Angels and Pinheads

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? For many of us, this is our go-to example of a pointless question. It is often used to ridicule the Middle Ages as a time of naive religiosity still mired in darkness and ignorance before the coming of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is one of the most important and consequential questions in western intellectual history.

The key is that the question isn’t really asking for a number. The number is irrelevant. The answer that matters is: finite or infinite?

Angels, according to the traditions of the western monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are God’s agents in the world. They are how the divine will is enacted in the physical world we live in. For believers in those faiths, therefore, understanding angels is a way of understanding how God acts in the world.

If the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is some finite number, then two angels cannot occupy the same space. It doesn’t matter what the number is; if there is a point at which you just can’t fit any more angels on that pin, then angels must have volume and mass. If they have volume and mass, they necessarily have other physical properties derive from those qualities like density and velocity. In other words, angels are bound by the same physical laws that operate in the rest of the world and which we humans can observe, study, and understand. On the other hand, if there is no limit to how many angels can dance on a pin, then they must not have these same physical properties and therefore cannot be understood or described by analogy with anything that exists in the material world.

What this all adds up to is: if the number is finite, then we can understand the workings of God’s will through mathematics, physics, and observation of the natural world, but if the number is infinite, then those studies are of no use and we can only comprehend God through the study of revealed texts and the writings of inspired individuals like prophets and saints. To understand those texts, however, we have to understand not just the languages in which they are written but the literary genres in which they were composed and the historical and philosophical references they depend upon to convey their messages.

Or to put it in even more familiar terms: science versus humanities.

As human beings, we often rely on symbols and shorthand to discuss important questions. Those symbols draw on the cultural context that surrounds us and they can seem nonsensical without that context. In a thousand years, people may think 20th-century Americans had an odd obsession with arguing over whether donkeys or elephants are better animals, and their 21st-century descendants were no less ridiculous with their fights over whether red or blue is a better color, but we today know the weight of complicated ideas that lie behind those convenient symbols. In the context of medieval scholastic thought, angels and pins served a similar purpose.

Thoughts for writers

The “angels and pin heads” debate is a fine example of how important cultural context is for both research and worldbuilding.

When doing research, it is crucial to remember that people in past societies had thoughts and arguments that are just as complicated as we have today, but they often expressed those ideas in shorthand references that are not transparent to us. If you’re doing research or reading primary sources and people seem to be hung up on arguments that seem pointless or silly, chances are there’s something much more serious behind it and you need to get a handle on their symbolic vocabulary in order to understand it.

(Of course, sometimes people do have pointless and silly arguments, and that’s just as true in the past as it is today. Looking at you, Star Wars vs. Star Trek folks.)

For worldbuilding, think about the kinds of symbolic shorthand people in your fictional world use for their important debates. Symbolic arguments are useful. When everyone around you already knows what the symbols mean, they save time and energy. If the big question for people in your world is whether hereditary monarchy or military aristocracy is a better basis for government, most people aren’t going to go around talking about “hereditary monarchy” or “military aristocracy” all the time. Those are long and cumbersome words to be throwing around. They’re more likely to argue about crowns and helms, or the hunter and the fawn, or some other metaphor. The arguments will also probably turn around seemingly insignificant questions, such as whether one should eat sitting at a table or on the ground, or what color shoes women should wear. Part of your worldbuilding is understanding how the symbols connect to the serious questions.

Whether you explain things for your audience or not is up to you, but layering in symbolic arguments like pin heads and dancing angels is part of the depth that makes a fictional world feel real.

Image: Five dancing angels, photograph by Jebulon via Wimikedia (Musée Condé, Chantilly; c. 1436; oil and gold on wood; by Giovanni di Paolo)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Quotes: Art Does More than Repackage Reality with a Fun-House Twist

Author Becky Chambers argues the case for optimism in art and twines it with history:

“Optimism is important not just for the future as a whole, but for the individuals heading toward it. Again, a duality comes into play: Acting in the interest of individual need without considering the greater good breeds carelessness and greed. Acting in the interest of the greater good without considering individual need invites tragedy and injustice. You have to work with both considerations in mind. So it matters little whether an optimistic story is intended for the purpose of grand, ambitious change or simply to make a person feel better than they did before they sat down to read (or watch, or play). Those are two sides of the same coin.

“History tells us that art is—and has always been—a mirror. It shows us who we are, where we’re at, what’s at stake. But art does more than repackage reality with a fun-house twist. There’s nothing passive about a reflection. If you aim it right, it shines light back. In the times we’re in, there are few things we need more.”

– Becky Chambers

Chambers wrote this as an opinion piece for The Book Smugglers (“SFF in Conversation with Becky Chambers: The Case for Optimism”) who were kind enough to publish it free online, too.

I’ve read her first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and loved its humanity, positivity, and empathy. It’s been in my mind recently as a great counterexample to the bleakness of Logan (the latest Wolverine movie).

