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Friday, October 30, 2009

A big day!

Today was a very big day for me, and I have fantastic news:

I have an agent!!! Whee!

I spoke with Ashley and Carolyn Grayson of the Grayson Agency this morning for about two hours, and we shook on it. Ashley will be representing my novel, Through This Gate, which some of you may have been aware of because it was the novel whose revisions I slogged through for more than a year. It's about a girl going off to college who gets mixed up with a magic book, and the world inside which is literally created from the delusional writings of a Japanese madwoman.

I've been working toward this for a long time (though not always with this novel) and it's finally happened! I'm thrilled. The Graysons are terrific and I'm really looking forward to working with them.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Probably a whole lot of you have seen the film, "When Harry Met Sally." There are a lot of memorable moments in that film, and I find when I think back on it that I remember mostly the incidents that occur between the main characters. Harry and Sally - it's their movie, so it makes sense.

But one of the most marvelously insightful elements of that film was the series of tiny vignettes with married couples talking about how they met, and about how they live. I remember the Chinese couple's story where the man sneaked into the next village to see if his intended bride would be beautiful. I remember the way the movie wrapped up with Harry and Sally appearing in such a vignette, which tied the whole thing together in a neat bow. The other one that stands out for me though, is the East Coast couple who kept talking over each other. I remember thinking "Wow, that's crazy," and also, "If these are actors, it must be really hard for them to pull that off."

If you haven't seen the vignette in question, here's what it involves. The couple collectively tells a story. For each new element, the man begins the narrative. Then, maybe a little over halfway through his sentence, the wife starts in with her own infusion of narrative that contributes to the same "plot point." He finishes his sentence, but she keeps going and finishes again a few seconds later.

I have never met anyone who speaks that way, and at the time I watched the film my sense of East Coast accents was even more vague than it currently is. So if any of you can pinpoint precisely where their dialect - or their turn-taking style - comes from, please do let me know in the comments.

The point of this whole discussion is this: turn-taking is a big deal, and you should give it some attention.

We learn turn-taking before we learn to speak. Long before. A lot of research has been done on this; here's a sample link to a psychology article on the topic. Mothers will interpret their children's gurgles, burps, etc. as legitimate turns, and respond to them. I know I talk to my cats, and let them take their "turns at conversation."

My husband's turn-taking sense is slightly different than mine. You can imagine that this caused some frictions early in our relationship. I couldn't say if this is due to Australian vs. American culture, or whether it's just our families - after all, he was the last of five kids in his family, which made for much more active dynamics.

Here's one place where turn-taking becomes relevant for a writer. We want to make our characters' voices distinct, maybe even show dialect, but we don't always want to alter the spelling of words to indicate difference in pronunciation. Well, one place to make differences noticeable is in turn-taking. In fantasy or science fiction, you can have a community of people who recognize different kinds of moments as opportunities to break into a conversation. Or you can portray frictions between two different groups who take turns differently.

Its something worth thinking about.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Story Focus (with Aliens)

I have a pet peeve about stories with aliens. It's when I read about aliens that are described in loving and extensive detail as incredibly, immeasurably different from humans - and then they have a recognizably human culture. My brain rebels, and I feel I want to apologize to the author for being unable to stay in the story, after this person went to all the trouble to give these creatures the marvelous alien science, the ecology and physiological background. But if I can hardly comprehend the alien physiology, then I feel I should hardly be able to understand their sense of self and culture, either. If I can, there's a problem.

So is the solution to take our lovingly crafted aliens and give them a wildly different culture?

Not necessarily.

In any SF/F story, it's important to consider the information burden you're placing on your reader. It's not that readers can't handle complexity - in fact, SF/F readers are generally unusually receptive to complexity and difference - but if that complexity goes in all directions, then you have a problem. The story seems to be all over the place.

So ask yourself, "What is my story about?"

