Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Megan O'Keefe and the Scorched Continent Trilogy

As I open this hangout report, I would like to express my deepest thanks to Megan O'Keefe, not only for appearing on the show again and for being an amazing author, but for battling on through the technical difficulties that must have made her feel like she was talking to herself for an hour. Essentially, Megan couldn't hear any of us, so we had to write our comments and questions to her in the chat bar, and also try to read them aloud so that they would be audible on the video. Thus, if you watch the video, you will surely see the side effects of this difficulty. Google software updates often have unexpected effects on the quality of our recording! The good news is, they typically don't last long. I've also purchased a special microphone (thanks so much, Patreon patrons!) to improve the quality of my own audio.

Megan O'Keefe has appeared once before on the show, when she spoke about her book, Steal the Sky, the first book of the Scorched Continent trilogy. It's always great to have an author return and talk about the process of expanding and deepening a world for further books.

Megan told us that she feels the amount of worldbuilding for long and short pieces is similar, but that with the short pieces, not as much of that worldbuilding work gets to show up in the text. Thus, she finds that being able to expand into a trilogy was fun because it allowed her to explore and reveal more.

One of the things featured in the story is a prison. She asked questions like, What do you do with people who don't contribute to society? Do you rehabilitate? Do you punish? Do you cast out? In many societies, being cast out meant you would die. The culture of the Scorched Continent trilogy wanted to rehabilitate some people, punish the worst, and keep some for cannon fodder.

Megan told us she did internet research on the history of prison ships. Apparently the largest prison barge in the world is in New York and is still functioning! She had planned to have her main character break out of a prison ship, but this character likes to blow things up, and that would have done more damage than she wanted to the ship and lots of other people. In the end she chose to use a prison island, with Alcatraz as a model. In fact, you can find blueprints for prisons on the internet, and look at Google Earth aerial views of prisons. You can find historical blueprints of places like high schools, and think about how they plan for things like crowd control. There will be a quadrangle in the center, and everything around it will be modular for ease of construction and ease of blocking things off. I asked her if she'd ever played Prison Architect, and she had heard of it, but had not played it while researching this book.

Megan describes the world in her trilogy as quasi-Victorian but combining a mishmash of settings. It bears some resemblance to the Renaissance because Leonardos are popping up. While exploring, the people find a continent with a magical resource that will allow them to build airships. The seas are rough, but the gaseous element, called selium, is controllable by telepathy and brings about a technological revolution.

Apparently, book 3 is the planned end of the series, but Megan is working on a novella. One of the novella's main characters is a gentleman con man, and another is his friend and emotional caretaker. Megan says she designed it as a love letter to P.G. Wodehouse and his stories. It's a fantasy romantic comedy, but no magic actually appears in the novella. Megan is planning to self-publish this, so keep an eye out for it.

In 19th century prisons, like Newgate, there was experimentation on prisoners - some medical, some psychological. In the world of the trilogy, the Whitecoats experiment on magic users to try to explain why magic works.

The magic system of the Scorched Continent world is a resource model, where powerful people try to control the resource - selium - and thereby control the magic it makes possible. This influences dictatorships, diplomacy, and trade. Selium is a gas pushed up from volcanic activity, and the people of this world are originally from another area of the planet where volcanoes are now dormant.

Whenever you have a situation where the people who can handle or manipulate a resource are specialists, where only some people can make it work, those special people will be in demand. The craftspeople themselves are a resource to be controlled. In Megan's world, telepaths become a resource, and this leads to human rights issues.

Next paragraph contains a spoiler for the selium-telepathy link:

One of the characters can see the selium molecule at a microscopic level and detect it in people's bodies. Some people have it pass through the blood-brain barrier. Even when people don't actually know how something works, there has to be a common cultural explanation for why that thing works. Do they think a substance is in the air or the water? The permeability is genetic, but the gas causes people to develop a disease called bonewither with long exposure.

If you are a rich merchant family in this world, you don't want your kids to have the selium ability. That restricts your job. It's especially a problem for the sole heir of such a family. People are pushing back to try to take control, hiding their abilities. Revolution is brewing.

Velathia is the source for the primary government because their volcanoes were dormant and they came up with workable sailing technology, that allowed them to spread through the islands.

The Katari lived on the Scorched Continent first, and they have a more relaxed relationship with selium. However, their society was smaller because of the extent of the badlands. They were taken over by the Velathi. Colonization is an issue in all three of these books. One character is an agent of the indigenous people. People born on the Scorched Continent are loyal to it, and don't identify as Velathi. They also have technology, and that gives them the ability to push back.

The magic of selium is finite, because selium is non-renewable. Megan shared with us some of her ideas for the far future of this planet. She thinks selium will cause global cooling, and that tectonics of the planet will slow. She told us she's having fun imagining the kinds of pressures this would put on the people of her world.

Megan, it was a pleasure to have you on the show! Thanks for letting us in on the intricacies of your world (and for being patient).

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at a special time: Wednesday, May 17th at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern. We'll be speaking with author John Chu. I hope you can join us!


Friday, May 12, 2017

Working Animals

Humans have employed animals in jobs for millennia, and also do so in fiction, so we had a good time with this topic. Dogs are used for herding cattle, herding sheep, fighting off wolves, hunting on the ground, hunting under the ground, etc. etc., but they are not alone. There are also horses, cats, companion animals, and many others. And in fiction, cats don't just hunt rodents, they also help solve mysteries! (They do, I swear.) We figured that the dragons in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books also counted as working animals, since they are saddled and bred and used to combat Thread. We couldn't decide if the horses of Valdemar counted as working animals or as independent sentients.

We talked a bit about pets. The pet-owner relationship is culturally defined and differs across the world. Kat told us that the difference between food for humans and fodder or feed is very distinct in Japanese, and that it would be very strange to consider a pet a family member in Japan. Obviously, pets are often considered family members in America. This may have to do with people wanting to nurture and play the role of a parent. We played around a little with the idea of humans being pets for another species.

It may seem a small step from pet to emotional support animal, but from there you can step to service animal, and a service animal is a hardworking animal indeed. There's a likelihood that a service animal might be considered family even though it is working, while a herding animal probably would not be. It seems in some ways similar to the distinction between a human nanny, who is often considered part of the family, and a gardener, who is not by virtue of the difference between their work environments.

We spoke a bit about horses, and had an important reminder that as authors we really need to consider the food and water needs of working animals in our stories.

Kat speculated that if you had cows in space, you might capture methane emissions for fuel!

We talked a bit about using sentient animals in stories, and how those animals might manipulate things (with toes or lips). I mentioned the sentient elephants in Lawrence Schoen's Barsk.

Kat encouraged us to question the assumption of human sovereignty in interaction with animals. If you were to run into alien animals, would enslavement and colonialism be your approach, or would you choose companionship? What would it be like if you had not developed the kind of co-evolutionary relationship that humans have with Earth animals?

The basis of the working animal relationship appears to be the concept that "the thing that animal is doing could be useful to me."

Going on the basis of that, the concept of working animal could potentially be expanded. We wondered if the shai-hulud worms of Dune could be considered working animals. Honeybees might be considered working animals in some sense, even though we don't have a mammalian relationship with them. What about sugar ants?

We also had questions about animals like chickens. If a chicken lays eggs for you, is it a working animal? Or is it a food animal (would you eat it)? Would geese be working animals? Where is the border between the abilities of the animal and its substance?

We also looked at the question of why we work with some animals and not others, like goats vs. deer. Goats climb, while deer jump. Some animals are not easily tamed. A lot of it also has to do with their attack and defense characteristics. Hares and rabbits are very similar visually, but rabbits can be tamed and hares can't. Behavioral differences can also be critical.

Llamas and donkeys are definitely working animals. They are not only employed as burden-carriers, but often as guards for other animals. Llamas guard milk goats from pumas in Pescadero, California, and donkeys in France guard ducks from foxes.

What are the characteristics of humans that might make them useful to another species? Community building? Curiosity? Could we be perfume harvest animals?

Larry mentioned pigs and truffles. When you use pigs to find truffles, you have to distract the pigs so they won't eat the truffles. Some truffle hunters use dogs, which would not be interested in eating the truffles they found. Here is a link about truffle-smelling dogs. Apparently farmers who use pigs for truffle-hunting sometimes lose fingers! Retriever dogs are trained not to eat the birds they retrieve. Fishing cormorants have rings placed around their throats to keep them from eating the fish they catch.

Falcons also are working animals. They are parallel in some ways to the fire lizards in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books.

