Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas

I'd like to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas, or whatever holiday you celebrate at this time of year. Thanks for following me, and I look forward to coming back raring to go in the New Year (well, coming back, certainly) for more about The Lone and Level Sands, as well as the usual random thoughts and reviews.

Have a great time.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Lone and Level Sands - the lost scene that began it all

For some years now, I've belonged to a group of online authors who get together once a week and all write for exactly an hour on whatever topic one of us sets. The object is to get us writing fast and with as little internal editor as possible, but the results are sometimes (though not always) gratifying. Many stories that started that way have been published, including no less than eighteen of mine. Some have been flash fiction that I completed in the hour and polished later. Others have have fragmentary beginnings that I've expanded into longer stories. My previous Musa book, The Treason of Memory, was among those which started that way.

Back in 2008, in response to the prompt "write a story about an object being dug up from the ground which radically alters your character's conceptions of the origins of something", I wrote what would eventually turn into The Lone and Level Sands. However, this wasn't the beginning of the story that Musa has just published, but a scene that takes place months earlier and in a different country.

For anyone who's curious, I give that original scene below. I've changed nothing, even keeping the different spelling of the main character's name. I've no idea whether the decision to change Zaddith to Zadith was deliberate or a typo, but he's unmistakably Zadith now.


“And these were dug up where, exactly?”  Professor Thalidri sipped his drink with the prim delicacy Zaddith had always found absurd in such a big man, peering over his glasses at the two graduate students before him.

“In the desert,” said Museve eagerly, evidently not noticing the corroding scepticism in their teacher’s tone.  “Twenty miles from the coast, near Lahlem.  There’s a theory...”

“Thank you, Ms Amwa,” the Professor interrupted, and for once the young woman fell silent immediately, her shoulders drooping a little.  “I assume you’re referring to the theory of the temple of Shetti.  I can assure you, it was a theory popular among the more... enthusiastic of students when I was your age.  I see that little has changed.”

“But, Professor.”  Zaddith usually let his friend do the talking, but he couldn’t contain himself.  “Surely this is evidence.  The fact that tablets like these have been excavated just where the temple’s supposed to be... Well, it’s evidence, isn’t it?”

“Thanks for your usual incisive analysis, Mr Zaddith,” said the Professor dismissively.

Zaddith squirmed in embarrassment and annoyance.  Though his papers always received top marks, he somehow couldn’t reproduce the same fluency in speech, and he’d learnt to keep his mouth shut in class, for fear of ridicule.

The annoyance was because he knew that Professor Thalidri was perfectly aware that his surname came last, not first as it did here in Qymssa.  He didn’t make the same mistake with Museve; but Zaddith had long since realised that the Professor disliked Northlanders and took that dislike out on him.

“Professor,” said Museve, her tone more conciliatory, “you must agree that it’s a significant find, whether the temple exists or not.”

Three pairs of eyes returned to the baked clay tablets strewn on the desk between them.  Zaddith and Museve had taken a risk smuggling them out of Hranti, one of the more unstable of the petty dictatorships that clung to existance in the Sruq Desert.  Officially, they risked prison for removing antiquities without a licence, but Zaddith suspected that they could very easily have been shot in secret, to become just two of the many people who’d vanished in Hranti over the past decade.

In the end, though, neither could bear the thought of spending months, even years, applying for a licence, maybe to be refused in the end.  Zaddith was still having nightmares at the thought of what might have happened, but they were clear.

“The script is clearly similar to Early Dembin,” commented Thalidri at last, less scornful as he immersed himself in the ancient texts.  “The language, though...”  He paused a moment, sounding out some of the symbols.  “It has certain structural similarities to proto-Sriwali, and... yes, some vocabulary in common too, I’d say.  Perhaps an extinct language from, oh, let’s say, four thousand years ago.”

The two students glanced at one another, and Zaddith wondered whether Museve would have the nerve to bring up their theory.

“We thought so too, at first,” she said, a little uncertainly.  “But there are elements that don’t appear to be Sriwali at all.  I... we think it may be an older language.  We think it’s the language of Kebash.”

There was a long silence, while Zaddith waited for the Professor’s sardonic laughter; but it didn’t come.  When he looked up, he saw that the older man was staring at them.

“Kebash.”  There was no inflection as he spoke the name.  “Are you trying to claim you’ve found the lost city of Kebash?”

Museve took Zaddith’s hand under the desk, clearly for support, and gulped.  “Not... not actually,” she said at last.  “The stories all talk about Kebash being overwhelmed by the sea as punishment for its sins, not buried in the desert.  But... the tradition is that Kebash was somewhere between Xeinnur and the mainland.  Couldn’t this have been an outpost?”

And that's where the hour finished, just when the scene was getting interesting. Kebash was a name that had come up here and there in other stories I'd written set in the same world, as an ancient, lost city that was the source of the most dubious magic. A kind of equivalent of Atlantis with a darker reputation.

I knew I wanted to write a full story based on this scene, but how? When I started thinking about the plot, it was very obvious that the story proper had to take place during the dig itself, and the later in the dig the better. This could serve as some kind of prologue, but that would feel awkward.

In the end, I made a fresh start, with the dig in full swing and Zadith and Musu (who had now acquired a diminutive of her name) watching the army trucks approaching across the desert. There was no place for this scene, although it is referred to in the story, and several of the points of discussion appear in a different context.

