Tag: codex

Guest Post: Colin Harvey on the roots of Winter Song

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OK, it’s been a while since we had one of those, but here’s Colin Harvey on his novel Winter Song and his use of Icelandic culture.
(I’m still MIA and will remain so for another week or so. Very very busy)


I have two novels which came out nearly simultaneously –at least by geological time scales—in the US last year. Because Winter Song was actually published in the UK in 2009, I’ve tended to focus guest blogs on Damage Time, which was published worldwide for the first time in 2010.

But knowing Aliette’s fascination for cultures, particularly of the non-traditional/Western European variety, I thought it might prove interesting if I stepped back a year and talked about Winter Song instead.

Winter Song actually grew out of a visit to Borganes in western Iceland in late 2007. It’s a fairly small, everyday-looking town through which one can imagine the tumbleweed blowing on a Saturday night – or afternoon, for that matter.

But as we learned on a visit to the municipal museum, the first settlement in Iceland took place only a few kilometres away. The museum exhibits included films and still photographs of vast numbers of birds and animals, all shown in a dark, enclosed room simulatinga bird-watcher’s hide.
Outside were racks of books about Egil’s Saga, and other medieval stories; these are the literature of the Norsemen whose longships struck terror into Irish monks, and Saxon men and women from Scotland to Normandy. Illustrations and models in another display showed Egil’s Saga in model form, and brought it vividly to life. Here was a man who as a child had smashed the skull of a competitor during a race because he couldn’t bear to lose, who regularly murdered his enemies under truce, who was ugly, yet fascinated women with both his poetry and his vitality, who lived into his eighties, and even when he was a frail old man, still delighted in making mischief.

The actual settlement of Iceland didn’t take place until the mid 9th century, when the the countryside was covered with dense woodland inhabited by what seemed to be almost unlimited numbers of birds and animals, particularly game and wild fowl. It’s hard to envision today, when there is barely a hundred square miles of forest across a land four-fifths the size of England, and nine-tenths of that is replanted (most Iceland trees are still so young that there’s an Icelandic joke that says if you’re ever lost in an Icelandic forest…just stand up) — forest nowadays accounts for just one third of one per cent of Iceland’s total landmass.

But the climate cooled, deforestation stripped the landscape of cover, and life grew increasingly difficult. Growing cereal crops became all but impossible — Instead settlers baked bread from moss, seeds or whatever constituents they could obtain. For the next three centuries life became ever more difficult, but even though deprivation and isolation made life ever harder, Icelandic chieftains founded the first parliament; disputes could be settled peaceably (although many chieftains succumbed to the urge to settle arguments by force) and laws were passed establishing when men and women could travel without becoming outlaws. In the end Iceland passed into Norway’s sphere of influence and the world’s first parliamentary democracy ended for seven centuries.

Many or the reviews focused on how bleak and harsh the novel was, whereas i actually softened the reality; I thought it best to omit the incest that too often happened on isolated farmsteads deprived of outside visitors, and I felt that dwelling too long on having to eat moss, bark or even mud would be too much for modern sensibilities – we aren’t as tough as our forebears. Indeed, the harsh but beautiful Icelandic landscape kills one or two visitors every year, often the more experienced tourists lulled into complacency. Even now it is a harsh landscape, and before GPS, cellphones and aircraft, it must have been almost unbearable. Almost…. but humans are tougher than one might think. They would need to be to survive Isheimur.


Colin picColin Harvey was born in Cornwall in 1960, and now lives between Bristol and Bath. He worked on a kibbutz and in a night shelter in the Midlands before joining Unilever. Colin worked for Unilever for over 20 years, including launching Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in Iceland, and as part of the project teams rolling out Sunsilk Colour Active Shampoo in Australia, and Vaseline Body Butter in North America.

Colin has been a freelance writer since 2007. He reviewed for Strange Horizons for six years, and served on the Management Committe of the Speculative Literature Foundation for five, during which time he co-judged the Travel Research Grant and the Older Writers Grant.

His short stories have appeared in Albedo One, Gothic.net, Song of the Siren and Speculations, as well as several original anthologies. His novels are all available on Amazon.

Colin’s anthology Killers was nominated for the Black Quill Award and the British Fantasy Award.

Darkness notice

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Blog’s going dark–will respond to comments and other pending stuff in a bit. I’m off to finish drafting that %%% book before the internet can terminally distract me.

