Saturday, February 10, 2018

Ann Leckie and the Imperial Radch Trilogy

It was such a pleasure to have Ann Leckie come on the show! Her series is one of my favorites, and I was really looking forward to getting her behind-the-scenes insights.

The first thing I asked her was how to pronounce "Radch." Her answer was great - she pronounces it with an affricate, but believes that since the region is so large and has so many different language groups, any way you pronounce it is probably considered correct somewhere in the Radch. So, effectively, say it as you'd like.

I asked her about her process in designing this universe. She said it was a "long and piecemeal" process, where she'd find interesting ideas and ask herself, "How would that fit?" She believes there's no such thing as a monoculture, so every group she represented had to be three-dimensional. She estimates the design process for the Radch universe took ten years at least.

The character of Breq was one of the first pieces of this universe. She imagined a character with multiple bodies, and a character who was a starship. She spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to represent the required head-hopping in her narrative, and finally decided to do it in the simplest way possible.

I asked her about Breq and her emotions, because the text always depicts her as having emotions, but a lot of readers have responded by calling her a "soulless machine." Ann said that she always intended her to be deeply emotional, but a person who would never knowing show those emotions to others. She had to depict Breq's emotions a bit through other characters' reactions and hope that people would become accustomed to Breq's dry delivery. She worked very hard to get those emotions on the page without having Breq say anything about it. She is a character with rigid self-control and extreme competence. If she were to show her emotional states, it would be much easier to take advantage of her.

People who are not in positions of power can't let their feelings out because it might be dangerous to them. They end up super-controlled, but when they really need to say things they tend to get understated and sideways about it. Kat remarked that in Japanese, things get implied and said in interstices, so Breq's expression felt very real to her, as if she had "emotional continence," i.e. control over when she emits emotion and when she doesn't. In the US we tend to say we want free expression, but only the powerful and the privileged can actually achieve this.

Breq is under the control of others, but also in control of many people. One of Ann's goals was to show that you can be oppressed and also be an oppressor.

I asked Ann how she designs her character voices, and she laughed. She tries to keep the voices distinct, but says, "I see the character, and I try and hear them."

I asked when she decided to use the pronoun "she" for all the characters referred to in the Radchaai language. Ann explained that her first NaNoWriMo novel, which she called "really bad," assigned binary genders, and she was really unhappy with the result. She wanted do depict a situation where people really didn't care, but couldn't figure out how to deal with it. She tried doing a short story that used all masculine pronouns, but wasn't exactly happy with that either. Then she thought, "What about 'she'?" She imagined it would sound funny, but figured that the worst that could happen would be that she wouldn't like it, and she could put it in a folder. However, "The more that I tried it, the more that I liked it."

Ann mentioned how LeGuin had made the choice to use mostly masculine pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness, but had regretted it in some respects and later had experimented with feminine pronouns in a short story.

She said that she expected Ancillary Justice was unsellable, but, she says, "You send stuff out. Rejecting it is not your job." An agent said he "wasn't too sure about the pronoun thing," and Ann worried that she would be losing her chance at representation, but she'd decided before she started the process of agent-hunting that the pronoun question would be a deal-breaker. She sent him a five thousand word explanation for why the pronouns were important, and he said, "OK." Then the editor at first said the first chapter had issues, but later decided it was "fine." The moral, Ann says, is that it's okay to fight for something in your work!

I asked her when she made her decisions about portraying the skin color of the people in the Radch. She said this was an early conscious decision. Far future space opera always seemed exceedingly white, so she thought, "I may as well go completely the other way." She made a similar deliberate decision in depicting Station Administrator Celar. Station Administrator Celar is fat, and "the hottest thing going." Standards of beauty are interesting, because people talk like they are biologically ordained, but it's mostly culture.

I asked Ann how she chose tea as the main drink. She said it was partly because she loves tea, and partly because C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series had used tea. Book two then ended up with "lots and lots of tea," and a tea plantation. She did research to decide what kind of tea it was. She says having a good sensory feel of what you're writing helps it come across on the page. One of the side effects has been that people bring her tea. They always seem uncertain about whether she will like their gift tea, but as Ann says, "I've had the kind of tea I like." She wants to try the kind of tea other people like.

