Thursday, December 18, 2014

Aliette de Bodard: a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a fantastic discussion with Aliette de Bodard, who kindly joined us all the way from Paris!

She has a new book coming out from Gollanz in 2015 entitled House of Shattered Wings. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic Paris that was "nuked" during the Magician's War, roughly equivalent to World War I. The story was apparently a merging of two concepts, one of a society where magician families controlled banking etc. and one involving a drug made of ground angel bones. Aliette described this world as being more free-form than the world she explored in her Obsidian and Blood series.

The Obsidian and Blood series was very research-intensive and involved much history so as not to make mistakes. Delving into the details of a culture that has been exterminated is very difficult. She said that if she had it to do again, she would like to reach out to the contemporary indigenous population. Much of the research information was written by the Spaniards. The Aztecs considered pain and blood sacred, and their concept of war was fighting just until the temple fell, not actually bringing about total destruction.

She said she went about picking the point of view to be an insider because she is something of a contrarian, and she didn't want to play into the common narrative that presupposes Aztec society as doomed. Thus she needed to change the entire mindset - a difficult and to some extent impossible task. She used as many primary sources as possible and also some insider-vs.-outsider analysis. One of the challenges of using insider sources is that they don't explain things that they consider to be normal. For example, a Chinese story of a certain period will describe a woman as being carried in a palanquin because she can't walk, but won't mention that her feet have been bound. The risk involved thus becomes that we tend to apply our own biases when we try to fill in those blanks left by insider descriptions.

We then moved on to talk about her Xuya universe, an alternate history universe using a different blend of Chinese and Aztec cultures. In this universe, China has discovered the Americas first, and the Aztec civilization does not fall. She has the history sketched out on a basic level from this divergence point all the way to the space age. The west of the current US is Xuya, the south belongs to the Mexica (Aztecs) and the east is a smaller version of the US. She picks up many of her stories after these groups establish colonies in space.

There are tons of incredibly interesting ideas here. One is "ship minds," artificial intelligences that are a mix of organic and non-organic components. Part of their development is that they are carried in a human parent's womb. People in this universe have different attitudes to the technology. The Xuya tend to integrate ship minds into their families, and design them to have long lives. The Mexica use them as enlisted soldiers and do not extend their lives, while the people of European descent are catching up, still somewhat disgusted by the idea of incubating a ship mind in a human mother. Reggie asked how this intersected with women's rights. Aliette explained that the Xuya think it is an honor to have a mind as a child. The minds with their long lives and long memories are of great value to society and to a family. The Mexica see it as s duty, and the surrogate mothers are paid. The Mexica society has a degree of gender role segregation, but changing your gender is easy, which changes the game quite a bit.

Family is an important theme in the stories of Xuya, which are based on Imperial China and Vietnam. Aliette explained she likes to include families, and if possible, extended families (which is not done much in SF/F). She explores how technologies change the relation between family members. Ships participate in family life through avatars. The idea of ancestor worship, where ancestors help from beyond the grave, takes a technological twist in which people can get implants of simulations of their ancestors - not to pray to, but to receive advice from. In this universe, the Imperial examinations still exist, and put a huge memorization burden on people. It becomes much easier to pass if you have ancestor implants of people who have taken the exams before. The Imperial family has an entire wing of their palace dedicated to ancestor simulations. The more distant the ancestor, the more likely there is to be corrupted data. These are not alive; it's the advice but not the person. In contrast, the AIs are people, relatable and personable. Ancestor implants can conceivably be removed; AIs can potentially be hacked, but you don't want to anger a ship! A ship can run away from home, and it's more complicated than bringing a child home.

The ships have human crews who provide company for the ship's mind and who operate the life support systems and weaponry. Ships are used for transport through "deep spaces" which operate like hyperspace, to allow travel faster than light. In the deep spaces, time and space "get weird." Ships are necessary to use the space. There are also places where ships can go but humans can't. Ships can have ulterior motives or lie. They must be raised like children to have a strong moral framework. A ship could conceivably jettison its entire crew, but it would then face consequences.

Aliette tends toward selecting female protagonists. Sometimes people do ask her "where are all the men?" Her Vietnamese alchemist character from House of Shattered Wings was female in early drafts but became male. She does try to put women in positions they ordinarily would not occupy. The head of the most powerful House in Paris is a woman. If a character dies, she doesn't want it to be "fridging." There are enough books showing men in a dominant position.

Her favorite part of research is buying the books. She researches general background, and then follows up with specifics necessary to the story. She prefers to research in English because it's easier to transfer the information to an English language story. She also does research in wikipedia Vietnam, books in English, and books in Spanish. To name an Empress, she retro-engineered the Vietnamese dynasty and used Google translate between Chinese and Vietnamese. She says she researches slowly but writes fast. "Big changes are cost-efficent at the outline stage." Generally she will do about a month of research for a draft that takes her only a few days.

Aliette, thank you so much for joining us and giving us these great insights into your process! My report on our chat with Maurice Broaddus will be out soon, and today's hangout will be at 5pm Pacific, featuring Joyce Chng, who writes as J. Damask. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Diversity: A Dive into Worldbuilding! Hangout summary with VIDEO

I really enjoyed this discussion. We opened with an acknowledgment that due to circumstances beyond our control (the announcement of no indictment in Ferguson) many people who would have been able to provide great insight were unable to make it to the hangout session. However, we did our best to represent diversity fairly and thoroughly, with that awareness.

