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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What communicates power?

Well, I have to say, I wasn't expecting to get this far behind on my reports on the show, but the launch month was very busy, and then the next month turned into coronavirus month. But here I am, and I'm working on getting caught up. The show is still running, and I'm happy that we got through our tech changeover before the good and bad tsunami hit one after the other.

In this session, we were talking about what communicates power. There are a lot of different types of power, and a lot of different ways to communicate them. Some types of power are communicated by our physical appearance. Our membership in a particular social group can indicate forms of power, and when clothes are associated with power, the idea of power rubs off on the clothes by virtue of co-occurring contexts.

We briefly discussed whether there is a difference between power and authority. It feels like there should be, but we couldn't come to a general agreement on what the precise distinction was.

Height can communicate physical power. A badge communicates a particular type of authority. We felt that there was a link between the idea of authority and explicit social license of power.

Cliff argued that power should be defined as the ability to manifest intentions. To impose will might be another way of talking about it.

There are forms of concrete and physical power, like measurable force of wind, earthquake, or a blow. There are also forms of non-physical power, like causing a shift in opinion or behavior.

Kat talked about how power officially conferred by society or organizations is different from acquired power.

Moral authority is a type of power. So is social capital.

We often use physics metaphors to talk about power. Can you set a direction and get to a goal in spite of counter-forces?

Should we break power down into components with numeric values, like in D&D?

When you are writing, how do you convey that a person has the capacity to change society or the world around them? There are a lot of ways to change society, not just with fighting/weapons.

Then we started talking about magical power. It's very interesting that so many magic systems require a cost for the use of power. Is it a metaphorical examination of other forms of power?

I mentioned how in Harry Potter, initially the spells were not localized, but their casting had invisible influence on the world around them. Later in the series, that changed, and the spells became like bullets, which needed to be cast directionally and "hit" the target in order to work.

There is a cost to power when it's not magic, too. Being a leader takes a toll.

Does power leave an imprint? What does that imprint look like?

Putting on the trappings of power can create power, both in magic and in real life.

Cliff talked about how Babylon 5 used the visual badge of the psi-corps. It was an indicator that a person possessed power, but people with psi power were also required to wear it. It conferred authority but also set limitations on the people who possessed it, who for example were not allowed to gamble.

Who is able to give labels to others? That, too, is a form of power.

We use whatever power is given to us. If a young lady's only power is the ability to say yes or no to suitors, then very likely she will use that power to try to find ways to make her life better.

Kat talked about levers of power. What is the lever of power that is given to you? Do you have the ability to apply it? Can you apply it in the place you need to? Is the lever you're given fragile or durable? What is the scope of the power you're given? Is it personal or institutional?

What can you change? Or do you have the ability to keep things the same? US narratives often decry preservation, but we do preserve things.

Culture and language are very interesting in terms of their use and change. They are both preserved and changed through use. We put in a lot of effort to regulate the behavior of others. There is a cost to not changing what we do, but it rarely gets talked about.

Parenting is a big part of both language and culture, and its preservation and change. Cultures and narratives influence children. We try to influence behavior toward ourselves and others. We think about the skills we want to pass to the next generation.

Can you say what you want and get it? Can you get it without saying what you want? Who is talking to whom about what they want? Who can make it stick?

Grouping of people into groups happens both visually and linguistically. Who is considered "we"? Who is considered "they"? Some people code-switch depending on who the current "we" is. Are you allowed to say "I"?

Does saying "we" give you more authority? The royal "we" is when the monarch of England is able to talk about themselves as self, monarch, and head of church simultaneously. It's an indicator of power. The formal forms in many languages use plural forms.

How do people react to you as you move through your life? Who cedes to you and who doesn't?

What are the symbols of power and how are they passed on? What rules surround that?

We talked briefly about the show Leverage, which provides insights on some interesting issues. It's not enough to wear the coveralls so you'll be assumed to be a worker. You also have to have particular identity features. Some roles can't be taken by the black man, or by the woman, because the person in the disguise has to be the one the audience expects in that role.

Is quality intrinsic to a person? Or can it be worn?

We often undervalue something a person has the power to do until we try to switch the roles. An expert does not approach a problem in the same way that a novice does.

Clothing, voice tone, bearing, knowledge, and the ability to apply knowledge can all be ingredients that communicate power.

We wanted to see more attention put on aftermath in our fiction, on what the cost is for decisions and uses of power. We also wanted to see more about resistance, and how revolutions happen. Entrenched power has a hard time reacting to catastrophe (and boy are we seeing that this week).

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. Dive into Worldbuilding meets today, March 24, 2020 at 4pm to discuss Confinement.


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

K. Tempest Bradford

This was a conversation I'd been looking forward to for a very long time! We were joined by the estimable K. Tempest Bradford, who spoke to us about her work, including her fiction and her work on Writing the Other. 

We began by discussing Tempest's short story, "Until Forgiveness Comes," which appeared at Strange Horizons in November of 2008. It's a great story, and a cool jumping-off point for a lot of really interesting issues. It reads like an alternative NPR story with an alternative Sylvia Poljoli. Tempest told us that she did design us to read like an NPR news report. She wrote it several years after the events of 9/11, once she got a handle on the emotions while she was observing a ceremony at ground zero five years after the attack. Survivors and their families were present, and the victims' names were read, and bells were struck at intervals. As Tempest describes it, "We had ritualized it."

