Wednesday, September 12, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faces and figures can be attractive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, September 3, 2018

Mimi Mondal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Concepts of Time

"Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so."

That was how we started our discussion on concepts of Time, which turned out to be lots of fun and quite wide-ranging.

The perception of time is often quite subjective, but the measurement of time is culturally dictated.

I recalled when I was a child and had trouble understanding how to use a calendar. The use of a wall calendar can seem quite intuitive to adults, but it requires some underlying assumptions that are not in place with children. Adults tend to have figured out how to keep track of what day of the week it is, and usually have some sense of how deep they are into any given month. Both types of information are necessary to pinpoint "where we are" on a calendar and identify the day of the month, and thereby get connected up to the right reminders. Phones are nice because they keep track of both time and date on the basis of outside infrastructure!

How do you tell one day from another? Religious observations can create a sense of differentiation, as can school, work, and other habitual activities. How do you tell one week from another? Japanese has words that describe different sections of the month. Something like Advent can help you keep track. What other indicators might you use?

Cliff mentioned "Repent Harlequin..." in which time was revoked from a person's life if they were late. It was a tyranny of time. He also noted that when he was little his teacher used to write the date in numerical format on the board, and he watched it change but it never meant anything to him.

Teaching kids to tell time is a culturally important activity but it is also far more challenging than just learning numbers. What the numbers mean is not necessarily clear. We often assume experience that children don't or can't have.

There are many different types of calendars. Some of these are: Mayan, Gregorian, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese. Some groups use more than one type of calendar at a time.

Different cultural groups don't necessarily agree on when the day starts. Does it start at midnight? At sunset? At sunrise?

Different things on the calendar are considered important by different cultural groups.

The French Revolutionaries invented their own calendar, which is not used today.

I talked about "baby time," which is how a new parent's perception of time gets distorted. The minutes and hours feel like they are very long, but the weeks fly by. Having children also made me feel like I had "restarted time," because at a certain point in my life the years became so similar it was hard for me to tell if I had done something 3 years ago, say, or 5 years ago. Children provide a distinct form of time cue, both visual and developmental.

Boredom can make time stretch. Dread can make time stretch, or contract. Adrenaline can cause our perception of time to change, a phenomenon which is often shown in movies using slow-motion action.

The 6 Million Dollar Man's super-speed was rendered in slow motion. The Bionic Woman's speed was rendered by showing her in fast motion.

When you tell a child it's going to be "one more minute," how does that affect their learning about time?

People have often tracked the passage of time by watching the sun, stars, and moon phases. On the sea, people have used the stars to navigate, as well as time tracking.

Earth's rotation is actually slowing down very gradually. In the time of the dinosaurs, a day was only 21 hours long.

How do you tell time in space when days are not the same length? Martian days are called sols, and if you are working on the Mars Rover, you measure your time in sols as well.

Vernor Vinge in his books used seconds as a measurement to create a widely applicable time system. In this system, a kilosecond was one of the measurements. Some fictional time systems have run on the basis of the operations of a computer system.

In Cliff's Martian Steampunk story, Mars had to run off Greenwich mean time, which caused plenty of trouble.

What about time zones? Time zones are relatively recent invention, and Paul noted that on their borders they get a little weird. It means we have to be accustomed to specifying which time zone we are in when we have an arrangement to make (like Dive into Worldbuilding!). What if there were no time zones? If it were the same numerical time across the world, sunrise and sunset would be at very different hours across the world, as would work hours. You would always know the time across the world, but you wouldn't necessarily know what the time meant about what people would be doing.

"Zulu" time is linked to Greenwich mean time.

24 hour clocks are used in many places across the world. In France they are used for official scheduling but not for casual discussions of time.

There tends to be a cultural standard for when people are expected to be awake and to be asleep.

Before time zones, everywhere had its own time, and you had to look to a central indicator like the town clock tower to see what local people understood the time to be. The development of rail made synchrony necessary.

Morgan pointed out that time perception might also be influenced by longevity. Vampires, who are long-lived but started as human, would likely perceive 24-hour days, but their perception of years would be altered. Anne Rice handled this quite well in Interview with the Vampire, when her characters would lose track of decades. They lived in one endless night, but they had human time perception.

