Reader Request Week 2011 #3: Middle Ages Me

Charles asks:

If you were born in the dark ages, and couldn’t be a writer, how would you earn a living? Technology related jobs are out, because remember it’s the DARK AGES. I don’t see you as the farmer type, so what would you do?

Well, first, I’m not 100% behind the phrase “dark ages,” which implies, basically, that from the collapse of Rome until roughly the time of the Renaissance, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in Europe, intellectually and culturally speaking. This is not entirely true, as any student of European history will tell you. Likewise, as French historian Jacques Le Goff reminds us, “Those who suggest that the ‘dark ages’ were a time of violence and superstition would do well to remember the appalling cruelties of our own time, truly without parallel in past ages.” Look at the last century and see if you can disagree with this point.

As for technological advances, there was a lot of them about, actually, but in a manner we don’t much think about. The development of the heavy plow, for example, was literally cutting-edge technology in the 7th Century; sure, it doesn’t look like much next to your shiny new iPhone, but on the other hand your shiny new iPhone can’t break up the heavy soils of Northern Europe and lead to massive advances in the ability of the people there to feed themselves. If you’ve got any ancestors from above the Danube, you might be glad one of them thought up the heavy plow. Add in the horse collar, which arrived in Europe in the 11th century or so, and suddenly those same farmers could plow the same fields in half the time. No, they couldn’t play Angry Birds. But back in the day, they had real angry birds. Stealing grain. So there.

Be that as it may, the question remains: What would the John Scalzi of, oh, let’s say, 1011, be doing with his time?

To begin, if he was my current age of 41, there’s an excellent chance he would already be dead. Infant and child mortality killed off a large number of folks who would never see the other side of a fifth birthday; add to that the general less-than-advanced state of medicine of the eleventh century AD, and there’s a good chance that either disease or injury would have claimed me by now. And even if it had, I would still be old at 41; it seems unlikely I’d have many of my teeth still, my various injuries and years of almost certain hard physical labor would have taken its toll on my body, and so basically I’d probably be hunched, creaky and gumming my food.

And what would my job be? Easy: Peasant farmer.

Which, I know, Charles, suggests he doesn’t see me as. Thing is, in 1011, pretty much everyone was a farmer. Yes, there were other jobs, and other social strata, but if we’re looking at actual statistics, guess what? Odds are, you’re probably a peasant farmer. And certainly in my case it seems to be likely. Look at my last name: Scalzi. In Italian, it means “barefoot.” Tell me that doesn’t just scream “hardy peasant stock.” So, yes, if I’m in the eleventh century, and still alive at my advanced age, then I’m almost certainly a farmer. And I probably think it sucks, but then, it’s not like I have all sorts of options.

That said, there’s a small possibility that at an early age someone saw some small spark of intelligence in me, in which case there’s a chance that might eventually find my way into a religious order, which given who I am today might seem somewhat ironic and amusing, but in the eleventh century might strike me as a pretty good deal, all things considered. If I joined an order that followed the Benedictine Rule, I would have some access to reading and the intelligence of the time, and would be in a community of like-minded individuals, and in any event knowing me I would prefer that life to looking at the ass end of an ox for most of my days.

In either case I probably wouldn’t have become me — that is, the witty, snarky writerly type you all know and appear to tolerate. But we’re talking the eleventh century here. It was not a quality era for snark. I do imagine that in my village or order I would be known for my quirky sense of humor, but I also suspect that’s about as far as it would go.I suppose there’s some very small chance that I could be something along the lines of a wandering entertainer, going from court to court with my tales, perhaps with musical accompaniment. But I don’t exactly see that as a good life, in 1011.