The question of how we deal with mass grief is an important one. She observed that the grief had not necessarily been ritualized in a healthy way, and those elements are brought out in the short story. Tempest told us she lived in New York City, but wasn't there during the events themselves. She didn't want to address the issues directly but allegorically. Astutely, she tapped into the contrast between horrific events and the cool calm tone in which events are generally reported. It's a format where you can present multiple sides without taking a side, and people have different perspectives.

Tempest told us she spent a long time thinking about how to turn it into speculative fiction. In the end, she created a fantasy alternate history world where the dominant cultural force was Egypt. She's been researching Egypt for a long time. She told us about how she's been attempting to write a novel set in Egypt since college. In fact, it's a grouping of projects, not one (as is appropriate with a long and thorough research project of this nature!).  

She started with a novel based on the life of Pharaoh Akhenaten with links to Oedipus, and then decided she didn't have the skills to do it well and put it on the back burner. At that point she started learning a lot about the 18th dynasty. People know a lot about that period, she points out, and she has become very knowledgeable about it. Then she started writing a Steampunk story set in ancient Egypt, pushing boundaries. It started out as a short story and turned into a novel. That, she says, has been common for projects she's worked on since Clarion West. That piece is set at the start of the beginning of the 18th dynasty.

Tempest says she's thought about carrying forward the steampunk cultural elements into her other novel. Giant flying scarab beetles run by the heat of the sun for Akhenaten to ride in sounded pretty awesome to us!

She told us about a quote from China Miéville: "I think of a really cool monster, and then..." She had a monster, and then had to build a world around it to make it happen. She connected it to research, and to the show Ancient Aliens, which she describes as "OBVIOUSLY not good for nonfiction, but great for fiction." The idea of pipes in the pyramids connected up well with her idea of Egyptian Steampunk.

One thing she says is really frustrating about researching Egypt is how many of the innocuous-looking links you find end up taking you to places where people are shouting, "ALIENS! ATLANTIS!"

Tempest then told us about her Middle Grade novel, Ruby vs. the Big Red Bug. It's science fiction, set in a real-world setting. Ruby wants to be an entomologist, and finds a weird bug, catches it, then loses it, and then men in black appear saying "It's nothing; it's fine." She said she had an image of this super-smart black girl, who is very into science, fighting a giant red alien thing with a water gun. When looking for a setting, Tempest chose one of the neighborhoods she grew up in with the community she interacted with as a child. She sees it also as a hope for the future. Things were different there, and the community came together. Kids in the neighborhood were allowed to ride bikes alone up and down. There was a reason for that safety: "everybody in the neighborhood was up in our business." If you go somewhere you didn't promise, the neighborhood will know. Ruby gets up to shenanigans planning around that surveillance system. This is a really cool idea and Tempest says agents have shown interest in it.

Tempest told us she doesn't understand how people work on a lot of stuff at once. She's getting her middle grade revision done so she can go back to the Steampunk. She's also hoping to give more to her patrons on Patreon. Hallmark movie madness starts in September, and she picks from a bag of twelve tropes, and then lets her patrons pick the tropes for her to use in a Christmas story. This year's example is this: A woman runs a Santa theme park, but another woman wants to turn it into a co-working space and meditation center. It's an enemy-to-friends-to-lovers story. Also, woman #2 works for Adam Newman and his wacky wife. 

Tempest tells us she likes writing exercises. She enjoys starting a course with a writing exercise every day. She uses it as writing practice. She explained to us that she feels not enough writing teachers suggest the value of practicing writing. She was a music major in vocal performance, and was always practicing. Dancers practice, and artists practice. Saying "just sit down and write," she feels, is not helpful. She doesn't feel that saying something like "I wrote 10K words today" is a measure of something. Writing practice doesn't necessarily make you a better writer, and that's okay. She's leery of the idea that you have to sit and pump out words. She urges people to choose a writing exercise that challenges you to do something you're scared to do on the page. Or to look at a picture and write something to get your gears moving. You can also sit down and write a shitty description and then go back and make it better later.

Tempest has also been spending a lot of her time teaching lots of classes about Writing the Other. She tells us she finds lots of joy in it and wants more writers to have these skills so she doesn't have to read things that make her angry. The students in the program are awesome because they are great people who think hard about stuff. Tempest says it's very rewarding work and she's proud to know the people involved. They have a cycle of classes to give every year, and it has required lots of energy input to set up, but should require less energy going forward. It's nice to keep using tools that work!

Tempest says the description class may be the one she enjoys the most because she put so much personal effort into it, and developed all the material. Most classes are collaborations between her and Nisi Shawl and others. The one she feels she has the least footing in is the dialogue and dialect class, which is grounded in Nisi's concepts.

Tempest told us she used African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the middle grade novel. This required digging back to how she talked as a kid. She asked her nephew, "Do people say rad any more? What do kids say?" and he said, "What are you even talking about?" Tempest said she considered tackling this language use as a result of the Writing the Other class. She learned things about how to make dialect work.