There are a lot of different animals with relationships to humans, and it's interesting to speculate about how those relationships could be expanded, shrunk, reversed, or mimicked with alien species.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017


This seemed like an appropriate topic for spring, because of the prevalence of spring allergies! People can be allergic to all sorts of things, like milk, hormones, metal, pollen, etc. There are contact allergies, inhalation allergies, and ingestion allergies. At first glance, it seems like allergies don't feature much in fiction, but examples will crop up as you think about them. One of the first we thought of was Daniel Jackson in Stargate, who has hay fever.

Sometimes allergies are portrayed as jokes. Daniel Jackson's is - jokes like when they send a box of tissues through the gate and receive a reply "send more." There has also been an instance on this show of the cure to a disease being an antihistamine.

In Shira Glassman's Mangoverse, the queen has food sensitivities.

Allergies can also be found in literature for children, which might be a place that hard-core genre readers aren't reading a lot. Sometimes it takes the form of "You can't have adventures because ____".

Allergies can be very serious, utterly life-changing, and life-threatening. Something like asthma could totally change your plot. Food allergies could feature in a story about first contact.

There are some allergies in Star Trek. Kirk was allergic to eye medication. Jedzia Dax had a kind of juice that would make her spots itch. Wesley was allergic to a pain medication.

Reggie speculated that you could write something really interesting about an amphibious world where humans needed life support because they were allergic to everything.

We remarked on how our memories elide things from our familiar narratives, as when allergy situations occur but we don't notice them. This link has a truly impressive list of contexts in which allergies appeared in Star Trek, most of which I had no memory of.

Do we need something to be a pivotal piece of the main plot in order for us to remember it?

Climate change is causing people's allergies to get worse.

People who are terraforming a planet should be expected to have allergic reactions.

One novel that takes on the question of allergies in an interesting way is Mira Grant's Parasite, discussed at this link. A company has engineered parasites that keep people from having allergies and provide other benefits, but which have certain terrifying side effects...

Symptoms of allergic reactions can range widely, including hives (urticaria), itchy eyes or hands, nerve pinches, systemic inflammation, neuralgia, chronic pain, eczema, in addition to runny nose, asthma, and sneezing. Reggie knew someone who had a dairy allergy misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia. Che mentioned that allergies can also have emotional side effects. They can even cause malabsorption of other nutrients.

People can also be allergic to metal. Some people have super-corrosive sweat, such that they can even leave fingerprints on stainless steel. A study on it can be found here. When the metal breaks down in contact with the skin it can cause painful rash.

We discussed the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that an increase in allergies may be caused by a reduction in the number of pathogens that our immune systems have to deal with. The immune system doesn't "have enough to do," the hypothesis goes, so it attacks odd substances. Lower allergies in certain groups of humans have been linked to exposure to parasites. People who are exposed to pigs, or even to some pets, will have fewer allergies.

There was a period when my own kids were small when doctors would advise parents not to expose their children to certain types of foods until a certain age - strawberries until age one, for example. The purpose of this advice was to reduce allergies, but it was later found that this advice had the opposite effect.

Serious allergies have been treated with controlled exposure to the substance the person is allergic to.

Another possible effect of an overactive immune system is autoimmune disease.

There are a ton of story ideas that came out of the discussion:

What would first contact be like if humans were allergic to the species they're encountering? We hypothesized that intermarriage would be out. Kate said the aliens would think "humans make exploding sounds and emit liquid in mist form." Reggie remarked that it would be very easy for some people to spin an adverse reaction as intentional harm. We imagined what a fantasy epi-sword might be (as opposed to an epi-pen). Kat thought of a context where a person recognizes an allergic reaction but meets resistance when they try to stop it because of a clash of medical practices. A society more advanced than ours would consider our medical practices barbaric. What if a potter were allergic to clay? Che noted that she knows a dollmaker who is allergic to resin and does her work in a hazmat suit.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion! Today's hangout meets in one hour to discuss Children; I hope you can join us.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mental Illness - social impacts

I really enjoyed this hangout. As with many of our discussions, we were taking on a HUGE topic, and were not able to cover everything about it. I began by recommending the book The Midnight Disease by Alice Weaver Flaherty, in which the author, a neurologist herself, describes having a postpartum psychotic break that caused her to become hypergraphic (not able to stop writing). The book examines mental illness and the building blocks of creativity and the genetic links between them.

We made a brief list of some mental illnesses. Clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder (used to be multiple personality disorder) are just a few. The classifications change all the time. Gender dysphoria was recently removed from the list and is no longer classified as a mental illness.

What is and is not a mental illness is a tricky question. Historically, there have been a lot of cases of putting people in mental hospitals against their will for illegitimate reasons like cultural difference or just wanting to control them. The definitions of mental illness are culturally and politically determined. They do NOT include a range of neurological issues such as attention deficit/hyperactiity disorder or autism.

Mental illnesses can co-occur and even cause each other.

Marginalized groups in society who are oppressed also tend to have higher rates of mental illness like anxiety and depression, caused by the oppression. Unwillingness to trust authority makes a degree of sense when authorities can't be trusted - but standing up for yourself has sometimes been classified as "oppositional defiance" disorder.

In the United States, health insurance is a problem. Often the poor are not able to get treatment for mental illness for economic reasons.

There are also instances of people who don't get treatment because they don't want to admit they have a mental illness. Mental illness is stigmatized in many societies.

The question of mental illness is also complicated by phenomena like gaslighting, where someone tries to make someone believe they are "crazy." This abuse tactic can in fact co-occur with real mental illness that has nothing like the same effect.

We spoke for a few minutes about the tangential topic of perception of reality, and consensus reality. Ideology is folded into this in interesting ways.

We asked what one might do to portray mental illness in fiction, and of course the key was RESEARCH. Read a lot, and seek out first-hand journal accounts if you want to portray any particular condition from the inside. I spoke about how I had used the mental illnesses of obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia to change the portrayal of the villain in my novel. One of the keys, though, was making sure he was contrasted with his father, who is also evil and sane.

Don't fall into the trap of equating violence or evil with mental illness. The mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Try to steer away from the stereotypes of the magical or holy mad person or the evil mad person.

I mentioned This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman, which features a planet where everyone has what we would call "mental illness," but their neurological uniqueness is seen as a potential advantage and they are given jobs that play to this uniqueness. They also make up their faces to indicate to others around them what kind of accommodations they might need.

We also spoke about the show Legion. Legion has different personalities related to different X-men style powers. One of the things that got mentioned was how secondary characters in the show have different perceptions of reality based on the kinds of powers they have, which influence their behavior. A character who can temporarily switch minds with someone else just by touching them will be touch-phobic, for example. Powers influence mental states.

Kate said that "society gaslights the mentall ill via a pop culture worldview." The way that pop culture narratives portray mental illness is often inaccurate, particularly since the internal experience of mental illness is so incredibly variable.

People living in society are dependent on each other for all kinds of life functions. Access to those is controlled by others. Cutting people off, exile, etc. harms people. Solitary confinement is a punishment but causes people to lose their mental health (and our societal choices of whom to imprison have a huge influence on who is vunlerable to this).

When you don't fit in, you can be labeled and excluded.

Thank you to everyone who came to participate. This was an interesting discussion. This week we meet on Wednesday, April 26 at 10am Pacific to speak with guest author Megan O'Keefe about books 2 and 3 in her Scorched Continent series. The link to our first discussion with her, about Steal the Sky, is here.


Saturday, April 15, 2017


We had a great discussion of Oceans. This is a huge topic, obviously, and one that can be approached from many directions. Oceans have scientific characteristics. They are often trade routes. Some are believed to have sea monsters. People often depend on the oceans for survival. How dependent are they?

The Vikings living in Greenland had no roads over land, and exclusively used the oceans to travel. They hunted walrus and used their tusks for ivory to trade.

It's important to have respect for the dangers of the ocean. We talked about whether people who fish would have more or less respect for those dangers. Intimate knowledge leads to less fear. Kat told us she lived on a boat for five years. In her experience, coastal people were more antagonistic toward the ocean, while people who live on the water fear it less. If you go out for long voyages, how normalized do you make the ocean versus the land? If you are on water for a long time, your brain adapts to the constant motion. Kat told us that after she had lived on the water for a long time, she thought of it as home, and being on land seemed weird.

There are also historical instances of sailors who don't swim. This came from the idea that you should fear getting off the boat to increase your loyalty to it.

I mentioned how we had visited friends on the island of Ama, 3.5 hours ferry ride north of the island of Honshu in Japan. Our friends' home is right beside the ocean, with no beach but a stone retaining wall separating them from the water. The kids would go out to play and jump into the water very casually.

