Saturday, January 26, 2013

Random Thoughts on the White Room

One of the critiques often leveled at SF from the 50s and 40s is that it envisioned the future as the 40s and 50s on steroids.  But when we look back today at the 50s, we blink and say, "we're not like that any more," even those of us who were there (when our memories are not failing us).  There were things we took for granted -- little kids running around the neighborhood unsupervised; going out of the house without locking the doors, and so on -- that are unimaginable today for most people today, when play has become play-dates and helicopter parents supervise the child's downtime. 

And those are just minor changes of culture and setting.  I had the fortune as a management consultant to visit all parts of the country and a fair number of other countries, and so had the opportunity to view people who did not behave like the people on the TV shows. 

  • I once saw a family of five in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, riding on a motorcycle: father driving, young kid on the saddle in front of him, older kid behind with arms wrapped around the father's waist, mother sitting side-saddle in the rear and holding the baby in her lap.  Traffic rules there were notional.  Beach Road was three lanes, but is used not only by sedans, but 3-wheeled auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, oxcarts, and pedestrians, as well as the flatbed cargo trucks from the Port of Chennai.  These latter are painted bright yellow with birds and flowers.  You know how truckers are.  And a pair of eyeballs on the front bumper so the truck can see where it's going.  Certainly, the drivers were not much concerned with that.  Across the brow of the truck was a placard with the truck's name (or that of the company).  Some were in Hindi script, some in transliterated Latin script (Sri Ganesha), but most in Tamil squiggles.  When the ox cart ahead of us was going too slow -- and when are they not? -- we swung out to the right to pass.  When the auto-rickshaw in that lane proved to slow, my driver swung out once more to the right.  You may notice that this used up all three lanes.  Southbound traffic was doing the same, so that all the northbound and all the southbound traffic was using the same three lanes.  We found ourselves heading directly toward a flatbed truck bearing the name -- I am not making this up -- "Jesus is Lord" and I thought I would get to verify that fact personally.  Somehow -- to this day I do not know how -- we squeezed between the truck and another truck. 
  • Tamil Nadu is a study in contrasts.  We drove past a stretch of Beach Road flanked with a very orderly shanty town where people were living in palm tree grass huts that would not have looked out of place in Melanesia.  (In fact, dhotis look a great deal like sarongs.)  Some of the grass huts had electric lights.  I saw a naked man (well, breechclouted) squatting before his hut... welding a truck body assembly.  He had a welder's mask on, too.  (And I saw partial truck assemblies no more than engine and transmission and rails being driven to the next place on what had to be a rather dispersed assembly like.  In medieval Europe, cloth-making was bundled out to cottagers who did the work at home.  Apparently, this can be done with trucks.)  And this same population had given the world two Nobel laureates in physics (S. Chandrashekar and C.V. Raman) and a world-class mathematician (S. Ramanujan).  Just try making up an alien planet with all these features. 
  • In Frankfurt, Germany, in 1970, you could eat pizza -- there was a US Army base nearby -- but Germans ate it properly with a knife and fork.  The favorite street fast food was currywurst.  The wurst, I understand, but curry?  They said "zwo" instead of "zwei" and since German-z is pronounced like a ts-, you can see it was halfway to "two" pronounced as spelled.  Further up the Rhine, it became "zwei" and you couldn't find currywurst to save your life.  
  • In Johannesburg, South Africa, the seminar had to be finished well before sunset because travel was dangerous after dark.  Exiting a restaurant, our host flipped a coin to the young black man with the machine gun who was guarding the restaurant.  "Thank you, boy," he said. 
  • There were armed guards too at the hotel in Panama City, Panama: uniformed National Police with assault rifles.  But there were no doors to the hotel: the lobby was wide open, simply a roofed extension of the patio and parking apron.  There was a toll road.  No one drove on it and we had it all to ourselves.  There were no toll collectors.  The bandits from the hills would swoop in and rob the toll booths.  National Police were set to guard them -- until one young man, showing off for the girl in the toll booth, managed to shoot his foot off.  (Young men act goofy around young women, Mr. Panetta.)  The buses are like school buses but painted red and decorated with cartoons.  They are called the Red Devils for the maniacal quality of their driving.  We drove behind one featuring Bruce Willis on the rear door and called "Nitro."  Another bus bore the name "El Muerte."  Would you get on a bus named Death?  Panamanians would.  Right off the main drag was a shanty town built of discarded shipping containers and tin sheeting.  Because it was the worst place to live in all of Panama City, it was named "Brooklyncito" after what they imagined an equally horrid place.  
  • It was in Panama I was asked, "Why does English have so many words?"  The asker was someone unexpected: a Chinese-Panamanian whose name was something like Rosalita Yoo.  Her ancestors had been brought in to build the Trans-Isthmus Railroad.  For example, I asked.  Well, "director" and "conductor."  They mean the same thing in Spanish.  Why do you need both?  I conducted her across the room and then directed her back the way she came.  The Panamanians (and the one Venezuelan) in the class asked my Spaniard co-instructor why the hell he sometimes lisped.  American Spanish does not have the Castilian lisp.  What is the rule for lisping? they asked.  There is none, the Spaniard replied.  You just have to learn it.  
  • Costa Ricans call themselves "Ticos" and look down on Panamanians and Nicaraguans.  They have the only highways in Central America (they brag) that suffers traffice jams from people going to and from work rather than from bad driving.   There are street names, but the houses are not numbered.  To address a letter, you must write "two houses down from the gas station on the corner" or something of that sort. 

Enough.  Examples great and small can be multiplied, and I have certainly not seen all there is to see.  Part of what a story is supposed to do is make you think you've "been there" in a strange and alien future/planet.  Can't do that with a white room. This can be used in two ways in your fiction. 

1. The background of the story becomes something more than a "white room."  It comes alive, and becomes a "character" in the story the way gaslight London is a character in Sherlock Holmes stories, or New York City is a character in Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder mysteries. 

2. Human beings are formed by the societies in which they live.  You can't have people behaving like 2020 Americans unless the culture is something like 2010s America.  When I saw a body lying on the sidewalk in Chennai, with crowds of pedestrians simply walking around her, my host would literally not look, would not turn his head.  When I once saw a body lying on the sidewalk in Philadelphia, the crowd was gathered around talking and speculating behind the police tape.  When an Ethiopian client once mentioned casually the "first time" he woke up to find a dead body on the street in front of his apartment building in Addis Ababa he was quite disturbed and people gathered around; "but after a while," he said, "you get used to it."  This was during the Red Terror when the communists had taken control.  Right there, you have three different cultures displaying three different attitudes.

How many fantasies have been written in which medieval Europe has been replicated without any trace of the Catholic Church that gave it substance?  (Or of the Lost Roman Empire and Germanic tribes, for that matter.)  Institutions have origins.  They do not pop fully-formed from the brow of Zeus Pitar.  The bones may look the same, but the fleshing out is different.  IOW, you can't just take bits and pieces of Chennai, Vienna, and Panama City and toss them together into a salad bowl.  You can get away with it in a short story, maybe.  And you can get away with it with a certain class of readership.  But you really ought to think on how or whether those Frankenstein fragments fit together. 

What people say and think -- how they react to this, that, or the other thing -- is molded by their culture, and culture is a whole thing.  Just as your body is one:
Now the body is not a single part, but many.  If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?  But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.”  ... But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.  If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.
The same is true of culture.  Its economics, its demographics, its religion (the term means "re-binding"), its technology, its history are all parts of the same body.  The Gemütlichkeit of Vienna and the armed restaurant guard of Jo-burg don't fit well together.  Or if they do, then there must be something else in that culture that explains it. 

We in the West take it for granted that the mere invention of a thing is sufficient to transform a society.  We'll often point to the automobile and courting customs of teenagers.  But we say that only because we are Westerners.  We may be discomfited to know that American Indians (some of them) used the wheel for toys, but never invented carts.  More to the point, they never invented the potter's wheel.  Neither, by the way, did the Egyptians, until the Hyksos rubbed their noses in it. 
Take the example of the telescope.  When the Europeans invented it, it transformed their view of themselves and their world, changed astronomy from a specialized kind of mathematics to a physical science, and led to a host of revolutionary spin-offs like microscopes, barometers, and the like.  That same telescope, introduced into China by the Jesuits had precisely zero impact.  The same was true of its introduction into Islam.  China, it can be argued, had never invented reading glasses, and so had no lens-grinding industry.  This made it difficult to duplicate the foreign far-seeing tube. But this cannot be said of Islam, which placed such high importance on reading (the Qur'an) and did have native spectacle-makers.  So Islam's disregard of the telescope was on different grounds than China's. 

Beware of "explanations" of one sentence.  Reality is seldom so simple.  Why exactly did my German fellow-diners react with such shock to the thought of picking up a slice of pizza to eat? 


