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Friday, August 29, 2008

The meaning of colors

After yesterday's heat (84 degrees inside my house, since I have no air conditioning) I was tempted to write an entry about how hot weather can cause the melting of all thought in a susceptible brain. Fortunately, I got a different idea this afternoon when passing the dollar shop with my kids. There was a pair of rather ridiculous-looking bear balloons in the window, one pink, one blue, reading "It's a girl!" and "It's a boy!" respectively. When I explained that pink is generally considered a baby girl color, and blue a baby boy color, both of them asked me, "Why?"

Oh, boy.

At the time I said there was no real reason, but that was just the way people usually felt about pink and blue; since then I've looked it up online. The most interesting of the answers I found can be found here:

This answer seems well researched and confirms my general impression that fashion is pretty much arbitrary, despite its obvious strength. To give you a sense of what you'll find if you go there, "digsalot" explains that pink used to be considered a boy's color (1914 and earlier) because it was considered to be a watered-down version of red, which was also considered masculine. Blue, by contrast, was associated with the Virgin Mary, and thus considered feminine. The current bias didn't solidify until the 1950's.

Culture has a lot to do with the emotions and situations associated with colors. Take the association between red and masculinity, explained in the above discussion - it applies to America, and to many Western countries, but not to Japan. In Japan, red is a feminine color. Traditional kimono for young girls often are red, or contain the color red. When people are divided into a boys' team and a girls' team for competition, they are generally labeled the "red" team and the "white" team - the red being the girls, and the white the boys.

White is the color of mourning in China, while black has been used for mourning in America, and in England since at least Shakespeare's time (in Twelfth Night, the lady Olivia wears all black). When I Googled mourning colors, I found the following quote at the url :

"In China, white is invariably the color adopted for mourning; in Turkey, blue or violet; in Egypt, yellow; in Ethiopia, brown. Persia adopts pale brown; Burmah, yellow; Tartary, deep blue; Asia-Minor, sky blue. The Spartan and Roman ladies mourned in white; and the same color prevailed formerly in Castile on the death of their princes. Kings and cardinals mourn in purple. Each people have their reasons for the particular color which they affect: white is supposed to denote purity; yellow that death is the end of human hopes - in reference to leaves when they fall, and flowers when they fade, which become yellow. Brown denotes the earth, whither the dead return. Black, the privations of life, as being the the privation of light. Blue expresses the happiness which it is hoped the deceased will enjoy in the land beyond the skies; and purple or violet, sorrow on the one side and hope on the other, as being a mixture of black and blue. "

I can't help but be impressed by the variety of symbolisms associated with colors. Color symbolism is a great cultural dimension to add to a science fiction or fantasy world. In my Varin world, many castes are associated with colors (servants with black, soldiers with red, artisans with light gray). C.J. Cherryh's The Faded Sun trilogy used color symbolism for the castes of the mri people (black for the Kel warriors, gold for the scholarly Sen, and blue for the Kath women and children). A more unusual appearance of color is the pink mortar used to cement keystones in LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness - it turns out to have been mixed with blood instead of water. Cool and creepy to me!

Someday I hope I can have a more in-depth discussion of culture and colors with my kids - but for now I'm happy to have had the chance to share my thoughts here.

Upcoming posts at TTYU: education, nicknames

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Swearing (dash it all!)

This topic came to me thanks to K. Richardson, whom I encountered on the forum at the Critters critique website. Many of you probably know it, but if you don't, and you're seeking critique for works of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, it's a great place to start. The question K. had was how to get her aliens to swear without using swear words from our own world, yet not have the substituted words sound silly.

I would start by asking, "what is swearing for?" Here are some of its purposes in our world:

1. to express emotion in moments of extreme stress or pain
2. to express dissatisfaction (a less extreme version of #1, I think)
3. to give evidence that one is telling the truth ("I swear by the sword of my father, Domingo Montoya")
4. to get attention (over a wide range - everything from making a word stand out to emotionally injuring someone)
5. to express alignment with particular social groups

Here's an example of how a difference in degree on #4 can cause trouble cross-culturally. I come from a cultural group in which the form of swearing I'd call "ugly words" is used to get attention and injure people emotionally. My husband comes from one where the same words are used to draw attention and even give a certain spice of fun to what is said. So when we first met, and before I figured out the difference, I'd be regularly appalled at what was coming out of the mouth of this otherwise entirely nice (and very interesting) guy.

If you're creating an alien society, you can always go with a model that has your aliens using swearing for similar purposes - but of course, the parameter is available to be played with, so there's no need to hold back!

Next, I'd ask about content. Different cultures use different kinds of swearing content, but these can include religious references, scatological or sexual references, ridicule of others by comparison with animals, etc. Some swear words (like the old fashioned "zounds!") are derived from religious sources but have been euphemized (in this case from the expression, "God's wounds!") to avoid blasphemy.

So back to the aliens. Religion-based swearing is going to depend on what their religion is, whether it has the good vs. evil dichotomy, and how their cosmology works. From the point of view of the hypothetical Gegogian, what would be a fate worse than death? And under what circumstances might someone wish it on someone else? If you're looking for ugly words, then what do these people consider ugly? Are sexual body parts considered taboo in the society, and would they be used for expletive purposes? If someone wants to swear truthfulness, what object or concept do they value so highly that they would not want to sully it by lying under oath?

If you're going to pepper your dialogue with swear words or phrases the way we do in English, it's good to keep them short. But if you want to expand the cultural role of swearing and turn it into a lengthy trash-talking contest, then by all means elaborate them. Personally I would hope such a contest would be relevant to the main conflict of a story, though, and not just there for pyrotechnics!

Tonight I don't have a lot of examples on hand from established fiction - I welcome comments, so tell me if you thought swearing was handled well, or in a funny way, or in a less than optimal way, in any of the books you've read. In my own writing I have one culture where they use wordless sounds for extreme emotion, and insult people by talking about their undesirable physical behaviors. I have another where people are expected to swear by one of a family of deities, and which one to use depends on how the situation aligns with the personality and job of the deity in question.

Exploring swearing and its cultural underpinnings is a great way to give spice and dimension to a world.

Will you take a stand on gender?

The topic of gender seems quite appropriate to the day following Hillary Clinton's speech at the Democratic convention. She certainly puts a spotlight on the issue of gender conflict in its current form.

Modern-day feminism (or post-feminism?) and women's liberation have put an interesting twist on the portrayal of women in fiction. Particularly tricky (to my mind) must be the task of writing historical fiction in which women must be portrayed as era-appropriate, yet continue to satisfy the needs of modern reader.

In fantasy and science fiction, we don't have to follow as many strict requirements on how gender is portrayed. My gut feeling is that many modern and futuristic societies in SF these days tend to aim for gender equality. In the Harry Potter books, for example, gender equality in witchcraft was not dicussed as an issue of contention, but two of the founders of Hogwarts were female, and witches generally were considered to have as much power as men (go, Professor McGonagall!). It's a gender balance intended to be unremarkable to the reader, yet which at the same time reflects a healthy level of idealism, in that it is more even than our current real world balance. Then of course there's the other extreme, that of creating a very remarkable alteration in gender roles. There have been the Star Trek societies where women dominate, or those where gender role differentiation itself is considered evil.

