Continuing to blog the Arthasastra. Or now that I’m on the computer with good font support, Arthaśāstra.  Or अर्थशास्त्र.


(Unless something is in quotes, it’s a paraphrase.)

Today we’ll go over rules for cities, economics, and society. Often Kauṭilya will be describing things as he thinks they ought to be rather than they are; but it’s still a valuable indication of his values and knowledge.

Cities and economics

A city should have three north-south and three east-west boulevards, each four dandas wide (24 ft), with a gate at each entrance. (This is the same as a classical Chinese capital.)

The city should be laid out as in the above diagram. Burial and cremation grounds are located to the east or north, and heretics and caṇḍālas (untouchables) lived beyond them.

There are rules for houses— they should be well built, not too close to another house, and each must have its own dunghill, watercourse, and well. A mat should be placed on the roof to protect from rain, heavy enough not to blow off.

Inns are to be provided with perfumes or garlands of flowers. Also with spies, who will report on signs of wealth.  Innkeepers are responsible to their guests for the value of things stolen.

Fording a river is forbidden without a special pass, lest traitors get away.

Musicians should not provide entertainments that make use of weapons, fire, or poison. (There must be some interesting stories behind that rule.)

Vessels filled with water are to be placed at crossroads, and in front of royal houses. Beyond this, Kauṭilya suggests that fire be prevented by praying to Agni (the god of fire). In general Kauṭilya believes in piety, but he never gives a theological justification or sanction for his rules.

Debts are inheritable, which sounds like a recipe for trouble.

A useful table of wages for government employees, all in paṇas per year: top officials (including the prince and the king’s mother), 48000. Commanders, superintendent of the harem, collector-general, 24000. Ministers, 12000. Chariot driver, army physician, horse trainer, carpenter, 2000. Astrologer, bard, superintendents, 1000. Trained soldiers, writers, accountants, 500. Musicians, 250.  Carpenters, 120. Horse keepers, bodyguards, miscellaneous servants, 60. Spies, 1000 (but the spymaster only gets 250).

Low opinions

As in most ancient societies, trading was very low-prestige— except for long-distance trading, as unusual merchandise was highly valued. Traders, artisans, beggars, clowns, and other “idlers” are closely regulated as otherwise they “oppress the country”. Goldsmiths are considered to be generally fraudulent.

A list of “undesirable persons” includes thieves, gamblers, hunters, singers, and musicians. Very often entertainers (including musicians and dramatists) are discussed along with prostitutes— again, pretty typical for premodern societies.

There’s a warning about trusting in astrology to gain wealth. Kauṭilya points out that wealth begets wealth; the stars do not.

Various laws

Treasure troves go to the king, but the discoverer gets 1/6.  Or 1/12 if he’s a peon.

If a hermit is fined, he can do penance instead, one day for each paṇa of the fine.

Eunuchs, idiots, lepers, lunatics, the blind, and those thrown out of their class do not inherit.

The eldest son receives a smaller inheritance if he is impotent. (One wonders how this was checked.)

There are fines for wandering cattle.  (Presumably this was a lot easier to regulate in ancient times!)

If a priest dies after performing a sacrifice, his heir only gets 1/5 of his share of the fee.

There are fines for selling a leprous animal– or person. This must be claimed within six weeks for animals, or within a year for humans.

You can be fined for verbal abuse, including irony— such as saying that a blind man has “beautiful eyes”.

Defendants in a legal case have 3 to 7 nights to prepare a defense. (However, there’s nothing about lawyers.)

In cases of sudden death, the corpse should be “smeared with oil” and examined. Perhaps this made bruises or changes in shape more visible, because there follows a list of clues for identifying victims of strangling, hanging, drowning, beating, poisoning, etc. (Pro tip: someone with lots of bloodstains and broken limbs may have been beaten.)

As in China, judges could torture defendants for information. On the other hand, they could be punished for unjust fines or punishments, or for sloppy procedure (e.g. “tiring parties with delay”). A Brahmin was not to be tortured, but if convicted, he could be branded on the face. (For theft, the symbol was a dog; for murder, a headless corpse; for rape, “the female part”; for drinking liquor, a vintner’s flag.)

