Eroded Language in “The Strange”

My favourite part of world building — the process of creating a setting for a story — is making sure that any words or names I have to make up are convincing. Most of us have a keen an intuitive sense for when a word is “fake”, and when you come across a name for a place, a person, or even a type of food that seems obviously made up, it pulls you out of the story. I wrote about the layered use of language in The Babylon Eye here, to explain how the words, titles, and place names reveal the history and hierarchy of that world. In The Strange I had an even bigger challenge, creating not  just one, but an entire universe of alien worlds. These worlds had to feel deeply foreign and, well, strange, without being so distant, removed, or alien that they don’t evoke an emotional response.

For example, consider Orm Embar, the name Ursula le Guin chose for one of the dragons in her Earthsea series.  We don’t know the etymology of this name but  to me, “Embar” evokes “ember”, a quiescent seed of fire that might flare up if breathed upon, and “Orm” has echoes of the word “orb”, which seems large, timeless, and ancient. Both are appropriate for the dragon they describe.

I could never create this kind of resonance with completely made up language, so my Strange World had to use words that sounded familiar, and drew on existing languages from our world. The names and terminology also had to show evidence of history. For example, in our world the names of letters, numbers, the days of the week are from ancient cultures that used to have great influence but have now faded into obscurity. The symbols and names that remain are the teeth, the bone fragments, the stone beads that are left behind when the body itself has been eroded away.

As was hinted at in The Babylon Eye the Strange is not a single world but a network of many places that have been conquered, colonised, freed, vanquished and re-colonised. Multiple civilisations overlapped, blended and erased one another. Some places have multiple names, old names, drawn from ancient language like Aramaic, Accadian and Somali, as well as the newer names given to them by conquerors. The newer names are often latinate, as Latin was a bridge language between warring foreign cultures in the Strange.

Traces of this history can be seen in the architecture of places like the Gremium (the Gremium is another Eye, a sort of hub between the worlds), where ancient infrastructure is layered on top of even older carvings. But its history is also evident in the name itself. “Gremium” is the new name, and is derived from the Latin word for “lap”.  The old name was Samad Uurka, which is a warping of the Somali words for “Sky” and “womb”.

There are many worlds, all with names, and all the world names are preceded by  the word “Dhulka” which is Somali for “ground” or “soil”. So for example, the Strangeworld name for our world is Dhulka Serragio. “Serragio” was derived from the Latin word for sawdust, a substance used in arenas to mop up the blood of gladiators. That name seemed, to the Strangers, appropriate for our world. The people in my stories tend not to use the word “dhulka” for “world”. They refer to the various worlds as “niches”, which evokes an entirely different attitude and set of associations.

There are many examples of this layering throughout the book. Titles of petty prison officials are derived from numbers in ancient, twelve-base systems: esseret is Accadian for “ten”. Military titles are from the more modern Latin-base languages: for example the para-military slave-train guards in The Strange are called pugios, which is Latin for “dagger”.

Why are the prison-officials’ titles rooted in the language of the older, conquered civilisation, while the enslaved slave-guardians bear titles in the language of the conquerors? I can guess, but I’m not sure, just as nobody can every really be sure of the etymology of many of the words and titles in our own world.

Keeping the Stakes Personal

In fantasy, and science fiction to a lesser extent the stakes tend to be ridiculously high. The quest must succeed or THE UNIVERSE WILL END or ALL HUMANITY WILL LOSE FREE WILL.  While I appreciate that as a reader, it doesn’t work for me as a writer because I embed my stories in a world similar to the one we live in.

And here’s the thing about the world I live in:

The doomsday scenarios are real and multiplying. Climate change. Species extinction — I could go on but I won’t. Imagine reading about a heroine who is fighting climate change. It’s tough, it’s exciting, but in the end she succeeds! Yay! Climate change is reversed. You close the book and glance outside to see your half empty rainwater tank and smell the fumes of your neighbour revving his car.

It makes the story seem empty and fake.

That’s why, while I write about the very real problems that we all face, they are not doomsday events that needs to be vanquished. I prefer to keep the stakes personal and intimate, the kind of thing anyone might believably face and care about. Protecting your little brother. Finding a missing person. Or looking for a lost dog.

“The Strange” is published!

And it’s live! The Strange, the final book in the now completed “Linked Worlds” series is published and available on Amazon.  If you’ve not read the first two book yet, don’t despair 🙂 They are on sale right now: The Babylon Eye and The Real are both available for 99c each.

