‘See there,’ said Rablaaaan the Octrazine. ‘A jazzlewozzy! It will make fine vittels, iffen we can catch it and stick it in a stew with some grated a’rair’thian’ttt’x!’
‘A jazzlewozzy?’ asked Bert.
‘See its long pointy ears, its elongated hind feet and round fluffy tail! See how it prances and snuffles!’
‘Are you talking about that rabbit?’
Rablaaaan looked bewildered. ‘A… rabbit?’ Then he laughed, so long and hard that several sentences after this paragraph ended he was found by a passing troll and got his head bitten off. ‘What kind of stoopid name is that for a jazzlewozzy?’
Naming stuff in fantasy and SF is a minefield. I’m gonna use fantasy for my examples here, but the same things apply in SF. It’s the worldbuilder’s dilemma: what the hell do I call a rabbit?
So there you are, happily creating your fantasy world, and it occurs to you that your heroes might need something to put in their stew. Now, you think to yourself, you’re going for a proper fantasy world, none of this Tolkien-knockoff pseudo-medieval elves-dwarves-and-goblins stuff. It follows that if your whole world is full of strange and wonderful races and beings, then populating it with domestic Earth animals like cats and dogs, or having people ride about on horses, is a bit lame, really. Why not just come up with something new to replace all those little animals?
Writer, you just bought yourself a whole world of trouble.
One of the little-discussed aspects of the fantasy writer’s art is the balancing act between telling the reader what they need to know to enjoy your world, and drowning them in information. Much has been said about info-dumping (for those that don’t know, this is when one of the characters picks up a pot and the author pauses to explain the history, culture and favourite flavour of ice cream enjoyed by the native people who crafted it) but the reason it’s so pervasive is that it’s so incredibly hard to deal with.
The thing is, everyone knows how elves, dwarves and goblins work. You don’t even need to explain them; they come with their own set of assumed rules. Ditto witches, wizards, vampires, werewolves and zombies, which explains why they massively dominate the bookshelves. They’re easy, both for the writer and the reader. The more original your fantasy world, the more time it is necessary to take to explain to your reader how the world works and who lives in it. Even with all the skill in the world, that’s gonna mire your story in swathes of explanation and backstory.
Now usually you can get away with a few awesome new races that no-one’s ever heard of. You can come up with a dinky magic system. You can create some great monsters. But what I’ve found is that, when you get down to the nuts and bolts of a civilisation, you have to cut corners.
If your heroes all cook with crazy containers of glistening crystal, then you have to give those things a name. Let’s call them valax. Now what do they eat with? Spoons? Too conventional. Let’s give them obzol, which are cups of dried and toughened leather they dip in on a cradle of string. Oh, wait, we can’t have string…
Wait a minute.
Rablaaaan the Octrazine dipped his obzol into his valax and drew up a mouthful of jazzlewozzy stew.
Hmm. Beginning to sound a bit like A Clockwork Orange now. I don’t envy the writer who has to explain to the reader all those new terms they’ve put in there. And not explaining them is worse. You can get away with it by context a few times, but if you barrage the reader with made-up words then eventually they’ll give up trying to decipher them and put your story down.
Sooner or later, you end up having to call a pot a pot.
The other thing is, even if you do come up with lots of new kitchen utensils, domestic animals, etc, you can only ever describe them by likening them to the thing they replaced. You either call it ‘a spoon-like utensil’ or you tie yourself in ridiculous knots by saying ‘it was made of steel, with a long handle, and a depression at its furthest end used as a receptacle for food, the better to transport it to one’s mouth,’ etc etc. It’s the same with animals. No matter how original you make your horse-analogue look and act, as soon as someone climbs on its back, we know it’s a horse (go watch Avatar if you don’t believe me).
In my opinion, a book is not just a record of the writer’s imagination. A book is a bridge between the author and the reader. The author has a certain obligation to consider his or her audience. The reader doesn’t know a thing about the world they’re entering into. It’s up to the author to make sure they know everything they need to, without ever forgetting that all this stuff in the background is only there to service the story, not to overwhelm it.
