Monday, March 13, 2017


This was a very interesting discussion, and I was really glad we delayed it so we could have a more diverse group of discussants. Thank you to everyone who attended! Che Gilson, Morgan Smith, and Sarah Kaplan have attended my show before. Kate Johnston and Sumiko Saulson were attending for the first time, and I want to offer them special thanks for adding their insights. I also want to thank Sumiko for her patience in sticking with us when our Google hangouts connection was being unreliable.

Colorism and racism are not quite the same. We discussed colorism because we wanted to look at biases that exist between different skin tones within racial groups across the globe as well as issues like whitewashing, and even consider how the use of color shows bias in storytelling.

Bias against darker skin tones shows up in a lot of places in fiction. Discussants mentioned that we have seen things like the whitewashing of Ursula K. LeGuin's world of Earthsea when it has been adapted for TV or film. We have seen how the racist internet blew up when the character of Rue in The Hunger Games was cast as Black. More complicated situations arise when you look at things like The Girl With All the Gifts. In the book, the teacher is black while the child is white. This choice turns the usual teacher-as-savior trope on its head. However, the movie reverses this, and when the zombie child gets called a monster, etc. that contributes to the trend of horrible insults aimed at Black people.

I remarked on an article I had recently read talking about how diverse stories tend more often to end in tragedy, and how we need to move away from this and have more diverse people allowed just to be heroic.

Skin color and culture are not congruent.

The essential content of colorism is the idea that the lighter you are the better. Black gets associated with bad and scary, and white gets associated with good and waifish. There is a continuum, not just categorization into black vs. white. Even thesaurus dictionaries are full of these word associations that impute bad meanings to darker colors.

On some level, it makes sense for early hominids to be afraid of darkness because of the dangers of the night. However, there is no necessary logical link to tie that to skin colors in human beings.

In Europe in the middle ages, freckles and tan were associated with field labor, and thus to be avoided because people wanted to be seen as members of the leisure class. A similar thing happened in the caste system in India, where pale people were higher caste and darker people worked in the fields.

When you are working with people of diverse skin colors, it's worth asking "How do I describe people in ways that aren't food?" Particularly if you are working in a secondary world, it's worth doing some work to avoid this, because of the intimate/vulnerable connotations that come with food descriptions.

Even Jesus was whitewashed.

So, when we write, do we push back against the culture of colorism? How do we do this, and where? We can use non-food descriptions that have more positive connotations. Or we can try to dissociate skin color from real-world value judgments in the culture of our secondary world. In my Varin world I try to do this, but it requires an extensive amount of work, both to dissociate the traditional values and to reassociate skin color with a different cultural significance.

When you are writing, the choice of skin color for your protagonist is political. Say you are writing a story with a dominant woman and a submissive man, the impact of the relationship on the page will be drastically different if the woman is white and the man black vs. if the woman is black and the man white. We have to be very careful about the choices we make in this regard.

We talked quite a bit about Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry wanted to protect audiences from actual race on one level. He had blue and green races. The green women were sexualized, and so it's possible to ask whether they represented a stereotype of black women. However, in representation of actual women, he put Uhura on the bridge in a position of power and respect. He had the episode of the society where people had black and white faces and talked in this way about the arbitrariness of color distinctions. He also featured the first interracial kiss on TV between Kirk and Uhura (in our live discussion we made an error and spoke as if it had been Spock and Uhura).

One of the things we can do in science fiction is to engage people's metaphorical sensibilities in a helpful way to make people examine their own expectations and biases. But we can and should do more.

It's all too common to have a large group of white characters and one black character. Kate asked, "Where are the inversions of that?" She wants to see all black characters and one white character. So far, we are not seeing all the possible stories.

In stories, you can use societal stratification and dig into how society treats visual difference as a reflection on how people deal with particular differences.

We spoke about colorblindness. Colorblindness seems to have been the idea that the 1970's considered ideal when it came to anti-racism. However, it is deeply problematic because of the way that it erases people's culture. It essentially amounts to a form of strict cultural assimilation, allowing people to assume that another person's background is the same. However, you can't erase the cultural history and trauma associated with appearance. It doesn't make sense to assume everyone is going to be white and able-bodied, "unmarked" or congruent with the default cultural power narrative. Ignorance of other cultures is only safe if you are powerful.

We talked about fiction plots where a black person dies and that brings the white people happiness. This happens in Uncle Tom's Cabin and in The Stand (as well as other contexts) and is deeply problematic.

People internalize the bias that surrounds them. The colorism bias happens within communities of color as well as across them. It appears in the US and Europe, but also in Asia and many other places in the world.

