Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mental Illness - social impacts

I really enjoyed this hangout. As with many of our discussions, we were taking on a HUGE topic, and were not able to cover everything about it. I began by recommending the book The Midnight Disease by Alice Weaver Flaherty, in which the author, a neurologist herself, describes having a postpartum psychotic break that caused her to become hypergraphic (not able to stop writing). The book examines mental illness and the building blocks of creativity and the genetic links between them.

We made a brief list of some mental illnesses. Clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder (used to be multiple personality disorder) are just a few. The classifications change all the time. Gender dysphoria was recently removed from the list and is no longer classified as a mental illness.

What is and is not a mental illness is a tricky question. Historically, there have been a lot of cases of putting people in mental hospitals against their will for illegitimate reasons like cultural difference or just wanting to control them. The definitions of mental illness are culturally and politically determined. They do NOT include a range of neurological issues such as attention deficit/hyperactiity disorder or autism.

Mental illnesses can co-occur and even cause each other.

Marginalized groups in society who are oppressed also tend to have higher rates of mental illness like anxiety and depression, caused by the oppression. Unwillingness to trust authority makes a degree of sense when authorities can't be trusted - but standing up for yourself has sometimes been classified as "oppositional defiance" disorder.

In the United States, health insurance is a problem. Often the poor are not able to get treatment for mental illness for economic reasons.

There are also instances of people who don't get treatment because they don't want to admit they have a mental illness. Mental illness is stigmatized in many societies.

The question of mental illness is also complicated by phenomena like gaslighting, where someone tries to make someone believe they are "crazy." This abuse tactic can in fact co-occur with real mental illness that has nothing like the same effect.

We spoke for a few minutes about the tangential topic of perception of reality, and consensus reality. Ideology is folded into this in interesting ways.

We asked what one might do to portray mental illness in fiction, and of course the key was RESEARCH. Read a lot, and seek out first-hand journal accounts if you want to portray any particular condition from the inside. I spoke about how I had used the mental illnesses of obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia to change the portrayal of the villain in my novel. One of the keys, though, was making sure he was contrasted with his father, who is also evil and sane.

Don't fall into the trap of equating violence or evil with mental illness. The mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Try to steer away from the stereotypes of the magical or holy mad person or the evil mad person.

I mentioned This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman, which features a planet where everyone has what we would call "mental illness," but their neurological uniqueness is seen as a potential advantage and they are given jobs that play to this uniqueness. They also make up their faces to indicate to others around them what kind of accommodations they might need.

We also spoke about the show Legion. Legion has different personalities related to different X-men style powers. One of the things that got mentioned was how secondary characters in the show have different perceptions of reality based on the kinds of powers they have, which influence their behavior. A character who can temporarily switch minds with someone else just by touching them will be touch-phobic, for example. Powers influence mental states.

Kate said that "society gaslights the mentall ill via a pop culture worldview." The way that pop culture narratives portray mental illness is often inaccurate, particularly since the internal experience of mental illness is so incredibly variable.

People living in society are dependent on each other for all kinds of life functions. Access to those is controlled by others. Cutting people off, exile, etc. harms people. Solitary confinement is a punishment but causes people to lose their mental health (and our societal choices of whom to imprison have a huge influence on who is vunlerable to this).

When you don't fit in, you can be labeled and excluded.

Thank you to everyone who came to participate. This was an interesting discussion. This week we meet on Wednesday, April 26 at 10am Pacific to speak with guest author Megan O'Keefe about books 2 and 3 in her Scorched Continent series. The link to our first discussion with her, about Steal the Sky, is here.


Saturday, April 15, 2017


We had a great discussion of Oceans. This is a huge topic, obviously, and one that can be approached from many directions. Oceans have scientific characteristics. They are often trade routes. Some are believed to have sea monsters. People often depend on the oceans for survival. How dependent are they?

The Vikings living in Greenland had no roads over land, and exclusively used the oceans to travel. They hunted walrus and used their tusks for ivory to trade.

