If you wave your hands hard enough, dragons can fly

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 . . . . .

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  1. 1. Lektu

    If the environment is not the Earth, but an invented world, an enabling factor for big-sized powered-flight animals will surely be atmosphere density, more than oxygen contents, I think.

    Also, such a creature, even if capable of powered flight, will surely be above all a superb glider, so you don’t need it to be able to sustain powered flight too long. That makes the energy requirements easier to met.

    Just my 0,00000002€

  2. 2. The Gneech

    Think also of lower gravity, lots of warm upward currents, and a body that’s 90% wingspan.

    -The Gneech

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    Oh, my stars and garters, this is exciting!

    Even after years of reading some of the best in the business, it’s taken me sooo long to ‘get’ how powerful, well-wrought prose frees a writer from constraints/disbelief. It’s incredibly difficult to articulate how freeing that little epiphany was as I struggled to write a plausible crime novel for the TV/Movie crowd. The flip side is, of course, what you’re doing now, which is writing better than ‘well.’

    I’ve yet to find that confidence in writing SF/F so this is heady, inspiring stuff for me. Thank you, as always, for a very stimulating topic that, Ms. Brennan. But do tell, are you your worst critic on plausibility/realism? And how do you know when it’s enough?

  4. 4. Jaws

    This is much less of a problem than one might expect.

    (1) Aerodynamically, we’re still not entirely sure how bumblebees fly (we’re getting closer, but still…). Fuzzy striped “dragons” with stingers, anyone?

    My point here is that — particularly at the edges of science — there’s often a lot of room to work. Admittedly, that then runs into the potential problem of having one’s novel made implausible by an article in Nature published the same week as the novel, but that’s the price of just about any fiction that is not a pure retelling of historical events (and sometimes knowledge of them changes, too).

    (2) The key assumption underlying the bat-versus-bird issue is that musculature and structures of “dragons” are necessarily comparable to other organisms in the same biome — that is, that dragons are on the same evolutionary pathway as the rest of the biome. If one allows “designed” origin of dragons, however (whether that’s “magic,” “genetic engineering,” “divine creation,” “lab accident like chocolate meets peanut butter,” or whatever is the novelist’s decision), that may not be such a huge barrier.

    Consider, for example, a propeller-driven dragon with, essentially, an upsized flagellum-like structure in multiple locations on the leading edge of the wing. With a few appropriate shifts in biochemistry (such as substituting a faster-cycling energy storage subsystem for adenosine phosphates), this isn’t all that difficult to “create,” especially in a higher-oxidizing atmosphere. Sure, it brings in other problems, such as heat dissipation… but we needed an ignition source for dragon breath anyway, didn’t we? ;-)

    Assuming we can hand-wave our way through the flagellum-propeller structures, that then allows us to change the musculature and structure balance of the “airframe” design to much more closely resemble that of, say, a 1903 Wright Flyer… since we no longer have to use the wings for thrust, just for lift and control.

    Helicopter-like dragons are left as an exercise for the student. ;-)

  5. 5. Whirlochre

    I’m with you on the need for some sort of science — no matter how flimsy — to support the fictional fact in speculative literature.

    However, I trust implicitly that dragons can fly — even the bulbous ones with piddly wings the size of newspapers.

    And the fire thing? Comes with the suit.

    What I hate are dragons without personalities — or, worse still, dragons with personalities that are too dragony.

  6. 6. Megs

    I wonder if it could be tied to how they manage to breathe fire… Dragons have always fascinated and made me curious, and after just finishing “With Fate Conspire,” I am SO looking forward to your take on them.

  7. 7. Elias McClellan

    @Whirlochre: “Comes with the suit.”

    Funny! And, I’m stealing that, just so you know.

    @Megs: probably about to get laughed off the comment board but I like the (very) limited parameters established in “How to Train Your Dragon.”

    Flinches for the punch.

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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