Tag Archives: history

Potatoes and Dragons

Yesterday a thread on Reddit’s fantasy writers board brought up a topic I’ve long meant to write something about, and framed it in a way that I think makes the problem quite clear. User Hoosier_Jedi asked whether the existence of dragons and other fantasy elements in a world could justify dismissing concerns about the presence of South American crops in a world otherwise heavily influenced by Europe, and though I have responded in that thread I want to expand and clarify my thoughts here, because while the question posed is about potatoes, tomatoes and dragons, it has wider implications about the attitude a writer takes to worldbuilding and immersion.

Let’s start with looking at potatoes and dragons specifically.

A selection of different varieties of potatoes
Potatoes. Source: Wikipedia.

On Earth, potatoes are a tuber crop originating in the Andes region of South America, where they were domesticated as a high-altitude staple capable of surviving on marginal land where other crops could not, which could be freeze-dried or powdered for long-term storage. They reached the rest of the world following the Spanish Conquest of South America under Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century, and popularised in Europe as a result of their adaptability and high nutritional content.

Manuscript depicting a knight and a dragon fighting within the shape of a large letter R
A dragon and a knight in an initial letter R from from the frontispiece of a 12th-century manuscript of St. Gregory’s Moralia in Job, Dijon, Bibl. Municipale, MS 2. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dragons, on the other hand, aren’t real*. They’re a mythical monster found, amongst other places, in medieval stories and artworks, making for suitably threatening enemies for gallant heroes to defeat as they demonstrate their skill and bravery.

So, given that potatoes are real and dragons are not, why is it that readers have a hard time accepting potatoes in many fantasy worlds but are fine with dragons?

There are two facets to the answer, I think: the first is about believability and realism, and the second about the work the author puts in and what they leave to the reader.

Believability and realism are related concepts, but they’re not the same thing. Realism is about factual accuracy and faithful recreation of reality. It is vital to the reader’s acceptance of historical fiction and historically-faithful fantasy. Believability is a little more nebulous. It is about creating the appearance of a world or situation that *might* be possible, in another universe, and depends upon using elements of realism combined with internally-logical imagined elements.

In a setting heavily inspired by 13th century Italy or 9th century Britain, potatoes and dragons might be equally unrealistic elements in a story, but not equally unbelievable, if dragons are accepted as part of the fantasy side of the setting and haven’t enabled centuries-earlier discovery of the Americas.

And this is where the work comes in. Readers make assumptions about setting based on the worldbuilding elements the author specifically mentions. There often isn’t space to go into detailed descriptions of every part of a fantasy world. The approach most authors take is to seed their story with worldbuilding hints, brushing upon details when they can organically come up, expanding upon those things that are plot-relevant, and letting the reader fill in the gaps.

But if all of the seeds look like pre-Columbian Europe, the inclusion of a single element from outside that – whether potatoes, katanas or kangaroos – is going to be jarring. It doesn’t match with what the reader already knows of the world of the story or what they might have filled the gaps with. It becomes noticeable, and it interrupts immersion. The reader stops thinking about the story and starts wondering where these potatoes came from.

This doesn’t happen so often with dragons. Why? Because when an author includes something like dragons – or unicorns, magic, eldrich horrors from dark dimensions and so on – they consider their role in the story world. They mentally work through the implications and the impacts that these things would have on society, the way it might change lifestyles, architectural approaches, social hierarchies and so on.

Potatoes, on the other hand, might just be an oversight. And if they’re the only thing from Earth’s American continents in a fantasy world otherwise containing only European dressing, it looks to the reader like a mistake based on ignorance, not a conscious worldbuilding choice.

To make the inclusion of potatoes in a setting that is otherwise heavily European-styled, the author needs to put in more work. If they’re a shorthand for a staple tuber crop and not intended to literally be identical to Earth-potatoes, why pick potatoes instead of, for example, turnips? If they’re intended to demonstrate a more global trade network or a history of exploration that has since been forgotten, where are the other things that might have made the same journey?

To make potatoes feel more believable in a pseudo-European setting, simply seed in worldbuilding that shows there’s more to it than that. Throw in a fashionable courtier wearing the finest imported jaguar furs, or market stall traders shouting the prices of llama wool blankets,  or religious authorities condemning the cultivation of quinoa and calling the society of its origin heretics. That’ll give the sense of a wider world your society is in contact with, and make the inclusion of potatoes feel deliberate and natural.

This isn’t just about potatoes. It can apply to any element outside of the reader expectations you build with your setting. It’s about creating a world where readers can easily accept the little differences between the fantasy world and Earth, so that they can focus on reading about the characters, engaging in the action – and getting lost in a world that feels real.

Sure, dragons are less realistic than potatoes, but the humble potato can still be a bigger threat to the believability of your fantasy world than the mighty dragon, if you don’t take the time to think about what readers assume.

What are the most jarring fantasy anachronisms you’ve come across? And, conversely, what are the most inventive and impressive solutions you’ve seen in fantasy to avoid or explain them?


* No, komodo dragons don’t count.

Worldbuilding reflections: ancient networks

As part of my 2015 reading challenge, I am currently reading 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H Cline (and yes, as a Brit, writing “civilisation” with a Z physically hurts me). I’m not far thorugh yet but something that struck me in my reading so far is the reach of the networks between the cultures that existing in the centuries prior to the titular collapse. Rulers whose capital cities were hundreds, even over a thousand miles from one another were sending each other gifts of things like leather shoes. Craftspeople from the Minoan culture on Crete travelled to the major cities of cultures all around the Mediterranean and beyond to create fresco wall paintings because it was fashionable.

