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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

TTYU Retro: "Foot assignments" - how idioms and metaphors bring your world to life

I've written about idioms before. I've explained them to my kids plenty of times. "That's an expression," I'll say. "It means this..."

English is full of little expressions that aren't literal, and a lot of these make reference to metaphors. I have a list of English examples in the post linked above and I'm not going to do a lot here, but take for example "I'm off to the rat race." That expression is all about metaphor. A person is a rat. Life, or at least work, is a race for rats. The metaphor then comes along with a whole set of implications about how the person feels about heading off to "the rat race," that it's pointless, exhausting, demeaning, etc. Depending on the character of the person who uses them, and how that person feels about work, for example, the implications of the expression may be interpreted somewhat differently.

This is an enormous opportunity for worldbuilders.

Some idioms might be cute, and some might be serious, but any way you approach them, they are incredibly illuminating of a culture and characters who belong to it. I personally feel that idioms are so closely linked to the culture of which they are a part that, if they are used outside their original cultural context, they stick out of a story when I'm reading it. If you're creating a world, you should be giving serious attention to idiomatic expressions.

One type of idiomatic expression is the aphorism - a phrase intended to give people behavioral guidance. "The early bird gets the worm" is used constantly in English, but this set of words, in this order, is so recognizable as belonging to our culture that I would hope I'd never run across it in a story world not directly linked to our own. If there are no birds, or there are no worms, you're in serious trouble. And even if there are, and your people place value on rising early or acting early, don't use it just as is. Change it. What are the primary motivators for your people to be getting up early, or acting fast? Create something that makes reference to that. Off the top of my head I'll give you this: "First arrow names the kill." This would be a society in which people hunt with arrows and whoever has their arrow hit first gets to receive some kind of honor. I'd work out the details with naming as I went. Story cultures can also have their own special values that will be honored with aphorisms. In Varin, the servant caste is guided by the expression, "Imbati, love where you serve." This is a big deal for members of the caste who have to struggle with their own identity and with cruel masters, etc.

Another type of special phrase arises around extremely common activities. In this context I think instantly of the phrases "log on" and "log off"... I mean, seriously. "Log"? I'm thinking this use of "log" goes back to the idea of a captain's log, but what you've got now is something where the expression is used so often that we don't really think about what the individual words mean, only what the phrase as a whole refers to. Because of the underlying connection to idiosyncratic activities of our own world history, this kind of phrase can't always be imported wholesale into a story world (hey, there's another expression!). Whenever you have a really common activity in your world (and it may not be common or have an associated idiom in ours), see if there's a special way people would refer to it, and how that might be connected to cultural details or cultural metaphors. I have used two different phrases involving the word "foot" in this context. In "Cold Words" (Analog Oct 2009) I had Rulii use the phrase "take foot" instead of "arrive." In my Varin world the servants don't "run errands" but "take foot assignments." This kind of tiny alteration can really help your world feel like it doesn't have to owe anything to ours, and can also create a wonderfully unique atmosphere.

I found myself listening in the other day on a forum conversation about a world that was using Chinese culture as its basis, and the writer was very concerned about whether to use Chinese idioms. Here's another very fascinating question. My own bias would be to say this: if your culture isn't actually a version of a culture, don't use actual idioms from that culture. Those idioms are going to broadcast the fact that this culture is at very least a fantasy or science fictional analog of Chinese culture (to use this example). Then if other aspects of the culture are non-Chinese, or if the language they use is not Chinese-derivative, the idioms will stick out by a mile. You can always alter or "translate" idioms. If you want to retain a Chinese flavor, one thing you can always do is have idioms play the same cultural role in your story world as they do in China. This is a link on the meta-level that won't actually require you to link your story world directly to China, but will give it some flavor that people will link with China. After all, one of the parameters of idioms is how often they are used and what they are used for.

I'll let you all think about this while I go off and take some foot assignments.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Culture Share: Paraguay - The Mennonites of Paraguay

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: M.G. Edwards discusses the Mennonites who live in the Chaco region of Paraguay.

The Mennonites of Paraguay
by M.G. Edwards

Paraguay’s remote western region, the Chaco, boasts a diverse mix of Mennonite, Spanish, Brazilian, and indigenous Guarani influences. The approximately 60,000 to 80,000 Mennonites in Paraguay who live in large communities, or “colonies,” dominate the local culture. Its distinctly German flavor was introduced to the country by Russian Mennonites of Germanic descent who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s to avoid persecution under Stalinism. Other Mennonite communities migrated to Paraguay between 1929 and 1932 from Canada, Germany, and the United States. The Fernheim, Menno, and Neuland colonies settled near present-day Filadelfia in 1930, and have since grown to more than 10,000 members. Most are farmers with large ranches (estancias) that produce a variety of agricultural products, including beef, dairy products, and other foodstuffs.

The Mennonites’ arrival in the Chaco coincided with the rise in tensions between Paraguay and its neighbor, Bolivia. Eager to solidify the country’s hold on the sparsely populated region, the Paraguayan government granted in the 1930s large parcels of Chaco land to the Mennonites on the condition that they establish a permanent presence there. The Bolivians, who coveted the Chaco for oil-producing potential that never materialized, invaded it in 1932 and fought the three-year Chaco War with Paraguay. More than 80,000 Bolivians and 50,000 Paraguayans died in the conflict that ended with Bolivia’s defeat. Although the pacifist Mennonites did not fight, the food they cultivated kept the Paraguayan troops fed.

The Mennonites struggled to survive in the 1930s and 1940s. An inhospitable, semiarid environment with little rainfall and poor soil made life difficult for the early settlers as they domesticated the land. Travel overland to Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, before the construction of the Trans-Chaco Highway in the late 1950s, was an odyssey that left the remote colonies isolated from the outside world. Indigenous groups such as the Guarani resisted encroachment by their new neighbors and fought occasional skirmishes with the settlers. The Mennonites and the indigenous learned to co-exist peacefully, and many indigenous now work for the colonies. After years of toil, the Mennonites transformed the area into one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions.

