Tough Traveling with Fantasy Review Barn — Ancient Engineering Projects

I just noticed (like, five minutes ago) that my favorite review blog has started doing a take on Dianne Wynne Jones’ classic Tough Guide to Fantasyland.  I got a copy of the book quite a while ago, and it easily stands alongside the Evil Overlord’s List and TVTropes as a great genre-deconstructing tool.  Plus: humor.

Anyway, Fantasy Review Barn’s Nathan is doing a weekly feature now on a TGtF entry and the books it brings to mind.  Because I agree with his reasons, I thought I’d take the opportunity to hop on that wagon and talk about incidences of those entries/tropes in my own writing!  Yay!

The entry for this first week is:

Ancient Engineering Projects tend to litter the landscape in some parts of the continent.  Most of them are quite mysterious, and all of them are made of some substance not known to the present inhabitants, often of a greenish colour, or matte black, though white is not unknown.  They will be gigantic.  Most of them will be pillars that touch the clouds, but ROADS and broken BRIDGES are common too.  It is unknown quite what challenge caused earlier people to make things that were so very large.  Most of them are no use to anyone.

First, I want to say that I feel like I’ve seen this trope a lot, but I can’t identify really where.  Nathan mentions the Gentleman Bastard series, but even while I was reading those, I had the vague sense of ‘yeah heard this a lot’.  I was reading Theft of Swords recently too, and the abandoned elven stronghold of Avempartha struck me the same way — though it’s not exactly titanic, nor of an unknown origin.  There are just a lot of abandoned structures littering the generic fantasy-world, it seems.

And I can’t say that I really like it, especially when it’s either implied or explicit that these engineering feats were done by a precursor to humanity or an interceding alien/magical race.  That strikes me in the same way those ‘Ancient Aliens’ TV shows do — like humanity has never done anything impressive, and all our great engineering feats had to be handed to us by entities from the beyond.  Not all mysterious-alien-ruins and first-contact-through-abandoned-technology stories are bad, of course; they just feel really common, and as used in fantasy, the subject puts my hackles up a bit.

Abandoned human structures, I can understand a bit better.  After all, we have plenty in our own world.  There are a lot of ‘post-apocalyptic fantasy Earths’ these days though, with recognizable landmarks being perched on by dragons and whatnot.  I suppose I’d like those better if I liked post-apoc.

Maybe I’m just grumpy.

Anyway, despite all my griping, I have my own mysterious alien structures.  The difference is that they still have aliens in them.

Erestoia By-The-Sea digital sketch by Alexandra Fitzgerald

Erestoia By-The-Sea digital sketch by Alexandra Fitzgerald

My nickname for the wraiths is ‘origami space angels’ (more on that later), but they are basically an alien race that got stranded on Halci for various spiritual and scientific reasons.  They started a lot of wars, and the natives tried hard to eradicate them, but due to their unique nature, it was impossible.

And they couldn’t leave, and they couldn’t move (most of their) ships to some place inaccessible.

So the ships are still there, standing like the oh-so-popular towers, inaccessible except through the skills of the wraiths themselves.  Who are still around.  And like to kidnap people.  And dabble in Imperial politics.  And fight with each other.  And cause massacres.

The thing about most of these ancient engineering projects or monuments is that they’re just left behind with no documentation and nary an idea what they were for.  I don’t tolerate that mystery very well, I suppose, so I did away with it.  We go inside one spire in book 2 and encounter another in book 3; we learn how to go in and out of them, and something about their structure; we get to see how they arrived, and we know something about how they’re operated — or at least what object is needed to make them work.

As for other details, well, there’s a wraith right over there!  Go ask him!

Oh wait, he’s glowing.  You might want to run–


Anyway, that’s my 2cp, and what I did with the trope in my own writing.  I have a few eras of Halci sketched out, as well (mostly from old roleplaying notes), and one of those eras involves excavating the ruins of this current age.  How many non-steampunk fantasy worlds have archaeological societies?  Maybe I should look that up, because that’s more interesting to me than people staring at these fantastical structures and going ‘derp, it’s a mysteryyyyyyyy‘.

About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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5 Responses to Tough Traveling with Fantasy Review Barn — Ancient Engineering Projects

  1. I think that part of why these mysterious chunks of the past stand out so much is that authors often don’t include references to more mundane remnants of the past. Where are the non-haunted abandoned houses? The entrance to the mine that’s legitimately not in use? The standing stones that are only there because a bunch of cavemen thought they’d look cool? The streets whose higgledy piggledy buildings just mean that the town needs some urban planning? With more of that in the background the mysterious and significant items might feel less forced.

    • Good point. And what about the cities built on the bones of other entirely mundane cities? What about the villages abandoned because the river shifted course, not because of some arcane disaster? Great ancient structures sometimes seem like author-shorthand for mystery and awe without ever having to explain anything — or even think any further.

  2. Erica Dakin says:

    We’ll have to insert some abandoned non-ancient structure in our Ailric Rischer series. Ailric Rischer and the Abandoned Village or something.

    • Oh there are plenty of ruins and burnt-out villages and such. I kind of made it with archaeology in mind. …not that I’ve made -much- of it. But we can do that!

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