Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Henry Lien and Pearl: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

We had just a delightful hangout with special guest Henry Lien, whose short fiction has been published in many venues including Interfictions and Asimov's. He has created the world of Pearl, which he describes as an Asian young adult world. He has published two novelettes in this world, and is working on a novel. The central city is called "Pearl" (perhaps no surprise), and the architecture there is entirely coated with the substance also called "pearl," which looks like ice but is warm and dry. The city is very white.

And you can skate on it!

As Henry described, the pearl is everywhere, and you can skate on anything, even railings and roofs. all humans and all cargo are transported "by blade." They also have kung fu on figure skates, which is incredibly awesome. He says he combines forms from martial arts with figure skating, because he enjoys the combination of the martial with the sense of performance.

When I asked him about his inspiration for this world, he said that he was determined to write "things only I could have written" with "everything I like in one place. That means:

Architecture. Kung Fu. Figure skating.

Henry called it a personal brainstorm, from which he had to retrofit reality and believability. He really enjoys the combination of incredibly noble and incredibly tacky and embarrassing, which he says is appropriate to his experience in the Taiwanese diaspora. He really enjoys negotiating the space between the noble and the tacky. The example he gave of this phenomenon in other contexts was "concubines flying around the room with swords."

He has strong feelings about his portrayal of female characters, because of his children's literature sensitivities, and noticing how women weren't portrayed well. He chose the sports he did in part to address the question of the "strong female character." He wants his worlds to be realistic, diverse, and respectful. Henry objects to the idea of strong female characters doing male things. That's why he picked a sport (figure skating) where he says men and women are equal but make different contributions. He mentioned specifically how Tara Lipinski was the first to do a quadruple jump. Women's competitions in skating have equal or greater support than men's. The sport capitalizes on feminine body qualities; small size is an asset. So is balance and flexibility.

I asked Henry who his favorite character was in the world of Pearl. He said his favorite character was in his novel, but that he couldn't talk about that yet! His favorite from the stories that are already out is Doi Liang, from the novelette "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters." The story deals with a cram school/penal colony and he says he imagined it as a sort of female Fight Club. He wrote the story at the Clarion workshop with instructor Chuck Palahniuk. In contrast with Fight Club, which was a male-on-male scenario, he wanted a female-on-female scenario. Henry describes what he sees as a feminine desire to determine the nature of relationships quickly. Doi, however, resists any impulse to form relationships and defies typical female socialization.

I asked him how much of his world he felt was directly imported from China, and he said about 40%. He has done a lot of research and outlining, and made himself an encyclopedia of worldbuilding including back history and customs. Pearl mixes influences from Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese cultures. He is strict about not referring back to sources while he writes. This, he says, helps him to filter out unimportant detail, and also allows improvisation. He might remember something like "you aren't supposed to point at the moon" but not remember why, and so in the interest of keeping this aspect he will spin his own background of new folklore.

There are hidden Easter Eggs in the stories for people who speak Chinese, in the form of puns. He wants to make sure, though, that the stories are very accessible.

"If I wanted to write about China I would have called it China."

Interestingly, he says the mixture of cultures he has been using never gets objected to by natives of those cultures, but is occasionally criticized by outsiders. Henry emphasizes, "I am free to play with this." Playing, he explains, reflects the reality of many cultures, and no culture is monolithic.

While he might be tempted to use all the back history he has created, he says not all of it is needed. He has written songs, and knows a lot about food culture, which speaks both to values and to the relationship between people and nature, and people and medicine. He says it was important to make Pearl richly imagined in order to "take it out of the realm of the wacky."

Our attendee Sally Smith highly recommends the book "Cuisine and Empire" by Rachel Laudan, an analysis of food history.

Henry says that he likes to let readers do a lot of sleuthing to figure out the implications of the things he puts in his stories. He doesn't want to dumb it down. Connie Willis taught him that any new idea has to be mentioned three times if it is to stick in the reader's mind, but he says that when he had his work edited, those extra mentions were the things that typically got slashed. He worries sometimes about letting readers work, because he doesn't want to be a "bad host" in his world.

