tell me about deserts

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a hot climate (over ten years now). And even when I did, my experience was of a coastal urban environment.

Right now I’m writing a story set in a desert.

I’ve read up on real-life deserts. I’ve looked at dozens of pictures of sand dunes, barren hills and salt flats. I’ve watched videos.

But none of those gives me the sensory details I crave. What does the desert smell like? How does the wind feel on your face? What’s the light like? What sounds do you hear in the desert night?

Since I can’t just hop on a plane for some first-hand research (I wish!), I’m asking for details from some of you who might’ve experienced a desert environment. If you live in, or have visited, the American Southwest (like the Death Valley area) or any other hot desert, I’d love to know some sensory details that’ll bring the setting to life for me.

dragons I have known

When I first started writing fantasy, I swore that I would never ever include something so cliched, so stale, so overdone, as a dragon.


Whether I wanted them or not, dragons crept or stormed into my fiction anyway.

The sleeping dragon whose awakening would restart an ancient war. The cultured dragon who likes books and foreign travel. The continent-sized space dragon whose skeleton is home to humans and humanoid species.

And these are all in some way influenced by the dragons I have known, and fall in one of the categories below:

Force of Nature/Actively Evil

The dragons of Western literature dragons are seen as forces of nature–like a destructive storm–or actively evil. These are the dragons that Beowulf and St. George battle. These are the dragons from the movie Reign of Fire. The ones that are intelligent as well as malevolent are the most compelling and frightening of all–from Smaug in The Hobbit to the transformed Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Loyal Companions

Two words: Pernese dragons.

Admit it, you were thinking about Pernese dragons too when you saw the “Loyal Companions” heading

These telepathic dragons are genetically engineered to bond with human riders and fight Thread. They are sentient, but they are also totally, irrevocably loyal to and protective of their riders. These dragons fulfill a powerful human fantasy to command the utter devotion of such fearsome beasts.

They’re also from my grown-up perspective, a little boring. (I wonder what would happen if a genetic mutant in that sort of world didn’t bond with a human, didn’t die from lack of such bond, and grew up wondering what made humans so special that dragons had to obey them?).

Cute and Cuddly

These abound in children’s books, from the little kitten-sized dragon in There’s No Such Thing As a Dragon to the three, darling troublemakers in Good Night, Good Knight.

See, dragons just want to be cuddled and petted. Hmm, also sounds like Pernese fire lizards.

Very cute story. And look at those adorable little dragonlings!

Just Like Us

They may have sharp teeth and be overfond of princesses and sparkly stuff, but they are like us. They talk, they give dinner parties, they form governments. They argue and form alliances. Some of them are inquisitive and question everything. Others would rather read poetry than fight. They are easy to identify with.

Who are your favorite dragons? Any dragon categories I might’ve missed?

weird worlds in fantasy and science fiction

I love weird worlds. Tempt me with a clockwork universe, a planet with two suns, or a moving city. Immerse me in the details of how life works in such a bizarre place. Entrance me with your imagination.

Give me a weird world, and I’m halfway there for your book.

Some of my favorite strange worlds are:

Upon Another Living Creature

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld rests on the back of four elephants which stand upon the shell of Great A’Tuin, the cosmic turtle. In Martha Wells’ The Serpent Sea, a large part of the action takes place in a city built upon the back of a sea creature magically compelled to swim at the water’s surface (and you can just tell what would happen if that compulsion failed, can’t you?). In Leviathan, Derryn Sharp is a midshipman on a living airship engineered from a blue whale, with its own ecosystem of flachette bats, strafing hawks, hydrogen-sniffing canines, and many other (fun!) creatures.

Non-Earth-like Planets

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (second in the trilogy) has delightful sections on the terraforming of Mars and the creation of colonies on other planets and moons. A giant umbrella shades Venus. The human settlement on Mercury is on a moving train. Denizens of the moons around the gas giants genetically alter themselves to survive the environment.

