The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Dear world: Elizabeth Bear is awesome. Range of Ghosts is her new book. This is her big idea. Also: She is awesome. That is all.

ELIZABETH BEAR:

There’s nothing new under the sun in epic fantasy, or so I’ve heard it said.

So when I was trying to come up with a Big Idea for an epic fantasy–a genre I’ve loved since before I wrote my first derivative plot coupon fantasy in fifth grade (it was deeply inspired by The Dark Crystal and Piers Anthony, but it had the best dragons ever–and I’m still stealing bits of my mad juvenile inventiveness and recycling them into other settings) it seemed to me that the obvious solution was to invent a different sun. Or maybe a whole slew of different suns.

So I did. Everybody gets their own sun! Or suns. And a set of skies to go with them.

Because the gods of this world are real, and the heavens–perforce–reflect their will.

It was important to me that this world have an economy. I wanted these books to question the too-easy monarchy “restore the king” plots that so often proliferate in our genre.

I wanted the fun and adventure of swords and sorcery, but I didn’t want to hew too closely to either the broad tropes of traditional heroic fantasy or the grittier perspective of the heirs of Fritz Leiber and Poul Anderson. Instead, I wanted a middle path–heroic, but not morally unexamined.

One of my best friends is a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. (It’s possible that I am, too–something like twenty percent of human beings alive today are, and my great-grandfather was a Cossack, a group that famously claims descent from the Golden Horde.) Her sons are my godsons, and as I considered settings, that coincidence–and the fact that have heard from friends of Asian and African descent over and over again how hard it is for them to find stories that acknowledge their heritage and cultures–influenced me.

There have always been exceptions, and this is changing, but too many fantasy worlds traditionally have not only failed to step outside of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, but don’t question the Eurocentric view of world history so many English speakers (I can’t say “the majority,” because I believe at last check India has more English speakers than most of the rest of the world) are given in grammar school. We speak of Alexander the Great, after all–and the terrifying Mongol Hordes. But the roles of Alexander and of Genghis Khan in history are not actually so very different.

Both men were conquerors. The difference in perspective–who is the hero and who is the scourge–has a great deal to do with cultural observer bias.

So I wanted these books to focus on the cognates of cultures that epic fantasy so often marginalizes–those mysterious Easterners, usually portrayed as a swarthy, untrustworthy threat on the borders of our heroes’ empire.

The intersection of those influences was the inception of the world of the Eternal Sky, of which Range of Ghosts is the first book. I knew I wanted a world of vast scope and deep history, inspired by the multicultural swords-and-sorcery milieu of classic genre works like the Conan cycle–but I hope with a bit less unexamined colonial baggage. And I knew I wanted to completely excise the usual Western European fantasy backdrops–so this is a world where the Prague-equivalent is a coastal city and Western Europe just doesn’t exist at all. No Greece, no Rome.

But a complex system of empires, khanates, caliphates, principalities–and trade routes dominates the cultural landscape.

Because dirty politics is fun.

—-

Range of Ghosts: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter. Enjoy this appraisal of Range of Ghosts from a marmot.

10 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

  1. I’m still stealing bits of my mad juvenile inventiveness and recycling them into other settings) it seemed to me that the obvious solution was to invent a different sun. Or maybe a whole slew of different suns.
    So I did. Everybody gets their own sun! Or suns. And a set of skies to go with them.

    I was a bit confused by that, but I thought it was a cool bit. Temur has his own *moon* in the skies of his homeland. Different colored blue skies, and even places where the sun doesn’t rise in the east. Brilliant!

  2. She’s the rare author as awesome in person as on the page. The first mutual conversation that I recall was at the SFRA annual conference in a hotel-casino… Now I read everything by her that I can buy!

  3. This sounds really cool and I’m definitely adding it to my list.

    May I also thank you, Scalzi, for doing these Big Idea features? I’ve found more cool books by reading about fascinating Big Ideas in the last year than anywhere else on the internet. :)

  4. Since I just bought my plane tickets for my seventh trip to Mongolia, I think that I shall have to add this book to my Must Read list. Her point about who is a “hero” and who is a “scourge” is well-taken. One finds very quickly upon arriving in Mongolia that Chinggis Khan (the correct transliteration of his name) is the Mongol equivalent of George Washington. He is the founder of their country, having united the tribes and created the The Great Mongolian State in 1206, and lawgiver. Today’s Mongols know perfectly well that at one time they created and held the largest land empire in history, creating the first “global” economy through their control of the Silk Road. And you can chat with them about it over Chinggis beer or Chinggis vodka.

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