Quotes: Finland Is Weird. Finland Is Different

I first became aware of Adrian Tchaikovsky when he won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016. I’ve been meaning to check out his writing since then. Ironclads, a limited-edition hardcover novella, finally made it to the top of my TBR pile last month.

The novella was great in several respects, but I was especially tickled by the American POV character’s descriptions of Finland and Finns. For example:

“All the middle of Nordland is the bit we’ve got problems with, basically: Sweden and Finland, say the maps. Sweden is where the fighting is, and the other place… Finland is weird. Finland is different.“

– Adrian Tchaikovsky: Ironclads

The version of U.S. in the story is fighting in Scandinavia, and, due to having laxer laws on genetic modification, Finland apparently has become home to very interesting types of special forces.

But the best, the absolutely best detail is mentioned in this section:

Quotes Tchaikovsky Ironclads

“[F]or a long time I couldn’t even work out what was on her screens. Then it started animating, frame by stilted frame, and I worked out that some parts of what I was seeing were a satellite view. The vast majority of what should have been contested Swedish soil was smeared with roiling dark clouds that obscured any sight we might have had of what the enemy was doing.

“’Seriously,’ Sturgeon hissed, ‘what is that?’

“’Is that the flies?’ Lawes asked gloomily.

“’Yeah.’ Cormoran gave us a bright look. “Gentlemen, this is a gift from the Finns. They breed these little bugs, midges, they chip ’em and ship ’em, and every so often the Nords release a batch. There are millions of the little critters each time, and they basically just block the view of our satellites – and we can’t see a thing – no one can. So every time our forces advance, we’re going in blind. Makes for all kinds of fun.’

“’They bite?’ Franken asked uneasily. We were all thinking it: mosquitoes, disease, some kind of Finnish labgrown plague that zeroed in on the stars and stripes.

“’Not yet,’ Lawes told us. ‘Jolly thought though, ain’t it?’”

– Adrian Tchaikovsky: Ironclads [original emphasis]

The militarization of mosquitoes! We already joke—as a way of dealing with an irritant that’s just a part and parcel of life—that mosquitoes are the Finnish air force. Finally, someone did it! 😀

It makes perfect sense in a world with aggressive biological research to turn a ubiquitous pest into an asset. Come to think of it, it sounds very much like the strategies that Finns used in the Winter War of 1939-1940 against Soviet forces—making native conditions work for you and against the enemy.

Of course, no one person can disapprove or approve of any characterization on behalf of their whole group. However, in My Official Opininon As a Finn, Tchaikovsky managed to balance well the view of Finland as part of Scandinavia with Finns being distinctly different from their Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish cousins. Also, he got so many little details right, like the way the Finnish language sounds, or our deep appreciation of nature.

I practically tore through the book. Kudos!

Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Ironclads. Oxford: Solaris, 2017, p. 22 and p. 29.

This post has been edited to correct a typo.

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

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Visual Inspiration: Two Birds, a Snail, and a Mushroom

A few more possibilities for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold, this time from among the Earth’s birds, snails, and mushrooms.

The male pink robin (Petroica rodinogaster) has a bright fuchsia chest and belly; the female looks drabber, with merely pinkish-tinged underparts. These small birds live in the cool temperate forests of southeastern Australia.

Flickr Dave Curtis Pink Robin

The many-colored fruit doves (Ptilinopus perousii) live on islands in the south-west Pacific Ocean (Fiji, the Samoan Islands, and Tonga). The male is yellow on the wings and back, red on the head and neck; the female is greener, darker on the back and greyer on the head and breast.

Flickr Tom Tarrant Many-colored Fruit Dove

The violet snail (Janthina janthina) is a small purple mollusk found floating on the surface in tropical and temperate seas worldwide.

Flickr Ian Jacobs Janthina janthina Cropped

Indigo milk cap (Lactarius indigo) is a species of generally blue or blueish mushrooms found in eastern North America, East Asia, and Central America. The milk that oozes out of a cut or broken mushroom is also indigo blue, but slowly turns green upon exposure to air. According to Wikipedia, it’s edible and sold in rural markets in China, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Wikipedia Dan Molter Lactarius indigo
Flickr Arthur T LaBar Indigo Milk Cap

Aren’t they all incredible?

