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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ken Liu and The Grace of Kings: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

I was thrilled to have our special author guest Ken Liu on the show! He joined us to talk about his novel, The Grace of Kings, which is out now - and you should go read it. Thank you so much for being with us, Ken!

Ken describes the book as taking on epic fantasy with a "different aesthetic and sensibility." Just as many of the stories in the epic fantasy canon take European traditional tales as their basis, Ken wanted to make a story that was based on "foundational narratives" from China, such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The book also is inspired by events of the founding of the Han dynasty, specifically a document called Records of the Grand Historian, which Ken read in the original (and we were all terribly impressed!).

The historical events paralleled in the book are when a tyrannical dynasty caused rebellions and broke into kingdoms, and two powers emerged to struggle for dominance. In The Grace of Kings, two men become friends and rebel against the emperor, but their contrasting ideologies make them rivals later.

One of Ken's critical early decisions was making this "not a magical China story." Western readers are familiar with a lot of these, and they set up a lot of really problematic expectations and deep misunderstandings. It's incredibly hard to get away from the taint of Orientalism. For example, even using the words "Chinese dragon" to describe the Chinese mythological creature lóng makes it seem derivative, when it's entirely unrelated. The lóng is a creature of water, benevolent, associated with ancient tribal totems and Buddhist Naga deities. It becomes very hard to view things with out the colonial gaze.

Ken particularly wanted to write about change, rather than about the restoration of a golden age.

The world of The Grace of Kings is thus clearly inspired by East Asia, but designed to defeat expectations. He wants people to feel, "I  don't know what this is." Dara is an archipelago, deliberately distinct from any vision of Chinese geography. The aesthetic of the work he sometimes terms "silkpunk." The "punk" part of the word is about rebellion, bout creating revolution.

Ken uses a theory of technology that comes from the economist Brian Arthur, who treats technology not as pieces of machinery, but of part of a language of expression in which inventions are utterances. Components like transistors become part of the vocabulary, and understandings of how things go together are like grammars. Together they come together into a larger discourse of technology. The languages are the driving forces, like steam, magnetism, etc. He described his "nouns" as bamboo, paper, silk, and seashells; his "verbs" are muscle, wind, and water, and his "grammatical rules" are the rules of biomechanics.

There is a fascinating parallel he mentioned between technology and moral attitudes. Steampunk is associated with brass, and corsets, with inflexibility and constriction. He wanted to focus on silk, nature, and flexibility. His airships have components that act like the swim bladders of fish, and they have feathered oars. They pulse like jellyfish. Artificial limbs have ox sinew in them. Everything has an organic, life-like feel, while magic deepens and adds to the existing silkpunk aesthetic.

I asked Ken how long it took him to write the book. He said he'd written it in many drafts, and that the first ones were spare; the work needed time to mature. He said the stories authors tell about their writing processes are often "too good to be true," since the process of creation is messy.

I then asked him to describe his research. He said he felt that about half of the work was in his head, and about half was new research. He was deeply inspired by (and has dedicated the book to) his grandmother in China, with whom he'd listen to storytellers on the radio during lunch. This was a special childhood memory and his first encounter with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Thus, the echoes of this and other foundational narratives were already in his head. He read the Records of the Grand Historian and did lots of research on airships and their workings, herbal lore, and all the technical knowledge that appears in the book. There was a lot of science research.

He described wanting to take a new narrative approach. It's an unusual structure, and a non-standard approach to point of view, deliberately designed to hark back to oral tradition and wuxia fantasies. It also uses techniques and tropes from western narratives such as the Iliad, Beowulf, and western oral narratives. If you're going in cold, he says, it can take some getting used to because there is less of a tight focus and a lot of omniscient epic voice. He said his beta readers told him they were reminded of War and Peace. He tries to capture a great sweep by pulling back, then zoom in to the eyes of the point of view character. There is lots of zooming! His aim was for the narrative to feel new and yet also classical.

