The Enchantment

The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the “disenchantment of the world”.

I’m on a bit of a Max Weber kick. I intended to write about the monopoly of force on Andala, and when you use the man’s own phrase, he isn’t far. Turns out he’s the great thinker behind many a thread I’ve been pawing. The mind behind a great deal of how we came to comprehend the last century, in fact. A philosopher I can understand at last!

I’ve only studied Weber’s work for a few days, so be wary. But, from what I can figure, the common thread is one of uncovering the disparate roots of progress. Like Jared Diamond a century later, Weber tracked social evolution. To understand the present, he took to the past. In particular: its motives.

Every man has his reasons. I’ve always taken this to be sage warning about jumping to conclusions on who is right and wrong in the heat of confrontation. What army ever fought as the bad guys? This principle is the credo of good villains everywhere! But it works on history, too. Its pioneers the Sumerians and their urban ancestors had no way to tell where the city would take them, just as we don’t know the ultimate consequences of our inventions and decisions. Instead, we dream in science fiction, while Sumer dreamed with the gods.

Weber was intrigued by the long term influence of religion. Religions have been crucial in forming our reasons all along. I say several because the faiths of the world have differed greatly in place and time. A mistake made by modern day critics of belief goes back to their founding father, Weber’s German contemporary Karl Marx. Religion, it is said, is one and the same thing for all time: the opiate of the masses, an instrument of oppression, and ultimately just a fraud. Marx based his theories on the cool, objective economy. Religion was society’s product. Weber, just as nonreligious himself, suggested the truth may be the other way round.

Sometime I must really write about Göbekli Tepe. An ancient site in Turkey that truly alters our story of the origin of man. We long supposed that town came first, and then religion. Like Marx, we saw the instrument from the hand of its leaders: a technique to bind a population of strangers together, to form a tribe, a city and nation. It only makes sense! Yet at Göbekli, in the heart of the ancient Near Eastern world which would be the very cradle of civilisation, we found the opposite. Hunters, tribesfolk, before the Neolithic Revolution that would create us all; they were the ones who gathered to make a ritual complex! Gods and myth brought the harmless people together before they learned a whole new way to live. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if the archaeology weren’t as adamant.

Religion came first. Then farming and the city. What a world!

To his credit, Weber saw it coming. By spotting later trends he anticipated something so fundamental to our history as to lie right at its start. Gods made man after all. Albeit in our mind.

And yet that very creation, civilisation itself, would ultimately discard gods and spirits and every kind of inexplicable magic. We lost our enchantment. We made ourselves the objective instead, and set down no small part of our humanity along the way. This was the story of our double edged Enlightenment. Individual faith and philosophy is irrelevant in the world’s material evolution into disenchantment.

In social science, disenchantment (German: Entzauberung) is the cultural rationalization and devaluation of mysticism apparent in modern society. The concept was borrowed from Friedrich Schiller by Max Weber to describe the character of modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society, where scientific understanding is more highly valued than belief, and where processes are oriented toward rational goals, as opposed to traditional society where for Weber “the world remains a great enchanted garden”.

And so we seek our symbols elsewhere: in our stories, in our legends, in our dreams about the stars. Just like Sumer and its goddesses and gods, just like our prehistoric peers, just like every human being who has ever lived or will: we have to find a meaning beyond ourselves. We have to share a story. Only, while they shared in potent ritual passions, we pretend to pretend, for modern life is more sensible than all of that. Surely!

This has a world of impact for my world. Andala is a story, made on purpose, rich with symbols. And Andala has a story, made on purpose, rich with symbols of its own. I happen to have devised a tale within a tale, as is my habit! And the more I understand of our own legends, faiths and philosophies – the more I understand our reasons – the better chance I’ll have of cooking somehing good of my own. I think it’s more than worth it. I feel the peoples of Andala would be without a purpose and a soul, if I haven’t bothered to discover for myself what our old way was all about.

Every inveterate procrastnator has his reasons, too, you know.


Symbols and Sounds

Lessons in differential history continue as I make my way through Guns, Germs and Steel. I’m fresh out of the part on the invention of writing. Yes, this is crucial stuff for me.

So far, I’ve established that there is at least one kind of writing on Andala. Tani just so happens to be her village’s teacher. As Marie describes the experience of learning alongside Tani’s little sister:

Aia let me play with her writing squares, which I found more intricately detailed than I imagined.