Images: Pink robin by Dave Curtis on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Many-colored fruit dove by Tom Tarrant on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Violet snail cropped from photo by Ian Jacobs on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Indigo milk cap by Arthur T. LaBar on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and by Dan Molter via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Quotes: Humans as the Only Generators of Value and Purpose in the World

Author Kelly Robson describes the core conceit of her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach in an interview with Ilana C. Myer:

“The habs, hives, and hells [i.e., city state -like population centers] compete for economic power, and economic power ultimately comes from populations. A free market requires free movement of population, so everyone is free to basically vote with their feet. If they don’t like the quality of life in the hab, hive, or hell they live in, they are free to move to a different one. A hab, hive, or hell with a shrinking population knows that it better change its quality of life offerings if it wants to stop hemorrhaging people.

“It’s a dynamic world that ultimately respects humans as the only generators of value and purpose in the world. I like it.”

– Kelly Robson describing her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Aah, I like it too. 🙂 Plus, voting with your feet is a natural extension of voting with your wallet.

Myer, Ilana C. “Kelly Robson on the Economics of Time Travel in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.” Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, April 02, 2018.

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

Option for Breaking out of Eurocentric Worldbuilding Mold: Yareta Plants

Yareta or llareta (Azorella compacta) is a low evergreen that grows in the Andes mountains in Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and Argentina.

Flickr Miguel Vieira Yareta Ollague Volcano Lookout

Looking at the landscape where it’s found, it seems that the yareta latches onto ground or rock and grows up and out into the rounded shape over the years.

Flickr Knut-Erik Helle Yareta Bolivian Altiplano

The rounded, cotton-ball-like shape reminds me of how some mosses grow. Unlike them, though, the yareta can grow in dry conditions and nutrient-poor soil, if slowly. (According to Wikipedia, their growth rate is approximately 1.5 cm / 0.6 inches per year; however, an article in Pharmacognosy Magazine cites 1 cm in 20 years.)

Apparently the Andean people used yareta since Pre-Columbian times for the treatment of colds, pains, diabetes, asthma, bronchitis, womb complaints, gastric disorders, backache, wounds, and altitude sickness (Pharmacognosy Magazine Aug 2014).

Yareta looks like a great option for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold.

Images: Yareta at Ollague Volcano lookout by Miguel Vieira via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Yareta – Bolivian Altiplano by Knut-Erik Helle via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Quotes: Conflict Is One Kind of Behavior

“Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

I’d like my speculative fiction actually inventive, you know. Just like a human being is rarely reducible to one trait, yet that treatment is often used in storytelling as a shortcut, especially when it comes to characters deemed less important, like women, children, old people, or minorities of various stripes.

Which is not to say that stereotypes, caricatures, or the like don’t or cannot have a place in storytelling. However, if the majority of storytelling focuses on nothing else than characters or story elements reduced to their bare bones, it’s bound to become boring and empty.

There is so much more to our world, let alone imaginary worlds!

Found via Martha Wells on Tumblr.

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

Imagining a Minoan Home

Imagining the mundane details of daily life in past cultures can be difficult. Everyday things like houses, clothing, and daily routines tend not to be well-represented in textual or archaeological sources because they were so ordinary that no one thought to write about them or take care to preserve them. Yet these are exactly the sorts of everyday details that can be most useful when looking to the past for inspiration for worldbuilding. To try to understand what daily life looked like in the past, we often rely on chance finds and careful reading of sources that weren’t intended as guides to the mundane.

For example, we have only a limited idea of what an ancient Minoan house may have looked like. The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete and some of the southern islands of the Aegean Sea in the first half of the second millennium BCE, at its height between roughly 2100 and 1400 BCE. Minoan palaces have been thoroughly excavated at sites such as Knossos and Phaistos, but what about the homes of ordinary people?

We have a few valuable sources of evidence. One is this pottery house model found at Archanes, on Crete. This model shows many features that must have been part of everyday Minoan architecture: solid lower-story walls and a breezy columned upper story, windows barred with slats, a projecting balcony, and perhaps a small walled garden. (The entry door is on the other side of the model; the upper story is modern reconstruction.)

House model, photograph by Zde via Wikimedia (Archanes, currently Archaeological Museum, Heraklion; c. 1700 BCE; pottery)

To get a sense of how houses like this fit together to make up a village, we can look to the site of Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement on the island of Thera (now called Santorini) that was buried in a volcanic eruption sometime around the late 1600s BCE. Despite the destructive effects of the eruption, excavation at the site has found a tightly-built settlement of multi-story houses connected by streets and drainage channels.

