Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Size in fantasy

Extremes of size aren’t something I’ve seen in a lot of fantasies. Of course, there are mentions of giants in mythology — the Nephilim, Goliath, Ajax, the Titans and so on — and they appear in role-playing gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy. But they’re never really defined as a race in their own right, with a unique biology or culture.

Then again, extremes of size aren’t biologically feasible. As Arthur Conan Doyle pointed out in his essay “The Road to Lilliput”, someone along the lines of Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (an excellent book, by the way) would be dead long before he was able to dig a pit trap for a black widow spider.

In a fantasy, that wouldn’t matter so much, but there should be some differences of thought and behavior and belief. If there are humanoids only a couple of inches tall, where do they live and how do they deal with a world where everything is so large? Terry Pratchett’s Truckers is a wonderful take on this. The Nomes, who live secretly in a mall, are resourceful and work together to evacuate their population before the mall closes down for good. But there’s still a great deal they don’t know, and the part where they try to drive a truck is hilarious.

Sharon Baker’s novel Journey to Membliar provides a darker take on the matter. Tadge, a child of the tiny Takanu people, rides on the shoulders of Cassia, who’s one of the bigger and taller Rabu, and even steers her by judicious use of her braids. And in A Song of Ice and Fire, there are giants beyond the Wall, but these are bestial creatures who ride woolly mammoths and speak a different language.

Sexual dimorphism occurs in so many species in the real world, and my favorite is the anglerfish, where the females look like something out a nightmare but the males look small and innocuous. Probably the best example of this in fantasy is a Nebula award-winning short story by James Tiptree, Jr, called “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (reprinted in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever). The alien narrator of the story—no humans appear in it—is large, powerful, spiderlike and male. He finds a tiny female, falls in very protective love and wraps her carefully in silk so he can carry her everywhere with him.

The problem? Females of his species eventually grow larger than the males, and are much hungrier when they’re pregnant…

Finally, size and age could be inversely proportional. There was a Star Trek: Voyager episode where aliens (humanoid, of course) turned into small children as they grew older, but the children behaved like children rather than like octogenarians — probably because the episode would have been over much quicker if they had acted their age. Someone on the Nitcentral forum also speculated on what size these aliens might be at birth (ouch!), which reminded me of a haiku by Darren Greer:

My child is born
And gently
Takes me in its arms


DRC said...

This reminds me of the old Sci Fi TV program, Land of the Giants. I used to love watching that as a kid. A starship crashes to an earth like planet, only the inhabitants are giants, and each episode saw it's tiny characters in some kind of peril. (Note to self: Must hunt this down again :) )

Marian Perera said...

And there was that episode of "The Twilight Zone" (what was it called, "The Little People"?) where two astronauts land on a planet where the natives are tiny as ants compared to them.

Of course, one guy decides to be a jerk and intimidate them, until two giant astronauts land...