Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Cadwell Turnbull and The Lesson

We were all really excited to meet Cadwell Turnbull and talk to him about his new novel, The Lesson. This is a first contact novel featuring aliens in the Virgin Islands. It takes place five years after the alien Ynaa integrated with humans, and examines the tensions and conflicts between humans and Ynaa. Cadwell told us it deals with the murky relationship between the two groups, and the social, personal, and cultural effects of having highly advanced aliens living here.

Cadwell explained that the Ynaa have one basic technology. "Reefs" are intelligent cells tht manage body health and also change the Ynaa's physiology so they can fit in. They can also be used for technology, ships, cities, and other things. The reefs can build themselves. This technology can also be used to kill people.

I asked him what the initial seed of the story had been. He told us he had a nightmare where there were highly advanced aliens integrated into a small town. They looked and acted like humans. One of the features of the Ynaa is that they have a culturally mediated response to threat, and that response is disproportionate. They respond with lethal force to threat. In his dream, an alien was being bullied by a group of people, and killed all of them.

He explained to us that he didn't do anything with the idea for a while, but it stuck with him. He started working on his MFA, and was encouraged to set the story in the Virgin Islands. Cadwell grew up there, and his family is still there. He moved away for school, but as he explained to us, it still feels like home. "I feel comfortable, like I understand." He says it's a feeling he doesn't get anywhere else.

Cadwell told us that for a long time, he didn't write about things connected to himself. When he decided to set his novel in the Virgin Islands, the things he researched further for the book included "a lot of dusty history books." In particular, he focused on the Akwamu slave insurrection of 1733. He read a dissertation about the events, and the origins of the Akwamu. Initially, the Akwamu were a group of people on the west coast of Africa who rose to prominence by placing themselves as middlemen in the slave trade. Initially their group had been of mid-low status, but once they became middlemen, this gave them prominence. It also gave them enemies. At a certain point, their neighbors took over their city and sold them into slavery, and they were sent to St. John. One of the fascinating things Cadwell told us about this was that when they rebelled, their motive was not necessarily selfless. He tried to make sure that was clear in the book. These historical events are used as a parallel to the events with the Ynaa.

Cadwell told us he doesn't like to separate plot from character. He considers Ursula K. Le Guin a major influence, since he really admires her work on character. He says he's mostly motivated by character. Sociological themes are important in the book along with larger themes. He strives for a diversity of perspective, using lots of different lenses to examine a complex situation.

I asked Cadwell about his use of point of view in the book. It's a speculative book, but character focused, so he uses third person limited point of view, looking from different characters. There are nine points of view in the book. That came about by accident, Cadwell told us. "I didn't have intentions to make it a novel." Once he'd written it, other people suggested it was a novel. "I wanted to maintain that diversity of perspective." Among these diverse perspectives, there is one Ynna perspective that's very big and important.

When I asked him about his approach to worldbuilding, he called it "pretty much a mess," but in fact, it's a really interesting in-process development strategy. He says he takes a piece of something if it's very interesting, and from that piece he explores outward to other pieces, looking for connections. Instead of trying to render the big idea, he starts with a piece of the big idea, and puts it together like puzzle pieces. Then there will come big moments when he feels "this actually fits together and makes sense."

He describes a larger-scale cosmology "in my brain" that takes up more space. The Lesson is a piece of it. He says this larger cosmology helps him cope with the immensity of writing anything.

I asked Cadwell if his worldbuilding has changed a lot for the book. Some was written during the phase when he felt it was just short stories. He discovered that the short stories kept needing to be explored in a larger context. The plot started to develop out of smaller pieces. He applied logic, asking, "What would this lead to?" Some of the worldbuilding developed after the decision to turn it into a novel.

I asked him about the characters that were unique to the book. The character of Jammie was intended to show that heroism doesn't always come from a predictable place. Cadwell says he'd really like to develop him more. The character of Patrice is a person who has questions about love, relationships, and faith. The character of Henrietta is devout and looking at aliens from a religious point of view. Mera, the Ynaa ambassador, is a really interesting character because she has been there far longer than any of the other Ynaa. Some of the historical pieces are in her point of view. You get to see how she has changed over time, and examine her sympathies for humans, and how they developed. Cadwell describes her as very central to the cosmology in his head. The Lesson is her introduction because she's very important.

We asked if his bookshelf was like the character Derrick's bookshelf. He says the character of "Derrick is better than me" in terms of his taste in books! Derrick is young, but has lots of speculative fiction on his bookshelf that Cadwell says he didn't read until much later. He also has posters from Firefly and Stargate and other things Cadwell watched years ago. He's interested in mythology, too.

One fascinating thing about the novel is that the aliens have changed the media. Giving Derrick reference points in speculative fiction affects how he interacts (disastrously) with the Ynaa.

The character of Jackson is an English professor, and has a very systematic way of distinguishing literature from speculative fiction. Literature only references news clips about the Ynaa, while anyone who writes about the Ynaa directly is considered speculative. Cadwell asked "how is the media changed post-Ynaa?" Subverting expectations is fun, and being aware of media is really important.

Kate remarked about how Cadwell dealt with the question of slavery, especially when the received wisdom in the US is so often that "Africans sold each other." No one says "Africans didn't just lie down and let them do it. It's important to have that part of the dialogue, and to understand that more deeply, which is an opportunity that The Lesson affords readers.

Cadwell responded that he wishes he'd done more with that because he really wanted to explore it more. The tribes of have their own cultures, beliefs, and languages, just like the distinctions between the tribes of Europe.