When we are writing, we need to think about what words we can use to describe skin color, because there are already many which are associated with particular cultural groups, time periods, etc. "High yella" for example refers to a particular color but is very American Black and has a raft of connotations. There are complex terms for skin color differences within a community. When people use words they have heard but don't have deeper knowledge of the context and implications, it's wrong and can be harmful.

In the days when white Americans enslaved Black people, having more white blood meant that you would be worth more money when you were sold. This has had lasting implications for the complexity of Black identity, especially for light-skinned folks.

As an author of science fiction, you can write futures of color, but who will publish them? We're seeing some improvement on this front, but there's more progress to be made. The same can be said about cover images.

There are a lot of amazing Black writers out there, and you should seek out their work! They include:
Nnedi Okorafor
Sumiko Saulson
Maurice Broaddus (Link to our discussion last week)
Malon Edwards (Link to our discussion here)
Nalo Hopkinson
Nisi Shawl (Link to our discussion here)
Octavia Butler
N.K. Jemisin
Tananarive Due
Kate Johnston
(This is a sadly incomplete list, so keep your eyes open!)

This week on Dive into Worldbuilding we'll be talking with guest author Alyx Dellamonica about her forthcoming book, The Nature of a Pirate. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tonya Liburd - Through Dreams She Moves

Author Tonya Liburd came on the show to tell us about the worlds she explores in her many short stories. She was very excited because she has just heard that the Book Smugglers will publish her story, "A Question of Faith," this coming July.

Tonya began by telling us a bit about her personal background. She's a Canadian raised in Trinidad, and, she says, "When I get angry my accent comes out." This background influences her writing. She says she loves to read postcolonial fiction, and lists V.S. Naipaul, Michael Anthony, and Merle Hodge's "Crick Crack Monkey" among her influences. She says she discovered fantasy fiction when she was 20 years old, via a Dragonlance book, and dived right in, but that Romance is not her genre. She also mentioned that Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was important to her.

"I use language a lot," she says. She explained that the language of the English Caribbean is called "Patois" while the language of the Spanish and French Caribbean is called "Creole," and that these are distinct dialects. The Virgin Islands have their own dialect with distinct names for food, etc. A story of hers called "The Ace of Knives" appeared in Postscripts to Darkness involved code-switching, and she was honored when Nisi Shawl used it in a workshop.  She also had a story called "Shoe Man" at Expanded Horizons, and Akashic Books published a story called "Home Again Home Again Jiggety Jig." "Through Dreams She Moves" appears in the Uncommon Minds anthology.

Tonya doesn't give up on her stories. She described a story that she had put away for years, after it was rejected, but that she found a new theme for and now wants to find home for. She told us about discovering a book called The World is Sound in a New Age bookstore, and how the book gave us ideas about commonalities between Indian music and jazz, such as the concept of a mentor teacher. She also says she wanted to write about ancient Egypt, so she brought that in. Her mother had given her a book on ancient Egypt when she was very small, and she has loved it ever since.

I asked Tonya about poetry, since she doesn't just write prose, and poetry is evident in her short stories. "I don't really think of myself as a poet, but poetry comes out of me anyway," she says. She's had success with it, as when she took 4th place in a writing competition about the perceptions of mental illness. She explored dealing with family who want to tell you how to live but won't do research on your condition. She says poetry intersects with her short fiction because writing is lyrical, and music is her thing. She wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

Tonya has several stories in set an alternate Toronto in which every person develops a special "gift" at puberty. These gifts ary widely, and societal systems are in place to help people with their gifts, such as if they need to leave their homes, etc. One guy's gift allows him to charm them with words, and so he becomes a politician. One woman doesn't have a gift, and that makes her a freak ("Superfreak"), and also causes her to be a target for harassment and abuse. Mental health and abuse occur often in Tonya's work, in part because of abusive elements in her own family background. She's very passionate about talking about these topics.

Tonya told us that her story, "Through Dreams She Moves" was inspired by "On Being Undone by a Light Breeze" by Vajra Chandrasekera. It inspired her to try using a combination of first- and second-person narration. Her story was longlisted for an award but she's had a hard time finding a home for it. One of the other features of Tonya's story is that each scene starts with a poetic envoi of three lines. I asked her what the appeal of this world with its people and its "gifts" was, and she said "it lends itself to plot." She told us about another forthcoming story in which a person goes to a hostel and breaks down, with all of their belongings in garbage bags. Each story allows her to explore different elements of this same world, such as homelessness, trauma, cultural isolation, code-switching, self-harm, etc.