This isn't an idle question. It's an issue of focus. If your alien's culture is the central issue of the story, as it usually is with my stories, then there's no point in distracting from the cultural issues by making their physiology vastly different. The culture and the physiology have to match, but they needn't match precisely - as long as the two can fit together acceptably, that's all you need. So I personally try to use familiar knowledge sets on the physiological front, and build the culture outward from there with the quirks that I want to focus on.

On the other hand, if alien physiology is the central issue, then you don't really need that much complexity in culture - just make sure that the culture fits the ecology and the physiology and don't worry about delving into complexity. Of course, there are happy mediums on both sides.

I would say that my story, Cold Words, is an example of a story where culture is central and physiology is matched to it, but kept relatively simple. An example of a story that focuses on divergent alien physiology is the story "Doctor Alien" by Rajnar Vajra (Analog Jan/Feb 2009). In that story, there are four different types of aliens, each of which has vastly different physiology - but Vajra keeps his focus. How? By making the whole point be "we know nothing about these guys and their culture." The alien merchants are a mystery - tentacles are involved - and though their behavior is adapted to fit ours in a highly amusing way, they're capable of unpredictable and dangerous behavior and you'd better not cross them because we don't know how they think. Oh, and by the way, they're asking the doctor about the behavior of three other aliens, each one with a vastly divergent physiology. Here, Doctor, figure these guys out because we don't know how they think. It works brilliantly, because the divergences are the point. They are the puzzle that the doctor has to figure out. The story is focused.

Think about this as you're designing a story. Don't necessarily shrink away from making the world as complicated as you want to, but when you go setting a story there, keep the focus small. I have some very complex aliens that I'm working with now (otters!), and while their physiology is otterlike and thus predictable in some respects, they have more than one major cultural thread that can influence their behavior. I tried to put both together into a story and it got out of hand. So I changed the whole scenario, so that both of the threads are present, but only one is the source of the main story conflict. Only one is really at stake. I can save the other one for later.

Think through the focus of each story you write. If you can keep all of its complexities matching up in such a way that they serve the story's main conflict, then your readers will be able to tell, and be able to follow better.

World Fantasy Convention is coming!

I'm not sure if this precisely counts as an appearance, since I'm not going to be on any panels, but I'm headed for World Fantasy Convention this coming Halloween weekend. There will be lots of interesting panels and interesting people there. I'm hoping to hear two of my favorite authors read, Kij Johnson and Patricia McKillip. I'm really lucky that it's in San Jose this year - right around the corner!

If any of you are also going, let me know and we can try to cross paths there.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ursula K. LeGuin's birthday

I learned online today that it is the birthday of Ursula K. LeGuin - and I feel that this isn't something that should pass without comment, at least by me. I don't remember quite which day it was, or precisely how old I was, but I remember reading LeGuin and being terribly impressed with how real everything felt in it. When I mentioned this to my mother, she told me it could have something to do with the fact that Ursula K. LeGuin was the daughter of an anthropologist, Alfred L. Kroeber (her mother was a writer).

When I think about this now I wonder if it wasn't a moment that planted a seed in my head. Not that I detected it at the time.

I heartily recommend LeGuin's work to everyone, from her Earthsea books to The Left Hand of Darkness, The Telling, and Changing Planes... The list goes on and on. Her style is generally straightforward rather than florid, but the way she puts things will make you think. I did an analysis of her writing (a Ridiculously Close Look) earlier in this blog, which you can check out if you're interested, here.

In The Left Hand of Darkness she takes on the question of gender. This is central to our way of thinking, and she's put together a story that questions all of that by dealing with a people who have no gender - or who have both, depending on how you view it. One of the things I like about the story is that she uses multiple different means to convey her extensive thoughts on the subject of the people of Winter and their gender. She shows a human man's viewpoint on these people, and how he struggles with things like pronouns etc. But she doesn't stop there. She also takes us into the native perspective, allowing us to forget about the difficulty of pronouns and consider another view of human behavior. And she tells myths of these people, which speak volumes to a reader about what kinds of things are considered basic traits of human behavior in a vastly different model. There's too much richness here to consider it merely a feminist piece. If you never read it, you'll really be missing out.

