Monday, June 12, 2023

Turning waste meaning into energy: Babel, by R. F. Kuang

I have just come across what might be the most interesting magic system in a fantasy book that I have ever seen, and I need to rave about it. 

I discovered Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution, by R.F. Kuang, because of an episode of Lingthusiasm, the linguistics podcast co-hosted by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. They've had a couple of episodes where they talk about linguistics in fiction, often wandering into fantasy and science fiction because, yeah, those genres have a vast scope to play around with when it comes to thinking about language. Anyway, in this episode they described this system, and I almost immediately went looking for the book. 

It's set in an alternate 1830s England. The magic is based on translation, etymology, semantics and possibly also semiotics, unless I really don't get what semiotics is (a strong possibility). How it works is deceptively simple and concrete for a magic system. It's done using bars of silver. On one side of the bar, you write a word or phrase in one language. On the other, you write a translation of that word or phrase in a different language. Sometimes the words are cognates or calques or loanwords, sometimes they're translations of the same meaning but not related to each other historically. The silver catches what is lost in translation and amplifies it. You can't be sure what the effect of any pair will be, but once you've discovered a pair that creates a useful effect, it can be applied over and over. 

The first example you encounter in the story is a bar with the pair "triacle" and "treacle." "Treacle" in English means molasses. "Triacle" comes out of French but, well, ahem: 

From Middle English triacle, partly from Old French triacle, and partly from Old English tiriaca, both from Late Latin *triaca, *tiriaca, late form of theriaca, ultimately from Ancient Greek θηριακή (thēriakḗ, “antidote”), feminine form of θηριακός (thēriakós, “concerning venomous beasts”), from θήρ (thḗr, “beast”). Compare theriac, theriacle.

"Triacle" is an antidote, made sweet to make it easier to take. "Treacle" is just the sugar. The silver bar catches the difference in meaning, the idea of "antidote" that has been stripped from the English "treacle," amplifies that. . . and cures the main character of cholera. 

The other catch is that you can only make the effect happen by speaking the two words out loud, and you have to speak both languages fluently, so fluently that you understand the resonances of the differences in meaning. You probably have to understand both languages better than most speakers of either. If you're the sort of person that believes the "port out, starboard home" etymology, you probably can't make the bars work. And if you can make an English-Hindi pair work, that doesn't mean you can make a Hindi-Tagalog bar work.

And the greater the difference in the languages, the less history the languages have in common - the more difficult they are to translate - the more powerful the reaction. 

The silver bars, in this alternate world, have taken the place of the Industrial Revolution in ours. Which means that the British Empire functions based on "silverworking." And it means that as the empire expands, its hunger for increasingly foreign languages and cultures grows - especially since as British hegemony spreads, other cultures become less distinct. The differences between them erode away. So the magic system is also intertwined with the plot, as the main characters, brought from outside cultures - China, India, Haiti - are brought to Oxford to study languages and make the magical silver bars that power the empire that is slowly taking over their motherlands. And as they slowly realize that England is taking all of their cultural diversity for itself, to make its trains run more smoothly, its gaslights burn more reliably, and its dinner parties more lavish. And that the more people they have that speak, say, Mandarin, the more useful Mandarin is, while there's no point to researching English/Yolngu Matha match-pairs, because how many people will ever speak both languages? 

So the magic system also implies a slow erosion of the lesser-spoken languages because they are not "useable" to the empire, even as that means it's giving up the power of the vast diversity of those languages. Urdu is something the empire can reasonably use. Kanienʼkéha isn't. 

The anticolonial message is a little heavyhanded but in order to get to the - let's face it, the subtitle is "the necessity of violence" - tragic and violent ending, it sort of has to be. The characters are driven by the kinds of social theories that have driven revolutionaries to strikes and barricades and incarceration and execution forever. But they're also driven by a shared love of digging through textbooks looking for the laws of speaking and meaning, they rebel while also thinking about what it really means to understand another person and whether it's possible. The implications of language and translation are less didactic in this book, and lingered in my mind longer, than the obvious "white supremacy and imperialism is a bad thing" theme. 

