Songs from Castle Country

No more the galleries and the marbled halls, 
No more the turrets and the curtain walls, 
No more the gardens and the pretty maids around, 
No more to lie with you on the warm soft ground.

Far from the fields and the smiling sun, 
Where the neverending sky is done, 
No more the comfort of your loving arms around, 
No more to lie with you on the warm soft ground.

Unto the darkness where the way is blind,
Unto the rocky hard and the cold unkind,
Unto the smith that hammers men with it's dull and deadly sound, 
There to find a place to lie on the cold hard ground.

"Castle Country" is my name for a universal medieval setting. Usually the stories I write for Castle Country don't have any magic or mythology. But they do have plenty of deadly combat, jousts, tavern wenches, intrigue, chaste princesses, sieges, more tavern wenches, conspiracies, adulterous queens, ostlers, hunting lodges, falconers, sighing princes, further tavern wenches, huge horses with feet the size of soup-plates, plotting Kings and a whole gamut of priests, monks, hermits, nuns, bishops and occasionally, popes.

Castle Country is an anything goes sort of place - but while you can get away with pretty much anything, you can also have your head randomly lopped off by the next passing Black Knight. It is a nasty, brutish setting which rather intesifies all experiences. It encourages exaggerations of both positive and negative social behaviors, like honor, jealousy, pride, lust, valour, cruelty, virtue. It exacerbates the visceral.

The poem at the top of this post is as much as I can remember from a 20 verse monster that I wrote as a teenager. I wrote it on handmade paper with  a quill. I have no idea where it is now but I suspect that an ex-girlfriend may have it... 


Parallel the Now

Patiently, though not without a certain nagging urgency that he fought to suppress, Eldon searched through the archives of his suit computer. The thing had near infinite storage capacity, but it was necessarily small and slow, and the interface was only finger operated and the audio was poor. He had managed to find a few references to Keeble class vessels, but nothing like the kind of detail he needed. The thing had near infinite storage capacity, and this brought with it several serious disadvantages: when you had no AI to anticipate the information you needed you had to trawl through near infinite possibilities even when narrowed down by a finger-typed search (which Eldon had had to retype three times with his clumsy suited fingers). You also had to consider that though it had near infinite storage, it was a mere near infinite subset of the much larger near infinite quantity of information that was available throughout civilization. And with no AI to second guess what information you might need, he had to rely on associative algorithms and hope that some search he had made when in less dire circumstances (and therefore connected to a network) had in some way been related to the Keeble class.

In the background, his suit had been analysing the ambient radiation and the condition of the air in the airlock. The airlock would have been filled from a reserve tank in order to pressurise it, so it would be about 19% ox, and the rest would be a random inert (or near inert) gas - whatever happened to be available. This was sometimes problematic because if it wasn't nitrogen then the partial pressure would be wrong and he'd still suffocate (or get high, or poisoned). This at least was common knowledge - which meant it was something Eldon knew without having to look it up.

Finally, he found a brief but telling article about the Keeble.

"When  the Keeble class was being designed, computer thermal efficiency was still a distant dream. Her processors were expected to run hot and unreliable, especially when managing the Yang-Hoffstein engines. This meant maintenance, which meant crew access which meant pressurised computing compartments. Keebles were originally going to have sealed liquid switching, so that the compartments could be de-pressurized during normal operation and radiate their excess heat into the vacuum of space, however an obscure casing defect meant that the liquid switches wouldn't stand up to repeated repressurizings. So the compartments had to be pressurized at all times. In the end, this was turned to the advantage of the Keeble class, because (unlike the Munsch class that preceded it) it did not need dedicated crew climate heating, since there was no harmful inonization in spite of the vast excess heat produced. Thermally, the computers were astonishingly inefficient, however the net thermal efficiency of the vessel was the highest that had ever been seen.

"It was ironic, therefore, that as the first hundred or so Keebles rolled of production, the first bromide based cold processors were produced commercially."

(Due to complaints from my public, the main character's name has been slightly adjusted. I want him to have a bit of a scifi name, but he shouldn't sound like something out of Tolkien...)