One other thought, worth its own post some day, is language.  You don't have to buy the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis whole to realize that if a nation does not have a word for a concept they would find it hard to talk about.  Not that they cannot think it, or they might not have a circumlocution, but they cannot think it easily and cannot communicate it easily to others.  The Greeks knew that if a thing was first here and then there a certain time would have elapsed traversing the space.  That is, they had to know there was such a thing as velocity.  But they had no word for velocity -- or for acceleration, or other concepts associated with it.  Those terms were invented in Latin Christendom.  And, lo!  It was in Latin Christendom that a science of local motion began to emerge.  There were always people who were interested in and investigated nature, but there was no word for "scientist" until the 1830s, and, lo!  That was then the profession of scientist emerged, as opposed to the interested amateur who did other stuff beside. 

When a new term is coined, its etymology is important.  The Choctaw Indians had never seen horses before the Spanish brought them; so they had no word for "horse."  So they took a word issi (deer) and subah (large) and formed subah (like a deer only bigger) which is indicative of how they saw horses.  In the same manner, the Latin verb "to die" is morior, which is passive in form though used in an active sense.  That is, the Roman conceptualized dying not as something he did, but as something he was done to.  Although the subject of the sentence, he was the object of the verb.  There is a similar locution in German: Es gibt, lit. "it gives," as in "Es gibt mir Hunger."  It gives to me hunger, rather than I am hungry or I hunger.  Again, the action is conceptualized as something that comes upon the subject, not something the subject does.  The German will often speak of the future in the present tense.  "So tomorrow I am standing on the corner...."  The Russian makes a distinction in his verbs between action that is incomplete or complete, a distinction English makes with forms like the progressive: "I was walking (but had not yet reached my destination)" versus "I walked (and finished walking)."  In forming your world, you might want to ask how their way of speaking influences their way of thinking about certain things like time, space, etc. 


  1. We might distinguish what is desired from what is possible. Perhaps the good parts of the 1950s suburbs will always be desired, but only seldom possible.


  2. I'll never write a story but am better for having read this.

  3. I take it you've read Guns, Germs and Steel, but resent Diamond's constant refrain that culture determines nothing of importance? Good on you.

    In any case, this sort of thing is why you're a writer and I'm not. Entirely too much for me to take on at once.

  4. This was beautiful. It brought Cordwainer Smith to mind. His world was always both recognizable and completely strange, and believable. Or Jack Vance. "The Moon Moth" in particular creates a completely believable but utterly strange culture, runs it into "our" culture and makes the collision the crux of a mystery story. Brilliant.

    (which reminds me: still haven't read Eifleheim - it's on the 'what to get Dad for his birthday' list. Birthday is fast approaching.)

  5. I got fond of currywurst in Germany, and later found it, improbably enough, on the menu of a fast-food stand in Hobart, Tasmania, when I was playing tourist there after the 1999 Worldcon. Alas, they had sold out. I've never seen it in the U.S., not that I've looked exhaustively.

    My understanding of the "lisping" rule for Castilian Spanish is that if it's spelled as c or z, you pronounce it like an English unvoiced th, but if spelled s, it's s. Perhaps the reality is more complicated, or perhaps your Spaniard had just never stopped to think about the rule. (How many people consciously know the rules for how to pronounce the English past tense ending spelled -ed--is it a -d a -t or -ed as a separate syllable?)

    1. Every rule the Venezuelan brought up, the Spaniard shot down with an exception. (And no one in Latin America lisps, so it must have started after the colonial era.) The Venezuelan also told of entering a Viennese pastry shop and asking for two of the local favorite buns; but he couldn't get his lips around the umlaut and it came out asking for two bosoms and the lady chased him out of the store.

      In Costa Rica, I was told, a fresca is a lemon-lime drink, but my host told of going to Honduras (or Guatemala, I forget) and ordering one in a bar, only to learn that in that part of Central America a 'fresca' is a male prostitute. Everyone in Central America speaks Spanish, he said, but no one speaks the same Spanish.

      Such a detail is useful in fleshing out your world. A large enough world will have diversity within itself. In the world-famous SF novel Eifelheim there were at least three different ethnic groups of Krenken among the stranded travelers.

    2. It would appear, according to Wikipedia, that your surmise about the timing of the phonological split is warranted:


  6. Those Panamanian chabolas had a powerful effect on me when I was nine. I remember riding on one of those killer jitneys when I lived there. They were less like buses and more like trolley-cars on patched tires. The Cokes were sweetened with cane sugar. There weren't Guardia Nacional armed with rifles in the streets but Torrijos hadn't run Arias out of the country quite yet.

    Isn't "chito" the common word for "large" in Choctaw? Does "subah" means something closer to "great"?


  7. My daughters' Spanish notes (this is primary school, UK) say that s or c, when associated (preceded or followed) by an e or i, is lisped. Hence Grathias. But, there are probably exceptions.

