Sunday, December 2, 2018


This hangout occurred during the week when the Camp Fire was making air quality so bad in the San Francisco Bay Area that many people were wearing N95 masks for their daily routines. At my house, we had started to use the garage as an airlock, going into the garage first and closing the door before opening the door to the outside. It seemed an appropriate time to talk about air.

So as not to start the hangout in an entirely somber way, I started before we went on the air by playing the delightful Sesame Street song, "Air."

If you are worldbuilding, it's a good idea to consider the quality of the air. Obviously, we were thinking about this because of large-scale wildfires, but lots of environments have smoke of various types, or smog. And then of course there's outer space, with all of the complications of exoplanet atmospheres.

Here on Earth, there are websites like that can let you track your air quality anywhere in the United States. I also remember checking air quality when I was a kid in the 70's and we were in Laguna Beach, trying to decide whether to go to Disneyland for the day.

Kat grew up in Los Angeles. She said if you could see downtown, it was a good air quality day. Smog hurts your lungs, and burns, and is an orange-brown color.

What happens if there is a fire in the hall of a spaceship? How do people respond? How much smoke is there, and where does it go?

What if you had air as a part of local cuisine, like wafts of herbal steam, or scents to go with your meal? In our world, we have oxygen bars, though they aren't trending. Vaping and smoking could also count as "air cuisine" in their own ways (dangerous, of course).

Cliff wondered about aspects of air in fantasy worldbuilding. If you went through a portal from sea level to the top of a mountain, would you get the bends?

On Mars on a hot day, you could walk around without a space suit... except that the air pressure is so low you would get bubbles in your blood.

In science fiction, we like to pay attention to atmospheres. Both Star Trek and Babylon 5 (and others) have featured alien characters who needed to bring their own special atmospheres with them inside a special suit.

Cliff noted that the dust storm in The Martian wasn't strictly plausible because it would not have high enough air pressure to do damage.

It's a good idea to consider alien world atmospheric temperature and pressure.

In Mistborn, the volcanic ash in the air was part of the worldbuilding.

Kat mentioned that we should talk about how the environment smells, because smells are often neglected.

Paul encouraged us to ask "how do smells and sounds carry?"

Cliff wanted us to ask, "How do space ships smell?"

The smells of cities are often striking. They can smell of tropical flowers, or rotten mangoes. The smell of wildfires burning in California will be different from the smell of burning in Australia because of the composition of the forests. Sagebrush smells very different from eucalyptus. What is the smell of the campfire like? If it's smoky, what kind of smoke is it? We certainly have the ability to pay attention to special smoke types when we do mesquite barbecue or other cooking.

How damaging is the smoke? After 9/11, the smoke was full of asbestos and noxious chemicals. Paul told us he smelled it, and the scent was "disquieting."

In underground environments, air can also be important. We often see that a breeze is used to indicate the presence of an exit. If your city is underground, as with the City of Ember or with Varin, how are people breathing? How is the city ventilated?

We talked about the Thai soccer team who had been trapped in a cave by a flood. How long can they breathe? This question was extremely important in determining what methods could be used to rescue them.

Oxygen affects fires. In the age of the dinosaurs, there was more oxygen, so it would be far easier to ignite a fire. In the carboniferous era, where our coal deposits come from, there was a high level of oxygen. Fires were very large, and so were bugs.

Cliff noted that giant space bugs come with side effects.

Paul said you need a huge oxygen producer in order to have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, because oxygen reacts so easily with other chemicals.

Morgan remarked that air quality affects communication, because sound waves need air pressure in order to travel and to be detected. Silt in water or particulates in air can reduce visibility. Kat remarked that misty places can have visible air that is still okay for breathing.

We spoke a bit about the caves of Lascaux. Cliff wondered how you would make the paintings without bringing fire into the cave, and what kind of light you might have. I went there summer before last, and highly recommend it. The original caves have been closed since 1963 because of damage. One kind of damage was caused by algae that grew when light was introduced to the caves. That one was easy to fix. The more difficult one was a white film caused by damage from carbon dioxide. The damage was caused by all the millions of people who wanted to see the paintings, and ended up exhaling in their presence. Now they have a full-sized replica of the caves that you can visit, and they also have a workshop where the various sections of the caves are exploded outward and you can watch visual projections on them to see in what order the drawings were made. It's fascinating.

Star Trek had an episode where the air in a cave made humans become angry.

The Oracle at Delphi breathed venting gases which caused her to have visions. Natural gases can alter behavior. Many volcanic vents have been seen as gates to Hell.

In the War of the Worlds, black dust was used as a weapon.

If you use any kind of combustion indoors, it's important not to have bad ventilation because the products of that combustion can kill you. Kat mentioned that people have been killed by using combustible heat in a boat and tightening the hatches.

There is a Korean myth that if you sleep with an electric fan blowing across you, you will die. In Europe, people believed that disease was caused by miasmas of bad air.

Lake Nyos in Cameroon has carbon dioxide eruptions. Carbon dioxide is heavy and will flow along the ground, so when it erupts, it causes death in the entire surrounding area. Not even the flies are alive to live in the dead bodies.

How much air movement are you accustomed to? Is wind vital for your continued existence? What are you okay with having in the air? Is incense important in your culture?

Air can also be a terroir for yeast and bacteria, as we spoke of in our hangout about what kinds of foods you would be willing to eat. The Bay Area supports a form of yeast that develops a great sourdough taste. This can conflict with other things like natto bacillus.

Brewers are very careful about the air in their breweries.

I wondered how space suits would affect what might grow on your skin. You wouldn't want to share space suits with another person.

Cliff mentioned how in Babylon 5 there were carrion eaters who smelled bad. Apparently even in our world, you smell like what you eat.

Some smells are considered neutral and some are not. Racism plays into this. Some people try not to have their homes smell of curry, or of grilling fish. Some smells are on the edge of not being okay, like vinegar.

Onion air makes you cry. It might help if your knives are sharp, or if the onions are cold, or if you use a special slicing technique.

Cliff said one of our friend Mary Anne's recipes had a step that said, "stir until you start coughing, then do the next step."

Dry versus humid air can have quite a number of effects on your body. When it's dry and 117 degrees Fahrenheit, it stings your eyes and you squint as you go out. When it's below freezing, the air is also extremely dry.

Damp cold feels colder than dry cold. Ash and smoke can make the air colder.

When humidity is high, you can feel the air. It can feel soft, or like a smothering blanket.

Thank you to everyone who joined me for this discussion. It was very interesting - and fortunately, we have since had some rain, so the terrible air conditions have eased up. I hope to see you all soon at another hangout!


Travel and Time

What is the relation between travel and time? We wanted to talk about the passage of time, our sense of it, and how travel affects it. When you travel a long distance, it can affect how you perceive time or where you are on the globe. If you travel very quickly, it can distort your sense of time.

And it's always a good idea to draw attention to the question of long fantasy voyages on horseback, which often treat horses as perpetual motion machines (they are not). There are a great many resources available for how to treat horses well in fiction, including Judith Tarr's work. Laura Anne Gilman's Devil's West books have wonderfully realistic portrayals of horseback travel also.

Very few of us have a concept of what it means to have no roads. Travel takes an extremely long time. Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman involves a trip during the ice age, and it's dangerous and slow. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness also features a realistically portrayed voyage across ice fields.

Kat mentioned the "flatlander car culture" problem. If you live on the flats, travel is far more predictable in timing than if you live in a hilly area. In those areas, you need to think more about barriers. When there's a stop sign right at the crest of the hill and you are driving a manual-transmission car, you might wish you were an octopus! Different people might plan where to put their vehicle differently depending on whether they want to haul up or down the slope with a large purchase. Road traffic conditions vary widely, as do weather conditions. Minnesota has terrible icy snow in winter, and lots of construction when it's not winter. Californians tend to get in lots of road accidents during the first hard rain of the rainy season, because of oils getting lifted off the roads.

Even "no roads" doesn't always mean the same thing. No road across the tundra is quite different from thickets, forest, or jungle. If you follow animal paths, that might be easier, but it might also lead you to a mountain lion.

Cliff mentioned how in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, they had to travel on foot along highways for hundreds of miles. Cormac McCarthy's The Road involves cannibals that live on the road. The hobbits in The Lord of the Rings have to get off the road to avoid attracting Nazgul.

When there is a convention in the suburbs, there are often a lot of barriers to pedestrians. Fences and walls can cause problems. There can be a shortage of pedestrian crossings, or just tons of tons of cars. Sometimes, as in the Briar Rose tale, you can see your destination but you can't reach it.

We often speak in writing about the "Show, Don't Tell" rule, but it's tricky when there's not a lot to show. What do you do when you are stuck in the doldrums, or the road goes straight for eight hours?

Paul spoke of isochrone maps, which use color coding to show how far it takes to travel a particular distance. Changes in technology have led to compression of these maps, as the time required to travel the same distance has shrunk.

