Kevin Andrew Murphy February 11th, 2007
Blame National Geographic.
When I was twelve or so, staying over at my grandparents with a cold, I read an issue of National Geographic which gave the history of gemcutting, the history and provenance of the various cuts–the emerald cut, the sapphire cut, the diamond cut, the rose, the brilliantÂ and so forth–and I happily commited all this to memory, along with the rough dates of when each was developed and became popular.Â Which of course some years later totally ruined a television show for me, “The Wizard,”Â 1986, because while I could deal with the concept of a four-foot-tall mad inventor MacGuyver type, when he pulled out the ancient Incan emerald and it was not only faceted but cut in the brilliant cut that wasn’t invented for diamonds until about the 19th century?Â And it was the size of a baseball but flawless which is likewise impossible for an emerald?Â The suspenders of disbelief were snapped.
Yes, I know, we’re supposed to look the other way and not raise our eyebrows.Â No one seriously believed that Yul Brenner was Thai either, no matter how much tape he put on his eyelids.Â And Al Jolson was not really black.
That all said, there’s a big step between “Imagine if you will” theatricality and simply getting stuff wrong, and in a big way too.
I haven’t read the book, but I recently saw the movie Eragon.Â I can swallow dragons, metaphorically at least.Â The fully racially integrated fantasy revolutionaries?Â The Keshia Knight Pulliam version of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” violently burst that cherry long ago, so I’m not going to complain other than mentioning it here.Â And the fantasy farmboys looking like they just came off a Ren Faire catwalk, with their hair done by whoever used to work on Charlie’s Angels?Â I can deal with that too, though I will snicker.
But when the set dresser raids a modern mall aromatherapy store for the candles, which appear in just about every scene, I’m going, I’m sorry, what’s the tech level here?Â Don’t the poor ever use rushdips?Â Are you simply drowning in beeswax and bayberries that everyone can afford these, or doÂ the dragons crap paraffin?
Actually, if the dragons crapped paraffin, even that wouldn’t explain it, since they’re down to only one dragon by the start of the movie and the evil dragonrider king would have a lock on the dragoncrap candle market.
I know, I should remember to breathe.Â But I have trouble believing in a fantasy world which is all kings, dragonriders, revolutionaries and oracles without any chandlers.Â If you’ve got candles everywhere, surely there’s someone who makes them.
More than that, it’s the details you show that imply the tech level of the world.Â If candles are cheap and plentiful, then that shows you something.Â Â Your audienceÂ takes cues from what they see or read.
I was helping someone with a manuscript yesterday, and there was one of these details on the page: a china doll head on a rubbish heap.Â I mentioned that this told me we were dealing with a post-industrial society, circa 1910 or so, because china doll heads were not made commonly until about 1860,Â and even then were fairly valuable and would be recycled, so you wouldn’t find one out in the garbage until at least 1910.Â I then went into a fairly long aside about the history of European porcelain, the Elector of Saxony’s alchemist, Bottger, and the founding of the Dresden china works, relative to the trade of Chinese porcelain.
Which is a long way of going round to say that even what you might consider throwaway details or things on the periphery are nonetheless crucial to the story.