Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A different value: alcohol

I've heard it said that every society in the world has some sort of intoxicant. Alcohol is a big one worldwide. What brought it to mind for me today was a link that a friend passed on to me, about a group of researchers in England who are trying to find a healthier substitute for alcohol. They're working to find a substance that would cause pleasant inebriation, but wouldn't poison people or cause hangovers, wouldn't cause emotional swings or addiction, and which could be counteracted rapidly by an antidote that could be given at any time. The article is here.

I imagine the consequences of substituting that stuff into alcoholic drinks. Now, that's science fiction. There's an entire culture, or two, or three, or more, surrounding alcohol consumption. Substitution would require an enormous revision. Lots of money and lives saved, first of all. Lots. But I could also see plenty of push-back. Where is the hard edge that you're perceived to have, as an alcohol drinker? If you need that perception of risk and danger, where will you buy it?

I suspect there would be instant upheaval followed by a longer-term shift in cultural perception. Who knows whether a shift like that could be successful on the long term, or where it would land the largest segments of the population.

But it's worth considering the value that we place on alcohol and other intoxicants. I'll remind new readers that when I say value, I don't mean "values" in an ideological sense, and I don't mean good or bad. Alcohol plays a role in our culture, different from the role it plays in other world cultures in some subtle ways. I remember being surprised when I visited France by the difference in the way alcohol consumption was treated. I remember thinking at a certain time in my life that people wouldn't go as crazy on their 21st birthday if alcohol weren't treated as such an awful taboo, and thereby given such incredible cachet. Who knows - maybe they would, but I suspect it wouldn't be nearly such a big deal.

Let me remark that there are excellent physiological reasons for age restrictions on alcohol. Alcoholism is a serious problem, surrounded by its own patterns of behavior. But it's interesting to me to watch movies and take a look at how the consumption of alcohol is portrayed in different ways. I believe there has been a shift in our perceptions of alcohol consumption, because for years and years - from Shakespeare's Stefano up to Uncle Waldo in the Aristocats - the drunkard was portrayed as an amusing clown. I don't see that image any more. The scientific recognition of alcoholism as a disease has changed that. There are still plenty of movies where you have party behaviors and binge drinking, etc. but even there it's no longer seen as solely amusing. The sense of risk is there, I think, even if the pathos and the real danger are not.

If you were creating a society, would you include alcoholic drinks or other intoxicants? It seems likely. I wonder if it might be fruitful to consider changing their value. Ask, for example, for whom the alcohol might be most attractive, and to whom it might be most readily available (possibly not the same group). Does the society have alcoholism? How does that express itself at different levels of socioeconomic status? Does it have locations dedicated to the consumption of alcohol? How are they accepted or perceived by others? Does alcohol consumption have a classy side and an ugly side, as it does for us? What form might that take?

There's lots of potential there for interesting stories.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Metabolism and Daily Time Organization

Did you ever think about the workday? 9-5, they typically say, even though there's generally an additional half-hour to an hour included for lunch, which changes things around a bit.

Now think about the things that can cause variation in this schedule. There are places where work has to continue 24 hours per day, so that people come in in shifts. There are places which have a lot of connections in a different time zone, so they shift their daily schedule earlier or later to have better rapport with the other location(s). There are places where the lunch hour is extra long to accommodate the main meal at noon, or the main meal plus a nap (potentially).

Of course, it wasn't always an eight-hour day. Historically, people used to work brutal hours - fourteen hours a day, etc.

Humans have the ability to keep working for long periods of time. This makes sense given our size, our warm-bloodedness, etc. We have our ebb moments, which are ideal for siesta time.

What might change that?

I look around at the animals of the world for inspiration. Tiny mammals like mice tend to have very high energy for short periods of time, and then flop down for a rest, and then go back at it. Cats have incredibly high intensity sometimes, but sleep a lot. Some animals have stamina for hours, and some don't.

This is useful to consider, because for whatever world you're creating, it's good to consider how they organize their daily time. Especially if you're dealing with aliens, it might be useful to ask yourself how their energy levels translate into work patterns. The difference between a nocturnal creature and a diurnal creature is obvious, but there are more subtle things you can do to make a big difference.

As my friend Janice recently asked me when I was working on something for my otter story, "These are otters. Why would they sit while working?"