Any really powerful outside force entering a space where it hasn't been seen before destabilizes the tribal and social makeup of the area. Some people decided, "Not me, do it to those people over there." Europeans of the era were aware that they were creating conflicts. The results of this were multifold. When the Akwame, who had used the slave trade to gain prominence, were themselves sold into slavery and came to St. John, they met many people who they had earlier victimized. The book Night of the Silent Drums by Lonzo Anderson goes into detail about the hierarchies and fraught relationships among slaves. The Akwamu in their rebellion were trying to make the Akwamu nation again.

These narratives need to be told, and explored, in greater detail, so we see the decisions that were made, and why they were made. African tribes have in fact discussed this, and they realize it's disingenuous to say  "they did it" about any other group.

Kat remarked how prevalent the narrative of "When the aliens come, we'll join together to fight them" is, and how inaccurate. In a real situation, that's not what happens.

Cadwell told us he wants to write another story about this, and read some more - perhaps to read the dissertation again.

When the Ynaa come, there is no great uniting among humans. What happens when you do unite? Often the marginalized get thrown first against the enemy, and often whatever unity gets achieved is thrown out again and the differences re-instituted after the common enemy is gone.

We should be honest about what really happens. Who wields the power in a united front? If you want to achieve real stability, the power should be distributed.

The Virgin Islands were a convenient spot to place this narrative because the rest of the world is used to ignoring them.

Cadwell told us that he often gets asked why he doesn't deal with the rest of the world. He says it's because he wanted the Virgin Islands to deal with things on its own.

He is working on a new series right now. This series also takes the approach of looking at a speculative thing and how it affects individuals and culture over time. In this series, there are preternatural beings of different origins: creatures from Caribbean, American, European, and West African folklores. They were hidden for a long time, and he asks why that was. What were the political and social reasons for hiding them? There are social movements, as monsters advocate for civil rights. He looks at intersectionality and monstrosity, as for example the intersection of class and monstrosity, and culture and monstrosity. The vampires, for example, are high-class and can hide more easily than some others. Culture of origin affects monster success. Cadwell describes himself as taking a magically real approach to how people accept monsters. Marginalized groups are the most visible, and receive the most prejudice, and he gets to explore these things, and look at shadowy things under the surface.

Cadwell says he does see himself as someone whose work falls under the umbrella of Afrofuturism.

Kat asked Cadwell whether he experienced a moment when he rejected writing characters unlike himself, and Cadwell said in fact it was an adviser of his who told him he should do that more. When he started doing it, something clicked. He says his stories took on a human quality that was missing before. The question of how identity affects character became really important. This happened around 2012, and gave him more grounding as a writer.

Cadwell says he wants to to pursue the Ynaa character Mera a lot more, and do other parts of her personal history, as well as other characters who he describes as having second and third lives. He wants to return to them in different modes, like a quilt.

All our greatest thanks to Cadwell for coming on the show! We really enjoyed your visit and were fascinated by the discussion. Thanks also to everyone who participated. Dive into Worldbuilding meets today at 4pm to discuss Predictability and Unpredictability. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Character Backstory

Many authors love to get engaged in the back story of characters, and explore the lives their characters led before the story began. What does that have to do with worldbuilding? It's possible to find books in which characters feel well-grounded, and those in which they feel less well grounded. Sometimes I've run across stories where the protagonist in a medieval setting feels like their behaviors and values were imported straight from the 20th or 21st centuries! This would not be natural for someone who grew up in the world in question.

Characters have to interact with their world. They have to know it, and it affects their behavior. Kate said a character can talk about the world like they do with their pets.

Paul brought up the perennial question of "As you know, Bob" dialogue. Many readers of this blog will already know what that means, but essentially, it's having a character explain, in dialogue to another character, something about the world that both of them already know. I have one main technique for expressing this kind of information without having it seem clunky and incongruous: conflict. People will far more naturally utter words about things they already know when they are disagreeing with another person, or when they are encountering problems in the way that things are supposed to work.

The example I love is from Mary Pope Osborne's first Magic Treehouse book, Dinosaurs After Dark. A young girl is running down the road and yells, "Help! A monster!" and her brother replies, "Yeah, sure. A real monster in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania." When you are working in fiction, there's no necessary requirement that monsters be fake, but she lets us know this in one line. This is a critical piece of worldbuilding. Furthermore, she also lets us know where the kids live without having anyone say, "As you know, we live in Frog Creek..."

Recommended techniques for avoiding "as you know, Bob" dialogue:
1. Put in a character who is unfamiliar with the world
2. Have something go wrong
3. Have people in conflict (fighting is not necessary; disagreement is sufficient)

Having a character who is unfamiliar with the world will give you opportunities to have people who do know the world well explain things to that person. It is not always an option, however. In my world of Varin, all people are insiders and none are outsiders. However, I take advantage of the different castes and subcultures of Varin to create the conflict that allows the world to be illuminated. This is one of the reasons why I use multiple points of view.

With multiple points of view, you can ask, "Why does this person judge things the way they do? What about their past might have caused them to have these judgments? Why would they disagree with another character, or see things differently?"

What are the individual experiences that affect a character's backstory? Are they fitting with expectations or not? Do they meet the expectations of their family or not? Does their family meet the expectations of the larger society or not? Is this character well-aligned or misaligned, and in what way, and because of what kind of experiences?

