Sunday, March 30, 2014

How Did This Word Come to Mean That?

English is a funny old language.  In terms of formal linguistic classification, it belongs to the Low German branch of the Western section of the Germanic sub-division of the Indo-European family, but that's largely about where the language originally came from.  You can tell that from the words that don't tend to change much — the, and, but, to, for, one, two, three and the rest — but the vocabulary we use comes from all over. 

The original Anglo-Saxon speakers preserved many words from the earlier Celtic languages, just as they almost certainly preserved words from still earlier languages whose names we don't know.  Invasion, occupation and settlements gave us a huge shot of vocabulary from French and the Scandinavian languages, while the later rise of learning spawned numerous words derived from Latin and Greek.

In the past few centuries, English-speakers have conquered and colonised all over the world.  Besides exporting English, we've also imported vocabulary from many of these places — India (eg bungalow, pyjamas), Australia (eg kangaroo, boomerang) and the Americas (eg potato, wigwam).  And some words have just crept in randomly over the centuries, such as algebra from Arabic and robot from Czech.

Even in a ragbag language like English, some words have truly bizarre origins, and I thought I'd give a few examples.

1. Down

It's such a simple word, but extremely versatile, used as adverb, preposition, adjective, noun and verb.  It was originally a noun, though, and one of those words the Anglo-Saxons stole from the Celts.  The word dun actually meant a hill, and it still survives in the plural as downs, especially referring to the chalk hills in southern England.

From this derived adune, literally meaning from the hill — in other words, towards a lower level.  This is sometimes found in older or archaic language as adown, but it was soon shortened to its current form.

This was originally a preposition (He walked down the stairs) or an adverb (She put it down), but in modern English it can also be used as an adjective (He took the down escalator), a verb (The workers downed tools) or, coming full circle, a noun (She weathered the ups and downs of life).  All from an ancient word for a hill.

2. Item

The word item is actually Latin for also.  Its modern English use came from an old system, often found in Shakespeare's plays, for instance, of making lists.  A list would begin imprimis (firstly), and then each subsequent thing on the list would be preceded by item (also).

Over time, it became so common to write or reel off lists in this way that the word came to be seen as merely signifying the different "things" on the list.  Since there was no word for this at the time, they came to be known as items, and the meaning has since extended so it can refer to any discrete object or concept that might be (but isn't necessarily) part of a list.

3. Check

This is perhaps the strangest of all.  The word check or words closely derived from it can mean to stop something, to make sure things are OK, a pattern of squares or a promissory note from a bank, and you'd be forgiven for assuming some of these, at least, are unrelated homophones.

In fact, every single meaning of the word derives ultimately from the Persian word for king, shah.  This is normally pronounced in English without a final consonant, but I'd guess (I'm not a Persian speaker) the h should actually be sounded, giving something that could be distorted into check.

It was introduced to western Europe through chess.  Several chess terms derive from Persian (the rook, for instance, is a chariot) and you call out check to indicate you're attacking your opponent's king (effectively look to your king).  Checkmate means the king is dead.

As any chess-player knows, if you're put in check you have to suspend all your cunning plans to get out of check, so the word came to be used to mean stopping someone from completing what they're doing, such as checking an attack.  From that, it turned into checking yourself — looking before you leap — and then to mean investigating that something was as it should be.  Finally, in the US it's come to signify the mark known as a tick in the UK to show that something's been checked.

In the meantime, the word became attacked to the chess board, which became known as a checker or chequer board (the game of draughts, played on the same board, is known as checkers in the US).  From this, any pattern of alternating-coloured squares came to be referred to as a check or checkered pattern, and this is used metaphorically now, such as talking about someone's checkered past.

The chequer board, though, wasn't only used to play games on.  It was also the main form of abacus in mediaeval Europe, and its ubiquitous use led to any counting-house being referred to as an exchequer.  This included the government's financial department, which is why the chief financial minister in the UK is called the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Banks, which were common in the Islamic world and brought to Europe by returning crusaders, had their exchequers too, and the promissory notes they issued were referred to as cheques.  In the US, they're checks, and this can also refer to a bill for payment, especially in a restaurant.

