6 More Things I Could do Without in Fantastic Literature & I don’t plan to use except to make fun of

August 14th, 2006

Just read Scott Lynch’s Eleven things I will serve my best never to put in a fantasy novel unless I am trying to undermine them, and in fact could do without entirely from now on, thanks.  It’s a great list and I agree with all the items on it.  But there are some I’d like to add, at least for myself:

1. Monsters that don’t eat children.

I’m sorry, but I have to ask–what’s not to like about children?  They’re small, tender, slow-moving, and are easily lured into gingerbread houses–how hard can it be?  Yes, fate, in the form of the author, may conspire against you, but that’s no excuse for not offing at least one child, even off stage in the past.  This goes double for horribly evil dark wizards who lead reigns of terror across the countryside only to have it all blow up in their face when they try to kill even one baby.  (Yes, this means you, Lord Voldymort, and tell the so-called “Wicked Witch” I said “Hi”).

Same problem, different day, with ancient evils, devils and demons who seem to be fans of The Godfather, starting out on their reigns of terror by killing family pets, then boring family retainers or dull recluses who no one would miss much anyway, then working up to the adults and still never quite getting around to the kids.  Hello, you’re supposed to be the Forces of Hell, not uptight Italian Catholics still vaguely concerned with getting into Heaven.

When the average nursery bogey has a higher bodycount than you, how do you expect anyone to take you seriously?

2. Evils that never manage to kill anyone.

As a subset of this are evils coasting by on their old laurels.  (Yes, this means you again, Lord Voldymort.  Six books and all you’ve managed to kill is one teenager, one unicorn, and a boring family caretaker who could have been killed by local punks for all the difference it makes.)

How do we know you’re evil if you don’t actually kill people?  I’m not talking stacking corpses like cordwood (though it would be nice), but one or two victims at least gives us the idea that you’re serious.

3. The Marvelous Fantastic Land of the Boring Food

While there is a certain entertaining comfort in the fact that Babylon 5′s Narn has something that looks, smells and tastes like Swedish meatballs, and fully realizing that everywhere you go there will be some variety of flat bread and stuff to spread on it, one of the biggest keys to both culture and characterization is what people like to eat. Go traveling, and if you can’t afford that, just pick up a “Foods of the World” cookbook. What they’re serving at the local diner is not what they’re going to be serving in the middle ages, especially not in a land which has actual flying dragons. And don’t have all your characters eating and liking the same damn thing. Have you ever tried to order a pizza with a group? Why on earth should it be any different in fantasy land? If all your character’s tastes are the same, and all the food is the same as current day earth of your locale, you’re not inventing anything new, and moreover, all you’re writing is your own personal food porn.

4. Impossible Imports

I realize fully that coffee, tea, chocolate and silk are luxuries we adore and even necessities we need, but there are also certain biological facts about the plants these come from which you need to take into account. The Scandinavians can brew a mean cup of joe, but the reason they’re able to do this is global trade to get coffee beans from the tropics. Unless this is going on in your world, reliably, you’re not going to get any of these things in the far regions except as an extremely rare luxury good.

Moreover, if there’s anything you use a lot of, let us see the source of it, even if just in the distance or in passing. I still remember an old Siskel & Ebert review, I believe of one of the Beastmaster movies, where they asked, “Since we see so much leather in these movies, why do we never see a cow?” And if you’ve got an extended war, let’s see some famine not to mention raised prices of luxury imports which are obviously not getting through, okay? I wanted to buy some Aleppo pepper a couple years ago but the spice trader was all out. Why? Because Aleppo is in Syria and trade is kind of messed up at the moment. Things like that would happen in fantasy worlds too.

5. Failure to Abuse the System

This is what happens when you fail to connect Clark’s Law “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic” (and vice versa) with Gibson’s observation “The street will find its uses.” This is also known as the artificial enforcement of genre, where a particular use/abuse of any given magic/technology fails to occur to anyone because the author has the orbital mind control lasers going to keep people from taking advantage of it. I realize that a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary for any fantasy, but as once said by some famous comedian I’m forgetting, there’s a difference between suspending disbelief and hanging it by the neck until dead.