It’s taken me more than two years to write this book and there were times when it seemed like an impossible task. It was a challenge to create a whole new world for my heroine to explore, a world that is both strange and believable. As usual, the characters grabbed hold of their own story and got themselves into such difficult situations that at times I despaired of getting to anything resembling a resolution. But now that it’s finally done, I’m proud of this story.


Biopunk SciFi in alternate-world South Africa where cyber-beings and

biomechanical hybrids blur the borders between technology and nature.




Book Launch: “The Strange”

It’s book launch time!
I’ve finished my new novel, The Strange, the final book in my science fiction “Linked Worlds” series. The Babylon Eye was the first, followed by The Real, and I’m really pleased to have completed the trilogy with The Strange.

I have readers on both sides of the mountain now, so I’ve arranged two events:

  • 22 November at the Field Office coffee shop, 34 Salisbury Road, Woodstock
    – Wine and snacks 6:30 for 7pm
  • 29 November at Rolling Wood, 4 York Road, Muizenberg
    – 6:30 for 7pm.
    If you want an early dinner we’ll be serving a special “The Strange” veggie ravioli.
    Book your plate at at The pasta is R100 per person.

Print copies of The Strange will be for sale, as well as all of my other books.

Please come!

Cover Reveal: “The Strange”

Here it is! The cover of The Strange. 

And the print version:

The hand belongs to Kiran Ghatak, a new character who makes her first appearance in this book. Things happen to her hands, arms and wrists, so it seemed like a good motif to use for the cover. The actual hand is, of course, mine. I started with a picture of my hand:


Then I had to match the colours, fonts, and layout with the other books in the series.  Here is an early version. Far too dark overall! The image just didn’t “read” well.

Diseases and infections feature prominently in the story so it seemed appropriate to layer in images of infected lungs and viruses. These were some of the source images I used. Not so pleasant in their raw state, right?

The ebook of The Strange will be published on the 20th of November – watch this space, I’ll post a link. It’s the third in the series, but if you’ve not read the first two, don’t despair! Both The Babylon Eye and The Real  are for sale right now, 99c  each, so you can get up to speed before the launch 🙂


Silvermine Morning

For the first time in ages, we went for a morning walk at Silvermine. Windy! But beautiful. I think the walk was a little long for Pippin (he’s twelve, so not quite the hiker he used to be) but he didn’t complain one word, and seemed to be loving every moment. The picture below of his nose happened while I was trying to take a picture of a tiny plant, and he promptly butted in and ate the plant. 🙂

Garden in Progress :)

Tiny garden progress:

All of that used to be just grass! My water-wise garden 🙂
We moved here a year and a half ago, during a severe drought.  It was a challenge, finding plants that can survive here. This patch  faces north, which in the southern hemisphere means direct sun all day long. Harsh!

This front area used to be the only bit of garden I had. Now, the backyard is becoming more plant friendly, since I had all the concrete removed from it. It’s the domain of Pippin the Plant Squasher though, so we’ll see how that goes.


“The Strange” is complete!

One year later than planned, but I’m finally turning my book The Strange into an ebook. :: happy sigh :: I enjoy formatting. And it’s such a good feeling that this book is finished at last. I hope to publish it in the second half of November. Watch this space! 🙂

“The Real” is shortlisted!

I’ve just heard that my book “The Real” has been shortlisted for the Ilube Nommo Award for best speculative novel by an African. How about that!
Other people on the short list:

Deon Meyer FEVER
Nnedi Okorafor AKATA WARRIOR

That’s quite a list.

In the next three months, apparently all of these books will be made available to Nommo members so they can vote for a winner.  You can read all about this competition at the Nommo site:

Writing progress “The Strange”: First Draft Complete!

The first draft of The Strange is complete!

This is the most difficult, complex book I’ve ever written and the longest, too. I had moments when I doubted that I would make it this far.  This draft is nearly 140 000 words. The first two books in the series are about 70 000 each 🙂 It’s such a great feeling. There’s a lot of work to do still as it’s a very rough draft, BUT IT EXISTS!
* happy dance *

Mosaic progress

Since we are no longer renting but own our own house I can DO STUFF. Current project is to turn the concrete backyard into something a bit more lively. Mosaic in progress. Just applied grout. Tomorrow, I’ll polish it off.

