Realism, Science, and Historicity in Fantasy Writing
I started writing this essay about six weeks ago, before going to ApolloCon. I trimmed it down to a mere 1,000 words at one point, and tried to get a couple of magazines and ezines interested in it as an article on spec. No takers! So, instead, you can have my thoughts on what I think is a somewhat interesting topic, which is pertinent to my thoughts while writing Edda-Earth. Fantasy writing is at its best when authors establish coherent systems and adhere to them. If they set the limits of their reality, and the framework is solid, the audience can relax and accept that reality. If the only answer ever given for why the world is the way it is, is “A wizard did it,” then the audience tends to become bored, frustrated, and distracted by inconsistency. Therefore, the best way to ground fantasy, even in the most high-magic of settings, is in reality. And the reality that most audience members are most acquainted with, is, these days, one in which science has become fundamental.
To give a concrete example? Game of Thrones. As a science-minded person, the first thing I thought on starting the show was, “So summers take years. And there’s no way of predicting when winter will come. If the planet’s orbit is very distant from a blue-white giant star, then, yes, it would remain in the habitable zone, but each season could take most of a human’s childhood to transpire. But even then, seasons would occur at regular and predictable intervals, since seasonal progression is controlled by the axial tilt of the planet as well as by its position in orbit. Seasons can’t be random or unpredictable unless the planet’s wobbling back and forth on its axis in such a way that it would have broken up into an asteroid belt billions of years ago. And let’s not talk about orbital resonance, which would have likely tidally-locked a planet, placing one face in blazing light and one face in eternal shadow. Or, as someone recently tried to have it in conversation with me, “Well, it could be a system with a binary or trinary star, and it could be in a figure-eight pattern between the stars” . . . except that then they would see the other star in the sky, and it would still have to be a stable and recognizable pattern. An unstable pattern would result in the planet being ejected from the system and becoming a rogue. And that would really be a night that’s dark and full of terror.
(Usually around this point, my husband tells me, “A wizard did it; stop worrying about it.”)
But when one thing doesn’t make sense, it engages the critical thinking faculties of the audience, and makes them that much more aware of other things that don’t make sense. That tendency inevitably snowballs, particularly in the internet era, when fans can all come together to nitpick as one. And thus, one loose thread can eventually unravel the whole tapestry.
How can a writer avoid the unraveling of their reality? By careful attention to consistency and establishing their credibility. In terms of consistency? The world has to work the same way every time, unless there is a good reason, well-foreshadowed, to break the rules. In terms of credibility? Using genuine science and history lets your world become that much more real to the audience, and lets them have a place where they know it’s safe to believe in the other things that break the rules of their own reality.
An example of fantasy that uses a scientific underpinning to its magic for a more credible and consistent whole would be the Belgariad and Mallorean books of David Eddings. Eddings had quirks as a writer, but he excelled at creating consistent systems of magic that were backed up by an understanding of the greater rational universe. In the his work, most magic is sorcery. The Will and the Word. The ability to wrap your head around a concept, encapsulate it in a word, and use your will to make it happen.
How does science come into it? The main character conjures a violent storm to drive an army off the field of battle, saving thousands of lives that would have been pointlessly lost. He brings down lightning, he stirs up wind, and all the people wearing steel undergarments hastily vacate the area. Six months later, a senior sorcerer berates him for his actions. Not for wasting power or being showy, but because of the law of unintended consequences and the basic chaotic nature of weather. Eddings didn’t break out the butterfly’s wings birthing a hurricane, but he did note that creating this violent storm in the wrong place touched off blizzards out of season in other areas.
Another example? There’s a character, Relg, who can walk through stone. When asked how this is even possible, one of the characters summarizes it essentially as, ‘picture the smallest thing there is. A lot of those things make up you, and a lot of those things make up the rock. There’s actually quite a lot of space between those bits. So he slides his bits through the bits that make up the rock.” My loose paraphrasing here lets you see that this is atomic theory in a nutshell.
Every sorcerer is encouraged in these books to study the world and nature before going out and meddling with bits of it. That’s a scientific approach, and it makes the magic system more credible.
To give an example from another author’s works, look at the young adult books by Diane Duane, starting with So You Want to be a Wizard. If the young wizards want to prove to their parents that they’re sorcerers, by, say, taking them to the Moon? It’s perfectly possible. But, in order to escape the gravity well of Earth, they have to change the incantation they’ve used for this before, to account for the extra mass of their parents’ bodies. They have to use a nine-volt battery for the extra jump in power. They have consider the ramifications, including providing extra air and UV and temperature shields once they get there. And if they have a friend who happens to be a sapient white hole, why not?
Magic and science combined, with respect for how the universe works, while breaking just a few of its fundamental rules. What’s not to like? So long as the author remains internally consistent, obeying the rules of their own creation, that allows the audience to relax. To trust them. And not keep looking for the things that don’t make sense.
