Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • Did you base the Mandalorians on the Spartans?
    No. I didn't.

    I really wish history was taught properly - okay, taught at all - in schools these days, because history is the big storehouse that I plunder for fiction. It breaks my heart to hear from young readers who have no concept even of recent history - the last fifty years - and so can't see the parallels in my books. You don't have to be a historian to read my novels, but you'll get a lot more out of them if you explore history just a little more. Watch a history channel. Read a few books. Visit some museums. Because history is not "then" - it's "now." Everything we experience today is the product of what's happened before.

    But back to Mandos. Not every military society is based on Sparta, strange as that may seem. In fact, the Mandos don't have much in common with the real Spartans at all. (Forget the Hollywood crapola on Sparta - check out the serious historical research. In fact, ignore every historical movie ever made, even the good ones, but especially ignore the ones starring Mel Gibson.) Seeing as there wasn't much established about our favourite armour-wearing lads and lasses when I came to the SW table, I had a nearly blank page to play with - all I had to work with was that they were once nomadic mercenaries, they adopted some kind of culture from non-human aliens, they had clans, their leader seemed to be a bit irrelevant to their daily lives (Jango was never around much...) and one of their leaders, Shysa, had a cheesy pseudo-Scots-Irish accent in the comics...

    A slightly anarchic, non-centralized, fightin' people? Sounded pretty Celtic to me. Since I went down that path, I've learned more about the Celts (especially the Picts), and the more I learn, the more I realise what a dead ringer for Mandos they are. But more of how that happened later...

    Celts are a good fit with the kind of indomitable, you-can't-kill-'em-off vibe of the Mandos. Reviled by Rome as ignorant savages with no culture or science, and only fit for slaughter or conquest, the Celts were in fact much more civilized than Rome even by modern standards. They also kicked Roman arse on the battlefield, and were very hard to keep in line, so Rome did what all lying, greedy superpowers do when challenged: they demonised and dehumanised the enemy. (They still used them in their army, of course, but that's only to be expected.)

    While Rome was still leaving its unwanted babies to die on rubbish dumps - a perfectly acceptable form of family planning to this "civilisation" - and keeping women as chattels devoid of rights, the barbarian Celts had a long-standing legal system that not only gave women what we would think of as equal rights, but also protected the rights of the elderly, children, and the disabled. They had a road network across Europe and worldwide trade long before the Romans ever got their act together. And their science - well, their astronomical calculations were so sophisticated that it takes computers to do the same stuff today.

    So - not barbarians. Just a threat to the empire, a culture that wouldn't let the Pax Romana roll over it without a fight. (Except the French tribes, who did roll over, and were regarded by the Germanic Celts as being as bad as the Romans. Suck on that, Asterix...)

    Broad brush-stroke time; Celts were not a centralized society but more a network of townships and tribes, a loose alliance of clans who had their own internal spats, but when faced with some uppity outsider would come together to drive off the common threat. You couldn't defeat them by cutting off the head. There was no head to cut off. To the centralized, formal, rather bureauratic Romans, for whom the city of Rome was the focus of the whole empire, this was a big does-not-compute. The Celts were everything they didn't understand. And we fear what we don't understand, and we kill what we fear.

    Anyway, Mandos....once I took a single concept - in this case, the idea of clans that operated on a loose alliance system, like the Celts - the rest grew organically. I didn't plan it out in detail from the start. I just asked myself what a culture of nomadic warriors would value, how they would need to operate to survive, and it all grew inexorably by logical steps. The fact that Mandos ended up as very much like the Celts is proof that the technique of evolving a character or species - find the niche, then work out what fits it - works every time. It creates something very realistic, because that's how real people and real societies develop.

    So all I can say about Mandos and Spartans is that the average Mando would probably tell a Spartan to go and put some clothes on, and stop looking like such a big jessie.

    ©Karen Traviss 2008