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Monday, August 24, 2015

Humor and Pranks: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

Hands-down, the Humor and Pranks hangout was the most ill-fated hangout I have ever attempted to this point. I kept having to delay it, and delay it again, and then didn't have time to write it up... it was almost as if the whole thing were in itself a humorous prank!

Mischief and pranks have an important place in human cultures. Locally, we have April 1st, a holiday dedicated to fools and mischief, as well as Halloween, in itself a sort of mischief night (which can border on destructive). Brian mentioned that April 1st in Britain has historically been an occasion for elaborate stories and japes, including by television and newspapers, though he thinks the prevalence of satire sites has diluted the effect of the day itself. In the early 1960's the BBC had a whole report on the spaghetti harvest (from spaghetti trees) in Italy. There was another one in the Guardian in 1977 about the fictional country of San Serriffe. The whole idea was to make it just plausible enough, while at the same time using a semicolon-shaped map, and engaging other print-related jokes.

Che asked if humor was universal. It probably is, but the shape it takes will depend on which culture it appears in. Humor may have arisen as a form of play. Play, we decided, is a great way for young creatures to learn adult skills in a safer environment where it's not literally life or death.

Humor often relies on playing right at the edge of established social rules or taboos. It can lead to discomfort and people will sometimes protect themselves from reprisal by saying "only kidding" and trying to classify their speech as attempted humor (whether or not it actually was!).

Fools and jesters have an important role in mental health. They reduce tension. They play with exploring uncomfortable ideas. A step away from stress is probably also good for physical health. People with chronic pain are often very humorous because they use humor to distract themselves or protect themselves.

There is always the question of who is allowed to tell a joke. My sense was to compare it to the concentric circles of the diagram of tragedy - the innermost circle, the most affected, can joke to others, and it's probably acceptable to joke "outwards" about uncomfortable topics, but not inward. The more common way to talk about it is to say it's not okay to "punch down."

Jesters were also allowed, more than anyone else, to mock the powerful. George II apparently banished his court jester.

We talked about the tradition of roasts, where the guest of honor gets mocked. That guest is still in a position of honor and power, however.

There is a lot of cultural capital and privilege invested in the use of humor.

When you are paid for being funny, there are extra rules... like, "Don't offend the people who are paying you." Humor always walks that fine line.

We discussed some of the historical records of jesters. The earliest names known in Europe generally come from the Renaissance. Henry II had a jester. Apparently in the 5th century, there were people who farted on command. Apparently there was a jester in China called Chin Huang Ti in 207 BCE. Though the stereotype of jesters is medieval European, this is not really true.

Humor gives a degree of safety. Flirtation is a form of humorous play allowing approach while defusing the serious aspects of sexual interest.

What is the lowest form of wit? Puns? Sarcasm? Potty humor? In babies, you see humor around their discoveries about their bodies. It also becomes a way to gain power relative to parents, to explore and seize power.

There is scatological humor, visual humor, slapstick humor, language humor. Non sequiturs can be really funny, as can lack of sense-making.

If you are using humor, consider who tells the joke.

What is the role of profanity? Is it just for shock value? Is it identity politics?

We spoke briefly about the humorous interviews on The Daily Show and why they were humorous. We also talked about how sarcasm is rare in Japan, and not used in the same contexts.

Thank you to everyone who participated. I'm so glad this report is finally out!

This week's hangout will be Wednesday, August 26th at 3pm Pacific and we'll be discussing Modesty. I hope you can join us!


My new SF/F Reading Journal for next year's Hugos

I have been inspired by this year's Hugos.

It's become clear to me, as perhaps it has to many others, that entrusting my opinions of the latest genre works to others to nominate for awards is not enough any more.

One might ask: why haven't I done the active, thorough job I wanted on nominating? Easy: life. The biggest factor in my failure is my faulty, distracted, non-eidetic memory.

Therefore, I'm starting a reading journal.

Essentially, I am a very busy person (as many are), and I can't always call to mind every story I've read in a year, even the good ones. From now on, every time I read a story in the field, or a brilliant article, etc. I'll be writing down title, author, and publication.

That way I can get to the end of the year and remember not just the one or two stories that totally blew me away, but the other ones I loved but read on a day when I had 20 errands and a home play date. Or the ones I loved on a day when I was sick, or when I was in the middle of a crazy vacation.

I'm really excited about this, actually. I love to support stories I have enjoyed. The whole field is better off when we read each other's work, talk about it, and support it.

I hope everyone with a Hugo membership this year will consider doing the same going forward. We need everyone involved.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Stina Leicht and Cold Iron: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

Last week Stina Leicht dropped by to talk to us about her new book, Cold Iron, which is out now! This was a really fun conversation because in Stina's last visit to Dive into Worldbuilding, we got a few hints about her work on this project, and this time we were able to talk about how the novel had come together.

Stina says it's hard to do elevator pitches for epic fantasy, but that she began it with a starter question: What if Tolkien were American? She got the inspiration in part from an essay about how epic fantasy glorified feudalism. So her idea was to take the tropes of Tolkien, and change them. She set the book in a world resembling the late 1700's (technologically and culturally). She did some research on the time period to get inspirations from the history. One thing she picked up was the smallpox epidemic.

