I’d like to discuss my experience in creating a fantasy world in the novel, Dustless.

I think there are different degrees of fantasy. Perhaps there should be a measure, like proof for alcohol, or Celsius for temperature, for the ‘fantastic’?

How fantastic is Dustless? Is it mildly fantastic? Does it possess medium fantasy? Is it soft or hard?

Fantasy writers often inscribe strongly realist constraints into their work. By this, I simply mean that in order for the imagined world to be internally consistent and convincing, it needs to be governed by rules, which involve a kind of realism, even though the world itself may be organised by conventions that diverge strongly from those organising our own world.

In the case of Dustless, although philosophically it is a strongly fantastic work, I was very keen to embed my characters in a credible environment. I mentioned in another post, on ambient literature, my desire to

slow the narrative tempo down, to pay attention to details, to honour the materiality of ordinary life.

This aspect of Dustless, strongly related to the philosophy of TanZo (the ‘simple or pure Way’), is very important to me. I tried to imagine a world in which the beauty of the mundane, the rhythms of routine, the imposing existence of the ‘humdrum’, the recalcitrance and resistance of the natural terrain, are borne in on the reader. I wanted to give the main characters’ journey across the Land of O an existential weight and conviction. In slowing the narrative down, in paying attention to the passing of hours, moments, instants, I wished to give the reader a sense of struggle and of duration – so that, hopefully, at moments of release or climax in the story, the reader would feel, along with the characters, a genuine sense of achievement, and feel a real shift in their spirits.

In many ways, for large parts of the novel, I only wanted to ‘tweak’ reality. My characters are, in the main, flesh and blood human beings – they are drawn along the lines of what I consider to be psychologically realist patterns. They’re flawed, they are battered and eroded, and heightened, by the circumstances in which they find themselves. They aren’t endowed with ‘super-powers’, they can’t make magical escapes from the dilemmas they face, but must compromise and bodge, as we all do.

Dustless exhibits what I hope is an interesting inter-weaving of fantastic and realist narrative threads. The world of the novel grew, slowly, from certain intense imaginary nodes or cores. A lighter and more fantastic novel would have perhaps passed over much of the material and cultural complexity of Dustless, and concentrated less on the natural than the supernatural elements. As I wrote, however – and in this, I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t an element of ‘mission creep’ – and the world came more and more into view, became more immersive and extensive, I found that I wanted convincing reasons for the state of the landscape, the organisation of the communities, the evolution of the various interest groups, and a credible historical narrative behind the profoundly hierarchical and formalised society we find unfolded throughout the novel.1

Perhaps there is a curious jeopardy in the act of creating fantasy worlds? Even as one has the pleasure of bringing into being a world that has never existed before, one may experience a sense of melancholy at the futility of ever providing a proper account of this new domain. Detail begets detail: one character implies others. The constraints of time and mortality ensure that we can never fully investigate any phenomenon. Different forms permit different creations: with poetry, one can construct a convincing literary entity in a matter of seconds, but for the fantasy writer, it is quite possible to imagine years and years being absorbed in the creation of the literary world. Is there a danger – both technical (a matter of style, perhaps?) and psychological (in the urge to linger too long in a world of one’s own devising) – in building imaginative kingdoms in this way?

And if this is true for an imagined world – that we can never exhaustively account for any phenomenon – is there another world for which it is also true?

1It strikes me now that the creation of the novel became in a way a kind of hermeneutical progress. In trying to create a credible world in which the notion of TanZo is strongly rooted, it was necessary to try and pay attention to the different parts of the society – both ‘horizontally’, across the present, and ‘vertically’, through time. For the writer, certainly, there is a danger that a form of hermeneutic circle can develop, in which, as the world is created, and more elements of it come to be revealed, so more elements are required in order to complete the world satisfactorily – a process to which, in one way, there is no logical end. It’s possible to imagine, for example, a writer for whom it becomes necessary to account for every cell and molecule and atom in their world. “God is in the details”. And who’s to say that such a writer is wrong, or crazy? Perhaps, when they turn over an obscure atom in an indifferent part of spacetime, they might uncover the greatest secret in the universe of their book?