Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Termite Microphotos: How I Designed the Shshi

       Over on my other blog, a post which continues to regularly draw views is that silly microphotograph of the frontal aspect of a termite worker's face! It's had 60 views, including two just yesterday!  So I've decided to begin publishing the microphotographs on which I based my different species of intelligent termites that are found on the planet 2 Giotta 17A.  A comment I received once led me to believe that not everybody knows what a termite looks like.  Of course, there are many different species, whose appearance differs mainly in the soldier caste -- in the shape of the mandibles (jaws) and the size of the head.
       These photos are all from that wonderful website by Dr. Timothy Myles.  Unfortunately, it's no longer being maintained, but it's still available here on the Internet Archive.  You can find many more microphotos of different termite species there. (Unfortunately, I found I was having trouble navigating in that URL, but give it a try, anyway.  It could have just been a maintenance issue.  It's a good thing I copied the pertinent information into my own computer when I was doing the research!)
       I was concerned about publishing these pictures because of copyright   .  But I've had contact with Dr. Myles in the past -- in fact he has read some of my books and liked them a lot.  So I tried to get in touch with him to ask his permission to publish the images.  I sent him an email and I left messages on his Facebook page, but he seems to be totally incommunicado right now.  Therefore, I'm going ahead and using the pictures.  Dr. Myles, if you see this and you have any objections, please get in touch and I'll take the pictures down!  By the way, Dr. Myles is also an expert on fungus and does spectacular mushroom photography, which you can see here at the Fine Art America website.  Why don't you head over there and reward Dr. Myles for his great termite work by buying a print of one of his photos?



Macrotermes bellicosus soldier,
collected in Bossou, Guinea, near Ivory Coast border.
Base species for the Da'no'no Shshi.  You're looking at Ki'shto'ba and A'zhu'lo, and all the inhabitants of Thel'or'ei.

Macrotermes carbonarius, soldier
Collected in Vietnam, Dong Nai: Cat Tien Natl. Pk. by J. Fannin

Base image for Shum'za (Shshi) Warriors, the kind that live in Lo'ro'ra.  Commander Hi'ta'fu in "The Termite Queen" looks like this.  Compare the cover drawing for v.2, where all the Warriors in the background have this sort of flattish head that is much smaller than the Da'no'no Shshi's heads.  These are also the type of Warrior seen in the River Fortresses.  Nei'ga'bao (Achilles) is one of these.
It's interesting that both these species are in the same genus, Macrotermes, and yet they really do look quite different and have quite different mandible structure. M. carbonarius appears to have a nasus (that tubular looking thing that sticks out at the front of the head), but I eliminated that in my "people."

Macrotermes carbonarius, worker
Collected in Vietnam, Dong Nai: Cat Tien Natl. Pk. by J. Fannin
There are very few pictures of workers in Dr. Myles' collection.  I think that's because basically all termite workers (and alates, too) look alike.  So I pretty much based all my Shshi Workers on this photo.  I think they're kind of cute!  Chubby little devils!

Pterotermes occidentis: male alate
You're looking at Di'fa'kro'mi's head!  Of course, in my drawings I simplified the anatomy a lot and I repositioned the antennae.  The Shshi use their eyes a lot more than terrestrial termite reproductives would ever have occasion to do, since most of those live only a few minutes after emergence.  Therefore, I placed the antennae behind the eyes.  But you can see the ocelli (the auxiliary eyes) here -- that little semi-transparent knob above the compound eye.  And you can see the pronotal shield covering the neck.  Actually, I think this creature has a rather knowing and intelligent expression!

Constrictotermes cyphergaster (soldier) (Brazil)
This is a nasute termite, i.e., the soldier has hardly any mandibles at all, instead of the huge mandibles of the soldiers of non-nasute species.  "Nasus" means "nose" and "nasute" simply means "big-nosed," from Latin nasutus.   Nasute soldiers are basically syringes; they spray acid or some other compound out of the nasus from a gland in their heads.  Look at the book cover for v.2 of the "The Termite Queen" and you will see a few of the Northern Nasute Warriors on the front lines of the battle.  I modeled them almost exactly on the above photos.

