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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

N. K. Jemisin: a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary with VIDEO

It was an honor to have N. K. Jemisin on the show, and we had a great time! Thanks, Nora!

I started off by remarking that I'd heard Nora reading the short story "Stone Hunger" (at Clarkesworld, here) at WisCon, and I wanted to know more about this world, since I'd heard it was the world featured in her new Broken Earth Trilogy, which begins with The Fifth Season. She explained that this short story was a "proof of concept story" with which she began to explore the possibilities of the world she was designing, but that the novels themselves are significantly different.

The world of the Broken Earth trilogy is a secondary world (not Earth), inhabited by humanlike people, and it is very seismically active. Certain people in this world are born with the ability to influence seismology, either by using the energy of ongoing seismic events, or by drawing energy from the living things (including people) around them in order to induce seismic events. They are called orogenes, and because of their ability to harm people with their powers, they are not well liked.

Every few hundred years, there is an extinction-level seismic event, such as a volcanic winter. Cultures on this planet have adapted to it, calling it the fifth season. Thus this is a world prepared (as prepared as it can be) for periodic apocalypses.

The plot of The Fifth Season revolves around a mother whose husband finds out their kids are orogenes, kills one of them and kidnaps the other. She goes after him to bring her surviving child back.

I asked her what the inspirations for this world were. She said that she was fascinated by seismology, and mentioned experiencing a rare earthquake in New York, where most people found it exciting. She also said she'd had a dream about a woman doing the "badass power walk" toward her with a mountain floating behind her.

It was important to Nora that this world be accountable to science and plausibility. She specifically wanted to avoid the word "magic" and its implications that the mundane and the magical are somehow separate. Here they are part of the same worldview, and orogeny (a word from seismology) is a kind of science, while Astronomy is considered a pseudo-science.

She continues in her work to move away from the traditional expectations of epic fantasy (Medieval Europe, etc.). The question becomes how far one can cross the line. She told us about asking on Facebook about whether people would find the word "polymer" problematic in a fantasy setting. This kind of thing can happen when people associate specific technological assumptions with a word like "polymer," which can then potentially throw readers out of the story world when it is used.  In this world, metal is unreliable but there are lots of natural polymers.

I asked Nora about her research process. She said she'd done a lot of research on seismology, and taken a research trip to Hawaii where she went to a different volcano each day, and took a helicopter tour of Pu'u'o, the active part of Kilauea.

Nora asks, "What can fit within the boundaries of fantasy?" She reads authors like China Miéville and Martha Wells, and says she doesn't generally like epic fantasy because it's too "lockstep." She wants to see things that don't look like our world, rather than resembling different "iterations" of it. The Dreamblood world wasn't Earth, which was communicated in many ways, but not least by having a gas giant in the sky. Fantasy can do so many things.

The magic of orogenes defies logic, in this world, in that it's mostly genetic but not entirely. People have tried to breed them but it's not controllable. People in the past understood it better, and made mistakes. Jemisin has worked hard creating a sequence of plausible scientific development in a setting where magic works. This makes sense to me because alchemy was regarded as a science, though it's now most often referred to as a kind of magic. It led to chemistry, in fact - real science growing out of pseudoscience. Much fantasy takes the familiar and adds magic on top of it; I'm personally looking forward to a vision of magic fitting into the development of a world.

I asked about the cosmology of the Fifth Season world. Understandably given the circumstances, the people hate God and believe that God hates them. Father Earth created them, liked them for a while, then tried to wipe them out. Myths and legends involve how to deal with the fact that the god hates you. There are no churches. What is revered is Stone Lore. Past societies have written down wisdom that helps their descendents survive apocalypses by chiseling them onto tablets. Most proverbs are things like "store legumes because protein." Some are mystical hints.

The first book of the trilogy (The Fifth Season) is done, and the second is in progress. The different books are more closely tied together than those of the Inheritance trilogy, which was following the story of the 3 deities across long periods of time and thus used different POVs, or the Dreamblood, which was following the story of Gujareeh, the discovery of corruption in a city that was supposed not to be corrupt, and how that corruption was dealth with. By contrast, The Fifth Season focuses on the main character and follows her while she pursues her husband and child. All the while, the environment is changing, adapting to new conditions.

The change in the environment is very thorough. Nora mentioned that only the rich keep dogs. Poor people have kirkusa, like giant otters. They are cuddly, but the season change makes them carnivores and they have a tendency to eat their owners! [This made me think of a recent story where the owner of dogs had died and been eaten by them, so...] The woman's journey through the world allows her to discover many of the changes as they happen, as the world becomes more unsafe.

