Why set a fantasy novel on another planet?

[This is a post about my fantasy novel The Hole in the World, which is finished but unpublished. If you’re not interested in my metafictional ruminations, move along with my blessings. If you’re a literary agent (ahem) who could help me find a publisher or know one, please talk to me. And if you like my science writing, please consider contributing to my Patreon for extra essays and other goodies.]

Art from a very early fantasy story I wrote. My art hasn’t improved much, but I hope my writing has. [Credit: 8-year-old moi]
After I graduated college, I went with my parents on a vacation trip to Colorado, including a brief visit to Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde contains a number of ancient and long-abandoned cities of aboriginal Americans, the ancestors of modern Pueblo people. Spending time in that high-elevation desert, I got the first ghost of an idea for the story that would eventually become my fantasy novel The Hole in the World.

Much of fantasy fiction draws on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and other English writers, so the settings are a kind of mythical Britain and northern Europe. Even American authors (such as Lloyd Alexander and George R. R. Martin) often write in that mode. The setting largely constrains the kinds of stories they tell, and who counts as important. The characters ride horses, storm castles, fight dragons, and so on; the plots often involve kings, knights, and warriors of a particular type.

After the trip to the Four Corners, I started thinking: what about a story set in a fantastic version of the American Southwest? The first version of the novel, which never got past the first chapter, was very appropriative. I drew explicitly on Pueblo and Navajo stories, and realized…that’s a crappy thing to do. These are not my stories to steal.

So I began again, admittedly years later. I kept the vaguely Southwestern setting, but moved the whole story to another world, which I’m calling Sambke (even though that name doesn’t appear in the novel). As I mentioned in the earlier post, I thought about much the Moon plays a role in the mythology of most cultures, and how many versions of a Sun-Moon duality appear around the world. By moving to another planet, one orbiting binary stars, I was free to invent a new mythology, and other types of duality. With twin suns, the natural duality wasn’t Sun and Moon, or even day and night, but Redsun and Yellowsun, locked in their eternal dance.

People often forget that Middle-Earth is literally supposed to be Earth, albeit in a deeply mythic past. The year is the same as Earth’s year; the Moon goes through the same phases (which Tolkien obsessively tracked to make sure everything worked out calendar-wise); the seasons are our seasons. Other writers have followed that lead.

As a good Catholic boy, Tolkien made the gods of paganism into angelic beings, capable of creation but only at the sufferance of the real Creator, who is kept mostly off-camera to keep from veering into blasphemy. His Elves, Dwarves, orcs, dragons, and many other beings have roots in Norse and Finnish mythology, though again Tolkien adapted them to suit his own stories. (Tolkien equates “swarthiness” and dark skin with evil, which is extraordinarily problematic for obvious reasons, but that’s another essay.)

Other fantasy stories have dabbled with other worlds, of course. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Earthsea” has a very different setting from Europe, even while it still contains wizards and dragons. George R. R. Martin invented highly irregular seasons to drive the plot of his “Song of Ice and Fire” series, though his setting is a fictionalized northern Europe more than any other. There are many variations, many themes, but fantasy still largely centers on kings, swords, dragons, wizards, warriors, horses, and big-D Destiny.

Once I decided to move the story to another world, I deliberately tried to construct a different kind of fantasy. I’m still telling a recognizably Western story, which I know will garner me some criticism for lack of imagination. However, the culture my characters live in isn’t based on hereditary leadership; there are no horses, no swords, no direct connection to northern European mythology. (As I’ve joked before, I don’t believe in kings in real life, so why should I write about ‘em?) At least that’s what I tried; my readers can decide if I succeeded.

Evolution and biology

The characters in my novel are humanoid, even if they aren’t literally human. Their species—the Tighayn—is vaguely feline, in honor of my very earliest fantasy stories I wrote when I was a kid. Mostly that doesn’t matter (because I didn’t want to make them too alien to us), but they have flexible, expressive triangular ears, four toes instead of five, and fine body fur which they sometimes shave into patterns for cultural reasons. They also don’t have the same secondary sexual characteristics humans have. Don’t expect lascivious descriptions of the main character, and anyone drawing her with huge bazoongas hasn’t paid attention to the story.