When I first started writing, I thought to myself that I wanted to write like Ursula K. LeGuin. I discovered thereafter that my natural style wasn't much like hers - so I'm a bit more realistic about that at this point - but the fact remains that she was my first inspiration. The world is a richer place for her being in it.

Happy birthday, Ms. LeGuin, and thank you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hockey games and societal release of energy

I said I'd write a post about going to see the Sharks play hockey, so here I am. I'm not a typical sports fan, myself - I like to watch superb athleticism, teamwork, and coordination with as few breaks as possible, but I don't tend to get heavily riled up if the Sharks lose a game. In a way I suppose it's my tendency to distance myself that makes me good at seeing things from an anthropological perspective. I feel the disappointment, but I say, "It's a game; it's not that important." And it works.

On the other hand, there's something wonderful about being a part of an enormous crowd. When the Sharks score a goal the surge of noise is incredible, and I stand and shout and jump with everyone. That thrill isn't feigned. It's the same kind of transport I feel when I listen to a taiko drum concert. Being picked up and carried by the noise, and the rhythms. Feeling a part of something enormous. It releases a particular kind of energy that can't be released in any other way I know of. This is an energy that is visceral, and when it comes in enormous crowd form, it's most often channeled to keep it from getting ugly (but not always, as with English soccer hooligans).

The crowd-scale expression of visceral emotion performs a vital function in a society - so if the society you're creating lacks this, you might want to consider filling the gap with something. Gladiator spectacle. Sports. Drum or rock concerts. Massive dance gatherings. Something.

Here's a pet peeve of mine. In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace you had this incredibly oppressive society, and everyone got together to watch pod races in which participants could quite easily be killed. And everybody was smiling, silly and excited, and the movie spent tons of time showing us how amusing all the pod racers were. My brain said, "No way." I think Anakin's mom and I were some of the only ones who knew what the more realistic scenario would have been. Exhilaration and terror. A crowd on the verge of murder.

Societies will tend to control personal behavior to different degrees. And each society will control behavior to a different extent at different times of life. Very often you'll find that there are opportunities for extravagance and deviant behavior built into a particular life model. Japan puts a lot of stringent controls on children up until their graduation from high school, and again following their entry into the workforce - but they relax those to a maximal extent in the college years, for those who attend college. In my story, "Let the Word Take Me," I built a society that had extremely strong rules about speech behavior, requiring speech to occur only in certain ways under certain conditions - and to counter that, I built in a coming-of-age period in which new discoveries and new uses for speech were not only allowed, but required.

I'm not saying we should all have worlds that contain sports. But it is important to realize that human energy doesn't always stay in a highly organized form, and as we build societies, to include opportunities for that more chaotic side of human energy to show itself.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Weddings, speech acts and symbolism

My kids participated in a wedding over last weekend. It was great fun, we got dressed up, and they got the honor of walking down the aisle. They took it so seriously, and they did a lovely job.

Weddings are fascinating from an anthropological and linguistic point of view, too. They represent a complete change of state, but not one that can be physically measured. The change is entirely intangible, but changes everything about the way society treats the married couple. The way they are referred to by others, the way they speak to one another, the kinds of expectations that are held for them by family and friends, the kinds of rights granted to them by law, etc.

At the center of the ceremony is a sequence of speech acts. I may write more about them in another post, but for now if you're curious, you can go look them up, along with John Searle, a pragmaticist who worked with them quite a bit. Effectively, speech acts (also called illocutionary acts) are actions that are done by being said: requests, invitations, refusals. By saying it, you've done it. The speech acts of marrying include the vows: "I do," "I, XXX, take you, YYY...etc." and the pronouncement of the marriage by the celebrant. "I now pronounce you husband and wife."

The entire change of state, and all of the changes of behavior that follow, hinge upon this sequence of acts. As a result of this, there have been a good many story plots that depend for their suspense upon this sequence of speech acts, particularly upon the arrival of the good guy to save the girl before the critical sequence of speech acts is finished. A speech act of great import, like marrying, must also be associated with certain conditions of time, place, and person. The person making the pronouncement of marriage must be ordained with this power by the church and/or the state, or the whole act falls through (insert more story plots here). The bride and groom must meet certain requirements, such as not being currently married to anyone else, or not having anyone in the congregation object at the point in the ceremony where that is possible, or, depending on where you're getting married, being one male and one female (insert many more story plots here).