Cultural practices in this world based on the season - it's called seasonal law. There was a continent-spanning empire that developed rules for getting through the fifth season. Each comm, or community, has a head person to run things when the season changes. The communities have walls, and they close the gates. Everyone in a comm has a function, and this is reflected in their names. A person will have a given name, a use name, and a community name. These names will depend on the caste they are assigned to. Resistance is for people who are survivors of past plagues. Strongbacks are the laborers, and there are always too many of them. People who don't have a "use" don't fit into this system, don't get a use name, and get kicked out when the season changes. If you are judged useful, you get a comm name.

Nora took the time to emphasize that despite all our discussion of the details of the world, the center of this book is on the character and her story. Keeping worldbuilding in the service of story is an important aspect of excellent writing! The novel features the worldbuilding obliquely. Orogenes are hunted, and only acceptable if leashed, oppressed in terrifying ways. The main character wanted to settle down and have a family, but her husband's violence leads to the end of her world, which parallels the end of the world in the fifth season.

I, for one, can't wait to read it!

Thank you so much for joining us, Nora! You are welcome at the hangouts any time. We really appreciate you coming to discuss your work and your fascinating new world with us.


Friday, January 9, 2015

Joyce Chng/J. Damask: a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary with VIDEO

We were joined on December 18 by Joyce Chng, who was with us all the way from Singapore! Thanks for being with us, Joyce. She writes both as Joyce Chng and as J. Damask.

I started by asking about her werewolf books, the first of which is entitled Wolf at the Door. These books are fascinating because they feature werewolves in Singapore - a truly unusual milieu! She explained that she did a lot of research on werewolves, and also worked hard to integrate them into the Singaporean culture and history. In her world, the werewolves are of Chinese extraction, and settled in Singapore in the 19th century. This scenario enables her to ask questions about being Other in the Singaporean cultural context.

Her main character, Jan Xu, is a married mother of two girls and one boy, the eldest daughter of a  powerful werewolf clan. It deals with her relationship with her sister Marianne, who is unable to transform, exploring the love and hate in sisterly relationships. In the second book, Jan Xu becomes alpha of the clan. The books also feature vampires, were-tigers, and elves.

Singapore prides itself as an island country of migrants, built on the blood of all who came to settle there. This means it features a lot of regional mythologies: Malaysian were-tigers, Malay elves, phoenixes and kitsune, etc. There is an incredible diversity of cultures, stories and legends. The region is very complex. People live in the larger society while maintaining their culture and traditions.

Joyce's grandparents came from Shanghai and Canton, migrating from China to Singapore in the 19th century. She is 3rd generation Chinese. This puts her in an excellent position to explore complexities. The world is modern - including things like cell phones, which no one ever wants to part with! Joyce says that when she is teaching, she has to ask her students not to use technology.

She mentions that people often say Singapore looks like a science fiction city.

Her work often deals with the pull between nature and technology. Joyce believes one should be close to nature. Parks are special places to her. There are very few wild places left in Singapore, as most have been cut down. Animals don't have much of a chance to be wild. In her novel, the werewolves and other creatures struggle between nature and technology. The werewolves travel to hunt deer in Malaysia. Joyce feels the yearning for the ancestral forest is strong in all of us, as it is in her characters.

Family plays an important role in her work. Chinese culture values very close-knit families, and her werewolves also have close family connections. They gather for meals and to hunt, and for many holidays and occasions. "Family forms our identity. Surnames tell us where we are from."

While the novels focus mostly the werewolf clan, her short stories explore other groups like the phoenix families etc.

Wolf at the Door deals specifically with an outsider coming into the clan, and the resulting cultural clash. Initially the family is quite suspicious. She looks closely at what happens when someone brings in a new boyfriend/girlfriend, but in this case it's a foreign werewolf. Everyone has strong feelings about it. Wolves would normally chase off non-members - should we chase this person or not?

Joyce writes all her work in English, because she's found that writing in Chinese doesn't work for her. However, she hopes one day perhaps to translate her work into Chinese.

She told us a bit about the education system in Singapore, which is British from colonial times. The system gets people thinking in English, and it becomes a mental shift to work in Chinese since more value is placed on English. Young people apparently find Mandarin difficult or uninteresting. On the other hand, many have dialects from their own regions, such as Cantonese etc. There are many different dialects of Chinese, but these are banned and not taught in schools. She explained how she has difficulty understanding her grandmother who speaks Hokkien. There is a great deal of linguistic complexity even within families, and the importance of dialect is only just now being recognized. She likes to bring in dialect in some of her other science fiction.

