Sunday, 27 June 2010

Other Worlds (2 ) - Modern writers

Earthsea, Narnia, Middle Earth – the three classic fantasy worlds I talked about last week – are distinctive places. Most children – most people you meet – have a pretty clear picture of at least the last two, and even if they haven’t read the books, will certainly have heard of them. I venture to suggest, as a thought experiment, that if you were dropped at random into one of these worlds you would soon be able to guess which one it was.

There has been a lot of fantasy written since these worlds were created, but not much that competes with them in iconic status and recognisability. Try thinking of names of other worlds, and “Discworld” is the only one that springs readily to my mind. At the border where fantasy and science fiction blur, there may be others – but what in fact are modern writers doing with fantasy worlds? Is sub-creation, as Lewis called it, their primary concern?

Here follows a roundup of some of the ‘other worlds’ I myself have encountered in children’s and YA fiction. I’d be interested to hear of others.

First of all, there are the other worlds which are a slightly different version of our own. An obvious example is Joan Aiken’s wonderful alternative Georgian England – not Georgian at all, of course, because the Stuart kings are still in power, and instead of Bonnie Prince Charlie, we have ‘Bonnie Prince Georgie’ and a whole series of wonderfully bizarre Hanoverian plots to bump off the reigning monarch and put him on the throne. We know we are not going to get historical accuracy, so we play a happy game of follow-my-leader through the wildest places. Pink whales (“Night Birds on Nantucket”), a sinister overweight fairy queen in a South American Welsh colony (“The Stolen Lake”), a plot to roll St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames in the midst of a royal coronation (“The Cuckoo Tree”), foiled by tent-pegging it down from the back of a galloping elephant… That one initial twist, parting her fantasy world from history, gave Aiken permission to let her imagination loose. And her imagination was powerful, joyous, puckish. Her books are always full of energy, but they can also be eerie, sad. It’s a long walk in the dark/on the blind side of the moon, a character sings in one of her short stories; and it’s a long day without water/when the river’s gone…

Diana Wynne Jones followed Aiken’s lead: many of her books are set in alternative universes that closely parallel our own except for one crucial difference: the existence of magic. Indeed, she goes so far as to suggest that the absence of magic in this world is something of an aberration. Each world diverges from the next in its ‘series’ because of a different outcome to some historical event – Napoleon winning the Battle of Waterloo, for example. Since every author is inspired by others, it wouldn’t be surprising if this had been suggested by Aiken’s books. And the ‘In-Between Place’ in ‘The Lives of Christopher Chant’ owes something in concept, though not in presentation, to Lewis’s ‘Wood Between the Worlds’ in “The Magician’s Nephew”: a neutral, mediumistic jumping-off ground between universes. Again, the main advantage of escaping the confines of our own world and its history is to allow Wynne Jones’ imagination free range, and perhaps also to enable us to consider our own world from an outsider’s point of view. (Handled interestingly in ‘Power of Three’ where the threatening Giants turn out to be, well, us.)

Fascinating, fun, and sometimes thought-provoking though these books are, they are not – and were never intended to be – creations of fantasy worlds in the classic sense. But they share a purpose with the next one I’m coming to: Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’.

Discworld has grown enormously over the series. It began – in “The Colour of Magic” as a spoof, a comic take on sword-and-sorcery novels, with characters like the incompetent wizard Rincewind and the warrior Cohen the Barbarian. It was brilliant comedy, spot on the mark. But Pratchett was too good a writer to remain content with such an easy target. The books rapidly deepened and became more serious of purpose (though still extremely entertaining). Discworld fits the criteria for an instantly recognisable, self-contained imaginary world. It is carried through space by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle. It has a consistent geography, with its central mountain range at the Hub, the Ramtops, the city of Ankh-Morpork, the cabbage fields of Sto Lat; its directions (hubwards and rimwards rather than north and south ). There is nowhere quite like it... except that nearly everything in it is a deliberate borrowing from our own Earth, viewed through a slightly distorting fantasy lens that paradoxically allows us to see it rather more clearly. I don’t know of a more passionate advocate than Pratchett for racial and sexual equality. We might be reading about dwarves and trolls, but we’re not fooled. When Commander Vimes employs trolls, werewolves, dwarves, zombies and vampires in the City Watch, it’s not because they all live together in Ankh Morpork like one big happy family. Read ‘Feet of Clay’; read ‘Equal Rites’. Discworld, like the worlds of Aiken and Wynne Jones, sets Pratchett free to say exactly what he wants in a way quite different but not less seriously intended than so-called ‘realistic’ fiction.