6. Unbelievable Utopias & Absurd Dystopias, especially ones that are thinly veiled political tracts

I know that our stock in trade includes a lot of wish fulfillment and cautionary tales–and sometimes both at the same time–but for myself, all good or all bad simply doesn’t work. Similarly, while I’ve noticed that same-sex marriage, religious freedom and women’s reproductive rights are all currently hotbutton issues, and granted that a whole school of literature is commentary on society, I have a real problem believing in worlds that read more as propaganda than as fully realized alternate realities. I can picture a world where same-sex marriage is accepted and ordinary, but I can’t picture one where all marriages are happy and healthy and don’t occasionally end in ugly divorces if not outright murder. Likewise, while I can picture a world where whole classes of people are enslaved, tortured and so on, I can’t picture one where this is done with 100% efficiency and zeal and where all of the people doing the assorted evil shit are 100% with the program. Sorry, won’t buy it. And while I can somewhat deal with the idea that ancient goddess worshippers acted remarkably like modern Berkeley neo-pagans (emphasis: somewhat), I refuse to buy that every priestess you run into is going to be uniformly wise, compassionate, knowledgeable and kind. Where are the incompetent bitchy ones who are just in it for the kewl magical powerz? If you have witches whose magic actually works, there’s going to be someone who says, “Hot damn! That’s for me!” and completely forget the ethics requirement.

My first lesson in how to do a Utopia right came as a kid reading Edith Nesbitt’s The Story of the Amulet where the Edwardian kids step forward in time to the clean shining future utopia and the first person they encounter is a little boy crying because he’s being shunned for littering. The protagonists conclude that the future is better than their present, but parts of it still suck. Similarly, if you’ve got a dystopia, the quickest way to make real is to let us meet someone who never got the memo and is leading a happy life anyway, or at least having a nice day.

25 Responses to “6 More Things I Could do Without in Fantastic Literature & I don’t plan to use except to make fun of”

  1. Sherwood Smithon 14 Aug 2006 at 3:38 pm

    Monsters would be at the top of my list.

    I am bored with monsters. They are ugly and smelly and have no social grace, or they wouldn’t be monsters. I skim all monster fighting scenes, figuring in most stories Our Heroes come out fine, and if a redshirt croaks, okay, I didn’t need the details anyway, because monsters never munch with grace.

    Now, that rule breaks down as soon as monsters are funny. Like the Vatch in Schmitz’s Witches of Karres.

  2. David Keckon 14 Aug 2006 at 5:00 pm

    (Blog tourist here).

    I like this list much better than the Lynch Eleven.

    I’m one of the many people in this world who’ve been paid to write things. And, as I read through Lynch’s roster, I felt myself lamenting the death of my moldy ancestors, haphazard prophets, and chosen schmoes I know and love.

    Your adendum, however, sticks pins in more universally despicable nasties. The Utopian novel may be the single most dangerous artistic endeavour not involving writing near a totalitarian regime. And, as far as imports are concerned, I remember coughing over a story in which pre-contact Ojibwa types sat in the forest drinking coffee and chilling wine for the Indian Princess.

    (I would, however, miss monsters. Mr. Smith, please, don’t take my monsters.)

  3. James Engeon 14 Aug 2006 at 6:37 pm

    Ms. Smith: I know what you mean about monsters. If it’s merely a fire-breathing walrus with the legs of an ostrich and the elbows of a zebra who’s blocking the hero’s path to the Seven Star-Quaaludes of Prozackia, I’m not too engaged; it’s just scenery. But if there’s some moral or psychological element to its monstrosity, it can be more interesting. I’m thinking of the shadow-beast in Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea or many a cunning creature in Jack Vance’s stories.

    J(“Je suis un monstre!”)E

  4. kateelliotton 14 Aug 2006 at 6:46 pm

    Good list.

    #5 is especially important. Man, I am so guilty of this, and the older I get the more I realize how much as a writer I lock my characters/society into convenient lockstep thinking about the street having its uses.

  5. kateelliotton 14 Aug 2006 at 6:47 pm

    David K – I think you can keep the monsters as long as they sometimes eat children, kittens, and adorable puppies.

  6. kateelliotton 14 Aug 2006 at 6:47 pm

    Finally, I’m going to add:

    Economies that don’t actually work.