"Through Dreams She Moves" arose from asking how people who are sick in this world get healed.
"A Charmed Life" arose from asking what it would be like to be in a position of leadership in this world. Sometimes the gifts can intersection.

"Shoe Man," she says, came from an idea she had when Tade Thomson shared a picture on social media of a shoe with teeth. It turned into a vignette that needed to be expanded, looking at homeless and mental illness.

"Superfreak" features a woman with no gift at all. Tonya apparently felt her way into the story before deciding what the protagonist's gift was, and only quite late realized she didn't have one. That reversal makes her a freak, and Tonya asks, "How would you survive?"

Tonya told us the abuse and mental health themes have been part of her own life for a while. A story of hers called "The Sweater" appeared in the Malahat Review (a Canadian literary magazine); she said "that was the first time I put my life on paper." She told us that she asked people "Should I put this out there?" but got some excellent advice that yes, she should.

Our discussant Wendy Delmater joined us because she is a huge fan of Tonya's work (and editor at Abyss and Apex). She urged Tonya to tell us about her upcoming novel. Tonya started by telling us that the Caribbean is a bona fide Afro-Centric society. "We eat roti the way everyone else eats pizzas." She suggested we go to Trinidad if we wanted to see a real melting pot. They have a distinct language (several, in fact) and distinct folklore including vampiric creatures called soucouyant. They can go through keyholes. To become a soucouyant, a woman makes a deal with the devil, hides her skin, and flies off in a ball of flame. She looks for babies to suck their blood, or in her story, sometimes animals. If you surround your bed with salt, she gets stuck having to count every grain.

The protagonist in the novel is a soucouyant. She meets an East Indian woman who was turned into a Western-style vampire. They live together and cause trouble, but the soucouyant develops a conscience and forms a grief counseling group to help the victims of the vampire, who went on a killing spree. One of the characters is a rape victim who wants to have her memories erased, but this is not as simple a question as it sounds. The soucouyant gets mixed up with more powerful supernaturals who want her to step into line.

It sounds like Tonya has got some super-exciting things coming up, and I urge you to look for her stories (some of which are linked in this post).

Tonya, thank you so much for joining us at short notice! It was a pleasure to talk with you about your work. Our next hangout will be today at 10am Pacific, and we will be discussing Colorism. We have quite a number of discussants lined up for this, but if you can't get in, you can always watch our YouTube live stream. I hope you can make it!


Friday, February 3, 2017

Fonda Lee and Exo (Out now!)

We had a terrific group for this discussion! Fonda lee joined us to talk about her new book, Exo. She said it was born out of random thoughts during shower/dish time about how there aren't enough aliens in YA. And she wasn't talking about friendly or sexy aliens, or not-so-friendly aliens!

Essentially, Exo is an alien story without either first contact or invasion in it.

The story starts when aliens are already here, and they govern us. Humans and aliens coexist in many contexts, but there is still violence. Some people have bought into the coexisting system, and others don't. Fonda said she really wanted to make sure that nothing was black and white, but that moral issues were subtly shaded.

Her main character is intended to turn tropes on their heads. Donovan is a young human soldier whose job it is to fight human insurgents. Fonda says she wants to see if she can make you root for a character on the "wrong side."

Culturally, the book sounds fascinating. Fonda told me that part of this was deliberate and part unconscious. Her editor apparently came to her and said how great the main character was as a metaphor for a second-generation child with mixed identity. This was something of a surprise, but it was definitely there, and she had an opportunity to strengthen that aspect of the story while working with the editor (so, awesome!).

Donovan is an EXO, a human who has been modified so he has body armor. Because of this he's considered alien to humans, but human to aliens. It's a major identity conflict, and some of Fonda's resources for portraying him no doubt came from her experience as a child of immigrants.

She wanted to make Donovan's experience personal. Writing is personal, she says - even when you are working on pot structure. The personal is what sustains interest and drive.

The setting of the book is Earth after it has been "reformed" by aliens among us. She asked a question I've never seen asked before: Why would aliens show up in a major city, i.e. a place so "infested" with the local inhabitants? Her alien cities are therefore in areas like Patagonia, Mongolia, and the border between Wyoming and Nebraska. Humans then migrate to those areas to interact with the aliens, which means suddenly you have a metropolis in the middle of grassland. North America is split into west and east.