Do you need to know that a particular character loved to wear pink shoes? Not necessarily, but we might want to know why their wearing of pink shoes was important. Were they gender non-conforming? Was it just the wrong shade of pink to be appropriate, somehow?

If your world is resource-poor, think about what that means for a character's past experience and expectations. Think about where clothes and other items would come from, and how likely the character would be to possess them.

Beware the danger of default assumptions that come with your own cultural background.

There are a lot of things in our own world that we may not know. Some of us would be able to say where Prince Harry went to school, but others might not.

Don't give six earrings to someone playing Mary, Queen of Scots.

A lot of backstory information is likely to find its way into the "Miscellaneous notes" pile rather than into the story. However, you will find that the more you know, the more the story will take on dimension. The things you know will show in how you write your character's narrative.

Kat said she's often dinged for not being cinematically descriptive. You don't need to write this way, necessarily. It's better to get your details right than to go for total physical immersion.

Kate told us about a podcast on bad books where she would hear passages and wonder "what mobius size and shape is this room?" or "how many arms are there in the orgy?" Some authors have written about rooms where the sun is always streaming in the windows... forgetting that the sun moves over the course of a day. The constellation of Orion is not in the sky all year unless you are migrating with it.

Kat said she has had the experience of driving all night and watching the sky wheel. Having a character who notices that, or doesn't notice that, is part of their backstory.

What does your character know? What kind of information can they access? What is normal to discuss? What is not normal to discuss?

A lot of a character's psychology forms between the ages of zero and seven. Did anything happen to your character during that period? Did they form natural expectations of attachment to others, or not?

Try not to be simplistic when thinking about how past experiences influence a character. Kate told us about a book where test tube babies were compared with womb-grown babies, and the authors made the test tube babies more distant. Be careful that you don't fall into this kind of essentialism. Having lots of people in your parenting system may be healthy or normal.

The point of view of the writer is not always congruent with the character's point of view.

We also talked about narration style. How is backstory included? Kat talked about how omniscient viewpoint explaining the backstory can be useful. Many modern writers have been taught "show, don't tell," but this admonition is not necessarily helpful, and has drawbacks. Anything "shown" requires more work from the reader. Some kinds of information are best told, and if you can "tell" beautifully, it may be very successful.

Think about who the narrator is, and what they know. Some narrators have a colonialist quality (intentionally or unintentionally). This is one reason why you want to know who the narrator character is, and what their backstory is.

Kat says she notices when an omniscient narrator is pandering to a person who is not her, but she knows a lot about the context from her own experience that doesn't match the narrator's knowledge.

Always ask who your reader is.

Sometimes, insiders to a culture may find it interesting to look at an outsider's viewpoint on their culture. Kat told us about Americans living in Finland who vlog about Finland in English, and how many of their fans are Finns who enjoy the outsider perspective on their home.

Many TV commentators like Trevor Noah or even Johnny Carson have been outsiders to the culture they are commenting on in some sense. They bring in their own cultural assumptions, however, because everyone does.

Don't underestimate the power of the outsider-insider distinction in allowing you to explain things. Backstories are a key ingredient of this.

Some people in a culture are expected to be in a state of learning, like children. People in this state can also be useful for writers and narrators.

A person's idiosyncratic backstory can make them feel like they don't fit in interesting ways.

What if you were socialized to inhabit a different gender from the one you feel? What does it mean to have society tell you you're an outsider?

Even ordinary people have backstory. What backstory makes a character "ordinary" as opposed to "extraordinary"?

Whose backstory is relevant? Are the backstories of non-important people relevant? Why would those people not be important?

Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion. Dive into Worldbuilding meets today at 4pm Pacific with guest author Cadwell Turnbull to discuss his new novel, The Lesson. I hope you can join us!


Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sam J. Miller and Blackfish City

It was a pleasure to have Sam J. Miller on the show after I saw him at the Nebulas this year.

I asked him what the seed had been for his Nebula-nominated novel, Blackfish City. Sam said, "A woman showed up in my brain, with a killer whale, and demanded my attention." He told us that he had seen the documentary entitled "Blackfish," and cried. He wanted to spend time with orcas, but couldn't do it in real life "because they'd eat me," and this book allowed him to do that.

The floating city of Qanaaq appeared in an immigration parable story called "Calved" that appeared in Asimov's in 2015. Sam told us that a number of different pieces fell together for Blackfish City to happen. He takes things he loves, things he finds upsetting, and things he's mad about and puts them in a pot together.

Qanaaqis a floating Arctic city in a future 100-300 years in the future, after catastrophic climate change. It's a boom town, a giant floating oil rig housing a million people, which is shaped like an asterisk with arms 10 kilometers long. Some of the arms house rich people, and some house people of many different backgrounds.

Sam explained that he has a background as a community organizer working for police reform, and has experience learning what kind of people cities work for or against. This is a critical piece in the creation of Blackfish City. Sam imagined a mass exodus to the north as cities in the south burn. The First Nations, including the Inuit, have adapted to the environment of the north, and so they play a critical role and become global cultural leaders. People who are immigrating to the area take on much culture from where they arrive. In the book the First Nations influence is a backdrop. Sam said that he did a great deal of research on the practices of these peoples, but didn't feel he knew enough about the ramifications to go really deep and still do them justice.

He described the city as "very much New York City," inasmuch as there are many issues in the book that he has encountered in New York. Frustrated by talking to robots, he created a city where Artificial Intelligence makes most decisions. Sam told us he's done a lot of work on open data. Every city agency keeps information in different ways. The way the fire department views a region is very different from the way the city planning department views that same region, and the information they view as critical differs. Trying to bring the two together becomes very messy. In the book, the AIs are not friends or enemies, but they are supposed to make it difficult to solve problems.

