Geology? What geology?

This post about setting, at Patricia Wrede’s blog, made me laugh:

On the other hand, sometimes a writer just wants to write a story set in a world where all of the volcanoes and deserts form a wide band around the equator, with oceans forming stripes above and below the equatorial desert, lush forests and grasslands making the next stripes, and so on. In those cases, the author has gone straight to setting, without worrying about the realism or plausibility, and that’s fine…as long as the world is internally consistent and makes sense to the characters.

Why, yes! I agree!

Maybe someday I should write a book where the characters travel in a broad arc across a world that is actually a planet, with ordinary planetary geology, with deserts 30 degrees above and below the equator and on the lee side of mountain ranges, with mountain ranges where one continental plate is subducting beneath another, and shallow seas where the continental plates fall off, and all the biogeographical trimmings. I mean, just so readers understand I totally threw all that away on purpose when I put both mountain goats and ibex in the same mountain range.

Wrede goes on:

Local geography can be important in a story, or it can be ignored because the viewpoint character takes it for granted (but the hills in San Francisco, the river bluffs in Pittsburgh, the weird way Denver sits between pancake-flat plains to the east and enormous sharp-edged mountains on the west are all local geography that go a long way toward giving a sense of place to stories that might otherwise be almost generic urban settings). Geography can be a major or minor obstacle in a story, or it can be a metaphor for something the protagonist has to deal with, or it can evoke a mood or a sense of place.

She does not specifically say this, but one aspect of local geography that is genuinely important is agriculture. If you have a city, farms are probably around that town — or it’s on the coast, or right next to a river — or more than one of the above. The people in that city have to get their food from somewhere. Surrounding a city with deep forest for a hundred miles in all directions is really hard unless the city is supplied with produce in some way that doesn’t involve local agriculture, such as (a) a river, or (b) magic. That’s one reason secondary world fantasy is so convenient, because if you have a city in an unlikely place, magic can help supply that city with whatever cities need.

Having said that, some real-world towns are supplied in mysterious ways.

Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

How the blazes does Santorini get supplied with anything other than fish? it’s on a volcanic island! Where does it get WATER? Answer: before desalinization plants, Santorini was completely dependent on winter rainfall. What happened when the winter rains were not abundant? I bet that was bad news. It’s probably still bad news.

How about food in a place like this? Here’s a brief post about that:

Santorini’s arid but fertile volcanic soil obliged its inhabitants to develop methods of cultivation unique in the Aegean islands. Barley, split pea (fava), lentils, peas, various types of grapes and wines have been the mainstay of the island’s economy since prehistoric times. 

Even so, wow, I mean, what a place to build a city. Santorini apparently also imported a lot of wheat and cotton and various other produce. So can your city. Was anybody else struck by this detail, in Gillian Bradshaw’s excellent book Render Unto Caesar, when the protagonist, Hermogenes, is talking about grain shipments to Rome and refers to ships carrying thirty tons of wheat as “tiny”?

Wrede actually winds up her post with alternate history:

What if the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska never disappeared? What if the last ice age was longer (or shorter)? What if a key mountain pass never developed (or the author moved it several hundred miles, affecting either trade routes or invasion routes)? What effect would the presence or absence of important minerals have on trade and/or technological development?

This reminds me of the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott. Glaciers in the north, the “salt plague” that forced mass migration from Africa to Europe a long time ago, the “feathered people” who are descendants of troodons, I mean, wow. Also, I really admire the wide variety of splendidly drawn villains in this trilogy.

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5 thoughts on “Geology? What geology?”

  1. I read a wonderful article years ago about the marine archaeological expedition to salvage a Late Bronze shipwreck near Uluburun. Ingots of tin, bronze, glass, ebony, ivory, and all manner of other goods, all were neatly packaged in the belly of a ship that never reached its destination. Also massive jars of terebinth sap, what was probably wine, what was probably wheat… I’ve always wanted to use these details in a story somehow.

  2. That’s really interesting, Kathryn! I immediately looked up terebinth sap, and now know that this is used to make turpentine.

  3. Rowan, this makes me think of a meticulous explanation I saw once for all the reasons giant insects are impossible. Like, reasons (a) through (w), just one reason after another you cannot have a spider as big as a Volkswagen Bug.

  4. That first comment! Or you can imagine an atmosphere somehow cohering in a ring around the sun, with great trees somehow growing *across* the wind shear from the sun side outwards. And call it science fiction!

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