I think what I really loved about this magic system was how constrained it was, the way it was rooted in something I've never seen used as a source of power before - capturing waste meaning like waste energy in a reactor - and the way the mechanics of its functioning mirrored and served the ideological proposition of the story. I don't think I've seen anything like it before. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Grokking Spock

Here's the thing: I know that Leonard Nimoy has, in the past, had a slightly strained relationship at times with Mister Spock. I can't imagine what it would be like to be known, forever and unshakeably, for a part you played for three years in the sixties (and then again in several movies, and last, in your eighties, in the reboot of the franchise, as the older, alternate universe version of the new guy). I think of Alan Rickman's "Dr. Lazarus" in Galaxy Quest, forever doomed to show up in prosthetics and say "By Grabthar's hammer, you shall be avenged." After Star Trek, Nimoy was Spock, despite his directorial, songwriting, poetic and photographic achievements.

And when Nimoy died on Friday, he was mourned as Spock. There was a huge online wave of people, including me, posting our farewells with the Vulcan salute and the hashtag #LLAP (Live long and prosper). He was - and always shall be - our friend.

I thought about it before I posted that picture, knowing that, in some ways, that hand sign is Grabthar's hammer.

But I had reasons. For one thing, that hand sign and everything it represents may not really be about Leonard Nimoy the actor and director and artist. But it is the most visible signal and sign for Star Trek. Nimoy played, and helped to shape, a character who was more than just a stereotypical sixties SF alien. Spock had dignity and character and nuance. When I was a kid and the neighbourhood children played "space explorers," Spock was my role model, and I think he was for a lot of people. Kirk might have been the swashbuckler, but there was something about the way Spock represented the equal strength of science and order and knowledge and curiosity. And he had a certain tolerant, if a bit exasperated, sense of humour about humans and how illogical they could be. He was a critical lens through which you could look at humanity and, forgivingly, recognize how much more growing up our species has to do.

He also, as I learned on Friday as people wrote posts and comments, served as a role model for a lot of kids struggling with their identities - either because they were mixed-race, like Spock, or were having trouble dealing with their emotions, or felt they didn't fit in because they were quiet or nerdy or whatever. In the same way that Lt. Uhura was there for black kids, Spock was there for the geeks and freaks and outsiders.

Star Trek did many things that were not just groundbreaking, but inspiring. It told women and minorities that there was a place for them on the bridge, in the future. It said that human beings could get better, and eventually get over things like greed and violence and hatred, and use our skills for exploration and discovery. All that stuff. All the reasons that fans love the show.

And a couple of generations of future actual space explorers were watching, and listening.

We live in a world where young women go to work on the International Space Station, and they bring Starfleet comm badges.

1967: launch of Mariner V.
NASA techs in paper Spock ears.
People in the space program today grew up with Star Trek as part of their cultural story about exploration, and about science and discovery, and about what they have to do with being human. If you buy into Star Trek, you buy into the drive to discover what's out there. In the version of human history where we get better and keep exploring and striving and learning and being excited about our universe, Star Trek is part of the myth. And there's that salute, and therefore that character, to encapsulate it.

So when I posted my #LLAP picture, along with a lot of other people around the world, yes, I was mourning the loss of Leonard Nimoy - not because of what he'd done outside of Star Trek, although he did do some great things, but because he was Spock and Spock is the most obvious symbol for Trek, and Trek is a symbol for wanting better things from the human race.

It was a way of recognizing just how much our shared myth about what humans can be is owed to a story, one so familiar to us - even to the ones that aren't the freaks and geeks and outsiders, now - that I can put up my hand, and split my fingers, like that, and say volumes without saying a word.

Live long, and prosper. Peace and long life.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On making it up as you go along

As NaNo draws to a close, I realize I haven't done nearly as much writing this month as I'd like to have done. But I did get to have a great conversation with improv actor and storyteller Dave Morris, from Paper Street Theatre, on Literary Landscapes, about the stuff that goes on when, as during November, people stare at a blank page and then force themselves to write things on it. Because Dave (and the rest of Paper Street Theatre) goes one better than that - he makes it all up on stage, in front of an audience, when blanking on what comes next doesn't involve getting up for another cup of tea, or checking Twitter. . .  it means silence while a room full of people wait for you to come up with the next thing.

It started when I went to see Paper Street's The Horror Within, put on in Ottawa by the (un)told storytelling series: three members of the troupe improvising stories in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. As a fan of the Great Elder Gods and the literature around them, I just had to go.

