Monday, June 24, 2013

TTYU Retro: Character intelligence - a matter of consistency and context

Have you ever put a book down because the main character was being stupid? I have - more than once. It's the sort of thing where I am going along, and then I see the main character make some decision that will bring on a lot of trouble, and I don't understand why he/she is doing it, and I can't put together any kind of mental logic for the character that will cause it to make sense. If it's the first time the character has done this, I won't throw the book across the room. But if it's too important to the plot, or if I've seen it happen more than once, I will. At very least, I'll set the thing down, at the risk of never picking it back up again.

So what is it that gives me this reaction? Well, I'll tell you now, it's not just characters with a low level of intelligence. I have been thinking about this for a while, and despite the fact that I enjoy intellectually sharp characters, I don't require them to continue reading. At one point I even asked myself in adversarial fashion, "What, Juliette, are you really looking for characters who are exactly at your level of intelligence and can't make mistakes?"

I'm not. What I'm looking for is a character whose level of intelligence I can predict reliably.

I'm okay with characters who have knowledge I don't have. Particle physicists are allowed to be particle physicists. But I do expect their mental resources to coexist with a predictable level of general common sense, and for those mental resources to be affected by the physical stresses of their surroundings. If a woman who has studied for years in a magic school suddenly makes a stupid beginner mistake with her magic, I would really like to know why. Does she have a knife in her leg? That could be a good reason. Has she been startled? That's possible. If she's sitting in a place of calm, though, and I can't see any reason for the mistake, I'm going to be skeptical.

I recently read Watership Down by Richard Adams. It's a story about rabbits - real rabbits. And one of the things that I find wonderful and brilliant about it is that the rabbits are not hyper-intelligent. They think things through the way rabbits think things through. Only one of them comes up with really innovative ideas, like having a couple of the smaller, weaker members float across a brook on a piece of board. The others are not capable of this, and in fact can't comprehend it even when they see it happening. A quote: "Frith and Inlé, they're sitting on the water! Why don't they sink?"

This is not frustrating. It is delightful.

One of the things I enjoy most when I'm writing is to make characters whose reactions wouldn't be what we'd predict from our own experience, but which make complete sense within their own worldviews and levels of intelligence. For example, my servant caste character, Aloran, is highly trained and believes firmly in the vocation of service, which is to say that he believes in selflessness and in putting his mistress' concerns before his own. He and his mistress have a number of interactions where she shows consideration for him - and though he's grateful for her consideration, he also thinks that it is at times inappropriate, as when she puts herself in danger of reprisal for defending him. In the situation, he internally urges her to stand her ground against her abusive husband. However, when the interaction is over he realizes that her bravery is going to have horrible consequences - and he bows to her and says, "I beg you, please don't consider me again." It isn't what we'd do, it's what he would do - and because we know him, we can see that it is what he would do.

To my mind, this is one of the most important things you can do for a story - actually think through your characters' level of intelligence, their experience, their knowledge, and their motivations. If your character is well-grounded, you can get away with all kinds of things. The unexpected isn't frustrating, it's delightful - because you've done the work to make sure that it grows naturally out of your character's established mentality and their character. In fact, this is more important than the needs of the plot. If the plot needs something and your character isn't providing it naturally, don't force him/her. Go back and change the character so that person will provide it naturally. Give that person higher intelligence. Or if necessary, lower intelligence. Or change circumstances so an intelligent person is under enormous stress. Make sure that the character's actions fit with his/her backstory and general attitudes, or at very least show us the reasoning that makes this particular decision understandable.

It's something to think about.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why your world needs History (and probably already has it)

I have a secret way to learn history.

History is important - maybe your history teacher told you that when you were back in school, learning lists of dates and names and wondering "Why, oh why, am I doing this???" When I was learning history in school, I was motivated by my desire to do well and to know what I needed to know. But there was another way I learned history. I learned it by going places.

I went to France. I saw old stones, old cathedrals. I went to a museum about lacemaking that forever changed the way I see those dresses that the pre-Revolution nobility used to wear. They were wearing months and years of women's whole lives.

I went to Washington, D.C. I looked at the Capitol, and the monuments, and saw what this nation considers important. I went to Mount Vernon and discovered how George Washington lived, and also how his whole lifestyle depended on the work of slaves.

I know I'm lucky to have visited these places. Not everyone has opportunities like this. But doing this has given me an idea about History that I never got in school.

History is present all around us, right now.

When I'm in France, or on the East Coast of the US, I can feel the depth of history around me in the buildings that preserve those old times. I can see buildings that have housed family after family for hundreds of years. When I'm in California I see less of it, but there's still some there. The Missions are there. Even more enduring than the buildings, though, are the names. Malibu, from Ventureño, for example. Or Aptos, the town right near where I grew up. The names give evidence of the deeper history that wars, cultural assimilation and "progress" sensibilities have tried to erase. And if you look closer, and escape the beaten path, you can find a lot more than you bargain for. Like the Welsh cemetery at Black Diamond Mine, or the Chinese town of Locke on the Sacramento River delta.

