Setting Idea – Animism / Spontaneous Generation

There was a time when human knowledge of biology was underpinned (and dragged down) by the theory of “Spontaneous Generation” – the idea that living organisms need not necessarily be born, but may spring wholly formed from some appropriate substrate, such as maggots from rotting meat or tapeworms from intestines. The idea has been replaced with our more complex modern understanding, and is for the most part a mere interesting historical footnote (which, incidentally, gives me hope when considering the bizarre persistence of “creationism” in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution. This too shall pass.).

But like many other Greek theories about the world, SG seems to have a lot of potential for fantasy world-building (cf. “the four/five elements”). While I’m not currently looking to flesh this out fully, it could certainly throw an interesting twist into a novel’s foundation-work or an RPG setting: a world where pretty much any form of life spontaneously generates (for purposes of brevity, referred to hereafter simply as “generation” or “spawning”) if an appropriate environment is created and left undisturbed for a while.

Let’s start with the basics: we presuppose a normal earth-like world, made of rocks and metals and sand, with water and an atmosphere around the outside. It receives sunlight, is heated from within by nuclear decay and compression, and is shaped and reshaped by geological forces and erosion. Maybe there are satellites such as a moon. The main thing, though, is that the whole space is also inhabited by myriad spirits, which left to their own devices will manifest as life-as-we-know-it.

Stone will spawn lichens and mosses; soil will spawn plants and small arthropods (e.g. insects and other tiny creepy-crawlies); sea-floor ooze will spawn seaweed and… sea-arthropods. Anything dead spawns bacteria (and other microscopic life not already generated by air, water, or soil) and fungi. Geothermal vents spawn soft, slimy things like salamanders or sea cucumbers. And many forms of life don’t just “die of natural means” — they’ll continue to grow and develop until something kills them. So tiny critters will eventually become massive scorpions, behemoth lobsters, giant squid, whales, and other real-world or mythical beasts.

Shallow, sunlit waters generate corals. Coral reefs and seaweed forests generate fish, especially colorful ones. The open sea near coasts generates dolphins, orcas, and other cetaceans. Littoral zones spawn sea mammals such as otters and seals. Icy or salty or wet rocks spawn auks, penguins, pelicans, and other sea birds. Marshlands spawn wading birds, among the reeds. Woods, grasslands, and jungles spawn other birds and beasts… we could go on in great detail, but that’s not the truly interesting part, nor the fantasy tie-in.

How about sentient life? Humans, say, are spawned by hilly scrubland, near water. (I believe this accords with our understanding of humanity’s origins in pre-Saharan north Africa.) Humans can still reproduce and spread to other biomes, but an unattended scrubland will eventually produce wandering tribes of H. sapiens.

Elves spawn in deep forests, perhaps as tiny sprites or pixies, eventually wandering out and encountering humanity as willowy, slightly-scatterbrained faerie creatures. Although the different sizes and flavors (um… phenotypes?) go by many different names, “elves” are specifically the human-sized ones. Go look at some Charles Vess artwork to see what I’m thinking of. As they age they grow ever taller and more slender until, effectively, they fade away… perhaps instinct pulls them back to the forest where they can die, if not in peace, then at least in nature.

Dwarves spawn in crystal formations — often underground, naturally. This leads to the instinctive love for gems that keeps them mining out their halls under the earth; where elves are wistful and whimsical, dwarves are industrious and mathematical. Perhaps as they age they harden and stiffen, until the wrong stimulus pushes them past some tipping point and they just turn back into stone. Perhaps “trolls” are dwarves of great age, grown to monstrous size and strength, but senile beyond all hope and in danger of flash-petrification on exposure to sunlight.

Goblins, on the other hand, are second-tier sentients: they spawn in ruins, as a sort of warped echo of the people that once lived there. (My main inspiration, naturally, is Brian Froud.) An abandoned house that’s making strange lights or noises at night is as likely to be goblin-infested as it is to be haunted. Riffing obliquely off of Tolkien, let’s say that after consuming sufficient food, goblins enter a chrysalis phase and emerge as the larger, less madcap, more violent orcs. While goblins’ main method is mere madness, orcs are driven by an instinctive need to create more ruins to spawn in, leading to constant strife between them and other sentient species.

Orcs that live long enough continue to grow (perhaps they go through another chrysalis?), eventually becoming ogres, then giants, and finally growing too ponderous to move or support their own mass and effectively starving themselves to death. The only ones to escape this cycle are orc shamans whose mastery of magic allows them to halt their own growth, eventually becoming fearsome witches like the Baba Yaga.

Finally, let’s say that any sufficiently large and pure mass of a chemical element is what spawns dragons. Smaug-like dragons don’t hoard treasure — they are generated by treasure, and the smart ones collect more because they can feel the gold adding to their strength. That throws a nice little monkey wrench into any human attempts at chemistry, too, if any purified element produces dragons, and helps justify a fantasy world that doesn’t move on into an industrial age. And the equivalent of an atom bomb is simply a collection small lumps of pure metal that can be smuggled into a target area, piled together, and allowed to generate a dragon.

There’s a lot more you could do with this, but that’s the basics for now. I hope it’s an interesting, or even an inspiring, idea!  8^)

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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3 Responses to Setting Idea – Animism / Spontaneous Generation

  1. Arnold says:

    Great minds do think alike! I like the notion of a continuum of species. Dwarves into trolls is a nice leap, and the dragons are a fantastic idea.

    So, am I to understand that SG is the only method of generating new creatures? It’s sort of a cool idea, but then you’d have to rationalize genitalia (an unenviable task) and genders.

    If there is a continuum of dwarf to troll, might there also be a continuum from dwarf to elf (perhaps a subterranean cave)? Or other possibilities.

    • Confanity says:

      Thanks for the comments! I started following you on my The Old Reader feed a while back; you have a lot of interesting ideas. 8^)

      I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking about with genders… the idea that I was going for is that most species can and will make babies in the normal way and spread on their own, but if a given environment “native” to a particular species is left uninhabited, it will fill itself. That’s what I was trying to get at, albeit briefly, with “Humans can still reproduce and spread to other biomes, but an unattended scrubland will eventually produce wandering tribes of H. sapiens.”

      There could be a continuum from dwarf to elf, or anything else, if you want to take the idea and run with it in that direction. I went with something more cyclical — humans come from soil and return to soil; fae creatures come from the forest and return to the forest; dwarves come from stone and go back to stone — but it would certainly be interesting seeing a setting where several of the sentient races are just different stages of a longer process.

      • Arnold K. says:

        I like your idea of a longer process. What if spontaneous generation was linear? What if it was building towards a certain singularity, or culmination? What if sand turned into dirt turned into loam turned into grassland turned into forest turned into jungle? Producing at first orcs, then dwarves, then humans, then elves, and then. . . some endpoint.

        The thing about genders was just stupid pontificating about how sex wouldn’t be needed in a world where spontaneous generation ran rampant.

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