There are some powerful flower-based metaphors in the book, which I then asked him about. He said that he had originally titled the book The Chrysanthemum and the Dandelion, though the title was later changed to better reflect the genre of the book. Chrysanthemums are noble, austere, dominant, and suggest honor and courage without doubt. Dandelions are practical, appear at the roadside, and are resourceful, resilient survivors. These flowers suggest the different ideas about justice in the story. There is a scene when characters play a drinking game in which they compare themselves to flowers. The metaphors get a chance to play into characterizations, personalities, and foibles. They also evoke emotions. One of the inspirations for this was an instance in real life where a poet composed a rebellious poem praising chrysanthemums - rebellious, because the official court flower at the time was the peony. The writing of this poem about a flower thus had political consequences.

Birds also feature remarkably in the story, so I asked him about them. He said they were important in part because he was working with an archipelago, and had to figure out how things worked there. Getting from island to island was very important, so inventing vehicles was critical. The fact that he was working with islands also affected his use of metaphors, meaning that a lot of them are sea and sky-related. As he writes, he grows to think like the characters. The invention and maintenance of air power was important because the Dara kingdoms were in a stalemate, and it was air power, aerial warfare that broke this trend. Thus, he spent a lot of time observing birds and many scenes are related to the observation of flight. As a result of this and other factors, Ken has been told that his story "reads like science fiction." He describes himself as a technologist and geek.

I asked him about the issue of gender, which had come up in some of the reviews I had read. Ken said it would be easy to be trapped by the source material, such as Beowulf and the Aenead, which was very male-centric and featured few women with agency. In re-imagining those narratives, he had to make a deliberate departure from that trap. As to the idea of "accuracy," he notes that women were present when these narratives were created - they just weren't recorded. He felt if he was going to add airships, that "accuracy" as such was not a good excuse. He mentioned Kate Elliott and Kameron Hurley as important people who have changed how we view women in epic fantasy. As we reimagine, we question and critique at the same time.

Ken's own choice was to start in a place where it reads like an epic - but his novel is about change, so things change! He asks questions like "What is a more ideal world?" and "As a ruler, where do you find your strength?" Even at the end of the first book, he notes, this is not a utopia. There is a multi-book arc planned.

Glenda asked Ken whether there was a better word to use than dragon, and Ken spoke to us a bit about translation, which is one of his specialties. Translation, he says, is not just a linguistic act. When missionaries to China discovered this new creature, they didn't know what to call it and could have borrowed the word lóng. Instead they chose to describe it using existing concepts. It was reptilian, big, awe-inspiring... and thus they went with "dragon." Ken also mentioned the concept which is generally translated as "filial piety." The phrase invokes religious awe, but it's a bad translation. The concept of piety is very different in East vs. West. There are no religious or worshipful implications in the Chinese concept. Reverence for ancestors is not equal to worshipping them as gods. This is something he calls translation "slippage," and it leads to layers of misunderstanding. The translation "Mandate of heaven" is also misleading. The ideas and expectations evoked by words are hard to put away once they have been activated. Even a single reference to an existing structure can become a trap that leads to prejudice.

Thank you so much to Ken Liu for joining us and giving us these great insights into The Grace of Kings!

Here's the video if you would like more detail:


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Gestures: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

This was a great little discussion, made more fun by the fact that we could visually wave our hands at each other and make faces over the video link!

We talked about body language and gestures. It's important at the start to recognize the difference between habitual gestures, and iconic gestures - iconic gestures having a particular and specific assigned meaning, similar to what you get in sign language, which is fully iconic.

There are a lot of cross-cultural differences in both gestures and sign language. Greetings differ widely across the world. Do people bow? Do they shake hands? Often you will find that a gesture like shaking hands has a long history. Shaking hands was a way to indicate that one's weapon hand was empty. Bowing is something that we see even across species, and it may have to do with the instinctive link between height and status - as Brian said, "how much you can oversee." In this day and age, it can be very finely tuned to social meaning. In Japan (at least, and possibly in other countries as well) you tune your bow to be lower than the bow of a person whose status is higher than yours (someone older, or a year ahead of you in school, your boss, etc.).

Gestures work in concert with auditory language, and are particularly useful over long distances, which is why we see things like semaphore.