  7. rettersonon 14 Aug 2006 at 7:28 pm

    I don’t think Kevin’s suggesting doing away with monsters — just, well, making them monsters. Monsters will eat babies and kids, if only for convenient snacking (see also Kevin’s food point).

    Heck, “cuddly” lionnesses on the African savannah target the babies and other slow-movers. It’s “Nature’s Way.” (Imagine that said like Steve Irwin, please.)

    I’m not overly fond of the “love conquers all” thing — that’s the excuse that Voldemort has been using, but it’s still a bit maudlin for my taste. Now, if he is secretly working on a love-neutralization laser weapon (with optional Kung Fu grip), and it’s just taken him six books to get there — I’ll feel a lot less cynical.

    FWIH, Rowling said that two of the main characters will die in Book 7 because ‘the villian doesn’t target the supporting cast.’

    Problem is, I think, that not eating them sells better than eating them in some circumstances.

    The reality of the marketplace sucks sometimes.

    And then there’s the Borg and bullets/percussion grenades — I think that’s one of the #5′s — only it’s the good guys’ failure to abuse the system. (I don’t by the “vent air into space” thing — they could use hollow-points and not miss.)

  8. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 14 Aug 2006 at 8:02 pm

    Voldymort has a surprising lack of imagination for a dark wizard who figured out how to separate his soul into multiple objects (which is not original in fairytales–there’s a Hawaiian queen and an Arabic sorceress who both did the same trick, and yes, I can point to the folktales). So Harry is protected from Voldymort’s magics at any location where his mother’s blood dwells, eh? So that means that he’s safe there so long as Aunt Petunia and possibly Cousin Dudley are around. But Uncle Vernon has absolutely no protection at least if I read the spell correctly.

    So, why not just put the Imperious Curse on Uncle Vernon, give him an axe, and have pick Harry up from school one day? Or just forget the axe and let Uncle Vernon choke the life out of him? It’s not like Vernon Dursley hasn’t wanted to.

    I know, I know, suspension of disbelief. No one offing Uncle Vernon and using a Polyjuice Potion to take his place, then strangling Harry the moment the brat steps onto the sidewalk or other public right-of-way. Bellatrix LeStrange has too much of a Henchling Complex to come up with that idea on her own, and Lucius Malfoy would never dress up as a Muggle, let along Vernon Dursley.

    About the only logical explanation is that Harry is one of the horcruxes and Voldymort doesn’t actually want him dead, but with that the case, it still doesn’t excuse not offing a few more people he finds annoying.

  9. Sherwood Smithon 14 Aug 2006 at 9:35 pm

    Mr. Keck, you may have my monsters and welcome to them.

    Mr. Enge, yes, but then those aren’t monsters so much as alien beings, right? I know, terms, definitions, tomayto/ tomawto.

  10. David Keckon 14 Aug 2006 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks for the monsters, Ms. Smith! (And sorry about the Mr).

  11. Muneravenon 14 Aug 2006 at 11:23 pm

    Ooooo….You need to add this one. I’m partially stealing it from a panel discussion at Diversicon (MN):

    Entire solar systems full of planets where each planet has ONE religion, ONE language, and ONE ethnicity.

    An entire solar system should have more diversity than India does.

  12. Harry Connollyon 15 Aug 2006 at 1:02 am

    “Since we see so much leather in these movies, why do we never see a cow?”

    I had the same reaction when I watched THE OUTSIDERS.

    Oh, wait. No, I didn’t.

    Sorry, your overall point is fine, but I find it annoying that fantasy is expected to include a bunch of stuff that doesn’t relate to the plot before people will let themselves buy into the worldbuilding.

  13. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 15 Aug 2006 at 3:33 am

    Well, the question with the leather and everything else is “Where does this come from”? If you’ve got a high level state society with complex trade networks and mass manufacturing, the answer for “Where did you get your leather?” is “Uh…the store.” We don’t have to see a cow, and in fact, there doesn’t have to be one anywhere on the continent for someone to possess the end product.

    If, however, you’ve got a feudal society with an agricultural base and characters are running through the countryside, they damn well better see a cow or a pig or something agricultural.

  14. Harry Connollyon 15 Aug 2006 at 11:37 am

    So, if someone eats bread in one scene, do you need another where someone rides past a wheat field, a water-powered mill and a bakery?

