Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Ellen Klages and Passing Strange

Ellen Klages joined us on the show to talk about her novella, "Passing Strange," which appeared on Tor.com... as it turned out, precisely two years before our chat! The story is set in San Francisco in 1939, and includes magic. As Ellen said, "It's our world. I didn't make it up, but I did get it on the page."

I asked Ellen what had been the initial seed of this novella. As it turns out, the novella has a very long history! Ellen told us that she started writing a novel or a short story or something in 1977 when she was 22 or 23, and had just moved to San Francisco, and just figured out that she was queer. She ended up wandering around a lot, learning about Mona's and many of the other locations that appear in the novella. She did a lot of research and did what she described as cosplaying Haskel and Netterfield with her love of the time. She told us she thought it would be a novel. She had four scenes typed, and would read the scenes every few years and say to herself, "Damn, I should do something with that."

Then, years later, Jonathan Strand asked her for a novella for Tor.com. By that point, Ellen says, she had four or five folders full of notes and photographs put together from all her years of research. At that point she did 3 1/2 more months of research before writing. She read about a dozen books on Chinatown. She said she started there because it was "the thing I knew I had to get right." She filled eighty pages with notes, most of which didn't get used. One page, which she showed us on video, was filled with Haskel's signature. She explored the gay and lesbian historical archives about Mona's.

Three of the characters in the story, Babs, Polly, and Franny, have appeared in other works of Ellen's fiction. In "Out of Left Field," Babs and Franny appear as relatives of the main characters. Polly appears in "Hey, Presto!" and Franny in "Caligo Lane."

I asked Ellen why she included magic in the story, and she told us that honestly it was because the story would appear at Tor.com, and she felt compelled to make it fantasy. "I would have viable magic if it killed me." The original scenes she wrote were straight historical. She had written a story about Franny and the origami magic earlier, so that magic was preexisting, but she knew Franny couldn't rescue Haskel and Netterfield with her magic because it's not her book. She had to figure out a way for Haskel to save them. She spent six week noodling stupid ideas in Google, including learning the name for pixie/fairy dust in 37 languages until she found "tunderpör," which is Hungarian.

The art that Margaret Brundage did for Weird Tales was a critical piece of research for the story, because that turned out to be Haskel's profession.

It took Ellen eleven months to write the story, following each piece to the next piece. She had lists of creepy Weird Tales adjectives, and was proud to tell us that she used forty of them in two pages at the end of the story. Initially she said she thought the whole thing would be written as pulp, but that wasn't how it ended up working out. She describes the story as being "like phyllo." It has forty or fifty different layers. She didn't want the research to shout, "Research!"

Cliff asked Ellen about how she chose what to feature, given that the past contains so many things that are familiar to us and so many that are unfamiliar. Ellen told us she doesn't explain very much about what is going on. She describes a lot of the 1939 World's Fair because it existed for two years and then was bulldozed. She went to the location of the fair to see views of the city so she could describe what the city looked like from there. A lot of it was just details tossed in like "used the pay phone in the luncheonette" which is not so alien as to need a lot of explanation. She says three percent of what she knows ended up on the page... otherwise it would have been a giant infodump.

Ellen was trying to stay under 40K words, the official novella length limit. When she had one chapter left to write, she discovered she already had 52K words. In the end, she had to cut 19K words out of it. That's an enormous amount! She told us that no whole scenes were removed, but a lot of unbearably clever dialogue had to go. She trimmed sentences down as much as she could, line by line, cutting all flab and repetition. She told us, "I tend to use 'so' a lot." She described it as like making a sauce. "You just keep reducing it." It gets smaller and more concentrated and the flavors are reduced to their essence.

Paul asked Ellen what draws her to this time period. Ellen says she is fascinated with the twentieth century, particularly with "stuff I just barely missed." She says she has no interest in the future because "it could be anything." Ellen says she has always liked antiques and old junk, and the smell of old books. She calls it "as close as you can get to time travel." "I like to write about places where I wasn't." She says she likes to look at a picture and peer around the corner. She has viewmaster reels of the fair in the 1940s in 3D. "The stuff that tourists want to see is not what I want to see."

I asked Ellen how the character of the art collector/pulp dealer Marty Blake came into the story. She said he came in very late. She told us that she's always imagined that Haskel looked like Lauren Bacall, and initially she wanted the frame story so that someone could say she looked like Lauren Bacall (this wouldn't have been possible in the time period, because Lauren Bacall wasn't known yet). Once she had the frame story, Ellen needed details for it. She read Dashiell Hammett continental ops books, and in both of the Chinatown stories, there was a basement with a hidden doorway. She wanted to do a version of this that would not be like a cliché. She also wanted to be sure that Helen could be as active as she was at age 100, so she found the story of a 100 year old Japanese woman who was a swimming champion.

Ellen had established that Helen would have the painting, but needed to figure out what she would do with it. Destroy it, obviously - but bringing in the pulp dealer allows her to talk about the history of the pulps. She wanted a sleazy guy, and had to drop the idea of him calling her Lauren Bacall because it worked better if Marty thought Haskel was a man. Ellen also asked herself why Helen would cheat the guy, and finally came up with the idea of her friend who had been ripped off, and Helen giving away the money as charitable donations and tips. She had to put the gotcha scene with Marty right at the end.

Apparently the frame story of Helen and Marty confuses a lot of people, perhaps because the novella has chapters and suddenly jumps into the past with a totally different set of characters. Ellen said she relied on her editors to say if it was too confusing.