I asked her about whether she felt pressure to raise the stakes when she was writing sequels to Ancillary Justice. Ann explains that you don't have to up the stakes, just change them. After Ancillary Justice, the stakes weren't going to get higher. So she left the larger stakes the same, and found different interesting stakes at the lower level. "I kind of like that more personal level." She mentioned how in Patrick O'Brien naval adventures, there's lots of waiting for battles, and in those periods, lots of personal stuff plays out.

We spoke about the character Kalr 5, and how she got developed. Ann said that Kalr 5 needed business to perform, and reasons to go from one place to another, so Ann sent her after dishes, and suddenly her character became a connoisseur of teacups. The concept grew even further at the moment she actually gets a chance to bring out the real good dishes. Some people really like dishes! Kat said she loved the tea and dishes, in part because of the Japanese view on dishes, where there are seasonal dishes, and dishes are supposed to match or complement food colors.

I also asked Ann about the gloves. Ann said that part of it came in really early - people were wearing gloves - and she had to retcon a reason for it. Why do we all wear pants and not skirts? We used to.

When something has significance in one place, it generally should have significance everywhere.

The idea that hands were yucky or inappropriate and had to be covered by gloves made sense because of the way we will sometimes label things yucky and needing to be covered up, as when some cultures (like the US) demand that shoes be worn all the time because feet are dirty.

What you have to cover is very cultural. Hands are about the dirtiest thing on us!

We then talked about the translation problem, and Ann's depiction of the Radchaai language vs. the other languages in the books. Breq's difficulty with other languages is one of the most fascinating parts of the story for me (yay, language geekery!). The other languages are useful because having them allows you to get perspective on what the Radchaai language is doing with its pronouns. Also, when English speakers try to speak languages with gendered nouns, they will often forget the gender of nouns. Hungarian doesn't have gendered pronouns for people, so Hungarian speakers can forget to gender pronouns when using English. Mandarin also has a personal pronoun which does not vary in sound for male and female. Even though currently there are radicals used in the written form to indicate male, female, or neutral, that wasn't true historically.

Any time you have a grammatical distinction in one language that isn't used in another language, translating between them will be hard. Japanese recognizes birth order - it's marked in the lexicon, where there are different words for older brother and younger brother, older sister and younger sister. Kat told us a story about how she'd been using the words for older siblings as though they were unmarked (i.e. just meant sibling), and had her mother ask her whether all of her friends were younger siblings (they weren't).

Translating becomes an issue when a category must be specified in the second language that doesn't exist in the first language.

Translating these books, Ann says, is very tricky.

Ann, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your insights about these wonderful books. Thanks also to everyone who attended.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Flying Things That Are Not Birds

This was the hangout where we took on things that glide, fly, and swim-in-flying-ways, but which are not birds. Deborah started out by telling us about a story she'd written where frogs took over a bunch of ecological niches that had been taken by other species on Earth, including birds. There were song frogs, etc, and there was a lot of moisture in the environment.

Many insects fly. I mentioned how much I'd enjoyed the flying of the female ants in A Bug's Life. Termites also fly (and I hate when I see a swarm of them near my house!).

One of the major features of Austin, Texas, is the twilight flight of bats, which is apparently "auditorily fascinating and disconcerting."

Cliff mentioned dinosaur flyers like the pteranodons and pterodactyls. I mentioned quetzalcoatlus, which was quite enormous and weighed about 130 pounds.

Kat mentioned Mothra.

Mary Anne Mohanraj has written about humans who can fly. For humans to fly as birds do, we noted, they would need a very large keelbone (chest bone) and flight muscles connected to it. This would give you a hugely projecting chest and you'd have to sacrifice the normal functioning of your arms.

Cliff mentioned a species that was invented for the convention called CONTACT: Cultures of the Imagination. It was the primary intelligent species on the planet Epona.

Flying non-birds also include flying squirrels, gliding lizards.

We noted that penguins fly, but not in air. Most birds use foot power to get thrust underwater, but penguins use their wings more. In a very dense atmosphere, a flyer would be more bullet-shaped with smaller wings, much as penguins are on Earth.

We asked what kind of body shape would evolve in lesser gravity, or in microgravity.

I mentioned the book Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, which featured humans who had colonized a distant planet with lower gravity, and lived in the trees, where they climbed upwards and glided downward with special clothing (called shubas). These were not entirely like wing suits for indoor skydiving.

