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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Malon Edwards: a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary with VIDEO

Marvelous guest author Malon Edwards joined us last week to talk about his worldbuilding, and we had a great discussion! When I advertised the hangout, I told everyone that he works in a steampunk alternate history universe, but that is only partially true - the universe is actually even cooler than that. Malon gave us some insights into that universe and how he came to be writing in it.

Malon explained how he discovered his inspiration after moving to Canada. He'd been writing science fiction but really wanted to write something about himself and his culture. Then he discovered Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, which was the first time he'd ever read science fiction or fantasy set in a major city. He also mentioned taking inspiration from Octavia Butler's Parable series. He decided he wanted to write something set in Chicago and steeped in black culture.

He began by researching the history of Chicago, and learning about Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Hatian man known as the "Founder of Chicago." Malon said he felt a connection with him because of some French Caribbean background. He also has some background in Mississippi and New Orleans, including Louisiana Creole speakers. This his vision was to create a Chicago steeped in Louisiana Creole... but the language has died out and is very hard to research. Therefore, he moved instead toward Haitian Creole, which he was able to research in part through an excellent website called Sweet Coconuts.

In the alternate timeline he has designed, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable stayed in Chicago and became the mayor. The first story he wrote in the timeline was deliberately steampunk, because he wrote it for the SteamFunk anthology. That story is called Mudholes and Mississippi Mules. However, he designed it as part of a much longer timeline, spanning more than a century. It progresses from steampunk at the start of the timeline, through dieselpunk and up to cyberpunk.

Some fascinating aspects of the steampunk end of the timeline include devastating bombs that have been dropped over America, and polio running rampant. Young victims of polio get treated by "steampunk surgeons" who replace their failing organs with clockwork parts. The character known as Petal McQueen has a steam clock heart in her glass chest, and a boiler that runs on coal dust, which produces healthy dirt (as opposed to the dirt ruined by the bombings). Her dirt fuels the rebuilding of Chicago. In later portions of the timeline, Petal gets mythologized as an Earth Mother figure, Bel Flè. She can also create resources like gold, steel, coal, etc.

Chicago then becomes a city-state, and in the dieselpunk story "Into the Breach," there is a war between Chicago and the state of Illinois, which he says is a metaphor for some of the current situation. Chicago is a David to the Goliath of Illinois, and with the city reduced to nothing it must be rebuilt by hard work.

At the cyberpunk end of the timeline, the rich are able to raise their dead children from the grave by uploading them into androids, but they must then "re-up" the child once a year to keep them alive. It's a nightmarish scenario in which corporations use parents' grief to extort money from them.

Malon describes cyberpunk as his love, and mentioned loving Neuromancer by William Gibson. Tying these different subgenres together on a unified timeline allowed him to fit his existing steampunk story with his love of cyberpunk.

Family and family relationships play an important role in his work. He told us a bit about his family history, and how he's often lived in places away from his family. He lived in Japan for 3 years, and Montana for 2. He's accustomed to that distance, but misses his family and honors them in his work. He said his sister got him into writing.

I asked him if he speaks Haitian Creole at this point, and he said no (though reading his stories, you can't tell!). He took four years of French. He described worrying about reading his Shimmer story The Half-dark Promise at Ad Astra in Toronto, but said in the end it went well. He relies on intense research for his use of the language, and has worked in concert with the website owner. He says, "I stay away from Google Translate" unless he needs just a basic gist of what is going on. He highly recommends the Sweet Coconuts site for their audio resources and their lessons.

One of the discussants asked whether he was ever tempted to do Voodoopunk, but he said no. He feels it's important to be really comfortable in the language and culture required, and doesn't feel he knows enough Louisiana Creole. Also, his family takes voodoo/vodon very seriously, and he didn't want to wreck that. He has mentioned some African deities before, such as Mami Wata, but emphasizes, "I have to be really comfortable." That also means not culturally appropriating, which can be really difficult at times. He says he has to "write around what I don't know and make it believable and not make it ridiculous." Code-switching is a real challenge, so he keeps the sentences simple so that people who don't know the language have the best chance of understanding. He mentioned role models Junot Diaz and Daniel Jose Older who he says handle code-switching really well.