Some suspicious signs that someone may be a thief: excessive stammering; “watching the movements of others”; rubs or scratches or “signs of scaling heights”; freshly broken nails; body smeared with oil and freshly washed. Footprints could be checked against those made near the crime scene, as well as fragments of garlands, sandals, or clothing.

If you are hurt by an elephant that you provoked, you are liable.

A fine can be levied on anyone who becomes an ascetic without providing for his wife and sons.

More later…

I just finished Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which is perhaps the greatest book I know of that I can’t recommend to readers.


So, first, what is it?  It’s a book on state policy: how to run a country, how to run a spy network, how to regulate commerce, who to appoint as ministers, how to manage allies and enemies, how to conduct war. It was written somewhere from 2200 to 1700 years ago in India, attributed to one Kautilya or Vishnugupta.  It’s often claimed that Kautilya was Chanakra, the wily minister of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the first Indian empire, but this is unlikely.

It’s often compared to Machiavelli. On the whole Kautilya counsels the king to be virtuous: he must avoid dissipation, reward loyalty, punish criminals, put down bandits, encourage (and not overtax) production. But when he’s cynical, he’s cynical.  He tells you how to recruit spies, how to double-cross your friends, how to poison people, even how a minister can declare himself king.

He’s also, truth to tell, extremely dry, and it’s not clear how much of his advice was followed, which is why I can’t urge anyone to run out and score a copy.  As Patrick Olivelle says about the similar Laws of Manu (which is coming up on the reading list, watch this space), the book dates from a time when northern India was often as not run by low-caste upstarts, by Buddhists (i.e. heretics), or by out-and-out mlecchas (barbarians)– Greeks, Kushans, Sakas. So Kautilya and Manu are both describing things as they think they ought to be.

But the thing is, more than most ancient books, Kautilya gives loads of details on everyday life: crop yields, names of measures, structure of the government, how a fort was laid out, how many yojanas the army could travel in a day, how to use elephants in warfare. (Pro tip: you can use a line of elephants as a makeshift bridge to cross a river!) That is, it’s a treasure trove of information useful in conworlding.

This will take a few posts to work through.  Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: magical formulas!

(As a warning, this is Kautilya at his worst and most credulous. But it’s entertaining.)

  • A powder made from lizards or stinking insects, a black snake, and panic seed, will cause instantaneous death.
  • For a longer death, try root of vyaghata (Casia fistula), flower of bhallataka (Semecarpus nacardium), and essence of an insect.  (Mad props to the translator, R. Shamasastry, for working out the botanical names.) The dosage for killing a man must be doubled to kill a horse, and quadrupled to kill an elephant.
  • Smoke from the burning of krikalasa (a lizard) and grihagaulika (a house-lizard) causes leprosy.
  • You can turn an animal white using oil prepared from mustard seeds kept for seven nights in the urine of a white goat. Didn’t work? Did you keep it in a bitter gourd for a month and a half?
  • Another way to bring on leprosy: make paste from gunja seeds which have been kept for seven nights in the mouth of a white cobra. (Is the cobra dead?  Doesn’t say. If not, that’s some impressive snake training.  And if it is, I’m not sure I want to retrieve seeds from a snake left out in the Indian sun for a week.)
  • The powder of a firefly mixed with mustard oil emits night at light. One of the few believable recipes!
  • A serum applied by roasting a pregnant camel along with saptaparna (Lechites scholaris) will make a journey of a hundred yojanas fatigue-free. If you have no pregnant camel on hand, dead children roasted in cremation grounds will do. This may be hard to get past the ethics committee at your lab.
  • Fast for three nights, then take the skull of a man who has been killed with a weapon. Grow barley in it, irrigating with goat milk. Make a garland from the sprouts; it will make you invisible.
  • Make a sack from the clothes of a man who died of natural causes, and fill it with the ashes of a dead Brahmin. You can then put the sack on your back and walk about invisible. Or perhaps people will just be too polite to acknowledge your presence.
  • Fast seven nights, get hold of three white hairs from a porcupine, and make a fire with 108 pieces of the khadira tree (Mimosa catechu), along with honey and ghee. Chant a certain mantra while burying one of the hairs at the entrance to a village.  All the animals in the village will fall asleep.

