< Situation Normal Author Commentary #2: Worldbuilding
Situation Normal Author Commentary #4: The Fictional Religions >

[Comments] (1) Situation Normal Author Commentary #3: Space Aliens: My favorite part of writing science fiction! If you've read Constellation Games, you already know that I love designing alien biologies and cultures. In Constellation Games, each alien species had its own histories of war and privation, which they'd transcended to become part of a classic SF multi-species alliance. In Situation Normal, I came up with two different takes on the "multi-species alliance" trope and had them fight.

Not for the first or last time, the setup in Situation Normal comes out of a throwaway line in "Four Kinds of Cargo". Specifically, when Kol goes out onto the Outreach space station he mentions "humans and their Outreach lackeys." This implies a) the Fist sees itself as an alliance of equals, with the Outreach dominated by humans, and b) there are at least two "lackey" species. Basically, the Fist of Joy is how Star Trek's Federation sees itself, and the Outreach is the Federation we actually see on screen most of the time.

Some of the Fist species have some flavor (e.g. the rest of the Fist are squeezing the jetk into a gender binary where they don't really fit), but overall they're designed to feel like a disorganized mob where no one is in charge and you can't even keep track of everyone. The key line here is:

Myrus wondered if a species could quietly join the Fist of Joy without anyone noticing. With everyone thinking someone else had invited these weird-looking people.

Whereas the Terran Outreach is an empire consisting of three species with well-defined cultures (plus brands). As Arun sarcastically puts it: "the nasty humans and their uhalti pets and their rre attack dogs."

Uhaltihaxl

The fundamental alien concept for the uhaltihaxl is pain debt, which makes them capable of feats of physical badassery despite a reputation as fluffy sheep people.

The book starts hitting "fluffy sheep people" early. The first thing we hear about uhaltiaxhl is the mayor of Jaketown saying they "aren't warriors by nature." The "hoof" in Churryhoof's name is designed to subliminally lock in "ruminant". And Myrus is a fluffy sheep person. He gets a moment of pain-debt-fueled badassery near the end, but all he wants is to read fantasy novels and make furniture. Churryhoof and Den are the ones who do bad stuff, and the surprise (I hope) is that they don't need pain debt to do the really bad stuff—I'm thinking of Churryhoof's decision to draft the council kids and Den's cold-blooded manipulation of Gearu.

The "six percent" conversation in Chapter 24 is important here: Churryhoof drafted the wrong kid. Myrus is in the six percent of uhalti who would never hurt anyone, and Den is at the other end of the bell curve, able to kill without remorse.

The other alien feature of the uhalti is that their extreme gender segregation means no incest taboo. You're not even supposed to know who your relatives are, so it can't matter, right? In various drafts I went back and forth on whether Den and Myrus were actually related and/or romantically interested in each other, leading to a kind of wishy-washy Arrested Development level of humor.

In the end my editor wanted me to make the uhalti as weird as possible, so I went all the way in the final draft, adding the tradition of concentration of genes, and Maskitenny's and Kemrush's attempt to put it into practice with Den and Myrus. And, of course, the nearly-successful human attempt to wipe out that tradition, such that Churryhoof (who's very conservative), is happy to see it being kept alive.

One minor feature of the uhaltihaxl that I think should be present in the next release of humanity: in chapter 16, Myrus is able to "close his ears" by an act of will and not hear something annoying.

Rre

The rre are a body-snatching species who are also a colony-intelligence species. It's a similar trick to Her from Constellation Games—a collective intelligence whose components are individually intelligent—but much more fine-grained.

The rre are the opposite of the uhaltihaxl: they repulse humanoids and have a horrifying biology but are generally nice people. They were built out of a few features of Yip-Goru as described in "Four Kinds of Cargo": 1) ungendered pronoun, 2) hyphenated name, 3) lives in a metamaterial suit.

Having set that up, Yip-Goru turns out to be an unusual rre. Most of the rre we see are squares, hyper-loyal to "the rules" (Dwap-Jac-Dac, Tip-Iye-Nett-Zig) or some higher sense of morality (Tia, Ethiret-Jac). Yip-Goru is bitter, cranky, and only out for thonself.

