Archive for the ‘Thursday Tangents’ Category

TT: The Rag Week Rag

August 17, 2017

JANE: As some of our readers may remember, you made several resolutions when you retired.  One of these was to get a dog.

ALAN: His name is Jake. He’s a Huntaway (a New Zealand breed) and he’s a very gentle giant.

Ain’t They Sweet?

JANE: Another goal was to finally pursue your long-held goal of writing a novel.  You haven’t finished the novel, but you did join a writer’s group and have been honing your skills with regular writing exercises.

I really enjoyed your most recent one, which turned into a short story called “Rag Week.”

What was the assignment?

ALAN: We were set a homework task to write a story about supporting or donating to a cause or charity. I remembered a jazz band that some university friends of mine were in. They originally formed specifically to collect money for charity. I decided to write a story around that. So, in the immortal words of Hollywood, it was “based on a true story”. I’m sure that phrase will be very useful when I finally sell the film rights…

JANE: Very!  Your topic a great twist on what could be a very dull, even overly pious topic.

For the amusement of our readers, I’d like to quote the first few paragraphs.  I’d really like to include the whole story but if I did there wouldn’t be any space left to talk to each other.

ALAN: If anyone wants to read the whole thing, they can find it at:

JANE: But don’t click on Alan’s link until you’ve read this part!  Otherwise, you’re going to get a spoiler and ruin the rest of this Tangent.  I couldn’t bear that.  Okay…  Here are the opening paragraphs of Alan’s short story “Rag Week.”

“Have you ever noticed that after three pints of Guinness everything sounds like a good idea?

“We were sitting in the pub trying to decide what we could do for rag week. Rag week, of course, is just an excuse for university students to dress up and do silly things in order to persuade people to donate money to charity. What could be more fun than that?

“The third pint of Guinness inspired me to say, ‘Why don’t we pretend to be a Dixieland jazz band? I’ve got a double bass, Nick plays clarinet, and Paul almost plays the trumpet. I’m sure we can get a few other people as well.’”

First of all, I want to praise you for a great narrative hook.

ALAN: (blushing) Thank you.

JANE: However, as much as the English prof who always lingers in the back of my brain wants to discuss the many excellent things you did with this opening – the line “Paul almost plays the trumpet” is priceless and worthy of P.G. Wodehouse – what I’d really like to talk about is something you mention in your introduction to the story.

If I may quote again…  No, that’s silly.  Why don’t you explain it in your own words how you came to write this story in first person.

ALAN: OK, I will. All the events in the story did actually take place, more or less. But even though the piece is narrated in the first person, they didn’t happen to me. The double bass player for The Campus City Jazzmen was a friend of mine, and therefore I felt comfortable in his skin, which is why I chose him as the narrator. But I wasn’t directly involved in the band myself, so I had to use my imagination and make up a few things in order to make the story flow properly. Originally I wrote the piece in the third person, but I felt that it lacked immediacy. There was a distancing effect that I didn’t like. So I re-wrote it in the first person, and lo and behold, it came back to life!

JANE: Cool!  Why do you think the story came to life after you shifted to first person?

ALAN: Originally the third person narrator was a spectator who was watching the band playing its marathon gig in Slab Square. But that didn’t work because it forced me to start the story too late – the band was already playing when the spectator came across them so there wasn’t any way for me to talk about its formation other than through a flashback, or by having a conversation between the spectator and a band member, and both of those made the story sound as though it was being narrated by a Greek chorus that was telling the audience what had happened off stage. Also it was hard for me to find a convincing reason for having the narrator stay there for the whole of the gig. But of course he had to stay there so that I could finish the story properly. It all got too difficult.

So I tried again. I went back in time and started with the formation of the band. I told the story in a third person omniscient voice, but I couldn’t make that work either. The story was far too short for an omniscient narrator to make much of an impact on the reader. The events of the story started to feel too distant, as if I was looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope. The omniscient, god-like narrator simply wasn’t involved in what was going on. The story fell flat.

JANE: Fascinating…  So we’re up to two attempts already.  This is becoming a story in itself.  Go on!

ALAN: I decided that the narrator really should be someone who was actually in the band so that there was a consistent (and much closer) point of view all the way through. I was still hung up on a third-person narrator (because, after all, I hadn’t been a member of the band).

The double bass player was the only band member I had known well, so I made him the third-person viewpoint character. That was a lot better, but it still wasn’t right. I found myself sometimes resorting to reported speech and the passive voice, and those two devices continued to give the story a feeling of distance.

Finally I bit the bullet and re-wrote it in the first person. This gave me an immediacy that I really liked. The passive voice disappeared and, because the narrator was properly inside the story looking out, there was a feeling of intimacy to it that simply hadn’t been there before.

At last I was happy with it.

JANE: Terrific!  Four major attempts and certainly lots of writing and re-writing with each draft.  I agree that you made the right choice.

I’ve just looked at the clock, and I need to run.   Next time, I have another question for you…  I just hope it doesn’t offend you.

TT: Brain Snake Therapy

August 10, 2017

ALAN: OK! Time to see if we can tame last week’s brain snakes. Tell me more about your thoughts.

Feet Up, Eyes Closed

JANE (putting her feet up on the couch and closing her eyes):  Thanks, Alan.  I really appreciate your willingness to talk to me.  These things keep me up at night.

Puns or word plays are one area where, when I’m writing a story that involves created languages (conlangs, for those of you who are coming late to this discussion), I find myself getting snarled up in the coils of brains snakes.

I know that word play provides a real challenge for “real life” translators as well.  This is because not only is there a play on words, the play on words isn’t just a matter of sound but a matter of cultural context.  Without both, you don’t have a good joke.

ALAN: That’s the difference between idiom and literalism, of course. I have an example from real life, but I’m sure that exactly the same difficulty arises in made up languages.

In both American and British English, someone who falls for a prank on 1st of April is an April Fool. But in France, that person is a Poisson D’Avril – literally an April Fish. But anyone translating that phrase into English would, I hope, always choose the idiomatic version. A literal translation would simply puzzle anyone who came across it…

JANE: I agree.  In the case of April Fish versus April Fool, a literal translation would make no sense at all.

When I’m writing, if I can’t resist a clever bit of phrasing, I’ll let myself provide the word play and hope my readers understand that I’m more or less “translating.”  However, many more times, I’ll just re-write and, sorrowfully, eliminate the word play.

Another area where working in a conlang becomes difficult is when a translation is very culturally specific.  These happen even between types of English.  For example, the breed of dog I’d call a German Shepherd, you’d call an Alsatian.