If you really want to see a gender portrayal that will knock you on your ear and make you think, go read Ursula K. LeGuin's famous book, The Left Hand of Darkness. It's often described as feminist SF, but it's not strident, and I don't get the feeling that it's out to shove female advancement in anyone's face. It simply sets up a beautifully three-dimensional humanoid culture in which people have no gender most of the time, except for a period called kemmer when sexual situations will cause their genders to differentiate in one direction or the other. LeGuin takes base assumptions of gender physiology and expands them into an entire internally consistent cultural system complete with folk tales, gender taboos not at all like our own, etc. and then plops a Human male negotiator down in the middle of it, providing readers with a unique experience of culture shock. There are many reasons why this book won so many awards. I have always loved Ursula LeGuin's writing, and I even made my husband read this book.

I'd like at this point to add another ingredient to writerly thought processes: that of demographics, and demographic pressures. Which is to say, if you're going to pick a particular way of portraying gender roles (assuming there are any and you aren't trying to redesign such concepts from scratch), you might want to consider how external pressures from environment and society influence gender roles.

Say you have a group of beings divided into childbearing, and non-childbearing genders. Their society will flex adaptively to allow childbearing, and childrearing, to occur most productively and effectively for its needs.

If children are born helpless, mothers will most likely be expected to take care of them; however, if those mothers have a tendency to want to eat them, fathers might have a key societal role in removing them from the danger zone and sending the mothers off to find food.

If the society is agrarian and of relatively low-technology, then lots of backs and arms will be required to maintain food productivity, and the burden of childbearing will tend to be higher because more children are important for optimal survival (this may also come along with cultural restrictions on sexual activity not geared toward the production of children).

If there are many dangers in the environment, non-childbearers will generally take the role of protecting childbearers from those dangers – this can take the form of the hunter-gatherer division of labor, but the actual form of division in an SF society can differ based on the specific conditions you're setting up.

In a society with a high degree of complexity, gender roles can diverge culturally, so that some societal groups believe childbearers must be protected and others believe they must be treated more equally with non-childbearers. This will depend on the nature of the demographic pressures. Take for example the society portrayed by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale. That was a case where male/female was less important than childbearer/non-childbearer, because most women had become infertile. And as a result, the childbearers were heavily oppressed by the leaders of the society who wanted it to survive: they were expected to do almost nothing but attempt to bear children. In my own society of Varin, the groups that experience the most gender differentiation are the oppressed caste, which seeks to protect its women from harm but believes there is no difference in the ability of men and women to work equally when no children are involved, and the noble caste, which is inbred and shrinking, and thus subjects its women to unnaturally extreme childbearing pressure.

There are a lot more directions one could go with a gender discussion, but this will be it for me for today. I welcome any comments, questions or suggestions on where to take the issue next.

Upcoming posts at TTYU: swearing, schooling/education

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Interesting Links

This last week hit hard after our return from Chicago, and I'm having to rethink my blogging schedule temporarily. I've decided to start posting at the bottom of each entry the ideas I've had for upcoming posts, so that anyone who wants to share thoughts in advance, and potentially influence my post content, can feel free to do so. So look at the bottom of this entry for the first peek ahead.

Today I thought I'd put up a few interesting links, for anyone who's interested.

There's a discussion of body language on the Analog forum, and Tom Ligon mentioned a scientific approach to describing how the human body moves and gestures, called Laban Movement Analysis. You can read more on wikipedia or there's an official program site at

Also in that discussion Greg Ellis mentioned finding an online source about nonverbal gestures:
This one has some very interesting gesture-by-gesture descriptions, photos and examples from popular culture (such as quotes from Shakespeare and actors who favor a gesture).

I read an article recently about English spelling, but lost track of it and haven't quite been able to find it again, so anyone who's interested can check out this page, which contains some interesting information about historical elements preserved in spelling:

And of course if anyone knows of the article mentioned above, please remind me!

The last link is to a great resource about the nature of elements - a hard science topic, not a language/culture one, but still reflects on what the internet can do for making science accessible and enjoyable!

Upcoming topics at TTYU: gender, swearing

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A taste of taboo

I think of taboos generally as zones of discomfort. There are lots of them, and they vary depending on the culture. I mentioned them in my earlier post on humor, because a lot of humor centers around taboo borderlines of various kinds, including (but certainly not restricted to) body parts, bodily functions, illness and death, race, religion - the list goes on and on. I think the movie that was the most bipolar ever for me was Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, exactly because it took aim at so many body taboo borderlines. Thus, when I liked the jokes, I loved them - and when I didn't love them, I was appalled by them (stomach upset has never been something funny for me!).

Monty Python's parrot sketch played with death, but managed to avoid any of the gross-out aspects of the topic and instead played with euphemisms. I love euphemisms, so I guess it's no surprise that the line "If he hadn't been nailed to the perch he would be pushing up the daisies!" had me incapacitated with giggles. People think of lots of ways to talk around taboo subjects, and as time passes, they continue to have to find more, because the association of any given euphemism with a taboo topic effectively contaminates it over time. Think of the number of different names that have been given to toilets and the rooms in which they reside. Or think of the number of different names that have been given to former slave and immigrant peoples of the USA, which have then been tossed out and replaced with others as they were judged too derogatory.

When I was living in Japan with my husband a movie came out that portrayed the final days of someone with a terminal condition. The odd thing about this movie for us was that it was a comedy, and one of the main jokes was the fact that the guy was dying and his family couldn't tell him. I'll admit I was a little shocked by this. However, when we asked our friends we learned that in Japan, doctors will not tell patients that they are dying because it would be too upsetting; instead they tell the family so that they will be able to prepare. This is something that makes my gut go "no!" but from an anthropological point of view I can see how it would make sense culturally.

Taboos can result in a lot of cultural self-restriction. The area of technology leaps to mind, where the ethics of cloning and stem cell research play such a large role in determining where money goes, and thus where the technology goes next. Religious restrictions can have a deep influence in many areas of a culture - in Islamic art, for example, where the depiction of living beings (particularly humans) has been historically discouraged as blasphemous.

Taboo is rich territory for world and culture building. The planet of Garini in my story "Let the Word Take Me" had a religious taboo on the use of language. Many religions restrict the utterance of particular phrases or names, but in the Garini case the taboo applied to any free use of the language. Check out the July/August 2008 Analog magazine if you want to see how it worked; I don't want to give too many spoilers here. Frank Herbert (Dune) does a brilliant job of culture building with Arrakis and the treatment of water there, building in taboos on wastage that are treated with respect or disrespect by different power groups. Ursula LeGuin does some fascinating work with taboo in The Left Hand of Darkness when she creates a race of ambi-gendered humans (no time here to explain the exact details; go read it if you haven't) and builds folktales for them which elaborate on the kinds of taboos they might have, including for example incest and childbearing.

I encourage writers to think about the taboos of the cultures they create, because this can be a great way to give a culture extra dimension, to link its social groups in principled ways and to make it feel grounded in a physical environment.

