Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Traveler of Worlds

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro told us that he started out writing essays and reviews of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He's now a prolific author of short stories, and has published thirty stories since 2008! He says he likes to experiment in his stories, and to work from specific guidelines. Traveler of Worlds, which came out a week ago, is a book of interviews he conducted with author Robert Silverberg.

Because he has written in Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper fictional universes, I asked him what it was like to work in other people's worlds. He told us about a story he wrote for the The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty: The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes's Nemesis, and says it's impossible to learn all of the things that have done in the case of a world like Sherlock Holmes, because the world has been so mined by others. That means you have to have a specific approach. His was to reread the canonical stories that featured Moriarty, and to research the main ways  he's been portrayed, including novels and popular spins on Moriarty. Then he tried to come up with something really bizarre and make it look natural.

He said he was inspired by the Nathaniel Hawthorne story about a man who leaves his home and lives in a house nearby, watching how his own life unfolds without him in it. He redid it as a Holmes-Moriarty story, and says the plot arose from trying to make the two worlds work together. He asked "How does the story have to end?" and "What is the character's journey?" and the world portrayal arose from that. In his story, he imagined that all the stories about Holmes and Moriarty that occurred after Reichenback Falls were actually flashbacks (life flashing before their eyes) in the minds of the two characters while they were falling from the waterfall. That meant that Moriarty had created a world for himself, and aspects of that world had to show him that something larger was wrong.

In the case of a story he wrote for the Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper stories, he ended up making it science-fictional. Alvaro says that the commercial properties featuring Jack the Ripper are tame, and he wanted to get away from the legend and back to the brutal reality of this "nauseating character." He looked at newspaper clippings and articles from the period, as well as canonical stories and notes. He then blended this with an aspect of contemporary society he finds just as horrifying: the corporate interview. He says that he really connected with some recent articles which described the characteristics required for top corporate positions (like CEO) as corresponding closely with the characteristics of sociopaths and pscyhopaths. The story therefore featured different versions of Jack the Ripper murders, each from the perspective of a different sort of Jack the Ripper character - and [SPOILER!] these were all different people experiencing the stories as part of an interview process for CEO of a company. His intent was also to make readers wonder about how similar they themselves were to Jack the Ripper.

Alvaro is very good at creating conceptual mashups!

We then talked about his story, "WYSIOMG" which will appear in October in Cyberworld. The title is an acronym for "What You See Is Oh My God," bringing together the early concept of a graphic user interface with modern slang sensibilities. The story is a cyberpunk story. Alvaro says that there are many features of cyberpunk, such as tech, implants, cutthroat corporations, neon, and rain, that are mostly superficial, but that it's also important to include a degree of "stylistic audacity." He notes that postmodernism and cyberpunk arose at the same time.

The point of view he uses in this story is somewhat unusual. Alvaro says "worldbuilding is building the world as it is experienced by the character." His main character here comes from a poor background and was sold on using products which damaged his brain, something Alvaro does not consider a disability but a feature of his perspective, represented by his prose stylistics. He says that the story was inspired in part by a news story about villages in Spain being up for sale; in this story, the empty villages have been colonized by poor people who have found their way there from a worse place. He looked at genetic engineering, drones, and the use of information in the future.

I asked Alvaro to talk about the difference between character voice and narrator voice. The easiest way to identify narrator voice is if the story is not in first person - as in the Jack the Ripper story when the narrator was not first person and the reader is dealing with known events. The introduction of the consciousness of the character changes the voice. Alvaro says "everything betrays writer voice" on some level. He often thinks about the aesthetic he is trying to achieve in a story. If you look at writers from before the 20th century you often see longer sentences and formal language, so he used that in the Jack the Ripper story, but made style changes based on the four point of view characters. In the case of WYSIOMG, he used a cyberpunk aesthetic. There are many mentions of future technology, and the character's viewpoint uses run-on sentences, altered grammar, and mixes languages a lot. These stylistic features are meant to capture his multilinguistic background and also his brain injury.

