Years ago, when people were still feeling out the eBook market, I had what we would call a “rough year” and made a couple rash decisions. The first was that I was going to self-publish a book because I’d seen numbers suggesting that my chances with and without a publisher were roughly about the same. This was during that hazy time back when the economy was crashing and no one was confident about anything – advances were down, advertising was shaky at best, and Amazon was starting to eat enough of the market to kill Borders (ironically thanks to a deal they made with Borders). So, of course, I wanted me a piece of that action.
But self-publishing lead to my second rash decision: I was going to start trying to promote myself – something that anyone who knows me can tell you was probably the bigger mistake of the two. My personality, in real life, is fairly conflict driven and yet introverted. For those of you doing the math, yeah, that generally means I’m my own worst enemy. So the idea of trying to be my own hype man is a bit like having Moriarty give the elevator pitch on Sherlock. Sure, he’s well aware of Holmes’ strengths, but he’s also invested in ruining the guy.
Still, I went about making content on a fairly regular basis by starting this blog. It wasn’t a vanity project as some critics have suggested, but an attempt to look like I know what I’m doing. Perhaps, with enough effort, I can find my audience and make those efforts worthwhile. And, despite everything, there is a benefit to the fact I second guess every move I make: I am constantly using this blog to do a self critique.
As such, I occasionally go back through old posts, old work, and old concepts to find new ways to hate on my younger self. It’s beneficial, despite how I make it sound, to take stock of what mistakes I made in the past and then learn from it. I know I’m not perfect (something we should all keep in mind), and that I have to constantly improve to progress. So I’m willing to give myself an honest performance evaluation every once in a while. There’s just one thing I tend to regret about these evaluations: I end up re-reading or remembering comments I’ve gotten on the internet.
Speculative fiction, being that it is purely speculative, is an evolving set of genres. Science fiction and fantasy are generally meant to be fluid and will reflect the times they were made in quite often. And because of this a great many variations will appear within the genre for things that everyone happens to share. What are the differences between Orcs and Orks? How many kinds of vampires are there actually? How distantly related are Legolas and the Keebler Elves?
Sometimes these differences are pretty profound, other times they’re almost non-existent. But what I’ve found most often is that the differences are generally discouraged if a specific work has reached an iconic status. Vampires have had dozens, if not hundreds of variations over the years, but many of the traits which are accepted as “canon” were originated either within Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the movie adaptations to follow. This is strange, because it means the original source material, the folklore, is generally forgotten in favor of variations on a theme of Dracula. It’s because of this that I personally went out of my way to include several variations of vampire in my stories and bring back old bits of lore that are often forgotten – like the fact a vampire can’t cross certain materials without counting every grain in their path.
The funny thing is that, in my world of sci-fantasy reinterpretations of the mythological as biological creatures, I’ve had a few run-ins with people who felt that I had somehow been “wrong” to change the lore. As one person said to me very early on, “I prefer my version”. It’s not the only feedback you get, but it’s one that you realize is quietly prevalent. Though some books and movies get away with it because they’re popular, if something has flaws, it will be immediately criticized for getting the lore “wrong”. Hell, at one point even I took part in doing this before realizing the flaw in my thinking.
The fantasy genre, for all of its common tropes created in the modern day, draws its roots from mythology the world over. Though rarely depicting the stories as they were originally, these mythologies have formed the backbone of what we use today to craft our fictional worlds of magic and supernatural creatures. And, the thing about it is, when you look at what’s in the fantasy works of today and then look into the origins of the creatures in the past, the differences can be stark. Even figures known to the mainstream population are somewhat different than what they’d originally been.
The Leprechaun is one of the easiest changes to point out to people. Their clothing, general demeanor, and place in the lore have changed dramatically overtime. And with the Leprechaun we even see how fast it can happen as the creatures themselves didn’t show up in the folklore until relatively recently in cultural terms. The root stories, the ones that inspired the wee folk in the first place, are actually so different that you would barely recognize them at first glance. But the Leprechaun is far from being the only one. For instance, did you know the word”Dobby” is actually another term for “Brounies“?
