The worlds of fantasy offer up ample space for the imagination to play… but do they also and simultaneously constrict those same imaginations? Author Katherine Addison fears they might, and when it came to her novel The Goblin Emperor, Addison decided on a new world with a difference. She’s here to explain how, and why.
By the time you finish writing a novel, it’s frequently somewhere between difficult and impossible to remember how you started, but in the case of The Goblin Emperor, I remember exactly: I wanted to write a story with both elves and airships. Because there was no reason I couldn’t, and it seemed like an awesome idea.
Once I’d thought of airships, it was inevitable that I would think of the Hindenburg. Although I love and write science fiction and fantasy–and don’t want to stop!–down at the bottom of my heart, in the darkness among the spiders and ghouls, I’m a horror writer. I tend to be interested in how things go wrong, and I’m drawn to catastrophe.
Everything else in the book came from that first decision to combine elves and airships and catastrophe and trying to think through the ramifications of each subsequent domino as it tipped to knock the domino behind it. As a part of this process, I found myself thinking a lot about science and technology and the conflicted relationship epic fantasy has with both of them.
By “epic fantasy,” I mean what Tolkien called “secondary-world fantasy” (which is a better name, but much more awkward): fantasies that take place entirely in made-up worlds with no reference to the real world at all. Tolkien himself is a prime example, and the genre continues to thrive. To give you some living practitioners, just off the top of my head: Kate Elliott, David Anthony Durham, Martha Wells, Scott Lynch, N. K. Jemisin, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Saladin Ahmed.
I love this genre and have since I was very small, but I do find its attitude towards science and technology frustrating. Somewhere along the line, we got it into our heads that any society with magic would, for some reason, stop advancing somewhere shy of the Industrial Revolution. The implicit (or explicit) assumption often seems to be that magic trumps gunpowder, like some weird game of Rock Paper Scissors. Or there’s been some sort of giant mysterious cataclysm that destroyed all the technology and (apparently) made everybody stupid. And we’ve all been brainwashed by Tolkien into believing that only evil people have (or want) technological advancements past the Spinning Jenny, and that a nostalgic pastoral technology-rejecting Arcadia is obviously better than, oh, I dunno, flush toilets. Or flashlights. Or fire alarms.
So we end up, most often, in some stagnated Hollywood version of “The Dark Ages” with castles and people in robes and no interest in science–because magic!–and the most technology you’ll see is maybe a catapult. Diana Wynne Jones’ brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland skewers this cobbled-together mess of assumptions and lazy thinking like it was a shish-kebab. The very fact that she could do so tells you just how codified this generic fantasy setting has become and how many writers use it.
The thing is, this set of assumptions and valuations becomes a cage. So even if you’re trying to write a society that has both magic and technology, it can be really hard to remember that the cage door isn’t actually closed. I had to keep reminding myself as I was writing The Goblin Emperor that technological progress is not bad, that scientific inquiry is awesome, that I wasn’t violating any genuine taboos by having steamships and factories and astronomers and clockmakers and gas lamps. And the enormous steam-powered drawbridge that the characters spend the whole book arguing about.
I don’t deny the appeal of a pastoral world, one without air-pollution or global warming or oil spills, and I think fantasy does provide a much-needed outlet for that craving of the imagination. I don’t want to do away with that. But fantasy can do so much more. There are so many other ways to imagine our relationship with scientific and technological progress than this Manichean either-or we’ve saddled ourselves with. I would love to see fantasy, as a genre, explore that, instead of cowering in the cage we’ve built ourselves, as it gets smaller and smaller every year.
As well as being a wicked satirist, Diana Wynne Jones was a brilliant fantasist (a propos of this discussion, I believe she was the author who introduced me to the radical idea that you could have magic and trains in the same world). In her short story, “The Sage of Theare,” set in a world hemmed about with rules and restrictions and lists, the anarchic Sage of Dissolution chalks this slogan on a wall: “IF RULES MAKE A FRAMEWORK FOR THE MIND TO CLIMB ABOUT IN, WHY SHOULD THE MIND NOT CLIMB RIGHT OUT, SAYS THE SAGE OF DISSOLUTION.”
Fundamentally, that’s what I want to say. These unwritten rules are a cage, and there is no reason we should not climb right out.
And that’s my Big Idea.