Guest Blog – Firefly Fridays

Just a quick note today, folks – Angela Quarles recently asked me to do a guest post on her blog. You can find it here.

Among other great articles, she runs an excellent, weekly series called Firefly Fridays, in which she illustrates a lesson drawn from Joss Whedon’s Firefly in order to improve our writing. I recommend checking out both her blog and the series – it’s one of the few TV programmes I have on DVD.

Jim

Cultural Bias

Well, I haven’t got around to redrawing my map, so more cultural information it is – this time, I’ll be looking at a culture which won’t be directly visited by the protagonists during my story, but will have a strong influence.

Over the last year I have watched a number of television programmes exploring a little more about other hominids, such as the Neanderthals.  I learnt a number of things I never knew about them before, which I’ll go into in a minute.  Especially interesting was the information that there were apparently surviving family groups as recently as 30,000 years ago.  Looking a little closer at the reasons for their extinction, it seems that the main reason they died out may well have been coincidence – homo sapiens’ expansion reached Europe at roughly the same time as forests started giving way to grassland, meaning our persistence/projectile focussed hunting style out competed their ambush hunting style.  It strikes me that, had the forests not receded or if species overlap had been postponed until the era of agriculture, there could well have been two species of hominids around today – or perhaps that should be sub-species, as evidence of interbreeding seems to be pointing towards them being not entirely separate from homo sapiens.  I thought they would be a pretty cool addition to my fantasy universe.

Anyway, let’s see what they were like.

Far from being stupid, as the caveman stereotype goes, Neanderthals actually had a brain case fractionally larger on average than our own.  According to one of the experts used by the BBC, one of the areas which was larger was the occipital lobe, an area involved in the processing of vision.  Of course, this could mean a number of things.  They might have had better resolution (making out smaller things at a longer distance), better night vision, better colour distinguishment, increased number of frames per second – I doubt we’ll ever know.  All interesting possibilities for a fantasy writer though.  They had modern-looking hyoid bones and the same version of FOXP2, a gene closely linked to language, as modern humans, which strongly suggests they had language.  How complex this was is debatable – our necks are held more vertical than theirs, which I understand allows more effective production of glottal stops, the sound indicated by the hyphen in ‘uh-oh’ as well as in many other words.    Additionally, the tools they produced were just as effective as those by early man.  The implication is that they were just as intelligent as modern humans, merely different.

The real differences lie in the body make-up.  Though populations varied as in modern humans, it appears that Neanderthals were of roughly similar height to early man at about 5’5″-5’7″ – on average they were an inch or so shorter, but with a greater sexual dimorphism, so males were perhaps a bit taller while females were shorter.  Today, human population averages range between 5’2″-6’1″ for men and 4’10”-5’7″ for women.  (Also interesting is that Homo heidelbergensis, a common ancestor, stood around 6′ tall on average – equal to some of the tallest populations in the world today – with some populations even standing ~7′ tall!  Talk about intimidating!)  Neanderthal skeletons reveal what was both their biggest advantage and disadvantage over us: they were stacked.  Big barrel chests, huge muscle insertion points on dense bones, the longer ones bowed by the forces they had to support.  I’m not saying these guys were chimpanzee strong, but the suggestion is that they had up to twice as much muscle mass of normal humans, or about 30% extra weight – perhaps the equivalent of human wrestlers or body builders.  Their bones show healed injuries that match those see in rodeo professionals, suggesting they tackled large, angry animals on a regular basis.  There also may be some evidence that their power was of a more explosive type as opposed to sustained effort

Of course, all this muscle mass was also their biggest disadvantage – they needed twice as much food to support all this extra tissue.  They lived in smaller groups, more widely dispersed, and would probably have been hit harder by the lean years.

So, to the culture.

With the onset of agriculture, they would have been able to form larger communities, though the population density would still have to have been less than us at a corresponding level of development – I’m thinking a land with fewer cities and more village/hamlet-sized developments to reduce the amount of food which needs to be moved around.

With the difficulties forming complex words, the language may become more monosyllabic, perhaps with tonal changes to meaning to make up for the short words such as in Chinese.  An oriental base for their culture to go with the language would help to reinforce the idea that these people have an ancient culture but not a primitive one.  Chinese and especially Japanese styles are well represented in fantasy and I want this book to avoid as many of the normal cultures as possible, so I’ll look into Thai culture as a base, with some Nepalese for the mountain areas.  Just to mix things up a little, I’ll mix in some Mayan too, though not the obvious human sacrifice element – that would compromise the aim of making them just as civilised as other humans.

In recent times there would surely have been armed clashes with humans.  There has always been mistrust between different races in real life, so how much more would humans have for these physically imposing, coarse featured people who may recall folklore monsters, or the Neanderthals have for these skinny, leggy people who move into an area and breed like rabbits, taking up all the natural resources?  On martial styles, I suspect their build would lend more to wrestling and throws, and with long, powerful arms and shorter legs I see strikes seeing more use than kicks.  Powerful hands could lend themselves to some quite nasty gripping and tearing techniques that recall a more savage side, too.  While physically much more powerful, they would almost certainly be outnumbered by humans, facing a foe who would be more inclined to sit at a distance and fire arrows than engage in close combat.  On the plus side, fewer warriors means each one could have better equipment.  At range, their massive  upper body strength and better eyesight lend themselves well to using much larger bows than were ever common on the battlefields of Earth.  To counter their disadvantages in speed over distance, cavalry may play a larger part – also easier with fewer warriors to provide horses for.  For when they did get close, they would probably want a shield to protect themselves from arrows, spears and javelins, and some kind of weapon that could both be used quickly and take advantage of their raw strength.  Axes and maces were the traditional way to deliver powerful blows, but they could also be slower than other weapons, and axes in particular could have the (slightly nasty) disadvantage of sticking in the person you’ve just killed – not what you want when you’re outnumbered and his mate is right next to him.  I suspect something like the Chinese dao/war sword would work well, giving the ability to make quick slashes as well as massive cleaving strikes:

Wouldn't like to see that coming at me...

