Today’s bitca-and-moan

So in an attempt to impress a chick, I’m reading Ursula Le Guin’s A wizard of Earthsea. Now, you’d think a died-in-the-wool geek like myself would have read Le Guin a long time ago. But reading this, I’m reminded why I never did. I don’t like made-up fantasy worlds. This is why I could never get into Lord of the Rings, either.

The problem is, fantasy writers invent this “place” that isn’t Earth, or even historical Earth, with its own place-names, but there are humans in it, cats, dogs, oak trees, and other Earth species, and people are kings, pirates, peasants and run around saying “Aye!” and the world this writer has “invented” is basically medieval England or Scotland or whatnot except without the actual place-names.

It seems to me that if you’re going to make up a fantasy world of your own, you’d make it a little more “alien,” or stop pretending it isn’t just Earth. Maybe it’s my heavily left-brained nature, but *eesh*, when I read stuff like this or Tolkein, I’m constantly thrown out of willing suspension of disbelief by the question, “Where *is* Middle Earth, anyway?” At least with made-up alien planets in sci-fi, you can walk outside, point up, and say, “OK, the planet in this novel is out there somewhere, now let’s get back to the story.”

I’ve invented make-believe towns and cities in my own stories, because it’s easier to use my imagination than to keep researching a real town to get the details right (I know more about L.A. now because of TD and AtS6 than I ever knew growing up near it). But the thing is, I say explicitly in my story, “this is a fictional small town in California, USA, Earth.” Now let’s get on with the story-telling.

I suppose this is why I prefer fantasy stories like BtVS, Harry Potter, or Dresden Files that take place on Earth. Not because I need to be so “grounded”–gawd knows those stories are pretty “out there” metaphorically–but just ’cause I can’t get past my hang up about “where *is* this?”

That, and I have a kink for stories about a secret supernatural world existing on what is ostensibly our mundane Earth. It makes the mundane world I see outside my window seem just a little bit more magical.

57 thoughts on “Today’s bitca-and-moan

  1. That, and I have a kink for stories about a secret supernatural world existing on what is ostensibly our mundane Earth. It makes the mundane world I see outside my window seem just a little bit more magical.
    This genre is usually called Urban or Contemporary fantasy. Maybe Charles Delint or Emma Bull would be more your speed?

  2. Not all of them are, but many are. Delint writes a lot in a fictional town in Canada called Crowsea, and Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks is set in contemporary times. Nina Kiriki Hoffman, all of hers are contemporary, uhm, Robert Charles Wilson, he’s awesome.

  3. Yep, lots of science fiction fans can’t handle “straight” fantasy because it always takes place in a time period that feels like the middle ages. It has to. Seems to be an unwritten rule – if you are writing “straight” fantasy it must take place in a world with castles, horses, swords, and elves in a place that feels a lot like Europe during the Middle Ages. To be honest, never understood this or why all “straight” fantasy writers – a la, George RR Martin, Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Mercedes Lackey, Lois McMaster Bujold, Guy Gaverial Kay, Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Le Quinn’s Wizard of Earthsea – all write stories that have to be in a world that feels like it took place in Medieval times. My guess – is that they figure if there’s no technology, there will be lots of magic – and so you are more likely to have sword-fights and dragons. Also you don’t have to explain the magic. And…they all have a desire to write a book in medieval times but don’t want to research the time period or be stuck with what really happened back then. Read a few of them, read them all. After a while the genre gets old. Best? George RR Martin, Tolkine and Le Quinn. Tolkien basically did for straight fantasy what Herbert did for Sci-Fi.
    Le Quinn has written non-fantasy novels that you might consider trying – such as “The Left Hand of Darkness” – which takes place on another planet and is science fiction. She really only wrote one fantasy piece – the YA series. On fantasy end? Try dark fantasy or urban fantasy authors such as : China Melville (who is really dark),
    Elizabeth Hand (fantasy-horror), Sherry S. Tepper (a tad on the feminist side, can feel preachy – also falls into Sci-Fi), Jonathan Carroll (also more horror), Kim Harrison (Dead Witch Walking series),
    Terry Prachett (sci-fantasy on the disc-world). John M. Ford – is another one who writes dark fantasy that involves elves, etc but more like the Dresden series, yet more literary.
    Straight Fantasy – elves, dwarves, wizards, and sword-play tends to take place in castles and medieval times – also is the easiest to find because on the best-seller lists. That’s what most people think of when they think fantasy.