It's important to have respect for the dangers of the ocean. We talked about whether people who fish would have more or less respect for those dangers. Intimate knowledge leads to less fear. Kat told us she lived on a boat for five years. In her experience, coastal people were more antagonistic toward the ocean, while people who live on the water fear it less. If you go out for long voyages, how normalized do you make the ocean versus the land? If you are on water for a long time, your brain adapts to the constant motion. Kat told us that after she had lived on the water for a long time, she thought of it as home, and being on land seemed weird.

There are also historical instances of sailors who don't swim. This came from the idea that you should fear getting off the boat to increase your loyalty to it.

I mentioned how we had visited friends on the island of Ama, 3.5 hours ferry ride north of the island of Honshu in Japan. Our friends' home is right beside the ocean, with no beach but a stone retaining wall separating them from the water. The kids would go out to play and jump into the water very casually.

Depending on the conditions surrounding where you live, you may be able to wade very far out into the water at low tide, or not. The continental shelf is very close to the shore in California, but farther away in Japan. There may be a lot of rip tides in your area, and that can create a greater fear of going into the water.

Land travel is gradual. Sea travel is interrupted. The cultures of the two are very different.

How you anchor a ship differs depending on where you are. Methods are different in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the North Atlantic. The type of anchor differs, as does the number and strength of the boat crew and the amount of cooperation.

The boat Kat lived on in northeast Florida was a 34-foot Ketch sailboat, with 31 feet of room on deck from fore to aft and 14 feet in the beam (across). She once sailed through a tropical storm "with lots of anchors." She says the boat was "seakindly," which means it's really responsive to wind and waves. She nicknamed it "weeble." She saw dolphins swimming around the boat, and developed an awareness of weather that she hadn't had as a resident of southern California.

If you will be using boats in your writing, Do Your Research. This is a topic that has a very long history and varies widely across cultures. There is a lot of specialized language associated with it.

When you personify the sea, what happens? The Norse have male and female sea gods. Is the sea male? Is it female? Is it both? You can apply any set of gender stereotypes to it if you really want to. Kat said that in Japanese folk tales, the sea is typically not gendered. Ocean things are generally associated with the Shinto religion. Susanoo-no-mikoto is the god of storms and the sea.

I mentioned the book Ship of Dreams by Elaine LeClaire, written by our own discussant Lillian Csernica. Because she has a deep interest in ships through her family, she was very exact in her descriptions of the ships, and in fact, she completely and carefully redesigned the pirate ship in the book so that it would fit a captain who was 6'4" (as the romance genre required) and who had a private cabin.

We wondered what it would be like to have a waterborne TARDIS in Doctor Who. You would want to be careful to keep the entryway above the water!

Our discussants recommended Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun, and The Scar by China Mieville.

Kat told us that most watercourses are shallower than they claim to be because of silt. She also said you can rent a boat and navigate the canalways of Europe to the Mediterranean.

There is an enormous body of mythology related to the sea - sea creatures, sirens, kelpies, naiads, etc. We were scarcely able to touch on it in the hour we had for this discussion, and should probably return to the topic soon!

The Netherlands have a National Maritime Museum, the Scheepvaartmuseum.

Aphrodite was born out of the sea, and Heimdall had nine mothers who were all waves of the sea.

There are also sea burials, and Viking burials. Apparently, cruise ships have a small morgue on board in case people die during a cruise (the average is two because of the typical age of cruisegoers), because people expect to get the bodies back. Brian told us that Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson died at the battle of Trafalgar, and his body was brought back in a barrel of brandy with camphor and myrrh, then placed in a lead-lined coffin filled with spirits of wine to travel from Gibraltar to England. Other sea captains might have been preserved in rum, but dead bodies are hard to preserve and space on a ship is at a premium, so bodies of less important people could be tossed overboard.

When Australia was sending convicts to populate its territories, they would not put murderers on the ships because no one wanted murderers to be trapped on a boat for six months. They would usually send burglars and thieves. Brian explained how it was a sort of prison pipeline, deliberately offering disproportionate punishment in the interest of helping Britain keep territory against the Dutch and others. It's always important to ask "who is profiting from this?" Once slavery had been banned, it was an alternative way of forcing people to go and do necessary work in the territory. We compared the way that Sydney was populated with the Mission era in California.