Of course, if you're working with a setting in the sf/f genre, then elements of this can be changed. If there is a wedding, ask who's involved and how they're qualified to be involved. What the requirements are for participation by a bride and groom, and by a celebrant. What kinds of speech acts might be involved, and whether they would be the same or different - and whether there would be more of them, or fewer. You can also reconsider the details of this change of state in terms of how society recognizes it, and what its impact is on the people involved. Is it a love marriage? Is it most important to the couple or to their families? Or to the society as a whole? What is considered natural and wholesome about it? Is there anything that might be considered unnatural or unwholesome yet not destroy the validity of the marriage speech acts themselves?

Weddings are also full of symbolism of all kinds. The order in which things are done suggests value placed on each participant. A little girl, if she becomes junior bridesmaid, would be first of the bridesmaids to come to the front of the church; but if she becomes the flower girl, she's the last of them, because her job is to strew the path of the bride with flower petals. The flower petals suggest freshness and beauty, and springtime, which is a time of fertility. There's color symbolism in the white dress of the bride. There are the rings, which have no beginning and no end and symbolize the connection between the two people being married.

In the wedding we attended, there were elements added from Filipino culture. The couple had "sponsors," or people they knew who were there to support the marriage. At a certain point in the ceremony, both bride and groom were covered with a veil, then encircled with a white cord symbolizing their connection, and once those had been removed, the celebrant poured a handful of coins into the groom's hands, and he poured them into the bride's (she thereafter handed them to one of the bridesmaids). The coins were to symbolize their good fortune in the future.

In our wedding, there was an Australian element - not in the ceremony, but at the reception where we had one fruitcake and one American style wedding cake. I've seen photos of Indian weddings, and the clothing and other parts of the ceremony are entirely different. Japanese weddings have lots of different parts, and each part has a particular appropriate costume. The Shinto tradition has the bride wearing a beautiful white kimono with a hood that goes over her immaculately styled hair. Japanese brides will often wear an American style wedding dress at a different point in the day as well.

There are the speeches, too. But the best man's humorous speech at the wedding reception in America or Australia isn't at all like the long series of formal speeches in a Japanese wedding, all of which are executed in front of a gold folding screen.

I'm not saying everyone should go out and write wedding stories. But memories of weddings can be relevant in some stories, and wedding symbolism can percolate outward through different cultural practices, and of course as I said above, the way married people are treated differs vastly from the way unmarried people are treated. I hope this post can give you some ideas not only for weddings themselves but for ways to diversify the symbolism in your stories.

I'll end this post by extending my heartiest congratulations to our lovely Sheryl and her new husband Robert. Many thanks for including us in your special day.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Another quirk of English...

You all may have noticed - from the resounding silence - that I'm having a very exhausting week. We had a wedding last weekend, and a Sharks game. I could comment on the blog about each of those, and I'm planning to, in fact, but collectively they meant starting the week already exhausted. Then complications ensued, including a top-to-bottom autumn cleaning in honor of houseguests!

I'm hoping to get back with the program as we head into next week, but today I found a little funny pattern in English that I thought I'd share, and see if we can collectively expand upon. In general, the rule we learn is that when you take an adjective and add "ly", you end up with an adverb.

slow (Adj) + ly = slowly (Adv)
interesting (Adj) + ly = interestingly (Adv)
quick (Adj) + ly = quickly (Adv)

However, I noticed one case today where adding "ly" to an adjective doesn't actually change the part of speech.

low (Adj) + ly = lowly (Adj)

And then there are these two words, both nouns, to which you can add "ly" and get an adjective.

dastard (N, I think) + ly = dastardly (Adj)
coward (N) + ly = cowardly (Adj)

Have any of you noticed any more of these? I admit I'm guessing that Mike Flynn will jump in and illuminate all (he often does). I'm going to be looking in my etymological dictionary over the next day or so and see what I can come up with.