"ra" she said as I picked one up, and "ni" as I pointed to another.
“Spell my name, Aia. Spell Marie.”
Little Aia grabbed two squares and righted them, then read them out to me. "Ai-a!" She said with pride.
“Oh, okay, well done.” In just that moment, she had taught me these weren’t letters but sounds. Each square was a syllable. Or at least what the Ana considered one to be. I figured she’d need another pair for me. “Now spell my name, Ma-Ree, Marie!”
She grabbed three more squares, and slid them around the first half of her name.
“No. That can’t be it.”
Aia grabbed my finger and brought it down the line she’d made. Reading aloud, "ta-kai-yeen".
“Ah, I should have guessed!”

That’s a syllabary. A writing system similar to an alphabet, but with more symbols as it chooses the next larger unit for its sounds. The Ana use the Azu script, developed by their neighbours for themselves. Anatara is a little awkward when put into written words, as it doesn’t work quite the same way as Azu; a clumsiness Marie hints at above. Nothing quite as bad, I imagine, as the English language’s maddening flights from all reason in the Roman writing you and I share here; but not quite as clean as the Azu’s own tongue for which it evolved.

Speaking of which, I’ve found myself questioning my assumptions given where I’ve just been. So writes Jared Diamond:

To us today, it is tempting to ask why societies with early writing systems accepted the ambiguities that restricted writing to a few functions and a few scribes. But even to pose that question is to illustrate the gap between ancient perspectives and our own expectations of mass literacy. The intended restricted uses of early writing provided a positive disincentive for devising less ambiguous writing systems. The kings and priests of ancient Sumer wanted writing to be used by professional scribes to record numbers of sheep owed in taxes, not by the masses to write poetry and hatch plots. As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss put it, ancient writing’s main function was “to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.” Personal uses of writing by nonprofessionals came only much later, as writing systems grew simpler and more expressive.

Guns, Germs and Steel, p.235

Sumerian cuneiform was indeed born a dirty mess. Writing, the handful of times we invented it from scratch here on Earth, was not a thunderbolt of inspiration, fully formed in one shot. It evolved. I knew this, but I overlooked it in the interest of clean and shiny simplicity and design. That’s what happens when you read more about Sumerian than you read the stuff for yourself, with the old master as a guide.

You can either invent writing the long and messy way, for yourself, or you can steal it. Actually, it’s not always just that. Sometimes, if you hear someone else has a way to scribble down their language, you rush to its conclusion and invent your own way. Diamond describes this as carbon copying versus diffusion. A good example of the latter is Cherokee. Its inventor, an ingenious fellow by the name of Sequoyah, borrowed some printed English that he couldn’t read, and devised his own syllabary around symbols from our alphabet. He didn’t invent writing, but he didn’t just copy the Romans as we did, either. He didn’t know that the characters he saw worked the way they did as he invented his alternate system, closer to the what the Minoans used than us. Funny what’s possible, when you know it can be done.

Perhaps Andala’s true first writing is dead and buried come Marie’s day. And so the Azu script is a descendant, more like Sequoyah’s, created anew without the telltale cruft?

The Andala that I’m writing, come the time of our discovery, is one in transition from illiteracy into its modern age. We weren’t a necessary trigger, but happened to arrive coincidentally to see it. Or the way it could have been.

I’m not about to kluge up the pretty little writing system I’ve long had squiggling through my mind in the interest of looking the original. Not yet. But this research is leading me to consider the whole geography and history of Andala in new light. The Azu are my world’s oldest people, its first empire and the most populous. Azuya, their continent along with the Ana, is clearly my Old World. What went on there, long before Proteus showed up? And what have I already created, in my unwitting assumptions, that could well be for the better in any case? This is what I’m working on. While I can.


Clandom

Speaking of clan based societies: Andala has one too. None other than the Ana; my story’s focus.

Whatever is the attraction?

I suppose no small part of it is the escape from our own way. Our Society of Strangers. There’s a certain draw to the tribal world before our time, the way we used to be. When you could talk back to the faces in your everyday experience, because you knew every one of them and they all knew you, too. It’s the life for which we evolved. It is the way we have been for the lion’s share of our existence. Our natural environment is inside the tribe.

But there are costs. Of course.