Cliff mentioned how space travel is influenced by our history of tales about the Age of Sail. For some reason, the time it takes to get from planet to planet is awfully similar to the length of time it would take to get from port to port. In real space travel, it takes three days to get to the moon. New Horizons probe took years to get to Pluto.

In action films, travel time has shrunk. In the original Star Wars film, the people on the Millennium Falcon played chess because they had to pass the time while they traveled. By contrast, in The Force Awakens, they seem to be zipping about in minutes.

In Star Trek the original series, sometimes they would be months' travel away from home. Although their ability to travel quickly went up in The Next Generation, Star Trek Voyager played with exactly the question of how long it would take to travel back if there were some mishap.

Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, he used a concept of Zones of Thought. Depending on where you were located physically in the galaxy, your ability to travel and your ability to think and innovate would change. Most people live in the Slow Zone, but there is also a zone called the Unthinking Depths, and another zone of maximum speed and complexity. It was a metaphorically very cool idea.

Kat mentioned that traveling physically might make you feel like you had traveled to a different time period because the rate of societal change in different areas varies widely. On the coast of the United States, a thing might be considered normal, but in another region that same thing might be considered futuristic. I have heard many people say they feel like going to Australia feels like traveling backward in time because of subtle differences in the way society works there.

There was a time when, if you traveled across the ocean, you weren't going to be able to be in touch with your loved ones except by letter. Communication distances have really changed as we went from telegraph to pay phone to easy long-distance to global phones in your pocket.

Stephen Baxter wrote a story where Earth developed fractured time zones. At altitude, time moved faster, while at sea level, it moved much more slowly.

The slow boat to China is gone. A voyage to Europe no longer takes weeks; it takes hours.

Phone calls are cheaper, but some people still cut off conversations. People adapt more slowly and lag behind technological change. Binge watching of shows has become possible only quite recently, but it is already starting changes in the way we tell our stories in visual media.

The time delay required for the sending of messages can play an important role in your plot. Ann Leckie presented situations in which people would receive messages about what was happening at a distance, knowing that whatever had happened was totally impossible to change because the message had taken hours to arrive.

Kat added that people watching things they can't affect is something that has happened many times in history. In the Napoleonic wars, there was no way to communicate across the field of battle. The existence of spyglasses meant you could see what was happening, but couldn't necessarily do anything to fix it.

Cliff mentioned that the plot of The Martian was based on travel times. The novel illustrated the concept of orbital launch windows, etc. and helped to drive the plot.

Time zones, as in the ones across the United States, have not always existed. We created the construct of "___ o'clock." We've developed a global culture of dividing time into certain units. This uniformity is not the same for distance. There are different ways of measuring time in different religions. Lots of religious holidays rely on lunar calendars.

Our time concepts are based on our planet and our sun. In space, though, those limits don't hold. If you are working on Mars rovers, you work in sols, or martian days. There's also a delay between a command being generated on Earth, and the Mars rover's response.

We often assume that travel will be smooth, but lots of accidents can happen. Flat tires, accidents, plane crashes, etc. etc.

In the book Hyperion by Dan Simmons, there was an instant-portal system of transport so successful that you could build a home that had different rooms on different planets. If that system shut down, then your family in the next room could suddenly be separated from you by light years.

Morgan noted that people aren't always anticipating the worst. If you drive a car, you are aware that you could run out of gas, but it's not always top of mind.

Kate said if she could do instantaneous travel, she would. Kat said if she could open a door and hvae fresh Meyer lemons, she'd be interested! Howl's Moving Castle also had a door that opened into different locations. Teleportation has been used in a lot of stories, both science fiction and fantasy.

Mohenjo Daro had no transit space, so all buildings were smack up against each other with roof hatches.

Kat mentioned a floating sampan culture where you would have to step on someone else's space to get from one place to the other.

In American Sign Language culture it's more rude to stop and wait for a pause in conversation before walking through the conversation space. Instead, people just say "excuse me" and walk through so they won't have to stand eavesdropping.

If you live in a habitrail culture you learn what not to look at, what to ignore and what to pay attention to.

Jet lag is a function of travel speed. If you travel slowly, your body simply adjusts as you go.

Kat talked about the age of caravans, and that during this age cultures changed slowly. There were intermingled spaces between culture, and no hard lines. The southern border of the United states is permeable. Carved dead spaces are not normal. She suggested the Age of Sail may have led to an increase in racism because you could travel a far distance without experiencing the gradual cultural change.

Kat said she'd like to see a near light-speed travel story mashed up with a fairyland Rip Van Winkle tale.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, December 4th at 4pm Pacific to discuss Personal Space and How to Be Polite with your Body. I hope you can join us!


Thursday, November 8, 2018

What You Would Be Willing to Eat

There was some question at the start of this discussion of why we decided to call it "What you would be willing to eat." Essentially, the focus of this discussion was not food in general, but what things we consider edible vs. not edible, appetizing vs. not appetizing, and why. Kat immediately pointed out the "cute taboo," which says that we don't feel like eating animals we consider to be cute, like dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. There is also the sentience taboo - don't eat things that are sentient. This depends, of course, on how one defines sentience (which would be another whole discussion).

Apparently you taste like what you eat, and this means that carnivores taste bad. Perhaps piscivores are ok.

Then we launched in to talking about unusual things we had eaten, and what that was like. I had crocodile chili, and found it almost fishlike in texture. Apparently domestically raised crocodiles eat a lot of chicken. There are some specially formulated foods intended for atypical pets like "crocodile chow" "monkey chow" and "ferret chow."

Kat told us she's trying not to eat octopus because of the sentience question.

I talked about the most morally repugnant thing I have ever eaten, which was a spread made from the sake-marinated cartilage of a whale's nose. I ate it in a circumstance where I was the guest of a professor in Japan and didn't feel I had the option to refuse. (It was awful.)

Kat said she had a bout of psychosomatic nausea once when, 24 hours after eating it, she learned she had eaten dog.

Kangaroo is more commonly eaten than we might imagine, because it is a cull animal. This is the result of colonialism, which pushed the dingo predators back into the deserts, and provided kangaroos with large amounts of cultivated wheat and other grains for food. You can't domesticate kangaroos because they are "basically, boxing deer." Australia sometimes says it's the only country that eats its coat of arms, because they eat both kangaroo and emu.

Kat mentioned that her comfort food is often viewed with suspicion. Nattoo, fermented soy beans, gets flak here and also in some regions of Japan. However, it's not that terribly different from stinky ammoniac cheese. It's very easy to make cheese sound disgusting.

It's worth thinking about the ways in which we talk about foods, and what we do (consciously or unconsciously) to make those food choices seem "other" or somehow unappetizing.

How can people refuse food and enforce their boundaries without being rude? That differs from culture to culture and might be somehow special in your fiction.

We talked about the Wendig sandwich, which involves mayonnaise, peanut butter, and pickle with the possibility of onion, bacon, and cheese. People often react to this description with disgust, but it's not that far off the Thai dish satay with peanut sauce and pickled cucumbers. It's all in how you think about it.

Kate noted that if you are not in Earth's atmosphere, it changes your taste buds. You also get a stuffy nose because with no gravity, nothing can drain. The result is that astronauts like spicy food because they can enjoy the flavor. Many astronauts request foods based on their country of origin.

In science fiction, people seem enamored with the idea of food pellets or generic all-nutrient sludge. This appears to come from exploring the idea of food as fuel as opposed to food as a social and multisensory experience.

Paul said he wouldn't go for the pellets because it would be too boring, and he likes eating.
Che said she'd like to photosynthesize. Kate hypothesized that you might end up overfed in the tropics, especially if you were accustomed to 9 months of darkness in the north.

Some families have a set of six meals they eat constantly, in order. Some people eat more seasonally. What that means depends on where you live.

It's important to draw distinctions between indigenous foodways, immigrant foodways, and colonizer foodways. The colonizer approach is to take land and force it to grow food that originated 100+ miles away.

We don't really know all the nutrients that go into our food, which makes a challenge for realistic hydroponic growing.

Kate asked, "Whose food gets sent to space?" Kat asked, "what level of stinkiness is acceptable in an enclosed space?" How do we balance practical technology and cultural priorities?

Kat pointed out that in the Meiji era, the Japanese thought butter smelled bad.

Everyone assumes their own diet is neutral.

Paul said that it helps you to keep an open mind if you are born and raised in an area where lots of different foods are available.

People decide whether foods are appetizing based on flavor, but also based on texture. Kat pointed out that if a vegetable food is slippery, that means it has a high protein content. She also said that the bacillus in nattoo is different from that of sourdough yeast, and it makes it hard for her to do sourdough in her kitchen.

Che talked about a story, Silver Spoon, in which a kid goes to an agricultural high school, and there was a rule that if you had had nattoo in the last week, you couldn't make cheese.