Friday, August 22, 2008

More about Technology

After my post yesterday about technology, fotsgreg and Bill Moonroe made some very interesting comments. Fotsgreg talked about how computers might develop in the future - and how their development might interact with human cultural development. Bill Moonroe mentioned how Hawaiians had developed quite deadly weapons made of wood and shark teeth when they had no metal of their own. These comments put me onto some other technology-related thoughts: specifically, the question of mature versus developing technologies, and the question of how cultures make use of existing technology and materials.

fotsgreg brought up the example of a plow to talk about mature technologies, the kind that have been developed to such an extent that their function can't be further enhanced. I agree with the plow example, inasmuch as the plowshare itself hasn't changed (though the vehicle propulsion connected to it has gone from horse to motor). The other example that leaps to my mind is eating utensils: knives and forks and spoons. We have shellfish forks and salad forks and dinner forks; forks made of wood, metal and plastic, but the basic shape of the fork hasn't changed in a long while. Similarly with knives and spoons - and with chopsticks. Again, lots of styles and materials, but the objects and their function are very mature.

That is a huge contrast with things like computers, for which the function keeps developing along with the form. Computers are a lot more complex than forks, of course. I'd say that makes complex things more likely to continue developing, because more different elements of them can be changed and improved. But with most technologies, there will come a point of slowdown in development - and probably, this point of slowdown will have a lot to do with people's perception of the role of that object in their lives. As fotsgreg mentioned, there's a point in the development of computers where it gets Frankensteinian, the interface of the computer with the organism/brain. Is this where the development stops? Maybe - but it depends on the resilience of the technology and its potential benefits, and how people perceive those in contrast to its ethical disadvantages.

In terms of worldbuilding, I think technology is a lot freer than people think. Take Bill Moonroe's example of the shark-tooth weapon, or the weapons of the Aztecs that my friend T.L. Morganfield uses in her work - wooden swords with cutting blades made of obsidian. Of course, if you are starting with technology as it exists today and extrapolating into the future, that does place some constraints on what you can do. On the other hand, even the technology that we use today is not fixed in its significance or its utility.

When I first visited Japan, I had the naive idea that Japanese technology involved lots of cool black boxes for audio and video - natural, I guess, since I'd seen a lot of such things that were made in Japan. But when I got there, it took me more than four months before I met anyone who had a sophisticated audio system. Technology in Japan has different areas of slow and fast advance because of the nature of the environment. Here are some examples.

1. Ovens

Very few people have ovens in Japan, because the cuisine there doesn't call for them. Only someone interested in making Western-style food would own an oven. My first host family didn't have one at all; my second family had one, but never used it. Ovens are also prohibitively big for most Japanese homes. When I lived in my own apartment I had an oven, but it was the smallest oven I had ever seen - you could just fit a whole chicken in it. A countertop toaster oven would be far more practical for most people.

2. Dishwashers

The lovely couple who lived upstairs from our apartment in Tokyo had a dishwasher. It sat on their countertop, and looked almost like a toaster oven, but larger - literally, the thing was just large enough in height and depth to hold a single large dinner plate. Theoretically, it could contain eight or twelve dinner plates in a row. You would of course have to run it for those and then for the glasses separately. And then the pots and anything else particularly large would be cleaned the normal way, in the sink.

3. Audio equipment

As I mentioned above, not everyone in Japan has audio equipment. The fact that I was surprised by this is probably a testament to my naivete more than anything else, because of course not everyone can afford an expensive sound system. On the other hand, Japan has a culture of frugality that might make people less likely to spend precious money (and space!!) in this area. I'd be interested to hear about sales of iPod-like technology there.

4. Mobile/Cell phones

When I was living in Japan in 2000-2001, already everyone had cell phones. They were unbelievably tiny, and you could type into them in Japanese characters by using combinations of keystrokes. (They called texters the "oyayubizoku" or "thumb tribe.") And you could use cell phones to go on the internet, at a cost of 3 yen per click. Super-advanced! Here in the US we're only seeing quite recently what I was seeing in Japan back then - because cell phones are extremely well-suited to the Japanese environment. High density living, no space for a large computer (home desktop computers are much less common there), and to top it all off, no street names! All of these factors combine to make internet-ready cell phones an ideal technology. Before we left, it was possible to take a cell phone, go onto the internet, and ask it to tell you the location of the nearest 7-11 convenience store, with directions on how to get there.

So, what about if you're worldbuilding? I guess my first thought would be as follows: when you pick technologies, make them fit together in an ecologically and culturally natural set - but don't get bogged down in the assumptions that are natural to our own ecology and culture. Considerations like space and money can make big changes in the use of an existing technology set, and some environments will encourage the fast development of specialized technologies, like the cell phone in Tokyo. Free your mind a little bit, just for fun, and play around with the basic parameters of the environment, asking yourself exactly how such considerations might influence the use of technology. Then you'll be in for a lot of fun.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Does your technology form a set?

I made it back from Chicago only to find that my home internet was performing intermittently - and nearly screamed. It's funny to think how much I've come to rely on it.

When I was a kid my dad used to bring home boxes of punch cards that he used for the computers at his university. We had a PET computer in my elementary school, and we had a Victor at home for a while, and I did college on a Mac Classic... I remember when email and newsgroups first started to be a big thing, and started sucking up everybody's time!

Now the internet is established and has developed its own culture, language and dialects - just look at how email language differs from spoken language or from letter-writing, or how texting has given us a whole new way to alter our own language. The Acronyms are taking over! Maybe I should create an alien species to that effect; sort of has a Doctor Who vibe.

All this has me thinking about technology and how it's used in worldbuilding for both fantasy and science fiction. I wonder how many authors, when creating a world, intentionally choose what I call a "technology set." A technology set is a complex collection of interrelated technologies that exist together in a given society. "Bronze age culture" might be one type of technology set - generally within a set the presence of one type of artifact automatically means that others are present as well. A bronze knife depends on the presence of mining technology, for example - but it doesn't necessarily entail the existence of bronze armor, which requires much more bronze, and techniques for creating the armor shape. A matter-transmitter device depends on highly sophisticated computers, and would entail that other types of transmitters exist also.

But that brings me to a question: when are the links between technologies necessary, and when aren't they? For example, does the presence of antigravity transportation automatically mean that computers exist in the form that we know?

The evolution of technology begins with basic ingredients of environment and materials, then interacts with culture - what activities are considered important. As it grows from there, culture and technology inform one another. An example: military tanks were invented as a concept, then built, and thereafter it took a while for military strategists to develop a fully mature way of using them.

I was impressed with the transport doorways in Dan Simmons' Hyperion books because they were used in a way that seemed mature: if you have a cheap way to make a door that opens in one place and lets out in another, then why not have a home that exists in seven different scenic locations at once? (Better yet, Simmons uses these doorways integrally in his plot!)

I don't think it would take much for technology to diverge from our own historical path, and once it diverged, it could head in all kinds of unusual directions. I'm very willing to believe that an unusual technology set will work, provided that each element of it is grounded in solid reasoning - reasoning based on materials, culture, travel, early adoption of technology from other races, exhaustion of resources, etc. etc.

Now I'm hoping my internet holds up so I can get back to my routine with TTYU...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Thinking about Travel

Well, my family and I are heading back to California after two fantastic weeks in Chicago, and since we'll be taking an airplane tomorrow, I'm thinking about travel.  In particular, how people think about distances - because distance is astonishingly subjective.

People who don't travel much tend to find the idea of travel intimidating, while people who travel a lot often believe it's no big deal.  For many of my friends who live in the San Francisco Bay area, driving half an hour to get somewhere feels like almost nothing - but I know plenty of people elsewhere who would think that was too great an expenditure of time and resources.  