The worlds you create need to wear their own history.

How old are the oldest buildings you see? How old are the newest? There's a reason why Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon tells us that the village is old but all the buildings are new. It tells us something vital about the place. Did all the building happen during one short period of time, or is it ongoing? Do old buildings have value? Are they preserved (Japanese Buddhist temples for example), rebuilt in the same form (Shinto shrines, e.g.), or razed and replaced with something else?

What kinds of names do the places have here? Was there an ancient history of people who spoke other languages? Do we see a dead language (like Latin) underlying things, or the language of a displaced people (like Aztecs)?

What conflicts have there been in these people's history? Were there wars and revolutions that changed everyone's lives? How did those changes happen? Are there still traces of the conflict remaining in old traditional enmities, or cultural differences between different areas (like how the Civil War's footprints remain in the Northern and Southern states)?

One of the things I always liked about Middle Earth was the way Tolkien left ruins around, deliberately, not just "Oh, look, here are some picturesque ruins!" but the kind of ruins that gave you a sense that there was a previous history to this land. A long history, that if you wanted to, you could find and track.

If you plant historical things, put them there for a reason. Multiple layers is fine, but inconsistency is not.

Also, build history into your cultures. History builds some groups of people up, and it casts some down, but even those who lose a lot don't lose everything. Here's an example to give you a sense of what I mean. When I was creating the Varin caste system, I knew that the system itself had been created around 400 years before story time, and the previous history erased maybe 70 years after that. But I also knew that there were some groups whose solidarity existed before the caste system was overlaid upon them. One of those groups was the personal servants to royalty, who became the personal servants to nobility when the noble caste was created. The symbol of their identity endured across that change, but took a different form, going from a mark on the clothing to a mark on the person (tattoo). The idea of secrecy was core to their identity for much longer than 400 years, and it affects everything about the way they think, speak, and behave. The other group was the one who became the undercaste. Part of the reason (though not all) why they were cast down was because they had a different religion from the rest of the population. The trappings of their previous status were erased, but their religion endured, along with its imagery, its beliefs, and its sense of tight solidarity. Ask a random Varini on the street what fire makes them think of, and they will say "teeth" or "punishment" (or possibly "the surface"). Ask an undercaste member, and they will say "paradise."

If you don't plan your history, it may plan itself for you. Your subconscious will often layer an idea of a community's history into its depiction without you even realizing it. It's worth taking a deliberate look at a certain point in the process, to make sure that you haven't inadvertently layered in an inconsistent history, or worse, an unwanted piece of Earth history.

It's something to think about.


Worldbuilding Hangout Update - August schedule

Summer is upon us!

As is usual for me in summer, I am traveling a lot and have my kids home from school, which means that for the next several weeks I won't be in good shape to hold my usual worldbuilding hangouts.


After more than a year of holding the hangouts in slapdash, unofficial manner, I have decided to try making them more Official. Starting with August, I shall be posting a list of the month's hangout topics in advance, so that people can anticipate them and (perhaps) be able to plan to attend.

Here are the planned hangout topics for August 2013:

August 8th:  Pets

August 15th:  Religion Part 2

August 22nd: No hangout

August 29th: Schools and Education

All hangouts happen on Google+, on Thursdays at 11:00am Pacific Time. I look forward to resuming them and talking with you, because I love all the ideas we have together!

If you have topic suggestions, feel free to suggest them in the comments and I will try to fit them into my schedule for September.

I look forward to talking with you again soon!

Monday, June 17, 2013

TTYU Retro: "Hook the reader with your opening," they say - but precisely whom are you hooking?

We all know that choosing the right entry point to a story can be difficult. Where to start? How can we begin in a place that is so compelling that readers won't be able to put the story down until they're into it?

No doubt you've heard people tell you about starting with tension, starting with action (but not necessarily physical action), picking an event that leads directly or indirectly into the main conflict (I've written about this myself!).

Today I'd like to suggest that you think about something else: your audience.

If you think about it, there are a lot of possible hooks you could use. A lot of jumping-in points where you might be able to balance the back-story against the front-story. You'll want to pick a place that appeals to the audience you have in mind. By this I mean specifically the audience appropriate for your genre.

It's a question of setting your reader's expectations. As your reader takes on the opening of your book, you want her, or him, to be given a good sense of what kind of book she or he will be reading. Are you writing a fantasy book that has magic in it? Then including that magic somewhere in your opening is going to be valuable. Are you writing a book that has science fictional technology or exploration going on in it? Include that, or at least reference it. Is it an erotica book? You might want to make sure people get that idea.

When I write it out like this, it seems terribly straightforward, but really it's something to look out for. Think about it this way: one of the most important things that editors will be trying to decide about a book they're considering is which market they'll be trying to sell it to. If they can't decide, that makes it much less likely that they'll decide to purchase the book. If they start the book expecting one thing, and then discover another, that can't help.

