Star Trek, Star Wars and Star Lost all had early influence on my imagination, but past the initial love of the spectacular, the two most influential works for my speculative fiction writing were Tolkien‘s Middle Earth series and Frank Herbert’s Dune series. These works in particular, both given to me by my sister, formed a corner stone in my imagination. They taught me that imagined worlds had to have depth and a canon upon which the story was built. Really good Sci Fi and Fantasy had to be internally logical and consistent, but not all of those details need be put into the text of the novel.
Oooh look, a gratuitous use of one of the best opening sequences ever made.
To that end, there are lots and lots of little background details in Strings on a Shadow Puppet that are hinted at, or passed over, but never gone into. Most of them never really will be. Let the readers imagine it for themselves eh? Even so, there is one topic I get asked about more than any thing else: the Billanobians.
Who are they? What are they all about? And what’s with that freakin’ dance? Well, since I have about seventy five pages written on it, I thought I’d write a brief little summary on them, just for some fun for my readers. Mind you boiling it down to a blog post takes away some of the complexity, so keep that in mind if things you read in the book don’t seem to quite marry up. After all, what culture is completely consistent to itself?
The Billanobian Hegemony – An excerpt from the Encyclopedia Sophynensis
The Billanobian Hegemony is an independent state closely allied with the Sophyan Empire and is the second largest interstellar nation in ‘rediscovered space’ by volume (the Atrucan Cooperative is the second largest by population). First founded after a cataclysmic misjump by a Colony ship during the early days of the second phase of the Great Human Diaspora, Billanobian society is a highly caste oriented society that is governed primarily by tradition and ritual.
There are between 1200 and 3000 castes within the society, depending on ones’ exact definition of caste, each with given hereditary roles that members may fulfill. Each caste holds a certain degree of independence within its own social boundaries, with laws varying based upon caste membership, and with numerous dialects used within and between each caste, depending on whom one is engaging in conversation. Each caste has given roles and professions that are open to them, with those at the higher social end having a more restrictive selection of occupational roles, all of which address levels of higher management, while those at the lower end have a wider range of occupations they may undertake, but with little authority or decision making capacity provided in each. Many of the caste roles overlap in part with roles fulfilled by other castes, and inter-caste relationships are strictly governed by tradition and ritual. The origins of this system are bound to the circumstances following the misjump of the original colony ship (q.v.).
As implied by its name, the Billanobia is ruled by an oligarchic council selected from members of a hereditary caste based elite. Membership in this council is restricted to representatives from each of the ruling castes, as well as plebiscite representation from the lower castes. Executive power is shared between a Triumvirate, each member of which having two votes, and a Plebian Advisor, who has three votes. Thus, if all three Ruling Caste executives agree, their decision holds sway, but if one sides with the Plebian Advisor, the two of them hold sway. In practice it is rare for any member of the Triumvirate to side with the Plebian Advisor.
In its original form, there was no Triumvirate or Advisor, but rather the council was overseen by a supreme executive chosen from an Imperial Elector caste by other members of that caste. This individual would vote in the full council in cases of a tie, and would generally oversee the Legal system, but not the military. This form of Imperial hierarchy was eliminated after the Terran Confederation one the War of Reconstitution, and established the Billanobian Protectorate. During that period the Ruling Council was disbanded and all members of the Elector Castes were forcibly relocated throughout the new Terran Federation. Instead, all power placed in the hands of the Earth appointed Governor.
During the War of Extinction, the Ruling Council was reintroduced in an advisory role and returned to permanent place during the Second Empire, with the Mandellan President Protector replacing the role of Emperor. When contact was lost during the subsequent Strife of the Made, executive power reverted to the Ruling Council, and since no decedents of the Imperial Elector families were left in Billanobian Space, the present Triumvirate/Plebian Advisor system was introduced. Tradition and ritual remain strong in Billanobia, and there is a general desire to return to an Imperial system. This can only be accomplished, however, if a member of the Billanobian Elector castes is made Grand Master of the Stars (Emperor).
Origins of Billanobian Culture
As previously noted, Billanobian culture has its origins in the Great Human Diaspora. It grew out of the descendents of a colony ship that was launched in a joint private-governmental initiative between a variety of disparate nations from the Terran continent of Asia. Some have, in fact, suggested that the true the origins to the Billanobian caste system can be found here at the start of the project, for roles in this new colony were strictly divided between Administrative, Security, Scientific Research, and Production. Added to this was, of course, the Operational Crew of the ship, whose role was never intended to become part of the eventual Colony, but which was integrated into the social structure after the accident. These work oriented divisions, combined with the large number of cultural and ethnic identities within the colonial makeup, have led many modern academics to suggest that some form of caste system was always likely to occur.
