The Diophel – Index

The diophel are an alien (though in some regards not that alien) species of my creation. Here are four posts about them:

Here is a description of their appearance, and some other aspects of their physicality.
Here is a description of their primitive social structure.
Here is a brief history of their social development from that primitive structure through to being interstellar colonists.
Finally, here is a brief overview of their current (well, compared to us right now a few centuries into the future, actually) society.

 

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The Diophel: The Current Situation

Closing out (for now) the series I’ve been doing on the diophel, an alien species

Diophel are a fast-breeding and expansive species, on the whole. They occupy ten core planets, and have bases on another dozen (the diophel impulse for independence seems greater than their desire for ‘natural’ surroundings, so they have created many sealed colonies on otherwise uninhabitable worlds, as well as having hundreds of space habitats). They have another four planets developed in co-operation with the neighbouring thaugomur (the thaugomur provided much of the resources and construction work, while the diophel provided the majority of the settlers), two with the turigd and two with the liwak. They have a ‘domestic’ population of around 100 billion (though ‘diophel-controlled’ planets have a total population of closer to 150 billion, counting other species), and billions more live on alien planets.

Diophel are a gregarious and largely welcoming species, relatively unconvinced by any speciesist or segregationalist doctrines – they are, by and large, happy to allow aliens to live among them in the same way that they have always allowed other diophel species to live among them. Diophel planets have also become home to small numbers of thaugomur, many ieed, many liwak, a fair few trotel (a species with only one homeworld of its own, discovered by diophel and welcomed into their worlds), and large and growing numbers of turigd. This is not to say, of course, that there are not species tensions on the diophel planets, particularly regarding the fractious and ill-disciplined turigd (who have largely sought to live among diophel to escape the disorderly behaviour of their own conspecifics) – species relations (and, for example, the question of segregation vs assimilation) are a major political issue on many diophel planets. But as a whole, diophel disputes are far more likely to pit different diophel polities against one another than they are to pit species against species (or genus against genus).

The diophel are not a unitary species. Combined, their military might would be sizeable – doubtless, they could defeat, say, the thaugomur in a total war. But in practice, while diophel might unite if an existential threat to their genus ever arose, they are mostly fragmented politically; because the diophel are so fragmented, it is difficult to make sweeping generalisations about their culture. It is, however, possible to describe a ‘most common’ prototypical form.

Prototypically, female diophel are arranged in large flocks of between 50 and 200 (sometimes more) adult individuals. Ritualised, free-will exchanges of females help bind each flock to its neighbours, as does a considerable emphasis on female lineages and shared ancestry. Often, the exchanging of females reaches a point where the flock itself, as a genetic entity, is a legal fiction, its membership all but entirely comprising newcomers. The functions of the human ‘corporation’, for instance, are typically fulfilled by a flock, which, if particular skills are required, will recruit its members from outside; each spaceship, likewise, is run as a family. This approach tends to yield inflexible and slow-adapting institutions – ‘sacking’ a worker is tantamount to divorcing a wife or disinheriting a child, and while females do move between flocks repeatedly it is never a casual matter – but on the other hand it tends also to yield a high level of psychological commitment by the individuals concerned. What’s more, the interweaving exchanges of females enmesh the individual in multifaceted concepts of familial identity – a female diophel will owe allegiance to her primary flock, to be sure (which is likely to be her work colleages), but also to the flock from which she came, which is itself likely to be distinct from the flock in which she was born – and her deference to her mother (probably the most important single diophel relationship) not only brings with it allegiances to her mother’s own changing pattern of flock allegiance, but is itself mirrored by the fictive maternal relationships she adopts on entering each new flock. On a larger level, hierarchies are established by physical and mental dominance, by wealth disparities, by mother-daughter dominance, and above all by (legally) inherited status form complex webs of authority and submission. The resulting system is, in theory, highly authoritarian and rigid, with very little scope for elections or accountability (a group may ‘elect’ an individual for a certain task, such as being the foreman, but this is a matter of convenience with little fundamental authority). Above all, it is important to see the primary unit of diophel society as the flock, as fuzzy-edged as that has become, rather than the individual, who takes their identity from their place within the flock (or, at least, from their places at the intersections of a number of flock identities). Diophel are not typically able to point to a single individual who is ‘in charge’ of any situation – although there are more dominant flocks, particularly when it comes to certain matters, and there are certainly more and less dominant individuals within each flock (with, again, that dominance often shifting with the area of governance in question), there is very little sense of the most dominant member of the most dominant flock being in any way ‘the ruler’. On the largest scale, most diophel societies largely can be considered as fractal bodies, families joining in neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods joining in city-states, city-states joining in nations, and where multiple nations share one planet those nations can join together in a planetary society, itself a part of larger groupings. However, these groupings must be seen not as distinct entities, but as, as it were, ‘clumps’ or ‘lumps’ in a continuum of social networks – two neighbouring nations are distinct only in that social connectivity is greater within the nation than between them, but there will still usually be links between the nations, and for individuals at ‘the border’, the idea that they are indeed at the border between two distinct nations may not have occurred to them at all.