The Mennonite's cooperatives (cooperativas) are among Paraguay's largest enterprises. Closely affiliated with the local Mennonite Church, they manage the colonies’ commercial interests. Their operations and logistics networks are brilliantly efficient. They provide farmers with enriched animal feed, transport raw milk from farms to dairy plants, transform milk into dairy products, process foodstuffs, and ship finished goods to market on gravel roads that they maintain. The cooperatives also operate service businesses, including hotels, restaurants, gas stations, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and shopping centers that cater to the Mennonite communities. Fernheim Colony’s cooperative, the country’s best known, also runs an experimental farm that incubates and crossbreeds cash crops capable of the surviving in the Chaco. The power and influence of the cooperatives is astounding, although one would not know it at first glance. The low-profile associations are opaque operations whose sole purpose is to serve the Mennonites.

The Mennonite culture emphasizes hard work, a simple life, and strict adherence to its religious beliefs. Unlike their Amish cousins, Mennonites embrace the use of technology when it improves their productivity, and they dress in plain, functional clothing. Most men wear short-sleeve cotton shirts and khaki pants or jeans; women usually wear dresses to church and pants on the farm. Most marry within the community, while those who marry non-Mennonites tend to leave the colony. As a result, offspring tend to look Germanic than Hispanic, indigenous, or mixed. It is common to see someone with blond hair and blue eyes walking around Filadelfia. Mennonites also prefer to speak Plattdeutsch, an old variant of Low German, to Spanish or Guarani, Paraguay’s official languages. It’s easy for those who visit the Chaco to see the cultural divide between the Mennonites and non-Mennonites. While many indigenous and Brasiguayos, or Brazilian migrants living in Paraguay, work with the Mennonites on the estancias, they tend to live separately. Mennonites and other groups seem to frequent restaurants, stores, and services that caters to one or the other. Mennonite activities tend to focus on the church, while non-Mennonites enjoy pastimes such as soccer (fútbol) and public gatherings such as barbeques (asados). This tendency is reinforced more by tradition and preference than overt discrimination.

A visit to the Chaco is worth the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Mennonite culture set against a backdrop of the “Wild West” of South America.


M.G. Edwards is a writer of books and stories in the mystery, thriller and science fiction-fantasy genres. He also writes travel adventures. He is author of Kilimanjaro: One Man’s Quest to Go Over the Hill, a non-fiction account of his attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and a collection of short stories called Real Dreams: Thirty Years of Short Stories. His books are available as an e-book and in print on and other booksellers. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife Jing and son Alex.

For more books or stories by M.G. Edwards, visit his web site at or his blog, World Adventurers. Contact him at, on Facebook, on Google+, or @m_g_edwards on Twitter.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Link: Jaydium by Deborah J. Ross

I thought I'd just share this link with you. You may be familiar with Deborah J. Ross from her awesome novels in the Darkover world of Marion Zimmer Bradley, but you may not be aware of her science fiction... and she's now offering some for free over on her blog! Go check out her novel Jaydium, which begins here.

Deborah has been a real inspiration and mentor for me, and she's fantastic. I hope you enjoy Jaydium!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

TTYU Retro: Using details for setting - insider details and audience details

The other day I ran across the following question from Strange Horizons editor Jed Hartman on Facebook:

"Are Russian authors as enamored of matryoshkas as English-language authors who write fiction set in Russia seem to be?"

My ears immediately perked up. I'm sure you have probably already grasped the issue: an author unfamiliar with a culture is trying to set a story in that culture, and is looking for details that will help back up the setting. What can he/she place in the room? Where can he/she have a character go, which will richly suggest setting and context?

The matryoshka example demonstrates one of the traps inherent in this process. It is easy for outsiders to a culture to draw conclusions about what objects would be in a room based on their own limited experience of the culture, often from movies or stories, or just common knowledge in their own culture about what the foreign culture is like.

I have personally been on the other end of this. When I was studying in Japan, I got asked all kinds of questions about what I was like... which turned out to be questions about what all Americans were like. All Americans? Seriously - are all Americans "like" anything? I would say in a country this large and diverse, there are a very few things we can really point to and say "all Americans are like this." But I was asked more than once, "How many guns do you own?" And on numerous other occasions I was asked questions that began, "Since you're a Christian..." Please notice the very very large assumptions inherent in any questions of this nature. I would, quite awkwardly, find myself in the position of having to speak for every American when I am absolutely certain that is a position for which I am unqualified.

Obviously this is an issue that doesn't apply solely to setting - it applies to many other categories as well. However, since I'm thinking about setting here, let's take this a little further.

What kind of details do you need? Well, for real world settings and cultures, you need to have done your research. I'm an anthropologist and very much into the idea of field work and representation of the insider, so I would recommend going and finding a member or three of the culture you'd like to work with, and finding out what really goes into a room. This is one of the reasons that I set up the Writer's International Culture Share - because it's a lot of work going out and finding people, and I love having so much specific, detailed information from unusual cultures available in one place.

Be aware that if you feel certain you know what must be there, but have never actually walked into that setting, you are probably wrong. There is an enormous difference between cultural insiders and cultural outsiders: they will notice different things. Different languages let us categorize things differently, and different cultures lead us to think different things are normal. That's why I often will go back to literature, such as Japanese literature in translation from the time period I'm working with, in order to determine what insiders would be paying attention to.

Okay, so you're writing a scene and you are trying to set it in ancient Heian Japan, and you want to depict the setting. You'll probably want to indicate the season (spring, fall, summer, winter, rainy season), whether or not your character is indoors (he/she might be noticing temperature, after all), because seasons are very important to the Japanese (then, and even now). If you're looking for particular objects or vistas associated with the season, then go back to Japanese poetry in translation, and you'll discover things like the association of the moon with the autumn, for example. If there is a woman involved there will likely be privacy screens in the room. If it's winter, there will be a brazier to help keep people warm. Depending on who the people are and what they're up to, you may find writing materials in the room, short tables, brushes and ink blocks, inkstones, etc.

