The Medieval Engineers of Islam

Many of my historical projects have delved into the technology of the Middle Ages, and it’s a topic I enjoy researching. I am always discovering cool things–sometimes things I’m not, alas, in a position to use.  One fantastic example is the work of Ismail al-Jazari, who, in 1206 produced the absolutely stunning Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.

A folio from the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.

A folio from the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.

This work details, in words and images, a hundred designs for inventions, many of them beautifully frivolous automata, like a water-propelled boat that sails across a decorative pool while the musicians on board perform on their musical instruments.  A series of tubes and shafts allow water and air pressure to alter, forcing the air out of the tiny flutes to make them whistle.

A boatload of mechanical musicians.

A boatload of mechanical musicians.

Others were more serious.  Religious observance has long been a driving factor in the invention and improvement of time-keeping devices (which I should use as a blog topic all by itself–idea noted), and Islam has been no exception.  One of the more elaborate constructions in the book is for a huge astronomical clock featuring more musicians (including drummers) who played the hours, in part so the faithful would know when to pray.  It tracked the moon and sun, and was able to compensate for the change in the length of day and night over the course of the year.

"Castle Clock" astronomical clock.

“Castle Clock” astronomical clock.

The book is beautiful and filled with mechanical wonders.  The link above to the wikipedia entry is worth following–it describes the different mechanisms employed in al-Jazari’s work, all the cams and pumps that make these devices go.

It may be easy to think of al-Jazari as an isolated genius, a quirk of a culture we now too often reduce to political terms, but he wasn’t the first Islamic engineer of such magnitude, and he wasn’t alone.  Check out the earlier creations of the Banu Musa brothers, who developed their own time-pieces in the ninth century and also wrote a treatise on geometry.

And a quick perusal of the wiki page for inventions in Islam brought up this quotation:  “Syrian Al-Hassan er-Rammah’s manuscript “The Book of Fighting on Horseback and With War Engines”(1280) includes the first known design for a rocket driven torpedo.”  Which even I didn’t know about.  As is often the case with historical research, the more I look, the more I learn.  Here’s an overview on the topic of science and technology in Medieval Islam by the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford.

In fact, the early Middle Ages are often considered a golden age of technology in Islam.  What happened?  War.  The crusades of Christendom, and the advances of the Mongols assailed the empire on multiple fronts and forced an interest in other pursuits.  Religious intolerance and violence on all sides broke centuries of learning and culture.  Did that time set up the on-going prejudice and mistrust that flavors current relations between the western world and the Islamic one?

My father is himself an engineer.  At a gathering of fellow engineers from all over the world, he reflected, along with a small group of new acquaintances, that one key way for the West to confront and defeat terrorists would be to target the people who create devices like IED’s, car or vest bombs, and other small-scale weapons.  They realized they were speaking of engineers targeting other engineers. . . a sobering thought on an occasion marked by international cooperation and good-will.

I don’t have a conclusion for this one, except to wonder what might be achieved for the world if we were able to create a new golden age when human ingenuity might once more be employed for delight and awe.

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Finding a new Vernacular: the Language(s) of Fantasy

I have spoken to a fair number of people who say they don’t read fantasy because of all the funny names–including agents and editors who are thrown off by too many made-up words.  This is one reason I recommend authors pare down on the invented words, especially in blurbs, pitches and queries, where they really aren’t helping you out.    But today, I’d like to think about a different question of language in fantasy–the words of the story itself.

At a workshop at Readercon, the brilliant and amazing Mary Robinette Kowal remarked that what we think of as “transparent prose style” is, in fact, just white middle-American public school English.  It is not magic. It is not a given of the rules of grammar or even of good writing that this “transparent style” exists (if it does).  The remark opened my eyes in a couple of ways and made me wonder if transparent style is even a worthy goal to pursue, or if, perhaps, I just need to revise how I think about it.

