It’s a question every writer asks as they begin work: how do I build my world? How do I create a universe teeming with life, vibrancy, heartache and hope, rather than a flat set filled with cardboard cutouts? One of the best, most immediate ways is to imbue your story with unique language. This technique has been used by many classics of SFF, but my favorite recent example is The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson.
I already loved Wilson’s story “The Devil in America,” published here on Tor.com in. And when I read Stories for Chip, a collection of fiction and essays honoring Samuel R. Delany, I was really taken with his inventive story, “Legendaire.” But now, in Wildeeps, he’s added an extraordinary voice to the Sword and Sorcery subgenre.
I’ve always been interested in the ways authors build future societies and fantasy societies. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, for instance, language itself is essentially the same, but the characters’ knowledge of the 1950s-era tech is nonexistent. It’s left to the reader to fill in the gaps, and alternate between amusement and horror as they build the story of nuclear devastation in between those gaps. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker gives readers a similar experience. Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, however, both tell stories set so far in the future that our current era only appears as scraps of architecture and whispered myth. The fun here is to try to parse out what survived against all odds, and to see how the people of the future have reinterpreted things like Beatles’ lyrics and astronomy centers.
All of these stories feature human languages and mythologies that have evolved in the wake of catastrophe, redefining some words, and inventing new ones. In “Houston Houston Do You Read?” on the other hand, the main character obsesses over the fact that the language is the same, and holds onto that as his lifeline because that means they can’t possibly be in the future… but of course it’s just that those who survived the plague have tried their best to preserve language as it was, with the addition of Australian accents. A Clockwork Orange’s Nadsat combines this tactic with another useful writing trick—inventing teen slang. Since youth culture shifts and changes several times a day, any author using current slang risks dating the shit out of their work, but trying to use generic terms for things will make you sound like a square (Which would be why the best examinations of teen life invented phrases and trusted viewers to go along with it, e.g. Heathers, Mean Girls, Buffy, etc.), so Burgess gave us a cocktail of cockney rhyming slang, roughly translated Russian, and only a few authentically mid-1960s British phrases.
My favorite SFF story about language has to be Babel-17 (another Delany book) which explores how language shapes thought itself. For instance, if someone is raised in a culture that has no word for “I”, can they ever achieve a sense of individuality—at least, one that will be understood by a person who has a very definite definition of “I”? How will a person see themselves, if they have no word to express their separate-ness from others? Is language a virus? Can it be weaponized? The book came out of Delany’s fascination with the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an idea (which has since been debunked) that the language a person thinks in determines their perception of the world and self.
Sometimes you want to say things, and you’re missing an idea to make them with, and missing a word to make the idea with. In the beginning was the word. That’s how somebody tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn’t exist.
What does all this have to do with Wildeeps, you’re asking? Well, what really excited me about the story was how Wilson used the language in a totally different way. He isn’t just using language to add some tapestry to the walls of his worlds, he’s using it to look at code switching. It’s a little more akin to the work of Junot Diaz, I think, where Dominican nerds in New Jersey have to constantly shift between nerdspeak, Dominican Spanish, street patois, and the “higher” white-coded language they’re expected to use at school and work. Wilson’s novella melds the usual fantasy language of gods and quests with the language of the current, modern, U.S. street.
This is different than what he did in “The Devil in America” (which you can read here, and which I am not recommending so much as I’m jumping up and down waving my arms and hollering Read it read it it’s so good go and read it holy crap). TDIA takes a real horror from U.S. history—the massacre of the black community of Rosewood, Florida—and transforms it into a mythic tale of satanic curses and old magic. The language is pure Southern country, sprinkled with New Orleans French and Mexican Spanish.
In one of Wilson’s early stories, “Legendaire,” he introduced us to three intersecting groups with multiple languages. Residents of Sea-john are called Johnnies, and speak a “lower” language, while people down in the Kingdom are the arbiters of high culture and consider their language “high.” Meanwhile, the gods have their own language, which wouldn’t be a big deal, but since the gods sometimes live amongst the people in Wilson’s work, it just becomes another language to weave in. The unnamed central character is being raised by his two mothers and a father, Redamas, who happens to be a god. Like the other characters, the young boy is fluent in both the high and low languages, and also has a smattering of god-speak thanks to his father.
But interestingly, Wilson doesn’t write out this invented vernacular in “Legendaire.” The fluidity of their language is such that at various points characters simply note that they’ve unconsciously switched back and forth, and once Redamas mentions enjoying his son’s “johnny” talk because he thinks it’s funny. The closest Wilson comes is a moment when Redamas speaks his own language in referring to “Discorporate Intelligences,” momentarily forgetting that he is supposed to use the Sea-john term “ghosts” when speaking to his son.
In Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Wilson takes his language games to the next level. The plot, like Mad Max: Fury Road, is whisper thin and beside the point. Demane, a demi-god come to earth, travels with a caravan of merchants and the “brothers” who act as the richer men’s muscle. The group is about to start down The Road, which was considered the only safe route through the Wildeeps until a monster began snatching travelers.
We get the sense that Demane doesn’t need this work, and could do any number of things. He could, most likely, insert himself into a higher class if he chose. But he stays with the caravan because of his deep love for the Captain, Isa. (Isa, we eventually learn, is from Sea-john.) The regular humans he travels with can’t find a way to incorporate Demane’s godlike qualities into their every day lives, so they name him Sorcerer, and expect him to provide healing and charms as they need them. They can’t handle the Captain’s divine strength, so they just think of him as a very strong man. Captain and Sorcerer occupy a hazy liminal space in the social strata: they’re “better” than the brothers, but they’re also not equal to the elite merchants. When the caravan comes to a town, it’s assumed that the merchants will spend their time pursuing business opportunities and dining, while the brothers will get drunk, pick fights, and wake up in whorehouses, and when they’re on the road, it’s the brothers who will act as hired meat when danger nears. The brothers are expendable, silly, coarse—but they’re the ones we live with, and quickly come to love, during this story.