Fran Wilde has also written about humans who can fly.

Superheroes generally fly the way we do in dreams, in a sort of telekinetic flight mode. Superman apparently started out just as a very good jumper, but evolved over time into a flyer. Then there are the suit flyers like Iron Man and War Machine, etc.

Douglas Adams suggested one should throw oneself at the ground and miss.

We all agreed there should be more bat stories.

Historically, there have been many instances of animals having wings added to make them mythological. This includes bulls, horses, and people. Quetzalcoatl was a snake with wings. There are mythological creatures with wings in the movie Coco. There is also the story of Icarus. Kat told us how she had retold this myth in a social-justice aware way.

Wings tend to represent freedom.

I got caught imagining that we didn't give things insect wings, but of course had forgotten about FAIRIES (oops). Fairies generally have insect wings of various varieties (I see dragonfly or butterfly most often).

Swans' wings and eagles' wings tend to be used symbolically.

Peacocks are scary when they fly (some of us agreed).

Cherubim and Seraphim can be scary, since they are made of wings and fire.

The Balrog was depicted in the Lord of the Rings movie as having bat wings. Fluffy eagle or swan wings tend to be depicted as good, while leathery wings are depicted as bad.

Humans have sometimes flown on brooms or carpets in stories. We briefly tried to consider reasons why brooms would be the vehicle of choice for witches (is it just that they're associated with women? Is it that they are phallic?) Here's a fascinating article on the subject (NSFW).

Kat told us about a friend of hers who is a bat rescuer. She always felt fond of bats because the Japanese word komori sounded like "child-minding." She imagined a sort of protective bat who keeps mosquitoes away.

We talked briefly about drone flight. Our ability to film things from a flying drone is going to change drastically how we look at things. Eagles are sometimes used to take down drones so they don't interfere with firefighting.

Thanks to everyone who participated! This week we will meet on Tuesday, February 6th at 4pm Pacific.


Monday, January 22, 2018

Birds (Parts 1 and 2)

We had two weeks of discussion about birds, so I thought I'd summarize them both in the same report. Part 1 starts with a discussion of pet birds and how to care for them, and then expands from there; Part 2 focuses on the relationship between birds and dinosaurs and discusses birding and birds of the world.

Parrots need unfiltered sunshine, ideally outdoor if it's not cold. This is why you can get "avian lightbulbs for indoor birds. Birds also need calcium, from cuttle bones or from eggshell powder. Equatorial parrots get jet lag if they don't have 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness.

Parrots also need a flock. They're sad by themselves, unless their owners spend quality time with them. They can develop OCD and pluck their own feathers. Some more info on parrots.

Some parrots have taken up residence in cities like San Francisco.

Birds can be territorial. They communicate through calls, body language, and biting. People often misinterpret their biting. When they are content they grind their beaks (certain parts of the beak keep growing and need to be ground down). When they fluff or preen it means they feel safe.

Cliff noted that birds are dinosaur descendants, and Kimberly mentioned how scientists had turned off a beak gene in a chicken and it had developed a dinosaur-like snout with tiny teeth. Brian said you can weight chickens so they walk like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Corvids (crows and ravens) are what dinosaur evolved intelligence would be like. They can plan for the future.

Birds express themselves differently from mammals because they don't sue facial expressions. The porgs of Star Wars are mammalized puffins... basically puffins, because they couldn't be shooed off the island, with their faces altered so they would have facial expressions. If you wanted to have interesting aliens in a secondary world, you could give them avian communication strategies.

One needs to keep pet birds intellectually engaged. They can get bored easily. Their sexual behaviors can be a problem because they can cause aggression.

Kat asked about birds in space. It could be a problem for birds to grasp with their feet and sleep if gravity could not help them keep hold. They apparently also need gravity to swallow.

Parrots use their feet as hands and their beak like a thumb. They are good climbers because two of their toes point forward and two backward.

Emus shed feathers when they are stressed, as in a fight or flight scenario. Kat told us that hand-feeding emus is terrifying.

Good and bad luck are often associated with birds. There are many mythical birds across cultures, like the Roc and the Phoenix and the Firebird.

Birds can imitate human language, and the lyrebird can imitate almost any sound. I report on Birds: Part 2 below the video.

