Thursday, July 25, 2013

Oblivion--Gifts to the Stone Age

I'm having fun building the world for my fourth book in the Jezebel series, Oblivion. The heroes have to study an alien stone age race and give them exactly 27 ideas that can help them achieve the next level. Before the heroes can decide the perfect gifts, they have to study the aliens for years. The first step is observation and recording. The linguist uses this data to form an alphabet and a dictionary. Eventually, we want the little green men (LGMs) to learn this alphabet so earthlings can write down the ideas. The first idea is expressed as a verbal/pictorial concept. We show them all the letters in the alphabet by using all of them in a sentence like the old typewriter test "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog," with illustration above each word.

The world generates action. From this concept, I ask myself what the first meeting would be like? Given Murphy's Law, the contact would be before we're entirely ready, say at the 5000 word daily vocabulary level. A scout sent out to get more speech samples breaks her leg and needs help getting back to the shuttle. How does she communicate? With today's speech recognition and Google translation technology, we could rig a headset that listens to the English and broadcasts in LGM (Lou's voice). The microphone picks up LGM and translates it back to English (Mercy's voice). Even as the human speaks, the translator mangles it twice. For example "civilization," becomes "all who bury their own butt output."

The heroine picks a trader to help her because he's one of the few who travels, and he will barter. Because they're not allowed to be seen by the aliens, we'll have a visual obscuring device I'll call a shimmer field that can temporarily blind the natives if they look directly into it. Between her complaints about the person who did the shoddy translations and explanation about why the native can't look at her, she inadvertently creates a mythology for all future contact.

The word for writing on wood or stone is "tictic" because that's the sound the chalk makes when you mark something. It's used almost exclusively for hash-mark counts of agricultural items in a delivery. The example gets mangled, and the sentence begins "lazy fox". The word for the new alphabet invention is therefore equivalent to "tictic-lah-zay".

It turns out that the "trader" is swapping narcotic chew to farmers and slaves--because they don't want to actually work for a living. The drug traffickers take on the collective title "the lazy foxes" to accentuate their cleverness and freedom. So we accidentally give literacy to rebel drug lords who feel compelled to mark buildings with graffiti to spread language like a virus. Any graffiti artists discovered are publicly executed by the slave lords. Thus, even one idea causes a near collapse of the society they were sent to uplift.

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