What if your protagonist gets caught having sex with someone they're not supposed to, and that ends up a primary basis for character motivation - but your story is not primarily about sex or sexual issues? In that case, you probably shouldn't open with the single instance of in flagrante, because readers will expect the sex focus to continue, and will do one of two things: either put the book down (bad), or read on and be disappointed (also bad). Keeping the character's shame more of a mystery to be discovered by the reader will allow you as an author to keep the focus where it needs to be (on the opening of the main conflict) and keep people curious, but not mislead them as to the kind of story they will be reading.

Of course, I don't intend to say that a book will not be able to appeal to people across genres. That's not the point. I'm talking about the question of core audience, and about not misleading your readers. It was brought to my attention while I was revising For Love, For Power that the opening might - might! - feel a little like YA. The book is not YA, however. As I went through critique and revisions, I kept on the lookout for cues that might indicate the book is YA. Things like the age of the protagonist (17) are unavoidable. But were other things I could do to refine my focus at the start and set expectations most appropriately.

Who do you imagine will read your book? What do you think would appeal to them the most? What kind of opening would hook them - and hook them in a way that will successfully transition them into the full story you have in mind?

It's something to think about.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

A time for Action

So, something happened today in the land of SFWA. It involved hate speech. If you want to know exactly what it was, here is the article that brought it to my attention:

If you are not a member of SFWA, and you don't want to be exposed to some really nasty racist and misogynist vitriol, don't click through.

We've been talking in the SFWA community about how it's time to leave the biases of the past behind, and call out those who are still hateful. But in this case, I think Amal is right. It's time for action.

Why? Because this man hasn't just been hateful and threatening. With one little hashtag at the end of his post, he deliberately assumed the mantle of the SFWA organization and transmitted poison in our name. Not only that, but he is a person who clearly revels in public shaming as long as he's getting the attention he wants.

I spent two days this week writing a post about how careful we should be not to assume the mantle of authority when we ask people to listen to our arguments - so I could encourage people to think, and to realize how easy this is to do accidentally.  Today's example is an excellent demonstration of the old, classically racist, misogynistic and hateful form of that phenomenon, and one of the reasons why we should be working so hard to expunge even its accidental echoes from our own speech. Membership in a powerful group, be it a voluntary one like SFWA or an accidental one like a racial or sexual preference group, allows a person to claim to speak for that group.

If you are a member of SFWA, please read Amal's post. And this, from Carrie Cuinn. And this, from Jamie Todd Rubin. And follow it up with a visit to John Scalzi's Whatever, where he is matching donations to the Carl Brandon Society.

This man has abused the terms of his membership, not just the sensibilities of his fellows. He won't be deprived of a voice (he has his own blog, which I will not link to here); he just won't be able to claim to speak with our voice.

SFWA is about the future. Time to leave the past behind.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

When they ask you to listen - a post about parents, children, and privilege

Did your parents ever tell you to listen?
When they did that, did it mean "hear me," or "understand me," or "obey me"?

In my memories of childhood, I have been asked to listen a lot of times. Sometimes it has only meant "hear me." Sometimes it has meant "understand me." And yes, often it has meant "obey me." I hear myself using the same expression with my kids, and I am constantly asking myself if I should be doing things differently. But still, my job as parent is to establish the rules for appropriate behavior.* Why do I have to do this? Because I want to have a kind of peace in my house, and I want to prepare my kids to behave appropriately* in situations outside the home.

*Appropriate behavior is culturally defined.

Actually, that's not a footnote. Appropriate behavior is culturally defined. It differs from one family to another, and from one cultural group to another, and from one country to another.

But let's remember the listening, for a second. When a parent tells a child to listen, do they give reasons why listening is the right thing to do? What kind?

1. Listen to me because I'm your mom/dad and I say so.

2. Listen to me because I'm telling you what the world is like and there will be consequences outside the home if you don't.

3. Listen to me because we are family and you should be sensitive to my needs as I should be to yours.

I use all three of these, but I hate to use number one. Number one is a power move. Do you recognize it from your own experience? How did you feel about it when you heard it? I really don't know anybody who likes number one.

I'm not that big a fan of number two either. Whenever I use number two, I find myself apologizing for the world. Something like this: I hate to say this, kids, but the world isn't fair sometimes, and so you should be aware of that.

I prefer to take a more number-three-like approach to the world, and say things like "Kids, you should know what swear words are, but you should also know that people in the world can be very upset by the sound of them, even if they aren't the targets, and bad things could happen. So please don't get in the habit."

My point here is that in the third situation, persuasion relies on evoking solidarity with a person rather than with exercising power over that person. 

Now I'm going to look at this as a metaphor for privilege. You must know one thing first, however: I'm absolutely not trying to suggest that oppressed minorities are children. (If it comes to that, I believe that children themselves are human beings who should be listened to and respected.) I'm going to be putting persons of privilege into both the parent and child positions, because I believe we can learn something from the metaphorical comparison.

