Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What's Your World Called?

One of the things many fantasy writers seem obsessed with is giving their invented world a name.  In some ways, this is reasonable – it’s a lot easier to talk about if you can call it something – but does it really make sense?  After all, what’s our world called? 

Well, in fact it has hundreds of names, but most of them are either the common word for the ground we walk on, or else the generic word for a world.  Why should other worlds be different?  As Ursula LeGuin put is in her SF novel Rocannon’s World, there are planets without names, called by their people simply The World...  There’s no reason for a fantasy world to be different.

Of course, LeGuin did give a name to her most famous fantasy world, but that’s a little different.  Just as the Earth is simply a description of the ground we walk on, if you lived somewhere that was nothing but islands and oceans all mixed up together, why wouldn’t you coin Earthsea as a word to mean Everything?

The same principle applies for a country, a planet or an entire plane of existence: it only needs a name for people who are aware of something else.  A tribe living in the rainforest, that maybe has some dealings with a tribe that lives a couple of days’ journey away, doesn’t need to give their homeland a name.  Even when inhabitants do become sufficiently aware of the rest of the world to adopt a name, it’s often very functional.  Take Germany, for instance.  It’s proper name is Deutschland – and all that actually means is The Land of the People.

The scale of naming works gradually outwards: your village as opposed to others; your local territory, perhaps defined by a larger town; your country; your continent...

Many of the classic fantasy worlds are actually at one of these levels.  Narnia, for instance, is the name of a country, not a world, while Middle Earth is a continent.  Tolkien’s world (which, of course, is only a mythical version of our own) does have a name – Arda – but this is only used when the perspective is of the Valar, who know of something beyond it.  Elves, dwarves, humans and hobbits, like our ancestors until very recently, just call it the World.

And this is the point.  We now sometimes think of our planet as Earth, not just the earth (or sometimes Terra) because we’re now aware that there’s something more, even though it’s largely a theoretical knowledge.  Most of us never claim to have met an alien (and almost certainly none of us actually have) but we know that, theoretically, there are probably other planets somewhere with other species living on them.  Even if there aren’t, we have stories about them, so we need to think of Terra, not just the world.

This can apply to entire fantasy worlds.  If you write, for instance, about a world that’s linked by stable magical portals to one or more other worlds, with which they’ve interacted, traded, made war and so on for many generations, then of course they’ll need not only names for the other worlds, but one for their own, just as we’re aware of living in Britain, Canada or Japan.

For a story, though, that’s set in a single world whose inhabitants are unaware of anything beyond it, there’s no reason for a name other than the local word for world.  But that raises a problem in itself.  You could decide that some name (let’s say Shansilea) is the word for world – but whose name?  Our world contains thousands of languages and, even in our age of globalisation, a few dozen that have international status, and all of those (certainly all the international ones) have their own word for our planet.  Which is the name?

None of which is saying that a writer shouldn’t give their world a name, if only to be able to talk about it; but be careful of how to present that name.  Your main character might call it Shansilea, since that’s the word for world in his/her language, and that can be how you talk about it, but be aware that other characters might use a different name.

Or, of course, the god who created your world might have decreed that its name shall be Shansilea, now and forever.  Fair enough.  Your god, your world, though you still have to explain how that commandment is common knowledge throughout the world.

My main world still doesn’t have a name, after more than forty years of development.  If I want to discuss it, I call it the Traveller’s World.  I could pick someone’s name for it, but which?  If I chose the Kimdyran name, for instance, I’d be afraid of offending the people of Errish, or Hafdosu, or Shillau.  Such is relativistic world-making.  So it remains the Traveller’s World.  Or just The World.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review - The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists

A while back, I came across an interesting-looking CD in the library called The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists.  I took it out for a weeks on spec, fell in love with it and bought my own copy as soon as possible after I had to take it back.  I’ve also got three of their other albums now (Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The King Is Dead) with the rest on my wish-list.  They’re all excellent, but The Hazards of Love remains my favourite.

According to the band’s account, it originated when their main singer and writer, Colin Meloy, became intrigued by an album of the same name by 60s British folksinger Anne Briggs.  Meloy loved the album, but decided it had only one fault – there was no title track, which he regarded as a waste of a great title.  He set out to write one, and ended up with a sixty-minute concept album instead.

Now, I know there are people who run screaming when “concept album” is mentioned.  There are certainly plenty of bad, self-indulgent examples to put them off, but I personally consider a well-crafted concept album the best possible use of the format.  The Hazards of Love is up with the best.

