Language, Language

If you’ve read this Monday’s short story you may have noticed that Dmitri uses the term “Palatinus” to refer to the high ranking official he turns his case over to once his work is done. I have to admit, I was leery of using this term for reasons that are at once very simple and very complex. But before I can talk about that, I need to step back and admit something about the way Dmitri talks and his home in Terra Eternal.

If you’ve read the two stories I’ve done on Dmitri – Monday’s and this one from last summer – along with the Terra Eternal world building posts – here and here – you’ve probably realized that Terra Eternal speaks a language with heavy Latin influences. I made this choice for very simple reasons. Generally, when you’re telling a story, it’s best to give the audience what they expect.

Yeah, sure, you can defy expectations but if its not something that’s central to your story then your failure to live up to them will just be a distraction. Popular culture today associates Latin with magic and fantasy, elements that are central to the ethos of Terra Eternal. Yes, I could have made up a bunch of words of magic, people do that all the time when building fantasy worlds. But part of the schtick is that Terra Eternal isn’t a totally different world, it’s another version of our world. The Endless Horizons are really just echoes of the same world with fundamentally similar people in superficially different circumstances. It’s logical that the languages would be similar as well.

In fact, Sophers that study language in Terra Eternal work by this principle. All the languages they’ve encountered fall into one of sixteen different groups based on the basic rules of sound and grammar involved. These groups are called phonemes (a real word I’ve given a different meaning, another part of writing in this setting) and most public officials like Dmitri understand the basics of at least two of them – their native phoneme and the First phoneme, which is the Latin equivalent of the Throneworlds. The only things that really vary from world to world is vocabulary and pronunciation. Barriers, to be sure, but not as insurmountable as entire different languages.

This is why terms like Regulus, Praetorian and Century are scattered liberally through stories about Terra Eternal. While an empire that touches all or part of fifty two worlds is bound to wind up with a melting pot of a language, and Terra Eternal has stolen a plethora of terms from other cultures as they were assimilated, the bones of the First phoneme is Latin in nature.

That brings me to palatines. I’ve mentioned once or twice that I work in a Genealogy department and one category of records we have is an index of palatines who came to America. When I started there I’d never heard the term before but I quickly learned from context that palatines were some kind of high born people and the word had a good ring to it, so when I started building Terra Eternal I was thinking of using it as a term for a high ranking official. But I wasn’t sure what kind of official they should be so I started doing some research into the term and I discovered I had heard the word before, just with a different pronunciation.

You see, most fantasy geeks would spell it paladin.

Palatines were officials in many European courts, but the most powerful of them was probably Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. Some poet wrote a verse about who twelve of these palatines, the Peers of the Realm, and their great feats upholding the empire and this later became the archetype for the holy warrior, made mighty by his devotion to truth, justice and righteousness. I’m not sure whether the spelling was changed deliberately or accidentally but over time this particular meaning became associated with the spelling paladin until Gary Gygax basically enshrined it with his Dungeons and Dragons role playing game.

So what’s this all mean?

Basically, I’d adopted a linguistic conceit, that the powerful, magic-driven culture spoke a Latin-based language because it was what the audience would tend to expect. But the word palatine was closely associated with the idea of holy warriors by that same audience and that was a concept I wanted to avoid focusing on with Terra Eternal. On the flip side, palatine was a real word with concrete meaning and that’s a resource that shouldn’t be quickly cast aside. I wanted most of the basic social structure of Terra Eternal, the empire’s superstructure if not the local governments, to have Latin terminology and palatine was a part of that. But I didn’t want to give false impressions either – the palatines are just high level bureaucrats, not holy warriors.

Looking back on it the answer should have been obvious but as is so often the case it took me a while to get there. The actual Latin word is palatinus, which is different enough from paladin that I didn’t think confusion was likely. And that is how the character of Palatinus Sollenberg came to have his title and I came to wish that I’d chosen some other language for the basis of an interdimensional empire.

Like sign language.

The lesson for today? Worldbuilding has a lot more to it than you’d ever expect.

Cool Things: Azumanga Daioh

So we’ve covered gunslingers in outer space and Meiji era romantic swordsmen, what remains to give a full bodied, even handed overview of manga and anime, this month’s focus here at Nate Chen Publications? Oh, yes, of course.

High school.

Now many Americans have fond memories of their high school days. But in our culture college is probably the more important educational milestone. While fewer people go to college, it is where a lot of people seem to form their first meaningful lifetime relationships outside of their birth families. Roommates, sports teams, fraternity or sorority friends or just people who took the same classes you did, college is where you meet them. Sure, you have some friends from high school who might stick around, if you’re lucky. But for the most part, in America, college is where independence really starts and tends to be our high water mark for growing up.

In Japan, it’s high school. College admission exams are exponentially more difficult there, often consuming most of a student’s free time in their last year of high school so, at least in pop culture, the first two years become a frantic rush to accumulate experiences and meet those people sharing your interests. Then you bond together and set your sites on a life path and work towards it as a group.

This theme is made so much of in Japanese pop culture that I have to conclude it’s what actually happens on at least a semi-regular basis. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to sell it so frequently. But the way it’s typically presented in Japanese pop culture is probably not the way it really is.

There is one work I’ve ready that has the ring of truth to it, though, and that’s Azumanga Diaoh by Azuma Kiyohiko.

If you’ve read/watched any manga/anime at all you know that the Japanese have a slightly higher tolerance for abnormal elements like superhuman martial arts, mind readers, spiritualists and the like in their entertainment and fusing these elements with high school is a very common approach to story telling. Azumanga Daioh is not that.

High school manga or anime are also considered a great format for stories of all out competition with sports teams or game clubs or even movie making groups doing all in their power to win a major competition before exams crash down and end their high school days. Azumanga Daioh isn’t that either.

Lastly, even in America we recognize the unique romantic atmosphere of high school. There’s cute members of the opposite sex all over the place to be chased, gossiped about and rejected by. The Japanese are just as fine writing high school romances as Americans. But Azumanga Daioh doesn’t waste its time with romance.

Azumanga Daioh is what’s known as a slice-of-life drama. It follows its central characters around as they arrive in high school, get to know each other, do funny, stupid or otherwise entertaining things and eventually graduate.

