally compelling. “Evil” is kind of a crutch. For me, it’s the “chosen one” plots that really rob characters of moral fiber. I dunno if I’d call these tales “bogus” as much as I’d call them simplistic. You can have simplistic stories that take place in the real world too, with characters and situations that feel one-dimensional and therefore morally flat. Even a romcom set in New York City could have this problem.


Oddly enough, the Handmaid’s Tale drove its point home because the setting is NOT bogus.

Atwood did her research; everything in there is or has been “normal” in some part of the world - usually a shockingly large part of the world. All she was doing was bringing it home and showing us how it would look if it was happening to us.

If all that crap were completely made up and there was no reason to believe any of it could actually happen, the story would be void of meaning, the moral choices in it void of context.

But it’s not.

And that’s why the story is powerful and chilling. Because that world COULD easily be real. Atwood is warning us, not just of something that could happen, but of something that HAS happened, in various parts and in various places, already.

1 Like

I like to explore societies and social conventions. I want to see what happens when I start with what I think would be good, and do like correcting problems in our current society. I think best is a matter of judgement and has a lot to do with priorities. My priorities are sustainability and healthy children. I think healthy children are key to sustainability.
My main society is matriarchal. Alot of people think a matriarchal society would be either wonderful or else they think it would be horrible. I often see writers simply reversing male and female roles and then exaggerating oppression . I think this is implausible and often boring.
I also heard a quote from Germaine Greer about how the opposite of patriarchy isn’t matriarchy but fraternity. So I set out to build the society on sibling relationships.
I don’t thing a sort of wave of the wand by saying it’s matriarchal or fraternal would make everything perfect. I think we would have a lot of the same problems with women in charge.
Most of my main characters are counter culture. They’re the ones who see the problems in their society.
I do have my characters speaking despairingly of other cultures, but those from other cultures also speak disparagingly about them.
I am going mostly for what would work. But my choices about setting lead to what I like and think would work. So I’ve gone some the other way. From what I want to work to what type of setting would lead to such results.

I don’t think Ray Dillinger is saying that overarching theme and moral viewpoint is sub-par.

I’m neither a pantser or plotter. Both are linear approaches to writing. I consider myself a puzzler and approach writing in a non-linear fashion. I set up parameters for my writing and see how the story develops according to those parameters. The parameters do relate to a message or idea. Generally I need to go with a lot of puzzling and exploration before I even begin writing.

1 Like