Tuesday, November 21, 2017


There are quite a number of stories based on the character of a child genius, such as Ender's Game or Spy Kids. We were talking about prodigies, where the person's abilities are extremely different from what one would expect for their age. Social difficulties often play into a story like this. Genius kids may or may not appear in a controlled environment. But the idea that a genius would have social difficulties is its own stereotype. Kat opined that the character of Wesley Crusher ruined the child genius category.

Precociousness doesn't just mean intellectual genius. It implies a child being more advanced in some way. Sometimes it implies they seem older or more sexually mature. It's always about children, however. It is erased by adulthood.

We spoke about the movie Shine, about a precocious but abused boy who was a brilliant pianist in Australia. This brought us to questions about genderedness and the ways in which emotional intelligence is not expected of certain people. The expectations for precocious girls are different. They are not generally allowed to be socially disconnected like boys. Che told us that Mozart's sister had been more talented, but no one cared. Girls are often told to hide their exceptionality. Girls in history have become warriors often have done so because it's the only way to escape the box of societal expectations that you have been put in.

Expectations are a key factor here. Precociousness implies a disparity between expectations and performance. Girls who became motherless were expected to take on adult roles in caring for the family, but were not considered precocious for doing so. "Little man" means something very different from "little woman," which is most commonly a way to belittle one's wife.

Prodigies can grow up and still be exceptional.

Kat brought up the question of what happens when you were a child prodigy but you aren't any more, and what effect that might have on your psychology. What happens if you lose your magic? (In fantasy, this could be literal.) We spoke briefly about IQ testing and how it sets up expectations that may be toxic. You could be precocious but being treated that way might lead to worse things later.

Kat told us that she was able to access a "walled garden of education" because of being identified as precocious. It was a safe haven for her, and useful as she dealt with identity issues. She benefited from being pushed instead of stifled. Testing allowed this to happen for her. When she reentered the mainstream, she felt pressure not to make other people feel bad. There was an expectation to underperform for other people's comfort. Kat told us that in her case, this was exacerbated by gender and racialization.

Morgan asked, if you are brilliant and ADD, will you get support for your intelligence?

The idea of "potential" is an extremely loaded one.

Culture tells us that everyone should expect to hit particular milestones by a certain age. You can be labeled, to your detriment, for being either faster or slower than those milestones. Human development is not a smooth process, and it happens in "growth spurts" both physically and mentally.

The cultural system has inertia. We compared it to the way clothes are made off the rack, basically by making assumptions about people's size at certain ages. In earlier eras, people had smaller wardrobes that had been specially fitted to them. We have lost the idea that custom-crafting for non-elites exists. The fit of clothes is an indicator of class.

Intellectual precocity interacts with class. The more money you have, the more flexibility you have. School funding in the United States is complicated, and the richer you are, the more access you have to specialist educators that people in poor areas don't have.

The idea of a child being precocious can also be weaponized, or used against them. Tamir Rice was killed, and police justified his killing by claiming that he looked mature. Age perception of black people among white people is skewed. White people tend not to recognize the signs of age in non-white people. Young black children are perceived as older, while privileged white people are described as "finding his way" into their 30s. In the case of young girls, people often conflate the onset of puberty with the ability to give meaningful consent. Can children consent? Precocity can be deliberately assigned to victims to protect their harassers and rapists.

Neoteny, or the appearance of childlike-ness, is generally associated with big eyes, rounded features, and the things we might term kawaii or chibi (from Japanese).

We argue that the intellectually precocious child should be given access to adult spaces, and therefore that same word is adopted by people who argue for access to the sexually precocious.

Authors should aim for nuance in their portrayals.

Sometimes portraying a child as precocious allows the author to argue that they were predestined for some fate. Sometimes authors don't do sufficient research about children and their behaviors. Twelve-year-olds are not tiny adults. Sometimes making a character a child genius is about wish fulfillment. Children are often portrayed in fiction either as overly intelligent, or as under-intelligent. Moral of the story: do your research! Meet some kids if you can.

Thank you to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet tomorrow, Wednesday, November 22 at 10am Pacific to discuss Birthdays and Coming of Age. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, November 8, 2017


The first thing I think of when I think of performances in SF/F is the bard in the tavern. However, there are a lot of different kinds of opportunities for writers to put performances in their fiction. I personally used an orchestral concert as an important element of my novel on submission, because of the way that art is subversive and boundary-crossing. I modeled it on the real historical events surrounding Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, where a lot of concertgoers walked out during the performance because they were so scandalized.

We talked a bit about puppetry, specifically about the French Guignol puppet shows, and English Punch and Judy shows. They can be quite revealing of history and social biases. They are forms of on-the-street public performance where you donate to the players as you leave. Modern Guignol shows do sometimes have to be scheduled in inside venues where they sell tickets, but this is a relatively new development on top of a longer history of street performance.

When you are thinking about what kinds of performances to feature in your fiction, ask yourself, "Who attends a performance here? What class are they? What are the expectations for audience participation? Is this type of performance high- or low-energy?" Puppet shows often expect more audience participation, while orchestral concerts tend not to invite audience participation.

Our discussant Shauna Roberts told us quite a lot of interesting information about the history of orchestras. She told us that in the 1700s, orchestras were less professional and the musicians were not as good, perhaps as good as high-school musicians now. The groups were often smaller. Sometimes musicians would hire someone to show up to the rehearsals for them, and then end up coming to the final performances and sight-reading the music. The composer of the piece might be composing and revising up till the last minute. Instruments that were played might not be highly evolved. The other really key element was that the audience was usually hearing a piece of music for the very first time, because the piece was composed for the event. Orchestras in this day and age are basically playing "orchestra's greatest hits." At this point in history, it was more like improv or jazz, where you make it up as you go along.

Things changed a great deal when it became possible to record performances and hear them more than once. A change may also have occurred when sheet music first was able to be printed. One way in which sheet music has evolved is that composers have increased the detail they provide for musicians in terms of tempo and dynamic changes, etc. In the olden days the music was written without much detail and musicians would ornament.  This somewhat parallels the way in which dramatic plays have changed to give more stage instructions (since the very simple instructions of Shakespeare, for example).

Possibly the biggest change that occurred with the advent of recordings was that before recordings, each orchestra had its own style. People would seek out particular orchestras to hear those styles. However, after recordings orchestral styles converged and orchestras became less distinguishable.

At this point we moved away from orchestras. I spoke a bit about Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which is an amazing place to visit and is full of performances. There are pantomimes where you watch a show and can yell at the actors. There are violins or other instruments people play for you at dinner. And there are also full-scale historical reenactments that you can participate in.

