Sunday, January 4, 2009
Five alternate fantasy environments
I’ve skimmed one fantasy novel – by James Barclay, I think – which had a scene in a rainforest. The lack of other novels in this kind of environment could be because of most authors’ unfamiliarity with jungles, but it could also be due to the nature of that environment.
I once trekked through a rainforest in Sri Lanka and reached a waterfall (you can see part of it in the photograph). That was lovely, but the path to the falls was uneven, thick with a slippery paste of rotting leaves and crawling with leeches. The trees were packed close together. Not exactly the kind of terrain that favors pitched battles, much less cavalry charges.
From everything I’ve read, real-life settlements in rainforests tend to be small, on the village level, but the jungle itself can be plentiful in food, water and medicinal products. A story set in such an environment would be different from the usual fantasy fare in many ways, and I’d look forward to reading it.
When it comes to fantasy novels set in cold, snowy places, there are many more examples. J. V. Jones’s Sword of Shadows series, Elizabeth’s A. Lynn’s Dragon’s Winter and all the Night’s Watch sections of A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s still much more that could be done with this, though.
Most of the stories I’ve read that feature arctic environments have the characters either living on the surface of the land or in caves – i.e. trying to stay as warm and safe as possible. I’d love to read a fantasy with scenes set at the bottom of a crevasse – the one picture of this I found on Wikipedia is haunting – or with more glacial features like ice tongues or ribbon lakes.
I’ve read one book which was set in a desert, and that was a Forgotten Realms novel called The Parched Sea, which I picked up because of the title. Unfortunately I can’t remember anything else about it, and most of the other fantasies that feature desert scenes have the characters actively trying to get out of the desert (for which one can’t blame them) rather than living in it.
But… why not live in it? Even if the characters aren’t physically adapted to survive in a desert, they could have underground towns with systems to tap groundwater. And there could be unusual physical features in the desert as well, like sand crevasses or the Whirlwind – a sorcerous wall of wind and sand in Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series.
I can’t think of any fantasies which take place in an Africa-esque land, which was one reason I used this setting for The Mark of Vurth. The other reason is that it was just plain fun. Zebras instead of horses, cheetahs instead of wolves, monkey stew and cassava bread… great, now I want to write a sequel.
But there’s more to the setting than just the animals. Geographic features that you almost never see in more traditional fantasy environments are dry watercourses, rivers turned brown or white with silt and sediment and fossil-rich gorges. All of it waiting to be explored by fantasy writers.
This is the undiscovered country. Speculative fiction gives us cities suspended in chains over an abyss, lashed together from a thousand ships, floating or in flight, in motion as they devour smaller settlements. Imagination rocks. Let yours run wild and come back with rich pickings.