She also said she really enjoyed putting together the Worldbuilding class, because it brings together many different voices, among them Max Gladstone for ideology, Kate Elliott for analog cultures, Jaymee Goh for research, Andrea Hairston for cosmology. The material comes from different sources but comes together and people are saying things with the same sensibility. Sometime the same things get re-iterated across lectures. The students were highly engaged and asked good questions.

Writing the Other used to be a single class tackling everything together, but it exhausted students, so they broke the various topics out, and this gave the students more room to think and also more time to read and analyze fiction like Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. Tempest described trying to switch out the material used in the class and bring in some other works. However, Midnight Robber, while heavy, is amazing. Tempest and Tonya agreed that Nalo is a "goddess who was sent to us." Kate also said we needed a cabal to anoint Nisi Shawl as a goddess at Wiscon. The Writing the Other material and classes that have come together are 100% due to Nisi Shawl's founding efforts. Tempest brought in the skills for running classes online and getting stuff out there. She also continues to work on bringing in other voices to the WTO framework, including nonbinary, ace, etc.

Cliff asked what kind of effect the original book Writing the Other has had fifteen years after its publication. Tempest says she has seen a change in the public conversation surrounding how we write the Other. The effect is visible in books written by their students. It has made people pause and think, and seek out sensitivity readers. Tempest told us about an instance where she was contacted for a sensitivity read on an outline-stage book, where the main character was a black boy without a father. She asked, "Do you really need to do that?" When she spoke to the author, it turned out they wanted to dispel myths about the working class, so they talked about ways to bring in those issues in other ways. The resulting changes in the book were amazing. "This is happening," Tempest says. "We don't necessarily see all the steps." Slowly but surely, we are seeing more thought-out, respectful material in the field. That's good news for everyone.

Thank you so much, Tempest, for coming on the show! We can't wait to hear how your MG novel turns out.

Dive into Worldbuilding meets today, February 25th, 2020 at 4pm Pacific to talk with audiobook narrator Michael Crouch. I hope you can join us!


Monday, January 27, 2020


If you're looking for a post on how to be more productive in your writing, this is not it.

However, if you're looking for a discussion of how we conceptualize productivity and its value in society, you've come to the right place!

We often are asked whether we are productive or not, but we don't always talk about what productivity is. How do you benefit the society that you are a part of? Do you have to make stuff? Or is there more to it?

Kat remarked on the difference between people who live in the Caribbean and people who are tourists there. The tourists want to "get more out" of the experience while the people who live there simply live it.

Productivity is, in some sense, a story that we tell ourselves about our role in society. However, it does have real life impact. Morgan pointed out that it puts focus on the idea of "product," and can devalue service and education as human vocations, because they don't create piles of gold.

Division of labor is also relevant here. Many people fall for the total independence fallacy. People do tend to need other people around to perform certain functions for them. It's extremely difficult to do everything for yourself.

The words and metaphors we use to describe ourselves and our behavior influence our behavior.

Class is an important consideration here. Certain classes of people are expected, and indeed required, to be productive, while others are not. Consider the difference between the words "leisure," "idle," and "lazy."

We often find societies where there is a leisure class and a labor class. In the labor class, high productivity often works people to death. Those in the leisure class have a lot of free time.

We are taught to be as productive as possible, but it's important to recognize that this is not sustainable or an economic, human, or environmental level. Humans are not machines, and the resources of the environment are both necessary and finite.

Different cultures place different value on productivity. Kat described a video in which a group of people in France was building a bridge across a viaduct. They stopped and had lunch with beer as a group before they finished the bridge. Having leisure time, and social time, help people to be more creative on and off the job. When we are forced to keep going at a frenetic pace, at all costs, we get burnt out.

How would you go about building an economy where frantic productivity is not necessary?

This applies to the world of school as well as to work. In the US right now the culture of homework has taken over, leaving kids no time to play and little time to engage their creativity. Even schools with excellent resources and teachers create an environment where kids are dying inside with riches all around them because they can never rest.

People love to force others to be busy for the sake of being busy (especially kids), when love of a subject should be the goal.

Accomplishment and productivity are not the same.

Industrialization has significantly changed our expectations in the arena of productivity. Medieval serfs had time off for feast days, and winters are not high productivity times in the are of agriculture.

Some of our desire for work comes from a desire to keep people from causing trouble, or to keep them out of our way.

Paul noted that in Germany people work shorter hours with more holidays. They just work less. Here we are taught to engage our scorn for such values. But why? Is it related to the idea in Christianity that suffering is somehow noble?

The level of busy-ness is not necessarily linked to the amount produced by an individual. The question is sometimes "Do I see you working?" more than it is "What are you accomplishing?" Do you need to be seen working? Can you leave before your boss does? Paying by piece work creates a different kind of pressure on a worker from paying by the hour. Take a look at what kind of pressure and coercion are happening on the management side. In this kind of an environment, someone who stands out for productivity as an "eager beaver" will ruin things. If you excel in productivity, you may only teach management that they can get that much out of you.

What about work in the home? Laundry and dishes are finite in quantity, but they cycle infinitely. What happens during the "wait times" while you are required to be attentive waiting for a machine to run?

A lot of these concepts are gendered. Women are often expected to be able to do 70 things at once. Men tend to be taught that they can demand space to do one thing at a time. This is actually related to the reason why it's easier to recognize ADD in boys than girls.