Paracapritermes primus soldier collected near Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

Varieties of termite also exist called nasutoids; these have not only a nasus that sprays poisons but also formidable mandibles.  Here is the one I used as the model for Ju'mu, the strange outland Shi encountered in "The War of the Stolen Mother."
You can see in the body view above that this character has a pointy nasus on top of its head, and huge downward-curving and crossing mandibles.  It even has the stubby antennae and the stripe around the belly that I gave Ju'mu.  Possessing the two characteristics of the non-Nasute Plains Shshi and the mountain-dwelling true Nasutes makes this a good candidate to represent the Centaurs.  It was the closest I could come to the state of a hybrid and still make the creature a big termite.

I used a number of these nasutoid species in designing some of the other peoples that the Companions will encounter during the later part of their quest. I'll leave most of those for a later post.  It's absolutely fascinating to see the huge varity of mandible shapes and general body conformation!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Analysis: Katabasis, by Kathryn Anthony

       The collection of seven short stories by Kathryn Anthony entitled Of Myth and Memory is based on retellings of myth.  I originally reviewed this book on Amazon and Goodreads back in May 2012, but it was impossible to consider all the stories in depth  there.  Since their themes fit my proposal to broaden this blog with discussions of the use of myth in literature, my plan is to discuss at least three of these stories over the coming weeks.  Today we’ll talk about “Katabasis.”
       The author is a strong writer with a fine command of the English language.  Two highlights of this collection are her ability to create mood and atmosphere and to turn a metaphorical phrase.  Here are a couple of examples from “Katabasis”: “She heard a distant, brittle clash of laughter, like shards of dawn, splintering and smashing into a fine, crystalline powder.”  He was grappling with a dilemma, his gaze touching on her brows, her lips, her chin, like the feather-light explorations of a blind man’s fingers.”) 
       Here is what the author herself says about this story in her book description: “‘Katabasis’ is a narrative of rivalry, loss and sacrifice that blends motifs of Snow White with the myth of Inanna's descent into the Underworld.”  The term “katabasis” derives from the Greek words meaning “a going down” or “descent.”  It can mean a military march from the interior of a country to the coast, but in mythological usage it means a descent into the underworld.  Its opposite is “anabasis,” the return from the underworld, which (Wikipedia points out) is essential to creating a “katabasis” rather than merely a death.  The descent into the underworld is a ubiquitous element of epic myth, occurring in everything from the Odyssey to Dante,  and it plays a central role here.
       I must confess the allusions to the Snow White theme rather eluded me at first.  My knowledge of the theme was pretty much restricted to childhood viewings of the Disney version, so I had to do some homework, including reading the original Grimm version, which can be viewed at 
       It happens that I’ve explored Sumerian myth before, with a view to basing a piece of fiction on it.  However, that was back in 1983, right at the time when family problems caused me to give up writing.  In preparation for this post, I pulled out all my old notes (this was in pre-computer days), but I find that even though the notes and copies of material are extensive, they don’t make much sense to me now, so I did some exploring on Google.  If you want to read a translation of the original myth of Inanna and the Underworld, go to (part of The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, based at the University of Oxford).  For a paraphrase and psychological interpretation of the myth, go to (an interesting, New-Agey sort of site).
       “Katabasis” opens with a premise of blood related to “Snow White”:  “All that business about the ebony windowsill, the white snow, the embroidery needle – nonsense, all of it.  The one true thing about that story was the blood. … Blood is life.  … We’re born on its slippery tide and when that tide ebbs out of us … that’s when we die.”  And then immediately we learn that “Elana” (as Anthony calls her “Inanna” character) is Queen of the Wolves – she’s a werewolf.  A new element is introduced that is not present in either myth. 
       After all, what becomes of ancient goddesses when the world moves away from belief in them?  Any goddess worth her salt ought to be able to shape-shift, so an introduction of a werewolf identity isn’t so odd as it may at first appear.