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: [People Are] Not Isolated or Sensationalized Exceptions

“[…] I wanted to write about people who were seen as freaks, who had been broken out of the Acceptable Mainstream Mold, because […] those are the more interesting characters to show. But I didn’t want to punish them for it.

“And I didn’t want that punishment to be seen as what was valuable about them. […]

“But it wasn’t until the Devil’s West books that I faced head-on what had been simmering […]. I wanted to show those characters as part of the society that created them, not isolated or sensationalized exceptions. More, I wanted to show them as active parts of that society.”

– Author Laura Anne Gilman

Author Laura Anne Gilman talking about how anger (at sensationalizing attitudes and at one novel in particular) has directed her creative work; specifically, to show charcters outside the accepted American norm not as outsiders but insiders.

Gilman, Laura Anne. “The One Book That Piqued My Creative Fury”. Tor.com.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Tulum, City of Adventure

What does a City of Adventure look like? The kind of place where your main characters could stage intrigues in the airy halls of the palace or get down and dirty in the wretched hives of scum and villainy on the outskirts? Where your merry band of player characters could plot their next caper or set up their base while they clear the hinterlands of monsters? Maybe it could look like this.

170130castilloThe city of Tulum is one of the best-preserved ancient Maya cities on the coast of Central America. It served as the principal seaport for nearby inland cities on the Yucatán Peninsula, connecting overland trade routes with seaborne trade in the Carbibbean. The walled city sits right on a cliff overlooking the sea from which beacons may have served as a lighthouse to help guide incoming ships through a gap in the barrier reef. A small sheltered beach between cliffs provided a safe landing. Imagine piloting a trade canoe laden with salt and textiles through a stormy night, trying to keep the beacon fire in sight as the waves crash on the reef all around.

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Being a Spartan

170123spartiateSpartans are renowned as some of the greatest warriors of the ancient Mediterranean world, and with good reason. Sparta had a 3-century streak undefeated on the battlefield (minus the battle of Thermopylae, where they lost only to encirclement by Persia’s overwhelming numbers). They won many of their wars without even a fight because when their opponents saw a wall of Spartan shields coming towards them, they just gave up and ran.

How did they do it? What’s so special about the Spartans?

The exceptional experience of being a Spartan began at birth when a state official judged the newborn baby’s physical health. Only healthy babies were allowed to be raised. Those that were sickly, weak, or had visible birth defects were exposed in the wilderness to die. (Only the children of the kings were exempt from this rule.) At the age of seven, all male Spartans were taken from their parents and put into a state-run education called the agōgē. The agōgē experience was brutal. The boys were trained in hoplite combat while living on meager rations. They slept outside, all year long, with only one cloak. Violence between boys of different age groups was encouraged as a way of toughening them up.

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History for Writers Compendium: 2016

History for Writers explores world history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s where we’ve been in 2016:

Living historically

Thinking historically

Race and identity

Language

Special Series:

Recommended Reading

Fantasy religions

Connections

Travel

Architecture

Join us in 2017 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

In Which Our Heroes Go Clothes Shopping

161212dyingOur Heroes wake up naked and cold with the chickens in the alley out back of the inn after being on the losing side of a tavern brawl. Clearly this is part of the Call to Adventure that must not be denied, but first things first: they need clothes. What do they do?

We today live in an industrialized world in which consumer goods like clothes are readily available. If you need something to wear, it’s easy enough to go into a store and buy something. Unless you’re shopping for high fashion, it probably won’t cost you too much, either. All of this is possible because of factories, global transportation networks, and a modern economy, but none of these things existed before the last couple of centuries. Any time before then, buying clothes was a very different experience.

To begin with, a lot of clothing wasn’t bought at all. In many pre-industrial societies around the world, producing and maintaining the family’s clothing and other textile goods was one of the main occupations of the household. Although textile production was in many cultures traditionally counted as women’s work, men were involved in it, too, at every stage from shearing sheep or gathering flax to delicate finish stitching.

Only specialty items requiring expert work, like gloves, boots, hats, etc., were routinely made by professionals. As market economies developed, specialty processes, like dying and fulling, were also increasingly outsourced to professionals, but everyday wear was still largely made at home. (As a useful point of reference for the development of specialty production, notice how family names like “Glover” or “Dyer” are much more common than, say, “Shirter” or “Socker.”)

Of course, there were always people who didn’t have a household around them to help make clothes. Soldiers and travelers far from home might need to replace damaged clothing or buy new gear suitable to the local climate. In any reasonably well-developed settlement, those who needed to purchase clothes probably could. They might get lucky and find someone willing to sell off an older set of clothes, or, for the right price, they might be able to get someone to sew them up a new set to order, but the chances of finding a clothing shop with new garments ready to wear were very slim.