Thanks to everyone who attended! I really hope we can get back to the topic of Oceans soon, because we barely scratched the surface.


Alyx Dellamonica: The Nature of a Pirate

Alyx Dellamonica joined us to talk about her book, The Nature of a Pirate, which came out last December. It's the third book of her Stormwrack portal fantasy trilogy. Part of it takes place in San Francisco, and part in the world of Stormwrack. The main characters are trying to find out whether Stormwrack is an alternate Earth, a future Earth, or another dimension. They believe there will be a scientific explanation, though the character Bran will have to study to find out more. Alyx told us she sometimes pitches the series as "Narnia for environmentalists." The moon of Stormwrack seems identical to ours, but so much land is missing from Earth (most of Asia, for example!). The main character, Sophie, can't figure out where the Himalayas have gone. Alyx told us there is a faint thread of plausibility in the Stormwrack scenario that you can learn by reading the trilogy...

In Stormwrack, curiosity is considered a cultural flaw or defect. Alyx says we forget that the scientific method isn't a "cultural gimme." Some cultures believe that if God gave you something, it's impudent to ask questions about it. Stormwrack has 250 island nations, each with proprietary spells suited to its particular climate, trade, and war. You don't pry, so you don't question others' practices. Interestingly, and problematically within the story world, "others' practices" includes chattel slavery.

A world with 250 nations seems very large and potentially very involving in terms of worldbuilding! Alyx explained that she figured out before writing the books which nations would be featured in each book. She also explored using shorter stories, such as "Losing Heart Among the Tall," which features Gale and Garland parrish, and appeared at Tor.com. She either uses research to construct the nations and their cultures or imaginative explanation from her own personal experience. She says she based the Verdanii on her own experience of the prairie, and grain farmers, growing up. The nation of Erinth is medieval Florentine, with a volcano much like Vesuvius that is contained by magic. Alyx estimates that about 30 nations are mentioned, and seven or eight get play in the books. She says she was disappointed not to be able to go to Verdanii in the books.

She says, "I love worldbuilding." [No wonder I loved having her on the show!]

Alyx told us that she has spent time in San Francisco with a little locus of family, and she has also taken tours to Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, which helped with her research for those regions.

We spoke a bit about language use in Stormwrack. She says the main idea is that the people of Stormwrack speak many languages, but all share "Fleet Standard" which ends up being used in translation in the books. The main character, Sophie, gets magically taught how to speak Fleet, but she must then learn to read and write. She's often a better speaker of Fleet than the locals, for whom Fleet is a second language (since their first is the main language of their island nation). People in Stormwrack "weaponize" their speaking of their native tongues for the purposes of keeping secrets.

The language of Sylvanna had a big influence of Fleet. There's an Italian-like language, and a Russian-like language. The pirate nations draw a bit from French. Alyx says she was very glad to have a bilingual copy-editor for a previous book. We remarked that dictionaries are the last places where you would expect to find official notice of ongoing language change, and are naturally very conservative.

The ships of Stormwrack are biological - one very intriguing aspect of the world! I asked about the magic system, and Alyx told us that magic takes ingredients from local microclimates. People write spells on parchment, turtle shell, or other localized items. The spells are like works of art and must be perfectly worded and lettered, with ink, quills, or other tools. Each unique magical artifact is like a contract with reality. The letters will glow and magic will happen. For example, in Erinth, there is a statue made of volcanic rock with a spell written on it, and it is that artifact which holds back the volcano. The physical destruction of the magical artifact will break the spell.

People in Stormwrack preserve the environment around them to maximize spell opportunities. There are some jurisdiction questions between islands. Invasive species can also be a problem.

Sophie is a diver and videographer in our world, but she is the only scuba diver on Stormwrack, and she is very bothered by this because you are not supposed to dive alone.

