Monday, October 31, 2011

More on the Language of the Shshi

       I've mentioned that the Shshi speak by  transmitting electromagnetic signals between their antennae, which contain nodes that act as receivers and transmitters and are connected to  special centers in their brains that decode the signals.  Therefore, no sound structure is involved in their language.  Kaitrin merely assigns random syllables to certain waveforms on the spectrograph and the pronunciation is no different from her native English.  This enables her to pronounce the language aloud so her transmission device can project the appropriate EM signals.  As Kwi'ga'ga'tei the Seer, who serves as her principal informant, realizes with much wonder, "The Star-Beings keep their antennae in a magic box!"
       If writing were invented by a native speaker of such a non-vocalized language, it couldn't have an alphabet, which by definition images sounds.  It would have to employ pictographs or ideograms or syllabograms or logograms.  Now, I'll tell you a secret -- in a later trilogy which I have not yet mentioned on this blog (entitled "The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head"), Di'fa'kro'mi the Remembrancer (the fortress's Bard) invents writing.  At the very beginning of the first volume, he is in his old age and he is dictating the memoirs of his adventures with Ki'shto'ba to a scribe.  He rambles on a bit about how he invented writing.  I'm inserting a section of this as a separate page entitled "Shshi Writing."  It will also give the reader an amusing glimpse of what the Shshi are really like.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why Do I Write about Termites?

The following is part of the Old-Post Resurrection Hop at

An exchange I had on Twitter recently leads me to believe that I need to counteract some assumptions that people might make as to why I write about ETs based on termites.  Don't expect satire or acidic social commentary in my stories; it's not my intention to compare human societal structure to that of social insects, to the detriment or advantage of either species.  My purpose is to write about first contacts, the encounters and subsequent relationships between humans and extraterrestrials -- to write about intelligent lifeforms who happened to evolve from base species different from our own.  How might they have developed as they turn into beings that are rational, moral, and self-aware even as they keep many of the characteristics of their species of origin?

And I like my aliens friendly!  My giant insects are not monsters any more than my big birds, six-foot lemurs, or small, sea-otter-like monotremes are monsters.   (The only exception might be in the novella I'm currently preparing for publication, "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder," but you must judge for yourself when you read the story whether those aliens are monsters).

Although all of my writings have some social commentary, it's oblique, forming a background to the plots while not being central to them.  It's my view of how our own society might evolve from the present day until the 30th century.

So how did I get the idea of writing about evolved termites?  Way, way back in the 1970's, when I was writing and failing to publish imaginary world fantasy, I saw a documentary entitled "Mysterious Castles of Clay" (I'm sure that's the name of it -- I've seen it again more recently on one of the cable channels).  It revealed the African, mound-building, fungus-growing termite in great detail, using microphotography with cameras inserted into the mounds, something that was probably rather new at that time.  I was absolutely fascinated -- here were little nymph insects waving their tiny claws and begging for food from the nurses just like baby birds! -- and I immediately proclaimed that these creatures would make a wonderful basis for a science fiction story.  The premise was that an off-world expedition brings back a specimen of giant termite and proceeds to study it like any other insect, keeping it in a glass cubicle.  A female anthropologist/linguist, however, senses intelligence in the creature and, even while everybody is ridiculing her, she proceeds to learn how to communicate with it.

I kept that germ of an idea in the back of my mind all the while I was taking my hiatus from writing.  When I started up again and wrote "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder," Prf. Kaitrin Oliva seemed like the perfect choice to be the heroine for the termite story, and lo and behold -- "The Termite Queen" was born.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Are the Termite People Really Like?