Mimes are cool. They get a lot of ridicule these days, but they are essentially silent storytellers, and get a lot of flak these days because it became popular to imitate (badly) the mime of Marcel Marceau. My family went to see the mime troupe Mummenschanz, and we were amazed by the performance. One of the things I noticed about mime is how active the role of the audience is in interpreting the meaning of what's going on.

Shauna mentioned that in the novel Never Let Me Go, there is no emotional or facial information, and all of it must be provided by the inference of the reader. (Yes, the reader is a very important participant in the meaning of any book).

Cliff talked about a play called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, where there are thirty plays, and the audience says numbers and the performers do the performance that corresponds to the numbers. Also, someone orders pizza.

We have this concept of the "fourth wall" between an audience and a performance. Would a performance in a fictional society have this same concept? How would they relate to it? In Western theater and Noh theater from Japan, the fourth wall is generally inviolate. In haunted houses, performers interact directly with the audience.

The context of a performance matters a great deal. Cliff explained that in India pre-1947 in the Raj courts, a musician's role was to play in the court. It was essentially a palace job, full time. After independence, the social context changed, and musicians started giving performances with tickets at a fixed time. This was a tough transition for many reasons, but its influence on performance was that it cut down on the sitar ragas that could be played.

When '78 records came into use, it created pressure for songs to be short. '78s were clearly the Twitter of musical recordings.

Recordings separate the context of recording from the context of listening.

Opera could once only be seen live in the theater, but it can now also be seen in recordings and even in movie theaters.

The television show Star Trek featured quite a lot of performances, but most of them were of European classical orchestral music. Many of us would have liked to see more different selections!

Some types of performance have a fixed canon, like Noh and Kabuki, and Gagaku. Shakespeare also has a fixed canon. Noh uses masks for its characters. In all of these cases, the historical language gets preserved in the performances.

Performances aren't always short. Kabuki performances last all day, and people picnic in the audience. Shakespeare plays also used to last longer, with more songs.

Do people talk during a performance? In a nightclub, they do. In a concert hall, they don't. Dimming the house lights was a technological development that allowed organizers to signal the need for silence.

Movies made performances available to the masses because they were so much cheaper to run.

I also mentioned that there is a new type of performance out there - the YouTube video. Performers like Markiplier and Jack Septiceye are playing games, but also performing comedic improvisation.

Many fictional works have thought about the role of virtual reality performances and holograms. People like making art with whatever technology is available! Fahrenheit 451 had a participatory play that happened at home. Star Trek had the holodeck.

What kind of behavior is accepted during a performance? Talking? Eating? What is rude? Dinner theater combines eating and watching a performance deliberately. What is polite?

A church mass could be considered a type of performance with audience participation, as well as a ritual.

Cliff recommended Adam-Troy Castro's Marionette stories as doing something unusual with performance. They feature one hundred thousand aliens who all dance until they drop dead, and an instance of a human dancer joining in.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Today's hangout will feature author Spencer Ellsworth. We'll be meeting in 40 minutes. I hope you can come!


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What We Do at Different Times of Day

This was a lively topic! I started out by clarifying what I meant by it. We have a lot of daily practices, most of them everyday things, that we do at particular times of day (and not at other times of day). Since everyday cultural practices are some of the details that really make a fictional world pop (or even a version of the real world, actually), I wanted to spend some time talking about this.

Che immediately thought of the practice of avoiding drinking alcohol until after 5pm. Kat mentioned the Japanese practice of having a bath before going to bed and contrasted it with the American practice of getting up and jumping in the shower. The Japanese practice makes a lot of sense because buildings don't often have central heating (they generally heat room by room), and so it works really well to heat up your body and then tuck into bed. Kat said, "you are your own hot water bottle."

And then, of course, there's tea time! Americans tend to have tea with breakfast (if they drink tea) and sometimes lunch, but my Australian husband likes to have it midmorning and midafternoon. Kat said in her house teatime was morning, afternoon, and evening before bed. The movie Astérix chez les Bretons (in French) makes a joke about the early Breton soldiers not wanting to fight at teatime. Astérix likes to make jokes so that the cast of characters is responsible for all the historical things like the ruins of the Roman coliseum and the fact that the Sphynx has no nose. Another discussant pointed out that between Astérix and Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bear, they've invented all the things!

Morgan mentioned siestas. They tend to happen during the hottest time of day, and be dependent on local climate, as Cliff observed. They have led sometimes to stereotypes about laziness from colonizers arriving from outside the climate zone. They also happen in Spain. In France, stores traditionally closed for two hours during lunchtime. Thinking through climate helps you to worldbuild in more than one way, because it provides setting and also traditional behaviors. Cliff called it "double worldbuilding."

What reasons do we have for scheduling things at particular times? This is a good thing to think through. Climate obviously enters in. So does the age of the person involved, as with naptimes for children. Culture teaches us assumptions about how brains work, but can also fail to take neurodiversity into account, as well as culture differences in a diverse society. Some people like a fixed schedule.

Meals also tend to be culturally influenced to take place at particular times of day - and not always at the same times of day. What are the meals called in your society? Which meal is the biggest? Is there a "second breakfast"?

Kat noted that clocks tend to be normalized. Bank workers still work at different times from shift workers, however. Technology level has a lot of influence on what time people do things, because an agrarian schedule is very different from a factory one. If you have no electricity, it limits the kinds of things you can do after dark. Cliff also noted that people have things they schedule at different times of year, especially when they are growing food.

Clocks regulate shifts. The sun regulates life, but it is also constantly changing. Cliff pointed out that when you are working on a ship, the schedule tends to be four hours on, four hours off. Kat noted that someone has to be on lookout all the time.

Time is a convention, and it is often run on the basis of some group's behavior, and disseminated mechanically. Local time in the middle ages was determined by the church bells of the town, rung by the clergy. The days would be divided differently as the days changed with the seasons. Days are also measured differently by different groups. For example, the day begins and ends at sunset for the Jewish and Islamic communities, whereas by the clock it begins right after midnight, and for some communities it begins at dawn.

Cliff spent some time telling us about sitar playing. Many of the musical pieces, called ragas, are to be played only at particular times of day. Some are for early, mid, or late morning. Some are seasonal. One can only be played during the eight minutes of sunset. Practice gives you a bit more flexibility, but it's ideal to practice the sunset raga in the evening. It's perceived to affect health like bad medicine if you play them at the wrong time. There is another raga called bhairavi, where once you've played it you can't play anything else. Sometimes sitar players have set up special concerts at unusual times so concertgoers could hear a different repertoire. Sometimes teachers will give music lessons on Sunday to teach morning ragas. The differences between these pieces have to do with the scale of notes used, the pattern for ascending and descending, and various motifs. Cliff says morning ragas tend to have more flats. In general, the ragas have different "vibe" to them, having something to do with the rhythm and aesthetic.

