The inspiration behind Wings of Renewal

Today’s post is a guest post by Claudie Arsenault, editor of the upcoming anthology Wings Of Renewal. It’s a collection of solarpunk dragon stories — and hey, any interesting spin on dragons has my full attention! But what was the inspiration to combine eco-positive science fiction and dragons? Take it away, Claudie!

 

2015-08-12 solarpunk anthology front titles

 

The Inspiration Behind Wings of Renewal

Ever seen an image so stunning you just had to write something about it? Read about a new technology that sent your mind spinning with possibilities? I think most writers have felt the thrill of sudden inspiration at one point or another, the solid desire to produce fiction, right there and then, based on something heard or seen.

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Solarpunk does this to me all the time. Might be why I love it so much! There’s something about the Art Nouveau aesthetics, the incredible sustainable techs, and the marvelous gardens attached to it I just can’t get enough of.

So today I wanted to present three of the inspirations that went into Wings of Renewal, a solarpunk dragon anthology I curated with my friend and co-editor, Brenda J. Pierson.

 

China's Great Green Wall

  1. The Great Green Wall

Let’s start with a cool, currently-occurring African initiative, shall we? The Great Green Wall is a project to plant a long and wide line of trees all along the Sahara’s southern edge. Its goal is to prevent further desertification, and to help communities in the area. The initiative goes well beyond planting trees and includes programs on ecosystem management and the protection of local heritage. As a whole, it seeks to mitigate climate change and improve food security for the local communities. The picture is of China’s very similar initiative, called the Great Green Wall of China.

And I mean, when you look at it, the Great Green Wall is huge undertaking by eleven African countries (Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and Chad), aiming to create a more sustainable and stable world for the communities involved. You hardly get more solarpunk than that! It’s no surprise, then, that defending the Wall against a terrible forest fire is at the center of Fighting Fire with Fire.

 

Fog Basking Beetle or Darkling Beetle (Onymacris unguicularis) drinking, Namib Desert, Namibia

  1. Darkling Beetles and water condensation

Did you know some beetles can condense dew onto their body and get their daily hydration from it? That’s how the darkling beetles manage to live in the desert! Now give this to a creative writer, and suddenly it’s not a tiny beetle with this ability, but a huge dragon! How much water could one create? Seven? A dozen? Enough for sparkling oasis with a thriving ecosystem? Why yes! That’s the setting in Lost and Found.

 

natasha-long-prosthetic-leg-by-melissa-ng

  1. 3D-printing

Solarpunk isn’t all about adding greenery to the desert. A lot of it revolves around making cities sustainable and accessible living places. 3D printing is a huge part of ‘accessible’ as it allows prosthetics to be created at low costs and high speed. And nothing says these can’t be beautiful and badass! So as a personal fan of everything 3D-printing can bring to a solarpunk universe, I was thrilled when the protagonist from Summer Project not only had prosthetics, but worked in a shop building some.

If you haven’t heard of E-Nable, watch this video! It explains how the organization uses volunteers with 3D printers all over the world to bring cheap (as in, low-cost) prosthetics to people who couldn’t afford it otherwise.

 

dragonsight-by_Donato_Giancola

  1. Dragonsight, by Donato Giancola

The last is not so much solarpunk inspiration as a painting at the center of Wanderer’s Dream, one of the last short stories featured in Wings of Renewal. But it’s a perfect example of what I mentioned at the beginning: sometime an image has a story, or a setting is too charming to refuse. And that’s what happened with Dragonsight and Maura Lydon.

 

So those are some of the inspirations that went into Wings of Renewal, but there are way too many for me to fit all today! I mean, what about vertical gardens? Beekeeping? Tree-shaped solar panels? Everything else I’m forgetting? Between, stunning aesthetics, world-changing goals, and sweeping technologies, solarpunk has all the inspiration you need.

Wings of Renewal launches on October 25th, 2015. You can preorder through Nook, Kobo, and iBooks right now, or add it on Goodreads. Amazon ebooks and paperbacks will be available on launch day.


That adorable octopus

In case you hadn’t heard the news, a new species of octopus was discovered this summer — and it’s really cute.