Who gets to perform incompetence and be excused from house or other work?

Morgan noted that people generally need to be able to produce food to keep themselves from starving, but that this is not the same thing as knowing how to cook.

We don't do things communally as much in our current US culture.

Why do we shame behaviors that don't conform to our expectations?

There is pressure to cook, but in fact, people selling food have always been present in human communities, so it's not "going back" to some idealized past to learn how to cook. Some activities require expertise.

This returns us to the total independence fallacy. How independent are you if you can take a road into the wilderness (who built the road?)? How independent are you if you can shoot your own food (who made the gun and ammunition?)? Spencer Ellsworth, in his visit to Dive into Worldbuilding, talked about how much work goes into producing your own food, so definitely take a look at what he said.

Settler technology can be very toxic. It may work for one day's survival, but surviving for generation after generation is different.

In a fantasy world, if elves mature slowly, what are they doing with all their time? How long does it take to potty train? Maybe they have seeming superpowers because they have 500 years to learn things. Are there no elf children? If you find that everyone is 18-35 in your book, maybe you should rethink things. Are children and elderly people expected to be productive? How?

Thoreau thought he was being independent on Walden pond, but he was constantly being tended. He wasn't alone, but he refused to admit it.

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion. This week, we meet on Tuesday, January 28th at 4pm Pacific to discuss What Communicates Power. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What's on the Page?

One of the problems that worldbuilders sometimes run into is when they have a massive world designed and planned, but then they start writing and feel like the world on the page is coming out as much more shallow, in spite of all their work.

One of the challenges here is that not everything we know shows in what we write unless we're doing deliberate work on that. The things that resonate in our own heads may do that not because they are in the writing, but because we know about them before we come to the writing. It's therefore really important to engage outside readers.

An outside reader is someone who doesn't know your world, but will be willing to read what you've written and tell you about their experience of the place. They will be able to see only the things that are actually shown in the words on the page, and hopefully, to tell you about it.

How do we manage to put so much on the page when we have so little space? Carefully chosen small details are vital tools. These can include objects or interactions.

A couple examples from my Varin world. Varin has a time system that is not entirely like our time system. I want people to know it's there, but I don't want to spend a lot of time explaining it. So I pick an interaction people might find familiar, like time estimation, and I change it. In our world, we'd say, "Five more minutes," and it would be a time estimate, not a precise number. "Four more minutes" would be a measured quantity of time. In Varin, "Four more minutes" is a time estimate, and "five more minutes" is measured time. I use the social context to help a reader interpret the tiny piece of information correctly. Another example is when one of my teen characters says "Can I borrow your Aloran?" He's asking to borrow the services of a bodyguard so he can go out, but the social context is set up to have it be as familiar as a teen asking to borrow the car so he can go out. It implies caste information in a comprehensible way.

We talked about syntax. Specifically, I mentioned that I like to use subordinate clauses to hide world information. Readers will often expect main clause material to be immediately relevant to the main conflict, and can sometimes resent being taken off into an explanatory aside. Putting this material in a clause subordinate to a main one, where the main one is relevant to the main conflict, can help you get the necessary information in under the radar. I'm not suggesting you jam your work with subordinate clauses, but they're there for you if you need them.

Idioms can also convey a lot of information. One Varin idiom is "When the sun rises in Pelismara," meaning NEVER.

Conflict is another great way to create context for informing the reader of things that people wouldn't ordinarily notice.

If you look at your writing, can you estimate the information density? Is it too dense already, or too thin? What kind of thing could enhance it or clarify it?

Creating context for your concepts is very important. You can do this on multiple levels. A surprise might be good or bad depending on the context. You can create context to introduce readers to invented words, or to redefine existing words. What you put in the story at one point will create context to strengthen other aspects of the story later down the line.

As the author, you have ideas of what the characters are like, and about what you mean. Outside readers don't have that. You might get a critique that totally lambastes you, but that doesn't necessarily mean your ideas are bad; it could be that your critiquer got lost, or didn't care. A lot of things can become tedious if you don't care!

Sometimes you might imagine a pice of information is on the page, but it's not.
Sometimes you might imagine a piece of information is NOT on the page, when it is. (Racism and sexism and other biases unfortunately often fall into this category)

We spoke about how readers come to a story with different backgrounds, which means they bring different forms of social and cultural context that will give different meanings to what they read.

It's easy to think that when we write, we are transmitting ideas to another person, but we're not. The words on the page EVOKE a context of usage in the reader's mind, and they may have heard the same word in dramatically different circumstances from you. With conlang words (ones you make up), there is almost no context of meaning beyond the phonological. You are the one who has to do the job of creating the context in which those words become meaningful. Even words like replicators and skimmers require some work. Replicators in Star Trek produce food. Replicators in Stargate are scary.

The question of context also applies to second books in a series. How much can you count on readers to have experienced before? Do they have context to understand?

Good writing will provide contextual support in a seamless web so that readers almost don't notice how much they are learning.

Some series have carefully engineered entry points for unfamiliar readers/watchers. Stories with long continuing arcs are harder to come into in the middle.

Kate notes that it's very important to provide readers with information on whom they should be caring about and why. What is important? What is not?