I asked Fonda about her research. She said she picked a few locations to research, using the criterion of high altitude - the kind of spot that makes for a good observatory - because she thought aliens would want to have enhanced ability to communicate with home. These places also had to be sparsely populated and have access to water. She used population maps and looked up the locations of actual deep space antennas. She said she related to the location she used for the main city because she grew up in Alberta, and is familiar with cold prairie land. She also attended the Launchpad Workshop, which is a crash course in astronomy for science fiction and fantasy writers hosted by the University of Wyoming.

Fonda told us, "I discovered I really love designing aliens." Most important to her was that she didn't want them to look like us, since she didn't have to have them portrayed by actors on TV. However, they also needed to be capable of living alongside us, and for that she wanted them to be land-dwelling, and to have a vocal language.

The aliens are the Zri, who are called "shrooms" by the humans. They have domed bodies with six legs and six eyes. Their limbs have fingers. They have musical speech. The languages are incompatible in that humans can't produce alien language, and the aliens can't produce human language, but they are mutually comprehensible.

Fonda mentioned that one of the challenges of space travel she dealt with was radiation. The space-traveling aliens have body armor that allows them to resist this radiation, and so do the humans who are altered to have body armor.

One of the worldbuilding details she told us she liked was how the two groups can understand each other, but not perfectly. They have translation machines to help with the process, but the machines translate the alien language as a deep male human voice.

I asked her about the gender of the aliens, and she said they are hermaphroditic, but "they have male voices." Apparently the aliens deliberately chose to render their voices as those of human males in order to prey on human patriarchal expectations. Fonda notes that humans will also do that, as when female CEOs will deepen their voices.

Fonda likes to ask, "What's the logic behind that?" when she is worldbuilding. She also asks, "What from this world is relevant?" The aliens couldn't be sentient plants or light particles. All alien stories, she says, are human stories. We use the lens of Other to examine ourselves and ask, "What is human?" It's very important to look at humans interacting with the strange and unknown.

She told us about the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron, who says we are wired for stories because we are testing ourselves in preparation for actual scenarios.

Fonda says using aliens is a relatively safe way to portray the Other because it doesn't involve projecting Other onto other humans.

Donovan, the main character in Exo, is a member of the Global Security Forces. He gets abducted by a terrorist militia, an anti-alien human group. Because Donovan is the son of a political leader, he is perceived as a bargaining chip. However, things go wrong. Donovan understands the stance of the militia but at the same time is loyal to his father. Fonda says this is "not a good guys versus bad guys" story, but happens in a moral gray zone. We love the rebel versus the evil empire, Katniss, etc. but in many places, America is the evil empire. She wanted to ask "What is a terrorist?" "What is the justification that opposing sides use in conflict?"

Fonda also says that teens have a better sense of the world's complexity than we think. They can handle nuance in a story. She told us about a high school visit when she learned that teens are still reading "classics" which were written as adult works. We noted that YA is a new genre. Fonda says she's comfortable there because she loves the transition phase. We can still be coming of age until age 40, she says.

Sarah asked whether Fonda had done much digging into different Earth cultures. There is not so much of that in Exo, but it does nod to other areas of the world and how the alien occupation played differently there.

Khaalidah asked about Fonda's writing process. Fonda said that every book is different. Her first novel, Zeroboxer, took 6-8 weeks of research and a year for the first draft and revisions. Exo, she says, started as a "trainwreck NaNoWriMo."She tried to "pants it," or just write it without planning, and stalled out after 30,000 words, so had to delete it and try again. The second time she re-envisioned it, and rewrote it more. Exo has more layers to it, and needed more drafts to bring it into focus. Fonda says there will be a second book to follow Exo, too. An idea can marinate for months or years, but she estimates two months for research and outlining, five months for the first draft, a break, and then two and a half months or so for revision. When she uses an outline, it hits major plot points, and notes on character arcs. She sold the sequel to Exo on proposal with an outline and three chapters. Having an outline, she notes, doesn't necessarily mean anything once you start writing. She quotes Lin-Manuel Miranda saying some "ideas are Moses," in that they lead you somewhere important even if they don't make it into the final book.

Lastly, we asked about the gender of the main character. Fonda says that she's written young men so far because that's "the character that pops into my head." She's had people say "you like to write teenage boys," but she says she likes to write others, too.

Fonda, thank you so much for coming and telling us about this exciting book - it's out now, so go read it! Thank you also to everyone who attended and make the discussion so fascinating.

Next week, 2/8/17 at 10am Pacific, we'll be speaking with guest author Alec Nevala-Lee about his story, "The Proving Ground." We also have a discussion of Colorism scheduled for February 15th at 10am Pacific, so please let me know if you would like to participate.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Laura Anne Gilman and The Cold Eye

After having Laura Anne on the show to talk about Silver on the Road, and reading the book, I was keen to have her come back to discuss the sequel, The Cold Eye. So it was great when she agreed to join us!