Ellen loves the cover image for this story. She says it's one of the few times a book cover has been essential to the plot.

Pastels as an art form were chosen for her, because those are what Margaret Brundage worked in. They have a slightly fuzzy quality, and a sense of depth because their surface is not flat. When she did research on pastels she learned how fragile they were. In fact, Margaret Brundage's career ended when her publisher moved from Chicago to New York because it was so difficult to ship the pastel works without damaging them. This sent Ellen into researching medieval fixatives. She couldn't use varnish because it yellows and cracks. Then she learned about fish glue! At one point she had 3-4 recipes for fish glue, and tried to figure out how important it was to explain. "I could get 3 pages of notes down to 2 1/2 sentences.

Ellen says her favorite sentence is one that follows the scene where they eat raspberry rings, when Helen comes to deliver fish guts for the fish glue: "You know, most buildings only have the milk delivered."

Ellen imagines Netterfield as a very young Katharine Hepburn. Because she had Hepburn and Bacall as very clear images for the two characters, she watched five or six Bacall and Hepburn movies to get the cadence of their dialogue and use it in the story. She says she never reads aloud from scenes where Haskel and Netterfield are together because "I just can't switch" between the two voices which are so different in cadence. The two actresses formed a key part of the worldbuilding, which Ellen described as "laying a concrete foundation for myself." She's been thinking about these characters for 40 years, and says at twenty-three she would have loved to see a romance noir with Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn as the romantic leads. By the time she started worldbuilding, she could already hear the characters' voices in her head.

We asked if she had expected the story to be as successful as it has been. Yes and no, she said. When she finished her distillation (sauce-making), she was certain it was the best thing she'd ever written. She could pick up 4-5 pages without finding anything to change. After an incredibly messy process, it turned out to be the best ever. "You hope the editor won't go, 'meh.'" But the beta readers loved it and the ARC got a good review. Sometimes when things come out in January, 6 weeks later no one remembers, but in this case, people still remembered it and were talking about it at Thanksgiving.

In fact, "Passing Strange" has received seven or eight award nominations and has won three awards. It gave rise to the best year ever of Ellen's career! Yaaay! Ellen said at one point there was hardly any competition at the novella length, but now Tor.com publishes 44 novellas a year, which has changed the game. Ellen told us the ego part of her thought "of course it will do well" and the writer part thought "no one will remember." But people did remember, and they are still talking about it two years later, which doesn't happen often.

Ellen tells us "I write slow. I love research so much more than writing." Writing is in third place behind research and editing. She especially hates first drafts. She writes longhand in a notebook, and then types it into a computer because she can't read her own handwriting.

She said when she was worldbuilding this she did some of it with actual visits to the locations, like Telegraph Hill looking out at Treasure Island at dusk. However, she also worked at home with her phone, iPad and laptop all open at the same time showing 3-d views out toward Treasure island. She said she "sat there doing the Vulcan mind meld" and then wrote a description. She said she did go to North Beach and eat raspberry rings, and walk around Chinatown and eat dim sum.

Ellen told us the top of the TransAmerica building was where the Montgomery block was, and that's where Haskel's studio is. She walked around the neighborhood a lot in 1977 and in 2008.

She said she knew Diego Rivera was at the World's Fair, and that Frida Kahlo had paintings on display at the fair but was coming in person later. She couldn't find out which Kahlo paintings were on display, though, and then on Ebay late one night she found someone selling the catalog of the art building from the 1939 World's Fair. She bought it, figured out which paintings were present... but the catalog was in black and white, so she then had to look up what the painting had looked like in color. That's research dedication!

Ellen also used the 1939 San Francisco phone book to find names of luncheonettes and laundry places.

She loves the cover art for the story. She was able to buy the original art, and keeps it at home.

What a treat it was to have Ellen on the show! Thank you so much for giving us your insights, Ellen, and thank you to everyone who attended.


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Expectations of Age

Welcome back to Dive into Worldbuilding for 2019!

The first thing we did when opening up this discussion was remind people about the special deal that Dive into Worldbuilding participants can get with Writing the Other's upcoming Master Class. Register by January 27th and get $40 off with the code diveintowb!

We weren't sure as we began the discussion whether to talk about later ages or all ages, but in the end there was so much to grapple with that we focused mostly on more advanced ages.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that all expectations of age are cultural, and they differ not only based on culture but also on gender, race, and class, etc.

We talked about how people develop a sense that a birthday with a "zero" at the end of it was a big deal. Naturally, this is just an artifact of the decimal-based number system that we use. We talked about how in places where they use the East Asian zodiac, every twelve years is a big deal. Our expectations of how important a particular birthday is are built into us on the ground floor. Kat remarked that she feels personally that the zeroes hit her harder than the twelves. She noted that the convergence of the two at age 60 is really important in China, Korea, and Japan.

Cliff mentioned how in the Southern US there are behaviors expected of people interacting with older folk. Young people are expected to give deference to elders by calling them Sir or Ma'am. This is not so much a rule in the Northeast, Chicago, or California. Interestingly, this behavior can be racialized: Southerners who accept this kind of behavior toward them may object to it when they see it in other cultures. Race tends to trump age, as when African-American men were infantilized by calling them "boy."

Whenever you take a respect behavior out of its original context, you can run into problems. Some cultures make a point of trying to break down hierarchy. Some make a point of trying to avoid gender bias, and this can be a problem when the formal words we use are gendered.