Males, meanwhile, are prototypically slaves, each wholly owned by a flock, and subject to sale. Yet they are not regarded as ornamental, but rather as valuable resources, not only for their labour but for their connectivity. The exchange of males is perhaps just as important as the exchange of females – most of the ‘institutions’ and ‘organisations’ that a human would recognise among in a diophel society are run entirely by males. It is males, for instance, who write the laws (females would say that they delegate their males to do the boring negotiations that draw up proposed codes of conduct that the females then choose to abide by), and males who conduct trade (females would say that they make the goods, and consume the goods, and delegate males to do the administrative negotiatory business of deciding which goods should be exchanged for what). Male slavery certainly does not result in male deprivation – indeed, females are more likely to go hungry themselves than deprive their males, not only because males are valuable assets (that can in a pinch be sold) but because doing otherwise would be horribly unchivalrous. In any case, a defining feature of prototypical diophel society is liberalism, both toward males and toward low-ranked females. Although society is highly authoritarian in structure – which is believed to be necessary in order to maintain law and order and social harmony – it is considered that actual oppression is both indicative of weakness and liable to cause dissent and instability. Diophel have thus largely come to accept a fairly laissez faire approach to governance, particularly on what might be considered ‘personal’ matters.

Religion perhaps also deserves some mention. Religion among the diophel takes two forms: ancestor worship and cult worship. Cult worship centres around the veneration of deities, typically through symbolic (often unusual geometric shapes or patterns are used) idols and icons. It is unclear what these deities are believed to be, as they are usually spoken of as being beyond comprehension. They may even all be one, though this is a poetic thought-experiment more than a determined doctrine. It seems likely that they may in some way be associated with a sense of place and identity-through-location, as colonising groups often ‘create’ new deities in their new homes, and deities can to some extent come to be used as symbols of national or urban or regional identity. Devotion to the deities typically involves simple but rigid ritualism, and there is often a class of professional priests who combine the performance of rituals with a simple, meditative lifestyle. Devotion is largely considered to be something done for its own sake, to express personal piety – although superstitious notions about the gods taking revenge or bestowing favours can be found, for the most part there is little clear concept of deities as active agents either this world or in any other (diophel typically have little or no concept of an ‘afterlife’ in any metaphysical sense). This sort of cult activity is almost entirely a male practice, at least in its active forms; females, however, are mostly respectful (if sometimes suspicious) of it, and many females, particularly in more crowded areas, like to sometimes take advantage of its products – it is not at all unusual to see the odd female sitting quietly in a temple garden to give herself a few minutes of calm on a busy day. Ancestor worship, on the other hand, is a female practice. Family lineages (both fictive and genetic) are known through female lines back for often two millennia, and most females can recite at least a few centuries. “History” education comes in the form of learning about individual ancestors and their lives – rather than there being any standardised course about the early years of interstellar flight, for instance, individuals will learn from their mothers and aunts about their distant grandmothers and grand-aunts who first came to the colonies. The ancestors are believed to ‘live on’ in a practical sense through their descendents – violating the will of one’s great-grandmother is considered much like doing this afternoon what you swore this morning that you’d never do, with little distinction made between changing one’s mind and disagreeing with one’s mother or grandmother (which is to say that it might make sense now and then, when situations change, but to do it too often or too quickly is a sign of unreliability at best and lunacy at worst). It is common, therefore, for individuals to debate the actions and intentions of diophel who died centuries ago as a way of deciding upon present actions – not only, as some humans do, in the form of nations second-guessing their founders, but on the scale of individual families (and ‘family’-like organisations like companies and militaries and so on). Much of a female diophel’s leisure time is likely to be devoted to memorising life-histories, looking at pictures, and the like. If a particular ancestor (most diophel have favourites) had some or other particular virtue, they are likely to be invoked to act through the living individual when that virtue is required.

