What happens when fantasy novels get scientific?

Marie Brennan is the author of The Tropic of Serpents, the second novel in her incredible Memoirs of Lady Trent series about the life of a 19th century naturalist who studies dragons. In this essay, Brennan talks about what it means to bring science into her fantasy writing.

I'm kind of fascinated by the impulse to be "scientific" about dragons.

Obviously it's an impulse I share, since I'm currently halfway through writing a series about a woman who studies dragons for SCIENCE! (The capitalization and exclamation mark are mandatory.) But seriously: what gives? Why do we have this desire to take something that isn't real, and put it under the lens of a paradigm that's all about figuring out how reality works?

I don't actually know. But this is the Internet; pulling baseless speculation out of your ear is what it's for.

Maybe we should blame dinosaurs. Giant reptilian creatures did exist once upon a time; why couldn't giant reptilian creatures with wings exist? Well, because physics — but the inner eight-year-old, the wide-eyed child who shelves books about dinosaurs right alongside fantasy stories with no regard for boundaries, doesn't care about the equations. (One wonders what the long-term effect will be of the realization that dinosaurs actually had feathers. Will we see more feathered dragons cropping up in genre fiction, a la the Aztec quetzalcoatl?)

Or maybe it's the sheer nerdy challenge of it. The same impulse that makes people build working computers in Minecraft or postulate the likely outcome of a battle between Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan might lead you to wonder whether dragons could work, and if so, how. I know from personal experience that there's nothing like application to make a dry and tedious topic interesting; no doubt generations of biology students have entertained themselves by fiddling around with matters like bone structure and oxygen exchange, trying to find a way to make dragons fly.

Then, of course, there's the amusement factor. NORAD — the North American Aerospace Defense Command — tracks Santa's progress around the world every Christmas. Why? Because in 1955, a Sears ad gave children Santa's phone number . . . but the number they gave accidentally went to the duty commander at NORAD's operations center. (Oops.) Utter silliness, but the point isn't to be serious; it's just a chance for adults to kick back and enjoy some imaginative play. We're more willing to allow that to grown-ups now than we used to be, so I think you get more intersections of adult knowledge with childish whimsy as a result.

In the end, maybe it's just that we want dragons to be real. No creature in all of European folklore attracts the same kind of fascination and awe; nobody wrote "Here Be Unicorns" on the edges of maps, and "scientific" studies of griffins are much thinner on the ground. Cultures around the world have tales of creatures similar enough to suggest that maybe there's something universal about the concept of a big, snake-like, supernatural beast. Whether they're imagined as wise and benevolent or cunning and cruel, dragons seem to flip the "cool" switch like nothing else out there. The world would be 300% more awesome if they were real.

So we speculate about wingspan-to-mass ratios and how firebreathing might work, draw musculature diagrams and look for dragonish creatures in the wild. The legend comes just close enough to reality to keep our imaginations reaching for it.