It was a wake-up question. I'd recently seen a video of a baby otter playing with toys in someone's home, and one of the things the film said was that the human was a specialist working with the otter while it was out of its natural enclosure - not someone keeping the thing for a pet. If you'd seen the energy of this thing, you'd see why. It would get bored one day and tear your house apart.

Mind you, my aliens are big, and this tends to change metabolic rates (whales and elephants move more slowly than rats and mice!). However, I figure they could still be on the otter side of the metabolic pattern relative to humans, and come across as very energetic.

It changed the way I thought about the organization of their days, and also about the organization of their work spaces, and all kinds of things.

I encourage you to consider this if you're doing something similar.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A nice mention from Rich Horton...

Here's the quote:

I thought these were the best novelettes from Analog this year: Stephen Baxter's "Formidable Caress" (December), David Bartell's "Cavernauts" (March), Dave Creek's "Zheng He and the Dragon" (January-February), Craig De Lancey's "Amabit Sapiens" (November), Juliette Wade's "Cold Words" (October), Jesse L. Watson's "Shallow Copy" (October), Howard V. Hendrix's "Monuments of Unageing Intellect" (June), Mark Rich's "Foe" (April), and Shane Tourtellotte's "Evergreen" (September). [bold added :-)]

Thanks, Mr. Horton!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Two Non-English Languages

This post is in answer to Meg's question about using two non-English languages in a story - thanks for the question, Meg!

First, some general orientation. We're not talking in this case about using world languages, or speakers of existing world languages, in a story full of English speakers. That would be an entirely different issue. This is a case of two fantasy populations, each of which has its own language.

When fantasy populations have their own languages, this means that no readers have any hope of finding a dictionary to allow them to understand the languages the author has created. I have done this before, and I generally referred to the difficulty with using such languages as "the translation problem."

Question 1. How much do you render in the language, and how much in English?

I've addressed this question before, but the basic metric is this: the more of your created language you use, the more alienated your reader will feel. So if you're working with an Earth traveler among aliens, and you want to emphasize that person's sense of alienation and confusion, use more of the alien language. But if you're working with a point of view inside a population of speakers of the created language, then use more English translations of the words in question, and only a minimum of the created language's vocabulary.

Think about it this way. You are teaching your reader every vocabulary word you choose to use. This requires reader effort, and you don't want to overload them so much that they can't follow the story.

So here we are. In Meg's case, she's working with the point of view of a speaker of a fantasy language.

Question 2. How do you deal with the internal pov of a person who is not an English speaker?

I'll call this the one-language problem. Assume that everything that occurred in her native environment happened in her native language, and its cultural context. She's multilingual, but for the sake of simplicity I'll assume that her thought patterns were primarily influenced by her native language. The way you write the English for her will not sound like the English you would write for a native speaker of modern English (obviously). It should use the metaphors, concepts, manners, and cultural sensitivities of a native speaker of the language she speaks. I call it the translation problem because you want it to look something like a translation of her native language into English, rather than just English.

Now, when I work with alien languages in my short stories, I take the "translation" further, and try to make alterations in the structure of the English I use, to reflect the use of the alien language. This requires a sense of what the structure of the created language is, and how that structure might influence the speaker's use of English - but I don't necessarily recommend it in this case. You're working on the inside, in a fantasy context where the main character should probably be considered "home base" for the reader. So I think that any significant grammatical alterations would probably be too distracting.

So in Meg's case, the first step I'd probably take is working out how her main character's speech would come across based on her native language. Forget for a minute about the second language issue, because if you can figure out how her native language will influence her English, that's going to be roughly what you need to discover how her native language influences her use of the other language. Especially since both will be written in English anyway.

Now, if you're working with a second language that the protagonist doesn't understand, you can simply have them not understand it, or partially understand it. That is, if you're using a close point of view (either first person or close third person).

But Meg has a protagonist who understands and speaks the second language. So that leads us to....

Question 3. What do you do when you have a second non-English language?

Once you've established your "base" for Language 1, start looking at the other language. Pick an antagonist (because in Meg's case, the second language is the antagonist's language) and go through the one-language process again, for the other language. What concepts, metaphors and other features of Chirrith are going to show up when a Chirrith speaker speaks in English? Establish your "base" for Language 2 the same way you did for Language 1. (This can actually work for more than two languages also.)

