Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Kelly Robson and "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach"

This hangout looks twice as exciting now that Kelly has gone on to win a Nebula in the meantime (for her novellette, A Human Stain)! It was a pleasure to have her on the show to talk about her recent novella, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.

Kelly started out by telling us about how critical economics was to this story. She's passionate about economics! (And so she should be; worldbuilding without economics is flimsy.) She calls it "the physics of worldbuilding." She told us that when she was first writing historical fiction, she began with medieval settings because it seemed more straightforward to manage, but that since then, she's branched out into greater challenges. In this story, the historical portion is set in Mesopotamia!

I asked Kelly about where she found the entry point for this story. She explained that she and Alyx Dellamonica had just moved to Toronto when there was an exhibit about Mesopotamia at the Royal Ontario Museum, and they went to it four or five times. One of the things she learned there was that in 2000 BCE, Mesopotamia had a complex, centrally planned economy. Kings, priests, and priestesses kept a handle on how much grain was grown and distributed.

Kelly was also excited to learn that there was a king named Shulgi whose job was killing monsters. This was an official duty of his job, and he possessed weapons designed specifically for monster-killing. As she told us, "They knew there were no monsters." She asked what it must be like for this king who had this very specific duty and had never done it. How do you deal with that problem?

The second plot thread she told us about was the idea of someone with octopus arms for legs, which she had always liked. As it turned out, the story ended up being a "coming of age" tale for an old woman, finding her purpose.

Kelly said she really wanted to work with a future Earth that could have a connection with ours, but is not hours. One of her major inspirations in designing it was the book Debt: The First 5000 Years. One of the major points it makes is that we have this idea that barter was a standardized practice, but there is really no evidence for it in the anthropological/archaeological record. The book questions the existence of this practice that has been so mythologized, and illustrates how economic systems actually work, which is far more complex. The concept of debt is central to how humans interact, even on the level of courtesy and favors. It's not just about coins but about how we live together.

In Kelly's far future, all you can buy or sell is people's time. The giant companies are professional services firms. She named the primary company in the story after an environmental consulting firm that belonged to friends of hers. Robots do all manual labor, and everything is automated. Everything in a services firm happens because people make it happen. Robots must be programmed and designed by people. The year is 2267, and in a post-scarcity environment, the only thing of value is people's time.

People do not live on the surface of the planet in this world because Kelly decided she didn't want land to be something of value. In this version of history, climate change caused humanity to retreat underground because it was too difficult to deal with the bad weather, etc. The other advantage of the underground environment to Kelly was that it was a completely managed environment and you have to manage  your own waste. In comparison, our world makes it difficult to see the consequences of all the decisions we make (as when we drop trash on the ground).

The "Manhattan of this underground environment" is a place called Bangladesh Hell. Everything is cool there, and celebrities are there. Even there, it's a managed, closed environment. The word Hell is used in the Chinese sense, meaning just that it's underground. Kelly said she chose this to play with people's expectations.

The main character, Minh, is 83 years old, and working on reclaiming the surface. When she was a toddler in Sudbury Hell (Sudbury being a real place with underground pits in Canada), the world was having pandemics in a public health catastrophe. Minh lost her legs to a form of ringworm, which is why she uses the octopus prosthetics. Her generation is called Plague Babies. All of them had horrible medical interventions as children. There was a generational exodus, when the plague babies decided they want to get away from the doctors and colonize the surface.

Another key character, Kiki, is 23 years old, from the generation referred to as Fat Babies. They are perfect tank-gestated healthy human beings. Their bodies are not giving them abnormal problems. They were birthed by the Plague Babies because of the need for more people to feed the people-time economy, but the Plague Babies are still rugged individualists who want to do it all, and don't want to give up anything to the kids. It functions as a kind of parallel to the relationship in our world between the Boomer generation and the Millennials.

Here are some questions Kelly asked, which are great questions for any worldbuilder: What does our society see of value? What history do we have? What kind of generational values do we have? Kelly remarked that you can see these kinds of things in pseudo-hipster cartoons from the Regency era as well as in our own time. Kelly notes that as a member of Generation X she feels sandwiched between the antagonistic Boomers and Millennials.

I asked Kelly whether she had done a lot of research for this story. She said, essentially, no - but in fact a lot of her research had been done before she had the story come into her mind. She read the David Graber book three times. She simply reads nonfiction for pleasure, and nonfiction informs her understanding of how the world works. Kelly describes herself as a systems thinker.

I asked Kelly about the corporation that features prominently in the novella. The time travel corporation, TERN, is essentially the antagonist here. Kelly said it was a bit of an answer back to Connie Willis' approach to time travel, which she absolutely loves but thinks is unrealistic. Kelly made sure to stipulate that you can't influence the present by changing the past.

Kelly told us that she would love to time travel. "I would die to do that," she said. "I'd cut my legs off."

In this story, time travel is just for historical research purposes.

The different dwelling-places of the future setting she creates are called Hives, Habs, and Hells. They are essentially like city-states that compete with each other in quality of life. They compete to draw people to their area. Bangladesh Hell has the cool factor. Sudbury Hell has more space. The surface habitations include Iceland, Cuzco, and Calgary.

Other economic units include universities, vocational training entities, and think tanks. TERN is a division of an evil economic entity.

There is also such a thing as a "private bank." Private banks are actually people. If you are a genius who makes a unique contribution to society, the world government will let you act like a bank, and when you die you become a think tank, or a university, for as long as your economic principal exists. She created this concept because she wanted to make sure she could show that some people do make a difference. It also gives people something to strive for. "Someday I could be a private bank..."

TERN controls time travel, and is allowed to do so by the World Economic Council. They are worried about losing this control, so they are secretive and tell lots of lies about their technology.