Since my husband is Australian, we travel to Australia every two years or so to see family, and of course we take our children with us.  Many people have asked me if it's horrible and difficult to take a plane for fifteen hours with two children under the age of four, and the answer is, yes but no.  Sure there are bad times, but we do it because we need to do it, and we find ways of making it work.  I have two friends who travel on multiple-leg journeys to India or Pakistan and back with children in tow, and that seems a much harder journey to me (but then again, I've never tried it).

Between different countries, the conception of distance can vary a lot.  In SF Bay area, an hour's drive will take you at least fifty miles.  In Tokyo, an hour's drive won't take you anywhere near that far, because driving conditions are so utterly different.  When I lived in Tokyo for the first time, I was routinely half an hour late for everything, because I just had no way of calculating how long it would take me to get from point A to point B by subway.  And when later my husband and I took a walk along the Tokyo surface roads, we discovered that the distance between subway stations is amazingly short.  I would never have imagined we could walk from Roppongi nightclub district all the way to Gotanda station, but when we tried it we made the distance in under two hours!  Conversely, my Japanese friends have been rather shocked to learn the travel time required between cities in California or Australia, because they believed unconsciously that these places were closer together, something on the same scale as Japan's main island of Honshu.

The same thing happens in science fiction and fantasy.  You get everything from Strider and the hobbits walking on foot through Middle Earth to faster-than-light travel or even instantaneous matter transmission (beam me up!).  Middle Earth always feels very big to me, and I feel I know the geography well.  I'll compare it to my concept of the city of Kyoto Japan (where I lived for a year):  I always walked or rode my bicycle there, so I had a full concept of the entire area I traveled, and quite detailed knowledge of places in between.  In space travel stories, local geography can sometimes seem an afterthought - or maybe not so much an afterthought as a highly local-point phenomenon.  Kind of like my concept of Tokyo, which was based primarily on the subway system's twists and turns, and involved circular footprints of familiarity above particular subway stations.  I always described it as a mushroom farm:  lots of disconnected fungus-tops with all their links underneath the ground.

And how does this relate to worldbuilding?

Well, it's one of those logistics things that can cause trouble.  If you don't know how long it's going to take someone to travel a given distance, the world can feel ungrounded, so you definitely want to know how travel works and how long it takes.  But additional world details can change travel dramatically.  Here I think of Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and how Genly Ai and Estraven calculated the time needed for their travel across the Gobrin Ice, but then local conditions of ice, volcanoes, crevasses, blizzards etc. totally changed the calculations as they went.  

In my own worldbuilding experience I had a travel-related surprise when I designed the city of Pelismara, in Varin.  Pelismara is a largish city with a population of about 800,000 people.  In order not to have an unreasonable population density, it needed quite a bit of area, but conditions of travel were unusual because Pelismara is an underground city with five levels.  The levels gave me the necessary area for the population, but their vertical relation and multiple interconnections made travel far easier than expected.  The level with the largest area is in fact only five miles in diameter - and this means that major portions of the city can be walked relatively easily (if you're willing to climb a lot of steps!).  

I'll end this post because I need to get some sleep before my trip.  It will be great to get back to my regular routines - I don't know if I'll have time or energy to write tomorrow evening, but certainly by Tuesday I'll be back to the blog.  

I'm looking forward to it!

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Pitfalls of Humor

I couldn't blog last night because I was out - watching the taping of the NPR radio quiz show called "Wait, wait... Don't tell me."  My husband loves this show, so we often hear it on Saturday mornings.  It's full of political humor and quirky stories from the week's news.  I laughed so hard my face hurt - but I wonder if someone from a different culture or country might have enjoyed it quite as much.

Humor doesn't translate well.

I admit I laugh at "Wait, wait... Don't tell me."  And Jon Stewart gives me quite the chuckles.  The hardest I've ever laughed was at The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Monty Python - English humor.  Some of the jokes, of course, went right by me.  They didn't make me groan, but instead made me go, "Wha...?"  The ones that got me, on the other hand - whoa!  Monty Python's parrot sketch brought tears to my eyes.

I think a lot of humor is like that, because if humor didn't tread borderlines, it wouldn't be funny.  My preference is for humor along the random/weird borderline, because if I don't get it, it just leaves me behind.  I laugh at some types of uncomfortable/taboo borderline humor, but when I don't get it, I can hardly stand it.  With Mr. Bean, for example, I have to leave the room after about five minutes - same with Mike Myers at his worst.  Profanity generally leaves me cold, but it "fits" well with certain types of humorous content.  Seinfeld was always firmly on the borderline of inanity/pet peeves, and I couldn't stand it.

But in English generally, even if I don't "get" the humor, at least I understand what it's trying to do.  Humor in a foreign language is much tougher.  

French humor was always a rewarding effort for me.  I thought Asterix and Tintin comic books were hilarious - Tintin went more for the physical slapstick humor that was relatively familiar, while Asterix added a dimension of puns that is difficult to describe.  I think puns in English are often considered to be low humor, though they are used constantly in the area of sports, and often in news headlines.  The puns in Asterix were so thoroughgoing that you just had to love them.  And the cultural borderlines they played with were somewhat familiar. 

Japanese is harder.  I've studied a heck of a lot of Japanese, lived there three years, watched a lot of Japanese television shows, and I have yet to get it completely.  Some stuff I've figured out.  The physical humor - I can understand the ridiculing/embarrassing/fooling/injuring people borderline to some extent.  It was a little like America's most sadistic home videos.  The humor satirizing extreme elements of Japanese culture, I could also get - like a sitcom-style show that depicted a number of families going to extreme measures as their children passed through rigorous testing to enter kindergarten.  Or like Juzo Itami's The Funeral - a great movie - which satirized the societal expectations of behavior surrounding a funeral for a man whom everyone in the film disliked.  But some of it, especially comedy-dialogue, left me totally bewildered.

So what about in writing stories?

Well, as I've told all my critique friends, I can't write humor.  Not jokes, at least.  So I don't try to go for ridiculous situations or funny twists or wild over-the-top comedy.  On the other hand, I love to have my characters be funny just because of who they are.  Like the gecko Allayo in Let The Word Take Me (Analog, July/August 2008), who because of her cultural background drew the utterly serious and sensible conclusion that the young Human man David Linden was possessed, simply because he talked so much. 

When I started writing this post it made me wonder what an alien or fantasy society would look like if it were designed with its own particular brand of humor.  I'm not sure if I've ever seen anyone do something like that - not having the entire story be a comedy, so much as having the people in it make humor an important and integral part of their lives.  If any of you have encountered such a thing, do tell me where, because I'd love to see how it was done!  

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Manners Matter...

No, I'm not talking about Emily Post.

I'm talking about polite words.  Please and thank you, obviously, which have been drilled into many of our heads - and which I drill into the heads of my own children!  (I do try to do it gently...)  But there's also that other stuff: all the things we say to each other which seem to have no real content or meaning, but which we say anyway.  "How are you?" when we don't expect an answer.  "Fine" when we don't really feel fine.  The list goes on and on.

These things are important.  Why?  Not because they have empirical value, but because they have social value.  They express alignment, and to mark us as members of particular social groups.  They are largely unnoticed and unconscious, but that makes them all the more problematic.  

If a language learner makes a mistake in verb conjugation, we go, "Okay, that was a mistake."  And we move on.  But if a language learner makes a mistake in politeness, usually we don't say it was a mistake; we conclude that this person is abrasive or rude.  Mistakes in politeness (and pragmatics generally) tend to reflect on the person, rather than on the person's use of language.