We discussed the food people eat in Qanaaq. Sam described it as an assortment of cuisines adapted to circumstances. People eat a lot of vat-grown meat, and have farmed protein sources. Because the city floats on the ocean, there is aquaculture, so they have farmed fish and shrimp. Shrimp have been genetically modified to make the shells edible. Most people rely on a minimalist set of foods, but the rich have floating greenhouses.

Sam said he wanted a lot of inventiveness in the way that the people of Qanaaq solve food problems. He said he looked at Hong Kong and Kowloon's walled city to see how people solved food problems there, since both places are really densely populated. Sam described how Kowloon produced massive amounts of fish balls in small DIY spaces. He was also inspired by his 2015 trip to Thailand, where he saw how food was made, prepared, and sold. He was impressed by stalls that flash-fried noodles really quickly.

I asked Sam how he set up the way the different arms of the city worked. He said his technique was basically, "Let's try this and see how it works." He put the wealthy people on the south side because the weather conditions on the north side would be harsher due to Arctic weather patterns. The city is built over a geothermal vent with a pyramid structure to capture energy.

There are some utopian elements in the story as well as dystopian ones. A lot of energy problems can be solved. The city uses methane generators to produce light. They also don't need militarized police. Sam remarked how any place can have both utopian and dystopian elements depending on who you are. To the people who live in the Capital, the Hunger Games world is a utopia.

I asked if this book was strictly speaking science fiction or whether it had fantastical elements. He explained that it is a science fiction story, but that he uses nanites to do things that might seem magical. The nanites allow some humans to bond with animals. That bond could seem fantastical but it has technological underpinnings.

There are people called orcamancers. Sam explained that the origins of the orcamancers are  with illegal pharmaceutical testing that happened in the period between the present and the time period of the novel. Rival drugs were tested on people at different times. This accidentally led to a form of bonding with animals that Sam compared to the daemons in The Golden Compass. He explained that cultural practices regulate why you would bond with particular animals.

Sam told us that all of his work takes place in a shared universe that can be cross-referenced to itself. He described it as "a sort of general arc to the future that I'm imagining."

In Blackfish City, Sam makes the end of America a sort of background noise by featuring a news report that talks about the 17th American government falling.

Sam told us about a short story he wrote called "It was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes it All Right," in which there was a fundamentalist government that had outlawed musicians (among other things). He said he often writes about things that he's pissed off about, or scared of. He says that given what he is seeing with migrant children right now, he tries not to be gleeful when he writes something about the people who are causing this atrocity becoming refugees. He likes to imagine that the scales will tip.

I asked Sam about the influence of Octavia Butler's fiction on him, because I'd seen him mentioned in an article about her influence.  Sam explained that he can't quantify her influence on him, but that she freed him to think about bringing together social justice and science fiction. He says his favorite of her books is Mind of my Mind, because he says if you did have telepathic superpowers, by and large it would be really rough for you to be surrounded by horrific suffering.

He likes to see old assumptions being shaken.

Sam says, "I love so many kinds of books." He told us he probably should write only one kind of book, but he doesn't stick to one genre. Right now he has a book called The Blade Between coming out from Echo Press. He speculated with us about writing an epic secondary world fantasy, or a sex thriller. He said he had zero interest in writing epic secondary world fantasy because he was turned off by the restrictive visions of many past books, but then he read Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy and thought to himself that maybe it would be possible. He says, "I'm all over the place." He's writing a hard science fiction short story and a horror story at the moment, trying to be a jack of all trades.

Paul asked Sam about his use of point of view in Blackfish City. He told us that he was fascinated by the main character as an agent of plot, but that her influence is mostly having an impact through other people. She only gets to narrate one chapter at the center of the book. Sam explained that the model for this was actually Faulkner's story "As I Lay Dying," which features one section at the center narrated by the dead person who is being transported. Sam said that he really likes to look at the low and high of how people live, so the four points of view in Blackfish City represent the spread of lifestyles in Qanaaq, and each has an equal role and agency in the plot. He acknowledged that managing the logistics of four points of view is tough, and takes both skill and a good editor.

I asked Sam to tell us a little about The Blade Between. He told us that it's set in his hometown of Hudson, New York, a town in the rust belt that grew and waned with industry, and now is being revitalized by wealthy people building second homes and antique shops... but that this gentrification is very difficult for people who live there. The Blade Between is a nightmare vision in which a gay artist who moved to the city and then returned to his hometown fights back against gentrification. He said the question behind the book's premise is "What if gentrification came to a town with a secret?" This town is haunted by the ghosts of whales, who died when whaling was a major industry in the town. The whale ghosts (mostly sperm whales, whose bones fill the harbor) are manipulating people to resist the gentrification. They have a sort of ghost hive mind, which Morgan suggested could be called a "pod mind."

Sam told us that on July 2, he has a book coming out called Destroy All Monsters, from Harper YA. He calls it a combination of gritty contemporary and fantasy YA.

Sam described his worldbuilding as saying a bunch of crazy stuff, putting it on a page, and hopefully it coheres into a world that works. He says he's a half-pantser, in that his characters fill in their own logic. When a character needs to get coffee, he then asks what coffee looks like. If he discovers he never worked out what gender equality looks like or how magic impacts sex work, he goes back and figures it out. He says any worldview is projection and an attempt to make sense of chaos.

