Do all languages have a common ancestor?

If you’re crazy enough to want to create languages for your fantasy fiction world then this is an inportant question. Where do your languages come from. Could there be a common ancestor for all your languages. If so there will be similarities between them. Many people will have heard of the phrase Indo-European languages, which describes most of the languages of Europe and Asia as having common routes – all except Turkish, Basque and Finnish of course – where these came from who knows. Aliens?

This talk on TED suggests that all languages may have come from a common ancestor. I’m not sure if I can accept this. It suggests that man began to talk before he spread out of his homeland and settled other parts of Europe and Asia. Is this possible? It also suggests that different groups of men would have developed the same language at the same time. Again this sounds unlikely and frankly I’m a bit surprised at this conjecture – there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for it.

Going back to the implications for a fantasy world setting, it really depends on how you see the origin of the world. Being quite pedantic about this, these things actually matter to me. I don’t feel comfortable not knowing roughly why my characters inhabit a world that isn’t like the Earth we know. So therefore there needs to be an origin explanation for me. Alternate reality like Moorcock’s Eternal Champion maybe, an older version of Earth like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Howard’s Hyboria? It’s seems a shame that often modern fantasy writers often don’t consider these origins. For me this means that the reason for their writing hasn’t really been truly thought through. Rather the aim is to build on a tradition where a standard fantasy setting is acceptable because that’s what readers have come to accept. So in a way a pretty non-fantastic, non-speculative fictional genre has been established where we all know the rules already. This can be OK if the writing is good, but in the end its going to become tired.

Science-fiction can perhaps offer more.

What I’m hoping to do in my writing is to offer a development of this by giving a reason for my fantasy world existing, this means breaking out of some of the traditions of fantasy writing worlds though and starting with a clean slate of a world. But, I must admit its difficult not to rely on what we know of human history or previous fantasy writing. Something like Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia series is a benchmark for what I’m hoping to do.

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress

I have now reached the character building stage of my current writing project. Having built up a good head of steam on the world building side, with languages, history, mythology and some cultural/society bits sketched out, I decided to move onto some of the main characters of my book. I know that I will be going back to the world building as inevitably working on characters and plot will bring up questions I hadn’t previously thought about on the world background side of things.

So I started off by using a tool from a great book, Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress. In this book she has included something called a Character Intelligence Dossier. A form that asks you, the writer, questions about your character. Such as what age are they, who’s their father, what people do they hang out with, what speech mannerisms do they have, what do they wear. In fact several pages of questions that one might imagine are not altogether necessary. However, although I am only a couple of pages into the intelligence dossier for my story’s main character, I have already found that one of these seemingly inconsequential questions has given birth to what maybe some great sub-plots and new minor characters that I hope will enrich my story. For me the question was who does the character hang around with after work. This got me thinking and stirred up some interesting ideas about who might latch onto my story’s hero and try to influence him.

I’m looking forward to answering more questions over the next few days and weeks!

Genetic Differences Amongst Nomadic populations

This piece of research about ADHD genes in Kenyan nomads shows that certain genes that might be less suitable in a settled culture are actually beneficial in a nomadic setting. Apparently the behaviour associated with ADHD can lead to nomads being more effective in fighting off raiders and finding food and water.

My current writing research concentrates on a nomadic civilisation so this was of interest to me!

Jack Vance Tribute Songs of the Dying Earth Announced

I heard about this first about a year ago, it’s a great idea, an anthology of stories by top fantasy writers based on Jack Vance’s Dying Earth (an inspiration for Gene Wolfe’s Earth of the New Sun of course!). The book is edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, and there will be special signed editions available. Looks great!

Stories from:

* Robert Silverberg* Terry Dowling* Glen Cook* Tanith Lee* Liz Williams* Kage Baker* Elizabeth Moon

have already been contribued.

