Words are funny things, and I mean that in a “funny weird” sort of way, not the “funny ha ha” sort of way (although words can be that way, too. I mean, obviously. Hmm. I’m drifting). But what if words were more than words. What if words were more than their metaphorical content? What if they could literally (heh) leap from the page and do things? What would that world of words be like?
Debut author Blake Charlton has given this very idea a lot of thought, and the result is Spellwright, a fantasy of words and more. And to explain you a little bit about his thinking, Charlton is here, using more words. Words! They’re everywhere, man.
What if you could peel written words off the page and make them physically real? Could you cut yourself on a sentence fragment? Thrust a sharply worded invective at an enemy’s throat? How would physical language shape culture, technology, history? Tolkien created Middle-earth for his languages, not vice-versa. But could I dream up a world built by–not around–its languages? More importantly, could I intertwine a character’s story into this world?
These questions occurred to me when I was an undergrad studying the near-magical language of Shakespeare–and sundry other dead guys–as well as the two magical languages that exist in this world: nucleotides and polypeptides. I’m being a wee bit metaphorical here, but squint at a genome in the right light and you’ll see that any microscopic text that holds over three billion letters, governs its own expression, and self-propagates is astoundingly magical. (Bio Geeks: go BANANAS creating an analogous statement for a proteome!)
Back then, I was a pre-med trying to double major in English and Chemistry. (But I’m feeling much better now, thanks for asking!) Now a medical student, I’m more balanced but still struggle with anxieties about my dyslexia. You see, I didn’t learn to read fluently until I was thirteen and began sneaking paperbacks by Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb, and Ursula LeGuin (so so much LeGuin) into special ed study hall. Fantasy saved me, transformed me from an angry brat into earnest geek.
That’s why, when I daydreamed about a world with physical language, my mind jumped to the classic fantasy clichés of a Magical University, a Prophesy, and a Chosen One. Yeah, I know: you’re cringing. But, baby, don’t leave me. I love you. Here, take my hand, and let me explain why you should fight the gagging that started when you read “Chosen One.”
Everyone says to “Write about what you know,” or “Write about what you love.” That sounds pleasant, but screw it. Write only about the familiar beloved and you’ll get saccharine mush. Add a third ingredient: “Write about what you fear.” Do that and you’ve got powerful flavor. Do that and you must experience your terror, discover how much you can tolerate. Do that and you’re cooking, not with mush and sweetener, but with honey and habañeros.
Disability is what I fear most. I still dream sometimes that I’m on the special ed short bus. So let’s connect the dots of my fear and love, dyslexia and language. What if you were born into a world of magical language but misspelled any text you touched?
“Okay, bald guy,” you say, “I’m holding back the cliché gag reflex, mostly because I pity your dyslexic yet glossy self. But so what if your protag misspells magical text? Check the magically world-traveling text of my emails. If spellchecking programs could feel pain, I’d give mine a strangulated hernia, and nothing bad happens.”
That’s because you only screw up the English. Your PERL and Ruby on Rails and all your other gemstone-based languages are stuck in your plastic thinking box. You’d be more worried if a misspell could send the C++ flying out to wrap around your neck.
In the world of Spellwright, some magical languages affect matter, others energy. Spells behave like computer programs, executing their commands exactly; and like most biopolymers, folding into a proper shape to gain function. Simple spells might levitate something or allow spellwrights to correspond magically. Adept authors might make textual creatures–writing a body from prose that affects matter and a mind from prose that affects energy. These creatures, called “constructs,” might be laboring gargoyles or ghosts of pure energy. Masterful spellwrights might even write textual extensions of their own minds, making themselves hyper-intelligent.
Into this world drops Nicodemus Weal, who is so prolific in these languages that he was once thought to be the Chosen One fated to prevent Ye Olde Demonic Invasion. Oh, darling, you’re looking dyspeptic again. Take another deep breath. I’m bringing in clichés for a reason. Let’s quote Scott Lynch. You like Scott Lynch, right? Such a nice and creatively obscene man who in Spectra Pulse noted, “In fiction, execution trumps everything. Clichés cannot survive to become (in)famous without continual, skillful, and passionate reinvention.” Yes, I’m serving up a slice of Chosen-One-Vs-Demonic-Invasion Pie, which has been baked so often it’s gotten a bit tough, a bit bland. But what if Nicodemus’s disability disqualified him from becoming the Chosen One, permanently? What if the Demonic Hordes aren’t interested in devouring humans, but in altering human language and how language can exist in the universe? What would it mean to be human without language? What evolutions of language might make us post-human?
“But, Blake,” you say, “kicking the crotch of what-essentially-makes-us-human has been the signature move of the data-dumping steel toes of hard SF. How can you kick said groin with the brightly beaded moccasins of a non-gritty, megawatt magic-system, YA-Okay epic fantasy?” Mostly I can because I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to. But also, I can do it with a softer touch. I’m gushing here about my trilogy’s Big Ideas; trust me not to dump it all on the reader all at once. If I’ve hit my mark, Spellwright is a fast, fun, accessible fantasy that draws you into a world built by its living words.