Huh, I’m well over 1000 words again and I only just got started on the actual culture part.  Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get around to putting more up soon.  In the meantime, I really need to get on and do a bit on my map so I can do a post about that…

 

A New World

So, I finally decided to kick myself into action and make myself accountable for my writing.  By posting my progress here, I let anyone who has the slightest interest in this book see, at the click of a button, exactly how much time I’ve been putting into it recently.  I no longer have an excuse to be lazy.

That’s a pretty scary thought actually.

Anyway, 11/11/11 seemed as good a day to do this as any.  Of course, I’ve been planning this book for a lot longer than that.  I even have just over half of the first chapter written (first draft i.e. terrible)!  I would say this thing has been in the planning stage since around April or so, over which time I’ve jotted down bits and pieces, thought a lot and talked through some of the important themes with my brother.  It’s time to get serious.  I should also mention that Holly Lisle’s site (hollylisle.com) and plot writing mini-course have been invaluable in the planning process.  These two posts have been especially helpful and I recommend them to anyone thinking of starting a book: http://hollylisle.com/maps-workshop-developing-the-fictional-world-through-mapping/ and http://hollylisle.com/how-to-create-a-character/

To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I should tell you a little about what I like to read, because that will clearly give you an idea of what the finished product aims to be.  I’ve always been a reader.  Right from the years where I was reading such great works of literature as “Wesley and the Dinosaurs” in class 2, my friends and family have called me a bookworm, and I could regularly be seen walking to and from school with a book in hand.  Before you ask, I only walked into a lamppost once.  After that I paid more attention to what was happening in front of me too.  These days, given the time, I devour novels.  Genre doesn’t seem to matter all that much.  In fact, I’ll take a good story wherever I can find it, whether a book, film or even computer game.  I’ll stick to books for now.

In crime I’m a great fan of Harlan Coben’s humour, Ian Rankin’s grittiness and Reacher’s sheer awesomeness in anything by Lee Child.  Robert Ludlum is the godfather of the spy genre, while a Jeff Abbott novel pretty much assures you of a cracking adventure read.  Tom Clancy and, these days, Dale Brown have some brilliant military fiction.  I especially love all the cutting edge/near future technology that Dale Brown introduces with all its advantages and flaws.

Science fiction has always been a good portion of what I read.  Iain M. Banks’ fantastic Culture novels,  C J Cherryh has many: I love the Alliance-Union Universe with the Company Wars books and Faded Sun trilogy and highly regard both this latter trilogy and her Foreigner Universe (which I am slowly working my way through), in which she really explores the differences in psychology between humans and aliens rather than just treating them as people with strange skin colours and faces.  Though no longer a collector of the tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000, some of the novels published in that universe have been great.  Dan Abnett is generally a solid writer, especially his Eisenhorn and Ravenor books, though my personal favourites have to be the Commissar Cain novels by Sandy Mitchell simply for the audacious idea of injecting comedy into such a relentlessly bleak vision of the future.  I admit I’m also a sucker for powered armour, so Robert Heinlein’s  Starship Troopers was a must, and the excellent and little-known Armor by John Steakley is one of my favourite books out there.  Seriously, go buy it if you have any interest in science fiction.  It’s only a few quid on Amazon and you won’t regret it.

Still, I think Fantasy has to be one of my oldest passions, and is the genre I’m hoping to break into myself.  From the old classics of JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and C Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, through Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, David Eddings’ Belgariad, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth (it ended with Faith of the Fallen though, and no-one will convince me otherwise…), Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (and also the completely different Nation), the Dragonlance books, Stephen Lawhead and last, but certainly not least, David Gemmell, who is my personal favourite author, I love reading about new worlds, new cultures, new creatures, new characters, heroes, villains and epic quests to save the world (and discover oneself into the bargain).  In my opinion, Legend by David Gemmell is one of the finest pieces of fantasy written.

The genre has traditionally fixated on medieval Europe analogues.  Of course, there is a romanticism about the age of swords and bows that isn’t really felt about that of muskets and cannon (or, for that matter, stone clubs and spears).  Medieval Europe is familiar, safe territory.  After reading the Empire Trilogy by Janny Wurts and Raymond E Feist, though, I knew I didn’t want to follow suit.  This trilogy largely dwells on the political manoeuvrings of a young woman suddenly left in charge of her house in a culture which seems to be a fascinating blend of Japanese with some Aztec/Mayan styling, in a world in which metal is so rare that people make weapons of resin-laminated hide.  I think that was where the desire to write my own novel really started.  Consequently, I’ve made a firm decision to avoid over-used cultures as much as possible, or else twist them in ways that aren’t usual.

I’ll start discussing some of my main cultures in the next post.