Tue
Jul 8 2014 4:00pm

How Did You Come Up With That?: Bygone Worlds as Springboards to Fantasy

Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza

When I was in fifth grade I had to do a social studies report on the Mayans. As a ten year-old my report, of course, included a hand-drawn map of the Yucatan peninsula, descriptions of Mayan architecture, government and money, religious practices, food and farming, their calendar, and maybe if I was lucky, I ripped a few pages out of a National Geographic with some pretty colorful pictures of their ruins being eaten up by the jungle. (Sacrilege, I know…)

It’s been a long time since I did that report and I can’t remember every detail about the Mayans, but I do remember one thing: my research couldn’t tell me what happened to them. It was a mystery which delighted my ten year-old self. It seemed that they had simply vanished off the face of the earth. There were even delicious musings that the Mayans had been aliens, and beamed up to their mother ship because they were done with Earth. An advanced civilization, pfft. Gone.

Of course, today we know the Mayan people didn’t vanish. Their numbers dwindled and they migrated to other locales, but we still don’t know with certainty exactly why they abandoned their great cities within a relatively short period of time. Some theories suggest the collapse was a result of populations exceeding what local resources could support, and other theories attribute it to drought, disease, war, rebellion, and even deforestation. The point is, even after all these centuries and scientific study, we still don’t know for sure what brought about the Mayan collapse.

It wouldn’t be the first time such a mystery went unsolved. We are still discovering ancient civilizations that we had no clue about. Advanced, established civilizations. And so with that little nugget of mystery in mind, I embarked on creating the world of The Remnant Chronicles, a civilization that has sprung from the ashes of another—and a kingdom with only some vague, uninformed understanding of just what that civilization was.

The Kiss of Deception Mary E Pearson Though my story does have ferns and vines reclaiming ancient ruins for the earth, much like the jungle hid many Mayan ruins, that’s where similarities end. This bit of history is a springboard for the world I built and the people who inhabit it, but The Remnant Chronicles didn’t come out of thin air. It has precedent as many fantasy settings do—an author takes bits of a real world and real history and they make it their own.

An obvious example that comes to mind is the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. In a 2000 interview with Wayne MacLaurin, George R.R. Martin gave some insight into the inspiration for the Wall in his epic series:

Well some of it will be revealed later so I won't talk about that aspect of it, but certainly the Wall comes from Hadrian's Wall, which I saw while visiting Scotland. I stood on Hadrian's Wall and tried to imagine what it would be like to be a Roman soldier sent here from Italy or Antioch. To stand here, to gaze off into the distance, not knowing what might emerge from the forest. Of course fantasy is the stuff of bright colours and being larger than real life, so my Wall is bigger and considerably longer and more magical.

Martin has also said that the War of the Roses inspired some of the events in his story, of course, and in another interview mentions that the bloody Red Wedding was inspired by real events in Scottish history, notably the infamous Massacre of Glencoe in which: 

Clan MacDonald stayed with the Campbell clan overnight and the laws of hospitality supposedly applied. But the Campbells arose and started butchering every MacDonald they could get their hands on. No matter how much I make up, there's stuff in history that's just as bad, or worse.

I love that. Well, not that history offers up horrors, but that fantasy can shine a new light on who we are. It’s what makes me fall into certain fantasy worlds because as strange, brutal, or harrowing as they may be, they often have their roots in reality, history and bygone worlds.

Robin LaFevers, author of the fantasy series His Fair Assassin—a world inhabited by assassin nuns and Mortain, the dark god of death—says in the author’s note at the end of the first book, “Though the nine old gods in Grave Mercy did not exist in the exact form they were portrayed in the book, they were constructed from earlier Celtic gods and goddesses, about whom we know very little. I added a few embellishments of my own.”

On her website, LaFevers further explains that the abbey where the nuns trained was drawn from oral history, based on a Breton legend of  “nine druidesses who lived on the Ile de Sein off the coast of Brittany and possessed mysterious powers.” With further research she came across a photo of a medieval chapel standing next to one of the old, pagan standing stones that are so plentiful in Brittany. It was such a vivid illustration of one of the things that has always fascinated me—how the Catholic Church was so successful at absorbing bits and pieces of the older, ancient religions.”

