Today’s guest is fantasy author Anne Lyle! Her work includes Night’s Masque, a historical fantasy trilogy set during the Elizabethan era (The Alchemist of Souls, The Merchant of Dreams, and The Prince of Lies). She’s also a scientist and her discussion is about how science does not have to be limited to science fiction—fantasy can be built upon scientific concepts, too!
Back when I was a teenager, I was all about the science. Science fiction, science fact – I devoured it all. My favourite subject at school was biology, so of course I loved stories about aliens, such as the “Hospital Station” series by James White, and anything by Ursula Le Guin or Andre Norton. By contrast, history was a more ambivalent subject. I loved pseudo-historical swashbucklers like “Scaramouche” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, but our history lessons in school were deadly dull.
In those days (the 1970s) and at an aspirational girls’ grammar school like the one I attended, a broad curriculum was not admired – we were destined for university and academic careers, so we specialised early. At 14 I ditched arts and humanities to focus on science and languages, went on to take a degree in zoology, and eventually found my way into web development and bioinformatics. And yet despite this high-tech focus, I ended up writing fantasy instead of science fiction. So what happened?
I think it started in my late teens, when I discovered the three-volume paperback edition of “The Lord of the Rings” in a local bookshop. I’d read fantasy before, of course, but here was a world as vast and awesome as anything I’d encountered in SF – plus it heavily featured the natural world that I loved. For the next couple of decades I read a mixture of fantasy and SF – and in some cases, like Julian May’s “The Saga of the Exiles”, a heady blend of the two.
Then in the latter half of the 1980s, two opposing fiction genres vied for my attention. On the one hand there was one of the hottest new paperback series, the Brother Cadfael historical crime novels by Ellis Peters. I’d always loved detective stories, and the combination of a classical whodunnit with a medieval setting rekindled my interest in English history.
At the same time it was the heyday of cyberpunk: the novels of William Gibson, Walter Jon Williams, George Alec Effinger and their peers – and of course the movies. Blade Runner and Robocop epitomised this sub-genre and painted a picture of a cynical but still fascinating future where biology and technology collide. For a while it seemed like the perfect mix…
But by the mid-90s, reality had started to catch up with fiction. Cyberspace was here, but instead of glowing pyramids and jacking in, we had HTML and the dot-com bubble. The future was now and it was both exciting and really rather mundane – which left science fiction feeling a bit…unnecessary? It didn’t help that, during the 80s, I’d discovered environmentalism and started to feel pessimistic about the future of our planet. SF was no longer the shiny beacon of hope, but a harbinger of doom. Faced with a rapidly changing world, perhaps it’s not surprising that many SFF fans took refuge in an idealised past of sword-wielding heroes trekking across an untamed wilderness. And so I, like so many of the reading public, turned to fantasy for my sensawunda thrills.
For the writer, fantasy offers some distinct advantages over science fiction. For one thing, writing good SF requires a solid understanding of science and technology, which might seem daunting to a non-scientist. (Which is not to belittle the specialist knowledge required to write convincing fantasy.) My earliest attempts at writing fiction, way back in my teens, were of course SF – thankfully they are lost in the mists of time, as I fear the science was very bad. In my defence, I was only fourteen!
That said, a background in science can still come in useful when writing fantasy. Just because you’re writing about magic and primitive technologies, it doesn’t mean you have to throw your scientific knowledge out of the window. Sure, there are many fine authors who have drawn solely on myth and legend for their fantasy, but SFF has always been a continuum between hard science and the completely fantastical.
An example of how I blend the two in my own work is the skraylings in my historical fantasy series Night’s Masque, which is set in late 16th/early 17th century Europe. I wanted to create a fantasy race that wasn’t based on folklore like elves and dwarves but on the principles of biology I had learned during my education. Admittedly I found ways to fit them into existing folklore, because that’s how the people of that era would have understood them, but in my mind they were normal flesh-and-blood creatures like ourselves.
One of the key aspects that defines any culture is their family structure, and so for my skraylings I adopted some behaviours that are more usually seen in birds than in mammals. Male and female skraylings live apart for most of the year and only come together for the mating season, when the males “display” and the females choose mates. Being an intelligent, civilised species, these mating rituals have turned into festivals of artistic and sporting excellence, similar to the original Olympic Games, so they are not so dissimilar from human customs – and yet the segregation of the sexes permeates skrayling culture and colours their attitudes in ways that seep into characters and plot and hopefully make the whole fictional structure believable.
Right now I’m working on the worldbuilding for a new fantasy series, this time set in a wholly invented world – and once again I’m drawing on both science and history (and the history of science) to give it realism and weight. I guess you could say that I’m still as much in love with science as I ever was, but I’ve found new ways to use it without having to confine my stories to future settings. For a scientist who loves fantasy, it really is the best of all possible worlds!
Anne Lyle was born in what is popularly known as “Robin Hood Country”, and grew up fascinated by English history, folklore, and swashbuckling heroes. Unfortunately there was little demand in 1970s Nottinghamshire for diminutive swordswomen, so she studied sensible subjects like science and languages instead.
It appears, however, that although you can take the girl out of Sherwood Forest, you can’t take Sherwood Forest out of the girl. She now spends practically every spare hour writing – or at least planning – fantasy fiction about dashing swordsmen and scheming spies, set in alternate pasts or imaginary worlds.
Her published works include the Night’s Masque trilogy – The Alchemist of Souls, The Merchant of Dreams and The Prince of Lies – which came out in 2012-13, and a short story in the 2013 BFS fantasy anthology Unexpected Journeys.