Kat remarked that there are also American songs that only get played at certain times of day, such as reveille and taps. Lullabies are for bedtime. There are wake-up songs and work songs.

We considered for a minute or so the difference between a song intended to evoke a particular time of day (musically) and one that is only to be played at a particular time of day.

These patterns definitely also exist in Western culture. People have very strong opinions about hearing Christmas music out of season. There are rituals associated with certain times of year, and not all are religious. When do you eat pumpkin pie?

When are prayers supposed to be? At sunrise? Bedtime? Five times a day? Before or after you eat? Do you change them depending on what you're eating? Are there special times of year when you pray differently?

Ask questions about the practices of the people in your fictional society.

The example of Second Breakfast in the Lord of the Rings movies was wonderful, because it was used for both worldbuilding and character development. Cliff remarked that in science fiction, highly regimented use of time is often associated with fascistic societies like those of A Wrinkle in Time, Metropolis, or "Repent, Harlequin, said the Ticktockman." The phrase "making the trains run on time" is directly associated with Nazi Germany.

Timekeeping is both personal and communal.

Discussions are ongoing in various contexts about whether Daylight Saving should remain a part of our yearly scheduling. People have circadian rhythms that get messed up with Daylight Saving switches. In addition, studies of teens have shown that they are more effective at studying if they have been allowed to wake up later in the morning. Is there any form of circadian variation in your world?

We do have flavors we prefer at particular times of year. Pumpkin spice is apparently followed by gingerbread and then by peppermint.

Kat remarked that in Japan there is a deep understanding of the culinary calendar. There is, for example, a particular day in the summer which is the right one for eating a bowl of eel on rice. She told us that for relatives of hers, Thanksgiving and July 4th made sense and were comforting because of the predictability of the food offered on those days.

There are seasonal beers in different countries, including the US and Japan (and others).

Japan also has seasonal rice, as when they serve rice from the newly harvested crop. There are also things to add to rice for different times of year.

Bûche de Noël is a cake exclusively for Christmas. In Japan, every festival has its own unique wagashi (candy).

Beer is not a good thing for breakfast, I imagine because it intoxicates you before you have to work. Is there a cutoff time for coffee? In the US some perceive there to be one, but in Europe it's very common to have espresso after dinner.

What time do you eat dinner? Kat said in her family, her father was a gardener, so he'd work until dusk and they would not eat dinner until 8pm. In the circus, though, one might have dinner between two evening shows.

 Cliff said that certain activities are reserved for "liminal time" in between other activites. In an initiation, it's common to find dramatic changes of schedule. A break from the comfort of the known has a strong effect on character comfort.

There is a lot more one could talk about here (jet lag, for instance), but I think we covered a lot in a short time. Thanks to everyone who participated.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Wednesday, November 8 at 10am Pacific, and we'll be talking with guest author Spencer Ellsworth about his new book series, and about outdoor survival. I hope you can make it!


Monday, October 30, 2017

Monica Valentinelli

Author Monica Valentinelli joined us to talk about her work in fiction, games, and media tie-ins, and we had a super-interesting discussion!  Monica told us that she likes to write horror, dark fantasy, and dark science fiction, but that when it comes to horror, she's not a fan of chopping off somebody's arm and calling it horror. She prefers atmospheric horror including the works of Edgar Alan Poe, Mary Shelly, and Anne Rice, among others.

"What is horror?" she asks. Is it a mood or a genre? Genre is more of a question of which shelf to put a book on, in her mind. Not until revisions do you have a sense of that. She finds it easier to write horror and the darker genres because she can capture that mood. She also says the motivations of the characters are clearer because they are "drawing to the point of light." Even if things are terrible, there is that little point of light that they are trying to move toward.

Monica said she likes to look at what kinds of situations are no-win. She prefers gray skies. When you are surrounded by darkness, what do you do? Are you crushed? Do you fight?

I asked her if she uses any talismanic words (recurring words that evoke particular feelings). She explained, "I don't write by fixating on words..." Instead, she focuses on the sound of the narrative. She has a background in musical history, and perhaps because of that she includes reading aloud as part of her process.

She describes a story as being like an iceberg. Readers see the tip, but they need the impression of depth.

Monica is writing a novel about alchemists, who have specific behaviors like purifying themselves by going into the hottest water possible. The details paint the picture for the reader. History is messy. Monica says she researches obsessively. In her view, human nature doesn't change, but technology does. She likes to look at the advertisements and letters from a historical period. What does a tentacle mean to a story? You don't know until you know what the characters see it as. She doesn't want to get stuck in tropes.

I asked Monica what her research process looks like. She told us it depends on what she already knows, and what she's doing with the topic. For Dark Eras, a "near world" urban fantasy game, she was creating a template so people could play as monster hunters. That sent her into research on Salem, and the pre-Enlightenment views on why crops failed, etc. (The general view was that it was the devil.) She spent three months researching a twenty thousand word chapter. There were a lot of tensions in the community and aspects of the history that had remained unexplained in the usual accounts. Tituba was married, for example. Also, these were not the only witch trials that were happening at that time.

Monica says the danger is that research can become procrastination. It has been for her novel. It's important as you research to ask, "What is the purpose of the research?" and "Am I losing focus?" It takes time to process the layers of information. There is also the question of how you are using the information. Are you writing historical fiction? Or are you being inspired by it?

Monica told us her alchemy novel is in the same world as Violet War, and right now she's working on multiple stories in the world.  She has been influenced by working in games and media tie-ins, where you can ply in a sandbox. She wants to know the world really well so she can write quickly.

I asked her what it was like to work on media tie-in projects. She told me you see what's on the stage. The most important part is actually contractual: there is a contract and licensing agreement between the company producing the product and the license owner for a particular period of time. That amount of time varies widely. That agreement determines the scope of the project, and every arrangement is different. If you are working with a team, it's different from just working for an editor. Monica worked on a Firefly role-playing game, and on a Firefly dictionary. She said how and where you can build things depends on what material you are given. Sometimes there is a setting bible; sometimes you need to make one. The tough question is where your creativity can stray from the core of the property. When is Star Wars no longer Star Wars? It's not something you own. It's highly variable, and Monica says that you need skills to collaborate and manage your own ego. If you aren't willing to do this, you can be replaced by someone who is willing to do the work. Monica says she has brought a lot of learnings from this to her own life. Her big goal is to do something like Rick Riordan Presents.

I asked Monica about her favorite aspects of worldbuilding. She says she likes to have milestones and touch points. "I have to know about how magic works to write about a wizard," she says. Character psychology is more about characterization for her than about worldbuilding.

