Fantasy world-building through the lens of environmental science by Gabrielle Byrne
As a reader, there’s nothing more satisfying that falling into a new world where you can feel the bite of the wind, smell the soup cooking over the fire, and reach out and touch everything just as the characters do. Building those worlds can be daunting, but by observing nature we can learn how, and discover new and amazing things about our own world at the same time. As a fantasy author, whether I’m building a single creature, or an entire fantasy world, I always consider the relationships within the natural world. Whether it’s an ancient land of dinosaurs, a fairy tale wood, or an exo-planet in outer space, humans and animals alike are impacted by many things: climate, habitat, food sources and availability, and the presence or absence of predators, just to name a few. Creatures then adapt to meet basic survival needs (food, shelter, breathing, reproduction).
A half-meter long clam worm, for example, looks a lot like a centipede as it swims through the water using hundreds of legs. Those legs, however, don’t just help it swim, they are external gills. That’s a creative solution to an important need! Any fantasy animal living in the sea would need a way to breathe, a way to move, a way to hide, and food to eat. It could be a predator, or it could be prey, but by answering questions about that animal’s relationship to the world around it, it becomes richer, and more real.
Making a fantasy animal can cascade organically into development of a world, and other creatures. When I was writing RISE OF THE DRAGON MOON, I needed a prey species to feed the people, as well as the dragons. It needed to be something large and sustaining, and be able to survive on open ice. Bison at Yellowstone are found on wide-swept open plains and can withstand the cold of long winters. I gave my bison fur in shades of white and grey as camouflage. They needed a good food source to graze on–so I invented a special algae that was adapted to the ice. I made it too bitter for people to reduce competition. I gave the bison an excellent sense of smell because the dim light of their world meant they had bad eyesight. They needed to dig their food from the ice, so I gave them the adaptation of jaw horns.
Predators, prey, domestic creatures and even people, all develop in tandem with their environment, and in response to natural pressures–to meet basic needs. In imagining new species and worlds, I consider those needs and pressures, including climate, habitat, food sources, food availability, life cycles, migration, hibernation, finding a mate, camouflage, and interactions with people. Observing the diversity of nature and its interactions can inspire new imaginary worlds. Through the lens of science, those expansive visions can, in turn, teach us about our own world.
Gabrielle Byrne has a degree in literature and in environmental studies (marine biology, botany) and worked in environmental education for roughly a decade, specifically in marine biology and conservation education. As an environmental educator, she started an event called Pier Peer, in which she dropped a submersible light into the sea after dark to attract zooplankton. People were encouraged to observe, ask questions, and help catch zooplankton for a dock-side tank. A wide variety of jellyfish, nudibranchs, amphipods, copepods, pelagic worms, squid, and a myriad of creatures were attracted to the lights. Gabby ran the event for seven years. The event is now run by the South Sound Estuary Association (SSEA), and is still well attended. A local NPR station did a story about the event: http://www3.kuow.org/mp3high/mp3/KUOWPresents/20090509GabbyByrne.mp3