Yip-Goru's late predecessor, Yip-Goru-Toco, is mentioned a couple times in Situation Normal. My sketch is that Yip-Goru's unusual attitude stems from trauma from being trapped in a suit and attached to Toco's dead body for a long time. But this didn't come up and was too gross to put in the story for no reason.

The metamaterial suit was mainly used a way to introduce the sanitized, human-friendly version of the rre to the reader. It's abandoned pretty quickly, as Dwap-Jac-Dac takes things in a... different direction.

The Fist of Joy

The many species of the Fist of Joy are designed as Star Trek-style forehead aliens—humanoid, but superficially different from humans and from each other. "From each other" is the most important piece because the contrast I'm setting up is actually between the Outreach and the Fist.

Since there are three major characters—Kol, the Chief, and Qued Ethiret— from these forehead-alien species, I needed to demonstrate that there's diversity within each species, and it's not a Planet of Hats thing where all the egenu are walking down the street like this.

I did this by creating minor villains whose personalities are maximally different from our heroes. The self-made Chief is mirrored by the credentialed Dr. Cwess, and sensitive Kol by the sadistic Vec. Bolupeth Vo, who draws a sharp distinction between "real life and something you'd see in the damn 3-tank", is mirrored by Qued Ethiret, who makes no such distinction.

The Errand Boy is the only major jetk character, and he's a big villain, so I ran the process in reverse, giving a number of "regular folks" bit parts to jetk: the receptionist at the Long Term Memory House, the Mormon missionaries, one of the kids in the model ICSA, and Tvez the pilot.

Brands

In Connie Willis's novel Bellwether you get phrases like "word came down from Management", and only late in the book do you discover that there's a character named Management who said that stuff. The core idea behind the brands came from a similar joke. Our experience with real-world brands (e.g. on Twitter) makes it easy to read "Strigl Modern Design did X" in the passive voice, and you don't learn until pretty late in Situation Normal that "Strigl Modern Design" is a specific person.

A couple things happened to this idea en route to the final draft. Basically, keeping you in the dark that long would not have been funny, because unlike with "Management" the fact that brands are AIs is important to the story. The most important change here is in Chapter 4, where Hiroko uses the three-ring binder to enact Trellis On-Site Security, and Jaketown on the other end finds someone to enact Strigl Modern Design at her. There's a conversation between two brands, with both sides of the conversation are mediated through humanoids.

This introduces "brands" as a satirical take on the real-world phenomenon of people switching in and out of a corporate voice. When the literal brand-as-character AIs are introduced, it's hopefully less of a shock because you see who was making the humanoids do that. After that reveal, I expanded the scenes between Den and Gearu to establish the fucked-up relationship between brands and the rest of the Outreach—something that in previous drafts was primarily Crinoline White's job.

There was some lighthearted editorial debate about how to format brand speech. Up to the final draft, brand speech was written as narration, to throw off the reader and convey the "gets in your head" feeling of a brand connecting directly to your capital terminal:

"This gentlebeing wants me to talk to you about a factory."

The hless factory.

"Presumably some kind of munitions factory," said Tellpesh-Tia.

My fallback idea was to set off brand speech with dashes—what I always think of as "James Joyce quotes"—but we settled on French-style guillemets. Italics and underlines were out because they were being used for mental asides and rre native-speech.

One of my big missed opportunities in this book is that because of the scenes I happened to cut, we almost never see brands taking action on their own. Almost always they are doing what someone else told them to do. This makes it difficult to see them as moral actors until the very end, but I assure you, they are moral actors.

Humans

And finally we have the humans: Becky, Arun, Mrs. Chen, and Professor Starbottle. I gave them the same treatment I gave the Fist of Joy aliens. There are huge differences of attitude between Becky (born and raised in the Outreach), Starbottle (born and raised in the Fist), and Arun (born in the Outreach and had to flee).

Because there's no need to convince human readers that humans aren't all morally the same, I was more free about casting humans as pure villains. In "Four Kinds of Cargo" Mrs. Chen was depicted as a little sleazy, but she's despicable in Situation Normal; and if you're a consequentialist, Starbottle is the worst person in the whole story.

This only shows up in the background, especially after I converted from Commonwealth to American spellings (we'll talk about that later), but Earth culture of this time period is dominated by India. Everyone in the Fist of Joy has a very superficial understanding of American culture, but Kol makes a pretty obscure joke about the Mahabharata (about the "Tata Yudhisthira" hovercar which abruptly loses altitude) and assumes the Chief will get it. The Errand Boy misreads a fact about Hindus as a fact about humans in general. The government of the Outreach is a parliamentary democracy with a civil service; not, for example, a Galactic Senate. Just a counterweight to how US-centric these space opera settings often are.

Languages

Surprisingly, this novel's language design also comes from a decision made in "Four Kinds of Cargo". The language used in that story is Trade Standard D, which implies that language barriers in this universe are handled with trade languages rather than automatic translation, and there are at least three more of these things.

In Situation Normal, languages are almost always rendered as English (so you can read them), but this rendering is done in different styles depending on which other languages the speaker knows (a fun trick I learned from Keith Laumer's Retief stories, also used in Constellation Games) and the fluency of the POV character.

The clearest example is Trade Standard A, the Fist's military language. When Kol hears people speaking A over the radio, it's rendered as idiomatic English, because Kol himself is fluent in A. When Churryhoof (who learned A in the Academy a long time ago) overhears Styrqot and Vec speaking A, it's rendered in a way that makes visible the underlying structure of the grammar. Through Churryhoof, we see that Trade Standard A sentences are stacks, with nouns pushed onto the stack and verbs popping from the top.

Styrqot's line as heard by Churryhoof: "To the military, the research project, the brand operates, the benefit accrues." is literally: "The benefit of the research project operated by the brand accrues to the military." and idiomatically: "The brand is just running the research project for the military."

Trade Standard B and D are two languages that work together. D is designed to be really easy to learn (Becky needs to learn it quickly for plot reasons) because it just doesn't have most of the stuff you'd want in a language designed for literature or flirting. That fancy stuff is isolated in Trade Standard B, which acts as a mixin language that you can drop in and out of while speaking D.

This shows up so subtly that I could have ditched it, but I think it's a cool idea. Merikp Hute Roques refers to "boring old Trade Standard D" because for the sake of her Outreach guests she's not including much B in her patter. The comedian in the casino is working almost entirely in B, which Den understands, as befits her would-be future in marketing. Jac is fluent in A and D, but to be effective as a con artist in the Fist thon needs Ethiret's fluency in B.

For characters who learned English through Trade Standard D, their English speech is mainly rendered as a sequence of noun phrases. This is most obvious with the Chief ("Kol, the dramatic reveal!"), but we also see it in the video ad for the Youth Festival ("Our decision to send you there!"). You see how this works in detail at the Youth Festival itself, where Myrus watches a sentence get translated from English to D, and the response get translated in the opposite direction.

I had to add some clarifying bits to make it clear that the Chief doesn't talk like this all the time! She's a native speaker of Trade Standard D, so when she talks with Kol, she sounds like she does in "Four Kinds of Cargo". Only her English (in scenes where Becky is the POV character) is noun phrases.

The flip side of all this is the way Becky, a native English speaker, encounters Trade Standard D. To start with she has no sense of the language's words or syntax—it's a wash of anxiety-inducing "harna harna" sounds. After watching the Down Under Crew dub with the Chief, she can pick up individual words if they're spaceship-related. By the time she goes off on her own, she has a clumsy grasp of D, which is rendered as all of her verbs coming out as gerunds. ("Thinking I Yip-Goru anticipating a war happening.") At the very end of the book, Becky becomes aware of the linguistic underpinnings of her reality, which I dramatized by using punctuation characters to mark up different parts of speech in the text of the book.

Crazy Rooroo does business mostly in his native language, switching to D only when talking numbers. Since he learned English through his native language, his English is rendered differently than the Chief's; he tends to use weird prepositions, a bit like Tetsuo from Constellation Games.

The Cametrean abbot's vocabulary includes a lot of portmanteau words designed to sound like neologisms from bad 1970s sci-fi: "genemod", "newsfax", "farcall", "litstash", "tintshots", etc.

Kol has native fluency in all relevant languages, a purely practical decision I made because otherwise the book would be impossible to read.

No information is available about Trade Standard C.

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Comments:

Posted by Brandon at Tue Jan 12 2021 22:09

The thought and work you put into the linguistics is amazing. Reading it felt like... color TV. I was scanning for frequency and amplitude, then realized you were broadcasting a whole other channel of information in the phase.


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