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Crossing the Borders – Guest Post by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian

When I write a fantasy setting, it stays written. Ten books now, in the Shadows of the Apt series, and I’m still trading on the world-building that took place before the first one. New vistas, new kinden, new technological developments, but it all flows from the ground rules I determined right at the start. Even the revelations about the Worm, the adversary finally detailed in the tenth book – which push the insect-kinden envelope a long way from anything previous – build on early sections of Empire in Black and Gold about the nature of the world they all inhabit.

There are different ways of creating a fantasy world. Some writers can very successfully create on the fly – detailing each place and scene as they come to it, like someone walking about a darkened house and turning the lights on in each room they enter. I need a world I can stamp my feet on and find solid. If I was a terraformer, I’d be like those in Pratchett’s Strata – installing fake fossils to give my new-minted worlds a sense of logic and history.

However, fantasy – and specifically secondary world fantasy – is perhaps the only genre where you have this level of control. I’ve been stepping outside my comfort zone recently – I’ve written a near-future novella for Rebellion entitled The Bloody Deluge, coming out alongside two others in their Journal of the Plague Year. I also have a proper far-future sci-fi novel out next year from Tor UK entitled Portia’s Children.

I am a conscientious writer. What I mean in this context is that I am driven to pre-empt imaginary future readers who might beard me at conventions to tell me I got things wrong. Writing secondary world fantasy, if I get it wrong (i.e. screw over my own continuity) I can probably fast-talk my way out of it (and indeed have). The real world isn’t so forgiving. The Bloody Deluge is set in near-future Poland and Germany, after the bulk of the world’s population has succumbed to a horrible epidemic, and deals mostly with the often-horrible people who survived. The societies, the future history, the individuals and their actions, all these were within my gift. The geography, though, was something I had to look up. The locations are real places, albeit altered by what had happened (what was to come? Wioll haven be? My Streetmentioner’s a bit rusty). The people I write about – though I had a hand on the tiller of their future-presents – had all been around in the real present of today – they had jobs and hobbies, faiths and political affiliations that helped shape them into the survivors they became. All of that anchored me to the present in a hundred little ways. I spent a lot of time leaning heavily on Google and Wikipedia. And of course I’ve still got things wrong – the unknown unknowns, as the saying goes – but what can you do?

Telescope and night sky by fir0002Portia’s Children kicks off into the future double time, fairly rapidly consigning our civilization to death by fire and then picking up with the cultures that limp their way out of our ashes. Even so, I think I did more research for Portia than Deluge. What I wanted to get ‘right’ – which in this case I’ll settle for meaning ‘just about plausible’ – was the science of it, and since I do some fairly off the wall stuff that was something of a tall order. The acknowledgements for that book are going to be stuffed with more than a few PhDs. And, at the end of all that, there’s still at least some magicianly hand-waving going on in there, but hopefully it comes over as at least science fan fiction, if not actually 100% scientific.

Writing fantasy isn’t easier than writing science fiction. I don’t want to give that impression. The thing is, there’s a different skill set – and the same goes for historical fiction, urban fantasy set real-world modern-day etc. Secondary world fantasy – at least the way I go about it – has the same kind of workload, but it’s one of creation rather than research. Yes, you have complete freedom about how to build your world, but the downside of that is, you do have to build it, and do a good job, or it’ll fall over halfway through book 2. People read fantasy books for many reasons – some of these are shared with most other books: engaging characters, compelling plots, elegant use of language. Fantasy’s unique hook is the World of the Other, though. People love fantasy because it can take you to a place that they’ve never seen before, somewhere that owes nothing to the here and now, or even the there and then of the past or far future. But for a world to find a place in a reader’s heart, it must be well made, whether the author builds it ahead of time, or can spin it as they go. Middle Earth and Westeros, Bas-Lag and the world of the Malazan Empire live for people because they are made to last and built on strong and detailed foundations. They have a solidity and logic to them that makes them endure.

So, now that I’ve become a genre amphibian, where does that leave me? I think that writing secondary world fantasy is always going to be the main string of my bow. For all I’ve said above, the sheer joy of creating worlds is something I don’t think I’m going to be giving up any time soon – after Portia I have a new series scheduled, starting with The Tiger and the Wolf, which has a very different set of axioms from Shadows of the Apt (my tagline so far is “Stone age Hunger Games with shapeshifters”. Make of that what you will).

Science Fantasy by sykosanI am also looking at that weird sort of halfway house where SF and fantasy meet – that curious species of future fantasy popularised by Vance and Wolfe and Harrison, and which has ebbed and flowed in its own odd way throughout the history of both genres. There was a time when fantasy was very much SF’s poor cousin, so that Anne McCaffrey, for example, engaged scientists Cohen and Stewart to provide a scientific basis to her teleporting dragon-riders. There are many fantasies, from the 30s pulps onwards, through the Shannara series and Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, all the way to Mark Newton’s recent Legends of the Red Sun series, where the swords and sorcery take place in the shattered ruin of a fallen technology.

Where does all this fall on the scale, then? Wherever the author wills it. Wolfe’s three Sun series – New, Long and Short, are written overtly as fantasies, but if you take a step back, there is a scientific basis – often a very complex and deeply-reasoned one – behind everything that happens. It’s just that the characters don’t understand, and the science is often sufficiently advanced to pass for magic. On the other hand Vance’s Dying Earth is far more of a fantasy. The magic may well be rooted in technology, but if so it is so very advanced that magic is all that we see. As for where on that scale I end up, when I try my hand at it, only time will tell.

PlagueJournal of The Plague Year is comprised of three unique novellas: Orbital Decay (Cross), Dead Kelly (Harvey) and the previously unpublished The Bloody Deluge (Tchaikovsky).

In Adrian Tchailovsky’s The Bloody Deluge biochemist Katy Lewkowitz and colleague Dr Emil Weber flee the brutal cult of ‘The New Teutonic Order’ who are set on purging “undesirables;” as they take refuge within the walls of the Jasna Góra monastery a battle of faith ensues that could decide the future of humankind.

The collection will be out from Solaris on the 3rd July in the UK and 8th August in the US & Canda.

Be sure to pick it up!

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Nick says:

    Great post! This was really thought-provoking.
    I always try to add scientific explanation to my more fantastic elements. For example, how can these creatures breathe fire? Perhaps they use electric glands to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen: one for respiration and the other to create fire breath. That sort of thing.

  2. Avatar Kingaskean says:

    Great article. I’ve created 20 or more stories(still creating) and I realized each story can’t be treated as the same. I got a couple of secondary creation fantasy, some sci-fi, and urban. Each story has their own story, setting, structure. I can’t say, “alright, you’re all fantasy.” I say getting out of your comfort zone is the best, you start to see how you can expand your skills.

  3. […] în 2015, la Tor apare Portia’s Children, un roman SF scris de Adrian […]

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