Let’s make a language, part 27b: Religion (Isian)

Isian, as we have seen, has borrowed more than a few terms from European languages. That shows up again in the matter of religion. Its speakers are mostly Christian, thanks to an earlier period of conversion and reformation. Before that, however, they had a polytheistic faith similar to many of their neighbors.

Remnants of this still show through in terms like alam “god”, which stands alongside the Latinate loan Domo “Lord”. The latter refers specifically to the God of Christianity, while the former, native, word can be used for any deity. It’s also more amenable to derivation, such as alanchi “demigod” or alamel “godly”. Domo on the other hand, is essentially fixed in form.

Other borrowings include engel “angel” and sacrel “sacred”, though the second is more of a calque. The word helin, meaning “ghost” or “spirit”, may also be related to the Germanic root underlying English “holy”. And it’s clear that priests have always been considered “holy men”, as the Isian word for them is a direct compound: chisam.

Word List

  • angel: engel (borrowed, possibly from Germanic)
  • devil: nukh
  • fairy: su
  • faith: sahe
  • ghost: helin
  • god: alam (Christian God usually trans. as Domo)
  • heaven: timiro
  • hell: hasilo
  • holy: chi
  • magic: ampen
  • priest: chisam (lit. “holy-man”)
  • religion: caltir
  • ritual: ronden
  • sacred: sacrel (borrowed from Latin/Romance)
  • soul: mit
  • to bless: leya
  • to curse: murgo
  • to pray: barda

Summer Reading List 2017: The End

So it’s Labor Day. (And it really is. For the first time in a long time, I’m writing a post just before it’s posted, rather than weeks or months in advance.) If you remember a while back, I announced something called the Summer Reading List. Well, today’s the day to put the books down and take stock of what we’ve accomplished through the summer. Here’s mine.

Fiction

Title: Bands of Mourning
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fiction/fantasy
Year: 2016

This is the third part of Sanderson’s second Mistborn series, and I initially thought it was the finale. (Trilogies are usually 3 books, right?) Apparently, he had a bit of a Douglas Adams moment with this one, though, because it’s actually supposed to be 4.

Anyway, on to the book. It was good, I’ll admit. The not-quite-steampunk setting turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected, and the various ways it connects with the original Mistborn trilogy bring about some fond memories. The action is often cinematic, and the characters are…quirky. Not the word I want, but the one I’ve got. Some of the story elements are pretty bizarre, especially in the final third of the novel. All in all, it’s a good read, a good continuation of the story, and it left me eagerly anticipating the next book in the series.

On the other hand, Bands of Mourning wasn’t without its flaws. Chief among these was the prose, which sometimes felt off. Maybe it was my copy, and maybe it got fixed in a later edition, but the prologue was especially hard to read. I’m the last person to give myself praise, as you probably know, but I’d say that I could write that part of the story better. But I’ll have a post talking about that later in the year, so let’s move on to our next contestant.

Nonfiction

Title: Apollo 8
Author: Jeffrey Kluger
Genre: Nonfiction/Space History
Year: 2017

Space has always fascinated me, and it always will. In the absence of interesting missions today (and for the last 40+ years), I don’t mind delving into the history of spaceflight for a good read. Kluger, as you may know, was the co-author of Apollo 13 (or Lost Moon, as it was titled before the movie came out). You wouldn’t think the sequel would back up five numbers, but there you go. Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to reach the moon, and it was a great tale even before Kluger got his hands on it.

The book itself is good, but it’s inevitable that it would be compared to its predecessor, and there, I think, it falls short. Apollo 8 didn’t have the action, the danger, the frantic scrambling for solutions of 13. So that makes this book more of a character drama, in my opinion. The fact that they’re throwing together a mission to the moon seems almost secondary at times. And even among the early astronauts, living as they were in what was already becoming an outdated notion of society and character, Frank Borman is not the most interesting subject. (But the same author’s already done the same story from Lovell’s point of view, and Anders is forever in a supporting role, so there’s not much choice.)

Still, if you like space, especially the early years of exploring space, this one’s worth your time. And some of the backstory elements were more than worth it, like the deeper look at the Apollo 1 fire investigation. Also, the mission itself really was grand. I mean, they went to the moon. They orbited it for a day. On Christmas Eve, no less! With manned spaceflight in the eternal holding pattern of low-Earth orbit, looking back is all we’ve got, so let’s look back to our best, right?


Title: The Last Stand
Author: Nathaniel Philbrick
Genre: Nonfiction/Military History
Year: 2010

I’ll just go ahead and say this right now: Nathaniel Philbrick might be the best author of American history alive today. He’s certainly one of the most accessible. And this is one I didn’t even know he wrote until I saw it on a…certain virtual bookshelf.

If you read (or watched!) In the Heart of the Sea, you’ve got a pretty good idea of Philbrick’s style and content. The Last Stand takes a single event in American history, Custer’s Last Stand, and dissects it, takes it down to its very core. And, unlike so many historians, he does it for the other side, too: Sitting Bull and his warriors get their day in the sun, too. Of course, like any good popular history book, the battle itself doesn’t get started until halfway through. We don’t so much as see the Little Bighorn for quite a few chapters. And the worst of it’s over quickly, just as it was in reality.

I’m not well-versed in the history of 19th-century America, especially that of the Wild West, so I can’t really tell you how accurate the book is. But we’re talking about an author who is very meticulous when it comes to his research, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. And it’s always nice to see the “real” truth behind a legend, particularly one you’ve never considered before.

