Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Bridges to Reality

Let's define "autonomous fantasy": a work about a world not our own, without attempting within the text to place the created world in relation to our own world (henceforth known as "Earth").

But if you look at literature, autonomous fantasy is actually pretty rare. George R. R. Martin's wildly popular world is one such world. But most of the D&D inspiration list "Appendix N" is not. Most of the works there have some kind of link between the fantasy world and the real Earth.

Below is a list of the ways in fantasy world-building to link the created world ("you") to our own Earth. The list is, of course, exhaustive (this claim is meant to stir the blood to objection, so object away!)

It is also only coincidence that there are twelve is the number of entries in the list and twelve is the number of sides of that funny-looking die you have lying on your table there. Please do not leave such momentous decisions as the very nature of reality to the whim of the roll.

1. You are in Earth's far or mythic past.
Examples: Tolkien's Middle Earth, Howard's barbarians, Moorcock's Melnibone

2. You are in the real world's future
Examples: Wolfe's New Sun, Lanier's Hiero, Gerber's Thundarr the Barbarian, Okorafor's Who Fears Death, Boulle's Planet of the Apes

3. You are in a parallel dimension, communicable to Earth
Examples: D&D's default cosmos, Pratt & De Camp's Incomplete Enchanter, Moorcock's multiverse

4. You are on a distant planet where fantasy/magic holds sway
Examples: Farmer's World of Tiers, Barker's Tekumel, McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern

5. Your world and Earth are both the dream/simulation/shadow of a higher world
Example; Zelazny's Amber series

6. You are in the dream of someone on Earth
Examples: Lovecraft's Dreamlands, McCay's Little Nemo

The rest have less of a fictional pedigree to my knowledge, but are no less fascinating.

7. You are in a simulation run by someone on Earth
8. Earth is the dream of someone on your world
9. Your world is the afterlife of Earth
10. Earth is the afterlife of your world
11. You are in a fiction maintained by someone on Earth (the literal truth, and the doctrine of Narrativism, no, not that kind of Narrativism)
12. The wall is absolute (Westeros and all other self-contained worlds such as Earthsea)

At any rate, each idea suggests itself strongly as a Big Reveal that is hinted at in the middle of a fantasy gaming campaign, and that outright drives events in the later stages of such a campaign. And in the next post: what implications each of these ideas carry.


  1. I'll rise to your grognard-baiting! Jack Vance (such an influence on early D&D that the magic system was named after him) set nearly all his stories in earth's mythic past or fantastic future. The famous Dying Earth stories that inspired the spell slot system are set at the end of earth's life, while the Demon Prince novels and most of his other science fiction are set in a more mid-term space opera future. And even his later Lyonessse books (which came far after D&D's publication) are set on a sunken island just off the British coast, and just before the reign of King Arthur...

    1. So yep, past, future ... what's interesting now that you mention it is that Vance's predecessor Clark Ashton Smith used the far past (Hyperborea) interchangably with the far future (Zothique) and the far planets (Xiccarth), writing the same kind of weird fiction for each setting - in fact, arguably the Hyperborea stories are more science-fictional than the decidedly Orientalist "future" Zothique.

  2. I wracked my brain, I think I got one: one reality os expanding and consuming the other, digesting it into new forms.

  3. It's not so common anymore, but a lot of older fantastic adventure stories were set in a fantasy world that was supposed to be an unmapped / unexplored portion of the real world - inside the hollow earth, on an undiscovered island or lost continent, through an impassable jungle, over an unclimbable mountain range, etc.

    Does Fairy-Land count as a parallel dimension in your view? If not, it might imply at least one more kind of world that's bridged to the real world.

    1. Hollow/lost world is a great addition! I was thinking that the "Jar of Tang" story also would qualify, though can't think of any examples.

  4. I'm not sure anyone could pull off a Matrix-like game where play continued after the reveal that the initial game world was a simulation, but i'd love to give it a try. Genre hopping from fantasy to sci-fi and back. Not sure if it would be better to have complementary or disparate systems to reflect the two separate arenas of play.

  5. I don't know where you get the idea that autonomous fantasy worlds are rare. I think you must either have a selective memory or a small reference pool. You mentioned the Earthsea novels and A Song of Ice and Fire already. Just off the top of my head, I could add: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn; The Wheel of Time; The Sword of Truth; The Dalemark Quartet; The Dragon King trilogy; The Baker's Boy; The Legend of Nightfall; On ortune's Wheel; and The Auralia Thread. (I haven't read every single one of these, so it's possible some of them may have connections to Earth I'm not aware of -- but I doubt it.)

    Granted, few of these examples are recent, but that doesn't mean autonomous worlds have gone out of fashion. I can't name specific examples because I had my fill of epic high fantasy series some time ago (these days, my tastes run more to urban fantasy and steampunk), but go to your typical major chain bookstore like Barnes & Noble, and I'd wager about half of the current fantasy series they have on display are standalone worlds (the other half being mostly urban fantasy).

    1. Ack! That should read "On Fortune's Wheel", of course.

    2. Yeah, the autonomous world may be more of a recent thing actually. To give you a sense of where my reading is stuck, my touchstone was Appendix N ... I too don't really want to read any more epic high fantasy unless it really takes a different tack, these days.

    3. I was thinking the same thing re: time period. I noticed that almost all of your examples (at least the ones I've heard of) were written before 1980, while most of the examples I listed were written after 1990.

    4. Isn't the Wheel of Time series set in a far future / mythic past bordertime to Earth?

      I do think that generally that Autonomy Fantasy is a more recently popular trope. Which makes sense, it's taken a while for readers to be fully comfortable in fictional settings that have no relation to our own.

      It's a rather odd phenomenon when you think about it. No other genre or literature that I can think of has settings that are 100% divorced from Earth.

  6. Roger, a few other relationships:

    1. The fantasy world is a higher place of being than Earth (Plato's Cave, Stephenson's Anathem).

    2. Related, the fantasy world is the realm of the gods but not the afterlife (Olympus, Asgard, Sandman comics, etc).

    3. The fantasy world is a dreamlands created by the collective belief and dreams of those on Earth, not a single person (Native American folklore).

    4. The fantasy world is a single quantum of time on Earth stretched to allow others to inhabit it (Clive Barker did this in one of his books—the moment before the first atomic bomb at Trinity was a realm that a wizard inhabited).

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