The Big Idea: Blake Charlton
Posted on March 3, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 32 Comments
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.
Spellwright: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s
Read or listen to an excerpt here. Visit Charlton’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
Neat concept. Sounds a bit like Rick Cook’s “Wizard’s Bane” in the use of language to shape the world/magic but hopefully executed with more panache.
Woo-hoo, Blake Charlton’s Big Idea post–perfectly timed, of course. :-) And my Spellwright order shipped today!
(I’m not stalking you, Blake, honest; I already read JS’s blog!)
Words as magic.
Sounds pretty cool. And the cover is awesome. I will definitely check this one out.
“You’d be more worried if a misspell could send the C++ flying out to wrap around your neck.”
I follow two kinds of blogs: cool authors and geeky computer programmers. You just managed to combine the two. Impressive. Now I need to go buy a copy of this book.
And for what its worth, C++ is dangerous enough without the possibility of it leaping out of my screen to choke me.
#1 and #5: I was immediately reminded of the “Desk check your programs, people” in one of the Rick Cook books. However, Cook’s series was very much oriented towards playing with hackerly CS themes rather than exploring learning issues surrounding the model.
I picked up my copy after work on Monday and it does not disappoint!
I’m happy to see that Spellwright is getting a Big Idea slot. I know that there are many of us out there who find new reading prospects from these features. (Scalzi is such a bastard for doing this, of course. (Or is that a dead meme by now?))
I first heard about Charlton in the midst of the big Amazon-Macmillan kerfuffle when I followed a link to his blog post about what that situation was doing to his sanity as a soon-to-debut author. Immediately I found these Big Ideas fascinating and I couldn’t wait for the book itself. As of ~200 pages in so far I’d say it was worth the wait.
Yowza, another one on my TBR pile shows up on your site. I’m thrilled. I’m also looking forward to starting this book as soon as I finish the Joe Hill. Damn, so much great reading in so short a time, I feel like a spoiled princess. Must command my son to go make me a mug of coffee, and he’d better bring a cookie along with it.
A.J. @ #5, that’s exactly the pull quote I used to tag this post at Facebook. That sentence alone is enough to get me to try this book; if its content is anywhere near as felicitous as that, I’m in.
Ooh, sounds fun. Another one for my ever-growing list.
very glad to see folks are liking the piece! i spent a fair amount of brain sweat trying to be witty enough to be on par with the Whatevers ;-) i’ve not read the rick cook books, having thought that they drank from a related but decidedly different pool of weird than i was sampling. but i’ll be sure to fix that post haste.
Words have always been magic, for those who let themselves see that magic. Some words are especially magic, such as Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows, which demonstrates nicely how to make complex characters, and characters with depth.
And magic, proper magic, magic of power, has always depended upon words. Words properly used. In any magic using world language will be used properly and an emphasis will be placed on proper pronunciation and grammar. There will be no space for sloppy speaking or sloppy writing because such will be deadly to people. Education will be strict, and those with conditions such as dyslexia will be carefully taught so their disability can not harm themselves and others; as it would.
Think of a world where magic is the foundation for Unix and you’ll see just how strict magic use and the magic arts would be.
Back long ago I got to talking with this fellow about computer programming, and he pointed out that one could think of programming as a type of spell casting. A program being a spell, using words and symbols to bring about a desired result. In both cases one must get the wording, the phrasing exactly right, get the grammar exactly right, or watch as the spell, the program fails. The caster/programmer must get the words right, in the right order, and using the right grammar or watch as nothing happens at best, or disaster ensues at worse.
BTW, the term “spellwright” reminds me of the neologism “dweomercræfter” from the Mythus RPG by Dave Newton and Gary Gygax. A dweomercræfter dweomercræfts, engaging in dweomercræfting when casting a dweomer or spell. Though note that technically speaking a spell is a type of dweomer or casting, one taking more time and effort to cast than a cantrip, but less than a formula.
Dweomercræfting is concerned with shaping a casting, crafting it much as a shipwright or mason crafts a ship or a wall. So is a spellwright concerned with crafting spells, so the two, spellwright and dweomercræfter can be considered as equivalent to each other.
So, in short, when Blake shows up at Mysterious Galaxy on Monday March 15 he can expect me to be there to bend his ear and discuss Spellwright. I may even have a copy, assuming I can keep my expenses down.
One last item. I like the cover, but in the same circumstances I’d prefer a good table and a lantern held high in one hand. Then again, I tend to be conservative in my use of magic. :)
Blake @ 11:
The Rick Cook books are more of a geek homage to fantasy than a serious fantasy offering. The main character is in fact a Unix programmer transported to a world with similar properties to the one you describe. It’s littered with little geek references and has a certain tongue in cheek air about it. My take on it is that Mr. Cook was exploring what it would take to make an epic hero out of a Unix wizard.
Your theme sounds a bit more interesting to me.
By the way Blake, the Rick Cook’s Wizard’s Bane can (legally) be read online at the Baen Free Library, if you’re having trouble getting out to the book store right off.
If you have not already made your choice of specialties, please don’t go into surgery.
Andy @ 13 & 14: good to know! that was what i had thought from my previous glance at the books. And thought I draw a lot of inspiration from computer science (every time i try to wrap my head around “machine language,” it explodes), I’m draw much more heavily upon the linguistics in biochemistry: biopoymers, stereochemistry, etc. etc. i’ll be sure to check out the Baen Free Library :)
Mythusmage @ 12: Awesome. Looking forward to seeing you at Mysterious Galaxy!
You keep publishing these big idea items by other authors, who tell where they got the idea for the book and why they pursued it. I for one would be fascinated if you would write a big idea piece about The God Engines. So, how about it?
Relax, it’s only ones and zeroes. (Grin) I managed to understand it with only a couple of years of college, but those were in studyling electronics rather than computer science. Once you know how the hardware works it’s easier to tell it what to do. (If you think it’s a field you’d like to study formally I recommend computer engineering.)
I like the idea of drawing on bioscience. Maybe it’s because computers aren’t as mysterious to me as to the average person. But DNA has been doing nanotechnology-like things for a LONG time, and you can’t point to some guy at MIT, Stanford, or Berkeley and say, “He started it!”
Nah. I created The Big Idea to promote other writers. And as to why I wrote The God Engines, I pretty much already answered that.
Blake @ #16, somebody suggested to me that if your book appealed, another to try after reading yours is Patricia McKillipp’s The Book of Atrix Wolfe.
Where’s the python crack? :(
As someone in the process of learning PERL, python and C++, I have a lot of experience with “language” going wrong.
As a linguistics major, I froth at the mouth every time someone compares computer programming/DNA to human language.
I’ve been hearing a lot about this book lately, and have to say both the premise and the coverage has moved it up quote a bit on my TBR list, and I’m glad it got to have a Big Idea post here on whatever.
As for buttin’ in on science fiction’s territory—the more the better. I love it when a good author mixes things up.
Hmm. Yeah, there are some intriguing ideas here. There’s something pretty cool about this concept.
Also… why do people keep acting like the old “chosen one”, or “child of prophecy” or “magical college” motifs are somehow taboo? Frankly, whether those ideas are present in a story or not won’t say a thing about the quality of the story at all. Some might view them as crutches for the unskilled, but if that were truly the case, then why would half of our favorite stories be those with just thoses same motifs? The quality of the writing and the value of the story are truly independent from the presence or absence of those cliches. A good story can have them, or not. It’s really all up to the skill of the writer.
Damn you, Scalzi. This is another one on my order list due to you and your shameless not-self promotion.
Dave@18: Thanks! Recently, I learned the value of sweet-talking experts, rather than doing too much primary research. Now I’ll know to sweet talk a computer engineering ;)
Linkmeister@20: Wow! I’ve not read Atrix Wolfe (now in my TBR), but I’ve adored The Riddle-Master & The Forgotten Beasts. Even to be mentioned in the same paragraph as McKillip is flattering. I would also suggest Daniel Abraham’s genius Long Price Quartet to anyone who liked Spellwright!
Atsiko@21: Heh. After that one XKCD comic on Python, I didn’t even want to try ;)
Stephen@22: re: motifs: Amen!
Great, now I have to add yet another book to the ever-growing To Read pile. The linguist in me is intrigued by the concept. And the hopeless romantic cannot resist a protagonist called Nicodemus. Hurrah for language and awesome names!
atsiko @21: It’s Perl (the language) or perl (the program), never PERL . People have gotten disqualified from job interviews for that mistake and large parts of the Perl community are quite rabidly insistent on this point.
(Almost didn’t post this because it seemed too off-topic, but considering we are discussing a book where the involuntary misspelling of a key phrase can get you killed, maybe it’s not quite so OT :-)
The story goes that one expert in programming languages would provide tutoring in coding for a hefty cost. The training was arduous, and expensive, but when the student was done he would know his field like nobody else. Gaining certification in one particular field soon became know as the Perl of great price.
Just finished your latest book and I wanted to share with you my enjoyment of your writing style.
If you have a moment (though, I imagine you probably do not have time for this) I would appreciate some author recommendations.
Having always been a sf/fantasy reader I’m finding that I’m running out of options. I like to commit to a series of books and cannot find something to invest in
R A salvatore
Simon r green
Among others are all read through
That gives you an idea of my tastes (which may make you cringe because I know you have ripped a couple of these)
Any ideas would be much appreciated
Glad you liked the book, but this particular comment thread is for discussion of the Blake Charlton book, not for a general discussion of my science fiction recommendations.
Beyond that, look through the various Big Idea pieces here and you may find some books that interest you.
You’d be more worried if a misspell could send the C++ flying out to wrap around your neck.
For the last twenty years or more, my day job has been writing embedded software. I live in constant fear that one of my spelling errors will result in burning down somebody’s house, or having it misidentified as a terrorist hideout, or garbling an emergency call to the paramedics, or… or… or…
In fact, you don’t want to see what’s in my problem queue today.
I clicked through to the comments to see if somebody was going to point out the PERL (should be ‘Perl’ or ‘perl’) gaffe, but I see the smartass at #26 got here first.
There lie demons for sure; thou shalt not invoke the wizards of sissad’min under that name or risk their wrath.
@26, 27 & 31: oooh, look at capitonym error! i don’t think i’ve seen one of those in the wild that wasn’t of the Polish/polish or Calorie/calorie species. thanks for the catch. i can now sound less dumb when talking about computer science ;)
@30: *expresses solidarity the the face of frightening misspellings*