What about long-lived aliens interacting with humans? Vernor Vinge's skroderiders had no short-term memory and used carts to help them with that. Tolkien's ents took forever to have a conversation and thought everyone else was hasty. In Robert Forward's Dragon Egg, people lived on the surface of a neutron star, and the high-gravity field meant that time went faster. Black holes and faster-than-light travel can lead to temporal paradoxes.

Tools for timekeeping: calendars, clocks, watches, shadows, megaliths

Musical time is another form of time measurement. Language has its own time measurements as well (syllables and morae).

On a planet without moons, how do you measure time? Do you have such a thing as a month? I mentioned the meme I had seen on facebook about an early calendar that was a bone with twenty-eight scoremarks. The text said that this had been called "man's first calendar," but in fact perhaps it should be "woman's first calendar." One could use cyclical body processes like periods to help keep time.

What happens when artificial intelligences perceive time? Ann Leckie does an interesting job with that in her books. Frederik Pohl had a virtual reality space with uploaded humans, and talked about how "meatspace" was very slow. People who had been uploaded would create an avatar to speak for them, step away to do other things and then come back at the end of the interaction.

Some calendars are anchored by major historical events. The "seasons" in N.K. Jemisin's broken earth series are time markers, and each one is named for a terrible thing that happened during the upheaval. You could imagine a village that had been attacked by a dragon calling that year "the year of the dragon." (There's a very different kind of year of the dragon in the Chinese zodiac cycle.) In the Dragon Age universe, what they had planned to call the Year of the King became the Century of the Dragon. The Japanese calendar counts years based on who the emperor is at any given time, and concurrently counts years in the international standard. The international standard, of course, counts time based on the birth of a religious figure (approximately). The Jewish calendar counts from the creation of the world, which it calculates on the basis of the descriptions of the generations in the Bible. Rome counted years since its foundation as a city.

Why would you pick one of these or the other? Sometimes it may be arbitrary/intuitive, but sometimes it might be for a particular reason. In my world of Varin, the years are tracked from the start of a particular ruler's reign. This got started because someone in history thought it was important to obscure the actual number of years that the society had actually existed. In The Left Hand of Darkness, in Karhide, the current year is always the Year One, and everything else has to be recalculated on that basis. The Shire has its own calendar.

Sometimes a calendar will have "extra days" at the end of a year. The Aztec calendar had five days at the end of the year where you weren't supposed to do anything. We have leap years where we add an extra day.

Let's think about hours, minutes, and seconds. Why do we use a base-60 system for measuring time? I actually learned about this from one of my kids' books, and it's really cool. We often think of base-10 as intuitive because we have 10 fingers. In fact, base-60 is intuitive for the very same reason. Imagine that you are going to use your right thumb to point and count. Start by pointing it at each of the knuckles of your fingers on your right hand: you will get to 12. Then multiply those 12 by the 5 fingers of your left hand, and you will get 60!

I talked about designing the time scheme I use for Varin. I decided they gauged seconds on the basis of the fluctuation of a star that they were able to observe, and then worked through doubling. The weird result is that Varin minutes have 64 seconds and Varin hours have 64 minutes. The day is about the same length as ours, so they only have 22 hours. People immediately told me this would be very confusing. And it would, except that I never actually mention the details of how their time system works. Varini will talk about forenoon and noon and afternoon (noon is 11 o'clock). The only thing that should stick out to people reading the book is that people tend to estimate minutes in multiples of 4 instead of multiples of 5.

If you are working in a secondary world, make sure you think through how people talk about time. There are a lot of non-numeric ways to refer to it.

You know when "dinnertime" is. But the hour at which it occurs depends on the country you live in, and your age. At my college it was 5pm. In France, it's 7:30pm or later. In Spain, it's generally 9 or later. This can vary widely.

Paul remarked that in his childhood he used to have a snack at 8pm, so he'd call that snacktime "eight o'clock," as in, "What's for eight o'clock?"

There are analog ways to measure time as well as digital.

We often use spatial metaphors to talk about time.

Cliff pointed out you can count time with a metronome. You can also count musical time based on your breath, as they do in gagaku, where the Taiko player is the one who provides the time guidance for other members of the group.

You can use a drummer to time the use of oars.

Tonya told us about a story she wrote where a person could time travel if they had a photo to focus on to take them to that time (and developed an addictive habit of visiting a dead girlfriend).