A parent is the representative of a larger culture. Parents are constantly saying, "this is what this means," "this is how we behave in X situation," "Now you have to do Y because it's the right thing to do." A parent also has the privilege to run the show. But which parent is infallible? Who does not make mistakes?

As a parent, I can tell you that I've made plenty of errors. And not a few of those have arisen from a failure to listen and understand my children's point of view. Much as we try, we can't fully know our children's minds. We can't guess at the richness of their contribution to our understanding of the world. Why else would there be so many coffee table books about children's wisdom? But still, it's so easy just to say "I know how the world works." It's so easy to talk over children, or to rewrite what they say into messages that conform to our preexisting understanding. Because we know better.

This is bias.

Think about it. Yes, we know a lot about the world, but we were children once - did our parents really know better every time? Just because we've now been in the world a few years more doesn't mean we've begun to grasp all of it. We don't know what goes on in our neighbors' houses, much less in another country, at any given time. When did we start to know everything? We never really did - we're just put in the position of having to represent our culture and teach our children what to do, and how to live. We have to have authority. But authority can come from power and from solidarity both. To me, teaching my children honestly means talking about all the things I don't know, and still have to learn. To talk about how sometimes I do things that upset people, without realizing it, and how I deal with it afterward. That uncertainty is something they will have to deal with, too.

It's hard to say "I don't know," sometimes. Maybe that's why some people find it so hard to realize that when it comes to privilege, there are a lot of things they don't know - that they just don't see, because of their privileged position. The world looks different from a different pair of eyes. That, and every person's circumstances are slightly different, so that no person's experience entirely matches the norm - those are important things to remember, too. 

It's not right to try to take the parental position with another adult. I'm sure most people out there would readily agree with that. Plenty of people resent their bosses for being too parental. Plenty of people still struggle with actual parent relationships as adults.

Here's where the trap lies, in my view. The privilege situation is too much like the parental situation, because a very similar power dynamic is already there. Just as a child grows up hearing different versions of the same adult narrative of the way things are, minorities are surrounded by the narratives of the privileged.

I have been on both sides of this - as most of us are, due to the fact that privilege cuts in many intersecting directions. Race. Gender. Gender identity. Wealth. In-groups and out-groups for every context simultaneously.

So, say I'm in an argument, a persuasive discussion, or even just a regular conversation. Of course, I want people to listen to my point of view, and consider my worldview on its own merits. But if I'm in the privileged position in a conversation, I have to realize some things. First of all, that I'd better be listening extra hard for things that don't fit my usual narratives, and my understanding of how the world works. Second, that I don't want to fall into the trap that parents often fall into with children, of subconsciously "correcting" what they hear to fit those narratives. And third, that when I say "listen," that message comes alongside all the power of my community. Too often it carries the parental power connotation, "obey," whether I want it to or not.

The last thing I want to do is say to anyone, "listen to me because I'm in power." And I don't want to say "listen to me because this is the way the world works," since my knowledge of the world is clearly limited to what I can see from my structural position. I want to go more for number three, "listen to me because we are fellow human beings and this is as much as I know, but I want to be sensitive to your needs as much as you are to mine."

But even that last option is fraught in privilege situations, because how can I measure my own sensitivity? I can't safely assume that I'm equalizing my footing with another adult across a privilege borderline, because I can't erase history, and there's a high likelihood that there is still more I'm not seeing, much less understanding.

So yes, I'll express my view. But as much as I can, I want to make sure that I'm listening, rather than telling others to listen. I want to be the child - and to encourage others to assume the child position more often - because children are learners. Why should we not aspire to take the child's position relative to a culture we don't know? Why should we not realize that other cultures are all around us, experiencing our same reality simultaneously, yet in totally different ways?

We struggle through our relationships with our parents, and with our children. We do our best, day after day, because we realize that the relationship isn't going away. This might be a good way to think about privilege as well. It isn't going away. We should expect struggle. And we should do our best to listen outside our comfortable narratives, because nobody knows everything.

Thanks for listening. I know this is an imperfect post, but it's a distillation of my feelings on a number of topics I've discussed recently. Thanks also to all of you from whom I am learning every day.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Link: Nora Jemisin's Guest of Honor speech to the Continuum convention

This is an amazing speech, insightful and inspiring, and you should read it if you haven't already.

Kudos to her for tackling the future of our genre in this way.

TTYU Retro: Portraying a multiple individual: Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (A Ridiculously Close Look)

Many people have recommended Vernor Vinge's Hugo award-winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep  to me over the last few years. I believe this is in part because my story, "Cold Words," and Vinge's novel both feature wolflike aliens. In fact, I was encouraged not to read Vinge's work while I was still writing my story, so I wouldn't get confused! But at last I got my hands on a copy - and it was so much fun that I had to take a Ridiculously Close Look.