I always like to start with a set of core insider objects. But that isn't always enough. You can start with the things your character will notice, but it's also a good idea to keep in mind someone else: your audience. Chances are you're not also writing your story for Heian Japanese insiders, and therefore there may be details - important ones - that an insider wouldn't notice but that your reader will fill in incorrectly without guidance. This might include something like the fact that the floors are either polished wood or tatami mats, and that people don't wear shoes indoors. In a case like this, pick out a few details that you feel are important to note, and then hide them. Take them and set them in the background by making them part of a description of a character's action, or incidental to something else that is important to the character. That way they won't take on too much importance in the character's mind, but they'll be sitting there available to the reader so that later when you mention the character falling on the rush mats, they won't go, "Huh?"

This distinction between insider details and audience details also applies to fictional worlds of the fantasy and science fictional variety. The people of Varin will always notice a person's caste, and will notice distinctions within their own caste but typically not that of others. On the other hand, they live underground but don't tend to take much notice of that; I have to sneak it in here and there. They also have very little wood, and large pieces of wood are extremely expensive - that one I can either show someone noticing, as when a servant notices that the family he's interviewing with has a gaming table and chairs made of real wood, or sneak in, as when I put in a word here or there to remind readers that tables and chairs are typically made of brass or steel, and doors of steel or bronze (thus combating specific real-world expectations).

It's something to think about.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The "Squeee!" Post

My deepest thanks to my editor, Dr. Stanley Schmidt, for making this possible, and to Michael Whelan for understanding my story so, so well! I know there are some fabulous stories in this issue, not just from the amazing Michael F. Flynn and Carl Frederick, but also from my friend Jay Werkheiser (his story is called "Ambidextrose" - love it!). And thanks to all of you blog readers for being such faithful supporters!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

TTYU Retro: How do you find time to write?

I get asked this question a lot. I think it's a really important one for all sorts of writers, because unless you're a self-supporting full-time writer, you've always got something else going on. Maybe it's your day job. Maybe it's running a household and/or raising children, doing volunteer work, etc. (as it is for me). Maybe you're in school and at the whim of the school year, meeting everyone else's demands while trying to maintain your own goals.

Believe me, it can be hard.

In the end, the way you write is up to you (because who else understands your needs better?) - but I thought I'd share some things I have learned in the process of trying to balance full-time motherhood with writing.
  1. Write when you can. Don't figure that it's a waste of time to start if you only have fifteen minutes, because if the Muse is on your side, those fifteen minutes could be gold. Over time, you can train yourself to improve your readiness for short stints like this.
  2. Stick up for your writing time. One of the most important things in getting writing done is making sure that you - and as many people as possible around you - consider your writing a priority. If you don't insist that it be included in planning, it generally won't, and then the "gas law of activities" will most likely force you to covert writing stints or extremely late nights and exhaustion.
  3. Write when you can't. Thinking counts too! If it's impossible for you to access a computer or even a notepad for several hours, play around with the story in your head. You can work on plot, character, planning, and even words this way. Store it up and get ready to let the fingers fly the next time you get time alone. This is also a great way to make sure you're getting exercise, because using your body gives your brain a great opportunity to play.
  4. Watch out for distractions. Everyone is different, but I can't write (at least, I can't write new material) when the television is on, or when I'm listening to certain kinds of music. The fact is that the TV is a devourer of time, and you can lose two hours before you even realize it. Most often when people ask me how I can get so much done, I simply say, "I don't watch TV." This isn't strictly true - but I never ever turn on the TV for myself. I watch it with my kids, or when my husband is already watching. Yes, so I miss out on stuff, but I can always pick it up on DVD later and plan a time to watch. Activities that allow you to think are good; ones that fill your mind with fluff are bad. And you might be able to edit during a busy time even if you can't create.
  5. Seek out inspiration. This is somewhat the reverse of #4 above. Take your writer's eye with you everywhere. Read books in your field, or watch television and movies that stimulate your writer's vision - none of that is wasted time.
  6. Consider having goals. If you're in a really tough period - like that sleepless one I had for about a year after each of my kids was born - goals can be more demoralizing than helpful, so be careful with this one (see #7 below). However, I've found that having a loosely held goal rate keeps me from forgetting about the task at hand. A chapter a week. Or just a scene. A sentence. Or just "I'll think about it sometime today," if you're in a storm and need to keep the hatches battened down. I find I feel happier and get more done when my writing is a constant presence in my life.
  7. Be patient with yourself. Keep in mind that every bit of your effort counts for something. Even just a few words that all seem wrong are helping you better understand what you'd prefer to do next time. Even a few stray thoughts that you can't properly remember are likely to contribute to your subconscious vision for a story. Frustration is normal, but don't chastise yourself for getting nothing done, or for getting less done than you'd hoped - that will most likely lead to you stopping altogether and waiting for a "time when I'm not busy." There is never a time when I'm not busy. So if I have to set my ideal schedule back by a week or two, I try to do so while saying to myself, "Well, there's always next week." Furthermore, there's no point in whipping yourself if you sit down at the computer and no words come out. Try to send your thoughts in another direction, or better yet, walk away from the scene and go for a walk where you can breathe fresh air and look at trees while you think.
  8. Believe in yourself and in what you're trying to achieve. Remember that it is worthwhile. Writing is a noble calling, and a beautiful one. It is engrossing and enthralling. Yes, it's also hard, but this is a classic case of a skill best developed through practice, and through seeking out opportunities to learn and grow.
It's something to think about.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Social Roles of Children: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

I had actually lost my notes for this one, but now they have been found - whew! I really enjoyed this discussion and didn't want to deprive all of you who couldn't make it. I was joined by Glenda Pfeiffer, Dale Emery, Kyle Aisteach, and Jaleh Dragich.

