Fantasy needs some science

By Scott Bury

Good fantasy writing has to maintain a strange tension, a balance that makes fantastic elements that are patently impossible believable.

The weekend before last, Chantal Boudreau wrote about basing her fantasy worlds and mythologies on the mythologies of Sami, Thracian, Serbian and Native American people.

I think this is a great idea for any writer of fantasy, because it adds many layers of meaning and symbolism to your writing. And it inspires a lot of ideas, too.

I did the same with my first published novel, The Bones of the Earth. While I made up the cosmology, all the mythology expressed by the characters, and many of the characters themselves, come from the mythologies and religions of ancient eastern European peoples, including the Greeks, Slavs, Germans, Celts and Scythians. Doing this also helped me choose names that didn’t sound like I coughed them out.

This helps maintain that balance and sustain the believability of fantasy because it adds some consistency. Any believable world-view has to have internal consistency. The readers have to be able to observe (through reading) causes and effects, and from those make predictions about further effects. As in, “Vampires don’t show up in mirrors, so this victim won’t see Dracula behind her as she applies makeup.”

In other words, a believable fantasy world needs some science.

Way back in the late 1970s, Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away applied the most basic law of the universe in creating a fantasy world: conservation of energy. The reasoning was this: magic required energy, so if there are witches and wizards who can, say, fly or animate a statue, where does that energy come from? Sure, the idea was sparked by the energy crisis of the time, and the story was pretty basic (a quest and a beautiful princess), but it was a refreshing take on the fantasy theme.

While I would never recommend that anyone do something similar to an existing work—I’m all about original ideas—I really like the idea of some kind of consistent underpinning, a single idea or a set of immutable laws governing the fantastical world. Sure, you can have monsters and wizards, magic spells and reanimated corpses, but there have to be limits, boundaries—rules.

Because if literally anything can happen, readers feel cheated. Even Superman has kryptonite.