Minh is a fluvial geomorphologist, or someone who studies how riverbeds change. (Kelly clearly loves the name of this line of work!) Minh also does snowpack management. She lives in Calgary, which is a self-contained Ziggurat habitat. The people there are trying to live lightly and restore the bow river valley. They have been working on it for 60 years and still have much to do. Minh planted a glacial seed in the nearby mountains. They have constructed wind baffles around the mountain to guide rain to particular valleys. Now, the river flows into the city and all of the water gets used. They want to make it so that some water remains to flow onward and support another city. Minh loves rivers and loves mountains, and will die doing her work.

Kelly said that while working in Vancouver she learned a lot of ecological restoration stuff.

We recommended to her a book by Simon Winchester called The Map That Changed the World, about William Smith and how he discovered the geological formations underlying England when he was traveling around trying to help people find coal. At the time there was no systematic way of finding it, but everywhere he went, Smith saw the same 15-layered structure in the earth, and helped people to systematize what lay under the ground.

Che asked why Kelly wrote a novella when she had this much worldbuilding to work with. Kelly said, "I don't know how to write a novel." She wanted it to be the story of Minh, and focus on "The most important thing that ever happened to a person, or that a person ever did." She said it would have to be a different story to be a novel. She told us she is currently writing a sequel featuring Kiki as the main character.

By the end of the story, Minh has learned the thing she'd been missing: that people matter, and not just to the economy, but to her personally.

I asked Kelly whether she had intentionally juxtaposed the concept of monsters with the design of the time-traveling characters, and she said that she hadn't done it intentionally, though she loves the idea of animal-human chimeras, which she also used in her story, Waters of Versailles. I asked this question because of the way that Kiki changes her appearance during the story, which makes her appear more mythological (SPOILERS are coming!).

In the story, Minh and Kiki have to win the work by responding to a Request For  Proposal (RFP) for sending scientists into the past to research the rivers and inform future restoration efforts. Kiki freaks out because she's an administrative assistant and is so excited at the idea of a non-boring project. She gets on the team writing the proposal. Kelly explained that she has done a lot of proposal writing, and that "you are going to win it by offering the client something they didn't know they wanted." In this story, the amount of stuff you can transport in the time machine is limited by volume. Because Minh is small and can fold up her legs, and another of her friends on the team is a little person, they would be able to maximize the volume they can bring back. Kiki wants to be on the team but is too big (she's 6 feet tall)... so she cuts her legs off, and gets a set of high-tech goat leg prosthetics.

Paul noted that Kelly's decision not to let the past influence the future solves some problems. He asked her how she came up with her theory of time travel. Kelly said she needed the time travel to behave in such a way as to allow her to tell the story she wanted to tell. She wanted to have its effect be only on the characters' experiences rather than the world. When you go to the past, there is no way to do damage. The question is what it does to you. Thus, she chose the simplest form of time travel where there would be no paradoxes that might cause trouble. The time travel timeline collapses as soon as you leave it, but it's still an interesting thing to do. The idea is thus that you can't keep going back to the same timeline, since it's gone the moment you are no longer in it. Kelly told us that if she could go back in time, she would cure Jane Austen and let her continue writing the book she was writing, then take the manuscript home, return to the same moment, have Austen read it and continue the work. She said that after 30 or 40 trips you could have a new Austen book! However, it would be a lot like a Groundhog Day scenario, and be incredibly tedious to figure out what you needed to do for the desired result.

Thank you so much for coming on the show, Kelly! It was a fascinating discussion. Everyone look out for Kelly's sequel to this story (which she's currently drafting), called, "Time, Trouble, and the Lucky Peach."

Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 4pm Pacific to discuss Auguries and Predicting the Future. I I hope you can join us!



#SFWApro

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Building Back Histories

This topic is another one I thought would be important for any list of basic worldbuilding topics. Essentially, it amounts to, "How did we get to where we are?"

When we are working on telling a story, the question of the past often springs up. Sometimes, we want to work on it before we even get started. Sometimes, we create an elaborate account of the back history of a story and none of it appears directly in the story itself.

Keep in mind, though, that nothing you do to understand back history is ever wasted work, because the things we know change the words we use when we write a story. Chances are, the words you use will reflect your understanding of the back history even if you aren't explaining it.

I asked each of the discussants about experiences they had with creating back history for their stories. 

Kat told us that she had explored one key event, what she called "a catalyzing thing in culture," which helped her with a story about a near-future Earth. She'd gotten stuck in the front-story because she didn't have enough information about what had happened earlier. Ethnography and history are important so that the pieces of your front story can fit together, and make sense in relation to each other.

Morgan said she likes to look at something in her front story and try to explain how she got here. She asks: "Why can't I explain it? Do I dislike what it [background] would have to be? Does it not make sense?" She says it's very easy to get caught up in a character's backstory. Once you know the background, what does it change? Can you use background to make your story make sense and be believable?

Cliff told us that backstory is like scaffolding you use to build your story, and then you take it down. Tolkien did it for his own enjoyment. Cliff himself wants to have the minimum scaffolding required to build. He spent time with his novel universe "bouncing around" for years, figuring out what was going on with the people at the top of society, but it never worked. Then he started working with the people at the bottom, and the story came alive. He says when he's working with a short story, he usually starts with an image, and has to figure out what it means. Backstory fills itself in as he figures this out.

Kat made an important point, which is that sometimes you can get so much data in your head that it's hard to set it aside to write the story. There is a danger in getting too enraptured by worldbuilding.

Here are a few basic questions to ask:

How did this character get here? Why is the character motivated this way? What are the background conditions needed for the story to work? 

Cliff is opposed to "killing momentum" by asking too many questions.

How much do you really need to know? The answer to that is very individual. Morgan feels she needs to know more, even though all the research may not go into the story.

How relevant is the backstory? How important is it that we understand why things work the way they do?

Kat told us about her sensitivity reading work. She explained that she has seen thousands of words invested in a work by people who have never asked about the premises or setup of the story. When it comes to critical social underpinnings (like for example racism and sexism), maybe some stories don't need to be told if the writer doesn't understand the context in a nuanced way.

I personally made a number of back history extrapolations once I decided that my Varin world was going to be racially diverse. I had to find a way to explain why people who lived underground, and all on the same continent, would show variations in appearance. This led me to an extensive backstory about the people's arrival in this location from another place where they had been spread across a much larger geographic area, but united by a shared religion.