In the meantime, the Codex blog tour is under way, and you can find me over at Nancy Fulda’s blog, Suite101 (courtesy of fellow AR author Colin Harvey), and Lawrence M. Schoen’s blog. Many thanks to my wonderful interviewers for lending me a bit of space on the internet–and stay tuned for more guest posts on this blog (after the novel is done, of course…)

Also, my short story “After the Fire”, originally published in Apex, has been reprinted in Descended from Darkness Vol 2, a compilation of Apex short stories for the past year. (a sneaky way for me to share a TOC with the always awesome Rochita Loenen-Ruiz).

That’s all. I’m off to usher in the Apocalypse….

Guest post: Gareth D. Jones on languages, translations and being half-Welsh

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So, in the coming weeks, I’ll be taking part in the Codexian blog tour, which aims to feature fellow Codex writers–in this particular case, through guest blogs. First at the bat is Gareth D. Jones, who talks about languages and translations.


For a relatively little-known author, my stories have been translated into a surprising number of languages – 20 at the last count. I’ve always been interested in languages, leading me to investigate other tongues that don’t have any established markets for genre fiction, make contact with friendly translators and ask them to translate some of my very short flash fiction. My 100 word story ‘The Gondolier’ is now available in 33 languages, many of them appearing on my own website. Altogether you can read some of my stories in 38 languages, from Afrikaans to Welsh.

Aside from having my work translated, this interest has led me to spend quite some time considering how to deal with languages in my fiction. It’s easy to create characters who all speak English and share a cultural background similar to mine, but a large portion of science fiction is set somewhere in the future, or on another world, or amongst alien species. It’s not very likely that they’ll all conveniently speak English.

The problem is, I don’t feel very confident about creating characters from other real-life cultures who speak different languages. I have no problem creating a new species or inventing a culture, but I’m afraid that if I populate my story with, for example, French characters, I’ll end up writing horribly clichéd dialogue that will make genuine French people cringe. It will be like those characters in US dramas with fake English accents using American expressions that British people don’t use.

There are several ways around the language dilemma, and my experience with translations has given me some insights on the matter:

  • Ignore it. Don’t even mention language. After all, in my stories that appear in Greek, everyone speaks Greek.
  • Have everyone speak a common language, as in Jack Vance’s Gaean Reach, or Asimov’s Empire. Add planetary accents for variety.
  • Oblige everyone to learn an artificial language. In Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld everyone learns Esperanto. This allows you to include cultural variety without worrying about language barriers.
  • Supply Universal Translators, or a Protocol Droid fluent in 5 million forms of communication. Once the concept is introduced, you can write all the dialogue in English (or whatever language you happen to be writing in).
  • Mention at the outset which language everybody is speaking, but then write in English anyway. This introduces the problem of using idioms and expressions that don’t appear in the language you’ve chosen, and phrases that rely on
    homonyms to have any meaning.

If I set a story in a far-future galaxy-spanning culture, do I assume that individual planets will maintain cultural identities inherited from Earth, or will mankind have become homogenous? The answer doesn’t always have to be the same. It doesn’t have to be politically correct either – there’s no reason to assume society will maintain the same values thousands of years from now.

Here are some of the things I’ve tried in various stories:

  • A story set in Wales, where I’ve taken expressions my relatives use to make the characters sound authentic.
  • A far-future tale where various ethnically diverse, bio-engineered colonists have settled on the same planet and have almost become separate sub-species. A human translator is needed for part of this story, but I’ve made him a character in his own right so that he adds to the translation rather than being a distraction. Others speak a common tongue, but in a Tolkienesque way they maintain their own ‘old tongues’. It was fun to work out how they would interact.
  • A section of the novel I’m writing takes place on a Scottish colony planet. I’ve had a genuine Scot translate some of the dialogue into Scots for me. The worry now is that it will be too difficult to read and may have to be Anglicised. And how would that ever be translated into another language?

I am constantly impressed by the work of the translators. In the Catalan translation of ‘Roadmaker’, the translator resorted to a footnote to explain an untranslatable point. This was for a homonym that the character gets confused over. Evidently the equivalent words in Catalan are not at all similar, so there is no reason he would get confused in that language. It’s at this point that I have to stop thinking too hard on the matter, for fear that I’ll end up writing in simplistic language to make it easier on the translators.

There are six thousand languages and dialects on Earth. It’s worth including at least some of them in our fiction.

Gareth D Jones is from the UK. His stories have appeared in over forty publications and twenty languages. He also writes reviews and drinks lots of tea. Work of his is forthcoming in The Immersion Book of Steampunk, published by Immersion Press.

Coming up next: Nancy Fulda talks about writing and art.