It tells a strange tale, rooted in folklore, of wild forests, animals that are really enchanted humans, gods of wood and water, faithful lovers and dastardly villains.  The story’s told in a sequence of songs and instrumentals that veer between folk rock, prog rock and hard rock, with plenty of variety to move between the dreaminess of young love and the hard edge of murder and kidnap.

Not that the story progresses in a linear, logical manner.  The songs form vignettes of key moments in the tale, with the listener left to construct a plot around them, although plenty of clues are given.  When the main villain, known as the Rake, makes his appearance, for instance, we might be forgiven for wondering exactly what this has to do with what’s gone before, and I’m still not entirely sure what happens to him in the end.  He does play a vital part in the story, though, and more than makes up for any vagueness by the quality of the songs relating to him.

There are four characters in the song, along with parts that are told by a neutral narrator.  The two females, Margaret and the Queen, are represented by guest vocalists – Becky Stark and Shara Worden respectively – but Colin Meloy does both males – William and the Rake – as well as the narration.  This could be seen as dramatically a weakness, although it’s never really a weakness to have plenty of Meloy’s vocals, but it’s very understandable.  He wrote the thing and, while William has a lot more of the album, there’s no way anyone who’s written The Rake’s Song is going to give it to someone else without it being torn out his dead, bloody hand.

Musically, although the Decemberists are based in Portland, Oregon, much of the obvious influence seems to be British, ranging from Steeleye Span to The Who (the Queen’s song Repaid reminds me a little of The Acid Queen from Tommy) and the band tackles the large range of styles effortlessly, from the brooding folk-prog of Annan Water, where the backing includes a hurdy-gurdy, to the crashing hard rock of The Rake’s Song, perhaps the most individually memorable number.  In spite of the British flavour, though, drawing on much of the kind of music I love, my absolute favourite musical moment on the album is when the wail of a pedal steel guitar breaks into the finale.  It shows a perfect musical judgement that never fails throughout the hour of the CD’s running-time.

You may have gathered by now that I love The Hazards of Love.  It’s a personal taste, of course, but I feel this could very well be the best album of the third millennium so far.  Well, perhaps with the exception of Dylan’s Modern Times, but that’s another story.  If what I’ve said here suggests the kind of thing you might like, do yourself a favour and get it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Run and Hide, Here Comes Real Life

This blog hasn’t been so active lately as it was, since I’ve been hit by real life, an annoying distraction that frequently gets in the way of writers (and other creative people) doing what really matters.  When we have to put that story that’s clamouring to be told onto the back-burner in favour of our job (and/or looking for one), the more onerous family affairs, or a hundred and one other guises in which this “real life” comes, we might be tempted to wish it would go away and stop bothering us.

Would that really be good for our creativity, though?  The great fantasy writer Lord Dunsany once commented that imagination can’t create without experience, and that’s as true for the most otherworldly fantasy as for the grittiest social realism.  If not more so.

On the face of it, real-life experiences aren’t likely to have much to offer a fantasy writer.  There are exceptions, of course: any experience we might have of combat, riding, hunting or farming, for example, could be useful for elements of epic fantasy.  Experience of ruling a kingdom, performing magic or fighting dragons is likely to be thinner on the ground.

Still, as those of us can testify who have to spend an inordinate amount of time on the aspect of real life known as job hunting, transferable skills are crucial.  So is transferable experience when writing fantasy.

Suppose, for instance, your character is a general who has to explain to an unforgiving king why the war’s going badly.  If you’ve actually had that experience, fair enough, but it’s unlikely.  On the other hand, most of us have had the experience of being grilled by the boss on our performance at work, or perhaps had to explain to a teacher why our grades have slipped.

OK, the boss or teacher doesn’t actually have the power to have us summarily executed (hopefully) but turn up the fear and discomfort by several orders of magnitude, and it might help understand exactly what the general’s feeling before and during his royal audience.

Then again, how do we present the feelings of a country’s ruler who discovers that the person s/he’s madly in love with is working with the country’s enemies?  Unfortunately, few of us are lucky enough to get through life without being betrayed or disappointed by someone we love.  The basic emotion is much the same, whether or not affairs of state are bound up with it, and that experience can inform events that seem far beyond it.

So many impossible experiences can be covered this way.  A novice learning to cast spells?  Remember what it was like to take your first driving lessons?  Riding on a dragon’s back?  What’s the scariest, most exhilarating white-knuckle ride you’ve been on?  Meeting an elf/dwarf/faerie/whatever for the first time?  Haven’t you ever met someone you find a little exotic?

It's all valuable material for stories.  So, next time real life comes knocking and disrupts your writing, you don’t have to hide – just trust it’ll all be useful one day.

Unless it comes in the form of the taxman, of course.  Then you can run.