So far, Malon has written only short stories, in part because he edits as he writes and really wants it to sound right.

Malon, thank you for joining us!  We loved learning about your vision.

Here's the video:


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Domesticated Animals - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

We had a lovely time talking about domesticated animals. As expected, we started with cats and dogs. Some people question whether cats have been fully domesticated. The evolutionary history of both species is intertwined with ours, but quite different because of the different advantages the species brought. Cats were good at exterminating vermin, and dogs were hunting companions. Given that the cats didn't have to interact as much to fulfill their useful function, there was less interaction and less change in the cat species.

We noted that not all people consider cats and dogs to be pets, where they are coddled and treated often as family members or children. Mennonites and Amish primarily consider cats and dogs to be work animals, and have a more distant relationship. The working relationship changes the way we interact. How does one interact with an animal one later plans to eat? That question was taken up in Charlotte's Web, certainly.

Glenda talked about the roles of domesticated animals as workers, food, or pets; they can also be producers of raw material. Silk moths have been "domesticated," to a point. Though they can't interact with us the way mammals do, they have been bred for their silk and have become unable to fly, so they depend on human husbandry to keep them alive.

Brian talked about how our emotional attachment to pets has led some people to seek out exotic pets. However, there is a difference between taming and domestication.

We discussed the experiment in fox breeding that took place in Russia starting in 1959, started by Dmitri Belayaev. They took docile, human-loving foxes and bred them together, and also bred together hostile foxes, and then tracked the results. It was dramatic, had some interesting side effects (including pied fur!) and took place over relatively few generations.

Glenda said that taming often involves the persistence of juvenile characteristics.

Raj pointed out that many animals appreciate touch, even fish, though we tend to anthropomorphize them a lot less.

Cats meow to each other less often than they do with humans, and they meow at a similar frequency to babies' crying. We also discussed purring among cats - apparently panthera cats can only purr while exhaling!

We discussed the wildly different phenotypes of dogs. Their physical characteristics and temperamental characteristics have been deliberately altered so they fit with the work they have been intended to do, like fighting rats or even badgers in their burrows, or hunting in various ways, etc. Herding dogs have had their hunting behaviors re-purposed into herding behaviors. Sight hounds use their eyes to identify prey, and use speed to catch them; scent hounds are slower but "dogged" and use their noses. This led me to talk about some of the evolutionary history that I built into my story "Cold Words" and how I let behaviors etc. influence culture and language.

We talked also about more unusual domesticated species. Brian imagined an armadillo pulling a plow. We talked about llamas, which are very good at carrying loads and climbing steps. The solutions that you find for problems will depend on the tools you have available, and these will include your working animals. Wheels were inappropriate for the Inca, since llamas were able to handle the stairs easily. Weaving and cabling were used for a lot of solutions to problems in Inca culture because there was no enormous forceful animal to enable a lot of building heavy bridges, etc. We noted the Inca also had an advanced knot language used for many purposes including record-keeping.

Bison can't be domesticated, but buffalo can.
Here's a great picture of the oxen at Colonial Williamsburg:

Reindeer can be domesticated, but they are not suitable for riding. The body structure of an animal is critical to whether it can bear sufficient weight to be used for riding. Things got a little weird there for a while; we talked about people drinking reindeer urine with hallucinogens in it (people will do all sorts of crazy things!).

We recommend the books 1491 and 1493 for discussion of the Columbian Exchange.

We speculated a bit on whether it would be possible to domesticate octopi or dolphins... or whether it would be possible to keep humans as pets (probably not too well).

And here's the video!


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Link: Anatomy of a Regency Letter

I just had to share this link here, because it's so rich in information for people working with the Regency period, but also has great potential to inspire worldbuilders. Did you ever want to know about paper sizes and folding? Check this out!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cat Rambo and Beasts of Tabat: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

It was great to have Cat Rambo visit us to talk about her new novel, Beasts of Tabat, out now! Her first move was to teach us how to do name-tags on the hangout - thanks, Cat! She actually teaches a lot of her own writing workshops, so I encourage you to check those out, here.

