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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!