Literacy in Collegium is close to one hundred percent. Indeed, literacy across the Lowlands is extremely high. Collegium’s academic credentials have a lot to do with this. The College and the Assembly ensure that a basic education is available for all, and charitable institutions such as the Way Brothers provide schools in Helleron and other cities. However the root of all this is in truth with the Moth-kinden, once Collegium’s masters. They themselves have a long tradition of literacy and education, and they ensured that their favoured servants, the Beetle-kinden, were also able to read and write, in order to perform the relatively elevated tasks the Moths demanded of them. This intellectual emancipation, of course, is one of the contributing factors to the Beetles’ great revolution. Other slave-kinden of the Moths were not educated in the same way, but the concept, the idea of knowledge as a mark of privilege and power, was deeply ingrained in them and, once free to do so, the Ant-kinden and others pursued the written word with a grim determination.
In the Spiderlands, the Spiders themselves have always been literate and, for reasons akin to the Moths’, so have their closer servants. Beyond the immediate circles of the Aristoi, however, standards vary from satrapy to satrapy depending on the preferences of the subject races. The Empire has a similar policy. Wasp-kinden are expected to be able to read and perform basic arithmatic, and slaves are often trained to do so, so as to take over those more educated tasks that Wasps themselves still consider demeaning.
Meeting this largely literate population is the printing press and moveable type, innovations that the Beetle-kinden have had for almost two centuries now, as well as the ability to produce relatively cheap paper. These Apt contributions merge with a longer-standing tradition that places high value on story-telling, music, dance and the dramatic arts, and result in an extremely rich intellectual landscape across the Lowlands and beyond.
Theatre and Drama
Traditional theatre for the Beetle-kinden generally consists of farce with a healthy dose of topical satire. There are more and less highbrow versions, with varying injections of music, but an evening at the theatre in Collegium or Helleron is generally not complete unless a major statesman is lampooned and someone is caught in flagrante with a man in drag. However the Beetles are also great importers, and they will happily pillage any other artistic traditions they can get their hands on.
The Mantis-kinden set great store by oral tradition, and their preference is for either solo instrument or unaccompanied voice. They tell stories and sing sagas which almost always revolve around the tragic history of some hero or other, who sets herself up against the world, fails owing to some flaw, makes a horrible mess of everyone’s life and then dies trying to redeem herself. Mantis tragedies are sometimes ripped off by Beetle dramatists, creating a whole new mongrel style of theatre, full of speeches and bloodshed. The Mantids themselves seldom attend.
Also popular are plays in the Fly-kinden style, which traditionally centre about the escapades of a rogue, wanderer or similar lowly individual, who falls in love, gets embroiled in the schemes of his betters, plays tricks and escapes with his hide intact. The Flies usually poke fun at larger kinden (when these are performed in their native settings, Fly actors don outsize clothes and take to the air to impersonate other peoples), but their stories also often have a curiously melancholy feel. The rogue gets away unpunished, the rich and powerful are usually humiliated, and yet at the end of the play they are still rich, and he’s still poor, and there is a sense that the hapless protagonist must run twice as fast just to keep what little he has.
Ant-kinden plays simply do not travel, being chorus-heavy pieces “performed” mostly in the internal speech of the Ants’ mindlink, and whilst the Moths have a considerable tradition of mystery plays, tragedies and philosophical pieces, they are sufficiently opaque that the Beetles tend to find them incomprehensible and dull.
The grandest dramatic traditions are those of the Spider-kinden, who are perhaps the keenest exponents, and consumers, of the dramatic arts. There are a number of distinct genres within the Spider theatre, including revenge plays and complex mime pieces with mirrored romantic and political plots but the Spider drama that travels best is their ‘naif’ dramas. These generally involve a Spider Aristos travelling amongst foreigners, or some far satrapy of the Spiderlands (or sometimes coming home after long foreign travels), becoming involved in their feuds, being manipulated by the local players, and often falling in love. Many of the naif dramas are through-sung, and they span a range between deep tragedy and light comedy.
It is notable that much of the dramatic tradition of the kinden can be seen as a way of the author turning the mirror on her audience. Mantis heroes are almost invariably failures, by the strict tenents of Mantis honour, and it is their fall that creates the story. Beetle stories punish the guilty and the pompous, and Fly plots highlight the inequality and impotence that their kinden often face amongst others. Spider-kinden drama, and most especially the naifs, generally centre upon an agonist, or pair of agonists, who are genuinely pure, honest and guileless, and who weather the vicissitudes of the world because of it.