It was a real pleasure having Sam on the show. Thank you so much, Sam!

Dive into Worldbuilding meets this week on Tuesday, July 9th at 4pm Pacific to talk with author Cadwell Turnbull about his new book, The Lesson. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

What deserves a name?

During our last hangout about Naming, the question came up: how do we decide what deserves a name? So we began by asking what kinds of things we put names on. People get them; places get them. Animals can get them. Sometimes, things get them. Quite a number of people name their cars; I knew a fellow once who named his dishwasher "The General" because it was so loud.

Paul suggested that the human tendency to anthropomorphize, or to attribute human characteristics like personality to animals and things.

Kat pointed out that she grew up with an animistic culture in which everything has personality, but she doesn't name things (that's not a necessary extension of a worldview that attributes personality to things). She lived on a boat, and boats have names, but other things did not.

We speculated that boats have names because when you call the Coast Guard or a bridge, you need to have a way of identifying yourself, so you identify the boat.

Paul pointed out that some addresses in England consist of the person's name, the name of the house, the name of the town, and what it's adjacent to. Names can be given to castles, mansions, and rich people's homes.

Swords can be given names, but they aren't always. Kat said that in Japan, certain swords of note were given names.

Would you name your kitchen knives? Which one or ones? Would you name only your sharp knives or your butter knives as well?

Inns will sometimes name the individual rooms they contain, but this is usually something that happens in places with very few rooms, or with themed rooms.

Do you name the rooms in your home? What do you call them? Does everyone who lives there agree what they are called?

It's natural to name pets, but what about computers? You may be asked to name your hard drive. You may need to track the name of the server that you visit when you play video games. You might want to give a computer a name that helps you track its function in a larger system.

Do we name food animals? Why or why not?

Hurricanes get named when they surpass a particular size and strength.

Some companies even name their marketing programs.

In a hospital, it might be helpful to think of names that would help patients understand a place's role in the larger system; another kind of name might confuse them.

We often label things when we feel they must be distinguished from one another.

Roman names, the nomen and the cognomen, would indicate who you were in the family structure. Many famous Romans went by their nicknames, like Cicero, whose nickname means chickpea.

Consider how you might name things in your secondary world to help people keep track of where they belong in relation to one another.

Names very often indicate social affiliation. Sometimes they are immutable, as a name that stands for a unique individual throughout their lifetime. Sometimes they change over the course of one's life, or they change over time.

People in our world enjoy acronyms that are pronounceable as names.

Stadium names used to be idiosyncratic, and now they have become corporate. That suggests a lot about the nature of our society.

Dormitories are often named so they can be distinguished. They might be named for famous people.

When you look at the phenomenon of places or monuments being named for people who have done great things, and then you compare that with the phenomenon of corporate name buying, it suggests something about how fame can or cannot be bought.

A complex naming strategy would require some investment in teaching readers, but it could be very helpful.

High elevation points might get a name. If a place is generally quite flat, a low hill might be named; but in a mountain range, only a really high or uniquely-shaped mountain would get a name.

What size does a community have to be before it gets a name? Does the community have to live in a permanent location, or can it be mobile? Do neighborhoods get names? What about unincorporated areas?

Sometimes the way you use names can reveal a lot about social structure, and also history.

Naming cars appears to be a relatively new phenomenon, but boats have had names since thousands of years ago.

I asked how the question of naming might reflect on the issue of capitalizing things, like The City, the South Bay, the East Bay, etc. When we capitalize, it gives a name-like quality to the thing being described. Che suggested that magical librarians might need to be called something different if they were part of a magical librarian's guild rather than simply a magical librarian.

There are rules for the use of mother vs. Mother; mother is a noun while Mother is a name. Sometimes it's less clear whether to use capitals on something like Lady.

Legislative bills for the government often get names or acronyms. Military operations get names; we were trying to think whether Desert Storm was the first one or one of the first ones named, but we couldn't be sure because we don't have military experience. It may simply be that those names existed but weren't widely known.

When you want people to talk about something, it helps to give it a name. Similarly, if you don't want people to talk about something, don't give it a name.

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion. I really enjoyed it! Dive into Worldbuilding meets again on Tuesday, July 2, 2019 at 4pm Pacific. I hope to see you there!


Monday, June 17, 2019


This is not the first time we've talked about naming on the show, but there's always more to explore on a topic this rich! We started out by talking about the Atlas of True Names, which gives translated versions of all sorts of place names from around the world. Over time, a place which has been given a literally descriptive name tends to keep the form of its name as the language changes around it, and the end result is that it turns into a string of syllables that have lost their literal meaning.

Brian remarked that a lot of rivers are named "water." The Celtic word for water is uisge, which is the origin of the word "whiskey," but also appears in various forms in many river names. These forms may include Usk, Esk, Ax, Ex, Aven, and Avon. This means that a lot of river names have built-in redundancy, and mean "the river Water." We parsed out the meaning of Stratford on Avon, which breaks down to:

Strat - street
ford - place to cross water
Avon - water

Newcastle upon Tyne is another place name that began as literally descriptive (a new castle had been built there).

I remarked that it's possible to think of someone's personal name as an unparsed unit, as when in High School I used to think of my teacher's appelation, "Mr. Sturch," as a single unit. When I graduated, and the social context of usage changed, he asked me to call him Nicholas, and I found it very difficult!

Context of usage is absolutely critical when it comes to names. Context includes who is saying the name, who hears the name, and when and where it is said.