    If, however, you’ve got a feudal society with an agricultural base and characters are running through the countryside, they damn well better see a cow or a pig or something agricultural.

    Because in an advanced society, even a science fiction one like MINORITY REPORT, the audience can assume that there are farms out there somewhere growing the food and ranches raising the cows for their leathe shoes and bucket seats.

    But in a pre-industrial society, if you don’t actually parade the cows and the farms past the audience, then people do the exact opposite. They assume that it doesn’t exist.

    It’s a double standard: default-acceptance for non-fantasy and default-skepticism for fantasy. I think that stinks.

    But I’m just being stubborn.

  15. Erin Underwoodon 15 Aug 2006 at 12:34 pm

    I think the point is: If you’re going to use a “prop” such as leather in your story, and that prop clearly isn’t indigenous to the society or easy to obtain, you will need to toss in a little info on how the character came to possess the prop in question.

    For instance, if you’re writing about a desert tribe and you have them all wearing leather, you better figure out how the leather made its way to the desert. If you are writing about a poor farmer, you’re going to have to figure out how he raised the coin to pay for a leather vest or pants, etc.

    Speaking of leather, tanneries stink to high heaven and no sane villager would want a tanner to set up shop on Main Street. So, if you have a character walking across the street from the baker’s shop to the tanner your readers will know you haven’t done your research.

  16. Sara Lipowitzon 15 Aug 2006 at 12:46 pm

    Unless the actual tanning is done outside of town and the tanner has a shop inside of town.

  17. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 15 Aug 2006 at 12:53 pm

    Harry,

    I think you’re overthinking this. The trouble is that stories and especially the worlds they’re set in are told by inference and implication. If you have bread, it is assumed that somewhere there’s a wheat field, somewhere there’s a watermill, and somewhere there’s a bakery. However, if you characters are barbarian swordsmen or even crusading knights who’ve been riding across the steppes for nine days and someone suddenly pulls bread out of their backpack and they chow down on it, I expect a few broken teeth since it’s not like they passed a bakery or anything.

    Tolkien solved this problem for his hobbitses by giving them magical elven powerbars for the quest to Mordor, but the point is, he explained what these things were and where they were coming from and moreover knew that they’d need them because Mordor didn’t have any bakeries let alone KFC.

    Anyway, yes, with a pre-industrial society, especially if you show anything rural, you’re going to be showing some farming somewhere. Look at LotR. Merry and Pippin have been stealing from a farmer’s crops. Sam works professionally as Frodo’s gardener, and at the end of the book where he throws the magic Elven dirt in the air, everyone talks about what a fine harvest it was that year and how there was such nice beer after it. No, we don’t actually see the pigs or cows or even the barns, but we have enough in the way of farm fields and other bits of agrarian life shown to suggest that if you go that way, you should likely find a barn with all the usual in it, and one expects Sam has a gardening shed with various hoes and flowerpots.

    It’s all part and parcel of the trouble of writers assuming horses run like cars (they don’t), too many princesses and not enough chambermaids, and various troubles you get when the closest anyone’s been to a farm is seeing their high school’s production of Oklahoma.

  18. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 15 Aug 2006 at 1:10 pm

    Actually, leather in a desert is not that great of a problem. I’ve watched (with great glee) a documentary on “world’s smelliest jobs” and they showed this kid somewhere in Morocco who got a job at the same tannery as his father. Imagine wrestling rotting animal hides in pools of urine. Yes, urine, traditional for tanning.

    Here, just found a photograph:

    http://www.bigshots.com.au/RWP/Morocco/MorocTP/004Fes.htm

    That’s the way it’s been done for centuries and how the famous Moroccan leather is made. It also mentions how the smell not only pervades the tannery but the entire district.

    If you have that much leather, it has to come from some place. If you’ve got nomadic tribesmen, they get the leather from the cities who have the tanneries and which are a market for their sheep, goats and cows.

  19. Erin Underwoodon 15 Aug 2006 at 1:18 pm

    Excellent point (and great picture), Kevin.

    I really can’t imagine wrestling anything in a vat of urine. That’s one foul job. yiiiiick!