Overall, this was a fast-moving and fascinating discussion. Next week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, September 6 due to Labor Day and my husband's birthday. We will be discussing Attraction, Affection, and Love (and how we talk about them). I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Who is Valued in Society?

This is a vital question to consider any time you are working with a secondary world... or even if you are working with our own world. The answer is generally quite complex.

Of course, the first thing we might think of is royalty. I think Americans are particularly inclined to romanticize royalty. Perhaps we kicked out King George III and became wistful. Kat remarked that many in the US at the time of its inception were not on board with all the aims of the Revolution, but wanted to knock George off the top and move up to become royalty themselves. How can we tell that Americans have this attitude toward royalty? Well, we can see it in Princess merchandise, in thousands of "rightful Heir" narratives, and all sorts of places in our culture.

Then comes the question of "nobles" and nobility. Does every noble think they have it in them to become a king? In Western European history, if you had weapons and armor, and/or you could direct people wearing armor, you would have power. This kind of wealth and power tended to be passed down through heredity.

One of the ways that kinghood/emperorhood is maintained is through the idea of divine blessing. It's not restricted to kings and emperors, but takes a more generally applied shape in the idea of prosperity gospel, where if you are rich it means you must be blessed or deserving.

How do you tell if someone belongs to the ruling class? One way is to look at the kinds of things they can get away with, including behaviors, patterns of dress, etc.

Who has restrictions on their behavior? What kind? Who controls how prosperity is allocated? Who gets to say who stays in the area? Who monitors the borders?

Sometimes historically there were holidays when the roles of servants and nobles were reversed. This might be a cool thing to introduce into a story world. In the Japanese obon season, in a particular region of Japan, there was an event where samurai had to stay indoors while others had a mass dance. Look for days set aside to subvert expectations.

I asked the discussants if we could try to tease apart power and societal value, as they are not always congruent. Artists, for example, may not have much power, but might have a lot of societal value. Japan even has a program designating artists as national treasures. In European history, Jews were restricted from owning land but were allowed to have monetary wealth. Since feudalism was based on land ownership, this restricted them from possessing power in some ways, but obviously not others.

Courtesans might not have any family power or traditional propriety, which means they might have influence but no security or direct access to power.

Power can be connected to age, gender, and many other possible variables. Patriarchy places value on men.

Make sure to consider formal and informal power. Also consider the difference between having the power to control your own life, and having power over others.

Bureaucratic gatekeepers can be lowly in their systems, but have the power of gatekeeping.

How many people's lives can you affect? Who can thwart you?

Checks and balances in government are supposed to counteract the unbridled use of power.

Who grants power? Is it God? Who has the power to take your power from you, how, and why?

Unions can create power where before there was little.

Who is admired? Are people valued for the services they provide to society? For membership in a particular social group? What do celebrities provide?

We must remember that once (and in fact, still) there are people who are assigned monetary value as though they were goods rather than people.

Whose children are protected?

Capitalism places a monetary value on people based on their productivity.

Kat encourages us to think of cherishing, or emotional value, as separate from other forms of value.

People who deal with garbage get marginalized in society, but this function of theirs is key to a healthy community. There can be people in a society who are vital but not valued.

When we tell king stories, we don't necessarily tell the stories of others around them. We tell the story of Frodo, but not of Sam.

The actions of heroes are not what make society function. Societies are complex, and without key pieces they would fall apart.

Outsider stories are not the same as the stories of people who are devalued. We have many stories telling about how wayward outsiders are taken into the community. Aragorn goes from an outsider to a king, not because he understands the people but because he is predestined.

There is power in violence. If you have no muscle, but you have guile and charisma and you can command people with muscle and weaponry, then you can command power. If you have no guile or charisma, but you have a lot of violent power, you may be able to command people but you have to at least be able to persuade people not to kill you while you are sleeping.

There is power in language - in oratory and in discourse. What role does it play in society?

Mutual protection societies tend to work best on a small scale, where people can check on each other and make sure they have an understanding of one another's needs.

In a secondary world, where do you introduce changes into a system of power? I talked about my otter aliens, who thought of art as the primary driver of life. In some ways, this could be compared to the way art was used for prestige in feudal Japan (even though I didn't use Japan as a model).

Potlatch is a phenomenon based on linking societal value to generosity, one's ability to give away things. It's a different basis for judgment.

