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.

solarpunkimages

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.


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.

 


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.


So what’s my next novel going to be?

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me mentioning this: I’m working on a new novel. Worldbuilding began at Furnal Equinox while I was sitting at my dealer’s table, and I’m nearly finished a chapter of rough draft.

Concept art of the new novel's main characters. (Can you tell I like drawing birds more than drawing humans?)

Concept art of the new novel’s main characters. (Can you tell I like drawing birds more than drawing humans?)

It’s still very rough, of course, but the tentative title is Tinderstrike. This is the story of Eino, a middle-aged woman who’s been working the fields for decades and has very little to show for it. If she hopes to provide for herself in her declining years, she’ll need some extra income. So Eino secretly goes out trapping in the forest — and in her inexperience, she gets stuck in one of her own traps. Unable to free herself, she uses communication magic to call a phoenix (which are highly intelligent, crow-like birds, known for using flint and pyrite to start fires). And after the phoenix uses Eino’s knife to cut her free, the phoenix makes off with it. Since that knife was Eino’s most valuable possession — and part of her retirement resource — she has to find that phoenix.

But the phoenix didn’t just take that knife because it’s shiny. She’s trying to pay off a looming price of her own — to the leviathans, a race of subterranean water dragons that humanity knows very little about.

Tinderstrike takes place in a fantasy realm loosely based on the Himalayas and surrounding Asian countries. The dry, high-altitude climate means that local plant life is mostly coniferous. Magic-rich flowers are rare and valuable.

Why does Eino have deer-like ears and horns in the concept art? Because in this world, humans develop animal traits as they age. It’s thought unseemly to be anything except a human, so non-human features are kept covered up with clothing as much as possible. Full transformation in old age is thought to be worse than death. Eino has early-onset deer features, so she was abandoned by her upper-class family at a young age, and now her time to provide for herself is growing short.

This is part of the new writing direction I was talking about. It’ll have plenty of non-humans with viewpoints of their own, but it’ll also have broader appeal (I hope) than the Stories of Aligare. I’ll let you folks know when Tinderstrike is near completion!


Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi

What is it about flight that fascinates us humans?

I mean, our angels and demons can usually fly. Our dragons can usually fly. Our spirits and supernatural things tend to waft around with no regard for gravity, and our superheros can often lift off with just a thought. There’s got to be something about flight that fascinates us on a primal level, enough to bleed through into our fiction and folklore. We liked the concept enough to invent machines that make it possible. But mechanical flight is a reality for the human race now, and we don’t seem bored of it. Maybe science fiction isn’t as obsessed with jetpacks as it was 50 years ago, but fantasy genres still have plenty of angel and dragon characters with the gift of flight.

Why? Well, flight usually involves wings, and wings can be a real visual treat. Those angel and dragon characters almost always get a scene where they dramatically unfurl their wings. Fairies and sprites get wings prettier than any ball gown. Mechanical wings might be sleek and efficient-looking, or complex pieces of artwork. Wings are an accessory guaranteed to make an impression.

But that doesn’t explain all the beings that simply float whenever they wish. It’s the act of leaving the earth behind that gets us — although cool-looking wings might be icing on the cake. Flight is freedom. Flight is graceful and uninhibited. And it seems that way because humans can’t do it with just our terrestrial ape bodies.

So in fantastic fiction — where we want to see amazing, inexplicable things — flight shows up a lot. How do superheroes fly? Maybe there’s a brief mention of magnetism, wind or telekinesis, but many simply soar upward because they choose to do so. It’s cool and we wish we could do it, too. And of course we’re willing to ignore the logistics of how a 10-ton dragon can fly. If there’s a bit of mumbling about internal air sacs or hollow bones, yes, sure, that’s good enough for most SFF fans. Let’s just get to the part where the dragon flexes its wings and launches skyward, with the wind rushing through its rider’s hair.

Personally, I put a lot of thought into my korvi race’s physical structure— their bones and muscles and feathers, those physical apparatuses that are compliant with flight on Earth. Firecasting magic charges their reptilian bodies with energizing heat for flapping. That same heat provides a bit of lift — and as I’ve brought up before, blimp mechanics are a pretty cool touch in dragons. But as much as I wanted my Aligare dragon folk to seem plausible, I’ll never go full science fiction. The inexplicable really does have a certain joy to it. Korvi might have physical similarities to birds, but would they be able to fly in our Earth skies? What is their essential magic really made of? Could firecasting strength be measured and rationally understood? I think those questions are best left unanswered. By me, anyway.

