A number of years ago I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I would give it three stars out of five. It teetered into hokey territory in places, and a few of the plot twists were a little too deus ex machina for my taste (somebody conveniently swoops in to save the day whenever Lyra finds herself up shit creek without a paddle). But the concepts and plot devices were interesting at least. The story is set across several different parallel universes, the heroine hailing from a reality where every person’s spirit animal (referred to as a dæmon) walks, slithers, hops, swims, crawls or flies in close proximity to the person at all times. The dæmons can talk to their humans and give kindly advice, but their human is the only one who can hear them speak…
Some variant of that concept would inevitably find its way into my own writing. The dæmons in my particular story are depicted as software applications, running within the simulated world in which it is set. Whether or not other people can hear these things speak is an adjustable setting. Like airplane mode, or the wallpaper on your desktop.
The idea of having a human dæmon for a character who is not human was used as a plot device for exactly one scene in the first volume of His Dark Materials, but was never explored more fully beyond that. So I decided to run with it in my own yarn. One of the antagonists is a colossal invertebrate with no vocal apparatus of any sort. Its language is entirely olfactory, comprised of odors it emits through its breath and slime trails and territorial musk. Odors capable of conveying all manner of idea from the mundane to the philosophical, but are mostly undetectable to humans save the ones that smell obscenely bad. Thus it needs a companion humanoid entity to follow it around wherever it goes, translating its odors into something humans can understand…
The microscopic saber-toothed tiger currently prowling the earth has disrupted what would’ve been normal activities for most of us, no doubt. This decade is only a few months old and it’s coined a few buzzwords and catchphrases already. Whodathunkit? From my experience, most decades take at least a year or two to shrug off the aura of the previous decade and find their own groove. But these Not-So-Roaring Twenties did it in a fraction of that time. Now if we could just get rid of that racism crap too, that would be great. Like somebody once said, we’re all in this together.
I continue to edit SILVER BROWN when I’m not willing web apps into existence. This chapter I’m working on now is a complete rewrite of a passage from an earlier draft. It dawned on me the other day that said passage would better serve the narrative if I put it earlier in the story than it was previously. As a result of this literary reconstructive surgery, the new rewrite features two characters that weren’t in that scene in the first draft (one of which is an artificial intelligence). A wondrous new dimension to the whole dynamic has consequently taken root.
Ah, wonder. Something that is in tragically short supply these days. That sense of wonder I derive from these Lutherans is a much-needed boost to personal morale in the face of this surreally dark period of human history. I could spend my time in social isolation flailing my arms running around like a headless chicken, but I’d rather just write.
In many a blog post of yesterweek, I’ve mentioned Act One of SILVER BROWN is pretty much complete. I’m not ruling out the possibility that it still might undergo a few more nips, tucks and organ transplants, but at least it’s at a point where I’m more or less satisfied with it. Acts Two and Three are both in an early-to-intermediate stage of their development. Like literary vestigial limbs. They will surely evolve into glorious eldritch tentacles dripping with digestive sucker juices and territorial musk, but for now they’re just stumps. Act Two is a little bit more than a stump, though. It’s the one I’m presently editing.
These chapters have something of a different feel to them compared to Act One. Act One details a critical moment in Florys MacNab’s career as a witch, and most of the supporting characters are other witches. Act Two sees Florys venture out into worlds beyond the Sisterhood to learn a host of horrifying cryptic truths her Lodge has hitherto kept from her. The supporting cast has almost completely changed. Characters that were only mentioned in passing or casually alluded to in Act One become much more prominent in Act Two. This blog post will focus on one of those characters in particular. Kent Fairholt’s trusty sidekick, the utility program Sherman dot Quebec Lima niner.
It was established from the earliest drafts that Sherman can and does speak. His function within the narrative is as a voice of reason. A foil and counterpart for Kent Fairholt, frequently correcting him when he’s wrong. Kent’s conscience, personified. Or more accurately, mustelified. When Sherman speaks, Kent is the only human who can understand him. To Florys and other humans, Sherman’s utterances just sound like a series of clucks, squawks and chirrups. Hence, Sherman’s brainy sayings (at least the ones relevant to the plot) must necessarily be translated and interpreted for Florys (and ultimately the audience) by his significantly less brainy friend. The results may vary.
Throughout the editing process, I experimented with several different approaches trying to find the best way to represent Sherman’s utterances in the text. The earlier stages of the book’s evolution would feature Florys including phrases like “the ferret clucked and squawked” or “the ferret clucked and squawked some more” in her narration of the story (she seldom refers to Sherman by name, mostly out of disdain for Kent). The result was that Sherman came across like a one-dimensional character, saying the same old shit over and over again. After about the fifth time the ferret clucked and squawked, he started to get on my nerves. So in order to make him less Jar Jar Binksy, I found it necessary to expand his vocabulary a bit. That, and to present more of his lines of dialogue in an onomatopoeic manner as opposed to giving verbal descriptions of his utterances – a cue I probably took from the fight scenes in that old Batman series from the Sixties starring the late great Adam West…
His vocabulary would be expanded further still when Our Lady of 420 whispered in my ear one morning and casually suggested that he ought to be equipped with a vast internal library of sound effects. An idea completely compatible with the nature of the character and the premise of the book.
Sherman looks like a ferret and is frequently referred to as such by Florys, but beyond superficial appearances there is nothing ferrety about him. He’s actually a musteline utility program running within the Environment. An artificial intelligence, in other words. Like a walking Siri with fur. Hence, having a library of sound effects tucked away somewhere in his brain wouldn’t disrupt the suspension of disbelief too much. The sound effects come into play when Sherman is trying to accentuate a point he’s trying to make to Kent, using them almost like auditory emojis. Any selections from the library that take more than one word to convey are given in parentheses in the text. I think I recall J.K. Rowling using a similar technique a few times in the Harry Potter series, although I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head specifically in which chapters of which books.
Squawk! Roar, meow. Bark! (Screech of an eagle). Chirrup, cluck-cluck (something that vaguely sounded like a dump truck backing up). Coo, squeak.