So, whether you're making an inventory, wearing a gingham dress or writing a note to transfer money from your bank account — not to mention getting the upper hand at chess — you're actually invoking the Kings of Persia.  Even if you don't know it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review of The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

I haven't been good at keeping up with the current wave of fantasy writers.  Actually, I haven't been that good at keeping up with the previous couple of waves, either, having tended to concentrate on the older examples of the genre, whether pre-Tolkien or authors from the sixties and seventies.

A while ago, I went to an author event featuring Peter V. Brett, Myke Cole and Joe Abercrombie, and as a result I read (and reviewed here) Brett's The Painted Man.  I meant to catch up with Abercrombie, too (I'm sure Cole is excellent, but purely military fantasy doesn't attract me so much) but I've only just got around to reading The Blade Itself, the first part of his First Law trilogy.

I wasn't really too sure what to expect.  Abercrombie tends to be considered part of the grimdark school, and I had a vision of unrelenting misery and cynical nastiness.  Well, there's quite a bit of the latter, but it surprised me how light, even humorous, his tone is.  Dry, dark humour, certainly, but anything but miserable.

The book starts with a bang, with one of Abercrombie's main characters, Logen Ninefingers, falling over a cliff to almost certain death.  Since it's made clear on the back-cover copy that he's a major character, it's hardly a spoiler to reveal that he survives.

The Blade Itself has six POV characters, though one only has a couple of chapters, and each has a very clear, individual voice: the barbarian Logen, ruthless and with few morals but a curiously stubborn loyalty to the cause he adopts; Jezal dan Luthar, a vain, selfish young officer whose main obsessions are winning at cards, seducing women and showing how clever he is; Glokta, once very like Jezal but now a broken, cynical cripple who works as inquisitor and torturer; the Dogman, one of Logen's former brigands who's perhaps the least action-obsessed member of the band; Ferro Maljinn, a psychopathic superwoman out for revenge on the king who imprisoned and tormented him; and Collem West, harassed major in an army preparing for war.

All of them are vivid characters, though it's maybe Glokta that lingers longest in the memory, with his habit of given a mental and very sarcastic running commentary on everything that happens.  He's the source of much of the humour, bitter though it is, but there's ironic comedy too in Logen's attempts to cope with civilisation and Jezal's attempts to cope with having fallen hopelessly in love with the one girl who seems unwilling to be swept off her feet by his charms.

The characters are one of the book's strongest points — not only the main ones, but a rich supporting cast — but another is the effortless and visceral way Abercrombie describes the action scenes.  Even the heroes hold life pretty cheap — on the title page of the second section, Abercrombie quotes Joseph Brodsky that Life — the way it really is — is a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse — and it's a testament to his characterisation that Abercrombie can keep us rooting for murderers, torturers and… well, and Jezal.

The story rollicks along at good pace, what with fights, torturing, magic and politics, but Abercrombie doesn't ignore worldbuilding, and he has an intriguing set-up, with an enigmatic Old Empire across the ocean, non-human killers rampaging in the north, and a strange, half-mythical figure called the Maker who gradually becomes more real and part of history through the book.  Most of the questions aren't answered, which is reasonable enough for the first part of a trilogy.

It doesn't all completely work.  Mixing and matching is all very well in worldmaking, but there has to be an internal sense in it, and having a military that seems half mediaeval, half Napoleonic doesn't have a lot of sense.  The naming isn't always consistent, either — Collem West doesn't really fit into the same culture as Jezal dan Luthar or Sand dan Glokta.  I suspect the theory is that West comes from a province called Angland and the names are "translated" in the same way that Tolkien "translates" Shire names.  The difference is that the Shire is a familiar "home" place, whereas Angland is a strange, far-off place we never see.

There have also been suggestions that the southern empire of Ghurkhul is a rather cartoonish negative image of the Islamic world (a charge also levelled at Brett).  This doesn't really come across in The Blade Itself, the only real similarity being that they have a prophet, but possibly it's clearer in the subsequent books.

The writing is mostly OK with occasional lapses.  This was Abercrombie's first published book, and hopefully his style has firmed up since then.  Not that there's anything really wrong with its readability, and the content easily carries it over any rough patches, but the rough patches are there.