Writing progress: The Strange is on the go again :)

At last, I have news on the writing front.  After months in the planning-mines, hacking away, I have started writing again on The Strange,  third book in the Babylon Eye series. I have deleted more than 16 000 words, and written more than 20 000 new ones. Things are looking much better. New things that have appeared in the story: a locomotive-beast, and a viral lathe.  Things that haven’t changed: Isabeau is just as prone to getting into trouble, although she thinks she’s much more sensible now. Meisje the cyber dog has a much more active role now too, she’s no longer just following orders. After all, Elke is in deadly danger!

(On another note, my next book will contain only characters who can speak. Writing non-speaking dog characters has been interesting but frustrating)

Day Zero Diary: Rite of spring

Today I became one of the thousands of Capetonians who queue at a spring for water.

This one is not very popular, as it’s very slow. You have to wait for ages while your bottle fills. Also, I didn’t realise that you need a hose to siphon the water down from the little pool where it gathers. Luckily a kind man let me use his.

It’s hot. Cicadas sizzling. Waiting your turn, watching wasps and butterflies enjoying the spilled bits of water.

Day Zero diary: Waterwise living in Cape Town

There’s one topic on everyone’s mind in Cape Town at the moment: the fact that we’re running out of water. I started changing my water habits  more than a year ago, since the second half of 2016, so I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned so far.

I’m middle class and can afford to do things like install a rainwater tank. I live in a house and I have my own car, so I’m fortunate to be able to do many of the things listed below. I don’t have children and I work from home, which makes saving water much easier. On the other hand, I do have a limited income. Boreholes and RO filter systems are out of my reach. My plans won’t suit everybody, but hopefully something in this post will help somebody else out there who’s in the same position.

Warning: bodily fluids and  bodily functions get discussed, so if that’s not your thing, maybe don’t read this post 🙂

What are your priorities?

The big lesson I’ve learned is that I had to change how I thought about water. Without clear priorities it’s hard to make decisions, and I go into a mental tailspin. The drought is outside of my control and I had to learn to accept the things that I can’t change, and focus on the things I can control.

My priorities, in order of importance, are:

1) Don’t get sick, or put other people’s health at risk.

2) Don’t damage the environment (really part of number one, if you think about it).

3) To be sensible about money.

4) Find ways to keep myself happy, ward off fear, depression and anxiety.

Reducing the amount of water you use can be profoundly challenging. It means you have to face deeply seated fears and prejudices. For example, hygiene is important, right? But hygiene doesn’t mean keeping clean and fresh and smelling like a rose. It means preventing the spread of bacteria, viruses, molds, things that can make people sick.

Smelling sweaty doesn’t make you sick. Neither does having greasy hair. Having a bathroom that smells a bit of urine also doesn’t make you sick.

On the other hand, being sweaty, greasy, and dealing with stinks does impact on my number 4 priority, which is staying happy. Because of this I find ways to stay as clean as I can and keep my environment as pleasant as I can, using the absolute minimum of water.

Getting water

We use three sources of water. Municipal water, grey water, and rainwater. Since we use the absolute bare minimum of municipal water, we have very little grey water as a result. For this reason rainwater is an important part of our plan. We are fortunate to live in a house with a roof and gutters. When it does rain (not often these days!) we can harvest and store the water. I spend a lot of time looking at the weather forecasts 🙂

This little rainy cloud icon is now my favourite image.

 Water tanks are expensive and they are hard to get hold of as the high demand has created waiting lists. Apart from our 1000 litre Nell tank, which is what we have space for and could afford, we have also installed 120 l bins on each of our gutter down pipes.

This was the cheapest way we could find to catch the most water. B installed a tap in each bin, made of irrigation components. The bins are raised on concrete blocks so that it’s easy to put a bucket under the tap.

There’s a hole in the lid so that the pipe can go right down into the bin.


Challenges for the future: cleaning the rain water. We have a first flush diverter on our 1000 liter tank so that the dust, bird poop and pollution that has settled on our roof doesn’t go directly into the tank, but the water is still not very clean.  When it rains after a long break, the water is murky and yellow. At the moment the plan is to use this water for flushing the toilet, washing clothes, etc. But we might need to find a way to filter it for drinking.

Storing and carrying water

I bought a couple more of the 120 l bins pictured below and use those for storing water that overflows out of the gutter bins. That means a certain amount of running around with buckets. We plan to connect these together with overflow pipes so that won’t be necessary any longer. These aren’t the best value for money-per-liter storage, but at the time the bigger barrels were either not available, or too expensive.