It must be stressed again, however, that this is only a ‘prototypical’ modern diophel society. Some societies are more formalised, some less, some more authoritarian, some less, some give more authority to males, some less (though there are very few outright patriarchies surviving). Diophel encountered away from their home space tend to have simpler female social structures, but more individual freedom. Diophel on their homeworld tend to live in more complex and united societies that are also more strictly authoritarian (as is the case for many species, the homeworld is by far the poorest and most overcrowded planet). There are many more variations from place to place – in part because the desire to explore alternative social structures has often been a major reason for colonisation. In general, however, the most extreme deviations from this prototype are found in the smaller societies, whether isolated mountain villages on habitable worlds or enclosed bubble-cities on otherwise unpeopled rocks.

Influential Figures in Fantasy, 10

The Big Boom III

Robert Jordan (1948-2007)
George R.R. Martin (1948-)
Terry Pratchett (1948-)

In the 1990’s, Fantasy (at least pure ‘secondary world’ Fantasy) just got bigger and bigger. The greatest representative of this era is probably its most commercially succesful writer, Robert Jordan, whose later books regularly hit the top spot on the New York Times sales lists (the paper acclaimed him as the heir to Tolkien – ‘in attention earned if not achievement’). Along with writers like Terry Goodkind and Tad Williams, Jordan took Fantasy to the next level of commercial success, largely by amplifying the Brooksian formula, making his battles bigger, his magic more explosive, and his stories much, much, much much longer. Jordan ended up writing eleven gargantuan volumes of his ‘Wheel of Time’ epic series (plus one prequel), leaving the final three novels to an author (Brandon Sanderson) selected by his estate after his death; Goodkind’s ‘Sword of Truth’ lasted a mere 11 gigantic installments, plus one prequel and one (and counting) sequel. It’s hard to really comprehend the sheer enormity of these series (and there were plenty more). As one comparison: “The Wheel of Time” is longer than one hundred copies of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe all back to back. Any two volumes of it put together would be about the length of War and Peace, with thirteen more volumes still to spare…

Jordan, though, was perhaps the end of a certain phase in fantasy. Later in the nineties, the tone changed, moving away somewhat from the big-magic adventure-epics of Jordan (and to a lesser extent Brooks, Eddings, and the TSR writers) and toward a more character-focused, ‘historical’ form of fantasy. Robin Hobb might be worth mentioning here, but by far the more prominent writer of the movement was George R.R. Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire came closest of this next generation to challenging Jordan. Martin, of course, was approximately the same age as Jordan, and gained fame earlier, but only as the writer of short stories (mostly SF) and a few standalone novels. It was in the late 1990s that A Game of Thrones came out, and the height of his popularity was not reached for another decade, until his books were made into a succesful TV series. A Song of Ice and Fire helped reconfigure the landscape of fantasy, coming at it almost from another direction entirely – his series reads less like a classically ‘fantastical’ story and more like a historical fiction novel that happens to be set on another world with some magical elements, and the emphasis on the story shifts from the epic confrontation between good and evil to the quotidian conflict between variously morally grey rivals – painting the colours, as it were, of S&S onto the form of epic fantasy.