Photograph of Akrotiri excavation by F. Eveleens via Wikimedia

 

More evidence comes from a fresco that was preserved on the wall of a house at Akrotiri, depicting a panoramic view of the island. This segment shows the town. While the image is a little hard to interpret, we can clearly see a densely-built settlement with houses made of regularly cut stone sitting on many levels. These houses display many of the same features as the Archanes house: low doorways, porticoed porches, windows covered by slats, and people looking out from balconies or rooftops.

Akrotiri fresco, photograph by Dirk Herdemerten via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

Akrotiri fresco, photograph by Dirk Herdemerten via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

When we put all these different sources together, we can begin to imagine everyday life in a Minoan house: the shady lower floor and the breezy upper floor, the slivers of sunlight coming in through the window grilles, the gurgle of water running by in the drain channel right outside, and the endless chatter of the neighbors on their overhanging balcony. For creating any sort of pre-modern culture in a warm, dry setting like the Mediterranean, it’s not a bad start.

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.

History for Writers Compendium: 2017

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 2017:

Practicalities

Connections between cultures

Ancient wisdom for troubled times

Telling stories

Thinking historically

Past cultures

Race in Antiquity

Join us in 2018 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.

Medieval Fantasy City Generator

Creating medieval(esque) city maps just got a lot easier: Oleg Dolya (watabou) made an automated generator to do it.

Medieval Fantasy City Generator Small

Choose size of city with the click of a button, and color scheme and line or shading types from the options. You can export the image either as png or svg. Unfortunately the ward names (temple, merchant, crafts, etc.) aren’t saved on the exported map, though.

Watabou also built a 3d-visualiser to support Medieval Fantasy City Generator called Toy Town. Although I haven’t played with that, it sounds like both should be a great help to storytellers—unless you enjoy the process with paper and pen, of course!

Found via N.K. Jemisin on Twitter.

Image: screenshot from a map created by Eppu Jensen with Medieval Fantasy City Generator by watabou

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

Writing, Reading, Living Different Cultures

I saw a Twitter thread about writing culture by author Joan He, on the face of it about her (or your) own but by extension that of others, and it has plenty of food for thought:

 

As a reader, and specifially a reader of speculative and historical fiction primarily not in my native language, I run into differences in culture a lot. And as a person in a multicultural, multilingual relationship in a strange country where I’m a cultural and linguistic minority, from time to time I find myself slammed against more deep-seated cultural assumptions.

Joan pointed out that culture is a way of thinking, or cognition, or perspective. As an example, I’d like to share two failures of cultural expectations from my personal experience.

Ratatouille Anton Ego Perspective Quote

At a con once, I wanted to get a book signed by an American author. I happened to know from their online presence that the author is an introvert. Even though we were both at a public place where introverted authors and panelists often don a more outgoing persona than they do in private, as another introvert I wanted to make sure I’d be especially considerate. However, quite without intending to I tripped over a distinctly Finnish quirk.

One of the big unspoken assumptions in the Finnish culture is that silence isn’t a negative. (Erik and I have both written about it for instance here, here, and here.) In essence, how I understand it, silence means space, and space means respect to other people.

Accordingly, at the abovementioned autograph session, when it came my turn I said my hellos, presented the author with my book, and waited silently. It wasn’t until the author asked me “Did you read it?” that I realised they expected me to say something else. And I had thought I was being courteous not to burden them with yet another dose of chitchat on a weekend full of being “on” at a busy con. I can’t remember for sure, since it was a kind of a deer in the headlights moment for me, but I think I was able to stutter my way to an exit without actually breaking into a run. In any case, not terribly smooth on my part.

I’ve also had a previously friendly person walk away from me when, in the middle of a presentation, I (I’m guessing “merely”) nodded to them to acknowledge their presence and silently continued to listen to the speaker (I’m guessing instead of starting a conversation with the friendly person). Although it’s been years, I still find that an utterly, completely, and thoroughly puzzling reaction.

Over the years, I’ve built a store of strategies and stock exchanges I can pull out if needed, but it’s been hard to try and perform—for it is essentially a performance—in a way that feels unnatural and at times even rude to me. Even after 10+ years, I still can’t bring myself to commit to it wholeheartedly. I suspect I’ll always be the odd, quiet one in Anglo-American contexts, but that’s my background and temperament.