In a perfect world, I’d never have anything remotely Earth-like creep into one of my fantasy books. I’d design everything from the ground up to fit my world. But it doesn’t work that way, because that would turn my book into an encyclopaedia, not a story. I could get away with it in a movie, perhaps, but words are too slow for that; it’s one of the limitations a book has. So a compromise needs to made. I need to throw the reader a bone and say: ‘screw it, this dog-like thing, it’s a dog, okay? Let me spare you two paragraphs of explanation and just say ‘In the distance, a dog barked.’ Not a the howl of kakarinch. Not the percussive chee chee chee of a optryx. A dog.’ You’ll thank me for it later.
Let me tell you the tale of a young, enthusiastic writer who one day decided he was going to write about a fantasy world that wouldn’t have anything even remotely Tolkein-esque in it. In fact, he thought, I’ll set it all underground, a fantasy world that evolved away from the light. There’ll be no horses or dogs or cats. I mean, there’ll be humans, or human-like races, and they’ll have an easily recognisable society (one a plutocracy, one fundamentalist), so we won’t go too crazy. But definitely no horses, dogs or cats. Because they just wouldn’t be there. Right?
I was halfway through that book before I tossed it in the bin and started again. The reason that The Fade is written the way it’s written is entirely because of the reasons I stated above. Whichever way I cut it, there was loads of explanation necessary. Every little thing that Orna came up against needed a lengthy description, otherwise the reader wouldn’t know how it worked or why it was there. It drove me insane.
I only cracked it when I rewrote it so Orna starts the book in prison. That way, I got to show the reader a tiny space in the world, and gradually expand it through flashback, until by the time they got to the big panoramas they were thoroughly prepped for what they would see. The entire story changed in service to the world I’d set it in. And even then, the animals still ended up being fairly obvious analogues (flying ray-like things, big cuttlefish-like things, dog-like things, bear-like things they rode around on, etc)
People do sometimes question the relative lack of originality in the world of fantasy and SF. Why, when we have ALL OF POSSIBILITY to explore, do we end up narrowing ourselves into little mini-genres? It’s because there’s no point writing a book if no-one understands it. It’s because fantasy and science fiction only works if the reader has some real-world thing to relate it to. Sometimes, it’s better to make your world an easily recognisable one, so it doesn’t get in the way of the story. Better to tell a great hero story in a feudal, medieval setting than to have the same story buried under masses of description in a floating, upside-down clockwork world populated by ghosts.
Of course, none of this applies if you’re just writing a story for your own enjoyment. But if you’re writing it for someone else to read, then it’s a fact of life. Strange to think, as a writer, that imagination and words can actually be limiting. But there you have it.
* * *
Speaking of clockwork, the word on the street (by which I mean the aisles between publishers’ desks) is that steampunk is on its way back to your bookshelves in a big way. This is kinda funny, since only a year ago I was telling a bunch of people at the SFX show that calling a book ‘steampunk’ virtually guaranteed its death on the shelves, as was the accepted wisdom at the time. How things have changed.
I hope it’s true, since steampunk rocks. And the thing is, this might be the right time for it. I think it might actually be ready to storm the shelves. Why this strange and frankly unusual optimism? Well, because it’s been around for so long. Like vampires and werewolves, it’s seeped into the public consciousness. Movies like The Golden Compass, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Wild Wild West and the new Sherlock Holmes have come and gone, along with plenty of good, bad, and indifferent novels. Steampunk has never been a big hit on the bookshelves, but writers (and publishers, to their credit) have kept on trying. Steampunk is not unusual anymore. It’s familiar enough that your casual shelf-grazer might just pick one up and, instead of thinking ‘This is clearly not about Thongar the Barbarian or anything similar! Fie upon this tome!’ they’ll give it a go.
Who knows? I for one would prefer steampunk to paranormal romance, zombie fiction, or any of a dozen other tired sub-genres. Bring it on!