This topic was a follow-on from the Pregnancy and Parenthood discussion. We started with the question of child-rearing. I noted that things have changed a lot in the last couple of generations, from the "children should be seen and not heard" rule to the "latchkey child" to the "helicopter parent." In my own home, learning was prioritized over a lot of other things - our job as children was to learn. Not that we didn't do chores, of course!

Kyle said that he felt parenting swung between two ends of a continuum, from hypercontrolling to hands off, in a 3 or 4 generation cycle.

We remarked that what is considered "safe for children" varies widely within our own culture and across cultures. I personally mentioned that the MPAA movie ratings scale is grossly inadequate to determine what is appropriate for my children. Typically, they will get freaked out by far more G movies than PG movies, because the problems encountered in G movies tend to be more personal, involving personal coercion, alteration of one's own body, threats from adults to children, etc. while the PG movies generally involve more action and less threat to the self. Jaleh mentioned that in Monsters vs. Aliens her child was very upset when Susan was taken away from her friends. Kyle asked, "what makes sex worse than violence?" We agreed that glorification of violence was a big problem.

So back to child-rearing. Who is doing it? We usually think of child-rearing as being done by parents, but I'm sure most of us have seen the science-fictional scenario of children being taught by computers. Very often in our society now, we see children being raised by nannies and babysitters, or by daycare employees. Children are also raised by grandparents (as Glenda mentioned) when both parents are working, or by older siblings, or a parent-in-law (as Jaleh mentioned). In fact, in some world cultures the older siblings are the ones taking primary responsibility for child-rearing and even teaching children to speak (I read about one where parents don't speak to the youngest children until they are already able to engage verbally). Dale asked whether there were designated child-rearers in every society, and indeed there are not - some societies take joint charge of children from the very beginning without designating a particular person as child-rearer. Kyle noted that special relationships can crop up almost anywhere - an unexpected bond with a friend's child, a neighbor, a teacher, etc. As children grow and move out into social interaction (school being one big factor), peers also become a force for a child's maturation and education. Jaleh mentioned her own experience of being befriended by her 6th grade teacher after she experienced psychological bullying - the teacher let her borrow books and just hang out, and was an enormous help to her.

There is also the question of physical affection... and liability. Studies have shown that babies languish if they are not cuddled and held, but currently in our local elementary school we have rules against inter-student touching which are intended to stop unwanted poking etc. Teachers give hugs but must be very careful. I knew a case some years ago where a teacher was struggling with a rule that said not to touch students at all, because there had been recent problems of inappropriateness. It's hard to know where to draw the line here, to allow for human feeling and yet not permit possible abuses.

Dale noted that the role of caregiver is mixed, between nurturing and education. Teaching is not only educational in the academic sense, but in the social sense, including instruction in the nature of authority and instruction in the complex rules of politeness.

Kyle followed on to this by pointing out that there are phases in a child's life of acceptance vs. rebellion against authority. We talk about the terrible 2's, and everyone talks about the terrible teenage years. I would remark though that these phases depend a lot on the surrounding culture and the individuals involved. "Terrible 2's" for example is a phrase that really didn't apply to my kids... we had far more difficulty with 3's and 4's!

Children also have a special role in fiction (several, in fact). Very often, they see things that adults can't see, or say things that adults can't say. They can play the role of "fool" in the Shakespearean sense, able to engage with problems that other people shouldn't because of the rules of social politeness. The little child in "The Emperor's New Clothes" is another classic example of the reaction of a child bystander. Children can also bring conflict and danger, and be motivators for action (as in kidnapping stories). Dale quoted Virginia Satir's idea of the freedom to see and hear what is here. As we grow, we learn what to feign not to see, or what literally not to notice. A child can also serve as a confidant for an adult who wouldn't normally reveal his/her feelings.

Glenda mentioned that children can take an outsider role in storytelling. This can actually be very important for authors, since the outsider role is the role of ignorance and learning, and allows the author to take time to explain things in the narrative more naturally.

Kyle said that our society extends adolescence, having the age of adulthood come much later than in some other societies. When do you start to engage with the question of romantic relationships? And what are the ages of the two people in a romance? Juliet was 13 years old in Romeo and Juliet, and I didn't get married until age 24!

Coming of age is a prominent theme in fiction. Dale asked, "What are we 'raising' children toward?" Essentially, this is the idea of lifting children up into their culturally established adult roles. Often rituals are involved (whether official or not). One of the great things to explore in fiction is the question of what makes an adult, and what kind of qualities give an adult legitimacy. Kyle mentioned that in our culture, having your "own voice" and "independence" are very important, but they may not be so in other cultures. Dale noted that we are supposed to have our "own voice" in a culturally approved way! Fitting in and being independent are terms that can be defined differently depending on local culture.

The position of children in a family can also become political. We encounter all kinds of politics and propaganda from outside concerning the role of children, and the value of children. Children and their safety and wellbeing are invoked often in politics, often in directly opposing viewpoints. Different subcultures will try to define what the role of children should be, and how they fit into the ideal family; in fact children's roles vary as widely as families do. Then of course, there is internal family politics, as when a child is used as a pawn or a go-between in divorce. Kyle mentioned that Jay Lake had written about the position where children sit in the car and how it can be indicative of family politics .

There is also the question of who gets to speak for a child and when. Children are very often spoken for by parents - this is a form of social modelling that scaffolds children into appropriate social interaction, but it also can be restrictive and cause resentment. When you are a child, people are inclined to talk about you as though you were not there, even though you are. Shopkeepers and other adults can assume that you will be unable to carry out the required social moves for appropriate interaction, and be rude as a result. Kyle mentioned a situation in which a family member hovered over him until he proved he could handle a situation well on his own... after which the hovering stopped. Dale mentioned salespeople putting children in front of them. Children can be used as shields, or as an invitation to talk. They can be used to give an opening for a pickup line, as Kyle mentioned. Because children are in the process of being initiated into a cultural set of rules, they can be permitted to break those rules themselves, and they can also be used by adults as a reason to cross social barriers they ordinarily wouldn't.

