If You Wave Your Hands Hard Enough, Dragons Can Fly

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Last month I posted about my adventures in worldbuilding for a series which, while fantasy, will attempt to be pseudo-scientific — by nineteenth-century standards of science, anyway. As the phrase “A Natural History of Dragons” might alert you, I face one very central problem in this task.

Namely, the dragons.

Or more specifically, the fact that I want them to fly. Giant lizard-like creatures that dwarf most of the currently extant megafauna? That’s easy; I just have to look at dinosaurs. But making them fly . . . now that’s a different matter.

In a normal fantasy novel, I wouldn’t have to worry about this. It’s generally true of spec fic that you get your central gimmick for free. In space-faring science fiction, this might be faster-than-light travel; in a more near-future tale, it might be nanotechnology. In fantasy, it’s usually some form of magic. We’re writing speculative fiction, after all, and that requires that we be permitted to ask our “what if?” without some Grinch objecting that it could never happen.

But if you want to write a space-faring SF story whose central protagonist is a long-range propulsion physicist trying to build a better FTL drive, then said drive can’t be a black box, its contents never described. You have to come up with something. It doesn’t have to work for real; if it did, then you should be out there getting grant money to build it, not writing a short story. But it should look at least vaguely plausible. Invent a subatomic particle, and then you can say all kinds of neat-sounding things about its behavior, until you’ve built up a cool enough house of cards to support teleportation. Otherwise your physicist has nothing to talk about, and you have no story.

So it is with dragons and a natural historian. Isabella, the main character of the series, is studying the creatures, from anatomy to behavior, which means I have to have answers for her to find. There will be lots of other things going on in the books, too — pulp adventure amid ruins; wars between colonial powers; romance and all the rest of it — but if I want Isabella to sound like a scientist, there has to be some science for her to do.

So I look up pterosaurs and how big they got and speculation as to how the largest ones managed to fly (if indeed they did). I think about air sacs and hollow bones and skulls that look like they’re made from styrofoam. I ponder the wing mechanics of birds versus bats. I wonder if there’s any graceful way to convey to the real-world reader that the atmosphere of Isabella’s world has higher oxygen levels than ours does.

Some people will say it isn’t necessary. Naomi Novik has enormous dragons — far larger than mine are likely to be — and only a passing nod in the appendix to how they manage to fly; I don’t remember Anne McCaffrey even doing that much, for all that her dragons were genetically engineered. But I say, screw what’s necessary: this is fun. Why write a series about a natural historian studying dragons if you’re going to ignore the natural history? I want Isabella to discover microscopic valves in the hide of a dragon’s wing that open to reduce resistance when the wing lifts, then close again on the downward sweep. I want her world’s dragons to go into periodic torpor to circumvent the question of how a carnivore that large keeps itself fed. These details are the foundation of this story, upon which the pulp adventure and all the rest of it will stand.

For the Onyx Court series, I joked that I gave myself a home Ph.D. in English history. This time around, it’s biology and ecology. And they say fantasy writers have it easy, making it all up . . . . .