Take a look at the excesses of the powerful and how they lead to revolution.

What kind of ostentation is permitted? What is suppressed?

Is there a distinction between old money and new money? What are the appropriate manners associated with being rich? How do those differ between groups? What is "style"? What is "culture," and what is "good breeding"?

Sometimes if you have enough money you can buy yourself a noble title. Money doesn't necessarily buy you social prestige, though, and you can be genteelly impoverished. Nobles have sometimes sold their daughters for cash.

The Gilded Age in the US involved a lot of people trying to use their money to become noble, and forge a form of nobility after the old forms of it had been rejected.

If you control a resource but don't have money, how much power do you have?

How do you decide which characters are pulling strings, and which ones are being pulled and don't know it?

The ruler Ventenari in Terry Pratchett's Discworld has a lot of power, a lot of money, and a lot of authority. He wants things to work and doesn't really care how. He has Vimes to keep things functioning.

If a character is lacking something, do they have enough power to access it?

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. I think a lot of interesting things popped up, and I hope you all find they give you ideas for your worldbuilding.


Monday, August 27, 2018

Culture - how it is reinforced and changed

I enjoyed this discussion, which got better and and better as it went along. I wanted to pick it up, because we often hear people talk about bias (for example) as something that will disappear along with an older generation, when in fact any cultural phenomenon gets taught to the next generation. It is transformed as it is taught, but it sticks around. The way that culture changes is similar to the way language changes over time.

By culture here, we mean daily practices, manners, and values.

In any culture, you can hear people say things like "that's not how we do it." Sometimes the membership in the group of "we" is very clear, and sometimes it is less clear. Sometimes these messages about what is or is not done in a culture are delivered explicitly, and sometimes, as Kat noted, they are delivered implicitly.

Whether a person is allowed to deliver power statements implicitly actually is part of the power phenomenon itself, and reinforces who has the power. If people are being vague about whether they have power over each other, think about who is protected by that vagueness. Does the culture itself value vagueness? What would it mean to force someone to be explicit? Sometimes, being forced to exert power in an explicit way can be interpreted as a loss.

Some cultures value bluntness, but generally only when it occurs in people with power. This can be gendered, as when bluntness is valued in men but not in women in certain cultural contexts. Only empowered people can be direct.

This question is one that Kat has examined in her work on etiquette for social justice. She often looks at who gets to say whether something is allowed, or whether it is not allowed, and who has to stay silent. This strategic use of silence and indirectness can mask where the power lies.

Just because you instruct someone in how your culture works does not necessarily mean you have power. Governesses and tutors teach the scions of the powerful how to behave, but are proxies and don't possess that power themselves.

If you are writing fiction, think about who is setting norms, what kind of norms they are setting, and who is enforcing those norms. Each of these may differ based on subculture.

Someone may not have authority, but may have protection from those in authority. It's possible for a person to have a public personal of weakness or delicacy, but use power.

Who decides what is taboo? What are you allowed to assert? What about people who advocate violence politely - are they somehow more normal or acceptable than those who advocate it rudely?

How are people taught explicitly about gender roles? How are they taught implicitly? Are there fairy tales or other stories that show normative roles?

People in very early childhood may be predominantly exposed to their nuclear family, which may have norms that are not typical of the surrounding culture. In some families, girls cook and boys eat, but in others, boys cook and girls work. How much does the immediate family influence a person's behavior? How much does it change the influence of the larger culture?

How is cultural change perceived in a culture? It could be seen as an aberration. It could be seen as linear, or cyclical. It could be perceived as a process of order dissolving into chaos, or order emerging from chaos. It could be perceived as progress, or as decline.

The media we consume reinforce cultural expectations. This will be the case in fictional worlds as well as the real one.

Language changes by being used. So does culture change in its enactment.

A movie such as Black Panther makes a statement, and also sets an anchor in a place where other cultural properties can build on it.

One of the things that can make worldbuilding seem fake is the lack of subcultures. Another is making no distinction between people who are privileged and people who are not.

There are a lot of possible pressures on art and technology, not the least of which is the availability and distribution of materials, so privilege is an important factor in who possesses technology or makes art of particular types.

I spoke about how new research in language acquisition has made use of principles of chaos theory. Here's an example article showing that usage. The first place I encountered it was in the book Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop.