We wound back again to the question of the ships. The idea of unique magical spell artifacts is relevant here because the vessels are magical, and have biological characteristics. The Verdanii use whale-based ships, which are mammal on the bottom and forest on top. There is also a type of immolator ship which is designed to burn other ships. Temperance is the name of a big battle ship, which has a spell that allows it to sink any ship if they know its true name. Generic things can't be enchanted; they must be unique.

We spoke briefly about magic systems. Although they generally need restrictions, Alyx told us that she can't stand restrictions on magic that seem artificial. That's why in Indigo Springs she wrote about magic that was almost limitless, but would destroy Earth if used to its full extent.

In Stormwrack, names are very important. It is possible for people to secretly change names.

Alyx told us that there is no political correctness in Stormwrack. There is lots of racism, and no respect for disability culture. Mermaids will woo people in wheelchairs to become mermaids because they believe the person would better off as a mermaid.

The magic of Stormwrack does alter people. If you have an ability created by magic, but you are not visibly altered by it, you are "enhanced." If you have become a mermaid or have any of a particular set of visual and functional alterations, you are a "transform." If you have undergone extreme changes in appearance, you are considered an "oddity."

At the beginning of The Nature of a Pirate, a creature is used to sink a ship. I asked about this. The creature is something of a doppelganger, called a "fright." The skill of fright-making was banned on Stormwrack. Usually the frights are human-like, but sometimes they are animal. The people of Stormwrack thought they had burned all the spells and materials that would allow fright-making, but someone has resumed doing it. Frights are less like transforms or even oddities, and are more like automatons or zombies.

We spoke a bit about racial distinctions on Stormwrack. Alyx told us that skin colors, epicanthic folds and other physical features we associate with racial distinctions are mixed up so that they don't fit our own models. Verdanii have copper skin, straight dark hair, and dark eyes. Her idea was that they had an aboriginal population which was colonized. Stormwrack has a history of constant raiding, so there has been a lot of genetic mixing.

Morgan asked Alyx to give us more details on spells. The spells need to be very controlled rather than natural. Alyx described them as "artisanal." People who do magic are those who are meticulous and have beautiful handwriting. Alyx told us about a quilt she inherited which had perfect stitching (and then got ripped by her kittens, aigh!). Spells in Stormwrack can also be recycled. Because Sophie was enchanted to speak Fleet, her tongue could later be used as a translator. If someone has teeth enchanted to create light, their skull could be used as a lantern. In some sense, this creates a black market for enchanted body parts.

Alyx told us that Fleet, the language, was created to combat pirates. Stormwrack has had 100 years of peace, but it is breaking down due to piracy, population growth and resource pressures.

This is a fascinating world worth exploring. The novels in the series are:

1. Child of a Hidden Sea
2. A Daughter of No Nation
3. The Nature of a Pirate

Thank you so much for joining us, Alyx! Next week, April 19th at 10am Pacific, we'll be discussing Working Animals, and the following week, April 26th at 10am Pacific, guest author Megan O'Keefe will join us to talk about her Scorched Continent trilogy. I hope you can all attend.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Maurice Broaddus and The Voices of Martyrs

It was a real pleasure to have Maurice back on the show! This time we were discussing his new short story collection, which was released a couple of months ago (now) through Rosarium, and features short stories he wrote between 2006 and 2014. He said he hadn't considered putting a collection together until someone suggested it a few years ago. Maurice told me he doesn't think about writing in genre, just writes the piece first and figures it out later. Because some of the early stories in the collection deal unflinchingly with slavery, they were sold as horror pieces. When he was asked to put together a collection, he tried to figure out if there was a theme he could draw on because he's written so much in so many different genres, but he arrived at "considering the African-American diaspora through the lens of history, past, present, and future."

Maurice tells us he loves worldbuilding. He likes to build a world and then go back and revisit it. The first story in the collection, Warrior of the Sunrise, takes place in ancient Africa. He also has stories set in a science fiction world of the future. He really likes returning to a character he loves.

The story "Rite of Passage" is told from the perspective of a white captain on a slave ship, and features some really fascinating self-justification by the captain about why, even though he's obviously in the business, he's not as bad as other members of his crew. The prose is really historical and wonderful, and the captain's language contrasts in really interesting ways with the speech patterns of his first mate, Hawkins, who is much more honest about the business that they are in. One of the other stories has a soldier as a lead character, and another has a lady working on a plantation.