Now, I don’t actually blame Kautilya for repeating this nonsense. It’s evident that he is basing his book on earlier books.  He doesn’t say he tried any of this; he’s obviously copying down similar lists from the library. This is the last chapter of the book, so he’s already given you the standard and much more plausible methods of statecraft. His attitude is obviously “This stuff might come in handy if all else fails, so here it is.”

What’s more intriguing is the mindset of whoever created these recipes. The thing that makes them implausible is the very thing that makes them hard to check: the plethora of arcane ingredients.  If someone claims to have alchemical knowledge, and someone pesters them hard enough for a recipe, this is exactly the sort of thing they’d come up with. Extra points if the ingredients are disgusting (thus the urine and ground-up lizards) or impious (Brahmins’ ashes). The questioner, without modern chemical knowledge, can hardly say “That can’t possibly work”; all he can do is write down the recipe and slink away.

Of course, it’s also possible some of these recipes ‘worked’, in the sense that some of the plants and animal products involved had some effect.  E.g. Casia fistula is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a “purgative”.  Maybe if you used enough of it, you could make someone sick, who knows.  Few of the recipes have convincing details, though, like precise dosages.

Anyway, if this whets your appetite, you can read the whole thing here.  The recipes are found in Chapter XIV.

It’s about time to add one more post to the Weaponry category, for a total of two.

There’s a great series of videos on swords, axes, and other premodern weapons by one Skallagrim. This is just one of them, on why the elaborate swords beloved of video game designers are nonsense.

There’s lots more– reviews of particular swords, tests of swords from various cultures, why lightsabers could be extremely dangerous to the wielder, and perhaps most interesting, advice on swordfighting. Did you know it’s a perfectly valid technique to grasp your own sword by the blade and use it backwards, hitting someone with the pommel?  Did you know you can’t unsheathe a sword or katana sticking up from your shoulder in one swift move, like they do in movies and video games?  (To be precise, you can if it’s a very short sword. If it’s longer than your arm, it won’t clear the scabbard.)

All this is fun to learn about in general, but a particularly valuable resource for fantasy writers and conworlders. It could keep you from writing or drawing something really embarrassing.


I notice that Verduria feels a bit European, which I like. What are some ways that I can replicate that Euro feel in my own stuff?


This was asked on Twitter, but it’s hard to answer in 140 characters.

282 72 Fiesole.jpg

For Westerners creating fantasy worlds, it’s hard not to make it European. The Standard Fantasy Kingdom is mostly European (from medieval to steampunk). The more of these elements you have the more European it’ll feel:

  • A large temperate agricultural zone, sometimes threatened by nomads
  • Kingdoms (with a smattering of republics)
  • Parliaments (especially as a counter-power to the king)
  • A division into multiple ethnic states
  • Powerful nobles who ride horses and live in rural castles
  • Towns, dense in population, without city planning, with a high degree of autonomy
  • At least some maritime nations, with a lot of ship-borne trade
  • Advanced in technology compared to other nations, or at least not dominated by larger civilizations
  • Large forests where you can hide the trolls or nymphs
  • Lots of pretty stone buildings
  • A single religion that crosses national boundaries
  • Monogamy
  • Clothing runs to shirt + pants for men, dresses for women

Visually, you would expect to see gothic cathedrals, big stone castles, Renaissance palaces, pleasant hobbitish villages. Buildings are rectilinear; roofs are either flat or A-framed. Animals, plants, and food are all recognizable to Westerners. Armies consist of horse cavalry, sailing ships, infantrymen wielding swords, bow and arrow, or pikes, with catapults as artillery; the upgrade path is to steamships, muskets, and cannons.