She has a story of a Eurasian half-drake, half-luong were-dragon. These stories take place in the same universe as Wolf at the Door; Dark Claw is available on Kindle.

She teaches humanities - history, geography, literature, social studies, and sociology, all of which enter into her worldbuilding. She studied Medieval history and has studied in Australia. She likes history books, and has written a story set in the late 19th century about how local groups in Singapore dealt with the werewolves coming in - paralleling the influx of Chinese immigrants to Singapore.

She has another universe she's also working in now, which features a desert planet inspired in part by Dune. The Rider trilogy has three books: Rider, Speaker, and Chaser. The planet was terraformed to be more friendly to human habitation, but the terraforming was not entirley successful. "The desert is trying to take back what belongs to her." People are trying to exist and live there anyway, trying to keep the sand out of their houses. The planet has some sentience. The desert is a metaphor for struggle between humans and nature.

People on this planet ride huge pterosaurs. Being a rider is prestigious. The pterosaurs are sentient, intelligent beings, and come in two branches: watchers, who work with humans, and hunters, who are wild and want no contact with humans. The main character, Li Fang, rides a hunter named Mung ("dream") who is an outcast form his own people. Relationships are very important, and the relationship between Li Fang and Mung grows out of bullying and conflict that actually leads to Mung injuring Li Fang and paralyzing her.

Thanks again to Joyce for joining us and telling us about her visions! I hope you enjoy the video. Also, please join us on Monday, January 12 on Google+ when we will be talking to N. K. Jemisin!


Maurice Broaddus: A Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary with VIDEO

On December 13, we had a visit from author Maurice Broaddus, who shared his thoughts on worldbuilding with us. Maurice is an accomplished author with some really terrific ideas. We focused primarily on two universes he had created: the Knights of Breton Court series, which retells King Arthur tales in our own world (specifically Indianapolis, IN), and a steampunk universe he has explored in several stories including "Pimp my Airship" (Apex Magazine) and "Steppin' Razor" (Asimov's).

Maurice explained that the Knights of Breton Court series came to him in part because he'd been working with a homeless teenager ministry, which sent him to a whole side of the city he'd never seen - under bridges, in undeveloped land and abandoned buildings. It was a new world for him. He was teaching writing seminars with teens and giving them a chance to re-imagine themselves as Princes and Princesses of the streets, and the idea started to come together. He said what was most terrifying about the stories was not the monsters, but the real life terrors.

He ended doing more research than planned. He wandered into areas of town taking notes on a clipboard, trying to understand the milieu and understand drug culture. He also watched YouTube videos of gang member initiations in Indianapolis. There is a surprising amount of stuff out there for research because people like to videotape themselves.

He also did extensive research on Arthuriana, including watching Excalibur and spending a year devouring everything King Arthur he could get his hands on. He also spoke to expert friends. He wanted to spend with some of the less well-known knights, not just the main ones. He included poety and comic books in his research (e.g. Camelot 3000).

Broaddus uses a very interesting prose style in the books, and I asked him whether it was deliberate. He said it was, and that he'd struggled with it, trying to be authentic to the characters but not making it impenetrable to readers. One of the dangers of slang is that it quickly becomes obsolete or outdated.

He had a great time with naming the characters.

He also mentioned that the writers' group that helped him with the books generally divided into two groups: white people with experience in Arthurian legend, and black people who weren't really into fantasy. Thus, they had very different experiences with the reading and were able to give him different perspectives on his work.

I asked about Merle, the scraggly white guy who is this universe's Merlin. Maurice said he wanted to reverse the magical negro stereotype, so he decided to make Merlin a "magical redneck."

Che asked how he worked the monsters into modern Indianapolis. In this world, magic is accepted. Maurice said it was something of a metaphor for homelessness, because if you know it's there, you see it; otherwise, you don't. This is a community with insider secrets, like the fact that there is a dragon under the apartment building.

At this point we switched over to talking about his Steampunk vision. Apparently these stories were born from a random suggestion he made on Twitter that he was going to write a steampunk story with all black characters and call it "Pimp my Airship." Before he knew it, five editors had asked to see the story! He dived into research by reading the Steampunk anthologies put together by the Vandermeers, but his immediate feeling was that he couldn't do anything like that because he didn't see himself in this genre. "Where are all the black people?"

From there he moved over to asking "What is a Steampunk universe for me?" He looked directly at colonialism, and created a modern Indianapolis where there is an Overcity and an Undercity, allowing him to explore class issues and tell different kinds of stories.

