Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Naming - intercultural inspirations

We've discussed naming before on the show (various posts are here), but this time we wanted to take a look at different ways that people use names across the world. These might provide valuable inspiration for naming in fictional worlds. Names take lots of forms. Here are a few:

first name-last name (a friend of mine, for example)
first name-middle name-last name (my brother, for example)
first name-more than one middle name-last name (me, for example)
one single name (Indonesia, for example)
family name-personal name (Japan, for example)
differing personal name, same name within a religion (Sikhism, for example)
two given names-paternal surname-maternal surname (Mexico, for example)

British royalty have lots of given names.
Do people have middle names? It depends.
Racehorses, of course, have their lineage in their names, but today we were dealing mostly with how people are named.

In fiction, you will find many examples of "true names" and their importance. We immediately thought of Patricia McKillip's work in fantasy and Ursula K. LeGuin's work in science fiction.

We speculated that one could write a story where bureaucracy was a form of magic, and knowing something's true name would be critical there, as voter ID for example would be a magical thing.

Another very common naming tradition is that of passing the father's name on to the firstborn son. When the names are entirely identical, people often have to engage in nicknaming in order to disambiguate their family members (especially when it's common across more than two generations).

In Ashkenazi Jewish communities, there is a tradition of naming a child after a deceased relative. Sometimes this only means the first letter of the name is in common, rather than the whole name.

There are also traditions in which people take religious names, such as having a Hebrew name, or changing your name when you convert to Islam (or another religion).

We talked about when Chinese people take English names. This tradition was started by missionaries who could not pronounce Chinese and therefore renamed people without consulting them, although these days people tend to choose a name they like.

People have had their names changed in immigration scenarios for years and years. On Ellis Island, tons of people had their names involuntarily changed by immigration officials. The immigrants were likely too tired to advocate with impatient and/or racist officials for using their own names.

Your name is who you are. Disrespect for your name generally means disrespect for you.

Morgan mentioned that in some classroom contexts, kids named Jesus (in this case, the Spanish pronunciation hey-sús) have been punished because their teachers felt it was somehow disrespectful to claim to share a name with an important religious figure.

Religions can definitely have naming rules, sometimes complex ones, and having those names will indicate a person's affiliation to the general population. Morgan mentioned the use of "ben" "bat" and "bar" in Judaism to indicate a person's relationships.

A name often indicates what land you came from, or who your parent is. Stigma can sometimes be associated with this.

Patsy told us that in her family, they used Scandinavian patronymics (naming after the father), and so different generations would alternate the name Ole Halvorson (Ole son of Halvor) and Halvor Oleson (Halvor son of Ole). She explained that this makes it really hard to keep track of the lives of individuals in her family tree! She also says that where she lives, this kind of naming pattern is very common and sometimes leads to mistaken identity.

How many Davids do you know? How many Johns do you know? Sometimes there can be a lot!

In fiction, there is definitely pressure to keep all character names unique, because it helps readers to keep from mixing them up! You might be able to make an exception to this if you establish particular naming traditions within your fictional society.

My Varin society has an old tradition of naming called the "name-line," where different names are associated with personal characteristics (like courage, e.g.), and so you will name your child after someone who used to have the name. Ideally, though, the person whose name-line you choose should be deceased, so there cannot be a lot of any particular given name in the population at a time.

In our world, there are indigenous communities where people have private names specific to their membership in that community.

Names are associated with respect, so it's problematic if you mix up pets' names and humans' names, but it does happen. My husband got his name because one of the other names they had considered for him was given to the dog!

We noted that when you are naming animals, occasionally there are names whose use is exclusive to animals, like "Spot" or "rover." In French, "Milou" is a name given to a dog, while "Minou" is a name given to a cat, and the two are not mixed.

People may be named for virtues, as in the Puritan era in the United States.

Ethnographies are a good research tool for finding names.

Why do names fall out of use? They can be associated with a good or bad person, either on a historical level or on a personal level. They can also become associated with a particular generation.

Sometimes people make up names, while others think that you shouldn't make up names. There was a trend in the hippy era where people made up names. I have also read that the African-American community often creates new names. The nerdy community uses names drawn from literature, and these are often made up.

Some names have literal meanings, like "Ocean," or "Apple." Many names are literal in their origins, as one can learn by doing research on the history of names ("Peter" means "rock," for example). If you look at the names of the elves in J. R. R. Tolkien's books, you find that those names are literal in the elvish languages he invented.

Last names are literal when they are the names of professions like Tanner, Shoemaker, or Fletcher.

Japan went through a period in its history when people who were not of the samurai class took on names, and those names were often associated with where the people lived (Tanaka - middle of the rice fields, Matsushita - under the pine, Kawaguchi - the mouth of the river).

Underhill might be the name of a fae...

Patsy told us she'd invented a society where you got to add a syllable to your name every time you accomplished something, and so your name became like your resume. Humans had short names so these people thought they must be very un-accomplished...

As usual, there is always more we could have discussed. However, we enjoyed this discussion a lot and we hope it provides you with some ideas!


Friday, September 1, 2017


This was a fun hangout, not least because we'd put it off trying to make sure our discussant Brian Dolton could be there... and he made it! He's got a lot of cool info about libraries, so read on...

In fiction, libraries are often places where you find secrets or forbidden magics. We wondered if there was a systematic difference to their role in science fiction versus fantasy. Science fiction often has libraries that are not in book form. Some are housed in computers, and others are more mysterious, like the library that looked like a blue gel-filled lightbulb in Star Trek: TNG, that turned out to be an archive in a DNA-based medium.

Paper books are harder to erase than magnetic marks, but paper quality has gone down. Brian remarked that as paper manufacturing has changed, the quality of the paper has gone up but its durability has gone down. Water and fire are the big dangers to books. On the other hand, they are not in danger from errant keystrokes. With technology always changing, obsolescence is a big problem. Optical and magnetic media are a short-term solution.

Brian told us that the history of libraries takes a dramatic turn at the point where the printing press allowed mass production of books - you can divide library history into before and after, because libraries function so differently in 1450 versus 1600. Before the ability to reproduce material, books are precious objects, loaned around Europe for the purposes of hand-copying. People were employed to translate books. There was a mania for book collecting. Books were super valuable. This is where Brian pointed out that the chained library in Game of Thrones was wrong. He told us that in his grammar school, which had started in the 1500's, there was a chained library, and the books were literally chained to the shelves, so if you wanted to read them you had to stand there and read them.

There is a key difference between a library using the stack system and using the wall system. Libraries were designed with their shelves orthogonal to the walls, with windows between the stacks, because you had to stand in that spot and read the book.

Reggie remarked that books can be a quest in fantasy. They can also be what sends you on a quest, as in Tolkien (when Gandalf is looking up the One Ring).

I mentioned working in a situation in my Varin world where books can be easily printed, but paper is scarce.  It's helpful to think about the steps of book production and ask where the bottleneck is. Is paper reused? What is printed on?

There can be economic or other barriers to access.

In Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, libraries were ancient repositories for finding knowledge.

Often when libraries appear in fiction, the information in them is too easy to find. The production of indexes is a topic unto itself, in fact. Brian remarked that sometimes libraries were not organized by subject or title but by the time when the library acquired the book. This made it very difficult to find what you needed. He told us a story of  Persian grand vizier in 800AD who would travel with a train of 400 camels who had been trained to walk in alphabetical order, carrying the vizier's collection of over 10,000 manuscripts. These would then have to be unloaded carefully to keep them in good order.

In modern technological times, it can be a real problem if the index of your database gets corrupted. there are many ways to index and organize a library, including the Dewey decimal system and card catalogs.

Libraries don't function well when their organization is lost.

Context is really important for understanding something described in a book. In Victorian times, sometimes there were accounts of events where the core scandal is not referred to. Complete lack of context can kill a library's usefulness. Often collections are needed to provide context.

Sometimes you can have a catastrophic break in societal continuity. These can cause the context of a library's collections (or the collections themselves) to be lost. Colonization and war can cause catastrophic breaks, as when monks burned the records of the Mayan civilization, calling them heretical.

Destruction of libraries has been tragic, historically, as in the case of the lost library of Alexandria, or as Kat mentioned, the case of a Chinese emperor who ordered the destruction of all materials before his reign. Early Chinese history was preserved in a repository that was deliberately hidden.

Often the continuity we perceive in our literary history (and our history itself) is due to editing by the victors in catastrophic conflicts. This is one of the reasons why we find information on gender and sexual orientation missing from more modern narratives about Christianity, but it can be found in accounts of very early Christianity.