The title of this post refers to a key feature of old school scifi, which is that it has to reference current technology, mixing the familliar with a little bit of whatever is on the cutting edge. So in here I've paralleled FWS, wikipedia, computer cooling issues, data storage capacity, and I've also thrown in something about thermally efficient processors that I read about in NS a couple of weeks ago.

I've also put in some staple stuff about space-suits and airlocks. A lot of the drama of real-life technology comes from poor design, and poor design generally appears in the least convenient places. Several of the classic SF writers of the C20 make the mistake of assuming that in the far future, all design flaws will be ironed out. But even in the far future, there will be a shortage of engineering designers, so for some things, below average designs will have to be used.


Computer Archaeology

Eldron, his head thumping as he ran out of ox, pumped furiously at the manual override to close the emergency hatch. As he felt it go limp, he let himself slip into the briefest of blackouts. Minutes later, his suit started to recharge as the slowly turning hulk presented the airlock window sunnyside. As the shielding was no longer needed, the purifiers could work, and Eldron rose unsteadily back into consciousness. He remembered catching sight of the red and black markings of the Keeble class hulk and thinking it was time to use up the last of his luck. The damn things lasted a long time, but it didn't seem all that likely that he could get it running. The computers used BLANE... if his aching memory remembered right. He could remember about BLANE. It was good stuff, they said, but it was ancient history even when he had been back at school. Time, thought Eldron, for some archaeology.

I have this idea for some old school scifi. I was thinking about the way that age is used as proof of authenticity, and the way that in science-fiction and fantasy, authenticity is the rarest of all commodities. Authors achieve authenticity when their readers know the worlds in which their stories are set as well as they do. Eventually, authenticity gives way to authority - such as in the Diskworld series - where the author hardly needs to work on the setting at all.

So how can you go about creating authenticity? In fantasy it isn't too hard to use age as a source. Tolkien is the absolute archetype of this, creating a world with thousands of years of history, language, culture and mythology which acts as a backdrop for and a source of the events in LOTR. But what if you want to set your story in the far future? George Lucas famously cheats, with the famous opening crawl of Star Wars telling us that the futuristic events we are about to see take place a long time ago. Instant authenticity, in a jar.

Way to go Mr Lucas, ya wimp.

The snippet above is a teaser for an idea I have to combine two things - one is my affection for the shaky science of old school scifi, and the other is the idea that if your future setting talks about lots of old stuff, you give it authenticity. In the example above, BLANE is a disk operating system. Eldron is the sort of astronaut you get in old school; he isn't a square jawed test pilot, he's an engineer. He is about to realize that his survival may depend on his ability to understand old tech - rather like an engineer from Toshiba who discovers that his survival depends on his understanding of steam locomotives.


The Three Body Problem

The titular problem is a mathematical conundrum from Newtonian physics that is often equally applicable to other areas of physics and it boils down to the near impossibility of telling the future positions of three moving bodies all of which exert gravitational forces on eachother (such as the Sun, Earth and Moon).

The same problem of relativity arises when writing about the relationships - and especially related motivations - of three characters. Quite aside from confusions over pronouns - resolved generally by replacing them with their proper nouns, it makes for confusing, clunky and multi-claused sentences. I'm going to try to build the simplest possible example. Alice, Bob and Chris are friends. Chris and Bob are both in love with Alice, but Bob is prepared to give up Alice to make Chris happy.

"Alice loved Bob and Chris equally, but she knew that Bob's friendship with Chris was important to him - maybe more important than his feelings for her. That increased her tenderness towards Bob when she was with Chris, but Bob's affection for his friend often made her feel even more tenderness for him."

This is already horribly knotty. (Imagine how much worse it would be if all three were men!) But its knottiness actually creates an opportunity for the patient writer - I tend to think that this kind of issue is created by the writer being in a hurry to explain the situation. The opportunity it creates is one of extending the narrative, by presenting the relationship in a narrative structure. The writer who really wants to take the bull by the horns here will devote a chapter to establishing this three way relationship. If it isn't that kind of story (and it might not be), then you should at least devote a couple of paragraphs to it, and present it as narrative, giving yourself time to explain each relationship separately. A good setting for this might be an incident where Alice and Bob are alone together, and Bob is relating some past experience of his with Chris. Alice can react to what Bob says by comparing it with something that Chris has previously said to her - and concludes that she needs to tread carefully, since it is Bob and Chris' affection for eachother that makes them both so attractive to Alice.