That’s how I was here. The last time I so much as thought about Custer and his doomed stand was when he made a brief appearance at the end of Hell on Wheels. It’s not a period of history, or a person from history, that I’d go out of my way to research. But I thought the same of the Essex and Charles Wilkes, so there you go.

Next year?

For most of the summer, I was busy reading my own books, writing and editing and revising them. By my own choice, I barely had time to read the three I named above. But that’s the point of the Summer Reading List challenge. It’s a challenge. It’s supposed to be more than you’re used to.

So I think I’ll keep doing this in the future. Maybe you won’t, but I will. It’s fun, and it’s a great excuse to read something you probably wouldn’t otherwise. And if it means staying out of the vicious heat of summer, then so much the better. Bring on Memorial Day 2018, I say.

Otherworld talk 4

At this halfway point in the first Otherworld season, I’d like to take a look at the storylines I’ve created, because some of them are, in my all-too-critical opinion, actually pretty decent.

The first

The main story, of course, is the accidental expedition to the Otherworld. That one hangs over everything, as it will throughout the remainder of the season. And this story brings with it a lot of others. It puts the focus on survival, adaptation, integration. It’s a story not only of exploration, but culture shock and the simple sense that, hey, we’re somewhere else. These characters are farther from home than they ever thought about going, and most of them aren’t exactly ready for something like that.

In a way, the “student dig” setup helps lead into that. For some, even leaving the country of their birth was hard, not to mention leaving the whole planet. Others were used to travel, or they’re used to the outdoors, and so it’s not quite as difficult for them. That creates a bit of friction, especially once you factor in the different personalities involved. Jenn, for instance, is always preaching safety and care (except when she’s involved), while Ryan continuously argues for more freedom and a deeper integration with the alien society. Amy has never really been away from home before—if you count college as “home”—while Lee’s was broken long ago. Everyone gets to cope with the reality of the situation in his or her own way, and the POV sequence, I think, allows a good look at that struggle through most eyes.

Alien life

Once the characters can accept the mess they’re in, mere survival is forgotten. They’ve already succeeded at that, so it’s time to move on. Being curious young men and women, it’s only natural that they immerse themselves in the world they’ve discovered. It’s not like the Spanish, where they deliberately set out in search of gold and glory. No, this was an accident. Some want nothing more than to get home as soon as possible, but the rest are perfectly willing to explore this strange place. Episode 3, for example, is all about that exploration.

But the Otherworld is much, much bigger than a couple of towns and villages. In Episode 4, as readers of the series have now learned, there’s a visit to a larger city in store. That change of scenery brings with it a chance to see a new side of the inhabitants of the world, and we’ll get to return to that a bit later on. As the story progresses (especially once we get past this first season), the Otherworld begins to open up. The characters find themselves in more locations, and each of those locations has its own unique perspective. They all fit into the story in different ways, and that was a very interesting part of the worldbuilding.

Action and suspense

It wouldn’t be a TV-style drama without action sequences and suspense. We see a bit of that in Episode 4, particularly Chapter 6. (No spoilers here, but I’ll gladly admit that the aftermath of that character death always strikes a chord within me. And I wrote it!) Later on, we’ll get a lot more. That’s not because I felt the need to fulfill a quota, so don’t think that. No, it’s just that the story seemed to be going in that direction.

Well, except for the action bits of Episode 7. That one was more because I couldn’t think of anything else to write, and I needed something to fill the last two or three weeks of in-story time.

Coping with reality

Ultimately, all the “side” plots, whether action, study, suspense, or simply learning to live within the strictures of the Otherworld, boil down to one: getting through the day.

For all of the main characters in the expedition, this whole journey ends up being a life-changing experience. Through the eighty days of the Otherworld, they grow, they change, sometimes in ways even they didn’t expect. In some cases, it’s like they become more of what they already were. For others, it’s a more fundamental change in attitude. A couple of them will even do a complete 180 on some of their opinions.

That was one of my goals with this series. I wanted to create a vibrant, living world, but I also wanted to make characters that would fit it. They can’t do that if they’re stuck being the same old people. No, they have to evolve, too. Sometimes, they evolve in ways I never anticipated—Ashley is the main one here, as you’ll see later on. Others (like Alex) mostly follow the trajectories I’d always envisioned. However it works, I’d like to believe that I succeeded in my goal of creating three-dimensional characters that act and react and grow and change like real people.

All along, that was what I wanted most, and there were many times that I asked myself what I would do in a particular situation. Knowing that, I could better guide my writing. As I have grown more comfortable with the characters, however, I find that I don’t need to ask myself that anymore. No, now I can ask what they would do, and I’d call that mission accomplished.

Keep it going

We’re halfway done with Season 1, but that’s nothing. We’ve still got four more of these little chat sessions to go, and then we can start looking at the postseason. Oh, and Season 2. As of this writing (about a month and a half before its posting date), I just finished a draft for the second episode of that. So don’t quit on me now. Unlike TV, this one isn’t getting canceled right as it’s getting good.

Let’s make a language, part 27a: Religion (Intro)

As with the last part, we’re going to delve into a topic that may be a bit controversial. This time around, it’s the other half of church and state: religion.

For some languages, the whole subject is unnecessary. Quite a few, even among fictional conlangs, won’t need too many words for religious concepts. Auxiliary languages can likely get by with borrowing the needed terminology. And a far-future sci-fi setting might consider religion to belong to an earlier era.