Cover image for One Night in Sixes, by Ariane Tex Thompson

Cover image for One Night in Sixes, by Ariane Tex Thompson


cover image for The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

I tend to prefer writing that is relatively unadorned.  I think the goal of transparency in prose is for your words to readily dissolve into images and adventures in the mind of the reader.  The prose should be transparent in the manner of a window that allows the reader to look through into the world of the characters you are creating.  The words should not call too much attention to themselves, or it’s like distorting that glass or perhaps framing it with something distracting.  Muddy style, with excess phrases, convoluted sentences and hard-to-follow metaphors can so obscure the writing that it ceases to be worth the reader’s effort to view the story beyond.  But I am thinking now that, once the prose rises above that level of distraction and confusion, perhaps a different ideal for prose is in order.

Good writing should be able to illuminate the mind and heart of the author.  In my own work, and more generally in the genre of fantasy, most fiction is told through a third-person, close point of view narration, as if a camera rested on the shoulder, or just inside the head of a specific character for the duration of a scene.  (For those of you non-writers, this contrasts with either first-person narration using the “I” or head-hopping, where the narration skips around through a variety of perspectives within a scene.)

But the narration, to be true to the nature of the character, should be tinted by that character’s understanding of the world, their own attitudes, fears and worries, and their experience or expectations of the scene itself.  The glass should be colored by the words the author chooses and by the details being portrayed to lend weight to the perspective of the individual character.  This is often done in very subtle ways, such that the reader isn’t really aware of the narrative bias–allowing them to be more carefully manipulated by a skillful author, absorbing the perspective as if by osmosis.  Sometimes, it is done much more obviously–as in an op-ed piece in the newspaper where the writer strongly states how they feel about something, and the reader who agrees might find little to object to, while the reader who disagrees would point out every bit of prejudicial language.

The idea of transparent style being born of public school and wide-spread publishing practice suggests that there are many voices being left out or ignored because they adhere to a different standard for language usage.  These other vernaculars–languages commonly spoken–are starting to emerge in fantasy, with some striking results.  Sometimes, it takes a little while before the distinctive voice in a work can begin to dissolve into the window through which the story is viewed.  But I increasingly believe that adopting a prose style that more clearly colors the text can result in a deeper relationship to the story world and its characters.

If you are wondering how this, shall we call it, translucency of language operates in a fantasy context, allow me to recommend a couple of books.  For a step into the Western side of the vernacular, check out Ariane “Tex” Thompson’s One Night in Sixes and its sequel, Medicine for the Dead.  These beautiful and moving works settle the reader into the views of a variety of characters whose thoughts and language are clearly marked by their origins in a sidelong version of the American West.

And if you’re ready to step further outside, then check out Kai Ashante Wilson’s novella “A Sorceror of the Wildeeps.”  The story itself centers on a dangerous expedition across a jungle teeming with rumor and magic, and the language Wilson uses to tell it creates a surprising and dynamic relationship with the characters.  Fantasy fiction is meant to transport the reader, and this one uses some of the familiar tropes of fellowship and quest that hit the fantasy reader’s happy spot.  But it takes the idea of transport one step further, by transporting us into an alternative approach to the language of fantasy itself.  It’s a worthwhile journey, and one I’m glad I took.

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Fundamentals for Life

I was recently cleaning up my hard-drive and reorganizing a bunch of files, deleting old things and, not coincidentally, searching for some of my idea notes for a new project when I came across a file entitled simply “Fundamentals.”  I thought it might pertain to the drumming workshop I take (“Taiko Fundamentals”) but it turned out to be a list of reminders to myself.  And so, I share them with you, and hope, in doing so, that I won’t forget them again.

Since this is a quasi-inspirational post, it seems appropriate to pair it with an inspirational image:  I took this shot of Long's Peak from the Flattop Mountain trail.  Someday. . .

Since this is a quasi-inspirational post, it seems appropriate to pair it with an inspirational image: I took this shot of Long’s Peak from the Flattop Mountain trail. Someday. . .


Be present with family and friends.

I feel better when I write.

I feel better when I exercise.

I deserve to be healthy and fit.

Listen with both ears.

Drink a glass of water upon waking.

Posture matters.

If I feel tired, cranky or dispirited, I need to drink more.

Protein for breakfast.

Be thankful.

“You are never given a wish without also being given the means to make it come true.  you may have to work for it, however.” (Richard Bach, Illusions:  The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah)

Do the hard parts first.

