Orphans of the Stars setting notes 1

With the recent Patreon release of my novel Innocence Reborn, I want to take a closer look at the setting I’ve created for the series as a whole. After Otherworld, it’s second in terms of level of detail, and being a futuristic science fiction setting means it requires a completely different sort of worldbuilding. So here we go. This may or may not become a regular miniseries. We’ll just see where it takes us.

By the way, this post is obviously going to have major spoilers for the book, so you can’t say I didn’t warn you.


Although it’s never explicitly stated in the text (mostly because I don’t want it to be too obvious when I get it completely wrong), I do have a sketch of the setting’s timeline. The Innocence Reborn prologue, for instance, is supposed to take place in the year 2432, while the main body of the story is set over a century later, in 2538. Plenty of time to develop technology, etc., but not so much that humanity is completely unrecognizable. That was what I wanted, though I did have to make a few assumptions to get there.

Almost all of those are currently backstory, and we’ll get to them a bit later. Before that, I do have to mention one of the most fundamental conceits of the setting. See, it’s intended to be slightly “harder” than a space opera, in that most things are within the laws of physics as we know them. There is faster-than-light travel, because that’s central to the story I wanted to tell. And that causes a bit of trouble with causality and even basic timekeeping. So 2432 is the time on Earth, but current physics tells us that ships traveling FTL would effectively be going back in time, which makes things difficult.

Well, that’s because of relativity, and the handwaving for Orphans of the Stars is that relativity isn’t quite correct. You’ve got a few loopholes, so to speak. (Behind the scenes, the story universe is, in fact, a simulation that explicitly or accidentally allows such “exploits”. The characters don’t know this, of course.) It also means there’s something like a universal or preferred reference frame, which may or may not solve the timing problems.


Now, on to those assumptions. The other ones, I mean.

As I said, FTL travel is possible in the Orphans universe. It’s not instantaneous, but it is possible. That opens up the galaxy to human exploration and colonization. And that leads to the next big assumptions. First, Earthlike planets are relatively common, especially around G, K, and M stars. This is a simple extrapolation of current findings; estimates using data from the Kepler mission indicate that the Milky Way could host billions of terrestrial planets, with a fairly good percentage of stars having them in the habitable zone. And that’s not counting those slightly smaller than Earth orbiting medium-size stars like ours.

Second, and less supported by the data, is the idea that life is also relatively common in the universe. The vast majority is single-celled (or the equivalent); sentient, advanced aliens are considered fiction even 500 years in the future. Spoiler: boy, aren’t they surprised?

Other assumptions include simple, workable fusion power, ramped-up manufacturing capabilities (including orbital and deep-space), ubiquitous computing, usable cryogenic suspension, and quite a few other technological improvements. On the other hand, I assume that genetic engineering doesn’t become a huge thing—it’s mostly used for treating diseases and disorders rather than making wholesale physiological changes—and AI never gets to the “destroy all humans” stage. Yes, there are expert systems, and automation has made many jobs obsolete, but human decision-making still beats that of computers. It’s just that AI simplifies things enough that even a bunch of kids can fly a spaceship.

More importantly, there are a few sci-fi staples that don’t exist in this setting. Chief among those is artificial gravity: when the Innocence (or any other ship) isn’t accelerating, the people inside are weightless, and that causes problems. Well, problems and opportunities, because we are talking about a bunch of kids. Also absent are tractor beams, shields, transporters, and other such “superscience”. Terraforming is possible, but it’s been avoided so far out of respect for native biospheres. Antimatter is horrendously expensive, and more exotic particles are as useless commercially as they are today. Nanotechnology hasn’t advanced quite as much as one would expect, and cybernetic augmentation, including direct neural interfaces, ultimately turned out to be a fad.


I could have gone all out on this setting. I could have made it one of those where it’s so far into the future that it’s effectively magic. But I didn’t. I didn’t think I could pull it off.

Mostly, this series started out as an idea I had when writing Lair of the Wizards, a fantasy novel I’m putting out next month. That story is set in a borderline-Renaissance world where people with advanced technology existed, and they left some of it behind. It’s Clarke’s Third Law, but seen from a different point of view, one where we are the sufficiently advanced race. By and large, the characters are children, adolescents, or young adults, and that made me wonder if I could write an adventure-filled, yet still scientific, space drama revolving around characters of similar age.

As it turns out, I can. Maybe it’s not good, but I like it, and I’ve always said that I write stories primarily for my own enjoyment. The same is true for the settings themselves. Just as Otherworld is my linguistic playground, the Orphans universe (I still need a catchy name for it) has become my futurism playground. It’s where I get to play around with the causes and effects of science and technology, then go and write books about what happens when a bunch of kids get involved. And that’s what I’ve done. In fact, two days before writing this, I finished the sequel to Innocence Reborn, titled Beyond the Horizon, and I’m already coming up with ideas for Book 3.

Settings can be as deep as you want to make them. With this one, I’ve found one where I just want to keep on digging, and so I will.

Languages of the Otherworld: Virisai Phonology

With this post, I’d like to begin taking a closer look at Virisai, the first of many constructed languages I created for the Otherworld setting. Along the way, I would also like to justify some of the design decisions I made, but we’ll take that as it comes.