I know, I know. This sounds boring. Somehow, it isn’t.

I really wish I could explain this manga better. It’s roughly the equivalent to a comic strip, what’s called “4-koma” in Japan. Most of the stories are told in a series of four panels that serve to basically tell a joke. But in each of those jokes a surprising amount of character development goes on.

This is significant since Azumanga Daioh (and slice-of-life in general) is not a sitcom. The genre is driven by its characters and not the situation they are in. What Kiyohiko does is he builds a set of very understandable, deep and relatable characters and then lets us live with them for three years until they graduate (high schools in Japane have a 3 year curriculum spanning 10th to 12th grade, just one of many differences between Japanese education and the U.S.) By the end we really feel like people like Osaka, Chiyo and Sakaki really were our classmates. That’s a particularly impressive achievement if, like me, you were homeschooled…

The Japanese pop culture obsession with high school may not always make sense to Western readers. But it is that very fact that makes Azumanga Daioh a great example of it for people dipping their toes into manga and anime. It seems as if this is what they’re really expecting to get, what they really want out of high school. It’s an idealized take on the formative years of young people, from the perspective of Japanese culture.

Plus it’s consistently funny, occasionally heart touching and not that hard to get a handle on. Maybe saying it’s a story about girls who go to school for three years, become fast friends and graduate to move on to bigger things doesn’t inspire you. But all dreams need foundations. And, in a very real way, that’s what Azumanga Daioh is – a foundation for bigger things.

The Bear, the Doyen and the Portal (Pt. 2)

(Part One here.)

The Alligecko shot up the side of the dome, his aura clinging to the wall much like the lizard he took half his name from. Momma Bear took the direct route, the dull rustic glow of her aura quickly building up into the form of a fifteen foot tall bear that leaped straight from one level of the spiral ramp to the next, heading straight towards the center of the room and the crackling portal there.

Unfortunately that left Galen alone at the bottom of the ramp – a ramp that he now realized was much higher than the outside of the building suggested. The inside of the building occupied at least twice the volume of the outside, which made about as much sense as everything else that had happened in the last few months. Galen gave it a philosophical shrug and went on.

With nothing but a voice in his head to carry him on his way he had no choice but to take the long way around and go up the ramp in a more normal fashion. Galen pelted up at top speed but, after all that time cooped up in a tent with no real exercise he wasn’t in the best shape of his life. Not that the best shape of his life was anything to write home about. Galen was out of breath before he was even half way to the top where the portal was located, cursing whatever brilliant mind had decided that they had to make getting up to the level of the portal so difficult.

The ramp wasn’t that long, the real problem was how out of shape Galen had gotten combined with all the walking of the past two days. He just didn’t have the stamina to go for long. About half way up the ramp he started wheezing and slowed to a walk, splitting his attention between gasping for breath and watching the action unfold on the platform by the portal.

The flagstones beneath his feet were shot through with metallic tracery in patterns that looked vaguely familiar. All sharp edges and sudden corners but built out of curving lines it looked kind of like a circuit board that had been partly melted like a blow torch. The patterns nagged at the edge of his mind like-

Infinite uniqueness in infinite regression.

-like fractals. That was it.

A spear crashing onto the ramp a few feet ahead and bouncing away towards the wall of the building got his attention back on the portal up ahead. Momma Bear had gotten up there only to be stopped in a cloud of the shards of light the portal guard wielded. It looked like she couldn’t take a step forward without getting sliced by them and, even as Galen watched, a trio of larger panes of energy slashed across her extended arm of her aura. The energy lost cohesion and then, to Galen’s amazement, seemed to flow into the blades of light.

For a brief second Galen got a glimpse of a spiderweb of lines connecting the shards of energy and the blonde man at the center of the vortex they formed, the entire matrix forming a fractal pattern much like that beneath his feet.

Wind. Wind on windows wielded by one beyond weariness.

It was weird that the voice was so chatty at such a lousy time but that didn’t bother him nearly as much as the bad attempts at alliteration.

Momma Bear looked like she was going to end up on the ropes but just as she started to give ground the ceiling above them shifted subtly and the Alligecko dropped down from it, teeth flashing. There was a shout from down by the door and the guard reacted fast enough to swing his cloud of light slivers up between himself and the Alligecko. The barrier bent in slow motion, like a sheet of plastic, giving the guard enough time to roll out of the way.

Galen looked towards the shout and saw three new men, all dressed in the ubiquitous white coats and wearing masks but armed with a grab bag of weaponry, one with a pair of hook swords, one with a spear and one with the heavy gauntlets, making their way up the ramp behind him. As he watched the one with the hooks reached up and snagged them on the next tier of the ramp then used them to half drag, half walk up the wall and cut a huge loop of his trip. Then he turned around and held one hook down for the one with gauntlets, who grabbed it with one hand and the third man with the other. In less time than it took to tell all three were up on the next level of the ramp and preparing to repeat the procedure.

Thrice born.

That didn’t mean anything to Galen but he did realize that the three of them were probably going to cut him off if he didn’t do something about it. Drawing on reserves he didn’t know he had, Galen managed to get up to the third section of the ramp before the masked trio were ready to start trying to climb it. As the hook user snagged his weapon over the lip of the ramp at his feet Galen gave it a swift kick. Since the masked guard had been in the process of starting up the wall at the same time he wound up falling unceremoniously on his back side.

Just as Galen was congratulating himself the one with the gauntlets flicked his hands out and made a motion like he was twisting a doorknob. The weird riot of lines and shards of light flickered between them for a split second, then the light sprang forward like a striking snake.

“Skata,” Galen whispered.

The curse had barely left his lips when the torrent of light hit him. Or rather, it broke on the sides of a bubble that sprang into existence as soon as the curse was spoken.

Of course being in a little bubble of light didn’t completely void the laws of physics. That would have been too convenient. Instead of knocking him flat the impact knocked him up the ramp like a stray ball. On the bright side he was close to the top and skidding in his barrier brought him almost all the way to the top. The floor of the portal platform was at waist height when the shield dissolved and deposited him unceremoniously on the ground again. He’d have to figure out what the heck was going on with that.

In the mean time he needed to get through the portal and out of trouble fast. Galen jumped up onto the platform and started towards the center, ducking under the swaying tail of the Alligecko before he even realized he’d heard it coming, rather than seen it. Beyond them the guard was wrestling with Momma Bear.