Depending on the conditions surrounding where you live, you may be able to wade very far out into the water at low tide, or not. The continental shelf is very close to the shore in California, but farther away in Japan. There may be a lot of rip tides in your area, and that can create a greater fear of going into the water.

Land travel is gradual. Sea travel is interrupted. The cultures of the two are very different.

How you anchor a ship differs depending on where you are. Methods are different in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the North Atlantic. The type of anchor differs, as does the number and strength of the boat crew and the amount of cooperation.

The boat Kat lived on in northeast Florida was a 34-foot Ketch sailboat, with 31 feet of room on deck from fore to aft and 14 feet in the beam (across). She once sailed through a tropical storm "with lots of anchors." She says the boat was "seakindly," which means it's really responsive to wind and waves. She nicknamed it "weeble." She saw dolphins swimming around the boat, and developed an awareness of weather that she hadn't had as a resident of southern California.

If you will be using boats in your writing, Do Your Research. This is a topic that has a very long history and varies widely across cultures. There is a lot of specialized language associated with it.

When you personify the sea, what happens? The Norse have male and female sea gods. Is the sea male? Is it female? Is it both? You can apply any set of gender stereotypes to it if you really want to. Kat said that in Japanese folk tales, the sea is typically not gendered. Ocean things are generally associated with the Shinto religion. Susanoo-no-mikoto is the god of storms and the sea.

I mentioned the book Ship of Dreams by Elaine LeClaire, written by our own discussant Lillian Csernica. Because she has a deep interest in ships through her family, she was very exact in her descriptions of the ships, and in fact, she completely and carefully redesigned the pirate ship in the book so that it would fit a captain who was 6'4" (as the romance genre required) and who had a private cabin.

We wondered what it would be like to have a waterborne TARDIS in Doctor Who. You would want to be careful to keep the entryway above the water!

Our discussants recommended Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun, and The Scar by China Mieville.

Kat told us that most watercourses are shallower than they claim to be because of silt. She also said you can rent a boat and navigate the canalways of Europe to the Mediterranean.

There is an enormous body of mythology related to the sea - sea creatures, sirens, kelpies, naiads, etc. We were scarcely able to touch on it in the hour we had for this discussion, and should probably return to the topic soon!

The Netherlands have a National Maritime Museum, the Scheepvaartmuseum.

Aphrodite was born out of the sea, and Heimdall had nine mothers who were all waves of the sea.

There are also sea burials, and Viking burials. Apparently, cruise ships have a small morgue on board in case people die during a cruise (the average is two because of the typical age of cruisegoers), because people expect to get the bodies back. Brian told us that Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson died at the battle of Trafalgar, and his body was brought back in a barrel of brandy with camphor and myrrh, then placed in a lead-lined coffin filled with spirits of wine to travel from Gibraltar to England. Other sea captains might have been preserved in rum, but dead bodies are hard to preserve and space on a ship is at a premium, so bodies of less important people could be tossed overboard.

When Australia was sending convicts to populate its territories, they would not put murderers on the ships because no one wanted murderers to be trapped on a boat for six months. They would usually send burglars and thieves. Brian explained how it was a sort of prison pipeline, deliberately offering disproportionate punishment in the interest of helping Britain keep territory against the Dutch and others. It's always important to ask "who is profiting from this?" Once slavery had been banned, it was an alternative way of forcing people to go and do necessary work in the territory. We compared the way that Sydney was populated with the Mission era in California.

Thanks to everyone who attended! I really hope we can get back to the topic of Oceans soon, because we barely scratched the surface.


Alyx Dellamonica: The Nature of a Pirate

Alyx Dellamonica joined us to talk about her book, The Nature of a Pirate, which came out last December. It's the third book of her Stormwrack portal fantasy trilogy. Part of it takes place in San Francisco, and part in the world of Stormwrack. The main characters are trying to find out whether Stormwrack is an alternate Earth, a future Earth, or another dimension. They believe there will be a scientific explanation, though the character Bran will have to study to find out more. Alyx told us she sometimes pitches the series as "Narnia for environmentalists." The moon of Stormwrack seems identical to ours, but so much land is missing from Earth (most of Asia, for example!). The main character, Sophie, can't figure out where the Himalayas have gone. Alyx told us there is a faint thread of plausibility in the Stormwrack scenario that you can learn by reading the trilogy...

In Stormwrack, curiosity is considered a cultural flaw or defect. Alyx says we forget that the scientific method isn't a "cultural gimme." Some cultures believe that if God gave you something, it's impudent to ask questions about it. Stormwrack has 250 island nations, each with proprietary spells suited to its particular climate, trade, and war. You don't pry, so you don't question others' practices. Interestingly, and problematically within the story world, "others' practices" includes chattel slavery.

A world with 250 nations seems very large and potentially very involving in terms of worldbuilding! Alyx explained that she figured out before writing the books which nations would be featured in each book. She also explored using shorter stories, such as "Losing Heart Among the Tall," which features Gale and Garland parrish, and appeared at Tor.com. She either uses research to construct the nations and their cultures or imaginative explanation from her own personal experience. She says she based the Verdanii on her own experience of the prairie, and grain farmers, growing up. The nation of Erinth is medieval Florentine, with a volcano much like Vesuvius that is contained by magic. Alyx estimates that about 30 nations are mentioned, and seven or eight get play in the books. She says she was disappointed not to be able to go to Verdanii in the books.

She says, "I love worldbuilding." [No wonder I loved having her on the show!]

Alyx told us that she has spent time in San Francisco with a little locus of family, and she has also taken tours to Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, which helped with her research for those regions.

We spoke a bit about language use in Stormwrack. She says the main idea is that the people of Stormwrack speak many languages, but all share "Fleet Standard" which ends up being used in translation in the books. The main character, Sophie, gets magically taught how to speak Fleet, but she must then learn to read and write. She's often a better speaker of Fleet than the locals, for whom Fleet is a second language (since their first is the main language of their island nation). People in Stormwrack "weaponize" their speaking of their native tongues for the purposes of keeping secrets.

The language of Sylvanna had a big influence of Fleet. There's an Italian-like language, and a Russian-like language. The pirate nations draw a bit from French. Alyx says she was very glad to have a bilingual copy-editor for a previous book. We remarked that dictionaries are the last places where you would expect to find official notice of ongoing language change, and are naturally very conservative.

The ships of Stormwrack are biological - one very intriguing aspect of the world! I asked about the magic system, and Alyx told us that magic takes ingredients from local microclimates. People write spells on parchment, turtle shell, or other localized items. The spells are like works of art and must be perfectly worded and lettered, with ink, quills, or other tools. Each unique magical artifact is like a contract with reality. The letters will glow and magic will happen. For example, in Erinth, there is a statue made of volcanic rock with a spell written on it, and it is that artifact which holds back the volcano. The physical destruction of the magical artifact will break the spell.

People in Stormwrack preserve the environment around them to maximize spell opportunities. There are some jurisdiction questions between islands. Invasive species can also be a problem.

Sophie is a diver and videographer in our world, but she is the only scuba diver on Stormwrack, and she is very bothered by this because you are not supposed to dive alone.

We wound back again to the question of the ships. The idea of unique magical spell artifacts is relevant here because the vessels are magical, and have biological characteristics. The Verdanii use whale-based ships, which are mammal on the bottom and forest on top. There is also a type of immolator ship which is designed to burn other ships. Temperance is the name of a big battle ship, which has a spell that allows it to sink any ship if they know its true name. Generic things can't be enchanted; they must be unique.

We spoke briefly about magic systems. Although they generally need restrictions, Alyx told us that she can't stand restrictions on magic that seem artificial. That's why in Indigo Springs she wrote about magic that was almost limitless, but would destroy Earth if used to its full extent.

In Stormwrack, names are very important. It is possible for people to secretly change names.

Alyx told us that there is no political correctness in Stormwrack. There is lots of racism, and no respect for disability culture. Mermaids will woo people in wheelchairs to become mermaids because they believe the person would better off as a mermaid.

The magic of Stormwrack does alter people. If you have an ability created by magic, but you are not visibly altered by it, you are "enhanced." If you have become a mermaid or have any of a particular set of visual and functional alterations, you are a "transform." If you have undergone extreme changes in appearance, you are considered an "oddity."

At the beginning of The Nature of a Pirate, a creature is used to sink a ship. I asked about this. The creature is something of a doppelganger, called a "fright." The skill of fright-making was banned on Stormwrack. Usually the frights are human-like, but sometimes they are animal. The people of Stormwrack thought they had burned all the spells and materials that would allow fright-making, but someone has resumed doing it. Frights are less like transforms or even oddities, and are more like automatons or zombies.