Regardless, when the colony ship had a catastrophic collapse of the Essar-Rosenthal field, a misjump occurred that left the ship hundreds of parsecs rather than the 0.14 parsecs that was the technological height of the period. The result was that the ship ended up less than one light year from a star system.
Here is the intro to Starlost, which had some influence on ideas for cultural drift and generation ships.
Though the jump drive was irreparable in deep space, the surviving crew and passengers converted the ship into a generation vessel and began a sixty-seven year transit to the nearest star. Though no habitable planets were present, there were enough raw materials and fuel to repair the ship and make transit to another, more hospitable planet. This repair stage took twenty-seven years in total, and was followed by a second crossing of eighty-eight years in duration. The need for extreme rationing and strict discipline during this period of transit solidified the cultural hierarchical systems already in place. It is generally agreed that the Billanobian cultural emphasis on science and discovery is tied in part to the need to discover new ways of repairing the ship, attempts to discover habitable locations and the need to help the population to survive both the physical and mental hardships of the transit.
There is also evidence suggesting that the Great Dance had its origin in the long transit. According to these theories, the predecessor to the Great Dance was initiated as a form of cross-cultural exchange designed to lessen cultural tensions and promote trans-professional cooperation. It is clear from surviving ship records that large social ‘get-togethers’ were held periodically throughout the transit. These began with each culture performing traditional dances and ceremonies, followed by less formal dancing and social interactions. Additionally, it seems the Billanobian emphasis on the arts had its origins in the transit, for records show that both the governmental authorities and the ship’s command crew ensured that resources were made available to create and perform art throughout this time. It is believed this was done to maintain a healthy moral.
The depth of Tolkien’s World building may be a bit too much for some, but I love the way he only ever uses internal references.
The second star system to be encountered, Billanobia, was found to have two planets in the Goldilocks zone capable of sustaining life. One already had indigenous, non-intelligent life, while the other required more substantial terraforming. The ship landed its population on the first, and set up atmosphere plants on the second. For over 100 years life continued under much hardship, with food scarcities and harsh conditions.
It is clear that early in the Colonization Period the Great Dance was formalized. Held as large Potlatch gatherings, the annual Dance emphasized the unity of Billanobian culture despite the disparate origins. It is clear that each cultural ethnic group had begun to alter their own traditional dances, and it is known that the first holistic dance was held at this time – with each individual dancer coming together and touching of dancer with every other dancer as a sign of unity combined with individuality.
Dune also has a huge background, but what I love the best about it was that Herbert never showed more than he had to… until his son decided to do the prequel thing…
Whether the Dance helped to create the caste system, or if the caste system began to be represented in the Dance is a matter of much debate. Most Billanobian Historians believe it was dialectic, but either way, by the point the second planet in the system Hope, was ready for the first inhabitants, the hereditary caste system was already in place, and the progenitor of the system of Electors had developed.
Even before the second planet in the system, Hope, was colonized, the Billanobians had begun building new starships and exploring the surrounding space. This was done both out of the hope of re-establishing contact with Terran space, and from the need to discover if any alien threats lay nearby. Instead of threats, however, the Billanobians found that nearby sentient aliens were considerably less advanced on a technological level, with few even having entered into an equivalent of a Neolithic age, and none having entered an early industrial level of technology.
As a result, when contact was made, the Billanobians ‘took the aliens under their wing’ and created protector states which regulated flow of technology in a manner to help ensure the new races maintained their own cultural identities.
Wing as I do about George R. R. Martin from time to time, his internal world logic is superb.
The continued emphasis on scientific discovery, the desire to once more contact Earth, and the openness with which Billanobians accepted alien concepts and ideas are all thought to have added to Billanobian technology. Indeed, it is thought these are all reasons why they were able to develop a 0.28 parsec capable Essar-Rosenthal field far in advance of their Terran counterparts.
Eventually, Billanobian explorers did encounter the far edge of Terran space. An initial period of jubilation occurred with a large number of delegations sent back and forth between the two human states. By this point, Billanobian territory was well over three times that of the Terran Confederation, and a great deal of cultural drift had occurred between the two states.
Quickly, the now highly democratic Terran Confederation came to have concerns about the extremely hereditary and hierarchical nature of the Billanobian Empire, while the tradition bound Billanobians were somewhat taken aback by the ‘chaotic’ and individualistic nature of the various more ‘Terran’ cultures they came across. They were also somewhat disgusted by the attempts of Terran based cultures to culturally assimilate the sentient aliens they had encountered. To that end, it is now sometimes seen as ironic that the Billanobians who were so open to alien cultures were intolerant of different human cultures, while the Terran Confederation was open to any number of human cultural differences (except hereditary hierarchies), but forced alien civilizations to adapt to human cultural standards.