On the other hand, even if the hypothetical speakers of your conlang don’t need to talk about their religion, that doesn’t mean they won’t want to talk about any religion. So it helps to have a bit of vocabulary specifically tied to the subject.

Gotta have faith

Religion and spirituality, in some form, have been around since the earliest days of humanity. Even if it’s nothing more than simple ceremonial burial, you can find evidence of the practice from the Stone Age, and some of our oldest human creations are religious in nature. It stands to reason, then, that a few basic ideas are going to be universal. The specifics might be wholly different even between two neighboring cultures, but they’ll both likely have some common ground in the fundamentals.

According to those who study the field (I don’t), religion of any kind probably started when someone first asked, “Why?” Why is the world like it is? Why do the seasons change? Why do people die? Maybe they begin as simple answers to those questions and more, or a shared set of stories, myths, and legends that only increase in popularity as they are told and retold over the generations.

This bare summary already gives us fertile ground for linguistic roots. The concepts most common to all religions are very likely going to be represented by native terms: faith, prayer, blessing and cursing, gods (or a monotheistic God, such as the case may be), an afterlife. Depending on the culture, you can also add in those placed in charge of religious matters, whether priests, shamans, or something else entirely. The ceremonies, rituals, and rites will also be in this field; they’ll likely be too specific to translate directly, but the words describing them won’t be.

As the folklore surrounding a religion grows, it necessarily gains a bit of verbal cruft. Even in Western Christianity, you’ve got quite a lot of vocabulary, from saints to bishops to crusades. (Note that many terms associated with Christianity, like “crusade”, tend to be related to “cross” or its analogues in Latin, Greek, and the Romance languages. That’s certainly not a requirement, but more of a historical quirk.)

Not only does a growing religion gain more words, but it also spreads across the lexical space, as it envelops closely related fields. Western faiths might all be monotheistic, but they each have a collection of supernatural beings, including (to use Christian-specific terms) angels, devils, demons, and ghosts.

This is where the twin forms of borrowing come into play. First, a highly organized religion will be able to spread its message far and wide, sending its specific terms to new places on the lips of its priests. So many English religious words come from Latin and Greek for this very reason. Similarly, Arabic loans related to Islam pop up everywhere from the western coast of Africa to the farthest reaches of Indonesia.

The second bit of borrowing comes when a new religion overtakes an old one. Here, it’s not so much that new words are borrowed, but the old ones may be reinterpreted, then spread in their new connotations. An example might be English ghost, which seems to have spent the last thousand years or so cycling between referring to a malevolent supernatural entity, the haunting spirit of the deceased, or even a kind of supernatural essence (as in the word spirit, itself a Latin loan). Fairies got their own bit of folk reinterpretation, while possibly-wise daemons became always-evil demons.

No matter what your conlang’s speakers believe, they’ll have a number of words specifically for their religion. The native terms will be made for that. If, along the way, the people were converted to some other faith, then they’ll likely take it in one of those two ways. Either they’ll import the words they need (spirit, bible, angel) from the “official” language of their church, or they’ll take some of their own and remake them to fit the new worldview: ghost, holy. Coinages tend to come about for new ways of thinking about the religion, and even then they aren’t made from whole cloth.

Release: Written in Black and White (Chronicles of the Otherworld 4)

It hasn’t even been a month yet, has it? Well, four weeks never is, except in February, so that’s to be expected. Still, that means it’s time for a new issue of the Chronicles of the Otherworld. This marks the halfway point of our saga; we’ve only got four more episodes to go. This time around, the title is Written in Black and White, and that’s certainly not referencing a newspaper. Take a look at the blurb:

Some things are universal. Some of humanity’s best—and worst—traits can be found anywhere in the world…or even beyond.

Friendship, love, charity, unity. The people of the other world are human, as far as anyone can tell, and they have all of them. Yet they also have their darker moments. When a traveling caravan arrives, the members of the expedition get the chance to see that darkness up close, in more than one way.

The dusky slavers leave turmoil in their wake, nowhere more than among the Earthlings watching them from afar. Tensions rising, storms brewing, eleven students must confront their own prejudices, as well as those of the land around them. How far are they willing to go for what they believe?

You know the drill by now. For the foreseeable future, you can get Written in Black and White, along with the rest of the Chronicles of the Otherworld series, exclusively at my Patreon. Next month, we’ll begin the second half of the story. Episode 5, The Bonds Between Us, comes out September 26, so watch this space.

Poems and songs in fiction

Call this a crossover post. It’s about writing, but it concerns verse, whether poetry or song, so I think it fits on Fridays.

Occasionally, especially in fantasy literature, there may be need for a song or poem. Some authors will insert the lyrics of songs (real or fictional) into the narrative as a way to set the scene or build the world, while others might instead use poetic verse at the beginning of a chapter or elsewhere. Either way, that’s where we’re going today.

Danger zone

First off, let me just say this: if you don’t know what you’re doing when it comes to poetry and songwriting, you probably shouldn’t bother. A lot of readers simply don’t care, and they’ll skip over the verse portions to get back to the text. I mean, how many people read all the songs in Lord of the Rings? (And this whole post is basically Tolkien’s fault, if you think about it.)

But let’s say you want to give it a shot. Okay. Good for you. Why? That’s not me being facetious; it’s a serious question. You need to ask yourself why you want to do this in the first place. Is it to make the world seem more “real”? To inject a bit of humor? To show off your skills? Your reasoning will play a large role in determining the most appropriate time and place for inserting verse into narrative.

Timing is everything. If you are putting excerpts of in-story verse into your creation, then you want to do it at the right time. Probably not near the climax, for example. Instead, early on might be better, when there’s not as much action going on. Call it the story’s downtime. (Another option is introducing the song or poem early, then using it as a plot point later on. A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, does this to great effect with “The Rains of Castamere”.)

Rock and roll fantasy

Genre also plays a big role, and this extends beyond written stories, into video and audio productions. Fantasy, of course, will tend to have “period” music, which almost always means folksy rhyming couplets sung by bards with lutes. For futuristic science fiction, the trope seems to be a kind of electronic fusion style, with non-Western instruments played over computer-generated beats, rarely with lyrics.

Subverting these expectations, of course, can be genuinely useful, even if only for humor. Imagine, if you will, a space station where the music of choice is country, or a medieval-style culture whose favorite style is battle rap. (That could even be the basis of a magic system, come to think of it.) Plenty of opportunity both for inserting lyrics into the narrative and creating something unique.

On a more serious note, the style does play a role. Tolkien’s endless songs set the tone of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Drinking songs, for instance, illustrate the camaraderie and shared culture of the people singing them—maybe they’ll one day turn into anthems. Epic poetry might not work as well as simple prose for an infodump, but it does twice the work: not only do you learn about the world, but you get a little more immersed in it.

Not another love song

Song and verse can also be a way of learning about the characters. This might work better in modern-day settings, where you can simply use real-world song titles, or future eras of even heavier musical herding. But even the Middle Ages had its songwriters, right?

Romance is the obvious reasoning for this. Honestly, I have to admit that I can’t come up with too many more. Still, it’s an interesting avenue, and it gives you a reason to showcase less-than-stellar songwriting. After all, if the character isn’t that good, then what better way to illustrate that fact than by showing how bad he really is?

Dreams and songs

All this mostly applies to songs, but it can work for poems, too. In a purely visual medium, they’re practically the same thing. And it’s a lot easier to say that pitiful attempt at rhyme you wrote to impress a girl was just a poem, not something meant to be set to music.

Poems, however, can also work somewhere else in a story, somewhere songs can’t: in literature. Here, I’m talking about “internal” literature, that of the setting’s culture. In fantasy settings, where literacy is presumed to be rarer than today, poetry might be more common than prose as a window into the past. (Think Beowulf, for instance, then convert that to the setting’s assumptions.) A well-timed verse could even hold a clue to a mystery, or a secret.

Whatever you choose, whatever purpose you give your story verses, the best advice I can give is simple: don’t overdo it. And if you’re not sure what you’re doing, that might be further simplified to: don’t do it. It takes a skilled hand to toss something like that into a story and not make it look out of place. Give it a reason to exist. Make it worth reading. Don’t throw 15 stanzas into a scene because Tolkien did it. (Even I skipped that one!)

Used judiciously, verse can work. It can give a story a depth that is hard to achieve any other way. The hardest part is knowing how to use it.

On eclipses and omens

(I’m writing this post early, as I so often do. For reference, today, from the author’s perspective, is July 17, 2017. In other words, it’s 5 weeks before the posting date. In that amount of time, a lot can happen, but I can guarantee one thing: it will be cloudy on August 21. Especially in the hours just after noon.)

Today is a grand day, a great time to be alive, for it is the day of the Great American Eclipse. I’m lucky—except for the part where the weather won’t cooperate—because I live in the path of totality. Some Americans will have to travel hundreds of miles to see this brief darkening of the sun; I only have to step outside. (And remember the welding glasses or whatever, but that’s a different story.)

Eclipses of any kind are a spectacle. I’ve seen a handful of lunar ones in my 33 years, but never a solar eclipse. Those of the moon, though, really are amazing, especially the redder ones. But treating them as a natural occurrence, as a simple astronomical event that boils down to a geometry problem, that’s a very modern view. In ages past, an eclipse could be taken as any number of things, many of them bad. For a writer, that can create some very fertile ground.

Alignment

Strictly speaking, an eclipse is nothing more unusual than any other alignment of celestial bodies. It’s just a lot more noticeable, that’s all. The new moon is always invisible, because its dark side is facing us, but our satellite’s orbital inclination means that it often goes into its new phase above or below the sun, relative to the sky. Only rarely does it cross directly in front of the solar disk from our perspective. Conversely, it’s rare—but not quite as rare—for the moon to fall squarely in the shadow created by the Earth when it’s full.

The vagaries of orbital mechanics mean that not every eclipse is the same. Some are total, like the one today, where the shadowing body completely covers the sun. For a solar eclipse, that means the moon is right between us and the sun—as viewed by certain parts of the world—and we’ll have two or three minutes of darkness along a long, narrow path. On the flip side, lunar eclipses are viewable by many more people, as we are the ones doing the shadowing.

Another possibility is the partial eclipse, where the alignment doesn’t quite work out perfectly; people outside of the path of totality today will only get a partial solar eclipse, and that track is so narrow that my aunt, who lives less than 15 miles to the south, is on its uncertain edge. Or you might get an annular solar eclipse, where the moon is at its apogee (farthest point in its orbit), so it isn’t quite big enough to cover the whole sun, instead leaving a blinding ring. And then there’s the penumbral lunar eclipse, essentially a mirrored version of the annular; in this case, the moon doesn’t go through the Earth’s full shadow, and most people barely even notice anything’s wrong.

However it happens, the eclipse is an astronomical eventuality. Our moon is big enough and close enough to cover the whole sun, so it’s only natural that we have solar eclipses. (On Mars, it wouldn’t work, because Phobos and Deimos are too tiny. Instead, you’d have transits, similar to the transit of Venus a few years ago.) Similarly, the moon is close enough to fall completely within its primary’s shadow on some occasions, so lunar eclipses were always going to happen.

These events are regular, precise. We can predict them years, even centuries in advance. Gravity and orbital mechanics give alignments a clockwork rhythm that can only change if acted upon by an outside body.

Days of old

In earlier days, some people saw a much different outside body at work in the heavens. Even once a culture reaches a level of mathematical and astronomical advancement where eclipses become predictable, that doesn’t mean the average person isn’t going to continue seeing them as portents. How many people believe in astrology today?

And let’s face it: an eclipse, if you don’t really know what’s going on, might be scary. Here’s the sun disappearing before our very eyes. Or the moon. Or, if it’s a particularly colorful lunar eclipse, then the moon isn’t vanishing, but turning red. You know, the color of blood. Somebody who doesn’t understand orbits and geometry would be well inclined to think something strange is going on.

Writers of fantasy and historical fiction can use this to great effect, because a rare event like an eclipse is a perfect catalyst for change and conflict. People might see it as an omen, a sign of impending doom. Then, seeing it, they might be moved to bring about the doom themselves. Seven minutes of darkness—the most we on Earth can get—might not be too bad, but a fantasy world with a larger moon may have solar eclipses that last for an hour or more, like our lunar eclipses today. That could be enough time to unnerve even the hardiest souls.

Science fiction can get into the act here, too, as in Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall. If a culture only sees an eclipse once every thousand years or so, then even the memory of the event might be forgotten by the next time it comes around. And then what happens? In the same vein, the eclipse of Pitch Black releases the horrors of that story; working that out provides a good mystery to be solved, while the partial phase offers a practical method of building tension.

Beyond the psychological effects and theological implications of an eclipse, they work well in any case where astronomy and the predictive power of science play a role. Recall, if you will, the famous story of Columbus using a known upcoming eclipse as a way to scare an indigenous culture that lacked the knowledge of its arrival. Someone who has that knowledge can very easily lord it over those who do not, which sets up potential conflicts—or provides a way out of them. “Release me, or I will take away the sun” works as a threat, if the people you’re threatening can’t be sure the sun won’t come back.

In fantasy, eclipses can even fit into the backstory. The titular character of my novel Nocturne was born during a solar eclipse (I wrote the book because of the one today, in fact), and that special quality, combined with the peculiar magic system of the setting, provides most of the forward movement of the story. On a more epic level, if fantasy gods wander the land, one of them might have the power to make his own eclipses. A good way of keeping the peasants and worshippers in line, wouldn’t you say?

However you do it, treating an eclipse as something amiss in the heavens works a lot better for a story than assuming it’s a normal celestial occurrence. Yes, they happen. Yes, they’re regular. But if they’re unexpected, then they can be so much more useful. But that’s true of science in general, at least when you start melding it with fantasy. The whole purpose of science is to explain the world in a rational manner, but fantasy is almost the antithesis of rationality. So, by keeping eclipses mysterious, momentous, portentous occasions, we let them stay in the realm of fantasy. For today, I think that’s a good thing.

Release: The North Wind Blows

The Linear Cycle keeps moving along, and it’s fast coming to a conclusion. Part 5, “The North Wind Blows”, is now available, and it’s the penultimate act in this grand tale. All that’s left is the finale, but you’ll have to wait a few more weeks for that.

“The North Wind Blows” is another one like “Forged in the Fires”, in that it’s not really heavy on the action, but it’s got a lot of drama. In this case, we get a chance to see an outsider’s perspective. In more than one way, actually, as our protagonist, Leliya, is outside the action twice over.

She’s the lost Valtian princess briefly mentioned way back in “The Last Captain”, and she hates it. First, she doesn’t like her new home, her royal marriage, or her in-laws. All of it is just too cold, and the coming winter is only going to make that worse. Add in the fact that she’s watching refugees stream in from her homeland, all bringing dire tales of woe, and she’s left wondering how it all went so wrong. Like anyone her age, she wants to do something to help.

I won’t say I’m a master of court intrigue and politics. I’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire, and I know enough about myself to realize I shouldn’t even bother trying to emulate it. Besides, these are short stories. There’s not enough room for convoluted schemes. (I’m also not afraid to admit that I punted on that by saying that Leliya isn’t experienced in the art, either.) Still, it was an interesting change of pace.

As always, the link above takes you to the site page for “The North Wind Blows”. You can also pick it up over on my Patreon, or on the Kindle Store. Either way, get ready for the ending, because it’s coming soon.

The JavaScript package problem

One of the first lessons every budding programmer learns is a very simple, very logical one: don’t reinvent the wheel. Chances are, most of the internal work of whatever it is you’re coding has already been done before, most likely by someone better at it than you. So, instead of writing a complex math function like, say, an FFT, you should probably hunt down a library that’s already made, and use that. Indeed, that was one of the first advances in computer science, the notion of reusable code.

Of course, there are good reasons to reinvent the wheel. One, it’s a learning experience. You’ll never truly understand the steps of an algorithm until you implement them yourself. That doesn’t mean you should go and use your own string library instead of the standard one, but creating one for fun and education can be very rewarding.

Another reason is that you really might be able to improve on the “standard”. A custom version of a standard function or algorithm might be a better fit for the data you’ll be working with. Or, to take this in another direction, the existing libraries might all have some fatal flaw. Maybe they use the wrong license, or they’re too hard to integrate, or you’d have to write a wrapper that’s no less complicated than the library itself.

Last of all, there might not be a wheel already invented, at least not in the language you’re using. And that brings us to JavaScript.

Bare bones

JavaScript has three main incarnations these days. First, we have the “classic” JS in the browser, where it’s now used for pretty much everything. Next is the server-side style exemplified by Node, which is basically the same thing, but without the DOM. (Whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable.) Finally, there’s embedded JavaScript, which uses something like Google’s V8 to make JS work as a general scripting language.

Each of these has its own quirks, but they all share one thing in common. JavaScript doesn’t have much of a standard library. It really doesn’t. I mean, we’re talking about a language that, in its standardized form, has no general I/O. (console.log isn’t required to exist, while alert and document.write only work in the browser.) It’s not like Python, where you get builtin functions for everything from creating ZIP files to parsing XML to sending email. No, JS is bare-bones.

Well, that’s not necessarily a problem. Every Perl coder knows about CPAN, a vast collection of modules that contains everything you want, most things you don’t, and a lot that make you question the sanity of their creators. (Question no longer. They’re Perl programmers. They’ve long since lost their sanity.) Other languages have created similar constructs, such as Python’s PyPi (or whatever they’re using these days), Ruby’s gems, the TeX CTAN collection, and so on. Whatever you use, chances are you’ve got a pretty good set of not-quite-standard libraries, modules, and the like just waiting to be used.

So what about JavaScript? What does it have? That would be npm, which quite transparently started out as the Node Package Manager. Thanks to the increase in JS tooling in recent years, it’s grown to become a kind of general JavaScript repository manager, and the site backing it contains far more than just Node packages today. It’s a lot more…democratic than some other languages, and JavaScript’s status as the hipster language du jour has given it a quality that sometimes seems a bit questionable, but there’s no denying that it covers almost everything a JS programmer could need. And therein lies the problem.

The little things

The UNIX philosophy is often stated as, “Do one thing, and do it well.” JavaScript programmers have taken that to heart, and they’ve taken it to the extreme, and that has caused a serious problem. See, because JS has such a small standard library, there are a lot of little utility functions, functions that pop up in almost any sizable codebase, that aren’t going to be there.

For most languages, this would be no trouble. With C++, for instance, you’d link in Boost, and the compiler would only add in the parts you actually use. Java or C#? If you don’t import it, it won’t go in. And so on down the line, with one glaring exception.

Because JavaScript was originally made for the browser—because it was never really intended for application development—it has no capability for importing or even basic encapsulation. Node and recent versions of ECMAScript are working on this, but support is far from universal at this point. Worse, since JavaScript comes as plain text, rather than some intermediate or native binary format, even unused code wastes space and bandwidth. There’s no compilation step between server and client, and there’s no way to take only the parts of a library that you need, so evolutionary pressure has caused the JavaScript ecosystem to create a somewhat surprising solution.

That is the NPM solution: lots of tiny packages with myriad interdependencies, and a package manager that integrates with the build system to put everything together in an optimized bundle. JavaScript, of course, has no end of build systems, which come in and out of style like seasonal fashions. I haven’t really looked into this space in about eight months, and my knowledge is already obsolete! (Who uses Bower anymore? It’s all Webpack…I think. Unless something else has replaced by the time this post goes up.)

This is a prime example of the UNIX philosophy in action, and it can work. Linux package managers do it all the time: for reference, my desktop runs Debian, and it has about 2000 packages installed, most of which are simple C or C++ libraries, or else “data” packages used by actual applications. But I’m not so sure it works for JavaScript.

Picking up the pieces

From that one design decision—JavaScript sent as plain text—comes the necessity of small packages, but some developers have taken that a bit too far. In what other language would you need to import a new module to test if a number is positive? Or to pad the left side of a string? The JS standard library provides neither function, so coders have created npm packages for both, and those are only two of the most egregious examples. (Some might even be jokes, like the one package that does nothing but return the number 5, but it’s often hard to tell what’s serious and what isn’t. Think Poe’s Law for programmers.)

These wouldn’t be so bad, but they’re one more thing to remember to import, one more step to add into the build system. And the JavaScript philosophy, along with the bandwidth requirements its design enforces, combine to make “utility” libraries a nonstarter. Almost nobody uses bigger libraries like Underscore or Lodash these days; why bother adding in all that extra code you don’t need? People have to download that! The same even goes for old standbys like jQuery.

The push, then, is for ever more tiny libraries, each with only one use, one function, one export. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that larger packages—you know, applications—can depend on all these little pieces. Or they can depend on each other. Or both, with the end result a spaghetti tangle of interdependent parts. And what happens if one of those parts disappears?

You might think that’s crazy, but it did happen. That “left pad” function I mentioned earlier? That one actually did vanish, thanks to a rogue developer, and it broke everything. So many applications and app libraries depended on little old leftpad, often indirectly and without even noticing, that its disappearance left them unable to update, unable to even install. For a few brief moments, half the JavaScript world was paralyzed because a package providing a one-line function, something that, in a language with simple string concatenation, comes essentially for free, was removed from the main code-sharing repository.

Solutions?

Is there a middle ground? Can we balance the need for small, space-optimized codebases with the robustness necessary for building serious applications? Or is NPM destined to be nothing more than a pale imitation of CPAN crossed with an enthusiast’s idea of the perfect Linux distro? I wish I knew, because then I’d be rich. But I’ll give a few thoughts on the matter.

First off, the space requirement isn’t going away anytime soon. As long as we have mobile and home data caps, bandwidth will remain important, and wasting it on superfluous code is literally too expensive. In backwards Third World countries without net neutrality, like perhaps the US by the time this post goes up, it’ll be even worse. Bite-size packages work better for the Internet we have.

On the other hand, a lot of the more ridiculous JS packages wouldn’t be necessary if the language had a halfway decent standard library. I know the standards crew is giving it their best shot on this one, but compatibility is going to remain an issue for the foreseeable future. Yes, we can use polyfills, but then we’re back to our first problem, because that’s just more code that has to be sent down the wire, code that might not be needed in the first place.

The way the DOM is set up doesn’t really help us here, but there might be a solution hiding in there. Speculative loading, where a small shim comes first, checking for the existence of the needed functions. If they’re found, then the rest of the app can come along. Otherwise, send out a request for the right polyfills first. That would take some pretty heavy event hacking, but it might be possible to make it work. (The question is, can we make it work better than what we’ve got?)

As for the general problem of ever-multiplying dependencies, there might not be a good fix. But there also might not be a need to keep the old maxim in mind. Do we really need to import a whole new package to put padding at the beginning of a string? Yes, JS has a wacky type system, but " " + string is what the package would do anyway. (Probably with a lot of extra type checking, but you’re going to do that, too.) If you only need it once, why bother going to all the trouble of importing, adding in dependencies, and all that?

Ultimately, what has happened is that, as JavaScript lacks even the most basic systems for code reuse, its developers have reinvented them, but poorly. As it has a stunted standard library, the third party has had to fill those gaps. Again, they have done so poorly, at least in comparison to more mature languages. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work, because everything we use on the Internet today is proof that it does. But it could be better. There has to be a better way, so let’s find it.

Otherworld talk 3

If all goes well (as far in advance as I’m writing this, it may not), the third episode of the Chronicles of the Otherworld should have hit my Patreon page not too long ago, and that means it’s time for another little chat. This time around, I want to talk about my choices of characters.

The expedition

I decided on the full complement of the expedition very early on in my writing, and there was very little that changed in the long period between Episodes I and II. Sure, my scrapping of the original subsequent stories did shift some things around, but almost all of the “core” details of the twenty characters from Earth remained the same.

The idea of the “student dig” was pretty much the seed of the Otherworld saga. I needed a reason for all these college-age kids to be together, to be educated, and to be ready to survive. Thus the team was born, and the eleven who made the interplanetary journey were always going. I’ll admit a bit of convenience in the way that the older adults are absent (the storm in Out of the Past), but I think that’s well within the bounds of artistic license.

These eleven were the team from the start, and the seven POV characters were also chosen essentially before the first word of the series was written. Following my idea of this being a TV-style episodic drama, there are the requisite nods to diversity, though I do despise the often forced style that Hollywood seems to prefer. In this case, I don’t have a problem with it, because the framework of the story practically requires it. This is a university-sponsored archaeological expedition, so of course there will be a mix of men and women. They’re digging in Mexico, so it’s only natural that the party would include a Latino. Yes, the cast is diverse, but every member of the team has a reason to be there. They’re not just shoved in to fill a quota.

The main seven, in particular, have their positions for two reasons. One, I felt they had the best stories to tell, while the four “secondary” members of the party were mostly going to be in the background, largely overshadowed by others in the team. (Admittedly, this decision came about before some of those four went in wildly different directions than initially intended.) Second, though, each one, I feel, reflects a part of my own personality. They’re my own personal rainbow, in a sense.

The optimist

Amy is the first character introduced in the story, and she also has the distinction of being the last of the “main” cast to be the focus of a scene. (Yeah, that’s a spoiler for Long Road’s End. Sorry.) She’s an eternal optimist, something I sometimes wish I could be. I wouldn’t call her aloof or anything like that, though. She’s just one of those naturally happy people. She might be hesitant to try new things, but she’ll give it her all once she accepts them. Sometimes even more than that, as you’ll see in later episodes.

This optimism works as a narrative device, too. It takes a lot to get her upset, so when she finally is, that makes it even more powerful. (Hint: wait until Episodes V and VI.) Writing her chapters always cheers me up, because she has an…innocence about her that borders on childlike, especially when it comes to the wonders of the Otherworld. In a sense, Amy is how I wish I could see myself.

The linguist

Chronicles of the Otherworld, and indeed the whole Otherworld setting, was started as a linguistic playground, so it’s no wonder that I’d have a linguist as one of the main characters. At first, Jeff doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he finds a purpose once it’s clear that somebody has to step up and be the communicator. You might think he’s there for no other reason, but he works as a kind of outsider—he’s not an archaeologist by trade, so he doesn’t really know all the rules. And (spoiler alert) he gets into some pretty hairy situations later in the series.

Jeff illustrates my own fascination with languages, obviously, but his role is more than that. He’s someone who can bear the brunt of the “info dumps” regarding the tongues of the Otherworld. Even better, as he’s the most knowledgable about them, his chapters tend to have fewer untranslated words and phrases. Unless, of course, he’s the one doing the translating.

The wanderer

Jenn has the third chapter in Out of the Past, and the first where the whole “alien artifact” thing is on display. Later on, in the Otherworld, she becomes the de facto leader of the wayward expedition. Now, I’m not a leader. Far from it. And I’m also not religious in the slightest, unlike this particular character. So she may not seem like that much of a reflection of me, but she is. As much as I hate to say it, she echoes my frustration with the world when it fails to live up to my expectations.

More than that, though, Jenn represents my burning desire to make things better. She doesn’t always succeed—I almost never do—but that won’t stop her from trying. When she has the narrative voice, it’s full of her thoughts about doing just that. (Wait till you see Episode VI!) Yes, she gets angry when she fails, but who doesn’t? Finally, Jenn is a challenge, because she’s one case where I’m way out of my comfort zone. By the end of the first season, she’s positively zealous. If I ever get that way, somebody needs to have me locked up.

The manager

Ryan’s fourth on the list, and he is somewhat of a conundrum. Again, he’s another leader type who is pretty much my exact opposite, and he’s also athletic, so even less like me. Still, he’s a character that fits me, because he looks at the world in much the same way I do. He’s a counterpoint to Jenn’s sometimes overbearing leadership style, and he has a certain charisma that leaves me envious.

Most of Ryan’s chapters tend to focus on the big picture, and that’s another way he reflects me. That’s my strategic and managerial thinking coming through, honed through all those years of playing building and strategy games. And he’s a bit of a diplomat, always looking to defuse an argument before it blows up in his face. That’s something I strive for, too.

The joker

Fifth in order of appearance is Lee. Storywise, he exists for one reason: the inhabitants of the Otherworld are descended from the indigenous population of the Americas, and so is he. He’s closer to them than any other member of the team, and I saw that as a great breeding ground for storylines. Then, as I began to flesh out his character, he became the comedian of the team, the kind of comedian whose best jokes are about himself.

Lee is sarcastic, even acerbic, and he has an edge to him that comes from the pivotal moments in his life. He knows he’s intelligent, but he’s not afraid to call himself stupid when things go awry. Out of all the men on the team, he’s probably the most emotional. In other words, he’s just like me, and that’s probably why his chapters tend to have the longest and most frequent thought sequences.

The thinker

Alex, by contrast, is me for a different reason: he’s how I see myself. Out of shape, introverted, he knows his place in society, and he’s grown to make it his own. He takes pleasure in others’ misfortune because he figures that’s the only kind he’s going to get. His internal monologues and narration are a lot like Lee’s, in fact, but with a lot more despair and self-loathing. In a way, he became my release valve for negative emotions, in the same way Amy is my indulgence in the positive.

Besides all the negativity, Alex is the closest thing the expedition has to a scientist, and that makes him more valuable there than he would be here. Lots of interesting character conflict there, although his is usually internal. Naturally, his chapters also tend to focus on the two worlds, the mechanism that sent them to the Otherworld, and how they can go home—later on, he even has to wrestle with the question of whether he wants to go back. And finally, I’ll admit that Alex later becomes a bit of wish-fulfillment on my part, especially once Season 2 gets started. You’ll see what I mean.

The enigma

Ashley is the last of the seven to receive her first chapter, though the second to get another. To start, she’s the “tough girl”, the classic girls-rule feminist who’s always looking for a reason to be offended. As she realizes that the Otherworld isn’t oppressive to women in particular—it oppresses everyone equally, for the most part—she does soften up, though she does have a number of moral constraints that she isn’t afraid to enforce on others. (And she has what she believes is a very dark secret, which comes out later in the season.)

How does she fit in? For the story, she’s the eyes and ears for the cultures of the Otherworld. That’s her specialty, so her chapters are full of such minutiae. She makes her own clothes (and hates every second of it), and she makes friends at the same time. How she connects to me, on the other hand, is a lot harder to say. I’m not friendly, and I’m pretty much the exact opposite of a feminist. But I’m interested in the way things fit together, the way people work, and that’s Ashley’s thing.

The rest

The other four main characters in the expedition don’t get to be the center of attention until the final chapter of Episode VIII. (Three of them get their own stories in A Bridge Between Worlds.) They’re secondary, and it shows. Mostly, they began as filler, so it took me a long time to “find” them.

Ayla began as a foil for Alex, but then I got the idea of her becoming a kind of mad scientist, which plays out later in the season and in her story. Ramón originally had no purpose other than to sprain his ankle in Episode III (in the rewrite, that’s Lee’s job), and Season 1 doesn’t give him a lot to do that doesn’t appear through the lens of Ryan. Sara does very little at all, but she’s a nice counter to Amy’s boundless enthusiasm. And Damonte might seem like the token black guy, but he’s anything but: for one, he knows that’s what he is. (Episode IV, coming next month, gives him a lot of screen time, but…don’t expect too much after that, at least until Bridge.)

The four professors were never intended to be much more than quest-givers, although William’s role has greatly expanded in Season 2. The same is mostly true for the others of the expedition, those five that didn’t go to the Otherworld. You won’t be seeing them again until Episode VIII, and most of them barely serve any purpose until Bridge or Season 2. Antonio, for instance, is basically just an extra, while Tyler becomes a bit of a running joke.

To be continued

Some of the characters might not be that important to the story, but all of them are important to me. As Chronicles slowly morphed into a character drama, the eleven unlucky students, their nine Earthbound companions, and the multitudes they meet in the Otherworld all had to become something more. The top seven, being the faces of the story, all exemplify different parts of me, yet they’re also their own people. The rest are left more to their own devices, but I hope I’ve done a good job of letting them all speak for themselves in their limited opportunity.

Technically, Episode IV (Written in Black and White) comes out this month, on the 29th. However, due to scheduling concerns, I’ll most likely post the fourth Otherworld Talk entry the week after, on or around Labor Day. By then, I might be deep into writing Season 2, or I may have given up. Who knows?