 

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Just look at that squishy little guy! The webbing between its tentacles gives it a bouncy swimming pattern, and the flappy little fins on its head are for steering. One of the scientists studying this new species has proposed calling it Opisthoteuthis adorabilis because of its adorable appearance. (At the time of posting, I couldn’t find word on whether the name is official.)

Mostly, I just thought my blog readers should see this octopus. Octopuses are neat! But adorabilis is also an interesting contrast to otherworldly-looking oceanic creatures, like nudibranchs and anglerfish. The sheer variety of life on our Earth should never be forgotten.


The evolutionary development of bird feathers — and how it affects my fantasy writing

Bird feathers are pretty amazing. They’re the most complex skin outgrowths found on any Earth animal, specialized for everything from basic locomotion to unique courtship displays. But as I’ve been reading in National Geographic and other online articles, the path to modern bird feathers was a long one.

 

A peacock in flight (Source: Wikipedia)

A peacock in flight. Yes, they can fly! (Source: Wikipedia)

 

Since Jurassic Park showed us bare-skinned dinosaurs in the 90’s, science has found feathered dinosaur fossils from as early as 124 million years ago. Feathers probably developed from reptile scales, which gradually frayed and enlongated. These early feathers could have been for waterproofing or insulating the body. But even in their early stages, feathers might have been used for courtship. A theropod would have to be in good health to spare metabolic energy on these extraneous growths, so attractive display feathers would have indicated a potential mate.

 

Over time, those straggly beginnings became a mechanism for gliding. And over even more time, birds’ bones and muscles adapted to allow flapping flight. Some feathered dinosaur fossils  have quill-like feathers on all four limbs, suggesting that some species experimented with a four-winged approach. We take sparrows and pigeons for granted when they flap around our cities, but these thriving creatures are the product of millions of years of biological trial and error.

Testing in 2011 showed that Archaeopteryx had at least some black-pigmented feathers. It was my favourite dinosaur as a child, but my library books always had colourful, parrot-like depictions.

Testing in 2011 showed that Archaeopteryx had at least some black-pigmented feathers. It was my favourite dinosaur as a child, but my library books always had colourful, parrot-like depictions.

 

The key to evolution theory is that it’s not a planned march toward perfection. It’s just what happens when life throws a bunch of stuff at the wall and, over thousands of years, figures out what sticks.  It’s kind of amazing how many animals have adapted to flinging themselves into the air on flat membranes: giant pterosaurs, insects, squirrels, bats and rainforest frogs. Birds just took a less intuitive, more difficult route. For their trouble, they ended up with a flight method well suited to specialization. Diving falcons, hovering hummingbirds, and albatrosses that can glide for hours are only some of the options. If real live Earth can produce such natural variety — under strict rules of physical efficiency — then I think our sci-fi/fantasy worlds should be even more richly built.

This sea hummingdragon was the most creative example I could Google up.

This sea hummingdragon was the most creative example I could Google up.

 

Fond of science fantasy as I am, I think feathers are a great tool for character design and worldbuilding. Korvi, the dragonfolk of the Stories of Aligare, have feathered wings as well as decorative feather manes. (Also, Tijo the mage might have been a deus ex machina in Remedy if I hadn’t inflicted moulting feathers on him. I clipped the character’s wings in an overly literal way!) And in the upcoming Tinder Stricken, phoenixes will use their feathers for flight, communication and more. The real mechanics of a bird’s physiology can make a good grounding element for a story full of magic and lore.

 

Thinking like this makes me want to see the fossil records of magical creatures. It might be tricky to balance scientific discovery with the faith-driven nature of magic — but wouldn’t it be cool to see the Archaeopteryx-like ancestors of glorious phoenixes? Or how harpies’ bodies changed over millenia? Hey, there’s something I’ve never seen done in a fantasy-type time travel plot: serious archaeology! I’ll add it to my To Write list.

 


Designing the phoenixes of Tselaya Mountain

I’ve been doing some rough draft work for Tinder Stricken, and a lot of thinking about the new book’s world. It’s been a while since I did extensive worldbuilding for a writing project! The Stories of Aligare setting has been firm in my mind for years now, with only the smaller details and customs that needed defining. It’s a nice change to design a completely different realm — and the creatures in it.