However, there doesn’t seem to be a release date yet as stories are still to be contributed from:

* Neil Gaiman* Dan Simmons* Elizabeth Hand* Matt Hughes* Mike Resnick* Phyllis Eisenstein* Paula Volsky* Howard Waldrop* Tad Williams* Walter Jon Williams* John C. Wright* Lucius Shepard

Severian of the Guild review at SF Site

It was with interest that I read the review by Paul Raven of the 2007 Book of the New Sun edition, called Severian Of The Guild – essentially a repackaged version by Gollancz.

Paul, despite acknowledging Wolfe’s genius, also describes the problems he has with the allegory and particularly the Christianity in the book. I, like Paul, am an athiest, but I didn’t really find the allegory a problem – I guess I expect authors to not necessarily share my belief systems and to have their own agendas. Also, because the narrative is so dense and complex, it is actually possible to ignore the allegory – it all depends how much you want to interpret I think. It didn’t spoil the pleasure of reading the book for me.

I was also puzzled that Paul grew impatient with the narrative style of the Book of the New Sun:

“Simply by merit of our unreliable narrator Severian, Wolfe is already subverting the modernist notion of novel-as-literal-truth, and there are a number of moments where Severian draws back from the narrative to pass comment on the nature of narrative itself, straying into metafictional territory.”

Narrative games are an essential part of Wolfe’s work, and to be quite frank it can take a sophisticated reader to appreciate them. However, to say that somehow there is a modernist mainstream that Wolfe is subverting is wrong. Post-modernist questioning of the narrator has been with us for a long time – see my previous blog posting on The Wasp Factory and The Tin Drum for instance. With any text that has a narrator in the first person, the reader should beware. Unfortunately a lot of fantasy and sci-fi can be quite unsophisticated and perhaps its readers are missing out as a result. Which means that unfortunately that great writers like Gene Wolfe don’t get the credit they deserve, even from their own constituency – i.e. SF/F readers.

Having said that, the Book of the New Sun can be heavy going – I would recommend The Fifth Head of Cerberus or Peace as easier introductions.

100 Uncontacted Tribes exist in the World

Apparently according to Survival International there are 100 uncontacted tribes existing still in the world – mostly in the area of Brazil and Peru. I found the story over at TED. It makes you think doesn’t it!? Also I was wondering about the possibilities of this as a story idea? The problem is most people wouldn’t believe it!

But this picture taken from a flyover of one of these tribes is very evocative:

Harry Harrison calls the USA a Fascist State

Spotted at SF Signal, Pravda interviews Harry Harrison, who calls the USA a fascist state.

While he may have a point it’s a bit rich coming from Russians isn’t it?

I wonder if his comments were taken out of context though or maybe they missed out a bit where he also criticized Russian autocracy and undemocratic principles.

Aside from increased militarism, imperialism in the Caucasus and strong-arm tactics over their energy resources, I think the main example of the rise of authoritarianism in Russia has to be the recent Eurovision competition. Are all of Russia’s neighbours so scared of angering the bear that they have to vote for her in a ‘music’ competition as well! See this video from Sir Terry Wogan.

New Elric story from Michael Moorcock

There’s a new Elric story in the current issue of Weird Tales. Looks like a great issue – also features an interview with China Míeville, H.P. Lovecraft and Dune.

I might subscribe!

Elric was one of my favourite fantasy anti-heroes when I was a kid – exactly I think because he was an anti-hero – both good and bad and obviously that appealed to a teenage kid.

Biological explanation for Religion

I found this story from The Economist interesting about a new research project into the biological basis of religion. As part of my world-building exercise this is quite a fascinating subject as I come to grips with the cultural background of my world’s peoples, which includes their religions. In fact I have decided that religious differences will play an important part and mostly leading to violence.

Here’s a quote from the research project’s brochure “Leading experimental psychologists and biologists have suggested that man’s universal religious consciousness results from innate characteristics in the evolved cognitive architecture of the brain. In contrast, the differences stem from variable priming of the cognitive mechanisms through creative thinking, memory and acquired expertise.”

So it seems that humans are biologically predisposed to be religious, or at least believe in something I suppose! I’m an athiest, but must admit that I find religions and their attendant cultural systems very interesting.