    Worse things happen to every darned consonant in Gaelic. T becomes Ch, D becomes J, B becomes V, M becomes W if it leads into or out of an E or I. The spelling is legendary.

    As to your experience in Joburg: Even for there, it sounds pretty drastic to have an armed guard at a restaurant (and privately-owned automatic rifles are illegal). All malls or shopping developments have minders, whom you are expected to tip. I can only assume the clientele drove cars in the high-end Italian end of the market.

    1. The rule in Gaelic is that nothing is pronounced the way it is spelled. LOL. This was even more so prior to the spelling reform in the 1920s. O Flaherty was spelled O Flaithbheartaigh, for example; and an geimhreadh [winter] is pronounced . Gaelic really ought to be spelled with the Cyrillic alphabet, since the broad and slender vowels are used precisely to palatalize or depalatalize the adjacent consonants.

      Technically, of course, B does not become V. Rather the B with a dot o'ertop [or Bh in the reformed spelling] is simply an aspiration, like trying to pronounce -b- and -h- at the same time. It's sort of an umlaut for consonants, and a -v- is sufficiently similar to get by. I once startled a grad student from India in the office next door by pronouncing Mahabharata correctly.
      + + +

      The thing about languages is that they are always making exceptions. The rules of spelling and grammar get you only so far, maybe 80% of cases. English is widely known for its apparently idiosyncratic spelling and its plethora of words; Russian, you never know where the accent will fall. In Castilian, sometimes you don't lisp when you think you should. German has its der-die-das, which which is useful for those who confuse gender with sex. Even Latin, the logical language par excellance, has numerous exceptions to its various declensions - and you just have to know which declension a word belongs to. Oy.

      But the point is that the way a language expresses thoughts will be an extension of how the culture views things. Dano-Norwegian and Inuit both have many words for fine distinctions of ice for a very obvious reason. It matters to them. In Shona, there are 200+ words for "walking." Chakwair means "to walk with a squelching noise through a muddy place." And mbembwer means "to walk with you body or buttocks shaking about." Pushuk is "to walk with a very short dress." It tells something about the culture that what French or Englishmen say in a phrase, a Shona can say in a word.

    2. Actually, Inuit has approximately the same number of words for varieties of ice and snow as English does. (Without counting the scientific English words for snow and ice, which beat the Inuit by a mile.)

      People really really hate this fact, because the factoid is so much prettier. Poor Geoffrey from Language Log keeps banging his head against it (most recently this week); and he started pointing it out back when I was still in college.

    3. That is likely true of snow. But what is the English word for "young black ice"? Or for "the first layer of skim ice that forms on a puddle"? It is not that Englishmen cannot talk about such things, but that they cannot talk about them as concisely and needs longer phrases. Chances are any such words that entered English did so by way of Old Norse, because the Vikings also had a deep an abiding interest in varieties of ice.

      Similarly, the ancient Greeks had no word meaning "velocity" or "acceleration," but surely knew that some things moved more or less quickly. The ancients knew of ratios, but the terms "numerator" and "denomination" were medieval inventions.

    4. 'In Shona, there are 200+ words for "walking."'

      OK, now you're just showing off, LOL! Not even I can claim any knowledge of the Zimbabwe lingo. Though I can say that the Zulu language allows you to say a whole sentence in one concatenated word (though it's unrelated).


  8. > How many fantasies have been written in which medieval Europe has been replicated without any trace of the Catholic Church that gave it substance?

    John C. Wright has written much on this topic in his blog, all of it good.

  9. That was a great read. Another example of cultural isolates is the Basque Country - not the autonomous community of Spain, but the wider cultural area that extends into parts of France. A friend of mine who happens to speak most Romance languages was shocked to find that sandwiched between to Western European Romance-speaking nations is a small pre Indo-European community that has been surprisingly effective at staving off having its own diverse culture subsumed by its larger and more influential neighbors over the centuries. He tried so hard to learn Basque, but his Romance skills were of little use.

  10. "There is a similar locution in German: Es gibt, lit. "it gives," as in "Es gibt mir Hunger.""

    Interesting post, but there is in fact no such locution in German. "Es gibt" exists all right, but not in connection with "Hunger"; "I'm hungry" is simply "Ich habe Hunger".

    In bygone times one could have said "Mich hungert" (also "mich dürstet", for thirst), which would underscore your point about an experience conceptualised as one that must be passively endured. But "es gibt mir Hunger" makes no sort of sense.

    (Speaking as someone with going on half a century's experience of speaking and hearing German...)


  11. All the ice-freezing terminology one could want:


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