The book finishes with far more questions than answers and all the main characters heading for somewhere new, including a voyage to the "end of the world" for reasons that aren't revealed.  I'm looking forward to reading the second book and following the characters to more puzzles and revelations.  And, it's safe to assume, more bloody battles.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Damned published in The Colored Lens

Issue 11 of the excellent magazine The Colored Lens in now out, featuring my short story Damned. The first of three stories (so far) in a loose series set in a magicpunk world (or magitech, as I prefer) is about moral choices in a dystopic society whose treatment of the magically gifted will be only too familiar to anyone familar with twentieth-century history.

Besides Damned, this issue features stories by Marcelina Vizcarra, Peter J. Enyeart, Steve Toase, Greg Little, Melinda Moore, Jeff Suwak, Dusty Cooper, Damien Krsteski, Iulian Ianescu, J. A. Becker and Todd Thorne.

Excerpt from Damned
The spell to start my car didn’t work that evening, so I contacted the repair service and walked home from the office through darkening drizzle, rather than being ripped off by the Instant Transportation System.  Rain insinuated itself inside my upturned collar.  Typical: they spend a fortune on improving the fireballs and blasting spells, but nothing on controlling the weather.
“Can I see your papers, sir?” said a voice behind me.
I turned with the practiced air of having nothing to hide, but my mind was racing.  Had he heard my thoughts, and would he consider them disloyal?  I’d always doubted the rumours of the peacekeepers using mind-reading devices, but I wasn’t so sure at that moment.
It was reassuring that his fireball-thrower was still in its holster, although his hand rested on it, but his face was blank and unreadable as they always were.  He had the spell-shield slung over his shoulder, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice and reflect any hex back on the attacker. 
I fumbled the papers from my inside pocket and tried to stand calmly while he scanned them.  Everyone feels paranoid in this situation.  Or maybe just me.  It’s not as if anyone would dare to discuss it.
He looked up at last.  “Seen any of the damned, sir?”
The question threw me, as was no doubt the intention, but I was able to answer truthfully, “Of course not.  I’d have reported it if I had.”
You can buy The Colored Lens on Kindle from or

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Descification of Space

Just before this year's Oscars, there was a controversy (a very mild and good-natured controversy) about the film Gravity.  Writer and director Alfonso Cuarón expressed bewilderment that everyone was describing the film as science fiction, just because it was set in space.

Now, I should say I haven't yet seen Gravity, although I hope to, but from everything I've read about it, I'd support Cuarón.  The film's about a fictional space shuttle mission going wrong — not because of aliens, or mysterious forces, or time travel, but simply because of an accident that, given very specific circumstances, could have happened to any of the real shuttle missions.

This isn't the first film to throw up such a conundrum.  Apollo 13 (1995) was not just a plausible fiction set in space, but a retelling of actual events. How could this be science fiction?

SF (or sci-fi, if you prefer that abbreviation) requires some kind of scientific speculation as part of the story.  This can be anything from some barely scientific concept or half-magical technology to something which might well be fact in a hundred years, but a story in which every event is possible according to current science or technology certainly doesn't qualify as SF.

One of the great pioneering novels of the genre, Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under
the Sea, is SF mainly because it's set on board a submarine.  That was speculation when Verne was writing, not because submarines didn't exist, but because the comparison of the Nautilus to the actual submarines of the time was like comparing the Starship Enterprise to the space shuttle.  It doesn't mean that we should class The Hunt for Red October as science fiction.

In the same way, any story written at the same time that featured a journey in a flying machine more sophisticated than a hot-air balloon would count as SF, yet almost any story set in the present day can feature a plane-trip with hardly a thought.

Science fiction is becoming realism all the time, but curiously the opposite has been true of fantasy.  Early literature, such as the great Greek and Indian epics, mixed what we'd class as realism and fantasy with gay abandon.  It isn't really possible now to be sure how much Homer, for instance, regarded the gods and monsters as literally true to life and how much they were just good stories, but it's probably safe to say that he'd have found them a lot more plausible than most 21st century Europeans or Americans.

One of the earliest cultures to make a formal distinction between realism and fantasy was mediaeval Iceland, distinguishing "true-seeming sagas" from "lying sagas".  The former, interestingly, could be either history, biography or historical fiction.  The latter were the tales of the Æsir and the Giants, or of magical heroes like Sigurd the Volsung (also known as Siegfried).  Calling them "lying" wasn't actually as critical and disapproving as it would be now — it simply meant something that wasn't true, not necessarily in a bad way — but it made clear what the Icelanders thought about the veracity of these stories.