Great. Now...

Question 4. How do you work with the two?

The good news is, you may already be done. Once you have the "Language X in English" pattern, then the Vas'her pattern in Chirrith is going to look a lot like the Vas'her pattern in English - because after all, you are writing this all in English. All you need are cues here and there, when they become relevant. When they become relevant will be the moment when the protagonist becomes aware of which language she's speaking in contrast with the other. If the protagonist has lost her memory, this may take a while!

It is important, however, to make the different languages as immediately distinguishable as possible. For this purpose, you might want to consider one more tool: intonation and meter. The distinction between the language concepts and metaphors is going to show, but may not be immediately evident in every line. If you want to push the difference further, consider picking an intonational pattern to associate with one or the other - possibly, in this case, a Vas'her intonational pattern that would mark her speech as different from that of the people around her.

The only thing I don't think you should do - at all! - is try to translate between Chirrith and Vas'her. I've tried translating directly between French and Japanese, and it was confusing and difficult. Especially since both of the languages are products of your own creation, I'd encourage you to move away from thinking of them as languages to be spoken, and start thinking about them as templates to influence your use of English. Relating one variety of English to another is something native speakers do almost on a daily basis. It will probably be much easier.

I encourage responses and questions!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Now, this is marvelous!

Here's a wonderful blog entry about drawing portraits of great apes - gorillas and chimpanzees. The portraits are wonderful, but what makes me laugh with delight is the way the artist has learned appropriate nonverbal behavior to be polite to these apes so they'll pose for the sketches.
Marvelous!

It's here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An article that might inspire your worldbuilding

I'm pushing very hard on finishing a story right now, so I'm going to make this a short post. This morning I was directed to a really interesting article called "Why Are Europeans White?" The article doesn't have anything to do with races as social groups, but discusses why it is that skin pigmentation is so light in the region surrounding Europe. A hint: it has to do with successful pregnancies, UV light, eating cereals, and ocean currents.

For the details, here's the link.

This is interesting to me in part because it looks at planetary environmental factors, and biological factors, in a human characteristic that clearly has enormous influence on social behavior.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Any questions or requests?

I did this once earlier in the history of my blog and got resounding silence, but I thought I might try again now that I have a few more regular visitors!

I invite you to ask me questions or make requests for topics in my comments area. Questions can be about any post in the archive, about linguistic or cultural topics, about my writing or about how I got my agent. I'll also consider suggestions for ridiculously close looks (though whether I do them will depend on whether I can access the book!).

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Scene breaks and hand-offs

My adventures with my latest story have led me to contemplate the question of scene breaks and hand-offs. By this I mean evaluating possible breaking points to see which one would serve the story best, and trying to determine how effective a change of point of view would be at those different points.

There are a lot of ways to handle scenes, and stories. I'm thinking of Mike Flynn's story, "Where the Winds are All Asleep," which involved a story told by a person in an Irish pub - that had a whole frame of the pub setting and then broke up the story itself with elements of the pub interaction. This is to say that I'm not saying every story should have the scene structure I'm about to discuss - I'll just put my musings out here in case anyone else does find them useful.

My short stories tend to have seven scenes. I couldn't tell you why, but both of my Analog stories were like that, and the next one is turning out that way as well. I've been doing short stories for a few years now, and I pay quite a bit of attention to scene breaks and what lies to either side of them: first sentences, and last sentences.

I was sharing first sentences with my friend K yesterday and we discovered that if I listed all the first sentences of each of my scenes, that it gave a decently good outline of what was happening in the progression of the story. Given that I like my first sentences to propel readers directly into the next piece of the main conflict, that makes a degree of sense.

A list of my scene-ending sentences didn't have the same outline-like quality. The reason for this, I think, is that last sentences don't need to function as orientation devices (as first sentences do). The main function of last sentences is to make a reader desperately want to read the first sentence of the next scene. This is something I learned from my friend Janice Hardy: your last sentence should make the reader curious. It doesn't have to be a cliffhanger, necessarily, but it needs to show forward momentum.