As well as being a melting pot of dramatic art the Beetle-kinden have sparked something of a revolution in literature. Whilst the Moths and Mantids cling to their hand-written scrolls, printed Beetle books are becoming popular everywhere else. Even Spider-kinden, who set such store by elegant handwriting and calligraphy as an art form, are not immune to the lure of mass-produced literature. Spider-kinden, in common with many of the Inapt, tend to prefer live readings (after all, what are literate slaves for?) but they have always had a fondness for reading poetry in private, and the printing presses have ensured that many a Collegium parlour has witnessed a Beetle raconteur mangling Spider verse. The Beetles themselves, however, are prolific in producing home-grown prose, inventing their own genres in a field that is constantly developing. The idea of reading for pleasure is relatively new but has grown riotously over the last few decades to become fashionable and popular at many levels of society. Whilst there are books printed immaculately on vellum, inlaid with gold and with manual illustrations, these are chiefly for export. Collegium’s home market craves variety and quantity, and the books produced are made in bulk as cheaply as possible.
The current popular genres that throng Collegium book-sellers are:
Polemics – political tracts, usually presenting their point by allegory, often using animals to represent public figures. These are usually very short, illustrated with unflattering woodcuts and printed by the hundred on hand-cranked presses. They are usually to be had for free. Polemics have long played a small but influential role in political debate, and it is common for rivals to sponsor derogatory polemics about each other. However the very ubiquity of the polemic has lessened its impact, and these days even the most vitriolic pamphlet is unlikely to do a great deal of harm. Instead a new tradition of comic polemics with less of an axe to grind is slowly taking over. Polemics are universally anonymous, for obvious reasons. Reprinted collections of past polemics are becoming a popular item.
Romances – purportedly historical tales, usually set before (or during) the revolution, rehashing Spider naif opera, Mantis tragedy and actual history in order to produce stories full of blood and thunder. The current favourites include The Tragedy of Lystresae, Lucis and Lucea and Tarvaeos the Charlatan, all solid faux-histories of the Bad Old Days. In the last few years a new brand of romance has emerged set after the revolution, featuring Beetles, Ants and Fly-kinden rather than the old Inapt races. The reading public is so far unsure about these experiments, the one notable success being The Lay of the Bloodfly, unusual in that it glorifies the exploits of a pirate active off the Collegium coast only a generation ago. Romances are traditionally anonymous, the writer identified by, for example “A Gentleman of Seldis” or even “One Who Was There”. It is widely believed that this is because the majority of romanticists are current or retired academics, who would not want to prejudice the reputation of their factual writings.
Sophistories – philosophical satires which use devices such as the “journey to a land where everything is done backwards” to send up and highlight societal problems. They make for elevated reading, and the satire is sufficiently disguised that a stranger to Collegium can happily read the story and take it for nothing but a very highbrow example of the genre below. The best known sophistories are certainly The Flea-kinden by Knowles Sarter, in which the unnamed protagonist is shipwrecked on an island inhabited by tiny people, and Damall’s An Artificer’s Voyage to the Moon, whose hero finds lunar cities of goat-kinden, horse-kinden and sheep-kinden whose bizarre societies are reversals of the Lowlands’ own.
Awful Books – this is an emerging genre less than a decade old, differing from romances in that the settings are usually contemporary, though almost always somewhere exotic (and/or made up), and differing from sophistories in that they have no pretense to satire or social commentary, offering only cheap spectacle. The name was originally intended to denote books that inspired awe and wonder but the alternative interpretation is, say the serious academics, entirely just. The premise of an Awful Book is that the author is recounting his travelogue in some distant land, perhaps amongst the Moth-kinden, in the Spiderlands, or in some unheard-of place altogether. The hero, almost always a Collegiate Beetle to date, and generally accompanied by some manner of servant or colleague, has various escapades, meets lunatic magicians, evades dangerous animals, acquires dubious treasures, meets beautiful foreign princesses and discovers lost cities, and all in all has a high old time in a way that would make the sophistory protagonists green with envy. Some of these books are simply adventures, others are written to evoke horror, or involve complex principles of speculative artificing. The genre is yet young, and read mostly by students at the Great College, artificiers’ apprentices and the like, but its appeal is growing. The universal rule for Awful Books is their claim to be true accounts, and it is likely that a number of genuine travelogues have been consigned to this category by their readers, or indeed their printers. The original inspiration for works such as these, of course, is the story of (NAME), a pioneering aviator whose revelations of the Spiderlands (some of which at least were later found to be true) were taken as, and widely printed as, fiction on his return to Collegium.