Time for a (lack of) Change: The Passage of Time in Fantasyland.


Show me a written history that makes sense, and I will show you true fiction. 

Crone, Toll the Hounds


This paper was intended to be a brief look at some of the temporal anomalies that occur in genre fantasy writing and using Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books to illustrate different approaches to solving these issues.

However over the course of researching this I realised that this issue was a great deal more complicated and far reaching than I had originally thought and therefore this paper has become more of a series of questions rather than an attempt to illustrate the answers.

In essence however it is an attempt to show that suspension of disbelief is not enough, there must be a rationality and coherency present for a fantasy world to truly function and captivate.  In fact a world must be internally coherent as well as rationally consistent in order for suspension of disbelief to function effectively.  And the treatment of time is one of the major elements whereby fantasy fails to be rational.

And by Fantasy I mean genre fantasy stories that are set in secondary worlds, so not just what Mendlesohn has called the rational immersive fantasies but those that fall under the heading Portal-Quest and the generally immersive fantasies as well.  Basically anywhere where fantasyland is a place to be believed in and not just a land of whimsy.

In Fantasyland, time passes the world by, it is the simple ticking of a clock, the number of breaths taken before death, the measurement of days and years and the ending of ages.  We can easily believe in a world where magic exists, a world were long lived Elves people a wood, where dragons fly from Dwarf mined mountains and where magical artefacts dominate the lives of heroes and adventurers.  And yet the passage of time, so fundamental to SF, seems to have serious problems in Fantasyland.

Complaining about Fantasy worlds having an unrealistic view of time seems as redundant as complaining that dragons couldn’t possibly fly according to the laws of physics.  But the issue I want to discuss is not that the worlds are unrealistic but rather they are irrational, especially when it comes to the passage of time and what that means.

From the minor but annoying fact that heroes frequently get up an hour before dawn without the aid of a watch or an alarm clock or even a nod to the changing seasons and daylight savings time, to the more fundamental passage of 10,000 years of history without a single innovation; be it technical, sociological or even magical.

Time, it seems, maintains an almost tangential or ethereal touch when it comes to fantasy worlds.  Yes hours, days, months and years go by seemingly without fail (barring the odd magical apocalypse now and again), but in the grand scheme of things nothing really changes.

I know there are a great many exceptions but, in general, fantasy authors, unlike their Science Fiction counterparts, don’t seem to get their head around the concept of history and time as fluid and continuing processes.  SF so often looks to the future, be it near or far, and does so by extrapolating from the past.  Fantasy, and in particular genre fantasy, tends to be set in a static pseudo Dark Age world.

Static, because no matter how many centuries pass the world refuses to adapt.  These are worlds set in amber, never changing only ageing.

For the purpose of this paper I have chosen a couple of the more obvious and yet baffling facets of time in fantasy and hopefully by the end I will have shown that although they can be seen as discreet areas, they are actually symptoms of a greater overarching problem with the approach to time in fantasy and rationality in general.   Although there are quite a few I have looked at that I don’t have time in this paper to cover.  So for instance I won’t really be considering the impact of long-lived races co-existing with humans, or Tolkien’s vision of time as a series of epochs that end and die before being reborn as a new age.   And I haven’t really developed the idea of time as an edifice that can be mined for information and innovation.  Effectively I am looking at time as a process rather than a measuring tool.

The first aspect I am considering is one of the least complicated and yet one of the most common; Substandard Science, or, perhaps, the relationship between science, technology and magic.  This might seem unrelated to the topic at hand but bear with me.  Time is an evolutionary concept and as time passes science and technology evolve.

In Fantasyland, technology is usually stuck in and around the Dark Ages or the late Iron Age.  In fact, despite the movement in some fantasy from bronze age weaponry to iron and then steel based weapons, there seems to be little development of technology in evidence, even though literacy tends to be fairly common, schools, colleges, and universities exist, and if the characters are anything to go by, the populace tends to be intelligent and rational. So why does technology cease to advance?  Why do the people reach the late Iron Age and stop?