Working with and for strangers is unthinkable in a world of tight knit clans. Perhaps. At least, it goes on at a slower rate than in urban societies like ours. There’s something about the ritualised chaos in our city lives which breeds invention, competition, and revolution. Those things all existed before the city rose in the Middle East a fair while before Sumer, but history has been written by the urbanised ever since. By the victor, as always.

Yet, I can do things my way.

Andala is distinct. Its ruling power is not its most industrious, but simply the most martially gifted. Government is, you could say, “by the tribes, for the tribes.” It’s surely no democracy. Really, it’s no state at all, but a fait accompli. A complex situation for us to misunderstand once again.

The old way is still there, among the Ana, not least in Tani’s own rural home. Yet it is fading into the past in Ayanakert and quite unknown in Zuba. Where there’s change, there’s struggle. Those who urge it onward, and those who’d snuff it out as the peril of their lives. I know these forces exist in Andala, and have some ideas where and when and who they may be. But it’s all still cooking; as I concentrate on its vanguard in woman’s form: a certain magus called Maigan. I’ll know it when I see it. And, so far, I’ve seen her.

My honest fondness for the harmless people is alive and well. As is my instinct for tension. The tribe is a way of mind as much as it is a life. And you can take a man from his people, but you cannot take away his clan.


A Little Thing Called Infinity

It’s that time of year again. I often wonder how it is that the United States, of all nations, is at once as powerful, innovative, and fractious as it is. The Internet as we know it could not have been born anywhere else. Let alone thrived. Indeed, there’s a host of countries who want to seize it for themselves. For all of America’s supposed decline, it is still the common thread behind most all of the world’s most significant companies. Good luck trying to avoid Apple, Google, Intel, Oracle, IBM, Amazon and the like. Nothing lasts forever, as a decade ago another company would have led that list. But here we are, without the end in sight.

Yet the ritual chaos acted out in Washington so often comes to this.

One way of looking at history is to lay out the narratives of rise and fall straight on the land. The Second World War was, for the most part, yet another Old World affair. The United States got involved all right, but not bombed or obliterated, like every other power. By the inferno’s end, America stood supreme, a true superpower in a devastated world. Much to Washington’s credit, this opportunity was not wasted. America helped the rest of us out in our hour of need. Another of those fine investments, like the Louisiana Purchase and Alaska, which more than paid off in the end. Forward thinking on as grand a scale as history herself provides.

But I do wonder. As inevitability is a lame excuse in the long run, poorly fitted to the true chaos of the world. The chaos which America has thriving inside. Perhaps it is that clash of world views which keeps the fire of disruption and invention burning? As one thing’s for sure: post-war, post-communism, post-empire Europe is no match. Over here, we’re more peaceful than we’ve ever been, and in the long run richer too. Yet we languish, as the world moves on.

The United States is alive and well in my book. If just as fractious. I won’t put politics like this in the forefront, but I do like to watch my threads as they weave out the back. Could always be a useful foreshadow in the making, for all I know. I haven’t planned that, but then I seldom ever do.

But what of the coin?

There was a plan to mint an almighty treasure. A trillion-dollar platinum coin. I didn’t make this up. That’s the beauty of currency: an arbitrary thing, mere convention really, which has the innate scope for creative solutions of this magnitude. It was of course a terrible idea, and wisely refused. But I did wind up cooking my own idea from it.

How about a barely mentioned backstory that the Washington of the future has minted not just one but a whole incremental series of these things? Inflation alone suggests a bit of an arms race over the coming centuries. One spiralling ever higher until, what? Well, here’s a thought: one coin to rule them all. The one they call infinity.

Just the nonsensical delight of such a thing has me thinking of the Sumerian Tablets of Destiny, which confer the bearer limitless and just as perfectly arbitrary power over all creation. The cosmos in microcosm. The ultimate voodoo doll. An idea made for comics, so says Ihnatko who recalls a memorable instance when a fellow named the Joker held it, and therefore everything, in his hands. Archetypes!

Best of all, I can really have my cake and eat it when some enterprising schemer then decides to “redefine infinity”. Why but not a single, admittedly large, yet finite number? They’ve some good ones by then.


Where the River Sleeps

What kind of a world am I writing? As is so often the case, it’s music that makes me stop to think. A wistful little landscape by the name of Where the River Sleeps in this case, brought to my ears by the ever helpful Urban Modernists. I’ll put it in the soundtrack stack. For writing by, at any rate.