Share joy.

Surrender to the legos.

I have worlds enough and time.

Be open.

Pursue adventure.

I am who I am because I dare.

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The Problem of Plagues. . .and other Medieval Usage Issues

I am working my way through my editor’s notes on Elisha Mancer, book four in The Dark Apostle series, and encountering the difficulty of words.  Words are, in a novel, the primary tool for delivering the story.  In a historical novel, they take on a special significance because selecting an appropriate word for the historical context can really make the sentence spark and the work feel right.  And selecting the wrong word will annoy readers in tune with the history.

Which brings me to the problem of plagues.  The Biblical plagues of Egypt, for instance.  In modern parlance, “plague” retains a similar sense:  a plague is, as the OED puts it, “an affliction, calamity, evil, scourge” (a plague of locusts, a plague of survey callers, etc.)  But many readers of medievally set historical fiction immediately leap to a single meaning of the word, which came into use around 1382 to refer to a pestilence affecting man and beast.  And “the plague” wasn’t conceived as a specific entity until the 1540’s.  But basically, I can’t use the word in its more general sense because of the era the books are set.  (for more about *that* plague, check out my previous entry on the Black Death versus Ebola)

But my difficulty with language then versus now doesn’t end with the plague.  There is also the problem of things being lost in translation.  Saints, that is.  While we now use the word “translate” to refer exclusively to taking words or ideas from one language into another (sometimes metaphorically), the origin of the term is actually the transfer of a religious figure from one location to another, as a bishop who moves to a different see, or, more frequently, a saint or saint’s remains taken to a different church.  It is this idea of holiness being moved or removed which brought the word to its present meaning, because the first work translated was the Bible itself.

Broadcast is another interesting example.  Nowadays, we are used to broadcast news, a television or radio phenomenon by which information is shared.  It’s actually a farming term, referring to the sowing of seeds by hand over a large area–the literal casting of the seed.  But most readers, finding the word in a medieval historical context would leap to entirely the wrong impression.  And so, rather than submit to a plague of criticism, I seek a good alternative.

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Elisha Rex by E. C. Ambrose @ecambrose | @kurtsprings1 #review #darkfantasy

Author: E. C. Ambrose Book: Elisha Rex (The Dark Apostle #3) Published: July 2015 Publisher: Daw Genre: Fantasy Source: Paperback           Rating:  Synopsis: Elisha was a …

Source: Elisha Rex by E. C. Ambrose @ecambrose | @kurtsprings1 #review #darkfantasy

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Review: Touch, by Claire North: a deeply human and highly satisfying thriller

This is one of the rare books that I finished and thought–That is what I want my books to feel like. For me, it delivered a powerful emotional impact along with the ripping story and engaging characters. It’s the kind of book that made me want to race around forcing all of my friends to read it. No, seriously, read this book!


Kepler, our protagonist, can assume the minds and bodies of others through a touch. They (gender is intriguingly fluid for such entities) are one of a small number of people who discover they can do this. Some of those entities now live for the moment, bouncing between lives with no compunction about what happens to the people they leave behind, without memories of the occupation or what they did during that time. Some deliberately abused the power, but Kepler actually forms partnerships with their hosts, often agreeing to help them through a difficult circumstance–like an addiction the host suffers from, but which Kepler does not. So first of all, I enjoyed the elaboration of this premise, looking at all of the ways the power could be used.

When we first meet Kepler, their host has just been shot in an assassination attempt by a shadowy organization. Kepler is furious because, although the attempt was aimed at them, the assassin deliberately killed the host instead of leaving her alone after Kepler jumped to another body. Kepler determines to discover who wants them dead and why. After a few jumps in a fascinating chase scene, Kepler succeeds in jumping into the assassin himself. But while in a body, they have no access to the memories or thoughts of that person. In order to questions the assassin, Kepler must jump into someone else after securing the guy so he won’t get away.

Thus begins a very interesting relationship. It is exploitative? How would you feel to have someone take over your mind, then leave you behind? How would it feel to be on the other side–a disembodied personality assuming temporary identities?