If you are a sourdough baker, the air in your kitchen will be imbued with sourdough yeast. If you move, it will be overpowered by the local yeasts of the area you  move to, which causes the sourness of the bread to change. The yeast combinations in San Francisco and Finland make great sourdough, but this is why you can't take them somewhere else and expect the same flavor!

We talked about salmiaki, a sour salt-flavored licorice from Finland. We also discussed Vegemite (yeast spread) and umeboshi (salt-pickled plums), all of which are "difficult" foods. In Japan, umeboshi is considered a universal cure-all, usable on wounds etc. Li hing mui is popcorn with an umeboshi/licorice flavor.

I told everyone about when we encountered the liqueur called "genepi" in the French Alps. It's an infusion of artemisia, which is a plant in the same family as absinthe, but it tastes herbal, more like basil or rosemary than licorice. It's also very powerful.

Root beer is another very complex and distinctive flavor that not everyone enjoys, and it comes in a great variety of recipes. So is alcoholic beer, which would require a whole hour of discussion in and of itself.

Sometimes people have trouble with the idea of green drinks, but there are a great many of them. Mattcha tea is one. Kale or wheat grass drinks are another type of green drink, and so are mint drinks.

Kat mentioned that she makes maple bacon marshmallows, and Paul immediately volunteered to have some.

Some kinds of medicine have very distinct flavors, like cough drops or Robitussin.

Jägermeister is a flavor unlike any other.

All of these taste traditions and judgments are based in our world cultures. We gain associations with flavor based on our own experience. Some cultures use rose flavor in their food, and in fact, before the advent of vanilla, it was also very commonly used in the US.

I mentioned a violet-flavored tea I had tried, which tasted like soap when I tried it without milk, but with milk tasted like the candies called "violet pastilles." Kat said she likes black tea with rosebuds.

This was a really fun discussion, and I think it made everyone hungry! Thanks to everyone who participated.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sean Grigsby and Smoke Eaters

It was a real pleasure to have Sean Grigsby on the show! He's the author of Smoke Eaters, one of the most high-concept novel ideas I've encountered. It's basically "firefighters versus dragons." I was eager to hear how, as a firefighter himself, he'd approached depicting the firefighting realistically and not just on the basis of speculation. Sean told us he was surprised how many internet references to firefighters are actually romance- or erotic-leaning, and assured everyone listening that that's not what Smoke Eaters is all about. He also remarked that there are an astonishing number of stories involving firefighters who turn into dragons. The whole shirtless thing doesn't make a lot of sense when you're trying to protect yourself from fire.

Sean told us he's been a professional firefighter for eight years. He didn't get into it via volunteer fighting, but was fortunate enough to be paid right away. He started out working in a small town in Arkansas, and then from there moved to a department in Little Rock.

The Smoke Eaters of the title are people who have the ability to breathe smoke, even dragon smoke, like air. They have high heat resistance, though they can still catch on fire if the fire touches them.

Sean told us he came up with the idea while going through Fire Academy for the second time when he moved departments to the big city. He says, "My writer mind is always working." The instructor at the Fire Academy referred to firefighters as "modern-day knights," which put him on to the idea.

In the book, Sean asks, what would it be like for someone at the end of his career to have to give up retirement because of dragons? The main character in the book, Cole Brannigan, is on his very last fire call, and all is going smoothly until a dragon shows up in the basement of the building.

Sean chose the name Cole because it sounds like "coal," and the name Brannigan because Francis Brannigan wrote the book on fire and architecture. Most deaths in fires are caused by building collapse. They say you are supposed to know your enemy, but when you are fighting fire, your enemy is at least as much the building as it is the fire itself. After Smoke Eaters came out, Sean was contacted by the family of Francis Brannigan, asking whether the main character had been named after their relative. Sean's first reaction was "don't sue me!" but in fact they were thrilled to see Brannigan referenced.

Firefighters often refer to each other as "The Brotherhood." This group does include women firefighters. It's a family, says Sean. Many don't get along, but it's a culture these people have shared since Revolutionary days in the United States.

Smoke Eaters is set in Ohio because the first fire department was in Ohio, and Sean's agent was looking for a book set in Ohio. Part of the process of finishing the book involved toning down the swear words! However, swearing is a big part of firefighter culture. Sean had to find a balance between keeping it real and not kicking people out of the story with too much swearing.

This book is a cross between the real world and fantasy on several parameters. Sean told us that some people have described it as Urban Fantasy, even though he never had any intention of writing to that genre. He leans toward science fiction, but not hard science fiction. "I really wanted to mix things up," he said. He set it in the future because he wanted the characters to have an easier time fighting the dragons by using things like lasers and laser swords and foam.

Perhaps this is the inception of the #Foampunk genre...

The book deals with questions of PTSD and other health issues faced by firefighters. Firefighters have a high rate of cancer because of exposure to toxins in smoke. There is a lot of interesting realism built in.

I asked Sean about the wraiths that appear in the story, and when he had the idea for them. He said he saw them in his head before he started writing the book: an ashen landscape with a terrifying ghost floating across the wastes. He decided they drew dragons to certain areas. When a dragon kills someone, it creates a wraith, which attracts more dragons to the area so they can mate. In the book, there are wraith-trapping guns invented by Canada.

Sean gave us a few hints about Book 2, telling us it includes a phoenix as well as wraiths and dragons. He told us Skyrim was a big influence on him, particularly the dovahkiin who have the soul of dragons. This is part of the inspiration of the Smoke Eaters. He wants to explore the history of the Smoke Eaters' DNA.

In Smoke Eaters, Cole realizes he's a Smoke Eater when his team is killed and he loses his air mask. That's when he breathes in the smoke and doesn't die. The Smoke Eaters find him, identify his power and take him against his will because there just aren't enough Smoke Eaters for them to be allowed to opt out.

Sean calls this book "not totally post-apocalyptic but close." I think readers will likely feel like it's thoroughly post-apocalyptic.

In the end, Cole does feel an inner calling to the job he's been forcibly recruited to.

Sean says he likes putting mystery aspects in all of his books. In Smoke Eaters, it's the question of why dragons are appearing more and more often.

I asked Sean to give us more detail on the specific experiences he'd had that he incorporated into the book. He said that he really brought in the camaraderie, and sometimes brought in specific things he's heard people say, like "That's not worth two dead flies." He wrote in a scenario in which a woman overreacted to a turtle in a bathroom to reflect weird non-emergency 9-1-1 calls. He says firefighters who have read the book have given him their vote of confidence.

In the technical areas, the book is quite precise. Sean considers the book science fiction, and brought in a lot of fire science. He checked his sources. He told us about The Art of Reading Smoke by David Dodson. You can learn a lot about what a fire will do by looking at the volume, velocity, density, and color of smoke. The eye is drawn to flame, but especially in a structure fire, smoke is more informative. It tells you what the fire is doing, and what it's about to do. If you get thick black smoke, it might mean you're about to get flashover, which means that everything in the space will reach ignition at the same moment... including you, if you are in the room.

Sean says he gets swamped with fire questions. He does like feeling useful to his author community. He also made a connection with Scott Lynch, who was a volunteer firefighter. When Scott followed Sean back on Twitter he thought, "this is the greatest day of my life." Sean admits, "I snoop on Twitter." He likes to see what people are saying about his book. He likes when people say it's like a better Reign of Fire, because he loved Reign of Fire and had the video game.

On June 4th next year, the sequel Ash Kickers will come out. He was worried about missing his deadline, but he turned the manuscript in before Worldcon. He says the ending of the book is divisive.

Sean also has another book out, Daughters of Forgotten Light. (There is no "the" in the title.) The idea for that book popped into his head when he was out running. In the far future, Earth has brought on a new ice age, and enviroshields have been put up to keep the cold at bay. The United Continent of North America has technology that others want. The government decides to allow people to sell their children either to the military or to a prison planet called Oubliette. This was a name he picked up from the movie Labyrinth.

On this prison planet, there are three motorcycle gangs: the Daughters of Forgotten Light, the Ons coalition, and the Amazons (who are cannibals). People who live there are generally called Dwellers. There is a fragile truce between the gang when a new shipment of supplies arrives which includes a baby. Who gets the baby? Sean says it's very grindhouse with a late 70's-early 80's Escape from New York vibe.

Sean says he was trying to get away from the soft-core porn aspect of many women in prison films. He wanted real people with bigger concerns.

In all of his books, Sean portrays as much diversity as possible. He doesn't treat it like window dressing because he says "this is reality." Sean said his mom told him, "All the characters are women? I don't think it's going to get published." We're glad she was wrong. Sean says there are plenty of books where the characters are 99% men, so "why can't I do that with women?" He says there is a lot of his own personality in Lena. Our discussant Paul agreed that she is "deeply described." He compared the book to the movie Doomsday.

The major motivator for people in this book is hunger, since they have no way to get regular food. They receive shipments of a nourishing mono-food called "mana" that tastes terrible. Some of Sisters is very gruesome. "I get visceral on some things," Sean says, but he could not show violence against children.