Here's another one.  Where do we draw the line between politeness and lying?  If we don't like a friend's outfit, it would be pretty inconsiderate to tell him so - but what do we say if he asks?  If we say he looks fine, is that lying, or is it simply polite?  It's a tricky distinction, but potentially explosive, and begging to be used in a story.

Then there's mimicry, which came up recently on Kelley Eskridge's blog.  Many of us unconsciously fall into the speech patterns of the people we're talking with - it seems to feel better, to help us fit in by aligning us with those people.  But how much is too much?  How do we know when it might turn into mockery? 

I spoke Australian once.  I'd been waiting at a train station for half an hour, watching trains go by and fuming, when I suddenly realized that I'd made a mistake in reading the destination signs, and I could have caught any of about five trains that I'd seen.  This made me hopping mad (literally!  I must have been quite a sight).  But when the kind people around me asked what was wrong, some unconscious part of me decided they'd call me stupid if they knew I was American, so I launched into Australian without thinking.  Luckily I was smart enough not to try it for long, and I escaped without offending anyone.  They assumed (correctly!) that I wasn't from the neighborhood.

How many of you have been part of situations like this?

I'll come back to the topic again soon.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Some more mythical creatures

Today I went with my family to the Field Museum in Chicago, where they've been running an exhibit on mythical creatures of the world.  Absolutely wonderful!  This was the second time I'd been through it, and both times I've considered it to be fantastic research for the purposes of fantasy and science fiction.  It gives me some really amazing ideas for fantasy creatures, but also for designing local mythologies and their origins in science fiction contexts.

The exhibit included first the mythical creatures themselves:  amazing statues, costumes, images on ancient coins, and illustrations in old manuscripts.  Then it went on to speculate about possible origins for the legends, showing manatees with mermaids and giant squid with the kraken, and demonstrating the way the backs of dolphins or whales might be mistaken for the coils of sea monsters when they appear in groups. 

I'd been familiar already with the idea that stories of dragons and giant reptiles might have arisen from dinosaur fossils - but this exhibit took it further.  For example, it linked the griffin with fossils of protoceratops, and the roc with giant birds like aepyornis, which lived in Madagascar before it became extinct (mind you, it didn't look much like a roc, but more like an enormous emu).  The cyclops it said may have been a reinterpretation of elephant skulls, which have a large hole in the center (nasal passages) that could have been interpreted as a single eye socket.

Maybe some of you have heard about how Father Christmas used to dress in all sorts of colors like green, purple, brown, etc. until Coca-Cola decided to dress him in red?  Well, a similar thing happened to the unicorn back in the middle ages!  Early stories had the unicorn appearing with a goatlike body and a colored horn (the color varied).  Then after traders appeared on the scene selling spiral narwhal tusks, all of a sudden the unicorn's horn started appearing as a white spiral!  A sign that stories are traded along with objects... Something similar apparently also happened with mermaids, where stories handed from person to person across the world made combs and mirrors common accessories for mer-creatures that had originally been more distinct.

I also saw a picture of a hippocampus, or mer-horse; along with it came the explanation that there was once a belief that every creature of the land possessed a counterpart in the sea.  What an idea - just bursting with possibilities for extrapolation!

There were also some very unusual creatures, many of whose names now escape me, but a few of which I'd like to share.  The Australian bunyip, supposedly about the size of a small cow, usually said to be furred but which is sometimes portrayed with scales and/or feathers as well - this one started out a fearsome abductor, but over time became more benign.  The chupacabra or "goat-sucker," quite a fierce and colorful creature which is said to act something like a vampire for livestock.  The Nasca killer whale, which has extra fins, human hands, and carries a human head.  Barong Ket, a lion-like Balinese good guy who fights the chaos sown by the evil witch Rangda...

If any of you would like to check out photos or learn more, you can either head on over to the Field Museum (if you're in Chicago and can go soon, since the exhibit is about to close) or go to the following url, which has a great collection of pictures and some of the explanations as well:

My mind swims with the possibilities.  I hope you can find inspiration here too.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Do you want to consider language change?

Have you ever tried to hear the difference between a Cockney British accent and an Australian accent?  

Once I set myself the challenge - I was on a train platform in Tokyo, and I heard some people talking near me, and I started listening just trying to place my best guess as to where they were from.  It was pretty hard.  Eventually I fastened onto one single language feature:  these people were using glottal stop "t" (a "t" pronounced way back in the throat) in the middle of words instead of flap "t" (like in American "batter").  That one difference told me I was listening to British English instead of Australian English.  The rest of it - vowels, intonation, everything else - was at the time too subtle for me to distinguish.

Why in the world are these accents so similar?  It turns out that when Australia was first settled, starting in 1788, most of the people who moved there came from the same area of England where Cockney speakers live today. A lot of them were convicts.  My Aussie husband will tell you that these folk were subjected to a trip to Australia for petty crimes, like stealing or poaching, rather than anything more serious.  Who'd want to be stuck on a ship full of murderers for six months?  But as a result, both Cockney and Australian English are actually  "daughter languages" of the same parent, an English dialect spoken in a particular region (and by a particular social group) in London at the end of the 18th century. 

It's been more than two hundred years since then, and at the sound level, the two dialects are remarkably similar.  There are more noticeable divergences of vocabulary, of course (for example, Australians say "truck" instead of "lorry") but a lot still remains common (such as saying "lift" rather than "elevator"). 

I remarked in my earlier post on dialects that the longer a language exists in a particular area, and the more isolated regions are, the more dialects will diverge.  In the United States, there are isolated regions in the East (I'm thinking it was the Appalachian mountains?) which preserve language features that haven't been present in a standard American dialect for hundreds of years.  These are in fact useful for scholars who study language change.

You probably already know how I'm going to be connecting this to speculative fiction.  It becomes relevant in all kinds of contexts.  One possible science fiction context is that of extrapolating the language used by future societies (I think immediately of Mike Flynn's The January Dancer).  One possible fantasy context is that of quoting ancient texts (I think of Tolkien).  Either science fiction or fantasy can easily support the idea of two societies that have been isolated for a long period of time suddenly finding one another again and having to resume communication (I think of Stargate, and one of my own planned stories).

If you're writing a story that involves language change, it's useful to consider the following factors:
1.  amount of time elapsed
2. presence or absence of written language (this can slow change)
3. amount of intercommunication between isolated groups (more communication can mean slower change)
4. amount of intermixing with other language groups (this can accelerate change)

It's also useful to consider that change can occur in any of the following features:
1.  phonology (consonant, vowel systems, etc.)
2. morphology (verb conjugations, noun pluralization, negation, etc.)
3. vocabulary (some words lost, some words new)
4. syntax (probably not the main word order, like subject-verb-object for English, but phrasings can vary a lot)
5. discourse (the order in which thoughts are presented, for example)
6. politeness (all kinds of manners may change along with social activities)

When you think about the degree of change that you want in your language, here are some English-language landmarks that you may find useful.

Old English:  Beowulf, dated variously from the 8th or 11th centuries, so between the years 700 and 1000

 hwaet we garde na, in gerdagum, theod cyninge, thrym gefrunon, hu the athelingas ellen fremedon.