Thanks so much to the folks who came out for this discussion. I look forward to speaking with you again soon.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Does worldbuilding have value? Or is it a subcultural "disease"?

This morning I read an article entitled "The disease of geek pride - worldbuilding and cultural appropriation." Frankly, I found the article interesting and yet ultimately unsatisfying. The author flamboyantly criticizes the worldbuilders of the geek culture as people who simply want to create "a bunch of useless made-up trivia" and invest them with special value whose validity is restricted to the geek culture itself. The author does mention that worldbuilding to serve a story idea or thought experiment has value, but resumes criticism when it comes to those worlds they've seen where cultures are "appropriated," i.e. used with less than full knowledge and treated as exotic, etc.

All right, yes, indeed. Some of these points are worth looking at a second time.

Worldbuilding, the author argues, " not culture, because it doesn’t contribute anything to any culture at large and generally relevant not even to all of SFF nerds, but to a select group: the specific fandom of a specific author or franchise." I understand this as saying that the cultures of worlds created by geeks don't contribute anything to real world cultures. This is a problem for me. Sure, thousands of worlds may be created that never make any impact on the larger culture of America or the real world as a whole. On the other hand, it's clear from looking at the enormous global popularity of certain worlds, like those of Rowling or Roddenberry or Lucas or Tolkien, that fictional worlds can and do have an influence on the larger culture. Their words get integrated into our language. Words coined by authors can be used by people who no longer even understand the story or the world in which they originated. The stamp of literature, both popular and classic, remains in our imaginations and in our language. The fact that this does not happen with all worlds ever created by anyone is unsurprising. In the world of inventions, or of songwriters, many inventions or songs fly by without notice, but some become so important they leave a lasting mark in the larger culture.

The author further argues that what's important to the worldbuilders they criticize is quantity over quality. Essentially, that a geek worldbuilder is more interested in every single last thought that Tolkien has had on a subject than in the quality of what was created. I've certainly heard people wax lyrical on Tolkien's virtues. I admire the man immensely, myself, because he was treading a path that no one else had, creating a work of art in the form of a language and animating it with culture and story. Sure, we can question his work in various ways, and ask how it might be more well-integrated, or better serve a particular cultural purpose, but essentially it is a work of art, and an extremely innovative one for its time. The question of how someone becomes inspired to create works of art has always interested me, and reading widely of that person's works, even of their notes, seems like something that might give some insight. The possibility that there might be any valuable motivation behind the avid consumption of a worldbuilder's works, thoughts, and notes is not considered by the author of the article.

Then there's the question of quality in the worlds created in this special group of worldbuilders. The author says, "it’s mostly gibberish, in long it’s identikit claptrap put together from a patchwork of sources that are themselves derivative. It’s a derivation of a derivation." The funny thing about this one is, it reminds me of the kind of thing I used to put together when I was first experimenting with worldbuilding. The first secret alphabets I ever used, which were substitution codes for our own alphabet. The first secret languages I created, which were substitution codes for English. And the names, oh, the names I made, all of which had accents on them! I wasn't so big into apostrophes, but I think you take my point: I was a learner. And indeed, I still consider myself a learner. Learners begin with imitation, and work their way up. Sometimes they get farther than others. But when you think about it, everything we ever do or say is derivative. I always thought of academic papers more as chorus performances where I was the conductor, using other people's words like instruments, bringing out some notes and keeping others more quiet, and then putting my own little flourishes on top. There is a process involved, of discovery and pushing further into what can be accomplished in worldbuilding. Still, though, I think it's important to keep thinking of it as an art form, because some people doodle with pencils, and others take pencils and create masterpieces. This doesn't mean that picking up a pencil and doodling (for hours, even!) is an activity to be scorned.

Apparently, though, geek culture itself is scorn-worthy. I wonder about this, honestly. Geek culture does get a lot of criticism from people entirely outside the sf/f area. And I can see the author's point that it makes little sense to claim (apparently stridently) that one's own canon of great works is better than The Great Works that have been recognized by history and by academia. "Better", though, is a very vague word. If it's a question of value within the subculture, of points gained by mention of one thing or another in conversation with a peer, I know I'd prefer to mention a part of the in-group canon rather than something outside. And in response to outsiders telling me that my preferred art form has no value, I don't doubt I'd get a bit defensive. Yes, I'd probably try not to mention works of outside literature that I haven't read as part of my argument, but still.

Cultural myopia is easy to criticize, but really it's the default state. It's hard to "see" one's own culture, to hear one's own accent, without having experienced others first. And since culture comes on multiple nested levels, one can argue that we'll ever entirely escape. This is why Sheila Finch and I have often argued that actual communication with aliens is unlikely to be achievable. The fundamental assumptions that we have about communication are so embedded in our cultures, and in our own world, that we struggle to see outside the bubble. Let me make clear: the outside view is always worth striving for, but it's a case of bubbles within bubbles - and depending on the social context, expressing an in-group membership has far more social value than an external viewpoint.

The author of the article also argues that people should strive for a viewpoint that is not limited by cultural frame. When taking on the question of cultural appropriation, they argue that "the root cause is geek culture, geek pride (and also the white western hegemony, but that is a given): the tendency to latch onto “cool” stuff without delving any further than that." I'll agree here. Delve further. Look for the meta-view, and at the same time, strive for the details. But then the article goes into criticizing authors for not getting their cultures right. Honestly, I'm in two minds about this one. One side says, "If you're not going to get it right, don't do it at all." The other side says, "If you don't do it at all, you're losing an opportunity." Are we going to argue that an author should never try to portray a country that he or she does not know as a native? Will we argue that an author should never try to portray a character who does not belong to his or her own culture (or subulture)? Why, then we'd be pushing people toward an even more culturally myopic form of storytelling than ever. When Paolo Bacigalupi states in an afterword that the culture he's portraying is a futuristic imagining of Thailand rather than Thailand itself, that to me suggests he's doing something like what ethnographic researchers do - which is to say, including in their work some indication of the cultural perspective out of which it came, so that readers can understand clearly what kind of limitations the research might have as a result. I'm not saying that there is no urge to seize on the cool without thinking about what lies beneath, but part of what happens when you include elements of an unfamiliar culture is that you can make people curious to learn more. Yes, the portrayal of the Other is problematic - that's been said by many more people than me. Yes, we should strive for more depth. To my mind, though, if we want those things, we shouldn't heap insults on those people who are taking steps into this arena. Perhaps some are only looking for shiny things, as this author implies. But some are being daring, opening a door into a world that few have yet experienced, giving them an opportunity to ask more should they choose to (and we'd hope they would choose to, but we can't make them). Doing their best to bring something of the real, with respect, into a fictional work, and opening themselves to derision of their artistic creation and efforts.