As Kat remarked, monocultures shouldn't be considered forbidden, but we need to understand why non-diverse places are not diverse. Some cultures have grown up in isolation, like indigenous groups before contact with outsiders. Even in a monoculture group, there will be subgroups, however. Think about what kind of subtle differences might seem important in that context. 

In Europe, when Catholicism was widespread, there were all sorts of schisms and disagreements, heresies, etc. There will always be complexity in human groups. Think about the places where people will identify differences. Any time a single social group contains only individuals who run entirely true-to-type, you will have a problem with lack of realism.

Several of our discussants recommended this article: Race: The Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre. It brings up really important issues to consider when embarking upon a fantasy project.

Any time you have more than one character, you need to have variation. Character backstory is a bridge to worldbuilding. Consider the relationship between a character's personal history and the history of their world; the two are intertwined.

We talked a bit about naming. When you have characters in a story, in general people tell you to have their names start with different letters... but what if they don't, because their identities were established in a different story and now they have met? Kate remarked that in some cultures (read: America and others), people with the same name get numbered. Some cultures distinguish between two people of the same name with epithets like "the unready" or "kinslayer," etc. We don't tend to see quite as many epithets in science fiction as fantasy, but there's no reason a writer couldn't use them. 

You could consider providing family trees for the characters in your book, if it helps to clarify.

Putting together timelines can be a helpful technique. "How long ago did it happen" is a question whose answer can vary depending on which story you are writing at the time, and where it falls on the world's timeline. Story X can be 30 years before story Y, while story Z is 25 years before story Y, which makes it five years after Story X. These relations can be important to track.

Kat asked whether she would need to change her timelines due to cultural characteristics (possibly). Different groups track time in different ways, and create different structures to organize events. 

Kat recommended the Father Brown Mysteries, because they have a lot of amazing detail about Catholic histories. They provide enough information for people who don't know the history, and not too much for people who already do know that history.

It's always a good idea to think through what we do or don't need to include. Basing these decisions on our sense of who constitutes our audience can be critical.

Ask: What does your character care about? How much do they care about it? How does this affect the actions and the plot? How deeply in sync is this person with their surrounding culture, and why?

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. I hope to see you at Dive into Worldbuilding next Tuesday at 4pm Pacific!


#SFWApro

Monday, May 14, 2018

Henry Lien and Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword

It was absolutely fabulous to have Henry Lien back on the show! I'm excited to see the world of Pearl rolling out in novel form after we had such a great discussion about his story, "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters," which appeared in Asimov's in 2013.

Henry joined us to talk about his new novel, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword, which he describes as a direct sequel to the previous story.

The world of Pearl is a secondary world in which Henry invented an art-sport that combines figure skating with kung fu. He first developed it at Clarion when instructed by Chuck Palahniuk. As an exercise in empathy and attempting to write something outside his own experience, he tried to enter the world of teenage girls, and examine girl-girl dynamics in a high-pressure setting, with talented but misbehaving girls prepping for an exam for an Academy.

The new book has been summarized by some as "Harry Potter meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Ice," but is a lot deeper and more complex than that description would suggest. It deals with issues of immigration and crossing cultures even as it has tons of fun with its characters and their sport. The main character is a newcomer to a place that in her eyes appears to be more culturally advanced. Henry examines how one's identity splits during the journey of immigration.

This story is set in a fantasy world very different from ones we have seen before, so that we don't ever know quite what to expect. It draws cultural markers from China, Taiwan, and Japan, and uses elements of the region's history, including interactions between the different cultures. Henry said one of his goals was to create a world where you feel like you know it but when you engange in it in detail, it's super-different from ours.

In Peasprout Chen's world, tabloid headlines are delivered by birds in a delightfully innovative way. This world uses Chinese characters, which can be written in the grass script style as a continuous line. Henry noticed that his birds will follow him around, so he decided that he would have someone in the city skate the pattern of the characters on the ground while birds follow them overhead, essentially resulting in the birds tracing calligraphy in the sky. Grass-style calligraphy, which is an actual cultural thing, and actual bird behavior from our world, combine to create a completely alien result. In this way, Henry uses familiar building blocks to create a world that is unique.

We asked him how becoming a bird person changed him. This is a very sweet story! Henry told us about how he had rescued the birds, all of them small parrots. He calls them "an alien race that we share this Earth with." Birds are very sensitive to the environment, and their triggers are consistent. He compared some of their reactions to PTSD reactions. They are very idiosyncratic. Henry said, "It made me learn to love something I don't fully understand." You can appreciate the nooks and crannies even if you can't see the whole thing. 

Kat remarked that she's discovered a surprising number of figure-skating writers and editors that she hadn't previously heard about. 

Henry said that when he was researching figure skating and kung fu, he discovered that they have three characteristics in common: each is intense, lyrical, and punishing. Injury is always waiting for you, and can shut you down for weeks. There's a lot of drama in these sports that can be very appealing to writers.  The Olympics features brutal dramatic judgment where the athlete trains for four years to perform for two minutes, during which any error is catastrophic. Stakes are high, and the focus on age and performance is intense.

Henry talked about his own experience studying wushu, and explained that he came into classes with "hubris" based on his own general fitness and how strong the other people in the class looked. He made it quite clear that he'd been wrong about this! His 19-year-old lithe partner would "kick my butt every week." He feels that both figure skating and wushu reward the ways that women's bodies move.

The setting of Peasprout Chen is a city made of a non-ice substance called pearl. The fact that everything is made of pearl means that parkour can also be woven in.

He told us a bit about the backstory of the novel. There is the mainland empire of Shin which is kind of like China but not China; there is the island of Pearl which is kind of like Taiwan but not Taiwan, and then the land of Eda in the background which is kind of like Japan but not Japan. In this world, the male population of Pearl was destroyed in a war. A failed courtesan from Shin fled to Pearl and teamed up with an older woman famed for her ugliness. This older woman had discovered a substance that could be manipulated to make ice-like pearl. Together they created the city, and the courtesan invented the sport of Wu Liu to allow them to turn their disadvantages into strengths. The name "wu liu" combines the first half of "wu shu" (kung fu) with the second half of "liu ping" (figure skating.)