(You'll have to forgive me, because this is actually an extremely rough transcription of the first line, which I memorized solely by sound - I've reconstructed some of it from internet sources, but help me anyone who has the actual text!!)

The words I know have remained most similar to modern English here are "we" and "hu" (who) and "the."  I think "gerdagum" means "those days" which sounds a lot like German to me.  Needless to say, not a lot is comprehensible after more than a thousand years.

Middle English:  Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400

  Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour, 
Of which vertu engendred is the flour...

Okay, this is much, much more comprehensible, but still pretty tough.  Consider also that its pronunciation is quite well reflected in the spelling of the words, so that gh is actually pronounced like "ch" in the German "ich". In addition, "flour" is actually "flower."  So here we've got a pretty serious degree of difficulty.  Amount of time elapsed:  600+ years

Shakespeare's English:  excerpt from "The Tempest," written 1610 or 1611

I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art, nought knowing
Of whence I am, nor that I am more better 
Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell,
And thy no greater father.

This should be much more familiar to a general audience.  And while it is written in verse, it does give us an indication of the kinds of phrasings and vocabulary used in this time period, because Shakespeare's plays were intended to be performed for the general public (I would argue that they still come across better read aloud than read silently).  Time elapsed: 400 years.

It's late and I'd better wrap this up, but I hope it's been interesting.  A last couple of notes:  slang is always present, and changes pretty rapidly, but may not always be incorporated into the main thrust of change in a language.  Also, language does not always simplify, nor does it always complicate - it will generally simplify in some areas of the language and complicate in others.  

I welcome any questions or suggestions you may have on this topic.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Translation problems

Tonight I saw a great discussion on Kelley Eskridge's blog about translation:

I couldn't help linking it up in my mind with a suggestion from the Asimov's board ( ) that I discuss languages that occur in really unusual channels, like chemical odor signals and pheromones.

Here's the thing.  No matter what kind of language you're proposing that your aliens use (or your humans, if you include sign language), in order for it to appear in a story in English, it has to be rendered in English!

You can always start by describing your language's transmission, and then put the content of messages in English.  But if you want the language to feel real, doing a search-and-replace substitution of "emitted" for "said" obviously isn't going to do the trick!  That's when you start looking for other places to put information related to language channel.  

One possibility would be working with your descriptions, considering how people receiving this communication might respond to it.  You could describe emotional response to this alien "speech" in the way you might describe response to scent signals in our world, for example.   You could find every scent-imbued word you can think of or look up, and consider ways to integrate them into the dialogue and surrounding text.  

All of this is for interaction that occurs in the scent language, internally to that language with "emitters" and "receivers" who can both understand it.  But what about contrast, when you have scent communicators and auditory language speakers in the same story, or the same room?

Suddenly now you have to have two versions of English:  English rendering of the auditory language, and English rendering of the scent language.  How do you construct the dialogue so the two are sufficiently differentiated?  Okay, so you design yourself a sophisticated translator which can pick up the scent signals and give a rough rendition of the language in English - what is going to come out of it?  The easy solution is to say that your translator is just so darn good that of course it's going to give you the English equivalent of what the aliens say.  But as Kelley Eskridge was discussing, translation isn't ever clean; there's no true "English equivalent," and in fact for a language as completely different as this hypothetical pheromone language we're discussing, I struggle to imagine how precise equivalents might be found for anything!

That's when I'd suggest looking into the idea of cultural and linguistic basic concepts for the alien language.  The following will be a sequence of speculations, so I hope it makes sense!

In our scent language, very likely individual speaker identity will be hardwired into any "statement",  because scent has a long history of being used for marking territory.  Then, on top of that, you might have an ambient layer of the emotional state of the speaker as indicated by his or her scent profile.  This might be used to correspond linguistically to English things like "definitely" or "maybe" or "!" which indicate the person's level of commitment to the content of the message.  Beyond that I guess it might be a question of which chemicals were emitted when and how they were combined to form concepts.  

But on the other hand, scent is less flexible than sound as far as temporal variables, because it's basically impossible (outside of a whipping wind) to emit one scent after another  without having them mix.  So maybe that very mix, that sequential deepening and complication of scent, would be our main variable rather than just a simple question of which chemicals were emitted.  Which leads me to wonder how a species using this mode of communication might conceptualize time and change...

This is all totally hypothetical, of course, but it shows some of the ways I go about trying to tease apart cultural and linguistic concepts that I can use when I'm looking for a prose style for an alien language.  So to put the final piece on the end for our scent language, maybe this is one where I'd try to have each piece of dialogue consist of a single initial word, followed by sentences of increasing length which would continue to feature this word but add concepts to it on both ends.  

Now how the heck would I make that comprehensible by readers?  Maybe I'm lucky that I'm not working with this particular scent language at the moment...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Entering a World

Recently I was part of a forum discussion called "The Hardest Part," where writers were talking about which aspects of story writing they found most difficult.  "Middles," some said.  "Endings," said others.  I had to come down on the side of "beginnings."  I think I've rewritten the beginnings of stories - and that includes short stories and novels - more than anything else.

Beginnings are hard for me because I'm hopelessly in love with worlds.

Which is not a bad thing.

World design is a thorough and gradual process, as I discussed a couple of days ago.  I pointed out then that one of my writer friends was still helping me adjust the language I used to describe my world - after I've been working with it for ten years or more!  Usually what I'll do is work out basic parameters first.  That means cosmology and geography basics, physiology and species model (if it's an alien species), and basic societal structure.  Basic societal structure includes the basic labels for social groups, such as "undercaste" or "nobility" or "oppressed race" and the names I've designed for them.  

Once those things are laid out, I'll start writing, but as I write, I'll keep discovering things.  At the beginning, the labels will be flat, like paper nametags, but the further I go the more I'll start to understand what those labels mean for how people behave, what they value, and how they judge what they see.  Only when I get to the end will I have a full sense of how the different social groups see one another, how they interact, and everything else that makes their behavior feel real and three-dimensional.

BTW, I would love to talk about developing the behavior of societal groups if anyone has a group they're working on that they'd like to tell me about!

So the feel of my world will be as follows after draft one:

--  --  --  --  --

Shallow at the start, and deep at the end, which means I have to go back and rewrite from the beginning, with two goals.

1.   to have the world feel "complete" from the very beginning
2.  to have the world be "accessible" from the very beginning.

Usually, goal number one takes a whole rewrite - and goal number two takes another whole rewrite.  Why? Because a world in its full complexity is awfully hard to grasp on minimum evidence, so if I write from the beginning as though I know all the world's secrets (because I do), then people who don't know all the secrets along with me can easily get lost.  This is one reason why I always find it valuable to have critique readers who have never encountered a particular world before:  I can get great advice from those who know it thoroughly, but those people aren't able to speak to the problem of entering the world, because they know too much. (Makes me sound like an evil dictator, mwahahaha)

This problem of entry is at the top of my mind right now because I'm currently working on a complex world piece.  And while as a reader I love to get thrown into the deep end with a complex world and figure stuff out, as a writer I feel like I lose valuable readers if I do it too much.  

So this is where I go back to my discourse analytical tools.  On the one hand, I try to track what each sentence contributes to the world view, and how much it requires the reader to construct.  On the other hand, I try to make sure that the story is so compelling that a reader can't help but go along with me.  