ALAN: That’s another good example of “two nations separated by a common language”, as the saying goes. You and I originally started these Tangents so that we could talk about the kinds of linguistic and cultural differences that separated us. It has taken us a long time to explore that topic and we definitely haven’t finished with it yet. We still keep finding things that astonish us both.

JANE: Absolutely!  If people knew the number of times I need to ask you what an idiomatic expression means…  But I tangent off.  Back to my German Shepherd (your Alsatian).

What would a translation device do in this case?  Certainly the babel fish wouldn’t have an issue, but what about a mechanical translation device or a spell that provides not a telepathic “save” but an actual sound?

What sound would the Universal Translator pick?  Would it assess the number of American English speakers versus the number of British English speakers and choose based on that?  Would each person hear a slightly different translation in his or her earbud?

ALAN: If I had to choose, I’d choose the latter. At least that way I’d hear something I had a good chance of understanding. The first choice has the potential to flummox me with unfamiliar “English” constructions.

JANE: But if there isn’t an earbud, then that’s not going to work.  What if the translation is coming over a conference call or because the Big Evil Alien is making demands over the ship-to-ship communicator?

Ah, but English to English or even Earth Language to Earth Language is a relatively easy problem.  What do you do when a translation would involve creatures, concepts, or actions that don’t have a “match” in one of the cultures involved?

Let’s say we’re on an alien planet.  I’m talking through a mechanical translator to Noram the Alien.  I say, “I’m looking for my dog.  He’s a German Shepherd.”  Well, Noram has never seen a dog, a German, or a shepherd.

ALAN: But does Noram have the concept of “animal companion”? If “he” does, then perhaps analogies can be drawn that would get the idea across, albeit perhaps somewhat crudely. Only if no analogies exist would we probably see the communication completely break down.

JANE: Even if Noram has the concept of an animal companion, the opportunities for communication chaos are vast.  Even “looking for” could be problematic, since it involves vision.  What if Noram doesn’t have eyes but “sees” via tentacles that perceive radiation wave lengths?  What if Noram is from an asexual race and the concept of “he” or “she” isn’t in its/hier concept range?

Noram might hear: “I am seeking my BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.”

Or the translator might attempt description: “I am [visually] seeking my quadrupedal semi-intelligent omnivorous but primarily carnivorous companion creature.  It provides one half of the necessary sexual equation to reproduce its species.  Its species is associated with one small geographic region of the planet of origin [see map] and was originally bred to guard and guide other creatures.”

There’s just SO much to language, to communication, to conlanging that there are times I’m not surprised that many writers never stray from our world, our culture, and, well, just write vampire romance novels.

ALAN: Or they could take the path of least resistance and make the aliens just like us both linguistically and culturally, except of course that the aliens have green skin or lumpy foreheads.

JANE: (hums the classic Star Trek theme).

ALAN: (patiently continuing):  However, assuming that there is some common ground, some degree of communication is always possible.

My dog Jake communicates primarily by smell, but despite that he and I can still exchange ideas, some of them quite complex. He definitely hears “BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.” when I speak, and I hear variations on “WOOF” when he speaks. But nevertheless we understand each other. He can tell me when he needs to go outside and when he needs to come back in. He can tell me when he really, really wants a treat.  He will happily play tug-o-war with a rope if I suggest it.

But I agree that he will never understand that I don’t want to walk in that particular direction because it’s damp and my boots leak. He understands neither boots (except as things that are nice to chew) nor leaks.

JANE: I absolutely, positively agree with you that it’s possible to communicate with aliens.  I do so daily with my cats, guinea pigs, and husband (actually, I’m sure he feels the same about communicating with me).

The difficulty is how does a writer get these complex communications issues across while keeping the story moving?  How does the writer preserve the plot and not get bogged down in what is essentially a detail of setting?



ALAN: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

TT: Twisting Together Language and Story

August 3, 2017

ALAN: Last time you were telling me about your brain snakes – or at least the ones connected with language and culture. Speaking as a confirmed ophidiophobe, I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised by their bright colours and friendly natures, though I did find them to be most unpleasantly wriggly and hard to pin down. Fortunately, they were not at all venomous.

Doing the Conlang Conga

But you dropped a big hint that other brain snakes were lying in wait. Would you care to describe them to me so that I can avoid any ambushes that they might be planning to set?

JANE: You’re an ophidiophobe?  Interesting.  This actually ties into our discussion of language.  I’m more familiar with that particular phobia under the term “ophiophobia.”  Another interesting linguistic twist!

ALAN: Wikipedia informs me that both words are used to describe the condition, but it has nothing to say about why both words exist. Curious…

JANE: Yep…  And such curiosities are at the heart of languages and why conlanging is a lot more difficult than is often imagined.  Here’s another difficulty.   As I mentioned a few weeks ago, lately many of the more popular conlangs have been designed for visual media.  Klingon is a good example.

ALAN: And don’t forget Vulcan, also from the Star Trek universe, Dothraki as used in Game of Thrones, Na’vi in Avatar, and Parseltongue, the language of snakes, in Harry Potter. Do you speak to your brain snakes in Parseltongue?

JANE: No, but maybe I should try.

One great advantage visual media has over print media is that the conlang can be presented via subtitles.  So Klingons can speak actual Klingon, not English with a funny accent.

Writers of print media can’t use that gimmick.  They can use footnotes but even Terry Pratchett – who is my favorite user of footnotes – knows that readers will only tolerate a certain amount of this before they get frustrated.

ALAN: Perhaps I’m an untypical reader, but I love footnotes.  I always consider a Jack Vance novel to be incomplete if it doesn’t have footnotes in it. And as a bonus, Vance’s footnotes are sardonic, pointed and often even funnier than Pterry’s. And let’s not forget Susanna Clarke whose Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell has entire short stories buried in the footnotes. You can’t get more footnotey than that!

JANE: Abuse of footnotes may be a reason why I could never get into Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell… but that would be too much of a tangent for here.

When an author of print media is at work, even magical or high tech translating devices only go so far.

ALAN: You mean like Douglas Adams’ babel fish? I thought that one solved the problem beautifully!

JANE: It’s been a long time since I read the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” books, but that is basically what I mean.  Can you remind me how babel fish work?

ALAN: I can do no better than quote Douglas Adams’ own words:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.

I think that describes it perfectly.

JANE: That is indeed a clear and concise description. However, as a translation device, it’s rather facile.  “Understanding anything said to you” only goes so far.  What happens if someone doesn’t have a frame of reference for something – for example, a Neanderthal hearing someone refer to an automobile?  What happens then?

How did Douglas Adams deal with this?  Did Arthur Dent receive full descriptions or did he just hear a nonsense word?