I remarked that the language used in the steampunk universe was strikingly different from the language used in the Kings of Breton Court stories. This is something I always find interesting, given my linguistic background, and it seems that he's as attentive to his prose as I am reading it! He said he had great fun with the language here. He described his background as being half Jamaican and half American born in London, so he really got into exploring the possibilities with language use here. He said that in steampunk generally, people tend to talk a certain way, but he wanted to take on the idea of code switching, where people speak differently for work than for friends, etc. How would that work in a steampunk universe?

Though he has done a lot of worldbuilding, you only get a small glimpse of it in each story, so he's goe back and explored further with 6 stories, 4 still unpublished (but somebody publish them because I want to read them!).

The back history of the steampunk universe is fascinating. The idea is that America never split off from Britain, and this allowed slavery to lasted an extra 100 years until automatons were designed that could do the work. That is one of the most interesting aspects of the universe for me: this world feels thoroughly steampunk, and yet modern at the same time. Another aspect of the world is that Jamaica was never colonized. He writes stories in part to work through and explore different social issues.

Maurice has two other worlds that he's also working on: one in ancient Africa, and one futuristic society where the church and military become one, leading to evangelistic colonialism.

He says that worldbuilding is his favorite part of writing, and I can believe it! There is so much cool here. He has a background in horror, and that clearly helps him in not shrinking away when things get rough. He explores difficult issues in frank and unblinking ways.

Maurice, thanks so much for being on the show and hanging in there through the technical difficulties I had (which have been edited out of the video, don't worry!). It was fascinating to hear about your work, and a delight to meet you.

Here's the video for more of the details:


Monday, January 5, 2015

Dive into Worldbuilding for 2015!

I'm excited to announce the author guests for January and February 2015 (drumroll)...

Monday, January 12th, 2015 at 5:00pm Pacific/8:00pm Eastern: N.K. Jemisin!

We'll be talking with Nora Jemisin about worldbuilding in the Inheritance Trilogy, the Dreamblood series, and (I hope) in The Fifth Season. The hangout has a total of ten slots, and they are first-come, first-served. I'll send out invitations at 4:55.

And then we have...

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015 at 10:00am Pacific/1:00pm Eastern: Haralambi Markov!

Harry is an exciting new author and recent Clarion graduate. He'll be joining us all the way from his home in Bulgaria to talk about his worldbuilding and a story he'll have coming out at the end of January from! I'm thrilled for you all to meet him.

This coming Wednesday we won't have a hangout, since I will be out of town. We'll resume topic hangouts on Wednesday, January 21st at 3:00pm Pacific. I'll announce the topic on Monday of that week. I look forward to diving into worldbuilding with you!


My 2014 in Review

I'm wrapping up 2014 at the start of 2015 - yes, it happens. Basically, it had to be this way because I was waiting for my last publication of the year to come through, and then the holidays hit, but here we go...

Summary: 2014 was a fantastic year for me.

I published four stories this year, four times as many as any previous year! I am not sanguine about quadrupling my performance again this year, though I suppose it's worth a shot. :) Here are the stories:

1. "Suteta Mono de wa Nai (Not Easily Thrown Away)" - Clarkesworld 90, March 2014

This was my first ever appearance in Clarkesworld, which had been a dream for me for years! So I was really excited. Also, super-happy to have published a story about Japan in such an amazing venue. Thank you, Neil Clarke! This story appeared on Tangent's recommended reading list, so thanks also to the Tangent reviewers!

2. "Mind Locker" - Analog, July/August 2014

This was my fifth appearance in Analog, but my first with editor Trevor Quachri. This story also appears in the Tangent recommended reading list.

3. "Soul's Bargain" - Clarkesworld 94, July 2014

This was my first pro-level sale of a Varin story (thanks again, Neil!). I have another one coming out this month in Not Our Kind, edited by Nayad Monroe, so look out for that!

4. "Lady Sakura's Letters" - STRAEON 1, December 2014

I'm delighted that editor Marc Blake was willing to get behind this story, which was inspired by my studies in classical Japanese literature - the story references the work of Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon. If you loved Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman, you'll find a nod to that source of inspiration in the story also. I also liked that this story allowed me to explore a different kind of "strong female character." I hope you enjoy it.

I had a great month of December with three fantastic guests at Dive into Worldbuilding: Aliette de Bodard, Maurice Broaddus, and Joyce Chng. My first guest this year will be N.K. Jemisin! She'll be joining us on Monday, January 12 at 5pm Pacific on Google +. More information on this and other 2015 plans will appear in another post!

My heartiest thanks go out to everyone who has helped me this past year - critiquers, beta readers, cheer squad members, editors, and friends. I wouldn't be able to do what I do without all of you.

Best wishes for 2015!