There are a number of different facets to this problem.  The first is historically based, well in general.  Obviously fantasy worlds have an affinity for this Dark Age period.  This means that many authors feel that their worlds must adhere to at least a facsimile of the technological and sociological patterns of that age.  That is to say feudal systems, knights and warriors, swords and armour, bows and arrows.  This is what most people expect genre fantasy to look like.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with this stance it can lead to problems when the authors try to deepen their worlds, to give them histories and backstories, to add that depth of life that will make the world seem vital and lived in, in other words to make the world real.  We know that progress and the development of technology and society slowed during the Dark Ages, that there was a retreat from the comparative light of the late Iron Age and the civilisation of the Roman Empire.

In the space of 10,000 years we have seen human kind rise out of complete barbarism to land on the moon.  In a fantasy world with a 10,000 year old history they rarely seem able to embrace emancipation or even indoor plumbing.

Well, the first and most obvious answer to this is that in a magically saturated world, why would anyone research a non-magical means of doing something that is easy to accomplish with magic?  So why try and make chemical explosives when a quick spell, a pre-prepared amulet, or a strike from a wand can accomplish as much?

Of course nothing is that straightforward, because such a response would then pose the question that if magic has replaced technology and science, why has magic ceased to evolve?

All those schools of magic, cabals of sorcerers and magicians’ guilds appear locked into only one way of doing things.   Where are the magic carpet specialists who will service your rug after 1000 flights?  The Armourer’s Guild striking a deal with some enterprising wizard to produce fire-proof dragon hunting armour for foolhardy adventurers, or the Merchant’s Guild hiring an Alchemist to shore up their gold reserves?

Or in even more prosaic terms considering the usual agrarian base in these novels, a magical plough that drives itself, a magically maintained irrigation system, or even a selection of healing talismans and minor cure alls kept in a green box with a white cross underneath the kitchen sink?

And these are just examples of obvious things one would do with magic in a magically rich world, these aren’t innovative or even unusual ways to utilise the resource.

So let’s consider the usual focus of genre fantasy novels, combat.  The same problem with arms and armaments is just as apparent.  While the great hero characters have access to a plethora of artefacts, enhanced armour, magical blades, and magical gee gaws of every description, the common soldier has to make do with ordinary chainmail and a shoddy sword.  A fantasy version of a Star Trek red shirt.

This begs the question that if magic is so common, if it is so easy to create magical artefacts, why aren’t armies equipped with magical weaponry?  In fact, if magical weapons exist then the natural progression is to design better armour and then better weapons and so on, leading to a magical arms race of at least some proportion.

The simple point is that fantasy worlds should adapt to the use of magic and that adaptation should be an ongoing process.  But not all fantasy worlds have such a high prevalence of magical artefacts so let’s take a quick look at Erikson’s Malazan world.

Here there are plenty of mages and magical beings and access to magic is abundant, yet magical artefacts are relatively scarce.  But he has carefully considered the impact of magic on this world.  So for instance, the Trygalle Trade Guild has adapted magical transport and use of the warrens to make a profit, speedily traversing the world and the meta-world, transporting goods and select clients.

The development and availability of healing magic has reduced infant mortality rates and had the knock on effect of partial emancipation of women.  So rather than being viewed by their society as breeding machines or wet nurses housebound by the need to constantly produce children, women can join the army, own businesses and are generally viewed as the equals of their male counterparts.

But perhaps the most striking example is the adaptability of the Malazan army itself. It appears to be the stereotypical fantasy army, utilising swords, leather armour and chainmail.  Yet it has adapted strategy and technique in light of new innovations and opportunities presented by their alliance with another culture within the books, the Moranth.

The Moranth have access to large flight capable creatures called Quorls, and the Malazans are quick to realise the tactical advantages of swift air travel.  By using the Quorls to transport units of troops quickly over vast distances the Malazans can out manoeuvre enemy forces that are limited to traditional marching, and the convenient and reliable resupply dumps by aerial units means that they don’t have to depend on long baggage trains and easy to raid caravans.

Even more significant is the access to Moranth munitions.

The Moranth munitions are alchemical explosives designed to be dropped from above the target or used during fast paced aerial combat.  The Malazan sappers however were quick to realise the potential of non-magical explosives to aid them in combat and traditional sapper activities.