Kat noted that archaeology is now discovering that aboriginal Australian oral history is accurate and backed up by physical evidence. Passing on oral history is a critical discipline. People become the libraries.

There is a historical European tradition of reading a document out loud and having other people transcribe it. The book thereby gets translated through people, but it's not like a game of "telephone" because accuracy in transcription was a key goal.

In the Islamic tradition, reading of the Koran is a big part of education. The text of the Koran is designed to facilitate memorization.

The plays of Shakespeare were some of the first non-religious manuscripts to be mass produced.

A lot of political pamphlets were mass produced but then lost.

Ask yourself what survives, and what doesn't. We happen to know a lot about early works of literature because of references to them in other works of the time, but some of those manuscripts are gone.

Shakespeare was a form of political propaganda in its time because of the patronage of the English monarchy. Our picture of the history of that time is colored by the narratives that he constructed. Our picture of history in general is influenced by narrative, as in the case of stories about the Founding Fathers of America. Many bad things get erased. The character of those narratives influences the current day, as with the arguments now being fought around Confederate statues. Kat noted that when she traveled around the Caribbean, there were a lot of statues commemorating successful slave rebellions, but those narratives aren't encouraged in the usual Southern narratives.

Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed to the discussion. As usual, there's a lot more we could have discussed that we ran out of time for! We'll have to come back to the topic another time.


Monday, August 28, 2017

Communications Systems and Warning Systems

During this hangout, we mostly discussed warning systems, but extended our reach a little into general-purpose communications systems.

We remarked that many warning systems are non-linguistic, so that not everyone has to speak the same language in order to understand them. Sirens are international. We have radio and TV warnings that begin with a distinctive sound, but then proceed to a linguistic message. There are now text alerts to let people know about danger. Morgan remarked that there's a special siren in her village for local emergencies. Fog horns are non-linguistic and warn of proximity to rocks. They are a kind of accessibility supplement when you can't see. Kat told us that every lighthouse is striped differently, and also has a different sound pattern and light pattern, so that before GPS systems, their signals were a great way to help locate yourself.

Patsy remarked that for science fiction you would have different kinds of signals given out by space stations, etc. This could be problematic, though, if you were unable to receive them because your sensory array differed from that of aliens in particular ways. What is the primary "channel of communication" (auditory, visual, olfactory, etc)?

I remarked that we often have multi-channel warnings, because fire alarms now come with strobes for people who are hearing-impaired. Fire and police vehicles have flashing lights as well as sirens.

One of our discussants mentioned a school for the deaf, where everything is made of glass, and there are lots of reflective surfaces to maximize seeing. This was an interesting way to make architecture appropriate to the population using it. Kat remarked that our architecture privileges human form. It also privileges the able-bodied human form.

If an alien civilization were to come up with a warning beacon, would it be detectable by humans? Could its signals be harmful to humans? We imagined that certain forms of communication by aliens would make an alien environment inimical to human survival.

People don't always use the warning systems you might immediately expect. In pre-literate societies, people often did subtle things to alter nature, such as changing the route of watercourses, or altering trees. Of course, putting human heads on pikes is a very different kind of warning!

We mentioned semaphore, which is a visual language system, but in terms of warning systems, signal flags are still used. There is an extensive code of colored flags that can send different messages. The quarantine flag, indicating contagious disease, is still in general use. Morse code is still in general use by ham radio operators.

Kat told us that there are specific ways you are supposed to hail people on a radio. You say certain words to indicate opening communication, certain words to close communication, or to indicate repetitions. There's specialized language for TTY systems, which are used for phone communication for the deaf. GA means "go ahead." SK, or "stop keying" indicates the end of the conversation. So if you are at the end of a conversation, generally one person will give "GA SK" and the other will reply "SK SK."

Public announcements have start and end codes. I remarked that in my trip to Lascaux this summer, we had talked about how the cave paintings there often appear to have a sequence that begins with a series of dots, continues through several representations of animals, and then ends with another series of dots. These paintings were made 20,000 years ago.

There are tsunami warnings, and tornado warnings.

Cruise ships have emergency drills teaching you what to do.

We asked, "How do you train people how to react in an emergency?" There are emergencies that some don't comprehend. Unless you have lived in an area where you are trained to respond to earthquakes, you might not know the safest course of action when an earthquake occurs. When people learn to drive, they need to learn the appropriate response to hearing a siren, i.e. moving over for the emergency vehicle to pass. However, you may not learn now to stop if you have a flat tire. You probably do know how to react if you see flashing emergency lights. A lot of people have signal lights they can use to indicate turns, but they often don't! (This is especially true where I live.)

The book Probability Moon by Nancy Kress features an interesting concept of shared reality that relies on very quick intercommunication. For this purpose, she designed a system of communication with mirrors and sunlight, called the "sunflashers."

Does your society have a satellite network? Does it have telegraph? Does it use semaphore, or pony express?

I remarked that my Varin world has a communication problem that indirectly resulted from its zeal for recycling. They moved to a wireless communication system and recycled all the wires from the previous communication system, but when the wireless system failed, they were left without any way to restore the wired system. This means that certain areas of the city are still wired for communication (intercoms), but most of it is not, and messengers are the most common way to get information to travel.

When you are looking at a house where servants work, bell systems can be more effective than intercoms, especially when the messages being transmitted are very basic and repetitive.

In The Sound of Music, the Captain used a boatswain's whistle to call the children. There was a power imbalance in this system, because no one was expected to summon the Captain this way.

You want to have an agreed-upon way to trigger the trained response system.

The system of amber alerts hasn't been as successful as people want, because people generally hate them, but these days very few people are listening to the radio. How, then, do you get your messages out?

Once, people had to make long distance phone calls from the post office. The post office wasn't just for letters, but was a more general communication service.

Schools often communicate with parents these days through automated phone calls, emails, and paper handouts. Each communication strategy has advantages and disadvantages.

We are starting to have things like fridges which communicate shopping lists. This can of course be extrapolated for futuristic scenarios!

Some warning systems are selective, designed to be detected by particular groups and irrelevant to others. One example of this would be a fire alarm for volunteer firefighters. There have also been codes designed to communicate calls for help, as when kids call home to ask for peanut m&ms when they feel unsafe and want to be picked up.

Oppressed groups can have special kinds of warnings indicating they are about to be raided. There was a situation where libraries were having their computer use logs searched, and the librarians were not legally allowed to say that they had been searched, so they would put up signs saying "We have not been searched today," and then take them down if a search occurred.

This, of course, is starting to take us into the realm of spycraft - leaving a flag or handkerchief in a particular location, etc.

It's important to note that linguistic messages in a public space privilege speakers of that language. There are restrictions on the ability to use particular messaging systems. Classified ads are only accessible to those who get newspapers. In order to receive faxes, you need a device. Faxes used to be much more common but now are less commonly used. They are still used in places where regulations make paper trails valuable. Implant technology is another type of device that controls accessibility to messages. I have seen many instances of problems with communication via implant, but not so many instances of physical problems like overheating!

What tech do you use for announcements? Would there be a way to send a warning via 3D printer? Or to send a particular tool needed for the emergency at hand? What if you have set up a system where 3D printers print a life raft during flooding, but only 80% of 3D printers can actually do this printing job? What happens to the 20% who can't? Does anyone care?

What would space poverty look like?

Twitter has become useful for tasks like locating planes. People don't have to know why they are looking for it, but can just "tweet if you see this plane." I personally experienced the Arab Spring via Twitter, and that tool turned out to be incredibly important. Of course, then you have responses to grass-roots uprisings like BART shutting down phone access in stations to discourage protest demonstrations.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, 8/31/17 at 10am Pacific, and we'll be speaking with author Alec Nevala-Lee. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Translators, Interpreters, and Translation

I started this hangout by setting some boundaries on the topic - specifically, that we would discuss the portrayal of translators, interpreters, and translation in fiction rather than engaging with SF/F in translation.

People often use the word "translator" to cover both people who translate texts and simultaneous interpreters, i.e. those people who translate while someone else is speaking. There's a pretty big distinction between those two. The latter is immensely more difficult.

Quite early on, we took on the question of Universal Translators. A universal translator is effectively a hand-wave or gimmick, something designed to make the story workable when it just wouldn't be possible to deal with the story content without having everyone speak the same language. Douglas Adams' babelfish is a deliberate nod to the arbitrariness of this idea. Translation problems are complex, and frankly, can take over a great deal of the content of your story, so if you don't want to have to deal with those issues, positing a universal translator is one way to just set them aside. This isn't a problem for the story, necessarily (although I do like to engage more deliberately with language issues). It's similar in some ways to saying "these people have faster-than-light travel and I'm not going to bother telling you how it works." Sometimes that's what you do to get the story focus right.