There’s always the temptation to dream of the rural idyll. Call it Neverland, Narnia, or Middle Earth. I found myself realising the similarity when said song came on, as, by chance, I was reading up about the romantic upper corner of Vermont. Suddenly, words and music were in tune. Coming from Scotland, I knew well what I was seeing. This is yet another place which defines itself in mountains and wide open nature, with only the lightest smattering of rickety human influence here and there. (Every last stone-built one of them with a history several centuries deep, even so.) We did not invent this. Neither did the Northeast Kingdom counties in leafiest New England. Nor did anyone, ultimately, I think.

What is this recurring, common thread? And why are we forever fantasising about the same old thing?

Let me get up on my high horse about archetypes once again. I’m sure I’ve heard this one further afield than fiction. Namely an ancient idyll by the name of paradise. Quick: to Sumer!

Dilmun is a land that is “pure”, “clean” and “bright”—a “land of the living”, which knows neither sickness nor death. What is lacking, however, is the fresh water so essential to animal and plant life. The great Sumerian water-god Enki therefore orders Utu, the sun-god, to fill it with fresh water brought up from the earth. Dilmun is thus turned into a divine garden, green with fruit-laden fields and meadows.

—Samuel Noah Kramer in History Begins at Sumer. Chapter 19: “Paradise”.

We, humans everywhere, have always dreamed of green and pleasant lands. The historic record doesn’t get any older than Sumer, and there it is already. A full-sprung trope, tied up in the gods. In fact, speaking of those, as Kramer ends the chapter:

Paradise, according to the Sumerian theologians, was for the immortal gods, and for them alone, not for mortal man. One mortal, however, and only one, according to the Sumerian myth-makers, did succeed in gaining admittance to this divine paradise. This brings us to the Sumerian “Noah” and the deluge myth, the closest and most striking Biblical parallel as yet uncovered in cuneiform literature.

Some stories come down through one culture after another. But it is their origins I find the most intriguing. Not least as paradise appears to be truly archetypal, cropping up when and wherever there is man to imagine them, no matter Sumer and Babylon. This is just the kind of comparative mythology I most evidently like:

Paradisaical notions are cross-cultural, often laden with pastoral imagery, and may be cosmogonical or eschatological or both. In eschatological contexts, paradise is imagined as an abode of the virtuous dead.

So says the Wikipedia, fount of all truth! Well, I buy it in this case. And what a word: “paradisaical!” Yoink.

Paradise is “baked into us”, I reckon, in its simplest form of a promised, perfect, land. Like the other archetypes which form the deepest bedrock of our minds, it’s been there as long as we have been. A beacon like that could well have been an advantage, if you like your philosophical speculations framed in Darwin’s terms. All I can really say is that it feels a good, sound guess. Hard wired dreams are just as human as the shape of our hard wired hands. No surprise then that we so often find them, there in front of us.

I’ve addressed paradise unwittingly already, when Proteus discovered Andala. A lush, rich, Earthlike world so utterly unlike every other alien planet and moon they had reached so far. Surely every place capable of supporting human life is a paradise, nay, paradisaical, compared to the barren wastes elsewhere in space? It’s hardly even a question.

But what world is the same thing from pole to pole? Not ours, that’s what. A common shortcut I’ve seen and bemoaned in many a space story is the single climate world. (I am not even remotely the first.) And so I’m keen to do my worlds justice with diversity. The first one Marie covers is also the smallest of them all: Gaia. The terraformed moon.

“This whole place doesn’t really want to stick together. The gravity is fake. The atmosphere is fake. The tides, the wind, the sea. Might all look nice and natural on the surface, but it’s not. And the way it works is in sections.”

I wonder where I got that idea? Well, not in space, but sure enough in spirit.

Gaia, the irony in its name well intended, is alone in its artifice. Aria may be just as terraformed, but being a full blown planet with comparable mass to Earth does wonders. In my system, at any rate. Self consistency is the one true rule.

Andala is a natural world like ours, able to sustain its environment without the need for technology. But quite how it arose in the first place, with people the very image of ourselves, is the underlying mystery in Proteus and beyond.

Going full circle then, I ought to remember not to paint Kentaken in too pure, pastoral hues or to mistake an archetype for my own. The key is in intent. Know what you are doing. Use the tools of our inbuilt wherewithal. But be creative when you do. I will know to try.