Demane notes the class distinctions within the first pages of the book:
While it was true that most brothers showed purer descent from that half of the mulatto north supposedly more blessed with brawn than brains, and for the merchants it was the other way around—brighter of complexion (and intellect?)—did it necessarily follow that one group deserved fine speech, while the other should get nasty words sprinkled on every single sentence? “You motherfuckers came here on our coin, our camels. And while you lot drink and whore tonight, we merchants must sell the salt, must empty the warehouses, must pack the goods, must swap the camels for burros. Therefore—right now—I need numbers for how many mean to press on with us. Tell Captain Isa your choice: you brave, you venturesome, you men who are men. And may God bless the cowardly cocksuckers we leave behind.”
We also get a brief splash of god language:
“You oughta let me take a quick look-see,” Demane said, not for the first time. “I won’t even touch my bag unless you say so. Promise.”
“I told you, Sorcerer.” Faedou threw an edgy glance up at Demane’s bag. “I put my hopes in God.”
After that last clash with bandits, Demane had tended the injuries of all the brothers save for Faedou, who, it seemed, feared the pollution of heathen arts even more than death by gangrene.
[Saprogenic possession], [antibiotic exorcism], the perils of [sepsis and necrotizing tissues]… Demane had perhaps doomed Faedou, in speaking such terms without knowing them in a common language. To superstitious ears, nothing distinguished those untranslated words from the veriest babble of demon worship.
While his rough attempts to speak the language of Mequerim mark him as lower class to the merchants, here Demane’s “higher,” scientific language sets him apart from the other brothers, and marks him constantly as an outsider. The segregation through language comes to a head when Demane meets Kaffalah, another brother, and attempts to speak to him about a creature who’s been attacking travellers on The Road. Kaffalah’s master goes on a long rant describing the beast but when Demane attempts to explain that they’ve tangled with a jukiere—a wizard cat—the best he can say is “Jooker, them…bad. Bad animal.” The merchant, who already sees him as an uncouth underling, dismisses him completely. Demane, with all of his wisdom and knowledge, cannot make them understand.
But more even than that is the constant weaving of the brothers’ language into the fantasy setting, from a long dialogue about the, ah, opportunities to be had in town:
“Yo, my dudes,” said a brother. “Heard they got hoes at the Station.”
The truth of this hearsay was by another brother affirmed. “Yeah. Down in some tents out past the big market.”
A latter beside the former two put forward his own intention, and inquired into other brothers’. “I’m heading down that way to see about one, damn betcha. Who else going?”
Nearly every brother was.
“’Bout you, Sorcerer?”
“I don’t do that.”
“Moi? I most certainly do,” said T-Jawn for the general edification; and then, confidingly, to Demane: “Has no one informed you then, Sorcerer? After Mother of
Waters, there shan’t be any further opportunities to, ah—what was that marvelously apt phrase of yours, Barkeem?” T-Jawn popped his fingers encouragingly.
“Get your dick wet.”
“Voilà—before we come to Olorum City?”
Here we have the conversation about what happens after the visit to the tavern—the conversation that is usually left out of fantasy. More importantly though, we have this conversation unfolding in vibrant language, with most of the men receding into a mass of plans and anticipation, while T-Jawn, who styles himself a dandy with his overstuffed volley of cockney and French, allies himself with the men, while also separating himself from them, and putting himself more on a par with Sorcerer, by ordering another man to utter the crudest phrase of the conversation. This one conversation highlights the jockeying for alpha status among the men, while underlining Demane’s utter solitude.
There are several such fireworks displays scattered across Wildeeps, hilarious conversations, rounds of insults, and arguments. Far simpler and even more effective, however is the constant flow of “ya’ll”, “yup”, “naw”, “ain’t”, and “son” that bathes Wilson’s language in Southern colloquialism, acting as a loving counterpoint to the high fantasy language around it. Wilson’s narration tends toward ornate, Delany-ish language, which creates an immediate tension between the brothers and the world they inhabit. For instance, this is how Wilson shows us a spark being thrown from a magical fire:
A single gobbet of bright jelly had splashed out of the wood tower, and glowed amidst the puddles of the Road. Undimmed by rain, like some imp from the fire-fields of Sol, it danced in the mud. Demane conjured a jar from his bag and with a single spilled drop quenched this molten errancy.
And this is how he describes a forest:
They stood atop a forested bluff, which commanded a view of valley, river running through, and surrounding ridges. At their feet the abrupt slope dropped off into depthless tangles of weed that overgrew the valley from end to end. This world or time was far ancestral to their own, Demane judged. Infusing the scent-drenched air was not one whiff of plant or animal known to him. Across the lush weedfields, in the middle distance, flowed a sludgy river. Sheersided crags, facelike, closed the valley in: the cliffs as smooth as cheeks, the dark bosky heights suggesting hair.
This language is further intercut with letters home from the merchants, fragments of prophecy and scripture, even a children’s song:
Ashe’s children wish us well,
But never trust them, born of Hell.
TSIMTSOA’s by far the best,
For weal and woe, than all the rest!
Wilson builds us an entire teeming world through the force of his language alone. But beyond even that, he illustrates both the frustration of the immigrant experience, through Demane’s relationship with his adopted home of Mequerim, and the constant discomfort of code switching, through all the interactions between the brothers and merchants. He has given us a marvel of sword and sorcery that melds high culture and low, and ultimately shows the absurdity of honoring one form of language over another.