How much do you explain? How much do you allow people to infer?

It's important to acknowledge that different people will have different visions of what is going on.

Writers typically put words on the page for a reason. The more words there are, the more time it takes to read them. This increases the sensation of time passing within the story. It also means that we consider things that are given lots of words to be more important, because we are taking more time, and they have to be worth our time.

In McCaffrey's Pern books, there was a creature called a watch-wher, and it had a very basic early introduction. Twenty years of writing and books later, you learn that's what dragons were bred from.

Kate says it's important to say yes to things you didn't necessarily plan to say yes to, as when her co-author added five characters. Give the story the space it needs.

Remember that each word you see => other words you see => words and ideas you can't see.

It can be frustrating, or it can be super cool! You have to know lots of things in order to make what's on the page come out well.

It's a good idea to set up environments, people, etc. before the climax so you don't have to distract from quick pacing by stopping to introduce new things. Put it on the page in one place so you don't have to put it in another place.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this interesting discussion!


Monday, January 13, 2020

Managing Spaces

This topic was a little tricky to explain, and I'm sorry about that. We spoke about how we fill the spaces around us, or don't fill them, and whether and how we make spaces of our own.

In some sense, it's about being the Dungeon Master of your own life, or of the lives of your fictional characters.

What shape are the rooms that people normally expect? Cliff mentioned a story, The Machine Stops, that had hexagonal rooms that were metaphorical for a hive and gave the story a sense of unreality. Kat mentioned that some stories have characters who are uncomfortable with square rooms. "Humans are cubical." We have quadrilateral cardinal directions.

I spoke about designing the cities of Pelismara, Selimna, and Daronvel in Varin. Pelismara is organized like a stack of plates of shrinking sizes. Selimna is a city where a river runs between two cliff faces. Daronvel has been carved out of rock, so that there are no buildings with "outsides," only internal spaces. The three cities have totally different features and feel very different.

Cliff mentioned that the spaces on a spaceship or space station are very important to how stories there play out. 2001 featured a curved floor. Babylon 5 had a station so big you didn't really notice the curve. Some stations have an area at the center where there is no gravity. Science-fictional environments often have unusual properties. Forbidden Planet had the Krell doors that were pentagonal.

Morgan talked about how you could say "3/4 spinward" within the context of a space station.

Kat mentioned that island cultures can sometimes say inward our outward. They can say hillward or seaward. On the big island of Hawaii they say windward and leeward. You could conceivably say orbitwise or anti-orbitwise. The space around you changes how you talk about direction.

What is considered a person's space? How far does it reach around their body? Does their body have to be in it? Are any spaces communal? Are all spaces communal?

Americans sit in rows of chairs leaving space in between, and only filling those chairs when there are no more spaced-out spaces left. How full does a restaurant have to be before you would share a table with someone else? Or maybe you wouldn't under any circumstances.

On public transport, are there seats for disabled people? When do they get filled? Do all the window seats on the bus fill up before the aisle seats fill?

What are table seating rules? Where is the seat of honor? In office seating, where do you sit relative to the desk? What if there is a desk in a huge room? Do people have shared offices? Window offices? Private offices? Flex offices, where they are shared based on the time of day?

Do you expect to be alone while sleeping? At an inn, do you share rooms or beds with strangers?

Morgan mentioned the cultural expectation that a married couple will share a bed in the same room. This is not always the case!

When I lived in a dorm in Japan in college, I decorated my small single room in a very specific way that indicated my tastes. My friend Tim had almost no decoration except family photos. How do you decorate your space?

Do you make your bed in the morning? Morgan mentioned how you might put temporary things like papers on top of your bed, and if you are not sharing the space, you might not put them away.

Do you put things away between instances of working on a project? Do you have enough space to put them away? Do you have enough energy? Will the space rock, move, or otherwise cause things that left out to get moved or damaged (like on a ship)? Will other people in the space interfere with your things if you leave them out (like in a family home, or even a prison)? Will someone take your stuff? Does it bug you if you don't put things away? Do you live in a pristine white nothing space?

Do you leave cabinet doors open? How tall are you relative to those doors? Will they hit you in the head if you leave them open?

Does out of sight mean out of mind? Do you remember all the things you have? Are glass cabinet doors awesome, or awful? Do you have slatted doors?

Do you expect things to stay where they are put? I talked about how my toddler used to pull all the CDs out of the cabinet, and I'd put them back, and he'd pull them out again... until I thought to just leave them on the floor (which was boring, and he eventually forgot about it). Do people childproof their homes? For how long?

Cross-culturally, expectations for the use of space differ. Where does the outside of a house begin? In a Japanese home, the outside starts at the genkan entry hall.

Do you use a shoe rack so you don't end up with piles of shoes on the floor? What do you do in an apartment without a broom closet? How much storage space do you expect in your home? Where is the washing machine or washing space in your home? Where is the kitchen? Are they in the same space?

How large do you expect rooms with different functions to be relative to each other?

Do rich people expect to be able to live in large spaces? In Varin, the highest-ranked nobles live in relatively small spaces because they live in proximity to the Eminence. They look down on the nobles who don't have enough clout to live in this environment and have bigger spaces in their large houses outside the Eminence's Residence. Maintenance of big spaces can be a challenge, however.

