As I've already mentioned, I'm working on a sci-fi novel.

One of the main feelings that I wanted to represent when I started is the sense of a vast, empty, artificial world, mostly cold and uncaring of human life; the kind of impression you can have glancing at Tsutomu Nihei's landscapes in manga such as Blame! or Biomega.

Being inspired by his works, and other masters of the cyberpunk genre, I started to work on my novel. While I did manage to give out that feeling (according to some beta readers) I wonder if something could be done better, hence the question.

How do you show an hard and uncaring world?

How do you picture a stark contrast between the characters' struggle and an uncaring, hostile environment?

I'm mainly interested in stylistic devices (e.g. the use of certain images, similes, pairing up the character's internal emotion with a description of the outside world ...) that I could employ to make the difference even more clear cut.

  • 3
    I have some trouble with the word "uncaring" because no world "cares" about human life. Some happen to be more supportive, some less, and some not at all, but in no case does the world "care". Could you give me a different word? By "world" is seems that you mean the physical location, but do you actually mean the other people are uncaring of each other?
    – cmm
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 13:45
  • 1
    @cmm You're right about the fact that the "world" doesn't care about human life. It's a personification. In many medias, movies in particular, wide shots of an harsh environment are used to portray the setting in a certain way. For example, in The Revenant with Leonardo di Caprio.
    – Liquid
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 7:48

9 Answers 9


This really depends on the type of world you have in mind. It isn't quite clear from your question whether you are talking about e.g. alien planets that are hostile to all life (toxic, radiated wastelands), or whether you are talking about a civilization that has become cold and uncaring (cyberpunk-style).

Since you want to know about stylistic devices you can use, here are some general ideas:

  • Short sentences without a lot of adjectives, except the ones that emphasize the struggle. "He looked around. No water in sight, only mirages produced by the scorching sun. He still knew better than to fall for these."
  • Usually mundane tasks like breathing and walking become vital, so mention them: "Inhale. Check the Geiger counter. Take a step forward. Exhale. Take another glance at the Geiger counter to be sure. Inhale again."
  • The previous example also uses repetition to emphasize the oppressive situation that the protagonist finds himself in.
  • Use verbs that evoke the hostility of the environment. Your characters don't breathe fresh air, they inhale this toxic atmosphere against better judgement because of the small amount of oxygen contained within. They don't blink (which is done easily and without thinking about it), they actively squint their eyes - it's an effort to do so. When they talk, they whisper with hoarse voices and they keep it extremely brief.
  • Since you mention an "artificial" world: You want to emphasize that this world was made, but that it was not made for human survival. Give an impression of what this artificial world is for, and how it fulfills its function, and how the human characters that find themselves on it are completely unimportant to its designs. "Whatever it was, it was working. The machines made a deafening high-pitch sound. But she could not see any seams in the metallic surface. No access points for maintenance, no signs that whoever built this was still around."

+1 to Ash, and I'd like to add another feature: lack of healthy life.

If you really want to show that an environment is hostile, show that nothing pleasant can thrive there. Here are some suggestions for describing a city.

Plants: No flowers (not even in window boxes). Any trees they might have planted are either dead or dying.

Animals: With the exception of rats and other vermin (the filth angle), keep to a minimum. A stray pigeon picking stale fries out of the garbage. Two scrawny strays fighting in an alley.

The residents themselves: Tired and stressed, possibly (or frequently) sick. They're always hurrying from place to place, never taking the time to slow down and enjoy their lives. They don't have much in the way of hobbies. It seems like all of their time goes into work and chores. Crime is common, the government is corrupt, and no one trusts the system.

It may also help to focus on the hard, lifeless, unfeeling surfaces: asphalt, concrete, brick, steel.

  • Nice, I hadn't thought of the "other life" part of the narrative, having read it it's obvious that I should have +1.
    – Ash
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 11:13
  • Nice tidbits about the residents.
    – Liquid
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 14:50
  • This answer brings to mind the world that Fallout is set in.
    – J Crosby
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 14:42

Some elements that can be clearly seen and described occur to me:

  • Graffiti is common where people feel disenfranchised, it seems to form an outlet for people who feel they don't have a voice.

  • Dirt, filth is omnipresent when people don't care for the environment and people around them. This can be noted in both people's appearance, dirt on their cloths or skin and in the environment with filthy buildings and uncollected garbage piled up in out of the way spaces.

  • Crowd dynamics, when people care for others crowds move smoothly around and through each other as everyone unconsciously gives way to each other and makes room. In a crowded and uncaring society people collide more often as each is going about their own business oblivious to those around them.

Certain words and turns of phrase also conjure up images of nastiness:

  • Harsh, particularly when applied to textures and colours.

  • Stark, when describing a contrast to better days, also when describing architecture, and also people where it is used as a synonym for severe.

  • Grimy, speaks for itself.

  • Sallow, when applied to both light and the appearance of people or colours.

  • Organic descriptions of inorganic structures, see China Mieville's descriptions of both New Crobuzon and Armada, make the [urban] environment seem to be crumbling and inimical towards the humans co-existing with it, if done right.

One other possibility is the inclusion of gangs in the narrative, not necessarily as players in the story but as an everyday part of the background life of the setting. Gangs are more prolific when, and where, people can't get ahead in life within the official, legal, framework of society.

  • New Crobuzon felt full of life to me (where my environment needs to be mostly devoid of it) but you're absolutely right that it is described as hostile.
    – Liquid
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 14:52
  • 1
    @Liquid Yes is was teeming with life but it was also falling down around the ears of that life, the setting felt uncared for by and uncaring toward it's inhabitants.
    – Ash
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 14:56

These answers are all really good, so I'll just add a couple of things.

