Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Fish and chips: food in fantasy

Food has a history. Once you say it, it seems obvious, but most of us don't think about the fact very often. We all know the basics: potatoes come from the New World, wheat from the Old; the Aztecs ate chili peppers and chocolate and avocados, the Chinese did not, though they did have tofu. But the details get fuzzy when you look a little closer. Where are bananas from? Two-thirds of the export crop is produced in five countries: one is the Philippines, the other four are in Central or South America. Yet bananas are not a New World fruit. They were first domesticated in Southeast Asia, and almost a fifth of the world's total crop is produced in India (or was a few years ago). What about coffee? We associate it first with Turkey and the Near East (or at least I do), but it is actually native to Sub-Saharan Africa.

And that's only the plants themselves. Things get even more complicated when you look at recipes, when we have them at all (there is at least one Roman cookbook, for what it's worth). Pasta was not, perhaps, invented by the Chinese (that seems to be a fairly recent legend), but no one was eating spaghetti bolognese, back when the tomato was unknown less than five thousand miles from Bologna.

What does this have to do with writing, you wonder? Quite a lot, actually. Not everyone likes to describe food in fantasy (I've gotten through The Sign of the Sibyl without a meal more elaborate than "duck breast with rice, steamed greens, and wine"), but some go on at length. George R.R. Martin is a famous example, and there's a fair bit of food even in the Narnia books (Edmund and Turkish delight; Shasta eating butter for the first time; the three lords of Telmar at Ramandu's table).

Food, like clothing, weapons, armor, religious rituals, and government bureaucracies, can help set the feel of the fantasy story, that elusive element in world-building that lets you describe the setting and the characters and their customs in a series of swift strokes. Enough such strokes, and you have (if you're good at it) built up a picture of a whole imaginary world, or at least the parts of it that we as readers need to see. The kind of food you portray should thus fit the rest of the setting of the story, and give it the proper texture.

In historical fiction, this is simple enough: your fifth-century Romans might have eaten something like pasta as they awaited the arrival of Attila's marauders; they would not have eaten tomatos or peppers with it (so a beef stew, perhaps?) If you showed them going out for fish and chips at the corner tavern, you would either be making a joke or (more likely) have gotten it wrong.

Fantasy is not quite the same. The world is imaginary, at least to a degree. The closer a fantasy story is to being alternate history, the more significant any noticeable deviation from real-world patterns is going to be. Foods have particular histories, and they have symbolic meanings that are related to, but not fully determined by, their histories. I don't even mean symbolism in the strict sense, though of course that does come into it: having a woman eat an apple and give one to her husband might well mean something (nevermind that it wasn't an apple, anyway). Rather, I mean the kind of associations that certain foods bear: different, presumably, for each one of us, but broadly similar across the whole culture. Tofu with rice and soy sauce feels like a story set within the wider Chinese-Korean-Japanese cultural sphere, ground beef placed in a fluffy white bun and garnished with weak mustard and a sauce of tomato, sugar, and vinegar like the modern USA, kidney pie like England of any era.

There's nothing to prevent people in an imaginary quasi-Europe whose armies are dominated by armored horsemen, the setting of so much high fantasy, from eating something like modern hamburgers, but it would not fit so easily as kidney pea or pottage or beef sausages. If you did show it, the element would distinctly mark out the story as not quite like our own world. Such a flourish may be a good thing, of course, but it needs to be done with some care: think of Tolkien's explanation for the presence of Nicotiana species and potatoes in northwestern Middle-Earth (in-story, a pre-historic Europe). The risk is something akin to anachronism. Not a lapse in the presentation of an actual historical period, but an insufficiently artful rupture in the tapestry of the invented world.

Of course, you could invent a wholly distinct in-world history of life, and of the animals and plants that humans eat, just as so many fantasy authors have invented linguistic systems. I have little to say about the prospect, save that doing it properly would require a level of scientific sophistication that few writers are likely to have. Picking a few plants or animals might be easier: imagine a world in which the only domesticated large animals were loxodonts. People would breed small, docile elephants for domestic tasks (pulling carts, producing milk, carrying your children around at the fair), big, docile elephants for farm work or other heavy draft, medium-sized, obedient but powerful elephants for individual cavalrymen, big (but not unhealthily or uncontrollably big), aggressive elephants to carry multi-man units into battle. All this would permeate every aspect of culture, including food: elephant cheese is not going to be quite the same as cow or goat cheese, nor elephant-riding like horse-riding. But it would be hard to have the idea without the story being in some way about the changes brought in human society by having elephants in place of cattle and horses and donkeys and camels (and real-world elephants, of course).

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