Sunday, October 23, 2011

Deserts in fantasy

I grew up in the Middle East so I have a soft spot for deserts and will read almost any fantasy novel which features them. My favorite act in Diablo 2 was also the second one, which is set in the deserts of Lut Gholein.

Creating a distinctive desert can be a lot of fun, too.

1. Terrain

Deserts don’t have to be vast stretches of sand dunes. They could be rocky instead, with great spires of weatherworn stone that fall away into deep canyons, or great expanses of pebbles which make ground travel slow if not hazardous. As for the sandy deserts, sand can be simply sand, or it can be granulated chemicals, salt or the crushed remains of bones. It could be red sand, green sand (like the poisonous desert in Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon) or white sand.

And in Dune, there were drum sands which amplified the sounds of travelers’ footsteps and attracted sandworms.

2. Magical features

I’ve blogged before about unusual physical phenomena, and a desert would be a great place to display some of these. Walls of whirlwinds or sentient sands could provide conflict and action as well.

3. Flora and fauna

It’s fun to imagine the kinds of creatures who have adapted to life in the desert. Dougal Dixon’s After Man and The New Dinosaurs are treasure troves of such imagination, but even existing fantasy creatures can be adapted for a desert life. Unicorns might be black—and partially metallic—so that they can use solar power, for instance.

4. Humans and humanoids

If there are settlements of people in the desert, how do they cope with the heat and the scarcity of water? Are they nomadic, moving from oasis to oasis, or have they simply adapted to the point where they don’t need to drink more than a handful of water per day (and if so, there should be other physical and social modifications).

A great book set in this environment is Colin Wilson’s Spider World Book One : The Desert (out of print, though, and I couldn’t even find a copy on Amazon). The humans, who live in burrows, use giant slave ants to gather water and a tamed wasp to hunt—the wasp injects prey with a neurotoxin. Of course, the humans become the hunted when their spider overlords drift over the desert on silken aircatchers, mentally searching for prey far below.

Deserts can be—and probably should be—as varied and dangerous in fantasy as they are in real life.


Robert Collins said...

Fun fact, going to your first point: early American explorers called the Great Plains the "Great American Desert." Not because it was dry, but more because it was vast and open, and that's what they thought a "desert" was.

This would be an interesting way to surprise readers. They hear "desert," but when the story reaches the area, it's not what they were expecting (and maybe the same would be true for the characters).

Marian Perera said...

Thanks for the information! That's a good point - the definition of a desert may be different to the characters in a story.

Loren said...

The US Great Plains get drier from east to west, and the driest parts are not much wetter than "true" deserts. Even among "true" deserts, there's variation.

The wetter ones often have lots of vegetation -- very dryness-tolerant vegetation like sagebrush and cacti. I remember going through the Nevada desert and seeing lots and lots of sagebrush -- it looked like leafless bushes.

Of course, the drier deserts, like the Sahara Desert, have little or no vegetation.

As to odd deserts, here's one that may seem surprising: the interior of Antarctica. Its snowfall has as much water as the rainfall on much of the Sahara Desert. But it stays there and accumulates. Some researchers have found ice as much as 100 thousand years old, though it's buried deep down.

The name "Sahara" is from the Arabic word for desert, sahhra (rather throaty h). So "Sahara Desert" = "Desert Desert". Its Arabic name is As Sahhra al Kubraa, "The Great Desert".