In Praise of Human Complexity


I’ve been talking about human evolution and science for a bit now. A few times I’ve tied it to the writing. But mostly I’ve left it alone.

I do want to talk about that for a bit today.

One of the things that should leap out at anybody who reads the same material that I do is how incredibly complex the world is. Consider, for a moment, just how many currencies there are: yen, yuan, dollar, shekel, ruble, etc. There are hundreds of languages in use and thousands that exist or have existed. How many cultures can there be? In numbers of cultures, I’d argue that we’re at a low point as mass communication tends to homogenize the world. Imagine how many cultures there might have been we will never know.

We think of ancient Egypt as the pharonic culture but it lasted a few hundred human generations and was an international hub. Imagine how many cultures existed there and how they might have changed over those generations. Imagine living with the knock on effects of those unknown cultures without ever having known they existed.

The point is that any world we create, either fantasy or SF, must by definition be as big and complex as the world we live in. One of the interesting things about Lord of the Rings, for example, is how many human species there are: elf, orc, “human”, hobbit, dwarf. (For those that think these are different species consider that Aragorn was able to mate with an elf and produce fertile offspring. They’re no more different from each other than domestic dogs from wolves.)

What always comes up in my mind when I read these sorts of works is how the politics might work.

Politics is the mechanism by which differing individuals and groups manage to work out their differences, preferably without violence. It is an emergent property of a social and intelligent species. Chimps have politics. Monkeys have politics. Birds have politics. They may not be as complex as ours (excepting chimps: See Frans de Waal‘s Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among the Apes.) but as soon as you have a group of social animals of rudimentary intelligence, politics rears its head.

Given all of that, why is there only one language in Lord of the Rings? I know that other languages exist. But all of the main characters speak a Common Tongue. That is interesting in and of itself. Where did it come from? There is a political history there and it’s not mentioned anywhere in the book. In Rudyard Kipling’s Kim everybody speaks the “vernacular”, a common patois that derives as much from the English occupation of India as it does from a need for trade among disparate peoples. But at least in Kim there are different languages, cultures, customs. In Lord of the Rings you get the sense that everybody in it is a different class of Englishman without the richness of the English language.

I pick on LOTR because it’s part of the common culture of SF and Fantasy. The classic SF is just as bad: Foundation is a bunch of Americans as is pretty much most of Heinlein’s work– not all, fortunately.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrestled with this issue of representing the natural complexity of human society in and The Dispossessed as well as other works. In The Dispossessed, the two worlds were tightly constrained to limit complexity. On Anarres, the world had such scarce resources and the setting so limited that little cultural diversity was shown though much was hinted. On Urras, the viewpoint was even more tightly limited. The nice thing about The Dispossessed is that she let the humans be complex individuals within complex, though limited, environments and then left tantalizing hints that the world had much, much more to offer.

We often forget how incredibly intelligent humans are. In a sea of six billion brains the abilities of an individual brain becomes undervalued just because it is common. In fiction we cannot forget this fact. Humans don’t lose their intelligence in groups; they change motivations.

Larry Niven (to the best of my recollection) said in Protector, “intelligence is a tool that is not always used intelligently.” Hence we see very bright people doing what we would not consider doing very bright things– though they often bring intelligence to bear on them.

This is part of the complexity of human behavior. A good fictional world is going to have smart people doing smart things, smart people doing dumb things for smart reasons, dumb people rising to become smart under singular circumstances and smart people banding together and compromising on dumb propositions just because that’s all they can agree on.

That’s life.

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In Praise of Human Complexity — 3 Comments

  1. Novels are unfortunately hampered by having to published more or less in one language. I am sure that both LOTR and KIM could have been much more multilingual — how many of us just skip the long LOTR poems in Elvish? But then drastically fewer people would have been able to read them. In other words, their monolingual worlds are a necessary fictional construct, rather than reflective of any reality. Kipling, who lived in India, surely knew well the babel of languages there.

    I am trying and failing to think of any novels that are really more than monolingual. There are a couple of long letters in French, in some of Sayers’ Lord Peter novels…

  2. Umm, there are more languages in LotR than just Common and Elvish.

    First of all, Elvish itself is two languages: Quenya and Sindarin. Think of them as classical and vulgar Latin.

    Secondly, there are at least three human languages: Westron, the common speech, with multiple dialects and sociolects; Adûnaic, mostly extinct except for names of Númenórean people and places (including Aragorn etc.); and Rohirric, spoken by the Rohirrim (I can’t remember if anyone actually speaks it in LotR, but I believe there are inscriptions). The Hobbits speak a dialect of Westron with Rohirric influences.

    Thirdly, there is Khuzdul, spoken by the Dwarves. Dwarves apparently prefer to learn other people’s languages rather than teach them theirs, so there are only a few instances of Khuzdul in LotR; Gimli’s war cry (“Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!”) is one.

    Fourthly, there are a number of other minor languages, such as Entish, spoken by Ents and Huorns, and at least one unnamed language spoken by the Haradrim which is never spoken in LotR but occurs in names. Presumably, the Eagles have their own language as well.

    Finally, there is the Black Speech, the lingua franca of Nazgûl, orcs, trolls etc., which is seen in a few places, most notably the inscription on the One Ring but also during arguments between Orcs of different factions.

    LotR:TFotR contains written samples of several of these languages in their own script. In “The Shadow of the Past”, the inscription on the One Ring is reproduced first in the original Tengwar, then transcribed into the Latin alphabet. “A Journey in the Dark” contains a drawing of the West-gate of Moria, which bears a Quenya inscription in Tengwar. The very next chapter, “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”, depicts Balin’s tomb in the Chamber of Mazarbul, with a Khuzdul inscription in Cirth (Dwarvish runes). In addition, the covers of most modern editions of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are adorned with black-on-gold scrollwork showing English text written in runes. The one on TH goes “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again” in Futhorc, while the one on LotR goes “The Lord of the Rings, Translated From the Red Book of Westmarch” in Cirth.

    Regarding Aragorn marrying an Elf: Arwen herself is one quarter Man, since her father Elrond is half Man, as were both his parents. She is also one-sixteenth or so Maia, but who’s counting? As for Aragorn, he is descended in more or less straight line, through thirty or so generations, from Elrond’s own twin brother. This is emphasized in one of the appendices, which describes the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen as the reunion of the “long-sundered branches of the Half-elven”.

    Whether Men and Orcs can interbreed is an open question, since Tolkien never gave a definitive answer to the question of where the Orcs came from (there are five or six conflicting stories).

    I don’t think Men can intebreed with Dwarves. Elves and Men were created by Ilúvatar, but Dwarves were created independently (and in secret) by the Vala Aulë.