These two books are part of The Devil's West, which includes this novel series and a number of other stories she has written. It's an alternate history with magic, in North America. The divergence point is that the Louisiana Purchase was never acquired by the United States because it was protected by a man (entity?) known to all as The Devil, who lives in the town of Flood and runs a saloon. The best description of the genre here is probably magical realism. Everyone in the book accepts that things are slightly magical.

The main character, Isobel, grew up as an indentured servant in the Devil's saloon, but at 16 years old, she got to decide what to do with her life, and because she's ambitious, she takes a job with the Devil. He sends her out into the Territory as his Left Hand - a sort of enforcer. The first trip, featured in Silver on the Road, is a learning experience. Isobel is helped by a companion and teacher named Gabriel. Of course, things go terribly wrong. In the second book, she has better learned to control her abilities and understands her responsibilities better. Laura Anne describes this as the heroine's journey. Isobel is not battling against external forces so much as learning to work with the world.

The magic in this world is unpredictable and organic. It's also not called magic. It's often tied to particular creatures that carry it, like buffalo and snakes, etc. The farther you go in the world, the more you learn about the different skills people and animals have, and how to react to them. There are people who have skills but don't want to be in the Territory. Whether you have skills often has to do with how many generations you have lived there. The Territory is under pressure from the United States, which is known as a place of street lights, technology, and universities.

Laura Anne told us that the whole thing was born out of a writing exercise. She discovered this world's outlines by writing a short story called Crossroads. She says that every time she writes a story in the world, it leads her to new discoveries, different aspects of the world and its magic. For example, there are people called Devil's Jacks, who have gambled with the Devil and lost everything, and ended up bound to him. He plays them like cards. They are here and there in the Territory, doing their jobs, miserable. What she learned about them revealed more about the characters.

She says there are still areas she hasn't visited yet.

She says she's working on a piece called Boots of Clay, which features a Portuguese Jewish community who live in the Territory because they were fleeing intolerance. They interact with the native people and there are some culture clashes. (It's a golem story). This story will appear in a successfully Kickstarter-backed anthology called Lawless Lands.

"The only story I think I'm never going to tell is how the Devil came to the Territory," Laura Anne says. She says that's because it feels very fluid in her head. The Devil changes what he looks like, sometimes from moment to moment, even with people he knows best. To write a story like that would tie it down in a way that feels wrong to her.

The agreement that allows everyone in the Territory to coexist is fluid. Laura Anne describes it as "Don't be shitty," but it's up to the Left Hand (Isobel) to decide if you are breaking it. It's not always logical. This is not a world that lends itself to a World Bible. Laura Anne says she has an idea of what powers the magic, but it's organic and resists identification. The magic/medicine has elasticity.

In fact, in this world, the word "magic" is a pejorative term used by outsiders. There is still a lot of superstition about "magic."

The time period featured here is between 1801 and 1803 during the term of President Jefferson. Laura Anne says she tries to keep all the politics outside the Territory as the exact politics of that time period.

Many people think Old West when they see her books, but this is earlier in history, before the invention of rifle barrels. The guns people carry are blunderbusses and flintlocks. Fights are much more likely to be conducted with fists than with knives or guns. When they were marketing the book, they tried to avoid the "Weird West" label even though it is weird, and west, because there are no gunslingers, hardly any prostitutes (she deliberately avoided them), and no railroads.

It's a very difficult period to research. History is well documented east of the Mississippi river, but the research on the west is "not in English." Native stories of the area are very different and nonlinear, with a different sense of time and a different storytelling logic.

I asked her whether there were any world-exploration spots where she had to push hard and maybe make up some things. She said that there were, and these occurred on Book 3 when the story moves to Louisiana. It's a very different region, and the Caddo confederacy occupied that region, but the confederacy was a lot of small tribes banded together over a large region, and some of them disappeared leaving no information. She had to use best guesses. Tribal names are not necessarily the ones that the tribes themselves used, because there is no record. She was frustrated because she had to use second person narratives, and other people's photos, rather than reading about these people in their own words.

Laura Anne says she wants to talk about Alaska also, and that there will be good research material there.

I asked her how she went about raising stakes across three books without blowing the top out of the story. Her answer was to keep survival as the basic stakes. This is the era of Manifest Destiny in the United states, so the threat to the Territory is consistent. She also keeps focused on Isobel's personal journey. In Book 2, Isobel must deal with what she's become. She has become adult and needs to make really hard decisions. Book 3 has her dealing with those decisions. Laura Anne insists that Isobel is not "getting darker," but that she has more weight on her from one book to the next.

