Monday, April 20, 2009

Blood in fantasy

So I sat before my computer thinking, “Hmm, what part of the body have I not written about yet?” And “blood” was the first thing that came to mind. I’ll spare you all the second, and just talk about blood instead. There are lots of potential uses of this in fantasy.


The color of blood is a tried-and-true way to indicate the alien or fantastic nature of another species. The Vulcans and Romulans of Star Trek have green blood, and I believe the aliens in Eric von Lustbader’s Pearl series have blue blood (both of which are due to copper rather than iron being in the oxygen-carrying pigment). There are probably creatures out there which have purple, yellow or black blood as well.

What I enjoy is when writers do more than just mention such unusual colors in exposition or description. For instance, in a Star Trek novel (The Vulcan Academy Murders, IIRC), Sarek gets very angry at one point and “sees green”. Very nice touch.


China Mieville’s The Scar introduced scabmettlers, creatures whose blood clots instantly and is therefore shed to create makeshift armor for them. In vampire fiction, of course, blood is food. But there are lots more options.

Blood could be used as a sign. For instance, if a friendly alien injected a little of its own blood into your body, you might suffer a few minor ill effects, but other aliens of the same species would recognize you as an ally too. Of course, you’d show up on their enemies’ olfactory radar as a friend of the opposition.

Blood could be poisonous. I’d like to see vampires deal with that, especially on a world they’re overrunning until evolution finally produces that kind of mutation in their prey. Or it could be extremely destructive – completely safe where it’s supposed to be, but expose it to air and it acts like a powerful acid on stone or metal. Which means that in battle against these particular creatures, each edged weapon you have is good for one-time use only.

Or what about a writing instrument? Normally, writing in blood is melodramatic, but what if there’s a good reason for doing so? The scent of the blood (no matter how old) could provide unfalsifiable identification, or the blood itself might act as a seal. I’d like to see illegible squiggles rearrange themselves into beautiful copperplate when someone of the same species unfolds the paper.

Or perhaps the blood acts like the troll’s talking pouch in The Hobbit? Blood, after all, is said to figuratively cry out when evil has been done.

Recovery from blood loss

I remember watching the first episode of the anime Hellsing, where the vampire Alucard is shot about a thousand times and crumples to the ground. Moments later, his spilled blood flows effortlessly back into his body, parts of it turning to a mist and seeping through the air to rejoin him.

It doesn’t have to be this dramatic, though. The Weaponbearers in my manuscript Redemption are able to absorb whatever iron they need from dissolving and digesting metal, so they recover from blood loss more quickly than other species do. I’d expect the same thing to apply for creatures like scabmettlers, which are used to losing a lot of blood at a time – they should be able to replace this blood very quickly.

This isn’t the same as a Wolverine-esque healing factor, though. A pound of flesh won’t be replaced so easily, if at all, and losing a limb will most likely kill such a character.

What other uses could there be?


writtenwyrdd said...

One thing you do not mention, but which I am sure you are aware of, it's just a bit different from physical uses for blood in fiction: It's the emotional impact of blood. I think that aspect is far more useful for me as a writer than blood itself. Sure you can change it up, but primarily blood is LIFE, and the psychological permutations of that factor permeate culture and religion.

Religious and magical ceremonies emphasize blood. There is presumed to be spiritual power in it and magical power. Christ died to save us, we drink his (symbolic) blood as sacrament to honor that. sympathetic magic uses blood because it has power and it equates life. Blood is spilled in sacrifices to feed the gods, because blood has that life force in it.

I think the symbolism and metaphore of blood for life and power is so strong that any use or mention you have of it in writing cannot be divorced from that factor.

JH said...

In a fantasy context at least, I agree with writtenwyrdd that the symbolism of blood is so strong and entrenched that it has to be dealt with in some way. Writing in blood for some magical communicative effect should in some way involve putting a little of your own life in the message, for instance. Even in SF, it should be symbolically significant that your friendly alien has given you a little bit of his own life to protect you.

Blood could be poisonous. I’d like to see vampires deal with that, especially on a world they’re overrunning until evolution finally produces that kind of mutation in their prey.Interesting take on the dangers of blood drinking: in White Wolf's famous Vampire RPG, vamps don't get sick or poisoned even if the blood they drink is, but they will be "carriers" for any chemical or disease in the blood. This makes them threats to the "herd," and your fellow vamps will put you down if it's discovered that, say, you drank HIV+ blood.

Madison said...

" What I enjoy is when writers do more than just mention such unusual colors in exposition or description. For instance, in a Star Trek novel (The Vulcan Academy Murders, IIRC), Sarek gets very angry at one point and “sees green”. Very nice touch. "

I have this book! It took me like three years to find it! It's one of my fav Star Trek tales. Wish it had been an episode! :D

Marian Perera said...

Hey Madison,

I used to collect Star Trek novels way back when it was possible to collect them without either bankrupting oneself or running out of room. :)

Marian Perera said...

Hey writtenwyrdd,

You're right, there's a lot of symbolism to blood. I wanted to focus on the different physical ways it could be altered or put to use in fantasy, though many actual examples acknowledge or draw on the symbolic component you mentioned.

For instance, in Orson Scott Card's Hart's Hope, power is derived from the shedding of lifeblood. Greater power comes from killing a human and even greater power from killing a child. That's a definite parallel to Christianity.

Excellent point to raise, and thanks for reminding me of this example.

Loren said...

And going beyond blood, why not have different metabolic abilities?

Like improvements on ours. Such as:

* The ability to digest cellulose.

* The ability to drink seawater without getting thirsty. That will require some way of getting rid of the extra salt, like crying very salty tears.

* The ability to make our "essential" amino acids, "essential" fatty acids, and vitamins from our food. Something like what various bacteria can do, like Escherichia coli. That bacterium can use a variety of biomolecules as its sole carbon source, like acetic acid, glycerol, glucose, and various fatty acids and amino acids.

That would make it possible to live off very unbalanced diets without getting nutritional deficiencies. Like being able to live off of nothing but hardtack biscuits and water, which can be convenient for long sea voyages.

writtenwyrdd said...

Loren makes a great point. I have always figured that the one valid use of genetic engineering to "better" our species would be to make additions that allow us to be more easy on the biosphere, such as being able to produce energy from sunlight and all the essential vitamins. We would still need minerals, and we would still need to eat (I doubt that sunlight subsistence would provide enough energy to keep the brain and neurons firing on all cylenders; and we would need essential minerals, too) but we would walk more lightly (and more healthily) on the landscape.

Loren said...

Actually, the idea of my third possibility is that our bodies would make all the vitamins we need, as it does with many biomolecules -- we'd still need nitrogen and sulfur and phosphorus and various minerals, and we'd still need to consume some metabolizable carbon source.

Metabolically, we'd be like many bacteria and fungi. Googling "sole carbon source" can reveal some interesting things that some of them have been able to live off of.

Living off of sunlight would be a non-starter, however, because it is too dilute. The only self-propelled organisms that do that are microscopic, something easily explained by the square-cube law.