The Lone and Level Sands is, as it should be, a far more centred story, both in time and place, than would have been possible if I'd used this scene. But this is where it started, in terms both of the main characters and of the search for the Temple of Shetti and evidence of Kebash.

The Lone and Level Sands and The Treason of Memory are both available in all ebook formats from Musa Publishing.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Lone and Level Sands out today from Musa Publishing

The Lone and Level Sands
by Nyki Blatchley
Cover by Kelly Shorten
Published by Musa Publishing (Urania imprint)
$1.99 in all ebook formats from Musa Publishing

The ancient ruins in the desert hide more than just scientific interest—evil lurks there from the dawn of history.
Archaeology students Zadith and Musu thought it would give them valuable experience to spend their summer break on an important dig in the desert with their professor. They didn't expect to be menaced by the local military, a rival expedition with unorthodox methods, or an ancient evil from the dawn of history. But this is no ordinary site. An outpost of the city of Kebash, lost for ten thousand years, it holds terrors worse than death for Zadith and Musu.
Set two hundred years after The Treason of Memory, The Lone and Level Sands is a thrilling fantasy tale of adventure and the supernatural.


It was large, at least thirty yards across and nearly as high, and certainly no primitive cave. The stone walls were straight and smooth, and the paintings that covered every inch only damaged in two or three places that Zadith could see. The colours were faded but still vivid enough to show geometric patterns surrounding panels of the ancient script. Zadith tried to make out what the nearest panel said, but he was too scared to concentrate.

The wall to his left portrayed a scene with stylised figures like the reliefs on the stone: a huge man wearing a tall bejewelled head-dress stood over cringing naked suppliants. Some were trodden under his feet, and one was transfixed by a spear he held. All around, jewel-covered men and women held their arms aloft, as if cheering the scene.

Zadith had seen similar images in pictures from some of the oldest tombs in this part of the world, but none was more than six thousand years old. If this place really was an outpost of Kebash, it must go back at least ten thousand years.

“Kebrai,” breathed Nivehl. “We’ve found it—the Temple of Shetti. This is where offerings were made to the god-king.”

“And that would be where they were given.” NeSholis pointed.

From the farthest wall, beyond the group in the centre of the chamber, a stone head protruded. At least fifteen feet high, it was a hideous demonic form like the one carved at the entrance to the passage, its huge open mouth forming a cavity big enough to take a human between the stone teeth. Zadith tried and failed to convince himself that was coincidental. The mouth was at just the right height to lift a victim inside, and he was glad the cavity was too dark to make out what might have been left inside.

“You can feel his power.” Nivehl turned to Thalidri, a sneer twisting her striking face. “Are you going to try to deny it now, sweetheart?”

He shrugged. “There seems little point.”

He was reacting more calmly than Zadith would have expected. He himself was shivering, and Musu was too. Nivehl was right about feeling the power: for the first time in his life, Zadith knew without question that he was surrounded by evil.

“Kebrai’s rituals demand blood.” NeSholis kept his eyes fixed on the demon face for a moment and then turned to Thalidri, boots snapping on the stone floor. “Have you not wondered why we brought you in?”

The Professor’s eyebrows drew together. “You’re proposing to sacrifice me? I think you might find difficulty fitting me in there.” He pointed at the mouth-cavity, certainly not designed for his bulk.

“Of course we are not,” said neSholis with a crooked smile. “That would be a waste. Any blood will do to summon the power of Kebrai, if the Codex is to believed, but a final gift is needed too. A special gift—a person who means something to the giver. A former lover, perhaps. Or a mentor.”

“Ah.” Thalidri clearly understood, but still seemed unruffled. “You’re speaking of the bargain-seal. Oh, yes, I’ve read that passage too. The bargain-seal must be given living to Kebrai, for him to keep alive in torment. So that’s to be me.”

“Entirely personal, my dear,” commented Nivehl. “I can assure you.”

NeSholis turned to the two students. “Bring the girl.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

Review of Doctor Who Series 8 (or 34)

It's a few weeks since series eight of Doctor Who finished. Or, to be more accurate, series thirty-four — the actual series eight aired in 1971 and first introduced us to the Master.

It was an important series, whatever its number, not only coming after all the hoo-ha of last year's anniversary, but also introducing us to a new Doctor, always a crucial time. So how did the series — and the Doctor — shape up?

As far as the series is concerned, I'd say it was variable, with both successes and failures, although there were no episodes I couldn't at least moderately enjoy rewatching. As for Peter Capaldi's Doctor, I think he's fantastic. Although I enjoyed Tennant and particularly Smith, I'm not sorry to say goodbye to the young, chummy Doctors we've had lately and go back to an older and utterly alien character.

In contrast to the Eleventh Doctor's extremely selective habit of occasionally forgetting all the human social customs he knows perfectly well the rest of the time, the Twelfth Doctor comes over as genuinely baffled by humans, and particularly by Clara. Superficially, their relationship is a little reminiscent of the Sixth Doctor's with Peri, or even the Fourth Doctor's with Sarah Jane (all three having first got to know a gentler, more considerate Doctor) but this character's arrogance seems to come less from over-confidence than from insecurity.