Basically I'll be giving close attention to the text and look at how the author is doing...some of the things that he is doing. In this case, I'm going to be taking a look at Vinge's portrayal of the Tines, a wolflike people for whom the pack is the individual. To explain: only when there are four or more of these psychically linked organisms together do they attain sentient intelligence. What a cool idea! And an interesting challenge to imply from the inside without explaining it. So let's look at what Vinge has got going.

Things start out pretty normally as the characters are introduced (a very good move; it grounds readers and keeps them from being disoriented). So essentially we are introduced to three characters traveling together, one of whom - Peregrine Wickwrackrum - gets the point of view. Here's an example sentence from this section:

He liked traveling with others nowadays. (p.17)

It's solid, and easy to follow. The first hint of the unusual nature of these aliens comes further down the page as Peregrine describes one of his companions. I highlight the relevant phrases in blue:

Tyrathect was a newby, not all together yet; she had no taken name. Tyrathect claimed to be a schoolteacher, but somewhere in her (him? gender preference wasn't entirely clear yet) was a killer. (p.17)

Actually, none of these phrases are entirely inconsistent with the idea of a singular entity, but only if "all together" and "somewhere in her" are considered metaphorically. Since these phrases often are used metaphorically, yet are entirely consistent with the actual unusual reality of the pack entities, they are an excellent first step to lead the reader in that direction. The first unequivocal evidence of the Tines' multiplicity comes here:

Scriber Jacqueramaphan had been all over, mindlessly running around. He'd collect in twos and threes and execute some jape that made even the dour Tyrathect laugh... (p.18)

"Been all over" can still be interpreted metaphorically as applying to a single individual, but "collect in twos and threes" is necessarily multiple. The green-marked "mindlessly running around" is actually literal as well, and indicative of the special nature of these individuals, but unless you're already looking for multiplicity, it might go unnoticed at this point. From here on out we get more and more evidence of multiplicity, including the following:

Wickwrackrum called a pause, and got himself together to adjust the straps on his backpacks... (p.18)

He hunkered down, looking out in all directions. (p.19)

He spread out, all eyes on the slowly moving light. (p.19)

Peregrine pulled himself together and ran west... (p.19)

He walked to the forest edge and peeked out in several places. (p.20)

Most of him was hunkered down in holes and hollows, but he had a couple of members looking toward where the star had fallen. (p.20)

I was telling my kids about this, because I immediately thought it was very cool. Both of them will come up to me and voluntarily quote the phrase that appears most often, "looking out in all directions." So by this point in the story we're pretty clear that each "individual" is actually comprised of more than one creature, but there is actually no mention of how many members until a few paragraphs later.

He could see at least three troopers. They were big guys, six each. (p.21)

The thing I think is most delightful about this is the juxtaposition of the expected description of troopers as "big guys" with the specification that in order to be a big guy, you actually have to be numerous (and not necessarily large on an individual scale). If you think about it, most of what you're reading through these pages is entirely what you'd expect. The protagonist is experiencing things and judging them. The genius to my mind lies in using enough phrases that are consistent with the idea of the multiple members of an individual, and a key few that are unequivocally indicative, to make the whole thing work without being baffling.

You get a really interesting turn-around of this when these aliens first encounter humans, because of course they assume that the humans have this same multiplicity. The section below gives their assessment, which includes a lot of reverse-point-of-view judgment of physiology as well as multiplicity:

...and they got their first view of the visitor from heaven, or part of him anyway. There were four legs per member, but it walked on its rear legs only. What a clown! Yet... it used its front paws for holding things. Not once did he see it use a mouth; he doubted if the flat jaws could get a good hold, anyway. Those forepaws were wonderfully agile. A single member could easily use tools. There were plenty of conversation sounds, even though only three members were visible. (p.28)

The last thing I'd like to look at is the scene where Vinge takes his protagonist and subjects him to an extreme physical and mental test. Peregrine and Scriber decide to cross a field full of wounded members of an attack squad who just assaulted the human visitors. One might easily sense this could be dangerous, but more on a physical level than a mental one. In fact it turns out to be a superb demonstration of the mental qualities of the alien individuals, so I'll take a look at it here.