Linguistically, the languages could be directly influenced by Europe (as Verdurian is), and don’t stray too far from European languages.  Thus, mostly—

  • Standard Fantasy Phonology (English plus kh)
  • SVO
  • nominative-accusative
  • Verbs marked by tense, and possibly number + person
  • Articles
  • No gender, or masculine/feminine
  • Prepositions
  • Decimal number system
  • Adjectives may be like nouns, definitely aren’t like verbs

Perhaps more subtly, Europe is old. Everywhere has at least two thousand years of history, and things were probably very different 500 or 1000 years ago— different nations, different languages or religions. (By contrast, China is even more ancient, but as far back as you go, it’s still ethnic Chinese. With India,  whenever anyone invaded or started a new religion, the old peoples and religions are in general still there. And of course the US is by European standards young and low-density).

Now, in all of the above, I’ve not only downplayed differences between European nations (it makes a difference if you’re aiming at England, Italy, or Poland), but also I haven’t been too concerned with actual medieval history, which often differs from the tropes that we get from fantasy and even from medieval literature. If you really want a European flair to your conworld, my usual suggestion is to read less fantasy and more history. Reality is always far weirder than imagination.

Now, Verduria started as a Standard Fantasy Kingdom, and is certainly affected by my own affection for Europe and European languages. Plus I’ve more or less tried to make Almea stranger the farther you go from Verduria, which means Verduria itself is supposed to seem familiar to Western readers.  Still, it’s not designed as a mask of Europe— e.g. particular nations of Eretald are not simply caricatures of particular European nations. It does have some elements that aren’t European at all, and hopefully its history is coherent on its own level— things happen because of their internal logic.

It may be relevant that I aimed at something like 1750s Europe, and if anything pushed that toward 1800 in later work. So one thing you may be noticing is that Verduria is a little more like modern Europe than many fantasy kingdoms— it has steam power, colonies, cannons, universities, joint-stock companies, printing, religious conflicts, and parliamentary politics.

For Americans, Europe has a certain attractive quaintness, fading at the edges into eccentricity or annoyance. We see ourselves as straightforward, pragmatic, and business-oriented, Europeans as alternately charming, hidebound, and arrogant. We imagine that a duchess is somehow much more interesting than a billionaire. Harry Potter’s crumbly old castle of a school is as fantastic an element for us as his magic; Samwise’s forelock-tugging deference to Frodo as alien as the elves. These things would all read very differently to actual Europeans.

I hope that helps— I don’t know exactly what you’ve read about Verduria, and perhaps I haven’t captured what you notice about it at all!

(The picture, by the way, is of Fiesole, Italy, and was taken by my father in 1972.)


There was a discussion on Mefi about plausibility in fantasy (and related genres, like superhero comics). As there is inevitably in these discussions, some people argued that there’s no such thing. It’s all made up! It’s idiotic to expect any of it to make sense!

Retcon: this is so improbable that the Death Start actually ran on an Improbability Drive

Retcon: this is so improbable that the Death Star actually ran on an Improbability Drive

Since I write conworlding books, you can guess that I think this is a silly position.

  • It amounts to making all criticism of plot, story, and setting impossible. If anything goes, nothing goes better than anything else.
  • Implausibilities cause the reader to be confused, or to actively smirk at you. C.S. Lewis compared writing to driving sheep down the road: the sheep will go into any open gate to the left or the right. You don’t want to create diversions; it spoils the effect you’re trying for.
  • When anything goes, the story evaporates. If a danger is conjured up out of nothing on one page and disappears by authorial fiat on the next, the emotional temperature drops.
  • The idea that there are no constraints on a genre can really only be held by people who don’t understand it well– or at the least, by those who have never written it.
  • Let’s not discount the biggest reason fans argue about this stuff: it’s fun. We like to argue about why the eagles couldn’t carry Frodo and whether Superman’s toenail clippings remain invulnerable.

