m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

Epic Genre Objects

As part of a post critiquing this season of Game of Thrones, Vox Day made an epic fantasy list which led to some discussion at File770. The implied definition of “epic fantasy”, considering that GRRM’s work prompted the list, is fantasy of worldwide scope (for the fantasy world) with multiple, unrelated viewpoint characters.

While it took another whole post for Mr. Day to explain Stephen Donaldson’s place on his list, the first post explains why the list is so short, surprising, and unfamiliar after #2 or so: the tragedy of epic fantasy is that it’s usually bad. In fact, it’s surprisingly bad. If something came to mind as a (complete) epic fantasy favorite of yours, chances are it’s either Tolkien or not epic fantasy at all. It’s so bad because it’s so hard to write, and even those who start out well (George R. R. Martin, in this case) tend to falter somewhere along the way.

Personally, I don’t read much fantasy because I find all of it is hard to get right, not just the epics—at least judging from the outcome. I have no notable corrections to make to the list; like Day, I would have to write it myself to get an epic I liked even half as much as I like Tolkien. So I steeled myself to start reading books from the list. But, in a saving throw that reminded me of the death of Vogon poet Grunthos the Flatulent, my brain rebelled and instead started in on another big dumb object (BDO) phase.

My favorite new BDO is a Topopolis, a toroidal (or knottier) O'Neill habitat of big, dumb dimensions. Sadly, there are no few books about them, so I’ve been reading about Dyson spheres instead. Peter suggested I maintain a BDO list, but Wikipedia seems to have that well in hand. Instead, I’ll just recap the ones I’ve read in this go around:

Orbitsville (1975) and Orbitsville Departure (1983) by Bob Shaw are the first two books in a series of three about a cling-to-the-inside Dyson shell (requiring alien magic-levels of engineering). I haven’t dug up the third book yet, and the second frittered away a lot of time on Earth instead of inside Orbitsville, but overall they were an entertaining read.

Search for the Sun (1982) by Colin Kapp is the first in his series of four Cageworld novels about matrioshka (nested) Dyson shells. While these are usually proposed for computation, this set is used for habitation, and are getting full. The exploration and discovery of this massive structure is a little unbelievable in the sheer luck required, but that’s adequately papered over (I hesitate to say “explained”) by the end of book one. Presumably the other three are about solving the immense malthusian trap that these fully-populated concentric shells represent. The writing is entertaining, and I give it points for actually over-populating a BDO. I don’t see a reason yet not to read the other three.

Hex (2011) by Allen Steele is a one-off set in his Coyote universe. It’s good to see an interesting new BDO, but I felt the math was a bit off on this one. The author describes an individual biopod at one point like this: “A thousand miles long and a hundred miles wide[…] You can fit a small continent in here.” Sadly, that’s not true. Australia is a small continent, at just under 3 million square miles. A hundred thousand square miles is more along the lines of New Zealand or the state of Colorado (just over), or Great Britain (just under). Now yes, there are a lot of these in the full BDO (a rotating-for-gravity chicken-wire sphere with the biopods laid out in pairs on the sides of the hexes), but they’re isolated from each other and small, making the thing feel, ecologically, more like an infinity of zoo pens than thirty-six trillion new world to settle.

The plot of Hex relies on humans behaving stupidly and aliens withholding information, and has been harshly critiqued elsewhere—perhaps too much, since human stupidity seems to be the author’s point in more works than just this one. The original Coyote novels seem to have fared better with the critics; I recommend starting there unless you’re a hard-core BDO fan like myself.

Next up: Across a Billion Years.