A great many surnames come from the names of jobs, but have lost their literal significance over time. With names like Carpenter, the original word is still in active use and we can tell that it has a literal significance, but with jobs that have become obsolete, like Fletcher, Cartwright, Carter, or even Smith, the name quickly becomes dissociated from its past meaning.

The pool of possible first names in the medieval period was very small.
Many virtues have been used as first names (Faith, Hope, Charity, etc.) - not just in English, but in other languages as well. Imani is a name that means "faith."

Names can be changed. One place where many names were changed was Ellis Island. On Ellis Island, the people checking immigrants into the United States often misheard names and wrote them down wrong, thereby changing them. There were also cases where people thought they were supposed to give their profession, and their profession was written down as their surname. Many people had heard rumors that goldsmiths and silversmiths were wanted in the US, so they told the Ellis Island officers those were their professions... and ended up with them as surnames.

When you're working in a secondary world, I encourage you not to simply make names up. Have some fun. Retcon some historical Easter Eggs.

I would love to see a speculative Ellis Island where names are being changed. The cultural issues surrounding those changes could be difficult but also fascinating. Racism definitely had a hand in those name changes. Conversion from Cyrillic or other alphabets into Latin may also have had an influence.

People who were enslaved in the US often had their names forcibly changed. Sometimes they ended up having to use the surnames of the slave owners, and this has sometimes led to people changing their names away from those names later.

People sometimes change their names, or take on new names, when they undergo religious conversions.

People can change their name if they are affirming a new gender identity.

People can assume a stage name.

Names are very often associated with social affiliations. Thus, if your social affiliations are changing, or the terms on which you engage socially are changing, a change of name becomes likely.

Cliff mentioned titles. We touched on this only briefly, but he mentioned that a Southern man who is respected may be called Colonel even if he is not in the military. He also mentioned that in his sitar school, there are special titles for a maestro who is Muslim (ustad), and other special ways for members of the gurana to indicate each other.

Paul mentioned that George, Duke of Clarence, is likely to be called Clarence rather than George.

Not everyone uses a family name as a surname. Sometimes there are clan names. In my Varin world, there are caste names. These group-affiliation names may come before or after the personal name. In fact, just recently, Japan asked American journalists to change their naming conventions so as to list the surname first and personal name second rather than doing it in the American order.

The Peasprout Chen books use naming very carefully, with a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and different naming conventions. Peasprout's name suggests her humble origins.

Morgan mentioned that there is a different between a name when it is spoken and when it is written. Do we need to spell a name? How important is that? (People make lots of different spellings for names that have similar sounds.)

A computer system codifies quite a number of assumptions about what form names are supposed to take. Is it all flexible to naming differences? It may be, or may not be. How flexible is the government when it comes to recording names?

Arkady Martine's books use names that consist of a number followed by a noun, like 17 Waterfall or 3 Seagrass. The characters in the book consider the meanings of these names as they encounter them.

Racial or ethnic affiliation can also often be guessed on the basis of name.

We also talked about signatures. Do we ever get advised on our signatures and what they should look like? We do get advised on penmanship. Cliff told us that he decided at one point that his signature was too legible, and obfuscated it on purpose. People don't necessarily sign their names with pens, but can use signet rings or stamps (like Japanese hanko).

We are expected to provide our signatures for banks, for school permissions, and for many other daily purposes. We may have to do book signings if we are authors! The signature becomes a visual object. We can make choices about how and why to write our name differently. Do we have to be able to sign quickly? Do we need to have it be hard to replicate? Are we executives, or doctors? Alethea Kontis makes beautiful, artistically decorated signatures.

In the United States for many years it was the tradition for a husband's name to take over the wife's name completely. Thus Ms. Marie Estelle marrying Mr. Tom Clintock would become Mrs. Tom Clintock. This custom has changed, however, and more women are either appearing as themselves with a new last name (Mrs. Marie Clintock) or not changing their names at all. The custom of giving children the father's last name creates pressure on the wife to take the husband's last name so the family will have a unified identifier. Many people are heiphenating names, also, to combine the two surnames. Some couples create a new name using letters from the old name. At this point, there are various approaches to naming when a couple becomes legally official.

What is the point of a family name? Is it to identify members of the same family? Is it to sustain a lineage of ancestors? Answer this question and you may get new ideas about how to handle surnames in a secondary world.

Spanish names tend to take the surnames of both parents, allowing linkage back along the lineage. These names do get very long sometimes!

Brian says that in his experience managing payroll across multiple countries, he's seen lots of naming styles, but the one he hasn't yet figured out is the one in Indonesia.

Names often have a signifier for the individual, and a signifier for a larger group of some kind. What is the nature of that group?

Don't forget to consider nicknames.

Sometimes people use patronymics, in which the surname is "child of X" where X is the father. Iceland still uses these names. It would also be possible to use matronymics.

Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed to this enjoyable discussion! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Tuesday, June 18th at 4pm to discuss What Deserves a Name? I hope you can join us! Join the Dive into Worldbuilding group on Facebook for the latest updates, links, and topics!


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Jaymee Goh

It was a pleasure to have Jaymee Goh on the show after seeing her at SF in SF last month! If you'd like to learn about SF in SF (Science Fiction in San Francisco), go here. At that event, Jaymee read a horror story called "When the Bough Breaks," so we started out by talking about that story.