That addresses science and realism, but doesn’t address the issue of historicity. Unfortunately, fantasy worlds set in an imagined past, either conceptualize that time period as either a rose-tinted world that’s far better than our own smoggy, ecologically-compromised one, or as a place where the way that you can tell who the king is, in the words of Monty Python, solely because he’s the only one who ‘hasn’t got shit on him.’
And either way, many fantasy writers seem overtly Luddite about technology in their writing. Some of that can be attributed to fear of technology creep—“I am grounded solely in 1150 and the invention of the horse collar is as far as I’m willing to go for fear of losing my gritty realism.” Some of it is nostalgia for a better age that never really existed—“Back in the days before modern plumbing and electricity, life was purer and better, and please don’t mind the cholera, smallpox, and lack of refrigeration. Life was better back then, before we had all these conveniences that clutter up modern life!”
So you get situations as in R.A. Salvatore’s Cleric Quintet, when the main character, Cadderly, uses the rules and technology available in the setting to put oil of impact vials in a specialized crossbow and essentially invents the firearm . . . and then decides that he can’t allow other people to have his invention, lest people without training and the proper self-discipline be allowed to have the same level of power as those who have been trained in temples as monks, or endured lengthy apprenticeships as wizards. On the one hand, the author, in this situation, couldn’t have one character suddenly change a world-environment shared with a dozen other authors. And on the other hand. . . no one else in the entire world has this idea? There are no other intelligent engineers, alchemists, anyone, who can come up with the same notion, given the technology at hand? (To say nothing of what this implies about the self-discipline and respect for force of the ‘ordinary’ soldier.)
That’s like saying, back in history when the first hominid ancestor realized, “I found this rock. When I hit someone with it, it made them fall down faster when I used my fist,” that no one at all ever tried throwing it. Or if someone did throw it, then no one after that thought, “It would be useful if I could throw rock farther, because frankly, it usually hurts when the cave lion gets within five feet of me. I wonder what would happen if I wrapped this piece of leather around it and threw it?”
But instead, in terms of many fantasy authors, nothing can change, or can be allowed to change, because technology is bad. It can’t be allowed into the hands of the irresponsible, the undisciplined. The people who aren’t the right people.
Who might the right people be? To change genres slightly, consider Stephen King’s The Stand. A plague gets loose, decimating the world, leaving two groups of survivors. The artists, teachers, poets and so on are the protagonists. The engineers and the scientists are the overt bad guys, associated with a quasi-Satanic figure named Randall Flagg. Then the poets, writers, and teachers try to put together a non-technological farming community somewhere on the east coast, in direct opposition to the engineers and scientists, who manage to get electricity going again in their city on the west coast. The binary opposition is quite evident. Technology is evil. The ‘simple life’ is good. Admittedly, one has to wonder how long that group of artists and poets will survive without electricity, plumbing, a basic understanding of farming, and so on. Suddenly going back to the era before the horse collar wouldn’t bode well for most modern humans. But, of course, technology is evil. Or at least, technology in the hands of the people who make it, those terrible scientists and engineers, who aren’t connected with the spiritual realm, like writers and teachers, is apparently evil.
So, here we have examples of how technology in fantasy and related genres is rejected, or at least, is repressed and prevented from developing. But in reality, and in history, technology doesn’t sit still. A recent study by Simon James of the University of Leicester suggests that during the fighting between the Persians and the Romans over the Roman-held Syrian city of Dura-Europos, both sides dug tunnels under the walls. The Persians dug to undermine the walls, and the Romans, presumably, dug their tunnel to intersect with the Persian one and stop the sappers.
What did the Persians do? James believes that they lit a fire at the end of their own tunnel, threw sulfur and bitumen on the flames, and might even have directed the toxic smoke up at the Romans as they broke through, using bellows. Result? The nineteen Roman soldiers in that tunnel inhaled the smoke, which turned into sulfuric acid in their lungs, and died, some of the earliest victims of chemical warfare on record. It’s astonishing, but given all the other chemical innovations of the period, perhaps it shouldn’t be.
That is the kind of science and historicity that a fantasy author could use to make their world more realistic, more believable, more grounded. And yet, many fantasy authors overlook what was actually used in favor either of the idyllic notion of the good old days. . . or perhaps worse, they insist that the ancient past was uniformly horrible, that people solely lived short, horrible, miserable lives, usually up to their eyebrows in pig dung. Neither perspective is true, and both perspectives denigrate the collective intelligence of humanity. Both perspectives suggest that just because people lived in the past, that people back then weren’t smart. Oh, they might have this greater innate mystical connection to the life-force of the world because they were somehow closer to nature back then, but they just weren’t intelligent.
But that’s simply not the case. Smart people have, for millennia, approached common engineering problems and overcome them using shared principles and intelligence. And even when writing fantasy, incorporating science and historicity just helps ground the setting and make the author more credible to their audience. Even when a fireball might possibly go off over the head of a character, it is still a fireball—a thermal reaction that responds to oxygen in the air, and represents the liberation of energy from some sort of matter. It should behave in ways that are recognizable to the reader. And if that fireball spell can be somehow linked to a historical narrative? All the better.