To Galen’s amazement the massive ursine aura she took her name and power from had shrunk until it was barely larger than she was, and it had grown transparent enough that he could see her through its outsides. The Alligecko’s tail swung back and slammed into the matrix of lines and shards of light that stood between him and the guard but the defensive wall just bent and popped back into shape. In the mean time energy kept draining out of Momma’s aura, trickling out in wisps and dribbles before being absorbed into a whirling collection of glowing orbs that swirled around the guard’s left hand.

On a hunch Galen yelled, “Charon take him!”

It was the only directed curse he could think of at the moment but it worked. As the words left his mouth a river of power formed, rushing towards the guard and slipping through the cracks in his wirework wall with almost no resistance. It swept him up and dashed him to the ground, which was good. It also hit Momma Bear and swept her down as well, which wasn’t quite what he’d been hoping for.

The weird mess of light and lines that had been between them broke up as the guard went down and the Alligecko shifted as if to go and grab Momma Bear but almost as soon as he did the three masked guards were up on the platform. The first guard made to get to his feet but Momma tripped him and yelled, “Go through! I’ll get back!”

Galen started to protest but the Alligecko grabbed him with his tail and dashed towards the portal. When the giant reptilian aura came into contact with the tear in reality there was a moment of resistance, as if it didn’t want to let the two of them through. For a split second Galen saw what looked like an identical room on the other side then suddenly the portal seemed to spasm, folding in gut wrenching ways, and the two of them spilled through the portal into a back alley that looked a lot more like home than anywhere he’d been in months. The Alligecko’s aura faded almost as soon as they were through.

Galen wound up landing hard in an undignified heap so he wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem like the Alligecko even lost his feet. All Galen knew for sure was that the other man was dragging him to his feet almost immediately. “Welcome home,” the Alligecko said, dusting him off. “What do you think?”

“Somehow,” Galen said, catching his breath, “this is not what how I expected heroes to start out.”

The other man just laughed.

——–

“Did you work out where the portal led after it was diverted?”

“Yes, my Doyen. Or at least, we know what the general characteristics were, if we wanted to cross the horizon there again.”

The cartographer handed Dmitri a scroll with the exact details written on it in the usual notation then folded his hands behind his back. To his left, the Regulus for the instillation cleared his throat. “Forgive me, my doyen, but are we sure that the information is trustworthy?”

“I had ben-Gideon keeping an eye on the recording team right up until the moment the intruders arrived,” Dmitri said absently, peering over the information on the scroll. “If he didn’t notice any tampering I’m sure there wasn’t any. I have every confidence in the accuracy of this information. And it looks like they went to a sleeping world – no functional magic there at all.”

“That was our conclusion as well, my doyen,” the cartographer said, pulling a small book out of the bronze folds of his robe. “In addition, their world matrix suggests that-”

“Thank you, but I was only really interested in the magic potential of their destination.” Dmitri rolled the scroll and handed it back to the cartographer. “Now. We’ve clearly determined that the portal was being used by outsiders, not people from the camp. It seems to me that the cartographers and the Throne of Locke have little to gain by sending total strangers there repeatedly.”

He took a moment to look up at the ceiling of the portal chamber, now much lower since the energy of the portal didn’t warp the shape of the room. “Particularly since the portal collapses every time it’s used this way and takes them a week to reset. Nor do I see any reason for the guards to be complicit in sending small groups of total strangers to a world without magic as part of some strange plan to annex it into the empire. Terra Eternal hasn’t annexed anything in almost a century and we’re better for it, plus a world without magic is of very little benefit to us. Are there any objections to that assessment?”

An uncomfortable look passed between the cartographer and the guard captain. Finally they both said, “No, my doyen.”

“Excellent. Then I’ll strike your mutual accusations of treason from the records and pass a recommendation up to Palatinus Sollenburg to do something to tighten security even more.” Dmitri gave the ramp beside him a rueful kick. “You can’t be calling in specialized forces every time something goes wrong in a portal chamber, after all. Someone should look into toning down the magic sapping properties of these places.”

“I notice you and the intruders did just fine,” the guard captain said suspiciously.

Dmitri held up the pendant that doubled as his power source and badge of office. “Just a reminder but I have a full strength core tap. You’re not going to be able to siphon off all the power here with just a portal chamber. And our friends were using bruja magic. No telling what kind of results that will have. Speaking of which, where is our prisoner?”

“Your Blade of One has her over there,” the cartographer said, nodding towards the wall.

“Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” Dmitri said, bowing slightly with his hands spread slightly and palms out. The two men returned the gesture, bowing much deeper, and waited until their doyen turned away before departing themselves. Dmitri found Solomon ben-Gideon about half way around the circumference of the room standing guard over the attractive, powerfully built woman he’d found under the spectral bear he’d fought with earlier. At some point they’d decided it was more expedient to slap irons on her than just hold her down all the time so now her wrists and ankles were chained together in front of her, giving her an almost piteous look. The fierce defiance in her expression kept Dmitri from feeling any pity, however. That and the fact that she’d tried to twist his head off like a lid.

As soon as he got up to them Mons handed him a necklace of flat silver plates and said, “She was carrying this. It seemed to serve as a magic reserve. Plus,” here he gestured towards her hair, which was braided and pinned up in a number of loops behind her head, “this is a hair style that was popular among first and second rank cartographers at court a few years ago, favored for its storage capacity. We’ve siphoned off the stray magic and left it in storage here.”

“Excellent.” Dmitri examined the necklace for a moment. It was well crafted but didn’t have any of the markings you’d expect of an artifact crafted specifically for magic storage. Most likely the woman had owned it before and simply discovered it functioned as a magic reserve when she discovered magic. “What phoneme does she speak?”

“I can understand you,” the woman interjected. “Mostly.”

“Good! That saves trouble.” He knelt down beside her and looped the necklace back around her neck. “There. I return what’s yours to you. And to go with it, I add another present.”

He pulled a small black box out of one pocket and removed a pair of silver bracelets from it. Each one glowed as bright as a lantern. “Key.” Mons handed Dmitri the key to the shackles without protest and Dmitri unlocked the wrists, replacing them with the bracelets. As he slipped each one over the woman’s wrists he pressed on it until it shrunk and became skin tight. “Now. What’s your name?”