We spoke a bit about racial distinctions on Stormwrack. Alyx told us that skin colors, epicanthic folds and other physical features we associate with racial distinctions are mixed up so that they don't fit our own models. Verdanii have copper skin, straight dark hair, and dark eyes. Her idea was that they had an aboriginal population which was colonized. Stormwrack has a history of constant raiding, so there has been a lot of genetic mixing.

Morgan asked Alyx to give us more details on spells. The spells need to be very controlled rather than natural. Alyx described them as "artisanal." People who do magic are those who are meticulous and have beautiful handwriting. Alyx told us about a quilt she inherited which had perfect stitching (and then got ripped by her kittens, aigh!). Spells in Stormwrack can also be recycled. Because Sophie was enchanted to speak Fleet, her tongue could later be used as a translator. If someone has teeth enchanted to create light, their skull could be used as a lantern. In some sense, this creates a black market for enchanted body parts.

Alyx told us that Fleet, the language, was created to combat pirates. Stormwrack has had 100 years of peace, but it is breaking down due to piracy, population growth and resource pressures.

This is a fascinating world worth exploring. The novels in the series are:

1. Child of a Hidden Sea
2. A Daughter of No Nation
3. The Nature of a Pirate

Thank you so much for joining us, Alyx! Next week, April 19th at 10am Pacific, we'll be discussing Working Animals, and the following week, April 26th at 10am Pacific, guest author Megan O'Keefe will join us to talk about her Scorched Continent trilogy. I hope you can all attend.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Maurice Broaddus and The Voices of Martyrs

It was a real pleasure to have Maurice back on the show! This time we were discussing his new short story collection, which was released a couple of months ago (now) through Rosarium, and features short stories he wrote between 2006 and 2014. He said he hadn't considered putting a collection together until someone suggested it a few years ago. Maurice told me he doesn't think about writing in genre, just writes the piece first and figures it out later. Because some of the early stories in the collection deal unflinchingly with slavery, they were sold as horror pieces. When he was asked to put together a collection, he tried to figure out if there was a theme he could draw on because he's written so much in so many different genres, but he arrived at "considering the African-American diaspora through the lens of history, past, present, and future."

Maurice tells us he loves worldbuilding. He likes to build a world and then go back and revisit it. The first story in the collection, Warrior of the Sunrise, takes place in ancient Africa. He also has stories set in a science fiction world of the future. He really likes returning to a character he loves.

The story "Rite of Passage" is told from the perspective of a white captain on a slave ship, and features some really fascinating self-justification by the captain about why, even though he's obviously in the business, he's not as bad as other members of his crew. The prose is really historical and wonderful, and the captain's language contrasts in really interesting ways with the speech patterns of his first mate, Hawkins, who is much more honest about the business that they are in. One of the other stories has a soldier as a lead character, and another has a lady working on a plantation.

I asked Maurice how he developed the historical voices he uses in these tales, and he said "I read a lot of collected stories of emancipated slaves in that era." He wanted to take in as much of the language as possible so he could learn how to use it in the way they would, to reflect their thoughts.

The story "Family Business" takes place in Jamaica, and language use is very interesting there. Maurice said he was paying attention to his family to learn the language style, where people code-switch (change language or language style) depending on who is in the room. Maurice explained that his mother came from Jamaica, Maurice himself grew up in London, and his siblings grew up in America. "I'd just put a recorder in the middle of the dinner table," he says. Apparently, everyone would be self-conscious for about five minutes but then start speaking normally. Listening to the recordings gave him the opportunity to consider slang, how each person speaks, and how their use of language changes. He said he also recorded his son's slumber party once, and it was great to hear their use of slang, what topics they discussed, and what boys think about. He later asked the boys what they had talked about, and found they didn't remember everything accurately. "They had no idea they'd spent a half an hour discussing farts."

The key is talking with people, capturing conversations, studying rhythm and word choice.

I had to ask Maurice about the story that very obviously references Parliament Funkadelic. He said that "The Electric Spanking of the War Babies" was originally published in the Glitter and Mayhem collection that featured disco and roller-skating. He explained that he co-wrote it with Kyle Johnson after an evening discussing ideas over gummi bear flavored vodka while playing Parliament Funkadelic.

I also asked him about the universe featured in Pimp My Airship. Maurice has written a number of stories in that setting, including Buffalo Soldier, which is at Tor.com and features the origin of the Starchild (a clone of Haile Selassie) and his guardian. We got to see some book covers (so check out the video if you're curious). Desmond takes the child so that he can live his own life and not be a pawn of politicians, but is being pursued. The child represents technology, but they head into the Nation-state of Texas and territories on the West coast. In this world, the United States uses steampunk technology, but Jamaica and the First Nations have explored technology that is not steampunk.

The origin of the Pimp My Airship universe was Twitter, where Maurice tweeted as a joke that he was going to write a Steampunk story with all black characters and call it "Pimp My Airship," and suddenly editors were very interested! The question he had reading Steampunk was "Where are all the Black people?" A lot of Steampunk erases them.

When he wrote the story "Steppin Razor" he was asking "Where does Jamaica fit in all this?" In this universe, America lost the Revolutionary War and is still a British colony. In this universe, Jamaica kept all its resources, as did the First Nations, so they have their own technology. Steampunk tech is not the "height" of technology.

When Maurice looks at where he stands in a particular genre, he wants to write stories that he could have grown up reading. Tonya suggested he write a story about Nanny and the Maroons, and Maurice said in fact that he was going to write a tale of young Nanny for the Hidden Youth anthology, but the idea hasn't become a completed story yet. When he studied Nanny's character for "Steppin' Razor" he discovered there was a lot there.

I asked Maurice if the process of putting together the collection influenced his overall thoughts about his writing and his career. He told me that he thinks deeply about what he is doing with his stories. When he has a new job in the community, he gets to hear new stories. He mentioned that the results of the election have been weighing heavily on him as he considers what they means for him as a black man in America, for his community, and ofr him as an artist. He strives to control the narrative of his own community, and thinks a lot about what that should look at. He says he's politicizing his art. His latest stories take place in the same community in Indianapolis with magical realism. He's developing interconnected short stories within the community, considering the diversity of what it means to be Black. He's also looking at how Africa is portrayed and trying to get away from the dominant image of starving kids, controlling the narrative to show a variety of voices. Eventually, he says, there will be another collection of stories all in this one community. He also has enough stories he could do a Steampunk collection.

Thank you so much for being there, Maurice! I hope to talk to you again about more of your work. Thanks also to everyone who attended, and let's all look out for the novella Buffalo Soldier, coming out from Tor.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Pronouns are little words - just little pieces of grammar used to refer back to some preceding referent in conversation or in text. But they are super, super important and they have a lot of possible implications. We're of course familiar with them from contexts like this:

The girl walked into the room. She...

In this case, she is referring back to the noun phrase "the girl." If you don't start out with a noun phrase referent, but a bare pronoun, then the reader is forced to construct an implied referent based on what they know via the pronoun. This can be an important part of constructing point of view, for example.

The pronouns I and we are referred to as "first person" pronouns, singular and plural respectively. In English, first person pronouns are non-gendered. However, this is not true in all languages. Japanese uses the pronoun "boku" exclusively for first person males, for example. Japanese pronouns carry a lot of information, and there are a lot of them, but perhaps the most interesting thing about Japanese pronouns is that people hardly ever use them. "Pro-drop" languages allow pronouns to be dropped from the front of a sentence when their reference can be derived from context. Japanese and Spanish can pro-drop, but French and English can't. That said, I'll note that recent changes in English due to the presence of internet icons have made pronoun-dropping a lot more common.

Since I and you in English are non-gendered, but third person pronouns are, the result is that you  need to be aware of other people's genders before your own.

If you are working in a fictional setting and you want to play around with the pronouns, go for it, but be aware that there are pitfalls. The simplest problem you can run into (a grammatical rather than a cultural one) is to cause ambiguity without meaning to. This can happen if you collapse singulars and plurals into each other, or if you choose to collapse other distinctions. However, we already have to work against ambiguities that occur when we have two people of the same gender in the same scene and need to draw distinctions between them, so this problem is not insurmountable. Ann Leckie managed to keep all-"she" characters disambiguated through three books!

Charlie Jane Anders' story "Love Might Be Too Strong a Word" does some fascinating things with pronouns. The society has castes, and each caste is distinguished by different sexual aspects, and each uses a separate pronoun system. How does she keep the pronoun systems from becoming confusing? Basically, she uses pronouns that have some very basic-level similarities to our pronoun system, altering the beginnings of the pronouns but keeping "m" as the final letter in a third-person object pronoun, and "r" as the final letter in a third-person possessive pronoun, for example.