Alvaro told us he was born in Madrid, so his use of Spanish in the story didn't require any research, but he did research on Brazilian Portuguese to capture that aspect of his character. Cyberpunk often uses existing words in a new way (including compound words) and I observed that internet language is also changing sentence structure.

Alvaro told us about a story of his in the forthcoming anthology This Way to the End Times, called "Prayers to the Sun by a Dying Person." This one required a lot of research because it was set in India as the future "crashes into the present." He said he looked deeply into linguistic questions, but also religion, culture, geography, rituals, etc. He takes the question of cultural appropriation very seriously and wants to use the material he learns in a way that is respectful yet innovative, and makes sense.

"Sometimes you spend the longest time on the smallest things," he said. He went back and forth over several drafts about whether to include a brief explanation of the word "ghat" in his first sentence, where the woman was sitting on a step by a lake. In the end, he took the explanation out. Alvaro says "get on with the story; just make it so the reader has enough."

I asked him about Traveler of Worlds, which has been available for about a week. Alvaro explained that he had been paired with Robert Silverberg for a project called When the Blue Shift Comes, where he wrote the second half of a piece with a very particular style that often makes direct address to the reader. Alvaro had to emulate that style "and have fun." The project went well, so Alvaro asked Silverberg to do a book of interviews about how he feels about things other than science fiction and fantasy. The key to successful interviews, Alvaro says, is making sure you can create a safe environment where someone feels they can talk about anything, and not to ask clich├ęd questions. It sounds like a really neat collection, and gave Silverberg a chance to talk about his early childhood as well as to analyze the work of some non-SFF authors. It sounds really cool.

Alvaro, thank you so much for coming on the show! Now, everyone go check out Traveler of Worlds...




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Monday, August 29, 2016

Corruption

The idea behind this hangout was to talk about the abuse of large systems - schools, bureaucracies, universities, governments, and judicial systems. Sometimes problems with these systems can be caused by individuals, and sometimes the entire system can become biased in its operation because of the aggregate effect of a lot of small oversights or problems. Corruption can be a really good story problem, or an element of worldbuilding, or both.

Sarah mentioned the idea of normalization of deviance. Within a particular system, certain kinds of errors or biases can repeat and may eventually be perceived as normal by the people participating in the system. She mentioned the Challenger disaster as a case where this had occurred, but it immediately made me think of cases where sexual harassment has become normal within an organization.

Complex systems are self-perpetuating, so common abuses that are not sufficiently restricted by the structure of the system will self-perpetuate. Any action within a system simultaneously perpetuates and changes it.

Some examples of corruption we thought of:

bribes - how corruptible are individual people?
loopholes in law - who is looking for them, and what will they do when they find them?
nepotism - do you have friends or relatives in high places who will act inappropriately on your behalf?

There are a lot of examples of corruption in shows like Boardwalk Empire, mafia-related stories where the police are in someone's pocket.

It's important to note that nepotism was once considered normal.

What constitutes a conflict of interest is socially defined. There are many reasons why a person might encounter conflicting motivations in a position of power.

Che said that bribing and jockeying for inheritance or power in government are common plot elements involving corruption.

You can also see corruption in religious hierarchies, and some of these have doctrinal implications, like when the Catholic church makes changes in the system by which the Pope is selected.

How much influence can a single person have within a complex system? One example of such a person was the clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. She was one person, but because of her structural position as an elected official, and the support of other elected officials, her influence was widespread.

We talked about assassins - mostly because the concept of an assassins' guild is so (ridiculously) common in fantasy. Do such things actually exist? Apparently there were two real world examples (total) and they may have been questionable. Hassan i Sabbah and the Hashishin order provide the origin of the word "assassin" but they might be considered terrorists in today's parlance because they were killing for political, social, and cultural reasons.

Let's assume for a moment that you are going to put assassins in your world. You need to think through some aspects of their operation, such as:
1. How does someone find out they are there?
2. How does a character contact them?
3. How does a character pay them?
Other useful questions include "Is there a recognized organization of them?" and "Does everyone (or every family) have one of their own?" and "How does the presence of assassins interact with general rule of law in this society?"