I’ve wondered how European mythology would have turned out differently if other primate species lived there. I’m sure comparative mythologists have looked at differences between cultures living in places with monkeys or apes and those in places without our nearest evolutionary cousins. Because the Tighayn are feline, I gave them a close evolutionary relative like a cross between a gorilla and a leopard. This animal, called a kamgu-tafl, lives in the same region where the story takes place. The culture’s mythology recognizes the animals’ physical resemblance to Tighayn, and explains it in terms of an ancestral relationship.

Of course, I don’t think evolution on another world would produce a species so nearly human out of a species so nearly feline. Evolution is the story of contingency: species survive due to a combination of adaptive traits, and pass along traits that aren’t actively maladaptive. On a planet like Sambke with different environmental influences, it’s unlikely life would turn out so Earth-like. However, like most science fiction novels, The Hole in the World isn’t really about aliens. Even the differences between Tighayn and humans are designed to highlight something about us. We’re a narcissistic species, after all.

Alien culture

Which brings me to culture. Readers will notice that I’ve preserved some of the problems we have in the modern United States: a tendency of heterosexual cisgender men to run things to the detriment of everyone else. However, the culture most of the book’s characters live in — the Paltarayn-ohtema-tighayn — has significant differences. The culture has three genders: male, female, and holmatighi. The third gender has its own style of clothing, and different rules about marriage.

Another difference is that names aren’t gendered: there aren’t specific male or female or holmatighi names. There are hints that in the past, the culture cared a lot less about gender than it does now. As you’ll find if you read the book, it’s not a perfect system, but it’s an attempt to recognize that real people don’t fall into a strict binary of either gender or sexuality.

Speaking of names: unlike many other cultures, the Paltarayn-ohtema-tighayn don’t name their children for their fathers. They have their given name and the name of their paltar, which is both the village and extended familial group, but the paltar is the mother’s. Men join their wives’ paltar upon marriage, and change their paltar-name. (Similar practices exist in multiple cultures on Earth, so I’m not claiming originality.) While men dominate leadership positions, there’s no inheritance of those positions: the son of an Elder isn’t an Elder, and there’s no pride taken in fathering lots of children.

Similarly, the Paltarayn-ohtema-tighayn don’t have much in the way of property. Everyone in a paltar gets a house. A few tighayn live outside any paltar, either because they’ve been exiled or out of choice, but even then there’s often assistance provided to make sure they have shelter. It’s considered a crime against the culture to do otherwise. Individuals have personal possessions, which may be prized for private reasons, but there’s no money or sense that any items are valuable enough to hoard.

Again, as with the Twinsuns, most of this isn’t spelled out explicitly in the novel: don’t expect long expository sections. It’s part of the texture of the story, though. We humans are creatures of both our genetics and our cultures, which shape the kinds of stories we tell. What I wanted to do with this story is break from a lot of the fantasy tropes, which assume a stereotyped version of western/northern European culture is “authentic” in some way.

To quote a t-shirt my friend Raychelle Burks wears: “You can believe in DRAGONS but NOT in DIVERSITY?!” In human analogy, nobody in The Hole in the World is white European, or a stand-in for white Europeans. Whether there even is an analog to Europe isn’t part of the story.

This is my own attempt to bypass the problems of a lot of fantasy. Other authors go other routes, particularly fantasy and science fiction writers of color. N. K. Jemison uses science-based magic in her “Broken Earth” books, and constructs a world that’s Earth with one important difference; the culture has many problems, but those are constructed to reflect on the real Earth. (If you haven’t read these books, I highly recommend them.) David Anthony Durham’s “Acacia” books are a sprawling epic fantasy where the culture is very African in character. I have yet to read any of Nnedi Okorafor (my bad, which I intend to fix soon), but she writes fantasy and science fiction drawing explicitly from African sources.

As a white dude, telling stories based on African or Native American cultures isn’t my place. So I found it best to just take the entire story and move it to another planet. I hope being conscious about the problem has helped craft a better story than yet another Tolkien retread.

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