Our plastic jerry cans can be a pain to pour with, as they only have one handle and no air hole. One handle makes it awkward to hold a heavy can full of water as you’re pouring it, and you can easily hurt your back. The absence of an airhole means it’s hard to pour without splashing and spilling.  Air flows into the container to replace the water that is pouring out of it, and if the only opening for the air is the one the water is flowing out of, this creates turbulence. The water gurgles and gouts rather than pouring smoothly.

The solution is to make a small hole or two, no bigger than about 2 mm wide. This is enough to allow air into the container while water is pouring out of it. Work carefully and slowly when making the hole so as not to crack the plastic.

For the handle, tie some strapping around the container and secure with gaffer tape. It doesn’t look pretty, but it’s lasted surprisingly well, and makes it much easier to handle the can.

We also found that this “blue chem” pool sand extractor pump works great to get the last little bit of water out of the bath and bucket. Scooping gets old quickly, and it scratches the bath too.  This pump works like a big syringe, drawing about 2 liters of water into its body, and then letting you squirt it out into a bucket. It saves your back, although it gives a good arm and shoulder workout, accompanied by a jolly farting sound as you push the water out.

Toilet: yellow, brown and red.

Up to now we’ve been flushing the toilet with grey water from washing ourselves, our clothes and our dishes,  as well as rainwater. Of these, dish and clothes water is by far the stinkiest and dirtiest. You can’t really store it, especially in warm weather. More on that later.

Everybody knows the mantra of “if it’s yellow, let it mellow, and if it’s brown, flush it down”. Flushing less means using less water. But it’s really not ideal to have your pee sit in the toilet bowl for hours. While various enzyme products and vinegar certainly help, you do end up with a stinky bathroom. Not the worst thing in the world, but it impacts on my priority number 4, happiness!  And what about when you get your period? What are you supposed to do “when it’s red” ?

These days, we pee in containers and pour our pee down the drain outside. When we have a bit of excess greywater we use it to dilute some pee and pour it on our plants: excellent fertiliser. I wish I could use neat pee on the plants, but apparently that will eventually kill them. Sometimes I’ll pour a little bit of vinegar or Pro Bio septic tank stuff down the drain to keep it from stinking.

What do I pee into, you ask? Men can use bottles, but what about women? Squatting over a bucket is not ideal. Well, I use a oval one liter yogurt container of the Pick & Pay brand. It’s the perfect shape (narrow to fit between the thighs) and has a tight fitting lid. Every now and then I flush the container out with a touch of diluted Pro Bio septic tank liquid or vinegar. This also makes having my period much easier, since most of the blood ends up in this neat little plastic container which can be poured separately down the drain.

Another mostly female issue is toilet paper. Women wipe more than men do because of the way we pee, and if you put all that paper in the toilet, without flushing every time, it will soon block up.  Solution: small bin with a lid next to the toilet. All the pee paper goes in there, and gets emptied into a bin outside. Some people apparently burn this paper but I don’t have anywhere I can easily burn things 🙂

I thought this  pee paper bin would stink, but it doesn’t. Empty it frequently, and wipe it out with a bit of vinegar every now and then. We are planning to build a composting toilet, but it’s a challenge when you don’t have a garden.

Washing yourself

One of the great ironies of this drought is that middle class people like me have had to learn how to wash ourselves in the way that is perfectly normal for the majority of South Africans. It’s surprisingly easy to stay clean without using lots of water.  You don’t need to wash yourself every day, just sponge armpits and crotch as needed.

I know that not many people will want to do this, but one of the best ways I’ve found to save water is to buzz-cut my hair very short. I feel cleaner, look neater, and don’t need to use liters of water keeping my hair clean.

Once every 3 or 4 days, I  wash myself and my hair thoroughly in about 5 liters of water. I use a small plastic tub with clean water to start with, and stand in a large plastic tub to catch the water that runs off me as I wash. A sponge works well to soak up clean water and squeeze it out over myself.  Another pro-tip: I use body lotion instead of soap. It works the same as soap as far as cleaning goes. In fact, people who are allergic to soap wash themselves like this all the time. The reason this saves water is that, unlike soap, it’s not harsh on your skin. It’s not absolutely crucial to rinse of every speck of body lotion, although I find that it rinses off easily in any case.

When I’m clean I apply my mixture of  scented cream, a scoop of aqueous cream with a tiny, tiny smidge of clove oil and a drop of essential oil. An oil that smells nice, like rose geranium or mandarin. The practical reason for this is that the clove oil kills bacteria, and works well as a deodorant. The other reason is that it smells good and makes me happy.  Clove oil by itself is nasty stuff and can burn you, so make sure it’s well diluted.