For the first half of the show, the three of them got suggestions from the audience - a place, an object, a job, something that might work in a Lovecraftian setting (they were handed a haberdasher, an ocean liner, and a magnifying glass) - and each of them took one of those things and started telling a story that would incorporate it. The three stories were essentially independent, but when the first speaker looked like the line of his first idea might have guttered out, the next would jump in with their story, and so on. Occasionally one person would interact with someone else's story - add a sound effect, or a voice, or act out a part - but the three stories stayed distinct. They also all picked up pace more or less simultaneously, and the segments each person told got shorter and shorter, until they all got to their climactic scenes.

When someone had talked themselves into a corner, the others would step in: when someone had made an error that had struck the audience as particularly funny, they'd work it in as a running gag, and when the actor couldn't think of yet another ornate, flowery synonym (man, does Lovecraft love his synonyms), the audience was with them when they finally gave up and said, ". . . thingy." The audience, I realized, was a part of the performance even more so, maybe, than scripted theatre, because the audience was with the performers. The audience knew they were making it up. The audience was okay with a couple of failed descriptions or moments of awkwardness.

For the second half, they got a suggestion for a title from the audience - my friend Jessica, who had never read any Lovecraft before and knew very little about his work, suggested the one they eventually went with, and won a Cthulhu plushie for it! - and then they created a more interactive, theatrical story, though still with a narrator figure (Dave, in our conversation on the radio, said that they'd found a narrator figure was essential to a Lovecraftian feel).

Anyway, coming out of that I realized I wanted to talk to them about a couple of things: how do they pick out the specific elements that characterize a writer and recreate them in improv? How do they prepare and deal with the moments when the ideas blank out, up there in front of an audience? What kinds of things can writers, who also have to just keep making stuff up if they want to get anything done, learn from the practice of improv?

So I got in touch with Dave Morris, and he agreed to come on the show, and this is what happened.

(Click to listen to the show, on CKCU On Demand.)

Monday, September 22, 2014

I finally get back to (un)told

Maybe it's because it's fall: I'm suddenly itching to go out and do things and see shows. And so I was pretty happy that I could finally, for the first time in a few months, get out to (un)told tonight.

The open mike storytelling series has moved: they're now in the Black Rose room of the Heart and Crown on Clarence. Or, to be more clear - that pub in the Market that is really a whole bunch of interconnected pubs where you're never really sure, once you've gone in, which one you're in? Go round to the back of that (the Murray Street side) and look for the little door next to the Black Rose. Or, wander inside, past miles of oak rails and tiled floors, till you see this:

 . . .and then go down the stairs. 

The room feels nicely packed with thirty people, it's cosy, and pretty quiet, because of the stairs.

The format is still pretty much the same - open mike, you can sign up in advance online at the website or, presumably, talk to Liz when you get there - and they still do the thing where they hand out little slips of paper so the audience can share their own stories on the theme of the day, in a smaller, possibly tweet-able format. (The stories from the slips are read out periodically, giving the writer a small taste of how the tellers feel: a clever move, I think.) Tonight's theme was "Fight or Flight."

And the audience is interesting. Definitely a younger crowd than you see at some other storytelling shows in the city. This was a twentysomething crowd for the most part (not everyone though), and tonight, I'd argue, predominantly male (another oddity: many other storytelling shows skew heavily to women. Then again, that might have just been the way it played out tonight.)

But, the stories!

Some memorable lines, and some impressions:

"'It's a fetish,' was the first thing he said." A woman waiting for a streetcar in Toronto gets approached by a guy who explains he just wants her to kick him in the balls. After making sure he's serious, and won't sue her or anything, she decides, well, she's got nothing else to do till the bus comes. . . this winds up spiraling into a strange sidewalk domination session, to which she remains a completely bemused party. Until the bus comes, and he asks for her number, when she says, "no, are you nuts?"

". . . the Grand Canyon, the vast space between a mother and child. . . " The fight: in a dreamscape campground, two momma bears face off over the same child, through a car windshield. The flight: across America's west.

"I have to confess, I've never really been a fan of outdoor sex." Stuck on a tiny island with your wife when a storm makes your northern Quebec lake impassable? Found a nice, comfy bit of flat stone where you could have a little adult fun? Then suddenly aware of a motorboat approaching, carrying two sketchy guys in camo and hunting gear? Convinced for some reason they're here to take your wife? All you have is a Swiss Army knife? What do you do? What do you do?

"So I turned the gas up to maximum and I walked away from that shit." Bad enough that the mouse crawled out of the barbecue when he fired it up for the first time. But to think it might have had a nest in there . . . and little mouse babies . . . when he turned on the gas . . . well, it had been on full blast for twenty minutes by the time he manned up and went back out there, so if anything was left of the mouse babies, it was only their souls that got into the burgers.

"I was going to die. They were all going to die. I closed my eyes and I could see her. Her lips. The smell of her hair. The feel of her body pressed against mine. And the train was still coming." . . . and you thought this was going to be a love story? This was a story with a first kiss, a remote town, young love, and a terrible storm that took out the train bridge. . . and a barreling passenger train heading for the loose rails over the river. . . and the best "gotcha" tall tale ending I've heard in a long while.

"If someone asks you where you live, don't give them a fucking address. Point right here, at your frontal lobes, and tell them 'Right here, and right now,' because that's all you've got." A raw, emotional account of living through a family member suddenly having a medical crisis and winding up in a vegetative state, and why that means you have to live, and you have to laugh. Also included a badass, tough-as-nails smoke jumper who was (almost) too shaken by grief to dig his wife's grave. And a couple of moments where the teller stopped and said to us, yeah, yeah, it's okay, you can laugh, it's funny, this is how life is. This is how death is. And it's kind of ludicrous.

"She turned around to her assistant and said, 'He has to do this! He has to do this! He has to do this! He has to do this!' She said it four times." All DJ was trying to do was vote. And it ended up with her walking in circles in the polling station, trying to calm down, because despite a driver's license and health card and birth certificate that all said she was female, the woman at the polling station was certain she was male. Was it her voice? Does she have 'one of those faces'? When just voting is a fight-or-flight situation, when "proving you're a person" and that you exist is even harder, how do you cope with it?

It looked to me, coming in after a couple of months off (and, I think, as my first time at (un)told as a non-teller) as though the series is going gangbusters. And it's doing some interesting things. A lot of the people who got up to tell were taking some big risks - not just in being emotionally invested, but in the ways they chose to tell. They banked on the audience coming with them, and most of the time, I think, the audience did. Even to some kind of painful places. It was a good night, with hushed moments and laughs trading spaces.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Linguistics geek meets doge

I follow Michael Quinion's World Wide Words newsletter, and he just summed up the Internet meme/fad "doge" (which I have been wanting to do) WAY better than me. I post it here for the edification and amusement of meme-followers and word geeks alike.


Such odd. Much cute. So passing fad. The internet phenomenon of doge has been fashionable for some months now and has attracted the interest of linguists. It originally tagged pictures of the Japanese dog breed shiba inu (in multicoloured Comic Sans font), so the name is a deliberate misspelling of dog (no link with the one-time ruler of Venice; don’t ask how it’s said as wars have been started over less and the consensus seems to be “any way you want”). Doge pairs a modifier and a noun to create a dissonant phrase. The main doge modifiers are much, many, so, very, such, plus three words that can be used by themselves: wow, amaze and excite. Typical phrases are very eat, much grumpy, so trick, which usually have meaning only when written on a photo. But I found a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in doge, which begins:

What light. So breaks. Such east. Very sun. Wow, Juliet.
What Romeo. Such why. Very rose. Still rose.
Very balcony. Such climb.
Much love. So propose. Wow, marriage.

What interests linguists is that it’s much more than just bad English. It has a strict grammar that deliberately subverts the standard one. You have to have a sophisticated intuitive understanding of English to write good doge. A newbie user wrote “Much respect. So noble” and was immediately corrected because it was too conventional — it should be “Much noble. So respect.” An article in the Daily Telegraph in February was headlined, “Doge: such grammar. Very rules. Most linguistics. Wow”, which pretty much sums it up."


I think that last line should be "so grammar. very rules. most linguistics. wow" - lack of capitalization included - but hey, it was the Daily Telegraph and I bet the editor wouldn't let them do that.

