A Land of Culture

“Culture makes all men gentle” – Menander, ~300BC

“When I hear of culture…, I release the safety of my Browning (pistol)!” – Hanns Johst, 1933

“Quotes are what lazy people use to avoid having to think of something witty themselves.” – Jim Ross, 2011


In my last post, I mentioned how many fantasy novels are set in a European culture.  Of course, this doesn’t make them bad, or even shallow.  JRR Tolkein’s universe is probably one of the most detailed anywhere, yet this comes from his wide knowledge of European history and mythology.  Even his geography is affected by this:  Gondor seems to me to be vaguely analogous to central Europe, holding echoes of the decayed Roman Empire – it used to be great and now holds but a shadow of its power.  In the west of Gondor is Dol Amroth with its princes and heavy cavalry, like the paladins of France.  The heavily Norse-themed people of Rohan have come out of the north to settle in Gondor’s northern reaches.  To the far north-west is the Shire, clearly calling to mind the English home counties.  East lies Rhun, with its Eastern European/Russian steppe influences, and south you find Harad, in which elements of Arab and African cultures seem to be found.  The elves and dwarves both call on traditional northern European fey folklore, with the two Elvish dialects of Quenya and Sindarin being heavily influenced by Finnish/Suomi and Welsh respectively.  Likewise, David Gemmell’s worlds draw heavily on European and Celtic types.

By all this I mean to say, I have nothing against setting a novel in a European culture, it’s just that I won’t be doing so in this first book.

For the country I want to start in, I’ve decided on a primarily Indian-based culture, being one infrequently used.  Now, the main thing that seems to be maintained whenever anyone does use Indian culture is a rigid caste system, in which no movement between castes is allowed.  It’s a recognisable element so I wanted to keep some of it, but twist it a bit.  Instead, perhaps by default you are part of the worker caste, which may include field labourers, oarsmen and other physical professions which can be learned quickly.  From there, people can pass into others based on their aptitude – someone with a quick mind who learns to read and write may move into the scholar or mercantile castes, for instance, while a large man with fast reactions may move into the military.  Equally, I would like to make it so that there is no hierarchy of rank between these castes.  If everyone were a scholar, who would grow the food?  If nobody became a soldier, who would protect the land?  Actually, this idea of parts being different but of just as much importance is starting to sound like part of the Bible:

“… a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, … If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? … the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,  its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:12-25)

I think this could be an interesting tenet of the dominant religion of the region.  To avoid what has happened in many real-life religions, where priesthood is seen as a position of power, attracts the wrong type of people and so becomes corrupted (as in politics, one could say!), perhaps the priests of this religion are supposed to be servants of the people?  If this were ingrained deeply enough in the public consciousness, any priest who got above his station could well lose any credibility he has, thus maintaining the status quo.  To run with this line, perhaps the priests are also the main practitioners of medicine or healthcare?  Religions, after all, have historically often been a driving force for science, starting with the premise that a created world must have some underlying rules.

Let’s leave religion there for now and move on.  In almost all cultures larger than a single village, someone is in charge.  Realistically, those who get to be in charge try to secure favourable places for their offspring.  Now, in my current caste system, this will be done by seeing that one’s children get first hand experience of your own job early on so that they find it easier to follow in your footsteps.  Still, you need some outside agency to help stop (or at least reduce) the number people being placed in positions they are unsuitable for.  Hence, I decided to go with the old favourite of a royal family.  It struck me that a country actually functioning in this way, where most people find themselves in careers they are well suited to rather than just following the family trade, would be quite successful and probably become the significant power in the area, so I’ve gone ahead and made it an Empire.  Royals in direct line of succession will usually be highly educated in history and diplomacy, while those more distantly related will probably be back to the normal caste system (though most likely progressing further, faster due to increased resources).

Wow, that’s about 600 words just on the caste system.  Time to move on, I think.

Geography-wise, I’m making the country sub-equatorial just to get away from the usual temperate climate and the ‘frozen north’ stereotype.  The country’s going to be very hot, and due to ocean/mountain placement and prevailing winds, only some of it will see much rainfall.  Consequently, climate will range from jungle in the far north to desert in the south-west.   I’m going to throw in a bit of Arab desert culture in the southern regions, but I want to avoid the Bedouin stereotype as much as possible too.  Due to placement of mountain ranges, there aren’t really any trade routes passing through the desert,  so it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid the classic camel trains.  I suspect people would be more likely to live along the few rivers, as happens in Egypt with the Nile, so perhaps elements of that will creep in too.

I could go on about architecture, imports and exports and the like, not to mention the other two cultures I already fleshed out a little, but I’m running over 1000 words now so I’ll leave things there.  If you noticed that I switched a little between past and present tenses when discussing things today, that’s because quite often I’ll be thinking of new ideas on the fly as well as saying what’s already planned.  I find talking to people about things I’ve already decided upon helps spark new ideas, so you, dear reader, get to be my sounding board!

Next post will either be a bit more on cultures or a look at mapping out the world.


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.