ALAN: I’m not sure that Adams ever thought of that aspect. Facile it may be, but his babel fish just worked.

JANE: So, Arthur Dent never encounters a concept he doesn’t immediately understand?

Curious.  It’s been a long while since I read those books. If Arthur Dent does understand everything he hears, then this isn’t translation.  It’s telepathy combined with an immediate and copious information dump.

ALAN: That’s a good way of thinking of it. It’s a long time since I read the books as well, and without a massive re-read I’m hard put to address the question directly. My google-fu hasn’t worked any too well either. But it seems that Adams had different literary uses for his translation device – he gives us a delightfully casuistical argument which demonstrates that the existence of the babel fish proves the non-existence of God.

However Adams does remark that the perfect communication between species and races provided by the babel fish has been the cause of more and bloodier wars than anything else in creation. That side effect, it seems to me, is at least a partial answer to your question.

JANE: It absolutely is…  So often war is blamed on misunderstanding, but without the white lies of diplomacy where would we be?

Nonetheless – again, maybe it’s me being plagued by brain snakes – I worry about communications issues that I’m not sure a translation device could handle.

ALAN: Why don’t you tell me about it next time…  I may not be able to tame the snakes for you, but maybe talking about it will make you feel better.

TT: Brain Snakes

July 27, 2017

ALAN: Last time you promised to share some of the brain snakes that occur when you start to conlang. The image of something wriggling around inside your skull is gruesomely attractive. I can hardly wait!

Brain Snakes

JANE: Right…  Most of my brain snakes hatch from an element of conlangs we discussed last time.  If you create a language – even to the extent of implying that your characters are not speaking English – then you’re opening the door to a whole raft of issues.

ALAN: Wait!  How can you imply your characters are not speaking English?  Surely it should be quite clear?

JANE: Actually, a lot of would-be SF/F writers don’t seem to realize that even giving characters or places weird names implies a different language is at play.  By weird names, I don’t mean simple phonetic spelling, like “Soo-san” instead of “Susan” but calling a character Gyriitink or M’ff’mn.

Names don’t come from nowhere.  I’ve discussed this some in a past Wandering, but let me repeat the basics.  Names start out meaning something.  They may indicate that you’re the third male child (Number Three Son).  Or they may refer to some characteristic that your parents hope you will have (Faith, Hope, Charity).  Or they may indicate where or when you were born or where your ancestors came from.  Eventually, however, even names with meaning become ciphers.

ALAN: You mean like my name being “Alan”?  According to what I’ve read, “Alan” comes from the Breton and it means “handsome” (or possibly “little rock”, but I prefer handsome because clearly that describes me more accurately). Apparently there was also an Iranian tribe known as the Alans who migrated into Europe in the 4th century. The name might derive from them as well.

JANE: You can be a handsome little rock from Iran, if you like…

When numerous cultures come into contact, the cipher problem increases because people don’t just chose names from within their own culture.  They name to commemorate famous people, or relatives, or a good friend – any of which might have a root in another culture.  Or they just like the sound of a name and borrow it.

I’m curious.  Your wife is named “Robin.”  Was she named for the bird or for some other reason?

ALAN: She’s named after a friend of her mother’s who was called Robyn. No one is quite sure how or why the spelling changed on its way to Robin’s birth certificate… Except that it seems to be a family tradition to spell names “wrongly”. Robin’s mum is called Phyllis rather than “Phylis” and Robin’s grandmother was Ilean, as opposed to the more common Eileen…

JANE: That’s fascinating.  Just to complicate the brew, I’ll note that I’m more familiar with the spelling “Phyllis.”  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the name spelled “Phylis.”

Anyhow, before I tempt myself into tangenting off into why I always check the spelling before signing a book for someone…

When I’m writing a book in an imaginary world setting for which I’m going conlang, one of the first questions I need to ask myself is what are the naming conventions, because names will be one of the major ways the reader will encounter the conlang.  Does the culture name for qualities?  Job?  Social position?  Or is it a cipher thing?  If a cipher thing, and the words are “made up,” that implies a complete language to go with the names, and so the names should at least sound as if they come from the same language.

 And, of course, in most cultures, a mixture exists, so, Gyriitink’s best friend might be named Trumpetvine.

ALAN: It seems to me that different naming conventions can be a good way to imply different languages being spoken.  Michael Moorcock’s anti-hero Elric had a best friend named “Moonglum.”  The difference in their names provided a quick and constant reminder that they came from different cultures in a multi-lingual world. Am I correct in that assumption?

JANE: I agree.  That’s what I always felt.

ALAN: Do you have any other snakes squirming around in there? What colour are they? Do they bite?

JANE: Many.  One that really “bites” (in the slang sense) is the question of titles or honorifics.  Do you make up new ones to go with the new language, or do you stick with familiar ones like “king” and “queen.”

For me, there’s a constant balancing act between risking alienating readers by providing too much information that has to be learned before they can settle in and enjoy the story, and falling into a cookie cutter universe.

For the Firekeeper Saga, I opted to stick with the familiar titles for the first encountered cultures, then slowly segue into different titles for new cultures, hoping that, by then, the reader would have a foundation and be willing to tackle a little more variation.

ALAN: But familiar titles carry a lot of cultural and linguistic baggage with them. We all think we know what we mean by the word “king,” but our meaning would not necessarily correspond to that of another culture. Therefore, using the word might give the reader a false impression of the society you are describing based on the reader’s own preconceptions. I suspect this might be slightly more true of American readers than it would be for readers from other countries because Americans have never lived with kings and queens or with aristocracy in general (except very briefly a few hundred years ago) so they might lack the necessary historical perspective.

So perhaps you might try and avoid that trap by using less familiar, but nevertheless very real, titles. Caesar – or “Kaiser” as I was (Germanically) taught to pronounce it in Latin class, for example. Or Vizier perhaps. But as soon as you do that you are back with the problem you were trying to avoid of potentially alienating your readers by using too many unfamiliar words. Where does the happy medium lie?

JANE: Oh… And that’s only part of it.  Remember, “Caesar” didn’t start as a title.  It started a one part of a Roman personal name, that of Gaius Julius Caesar.  So, if you use “Caesar” as a title, a reader would have every right to assume a tie to ancient Rome – and many would expect it and be disappointed when it didn’t develop.

Just to toss more into the soup kettle of complexities, “Tsar” is “Caesar” slightly mispronounced (that is, adapted for another language), so if you use “Tsar…”

Well, you see how complex it gets and why sometimes a writer just settles for “king.”

ALAN: I certainly agree that it’s a knotty problem of Gordian proportions. As with the original Gordian Knot I suspect that simple solutions are probably the best. So “king” it is.