If a society is very chaotic, or if there is corruption in the police, maintaining the presence of assassins might be much easier.

We spoke about Star Trek Into Darkness, which involved an interesting situation where someone did the wrong thing because they were desperate to save a child's life, and thus torn between duties. If you are thinking through a character's motivations, ask how much that person will be punished for wrongdoing, and what the reward for action might be.

Think it through systematically, step by step.

There can also be corruption in magical systems, and the consequences for that can be highly variable. We felt that corruption in the medical system made a good analogy.

Morgan noted that you can learn to practice medicine, but often people have innate and restricted ability to do magic, which might mean having to tolerate the evil or inappropriate behavior of a person because they cannot be replaced.

How replaceable are corrupt people in your world? Can you impeach them? Can you get rid of them if you don't catch them in the act? Do you have to vote them out? Will a corrupt person's friends and colleagues defend them?

How do you go about changing the culture of a system?

Elections are designed as a built-in way to have a revolution, but they can be influenced by redistricting and gerrymandering. People within the system aren't always selfless. There are shades of gray in good and evil, and awareness of problems. You have to acknowledge that, and build in methods to counteract abuses.

Weird laws can sometimes arise as a result of particular people's behaviors - nobody would have thought of abusing the system in that way until one person did it, so now we have to have a law against it. Complex systems of laws always act in concert with the societal system of manners and decency, and when the latter breaks down, the law is often not enough.

We briefly discussed the difference between the American democratic system of "checks and balances" and the Australian system which relies more on elections to oust people who have done things that the electorate doesn't like.

Without built-in standards and methods for change, a system will be brittle. With those built-in methods, it will be more robust.

We talked about the Demarchists in Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe. Specifically, we talked about the idea of AIs that might analyze what people want and then organize changes for them behind the scenes. How would they decide what the people want? How would they make decisions between what is best for the system as a whole and the desires of people within the system?

Of course, people do vote against their own self-interest for many reasons. One virtuous reason is in the interest of the larger society.

There is this interesting, and very common, idea that a person who doesn't want power is the best person to wield it. This is why we see so many farmboys becoming kings in fantasy fiction! It's also why Douglas Adams wrote about the mysterious de facto leader of the universe living incognito in a shack somewhere.

It's also important to note, though, that the desire for power doesn't by definition exclude the possibility of goodness. Complex systems are not inherently bad, and neither are relationships of mutual benefit between people. The payment of money in return for changes in legal policy, or quid-pro-quo, is corrupt. However, people and institutions can give money in support of a candidate because they share a mutual interest in the policies that candidate pursues, and that is perfectly ethical.

Transparency, or the ability to expose parts of the system and its operation to examination and judgment, is absolutely critical.

When a system tends to create entries and pathways to success for a particular type of people, a marginalized group can attempt to use those entries and pathways, or can attempt to create its own entries and pathways. Either approach has drawbacks.

We want to advance people we know because we feel better able to judge their merit.

My final note was that it's important to differentiate between different kinds of power within a system. Power could be "I have the power to pay my bills," or it could be "I have the power to inflict terrible hardship on others." The degree of power possessed by an individual due to position within the system, relationships with others, etc. etc. will help you to determine how far their influence will be felt, and how much damage they can do to people with less power.

Thanks to everyone who attended! Remember that this week's hangout, on August 31 at 10am Pacific, will be an examination of POV characters as representatives of their worlds. I hope you can join us! Contact me on Facebook or Twitter @JulietteWade if you would like to enter the discussion.



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Friday, August 26, 2016

Point-of-View Characters as Ambassadors to your World (Part 1)

Note: We'll meet to hold Part 2 of this topic on August 31st at 10am Pacific on Google Hangouts. This session will be a special workshop session, with discussants asked to send me a paragraph or two of material representing a POV character they have chosen. Contact me to participate. At the time of this writing, we have five slots left open.

A character lives in your world. When you step into that character's head, you have the opportunity to discover not only who that person is, but how they have been shaped by their environment - physically, socially, culturally. In some sense, that makes the character a physical embodiment of the world, and they possess a psychological map of that world.