I asked Sean if there was a climate on Oubliette. The prison colony has a fabricated atmosphere contained by a force called "The Veil." There is a hyperdrive gate where all shipments come in. He thinks of it like a snow globe, or like a plate with a dish cover. It's invisible until a shipment arrives. The colony also has a core which maintains their air and processes waste, etc. It has an interesting origin - this was a city in space that the rich had built for themselves. It was meant to be a refuge for them and keep people out, but instead it was seized by the government and used to keep people in.

They use "Sheila" as a term of endearment. Sean explained that he lived in Australia for six months.

A lot of his villains are politicians. The mayor of Parthenon City in Smoke Eaters wants to replace people like police and firefighters with robots.

Sean is also writing a new book called Robots Don't cry, a 1940's style crime noir with a city divided into the robot side and the human side. The plot begins when a human is found dead in the robot half of the city of Vomisa (Asimov backwards!). He's currently in edits with this book and has yet to send it to his agent.

Many thanks to Sean for coming on the show! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, October 31 to talk about Travel and Time. I hope you can join us!



Friday, October 19, 2018

Time Travel

This discussion was unlike any previous discussion of time travel I've ever had, in a very good way. We've seen a lot of stories that involve people who say "I've come from the future" etc. But what is time travel really about? What can we do to make it more interesting?

Morgan said that "time travel is essentially about do-overs." This isn't the only thing it's about, but it's certainly a major driver of a lot of time travel stories. It seems that no one can resist meddling, trying to fix things so they are the way you think they should be. A lot of these tales are cautionary, however, and discourage meddling in the end. Morgan asked, "Why do we do that instead of fixing things going forward?"

Cliff mentioned that going forward had been the topic of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and that in fact the way it involved a trip into the super-far future had distinguished it from every other time travel story he'd read.

Kat noted that in time travel stories, we don't tend to send characters from the present into the future, but instead we write science fiction, which sends the reader into the future. She mentioned Urashima Taro and Rip Van Winkle as examples of time travel narrative. Urashima Taro leaves home and when he returns, everyone he knows is dead. Rip Van Winkle sleeps and an enormous amount of time passes. She sees the message of this as "once you leave, you can't go back."

Different cultures have different concepts of time. This would suggest that there should be different ways to approach time travel. Sleeping is certainly not the same as vehicular time travel!

In Erik Flint's 1632 project, an entire village time travels back to the end of the Hundred Years War.

Kat talked about the show Timeless. She says that from the perspective of a person of color, there is a huge problem in that gigantic things are missed. She feels a deep hunger for redress, but stories of redress for past racist atrocities aren't told. She mentioned that black male friends of hers have said "I'm not going back to 1950." Any story that takes you back to the "Age of Exploration" is taking you back to the "Age of European Invasion" from a different point of view, but the viewpoints we see tend to be very white and Western.

Octavia Butler's Kindred takes a very different approach, Cliff noted. In this story, a black woman is subject to involuntary time travel, and whenever she goes back in time, she must rescue a white slave owner who was one of her own ancestors and without whom she would not exist.

Another problem that Kat pointed out is how Americans find it easy to believe that Blackness is fungible, i.e. that any person of dark skin color could easily step into any context in which other people also have dark skin color. There is a tendency to lump together all dark-skinned peoples as black even though some are Southeast Asian, or Australian Aboriginal, etc. etc. A 20th century black man would be an outsider to a tight-knit family-based community culture in sub-Saharan Africa.

What would happen if you dropped a Quechua among the Athabaskans? How would you write it? Would it work?

Are we unthinkingly assuming that being white makes a person somehow acceptable to another culture they might be dropped into by time travel? The perception of whiteness as somehow a cultural default contributes to this assumption, but likely also causes us to fail to identify critical conflicts that might arise.

How would time travel work if the protagonist was a devout member of an Orthodox religious group? Would that create more continuity or acceptability?

If we had a helical concept of time, that might make time travel more plausible, because you could travel to a time period that bore deep resemblance to our own. The idea of linear progress permeates a lot of time travel stories, but is very limiting.

Having a climate with four seasons influences our sense of time, but might also influence time travel.

Even a multiverse, which introduces complexity, maintains the underlying concept of "time lines."

Would people who time travel explain they were time travelers? How plausible is that? Would they be seen as witches? Or as travelers?

Cliff mentioned Leo Frankowski wrote about a character named Conrad Stargard who was a Polish hardware engineer and traveled through time to help Poland win a war they had lost.

Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a classic example of a time travel story.

Cliff also mentioned that in the Talmud there's a story about Honi the Circle Maker who encounters someone on the road planting a carob tree for his grandchildren, and then Honi falls asleep like Rip Van Winkle and encounters people when the carob tree has grown. There is an interesting sense in this story that society has not changed after 70 years, but that there are always cycles of grandfathers planting trees for their grandchildren.

A couple of examples of modern, intricately plotted time travel stories are The Time Traveler's Wife and The Anubis Gates. These appear to have been plotted in advance, and in their visions, the flow of time is fixed.

Time travel stories often ask the question of predestiny. Can we change fate?

Kat thought it might be interesting if we told a story about how people tried to inhabit time differently by cloning themselves. She argues that Western stories lack context. What does it mean to not know a culture? Our times are also unmoored from the time periods around ours. What we perceive as the current time era varies depending on people's access to technology, for example.

Stories about the past are a little bit like time travel. It would be hard for modern people to function in an era with coin-operated telephones. These days many people don't understand why the "hang loose" hand gesture symbolizes a telephone.

One aspect of time travel that is not often dealt with in depth is language change.

If you rewatch Star Trek IV, you discover that it's aimed at people who live in a very specific time period. These days we *can* talk to a computer, so the effect of Scotty doing it is very different.

We talked briefly about Outlander, in which a person from the World War II era goes further into the past. It was interesting to note that the technology difference between Claire and Jamie is smaller than between us and Claire.

Once your technology relies on principles that we can't sense (like invisible radiation), is it harder to go back to less sophisticated methods?

Kat remarks that we've forgotten how previous generations lived. Recreating that involves a daunting amount of research.

I remarked that immigrants and expatriates carry with them the culture of their homes as those homes were when they left. If you depart, and you don't have great communication with your home afterward, how can you stay connected to the flow of culture and language?

Kat told us that the Japanese language she learned as a child, she learned from her mother who had left Japan in the 1950's. So to many people it would taste old-fashioned. Kat knows songs from her mother's grandmother.

I would be interested to see a story in which someone goes back in time, but can't return to exactly the same moment they left from and becomes disoriented.

Kat described how she lived in Australia for a year, and at the end of it she wanted to return to her previous neighborhood near Lake Merritt, but there had been a gentrification explosion and suddenly she could not afford it.

Remember that at any given time, attitudes in different areas of a country aren't uniform. A person in one place may have a sense of self or general attitude that a person in another place held 30 years ago.

People who move a lot may have a chopped-up sense of time. There are also people who are disconnected from the news during key events (like 9/11) and those people can feel like they need to catch up because they've become dissociated from the general flow of their cultural history.

I mentioned that there are at least a couple of cases of people who age backwards. Benjamin Button ages backwards but travels through time in the usual manner. The wizard Merlin is described as living his life backwards through time, so he knows the future.

Cliff talked about the book Cryptozoic by Brian Aldiss, in which travel to the distant past was easier than travel to the more recent past. There's no need to assume that travel to any point in history would be equally difficult.

Aging was one of the issues that got discussed during this topic, because of the way travel through time might cause you to encounter people you knew at different ages. We remarked that aging works differently for people of different phenotypes and racializations. Sometimes this leads to an assumption of extended innocence, and sometimes to an assumption of early maturation which can put people in danger. Lifespan also differs depending on our wealth and access to health care. Our concept of how old a character looks can change over time. You will have a different view on life if you think you'll die at 35 vs. if you think you will die at 90.

Because of the recent advent of the new Doctor on Doctor Who, we carefully avoided talking about the show for most of the hangout! We didn't want to give spoilers. The show is very interesting, though, in the way it deals with the futility of empire, from the perspective of a someone who watches civilizations rise and fall.

Some more time travel stories: The Cartography of Sudden Death by Charlie Jane Anders, Six Months, Three Days, also by Charlie Jane Anders, and Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this hangout! I was really glad that we were able to talk about a familiar topic in some new and interesting ways.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Continuity and Consistency

This was an interesting topic. Although our first thought was that continuity and consistency would naturally apply to gigantic worlds with lots of works in them, it can also be applied on a much smaller scale.

What do we mean by continuity and consistency? It means that an author keeps track of the details of their world, everything from underlying principles to tiny details, and doesn't change them for no reason in the middle of a story, or in the middle of a series. Kat brought up an interesting question, however: what if you have been writing in a world and you discover that you have done something problematic, such as being unintentionally racist or sexist? How much value should you place on consistency versus the desire to change the world so it is no longer problematic?

