Reprise: Epic Scenery

Reruns due to Finals Week continue.

Originally posted November 18, 2009.

Into any story, a little epic scenery seems to fall. Okay, not fall exactly. More come crashing down into view at just the right moment to make everyone use it and take the audience’s breath away. Either way, it’s pretty much a staple of stories in general and the speculative fiction genre in particular. But what makes epic scenery?

Sometimes it’s scope. Think the Grand Canyon. Mount Everest. Any of a number of waterfalls known for height, width, or number of cascade-points on the way down. What gets our attention about those sorts of ’scapes is that they’re enormous, and compared to them, even our viewpoint seems miniscule. (This is also why I’d take third person limited over omniscient voice when looking at these things any day; omniscient has a tendency to seem bigger.) They’re a panoramic view, stretched out as far as we can see them—the kind of thing that in movies you try to get in widescreen if not going the whole way and seeing the Imax version.

Sometimes it’s complexity. Consider the Celtic knot, an artform that seems to exist entirely for the sake of seeing how many times you can wind a set number of strands around themselves and each other and then link the ends together so there is no beginning. Now imagine a tree with three roots that manages to do that over the span of about four hundred square feet. Pretty staggering, isn’t it? Complexity implies if not effort than purpose, and if not purpose than truly amazing happenstance. The bigger and more complex, the more impressive.

Occasionally it’s unreality. We’re all used to forests, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t impressed by forests where the trees are made of something that isn’t wood and sap. Swimming creatures are beautiful; creatures swimming in substances that aren’t water edges towards epic. When the laws of physics don’t work the way they’re supposed to, when even magic or pseudoscience can’t explain it, it feels like it shouldn’t be possible—and mystery is fascinating.

Sometimes it’s emotion. When your backdrop—or, for that matter, your current foreground—is such that it can be condensed to one single concept, one single emotion, despite having at least a decent scope to call its own, that makes an impression. Loss or futility gets us red-earth battlefields in which kicking a rock will invariably literally hit one of the dead. A sense of mystery gets us a world barely peeking out of a shroud of mist. Fear gets us Places That Should Never Have Been. Awe gets us things that are pure concentrated Essence of Cathedral.

I’ve mostly been using natural examples, but that’s not the be all and end all of epic scenery; man-made structures can carry it off just as well, using the same features. It’s just a matter of what one wants to get across. Epic natural scenery emphasizes the power and beauty of the world or of nature; this all happened, with or without help from the little naked apes with their delusions of grandeur. Epic man-made scenery, on the other hand, is a tribute to its civilization and to the human spirit; it’s a work of patience, great resources, possibly power and almost definitely a strong understanding with the laws of physics.

I’m sure I’ve missed qualities; what is it about a nice piece of scenery that makes your eyes want to pop?

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