Che asked whether she has plans beyond these three books. Laura Anne explained that Isobel's apprenticeship is done at the end of Book 3, and more material has yet to gel. She intends to keep writing in the world, however. She says she's intrigued by the question of how Marie became the Devil's Right Hand. There are many characters here, and many points of view.

I asked her specifically about the fascinating cultural clashes she deals with. She explained that they grow out of her background in American History. Western European settlers were not the full story. Spain and Portugal sent people. So did the French. The Native American peoples had thousands of communities with completely different cultures. There were Jewish people, and escaped slaves. There were Isolationists, or people who just wanted to move out into the wilderness and survive and maintain their lonely outposts. Then there were people who started cities because they wanted civilization where they were. There were cattle herders and farmers, who also had conflicts between them. Marrying outside one's own culture was a critical question. People were able to accept maybe one or two examples of this, but once it got to be 10 or 20 they felt threatened, as if their culture was being diluted.

One big question Laura Anne deals with is "Who gets to determine the future?" She told us she was really angry while writing the third book. None of the characters are bad people; they just want what they want and it leads to different good or bad outcomes. She says, "I know what happens to the Territory and when it happens. I'm not sure i want to write those stories. Nothing gets to stay the same, intact."

She tries to be faithful to the actuality of history in many ways. One of those is that there is no climactic battle. You realize after the fact that something has happened, and you have to deal with it. She says it's not a three-act narrative. It's about looking back at what people do and how they do it. History is key to storytelling. So is political science, anthropology - because they deal with people, cultures, and decision-making.

Laura Anne says that the best non-fiction books have a storytelling style. Liberal arts and sciences are very important. She says, "I'm not a science fiction writer [in her novels]. I just put a lot of science in my fantasy."

Last, we talked about suspension of disbelief. Laura Anne says there are two kinds. One is the suspension of disbelief of the reader, who says, "Okay, I'm going to trust you." The other is that of the writer, who bears an obligation to create a structure on which the reader can hang their suspension of disbelief. The Cold Eye starts because of an earthquake. If you take actual facts, and twist just slightly, it will still feel real.

The author has a great responsibility. Laura Anne observes that this is reflected in the way we talk about being "thrown out" of a story rather than "walking out" of it. It's the author's responsibility not to create ejection points.

Thank you so much for coming to talk to us, Laura Anne! I'm really excited to see what happens next in the series. Dive into Worldbuilding will meet this Wednesday, February 1 at 10am Pacific to talk about Colorism. I hope you can all join us!


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Physical Exercise

There's something about New Year's (probably the resolutions) that makes me think of physical exercise, so we decided to take this topic on.

Physical exercise is often considered a way to better yourself. There are the health and strength benefits, of course, but in many ways exercise is considered something morally good in American culture. What kind of person is worthy, beautiful, strong? Is exercise important to that? Is exercise key to self-reliance? Is it also a replacement for flagellation or self-punishment?

As with many aspects of our lives, social class plays into the cultural meaning of exercise. People who exercise as leisure tend to get more kudos for it than people who exercise for work (labor). There is also the question of international cultures and their appropriation, as when yoga or martial arts are adopted in the US and end up being changed. In a way, appropriation is involved in the core premise of the Karate Kid, in the question of whether karate is to be considered a cultural practice or just a way to wield the power of physical strength over others.

When you are writing about characters in fiction, are they fit? Ask yourself in what way they are fit, and how they got there. People sometimes will give their characters "superpowers," or physical abilities with no particular explanation of how they were developed. Do your characters have to work hard for their strength and fitness?

Nina mentioned how Seanan McGuire in October Day had a character with fast healing who never runs from anything, but how later when her healing isn't working she has to change her strategy drastically.

Cliff Winnig, in the lead-up to the discussion, mentioned that Michael Moorcock has a character who loses people dear to him at the end of Book 1 of a series, and then in Book 2 is depressed and out of shape and has to get his physical fitness back.

I spoke about the question of my alien character Rulii and his physical fitness, which depends on several factors - his semi-bipedalism, which means he's far better at running on fours than at walking, and also his history of military service followed by drug use and recovery, which influences his expectations for his own abilities.

Che mentioned that in middle grade we too often see the trope of "training with a cute guy."

One of the common tropes of fiction is the idea that the only thing that will keep you from being sore is more of the same thing that made you sore. Fictional stories too often ignore recovery time.