 A mob of frags and wounded is a terrifying, mind-numbing thing. Singletons, duos, trios, a few quads: they wandered aimlessly, keening without control. In most situations, this many people packed together on just a few acres would have been an instant choir. In fact, he did notice some sexual activity and some organized browsing, but for the most part there was still too much pain for normal reactions. Wickwrackrum wondered briefly if - for all their talk of rationalism - the Flenserists would just leave the wreckage of their troops to reassemble itself. They'd have some strange and crippled repacks if they did. (p.31)

The section above is Peregrine's rational assessment of the situation. "Frags" refers to fragments (the full word is used in an earlier line) of individuals, i.e. single organisms. I love Peregrine's assessment of it as "terrifying" and "mind-numbing." Mostly in this paragraph we stay somewhat distant from the terror and mind-numbing itself, however. You can see that in the mob there are a lot of partial people (in the "singletons, duos, trios") and that because of the post-combat situation, they have no unity (the reference to a "choir" isn't given much clarity here, but mostly seeds the possibility of later revelations). You also get the idea of people, some of whose members have died, trying to "reassemble," and the possibility that this could go wrong, resulting in "strange and crippled repacks." So far, so interesting! Now into the next section:

A few yards into the mob and Peregrine Wickwrackrum could feel consciousness slipping from him. If he concentrated really hard, he could remember who he was and that he must get to the other side of the meadow without attracting attention. (p.31)

This piece is followed by a string of psychic disconnected thoughts from the people around him. So not only are we being told that consciousness is collective and psychic, but now we're seeing it put to the test. The way it's described, though (in blue above), is actually not that far off of the way human experiences at the edge of consciousness are described. It's just that the physical conditions under which the mental test is experienced are entirely different.

...Where am I? ... May I be a part of you... please?
Peregrine whirled at that last question. It was pointed and near. A singleton was sniffing at him. He screeched the fragment off, and ran into an open space. Up ahead, Jacque-what's-his-name was scarcely better off. [...] Peregrine was only four and there were singletons everywhere. [...] Wic and Kwk and Rac and Rum tried to remember just why they was here and where they was going. Concentrate on direct sensation; what is really here: the sooty smell of the flamer's liquid fire... the midges swarming everywhere, clotting the puddles of blood all black. (p.32)

The question "may I be a part of you" makes explicit what has been implied up to this point, that the "singletons" wandering around the field could potentially join up with others in their area. Peregrine's reaction, "he screeched the fragment off" gives us a good picture of how unwelcome that kind of overture is under normal circumstances. Just to make clear that even though we've returned to the descriptive narrative doesn't mean that Peregrine is okay, Vinge gives us "Jacque-what's-his-name" to indicate Peregrine's disorientation. Then we get the part where things get grammatically interesting (mwa-ha-ha). Vinge gives us an important piece of information with "Peregrine was only four," because that is the minimum number for consciousness (this will become clearer below). He then breaks them up, showing us that the names used by these creatures are actually concatenations of the names of their component individuals. I'm going to look at this sentence a little more closely:

Wic and Kwk and Rac and Rum tried to remember just why they was here and where they was going. (p.32)

This sentence gives you a combination of plural indicators and singular indicators. Following a list of four names at the front, you expect the use of "they" to indicate that they are a group. However, Vinge chooses to use the singular verb form "was," so twice you get the combination "they was" which would give traditional grammarians conniptions. Here, though, it's indicating that Peregrine still has a bit of his unity left, and its ungrammatical quality is perfect to give us a gut feel of Peregrine's continued confusion. The narrative continues:

Wic-Kwk-Rac-Rum looked ahead. He was almost out of it: the south edge of the wreckage. He dragged himself to a patch of clean ground. Parts of him vomited, and he collapsed. Sanity slowly returned.Wickwrackrum looked up, saw Jacqueramaphan just inside the mob. Scriber was a big fellow, a sixsome, but he was having at least as bad a time as Peregrine. He staggered from side to side, eyes wide, snapping at himself and others. (p.32)

Here, Vinge is putting our protagonist back together. His members are back to one name, but with hyphens to indicate some continued sense of separateness. Once he reaches the patch of clean ground, he's back to thinking of his members as "parts of him." He's in shape at that point to assess Scriber's condition, and gives us a great image of Scriber's struggles in "snapping at himself and others." I love that because it's very visual, very literal, and at the same time has an echo of very human feeling because one could easily imagine oneself doing the same thing - metaphorically - when under stress!

The last piece I'll look at is when Peregrine Wickrackrum loses one of his members. He's trying to take a uniform from a dead singleton when the remaining parts of the singleton's pack attack and mortally wound Rum. The extended sequences is too long to type in completely, so I'll give you some highlights.

Wickrackrum huddled around the pain in his Rum. (p.33)

This is a great phrasing because of the way it treats Rum like a body part.

Peregrine stifled the screams he felt climbing within him. I'm only four, and one of me is dying! For years he'd been warning himself that four was just too small a number for a pilgrim. Now he'd pay the price, trapped and mindless in a land of tyrants.

Now we can feel the terror that Peregrine feels, and Vinge lays out the problem: Peregrine has so few members that if one dies, his mind will be gone. He and Scriber are in a very dangerous place, and without a conscious mind he won't be able to get out of it.