There are a lot of discussions occurring online at the moment which talk about how culture and identity mix - well, that applies to fictional characters as well. We don't want our characters to be generic. A strong POV also can take some of the burden off an author because they can help convey things about the world and reduce the need for setting description.

People are shaped by the world they grew up in, and carry their backstories with them. We want them to have specific backgrounds. Training, experience, reasons why they hold the beliefs they do.

Internalization is a really important tool. The language that you use to convey the character's point of view should be their language, or at least reflect their language in some way. One aspect of that is how they categorize reality. Who do they consider "us"? Who do they consider "them"?

I spoke about my Varin world, and how nobles think of themselves as "us," and everyone else as "Lowers." The lowest caste thinks of themselves as "us" and everyone else as "Highers." Depending on where you fall in the middle, you will have all three of those concepts. People in this environment have to be able to read others' marks and act accordingly, because there are different greetings and modes of address for Highers and Lowers depending on their caste identity (Varin has seven castes).

The way people refer to the undercaste, as "undercaste," "Akrabitti," or "trashers," depends on their own identity and on the surrounding context.

Only the nobles don't have to make any special linguistic accommodations, because they are uniquely blind to the operation of the system. They also don't know how to shop for their own food, because they are never required to do so. They don't use cash money, and have no concept of it.

All of these details express themselves in the point of view of a character.

Che mentioned how Key and Peele had a comedy sketch where Will and Jaden Smith went grocery shopping. Morgan talked about how she'd heard the expression "turn a tap and money comes out," which is a reflection of a particular point of view on money.

I brought up the idea of metaphors. Very often, we think of metaphors from an authorial point of view, in terms of bringing in color, flavor, "coolness," or any number of other elements. However, thinking of metaphor from the perspective of character point of view can be extremely valuable.

We discussed some linguistic aspects of metaphor, specifically target domain, and source domain. A metaphor essentially has as its goal describing a target that needs to be better understood or fleshed out. That's the target domain. In order to describe that target, it pulls elements from a source domain which is better understood by the speaker and hearer. Any time you're having a POV character use a metaphor, think about what is being described, and think about what that character knows well, the kinds of things they would use to flesh out their understanding of the target.

So when my alien character Rulii talks about his life in terms of hunting, "life" is the target domain, and "the hunt" is the source domain. He can pull from that source domain over and over to flesh out extended metaphors about his life, goals, and activities.

Che mentioned Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun as an example of good control of metaphor, because so many of the metaphors used are from sailing, and from the sea maiden religion.

Working in with a character from another language group or culture is a key example of when to employ this kind of thinking. People have different metaphorical resources. Characters are thus ambassadors for their fictional worlds, or can also share world concepts from the author's world.

Expectations are an important part of this. Because of geography and climate we develop expectations for our homes, our cars, our tools, our behaviors.

A world can be complex, but it is nonetheless understood by the point of view character. You don't need a million-world bible; you need a character with experience, expectations, and opinions. Think about opening your story by placing your character in a situation that will reveal aspects of the world.

Morgan mentioned a conversation between two of her characters where one doesn't understand why the other doesn't keep track of their extended family. We often know why we know things, but we don't have explanations for why we don't know things. Age can be a factor in what we know (or don't), because it means we witness history to differing degrees. The knowledge one person has from being told about something is different from the knowledge another person has from experiencing that thing.

Octavia Butler's Patternist series is a fascinating example of the use of different perspectives.

We also talked about multiple points of view. Different perspectives can give the reader a larger picture of the whole world than is possessed by any single character. It's also cool when you can use unreliable narrators.

You don't always need to use multiple points of view. I chose to use a single point of view in "Cold Words" because Rulii had the most at stake in the story. Similarly, in "The Liars," I used only one point of view, because including the other point of view would spoil the mystery inherent in the story. On the other hand, I used multiple points of view in "Let the Word Take Me" and "At Cross Purposes" because in those cases it added valuable things to the story.

When we got to the end of our hour, we decided we wanted to talk about the topic more! So we'll be meeting next week to get a bit more concrete and look at particular characters. I hope you can join us!