So: yes, cultural assumptions and perspectives are difficult to convey, whether in writing or otherwise. Adding surface details to a fictional culture is easy, and it can be a fantastic tool for both creating distance from the everyday world and deepening the invented one. I love seeing glimpses of the practicalities that fictional characters deal with; I would find—and have found—stories seriously lacking without them. Never, though, should the surface glitter be where invention on the part of author ends; that is as unsatisfying as a lack of external cultural markers.

Being a truly exceptional author has, for me, come to mean not only the ability to create layered, nuanced worlds (or convey the complexities of everyday life in historical fiction). In addition, skilled authors I enjoy the most are able to avoid massive infodumps and to suggest underlying cultural values subtly, as inseparable part of narration and dialogue. And that’s a very challenging thing to do. It sometimes takes me more than one read-through to feel I’m beginning to understand a story. Then again, worthwhile things often are the most difficult ones.

Image via The Autodidactic Hacker

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European?

One of the workshops I attended at Worldcon 75 was about non-European-based fantasy worldbuilding. It was a lively and enjoyable workshop, but—no doubt for logistical reasons—the discussion of what exactly makes a setting seem European was cut rather short. It’s not a question that is easy to answer, even though—from Tolkien to Game of Thrones—it is obvious that a lot of fantasy literature and media draws heavily on European, and specifically medieval European, influences. What is it about a fantasy world that makes it feel European, and what kinds of things should we consider changing if we want to create something that doesn’t?

Our popular collective sense of medieval European history is a fairy-tale world of knights on horseback, castles, kings and queens, pageantry and chivalry. For people growing up in the West, fairy tales in this tradition shape some of our earliest exposure to storytelling and it is no surprise that their forms and characters continue to inform how we approach fantasy. If you want to make your fantasy world feel less European, one approach is simply to look around the world for different terms to slot into the formula. Instead of telling a story about a dashing knight riding his trusty steed to rescue the princess from the castle of the wicked queen, you can tell a story about a dashing jaguar warrior riding his trusty ostrich to rescue the geisha from the stone fortress of the wicked maharani. This kind of “palette-swapping” (as Jeannette Ng calls it in an excellent recent Twitter thread) can work, up to a point, but the more depth and detail you have in your story, the more shallow this kind of worldbuilding will feel.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of “fairy tale” Europe. Knights, castles, kings and queens all have some basis in reality, but they are complicated. Mounted knights played only a small part in medieval European warfare and only in certain regions and periods. The crenellated stone fortresses we think of as “castles” had a similarly limited scope. Kingship was a precarious position across most of medieval Europe (where it existed at all). The most powerful actors were often local warlords. Chivalry meant the rules of war, which were followed as haphazardly as rules of war generally are. Their more romantic aspects were an embellishment of popular literature. Indeed, modern fantasy literature that imagines a world of chivalrous knights and fair damsels wandering from castle to castle draws far more on medieval fantasy literature (not to mention the self-serving propaganda of a small warrior elite) than on any of the realities of European history.

Furthermore, many of the things we commonly associate with medieval Europe were not originally European. Heavily-armed cavalry had been pioneered by the Parthians and depended on technologies—most crucially stirrups and large, strong horse breeds—developed in Central Asia. Stone fortifications had a long history of development in the Levant, and European castle designs drew heavily on Islamic examples encountered by Crusaders. Speaking of the Crusades, the Christian texts and ideologies that guided medieval intellectual culture were rooted in Jewish traditions and the cultural turmoil of the Roman empire’s eastern provinces.

So, what, after all, is so European about Europe? When we say that the fantasy we’re reading feels European, or that we want to write something that doesn’t, what are the things that add up to that?

My basic advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land, so let’s look at the land of Europe.

Europe, geographically speaking, is not really a continent but rather the long, vaguely triangular western end of Eurasia. Compared with most other major land areas, Europe is relatively compact. Most of the landmass falls between the 40th and 60th parallels. Many bays and small seas penetrate the land and break it up into numerous peninsulas and islands. A long mountain system sprawls across the southern half, a smaller and more fragmented one across the northwestern diagonal. Wedged between them is a broad plain threaded with numerous rivers, with forests in the west giving way to grasslands in the east. The North Atlantic current brings warm water and wet winds to the western coast while the many bays and small seas bring the climate-moderating effects of water to much of the land.

This geography has several significant effects for human cultures in Europe. One is that the climate is relatively stable and uniform across most of Europe. The southern half tends more warm and dry while the northern half is more cool and wet, but broadly speaking, the temperatures, rainfall, seasonal weather patterns, and growing conditions are similar enough across most of the land that the same crops can be grown and animals raised in most regions. (No, I’m not saying the climates of Spain and Finland are identical; I’m saying they have enough in common that a farmer from one place would not have to learn a whole new way of farming and acquire entirely new crops and animals to get by in the other.) The major staple crops are grains, primarily wheat and barley, with hardier alternatives like rye and oats appearing farther north. The principal farm animals are pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, with goats being more common in the mountainous south and cattle more common in the northern plains.

The geography also makes travel and transport relatively easy. Most places in Europe are within a few hundred kilometers of the sea and much of the area is crossed by navigable rivers. Since waterborne transport is more efficient than overland, large cargoes can be carried around Europe more easily than in many other regions.

Put together the similarity of climate and the ease of transport and the result is a land where many basic elements of economic and social life—the organization of agricultural labor, the rhythms of the farming year, the structure of local trade—are similar in many different places. The relative ease of connecting local economies into long-distance trade means that goods, people, and ideas flow readily from one region to another.

Despite the ecological cohesiveness of Europe, this landscape has different effects on political life. The profusion of islands, peninsulas, and bays breaks up the landmass into many smaller regions. So do the mountains of the south and the forested areas of the north. While these smaller regions are connected by trade and travel, they are difficult to assemble into large coherent states. There are many places in Europe where one leader with a small following of warriors could easily control a handful of villages or a stretch of river valley, but these small territories are much harder to unite under one leader’s power.

These two tendencies have underlain much of European history and are still visible today: cultural and economic interconnectedness at odds with political fragmentation.

When people are united by culture but divided by politics, their warfare tends to focus on establishing dominance over the enemy rather than destroying them. The respect for shared institutions and values facilitates the development of common diplomatic customs which can limit the destructiveness of warfare and channel competition into symbolic contests. On the other hand, diplomacy can draw conflicts out by delaying a decisive clash. People are likely to find themselves at war repeatedly over the same issues, a feature we can also see in European history.

These factors tend to draw European societies into internal connections and conflicts, but Europe is also well connected to the outside world. The Mediterranean Sea is easy to cross to North Africa or the Levant and the there is an extensive land connection to the rest of Eurasia. A short overland trip from the southeastern Mediterranean leads on to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. North America can be reached either by riding the circular North Atlantic trade winds or by island-hopping by way of Britain, the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. People have always been moving into and out of Europe both individually and in larger migrations, bringing the influence of outside ideas and cultures into the region and taking European ideas abroad.

All of these factors are part of what makes Europe European. We can see their influence even in the fairy tale version. Many kings and queens (and other kinds of rulers) have competed for power across stretches of Europe, relying on knights (and warriors of other descriptions) who supported themselves on the agricultural produce of small local regions. In parts of this fragmented landscape, local magnates built castles (and other kinds of fortified dwellings) to secure their control of territory and resources. The cultural and economic connections between many of these warring parties fostered the development of a common set of norms for the conduct of warfare, which literature elaborated into a fanciful code of chivalry. Contact with the outside world and immigration of foreign peoples brought new ideas and technologies—like stirrups and stone castles—which then spread widely through networks of trade.

These forces are not always visible in storytelling, but they underlie many of the basic assumptions, social structures, and cultural habits that make so many fantasy worlds feel European. Even some of the most basic staples of fantasy literature have their roots in the European landscape—of course everyone eats bread and cheese when wheat is the dominant crop across most of Europe and cattle are the primary herd animal on half the continent.

If we want to build fantasy worlds that don’t follow the same familiar patterns, we need to understand where those patterns come from.

Images: La Belle Dame sans Merci via Wikimedia (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery; 1901; oil on canvas; Frank Dicksee). Satellite map of Euopre via Wikimedia. A View of Tallanton Castle via Wikimedia (Scottish National Gallery; 1816; oil on canvas; Alexander Naysmith).

Post edited for clarity and to correct historical inaccuracies.

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.