“Why do you care?” The woman countered.

Dmitri sighed. “Do you see the way these bracelets glow?”

“It’s hard not to.”

“It is, indeed.” Dmitri waved his hand at the domed room they were in. “This room, and most of the buildings in this camp, run of a very specific frequency of magic – you understand frequencies, yes?”

The woman snorted in exasperation. “Yes. We have them at home, too.”

“Everyone has them, the question is whether they understand them.” Dmitri tapped one bracelet to draw attention back to them. “These glow only when exposed to that frequency of magic. Which means they will glow like this whenever you come here again, or whenever you trespass on the territory of Terra Eternal again. You will be found. You will be executed. I ask for your name only because, should it prove necessary to execute you, I feel your grave marker should have a name on it.”

The woman’s expression lost some of it’s huffiness and became a bit more curious. “You’re very young to be so jaded.”

“I deal with the fallout of shortsighted hubris day in and day out. Believe it or not, people who shut down a major part of our infrastructure, making commerce difficult and potentially ruining our ability to react to trouble here are not the biggest problem I’ve seen in the last year.” He rocked back and looked her over once, matching curiosity with curiosity. “Let me just say that I know a woman of breeding when I meet one. Do you really want us to remember our first face to face meeting to end with a bad impression?”
“Maybe I’m just waiting for a rude boy to give me his name, first,” she countered.

Dmitri laughed and nudged Mons in the leg. “If it’s a full fledged introduction you want, then by all means I will give you the courtly treatement.”
The three men removed their masks and bowed in perfect sychronization. “May I present Dmitri Dostoyevski, Doyen of Terra Eternal, who speaks with the full authority of the Eternal Throne.”

Dmitri added a slight nod of the head and said, “I greet you in the name of my self and my brothers and my father and his brothers.”

Most people Dmitri had met failed to recognize the form of his greeting, or if they did they were too overawed by the title of doyen to give the correct counter greeting. His prisoner didn’t even pledge fealty to the Throneworlds but in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, she managed a better proper greeting than any he’d had in a long time. She rose, in spite of the chains on her ankles, and said, “I am Maria Berggolts, by blood, daughter of the Boyar of Italy. Though that is a title that means little, these days. I do apologize for any trouble I or my companions have given you.”

With great effort Dmitri managed to keep his expression neutral. He knew the natural-born-lord-of-all-Terra type, the Empire was full of them, but Maria didn’t quite fit the mold. For starters, you’d never find any of them breaking into secure military instillations wrapped in bruja magic and fighting with their bare claws.

“Unfortunately an apology isn’t enough to pardon your intrusion.” He rose to put himself back on eye level with the prisoner. “You remain banished from our territory on this world and all other fifty one words that swear fealty to the Throne of Terra Eternal.”

Her eyes widened. “Fifty one?

“Plus this one,” Dmitri added dryly. “For a total of fifty two. Anyone else we catch trying to use this portal as you did will be given the same warning and marked as you are. But do try and spread the warning around.”

He handed the scroll that detailed profile of her world to Mons, who took it and started looking it over while also removing the shackles from Maria’s feet. Dmitri wished, for just a moment, that he had six hands and three sets of eyes like his three-fold companion. But that came with its own problems. “In compensation for being our messenger to your world we’ll even give you a hand in getting home. But I recommend not coming here again. Your world built itself without magic. Best not to unbalance it adding too much.”

He turned to go and wrap things up, there was still paperwork to do and a report to write and no good place to do it in the portal chamber. But he stopped as Maria called out, “What do you mean don’t come here again?”

“Magic used in your world doesn’t go away, you know,” he said over his shoulder. “It just sort of disipates. And the kind of magic you find here – well, it’s not safe by itself and you don’t have the expertise to sterilize it. Leave it be, Maria Berggolts.”

He couldn’t see her expression from where he stood but her tone was slightly bitter. “Sometimes trading safety for the power to make a difference is the right choice. Surely you realized that when you sought out your position, doyen.”

Mons burst out laughing, three voices in eerie harmony. Dmitri turned to face them fully, annoyed, but Mons spoke before he could. “Doyen Dostoyevsky has never once in his life been weak.”

He blushed. “Thank you, Mons, that’s enough.” Mons just shot him a grin and slipped his mask back on. Dmitri looked at Maria once more and said, “Don’t assume power is a blessing. As often as not, it’s a curse greater than weakness.”

He stalked back towards the entrance, the last words he heard from Maria Berggolts echoing in his mind. “Jaded indeed.”

Part One
Fiction Index

Genrely Speaking: Alternate History

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking! Unless, of course, this is your first encounter with this running gag feature, in which case welcome! Genrely Speaking is where we look at genres, those loosely defined groups of literature that, in theory, frame any discussion about fiction we care to have. Since it’s important to understand what is meant by any given genre – or more specifically what any given person means when they talk about a genre – I’ve taken it upon myself to go through most of the genres I read and talk about and define them for your convenience!

Today’s subject is alternate history (or Harry Turtledove) a genre that skirts around scifi territory but really isn’t. While both are, in one way or another, about human ideas, alternate history does its best to stay within the bounds of, y’know, historical events. You can tell you’re dealing with historical fiction if the following things are present:

  1. A framework of familiar history. While some works of historical fiction can wind up very, very far afield (coughHarryTurtledovecough) they almost always begin with a distinct jumping off point, a moment in history that readers will already be familiar with or can become familiar with in fairly short order. For example, the novel Days of Infamy begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, while Guns of the South begins in 1864, just as the Confederacy’s decline began to pick up speed.
  2. One huge difference. This is the alternate part. In order to be alternate history, something must be different from what we knew. Some writers will try and find the smallest possible thing they can change and still make an interesting story but usually it’s pretty big. In Days of Infamy the Japanese follow up the bombing of Pearl Harbor with an invasion of Hawaii. Guns of the South tells how Robert E. Lee actually manages to win the war.
  3. A careful and thoughtful examination of what might actually result if these things had been changed. Some of these can grow to absurd lengths. The complete breakdown of Guns of the South ran through four books, including the original, at a minimum. I haven’t read all of them, trying to hunt down all of Harry Turtledove’s work is an mammoth task.