I think this must be one of those notorious "exceptions" for which English is so famous, and which makes it a thorny language to learn.

New Anthology out from Panverse Publishing!

I'm happy to announce that Panverse One, the first anthology of novellas from Panverse Publishing, is now available! It's a beautiful volume, nice and hefty with five novellas for your reading enjoyment. For a glimpse of the anthology and samples from each story, go to the Panverse Publishing website, here.

Congratulations to Dario for this great achievement. I hope you all enjoy the fruits of his (and my friend Janice Hardy's) labors.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why do pirates always say "Arrr"?

Have you noticed the way that pirates talk? Not real pirates, of course, but the ones we see representing piracy in film and on TV - especially when they're in a 'lone pirate on a kids' show' situation. You see variation when you get lots of pirates together, like in Peter Pan or Pirates of the Carribean - but when you see just one pirate character, there's a very specific way that he (or she) will typically talk. It's the way Captain Feathersword talks on the Wiggles show, the way Captain Scallawag talks in Dragon Tales, or the way Teacher Susie imitates pirates in "Sid the Science Kid." Even Dola in the film Castle in the Sky does a bit of it. It's the source of that joke my kids like: "What's a pirate's favorite letter?" "Arrrr!"

I was listening to it the other day and I realized that the closest real world accent it resembles (to my ear) is Irish. Of course, it's not really Irish, just a weird version of it. But that got me thinking.

Was there ever a real Irish pirate who inadvertently bequeathed his accent to pirate stereotypes everywhere?

The assignment of specific dialects to particular types of characters is not restricted to pirates, either. I remember recently seeing the Italian chefs from Lady and the Tramp and thinking, "Wow, that was stereotypical!" But then I watched a few episodes of the children's cartoon, Curious George, and I realized that Italian chefs are still given broad Italian accents. I'll give the Wiggles credit here - one of the members of the dance troupe is Italian, and while he is a chef, he's actually, really Italian. He even speaks Italian on the show! Now, that's refreshing.

When I watched the newest Star Trek movie I was thrilled by the fact that they chose people with real accents. Scotty was British, and Chekov had an actual Russian accent. Wow! If you're going to retain those roles as they always have been, that's definitely the way to go. At least for the adult crowd.

Now, having said, "for the adult crowd," of course I can't leave it there. Does it take sophistication to understand that people are different, and speak differently? I don't think so. Children have a much better ear for language differences than we do, so I can't help wondering why it's okay to assign dialects to roles the way we do in children's shows.

When you're writing in science fiction and fantasy, and you want to use dialects, be careful. Don't fall into the pattern of accessing an available stereotype if you can help it. Especially if your characters aren't on an Earth-related world, think through what you want to do, and try to come up with something different. If you must use a dialect, try to find an actual speaker of that dialect to consult with you - or you may end up seriously offending someone.

Maybe we keep these things in kids shows because they don't know any better and can't be offended. But in an age of increased awareness of diversity, I'm surprised in some ways that we can't do better.

On the other hand.

I generally like to try to keep an anthropologist's view - that is to say, a more distant and uncommitted view - on most questions like this. So here's the other side of the coin: if we go all the way and try portray characters with real world cultures, what will happen to the legends, and the spirit of all the beloved characters who do have these more biased characteristics? Will they suddenly be maligned for the - largely loving - spirit in which they created? That would be a terrible shame.

A colorful character who has a foreign dialect needn't be an ugly stereotype. It's important to remember that. I can easily imagine for example placing a cook with a French accent - another very common stereotype - into a modern work. Successfully even, so long as that character was well-integrated and had more to him (or her!) than just an accent to laugh at.

When we write, we're placing ourselves into the grand history of storytelling. I admit I'd like to see the new focus on diversity reach a bit more thoroughly into our modern media products. But I still love the classics, and I think they should be enjoyed as products of their time - neither simply lauded as great works and the way things must be done, nor disparaged for "old-fashioned" ideas.