Part 2:
We started out this session by having Brian tell us about birding. You basically go out and look at birds. Many people get very serious about collecting and cataloguing sightings over the course of their lives, and can have seen thousands.

A new piece of DNA research has determined that falcons aren't classed with hawks and raptors any more, but are closer to parrots.

Humans love categorizing things, so we created the idea of species. Species is something of an artificial category, though. Usually people have said two different species can't produce viable offspring, but this isn't true. There's such a thing as a "ring species." A group of arctic gulls can reproduce with those to the west of them, but not with those to the east, in a ring all the way around the pole.

Darwin studied the speciation of finches in the Galapagos islands.

Dinosaurs are birds. When I was a kid, archaeopteryx was considered the single "bird dinosaur," but now a great many (if not most) of them are considered to have ben feathered.

In the old model of animal classes, there were amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. In the new model, reptiles break into snake/lizard, bird, and turtle/crocodile groups.

The more we learn, the more we have to re-classify and change things.

In the 1880s, there were "dinosaur wars" where dinosaur hunters in Utah tried to sabotage each other.

The idea of "cold-blooded" vs. "warm-blooded" has been broken down at this point. There are many ways in which organisms can regulate their body temperature. Feathers were an early adaptation to control body temperature. But since they also assisted with things like jumping out of trees, it became possible for them to adapt into flight feathers.

Roadrunners jump down onto their prey.

Most of the feathers on any given bird are not flight feathers, but are for heat insulation.

Even though many birds fly, they will avoid flying if they can, because it's so energy-intensive. If birds end up on an island with no predators, they will stop flying.

Other things also fly - and we decided to talk about them the following week. This group includes bats, insects, and three-foot dragonflies. In a high-oxygen environment, insects can grow to be very large.

I recommended the David Attenborough series of videos The Life of Birds (it's amazing).

Cliff recommended the book "After Man" by MacDougal and Dixon, and the related video series "The Future is Wild." One of its ideas was that penguins would fill niches that had earlier been filled by other types of animals.

Penguins carry their knees internally. They can take over huts and live in them. Penguin movement is a lot like flying, but their medium is not air. They can play in bow waves like dolphins.

Rheas, cassowaries, ostriches, and emus are among the large flightless birds of the world. Emus once won a land war with armed humans in Australia.

We asked, given that flight and large brains are both energy intensive, how it would be plausible to create an intelligent/sapient avian species. Kate said they would have to have a really abundant food source that they can't easily run out of. Intelligence is relatively common in omnivores...and some birds are omnivores. Often, we don't really know everything a bird eats. Even hummingbirds eat 25% insects. Birds' habit of scattering seeds is good for the propagation of trees, so they could easily be imagined as agrarian.

Even though we think of birds as oviparous, some of them have pouches and carry their babies while flying, and others carry their babies on their backs, particularly the aquatic birds who must protect their babies from becoming too wet when their feathers are still downy.

Ostriches have lots of babies, as many as 20 chicks at a time, but many of them die and some of them make it. Other birds do more to care for their babies. Quail will have community guarding and lookout birds to protect their nests on the ground.

Measuring the length of bills is hard because it's hard to tell where the bill ends and the skull begins. Bills were often measured from tip to nostrils, which made Kiwi birds the bird with the shortest bill, because their nostrils are at the tip of the bill. They have quite an advanced sense of smell.

Tomorrow, we'll be joined by author Ann Leckie who will be talking about her Imperial Radch novels with us at 4pm Pacific. I hope you can make it!


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Portraying Children

The first thing to know about children is that they are complex, and they vary widely. It's important never to standardize one's expectations about them. One of the things that can happen is that child characters will be oversimplified because they are "only children." Another thing that can happen is they are portrayed as tiny adults, which again, they are not. The behavior of children differs greatly between cultures, and within cultures, and even within single families.

One of the reasons I was interested to talk about this topic on the show was that the protagonist of my forthcoming novella, "The Persistence of Blood," has five children who range in age from 19 to 2. It was an interesting challenge to keep them all present and active in the story in age-appropriate ways. The youngest, Pelli, is in the two-word stage of language development. This is actually a tiny bit on the late side for standard language development expectations... but remember, expectations are restrictive. Some kids experience the same language stages at very early or very late times relative to the expectation, especially if they have siblings who might talk for them. Restricting myself to the two-word stage for Pelli was helpful because it kept me from accidentally making her language too complex. At the same time, I had to put some thought into how she would express ideas, because a two-word child's thoughts can be quite complex, and they are very creative about how they use their language resources to express those thoughts.