  4. I have no problem with it taking place in a Medieval Earth setting. I just wish they didn’t make up a fake place and pretend it’s not Earth if they have Earth species populating it and the humans follow Medieval Earth cultural norms. It feels lazy.

  5. lazy, interesting. See i wouldn’t call it that then again I write the kind of fantasy you’re railing against. I think a lot of it is convention and sometimes you can’t step outside of that (literally, there are unspoken and sometimes spoken rules about what genre publishers will and will not accept). Sometimes there is a risk of too many unfamiliar things that will leave the reader flailing around with nothing to connect to. I write the fantasy at various levels, some you could call ‘medieval’ some closer to the 1700’s and some even in the 1920’s. But it’s not earth. It doesn’t have earth history or earth culture or geography.
    However, considering that parallel and coevolution happen in this world with very similiar species arising in landmasses that haven’t been connected since long before the organisms began to evolve and current scientific theories hold that similar biomes will be populated by similar species why shouldn’t dogs and cats and horses evolve in a non-earth setting if the ecosystems are similar?

  6. Well, if it’s parallel and co-evolutionary, why not *say* it’s just taking place on another planet? Or an alternate universe? All I want is for them to give me a general location I can anchor it to. It doesn’t have to be very specific. My problem with this genre is they just say “there’s this place, Earthsea, Middle Earth (or whatever)” but they don’t give me any other clues as to where it might be relative to where I am, and that makes it hard for *me* to get my bearings.

  7. For example, AtS and BtVS are pretty much fantasy, not science fiction, and they tell us specifically that the demon realms are other dimensions, and you can get there from here via a portal. It’s pretty much hand waving, but it’s enough for me to say, “OK, great, let’s get on with the story.”

  8. probably because it’s not anywhere in relationship to you. I’ve always assumed Middle Earth and earthsea etc were other world. I figured the name alone tells me. I’m the other way. I don’t really like fantasies set in this world but I am gettign better with them.
    you can assume half of what I’m writing in <lj user="nanomowhinging" is NOT on earth. Yukio and Killian's stories are. The rest are not

  9. More contempory fantasy writers.
    Neil Gaiman: American Gods and Neverwhere are two good books to start with.
    Terry Prachett. Really everything he has written, but his writing is a little weak in his first books IMO. His discworld may look like yet another mediaval fantasy world, but it becomes quickly obvious that he mirrors for the real world in them. And I find them really funny: Guards Guards is a good book to jump into the discworld universe.
    Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett have also co-written Good Omens. Very funny I highly recommend it.
    I have just finished Jan Siegel’s Prospero’s Children. And I really liked how she handled magic in it, it’s a dark and unforgiving universe and I rather liked that.

  10. You can tell me “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away” and I’ll be happy. I don’t need much. But stories that imply (and don’t even say outright) a setting that’s “nowhere in particular” are difficult for me to settle in to so I can get on with the story.

  11. I’ve always had trouble warming up to Ursula Le Guin, and I’ve tried. I think you may have just explained why. I’m okay with Lord of the Rings, though. I love Terry Pratchett, but Discworld isn’t Earth and has highly entertaining differences. There are a few other fantasy series that I’ve read and enjoyed, but I’m not remembering one that was set on medieval not-Earth that I actually liked.
    So, if I’ve learned nothing else today, I’ve learned that I’m not a freak for not particularly liking Ursula Le Guin. Thanks!

  12. I really don’t mind that standard fantasy style at all, but like you, I do like to know where I am, but more in terms of where the characters are. So for instance, if I’m reading something that’s set in America, well I have a sense of scale and geography which grounds me. If I’m reading something set in a fantasy world, I’m afraid I do tend to refer to the little maps if they have one at the front more often than I probably need to. (But then you already know I have a wierd thing going on with maps.)
    Probably my favourite fantasy novels are those which start in the real world, then move through to another. I suppose in that circumstance you are following the main character from bewilderment, to exploration, to discovery, and orientating yourself as part of that journey. I’m thinking of books like the previously mentioned Neverwhere, or The Chronicles of Thomas Covanent, or Weaveworld or the Otherland series.

