Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nature in Fiction

I love nature. When my head is swirling around there is nothing better than going for a walk. One of the nice things about Brisbane is that its quite green, with plenty of trees and flowering plants and larger sections of forest accessible to most suburbs. I live near Toohey Forest, a large area of native open eucalypt forest on Brisbane's south side. Being in contact with living things and seeing that beauty is a welcome tonic.

That expression of nature is something that I also love in fiction. Its probably no accident that many of my favourite fantasy books feature characters that live in remote locations, with plenty of treks through the forests and anxious chases between hunter and quarry through the mountains. David Gemmell's books often featured a loner hero, living in the cabin in the woods. The wild country was a real part of the setting with most of his books, and the Rigante series is a good example.

A lot of the books that I have read depict European or northern hemisphere ecology - oaks, elms and holly, deer and rabbits etc. I have always enjoyed this setting in fiction, but when it comes to writing I am often torn about what to portray.

In contemporary fantasy, I describe what I see around me - the Australian forests and animals - and their magical equivalents. However, when the setting is a completely constructed fantasy world, the choices become less clear cut. Describing the typical Australian natives in this sort of imagined world would probably lead to bafflement on the part of non-Oz readers and perhaps even a feeling of discomfort for some of the Oz readers as well. Fantasy readers love familiar settings (yes, different enough to get published, yet familiar all the same). Sometimes I have taken the middle road and tried to create my own plants and animals, but this soon gets exhausting, and if the background setting is not going to be a feature of the books (e.g. Michael Swanwick, Neal Asher etc), then it is annoying and distracting for the reader.

So how do you handle natural settings in your fiction? Do you think it is essential or just backdrop? Who do you think has done it well?


Synova said...

I think that Bujold did particularly well in _A Civil Campaign_ simply by the way she named the plants stuff like Love-Lies-Itching.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Synova. Bujold certainly has a way with words. Love-Lies-Itching sounds a little uncomforable:)

The other one I thought of was the Robert Holdstock Mythago wood books. Although I always found them a reasonably dark take on nature.

Brendan said...

One of the things I loved about Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun was that it was the first time I had read something set in the southern hemisphere. When I noticed Severian travels north into warmer climes and jungle and rain forest It was a wow moment for this southern boy.

Anonymous said...

I like books where the background is not the usual European Medieval with fantasy flourishes and considerably cleaned up and PC.

Lois Bujold's Sharing Knife series, set in a fantasy North American Midwestern frontier.

Sarah's Fantasy British Empire has close to half it's influence in China.

I'd love a fantasy either set in Australia, or based on it. My into to Australia was through Arthur Upfield's mysteries. His version of the Outback is still what I think of, when I hear "Aus

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Brendan. I forget how people like to read somethng different sometimes. Nice to hear you appreciated the jungle and rainforest. I hope the character was doing lots of sweating:) Very humid.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. The Sharing Knife setting was different. I enjoyed that series, although I think it takes someone like Bujold to make that work at that pace (which I found rather slow).

You are giving me great ideas! My next Knight will be sure to ride a massive kangaroo. 'Curse thine Koala!' said Sir Humphrey. :)

Jim McCoy said...

I think the importance of a natural setting depends on the story, and sometimes the part of the story. Think about it this way:

In LOTR the merry band of adventurers passed through many lands. The land of Mordor and the elven woods (name escapes me)were both well described natural settings. But the woods that the Hobbits pass through at the beginning of the story are just kind of there. Tolkien just assumed that we knew what woods knew like.

As far as making up new plants/animals/etc. I would only do so if it were necessary. Anne McCaffrey gives us just enough foreign fauna/flora in her Dragonriders of Pern series to keep it interesting and useful. Thread has to be there because it's the enemy. I can't remember the name of the needle plants, but they were used in one of the stories when needles were needed to administer a vaccine. They were useful.

What drives me crazy is when authors create new fauna just to do it. If you describe an animal, which you call a yerble, as having long ears, and a fluffy tail and hopping around, I'm going to go "Oh, that's a rabbit," and just get frustrated. It's going to throw me out of the story. So why do it?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jim. I am right with you on the yerbies! I am a big believer in clarity in prose, and I see no reason to be baffling the reader with something if you can explain it more simply. It just gets in the way of the story.

An alternative, but very cheeky approach, is to call the thing a rabbit, then make a side comment about its horns:) Of course, that only works with the right sort of tone.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I love it when an author manages to weave the setting into the story in such a way that the setting is almost a character itself. Tolkien, Dave, Bujold, they all do it well. Sarah does it as well, not only in the Magical British Empire series but also in Darkship Thieves. Where an author will drive me crazy is when they use setting as a word pad. Or, and this is worse imo, when they recreate the world for a hundred pages book after book after book. I want a picture to be painted, yes, but it needs to make sense within the text and not take away from the story.

Dave Freer said...

I do love the rabbit is a smeerp brand of fantasy and sf (but a horse and human are just that.

I struggle terribly with urban settings myself. Wolfe is a good eg of using descriptive setting as an extra few characters - but I find I can only deal with a limited amount.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. Its a tremendous thing when its done well. Tricky balance to present the exotic without getting in the readers way.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. Can't wait to see the aliens landing on Mt Strzelecki in your next story. All that cloud cover must be a great asset:)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


One reviewer of my KRK book commented on the canals that are used as 'highways', so it is worthwhile doing research. I was thinking of the canal system in newly industrialised Britain.

Dan Hoyt said...

You want SF you can fall in love with this year? Look no farther than Sarah's Darkship Thieves!