This is where I get to the question of a breaking point. If you write, you've probably encountered those places where a scene just seems to stop and not want to go any further - or to feel strained if you try to push it beyond that point. I find that ideal breaking points tend to be places where the tension of the scene has just ramped up. Something big has just happened, and we desperately want to know what its consequences will be, so what better place to stop and take us directly to the consequences? [Mind you, this is also why you shouldn't cut off at a point of high tension and then take us directly to something unrelated that happens much later!]

A breaking point, if you choose to use it as the official end of your scene, then leads you to a hand-off. This is what I mean by jumping to the consequences. You're handing off the baton from one scene to the next, switching the momentum so the story will keep driving forward. There are a lot of ways this can be handled, depending on the narrative distance you're using, and the point of view you've chosen, etc. When I started writing my current story, At Cross Purposes, I made some deliberate choices about the switch of scenes. These choices were based on what I'd learned from my last two stories.

In "Let the Word Take Me," I switched between points of view, human to alien, but only the human point of view actually provided story drive and forward momentum, while the alien point of view was more static, like a contemplative interlude. "Cold Words" had no point of view switches at all, so every scene had to drive the story forward. I found that I really liked this, so when I came to my current story I decided that somehow I had to execute the switch of point of view from human to alien and back, but keep the hand-offs really tight and allow each point of view to drive the story forward in a different way.

So far, so good. Last night I reached a breaking point and decided to call it quits for the night, believing that the scene was over. But there was a problem, I discovered. There was another breaking point still coming in the narration; either I could break where I did, or I could try to make the scene continue until the second break point.

I thought this over: for any scene, the point of view choice should make for the most interest, the highest stakes, and the lowest redundancy. It should also, since I'm writing science fiction, allow for the greatest sense of wonder and discovery. I had a scene in the hallway before from the alien point of view, so maybe this one should be from the human point of view, to avoid redundancy - after all, this would be the first time the humans have really seen the alien ship in its full glory. There's a big conflict coming up that has to be in alien point of view because it won't make any sense if I keep it in human point of view (that's another important factor!). The event which causes this conflict is the second breaking point.

So I mulled it over, and things started looking good for pressing the scene a little further - and then suddenly I discovered something important: a way to make the first breaking point not seem so final, but appear to be part of a progression within the scene that then leads to the second breaking point. That was when I finally decided to change what I'd done - when I figured out how to make the scene work without having the extra material feel tacked on.

It's hard to get any deeper into this question without giving more of the actual story text, which I don't feel comfortable doing at the moment. I just hope that this post has given a small view into some of the factors that go into choosing when and how to break one scene and hand off to the next one.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Do you gotta have faith?

When I first read Ursula K. LeGuin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness, one of the things that really impressed me was how she'd given a religion to the people of her world. It was one of many things in that book that made her world feel real.

So today I thought I'd share some thoughts on using religion in your worldbuilding.

Question 1: Do you need it?

Answer? No, not necessarily. One of the reasons that religion can be extremely valuable in worldbuilding is because it provides a foundation for people's thoughts - a set of metaphors and references that the community can share. These metaphors and references can infuse the entire community, and give your world a sense of common culture.

However, religion in and of itself is not necessary, because a similar function can be served by what I'll call a "world concept." A religion definitely provides a world concept to its people - one in which a sense of the sacred is inherent. But world concepts don't necessarily need to include the concept of a deity or of sacredness. It depends on what you're doing with the story!

My two Analog stories are a case in point. In "Let the Word Take Me," religion was terribly important - indeed, the nature of the Gariniki beliefs was central to the resolution of the story problem. In "Cold Words," I deliberately chose to give the Aurrel a world concept that did not include a deity. Their "natural order" was basically all about the food chain, and it fit well because they were carnivorous creatures who had come out of a hunting culture. I wanted people to concentrate on the linguistic question at the center of the story - which fit well with their world concept - without getting distracted by questions of deities.

You might wonder what I mean by "distracted." Well, since this is sf/f, whenever you have a religion involved there comes a moment when the question can come up: "Is this mystical force real?" I know it came up in "Let the Word Take Me," but it would have been completely irrelevant to "Cold Words," which was why I left religion out.

Question 2: What are the consequences if you choose to include it?

As I've just said, one possible consequence is the raising of questions about whether the deity or mystical force is real. But it goes much further than that.