But does fantasy have to have a ‘message’? Can’t it just be for entertainment? I wouldn’t like to pronounce on that, but I do think that it has to have a purpose: you have to know why you are writing fantasy and whether, as C.S.Lewis said about children’s fiction, it’s the ‘best medium’ for what you want to say. The charge of ‘escapism’ so often levelled against fantasy, implies that reading and writing fantasy is a frivolous occupation. Even if that were true, I see no reason why it should be disapproved. Plenty of human occupations are frivolous, yet no one objects: popular music, days on the beach, fashion, eating out, good food and wine. Yet many of us who love fantasy feel there is something more to it than this, that at its best it can provide something essential to the spirit. Escape, as either Lewis or Tolkien pointed out, is judged according to what it is you are escaping from. If reading fantasy impairs us for real life, that would be bad, but it’s by no means proven.

Many children and teenagers develop their own private fantasy worlds – perhaps because it’s healthy to stretch the imagination? I had one of my own. Once upon a time I was the imaginary leader of the red horses of the sunset clouds... my name: ‘Red-Gold’. My friend was the leader of the white summer clouds (‘Cloud’); our adversary, the black horses of the thunder. It was obvious enough (and of course I was horse mad), but it gave me a lot of pleasure and sent me off to sleep composing adventures. To give you a feel for the intensity of the thing, here’s a prose poem I wrote when I was twelve:

And out of the mist come horses galloping, born of the wind with wings like to it, dancing and running, plunging through the cool air, out of the golden, out of the glory, straight from the sun as it shines through the mist: dazzling, glorious, horses of the morning, horses of the sunrise, horses of the dawning, shining horses of the steel-blue sky. 

Can’t see it did me any harm at all. But here are three interesting books which study the effects of fantasy worlds built by young people, and ask what purposes they serve for good and for harm.

The first and earliest is ‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest, published in 1961, part of her series of novels/school stories about the Marlow family which began with ‘Autumn Term’(1948). Forest was a writer who transcended genre, and her well-characterised, insightful stories (now reprinted by Girls Gone By) are well worth attention. In this one, set during the Christmas holidays, the younger Marlows and their friend Patrick begin using an old stable loft (‘Peter’s room’) as their daily meeting-place. Inspired by the Brontë sisters’ Angria and Gondal, they pass the time by inventing an imaginary world with themselves as characters – role-playing, if you like. Gradually, their fantasy characters begin to exert influence on their real lives. It nearly ends in disaster...

Forest was writing with unusual foresight about the seductive power of role-playing (think of Second Life) – but also, the book is about the creative process – the way characters develop lives of their own and often take their authors and creators in unexpected directions. When Patrick’s ‘avatar’ – the heroic sounding ‘Rupert Almeda’ evolves into a traitor and coward, it throws Patrick himself into existential doubt. Is he really Rupert? Who is he? Forest is in no doubt that the process can be extremely dangerous. The reader doesn’t have to follow her all the way, though. It could be argued that role-playing is (usually) a safe way of exploring the possibilities of individuals and relationships. Just so long as it doesn’t take over…

A more playful but no less thoughtful exploration of the subject is Jan Mark’s “They Do Things Differently There” (1994) in which two bored and lonely teenage girls living in a very ordinary new town called Compton Rosehay, form a friendship by inventing an utterly bizarre alternative neighbourhood called ‘Stalemate’. Local landmarks become ‘Lord Tod’s Corpse Depository’ and ‘The Mermaid Factory:

“There is a mermaid factory?”
“You know that big iron barn place at the end of Old Compton Street, just opposite the bus stop at the end of the slip road.”
“Where it says O GLEE...?”
“That’s the place.”
“It’s got petrol pumps outside; I think it used to be a garage.”
“You may think so,” said Elaine, “but remember, here in Stalemate what you see is not necessarily what is there. Earth’s fabric hath worn thin. The real Stalemate is all about us, but we only get occasional glimpses of it. You’ll just have to take it on trust. It’s a mermaid factory.”

In this book, the fantasy world the girls create is the basis of the friendship between them. The book’s a celebration of the delights of invention and imagination, and of the joy of finding someone else with the same sense of humour. In the end, though, as the name suggests, you cannot stay in Stalemate. You have to move on.

The most recent book I know which looks at this subject is “The Traitor Game” (2008) by B.R.Collins. Michael and Francis share an imaginary world called Evgard, involved in bitter civil war, with a city called Arcaster. Michael invented it, and it’s been a refuge from the bullying he endured at his last school. Now Francis has been allowed in.

There was only one other person who knew where Arcaster was; who even knew it existed: Francis. It was as secret, more secret, than a love affair or a drug habit...
And sometimes… when they worked on something together, and ... when both of them were talking about Evgard, arguing, joking, pushing at each other for ideas, Michael felt like he could stretch out his hand and nearly, nearly feel the world of Evgard beyond the real one... He’d catch Francis’s eye when he looked up from his drawing, or hear him say, ‘No, but no, you couldn’t get from Than’s Lynn to Arcaster in two days, it’s winter, you’d have to go the long way round, via Gandet and Hyps,’ and suddenly he’d want to grin like an idiot. It was crazy, they were fifteen, for God’s sake, it wasn’t like they were kids, but here they were inventing a country.