In some cultures, hierarchy is built into the language on every level.

In some cultures, people in their 30s talking about feeling creaky and getting older is normal; in some it's considered silly given how young they are.

Until what age are people expected to have plasticity of thought? Is there an age beyond which everyone expects your ideas to have calcified?

How do we measure age visually? It's a tricky thing to do, for a number of reasons. One is that people our age in earlier eras often presented visually as older. The phrase "act your age" relies on a set of expectations drawn from a visual or behavioral assessment of someone's age, and is always incredibly loaded. "Age-appropriate dress" is also cultural.

Kat noted that in the Facebook photo posts where people shared themselves ten years ago and now, some of the people looked younger in the more recent photos. One idea was that we've gotten better at selfies. Another possibility is that when we are younger, we want to look more mature to project authority, and ten years later we may have crossed a threshold where we want to look younger to combat ageism. Cliff pointed out that his beard ages him by about 20 years - but there are advantages to being an older white male, and little incentive to change it. Reading other people's age also varies culturally and racially. The Asian markers of aging are different, such as the way the skin and fat are distributed on the face, and the way the musculature is arranged. Many of us have a eurocentrically normalized sense of what aging is: wrinkles around the eyes, wrinkling forehead, sagging skin, graying hair and skin. The age when these features hit is different in different populations. There are important implications of age-judging for social justice as well, because they change social expectations of behavior. For example, black kids are often judged to be older than they are and this leads to them being punished more harshly.

The infantilization of millennials is also interesting. Kat says it's connected to a set of expectations for adulthood that no longer hold. The birth rate is going down because there is no support for families either financially or in the form of leave. A lot of the hit pieces on millennials are based on the post-WWII expectations for white people. Generation X, meanwhile, gets overlooked or erased, or told they don't count. Generation X didn't get the same things the Boomer generation did because the Boomer generation voted against it.

Certain ages of people tend to get erased in the larger cultural context. In our underlying culture, we don't necessarily have disregard for the elderly, but the Boomers, who used the phrase "never trust anyone over 30," certainly did. As their large population ages, we see a lot of cultural concern focused on their issues. There is more media focus on aging now, and on aging women. Many millennials don't have the anti-aging bias.

We have lots of ideas about what it means when older men have relationships with younger women, but Millennials are not accepting it any more. What about older women with younger men?

The movie The Hunt for Red October is historically interesting. We talked about Das Boot as well, and looked at what is considered "old" in the naval setting. In Das Boot, the captain is 26 and considered ancient because he hasn't been killed yet. The army tends to capture a stratum between the ages of 18-26. In WWI and WWII movies as well, the "old man" on the battlefield is a very young man.

In Dungeons and Dragons, there are stat changes associated with aging. You lose strength and dexterity and gain wisdom. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone gained wisdom as they aged?

We talked about the wise old man trope. This is certainly embodied by wizards in Fantasy. When are old people portrayed as wise, and when are they portrayed as foolish or out of touch?

Stories often deal with mortality but they tend to deal with aging less often, at least in SFF. Do stories deal with aging more in the mainstream genre? Why? Do we assume that science will eliminate aging issues in the future?

The films Bubba Hotep and Cocoon deal with aging in different ways.

Che mentioned that Stephen King's Insomnia has a senior citizen character who is coping with arthritis pain.

Sometimes mobility or health issues in the elderly cause them to withdraw from public social interaction. Obviously, though, this is not exclusive to the elderly, as one can be disabled at any age. Automobile culture causes isolation if you lose the ability to drive safely. We speculated that driverless cars might keep older people and disabled people more involved in society. Kat said we need to have a more accessible society, but it seems the concerns of Boomers may lead to increases in accessibility.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Dive into Worldbuilding meets tomorrow, Thursday, January 24th, 2019 to talk with guest author Ellen Klages about her novella, "Passing Strange." I hope you can join us!


Thursday, December 27, 2018

Tade Thompson and Rosewater

I was so happy to have Tade Thompson come on the show! Rosewater is a book with a very interesting history. It was first published by small press Apex in 2016, and was a finalist for the Joseph W. Campbell award, and took first place in the NOMA awards for African works of speculative fiction. Tade said his initial plan was "I will  just make stuff and publish it wherever" but then he found he needed an agent because it was too much. He got an agent and sold the book to Orbit, which is why it's out again now.

Tade says he's not a big plotter. "I'm a pantser. I launch myself off into space and hope something will catch." At the same time, he says, "I rewrite really seriously."

I asked him about the genesis of the Rosewater concept, and he said he had the telepathy idea in 2011 after reading an article about conjoined twins who shared a brain and could hear each other's thoughts. He didn't want the telepathy in Rosewater to be hand-wavy, tough. He wanted an actual explanation, a conduit. When he asked himself why such a conduit would exist, the answer came out thusly:

"It was aliens."

Rosewater is an invasion story.

Tade told us that ideas on their own are not enough. He has to find the character. He said he wrote fifty thousand words before he realized he was writing in the wrong point of view. Some characters and events from this 50K words have survived in the final book, as backstory.

The character of Kaaro was based on 3 people Tade used to know. He's the right point of view to use because he can explore the entire idea.

Cliff asked if the 50K was canon. Tade said it was. None of the worldbuilding in it was discarded.

Tade gave us perspective on his view of himself as a pantser. "I don't dive in until I have thoughts for a long period of time." He says he doesn't start until he's already sure of where he's going, and the rules of the world. Generally, he says, he gets a character first and then builds the world around them. In The Murders of Molly Southbourne, he got the character first. In this book only, he got the wolrd first and then the characters. Any story must have both.

