Why Fantasy Writers Need Science

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the curious relationship between fantasy fiction and science. On the surface, the two are polar opposites. But the more I consider my own writing process and the readings and discussions of SFF (Science Fiction & Fantasy) writers online, the more I’ve come to believe that fantasy writers need to have at least a curiosity, if not a robust understanding, for science.

For this post, I’m only going to talk about fantasy and not science fiction. It is obvious how an understanding of science is necessary for sci-fi, but there’s a freedom in fantasy that makes the relationship between it and empirical thought quite interesting.

A Logical Road To Worldbuilding

Look around! Our world is an enormous cornucopia of scientific processes. From our houseplants to the plastic in our pens, and everything in between, the universe we live in and the space we occupy, are all built by science and invention. Fantasy writers have to build worlds of their own. Being able to think systematically about worldbuilding is crucial for success.

What do I mean by systematic thinking? Let me put it this way: one question leads to another. It’s a logical way of approaching your fantasy world. For instance, let’s consider a famous TV show like Avatar: The Last Airbender. I LOVE A:TLA, and its follow up, Legend of Korra (LOK) but something about the story’s magic didn’t make sense to me.

The firebenders.

Firebenders are people who can produce, control, and manipulate fire. But this does not make them impervious to fire. Case in point: Prince Zuko, whose face was burned off by his own father.

So how do the firebenders shoot flames from their hands without getting burned?

Avatar Korra plays with fire without getting burned.

Obviously, as the audience, we’re expected to suspend disbelief. This is fantasy, after all, and none of this is real anyway. We don’t have to be scientific about it. But following this logical train of thought can take us to some very interesting places.

What if the firebenders were vulnerable to their own flames? What if by using their bending, they were also potentially putting themselves in serious danger? How, then, would they take over the world? Perhaps it stands to reason that firebenders have the most advanced treatment available for burn injuries. Or perhaps, their physiology is simply different: firebenders’ bodies do not get hot. What if they developed an infection? How would their bodies attack a pathogen if they couldn’t get hot (which is to say, if they couldn’t develop fevers)?

This is just idle musing, because A:TLA and LOK are both very old shows and the audience is not expected to ask these sorts of questions. And that’s fine, because it IS fantasy, after all. If you’re not suspending disbelief, you’re doing it wrong.

But I would also argue that as a writer, chasing this line of enquiry can lead to some fascinating new ideas.

It’s Inspiration

Fantasy does not grow in isolation. In fact, no idea in the world has ever just sprouted out of thin air. We are always inspired by the events, experiences, and conversations around us. And science is at the forefront of human enquiry. It is constantly pushing the boundaries of the known, which is what makes it an excellent place to look for new ideas.

I find I’m most inspired by documentaries about the universe. The more I learn about the strangeness of our cosmos, the more story ideas I seem to come across. More recently, I have been inspired by conversations on data surveillance. While it’s fairly straightforward to develop these ideas into sci-fi stories, you can also go very far by asking yourself how these scientific concepts can lend themselves to fantasy. What can the black hole at the centre of our galaxy tell us about kings and heroes and dragons and chosen ones?

I don’t know yet, but hey–isn’t that a question worth asking?

Fantasy is ultimately about what is real. It always boils down to that. It tries to answer questions about who we are, how we are supposed to live, where we have come from and where we need to go. These are precisely what scientists ask themselves too. There is a whole universe of possibility we close ourselves off to if we don’t follow scientific enquiry.


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