At the same time, he develops further the Eleventh Doctor's ambivalent moral stance. A couple of series back, in response to the comment that good men have too many rules, the Doctor pointed out, "Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many."

Capaldi's Doctor goes further into trying to answer the question Am I a good man? In the second episode, trying to explain his relationship with Clara, he comes up with my carer, adding, "She cares so I don't have to." And that seems important to the Doctor, yet one of the overarching threads of the series is that he's gradually destroying what he values in her, making her more like him.

Clara has had perhaps the strangest arc of any Doctor Who companion. It isn't entirely clear how much of her fragmented existence she actually remembers now, but she appears to settle into the same precarious juggling act as Amy and Rory did, trying to balance her normal life and her Doctor life. It isn't made easier by her now having a boyfriend (Danny) who she first has to lie to because he knows nothing of the Doctor; then, when he finds out, she has to lie to both him and the Doctor because they disapprove of one another.

"Rule One: the Doctor lies," River once said, and lying seems to be at the heart of this series, as the Doctor, Clara and Danny skirt around one another, withholding information, right to the final scene where the Doctor and Clara are each lying to make the other feel better. Clara, in fact, grows more and more like the Doctor as the series goes on, up to the point where, in the final episode, she's claiming to be the Doctor. Lying, of course.

Danny has an interesting back-story and is a good character, but much of the time he seems to be consigned to the "useless boyfriend" role pioneered by Mickey Smith. It isn't really until the two-part finale (in which he dies) that he becomes a seriously interesting character. Pity they left it so long.

The ongoing "tease" through the series is the enigmatic character Missy, who seems to live in some kind of afterlife and is gathering people who've died close to the Doctor. I admit I never saw the reveal about her coming. My original theory was that she was the TARDIS, for some reason uploading the consciousnesses of the dead to her matrix. Well, the second part was more or less right, but it was revealed as the cliff-hanger in the two-part finale that she's actually the Master, regenerated into a female form. Considering the rumours that have been floating around for thirty-five years or so about the Doctor becoming female, I loved that twist.

So what of the individual episodes?

Deep Breath — A long, somewhat sprawling introduction to the new Doctor, featuring the Paternoster gang (Vastra, Jenny and Strax) who seem to have replaced River as the standard occasional extra companions. As with most "new Doctor" stories, we see him acting bizarrely and out of character, but gradually finding his new identity. At least he doesn't try to strangle his companion. For the plot, there were some good things, but other elements (like the dinosaur in the Thames) that just seemed to have been slung in because they seemed like a good idea. An interesting episode, but I wouldn't put it with Spearhead From Space or The Eleventh Hour as a great new Doctor story.

Into the Dalek — A little reminiscent of the 2005 story Dalek, this delved into Dalek psychology, asking if Daleks are fundamentally evil, as well as giving us a Fantastic Voyage style journey inside a Dalek (a trope used before by Doctor Who in 1977, though not with a Dalek). I thought it was well done. It also introduced us to Danny, and returned to Clara's briefly-glimpsed new life as a teacher at Coal Hill School, the place where Doctor Who started back in 1963.

Robot of Sherwood — Nonsensical fun. We're presented with a thoroughly Hollywood image of Robin Hood, except that the Sheriff's "men" happen to be robots. It's strongly suggested all the way through that this scenario has been created by the robots, based on the legend, but then at the end we're left with the idea that this really is how it was — raising the question of why the "original" legend is nothing like the earlier retellings and entirely like the later ones. If you can get past that, though, it's huge fun, especially the alpha-male sparring between the Doctor and Robin.

Listen — An intriguing and chilling episode, in which the Doctor becomes obsessed that there are unseen beings shadowing us all the time. On the trail through time of attempting to prove it, he and Clara encounter both Danny as a child and what appears to be Danny's grandson, and, in a first, the Doctor himself as a child. The plot leaves a lot of events unexplained, but maybe it has to be that way.

Time Heist — A story which should have been great, but turned out only as quite good. For reasons that aren't explained till the end, the Doctor, Clara and two random companions have to break into the most secure vault in the universe, facing a terrible fate if they fail. The explanation at the end is a typically tortuous "timey-wimey" solution, and the whole thing just didn't excite me as much as I'd have expected from the synopsis.

The Caretaker — To counter an alien threat, the Doctor takes the position of caretaker at Coal Hill School, where Clara and Danny both teach — a position he declined to apply for in 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks. Like The Power of Three from last series, this is really a character/relationship story with a perfunctory adventure plot bolted on. The interactions between the three characters are well done, but I could have hoped for a better, more integrated alien threat.

Kill the Moon — As in last series, we have a story where the Doctor gives a trip in the TARDIS to a random child in Clara's care, the rather annoying fifteen-year-old Courtney, who also plays a substantial part in the previous story. The story, focusing on a future threat from the moon, is bizarre and suffers from a degree of scientific absurdity far beyond the odd pass we usually give Doctor Who. The weakest episode in the series, in my opinion.

Mummy on the Orient Express — A surprisingly effective episode, set on a replica of the Orient Express* travelling through space (shades of the spaceship Titanic) whose passengers start dying in mysterious circumstances. The whole thing turns out to be a gruesome experiment by an unknown enemy, with the Doctor finally finding the solution in a way that's a little unconvincing, but doesn't really spoil the fun. I was a little disappointed, in retrospect, that this wasn't tied in with the Missy arc. Perhaps we still have to discover someone else trying to manipulate the Doctor.

