When I was a lot younger, I ran a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in which…
No, really, stick with me. This is leading somewhere, I promise.
When I was a lot younger, I ran a D&D campaign in which the world of the setting was vaguely egg-shaped, but the atmosphere was a globe, leaving the “tips” of the oval outside said atmosphere. The sun also rose in the north and set in the south, and the planet had east and west poles.
It drove some of my players nuts. It had no possible scientific basis, and led to a number of (friendly) arguments. And sure, it was pretty silly; heck, I didn’t even do much of anything with those “dead zones” at the planet’s tips, I mostly just kept them around (after the first few discussions) as a way of digging in my heels in regards to the arguments.
But it did get me thinking about something, not merely as regards that particular D&D campaign setting, but fantasy settings–in writing, tabletop games, video games, what have you–that I’ve come back to, time and again, over the years, even as my tastes in fantasy and world-building have changed and matured.
Why does the world need any basis in science? Sometimes, “Because the gods said so” is sufficient explanation.
I find it interesting that most fantasy worlds–and I stress most, not all–seem to attempt to straddle the line between a divinely created world and one that evolved through scientific (or at least semi-scientific) principles. The gods exist in many of these settings, without doubt, without the need for faith. They appear to main characters, walk amongst the populace. They are. From stories based on ancient mythology–Greek, Norse, Aztec, what have you–to stories set in secondary worlds, the gods are frequently active and manifest.
Yet the instinct among most writers–and again, that’s most, not all–is still to make the worlds in which they write conform, for the most part, to scientific laws of construction. Obviously, magic and monsters exist, but I’m not talking about details of that sort. I’m talking about core aspects of the world.
Why is it spherical? Why assume that it orbits the sun, and the moon (or moons) orbit the world? Why can’t the world be flat, with edges dropping off to infinity? Why can’t the sun literally be a god who awakens and flies across the sky each morning, as so many ancient myths believed it to be? Why can’t the moon be the sun’s sister goddess, constantly pursuing and being pursued, who sheds her own silvery light rather than merely reflecting the radiance of the sun?
Why can’t the planet be shaped like an egg?
I’m not talking about going too crazy. The world still needs to be able to support characters that the reader can empathize with, still has to follow enough of the laws of physics for suspension of disbelief. And maybe that’s where the disconnect lies. Maybe most writers–and I don’t necessarily exempt myself from this–have trouble suspending their own disbelief if a world differs too much from what we expect, from what we believe is possible. And of course, it’s easier to write a world that more or less corresponds to the real once, simply because it’s less to make up and keep track of.
Exceptions exist, of course. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series takes place on a world that is literally a disc, on the back of four elephants, on the back of a turtle. But Discworld is a humor/satire series, and I have no doubt that many readers who accept that worldview in such a series would balk at it appearing in a more serious context. Other settings–such as Weis and Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle–do make use of impossible worlds, but as “supporting” worlds for Earth itself. (In effect, mirroring the traditional “Elemental Planes” that are prevalent throughout much of the history of role-playing games.)
Nor am I suggesting that the presence of active and manifest gods justifies an author cheating. Worlds still have to be internally consistent; the laws can’t just change on the author’s whim, not if s/he wants to write a good story. Divine intervention should be used, if at all, to further the plot, not to solve it.
No, all I’m suggesting is this: In the real world, there’s at least potentially a scientific explanation for things being as they are. If you choose to believe that God or gods are responsible, you must have faith, and it’s certainly possible to choose not to believe. But in a fantasy setting where divine beings are undoubtedly and concretely real, where the world was unquestionably created by a collection of higher powers without regard to what’s scientifically possible, then there’s simply no need for that world to physically resemble our own.
Not all fantasy, of course. I don’t want all fantasy, or even most of it, to go this route. (Heck, most of what I’ve written so far myself doesn’t do much with this notion, though I have some ideas for the future…) But occasionally–let’s say in a significant minority of cases–I’d really like to see fantasy settings go further afield. I’d like to see them be more than just “a world very much like ours that happens to have magic.”
Make it flat. Make it endless. Make it hollow. Make it an egg. Because that’s what the gods wanted it to be, and really, who’s going to tell them otherwise?
ARI MARMELL is the author of The Conqueror’s Shadow (Spectra) and Agents of Artifice (Wizards of the Coast). His forthcoming novels include The Warlord’s Legacy (Spectra, January 25, 2011) and The Goblin Corps (Pyr Books, mid- to late 2011). He’s also contributed to about 2,479 different role-playing game books, for two different editions of Dungeons & Dragons and several of White Wolf’s World of Darkness games. The Conqueror’s Shadow is now available in mass-market paperback; you can read a free excerpt by clicking here.