But the biggest reason is that fantasy depends on realism. We accept the fantastic elements because the rest of the story is realistic, and canny authors increase the realism in order to allow the fantasy. The classic example is LOTR. The plot structure is that of a quest; this only works as a story, and only has an emotional effect on the reader, if undertaking the journey takes time and effort. The novel underlines and relies on the facts that walking takes time, that people get hungry and tired, that swords hurt, that weather and darkness are dangerous, that baggage is not unlimited.

On a deeper level, LOTR works because it acknowledges that empires fade, that kings and leaders are fallible, that fighting battles scars soul as well as body, that gods can come to seem remote or weak, that the bravest may come from humble and unexpected quarters.

Tolkien is actually very miserly about doling out supernatural elements. Gandalf probably uses fewer spells in the entire trilogy than a beginning D&D wizard deploys in a single day. Rarity increases value, so the displays of power or terror are all the more effective.

It’s also widely realized that a good deal of the book’s power derives from its  deep worldbuilding. The allusions seem real (because, more often than not, they are real; they refer to something buried in Tolkien’s notebooks); the languages are gloriously real; the maps and appendices please our pedantic side.  (A lot of us probably know more about the history and geography of Middle Earth than, say, that of China.)

And the thing is, this use of realism is not a pure novelty of Tolkien’s; it’s a periodic infusion into fantasy and related genres. The very setting of most fantasy– medieval kingdoms, dusty cities, dark forests– was simply the everyday world of the Middle Ages. Alice and Oz updated the setting to modern times. Fritz Leiber’s sword & sorcery stories threw in a noir cynicism and grittiness. Game of Thrones keeps the medieval kingdoms but insists on the power politics, sexism, and brutality of the period. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Tim Powers toss out the medievalism to set stories in the present world, where magic is simply cleverly hidden.  China Miéville updates the politics with a healthy distrust of the old kings and lords. Star Wars, which is basically fantasy set in a science fiction atmosphere, was novel and believable in part because things looked battered and worn.  Frank Miller threw out the camp Batman of the ’60s and inserted realistic ’80s concerns, such as psychopathic criminals and nuclear war.  The latest Tomb Raider threw out the plastic dangerless pseudo-archeology and created a Lara Croft who was young, scared, and unsure of herself.

This sort of realism insertion is why Grant Morrison is wrong when he bellows ” ‘Who pumps the Batmobile’s tires?’ It’s a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!”  You can insert realism wherever you want to.  Focusing on the people who care for the Batmobile could be a great story.  (No, Alfred doesn’t create and polish all those gadgets by himself.)  Maybe they’re loyal little munchkins, but maybe they resent their nutball employer and can be bought out by the Penguin.

Now, let me get a straw man or two out of the way.

Most importantly, conworlding can get out of hand.  Tolkien himself was a victim: in his lifetime he never produced a sequel to LOTR, because he could never stop tinkering with the world. You do not need genealogies and flags and languages and train schedules for every nation on your planet. And even if you have all that, you shouldn’t try to cram it into your novel, since readers will choke on it.  Make a wiki or something.

(As a side note, though, Tolkien’s anglicization is probably an anachronism. Translating Jules Verne, you probably shouldn’t turn Jean Passepartout into John Goesanywhere; and similarly if a dude is named Maura Labingi, that’s just fine, you don’t have to turn it into Frodo Baggins.  I think readers these days allow or expect a little more conworlding in their stories.)

Also, you don’t have to explain everything.  Gaiman is my go-to example here: he rarely explains how his worlds work, and they’re all the better for it.  Some things can remain mysteries.

Next: realism isn’t all-or-nothing.  Obviously, we want at least some of the fantastic elements, otherwise you can’t put “fantasy” on the cover.  More subtly, you can be more realistic in some areas than others.  As I said, Tolkien’s quest depends on the journey to Mordor being a long, hard trek. For narrative reasons, he didn’t want to sprinkle welcoming inns or towns along the route. Thus the handwavium of lembas, an elven food that’s preternaturally light and filling. Still, it’s used honestly: when you’re out of lembas, you’re out of food.