If you create a religion for a society in your world, then it has social consequences. The infusing of metaphor and world concept into your story can be greatly advantageous, but can also require a lot of work. Consider some of these questions: How does the religion influence people's concepts of life and death? How does it affect their sense of morality and consequences for their actions? How does it affect people's daily personal practices? How do different people relate to the taboos on behavior and language that are often associated with particular religions?

Furthermore, in choosing to have a religion in your world, you are committing yourself to a history of religion for that world. Is there only one religion? Why? How and when did it arise? If there is more than one religion, how did that come about? How do the two-or-more religions relate to one another and why? How does religion relate to government? Are the two congruent, or separate? Is there tension between them?

Finally, when you have a religion in your world it's important to consider the different ways that individuals relate to religion. There are people who are involved in the practicing of the religion, and laypeople. There are those of great faith and those who question aspects of their faith or the details of scripture etc. There are those who reject religion entirely, and they may do so for a wide variety of reasons. And don't forget the secular members of society - the people who will not engage in regular ritual practices associated with a religion, but who share its metaphors, follow the same moral precepts, think in terms of the same world concepts and may even swear by its deities.

When it comes right down to it, I'm not going to make a simple yes-or-no recommendation about including religion in your world. I do recommend, however, that you consider what its place might be in a society you're building, and very importantly, consider what its place would be in your story. You might build a religion into sections of your world, but if it has little relevance to the main conflict of your story, you should probably keep references to it very low-key. On the other hand, religion might be just the tool you need to guide the principles, judgments and actions of a key character - in which case, by all means go for it to the hilt.

Make the choice consciously, and your story will probably be stronger as a result.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Culture is what we DO

The word "culture" sticks out to me. In almost any context where I see it, it makes me curious, and makes me want to comment. So some days ago I found a discussion of culture going on at the Analog forum, and not only did I feel compelled to jump in, but I had tons of thoughts I wanted to share here as well. (Thanks, Bill Gleason!)

What is culture?

Well, whole classes have been dedicated to this topic, as you might imagine. Probably one of the first things that comes to mind is "high culture," what we mean when we say someone is "cultured." Art, music, theater, etc. The finer things in life. That's certainly one of its meanings, but it only captures the tiniest part of what culture really is.

Culture is what we do.

I like to think in terms of what's called "cultural practices." These are the special things we do that form a part of our routine, our habits, etc. The way we interact verbally involves cultural practices. Our sense of objects and how we relate to them.

Whenever we do anything, we are enacting our culture. We aren't contained by culture. On the Analog forum, someone mentioned The Force from Star Wars - I loved the analogy. The Force is all around us, it is in us, etc. Culture is more interesting than The Force, though, because by enacting it, we pass it on to others, and simultaneously we bring about change in it.

Culture is a quality of interaction - not a written set of rules that people have to follow, but a way of doing things. We can articulate the rules, and sometimes we've been taught them explicitly, but we don't just follow them - we hold a relationship with them. We discuss them perhaps, or rebel against them, or value them, or defy them, or cherish them...

They're like the road we walk on. We can choose to follow the road to its destination, or we can walk away from the destination. But leaving the road entirely is far more difficult and dangerous.

When you think of culture in terms of interactions and cultural practices, it becomes far easier to grasp what people mean when they talk about "a family culture" or the culture of a smaller group. For every group that engages in regular interaction, a set of conventions will emerge through that interaction. Thus we can have "football culture," enacted by a group that meets in association with football events. We can have "company culture," enacted by the members of a company. An online forum can have a culture, too - witness the online discussions regarding the difference between the Analog forum and its neighbor, the Asimov's forum.

At least one of the consequences of this conception of culture is interesting for writing in sf/f. The idea is that, since we enact culture in everything we do, any smallest piece of interaction that you capture will contain evidence of that culture. To put it in writing terms, the culture of an alien world, a future Earth colony or a fantasy society will show itself in every single scene - and in every part of that scene, and in everything its people say, and in every object they possess, and in every attitude they have, and in every body movement they use to express emotion, etc. etc.

This might sound very demanding.