Life on the Edge

Living in extreme yet Earth-like environments also works for me. Kat Falls’ Dark Life takes place on Earth–but in human settlements built undersea. Brandon Sanderson’s world of Roshar is battered by massive storms and much of the natural life, including botanical, is able to retreat into shells.

In the Air

Flying cities show up in games, movies, and books. From Skies of Arcadia to Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky to The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier, habitats in the air are toe-curlingly wonderful to this reader.

Build Your World

Some habitats, notably in science fiction, are entirely man-made. Space stations and generation star ships are good examples. An interesting megastructure is Larry Niven’s Ringworld, an artificial ring orbiting around a star like our own sun.


Weird worlds also creep into my writing. The world of Quartz is a disc in a mechanical universe. The world of Riven is folded, like a paper fan. And in Rainbird, an entire community lives upon the skeleton of a continent-sized dragon.

What are your favorite weird worlds and environments, in fiction and out of it?

are you my genre? on defining science fantasy

There is no doubt that I write fantasy. The whole secondary-world settings kinda give that away.

The trouble starts when I try to narrow my work into a sub-genre.

My stories don’t have the scale and scope of epic fantasy. They don’t have the the coming-of-age themes or adventures of heroic fantasy. I stay away from writing in a historical or alternate Earth setting, so those genres of fantasy (including steampunk) are out. Some of my work is obviously based on fairy tales, but a large part is not. YA fantasy is a nice catch-all, but my protagonists are mostly older and I write with an adult audience in mind.

But, Rabia, why not call your genre traditional fantasy and be done with it?

Well, see, that’s what I started writing, way back when. My first novel was set in a pseudo-medieval world, with its attendant attitudes and technology. But since that book, my worlds have become more modern. They feature indoor plumbing and firearms, trams and trains, elevators and radios. My societies perform great feats of science and engineering, whether its using a radioactive element to punch portals into other worlds or hanging an artificial sun on a track made from the skeletal remains of a cosmic dragon. I have magic in my worlds, but my sorcerers are just as likely to be scientists as they perform genetic experiments and create mechanical constructs.

And not only that, but I have a fixation with what goes on in high above the ground. My first novel featured a sorcerer-made flying fortress. I love to deprive worlds of their suns and create weird universes. The back stories of many of my races has them traveling from other planets. Events on my worlds are affected by what comes from the sky, whether it’s space dust or the aforementioned cosmic dragons.

You could blame all this on too many episodes of The Universe. But truth is, science fiction elements have always crept into my stories and woven themselves into the background.

Can it be that I’m really writing science fantasy?

Turns out that it’s not too easy to define what science fantasy is. It’s a fluid genre with fuzzy boundaries. Often it looks to be straightforward fantasy, with the science fiction elements so well-hidden that they come out either in later books or in bonus material. Or it might look like science fiction until the elves and dwarves show up.

Take for example, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern book. The first book, Dragonflight, has a pseudo-medieval and low-technology setting that is familiar to readers of traditional fantasy. It contains dragons, another classic fantasy element. Yet the threat to Pernese society comes not from Dark Lords rising from their underground tombs, but in the form of Thread falling from the skies when the Red Planet draws near to Pern.  In later books we learn that the dragons were genetically engineered to fight Thread and that the Pernese people can trace their origins back to our Earth.

The Star Wars movies are often classified as science fantasy, and I can see why. When you take fantasy conventions (princesses, a brotherhood of mage-monks with arcane powers, swords–even if they are made out of lasers and called sabers) and plunk them into a universe with spaceships, firearms, and tanks, you’re blending the two genres. I think one could even put Cameron’s Avatar in the same sub-genre.

I love both science (chemistry and anything space-related) and the humanities (literature and history). When I write science fantasy, I’m free to draw inspiration from both these wells. And that makes for a happier writer and better stories.

Do you read or write science fantasy? Do you have any other examples of the genre? How would you define it?