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A Rather Cranky Post on Verisimilitude in Fantasy

Monday, January 26th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

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.

13 Comments »

  1. Good Post

    I went and did a little research while doing a second draft of the novel I’m currently working on and found I had to double the number of camels I needed to haul what I wanted the characters to take with them. I even threw in a couple extra ones for safety’s sake.

    I’m going to have to go and get that book sounds like it would help with research in general.

    I would also like to know what you read that has pseudo-Celts with coffee and sugar, that would be a laugh.

    Comment by David-J-West - January 26, 2009 7:33 am

  2. Now you’ve got me thinking about horses. I think I may just get that book.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - January 26, 2009 10:29 am

  3. Hear, hear. But you neglected to mention the other side of it: verisimilitude being broken because of ignorance on the reader’s part. As a writer, I find that even more frustrating than when I’m reading and verisimilitude is broken. There’s no point in explaining the real world to critics and reviewers, but a good whack with a clue-by-four can sure be tempting.

    I was disappointed with _The Tough Guide to Fantasyland_. I guess I haven’t read many of those fantasies, as most of the entries seemed like filler. (But then I’d read something like Eragon, which appears to have been entirely crafted from entries in _Tough Guide_, and nod sagely.)

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - January 26, 2009 11:08 am

  4. Yay, camels! They have camel beauty contests here. Who could have made that up?

    A note on Tough Guide–it’s not an encyclopedia but a satire of cliches, so you won’t find the answers to all your research questions. I also had the experience reading it of thinking I hadn’t read a lot of the books she had, but then I’d hit another entry that was spot on.

    Regarding reality-challenged readers and reviewers, once you send a story out into the world you lose control of it, including how people will read it. Partly the problem is that reality is often much stranger than people think. For my most recent story (“Pelago,” Feb. Asimov’s) I did some research on how deep people could dive without pressure suits and discovered the world of competitive extreme diving. Record-holders have gone down 200 meters with no equipment except a wet suit–and that’s a 8 or 9 minute swim back up to the surface with no air. Who could have made that up?

    Comment by Judith Berman - January 27, 2009 2:16 am

  5. A great post, with lots to think about. I’d only note that the answers to biological issues won’t necessarily be cut-and-dried. I looked into the menarche thing when I was writing “Payment in Full” and found that the Hippocratic writers put the time of menarche at thirteen. There’s been some dispute about whether this was valid, but I figured that made it good enough for wordbuilding purposes.

    Probably the main thing is not to use the elements thoughtlessly. A horse that performs like a car because the writer hasn’t thought about the difference between a horse and a car is a cliche. A horse that performs like a car, or better, when the writer knows full well the limits of an ordinary horse, can be pretty interesting (e.g. the mighty Morgenstern vs. the other horses in the Amber series). A duellist should never breach courtesy except on purpose; likewise a fantasist should never breach realism except on purpose.

    Comment by James Enge - January 27, 2009 11:05 am

  6. Hmm. Well, in defense of Iain M. Banks, there’s two things to keep in mind: firstly, that the main character in Excession‘s desire for a 40-year pregnancy was indicative of a deeply powerful neurosis. So, the average woman’s response to pregnancy is necessarily not a good comparison.

    The second thing is that most of the reasons that women don’t want to prolong pregnancy have to do with the enormous amount of discomfort that it causes–something that is basically a non-issue among the ultra, almost superhumanly healthy members of the Culture.

    This is pertinent; Banks created a universe where an implausible thing is really kind of plausible: that is, if you accept his universe’s rules at the outset, then the ordinarily unbelievable things should fit.

    But if swordsmen are swinging around swords without regard to health (and, speaking as a long-time fencer and Western Martial Arts enthusiast, let me say that a medieval longsword is even heavier and more unwieldy than a katana–so heavy that parries are much less likely actions than simple displacement), and horses are running a million miles a day, then the author has implicitly suggested that there is a new, special rule governing horses that was heretofore undiscussed. It feels cheap.

    Weirdly, I was just having a conversation about this–author’s accuracy versus audience flexibility–on another site. It had to do with Wonder Woman’s new armor; on the one hand, her new armor was insanely idiotic from both a practical and aesthetic standpoint. On the other hand, she could fly and was super strong, two characteristics which are already unbelievable.

    Do I demand realism, in which case how can she fly on her own power? Or do I accept non-realism, in which case I shouldn’t be surprised if she turns into a jar of nuclear marmalade and starts belching Edwardian script?

    Clearly, some kind of compromise is in order.

    Comment by braak - January 27, 2009 3:27 pm

  7. I understood that in Excession she was supposed to be neurotic. I just couldn’t believe in that particular response. It’s not a health issue, it’s the badly distributed extra weight, the way all your interior organs are squished….

    I think that the way you make the impossible believeable–whether it is the Culture or Wonder Woman or magic swords/horses, is in fact by embedding it in what feels utterly real (even if it isn’t really mimetic). Readers have to be able to identify at some level with the characters, be able to place themselves in the scene, or they won’t experience the story.

    But belching Edwardian script… that’s starting to sound like Garth Nix.

    Comment by Judith Berman - January 28, 2009 1:58 pm

  8. Oh, and about menarche. I was reading some compilation of medieval sources and most texts (although they all followed one or two authorities) placed it between 13 and 15, but of course they didn’t distinguish in terms of income level or nutritional status. A French study I was just looking at cited statistics of 15 being the average age in the 18th c. Malnutrition may well have been more extreme in the decades before the Revolution. Average was about 12.7 in the mid 1990s, varying slightly by country. It’s falling more with rising obesity rates.

    Comment by Judith Berman - January 28, 2009 2:04 pm

  9. No, I agree. I think the question is just “how much needs to actually be real”? Obviously, the story doesn’t need to be completely real, otherwise there’d be no such word as “Fantasy” in the first place.

    I think this is really interesting because of how it leads to structural world-building elements: essentially, in fantasy or science fiction, reality can be deviated from only explicitly. Any time the author has not specifically given a cause for deviation, the audience presumes that the standard “Natural Default” rules apply.

    In fantasy, the deviation can be a little easier, because by explicitly saying “Magic,” you can include a lot of attendant implications that, by convention, are acceptable to a lot of fantasy readers–though, again interestingly, not to non-fantasy readers, who will still complain about how the weight-to-wingspan ratio of a dragon makes flight completely impossible.

    You and I disagree about Excession not because we disagree about what “Reality Standard” is in terms of pregnancy, but because we disagree about the implications attached to Banks’ explicit depiction of Culture science: for me, the implication suggests that any physical discomfort is eliminated by their super-advanced techno-health, even in extreme biological conditions. But since Banks never says that, there’s room for you to reject that implication, and thus view Excession as an unforwarned deviation from the reality standard.

    Comment by braak - January 29, 2009 10:39 am

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