Which brings me to the phoenixes! Greek mythology usually refers to the phoenix as a large, magical, immortal bird that periodically douses itself in fire and rises up renewed from its own ashes. That renewal symbolism is a great selling point for a mythological creature and it’s been interpreted variously over the years, even embraced by early Christian symbolism.

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A phoenix, as depicted in FJ Bertuch’s 18th century book of mythological creatures.

The phoenix has differing physical descriptions, depending on which ancient text you consult. It’s usually said to have a crest of feathers on its head, and red/yellow colouring that suits a fiery creature. Other than that, they’re up to the individual’s imagination. Sometimes the phoenix is the size of an eagle or a rooster, other times it’s said to dwarf an ostrich. (I suspect that the stated size has to do with whether people wanted to carry the legend on their arm like a trained falcon, or ride it through the sky.)

There are other cultural representations of phoenix-like birds, such as the Slavic firebird, or the simurgh sometimes said to plunge itself into fire after 1 700 years of life. And some mythical creatures are loosely compared to the phoenix just because they’re legendary birds.

In particular, the fenghuang is often called a “Chinese phoenix”, although it’s not fire-aspected. Fenghuang are legendary birds associated with femininity, justice, honour and the various celestial forces, and sometimes used to symbolize the ruling empress. Fenghuang were originally described as elaborate chimera creatures (much like Asian dragons) but more modern depictions of fenghuang are mostly fusions of peacocks, pheasants, cranes, ducks and swallows. To be fair, they do look a lot like a Western phoenix.

 

A fenghuang on the roof of Longshan Temple in Taiwan. The structure was built in the 18th century by Chinese settlers.

A fenghuang on the roof of Longshan Temple in Taiwan. The structure was built in the 18th century by Chinese settlers.

 

And can we consider Harry Potter a legitimate folklore source for phoenixes? I think we can, since the series is so far-reaching. Fawkes the phoenix has the crest, long tail and colouration of a traditional phoenix, and he bursts into flames to recover from periodic death. His feathers are powerful magical items that can be made into wizarding wands. And Fawkes also has some less traditional special abilities — such as healing tears, teleportation, and an enormous carrying capacity — that phoenix lore is able to support. Surely, a creature magical enough to be healed by fire must have some other amazing traits, right? J.K. Rowling was able to put her own spin on the mythology.

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Fawkes, as seen in the Harry Potter movie adaptations.

 

Because much like dragons, the phoenix has a lot of long-standing mythology to draw from, but not many stone-set rules.  A phoenix can be recognisable while still being different from what we’re expecting. I love it when the fantasy genre does that!

I’ve used phoenix lore alredy in my Aligare world — as Phoenix the Legend Creature, said to cause volcanic eruptions each time she throws herself into the renewing “firerock”. Now, with Tinder Stricken, I’m using phoenixes in a more central role to the story. Much like my Aligare dragons being more approachable interpretations of Earth lore, and mundane in their own world, I’m making the phoenixes of Tselaya into more realism-based creatures. They’re not all-powerful legends. They’re just living things — and a part of the local ecosystem.

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Phoenix concept art, aggressively image filtered since my rough pencil drawings are usually too light to effectively show people.

These phoenixes are about the size of an eagle, with physiology like a combination of ravens and cranes. They’re omnivorous, snapping up passing insects and other opportunities, but the bulk of their diet is shoots, buds, fruit and seeds from high-magic-content plants. Because such plants are rare in the challenging growing conditions of Tselaya Mountain, phoenixes cultivate some of their food. They use flint and steel to start fires, so that they have fertile ashes to grow seeds and saplings in.

I thought that using striking tools to start their fires would be an interesting take on phoenix lore, since tool use is a well-known sign of intelligence in Earth birds. To that end, phoenixes have stringfeathers — two tough, cord-like tail feathers that they can use to help carry objects. The stringfeathers can be wrapped or tied around the phoenix’s cargo, including their prized bits of fire-starting minerals, or their gathered plant sprigs. The rest of the phoenix’s tail is forked like a swallow’s tail. I figured that a mountain-dwelling bird would face high winds, so they’d need a more practical, flight-assisting tail than the showy display plumes usually seen on a phoenix.