In a way, it is. But in another way, it's not so bad, because the pieces of a culture flow into one another. Usually there's an overarching world concept involved, an underlying principle, or a set of underlying principles. Even just a large metaphor, such as the metaphor of the hunt and the food chain that I used to structure the world of the Aurrel in Cold Words. If you can come up with principles, then you can start to push deeper with your expressions of culture in a way that will make sense and that readers will be able to grasp. The important part is that the practices you create must make sense to the characters. They must appear logical and obvious - and if they are strenuous, then there must be a strong motivation for engaging in such strenuous activity.

If you can build culture into the actions, speech, and thoughts of your character, then you won't have to explain, or work hard to have some character in your story explain how the culture works.

It's something to think about.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Does your story carry a message?

Does your story have a message? You know, a meaning hidden inside it, something to say about life, the universe and everything?

Hey, I'm not telling you it needs one. There's something really annoying about a preachy story, isn't there? The funny thing is, though, your story may have a message even if you don't intend it to. Message is one of those things that sneaks in sometimes, hidden in the parallels between the plot for the humans and the plot for the aliens, or in small mentions here and there throughout the story.

Really it's a sort of "show-versus-tell" issue. Don't stick your message in my face, but if you can weave it in, I might appreciate it...

In any case, message is a good thing to watch out for, because patterns often form in a story when the author isn't really thinking about them consciously. If you can keep an eye out for them, though, you can very likely make them stronger and more effective, or adjust them to keep them from getting too preachy, etc. Here are some things which may contribute to a message (in rough order from most to least preachy):

1. The narrator delivering the message directly. (This is "moral of the story" type stuff).
2. A character delivering the message to another character.
3. A character coming to a conclusion based on a sequence of events which relates to the main conflict and its resolution.
4. A character coming to a conclusion based on a sequence of events which is peripheral to the main conflict.
5. A character behaving in a principled way throughout the story (not necessarily related to the main conflict).
6. Evidence for a message appearing in concentrated form in descriptions of scene or setting.
7. Evidence for a message appearing in dilute form (here and there) in the narrative.

As far as 6 and 7 go, "evidence" can be as little as a word here, a word there - an association between an emotional state and a location, etc. What makes it a pattern is that it recurs. I like to use a version of the "rule of three" to help me decide whether I'm creating a pattern. If a word or phrase or association occurs once, it will become part of the subconscious background as people continue reading forward. If it occurs twice, they will typically notice that it is there. If it occurs three times, it means something. If you think about it mathematically, this is how we used to plot lines. Find one point on the line. Okay, now plot another point on the line. Great - it looks like a line, but let's just check to make sure that our conclusion is correct by plotting one last point on the line. Three points and we're sure.

Once you have your eye out for this, you can start to use it. The rule of three for humor basically says that two points set up an expectation, and the third is your punch line where you break the expectation or twist it in a funny way. You can decide whether you want it to mean something that the boy sits and thinks in his father's chair. If you don't want the pattern, you can break it before you get to three. If you see something twice and you want readers to be able to carry some kind of evidence forward, then you can do it one more time.

People look for meaning subconsciously. It's just something that human beings do. Use this to your advantage if you can.

At this point I'd like to turn the topic in a slightly different, but related, direction. Have you ever asked yourself whether every scene in a story has to mean something?

I was talking with my son about this yesterday, because he was playing a video game, walked into a "room" and then left it without looking for anything. I said to him, "Niall, don't you think that room was there for a reason? Why did you walk out of it without looking for some way that it might challenge or help you?"

The way I think about stories, I feel that every scene has to be "doing" something. This is particularly true for short stories, where you have very few words to carry your plot and character arcs, message, etc. In fact, I prefer it if every single sentence is "doing" something!

I often notice in a quest story if an event seems not to be doing anything for the characters or their story - it makes me impatient. I'll also notice if a similar scene happens twice over in a story. If you're setting up a pattern, like a pattern of three tests the hero/heroine has to pass, that's fine. But if I feel déjà vu, and there isn't a pattern, I start to wonder what the point is.

I have a friend who tells me that life isn't patterned, and that lots of stuff happens that doesn't mean anything. It's true - the events in our life don't come to us in a pattern. However, when we relate them, we turn them into patterns, and stories. We look for evidence in the chaos to tell us that we're learning or progressing in some way. There is even a form of therapy that centers around creating narratives to get control over traumatic experiences. So in a way, if you're using your scenes deliberately to defeat the idea of pattern, that's a different kind of message - a deliberate meaning about chaos and the unpredictability of life.