In this world, there are humans, and kaenin. Kaenin have magic and pointy ears, and humans don't (Stina finds a lovely backwards way of showing this in the book, too). Kaenin are diverse. People came to their nation, Eledor, from all over the world. Skin tones vary among the Kaenin but they are not the thing that identifies them as Kaenin; possession of magic is. People without power are not considered worthy by them, and thus humans are looked down on. So are Kaenin born without power.

The magic of the Kaenin is "command magic." They can tell you you are seeing things that you are not, as when, for example, they hand you dead leaves and you accept them as money. Different families among the Kaenin have different powers that are handed down. Stina described an inspiration she got at a retreat with her agent, Barry Goldblatt. Magical power is a "footprint in the world" like money. She asked, "How can you treat magic like money?" It doesn't work in every situation, but it leads to some interesting opportunities.

In Cold Iron, the Acrasians are the enemies, the Big Bad. Book 2 starts in Acrasia. The Acrasians come through Rifts; the first Rift occurred in Eledor.

The book notably includes a map. She said that she hadn't wanted to draw a map, because Tolkien did it so well. I noted that the map she included looks a bit like America. She told us she'd agonized over details like "Is this accurate?" "Would mountains really form here?" "How long would it really take to travel from here to here?"

She said she got inspired by an image from Jeff Vandermeer's Wonderbook, which shows a dragon outline made out of layered cloud shapes. She decided to take ghosts and demons and layer them over each other to create her map. The native peoples of the region are Kaenin, while the immigrants are the Acrasians, coming from a culture like ancient Rome.

Despite her protestations that she did a minimum of research, so she could "have fun," I suspect this was simply in contrast with the years of incredible, politically exacting research she did for her novels set in Northern Ireland. Stina says she did quite a bit of reading about the Georgian era in America, and particularly recommends the book Pox Americana.

In her world, the Acrasians have developed the musket. It has been around in their culture for a while, but has not been in Eledor for very long. Rifling is very new to both cultures.

The book is the first of a planned series. Each book will stand alone, but all will be connected. Stina is enjoying playing with the characters, and letting the world breathe and grow. She wants people to be able to pick up Book 3 and not suffer from the lack of knowledge from books 1 and 2.

Che asked whether we will be going to places other than Eledor. Stina said, "Eventually." She told us about the water-born nations, which are clans who live on ships at sea and believe in the Sea Mother. She says she took inspiration here from the East India company. No one outside a clan gets to learn where their home island is. They have magic that works on the water. She loves this group because she has always loved pirate stories like Kidnapped and Treasure Island.

The first book uses three points of view and a mosaic plot structure. The three are Nels, Suvi his twin sister, and Ilta, a powerful seer and healer whose power nearly drives her crazy.

I asked her about the significance of the color black in Eledor. It is used to separate the soldier class from the rest of society because they deal in death. They are therefore considered unclean, and have cleansing rituals they must complete; they must also be careful whom they associate with, or touch. The black means they are marked by death. People in the Kaenin culture are frightened of death and blood. She took inspiration for this from the 1970's and the way soldiers were ostracized when they came back from Vietnam. Deaths in the normal population are ignored, and the word "death" is similarly ignored, always turned into euphemisms.

Stina also remarked that royalty exists in Eledor - that Nels and Suvi's mother wanted a more democratic government but she dies.

Korvas are scouts, thieves, and assassins. They look normal but they have keen hearing and the ability to hide very well. They are employed by nobles and the army. The army, interestingly, is considered a punishment for Eledorians. They choose to go into it to avoid jail, and the family grieves for them. Korva actions are illegal but used anyway; bad korvas are executed, while those who get caught get scarred distinctively.

For language, Stina told us she used a lot of Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish to inspire Eledor. The word korva, for example, means "ear." The title of a seer means "eye of the people," while the names of the months are Finnish. She wanted to emulate the way that the United States has varied place names from different languages.

"Cold Iron" refers to a sward. Water steel is a specialty of the Eledorians, and effective against the Acrasians. There is also a method used against Eledorians that is particularly destructive, and that is also referred to as Cold Iron.

Che asked whether Stina had done research on gunsmithing, to which Stina replied, "Lots." She feels that as an author, you have to know how things work. Gun hobbyists would likely call you out for errors. Some things in a fantasy book can be made up, but others you ahve to do research on. She promises that there will be magical rifles, and a character who is a gunsmith who leaves Acrasia with stolen knowledge. Something to look forward to in Book 2!

Stina says she enjoys character-driven fiction and tries to make her own work character-driven as well. She says she felt her books set in Northern Ireland were very stressful because of the pressure to get every last detail exactly right. This series allows her to play with ideas and what-ifs.

Thank you for joining us for this great conversation, Stina! Everyone keep an eye out for Cold Iron.


Usman T. Malik: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

We had a fantastic discussion with Usman T. Malik, author of "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn" and "The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family," among other stories.