What do you like best about flying characters — the science or the fantasy? Share in the comments!


Salterra sickness

ferringroupsketch

Remedy is a story of medical drama. Mostly because of the gripthia, which strikes aemet villages in sudden epidemics — but there’s also the minor player, salterra.

Salterra is a ferrin illness, and a genetic one. “A demon that clings to family lines”, Aligare folk say. It makes sticky fluid accumulate in the airways, causing coughing and breathing difficulty in young kittens — sometimes severe enough breathing difficulty to kill them.

Steam and herbal medicines can ease the symptoms and save lives. If a salterra-afflicted ferrin survives to adulthood, they’re out of the woods. The symptom left is lower fertility than normal. If that ferrin tries to have children, they’ll have moderate difficulty concieving and a smaller litter of kittens than usual, maybe only two or three. That’s why I called the sickness salterra: it salts a person’s earth, making it harder for them to grow children of their own bloodline.

In Remedy, salterra adds another layer to Peregrine and Tillian’s complex relationship. Peregrine promised to look after his first earferrin’s family line, which took on a greater significance when that first earferrin’s mate brought salterra to the bloodline. Long-lived Peregrine and his mate Giala have tended several litters of ferrin kittens and helped them survive. They set pails of water on the hearth fire and sat up late with coughing kittens.

 

“Most of your litter took herbed steam for three weeks.” Peregrine swallowed; the motion didn’t loosen his tongue any. “Wellis needed the steam longer that. It wasn’t as trying for him as for your mother, though.”

A pause – like Tillian could taste the vinegar of understatement, or imagine the way Kelria had nearly smothered to death – and she squirmed deeper into Peregrine’s feathers. “The steam really helped us?”

Their breathing had seemed to flow easier after a steam treatment, to Peregrine’s panic-sharp senses, but he had never once asked a Redessence kitten. He was too busy with the thought that they might choke so soon and never have their chance to live – Ambri help them, it wasn’t fair.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 9

 

It only adds to Peregrine’s burden of guilt. He doesn’t see this as just saving sick kittens’ lives; somewhere in his deepest-buried thoughts, he believes that these friends wouldn’t be sick at all if he hadn’t asked them to be hearing assistants to a deafened miner. It’s another imposition Peregrine has made. And since Tillian was sick when she was small, she’ll have a hard time having a litter if she decides to do that. That’s just one more reason Peregrine wants to push her away, so she’ll stop being an earferrin and find a life that’s really hers. (Not that Peregrine wouldn’t look after Tillian’s kittens if they carry salterra. He’d just think angsty, angsty thoughts and not tell anyone about them.)

I added salterra as a parallel to the main gripthia plotline. Both sicknesses force a person to rely on the generosity of others or else they won’t be able to draw another breath. Relying on others is how Aligare society works, but usually not in such an immediate way. It’s an element I added to early drafts as an experiement, and hey, salterra ended up being another serving of food for thought.


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.


Aligare weather and its lack of cold

The Aligare land is one country-sized area protected by magic. It’s a self-contained biome, basically. The Great Gem in the sky provides heat and light like a localized sun. That heat and light is distributed evenly with the help of the Great Barrier, a field of casting energy that reflects most light and heat inward.

greatbarriersketch

Not entirely to scale, but you get the idea.

Inside the Barrier, weather behaves pretty much as we humans would expect it to. Rain comes and goes. There are occasional severe storms. Wind currents can pass through the Barrier, so they move clouds around, sometimes exchanging moisture between the outside wastelands and the habitable land. Okeos the water god might move rainclouds around if he doesn’t like the way they’ve distributed. Similarly, the high gods Bright and Dark might alter temperatures to keep the land running smoothly.

Other than the occasional thunderstorm or dry spell, weather in Aligare is fairly stable. It’s temperate all year round, averaging about 18 degrees Celcius (64 degrees Fahrenheit), and never coming anywhere near the freezing point.  There are three seasons: budding, reaping and waiting season. Budding season is prime growing season, warm and rainy. Reaping season is when harvests are gathered, as the weather becomes less favourable. Waiting season is cooler and dryer than the others. The seasons are subtle and they’re not a life-changing event to anyone other than farmers and foragers. Plants can still grow in waiting season: they’re just not as productive.