He describes himself as having a "video game mentality" in world creation. Not everything is rendered immediately. He follows the character and renders what is necessary. Once a character has seen it, it becomes real. Wherever the character goes, they are a kind of god, creating the world as they go.

I asked Tade why he felt Kaaro was uniquely appropriate as a point of view character for this story. He explained that Kaaro can be followed in first person, but because he can read minds, he makes us omniscient.

Other characters in the book were not Sensitive. In a book not about psychics this would be head-hopping.

Tade said that by making this choice "I made the reader also a mind reader." Kaaro himself is an unsavory character, and by following him, the reader is complicit. You have a bit of sympathy for him as he is affected by what goes on.

After drafting the book he made a network diagram of character links, showing who is connected to whom and why. The main character must have a link to most other characters.

Tade said, "My writing is exploratory." He wrote almost the whole thing before asking if he was in the right point of view.

I asked him how the telepathy works (SPOILERS!). Aliens have manufactured a fungi-like microorganism and seeded Earth with it over millions of years. This creates a network of organisms that connect to sense organs on the skin, and deliver the thoughts in the brain via the nerves into the air. This was how the aliens learned about Earth in preparation to invade. A side effect was that 1% of humans could access these data and extract data from people around them. Kaaro is the absolute best at it.

Rosewater is the name of a city that sprang up surrounding an alien biodome near Lagos, Nigeria.

Tade said the casual reader wouldn't notice, but he couldn't set a story "bang in the middle of Nigeria" because it would be too easy to create offense. Therefore he created a new city just outside Lagos. He restricted the language to Yoruba because "that's the language that I speak - I can make fun of my people if I want to." It's not just language, of course, but also culture.

Paul asked Tade how he acclimated readers to the environment. Tade explained, "I didn't want to acclimate them to it. I wanted to alienate them." Apparently this led to a massive fight with his editor. Tade doesn't think every aspect of the narrative should be understood. "If you're going to read a story about aliens... you cant understand everything."

I asked him if he knew the answers to things that readers would not be expected to understand. He said "I am God; I know everything. I know the color of their underwear..."

Characters, though, don't need to know everything. Tade leaves room for the reader to extrapolate because he says the best worldbuilding is in the reader's head. The writer must access that by giving hints for the reader to work with. "I will not put signs to everything." He wants to give just enough clues, and not talk down to the reader. That's the one thing that will make him throw a book across a room.

Kat asked, "Do you feel your own experience [as Nigerian, as POC] has colored the book?"

"It matters, definitely," Tade said. "I don't think a white person could write a book like this. My relation to aliens is completely different from what a white Englishman may have." The colonized people of our world are the only ones who have actually had contact with aliens in history - abducting them, experimenting on them, and taking their resources.

How a writer treats aliens reveals a lot about that person's subconscious. If you think alien hordes must be pacified, or if you think of them as not individuals, that shows what you think about people who are not like you. Even a "romp about aliens and space without politics" is political, because it shows that the author believes politics can be removed from a story, when it can't. Oppressed people acknowledge that politics is inextricable.

He said an annotated version of Rosewater would be larger than the book itself. All of us wanted to see it anyway!

Kat asked about the response Tade got from African readers. He explained that the African Speculative Fiction Society voted it for a best novel award. No one has written a negative review from an African perspective. Tade said he suspected it was possible that people might want to challenge him but have insufficient facts to do so, and so had chosen not to.

Tade told us he doesn't identify as a member of a particular group, and thus doesn't consider himself part of the Afrofuturist group. He says he's proud of being Black African, but "I don't see the idea of me being black as linked to being a writer." People are still finding the way to understand the word "Afrofuturist" and what it means. Meanings change over time. "I won't say my work isn't Afrofuturist." Tade is savvy about the history of the term, and thinks it helps critics put works in context, but wants to ask "Who does this definition serve?" He says he's not convinced it's a useful category for him and his work.

I asked Tade whether there was special research he had to do for this book. For most of the book, his life of experience was enough, but he said he did have to look up photosynthesis because our understanding of how it works had changed. He had already been following mycology because he's a doctor, and has to know how fungal infections work. He did use a book on caving and spelunking because some people explored in the alien.

Tade told us that his earliest career choice was that he wanted to be Spiderman. He prayed to God when he was little that he could grow up to be Spiderman, but explained that when he realized that wasn't possible, he figured the next best choice would be to draw him, and wanted to be a comic artist. But, he said, "You don't tell African parents you want to be a comic artist." He was interested in bodies and other things, so he went to medical school, but came out of medical school not knowing what to do. He used the throw a dart at a map method to decide what to do, and ended up going to Samoa. He was the only doctor on one of the four islands, and worked there between 1998 and 1999.

He says he has a feeling he will still write a graphic novel if he can find the right one to do, but he wants to give it the respect it deserves, and suspects he won't be able to do it without gutting one aspect of his current career.

Book 2 in the Rosewater series will come out in March. He has had all of it planned for quite some time, and gave outlines of his plans to Orbit all the way to the end of Book 3, but explains that this isn't the end of the Rosewater story, only a convenient stopping point. "I will never be a Robert Jordan," he says, because he can't write the same thing again and again or he gets bored. All three Rosewater books are done. He may come back to this storyline but he'll have to do something else first. "I will do it as long as I am interested." He says the writing will reflect the boredom of the writer. "We'll know when you phone it in."

