Let’s Try That Again



So like Zombie Jesus this blog rises from the dead once again.

The last time I put up some entries I was writing or trying to write a crime novel. I don’t do that anymore—a long story as to why—but I can’t promise I won’t try to write crime again some day. However, for now I’m trying to write something different.

Lately I’ve become really interested in what is called ‘fantasy,” specifically fantasy intended for middle school and young adult audiences. I taught creative writing classes to middle-schoolers and high school students for several years, and came to think that they are the best audience for wonder tales and imaginative writing of all kinds. I wanted to write something that my students would read and enjoy and think was cool. I’m still trying; turned out to be much harder than I thought it would be.

I’ve written a lot of ghost stories, which I suppose come under the general heading of “horror,” not fantasy. I tend to think of all such stories as ‘wonder tales,’ a medieval category I am comfortable with. Leave the rest to Marketing.

But as I struggle to teach myself to write these stories, I’m reading more fantasy, trying to eavesdrop on the discourse and learn something.

But two things irk and irritate in this realm: food and music.

Food and music are serious interests of mine, so I do not like to see them glossed over. If you’re going to mention food at all, use the same degree of creative imagination you would use in the rest of your world building.

Many fantasy writers seem to gloss over cooking and dining. What do questors eat on the quest?

The answer, apparently, is stew. Why is it always stew? Everything stew. It usually sounds both disgusting and vague. What’s in the stew? How is it spiced? Meat or fish or what? Insects? Rocks?

(The simple minded attempts of second-rate 1950s science fiction to provide an alien cuisine—“fried ysxxlt, with a brx sauce” —are usually pretty lame. I don’t imagine anyone is going there anymore–but then I don’t read a lot of contemporary science fiction. They better not, that’s all. Most often eating is just avoided entirely, everyone if they eat at all eat something that sounds like military k rations, or else “food pills.”)

Who among fantasy writers gets it right? Tolkien, for one, though he goes easy on the details. Maybe that’s the way to do it. Still, waybread is both practical and imaginative. I can almost taste it.  I want some. The depression among the fellowship when the waybread runs out is better than a minutely detailed description of it.

Elvish wine, with its shifting opalescent colors, is attractive, and you wonder how that iridescence would translate into taste.

And, or course, a Fish Dinner in Memison, tho’ I’m not sure I would want to sit down to dinner with those guys.

But overall I think I would starve in most fantasy worlds. On purpose.

Another area where many fantasy writers come up short is music. Think of all the visual imagination lavished on fantasy and sci-fi films, and some pretty cool soundtracks as well. But music in the story itself is either avoided or superficial.

What I mean: think of the famous bar scene in Star Wars, how cool and weird and convincingly alien it is. Funny, but also unsettling. Now compare the lame tootling music of the [little furry guys—ewoks?] in another Star Wars movie. Neither believable as the national music of a tree-dwelling race of extraterrestrials, nor interesting in itself. Obviously no real thought or musical imagination was expended here.

I’m sorry, but this kind of thing really bothers me. It reminds me of those old Hollywood movies which made no attempt at all to be authentic musically, where sailors at a capstan, lumberjacks in a forest, or cowboys at the corral suddenly begin singing like the effing Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with a full orchestra hidden somewhere nearby. How hard could it have been to have researched this stuff? (It’s done much better now, I admit.)

Science fiction writers will sometimes reference a Terran musical style that has unexpectedly persisted or evolved: “death polka,” “Venusian mazurkas.” This is not bad and at least gives your imagination something to work with. And Frank Herbert in Dune hinted at musical styles and instruments that fit in with Atreides culture.

Maybe suggestive but glancing references are the way to go, leaving the heavy lifting to the reader’s imagination.

But I can’t think of a contemporary fantasy writer who has addressed this head on. Where should I be looking? Am I missing something?

It is also quite possible that I haven’t been reading the right books. I welcome correction. If any reader has examples of food or music in fantasy that are well done, please, let me know.


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