I asked Maurice how he developed the historical voices he uses in these tales, and he said "I read a lot of collected stories of emancipated slaves in that era." He wanted to take in as much of the language as possible so he could learn how to use it in the way they would, to reflect their thoughts.

The story "Family Business" takes place in Jamaica, and language use is very interesting there. Maurice said he was paying attention to his family to learn the language style, where people code-switch (change language or language style) depending on who is in the room. Maurice explained that his mother came from Jamaica, Maurice himself grew up in London, and his siblings grew up in America. "I'd just put a recorder in the middle of the dinner table," he says. Apparently, everyone would be self-conscious for about five minutes but then start speaking normally. Listening to the recordings gave him the opportunity to consider slang, how each person speaks, and how their use of language changes. He said he also recorded his son's slumber party once, and it was great to hear their use of slang, what topics they discussed, and what boys think about. He later asked the boys what they had talked about, and found they didn't remember everything accurately. "They had no idea they'd spent a half an hour discussing farts."

The key is talking with people, capturing conversations, studying rhythm and word choice.

I had to ask Maurice about the story that very obviously references Parliament Funkadelic. He said that "The Electric Spanking of the War Babies" was originally published in the Glitter and Mayhem collection that featured disco and roller-skating. He explained that he co-wrote it with Kyle Johnson after an evening discussing ideas over gummi bear flavored vodka while playing Parliament Funkadelic.

I also asked him about the universe featured in Pimp My Airship. Maurice has written a number of stories in that setting, including Buffalo Soldier, which is at Tor.com and features the origin of the Starchild (a clone of Haile Selassie) and his guardian. We got to see some book covers (so check out the video if you're curious). Desmond takes the child so that he can live his own life and not be a pawn of politicians, but is being pursued. The child represents technology, but they head into the Nation-state of Texas and territories on the West coast. In this world, the United States uses steampunk technology, but Jamaica and the First Nations have explored technology that is not steampunk.

The origin of the Pimp My Airship universe was Twitter, where Maurice tweeted as a joke that he was going to write a Steampunk story with all black characters and call it "Pimp My Airship," and suddenly editors were very interested! The question he had reading Steampunk was "Where are all the Black people?" A lot of Steampunk erases them.

When he wrote the story "Steppin Razor" he was asking "Where does Jamaica fit in all this?" In this universe, America lost the Revolutionary War and is still a British colony. In this universe, Jamaica kept all its resources, as did the First Nations, so they have their own technology. Steampunk tech is not the "height" of technology.

When Maurice looks at where he stands in a particular genre, he wants to write stories that he could have grown up reading. Tonya suggested he write a story about Nanny and the Maroons, and Maurice said in fact that he was going to write a tale of young Nanny for the Hidden Youth anthology, but the idea hasn't become a completed story yet. When he studied Nanny's character for "Steppin' Razor" he discovered there was a lot there.

I asked Maurice if the process of putting together the collection influenced his overall thoughts about his writing and his career. He told me that he thinks deeply about what he is doing with his stories. When he has a new job in the community, he gets to hear new stories. He mentioned that the results of the election have been weighing heavily on him as he considers what they means for him as a black man in America, for his community, and ofr him as an artist. He strives to control the narrative of his own community, and thinks a lot about what that should look at. He says he's politicizing his art. His latest stories take place in the same community in Indianapolis with magical realism. He's developing interconnected short stories within the community, considering the diversity of what it means to be Black. He's also looking at how Africa is portrayed and trying to get away from the dominant image of starving kids, controlling the narrative to show a variety of voices. Eventually, he says, there will be another collection of stories all in this one community. He also has enough stories he could do a Steampunk collection.

Thank you so much for being there, Maurice! I hope to talk to you again about more of your work. Thanks also to everyone who attended, and let's all look out for the novella Buffalo Soldier, coming out from Tor.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Pronouns are little words - just little pieces of grammar used to refer back to some preceding referent in conversation or in text. But they are super, super important and they have a lot of possible implications. We're of course familiar with them from contexts like this:

The girl walked into the room. She...