I asked Henry about food culture in Pearl. Henry says that he brings his special perspective as a Vegan to the way he discusses food culture. Taiwanese and Chinese cultures have a huge variety of foods and a fascination with exotic meats. As an example he cites pangolin, which tastes bad and is an endangered species, but still people are drawn to it. From this he picked up the idea of people exoticizing particular foods for novelty. In Pearl, there are both ancient and contemporary dishes. In the novel, he says, there is a tsunami that causes very little structural damage because of the properties of the coating of pearl on everything. One of the things the tsunami causes is a flood of people trying to pick up the rare sea creatures that have washed out of the ocean, so they can eat them before the scientists get to them. These are served at a banquet for foreign students, causing a very uncomfortable situation for the outsiders to this food culture.

Henry remarked that there are food practices, like the killing of dophins for food in Japan, that are reinforced because of the opposition that the practice has incurred from outsiders. He says, "we cling to traditions because we are tired of being attacked." He described the enormous cultural changes that had happened in Taiwan within his parents' lifetime, and said that his grandmother had bound feet. For military or other reasons, people can be forced to leap a century forward. Foot binding was discouraged after the cultural revolution, and thus not by a group of outsiders, but was nevertheless resisted by many. He says there is a similar dynamic of resistance to stopping the practice of female genital mutilation. In his own fiction, he says, he tries to keep these questions "fluffier" by focusing on things like eating weird stuff.

Glenda asked about what happens when you have multiple layers of conquest, and whether that adds richness to a culture. Henry responded that it's interesting when you have to negotiate your own culture relative to others. Identity is a choice to some extent. Collisions and stresses produce beautiful results.

I asked whether his novel dealt with questions of sexuality as well as gender, and he said yes, but would not elaborate due to spoilers! He said it these questions were important in every culture, as was the question, "how do people construct themselves?"

When asked what area he attacks first in worldbuilding, he said really it's more important to ask the last question, which is that of money. Money motivates and constructs so much of culture. Following the money therefore becomes very important for the cohesion and success of a world.

At the end of the hangout, Henry treated us to his own rendition of a new anthem he's creating for SFWA, called "Radio SFWA." He played piano and sang the chorus for us. It was awesome!

Thanks for appearing on the show, Henry, and hearty thanks to everyone who joined us for the hangout last week. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, September 23, and we'll talk about questions of neurotypicality, including autism and other differences in neural function. We'll have an expert on the topic with us, Lillian Csernica. I hope you can join us!

Here's the video:


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Modesty: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

We started this hangout talking about the meanings of the word "modesty." Modesty can mean covering your body with clothes. It can mean being sensitive about showing off. It can mean not being arrogant. It can mean not making eye contact. It can mean "not extravagant."

This is a very socially fraught word.

Essentially it comes down to not showing off, not challenging. Exactly what is being shown depends on context. Wealth, power, one's body, one's gaze. Sometimes the meaning of modesty is very sexual. Sometimes it is more casual. Modesty is generally considered a good thing, but not always.

It's a really fascinating thing to play with in fiction.

You can go about approaching modesty from the larger scale, by importing a kind of cultural analog society and letting the modesty register for that society fall roughly where it falls in the real world society. I mentioned Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon for an instance of that. Alternatively, you can build up a society piece by piece, and end up with quite unexpected, but still consistent, rules for modesty. The example I gave of this was glove-wearing in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch books. Morgan mentioned that in Darkover (Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross), it was important to keep the back of the neck covered, and so that influenced hair styles.

Many real world cultures have historically (or contemporarily) required the hair to be covered.

These rules are not always "logical," as when it's totally fine to show the bare bust and shoulders with a low cut dress, but not okay to show the ankles. They really are culturally dependent. I mentioned the example of erotic art in Western and Japanese ukiyo-e traditions. In the former, one tends to see bare bodies with only the naughty bits covered; in the latter, the body tends to be completely covered except for the naughty bits!