Henry put special emphasis on the idea of turning everything upside-down. We are told that our bodies and our identities are disadvantages, but those things should be turned upside down and turned into advantages.

On Pearl, there are no wheels, and no shoes. Dragging things around is considered primitive. Everyone learns to skate as soon as they can walk. The people are xenophobic and consider the outside world barbaric.

Cliff observed that if you were kicking people with blades, that would be cool for war but for a sport would lead to some pretty serious injuries. Henry agreed and said that there is always the threat of real danger with this sport.

Henry explained that he loves rules. School is an environment girdled all around with rules to keep people from misbehaving, so it's a setting he loves to work in. Students at the wu liu school are not allowed to do any moves outside of class, or they will forfeit their next examination. This is a key element of the plot of Peasprout Chen

In particular, he says he wanted a fantasy world with no magic. George R. R. Martin consulted with him on aspects of it. Everything is grounded in real world experience, including the constant threat of injury that has grave consequences for the students. Even a bad wrist can knock you out. Henry himself got injured at one point during his training because he had become frustrated when another student did a kick the first time. Henry tried the same jump and tore his hamstring; he said it looked like someone had cut him. 

Danger creates good stories. Ambition is a characteristic required by the sport.

Henry quoted a line from Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell: "Don't talk to me about magic. It's like everything else: full of setbacks and disappointments." If this is the way your work seems, then whenever you achieve something, it feels like a huge accomplishment! Peasprout Chen's life is full of cultural landmines and danger, but when she does something cool, we cheer.

I asked Henry what elements of the world had been developed between the initial Asimov's story and this novel. He said a lot of it was what he had developed with George R. R. Martin. He took a look at the structures that made the society and the city work, like food delivery, money and insurance. You need to understand these mundane things.

"If pigs could fly, bacon would be expensive."

Thus, it's important to explore the mundane consequences of fantasy things. How do people tell time? How are they called to class? How would people of their technology and sensibility go about building things?

Henry said he'd ended up with a 100-page encyclopedia, but that it was joyful to write. He knows that at dusk, when the sun goes down, the rich go home and the poor take public transport, while kids go fare-jumping by hanging on the back of a tram. Little things in this world, he explains, are very real to him. After writing in it so much and being "a hermit" in his habits, he feels he knows the world of Pearl better than ours.

If people have glasses, where are they manufactured? If there's no green space, how is food distributed?

Henry told us about his agent, Tina DuBois, and his editor, Tiffany Liau, both of whom he greatly admires. They helped him to think hard about questioning the usual generalizations, like "girls are more relational." This is commonly claimed, but is not universal. Not every girl wants that out of life. There are social forces that cause women to need to figure each other out, but some still say, "I'm busy here." This is the case for Peasprout Chen. Henry said he thought very hard about her because she resists relationships, and is not really ready for them. She decides her own place in her world.

Henry says he's very grateful to the people who nurtured and inspired him in his writing process, and most of them are women. They helped him portray the characters realistically, with variety and intensity.

Tiffany Liau, Henry says, is a genius with plotting. She had zero problem with the all-Asian cast with some LGBT characters; she said, "Let's make it a page-turner." Henry believes that the style of an editor can be as distinct as that of a writer, and put a unique stamp on the writing.

He was inspired in part by Kelly Link, because she writes across genres and for different ages. She helped him perceive genres as constructs with porous borders. Henry said that if you don't impose those limits on yourself, the world might not be as resistant as you think. The language can be beautiful even in a book for young people, and you shouldn't dumb it down.

Tina DuBois, Henry's agent, was the one who said, "Do you not realize what's special about this? The star is the voice, the main character." Henry explained that he hadn't been able to realize this because the character was too close to him, which made it hard to see. He also said that Kelly Link had given him some really important encouragement when he finished his first three chapters.

Our discussant, Sally, remarked that it wouldn't be right if a figure skating plot did not include LGBT characters. Henry said it's possible to think of figure skating as a non-binary sport, given that it requires both grace and strength. It draws a diversity of athletes who each approach this balance in a different way. He noted that even in point-based sports like basketball, fans still talk about the grace of the athletes, and deeply appreciate it.

Kat suggested that people who are less inclined to mix grace with brutal intensity will move to sports other than figure skating. There's no padding for people who are learning the beginner jumps. Only if you get to a very advanced level will they put the skaters on a rig to help them with spectacular jumps.

Henry said that he never got over how alien figure skating felt. It seemed an arbitrary idea for a sport, to him, and the experts in it seemed they were from another planet.

Cliff asked Henry if he felt he was a substantially different person after writing Peasprout Chen. Henry said, essentially, no. He said that people sometimes think their lives will begin once they publish their first novel, but it hasn't happened to him. There are gradations of change, perhaps, but he can't see it. He hates the promotional part of being a debut novelist, and says he's always doing things outside his comfort zone.

He said the most amazing thing that had happened with his debut involved a song he had written for New Year's celebrations at the Academy in the book. He researched, and managed to learn the Apple Garage Band suite of Chinese instruments in order to compose the song. Then, Idina Menzel sang it with him at his launch party! He rented a small taiko drum so he would have something to do with his hands, learned to drum for 10 straight hours before the launch party, and played it while they sang.

Henry says he's just finished Book 2 of the series, which he calls "My favorite book of all time." It's called Peasprout Chen, Future Champion of the Battlebands. He's currently working on Book 3.

Henry, thank you so much for coming on the show! This world sounds like it's expanded and developed in truly amazing ways, and everyone should go check out Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.

Tomorrow, May 15, 2018, at 4:00pm Pacific, we'll be joined on the show by author Kelly Robson, who will be talking about her climate-change and time-travel mixing novella, "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach." I hope you can join us!