But the crest aspect of phoenix design suits my purposes. Partly due to intelligence and partly due to their magic-rich diet, Tselaya phoenixes are very good at communication. Their three crests of feathers help them express themselves.

Kind of like these hoopoes. Except with three crests.

Kind of like these hoopoes, except with additional, smaller crests for more nuances.

And an intelligent, fire-starting bird like that is bound to get on the wrong side of the local humans. Phoenixes are generally considered dangerous pests — but the best way to get rid of a wild phoenix is to have a trained phoenix talk to it and ask it to leave. When Tinder Stricken‘s main character has her family heirloom knife stolen by a wild phoenix, she essentially needs to fight fire with fire. (Huh, I just noticed how conveniently that idiom fits into my scenario.)

So I’m looking forward to working with my own take on various old lore. Phoenixes and similar legendary birds might be well-known and open to interpretation, yet they’re nowhere near as popular as dragons. And unlike werewolves and vampires — which are nearly their own genres — phoenixes don’t often get top billing in fantasy novels. I think that should change! The phoenix is one more aspect of speculative fiction that’s fertile ground for reinvention.


Human posture as a marker of anthropomorphism

I’ve talked before about anthropomorphic stories, where non-human beings have the traits of a human. Humans in fictional stories are often held up as an ideal that other life forms aspire to. But I’ve been wondering what we consider “human”, exactly. What really distinguishes us from other living things, the ones we call mere animals?

Well, intelligence is a big factor.  Humans are the only (known) higher beings with elaborate developments such as technology, art and the ability to learn other languages. But intelligence is a loaded concept. Just because a being can’t do a specific task doesn’t mean they’re too simple. Maybe they just didn’t understand what was being asked of them. Maybe they didn’t see any motivation to comply. Earth animals such as ravens, squid, elephants and whales have shown relatively complex behaviours such as tool use, problem solving and communication — but they can’t exactly take an IQ test. They don’t follow our standards, so it’s hard to measure what their full capabilities are.

Okay, so intelligence isn’t necessarily humans’ domain. Brainpower can be a vague and scary thing. And besides, when fantasy or sci-fi prompts us to define “human” traits, we often think of simpler, more concrete things.  Maybe human social constructs — such as being given a name at birth, or working at a job to earn money. That’s hard to sum up in a snappy way, though. You can’t exactly draw cover art to represent the concept of a name. This is where simpler aspects of anthropomorphism come in — like when we give an animal different physical traits! Distinctly human physical traits! Yeah, there we go!

 

My favourite moments in Family Guy are when Brian actually bothers to act like a dog.

My favourite moments in Family Guy are when Brian actually bothers to act like a dog.

So, let’s see. How to make an animal seem more human. Mammals and birds already have a lot of similarities with humans: a fleshy body supported by a bony spine; four main limbs attached to shoulders and pelvis; a head with two complex eyes; a mouth with one moving jaw. We find mammals and birds fairly relatable, as evidenced by all the mammal and bird characters in human cultures. And when mainstream media does anthropomorphize insects — and tries to make them look “friendly” or “relatable” or “less scary” — we can really see how many physical traits we take for granted.

 

It's enough to deeply annoy an entomologist.

Look at that humanoid torso and toothy mouth! It’s enough to deeply annoy an entomologist.

 

I think we can agree, though, that the human body has a few truly defining factors.

Terrestrial biped posture seems to be the trait most strongly associated with humans. We’re the only creatures on Earth who stand upright on two legs, walk easily on just those two legs, and use our dextrous forelimbs for manipulating objects. So when we’re fictionalizing our normal Earth animals into thinking beings, the quickest visual way to say “These are people now” is to make them straight-backed bipeds.

walkinganimals

If you think that such two-legged animals are always childish, I’d point at the rightmost picture and suggest that you actually read Animal Farm.

