How and why of eating your words.
Something that constantly disappoints me is the small role paperwork plays in the field of fantasy. Yes, it’s true that we rarely see how something like an accounts payable section or human resources department operates in a science fictional setting but at least when it comes to science fiction we can presume such matters are dealt with much as they are now but with better technology. Besides, setting the average office in a far future setting is fraught with the danger that your far future technology will become dated centuries before it’s supposedly still in use. This happened to Eric Frank Russell in a short story of his, Study In Still Life, that appeared in the January 1959 issue of Astounding Stories. Study In Still Life is all about how a humble clerk working on a frontier planet plays the bureaucracy of a galactic empire in order to fill a request for equipment he feels is more important than the alcohol that’s actually planned for delivery to his boss. Overall the story is decent enough but unfortunately one scene revolves around the sheer size of the library the purchasing department needs to maintain, a library which was according to Russell was ‘so large that a fully equipped expedition was needed to get anywhere beyond the letter F’. Of course in our future world of today the problem Russell envisions no longer exists due to the existence of computers and search engines. (For the record I’m sure it would be possible to update this scene with an equally entertaining problem based on current technology but of course in 50 years such a change would be every bit as dated as Russell’s original library of reference books.
In the realm of fantasy on the other hand problems such as obsolescence don’t exist and instead we can enjoy imagining how modern administration techniques and paper trails might be re-imagined in a fantasy setting. For example in Lord Of the Rings does King Théoden pursue Gandalf’s ‘borrowing’ of Shadowfax through the Middle-earth equivalent of a small claims court or does he upgrade the case to grand-theft equine? (Don’t groan, that pun just had to be made.) Another example is in Game Of Thrones where it might be demonstrated that the Lannisters always paid their debts because they have invented and become masters at double-entry bookkeeping. (Actually L. Sprague de Camp already made good use of that idea in what I think is his best novel, Lest Darkness Fall. In that book archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting Rome in 1938 only to be transported to 535 AD Rome via a lightning strike. Once there he attempts to change the ancient world with various inventions but none of his major projects work out. Instead, certain other innovations he introduces without much thought turn out to be far more influential. Among the latter successes was the theory of double-entry bookkeeping.)
Given the preceding I don’t suppose you’ll be surprised to learn I’ve been giving the paperwork aspect of fantasy a good deal of thought. In particular it’s occurred to me that it must be rather complicated for characters in a fantasy novel if they live in a world where paper hasn’t been invented. And given making paper of any quality is a moderately complex process it seems reasonable to consider a fantasy setting without paper being as just as likely as one where such a convenient product exists.
So why does it matter if the characters in a fantasy world don’t have access to paper? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of alternatives to paper after all. This is true and for most purposes those alternatives are perfectly adequate. Mind you any culture that doesn’t discover a relatively compact and portable medium on which to write upon is going find its recording options limited. While, for example, the Babylonians made extensive use of clay tablets for recording accounts, writing letters etc I can’t imagine it would be easy to write a novel like Dune using such a medium. I keep imagining the following exchange:
Friend: “Hey Frank. How’s the novel going?”
Herbert: “I gave up and built a shed with the rough draft.”
Still, could be worse, the Paleolithic version of Dune would only be available as a series of cave paintings. Even if Herbert managed to finish his graphic novel I bet he’d have a real job convincing anybody to come up and see his etchings.
Novels to one side I suspect the greatest problem in a fantasy world without paper is how to send secret messages to your confederates. The big advantage of paper in this regards is that it’s light, compact, durable, but relatively easy to destroy if it’s about to fall into the wrong hands. The same cannot be said for any of the other obvious options.
Of course in a fantasy world the obvious option is to use magical means but I see two main problems with the idea of relying on magic users to pass messages back and forth. The first being that this requires the ability to use magic be sufficiently common that magic users can be employed as the equivalent of telegraph operators. Colour me cynical but I suspect that if magical knowledge was that common then the interception and decoding of magical signals would also be a thing. The second is that not everybody put in a position of trust can be relied on to remain trustworthy. If you consider the how often tales of banks and other businesses suffering embezzlement surface you will see what I mean.