As with anything else, it's important to do your research. Observe children in realistic environments if you have the opportunity. You can also watch shows like the reality show Fetch with Ruff Ruffman, which can give you a picture of how smart and capable 6th-graders are.

Che mentioned the show Kids' Master Chef. Sometimes you get giggly kids who just really like to cook. Sometimes you get unusually quiet and mature child chefs.

Shows like these are non-representative samples, of course. But so are protagonists!

Che mentioned some characters she enjoyed from reading middle grade books, such as a character with social anxiety who gets another character to act as a go-between even though the go-between only speaks two words at a time. She also has seen characters who never stop talking and characters who run over others.

Cliff mentioned the question of appearance. Some kids look like their siblings and others do not. In fiction, we often see the idea of a changeling child taking on the question of fitting in with the family or not. He also pointed out that when it comes to portraying adopted children, genre fiction has a mixed record of success. I had recently read this article, where a family discovered via commercial genetic testing that one of its members had been accidentally switched at birth. The question of genetics versus environment in the development of a person always leads in interesting directions.

This is why, now, they put wristbands on babies and have special alarms that go off if you try to leave the floor.

When we look at babies in fiction, easy babies are overrepresented. Che said that sometimes the baby was treated more like a prop. Babies can be easy or difficult based on a ton of different factors about their health and behavior. My own daughter cried a lot when she was tiny because of a milk allergy; when we got her off milk products, she was much happier!

The baby in Dan Simmons' Hyperion was definitely better than a prop, but we did notice she was a very, very low-maintenance easy baby. Babies tend to make themselves the center of things. Lois McMaster Bujold had a case of a baby who was born and people were trying to kill it in a coup. There are all kinds of complications to having a baby in a story because they are so helpless and vulnerable and prone to crying when they need things. If you have a child that needs to be saved, it will change the story a lot if it's in utero, or if it's in some kind of uterine replicator, or if it's been born.

Morgan remarked that sometimes "sleeping through the night" means sleeping for a five-hour stretch, not for a full 8 or more hours.

We also spoke about nursing. Babies have to learn how to nurse effectively, even though they are born with a sucking reflex. And they nurse a lot - my son nursed for 45 minutes every two hours, 24 hours per day, for his first month of life.

We remarked that the parenting style we were discussing was one where the parent follows the child's need. Very often in fiction, you find regimented parenting styles... or parents who ignore their kids so the kids can go off on adventures! How do parents actually interact with their children? What does the story look like when that relationship is in place?

How do you portray how parents evaluate kids? Does the protagonist ever hear criticisms of their parents' parenting style? Has the child been traumatized? How is the child expected to recover from that? Do others judge their progress within their hearing?

Cliff talked about the movie Coco, where the child protagonist is about 10-12. It features how the child fits in with family expectations, and his role as an individual within a community. We get glimpses of the title character at age 3 and age 100. The boy protagonist was trying to figure out what his connection to the family was, and what it meant. Cliff said it led to a discussion with his children about who they might like to bring back from the dead - a light discussion of a heavy topic.

One challenge of portraying children is being aware of the child's environment. What do children pick up on about the things that happen around them? Where does their attention go? It may not go to the places adult attention might go. Some kids will pay very close attention to where they are while riding in the car. Others will not notice where they are at all. Some kids are hyper-aware of social things, like the social rank of everyone in a room. This may have to do with growing up in a complex environment where there were risks to not tracking everyone's mood and relative power position.

How we use language influences what we pay attention to.

In fiction, the stressors on characters are often extreme things like war or apocalypse. We find ourselves not just having to depict kids, but to depict them in situations of extreme stress. How do children find ways to "keep it together"? What mechanisms do they use to cope?

Kat mentioned that in the case of child refugees, or children in abusive homes, some become beautifully cooperative, while some freak out and become non-cooperative. Reading refugee memoirs can give you insight into this aspect of real children's experiences and help you portray them more accurately.

Disney movies contain a lot of traumas like parental death, threats and coercion by adults. Adults are often villains in the form of mean or racist teachers, neighbors, etc. Bullies are also often antagonists in stories with child protagonists.