Sometimes the unrealism is not in the fantasy elements, but in emphasis and omission. I just read the Council of Elrond chapter, and I have to say, there are peculiarly few allies that Elrond & Co. trust. The Fellowship turns out to be small enough to make a standard fantasy quest, with no more characters than we can keep straight.  It’s a bit like Mass Effect: the stakes affect the whole galaxy, everyone is amassing flotillas of spaceships, and yet every single crisis is handled by sending in a three-man commando team.  I’m not actually bothered by this, though I appreciate a little authorial handwaving to smooth things over.

As a corollary, Tolkien is of course not the only model. You can get away with a lot! The Princess Bride works despite its unreality– though good characters and good writing keep it from merely being twee.

(We have higher standards about plausibility these days… we’re used to naturalistic fiction, we don’t accept the supernatural quite so easily.  On the other hand, bear in mind that in their own fields, our predecessors were probably just as demanding. If the people listening to the Iliad heard the poet messing up details of bronze age armor or horse anatomy, I’m sure they let him know.)

Next: any fantasy or sf story come with certain gimmes— things we don’t question because they’re part of the basic scenario.  There’s no use worrying about how the One Ring affects the world physically– it’s supernatural, OK, and it’s what the story is about.  Do you accept the time travel in The Anubis Gates?  You’d better, because again, it’s what creates the story scenario.

The general rule, though, is that creators have to play fair.  Suspension of disbelief is not an infinite resource.  LOTR would have disintegrated if, on page 906, Tolkien had created an Anti-Ring which destroyed Sauron’s Ring. (Introducing it on page 56 is OK.)  Once Powers sets up the rules of time travel in Anubis, he respects them and never deceives the reader with them. In such worlds, it’s an added pleasure for the reader to try to understand the rules of the world and predict how they’ll play out.

We can also inherit a few gimmes from earlier literature. We still use the dragons and wizards and magic weapons of medieval epics.  Superman has eyebeams because, basically, that was what science was like when he was invented: new physical fields and forces were being discovered at a dizzying rate. Comics just never got the memo that it’s now all about reducing everything to a few phenomena.

I should also note that just as you can inject more realism, it’s sometimes effective to take it out. The Saints Row video games are a good example: they were never exactly journalistic-level exposes of criminal gangs, but they only improved as they downplayed the gang warfare and emphasized the fantasy (and characterization).  However, this move generally works best when you’re moving into comedy, or at least less seriousness.   (Though it can also be a welcome respite from too much grimdark.  After Miller, there wasn’t much to gain in making Batman nastier; thus the relatively lighter tone of the animated series.)

I think there’s two kinds of plausibility gaps: those we notice while reading or watching, and those that only come up while discussing the work over pizza.  On the whole, only the first kind is really harmful to the experience.  I was disgusted in the movie theater when the Force turned out to be a bacterial infection.  On the other hand, I don’t really care when playing Oblivion that there are obviously more bandits than citizens in Tamriel.

Of course, it’s nice when a conworld is convincing enough that it stands up even to rigorous prodding.  And I’d add that conworlding doesn’t, as one might expect, impede storytelling.  On the contrary, it creates storytelling opportunities.  I remember looking at the maps in LOTR and wondering what Harad and the Sea of Rhûn were like. I’ve been asked many questions about the less documented areas or ages of Almea. The more you know about a place, the more questions there are. (Star Wars or the Marvel Universe aren’t impeded by the weight of conworlding; they’re impeded by the sheer bulk of story.)

If the guidelines above seem vague– well, that’s the final lesson.  Despite the tone of some nerd arguments, these are matters of art and skill, not ISO standards.

Let’s look at death from a conworlding perspective.

He backstabbed that chair, but he's still dead.

He backstabbed that chair, but he’s still dead.

If you took a vote, I’m pretty sure most people would be against death.  Early death is always a tragedy, and most religions offer some (more or less implausible) consolation: reincarnation, resurrection, reabsorption into Atman, or perhaps hanging around in the form of a shade or ghost.  (These are usually depicted as mentally disordered, sometimes due to their misdeeds, sometimes as just a consequence of being dead.)

