I’ve been watching the The History Channel’s documentary series, The Universe, which–funnily enough–is about the universe, with a special emphasis on our own friendly neighborhood star and fellow-planets. I’m learning a lot (about gamma pulses! and collisions with rogue planets during the crucible of creation! and look, computer models showing the sun expanding and the Earth exploding!), but mostly I’m just blown away by the scale of everything out there. Planets are HUGE, distances are VAST, stars are humongously BRIGHT and ENORMOUS, everything is ANCIENT and, oh yes, if such-an-such asteroid struck Earth it would be with the force of TEN THOUSAND TIMES our entire nuclear arsenal. As for this so-and-so star this-many light years away? Well, if our sun was this puny little LED light, than that star would be this enormous searchlight that just went on behind me with eye-wrenching luminosity… only a HUNDRED times brighter.
After a while, I just go numb when they start with the numbers and the analogies.
Yes, it is horrific that a meteroite the size of a small city could destroy all life on Earth, that the impending expansion of our dying sun would cook us all to cinders, that a burst of gamma rays could boil away our atmosphere and incinerate us with radiation, that the Great Rip at the end of time would grind us into nothingness… but really? Dead is dead is dead. It was shocking when my doom was to be incinerated by one nuclear bomb, horrifying that it was through the force of a hundred nuclear bombs, but when you get to TEN THOUSAND nuclear bombs—well, I wouldn’t be alive to appreciate all that force anyway. And my mind has shut down and gone into static mode because it can’t handle things of that scale.
Same is true for vastness. At some point, it doesn’t matter if a Jupiter-like storm covers more area than the flattened Earth or only about half of it. If, by some unfortunate occurrance of events, I was actually in a planet-sized storm, it wouldn’t matter to me if it were Mercury or Mars-sized. It’d be all violent storm and I’d be freaking out. Same with distances. Star A is a 1000 light years away, and star B is 10,000 light years away—it becomes all the same because no one’s ever going there in my lifetime. At some point, my personal scale of reference just disappears into the mists of HERE GO THINGS THAT ARE VERY VERY BIG and HERE GO THINGS THAT ARE ITSY BITY TEENY TINY.
What does all this ranting have to do with fantasy? Good question. I’m glad you asked!
Well, fantasy usually involves high, save-the-world kind of stakes. It also often involves very powerful magic to deal with the issue of Saving the World.
Problem is that we’ve seen the world-in-peril plot a hundred (thousand million) times. And in order to make our (my, your, their, his, her) Save the World fantasy stand out, we feel compelled to dream (nightmare?) up bigger and badder and more gruesome things the World needs Saving From. At the same time, magics to defeat the evil become bigger, more awesome and glow brighter to compensate. This is especially true in a multi-book story when the World has already been Saved (Temporarily) several times, so the writer has to increase the badness in both quality and quantity as the series goes on, until it verges on the ludicrous.
For example, the first book of the series might start off on a smaller scale. The protagonist might only Save one Fortress (here the writer channels Helm’s Deep) from an army that only outnumbers the Good Guys five to one. The next battle, though, has to be bigger, with worse odds and badder magics. And so on and on you go, until at the very end, most of the countryside is aflame, the parts that aren’t on fire are carpeted by mindless warrior drones numbering in the hundreds of thousands, city after city has been overrun, the combined power of three volcanoes, two earthquakes and the biggest reservoir of magic hasn’t slowed the evils down one bit…
Dude. Seriously. My mind cannot handle it. What can I compare hundreds of thousands to? I’ve never seen that much money. I sure don’t own that many books. I’ve never counted that many stars or flowers or hairs on my head. I don’t even get a 100,000 seconds in a day. I suppose there are hundreds of thousands of molecules of water in my drink, but that’s going over to the other end of the scale, where things too tiny to comprehend live.
So, either my head just exploded, or I’m totally numb. The sheer vastness has had the opposite effect. Instead of making me ache more for the plight of the protagonists, I’m just waiting for the Fairy Godmother to show up and turn the bad guys (bugs, orcs, mechanoids) into pumpkins. Because by that point, it’s like being in a fairy tale. A bizarre fairy tale. The story has taken on a scale I can’t wrap my head around.
So, how to avoid this? Well, odds don’t have to be 10000:1 to make me care. The country doesn’t need to be on fire to make me care. Deaths don’t have to be in the thousands to make me care.
It only takes one character to make me care. One character who has lost a father to raiders, or children to slavers. One character whose beloved brother has turned traitor. One character whose childhood home has been burned down. Connect me to the human-scale grief and anger and loss of one character, and I will care. Give me a character who has loved, lost, picked himself up, gone on while still broken and hurt–and I will care.
You don’t have to decimate your entire fantasy world in order to pack an emotional punch.