JANE: But the brain snakes of conlanging get even more complicated.  I’d love to talk a little more about them, and toss out a question that’s bugging me as I write my current book.  How about next time?

TT: Learning the Conlang

July 20, 2017

ALAN: Last time you were telling me about your thoughts on constructing languages in your fiction. Now I have another question for you. If your protagonists arrive in a new place, how do you handle the problem of having them learn the local language?

Language is a Gateway

JANE: Well, that varies from book to book, even within books.  By the way, this problem applies not just to conlangs, but to any book in which the characters encounter a culture that speaks another language.

In the Firekeeper books, there’s usually someone with an incentive to teach the language.  For example, poor Derian gets stuck with teaching Firekeeper Pellish.  He’s very sympathetic to the people who have the job later on – and when it’s his turn to learn a new language, he’s eager to cooperate.

In the “Artemis Awakening” novels, Griffin Dane comes to Artemis believing that he’s prepared to speak to the inhabitants.  The culture is conservative in regard to change, which helps, but he does have a pronounced accent and occasionally uses phrases the locals find archaic.  Conversely, they’ve developed terms that weren’t in his primer or use terms that are in his vocabulary, but for which the meaning has shifted.  So, although communication is possible, it does stumble from time to time.

Those are just two examples, but I hope they give you a sense of the way that languages can impact on the story, even in ways that have nothing to do with the languages themselves.

ALAN: In Real Life (TM) I’ve always found learning a new language to be a relatively painless experience if I am surrounded by the language all the time. I tend to just soak it up like a sponge. I worked for the United Nations for a time and I spent six months in Geneva where the lingua franca is French.

JANE: (chuckling) The lingua franca is French.  Well, yeah…  Uh, please, go on!

ALAN: By the end of my stay there I was quite fluent in French. I was even thinking in French. The language had become so second nature to me that when I flew home to England I spoke to the immigration official in French while proffering my British passport. Very embarrassing…

JANE: That’s a great anecdote!  You really do have a gift for languages.

ALAN: Of course it helped that I’d studied French at school, so I had a firm foundation to build on. But that hasn’t always been the case. I once spent three weeks in Russia. I entered the country with no knowledge of Russian whatsoever. But after three weeks I could read the Cyrillic street signs and I could hold (very) simple conversations.

JANE: My dad spent some time in Russia.  When he came back, he enjoyed showing us how familiar words would be spelled in Cyrillic, and how he’d managed to get by once he’d learned what letters were which.

I wish you two could compare notes on your experiences.

ALAN: That could be fun.  Russia was a very surreal place – I once ordered drinks in a bar. I paid in American dollars and I was given change in Deutschmarks…

But my gift for languages doesn’t always work. I spent some time in China and got absolutely nowhere. I didn’t pick up any of either Mandarin or Cantonese.  Perhaps that’s because they are tonal languages and I’m tone deaf. I also realised for the first time just what it means to be illiterate. I never learned to identify a single written character…

But I’ve gone Tangenting off the topic. Sorry.  Let’s come back to it. It certainly sounds as if you’ve done a lot of thinking about conlangs.

JANE: I have.  In fact, as I said when we were getting into this discussion, I may have thought too much about it.  I find myself thinking, If these people really are speaking another language, why isn’t the entire book written in it?

ALAN: If I hadn’t already mentioned Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, now would be a good time to point out that the whole book is written in his made-up language. So it can definitely be made to work.

But the master of conlangs, J. R. R. Tolkien himself, had the best ever excuse for not writing the whole book in his made-up language. In the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien states explicitly that his earlier novel The Hobbit is simply a translation from sections of The Red Book of Westmarch. And, by implication, so is The Lord of the Rings itself:

Further information [about hobbits] will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself…

About The Lord of the Rings itself, Tolkien goes on to say that:

This account of the end of the Third Age is drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch. That most important source for the history of the War of the Ring… It was in origin Bilbo’s private diary, which he took with him to Rivendell. Frodo brought it back to the Shire… he nearly filled its pages with his account of the War.

JANE: I’ve always thought that was a great explanation.  The hobbits speak English (therefore, their bits are translated from hobbitish), but they need to learn all the other cultures’ languages.

This is the foundation excuse in most Fantasy (and even far future SF, where logically the language would have drifted so that, even if the people still spoke English, it would be as incomprehensible to us, now, as is Old – or even Middle – English).

ALAN: Anthony Boucher’s short story “Barrier” has some interesting speculations about how language would evolve in the future. At one point someone says, “Eeyboy taws so fuy, but I nasta. Wy cachoo nasta me?”. And it (almost) makes sense in context.

JANE:  Let’s see, is that “Oh, boy, that’s so funny, but I ask you.  Why are you asking me?”

ALAN: Well done! However I think “Eeyboy” might actually be “Hey, boy”. But the point is moot.

JANE: Or a demonstration of exactly what we’ve been discussing.  I’m American, so I “see” “Oh, boy,” which is a common American use.

Both the Burgess and the Boucher examples only work because they’re deriving from already familiar languages (Russian and English).  If the language was completely made up—like Elvish – the readers would need to translate as they read.

But asking myself why I’m not writing my entire book in the conlang is only one of my problems.

ALAN: What other problems have you encountered?

JANE: Oh, several, many of which are just the snakes in my own brain.  Can I save them for next time?

TT: To Conlang or Not

July 13, 2017

JANE: Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been escaping from the summer heat (here) and the winter chill (there) by discussing the fascinating subject of languages in SF/F.

Conlang Zones

ALAN: There have been a lot of excellent books and articles written about the subject, and rather than just recapping those, I thought I’d ask you about how you — to mangle Hamlet’s famous query – approach the issue of “To conlang or not to conlang.”

JANE: It’s certainly an issue I’ve thought a lot – maybe too much – about.  So, fire away!

ALAN: Have you ever felt the need to invent a language in order to give depth and flavour to the world you are writing about? And how far along that track are you prepared to travel?

JANE: Yes, I have.  Can I back up slightly?  I need to provide a foundation for my answer.

ALAN: Go for it! I’m all in favour of firm foundations.

JANE: As I mentioned a while back, my first several books were set either on our Earth or in a future of that Earth,  so the earliest novel in which I might have dealt with this issue was When the Gods Are Silent.  This was my first attempt to write what is often called “imaginary world fantasy” – which is just what it sounds like.

I did a lot of cool things, but I didn’t get into the issue of language.  I’m not sure it even occurred to me.  If it did, I dismissed it because in this world there had been global travel for a long time, and it seemed likely that the equivalent of a trade tongue would have been in use.