Children get socialized very differently, and this has a huge influence on their behavior.

Children go through growth spurts both mentally and cognitively. They will get very hungry and sleepy (sometimes one after the other) and then have sudden developmental changes. This often gets neglected in fiction, but it's important to remember that children change a lot. In our family we used to say, "The only constant is change."

Thanks to everyone who attended. The first hangout of 2018 will occur at our new standard time, on Tuesday, January 9th at 4pm Pacific. We'll be expanding on the topic of Birds. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Social Norms of Contagion

I always knew this one was going to be interesting! Basically, this hangout looked at the ways that people think about contagious disease, and how that affects their behavior (or not). If your base concept of contagion is that diseases float around in the air, your approach to protecting yourself will be very different from what it would be if you believe that diseases are carried in water, or if you believe they are transmitted from person to person in bodily fluids.

Back in the time of the plague, there was no germ theory, and so it was impossible for the people to recognize where the dangers of plague actually came from. Only later did people realize it was transmitted by fleas that were carried by rats.

There is still a myth/urban legend in South Korea of "fan death" - it suggests that if you leave an electric circulating fan on all night you will die.

In Japan, people believe very strongly that you must keep your core warm. Kat described how her dad had a belly-only sweater. Apparently, a chilled gut is seen as lying at the heart of many ailments including digestive problems, though it has less to do with contagion.

We did remark, though, how common it is in Japan to see people wearing medical face masks. The idea is that if you have a cold, you wear a face mask to make sure you don't give your cold to anyone else. In the US, though, people tend to imagine that face masks are only for people with quite serious diseases, and a Westerner will be inclined to think that the face mask means someone is dangerously ill. Meanwhile, the Japanese person is left wondering why Westerners will just hack and cough without covering it, thereby putting others at risk of contagion.

There has been an interesting change in behavior in the last several years in the US. Back when some of our discussants were kids (including me), we were taught to cover our mouths with our hands if we had to cough or sneeze. Now, however, that advice has changed and people are told to cover their mouths with their elbows. You can tell if someone has been exposed to children if they have learned to sneeze in their elbow.

People of Japanese descent in the US have been known to be horrified at the way that people here continue to do things like shake hands during cold and flu season.

I learned, back when I was first teaching, that germs can live for quite a long time on paper. It meant that I was catching all kinds of colds just from grading my students' work. At that time, hand sanitizer was not a widely available product.

We discussed how current US culture tends to place heroic value on coming to work when you are sick, when in fact it is one way to make a lot more people sick at your work! Why can't we shift the culture so that if you are contagious, you don't go in? Some kinds of institutional decisions, like giving personal leave days rather than vacation vs. sick days, may contribute to pressures for people to come into work while sick.

We talked about the concept of the miasma, meaning a zone of air that could make you sick. If you were looking out for miasmas, then posies (flower bouquets for your nose) or plague doctor masks might seem like a good approach to protect yourself.

These days, anti-vaxxers have been creating a situation where the instance of dangerous contagious diseases is going way up, and in fact, there are different kinds of measures that must be taken to protect from each different disease. It's not just germ theory in general, but depends on the property of the particular disease. Thus, your behavior will depend on which diseases you've learned appropriate quarantine protocols for. The protocol for lice - avoiding sharing hats and brushes or combs, and avoiding head contact - is very different from the protocol for measles, which can remain  in the air for hours after a contagious person has walked through it. This is why the clinic will say "if you suspect measles, don't come in; wait outside."

We also spoke about bedbugs, which have become very chemically resistant after all the years people have tried to poison them. They are still vulnerable to heat, however, and so people have developed anti-bedbug ovens to heat their things. We heard about one person who wrapped their couch in heat-insulated blankets and saved it by baking it.

This brought us to cooking. Cooking is highly useful because it kills bacteria which can cause disease. Apparently, new protocols for food safety were put in place at WisCon after a famous incident where norovirus (an awful stomach flu) was passed catastrophically through the convention-goers. These protocols included keeping food at safe temperatures.

Khaalidah mentioned that bathing too much can hurt good bacteria that protect us. We talked a bit about the gut biome. Kat noted that eradicating the gut biome is very bad for us. The biome in the stomach is not the same as the one in the lower intestine.