Obviously, there are stories that focus more deliberately on language issues. Little Fuzzy is one example. C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series is another.

One key thing to remember is that translation is not a magical equalizer.

Star Trek tends to minimize the importance of culture and manners. It will feature them, but usually as something cute or somehow to be tolerated. Morgan noted that they often act as if there is no misstep that could similarly offend humans.

We talked briefly about the movie Arrival. I noted that they skip over any exposition of the actual process it takes to "crack" the language and start designing the computer program that assigns meanings to the forms.

Kat noted that there is an open-source machine translation project going on right now on the internet, called Festival.

We liked the way that the show Enterprise had treated translation, where they had linguist Hoshi Sato on board for linguistic work, and only a semi-functional universal translator.

Kat remarked there are usually three approaches to language in SF/F: 1. conlang like mad (build your own language), 2. universal translator, and 3. "oh, look, languages."

We spoke about Embassytown by China Miéville. This book had a very cool language concept where the aliens spoke with two mouths and could only be translated to by pairs of psychically linked twins.

We talked also about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has played a role in many stories and films including Arrival. The "strong form" of the hypothesis says that if a concept doesn't exist in your language, then you can't conceptualize it. This form of it is not valid. However, the "weak form" of the hypothesis says that your language influences your cognition and makes certain things easier to conceptualize than others. This has proven to have some validity. Indeed, there is a researcher at Stanford, Lera Boroditsky, who is actively studying the relationship between language and cognition. They have a "Language and cognition" lab. (cool stuff!)

The linguistic concept that underlies the idea of the universal translator (at least in its original form) is that of Chomskyan universal grammar, which says that all languages have underlying commonalities in their construction. This has not proven to be the case, however, and I have always found universal translators to be something of a conceit.

Kat told us that she had learned the words for older brother and older sister in Japanese as if they were defaults, and that once her mom asked her why her friends were all younger siblings. It was a linguistic side-effect of how she had learned the vocabulary.

In languages with gendered nouns, the gender of those nouns often changes the way that their meaning is framed, causing people to emphasize gendered characteristics in them. We wondered what would happen if you were bilingual in two languages that assigned genders differently to the same nouns.

One of the problems with translation is that translators (not universal translators) have bodies. This means they can become tired. Or they can be threatened. They can make mistakes, or be coerced. These issues are not always taken on in stories. The indigenous translator who became known as La Malinche was ostensibly "married" to Hernán Cortés, but I'm pretty sure that relationship was at least somewhat coercive.

Is there a temperament for interpretation? Kat says you have to be willing to be a conduit for language, and be as transparent as possible, as if you were a machine with none of your own thoughts. This is certainly an ethical quandary that Sheila Finch takes on in her Guild of Xenolinguists stories. How much can you ask someone to dehumanize themselves in the name of getting something done? We thought about the difficult situations faced by children in immigrant communities who have to translate for their parents. Sometimes they can be asked to translate things that might get them in trouble (like discipline documents from the school). There would be a sore temptation to protect yourself by mistranslating. Even when you try to make yourself as transparent as possible,  your choice of word will still reflect your judgment (whether you want it to or not).

We talked about the challenge faced by people who are trying to translate Donald Trump speeches. Samantha Bee and the Daily Show both did segments on this, showing how difficult the job is. In Japanese, one might try to be excessively casual to represent him, but that's not enough. Also, you could easily precipitate an international incident.

There are stories from the Cold War about non-accurate translations that were made in order to save people's lives.

Politeness and honesty are often at odds.

We often assume that we have enough in common with the people we want to talk to that we can gesture and find things in common. This is not always the case, and certainly would not be the case with aliens.

Shared context is essential. If you are interacting with aliens who don't recognize objects as separate from each other, one of the major underlying assumptions of human language would not apply, and this would cause major problems.

Thanks to everyone who participated. Today's hangout will meet at 10am Pacific and we're going to talk about Naming. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Stina Leicht and Blackthorne

I was delighted to have Stina Leicht back on the show so close to the release of her new book, Blackthorne (it's out now!). This hangout was technically a bit tricky because Stina had audio trouble and couldn't hear us. However, we could hear her loud and clear, and so we made it work!

I started by asking her to introduce us a bit to the world in which Blackthorne takes place. Back when we were talking about her first novel in this world on the show (here), she had described it as answering the question, "What would fantasy look like if Tolkien were American?" Since then her concept has evolved, as concepts often do when you get to explore the world in more than one book. Stina was taking a look at the era of early firearms and smallpox, and converting that into a fantasy world. She says she got to deal with a lot of cool scientific advances like inoculation against disease. The concept was in its infancy, so there were occasions when people had "pox parties"and visited someone who had a mild case of smallpox, thinking that the mildness of it would be transmissible. This wasn't always the case, and people did die. Stina also told us that the beginning of the rifle is featured in Blackthorne. People are also starting to have a sense of genetics and eugenics.

The story is set in Acrasia, which is the "evil empire" of this world, but it doesn't see itself as evil. The Acrasians lost their original home in a volcanic disaster and fled to a peninsula on the edge of the continent where the Kainen people live. That peninsula, which she has nicknamed "evil Florida" because of its placement on the map, is Acrasia, and the Acrasians have been trying to expand outwards from there into the Kainen lands... with some success. Stina says she thinks of evil as humans making really bad choices or lacking empathy.

The title of the series is The Malorum Gates. This refers to entities that are entering this world from another dimension. They consume anything with power. They have been held back by the magic of the Kainen, so the invasion of the Acrasians is making this problem much worse.

Stina explained to us that Acrasia is based on Rome. The volcanic disaster that destroyed their home on another continent was modeled after Pompeii because, Stina says, "I love Pompeii." They have retained an imperialist tendency and a desire to invade countries and take them over.

In this world, magic works "too well" on humans. Kainen are essentially like elves, each of whom has their own magic power. The royalty of the country of Eledor have "command magic," and they have abused their power to influence humans, though other Kainen groups have not. Humans are terrified by magic, so the Acrasians' goal is to destroy magic even though the Malorum have invaded Acrasia and have the run of the city at night. There are two groups who maintain the peace. The Brotherhood of Wardens interact with the nobility, and the Watch interact with the common people.

There are different types of magic among the Kainen. Eledorians' magic works better on land, but there is another group, the Waterborne, who live on ships and whose magic works better on the ocean. Essentially, they are the dominating navy of this world, a monopoly that she originally modeled after the East India Company. As they evolved, she says, they became less of an exploitative group and became more like the Federation of Planets in Star Trek, if instead of planets you had ships. They conduct trade. Once the Waterborne get into a market, no one wants to deal with the Acrasians any more, but the Acrasians feel entitled to those trade relationships.

The story features a murder mystery with a serial killer! Stina describes the Acrasian society as one where "everything is legal if you can pay for it."

The main characters, Nels and Suvi, are trying to revive Eledor in hiding. The title character, Blackthorne, is a person of color who passes as white and smuggles the Kainen out of Acrasia to New Eledor.

Stina also talked about a couple of interesting characters she likes. Captain Drake is a watch captain, an alcoholic, but fiercely independent. She's not a good person but she's in a "good person job." Another character, Caius, is in an "evil person job" as a Warden, but is a good person and wants to get out of that function.

We asked Stina how skin colors worked in this world. Essentially, the Kainen come in lots of different skin colors. The main prejudice in the world is about the possession of magic power, but there is a secondary prejudice about skin color.

Stina told us that she uses a lot of fairy terminology when describing the Eledorians because they are essentially elves. New Eledor is underground, which is a reference to the Little People.

When the Malorum first came through a rift to this continent, everyone fled to the rocky land, and then after the Malorum had been contained, they spread out again. This is the historical reason why Eledor has its capital in the mountains.

Kat asked how Stina differentiates people's appearances descriptively. Stina said she tries to make the descriptions different depending on which point of view she's using.

Waterborne are more welcoming to different ethnicities than Acrasians are.

Stina took the class Writing the Other and has tried very hard to integrate what she learned into this world as she designed it. She also told us about how she had done five years of study of Northern Ireland when writing her first novel, Of Blood and Honey.

Part of your job as a writer, she says, is to portray lots of different sorts of characters. She branches out more in Blackthorne than she did in book 1, Cold Iron. Everyone has multiple layers of identity.

She told us a tiny bit about a new project she's working on, which she describes as "Gender-flipped Seven Samurai in Space with six women of color and one white woman who never speaks." She says she's having a lot of fun incorporating call-outs to Magnificent Seven and Fistful of Dollars. She's in the process of researching by watching all the various films and shows that have been inspired by Seven Samurai.