I wonder how our current views will be seen a hundred years from now - and whether pirates will still say, "arr!"

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How Children are Like Aliens

Everyone's heard the expressions: "Out of the mouths of babes," or "Children say the darndest things." That is - and isn't - what this post is about. Fundamentally, this post is about how children can shake us free of the view of life that we ordinarily take for granted - and thereby give us insight into the Other.

When you're grown up, you know so many things that it's easy forget how few things you knew when you started out. Kids have to be taught to wave hello. To greet others. To say please and thank you. To shake hands. When to speak up and when to be quiet. Yes, a lot of this is about manners and politeness. But some of it is also about basic understandings of how the world works, too. We have to learn where rain comes from, what money is, and what banks are, and what they're for. We also have to learn how to acquire possessions, how to arrange them in our space, and what "clean" means, and what "tidy" means (and whether the two are different!). We have to learn how to use the bathroom - where toilets are kept, how to clean ourselves when we're finished (both above and below). The list goes on and on - but when you consider that a baby has to learn how to focus its eyes, and how to hold an object, you realize that any one particular thing is tiny in the face of the enormous list of things to learn.

It shouldn't be at all surprising that children misunderstand. We should all stand in awe of how much they do understand, how easily and how quickly they learn.

Earlier this year, I was asked to compose a bio for the conventions (BayCon and Westercon) that I attended. Deciding to go for humor, I included the following lines about myself and my beloved babes:

"Juliette taught alien languages for three years, then moved on to completing her M.A. in Linguistics and Ph.D. in Education before encountering an entirely new species – children. After several years in the thick of linguistic struggle she has achieved successful communication which bodes well for their future on our planet."

It's not far off. And children, who often lack understanding about the things we've learned to take for granted, can give us valuable hints into how strangers to our societies - aliens or just travelers - might react to the things they experience.

My dad uses an expression that I've picked up: "That's one approach." I use it any time when I see my kids accomplishing a task in a way that I never considered. Hey, it might not be the way I'd do it, or even the way I'd suggest they do it, but it works. I use it a lot.

So keep your eyes and ears open when children are around, even if they're not your own. Watch for instances of misunderstanding, of unusually keen insight, of language error, of social faux pas, or of accomplishing a task by an unfamiliar means. Each one of these can provide a view into previously unseen alternatives, and prove a source of story ideas, or of details for an alternate world, or of behavioral details for an alien.

It's a treasure chest of ideas, waiting for you to discover it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Shifter hits US Bookshelves!

Today's the big day for my friend Janice Hardy. Her book, The Shifter, officially releases today! Thus I've included the photo above to help entice you. I'm going to be going to pick up my copy later today, and I encourage you to do the same.

If you find you want to talk to Janice about the book, you can find her on her book blog, or you can also talk to her about writing process at her writing blog. Since I know a lot of visitors here at TalkToYoUniverse are interested in writing issues, I particularly recommend her writing blog, The Other Side of the Story. She has lots of great advice about structure, revisions, plot, worldbuilding, etc. all delivered with a great sense of humor and excellent sensitivity to the interests and questions of her visitors.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Exciting Review of Cold Words

Today I discovered the following review in Locus magazine, from Gardner Dozois:

"Also good in the October Analog is "Cold Words," by new writer Juliette Wade, a story about a diplomatic mission to an alien planet that's in danger of foundering on the rocks of cultural misunderstandings. Wade does a really good job of creating alien aliens, with their own distinctly non-human psychology and cultural values, and showing how language, the words themselves, can both create barriers and help to tear them down."

I was thrilled to receive good words from such a highly respected reviewer. I have a big smile on my face right now.

A different value: information

I was thinking about the value of information this week. Such thoughts come to me whenever I hear about DVD piracy, or whenever I watch my friend reading academic journals and trying to find a place in which to join that ongoing discourse - articles of scientific thought like turns in a giant and glacially slow conversation. Information has great value in our society. It is sought for. It is defended.