I mentioned the painting Olympia by Manet, and mentioned how I had been shown the contrast between that painting and others at the Musée d'Orsay. Olympia was considered scandalous because the woman in the painting was making eye contact with the viewer. A nude goddess with her eyes turned toward the sky was not.

Eye contact is a pretty big deal in modesty. Veils of various sorts can mitigate its effect. We might leap to think of a burqa, but there were also thin veils on women's hats in the US in the 1950's whose purpose was to cover the upper face.

We asked: For whose benefit does modesty exist?

It's a double-edged sword. Covering up can protect women from having to make eye contact, and might give them the freedom to have facial expressions that might otherwise get them in trouble. Covering up might protect a woman from the male gaze. However, there is always the tricky question of what lies underneath: male ownership or personal choice. A woman who has been forced to cover up to keep herself from being looked at by other men (keeping herself under the ownership of one) is very different from one who has chosen to cover up to deflect attention.

In the Victorian era, lowering one's eyes or turning away was considered modest.

In the Middle East and other hot regions of the world, covering up is an extremely practical way to avoid sunburn!

The meaning of any particular act of modesty depends on the individual, but it also depends on society. In the 1930's and 1940's, men did not go shirtless, and it was considered scandalous to show up on a beach without a shirt. Men protested and went out in shirtless groups, and suddenly it became okay. Social rules change over time. Glenda showed us an awesome photo of her father in his swimsuit in 1929.

We then talked about verbal modesty, in particular, how people handle compliments. Sometimes people deny the compliment, saying that whatever they have is not so special. Sometimes they deflect it. Sometimes they will launch into extended sequences of self-denigration. There are also indirect deflection techniques, as when one explains why a particular piece of clothing has a special meaning. One can also respond non-verbally to compliments, with eye-lowering bowing, blushing, etc. There is also the traditional response, "thank you."

Could there be a society without modesty? We guessed probably not, but the parameters of modesty wouldn't need to be something that we humans would easily recognize. It would all depend on how power was expressed in that society.

"Tooting your own horn" is considered immodest, as Glenda noted. We briefly mentioned how tricky it is to know the boundaries between self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.

It's good to be aware that making eye contact has very different cultural meanings. In many societies, direct eye gaze is seen as challenging rather than engaging (including some native American Indian groups and some Asian groups). This difference can cause quite a bit of misunderstanding, in which people are seen as rude, or in the opposite situation, seen as evasive. Have you ever heard anyone say, "Look at me when I'm talking to you?" This can also be problematic with people who are autistic or non-neurotypical.

The particular iconic meanings of eye contact can raise big problems. Staring is bad. Hiding is bad or a sign of untrustworthiness.

Have you ever noticed that you avoid eye contact when speaking, but watch the other person when they are speaking?

If you are hard of hearing, staring might mean you are trying to understand.

Blindness would also affect these rules. Sally Smith left a comment confirming our suspicion that the blind are socialized to face a speaker when they are speaking.

This was a fascinating discussion and we all felt there was more to touch on, perhaps in the future. Thank you for attending!


Realism in Worldbuilding - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

I decided I'd take off "with video" from the title above because these days I have videos with everything! This was a very interesting discussion, and it's a shame it took so long for me to write the summary, but there you are. The fundamental question we began with is this:

"Why are we so hooked on realism when everything is made up?"

The general consensus was that Glenda had it right when she said that "when you make your one big SF/F assumption, the realism makes it more believable." In other words, realism sets up a context in which the suspension of disbelief becomes easier.

This doesn't necessarily mean that things have to be grim and dark (or grimdark!) in order to be realistic. We're talking things like not having the heroine of your historical romance act like a 21st century woman; not transplanting modern views into an inconsistent context.

It's hard to change "human nature" plausibly. In a sense, people want to hear human stories, stories they can relate to. It doesn't matter if the characters involved are not strictly speaking human. This is an envelope that can be pushed pretty far, since humans vary a lot, especially culturally. But beyond a certain point people are going to stop caring.