In this case, she is referring back to the noun phrase "the girl." If you don't start out with a noun phrase referent, but a bare pronoun, then the reader is forced to construct an implied referent based on what they know via the pronoun. This can be an important part of constructing point of view, for example.

The pronouns I and we are referred to as "first person" pronouns, singular and plural respectively. In English, first person pronouns are non-gendered. However, this is not true in all languages. Japanese uses the pronoun "boku" exclusively for first person males, for example. Japanese pronouns carry a lot of information, and there are a lot of them, but perhaps the most interesting thing about Japanese pronouns is that people hardly ever use them. "Pro-drop" languages allow pronouns to be dropped from the front of a sentence when their reference can be derived from context. Japanese and Spanish can pro-drop, but French and English can't. That said, I'll note that recent changes in English due to the presence of internet icons have made pronoun-dropping a lot more common.

Since I and you in English are non-gendered, but third person pronouns are, the result is that you  need to be aware of other people's genders before your own.

If you are working in a fictional setting and you want to play around with the pronouns, go for it, but be aware that there are pitfalls. The simplest problem you can run into (a grammatical rather than a cultural one) is to cause ambiguity without meaning to. This can happen if you collapse singulars and plurals into each other, or if you choose to collapse other distinctions. However, we already have to work against ambiguities that occur when we have two people of the same gender in the same scene and need to draw distinctions between them, so this problem is not insurmountable. Ann Leckie managed to keep all-"she" characters disambiguated through three books!

Charlie Jane Anders' story "Love Might Be Too Strong a Word" does some fascinating things with pronouns. The society has castes, and each caste is distinguished by different sexual aspects, and each uses a separate pronoun system. How does she keep the pronoun systems from becoming confusing? Basically, she uses pronouns that have some very basic-level similarities to our pronoun system, altering the beginnings of the pronouns but keeping "m" as the final letter in a third-person object pronoun, and "r" as the final letter in a third-person possessive pronoun, for example.

Much as pronouns are "small words," they are also extremely important and extremely personal. Misgendering, or calling someone by the wrong gender pronouns, is very bad. Why? Because in our societies, gender is so very very important to identity and to social consequences for behavior. Because gender is in the third person pronouns rather than the first (in English), you end up having to rely on other people to cooperate with your sense of self when they talk about you.

Ann Leckie's Ancillary books are often cited as groundbreaking for their use of pronouns, because she creates a society where the main language does not distinguish gender in its pronouns. More than that, the English pronoun she chooses to use as a translation for that alien-language pronoun is "she." Note: She doesn't erase all socially charged pronoun distinctions, because ancillaries (human bodies connected to an artificial intelligence) are referred to as "it," or as non-people. Okay, so what is so great and groundbreaking about this? In English, if we are referring to a group of people whose genders are non-specified, we use the word "he." "He" is considered the unmarked option (standard, default). This is likely one reason why we tend to imagine oh-so-many males in fictional contexts. By choosing to use "she" instead, the marked option, Ann is deliberately dislodging us from our standard expectations. Readers know that not everyone must be female, but now that everyone is described as such, they have to think through gender more carefully, and Ann confounds us even further by having descriptions of appearance and clothing that don't conform to our gender expectations either.

We spoke briefly about using the pronoun "one." It sounds archaic, but is non-gendered and can be useful depending on what effect you are looking for. It always reminds me of the Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, because the translators have typically gotten around the pro-drop tendencies of Japanese by translating Sei Shonagon's diary using "one" wherever the reference is generalized.

This was an involved conversation with a lot of details that don't lend themselves very well to written report, so if you are curious I'd encourage you to check out the video. We came to the end of the discussion feeling that we should return to the topic of pronouns to cover aspects of point of view in writing fiction.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Wednesday (tomorrow) 3/29/17 to talk about Mental Illness. I hope you can join us!