At that point in the discussion we turned to the question of how to tackle the question of social norms of contagion in stories. You might encounter them in historical fiction, but they can also occur in science fiction and fantasy.

  • Are there artifacts that were invented to protect from disease that have persisted in your society? 
  • Are there aspects of social etiquette that have grown out of disease concerns? 
  • How do the layouts of buildings and cities reflect this? 
  • Where do you put wells so they will be safe from sewage contamination?
  • What do your people do when they sneeze? Is there a phrase to say? Is it ignored?
I mentioned that there's an incidence of contagious disease in my novel that inspires people to start wearing gloves, and that thirty years later, they are still wearing them as a fashion item. Ann Leckie also did something with gloves, where the people of the Radch consider un-gloved hands to be obscene.

Kat mentioned how in Japan it is believed that the ground outside is dirty, so there is a quarantine area (the genkan entry area) built into each home, and people store their shoes there. This belief was brought to the US by East Asian populations, and thus has led to changes in architecture. There are also strict rules about what you do with plates, knives, and chopsticks. Passing condiments is not an expected social behavior in Japan.

In the US, we can have mud rooms which bear some similarity to the entryways of Japan. Inside, though, the US typically has people walk barefoot, or wear socks, maybe socks with grippy bottoms, whereas in Japan you wear slippers (and a special pair of slippers for the bathroom).

Work/repair people used to walk straight in wearing their boots, but now they typically use boot covers when they come into a home.

Khaalidah mentioned that in a Muslim home, you might pray in any room, so no dirty shoes are allowed in the house.

We spoke briefly about the fact that many religions have strict cultural practices surrounding the preparation of food, and that these may have arisen from particular health threats during the time period when they were first established, and persisted thereafter as a form of religious identity - as Cliff put it, how to distinguish "us" from "not us." This question of belonging can then have serious consequences, up to and including death.

Fear of disease is often used as a tool of oppression against people considered Other. It's easy to say "those outsiders are disease-ridden so you should stay away from them." This has been used against nomadic groups in our world. Outsiders can sometimes be blamed for contagion because they don't follow the local norms of quarantine or washing, etc. 

Hygiene is often built into religious practices such as salt purification or washing before coming into a sacred space.

Hand-washing before meals is a widespread measure against the spread of disease.

Nail polish hides what is under your nails and some religions forbid it. Khaalidah told us it also prohibits ablution, which is why it is not accepted in Muslim practice.''

Khaalidah told us about Muslim hygienic practices. There are ablutions with the five daily prayers. There is also a ritual bath to be taken after sex. There are blessings to be had in washing your mouth, especially when fasting. There are ablutions to be done before touching the Quran. One washes private areas as well as hands after using the toilet.

Moors brought the idea of a septic system and hygienic habits to Europe.

The religious origins of a hygiene practice can be lost over time while the practice persists. Kat noted that taking off shoes made particular sense when inside floors were made of tatami, which is heavily degraded by grit... but it persists even with non-tatami floors.

Beauty standards are also influenced by health issues, as when syphilitic beauty marks were admired, or when consumption-like waifish weakness became a value. This is also a class issue.

Thank you to everyone who participated! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, December 20th (tomorrow) at 10am Pacific to talk about Birds. I hope you'll join us!


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Awards Eligible Fiction from 2017

I have one piece of awards-eligible fiction this year: "Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth," a novella which appeared in Clarkesworld Issue 127. It's on the Nebula Awards Recommended Reading List (thank you!) and is eligible for the Hugo and the Nebula. Click on the picture below if you'd like to read it.

Gardner Dozois reviewed it very positively, here.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Birthdays and Coming of Age

Of course, we started this hangout with the birthday song. Actually, we didn't sing it, but we talked about how widespread it is and how many variations it has internationally (and locally). Tip: don't direct-import the birthday song into a secondary world!

Kat told us that she saw an Australian book of birthday cakes which featured a lot of possible birthday cakes she described as "attainable," unlike many of the art cakes we see these days. It's very easy to make the mistake of expecting a pattern of sameness to hold across English-speaking cultures. One of the things that was considered obligatory in this book about Australian birthdays was "fairy bread," or bread with butter and rainbow sprinkles on it. Another was the game "pass the parcel," where you wrap something up in a lot of layers of wrapping paper and pass it around to music, and people unwrap one layer at a time when the music stops.