Due to the fact that the Malazans don’t have the advantage of 200ft of vertical space between themselves and their targets, they had to adapt and improvise timing techniques and fuse systems in order to give them enough time to escape the blast radius of the subsequent explosions.  This meant taking the technology and finding a new way to utilise it beyond its intended or traditional parameters.

In fact they go even further, in a moment of improvisation they adapt an existing crossbow to fire the munitions like a fantasy grenade launcher.  Impressed by the potential of this kind of delivery system they go about commissioning purpose built crossbows to take modified bolts that will be used for this sole purpose.  As a reader you know that it will not be long before others realise the importance and practicality of such weapons and will attempt to refine the design making it reliable and ubiquitous.  .

This is the essence of adaptability and shows that the Malazan world is one in which time does not stand still.  The use of the munitions has effectively changed the world and the way that the army makes war.  Time has moved on and the traditional sapper techniques are now outdated and have been superseded by the new technology.   Military tacticians now have to take account of highly mobile and hard to track units.  The very shape of warfare on the planet has changed.

This shows how a rational approach to magic, technology and new situations could be utilised in order to make the world seem more real, more believable.

Let’s compare this quickly with David Eddings’ world of the Belgariad.  Here we have a naval Viking race that hasn’t had a new idea about shipbuilding in 5000 years.  Not only that but no other race has ever tried to copy their designs in order to compete.  Each of the Alorn nations has evolved only one type of soldier, and never once tried to diversify their army.  The Mimbrates have heavy platemail armour for their knights and horses, but no-one ever considers using caltrops to stymie their cavalry charge, or using a heavy crossbow to punch a hole in the armour.  The Ulgos haven’t ventured forth from their caves for so long that their eyes have adapted to near darkness, and yet their weapons and armour, as ancient as they are, are sophisticated enough to compete with the modern weapons and tactics of the rest of the world.  Eddings’ world appears real and yet falls down on the details.  It could never exist.  Not in the way he describes it with the history he has assigned it.

But in Erikson’s world nothing is static, even magic itself changes.  Primitive Holds have evolved through use, manipulation, time and study to form Warrens.  Or perhaps another way to look at it is the sentient species on the planet have changed their perception of magic in light of new ways to manipulate and use it.  Becoming more subtle and more sophisticated.  Adapting to the world, looking for new and more efficient or powerful uses for the resource.

Contemporaneously an isolated civilisation continues to use the more primitive approach to the magic, in terms of utilising holds.  It has never occurred to them to look deeper into how magic is accessed and used.  And it is only their exposure to the more civilised world, to the advanced cultures also present in the world, that the more common use of Warrens becomes apparent to them.

This is one way that Erikson gets across the idea of trade and communication between races and civilisations as accelerating progress, increasing knowledge.  With trade and contact between races, cultures and competing interests, humans learn and adapt.  Exposure to new ideas, alien traditions, and different processes and techniques add to the sum of human understanding and lead to an acceleration of development.

Magical rites and conflicts have altered the use of magic in certain areas creating dead or tainted zones where the warrens don’t function as normal, those races and peoples who live in or near these zones adapt to survive and flourish in these areas, however when they attempt to use these techniques in magically rich zones they are easily defeated by tactics that make use of magical attacks.

Again this highlights the fact that this world has specialist adaptation that has developed over time, and it is only when these isolated pockets encounter other areas that they are forced to re-adapt or be destroyed.  An adherence to the traditions of the past as a defining force will ultimately lead to destruction as stagnation is almost always beaten by progress.

In fact the very fabric of magic has been altered over the course of the novels.  And this can be seen in the flooding of Warrens, the leakage of one Warren into another and even the encroachment of the ice associated with the T’Lann ritual into other Warrens.  The characters themselves are constantly striving to understand and survive their world.  Their gods live and die and war amongst themselves making the magic of their realms unreliable.  As new gods arise new forms of magic become available leading to new spells, new attacks and new techniques required to battle them.   Forgotten or previously powerless characters have re-emerged and are attempting to influence the new world they find around them, having to adapt to new attitudes and perceptions of the world.

And in terms of religion, new religions have arisen and are shown to be non-rigid constructs open to manipulation and corruption beyond the pure or impure intentions of their founders.  Trying to establish themselves in a world that has a glut of powerful deistic figures.