Whether people live with animals is a part of culture. Culture is reflected in language, and they change in interlinked ways. Sometimes there are giant culture shifts, like the one that led to "he" pronouns not being considered universal in English. Right now many people are asking the question, "Do pronouns get assigned by external observation or by the people being referred to?"

Sometimes a culture will make certain kinds of practices illegal, or make it illegal to depict them in particular types of media. The Hays code in Hollywood made it so you could not depict a mixed-heritage relationship. It meant you could not show homosexual relationships, and could not show people in bed together. Laws are generally designed to prevent change from happening, to reinforce old practices.

Change has also occurred in the history of science fiction. Kate pointed out The Expanse as an example of a media property where the future involves more than one group of people.

Claiming that a particular depiction is "political" is an attempt to stop cultural change.

We took a look at two words used to describe inappropriate behavior. When that behavior is part of our own culture, we tend to talk about things as "rude," as part of a system of politeness, civility, and ethics. On the other hand, when we are talking about Other cultures, the word "taboo" is more commonly used. Whenever we take the word taboo and use it to describe aspects of our own culture, that reflects an attempt to decolonize our language use.

Individuals can influence culture if they have significant networks of people who follow their example. Fashion is an example of this. So is technology. So is language, as when someone like George I can mispronounce "Thames" as "tems" and cause the whole country to change its pronunciation.

Appropriation of ideas from other cultures, or ideas from marginalized groups, can also create cultural change. At the same time, it can be problematic depending on whether the other cultures or marginalized groups are recognized and rewarded for their contributions.

Here are some questions to ask about your world. What would you call "hard power"? What is "soft power"? What does each of these things change? How do you create power? How do you control your own environment? What are you allowed to influence?

In Bujold, the ruler can dictate, but is put under the tutelage of an outside.

How does a marginalized person exert autonomy and influence?

It's important to have diverse representation along various parameters in characters and in authors. Kat told us she wants to hear the story of the prince's groom. Morgan says she wants more stories about teachers, which examine the question of having power without respect.

Who do children learn from? How do they learn from them?

Kimberly put us onto the question of people who don't fully grasp their own culture, or don't fit in. Why don't they fit in? What aspects of culture do its people struggle with?

Narratively, it's easier to write outside points of view because it allows you to explain things explicitly.

The story Shoes-to-Run by Sarah Genge looks at a situation where cultural change happens. When someone defies convention, do you expand the category of who can do a thing, or do you change the definition of the person who has achieved that thing?

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. Dive into Worldbuilding meets tomorrow, 8/28/18 at 4pm Pacific to talk with Mimi Mondal. I hope you can join us!


Friday, August 24, 2018

Alex White and A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

I loved our discussion with Alex White. Alex's new book, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, came out on June 26th, so it's already available for you to check out!

It's about a race-car driver who has had to give up racing after witnessing a murder, and a washed-up treasure hunter who go to hunt down a treasure ship at the edge of the universe.

Alex says the thing that makes this universe distinctive is that there's magic: everybody has a single spell they can do that they are born with. There are all kinds of possible spells. Some have to do with fire, some with shadows, some with teleporting, etc. Not all are extremely powerful. Alex says it's like how people are generally born with legs, but not all of us run marathons. Some spells are as simple as "you can make anything glow." Destructive magics are not very useful on a daily basis. As Alex says, "You can throw a fireball, but why?" Some of the magics are hyper-useful. The one called the "mechanist's mark" means you can psychically interface with machines. This power is possessed by all race-car drivers because you would not really be able to compete if you didn't have it.

The character of Boots Ellsworth, the tresure-hunter, was born without the organ that allows spellcasting. In this world, it is functionally a disability. She requires custom technology to allow things like inputting passwords non-magically. We talked about how it was similar to the way N.K. Jemisin's books hypothesize an organ that allows orogeny (the sessapinae). Alex said it was a change suggested by his editor. This organ is called the cardioid because it creates a heart-shaped bloom of magic in the brain. It was named after the heart-shaped pickup pattern of a microphone.

Alex thinks a lot about the question of disability because his son is disabled, and his spouse suffers from MS. He observes that society creates disability by not creating appropriate accommodations that can allow everyone to access everything. When you have the right assistive technology, you can do whatever you need to do. In the society he has created in A Big Ship, 1 in 5 million people lack the cardioid organ, which means the problem is so rare that the society generally doesn't think about the possibility of this problem.