It doesn't necessarily matter what the meaning or the message is. It may be buried deep. But if you can keep your eye out for it, you can make it work for you, and not the other way around.

It's something to think about.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A funny article!

This is a wonderfully funny one. Many thanks to my lovely friend K for directing me to it - an article about a constructed language called Na'vi which is used in the upcoming series, "Avatar." Apparently the language has been developed in some depth, and certainly the article treats its subject respectfully. This also includes references to Klingon, for those interested - and an intriguing reference to an artist who renders Eminem rap songs in Klingon!

The article itself is here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wonderful Article

I thought I should share this link to a really terrific article by Nisi Shawl about portraying minorities in your work if you aren't a member of a minority (or of a particular minority) yourself. It's on the SFWA website, here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Darmok and Me

I have a couple of serious posts brewing, but I thought today I'd keep it light and whimsical... partly because I exercised this morning and do want to get some writing done before my kids-at-school window closes, and partially because I discovered that someone had googled "Darmok" and found me.

If you've read my first published story, you already know why I find this delightful.

Even those who know me well - but from recent times - may not know that I was a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan in college. Not a Trekker, and never a "dress-up-and-go-to-cons" type, but someone who would watch Star Trek TNG every single week. This actually lasted all the way through getting married, and I watched Voyager and Deep Space Nine too, and even Enterprise. My first favorite was TNG, and DS9 was second. Something about the aliens... you all know how I love to think about the alien experience.

I remember very well when I first saw "Darmok." I was fascinated. I kept hoping I'd catch it on reruns. There was something about the language premise of a people who would speak only indirectly, in allusions to a set of stories they shared, that really fascinated me. I think it was the fact that someone had at last found a way to stump the universal translator! I was glued to the screen, and afterwards I kept thinking about the episode, thinking and thinking.

I was struggling with it.

I mean, what a brilliant concept! But things about it kept bugging me. I guess I'd already come into my obsession with cultural depth in science fiction and fantasy, even though I hadn't yet discovered writing. How, I wondered, had these folks become a spacefaring people if they didn't ever speak in productive sentences? Were there stories in their canon concerning circuits and how they went together? More than that - how was this language learned?

I'm actually pretty flexible when it comes to my expectations about how languages are learned. Kids are amazing, and they can learn a lot from the data that they're presented with. But grammar, as a force, is pretty irresistible. Witness the creole languages that grow out of pidgin languages: the first generation cobbles something choppy together so they can get things done even though they don't have a common language, but the second generation takes that and gives it grammar. It's pretty amazing.

So I struggled with the idea that a guy like the alien captain, when facing death, would still be speaking in choppy sentences. I figured the language concept would work, but that the language would have to have a grammar and it would have to be spoken productively somewhere, sometime - the same place where the language would be learned by children. Then the people would just have to have some vastly compelling reason why they'd speak in the oblique manner.

The idea sat in my head for a very long time. The vastly compelling reason was easy to come up with: religion. Religions are intimately linked to patterns of language use, and they're very good at setting up rules and taboos, so it fit perfectly. Then I realized that the stories they told were considered religious, and were told in a holy place. That led to the idea that the holy place was a community building where people could spend hours on a regular basis, particularly as children, and where behaviors would be learned.

Then I left it alone for a long time, and finally after a number of years I wrote "Let the Word Take Me." So if you've read it, and you were ever curious, yes, there's a reason it reminds you of "Darmok." In the first draft the language concept was my "punch line" and the story didn't work, exactly because I was using the Star Trek idea as the surprise - and after Darmok, it's not a surprise any more. When the story really started to take off was when I combined the Darmok language concept with some of my own experiences in Japan - an additional social aspect - and with some concepts from anthropology about coming of age.

So in the end, this post has turned not only into the story of Darmok and me, but a little description of the process of writing, and how my ideas came together for that initial story, which appeared in Analog in July/August 2008.

At this point, my stories are made up of language concepts and ideas that are all mine, but I'm very grateful for that initial inspiration, or I wouldn't be where I am today.