Obscene gestures are a type of iconic gesture that always comes up! However, these vary across cultures as well. A gesture like "thumbs up" which is innocuous to Americans may not be so innocuous to Greeks, for example. Then there is also the kind of hand sign that can be used in a friendly way in one community, yet be interpreted as a gang sign by another community (due largely to racism in this case). There is an example of cross-species misinterpretation of body language in one of Piers Anthony's Xanth books, where the protagonist is communicating with a spider through a piece of talking spiderweb on his shoulder, and the spider interprets his smile as aggressive, and raising his fists as friendly.

Thumbs up, hook 'em horns, read between the lines, middle finger, finger dragged across the throat, bite the thumb, thumb from chin or nose...

Body language is connected to emotion, but it can be ambiguous.

Reggie mentioned how feather-fluffing in parrots can either indicate comfort or alarm (pretending to be big!), and it's just a matter of degree to tell the difference. Cats puff up, show their bodies side-on to look bigger, and hop with their front legs splayed out when they are alarmed. By contrast, the slow closing of eyes can be a sign of affection. In both dogs and cats, direct eye contact is interpreted as aggressive, and this can be the case for humans also.

I mentioned how I researched canine gestures of various sorts (puppy hunger gestures, play gestures, surprise gestures, etc.) for use with my canine-inspired protagonist, Rulii, in the story "Cold Words." [Note: this story is going to be reprinted soon in Forever Magazine, editor Neil Clarke. So look for it!]

Morgan said that it would be interesting to have a creature that looked like one kind of animal but behaved like another.

If you were to look at shapeshifters, would their gestural language follow their form, or would they be stuck in between human and animal communications systems? Would some of their gestures be carried across from one form to another?

Inside jokes, gestures, and secret handshakes are another good example of gestural communication. Kicking someone under the table, finger against the nose.

"Nudge nudge wink wink" is an odd one because people have stopped actually doing it in favor of just saying the words for it.

Air quotes are interesting in that they function to change the meaning of words that are being said.

Sign language has regional variation. It also has slang. Across the world, different countries typically have distinctly different sign languages. I loved this video of Swedish sign:

Dogs and wolves do not use quite the same gestures for communication.

Che had the idea of creating intelligent velociraptors, and imagining gestural communications for them based on toe claw position, etc. How would reptile gestural/expressive communication differ given that they have so many fewer facial muscles? How would cephalopods' incredible muscularity and flexibility influence a form of gestural communication?

Thanks to everyone who came and participated! I'm sorry that I'm unable to hold a hangout this week (4/22) but I will keep in touch about next week. Our next author guest will be Malon Edwards, who will join us toward the beginning of May (date still to be confirmed).

Here's the video:


Monday, April 13, 2015

A post about Loud Voices which is not about Civility

I have something to say about civility.

Except it isn't really about civility. I'm just going to start as if it were, at the beginning.

Civility, the surface: Isn't it nice? Isn't it easy when everyone is polite and quiet? Yay! Nothing is going wrong! (Except it's not; I'll return to this.)

Disturbance, level 1: People complain politely about injustice. These are generally ignored, and no action taken.

Disturbance, level 2: People complain about injustice loudly, angrily, perhaps impolitely. These are dismissed as emotional, angry, ugly. If they cite actual evidence, they are told that they would be listened to if they were more polite, but under the circumstances, no.

Disturbance, level 3: People threaten one another with death or violence. These people are breaking the law. I imagine this can be something people resort to without thinking in cases of extreme anger; it can also be used as a deliberate strategy to cause fear. Without a lot of corroborating information, it's hard to tell any one person's motives (though I will note that in several cases this corroborating information does exist). I think cases of threats are pretty straightforward, though I have yet to hear of any instance in which someone was arrested for them. Called out, in detail, though, yes: see the Laura J. Mixon report on RH. These actions should be stopped and it is highly appropriate to call them out and ask for them to do so.

Next, we filter all this through the idea of "my team" and "your team." Ideally, we shouldn't have to do this. Should we ignore level three disturbance just because someone is on "my team"? I don't think so. Ignoring a person's threats when they are publicly recognized as being on one's own team is wrong. Trying to separate oneself is... understandable, if a bit ex post facto.

