Sunday, January 4, 2009

Five alternate fantasy environments

1. Jungle

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.

2. Arctic

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.

3. Desert

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.

4. Savannah

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.

5. Imagination

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.


Madison said...

Ooh, did you know I've been thinking about setting one of my fantasy stories in the desert? But I think I like the idea of the arctic better. Or the African landscape. The possibilities are endless in our genre, aren't they? :D

Angela Ackerman said...

You know, I totally agree that one place that is underutilized is artic environments. I think that's one reason why I enjoyed Pullman's His Dark Mterials books so much--because they really freshened up the landscape of the story by exploring the artic tundra. That's definitely on my Setting list!

Barbara Martin said...

One of my planned upcoming manuscripts will be set in the desert...interesting you should post about deserts. Synchronicity?

Marian Perera said...

Angela, I'd forgotten about His Dark Materials! I loved the armored bears. Way to work every aspect of an arctic environment, including the animals.

I look forward to reading an Extreme North Setting on your blog in the future. :)

Marian Perera said...

"Ooh, did you know I've been thinking about setting one of my fantasy stories in the desert?"

Go for it, girl!

And I'd be happy to look it over from the perspective of someone who lived in the Middle East for fifteen years.

Granted, I never actually ventured into the desert after we set out on a hike and got stuck in the sand before we'd driven more than a few miles. But I know all about heat.

Marian Perera said...

"One of my planned upcoming manuscripts will be set in the desert...interesting you should post about deserts."

You guys are beating me to the deserts. :)

Luckily it's a big enough playground for all of us!

Lauren said...

Hi, I'm new to your blog. I'm currently working on worldbuilding and I actually have a desert in my WIP, but no Savannah.

Actually I have been looking through Wikipedia to find various interesting landscapes and how the geography in the region affects the animals and people that live there (for example, Vietnam's delta region is very interesting and another part of my same book has a landscape similar to this).

These are all terrific ideas. Thanks so much for posting them.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Lauren, and thanks for commenting!

I looked up deltas on Wikipedia, and realized that there was another type of terrain I hadn't mentioned - marshland.

That would come with its own unique fauna too. As you said, the geography affects the people and the animals who live there. Now I wish I lived near all these environments and could take a quick day trip out to explore them.

Anonymous said...

Living in Singapore, having relatives in rural Malaysia and doing plenty of training stints in rainforests in Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei during my conscription days, I can safely say it's a nice place to visit, but absolutely terrible to live in.

You've got bugs everywhere, the constant moist and wet encourages diseases to spread like wildfire, mud gets everywhere, etc, etc, etc. My relatives used to live in stilted houses to protect against flash floods and vermin.

Villages do tend to be small--the soil is naturally poor due to constant leaching, which results in native tribespeople and plantation owners to resort to slash-and-burn techniques of clearing, so the ashes will fertilize the soil. Even then, in the former case food production isn't enough to support a large population and leaching of nutrients results in tribespeople having to move on after a while.

You're right in that it's not a good place for pitched battles--for humans, to whom the trees and lianas are merely barriers. More agile races might easily use the interlocking canopy as a route for attack.

Have you considered writing in sentient settings? My current WIP is partly set in the MC's homeland--a sentient, spiteful rainforest charged with protecting his race--but not as individuals. Imagine the (probably largely animistic) cultural mores that might arise if the land itself could punish you for not doing as it commanded, if it was feeling particularly ornery today, etc, etc.

Barbara Martin said...

Marian, if you would like to read a great book about deserts, though not fantasy, but a thriller: try "Thunderhead" by Douglas Preston. It might give you some ideas.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Barbara. If I see that book in the library, I'll pick it up.