The speakers

Within the confines of the setting, Virisai is the effective national language of the kingdom of Vistaan. Its speakers, numbering about a million, are genetically similar to modern-day Native Americans, though there are a few changes here and there, owing to the 10-12 millennia of separation. They are, however, fully human; this is not an alien language, as far as that goes. Thus, none of the sounds are impossible for human mouths to pronounce, and the general grammatical concepts are close enough to those of Earth languages to be recognizable.

Externally, I started the language in 2013 as part of the “linguistic playground” that was my original vision for the Otherworld setting. For the most part, I always intended it to be the “base” language for the story, the one that would be met earliest and most often. (At the beginning, I also envisioned a kind of pidgin or creole variant, but I scrapped that as I developed the conlang.) The idea of multiple fantasy-like—yet still human—races inhabiting the same world also arose around that time; Virisai is thus the primary language of the “normal” humans of the main story area. As I have expanded my worldbuilding to encompass other areas, I’ve had to revise my original outline, but the core has remained the same, and this conlang has stayed at its center.

As I have said, I wanted to make something that seems natural enough that it doesn’t strike the reader as obviously constructed, but also simple enough that a group of ordinary American college students could achieve a decent comprehension after no more than 80 days of immersion. Most of them are monolingual, with their only real exposure to learning another language coming in high school, but a few are different. Sara is fluent in Spanish, for instance, and Ramón obviously is as well. Jeff, of course, is the “token” linguist character; his job for most of the early series is that of the translator, the interpreter, and he doesn’t always pull it off.

Everyone, though, is basically starting from scratch. The vocabulary of Virisai bears no resemblance whatsoever to English or Spanish. Or, for that matter, Japanese (Alex likes manga) or even Navajo (Lee’s great-grandfather was a code talker in WWII). That means that, early on, there’s a lot of pointing and grunting, the kind of first-contact stuff that most TV shows and movies gloss over. But the characters eventually get past that, and they start to learn a bit about the speech of their new world.


All told, Virisai isn’t that complex in terms of phonology. It has 31 phonemes in total, which is fairly average. Twenty-one of those are consonants, and only one of those would really be considered “odd” to English speakers. Here’s the whole list in IPA:

Stops: /p b t d k g/
Fricatives: /s z ʃ ʒ h/
Affricates: /tʃ dʒ/
Nasals: /m n ɲ/
Approximants: /β̞ l ɹ j w/

In general, most consonants can show up anywhere, but the palatals (/ʃ ʒ tʃ dʒ ɲ/) are mostly forbidden from ending a word. An exception is the “good morning” greeting araj, which is a colloquialism. An English analogy might be yeah, which ends with a vowel not normally found word-finally.

One aspect of Virisai that makes it a little more difficult is the wide variety of consonant clusters it allows. These are no more than three consonants at a time, and at most two at the beginning or end of a word, but there’s an awful lot of them.

Vowels, by contrast, are relatively simple. “Standard” Virisai only has five of them, and they’re the basic five you know and love: /a e i o u/. There is a length distinction, which is tough to master, but I didn’t go with anything outlandish here. Mostly, that’s personal preference, as I find it hard to consistently pronounce about half of the IPA vowel chart; I don’t mind saying the characters have the same problem.

I did, however, add an extra wrinkle. Every language has dialects. One spoken in a pre-industrial society, where mass media is absent, the printing press hasn’t been invented, and 50% is a high literacy rate for adults, is bound to develop them more readily. So it is here. The western part of Vistaan (coincidentally enough, exactly where the story begins) has a slightly altered dialect. There, a set of front rounded vowels as developed from combinations of /j/ + /o/ and /u/, and this is reflected in the orthography. (For example, one native character, Nuelossin, has his name shortened to Niel by those who can’t pronounce [ɲyːˈlosin].) A few words are also different, but this hasn’t really come into play just yet in the story.


All in all, I think Virisai succeeds at the goals I set out for it. We’ll go over the grammatical details in a later post, but just from the phonology, I hope you can see what I was trying for. This could have been something complex, baroque, nigh unpronounceable, but I just didn’t go there. And that’s for multiple reasons.

First off, I don’t really like languages that I can’t pronounce. I don’t like throwing in a hundred consonants and fifty vowels just because they look cool. Give me something relatively simple (though it doesn’t have to be too simple), something that makes sense. If there are weird sounds in there, give them a reason to exist. That’s what I did with the Virisai /v/, which is usually realized as [β̞]. It’s there, and it’s a little odd, but I rationalize that by saying it was lowered from /β/ at some point in the past; at some point, it also merged with /ɸ/, but that came after the language’s script was created. Hence, some words are actually written with an initial f, but it’s pronounced like /v/.

Second, this mundane phonology makes Virisai easier to understand for those who aren’t used to having to listen to an unfamiliar language. I know how difficult that can be, and I know that adding in sounds you don’t recognize only makes it harder. (I’ve seriously tried listening to Arabic, for example, but it just doesn’t make sense to me, and I’m hopeless with tones.)

Finally, keeping the phonology of this most common and most important conlang simple makes it easier to write. I did give the orthography a few curveballs, like how the long vowels are written (aa ei ie oo ou) or the way the palatals come out (ci j si zi, except before /i/ or /e/). Sometimes, that even trips me up, and I’ve been playing with this thing for five years now. Story-internally, I handwave that as Jeff being inconsistent; externally, I just wanted something that looked different without resorting to diacritics.