       Furthermore, she’s a modern woman.  We’re never told whether her husband or any acquaintance has the least inkling that this person they live with is also an ancient goddess.  And this modern woman and primitive Great Goddess is about to undergo egg extraction because she can’t get pregnant:  “Elana, Queen of the Wolves, watched as the nurse pricked the back of her hand with the i.v. needle.  Before the other woman could connect the needle to the drip, blood spurted out of the puncture and onto the downy white sheet covering the hospital bed.”  And so we continue the opening of “Snow White.”
       Later in the tale, Elana’s child is stolen from her womb by her sister, Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld (whose name is retained in its common transcription), as payment of a debt and the distraught Elana assumes her wolf form and flees to the forest (an element of the Snow White tale), not to escape an evil queen but to learn how to find and defeat one.  She ends up being rescued by seven woodsman – conflating the dwarves with the Huntsman.  These people can give her the answer she is seeking:  Can anybody be brought back from the underworld?  The answer is yes, but there will always be a price to pay.  Elana dies in childbirth and in so doing initiates a final ironic plot twist that means a good deal more if you are familiar with the Inanna myth.
       The main elements of the Inanna myth that Anthony keeps are the need to enter the underworld, the ritual shedding of garments as Elana passes through the gates, and the birth pangs of Ereshkigal.  Anthony omits many elements, such as Inanna’s death in the underworld and her resuscitation by spirits who take the form of carrion flies.  She also adds elements, such as the emotional price that must be paid at each gate of the underworld in addition to the shedding of garments.  But that’s what you do when you use myth as a foundation for a story of your own: you add and subtract elements to gain a new perspective.
       One other aspect of the myth is retained.  When Inanna returns from the underworld, she must send someone to take her place.  She ends up sending her husband Dumuzi, who had remained largely indifferent to her absence.  In Anthony’s version, Elana’s husband meets a fate that is different but ironically related to what happens in the myth (I can’t really discuss it because I don’t want to spoil the end of the story).
       What makes Kathryn Anthony’s approach so interesting is her ability to seamlessly conflate primitive mythic and folkloric elements with everyday modern life.  She moves among worlds with only minimal transitions, or none at all.  Here are a couple of examples:
       Elana in her wolf form is being nursed back to health by the seven Woodsmen, who are also caring for a seven-year-old boy named Alex:  “It was Eoain’s turn to keep Alex entertained – the plan, from what Elana could infer, was to take the lad to IKEA to play in the ball room, while Eowain picked up a few items, including a pet bed for her.”
       What could set the story more firmly in the modern world than that? – unless it’s this:
       Elana stands before the first gate of the underworld.  “She had donned her full ceremonial regalia: crown, scepter, mantle and gown.  The jewels studded into her breastplate gleamed dully under the compact fluorescent bulbs mounted above the gate – even the underworld was subject to cost cutting imperatives, it would seem.”
       All the tales in Of Myth and Memory are fascinating reads that require some work to appreciate properly.  They get better on the second or even third reading, and they benefit from having some background knowledge.  I recommend them for anyone who likes to probe depths.  The book is available at

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cover Art for Storm-Wing - Revised Version

I took to heart the comments on my previous post about how the scene appears to be underwater.  I was puzzled at first, until I realized it was an optical illusion induced by the width of the river in the background, which could be interpreted as the top of a body of water.  I never perceived it like that because I knew what I was looking at.  It threw the perspective off (something I'm shaky on anyway) and made the river seem much more significant that it should.  So below is my revised version.  I narrowed the river, removed the ripples (which I think were a distraction), altered the shape of the hills to emphasize the big flying critter, and added a strip of greenish color to represent more water in the background (this is supposed to be a swamp after all).  Let's see what you think of this.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cover Art for "The Storm-Wing," v.2 of "Labors" + Publishing Update