Uniformity is a problem no matter where you find it. Planet, flora, fauna, people, culture, at every level. Glenda remarked that diversity issues in a secondary world may not be the same as those in our world - and that's one of the great things that a writer can do with a secondary world. You just need to be very specific about what you intend to do with the parameters you create, set up the culture to be supported by the environment, and "hang lights" on it. Also, if you are working with humans, you need to address the problem of skin color and ethnicity in some meaningful way.

I spoke about how I struggled to address the question of skin color because I had already posited a population that was highly genetically mixed and which lived underground. In the end, though, I was able to find a way to deal with skin color, which would still express itself in the phenotypes of individuals and would have to mean something specific. In the Varin instance, skin coloration intersects with caste identity in that the castes who work on the surface are the most likely to have a thoroughly recognizable skin coloration.

Of course, skin color is not the only physical indicator of different ethnicity - there are also things like eye or nose shape, hair texture, etc. that can be mentioned.

Religion is another important parameter on which one might expect to find diversity. With religion, the link to physical features is less direct. It is also important to ask how people deliberately mark themselves as members of a social group (Houses, clans, or clubs, cliques, etc).

I highly recommend Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's book, Writing the Other, for valuable insights.

Do your research as you build worlds! Where does diversity come from? How does it develop? Who are the traders? Who are the mercenaries? Why do people travel?

io9 recently had an article about bad worldbuilding, and one of the things they suggested getting rid of was planets with only one biome, i.e. the "Single-Use World" - all ocean, all desert, etc. The article is here. Different regions have different climates, and different climates provide for different resources, which makes for different cultures.

Furthermore, make sure also to think about your world's history. History casts a long shadow. If there are empires in your world, that means there will be imperialists, and there will be a history of conquest that leaves footprints in how people view each other.

Think about gender, gender roles, and gender identities also when you are considering diversity. Think about how these fit into your world. Whether you are trying to invent an entirely new gender system or not, the categories you create will not be clean and uniform.

Think also about age diversity. Are there children? Where do they fit and what are their lives like? How are they regarded? Are there elders? Where do they fit and what are their lives like?

Think about socioeconomic status. In all likelihood, there will be differences between rich and poor. Even in a society that strives for economic equality, people will strive to differentiate themselves. How?

Diversity has something of a fractal structure. You can find it at all different levels. Take a single society, for example; it will contain social groups. There will also be social divisions within those social groups. Even single individuals can be multicultural. As Glenda mentioned, there are also situations where people are nominally equal, part of the same group, but in practice they are not really part of that group. Intersectionality - the coexistence of multiple parameters on which variation occurs - can be at the root of some of that diversity.

Deborah Ross told us about some of the diversity in her trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield, where she has societies based on 1. a Scythian or Mongol horse-based model, 2. a highly literate Semitic model, and 3. a Roman model. Within this larger framework, she also includes smaller groups of various types.

People don't necessarily agree on anything. Given any set of established roles, there will always be people who step out. How do they do it? Skin color, given that it is linked to geographic origin, it is very likely to have some important influence on culture. But perhaps it is not the most critical distinction in your society - what is that most important distinction? How does it interact with skin color and other cultural variation?

Is there a "default"? Falling back on pseudo-western-European models is clich├ęd and problematic. Relying on stereotypes of noble peasants or savages, etc. is insulting (not to mention boring).

Things get a lot more interesting when people with different sets of assumptions must learn to work together.

Disability is another parameter you should consider when looking at diversity. Not everyone in your society will have perfect health. How does society deal with that? What kinds of accommodations are made?

We touched briefly also on general biodiversity. It's important to think through whole ecosystems with their plants and animals and not just use a few tokens. As you create your world, look for places where a single situation can allow you to go into great detail, thus implying the presence of great detail in other areas of your world. Implication can take you a long way (which is one reason why you should also be careful with it! You can imply things without meaning to...)

Oversimplification can hamper the sense of reality in a story and thus the sense of enjoyment. The phenomenon of "alien of the week" is something like this, where travelers through space will meet up with some group of aliens and end up connected with a couple of "typical" ones. What is a "typical" alien? Can we define a "typical" human? Aliens would be similarly diverse, and so would space travelers. Our own International Space Station puts people of many different backgrounds together.

Here are some books that handle diversity well: N. K. Jemisin's Dreamblood series (I love the diversity of Gujareeh), Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death (taking on ethnic conflict and genocide), and Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon (another great diverse city environment). There are of course many others - Deborah Ross' The Seven-Petaled Shield comes to mind - so feel free to recommend more in the comments!

Look to the real world for your research and inspiration, because when it comes to diversity, there is no substitute for the richness you will find there.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Welcome to Guest Author December! This week: Aliette de Bodard

December is here! How did that happen?

I'm excited for this month, when Dive into Worldbuilding will be featuring three fantastic guest authors. This week, Wednesday, December 3 at 10am Pacific on Google+, we'll be talking with the amazing Aliette de Bodard about her Xuya universe, her worldbuilding in general, and her new novel.

Join us also on Saturday December 13 at 5pm Pacific on Google+ to talk to author Maurice Broaddus about his work, and...

Join us on Thursday, December 18 at 5pm Pacific on Google+ to talk with author Joyce Chng about her unique take on worldbuilding.

This is going to be a month full of really cool ideas on Dive into Worldbuilding, so I hope you can join us! If you have never attended before and would like an invitation, comment below or contact me on Twitter (@JulietteWade or @WorldbuildDive) or on Facebook. I'll be starting each of these hangouts 10 minutes early to try to give attendees an opportunity to get their tech connections in order, so if you've never attended before, or if you know you sometimes have trouble getting in, feel free to look for us a few minutes early.

Here we go!