I like to think I succeeded, with that and with the other aspects of this conlang. Later on, though, I’ll start looking at the grammar, and I may revise my opinion.

On the sea

Ah, the sea. The boundless blue. What is it about this trackless expanse that so captivates us? For the entirety of human history, bodies of water (oceans and seas alike) have been a fixture of our most timeless tales. From the ancient flood myths of the Near East and Homer’s Odyssey to more modern tales such as In the Heart of the Sea, storytellers have turned to the waters for help in their art. But why is that? And how can we, as today’s generation following in the footsteps of the great, do the same?

Into the blue

The sea, of course, is the true birthplace of life, in more ways than one. Life itself arose in the seas, as we know from science, but we can also say that civilization was birthed by the sea. While early humans started out in Africa, they quickly found their way to the coasts, and many of our oldest artifacts are related to fishing, to reaping the bounty of the sea. All around the world, we see the same pattern, and it’s no wonder that the Mediterranean, an ocean writ small, is the backdrop for Western advancement. Much later, in the Age of Sail, Europeans took to the vast Atlantic, then the Indian and Pacific; others had already been there, of course, and their stories are equally interesting.

Even today, when so many of us (myself included) focus on that more infinite sea above, the oceans of the world tug at the imagination. I can’t even swim, and I find myself amazed at the America’s Cup. As well, one of my favorite survival stories as a teen, alongside Into Thin Air, was that of Tony Bullimore, whose yacht capsized during the Vendée Globe around-the-world race. Add in The Perfect Storm and a few others, and you’ve already got quite the repertoire just in the last couple of decades.

And that, I believe, is because the sea fills a very important niche. It’s a wilderness unlike any other. Even the most hostile desert gives us a place to stand. A mountain has an easily recognized goal. The barren tundra of Antarctica still lets us control the direction in which we move. Yet the open ocean does none of that. It’s a true blank slate, and a place where (until the advent of steamships) mankind was so obviously out of place that he had to surrender to the mercy of the terrain.

The sea, then, can almost be like a metaphor for life. We don’t always know where to go, what to do. And even when we do, that’s no guarantee that we have the power to get there, or to even take the first stride in that direction.

And the sea is also a living thing. It has moods, as any sailor would tell you, as well as its own set of dangers. Storms are the most notable among those, whether hurricanes, cyclones, or merely the random squalls of the tropics; any good sea story is going to involve a storm at some point. Rogue waves, once believed to be sailors’ tall tales, really can strike, and they hit with a force as great as any weapon. But then we must also add the paradox of sea travel: the calm. Where else can good weather be bad?

Salt and sand

For a story, it might be best to think of what you want from the sea, and that requires you to think about what you want from the story itself. First of all, what’s the setting?

In today’s world, as well as more futuristic times, we don’t think of the oceans as being all that important. Other than The Perfect Storm (which took place in 1991) and a number of heroic WWII accounts, the last century has seen a kind of turning away from the sea. When we look ahead, we think of space instead. So, for a modern or postmodern setting, you really have to try to make the sea distinct, if you’re going to use it as something more than a backdrop. Why are your characters on a boat, for instance, instead of taking a plane? For a disaster tale, it’s a bit easier, but that obviously doesn’t fit every work.

Going back in time, it becomes ever easier to work the sea into your story. As recently as 100 years ago, crossing the ocean meant actually crossing the ocean. Five centuries ago, even that was almost impossible. In between, we have the golden age of sea travel, where we find pirates and explorers, buccaneers and missionaries and the great naval battles of history. For that era, the sea was the frontier, as space is for us today. It was the board on which the games of power were played. A story set in those days can be about a voyage at sea, and it can take advantage of the distance, the disconnection, of being out of sight of land.

That time also neatly intersects with the typical fantasy timeline. The High Middle Ages in Europe were before the compass, before the galleon, before the other advances that tamed the ocean. Yes, the Vikings sailed to America a millennium ago. On the other side of the globe, Polynesians had colonized hundreds of Pacific islands by that same time, some thousands of miles away from any other land. We can have some fun with that, but the more “traditional” fantasy cultures are going to look at the sea as more of a boundary than a frontier. (Unless you start adding in advanced seafaring races, in which case they’ll be more like the Age of Sail.) Thus, an exploratory voyage could make an interesting story in its own right, as in Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God series.

Mostly, stories set on the high seas tend to have some element of warfare involved, if only because that’s how we see this exotic locale. That is a function of our history, but also of necessity: out there, there’s not much else to do. And fighting on the ocean, out of contact with the homeland, frees characters from the rules of engagement. After all, who’s going to know?

That doesn’t mean that every sea story has to have cannons or swashbuckling rogues, but it is common. Equally common is the disaster, whether a ten-story wave slamming into a ship, a hurricane battering it for hours to days, or just the simple lack of winds leaving it adrift. Like the desert, the sea can be an excellent place for a tale of survival. In a way, it works even better, because it adds the conundrum of being surrounded by water that is effectively poisonous. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Last, the sea can be a setting, a place where the action unfolds. An anthology-like story might involve island hopping, because islands in the ocean can be far enough apart—especially in pre-modern times—that news can’t easily travel between them. Much like a space opera where the crew skips from one planet to the next, the sea provides the perfect reason for why these adventures are independent.

I could say much more, but I’ve rambled on long enough. Hopefully, I’ve given you something to think about. Our world is 70% water, and that majority portion really can seem endless when you’re standing on a beach or pier. But our imaginations truly are without boundaries. Put the two together, and it’s no surprise we have turned to the sea for some of our greatest stories throughout the ages.

Release: Innocence Reborn (Orphans of the Stars 1)

A new series begins. A new adventure begins. And this one is in space!

Space is a frontier. Space is an adventure.

Levi Maclin was always interested in the vastness of space. He dreamed of sailing through the void, exploring new worlds, seeing alien suns. This summer, he hoped to have his chance. Instead of going to beach for their vacation, his family would travel across light-years to Outland Resort, humanity’s most distant colony, its farthest frontier. It was a getaway, an adventure, a dream come true…until it wasn’t.

Some vacations are ruined by hurricanes, others by blizzards, but Levi’s falls apart when a series of unidentified objects streak across the sky above Outland Resort. They aren’t meteors. They aren’t comets. They’re weapons, weapons trained on the resort and its whole world. Suddenly, his adventure takes an unexpected turn. As concern turns to panic, he can only think one thought: how did it all go so wrong?

This is one I’ve really been looking forward to putting out there. Think of it almost like The Expanse for kids, in a very vague sense. It’s told from the point of view of a small group of children and teens (POVs range from 11-17 in this one, but they’ll get older as time goes on), but don’t think that means there’s no drama involved. This is a serious story, or at least I intended it to be. The characters act young and immature, but they step up when needed.

Most of all, what I wanted to create with Innocence Reborn was something fun. In my original notes, the series was codenamed “Space Adventures”, because that was what I set out to write: the adventures of a bunch of kids in space. Later on, I’ll do a postmortem for the book, where I go into detail about the setting and my expectations. For now, just enjoy reading it.

You can pick up Innocence Reborn for a mere \$3/month on my Patreon. That same pledge also gets you access to Nocturne, Before I Wake, and the complete series of The Linear Cycle and Chronicles of the Otherworld, so there’s really no reason not to give it a shot. And stay tuned for future installments of this series, as I’m currently working on the sequel, Beyond the Horizon, and the adventures are far from over.

On Godot 3.0

For a couple of years now, I’ve been talking about the amazing Godot Engine. Recently, I’ve been writing so much that I haven’t had time to get back into coding, but the announcement of Godot Engine version 3.0 got my attention. Now, I’ve had some time to play with it, and here’s my verdict.

First off, Godot is free. It’s open source. It’s cross-platform, for both development and deployment. All three of those are important to me. I’m poor, so an engine that costs hundreds or thousands of dollars just to get started is, well, a non-starter. Second, my desktop runs Linux, so a Windows-only tool is probably going to be useless, and something proprietary really isn’t good when you have the very real possibility of having to delve into the bowels of the engine for customization purposes.

Yes, something like Unity is probably better for someone who’s just starting out. It’s got a bigger community, it’s more mature, and it does have a much more professional air. On the other hand, Godot’s new version really ups the bar, putting it on the same general level as other “indie-friendly” game engines.

New and improved

The biggest new feature in Godot 3.0 has to be the improved 3D renderer. 3D was always Godot’s weak point, especially on certain hardware. Namely, mine. Last year, I was running on integrated graphics (A10 Trinity, if you care), and I got maybe 5 FPS on Godot’s platformer demo. Fast-forward to January 1st, 2018, after I installed a new (to me) RX 460 running the fancy amdgpu drivers and everything. Curious, I fired up Godot 2.1 and the demo. Results? 5 FPS max. No difference.

With 3.0, though, that’s no longer a problem. From what I’ve read, that’s because the developers have completely overhauled the 3D portion of the engine. It’s faster on low-end (and medium-level) hardware, and some of the sample images are stunning. I’d have to do more tests to see just how well it works in practice, but it could hardly be worse than before.

In a way, that perfectly describes all the new features. The renderer’s been rewritten to be better. Physics now uses the Bullet engine instead of a homebrew system. Audio? Rewrite. Shaders? Rewrite. It’s not so much revolution as evolution, except that doesn’t work. No, think of it more as evolution by revolution. Now, that’s not to say there are no new features in this version. It’s just that those are overshadowed by the massive improvements in the existing parts.

I’ll gladly admit that I don’t care much about VR gaming. I’m not one of those who see it as a gimmick, but it’s not ready for primetime yet. But if you’re of a different persuasion, then you might be interested in the VR support that’s been added. I’ll leave that to you to discover, as I honestly have no idea how it all works.

More to my taste is the additional programming support. Godot uses a custom scripting language by default, a Python clone designed to interface with the engine. I’m not really a fan of that approach, as I’ve written before. Clearly, I’m not alone in that thinking, as version 3.0 now offers more options. First up is GDNative, way to extend the engine using external libraries (written in native code, hence the name) without going through the trouble of recompiling the whole thing every time you make a change. That one looks good on its face, as it opens up the possibility of integrating popular and well-tested libraries much more easily.

But that doesn’t really replace GDScript, although it does add the ability to make bindings for other scripting languages. The new Mono support, on the other hand, actually does change the way you write code. It’s not perfect (as of this writing, it’s not even complete!), but it definitely shows promise.

As you know, Unity uses C# as its language of choice; they’ve deprecated JavaScript, and they try to pretend Boo never existed. Well, now (or once it’s done) Godot will let you write your game in C#, too. Even better, it surpasses Unity by using a much newer version of Mono, so you get full C# 7.0 support, assuming you trust Microsoft enough to use it.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a “visual” scripting system, much like Unreal’s Blueprints. That one’s in its early stages, so it’s not much more than a flowchart where you don’t have to write the function names, but I can’t see it not getting improved in future versions.

So there you have it. I haven’t even scratched the surface here, but I hope it whets your appetite, because I still think Godot is one of the best indie game engines out there. If you don’t have the money to spend on Unity, you’d rather use a platform without a port of the Unreal editor, or you don’t want to risk getting sued by Crytek, then there’s almost no reason not to give Godot a shot. It’s only getting better, and this new version proves it.

Languages of the Otherworld: Philosophy

The main storyline of Chronicles of the Otherworld follows a group of eleven college students who are transported from an archaeological site in Mexico to a planet inhabited by descendants of the original settlers of the Americas. Over the course of eight books, 64 chapters, and some 400,000 words, they learn to live in this new world, and one of the primary barriers they run into is that of language. For this land is not Mexico, and the speakers use a language wholly unknown to our world.

Let’s talk

As the Otherworld setting originated as a linguistic playground, it stands to reason that I would place heavy emphasis on the speech of its natives. And I did. The first native words appear almost as soon as the first native shows up, in Chapter 8 of Out of the Past. (That’s the main reason why Jeff, the linguist character, has the perspective for that chapter.) As I write this, I’m a couple of weeks removed from finishing the 19th story in the setting, and new words and phrases are still popping up.

This is by design. It’s not that I’m trying to make the story hard to read, but it follows my preference for limited-perspective narration. The characters don’t always know what these words mean, so I leave them untranslated. Once they start gaining comprehension, the fake language slowly shifts to English. As the books progress, the native terms become fewer and farther between. Entire conversations can pass without them, but the reader is aware that the Earthlings are talking in a decidedly unearthly tongue.

Sometimes, they mix in Americanisms, and I’ve made this a plot point on a few occasions. “Okay” is such a common word that college-aged men and women use it liberally, and the dialogue reflects that. As they use it, though, the natives begin to pick it up, and the same goes for words for other concepts they wouldn’t have, like “phone” and “science”. (In the few cases where I’ve had native points of view, this gets a bit trickier, I’ll admit. There, the only words left untranslated are mostly those that don’t easily map to English equivalents.)

Speaking the truth

To make this somewhat more believable, the primary language of the setting—at least in the area where our story is concerned—couldn’t be too complex. Indeed, it has to be fairly simple, which led me to a conundrum. As you may know, the indigenous languages of the Americas are widely regarded as some of the most complex on the planet. They use unfamiliar sounds, unusual grammatical categories, and distinction that Indo-European languages either ignore or gloss over. Even if I did know enough about them (and I don’t), I doubt I could create something derived from, say, a Mayan language, let alone something a few kids in their twenties could pick up in less than three months.

Fortunately, that’s where the backstory helps me. The languages of the Otherworld don’t have to be derived from existing Amerind languages. They don’t even have to come from their ancestors. Because I placed the divergence point so far in the past, I consider myself to have almost free reign. After all, the last connection between our world and that one was at the end of the Ice Age (as confirmed in A Peace Shattered, Chapter 7). That’s about twice as much time as you need to evolve the whole Indo-European family.

Given that many centuries, anything can happen, so I felt comfortable creating something entirely from scratch. And thus we have what the natives call Virisai, the speech of the Virissea. In the next post, I’ll start going into greater detail about the language itself, but I’ll finish this one with a bit more philosophy.

First off, I’ve been adamant that the conlangs I make for Otherworld need to be written, and written easily. These are books, novels, and I feel that throwing in a cacophony of diacritics is just going to turn people completely off. (Yeah, because the story wouldn’t.) Also, I want something that isn’t too hard to pronounce, both for the characters’ benefit and because I imagine Chronicles as a TV series. Media conlangs aren’t complex, unless they’re Klingon.

So Virisai doesn’t have a horribly baroque phonology. As a matter of fact, it’s quite tame, especially compared to its supposed relatives in our world. There’s no /f/ sound, but that’s not too unusual; actually, my oldest active conlang, Suvile, has the same restriction, so maybe it’s a personal thing. The main /r/ sound is more like that of American English rather than, say, a Spanish-like trill. About the only real sticking points are the long vowels—it’s a proper length distinction, one of quantity rather than quality—and the odd realization of /v/, which does come out closer to Spanish ([β̞], in case you were wondering).

Grammar-wise, it’s also nothing too out there. I could have thrown in antipassives or some other bizarre (compared to Europe) ideas, but I didn’t. That’s not to say there aren’t oddities. Virisai does have a case system. Its genitives are head-marked, which is fairly weird. There’s a suffix -te used for things like naming, and that can catch the unwary.

All in all, though, I’ve endeavored to make this a beginner-friendly conlang, something that wouldn’t be too difficult to pick up. The vocabulary is entirely unlike anything anyone on Earth knows, but that’s probably the hardest part.

Later on, we’ll delve more deeply into that, as well as the other languages of Otherworld. For now, enjoy “The Code Breaker” and the rest of A Bridge Between Worlds.

Release: The Code Breaker (A Bridge Between Worlds 1)

The cycle begins anew…but not really. The Return to the Otherworld won’t come around until 2019 (coincidentally enough, the year in which the original Chronicles of the Otherworld takes place). Until then, you’ll be getting 6 shorter novellas I’ve entitled A Bridge Between Worlds. As the name suggests, they bridge the nine-month gap between Long Road’s End and the next story in the “main” Otherworld sequence, The Second Crossing.

First up is “The Code Breaker”:

Lee never regretted his decision to stay in the other world. He knew it would be hard, but he believed his hard work would be rewarded. Nimiesa left everything she knew behind, and now she waits for the day when she enters a new world of her own: the world of motherhood. Together, they are the first to bridge the stars, but leaving their past behind is harder than it seems.

Once again, the Otherworld series is, for the time being, a Patreon exclusive, and you can get access to it for a pledge of only \$3/month. On top of that, you’ll get the complete first season of the series, as well as many other novels and short stories.

Next up is “The Red Magician”, coming in March. Until then, keep reading!

On mountains

The mountain looms large in our imagination. We speak of summits and pinnacles and peaks as though anything could be compared to a mountain. We use them in logos (Paramount) and brands (Denali) to represent quality, immovability, toughness. Mountains have a majesty, and they always have. The Greek gods had their abode on Mount Olympus. Noah’s Ark is said to be on Mount Ararat. Frodo had to take the One Ring to Mount Doom.

That last, of course, is a purely literary creation. (Some would say the others are, too, but that’s not the point of this post.) And that naturally brings us to the question of how to use mountains in a story. What is so special about them? What makes them stand out in literature? Read on for my thoughts.

Reaching the peak

First, I think that a mountain, more than any other geographical feature, represents achievement. In a way, that’s because we often hear tales of mountain climbing, but those tales only came about because people saw mountains as things to be conquered. And that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Only in the past few decades has it really become a major source of adventure.

But it’s perfect for that. Climbing a mountain can be a grueling, demanding task. For the tallest and most remote peaks, you need some serious training and preparation. The environment is inhospitable at best, deadly at worst. Just catching sight of the summit is an accomplishment. Reaching it is a true achievement, and the flanks of, for example, Everest are littered with stories of failure.

And really, when you think about it, there’s no reason to bother. The whole thing’s a fruitless pursuit, a pure adventure with no true payoff. Why do people climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. That’s it. No other reason at all, but that it’s something to do, a visible goal we can strive towards.

In that, the mountain serves as the perfect metaphor. Even better, climbing quite naturally gives us a definite climax, as well as the perfect opportunity for a “false ending” where the presumed climax isn’t actually the conclusion of the story. After all, sometimes the hardest part is getting back down the mountain.

But back to the metaphor…well, metaphor. It really does have a lot of levels, but they all find their way back to that same inescapable conclusion: there’s a peak, and we have to reach it. If you’re a writer who can’t find a way to make that work, then you might be in the wrong line of work. You don’t even have to put a volcanic chasm at the top, as Tolkien did. Any mountain can evoke the same sense of accomplishment, of achieving one’s aims.


Beyond that, mountains can also make for good scenery, even in written form. Visually, as you know, a jagged line or solitary, snow-capped peak can be downright stunning. Described well, they can make the same impact in a novel, too. But you have to go about it a different way.

In my opinion, mountains as scenery, as backdrop, work best when they’re integrated into the story, but not the primary focus. A mountain is rugged, remote, inaccessible. It’s not the kind of place that is often the center of attention. Thus, it can fade into the background while still casting a shadow over a setting.

Who knows what lurks out there? Mountains can be the abode of gods, monsters, or just backwoods hill folk. Whatever the case, we’re talking about beings who don’t normally visit the cities and towns. They’re wild, but a different sort of wild than the denizens of, say, a forest. Mountains, because of their harsh nature, imply a harder life. We have the stereotypical image of the “mountain man”, as well as legendary creatures such as the Yeti, and these both speak to the myth of the mountain.

All alone out here

Another thing that follows from the idea of mountains being remote is their isolation. They’re the perfect place to get away from it all. The taller ones are bleak, seemingly lifeless, while shorter peaks may be covered in trees, but they share that common bond. The mountain is a retreat.

Today, we might think of that in terms of ski lodges, campgrounds, or hiking trails, but there’s a deeper history here, one that plays into fantasy and other fiction. If you want to escape, you head to the hills, whatever your reason for escaping in the first place. Monasteries (or their fantasy equivalents) work well in the mountains, and what alpine story doesn’t have a secret hideaway somewhere up above the treeline? Nobody knows about these places for the very simple reason that they’re not meant to be found. So what better place to put them than the one nobody would think to look in?


Finally, mountains are a great setting for disaster, whether natural or man-made. Obviously, volcanoes are exciting, dangerous spectacles. Avalanches are more sudden, but their aftermath can make for a good survival story. Flooding (possibly from melting snow) can provide a relatively slow, yet no less unstoppable, threat.

On the highest mountains, it’s the storm that is the biggest, most cinematic of disasters. The snowstorm that struck Mount Everest in May 1996, for instance, spawned the book Into Thin Air and the more recent movie Everest. Once the mountain gets tall enough where climbers need oxygen tanks, then that’s a consumable that can run dry at the exact wrong moment. Add in blinding blizzards, hurricane-force winds, deadly cold—you get the picture.

On the artificial side of the disaster aisle, you have the fantasy standby of the siege, especially when the defenders in their mountain fastness are heavily outnumbered; think the battle of the Wall in A Storm of Swords, although that, strictly speaking, wasn’t an actual mountain. Combined with the idea of a hidden society shut away behind the rocky faces, and you have a lot to play with.

Last on the list, in a strange twist, is what was actually the first mountain disaster movie I ever watched: Alive. The true story of the 1972 Andes plane crash is a gripping tale that needs no embellishment. Weeks of cold, of starvation and injury and general privation, ended in death for most, miraculous survival for a very few. The same story could be told on a deserted island or in the middle of the ocean (In the Heart of the Sea works for the latter), but the mountain setting of this disaster gives it a starkness that anywhere else in the world would lack. For beating the odds, it’s hard to beat the peaks.

First glance: Kotlin

In my quest to find a decent language that runs on the JVM (and can thus be used on Android without worrying about native compilation) while not being as painfully awful as Java itself, I’ve gone through a number of possibilities. Groovy was an old one that seems to have fallen by the wayside, and it’s one of those that always rubbed me the wrong way. A bit like Ruby in that regard, and I think that was the point. Scala was another contender, and I still think it’s a great language. It’s a nice blend of functional and object-oriented programming, a true multi-paradigm language in the vein of C++, and it has a lot of interesting features that make coding in it both easier and simply more fun than Java.

Alas, Scala support is sketchy at best, at least once you leave the world of desktops and servers. (Maybe things have picked up there in the past year and a half. I haven’t checked.) And while the language is great, it’s not without its flaws. Compilation is fairly slow, reminding me the “joys” (note sarcasm) of template-heavy C++ code. All in all, Scala is the language I wish I could use more often.

A new challenger

Enter Kotlin. It’s been around for a few years, but I’ve only recently given it a look, and I’m surprised by what I found. First and foremost, Kotlin is a language developed by JetBrains, the same ones who make IntelliJ IDEA (which, in turn, is the basis for Android Studio). It’s open source under the Apache license, so you don’t have to worry about them pulling the rug out from under you. Also, Android Studio has support for the language built in, and Google even has a few samples using it. That’s already a good start, I’d say.

At the link above, you can find all the usual hallmarks of a “modern” programming language. You’ve got docs, tutorials, lots of press-type stuff, commercial and free support, etc. In that, it’s no different from, say, Typescript. Maybe there’s a bit more emphasis on using IDEA instead of Eclipse or Netbeans, but that’s no big deal. All in all, it’s nothing special…until you dig into the language itself.


Kotlin’s main mission, essentially, is to make a better Java than Java. Maybe not in the wholesale sense like C#, but that’s the general vibe I get. Java interop is an important part of the documentation, and that’s a good thing, because there’s a lot of Java code out there. Some of it is even good. It’d be a shame to throw it all away just to use what’s undoubtedly a better language.

But let’s talk about why Kotlin is better than Java. (Hint: because it’s not Java.) It borrows heavily from Scala, and this is both intentional and promising. Like Scala, there’s a heavy pressure on the programmer to use the immutable val where possible, while reserving the mutable var for those situations where it’s needed. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “all constant, all the time” approach of e.g., Haskell or Erlang, but the “default constant” style that Kotlin takes from Scala is a happy medium, in my opinion.

In addition, Kotlin makes a major distinction between nullable and non-nullable types. For instance, your basic String type, which you’d normally use for, well, strings, can’t be assigned a value of null. It’s a compile-time error. (If you need a nullable type, you have to ask for it: String?.) Likewise, you have an assortment of “safe” syntax elements that check for null values. Compiler magic allows you to work with a nullable type without hassle, as long as the compiler can prove that you’ve checked for null. That only works with immutable values, another instance where the language guides you onto the “right” path.

Those two alone, nullability and mutability, are already enough to eliminate some of the most common Java programming mistakes, and Kotlin should be lauded for that alone. But it also brings a lot of nifty features, mostly in the form of syntactic sugar to cut down on Java’s verbosity. Lambdas are always nice, of course. Smart casts (the same compiler trick that lets you dispense with some null checks) are intriguing, and one of those things that makes you wonder why they weren’t already there. And then you have all the little things: destructuring assignments, ranges, enum classes, and so on.

All told, Kotlin is a worthy entry in the “what Java should be” competition. It fits the mold of the “modern” language, taking bits and pieces from everywhere. But it puts those pieces together in a polished package, and that’s what’s important. This isn’t something that involves arcane command-line incantations or a leaning tower of 57 different build systems to get working. If you use IDEA, then it’s already there. If not, it’s not hard to get. Compared to the torture of getting Scala to work on Android (never did manage it, by the way), Kotlin is a breeze.


Yet no language is perfect, and this is no exception. Mostly, what I find to be Kotlin’s disadvantages are minor annoyances, silly limitations, and questionable choices. Some of these, however, give rise to bigger issues.

The heavy emphasis on tracking nullability is worthwhile, but the documentation especially turns it into something akin to religious dogma. That gets in the way of some things, and it can make others cumbersome. For example, although the language has type inference, you have to be careful when you cast. The basic as cast operator doesn’t convert from nullable to non-nullable. That’s good in that you probably don’t want it to, but it does mean you sometimes have to write things in a roundabout way. (This is particularly the case when you’re taking data from Java code, where the null-checks are toned down.)

Interop, in fact, causes most of Kotlin’s problems. There’s no solving that, I suppose, short of dropping it altogether, but it is annoying. Generics, for instance, are just as confusing as ever, because they were bolted on after the JVM had gone through a few revisions, and they had to preserve backward compatibility.

Except for syntax choices, that’s my main complaint about Kotlin, and I recognize that there’s not a JVM language out there that can really fix it. Not if you want to work with legacy Java code, anyway. So let’s take a look at the syntax bits instead.

I can’t say I like the belt-and-suspenders need to have both classes and methods final by default. I get the thinking behind it, but it feels like the same kind of pedantry that causes me to dislike Java in the first place.

Operator overloading exists, after a fashion. It’s about as limited as Python’s, and one of the few cases where I wish Kotlin had swiped more from Scala. Sure, you can make certain methods into infix pseudo-operators, but that’s not really anything more than dropping a dot and a pair of parentheses. You’re not making your own power operator here.

The verdict

Really, I could go on, but I think you see the pattern. Kotlin has some good ideas, none of them really new or innovative by themselves, but all bringing a welcome bit of sanity to the Java world. The minor problems are just that: minor. In most cases, they’re a matter of personal opinion, and I’ll gladly admit that my opinion is in the minority when it comes to programming style.

On the whole, Kotlin is a good language. I don’t know if I’d call it great, but that’s largely because I don’t really know what would make a programming language great these days. I’m not even sure we need one that’s great. Just one that isn’t bad would be a start, if you ask me.

And that’s what we have here. If I get back into Android development in 2018, I’ll definitely be looking at Kotlin as my first choice in language. Anything is an improvement over Java, but this one’s the biggest improvement I’ve seen yet.

Languages of the Otherworld: Introduction

In this new year of 2018, I think my “Let’s Make a Language” series can be retired. Maybe it’ll come out of retirement at some point down the line—that’s all the rage these days, isn’t it?—but it’s at a good stopping point, in my opinion.

But that means I need something else to write about, something to do with constructed languages. Well, since I’ve been writing so much on my own fiction, and one of my main settings involves heavy use of conlangs, why not use that? So here we are. This is another one of my sporadic post series, and it will focus on the languages I have created for my Otherworld setting. So far, I’ve put out 8 short novels (or long novellas, if you prefer) over at my Patreon, with another 6 shorter novellas coming this year. All told, I have plans for a total of 50 stories in the “main” course of this setting, and the languages are a key element. They’re pretty much the reason I started Otherworld in the first place. (That, and because Stargate Universe got canceled. The one thing I can thank Comcast for, I guess?)

So here’s how this is going to work: I don’t know. Seriously. I’m just going to write, and we’ll see what happens. I do want to talk about the creation of languages in general, using my own as both inspiration and example. I want to show off a little, too, and I hope you don’t mind. Most of all, I want this to be a kind of “behind the scenes” set of posts, a producer’s commentary for one element of the Otherworld.

Lay of the land

For this introductory post, I won’t go into too much detail about the languages themselves. Instead, I’ll give a broad overview of my thought processes going into the creation of the Otherworld setting.

First off, when I started Otherworld back in 2013, I had a goal in mind: to create a believable world. I’m not opposed to the kind of generic fantasy that gives no thought to its own backstory, but my preference is verisimilitude. I like a “realistic” world, one that I can imagine myself visiting, living in.

Thus, when making the languages of Otherworld, I didn’t set out to create anything too outlandish. The core conceit of the setting is that the fictional world is inhabited by a parallel development of humans that branched off from the first inhabitants of the Americas at the end of the Ice Age. Given the time and distance differences separating them from our familiar Old World languages, I felt comfortable creating those of the Otherworld from scratch. Too little is known about the protolanguages of America to disprove me, but that also means I didn’t really have much to work with. No matter. I prefer the a priori approach.

Early on, one of my ideas was a multiracial world, though one where the races were superficially similar to those of fantasy literature. So I needed at least one language for each race, because we’re dealing with a pre-modern world that wouldn’t have the normalizing elements of TV, radio, and other mass media. To preserve my sanity, though, I’m only fully detailing the most prominent examples of each. I justify this in text by simple expediency: the protagonists are too far away from other examples. They’re placed in an area that sees members of other races, but doesn’t always recognize their internal differences. So they consider the “Arassea“, for instance, to have a single language, and they name that language after its only known speakers.

My main concession to bias, I suppose, would be the mild stereotyping I’ve done with some of these languages. The Fassea race, to take one example, inhabits islands and coastal regions, and I drew heavily on Polynesian grammar and phonology for them.

All told, Otherworld has nine living races, and thus nine main conlangs. The tenth belongs to the Altea, mythologized forebears that, I must admit, are heavily inspired by the legends of Atlantis. They were human, but highly advanced, and they were the ones who originally colonized (and, for that matter, terraformed) the Otherworld itself. The timing just barely works, based on current archaeological evidence and theories.

So that’s our jumping-off point. Next time, we’ll get to looking at “Virisai”, the common tongue of the main story area. It’s by far the most well-developed of the Otherworld set, so it’s only natural that it gets top billing. Later on, I’ll work the others in where possible.