There is another culture being indirectly referred to here, in fact, and that is the culture being enacted by the writer of the article (and, yes, by this author). That is the culture of internet criticism. I suppose internet criticism is part of the larger culture of criticism (literary, pop cultural, etc.). There is a distinctive stream in criticism - more strongly in internet criticism, I think, but also in criticism as a whole - that glories in the spice of language, and in particular relies on the use of flamboyant language and insult to spice up a rhetorical argument. The author of the article I've cited here is engaging actively in that subculture, and here's an example:

"Prepare to drown in a deluge of mindless praise for Tolkien’s Finnish copypasta, the maps, the letters, the unpublishable writing that gets published anyway because the Tolkien Estate is hungry for cash, the minutiae in the appendices and basically, the verbal vomit of his “legendarium” (and this word will crop up a lot: when you see it, run)."

I think that we've all been done a service when someone engages a valuable question, as this author has. However, I had to fight through a deluge of aspersions such as "mindless," "vomit" and "diarrhea" in order to get to the value there was in the article. And furthermore, the author's advance declarations of not caring if someone "throws a fit" in response call into question their desire for any reasonable engagement with these arguments.

I hope that we can see beyond the subculture, and do better than that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

TTYU Retro: Worldbuilding - what's on the page?

Are you one of those worldbuilders who has files and files of material that you've developed about your world? Have you spent years on it? Have you tried to fill in every box in the checklists about ecology, economy, culture, language, etc.?

That's wonderful. Congratulations on all your hard work. Those files will be a fantastic resource, just so long as they don't turn against you.

Here's what I mean. Sometimes, as the writer, you can know your world too well - so well that you don't notice when your world isn't making it onto the page. The words that you write can evoke so much for you personally that you mistakenly believe they do the same thing for all of your readers. Having reams of information sitting in your head can blind you to this.

This is one of those cases when it's vitally important to listen to beta readers and critique partners. What you really need is someone who doesn't have all the files, and who hasn't sat with you for hours and hours to hash out world details. The best possible option is to have someone who has never seen your world before. EVER. Hand that someone the story, so that what you hear back about is only what is actually on the page.

Of course, then what you have to do (and it can be hard) is trust their judgment. Allow them to tell you what they don't understand, and try to believe them.

So how do you make sure that the world you know so well is actually coming out on the page, back when you're in the midst of drafting, and not to the point where you're receiving criticism yet?

The best suggestion I can come up with is to do what I'd call "fully engaged worldbuilding." That means leaving off talking about your world in isolation, and going to the story and the characters. Forget "what is true" about your world. Start thinking about what is relevant to one single scene, one single object, one single character. Think about a person's misconceptions, prejudgments, bad judgments, and how those might grow out of the background you've imagined. Think about tiny situations. Look at the world in its daily operation. Dig in as far as you can, and then when you're finished, go back and dig even farther.

Don't worry if it takes a while. This stuff comes in layers. Until you've reached one layer, often you can't see that there's another one below it.

Right now I'm dealing with Varin, which means I'm looking at a very complex caste system - seven levels, each of which has its own cultural values. Frankly, I'd be toast if I hadn't written files and files about what I know. I've rewritten aspects of it so many times I can hardly count them, but I'm still discovering things. My discoveries always come from things that are small, and they always depend on context (usually caste context).
  • Pharmacy: my servant character had to go to a pharmacy, which had me thinking about how a pharmacy would work in their world as opposed to ours. I posted about this earlier. It was different because it was a school pharmacy for students with medical training rather than a public pharmacy.
  • Money: two of my noble characters had to argue over a bet that one of them made with a member of the soldier/guard caste. During this interaction, the guard pulled out a coin, and I had to go figure out how money would work. I also realized that the noble characters would never have seen cash before (they use cards), but because the guard likes to bet, he carries it all the time and finds their naivete very amusing.
  • Architecture/map layout: for a fight scene, I had to figure out how a neighborhood was laid out. When I got right down to it, I realized that space is at such a premium that there are no alleys between buildings, only behind them. To get behind an attacker, one of my main characters had to go through a shop, exit the rear door, travel through the back alleyway all the way to the end of the block, and come back around.
  • Oppression: out of my realization about the layout of neighborhoods above came an understanding of institutionalized racism (actually caste-ism) in my story. The alleyways that bisect city blocks are only traveled by tradespeople and garbage collectors, and they are considered to belong to the undercaste. This is why undercaste folk are in a position to worry about running into Highers (tradespeople and shopkeepers) but the vast majority of Highers are able to ignore the undercaste completely because they are not even walking on the same streets, and the undercaste always enter a shop from the back.
  • Language: there's so much to this one that I can hardly even touch it. However, I will point out that I was paying very close attention to the use of titles in the last chapter I wrote, deliberately shifting the way one character referred to another from a fully caste-appropriate appellation to a somewhat more intimate one.
So if you're dealing with a vast world, a complex society, a conlang, etc. I recommend that you increase your own self-awareness, and thus the strength of your work, in two ways:

1. Focus on the story, and particularly on small things, when you work on your own.
2. Get someone to read your work who is entirely ignorant of what you want to achieve.

