This article was written for the website Our Own Words. There are so many great articles on that site, you should check it out.
“When I’m sometimes asked ‘When will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]?’ and I say ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I’ve rolled that thought around in my brain since I heard it. It’s like when Einstein showed that time wasn’t absolute. Everything we think is normal is weird, and I’m always looking for that angle. Whether you are a lawyer, a physicist, or a writer, that’s where all the new ideas are hiding.
I see speculative fiction as being one of the rich landscapes where the authors are clearly exploring different ideas and perspectives—from wild new worlds, Artemis Invaded by Jane Lindskold, where the idea of mycelium communication is explored and expanded upon as consciousness of a planet; to exploring how a character defines the self in The Meldling by Claire Ryan, where magically and tortuously merging two people to create a new person is shown as rarely functional, because more often two personalities remain at war. Her main character’s integrity of self becomes highly important throughout the series.
What Jonathan wrote resonated with me, because it clearly has been some of the focus of how I culture craft and world build. My childhood was designed for this type of exploration, and no small part why I struggle with far more typical, modern landscape, and even traditional fantasy tropes.
I remember my father and a colleague discussing Biblical translation at the dinner table. I gather that our guest was someone who did translation for lesser known tongues. Translation is, always, not a point and click plug and play. Cultural context is important.
Our guest talked about a unique moment of what challenged the normal, as well as the weird. He was translating the Bible into a language that had not been done before. He was being helped by a man from a jungle environment, and at one point they took him on a jeep ride out of the jungle.
The man from the jungle looked up, and pointed at the window of the jeep. He said, “Look at this cockroach.”
Our guest looked, and did not see any insect on the window. He realized the man was pointing at a water buffalo far off in the distance. It was an interesting point—and hopefully useful to the work he was doing. This man from the jungle could not assimilate the vastness of the velt. He was used to trees at close quarters, plants, and no endless distances. He had no context for what he was seeing. A buffalo in the distance was, for him, only understandable in his frame of reference as a cockroach.
What is normal is weird, but often we can’t look at that angle easily. We have to somehow give ourselves a framework for understanding. Diane Morrison (Sable Aradia) does this in a really fun way in her science fiction short story “The World’s More Full of Weeping” in Cities of Dust Planes of Light (also found on Blue Funk Podcast). The setting is on an alien planet, but despite the colors of the leaves—purple—the protagonist, Ruth, cannot help identify them with plants she’s familiar with from Earth. She acknowledges the idea of pattern recognition, but works hard to understand, as well as deny, this. There ought not be any similarities, since the planets are so very distant. She cannot but help call the alien this leaf as coming from a rose, and another from a birch. It takes almost all of her attention, and at some potential cost.
To see what we want to see, make patterns, is not actually unusual. The speculation does go beyond merely pattern recognition—and from normal to weird to… invisible. There’s an idea that we might even miss something outside our frame of reference completely. It’s said that when the Aztecs saw the Spanish galleons, they did not actually see them. For one, that’s completely false, because the event is actually borrowed from John Banks’ account of the Cook expedition to Australia.
“By noon we were within the mouth of the inlet which appeard to be very good. Under the South head of it were four small canoes; in each of these was one man who held in his hand a long pole with which he struck fish, venturing with his little imbarkation almost into the surf. These people seemd to be totaly engag’d in what they were about: the ship passd within a quarter of a mile of them and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment; I was almost inclind to think that attentive to their business and deafned by the noise of the surf they neither saw nor heard her go past them.”
There is nothing in science to say that this kind of ‘blindness’ is true (unless you have neglect syndrome—where everything on the left side just doesn’t exist; or face blindness—where you cannot recognize the faces of even your best friends). Yet here, I think the belief that the fishermen were completely blind to the ships is more of a white man’s apparent belief of his own superior perspective, though this insulting concept is a bit leavened by the last quoted line. Yet, why not play with this in speculative fiction of any sort? I mean, tell me, when did you last see a pixie?
How fun is it when an author takes a traditional idea, say, of werewolves, and turns them on its, er, tail. Ben Meeks’ Petrified shifts the perspective almost as dramatically from water buffalo to cockroach when he makes his main character a wereotter. One might think cuddly cute, hand holding otter, but the truth is: Otters are built for violence, however sleek and pretty they are. Most of us wouldn’t venture to see it, and we go to that comfortable normal. And if they didn’t embrace a new angle, they miss out on a fun book. Stephen Grantham Jones does just as masterful a job, even while he shortens the perspective from werewolf to werewolf in Mongrels. In a sense his is more of Cooks’ ships not being seen by the natives, as Jones’ werewolves live among us. One of them is a trucker. As Jonathan Byrd said, “Everything we think is normal is weird…”.
From pattern recognition, to perspective shifts, if we go back to Diane Morrison’s story and think of a landscape where the sun gives different leaf colors—we should think of colors as well. Different cultures have different perspectives, sometimes even how they understand colors. I often become inspired by trying to wrap my head around these new to me concepts. The Forest of Symbols by Victor Turner is one of those places I looked for and found that new angle to inspire world building:
“This tripartite classification relates to the colors white, red, and black. These are the only colors for which Ndembu possess primary terms. Therms for other colors are either derivatives from these—as in the case of chitookoloka, “gray”, which is derived from tooka, “white”—or consist of descriptive and metaphorical phrases, as in the case of “green,” meji amatamba, which means “water of sweet potato leaves.” Very frequently, colors that we could distinguish from white, red, and black are by Ndembu linguistically identified with them. Blue cloth, for example, is described as “black” cloth, and yellow or orange objects are lumped together as “red.” Sometimes a yellow object may be described as neyi nsela, “like beeswax,” but yellow is often regarded as ritually equivalent to red.” (Turner, p. 60).
I could go on about that passage, and how it struck me. The matrilineal aspect of the Ndembu culture was also fascinating. It made me think, and I looked at what was not normal to me, and allowed it to shake up my thinking. I share these real world moments, because often these are the fertilizer for the new landscapes that I and other authors create.
The colors of alien leaves, such as in Diane Morrison’s short story, to the idea of how we might understand color makes the visual idea of a water buffalo/cockroach go from the visual, to the conceptual. The meaning one culture might have for any particular color might have different significance. From wedding dresses being any color, blue having a sense of purity, to Queen Victoria transforming white dresses into wedding ones. Yet in other cultures the dress color of choice for weddings is red, while white is for grieving.
With the sun on the planet in Diane Morrison’s story having the leaves emit the colors on the purple spectrum, and just to make your normal weird, one can say—with science—that the sun is actually blue-green. From NASA
So, the sun actually emits energy at all wavelengths from radio to gamma ray. But, as can be seen in the image above, it emits most of its energy around 500 nm, which is close to blue-green light. So one might say that the sun is blue-green! This maximum radiation frequency is governed by the sun’s surface temperature, around 5,800K. A higher surface temperature would result in a shorter maximum wavelength and our sun might peak in the blue or violet part of the spectrum (or even the ultra violet!)
The fun of speculative fiction—if you want to run with these ideas—is that there might be world building gems hidden in the storytelling in small details like color in every book you read. Sometimes it’s more visual, such as Ben Meeks’ wereotter, Obie. Because what is normal is weird, and when we look for angles like that, our world and thinking expands—if you’re a writer, a scientist, or even (and bless you) a reader.
Artist who did Ben Meeks’ angry Obie is lady44miyu_artist on instagram.
p.s. Jonathan Byrd is multi talented. I knew him as one of my favorite singers, who collaborates with absolutely interesting artists, and does a weekly show at the Kracken–now mainly online. He also did the photography for my cover of Jewel of Gazanté