She likes to start a story by developing an elevator pitch. (This is a description of a story that can be delivered to an agent or editor during a short ride in an elevator.) It's a 1-5 sentence summary of what the story is about. Otherwise, Monica says, she's going to go off the rails. She picks two books or movies that it's most like. That helps her put a visual container on the story.

Monica said that when she works on character, she focuses on how characters react to things. She uses a book called The Secret Language of Birthdays, which give keywords and personality traits for people who have particular birth dates. It often gives both positive and negative traits, and gives her clues for a starting point. A basic background for a character helps her give someone direction. She writes down character motivations. The value of her research is filtered through this. Does my character really care about the types of shoes they wore in 1865?

Her interest in history sometimes gives her trouble when actual history doesn't match with the popular narrative of that history, and readers try to tell her history worked one way, when she knows it worked another way. She thinks it's important to be accurate so that the incorrect narrative doesn't "become the history"for her readers.

Right now, Monica is looking for places to publish her short stories set in her macro-world. She's also writing something for a collection in which each story is an auction item. Hers is a found rare book, "The Mythica d'Argent," a metal book with chemical mysteries, such as the fact that it doesn't tarnish. She also has a lot of gaming work coming out shortly in Dark Eras 2, where the chapters are about different historical eras in a near-world, including the period of Galileo Galilei, the Empire of Mali, the Qing Dynasty, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

I asked Monica how working on a novel was different from working in a game. She said that in a novel, you get to use your own voice, but the story is usually static. The reader will take from it what they want to. In a game, there is the potential for story. Games are dynamic, though video games are less dynamic than role-playing games. Groups of people can pick up the threads and tell their own story, so you do want to tell people all the details of the world, in a way that doesn't happen in a novel. In the novel, there is a focus on plot, subplots and characters. Pieces of the world that aren't relevant to the characters get cut. In a game, you have to have twenty magical items so the players can pick one. You have to present "the whole iceberg." As far as narrative, the character motivations in a role-playing game are decided by the player. Motivation in a video game is generally provided. A lot of plot isn't usually there in the game unless it's provided by non-player characters. For a game, there's a mixture of cool setting, cool beings or entities that people can work from, and there must be more material than one person can use. You are designing the rules.

Monica said she perceives a mental transition phase between novels and games. The Violet War is something that she aims to make into a playable role-playing game, but there are a lot of steps still necessary. She needs readers, material, marketing, etc. But for now she needs to focus on what she's doing, which is writing short stories in the world to attract readers.

Monica, you were a wonderful guest and we really enjoyed talking to you! Thank you so much for your insights and for answering all our questions, and good luck with your projects.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, November 1st, and we'll be talking about Precociousness. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017


The word Taboo comes from Tongan originally, where it referred to a prohibition associated with sacredness. However, it has much broader applicability at this point, and so this discussion decided to dive into a lot of the possible implications of the concept across our own world. As Kat said, we don't want to erase our own practices. Some taboos are religious, and some are not. Something like "don't speak ill of the dead" is a non-religious taboo in our society. We also prefer not to talk about how much money people make. In some cultures, you don't talk about what someone does for a living.

When someone breaks a taboo, generally speaking you will have a visceral reaction, a very deep-seated sense of wrongness.

One taboo is the separation of toileting and eating, and the fact that we don't talk about what we do in the bathroom. Some people will not talk about intimate parts of their body. In fact, the taboo on talking about butts can lead to literal medical care problems.

Brian mentioned that there are major taboos surrounding sexual practices like incest and bestiality. But there are also minor ones like talking to other men in the restroom. Men also aren't supposed to talk to other men about emotion.

Do we talk to strangers? Would a person in your fictional world talk to strangers? Why or why not?

Women tend to go to the bathroom in pairs to make sure it's safe. Women can talk to other women, and are expected to tell them if they aren't fully put together.

Kat said that the "men don't talk about emotion" taboo was probably a larger prohibition on receiving emotional labor from other men.

Discussing sex is taboo. It may be the taboo lying at the root of people's unwillingness to talk about sexual orientation, because people assume that discussing whether someone is gay or straight forces them to talk about sex.

We also have food taboos. There are old ones, like the Kosher taboos, but there are also things like not putting ketchup on your ice cream.

What are the consequences associated with breaking a taboo? Is it just that you don't get invited to dinner parties? But if you don't get invited to dinner parties, that excludes you from networking opportunities that could make the difference between success and lack of it.

Conflict avoidance is not the same as taboo avoidance. This is a very interesting topic when we start talking about social justice, because it is taboo to confront someone about having done something unjust. The injustice itself is ostensibly taboo, but in fact, calling out is seen as worse.

As you design a society, ask yourself: whose behavior gets regulated, and when, and how?

There can be certain behaviors that cause you to lose your status in society. Literally, some behaviors are considered so dirty or low that they can drag you down from your caste. Low people are not allowed to perform religious rites.

Taboo behaviors can also be an act of bonding. "In the frat we tell sexist jokes" is an example of this. Racist jokes always start with looking around and checking who is in the room.

Brian asked, "Is taboo a reflection of a society's history?" It is - and influences that history - so it's worth thinking about in your world design.

"I don't see color" is one way that we express the taboo of talking about racism. But until people are equal, we do need to see it. The idea that talking about race is the same as racism is a form of taboo. It makes the unwarranted assumption that "everyone is like me and I am normal." We can't assume anything from our own experience about the experience of a person from another race. The experience members of a particular race share is not genetic, but is societally imposed, based on the society's perception of their racial group membership.

It's quite common for people who do not share a racialized experience to fail to see what that racialized experience means, or to deny that it is different. However, something like the different life experience of short versus tall people is never questioned. If you are short, you can't reach things on shelves designed for taller people (which are common in the US). This puts you to quite a bit of hassle, but if you remark on it, people will pretty easily acknowledge that you experience this difficulty.

Racialized experiences are not the same as preferences or allergies, because they are externally imposed.

Talking about social class is also taboo in the US. It does matter what class you display, based on your accent, your posture, or even your teeth (orthodonture and dentistry are expensive), but you are not supposed to talk about it. Dental insurance is not included for poor people, and it can also be a marker of immigrants.

In the US, there is pressure to have your teeth look a certain way. There are also many taboos across the world associated with body presentation. Body odor taboos vary greatly from culture to culture. The smell of one's breath and one's flatulence are both taboos.

Ads help to create a social culture. Victorian soap ads established the habit of washing daily.

Humor often skirts the edge of taboo because it relies on a slight bit of discomfort.