Flatline — Another great story, with Clara investigating an invasion of Earth by two-dimensional beings, while the Doctor is trapped inside a shrunken TARDIS (as in the 1981 story Logopolis). We still actually see a lot of the Doctor, but Clara takes the lead, gradually adopting his modus operandi to defeat the menace. The only real negative here is that the 2-D monsters become a lot less scary when they turn 3-D, but it's still a fine story.

In the Forest of the Night — Now, this seems to be a real Marmite episode, with some fans seriously detesting it. I loved it. A party of schoolchildren, supervised by Clara and Danny, get caught up in trying to find out why a forest has covered the entire earth overnight. The answer suggests a sentient-earth ecological message, though without ramming the message home too hard. The only real negative for me was that the children (who all acted decently, though not outstandingly) were ridiculously too young for their supposed age — the lead girl looked as if she should still be at primary school.

Dark Water/Death in Heaven — The finale, and I was glad to finally get another two-parter, where the story could stretch a little, since one of my objections to a lot of the more recent stories is that they tend to be rushing to fit into 45 minutes. The successive reveals at the end of part one (the Cybermen, and that the mysterious "Missy" is the Master) make it one of the best cliff-hangers in the revived show, and the return of UNIT in part two was very welcome, as was the classic image of the Cybermen in front of St Pauls Cathedral. Michelle Gomez is wonderful as Missy — charming and psychopathic at the same time, just as the Master should be, not to mention coming up with a characteristic mind-bogglingly complicated trap for the Doctor — though one or two aspects of the story were unexplained, such as how people can physically move between the material world and a virtual reality. A great finale.

So where now? The final scene of Death in Heaven suggests that Clara wouldn't be returning, but she appeared in the Children in Need clip from the Christmas special. Although I've enjoyed her stint as companion, I think it's about time we moved on. I've been saying for some time that I'd like to see a companion who isn't a twenty-something contemporary woman — someone from history, or from the future, or even an alien, all three of which we had a number of times in the classic show — but with Capaldi's Doctor being so alien, perhaps this isn't the best time for it.

Whoever the new companion might be, the important thing is that she (or he?) provides a foil for this intriguing new Doctor to develop his character further. I look forward to the next few years of Doctor Who.

* Definitely the classic Orient Express that Poirot travelled on. I made a three-day journey on the Orient Express in the 1970s, when it was just an ordinary train. Now that was murder.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Interview with Lindsey Duncan

My guest today is fantasy author, poet and musician Lindsey Duncan, whose work has been widely published, including a story in the anthology Unburied Treasure.

Welcome to the blog, Lindsey. Could you tell us something about yourself, and what you do when you're not writing?

Glad to be here!  I’m currently a culinary student – I just finished a diploma in baking and pastry, and am continuing to complete an associates degree in culinary arts – and a professional harp performer living near Cincinnati, Ohio.  I also teach beginning harp. 

Right now, the combination of work, school (and writing, of course!) keeps me hopping:  I think if I did the math, it would come out to roughly two full-time jobs!  When I do have a bit of free time, I enjoy reading, both the expected fantasy and science fiction and historical or cozy mysteries.  Non-fiction, too, though I tend to classify that as research …

That's certainly a lot. How long have you been writing, and how did you start?

I can’t ever remember not writing; I would say that by process of elimination, it would have to have been after learned to read, but then I remember dictating stories about talking multi-colored sheep to my mother.  When I was very young, my family had an old typewriter, and I diligently pecked out tales, bedeviled by typos – the texts would include such gems as “swrod, I mean sword” – before I encountered my first computer.  Apart from required cursive practice, I’ve never looked back. 
I know the feeling. My early efforts included words like "parashootist" and "obtikal illooshan".

I never did learn how to type properly, though:  I’ve developed my own typing system that has my left (dominant) hand doing the majority of the typing, with the sequence determined by the neighboring letters.  My parents used to call this the Columbus Method: pick a key and land on it.

It’s always been fantasy, too.  Even when I did a “real world” project, as I did for my cursive practice, I went straight to knights and castles.  And, of course, those talking sheep …

You also play the Celtic harp, which is an instrument I've always loved. Can you tell us about it, and how you got into playing it?

The Celtic harp is the “original” harp – in Ireland, they have found carvings of this style of harp dating back to the seventh century.  Obviously, the modern harp has some further evolutions, in particular the levers: tiny switches above each string that adjust the pitch of the note a half-step.  This allows the harp to get sharps and flats or change keys without retuning the whole instrument.  Ancient harps were strung with gut or wire – wire harps are played with a completely different technique, but that’s a whole other topic.  You’ll still see gut-strung harps nowadays, but most use nylon instead, as mine does.

(I do educational programs now and again, and I love nothing more than to call kids up to touch the strings … and *then* ask them what they think the strings are made of.  This always gets a few good “ewws.”)

I first “met” the harp at the Cincinnati Celtic Festival.  There was an event on the schedule called, “I’ve Always Wanted to Play the Harp.”  It was an informal thing, just a few harpers (harpers play the traditional harp; harpists play the orchestral harp) helping interested parties try out the instruments.  As soon as I got my hands on a harp, that was it:  I was in love.

