Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Alec Nevala-Lee and The Proving Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Naming - intercultural inspirations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnographies are a good research tool for finding names.

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

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

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

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

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

Underhill might be the name of a fae...

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

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


Friday, September 1, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There can be economic or other barriers to access.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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