Much as pronouns are "small words," they are also extremely important and extremely personal. Misgendering, or calling someone by the wrong gender pronouns, is very bad. Why? Because in our societies, gender is so very very important to identity and to social consequences for behavior. Because gender is in the third person pronouns rather than the first (in English), you end up having to rely on other people to cooperate with your sense of self when they talk about you.

Ann Leckie's Ancillary books are often cited as groundbreaking for their use of pronouns, because she creates a society where the main language does not distinguish gender in its pronouns. More than that, the English pronoun she chooses to use as a translation for that alien-language pronoun is "she." Note: She doesn't erase all socially charged pronoun distinctions, because ancillaries (human bodies connected to an artificial intelligence) are referred to as "it," or as non-people. Okay, so what is so great and groundbreaking about this? In English, if we are referring to a group of people whose genders are non-specified, we use the word "he." "He" is considered the unmarked option (standard, default). This is likely one reason why we tend to imagine oh-so-many males in fictional contexts. By choosing to use "she" instead, the marked option, Ann is deliberately dislodging us from our standard expectations. Readers know that not everyone must be female, but now that everyone is described as such, they have to think through gender more carefully, and Ann confounds us even further by having descriptions of appearance and clothing that don't conform to our gender expectations either.

We spoke briefly about using the pronoun "one." It sounds archaic, but is non-gendered and can be useful depending on what effect you are looking for. It always reminds me of the Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, because the translators have typically gotten around the pro-drop tendencies of Japanese by translating Sei Shonagon's diary using "one" wherever the reference is generalized.

This was an involved conversation with a lot of details that don't lend themselves very well to written report, so if you are curious I'd encourage you to check out the video. We came to the end of the discussion feeling that we should return to the topic of pronouns to cover aspects of point of view in writing fiction.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Wednesday (tomorrow) 3/29/17 to talk about Mental Illness. I hope you can join us!


Saturday, March 25, 2017


Gardens have a lot of extra meaning. They are often used as metaphors, or vehicles for a philosophical world view. They are not just setting. They also have a lot of cultural meaning, as with the grow your own food movement and the victory gardens of the World Wars.

Even decorative gardens come in all kinds of styles. The English garden reflects the value of pastoral life. Japanese gardens try to look utterly like nature but rely on extreme control for the maintenance of this appearance. French formal gardens have yet a different style. Gardens reflect culture, money, and the relationship of people to nature. There are also water gardens, greenhouses, and special gardens like the Orangerie in France, which was designed with walls to provide frost protection for citrus trees.

Gardens say a lot about class. Do you have a gardener? Or do you garden yourself? What kind of things do you grow? Are those things for show, for eating, for sale? Are they for medicine, as with the herb gardens possessed by monasteries and convents? Some specialized gardens are for cacti, or for poisonous plants. Morgan has written a story in which a main character identifies the doctor's house in the village by noticing the herb garden outside.

What about lawns? What makes them so appealing? People use them for sports. They are incredibly popular but also very water-intensive, and in California's recent drought many people moved toward xeriscaping, or intentionally designing a garden for very low water.

The location of a garden, and the climate in which it is being maintained, influence the content of the garden. For foreign plants, special steps may need to be taken. Foreign plants may become invasive because they don't fit into the local ecosystem, as with bamboo and kudzu - but they also tend not to have the same pests that a native plant would.

Soil quality varies a lot. So does the amount of labor required for land cultivation.

Gardens and plants can be very important for symbolism in a story. Dune by Frank Herbert used palm trees to show the wealth and wastefulness of the Harkonnen family. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind used the contrast between Nausicaa's indoor fungal garden and the outer toxic jungle to great effect. Gardens (like hers) can be used for science. In fact, a great deal of science has come out of our own gardens, such as Mendelian genetics. There is also grafting in fruit trees and roses.

Who are gardens intended to feed? Some people have grafted fruit tree branches onto public trees in order to feed the homeless. Sometimes, however, people are hassled for growing food instead of display plants, especially in front gardens. Nowadays we see more and more rooftop gardens. Hydroponic gardens are a favorite in science fiction, as are tower gardens. A museum in Paris has a garden that is its entire front wall.

Gardens on a spaceship are for oxygen as well as food. Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince used algae gardens to great effect.

Where is the sun? The direction and quantity of sunlight is critical for a garden's success. In my own garden I had to move a huckleberry plant that was frying in the sun to a shadier location and plant it with peat moss to improve its health.

In The Martian, the protagonist grows potatoes on Mars fertilized with "people poop from space toilets."

A garden can mean different things in different contexts. My own house has a very large garden, but new homes in the area are getting much less land space. When I lived in Tokyo, the apartment I lived in had a garden that was advertised as part of its appeal, and it was a 4'x6' space with tiny hedges. At my homestay house a year earlier, in Kyoto, they had a back garden and also a tiny garden in an interior courtyard of the house, too small to walk into. Different cultures do different things with interior versus exterior gardens. Windows can be designed to frame the garden.

In my own fictional world of Varin, the people live in cities underground, but rich people can import soil and plants will grow in the light of the atmospheric lamps that provide daylight. They also use rock gardens. Where there are openings to the surface, they have agricultural towers to maximize the production with the limited light available. The city level just under the surface also has water gardens. Surface farming can only happen in small "islands" because clearing farmland is not possible.

Terraced fields are common in places where there are steep slopes, including South America and Southeast Asia, for example.

Will agricultural robots come to replace farm workers? Will bee robots help with pollination?

Plant life cycles and seasonal cycles influence what happens in a garden. People can design gardens to attract bees or butterflies or hummingbirds, or other creatures. They can also design gardens to resist the grazing of particular species like deer. Weeds have been fought for a long time, but what counts as a weed is different depending on context.

Thanks to everyone who joined us for sharing their thoughts!


Monday, March 13, 2017


This was a very interesting discussion, and I was really glad we delayed it so we could have a more diverse group of discussants. Thank you to everyone who attended! Che Gilson, Morgan Smith, and Sarah Kaplan have attended my show before. Kate Johnston and Sumiko Saulson were attending for the first time, and I want to offer them special thanks for adding their insights. I also want to thank Sumiko for her patience in sticking with us when our Google hangouts connection was being unreliable.

Colorism and racism are not quite the same. We discussed colorism because we wanted to look at biases that exist between different skin tones within racial groups across the globe as well as issues like whitewashing, and even consider how the use of color shows bias in storytelling.

Bias against darker skin tones shows up in a lot of places in fiction. Discussants mentioned that we have seen things like the whitewashing of Ursula K. LeGuin's world of Earthsea when it has been adapted for TV or film. We have seen how the racist internet blew up when the character of Rue in The Hunger Games was cast as Black. More complicated situations arise when you look at things like The Girl With All the Gifts. In the book, the teacher is black while the child is white. This choice turns the usual teacher-as-savior trope on its head. However, the movie reverses this, and when the zombie child gets called a monster, etc. that contributes to the trend of horrible insults aimed at Black people.

I remarked on an article I had recently read talking about how diverse stories tend more often to end in tragedy, and how we need to move away from this and have more diverse people allowed just to be heroic.

Skin color and culture are not congruent.

The essential content of colorism is the idea that the lighter you are the better. Black gets associated with bad and scary, and white gets associated with good and waifish. There is a continuum, not just categorization into black vs. white. Even thesaurus dictionaries are full of these word associations that impute bad meanings to darker colors.

On some level, it makes sense for early hominids to be afraid of darkness because of the dangers of the night. However, there is no necessary logical link to tie that to skin colors in human beings.

In Europe in the middle ages, freckles and tan were associated with field labor, and thus to be avoided because people wanted to be seen as members of the leisure class. A similar thing happened in the caste system in India, where pale people were higher caste and darker people worked in the fields.

When you are working with people of diverse skin colors, it's worth asking "How do I describe people in ways that aren't food?" Particularly if you are working in a secondary world, it's worth doing some work to avoid this, because of the intimate/vulnerable connotations that come with food descriptions.

Even Jesus was whitewashed.

So, when we write, do we push back against the culture of colorism? How do we do this, and where? We can use non-food descriptions that have more positive connotations. Or we can try to dissociate skin color from real-world value judgments in the culture of our secondary world. In my Varin world I try to do this, but it requires an extensive amount of work, both to dissociate the traditional values and to reassociate skin color with a different cultural significance.

When you are writing, the choice of skin color for your protagonist is political. Say you are writing a story with a dominant woman and a submissive man, the impact of the relationship on the page will be drastically different if the woman is white and the man black vs. if the woman is black and the man white. We have to be very careful about the choices we make in this regard.