Helping to take care of parents in their ’90s has given me a different view.  This will probably horrify any readers under 35, but it feels like the last years of life prepare both the person and the survivors for death.  Quality of life declines, mobility lessens, physical problems become overwhelming.  By the time my Mom died, it didn’t feel like a tragedy, more like an ending.  She certainly wouldn’t have liked to just be prolonged in the state she was in the month before she died.  And dying in old age after a fulfilling and busy life, surrounded by family, isn’t the worst thing ever.

With my Dad, of course I want him to keep going as long as he gets enjoyment out of life.  But as I mentioned, he’s declining in both body and mind.  Old folks are notorious for keeping to their habits and likes… he’s no longer interested in finding new music, trying out new cuisines, going to new places.  He’s no longer adapting to social change… he told me disapprovingly of a couple he knows that shacked up together before marriage.  That is, before their marriage which has lasted very nicely for fifty years.  He does read some new things, but there’s not much that changes his mind anymore.

Now, this is a manageable problem in the world as it is.  But what if people lived twice as long?  Or six times as long, as in the Incatena?  Would you really want most people to be conservative old cranks for 85% of their lives?

The ancient Greeks had a myth about a man, Tithonus, who was granted immortality but forgot to ask for eternal youth.  So he ended up immobile and senile.  Oops!

One futuristic approach to the problem: get yourself uploaded to a computer, so you can stay alive indefinitely.  I think it’d be horrible to give up food, sex, exercise, and the rest of our bodily experience, even if we posit that you can still somehow retain your visual qualia.  But I can see the attraction of wanting to find out what’s next.  Perhaps you could hibernate for fifty years at a time, then wake up and avidly consume all the pop culture that’s been created since last time.  Avoid Sturgeon’s Law and read just the best 10% of stuff, forever!

However, I suspect the plan would fall apart in under 200 years.  How much really grabs us from that long ago?  We do read stuff that old, of course, but it’s only a tiny fraction of our mental diet.  The past is a strange world that takes some effort to immerse ourselves in– when it doesn’t repel us with a mindset that’s now confusing, boring, or vile.  400 years ago is even harder to grok, and 1000 is an alien world.  And looking back, I’d maintain, is far easier than looking forward.  We’re exposed to the past as history and literature– we can read Jane Austen or Jonathan Swift or Molière far easier than they’d be able to understand us.

Imagine Jules Verne, for instance, trying to make sense of a Laundry novel.  The prose itself might not be too difficult.  The idea of monsters and government bureaucracies would be understood.  But he’d miss the allusions to Lovecraft and spy novels, and references to the Cold War and computers would require a whole education to follow.  Something like an episode of The Simpsons would probably produce complete befuddlement.

I’m not saying it couldn’t be done, just that it’d require quite a bit more work than it sounds like.  And just visiting the future in one-year reading binges, you’d never really fit into the culture– you’d be an increasingly alienated dinosaur.

In the Incatena, I posit that the problem is solved by people loosening up their brains once a century or two.  Basically, you lose a bunch of memories, fade out some of the more habitual neural pathways, recover some of the intellectual flexibility (and ignorance) of adolescence.  Maybe change your body type and/or sex while you’re at it.  You want to be you just enough to feel continuity, but not enough to become a curmudgeon.  (And becoming an AI, though it’s an option, is viewed as a form of death.)

Evolution, we could say, has found a simpler solution yet: reproduction.  You get new people with the genetic heritage of the species, but neotenous and adaptable to the current environment.

So, one of the conlangs I worked on this year was Sehimu Thinara, the magical language for the card game Serpent’s Tongue.  The game is now shipping, so go buy a couple dozen.


The game’s head sorcerer, Christopher Gabrielson, approached me with kind of an emergency request– they had some people working on it but there was a disconnect, and they needed something fast.  So I reworked the vocabulary they already had and worked out the grammar.  Christopher and Jeremy Scherer did a lot of the initial work and carried on my stuff.

The game attempts something I wouldn’t have thought possible: it makes people speak in a conlang!  Sehimu Thinara (ST) is the secret language of the universe, you see; spells are orders spoken in the language.  I’m told that players take to the idea pretty well.  The game itself only makes you say words that are on the cards, but they wanted a whole language to generate them reasonably, and for later use.

They had developed an alphabet and phonology, so I worked with that.  Anyway, since gamers will be expected to say these words, it wasn’t a good idea to make them learn unusual sounds.  (As for the alphabet, the Serpent’s Tongue folks have access to far better artists than me!)

They had also worked out a vocabulary which divided the letters of the alphabet into six spheres (zokrul): quantum, soul, mind, biology, force, matter.  Now, this is the sort of non-naturalistic feature probably only a non-linguist would create, but I went with it, because a magical language should have some strange but satisfying features.  I think it’d be really disappointing if the secret language of mages built into the structure of the universe turned out to be just like Dutch or Jaqaru or Luo.

I added another such feature: reversing the phonemes in a word reverses the meaning.  E.g.:

  • ketig fire / gitek ice
  • devop acid / poved base
  • fekhar woman / rakhef man
  • sauhu war / uhuas peace
  • zhowa circle /  awozh point
  • pivda easy / avdip difficult

(The word construction method uses a lot of the possible phonological space, and generates words that sound very non-Latinate, like avdip above.  It’s interesting that simply using more voiced stops makes for words that seem very odd to an English speaker.)

The language is optimized for casting spells, which are in effect imperatives addressed to the laws of magic.  So ketig as an utterance is actually a command for something to be on fire.  An object can be specified, of course: rakhef ketig, set the man on fire.

As should surprise no one who knows my languages, there’s quite a bit of derivational morphology.  You can make a root into a noun with –a, or after a vowel –ra; thus thina ‘know’ > thinara ‘knowledge’. The general adjectivizer is –i, or after a vowel –li, thus ketigi ‘fiery’ or ‘flaming’, zhowali ‘circular’.  With verbs –u has a passive meaning: ketigu ‘flamed’ or ‘set on fire’; sehim ‘hide’ > sehimu ‘hidden’.

A cute touch, I think: syllables belonging to each of the six spheres serve as derivational infixes.  E.g. –da– belongs to the Matter sphere, and names substances or objects: gayit ‘move’ > gadayit ‘vehicle’.  Or –na– belongs to Mind and names persons, so bo-w ‘cast a spell’ > bonaw ‘mage’.  There is no 1st person pronoun, but bonaw generally serves in its place, along with ezhow ‘self’.

There is a 3rd person pronoun for each sphere, to be used for referents in that sphere, which is effectively a gender system.  Not something I’d normally impose on beginners, but as the spheres are basic to the game and to the vocabulary, it seems fair.

Ordinary sentences can be distinguished from spells by the use of a tense/aspect/mode prefix, such as u– present, is– past imperfect, me– past perfect, yau– irrealis.  Thus Rakhef u-ketig ‘the man is on fire’; Rakhef yau-ketig ‘the man may be on fire’.

There’s also a pure aspect particle bab which can be modified iconically in various ways to express the precise nature of the action: e.g. ba expresses that the action started but didn’t stop; ab that it stopped; baba that it was repeated; baab that it was prolonged.

The syntax is SOV; subjects and objects are separated by the clitic an-. Thus Bonaw an-rakhef baba me-ketig ‘the mage kept setting the man on fire’.

Here’s one more glimpse, a more complicated sample sentence:

Suya saukh-da imi-pabodez me-dimsu imi-obawta, ezhow an-ulani-ra lo depav-a u-abu.

SUB every-object in-world PERF-lose IN-day / self SEP-hope-NOMN and strong-NOMN PRES-be

When all is lost in the world, I am hope and I am strength.

Edit: The whole grammatical sketch is here.

Next Page »