Because Aligare weather don’t have dramatic changes in temperature,  a warm season or a cool wind are relative. The difference between warm weather and cool weather is just a few of our degrees. So korvi often dislike the cool of shady forests, and aemets might put on more clothing for warmth — but a human would find their world pretty comfortable. Ferrin have fur to help conserve body heat — but it’s not the dense, layered fur of a creature that needs to survive cold climes.

And because the inclement weather never produces snow or ice, Aligare characters have a poor grasp of the idea that water freezes at a specific temperature. They don’t even use the word “cold” except in reference to the fabled Cold apocalypse where plants die and water turns to stone. Frozen water is perceived as very, very scary.

snowfield

But despite thinking of frozen water as some kind of terrifying supernatural rock, Aligare folk do know more or less how it behaves. They describe it as either crystal that burns when you touch it, or rounded piles of nothingness. How did they get this information? Maybe a watercaster once honed their technique enough to discover ice. Maybe someone worked up the nerve to step through the Great Barrier and peek at the snowy wasteland outside. Whoever saw the phenomenon of snow/ice would surely tell everyone they knew — and the urban legend would spread.

The author who developed this world? I’m Canadian. My surroundings go from 30 degrees C in the summer to -40 degrees C in the winter. I’m used to extremes of temperature, so I guess my idea of an exotic fantasy climate is unchanging mildness. And I hate being cold, so there’s wish fulfillment mixed in there, too.


The Middling circle, an aemet tradition

The Middling circle is mentioned fairly often in my stories of Aligare. This place and its customs are very present in the daily lives of aemets and their allies.

Actually, though, the Middling circle is many places: the name refers to a ceremonial space every Aligare town or village has. Each community’s Middling circle is a short walk away from the busy heart of the community, ideally in the forest or at least near some trees or thickets. At its most basic, the Middling circle is just an open space with a few stones marking a circle.

Kind of like this. (Photo © Jim Henderson)

Kind of like this. (Photo © Jim Henderson)

Established communities usually use nicer stones — like quartz crystals or metal-studded ore — interspersed with statues of the thirteen Legend Creatures.

On a daily basis, aemets save up their household plant trimmings in a big basket. Anything that won’t burn cleanly in the hearth fire needs to be returned to the plant goddess: starchy root peelings, moldy trimmings, tough green stalks, and leftover medicinal herbs. Plant pieces are never carelessly thrown away — not by aemets or in front of aemets, anyway. Then, on the 15th morning of each month, everyone takes their full baskets and walks to the Middling circle. This is a community event, a time of togetherness and light hearts. Folk sing in praise of the plant goddess Verdana and all that she provides. It’s an aemet tradition, but the town’s korvi and ferrin are welcome to participate if they want to (and they often do). All of the town’s plant scraps are added to piles within the stone circle, then everyone goes back to their homes and has a nice meal. Not a special fancy feast. Just a nice meal. Meanwhile, the piled plant scraps begin their return to the earth.

compost-heap-3-DHD

Yes, the whole Middling custom is just glorified composting. It’s a ritual of putting organic material in a specific place to rot. But it certainly seems like a miracle, the way people’s unwanted cuttings transform into a dark, rich soil that nourishes new plants. It surely must happen by the plant goddess’s will. Aged compost soil from the Middling circle is shared back to the community whenever gardens or farmland need fertilizer, and it’s treated with mild reverence. Middling soil isn’t a sacred artifact or anything, but it does have a lot of heart involved in its making.

Someone esteemed always tends the Middling circle, someone well-regarded in the community. It’s usually someone deeply spiritual who wants to be closer to Verdana, since the Middling circle is about as close to a church as aemets have. This groundskeeper turns the trimming piles to aerate them, adds the right amount of soil and water, and keeps living plants from overgrowing the space. Plants are dissuaded with non-violent methods, of course: either digging them up and relocating them, or using elemental casting to ward them away.

This Middling circle custom is a vital part of every Aligare community. Even korvi-majority towns have some local crop production, and the few aemets living there are usually more comfortable when they have a familiar Middling circle to visit. After a time of crisis, it can be soothing to do a familiar task like carrying potato peelings to a quiet forest clearing.