Rum sighed, and could not see the sky any more. Wickrackrum's mind went, not as it does in the heat of battle when the sound of thought is lost, not as it does in the companionable murmur of sleep. There was suddenly no fourth presence, just the three, trying to make a person. The trio stood and patted nervously at itself. There was danger everywhere, but beyond its understanding. (p.34)

At the point when Rum dies, then, Vinge gives us a great insight. He tells us that Peregrine's "mind went" - making explicit what we were expecting. But then he also gives us two other ways that these people perceive the mind can go - the battle example, and the sleep example. I love that because it puts Peregrine's dissolution in a cultural context of understanding that doesn't come from our natural human metaphors, but explicitly gives us examples of how the Tines conceive of having the mind go. The three remaining members are "trying to make a person." Vinge describes the activities of these members externally, but in addition, he changes the pronoun used from "he" to "it," which is a very effective way of removing the sense of personhood. It's worth remarking, though, that he doesn't change the pronoun here from "he" to "they" as he did earlier when the group was feeling itself pull apart. This is a very effective grammatical way of expressing what the trio has lost. Its personhood is gone, but its integrity remains. At this point the singleton who approached him earlier returns - and this time is not driven off, but the trio tries to integrate him, at first unsuccessfully. Vinge takes us out of this whole sequence of dissolution with a return to his deft metaphorical-yet-literal style with the line:

Peregrine looked around the meadow with new eyes.

You can see why this book left such an impression. It's brilliant stuff.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Families: A Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report

I actually held two discussions about Families in Worldbuilding, but this was during Google+'s technical hiccup and only one of them got recorded to Youtube. Oh, well!
I spoke with Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, and Misha Gericke, and before we met I made a list of some types of families I could think of. It's a long list.

Four-person nuclear family
Single-mother family
Single-father family
Family with special needs children
Child living with grandparents
Dysfunctional family
Family with two mothers
Family with two fathers
Family with two mothers and two fathers
Family with adopted children
Family with divorced parents
Family with divorced parents and step-parents

Suffice it to say that there are lots of different kinds of families, and some of these types can even combine with other types. Families are complex, and they can also change. I suddenly became an aunt six times over when I married into my husband's family, but it took us several years before he became an uncle in mine. It's a good idea to think through how many options there are so you don't fall into using default settings. And in fiction, very often those default settings involve families that have been changed by death. I've even seen the theme of creating your own family from friends you care about (more than once). If you actually work with a family that is alive (like, for example, Sunday Woodcutter's family in Enchanted by Alethea Kontis), you get a much more complex and interesting situation. There are also some inherent problems in using dead people as motivators. Too often you get "women in refrigerators" who serve solely as motivators for men and their pain ("manpain").  Misha said that very often when she sees revenge movies involving the death of a family member before the action of the story starts, she doesn't really care about the main character or why he is doing what he's doing. I mentioned the movie The Funeral (Juzo Itami), a comedy, in which the disagreeable father of adult children dies in the first scene, and the entire action of the film features the children and other relatives having to deal with each other and feign love for the dead man during his funeral. That was a fascinating family story, especially since the adult children were actors by trade,  it gave us a chance to despise the man before his death, and then watch its consequences for the family members.

Misha mentioned, rightly, that it is sometimes difficult to align family with the plot that you intend, so this may be the reason why people often strip families away. However, it can be good to have a supportive family against an external enemy - and while it's natural for families to come together against enemies, they are also a great source of tension and conflict, even when they are not totally dysfunctional!

Glenda and I specifically discussed the question of dead parents, and while she and I both agree that the loss of parents can serve effectively as an inciting event, this needs to be handled carefully. We shouldn't diminish the impact of grief on the child who has lost parents, and sometimes it seems that children are being treated as people with no attachments, rather than as people who have experienced a great loss. I asked what the implications of the loss of a parent were. The answer to that question depends on the setting. Does the society allow for orphans to go off and seek their fortunes? At what age? Is it reasonable for a 14 year old to be making it on his/her own?

In my Varin world, there are a lot of rules, and not a lot of places for kids to land if they leave their homes. One of my characters loses her father and gets kicked out of her family because her mother can't make enough money on her own to support her. This means that it's next to impossible for my character to earn any money, and she actually steals the identity of a dead friend and sneaks into their family so she can get back into a part of the social system that will support her and allow her to go on to an adult job.

Glenda spoke about her own work where there's a clan system with strict rules. A teenage girl who is a member of a clan split off from a larger community, suffers a disaster along with them and becomes the only survivor of their clan. She's then taken in by the larger community but is treated like a poor relation. Saladin Ahmed creates a situation much like this in Throne of the Crescent Moon, because Zamia comes from a clan that has split off from a larger community and then subsequently gets massacred.

This brought up the question of "Once you're an outcast, how do you get back in?" It's a good one to pursue in stories, and often the answer we see in movies is "Create your own family from those whom you trust." It would be interesting to see other possible answers.

Our next question was, "Do families have to be dsyfunctional?" It's a trickier question than you might think because of the bias toward conflict in fiction. Is it true, though, that wholesome families are boring? I don't actually think so. Every family relationship creates a situation where someone is unable to leave the relationship behind without enormous difficulty, and simultaneously creates a need for negotiation. Every family member can have individual quirks and there's plenty of tension available there without having to have the whole place full of psychopaths or falling apart at the seams.