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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Vermin

Vermin. No one wants to talk about them, but pests and unwanted guests are an integral part of any world, and we had a good time talking about them. Lots of examples came up! Fleas and rodents were only two. They can attack your food (or even make you their food). Shauna Roberts commented to say that when she lived in India, she was told to put her rice out on the roof so that birds could pick out the pests!

If you are thinking about a secondary world, it's important to look at vermin because they have an astonishingly big influence on the culture of a world. I just recently read an article about how mosquitoes don't like chickens, with the implication that people should consider sleeping with chickens beside their beds - an unusual cultural practice to be sure, but one that might become common if it proves unusually effective.

Plagues have changed history, and vermin are often disease vectors. We also see foods that are forbidden or must be cooked in particular ways due to the possibility of parasitic infections. These things drive and alter societal development.

We spoke about Kameron Hurley's Gods' War series, where bugs are used as a power source, and people have to avoid house-sized insects, or sometimes use bugs for rejuvenation. This is an imaginative and thorough use of bugs in a sf/f scenario.

We can also talk about how vermin and parasites inspire changes of clothing, such as use of shoes and boots to go into water. We spoke about the guinea worm, which because of the efforts of President Jimmy Carter and his educational organization, is about to be eradicated (the first parasitic infection ever).

People often spice their food to discourage bacteria and pests. Bugs can show up as eggs in flour or cereals and hatch if they are left too long. Sailors had to deal with weevils in their hard tack, and of course flies lay eggs in fresher food. We were united in our horror of maggots!

Now, of course, there are also insects and other unwanted creatures that can be used as a food source. Generally speaking, if you want to eat mealworms or crickets or even snails, you should feed them things that taste good. This is also true with meat animals like cows (or bears, in Prince Caspian).

More gross things: tsetse flies, bedbugs, bot flies...

Che noted that humans create good environments for vermin to thrive.

Are pigeons vermin? Some people consider them so, but they also have the fastest level flying speed of any bird and can give milk out of their throats!

Another thing that can arise from the presence of vermin is a symbiotic relationship, as when birds live with hippos or crocodiles and rid them of pests.

Vultures can be considered vermin. I highly recommend the National Geographic article about them. Scavengers are really important to keep disease from spreading, however. Their role is vital. Tasmanian devils keep the roads clear of roadkill in Tasmania (and have amazing jaw muscles!).

Morgan asked if, when humans move to a world, they might bring scavengers to deal with the stuff they have that needs to be cleaned up.

More pests: fruit flies, Mediterranean fruit flies, termites, wasps, fire ants, ticks...

Che noted that by fighting our vermin, we also cause them to evolve. She also said that wasps and ants are related.

Possums will eat ticks in your yard, so even if they seem like vermin, don't discourage them!

Raccoons are cute but fearless and capable of serious bites and scratches. They also carry a dangerous parasite in their feces. Skunks stink, which is why they are often driven out even though they don't cause much other trouble.

Kimberly told us that bees and wasps hate noisy places so she blasted Metallica at them for 12 hours (more than one occasion) and they left.

We did touch briefly on the question of humans as vermin, but agreed that when people try to do that in SF they usually only have humans called vermin as an insult, and don't usually have humans taking on the role of a vermin species. What might that look like?

Thanks to everyone who attended. I'm about to run off to another hangout!



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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Jeffe Kennedy and Pages of the Mind (The Uncharted Realms Trilogy)

We had a really cool chat with author Jeffe Kennedy about her book, Pages of the Mind, and about the world she has created for her series, The Twelve Kingdoms and The Uncharted Realms. One great thing about talking with her was exploring a secondary world where romance was a major focus.

Jeffe says her work is classified as fantasy or as fantasy romance. Each story (out of 4 so far) has a love arc. I asked her about the requirements of Romance as a genre, but she said she doesn't conform to them so strictly; her main contract with reader is the happy ever after (often referred to in Romance as HEA), which she called "one rule to rule them all."

In her first trilogy, The Twelve Kingdoms, she followed the journeys of three princesses. In this book, Pages of the Mind, she moves to the point of view of a kingmaker librarian who assists all three of the princesses in the first series.