Then there is the idea of sending out a messenger who has memorised the entire contents of a lengthy and complex message. This is not as impractical as you might think given that during our own ancient and medieval periods it was common for individuals to learn how to memorise vast amounts of information. For example consider this quote about the ancient Greek Poet Simonides of Ceos. It comes from Daniel Boorstin’s book about the history of discovery, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search To Know His World & Himself:
Once at a banquet in the house of Scopas in Thessaly, Simonides was hired to chant a lyric in honor of his host. But only half of Simonides’ poem was in praise of Scopas, as he devoted the other half to the divine twins Castor and Pollux. The angry Scopas therefore would pay only half the agreed sum. While the many guests were still at the banquet table a message was brought to Simonides that there were two young men at the door who wanted him to come outside. When he went out he could see no one. The mysterious callers were, of course, Castor and Pollux, who had found their own way to pay Simonides for their share of the panegyric. For at the very moment when Simonides had left the banquet the roof fell in, burying all the other guests in the ruins. When relatives came to take away the corpses for the burial honors, the mangled bodies could not be identified. Simonides then exercised his remarkable memory to show the grieving relatives which bodies belong to whom. He did this by thinking back to where each of the guests had been seated. Then he was able to identify by place each of the bodies.
Even if we ignore the hyperbole, I think we can assume that Simonides exited the banquet for more prosaic reasons than to answer the call of the gods, this is still an impressive feat. Not only did Simonides memorise a lengthy poem to be recited at Scopas’ party (I assume lengthy because nobody pays for a limerick sized party piece) but while reciting it Simonides was able to note and remember the location of everybody present. I would imagine that anybody capable of such a feat would surely be able to memorise just about any sized message they were given.
The downside to this being of course that if the messenger is taken prisoner there’s no guarantee said messenger will be able to keep what they have been entrusted with secret. Perhaps those captors won’t be able to find a punishment, threat, or bribe which can penetrate the armour of the messenger’s silence but who wants to rely on that?
So, if using your most talented agents to carry messages via memory is too risky an option then the obvious alternative would be to send out less valuable underlings carrying hand-written messages. If said underlings are illiterate then they will be suitably ignorant of what the message contains and thus no amount of interrogation will give the game away. However, this option creates a different problem in that all of the traditional alternatives to paper have significant flaws. Clay tablets are right out as they’re both too bulky and almost impossible to destroy quickly. Parchment (made from the skin of sheep or goats), vellum (made from the skin of lambs or calves), or silk are a little easier to dispose of but would still take far too long to destroy if an agent is likely to be captured. On the other hand obliterating a message written on on a wax tablet would be quick and easy but wax tablets are fragile and there would be a significant risk of accidental erasure, which is not a good development if the messenger doesn’t know what was in the message.
Okay, so what to do if all the traditional options are either too difficult or too easy to destroy? Time to think out of the box then and consider the possibilities of non-traditional writing surfaces. This is when it occurred to me that in any fantasy world large herbivores should be pretty common and the meat of such animals can be dried and cured to make a substance called jerky. Normally this process was used by to preserve meat from going bad but it was also a useful way of carrying a ready supply of protein on long trips.
Okay, so how about expanding the possible uses of jerky by carving messages into nicely dried chunks of meat? The beauty of this system is that there’s no longer any danger of important documents falling into the wrong hands. If the messenger entrusted with with such a message carved into a strip of jerky feels there’s a real chance of being captured all they have to do is eat the message. If it helps I don’t see why messengers couldn’t carry bottles of their preferred condiment to help the meat go down quick. Adding a little sauce should render the jerky tender enough for quick consumption, and make it tastier as an added bonus.
Using jerky has another advantage in that because of its three dimensional nature messages carved into slices of cured meat could also be read with the fingers like braille. This would be a very useful feature as it would allow the recipient to ‘read’ it in the dark or with the message out of sight.
However, I do think such a system requires two things in order for it to work properly.
The first would be an alphabet of rune-like symbols into which every message would need to be converted. This is not so much to encrypt the words as to make both the carving and reading of them easier. A set of symbols mostly composed of straight lines would be far easier to inscribe than text such as you’re reading here.
The second requirement would of course be for couriers who have the ability to dispose of the messages entrusted to them quickly and effectively. I don’t think bird-like eaters need apply for this sort of employment.
So there you have it, the perfect way to keep all fantasy world correspondence safe. And it’s not like this idea has to be limited to secret messages as an entirely jerky based bureaucracy should be possible. All your clerks would need are some sharp knives and a ready supply of meat. Not only that but such documents can go into a stew or soup once they’re no longer needed. Try that with a clay tablet and see what it gets you.
Art credits (top to bottom): Taral Wayne (originally appeared in Yhos #51, August 1991, published by Art Widner), & Jim Cawthorn (originally appeared in Amra #62, October 1974, published by George Scithers).