I always associate harpers with smoke-filled halls where they play and sing ancient heroic lays. So does your writing and music interact at all, or do you keep the two art-forms separate?

I find that music and musical themes sneak into my writing, whether I intend them to or not.  I enjoy writing about musicians and their misadventures.  Thanks to a writing prompt, I even wrote a story loosely inspired by one of my more trying gigs … loosely.

Since starting culinary school, as I’ve pulled out older stories to edit them, I’ve noticed a surprising number that involve pastry, chocolates and cooks.  Life has a tendency to find its way into fiction.

As a harper, I arrange almost all the music I play, and I’ve even written a few sets of lyrics to traditional tunes.  I’ve never had much luck composing my own music, though, and this has always frustrated me.  It feels like a gap I should be able to bridge.

Earlier this year, a local conductor sat down to talk to me at a gig, and we discussed various musical topics.  Somehow, composing came up, and I mentioned my feeling.  He quoted a famous musician:  “God composes.  I arrange.”   (Alas, I can’t for the life of me remember who, nor can I find the quote online.  Pipe up if you happen to know!)  I’m not a religious person, but this idea – that the raw, creative essence is part of the universe, and that what the human creator does is express it – really appeals to me.

Your story in Unburied Treasures, Stone Unturned, is a haunting tale. Can you remember what your inspiration for it was?

Stone Unturned was originally written for a monthly challenge at  The challenge was to take five elements and write a story where each was an integral part.  In the spirit of making things unnecessarily difficult for myself, I always try to add another layer to the challenge topic.  In this case, I knew I wanted to write about history and myth, so I decided to construct the story so each element appeared both in the present and in the past.

The concept of being able to sense the past of an object by touch is one that has always fascinated me.  I decided to give my main character this ability.  (And the magic used in Stone Unturned has a tangential musical element, too.)  It is this talent that unfolds the story in the past … and gradually reveals its connection to the present.

You've been published all over the place. Can you tell us about some of your publications? What's currently available?

My contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available both as an ebook or in print from Double Dragon:

Flow follows two very different characters:  teenaged Kit, bitter in the wake of the death of her mother and unable to control her budding powers; and Chailyn, a water-witch raised in the underwater Vale and only now sent to the surface for her first mission.  The pair team up to uncover her mother’s killer and find more than they bargained for:  predatory fairies, a rival organization to the water-witches known as the Borderwatch, and secrets buried in both their pasts.  They also meet Hadrian, a bizarre young man with hyper-accelerated perceptions who invites himself along on the journey.

If you just want a taste of this contentious world, check out Xmas Wishes, a short story in the same setting – only a dollar, too!  Also available from Gypsy Shadow is Taming The Weald, which was one of my favorite stories to write and does some blissful blurring of the lines between science fiction and fantasy.  I have to say that “strange children” is another element I’m drawn to a lot in writing.

For freebies, my most recent publication, Polestar, is in the June/July issue of Plasma Frequency.  My first publication there, Mythocraft (all the way back in Issue 2) was nominated for that year’s Preditors & Editors Readers’ Poll.

Abyss and Apex has been wonderful to me – they’ve published three of my short stories, with another coming out sometime next year; the first story (HourBy Hour) was in their first Best Of anthology, and I got the chance not only to read from it at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary, but to meet the magazine’s editor, Wendy Delmater.

My most recent story there was Dancing Day, which was another monthly challenge involving five elements – this time five elements that were distinctly Christmas-themed, the challenge being to apply them in a new way.  There’s still a hint in the title, which is derived from one of my favorite period carols to play.

Could you tell us something about what you're writing at the moment, and any future plans?

The novel I’m working on right now is Unnatural Causes, a fantasy-mystery cross.  When a controversial enchanter is murdered, her familiar and her apprentice team up to find out who killed her.  I’ve been deliberately taking the writing of this one slow:  it’s from the first-person perspective of the familiar, and since in this setting, familiars are otherworldly beings, I want to make sure that I consider the way I’m framing her thoughts.  In this world, magic is performed by creating phantasmal thought-machines, visible only to the enchanter and others with the talent. These machines execute the spell.

I haven’t firmly chosen a future project.  Most of the novel-length works I’ve considered are rewrites, reimaginings, or new adventures for previous characters, including the idea of a sequel for Flow.

One shorter (comparatively) work I know I want to write is a – wait for it – zombie novella.  Of course, I know that zombies have been done to my death; my hope is that my take on the origins and themes of reincarnation will get past an editor’s groans.   In fact, the idea would have never come to me if we weren’t saturated in zombie culture.  Here’s how it came about:

I dabble in photography, and the flutist I played with in White Orchid – a much more serious photographer – invited me to a quirky northern Ohio town that was also hosting its annual Zombie Walk.  Wandering around town as the attendees prepared to walk was amazing: we saw costumes from the very simple to the elaborate, from the hilarious to the impressive.  (And the disturbing in a non-zombified context: the teen who, when asked how he had costumed his arm to look like it was broken, demonstrated it wasn’t a costume – he was double-jointed.  Oww.)  The “CDC” walked around in hazmat suits.

