by James L. Sutter
I love traveling to new worlds.
I realize what an obvious statement that is for a speculative fiction author, and even more so given that my day job is working to build the setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. But it’s true nonetheless. With both literature and visual art, I’m constantly hungry for media that will show me landscapes I’ve never seen before—alien worlds, bizarre cities, ancient ruins, heaven- and hellscapes, and other visions of impossible or impossibly distant places.
In truth, the landscapes don’t even need to be all that different—for instance, my zombie love story “The Long Road to the Sea” (now a free podcast on Pseudopod) came from childhood vacations in the dry hills of eastern Washington and imagining how little they might change after the apocalypse. National Geographic’s photos of places like Aït Benhaddou, Machu Picchu, monasteries in Tibet, or crumbling lake castles in Europe all fire that same sense of the exotic and fantastical.
But more often, I’m captivated by vistas of worlds fundamentally different from our own. I’m especially a sucker for landscapes that have unusual architecture in them—futuristic cities, mysterious castles, and alien ruins all immediately spark the sorts of questions that only stories can answer: Who built them? Why? Are they still in use, forgotten, or actively taboo? In my case, the old saying that “a picture’s worth a thousand words” is fairly literal.
Artists—especially concept artists—who can paint intricate and alien structures fascinate me, and I can study their work for hours. And filmmakers like Peter Jackson will always be able to take my money because, regardless of the story they’re telling, I’ll happily sit and look at a city like Minas Tirith or Gondor’s mountaintop signal fires until the special effects budget runs out. (While the Lord of the Rings trilogy is objectively awesome, I’m also perfectly happy to watch bad SF as long as they’ve got good art direction.)
I think part of what’s so inspiring to me about landscapes and architecture is that I’m fundamentally wired for language. As I suspect is true for many folks reading this site, it’s difficult for me to even think without language—I’ve got a constant narration running inside my skull. When I stumble across artists who are able to create worlds visually, to pull them full-formed from their heads without relying on the observer’s imagination to fill in the details the way a writer has to, it’s something I have no personal experience with, and thus far more magical. So deep is my love of fantasy landscapes that my wife is currently in the process of painting one across the entirety of our bedroom wall.
I can’t draw or paint, but when I write, it’s often that same effect I’m trying to capture. Thus, when I sat down to plan out Death’s Heretic, my first novel, I knew I wanted to visit a bunch of very different fantasy worlds. The story that evolved—an atheist forced to work against his will for the goddess of death, tracking down a missing soul—allowed me to go to all sorts of different planes of the afterlife, from the seat of judgment for departed souls to bizarre cities full of robots and monsters, fairy dimensions, the plane of chaos, and so on. All because I knew that, if nothing else, the chance to describe those profoundly different landscapes and bizarre sights would keep me interested.
Fortunately, it seems I’m not alone in my predilections. Because really, if we didn’t all want to visit different worlds, why would we be reading SF in the first place?
Some of my favorite fantastical landscapes:
About the Guest Author
James L. Sutter
Fiction editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, James L. Sutter’s novel Death’s Heretic ranked #3 on B&N’s Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Escape Pod, Podcastle, Starship Sofa, and Pseudopod. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories by speculative fiction greats with new commentary by the authors themselves. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three roommates, and a fully functional death ray.