Thanks again to Stina for joining us (and for powering through despite technical trouble)! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, August 9 at 10am Pacific (that's tomorrow) to discuss Communication Systems and Warning Systems. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Taxes (the individual and society)

The first thing I thought of when my brain was set to the task of considering taxes in fiction was Robin Hood. One of my discussants remarked that people often set taxes in feudalism because it's easy. Setting taxes in a scenario that isn't like feudalism is much more complex, because you have to consider the interplay of factions of people trying to get their needs met.

When you live in a society, there are things that the individual can't pay for, but which the group can pay for - things like roads, police, fire departments, schools, the mail. The basic idea of taxes is that the individual pays into a pool which covers everything society needs. The much trickier question is, how do you decide what society needs?

Kate remarked that sewers didn't come along until quite late in history. Mohenjo Daro didn't have roads (the link suggests it had a "street plan", so perhaps this is a question of how roads are defined by usage). Do your research on history, because things that you take for granted in society didn't always evolve when you thought they did.

What kind of history does your world have?

The tragedy of the commons is when people neglect those resources that they don't have individual responsibility for; taxes are meant to combat that. We asked what a society would look like if people are expected to take care of their own stuff, and how that would be enforced. Che asked what payment would be expected in such a system. Money? Grain? A year's indenture of one's oldest son?

We discussed money, and what has value, for a few minutes. Money is essentially a generalized social agreement on a symbol of value, whether that be rice or shells or gold or silver, etc. Even when money is present, a lot of labor is not given monetary value, such as women's labor in our society. What if you had a society based on mutual non-monetary obligation? What would be the service provided? Not babysitting! Perhaps teaching the young in the home. A lot would depend on what skills you had to offer, and hopefully what you desired to do would be taken to account. Money eliminates these tricky calculations by creating a way to compute value that is generally agreed upon and makes vastly different services interchangeable. It also lends itself to larger-scale complexity.

The Romans did a lot of standardization. Amphorae came in two sizes and prices were set based on those quantities. In Babylonian times there were standardized weights and measures that were used for tax purposes.

Churches also can collect money in the form of tithes. In some communities, this would be like pooling resources for education, since the church provides a lot of that service.

Brian mentioned that in Germany, they have a church tax - a tax paid by the citizens to the government to support the operations of the church. Originally this was passed over from the main tax pool, but then it got itemized and people started asking not to pay it. So many people stopped paying the church tax that churches started saying that non-payers weren't welcome at mass.

Do all members of a society contribute to a tax pool? How do you classify membership in a society? How much are you obligated to support society? Who are the citizens? Are servants or slaves counted as citizens at all, or are they partial citizens? Is anyone failing to uphold the society? Is anyone deliberately trying to break down part of the society?

How do you decide who is a "productive" member of society? Children don't pay taxes... until they become productive. But what about the disabled? Are they fully included, or are they ostracized because they are not expected to become productive society members? These questions can become very complex and difficult, because things are rarely black and white.

Sometimes you hear people say that they don't want to pay taxes for schools that their children do not attend. The counterargument to this is that having an educated population helps everyone. Some people don't care to treat this as a benefit.

There are occasions when society benefits but individuals don't. Wanting a la carte benefits is a very American phenomenon.

Taxing an individual's income is a relatively new idea. It first started after the Napoleonic wars.

Creating taxes on things can have odd effects as people try to reduce their tax burden. If you tax windows, people may brick up their windows. If you have a bedroom tax, people may try to put fewer bedrooms in their homes. If you have a tax based on street frontage, you end up with lots of long skinny buildings.

People have always liked to use loopholes to avoid being taxed. When you put taxes on trade, that's how you get smugglers. If you allow people to write off charitable donations, then you get people who will bend over backwards to create something that appears charitable. Brian told us about someone who wrote a book about how great he was, had it printed, and then "donated" it to libraries, which allowed him to write off millions of dollars in taxes. One of the odd characteristics of the American tax system is that it differentiates between income from work and income from investment (aren't they both income?).

Whenever you have taxes, you have to have tax collectors. You also end up with Treasury agents, the people whose job it is to find the tax cheaters. Tax collectors appear in fiction, but they are usually portrayed as evil. (A Taxing Woman, the film by Juzo Itami, is one counterexample.)

Remember that tax avoidance is legal, while tax evasion is illegal. Al Capone got arrested for tax evasion.

Do people threaten to kill tax collectors?

We talked for a bit about the history of the US Marshals. They were outlaw hunters, but they were also slave hunters. They were strike-breakers, and had jurisdiction across state lines.

We talked very briefly about Universal Basic Income. That would have to rely on taxes, but it would also benefit every member of society in ways that would make it harder for employers to abuse them. Here's a link about Finland's recent UBI experiment.

Kate asked what it would be like if motherhood were a paid job, maybe paid by taxes. Would that lead to standards, and state minimums for nutrition, education, etc.?

On some level, as you are creating a society you have to ask how much of the value of the individual's labor goes back to the society. The name we give to the type of society depends on the answer to that question. If all of it goes back to society, that's communism. If none of it goes back that (I guess) would be libertarianism. When you're somewhere in between, you can learn a lot by considering how the balance is enforced and where it can be influenced.

Thank you to everyone who attended. Tomorrow's hangout will meet at 10am Pacific, and we're going to talk about Translation, Translators, and Interpreters. Join us!


Wednesday, July 19, 2017


I was really glad that Morgan suggested we discuss Ancestry, because this is a topic that is often given a great deal of importance in genre fiction. Blood, and who your ancestors are, are huge topics. It's surprising to me how many works simply accept the idea of the divine right of kings, for example. That's one of the reasons that I'm critiquing it in my Varin world, which definitely tracks ancestry because of birth-based castes, but also has a nobility that tracks it - which of the Twelve Great Families are you a member of? The trick of course is that the Great Families are so inbred that there's really no genetic distinction between them. (Of course I'm trying to subvert the concept; it's what I do.)

What are the reasons to track ancestry? One is to keep track of whether you are in line to inherit money or power, but there are also other reasons. It's deeply woven into your identity in some places in the world. Kat told us that in Japan, you have a family registry, and in many places, your ancestry is not only known to your family but to everyone who lives in your community. It's not just a pedigree of power. It's also potentially a vector of oppression, if you are a descendent of an outcast community, or also potentially of a religion which gets discriminated against.

We talked about the religious ancestry aspect of Judaism. Within the Jewish faith, if you have a Jewish mother, then you are considered to be Jewish, so there is a strong focus on maternal lineage and tracking that to assure your membership in the communities. There are also rabbinic dynasties. This can hand down to a descendant the idea that he should be a rabbi. In Judaism there is also the idea that if you are the child of an incestuous or adulterous relationship, you should not be allowed in the temple, and neither should your children for ten generations. Somebody is going to have to track that.

It's this sort of thing - the idea that children are tainted by some aspect of their parentage - that leads to dalits (Indian untouchables) and burakumin (Japanese undercaste) groups. It also appears in a different context when you look at the one-drop rule used to determine racial identity in America.

Americans don't always trace their ancestry, but there are notable exceptions. There are a number of associations like the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Mormon community is also very serious about keeping track of ancestry, which is why they have a huge genealogical database in Salt Lake City.

Kat noted that the US has inherited the Western legacy of myths supporting the divine right of kings, so it has a combination of the inherited nobility myth which contrasts with the myth of the "self-made man."

You find a whole lot of stories out there which deal with the idea of kings cast down who have to find their way back to their birthright of power.

Morgan talked about how there is a societal expectation that you will follow in your family's profession. Her example was loggers. People who have grown up in one social group will not be aware of the kinds of tools that people in other social groups use to gain entry to particular places and groups of people who can help them advance. Social mobility is very difficult.

We noted that Austen dealt with people who have class expectations due to birth but without the budget to fulfill them.

There is an interesting parallel to the question of following in one's family's footsteps with the queer narrative. The whole family is heterosexual, but someone is taking a different path and potentially causing the end of the lineage. Is the DNA really what's at stake? How might a family in a fantasy or science fiction story deal with the continuation of the family line with gay family members? Would there be some form of adoption? Would there be a scientifically accomplished mingling of the relevant DNA?

Cliff noted that adoption is often mishandled because of this idea of blood and ancestry, as in Indianan Jones and the Crystal Skull when the birth father is given so much legitimacy - more legitimacy than he deserved.

I noted that historically, Henry IV had lots and lots of children with lots and lots of women, and I found it notable that a number of these children had been "legitimized" so they could inherit property and rank. People have been trying to regularize the irregular behavior of (powerful) human beings for a very long time.