       The Shshi evolved from insects just as we evolved from hominids.  They still live in termitaria (called fortresses), which are built of stone instead of earth, extend both above and below ground, and have built-in ventilation systems.  They have a low-tech culture; they have never tamed fire and they use wood and stone tools to supplement their own mandibles.  They haft the mandibles of dead Warriors and use them as cutting tools.  They have evolved double-clawed front legs; the claws are jointed and can grip like fingers, but they have no opposable digits.  They have the wheel, but they have never taken its use farther than making little wheelbarrows; they have no draft animals.  Their mathematics is almost nonexistent; they count on their antennae, each of which has 18 knobs and they have no numbers beyond 36.  Anything larger than that becomes "more than the two-antennae count" or "many-many."  This lack of math, however, doesn't prevent them from being supreme engineers; the blind Builder Subcaste simply understands instinctively how to construct edifices -- the genetic heritage of their ancestors.
       The principal species that I'm writing about in "The Termite Queen" do not eat wood; they lack the proper intestinal flora to digest it.  Instead, they are fungivores, cultivating underground fungus gardens, but they also eat soft cellulose products, such as the flowers and leaves of a certain tree that they grow in orchards.  And they also garner protein from practicing necrophagy.  They are in fact the universe's best recyclers, just like terrestrial termites. 
      All Shshi lack auditory organs and the Warriors and the Workers have no eyes. Of course, they have other senses -- chemical and electromagnetic -- that compensate. The Warriors and the Workers don't differ so much from terrestrial termites, but the Alates  have changed more significantly.  Their compound eyes have evolved far beyond the norm for terrestrial insects and they are much more than short-lived reproductives; they live as long as their fellows (20-25 years).  Their wings have evolved bioluminescence in order to provide light within the fortress. (I had to find some way to light up that pitchblack interior of the fortress. Another writer I once read used phosphorescence in the walls, and Bernard Werber in "Empire of the Ants" gives some of his ants infrared vision.)
       The cultural level of the Shshi could be designated "Heroic Age," a bit like Mycenaean Greece without the metalworking.  Each fortress resembles a self-sufficient city-state, with very little contact with other fortresses except for the occasional territorial war or the necessity to exchange reproductives.  They have developed human qualities like compassion, loyalty, a sense of self, an eagerness to learn and to attempt to account for their world through myth.  Their only art form is literary; they are passionate tale-tellers.  It makes sense that a deaf race would have no concept of music and that a mostly blind race that lives in perpetual darkness would have little use for visual art.
       Their mythology provides them with an explanation for the existence of Castes: to ensure that the members of the community are interdependent.  Because of their physical and sensory limitations, no one Caste can exist without the existence of the others.  The Warriors' huge heads and mandibles makes it impossible for them to feed themselves.  The Alates are weak in body and need protection from the Warriors and physical labor from the Workers, but their acute vision gives them an edge.  They are the most subtle in intellect and so are likely to gain an advantage in the governance of the fortress. 
       Each community has only one breeding pair, just like terrestrial social insects.  The Workers and Warriors may have vestigial sex organs, but they produce no sex pheromones, so they are truly neuter and are referred to by a special pronoun that can only be translated "it."  The Alates, from whom the breeders are drawn, retain some sexual characteristics, enough for them to be identified as male of female.  fa is the nominative, singular, third-person personal pronoun (used for Warriors and Workers) and fai is the nominative, singular neuter pronoun (used for  things, qualities, etc.).  Alates are either ta (she) or ma (he).
       The Shshi religious beliefs are centered on the female principle -- what else could an ILF worship in a situation where only one individual among a thousand can produce offspring?  In effect, they worship the Great Goddess -- the Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name -- who lives in the sky and lays stars and who generally allows her creation to make its own way.  But occasionally she interferes, particularly at times when the Shshi Way of Life is threatened or something really significant is about to happen in the world of her offspring (like being invaded by extraplanetary beings).  And the Seers can communicate with the Highest Mother through the intermediation of a special hallucinatory fungus (and sometimes through their own inate abilities).

       One further remark:  In the chapters of "The Termite Queen" that concern the Shshi, I tried to come up with a style that would provide contrast with the human story. I settled on writing it as a dramatic script -- writing a play, as it were. It didn't seem right to put in lots of wordy description when you're dealing with blind creatures whose dwelling consists of mostly unlighted underground chambers and corridors. So we have dialogue supplemented by minimal stage directions. We also have soliloquies. It was very easy to fall into a kind of Shakespearean formality and rhythm. I used a lot of Shakespeare quotations as epigraphs for the termite chapters. The villain Mo'gri'ta'tu is fully comparable to Cassius or Iago -- quite Machiavellian. In fact, as I was writing these parts, I humorously referred to my characters as "my Shakespearean termites"!

       Remember to watch for updates on "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder"!  I'm beginning to format it in CreateSpace!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder"

     I lied! This post is not going to be about the nature of the Shshi. Sometime back, I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to try self-publishing an 18,500-word novella called "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder." (I may end up self-publishing "The Termite Queen," too, but that's a little way off yet.) This piece is nothing like "Termite Queen," although the Professor is Kaitrin Oliva 30 years later, when she is 57. I'm on the cusp of opening up a CreateSpace account and going at it, so I thought I would supply you with a blurb I wrote for the back cover. (It's subject to change.) 

     "In this dark and edgy first-contact story, a team of anthropologists discovers a species of truly bizarre intelligent lifeforms called the Kal. The team consists of the leader, an experienced, highly respected female Professor of Xenoanthropology and Linguistics; a young female biomedical specialist; and a still younger male, an expert in alien artifacts. Each member reacts in a different way to the Kal, leading to a disturbing climax and a conclusion with an unsettling twist of perspective."

     This was the first thing I wrote after I started up again in the year 2000. The inspiration was a bright, beautiful, vivid, but extremely bizarre dream that I had. That dream is really what started my creative processes going.

     Would love comments.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ever Notice How the Whole Universe Speaks English?

It's one of my earliest and I think it deserves more than 7 views!

This has been a pet peeve of mine for years, ever since I first encountered the Universal Translator in the original StarTrek.  This was way back when the series first appeared, before most of the people reading this were even born.  Of course, that was long before the kind of computers we have today, but even now I can't find the concept credible.  The translator microbes in Farscape are a little more acceptable given the really far-out milieu of the series, but even that has certain problems.  There is no way around it -- when we make finally first contact, Earthers and ETs are going to have to buckle down and learn each other's language!  (I fully understand that the convention of universal English speakers is required on a TV series; otherwise we would be watching a whole year's worth of grammatical exchanges --"Today we're going to learn how the Slime Mold people construct the present perfect tense and later we'll get into uses of the subjunctive."  Boy, would that bomb!) 
     So that's part of my purpose in writing The Termite Queen (certainly not the whole purpose or even the chief): to show what might really happen in a first contact.  The situation is complicated here by the fact that the alien language is not vocal.  Termites don't have vocal organs and they're totally deaf.  I could have made the language pheromonal, the way Bernard Werber does in his Les Fourmis, but I wanted a real verbal language that had words corresponding to English words, so I devised the radio wave idea, producing a spectrographic or bioelectric language.  Evolution can produce some pretty strange adaptations.
     Since the Shshi have no concept of sound waves (although they can feel vibrations), there is no way for them to learn human language, so it's incumbent on my linguistic anthropologist to learn theirs.  (Also, since two of their Castes are blind -- only the Alates have eyes -- the concept of writing has never occurred to them.)   The language exists only in transliterated form and so pronunciation is not an issue -- it's just like English, although Kaitrin Oliva, being fluent in Spanish, tends to roll the r's slightly   Several chapters are devoted to the process of learning to communicate with the Shshi. To me, this process is fascinating and I hope it will be so to at least the conlangers out there!  People who aren't interested can simply skim through those parts and focus on the many other aspects of the book.
     Now, three other alien races play a part in The Termite Queen, because the novel is laid in the 30th century, when Earth belongs to a Confederation of Four Planets.  One of the main supporting characters in the novel is from the planet Krisí’i’aid, on which intelligent life evolved from birds.  Prf. Tió’otu A'a'ma, who is a human-sized eagle, is the only off-worlder ever to hold a full Professorship in a terrestrial university.  He speaks excellent English, but his native language is !Ka<tá, a language far more complex than Shshi and one I've worked out in even greater detail, mainly for a different novel (which, alas, may never be publishable).  The eagles have the vocal apparatus of songbirds, so their language has tonal characteristics and utilizes warbles, trills, whistles, chirps, coughs, and clicks.  It is totally unpronounceable by the human throat.  For example, suffixing a warble (transliterated as ) makes a plural.  This language is not used extensively in The Termite Queen and I generally don't translate it when I do.  Here are a couple of examples:

Chitú<^ ♫po·atré ♫Wéwana♪] (An insult meaning "A pair of stork-heads!")  
kheda<tri’e hi kukh^maw’ez (To make the gizzard happy; would correspond to "from the bottom of my heart.")
     I'll get into !Ka<tá a lot more at a later time.
     Anyway, my point is, in Termitewriter's universe, English (or Inj, as it is called in the 30th century) is spoken natively only by Earthers!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Remark on Conlangs

I just read the "Conlang Manifesto" at the webpage of the Language Creation Society and I want to stress I agree totally with it.  While I never create a conlang unless it's going to be spoken by a fictional character, just creating one for its own sake or for one's personal entertainment is terrific!  Wouldn't anybody find such an occupation more beneficial than wasting time on computer solitaire, for example?  (Something I confess I've done.)  Any work with language obviously requires the use of the brain.  In fact, every time I read something about how older people (of whom I'm one) should do things like crossword puzzles in order to stave off Alzheimer's, I say out loud, "How about constructing imaginary languages?"  Nobody ever thinks about that!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

An Introduction to My Worlds

Shown above is one of my drawings of my extraterrestrial intelligent lifeform called the Shshi.  Ki'shto'ba, who is well over a meter in length, was based on the terrestrial termite species called Macrotermes bellicosus; it is a formidable Warrior but also the proverbial gentle giant.  Its name is pronounced to have the rhythm of "hit your paw" and does not have the rhythm of "Manitoba."  I can be pretty flexible as to how the names in my writings are pronounced, but I'm adamant about that one.
This character comes from my unpublished novel called The Termite Queen.  Part of its premise early on is to discover whether this blind and deaf species has language and how it communicates.  It develops that giant alien termites communicate through the transmission of radio waves from one set of antennae to another.  This produces nothing but waveforms on a spectrograph; the problem is, how do we make such patterns intelligible to the human mind?  I'll just say, it's possible.  You'll have to wait until I get the book published to find out how.