Any mixing of cultures can potentially lead to taboo conflicts. It's easy to imagine that aliens might reverse what we conceive of as sacred, possibly having revolting funeral practices or other practices that would cause humans to balk. Here on Earth there are cultures that keep the dead relative's body around for a period of time after death. We talked about the fiction of Mary Anne Mohanraj and Haralambi Markov, which tackle taboo topics in fascinating ways.

Thank you to everyone who attended and participated.

Today's hangout will discuss Performances, and we'll meet at 10am Pacific. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Anne Leonard and Moth and Spark

It was a pleasure to have author Anne Leonard come on the show to talk about her worldbuilding! She told us that her favorite thing about worldbuilding is that she doesn't have to worry about plot when she's doing it. She said ever since she was a kid playing Dungeons and Dragons, she thought coming up with backstories was more interesting than the play itself.

Anne describes Moth and Spark as a "literary fantasy." She started out thinking she was writing a cheesy romance story to "get it out of my system," a Pride and Prejudice with dragons in a secondary world. She says she put in a lot of stuff, most of which had to come out.

She did a lot of research. One part of that was that when she was looking for a suitably epic ending, four years after starting the book, she took a geology field trip to Yosemite. It turned out to be exactly what she needed. It gave her a better mental image, she explained, and a better sense of scope. Those mountains are huge, and appropriate to the experience of writing about dragons.

When she was writing about dragons, she researched reptiles to make them as much as possible like real reptiles. She also did historical research about past wars, about historical cultures, etc. She looked at maps of ancient Mediterranean Greece and Asia. She studied how people moved between Asia and Greece, and how the Roman Empire worked.

The empire in Anne's book wants to control the dragons. The kingdom where the story takes place wants to break free from the Empire. The empire is based in part on the Roman empire and part on the Ottoman empire. Anne said she had Greek myths and the Iliad in the back of her head while she wrote.

In Moth and Spark's backstory, a powerful country crossed the sea 500 years ago and conquered Caithan. They stole dragons and took them south. The dragons are kept under control by magic, but the dragons are intelligent and have manipulated things so that someone will break the spell that keeps them controlled.

I asked Anne about the magic system in this world. She said there were not a lot of tools, or schools. It's a more mystical environment, with ghosts and hexes. She carefully defines what the people believe, but it's not necessarily exactly what is going on. The people in the "rational" upper classes think hexes don't do anything. However, there are real effects caused by the intrusion of dragon presences into this world. Carousel horses will "come alive," and people will have visions. This is because the dragons are trying to tell their story using susceptible people.

Anne told us she likes the supernatural, and elements of horror. Her focus is definitely character-driven. She is interested in what happens in people's heads. She wrote a ball scene inspired by, and full of easter eggs for, Pride and Prejudice. She wrote a line referencing Cinderella because a character says she won't lose her shoe.

I asked Anne about the distinction between dragon riders and others, which is clear from the very beginning of the story. She said she had taken inspiration from Anne McCaffrey's Pern books in that the dragons choose who they want. The difference is that dragons are the physical manifestations of something outside the world. How dragons appear is not how dragons are; they operate on another plane. What the magical curse on them has done is confine them, and keep them from expanding into other dimensions where they might be. They exist in a multi-world universe where time is not necessarily constant. Their existence outside of our concept of time allows them to give future visions. They resemble some representations of gods.

Anne told us that when she was in college she knew someone who had snakes as pets. She got to touch and hold a ball python, and it was totally unlike what she had imagined. She says, "scales are the smoothest, silkiest things." To feel it moving and constricting was amazing. "Snakes are all muscle and I just love it."

This was one of the inspirations for making her dragons very snakelike. They only eat once a week. She said they are kind of like a combination of snakes and cats. The cat part is the attitude, and the pointy face. They are like European dragons with four limbs and big wings, and lots of impressive claws. The claws can leave scratches on stone. You don't look into a dragon's eyes because "you'll go mad." They can mesmerize you so you just watch them as they are coming down to eat you.

I asked Anne about the significance of her title, "Moth and Spark." She says moths are a symbol in the book, and a harbinger of magic. They are a metaphor of how people behave compared to dragons. The dragons are the "spark," and moths are attracted to a bright light as people are attracted to dragons.

At this point in the hangout we shifted gears and I asked Anne about what she's currently working on. She said she's just finished a book manuscript; it was intended to be about a quest, but the quest kept dropping out. It takes place in a secondary world, and is narrated in two different time periods.

The story features a tyrannical king and his wife. One point of view is the queen's during the period between when she has her first child and her second. The other is after the queen's disappearance, people are trying to determine whether the king killed her or she vanished in a war. The king's sons are also rebelling against their father.

One of the characters is a woman whose father was killed and who joined the resistance. Anne says that writing this part was hard, because though it was an old idea, she found it was influenced by current events. There is real evil in the world of this story. The wife's decisions, and domestic abuse. Anne told us she had tried to write this story but it hadn't gone anywhere at first.

The chronological setting for the story is the gas lamp era. They have rudimentary electricity. Access to technology is very dependent on class. The rich have plumbing, but the poor use chamber pots. The amount of money you have controls how much technology you can use.

Anne told us that she was inspired by a trip to Mexico. She visited a tiny village which had no reliable septic system, and where the electricity was such that if you used too many heaters you could blow a fuse. People would use satellite dishes to dry their laundry. What impressed her was the coexistence of low and high technology. Most of the world doesn't have it all. In fact, even some homes in the US weren't electrified until the 1940's.

The way she handles technology in this world affects how people move, how they communicate and how they use transportation. When you have to physically go see someone in order to talk to them, and mail service is poor, everything happens more slowly. You have to make arrangements to meet someone, then walk three miles, and that slows everything down.

Anne says that when you are on the cusp, the borderline between magic and technology, it's really interesting because boundaries are places where interesting things happen.

Anne said that she really enjoyed working with her protagonist in this manuscript because she's a middle-aged woman, not a hot-blooded twenty-one-year-old. She's the leader of the Resistance. She's made her choices, and she's not impassioned about every cause. Her priorities are clear to her.

Che asked what Anne's favorite books were and what had influenced her. She told us she's a language junkie. She reads Victorian novels, Dorothy Dunnett, Steven King and Peter Straub. She loved Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell and said she wished she'd written it! She liked the academic feel of the footnotes. She also likes Austen and Dickens, and finds it interesting how modern their language sounds, not as distant as we think.

Thank you so much, Anne, for coming on the show! It was a pleasure to speak with you. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, October 19th at 10am Pacific. We'll be talking about what we do at different times of day. I hope you can join us!