It can mean even mean life or death, as in The Bourne Ultimatum where the critical top secret information about the spy project Bourne was involved in makes people into targets, and the tension finally drops when Pamela Landy is able to get it into a fax machine and send it to the press, where it becomes public.

In our society, information is power. But are there different ways for information to be valued, distributed, etc? Certainly there must be.

Consider the difference between the gossip and the spy.

The spy succeeds by knowing as much as possible, by keeping information secret, by being invisible, and by never telling anyone (except a select few). Even the spy's identity is masked. Spies feel powerful when they know that no one suspects who they are, or what they know, and when what they know gives them power over people, things, or events.

The gossip succeeds by knowing as much as possible, by spreading that information widely, by being highly visible, and by telling everyone they can reach. Gossips feel powerful when they feel they know everything that is going on, that everyone knows who they are but not what they know, and when they have power over people by being the primary source of news in town, or even when they can gain power over events by distributing that information as they wish.

In my Varin world, I have a special servant caste called the Imbati, and one of their functions is that of gleaning and distributing information. They are known as the keepers of secrets, and they use their ability to distribute information to gain power over others. They are not like spies, though, because they are highly visible. Because they work for the nobility, nobles who want to gain information from one another can engage in a high-stakes game of twenty questions, where one noble asks questions of another one's servant, and vice versa. For every question one servant answers, the other must also answer one - so the trick is to know which questions to ask.

The Imbati are contrasted with the undercaste, called the Akrabitti, who are notorious gossips. But for an oppressed group, information may be the only thing of value they possess. A well-connected gossip has the most power in this group, because that person can not only keep everyone up with their friends' news, but also potentially save lives by letting people know who is in trouble or where the police are conducting raids or which stores are giving out free samples that afternoon.

The Akrabitti are terrified of the Imbati, because the Imbati are the group whose behavior is hardest to predict. The Imbati are appalled by the Akrabitti, because they feel that the undercaste treat information with absolutely no respect at all. But unlike with pirated DVDs, the information they take has no commercial value, only quality of life value for the people who learn it.

I was lately asking myself what a society would be like if there were no such thing as private information. It was challenging. How would you go about getting credit for your accomplishments? How would it be possible to make sure, short of some money-redistribution scheme, to make sure people were paid for their work? But partial transparency is actually more difficult than complete transparency, because if you do have complete transparency, then you can trace exactly what it is that everyone is accomplishing. The tricky part is then creating a system where the power to observe isn't reserved for a few who hold all the resources, and that those who do hold the resources aren't too keen on keeping all of them for themselves.

Nancy Kress had an interesting take on this in her book, Probability Moon, where people relied on a collective sense of reality that was updated as quickly as possible by message-senders called "sunflashers." The cool part of this for me was the way that the society could pass information so quickly - by mirror chains - even though they didn't have heavy electronic resources like ours. I had a tougher time with how this collective reality affected people physiologically... but it was still a fascinating take on the distribution of information.

So if you're looking for a way to make your world distinct from ours, the value of information is a fruitful path to consider.

Friday, October 2, 2009

If you're one of my UK readers...

There's a great new book out, by my best friend Janice Hardy, called The Pain Merchants. Those in the US will have to wait until October 6th to find it under the title The Shifter. Just a few more days! Here's a micro-blurb...

Sister. Healer. Deadly Weapon.

Nya has a secret she must never share.
A gift she must never use. A world she
must never question...and a sister whose
life depends on her doing all three.

I've talked about this book before, but now you can see it for yourself! Janice takes healing, usually a benign and virtually costless activity, and turns it into the engine of an entire economy - and one with a very dark side. You've never seen healers look like this; I guarantee it.

Nya is a girl living on the street in a city under occupation. She can't get a job, because instead of having the ordinary healer's talent - to pull pain from the sick and injured into her own body and then push it into enchanted metal - she can only put it into other people. She's smart, funny, and a realist, but only ever one step away from complete disaster. Which of her principles will she have to sell to get out of it? Pick up a copy of The Shifter and find out!