And one of the things you’ll realize when you look at it close for a while is that there are pretty specific evolutionary paths for some of these mythical creatures. Especially in Europe, a single effect becomes more and more obvious as many creatures of the past were somewhat more innocent in appearance and gradually became more inhuman. Essentially the old trope of “good is pretty” and “evil is ugly” started to become more common over time. Though some creatures have always been evil and ugly, even downright terrifying (looking at you, Celtic and Germanic folklore), other creatures were a lot less dangerous looking at first glance. And, now, those creatures tend to look like something fairly different.
While writing languages for inhuman creatures, it’s important to remember just how different it would be. I covered part of this not long ago when I mentioned that fictional languages should sound somewhat like gibberish to us. After all, there are languages in the real world which sound like gibberish already, so it makes sense for it to be more true in a fictional one. But there are times when that should go even further – particularly with aliens.
Within speculative fiction we often hand-wave away the difficulties of communicating with aliens, hiding it behind universal translators. And, while this makes sense when all of the creatures involved are using the same methods of communication, we have to admit that it’s unlikely every creature we meet would “talk” to each other. When you really think about it, even on our own planet the way we communicate is somewhat unique. Throughout the animal kingdom we have creatures who communicate through chemicals, motions, colors and inaudible sounds. And, frankly, the creatures on our world have more in common with us by default of evolving on the same world.
In a time when every studio needs to have their own franchise of interwoven properties, Universal studios came to answer it with their “Dark Universe“. Starting with The Mummy (a decision they may be regretting given the reviews), the plan was to have Universal bring together all of its major “movie monster” properties in the same way that Marvel and DC had been doing over the last few years. Bringing together the likes of The Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein, and several other properties, the hope was to create something with the kind of cross promotional marketing power as an Avengers or Justice League.
But, while these properties are essentially chosen for their iconic status, they’re also chosen for being ostensibly within the same genre. They are, after all, old school horror icons which have been part of the cultural mindset for generations. Each of them, a movie monster that had been in film since the days before color, represent something with instant brand recognition. And for the longest time all of us have grouped them within our minds as being essentially a part of a single genre.
One of the big questions for building a world in speculative fiction is what languages these characters should be speaking. We’ve seen so many softer science fiction properties fall back on the universal translator concept, but that isn’t always the case elsewhere. Joss Whedon’s Firefly franchise made a point that everyone speaks two languages, English and Chinese, and that most of them usually cursed in the latter (to get around censorship). The film Arrival spent a great deal of time focusing on just how exactly you can understand an alien civilization with a wholly different way of thinking and writing. And for all the flak that Star Trek: Enterprise got, it was the first time in the franchise where no one could deny the communication officer’s job was damn near impossible at times.
But in the fantasy setting the question gets even more complicated. These are ostensibly creatures that have lived on the same world we have and they’ve been trading linguistics with us for as long as we’ve known they exist. Few languages in the real world are entirely isolated from each other, loan words exist in almost every corner of the world. And even if isolated, languages have evolved to such a degree within our own history that certain languages would be completely unintelligible within no more than a millennium. Because of this, it’s hard to know what exactly Elvish, Dwarvish, or Orcish are supposed to sound like. In fact, while a lot of these have versions, the best example of someone coming up with languages for these races was done by a linguist who did this kind of thing for fun and had an obsessive compulsive need to world build.
But, if you think about it, you don’t have to be a Tolkien to come up with a believable fake language. After all, it’s supposed to sound like gibberish…
Within human languages there are so many distinct dialects that it would be impossible for any one person without the assistance of one of those “universal translators” to be able to understand all people. Yes, there are always likely to be translators available for people who speak one of the more prevalent languages, and more people learn certain languages than others. But the idea that there is a so-called “human tongue” as you find in many speculative fiction works is a little silly at best. In fact, one thing to bake your noodle is that, since all of them are using universal translators, Captain Picard may have always been speaking French while the universal translators just made him sound particularly British.
And, in fact, even when you are all speaking the same language it is incredibly difficult for people to understand certain dialects. While most people from the major English speaking countries of the world would have an okay time understanding each other, it’s generally accepted that any American tourist traveling the UK is going to run into at least one dialect they have no damned way of understanding. In fact, if you’re really unlucky, some sources say there are at least five you’ll struggle with.