Monday, October 16, 2017


This was always going to be an interesting topic! We kept it broad, because instead of just doing alcohol or drinks, we wanted to cover solid, liquid, and gaseous intoxicants. You can inhale them, ingest them, inject them, or even apply them topically. These are mind-altering substances, and they are woven into our social fabric, and have a strong influence on society. They even lie at the root of major cultural changes like the American Prohibition and its consequences (including organized crime).

Kat said we should make sure to include things like licking frogs. It's not just people who are interested in intoxicants, either - animals have been found deliberately ingesting fermented fruit or juice, etc.

If you are including intoxicants in your worldbuilding - and it would be very surprising if you did not - you should think about how they are delivered, and what their consequences are.

Alice in Wonderland features a lot of ingestion-leads-to-weird-effects, ostensibly real ones, that were probably inspired by the effects of intoxicants.

Many intoxicants are also ritualized in various ways.

As with many topics, we have to be careful to avoid exoticizing intoxicants and doing the "mysticized spiritual path plus intoxicants" story.

Intoxicants seem to be normalized more in fantasy, where taverns are incredibly common. One of our discussants asked, "If you're on a quest, should you really be taking psychotropics?"

We encourage all readers or listeners to avoid doing a last-minute story twist where "it was all a pipe dream or an intoxicated hallucination."

Star Trek has a long history of featuring intoxicants, including Romulan Ale. We thought it was interesting how Alien Nation used the idea that the aliens would ingest sour milk to become intoxicated. Alternate intoxicants like this are less common. Ian Banks novels include social use of intoxicants. The Fuzzy books by H. Beam Piper have a TON of cocktails, and in fact these are cocktails of the period in which the books were written, which led one of the discussants to call them Mad Men in space. In the case of these books, there was a pretty direct transfer of the social milieu of the writer and its social significance into a far-future context.

We thought it would be interesting to consider what intoxicants might be in an environment of scent communication. Would squid or octopus ink cause intoxication?

There are always intoxicating herbs, like catnip.

People tend to take their local grains and sugars and turn them into alcohol or a local beer.

Intoxication of the mind-altering type always borders on literal toxicity. You can poison yourself with ergot, or mushrooms, or peyote. Sometimes it's ingesting the wrong thing accidentally that poisons you; sometimes it's just overdosing on the intended intoxicant. This is certainly common with opiods!

We talked about absinthe, which is made with wormwood. Other artemisia relatives are also made into intoxicating liquors. There is a very long world tradition of soaking things in alcohol. Sometimes, alcohol intensifies the effect of other intoxicants.

We asked whether we had ever seen a story based on, "We are on a quest for strange new drugs." We did know about plenty of stories about "We are on a quest for strange new highs with existing drugs" like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Pineapple express.

Intoxicants can take a different form in Cyberpunk or hard science fiction. People can be "brain jacked" or stimulated in an intoxicating way. Snow Crash features some of this, and so does the new book by Annalee Niewitz, Autonomous.

In my own novelette, "Cold Words," I featured an alien protagonist who was addicted to an intoxicating substance. One of the things I tried to do with the story was have the purpose of his choice be misunderstood and judged negatively by humans who were imagining drug use in the context of their own social models.

We thought it would be interesting to see an alien who found the human environment intoxicating and needed a filtration system in order to interact with us. It would also be interesting if humans were intoxicated by the aliens they interacted with, and for some reason ambassadors to them kept making bad judgments... We would love to see an alien say, "Humans exhale carbon dioxide, it's amazing!"

We agreed that it was weird and troubling when stories about kids accidentally ingesting alcohol and getting drunk were considered funny. Our society's understanding of intoxicated or drunk characters has changed over time. Back in the classic Disney films, they were often portrayed as funny. Now, they are more likely to be portrayed as pathetic or ill. Glorification of drug use happens in stories; so does stigmatization of drug use. Kat says that these days she sees less "nudge nudge wink wink," or fewer stories about "I got drunk and I did bad things ha ha."

Alongside stigmatization comes the edgy countercultural rebellion angle of drug use.

We talked about casual users of intoxicants that we had seen in fiction. One example we saw was Masterharper Robinton in the Pern books, who used a lot of wine.

C.S. Friedman had an interesting situation in her novel This Alien Shore, where space pilots were people who were psychotic unless drugged, and had to be off their pharmaceuticals in order to function well as space pilots.

Dune had the spice, of course.

One relatively common narrative features hallucinogens leading to a higher truth. The Oracle of Delphi inhaled volcanic gas. Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg featured a special kind of wine that would induce spiritually meaningful and sometimes prophetic dreams.

Use of intoxicants by different social groups can lead to very different narratives. Cocaine was used by rich white people and spoken about in one way; crack was used by poor black people and spoken about in a very different way. Racism plays out in how this happens. We noted the difference between the way the opioid crisis among white people is treated differently from previous drug crises that affected others. Kat noted that cyberpunk has dealt with questions of social stratification.

Ask what is high class and what is stigmatized.

Sometimes you see people in real life who have undiagnosed mental disorders and use intoxicants as self-medication.

It's fascinating to look at cultural changes over time, such as that surrounding the use of cigarettes, as well as looking how their use has changed around the world.

Kat also brought up a really interesting question to ask: Are intoxicants sequestered, i.e. used in very restrictive contexts, or are they woven into the fabric of life?

We also briefly mentioned the problems of supervillains being caused by physical enhancement drugs gone wrong.

It would be possible to do a whole hangout on performance-enhancing drugs, but they were barely mentioned here.

Brave New World has state-mandated drug use to pacify the populace.

Consider whether in your worldbuilding you would prefer to keep the social role of intoxicants the same, and just substitute in fantasy/alien words for existing substances, or whether you would like to do more work and redesign the social phenomenon of intoxicants from the ground up.

These were some really interesting thoughts! Thank you to everyone who attended the discussion.

Dive into Worldbuilding meets this week on Thursday, October 19th at 10am Pacific. We'll be talking about activities that are associated with particular times of day. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Liz Argall - Fiction and Comics

As a longtime fan of Liz Argall's comic, Things Without Arms and Without Legs, I was thrilled to have her come on the show. Liz told us that when she thinks about worldbuilding, she finds short work more comfortable than long. She says, "I do a lot of world listening," and compared her process to finding a piece of driftwood and shaping it.

We spoke first about Liz's story "Mermaid's Hook," which she wrote while thinking about The Little Mermaid, which she never liked. She said she asked herself, "Where is a person falling from a ship likely to be caught by a mermaid?" She thought about contemporary piracy, and people escaping from one place to another, and then slave ships. Her gut feel was that a prince wouldn't fall from a ship without a search being conducted, so she chose to do a first contact story between a mermaid and someone trying to escape a slave ship. They would not share a language.

Liz told us "I'm a very kinesthetic writer." She visualizes things through an acting and embodiment process.