Usman told us he'd had the idea for "Vaporization" en route to Clarion West. He was thinking about "something science-y" and a new state of matter. He wrote the story while Elizabeth Hand and John Clute were his instructors. It's about what happens to people, nations, and countries under pressure, and how chaos erupts. With horror, he says, you take characters to the point of no return and then squeeze.

He says he doesn't do a lot of secondary worldbuilding. He grew up reading horror fiction, and says that horror usually takes place in a contemporary setting, while dark fantasy usually takes place in a past setting. He feels that real life is the most scary. People often think of worldbuilding as secondary world only, but that is not the case. He mentioned how at one point, someone took Hemingway's work and reconstructed a map of the areas he was describing; it correlated perfectly with reality.

The more research you can do on your setting the better. He describes the setting of "Eucalyptus Jinn" as very critical to the story. He used his memory of the places described, but also requested a delay in the publication of the story until after he took a trip to Pakistan. One thing he said he'd forgotten was the tremendous amount of dust in the streets, which he made sure to include in the story afterward. He urges people to visit if they can.

When writing a story set in the Indus valley, at Mohenjo Daro, he wanted to go there but was told it was not safe to go. He had to rely on books, and was bothered by having to use inauthentic detail.

He expressed admiration for Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings, saying that Ken has done things no one has done before, taking techniques from the epics in Asia, and creating authenticity and reality. Usman said he'd wondered whether Liu memorized "The Art of War."

I asked about his interest in life practices as a subject for fiction. He explained that he has "no background in literature" which I take to mean no academic background, because Usman is exceedingly well read! His academic background is in the health sciences. He said no one had explained to him what setting was, but that he'd been inspired by Chip Delany's approach while at Clarion West. Delany criticized the white room syndrome. People tend to remember visual descriptions.

Usman criticizes the advice often given to new writers, "don't start with the setting," saying it should instead be "don't start with bad writing." He says the avoidance of setting makes things too brisk, too fast-paced, and turns everyone into the same John Grisham. He emphasizes the power of setting in Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation. Setting does not necessarily have to slow you down. You can describe it distantly, or through character perception. With the former, you can take more authorial control of the description, while with the latter, you can play with the unreliability of memory. Usman said that in The Pauper Prince, he deliberately made the description of the protagonist's memory of his hometown very dreamlike, and also very different from the description of the town when he actually goes there. Memory uses the "lens of longing," while reality will not.

I asked which authors inspire him. He said that he reads all kinds of stories. He read in Urdu until the age of 10 or 11. Since he was at a colonial school in Pakistan, he also read Enid Blyton and other British authors. He mentioned Naiyer Masud, Kelly Link, Thomas Lugotti, Franz Kafka, Ken Liu and Shirley Jackson. He said that in science fiction, Ted Chiang had opened his mind to what the genre could do, when previously he'd thought of it in terms of Star Trek and robots. He says he reads works over and over, trying to break them down and figure out how they work. He also mentioned Don Langan, Laird Barron, Sarah Langan and Thomas Lugotti as standouts in the horror genre.

I asked him about the role of poetry in his his work. He told us about Urdu and Farsi poetry, and about the tradition in Iran and other nations of memorizing large amounts of poetry. Usman says that it's a useful exercise, because it gives you a sense of rhythm and lets you experiment with sentence structure. Usman reads Sufi poetry and translates it into English. Reggie asked him if he has written poetry, and he said yes, but described it as "it's impossible to become a writer without that awkward phase." He said Urdu poetry was his forte for quite a while. In grades 7 and 8 he would be asked to write an essay and use poetry to support his argument... and he would compose his own couplets, simply prefacing them with, "as the poet says..." He said he did it to fool the teachers because he found it hard to link existing poetry with the essay topics, like "the importance of a morning walk" or "a rainy day." "I did not know how to write essays," he said. "My mom would make me memorize them."

I asked him if he has ever worked at novel length, and he said he started writing seriously in 2012 with a novel but found he didn't have the skill to pull it off to his satisfaction. He hopes to return to novel writing eventually, however. He says, with his busy every day life, he might only be able to complete two more stories for the rest of the year.

Christie asked about settings that you can research but not visit, and whether that really bothers him; it bothers her, too, and she feels tied in knots about what she can't find out. She asked, "What is enough?"

Usman replied that not many people know about the details he writes about, so not as many people are likely to call him out. He spoke about Ted Chiang's research for "The Story of Your Life," which involved interviewing 20 women who had raised daughters. Apparently it took Chiang five years to write the story. Usman says, "instead of fictionalizing reality, realify your fiction." Do the best you can, get immersed, and try to be 99.999% accurate. How much time do you have to make every detail count? You can disappear in the research rabbit hole all the time, but the research still shows. "Pauper Prince" started at 27 thousand words, then came down to 21 thousand. He made three editorial passes before Ellen Datlow bought it, and then did his own further revisions after his trip to Pakistan. He was happy to see the research made a difference for people who read the story.

Thank you so much for visiting the show, Usman! This was a great discussion, and there is more detail in the video: