HCW #1: Faster than light

As promised, the first entry in Hardcore Worldbuilding is now live! As the topic, I chose FTL travel, since that’s something I could ramble about for days. In a couple of weeks, you get issue #2, all about guns in fantasy.

Check it out over on Substack, and be sure to subscribe if you like what you see. Writing this was really exciting, and it’s helping me get back in the groove.

The storm within

I think it’s pretty well established at this point that I’m an unrepentant metalhead. I grew up on the hair metal of the 80s, and some of my earliest memories are of my mom blasting Bon Jovi, Skid Row, and similar bands. (I was also told not to talk about Warrant around my father. Only later did I learn that was because he’d spent time in prison.)

I loved that kind of music. I loved the amazing guitar solos, the epic vocals, and everything about the sound. I really never stopped loving it, even as 80s metal gave way to 90s grunge and hard rock. “High Enough”, “18 and Life”, and “Silent Lucidity” were anthems for me long after their sell-by date. I tried to get into Metallica, but that fascination was cut short when they decided they’d rather sue their fans than make music. S&M is still a great album, if you ask me.

Of course, once I started looking into the genre, I found so many more artists to love. Nightwish, Blind Guardian, Avantasia, Borealis…the list could go on forever. They all have something in common, though. All of my favorite metal bands share that same feel. When I listen to music, I want to be moved, and this kind of music moves me in a way like no other.

Most of all, I think that comes from the lyrics. Too much modern music ignores them, or makes them incomprehensible. Nobody’s listening to rap for the words. You can’t even make out what somebody like Billie Eilish is saying!

Not so in the kind of metal I prefer. Here, the vocals are clean (if sometimes accented, because so many of the bands are European), and they aren’t drowned out by bass or compressed into a muddy mix fit for Spotify’s lowest quality. And they tell a story. That’s something a great song does. It’s why so many country, folk, and early rock standards became standards in the first place. Oh, I can lose myself in an instrumental track, but give me lyrics that tell a tale, and I’m hooked.

One band has utterly enthralled me for the past year or so: Evergrey. Like so many of the best metal acts, they’re from Sweden, which 2020 has shown to be the smartest country in the world. Their style is considered progressive, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. A lot of progressive metal artists are hard to listen to, but not this one. If anything, they’re one of the most accessible bands in the genre today.

Not only are they accessible, they’re relatable, at least for me. The lyrics move me. They ring so true in my mind that I sometimes feel as though Tom Englund is singing my life. I love that, even when I don’t. (I’ve also used a lyrical phrase as a post title here on PPC. If you’re curious, I’ll tell you which one.)

The topics of their songs are varied. Their The Inner Circle is a concept album about cults and child abuse. Hymns for the Broken strikes me as a rebellion against an authoritarian dictatorship; if the Democrats win next month, I’ll be listening to it a lot more. Last year’s The Atlantic was a little forgettable, in my opinion, but still not bad. Recreation Day left me in shock the first time I listened to it, because it was just the right album at the right time.

And then we have The Storm Within. It’s a few years old now. If anything, though, it’s more relevant to me than ever before. The opening track, “Distance”, sets the tone:

It’s not over
We’ll soon be closer than before
Can’t let this distance
Keep our distant souls apart

Being in a long-distance relationship, those words struck me every time I listened to them. They were a hope and a prayer for a man who doesn’t pray and had lost hope. I even let my partner listen to this song —her tastes are entirely different—and her response was simply, “That sounds a lot like you.” She was right.

“Passing Through” follows that, and it’s a nice, upbeat “live in the moment” song. There are things I’d like to tell the version of myself from ten years ago, so I could be, as it goes, “better, wiser, and not as blind.”

Next is “Someday”, a hard and heavy track that, to me, speaks of depression, failure, and the struggle those of us who suffer from those must endure. “I can’t do this alone,” the lyric says. These past few weeks, the message has been especially important.

“Astray” is one where the words are sometimes hard to understand. It’s about giving up, and these lines are awfully close to some I’ve said in my weaker moments:

I used to be stronger
I used to want this more
Is everything meant to hurt
And leave me alone?

After a few heavy songs comes “The Impossible”, a slower, softer track. The piano is strong here, something that always makes metal better, but the pathos overshadows it by far. Sometimes asking someone to change really is asking the impossible. We don’t mean for it to be that way.

“My Allied Ocean” is complex in multiple senses. It’s drum-centric, with a few good guitar riffs thrown in for good measure. The bridge of the song involves a spoken-word section (another of my guilty pleasures) that briefly became a mantra for me: “You have got to do it for yourself. You have to make the decision whether or not it’s worth it for you to live.”

That’s the halfway point of the album, but it doesn’t go downhill from here at all. One of my favorite things about metal is the sense of community. So many of the artists I love cross over, collaborate, and join supergroups. In the case of “In Orbit”, the seventh track, the guest is Floor Jansen, lead singer of Nightwish and one of my absolute favorite female vocalists. Even without her, though, this would be an amazing listen. It just has a tempo and an energy.

Track 8, “The Lonely Monarch”, is another one that’s hard to describe. It’s mainstream-accessible, not overly epic, with a guitar wail that grabs your attention. The underlying message, of a man who’s trying everything he can to keep his life from falling apart, well, that’s too familiar.

Next up, we have another collaboration, this time with Carina Englund, lead singer Tom’s wife, and a great vocalist in her own right. The song, “The Paradox of the Flame”, is a ballad, and I’m one of those people who believes that an album is no good if it doesn’t have a good ballad. This is of the best. Every line is emotional. The music hurts from its tragic beauty. The interplay between male and female singers tells a story everyone knows in a way you can’t help but feel.

Right after this slow, almost sensual ballad, we jump right back into the heavy end with “Disconnect”. From the opening lines, you know where it’s going:

Gone, she’s gone
How am I supposed to make it alone?

If the album as a whole is telling a story, it’s of a man whose mental problems get in the way and prevent him from having a healthy relationship. “Disconnect” is the point where he realizes the enormity of his mistake, and he’s doing everything in his power to make amends. Or maybe I’m biased because I’ve been at that point. “I never meant to be indifferent. I never wanted you to feel irrelevant. You were never insignificant.” Anyone who’s ever (accidentally or intentionally) treated their partner this way should listen. And so should those partners, because it’s what we all want to say.

The “main” album wraps up with the title track, “The Storm Within”. For some reason, this song is a chameleon in my mind. Every time I listen to it, I hear something different. I pick up parts I swear I’ve never heard before. It has an air of finality to it, a climactic sound that doesn’t really bring restitution. In a way, that’s poignant. We don’t get over these things. We merely learn to live with them. So there’s no real end, just a moment when we say, “This is it. From now on, I’m going to be better.” We can brave the storm within, or we can let it blow us away.

This aural feast closes out with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”. I’d heard that song for years, but I never really listened to it closely. For one thing, Ozzy’s voice is essentially indecipherable. But the music also didn’t lend itself to any serious lyrical evaluation. With Evergrey’s version, that’s different. I was able to listen and hear, and I found that the song has the wrong title. It’s not about paranoia at all. It’s about depression, and about how it colors our perception even as it causes us to push away the ones we love. There could not be a better cover for this album.

That’s why I’ve listened to The Storm Within a couple dozen times in the past year. It’s good music, first of all. It’s everything I like in metal, and really nothing I don’t. No harsh vocals, no grunts or growls, just good, strong music. Better yet, there’s a story in it, a story I can relate to on the deepest level. Twelve tracks, and I can connect to almost every one of them. I wish I didn’t have to, but such is life.

Magic and tech: cities

In today’s world, over half the planet’s population lives in urban areas. In other words, cities. That’s a lot, and the number is only increasing as cities grow ever larger, ever more expansive. Even on the smaller end (my local “big” city, Chattanooga, has somewhere around a quarter of a million people, and it’s not exactly considered huge), the city is a marker of human habitation, human civilization, and human culture. It’s a product of its people, its time and place.

In the city

The oldest cities are really old. Seriously. The most ancient ones we’ve found date back about 10,000 years, places like Çatalhöyük. Ever since then, the history of the world has centered on the urban. These oldest cities might have housed a few hundred or thousand people, probably as a way of ensuring mutual protection and the sharing of goods. But some eventually grew into monsters, holding tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, primarily to ensure mutual protection and the sharing of goods.

Looked at a certain way, that’s really all a city is: a centralized place where people live together. The benefits are obvious. It’s harder to conquer a city’s multitudes. There’s always somebody around if you need help. Assuming it’s there, you don’t have to go very far to find what you’re looking for. In a rural area, you don’t have any of that.

Of course, clustering all those people together has its downsides. In pre-modern times, two of those were paramount. First, every person living in a city was one not working in the fields, which meant that somebody else had to do the work of growing the city-dweller’s food and shipping it to the urban market. Great for economics, but now you’re depending on a hinterland that you don’t necessarily have access to.

The second problem is one we still struggle with today, and that is sanitation. I’m not just talking about sewage (which wasn’t nearly as big a problem in some old cities as we typically imagine), but a more general idea of public health. Cities are dirty places, mostly because they have so many people. Infections are easier to spread. Waste has to go somewhere, as does trash. Industry, even the pre-industrial sort, produces pollution of the air and water. And water itself becomes a commodity; even though most older cities were built near rivers or lakes (for obvious reasons), it might not be the cleanest source, especially in an unusually dry season.

Through the ages

A city’s character has changed throughout history. While they’ve retained their original purpose of being a gathering place for humanity, the other purposes they serve fall into a few different categories, some of which are more important in certain eras.

First of all, a city is an economic center. It holds the markets, the fairs, the trading houses. Sure, a village can have a weekly market pretty easily, but it takes a city to provide the infrastructure necessary for permanent shops and vendors. This includes food sellers, of course, but also craftsmen and artisans in older days, factories and department stores today. You don’t see Wal-Mart sticking a new store out in the middle of nowhere (the nearest to me are each about 10 miles away, in cities of about 10,000), and that’s for the same reason why, say, a medieval village won’t have a general shop: it’s not profitable. (The Wild West trope of the dry goods store is a special case. They provided needed materials to settlers, miners, and railroad workers, which was profitable.)

Another purpose of a city is as an administrative center. It’s a seat of government, a home to whatever the culture’s notion of justice entails. In modern times, that means a police force, a city council or mayor, a courthouse, a fire department, and so on. Cultures with cities will begin to centralize around them, and these central cities may later grow into states, city-states, nations, and even empires. Larger cities also have a way of “projecting” themselves; all roads lead to Rome, and how many Americans can name all five of New York City’s boroughs, but can’t name that many counties in their home state? With national and imperial capitals, this projection is even greater, as seen in London, Washington, Beijing, etc. This ties into both the economic reason above, as capitals of administration are very often capitals of commerce, and the one we’re about to see.

Thirdly, cities become cultural centers. While projecting force and economic power outward, they do the same for their culture. This develops naturally from the greater audiences the city provides; it’s hard for an artist to find patronage when he lives out in the country. (That’s just as true in 2017 as it was in 1453, by the way.) And since cities provide stability that rural areas can’t, this creates more incentive for creative types to move downtown. This creates a snowball effect, often spurred on by government investment—grants in modern times, patronage in eras past—until the city begins to take on a cultural character all its own. Like begets like in this case, and in a larger nation with multiple big cities, a kind of specialization arises: movies are for Los Angeles, Memphis has the blues, Vegas is where you go to gamble.

Now with magic

So that’s cities in the real world: urban centers of commerce, government, art, defense, and so many other things. What about in a magical world?

In many cases, it depends on how magic works in the setting. Magic that can be “industrialized” is easy: it effectively becomes another public service (if it requires infrastructure such as artificial “ley lines”—I have written a series based on exactly this concept) or private industry (if it instead takes skilled craftsmanship, as with enchanters in fantasy RPGs). In both of these cases, magic can almost fade into the background, becoming a part of the city’s very fabric.

For the slightly rarer and much less powerful magic we’ve been talking about in this series, it’s a bit of a different story. Yes, there will be magical industries, crafts, and arts; we’ve seen them in earlier parts. As magic in our realm is predictable, almost scientific, it will be used by those who depend on that predictability and repeatability. That includes both the private and public sectors. And enterprising mages will certainly sell the goods they create. That may be in a free market, or their prices and supplies might be tightly controlled, creating a black market for magical items.

If magic can be harnessed for public works, then that implies that cities in our magical realm are, by default, cleaner than their real-world contemporaries. They won’t be dystopian disaster areas like Victorian London or modern Flint. They’ll have clean streets and healthier, longer-lived people than their predecessors. Again, the snowball starts rolling here, because those very qualities, along with the city’s other aspects, will function as advertising, drawing immigrants from the countryside. And the automation and advancement we’ve already said will come to food production lets them do it. Thus, it’s not nearly as hard as you think to get a magical city up to, say, half a million in population.

The main thrust of this series has been that magic can effectively replace technology in certain types of worldbuilding. That’s never more true than in the city. Technology has made cities possibly in every era. The first urban areas arose about the same time as farming, and there’s no denying a connection there. Iron Age advances created the conditions necessary for the first true metropolises, and industrialization, machinery, and electricity gave us our modern megacities. At each stage, magic can create a shortcut, allowing cities to grow as large as they could in the “next” technological leap forward.

E-zi script, an emoji syllabary

The other day, Twitter announced it would retain its 140-character limit for posts. A hundred and forty letters, spaces, and numerals isn’t all that much, if you think about it. In fact, this paragraph is already far too long to fit in a single tweet.

Speakers of other languages which use other scripts sometimes have it easier. Twitter’s limit applies to characters, not bytes, and all of Unicode is available for use. If you’re writing in Chinese, for example, you can fit a lot more information into 140 characters. That’s because Chinese is a logographic writing system, not an alphabet like ours. There are thousands of symbols, most of them representing part, if not all, of a word. But Chinese writing is hard to learn, especially for Westerners. To make matters worse, we Americans don’t have an easy way to input characters of foreign languages. (A lot of Chinese-made phones do, but that doesn’t help unless you know how to do it.)

What many Americans do have, however, is another input method: emoji. All told, there are about a thousand of the little symbols, representing everything from emotions to animals to food. Why not use those for a script?


Enter E-zi, the emoji syllabary. E-zi is a set of rules and conventions to turn English text into a string of symbols—emoji, but also letters, numbers, and the graphical symbols available on all keyboards—that are easily inputted. Due to the nature of the English language, we can’t quite achieve the efficiency of Chinese or Japanese writing, but we can do better than plain text.

To get a taste of how E-zi works, here’s a sample. The text is the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

In E-zi, this comes out as:

◻ 👤 Bns R 🐗📯 🆓 & = N 💫🔫🔼🍵 & 👉s. 👫 R N🔽d + ♻🌞 & 🚧🔀ns & 👞🔽 🎬 ▶ 1 A🔘* N A 👻 O 🔆🔘*❓d.

By my count, we’ve dropped from about 170 characters to 81. Many of those are spaces, however, and some can be removed without any loss of understanding. A lot of people do that already in cramped conditions like Twitter, with abbreviations like “txt”. This is just taking it a few steps further.

Reading emoji

The core of the E-zi system is in the way emoji are read. By and large, this must be learned, unfortunately, but the basic ideas are pretty simple.

First, every non-alphanumeric symbol can be read in two types of ways. Take ◻, for example, the first icon we used. When written as its own word, it should be read as “all” or “always”. Another symbol, 🔴, similarly indicates the word “red”, and 🔎 is “detail”.

When combined with other symbols (including letters and numbers), these are instead considered to be syllables or sounds. A given symbol can have lots of these syllabic or phonetic readings, but most are easily derived from the lexical form. For example, ◻ has a syllabic reading AHL (I’ll explain this notation later); 🔴 can be R, RE, or RED, with the last two being most common; and 🔎 reads as DEE or the rarer DEET. Put them together as the E-zi “word” ◻🔴🔎: AHL-RE(D)-DEE, or “already”.

This rebus principle is the heart of E-zi. Words are built as groups of sounds, with a large amount of leeway in which sounds can combine. A good illustration of this is the string I used to translate “dignity”: 💫🔫🔼🍵 . This consists of four symbols, as you can see. The first, 💫, is read DI. 🔫, obviously, is “gun” or, in our phonetic notation, GUHN. The little 🔼 indicates a schwa sound, noted as UH. Finally, 🍵 is, well, “tea”. It’s not a perfect match for the English pronunciation of “dignity”, but it comes close enough that we understand what’s meant.

If we would like a lexical reading where we’d normally have a syllabic one, or vice versa, we can use the * symbol after a symbol. We did that in our quote above, with A🔘* “another”.

Plain letters

In the cases where there isn’t an appropriate symbol, we can resort to letters. But it’s a waste to have two sets of the same thing, upper and lower case, so E-zi repurposes the capital letters. Each one stands for a simple word, usually grammatical in nature:

Letter Translation
A a/an
B be (or “is”, etc.)
C can
D do
E e- (electronic)
F from
G go
H has/have
J just
K okay
L will (future tense)
M me
N in
O of
P part
Q question, cue, or queue
R are
S is
T the
U you
V very
W what
X ex-, or the word “ex”
Y why
Z as

Lower-case letters, on the other hand, are absolutely necessary. They can be placed anywhere, and they mostly sound like their English equivalents. You’d also use them to spell out names and other words where the actual letters used are important. A few, however, also have special meaning when placed at the end of a symbolic word. These are based on a very simplified English grammar:

  • “s” creates a plural form of any word: 🚗 “car”; 🚗s “cars”. This is always regular, so no need to worry about convoluted English plurals like “oxen”.
  • “d” forms the past tense of a verb: one reading of ⚔ is “fight”, so ⚔d can be read “fought”. Again, totally regular.
  • “n” makes a verb into a participle form. Using the same example, ⚔n should be read “fighting”. Similarly, Gn is “going”.

These can all be combined. In the larger text, we had Bns for “beings”. It might look odd in the middle of all the symbols, but it works just the same.

Other symbols

E-zi also makes use of the other keys on your keyboard. Numbers work a bit like capital letters, in that they stand for full words—namely, their values. In other words, 1 is to be read as “one”, and so on. You can use the rebus principle to play with these (4m for “form”, ↩8 for “late”), but numbers have no syllabic or phonetic readings.

Most punctuation marks are used like in English. These include the period, comma, question mark, exclamation mark, semicolon, and colon. Quotation marks are, of course, used to mark quoted speech. The apostrophe, on the other hand, is reused as a general possessive suffix: M’ is “my”, T👨’ is “the man’s”, etc. Like “s” and the others, this ignores traditional English sensibilities in favor of logical regularity.

The other symbols are mainly those on the top row of your computer’s keyboard. The number sign # is reserved for use in hashtags, and the caret ^ indicates a signature. The others can be used as symbols:

Symbol Name Use
$ dollar sign dollar, money
% percent sign percent
& ampersand and
+ plus sign and, with
hyphen-minus without
/ solidus and/or
= equals sign is, equals
@ commercial at at
| vertical bar or (choices)
~ tilde negation, not

Most of these are lexical-only, but &, +, @, | , and ~ work as syllables, too.

Finally, the grave accent ` marks off text as “regular”, i.e., not E-zi script. You use it in pairs, like quotation marks. The other “grouping” symbols, like brackets and parentheses, are reserved for future use.

Special groups

There are two special groups of Unicode symbols that E-zi gives special meaning to. The clock faces are a set of 24 symbols displaying times in half-hour increments. In E-zi, these simply indicate those times, with no other reading possible. For instance, 🕥 means the time 10:30 and nothing else.

Another group is called the “regional indicator symbols” by Unicode. These are the letters A-Z in boxes, but they are considered the preferred way of marking countries. E-zi uses them in this way, always in pairs representing a country code. (In some places, this may cause them to be displayed as a national flag instead. E-zi takes that as a feature.) Thus, since the country code for the United States is US, the E-zi sequence 🇺🇸 can be read as “United States”. In addition, the emoji 👤 can be suffixed to create an abbreviated form representing a nationality: 🇺🇸👤 should be understood as “American”.

All other symbols are unused by E-zi. The “cat faces” such as 😸 are reserved for expansion, while the skin color modifiers (“Fitzpatrick modifiers”) are ignored.

Phonetic notation

English is a notoriously difficult language to pronounce, even before you worry about dialectal differences. Thus, I’m using a phonetic notation to record E-zi syllabic readings. Nothing’s perfect, but as long as we’re in the ballpark, communication will work.

Most consonants in the notation should be read as their IPA values. This means that K is preferred to C, KW instead of QU, and so on, so some words will look odd. A few, though, have to be changed:

Phoneme Symbol Example
θ TH THIN “thin”
ð DH DHIN “then”
CH CHEK “check”
J JEL “gel”
ʃ SH NAYSHUHN “nation”
ʒ ZH PLEZHUHR “pleasure”
j Y YOOZ “use”
ŋ NG SONG “song”

Fortunately, I’ve taken the liberty of dismissing a few of the more common dialectal problems. Final “r” is assumed to always be there; it’s an America-centric view, but it makes things easier. It doesn’t mean you have to pronounce it, though. The “wh” sound, on the other hand, is merged with plain “w”, meaning “what” and “watt” are both WAHT. That was hard for me to do, as I still have a separate “wh” sound, but I realize I’m in the minority. Other dialectal sounds are also ignored; you’ll have to find their closest “standard” equivalents.

Vowels are even more problematic. I’ve taken the Wells lexical set and assigned a sequence of letters to each vowel sound in it. That gives us something reasonable to work with, although it can look a little strange at first. Don’t worry if some of these vowels sound the same in your dialect; that just means you have more opportunities for word play.

Phoneme Keyword Symbol

The big list

By my count, there are 970 emoji that have both lexical and syllabic readings. That’s way too many to list here, so I’ll just link a PDF chart that you can view at your leisure. Note that it’s sorted primarily by the least complex syllabic reading. My organization skills do leave something to be desired, however.

E-zi script v0.4


I hope E-zi is a fun and interesting way to make your short-form text more descriptive, more efficient, and more alive. Sure, I could have gone and made something with no relation to English whatsoever, but this way is much easier. Not only that, but it’s a method that stands the test of time. The basic principles of E-zi are the same used in Chinese script, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Sumerian cuneiform, the oldest writing systems we know. In our modern world, however, we have new reasons to want the succinctness of syllabic and logographic script. Thus, unlike these others, E-zi is made with today’s needs in mind. It’s a twenty-first century take on a millennia-old idea.

All of E-zi is free for you to use however you see fit. No charge, no strings attached. So, have fun with it, and let me know if you use it!


This time, I have a much better reason for taking some time off: the holidays. Remember, I write most of my posts beforehand, and the run-up to Christmas has taken its toll on my writing schedule. So I’ll use the lame-duck week between Christmas and New Year’s to take some time for myself, to enjoy all my wonderful gifts (yeah, right; I’m 32 now, I honestly like giving more than receiving these days), and to build up for next year. “Let’s make a language” continues apace, however. The timing for it worked out perfectly, and I had the latest parts done well in advance. (Part 9, for example, was actually written in late October!)

So, have a great week, and I hope you have had a wonderful holiday season, whichever holiday it is that you celebrate. I’ll see you again next week, and next year.