  20. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 15 Aug 2006 at 2:15 pm

    Well, it’s not precisely wrestling. It’s treading it like wine grapes, wringing it, massaging it and so on. Ever have to take a wet blanket out of the wash before the spin cycle? Now imagine it soaked with urine and rotting flesh. But it ends up being something beautiful.

    The process for making linen isn’t any happier: urine to rot the flax stalks and free up the fibers. Leather and lace both start out with pee.

  21. Harry Connollyon 15 Aug 2006 at 11:15 pm

    Kevin, I’m not talking about the worldbuilding that’s part of the story.

    I’m talking about the stuff that’s not part of the story but that the audience expects to see because the default assumption is “fantasy has bad worldbuilding.” That’s what the Ebert quote means.

  22. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Aug 2006 at 2:01 am

    Well, the Ebert quote was correct with regards to the Beastmaster movies–there’s an awful lot of leather and no actual cows. In fact, nothing that could be considered an actual economy. The world had been designed based on 70s cover art, not the actual content of Norton’s novel.

    Compare that with the lavish beauty of the costuming for LotR or even Pirates of the Caribbean–those films people took their time. And actually, the Beastmaster tv series did a lot better in having outfits people might actually wear and a bit more in the way of villagers and cities.

  23. Erin Underwoodon 16 Aug 2006 at 3:43 pm

    Kevin,

    Do you think that a story works if the bad guy is ruthless to his own people and bends them to his will (making them do all of the dirty work of killing innocents, etc.), but the reader never actually sees him hurting any innocents himself? Does #2 apply to such a bad guy?

    The whole Lord Voldemort issue has me thinking. The reader doesn’t see Lord V hurting or killing many innocent people. Instead, it’s his gang of Death Eaters that cause the deaths, destruction, and mayhem. It seems to me that Lord V is responsible for the evil deeds that his DEs wreak upon others. So could we chalk up all of those deaths to him? Or do we really need to see him personally vaporize a Dursley or two to drive the point home?

  24. Maraon 16 Aug 2006 at 4:21 pm

    Warning: textile geek content

    You don’t need urine to make linen. You ret (the word is related to ‘rot’) the stalks either out in a field (dew retting) or a stream or pond. The rotting flax fouls the water, though, so there were prohibitions against retting flax upstream of pastures.

    You might, however, use urine to clean linen; it’s a free source of ammonia, and was used in the laundering process from Roman times onward. In Pompeii, public urinals were used to collect the urine, which was then used by the local fullers to clean fabric. Stale urine was used to “full” (i.e., slightly felt) fabrics, as in the waulking process for tweed in 19th c. Scotland, and also was used in the dyeing process for woad and indigo.

    Speaking of nasty things, I believe I’ve read that dung (dog, horse and cow) was used to process leather in medieval Europe. That sounds way nastier than urine, frankly.

  25. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Aug 2006 at 5:55 pm

    Mara,

    Thanks for the textile geeking. I just did a search and found that urine was indeed used for the bleaching process:

    http://linenireland.org/history/industry/

    Thanks for the clarification on the retting process.

    Erin,

    Well, Lord Voldymort is more of an Evil Overlord with his Death Eaters as his Legions of Terror. The Legions of Terror have been laying pretty low, however, but the only kills of theirs that I’d count are the ones he directly orders, not the ones that they do for their own amusement. Barty Crouch Jr. offed Barty Crouch Sr. more because he was in to patricide–and miffed about years of being under the Imperious curse–than because Voldymort wanted it. And Sirius Black… Well, we haven’t seen the body, so his deadness is debatable–he stepped into a door into the underworld, after all. And if there’s anyone who could claw his way back, it would be Sirius Black.

    Other than that, there’s that unpleasant werewolf guy who killed a child off stage, but from the sound of things, he’d be doing that even if Voldymort died next Tuesday, so having a serial killer in your retinue, while evil, doesn’t count as a personal kill either.

    Anyway, the huge stockpiles of corpses in the last book were likely personally killed by Voldymort, so I’ll go with my contention that he’s just been coasting by on his laurels for a while. Admittedly he was busy trying to come back from death and so wasn’t really going about his Evil Plot as efficiently as he might, but now that he’s back from death, I’d be happy to see him kill Uncle Vernon as part of a plot to get to Harry.

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