My friend Janice, whom I've mentioned before, wrote an opening scene for her novel The Pain Merchants that was just so awesome you couldn't help but keep reading, because you were laughing and curious at the same time.  I won't give too many spoilers, but I will say that this scene involved a chicken - and ever since then, I've thought about "finding my chicken scene" when I open a story.  

So what is a chicken scene?

I don't know that I can describe it with full accuracy, but I'll do my best.  It's a scene that plunges the reader straight into conflict, but which also instantly illuminates the point-of-view character, the world he or she lives in, and the central conflict of the story to follow.  

That sounds hard, and I guess it is in some respects.  But if you think about the character you've created, and the conflict he or she is about to experience, very often you can pick an aspect of that conflict that stumbles right into your character's main weaknesses, or strengths, or both at the same time.  And if the world you've created is more than just a backdrop, but contains social detail that informs the identity of your character, then your character's reactions to and judgments of other people in the first scene, and of the situation he or she has gotten himself into, and (don't forget this one) of him or herself in reacting to that situation - everything that character does will help to create the world all around.

Now I'll have to run off and find some good examples you all might be familiar with... 

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Stories are important!

Today is my birthday, and this afternoon we went to an amazing puppet performance at Millenium Park in Chicago called "A Rabbit's Tale."   Culturally it was an eclectic fusion:  Punch and Judy style hand puppets, gigantic person-inside figures that might have come from Carnaval in Trinidad and Tobago, and smaller puppets operated by puppeteers in black in the style of Japanese Bunraku theater.  The story was sweet and poignant, and it also featured a story-within-a-story, in fact a "puppet show within a puppet show." And it worked.

Seeing all these different puppet cultures come together made me think about how important stories are to people.  We tell stories about what happens to us, and use them to make sense of our experiences.  Or we write stories about people and the things that happen to them.  And we write stories inside of stories.

That little play within a play this afternoon took me by surprise, but when you really think about it, stories inside of stories happen all the time.  Shakespeare's Hamlet has its play-within-a-play.  Anne McCaffrey has an entire tradition of Harper songs written into her Pern books.  Frank Herbert wrote historical accounts into the Dune story.  The list goes on and on.

Of course, I mustn't forget my own planet Garini and the gecko people who believe stories are sacred - or the novel I'm writing now, which is essentially a story about a book (though of course it's much more than that)!

I'm not saying that every story world needs to have its own version of puppet shows, or theater.  But you can learn a lot about a people by hearing their stories, even if those people exist only within a story you wrote. 

Good night, and have fun writing your stories...


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Writing your language down

Bill Moonroe over at the Analog forum asked me to talk about writing systems, so I thought I'd do a bit of that tonight, starting with the linguistic characteristics of writing systems, moving through a few real world examples I'm familiar with, and finally taking a look at fitting writing systems to a created language and writing technologies.  It's quite a list, so here goes.

Some peoples don't write their language down at all.  Those who do tend to use one (or more!)  of the following three strategies.

1.  An alphabet.  The symbols of an alphabetic writing system are intended to depict the sounds of a language.  Alphabets generally start out as systems with roughly one-to-one correspondence between sounds (phonemes) and symbols - but anyone who has struggled with English spelling knows that this correspondence isn't always clean.  This is due primarily to two factors:  first, the fact that language sounds change more quickly than written spellings, and second, the fact that languages borrow words from other languages that may not be easily rendered in the alphabet (but must be rendered somehow!).

2.  A syllabary.  The symbols of a syllabic writing system are intended to depict chunks of sounds, usually the syllables of a language (though in the case of Japanese, the unit of sound that corresponds to a character can actually be less than one syllable).  What I said about language change applies here too, but at least in the case of Japanese, there has been official reform of the syllabary to try to bring "spelling" more into line with sound.

3. A set of pictographs or ideographs.  The symbols of an ideographic writing system are intended to depict units of meaning rather than units of sound.  Chinese is the classic world-language example of such a system, where there is a character for "I" and another for "you," etc.  Complex concepts can be depicted in such a system by putting two characters together, such as "electricity" and "talk" for "telephone."  And in this case, since no correspondence between sound and meaning is expected, changes in sound and changes in the character system occur independently.

On to examples.  Alphabets that I know about include the Roman alphabet used in different permutations for English, French, Indonesian, Dutch, and many others; also the Greek alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet, etc.  Feel free to comment listing any others you know about, and if anyone has further questions about alphabets do let me know.  But for now I'll assume this is a type of writing system anyone reading my blog has to be pretty familiar with.   

The syllabaries I know best are those of Korean (Hangul) and Japanese (Hiragana and Katakana).  Hangul is actually more properly representative of syllables than either of the kana systems.  Interestingly, each character is made up of subparts that represent sounds - but they're arranged as parts of a single more complex character.  Korean symbols can show either open syllables like "a" and "ka," or closed syllables like "kan", just by including one, two, or three sound parts in a single character.  The Japanese kana symbols represent only open syllables like "a" or "ka" and have two separate symbols that are used for closing syllables (one doubles the following consonant, and the other is roughly "N").  The reason there are two types of kana has nothing to do with sound, and everything to do with function; hiragana is used for core Japanese vocabulary, and katakana for foreign-derived words.

In the realm of ideographs I'll look at the Chinese symbols, because they are used by the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Japanese.  Many of these symbols began as pictographs, or picture-symbols of recognizable objects, and then became abstracted and complicated over time.  In much the same way as Hangul, they have recognizable subparts that can be recombined - but all these subparts are meaning-based, and none sound-based.  In a language with the non-conjugating structure of Chinese, such a system can be used alone.  But in Korean and Japanese, both of which have conjugations and small function words, they can be extremely inconvenient.This is where the "one or more systems" part comes in.  Korean uses both Hangul and Chinese characters, while Japanese uses both kana systems and Chinese characters - all mixed together by function.  

Okay, now for created languages.  Most created languages I have seen use alphabets, but if you're going to put your language in written form, I'd encourage you to think through three things.  

1.  While you're free to pick any type of system you want, it's helpful to consider language structure, as I mentioned for Chinese above, in choosing which system to use (unless you want to design more than one!).

2.  If you're going for an alphabet, you'll get a much more alien or world-local feel if you work directly with the sound system of your language, assigning symbols directly to sounds rather than using a code that corresponds roughly to the Roman alphabet.

3.  Consider writing technologies when you design your symbols.  Also known as, not everybody uses pencils!  Cuneiform was written with a reed on clay; runes were scratched on stone and wood; Chinese and Japanese began with brushes of bamboo and horsehair.  People will first begin to write with the materials available to them, on the materials available to them, and this will have an enormous influence on the appearance of the symbols.  I challenge anyone with a bioluminescent species to think about how that species would first begin to make recordings of its language (Wow, that's tough - and cool!).  Real world writing systems generally need to be written relatively quickly, the symbols should have systematic design and parts, and they should be easily differentiated from one another.

That's it for now!  I'll try to come back to worldbuilding tomorrow.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Worldbuilding is more than just World

Worldbuilding is an enormous topic.  As huge as the world, really - and tonight I'm picking a place to start, a little like the way writers pick an entry point into the worlds they create.  But since a lot of you out there have done quite a bit of worldbuilding already, and certainly all of you have experienced worlds created by other people,  I'll skip the nuts and bolts part and begin with a language-and-culture observation:

People are inextricable from their worlds.