King Louie from The Jungle Book? Brian from Family Guy? Team Rocket’s Meowth from the Pokemon anime (whose backstory is surprisingly sad, as a warning)? They all relate to humans by mimicking human posture. Look at the poster for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie and you’ll see Rocket the bioengineered raccoon standing in a remarkably human stance. And when we’re creating alien beings from other worlds, we tend to assume that the tall, stately, two-legged aliens are the intelligent ones — and any other body type is a cute pet and/or vicious monster. I think that’s an alarmingly bigoted way to look at other beings, but it’s a shorthand often used in our fictional stories.

 

As a writer of fantasy and sci-fi, I always try to question norms before I use them. Why must intelligent species be bipeds? Would a species reasonably end up looking like us, if they evolved in their own speculative world? As much as I like Star Trek, I don’t think it’s reasonable that the path to sentience always makes a creature look like a makeup-decorated human. So I made sure to think about physical form while developing the non-human people in my Stories of Aligare. And since my ideal fantasy works hand-in-hand with science, I basically asked myself why these fantasy beings would develop into what they currently are.

 

differentpacespic

 

  • Ferrin are the most closely linked to their animal origins. They move like squirrels: switching between quadrupedal movement for running/climbing, and bipedal movement to free up their forepaws for delicate tasks. They have thumbs, if small and still-developing thumbs: they sometimes use their jaws to help hold and manipulate objects. (The other peoplekinds don’t put too fine a point on it.)
  • Korvi are dragons, and dragons can have as many limbs as they want because fantasy genre, that’s why.  But I looked mainly to birds when I was designing korvi, which is why they’re bipeds. I think the biggest design decision I made was using the classic lizard-like dragon tail as a third weight-bearing limb. Korvi are a bit top-heavy, so they walk on two legs but use their tail as a tripod leg while resting or leaning backward — somewhat like an Earth kangaroo would. They’re not very biologically realistic — with all those big, well-developed, metabolically expensive limbs — but that’s why korvi rely on their innate magic as a fuel source.
  • Aemets are a grab bag of insect and mammal traits, and they use a partial exoskeleton (their “shell”) in place of a mammalian spine. They might look humanoid at a cursory glance but if you X-rayed one, the story would be very different. They have two arms, two legs, and the vestigal traces of a second pair of arms buried in their torsos (like how Earth snakes have remnants of their ancestral leg joints). Aemets’ casting magic comes from the palms of their hands, so it seemed reasonable to me that they would use those limbs for dexterity, not for bearing body weight. Aemets are related to sylphs, which look much more bug-like, so I imagine that proto-aemets made some pretty dramatic evolutionary changes before arriving at the aemet characters I’m actually writing about. Maybe. Depending on how long it’s been since the gods created life long ago …

Long story short, an upright bipedal posture is one of the most significant parts of being a Homo sapiens. Anthropomorphic characters have human posture and body structure to make them more relatable — which is one thing when we’re talking about a humanoid tiger selling breakfast cereal. But in more meaning-laden fantasy and sci-fi, I think that human appearance is a tool to be used wisely. Two legs and a vertical spine don’t have to be directly related to intelligence. Fantasy races from magical worlds don’t have to be just humans with pointy ears. If we learn to understand living things who don’t physically resemble us, we’ve taken a big step in broadening our minds. That’s something I care a lot about.


Insect muscles and how they can change sci-fi/fantasy

I’m all for sci-fi/fantasy creatures inspired by real Earth animals. Just look at my own korvi folk, the bird-like dragons based on Earth’s own archosaurs. And look at the strangeness of sea creatures such as the nudibranchs. But we don’t need to look hard for inspiration in the deepest oceans and the distant past. Even a simple grasshopper can challenge what we know to be true about animal life.

Consider, if you will, this Science daily article about insect muscles — or lack thereof.

In a study published today in the journal Current Biology, the researchers show that the structure of some insect leg joints causes the legs to move even in the absence of muscles. So-called ‘passive joint forces’ serve to return the limb back towards a preferred resting position. The passive movements differ in limbs that have different behavioural roles and different musculature, suggesting that the joint structures are specifically adapted to complement muscle forces.

Basically, some sections of insect legs are just hard structures that flex under pressure and spring back into place — like a wooden ruler bent and released. This is more effective than muscle contraction alone when a sharp, powerful motion is needed.