She told us she loves the idea of the spirit and "ness-ness" of a thing.

I remarked that I'd found the way she gave her mermaid sharklike skin was very interesting. Liz told us that had come from an experience she had in primary school (elementary school), when she was able to touch a wild Port Jackson shark. She says mermaids are often so mammalian, and she didn't want that in her story.

She says the ocean doesn't care if we live or die. Her mermaid was to be a mermaid wholly, more fish than mammal, smooth in one direction and prickly in the other like a shark, which also is pretty metaphorically cool.

Liz says she researches a lot without a sense of plan. What she learns serves as nourishment for ideas, like a compost bin. she does a lot of thinking and building, but then writes quickly. She describes the experience as being like carrying a burning flame.

We also spoke about her Aurealis award-winning story "Falling Leaves," which takes place in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Liz told us she worked a lot on disaster preparedness, which provided material for this story. This one she said was very different from "Mermaid's Hook" in that it was not a quick process. It was a 9 month slog full of anguish, but something unexpected happened five thousand words in and she had to pursue it. She said "I had to attend to the truth of the event." I asked her what that event had been. It was when the character named Charlotte fell and/or threw herself off the building where she'd been talking with her friend.

Liz told us that when she was twelve or thirteen "I didn't have a lot of trust." Liz's friend sat down near her and Liz said she had a reaction of "I hate you," and that became the seed of this story. Ordinarily she says she likes tracing the arc of a life, but although that was how this story started out, its focus really changed. Liz says it was important to attend to the anger, grief, and pain of young girls.

At one point, she says she had to cut five hundred words of how to use hemp plants for carbon sequestration.

At this point we moved on to speaking about Liz's comics experience. She says she wrote indie comics for a long time, and this influenced her style. It taught her what to strip out and what to expand. The density of the form means, Liz says, that "I often go to places that inhabit my body differently."

She was writing for comics at first, and then went to the Clarion workshop and learned to love prose. There was a faster turnaround, and the freedom to go into people's heads. Then a comic artist friend of hers said, "You should draw your own."

At first it was a means to raise money for other causes. She was a migrant, and her husband was on a special visa, also a migrant, and so bound to his job while she was bound to be a dependent spouse. But, Liz says, "I do not thrive if I cannot work."

In her comics work she likes to be present for people and keep space for them. She focuses on feelings and nurturing.

In her comic, "Things Without Arms and Without Legs," the world of the Things is very simple, but still important, and she has to honor it, and honor the nature of the characters. Nothing bad will happen to the pink bunny. Boot is unlovable sometimes, but characters will still love and accept Boot.
The world has been fleshed out gradually over time. It would be possible to stare at the sun without getting hurt. Chuckles the blue unicorn fell from the moon and is not good at eating spaghetti.

Liz does not have a world book for the Things, and doesn't often have story arcs. She knows what kind of things definitely won't happen.

She says Monorail Bunny is a little bit weird. "I drew him creepy so that doesn't help."

Sometimes she writes something deeply personal that she thinks no one will relate to, but it connects with people.

Her comic "A Sad" is her most famous, and it's important because it features a question that people don't often ask.

I remarked that the emotional landscape that Liz describes is a form of worldbuilding we don't often see on the show - and given that I'm always looking for new ways to approach worldbuilding, I found it really fantastic!

Liz says the panel border in comics is a powerful tool, but it often feels disruptive for the space and breath she is looking for in a comic. The world of the Things is a landscape, a place she feels comfortable putting emotion in.

Liz used to live on a farm. She lived there during a drought when they had to truck in water, and then during a flood. Landscape is not just realism but emotion. She told us about an occasion when, much later while she lived in the city, she found a 2-3 foot blue-tongued lizard. She said she thought, "I hope he doesn't get trodden on," and "He looks delicious," and "he feels smooth." Living on the farm gave her a different awareness and a different response to her experiences.

Liz, thank you so much for coming on the show! This was a fascinating discussion, and became very emotional - you were so generous with your time and your feelings.

Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 10am Pacific to talk with author Monica Valentinelli. Join us!


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Public Displays of Affection

We began this hangout, as we often do, by exploring some terms. What counts as a public display of affection? We thought about hand-holding, kissing, or just walking side by side. Does it have to be romantic affection (not necessarily)? Yes, it's easy to think of kids making out int he halls at school, but there are a lot of ways to show affection, and a lot of relationships in which affection can be considered, such as family, friends, teachers and students, colleagues, etc. It's important to think about power dynamics, and how those can influence how shows of affection are understood.

Hugging teachers in the US used to be much more common, but then there was a change and greater concern about sexual abuse, and it became far rarer.

Kids are often expected to grow out of being physically affectionate. Which cultures does that change occur in? It doesn't occur in all of them.

Khaalidah remarked that a hypersexualized society discourages touch because it tends to overconstrue things in sexual ways - and maybe also because it's easier for touch to be understood as sexual by the people involved. She said she's a nurse, and mentioned therapeutic touch. Touch is very important to humans. People need to be able to read body language and tell who is open to it. She said if we spent more time learning to read each other, it would be helpful.

Across cultures, the conventions of touch differ. In America right now, hugging friends is very common. In France, kissing on both cheeks is common. If you tried to switch them, either gesture would seem very weird to someone in the other country.

Spencer noted that in the US, it's socially frowned on for a man to put his arm around another man, but that rough-housing is okay. In Victorian times, though, men could hold hands, kiss on the cheek, or put their arms around each other, and it was not stigmatized. Attitudes surrounding sex changed. Attitudes and expectations surrounding touch also changed. Platonic touch and sexual touch are neighbors, and the border shifts. In Victorian times it was cool to be spinsters together with great mutual affection.

Khaalidah remarked that she really liked the way the men in the Lord of the Rings were physically and emotionally affectionate with one another with no sexual judgment. There is plenty of hugging, and Frodo kisses Sam. Men are allowed to cry.

When you are creating a world, think through the different rules for different social categories. This can include men and women, or other genders, or different kinds of categories altogether. In our society women are allowed to "hug it out" but men are not.

Spencer talked briefly about boarding schools for Native Americans. This is a setting where people have been colonized, and can be very problematic. There are definitely differences in how people interpret eye contact. He says he has also noticed a "limp handshake," because soft grip is associated with kindness. This group also tends to be more respectful of the elderly - if an elder needs you, you drop everything. Spencer notes that native teens are not so embarrassed to have their grandmothers smother them in kisses.

Khaalidah told us she likes to "nom" her children, but the last of them stopped accepting this at about age ten. She says there were influences from Nigerian culture in her upbringing, like never kicking kids out of the bed. They went away when they were ready.

How much of touch habit is individual, and how much is culture?