What are the weaknesses of alternate history? There’s a lot of them. It can come off as dry, particularly if the author is trying to run down and explore all or just most of the fallout of whatever his big idea is. Like many scifi or scifi related genres, alternate history is in danger of drowning under the weight of its own ideas. It shows how invested the author is in his story but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s well told.

Worse, it can drown in its own scope and size. Alternate history authors tend to look at the big and the bold, not the small and the mundane. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that once you change one thing about history the changes snowball until your reader can feel lost and confused. Particularly since people who read this genre tend to be familiar with history already… and thus the new details can get mixed up with the old.

Finally, you see a lot of historical figures creep up in alternate history. Which is fine, but if not meticulously researched and carefully done they can come of not feeling quite right, or worse like a caricature of themselves rather than a real person. Granted, that’s all you can really get from reading a book – but the audience shouldn’t feel like that while they’re reading the book

What are the strengths of alternate history? Well for starters “what if” is one of the most basic questions of human existence, right up there with “why”, and everyone likes to try and answer it. Furthermore, “what if such-and-such had happened” is one of the most common forms of that question, whether it’s in regard to something stupid we’ve done or something stupid someone else has done. So obviously stories that revolve around  just that question are going to interest us.

Secondly, there’s a lot of room for controversy in how a person chooses to answer that question. The people who read a lot of alternate history are also the type of people to have reams of facts to draw on to test the author’s conclusions and will get a kick out of doing it. And then getting on the Internet and rehashing it with everyone they know and thousands of people they don’t. And they will do this at length and in excruciating detail.

While some of them may need a job, a girlfriend or some other aspect of a life they are lacking, they are an impassion fanbase and there’s nothing that will propel the growth and maturation of a genre like an enthusiastic group of people telling you what you did right and what you did wrong (but mostly the latter.)

Alternate history, like many scifi based or scifi related genres, is still young. But it’s also rapidly expanding its appeal and maturing. Sure, sometimes the plots are flat or unbelievable but scifi was the same way a hundred years ago and now… well, now its at least not as bad as it was.

Alternate history is a genre to watch, not only because its fun and interesting, not only because it’s changing from a genre just starting out to a genre that is starting to demand a place of its own in literary circles, but because reading it makes people more interested in real history, and trying to figure out the details of what they just read. What was based on real history? What did the author make up? To answer those questions they’ll learn more about their own past and that can’t possibly be a bad thing.

Rurouni Kenshin

Manga is more than just a variation of comics – it’s a learning experience! A great example of this is Nobuhiro Watsuki’s classic Rurouni Kenshin. The title character is an Issin Shishi veteran of the Meiji restoration, one who lived as a killer, an elite fighter sent to eliminate the most dangerous opponents of the revolution. What’s so interesting about this story is that it doesn’t take place during the Bakamatsu, but rather afterwards.

All soldiers need somewhere to go when the war is over but people rarely plan that far ahead. The Bakamatsu was no exception. So when the long days of fighting are over Kenshin is left with nowhere to go and no idea how he goes from a hardened killer to the citizen of a peaceful country. Like many long veteran soldiers, Kenshin finds he loathes fighting and sets out to live in peace. He exchanges his katana for a sakabato and vows to never kill again.

Unfortunately, back in the day Kenshin had quite the reputation and a decade after disappearing into the mists of history Kenshin finds that someone has stolen his name and is using his old reputation for their own ends. Living in peace is not enough to satisfy, it seems. Kenshin must ultimately seek redemption for his misdeeds. He will find it only in humility, service towards others and diligently performing housework for women who will never learn to do it on their own. Everything from the way he lives to the way he speaks, referring to himself in a diminuitive fashion and addressing most other people with the highly respectful “dono“, point to the change in Kenshin.

Rurouni Kenshin is a shonen manga to the core – it has lots of action, lots of humor and an emphasis on making the community you live in a better place.  Every time Kenshin swings his blunted blade he does so in the hopes that the ideals he fought for during the Bakumatsu will be upheld in the new era but, unlike many works about the past, Watsuki makes no attempts to sugarcoat the reality of the Meiji era. Yes, there were patriots out there on both sides of the conflict. But by and large most people were seeking their own gain.

As a weekly comic that ran for five years, Kenshin had a lot of time to look at the various forms that took. Disreputable merchants looking to buy power over people, disreputable teachers looking to play the wealthy and well intentioned for their own ends, well intentioned men branded criminals so others wouldn’t take the heat, virtuous men who turn to violence and crime in the search for petty revenge. All these and more are things that Watsuki and Kenshin stare down through the pages of their manga. Each one is overcome by relying on three simple rules:

  • Serve humbly.
  • Fight for the oppressed.
  • Teach others to do the same.

Rurouni Kenshin is a great yarn about a country, an era and the people that made it. It’s not going to give you anything like a comprehensive idea of what the time was like but it will give you a starting place. None of the historical events mentioned in it are made up, although much of the story taking place around those historical facts is pure fantasy. But there’s still one thing beyond sketchy that Kenshin teaches.

Heroes, it seems, look the same no matter what the culture or the era.

The Bear, the Doyen and the Portal (Pt. 1)

(Once again pushing the definition of “short story” to the length of two whole posts! This one goes up a little late, mainly because I’m still not back in the rhythm of things after my vacation and the length once again took me by surprise. I needed most of today to get the story edited and ready to go. Hope you enjoy!)

Galen Grant awoke in the manner he was accustomed – face down on the cold, hard ground with an armed man looming over him.

It was the middle of the night and it was a different armed man than usual, so at least his hosts had gotten creative in their treatment of him. Galen rolled over on his back, pushing the thin animal skin blanket that was failing to keep him warm to one side, and took a closer look at his new friend. It was hard to tell how tall he was, given that he was currently bending down and poking him with the hilt of his sword, but his weathered brown coat, long sandy hair and tailored pants suggested something.

Galen thought it over carefully, twice, then nodded to himself.

“You’re not local, are you?”

The new man laughed quietly. “Not exactly, no. Hopefully you’ll stay relaxed, by the by, or the locals might take an interest in our little meeting here.”

Galen sat up, frowning a little. “You speak Celt. Definitely not local.”

“Yes.” The stranger rocked back on his heels and tilted his head to one side. “Are you interested in why I’m here?”

There was no one else in the tent, which would have been inconvenient since it was a really small tent, so Galen arrived at the obvious conclusion. “I guess it must be to talk to me.”

“Yes it is,” the brown coat said, nodding slowly. “You’re far from home, Mr. Grant. This world isn’t your home.”

“Yeah, I figured as much when I couldn’t get cell service.” Galen sat up and dusted off his denim shirt. After two months on the open plains there were holes in several places and it smelled worse than the city in summer but it did more to keep him warm than the thin linen undershirt. It was all he’d had when he slipped through to wherever this place was, where the people lived in tents on the open flats, electricity was a thing you only saw during storms and the locals had grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go.

He had no idea what any of them were saying, either, so the reason he was so unpopular remained a mystery. The stranger prodded him with the hilt of his sword again. “Hey. You paying attention?”

Galen jumped slightly. “Sorry. What?”

“There are some people outside who want to talk to you.” He nodded towards the back of the tent, not to the entrance, so it probably wasn’t the locals. “Want to see them? Or would you rather stay.”

Go with him.

“I guess I better come along.” Galen got to his feet and patted himself down. He’d had a dataphone in his pocket when he’d slipped out of his home and into whatever this place was but the charge had died weeks ago and he was pretty sure it was broken. Still he’d taken some video of the place and that might be worth something. His house keys were long gone, as was most of the change in his pockets, which the locals had confiscated. His wallet still had its contents except for the driving license. The picture had prompted his captors to take it, or so he thought.

The man in brown watched as Galen collected his things, a strange smile on his face. “Do you always do what you’re told?”

“Huh?” A blank look.

“I think you’re a little too trusting, that’s all.”

Galen turned that over in his mind a few times. “Do you not want me coming along?”

The stranger tapped his finger to his temple once or twice. “I wasn’t talking about me, although it certainly applies. Come on. Showing you the way is part of the message.”

When he decided to move the other man could really move, Galen decided. They went past the usual guard, who would normally be waking him up in a few hours, unconscious at the entrance to the tent. Then the brown coat quickly led him through the camp in a twisting, circuitous route that avoided the central camp fire and most of the more important looking tents. Galen hadn’t been outside since he arrived but it looked like a lot more people had shown up after he was captured.

But they never saw any of them on their way through the camp. Whoever this stranger was he was running circles around the natives.

Hold on.

It was about ten minutes after they got out of camp when the grass under their feet suddenly seemed to stretch into a blur and jerk under their feet. Brown coat kept his feet effortlessly but Galen fell flat on his back and started to slide. Then something wrapped around his waist and they were flying through the air. A moment later they landed, light as a feather, and the world around him, which still had the pattern of grass but grass that had been painted on a giant, lizardlike cardboard cut out, turned glowing and see-through. A second later Galen was standing on top of a plateau of rock about twenty feet above the rest of the grasslands with the man in brown and two newcomers.

The first was a tall, lanky man in denim, jeans and jacket both more patches than original fabric, his eyes still glowing faintly with chameleon light. He was easy to identify. The other was an equally tall, powerfully built woman wearing a sleeveless top, loose around the collar but fairly formfitting everywhere else, and a skirt that hid most of her legs without looking hard to move in. Galen couldn’t identify her as quickly but the necklace of small square metal plates she wore finally put him on the right track.

The woman gently took the jewelry out of his hand and pushed him a half step back. Galen smiled and said, “You’re Momma Bear, aren’t you? And the Alligecko. Did you two come all the way out here for me? I’m honored. Aren’t you guys a bit far from home?”

“Far from home?” The lady asked, one eyebrow arched in picture perfect incredulity. “Is that all you have to ask us?”

“Well, like I said, it’s not every day you have honest to goodness superheroes picking you up but-”

“Not to interrupt,” the brown coat said, “but I’ve fulfilled my end of the deal, so I’ll be on my way.”

Both Momma Bear and the Alligecko stopped long enough to give a solemn nod to the strange man, who turned and left as soon as they had acknowledged him. In two steps he seemed to be fading from view, by the end of the third he was gone entirely. Galen decided it was more than a little creepy.

The three that remained stared at the empty spot where the fourth had been for a minute, then the Alligecko slapped Galen on the back and said, “So now you know where we all went to get our powers. Time to show you how to get back.”

“Wait.” Galen scratched at his head in befuddlement. “This is where superheroes and supervillains get their powers?”

“It is,” Momma Bear said. “In fact, you’ve been here for a while, right? One should have attached itself to you by now. Why didn’t you get away from the Vishnu on your own?”

“Attached?”

Attached.

“Oh.” Galen shook his head slowly. “I guess I hadn’t noticed. How did you know I was there? Did they tell you?”

“The Vishnu? No. They don’t like people like us for some reason.” The Alligecko shrugged. “They’ve never felt like explaining and most of us try to avoid them. But there’s a guy called Clairvoyance who hangs out on this side of things and watches for people from our side when they come through. He’s good at it, though I’m not sure how he does it. We try and collect them, show ‘em the ropes, so the Vishnu don’t get too many of us.”

Galen shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at the two of them. Both were kind of famous back home. Saved people from disasters, caught petty criminals, occasionally battled supervillains. The Alligecko’s lizardlike aura and camouflage abilities made him the darling of the ninja-chic crowd, while Momma Bear’s aura of raw power earned her fans of all stripes. Lots of people wanted find out how to wield the powers of an auratouched superhero. But even if he had been one of them, Galen might have reconsidered if he knew it made you talk crazy. “Can you run all this by me again?”

Momma Bear took him by the elbow and lead him to the edge of the plateau. “Tell me, my friend, do you know where we are?”

“Look like the Great Plains of Western Louisiana. Kinda far from Italy no matter how you slice it,” Galen said, glancing at Momma. “Mexico’s not such a log way off, though I’m not sure why Alligecko’s so far north either.”

“You’re close but not entirely right,” the Alligecko said, the giant, glowing, toothy reptilian aura that his name came from springing up around him and slipping noiselessly down the side of the bluff to the ground below. Though he was making no attempt to hide the shape of the spectral creature was still obscured, like a fog bank, hard to make out clearly even though it glowed slightly in the dark of night. It reared up on it’s hind legs, serpentine body stretching a good twenty feet upwards so that its upper shoulders were even with the top of the plateau and its massive head was even with Galen’s.