But it certainly challenges our idea that muscles are responsible for movement. Mammals use structures like elastic tendons to store energy for quick movements, but there are further possibilities when an exoskeleton is involved. (And when the creature is as small and light as an Earth insect. As the ant demonstrates when it lifts many times its body weight, physics are less constraining the smaller you are.)

I think ideas like this have enormous potential in SFF writing. Sci-fi obviously delves into real science, hence the genre’s name. But fantasy can use it, too. How better to explain a being’s strange, amazing abilities than to make its body different from a human’s? What could people find if they cut a monster up and examine its parts? Or tend to another race’s wounds?

This is part of why I’m still sketchy on the exact details of my aemet race’s anatomy. I’ve been fascinated by dinosaurs and birds long enough to have a pretty good grasp on how korvi work. And ferrin are ordinary by mammal standards. Aemets, though … I always feel like the Aligare world’s insect/mammal fusions — the betweenkind creatures — should have structures that a human finds alien. Probably some biological tricks I’m not aware of. This idea of leg strength not always coming from muscles? That could very well be one of aemetkind’s secrets. My pacifistic folk could have leg joints more similar to a grasshopper’s than a human’s — the better for them to bolt away from danger.

Ideas like this make me hopeful that speculative fiction will never run out of ways to innovate. When a simple action like jumping can hold mechanical surprises, I don’t think we have any excuse to settle for the same old stuff we’ve been assuming forever.


Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar?

If you ask me, the best part of fantasy writing is the variety of creatures. We can go ahead and imagine strange beasts that don’t actually exist in our world. The weird part is that we’ve usually seen them all before. Mythical creatures are mostly just amalgams of more familiar animals.

Which makes them chimeras. Chimera often refers to the Greek monster that is a combination of lion, goat and snake.

600px-Chimera_Apulia_Louvre_K362

 

But the term can be used to refer to any fictional creature that is a mishmash of species. Even in real-life science, a living thing made up of different groups of cells fused together is called a chimera. So whether literal or figurative, many of the fictional beasts we know of are chimeras.

Because a griffon is a combination of eagle and lion’s physical traits. Add human characteristics to that and you’ve got a sphinx. Basilisks and cockatrice are combinations of chickens and snakes/lizards. A unicorn is fundamentally just a horse with a horn, but it’s traditionally depicted as having a goat’s beard, deer’s feet and lion’s tail. Even if they’re not explicitly described as “half this, half that”, mythical creatures are usually a mash-up of animal features we’ve seen before. They’re chimeras in spirit if not in actual DNA. Dragons are so common in Earth history because nearly every culture invented a reptilian creature that fit the  general description. Sometimes dragons have bat wings, fish scales, deer horns or a snake’s venom, but they still fit.

Metal_dragon_half_frontal_view

The people paint the dragon’s shape with a horse’s head and a snake’s tail. Further, there are expressions as ‘three joints’ and ‘nine resemblances’ (of the dragon), to wit: from head to shoulder, from shoulder to breast, from breast to tail. These are the joints; as to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam (shen, 蜃), his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow.

– Wang Fu, a Han Dynasty scholar

I think this happens because humans are hard-wired to prefer familiar things. When we’re struggling to understand a new idea, we try to compare it to things we already know. Heraldic unicorns probably weren’t actual genetic fusions of horses and goats: it was just easier to describe them as having  “a beard like a goat”, and trust that other Europeans know what a goat looks like. So even if we’re inventing a nightmarish monster that doesn’t really exist, we seem to prefer that it look familiar.

We learn from the world around us, and from the experience of others. We draw from what’s already been established in our world. So inventing a completely new animal is actually pretty hard. And on the off chance someone succeeds, we usually compare it to Earth animals anyway. It hunts in groups? Oh, like lions! It has a venomous bite? Ah, like a snake! A four-footed herbivore that humans can ride? Much like a horse! That makes description much easier but, well, what’s the point of inventing a distinctive wild animal for your fantasy world if people are just going to think of it as a “lion-snake”, anyway?