In fact, there was a lot more to the question of consistency than I expected going in!

Background research is often a factor in consistency. If you are referencing aspects of the real world, or using principles of the real world, sticking with those is generally valuable. Remember, though, not to get too bogged down in research (research can be a black hole).

Morgan mentioned the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which makes some good points about doing pastoral fantasy well, such as "don't write horses as if they were cars."

When you look at the work of Tolkien, it's not entirely consistent in every aspect, but the languages are very consistent, because as a linguist he cared deeply about having them work.

Star Trek has been going on so long that staying consistent is difficult.

Our discussants felt very strongly that they wanted to see honesty from creators about whether there is continuity in a universe's timeline. If you have had to change it, talk about how you had to change it. If you haven't changed it, talk about why. Just don't change it and then claim it was always this way.

Kate told us about an experience when she wanted to write a story set somewhere in a larger world, but in order to write it properly she had to toss out continuity with a previous piece she had written.

It's important to remember that writers often write what I call "exploratory drafts." These are story drafts where you write along and learn more and more about the world as you go. What this will mean is that the way you portray the world by the end of the draft will be different from the way you portrayed it when you first started the draft. Yes, you will have to go back and rewrite the beginning so that the world works the same way at the start as it does at the end. We all commiserated on how often we had to rewrite opening chapters. Sometimes you will write six different stories, and then realize it would work well if they were all in the same world, and have to revise them so they are consistent with each other.

Keep in mind that it's not a problem if you are writing an exploratory draft! Most of us become better writers as we go.

Kate talked about how difficult it must be for showrunners to keep consistency across the episodes of the shows they create.

Kat pointed out that one solution to discontinuities and inconsistencies is to say that you had an unreliable narrator. Confining the viewpoints that you use is a good tool to keep you from being overwhelmed by a very large world. However, it's easy to fall into clichéd patterns of which point of view to care about. Kat said she wanted to see Pratchett done from the point of view of someone minor like Dibbler's first client of the day.

We digressed a bit into the issue of point of view. The question of whose story to tell and how to tell it, and why, is very important. The right viewpoint can make the difference between a story working and not working. There can be various different ways to zero in on the right viewpoint character - goals, the results at the end of the story, whose arc organizes the timeline better, etc.

Kat mentioned reading a story called Tung Tung Summer, told from the viewpoint of a little girl. The viewpoint constrains everything so much, she said, that the tech does not have to be described in detail. The little girl misses adult complexities as well, which leaves them for readers to infer.

The critical link between point of view and consistency is that individual people's points of view make a really good tool for limiting the need for consistency.

[at this point in the hangout, I lost continuity due to a drop of my internet service! Ordinarily I wouldn't mention it, but it seemed relevant here.]

Our desire to see continuity and consistency in our stories has increased. One societal factor in that increase, Kat explained, was the difference between episodic media watching and binge watching. We are now able to watch entire sequences of thirteen or more episodes in a few sittings, which makes it much easier for viewers to detect problems.

Kat noted that comic book readers are very forgiving of inconsistency so long as you make the context of the inconsistency clear - such as "this is an alternate universe" or "this is a reboot," etc. There are multiple Spider-mans. Star Wars has also morphed, she says, but we're not wanting to admit it.

Kat mentioned a detail from fanfic history, called being "Jossed." It was when you had written a continuation of a timeline in a media property, but then the creator of that property took the storyline in a drastically different direction, leaving your fanfic as a discontinuous stub.

You could think of various versions of the Gospel as fanfic.

What do you do when you run into a disparity? You can do a reboot, conceivably. However, once the story is out in the public eye, it's never a good idea to deny that the error exists.

I mentioned how our discussion with Maya Bohnhoff was relevant to this topic, as she spoke to us about writing in shared worlds using world bibles and other people as resources to maintain consistency.

One way to keep track of your world is with a world bible, or a single place where you keep all key continuity information. You can take notes on a character's eye color, or the most popular food in that town, etc. etc. It is a good idea to note how exactly to spell unusual names or made-up words.

You can use a glossary in your book. Kate pointed out that it's a good idea to indicate somehow that the glossary is there, so people don't struggle through and then realize the glossary is there afterward.

Kate also described being disillusioned for years with Frank Herbert for using French and calling it something else. The books of Thomas Covenant also stole from another language.

Please, get a sensitivity reader for any real-world language material!

If you can, keep spelling things the same way between your different editions.

On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that things are messier in real life. People do change names, or change the spelling of their names. They can have their names re-spelled or changed by other people such as immigration officials or teachers. Town names can change over time, too.

Keep in mind that East Asian countries have different naming schemas for family names, individual names, etc. Kat told us that she named her son after someone who had five different names over the course of his lifetime. Especially among indigenous and colonized people, who gets what name is really important.

Language and culture are inextricably linked, a fact that Morgan emphasized. Research both when you are making decisions about your world.

Kat pointed out that Tolkien made some hard choices early in his process, and was mostly consistent with how the languages worked. When we draw on Myth, though, different regions will often spell the same name differently.

I then turned the discussion in a different direction by talking about overzealous concepts of consistency. How strict are the rules of your world? If they are too strict, you can have a different sort of problem. Culture is not a monolith. People are not necessarily honest about their motivations, culturally. Culture is full of subcultures, and sub-subcultures.

Kate noted that people in a story don't necessarily know what the rules are. She recommended the book the Golden Key by Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliott, and Melanie Rawn.

A great point that came from Kat is that we can't underestimate the power of hypocrisy, incongruity, and discontinuity. What people say is going on isn't always what is actually going on. If you have too much consistency, you end up with Camazotz, or at very least an uncanny feeling. Hypocrisy exists on both the individual level and the societal level.

It's always important to ask where you are writing the story from socially. Ask if your character is meeting the right kind of strife. Sometimes people are portrayed with a form of privilege that doesn't match the structure of the world. Privilege, and the lack of it, are very complex, and often oversimplified in fiction.

Can you write a world where problematic stuff like bias is handwaved out? It has been done, but drastically narrows the story frame.

Who you choose to portray is very important. Who is a POV character? Who is an NPC? It's problematic always to tell prince and princess stories.

You want to know what you are doing, and do it on purpose.

Don't forget that even what is pretty vs. nonpretty is culturally different. Whether prettiness is an important characteristic is also cultural. Kat explained that beauty standards change drastically pre- and post-colonization. Beware of centering your standards in a particular cultural spot. Rock 'n' roll, which is considered classic now, was once considered quite scary. Acknowledge this. It has been considered provocative and terrible, so don't call it wholesome and then criticize rap.

The future is here, says Kat, but it's just unevenly distributed. Class is a factor. Beware of too much consistency in the speed of cultural progress. What year do you live in really?

Thank you to all of you who participated in this discussion. Today at 4pm we'll talk about Time Travel. I hope you will be there!


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and The Antiquities Hunter

It was a real pleasure to have Maya on the show! This new book of hers, The Antiquities Hunter, is her "first dive into mystery/crime/detective" novels. It follows Gina Suzu Miyoko, a tiny Japanese-American woman as she tries to figure out who is stealing antiquities and selling them north of the border on the black market. She said that several people asked why there was no dead body in the first chapter, but she points out that antiquities stealing is not a victimless crime.

This book features a fictional version of our world. It's different from a lot of Maya's other work, which has been mostly science fiction and fantasy but included some alternate history and steampunk. The archaeological digs she's depicted up to this point were on other planets! There, she says, she could use the tools of archaeology as she pleased.

In this book, she got to explore some substrates of our world she hadn't seen in depth before, including the workings of museums, auction houses, etc. These places have a patina on them, but there's dirty work underneath.

Gina Miyoko, the protagonist, has interesting parents, each of which is into a particular type of magic. Maya says this is where a certain fantasy element comes into the book. Gina's mom works as a folklorist at San Francisco State University and is really into Russian Orthodox magic, always giving Gina lucky charms, and even blessing her motorcycle! Gina's father's world is Buddhist. In the end, it's left ambiguous whether the magic is really operating or not. Another character in the book is a park ranger of Hopi background who is the one who draws Gina into the mystery of stolen antiquities. For him, the process of finding antiquities thieves is very personal.

I asked Maya about her research process. She said this book took a very long time to write. It started with the character of Gina. Gina's mom, Nadya, was initially in psychology, but then later changed to folklore. Maya did research on Russian Orthodox magic with the book "The Bathhouse at Midnight: A Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia." For the archaeological aspects, Maya drew on Archaeology Magazine, where she found a lot of information on National Park Service Agents. There was a story about a woman with a family who was in the field conducting sting operations on antiquities thieves and black market dealers. For the background of a character named Rose, Maya looked at black market antiquities that showed up at Sotheby's and the English Museum, like the Elgin Marbles (a set of marble statues that once stood in the Parthenon). Maya also had questions like, "What is it like to go to a Police Academy?" and "How are police departments structured?" which she got answered by police officers she connected with in online chatrooms. She also explored questions of what happens when jurisdictions collide, how departments work together, etc.