In any case, to make a long story short (too late!), I got some great photographs.  Most people were happy to mug for the camera, but I did get some candid shots as well, and that’s where the story comes in.  Among those pictures of people being themselves amongst the pseudo-gore and dishevel were a few images that illustrated a story in an eyeblink.  Some day, I hope you’ll be able to read it.
Sounds intriguing, and I hope I do get a chance to read it.
Many thanks for telling us all about yourself. You can find out even more about Lindsey on her blog.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Heap Many Moons - The Way Primitive Peoples Don't Really Talk

We've all encountered old-fashioned idea of how "primitive" peoples speak: "Heap many moons we hunt buffalo," or some such nonsense.  After all, primitive people must speak a primitive language, right?

Of course not.  Even setting aside the question of how primitive the cultures in question are, there's really no such thing as a primitive language.*  Every language expresses precisely what its speakers need to express.  A language spoken by a nomadic tribe of herders and hunters might not have technical words for scientific or sociological concepts, but it'll have vocabulary that enables people to talk about a whole range of concepts, emotions and relationships that are important to them — many which can't be clearly expressed in English or other majority western languages.

The "heap many moons" style of speech is a very simple example of pidgin, a type of language that arises when people from different cultures need to communicate on a basic level.  It's usually for trade, but pidgins can be heard whenever Britons or Americans abroad are trying to make themselves understood to "foreigners who have the nerve not to speak English".

Where the contact is regular and long term, a pidgin can develop regular rules and vocabulary, and eventually, given the right circumstances, children might start growing up speaking nothing else.  At that point, it goes through a metamorphosis into a creole, a language that's flexible and rich enough for its speakers to say whatever they need to.  There are creolised languages from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and many are elegant and expressive.

All languages intended as the primary means of expression for a people are tailored exactly to what that people needs.  Whether or not the Inuit really have fifty words for snow,** they can certainly talk about snow in a lot more detail than a people whose language has evolved on the equator.

What a language does or doesn't have inevitably reflects what matters to the society.  Many of the Australian Aboriginal languages didn't have counting systems at the time Europeans first arrived.  This wasn't stupidity — if you rarely see more than a handful of any given object, including people, why would you need to count?  As soon as the concept was introduced to them, it took a remarkably short time for this gap to be filled.

On the other hand, many of them have degrees of sophistication in their grammar that European languages can't match.  English, for instance, has one way of expressing the first person plural pronoun — we (with the variants us, our and ours).  Some languages, though, (including Old English) distinguish between whether you're saying I and you or I and they.

This might seem strange to those of us whose languages have done without it, but it's actually a distinction between two very different concepts.  If you tell someone "We're meeting at eight o'clock," you might mean "We're meeting — you can make it, right?" or "Us lot — we're meeting up.  Just saying."  In English, we have to rely on tone and context to make it clear which we're saying, but it can be a useful distinction to make.

On the other hand, in many of those Aboriginal languages that didn't have counting systems there might be up to a dozen different ways of saying we, depending on exactly who the other person is, whether they're related to the speaker, whether or not they have the same Dreaming.  In these societies, it's vitally important to clarify these issues, and the languages have developed incredibly complex grammar to accommodate that need.

A similar, though simpler, concept that occurs in many European languages is the distinction between the familiar and formal versions of the second person pronoun.  This will be known to anyone who's learnt French, German or Spanish.  In French, for instance, you'd address a close friend or family member as tu and a more casual acquaintance or stranger as vous, while  German has equivalents for both the singular and plural forms.

English used to make this distinction, too, using thou and you, but thou has died out, except in a few dialects.  There are various theories for why this should have happened, but the effect (if not the reason) is that English-speakers don't have any of the complex social niceties needed to use this particular grammatical form.

The history of language is littered with abandoned grammar that once expressed vital concepts.  Early forms of the Indo-European language family, which includes almost all European languages,*** had not only a singular and plural, but also a dual number.  This may originally have been used to express any two things, though by the time it reached classical Greek it was only used for specific pairs: the eyes, the ears, egg and bacon, Simon and Garfunkel and so on.

On the other hand, the abandonment of the dual may reflect a fundamental change in how we view the relationships between things.  For us, there's an obvious difference between one and all other numbers, and that forms an essential part of the patterning of our minds.  There's a mathematical justification, of course, since one really does behave in ways that are different from every other number.  On the other hand, two is also a unique number, the only even prime, and viewing doubleness as a thing apart in the same way as singleness may have been integral to how those societies saw the world.  Perhaps it explains why triple deities are so common, if three was the first plural number.

What a language does or doesn't include can have an enormous effect on a society.  To return to classical Greek, there was a simple but far-reaching linguistic habit among the Greeks.  The language had two little words (men and de) that could each be slipped in as the second word of a clause to set it up in opposition to another clause or sentence.  You could roughly translate men as "on the one hand" and de as "on the other hand", but such little words could be used without the clunkiness of the English phrases.

It's unlikely to be a coincidence that the language which adopted this structure was spoken by a people who essentially introduced philosophy and logic to the west.****  Whether the structure nurtured a logical frame of mind or the impulse for logic created the structure (or a bit of both), a naturally dialectical language was perfectly adapted for Socrates, Plato and the rest to debate philosophy.

From subtle relationships to logic to high-tech (or even talking about snow), all languages are rich and expressive in the concepts their speakers care about — and, as long as they're human, that will certainly include a full suite of emotions and imagination.