Nina also mentioned that there is a big focus on young people who can bounce back quickly. Morgan mentioned that there is an assumption that people are either able-bodied or visibly disabled, and we don't see many cases of people who are held back by invisible ailments or injuries. I'm working on a character currently who has a nerve injury that she's been recovering from for a while. It's hard to say how much it will affect her, because injuries like this vary depending on the day.

It's a good idea to figure out the physical history of your characters.

Ask how much your culture values the physical abilities of your characters. If they were injured or disabled, would they try to pass as uninjured/able?

Pedestrians are also an interesting question. Does it make sense for people to travel by foot? Nina told us that in Finland in winter, people are required by law to wear personal reflectors for walking as well as for cycling.

Some jobs cause you to be physically fit. For example, you can be a postman who has to walk their daily routes.

Exercise helps to maintain your body and stave off aging.

Exercise for major muscles provided by sports, etc. is not the same as exercise for tiny muscles provided by activities like yoga or Pilates or dance.

In a place with car culture, the form of cities changes and makes walking far more difficult. Cars need space to be safe, but that means that the form of the city is skewed toward people who have money for cars. Public transport also gives people the opportunity to do daily walking. Mass transport also often makes assumptions about people being able-bodied. This was certainly the case in Tokyo in the early 90's when I was living there and some stations didn't have elevators or escalators. Carrying on with physical exercise when you are sick can be a mistake. Carrying on with serious injury is also a problem.

Pain is exhausting and sometimes doesn't register as pain but as fatigue.

There were quite a number of aspects of physical exercise we didn't cover, including school PE, so we'll have to discuss this again sometime! Thanks to everyone who attended, and a special welcome to Nina who joined us from Finland!

Next week, guest author Fonda Lee will join us to talk about her forthcoming novel, Exo (and hopefully also her debut novel, Zeroboxer). I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Strength and Weakness

The first thing that came to mind for me when we discussed this topic was how important questions of strength and weakness can become in fiction. This takes different forms for male and female characters. I thought of Maui from the movie Moana, whose physical strength is legendary but who uses it as a cover for emotional weakness. Another character who takes on the question of strength and weakness in an interesting way is Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles.

Morgan took us away from the pure concept of physical strength with the idea that in school we should "focus on our strengths." A strength, loosely defined, can be anything we are particularly good at. But she said we should not forget to work on those areas where we are not as good.

Physical strength takes a front seat in toxic masculinity. Men are encouraged to be "strong," which often includes not showing any sign of being sick (and not getting any help until it is severe), playing sports through pain, etc.

Che remarked that playing through pain is not always a good idea. It may be helpful for arthritis but not helpful for injuries, so you have to be able to recognize what kind of pain you are feeling!

Working while sick is potentially a big problem because as strong as you think you are, you are also risking contagion for those around you.

It can also be toxic to believe that you are weak if you need someone to care for you.

Women "tough it out" in different ways. They are often expected to keep households running despite being sick; their illness tends to be ignored rather than acknowledged and pampered.

Do men and women perceive pain differently? Some research has suggested as much, but our research on pain is very preliminary, and pain is very subjective.

Back to the idea of strength as something you are good at: are you "allowed" to have more than one strength? Is there a zero-sum pie for strengths in the social context in which you move? Nerd is good at the intellectual and jock is good at the physical. This division is very common in popular narratives, and you have a few cases of "Wow, exception!" like Beast from the X-men. However, in the real world there are plenty of people who are good at both. Some families try to compartmentalize their kids' strengths to keep them from competing against each other, which means they encourage some strengths in their kids and suppress others.

If you draw your expectations from fiction you may be deceived.  If you draw your fiction from expectations you may be... boring.

The context of a science fiction and fantasy convention doesn't cause a person to leap to the conclusion that there would be a lot of rock climbers around, but I've met a surprising number of SF/F writers who climb!

Strength is also contextual. John Carter of Mars relies on the premise that John's strength is incredible on Mars because of the change in gravity. In real life, people can be exceedingly good at sports and not have what we would imagine as a typical "strong body." Here is a great link showing the body types of Olympic athletes:

We looked a bit at the concept of the Strong Female Character. The problem with many of these is that they tend to fall into the pattern of being kickass women with a lot of body strength who nonetheless are still secondary to the plot of a story (as in the LEGO movie, argh argh). Hermione is a better character, intelligent, with focus and drive and some influence on the plot. However, she is still not the protagonist. Watch out for the Cassandra: a character who has an amazing power but nobody ever lets it influence them.