Jeffe said she expanded her world concept when she moved to this second trilogy, which is one reason why it's called The Uncharted Realms. She describes herself as a character-driven writer who discovers the world as she writes around. The first trilogy began as a dream where she was trapped in a castle by a monster and people would go out to battle the monster for her and die until she realized she had to battle it herself. The main character of the first book is the middle sister of three, a recluse who discovers the world and finds a mythological land.

Jeffe says, "I write for discovery." I think it's probably fair to call this the opposite of beginning with extensive worldbuilding and a world bible - but each technique can yield good results.

Jeffe came to fiction out of environmental consulting, so she has deep interest in ecology and biology, and this is evident in her work.

One of her books in the original trilogy works with the eldest sister, who falls for "a man she couldn't deal with," a foreign mercenary. The presence of the foreign mercenary opened up the door to a whole new region of the world, and a lot of new political complications.

I asked her about one of the main plot elements of Pages of the Mind, which is that the heroine and hero start out not speaking one another's languages. She said that since her heroine, Dafne, was smart and bookish and spoke lots of languges, she wanted to give her a hero she could not communicate with. (Jeffe and I are both interested in languages and linguistics!) Jeffe said, "There's a big chunk of the book where there's a lot of gesturing," and she said it was very challenging for her to work through.

Jeffe describes herself as "a word person." She studied languages in high school and is very interested in etymology. As a graduate student she looked at neurobiology and language in the brain. When she was building words for the language used in Pages ofthe Mind, she built words off real Earth languages: Hawaiian and Polynesian. The word mo'o for dragon she borrowed directly. She wanted the feel of a tropical island for the location where most of the book's action takes place. She said she didn't do a lot of research specifically for this book, but relied on much of her previous reading. She also looked at "behind the name" websites, and a website of colloquial Hawaiian phrases.

We talked about the character arcs for her hero and heroine. Jeffe notes that Romance is often criticized by people who say "you know how it will end," but different genres make different such promises, as when mystery promises that you will find out who did it. She sees the romance arc as someone going from being unfulfilled to being whole and happy with a partner. She says transformation is an important theme to her, and she gives her characters the chance to seize happiness as promised by love.

I asked her about a phrase she used several times in reference to her heroines, that she wanted to give each one "someone she can't handle." Jeffe told me that's her shorthand for finding someone who will force change in a heroine's life. It doesn't have to be an instant physical attraction, but there has to be some attraction, and some reason to want to change, as well as a reason why it's difficult to do so. If it's too easy, she says, it's unsatisfying. We asked, "should both people change?" She said it depends, because often having both people change introduces a lot more complexity and plot.

Jeffe told us she teaches classes on writing sex scenes and about taboos. The word tabu is originally Polynesian. Cultural taboos, she says, are often meant to help us survive to adulthood, but you have to break them to become fully adult. This particularly applies to sex-related taboos. Taboos also vary depending on the culture. What's ok in the US is not ok in China. Taboo can be an important story element because it makes characters profoundly uncomfortable.

We spoke a bit about the sexuality of the characters in Pages of the Mind. Dafne was orphaned when the High King took her castle and has been a political hostage her whole life, having to resist being married off for political purposes. Her attitude is that she avoids sexual entanglement for the purpose of safety; she has been kissed twice but didn't much enjoy it. Another character in the book, Jepp, is pansexual, very sexually active, and essentially doesn't understand her way of thinking. There is value in portraying different characters whose attitudes about sex vary.

I asked Jeffe about the shape-shifting in her book, and she said that originally it was an analog for the fae, but that it fed into her interest in mutability and transformation. She didn't want her Tala people to be were-creatures. Some can't transform, some can take just one form, and others can take many. Shapeshifting informs how the character Zynda sees the world, and where she places her sympathies, as when she refuses to kill animals with magic except in self-defense.

One of the interesting aspects of Dafne's character is that she struggles to accept the coexistence of science and magic, because the realm where magic applies has just dramatically expanded.