I felt the author did a very convincing job of creating Kepler as an individual, and building all of these fascinating interactions with hosts and with others–many people don’t even know this is possible, and the few that do have widely varying reactions to it. There are some great twists along the way to a highly satisfying conclusion.

At a recent convention (I believe it was World Fantasy 2015) one of the speakers pointed out the way that a speculative fiction work reflects the world view of the author. This really got me thinking. . .so I think one reason I admire but don’t enjoy George R. R. Martin’s work is that his world view is significantly different from mine. I am ultimately a humanist (in spite of my “you don’t want to be my hero” tagline and often rather grim subject matter), and believe in the potential redemption of both individuals and humanity as a whole.

I found Touch to be very life-affirming on top of its adventure narrative. Read it because it’s a thriller that will leave you breathless. Read it because it’s the story of complex relationships that develop in startling ways. Read it because it will make you question ideas of identity. Just read this book.

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Anti-technology Fantasy and the Author’s War Experience

This past weekend, I was delighted to spend at Readercon in their new location in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Here is the description of one of the panels that got me thinking:

If Thor Can Hang Out with Iron Man, Why Can’t Harry Dresden Use a Computer? . Gillian Daniels, Elaine Isaak, Andrea Phillips, Alex Shvartsman, E.J. Stevens. In a series of tweets in 2015, Jared Axelrod pondered “the inherent weirdness of a superhero universe… where magic and science hold hands, where monsters stride over cities.” This is only weird from the perspective of fantasy stories that set up magic and technology as incompatible, an opposition that parallels Western cultural splits between religion and science and between nature and industry. Harry Dresden’s inability to touch a computer without damaging it is a direct descendant of the Ents destroying the “pits and forges” of Isengard, and a far cry from Thor, Iron Man, and the Scarlet Witch keeping company. What are the story benefits of setting up magic/nature/religion and technology/industry/science as either conflicting or complementary? What cultural anxieties are addressed by each choice? How are these elements handled in stories from various cultures and eras?

The ending of The Lord of the Rings, in which the hobbits reclaim the Shire and take down the mills is often cited as one reason that fantasy novels often ignore or even reject technology.  However, another title that came up was Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889.  The work is often viewed as a satire of the chivalric ideal, and thus related to the idea of the Southern gentlemen who drove the Civil War.  Twain apparently blamed Sir Walter Scott and his medievalist romances for resurrecting knighthood as a worthy goal for contemporary men.

But it is hard to read the final battle, where thousands of knights cast themselves upon the Yankee’s electric fence and die under the fire of his Gatling guns, without feeling some dismay.  This is not the satisfying come-uppance of a backward society, it is the wholesale destruction of a generation of nobility.

Even as I read that line, the echo is clear, and some commentators have noted that Twain’s battle prefigures the catastrophic effect of the battles of World War I.  The Lord of the Rings, published in   shows the heavy influence of Tolkien’s battle experiences–the loss of his friends, and the devastating effects, in particular, of new technologies for slaughter.  He served in the army from 1915 until 1919, though much of the latter portion he spent recuperating from Trench Fever and declared unfit for active duty.  His service included front-line duty at the notorious Battle of the Somme, where the total losses are close to 1 million soldiers.

Mark Twain himself was only a soldier (in a Confederate militia) for two weeks, but his anti-war stance became increasingly set.   Twain’s “War Prayer” (1904) says, in part:

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;

A sentiment which covers both the killing of people, and the destruction of their idyllic setting, their “smiling fields”.

It got me thinking about how these seminal works in the fantasy genre suggest a link between their authors’ understanding and experience of war, and their anti-technology conclusions.  The advance of technology is often seen as an inevitable course, usually providing people with more and better and less expensive goods and services–but always tinged with the knowledge that this technology often degrades the land and lends itself to applications that will forward the cause of war.

Better, then, to remove the technology all together.  No mills mucking up the Shire, no Gatling guns to mow down the flower of chivalry.  The technology in these works may be seen as a frightful enemy which it is hard for man to stand or strive against.  Interestingly, the armored knights did not succeed, but the angry ents and the plucky hobbits did, striding into the fray armored with courage if little else, standing in for all of us who are, as the panel description suggests, a little fearful of what technology might bring.

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