Thursday, September 21, 2023

A Taxonomy of Fantastic Lands

Thinking about the phylogenetic connection between the Lost Worlds of Victorian adventure fiction and the planetary romances of last century led me to an overall classification scheme for all sorts of unusual/fantastic lands or country within large settings (whether that larger setting be an approximation of the real world or a secondary, fantasy world). This was quickly done, so it might bear further though. 

The Strange Country: The Strange Country probably is an outgrowth of The Odyssey and Medieval travelogues. It is a place definitely situated in the wider world and generally not differing in its physical laws but possessed of its least one unusual feature whether than be a geographic anomaly, cultural eccentricity, or weird animal. Most of the various city-states of Barsoom, and the countries of Vance's Tschai or Raymond's Mongo fall into this category. The "Planet of Hats" TV trope is the Strange Country on a planetary scale. The Strange Country differs from the more mundane foreign land by the degree of exaggeration in its unique thing and by the fact that beyond that thing, it isn't usual that foreign in terms of culture, language, etc.

The Lost World: The Lost World is more remote and more divergent from the outside world that the Strange Country. Most often it's an isolated pocket of one or more elements of the world's past, but it could be completely alien. Perhaps its most defining feature is that it is typically a hidden place and is much harder to reach than the strange country. Maple White Land of Doyle's The Lost World is the prototypical example, but Tarzan encounters a lot of these "lost valleys" from Crusader to remnants to lost Atlantean cities. The dividing line between the weirder Strange Countries and Lost Worlds isn't entirely clear, but if the place is widely known to scholars just seldom visited, it's a Strange Country. If no one knew it existed or it was believed to be mythical, it's a Lost World.

Fairyland: The Fairyland is a region defined by its fantasticalness. Physical laws may be very different from the surrounding world. If it has contact with the wider world if is limited and geographical conscribed. Often though, it will be as remote as the Lost World--even more so, perhaps, because it may not strictly be placeable on a map, existing in an extradimensional space. Literal Fairy lands are generally Fairylands, but so is the demonic subworlds of a number of Michael Shea's fantasy novels, Hades in Greek Myth, or Wackyland in Warner Bros. cartoons featuring the Dodo.


Anne said...

I think you could add something like the Analogous Principality to the "less strange" end of that spectrum. Not necessarily fantastic at all, just foreign, and likely a stand-in for a specific country or type of country.

The "types" are typically tiny European monarchies that are like holdovers from feudalism, miniature Middle Eastern emirates, obscure post-Soviet breakaways, or Southeast Asian island city-states. The sorts of places that people living in the West usually only hear about when they're involved in money-laundering or obscure political conflict. (I'm sure there's a degree of chauvinism or Orientalism involved in what kinds of places get an analog, but I'll confess to liking the sort books that feature them myself.)

So like Graustark, Ruritania, and the Grand Duchy of Fenwick of course; but also comic book stand-in countries like Latveria, Kahndaq, and Madripoor; fake travel destinations like Hav or Islandia; and dystopias like Nihilon or Kazohinia. I think there's even a small genre of unnamed small European countries where you get stuck after an airline misdirects you and you can't understand a word of the local language, like the unnamed country in Fernec Karinthy's "Metropole."

Because they're not overtly fantastic, I could see an argument for leaving them off your typology entirely, but I think it's noteworthy that you go to these places to have adventures and experiences that are unavailable in your home country. They often have royalty, dueling, and intrigue in a contemporary but somewhat anachronistic setting.

Trey said...

I think those sorts of places are definitely and important part of the catalog of imaginary places, but I don't think that category fits in my spectrum here, because I feel like they are used differently in stories. Kahndaq (when it was created) is sufficiently generized so we can make up what we wnat and not get backlash American 80s view of Middle Eastern opponents. It is a placeholder as you say.

Madripoor, similarly, is a place where Wolverine (or "Patch") can have the sort of Asian adventures or South Sea tales in exotic ports of call without writers having to acknowledge that the 1930s are over.

Both of these are backdrops or instruments of local color, not an end of themselves. When John Carter goes to a new city he has a problem peculiar to that city he must solve before he can move on and that city is not generally a thinly veneered real world place (though it may derive from other places). Same with the hidden valleys Tarzan always finds.