We talked quite a bit about Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry wanted to protect audiences from actual race on one level. He had blue and green races. The green women were sexualized, and so it's possible to ask whether they represented a stereotype of black women. However, in representation of actual women, he put Uhura on the bridge in a position of power and respect. He had the episode of the society where people had black and white faces and talked in this way about the arbitrariness of color distinctions. He also featured the first interracial kiss on TV between Kirk and Uhura (in our live discussion we made an error and spoke as if it had been Spock and Uhura).

One of the things we can do in science fiction is to engage people's metaphorical sensibilities in a helpful way to make people examine their own expectations and biases. But we can and should do more.

It's all too common to have a large group of white characters and one black character. Kate asked, "Where are the inversions of that?" She wants to see all black characters and one white character. So far, we are not seeing all the possible stories.

In stories, you can use societal stratification and dig into how society treats visual difference as a reflection on how people deal with particular differences.

We spoke about colorblindness. Colorblindness seems to have been the idea that the 1970's considered ideal when it came to anti-racism. However, it is deeply problematic because of the way that it erases people's culture. It essentially amounts to a form of strict cultural assimilation, allowing people to assume that another person's background is the same. However, you can't erase the cultural history and trauma associated with appearance. It doesn't make sense to assume everyone is going to be white and able-bodied, "unmarked" or congruent with the default cultural power narrative. Ignorance of other cultures is only safe if you are powerful.

We talked about fiction plots where a black person dies and that brings the white people happiness. This happens in Uncle Tom's Cabin and in The Stand (as well as other contexts) and is deeply problematic.

People internalize the bias that surrounds them. The colorism bias happens within communities of color as well as across them. It appears in the US and Europe, but also in Asia and many other places in the world.

When we are writing, we need to think about what words we can use to describe skin color, because there are already many which are associated with particular cultural groups, time periods, etc. "High yella" for example refers to a particular color but is very American Black and has a raft of connotations. There are complex terms for skin color differences within a community. When people use words they have heard but don't have deeper knowledge of the context and implications, it's wrong and can be harmful.

In the days when white Americans enslaved Black people, having more white blood meant that you would be worth more money when you were sold. This has had lasting implications for the complexity of Black identity, especially for light-skinned folks.

As an author of science fiction, you can write futures of color, but who will publish them? We're seeing some improvement on this front, but there's more progress to be made. The same can be said about cover images.

There are a lot of amazing Black writers out there, and you should seek out their work! They include:
Nnedi Okorafor
Sumiko Saulson
Maurice Broaddus (Link to our discussion last week)
Malon Edwards (Link to our discussion here)
Nalo Hopkinson
Nisi Shawl (Link to our discussion here)
Octavia Butler
N.K. Jemisin
Tananarive Due
Kate Johnston
(This is a sadly incomplete list, so keep your eyes open!)

This week on Dive into Worldbuilding we'll be talking with guest author Alyx Dellamonica about her forthcoming book, The Nature of a Pirate. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tonya Liburd - Through Dreams She Moves

Author Tonya Liburd came on the show to tell us about the worlds she explores in her many short stories. She was very excited because she has just heard that the Book Smugglers will publish her story, "A Question of Faith," this coming July.

Tonya began by telling us a bit about her personal background. She's a Canadian raised in Trinidad, and, she says, "When I get angry my accent comes out." This background influences her writing. She says she loves to read postcolonial fiction, and lists V.S. Naipaul, Michael Anthony, and Merle Hodge's "Crick Crack Monkey" among her influences. She says she discovered fantasy fiction when she was 20 years old, via a Dragonlance book, and dived right in, but that Romance is not her genre. She also mentioned that Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was important to her.

"I use language a lot," she says. She explained that the language of the English Caribbean is called "Patois" while the language of the Spanish and French Caribbean is called "Creole," and that these are distinct dialects. The Virgin Islands have their own dialect with distinct names for food, etc. A story of hers called "The Ace of Knives" appeared in Postscripts to Darkness involved code-switching, and she was honored when Nisi Shawl used it in a workshop.  She also had a story called "Shoe Man" at Expanded Horizons, and Akashic Books published a story called "Home Again Home Again Jiggety Jig." "Through Dreams She Moves" appears in the Uncommon Minds anthology.

Tonya doesn't give up on her stories. She described a story that she had put away for years, after it was rejected, but that she found a new theme for and now wants to find home for. She told us about discovering a book called The World is Sound in a New Age bookstore, and how the book gave us ideas about commonalities between Indian music and jazz, such as the concept of a mentor teacher. She also says she wanted to write about ancient Egypt, so she brought that in. Her mother had given her a book on ancient Egypt when she was very small, and she has loved it ever since.

I asked Tonya about poetry, since she doesn't just write prose, and poetry is evident in her short stories. "I don't really think of myself as a poet, but poetry comes out of me anyway," she says. She's had success with it, as when she took 4th place in a writing competition about the perceptions of mental illness. She explored dealing with family who want to tell you how to live but won't do research on your condition. She says poetry intersects with her short fiction because writing is lyrical, and music is her thing. She wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

Tonya has several stories in set an alternate Toronto in which every person develops a special "gift" at puberty. These gifts ary widely, and societal systems are in place to help people with their gifts, such as if they need to leave their homes, etc. One guy's gift allows him to charm them with words, and so he becomes a politician. One woman doesn't have a gift, and that makes her a freak ("Superfreak"), and also causes her to be a target for harassment and abuse. Mental health and abuse occur often in Tonya's work, in part because of abusive elements in her own family background. She's very passionate about talking about these topics.

Tonya told us that her story, "Through Dreams She Moves" was inspired by "On Being Undone by a Light Breeze" by Vajra Chandrasekera. It inspired her to try using a combination of first- and second-person narration. Her story was longlisted for an award but she's had a hard time finding a home for it. One of the other features of Tonya's story is that each scene starts with a poetic envoi of three lines. I asked her what the appeal of this world with its people and its "gifts" was, and she said "it lends itself to plot." She told us about another forthcoming story in which a person goes to a hostel and breaks down, with all of their belongings in garbage bags. Each story allows her to explore different elements of this same world, such as homelessness, trauma, cultural isolation, code-switching, self-harm, etc.

"Through Dreams She Moves" arose from asking how people who are sick in this world get healed.
"A Charmed Life" arose from asking what it would be like to be in a position of leadership in this world. Sometimes the gifts can intersection.

"Shoe Man," she says, came from an idea she had when Tade Thomson shared a picture on social media of a shoe with teeth. It turned into a vignette that needed to be expanded, looking at homeless and mental illness.

"Superfreak" features a woman with no gift at all. Tonya apparently felt her way into the story before deciding what the protagonist's gift was, and only quite late realized she didn't have one. That reversal makes her a freak, and Tonya asks, "How would you survive?"

Tonya told us the abuse and mental health themes have been part of her own life for a while. A story of hers called "The Sweater" appeared in the Malahat Review (a Canadian literary magazine); she said "that was the first time I put my life on paper." She told us that she asked people "Should I put this out there?" but got some excellent advice that yes, she should.

Our discussant Wendy Delmater joined us because she is a huge fan of Tonya's work (and editor at Abyss and Apex). She urged Tonya to tell us about her upcoming novel. Tonya started by telling us that the Caribbean is a bona fide Afro-Centric society. "We eat roti the way everyone else eats pizzas." She suggested we go to Trinidad if we wanted to see a real melting pot. They have a distinct language (several, in fact) and distinct folklore including vampiric creatures called soucouyant. They can go through keyholes. To become a soucouyant, a woman makes a deal with the devil, hides her skin, and flies off in a ball of flame. She looks for babies to suck their blood, or in her story, sometimes animals. If you surround your bed with salt, she gets stuck having to count every grain.

The protagonist in the novel is a soucouyant. She meets an East Indian woman who was turned into a Western-style vampire. They live together and cause trouble, but the soucouyant develops a conscience and forms a grief counseling group to help the victims of the vampire, who went on a killing spree. One of the characters is a rape victim who wants to have her memories erased, but this is not as simple a question as it sounds. The soucouyant gets mixed up with more powerful supernaturals who want her to step into line.

It sounds like Tonya has got some super-exciting things coming up, and I urge you to look for her stories (some of which are linked in this post).

Tonya, thank you so much for joining us at short notice! It was a pleasure to talk with you about your work. Our next hangout will be today at 10am Pacific, and we will be discussing Colorism. We have quite a number of discussants lined up for this, but if you can't get in, you can always watch our YouTube live stream. I hope you can make it!


Friday, February 3, 2017

Fonda Lee and Exo (Out now!)