So, supposing Our Heroes do find someone with clothes to sell, what are they going to cost? It’s hard to estimate prices in pre-modern economies, but here are a few points for reference:

The Roman emperor Diocletian, during a period of economic crisis, tried to stabilize the Roman economy by issuing an edict dictating wages for many different kinds of workers and prices for a variety of commodities and services. Diocletian’s edict wasn’t very effective in practice, but it’s a useful snapshot of what someone in antiquity thought were reasonable wages and prices. So, for example, the edict prescribes a price of 2,000 denarii for a common shirt. Compare that with the daily wages of 25 denarii for a farm laborer, 50 for a carpenter, or 75 for a skilled terra cotta artist. Even a well-paid artisan would have to spend most of their wages for a month just to buy a shirt. Depending on how rich Our Heroes are, new clothes could set them back a lot of money.

Now, Diocletian’s edict was only one politician’s idea of what things should cost, not a record of what they actually did cost. For a glimpse of actual prices we can look to some of the letters from Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern Britain, where some everyday letters and paperwork from the fort were preserved by chance in the local soil. Some of these documents mention tunics priced at 3 denarii, boots for 3.5 denarii, and cloaks for 11.5. These goods sound a lot cheaper, but, in this period before the economic crisis that Diocletian was trying to deal with, wages were a lot lower, too. Soldiers at the time were paid 300 denarii a year, less than a denarius a day, a portion of which was held back to cover expenses. At those levels, a soldier would still have to spend most of his pay for a week to buy a tunic, or half a month to buy a cloak.

What was true in Rome was true in most other parts of the pre-modern world. There was no just nipping into a shop to buy a new set of clothes. Even where you could find clothes for sale, they were not a small expense. Outfitting one of Our Heroes in a full new set of clothes could well cost them most of their income for a year.

Image: Linen working via Wikimedia (14th c.; paint on parchment)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

The Attack on the Hermas

161114hermaA strange thing happened one night in ancient Athens. This incident, the attack on the hermas, provides the background for my short story “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters,” in the collection Hidden Youth. While there are no stone monsters in the actual history, it’s a fascinating story in its own right.

It was the spring of 415 BCE. All around the city—at crossroads, in marketplaces, in front of houses and temples—stood square stone posts carved with human heads on top and crude penises in front. These were the hermas, stones sacred to the god Hermes that the Athenians believed protected their homes and city against bad fortune. The people of the city woke up one morning to discover that the hermas had been smashed up in the night.

Now, in any city, you would expect people to be upset to wake up to widespread vandalism, but Athens was no ordinary city and these were no ordinary times. Athens had been at war with Sparta for more than a decade. A war that both sides had expected to be quick and decisive had turned into a long, unwinnable slog. The Spartans had repeatedly ravaged the Athenian countryside. Farms had been burned and vineyards wrecked. Behind the walls of Athens, plague had slaughtered the refugees who sought shelter from the Spartans. Athens had not seen such suffering since the Persian army of Xerxes captured and burned the city more than half a century before.

In the midst of the destruction, democracy and social cohesion suffered. The poor farmers from the countryside whose homes and fields got burned lost everything while the rich merchants and landowners in the city were mostly unaffected. The leading general Pericles’ strategy of pulling back behind the walls and sending out the fleet to raid the Spartan coast felt slow and cowardly to people used to the swift clash of the hoplite phalanx. Indeed, it was the solidarity of standing shoulder-to-shoulder, row upon row in the phalanx, regardless of family or property, that grounded the Athenian democracy, but those who served as hoplites were now helpless behind the walls. When the plague struck, already weakened social bonds were snapped as everyone looked out for themselves and people who felt sure they were going to die anyway indulged in every impulse and vice.

In times like this, when social solidarity was strained by factional and regional conflicts, many Greek cities had turned to tyrants: aristocrats who held themselves out as champions of the people and leveraged popular anger as a way to propel themselves into power. Athens itself had had tyrants, in the decades before the wars with Persia. Wherever tyrants had risen, they crushed their rivals and abused their power until finally they were driven out and replaced with new, more balanced forms of democracy. The same had happened in Athens, but the time seemed ripe for a new tyrant to rise and sweep away the democratic system with the anger of a frustrated and fed-up populace.

A new leader had already arisen to promise the people of Athens a better future. Alcibiades, a rich and flamboyant aristocrat with time on his hands, had pushed for a major expedition to sail to Sicily and attack Syracuse. Syracuse had largely stayed out of the war between Athens and Sparta, but they had cultural ties to Sparta and were a major exporter of grain, so there was a fear that Syracuse might decide to step in and shore up Sparta against Athenian raids. The people of Athens were enthusiastic about the prospect of getting out of the city for a fight they could win. They looked forward to looting the treasuries of Syracuse and coming home victorious and rich.

Then the hermas got smashed.

Suspicion fell immediately on Alcibiades. It seemed like the sort of thing he would do. He was well known for holding raucous drinking parties with other rich young men and had a reputation for flippancy and arrogance. He was a student of Socrates, that annoying old man who refused to participate in the democratic assembly but liked to ask people tricky questions and make them look stupid. If anyone in Athens wouldn’t respect the hermas and would think that running around town at night doing some property damage would be a good joke, it would be Alcibiades.

There was some legal wrangling about whether to bring charges against Alcibiades at once or let the expedition go ahead as planned, but the upshot was that the expedition went out and Alcibiades fled Athens to find refuge among his friends in Sparta.

This all may seem like an overreaction to what amounts to little more than the ancient Athenian equivalent of some frat boys going on a bender and playing a little mailbox baseball, but context is everything. It wasn’t just that the people of Athens valued their good luck statues. This sort of flippant disregard for tradition was exactly what one expected from a tyrant. The hermas may have been old-fashioned relics of simpler times, but so, in its way, was the democracy. In the Athenian assembly, the will of the people was the law, and if it was the will of the people to have crude statues in front of their houses, to disrespect that choice was to disrespect democracy itself.

Alcibiades was exactly the sort of person who aimed at tyranny: rich, idle, and dismissive of tradition. The smashing of the hermas made those qualities obvious in a way that no one could ignore.

Thoughts for writers

It’s easy to look at the past and be perplexed by the weight people attached to symbols and minor events, but it is context that gives importance to those things that seem trivial to us. In other times, the attack on the hermas would have been a case of petty vandalism, a scandal to be argued over in the marketplace for a few days and in time forgotten. Because of the times in which it happened, it became the tangible symbol of something far more perilous: a threat to Athenian democracy itself.

This is one of the challenges of worldbuilding. Making a world that works differently from our own means creating contexts in which things that seem trivial to us carry profound weight. The power of such small things depends on the context in which they occur. The smashing up of the hermas might not seem important to us, just like no one from a hundred years ago would grasp the significance of yellow stars and shattered shop windows, or a woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Creating such moments—and giving our readers the context to understand them—is part of how we make our worlds feel real.

Image: herma, photograph by André Frantz via Wikimedia (Siphnos; c 520 BCE; marble)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Generating Secondary World Maps with Pasta

Remember Uncharted Atlas, the online tool to autogenerate fantasy world maps with? If that feels too convoluted or restrictive, there’s also a quick low-tech solution. Tumblr user ohemult describes how to make maps with pasta (and expletives):

Tumblr ohemult Mapping3

“BETTER, BUT NOT FUCKING GOOD! WHATEVER, TRACE THE COASTLINE WITH YOUR PENCIL. BE SURE TO BE SLIGHTLY SQUIGGLY AND, OH, FUCK THOSE LITTLE ISLANDS YOU MADE THEY’RE NOT BIG ENOUGH TO BE WOBBLY ENOUGH SO YOU’RE BETTER OFF USING EITHER RICE (OR SIMILAR) OR JUST TRY TO MAKE SOME REALISTIC FUCKING ISLANDS (SPOILER: YOU WON’T)”

(I find that ohemult’s instructions work best if I imagine Samuel L. Jackson reading them as his Pulp Fiction character.)

Visit Tumblr for the full write-up. Found via Tor.com.

Image by ohemult via Tumblr

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Autogenerating Fantasy World Maps with Uncharted Atlas

Autogenerating fantasy world maps is now possible with an incredible online tool coded by Martin O’Leary.

Uncharted Atlas Map
An autogenerated map for a fantasy world, including slopes, borders, coastlines, rivers, cities, and territories, created with Uncharted Atlas. Coding by Martin O’Leary

Currently mainly existing to feed material to the Uncharted Atlas twitterbot, the tool and its code are available for others as well.

Says O’Leary:

“I wanted to make maps that look like something you’d find at the back of one of the cheap paperback fantasy novels of my youth. I always had a fascination with these imagined worlds, which were often much more interesting than whatever luke-warm sub-Tolkien tale they were attached to.

“At the same time, I wanted to play with terrain generation with a physical basis. There are loads of articles on the internet which describe terrain generation, and they almost all use some variation on a fractal noise approach, either directly (by adding layers of noise functions), or indirectly (e.g. through midpoint displacement). These methods produce lots of fine detail, but the large-scale structure always looks a bit off. Features are attached in random ways, with no thought to the processes which form landscapes. I wanted to try something a little bit different.”

Uncharted Atlas also generates names for cities, towns, and regions with a separate bit of code, following a set of consistent rules. For an explanation of how it works and to try your own hand at it, see the terrain notes and language notes.

As a user, I’d like to see a way to connect several of these individual maps into a larger unity, but that’s getting ahead of things—just having a free tool like this is fantastic. 🙂 Kudos!

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.