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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!