I also indulged and bought myself plastic bowls and sponges in attractive colours. It was a cheap way to lift my mood. A little bowl in every wash basin helps catch all those little trickles of water as you rinse your toothbrush, or your hands.

Washing clothes

We only wash our clothes when they are truly dirty. This means hanging them out to air and wearing things more than once. Another trick is to freeze sweaty garments for at least 24 hours in a ziplock bag. This kills the smell-causing bacteria and means you can wear it at least once more. Freezing B’s t shirts has means that we now do our laundry only once every 2 weeks, instead of once a week.  This is a big saving of water, as our machine uses about 60 liters for a wash.

Using the right detergent is important too. For some reason our front loader machine produces very dirty water that gets stinky very quickly, if you’re catching it in a bucket and intend to use it to flush the toilet, like we do. Washing our clothes in Pro Bac detergent (pictured above) helps, as it has the necessary enzymes and probiotics to deal with the stink-causing bacteria, and it means the water can stand for a bit longer before it smells like the thing from the black lagoon. Pro Bac is also not harmful to the environment, so I’m fulfilling my first two priorities, health and environmental sustainability.

I’ve experimented with using rain and grey water in our front loading washing machine. Perfectly possible. I just pour it into the soap dispenser until the pump stops going and the washing cycle starts. It does mean hanging around to fill the machine again between rinses, but I have a plan about that too…watch this space 🙂

Washing dishes.

Washing dishes only once a day means piles of dirty things attracting flies. To prevent that, I pile everything into a container with a lid.  This container doesn’t only stop the flies, but it is also such a pretty colour that gives me shock of colour-happiness every time I see it.

We also have a furry pre-dishwashing machine called Pippin.

It’s a hard job, but he’s up for the challenge! Once he’s cleaned out all the juices and bits, it means I can give the dishes a thorough wash with soap and water without the water getting quite so dirty quite so quickly.

Dishes get washed in a plastic bowl that fits inside the sink so that none of the water goes down the drain, and we can use it to flush the toilet. Remember to check the murky water for lurking teaspoons. There’s something profoundly disturbing about having to fish cutlery out of your toilet.

Dishes get rinsed in another plastic bowl. These bowls get greasy and dirty, and that can be a health hazard. I pop the bowls, along with the washing up sponge, into the microwave and zap them for a minute or so to kill any bacteria. I also wipe the bowls out with…wait for it…vinegar. This also keeps the flies away.  Also notice the Pro Bac dishwashing liquid.  Using this means that I can use the greywater from washing dishes to water my plants.

Dish water can be very dirty. You can’t really keep it for more than a few hours before it becomes a stinky, oily, bacterial soup. Water that’s too dirty for the toilet (it does happen!) goes onto our plants.

Once we no longer have municipal water, we’ll have to find other ways to deal with dirty dishes. Eating straight out of the pot, maybe? I don’t want to use paper plates if I can avoid it. I don’t have a place I can burn them, and I don’t like the idea of adding to the pollution level.  I’ve already started thinking about what food to buy and cook. It’s ironic that the very foods that are easy to store in bulk, like rice, pasta, and oats, are also the ones that need the most water to cook.

So that’s the most important lessons I’ve learned so far. I hope somebody finds this useful.

Now, all we can do is wait to see what happens and try not to get too worried about this situation. Best thing: I found a beautiful place nearby our house where I can walk Pippin, surrounded with water 🙂


Just a note: I moderate comments here very closely. This is not a free-speech zone. I will delete any comment that isn’t kind, helpful, or positive.



Update: writing progress

Some of you have read my books The Babylon Eye and The Real and are waiting for the third in the series, which I’m planning to call The Strange. But things are not going so well. Usually by this time of year, I’m finished with the first draft and deep into re-writing. This time, not so much.
I’ve never had so much trouble with a book before and I think I’ve finally figured out why. I don’t think this is one book. I can’t seem to compress the story into a single volume. There’s just too much going on. I’ve been frustrating myself in trying to find a way to bring the story to a conclusion, when it actually needs to play itself out.

What’s probably going to happens is that either The Strange is going to be much longer than the first two, or its going to be two books (“Strange” and “Stranger”?). Either way, my dreams of launching early next year have evaporated.

For those of you who have read the first two books, I can let you know that Meisje the cyber-dog gets her own point of view again like she does in the first book, Elke gets a whole new love interest who might actually be a nice person for a change, and of course, we see quite a lot more of the Strange world.

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