Time is both cyclical, with the rise and fall of empires, religion and gods.  As well as a continuing process with the sum of human knowledge and power increasing and changing as humanity encounters the new and adapts the old.

The world itself is in flux.  The world must change or cease to exist.

But rationality need not be the focus or even necessary if thought has gone into the world.

There are a couple of very simple narrative tricks or techniques used by authors to circumvent this problem of rationality and the necessity of evolution and mutability.

The first is the presence of a limiting external force; be it a pantheon of deities, an exiled chaos force, prime movers or powerful demonic/alien presences that exert control over the world in order to keep it at a certain point of development.  This is perhaps most obvious in the various Stargate universes, whereby ancient alien beings manipulate humanity on various planets for their own ends limiting their development, their evolution and preventing change.

It is no great leap from this to Erikson’s world of pernicious deities and interfering supernatural powers that manipulate and control the various races on the planet.

By keeping the world in constant flux with their grand plots and wars, the various mortal races are influenced, controlled or manipulated and never have the chance to achieve a true evolutionary process.  So this at least can explain why they do not develop at a rate comparable to our own.  If an external force limits development then the world can be encased in amber and rationality doesn’t enter in to it.

Another technique is to have some, if not all the races in the fantasyland, come from somewhere or somewhen else (for example Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series).  They are transplanted peoples, who have fled a disaster, a war or something that is pursuing them.  This allows several interpretations and options.

They may have had to leave a lot of their most powerful and learned citizens behind, a powerful rear guard holding back a foe so that the innocent can escape.  Because of this the transplanted people are not the best and the brightest but rather simple survivors.  Should the people in this room suddenly be transported to an alien world do any of us know how to build a generator from simple materials so that our laptops will work?  Do we know how to make medicines?  Could we rebuild the human civilisation we already know in 100 years, or even 1000.

So the forgotten world becomes the site of long forgotten treasures, technology beyond their current means, and a decaying storehouse of their accumulated knowledge.    We can easily see how this technique allows for an advanced race to become barbarous and long for the glory days of their advancement.

This can be coupled with the second interpretation of having those who have escaped become so concerned with surviving the first few years that they have reverted to barbarism and have had to re-evolve, to re-adapt far away from the world they knew and understood.  To relearn which animals are poisonous, which plants are edible and to rebuild their knowledge base from the ground up.  And that process will take generations and inevitably lead to lost knowledge, lost techniques, and forgotten sciences.

Or they could be clinging to traditions and forms of behaviour that are now so far removed from the original context that they no longer understand their purpose outside of ritual.  In a world where gods are physically manifest and interventionist invoking them, casting curses and blessings can have real physical results, but if the transplanted people have ‘lost’ their gods than this becomes ritual, misunderstood tradition and becomes divorced from the reality of the world around them.

Again all these are in evidence in the world of the Malazans, where various races have found a home on the different continents, either struggling against entropy and a waning of their once proud and prevalent civilisation like the Tiste Andii, or have become isolated and over time have forgotten their history as fact and instead have translated it into myth like the Awl. Leading to them becoming vulnerable to pernicious entities that twist their belief and worship into a self serving exercise.

Also interbreeding and the intermixing of cultures has led to the very world being reshaped as new cultures and races rise from the ashes of the old to challenge the established order.  Struggling to find an identity distinct from their parent species or races.

In fact the very presence of these ‘alien’ interlopers has altered the evolution of the planet’s natural populations.  Domestication of preferred herds, the eradication of hunters, the fundamental alteration of ecosystems and landscape through interaction, domestication and abuse.

All these can explain away those long extended histories which would seem to be inconsistent with the level of development or evolutionary position of the races in question.  It can also explain the use of various levels and styles of technology that would seem inconsistent were the author to attempt to explain their development in terms of a natural progression.

Essentially what I am attempting to articulate is that when one creates a world with a history, that history must take account of change unless there is some kind of arresting force.  If magic is to supersede or replace science then human curiosity will dictate that people will seek new and innovative ways to use it, to develop it and to come up with weird and wonderful uses that perhaps the original creators didn’t consider.  If long lived races live and trade side by side humans then there should be an evolution of ideas, cross pollination of technology and magic, changes in how one looks at the world.


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