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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Exploring the Impact and Implications of Your Speculative Concept

So this session, with a very fancy title, is basically about what happens after you have a really cool speculative idea. You got an idea for a gadget, or for a magic power, or for a fundamental change in physics, or, or, or... There are potentially an infinite number of such ideas, but once you've decided to create a world with one of these features, what comes next? How do you figure out what life in a world with magic, or life in a world with this unique technology, would be like? How far would the impact of that change spread, and what kinds of different things might it influence?

These are important questions to ask, but we established one caveat before we dived into the topic, which is: you don't actually need to explore these questions in incredible depth in order for your story to succeed. We talked about Harry Potter, where people act as though magic has always been around, and yet muggle society (and even, arguably, wizarding society) is surprisingly un-influenced by it. You need to understand enough for the story to work. How much is too much? Hard to know. But if you do too little of this, you may leave some opportunities off the table.

Che remarked, about urban fantasy, "Does everyone knows vampires and werewolves exist? Or is it a secret? How does it stay secret?"

What are the parameters of your speculative phenomenon? Do they have legal implications?

I recommended Soulless by Gail Carriger because it demonstrates a lot of great thinking about the social consequences of having vampires and werewolves integrated into British society. The social details here are quite delightful. Che recommends Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, with a different view of what would happen if Dracula took over England and changed it. One of the details she mentioned was a scene with a live pig with a spigot in its neck, from which vampires would drink the blood. She also mentioned that in this book, young vampires are not supernaturally strong, and that it takes a long time for them to develop their strength. Variation within a group like this is important.

Keep in mind that it's relatively easy to think through the surface details of something like this, and much harder to think about the deep underpinnings of it, including its inception, history, and large-scale influences on society.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is a stellar example of deep worldbuilding, where the implications of her orogenic magic are explored on a lot of levels. One of the most interesting aspects about it is how she portrays the powerful orogenes as persecuted minorities.

Morgan said that if you have an introduced social group, you need to figure out whether they are dominant or not in society. You also need to know if they are publicly visible or publicly acknowledged.

How does the thing you've invented change physical infrastructure? Even a special dominant social group can change physical infrastructure, because furniture and architecture are designed with the dominant group's needs in mind.

Kate pointed out that when you have TV shows where white people are being oppressed, they  never seem to go to the minorities on the show for advice on how to cope with oppression.

The question of how you live under oppression is one that people tend not to engage with in much depth. Even the X-Men world doesn't dig deep into the question.

These kinds of questions deserve TIME. Particularly if you are working in a complex, socially realistic world, give yourself the time to muse about these details. Sometimes getting all the complexity in will take several drafts. If you give it enough time and care, you can get a cool feeling of immersion.

Of course, you don't need to have complexity for enjoyment. But there's a difference between a light-hearted conceit and a phenomenon deeply integrated into its world.

Ann Leckie's universe is extremely complex. In general, she doesn't ever stop out of the action to explain things. However, she makes the necessary information available to readers when it is maximally relevant. This is a really good technique to use (and similar to what I do).

Whenever you have a world that is super-complex, you'll run into the problem of how to control it. One really useful tool for controlling world information is Point of View. It's very helpful if we only need to understand what one person understands (particularly so, since we are One Person). Multiple point of view can add to this in helpful ways without letting the entirety of the world weigh down the narrative.

Outsider perspectives on a world are also helpful at times because outsiders are allowed to ask questions and struggle with comprehending things. Ann Leckie's character, Breq, is uniquely positioned as a point of view character because she is both on top and on the bottom. She is the instrument of the Radchaai's power, and therefore has power over people, yet is a piece of nonhuman equipment to them. When a character is considered harmless, or as in Breq's case, totally under control, people may not be careful about what they say in her presence.

Kate recommended the book Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman for an example of a character who is an insider and an outsider at the same time... and then ends up having to be the go-between for someone who is even further outside. The consequences of this are complex and interesting.

Cliff mentioned how in the Hunger Games, it's helpful to readers how Katniss' tight point of view changes over the course of the story. She starts as the lowest group, an outsider to Capital society, and then gains some status by Book 2 and has to cope with its consequences because she retains her class consciousness. She has real power against the Powers That Be, but it is still limited in key ways.

I mentioned how my world of Varin has several different speculative features, each of which has its own set of consequences. People there have lived underground for so long that when they find themselves on the surface, they feel more comfortable at night than in the daytime. The reason for this is that they can comprehend the idea of darkness overhead, and even darkness with little lights in it (because of the wysps).

Cliff mentioned that Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky has sentient spiders, and because the sun dims and brightens, underground is safety. This isn't just a practical concern but also feeds into the symbolic understanding of a statue that looks like it's digging. The statue is actually reaching downward for comfort, and represents peace.

I mentioned The Shifter by Janice Hardy as a great example of thorough exploration of a speculative concept. In this world, the only magic is healing magic, and healers pull pain out of the people they heal into their own bodies. Then they must push it out into a magical metal before it hurts them. When she was designing the world, she told me about how she wanted magic users to be strong and burly, rather than bookish... so the sorcerers are the metal-workers. The concept of healing magic and metal used to store pain grew a lot, though, into a whole economic system. Once the pain is in the metal, there is demand to use the metal for weapons that can throw that pain at others. So there starts to be a drive for war, because the wounds of war provide fuel for the weapons needed to win it. It's fascinating and troubling.

Dune also has really extensive consideration of the impacts of Spice, which keeps you young, lets you fold space, and gives you superpowers.

As you expand a concept and explore its implications, keeping sense-making and consistency are very important.

Cliff mentioned how Star Trek transporter technology should have had much greater impacts than it did. Why not use a replicator for babies? Can the transporter fix DNA and keep people from growing old? If you run into the people of the phage, why can't you replicate organs rather than stealing them?

As we can see with Harry Potter and Star Trek, underpinnings are not necessary for you to have a very successful story! But sometimes it bothers readers when things have not been thought through. Sometimes you can run into inconsistencies in sequels and prequels.