Meanwhile, something even bigger was happening in Britain. Terry Pratchett begin his career as a novellist in the ‘70s, but he achieved the height of his powers and fame in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, primarily with his Discworld series, but also with his Johnny Maxwell and Bromeliad trilogies. Pratchett represents a revival of Chestertonian ideologies, with his humour, distinctive (and distinctively English) narrative voice and Romantic, anti-materialist didacticism (Death’s famous line at the end of Hogfather, which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t read it, may well be the most Chestertonian thing ever written by anyone not named Chesterton). His ability to speak to both adults and children, to genre fans and to a mainstream audience, in both drama and comedy and one and the same time, and with a narrative voice that combined extraordinary wit, erudition and literary awareness with a simple, popular touch that let readers feel elevated and flattered rather than spoken down to, lead to nearly unprecedented popularity. Pratchett became the best-selling author in the UK (at one point comprising over 4% of total hardback fiction sales in the country), and garnered at least five honorary doctorates, a knighthood, blockbuster theatrical adaptations by the Royal National Theatre, many adaptations for TV, and a range of commemorative stamps from the Royal Mail. After Rowling, the 50’s pair of Tolkien and Lewis, and the fantasy horror pair of King and Rice, Pratchett became the biggest-selling fantasy author of all, and helped to make fantasy respectable with a far broader market.

P.S. since writing this, Adam over at the always fascinating thewertzone.blogspot.com has updated his estimates of the best-selling SFF authors of all time. He calculates that Stephanie Meyer has overtaken Pratchett (and even Rice), and he puts Jordan slightly ahead of Pratchett, but the margins of error are probably large.

Influential Figures in Fantasy… 9?

The Big Boom II

David Eddings (1931-2009)
Glen Cook (1944-)
Margaret Weiss (1948-) and Tracy Hickman (1955-)
Robert Holdstock (1948-2009)
William Gibson (1948-)

 

If Terry Brooks taught the lesson that, in attracting the new generations of Fantasy fans perennially looking for ‘the next Tolkien’, superficial tropes were far more important than soul, then one of the first and most succesful authors to learn that lesson was David Eddings. Eddings was considerably older than his peers – he was not a lifelong fantasy fan determined to follow in the footsteps of Tolkien, Lewis or Vance, but rather a more-or-less-failed minor novelist who (as he said himself) one day observed the tremendous success of Tolkien, Donaldson and Brooks, and, browsing through their work, realised that this ‘Fantasy’ business seemed very easy to do, and potentially very lucrative. A series of succesful novels followed. Eddings goes further, and more intentionally, than Brooks in mass-marketing his work – his protagonist in the Belgariad, for instance, is even younger than Brooks’, a common farm boy onto whom every child reader can project their aspirations. His stories strip out the wondrous even more than Brooks’ do, intentionally creating thin worlds of stereotypical cultures and archetypical characters and plots (Eddings himself observed that for a certain type of reader these archetypal elements worked like powerful addictive drugs, overriding their better judgement and forcing them to buy more of his books), but all delivered in a mundane and hence accessible style – in sharp contrast to Tolkien or Donaldson, both his narrative voice and his characters would not be in the least out of place in any other mass-marketed genre.