If the hero(ine) in your story meets a primitive tribe, by all means show communication difficulties between them, but don't make the mistake of believing that really is how they speak or think, any more than your hero does.  They're probably too busy gossiping about the stranger who doesn't know the first thing about their way of life to bother with all those heap many moons.

* Not among any known human society, at least.  Various species of animals may have very simple languages — prairie dogs, for instance, appear to have a vocabulary of a few dozen words to tell each other about food and danger — and these would qualify as primitive languages.

** I'm fairly sure I've come across a debunking of that, but I'm not certain.

*** Except for Finnish, Estonian, Lappish, Hungarian, Turkish, Maltese, Basque and some minority languages in Russia.

**** It's often said that the Greeks "invented" philosophy.  Of course, the Chinese and Indians also "invented" it, and no doubt other cultures did too, but however dubious that claim might be, the Greeks certainly originated the western tradition of philosophy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

We'll Have a Yabba-Dabba-Dystopia

Today marks the publication of the latest edition of PlasmaFrequency, including my "flintpunk" story The Petrologic Engine.

Flintpunk? Well, let me explain how this story came to be. As you probably know, the "punk" genres have really taken off in recent years. It started with cyberpunk, but it was steampunk which really set the pattern, with its concept of retro-future science and technology — steam-powered spaceships, clockwork robots and the like. The range has varied from mannerpunk to dieselpunk — I'm just waiting for someone to come up with "punkpunk".*

A while ago, I took part in a writing challenge to write a story in one of the punk genres. Since I don't believe in doing things by halves, I came up with my own: flintpunk, retro-futurism set in the Neolithic age.

So what do I mean by flintpunk? Well, I have been known to describe it as "a serious, dystopian version of the Flintstones". Imagine if the Neolithic age had progressed to modern-level technology and social structures, but without ceasing to be Neolithic. Megavillages instead of cities; multi-storey roundhouses instead of skyscrapers; shardcasters instead of guns. And megafauna operating machinery, but no dinosaurs, of course. Cavemen and dinosaurs side by side only really work in the context of a kids' cartoon**.

It's not a good society, though, and I think that makes sense too. Creating a modern-style society out of Neolithic resources isn't going to be as easy as making one out of the resources we have, and it's going to need a very strong, centralised government. Strong, centralised governments have a way of getting paranoid and deciding that the ends justify the means.

And the Petrologic Engine of the title? Sorry, you're going to have to read the story to find out what that is.

I thought I was being very clever inventing flintpunk, till I discovered that there's already a recognised genre called stonepunk. On the face of it, they're much the same thing, but not entirely. Most of the works I've seen cited as examples of stonepunk don't seem to have the retro-future aspect, but are simply fantasies or semi-fantasies set in a stone age society, such as Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series.

The Flintstones have also been cited. As we've seen, they have retro-future technology, but a cosy family setting hardly qualifies for the "punk" aspect. Though I'd certainly watch a version where Bedrock is a police state, and the Flintstones and Rubbles are members of the resistance. Perhaps Pebbles and Bam-Bam have been brainwashed at school into spying on their parents. Perhaps Dino is really a government agent. The possibilities are endless.

But that's another story. I'm pleased with the way The Petrologic Engine turned out, and especially that a magazine I respect seems to agree. Maybe I'll return to the megavillage sometime for more flintpunk, though only if a good enough story comes to me. Maybe flintpunk will come to be acknowledged as the name of a genre — the same as I'm still hoping for flintlock & sorcery, which I coined for The Treason of Memory. I seem to like flint, don't I?

* And I'm sure one of you is going to tell me that someone already has.

** Or in the context where no-one's looking at anything except Raquel Welch's fur bikini.

Plasma Frequency Issue 14 is on sale from today in print, Kindle, ePub or PDF format. Besides The Petrologic Engine, it features work from Jes Rausch, Andrew Knighton, DeAnna Knippling, Damien Krsteski, Jamie Lackey, Sylvia Anna HivĂ©n, Nicole Tanquary, John Zaharick, Steve Coate and Frances Silversmith, with a beautiful cover by Jon Orr.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Nation or Tribe?

A hundred years ago, it all seemed very simple.  Europe had always had civilised nations, and the this description was grudgingly extended to a few other cultures — China, India, the Middle East — where it couldn't sensibly be denied.  Everywhere else, especially sub-Saharan Africa and pre-Columbian America, had primitive tribes, and that was that.

This view of the world has been largely eroded among historians and lay-people informed enough to seek out the better kind of historical documentary*, but it's still a common enough belief, and it's alive and well in the worlds fantasy writers create.  You have your civilised, sophisticated nations menaced by your primitive tribes. Nations have cities, tribes have settlements; natives have kings (if they're not republics), tribes have chiefs; nations have laws, tribes have customs; nations have religions, tribes have superstitious rituals.

But that's a gross oversimplification, caused partly by cultural bias and partly by misunderstanding about what's genuinely necessary for civilisation.

History is written by the winners, and so is the definition of civilisation.  From Rome to the Conquistadors to the colonial powers of the 19th and 20th centuries, conquerors have essentially said "The definition of civilisation is anything exactly like us.  These people aren't like us, so they can't be civilised."