There were other important questions to answer as well, such as, "Do cell phones work on the Yucatán Peninsula?" As it turned out, people couldn't use regular cell phones bout would have to use a special GPS phone. There are also lots of legal details surrounding the international organizations with researchers at the sites.

I asked Maya whether she did research all at once or spread out over time. A lot of the work came in from previous research she had done. Most most of the rest came in her initial research.  She will get a core idea and get excited about it, stop and drag in research until she feels confident. The last step post-editor was requesting some more depth on a few specific topics - things like helicopters and how many passengers they can hold, how much weight they can load, etc. and details on weaponry and the motorcycle named Boris (a Harley superglide 1983). There were also details on specific artifacts.

Maya told us there were a lot of Easter Eggs in the book. One tense scene takes place in the underbelly of a pyramid in Chiapas. Maya hinted that "knowing about weapons will help you identify a new problem." At the same time, she emphasizes, research is a "deep pool you can dive into and possibly drown." You want to have a layer of basic research, then a layer of more specifics, and then a last layer of tiny details.

Balance is important. You don't want to overdo your research, but you don't want to restrict your audience to people who don't know better. Maya told her that with her science fiction and fantasy, former Analog editor Stanley Schmidt would say she had too much detail and to back off. You don't want to confuse - but you don't want to be implausible, either. It bothers Maya when she runs into something that would never happen in a real police department, for example. Make your story credible to those who know, and not overwhelming to those who don't.

Maya said it was helpful to use touchstones - a number of things that people understand, so they don't feel lost when they are walking in. Then you can fill in alien or fantasy details around them. People know the word "pyramid" so there's no need to describe it in detail. But as for how you get inside the pyramid? That requires detail like "there was an opening blown in it."

Paul asked how her process on this book differed from her work on Star Wars. Maya told us that was more difficult because some information was not available, or had less accessible sources. Star wars has essential guides to the GFFA (galaxy far far away), DVDs, an in-house encyclopedia. Maya's partner on her Star Wars novel was Michael, who had been writing in this universe for a decade and was an expert. Most of Shadow Games happened on Banistar Station, which had appeared once in a comic book and not many people knew what it was. They had to draw conclusions like, "nobody's in a space suit so there is breathable air." At a certain point, though, you have to decide what the answer is because there isn't an answer out there to find. The stuff you make up might be rejected, however. You research the canon and try to extend it using individual experts as helpers. Maya suggests that people not use Wookiepediea unless they are willing to chase down the original sources.

Even though some public perception appears to be that if you make stuff up it requires less research, fantasy actually requires about three times the research over the real world, according to Maya. This can be a problem for aspiring writers who think they can make anything up in a fantasy world. Maya says, "This isn't fantasy, this is chaos." In fact, it's not the case that there are no rules. You get to make up the rules, but then you have to stick to them. If you don't, there is no way to judge the importance of events, or even sometimes what things look like. There is no reasonable hope of making good hypotheses.

I mentioned the relatively chaotic magic systems used by Laura Anne Gilman and Nnedi Okorafor, but pointed out that when you are working with a system like that it can be a more demanding process for the writer than having strict rules (rather than less demanding).

Maya mentioned magical realism, which has different kinds of demands. She mentioned Tim Powers' world, where there is magic system 1 and magic system 2, and the two turn out to coexist and clash with each other, but everything converges within the story line.

Managing reader expectations is very important. If you foil readers' expectations once or twice, it's really cool. But if you foil them too often, there comes a moment when reality refuses to play, and readers will put the book down. They become desensitized and disengage, or simply lose the thread of the narrative.

When a writer doesn't tell you what's in a room, for example, and then suddenly says that the protagonist "picked up the sword," it's not helpful. Maya has done a lot of editing and ghostwriting, and run into situations where a writer will decide mid-scene to have an object there. Ok, so we're in a mountain Arabian desert cave, and suddenly there's a writing desk? With a shelf and a book?

Watching how sometimes people forget to fill stuff in helped Maya learn a lot about what she wanted to put in. She says, "I need to let the reader know what a treasure room in Chiapas looks like" rather than have "deus ex writing desk."

You also don't want to forget what month it is. Sometimes an editor will write time notations in the margins, like, "on Friday," or "one week later." You want to remember what time of year it is for the purposes of weather, etc. You can also try to match the time of year to the mood of the story. "Thank god for our devices," says Maya, because they let her ask things like "What's the weather like in Tel Aviv?" and "What's the weather like in Chiapas in this season?" Weather affects the story!

Maya told us about a book she read where there was a literal countdown going on, and it took three chapters to get to a particular point, yet only an hour and a half had passed. You have to be careful about spending too many words on too little time.

Maya suggests if you want to make stuff up well, you should study Science, History, and Psychology. That way when you make stuff up, you'll be using solid pieces to do it.

Truth is less credible than fiction. Maya once researched the questionof how long it would take for a human in a dark place to lose their sense of sight. The answer is less than five years. Then if they resumed having sight, it would be a different sort of struggle because the brain would lose the talent of processing and integrating sight information. She tried to write about it but was told that it wasn't plausible.

Coincidences happen in real life all the time, but in fiction they are deemed too convenient. The name Tiffany was quite common in the middle ages, but if you use it there, you won't be believed because it is so common in our own age. Knowing what names were popular in a particular time period is useful information, but may go against people's expectations! Also, a lot of people will have the same name in real life, but it's a problem if they have that in fiction.

Writers will sometimes populate a culture, and grab names from different world cultures. This is not a good idea! You will end up with a character with a Hawaiian name, and one with a Scandinavian, with no reasoning behind it. Yes, you can have more than one naming style in your world, but come up with why.

Maybe you have people coming from two completely different language groups. They will have markedly different naming strategies. Tolkien was very consistent in his world because he was a linguist.

If you are using a real-world context, learn how names really work in the country of origin of your character. This is important. In Spain, you have a christening name followed by your mother's first surname followed by your father's first surname. You could make up a culture that uses this system. You could have one that uses name, family, clan names, or a name from the father's profession, etc. The more real world knowledge you have, the better you will do at making stuff up, at achieving richness and depth. If you want it to feel like a real world, you need grounding for odd elements.

Thank you so much, Maya, for coming on the show and giving us your insights! Thanks also to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, October 9th, 2018 to discuss Time Travel. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Because the previous week's discussion had concerned attraction, I started out this hangout with the loaded question posed in When Harry Met Sally, whether men and women can be friends. Answer: of course they can, unless you are trapped in a gender-essentialist heteronormative culture which assumes that men and women are polar opposites (and also men will always be tempted by sex even when it's antisocial).

What are the great friendships of genre fiction? We thought of Frodo and Sam, but there are some class difference issues that make that relationship more like lord and valet. We also thought of Sherlock and Watson, but interestingly, when Watson is female as in Elementary, you do tend to get pressure to make the relationship more romantic. I proposed that the relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven is a really interesting friendship because it strays toward the romantic but remains platonically intimate and even draws back from a level of psychic intimacy.

Paul asked, "Why do we want to convert non-romantic relationships to sexual relationships?" The answer is probably cultural.

In Bujold's work, Lady Alice and Cordelia are allies and friends. Women are projected as lone wolves while men are part of communities.

Genre has a lot of backbiting and competition built into its fabric, including a lot of zero-sum assumptions that make friendships difficult to maintain. If you support someone, that doesn't have to detract from your own chances. If you have similar status to someone else, it doesn't necessarily have to lead to contention. The idea of the wingman is a weird permutation of friendship that drags it toward relevance to the romantic realm.

Can you have a friendship between members of two different cultures? Certainly you can - but it might not mean the same thing to both people.

I talked about how Rulii, a wolf alien from my Allied Systems universe, has difficulty with the concept of friendship because he understands it as interdependence without rank. His people think of rank as central to life and inextricable from it. What do you do if you can't tell relative rank? In his world, you struggle.

Kat pointed out that racialization harms friendships in racially biased cultures because it makes mutual trust harder to achieve.

There are a lot of uses of the word "friend" that imply different levels of engagement. There's the Facebook or other social media friend. There's the acquaintance. There's the intimate platonic friend. The apparent flatness created by this single word, and the lack of further vocabulary, makes it harder to talk about different kinds or levels of friendship.

Would you discuss bias with your friend? Would you help them move? Would you care for their family members? Would you spend time with them? Would you call them on bad behavior?

Morgan said she'd like to imagine a language which had more words for friendship than we have. The only issue with that is that you'd run into the author effort of teaching new vocabulary to a reader. Sometimes it's worth it for a story, and sometimes it isn't.

