Tuesday 2 January 2024

Worlds; and writing; and worlds without writing

Guest post by Juliet Kemp

For me, at least in English, ‘language’ and ‘written language’ are very nearly the same thing—when I think of words I see them written down (perhaps partly due to the fact that I read absurdly young). But even among literate people that experience is far from universal; and even in our highly literacy-dependent culture not everyone is literate; and then there are plenty of cultures (past and present) whose traditions are primarily or entirely oral, with the written word an afterthought or non-existent.

None of which I was thinking about when I first began to write my novella Song, Stone, Scale, Bone. I started off with a mental image of a knight guiding a noble through a catacomb, in search of a magic bone… and then I thought: why? Not why they were going there (that was the magic bone, although admittedly at that point I wasn’t quite sure what that was for either), but why was Sir Cade a guide as well as a guard, and why was she using a song to orient herself?

Perhaps, I thought, there’s no map. Perhaps, even, there can’t be a map. Perhaps directions, in this world, are kept in purely oral form, as songs and rhymes, and Cade’s order of knights holds the responsibility of keeping those directions.

Perhaps, I thought, they don’t have writing at all.

It’s harder than you might think—as someone from a very literacy-heavy culture—to remember all the things that aren’t there if you don’t have writing. Signposts, for example. What about coins? Drawings but no words? Numbers? Ideograms don’t quite count as writing, so coins could have something on those lines. (I fudged this slightly by not describing the money Cade uses.)

Given Cade’s job, I spent a while thinking about maps—which are basically drawings—but the use and accuracy of maps even in Western culture has varied substantially over the centuries. You’d struggle to use the Imago Mundi (below) to travel by, for example; although the Tabula Peutingeriana did a decent job of being a stylised route map (less good once you’re off-road).

Some questions which didn’t come up in the story but which I’ve thought about since: the first known uses of writing were bureaucratic (recording agricultural products and contracts); with other functions of government like taxation swiftly following. Cade’s nearby city houses an Emperor; how is the Empire managed without writing? Do tally-sticks count as writing? As above, what about ideograms, or mnemonics, which aren’t quite writing (but might develop into writing in the future)? Perhaps the Empire employs rememberers to keep track of these bureaucratic issues and what people owe, just as Lady Arel has to recite the treaty she is trying to use to prevent war. Presumably storytellers are important in this culture, just as they were in (for example) Ancient Greece and in pre-10th centure Britain (the Iliad and Odyssey, and Beowulf, are all thought to have been later writings-down of stories told as part of an oral tradition).

The final thing that occupied me for a while when I was writing was that there’s no way, in a book with a close-third-person POV, of saying that this is a part of the worldbuilding. Because, obviously, my narrator, Sir Cade, doesn’t know that she doesn’t have the concept of the written word, because, well, she doesn’t have the concept of the written word. So here I am, telling people about it outside the book; but if you read it, I’m interested to hear about how it came across to you. (And I hope you enjoy the story!)

Song, Stone, Scale, Bone

Sir Cade expected an easy afternoon’s guiding job. She didn’t expect it to end up sneaking her client over a border to avert a war, whilst being trailed by a bored dragon. And becoming haunted by the ghost of her best friend and sword-brother, that was definitely a surprise.

But if it’s all her responsibility, well, that means it’s all down to her to fix it. Whatever the cost.

Song, Stone, Scale, Bone is a deceptively rich and fulfilling work that blends together explorations of grief, friendship, obligation, and mutual support. With its combination of classic fantasy motifs, some lightly crafted magic, and a nuanced sense of where the personal and familial can meet the machinations of leadership and politics, I found Song an intriguing, well-constructed, and satisfying read.”—Andi C. Buchanan, author of Sanctuary

Buy links: Amazon UK (ebook/print), Amazon US (ebook/print), or order from your local bookshop.

Juliet Kemp (they/them) is a queer, non-binary, writer. They live in London by the river, with their partners, kid, and dog. The first book of their fantasy series, The Deep And Shining Dark was on the Locus 2018 Recommended Reads list; the fourth and final book, The City Revealed came out in 2023. Their short fiction has appeared in venues including Uncanny, Analog, Cast of Wonders, as well of course as the three stories (“I Thought of You”, “Dragon Years”, “Just as You Are”) here in The Future Fire, and they were short-listed for the WSFA Small Press Award 2020. When not writing or child-wrangling, Juliet knits, indulges their fountain pen habit, and tries to fit an ever-increasing number of plants into a microscopic back garden. They can be found at julietkemp.com, @julietk.bsky.social and @juliet@zirk.us.

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