Let's look at level 2, though. A lot of level 2 discussions devolve into name-calling and other expressions of anger. A lot of people justify their own name-calling and anger by saying "the other team is also doing it."

I hear people saying "my team"'s expressions must be righteous, while "your team"'s expressions are unjustified, pointless, uncivil. This is clearly an issue that needs to be resolved with evidence. There is thus an important role to be played by people who are going to take evidence and do an analysis. Sturridge is one of these people. So is George R. R. Martin, here and here.

I also hear people saying that all raised voices are the same, and should be weighted equally in the call for a return to civility.

I disagree. It comes back to evidence.

"I feel bad because I imagine I deserve more" is NOT an accurate description of the messages on both sides.

Correia and Torgersen obviously feel bad because they imagine they deserve more. (They cloak it in a lot of language about the state of the genre; George R. R. Martin's post above dissects those arguments in detail.) This, despite the fact that they have achieved all kinds of empirically measurable success. It's because they can't have the feather in their cap that they have decided to cry out and co-opt the voting system for the Hugos.

Women, people of color, and LGBT people feel bad because they have been materially oppressed. There is a lot of evidence for this. A simple statistical look at books published in SF/F, books reviewed, voices mentioned in articles about the triumph of genre, etc. will show the clear, longstanding dominance of straight white males. This is not even mentioning sexual harassment, racist or homophobic behavior and constant microaggressions online and at conventions. (Or the constant tide of same in everyday life outside of genre careers!)

These people feel bad because they have been hurt, over and over, historically and in modern times, in ways that materially damage their lives and careers. And it continues every day.

I've spoken about these issues with people for a long time. I've shared the evidence, over and over and over.

I have even had one-on-one private conversations with people in which I laid all this out, only to be told that my premise cannot be accepted. Naturally, it is frustrating when my efforts fall on deaf ears. I think people who have any inkling of the history of religious persecution should realize that historical events cast a long shadow, and if we are using logic, that should make it pretty obvious that things like slavery and abuse and disenfranchisement of women are not cleanly taken care of in one swoop, but by a long, long process of protest, anger, argument, all of the above. In this process, "civil" voices play a role, but they are never, ever sufficient. (This is of course giving the benefit of the doubt on underlying questions of whether people actually deserve equal rights, which applies only to a subset of the Puppy crowd.)

One thing that really gets me, though, is the way certain people refuse to accept the existence of injustice as though it were an intellectual premise, rather than the everyday experience of millions of suffering people. To that, add the way that people suffering literal tortures across the world are held up as object lessons to attempt to "show" us that what we suffer means nothing.

Just because your non-functioning computer is a "first world problem" doesn't mean that it doesn't infuriate you; how much worse, then, is the abuse constantly heaped on women, people of color, and LGBT people who are daily abused and killed in this country, and then told they should be grateful?

Don't try to tell me that these people simply "feel bad because they imagine they deserve more." Being treated with respect as a human being is not a feather in anyone's cap. It is a fundamental human right. Being chastised for actions others perceive as hurtful does not begin to compare. Publishers are not turning away saleable work simply because they disagree with an author's political views. The world of our genre is getting larger and larger - more authors, more work, more fans. Naturally, that means a lot of different kinds of people exploring SF/F in lots of different ways. I've always seen SF/F as being about looking at the world in different ways, exploring, etc. There are lots of ways to do that, and there's room for everyone who can find a readership. But there are the same number of Hugos, so logically, as the field grows there are more non-Hugo-winners. In any case, that latter category always included an overwhelming majority of people.

If you've been in a position to live your life without a societal system constantly working against you - and by that I mean without anyone telling you how cute you are when you are angry, or constantly interrupting you, or paying you less than your male coworker doing the same job - without anyone calling you a thug for reacting to mistreatment with anger, and without feeling like you might die every time you are anywhere near a police officer - feel lucky. Realize, however, that the silence of civility is only helping to hide you from a larger reality. You were meant to feel comfortable in this system, as it was designed by people like you for their own benefit. Nonetheless, it is still pulling the wool over your eyes. There's been lots of research on this; go read it.

If you are only just now realizing the world isn't all about you, welcome. We've been in that place this whole time.

Note: I have turned on comment moderation. Use evidence.