I love hearing about the people, places and things that inspire an author and their work. In THE SILK MAP – the author was inspired by the famous eastern Silk Road and he joins us today to tell us about things he learned while doing research for his novel.
And if you didn’t know already these are some absolutely fabulous sword and sorcery books that I consider to also be literary fantasy. They are rich in lore, magic and absolutely beautiful books to read.
5 Things I Didn’t Know About the Silk Road
In my sword-and-sorcery novel The Silk Map (Pyr, May 2014) my continuing characters Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone undertake a treasure hunt on behalf of a demigod, with dangerous rivals dogging their heels. At stake is a chance to save their son, who’s trapped in a pocket dimension. Their journey takes them along the Braid of Spice, a trade route inspired by the real-world “Silk Road” of history.
Here’s a succinct description of the Silk Road (the author’s focusing here on the Mongol Empire era, though the route existed much earlier.)
“The ‘Silk Route’ or ‘Silk Road’ referred to the network of trade connections between the three main civilizations of China, India, and the Mediterranean, with the Muslim countries dominating the center of this intercontinental triangle. The core consisted of some five thousand miles, but the inclusion of alternative, secondary, and connecting routes doubled or tripled the size.” (Jack Weatherford, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens. Crown Publishers, 2010, p.48.)
Fantasy writers have been inspired by this route before. The Celedon Highway of Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky series seems to be a Silk Road analog, and there’s Susan Shwartz’s historical fantasy Silk Roads and Shadows. You may also want to check out this SF Signal article by Paul Weimer, where he suggests a category called “Silk Road Fantasy.”
A lot of the fun of writing this book was researching the region for inspiration. In the process I discovered many things that surprised me. Here are five.
1. Amazing trading cities sprang up along the Silk Road.
Fascinating cities lie along the old trade routes. There’s Turpan, with its karez system of underground irrigation channels, feeding mountain water into the desert lowlands through a series of subterranean galleries, punctured along the way by wells. There’s Samarkand, with its beautiful ancient heart, the Registan (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with soaring arches, domes, and pillars covered with geometric designs. There’s Kucha, where the famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanxang lingered and admired the music — music which may have been transmitted as far as Japan, becoming an ancestor of gagaku, imperial court music. There’s Khotan, the first place with silk production outside China, where legend has it that a Chinese princess, sent in marriage to Khotan’s ruler, smuggled silk worm eggs and mulberry seeds in her regal hair.
2. Strange Acoustics of the Sands
Thanks to Rustichello de Pisa, we have Marco Polo’s accounts of strange desert sounds, weird voices and eerie music heard in the Central Asian deserts. Whatever you may think of the accuracy of Marco Polo’s travelogue, modern science acknowledges that sand can generate some peculiar sounds! You can find discussion and hear an example at the Sound Tourism site and at National Public Radio’s Science Friday. (In The Silk Map, I alluded to these rational explanations but also had an explanation involving bizarre magic from a lost primordial civilization, because lost primordial civilizations are cool.)
3. The steppe peoples have had a huge impact on the Silk Road’s history.
I’d originally assumed the great grasslands north of the Silk Road were a separate world from the world of the trading cities. In fact, steppe cultures had a great interest in the trade routes, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not. Historian Christopher I. Beckwith writes that the Silk Road “was not an isolated, intrusive element in Central Eurasian culture, it was a fundamental, constituent element of the economy. Moreover, it seems not to be possible to separate out the international trade component from the local trade component, or local from long-distance cultural interchange. All of it together — the nomadic pastoral economy, the agricultural ‘oasis’ economy, and the Central Asian urban economy — constituted the Silk Road.” (Quote from Empires of the Silk Road, Princeton University Press, 2009, p.28.)
Jack Weatherford writes of the Mongols’ interest in the Silk Road: “Genghis Khan had unified the tribes by charisma and force, but to keep them loyal required more than just a strong army and strategic marriage alliances. To show that the Eternal Blue Sky supported him and blessed him, he needed to bestow new riches on the nation. He had to provide something that they could not make for themselves, to supply things that their old chiefs could not, to bring them into the world market … The Mongolian Plateau, though the perfect home for herds of horses and roaming goats, had few luxuries to offer; yet it was situated just off the most important trade highway in the world.” (Quote from The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, p. 44.)
4. There are Silk Road mummies.
The deserts along the Silk Road have not only preserved writing and artwork, but also human bodies. Archaeologists have discovered ancient graveyards in the desert, with mummified remains buried beneath the sands. (“Mummified” in this case means naturally dried and preserved, not specially prepared and wrapped like ancient Egyptian mummies.) It’s astonishing to see a face peering at us from a distant era or to see tattoos that look as though they could have been applied yesterday.
5. Lop Nor — the lake that hides from explorers.
Lop Nor or Lop Nur, a desert lake in this region, has received the nickname “wandering lake” because over time it’s shifted position, probably because the river feeding it has changed course. This may be why some ancient settlements like Loulan (one source for the region’s mummies) were abandoned, as the local environment dried up. In the Marco Polo account linked above, he describes a town called “Lop,” which might have been near Lop Nor. (The entry, at Wikisource, also has interesting footnotes about the wandering lake and sand acoustics.)
To paraphrase Marco Polo, I haven’t told half of what I’ve learned — and all I’ve learned is only a grain of sand compared to what there is to know about the Silk Road. I hope many fantasy writers will return to this setting for inspiration.
Chris Willrich (Mountain View, CA) is a science fiction and fantasy writer best known for his sword-and-sorcery tales of Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone. Until recently he was a children’s librarian for the Santa Clara County Library System, in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Gate, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Flashing Swords, The Mythic Circle, and Strange Horizons. WEBSITE | TWITTER