Thank you so much, Tade, for coming on the show! Rosewater is a fascinating book, and I hope you will all have a chance to enjoy it.


Proxemics (~personal space) and Body Politeness

At the start of this hangout, we decided to use the word proxemics, as suggested by Kat who proposed this topic, instead of just "personal space." "Personal space" is a more limiting concept. Proxemics are systematic and can be studied. They are indicative of hierarchy and culture. We are trained in the ways to interact appropriately with our bodies. We develop specific expectations of boundaries and proximity.

There are plenty of linguistic and sociological stories of people being "chased" by someone who continues to step into their zone of personal space. Sometimes it's intentional. Sometimes the "chaser" just feels the other person is too far away to have a personal conversation with.

How close is the one-on-one distance for conversation? Is it the "I can touch you" distance?" Is it "I can touch your crossed arms"?

Kat pointed out that when we interact with shopkeepers, we don't usually think about how far we are expected to be from the counter. Do we need to stand far enough away that we can point to things under the counter? Should we be leaning on the counter? How about our interaction with merchandise? If we're buying fruit should we be able to touch it? There's certainly an unspoken contract of gentleness if we do, so we don't damage the fruit and then reject it. Kat told us about a New York shopkeeper who was horrified when she handled the fruit at the stand.

In passport lines, there is the counter with the passport checker, and then a line painted on the floor some distance away where the next person is expected to stand while waiting.

Where do you stand when in line for an ATM? Certainly far enough away that you can't look over a person's shoulder.

Cliff talked about how when you hail a cab, in the US you generally sit in the back seat, but in Israel it's considered impolite not to sit in the front.

People feel weird about being a chauffeur for their friends. There are different rules about where to sit in a car depending on what social group you are from. Working class will tend to put the men in the front and the women in back. Middle class will tend to put one couple in front and another couple in back. Upper class will have a man driving but seat him beside the woman from the other couple. And I mean, who puts two couples in the same car? Don't we usually take separate cars?

When fannish people hang out with friends, couples will often split up to catch up with the people they haven't spoken to in a while. It may look gender-segregated depending on the arrangement, but that's usually not the intention.

There is now legislation surrounding car seats and seat belts. When I had kids, I had to get used to driving while both of my kids sat in the back seat because of those laws. My personal rule would have been to fill the passenger's seat first and the back seat afterward.

Cliff asked how a self-driving car might affect seating. Initially there might be a need for a driver to be a backup, but eventually one might get to limousine or stagecoach seating style.

Coaches are fun because sometimes the driver of the coach bangs on the ceiling to alert people to what's outside.

What are the differences in social distance in rural versus urban areas?

Do people travel in litters with a footman? What are footmen even for (this was my question)? Kat explained that when you are traveling in a high carriage, someone needs to bring a set of steps so that you can step down out of the carriage in a big dress. A footman can also help with packages.

How close are servants allowed to get? Maybe very close, but then they turn away their faces or avert their eyes to create distance.

We often see "we must share the same air but I'm going to pretend you don't exist."

How do friends walk together? It's probably gendered. Is holding hands okay? What about arm in arm? Hip to hip? Arms around the shoulders?

Worldbuilders should think about what we are trying to convey with the way people physically interact, and what that says about ourselves. A narrator making comparisons can reveal a lot about themselves, and not just the characters.

What is adequate size for personal quarters? A rich person on a cruise ship may be impressed by the "tiny space" they have. Do we expect to have any of our own space? Should we?

Should you sleep sitting up? Standing? Curled up? How many people sleep in a bed? Paul mentioned how at one point the Three Musketeers were all lying in the same bed eating.

How do people in your world put space between genders? Do they?

When land folk go to sea, there's a big change in the use of space. What are the challenges if someone is disguised as another gender? Kat says there wasn't necessarily much communal nudity. Is menstruation an issue? Possibly not, since if you're not eating enough you may not menstruate.

Kat brought up the question of public and private spaces. If you are in a restaurant, are you eavesdropping on the table near you? Is this polite or not? Can you take an empty seat at a table partially occupied by others? The answers to these depend on many factors.

Do you get your own plate of food?

Do you get your own bunk or sleep in shifts?

If your aliens are arboreal, do they get to claim a tree branch as their own?

Cliff told us about World Out of Time, in which a 20th century guy wakes up in a new body in the future. There are no doors, living conditions are hivelike, and there is no privacy. The etiquette is not to look. It turns out that this was a test conducted by the people who awakened him, to see how he would react.

Did Frank Lloyd Wright design without inside doors?

Sometimes we run into stories where social rules are reversed in order to slap certain readers, or titillate readers. We have to keep in mind that the author may be aware of, or may manipulate, reader gaze.

How close can you be to people you are not interacting with? What are the rules of proximity in the subway? New York subway versus Tokyo festival subway?

How do people line up (queue)? There are different styles of waiting in a line depending on where you are. SF, Chicago, Tokyo, Beijing, Bangkok, India... Population and culture and deference rules interact.

How do people deal with others who are obviously homeless? How far do they stay away?

Kat pointed out that rules of standing in line include how much space to leave between yourself and the person ahead of you, how many people can stand at the window at one time. What about cutting or jumping in line? Can you leave the line and return to your same spot?

Cliff pointed out there are a lot of rules about who you are allowed to interact with. Can you ask someone for a cigarette or a light? These rules change over time. How apologetic do you need to be?