Thank you very much to everyone who participated in this discussion! Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 4pm Pacific to discuss Building Back Histories. I hope you can join us!



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Sunday, April 29, 2018

What is Worldbuilding, and Why Do We Do It?

So, what is worldbuilding? A lot of people I speak to seem to think that worldbuilding means a long exhaustive process of creating massive secondary worlds. What is a secondary world? Well, it turns out the term was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, and refers to "an internally consistent, fictional, fantasy world or setting that is different from the real 'primary world.'" And some worldbuilding involves creating worlds like that - but not all of it.

Keep in mind that when one starts writing a story, one starts with a blank page, and then has to create the sense that the reader is experiencing a world. That world might be our world, as it is in narrative nonfiction. It might be a past version of our world, or an alternate version of our world. Or it might be a secondary world.

In my view, any time you are creating a sense of place while storytelling, you are worldbuilding.

As readers, we encounter many different kinds of worlds with many different feels depending on the genre we're reading. It could be romance, science fiction, fantasy, mainstream fiction, crime, mystery, narrative nonfiction, etc. etc. Even known places in our world can be portrayed in lots of different ways.

Kat immediately picked up on this, noting that though she grew up in Los Angeles, she's always interested to see "someone else's concept of my hometown." The idea of a Hollywood Los Angeles is quite common, but it's certainly not the only kind of portrayal we can find in fiction. Every time you have a different point of view, it will result in a different portrayal of the same place.

The Werewolf Principle by Clifford Simak has a protagonist who has three different minds and bodies, and switches between them. When he's in the form of an alien and encounters a thunderstorm, he thinks "what is all this water," but when he's in a human form, he has the normal reactions we would expect to getting wet.

Morgan told us she used to work in an office building with an elevator lobby that, she discovered, the author Laura Anne Gilman described in her book, Staying Dead. Think of a familiar environment, and of what you notice there. What would another author notice there?

Noticing is a really key concept in point of view. Ask yourself: What does the protagonist notice? Noticing is an extremely subjective thing. Different people will notice different things. Also, the same person will notice different things at different times. The way that you will describe something should depend on what is important to notice about it, and this may depend a lot on the point of view you are writing from. Prose description is a lot of fun when it matches a particular character's way of thinking.

Genre also has an influence on what should be described in the environment. Steampunk tends to put a lot of attention on clothing and goggles and gadgetry. Science fiction often puts attention on gadgetry, but it is less likely to dive into descriptions of clothing or furniture. Romance often gives loving attention to clothes and the interiors of rooms. Depending on what you are writing, you should ask yourself, "What are the key details? Where should I put them?"

Sometimes we can find that our own history of reading influences our expectations and the ease with which we understand a story setting. We understand things based on context, and that means that someone who has a lot of previous experience reading in a particular genre will need fewer context cues and explanations in the text itself in order to understand. As genre readers, we take certain things for granted. This is one of the things that can make science fictional (and other) worldbuilding opaque for readers who have little experience reading in the genre.

The famous author Samuel Delaney has said that every word makes you alter or build on an image.

Che pointed out that changing one thing often can change everything around it, like the time travel butterfly effect. Different discussants pointed out different ways in which small alterations, or particular speculative concepts, could create changes that might not be fully explored by the author. We decided to take the question on in a future hangout (Exploring the Impact and Implications of Your Speculative Concept).

Whether you include an explanation of something - anything from faster-than-light travel to a wired telephone - will depend on your perception of your audience's previous knowledge, and also on the focus of the story. A story that is not focused on how time travel works, even if it features time travel, will not need you to explain it. Kat argued that we need to consider explaining old technology to young people.

Brian noted that our expectations color the patterns we use in the stories we write. They influence our use of tropes. Horror used to rely on isolating people back in the 1970's.  Now it would be more likely to make horror out of always being in touch.

Descriptions that you put in of your setting, provided that they reflect the point of view of a character, will not only describe the place they are in/thinking of but also reveal things about the character's background and thoughts.

We talked briefly about how to pick which details to include in a world. Some details are connected to larger patterns within the world, such as when telephones are linked to the use of electricity and other aspects of technology. The presence of one object can imply the possible existence of a number of other objects in the world.

However, as Kat notes, we can't rely on every step of a technological history to come along with a particular object. The history of the telephone, for example, is different in Europe from the way it occurred in Africa, where people have skipped over landline phones and gone straight to cell phones, which are more practical. Kat and I both highly recommend the Writing the Other workshops and book, which can give us insights into how to write the perspectives of people unlike us. Kat also mentioned how the history of fax devices is very different in Asia from what it was in the US, including that deaf kids in Japan used fax machines while the US used teletype.

An audience can come to your story with a very large set of default assumptions that may not hold in the world of the story, and sometimes as the author you will have to work against them directly in order for people not to rewrite your world in their subconscious.

At this point, a number of people brought up fantasy and science fiction worlds that operate on dream logic, or don't strive for total consistency, etc. and yet are still successful. It's true - there are some like that! Cliff said that Michael Moorcock said he "never did worldbuilding," but had the worlds reflect the moods of the characters. J.K. Rowling when she was creating Harry Potter did not need every part of her world to be grounded and consistent with general historical principles... and that was perfectly all right. It's true: logical realism is not necessarily what we want. However, a lack of logical realism when it's expected can kill a story.

Kat put it this way. What do your readers expect? Realism? Allegory? Use that to decide how you approach your world.

Sometimes we worldbuild subconsciously, without thinking about it. This is when our own cultural defaults are most likely to slip in, and we have to keep an eye out for that.

Next we asked the question, How do you start worldbuilding? Well, even if you only have an idea for a speculative gadget or a magical power, you have already started. You can enter a story world from lots of different points. Worlds and cultures are interconnected places. The things in your world can be culturally, physically, thematically, or metaphorically connected with other things in your world.

A lot will depend on the categorization systems you use. Kat said that when people are given a monkey, an apple, and a banana, and asked which two go together, some will say the apple and banana go together because they are fruit, and others will say the monkey and banana go together because monkeys eat bananas. We learn our categorization systems when we learn our first language, and when we learn our native culture. Breaking out of this normative worldview can be difficult.