 

Sci-fi finds it more worthwhile to invent completely new animals. It’s unreasonable to think that everything in a populous universe will look like an Earth animal — and a truly foreign creature can reinforce the idea that we’re not in metaphorical Kansas anymore. Fantasy, though, has stronger ties to human history and the things we’ve thought since antiquity. So fantasy creatures are naturally going to look familiar, I guess. And what’s more fantastic than a chimera, an impossible blending of very different animals? As much as I wish fantasy would stop leaning on old tropes, there are reasons behind most of these norms. And mixing animals together has as many combinations as there are creatures in nature.


Normal is relative: a look at Earth’s nudibranchs

Hello, friends. I’m here today to talk to you about the genus Nudibranchia.

Yes, the nudibranchs. Often called sea slugs, although that’s not technically accurate (apparently, “snail without a shell” is not synonymous with “slug”). This is a widely varied group of creatures, with over 3 000 known species. And most of them are pretty crazy-looking. I mean, just look at these things:

8-horns-back-714

1-green-striped-714

4-horns-striped-714

25-green-dotted-714

All these pictures are from a National Geographic photo gallery, click any image to go check it out.

The vivid looks are usually for either camofluage — for blending into colourful corals and anemones — or for warning predators that nudibranchs are not delicious. Which is pretty normal for Earth life, actually. But nudibranchs still look strikingly out-of-this-world. I’ve seen SFF enthusiasts using unaltered pictures of nudibranchs to represent aquatic dragons, or extraterrestrial life.

Which is why I’m talking about nudibranchs today. Because of how bizarre they look to us. It’s easy to think of Earth life as some homogenous group of “normal-looking” animals with legs and eyes and certain proportions. Humans and other primates, our pet dogs and cats, our poultry and hoofed herbivores in the barnyard. Maybe some songbirds and pest insects. Then you look at the creatures crawling around on the ocean bottom and you’re stuck with the fact that, wow. That comes from the same planet as us. We follow the same set of rules.

They say that the human race knows less about the ocean floor than we do about outer space. Which is probably why some aquatic creatures seem like they’re straight out of speculative fiction. I mean, some nudibranchs eat corals and other lifeforms that contain stinging cells. Those cells pass harmlessly through the nudibranch’s digestive system and collect in its appendages, giving the nudibranch the ability to sting. Nudibranchs steal the biological weapons of other animals. That’s a skill we associate with fantasy shapeshifters and nightmarish aliens — but these little marine snails do it all the time.

And that’s going on right now, on our carbon-based planet. In the crevices we just don’t notice while we’re doing normal human stuff. Now there’s food for thought.


Aligare wildlife: the sylph

While building the Aligare world, I drew a lot of inspiration from Earth’s history of evolution. Nearly every living thing that has ever inhabited this planet has other creatures similar to it, splintered off from some common ancestor. We humans are very closely related to the great apes, but we can also look at monkeys, tarsiers and lemurs and see a vastly extended family. I wanted my Aligare races to see some different cousins living among them, too. For aemets, those distant relatives are the sylphs.

Earth mythology says that sylphs are air spirits. Sometimes they’re invisible beings made of magic or emotion. Sometimes they’re physical creatures similar to fairies. They probably have wings and they’re probably feminine, and that’s about all folklore agrees on.

sylphs

Well, that left me plenty of room to worldbuild! I mostly drew on the fairy-wing part of the mythos, and the idea of whimsical, flighted beings. Aligare sylphs look more like dragonflies. Like so:

sylphcolour

Like their aemet relatives, sylphs are betweenkind. Their skeletal system is a mixture of bones and chitin plates; they have mammalian eyes and insect antennae; their body temperature hovers around lukewarm. Sylphs lean more heavily to the insect side, though. They have two pairs of wings, and a simplified circulatory system made possible by their small size. Sylphs have airsense, but it’s much less sensitive than aemet airsense: sylphs mostly detect moisture in the air, so they can sense incoming storms and make sure to find shelter.

Sylphs are herbivorous, eating mostly lichens, mosses and exposed roots. They spend most of their time in flight, preferring open spaces and mountain peaks. Their skin and shells have speckled camofluage colouring, for some measure of protection while they’re on the ground feeding.