So when thinking about other creatures that may live on our world there are a few factors that would make them even more unintelligible in their own tongues. Should they be using a language similar to one of ours it’s very likely that they would be using a completely alien dialect born out of being isolated from humanity for potentially generations to outright millennia. They could even be using a dialect of a language long dead to the rest of the world, last spoken in a time when they were closer to us, or be using one that they created all of their own. While it would be unlikely that their language sprang entirely independent of humanity’s languages, just given proximity alone, even some minor deviations in the past resulted in Indo-European languages becoming completely distinct from each other. For anyone who doubts that related languages could sound absolutely different from each other, keep in mind that Icelandic is in the same language family as English.
So, in the end, while Tolkien certainly did it expertly, the real requirement for making a believable fictional language is that it follows some basic rules, starting with making sure it does sound somewhat like gibberish to us. The most common mistake I’ve seen with people who try to cook up such fictional languages is that they start with a basic language that we have and then think that they can’t make it sound too distinct from ours. The idea behind this approach is that if there’s something still partially recognizable then that would somehow make it feel real. In actuality, it should be nearly incomprehensible, constructed in such a way that we’d be able to pick up only a few loanwords at best (and not necessarily loanwords they took from us). In fact, outside of those few recognizable words, the only thing it should sound like is itself, maintaining internal consistency while only having a passing resemblance to regular languages.
The second biggest factor is that sense of continuity. Within the language there should be a set of sounds which you hear with some manner of frequency. There should be rules to when they show up, how often, and what they really represent. To put it in another way, is that particular grunt the Orcish equivalent to a vowel? If it is, then it should show up as frequently as a vowel would. Constructing an alphabet in and of itself is easier than a full language (alphabets lack syntax) but would quickly give you a series of sounds that can be strung together to create that distinctive feel. Maybe it’s not the way a natural language would evolve, but it would, at the very least, be its own thing.
The more difficult parts would be to construct a vocabulary and a syntax, both more involved but still well within the reach if you’re doing only limited dialogue with it. Vocabulary is generally a matter of taking some time to work out a few choice words. Rarely do people know more than a couple thousand and generally most conversations make use of only a couple hundred at any given time in casual conversation. And, as for syntax, a little study into our own cultures can show the various ways we’ve done it and give you an idea on how to do it yourself. It wouldn’t have to be a perfect thing, you’re still creating gibberish, but the difference between a good fictional language and a bad one is taking the time to establish those kind of ground rules. Is it perfect? Not all. But effort always shows.
Admittedly, it’s a weird thought to have, but I’ve noticed so many people who either half-ass it in an effort to avoid looking bizarre or convince themselves not to bother at all because they can’t match with the likes of Tolkien. Some resolve this by simply hiring a linguist, and those skilled few have made fantastic contributions to fictional worlds. Game of Thrones’ television adaptation, having only a few phrases from the original books to work with, hired a linguist to fill in these blanks. But it feels as though, for those of us who can’t afford to hire that kind of linguist, it’s not really such a crime to wing it with a little careful study and some effort to remain internally consistent. After all, given a few centuries…
The rest of our words won’t make much sense either.
(I write novels and dabble in screenplays, which haven’t had need for constructed languages yet. Meanwhile, I accidentally create a language through typos on twitter – though never as well as covfefe.)
Evolution is inevitable, regardless of what certain people may believe, whether it be socially, physically, or personally. Things change, grow, adapt and become something else over a gradual process. In the literary world this is most obvious in the themes that change over time and the way we view certain tropes of the bygone era. Speculative fiction writers in particular have an almost love-hate relationship with our roots – we love the classics that broke new ground but hate to think we might be grouped into the same niche they were. After all, sci-fi and fantasy once carried a terrible stigma of being the domain of basement dwelling losers who took it all far too seriously. Since the day sci-fi became a thing it has gradually done everything it can to be taken seriously as a genre and considered “literature” with the rest.
It wasn’t very long ago in the grand scheme of things that sci-fi was still considered a new, fringe category that barely counted as a genre. Compared to others that have existed for ages, the earliest known works that could be strictly considered “science fiction” date back only a couple centuries at most where as others can count their earliest entries back to the dawn of the written word. Sure, Beowulf wasn’t considered “fantasy” at the time it was written, but it’s hard to deny that’s really what it was. And because of this we can also point at almost the exact moment where Sci-Fi made this transition from being an oddity into a true genre – we call it the Golden Age.