The protagonist of his novel Every Mountain Made Low also has a disability. Loxley is autistic and lives in a dystopian Birmingham, Alabama. She is undiagnosed because no doctors would bother to come around to do the job.

The character Blue from Alien: the Cold Forge has a late-stage terminal disease that resembles ALS. She uses a telepresence robot with a direct brain interface. The book asks questions about how you would survive a xenomorph outbreak if you had limited mobility. Would other people save you? What kind of morality do we associate with rescuing the healthy? Blue doesn't just want to survive, she wants to cure herself.

Alex explains that his goal in storytelling is to "sell you a twinkie and feed you a steak." He likes to hide a moral or political issue inside something that's fun. There are also queer issues in Alien: The Cold Forge, with a canonically queer protagonist.

Returning to Loxley, we talked about the setting in which she lives. It's called The Hole, and resembles an early 1900's Birmingham, with magic and a lot of mining. Alex says, "All of my settings are kind of exacerbated. I just kind of turn it up." Strip mining and coal mining have turned Birmingham into a crater with nine "steps," something like Dante's nine circles. The forge and foundry are located on the ninth level. The poor live down in the crater close to the forge, while the rich live up in Edgewood, where you can see the surrounding farmland. Loxley herself lives on the seventh level, where she works as an apothecary, gardens, sells weed, anything to make a buck. The country is run by a group called "The Consortium," which is something like the Edison and Westinghouse corporations. The general technology level is around 1980's, and there's a communist cold war, but nothing newer than a teletype.

Loxley has community members but only one true friend. When that friend is murdered, she wants revenge. Alex strives for a feeling of the South in the is book, including its racial tensions, code-switching, and economic disparities. People end up screwing each other over for something that is "frankly not that great." Loxley is a medium, but Alex is careful not to connect this with her autism. All of the women in her family have been mediums, but not all have autism. Ghosts don't communicate with the living, but they can put them in danger. They only stick around while the body is rotting, and don't stray far from their corpses. Loxley realizes her friend has been killed when she encounters her friend's ghost. Then she learns that Edgewood people were involved. Loxley has severe social anxiety and sensory processing issues, and is afraid of guns. She will have to make friends and experiment with new things in order to achieve the revenge she desires.

Alex says he doesn't like characters who are always the best at everything. Loxley can garden and play violin. He jokes that he wants to see booksellers create an Autistic Gothic Horror section in stores. He likes characters with a bit of Southern flair, and didn't like how Firefly treated Southerners.

I asked Alex about his research sources, and much of the material comes from his life experiences and those of his friends. This includes attitudes toward autistic people that he's seen growing up with his child. He says, "the cultural baggage we drag around we assume is the right way to be." This gets translated into things like Loxley's boss telling her how to live, saying "I know a spinster who will police you," and robbing the vulnerable of their agency. Even looking people in the eye is cultural and not universal.

I asked him also about his research sources for A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. He said the magic/tech blends were influenced by recent games, and that Cowboy Bebop had influenced some of the action sequence writing. He asked, "what is the worst goofy thing that can go wrong?" That's the first question he asks, he says, when writing an action sequence. He told us about his podcast, The Gearheart, and said that this novel was a spiritual successor to the podcast, occurring 800 years later. Alex spent a lot of time running D&D there and getting to know the world.

One thing Alex said was important was that all the planets could not be monocultural. The fact that so many fantasy races (such as those in D&D) end up being racist caricatures is a real problem. If you took a goblin with goblin characteristics and made him a human, "you'd have a scandal on your hands."

One thing Alex said he didn't really ask in this particular book is "How racist do you make everybody?" He told us that he chose to lean into "my voice is not really needed there as a white guy" for this particular setting. "If I imagine an entirely new setting, would I imagine black people on the bottom again? That would be crappy," he points out. "Let other people write about that; they will do a better job than I will."

Alex explained that he also completely normalized LGBTQ in the setting. He said, "I don't see how we could get that far in the future without dealing with it."