The Alligecko spread its arms, stubby in comparison to its body but still long enough that Galen could lay his head in the palm of one hand and his feet wouldn’t quite reach the elbow of the other arm, and gestured to encompass the world from the ground below to the sky above. “This is not our home. It’s a different world, my friend. Little here is like you would expect. The shape of the land, perhaps. But beyond that? Everything you know is wrong.”

“Things are different here,” Momma said, taking up the train of thought. “There’s an entirely different energy at work in this world. I wish we could explain it better but really we can’t. The closest word for it is magic, though I’m not sure that’s what the locals call it. There are thin places between here and home, and sometimes we stumble through to this place. And then the magic finds us, and we take a little of it home with us.”

“I get stumbling through,” Galen said. “But what makes getting back so hard?”

“Usually it’s not, most places you can slip through one way will let you back the other. But the Vishnu,” the Alligecko jerked it’s head in the direction of the camp they’d left recently, “and some other groups who don’t like visitors from other worlds keep an eye on the crossing points in their territory and grab people who come through them.”

“We know where most of them are and keep an eye on them so people don’t get caught that way,” Momma Bear added, “but sometimes old ways close and new ways open. That’s one reason we need to get home as soon as possible. You need to show us how you got here so someone can start watching it and keeping people from crossing that way.”

“Yeah. Two months camping in tents isn’t much fun when you are expecting it.” Galen laughed. “Worse when you aren’t. The voices don’t help much, either.”

Momma gave him a weird look. “Voices?”

Never mind. 

“…Never mind.”

——–

Unfortunately Galen wasn’t quite done with camping yet. Although tents weren’t involved he still spent another two nights sleeping on the ground as they made their way to the “hard way” home. Along the way the other two spent a lot of time trying to get Galen to find the aura that had attached to him. Both Momma Bear and the Alligecko showed him their own, the ways they focused it and called it to life. But Galen couldn’t find any such power within himself, he just heard voices. And he knew better than to say anything about them.

By the end of the trip both were upset with him, which wasn’t a fun feeling. The Alligecko and Momma Bear were world famous, after all, and it didn’t make much sense to expect him to be up to their standards just because he fell into a different world, did it?

The worst part was sneaking into the compound. This was the “hard” part of the “hard way”, a long, tortuous trip in the shadows of buildings, timed to get them past guards and make sure no one caught them. The whole place was crawling with people in creepy white coats of all different cuts. Everyone, men and women, wore enough jewelry that they jangled quietly when they walked and they were armed like they’d just stepped out of the weirdest Renaissance Fair ever. Wicked hooks that were sharp on both sides, spears with large, flat blades and brass colored gauntlets with all kinds of nasty nubs and spikes on them, he wasn’t sure how people could fight with them but he knew he didn’t want to find out.

You shouldn’t be here. You need to leave.

Worst was the voice. Very insistent, that, kind of distracting when he was sneaking past people who might take “getting medieval” very literally. But, though they gave him some annoyed looks, his two guides managed to see him safely through. Finally they arrived at a building that was little more than a dome about twenty feet high in the center and twice as wide at the base.

A single door led inside. There was a large rectangle in the center of the door with two triangle, points downwards, on either side of the lower half. It took a second but Galen realized it was probably supposed to be a chair of some sort.

Don’t go in!

Galen started slightly. “Um…”

“Quietly,” the Alligecko whispered. That had been his favorite word for the last hour.

“I know. But did you hear that?”

A frown creased the thin man’s face. “Hear what?”

“Singing,” Momma Bear said, pressing her ear to the door. “Beautiful singing.”

That wasn’t what he’d meant but it was something. The three of them clustered by the door, which Momma had cracked open just a bit. Sure enough the sound of someone singing a beautiful tenor solo in Russian was pouring out. “Wonderful,” the Alligecko whispered. “There’s never been a guard before.”

Guarded forty nine times over.

“How many times have you done this?” Galen asked.

“Four,” Momma answered, pushing the door open a little further and carefully sliding a small mirror through it. Light poured out as Galen peered through the crack and saw something breathtaking.

There was what looked like the beginning of a spiral ramp going up the inside of the dome. It wasn’t possible to see much beyond that but even the small part of the dome that he could see was full of dozens of thing, glowing slivers of energy, as if the air was full of floating panes of glass. Fascinated, Galen reached out to touch one that was drifting just in front of the open doorway.

No!

As soon as his finger touched it the pane of light bounced away with a horrible crashing noise then vanished from existence. With it went most of the light from inside inside the dome. Alarms were sounding all across the compound and feet were running in their direction. Momma Bear shoved the door all the way open and Galen could finally see the goal of their trip. It was a crackling circle of pale purple energy covered in constantly shifting shades of light and dark. In front of it stood a single man with a spear. Backlit as he was Galen couldn’t make out many details other than that he wore the ubiquitous white coat, appeared to have blonde hair and the panes of light in the room now clustered around him like a flock of chicks. And he knew they were there.

Run! Run now!

But the Alligecko grabbed his arm and pulled him forward into the darkened room.

Fiction Index
Part Two

Adaptations: Kill/Edge

The subject of turning a book into a movie is one fraught with strong feelings. It happens a lot. Some of the most anticipated movies of the last year (and the year to come) are based on books. But it never fails that something gets left out, some character gets left on the cutting room floor, you name it. There’s a lot to the process of adapting a book and you can never make everyone happy. So it was with some surprise that I learned that the movie Edge of Tomorrow was based on a book.

And not just any book, a Japanese novel called All You Need is Kill. Naturally, I had to see it.

Of course, first I needed to read the book, which took some doing, then I took the time to track down both the graphic novel adaptations. One was a Japanese manga, one was a traditional American graphic novel. Both were extremely faithful to the book, the only real difference was the art style and how much got cut (it wasn’t a whole lot in either version.)

So when I sat down to watch the movie I was kind of weirded out because I knew that it was going to be wildly different. Did I like the movie? Yes, I did. It was a good movie that entertained and said something simply but forcefully about human nature, both good and bad.