  13. You might want to try The Dispossessed by Le Guin instead. It’s more sci-fi (from what I remember) than fantasy, and it doesn’t have any of that medieval stuff.
    I’m not really into the traditional fantasy genre either, though I’ve never been able to pin down why. I don’t think it’s necessarily for the same reason it bothers you; it might be just that I find other settings more appealing. I do sort of like how in Harry Potter or BtVS the magic is all around us, yet most people don’t notice it because they don’t care to.

  14. I do sort of like how in Harry Potter or BtVS the magic is all around us, yet most people don’t notice it because they don’t care to.
    I think that’s my favorite.

  15. I don’t mind novels that take place in mysterious places but start out on Earth. Starting out on Earth grounds you, and the characters being from Earth and traveling elsewhere become what I call “the characters of invitation”–they are stand-ins for you, the reader, and take you to some fantastic place.
    I suppose the big problem I have with stories that take place in Middle Earth or Earthsea or some other disembodied place that is only a name and a map is I can’t fantasize about traveling there myself–the author has given me no mechanism for getting there in my mind. If I had a rocket ship and a time machine, I could conceivably visit “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” But I can’t visit Earthsea if I don’t know how to get there because the author hasn’t bothered to put the place anywhere, or any time.

  16. I can go with the flow of any conceivable fantasy location or time period as long as I can imagine a way I, *myself* could travel there. Otherwise, it’s like I’m not really invited along for the ride by the writer.

  17. see I guess I’ve never gotten the ‘nowhere in particular’ impression from any of the stories you named. They’re all set somewhere very specific. Though many don’t go further than merely giving a place a different name

  18. Of course I do and it’s in the stories each and every one of them. Maybe not in the tidbits up at nano but yes, they all have names and differences. For instance Red Skies in Morning is basically set in a watery world with large archipelegos

  19. Says the guy who studied JRRT
    I don’t know that Tolkien is quite in the same categories as some of the other sci-fi/fantasy writers that followed — yeah, Tolkien’s prose is limited and his poetry is unpoetic — but his worldbuilding blows a lot of people out of the water.
    It’s extensive and remarkably meticulous, and something he was working on for over 50 years.
    Tolkien’s Middle Earth, indeed, is essentially an alternate universe set deep in the past of a world that could have turned into one like this one. What questions of yours he doesn’t answer, it’s largely a function of him never finishing. The Lord of the Rings are really the tip of the iceberg as there are fourteen or fifteen volumes (with one more on the way) of Tolkien wrangling with the most mundane details of his worldbuilding.
    If you wanted to know every detail about the Shire… Farmer’s almanac level detail. Architecture. Language. History. Etc… Tolkien was working all of that out. It’s really really grounded, and not so much ‘Take historic version of country and slap new names on places…”

  20. Well, “Earthsea” may be a very detailed place with a complex culture, geography, plant and animal life, etc, but *where* is Earthsea? It’s not on Earth, it’s not on another planet, it’s not in another dimension, it’s nowhere in particular.

  21. “Tolkien’s Middle Earth, indeed, is essentially an alternate universe set deep in the past of a world that could have turned into one like this one.”
    Did Tolkein say this, or is this your wank? I want to know where *Tolkein* thought Middle Earth was.

  22. Did Tolkein say this
    Yes. Not exactly in those words – but essentially he speaks of it as a world that could have been our own past. Metaphorically speaking moreso than literally. He discussed this in letters and essays.
    Whether the Misty Mountains physically map to the same geographic location as the Alps isn’t so much the point and not really possible. (and given that his world is broken and remade multiple times by deific figures not possible) What he was aiming to do was build an alternative mythos – and he approached it far more like an academic than a professional writer of fiction.
    That said, he also had unfinished/unpublished stories where a mariner leaves britain (set probably 5th 6th century) and washes ashore on one of the islands he wrote about in his stories — and this is far in the future of the Middle Earth world. So he left implications that it was somehow reachable from our current world, still, but near impossible because the way was somehow shrouded.
    Again, though LOTR is tip-of-the-iceberg. Tolkien had reams of stuff that he never could finish, and were later published only as fragments.

