Why My Penis?: Fantasy Worlds, Coherent and In-

Remember that time in grade school when you thought it would be awesome if all the mosquitoes in the world would just die, en masse? It was a childhood utopian dream – long summer days and no bug bites, no maddening whine in the ear, no itching all night long…

But then some smug prick said something like, “If the mosquitoes all died, then the frogs would die of starvation, and if the frogs died, then the black flies would thrive, and they would bite the shit out of you.” To which you sensibly retorted that the black flies could die along with the mosquitoes, because while we’re wishing, why not wipe out all the little bastards? But then, because of this irritating thing called the food web, it turned out that if you wiped out the black flies and mosquitoes both, you’d also wipe out cows, or turn Iowa into a dust bowl, or create a famine that would allow Nazis would take over the world, or some sort of horrible thing that seemed utterly unrelated to biting insects. But there were graphs and flow charts, studies of population density, and so eventually you just had to say, “Fine, I’ll deal with the fucking mosquitoes,” because you didn’t want to be the asshole who wished for a hamburgerless world of sand dunes and dust bowls run by the Nazis.

Writing fantasy is like that.

After all, the point of fantasy is to create a world that is, in some fundamental way, different from ours. Perhaps there are no mosquitoes. More likely, there are invisible swords, unbreakable swords, glowing swords, swords that are portals to another dimension, swords that talk, swords that think, swords that carry inside themselves the souls of the gods. And that’s just the swords. Don’t get me going about the talking animals, and wizards, and immortal elves.

This is, of course, the awesome thing about fantasy. For instance, there is a remarkable scene early in Elizabeth Bear’s outstanding novel Range of Ghosts. A character is flying on a bird “east, into the setting sun of the Uthman Caliphate, until they crossed the broad but bounded waters of the White Sea, and the sun was abruptly behind them, setting in the west.” When you read this, you either say, “Holy shit!” or you didn’t read it right. The sky itself is different in different parts of the world she has created: different sun, different planets, different constellations. It’s a stunning, brilliant idea, exactly the kind of thing that draws us to fantasy, but Bear has, as all fantasy writers must, killed off the metaphorical mosquitoes. She has changed a fundamental aspect of the world.

For some readers, perhaps most, this is fine. They are happy to luxuriate in a slightly foreign world sans bug bites. They know that the cover to a fantasy novel is a door to a different world, and they check their questions and their disbelief at that door. There are other readers, however, who like to ask questions, the most dangerous of which are: How? And Why? And But If… Then…?

Consider the handling of seasons in A Song of Ice and Fire: they are unpredictable and decoupled from the passage of years. For most readers: great. But if you think there aren’t people kept awake gnawing on the physics behind this, take a look here.

A writer of fantasy can’t avoid these questions – it’s built into the job description. But how to handle them? I can think of four basic approaches.

Just Smile and Pretend it’s Normal: This is more or less the method used by Martin with his seasons, or by Tolkien with his magic. There’s no explanation at all. The characters accept the changes to the world as normal. The narrator doesn’t dwell on them. The reader isn’t invited to speculate on them. It’s sort of like being at a dinner party where your host announces, in all seriousness, that he is the latest incarnation of Lao Tzu. You smile, have another three or four drinks, and pretend like it’s normal, in the hope that, with enough pretending, everyone will forget that it’s not normal.

Talk Louder and Faster: You may recognize this approach from the your yearly motor vehicle inspection. You take your car in for an inspection and the mechanic comes out to tell you it needs three thousand dollars worth of work. Alarmed, you ask what’s wrong, and you get something like, “Well, your IAC motor’s just been grinding the hill holder but the thing is… well, you’ve only got the four cotter pins, and shit… that tappet head might as well be a gnarled piston.” Whatever the hell that means. This goal of this kind of language isn’t really to explain anything – after all, if you understood all this, you’d hardly be bringing the car to a mechanic in the first place. The goal is to convince you that the mechanic knows what’s up, and to get you to fork over the three grand already. Fantasy writers can use the same trick, except substituting “old power” for “tappet head” and “ancient evil” for “IAC motor.”

Acknowledge the Unknowable: There’s a great moment in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. Having intuited early on that giving the Aes Sedai the power to fly will really screw up his plotting in the early books, Jordan moves decisively to squash the idea. Moraine just says it: Aes Sedai can’t fly. Someone (citation here, anyone?) asks why not, and she just sorta shrugs: no idea. Just can’t. In some ways, I think this is the most effective approach to the Whys and the Hows, circumventing, as it does, all further questioning. The trouble is, it’s not always entirely satisfying. Which leaves…

Explain: This is the bravest and most dangerous approach. Brave, because the writer must imagine levels of depth in her created world that are not necessary to the immediate function of the story. Brave, because every answer will spawn a dozen new questions. Brave because making shit up is, after all, what fantasy writers do. And dangerous? Well, have you ever talked with a two-year-old?

“Why my penis?”

“Because you have a Y chromosome.”

“Why Y chrome zome?”

“Because [mumble mumble] meiosis [mumble] gametes.”

“Why my o sis?”

Etc…

Infinite regress is, unfortunately, an invincible rhetorical strategy.

So, what’s the best approach? I suppose it will depend on the work in question, or the particular moment in the work. It will probably vary from reader to reader, and even from mood to mood. What have I missed here? How else can we murder the mosquitoes without destroying the world?

7 thoughts on “Why My Penis?: Fantasy Worlds, Coherent and In-

  1. This is still my favorite blog. I think you should post more. But, in order to leave a somewhat worthy comment, this is something I’ve thought of alot with writing fantasy. What are my parameters? How deep do I have to think this? I came to the conclusion- not enough to ruin the story. Too much thought ruins it, I think. When it comes to magic, part of the greatness is that we just can’t explain it, I think.

    • Thanks! I wish I had time to post more, but, for good or ill, most of the writing time goes to my books.

      On the element of mystery, I agree with you. One of the reasons that Tolkien’s magic is so convincing is that he just tosses it out there with (as far as I can tell) no real effort (outside the Silmarillion) to make it consistent or internally coherent. BUT, since all the characters accept it and move on, we do to…

  2. I try to go the “brave” way and explain how the meiosis that gave rise to the Y chromosome that gave rise to the SRY gene that became the penis came about- at least to myself- but would only put it in the story if it feels necessary, because exposition.
    I guess I do that because when I read fantasy books, I seek these answers too.
    But like you said, there is no limit to regression and at a point, you can only hope the reader is as satisfied as you are with the answers.
    And I agree with Katie, you should post more!

  3. I think I may personally be averse to the “explain” approach. Once you explain the mysteries of the fantasy world, the debate ends among the characters from different locations and upbringings. I enjoy reading fantasy novels because I can imagine the world and how I would live in it. I feel a connection to the characters when they battle the unknown and try to make sense of something they’ll never be certain of.

    In another post you illustrate how zombies or weather can illuminate human conflict and resolution often as it pertains to questions of morality (I think World War Z, the book not the movie, does a fantastic job of this), maybe the unknowable retains a similar power but in terms of philosophical questions about life?

    How is it that the Csestriim started having human children? Why did it happen? How did it happen? Some anthropologists have argued that humans burying their dead with their possessions marked the earliest indication of human consciousness. For some reason I think about this when I imagine the Csestriim ruthlessly killing their “diseased” offspring.

    • Interesting question about the Csestriim, Nick. The answer, or the leading theory, at least, is revealed in the middle of The Providence of Fire. It actually plays a pretty important part in the unfolding plot.

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