The Golden Age was a time of big ideas and big figures, people like Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke dominated in these days and their work went on to define not only the genres but how we think about certain parts of civilization. Despite having a simplistic view on it, it’s hard to get through a conversation about robotics without someone bringing up Asimov’s three laws. And Arthur C Clarke, with “Clarke’s Law”, made us realize just how fantastic things we have today would appear to the past and how fantastic things from the future would appear to us. And as far as the genre went, it’s undeniable that the ideas they introduced to us have become a foundation of the genre as we know it today.
Learning how to write is built largely on the idea of formulas. You’ll find many students and early writers follow these formulas almost religiously and sometimes, despite their best efforts, they never quite escape them. Time and time again you’ll find stories out there which could best be described as “formulaic” and it’s never intended as a compliment. Unfortunately, breaking away from it can be challenging because rarely do lesson plans include a guide on how to break the mold they so carefully made for you.
One of the examples of this is the idea of how the cast should be constructed. With certain roles being absolutely necessary to the idea of a story to tell, such as a protagonist, it’s easy to understand why. You wouldn’t want to go telling a story that has no protagonist or main character of any sort, as there has to be someone for the audience to relate to. You also wouldn’t want that character to have no one to interact with, because then there’s nothing to provide some of the texture the story arc would so badly need. But often there’s a sense that all roles mentioned in a typical formula are 100% necessary outside of the protagonist even when that isn’t necessarily true.
Images of the future are often polarized along pretty extreme lines. Dystopias and utopias dominate the landscape in science fiction because they’re often thought to be the easiest to write and easiest to deliver a message. The world within a dystopia can be used to magnify today’s problems to be easier to see while the world within a utopia can often highlight issues we don’t see in our daily lives. But the truth is that they’re not nearly as easy to write as people often think and a lot of attempts fall short of the overall mark. Dystopias, in particular, are generally derived from each other and have become attached to tropes rather than genuine ideas. And utopias, as I’ve established not too long ago, are generally the improper labeling of a superficial analysis of what turns out to be post-scarcity societies.
I’ve thrown around “post-scarcity society” often in the last couple weeks without going too in depth on the subject. For some people it would be hard to really tell the differences between a utopia and a post-scarcity society, with the two of them essentially looking ideal from where we stand and showing few of the problems we could readily identify in our current culture. But the division between the two is rather clear: a post-scarcity society has solved many major problems while a utopia has ostensibly solved all problems. And the fact of the matter is, while we’ve never seen a utopia in the real world (and likely never will), we have, however briefly, gone beyond some form of scarcity. Hell, it briefly appeared to happen in the last century before a peanut farmer harshed everyone’s buzz.
But the idealized post-scarcity, the one that you want to see in your speculative fiction, can be a tricky thing to write because it often requires you to understand problems from a completely different perspective. Because writing a post-scarcity society believably requires you to recognize… Continue reading Problems In Post-Scarcity→
Presented a new project to work on in the coming weeks, I came to consider several things I’ve blogged about recently. When dealing with the future and ideas of where we’re going as a race we often find ourselves in a scared, frightened position. It makes sense, the future, especially an unknown future, can be terrifying even if all common sense and logic tells us that it should go another direction. We’re constantly afraid of the idea that the world itself may turn into a Mad Max-style wasteland, or that an arrogant politician may become the next Hitler, or that we may end up going to World War 3 over the actions of a single nation.
But in all of these cases we can look at the history of the world and the shape of what has come before to determine that it’s not always as bad as we feel. The world was once hotter than we’re making it and it managed to survive, so it would go to say that climate change is more a threat to us than to the planet itself. Hitler’s movement was born out of a fairly unique set of circumstances where the world’s economy and social climate were far worse than it is today (for now). And the World Wars were both started by a series of terrible decisions which resulted in the world’s power being separated across clearly divided lines. So, as bad as things may get, the conditions aren’t quite right for most of our greatest fears.
But there are other fears of the future where we don’t have that historical frame of reference to calm ourselves. We have no idea what would happen if tomorrow an asteroid were found to be headed right for us. We have no logical frame of reference for what happens if we discovered aliens exist and are trying to make contact. No one’s entirely sure of the full ramifications of the continued development of artificial intelligence. And these all raise interesting questions with few (if any) concrete answers. In fact, some potential answers are so outside of our normal frames of reference that we have a hard time really picturing them.