  23. It’s that lack of context for the world that is my basic hang-up. It makes it hard for me to orient myself to it as a reader.

  24. Well, he was an academic first and foremost. The whole conceit of the books were that they were a collection of ‘lost tales’ authored in the past and which he had discovered and was translating.
    ANd which turned out to be convenient for him – when he started writing the Lord of the Rings, and realized that it was going to put the Hobbit in the same world as his ‘Silmarillion’ — Tolkien had to go back and rewrite significant portions of Chapter 5 of the Hobbit (After it was published!)
    He would later use the claim that as “The Hobbit” was drawn from Bilbo Baggins memoirs – Tolkien’s change in the second and future editions were due to him discovering conflicting accounts and realizing that Bilbo had lied in his autobiography…
    An elaborate way to excuse a literary retcon, but one which actually fit the characterization. (Tolkien had taken a magic ring that was just a plot device to get Bilbo out of trouble in the Hobbit, and turned it into a major artifact of unspeakable evil and corruption)

  25. Yeah. This is the Tolkien who demanded they publish the hundred pages of appendicies to LOTR because readers needed to see what his story was backed by…
    Tolkien cared so much about his continuity and worldbuilding that he grew old and died in his 80s without finishing the materials he started working on when he was in his 20s. Fifty years of materials. Oy!
    Result: monstrous volume of Tolkien meta, presuming you are really nerdy and really really care.

  26. Any fiction writer worth their salt–sci fi, fantasy, or otherwise–writes extensive background stuff on the world of their story and their characters. The idea is not that it ever see the light of day, though. But writing it makes the text of the actual novel(s) richer and stronger because you understand the characters and world better.
    Your novel(s) should be able to stand on their own without publication of that background material, though.

  27. Maybe that’s what’s different. Nearly every writer has tons of background – it’s just that loads of Tolkien’s was actually published for people to see.
    Your novel(s) should be able to stand on their own without publication of that background material, though.
    Definitely. The Hobbit doesn’t have an appendix. LOTR does, though, because the conceit being that Tolkein frames himself as an editor of mytholgy rather than the author/narrator – so the appendix is there as you would find footnotes in a translation of the Edda….
    Most of Tolkien’s fragments weren’t supposed to see the light of day. By the time he’d finished with LOTR in 1955 and went back to his older myths, he was more concerned with the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the work than with narratives themselves.
    (Nature of evil, origin of Orcs, the customs of the Elves, the nature and means of Elvish rebirth, and the “flat” world and the story of the Sun and Moon, etc…) To the point where Tolkien was doing far more work solving issues with the world-building that were prequisites to finishing up.
    So when the son published an edited/revised version of “The Silmarillion” in ’77 — and they discovered a substantial demand for anything left of what Tolkien hadn’t finished. So out went Twelve+ volumes of fragments+commentary+notes.

  28. I shudder to think of my notes being published. A lot of it is just farting around with possible scenarios. Like if we made public.

  29. Also – I;m not necessarily against someday making it public. Doing that tends to net you a bigger fanbase and an even more enthusiastic one. Also, a more annoying fanbase…

  30. Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? If you publish the stories, you make writing it look both impressive and mysterious. You as the writer, are a bit untouchable, on another plane. The minute you let the fans read your notes, or talk to you on a one-to-one basis, you become human, and before you know it, the fans think they have a right to start dictating the story. And stories written by democracy, well, pretty much suck.

  31. I guess. But I’m here as much for the meta and conversations as anything else.
    I wouldn’t advocate opening GRR_ARGH now. I’d mean to open it up at some point in the future, when the end product was finished, and then people would see the backing and we’d get a second round of discussion…

  32. Well, I wasn’t really talking about fan fic, which is by its nature is a social endeavor involving fan interaction. I was thinking more about Joss, or Tolkien, or others like that.

  33. Have you ever tried “Book of the New Sun” by Gene Wolfe? It’s been a long time for me, but basically the book is set in the far, far future of Earth (now called Urth) and the sun is now a red sum that is beginning to die. By this point, technology is no longer available, although you don’t really find out why. The books are written in the first person and assumes (quite rightly) that you are comtemporary with him, so no explanations needed. Wofe is heavily into linguistics so the books aren’t always easy reading, but they are fascinating.

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