There's another important issue in the question of realism, however, and that is the question of assumptions. People tend to come into a story with a starting set of assumptions they won't challenge (and those aren't always the same). Those assumptions might be called "realism" by the person who holds them, but they don't necessarily reflect actual reality. One salient example of this is the statements that are so commonly made about people of color and their presence in Europe at different time periods. Many people out there would protest that they weren't there, that that's not "realism," when in fact they are speaking from assumption and shared narrative. People of color have been present in Europe for thousands of years, and if you want to find examples of this, and art that reflects it, there's no better place to start than MedievalPOC.

It's worth saying again: Perceived realism may simply be a shared narrative.

This above all, in my mind, is an argument for thorough worldbuilding and textual support. As worldbuilders we are always dancing with the Discourse of Expectation. The way that the words we use are understood will always be influenced by the perceptions of our own time because of the way that our expectations set up a sense of the marked and the unmarked. Whatever is normal is unmarked; anything marked stands out. But since "normal" varies so widely, what stands out to different people will similarly vary. This is one reason why you'll find people who prefer to ignore a topic like homosexuality saying that it "stands out" or "doesn't fit" in a story.

Grimdark is a genre. But do all the people really have bad teeth? Does everything smell and is everyone sick, etc. etc.? One of the problems with portraying a different reality is not making it too precious and pretty, but not making it too gross. After all, things may have been gross in that era, but if it was normal, it would not have made the same impression on the people involved that it would in our own era. There are ways to get around the problem. My own solution for tooth problems was just to assume that the government of Varin puts fluoride in the water. Teeth weren't always bad. People who ate sugar had it worse, of course. Apparently in Egypt, the upper classes had worse teeth because of stone dust in their food.

Realism will be important, but you can have realism in different kinds of scientific arenas. It's a matter of focus. Is it really critical for story purposes that the audience know exactly how this thing works? Can you justify what's going on without explaining science? Which science are you using? Physics focus will turn out very differently from linguistics focus!

It's also possible to have one big premise assumption that is in the background of a story and doesn't get any attention, such as the fact that people have faster-than-light travel. It may be counterfactual, but we're not paying attention to that right now; we're more interested in the interaction with these aliens.

When you want realism in science, you have to pay attention to how scientists talk about what they know. You also have to ask what sorts of things they actually do for daily scientific activities. What does the laboratory actually look like? Different labs contain different types of things.

I always find it worthwhile to stay true to psychology as a science, and since culture is so important to me, to anthropology/linguistics.

Don't just stick a lot of "stuff" in a story without considering the underlying system that ties everything together, its connections, and how it influences character judgment.

We're also allowed to let an author set up a bunch of premise assumptions in the background of the story, such as the presence of the wizarding world and its relationship with the Muggle world in J.K. Rowling's work.

We touched on the question of rape and violence. Is it occasional? Is it constant? In medieval times it occurred, but how often? The author gets to make decisions about how much focus to put on such actions. The answers to these questions will often vary based on level of privilege in the society. What happens to people, when and how? Are there systems that are supposed to work against it? Why are they working or not working?

Brian mentioned that medieval war was seasonal. In the autumn you needed soldiers home to take in the harvest, and in the winter there was no light, a lot of cold, and things like sea ice trapping ships in harbor.

Some good questions to ask:
If you have a constant war going on, who is growing the food?
Could you live there and raise kids?
What kind of economy does the place have?
Is there a past or a future outside the story bubble?"

Thank you to everyone who participated. Today the hangout will meet at 3:30 Pacific on Google+ and we will discuss grammar! I hope you can join us.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sofia Samatar: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

For this discussion, we were joined by award-winning author Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria.

Sofia described her work as embracing genre and not feeling tied down by where it has gone before. I mentioned that she has been remarked on for the richness of her world, and she says that is not necessarily new, since there are worlds that include huge vocabularies and even whole languages. She said that Gormenghast by Mervin Peak and Tolkien's worlds were inspiration for her. She took her time to create the world featured in A Stranger in Olondria, and a new book, The Winged Histories, will also take place in that world. It is due out in March 2016.