Saturday, March 25, 2017


Gardens have a lot of extra meaning. They are often used as metaphors, or vehicles for a philosophical world view. They are not just setting. They also have a lot of cultural meaning, as with the grow your own food movement and the victory gardens of the World Wars.

Even decorative gardens come in all kinds of styles. The English garden reflects the value of pastoral life. Japanese gardens try to look utterly like nature but rely on extreme control for the maintenance of this appearance. French formal gardens have yet a different style. Gardens reflect culture, money, and the relationship of people to nature. There are also water gardens, greenhouses, and special gardens like the Orangerie in France, which was designed with walls to provide frost protection for citrus trees.

Gardens say a lot about class. Do you have a gardener? Or do you garden yourself? What kind of things do you grow? Are those things for show, for eating, for sale? Are they for medicine, as with the herb gardens possessed by monasteries and convents? Some specialized gardens are for cacti, or for poisonous plants. Morgan has written a story in which a main character identifies the doctor's house in the village by noticing the herb garden outside.

What about lawns? What makes them so appealing? People use them for sports. They are incredibly popular but also very water-intensive, and in California's recent drought many people moved toward xeriscaping, or intentionally designing a garden for very low water.

The location of a garden, and the climate in which it is being maintained, influence the content of the garden. For foreign plants, special steps may need to be taken. Foreign plants may become invasive because they don't fit into the local ecosystem, as with bamboo and kudzu - but they also tend not to have the same pests that a native plant would.

Soil quality varies a lot. So does the amount of labor required for land cultivation.

Gardens and plants can be very important for symbolism in a story. Dune by Frank Herbert used palm trees to show the wealth and wastefulness of the Harkonnen family. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind used the contrast between Nausicaa's indoor fungal garden and the outer toxic jungle to great effect. Gardens (like hers) can be used for science. In fact, a great deal of science has come out of our own gardens, such as Mendelian genetics. There is also grafting in fruit trees and roses.

Who are gardens intended to feed? Some people have grafted fruit tree branches onto public trees in order to feed the homeless. Sometimes, however, people are hassled for growing food instead of display plants, especially in front gardens. Nowadays we see more and more rooftop gardens. Hydroponic gardens are a favorite in science fiction, as are tower gardens. A museum in Paris has a garden that is its entire front wall.

Gardens on a spaceship are for oxygen as well as food. Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince used algae gardens to great effect.

Where is the sun? The direction and quantity of sunlight is critical for a garden's success. In my own garden I had to move a huckleberry plant that was frying in the sun to a shadier location and plant it with peat moss to improve its health.

In The Martian, the protagonist grows potatoes on Mars fertilized with "people poop from space toilets."

A garden can mean different things in different contexts. My own house has a very large garden, but new homes in the area are getting much less land space. When I lived in Tokyo, the apartment I lived in had a garden that was advertised as part of its appeal, and it was a 4'x6' space with tiny hedges. At my homestay house a year earlier, in Kyoto, they had a back garden and also a tiny garden in an interior courtyard of the house, too small to walk into. Different cultures do different things with interior versus exterior gardens. Windows can be designed to frame the garden.

In my own fictional world of Varin, the people live in cities underground, but rich people can import soil and plants will grow in the light of the atmospheric lamps that provide daylight. They also use rock gardens. Where there are openings to the surface, they have agricultural towers to maximize the production with the limited light available. The city level just under the surface also has water gardens. Surface farming can only happen in small "islands" because clearing farmland is not possible.

Terraced fields are common in places where there are steep slopes, including South America and Southeast Asia, for example.

Will agricultural robots come to replace farm workers? Will bee robots help with pollination?

Plant life cycles and seasonal cycles influence what happens in a garden. People can design gardens to attract bees or butterflies or hummingbirds, or other creatures. They can also design gardens to resist the grazing of particular species like deer. Weeds have been fought for a long time, but what counts as a weed is different depending on context.

Thanks to everyone who joined us for sharing their thoughts!


Monday, March 13, 2017


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

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

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

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

Skin color and culture are not congruent.

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

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

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

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

Even Jesus was whitewashed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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