ALAN: I’ve actually just re-read When the Gods Are Silent. There’s a coincidence!

JANE: I hope you enjoyed.  It’s finding a new audience now that it’s available as an e-book.

Anyhow, the first book in which I really had to consider the question of creating a language or languages was when I decided to write imaginary world fantasy again in the “Firekeeper Saga,” which starts with Through Wolf’s Eyes.

But a funny thing had happened between my writing this and When the Gods Are Silent.  I’d written two books in which multiple cultures and multiple languages were important: Changer and Changer’s Daughter.  For Changer’s Daughter (originally published as Legends Walking) in particular, language was crucial.

ALAN: These are my very favourites of your books. The cultural and linguistic aspects give the stories a depth and solidity which I really enjoy. I think I find something new every time I read them.

JANE:  Thank you!

From the original proposal forward, Through Wolf’s Eyes and its sequels were intended to be “frontier books.”  This frontier – just like the American continents – would have been colonized by various nations, each with their own languages.  So, even before I wrote a word, I was committed to at least minimal conlanging.

But that wasn’t the only language problem I was facing.  Firekeeper herself introduced an enormous language challenge.

ALAN: What was that?

JANE: Firekeeper was raised by wolves.  Although she speaks their language – no quick and easy telepathic fix for me! – she doesn’t remember speaking any of the human languages.  Initially, I planned to write the entire novel from her point of view, but I rapidly realized that the readers would shoot me.  (I might have shot me, too.)

ALAN: Sounds painful. Why the urge for self-harm?

JANE: Since Firekeeper has a very limited background, when she starts encountering new things, they’re largely defined by what they are not.  A horse is a “not elk,” because an elk is the closest reference point she has to a horse.

ALAN: That’s an interesting approach. After all, a horse is not a lot of things. That could make it hard to be precise. But I take your point – I think I’d very quickly get annoyed with conversations full of nouns that are negatives of other nouns.

JANE: It certainly made any scene in which Firekeeper encountered something new exceedingly cumbersome, so I introduced Derian Carter as a point of view character so that each and every scene would not need to be an anthropological investigation.

Firekeeper’s twisted way of seeing the world is much more inviting in smaller doses.   Eventually, she does learn Pellish (the language of the first two nations she encounters), although she remains slapdash in her sentence structure.  You can tell when she cares about something because she takes the time to speak carefully.

ALAN: Are Pellish and Firekeeper’s animal talk the only languages?

JANE: Oh, no!  Even the two Pellish colonies, Hawk Haven and Bright Bay, show some linguistic and cultural drift.   Several other nations are introduced as the series advances, and each has its own languages.  Therefore, as Firekeeper encounters new cultures, she has to learn more languages, a process she finds very annoying.

ALAN: I’ve been in her position, so I sympathise. I generally find that I understand far more than I can actually articulate, which can be very frustrating indeed.

JANE: As for me, I rather liked creating the languages.  I didn’t actually “conlang,” but I did come up with basic rules of grammar, forms of address, and the like for several different cultures.  The languages, to me, were windows into the cultures and their values –a show, don’t tell, for those readers who care about these things.

But the question of comprehension wasn’t the only language problem Firekeeper created for me.

ALAN: What other headaches did she give you?

JANE: I did a great deal of research into how humans learn language.  One thing that most researchers agreed upon was that if the concept of spoken language was not learned early, a child will not be able to learn how to speak.

ALAN: Yes – there are many documented cases of feral children who were rescued from the wild quite late in their lives and who never really came to grips with the idea of language at all.

JANE:  I read about those…   The same is true – although the window is a bit larger – for written language.

ALAN: I always admired the way that Edgar Rice Burroughs gave Tarzan both spoken and written languages. Tarzan’s first spoken language was that of the Mangani, the great apes who adopted him, so the concept of speaking was very firmly part of his life. But interestingly, his first written language was English, which he puzzled out from the pictures and words he found in the books in the cabin his parents built before they were killed. However he didn’t learn to speak  English until many years later. (Amusingly, his first spoken human language was French).

Burroughs’ description of Tarzan’s initial struggles with the written word is beautifully written and very poignant.

JANE: Tarzan’s experience definitely had an influence on me.  I loved those parts of the story.

With Firekeeper, I made certain that I showed (through the nightmares that serve as flashbacks) that Firekeeper had been exposed to both spoken and written language before the deaths of her parents and her adoption by the wolves.

Maybe that wouldn’t trouble any of my readers, but once I knew the theory, I had to lay the foundation.

ALAN: I have another question…

JANE: I’d love to hear it, but let’s wait until next time.  I need to go invent another language for the book I’m currently working on.

TT: A Language of Hope

July 6, 2017

JANE: Last week, when we were talking about created languages (conlangs), we were doing so in the context of SF/F.  That got me thinking about a conlang I encountered first through SF/F, assumed was created for the purposes of fiction, and only later learned was a “real” language.

A Fascinating History

This language was Esperanto.

ALAN: Esperanto was created by L. L. Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist from Poland. He wanted to devise a language that was easy to learn and which had a regular grammar so that there would be no exceptions to the rules that the students were taught. He hoped that it would be universally adopted and that it would break down the language barriers that separated people from each other.

JANE: What I find most fascinating about Esperanto is that it was created with the idealistic hope that, if we all spoke one language, not only would the time spent in translation no longer be necessary, but misunderstanding would be eliminated.

Lovely idea, but Jim and I manage to misunderstand each other all the time, despite the fact that the only language either of us speak well is American English.  Sometimes I think that – to slightly alter a proverbial phrase – “To misunderstand is human.”

ALAN: I actually studied Esperanto for a few years. I think I first came across it in Harry Harrison’s novels (the Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld novels use the language a lot). It sounded interesting, so I dug a bit deeper…

JANE: And was Esperanto as easy to learn as its creator hoped?

ALAN: Well, yes and no. My first wife, Rosemary, and I studied it together. She found it much harder to learn than I did because she had never studied grammar in any formal sense. So she didn’t know what the infinitive of a verb was, and she didn’t know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Also, she had no idea how to identify the parts of speech that make up a sentence. I already knew these things – I’d studied grammatical constructions in both English and Latin lessons at school so I found Esperanto quite easy. But Rosemary struggled a bit with the grammar. And it didn’t help that, on top of that, Esperanto is an inflected language.

JANE: I think that Rosemary would be in good company, at least these days.  Many of my students had never diagrammed a sentence.  Anything more complicated than the difference between a noun and a verb confused them – not because they were stupid, but because they hadn’t been taught the terms.

Heck, these days I’d need to go look up the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb, and I’ve completely forgotten what is meant by an inflected language – if I ever knew.

ALAN: Well, let me remind you what it means…

In an inflected language words have different endings to indicate their function in the sentence. So in Latin, for example, a noun can have six different forms depending on exactly what job it is doing.

JANE: Oh!  So that’s called an inflected language?  Interesting.  I had three or four years of Latin in high school, and I don’t think either of my teachers ever used the term.  I did learn the case endings, though, and to this day I remember “orum” is something like the “genitive of possession.”

Does Esperanto have as many endings?

ALAN: No, Esperanto isn’t that bad – it only has two inflections, nominative and accusative which define whether the word is the subject or object of the sentence. So, for example:

Esperanto estas lingvo – Esperanto is a language. The word Esperanto is the subject of the sentence and is therefore in the nominative case.

Mi parolas esperanton – I speak Esperanto. Here Esperanto is the object of the sentence and so it appears in the accusative case.

JANE: The term “accusative” never made sense to me.  I always thought that it indicated an adversarial relationship.  Really, grammar doesn’t help itself by using words so oddly.

ALAN: Quite right. I never really understood the ablative case in Latin. What does a grammatical construct have to do with material that wears away in order to protect the underlying surface? The ablative tiles on the space shuttle come to mind, and there’s nothing grammatical about those! Grammar is its own worst enemy.

Anyway, Rosemary had never met these grammatical ideas before and consequently she struggled a bit. English, the only language she spoke, is almost completely uninflected. About the only trace of it that remains is who (referring to the subject) and whom (referring to the object). As an aside, the almost complete lack of inflection in English is probably the reason why so many people find the use of who and whom confusing…

JANE: I’m sure you’re right.  English is full of relics of other languages that linger to delight linguists and philologists and drive the rest of us crazy.

ALAN: My own personal experience suggests that native English speakers often find inflected languages hard to learn. Certainly I struggled a lot with the complexities of Latin grammar and I failed most of my Latin exams. Fortunately Esperanto is much easier than Latin. But I definitely found that my Latin (and English grammar) lessons were a huge help in understanding just how Esperanto was put together. Rosemary didn’t have that background knowledge, and so she had a much harder time of it than I did.

JANE: I’m not sure that inflection is the only problem with English speakers learning languages, but that’s neither here nor there.

Did you ever use your Esperanto?

ALAN: Yes I did. Harry Harrison was a guest at one of our New Zealand conventions, many years ago. Since I knew that he spoke Esperanto like a native (to quote his own joke), I wrote the invitation to him in Esperanto. I’ve no idea whether or not that influenced his decision to come, but he did come and he had a great time. He was a wonderful guest.

JANE: I bet he was completely tickled by your invitation!

ALAN: We’ve strayed a little from created languages in fiction.  As a writer, the question of whether to conlang or not to conlang must be one you’ve encountered.  Can I ask you about it next time?

JANE: Please do!

TT: There’s a Word For That

June 29, 2017

ALAN: When we first started these tangents we spent a lot of time talking about the differences between American English and British English. But languages are interesting in their own right – real languages, artificial languages and even purely imaginary languages.

Conlang, Anyone?

JANE: True!  I’ve often wished I had been introduced to more languages when I was young enough to learn them easily, but I was of a generation where second languages were usually not taught until high school, and so I’ve always struggled.

Still, I have a deeply rooted fascination with linguistics.

ALAN: Me too! Did you know there’s a word for the invention of new languages? A made-up language is a “conlang” (constructed language) and the act of making them up is called “conlanging”.

JANE: I didn’t know, so I went and looked the term up.  I think it’s important to note that “conlanging” involves more than making up a few words to create “local color” for a story or series.  To conlang, one must create not only a vocabulary, but a syntax and grammar.

The seminal example is, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish.  C.S. Lewis, who was Tolkien’s friend and another language specialist, did some interesting work with language in his SF trilogy.  Were there any earlier writers of SF/F who took on this challenge?

ALAN: Yes – Edgar Rice Burroughs did it several times. The great apes who raised Tarzan had a language of their own, and so did the Martians that John Carter went adventuring with. Burroughs gives enough context to get the flavour of these languages and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that other people have expanded on his linguistic hints.

JANE: Eh…  Having read the definition of “conlang” I would argue that what Burroughs did for the Tarzan stories falls more into the “local color” category.  I read many of those novels when I was young enough to think those words might be “really” an animal language.  However, when I tried to build a vocabulary and a sense of a grammar, I realized what was in the books was hardly more than brushstrokes.

ALAN: You’re largely correct, but not completely so. The language does have some structure to it. For example, the great apes refer to themselves as Mangani. The prefix Tar means “white”, hence Tarmangani, the “white apes” that come invading the country. Also Tarzan’s own name, which translates as “white skin”. But I agree that the structure is crude and simple-minded. On the other hand, so are the great apes themselves…

JANE: I see your point, but I don’t think this is in the class of Tolkien’s Elvish.  Did Burroughs do more with the John Carter of Mars books?

ALAN: A little bit. John Carter claims that the Martian language is very simple because all subtleties and nuances are communicated telepathically. Carter himself managed to learn the language in only a week! We can derive quite a lot of word lists from the novels, and there are hints about a grammar. But it does still remain a little elusive.

JANE: I really, really like that Burroughs thought about how telepathy would shape the formation of a language – or in this case lead to it not forming as complexly.  Nice world-building!

Going back… Tolkien was particularly well-trained for making up languages, since one of his specializations was philology.  I’ve encountered many people who think this means he was a linguist but philology is different.

Philology focuses on studying language in written historical material.  It’s commonly used to establish a document’s authenticity.  Philology doesn’t only involve knowing languages, but how they developed and the historical context in which they were used.  This seems like perfect training for someone who wanted to invent his own language.

ALAN: Absolutely it does. I studied French and Latin at school and I picked up a smattering of German as part of my studies for my Chemistry degree, all of which served to convince me that languages are very complicated things. I really wouldn’t have a clue as to how to begin inventing one of my own.

JANE: Ah, we’ll need to come back that later…

What are some other examples of fully realized conlangs?   Do you have a particular favorite?

ALAN: Yes I do – Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange is written completely in a made up language called Nadsat. You could claim it’s a dialect rather than a language, but I think that’s just splitting hairs. I grew up speaking the Yorkshire dialect which, while often recognisably English, definitely had its own vocabulary and grammar. I think the point at which a dialect turns into a language is really very blurred…

JANE: Okay…  I’ll accept Nadsat as a conlang.  I haven’t read the novel, so could you tell me more about Nadsat?

ALAN: When you first start reading the novel, the language feels rather strange and incomprehensible. But Burgess constructed the language very cleverly, and context soon makes everything clear. Indeed, Nadsat  becomes so compelling that I actually found myself using it in real life for a while after I finished reading the book!

JANE: You did?  Did anyone understand you?

ALAN: Mostly no, though I did say something in Nadsat to my then girlfriend and she squealed in delight and said, “That’s almost Russian!” That was when I first realised that Burgess had included a lot of Russian-derived words and flavours into his conlang along with some purely made up out of whole cloth stuff.

Burgess himself was a linguist and polyglot, which just reinforces the point you made about the perfect training for language construction. He was a linguistic advisor on the 1981 movie Quest for Fire which is set in Paleolithic Europe. The movie is about the struggle for the control of fire by early humans. Burgess invented a prehistoric language called Ulam for the characters in the movie.

What about you? Do you have any favourite conlangs?

JANE: Not really.  Many of the recent ones have been developed for television shows, and when I watch a show in a foreign language, it tends to be Japanese…  I have the world’s weirdest Japanese vocabulary…

But, that’s off the point.  Before we wander even further off topic, there’s a created language that predates those we’ve been discussing.   Although it wasn’t written for SF/F, it became an element in many early SF stories.  Can you guess what that would be?

ALAN: Hmm… the only “real” conlang I can think of that has been used in SF stories is Esperanto.  Is that the one you mean?

JANE: You’ve got it.  Maybe we can talk about Esperanto, and the importance of conlangs to SF/F next time.

TT: The Debate Heats Up!

June 22, 2017

JANE: So, here we go, tangenting off our Tangent, which was discussing whether or not Robert Heinlein put himself into his books.

Had Spacesuit, Did Travel?

Before we get back to that (because you still haven’t convinced me), I promised you a story about how careful writers – and those of SF and Fantasy in particular – need to be.  Why?  Because we have some of the brightest, most inquisitive readers there are.

ALAN: Indeed we do. Did one of them happen to catch you out in some way?

JANE:  “Catch out” may be too strong a term.  Here’s what happened.

When I wrote The Buried Pyramid, I carefully wrote out the bits in hieroglyphs.  I missed an error –the equivalent of a typo – though…  And, yep, a fan wrote to tell me about it.  Happily, she was a great person and, because of my error, I made friend who now sends me beautiful, handmade cards, but I blushed about that error for weeks.

ALAN: Good for you for admitting the mistake. I don’t think Heinlein would have been able to do that. The Heinlein Individual always knows how and why things work, without the possibility of error. Here Heinlein’s own personality comes out very clearly in the stories. In his autobiography I. Asimov the eponymous Isaac records:

“Heinlein was not the easygoing fellow that other science fiction personalities I knew and loved were. He did not believe in doing his own thing and letting you do your thing. He had a definite feeling that he knew better and to lecture you into agreeing with him. Campbell did this too, but Campbell always remained serenely indifferent if you ended up disagreeing with him, whereas Heinlein would, under those circumstances, grow hostile.”

The parallels with the Heinlein Individual are marked. Both Colonel Dubois in Starship Troopers and Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land (for example) exhibit this trait. They lecture at the drop of a hat (to be fair, it is Colonel Dubois’ job to lecture since he is supposed to be a teacher) and they do not allow disagreement. They are always right by fiat.

JANE: I have been on panels with numerous people who will lecture at the drop of a hat.  And, let me assure you, so many of them are convinced they are absolutely right.  Does that make them Heinlein?

ALAN: It depends on whether or not they are willing to listen to opposing points of view. I lecture at the drop of a hat as well (too many years as a teacher!) but I would never claim that I am always right. I have often been questioned and corrected by my students, and I just take it in my stride. Being a teacher is a wonderful opportunity for learning.

JANE: Indeed it is.  However, we only have Asimov’s word here for how Heinlein reacted and, from what I’ve read, Asimov wasn’t exactly the least opinionated writer out there.  Do we have an unbiased comment, or a clash of strong personalities who had to share the same stage?

ALAN: Oh it’s not just Asimov’s opinion. Heinlein had a very public and very hostile disagreement with Arthur C. Clarke when Clarke criticised some aspects of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Heinlein was strongly in favour of it and refused to allow any dissent at all.

Interestingly, Heinlein’s insistence that his opinions were the only correct ones does not mean that he never changed his mind about how and why the world worked. Asimov also records, somewhat cattily, that:

“Furthermore, although a flaming liberal during the war, Heinlein became a rock-ribbed far-right conservative immediately afterward. This happened at just the time he changed wives from a liberal woman, Leslyn, to a rock-ribbed far-right conservative woman, Virginia.”

I often wonder how such people reconcile their later beliefs with their earlier ones. Both sets of beliefs cannot possibly be correct because they are mutually contradictory and yet they must both be correct because the person holding them is never wrong…

JANE: Uh…  This example just violated your basic premise.  If Heinlein really was supremely confident, if he needed to always be right, there is no way a mere wife could change his mind.  In fact, given how little respect the opinions of women are given in many Heinlein novels, I’d argue that if Heinlein really was the Heinlein Individual, then a wife never could change his mind.

ALAN: Asimov found it puzzling as well:

“…I cannot believe he would follow his wives’ opinions blindly. I used to brood about it in puzzlement (of course, I never would have dreamed of asking Heinlein—I’m sure he would have refused to answer, and would have done so with the utmost hostility)…”

Asimov’s observation about Heinlein’s changing opinions does go a long way towards explaining why the Heinlein Individual in some novels views the rules of the world in a different way to the Heinlein Individual in other novels. Heinlein’s own ideas had changed in the meantime.

JANE: True.  So, is there any better proof that Heinlein “was” his characters than these thin psychological arguments?  Please don’t say that he used his stories to put forward his ideas and beliefs because, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, every writer does this.

Here’s an example from my own stuff.

After reading Child of a Rainless Year, my good friend Yvonne called to tell me how much she’d enjoyed it.  But (chuckling even as she spoke) she said, “The ending was so Jane.  You do all these things to the humans involved, but you make sure the reader knows the horse was okay and had a good home.”

ALAN: I can answer this to a certain extent – when Heinlein was at the Annapolis Naval Academy, his sport of choice was fencing and by all accounts he was very good at it. The hero of Glory Road is a fencer and the novel contains much fencing lore.

JANE: Roger Zelazny was a fencer in college, and was very proud of the fact that he’d been on the college team.  Based on that evidence, one could as easily say that Heinlein modeled the character in Glory Road on Roger Zelazny – or any of an infinity of people who have fenced.

ALAN:  Indeed so – I agree that it’s a very weak argument. But it’s about as far as I can go without introducing the kind of speculations that you’ve ruled out of bounds. Certainly there’s nothing quite like that about Colonel Dubois and Jubal Harshaw, the two characters who are most generally assumed to be representations of Heinlein the man.

But let me leave you with this little speculation. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw is described as:  “Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B, M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, and neo-pessimist philosopher.”  Heinlein didn’t have the formal paper qualifications that Harshaw boasted of, but he demonstrably had every single characteristic in the list that defines Harshaw’s personality.

JANE: So, we take the parts we want and leave out what we don’t?  I’m not convinced.  If the text had read: Jubal E. Harshaw, graduate of the University of Missouri and the US Naval Academy, student of physics at UCLA, then all the rest… then maybe, just maybe, I’d be convinced.  However, given how general the rest is – most of that would apply nicely to my friend Walter Jon Williams, for example – I’ll take Heinlein’s side and say, no, he never put himself in his books as a character.

ALAN: And there I think we have to leave this fascinating topic. I wonder what opinions our readers have of it?

TT: Is He In There?

June 15, 2017

JANE: Okay, Alan.  We’ve expanded our agreeing to disagree about whether readers should “see” a character as “being” the author.  I can’t say I’m persuaded to your point of view, but I will agree that sometimes authors deliberately put themselves in their books.

Did He Sell the Moon?

You said you had a Famous SF Author in mind who regularly put himself into his stories.  Who would that be?

ALAN: That would be Robert Heinlein, without whom there would be no such thing as science fiction as we know it today. He put a lot of his own personality, experience and beliefs into his fiction.  I’m quite sure that time after time you can catch glimpses of Heinlein himself peering out at you from the pages of his stories.

JANE: Ah…  But is this the readers’ opinion or the author’s opinion?

ALAN: It’s certainly not the author’s opinion. Heinlein was a very private individual who refused to engage in that kind of public speculation. I think he preferred to let the story speak for itself – and I certainly can’t criticise him for that. As far as I can tell, the most he ever said about his own work was in an introduction he wrote to Revolt in 2100: “They are just stories, meant to amuse, and written to buy groceries.”

JANE: Well, if he said that, then why do you feel so strongly otherwise?

Are there obvious clues?  A name and description, like Roger Zelazny provided in The Hand of Oberon or an “in-joke” such as Kingsley Amis’s provided with One Fat Englishman?

ALAN: Yes, there are a lot of clues. In 1968 Alexei Panshin published Heinlein in Dimension, a very detailed critical analysis of all Heinlein’s stories. In it he identifies someone he calls “the Heinlein Individual” who he defines as: “…a single personality that appears in three different stages and is repeated in every Heinlein book in one form or another.”

Here is how Panshin describes the Heinlein Individual:

The earliest stage is that of the competent  but naïve youngster. The hero of almost any Heinlein juvenile will serve as an example … The second stage is the competent man in full glory, the man who knows how things work. Examples of this are Zeb Jones of If This Goes On–, the secret agent narrator of The Puppet Masters, and Sergei Greenberg of The Star Beast. The last stage is the wise old man who not only know how things work, but why they work too. Jubal Harshaw of Stranger in a Strange Land is an example, and Baslim of Citizen of the Galaxy and Colonel Dubois of Starship Troopers. However these three stages as I have given them are simply the equivalents of frames cut from a movie film to serve as illustrations – the Heinlein Individual forms a continuum covering all points between youngster and wise old man.

Panshin goes on to defend this thesis in great and convincing detail.

JANE: So?  Actually, these are pretty classic tropes.  Even boring ones, to be honest.  Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys fit the first just as easily as any Heinlein youngster.  Just about every spy thriller, Western – heck, just about any action adventure tale – has the second. And the Wise Old Man has been around since the first myth where the hero seeks guidance.

By the way, before readers think I don’t like Heinlein’s work, I do.  We’ve discussed it in detail here and here.   I’d certainly consider myself a fan, rather than otherwise.

ALAN: Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not the Heinlein Individual is actually Robert Heinlein himself, we can at least be certain that the characteristics of the Heinlein Individual are very important to Heinlein the writer. Why else would he use the character in story after story after story? It’s also worth saying that the Heinlein Individual is often the only character who is completely defined and well-rounded in the story. Other characters tend to be thinly drawn, barely (if at all) described and sometimes little more than set piece caricatures.

JANE: How his using them because these sort of standard characters do exactly what Heinlein claimed he was doing: Buy the groceries. They don’t challenge expectations.  They provide comfort reads.  Someone is In Charge and will Save the Day, no matter how complicated the problem.

I’m going to need more convincing to see these as Heinlein.  In fact, right now, what I’m seeing are readers who need to identify Heinlein with his characters as a sort of security blanket that carries the fictional “comfort food” into reality.

ALAN: If that’s all there was to it, I’d be inclined to agree with you. But let’s swim out into deeper waters…

The Heinlein Individual is always very competent. Heinlein himself was supremely competent and egotistically convinced of his own competence. When he first sold a story to John Campbell at Astounding he told Campell that he would continue to submit stories to him but that, if Campbell ever rejected one of them, that would be the end of the relationship. Clearly Heinlein was firmly convinced that he was more than capable of writing stories that Campbell would want to publish.

JANE: This sounds cocky, not competent.

ALAN: It worked though…

When Heinlein decided that he wanted a rockery and water feature for his garden, he designed and built it himself with no outside help – and he claimed that carrying rocks around was a great way to lose weight!

JANE: Uh…  I’ve done that, up to and including carrying rocks.  Does that make me Heinlein?

ALAN: No – but it shows that you share some degree of competence with him in at least one area.

In his novel Space Cadet, the hero is given a problem in orbital mechanics to solve. One day, just for fun, I decided to tackle that problem. It turned out to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated (if I’d known how hard it would be, I probably wouldn’t have started it in the first place) but I got there in the end and discovered to my delight that the solution Heinlein presented in the book was correct. Clearly he had done the same calculation himself.

There’s no question about it – Heinlein was very competent in a lot of fields.

JANE: Or he had a friend who was…  You’d be amazed at the number of hard SF writers who use outside resources.  There’s no shame in that.  In fact, it’s good science – and great science fiction.  Honestly, any writer who doesn’t make sure something like that orbital mechanics problem is correct would be an idiot.

ALAN: It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that he might use a friend. Maybe that makes me naïve, but I just assumed that Heinlein did everything himself because his self-reliance seemed such a fundamental part of his personality.

JANE: I actually have personal experience of having an error in one of my published works – but let’s talk about that next time…