It's important to realize that oppressed characters are not necessarily weak. I spoke a bit about the difficulty of creating non-POV female characters who were oppressed, and not have them come across as weak. I had to make sure they were changing events in whatever small ways they could manage.

We need to break the expectation that weakness is feminine, and also the expectation that crying is a sign of weakness. Both crying and rage are emotional steam valves, but the latter is usually portrayed as strong and the former as weak. Crying is a communication instinct, and often a healthier response than self-suppression.

Thank you to everyone who attended the discussion! This week's discussion will feature guest author Laura Anne Gilman, who will tell us all about her new novel, The Cold Eye. Join us tomorrow at 10am Pacific on Google Hangouts to hear all about it!


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In-Group Marking (nicknames, slang, secret handshakes, etc.)

I have always loved the idea of the secret handshake, but I never learned the term "in-group" until I was studying Japanese. This discussion was about how we mutually mark ourselves as members of common social groups, i.e. as insiders. The initial spark for the discussion was an after-hangout chat during which Mafia nicknames of the '20s and '30s were mentioned.

Nicknames are funny. Who actually awards them? It depends on the group involved (in our family, most nicknames come from Mom, i.e. me). They aren't titles "awarded" by the head of an organization though - they can be agreed upon by consensus of the group, or each individual (as in the case of my family) can make up their own nicknames for other members. It's not just Mafia and families, either. Sports players can get nicknames, like "The Fridge" or "Sweetness," etc.

Another thing that marks in-group members is verbal habits, which can include everything from slang to special greetings to slagging (ritual put-downs, which are known by many different names depending on the social group). In a way, it's an honor to be able to put someone down safely.

I saw a great video of a teacher who had a different secret handshake for every single one of his students, and shook hands with each of them as they entered at the start of the day (video here). Freemasons were known for having secret handshakes also.

Clothing can also be a critical indicator of group membership. School uniforms, hats, or class rings, championship rings etc. Gang colors are an example of this. So are house colors like the ones in British Schools (and Hogwarts!). Fraternities have colors, letters, and a motto.

The creation/selection of these critical membership artifacts contributes to the sense of unity among the group. Groups have their own culture of shared interest.

Ideologies are also a form of in-group. Often people recognize members of the group from among people they don't know by listening to how they talk, as when people use dog-whistle words or phrases.

We chatted also about how we recognized members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy "tribe." Sometimes it's their clothes (a genre t-shirt, for example). Sometimes they are reading a book. Sometimes they have colorfully dyed hair. Sometimes the guys have long hair. Sometimes it's several of the above!

There were codes of dress and adornment favored by LGBT people, as when there was the habit of gay men wearing an earring in the right ear. In the case of groups like this, there can be potentially dangerous consequences for exposure, so it may be advantageous for the signals to be kept secret.

Groups can be formed on the basis of a shared job (as with unions, etc.) or a shared experience. Often, you will find that mothers will bond over describing their birth experiences. This becomes more complex in the case of transmen bearing babies.

Within groups, people often try to stratify themselves. Would that be indicated by scarier nicknames? Possibly.

Che talked about the witches in her book Tea Times Three, who were ostracized by non-witches. Each one of them is named after food! We wondered whether this was a witch thing, or a sisterly thing.

A really good source of conflict might be a person who is a member of two or more different incompatible groups being placed in a situation where they have to deal with one of each, and signal covertly to more than one person at a time, in different ways. When you are writing fiction, definitely think through what kind of groups exist and how they might be linguistically marked.

The identity of a group will reflect on the way the language use comes across. A character called The Nose might be very different depending on whether they are a perfumer, someone in an elementary school, a member of the Mafia, and alien, a mean girl, or something else. It's up to the author to create those associations. Set up the context, and take your time.

Given names for children are a way they can be involuntarily grouped. People change their names for various social reasons. Geisha take a performer name, as do people like Sting. Racism sometimes leads to people avoiding "ethnic" names. Lady Gaga chose her name to be deliberately ironic and to reference the song by Queen.

In Japanese, suffixes like -san, -chan, and -sama are used differently depending on whether you are members of a shared group (-chan and -kun are for insiders).

There are often nicknames that you don't want but which you are stuck with, and it can be problematic when nicknames are used out of context. A group may have a name for itself that is different from the public name it uses.

The use of a particular term can sound different when used by people in different social groups, as when the n-word sounds different used by white people (who are associated with racist contexts in which the word has previously been used) vs. black people (who have reclaimed the word in some ways).

License of intimacy often lets you use a nickname. Sometimes, external context like being at a diner can let you use a nickname.

Thank you to everyone who attended! This was a really interesting topic, and I enjoyed talking with everyone.