Wednesday, 6 April 2011


It's Wednesday again...

In this blog entry, Jo Walton talks a bit about "incluing", a word she invented when she was in her teens, used for the (subtle and non-intrusive) way in which a fantasy or science fiction writer can convey important information to the reader about the world in which the story takes place.

She also provides a new and brilliant term, STP, from chemistry. It stands for "Standard temperature and pressure".

STP is about what's assumed to be normal. In chemistry, it is assumed that the experiment (or synthesis, or analysis) is conducted under "normal conditions", meaning a temperature not far from room temperature (20 degrees Celcius), and a pressure that's not far from 100'000 pascal. It's implicit, taken for granted. It's how it is unless stated otherwise.

When writing fantasy or science fiction, it is useful for the writer to think about what the STP for his world is, or what the STP is for particular in-world cultures (or for subcultures, or even for abnormal individuals) within that setting. What's considered normal? What's considered usual? What do they expect? What would surprise them?

The example that immediately springs to mind is from my own Ärth setting (labeled tagged as aerth, in this blog), an alternate history (eventually I'll probably write blog entries tagged as ah) Earth where magic works, and where other fantasy elements also exist (dragons, orcs neanderthals, elves, dwarves, and so forth).

Due to various AH events, England Britain and Ireland are still pagan (Christianity has a foothold on Ireland), and thus has a strong fourth social class, the druids (some of whom are spelled with a capital "d", Druids), alongside the more common classes of a warrior nobility, commoners, and slaves. Often what I do when I "worldbuild" Ärth is, I take elements from true history our timeline (as best we understand it - my interests coincide with places and times from which we have few sources) and exaggerate them. Often just a bit, but occasionally a lot. Sometimes it makes logical sense (e.g. "druidism" becoming more "extremified" in order to contrast itself better against the Christianity brought by Padraig1, as one of several tactics used in the ensuing memetic conflict), and other times it's just because it makes for enhanced drama and/or fun.

The historical druids disdained the written word for most purposes, and instead used sophisticated mnemotechniques (personally, I think they used poetic mnemonics, rather than any kind of pseudo-spatial "memory palace" method, even though in the Ärth setting there has been memetic interchange between the druids and the classial-age Greek philosophers - especially Pythagoras) to store vast amounts of information, and to transmit it orally.

So, I've taken that and run with it. In the late 10th century on Ärth, most druids are not just illiterate, they're proud of it. They see the use of written letters as a crutch that is needed only by the inferior, untrained mind. Numbers they're fine with. It makes their geometry and their mathematics so much easier (even if they often don't write the numbers down - after all, wax tables, stylii, parchments, and inks and feather pens, are not something they tend to own, and with training it's easy to visualize fairly large numbers, especially Iberian numerals). But who needs to write information down?

They look down upon people who can read. The "direction of gaze" is downwards. (In a later blog entry, I might very well write about the notion that some items of knowledge can render a person impure in some way - "It is wrong that you know that!" This is more about impurity-through-ability, though.)

Notice how starkly different this is from the STP for our world? Just to take myself, I have strong opinions about people who do not mention favourite novels on their Facebook profiles. I'm strongly inclined to assume that those who don't are functional illiterates. "How come you don't have any favourite books listed? Explain yourself!" Don't these people read novels at all? Not even non-fiction books? Can they read?

Not being able to read, for whatever reason, is seen by me, and by almost everyone else, as a debilitating handicap. It's not so much that we look down upon such people and think them inferior (although I might - I'm like that), but we pity them. They lack an ability to which we ascribe a very great value.

Imagine encountering (while reading, or while playing a roleplaying game) a group of highly intelligent people (and we're talking intelligence quotients in the 130 to 160 range), each one a font of factual lore and useful insight. And it turns out none of them can read. And no only can't they read, they're proud of it. They don't need crutches such as letters and parchment.

