6 More Things I Could do Without in Fantastic Literature & I don’t plan to use except to make fun of
Kevin Andrew Murphy 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.Â It’s a great list and I agree with all the items on it.Â 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?Â They’re small, tender, slow-moving, and are easily lured into gingerbread houses–how hard can it be?Â 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.Â 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.Â (Yes, this means you, Lord Voldymort, and tell the so-called “Wicked Witch” I said “Hi”).
Same problem, different day, withÂ 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.Â 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.Â (Yes, this means you again, Lord Voldymort.Â 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?Â I’m not talking stackingÂ 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 canâ€™t afford that, just pick up a “Foods of the World” cookbook. What theyâ€™re serving at the local diner is not what theyâ€™re going to be serving in the middle ages, especially not in a land which has actual flying dragons. And donâ€™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 characterâ€™s tastes are the same, and all the food is the same as current day earth of your locale, youâ€™re not inventing anything new, and moreover, all youâ€™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 theyâ€™re able to do this is global trade to get coffee beans from the tropics. Unless this is going on in your world, reliably, youâ€™re not going to get any of these things in the far regions except as an extremely rare luxury good.
Moreover, if thereâ€™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 youâ€™ve got an extended war, letâ€™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 Clarkâ€™s Law “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic” (and vice versa) with Gibsonâ€™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 Iâ€™m forgetting, thereâ€™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 talesâ€“and sometimes both at the same timeâ€“but for myself, all good or all bad simply doesnâ€™t work. Similarly, while Iâ€™ve noticed that same-sex marriage, religious freedom and womenâ€™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 canâ€™t picture one where all marriages are happy and healthy and donâ€™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 canâ€™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, wonâ€™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, thereâ€™s going to be someone who says, “Hot damn! Thatâ€™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 Nesbittâ€™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 heâ€™s being shunned for littering. The protagonists conclude that the future is better than their present, but parts of it still suck. Similarly, if youâ€™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.