Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Five uses for mushrooms in fantasy
This is inspired by Polenth’s blog. I like how followers are spores, agents/editors are mushrooms and writers are toadstools.
1. As defenses
While I don’t read R. A Salvatore any longer, I enjoyed his novel Homeland because of the detailed descriptions of the underground city of Menzoberranzan. Since the city is mostly lightless, gardens are filled with fungi, which don’t photosynthesize.
Some of the fungi serve defensive purposes as well – scattered among the regular mushrooms are shriekers. Those respond to movement by letting out a loud scream and alerting everything in the vicinity.
Other fungi can be adapted for defense as well. A carpet of defensive puffballs could explode in infective spores if stepped on, or might release stinking fluids if stepped on.
2. As shelters
I once read that a fungus weighing close to the mass of an adult blue whale had been discovered in Michigan. Much of this is likely to be the underground part of the fungus, the mycelium, but it made me imagine giant fruiting bodies above the surface. Would it be possible for people to live in those?
Assuming that the fruiting body (the mushroom part of the fungus) didn’t die, such a home would be slowly self-renewing. It might also break down its inhabitants’ wastes, making them symbiotes rather than parasites. Some mushrooms are edible and could be an emergency food source for their inhabitants, but others are poisonous.
Those might be prisons.
3. As symbionts
Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse is set on a future Earth which has become overgrown with giant plants, but one of the more dangerous inhabitants is a sentient fungus called the morel. It attaches itself to the head of one of the characters and communicates mentally with him.
In that novel, the morel’s motives were entirely self-serving, but the connection could be symbiotic as well. A person might have a mold growing over part of his body, which would be disfiguring but would also continually supply him with natural antibiotics – a valuable asset for a healer in a medieval world ravaged by disease.
But if you want to go in the opposite direction, that’s possible as well. Some fungi can cause brain infections, so what about a fungus that takes over people’s brains completely and turns them into mobile fruiting bodies that disseminate its spores over great distances?
4. As hallucinogens
I read once that Alice in Wonderland was written after Lewis Carroll had experiemented with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and had realized just how they can distort time and sensory perception. In medieval worlds without access to modern chemical laboratories, people might resort to such fungi to experience hallucinations or undergo “mind expansion”.
5. As decoration
People wear flowers on their lapels or in their hair. Why not mushrooms? Some of those are very decorative and colorful.
And those people certainly wouldn’t be the first characters in speculative fiction to wear something edible on their lapels. The fifth Doctor Who wore a stalk of celery, and it was for a useful purpose, since the celery would turn purple if exposed to certain gases in the atmosphere.
Image from here : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardeningadvice/6194037/What-to-do-about-fairy-rings-and-lawn-mushrooms.html