While we’re on the topic, other fantasy worlds that incorporate elements and events from real bygone worlds that come to mind include The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner (while not based on any actual historical events, Whalen says she was inspired by the traditions and world of the Ancient Greeks), and The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkowski (Rutkowski also says there is no specific concrete connection to the real world but she was inspired by antiquity, in particular the Greco-Roman period after Rome had conquered Greece” and the fact that Rome enslaved those they defeated).

My book is just out and I’m already getting the question, how did you come up with that? While I have a pretty good imagination, I can’t say I conjured it out of thin air.  From us—a lot of that world came from us. This world is far wilder than the inside of my head. (Most of the time.) And clearly, it’s not just me. It seems a lot of authors are endlessly inspired by the trail bygone worlds have left behind.


Mary E. Pearson is the author of several novels including The Jenna Fox Chronicles.  Her newest book, The Kiss of Deception, is the first in a trilogy about a defiant princess living in the ruins of a bygone world. You can read an excerpt here on Tor.com

8 comments
Emmet O'Brien
1. EmmetAOBrien
An advanced civilization, pfft. Gone.

Depending on which Zapatistas you listen to, some of them consider themselves to still be there.
Del C
2. del
"History is the trade secret of science fiction." Ken MacLeod
every name is taken
3. every name is taken
You don't have to go to Chiapas as (EmmetAOBrien suggests) to find modern Mayans. There are millions of Mayans still around today spread across North and Central America - hardly a "bygone world" or "vanished" culture!
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
Yes, it seems unfortunate to advise people to take bits and pieces out of history to make their own worlds without also advising them to check their assumptions about history and think hard about what pieces are a good idea to pick up--a process that is more likely to result in thoughtful, non-cliched, interesting worldbuilding as well as to avoid hurtful cultural appropriation.
every name is taken
5. MaryPearson
"Of course, today we know the Mayan people didn’t vanish. Their numbers dwindled and they migrated to other locales"
Yes, I did research and know that there are at least 7 million Mayans spread throughout Central America and Southern Mexico. They didn't vanish, as I mentioned above, but their great cities were abandoned in a relatively short period of time.
Craig Sanders
6. CASanders
Mary, I don't know if this is true, but I think that the small pox that Europeans brought over tore through them the way that it did through the other indigenous tribes. I'm trying to remember where I read this.
every name is taken
7. Petar Belic
author takes bits of a real world and real history and they make it their own.

Actually, I get quite annoyed by this. So many, many science fiction stories and novels I've read have quickly devolved into 'oh so the Author has just discovered culture XYZ'. And when you're quite familiar with culture XYZ or a seasoned traveller, suddenly you're reading a pastiche or some frankly insulting material with the thinly veiled critique of the said culture, or just plain cultural theft, things get boring or annoying real quick. If feels to me as if the author took a lazy way out and just used a cultural or historical milieu as an easy template whereby they fill in the blanks or provide 'colour'.

Hint to Fantasy and SF authors: make stuff up. Make it exotic. Make it have NOTHING to do with modern times, and let your imagination soar.

The most interesting fantasy and SF I've read explore cultures that could not possibly exist in our world - the opposite of mundanity in every sense of the word.
Del C
8. del
Petar, don't just talk in generalities, why not dish the dirt!? :-)

Asimov lampooned himself in verse in "The Foundation of SF Success":
So success is not a mystery,
just brush up on your history,
and borrow day by day.
Take the Empire that was Roman
and you'll find it is at home in
all the starry Milky Way.
With a drive that's hyperspatial,
through the parsecs you will race, you'll
find that plotting is a breeze,
With a tiny bit of cribbin'
from the works of Edward Gibbon
and that Greek, Thucydides.

And all the fans will say,
As you walk your thoughtful way,
If that young man involves himself in authentic history,
Why, what a very learned kind of high IQ, his high IQ must be.

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