Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why Ancient Earth?

In a recent post, I talked about the different types of fantasy world I've seen: the created (non-Earth) world, the alternate history Earth, the far future Earth, the future colony planet with magical elements, and the lost ancient Earth. And of course I mentioned that the path I had chosen was that of ancient Earth. Today I intend to explain why I made that choice. I'll start with the types of world I did not choose, and try to explain why I find them less desirable than the ancient history type of world.

The Created World
The created world is a fictional world that has no relation to our Earth. It is presumably in an alternate universe where magic works, or some other situation in which the normal rules of the physical universe, as we know it, do not apply the same way. As I mentioned in my last post, David Eddings' series The Belgariad and The Mallorean both take place in such a world. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this idea.

Of course, there are questions that must be at the very least overlooked, if not explained. The most significant question would be, why would an alien world have developed cultures and peoples in any way similar to those of our medieval Europe? Following that line of thought, why would the people on that planet be human, or elf, or dwarf? Why do they conform to European human or mythical races? I could posit many additional questions along this same line, but you get the idea.

For me, answering these questions about an alien world just gets too complicated and tortuous - I lose my ability to suspend disbelief. Other writers and readers may not have that particular issue.

Alternate History Earth
The alternate history Earth is typically a mythical version of our history, wherein monsters dwell and magic works. The stories of king Arthur, Beowulf, Siegfried and others all fit into this category. I have to admit that I find this type of world almost as compelling as the ancient historical Earth, and I was very close to choosing this one as the world I would use as a backdrop for my stories.

The questions and challenges with this type of world are different than the created world, and I think easier to solve for the writer. First, you can start with a map that is materially similar to our real world. You can change the national borders around if you wish, you can even modify the geography somewhat, as long as it is still recognizably our Earth. The questions to answer are things such as, How and why does magic work in this alternate history? How and why did the alternate history come about, such that these characters exist and potentially even interact with real historical persons?

Personally, I find these questions easier to answer, and I also find it easier to suspend my disbelief for this type of world compared with the created world. I think there's a lot to offer the prospective writer in the alternate history Earth, especially if you're a bit of a history buff (which I am) and reader of European mythology (also me). This one came in a close second to the ancient historical Earth that I elected to go with.

Far Future Earth or Future Colony
Even though these two types of world are different, I'm going to group them together as they have the same types of challenges to address. The Dying Earth series by Jack Vance, and the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, are example of each. In both types of world, you have a future world that is largely out of touch with its mythical or semi-mythical Earth of the past. It may have legends of an age of high technology, and even ruins or artifacts from that era, but the current era of such a world is one where cultures have somehow reverted to a medieval civilization, and have magic and/or monsters as well.

The questions to answer for these types of world are along the lines of, how or why does magic work in this time and place, when it didn't in times past? Did chronological distance allow changes to take place in the Earth, or physical distance allow differences in the laws of physics, as well as the working of magic? Why did a medieval civilization develop in such a time and place? Did the human race and its civilization devolve back to this level? If so, why did they stay there, and not begin advancing - or are they advancing, and if so, how will magic help or hinder such advancement?

On the one hand, I think the idea of a future Earth where the laws of physics have changed over a massive stretch of time, can be quite a creative solution to the problem of magic existing in our universe. I also think it can be a good way to tie the human race to the story, without assuming that humans didn't spontaneously arise on another planet or in another universe where magic works. It also allows the writer to make allusions to the ancient past, which might actually be our real-life present or at least this general era of human history. Nevertheless, the questions about the development of medieval societies still stand, as well as why magic would begin to work in a world where it currently does not.

Ranking my preferences, the far future Earth came in third, and the colony world fourth. I find answering these questions for either type of world easier than for the created non-Earth world, but not as easy as for those more rooted in our Earth's history. I can suspend my disbelief for these types of world easier than I can for the created world, but not as easy as with the alternate history or ancient history world.

Ancient Historical (or Prehistorical) Earth
The ancient history Earth is similar to the alternate history in that it is anchored in our world. However, it differs in that the historical epoch is so far in the past that it has been lost, forgotten by modern generations. At best, we may have a few scraps of myth referring to that elder era, myths which no one believes any longer although there may be a kernel of truth in them. The ancient Earth is different in that it allows the writer to significantly change the world map, create completely fictional nations and peoples, and decide how, or even if, there should be any links to later peoples, nations and cultures.

There are still questions to answer, of course. How did magic work back then, if it doesn't work today? Where did the monsters go? Where did the elves and dwarves go? Why do we have no histories of this ancient epoch? Why did medieval societies develop in this era, only to later (apparently) devolve into even more primitive groups before rising once again in the modern era?

All of these are good questions, but I found them easier, and frankly more fun, to answer than the questions raised by the other types of world. In the case of Aerde, my ancient Earth, here's a few simple answers:

  • This ancient period existed over ten thousand years ago, well before any of our known ancient civilizations such as Egypt or Mesopotamia.
  • There was a period of terrible cataclysms that ended the ancient epoch, and ushered in the modern epoch.
  • The cataclysms destroyed any evidence of those older civilizations, leaving the human race with only a few scraps of memory and myth. They also destroyed the civilizations to the point that the human race had to start over almost from scratch, living like neanderthals simply to survive, until they were able to once again develop the same skills and technologies that were lost from the previous epoch.
  • The same cataclysms also effected other changes in our world, such that magic, which actually worked in those elder days, no longer does. The laws of physics, some of them anyway, actually changed. Why? That's an open question I have chosen to ignore.
  • The Elefdar and Dwerden slowly dwindled over time, their races being eclipsed by the race of Men. There was some inter-breeding between races, and we still have vestiges of that in some people of today, with features that we might liken to the elves or dwarves of that previous epoch. But largely, the elves and dwarves simply died out along with the disappearance of magic.
That should be enough to give you an idea of how I chose to model Aerde. It really came down to personal preference, regardless of the justifications I gave for choosing one over the others. In the end, an author has to make such choices based on what he finds interesting and fun to think about. If not for personal enjoyment and the joy of exercising one's imagination, what's the point of creating these stories?


  1. The ancient earth does seem to have the best balance between freedom to not answer every question and similarities to our own modern earth.

    I haven't read David Eddings' books, but I'm curious how he deals with the problems you posed regarding the created world? Does he explain them? Or does he just let it be what it is and ignore the questions?

  2. Wif, in the two series of stories that I mentioned, he gives a brief creation mythology but does not answer any of the questions I posed. Maybe in one of his other (later) stories he did so, but not in those two.