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?”


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?


Pompous Cocks; Idiom in Fantasy

Joe Abercrombie knows how to start a novel. Here’s the beginning of Best Served Cold (reproduced more fully on his website):

“‘You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza.’

“She sighed, as if that was an accident. As if she hadn’t spent an hour preening herself before the mirror. ‘Facts are facts. Stating them isn’t a gift. You only prove you’re not blind.’ She yawned, stretched in her saddle, made him wait a moment longer. ‘But I’ll hear more.’

“He noisily cleared his throat and held up one hand, a bad actor preparing for his grand speech. ‘Your hair is like to . . . a veil of shimmering sable!’

“‘You pompous cock. What was it yesterday? A curtain of midnight. I liked that better, it had some poetry to it. Bad poetry, but still.’

“‘Shit.’ He squinted up at the clouds. ‘Your eyes, then, gleam like piercing sapphires, beyond price!’

“‘I’ve got stones in my face, now?’

“‘Lips like rose petals?’

“She spat at him, but he was ready and dodged it, the phlegm clearing his horse and falling on the dry stones beside the track. ‘That’s to make your roses grow, arsehole. You can do better.’”

Abercrombie is a smart writer, and this opening shows him playing with the linguistic ground of fantasy. Monza, of course, speaks contemporary English, while Benna, the purveyor of compliments here, is working in what we might call a classic fantasy idiom – a sort of bastard hodge-podge of what could pass (if we don’t listen very closely) as early modern English (half-remembered from a play we dozed through in eighth grade), complete with the overblown sensibility that afflicts poets in nearly every era.

Consider the following syntax: “Your hair is like to a veil…”

Like to…  It’s straight out of Shakespeare (“Wishing me like to one more rich in hope…”) or Spenser (“My love is like to ice…”) or Wyatt (“Like to these unmeasurable mountains…”) Abercrombie is winking at us here, right at the novel’s outset. “Hey!” he seems to say. “Isn’t this how characters in fantasy novels are supposed to talk?”

Well, maybe.

If we go back (again) to Tolkien, we find a number of the characters employing a slightly elevated idiom. Aragorn, for instance: “Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay.” The inverted syntax is, of course, archaic.  We do not say, “Many bills there are that you have not paid.” Or, “Many beers I drank last night.” We tend to lead with the subject rather than the direct object. Other characters in Middle Earth, notably the dwarves and elves, also employ syntax that sounds unusual to our modern ears.

And yet, it is crucial to note that Tolkien isn’t just tossing around haphazard archaisms to give his tale a patina of age. In fact, plenty of his characters, especially the hobbits, speak perfectly contemporary English. Here’s Bilbo: “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.” Or Frodo: “It is no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad.”

Tolkien, as his fans know, was an Oxford professor of English Language and Literature. He was more than at home in English philology, and he uses the different linguistic registers in the Lord of the Rings intentionally, to suggest to the reader differences in culture, history, and character.

Of course, most fantasy novelists in the latter half of the twentieth century cut their teeth on Tolkien. Unfortunately, many of them paid more attention to the occasional archaic idiom of Aragorn or Galadriel, and brushed aside the plain-spoken modern English of Sam and Frodo. It makes a sort of sense, after all. Epic fantasy (traditionally) was set in a quasi-European medieval world (though we are, thank god, moving away from that as a given), the characters fought with quasi-European medieval weapons, and they spoke (what was supposed to be) a sort of quasi-European (meaning English for those of us who speak English) medieval language.

Thankfully, plenty of writers have eschewed this practice, aiming for a dusted-off and updated vernacular that allows their characters a little more convincing griminess.  Much as we love Aragorn, it’s tough to imagine him ever taking a shit. A major character in A Song of Ice and Fire, on the other hand, is killed while doing exactly that. Syntax and word choice, in other words, aren’t just an aesthetic matter; they impinge directly on the development of character, something at the heart of epic fantasy.

Of course, there are challenges involved in updating the idiom. Most of us read fantasy because we want something larger than life. The “larger” refers to swords and castles, of course, but also to the prose. There’s something wonderful in the alien majesty of Beowulf, or the Mahabharata, or the Sundiata, and it would be a shame to lose it entirely. The question is when to let it run, and when to rein it in. Thoughts?