After all, you've done all that work! The least you can do is make sure that your readers get to see what your world is really like.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Gender Roles: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

It's great finally to be catching up on my reports! For those who have enjoyed the hangouts, I'm hoping to fit in one or two before the end of the summer, and I'll keep you posted. This was not our first discussion of gender, but we had a great discussion beginning with the idea of gender culture for children, and then moving outward from there. I was joined by Brian Dolton, David Peterson, Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, Janet Hariett, Kyle Aisteach, and Chihuahua0.

We started with merchandising. Merchandising is an overwhelming force for gender-normalization in our culture. Personally, I can't stand the way that when you walk into a store without literally having to take sides, male or female. It forces me always to choose one of my kids to be first (grrr - I don't need that everywhere I turn!). Fact: I was really proud of my son when he walked into a store without seeing that divide, as a toddler, and picked out his own bright orange hat and red patent leather shoes. He was the most awesome little boy on the block.

Chihuahua mentioned an interesting issue: he perceives a female bias in YA book covers. Have any of you out there noticed this? If so, then how do you think it might be addressed productively? He recommended "The List" as a very interesting and provocative book about the question of femininity. Kyle responded by remarking that certain genres of book are perceived as out of bounds for certain genders. Female-led adult fantasy is hard to find, as is adolescent romance for boys.

Merchandising and marketing play into this, and they also play into those scenes in girl-related stories that irk me the most, like the "salon scene" or "shopping scene" that seems to crop up in so many entirely unnecessary places. It takes a natural concern with appearance - one that is socially important in many ways - and turns it into a kind of gender-related coercion.

Then we went looking for good example of alternate gender roles.

Kyle gave us Eowyn from J.R.R. Tolkien "No man can kill me..." "I am no man." It bears some similarity to the classical pitfalls of prophecy with an awesome gender twist. Jaleh said she liked how Eowyn fought against her role, and did so effectively.

Kyle mentioned that there has been some debate between historians as to how effective Joan of Arc's disguise as a man actually was, the idea being that a lot of people must have known she was a woman and not cared. This was certainly also the case with female pirates and pharaohs.

Janet mentioned a female pirate who supposedly passed as a man but was known to have had a child. A woman named Mary Reed was scheduled to be hanged, but got out of it by announcing she was pregnant.

Kyle mentioned the story of a pope who went into labor during a procession.

Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness was a natural to this discussion, obviously. We all appreciated the kinds of issues that were brought up by her Gethenians and their mutable gender. One of the most piquant aspects of this is that in the Gethenian society, "Perverts" were those who were stuck permanently in one gender (and this was a label that inevitably got associated with the human male Genly Ai).

All of us appreciated stories where traditional categories were treated as problematic and exceptions were explored.

Erin mentioned a short story about coming of age in a group of people who got to choose their gender at a certain age as they grew into it. The protagonist was experiencing gender for the first time, and questioning the family's tradition, which was to become females and have children.

In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, the protagonist, Yeine, came from a matriarchal society which many of us had found refreshing. I liked it because the male attitudes were not fundamentally changed - just because the society was matriarchal didn't mean that the men had to be what we'd call effeminate, or behave differently from the way we'd expect them to. The difference was that the male desire to protect their women was something that the woman warriors appreciated in a rather condescending manner. The male desire to protect was considered rather darling of them. Kyle mentioned that he appreciated the way that Jemisin set up the plot and the natural reasons why Yeine would be the "chosen one" as opposed to someone else.

My own novel deals with questions of gender identity and misogyny. The interesting, and rather dismaying, thing that happened as a result was that one of my beta readers misinterpreted it as the novel being misogynistic. I'm making some changes to try to make the distinction more clear, as I didn't realize it could be interpreted that way. One of the things I have been doing is trying to strengthen some aspects of gender culture that are recognizable to my readers, such as the way that groups of boys will go out and try to impress groups of girls (and raise their status with the other boys), and the kinds of friendships maintained by my protagonist's mother. I'll probably have a more extensive post on this in the near future.

Outsiders always make good protagonists, and Chihuahua mentioned that he likes to take a look at gender outsiders. It's an approach that is fascinating and worth considering.

Jaleh brought up a point that I've made elsewhere on the blog, that people will fight the social roles imposed on them, but will not move completely outside the cultural worldview in order to do so. If you're writing a historical piece, don't have someone challenge his or her gender role in a modern way. Their actions will be appropriate to the time period, and there will be specific accepted ways in which rules can be bent. Erin agreed with this, saying sometimes even readers won't pick up on the cultural groundedness of protest, and will ask why a character isn't mad about being oppressed. Keep in mind that a member of an oppressed culture will not have the same anger as an entitled modern person. Erin mentioned the case of the people who were interned in the Japanese WWII camps in the US, and how they will typically call it "unfortunate" rather than getting overtly angry.

We also talked about the Bechdel test. As I understand it, the test asks the following questions: Does this story have women in it? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk about something other than men? A story that answers yes to all three has "passed" the Bechdel test. As Brian said, the test is not absolute - some bad stories do pass the test. Chihuahua gave the example of having two women talking in the background of a story about Halloween costumes. It's harder, but not impossible, for stories to pass the test if they have male protagonists. The presence of men tends to change the way that women talk to each other, which is interesting. I find the test most useful as a thought-provoking device, allowing us to ask how fair each story is to women, and which aspects of it contribute to a more realistic view of the world vs. a more female-blind view of the world. Chihuahua said that it would be interesting to consider a reverse-Bechdel test for certain genres, asking whether boys are speaking to each other about topics other than girls... Kyle mentioned the Simpsons, and David asked about how much of male behavior is done to impress females - an interesting pointer. Brian characterized the Bechdel test as a pointer to issues, prompting people to ask "why are you not passing?"