Yes (no big surprise), characters in stories behave as if they are from the places that they're from.  And when we hear or read them, we can tell.  Automatically, subconsciously, the little hints add up.

So what does this mean?

It means a lot of things.  One, which links back to my entry about point of view earlier, is that a writer should be careful to consider the observer's background experience in the world whenever writing descriptions.  For me personally, this is the primary reason why I try to avoid third person omniscient point of view; I find it hard to decide whose point of view to use for the narration.  Should I hop from head to head, like Frank Herbert did in Dune, or Mary Doria Russell did in The Sparrow?  Should I try to imagine an independent storyteller telling the story, like C.S. Lewis did in the Narnia books?  Should I stay mostly in one head but bring in regular glimpses of alternate points of view, like J.K. Rowling did in the Harry Potter series?  Just thinking about that stuff makes me crazy!  So my usual solution is to try to keep the narrative point of view as close to the character's point of view as possible, even when I'm using third person.  The last thing I want is for my readers to be able to tell that part of the description was written from my own, the author's, point of view.  

For me, close point of view is a fantastic way to keep a really gigantic and detailed world under control, because the limits on one person's perception and experience give you a great way to limit the kinds of information you're trying to dispense to the reader.  It cuts down on the infodumping, big time.  There are always things that characters don't understand about their own worlds - and that's okay.  As long as your character knows what's going on, and lets people know when they're confused, that helps the reader figure things out.

Let me get down to some concrete details.  My Varin world consists of eight cities, all of them built underground.  They have good quality lighting to distinguish day and night, but it is provided by high-tech lamps all over the ceiling.  So they don't talk about dawn, dusk, or twilight.  They have dayrise and nightfall, and they have daylights instead of daylight.  If somebody brings up a topic unexpectedly, they say that it "came out of the dark" instead of "came out of the blue."  So vocabulary surrounding unique aspects of the setting should reflect that setting, as should expressions people use in conversation.  So far so good.

The other thing I like to do with Varin is play with the fact that people who grow up in the Eight Cities aren't afraid of or bothered by being underground.  It's totally normal to them - so of course when they go up to the surface, that's when things get weird.  And by the way, they don't generally say "up to" the surface, but "up the surface" and "out the surface" - a dialect-like alteration to reflect their sense of place.  I'm sure none of you are surprised that the idea that Varin citizens would find the lack of a roof scary, or outside daylight very bright. But as I've spent time developing my world and the characters in it, I've tried to push it further than that.  When we describe things, we often say what they're like, and we generally compare them to things we know.  So I'll have a character compare a waving field of grass to billowing bedsheets, or a rock face gleaming with sunshine to a clean plate.  A sort of reversal, where daylight could be "as bright as fire" but not vice-versa.

The huge temptation for me, and I'm sure for many others who really love the worlds they've created, is to try to give too much, or to fall into infodumping.  This to me means taking attention away from the story - the central drive of the narrative - and putting it instead into lots of explanatory details that are intended to flesh out how the world works.  The single principle I've found most helpful for controlling my tendency to go crazy infodumping is that of relevance to point of view.   

People do not talk or think about things that they don't notice, things that aren't important to them, or things that are so normal that they don't stand out.  

Take for example an alien.  That alien thinks that everything about his world is totally normal, and so he will generally not explain it.  He has no reason to!  But change the context - put that alien in a conversation with a human being - and suddenly everything changes.  The presence of contrast will cause the alien to notice things about his own world, people, language etc. - but still, those things he notices will depend on surrounding circumstances.  The alien's state of mind (calm and reflective?  anxious and aggressive?  in a state of shock?) will affect the kinds of things that he notices.

And don't forget to ask yourself:  would this alien really refer to his people as "the Gegogians"?  Or would they be "my people"?  Under what circumstances?

I'd like to add one final note on using invented words for elements of a world.  Invented words are wonderful fun, and they demonstrate the language of a region.  Wonderful.  They also make for a sense of alienness, of not being in the world we're used to.  But to be used most effectively, they need to have a lot of supportive surrounding context.  I don't remember who it was that said "if your world has rabbits, then call them rabbits," but they had a really good point.  When too many things have foreign names, the reader can be distracted, and start to dissociate from the setting instead of staying absorbed in it.  In Varin stories, a sense of familiarity is more important to me than a sense of alienness, so I tend to use names like "kelo mushroom" or "river lettuce," or even just "apples."  In my linguistics universe I want to go a bit more alien, so I'll talk about "white-spotted gharralli furs," (who knows how big a gharralli is?) or "grazers" (it might eat like a cow, but I'm betting it doesn't look like one!).

I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this topic, so I'd really love to have some questions or comments, so I can return to it in the coming days.

A final thanks goes out to my awesome friend Janice Hardy, who put me onto the word "daylights" just a few weeks ago (after I've been working with Varin for more than ten years!).  I'll shout out for her a little, too - she's got a great fantasy novel she just sold, called The Pain Merchants, and yes, it is as amazing as it sounds.  Watch for it!

Friday, August 1, 2008

You're a linguist - talk to them!

Another short entry tonight, as I'm leaving in the morning for Chicago. Spending two weeks with my parents, and it should be a blast. I hope I'll be able to post daily and will do my best, but technical details may need to be figured out, so I'll take Saturday night off and try back on Sunday.

Today I decided that the title of this entry should be, "You're a linguist - talk to them!" This is in fact my signature line at some of the forums I visit, and was my favorite line from the movie "Stargate." When I first saw Stargate I wasn't exactly a linguist yet, but I'd done enough of it to realize what a choice line this was.

Because, in a nutshell, linguists are not necessarily translators.

In science fiction when you have linguists on a planet they're usually out to record the language, analyze it, grasp its structure and then move on to really speaking it with the aliens. Theoretical linguistics starts with language patterns like sounds, word subparts, word order, etc. and then moves on to the larger social questions as you move from pragmatics into sociolinguistics. The deeper you go into a given language, the more speaking it becomes an advantage, but at the beginning stages it's not strictly necessary. And the skill of a translator is far, far more than simply the ability to speak a language. For me at least, when I speak Japanese or French I'm thinking in those languages, and purposely not translating because it slows me down. I have great respect, awe and amazement for simultaneous translators. I couldn't do it.

As a linguist you have to stand back from the language a little so that you can analyze what you hear (or think). Often as a native speaker of a language you can be defeated by how subconscious your own knowledge is.

My favorite example of this comes from the study of politeness. If you ask a professor to lend you a pen, you won't do it quite the same way as if you're asking your mom, or your best buddy. But if someone gives you the question: "You're asking your professor for a pen, what do you say?" - and here's the punchline - your answer is likely to be wrong. So if you write your answer down, and then tape yourself the next time you actually do ask your professor for a pen, the two probably won't match.

This is because when we have to answer questions about what we say, we don't actually explain what we would say - we explain what we think we should say. Our actual use is subconscious.

One last thought on the Stargate movie. I was always pretty impressed with the way they handled language. They had the linguist, who had constructed a theoretical pronunciation system for a language he thought was "dead" and only existed in hieroglyphics, sitting in front of those hieroglyphics and comparing notes with a living speaker who actually spoke the language natively. And the linguist figured out the basic pattern of sound change and somehow managed to learn to speak it. Far-fetched? Sure, especially at the speed with which he accomplished it. But someone had really thought that through, and even with my current knowledge of linguistics, I still think it was very well done.