Fantasy and sci-fi stories aren’t limited to human characters. With a little thought and effort, an author can give intelligence, emotion and personality to just about anything we can imagine — animal, vegetable, mineral, or abstract concepts. Dragons and cat-people are actually fairly tame choices, if you think about it.
But fantasy/sci-fi brings up some weak points in our languages — such as the distinction of what, exactly, a “person” is. Is it an accurate term for xenomorphs and magical creatures? Would a non-human individual even identify with the human word “person”?
Oh, there are ways around the issue. We can refer to intelligent non-humans as “beings” or “individuals”. Characters can talk about “this one” or “that one”. And a story can just call characters by their names, species and formal titles, without ever speaking broadly about persons or people.
But why avoid it? If we can’t question the nature of personhood in genres full of faeries and aliens, where can we question it?
Language-wise, it’s a tricky issue. Here on real-life Earth, Homo sapiens hasn’t met any other clearly defined intelligent races yet, so we usually only need to talk about ourselves. The human connotation of “person” is usually a moot point. We do, however, see it surface occasionally in the news — such as in medical definitions of consciousness, or as part of the movement to grant personhood rights to whales and dolphins. (That link actually makes some interesting points about the nature of personhood, so I highly recommend reading it.)
This question seems to get mixed responses in the anthropomorphic/furry circles I’ve experienced. Some fans feel that “person” is a term too strongly tied to the human species. Furry literature sometimes uses “fur” to identify an intelligent being — so that an anthropomorphic fox character talks about this fur, somefur, everyfur or anyfur. It’s a striking way to remind the reader that there are no humans here, as well as give the characters a sense of their own vocabulary and culture.
Myself? I think “person” can be used to describe any being comparable to a human in intelligence or complexity. “Person” and “people” are commonly used words in my Stories of Aligare, where the three races call each other “peoplekind” instead of “species”.
That was a partly reactionary choice, I have to admit. Anthropomorphic characters are is often marketed — and perceived by the general public — as vapid children’s entertainment. I’ve long been frustrated with people assuming that my stories aren’t about humans, therefore they must be about cartoon mascots for preschoolers. Awww, look at the little animal people! No, my characters are just people.
But word roots also factored into my choice. In the English language, “person” didn’t originally specify a human at all. Quoth the dictionary:
ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French persone, from Latin persona ‘actor’s mask, character in a play,’ later ‘human being.’
Throughout human history, masks have represented a wide variety of beings — humans, animals, mythological beings and gods. And hey, that brings us back to the idea that when we open our minds, anything and anyone can be a significant, meaningful character. Fantasy and sci-fi have the power to really explore that.
So that’s why I like to classify intelligent, fictional beings by the same “person” I’d use for myself. That term can help a seemingly simple creature serve us up some food for thought.
- Human posture as a marker of anthropomorphism
- The mythical sirens, and how I reworked them for the DISTORTED anthology
- Why fantasy?
Work continues on Tinder Stricken. What I originally thought would be a quick blitz through a mountain world has become an odyssey of learning and stretching myself as a writer. So I’ve been painting lately, trying to cement some mental images. You might have already seen these if you follow me on Twitter!
This is a house on Tselaya Mountain, made of clay, stone and bamboo (one of few plant products cheap enough for lesser castes to build with). This concept painting was mostly to help me remember the coloured flags. Inspired by Tibetan and Nepalese prayer flags, the five colours of flags are used to show a household’s rank, occupation(s), marital status, and much more.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this significant character much —mostly because her personal traits only gelled recently, and also because I can’t decide on a name for her. She’s Kaewa right now and we’ll see if that sticks! Kaewa is from a Maori-inspired coastal society. On Tselaya Mountain, she works as a diplomat, using plant-based magic to translate languages, understand people, and mediate disputes. She also speaks with animals — which is a taboo subject among Tselayans. She’s pictured with her closest phoenix friend, who is her clever partner in less-than-legal human matters.
And with a new novel comes a new table display! I’m building up a base for a nearly-life-size Tselayan phoenix made of paper maché. Like my other paper maché display pieces, this will be built up into the right shape and then finished with acrylic paint and feathers. Nothing says “cool, non-human character” like a dramatically fanned pair of wings, am I right?
So if I’m quiet in the next few months, it’s because I’m working my creative butt off! Tinder Stricken will hit metaphorical shelves in late May, 2015.
- Designing the phoenixes of Tselaya Mountain
- Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi
- The mythical sirens, and how I reworked them for the DISTORTED anthology
I recently changed my day job. Tired of the customer-service grind of being a waitress, I decided to return to my professional cooking roots — but this time, I’m working as a prep cook. It’s less exciting than being the line cook who makes meals with speed and flair, but that’s okay. I’m not looking to be a hotshot in my day job. Cutting vegetables and making basic sauces will hopefully be a low-stress occupation that leaves me more energy for writing.
Although, it’s been about 6 years since I last chopped restaurant quantities of vegetables. My knife callus had long since faded away, and in the past few weeks I’ve had to harden my hands up again. It made me realise that a chef’s knife leaves a very particular mark on its user — and that’s a detail not everyone is aware of, because it’s not very glamorous. Knife calluses aren’t something a Food Network host will grinningly tell you about.
So, since I’m a world-building fantasy writer, how about I show you a defining part of my real-life world? I’ve been showing all my friends this visible change in my hands. I find it interesting that my occupation is changing the texture of my hands, and leaving a visible mark. It’s telling. But more on that later.
First things first! When I talk about using a chef’s knife, I mean something like this:
Chef’s knives vary slightly in design, depending on whether the knife is German, French or Japanese-styled. The blade can be between 6 and 14 inches long (15 and 36 cm), but the most common chef’s knives are between 8 and 10 inches (20 and 25 cm) long. My own knife is a 9-inch Victoronox, a lightweight, nimble model preferred by the female chefs who trained me. My new workplace provides a whole bucket of chef’s knives for my use, all between 8 and 11 inches, and all of them a heavier tool than I’d prefer. It’s like wearing nice, breezy sneakers every day and then suddenly putting on hiking boots that, relatively speaking, feel like blocks of cement.
Anyway, regardless of the knife’s exact measurements, a professional cook gets a callus from using it. A very particular callus, on the index finger of their dominant hand. Here’s mine:
Why does the chopping friction affect such a small, specific area? Because when you use a knife for hours each day, it’s not always held by the handle. Well, uh, let me show you. With some pictures of me using my Victoronox knife in my tiny apartment kitchen.
Tender foods — such as parsley leaves — don’t provide much resistance. The cook can easily hold the knife by its handle and make a quick up-and-down chopping motion.
But when cutting larger or tougher foods, holding the knife by its handle puts the cook’s wrist at an ineffective angle. It’s more efficient to actually hold the base of the blade, to allow more direct downward force. Like so:
That blunt edge of the knife is what creates the callus. And that callus shows that I work with actual meat and vegetables, not factory-made things pulled out of the freezer. My prep work isn’t glamorous but it’s a necessary part of making really good food, which is why I’m proud of my little friction wound.
And that’s what I mean by my knife callus being a defining detail of me. It’s always kind of bothered me when I’m reading a fantasy story and it offhandedly mentions some character’s “callused hands of a swordsman”, or whatever their profession is. Callused in what way? Just callused all over? Probably not. And they’re probably not the same calluses you’d find on an archer, or a seamstress, or a blacksmith.
Granted, I’m sure most authors don’t want to include an infodump explanation of exactly where a swordsman’s hands get callused. They might not even know where a sword hilt rubs on its user’s hands — because I sure don’t. It … varies by the type of sword and the fighting technique, I’d assume. But that’s exactly why I want the book to specify that detail! It would lend authenticism to a fantasy world if the seasoned warrior gets lost in thought while rubbing that one particularly leathery spot on his hand.
Calluses are something I’ll have to include in Tinder Stricken, since the main character Esha is a manual laborer. She’s been farming for most of her life and even if she doesn’t think much about her own calluses, she’ll probably notice the state of other people’s hands and what that says about them. I could have included calluses in the Stories of Aligare, now that I think about it. Aemet and korvi skin have different properties than human skin — but however tough korvi hide is, it’s nice to think that Peregrine’s hands tell a story of hard work.
And as for me and my day job? I’ll get more interesting marks to go with my knife callus, I’m sure.
- Scars: fictional meaning versus real mundanity
- Why fantasy?
- The Western view of snakes and how I changed it in my spare time
With my love of variety in fantasy literature, I try to experiment with lesser-used mythological creatures. I’ve talked before about the phoenix, that metaphor everyone knows — but few fantasy writers use to full potential. And I’ve dabbled with black dog interpretations ever since I first found out about that interesting little clump of British Isles lore.
Today, I’m here to discuss sirens. You know, those mythical aquatic women who aren’t mermaids?
Originating in Greek mythology and later adopted by the Romans, sirens are supernatural women who sing in enchanting voices. They tempt or hypnotize men, most notably sailors on long, lonely journeys. Sometimes the sirens distract the sailors into crashing their ships; sometimes the lovely singing just lulls the sailors to sleep so the sirens can easily kill them. Either way, it’s a bad outcome for any man enchanted. The first Greek examples of sirens were associated with meadows and earth, but later siren lore had a water connotation — including dangerous, rocky seashores for befuddled sailors to crash their ships onto.
That ocean context sometimes causes sirens to get mixed up with mermaid lore. Nowadays, particularly sexy mermaid artwork is sometimes tagged as a siren. But Greek texts originally described “winged maidens” with bird legs. The siren was sort of like a harpy‘s more attractive sister. Her bird traits represented her beautiful singing voice. An early Christian text also points out that love is a sharp-clawed bird: it “flies and wounds”.
There are also historical artworks of sirens as fish chimeras who look slightly like mermaids. And some artworks where sirens looked like ordinary human women, lounging on rocky seashores. Like most mythological beings, sirens are open to interpretation.
As for me, I grew up hearing a bit about Greek/Roman mythology and its singing sirens. My more memorable siren encounters came in video games. Final Fantasy games and their summoned spirits represent a wide variety of Earth folklore, after all.
But in the modern fantasy genre, siren encounters are fleeting compared to elves, dragons, vampires or werewolves. The siren doesn’t seem to be a mythical creature that gets much thought or reinterpretation. So when I saw the submission call for the Distorted anthology — asking for modern, realistic, or fantastic interpretations of mythology — I thought sirens would be a great subject. Their flexible lore would let me worldbuild. Their built-in themes of love, temptation and punishment would help me make a great story.
I wrote a piece called To Sing Which Tune. It’s about a version of modern Earth where sirens (feather-covered humanoids with gills) have always been friends to humans. They call boats away from danger, and they perform their lovely songs on TV for our entertainment. At least, that’s how it used to be.
Nowadays, the siren population is showing more and more cases of violent dementia, attacking humans unprovoked and with little warning. Marine ornithologist Helen thinks it’s because of toxic chemical buildup in their bodies, a side effect of human pollution. Helen is driven to help all sirens — most of all her lifelong friend, Odyssia. But she might be too late.
To Sing Which Tune is darker than my usual stories, but it was an interesting project and I’m delighted to be included in the anthology! And I’m glad I jumped at this chance to write about beautiful, deadly sirens on a modern seashore.
It won’t be long until Distorted is available for sale! Transmundane Press has put together a collection of short stories about monsters, gods, and mortal struggles. The anthology includes To Sing Which Tune, my story about sirens on modern Earth. It’s a bit darker than my usual works!
Today is cover reveal day — but that’s not all! Reading Addiction Virtual Book Tours also has excerpts of some of the stories, and personal factoids about us contributing authors. And don’t miss the giveaway raffle at the bottom of the post!
Distorted goes on sale November 7th, 2014.
So, here’s something I just thought of. English sci-fi usually refers to its interstellar spacecraft as “space ships”, or “starships”, or something else with “ship” in the name. It’s a commonplace term.
Because it makes sense for humans to root our space travel in the nomenclature of sailing. The Age of Sail was a major formative period in Western history, so modern English still uses sailing idioms like “batten down the hatches”, “know the ropes” and “close quarters”, even though sailing is now a tiny niche of world travel. The vast majority of human cultures use boats in some way, and can relate to the imagery of travelling by wind and water. Sailing has a nostalgic sense of exploration and bold human endeavor. But if we dig a little deeper, sailing also touches on the less pleasant lessons history has to teach us — issues like the soul-sucking conditions of long-haul travel, and the human rights atrocities committed in the Age of Sail. The glamour and the grimness of the Age of Sail make a good blueprint for a space opera.
I was thinking about this while listening to The Picard Song, a Star Trek fanwork that starts with Captain Picard’s stately declaration of, “Here’s to the finest crew in Starfleet.”
Huh, I thought. Starfleet. Like a fleet of ships, in keeping with the nautical theme and the military implications. I wonder if alien races have metaphors like that for their space programs — different metaphors than ours.
And it suddenly occurred to me that I can’t think of any non-human versions of the term “spaceship”. Much as I appreciate Star Trek’s efforts to show non-humans in a dignified light, its alien races always seem to accept the “ship” and “fleet” terminology that humans use. Now, granted, universal translation technology is partly to blame. Of course it’s going to use our most commonly understood nomenclature. But still, I don’t recall any sci-fi media where an alien says, “Oh, you call it a space-[water-going vessel]? My species calls it a space-[something else].”
Why doesn’t that happen? Why don’t we hear other colourful names for spacecraft? Why aren’t there more telling glimpses into alien cultures?
I don’t ask that question directly at Star Trek, of course. That franchise had enough of a struggle on its hands, making its vision palatable to mainstream TV audiences of the 20th century. No, I think this is a question to ask of science fiction in general — and maybe fantasy, too, with its “airships” sailing the skies. Sci-fi made me think of this question, but I firmly believe that a magical non-human can do as much thought-provoking as a hard sci-fi alien.
I mean, what about a race that glorifies farming and plant husbandry? They might call their vessels “space seeds”, since they’re tough little packets of life meant to colonize new lands. Or aliens who see spacecraft as a mimickry of stars and planets, a mortal being’s attempt to fit in with the celestial bodies? Maybe their vessels would be called “hardstars”.
Now, I don’t claim to be aware of every book, TV show and movie ever made — actually, I get through novels pretty slowly for someone who writes them. So I hope there are examples of space not-ships that I’m simply not aware of. This concept just has so much creative potential, I hope it’s being used to add colour to fictional societies.
Do you know of a sci-fi/fantasy series with an interesting name for its spaceships/airships? Share in the comments!
Bird feathers are pretty amazing. They’re the most complex skin outgrowths found on any Earth animal, specialized for everything from basic locomotion to unique courtship displays. But as I’ve been reading in National Geographic and other online articles, the path to modern bird feathers was a long one.
Since Jurassic Park showed us bare-skinned dinosaurs in the 90’s, science has found feathered dinosaur fossils from as early as 124 million years ago. Feathers probably developed from reptile scales, which gradually frayed and enlongated. These early feathers could have been for waterproofing or insulating the body. But even in their early stages, feathers might have been used for courtship. A theropod would have to be in good health to spare metabolic energy on these extraneous growths, so attractive display feathers would have indicated a potential mate.
Over time, those straggly beginnings became a mechanism for gliding. And over even more time, birds’ bones and muscles adapted to allow flapping flight. Some feathered dinosaur fossils have quill-like feathers on all four limbs, suggesting that some species experimented with a four-winged approach. We take sparrows and pigeons for granted when they flap around our cities, but these thriving creatures are the product of millions of years of biological trial and error.
The key to evolution theory is that it’s not a planned march toward perfection. It’s just what happens when life throws a bunch of stuff at the wall and, over thousands of years, figures out what sticks. It’s kind of amazing how many animals have adapted to flinging themselves into the air on flat membranes: giant pterosaurs, insects, squirrels, bats and rainforest frogs. Birds just took a less intuitive, more difficult route. For their trouble, they ended up with a flight method well suited to specialization. Diving falcons, hovering hummingbirds, and albatrosses that can glide for hours are only some of the options. If real live Earth can produce such natural variety — under strict rules of physical efficiency — then I think our sci-fi/fantasy worlds should be even more richly built.
Fond of science fantasy as I am, I think feathers are a great tool for character design and worldbuilding. Korvi, the dragonfolk of the Stories of Aligare, have feathered wings as well as decorative feather manes. (Also, Tijo the mage might have been a deus ex machina in Remedy if I hadn’t inflicted moulting feathers on him. I clipped the character’s wings in an overly literal way!) And in the upcoming Tinder Stricken, phoenixes will use their feathers for flight, communication and more. The real mechanics of a bird’s physiology can make a good grounding element for a story full of magic and lore.
Thinking like this makes me want to see the fossil records of magical creatures. It might be tricky to balance scientific discovery with the faith-driven nature of magic — but wouldn’t it be cool to see the Archaeopteryx-like ancestors of glorious phoenixes? Or how harpies’ bodies changed over millenia? Hey, there’s something I’ve never seen done in a fantasy-type time travel plot: serious archaeology! I’ll add it to my To Write list.
Haven’t made much progress on Tinder Stricken lately. I’m mostly trying to get my head in order.
But I am dabbling more with painting, while trying to get some mental images in place. Here’s a concept piece of a Tselaya Mountain leviathan:
Leviathans are water dragons with overtones of salamander/nudibranch/deep ocean fish. These intelligent, amphibious beings live underground and are rarely seen by humans. I’m thinking leviathans are accustomed to dark, narrow, water-filled spaces. Their sensitive fins and whiskers tell them everything they need to know about the crannies around them.
They have a different headspace than a human, that’s for sure.
I’ve been doing some rough draft work for Tinder Stricken, and a lot of thinking about the new book’s world. It’s been a while since I did extensive worldbuilding for a writing project! The Stories of Aligare setting has been firm in my mind for years now, with only the smaller details and customs that needed defining. It’s a nice change to design a completely different realm — and the creatures in it.