Except that they also ignore or make excuses for all evidence to the contrary.  A good example of this is the ruins of Great Zimbabwe (right) in the modern country of the same name.  Until relatively recently, it was generally accepted that this must have been an Arabic outpost.  There was absolutely no evidence to support the idea, except that "Africans couldn't build structures like this, therefore it couldn't have been African in origin."

Which, of course, is nonsense.  There were highly developed ancient civilisations from the upper Nile to West Africa, not to mention the Egyptians, who were at least as much an African civilisation as a Mediterranean one.  It's become increasingly clear that the civilisation who built Great Zimbabwe spread widely through south-eastern Africa, including a major Indian Ocean trading port, and was completely local in origin.

This process of marginalising other cultures has been repeated throughout the world, sometimes cynically and deliberately, sometimes from genuine lack of understanding about what is and isn't necessary for a society to be called a civilisation.

Fundamentally (and linguistically) civilisation means a society that's at least partly urbanised, and urbanisation has to start with a food surplus.  A society that can afford to feed people not directly involved in food-production can begin producing specialists: artisans, traders, artists, soldiers, priests, nobility, royalty.  Urban life also requires a level of organisation impossible under "tribal chiefs" or "tribal elders".

There have to be centres of concentrated population, but these don't have to look exactly like a modern city, or even the modern concept of an ancient city.  There's a tendency to put an undue emphasis on stone or brick buildings, for the simple reason that they leave the most obvious remains.  The traces left by wooden or mud structures are hard to detect, but these can actually be just as effective building techniques for their time and place and don't in any way indicate a "lower" level of society.

The way history has always been taught, for example, says that the "barbarian"** peoples of Gaul, Britain and Germany had no cities before the Romans "civilised" them, partly because the Romans said they didn't and partly because no impressive stone buildings have been found.  What they did have were "hill-forts" like Maiden Castle (left) in Dorset.  These are often thought of as purely defensive structures, but Maiden Castle, for instance, was an area of around 47 acres, surrounded by a palisade and earthworks containing within it homes, workshops and numerous other specialist buildings.  It's believed to have been the seat of a powerful ruler who dominated the countryside all around.

In other words, a king in his city.

In much the same way, our comparisons of social institutions between traditionally civilised and traditionally uncivilised societies tend to be skewed by our preconceptions.  Many cultures, for instance, believe that disease is caused by spirits or demons, and it's easy to smile at the naivety.  Consider, though: they believe the cause of disease is invisible entities invading the body.  So do we.  They use the words spirt and demon, we use the words virus and bacteria, but they're all just labels put on things most of us have never actually seen.

Of course, I'm not implying these cultures have a sophisticated microbiology of their spirits and demons, and I'd certainly rather be in the hands of a modern hospital than of a shaman.  Then again, I wouldn't be that thrilled about being treated by a western doctor from the 1950s, either.  The point is that the assumptions we make about the relative value of beliefs are rarely disinterested.

Or take military forces.  The Zulus who faced the British army in South Africa are often characterised as just a horde of warriors — of course, what else could African natives be?  In fact, the Zulus had one of the best organised and disciplined armies in history, which developed out of a highly sophisticated civilisation.  It just didn't look like a European civilisation or a European army.

Human civilisation is far more common than is often assumed.  It's found all over Asia and Africa, and not just in the admitted-by-necessity areas.  The Cambodian city of Angkor***, which flourished during the European middle ages, is now believed to have been as extensive as modern New York City, while pottery dating evidence suggests that civilisation may have arisen in West Africa even earlier than in its traditional cradle, the Middle East.

The Americas were full of civilisation.  Everyone knows about the Aztecs, Maya and Incas, who are allowed the status of bizarre, barbaric civilisation, but they were the tip of the iceberg.  There was a swathe of civilised cultures from Bolivia up to the Mississippi, rising and falling, interacting and replacing one another.  The Mississippi culture, whose capital was in roughly the same location as St Louis, was one that took sophisticated archaeological techniques to find because it built in wood and earth rather than stone, but it had every hallmark of civilisation.

It wasn't the only one north of the Rio Grande.  It's no accident that many of the Native peoples refer to themselves as nations.  Many, such as the Iroquois, were anything but primitive in their organisation.  I've also read that the east coast of what became the USA was not only heavily populated before the smallpox epidemic devastated it, but its people left many intact towns and villages, which the settlers merely moved into.  I haven't been able to confirm this from an authoritative source, but I'd be intrigued to know more about it.

There are societies, of course, who fit the description of "tribes", and this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Cultural success, like evolutionary success, can involve either adapting the environment to your needs or adapting yourself to the environment.  Many peoples have had no need for civilisation, because they're perfectly adapted to live in their surroundings.

Still, next time you're tempted to dismiss a culture as primitive because it's nothing like your own, try walking around and looking at it from all angles.  You might be surprised how civilised it really is.

* I can heartily recommend the BBC series Lost Kingdoms of Africa, Lost Kingdoms of South America and Lost Kingdoms of Central America.

** The word barbarian is simply the anglicised version of the Greek word for foreigner, which didn't necessarily imply lack of civilisation.  The Romans used it rather liberally considering that they, according to the original meaning, were barbarians themselves.

*** The best-known part of the city, the stunning temple of Angkor Wat, was only its centrepiece, like the Vatican within Rome.