Jaymee explained that she arrived at that story via a process of several years. It started out with a dream of fear and anxiety associated with a strong sensation Jaymee had of pins and needles in her back, which her brain interpreted as a ghost. She gets quite a bit of inspiration from dreams. She took the idea of spirits hanging around us all the time, and added to it an image of a little boy lying dead in a puddle - he was electrocuted, but everyone knows that he was killed by spirits.

The story treats with the theme of kids not being taken seriously by adults.

In 1992 or 1993 there was a luxury condominium building that collapsed because it had been built on the side of a hill, and there was a landslide. The building hadn't been able to handle the runoff, and had been undermined. Jaymee put it together with her other ideas and asked, "What if this disaster had been caused by ghosts?"

"When the Bough Breaks" is set in Malaysia, and has a condominium building that is similar to the one in the real world collapse. There are many buildings designed with a courtyard in the middle so kids can play. In her story, the courtyard is between the condos and the face of the hill, and it's called "The Cradle."

I was really fascinated by the way Jaymee used language in her story. She explained to us that this is exactly how Malaysians talk. She described it as the country having several major languages, and people having a basolect - one main language - to which they would add grammar and vocabulary from others. Maybe the base would be Malay, with Chinese and English added. Maybe if the person was middle class it might be English with Malay and Chinese added. In the story, it's very clear that this is not an exclusively English-speaking community. When she was hanging with friends there would be various groups with different accents.

I asked Jaymee if she found it at all hard to balance the authenticity of the speech with the need for the audience to understand it. She said it's not too hard to balance because there's high compatibility, with a lot of vocabulary and grammar coming from English.

"This is literally how my family talks," she explains. There are degrees of difference from family to family. She compares her work to the short fiction of Zen Cho, who uses more Hokkien in the text.

We then talked about Jaymee's Steampunk work. She has an ongoing series looking at colonization of maritime Southeast Asia, including Kalimantan, Borneo, and the Straits of Malacca. The Portuguese were in Malacca and Singapore, and the Dutch, English, and Portuguese fought over the area.

In her work, steampunk technology is used to oppose colonization. The current racial dynamics in Asia are a direct result of colonization, so she is looking at what happens to the concept of Malaysian identity using a multiracial cast of characters with different cultural backgrounds. There are many turns of phrase she uses which are specific to the local geography.

Jaymee wrote the first story in this series almost ten years ago. She's had three stories published in this setting. She says it's hard for it to stand alone. Finding pre-colonial research resources from the region is hard, and sometimes it's hard to know how to start.

Sometimes it's hard to know how to tell a story if the technology involved is very cool but very visual.

Jaymee keeps files on stories she wants to tell. One story of this kind is based on another historical event of the 1960's. She saw a documentary about Chinese dock workers between the 1930s and 1960s, where the workers organized themselves by clan name or family name, and one of the clans was "mixed." She really liked the idea of all the clans, and the odd-one-out people banding together with each other. These clans competed for work by trying to make their teams the cheapest, fastest, and most available, but this led to tragedy. A shipment came in, and all the groups were trying to do the job right now. It was raining. They were supposed to throw a chicken in and see if it was safe to go in, and if the chicken died, they had to air the hold out first. This time they didn't use a chicken. Rotting onions in the hold had filled the air with poisonous gas, and this made the workers sick, and many fell into the sea as they came off the ship. Jaymee told us the story idea is that the only survivor of such an accident has survivor guilt and one day will tell the story of the actual accident.

Jaymee assured us, though, that she doesn't always focus on disasters or horrors. She is writing a story about a girl and an airship, and romance and matchmaking with nonbinary gender. The girl's family owns a crocodile farm. One of the messages in the story is "you can be as nonbinary as you want but people will still try to marry you off."

I asked Jaymee about her work in progress. She has been working on a fantasy romance for the last year. There are old stories about immortals performing miracles, but then one of the immortals refuses to perform miracles and disappears. Many religious philosophies ask you to distance yourself from worldliness, to be selfless, or to give up your desire for power. If you define yourself by the things you own, or by your authority, you go down a garden path of suffering. You end up losing the thing that defines you. But this is not how government or politics work. If immortals start disappearing, how do you deal with it? What happens if the influence of ancestral spirits were empirically indentifiable?

This is a love story, but lots of other things happen in it. The hero is an immortal who wanted to divest from the world, but falls in love instead. What happens when he comes to be invested? Does he gain mortality? Jaymee told us she had a whole argument with herself about this. The heroine is a woman who can speak to spirits.

There are interesting things about using immortals. Theoretically, an immortal would have long term knowledge about how things used to be. We become used to a lot of terrible things today, but who can remember useful systems that are now obsolete? The immortal who disappears goes away for a long time, but comes back looking for a bowl of noodles.

I really want to find out more about this story when it's finished!

I opened up the discussion to questions at this point. Kate expressed her appreciation of the story about the chicken in the hold, and compared it to the canary in the coal mine. Kat suggested it would be very interesting to compile a lateral wiki of global myths that showed their similarities. We also wanted to see an anthology of bird stories!

We also talked about a chicken marriage custom where the best man has to throw a rooster over the marriage bed. "Throwing the cock over the bed" is supposed to be a method of getting aboy child first. There is a similar custom where you have a rooster and hen in a cage, and open the cage and see which one comes out first in an attempt to divine the sex of your next child. There are a great many chicken-related traditions.