It's fine to decide to stay with the normative worldview, but I always like people to be aware of what they are doing, and making purposeful decisions.

Che suggested one way to begin a world is to pick a time and place from our own history and build from there. You can, for example, pick the 1930's Depression-era America, but use made-up town names in recognizable states, creating a place that is just slightly off from the actual real-world references.

Remember, you don't have to build the whole world... just enough. Sometimes it's enough just to know what the point of view protagonist knows. If you then decide to expand outward from there into greater complexity, then go for it!

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. I'm so grateful to Che and my other discussants for suggesting we do a general "Introduction to Worldbuilding series of videos. You guys are the best!




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Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, author and editor

I was really thrilled to have Khaalidah on the show to share her insights with us. I asked her what she liked in the arena of worldbuilding and she said that she has no specific likes, but says, "I want to feel something." She wants to feel how the story is going to capture her, to be intrigued by where it's taking place, and she says she needs something to be happening pretty quickly.

I always enjoy talking with people who are "pantsers," i.e. people who don't do a lot of advance planning, because as someone who does a ton of outlining, I find it fascinating to learn about how people develop their worlds in real time as they write. Khaalidah explained that when she writes with Spencer Ellsworth, he does the planning, and she concentrates on writing the character and feeling.

She explains that she starts by writing, and then does research while in the midst of the process. "I rarely finish and do research later." She says that she doesn't write something until it's finished and then revise it afterward, but tends to rewrite as she goes along, so that by the time she has a completed draft, it's "pretty clean."

She told us she's in the midst of writing a story with Spencer, which was inspired by Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. The story features a Muslim sword-wielder. The two of them started by emailing ideas back and forth and then it turned into a novella. It's a Wild West fantasy story with a middle-aged mother who is a magic-wielder and a sword-wielder. She referred to the character as Hijabi Zorro.

This story is a post-slavery alternate history. The main character lost her father, who was an immigrant Muslim, and not a child of slaves. She is an outsider, and lives on the edge of a small town in a place where Native Americans live nearby. Her husband is a deadbeat, and she finds herself financially strapped, so she decides to do a train robbery.

This is a world where magical creatures have lived, but are dying out.

I asked Khaalidah what kind of people her main character meets during the story. They include former slaves, a Native American woman and a Japanese criminal mastermind.

One interesting aspect of this main character is that she can do magic, but was taught that it was forbidden. She struggles with spirituality and faith, right and wrong. Loneliness and grief also make it more challenging for her to deal with the external problems she faces. In the first story about her, her children are quite young, which means they don't play as large a role now as they will later in the timeline when they wield their own magic.

There are different schools of magic, some of which are not allowed. A djinn is involved...

Her writing process involves writing, worldbuilding, using that worldbuilding to inform the story, writing more, and then worldbuilding more.

One of the issues Khaalidah described was the question of where the magical power originated. There are mysterious bones buried under the earth, but it's tricky to decide whether the main character is drawing her power from them, or drawing it directly from the earth itself. This way of drawing power is unique to the character. She is protected by a djinn guardian.

Because this character is a practicing Muslim, she has an abiding love and respect for her father, who really impressed upon her that she should not use her magic. She was born with it, and it came from her mother. She doesn't know much about it, or how to control it. Her husband proposes that she should use her magic, but for religious reasons she knows she shouldn't. In fact, she was present when her father was killed, and she feels guilty for not saving him with magic.

Problems arise for the main character in part because she's considered a heathen black woman, and has no father to protect her, and has twin girls to look after. When the criminal mastermind is broken out of prison, he offers to teach her to use magic. She's intrigued by the criminal mastermind, because he is not what he seems.

This sounds like a fascinating story, and I really appreciate Khaalidah's focus on character, and on the internal conflicts that drive her.

I asked Khaalidah what she felt was her favorite story she'd written, and she told us it was "Concessions." She says she wants to write something bigger in the world than she already has. Her initial ideas for the story changed. She was thinking about fear and disappointment, and how we respond to people different from us.

The world featured in Concessions is an America-like place that has just gone through a religious war. A few major cities are thriving, but the land is scorched. People who want to live in the cities must renounce their belief systems. The main character in this story is a doctor named Bilqis, who lives in the desert hinterlands. She's a Muslim but cares for people of all faiths, particularly for women, who are having difficulty having children. When she herself becomes pregnant, she has to decide whether to renounce her beliefs for the sake of herself and her unborn child.

The story asks difficult questions. What would you be willing to do for security? Is it enough to carry faith in your heart? Is it fair to ask for such a concession? Khaalidah pointed out that some people have to make difficult concessions of this nature right now, as when women feel they have to remove hijab in order to live and work in society.

Faith plays a large role in Khaalidah's work. Sometimes characters are Muslim but not as obviously so; their faith shows in their culture, judgments and practices. She explained that the characters in her story "Talking to Cancer" are Muslim, but that it's not really mentioned explicitly.

We also spoke about a story Khaalidah co-wrote with Rachael K. Jones, "Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of my Ship," which was featured in Neil Clarke's collection of the year's best stories in the year it came out. It's about two sisters feuding in space. Khaalidah explained that she'd had it on her bucket list for them to write something together. The two sisters, Anita and Ziza, are written by Rachael and Khaalidah, respectively. They emailed back and forth until the story was done.

The story features the two sisters' letters as they race each other to Mars and argue about whether to terraform the planet. It also involves them rehashing stuff they have done to each other. Anita comes across as crabby and mad, while Ziza has a more hippie, love-everyone vibe, wondering, "Why so mad?" Khaalidah and Rachael are working on a sequel to the story. The focus of the stories is less about terraforming Mars and more about their relationship, even as Ziza sends nanites to eat the hull of her sister's ship, or Anita sends a fake video of their mom to trick Ziza into going home (Ziza is not fooled).

