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.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Interview with Barbara A. Barnett

My guest today is another contributor to the Unburied Treasures anthology, writer and musician Barbara A. Barnett.

Many thanks for agreeing to appear on my blog. Can you tell us something about yourself? Who is Barbara when she's not writing?

Thanks for having me!

Non-writing Barbara can probably best be summed up thusly: orchestra librarian, singer, theater nerd, mediocre pianist, mediocre clarinet player, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, obsessive organizer, and all-around geek.

Well, that'll do to be going on with. So how long have you been writing, and what kinds of things do you like writing best?

I've been writing since I was a kid. When I was about 8 years old, I wanted my mom to come watch an adventure I had concocted for my stuffed animals to act out, but she was busy and told me to go write it down. So I did. After that, writing down every nutty idea that popped into my head seemed the natural thing to do. But it wasn't until about a decade ago that I got truly serious about it and started writing on a regular basis.

Most of my work falls under the speculative fiction umbrella—fantasy and horror and a smattering of science fiction. The occasional quirky mainstream piece has been known to sneak in there as well. That's what I love about writing short fiction: from piece to piece, I can jump all over the place in regards to genre, tone, topic, and style.

Your mother sounds like a wise woman. I wonder if she knew what she was starting.
Your story in the Unburied Treasures anthology, 7:74 pm, is certainly an example of jumping all over the place: a strange tale, part SF and part surrealism. What inspired you to write it?

"7:74 p.m." grew out of a writing exercise where the prompt was to come up with a story inspired by what seemed to be a rather nonsensical bit of text included in a piece of spam mail:

"The visitor was no longer alone in the bedroom. The second armchair was now occupied by the creature who had materialised in the hall. He was now to be seen quite plainly–feathery moustache, one lens of his pince-nez glittering, the other missing. But worst of all was the third invader because they’re completely incompetent. Pulling the wool over the boss’s eyes, that’s what they’ve been doing!’ ‘Drives around in a free car!’ said the cat slanderously, chewing a mushroom. Then occurred the fourth and last phenomenon at which Stepa collapsed entirely, his weakened hand scraping down the doorpost as he slid to pttsumtspkssusufshrurmrurnnqririss."

After some Googling, I discovered that the spam mail text actually consists of two excerpts from an English translation of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. But when you take two excerpts out-of-context, mash them together mid-sentence, and add a string of random letters at the end ("pttsumtspkssusufshrurmrurnnqririss" is definitely not Bulgakov), the result doesn’t make a heck of a lot sense—and fittingly, neither did my first draft of "7:74 p.m." The challenge in revisions was to create an actual story out of the weirdness the FrankenExcerpt inspired.

An entirely new genre, perhaps — nonsense-spam fiction.

Your stories have appeared in several publications that turn me green with envy. Can you tell us something about your publications and what's coming up?

I have a flash story called "Dream Logic" that will be appearing in Daily Science Fiction sometime in the near future (exact publication date TBA). And last month my story "The Girl Who Welcomed Death to Svalgearyen" was published as part of The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine, Year Five, which I'm thrilled about since BCS is one of my favorite fantasy mags.

Absolutely. I'm curious about your select writers' group Star-Dusted Sirens is intriguing. How did that come to be, and what's its mission (apart from domination of the universe, of course)?

A friend of mine wanted to start a small critique group, so she asked me and two other Philadelphia-area writer friends, and thus the Star-Dusted Sirens were born. We meet once a month to critique each other’s work, talk shop, offer each other support, and engage in silly shenanigans. And somewhere along the line we decided to start a blog where we could babble about the writing topics that interest us, from diversity in fiction, to the craft of writing, to poop. Because yes, I wrote about poop. I’m classy like that.

Well, I'm sure it was classy poop.

And, speaking of class (not poop), I see from your bio in Unburied Treasures that you've attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop. That must have been awesome. Can you tell us something about it?

Odyssey was intense, amazing, exhausting, intimidating, invigorating, loads of fun, and and one of the best things I could have done for myself as a writer. I applied because I felt like I had hit a peak in my writing and needed some serious dig-to-the-guts feedback in order to up my game. What I learned about the craft and my strengths and weaknesses as a writer was exactly the kind of experience I was after. And as a bonus, I came away with some great friendships and continue to make more as I meet Odyssey graduates from other years of the program.

What are you writing at the moment (besides this blog, obviously)?

Right now I've got a few short story revisions on my plate: a fantasy story inspired by a NOVA special I watched on Iron Age bog bodies found in Ireland and elsewhere, a horror story involving a puppet farm, and a surreal magical realism sort of thing that keeps threatening to break my brain. I also have a major novel rewrite that I keep threatening to get back to. But short story ideas keep distracting me, because they're shiny and pretty and I like to play with them.

I know the feeling. Many thanks for talking about yourself and you work on my blog.

If you want to find out more about Barbara and her writing, you can read all about her on her website, as well as on the aforementioned Star-Dusted Sirens.

Details of where you can buy a copy of Unburied Treasures can be found on this page.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ten Dilemmas Where Your Spellchecker Won't Help

A spellchecker is a great tool — as long as it's used in conjunction with a human brain. It's main shortcoming, of course, is that it can't read your mind. It doesn't know what you meant to say; it can only tell you whether the word you've used exists. Even if it's completely the wrong word.

The problem is that a great many people — including many writers — appear oblivious to this and seem to put complete faith in their spellchecker. The result is that inexcusable typos abound now, even in publications that should know better.*

Here are a few of the most notorious. I haven't included any where the error is actually a widespread misunderstanding about the right word to use (such as lie/lay). These are all mere laziness.

It's/its: One of the two most notorious examples. For the record, it's is short for it is or it has, while its is the possessive form (like my or his) — It's broken loose from its chains. Part of the confusion here is that we tend to expect a possessive to have an apostrophe-s, but remember that other possessive pronouns, such as his, hers or yours, don't have an apostrophe.

There/their/they're: The other of the two. There is used either for a direction or simply to indicate something — There is a man over there. Their is the possessive, just like itsThey prepared for their departure. They're is short for they areThey're going to regret their decision to go there.

Lose/loose: This typo is strangely widespread, since the words have not only different meanings but different pronunciations. I'm afraid I'll lose my life. This strap is too loose. Simple. If you find yourself using the wrong one, just stop and think a moment each time you write either.

Bear/bare: One means carry, endure or (with no connection) a large mammal. The other means naked. Someone determined to accept their hardships stoically might talk about how they'd bear everything. If they were intending to bare everything, they might get arrested — at least if they did it in public.

Where/wear/were: Where can be used in various ways, but always indicating place. Where is it? This is where it is. The place where we started. Etc. Wear is either what you do with clothes or it indicates deterioration. The clothes you're wearing show a good deal of wear and tear. Were (which isn't even pronounced the same in most accents) is the past tense plural of the verb to be. Where are the clothes you were wearing?

Hoard/horde: Particularly relevant in fantasy. Dragons have a hoard of treasure; barbarians attack in hordes. A piece of trivia: horde derives from a Turkic word for army, which is also the source of the language name Urdu, originally the lingua franca of the army in India.

Wary/weary: I'm not sure if this is simply a typo, as I've fairly often heard these mixed up in speech. Wary means cautious; weary means tired. There's no connection between them.

Reign/rein/rain: Reign is what a king or queen does; rein is what guides a horse; rain is what falls from the sky whenever you arrange an outdoor event. One case where I often see a confusion here is when people write the phrase giving free reign. It's actually giving free rein — in other words, slackening off the reins to allow the horse to choose its own route.**

Lead/led: This is one that even the BBC's website gets wrong. You lead a horse to water (pronounced leed), but if you did it yesterday, you led a horse to water. However, the metal that's pronounced exactly the same as led is spelt lead. Confused? So are the hordes (not hoards) of people who think the past tense of lead is spelt identically. Incidentally, bear (not bare) in mind that Led Zeppelin may have been one of the greatest bands in the world, but they couldn't spell for toffee.

Effect/affect: There's some justification for getting confused about these words. In the most common meaning, the noun is effect (cause and effect) while the verb is affect (How does this affect the matter?). However, affect can also be a noun meaning an emotion, while it's possible to effect an escape. You really just have to learn these, or else look them up every time.

These are just a few of the multitude of typos your spellchecker won't pick up. The answer? Have a good dictionary*** with you whenever you're writing, whether it's a book or a computer program, and use it if you have any doubt at all.

Not that I'm saying you shouldn't use a spellchecker. As I said at the start, it's a great tool, but it can't do your work for you. A hammer's a great tool as well, but you don't expect it to hammer in nails by itself. A tool is something to be used, not relied on.


* If there are any apparently careless typos in this piece, they're simply deliberate mistakes for you to spot. Honest. Really.

** It's been pointed out that the other spelling actually makes sense, which I don't dispute, but it's not actually the same sense as the original phrase.

*** And I mean a good one. There are plenty of questionable dictionaries out there, especially on line. You're best sticking with an edition of the Oxford Dictionary, although Collins and Chambers also publish good ones. The only good one I know in the US is Merriam Webster, though I'm sure there are others.