Even more significant than Eddings, however, may be the authorial duet of Weiss and Hickman. Dragons of Autumn Twilight may not have been the first ever Dungeons and Dragons novel – improbably, that honour belongs to an André Norton novel set in Greyhawk – but it did launch (semi-accidentally) TSR’s programme of game-supporting in-house novel-writing. In the next fourteen years, until TSR’s bankruptcy, over 240 more fantasy novels followed from TSR alone, and many more from other companies following in their footsteps. A replacement to the pulps had been found. Few shared-world novels were ever interesting as literature, and only a handful of their authors achieved significant name-recognition (the most prominent being R.A. Salvatore), but D&D and its novels set the foundations of fantasy from that point on. In terms of plot, the genius of these novels was their ability to set S&S-style tales, with their immediacy and action, in a world with the grandeur of epic fantasy – Dragonlance perhaps is the greatest example, with a spine of fate-of-the-world epic fantasy novels supporting a vast hinterland of adventure stories following every minor character and every historical reference in those central books (albeit with lamentably poor continuity). The variety of worlds (made more accessible by shared and linked elements) and the sheer number of novels allowed some of these writers to explore more unusual, and often darker, directions (Dragonlance, for instance, included an entire subseries of biographical novels in which the protagonists were the villains of the main novels) – including at times (particularly in Spelljammer and Planescape, but also in Dark Sun and elsewhere) some very weird directions. More important, however, was the way that D&D codified many of the tropes that would later be taken for granted, such as the pseudo-Tolkienian array of sentient ‘races’, and (in order to tie in with their roleplaying games) developed the concept of a ‘magic system’, a series of mechanistic (game-like, of course) rules underlying the use of supernatural powers.

Donaldson, Brooks, Eddings and Weiss & Hickman (among others) turned Fantasy into a massively successful (and prolific) genre, while Rice and King were showing that it could be even more succesful if it pretended to be something else. But some of their contemporaries were trying to take the genre in other directions. Glen Cook’s ‘Black Company’ novels developed a strain of military epic fantasy that made the ‘heroes’ into hardbitten mercenaries and challenged the Chestertonian/Tolkienian clarity of good and evil, while combining fantastic subject matter with realistic, ‘gritty’ portrayal. They may not have had a great immediate impact on the Fantasy fiction of the ‘80s, but they would not be forgotten by later writers.  Robert Holdstock, likewise, achieved more influence than sales, his portal fantasy Mythago Wood and its sequels revivifying and updating a ‘mythic’ strain of fantasy that moved in exactly the opposite direction from the bestsellers of their day. Finally, William Gibson isn’t perhaps strictly a fantasy author at all, but his influence on a strain of fantasy shouldn’t be underestimated. Gibson’s most famous contribution was the cyberpunk genre, bringing a SF setting to the brink of fantasy through nightmarish and magical ‘science’, dazzling the reader with a brilliant weirdness of both setting and prose, and infusing the whole with the paranoia and cynicism of a noir mystery. As an encore, Gibson collaborated with Bruce Sterling to create the increasingly prominent ‘steampunk’ brand of neovictorian retrofuturist science fantasy.

Azhdarchids…

…honestly, the mind just boggles!

Influential Figures in Fantasy, 8

The Big Boom I

Anne Rice (1941-)
Terry Brooks (1944-)
Stephen Donaldson (1947-)
Stephen King (1947-)

 

By the middle of the seventies, Fantasy had a handful of breakout successes – primarily the works of Tolkien and Lewis – and a few other works beginning to grab the imagination of the young, such as those of Le Guin and McCaffrey. Moreover, there was now an established Fantasy genre, albeit one that remained wedded to Science Fiction. But Fantasy (with the exception of the magic realists, who had escaped out into the wilds of Literature) was still very much a niche genre, and not even all that big a niche. In the late seventies, that began to change, through a raft of writers born in the ‘Baby Boom’ after WWII, and particularly in the bumper year of 1948 (these will be included in the next few sections). Children born in 1948 were 7 when the final volume of The Lord of the Rings was published, and 8 when the Chronicles of Narnia were completed. They grew up as a the volume and variety of Fantasy stories were expanding, and most importantly they were teenagers as Tolkien-mania hit fever pitch, culminating in the publication of the massively-succesful Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings when they were 17. Unsurprisingly, then, it was Tolkien’s work that formed the backbone of their own developments, not Leiber and Moorcock.