Nevertheless, the line they drew between "true seeming" and "lying" didn't come in quite the place we might draw it today.  The Saga of Grettir the Strong, for instance, definitely falls under the true-seeming category: a historical novel, set in 10th century Iceland, about the exploits and eventual death of a great outlaw.

In one episode, though, Grettir fights a ghost.  Not quite our idea of a ghost — this is a reanimated corpse — but definitely someone come back from the dead.  He also suffers from a curse, which unmistakably works and contributes to his death at the end.

The point, of course, is that the average mediaeval Icelander didn't regard these in the same light as gods, dragons and enchanted swords.  Ghosts and curses were very real and present dangers, and of course they'd be included in realistic fiction.

It's been suggested that Latin America's afinity to the magic realism field may come from it being a culture that doesn't regard ghosts or minor miracles in the same way as someone in, say, a UK or US city.  That's not to say the authors or readers necessarily believe in these things, but may find them culturally easier to incorporate into an otherwise realistic story.

Of course, it's not impossible that some elements of fantasy may one day be defantasised, in the same way that space is becoming descifised.  The jury is still out on the scientific examination of paranormal phenomena, and it would only take one verifiable and repeatable proof of hauntings, telepathy or telekinesis for these elements to move from fantasy to scientific fact.

Unlikely?  Maybe, but it might have seemed unlikely at one time that stories about flying could ever be realistic fiction.  Let alone stories set in space.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Can the Passive Voice Be Used Effectively?

According to some sections of the internet, using the passive voice is roughly equivalent to drowning cute puppies. They revile something that’s been part of most languages for as far back as language can be traced, and which somehow has never gone the way as unneeded distinctions, such as the dual number (to distinguish pairs from singular and plural) or the locative case (a different form of a noun that means you’re talking about where the thing is).

This prejudice is complicated by the fact that a large proportion of people who rage against the passive voice (including one or two professional editors) don’t seem to understand what it is. The common definition is that it’s when you combine the verb with part of the verb to be. That certainly happens in passive, but to give it as a definition is like saying Cows are animals that eat grass is the same as saying Animals that eat grass are cows. Not the same thing at all.

Verbs can be combined with to be for a variety of uses, but the most common, other than passive, is the imperfect or continuous past tense (I learnt the classical names for grammar at school, such as imperfect, but some are rarely used today). This is when you say He was running rather than He ran. It’s another unfairly reviled construction, often misused or overused, but with its proper use. Continuous past is used when you’re describing a process rather than a single act, especially when contrasted with a single act — He was running down the road when he tripped on a stone.

The passive is one of the three main “voices” a verb can be expressed in (there may be other obscure ones, but I haven’t heard of any). Active voice describes the subject doing the verb; passive voice describes the subject having the verb done to it; middle or reflexive voice describes the subject doing the verb to itself.

And that’s about all there is to it — apart from how and why the different voices are used, of course. Though middle should be fairly obvious, so I’ll concentrate on active and passive.

Consider the two sentences Fred hit John and John was hit by Fred. They describe exactly the same action, but they’re saying very different things about it. The first (active) is a sentence about Fred and describes his action of hitting. The second (passive) is a sentence about John and describes his experience of being hit.

In some forms of writing, the distinction isn’t all that important, and other considerations take precedence. The prejudice against passive seems to have started primarily in business writing, and it’s easy to see why. In business, it’s important to come over as positive and active and dynamic, otherwise the predators will tear you to pieces. (No, that’s in the jungle, isn’t it? On the other hand…) If you’re writing a business letter, you need to say I shall do bla-bla, not Bla-bla will be done. Subtle shades of meaning can go hang.

This doesn’t apply to creative writing, though. I could certainly imagine a novel where the author never stops being dynamic and bullish, but it could get tiring pretty quickly. Sometimes a degree of uncertainty and vulnerability add to the story’s tone. In one part of At An Uncertain Hour, for instance, the main character is made a slave for a while. Needless to say, his experience is of being powerless, of having things done to him, and I tried to express this by using as many passive sentences as possible. As he gradually takes back control of his own destiny, the use of passive decreases.

Consider another hypothetical example. You’re reading a story that features a powerful leader, but you get the feeling as you read that there’s something phony about all this strength. Sure enough, you eventually find that he’s a good deal less certain of himself than he seemed. But what gave you that impression? Perhaps the fact that many of the sentences describing him were in the passive voice.

