I am one of the few who saw Conan the Barbarian on its first release. The theater was the now-demolished but then-infamous theater in downtown Philadelphia that one commentator referred to as the Budco Take-Your-Life-In-Your-Hands Goldman theater. Our Conan experience at the Goldman was not life-threatening, if you don’t count my feelings as I watched Schwarzenegger, too ‘roided-up to hold a sword with both hands–although my now-spouse did find a large knife under his seat, which he handed over to the management. We were the lone viewers except for one other man who, whenever Sandahl Bergman brandished her sword, began to exclaim, “She’s hot, oh, man, oh, baby, she’s hot!”
This space has seen several posts over the last few weeks on the topic of fantasy and realism. Today I’d like to gnaw on another bone, and that is fantasy and verisimilitude. Swordsmanship is a good enough place to start. Now, a confession. I am no master of the sword and know basically nothing about European styles, and I have not touched a bokken since arriving in Dubai. I do, however, have a basic understanding of Japanese sword work, and have done tens of thousands of sword cuts in my life, a few even with a genuine medieval samurai sword. I have learned from experience why the Japanese invented shiatsu. So, all that swinging and whirling swordsmen do before they actually have at it? Imagine your life is threatened and what you have to defend yourself with is a cast-iron frying pan. Are you going to play like a majorette with a baton? Or conserve your strength, block if you need to, and watch for a chance to hit your attacker with it very hard? Swordswomen are another topic that makes me cranky. I’ve been a martial artist for nigh on 30 years, and I have no doubt of the the capacity of women to be effective fighters, but most women will never have the upper body strength that men can develop, and unlike men can’t substitute power for good technique. See: frying pan analogy.
What is the obligation of a fantasy writer to supply verisimilitude? None, really; a writer’s job is to tell a story. Is it bad for adventure fantasy to be thinly disguised wish fulfillment? I mean, we all need some in our lives. With swordswomen and other woman warrior figures, I’m completely down with presenting women as powerful and physically capable–as heroes rather than stock victims. The problem for me comes when writers supply false information. A best-selling YA series has a couple of spunky teen girls proving themselves as warriors–but omits all mention the real physical hurdles they would have to overcome as women. Because girls and women are so often the victims of physical violence in our society, it’s a disservice to pretend you don’t need more than spunk to defend yourself against a strong, aggressive male.
And, OK, if a writer is literate enough to write and publish a book, couldn’t he or she manage some basic research into natural history and astronomy? There is enough ignorance in the world without broadcasting more through sheer laziness. A passage in a fantasy novel I read recently described the crescent moon setting at sunrise. Now, class, why is this impossible? Because the crescent (waning or waxing) moon lies between the line of the earth’s orbit and the sun, which is why we can’t see the whole lit orb. Even if you can’t picture how they all move (and I can’t mostly), simple observation will tell you that the full moon rises at sunset while the thinnest crescents rise in the morning. Alas, this type of error is not a rare occurrence in the genre.
Horses, OMG horses! How long can a horse gallop before it founders from exhaustion? I don’t know, but I’m not going to find out with my horse, unless I’m trying to kill it. If I ever really need a figure for a story I will research it, but meanwhile my fudging rule is that if an athletic person can’t do it, a horse won’t be able to, either. Of course, human beings can run a very long time if they train. Never mind marathoners–the Tarahumara of Mexico hunt deer by running them down. A human being can’t run faster than a deer, but can run longer. Note I said longer, not faster–have your horse trot rather than gallop.
I’ve sat through enough panels where cranky sf writers sneer about fantasy being easy “because you can just make everything up.” I am an annoying geek on the topic of verisimilitude, and my workshop’s catchphrase for this habit is “the age of menarche.” I’ve forgotten the instances where I brought this up, but apparently it was more than once, because now they mock me with the words. The point must have been something to do with the nutritional status of people who make their living via subsistence agriculture. An otherwise useless factoid stuck in memory since graduate school: the average age of menarche (onset of menstruation) for girls in Sweden in the 19th century was seventeen; teenagers as we know them are a product of high fat consumption. World commodity trade patterns are another issue that arouses my inner pedant. Where did early iron-age pseudo-Celts get the coffee and the sugar they are humping with them on their quest?
Americans are famously ignorant but even those, like Britney Spears, who think Canada lies overseas, usually know quite a bit about something. One of the strongest arguments for verisimilitude is that if you get something very wrong and readers know it, they lose faith in the rest of what you’re telling them. In Iain Banks’ Excession–OK, sf not fantasy–there is an unresolved relationship issue that supplies the overall character-development arc of the book. The reader is introduced early on to the woman in the relationship, who has remained nine months pregnant for forty years… The author obviously never ran this by a woman who had had a child. No woman would voluntarily remain nine months pregnant for two more hours, never mind forty years. I disbelieved everything else about those characters for the rest of the book. The author had squandered his credibility when he should instead have been convincing me he could tell no lie.
A reference work I recommend to every aspiring fantasy writer (and an amusing read for others) is Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. She takes on horses there along with stew, taverns, bare-chested northern barbarians, and many other non-verisimilitudinous institutions of fantasy. Fantasy is made-up stuff, but to tell me a story you have to make me believe in it.