This is a bit of an experiment. Before I mediated a panel of the speculative biology of fantasy, I asked Tumblr what they wanted to learn about. I got a ton of questions, and now I've answered one of them.
Davrial asked: Would a griffon be classified as an avian, or a mammal?
Here's my answer with accompanying pictures.
The Good Fishes
This post appeared one week earlier on my patreon
There's a fish shack on the Danube, just up-stream from Srebarna: Restorant Krai Rekata. The cook fries whatever was brought in that day, or else you can get the stew.
I ate my catfish steak with french fries and beer, thinking of the Ancient Egyptians and the meals they must have enjoyed. I didn't speak much.
None of us adults felt much like talking, and it wasn't entirely because we were living mindfully in the moment. I remember eating my fish with a sort of spiteful relish. It was delicious; I was having a good time despite our guest.
It's hard fighting with your friend. Harder still during a road trip, when you're trapped together in the car while your wife is trying to overtake a truck. Pavlina put a stop to the argument, but of course it continued to flow under the surface.
We had all the rest of our trip that day: lunch, checking into the guest house, the natural history museum, the nature walk, and now dinner.
There was a time when I would have just wallowed in resentment. No, I'm fine. It's just I can't enjoy this stuffed owl, those distant pelicans, the bee-eaters swooping brilliantly above our heads. It's fine! The birds are ugly and the fish is bitter.
Instead, I took a Valerian pill. I figured out what a generous, compassionate person would do. I found some time to get my thoughts out on paper, and I talked with Pavlina. Most of all, I tried to suspend judgment and watch. I wasn't entirely successful, but when I saw a praying mantis or a bee-eater, I was happy.
As evening closed in, Pavlina got up from the picnic table and walked off by herself. I followed her, suppressing my desire to reach in and fix things. We just stood there, looking at the river, commenting on the pale shells in the darkening water.
We thought at first they were fireflies. Little green spots plipped out and over the surface. Experimentally, I tossed in a rock. Was that splash bright only because it reflected the lights from the fish shack? No.
I'd been looking for this for years, although I'd never expected to find it in fresh water. Wherever it was disturbed, the river glowed.
I don't know whether we called over our friend and the girls or whether they came to join us on their own recognizance. Either way, we stood there, watching, talking about what might be responsible for the sea sparkle.*
You lunge into the stream of consciousness and your feelings scatter. You don't know you're miserable, but you still crave a solution. "How can I get this vacation back on track?" "How can I fix you?" That won't work. Just watch them. Some thoughts are sweet, others salty. Some are not for you to fry. Briefly, some of them shine.
Another month of vacation, and you know I didn't write much. I did, however, draw, which is something I want to do more of. I also created a new website and I'd very much appreciate feedback on it. What do you think? Is there anything you'd like to see, but aren't seeing?
I prepared materials for Chicon, and you might like to see the presentation I made for my workshop on Speculative Evolution. Recordings are forthcoming, I think. Wealthgiver is still available for beta-reading. And stay tuned for news about Fellow Tetrapod, which I will begin serializing in October.
And I read some stuff.
Radical Candor by Kim Scott - pretty good IT management advice
The author is thoughtful and, despite a certain preoccupation with "bias," pragmatic. Scott talks about her own mistakes with some real vulnerability, and makes the much-needed point that it's a manager's job to be human.
The Inhabited Island by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – "Nowhere do they live more stupidly."
According to the afterword in the English edition, the Strugatsky brothers wanted The Inhabited Island to be "unadulterated, toothless entertainment." They then went on to write something as toothless and entertaining as a Tyrannosaurus. A Communist super-man from the future Soviet Union crash-lands on the rump of a defeated empire, populated by brainwashed prisoners who treat each other even more cruelly than the paranoid, belligerent state. It cuts right to the bone.
"And there are many such spheres in existence on which people live far worse than you do, and some on which they live far better. But nowhere do they live more stupidly."
Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – many good ingredients fail to combine
This is another of Crichton's historical dramatizations, but where he turned the Great Gold Robbery into a story, he was less successful with pirates. There are lots of ingredients - drinking, fighting, pillaging, betrayal, beautiful witches, sea monsters – but it fails to cohere. At the end, there's a seductive beauty, and I struggled to remember which one she was supposed to be. It seems this book was published posthumously, and so it probably lacked the final revision that Crichton was planning to make.
Atomic Habits by James Clear - rather like The Power of Habit
I put off reading Atomic Habits for a while because I thought there would be too much overlap between it and The Power of Habit. I was right. There's a bit of personal stuff about Clear's head trauma, which I appreciated, but then I wanted more. I guess I like anecdotes. Oh! Here's one of mine: a friend read Atomic Habits and followed its advice to a new job and losing a bunch of weight. She runs marathons now. So, read this one or The Power of the Habit and you should be fine.
Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven - a retired Admiral expands on that commencement speech he gave
I guess my expectations were too high for this one. It's good advice: make your bed in the morning so you begin the day with one task well done. Then go out and do some more. Yes, I like it, and the rest of the stories McRaven shares from his time in basic training. I have to say, though, I got more out of Leadership Strategy and Tactics by Jocko Willinck. Maybe McRaven was too high-ranking to share any of the really good stories.
Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe - Now Latro is wandering around Egypt!
This book might be a little easier to follow than the first two in the series, or else I've gotten better at reading between the lines and figuring out what's going on. Latro, a brain-damaged proto-Roman mercenary, is sent on a mission to find the source of the Nile while trying to either cure or come to terms with his inability to remember and his ability to see gods and monsters. It may be that he's a better person with his affliction than without it. Also: wizards, ancient curses, crocodile women, and fried fish with beer. Delicious.
That's Not What I Meant! By Deborah Tannen - no, you're both wrong
You never asks a question to which the answer might be "no." But you always clearly ask for what you want. Each of you assume that the other shares your communication style. You're both wrong, but this is a problem that can be solved.
Compared with The Culture Code, "That's Not What I Meant" is more rigorous and grounded in research (as you'd expect from a professor of socio-linguistics). The best parts, for me, are the rich anecdotes about the various ways minds fail to meet and conversations go off the rails. My one criticism is that Tannen is too enamored of cross-cultural differences - it's been my experience that even people in the same family can play by totally different conversational rules. But I loved these lectures. I'll use them in my communication classes.
See you next month.
*It might have been ostracods, or the same species of dinoflagellate that produces red tides. The fireflies were fish, covered in plankton.
Folklore of the Dragons of Ralagan
Back in February 2020, I got a very interesting message from Ouroborosenso, asking for a creation myth for the dragons in a DnD campaign. My daughter was still asleep, so I could put a thought together in my head. Maybe three! With no further ado, here is the creation myth of at least one of the dragons of Ralagan.
In a time only I remember, there was nothing but the useless Earth and the powerless Sky. The heaped treasures of the Earth had no one to value them and the sky could do nothing but change color.
Thus the world remained in idleness until the First Will. The First Will flashed between the useless Earth and the powerless Sky, and saw that they were insufficient.
At first the Will was weak. It could crack only the thinnest shell and breathe only the tiniest breath of wind. But the Will was patient. It cracked the shells of dew drops and blew them up into the sky. The Earth pulled jealously, and many drops fell, but some drops stayed and became the first clouds. Many clouds became rain.
With the strength of rain, the Will cracked the stony shell of the Earth, exposing the fire below. With the strength of cloud, the Will blew the fire up into the sky, where it became the sun.
Now the Will could finally discard patience. With the power of the sun, the Will became so mighty that it could rip the bones and meat of the Earth and suck out its precious stones and metals. So wealthy was the Will now, it did not even care that some treasures were hurled from the jealous grip of Earth. These surplus trinkets became the moon and stars.
When the First Will was finished with its conquest, it had become everything. The Will contained the whole Earth. The Will filled the whole Sky.
Thus, things were as before, with the Sky above, the Earth below, and the belly of the Will stretched around them.
And the Will saw that this was insufficient.
Satiation kills hunger. Great size halts growth. Horded treasure does not glint. When there is nothing to want, there is nothing to value. When it has burned all, the fire dies.
So, the Will turned its power upon itself.
The Will cracked itself in two. Its two children were My Superior Progenitor and Your Inferior Progenitor. They fought one another, and the Superior tore the Inferior to pieces in glorious victory!
But the Superior died of its wounds. From those pieces were born the first dragons. The first dragons ruled the Sky and Earth and the forces between. Their names are valuable and I will not part with them easily. I will only say that the first of the first dragons, the best, was their king, get of the Superior Progenitor, get of the First Will, and My Great Ancestor.
Only I remember this. Only I could have told you a story so powerful and gorgeous.
Now, you will repay me.
Even Worse Spelling
Just a silly little idea. If English's non-phonetic spelling is due to (mostly) not keeping up with sound changes in the past 600 years, what would happen if we pushed its origins back further? What if an Ulfilas-like missionary wrote a Bible in his dialect of Proto-West-Germanic in the fourth century and his work *really* caught on? To the point where modern Germanic languages are still written using his Latin spellings?
Aside from that, the history of this world parallels ours. Here is English as we speak it, but not as we write it.
Unsar Fader, hwarh irht in hebune,
hailagodaz biwje thin namo
Thin kuningadom kweme
Thin willjan biwje dan
An erthu alls' hit ist in hebune.
Imagine school children having to learn that a <b> between vowels is pronounced as /v/, and all the fiddly non-pronounced word endings. Then, they'll have to remember that in "hailagodaz," the i, middle a, g, and ending -az are all silent! Why is /art/ spelled with an <i> and a <rh>? You just have to memorize it.
Then of course some good-hearted person will suggest a spelling reform. What if we at least omitted all the silent letters?
U'r Fader, hwa' irht in hebun'
Hail'od' bi' thi' nam'
Thi' ku'ng'dom kwem'
Thi' will' bi' dan
An erth' a's' 'it is' in hebun'
Daniel M. Bensen