What forms of affection exist? Are touches iconic? This means that they are codified gestures, like the French double-cheek-kiss, or the hug greeting, or the handshake.

We talked briefly about handshake combat. What does a handshake mean? What does a soft handshake mean? What does a firm one mean? What about a long one?

Personal distance is also relevant to this.

What kind of touch is expected?

Morgan pointed out that affection can be complicated by power dynamics.

Iconic gestures can have very specific social meanings. When I was in high school, hugging a friend meant nothing more than a greeting, but holding hands meant there was a romantic relationship.

What gets communicated to the person being touched? What gets communicated to bystanders?

Spencer said that handshakes in his experience were partly indicative of what you did for a living. Ranch hands would have very strong hands.

The handshake grew out of a gesture that allowed people to check one another for weapons.

We didn't talk about secret handshakes, but that topic was touched on by the show not long ago, when we spoke about In-group marking.

We talked about the interesting moment in The Force Awakens, when Rey tells Finn not to grab her hand when they have to run. It clearly has different meanings for each of them. Did he want it for his security? She clearly felt it as a power move, to grab her and move her.

Some people get hired to cuddle. Khaalidah wrote a story with a cuddle-robot based on this idea.

There are special contexts in which the rules of touch change. Dancing is a major one of these. Touch expectations are vastly different for dances like lambada, tango, waltz, and gavotte. There was a story in the news recently about actor John Boyega and touch expectations at Carnival, when the dance style is very intimate!

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie doesn't do a lot with touch rules per se, but does have very specific types of manners as relates to whether hands are covered in gloves or not.

There can also be social class touch differentials. What are the rules about touching or not touching servants? Employees?

Thank you to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets tomorrow, October 4th at 10am Pacific to discuss Taboos. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Alec Nevala-Lee and The Proving Ground

Author Alec Nevala-Lee joined us on the show to talk about his work, including a story of his which appeared in Analog, "The Proving Ground." "The Proving Ground" is a climate change scenario set in the Marshall Islands, which are in danger of disappearing. The scenario he put together is one in which places damaged by climate change can get reparations from the governments which caused climate change... but only if they still exist. A country which has disappeared under the water can't file for reparations, so in this story the Marshall Islands have built a "seastead" (like homestead but on the sea) which now represents the country.

Alec told us that in the midst of his writing process, he realized the story would be an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. This came about because of a scientific twist that he discovered while pulling together information on seasteading, including a long report by Peter Thiel which included technology and risk assessments of various sorts.

I asked Alec to tell us more about his process. He says he asks, "What's a good story?" He does lots of research and then looks for plot. He likes near-future scenarios. In this case he was looking at engineering proposals to combat climate change, specifically iron fertilization, which encourages the growth of plankton which consume carbon dioxide, but which doesn't necessarily encourage "good" plankton. Some plankton give off poisonous substances which can cause birds to go crazy. He found out about a historical incident in the 1960's when sea birds attacked, and that gave him an organic, plausible way to have a bird attack on a Marshall Islands seastead. At that point he realized, "This is the story."

I asked him if there was any connection here to his novel work. Alec has written three thrillers, and says he loves suspense, particularly the way he must try to keep people turning pages, and create puzzles for readers to solve. He says suspense is a great way of delivering ideas.

Alec describes himself as approaching worldbuilding from the opposite direction. Whereas most people look for a story that works within a background,  he looks for a story plot with a twist, and then asks, "what is the setting where the plot makes the most sense?" He prefers a setting in which the implausible becomes inevitable. He finds it much harder to construct stories where the setting comes first. The core idea sets the constraints. He once had a story that he initially set in Greenland, but then he ended up moving it to Vietnam because it was a better fit.

He told us about a medical mystery story he wrote in which the remains of a saint caused people to catch a disease that seemed to cause miraculous healing. He learned about the story of Saint John of the Cross and decided it had to be in Spain, then decided it couldn't be in the present day because of access to medical technology. He therefore set it at a time when access to medical treatment was limited, and chose the Spanish civil war. In the end, a parallel to Hemingway came in... but that was the last thing to join the story.

"You can be forced backwards into what seems like the story's most obvious feature."

Similarly, Alec said he didn't know until quite late in his process that The Proving Ground would become an homage to Hitchcock.

Sometimes you take weeks, months, or years of ideas and arrange them into a sequence on the page, and you can make it look like you had the ending in mind.

Alec specializes in puzzle narratives. He says they force him to explore ideas that he wasn't planning to explore. He appreciates the opportunity to learn about different things because the story "told me to go there."

He has a story coming out soon in Analog. This happens to be another one that started with setting. He found a book in a thrift store called Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country, published in 1969. He held onto it for one year, fascinated by the risks and problems the pilots faced, as well as the setting and the pilots' profession. Then he found a second thread in the stories of Charles Fort about unexplained phenomena. Alec says he's a big X-files fan, and so he combined the two into a piece about a bush pilot hero in Alaska and a ghost city that appears like a mirage over a mountain range.

Alec is constantly on the look out for articles, connections, and places to start.

I asked him what kind of tool set he used for putting setting on the page. He told me he likes exploring the settings, sifting through research for images and details depending on what is available. "It's easier to work with what you have."

In his story process, the twist is really important. He often aims to do what he calls X-files in reverse, where he enters in with an event that looks paranormal, but then ends up being rational and scientific. The mechanism is concealed, so the story will appear sometimes to be horror or fantasy, but science lies at its core. His rule is that whatever gets revealed must be as interesting as the paranormal explanation. He doesn't want the science to be mundane.

I asked Alec about how he goes about concealing things without annoying his readers. He told me he generally uses one point of view character to limit the available information. He then puts the puzzle together by placing pieces in careful order. He wants the last piece to appear as close to the end as possible. He describes these as "mystery writer tactics."

Alec says science fiction is a fun genre to work in because weird stuff happens in it all the time, so it's much easier to convince readers that there's a monster, or that something paranormal is going on. He once wrote a Japanese-style horror story about a river creature, and enjoyed then surprising readers with a scientific explanation.

In this way he makes the natural expectations of genre work for him. However, and he stresses this, the scientific explanation must always be more interesting!

Alec is very organized about his writing process. He says there's probably a limit to the kinds of stories you can tell with this specific technique. He's intrigued by challenging ideas but if he feels "I have to write this" he gets a bit concerned because he might not be able to be objective, or because he feels there's a risk that he won't be able to write it.

Right now, Alec is working on a nonfiction project about the history of science fiction. It sounds really interesting.

Thank you, Alec, for joining us on the show and talking to us about your process! Today's hangout happens in half an hour, and we'll be talking with guest author Anne Leonard. I hope to see many people there.


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!