We had a terrific group for this discussion! Fonda lee joined us to talk about her new book, Exo. She said it was born out of random thoughts during shower/dish time about how there aren't enough aliens in YA. And she wasn't talking about friendly or sexy aliens, or not-so-friendly aliens!

Essentially, Exo is an alien story without either first contact or invasion in it.

The story starts when aliens are already here, and they govern us. Humans and aliens coexist in many contexts, but there is still violence. Some people have bought into the coexisting system, and others don't. Fonda said she really wanted to make sure that nothing was black and white, but that moral issues were subtly shaded.

Her main character is intended to turn tropes on their heads. Donovan is a young human soldier whose job it is to fight human insurgents. Fonda says she wants to see if she can make you root for a character on the "wrong side."

Culturally, the book sounds fascinating. Fonda told me that part of this was deliberate and part unconscious. Her editor apparently came to her and said how great the main character was as a metaphor for a second-generation child with mixed identity. This was something of a surprise, but it was definitely there, and she had an opportunity to strengthen that aspect of the story while working with the editor (so, awesome!).

Donovan is an EXO, a human who has been modified so he has body armor. Because of this he's considered alien to humans, but human to aliens. It's a major identity conflict, and some of Fonda's resources for portraying him no doubt came from her experience as a child of immigrants.

She wanted to make Donovan's experience personal. Writing is personal, she says - even when you are working on pot structure. The personal is what sustains interest and drive.

The setting of the book is Earth after it has been "reformed" by aliens among us. She asked a question I've never seen asked before: Why would aliens show up in a major city, i.e. a place so "infested" with the local inhabitants? Her alien cities are therefore in areas like Patagonia, Mongolia, and the border between Wyoming and Nebraska. Humans then migrate to those areas to interact with the aliens, which means suddenly you have a metropolis in the middle of grassland. North America is split into west and east.

I asked Fonda about her research. She said she picked a few locations to research, using the criterion of high altitude - the kind of spot that makes for a good observatory - because she thought aliens would want to have enhanced ability to communicate with home. These places also had to be sparsely populated and have access to water. She used population maps and looked up the locations of actual deep space antennas. She said she related to the location she used for the main city because she grew up in Alberta, and is familiar with cold prairie land. She also attended the Launchpad Workshop, which is a crash course in astronomy for science fiction and fantasy writers hosted by the University of Wyoming.

Fonda told us, "I discovered I really love designing aliens." Most important to her was that she didn't want them to look like us, since she didn't have to have them portrayed by actors on TV. However, they also needed to be capable of living alongside us, and for that she wanted them to be land-dwelling, and to have a vocal language.

The aliens are the Zri, who are called "shrooms" by the humans. They have domed bodies with six legs and six eyes. Their limbs have fingers. They have musical speech. The languages are incompatible in that humans can't produce alien language, and the aliens can't produce human language, but they are mutually comprehensible.

Fonda mentioned that one of the challenges of space travel she dealt with was radiation. The space-traveling aliens have body armor that allows them to resist this radiation, and so do the humans who are altered to have body armor.

One of the worldbuilding details she told us she liked was how the two groups can understand each other, but not perfectly. They have translation machines to help with the process, but the machines translate the alien language as a deep male human voice.

I asked her about the gender of the aliens, and she said they are hermaphroditic, but "they have male voices." Apparently the aliens deliberately chose to render their voices as those of human males in order to prey on human patriarchal expectations. Fonda notes that humans will also do that, as when female CEOs will deepen their voices.

Fonda likes to ask, "What's the logic behind that?" when she is worldbuilding. She also asks, "What from this world is relevant?" The aliens couldn't be sentient plants or light particles. All alien stories, she says, are human stories. We use the lens of Other to examine ourselves and ask, "What is human?" It's very important to look at humans interacting with the strange and unknown.

She told us about the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron, who says we are wired for stories because we are testing ourselves in preparation for actual scenarios.

Fonda says using aliens is a relatively safe way to portray the Other because it doesn't involve projecting Other onto other humans.

Donovan, the main character in Exo, is a member of the Global Security Forces. He gets abducted by a terrorist militia, an anti-alien human group. Because Donovan is the son of a political leader, he is perceived as a bargaining chip. However, things go wrong. Donovan understands the stance of the militia but at the same time is loyal to his father. Fonda says this is "not a good guys versus bad guys" story, but happens in a moral gray zone. We love the rebel versus the evil empire, Katniss, etc. but in many places, America is the evil empire. She wanted to ask "What is a terrorist?" "What is the justification that opposing sides use in conflict?"

Fonda also says that teens have a better sense of the world's complexity than we think. They can handle nuance in a story. She told us about a high school visit when she learned that teens are still reading "classics" which were written as adult works. We noted that YA is a new genre. Fonda says she's comfortable there because she loves the transition phase. We can still be coming of age until age 40, she says.

Sarah asked whether Fonda had done much digging into different Earth cultures. There is not so much of that in Exo, but it does nod to other areas of the world and how the alien occupation played differently there.

Khaalidah asked about Fonda's writing process. Fonda said that every book is different. Her first novel, Zeroboxer, took 6-8 weeks of research and a year for the first draft and revisions. Exo, she says, started as a "trainwreck NaNoWriMo."She tried to "pants it," or just write it without planning, and stalled out after 30,000 words, so had to delete it and try again. The second time she re-envisioned it, and rewrote it more. Exo has more layers to it, and needed more drafts to bring it into focus. Fonda says there will be a second book to follow Exo, too. An idea can marinate for months or years, but she estimates two months for research and outlining, five months for the first draft, a break, and then two and a half months or so for revision. When she uses an outline, it hits major plot points, and notes on character arcs. She sold the sequel to Exo on proposal with an outline and three chapters. Having an outline, she notes, doesn't necessarily mean anything once you start writing. She quotes Lin-Manuel Miranda saying some "ideas are Moses," in that they lead you somewhere important even if they don't make it into the final book.

Lastly, we asked about the gender of the main character. Fonda says that she's written young men so far because that's "the character that pops into my head." She's had people say "you like to write teenage boys," but she says she likes to write others, too.

Fonda, thank you so much for coming and telling us about this exciting book - it's out now, so go read it! Thank you also to everyone who attended and make the discussion so fascinating.

Next week, 2/8/17 at 10am Pacific, we'll be speaking with guest author Alec Nevala-Lee about his story, "The Proving Ground." We also have a discussion of Colorism scheduled for February 15th at 10am Pacific, so please let me know if you would like to participate.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Laura Anne Gilman and The Cold Eye

After having Laura Anne on the show to talk about Silver on the Road, and reading the book, I was keen to have her come back to discuss the sequel, The Cold Eye. So it was great when she agreed to join us!

These two books are part of The Devil's West, which includes this novel series and a number of other stories she has written. It's an alternate history with magic, in North America. The divergence point is that the Louisiana Purchase was never acquired by the United States because it was protected by a man (entity?) known to all as The Devil, who lives in the town of Flood and runs a saloon. The best description of the genre here is probably magical realism. Everyone in the book accepts that things are slightly magical.

The main character, Isobel, grew up as an indentured servant in the Devil's saloon, but at 16 years old, she got to decide what to do with her life, and because she's ambitious, she takes a job with the Devil. He sends her out into the Territory as his Left Hand - a sort of enforcer. The first trip, featured in Silver on the Road, is a learning experience. Isobel is helped by a companion and teacher named Gabriel. Of course, things go terribly wrong. In the second book, she has better learned to control her abilities and understands her responsibilities better. Laura Anne describes this as the heroine's journey. Isobel is not battling against external forces so much as learning to work with the world.

The magic in this world is unpredictable and organic. It's also not called magic. It's often tied to particular creatures that carry it, like buffalo and snakes, etc. The farther you go in the world, the more you learn about the different skills people and animals have, and how to react to them. There are people who have skills but don't want to be in the Territory. Whether you have skills often has to do with how many generations you have lived there. The Territory is under pressure from the United States, which is known as a place of street lights, technology, and universities.

Laura Anne told us that the whole thing was born out of a writing exercise. She discovered this world's outlines by writing a short story called Crossroads. She says that every time she writes a story in the world, it leads her to new discoveries, different aspects of the world and its magic. For example, there are people called Devil's Jacks, who have gambled with the Devil and lost everything, and ended up bound to him. He plays them like cards. They are here and there in the Territory, doing their jobs, miserable. What she learned about them revealed more about the characters.

She says there are still areas she hasn't visited yet.

She says she's working on a piece called Boots of Clay, which features a Portuguese Jewish community who live in the Territory because they were fleeing intolerance. They interact with the native people and there are some culture clashes. (It's a golem story). This story will appear in a successfully Kickstarter-backed anthology called Lawless Lands.