And there's a further layer. Out of the many important characters in the Ärth setting, two are educated by Druids but do not need the druidic mnemotechniques, which they consider to be silly and pointless. One is Elizabeth of York2, who has an eidetic memory, and the other is Asbrand the Stuttering, whose memory works quite like my non-eidetic one: Information is stored automatically and effortlessly, and can usually (but not always) be retrieved with equal lack of effort. There's no conscious effort to store, no conscious decision to store. It just happens, and usually (but not always) immediately.

The dear reader might remember an earlier blog entry, the first one that touched upon the subject of the List(tm), in which I recounted details of some anime films I had watched - once - 24 years earlier. I wasn't making that up. It's real memory. And there was no effort involved. I simply started out mentioning that which I could remember immediately, the Robotech/Macross thing, and the Nemo/Nautilus thing with the girl named Sophia, and then I kept on writing the rest of the blog entry, and every now and then, some more memories would surface, presumably dug up by Fred while I was busy forming senteneces in my mind and transmitting them to my fingers. It wasn't much Fred was able to dig up, and I included everything (there is nothing wrong with me bragging, as long as it's honest bragging) except a vague memory that one of the anime films might have been about some horrible and boring non-sci-fi soccer player - I wasn't sure of that (and still am not) so I didn't include it.

That's normal for me, as an individual. I cannot remember everything. I don't have an eidetic memory, nor do I have the ability to recall everything that ever happend to me (a so-called "autobiographical memory"; apparently everyone who has that are order-freaks, bordering on OCD, whereas I am of the school of thought that says that order is for idiots - geniuses can master chaos). It's often arbitrary what gets stored. I sometimes remember stuff that's howlingly unimportant (and sometimes I spend several minutes trying to figure out why a particular memory surfaced, before concluding that there is no cause, that it's purely random, and I'm wasting time on that kind of psychoanalysis). Sometimes - rarely - I forget important stuff. But I do have a very good memory.

That's my personal STP. From my point of view, everyone else appear to suffer from Alzheimers. I'm like: "But that was only seven years ago. How come you can't remember it?" My STP for intelligence is also unusual, but not as unusual as my STP for memory, for the ability to store and recall information and the amount of effort involved (for me: none. Always). I've never used a mnemotechnique. They somehow disgust me. I'm not at all opposed to other people using them; they just strike me, at a very instinctive level, as being obviously "not for me". I don't need such things.

Do you know anyone who has an unusual personal STP? Is your own STP unusual? Does your favourite fictional character have an odd STP? Does your favourite novel take place in a setting where the STP is markedly different from that of our world?

If you're building a world, either as a writer of non-interactive fiction, or as a GM preparing for a campaign, thinking about STP can be very helpful. Thinking about what the people in your world consider normal. What they expect, what they take for granted, and what would profoundly surprise, shock, disgust or impress them. There's no good reason to assume that their attitude towards war, pacifism and violence is automatically the same as yours, for instance.

Jo Walton didn't introduce me to the concept of STP. I was already thinking in those terms, long before I came across her blog entry. She just gave it name, so that it is now much easier to talk about.

If you're a world builder, grab a thermometer and stick it into your world. Take a reading. Then pull it out, and stick in a pressure gauge. Your world can only be made richer by it.

1. His name might come from the Roman word patrician, as a byname (Patrick = "The Patrician") in which case that can't possibly have been his byname in the Ärth timeline, since Britain never really got Romanized. The Romans only got to occupy the island for a couple of decades, before Queen B chased them away. So even though the person has the same genetics and personality (and it was possible to be a Christian in Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries; it wasn't until later that sentiments turned strongly anti-Christian), he'd have had some other name, so it's probably best to think of it as a translation convention.

2. Think Lara Croft, but with a more modest chest, and of course unlike Ms. Croft Elizabeth of York is a proper Brit, with scarcely a drop of foreign blood - i.e. Germanic or Latin or Moorish- in her veins. (Not that she's a racist, but when you're occupied, it's quite natural to relish whatever it is that distances you from the occupying people.)

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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