When I asked her about the inspiration for this world, and how she created it, she said, "I created it by wandering around in it." Apparently the first drafts of these books were "huge enormous drafts": the initial draft of Stranger was twice as long, and the initial draft of Histories three or four times longer than the final drafts.

She says she writes scenes that don't need to be there, "but I needed to write them." Writing these scenes helped her to learn more about the world and the atmosphere. She told us about a part of the capital of Olondria which is very old, which she explored in depth. Only one or two things from it might end up in the book, but the understanding of this area, its history, and the debates that occurred there seeps into the feel of the book.

I pointed out that our understanding of a context often seeps into our use of language without us realizing it, and that this might be one way a deeper knowledge of the world might become evident to a reader.

Sofia described her writing as "not self-aware," and told us that she taught herself to write by writing A Stranger in Olondria.

Jevik, the hero of Stranger, comes from a non-literate culture, but Olondria itself is highly literate. When he goes there, he becomes haunted by the ghost of a woman of his own culture. She said it was important to put those two ways of knowing - literate and non-literate - side by side, and have them equally well known.

Though The Winged Histories is also set in Olondria, it is a stand-alone book. Jevik is mentioned in one sentence in the memory of someone else - a priest's daughter who appeared in Stranger, and who has become a main character. Chronologically, the events occur directly after those of Stranger. There are four points of view, all of them Olondrian women: a soldier, a scholar, a poet, and a socialite. The story deals with a religious and ethnic war connected to the events that occurred in the earlier novel. It is a complicated conflict, because Olondria is an empire. Its central valley is ostensibly one of the provinces, but in fact that province took over the others either through war or economics. That means there are different political interests and movements within it. People are dedicated to different gods, but the main goddess of the region called Kestenyi has been outlawed and replaced by an Olondrian goddess. A new cult has also appeared, trying to overcome the past. These religions are linked to cosmologies and in some cases to ethnicities.

I asked her about the time she spent in Africa, and how this related to the books. She said her time there was a direct source of ideas. She wrote A Stranger in Olondria while teaching High School English in the Sudan. This experience really made the distinction between oral and written traditions very present to her. She was there to help people make the transition from oral to literate, but she came to question what she was participating in. The common idea is that by teaching literacy, we are solving a problem, but it also leads to language and cultural loss.

The Winged Histories, Sofia says, is more concerned with gender than was A Stranger in Olondria. It examines what happens in societies with strict gender roles, where men and women live separately, and questions the relationship with militarism. Separation supports specific types of violence. She took inspiration here from Sudan and Somalia.

We asked about her use of point of view in the two novels. In Stranger, there are two points of view, but the second is there only because Jevik is taking dictation from the ghost and recording things in her voice. In Histories, there are four points of view in four sections that flow chronologically, though the 3rd and 4th parts happen at the same time. Point of view is an excellent tool to take a look at different things happening based on which character was present to witness them.

I asked whether disease was a part of book 2, because a genetic disease was described in book 1. She replied that both books are about identity, culture, memory, and history - and that genetics is a form of history.

There is also a cultural difference between the points of view. Two of the women are sisters, within the culture of the royal family. Others are from different provinces: one from the Olondrian core province, and the other from the most resistant province. This can create a contrast of values, since what is good for unification may be negative socially.

Glenda asked whether the Roman empire served as an inspiration. Sofia said yes, in terms of creating the pantheon. She also was inspired by Egyptian mythology. Glenda further asked whether there was a parallel between the new religion of Olondria and Christianity. Sofia said there was none intended, but "you hear it and you say... maybe." The new cult of Olondria is severe, conservative, against drinking wine, passionate about the written word, and desires to stamp out oral systems. There is a further parallel to Greece in that as Olondria expanded, it incorporated new deities into its pantheon.

Sofia, thank you so much for joining us and giving us insight into your work! Thanks also to everyone who attended and contributed to the discussion.

Today's hangout will be at 3pm Pacific and we will discuss mourning practices. Our guest for September will be Henry Lien, who will be with us at 3pm Pacific on Wednesday, September 16th.

Here's the video of our chat with Sofia Samatar, for those of you interested in further detail: