The intellectual sloth of fantasy worlds

Fantasy is probably the form of literature I enjoy reading the most. Having established to my own satisfaction that all fiction is fantasy to a greater or lesser degree, I take exception to being called a ‘genre’ writer, as if some kinds of fiction are more worthy than others.

I would agree though, that sometimes our fantasy worlds could do with a little more ‘realism’. I’m sure everybody has done it, snorted in disbelief, or thrown the book out the window in exasperation, when something really dumb strikes you about the world you are expected to believe in one hundred percent.

My pet gripe must be the inertia of many fantasy worlds. How many fictional world histories refer back to some cataclysmic marking event that happened a thousand, if not several thousand years previously?

Big Battle against Evil: the Dark Lord is defeated
Big Battle against Evil: the Dark Lord is defeated

Fair enough. We have Jesus, don’t we? Where I get rather irritated is that in the time lapse (say the time between the Battle of Hastings and the present day) that absolutely nothing has evolved! No-thing! The wheel had already been invented at the time of the Big Battle against Evil, so had the forging of steel, building of massive castles, and, last but not least, books, education, and easily available means of setting down events.

Since that time, millennia previously, there has been no progress whatsoever. So, what the feck were they doing all that time? Why has this ‘civilisation’ not sunk back into the primal slime? Why, given the generally bloodthirsty nature of these worlds, in the course of these millennia has nobody invented anything more efficient for killing purposes than the trusty sword and the heroic longbow? They have feudal systems and religion but no science. They have shops and two-storey cottages, taverns, inns, schools, books, paper, towns, cities, social organisation, roads, foreign trade, armies, diplomats. So why has nobody got round to discovering electricity, or inventing steam engines, or guns, or the washing machine?

Or am I being disingenuous? Is this all part of the fantasy package that we secretly yearn for: a fictitious golden age with unspoilt scenery, lack of industrial pollution, and no cars? Our imagination though stops short of life without shops and a minimum of creature comfort. I mean, who really wants to knit their own chain mail?

Two thousand years later...
Two thousand years later…

Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

10 thoughts on “The intellectual sloth of fantasy worlds”

  1. Me, me, I want to knit my own chain mail lol. Good point though, Jane. One I hadn’t thought of before, but now you mention it!

  2. If there’s enough interest I’m thinking of opening an authentic chain mail shoppe. Then there’s the double-headed axe shoppe, the pointy coiffe shoppe, and a shoppe that doesn’t sell any civilised implements to eat your food with. I’m going to call it Ye Olde Shoppe Mall.

  3. Actually, when I was a kid I was mad on knights, and my mother knitted me chainmail out of string dyed silver.

    Some excellent points – I call this “the eternal iron age”. Progress isn’t always inevitable, of course – there are periods in history where it goes backwards – but there have to be reasons for that, and even if the iron age lasts longer than in our civilisation, it’ll develop eventually. I’ve written stories set in my main world that range from urban neolithic to their computer age.

    1. I’ve nothing against the Big Battle theory, nor against the fantasy world full of horse and bows and arrows. What I find irritating is the complacency of ‘civilisations’ that we are supposed to believe in and admire, when they make no advances in any domains at all. After a thousand plus years of peace, the men are still going out on their horses with their swords and beating the daylights out of their neighbours, while the women stay at home, have babies and knit chain mail. What a life!

  4. Nice entry. I’ve often wondered the same thing.

    I think some of it is because horses, swords, castles and crossbows have an aesthetic appeal that steam engines, guns and electricity lack (for some of us). Traditional fantasy elicits a desire to return to an idealized pre-industrial age that never was. Readers tend not to examine accepted, genre-specific norms too closely. I wonder if the popularity of “static” worlds has also arisen because we now live in a time where change is happening so quickly it makes even the adventurous feel lost and afraid sometimes. So we subconsciously long to visit a setting where things move at a slower and more predictable pace than our own world.

    Even so, I personally prefer if a writer presents a plausible reason for his or her world being static –something more plausible and concrete than a disaster or religious figure from a thousand years before. Maybe a thousand years isn’t so long if you’re an elf who lives hundreds of years (so static cultures might make more sense for very long-lived, slow-breeding species). But if the world is human-centric, it seems like there would need to be a reason for change to be that slow.

    I think some writers are beginning to explore the idea that dynamic (and not completely traditional but also not contemporary) fantasy societies can be fun to write about. I just read one fantasy book set in an alternative Renaissance Europe, and am starting another book set in a Blade-Runner-esque world where tech is powered by magical alchemy and mages live in the shadows, eking out a black market living. I’ve also read novels set in pre-industrial, even quasi-medieval settings, but where there is a sense that things used to be different from the stories “now,” and things will be different in some undefined future as well.

    1. Thanks for that long and thoughtful reply, Erica. I completely agree with you about our nostalgia for a time of beautiful wild landscapes, full of beautiful wild animals and where nobody ever got sick, or (God forbid) ever needed a dentist! I also agree that most readers are probably not picky enough about what is plausible and what is nonsense.
      A writer I think gets round this problem of growth versus status beautifully is Ursula Le Guin. Her Orsinian Tales, if you don’t know it, is a collection of stories set in defferent epochs of a fictional Iron Curtain country. I love the way she creates a sense of historical progression, and of gradual Cold War stagnation.

  5. You brought up some interesting ideas in this blog. It’s made me think about the world’s I’ve created in my own writing and I think, yup, I’ve definitely left in some of the creature comforts, but still wanted the castles, feudal-type systems and lack of social and technological progression. It’s something to consider in my future writings – as well as making the cultures varying in degrees of progression, which would hold true to how our ‘real’ world is today.

  6. I think what irks me the most is not the stasis in technological progression—there are after all an awful lot of ‘advances’ many of us might wish had never happened—but the lack of social change. The same old kings on the same old thrones, the same macho society dominated by sword-wielding thickos. I like utopias with lots of greenery and horses, but I also like to see progress in terms of the way a society is ordered.

  7. All excellent points, Jane. For all his magnificence and standing, I blame Tolkien for this inertia that you talk of: in Middle Earth elves and others live for a long time and yet somehow never come up with anything innovative. Though I’ve not read a lot of it, steampunk to me seems to be a way to address this (albeit sometimes very clumsily) — a kind of post-medieval Gothic-ity allied with Victorian Heath-Robinson-like technology and, sometimes, a pinch of magic. How well it works, for me at any rate, is how convincingly those technological innovations fit in with the imagined timeline.

    I second your praise of Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales — beautifully told human stories set within an imaginary Central or Eastern European country (a bit like Czechoslovakia, maybe). Now, if only I could get more into finishing Malafrena, also set within that world. By the way, Orsinia is I believe a pun on Le Guin’s first name, both of which derive from Indo-European words for ‘bear’; Orsinia, in other words, is located within Le Guin’s imagination — as if we needed reminding.

    1. The steam punk thing loses me with steam powered horses, I’m afraid. I’m so glad you enjoyed the Orsinian Tales. I found it on a flea market in Bordeaux of all places and found the stories captivating. I didn’t make the connection with her name though. Sounds a very plausible theory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s