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


DRC said...

What a great and inspiring post. I use mushrooms briefly in my work, but reading this has made me realise I can use them a lot more and that they'll help towards my world building.

Thanks x

Volataire said...

I've always found that in fantasy novels and movies they use mushrooms quite a bit. I've never actually used any in my works, but I think I may try to in the future.

Thank you for the very interesting post. :)

Shannon said...

What an interesting question and some really interesting answers. Great article, and on such an obscure topic. Mushrooms and moulds are also great for theme, either by adding an exotic element (they're rarely just there for ornamental, background purposes) or by reinforcing a theme of decay, abandonment, or the wilds reclaiming the urban.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, DRC! There are other interesting uses of mushrooms - in Maria Zannini's Touch of Fire, "a flush of mushrooms" sprouts from the ground when an Elemental appears. I love details like that.

Volataire - Glad you like the post! And I just remembered the myconids from D&D. Neat idea: communication through emitted spores.

Shannon - Thanks for mentioning setting and theme. Yes, even though they can be colourful and useful, fungi usually mean something is slowly rotting away.

Loren said...

Your #3 reminds me of the Cordyceps fungus, which likes to infect arthropods. There's a species which infects ants and makes them climb upward as far as possible. The ants then stay there for the rest of their lives, and the fungi that infect them have a great spot to disperse their spores from.

We already suffer from microbes that manipulate us in order to spread themselves, microbes that cause coughing and diarrhea and the like.

So what might some Cordyceps hominis do? Make its victims want to go up to the roofs of buildings and then destroy its victims' appetites?

D L Dzioba said...

I think your Five uses for _____ posts have often had an effect on my writing.

I really enjoy when you do these and I always go away thinking, which I think is generally a good sign.

In my current project mushrooms are used in gardens both as decorations and as a gateway to the faerie world. I think they're under appreciated and work well in a lot of different ways. Thanks for the lovely post.