  1. Imagine your setting as a character. You've already personified it by making it "uncaring" and "hostile". Now, make it behave like an uncaring and hostile creature/character. Your setting can interact with your characters just like they I react with it. "As much as Mary was determined to survive, the wasteland was determined to kill her."

You can give your setting a backstory, mood, emotion, even motivation, all of which can contrast with that of your characters.

  1. Make sure that your characters are seeing your world through all five senses. It will help draw your readers in and help them experience your environment more thoroughly. Your characters can see the wasteland and feel the burning sun, but they can also smell the decay, taste sulphur in the air and hear metal against metal grinding in the distance.

This will also give you more material to contrast against your characters. "Mary hummed 'You Are My Sunshine' to drown out the sound of metal grinding in the distance."


While the other answers are great and focus on tangible assets of the world, I'll try and find an answer that focuses instead on stylistic elements. I would say that a good way to get across apathy and an inorganic, unfeeling world would be to describe things in a cold, technical, repetitive and clinical manner. Eschew any flowery language when describing the architecture and surroundings, contrasting this with, say, how the narration describes their allies (if narration is associated with a character) or the heroes (if omniscient/detached).

For example, imagine we have a dingy undercity that's topped with affluent skyscrapers, we could use the aforementioned clinical style to render something like this:

The cleaning droids never reached the bottom of JunCorptropolis. The upper levels teemed with hygenic towers and hygenic cyborgs, the trust fund babies of CEOs. The toxic waste and grime, like most things, flowed downwards. The upper city did not seem to care about the structural unsoundness of its foundations.

Contrast this with, say, a rebel cubby-hole filled with friends of the protag:

Waylan entered the hideout to find what remained of the Undercity Banditos. Each of them styled themselves as though they were a canvas; colourful hair and tattoos were the order of the day. Fixing his tie, Waylan felt a tad overdressed. He took a seat on the makeshift couch and slipped off his jacket, when a smooth-skinned, pierced young woman spoke.

'So, how'd the undercover mission go?'

This will give a clear divide between the organic, passionate cause of the people you want the reader to relate to, compared to the apathetic world that obviously needs to be changed.


Uncaring. Harsh. Unforgiving. And a Sci-Fi setting? Well. It depends on what the deal is, but I'll offer some things I'd throw in to really show this world doesn't care for humans.

  • Alien world. The places looking for employees, so think bars, clothing stores, fast-food restaurants. "Humans need not apply." Put up signs outside showing humans aren't welcome in this establishment. Have some places house an atmosphere that humans can't breathe--nothing shows you're unwanted like the literal air you breathe being poisonous to you.

  • Policing. Again with aliens, but separate, yet related to, the above point. Have the authorities single out humans more often. Have a scene, or mention now and then when out in the world, of some human crying out "I didn't do anything!" and have the officers arresting them anyway. No reason, no lead up. Just arresting them.

  • Robot/cyborg world. Have tech needed to do that most basic thing. Lift (elevator) needs you to interact with the interface, but it needs a jack of some sort and humans just aren't equipped with that. I'd imagine there'd be some group of humans that would have some sort of workaround, but it's that they need it that's telling.

  • The pets have an innate dislike of humans, and have them be endemic of the setting. "You see that hairy bear-sized creature with razor sharp claws? That's Fido. He doesn't like your kind."

  • While being an uncaring world is one thing, a world that is super caring for everything that doesn't look like you is quite another. Show how beautiful the world is, and then show humans being treated like animals or worse.

  • You remember those mounted bears and deer in those old-fashioned lodges? What if these people mount humans? That certainly gives a clear impression of where humans stand here.


A hard, uncaring world is a matter of perspective. If you're seeing it through the eyes of someone who loves it, it won't look bleak, no matter what the "objective" portrait of it might be. So you want to start with a person who feels isolated, lonely, vulnerable, exposed and alienated, and then describe the landscape through his or her eyes.


There are two roads from Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico. One runs through the gorge of the Colorado river. The other runs over the mountains through pine forests. The one through the pine forests is considered the scenic route.

I drove both routes a couple of years ago. I live in eastern Canada. Half our roads run through pine forests. I am heartily sick of looking at pointy trees. I did not find the high road scenic. None of our roads run through brilliantly colored sandstone canyons. I thought the main road was amazingly scenic.

But if you live in New Mexico, half of your roads run through brilliantly colored sandstone canyons. Very few of them run through trees. To them, no doubt, pointy trees are scenic.

In short, it is all about contrast. Juxtapose red with green. Juxtapose dry with wet. Juxtapose barren with lush. See the scene through the eyes on a character who comes from a place that is lush and green and wet and bountiful.


"Hard" i believe leans toward environment characteristics. Uncaring leans toward other intelligent beings that, as intelligent they should, but for some reason they don't care for other intelligent life beings, same kind or not.

You need to define such a setup to excuse both. Obviously you have the protagonist(s) and other actors. The environment is 'hard' for the protagonist and can be also hard for the other actors or not. The other actors are also uncaring towards the protagonist, and possible among them as well.

Obviously a good setup will answer both: An environment not really suitable for life explains both the term "hard world" naturally and the uncaring of other actors that live in that world; they look to survive not chat, help or share valuable resources with the protagonist.

Example of such setups would be:

  1. A colonization starship lands at a not suitable enough planet for any reason.
  2. A mining colony in an unfriendly without support due to civil war at the sponsors
  3. A derelict but partially functioning habitat space station where all outlaws goather
  4. A previously normal world after an apocalypse event

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