The interpersonal relationships between the characters reflect the nature of the world. In Khaalidah's view, what is happening in the world only matters insomuch as it influences the characters. Details matter when they affect how people move through the world. In "Concessions," for example, you see Bilqis trying to grow crops in the desert because she is desperate to grow and hunt food. It shouldn't be shown if it doesn't affect the characters.

We asked Khaalidah if her perception of a story changes when she reads or records it. She told us that she's had two stories podcasted. It doesn't change how she feels; she sees the story but it doesn't sound the same as if she were reading it herself. She told us she's a person who reads her stories aloud to check them for tone, inflection, and nuance. She said she likes that readers will read their own thing into a story, and that it's cool to see people trying to pick apart the meaning of the story, even if what they find doesn't match her intention. She says it's hard to know if she'll ever have a chance to narrate her own stories... maybe, if her voice is right for it.

Thank you so much to Khaalidah for coming on the show and telling us about her work! Thanks also to Spencer who provided backup on the topic of the worldbuilding in their joint story.

Tomorrow, Monday, April 30 at 4pm Pacific, guest author Henry Lien will be coming on the show to talk about his novel, Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword. I hope you can join us!




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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Marion Deeds

We were very pleased to have author Marion Deeds join us on the show to talk about her work and her interests. I started by asking her what her favorite thing is in writing. She told us that she really likes cultural things - language, clothing, how status is communicated, etc. She told us that for a long time she wasn't at all interested in economic topics, but now that she works on fiction she finds herself quite intrigued by them, and by currency systems in particular.

I asked her about the stories she has written which are set during the Prohibition era. Marion says it was a very interesting time, and her version of the era also has magic... which, it turns out, is the prohibited substance! Marion told us that she had family members living in Massachusetts during Prohibition, and they would take regular "vacation trips" to Canada, after which their back room was open for business. The husband of the couple would apparently come back, kiss his wife goodnight and leave her gift bottle of alcohol on the bedstand.

Apparently, during this era, Canadian laws on alcohol were a patchwork by province. The French territory islands were not hard to get to, and helped people to find a way around the Prohibition.

Marion told us about an appearance of a man by the name of J. I. Rodale on the Dick Cavett show, in which the man declared "I'm going to live to 100" and then died of a heart attack on the show a mere ten minutes later. J. I. Rodale was one of the authors of "The Said Book," which suggests that "said" is such a boring speech tag that one should never use it, but find a flashy verb with a flashier modifier. She then explained how she wanted to "inflict the Said Book" on the story of the Maltese Falcon and turn it into a comic pastiche. A magical curse is the MacGuffin in this context... the idea is that there is a grimoire that, when you hold it in your hand, causes you to "see" in purple prose. Naturally, people think they can control it, but they're wrong. The main character, a parody of Sam Spade, is called Rick Rake. In this world, magic is known and codified. San Francisco is a bit lawless, though, and not limiting it much. Her origin story for the Bridget O'Shaughnessy character, "Never Truly Yours," appeared at Podcastle.

In this world, magic is accepted. It's exploited, controlled, accepted by different people. Some people are superstitious. There's even a tax system associated with it. Marion calls it "not terribly alternate history." She says that magic appeared in this world around the same time as the Spiritualist movement.

Marion also told us about her work in progress, which she describes as a portal family where the strange an exotic fantasy world is actually our world - specifically, Vallejo, California. Vallejo has an interesting military history which includes a base which closed, possibly as a result of "realpolitik." It also has Muir island.

The people coming through the portal are non-human magic users who are something like fairies but not fae. They can pass for human 99% of the time, but some humans can see them. A young woman encounters them. She has post-traumatic stress disorder from having been through a domestic terrorist bombing. Something else has also happened to make her think she's delusional. However, she can see through glamour.

One of the interesting concepts here is that glamour is a sort of magical technology, and while the first arrivals have a form of it, they anticipate that second wave arrivals might have an even better glamour that the first-wave magic users can't see through, but which the protagonist can.

Marion described doing some interesting things with posture and body language in this world. Lowering of the head is a challenge because they have horns. Raising the head is submissive because you're exposing your throat. She wanted a lot of things to be different.

One of the key characters is a hereditary ruler of the magic-users who fled after surviving an assassination attempt as a child. Her experience is portrayed in a flashback. There are elements of the story that resemble first contact, and others that have the flavor of alien invasion. Politics is also important, as one faction of magic users wants to put the fallen ruler back into power. These people laugh at the idea of democracy. Their magic manipulates electricity, but they struggle with our world because we manipulate electricity differently. Cell phones, for example, freak them out. They are smaller than us.

One really interesting aspect of the story is that the visitors aren't necessarily able to digest the same food we do, so at the start they struggled to find food they could digest.

The struggle of the fallen ruler is in part that she's stuck where no one really knows what she looks like, and she has lost her family and her cultural practices, and even her way home.

We were all intrigued by the idea of a character living in the Bay Area and not being able to find things to eat. Everyone would either imagine she has allergies or is extremely picky!

Miranda, the human character, undergoes a magical procedure that helps her understand the newcomers' language, which sounds like bird calls if you haven't had the procedure. We discussed some of the challenges of portraying alien languages in a written story, and how one can alter English prose to express difference without having the language sound like Yoda, or sound silly or stupid. One important thing can be maintaining a willingness to experiment, and to recognize that it might take more than one attempt to get the language right.

Che told us about a book she read which had been written in the word order of American Sign Language, which sounded fascinating. ASL has different syntax and grammar, but also a unique culture of directness.

Kate remarked on how international students coping with English can have trouble because of our ridiculously massive lexicon of vocabulary.

Marion told us that she wanted no king or queen, and no kingdom. She wanted to use metaphors about the ocean because the land of the newcomers was coastal.

Kate mentioned an interesting method for creating profanity suggested by Ben Rosenbaum and Monica Valentinelli. The example given was that when water is a sacred space and the place you live in, "one who litters into water" would be a terrible insult.

Thank you so much to Marion Deeds for coming on the show and giving us a peek into her thought processes! This was a really fun discussion.



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