Four authors in particular turned Fantasy into a massively-succesful commercial enterprise. The most innovative – and yet in some ways most traditional – of these was Stephen Donaldson, whose Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (initially rejected by publishers the first forty times…) developed a rich secondary world filled with mythic imagery and resonances, but turned the tropes of heroic plotting on their head by centreing the series on one of the most reprehensible and thoroughly unpleasant protagonists imaginable. His tale of a repugnant and self-centred reluctant hero came equipped with a plot painted in the darkest shades of tragedy, and a style of language that outdid any predecessor in its alien, hyperelevated diction.  Nonetheless, his books were enormously succesful.

Not so succesful, however, as those of Terry Brooks, whose The Sword of Shannara became the first Fantasy novel to reach the NYT trade paperback bestseller list (1977 was the big year for commercial success in Fantasy – The Sword of Shannara, Lord Foul’s Bane and The Silmarillion were all published, along with the first rulebooks for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons). On the surface, Brooks’ novel was very close to Tolkien – indeed, Lin Carter (influential S&S author and editor) opined that it was “the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read”, and that its plot was ‘stolen’ not just shamelessly but “with such clumsiness and so heavy-handedly, that he virtually rubbed your nose in it.” And it’s true that the characters from Tolkien are transposed more-or-less one-by-one and given new names, and that the plot passes through exactly the same checklist of developments, in the same order, as Tolkien’s book. But Brooks was, nonetheless, crucially and vitally innovative in one particular way – a far more important way than Donaldson’s superficial novelty. In creating his, as one critic put it, ‘diluted substitute’ for Tolkien, slavishly imitating all the particulars of Tolkien without ever really seeming to understand any of the soul or purpose of the original, Brooks set the prototype for a generation of fantasy novels. He liberated the superficial tropes of the Tolkienian world from the ideological framework of Tolkien’s romantic fantasy, employing a style more similar to ordinary adventure novels than to Tolkien’s anachronistic mediaevalism. In doing this, he not only made the genre more accessible to readers who were unable to appreciate the nuances of Tolkien’s worldview, he also made it more accessible to authors who understood fiction but had not been able to understand, and hence had not been able to replicate, Tolkien’s unique approach. Brooks showed that the surface was all that anyone needed to copy.

But while Donaldson and Brooks were forging ahead in epic fantasy, two other writers were achieving even greater commercial success at the edges of the genre. The most succesful of all was Stephen King. Like García Marquéz and the Magic Realists, King was largely able to avoid the stigma of ‘Fantasy’ writing, though where they found a home in literary fiction, King was unabashedly populist mainstream fiction. Nonethless, the four-time WFA-winning, Hugo-winning, Nebula-nominated author is best known for a brand of ‘Horror’ that leans heavily on the encounter between reality and the supernatural, even the magical, and has been open about his influences from fantasy horror (Lovecraft), SF (Matheson and Bradbury), and from outright Fantasy (Tolkien) – notably, King described his The Stand as an attempt to transplant The Lord of the Rings into a post-apocalyptic America. Meanwhile, behind and between all his stories lies the fantastic multiverse detailed in his The Dark Tower series, which combines epic fantasy with the Western genre, in with which many of his more famous novels are connected. In this, King helped turn Fantasy toward more morally ambiguous protagonists, and helped show the compatibility of epic fantasy with real-world and post-apocalyptic settings. More generally, King’s massive commercial success inspired writers in all niche genres, and particularly created interest in the borderland between reality and fantasy, and in contemporary retellings of traditional ‘horror’ tropes.

A second commercially succesful writer at the border of horror and fantasy was Anne Rice, who may never have matched King in pure sales, but has arguably been even more influential. Rice, like King, helped resurrect (no pun intended) the old vampire story, but put a distinctly different spin on it, beginning to ‘defang’ her vampires from terrifying, unreasoningly evil existential threats into (sometimes unpleasant, yet) understandable human beings, whose stories might be filled with angst and brooding. And, of course, a lot of sex. Rice is probably the mother of the modern ‘paranormal romance’ subgenre, and more generally casts a long shadow over urban fantasy as a whole.

Hooray!

I can now access my own blog regularly! Thank you, Big Brother!