Uncertainty isn’t the only reason to use passive. Sometimes, as with Fred and John, the issue is whom the sentence is actually about, and whether the important thing is to describe the action or the experience of receiving the action. The person performing the action might actually be unimportant, and to say Someone I never saw jostled me gives too much importance to an unknown and irrelevant person. The sentence is about me and my experience of the incident, which makes it more appropriate to say I was jostled by someone I never saw. It reads better, too.

Passive isn’t by any means always correct, of course, and part of the issue is that it’s one of the things (along with adverbs, another bugbear) that inexperienced writers often overuse. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong in itself, though. If you tried to use a hammer to insert a screw, the result would be awkward, but that isn’t the hammer’s fault. It’s the right tool when you need to bang a nail in.

Like most of the absolute “rules” floating around about writing circles, the anti-passive prejudice began with a kernel of useful caution and proceeded via misunderstanding and chinese whispers to a ridiculous restriction that cuts out a whole section of linguistic expression.  By all means, be cautious about using passive, but the solution to the proplem is to learn how to use it properly, not to avoid ever using it.

Passive is often used effectively.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Weather in Fantasy

At the end of Mervyn Peake's fantasy novel Titus Groan, a grand and important ceremony takes place outside the castle on the lake, replete with the weight of a thousands years' tradition.  And it pours with rain, which could also be regarded as tradition, at least in Britain.  We're obsessed with the weather, and have been for a very long time.  Two and a half centuries ago, Dr Johnson observed that When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather, and things haven't changed much since then.

On the whole, weather doesn't play a huge part in fantasy.  Oh, there's extreme weather, needless to say, whether it's blizzards, floods, or the baking heat of the desert (or just that Winter is coming to Westeros) but otherwise most fantasy (including mine, I admit) seems to take place in generic conditions of a pleasant day in late spring or early summer.  It doesn't drizzle just because it can.

That is, of course, an exaggeration.  This piece came largely from reading Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, in which the weather makes itself felt in a variety of realistic ways, emphasising the contrast with other stories, and I'm sure there are other examples I don't know.  Some other authors I'm familiar with, both published and unpublished, build the climate into their work, though again that often comes in broad strokes, such as a monsoon.

Perhaps the relative lack of more intimate weather comes from the understandable desire of authors, not to mention their readers, to concentrate on important elements of the story, rather than waste time on irrelevant background, or even a desire to make the fantasy world less grey and dull than the real one.  We want to see Ug the Barbarian's sword triumph over the Evil Overlord's henchmen and allow him to rescue his True Love.  We don't particularly want to see him getting soaked to the skin while he's doing it.

Like other writers, I've used plenty of extreme weather.  My characters have struggled through arctic conditions and through the searing heat of deserts; I've had storms a plenty, and I've had irresponsible sorcerers trying to stop a monsoon, with disastrous consequences.  And yes, I think it has even rained normally on occasion, though not often enough.

Nevertheless, even a normal range of weather can create dramatic situations.  The rain might get into the supplies and spoil them, leaving our band of heroes short of food.  Wind and wet might prevent them from lighting a fire * (unless one of them happens to keep a fire elemental as a pet) with all kinds of consequences.  Poor visibility might prevent them from seeing the band of orcs waiting to ambush them.  Conditions might persuade them to seek refuge somewhere they really shouldn't ("Let's shelter in that nice, dry cave" being roughly equivalent to "I'll just check the cellar — there's nothing to worry about").  Or the weather might affect their health and reduce their effectiveness.

None of these drawbacks would be appropriate for superheroes who can trek for sixty miles a day and take on twenty swordsmen without breaking sweat.  If you're going for something a little more realistic, though (and just because it's fantasy doesn't mean it can't be realistic too), the weather can be a powerful weapon in your arsenal.

Weather has been very much in the news in recent months, what with unprecedented snow and ice in North America and storms and floods in Europe.  That's all extreme weather, though, and the everyday variety has its place, too.

Maybe, when two fantasy writers meet, at least some of their talk should be of the weather.  Certainly, more of my characters will be getting wet, cold and miserable in future.  Won't they love me?

* The rain in the Shire falls mainly on the fire.