Having a dog is considered an icebreaker in social situations. So is pregnancy - people seem to feel it's okay to touch pregnant women when they wouldn't dare touch them if they were not pregnant.

Do less "representative" people have to spend time serving as ambassadors to their group? This is one of the reasons why POC safe spaces are so important. It's also why author/actor guests get green rooms to hide in. Some people feel entitled to enter POC space as a result of dominance and privilege, including touching hair and clothes. No matter who you are, velvet can be construed as an invitation to intrusion, as can flip sequins. What do people in your society construe as nonverbal consent to touch or otherwise invade space?

Children need to be socialized into proxemics rules. How do adults react to violations? How do they instruct?

How do you get someone's attention? Are you allowed to touch? Where?

Women and men in Judaism or Islam have a no-touch practice outside of family. What is verbally appropriate?

Kat said that gem traders have particular expectations of touch. How do you seal a deal with a handshake if you can't touch?

Greetings have all kinds of rules. Do you kiss? Kiss on the cheeks? Do you hug? Do you shake hands? How does a greeting differ when delivered to a stranger, a shopkeeper, a friend? How are the layers of intimacy defined? Do you touch? Maybe your language use changes - how?

Who is allowed to start a conversation?

How are children allowed to get attention? Touching? No touching? Do you poke? Do you clear your throat?

Different kinds of activities, such as dancing, have unique proximity and touch rules as well.

We discussed the "smart dress" project where women went to nightclubs wearing a dress with sensors that could detect where they were being groped. Data are useful to validate subjective experience but should not be necessary as proof.

Thank you to everyone who attended. This was a fascinating discussion.


Alex White and A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy

After I had spoken with Alex White not too long ago about A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (edge, not end!), I was thrilled to have them back on the show to talk about the sequel, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy.

We pick up the story at the point where the Salvagers, as Alex calls their main characters, have gotten a legendary warship and revealed a horrible conspiracy. The Salvagers are now famous... and then they get accused of being crisis actors. Alex pointed out that it wouldn't have been possible to write this kind of plot before the last few years; it's become more plausible now that people are familiar with these exact arguments.

Alex designed a conspiracy cult, and in our conversation they told me they wanted something more toxic-masculine for it, but the universe they've created leans hard into ridding itself of stereotypes, so that wasn't sustainable. Initially, though, the idea for the cultists came from college-age boys from wealthy families, before in the writing process they became representative of everyone.

At this point our heroes are off the grid enough, and rich enough, that they can go after the cult and expose its activities.

Alex described a nationalistic air about the cultists, who are linked with a "money mill" which creates money for the bad guys. The plot of this book therefore revolves around secret infiltration, heists and galas. Yes, the gala includes masks. There's a space station called "Masquerade" where you can maintain anonymity for business dealings, and people there wear masks all the time. There are only five thousand masks - designed to look like animals - and if you want to go there, you are required to have one. In addition to the masks, people wear holographic cloaks and their voices are changed so as to hide any gender. (When I asked, Alex said it was not very much like Canto Bight from Star Wars because it's not a casino.) In the station at Masquerade, everyone's apartment is sovereign territory, so there isn't much violence in public, but there's murder in the apartments. One of the masks has flaming antlers dripping with gold medallions - I loved that description. Alex described it as sumptuously lavish and borderline ridiculous. The point of conspicuous consumption is to lord it over other people.

In A Bad Deal..., the main characters go all over the galaxy, and they get to spend enough time in the places they go for the visits to be more than superficial. There's a lot of exploration of the possibilities of the galaxy. They go to the center of galactic finance, also. In that center, there are IGF accounts, which are bank accounts you can access if you have the password, without need to identify yourself.

Paul asked how Alex avoids the one-biome problem, where main characters must visit so many places that each place tends to be constituted with only a single type of climate. Alex told us they reject that idea completely, and also the recurring pattern where every place only has one type of people. It's too easy to fall into shorthand for describing other races. If there's a large planet, it's assumed to have every biome. If there's a large population, it's assumed to be very diverse. The exceptions are hot worlds and ice worlds.

Alex says, "I know the rules and I break them."

Fast travel in this galaxy is accomplished through the use of jump gates. Incorrectly plotting your course will kill you. Very few civilian ships have a jump drive, because they are so expensive. Alex has invented a fuel used for jump drives called "eidolon crystal," which is made of solid magic. It's "the oil of this universe." It's graded on purity, and you have to use the correct size crystal. Alex based this system on the system used for diamond grading, which they learned about long ago when they received a VHS from Tiffany and Co. about how to know diamonds.

Alex says, "Unlike diamonds, eidolon crystals are actually rare."

Jump gates are controlled by a neutral cartel. The cartel's control of the gates can't be broken because if you try to stop them, they just cut you off from all gates. The cartel gets rich from tolls - and in book 1, paying the tolls was difficult for our heroes, but this time, they are rich and can go where they like. Alex said that they estimate the cost is something like the cost of putting a MAERSK container on a ship. In their view, if you come up with a real world analog, it's more plausible and you don't have to work as hard. (I agree.) Some major industry players have regular accounts with the gate cartel. There are a lot of possible stories about the gate cartel which haven't yet been told.