I'm in the process of formatting "The Storm-Wing" for CreateSpace.  I'm taking it slow for two reasons: First, I want to give v.1 more time to become more widely read.  Nobody is going to buy v.2 until they've read v.1.  Second, I'm doing some last minute revision as I format, so that slows things down.  Actually, there is a third reason - I'm spending way too much time blogging, commenting on other people's blogs, and emailing!  But I'm enjoying that!  I have also done a back cover, but it doesn't have any illustrations.  It's just a plain excerpt from the text.  The map is nearly done -- I may want to simplify it a little.  When I'm satisfied, I'll post it on the Maps page.      
I would love to have some opinions on this front cover.  What do you think of the ripples in the river?  Water is the hardest thing to do with this Word program.  First I had it with no ripples, just the greenish swamp-water color, and it looked OK. Then I added the ripples and I think maybe it looks worse -- more unnatural.  What do you think?
       Obviously I modeled Hak'tuk the Storm-Wing on a pterosaur, with some additions and alterations.  He's a protoavian, actually, or a sauroavian.  He's quite a monster, meant to represent Hercules' Labor of the Stymphalian Birds.  But in my interpretation he's much more than a monster, as you will find when you read the book. 
       That's Za'dut in the background and A'zhu'lo at the right front; both have been knocked out of the fray, while our hero Ki'shto'ba stands its ground.  One way the Marsh Guardians fight is by shooting poisonous dung at their opponents -- you can see splotches of it on the ground, and direct hits are making both Za'dut and A'zhu'lo throw up.  Besides that weapon, the creatures fling feathers that penetrate like iron darts.
      The drawing will be trimmed at the black bleed line when published in print form.  I think this is a pretty eye-catching cover (lots of action) and it ought to show up decently in the Kindle version.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Problem of Good and Evil in the Culture of the Shshi

      The Yahoo group on conculture exists to discuss the imaginary cultures devised mostly by those who also write constructed languages.  In a recent exchange, the administrator of the group asked the following questions:  "How do our various cultures -- especially the non-human ones, and also especially the non-terran ones -- view this Problem of Evil? Or do they even recognise it as a principle? Or do they see Good as the Problem...?  Also, is Evil a "real thing" or a by-product of cultural evolution in a people?"  I thought this question was interesting enough for me to write a blog post on how my Shshi (intelligent lifeforms evolved from termites) view these problems.
       There are among the Shshi many different species with much in common but also with different histories and cultural backgrounds.  The plains Shshi, comprising the Shum'za (or Little Heads) and the Da'no'no Shshi (or Very Large Shshi), view evil as the absence or negation of good.  This is reflected in the language.  In the Shshi language (the language of all the plains peoples) the word for "good" is thel| (noun) while "evil" is wei'thel| (noun, signifying "not good.")  wei'thel| is a strong word; there is a word of weaker implication, a'thel| (adj.), which can be translated as "bad, improperly or poorly done," etc., as in "He made a bad mistake" or "He build a bad wall."
       The point is, the plains Shshi, who are a later evolutionary product and who live in an expansive, open-skyed land with treeless vistas, maintained an optimistic, perhaps somewhat naive view of evil.  Good is the thing that is real and evil is the absence of good, the failure to project that quality.  Good is innate and to fail to be good is considered unnatural.  Thus the patently evil villain Mo'gri'ta'tu becomes known in lore as the Unnatural Alate and the traitorous Commander Hi'ta'fu becomes the Unnatural Warrior. (These are characters in "The Termite Queen.")
       In later volumes of "The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head" series, we get a different view of evil.  There is a character named Krai'zei, an older Worker-Helper to a Warrior who joins the quest (both these characters first appear in "The Storm-Wing"). 
       Krai'zei is a member of an ancient race, the same race as the Warrior Ju'mu whom we meet in "The War of the Stolen Mother."  They are called the Yo'sho'zei -- the Old Ones -- and in fact play the role of the Centaurs in Greek myth.  (Ju'mu embodies one of the functions of Cheiron, that of teacher of Warriors.)  The Yo'sho'zei are a dwindling race and have been forced into a small area of the southern coast, a land of dense vegetation and rugged, rocky outcroppings and caves.  Time has taught them to be pessimists.  For them evil is innate, something that lives deep within the soul of everyone.  They call it the "Old Absolute."  Good is the conquest of this evil within ourselves.
       Linguistically speaking, the Yo'sho'zei language is much closer to the original archaic Shshi speech than the speech of the Shum'za or the Da'no'no Shshi is.  Thus, ses'de| is the base word, meaning both "evil" and also "cursed" and "fated."  It derives from the archaic root *sesk, which yields both ses'de| (evil) and ei'ses| which means "to destine or put a fate upon." The root is still seen in the Shum'za language in sasko|, sask'zei|, and tha'sask| (to curse or damn; a cursed person; the imprecation "far-curse!")
       In Yo'sho'zei "good" is ses’wa’de|, i.e. evil + not + the noun affix.  So this reflects the exact opposite of the Plains Shshi's view.
       There is considerable discussion of these concepts in the later volumes of the "Labors" series.  I wanted to quote some examples here, but I decided they would act as a spoiler for a very important part of the plot, so I guess you'll just have to wait and read the books after they're published!
       Then I did find one passage that I could quote without giving away too much.  It occurs in Volume Five, where Di'fa'kro'mi and Ki'shto'ba are talkng with the venerable and learned Yo'sho'zei Alate Vai'zei'a'parn (who embodies the half of Cheiron that is a scholarly healer).  They even discuss some of the points I made above:

       Ki’shto’ba frequently conversed with Vai’zei’a’parn, either alone or in the company of other Yo’sho’zei or some of us Companions.  At times when I was present, we often discussed topics that are not usually of interest to Warriors, like the nature of evil, considered by the Yo’sho’zei to be an all-pervasive reality – the Old Absolute, who wove itself out of a web of darkness before Creation started, behind the back of ta’ta’wa’tze| [Yo'sho'zei word for The-Highest-Mother-who-Has-No-Name] where she could not see it.  It grew until she felt the pain of it pressing against her ovipositor; by then it was so strong that she could not uncreate it or remove it from the fabric of her new-made world.  So she gave her children the power to overcome it in their souls if they had the will, but the struggle was fated to be both arduous and unending, and not always successful. 
And Ki’shto’ba said, “Our people’s beliefs are different – is this not correct, Di’fa’kro’mi?  Evil was never a force separate from the Highest-Mother-Who-Is-Nameless.  She made the world and the First Created to be good, but because she did not make them permanent or complete, they were flawed, and so, while the soul is essentially good, it is also flawed.  Therefore, evil occurs simply because we are not as good as we have the power to be.  It has no existence in itself.”
I agreed that this was an accurate description.  “It is even reflected in our language,” I said.  “In my speech, we have thel| and wei’thel|, which mean in At’ein’zei ‘good’ and ‘not-good,’ whereas the Tramontane words – ses’de| and  ses’wa’de| – mean ‘evil’ and ‘evil-not.’”
Then Ki’shto’ba said, “That is why I failed.  I do not believe I was arrogant, but I never thought of myself as other than good and I did not realize I had to work at staying that way.  I did not recognize the presence of evil in myself.”
“You have concluded then,” said Vai’zei’a’parn, “that the Yo’sho’zei way of regarding the world is the right one?”
“I cannot say,” said Ki’shto’ba.  “I only know what I have discovered to be true for myself.  ... "
Now would be a good time to go out and buy a copy of "The War of the Stolen Mother" and get a jump on the series before more volumes appear!   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Re-Post of Characters and Elements Found in Myth and Folklore