Furthermore, by setting up the relationship through narrative, you will engage the reader's attention much better, and get him involved in the relationship, and get him to care about what happens - something that you won't get through plain exposition.

Editing: New Draft of Deacon Shader - Title TBA

Thanatos Rising: The Memoirs of Harry Chesterton: Part I (Volume 1)I'm currently editing a new draft of the story told in "The Resurrection of Deacon Shader" by Derek Prior, also the author of Thanatos Rising. I have a lot of fun editing Derek's work as it is proper, dense stuff. Also it's a damn good workout for me creatively since although there are many superficial similarities in our English, his approach to people and especially events is very different from mine.


I can often be heard banging on about how using grammar as a set of rules to write by is an abuse both of grammar and of the writer. 

This little gem is I think as strong a vindication as any of my NSHO. The author of Delineations (once we start to look behind the hyperbole) routinely uses bizarre syntax, and invents words either by applying unconventional suffixes or by dropping syllables. Nonetheless, his meaning is amazingly clear, even separated from us by nearly 200 years, and by this almost infinitely broad vocabulary. The author is certainly verbose; there is hardly a single sentence whose meaning could not be expressed in less words, however there is something compelling in this verbosity. At first, it seems that the author wants to impress - in the style of French academics - with the breadth of his vocabulary and the intricacy of his syntax, but as we advance, we begin to discover that he is taking such liberties with language that reading it is rather like flying. There are no rules at all, and we can go wherever we want - and furthermore, unlike those French academics, he really has something to say, and information to impart.

"This latter mountain of Bein-Each is a Gaelic name, which signify in English tongue, mountain of the horses. It is likely appear and the purport of styling her on the denomination already mentioned, in consequence of some allegation that it was a remarkable for the excellencies of its pasture, or water, salutary for horses; which horses, bred there in time of old, choosed to outrun others at hardship."


Dimnas Splintax was running. He was having to compile the terrain ahead of him as he went and dispite the assistance of the implants he knew he wasn't working fast enough. He knew because the horizon was getting closer. He also knew because he could hear the Cawber getting closer behind him.

Soon it would catch him. Soon it would take him in its claws and rend his – what – his flesh? Could you call this flesh? Would it hurt?

 Running certainly hurt. And Dimnas Splintax was looking for certainty. That was why he was here, wasn't it?


From time to time, partly as an experiment, and partly to get the damn things out of my head, I write fragments like the one above. This one has the feel of an opening passage, and starting with someone running away like this is certainly a cliché. Such a strong cliché, that it is even a cliché if it is subverted or reversed.


The New Model

Language is culture and culture is language. Language is thought, too.

It seems that for a long time there has been a recognition in our shared cultures that people need ways to use language without restrictions, in exactly the same way as people need to be able to tell stories about things that have never and could never happen. And just as in fairy tales, when we break the rules of language, we almost immediately create new ones. We oblige the farm-boy to go on a journey wherein he becomes a hero, solves the riddle and finds the magic sword. Only then can he return home and defeat the dragon that we met in chapter one.

Traditionally, when in the written or spoken word we break the rules, the new rules we impose are those of poetry. Generally, these rules are quite arbitrary - metre, for example, provides rhythm, which makes lines intended for memorization easier to learn - however there are many metres to chose from and the poet can affect profoundly through his choice.

Let me make another analogy: a painter may vary his paints, his brushes, his canvas (in both size, shape and materials). He may also vary his precision; he may be vague and blurry; he may be sharp and photorealistic (a horrible word that Turner would have loved until some bastard explained its intended meaning). A painter may also apply these same variations to content - content may be clear and obvious, or merely hinted at, or completely abstract.

We excuse the poet when he does the same. Here is a poem I wrote at school. If I tell you the title it may spoil it:

Slip ponderous selfish shoe,
Slip upon paths smeared with sludge.
Did a desperate deity decree you,
Forced with fearsome threats of fudge?