Paul asked Alex what other things they want to write. Alex said the next couple of books are ready, but they would really like to write about side characters like Checo de Santos, who has the sculptor's mark, a magic power that allows them to pull on their own bones and flesh to change their appearance or that of others. Checo would definitely have a side business in plastic surgery. Because the marks develop very early, around age 2, Checo probably has no memory of what their face is supposed to look like. There is a group called The Fixers, and if you contract with them, they agree to rescue you from whatever heinous circumstances you find yourself in. Checo themselves drifts around without an institution to protect them.

It is not possible to have the same mark as a family member.

We asked Alex about their process for deciding how technology and magic mix. They said they loved JRPGs when they were young, and these games have no difficulty integrating magic and technology. It's part of their fundamental premise that such things would coexist. Alex wanted magic that was scientifically usable. Much like science, people will use it even if they don't fully understand it.

There were a few serious rules, such as Watt's law from electrical engineering, that Alex used.

There is a lot of consistency in the system. Alex says they want the rules to be so clear that readers can guess what will happen on a page just before they write it... but not too early. They say that a good mystery makes you feel like you solved it about 5 pages before you are handed the solution. They hate it, by contrast, when "Merlin-style" magic stuff happens randomly, or when magic is based on the idea that a person might not be trying hard enough yet. Alex doesn't like the idea that there might be limitless ability to convert will into magic power.

Paul asked what works have magic systems that Alex likes. They said role-playing games, because they like systematic magic. They described trying to read Dragonlance as an adult, and finding the turn-based language there overly systematic. Paul described it as "you can see the dice rolls" on the page. Alex called it "the book I needed in middle school."

Alex really likes to explore the practical aspect of magic. They say, for example, that the arsonist's mark is not very useful. You might get stuck in the military, but even there, it's not super-useful to throw fireballs. Magic doesn't get busted out every ten minutes, either. When you're young, you want to magic up the place. But Alex compares it to how adults typically don't climb stairs for no reason.

Some forms of magic are inherently unethical. There's no good way to torture and kill.

Amplification technology can magnify magic power. Suddenly the fireball you can cast becomes huge. They describe the differences between magical marks as creating a caste system. Some marks are worth lots of money. Datamancy, which allows you to instantly correlate and get answers from any database, can get you rich. Even within the group of people who possess the same mark, there is diversity, as in other social groups. There are lots of common, easily recognizable marks. You only get one type of mark, and having no mark (called Arcana dystotia) is vanishingly rare. People are spiritual about their magic, and afraid of losing it.

There is a type of gas that suppresses magic effects. People are scared of getting caught in it and losing their power permanently.

Alex compared magic to a sense of smell. We don't think about smell but we smell things all the time. "Now imagine you use your smell to authorize your bank account." The magic is used as a form of biometric identification, because your mark is as unique as your handwriting, even if you have the same mark as someone else. It literally involves writing. You focus magic in your fingertips and write something. Technically, you could write with your feet, or through a prosthetic. In the future of this universe, machines can also help you cast magic.

Alex says they're working on the end of Book 3 right now. There are some very wacky ramifications of all the magic! It's fun to explore the logical limits of the system. The magic system is fairly mature because they developed it while working on the Gearheart podcast.

Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show! It was a pleasure to hear all your ideas, and we can't wait to hear about your next book.


Monday, December 17, 2018

Awards Eligibility, 2018

It's that time of year where we silence the inner voices that demand modesty and announce to the world what we've done this year that we hope you think was awesome.

I had one novella come out this year, "The Persistence of Blood," which appeared in Clarkesworld in March 2018. You can read it here. Gardner Dozois, in his final Locus review column, called it one of the best stories of the year so far (and made me cry). It's sociological science fiction, and for the curious, it's set in the same world of my forthcoming novel, which will be out from DAW in 2020.

Teaser summary:
After nearly dying in childbirth, Varin noblewoman Lady Selemei refuses to bear any more children. She and her husband attempt to pass legislation which will allow women to "retire from their duties" if their lives have been endangered - but when everything goes wrong, she'll have to fight alone to protect her own life, and those of her daughters.

The other project I've been working on which is awards-eligible is Dive into Worldbuilding, my hangout show, which is eligible for Best Fancast Hugo. I deeply appreciate how many people support the show through weekly attendance at the hangouts, through subscribing to my YouTube channel, and through my Patreon.

Thanks for listening! I'm grateful for your friendship and support. Here's a picture of the cake my son made for me when "The Persistence of Blood" came out:


Sunday, December 2, 2018


This hangout occurred during the week when the Camp Fire was making air quality so bad in the San Francisco Bay Area that many people were wearing N95 masks for their daily routines. At my house, we had started to use the garage as an airlock, going into the garage first and closing the door before opening the door to the outside. It seemed an appropriate time to talk about air.

So as not to start the hangout in an entirely somber way, I started before we went on the air by playing the delightful Sesame Street song, "Air."

If you are worldbuilding, it's a good idea to consider the quality of the air. Obviously, we were thinking about this because of large-scale wildfires, but lots of environments have smoke of various types, or smog. And then of course there's outer space, with all of the complications of exoplanet atmospheres.

Here on Earth, there are websites like Airnow.gov that can let you track your air quality anywhere in the United States. I also remember checking air quality when I was a kid in the 70's and we were in Laguna Beach, trying to decide whether to go to Disneyland for the day.

Kat grew up in Los Angeles. She said if you could see downtown, it was a good air quality day. Smog hurts your lungs, and burns, and is an orange-brown color.

What happens if there is a fire in the hall of a spaceship? How do people respond? How much smoke is there, and where does it go?

What if you had air as a part of local cuisine, like wafts of herbal steam, or scents to go with your meal? In our world, we have oxygen bars, though they aren't trending. Vaping and smoking could also count as "air cuisine" in their own ways (dangerous, of course).

Cliff wondered about aspects of air in fantasy worldbuilding. If you went through a portal from sea level to the top of a mountain, would you get the bends?

On Mars on a hot day, you could walk around without a space suit... except that the air pressure is so low you would get bubbles in your blood.

In science fiction, we like to pay attention to atmospheres. Both Star Trek and Babylon 5 (and others) have featured alien characters who needed to bring their own special atmospheres with them inside a special suit.

Cliff noted that the dust storm in The Martian wasn't strictly plausible because it would not have high enough air pressure to do damage.

It's a good idea to consider alien world atmospheric temperature and pressure.

In Mistborn, the volcanic ash in the air was part of the worldbuilding.

Kat mentioned that we should talk about how the environment smells, because smells are often neglected.

Paul encouraged us to ask "how do smells and sounds carry?"

Cliff wanted us to ask, "How do space ships smell?"

The smells of cities are often striking. They can smell of tropical flowers, or rotten mangoes. The smell of wildfires burning in California will be different from the smell of burning in Australia because of the composition of the forests. Sagebrush smells very different from eucalyptus. What is the smell of the campfire like? If it's smoky, what kind of smoke is it? We certainly have the ability to pay attention to special smoke types when we do mesquite barbecue or other cooking.

How damaging is the smoke? After 9/11, the smoke was full of asbestos and noxious chemicals. Paul told us he smelled it, and the scent was "disquieting."

In underground environments, air can also be important. We often see that a breeze is used to indicate the presence of an exit. If your city is underground, as with the City of Ember or with Varin, how are people breathing? How is the city ventilated?

We talked about the Thai soccer team who had been trapped in a cave by a flood. How long can they breathe? This question was extremely important in determining what methods could be used to rescue them.

Oxygen affects fires. In the age of the dinosaurs, there was more oxygen, so it would be far easier to ignite a fire. In the carboniferous era, where our coal deposits come from, there was a high level of oxygen. Fires were very large, and so were bugs.

Cliff noted that giant space bugs come with side effects.

Paul said you need a huge oxygen producer in order to have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, because oxygen reacts so easily with other chemicals.

Morgan remarked that air quality affects communication, because sound waves need air pressure in order to travel and to be detected. Silt in water or particulates in air can reduce visibility. Kat remarked that misty places can have visible air that is still okay for breathing.

We spoke a bit about the caves of Lascaux. Cliff wondered how you would make the paintings without bringing fire into the cave, and what kind of light you might have. I went there summer before last, and highly recommend it. The original caves have been closed since 1963 because of damage. One kind of damage was caused by algae that grew when light was introduced to the caves. That one was easy to fix. The more difficult one was a white film caused by damage from carbon dioxide. The damage was caused by all the millions of people who wanted to see the paintings, and ended up exhaling in their presence. Now they have a full-sized replica of the caves that you can visit, and they also have a workshop where the various sections of the caves are exploded outward and you can watch visual projections on them to see in what order the drawings were made. It's fascinating.

Star Trek had an episode where the air in a cave made humans become angry.

The Oracle at Delphi breathed venting gases which caused her to have visions. Natural gases can alter behavior. Many volcanic vents have been seen as gates to Hell.

In the War of the Worlds, black dust was used as a weapon.

If you use any kind of combustion indoors, it's important not to have bad ventilation because the products of that combustion can kill you. Kat mentioned that people have been killed by using combustible heat in a boat and tightening the hatches.

There is a Korean myth that if you sleep with an electric fan blowing across you, you will die. In Europe, people believed that disease was caused by miasmas of bad air.

Lake Nyos in Cameroon has carbon dioxide eruptions. Carbon dioxide is heavy and will flow along the ground, so when it erupts, it causes death in the entire surrounding area. Not even the flies are alive to live in the dead bodies.

How much air movement are you accustomed to? Is wind vital for your continued existence? What are you okay with having in the air? Is incense important in your culture?

Air can also be a terroir for yeast and bacteria, as we spoke of in our hangout about what kinds of foods you would be willing to eat. The Bay Area supports a form of yeast that develops a great sourdough taste. This can conflict with other things like natto bacillus.

Brewers are very careful about the air in their breweries.

I wondered how space suits would affect what might grow on your skin. You wouldn't want to share space suits with another person.

Cliff mentioned how in Babylon 5 there were carrion eaters who smelled bad. Apparently even in our world, you smell like what you eat.

Some smells are considered neutral and some are not. Racism plays into this. Some people try not to have their homes smell of curry, or of grilling fish. Some smells are on the edge of not being okay, like vinegar.

Onion air makes you cry. It might help if your knives are sharp, or if the onions are cold, or if you use a special slicing technique.

Cliff said one of our friend Mary Anne's recipes had a step that said, "stir until you start coughing, then do the next step."

Dry versus humid air can have quite a number of effects on your body. When it's dry and 117 degrees Fahrenheit, it stings your eyes and you squint as you go out. When it's below freezing, the air is also extremely dry.

Damp cold feels colder than dry cold. Ash and smoke can make the air colder.

When humidity is high, you can feel the air. It can feel soft, or like a smothering blanket.

Thank you to everyone who joined me for this discussion. It was very interesting - and fortunately, we have since had some rain, so the terrible air conditions have eased up. I hope to see you all soon at another hangout!