Aliette de Bodard uses families in an interesting way in her work - I'm thinking specifically of her Nebula-nominated story "On a Red Station, Drifting." She bases the societies on China and Vietnam and actually has memory implants that preserve the voices of a person's ancestors - their family - so that they continue to guide that person. Quite a fascinating twist.

In fact, there are tons of family parameters that can differ. Do the adults interact with the children? In some cultures, children learn to speak from their many older siblings. In others, the eldest children provide child care for the parents. In still others, it's rare to find more than two children per family. Child discipline is handled in a lot of different ways even within a single culture. Many of these conditions are heavily influenced by surrounding societal factors, so make sure to think through those when you are creating your families, to understand whether they are usual or unusual, and in what way, relative to the society you're working with.

Fiction tends to create a drive for simplicity. It makes sense, but it doesn't take that much work - or even that many words, to add an additional layer of contrast and interest.

Families have their own ways of working through issues like disasters, threats, social pressures, even something as small as talking about a new book (Glenda told us about the difference between her reception, and her cousins' family's, to Harry Potter). But cohesion takes work. Families are constantly enacting their relationships, and enforcing them. How often have you heard a parent say, "We don't do that. We do this." Think through what kind of enforcement of family roles, and of personal behavior, will occur in your family context. People are constantly recreating and enacting the social contract, even in work situations. There's a lot of careful social grease that goes into making families work.

This makes for wonderful story opportunities.

Monday, June 3, 2013

This Feminist's thoughts on SFWA and cultural change

Outrage and change are happening in the SFWA. You are probably already aware of this by now.

My attention was first brought to the problem of three sexist articles in the SFWA Bulletin by an article from Jason Sanford called Feeling heat for your ideas is not censorship or thought control.  An indirect way to be introduced to the problem, but I immediately investigated further, and the next article I came upon was E. Catherine Tobler's declaration that she would leave SFWA. Thereafter, I found Kameron Hurley's very incisive article entitled Dear SFWA Writers: Let's Chat about Censorship & Bullying. Jim C. Hines has an ongoing (if incomplete) list of people's responses to the incident in question.

I have many thoughts on this.

The authors who wrote those sexist articles did wrong. First of all, they were performing a culture that is sorely out of date, and I'm sure they realize that because they are defending their right to do so. Fine (though the context was inappropriate, and I'll address that below), but they deserve the heat they are getting in response to those ideas. This is what free speech is about - we are free to say what we believe. Nobody is threatening them or their careers on the basis of who they are, though the sexist views they espouse have done that to others for so many years. It is ridiculous to characterize people protesting sexism as engaging in censorship or bullying. A bully is a person in a position of power, and that is the position that the sexists have been occupying, not the people who object to them. Kameron Hurley's article summed that up in excellent fashion, as did Jason Sanford's.

Someone should have realized that the views expressed in that article were expressed inappropriately, and did not belong in the Bulletin. The Bulletin is not a private blog. Though the members of SFWA are aware that it does not serve as the "voice of SFWA" per se, it is nevertheless representative of our organization on some level. SFWA is a professional organization and should be represented in a professional manner. This is one reason why I'm pleased that SFWA has set up a task force to address this issue.

Political correctness is not what the objectors are asking for. We don't want anyone to feel that we are asking them to hide their beliefs. We are asking them to engage, and to question their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. Sexism is wrong, and damages societies and organizations. It does not belong in the modern world (despite its persistence) and certainly does not belong in the professional voice of SFWA.

Leaving SFWA is not what will change its culture; joining it and speaking up will. Of course, whether you leave SFWA or not is up to you, and if you feel that you just need to get out of the discussion because you are exhausted by it, or simply because the discussion distracts from your writing, that's your choice. But I worked hard to be able to join, and I won't be leaving. And neither will a whole lot of really great people who have made an enormous difference to the culture of SFWA in recent years - because believe it or not, the hard work has already been going on for some time. 

To criticize SFWA as a sexist organization right now means erasing the hard work of too many people. Think about it. We think sexism is inappropriate, and its expression is a symptom of the misuse of power by a few who hold those views. We speak up and object when two authors out of the many SFWA members try to present their views as representative of the organization. If indeed we do not believe they should represent SFWA, then we should treat SFWA as the organization it is, and not deride all of its members for the behavior of two. Doing so is equivalent to letting those two authors represent the organization. They do not. In fact, Jim C. Hines had an important, feminist article in that very same issue of the Bulletin. And Mary Robinette Kowal, Rachel Swirsky, John Scalzi, and many other members have done enormous amounts of work and brought some really welcome changes to the organization. I think it's a mistake to ignore that, so I encourage you to read Mary's thoughts on the issue here.

I've always enjoyed Gandhi's summation of the fight for social justice:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

I'm still in.