Kyle calls the prevalence of male protagonists in Fantasy "a structural problem." One could see it in part as a symptom of our culture's preference for the adventurer plot, which at least in the case of historical or historically influenced worlds, can be more difficult to achieve with female characters. The most important thing, we all agreed, is to be mindful of these issues as we write. Not all stories need to fall into an easy category. Chihuahua mentioned a story in which a 1900's steampunk shapeshifter can switch from male to female. That brought Loki to my mind immediately. The story of the wall around Asgard, and how Loki changed himself into a mare to stop its completion, and then ended up giving birth to Selipnir the eight-legged steed, is a wonderful example of gender-bending in classical mythology (I highly recommend you look it up for the details).

Kyle expressed disappointment in the social model that appears in many steampunk stories, where classism and racism tend to remain unquestioned. He wanted to see stories from the butlers' points of view (which I found heartening, though I'm not at all writing steampunk!). Brian mentioned that there has been lesbian steampunk. Chihuahua mentioned that the 1920's were interesting years for gender roles because openly gay actors were more accepted; that would be an interesting era to explore. Kyle said that the 1920's were a time of women's liberation, trends toward racial equality and acceptance of LGBT people, but that later backlash had led to more extreme imposition of gender roles. A society can't be counted on to progress steadily toward more acceptance and tolerance (interesting story possibilities here). Glenda explained that in the culture she's working with, it's semi-matriarchal but not a full gender reverse. In her world, women's nurturing qualities are seen as the proper kind of strength to make good rulers capable of making long-term plans.

We barely touched on the question of subcultures. Gender norms, and who gets excluded on the basis of them, vary between groups. For example, I have read personal articles about transgender or bisexual people feeling rejected by gay- or lesbian-normative groups. These areas are fraught with significance for everyone.

Erin recommended Tamora Pierce's work, and David gave us a couple of links:

Thanks to everyone who participated! I look forward to talking to you all again soon.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

TTYU Retro: Gender in job ads, and subconscious bias in language

You don't know what you are saying.

Sure, you think you know. You've chosen the content of what you want to say. You're thinking about what linguists call the "propositional content," or the "message" of what is being said. The fact is, though, that you're saying so much more. The complexity of language carries all kinds of information about social alignment, and the individual's stance in relation to social groups and in relation to larger discourses in society.

Some time ago, I ran across this link through @geardrops on Twitter. I was fascinated, but not at all surprised, given my background in linguistic anthropology. The article talks about a study in which it was demonstrated that job postings contain language that is "gendered," or biased toward either a female or male expectation - and that potential applicants can feel this when they read the postings, and gravitate toward the ones that match their gender. Wow, right? Interesting. Within three minutes of having picked up this link, I ended up in an argument about whether we had left behind bias in the workplace, and whether a person could be considered sexist for writing an ad in this way, and whether or not "gendered" language was just something made up by academics that had no basis in reality. Geardrops' conclusion, which I loved, was this:

"Hey guess what language bias exists and is subtle."

That's right. The social messages in language are not just subtle, they are subconsicous. So let's look at what that means for a second, starting with the question of politeness.

If you ask someone, "You need to ask your professor for a pen. What do you say?" that person will give you an answer, but chances are it won't be exactly what that person would say if you recorded them in the situation. It will be - and this is important - what they think they ought to say. This is a trend backed up by all kinds of politeness research: live recordings will get you different results from what people say they do. In fact, I found precisely this in my own research. When I studied polite and casual forms in Japanese, I asked three teachers how much of each type they thought they were using in the classroom, and each one said they used formal forms most of the time. When I went in, took a videotape, transcribed and counted these forms, it turned out that they were using formal forms 35% of the time.

I'm sure you can see the difference.

The propositional content of what you say is consciously chosen. But for the most part, the manner in which you say it, and the social messages conveyed, are outside of your conscious control.

Can we say that there is "fault" involved, or accuse a person of being sexist, because of what they express in a subconscious manner?

Well, yes and no.

I often imagine language use within a culture as an enormous piece of fabric. Each person's contribution is a tiny thread within that fabric. The color of the fabric varies depending on which part you look at, but each thread will tend to be roughly the same color as the ones around it. We don't speak in a vacuum. The patterns of speech and expression that we use are learned from those around us, and the more closely our color matches the surrounding pattern, the more likely everything is to appear normal. Sexism, racism, and any other -ism that you might care to identify are mostly built into the fabric. If you're a member of an insider group, chances are pretty good that the language use patterns that show bias will be difficult to see. It's the whole "by saying mankind I mean all people" thing. The distinct color of the thread containing the word "man" will be more easily recognized by someone who doesn't match it - i.e. a woman.

I think it's more effective to talk about "gendered language" than "sexist language" because the latter implies intent. Intent is a tricky thing. In our society these days "bias" itself is seen as being wrong - which is I think a good thing - but what it means is that people can get attacked for subconsciously engaging in the fabric of the discourse around them. Should they be blamed? Probably not. Engaged with, probably yes. Every time we question biased language we're acting on the front lines of societal change. Increasing our consciousness of these mostly-invisible markers is the way to get people to notice biases they don't mean to convey, and act to change them.

Here's an important point, though. Social language is not a plus-or-minus proposition. You can go one direction or another on the road, but you're still on the road. We will always, always mark our social position, our posture, relative to others. We will always express our membership in social groups. We will strive to distinguish ourselves from groups that we don't want to be a part of by emphasizing our membership in other groups. I don't see "gendered language" ever going away; I do, however, see it changing.

Language is something that reinforces itself, and at the same time changes itself, every time that it is used.

So to be a positive force for cultural change in the world, think about increasing consciousness - your own as well as that of others. Go easy on yourself - be aware that you yourself are constantly enacting culture and social alignment without thinking, and you won't be able just to "stop." Don't blame yourself terribly if you find yourself doing something you don't want to do - just think through it and try to exert your conscious will to change it. Be willing to engage with others. Be willing to question yourself.

And next time you're looking for a job, be aware of gendered language. Be aware, too, that the person who wrote the ad probably didn't try to exclude anyone. Choose not to let that shut you down.

Change takes time, but it's worth the effort.