What is the accepted motivation for living communally?

Think about these questions on a historical scale as well as concurrently to your story's timeline. Has use of space changed? Why? Paul brought up how many stories feature noble homes with lots and lots of unused spaces, like the neglected wing of the palace.

How are shops and residences organized relative to one another? Are they segregated? Side by side? Shop on the street and home upstairs?

Kate was reading about a space habitat with single family homes and fields and wondering how that could be managed. People look at their constraints and adapt to them.

What do kitchens imply about other parts of the house? Does a house have a root cellar? A storm cellar? No cellar? Does your property feature a spring house to keep food cold?

Does your house have a dog run? Space allotted for animals?

Is a kitchen space with hot ovens attached to the house by a covered walkway rather than being inside? Is it for heat reasons? That might change the focal part of the house from the kitchen to the dining room.

Climate has a huge influence on use of space. In a hot climate, you only heat as necessary for food etc. and keep things as breezy as possible. In a cold climate you have a fireplace or cooking space that is enclosed so it can share its heat with spaces around it. In the hot, you will eat colder food, and in the cold you will eat hotter food. Climate control, like air conditioning, can change all of this.

Where is your focal social space in your house?

Do you divide child and adult spaces?

Cliff mentioned that in the middle east there is often rebar sticking out of the tops of walls because the next generation is expected to build upward onto the existing house.

Colonization can drastically change how space is used. One example we thought of was that a society which makes square or donut-shaped homes with an inner outdoor space for women might start making totally enclosed homes, but the women would then lose their outdoor space.

When you have servants, the kitchen is not going to be the center of your home.

Paul talked about how tea houses in Nepal had a central room with heat. The sleeping rooms are cold. The Sherpas hung out in the kitchen.

Kate mentioned microclimates. You might have a room or tent behind the stove so you could have privacy amidst all the social interaction. There might be an inglenook anyone could use.

Library carrels create a sense of private space within a larger public space.

Thank you to everyone who joined us to take on this fascinating but tricky topic!


Sunday, November 17, 2019

Blind Spots and White Rooms

What are the things you don't see?

Sometimes a story will feature sections of bare dialogue. These are like overhearing a conversation, and you have to guess what is going on around them based on the content of their talk.

It's all right not to specify things in a story, but we need to be aware that very often, a reader will fill in what they don't see with defaults.

Defaults are culturally dependent. They can be influenced by regional expectations. In some regions, "of course you have a basement." In others, "of course you have central heat." Where I live, it's astonishing if your house is not bolted to its foundation (because houses will walk off their foundations in a major earthquake).

When you are thinking about what kind of room your characters are in, remember that rooms have idiosyncracies. Ask who decorated them. What were they intended for? We noticed that Paul has maps and a sword in his room. I have wall hangings and a dresser. Morgan has a gaming chair and a dusty exercise machine. Ask whether a room was deliberately decorated. Was it filled by someone who had time to fill it? Were they in a hurry in some way?

Characters don't always think about everything around them. What does a kitchen look like if your main character has no interest in cooking? Morgan talked about having a character like that and comparing her view of the kitchen to that of her boyfriend who cooks.

Why do people pay attention to particular things? How does that change depending on their circumstances?

LaShawn noted that it's fun to play with character blind spots, with things they don't notice. If you want a reader to notice something that the character doesn't, you can always lay out an array of important and unimportant items. Paul remarked that sometimes an author doesn't plan the array, just puts a bunch of stuff out there and then some of it proves to be useful later.

Morgan asked how much we all look at hotel rooms. Not much, unless we're first walking in or noticing something wrong or different. Paul noted that if you are in a hotel room overseas, the room can be more distinctly different. LaShawn told us she once stayed in an older building that used to be a Men's Club because she was in overflow of people into rooms for a conference. It was unique and bizarre, because the doors were eight feet high and even the wall fixtures were very high up. It's worth noting that a hotel is not the same as a b&b or a ryokan, etc.

Any change in height or angle can really change our perception of a place. Adult heights tend to come in a much smaller range than those of children, and particularly so within a single culture. Our expected range of heights is smaller than the actual range of heights.

How do people learn not to see things? We notice things when they are new, and after a while our eyes gloss over them. There is a difference between not being taught to see something, and being taught not to see something. In China Mieville's The City and The City, people are taught not to see things right in front of them. We are taught not to look at homeless people when we encounter them. A change of environment will cause us to see things we might not in our most familiar contexts. If we go to a foreign country we are trying to watch for new languages, etc. so we pay attention to more things.

LaShawn noted that not everyone is the same, with the same opinions and experiences. This means you will notice different things. Kate remarked that you can be a relative outsider to an area even when everyone in the area is native to it. People also don't necessarily fit into the roles they have been assigned. When characters struggle with expectations, that teaches readers more about expectations.

It's helpful to try to understand secondary characters.

Kate brought up unreliable narrators. You can't necessarily orient reliably based on what is in a character's head.

My own view is that there's no such thing as a reliable narrator.

You can use situational irony to point up the unreliability of a narrator.

Kate noted that it's a problem when everyone sounds the same.

It's good to get multiple people to look at and critique a story while you are writing it, because different people will notice different things. People who don't usually read genre will be able to tell you if the genre conventions you are using are opaque to outsiders.