I also pointed out that there is a tradition in Japan, when a family has no sons, of adopting the daughter's husband into the family to carry on the family line.

Kat mentioned that Terry Pratchett's work subverted the divine right of kings idea.

Another important question came up: What do you do with ancestral trades when the world is in flux? What happens when feudalism is dying? What happens to the buggy-whip makers when buggies are obsolete?

Morgan brought up the topic of medical history, and I told the story of my husband's father. When he got a hereditary type of cancer, he sued to have his adoption records unsealed so that he could contact his blood siblings and let them know that they should be tested. He was successful in this suit. Kat mentioned how much drama is currently going on surrounding DNA examination, when people are finding out that their ancestry is not what they thought it was, or not what they had been taught that it was. "We need to sequence you" can lead to "nothing you believed is real." We thought that would make a great story.

Apparently in 30 Rock there was an episode where Tracy Morgan's character finds he's related to Thomas Jefferson.

Should these discoveries about ancestry have meaning for your life?

There's a book out there called My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me.

Cliff mentioned he has a friend who traces ancestry back to the god Odin.

Che mentioned that demigods are a pretty big deal in middle grade literature, and that's all about ancestry!

I brought up the question of naming based on ancestry, such as what happens in Scandinavia with names like Amundsen or Thorsson or Thorsdottir. Some people who came to America from this region Americanized their names by keeping the same last name, but used the father's name as a middle name. Russians often use a patronymic as the middle name. Do we (should we) assume that people have different last names? What about first names? How easy is it to change your name? Does your name change throughout your life? We're definitely going to come back to this as a separate topic.

Kat mentioned that there are tons of storylines out there based on the concept of ancestry. Having your birthright taken is just one. There's also rediscovering your parentage, or conversely, "I'm gonna go be me" narratives.

Americans are often willing to enact classist tropes because of ancestry. The American approach to class is different because our relationship with it is indirect. Disney portrayal of princesses is lacking in some major elements of obligation, etc. associated with nobility. It tends to have an uncritical adoration of class and to reinforce social injustices (we hope that is starting to change).

Cliff, who was being sat on by his son, remarked, "Over here it's more about descendants than ancestry." :)

Enemy Mine features ancestry issues. So do the Descender comics. So, importantly, do Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood books, and the Patternist series. Middle grade features parentage prominently. Che mentioned the Beastologist books (and we didn't even mention it at the time, but Harry Potter, seriously!).

Kat noted that the question of Ancestry is one of the great scars of the transatlantic slave trade. This deleted people's connections to their ancestors and deliberately broke lineages up. We should not be surprised that this gets explored in Octavia Butler's work. It likely will appear in indigenous fiction as well.

Cliff also noted that the concept of ancestry isn't always based on blood, as when you have musical houses which behave as though the musical training is the approximate equivalent of blood relation. He's involved in the Gurana tradition, which used to be a blood tradition, but then became one of teacher and student, a sort of metaphorical ancestry. This is also true of martial arts, kabuki, and other artistic traditions.

This was a really fascinating topic, and we decided to take up the idea of names another time so we can go further into it. Thanks to everyone who attended! Today's topic will be Taxes.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Jessica Reisman and "Bourbon, Sugar, Grace"

We were joined by author Jessica Reisman to talk about her story at entitled, "Bourbon, Sugar, Grace," and also about her novel entitled Substrate Phantoms. She was brave enough to come on while still jet lagged, and we had a terrific conversation.

I asked Jessica what had come first as she was composing "Bourbon, Sugar, Grace" - the main character, the plot, or the world. She told me that the main character, Fox, had come to her first. In an early draft, Fox was on the train during an accident; in the version, Fox comes to the wrecked train well after the accident occurs.

The story takes place on a mining planet, where the people living on the planet have been abandoned by the mining company that brought them there. The planet itself is inhospitable, requiring atmospheric assistive technology, so that people can only rely on breathable air in certain small regions, and outside those regions they must rely on "oxygen filaments" implanted at birth. These oxygen filaments are a finite, "critically limited" resource.

The planet has been mined past the point of stability, and become what Jessica calls "a geothermal lacework." This results in "gurges," which are basically eruptions of the planet's mantle material. It is one of these that causes the train wreck.

The name of the main habitation zone is Drumtown. It features living structures with algae lattices that enhance air quality. The filaments are what allow people to leave this area.

I asked Jessica where she did most of her research for this story. She said that she probably did the least research on the mining aspects of the story, but she did look at imagery of mines and read first-person accounts from miners. She also relied on knowledge that she'd gained while doing research for a previous book into mineral structures.

She said she did more research about how to construct habitations in inhospitable environments, including living buildings, cities where buildings are living things. She also researched vertical farming and water reclamation.

There are several tiers in the society on this planet. You have people who are higher up in the mining corporation - executives, scientists - and then you have miners and techs who make up most of society. The miners and the techs got together to form co-ops to give them relative independence from the corporate oversight, a little like unions. The train takes people between the mines and the different settlements.

In the story, Fox gets sent out to salvage something at a request from a scientist, and is given a scanner that indicates when it detects the object a bit like a geiger counter. Fox herself doesn't know what she's looking for, which I found interesting.

One of the interesting and delightful things about the story is the way that Jessica contrasts the vitality of people's lives with its fragility, and the sense that disaster could strike at any moment. Both of Fox's parents are alive, and they are both referred to as "moms" even though one of them is physically male. I remarked that it's really refreshing to see parents in a story. Jessica told me that they were really important, because she wanted there to be a sense of community to contrast with the way the society itself was abandoned by its corporate overlords. Vibrant, yet tenuous. Jessica says, "that's us."

She says she is fascinated by cities and by what people accomplish when they come together. The community coming together leads to enhanced chances of survival.

Morgan remarked that the idea Jessica used of a farther-off settlement that got fewer services, reminded her of her own road, because she lives at the end of it and her area is always last to be paved or plowed. It was similar to the way the train ran in the story.

Che asked if Jessica was planning any sequels. Jessica told us she doesn't have any pre-planned, but she likes the family a lot, so "it could happen."

After that, we talked a bit about Jessica's novel, Substrate Phantoms, which came out about a month ago. It takes place in the same science fictional universe, but at a much later time. It's "way far future SF." Jessica told us she takes inspiration from C.J. Cherryh, Samuel L. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Tanith Lee.

In this universe, the interstellar society is called "The Aggregate." People live on planets, on stations, and on ships. They travel via "spin drive" or "wave space," also called "the substrate."

Jessica told us that far future SF is "my happy place." She's more daunted by near future SF scenarios. She likes to take all the cool stuff that she's read and the science we have now, and extrapolate them.

She told us she really hopes to avoid a "white universe" or "monoculture universe." Diversity is very important to her portrayals.

She calls her work "social science fiction space opera," and she says she loves to get into different cultures and art. This is a future that hasn't kept the worst aggressiveness of our current cultures. Women do "whatever the hell women want." Problems do arise, however, from splinter religious groups and from general-purpose greed. The novel centers on Termagenti Station, and the inhabited planet Ashe. It involves "planet shaping," or terraforming.

Jessica says that she doesn't use traditional chapter structure. The novel begins with a haunting on the station. I asked her about languages in this world, and she said that people mostly used "standard trade language," but that she has "reams and reams of notes" on religions, beliefs, art, mourning rites, curses, magic, economics, and other topics. She describes herself as taking existing things from our world and making mosaics with them. She wants to honor existing things, and also examine how they change.

The main character in the novel, Methian, is a bit like a movie-maker, because he works with virtual reality technology. He's a story coordinator, doing a documentary exposing corruption in his own family. As you can imagine, this leads to trouble!

Jessica has invented a type of interactive sculpture for this world, and "holoboxes" that play little stories. It's fun, but also work. There's a mural on the station that tells a story central to the beliefs of the system's inhabitants. There are clubs, sports, and restaurants. Jessica told us she enjoys considering the differences in worldview between people who live on ships or stations and those who live on planets, which they refer to as "gravity wells." Her concept of "spin drive" is built hand-wavingly on the idea of quantum spin and the concept of wormholes.

Jessica, thank you so much for joining us! It was a pleasure to learn about your work. Remember that for the next three weeks, Dive into Worldbuilding will be hosted by Che Gilson. This week we'll meet on Wednesday, June 21 at 10am Pacific. The topic of discussion will be Bribery.



I started this hangout by recommending a book my husband and I had been reading, called Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. Some of the amazing tidbits I mentioned from the book include how the servants had to remove all the ribbons from the children's clothing and iron them every time they did laundry, and how someone was in charge of making sure the yolks of fried eggs were centered. The book covers more than just what servants were asked to do, however; it also talks about how the World Wars changed things like the role of women, the availability of manpower, and the economics surrounding the hiring of servants.

The issues surrounding servants hired by the British in India were somewhat different. In India, only certain castes of people could be hired for a job that involved cleaning bathrooms. Different castes were assigned different duties. Also, a British woman was sued by one of her male servants when she hit him with a piece of toast. I urge you to go back to the book for the detailed original versions of these stories.

There are generally ranking systems within the population of servants - some have more power, and some have less.

Kat asked whether it makes sense to have servants in a world where magic or technology is being used for labor-saving. Brian suggested it would be odd but interesting if wizards or magic users were employed as servants because they could get work done.

I talked about some of the complex issues surrounding hiring someone to help in the household in this day and age. Why does it feel different to hire an electrician or a plumber than it does to hire someone to clean the house? Wages are a factor. So is the gendering of labor.

Domestic labor tends to be gendered. Is hiring also gendered? What are men expected to do? What are women expected to do? How are tasks assigned?

In the book Tom by Dave Freer, a cat turns into a human servant. This brings up a lot of interesting issues.

Black Adder took on some of the questions about servants. What are the issues surrounding robot servants?

Brian got a bit more detailed about how there is a class structure within the servant population. He told us that the cook ran the kitchen, and the butler ran the household, and they were the rulers of their domains.

Are the most disagreeable tasks paid well because nobody wants to do them? Or are there populations forced to take on these duties because no one else will hire them for better?

People who are doing hard labor sometimes make a lot of money. This has happened in science fiction with stories of asteroid miners, for example, but it tends to be very male-biased. Wendy told us about a book she wrote, Confessions of a Female Safety Engineer (Wendy Delmater).

Women's work is often devalued.

People can learn to ignore other people who are present in a room. Servants tend to be an ignored population.

Kat brought up some fascinating issues about our cultural expectations. When we walk into a store, who might we guess is a customer, and who an employee? There are many stories of people of color who are unjustifiably guessed to be employees of a store because of racial bias. Black men are sometimes assumed to be valets. These people are sometimes pushed past, or asked to do service.

Wendy mentioned that she was sometimes assumed to be a secretary on her construction sites, and so she started wearing a hard hat. This is a useful way to flag one's membership in a different group, but such flags are often missed or ignored when they are used by people of color, and assertiveness can be dangerous (even to life and limb). We talked about the roles of allies and what kind of consequences can present themselves if people try to be allies. It's interesting to take a character like Miles Vorkosigan and look at his class privilege, where his protections come from, where he rebels and what the consequences are, and how far he can push it without being stopped.

The social systems that divide people into subservient and non-subservient classes are self-sustaining, and reinforced through explicit punishments.

A lot of fantasy and science fiction still holds onto the idea that one's blood is where one's quality comes from. What are the features that define nobility? Are they white features? Can you be cast down into servitude and still be rescued because of your blood?

Service is skilled work, and not something easily learned by people who have been cast down.

Who "deserves" service? Do people take pride in their inability to do certain things in your world?

We talked briefly about the metaphors people use to talk about their pets. Are cat owners servants to their cats? Are they parents to their cats? What are the implications of these metaphors? The two are not compatible, however, unless we decide we are somehow servants to our children.

There is a power relationship here. It's always important to dig down to the power relationship and ask where it arises and what its consequences are.

Jane Austen's work dealt with the impoverished nobility, and put money and class into conflict in fascinating ways.

The position of nanny is fascinating and can be fraught. Do you really want to use your parenting skills as a nanny, to put yourself into a service position relative to someone else's children? Is a nanny considered a member of the family?

Where are the lines drawn between family, servant, skilled consultant, and laborer? These are vitally important questions in any secondary world.

We also spoke briefly about publicly funded respite care for the disabled, and Patsy shared the experience of her son. Her son's developmental assistant becomes like part of the family. In Canada, the government pays for these services. The United States has some public services like this, but they require a lot of management. Kat encouraged us to ask who in this relationship would be perceived to be of higher or lower socioeconomic standing. Is there a societal expectation of who is allowed to have care or not? Is race involved? Are other factors involved?

Thank you to everyone who attended for a fascinating and dynamic discussion. For those interested in the video, we had some audio balance issues; I apologize for those.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Dystopias and Utopias (at BayCon)

This was Dive into Worldbuilding's first ever live show at a convention, and it would not have been possible without the help of the terrific BayCon tech folk and also my friend and fellow discussant Kimberly Unger, who helped make sure everything connected and worked with a minimum of feedback or other difficulty.

We spoke about Dystopias and Utopias because that was the theme of the BayCon convention. The layperson's definition of a dystopia is a society in which everything is going wrong and everyone suffers; a utopia is the opposite, a society where everything goes right and everyone benefits.

If a dystopia is a society that involves oppression and misery, then are post-apocalyptic societies dystopias? They quite frequently involve oppression and misery, but there's a sense that much of this is due to outside forces. It's pretty clear that the Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic scenario, and is definitely classed as a dystopia, but what about Mad Max? Where is the borderline?

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie definitely portrays a dystopia, and so do The Handmaid's Tale and  1984.

Kate brought up the most critical question, however: "For whom?" A society that is utopic for one group might easily be dystopic for another. Who counts in this society's equations?

Che said that dystopia gets more air time, and dystopias are certainly popular today. Why are they so appealing? Very likely it's because of their resemblance to our own world and the social problems we grapple with today.

Star Trek was written as a utopia, which makes it unusual. However, Star Trek plots often involve the utopic Federation society intersecting with dystopic societies on other planets. Are there problems in utopias? Does that stop them from being utopias? There are quite a few examples of ostensible utopias that have problems, including Demolition Man.

How would you maintain your utopia?

We mentioned the existence of the language Esperanto. It is not the only language that was designed for the purpose of promoting human unity; there was a period in history when it was commonly believed that if we all spoke the same language it would bring humanity together.

Sameness is something to be wary of, however. The portrayal of some utopias makes them seem unnaturally uniform, and in fact there are quite a number of dystopias designed around the idea that too much sameness is unnatural. It's important to draw a distinction between commonality, and sameness. Sameness might seem great as long as it is our sameness, a sameness we feel at home in, but human diversity is such that no sameness can really last as a societal model.

Morgan noted that "utopia" means "no place." The word when it was invented acknowledged that there is no such place.

Since people are different, they imagine utopias differently. The male version of a feminist utopia is not really like what a utopia would look like if it were written by a woman.

What would a blended positive society look like? Tonya suggested that there might be pockets of small states.

Here are some examples of utopian visions:

Coleridge and Southey's Pantisocracy - they imagined their own little utopian place in North America but ignored indigenous people and servants. (Thanks, Patsy)

Everfair by Nisi Shawl (which we discussed here on the show)

Utopia by Thomas More

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Some of us argued that the society in The Handmaid's Tale would be perceived as utopic by the men who ran it.

Kimberly suggested that The Matrix has an interesting mention of utopia, where the machines say they set up a "perfect" society but no one was happy with it.

Che mentioned hippy communes, and the idea that automation will free us from drudgery.

Another question that came up was, "What happens if there aren't jobs?" Our society sees work as necessary, and capitalism relies on the idea that a person gets supported on the basis of their work contribution, but if there is no need to work, what do we do? This is one of the reasons why people are experimenting with Universal Basic Income. Does societal support make people lazy? Most of us argued that it does not, and there is scientific evidence to suggest this is correct. Our culture over-values work for profit. We imagined that if people did not have to work in order to live, to eat or to be healthy, there would be a lot more art in the world. There would be a lot more gardening. The idea that laziness results from lack of work is a cultural mythology.

Some shows portray people as being captivated by video games and becoming sloths. People who criticize video games often don't understand their value and what kinds of useful things they teach.

We spoke about YA literature dystopias. Apparently they almost went out of style at one point, but then they came back. Fighting the powers that be is a big concern for young people, as is finding  your place in society. So is changing the world.

Kate noted that teens hear a lot about what jobs are available to them, but only a few, like doctor, lawyer. "There are a gajillion jobs outside the approved lifestyles" that you never hear about.

Deborah said that she was encouraged to be a doctor or lawyer, and said her sister wanted to be a judge but skip the part about being a lawyer. She said she's thought a lot about what different choices she would have made if she knew all the options she actually had. One of her preferences might have been to be a radiology tech.

Dystopia creates a narrative of limited choices. Always ask, "Who are the people you don't see?" There are people who are working at night doing pest control in restaurants, for example. Some jobs are invisible. Cooks are behind the scenes but they have power.

Kate says we tell the stories of the pilots, not the soda-machine fillers.

Do we have systems that recognize diversity?

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed portrays a socialist utopia, but still, if you are not part of the mainstream, you are not valued.

What does it mean to be a contributing member of society?

I recommended the book Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner (I referred to it as Lunch, oops!), which talks about women and their unrecognized contributions to our economies.

Starship Troopers portrayed a utopia in some sense, but all those people had to have kids and send them off to die.

Does utopia mean finding a way to appreciate everyone's contributions?

Morgan asked, "What does it take to convince people that life is not a zero-sum game?" If everyone gets something, does that make it no longer valuable? Must rarity be linked to value? What kind of inherent value is there in things?

What are the costs of existing in society?

Kate noted that you may not know what you need.

If you are an author, how can you write well about things you don't really understand? You can't know everything about everything. How can you write about economics well? What about chemistry? Patsy noted that she goes deep into research on DNA, for example, and she says ".002%" of what she studies will end up on the page.

I mentioned Zilpha Keatley Snyder's book Below the Root, which is a flawed utopia.

Che mentioned how problematic it is to think of native peoples as existing in a sort of "primitive utopia" which was a view many colonialists took.

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion. I really enjoyed it, and I hope we can run the show at a convention again sometime.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sex Workers

I'm really glad we got to take on this topic because so often sex workers in fictional settings are reduced to stereotypes. We were super lucky to have Liz Argall join the discussion alongside Kat Tanaka Okopnik.

I told everyone that the first time I ever remember seeing a sex worker was when my family drove into Amsterdam when I was twelve. I woke up just as we hit the red light district and the first thing I saw out my window was a woman in a store window wearing a teddy. It was a big surprise! But it was clear to me from that moment that sex workers were not viewed in the same ways, nor did they operate in the same ways, all over the world.

Back when we first spoke to Laura Anne Gilman, she mentioned trying to avoid brothels in her book Silver on the Road because she didn't want to fall into the same Western stereotype.
One of the stereotypes, of course, is the "prostitute with a heart of gold." One of the discussants mentioned that Firefly hung a light on that when they named an episode "Heart of Gold." Kat expressed concern that there was whitewashing of people of color when it came to sex work. She wondered whether avoiding featuring brothels was erasure or respect.

Che remarked that in the territories of the West before they became states, there were lots of brothels because there were no laws against them. There was a hierarchy of racial bias, though, with the white brothels at the top making the most money, and black women or Chinese women making less. Kat said she'd be surprised if there were many Chinese women because at that time the Chinese exclusion act meant that it was very difficult for Asian women to immigrate to the US unless they were "safely monogamous." This indirectly led to mail order brides.

Liz is from Australia, where sex work is legal and sex workers have their own advocacy group called the Scarlet Alliance. She told us that because sex workers had accumulated financial power, they (the Seattle underground) actually played an important role in the rebuilding of the Seattle downtown. The sex workers said they would help so long as prostitution was legal and taxed. Some sex workers get so much money that they are given a pass in society. She told us a "Bob" was a woman dressed as a man in order to access male privilege.

Where sex work is legal, sex workers have power and control over their own sexuality. Where sex work is illegal, the "police become pimps" because they get to decide what to turn a blind eye to. In general, corruption goes down in places where sex work is legal.

Empowerment, economics, and gender roles intersect in complex ways.

Another stereotype to avoid is the magical sex worker stereotype. Similarly, a sex worker does not have to have a traumatic origin story.

Liz told us that once she got a chance to visit a friend when she was going to work. She was intrigued to go because she was an author! So she got dressed up and they stood her in a corner. She got a tour of the brothel, and was shown where the condoms were stored and audited (you have to check that they are being used and that they are up to date). She learned how inspections work. One lady she knew sold her car so she could move to be with a guy, and then the guy abandoned her. She liked having sex and wanted to earn money. She said the key was to pretend to have as fantastic a time as possible.

Kat said that in San Francisco there is a community of lap dancers. Many of them are single mothers, because the job is lucrative and takes place after hours. These women are not out on the street, or junkies; they figure "I like having sex and might as well get paid."

Try to avoid having the only female character in your book be a prostitute. Yes, this has happened.

Liz remarked that in general as a woman if you dress up fancy, you are seen as a person and potentially seen as bold and attractive. If you don't dress up or are considered too old, etc. you are basically invisible.

Kat said I should hang up a giant blinking sign that says "GO TALK TO SOMEONE WHO CAN HELP YOU WRITE THIS WELL."

Not all prostitutes are women, of course. Some of the issues surrounding sex work get even more complex and dangerous if you are talking about male prostitutes or trans prostitutes. It is easy for people to be victimized if they have no legal protections. Liz remarked that there are always legal and illegal forms of sex work. She told us about the Fyshwick warehouse district of Canberra, Australia, where you knew you could go to find sex workers, porn, and fireworks, or maybe a used car. Kat says in the United States you tend to find exotic dancers, fireworks, ammunition, and peaches (fruit) lumped together.

Under regulation, in what Liz called a "regulated parlor," there are strict rules about the conditions under which the sex work takes place and what surrounding activities people can do. A contract sex worker shouldn't be doing laundry. The client has to lie on his back, and must shower first. The sex worker has to be on top so she can disengage at any time.

The Miscellaneous Workers' Union has been fighting to be taxed so that its members can get financial advantages afforded to other unions, such as getting mortgages.

Street work puts a sex worker in a much more dangerous situation.

If you are a person who comes from a wealthy background, it's easier to step away from lucrative sex work. It is a vulnerable profession with no health insurance and no retirement. If it is your lifeline because you are poor, it's much harder to say no to a job you don't want.

Of course, the topic of sex robots came up. This was tricky because both Kat and Liz pointed out from the experience of the people they knew, a lot of sex work is about human intimacy, not just sex. It can be about finding a sympathetic place, someone to listen, or just touch. There is emotional labor involved. In some ways they felt there should be training for sex workers in counseling, and opportunities for them to debrief from their experiences.

So where do sex robots come in? Why are they so common (even in Guardians of the Galaxy)? Why do they seem so often to be female?

Kat pointed out that the planet Raisa in Star Trek is gender-balanced.

Liz said that less humanoid sex bots might be interesting. There is a problematic conflation of Asian women with sex robots because of our view of Japanese robotics. A Scandinavian approach would be very different. You could have a pod which would be the opposite of a sensory deprivation pod. There is one in the movie Sleeper.

Australia has laws on the books about sex crimes that apply to Australians no matter where the crime was committed. They are based on anti-slavery laws and are applied to sex crimes by Australians committed in Asia. For example, if your passport is taken and you therefore can't say no, that's considered slavery and the person who takes the passport will be punished.

People anthropomorphize sex dolls. There is a certain weird similarity with the story of Pygmalion. One of our discussants mentioned that she had read a creepy short story where Pygmalion's statue comes to life and he doesn't appreciate it, but starts seeing a piece of marble on the side.

One thing that came out of this discussion of sex robots is that it's really problematic to conflate sex work with robots that do sexual things, because it validates the dehumanization of sex workers.

Remember, sex workers can say no.

As a group we agreed that we would like to get rid of the trope that says once you are paid you can't withhold consent.

In an area as sensitive as this, it's also really important to use your terminology carefully and accurately. A courtesan or an escort is not necessarily a sex worker. People often assume that sex will follow, but often it is not part of the deal. Geisha are not about sex either. If a geisha's clients want to have sex with her, that has to be separately negotiated from her other entertainment skills (music, dance, socialization, etc).

There is a tendency in Western society to assume victimhood and take agency from people doing this sort of work.

Being outside the bounds of polite society is not equivalent to wretchedness. There is lots of potential for coercion. It's important to think through where taboo boundaries lie, and to think about whether a violation of taboo is happening consensually or non-consensually, because the two are very different.

Always remember that there is no such thing as "I have learned the rules." There is no uniformity, especially when you are looking cross-culturally. The subject of sex work is sensitive and should be depicted with great care and research.

Thank you to everyone who attended. Special thanks go to Kat and Liz, for being willing to share the stories of their friends. This was a fascinating discussion and I learned a great deal.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

John Chu

We had a delightful conversation with author John Chu about his short stories. We were coy at first about using the full title of one of the stories, but in the end it's important to get it right, so the story was called, "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Tradeoffs for the Overhaul of the Barricade." John told us that he kept wondering if people would make him change the title, but that in the end people don't tend to do that as much for short fiction!

I remarked that his stories seem to focus a great deal on relationships. John explained that "I steal shamelessly from the improv playbook." He says that his experiences with improv deeply influenced his writing. When people think of improv, he says, they often think of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" and other short-form improvisation. However, he explains that there is also a long form of improvisation, and within that context there is less of an expectation to be funny. The aim is to capture an emotion, with real stress on creating a sense of relationship.

In a way he describes as counterintuitive, the idea is not to think about plot. He quotes Samuel R. Delaney as saying, "Plot is an artifact that the reader creates in their mind."

When improv is done badly, the focus is on fixing a problem that has been posed. However, it's good when you can explore how the people involved attack the problem.

John says "I get accused of not writing speculative fiction a lot." This is because his stories are not often directly about the speculative element that he chooses to include. He mentions Max Gladstone talking about Superman stories, and says that the canonical question of "can he super his way out of this?" is boring, while far more interesting is when he's doing super things, but the core question of how he gets out of it requires something different.

Thus, in "...Barricade," the question is not whether the characters can fix the barricade, because if they don't, then their civilization ends. Ultimately the story is about the relationships of the characters, and what kind of decisions or sacrifices the characters make.

I asked John what comes to him first in a story, the speculative element, the relationship, etc. and he said that it depends on the story. He describes himself as "a walking collector of useful information." So as he's going through life collecting all sorts of tidbits, he finds that every so often a number of them will come together into a story.

His story entitled "Hold Time Violations" was inspired by walking into a T station and finding that the public announcement was out of sync with the train. That alone is not a story, but a setting. It's the idea of things being out of sync, and then he takes that and applies it to the characters.

In the case of his Hugo award-winning story "The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere," John says he spends a lot of time defending why the literalized metaphor of water falling on you from nowhere is actually speculative fiction. In this story, water falls on you when you lie, meaning that the implications of a lie are not just emotional. John says that some people can read the entire story and never realize that the water is literal, in spite of lots of physical description of the water and cues to the way it feels to the characters.

I asked him how he goes about creating the setting and surroundings, given how important the core relationships are to the story. He doesn't worldbuild in advance, but describes it as "discovering things as I write." Often, he says, the story ends up being about something different by the time he's done. He works from the inside out, asking, "what does this scene need?" John talked about George Saunders, who spoke about how good sentences have a rhythm. You just keep adding in words to make beautiful sentences, and it ends up creating a world.

John says he steals shamelessly from other writers. Samuel R. Delaney's specialty is to visualize and immerse in a setting full of specific detail. Delaney was one of John's instructors at Clarion writer's workshop. John clearly remembers his reading was a description of buttering toast, and felt really long for just being a description of buttering toast, but years later all his classmates remember that description of buttering toast.

Because John is not someone who builds the world in advance, most comes out as he writes in an organic process of co-evolution. He goes back and outlines after creating a first draft to keep the story from being unstructured. Sometimes he does research as an intermediate step. He says "I try not to research while I'm writing." He says you want your work to have truth to it. He often finds himself drawing on his collection of "useless" knowledge.

I asked him about his recent story in Uncanny, "Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me," in which the main character goes through all sorts of extreme body modifications to make himself bigger and stronger. John said that because he's 5'6" he's continually asked himself "How do I be taller?" This question features in the story. Some of the story elements are extrapolation, but he did look up the name of the surgery that extends the length of bones. It's useful for people with legs of different lengths, for example, and not just cosmetic.

Another element of the story is special drugs that make the main character have bigger muscles. John explains that he doesn't do steroids, the same way that people who write mysteries don't murder people. He does lift weights. Crossfit, he told us, is starting ot have a steroid crisis. He looked into things like this and turned it up a couple of notches.

For one of the scenes featuring a break-in, he chose a specific instance from the news as a template; it was the raid on Osama bin Laden's house. The exterior of the building was essentially that same house.

I asked him if he ever studied psychology for relationship inspiration, and he replied, "I probably should study psychology." His knowledge of relationships comes from personal experience, but is generally not autobiographical. "I have friends and I listen to all of them." He also gets ideas from reading, news, and other sources. He says that one of the principles of improv is to take inspiration from whatever happens around you.

Connie Willis has been known to say, "My characters do what I tell them to," but John says "You have the tail, and you have the dog, and it's not clear which part is the tail and which the dog."

John says it's important not be too attached to anything you write. Really cool ideas, if they don't match with one story, can later be used in another story, so cutting is not a tragedy.

He always finishes his stories. He describes his ethic as "I'm going to finish this story even if it kills me." He says that finishing gives you practice in finishing. Some stories write themselves, but he said that "The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere" was like "having to do a root canal on a stranger." Some of his stories have never seen the light of day, but they are finished. John says, "I'm a better writer because I finished them."

Many thanks to John for joining us! This was a unique conversation because it's been really unusual on the show to dive into the experience of someone who doesn't worldbuild in advance. However, a lot of people do it, so it was super helpful to get a peek at John's process. Thanks to everyone who attended.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

City Animals

When we spoke about working animals, Kat suggested that we talk about City animals, so we took it on! Kat started by noting that she wonders what future archaeologists will think when they find the bones of animals in the midst of our cities - whether they might speculate that people interred large rodents in their walls for religious or other reasons, etc.

The issue is that our cities are full of animals, but we generally ignore them. Pigeons, rats, cats, dogs...and that doesn't count insects like cockroaches and bedbugs.

One issue that Che raised was that cities have expanded into the territory that animals previously occupied. Some animals can't remain when that happens; others can. There are foxes in London, for example. Leopards appear in some cities in India to hunt feral pigs. Singapore has a lot of wildlife. You can find deer in the suburbs in California, and moose in Canada. Coyotes also live in cities. Peregrine falcons actually thrive in city environments. My dad once had a peregrine falcon nesting outside his office window in Chicago... and sometimes he would see it feeding its young live pigeons! Singapore has river otters ever since they reduced pollution in their rivers. San Francisco has sea lions. My own town has raccoons, skunks, and possums - we used to have a wooden deck, and they nested underneath it (though sequentially, not all at once). Raccoons are cute but destructive, skunks are stinky (we used sand covered in coyote urine to encourage ours to move on), and possums are actually a great way to get rid of ticks. Squirrels didn't get mentioned in the hangout that I recall, but they are all over the place in my area.

Humans have this odd expectation that the boundaries we draw are official, and that other creatures won't cohabit with us. Except, that is, the ones we want to cohabit with. Cats came into our habitations because cohabiting with humans allowed them to eat mice and rats that were attracted to our garbage. We create conditions that attract animals, and then predators are attracted to those animals.

Some animals end up in cities because they are brought in as pets and then abandoned. People flush exotic animals like piranhas, alligators, and snakes down the toilet and they end up living in the sewers.

My friend, author Janice Hardy, has an endangered turtle that lives in her back yard in Florida.

The urban density of rats is far higher than the country density of rats because city conditions encourage them to flourish.

Morgan mentioned that in her area of upstate New York, she has less trouble with deer than cities nearby because there is more room for the animals to move away from human dwellings and find food outside the proximity of humans.

Kat said that cities have a simplified food web as opposed to higher biodiversity in wilderness areas. Apparently the highest density of peregrine falcons is actually in New York City, because the buildings are basically tall "cliffs," and they can easily find hot updrafts from the streets. There are also lots of pigeons to eat. We speculated that would make the city a dangerous place for snakes.

Crows are incredibly densely populated in Tokyo, Japan. They are also quite impudent, and will snatch food from your hand if you carry it around with you. Their population grows because Tokyo doesn't have room for sturdy plastic bins for trash, so people put their trash out in plastic bags that crows can easily rip through. The trash bags don't get picked up until 8 or 9 am because trash workers often have to take the train to get to their workplaces, and trains don't run all night.

Kat told us about a city in Thailand occupied by monkeys. The windows there are covered in iron bars, and no one walks in the street. Kat saw a monk who carried a slingshot, and a monkey snatched the remains of a bubble tea from Kat's daughter. "We expect to be at the top of the heap," she says, "and it's disturbing not to be there."

Che says we're making animals smarter by making them defeat more and more complex methods of protection for our food, etc. I told everyone about a raccoon that came through the cat door in my childhood home and started washing cat kibble in the cat's water dish.

My current town has a lake where geese, ducks, terns, seagulls, egrets, herons, and other waterbirds like to hang out. Some of them are coming from the marshlands on the other side of town.

In the Australian town of Geelong, sometimes you find koalas who have walked from tree to tree and ended up in the middle of the city by accident.

In a post-apocalyptic setting, what kind of animals would co-habit with humans? Would animals be very angry?

Rats and cockroaches would have big die-offs without humans to support them.

We speculated about what would happen if octopi became pests. It would be very hard to octopus-proof!

This was a fun discussion. Thanks to everyone who attended!