Amo, Amas, Amat…

I started thinking about language the other day.  More specifically, I started thinking about “foreign” languages.  About languages other than the one in which you were (presumably) raised.  Of course, me being me, that train of thought started to morph — is still morphing and evolving — so we’ll just have to see where this post actually ends up going…

There was a BBC story the other day, one that got a lot of play, on whether or not British kids were even willing to try and learn a foreign language anymore.  That same article could well be written of the US, too, I should add.

Now, keep in mind, I’m in no way a neutral party in this.  I love languages.  I love learning them, I love speaking them, I love thinking in them.  And yes, it is true that when you start to dream in a language, you have finally internalized it…

01FF06C5-15AD-4096-8B72-71F05BEE7B5CMy degree in Linguistics aside, I’m lucky enough to be able to say that languages come easy to me.  They come very easy.  I can pick up basic phrases and vocab in an hour or two, and be fully conversational — if I’m immersed — in about two weeks.  Although I have (sadly) let my array of skills atrophy a bit, I can still make my way fairly fluently in five different languages…and have a sixth that I could “bring back’ with some effort.  I say that not to brag, but as background to why I simply cannot understand why you wouldn’t want to learn a different language.

I firmly believe that you can’t truly know a people or a culture until you can speak at least a bit of their language.  The more fluent you are, the more you can come to know them.  And no — not just no, but hell no — Google Translate is not a legitimate option.  Any translation, even from a person with legit skills and experience, is necessarily inaccurate, especially if the languages are not immediately related.  There is approximation and editing involved in all of it, and that changes things…sometimes massively.

Thankfully, there are real-world reasons, besides just innate desire and ability, that push folks to learn other languages.  I’ve mentioned before that I’ve spent a lot of time in central and eastern Europe.  Well, given the position and influence of English in the world, the folks in the Baltics and Poland and Czech have their kids in full English immersion programs, alongside learning their own native language, starting at age 5.  Five.

That’s when you should be learning languages, by the way.  Our brains at that age are still forming the basic neural pathways we will have for the rest of our lives as we become more active in learning to understand the world around us.  What you learn at five will stick with you for the rest of your life because, quite simply, that’s how our brains are (literally) wired.

As an aside, here’s a key little travel tip for you: if you are in a country where you don’t speak the language, and want to learn, listen to little kids.  Watch and listen to four- and five-year-olds as they interact with each other, and with adults.  The kids will use simple grammar and construction, as well as over-enunciating the words, because they are still learning to understand and be understood.  The adults, in turn, will explain difficult words and concepts to the kids in simple, easy-to-understand terms.  Bingo! Free language lessons!  And you thought that two-hour train ride was going to be a waste…

Now, there are some schools/programs here in the US that do the same thing…but not nearly enough of them.  There is no better way to grow a child than in a kindergarten/elementary-school program that fully immerses them in two (or even three!) languages throughout the week.

Shit, I kinda do the same thing even now by watching “foreign” movies/shows solely in their original language.  If it’s a language I even kinda know, there are no subtitles.  I just have to make do and follow along as best I can.  If it is one I don’t know, I’ll leave the subtitles on until I start to pick up enough vocabulary to understand without them.*

*The non-verbal aspects are important here as well, by the way.  A lot, and I mean A LOT, of the info in a movie or TV scene comes from non-verbal communication rather than dialogue.

I’ve mentioned before that the languages I speak, as well as my background, very much play a role in my writing.  I made a conscious decision to use other languages and cultures (Japanese & Thai, if you’re wondering) as the basis for Connor’s society in Somewhere Peaceful to create a feeling of “otherness.”  Just as importantly, however, I very specifically chose Japanese because there are concepts and feelings behind the (modified) real-world slang I use that don’t really have English equivalents.

61CFB7DD-AE08-4D98-BE12-0E9CB7F02930Okay…so…my first fear as I started to write this post has held true: it turned left at Albuquerque and ended up being about something other than what I actually sat down to write about…


Welcome to my life.

Now get your ass out there and learn a new language!  Once you get comfortable enough to start using it in your own writing, you will not regret it.  That I promise you.

Decline and Fall

When you write speculative fiction, one of your biggest tasks is world-building.  Whether you’re writing a star-spanning sci-fi civilization, or a medieval kingdom in fantasy, that world-building is just as key as are your characters.  If the world is neither compelling nor unique, pretty much no one is going to give your (presumably brilliant!) characters a chance to reveal themselves…

Now, I do a lot of prep and background work long before I write a story.  I do it for my characters, yes, but for my “worlds” also.  In fact, I probably do a bit too much.  I work out details and histories and facts that no one will ever see, especially given the tight focus I like to keep on my characters.  I do that background work — that invisible work — because I think the depth and “reality” are necessary.  Characters are shaped by their society, and their society is shaped by it’s history.  A Pole and a Czech are not far apart in space, their respective societies are not far apart in respect to the time the modern iterations have existed, but their histories…their histories make for vastly different people and outlooks.

I started thinking about world-building over the last couple of days not because of the work I want & need to do on a new story, but because of the news.

Yep, the news.  The real world, boring, obnoxious news.

One of the favorite tools of the speculative fiction writer is the “empire in decline.”  From the decline into senescence of Tolkien’s Gondor to the fall of Moorcock’s Melnibone…

From the disintegration of Martin’s Seven Kingdoms to the disintegration of Asimov’s Galactic Empire…

Hell, from the fall of Lucas’ Old Republic to the destruction of just about everything in the Walking Dead, the decline and fall of a civilization offers far-too tempting — and far-too effective! — a backdrop for any speculative writer to ignore.

Of course, I’m not just a writer, I’m also a historian.  More than that, I’m a historian whose academic training is in the decline of the Roman Republic, and its transition to Empire.  That training and knowledge tends to give me a certain perspective on, and fascination with, civilizations on the wrong side of the peak.

560d2cee9dd7cc10008be5e5-750The thing about all those declining kingdoms and empires in stories is that they are there to give the characters something to look back to, something greater and more wonderful to hope/dream/aim for.  They’re plot devices as much as they are world-building.  That’s why you never (or very, very seldom) see good stories place the protagonist as a member of a civilization at or near its peak, not unless that power is something to be hated and overthrown.

And you certainly never see a protagonist sit amidst all the power and splendor of a dynamic, vibrant empire and say, “You know, this is all going to shit…”

So, as I said, I’ve been reading the news: You know, this is all going to shit.

As a politics geek, and a history nerd, the realization that I am living on the downslope of such an empire, that every passing year in my country will be worse than the last, is troubling and depressing.  To think that we are no longer capable of things that seemed so simple just a few years and decades ago…to think that every crisis, every problem, will just get worse…


But as a writer?  As a writer, that thought offers all kinds of possibilities and ideas…and challenges.  We can’t forget the challenges.  To create hurdles and problems that have meaning, that matter, is not easy when you’re talking about a society at or near its peak.

Writing-Exercises-1024x512Writing and thinking about all this has inspired a bit of a writing exercise (that will probably never see the light of day…just like most of my “practice” exercises): can I create the basis/plot for a story that works in a similar setting?  Can I create a fantasy or sci-fi setting and circumstance that sets a protagonist willingly and happily amidst a power actually at its peak?  Can there be stakes and challenges that mean something in that setting?

Put It Down – Put It ALL Down

980xPut down your phone…close your laptop…turn off your iPad…

Good lord, folks, when did we surrender control of our own lives to the tools and toys we built to make them “better”?  More importantly, WHY did we do so?

Now, look, I hate social media.  That’s no secret, and no surprise, to anyone who reads this blog…or who knows me in the slightest.  I’m an anti-social misanthrope who has no real desire to be “connected,” so crap like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are nothing to me.  But still I spend far too much time on the web, and on email, and on texts, and on all the other “conveniences” that have become so unavoidable.


When I was young, answering machines were the thing.  If you needed or wanted to talk to someone, you called.  If there was no answer, you left a message that might or might not be returned in the next day or two.


Nowadays, we get pissed if someone doesn’t text back in fifteen minutes.  And God forbid we fail to respond instantly with a Like or a Retweet or a Thumbs Up…

If something is that important, if something is that pressing, you should probably be talking, anyway.  If it’s not important enough to talk, by the way, why the hell should anyone else care?

We spend hours a day…no, that’s not right.  We spend by far the majority of our days enslaved to our screens, and to the dictates and commands of the electronic impulses they show.  We Tweet and post and text, and call that “good.”20120310_wbd000_0

It all started with work.  Because…of course it did.

For many years now, work has not ended at the end of the day.  Not even close.  Emails and texts and phones that are never Off, and our willing enslavement to the concept of instant response, and of “connectedness.”  Our hours away from work became nothing more than “out of office work,” and our lives suffered accordingly — we suffered accordingly.  But it was “work,” and work was “important,” so we “had” to do it…

Even as that culture built, we complained.  We complained about overwork and demanding bosses and ”work-life balance.”  We complained and cursed and whined, yet still we expanded on it.  Still we built it into our personal lives, too.  We let it enslave our free time, let it take over our relationships, until “connectedness” has become the only thing that matters.

2_slaves-to-our-smartphonesAnd I’m just as guilty.  I send a text, and expect an instant reply.  I spend huge gobs of time on the web reading — researching, I call it, to make it sound more “writer-ly.”  My many email in-boxes are always full….but still I check ‘em when I see that little notification.  The world is one big Pavlovian response nowadays, subject to the compulsion of the many, many dings that control us.  One ding for a new text, a different ding for a new tweet, yet a third for an email…  The dings never stop.

I’d say we have becomes rats in a maze, but at least the rats get some freaking cheese out of the deal…

Put it down.  Put it all down.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot like giving up smoking — going cold turkey is a recipe for failure.  Take it in steps, instead.  At the end of the day — at 5:00pm or 8:00am or whenever you’re done with your day, turn off the dings.  99906-the_matrix-morpheus-black-monks-pills-laurence_fishburne-748x468Stop checking, stop responding, stop being somewhere else, and focus on where you are.  Turn off, disconnect, if only for a few hours a day.  Once you get over the withdrawal and the DTs of that, try it for a day at a time…try to free yourself, a little at a time.

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem — well, that electronic collar we all so-willingly wear is a pretty big problem, if you ask me.


Light That Bonfire And Get Those Vanities Ready…

What the hell is happening to us?

I’ve mentioned before my belief that what will finally destroy the US, as a nation and as a culture, is our descent into the madness of defining political opponents as enemies. I didn’t think, at the time I wrote that post, that I also had to spell out the corollary that defining speech and points-of-view with which you disagree as dangerous is just as bad…

But that’s where we’re at.

What in the hell ever happened to the concept of defending other folks’ right to say things you may not personally like? Are we really going to keep going down the path of listing as dangerous and evil those words and opinions with which we don’t happen to agree?*

Yeah, that civil war I expect ain’t a decade off, it’s right around the damned corner. We’re pretty much fucked.

The worst part about writing this post is that I despise the asswagon who spawned it. Alex Jones is a tool, let’s get that out in the open right from the get-go. He is that rare blend of lunatic, asshole and fool all rolled into one. He is, when you get right down to it, everything that’s wrong with humanity in one unpleasant package of uselessness.

But that doesn’t make right the various social networks’ silencing of him, and voices like his. Look, I ignored InfoWars and the other idiocy of Jones’ ilk from Day One because it was pretty obvious just how unhinged those folks truly were. So did many, many other people. A free marketplace-of-ideas means folks are free to say and write pretty much whatever they want, but it also means the rest of us are just as free to ignore whatever we want. If something is stupid, or foolish, or demented, or just plain vile, then the answer is simple: DON’T READ IT!

But that’s not enough, not anymore. No, nowadays the only answer, apparently, is to actively silence the writers and ideas that used to be — quite successfully — ignored and marginalized by normal folks.

Are we really so terrified of the ranting inanity of people like Alex Jones that we have to eliminate their very words? That’s not just stupid, it’s more dangerous than he could ever even try to be.

AE7F8FFD-E231-461B-A5C0-1ADF51AD8B7BApple and Facebook and Twitter and Google and the other players in the modern tech game did not create the divisions and dangers that threaten everything about the US today, but they are making them worse. Oh, they’re not sitting there like liberal Blofelds, stroking cats and planning to fuck with the weather…no, what they’re doing is much worse than that: they’re acting out of cowardice and pure, short-sighted greed.

They don’t want to be criticized. They don’t want to be protested. They want only to siphon every penny they can, and control every bit of data they can, with no interference or trouble. They want to be the robber-barons that they truly are with no discontent, and certainly with no interference or disagreement. And they want all of that without disturbing their self-images as the torch-bearers of tolerance and progressivism that will save humanity from itself.

The decision to shut down various voices — whether loony ones like Jones, or the everyday voices of conservatives and libertarians that have been silenced by the social platforms — simply allows people like Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to avoid criticism or protest for “hosting” such voices, while simultaneously playing into their personal echo-chamber-dominated, rose-tinted view of themselves as “protectors and champions.”

I can’t cuss enough to show my derision for that particular sentiment, by the way. I can take care of — and think for — myself, thank you very much, Mr Cook.

There are moves afoot to silence voices on all kinds of topics…from global warming, to immigration, to various social and economic philosophies, the go-to response has become to silence, rather than to dispute. To silence, rather than to debate and educate. What we are growing is a New Orthodoxy, one that is never to be questioned, let alone disagreed with…for the “good of all,” of course.

9770B227-EFB4-480A-BE6F-110305CA6236We’re watching a modern, electronic auto-da-fe of which Savonarola would be very, very proud…

*I can’t even imagine not reading ideas and thoughts and opinions that are not just different, but are diametrically opposed. The friction between viewpoints really is the only way to pull aside the layers of bullshit and confirmation bias and get at something resembling the truth.  Just to give a bit of an idea, here is my regular morning reading list: The Drudge Report, The Guardian (both US and UK versions), Fox News, BBC News, The Washington Post, The Nation, Reason, The Hill, The Cipher Brief, The National Review, and the Real Clear “family” of sites…