Jaymee, thank you so much for coming on the show! It was lovely to have you, and you are welcome back again any time. Thank you also to everyone who attended the discussion.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Thursday, June 13th at 4pm Pacific to discuss What Deserves a Name? I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

How We Start the Day

How we start the day is about the question of routines. That which is routine is often not thought about consciously, but even the most basic routines vary a lot across the world, and can give us interesting ideas for worldbuilding.

Breakfast in the United States was our entry point, and over time, breakfast in the US has come to be very sugar-based. Donuts, pancakes, and cereal can all be super sweet. Eggs and bacon, while traditional and not particularly sweet, are not what people typically eat on a daily basis. I told the group about an experience I had eating fish with pecans for breakfast in New Orleans, and how surprising this was for me. I've had quite a number of breakfasts in Japan that involved rice, raw egg, and seaweed (yum!).

Do you eat breakfast? Do your characters eat breakfast? If you have "reasons" to make it part of your routine, external pressures like kids going to school, or work outside the home, it may be something you do without thinking about it much. Or, like Morgan, you may have to make a conscious decision to have it. The amount of preparation involved in the food may be a barrier - quick cereal or toaster waffles might be a solution for not having a lot of time to cook or think. American culture has a lot of narratives about how important breakfast is, but if you are a person with chronic illness/fatigue, breakfast might be very difficult to fit into your day. And what if you weren't in a modern American home, but instead in the wilderness where you had to catch your breakfast? How would you do that? How would you prepare?

In Japanese, the morning greeting Ohayo gozaimasu (おはようございます)literally means "it's early."

 Paul says he grabs something quick for breakfast on a weekday, but cooks something savory for himself on a weekend day.

Kat brought up that not every individual can easily conform to expectations like those for eating breakfast. She's not a morning person, and her "stomach is not awake." If she's forced to eat cold cereal in the morning, she gets stomach pain. This was a problem when her high school had a breakfast check before school and she was unable to eat.

Many of our cultural narratives, like "breakfast is the most important meal of the day!" don't apply gracefully to all members of the society.

What other kinds of morning routines do we have? Do we pray in the morning? Do you shower in the morning?

Does your cat wake you up? Does another companion animal wake you? Can you imagine a character in a story being awakened by a companion animal staring, knocking objects off surfaces, or chewing hair, etc.?

Do you wake to the sound of your coffee being finished?

Does the family assemble for prayers at a family altar?

In Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, people cast omens for the day as part of the morning routine.

Do you have a social media routine in the morning? What does that do for you? Does it give you the sense that you are rebooting into yourself? That you are reconnecting with a local or global community?

Do you do "morning pages"? Perhaps you write to start your day, or draw.

Do you use stimulants? These have different effects depending on the person. Paul uses them to wake up, while Morgan uses them to level out. Kat has wildly varying responses to caffeine depending on the day. For me, it makes me jittery and then makes me feel ugh two hours later. A lot of societies use stimulants of different kinds. Would you simply give your world coffee by another name? Or could you construct new cultural habits around a different kind of stimulant?

Morgan says she often engages with a to-do list she sets up the night before.

In the morning, you may have to disengage from devices like a CPAP machine, or remove dental devices. You may have to engage devices like a boot for your injured foot. You may have to undo braids you put in your hair. You should probably get out of pajamas and into day clothes.

Do you wake others? Do you provide breakfast? Or are you the one being woken and provided with breakfast?

What does it mean to be "presentable" for the start of your day? How important is it? Can you leave your home in your bed clothes? Under what conditions? Can you drop off kids at school in your pajamas, or is there a parent dropoff dress code? Do you have to have your hair done? Toleration of a lack of preparation may be associated with racial privilege. Do you discuss the importance of looking presentable, and what that means, with your children? There is ableism involved in any hard-and-fast rule about presentability.

Is chronism something we should consider? Are morning people better treated, better catered to, than evening people?

Some people can change their sleep time habits. Other people find it harder or impossible. What is your natural rhythm? 24 hours? 27 hours?

Kat mentioned that in restaurants, people on the later shifts may say "ohayo" (it's early/good morning) as they first encounter their co-workers regardless of the hour of the day.

On space ships or stations, days are not connected to planetary rotations. Shifts are also needed for different times of day.

Is fetching water a key part of your morning? How does that work in different climates or different biomes? In an icy place, you might never let the fire go out. Water retaining vessels become very important in certain climates. What time is it safe to go fetch water?

In Edwardian times, if you were lower status, you would have to go to sleep late and wake early because it was your job to heat the ovens, bring water to people, and empty chamber pots. Before mechanization, people had to do these things behind the scenes.

Do you have to start your day with medication? Is this something that happens a lot in SFF? Maybe in cyberpunk, but not often in fantasy. Breakfast can be tied to medication, either because you have to take it with food, or an hour after eating.

Do you have to make school lunches? How many? What do you include? (This is very cultural). Do you have to participate directly in getting others ready?

What are your makeup and hair routines, if any? How long do they take? Do you have the option of choosing an easy presentation?

In Varin, unless you are a noble, you are required to put your cate mark on before you leave your home for the day.

What time can you enter someone's house? Paul remarked that in Rome, you were supposed to show up early at your patron's house.

What is the earliest time you can call or text?

What happens to morning routines if you are sharing space with others?

At what time can you stop being quiet?

How do you wake someone else? what do you say/not say? Do you use alarm clocks? What are they like? Do they speak to you? Do they run away from you? Do you pour water on someone?

This was a fun discussion. Thank you to everyone who participated. Our next meeting will be Thursday, June 6th at 4pm Pacific, and we'll talk about Naming. I hope you can join us!