Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fighting "medieval" tooth and nail: a question of world and genre

I had a friend ask after my work-in-progress today, saying that he'd had the impression that the setting was medieval. I was thrilled that he'd ask how my writing was going, but the first thing I said to him was, "It's not medieval, though some of the social stuff might have given you that impression."

I've heard a lot of people talk about how overused medieval settings, how much they hate them, or at least how much they hate to see them done badly, etc. etc. Ironically, these are often some of the same people who will hear me talk about Varin and get the wrong impression. It's not their fault. The reason they're so tired of medieval settings is the same reason why they will tend to see them everywhere: they are so accustomed to seeing them that they are hyper-sensitized to all the cues.

Cues like: stone buildings, nobles and servants, tapestries, etc. etc. The list goes on. Even the idea of caste structure in general appears to have taken on this medieval interpretation, though medieval Europe didn't have a caste system (medieval Japan, by contrast, did).

Gradually I've learned that for every medieval cue I use, I have to make sure to counterbalance that with something else that is obviously not medieval. In paragraph three of my novel I mention the crystal chandeliers dimming, and on page five someone gets up on stage in a spotlight and speaks through a microphone. I suppose I could have avoided all the cues, but I'm a bit stubborn. I wanted to use the cues and then create a non-medieval world in spite of them. A lot of what some might interpret as signs of a medieval setting are actually signs that my world has a history - a long history.

The fact that the nobility live in the old fancy stone buildings shouldn't surprise anyone. They do that in places like England as well. Noble groups maintain these physical links to the past. In Varin, they also maintain a lot of social links to the past. Tagret (my protagonist) goes to a concert hall and observes, "This place, with its glass and mirrors and painted steel, reeked of the new money of the Melumalai merchant caste. If he felt put off by it, Reyn and the others must surely have felt worse." The old is seen as more refined, higher quality; the new is seen as unsubtle and a bit crass. This is a society undergoing change and resisting it. Our own society also undergoes change (albeit much faster than Varin) and resists it. Think about the big civil rights issues, the culture wars etc. I can't take on something as big and diverse as our world with all its countries and social groups, but I can make sure that my world has history, has change, and has dissent.

I think maybe there's another reason why I designed this world to use cues that can so easily be construed as medieval alongside technology that draws from both classic science fiction and our own times. It can be summed up as follows: familiarity breeds comfort. There's a particular type of value in novelty and strangeness, and I'm ready to go for that in spades when I'm dealing with science fictional settings and alien societies. But Varin is a world meant to be seen from the inside, and that means I want readers to feel comfortable there. I want them to feel like they can say, "I've seen this before; I haven't seen it in quite this combination, but I get this." I want them not to be quite sure whether this is fantasy or whether it is science fiction, because fantasy typically references the old and familiar (not always, as modern writers show) and science fiction the new and unfamiliar. I want the world-learning burden to be reduced so the story can focus on the core conflicts between characters, and subtle details that grow out of the larger patterns.

I'm giving it my best shot.


  1. Hm...good point. I think it's important to ground the reader and then take them in a new direction.

    1. Yes, grounding is critical. However, I have to get at least one tech detail into the grounding, or people become set in their medieval expectations and get an unpleasant shock if they see technology later.

  2. I write fantasy, and people tend to expect medieval (well, if it's not obviously urban fantasy). I usually worldbuild societies with little or no metallurgy, and it's an uphill battle to convince readers that steel swords are not going to appear.

  3. I have experienced this difficulty as many of my culture sources are found in the Middle East rather than the Middle Ages :). After all, the Persians had libraries, written history, mathematics and much more long before those Northern barbarians ever did. However, it often comes down to the reader 50%. Personally, if they enjoy the story, I've given up caring as much just because I otherwise end up beating them over the head with the cultural differences. Now with a tech world versus pre-tech, yes, that's something I think should be introduced early so as not to jar the reader.

  4. Margaret, thanks for commenting. It's an interesting problem, confounding expectations. I don't think you have to beat someone over the head in order to make things work, though. Just poke them a bit. ;)

  5. MK, interesting! I suppose it depends on what technologies they *are* using. I've seen Aztec scenarios that use swords with stone blades, etc. so you have a lot of options!