Thank you so much for joining us, Jeffe! I really enjoyed our conversation.

Dive into Worldbuilding will meet tomorrow to discuss Vermin at 10am Pacific on Google Hangouts. I hope you can join us!




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Eva Elasigue and Bones of Starlight

We had an enjoyable chat with author Eva Elasigue about the world she's creating for Bones of Starlight. She told us about thinking through what kind of physical and cosmological rules she wanted to have for her fantasy space opera, which explores broadly.

She said the story comes first, but she enjoys questions like "How fast does lava move on this world?" She says she also invented living beings that interface with the universe differently, with human technology evolving with alien technology. Her society is an Imperium in an alternate futuristic universe.

The aquarii people perceive different parts of the spectrum from humans. Dragons are living elementals in a world where elements can be conceptual (sunlight, icy currents, rumor, etc.). Eva asked, what would be the properties of phosphorus if it were alive?

She says she blurs the lines between fantasy and science fiction.

Within the Imperium lives an innocent main character who is a non-royal vagabond, but whose life goes into upheaval. Two of the characters are members of the ruling family of the Imperium divided by generation and by their beliefs.

She described a system of transportation similar to that in Dune, where the aquarii sun-singers are vital to using intergalactic transport gates powered by technology from a private corporation.

She says the main driving element is the Hero's journey.

She talked about having fun writing from different points of view.

I asked about an interesting element of the city architecture, a psychically sensitive mural installations, created by artists who could perceive a wider spectrum than humans. She described it as taking extra sensitive elements and turning them into paint. People get used to having them around, but they function like a "room full of mirrors."

She tries to use relative measurement so as not to commit to a particular Earth measurement system. This includes time, which has periods named after the ruler during that period. Eva enjoys languages and aims to make things sound polyglot. She also uses material from Earth like Gilgamesh and Japanese and Finnish folk tales.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Eva! And thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.



Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Games

I really enjoyed this dicsussion of games. We began by talking about place where games appear in fiction. My first thought was Split Infinity by Piers Anthony. It begins with a character who is a competitor in this massive multi-game scenario - a dystopia where the status of the higher-ups depends on how good their stable of gamers is, and the gamers themselves are like serfs. This includes a wide variety of games, some very familiar and others less so.

We also had Kimberly Unger present as a guest, and she is a game developer. That's a very different kind of game, and in fact it's drastically different designing games for a fictional world than designing them for our own.

One of our discussants mentioned that the game tack from Pat Rothfuss' work has been turned into a game that is playable in real life.

Games in fiction do some very interesting symbolic things. They can represent relationships between people, or they can be a way to carry out negotiations between larger groups.

In my Varin world, I created a game called keyzel marbles. Because the actual moves of the game are not relevant to the story, I don't know the precise rules for moving the marbles. What I do know is that it's played on a round obsidian board with cradles drilled for blue and green marbles, and that the object of the game is to outmaneuver your opponent and cross the board.

There are several places in the book where keyzel marbles comes up. The first one is in a scene where an eleven-year-old noble boy named Pyaras starts playing it with a twenty-five-year-old soldier bodyguard named Veriga, and this is perceived as a totally inappropriate form of fraternization by one of the other characters. However, it indicates the beginning of a friendship between Pyaras and Veriga.

I also have the game representing the way that the past can't be recaptured. Another character walks to the gameboard later in the story and starts putting the marbles back to their starting positions while musing on how he wishes he could go back and start over. This then intersects with the Pyaras/Veriga part, because Pyaras objects to the other character wrecking his game-in-progress with Veriga. Veriga has since been hospitalized due to the hazards of his job and Pyaras is concerned that their relationship will vanish with the configuration of the marbles.

The last place I mentioned the game playing a role is in a scene where Lady Tamelera wants to reveal something very important to her servant Aloran but doesn't know how. She invites him out to play keyzel marbles with her, to fill awkward time, but also to try to open up a different sort of relationship with him. The problem is that he doesn't feel comfortable playing a game against his mistress, because it represents a power struggle that he feels is inappropriate to engage in.

