The Big Idea: Thoraiya Dyer
Bread is the staff of life, as it said, but what happens when bread doesn’t make sense for your world? Thoraiya Dyer has given this question some serious thought for her novel Crossroads of Canopy, and invites you to discover with her where these thoughts lead.
I’ve always wondered, even as a child, why elves in tree-cities ate bread.
Because bread is made of wheat or other grains, right? Which is grown in fields. But all the tree-dwelling elves in stories seemed to do was hunt deer with yew longbows, drink wine and frolic along their gloriously elaborate paths made of oak tree branches.
Say what? Oak trees? My father comes from a tiny rural village where he learned that acorns were starvation rations. And yew berries are poison. Call me finicky if you like. It led to something wonderful.
Once I started imagining the kinds of trees you would actually want to have in an arboreal city where folk rarely went down to the ground – forget about farming! – it quickly became obvious what kind of forest the elves would actually have to live in.
Probably up in the canopy. At least, the royalty would be up there, in the sunshine, snacking on fruit, not eating the usual fantasy fare of stew because they wouldn’t have metal for pots and pans. Or would they? Maybe they’d have a magical way of getting metal. Plus a magical way of keeping predators from climbing up and snacking on them.
And if they had bread at all, it would have to be made from tree-nuts that weren’t acorns.
And what would they have instead of wine?
I couldn’t seem to stop inventing the world of Canopy. The next question became what plant and animal species to include and which to omit. I’ve already confessed to being picky about mixing ecosystems, but this wasn’t going to be science fiction, it was going to be fantasy, and fantasy means freedom, doesn’t it? Especially after I guest-blogged about my meticulousness at SF Signal and not one single over-scrupulous scientist piped up to agree with me! Clearly, nobody else cared; I was like the toddler who doesn’t like her peas to touch her carrots on the plate.
So, in went Moreton Bay figs and mango trees, monitor lizards and toucans. A glorious mix, which gave me permission, I felt, to mix other things that I hadn’t mixed before.
The very Western Greek and Babylonian pantheons with the Eastern concept of reincarnation, for example.
I also got to mix up my protagonist, Unar, a blend of hero and villain, saviour and destroyer. How I loved her, for the freedom I had with her! She’d never seen the ground. Or an ocean. Yet she was among the lucky ones to have felt sunshine and wind, to know about things like the moon changing shape and the sun setting.
Maybe the very wealthy would even have bread. And it would be this ridiculous luxury. As opposed to fresh fruit, which would be boring and plentiful.
I contemplated the symbolism of lembas bread in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A cross between hardtack, the sustenance of seafaring adventurers, and the church wafers that substitute for the body of Christ. Maybe in the world of Canopy, fresh fruit would be the thing to have religious significance. Fruit would be one of the offerings to the gods that helped to give those gods their powers. It would also be something that the people below might not have as much of.
With social stratification developing in my head, mimicking the strata of my rainforest, the next thing the people of Canopy needed, obviously, was a magical horizontal barrier to keep the riff-raff out. Those pasty, malnourished Understorians. Gods know what they get up to, down in the dark.
And there was the seed of Unar’s story. Her sister, lost on the other side of the barrier. Literally and figuratively fallen.
I quite like bread. Most people do, I think. Maybe after you’ve read Canopy, though, you’ll give macadamia nuts and magenta cherries a try. Maybe you’ll find they’re even better than bread!