"The only story I think I'm never going to tell is how the Devil came to the Territory," Laura Anne says. She says that's because it feels very fluid in her head. The Devil changes what he looks like, sometimes from moment to moment, even with people he knows best. To write a story like that would tie it down in a way that feels wrong to her.

The agreement that allows everyone in the Territory to coexist is fluid. Laura Anne describes it as "Don't be shitty," but it's up to the Left Hand (Isobel) to decide if you are breaking it. It's not always logical. This is not a world that lends itself to a World Bible. Laura Anne says she has an idea of what powers the magic, but it's organic and resists identification. The magic/medicine has elasticity.

In fact, in this world, the word "magic" is a pejorative term used by outsiders. There is still a lot of superstition about "magic."

The time period featured here is between 1801 and 1803 during the term of President Jefferson. Laura Anne says she tries to keep all the politics outside the Territory as the exact politics of that time period.

Many people think Old West when they see her books, but this is earlier in history, before the invention of rifle barrels. The guns people carry are blunderbusses and flintlocks. Fights are much more likely to be conducted with fists than with knives or guns. When they were marketing the book, they tried to avoid the "Weird West" label even though it is weird, and west, because there are no gunslingers, hardly any prostitutes (she deliberately avoided them), and no railroads.

It's a very difficult period to research. History is well documented east of the Mississippi river, but the research on the west is "not in English." Native stories of the area are very different and nonlinear, with a different sense of time and a different storytelling logic.

I asked her whether there were any world-exploration spots where she had to push hard and maybe make up some things. She said that there were, and these occurred on Book 3 when the story moves to Louisiana. It's a very different region, and the Caddo confederacy occupied that region, but the confederacy was a lot of small tribes banded together over a large region, and some of them disappeared leaving no information. She had to use best guesses. Tribal names are not necessarily the ones that the tribes themselves used, because there is no record. She was frustrated because she had to use second person narratives, and other people's photos, rather than reading about these people in their own words.

Laura Anne says she wants to talk about Alaska also, and that there will be good research material there.

I asked her how she went about raising stakes across three books without blowing the top out of the story. Her answer was to keep survival as the basic stakes. This is the era of Manifest Destiny in the United states, so the threat to the Territory is consistent. She also keeps focused on Isobel's personal journey. In Book 2, Isobel must deal with what she's become. She has become adult and needs to make really hard decisions. Book 3 has her dealing with those decisions. Laura Anne insists that Isobel is not "getting darker," but that she has more weight on her from one book to the next.

Che asked whether she has plans beyond these three books. Laura Anne explained that Isobel's apprenticeship is done at the end of Book 3, and more material has yet to gel. She intends to keep writing in the world, however. She says she's intrigued by the question of how Marie became the Devil's Right Hand. There are many characters here, and many points of view.

I asked her specifically about the fascinating cultural clashes she deals with. She explained that they grow out of her background in American History. Western European settlers were not the full story. Spain and Portugal sent people. So did the French. The Native American peoples had thousands of communities with completely different cultures. There were Jewish people, and escaped slaves. There were Isolationists, or people who just wanted to move out into the wilderness and survive and maintain their lonely outposts. Then there were people who started cities because they wanted civilization where they were. There were cattle herders and farmers, who also had conflicts between them. Marrying outside one's own culture was a critical question. People were able to accept maybe one or two examples of this, but once it got to be 10 or 20 they felt threatened, as if their culture was being diluted.

One big question Laura Anne deals with is "Who gets to determine the future?" She told us she was really angry while writing the third book. None of the characters are bad people; they just want what they want and it leads to different good or bad outcomes. She says, "I know what happens to the Territory and when it happens. I'm not sure i want to write those stories. Nothing gets to stay the same, intact."

She tries to be faithful to the actuality of history in many ways. One of those is that there is no climactic battle. You realize after the fact that something has happened, and you have to deal with it. She says it's not a three-act narrative. It's about looking back at what people do and how they do it. History is key to storytelling. So is political science, anthropology - because they deal with people, cultures, and decision-making.

Laura Anne says that the best non-fiction books have a storytelling style. Liberal arts and sciences are very important. She says, "I'm not a science fiction writer [in her novels]. I just put a lot of science in my fantasy."

Last, we talked about suspension of disbelief. Laura Anne says there are two kinds. One is the suspension of disbelief of the reader, who says, "Okay, I'm going to trust you." The other is that of the writer, who bears an obligation to create a structure on which the reader can hang their suspension of disbelief. The Cold Eye starts because of an earthquake. If you take actual facts, and twist just slightly, it will still feel real.

The author has a great responsibility. Laura Anne observes that this is reflected in the way we talk about being "thrown out" of a story rather than "walking out" of it. It's the author's responsibility not to create ejection points.

Thank you so much for coming to talk to us, Laura Anne! I'm really excited to see what happens next in the series. Dive into Worldbuilding will meet this Wednesday, February 1 at 10am Pacific to talk about Colorism. I hope you can all join us!


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Physical Exercise

There's something about New Year's (probably the resolutions) that makes me think of physical exercise, so we decided to take this topic on.

Physical exercise is often considered a way to better yourself. There are the health and strength benefits, of course, but in many ways exercise is considered something morally good in American culture. What kind of person is worthy, beautiful, strong? Is exercise important to that? Is exercise key to self-reliance? Is it also a replacement for flagellation or self-punishment?

As with many aspects of our lives, social class plays into the cultural meaning of exercise. People who exercise as leisure tend to get more kudos for it than people who exercise for work (labor). There is also the question of international cultures and their appropriation, as when yoga or martial arts are adopted in the US and end up being changed. In a way, appropriation is involved in the core premise of the Karate Kid, in the question of whether karate is to be considered a cultural practice or just a way to wield the power of physical strength over others.

When you are writing about characters in fiction, are they fit? Ask yourself in what way they are fit, and how they got there. People sometimes will give their characters "superpowers," or physical abilities with no particular explanation of how they were developed. Do your characters have to work hard for their strength and fitness?

Nina mentioned how Seanan McGuire in October Day had a character with fast healing who never runs from anything, but how later when her healing isn't working she has to change her strategy drastically.

Cliff Winnig, in the lead-up to the discussion, mentioned that Michael Moorcock has a character who loses people dear to him at the end of Book 1 of a series, and then in Book 2 is depressed and out of shape and has to get his physical fitness back.

I spoke about the question of my alien character Rulii and his physical fitness, which depends on several factors - his semi-bipedalism, which means he's far better at running on fours than at walking, and also his history of military service followed by drug use and recovery, which influences his expectations for his own abilities.

Che mentioned that in middle grade we too often see the trope of "training with a cute guy."

One of the common tropes of fiction is the idea that the only thing that will keep you from being sore is more of the same thing that made you sore. Fictional stories too often ignore recovery time.

Nina also mentioned that there is a big focus on young people who can bounce back quickly. Morgan mentioned that there is an assumption that people are either able-bodied or visibly disabled, and we don't see many cases of people who are held back by invisible ailments or injuries. I'm working on a character currently who has a nerve injury that she's been recovering from for a while. It's hard to say how much it will affect her, because injuries like this vary depending on the day.

It's a good idea to figure out the physical history of your characters.

Ask how much your culture values the physical abilities of your characters. If they were injured or disabled, would they try to pass as uninjured/able?

Pedestrians are also an interesting question. Does it make sense for people to travel by foot? Nina told us that in Finland in winter, people are required by law to wear personal reflectors for walking as well as for cycling.

Some jobs cause you to be physically fit. For example, you can be a postman who has to walk their daily routes.

Exercise helps to maintain your body and stave off aging.

Exercise for major muscles provided by sports, etc. is not the same as exercise for tiny muscles provided by activities like yoga or Pilates or dance.

In a place with car culture, the form of cities changes and makes walking far more difficult. Cars need space to be safe, but that means that the form of the city is skewed toward people who have money for cars. Public transport also gives people the opportunity to do daily walking. Mass transport also often makes assumptions about people being able-bodied. This was certainly the case in Tokyo in the early 90's when I was living there and some stations didn't have elevators or escalators. Carrying on with physical exercise when you are sick can be a mistake. Carrying on with serious injury is also a problem.

Pain is exhausting and sometimes doesn't register as pain but as fatigue.

There were quite a number of aspects of physical exercise we didn't cover, including school PE, so we'll have to discuss this again sometime! Thanks to everyone who attended, and a special welcome to Nina who joined us from Finland!

Next week, guest author Fonda Lee will join us to talk about her forthcoming novel, Exo (and hopefully also her debut novel, Zeroboxer). I hope you can join us!