Power struggle is one of the big things that games can symbolize. Chess has sometimes been used in science fiction as a form of communication between races. It can reflect or change a power dynamic.

Games are also powerful in folk tales, such as when you play a game with the devil, the fae, or Death.

Games can be critical as a symbolic representation of a larger conflict. If you can engage in single combat instead having whole armies clash, why not do it? If you can play a game and agree on the stakes, might you save many lives?

Games and the ways in which they are played reflect the world around them. If you are playing a game with plastic dice, it's not the same as playing a game with pig knucklebones. Where do the knucklebones come from? Knucklebones, the word itself, makes the game of dice sound exotic and like it comes from a particular period. There are many games of chance or rune-reading. We noted that people have found real twenty-sided stone dice from the Roman period.

Another game from my Varin world, called dareli, is a card game based on the concept of families. It's not played as often as keyzel marbles, but it's meant to reveal things about the world of the nobility and their myopic focus on their own inter-family struggles.

There are a ton of ways to play cards, and more are being invented all the time. There are even a ton of ways to play solitaire.

We spoke a bit about cooperative games. How are children taught via games? What values come out of the game? These are good things to think about when you are creating games for a fictional world. How much is skill? How much is chance? Are people rewarded for defeating others or for creating something?

There are cases where dueling is used in fiction as a test for the children of a person in power, to see how willing one child is to kill the other, to show their ruthlessness for future rule.

I told the story of the red hand of Ulster. The men who were competing for the title of king went out in boats and raced for the shore, having accepted the rule that the first one whose hand touched the shore would become king. One of the men, seeing he was going to lose by a hair, cut off his own hand and threw it ahead onto the shore. He ended up becoming king!

The topic of the film Gattaca came up. In a world where genetic manipulation is common, there is a swimming competition between the genetically perfect child and the natural child. When the natural child won against all expectation, it changed both children's lives because it changed their attitudes about perfection and what was possible, and set up the conflict for the movie.

We also talked about games in Jane Austen, such as games played at a picnic, or charades, or riddle games. Games can become a way of making fun of someone in public, so their stakes can be quite high.

In Monopoly, there is some building, but all opponents are enemies who need to be bankrupted.
In Settlers of Catan, everyone gets points for building.

Kimberly mentioned that this is why there are often specific areas of games set aside for Player-vs.-Player competition.

In Minecraft, the focus is on building.

In massive multiplayer online games, there are many people who only want to fight the AI or non-player characters. This is the largest group. The people who play PVP have a very different focus. Some games will have servers specifically for roleplay, and others specifically for PVP.

Some people are really into customizing characters and costumes, and focus mostly on the customization rewards. In games like Sims or Tomogachi life, the first character people create is most often themselves, and they branch out after that.

When people are playing a game, it evolves its own culture, and that is not always predictable.

We talked about the movie War Games, and the way the videogame Thermonuclear War stood in for the actual conflict, as its outcome reflected a real life potential outcome outside the world of the movie. In this case, the idea of conflict as a game is problematic, because it estranges us fromt he fact that anyone actually playing gets a bad outcome. In this movie, the innocence of the computer was a metaphor for the attitudes of the younger generation.

In the Spy Kids movies, there are several instances of games that suck people in or otherwise come to life. This has become a common trope.

The metaphors and world concepts of games can influence our real-life metaphors and world concepts. This was noted and explained by Anita Sarkeesian in her series of videos.

Generation by generation, people are improving games and increasing representation in them. This is also true of books. Equality gets layered gradually into the cultural canon (there is much more work to do).

Games like Overwatch and Destiny can take on a culture that was not intended by the developers. Kimberly says, "no game survives contact with the audience." She mentioned Riot Games as an example of a developer group with a lot of control over their culture. They have an entire judiciary system with tribunals.

"House rules" are game rules that are idiosyncratic to the place where you are playing them. Not knowing house rules is a problem. It feeds into the idea of games as representative of power.

This week's hangout has been rescheduled due to some thorny logistical problems. We will meet with author Eva Elasigue on Thursday, 7/14/16 at 5pm Pacific. I hope you can make it!



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