In this poem I have submitted to a few chosen rules of poetry, in order to get away with refering only obliquely to the object of my observation.

There is a literary convention called "heightened language" which allows us the same sort of tradeoff - literally that we can ignore normal rules provided that we impose others. Heightened language is often used in poetry but can be used in prose as well. Journalists and demagogues use it often, and the latter will deliberately break rules, often logical rather than grammatical either to make you think or to prevent you from thinking.

Here's a sentence from a book I am working on at the moment. The book (which is not intended for publication) is full of experiments in heightened language, but I chose this example because it is rather plain.

“The dogs were again silent, and the forest, more silent still.”

In critical language (the rigorous register in which I normally write articles), I would never have used that second comma. It is there to force a pause, because I'm looking for a very specific set of responses in my reader, and I think the incongruous comma draws special attention to the words around it. In addition, the sentence contains what would be, in rigorous language, a logical nonsense: silent and "more silent". Silence, we generally say, is an absence of noise. You cannot therefore have "more silence". However, heightened language allows us to connect the words in this sentence, and take their meanings, and in particular, their associated events and connotations together. We have been told that "the dogs were again silent". The connection of dogs and silent is, we suspect, telling us something special. They are listening to something? They have heard something important? Yet we are also told that the forest is silent - even more silent that the dogs. The logical nonsense of "more silent still" is telling us much more (I hope) than had this been rendered with better logic:

"The dogs fell silent again, and the forest was also silent."

If heightened language is the application of poetic freedom to prose, then what are the additional rules that we have to apply to heightened language to ensure that it is not unnacceptable to the reader? 

This is where the New Model comes in. The New Model is what I call the rules that I apply personnally to my own writing. The primary rule of the New Model is this pompous outburst: 

1. "A correct sentence is one which lacks ambiguity and whose meaning is readily accessible to as many possible of those for whom it is intended", shall be the whole of the law.

Such a rule excuses us from correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, doesn't it? It sets communication of meaning on a pedestal, stating that any other consideration is unnecessary. But supposing we are writing poetry or heightened language where we don't intend (as in my poem above) to tell the reader exactly what we are describing, hoping that he will take pleasure in guessing - or suppose we want to get a feeling, an emotion, something as vague as uneasiness from the reader, such as in the sentence about the dogs. In both these cases there is much room for interpretation, inference, ambiguity. If communication of meaning has been placed at risk to such an extent, how do we avoid alienation of our readers? We do it by applying other, sensible rules:

2 "Punctuation should be discreet, necessary, logical and congruous."

3a "Chekhov's rule* shall be applied to all grammar, 'correct' or 'incorrect'..."

3b "... however grammar should generally conform to expectations."

I think that 3b is implied by 1.

Have we come full circle? No. So what's the big idea? Why the pompously titled "New Model".

When European Cultures started introducing "education for all" it was with a very specific purpose that had nothing to do with equality. It was with the intention of creating generations of efficient workers and obedient soldiers. It was therefore necessary in the highly stratified societies that existed to ensure that everyone continued to know his place. Standard of education was and still is a key differentiator for people who like to judge in this way. They use your knowledge of grammar to determine where you are both on the scale of education and of class/background relative to them. Such people tell their children that their grammar MUST BE CORRECT to ensure that they are not judged incorrectly. To a similar extent (and in some places, probably greater), people are told that their grammatical errors may lead to opportunities being denied to them - by showing that their education is poor. All this is, of course, true. But it should not be our motivation for knowing our language well, and for using our language skillfully. We should not be motivated by fear of what others think of us.

We should be motivated by a desire to communicate our thoughts clearly.

If this is our motivation it is almost inevitable that we will want to master the use of our language, and an understanding of its grammar is very helpful (and may be essential to a complete mastery). I suspect that thinking this way about communication makes us better at thinking.

Those people whose meaning is clearest are those whose language is simplest. But their language is simple because of their mastery of it. This is grammar as kung fu. A minimum of action for a maximum of effect.

*AKA Checkhov's gun - "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."