This is not a review of the movie, so I’m not going to give you a full length breakdown of the plot or what I liked and didn’t but that’s what I thought in a nutshell. Now I’m going to talk about what I got out of the movie vs. book in terms of adapting fiction for the screen. And, since such things are totally unavoidable in this context be aware:

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS 

Let’s look at what changed and why I think it worked.

Okay, obviously a lot changed from book to movie and I do mean countless things, large and small. The appearance of the mimics, the alien menace of the story, was changed from what were basically big green blobs to something that would look more impressive on screen. Keiji Kiriya transformed from a Japanese person to an American and got renamed William Cage (although Keiji does get the nickname “Killer Cage” in the novel so this is not entirely a departure.) Rita Vrataski is now a Brit rather than an American. Things take place in Britain rather than Japan. The troops are on an offensive operation rather than a defensive one. The list goes on.

Mainly, though, I want to look at the big changes and they start off about as big as it gets.

Theme 

Kill is about determination against despair. When Kenji gets trapped in his time loop it wears him down and breaks his spirit until his humanity is dubious at best. Rita pulls him out of it by offering him companionship and a way out but, at the same time, she has to at least suspect that only one of them is getting out of the loop. In the end Kenji escapes but is still alone. His humanity is still very much in question.

But in Edge the theme is much more about courage overcoming fear. A fair argument can be made that Cage fighting with the certain knowledge of a do-over if he fails doesn’t count as real courage but that is exactly why his loosing the power to jump back in time before the final battle is so significant. We see that, even with no safety net, Cage has transformed from a man who flees from what needs to be done to a person who passionately pulls others along in their duties. As Sergeant Ferrell would say, he has been purified in the crucible of glorious combat. He has become more human, more willing to stand by others and sacrifice for them if need be.

More than anything, this thematic change is what lets the film adaptation get away with all the other changes being made. Determination and resolve are a big deal in the East but often Eastern philosophy puts an emphasis on pushing through until you find out what you’re working towards. On the other hand, courage is knowing what you’re working towards and putting aside personal fears in favor of what needs to be done. It’s more universal, easier for American audiences to understand and, perhaps most importantly, healthier for the audience.

Main Character 

Keiji is a raw recruit about to go into his first battle. He’s untested but honest and he knows what needs to be done and fully intends to do it. Over the course of the story he becomes jaded, to the point where he no longer cares whether the people around him live or die. They’ll just come back the next time around, after all. True, meeting Rita gives him renewed purpose for a time but we’re not sure what he’ll be after the close of the story, with Rita gone and the burden of winning the war with the mimics on his shoulders.

Cage, on the other hand, is an Army Major, a ROTC graduate and a man of business. He’s also determined to avoid the front lines if possible – in short, he’s a coward. He learns to fight much like Kenji does, by going through countless iterations of one battle, but to a certain extent it looks like going through the motions. He does change in some ways. Like Kenji he gets colder as he loops, at least for a while, but he also learns more about the people in his unit and what makes them tick. Courage begins then. Sure, it’s Rita who comes along and fans it into a fire but, by the end, Cage is fully on board.

The character of William Cage is where the adaptation really shines. All You Need is Kill tries to be a coming of age story but it leaves us unsure of what the newly minted man is going to look like. But Edge of Tomorrow clearly defines the character at all points along the way – who he was, how he changes and what that man is likely to look like in the future.

Presentation 

In the book much of the iterative nature of the story is told to us. We’re given the framework of the thirtyish hours Keiji lives repeatedly and then the differences are spelled out for us. This is the right call. Prose is one of the clunkiest ways to tell an action oriented story so cutting out as much detail as possible is where you have to start, not where you need to end up.

But Edge of Tomorrow is a movie and it exploits the fact that it can show us five seconds of action four times in only twenty seconds. These rapid replays of events, showing us how Cage is adapting to obstacles, aren’t in the book because they’d just be too clunky but they work for the movie. In them we see Cage doing the same things over and over again in rapid succession to show us how his thinking works, then later we see him working with Rita to set up ever more complex plans, then finally we seem him start referencing events we’ve never seen but we can now clearly tell he’s lived through before. It all culminates when Rita asks, “What do we do now?”

When Cage says, “I don’t know, we’ve never made it this far before!” We laugh because we’ve seen all the meticulous planning happen and we know what happens when Cage reaches the end of it – he goes from a prescient supersoldier to somebody a lot like us. And that means things are getting interesting.

What I like most about seeing a half a dozen slightly different iterations of the same scene is that we can see Cage’s character growth spelled out in his face. He goes from being caught up in his own affairs to aware of the army around him, then his unit particularly and finally his partner Rita in particular. And as he gets more and more used to the idea that he can die he becomes more and more disturbed every time she does…

Ending 

All You Need is Kill doesn’t have a happy ending. Edge of Tomorrow does. There, I said it. Are you happy?

Because I was.

Yes, I get that, unless the main character dies at the end of a book, technically the story isn’t over yet. That means there’s no permanent happy ending to be had because life naturally has ups and downs. But it’s okay to end your story on a moment of triumph. People do get those in life and it is okay to celebrate them.

Keiji never really gets a win in All You Need is Kill. It’s sad, really. He puts in the time and does the work but still comes out behind. Yeah, I know some people think that’s how the world works but if that’s all your story has to tell you then it’s not very useful.

So maybe Edge of Tomorrow is a little pat. Maybe Cage is getting off easy, walking out with the aliens defeated and a legit shot at the girl he’s come to know and love. But you can’t tell me he didn’t earn it. He passed through the crucible and cast off cowardice, he was sure he had no chance to get back and enjoy any of the fruits of his labors and he still chose to suffer and die in the hopes that others might live. And in the end only two other people on the planet would believe his story if he told it. So it’s not like he’s a big shot hero. Just a guy with some unpleasant memories and a shot at a slightly better life.

In the end, All You Need is Kill and Edge of Tomorrow are both about character growth. But the film adaptation took some major gambles in changing the theme and main character to make, not a story better suited to its target audience, but a better story on the whole. And I am of the opinion that they succeeded. Not because they made the protagonist American instead of Japanese, or made his name easier to pronounce, but because they made him a person more worth trying to be like.

In my book, that’s always an improvement.