"Knossos bull" by ArtStudy version 2.0 (Saskia Ltd, Thomson Wadsworth). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Knossos_bull.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Knossos_bull.jpg
“Knossos bull” by ArtStudy version 2.0 (Saskia Ltd, Thomson Wadsworth). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was 3,500 years ago, before advanced shipbuilding techniques existed, before the road infrastructure of the Roman empire – or indeed the city of Rome itself – existed. It’s difficult not to think of them as primitive, because of how long ago this was and how different a world it was to what I am familiar with, but really it is still human culture. The people of this ancient time were no less ambitious, no less curious, no less vain than their descendants in classical Greece, with which I am more familiar, or the Roman Empire, or the Middle Ages or the Age of Exploration or indeed the modern day. They had different circumstances to deal with, sure, but every generation has different circumstances than their parents.

It seems to me that when I am working on stories I often think in very constrained geographies and economies. I think of trade as happening between two neighbouring countries, maybe between two countries separated by one other country in between or by a small sea. I struggle to think of alliances and diplomacy and trade and the movement of skilled craftspeople over long distances between vastly different cultures. I manage to think “oh yes, this country exports this metal” but I don’t ever get to the point of thinking, “this particular region is the only known source of this metal, so it gets exported to everywhere”.

Economy is something I need to work on. I tend to think in terms of what gets exported, what’s high quality, what needs to be imported, but I don’t think about the human level when I’m looking at economies. I don’t think about skilled craftspeople moving to where they think there are opportunities. I don’t think about rulers interacting with one another through the sending of gifts and envoys, or restricting the export of materials they don’t want their enemies getting their hands on. I don’t think of the different merchants through whose inventories individual items will pass on their way from one culture to another, and what those merchants have or haven’t seen of the cultures where these items originated or are destined for.

It’s a whole new layer of complexity I have missed until now. A whole new area of human interactions that could provide me with stories to tell.

Worldbuilding: Lessons from the Inca

The BBC has recently started broadcasting a new history series, called The Inca: Masters of the Clouds, presented by archaeologist and British Museum curator Jago Cooper. I enjoyed Jago’s previous series, Lost Kingdoms of South America and Lost Kingdoms of Central America, which looked at lesser-known cultures in one-hour episodes, so I was excited by the arrival of more great TV from him. And that excitement was well deserved, because the first episode was fascinating.

The thing that stuck out for me from the first episode was the bowl terraces. The Incas used circular terraces at this site at Moray, Peru, to create massive bowls of agricultural land with their own microclimates. The thick stone retaining walls absorbed warmth from the sun and radiated it back out at night, preventing the ground from freezing. The terraces were constructed with loose stones at the bottom for good drainage and fertile topsoil on top. And the overall structure, shaped like a bowl, reflected warmth down to the bottom so that while (during Jago’s visit) it was 16°C at the top, it was 23°C at the bottom – meaning that different levels could be used for different crops according to what kind of climate each crop preferred. It’s masterful manipulation of the land.

The terraces at Moray, Peru. Picture source: Wikimedia Commons.
The terraces at Moray, Peru. Picture source: McKay Savage.

(You can read more about these terraces, and see more great photos of the feature, here if you’re interested.)

It made me think more about how we humans use the land to our own advantage. These days there’s a push to preserve the natural order of things for the sake of biodiversity and stable ecosystems, in order to protect the environment and prevent climatic changes which will have a net negative impact in the long run. But past cultures didn’t have much of an idea of how their manipulation of the land could impact the global or even local environment. A lot of cultures, particularly in areas with geography that makes agriculture difficult, used terracing to make the most of available land. Chinese rice terracing is one well-known example. Where land has been arid, people used irrigation, with massive irrigation ditches from hundreds or even thousands of years ago still visible in landscapes today in regions all over the world.

All of this is to create food security. If the same land can produce more crops, and higher quality crops, it can support more people and those people can be healthier, with a surplus created to help those people weather the bad times, the droughts and famines.

So how can I apply this to my stories? Food security, and manipulation of the landscape to increase food production, isn’t really something I’ve considered when worldbuilding. I’ve thought about national boundaries and religions and militaries. I’ve thought about the spread of the neolithic revolution, and of the progression technological ages – the bronze age, the iron age – from where they first developed outwards. I’ve thought about magic, and social structures and forms of government.

This inspiration from the Inca civilisation has been a spur to think more about how the cultures in which I set my stories produce food and ensure that short-term climate change isn’t going to leave them starving. Do they have numerous massive storage barns, like the Incas, to supply their need in times of shortage? How do they make sure that their food production can support an urban population of craftspeople, traders and administrators in addition to the farmers? How do they change the land to increase production – and what impacts do these changes have, on the people working the land, on society overall, and on the local climate?

These are the questions I’ll be thinking about as I continue to develop a particular world I’ve been working on. And as The Incas: Masters of the Clouds series continues, I’ll be looking out for more lessons to learn. If anyone has any good book recommendations, I’m very open to adding them to my A Year for More Reading challenge!

Using worldbuilding to make space for diversity in fantasy

The topic of diversity in sci-fi and fantasy has been making the rounds recently. They are genres dominated by white casts with maybe token non-white characters – and these usually male. It’s hardly inclusive. And that’s a problem.

Fantasy is a genre where anything can be possible. It’s a medium by which messages, challenges and debates that would otherwise cut too close to the bone can be addressed. So why do so many people claim that having a character with black or brown skin would be tokenism or unrealistic? Excluding groups of people from your cast on the basis of “realism” in a genre that is defined by its being set in a world that is not our own is just stupid.

Continue reading Using worldbuilding to make space for diversity in fantasy