So when Michael believes Francis has betrayed him, his emotions are catastrophic; and the betrayal occurs in Evgard too. This is a dark unflinching book which delves deep into jealousy, cruelty, anger and fear.

All three of these very different books are powerful explorations of friendship and selfhood, and the dark as well as the joyful side of the impulse to create.

And so we move on to wholly self-contained invented worlds. (I’m still excluding Elfland, which seems to me a different kettle of fish, and I’ll explain why some other time.) Some have been created for the sheer delight of experiencing something fantastical and other: but in the best fantasy that is never the be-all and end-all. They still have something to say. Katherine Roberts’ Echorium Sequence is a good example:  it reminds me of the Earthsea books.In the first volume, "Song Quest":

The day everything changed, Singer Graia took Rialle’s class down the Five Thousand Steps to the west beach. They followed her eagerly enough. A Mainlander ship had broken up on the reef in the recent storms, and the Final Years were being allowed out of the Echorium to search for pieces of the wreck.

Already the reader has picked up hints of reservations about the culture which treats a shipwreck as an excuse for a class outing. The task of the Singers on the Island of Echoes is to spread healing and harmony; they are the diplomats of their world, and are able to talk with the Half-Creatures, such as the Merlee who live in the sea and are trawled for by sailors who sell their eggs as delicacies. The boy, Kherron running away and picked up by fishermen, is told:

“You wait right over there with your bucket. When we draw them in, there’ll be lots of wailing and shrieking. Don’t you take no notice. Soon as we toss you one of the fish people, you get right in there with your knife. No need to wait for ‘em to die first. They ain’t got no feelings like we humans do. Got that?”

Kherron does – but soon:

Soon he was surrounded by flapping rainbow tails, coils of silver hair tangled in seaweed, gaping mouths and gills, reaching hands, wet pleading eyes – and those terrible, terrible songs.
“Help us,” they seemed to say.
He shook his head. “I can’t help you,” he whispered... [He] watched his hand fumble in a pool of green slime and closed on the dagger. He began to hum softly. Challa, shh, Challa makes you dream...
The creatures’ struggles grew less violent. One by one their arms and tails flopped to the deck, and their luminous eyes closed. Kherron opened their guts as swiftly as her could and scooped out handfuls of their unborn children. It helped if he didn’t look at their faces. That way he could pretend they were just fish.

This is strong stuff, and Roberts is clearly interested in the differences between a superficial adherence to peace and harmony – the soothing songs of the Singers, the diplomatic missions – and the blood and guts reality that it may not be possible even literally to keep your hands clean. Colourful adventures in imaginary places don’t have to be anodyne: even heroes and heroines may do some very bad things. But in YA fiction, the learning process is usually what counts, and hope is never forgotten.

John Dickinson’s fantasy trilogy – beginning with ‘The Cup of the World’ (2004) – is a more downbeat series. It’s set in a claustrophobic medieval-style kingdom, in a world pictured as held in a vast cup and circled by a snake or cosmic serpent. All of the characters are flawed: civil war is rife, and the main characters are themselves descendants of invaders from over the sea. Long ago, their ancestor Wulfram led his sons against the indigenous hill-people, whose goddess Beyah still weeps for the death of her son. It’s an intricate story which no brief summary can do justice: but the narrative is dark and fatalistic, with a gloom bordering at times on pessimism. This trilogy is a great corrective to the notion that fantasy is all about crude oppositions of good and bad, white and black. The main characters’ best intentions can lead to disaster, and often their intentions are selfish anyway. The descriptions of the world are lovingly detailed and rich, the writing is beautiful, and these are books I greatly admire. They are well worth reading – but not if you happen to be feeling low.

Last, and most recent, Patrick Ness’s trilogy “Chaos Walking” is set on another planet. I haven’t really had time to discuss science fiction, and the border between sci-fi and fantasy is blurred at best. Is this a fantasy trilogy? Why not? There is no reason other than convention why a fantasy world has to be (a) medieval and (b) in some other dimension. The books ask: is there ever an excuse for violence? And there isn’t a clear answer: Todd, the adolescent main character, has a good heart and wants to do the right thing. But, the books ask, how do you know what the right thing is? Can you trust your own judgement? Are people what they seem? Can even first love – the most intense of experiences – sometimes be a selfish excuse for doing harm to others? Like Katherine Roberts’ Kherron, like Antonia Forest’s Patrick, Todd learns that you can’t always keep your hands clean.