Your magic spell in the Big Ship universe has a role in determining your place in society, as wehn all the drivers have the mechanist's mark because others can't compete. Someone with the hotelier's mark can clean anything, and have it smell vaguely nostalgic to the person who uses it. This is really useful for medical or high-tech manufacturing. There are lots and lots of different types of magical marks. There is a lot of variation also along he gradient of power. Someone with the arsonist's mark might be able to throw a big fireball if they are very powerful, or even create a star... but on the low end, they might be able to keep warm, or light a cigarette.

He chose the word "marks" because the magic spells are glyphs traced with the fingers. The size of the glyph added to the power of the caster determines the strength of the effect.

Interestingly, the closer you are to someone genetically, the less likely you are to have the same mark. Everyone knows this. You don't know what spell someone can cast until they cast it. The sculptor's mark allows people to change their own shape. Some people use it to make themselves unnaturally beautiful and make lots of money. People of the shieldmaster's mark inevitably go into the military.

I asked Alex whether he was planning to write more books in this universe, and he said, "As many as they will let me sell." Right now there are three. He says it could be satisfying with five.

Alex makes music in his spare time, and likes making soundtracks for his books. The Gearheart podcast has its own soundtrack. Look online for the tracks that accompany Every Mountain Made Low and A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.

Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show! Everyone, go look for these books!


Monday, August 13, 2018

Laura Anne Gilman and Red Waters Rising

It was a real pleasure to have Laura Anne Gilman back on the show to talk about the third book in her Devil's West series. She has visited us twice, once to talk about Silver on the Road, and once to talk about The Cold Eye, so it seemed only fitting to find out how the trilogy ended up!

I just love this world that Laura Anne has created, because it's so deep and complex, and feels so true. It's an alternate American history in which the entirety of what would have been the Louisiana Purchase was never owned by either the French or the Spanish, but is being protected by a being known as "the devil."

The identity of the devil is not super clear. Physically, his appearance fluctuates from one set of features to another.

Laura Anne tells us that she has a set of short stories coming out which explore the question of who the devil is a bit more. The stories include "Crossroads," "Devil's Jack," and "Boots of Clay." There will also be a new short story and a new novella.

She says she doesn't like spelling things out.

In the books, it feels like the devil has always been there, protecting the Territory. He's recognizable by his eyes and his voice, which don't change.

I asked Laura Anne if she did a lot of research for this third book. She says, "There is always more." She wasn't able to do boots-on-the-ground research in Louisiana because of flooding, but she was able to use memories of a trip there many years ago.

Even one of her editors tried to tell her that the town she describes in the book was in the wrong place for New Orleans - but as she informed him, "It's not New Orleans, honey." It's Baton Rouge, directly translated as Red Stick. The city that corresponds with New Orleans is the Free City, which is not a part of the Territory. She knew that the city would exist, but it wouldn't necessarily be French. Spanish and Portuguese sailors who jumped ship would have lived there, as well as escaped slaves, traders, freebooters, and pirates. The location would be one not owned by anyone, but would hold the keys to the river. Laura Anne told us she was thinking of Thieves' World and Sanctuary when she designed it.

The law of the Territory is entirely based on the Agreement, which was made between the devil and the native peoples of the Territory. Across the river in America, people say that if you can get across the river, you can be free so long as you abide by the Agreement.

I asked Laura Anne about how she found the idea for the Agreement. She explained that she had to figure out a way that the devil could restrict settlement and protect the people of the Territory. It started out nebulous, but when she wrote the novel she had to codify it, because if you have to retrofit, it's a headache.

The Agreement needed to be simple, and vague, to be effective. The idea of it is that if you come into the Territory, you are a guest there.

Essentially, this is anti-manifest destiny fantasy. The whole point of the Agreement is to force people to behave themselves.

We talked about magic sources. Laura Anne says they are not animist, but that animic magical power exists in everything. It's easy to use it up, and easy not to hear it. Isobel is good at listening. The magic comes from various sources. The "bones" are the earth and stones. Water, wind, and silver (the "blood") also have power. Each of these sources of power has its own strengths, and different uses, and awarenesses. There are also talking animals who are spirits who speak for the Territory in different ways.

Western (canon) stories tend to get too discrete in their systems of magic. This world treats magic as a whole with many different aspects.

I asked Laura Anne what the devil is. She says she has a very good idea, but she isn't telling.