Doge fascinates me because it was so obvious that there were rules and grammar to it, which were unofficially, somehow, agreed upon (and argued about as though they were actual grammar) by people who learned the meme and learned to use it. Doge utterly baffles and confuses anyone who isn't in on the joke, but it doesn't take long to get in on the joke - just see a few doge pictures. Then reconstruct the general rules of the meme. To write good doge, the modifier has to disagree with the noun to the greatest extent possible. It has to be the opposite of the right word. Which is why I'd argue that "so grammar" is better than "such grammar." I can imagine using the words "such grammar" together in actual English. Hence, =/= doge. Though, I could be wrong: and of course, the rules of doge don't actually exist except as some sort of collective understanding between total strangers on the internet.

Lots of memes work like this - the Batman/Robin slap meme, the Boromir "one does not simply" meme. You know, after a few examples, where the text breaks, what sort of font to use (the meme generation sites that have sprung up do dictate some of those fonts: but one seems to emerge as the winner, making others look clumsy and amateurish, as though the user doesn't really know the language of the meme). And some are better written than others. Some are plain dumb. Some are created as in jokes for groups so small that the joke is lost on everyone else. But the successful ones can be really clever, and often pick up some universal frustration that a large number of people are feeling.

Doge, though, is a different breed (no, not shiba inu). Doge - a lot like its grandparent, lolspeak - is a language game. Part of the in joke with doge is "I know how to do this." Beyond "I know how to do this" is "I know how to do this and be clever with it." 

On a picture I posted on Facebook of me rock climbing into the sun, stopping to shade my eyes, I commented simply, "very sun. so squint. wow." That's just demonstrating that I know doge and I can do it passably, and fishing for a 'like' from someone else who's in on the joke. It's when you can do something like this, where the reader/viewer can be in on two completely different in jokes, and you've done something clever with the linguistic rules of doge (say, by finding an example of something that looks a hell of a lot like doge from long before the internet existed): then you've reached doge mastery. IMHO. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

A midsummer vignette

Walking down the canal tonight, Byron and I approached a group of teenagers hanging out on the park benches, singing "Barrett's Privateers." Well, trying to. They were bawling out the chorus at least, but then I heard them stumble: "What was the ship's name?" 

"I dunno. . ."

"Well, the something sloop was a sickening sight - "

And they all sang out "HOW I WISH I WAS IN SHERBROOKE NOW!"

And just as they all faltered and fell back into silence, we walked through the group. Without breaking stride, I said, "She'd a list to the port and her sails in rags and the cook in the scuppers with the staggers and jags."

They all stared, then burst into cheers and applause. One held up a hand and gave me a high five as I kept walking, and they all started singing, 


I was a few feet away when they finished the chorus and dissolved back into laughter. One shouted "That was AWESOME!" and another yelled something like "Bless you!"

I raised a hand without looking back, like the hero walking off into the sunset, and remarked to Byron, "You know, if I've learned one thing in life, it's that knowing all the words to 'Barrett's Privateers' opens all kinds of social doors." 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The final hours

I meant to post so much more about the Iliad and the process of working on it for this show, but, of course, life got in the way, and when I would get a moment I could post, I'd realize I could either post about the Iliad - or rehearse for it. And so it goes.

But now, we're 36 hours away, as I write this, from the first voice being raised on the stage at the National Arts Centre, and the beginning of the story.

I will be there in the audience at the beginning, and all the way up to my set, and beyond it. Nervously, and excitedly, waiting for my chance to pick up the story and carry it along, and watching to see the audience getting carried along with it. Watching some of them - maybe most of them - discover or rediscover it. And I will have a completely new perspective on the Iliad from when I started.

You want to know why it's lasted almost three thousand years? We fight wars, the human race. We're cursed with it, maybe. And in our wars, we can be at our most terrible and our most beautiful, our most tragic and our most triumphant. There are moments when people shine - and not necessarily when they fight: sometimes it's when they care for each other, or miss their families, or run back to tend the wounded. And there are moments when one fatal misjudgment can get you killed, or where a man stands shoulder to shoulder with a friend.

Spend as long as we have spent with it (as we, the tellers, have learned to know these people, talked to each other about them, thought about destiny and the patterns and parallels that keep emerging) and I think you'll come to the realization that the genius of the Iliad is that there are no sides, there are no easy answers, there's no "just war" or right side.

Or come spend twelve hours with us, and with it, and with all its complicated, courageous, petty, gentle, loving, frightened, monstrous, valiant, blazing human beings (and gods). I'm sure you'll never forget the experience: and I believe it will speak to you, about the sorrow and beauty of being human. It did to me.