Which brings me to the phoenixes! Greek mythology usually refers to the phoenix as a large, magical, immortal bird that periodically douses itself in fire and rises up renewed from its own ashes. That renewal symbolism is a great selling point for a mythological creature and it’s been interpreted variously over the years, even embraced by early Christian symbolism.
The phoenix has differing physical descriptions, depending on which ancient text you consult. It’s usually said to have a crest of feathers on its head, and red/yellow colouring that suits a fiery creature. Other than that, they’re up to the individual’s imagination. Sometimes the phoenix is the size of an eagle or a rooster, other times it’s said to dwarf an ostrich. (I suspect that the stated size has to do with whether people wanted to carry the legend on their arm like a trained falcon, or ride it through the sky.)
There are other cultural representations of phoenix-like birds, such as the Slavic firebird, or the simurgh sometimes said to plunge itself into fire after 1 700 years of life. And some mythical creatures are loosely compared to the phoenix just because they’re legendary birds.
In particular, the fenghuang is often called a “Chinese phoenix”, although it’s not fire-aspected. Fenghuang are legendary birds associated with femininity, justice, honour and the various celestial forces, and sometimes used to symbolize the ruling empress. Fenghuang were originally described as elaborate chimera creatures (much like Asian dragons) but more modern depictions of fenghuang are mostly fusions of peacocks, pheasants, cranes, ducks and swallows. To be fair, they do look a lot like a Western phoenix.
And can we consider Harry Potter a legitimate folklore source for phoenixes? I think we can, since the series is so far-reaching. Fawkes the phoenix has the crest, long tail and colouration of a traditional phoenix, and he bursts into flames to recover from periodic death. His feathers are powerful magical items that can be made into wizarding wands. And Fawkes also has some less traditional special abilities — such as healing tears, teleportation, and an enormous carrying capacity — that phoenix lore is able to support. Surely, a creature magical enough to be healed by fire must have some other amazing traits, right? J.K. Rowling was able to put her own spin on the mythology.
Because much like dragons, the phoenix has a lot of long-standing mythology to draw from, but not many stone-set rules. A phoenix can be recognisable while still being different from what we’re expecting. I love it when the fantasy genre does that!
I’ve used phoenix lore alredy in my Aligare world — as Phoenix the Legend Creature, said to cause volcanic eruptions each time she throws herself into the renewing “firerock”. Now, with Tinder Stricken, I’m using phoenixes in a more central role to the story. Much like my Aligare dragons being more approachable interpretations of Earth lore, and mundane in their own world, I’m making the phoenixes of Tselaya into more realism-based creatures. They’re not all-powerful legends. They’re just living things — and a part of the local ecosystem.
These phoenixes are about the size of an eagle, with physiology like a combination of ravens and cranes. They’re omnivorous, snapping up passing insects and other opportunities, but the bulk of their diet is shoots, buds, fruit and seeds from high-magic-content plants. Because such plants are rare in the challenging growing conditions of Tselaya Mountain, phoenixes cultivate some of their food. They use flint and steel to start fires, so that they have fertile ashes to grow seeds and saplings in.
I thought that using striking tools to start their fires would be an interesting take on phoenix lore, since tool use is a well-known sign of intelligence in Earth birds. To that end, phoenixes have stringfeathers — two tough, cord-like tail feathers that they can use to help carry objects. The stringfeathers can be wrapped or tied around the phoenix’s cargo, including their prized bits of fire-starting minerals, or their gathered plant sprigs. The rest of the phoenix’s tail is forked like a swallow’s tail. I figured that a mountain-dwelling bird would face high winds, so they’d need a more practical, flight-assisting tail than the showy display plumes usually seen on a phoenix.
But the crest aspect of phoenix design suits my purposes. Partly due to intelligence and partly due to their magic-rich diet, Tselaya phoenixes are very good at communication. Their three crests of feathers help them express themselves.
And an intelligent, fire-starting bird like that is bound to get on the wrong side of the local humans. Phoenixes are generally considered dangerous pests — but the best way to get rid of a wild phoenix is to have a trained phoenix talk to it and ask it to leave. When Tinder Stricken‘s main character has her family heirloom knife stolen by a wild phoenix, she essentially needs to fight fire with fire. (Huh, I just noticed how conveniently that idiom fits into my scenario.)
So I’m looking forward to working with my own take on various old lore. Phoenixes and similar legendary birds might be well-known and open to interpretation, yet they’re nowhere near as popular as dragons. And unlike werewolves and vampires — which are nearly their own genres — phoenixes don’t often get top billing in fantasy novels. I think that should change! The phoenix is one more aspect of speculative fiction that’s fertile ground for reinvention.