The character of Gabriel is very interesting, and has a special relationship with water. He is a dowser, which means he can sense water. This keeps him and Isobel alive a great many times. It also comes with drawbacks, since water is mercurial, more fluid and less caring.

Isobel is a "bone child," which means she is connected to stone and to earth. In this world, it is said that flesh comes from water and stone, but only stone cares.

Gabriel is running away from himself in many ways. He tried to run away from the Territory, but once you are part of the Territory, you can't leave.

Different people are tied to different aspects of the Territory, and each pays a price. Magicians are tied to wind, and have great power, but at the cost of their sanity.

Isobel is coming of age during all three of these books, and figuring out what she has become. Gabriel has been in denial and pushed down the question of his identity for 20 years. He is having a midlife crisis. He's in his late 30s or early 40s. (By my calculation he's at least 36.)

In Red Waters Rising, the question of water and of Gabriel's power and identity becomes urgent. Water is a constant throughout the books, but usually Gabriel has been dealing with creeks or small rivers. In this book, he's dealing with the Mississippi itself, one of the major sources of magical power.

Laura Anne says that people often try to imagine Gabriel and Isobel into a romantic relationship, but their relationship is not at all romantic. It's more complex than that. They start out as strangers and become road companions, then teacher and student, then peers. In the end, Isobel becomes his superior in some arenas. Their evolving relationship is the spine of the story, as is Isobel's evolving relationship with the Territory.

In these books, a problem is not necessarily a thing that can be defeated.

In Red Waters Rising, there is mention of the previous Devil's Left Hand, who died before Gabriel was born. They remember the story in Red Stick, but we never hear exactly what happened. Some readers apparently think, "Why should we bring this up if we're not going to follow it?" Laura Anne says this isn't a loose thread, but "fringe." Things in this world are not neat.

This book concludes the story begun in Silver on the Road, but there will be a novella, "Gabriel's Road" coming out to follow Red Waters Rising, in which Gabriel is finally dealing with his issues.

Laura Anne told us she's under contract for two more books. One she's working on now is an alternative 1774 American Rebellion, the story of a young woman who should have gone back to learn Old Country magic but is held back by the unrest, in Massachusetts. It's about how the village in Massachusetts deals with the unrest, with magic being used against them, though if they use their own magic to defend themselves, their neighbors would turn against them. She says she takes inspiration from the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe. Characters at different points in life are coping with secrets, abilities, and responsibilities. The book is a standalone.

Laura Anne says, "I tend not to write the same thing more than twice. I would probably lose my mind."

She is also working on a contemporary Americana Fantasy in which she has made up an entirely new magic system, "AGAIN." She says the science of creating a magic system is integral with creating the story.

I also asked Laura Anne what it was like working with the various different languages that appear in the Devil's West books. She calls it "the worst best mistake I ever made." She needed there to be a lot of languages that her characters didn't necessarily speak. She was fortunate in that she had native speakers to help, but she ran into people who would say, "This isn't accurate Spanish," and she would have to reply, "It's Portuguese." There are sections where Isobel has no idea what's going on. This is in part why she brought trade sign into it. Native groups often shared signs. Laura Anne says, "It was complicated, and given my druthers, I'd never do that again." However, it wouldn't ring true if there were only one or two languages. There are even Inca people who are still around.

Did she make her copyeditor cry? She says she has a whole folder of emails about Red Waters Rising, and that there was a lot of whimpering. "I was going to say I'd broken him in, but I may just have broken him."

How did her writing process change with a real map (as opposed to a fantasy map)? Laura Anne emphasizes that you shouldn't need a map to understand the story. When writing the Devil's West, though, she had a huge map on the wall with the whole trail followed by Isobel and Gabriel. Laura Anne says too often people feel the need to go back to the map in a thick fantasy. In Vineart War, she worked with a map of real places in Europe and Africa, but the idea was that it was so long ago they didn't have names.

She made sure that in the Devil's West books, they never eat stew. There's no chuckwagon, and no time to put a meal together. Soaking beans in a bag while riding is something real riders do. Laura Anne says she learned to build a rabbit trap, and read a lot of wilderness survival guides, prepper guides, and even used summer camp experience (cooking over an open fire, navigating without a compass) to help flesh out the experiences of the characters in the books.

Thank you so much, Laura Anne, for joining us and sharing your insights! Thank you also to everyone who attended. I highly recommend the Devil's West series.