Beasts of Tabat is Cat's debut novel. This world has appeared in her works before, in such stories as "I'll Gnaw Your Bones, the Manticore Said," but now's our chance to truly dive in! As she describes it:

1. Intelligent magical creatures exist in this world, and the economy of the world depends on their bodies and labor.
2. There is a New Continent. The Old Continent was destroyed by sorcerers, which means that sorcerers are feared.
3. Every year there is a ritual battle between Winter's Avatar and Spring's Avatar. The outcome of this battle has literal climatic effect - if Winter's Avatar wins, there will be six more weeks of winter. These avatars are chosen from the population of gladiators. Gladiators are famous people in the world of Tabat, and their adventures are chronicled in the Pennywides, a form of serial literature that Cat likens to the work of Dickens. The Pennywides are cheap to produce and get passed all around. The people of Tabat are generally very literate. Propaganda is used by political players.

Cat explained that the four books of this series are influenced by the works of Thomas Burnett Swan, which deal with mythological creatures' daily lives. Cat turned this into an opportunity to look at the culture of oppression, which gives the book an intentional brutal element. She points out that whenever you have one group oppressing another, you see two seemingly conflicting trends: one, to infantilize those being oppressed, so that you can consider them children and act on their behalf ("for their own good"); and another, to demonize the oppressed people, so you can create a sense of fear which then justifies violence and unfair treatment ("for our own good").

Cat told us that early versions of this book had twelve points of view! Narrowing that down in order to increase the cohesion of the first book led to a lot of the material being repurposed for the second book, which is why she says the second book is so far along in its progress toward completion.

Beasts of Tabat has two main points of view.

The first is Bella Kanto, whom Cat describes as experiencing the world in "Advanced Mode." She is a gladiator and a resident of Tabat. She is also the Avatar of Winter, and people resent her because she has so many fans who follow her adventures in the Pennywides, and because she's so successful as a gladiator that they've been having long winters for quite a while!

The second is Teo, who experiences the world and the city in "Beginner Mode." Having someone in beginner mode is always useful because they notice things that are normal and unnoticed by others. Teo is a shape-shifter, i.e. a sort of magical creature, but is able to pass for Human, which introduces complications into the identity politics and oppression.

Cat says she doesn't want to co-opt the struggles of oppressed people in America, but wants to engage with these questions and talk about them in a constructive way.

Tabat has three moons: Red (the big one), White (the medium one) and Purple (the tiny one), all of which appear on the cover! She's done a lot of nice work integrating that aspect of the world into its culture. Thus, months are of three different lengths: "purple months" are about a week, while "red months" and "white months" are a bit longer.

There is a temple that worships the moons, and it represents the status quo of people following traditions. There are also Trade Gods, who are the representations of economic forces. Humans are able to wield magic, and a critical distinction is drawn between wielding magic and being magic. Some human magic depends on the magical energies of the beasts. The moon temple magics are of a lower level.

I asked her to talk about politics in her world. She said that the two largest cities were established at the same time. A deal was made that the southern city of Tabat would be ruled by the Duke and his family for 300 years, and then would move to an electoral system. The book is placed chronologically right at the point when the Duke's reign is expected to come to an end - which makes for some fascinating instability! Cat says the last book ends with "cataclysms and cannons."

Cat has been working on this project since 2005, and it has been a long process. She's been writing a series of short stories that all fit together in this world, and the novel concepts and timeline grew out of them.

Cat spoke a bit about writing process. She says if you are writing, or thinking about writing, then you are making progress. Cat herself likes to offer writing exercises in her classes, and sometimes she participates in them herself. She finds teaching to be a huge benefit to her.

She also spoke to us about Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), where she has been an officer for many years, so if you are curious about the organization, you can listen to what she has to say about it or click through the link here to see SFWA's website. Cat noted that the SFWA blog is always looking for material, and pays 6 cents a word, while the Bulletin pays 8 or 15 cents per word.

Cat, thanks for coming to the hangout and talking with us about your exciting novel!

Here's the video: