Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fantasy and technology

Like many fantasy writers, I was heavily influenced by Tolkien – not so much the quest and Dark Lord aspects of the story as the setting. The Shire and the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood were fascinating, since I was growing up in Dubai, in a city of buildings and pavements, sand and parking lots. I often dreamed of unexplored fields and hills stretching out to a limitless horizon.

Then I started writing. And eventually I realized that I wrote more happily about cities than about the bucolic countryside – partly because I was more familiar with the one than the other but also because technological developments are more likely to occur in a big laboratory in the city than in a Little House on the Prairie.

What’s the appeal of technology in a fantasy, though – especially if it’s not an urban or steampunk fantasy? For me, technology is one way to make a fantasy novel stand out from the crowd. There are hundreds if not thousands of fantasies which take place in the same world, one where all the siege engines are catapults, all the weapons are swords and all the aerial transport is done by dragons. I love tossing a spark of scientific progress into this world, whether that science is chemistry or microbiology or physics, and watching events suddenly turn in another direction.

Technology is one way to make a country change. I don’t mean just from a wasteland dominated by a tyrant to a paradise ruled over by the rightful king, but a more realistic and intriguing evolution, like what’s happening in Ankh-Morpork in the novels Going Postal and The Truth. Inventions could have fascinating effects on societies. Imagine, for instance, two competing and equally powerful families in a city, one of which has invented the printing press while the other has developed gunpowder.

Actually, no need to imagine too much – check out Harry Harrison’s Ethical Engineer, also published as Deathworld 2. And cities seem more capable of absorbing that change and growing in response, whereas environments like the Shire, for all their beauty, seem essentially static to me. They’re like paintings, frozen forever in time.

Even though fantasy seems to be moving away from the “pastoral farms and countryside GOOD, technology and cutting down trees BAD” atmosphere that was pretty strong in the The Lord of the Rings, there’s still a lot of untapped potential in the nomansland where technology and fantasy meet. Real applications of science require research, whereas when I first started writing fantasy, it took no effort at all to have my characters living in villages, traveling through pseudo-English countrysides and fighting with swords. I just hope they didn’t eat lembas too.

Finally, much as I love to imagine waterfalls and lush forests, I had the experience of actually visiting one – a rainforest in Sri Lanka. Although it was beautiful (and I may write rainforest settings into my work some day), it was also crawling with coodallo, or leeches. Just remembering them makes my skin crawl as well. I’m so grateful to be in a clean dry room instead.

(The picture is from the film The Cave Dwellers or Ator the Invincible, best known for its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I love the scene where Ator builds a hang-glider in five minutes)


Angela Ackerman said...

What an interesting post--I think you're right--technology does offer a host of possibilities to create new fatasy settings. I think people tend to think in two camps: The shire type stuff is fantasy, the techno machines, sci-fi. Why can't a society have a bit of both?

Marian Perera said...

That comment makes me think of a point I forgot to mention. When technology does appear in fantasies, especially when the story is set in a city, the overall effect is often bleak, e.g. New Crobuzon or Deepgate. It's as though you can have the feasting and dancing in a peaceful bucolic Shire, or you can have the dark and grimy technology in a developing fantasy city. As you said, it would be nice to have some common ground.

Doug said...

that's purely at the discretion of an author. A city is an organic creation of people, it can have parks, rivers, gardens, museums, theatres, zoos, or whatever. What seems to be forgotten is that a city is the sum of its parts, and when we make a blanket characterization about a population and its property we end up with a diminished sense of perspective and setting.

The technology isn't artificial, it is a natural growth of the toolmaking that exists even in the pastoral countryside.

However for someone like Tolkien, living in the shadow of world war, it is easy to see why drew such clear boundaries.

JH said...

It's worth noting that in the case of Perdido Street Station, China Mieville was writing about a city in the early era of industrial boom, and such cities were really grimy and unpleasant places, with a very wide gap between the quality of life in the good and the bad parts of town. I think he deliberately chose to make New Crobuzon's society and politics gritty and oppressive as a part of the pro-labor/socialistic dialog he included into the book's narrative (which for me was one of the more compelling parts of it).

Since I haven't read anything by him set in the countryside, I can't say his description of a city in Perdido Street Station is based on an anti-urban or Luddite sentiment. It seems to me he was drawing historical examples of cities in the early stages of industrial revolution and the social tensions between the working and ruling classes which that period of history inspired.

Marian Perera said...

I browsed through the start of Iron Council, where there's some scenes set in Rudewood, and as a setting, that seems just as... well, grim and dark and crawly. I love the idea of a "train" in the desert, putting down tracks before it, but I just couldn't take any more of the bleakness.

I was trying to find a good example of an industrial setting which has places or things of beauty as well as unpleasantness, but nothing came to mind. Even Tanith Lee's Paradis/Paradys/Paradise didn't seem to be a good example. :(

Anonymous said...

HAHA you got that picture from 'the cave dwellers!'

Marian Perera said...

Yes, I have the attribution at the end of the post. :)