These creatures are social. They’re usually seen in lively colony groups, buzzing in playful circles and chirping a wheep-wheep-wheep cry to one another. Particularly brave sylphs might fly closer to a person or large animal for a better look, although they’re too skittish to really interact with. The Aligare peoplekinds think of sylphs as “luck bugs”, creatures who brighten your day just by allowing themselves to be seen. But because they are betweenkind, sylphs are affected by some of the same disease demons that terrorize aemetkind.

Tillian peered down. “Is that a sylph?”

It was a stick-shaped body, mottled with lichen-dull colours, shimmering where its clear wings caught light. Hiding in plain sight, indeed. Peregrine stepped around it, placing his feet careful in the muskeg. “Yes. They watch folk when they’re alive, though. The easiest way to sight them is by the sparkle in their eyes.”

“It’s– Oh.” Fur brushed against his neck as Tillian turned. She likely watched the still little body in their wake, mourning that no one had helped it.

“We’ll see more of them around here,” Peregrine said. “The same as that one. Sylphs are betweenkind, so they catch gripthia, as well. The only time they aren’t good fortune is when they turn up dead.”

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 10

Aemets have no gene theory, and they still think of sylphs as far-flung relatives. That’s not much of a stretch, though, when aemetkind considers trees and plants to be their sisters. It’s all part of the highly flexible definition of family that Aligare society lives by.


The history of lichen: how I build ideas

When I’m planning a story, I often begin by browsing Wikipedia for a few hours. I like to call it Wikiwalking — moving from link to link like I’m searching some intellectual forest, hunting and gathering resources. Trivia often sparks an idea for my world of Aligare (or, at the very least, I learn some stuff.)

When I was scrutinizing an earlier draft version of Render, I knew the main character Rue had a logical, straight-forward nature. She needed a family trade that would suit her — something different from the artisans and tradespeople seen so far in Remedy and Ravel. Rue needed a job that was … math-like. Or scientific in some way. Not the math and science academia we’re used to here on Earth, but someting more folksy and practical.

Personally, I’ve never cared for math, and I prefer science as means of talking about animals, plants, minerals or maybe cool explosions. I’m not the most knowledgeable about how to apply those maths and sciences to everyday stuff. So I began Wikiwalking for some suggestions of jobs based in math and science. After half an hour or so, I ended up on the page for pH, a form of chemistry often tested with litmus paper. And there I found the trivia I was looking for:

Litmus is a water-soluble mixture of different dyes extracted from lichens, especially Roccella tinctoria. It is often absorbed onto filter paper to produce one of the oldest forms of pH indicator, used to test materials for acidity.

Really, I rhetorically asked my computer screen? I had just vaguely assumed that litmus paper was a recent invention, made in some artificial laboratory. But nope, it comes from this plant:

BBBB2205.sized

Okay, technically lichens are composite organisms made up of fungi and algae. Close enough for my purposes.

Humans have used lichens to make dye for centuries. If Roccella tinctoria or something like it grew in the Aligare world, plant-savvy aemets would figure out its properties, too. They wouldn’t understand pH balance quite the way we do, but many plants do have a soil acidity preference, so pH testing would be relevant to Aligare farmers. Maybe even ambitious foragers who want to understand the land better. I could easily imagine Rue mixing soil and dye with some sort of small field kit, working precisely and mapping her surroundings. Perfect!

I didn’t even have to stretch very far to name this useful lichen. On Earth, Roccella tinctoria doesn’t seem to have a common name; people just call it lichen. But the second half of that Latin name works fine for my purposes. It’s a distinctive word without being hard to pronounce, and it vaguely resembles the word tint, so it hints at the colour-changing nature of pH testing. In Aligare, the lichen is called tinctoria and the people who use it are tinctors, who practice the trade of tinctoring. Fantasy nomenclature doesn’t get much easier than that! More evidence that I had found the perfect bit of trivia for the job!

Sometimes I remember that it’s weird to get genuinely excited over some biology information on Wikipedia. But hey, it’s part of being a writer. If I didn’t love searching for trivia and adapting it into a fictional world, I wouldn’t be writing fantasy. And sometimes, to make stuff up, you need an intellectual loan from the real world.