The Unexpected Exotic: Settings in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Books are often characterised according to their settings in ways that are ready-to-hand. For example, a story is perceived as edgy and gritty because it’s set in a city. While it’s true that ideas and art usually come from cities, from concentrations of people working and talking together, it doesn’t necessarily follow that fiction set in cities are any more socially engaged than books set elsewhere.

In some urban fantasies the city isn’t much more than a backdrop, beautifully described, but peopled only by astonished, baffled, or oblivious citizens whom the story just pours past. In such stories, the characters are insiders and what happens to them has to stay secret, or perhaps someone comes along and cleans up after them, like the Men in Black with their “flashy-things.”

I quite like those books. They’re what I think of as being in the Doctor Who or Buffy the Vampire Slayer tradition. (That said, how I loved those moments in Buffy where the Principal of Sunnydale High and the Sheriff’s department have a quick nervous exchange to get their story straight, or when the lead singer of a group playing at the Bronze says to another band member, “I hate playing these vampire towns.”)

But a kind of fiction I’m more interested in is the parallel world story, where the fantasy or science fiction twist makes the rules different for everyone. Holly Black’s Curseworkers trilogy is a favourite example. Those are books that really explore what it would mean for people and communities if

I know there are readers who, for quite sound reasons, object to books with special people and special groups and chosen ones. Stories where everyone else is a muggle. But I’ve always thought that, with those books, the important thing is the scale of the insiders’ inside. Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic are huge —they are insides that are bigger on the inside. And other books —like Holly Black’s Curseworkers —really deal with what it means to be part of an elite (in that instance an elite people are terrified of).

The Dreamhunter Duet is one of these stories. The dreamhunters are an elite with a spectrum from struggling to famous, and are part of the social, economic, and cultural life of their country. They are not a secret society, but rather a profession with secrets.

Another kind of fiction I find interesting is one where the magic is hiding off to one side. The magic has a house in the rainy woods. It is a family, or a family within a tribe (like Twilight). In those books someone with real-world expectations and maybe a city life comes along, walks into the wild, and finds mind-blowing stuff.

There are models of this throughout classic literature. The sophisticated outsider enters a strange, passionate, closed world; the outsider thinks he or she is tired of life, and society, and shallow convention, and towns, and rubbing elbows with strangers, and so choose to go off to live a life of the body, or a life at one with nature, and, they hope, among simpler people. You could do a quick cartoon of this:

Ishmael is leaning on the mantelpiece of a full drawing room looking disgusted. Ishmael is in the doorway of a church social turning back from the crowd and not letting someone take his hat. Ishmael is standing on the docks looking longingly at the whalers anchored out in the stream. The Pequod heads out of the harbour followed by its own thundercloud, black-winged seabirds, and sharks.

So there’s Ishmael in Moby Dick, running away from people and complications, and coming into an isolated society with a vast interior.

Mortal Fire is a book about a city girl going into the country and finding something bigger than her city life. Canny isn’t running away from people like Ishmael. And she owes her existence as much to those four young people in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, sent away from a bombarded city and entertaining themselves in an isolated country house with an elderly owner. If the Dreamhunter Duet is a “magic in society” series, Mortal Fire is a “magic and family” book —like all of Margaret Mahy’s young adult novels, which I deeply love. And it is set in 1959. And it couldn’t possibly make claims to any kind of edginess or grittiness.

If you say to someone “Pastoral fantasy” they might think of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. They’d think of the English countryside and seaside. But Southland has a big label on it saying “Fantasy, but not England.” And a smaller label saying “not quite New Zealand either” for New Zealander readers. (I mean, why would I do New Zealand and not actually do New Zealand? New Zealand critics want to know that too.)

But, consider, if I’d started with dreamhunters and their magic territory in New Zealand—twenty years after the discovery of the magic territory—it couldn’t have been New Zealand anyway. And I’d be stuck trying to imagine what King Dick and Kate Shepherd would have to say about the dreamhunting industry, and having to cross every geographical t and dot every and historical i in order to satisfy the kind of local readers who like to correct writers who use the wrong term for the bends in tree roots! Also my editor at Faber was already concerned about the book’s amount of new information for young British readers; New Zealand history would have been more new information.

Which brings me to this. Having chosen an atypical or non-archetypical setting for a young adult book I realise I may have produced a challenge for non-New Zealand readers. Southland has several Polynesian settler cultures, and their histories (and a big mystery attached to one of them). Polynesian cultures in a South Pacific country are the expected exotic. But Southland is also an English-speaking culture. Yet it is not a British nor an American one, and that makes it the unexpected exotic. The book isn’t only full of invention, but of real things, many of its readers couldn’t be expected to know (and I’m not just referring to the polite questions from copy-editors saying “How can it be summer if it’s Christmas?”).

Now for me I guess the question I have to answer is whether books in the science fiction and fantasy genre should be allowed to have new and novel information over and above what they invent? Should there only be the made-up stuff and no other novelty? No textured factual novelty? Or only a ration. And, if the answer to that question is “yes” then doesn’t that make speculative fiction kind of hermetic and self-referential realm?

Britain and particularly the United States are the great homelands of science fiction and fantasy. (And they’re both arguably the great homelands of English.) But does that mean that the rest of us native English-speakers—Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans—have to, imaginatively, come and live entirely in those homelands and speak only in familiar accents? Obviously I think not, and obviously I accept that I’m going to disadvantage myself somewhat by being faithful to my real world within my invented one. But the necessary difficulties produced by the differences aren’t a failure in the art, only a challenge to the reader.

Elizabeth Knox has been a full time writer since 1997. She has published ten novels and three autobiographical novellas and a collection of essays. Her best known books are The Vintner’s Luck, and The Dreamhunter Duet. (Dreamhunter and Dreamquake).


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