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Guns and Words

This post originally appeared at Borders’ Babel Clash blog.

I can still remember the first fantasy novel I read that used gunpowder. It was one of the Robin McKinley books, The Blue Sword or The Hero and the Crown. I’ve mentioned before in one of these posts just how wrong that felt to me. And then, the fact that I felt it was wrong ALSO felt wrong to me. Shouldn’t a fantasy author be allowed to play with any kind of technology and magic mix that they want? Shouldn’t any time period be valid for creating the fantastic? And still, it felt wrong.

Interestingly, many fantasy characters are anachronistic themselves. At least as much so as guns. One standard aspect of fantasy fiction is the idea of the ’socially progressive yet technologically slowed’ society. Some fantasy authors tiptoe around it. I don’t. I admit it straight out—I’m writing about societies where people, for one reason or another, are more like people in our world socially, even if much of their technology hasn’t caught up to ours yet. Perhaps I can get away with this a tad more than most as I have yet to write a fantasy that takes place in what I envision as a medieval society. Elantris and Warbreaker are Renaissance, Mistborn is 19th century. Only in all three cases, there is no gunpowder.

Perhaps this is my old bias influencing me. In the Mistborn novels, it’s a world element and there’s a very good reason why there’s no gunpowder. In the other two, no explanation is given. I think it’s reasonable to say that just because technology grew in a certain way in our world, it doesn’t mean each and every world is going to follow the same path. And yet, at the same time, I doubt that adding gunpowder to either Elantris or Warbreaker would have changed the books in any great measure.

What are your thoughts on these topics? Does gunpowder ruin a fantasy immediately, or is it just another element of technology and world an author can play with? Does it bother you that fantasy characters sometimes talk and act like more modern people, or do you prefer it? (I happen to like this last one both ways. I enjoy reading a book—like Doomsday Book—where the author tries to accurately portray the way people thought in previous eras. But I have trouble relating to those characters, and that inhibits my ability to get into the characters’ heads. And so I generally gravitate toward books where the characters are much easier to relate to, and feel more like people from our era.)

|   Castellano