The following piece was first posted on 5/31/12 and I think it deserves more than the 10 page views it's garnered.  Odd, because the subsequent two posts, The Legends of Troy and How to Convert Greek Names into the Shshi Language, received 37 and 41 views.
       I got the idea of sending my termites out on an epic journey, complete with all the bells and whistles, out of the blue as I was finishing up "The Termite Queen." I wish I could say that the idea came from a learned source like Joseph Campbell's theories of the Hero's Journey and such, but instead I think the source was much more of a pop culture phenomenon. I was a big fan of "Xena: Warrior Princess" at the time! In that series (and its predecessor "Hercules," which is much inferior, I think, although I did enjoy Michael Hurst as Iolaus), Greek myth and occasionally myths from other cultures are reworked, processed through a compressed time frame (Caesar is contemporary with Troy, for goodness' sakes!), and given their own fresh interpretations. So that was in my mind at the time.
        But another source has to be Watership Down, which is an epic about rabbits and one of my favorite books of all time. It has all the elements of the heroic journey, told in the context of a rabbit culture here on Earth. My books also have the elements of the heroic journey, told in the context of an isopteroid culture on another planet. As Amb. Tarrant Hergard said upon the occasion of the admission of Earth into the Confederation of Planets: “An ancient Earth adage says, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Perhaps the phrase should now become, ‘There is nothing new among
the stars.’”
        In the article "Epic Poetry" Wikipedia lists the following characteristics of an epic:  
  1. Begins in medias res. [Actually, I don't do that one, unless you consider beginning right after the conclusion of "The Termite Queen" to be in medias res.]
  2. The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe. [check!]
  3. Begins with an invocation to a muse (epic invocation). [No, not here]
  4. Begins with a statement of the theme. [Umm, not exactly]
  5. Includes the use of epithets. [No, I don't think so.]
  6. Contains long lists (epic catalogue). [Ah, yes -- I subject the reader to epic lists three times throughout the series. One in each of the original volumes. Maybe I can construct lists for the other three! Or maybe not.]
  7. Features long and formal speeches. [At times, when appropriate]
  8. Shows divine intervention on human affairs. [On only two occasions does the Nameless Mother personally poke her antennae into the mix, but the foretellings of Seers prevade the books.]
  9. Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization. [Definitely]
  10. Then there are the stock characters who are encountered in epics. First, of course, you've got the epic hero and ours is ready-made: Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head, the extra-large Da'no'no Shshi Warrior from To'wak. Often this hero is a demigod; whether that's true of Ki'shto'ba you'll have to find out later. The hero has to go on a quest and be tested in some way. So far, so good.
        The hero may fall in love, rescue and marry a Princess. (???) Impossible! There are some things sexless termites just can't do! Although there IS one place where Ki'shto'ba rescues a fertile female nymph ...
        The hero must have Companions, be it just a sidekick or a dozen of them. I opted for a dozen.
There is the wandering Bard, who roams the world recounting the deeds of the hero. Here we have Di'fa'kro'mi the Remembrancer, who is also Ki'shto'ba's First Companion.
        Its Second and Third Companions are little Workers -- sidekicks par excellence. Every termite Warrior must have groomers and feeders -- squires, in effect.
        The Fourth Companion is the twin -- a pervasive theme in mythology and one stressed by Robert Graves in his Greek Myths. Hercules had a twin named Iphicles; Ki'shto'ba has one named A'zhu'lo.
        Then there is the trickster. Aren't tricksters fun, though? Reynard the Fox, Coyote, Raven, Loki, Puck, Ariel, Q in StarTrek, Odysseus -- and last but hardly least, El-ahrairah in Watership Down. And right up there with those: Za'dut, the Fifth Companion of Ki'shto'ba -- a Worker but so much more. Its name means two things in the Shshi language: Little Lizard and Little Thief.
        Finally, there are the Seers. Fiver in Watership Down comes to mind. And Greek myth is loaded with Seers, which fits right in with Shshi culture, since every fortress has an Alate who is gifted with Seeing (even if part of it does come from ingesting a hallucinogen). Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, becomes in my tales Thru'tei'ga'ma, the half-blind Seer of To'wak, who sets up the premises of the tale early on. Ki'shto'ba won't acquire a Seer as a Companion until the fifth volume, but different Seers in different places have tremendous influence all the way through the story. How much of their pronouncements are true foretellings and how many are merely self-fulfilling prophecies? Again, you'll have to find out for yourself.