Of all celebrations, Rose never thought she would be so glad for a simple Middling. New morning gemlight spilled down on Fenwater’s main street; dozens of friends milled around the gathered baskets of plant trimmings; it was normal and beautiful. Even with four fellow aemets singing salvation hymns into the clear air. There was no telling how long folk would sing, but salvation songs, at least, spoke of relief and serenity as much as mourning.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 24

But why the name “Middling”? For the same reason it’s honoured on the 15th of every 30-day month. Plants are as vital to life as air and water, so they’re ordinary, in a sense. Each month’s Middling reminds folk that ordinary things are important. Beginnings and endings might be showier and more memorable, but the middles must never be taken for granted.

Another fun fact? Between their insect traits, their forest homes, their agriculture, their female deity, and that Middling circle custom, the aemet race made me think of leafcutter ants. That’s where I got the name aemet (from the Old English ǣmete and later emmet, meaning “ant”.)

It’s just another piece of life in Aligare.


How science helps fantasy

I had a bunch of VHS-taped cartoons when I was a kid. One of them was The Flight of Dragons, an animated fantasy movie that came out in 1982. It was from the golden age of family viewing, when moviemakers could use ten-dollar vocabulary and mention hell in front of The Children.

The Flight of Dragons used a lot of stock fantasy ideas, namely a rag-tag group of adventurers journeying to stop a dark wizard because destiny says so. They receive some magical artifacts with very specific uses. Oh, and one of the adventurers is a 20th century man dragged magically into this realm he doesn’t fully understand. These were well-worn storytelling tropes even at the time, but my kid self wouldn’t have known. And those tropes are just a base to support the more interesting themes of the movie.

As I watched and rewatched, one really interesting concept sank into my young self’s imagination. In the The Flight Of Dragons, the magical world is being weakened by the onward march of science. Magic exists by its own mystery and people’s faith. Science, on the other hand, seeks out unknowns and exposes them. The two schools of thought can’t coexist. And yet, science does need magic. As Carolinus the Green Wizard tells it:

“The world, though it does not realize it, cannot do without magic. For example, man hears of the dragon’s invulnerable skin and lo, he makes armour, battleships, tanks! A fairy flies, and furiously jealous, man himself defies gravity with machines he will call airplanes. A magician looks into his crystal and sees and hears halfway across the world. Ah, says man! If only it could be so! Centuries from now, he conjures up miracles and calls them radio and television. If man is to surmount the unsurmountable, there must always be magic to inspire him. The world needs magic! Magic cannot die.”

It’s true. Science makes its greatest discoveries when humanity is trying to achieve a goal. When someone imagines a better future and tries to build a path there, science can make our fantasies a reality.

The scene that stands out most for me is when the 20th century man, Peter, has been accidentally merged into a dragon’s body. So the dragon Smrgol needs to teach him to be a dragon, including how to fly.

Smrgol: [After directing Peter to eat gems and limestone:] It makes the fire in your belly that gives you lift.

Peter: Hmm … Limestone is high in calcium. Calcium, when mixed with stomach acid, would form hydrogen. Hydrogen is lighter than air, thus giving the lift you talk about, something like a blimp!

Smrgol: What? [Sighs.] You got fire inside you when you go up. That’s all you need to know.

Peter: No, that’s not logical. How could my ribs contain fire?

And then Peter makes Smrgol explain anatomy and “dragon-fire” so he can draw a diagram, all the while getting excited that dragon flight makes scientific sense. It’s a more interesting premise than “dragons can fly because they just can”.

I didn’t specifically remember this scene until I rewatched the movie as an adult. But I think it has played a major role in my storytelling tastes. Fantasy and science can work together even when the story is firmly rooted in fantasy ideals. In fact, science can lend credibility to a fantasy story. Among strange spells and prophecies and kingdoms, it can be a pleasant surprise to find that our modern Earth physics and thermodynamics still make sense. It suggests that this fantasy world isn’t so strange we can’t understand it.

When I think of inspiring fantasy stories, I actually don’t think of many books. Which is weird for a writer, I’m sure, but some messages are bigger than the media they come from. And marrying concepts — such as science and fantasy — can make for more thought-provoking tales.