The Wars of Reconstitution
Within twenty years a state of war existed between the two human states. Initially the Billanobians won almost every engagement, and those planets conquered had Billanobian culture enforced upon them. Almost half of Terran space was taken before the Terrans adapted, at which point a three generation long conflict began. Eventually, the Terrans won. Some say this was due to the rigid caste system and strict adherence to tradition of the Billanobians, others note that the cultural diversity and lack of centralized economic structure of the Terrans was the cause. Regardless, the Terrans eventually overran Billanobian space, forced the Imperial Electors to disperse and resettle on the other side of the Corridor, and placed a Military Governor in charge of the core Billanobian regions.
This strict external rule was relaxed during the War of Extinction, when military forces could no longer be spared to occupy a human population, particularly once all humans realized that they faced total annihilation of the Graast were not overcome. It was only through a combined concerted effort by all humans (and indeed the numerous subjugated alien sophants) that the Graast were able to be defeated. Even this required the creation of the ‘Made,’ the genetically enhanced populations that many believe include, but are not limited to, the Mandellans.
After the War, Lu-Yi Mbuna Ryppavitch Melnosse Mandella was declared President of the Terran Federation, permanently re-established the Billanobian Ruling Council who immediately declared him Regent Grand-Protector of the Stars. Soon, the Federation was reconstituted as the Confederated Human Empire, and more popularly called the Second Empire. Though arts, the economy and science flourished during this period, it lasted only one generation before the Mandellans and others began infighting and the Strife of the Made began.
The wars and conflicts that so defined the Strife left Billanobia greatly untouched, though the economic collapse did have its effects. Billanobia, like many other cultures, withdrew from external conflict, focused on itself and a return to its cultural traditions and while it did not expand in technology, territory or economy, it did survive the long dark that followed. When the growing Sophyan Confederation Republic reestablished contact, they found a society much like that of the Original Billanobian Empire still intact.
The SCR had its roots both in Terran and Billanobian cultures, and as such, the two societies quickly found common ground. Both economic and military cooperation grew and cultural exchanges soon occurred. Many hierarchs from one nation soon established hierarch status in the other, for Sophyans this was done by establishing decent from Billanobian hierarch castes, and for Billanobians this was done through meritocratic accomplishments.
When the Hon. Drusilla Rheathena Aureleus of the House of Aureleus, Matriarch-Magestrate of Sophyos, and eventual President of the SCR, married the war hero Alexandro Pleiades, a sophyan citizen who was a direct descendent of one of the Billanobian Elector castes, a growing movement toward formal re-unification was initiated in both states. This was aided when Lord Pleiades took part in the performance of one of the minor tributary dances of the Great Dance that was performed at their wedding, and brought his new wife into the mix in what was deemed by all to be a traditionally acceptable manner.
and here we have one of the intro to Star Trek, which still forms one of the most important elements of my Speculative Fiction world view.
When their son, the Right Hon. Lord Octavius Pleiades was made Emperor, the movement for unification grew all the more, and was further strengthened by his participation in the Great Dance itself, performed on Billanobia.
 They were, after all, some of the earliest speculative fiction stories I came across, particularly Star Trek and Star Lost.
 Oh, yes there were dozens of other tales put in there, but as far as reading speculative fiction, these books were some of the first one’s I read. In part this was because my elementary school library had almost no science fiction at all (actually, it also had no Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew or almost anything else a kid would want to read.
 Well, Fellowship of the Ring and Dune. I had picked up The Hobbit on my own when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and all the sequel books to each series on my own as well.
 To that end, there is variation enough with the Billanobian caste language that some linguists argue that Billanobian is not a single language but a variety of languages tied together by a series of petite pois and pidgin languages. Others argue the linking dialects form a solid enough bridge that the variations should indeed be considered dialects.
 With Production including such disparate categories as Agriculture, Manufacturing, Native Resource Development and some levels of administration.
 Indeed, this was fortunate since most such misjumps result in large scale explosion or dispersal on a quantum level.
 This again was quite lucky, as that the misjump occurred on the second jump in the ships’ transit and as such, it still had the bulk of its fuel. Those few other ships that have survived such collapses of the Essar-Rosenthal field been found from similar failures are either far too far from any star system to make a journey or if in anyway close to a star, without enough fuel to make the transit.
 The ‘Terrans’ also underwent significant change after this period, reconstituting themselves as the Terran Federation, with a more centralized government.
 The war with the Graast, the first and to date only Alien race that not only had equal technological development, but superior technology. Indeed, many areas of Graast technology still confound us. Though apparently extremely caring to their own kind, the Graast were inherently incapable of empathizing with species other than there own, and saw all intelligent species as a threat that must be destroyed.
 Only direct descendents of the Elector castes could actually be declared Grand Protector (Emperor).