Different social groups may have different songs they use for birthdays, like the "Birthday Dirge" in fannish circles.

The ceremony of blowing out candles is very common, but it must come at the end of the song, not the beginning or the middle.

The idea of celebrating a birthday is relatively recent. In Catholic countries, traditionally one would celebrate a Saint's Day, or the day dedicated to the saint with whom one shared a name. One might also celebrate the day one had been baptized. Kat said that when she was in Tahiti, the French-speakers there would wish her happy saint's day on Saint Katherine's Day.

Kat also brought up the topic of Japanese birthday-counting. Before Westernization, all Japanese birthdays were celebrated on January 1. You were also counted as 1 year old when you emerged from the womb, so it would be possible for a baby to be born on December 31st and be counted as two years old at the age of 2 days. She speculated that in a society where age is important and relative age is important for social interaction, that might help to create age cohorts. Kat also noted that the Chinese Zodiac year changes on January 1 in Japan, so everyone born in the same calendar year would be the same sign. Japan had a base-10 calendar for a long time, so tens and twenties are important.

When you live in a regularized and secularized system, it's easy to forget that holidays and rest days were also celebratory.

We asked where we had seen birthdays in secondary worlds. The example that came most immediately to mind was Bilbo Baggins' birthday party at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring. Hobbits also had the tradition of giving gifts, rather than receiving them, on a birthday.

Cliff had the idea that one could have a particular birthday celebration for coming of age, at which the present given by the oldest female relative would be a dagger.

In the case of outer space science fiction, calculating age and birthdays can be complicated. Which planet forms the basis for the time system? Does each have its own system? What time system is used in interstellar space? Vernor Vinge's solution was to have everyone count their age in seconds. Shauna suggested that the human body clock might be used as a basis for a time system. Kat noted that a shipborn character might measure time by "orbits" or by repair cycles on the ship clock.

Some cultures have traditionally not celebrated birthdays until the child reaches a certain age when it is more likely to survive to adulthood.

Facebook birthday announcements are inadvertently teaching us about the planetary day because of the way people get birthday wishes a day early from places in Asia. Larry Niven's Ringworld featured a person who spent his 200th birthday teleporting around the world to enjoy the entirety of it.

I spoke a little bit about birthdays in my own secondary world of Varin. In the Varin nobility, survival is not at all guaranteed, so the traditional birthday greeting is, "Congratulations." The seventeenth birthday is an important one because it marks a child's introduction into political life for boys, or into marriage elegibility for girls. The other important birthday is an early one, usually between 2 and 6 years of age, when for the first time the child is certified by a doctor as being healthy enough to join in social life. It's called a "confirmation," and one of those parties appears in my forthcoming novella, "The Persistence of Blood."

Ask: how do these people choose the age of majority? What do they base it on? Is it at all affected by developmental differences between the sexes?

Different societies have different ideas of what it means to become an adult. They also have different concepts of how precious children are, and different ideas of what kinds of developmental and social milestones are important.

Jewish adulthood happens at age 13 (with the exception of Orthodox Jews who have a boy's adulthood at 13 and a girl's at 12). Puberty is often what people identify as what makes you a grownup, but not always. Cliff noted that the concept of adolescence is relatively recent. Puberty rites exist around the world. In the Jewish case, the age of adulthood is important for ceremonial purposes, like joining in a minyan, a group of 10 or more adults. You can participate as a member of a minyan if you are over 13. You also have ritual responsibilities, which is why in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah you lead the whole service.

Puberty and adulthood are not necessarily strongly linked everywhere. You may need training to be an adult, or you may need to have achieved something particular.

In the US, you can vote at age 18, which is the age of consent (though not in all states), but you can't drink until 21 and you can't rent a car until age 25. Being able to drive a car is a huge rite of passage in the West.

What kids are allowed to do independently has been scaled back in some regions. In some places, very young children are expected to be able to get across town on public transit by themselves, or to stay home alone. In other places, parents would be blamed for allowing them to attempt it.

The movie Kiki's Delivery Service has a young witch moving out to live on her own for a year at age 13, which always astonished me.

There is so much more we could have chatted about! We'll have to take up the question of Coming of Age again sometime. Thank you to everyone who participated. Today, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet at 10am Pacific (in 25 minutes) to talk about Portraying Children. I hope you'll join us!