But let’s suppose that in my 11th century character creation mode I rolled all natural 20s and ended up having the option of being anything I wanted to be. What then? Well, my first option would be not to be born for another 958 years (or so), because I like me some air conditioning and Internet and human rights and modern medicine. Barring that I would go for, oh, I don’t know, a royal court historian somewhere; a gig that keeps me out of having to take an arrow in the thigh (or alternately, running someone through with a pike) in a war, or watching an ox’s ass while it pulls a plow, or in fact very many of the really stinky and inconvenient aspects of life in the 11th century. What about being a prince or a knight? Yeah, no. Lots of wars. Lots of death. Lots of being away from family for years while you fight for a boggy chunk of land. Pass, thank you. Court historian will suit me just fine.

But in point of fact, what I’m rather more likely to be is a peasant farmer, and also, at age 41, stone cold dead. I’ll stick with the 21st century.

It’s not too late to ask questions for Reader Request Week — post your questions at this link.

The Big Idea: Martha Wells

Where do we belong? To whom do we belong? Do we, in fact, belong at all? Questions that strike at the heart of any person who ever feels alone, and questions that Martha Wells kept in mind when it came time for her to write The Cloud Roads. Keeping these questions in mind have paid off for Wells — her novel received a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly — and now she’s here to explain how these questions came to her in the first place, and why they matter so much for this book.


Most of my books have dealt in passing with themes of isolation and loneliness, feeling unable to fit in. I wasn’t an only child, but my sister was nine years older, and there were no other kids in the neighborhood around our house. I started reading early, and found adult SF and fantasy at what was probably way too young an age. Mostly because our branch of the Fort Worth Public Library placed the adult SF/F section next to the children’s literature with no clear line of demarcation. (“Spectacular mistake!” to quote Bill Nighy’s character from Pirate Radio.) This was before Star Wars, before the internet, and I didn’t know of any other SF/F fans. I read and thought about things that no one else in elementary school read and thought about, and sure didn’t talk about, and it was isolating.

I was told at one point by an authority figure that I was the only one in the world who liked SF/F. Even knowing that all those books in the library and the bookstore had to be produced for somebody besides me didn’t help much. Other kids my age believed that all books were written at some point in the distant past, by people who were long dead. (It also doesn’t help when someone tells these kids that all books are “ghost-written.”) I started to think that despite evidence to the contrary, maybe all those names on all those covers were dead people, or people who never existed. It was a depressing thought. Still, I felt like My People were out there somewhere, I just didn’t know where, and had no way to recognize them if I bumped into one in a crowd.

I wanted to revisit that feeling in The Cloud Roads, with a main character who was isolated and had to pretend to be something else in order to survive, who was afraid to show who and what he really was. And then I wanted him to find a way out of that situation to a certain extent, even though it wouldn’t be easy.

The main character Moon is an orphan, with no memory of who his people are or where they came from, no way to find others like him. His differences prevent him from staying anywhere for very long, even though he lives in a world with many different races and wildly differing cultures. He most closely resembles the Fell, brutal winged predators who feed on other intelligent species and survive by descending on and destroying entire cities. He’s been mistaken for one enough times that he knows he can never reveal his true self to anyone, even to friends and lovers.

When he does find his tribe, he also has to face the possibility that it may be too late for him to really become one of them. That he’s too different, and that he’s been alone too long.

I also wanted to capture that sense of wonder and possibility, of strange worlds with limitless horizons, that I felt while looking at the old paperbacks with the pulp covers tucked away in that corner of the library. But the heart of the book is about the need to find somewhere to belong, and what we are, or aren’t, willing to give up to get there.


The Cloud Roads: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.

The Cats, Displeased With the State of Their Food Bowls, Warm Up Their LASER EYEBALLS

But then they remembered that vaporizing me would still not give them opposable thumbs. Score one for the primates! And yes, I then fed them. Because I am not stupid.

E-Mail Wonky (Update: Fixed)

I’m having problems today both sending and receiving e-mail — it’s a problem with my site host, it seems — so if you get mail bounced back or otherwise have mail-related difficulties involving me, that would be why. I’m on it and will try to get it cleared up as soon as possible. Thanks.

Update: Fixed.