You Can’t Get There From Here

You Can’t Get There From Here

The Charwoman’s Shadow Unicorn-smallAre Fantasy and SF the genres of travel? I think so. With the exception of brilliant pieces like Julie Czerneda’s recent Turn of Light – where the whole story takes place in one remote valley – most Fantasy novels, and a great many SF novels, involve travel or journeys in a significant way.

The Odyssey, with its hero’s encounters with Cyclops, gods, witches and other monsters, was probably the first fantasy story of any length. Nowadays we tend to think of “epic” as having something to do with scale, but all literature originally designated by that term involved a journey.

LOTR is the most obvious, and likely the most influential example of the modern Fantasy journey, but there are others.  Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow, and The King of Elfland’s Daughter, offer shorter travels, but predate Tolkien. We’ve seen quite a few more recent examples, such as  Elaine Cunningham’s Winter Witch, Tanya Huff’s The Silvered, and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, in which the journey forms the backbone and structure of the novel.

Quite a few of these, but by no means all, could be categorized as “quest” stories, where the heroes travel in order to achieve some external (or internal) goal – which makes us consider the fairy story, with its trope of the youngest child setting off to make his (rarely her) fortune.  Novik, Huff, and Joe Abercrombie, in his First Law series, however, have their characters travelling because of war – which, in a way, brings us back to Odysseus.

If we look at the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, Howard Andrew Jones’ Dabir and Asim Series, Dave Gross’ Varian and Radovan Pathfinder Tales, and my own Dhulyn and Parno Novels, have the main characters almost always on the move – like their archetypes, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Soldiers, mercenaries, scholars, wizards – these people travel because of their work, and pick up adventures along the way.

I’ve talked elsewhere about the stranger-in-a-strange-land trope, in which people from our world travel to other worlds where magic works, as seen in Barbara Hambly’s early novels, and those of Guy Gavriel Kay. Once in the other world, of course, there was frequently another journey undertaken. The trend nowadays is for urban fantasies, but even these often involve a journey from other worlds to ours, as we see with Charles de Lint’s Moonheart, and in my own Mirror Lands books.

Urban fantasies – at least those using modern settings – can use urban modes of transportation. In non-urban fantasies, however, the mode of travel is fairly limited. Because of the pre-industrial setting, characters usually travel on foot, on horseback, or by boat, with the occasional hot air balloon. Magic gets involved when faster travel is required. Either people are moved by magic, or they use a magic conveyance (carpets are popular) or, they use that most popular conveyance of all: Dragons.

It’s odd. As a general rule, people don’t seem to live where exciting things are happening; apparently they prefer travelling to those spots. Or is it just that things are too quiet at home?

Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website

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One of the most striking journeys of this sort is the trek across the snowscape in the second half of The Left Hand of Darkness.

Ty Johnston

“It’s odd. As a general rule, people don’t seem to live where exciting things are happening; apparently they prefer travelling to those spots. Or is it just that things are too quiet at home?”

I think there’s some truth to this, at least from the reader’s perspective. Home is boring. Nothing ever happens there. So take me out to someplace different and unique and weird.

On the flip side, from a writer’s perspective, having a lot of big events occur at “home” has a tendency to rattle everything and everyone concerning characters, which is not bad but can make it more difficult to pen that sequel. For example, going back to the Thieves’ World anthology series, if the city of Sanctuary had been invaded or even destroyed in the very first book, it would have disrupted the series, at least as we know it.

From the hero’s journey perspective, home needs to remain relatively stable. It’s the hero who changes, and part of experiencing that change is returning home and seeing a familiar place in a new light.

Of course there are always exceptions to all of this, and there are always writers bold enough to thrash such concepts and come up with something new and different.

Aonghus Fallon

It’s funny that you mentioned the Odyssey, because the Iliad and the Odyssey both establish the core tropes of any fantasy novel for me – a war (a siege is good!) or a journey.

In terms of world-building, I suspect it’s harder to create a sense of a larger reality while setting your story in one location. A journey means encountering a discrete series of characters and incidents – in effect, the reader is exploring the world along with the characters, and it’s possible to be endlessly inventive without being that consistent. Setting your story in one particular location means exploring it fully. Neither are fantasy films, but I always remember ‘Delicatessen’ and ‘Barton Fink’, both films which came out around the same time, and created their own, hermetically-sealed reality. The Gormenghast books would be another case in point.

Any fantasy book detailing a war or any sort of conflict creates its own natural sense of drama. There’s no need for the author to be fussy about the day-to-day minutae of the world he is creating – the thing that often makes it really interesting to a reader. Moorcock’s books are extremely enjoyable, but because conflict defines the world that – say – Dorian Hawkmoon inhabits, we have no real idea what life might be like for the ordinary citizen, nor is it really necessary that we do.

[…] Last week I was talking about travelling, and the journey, in Fantasy, and SF. I noted that since most Fantasy uses a pre-industrial setting, journeys are generally undertaken on foot, via horses, or by (sailing) ship. However, there’s another aspect of pre-industrial living I’d like to address. […]

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