Friday, November 14, 2008

Volcanoes in fiction

Volcanoes are a really popular subject for movie-fiction - they're flashy, dangerous, unpredictable (unless you're Pierce Brosnan), and they explode. They're also appealing because moviemakers can, for the most part, get away with really spectacular CGI and not a lot of thought about the processes occurring on the volcano. (Not that they can get past us, but the average moviegoer hasn't had much volcano education beyond the cone-with-a-central-conduit diagram.)

Incorporating volcanoes into fiction, however, is riskier, because you can't just slap CGI onto the page. You have to describe what's happening, and if you have a crappy description, it makes the story less believable and generally lowers the quality of the whole reading experience.

I spend a lot of time reading fiction as well as non-fiction, and I'm always interested when I come across a story that tries to incorporate volcanoes. Here are a few that I've found so far:

Melting Stones by Tamora Pierce (an offshoot of the Circle of Magic series)
These books are meant for younger readers, but I've always found them entertaining - and very well written. This is the latest of the offshoots of a series about young "ambient" mages - people who draw their magical abilities from their environment. Evvy, the main character in Melting Stones, is a stone mage, and has to deal with a reawakening island volcano. The descriptions of eruption precursors - acidified water, sustained earthquakes, poisonous gases - are spot on, and it's really neat the way Tamora Pierce describes the forces at work within a volcano as if they were sentient beings. A good book if you like fantasy and realistic alternative worlds, and especially if you like strong female characters (a staple of Pierce's writing, and one of the reasons I enjoy her books so much).

Dark of the Sun by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

The Saint-Germain vampire (yes, vampire) series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro are fabulous and very well researched works of historical fiction. Yarbro gets to move her main character, who is a vampire (and thus immortal) through many periods in history, and in this book he lives through the 416 AD eruption of Krakatau. It's a fascinating book because you get to read how people might have reacted to a major eruption and its subsequent (very bad) climatic effects. Saint-Germain is forced to give up his merchant trade in China and move west; many of the people he encounters along the way think it's the end of the world, and rightly so, since their crops and animals die, diseases run rampant, and life just generally goes downhill fast. It's fortuitous for Saint-Germain because the ash in the atmosphere relieves some of the detrimental effects he suffers from exposure to sunlight - apparently volcanoes and vampires go very well together! The characters and writing can get a bit prosy sometimes, but the characters are complex and believable and you learn a lot about the cultures/time periods that they live in. (Right down to languages and clothing styles; really, Yarbro does so much preliminary research for these books that she could probably write a nonfiction companion text.)

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

The ultimate in geologic fiction. Volcanoes come into the story at both its beginning and its end; they are the route by which the travelers enter and exit Verne's subterranean world. I'm especially fond of the French version, since it's the original and nuances are often lost in translation (or obliterated entirely by clumsy adaptation). That said, the volcanoes in the story are not very realistic; even if they managed to get down into the crater of Snaeffels, Prof. Lidenbrock & Co would never have found an open volcanic conduit leading to empty caves and tunnels. For the most part, magma doesn't drain away after a volcano is done erupting - it sits there and solidifies and plugs up the plumbing. Likewise, the exit from Stromboli would not have happened - even providing a wooden raft had been able to withstand superheated water and magma pushing it up a volcanic conduit, one might expect that being blasted out of a volcano might prove problematic. Still, the book is great for depicting the science of geology as Verne knew it, and since no one really knew much about volcanoes at that point, it's interesting to see how he interpreted the facts available to him.

These are just a few things that I've found so far; I'm sure there are many others. What are your favorite works of fiction that include geology - accurate or not? (Book adaptations of movies don't count, and we've already excoriated those enough. Books that were turned into movies do count.)


A Life Long Scholar said...

You beat me to it! A friend of mine just sent me Melting Stones as a gift, and I'm about half way through reading it. I was planning to blog about it *after* I'd finished it. I have been very much enjoying it, and so far all of the geology has been spot-on, other than wondering just what she meant by "fine grained volcanic gabbro", since I tend to think of gabbro as an intrusive rock. I've enjoyed all of her books so far, but I think this one is going to be a favourite, given the subject matter!

Tuff Cookie said...

I had a "Wrong!" moment when I saw that too - there is no such thing as "volcanic" gabbro, except in the sense that it may be associated with a volcanic system (it is intrusive). And you generally don't use "grained" to describe igneous rocks (not to mention that gabbro has pretty coarse crystals).

But aside from that, it's one of my favorite of her books. My only complaint is that it was so short - I go through books too fast!

A Life Long Scholar said...

I hear you on the "too short" part! The *only* reason I didn't finish it the day I started it is because I'm trying to limit my reading in favour of actually working on this thesis I'm meant to be finishing...

kurt said...

Nice piece - thank you for writing it.

Tamora said...

Thank you so much one and all--life long scholar sent me here! It's so wonderful to get praise from the experts! I apologize for the "volcanic" and the "fine-grained"--Evvy knew the difference, of course, but I didn't. The gabbro was there among the volcanic rocks so I assumed it was volcanic without double-checking, and the piece I have in my academic-collection-teachers-buy-for-science-classrooms actually is fine grained and not coarse at all. Assume = ass, u, me . . . ::sheepish grin::

When life long scholar said I'd been caught on an error, I thought it was imperfect uses of lava spirits when I should have used magma. That was a tough call because I didn't want to confuse readers.

Again, I'm really honored that you liked the book, even if it's too short! It's because of Evvy that I've gotten obsessed with stones (in a very amateur way), so snaps from the pros will keep me floating for a week!

Tammy (Tamora) Pierce

Tuff Cookie said...

Tamora -

So wonderful to hear from you! Don't worry about the nitpicky geologists - we're so excited to see any geology show up in fiction that we'll forgive a lot. (I still get things mixed up sometimes when I'm identifying volcanic/igneous rocks, so don't feel bad!)

I actually really liked the "lava spirits" part. Volcanologists do get into the habit of personifying volcanoes - just look at all the Pele stories! - and I think giving the magma sentience and personalities is totally appropriate.

I'm really glad you've joined those of us who are obsessed with stones - it makes for wonderful reading! Thanks so much for taking the time to visit the blog - and let me know if you're ever in Buffalo, because I'd love the chance to meet you!

Jessica "Tuff Cookie"

gg said...

I should mention Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii, which was one of the earliest books to give a fictional account of Vesuvius' destruction of Pompeii.

The volcano takes center stage only near the very end of the novel, but obviously it plays a pretty major role...

Calicoaus said...

There is a great book on Pompeii by Robert Harris called, funnily enough, Pompeii (Random House, 2003). It is written from the viewpoint of the engineer in charge of water supply for the area and covers the period leading up to and through the eruption of 79 AD. As a geologist, I was impressed with how well the author incorporated the vulcanology into the story.

Tamora said...

I'm going to have to track down the Robert Harris book--it sounds really interesting. I read Simon Winchester's nonfiction book, of course, about Krakatau. I thought I would die of anticipation before he got to the actual eruption, but I did learn a lot of good things along the way.