I enjoyed “Chaos Walking” immensely, but began to feel towards the end that I could have done with just a little less non-stop, breathless action, and a little more world-building. This is a trilogy which takes the moral choice to the level of a sixty-a-day habit. I loved the first book the best, maybe because there was more leisure to examine Todd and Viola’s (and Manchee’s) surroundings:

The main bunch of apple trees are a little ways into the swamp, down a few paths and over a fallen log that Manchee always needs help to get over…
The leap over the log is where the dark of the swamp really starts and the first thing you see are the old Spackle buildings, leaning out towards you from shadow, looking like melting blobs of tan-coloured ice cream except hut-sized. No one knows or can remember what they were ever s’posed to be…
… I start walking all slow-like up to the biggest of the melty ice-cream scoops. I stay outta the way of anything that might be looking out the little bendy triangle doorway… and look inside.

There are so many other books with fantasy worlds – Susan Cooper’s “Seaward”; Jan Mark’s “The Ennead” and “Riding Tycho”; Sally Prue’s “The Truthsayer” trilogy – but I have run out of space. These titles surely show that modern fantasy writers are still creating all sorts of other worlds for all sorts of different reasons.

So next week I want to go into that a little further. Why do we do it? And what are the pitfalls? When shouldn’t you be writing fantasy?

What’s it all for?


  1. Thanks for yet another nice, long, interesting post!

    Such a nice surprise to see Peter's Room. The build-up of intesity is stunning...A good cold book (in the wintery sense) to read on a hot summer day, too!

    I spent a lot of time with my sisters being a herd of wild horses...I've tried to be a wild horse again, as a grown up with my boys, but it wasn't the same. Sigh.

  2. Ah - it's so nice to meet someone else who reads Antonia Forest! (and was also once a horse...)

  3. As a cat I never did get the horse thing but I will be interested to learn when you think fantasy should not be written.
    I think that, in order to work, fantasy has to be "believable". Even when the world which has been created is strange and different there has to be something about it which we can relate to from our own experience. If that does not happen then the writer does not communicate with the reader.
    Interestingly Antonia Forest had something like a fourteen year gap between her first and second books and Peter's Room came after that. I wonder if she could have written it any earlier. I have always felt that particular book had a long gestation period.

  4. Yes, that's a good point. Long gestation. Like for the LOTR: can be important for fantasy. This cheers me a little: currently feeling rather overwhelmed by my latest WIP, which is going at a glacial pace and has taken me a year and a half of thinking about already, and clearly needs more. Hope not 14 years. But on the other hand, if it makes a better book, why not?

  5. Reading your wonderful posts saves me money. Who needs workshops when you give us so much to think about for free?

    I appreciate your comment above about taking time to gestate ideas. I think we are in the midst of an era when people (even very creative people) think things should just come, and tend to hide the hard work that went on behind the scenes. This is a disservice to young people starting out and a disservice to one's peers.

  6. Cathrin, I found writing easy when I was in my teens. But it gets harder with each successive book. Self-criticism is one reason.

    The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne/
    Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge.....

  7. Kath, was really enjoying this post and noting down some books I haven't read yet... and then discovered my own book! Flattery will get you everywhere...

    But seriously, a very interesting discussion of fantasy and why we feel compelled to write it, highlighting the vast range out there from Terry Pratchett's humour to things like Peter's Game (which reminds me a bit of David Almond's work). Having just read Patrick Ness, I would agree about the rather simplified world building unusual to fantasy - and yet maybe his world is deliberately simple so that the moral questions can shine?

    From my experience of writing fantasy, I think long gestation periods are absolutely necessary if you want a detailed, believable world - even God took seven days! But no book is instant, is it? For me, the actual physical writing time for a first draft is about 3 months, but before that comes many years of creative work/research, and between drafts I need at least 2 months to let the story settle before redrafting. Writers don't earn very much per hour, that's for sure!

    Oh, and can I please join the fabulous sunset horse riders?

  8. Please do join, Katherine - maybe the collective noun for fantasy writer should be 'a gallop'?

  9. I really enjoyed both parts of this post... also makes me want to re-visit the books I loved as a child and that made a long lasting impression on my directions - especially Earthsea...
    Very interesting points about role play - Over the years I (and we) have developed many complex worlds with their own political and social histories through playing D&D but in our own way. It definately helped me in my writing to develop characters with depth and complexity (when I had time to write)
    Creating new characters, histories and societies is something I always loved... and sometimes after a point I think they kind of take over and continue creating/evolving themselves to leave you as more of an observer or chronicler...

  10. As ever much to consider - and I am so pleased that you saw the depth in Terry Pratchett that has evolved.
    The 'escape from' concept was Tolkien's, I think, by the way.