You know, one of the coolest things about SFF is how it invites us to mothball our skepticism and explore just about any metaphysical concept. Avatar Aang lives in a world where reincarnation is inarguably real. So does Rand Al-Thor. Just so, Narnia is a world with a concrete moral order, and the Marvel universe is absolutely lousy with gods. Fate, karma, magic, ghosts – you name it; we’ve got a franchise for it.
But here’s one big idea that I’d like to see getting more air-time: animism. It’s one of the oldest belief systems in the world, and put simply, it’s the idea that non-human creatures and things have souls, and therefore should be treated with awareness. In sci-fi and fantasy, animism usually comes to the fore whenever a creator wants to craft a culture that’s all about living in harmony with nature – your wood-elves, blue cat-people, et al. The problem is usually that they are so dang harmonious that they would never be worth writing about if they didn’t get bulldozed by the plot. (Literally, if we’re talking Ferngully and its like.)
So what’s the alternative? What would a fictional animistic culture look like if everyone weren’t a happy-sappy Pocahontas knock-off? Well, it’s good to remember that we are all imperfect practicioners of our values: you can love your neighbor in the Biblical abstract, and still wish Old-Testament retribution on the weed-dealing rap-blasting recidivist on the other side of your duplex wall.
In fact, your obnoxious neighbor illustrates the larger point perfectly: just because someone has a soul doesn’t mean they’re not a dick. You have observed this among your fellow humans, and probably a cat or two. Now extrapolate that same principle to plants, rocks, water, clouds, and so on – even beyond the strictly natural world. After all, several of the chairs in your house might be as reliable and pleasant as you please. One will be persnickety and prone to wobbles. And that one in the corner will dump you on the floor the first chance it gets. (That’s why you only use it for junk mail now.)
This is a concept I enjoyed immensely in People of the Silence (US/UK), and one I strive to do justice to in my own work. The Gears’ book is set in New Mexico c. 1000 AD, and the Anasazi characters have colorful and varied relationships with their environment. The north wind is an evil pest, petulant and shrieking as it drives away the rain clouds. The firepit hates Poor Singer and will refuse all his efforts to light it, but happily allows itself to be kindled by Silk. And here’s my favorite part, when our hero is alone with his own ripening doubts:
I use my bare toe to flip over one of the fallen stones and wonder: do the stones in the hills crawl down at night to look at the enslaved stones [of the house]? Do they howl, the way coyotes do, at dogs in cages?
Isn’t that a picture? Isn’t that a marvel? And therein lies the last missing piece, I think – the thing so many of us neglect in writing from an animistic point of view: we forget that a believable person’s understanding of their world is subject to challenge, and that their knowledge will sometimes feel conspicuously incomplete, or even wrong. An interesting character won’t have all the answers, no matter what they believe – and a credible setting will leave enough room for them to question and develop those beliefs.
And maybe occasionally yell at a cloud.
Arianne “Tex” Thompson is the author of the Children of the Drought – an internationally-published epic fantasy Western series published by Solaris in the US and UK. Now a professional speaker and writing instructor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Tex is blazing a trail through writers conferences, workshops, and fan conventions around the country. For more on Thompson’s writing and novels, be sure to check out her website, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.