If you are writing in someone else's universe, you need to be able to speak the language of the people who live there. Star Wars people need to know Poe Dameron's idiolect. LaShawn told us that Mary Robinette Kowal was able to fool a whole bunch of people into thinking she was Patrick Rothfuss because she had studied his tweet style.

It's a really good idea to pay attention to language. It's our tool for writing, but it's also largely unconscious. People can't actually tell you what they will say in a given social situation; only what they think they ought to say.

Make sure you do your research. Kate can't stand it when someone has girl scouts "be prepared." (The Boy Scouts motto) The person who hypothesized about the Yucatán meteorite was not Luis Alvarez, but his son.

Know what you don't know.

Morgan noted that spoken and written language are very different, and it helps to read your dialogue aloud.

LaShawn said she looks at some of her early short stories and wonders, "Why did I pick this name?" Morgan noted that you often have to come up with a reason why someone is named something a bit unusual for their culture.

The blind spots and things you don't notice will change over time. If you have a new baby, you will be on the lookout for baby emissions, and if you have a toddler you will look for small people so you don't trip on them.

If you see someone wearing spurs in a grocery store,  (Kate did, and then later found herself post-riding in nearly the same situation) you can't really know the path someone took to get there. Be aware that there are things you can't know. Find experts to help you. Ask for the help of sensitivity readers, and pay them.

There isn't only one way for us to be who we are.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! I really enjoyed it.


S. Qiouyi Lu and As Dark as Hunger

It was a real pleasure to have S. come on the show! We got to talk about their story, As Dark as Hunger, which is now out in the latest issue of Black Static magazine.

This story takes place in a secondary world. S. told us that while Tolkien made his own language, they, like Paul Krueger in Steel Crow Saga, use existing world languages set into a context that is not the real world.

Since I'm a linguistics geek, of course we followed up on that immediately. The story features English, which S. refers to in the story context as Common; it also has Esperanto, called Komuna. Esperanto is a conlang originally designed to promote global communication and peace. It also uses Manchu, a language now known to have only 10 remaining native speakers as it has been supplanted by Mandarin. S. has some Manchu heritage in their family, and uses it for the mermaid language in this story, and uses the word for language/tongue to refer to it. They said it was fun to put together sentences. In the story world, the mermaid language has become isolated because mermaids are hunted, and that has contributed to additional divergence. S. uses different terms for the languages in the story because once you start referencing Earth terms, you have to assume Earth exists.

As they construct the world of the story, S. uses imagery of the bayous in the southeastern US, and of Asian riversides. There's the stench of the riverbank buildup, too. Smells trigger memory in really effective ways. S. told us that smelling a particular type of garbage or sewage smell makes them think "I miss Beijing." Smells can be difficult to describe but they are very powerful. S. is intrigued by the idea of scent as language. They said Pratchett's Discworld does a good job with scent and "werewolf smellovision."

There's a balance between having things readers can reference and understand, and things that are unique to a world. If you say "green as Nyquil," that implies the existence of Nyquil. If a particular word or language usage stands out, we say it's marked; if it doesn't, then it's unmarked. Using unmarked language can help sneak things under the radar for readers, but not all readers consider the same things marked or unmarked. For some readers, lotus flowers in a pond evoke an atmosphere and a scent.

S. told us about a story called "The Scent of Memory" by Zhao Haihong, in which a character who was kidnapped and doesn't remember his family uses perfume to restore his memory.

In "As Dark as Hunger," the main character lives a simple humble life fishing, but then her former lover comes to the village. Her lover wants to hunt mermaids, because people pay handsomely for them, but to find a humane way of doing it that won't kill them. S. told us that part of this conflict came from the conflicted feelings they have about shark fin soup. It's a celebratory dish, but cruel because it kills sharks.

S. told us that they struggle with xenophobia in the US, where there is an anti-China climate. They want to be able to defend their personhood without feeling obligated to defend Chinese politics they don't approve of.

In the story, there is a contrast between the village and the city. The village is downstream from the city, which pollutes its water. Talented people seek opportunity in the city, and children and the elderly are left behind. The city drains away the village's people. The main character has an ethical objection to hunting mermaids, but she does want a better life than the stinking river.

One of the major themes of the story is diaspora, of being removed from the motherland. While, in this story world, foxes can shapeshift back and forth many times, mermaids can only shapeshift from tail to legs once, and then can't change back. Their children are human. This is a metaphor for immigration and assimilation. One of the main character's ancestors made this change in order to keep her descendants from being hunted, but in so doing, closed a door that could not be re-opened.

The mermaid who ends up at the main character's house is fluent in mermaid tongue, but the main character herself only knows a few words. S. described how they are able to learn Mandarin, but there are things about Chinese culture that they can't ever grasp in spite of that learning.

Kat asked S. if this story featured any forcible conversion to the new culture.

The story does refer to the story of the main character's grandmother as her parents were trying to transform. The mother does it first with a haunting look of resentment. The grandmother ends up being part of a sort of 1.5 generation, of young children who came to a new culture with their parents. From the second generation on, it becomes hard to hold on to the language.

S. Qiouyi Lu's story "Mother Tongues" literalizes assimilation by featuring a mother who is literally selling her ability speak her heritage language. Like "As Dark as Hunger," it captures a feeling of yearning, the feeling "you're so close; you're almost there but not quite."

With people in the diaspora, there's still a hope that you can learn your culture, and open the door a little bit. The language is not forcibly diminished, but gradually replaced.

This is not exactly like language loss in indigenous groups. When you are looking at situations with indigenous culture, you see the links of culture being broken.

S. described growing up in Southern California with a significant Asian-American population where you could access tutoring in heritage languages. It would be a lot harder if you were the only Asian kid in your community.

The idea of spaceships could easily be matched with the themes of diaspora, but you don't often see them explored. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather takes up interesting questions in an intimate narrative with a larger conspiracy. S. said they liked how it explored religion as an arm of control, but it didn't really take on the question of colonization. Aliette de Bodard addresses questions of how culture permutates and varies. Lois McMaster Bujold asks what happens if culture is isolated.

S. told us they found the idea of Earth being destroyed as a default is quite depressing. They are glad solarpunk is growing.

As Dark as Hunger is part of a larger series of novellas that S. is still working on. The stories occur in the same world but are not necessarily linked. They are planning to link the stories together with a frame story about a cabinet of curiosities, in a similar way to Bradbury's The Illustrated Man.

S. has created maps of this planet, and has some idea of the cultures on it. They are enjoying the opportunity to finish stories they had thought about for a while, set in different geographical places, with Earth cultures in an alternative context. One features necromancy, and a character seeking to do magic on his brother's ashes, but unable to succeed in China, goes to look for a bruja in Mexico. S. said this story was inspired by their childhood in a desert region. Another story features a girl with bound feet who creates a steampunk mech to move around without pain. It is inspired by the Straits of Malacca and Southeast Asia. It's a secondary world they explore piece by piece, seeing what fits.

S. told us they are very happy to see so many Asian-derived secondary worlds coming out now, like in J. Y. Yang's work, or like in Paul Krueger's Steel Crow Saga. One advantage of working in secondary world versions like this is you don't have to do extensive research on the real Chinese mythology because you can "make up stuff." There is less pressure to get it right. This generation is starting to show the influence of anime, manga, and Japanese roleplaying games rather than relying on the same Western genre background. S. finds it interesting to see people drawing on these influences.

S. told us they hated History in High School, but it was mostly because it was taught badly - too much big picture, and not enough knowledge of what was happening to various different groups. Chinese-American history is has fascinating pieces we don't know. Idaho used to be one quarter Chinese. S. likes exploring these lesser known histories as a good jumping off point for stories.

I asked S. about their background in Linguistics, and they explained they have a BA in Linguistics, and their favorite areas of linguistics were Sociolinguistics and Phonology. They enjoy grammar books and dictionaries. Wikipedia can often give you an overview of a grammatical system. You can look in language grammars for examples of words and sample sentences. Once you have these pieces, you then have to figure out how to change them for context. If you working with a language that has only ten native speakers, as S. was for this story, it's hard to reach out to verify things.

J. Y. Yang's Tensorate series doesn't include Earth language. The main character realizes they are nonbinary or trans. That person uses the masculine version of the pronoun "I."

Steel Crow Saga uses Tagalog, Chinese, and other languages. There is a character with a taboo against using the first person pronoun, so he uses the third person to refer to himself.

S. said they always wish there were more science fiction based on linguistics, especially sociolinguistics. There isn't often as much about diglossia, when there are two languages used. Some societies have had one language for written work, and another for spoken. Singapore has four national languages, used in different contexts. You can do a lot to stratify or deconstruct a society based on language.

We talked briefly about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that language influences thought. The strong version of the hypothesis, which posits that language constrains thought, has been debunked. S. said they know Ted Chiang is a great writer because he based a whole story on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and S. didn't throw it across the room.

Paul asked how S.'s work as a translator has influenced their fiction. S. said the reverse was more true, that their fiction writing has helped them be a better translator. If you can't write well in the target language, translating a story will be difficult. Literature in different languages has different conventions. In Chinese literature it's not a faux pas to use a lot of adverbs. S. said they have to make a lot of decisions about translating phrases like "ran quickly" as "dashed." They try to balance editing and adapting for an English audience without losing the Chinese voice.

It's harder for them to translate into Chinese. There is stuff you can't look up in a dictionary. They would have to internalize vocabulary and writing conventions.

When asked if there should be a Hugo award for translations, S. argued that it is better to have translations integrated and listed alongside English-language works. There is an award in Japan for translated works, but so much there is translated that it makes sense. In addition, in the anglophone context, people already have the idea that translations are "different." A dedicated award might boost the profile of translated works, but might also turn people away. Having these works in the main Hugos shows that they compete.

Kat asked if S. comes under any pressure to create a flavor of Chineseness that is expected by anglophones. S. replied that individual translators have different styles, and some stories have more Chinese flavor than others. They quoted Ken Liu who said, "Authenticity is something other people use to describe your work." One interesting question S. runs into is whether to translate names into their literal meanings or not. Translating them is more "othering." S. has sometimes seen an interesting mixed approach used.

Thank you so much to S. Qiouyi Lu for being on the show, and to everyone who attended! This was a fascinating discussion.