Children also have different ideas of who friends are and what the word means. One can be friends of one kind with a friend at school, and another with the child of a friend of one's parents. Adults, meanwhile, struggle with the platonic versus the erotic. This confusion is taught early, when boyfriend/girlfriend aspects are ascribed to platonic relationships between children.

Morgan mentioned a child who had been having a tough time with a friend and said, "Maybe we should just not be friends until after naptime." This is similar to not entering stiff negotiations until after eating.

Resarch on kids' play suggests that kids spend a lot of time approaching other kids and asking to play with them, and despite the ease you might expect, they fail about half the time.

What kind of environments provide the kind of social interaction that fosters friendship in your society? What kind of restrictions on interaction are placed on different social environments that might make it more difficult to make friends?

Kat mentioned that there are societal expectations saying you should make friends within your gender cohort, your geographic cohort, and your age cohort. She explained that marginalized people might not be able to make friends in this environment, and might have to wait to find affinity groups, possibly later in life. Some friendships are forged on the battlefield.

As an adult, have you closed off your world to new friendships? How would you?

Social events like fandom and conventions may promote friendship because of shared affinity/interests. Most people find nerdy circles in their late teens and seek out these contexts.

Kat mentioned how knitting groups might seem welcoming on the surface but sometimes every member has known the others for 20 years, and all conversation is about what they already have in common. So even choice of topic might be a way to exclude someone new from a friendship circle.

Society sets up certain types of interaction contexts, like school. Once you have left those contexts, it may be harder to find alternative ones.

Where do interactive opportunities occur in your world? What kind of environments encourage interactions that might lead to friendships?

Reaching out to others is not easy. It's a risk, always, but especially for marginalized people. It's also a risk for people who can't read social cues easily. If you are autistic and have difficulty interpreting words or gestures, it doesn't mean you don't want friendship - but friendship does become more difficult to achieve. You have to figure out the right words and the right faces to make. There are lots of important ingredients that go into being able to reach out to someone. What might those be in a fictional world?

I brought up the question of reciprocity in friendship. Do we take turns paying for lunch? That's one kind of question. But reciprocity is not always accomplished in the "same coin," as Kat said. Kat told us about a panel she participated in where someone argued that rich and poor people couldn't be friends because of reciprocity. However, it's perfectly possible for people to achieve reciprocity by giving from where they have a surplus. Fairness is not always the same as equality. You can even exchange emotional processing for physical work.

Freedom to set what kinds of things you are willing to exchange is important.

Kat talked about friendship as occurring in "silos," where making friends between the silo groups is really difficult or impossible. "If you can't set out cutesy sandwiches, you can't eat them." What does it take to create fairness if you can't use easy models of reciprocity?

There are two different models of friendship between groups. One is, "I don't see you as a member of this other group," which erases difference. The other is "I see you as exactly who you are and value that."

Do we need a better model for friendship?

As we get older, we live lives full of obligation, and we have less time to do the things that migth foster friendship.

Power relationships can be a huge problem for friendships as well as for romances.

I talked about a friendship I'm writing between a Varin nobleman, Pyaras, and a police officer, Veriga. There are rules that tell us what we can talk about in particular contexts, and if those hadn't been broken, and broken by people who were entitled to break them without consequences, the two would never have become friends.

Kat pointed out that there is a "magical sidekick problem" with marginalized people. A friendship between a privileged person and a less privileged person might be seen as unequal and the friend reduced to a sidekick. The privileged person in the relationship might see the other as a friend but might not perceive the things that the less powerful person is holding back, which prevents them from feeling like the friendship can be deeper. Marginalized people have to be careful and can't share some things because it might lead to reprisal or the end of a friendship. This is how you can have someone who says "My friend is a member of X group and I have never heard that."

Thank you to everyone who joined in the discussion. I thought it was really interesting and explored some difficult and fascinating territory.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018


This topic started out as "Attraction, Affection, Love," but we had to scale back because each of those really deserved its own hour!

I thought of bringing the topic up because I'd seen an online post remarking "this book mentions breasts 41 times!" So often when people want to write about feelings of attraction, they go to the default of male gaze, i.e. the things we traditionally talk about in order to invoke the sense of attraction for males. Paul noted, "White cis male... for many people, they think wrongly that it's only white cis male writers."

But we shouldn't, particularly in secondary worlds! People are products of their worlds, and gendered gaze is not necessarily a part of those worlds.

Women are typically not obsessed with their own breasts, or at least not with their attractiveness. Morgan said, "Carrying the freaking things around takes most of our attention."

What has happened is that female breasts have become iconic, a symbol representing attraction in narrative. You can choose what to describe, and how, and the stereotype should be fought because attraction is far more interesting and complex than just "boobs."

I mentioned how when I was working with otter aliens in my story, "At Cross Purposes," they had unusual ridges and shapes in the skin between their eyes and ears, something they called "brow character." One of my alien characters mentioned how another had "masculine brow character" in an appreciative way.

We really aren't constrained in what characters find attractive. They can find  non-physical things attractive.

One important question to ask is this: Are our characters attracted to something that is under the control of the object of attraction? Choosing to admire something under a person's own control will reduce objectification.

In some ways, it's easy to do aliens. We find alien forms of attraction used in Star Trek, but at the same time, we also find "boobs." This is largely because of the perceived audience of the show, and wanting to cater to their expectations. We should examine how to satisfy expectations and question how to do it differently.

Faces and figures can be attractive.

Paul asked about the societal level. He mentioned a Fritz Leiber story that took place in the post-nuclear ruins of New York. The clothing had changed, and women wore masks, which was a development that had followed the habitual wearing of gas masks. The uncovered face was a center of attraction. There was also an appearance of a woman with a naked chest who nevertheless had her face covered. This is interesting to break down because it does work on the question of attraction... and yet still caters to the stereotype and the perceived desires of the cis-straight male reader.

Ann Leckie has people wearing gloves in her books. This is always talked about as a matter of propriety and good manners rather than an explicit center of attraction, but it's still an interesting alternate choice.

In Implanted by Lauren Teffeau, electronic implants can mean that hand contact is intimate and involves exchange of personal information, so hand contact is avoided.

You can usefully point out a social rule by featuring one person who doesn't conform to the rule, and showing other people's reactions to them.

More things can be attractive than can be spoken about. We don't typically talk about how attractive a person's smell is, because that is perceived as a very intimate move and would be creepy coming from a stranger.

Morgan pointed out that men sometimes talk negatively about a woman's attractiveness, which also involves objectification in that it says "you are not someone I want to do something to" rather than " something with."

Some negative talk is to be avoided because it's perceived as rude. Negative talk can be favored in order to avoid jinxing someone's good luck, however.

What are you expected to say about someone you find attractive? Should you say anything at all? Should you say less the closer you get to them? Some cultures value saying less rather than more. What if there were a group of people who got more talkative the more intimate the situation?

If you show a society where a woman wearing no shirt is considered unremarkable, you might be doing it for shock value with the audience. Alternatively, you might be doing it to show a thorough change in the values of that society. The difference will show in how you write about it. I prefer in a discussion like ours to talk about how to portray fundamental differences in how a society thinks.

Morgan talked about the "border condition," which is a helpful technique for pointing out differences. Whenever you put a person in a new place and show them exposed to people and values they are not familiar with, you can more easily see how those people and values work. She talked about a situation where the rules of introductions were different. In the man's home, you wait to be asked for your name before you offer it. In the woman's home, you expect someone to offer their name before you can interact with them. This causes problems!

If there are different attractions, or other forms of different expectations between members of a couple, you can run into trouble.

To this point, we had focused a lot on a heteronormative view of attraction. However, there are obviously other views! Keep in mind that not everyone in a society is going to be expressing attraction the same way. In our society, you have the question of how being LGBT has been unsafe. That lack of safety means that communication about attraction has to work differently. It can be tricky to find out.

It's also worth looking up the terms demisexual and demiromantic. Some people need to have a deep platonic relationship before they feel any romantic or sexual feelings.

I pointed out that there is a strong pattern of homophobic talk which implies that a gay person is attracted to everyone they see, and not only that, but that they will act on that attraction in an antisocial manner. This is a way to portray gay people as dangerous, but obviously, it's not at all accurate or fair. A similar narrative, but with a different function, appears in rape culture. This narrative implies that men are attracted to every woman they see and can be expected to act on that attraction in an antisocial manner, BUT instead of being used to demonize men, the narrative is used to criticize women who become victims of rape or harassment.

It would be a mistake to expect that everyone in any society has the same standards of attraction.

I mentioned how the artisan caste of Varin is the only group to use makeup. They use it to convey messages about their openness to romantic approach. To paint the lower lip means that you are being professional, and you paint it in a color that is appropriate to your particular profession. To paint the upper lip in addition to the lower means that you are potentially looking for a relationship.

Of course that made us think of Star Trek and the planet Risa, where you carried around a statue (the Horga'hn) if you were interested in the undefined but intriguing "jamaharon."

Our society lacks unambiguous boundary markers - though the use of headphones has become one way to indicate lack of interest in romantic approach!

What would it be like if you had a society based on mandrills, whose body parts change color to indicate sexual readiness? Would that be the same as interest?

The human species is more ambiguous, but there are gestural ways to communicate physical attraction.

What about non-physical attraction? When we have things in common with someone, that can be attractive. The alignment of interests indicates that we'll be able to experience the pleasure of talking about our favorite things. That should be considered a form of platonic attraction.

The word "attraction" itself is context-loaded and implies a physical component.

We don't have good word tools to say "be my friend" because direct approaches of that sort tend to be considered improper once we reach a certain age. Interestingly, a clip of Doctor Who shows the new Doctor asking "Will you be my new best friends?"

Che remarked that it can be hard to make friends as an adult.

The congoing scene often involves making friends as a result of shared interests.

Thanks to Paul and Morgan and Che for coming to the hangout! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will again meet on Thursday. We'll meet Thursday, September 13th at 4pm Pacific to discuss Friendship. I hope you can join us!


Monday, September 3, 2018

Mimi Mondal

I was excited to have a chance to meet Locus Award winner and Hugo nominee Mimi Mondal at Worldcon this year, and thrilled when she agreed to come on the show. We talked about a world that she has been working in, in which features something called the Majestic Oriental Circus. Her use of the word Oriental is deliberate, and a hint of the early 20th-century semihistorical setting.

Mimi told us she has worked in this world on and off over a long time, starting when she lived in India. In India there was not a large market for science fiction and fantasy, she says, and at the beginning she was unsure whether to write a novel or whether to write a short story to "test the waters."

Mimi attended a college writing workshop in 2008. She told us that by that point she'd written the beginnings of several novels. The world of the Oriental Circus stayed with her. She started writing vignettes about characters in the world with no plan. In the first published story about this world, the circus was part of the backstory. The story took place in an underground jazz cabaret club in 1960's India. It was one of those murder mysteries where everyone looks like a suspect and no one knows anyone else's background, and the police haul them all together for questioning. Some of the characters in this story had been affiliated with the circus in their past.

In 2013, Mimi wrote a self-contained story in the circus. She calls it her "most accepted story," because it was published by Podcastle, and got her into Clarion West and into an MFA program.

I asked Mimi about the intersection between her stories and the science fiction/fantasy genre. The connection is actually quite fascinating. Mimi says she reads a lot of history and likes it. There was a big flourishing circus scene in India from the 1890's to the 1930's. Circus as a form was developing all over the world. In India, it took in many traditional performers. It has a Steampunk aesthetic to some degree, but is later than the Victorian period, because the values of the Victorians trickled into the colonies later. Mimi describes the circus as a very interesting social space, breaking traditional structures. There is space for mystery, and she uses it to explore Indian folklore. There are nonhumans here, pretending to be human. In the circus environment, you don't ask questions because no one else is normal either. If you worked in an office, you would need paperwork, but the circus is not even grounded in one place because it travels. She started writing a long sequence of events, "chunk by chunk." Her focus is on using parts of Indian mythology that are not well known. While she was writing these pieces, she was learning craft skills and working on her awareness of gaze.

The question of gaze is an interesting one. Mimi told us about how there are distinct differences in the expectations of Indian and Western readership.  A murder mystery relies on what audiences take for granted. If it doesn't, it's not a good mystery. Her murder mystery story got rejected by some US magazines who said "this mystery is not working out," but it sold in India, where people said, "this mystery is very cool." As she learns to control gaze, she says, she's considering rewriting the story so that it will work for US audiences.

Next, Mimi told us about her story, "The Sullied Earth, Our Home," which was recorded by Podcastle. She said it was a story that helped her realize how theoretical things can fall into place when you are not thinking about them. It features a person telling a story to two children. This format allows for a degree of explanation about the world etc. because the person is telling the story to two circus kids who are new and don't know the history of the place.

Mimi says she grew up reading Indian magical realism, including Salman Rushdie. In these works, a lot of the background history isn't on the page, and you are just expected to know it.

One of the hurdles Mimi faced was that of people in the US not understanding. In her MFA program, the others were all American. She discovered that they would read historical aspects of the story as if they were secondary world aspects of the story. Because they had no idea of the actual history, they would call it Steampunk. Mimi explains, "My world is quite close to the primary." But at this point she writes it with the awareness that it is a secondary world.

In the West, people are so familiar with fiction based on the Medieval history of Europe that a lot of the world has already been set up, which spares people a lot of work.

There are certain stereotypes of what a god would be like. A local god from India doesn't necessarily resemble either an American god or any of the Indian gods we are familiar with.

Mimi told us about some things she has noticed as an editor, while looking at the history of South Asian science fiction and fantasy. She looked up authors from Pakistan, India, and the UK and US, and discovered that many works don't translate from the home country to the UK and US audiences. Some authors, faced with this difficulty, choose a particular audience. Mimi says she always tries to reach both, explaining that "a large number of my old friends and contacts are back in India." She says she ends up looking at Salman Rushdie's technique, even though she doesn't like his perspective. She says he has a lot of mansplainers in his work, and infodumps. It's hard to separate the perspective from the craft, but it's worth trying.

Mimi used to work at Penguin India, and explains that they did so many books, all in English. The numbers don't look large because the books are half the US price, but the number of books is huge.

Mimi told us she doesn't write her fiction in Bengali or Hindi.

Paul asked Mimi if her editing had influenced her writing. She told us that it has made her writing slower. "I write a line and then I look at it for five days." She has done comparative analysis on her own stories, going back to a story of hers that was accepted and comparing it to the rejected stories, asking what it was doing structurally that the rejected stories weren't doing. She says she has definitely improved as an editor, but that it's hard to say if it has changed her writing.

When choosing details to include in worldbuilding so the reader isn't confused, it's important to ask what to explain, and what not to explain.

In her Circus world, nearly everybody is the Other in one way or another. There are lots of people meeting for the first time.

In each of her stories in this world, Mimi writes from a single first-person perspective. The point of view character has a sense of what is normal from the inside of their head, but when you run into them in another story told from another point of view, it turns out they are weird as well. She says this is like hidden mirrors, and talks about bringing out the parameters of an unreliable narrator. Flipping the narrators provides a different perspective, even though the stories themselves stand alone and they are not parallel narratives of the same event.

We also spoke about her story, "The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall." In this story the narrator comes from a group of people who used to live in the trees. This character sees city-dwelling humans as "ground humans." City people are weird to her. In the story, her son alienates everyone in their tribe and then disappears. She is not the kind of person who has ever been alone in the world. Her son is not very nice for abandoning her. Mimi explains, though, that she has a novelette forthcoming at, which is from the son's perspective. The son left and joined the circus. Mimi says "clearly he forgot to say bye so he's a jerk," but he does learn a lesson. He loves people and hurts them for toxic masculine reasons. He holds on to old-school masculine codes of honor which don't work very well. He doesn't think of himself as a bad person.

Most of us are good human beings, she says, until there's someone in our lives we don't care about.

We asked Mimi if she was planning to collect these stories into a book. This is indeed the plan! One of her plans was initially to start with short stories and then stitch them together into a novel. However, when she was at her MFA program she tried to write them into an overarching narrative, and found lots of elements didn't match up. She says that Hinduism is such a large religion that it has a great many diverse practices that somehow stick together, but are not necessarily internally consistent. She has struggled with that question of consistency. These characters, who are struggling and trying to survive, don't really have a common goal. Many people expect a consistent magic system, and get thrown off if the framework gets violated.

She says the feedback she gets from a lot of fantasy readers is vague. They will say something doesn't feel believable, but it's hard to tell what that means.

She says many science fiction readers believe that anything outside a very narrow norm must have a purpose in the story.

I told Mimi that the way she describes her magic system reminded me of the magic systems of Nnedi Okorafor and Laura Anne Gilman, which are not highly regulated and internally consistent, and work wonderfully without needing to.

She told us that her point of view characters don't have to know the logic of the magic they are using. She says, "I borrowed a lot of lessons from Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson." A lot of SFF from non-western cultures, she says, is very close to magical realism. Gabriel García Marquez doesn't have a magic system. The historical events in these stories are things you can look up if you want.

Mimi theorizes that the further you get toward secondariness in a world, the more it will become important structurally to have a consistent system.

Mimi told us a story about a plan she had for a new novella. She did a chapter by chapter outline so the world was consistent and narrative tension was spread out. She intended to do a free write thereafter, but it worked badly for her, because she lost the feeling of joy. That lack of joy will show in the text. She said, "It turned into homework for me. The story does not have any spontaneity left."

The Circus stories didn't work out as a single narrative at her MFA, but they did work as a story collection.

Thank you so much, Mimi, for coming on the show! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, September 6 at 4pm Pacific, and we'll talk about Attraction, Affection, and Love, and how we talk about them. I hope you can join us!