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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Body Modification - a Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

I recommend this video for brainstorming because of its broad-ranging discussion.

We had a fabulous discussion on body modification. We started out with its modern meaning, talking about people who inject saline solution to change the shape of their faces, or the man who has tattooed himself to look like a lizard and had a crest inserted in his head to make him look less human.

However, there is a whole lot more that could be considered types of body modification. For example, foot binding in China was a very dramatic historical form of body modification, and things like castration to make a eunuch or castrato would also count as body modification. Cliff suggested that even circumcision might also be seen as falling under this category. Che mentioned that the Maya aristocracy shaped their heads by tying their babies' heads to boards, and also as adults inlaid their teeth with jade. Scarification and tattoos are found all over the world, and also count as modifications.

Very often, body modifications have an important social meaning. They can mark membership in a religion or other social group, and they can also mark changes of status (such as gaining adulthood or seniority).

We asked, "Do temporary changes count?" Henna tattoos are associated with special social circumstances, but fade with time. Hair style changes may not count because they are too easy to change.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox had a third arm added to his body. It's arguable whether his second head was added or original.

Neck stretching, which occurs among the women of the Padaung people of Burma as well as among several groups in Africa including the Ndebele, is a form of body modification. We discussed whether the neck was actually stretched, and whether the rings could be removed.

We noted that some of these body modification practices were intended to show that a person was aristocratic, and some were specifically geared to render a person unable to perform labor. Foot binding was one such practice, as was the growing of very very long fingernails. There have historically been various ways of marking oneself as being outside the working class.

Tattoos have in the past (and in the present, for some jobs) been a problem for people seeking jobs in the US. Cliff mentioned that his wife had a belly ring, but as a doctor, she received pushback from patients who didn't feel it fit the stereotypes of what a doctor should be like.

Our thoughts on body modification also took in modern beauty modifications, such as breast implants, botox injections, and even extreme dieting. Weight changes aren't necessarily permanent, but there remains the question, "What are you willing to do to your body for a job?"

Body modifications may also be coerced, such as female genital mutilation. But what about unintended modification? Does the damage done by coal dust count as a body modification? What about the sun damage sustained by people who must work all day in the sun?

We also talked about teeth, including the straightening and whitening of teeth as well as more unusual things like sharpening, etc.

There are also medical modifications, as when people get a pacemaker implanted, or get an artificial knee or hip. Morgan told us that her husband had had cataract surgery, and now his eyes glow in the dark.

In science fiction, many body modifications have been cybernetic as well as mechanical. Cliff recommended I, Cyborg by Kevin Warwick. In the book, Warwick talks about having cybernetic implants put in that allowed him to trade neural signals with his wife, among other things.

This led us to the idea of prosthetics, especially the modern thought-controlled ones, as a form of body modification. Do these things, which are attached to the outside of the body but function as body parts, count as body modification? What about exoskeletons that allow paraplegics to move, and may be brain-controlled, but are not actually a part of the body? A wheelchair is not considered a part of the body, but it does form an important part of a person's identity, as do other forms of mobility or functionality aids.

This thought led us to cochlear implants, which have raised very complex cultural and identity questions in the deaf community. Are these, and medical interventions like artificial ear bones, worth considering body modifications?

And what about genetic modification? To cure disease, or to create particular traits? If you were to alter the genetics of your child, what would you be doing to their identity? Would these changes be permanent? In Iain Banks' Culture books, people can change their gender.

We argued that humans have done rather extreme genetic body modification on a lot of different animal species, including turkeys and dogs.

Cliff mentioned a story he'd read where children were accompanied by adults whose bodies had been modified to be child size. Other stories we've read have had people modified to breathe underwater, or breathe nitrogen (other atmospheres), etc. Lois McMaster Bujold had people adapted to microgravity with four arms and no legs. Neuromancer featured a large number of cybernetic and other modifications, while in C.S. Friedman's book This Alien Shore, the first faster-than-light engine had made dramatic genetic alterations in humans so that they had now become significantly alien to one another.

Che remarked that one sees body modification mostly in science fiction rather than fantasy. What would it look like in fantasy? Che mentioned a story where someone had been punished by having the arms of the baby she killed magically grafted to her head. She also recommended the Monsterblood Tattoo by D.M. Cornish, where monster organs grafted magically into human bodies gave them particular powers.

Glenda mentioned the idea that eating the heart of a lion will give you a lion's strength, and this took us to the idea of magic potions. Magic potions might change your body's attributes, whether permanently or not.

This got us thinking that taking steroids was a form of body modification, if done over a long period. We also talked about medications and other techniques used to make genetically small people taller.

Cliff suggested that Gollum was modified by the One Ring, and so were the Nazgul, but we noted that in fantasy, complete transformation is more common. One of the brothers who were transformed into swans did end up with one wing after he was changed back.

I was really impressed with the range of topics we touched on, and hope these will get you thinking for your own projects. Thanks to everyone who attended!

Our next hangout will be in the new year on January 7th at 10am Pacific, and will be hosted on the Google Hangouts service if possible. I will keep you updated on how our technology is changing to the best of my ability. Our January guest will be Charlie Jane Anders, who will join us to talk about her book All the Birds in the Sky at a time to be announced.

I hope you all have wonderful holidays!


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Megan O'Keefe and Steal the Sky: A Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

We were joined by awesome debut author Megan O'Keefe, who spoke to us about her book, Steal the Sky, which will be out in January! As she described it, Steal the Sky is about a con man and his best friend who try to steal the airship of a mean lady. Things go sideways and they get involved in a coup...

This is an adventuresome book! So we dived a bit into the worldbuilding that Megan had put together.

The first thing we talked about was this substance called "selium," which she says can be pronounced either with a long or short "e." It's a gas with special properties, mined through "firemounts" - volcanoes, in other words. It exists in the earth's crust and bulges up in hot magma areas. It's mined by "sel-sensitives," who are magic users attuned to this particular substance. These magic-users can control the selium in different ways, depending on their level of skill.

Megan said she was "allergic" to the Aristotelian concept of elements, i.e. earth, wind, fire, water.

Selium is used for many things in this world, one of which is for lift. Some of the sel-sensitives can just move the gas; others can change its colors or do more destructive things with it. The miners are not sophisticated users. Sophisticated users are seen as dangerous and pogroms are used to get rid of them. Also, overuse of selium magic leads to a disease called bonewither.

I asked Megan how she explored the selium system and discovered new things about it. She said that if a person can change the color, why couldn't they change the texture, or other things? The underlying backbone of the system needs to be known to the author, but mysteries can be left for readers.

Megan told us about her research. She studied geology in college, so the geological research she did for the book was a refresher. She looked up upswelling. She created an Australia-sized continent with lots of volcanoes, where the earth's tectonic plates are moving slowly - more slowly than the one over Hawaii. There is lots of spreading, and there are earthquakes, though none occur in this book. The seismic activity does have some mythological implications for these people.

Socially, she said that the native Katari people of this land were pushed off by the Valathean Empire, who sent them off to less seismically active areas. There is a belief that they can take back their land when certain conditions are met. The Katari are more accepting of sel-sensitives. Sel-sensitivity is not genetic, but is caused by the environment, ingesting the groundwater, etc. However, Valatheans thought it was genetic. The story takes place three generations after the conquest, so those Valatheans who live on the Scorched Continent have a new identity. Of course, the Valatheans gave the continent that name. Their own area of the world is jungle-y. Megan says that the city where the story takes place is like a frontier outpost, with a degree of lawlessness.

In fantasy stories, Megan explains, often characters develop powers they shouldn't have, and people come to get them but they are saved by revolutionaries. In the case of this character, nobody saved him, and he was experimented on. Eventually he got away from them, and now he cons and harasses them to release his anger and get back at the people who hurt him.

Another character in the story is Ripka, the female protagonist and watch captain. Her motive is to care for things. She grew up low-income and watched refugees from the war come through. She's facing tough moral decisions. There is something of the feel of a Western to the aesthetics in this book, including the sense of expansion and the desperation and hope in the city.

The two ethnic groups, Katari and Valathean, are on the cusp of full integration. There is some friction between these groups but as yet the Empire has a stranglehold. Megan told us she got a lot of her inspiration from England's trade empire, and influences from Portuguese and Dutch history.

She told us there are "two and a half" points of view. The "half" is a Katari who shows up every five chapters. It's not clear if she's a bad guy because she has complex motivations and is seeking revenge in complex ways.

Overall, this is a secondary world fantasy, with a world not related to earth.

I also asked Megan about the flight of the airships. These are like sailing ships with a wood body and sails... except that the typical sailing ship wouldn't work well in the air because it would have no way to steer. Selium provides the lift, but the ships also have ailerons and propellers and flight control surfaces. Megan says she got her research for this from her own experience as a private pilot. There are no dirigibles, but "fliers" look something like Chinese or Nile river barges with buoyancy sacs above them. Note: they still have ailerons!

The Scorched continent has a monsoon season. This causes more bugs, while more water animals start coming in from the coast. Animals in this world include marsupial rats, goats, rock cats (the size of savanna cats). There are poisonous bugs and aggressive, softball-sized bees. Also, giant spiders the size of your hand!

Rajnar asked about volcanic vugs, the pockets where gemstones form. Apparently, in this world selium can form into stones under the proper circumstances. There are extremophile creatures, but they are not (yet?) encountered by the characters.

Megan told us that people in this world wear glasses. That has some technological implications. We asked, "why wouldn't they then have telescopes?" However, a lot of different technologies come together to create something like a glass bottle or a pair of glasses or a telescope. Faience glass, which was made in Egypt, did not involve the kind of grinding technology necessary for a telescope. It's also tricky to get glass to be clear (rather than translucent). Megan told us, "For me, everything follows something else. They [the people in this world] want to read longer, but why? What is important to them?"

I asked about the Black Walk. This is a method of capital punishment unique to the city featured in Steal the Sky. Normally, people will go around this volcanic area - a hot aquifer covered over with a layer of shattered obsidian. People who are stripped and asked to walk across it will quickly lose their shoes and then their lives, being cut and then burned to death.

I asked Megan if she had a favorite thing about this book. She said it was the friendship between the protagonist and his best friend. She said it was special because it was a really solid friendship, despite being tested multiple times. In particular she said she felt that friendships aren't usually given enough weight and importance, that they are treated as too fragile in many stories.

There are also sequels coming up! Book 2 will take us to a southern coastal city with different cultural mores, and different architectural style... and an island prison off the coast, while Book 3 will give us a peek into the Valathean Empire. Megan says she also has novellas planned.

Thank you so much for joining us, Megan! It was really fun to explore your world and your worldbuilding process. The book will be out in January, so look out for Steal the Sky...


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fairy Tales: A Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

We thoroughly enjoyed this hangout, but one of the resolutions that came out of it was that I need to invite fairy tale experts Alethea Kontis and Theodora Goss to come and hang out with us on the same topic sometime!

The first questions we asked were, "What makes a fairy tale world recognizable?"  and "What makes it stereotypical?" We agreed that fairy tale worlds are often magical, but don't always have a strict magical system. They often have talking animals, some of which turn out to be enchanted people! Characters tend to be archetypal, and there is an oral narrative feel to the story. They are similar to folk tales, and possibly a subset of folk tales with particular features. Folk tales also commonly have talking animals and magical births, as well as people who can be swallowed whole and still emerge alive.

A fairy tale world tends to have magical properties, though spells can be cast in it. There can be witches.

I mentioned Alethea Kontis because she is an expert on fairy tales and blends lots of them marvelously in her books.

Glenda mentioned that typically, fairy tales feature a pre-modern context rather than a modern technological setting. Obviously, modern versions like Once Upon a Time have begun to change that. There have been a lot of changes in fairy tales over time, though. The older forms of fairy tales were much darker, with more deaths and violence. The old tales also had a teaching aspect. Some of these qualities have been updated in the form of urban fantasy, but urban fantasy can have more consistent and systematic rules. We speculated that Magical Realism might be closer to fairy tales in the way that it imbues the world with magical properties.

In a fairy tale world, the characters may not know all the rules, but the author should. I mentioned our earlier discussion with Laura Anne Gilman about her book, Silver on the Road. That story has many things in common with fairy tales, in that it features localized place magic, and a very organic magical system.

We also noted that fairy tales often have their own particular logic, which is not the same as that of other kinds of stories. There is a level of trust established between the storyteller and the listener that makes certain kinds of events and reasoning possible. We spoke about how Spirited Away, the film by Hayao Miyazaki, utilizes some of this same fairy tale style logic, with rules like, "hold your breath across the bridge," that have no reasoning behind them, yet are accepted as part of the way the world works. There is also the idea of not looking back, which occurs at the end of the film, and also in quite a lot of stories going all the way back to Greek mythology with the story of Orpheus. There is a common inventory of talismanic objects, places, and relationships (including childless parents and parentless children!).

Mythology, folk tales, and fairy tales are all related to one another in many of their features.

Che asked if we had ever seen fairy tales within a magical secondary world. None of us could think of an example. Legends are relatively common, but they often turn out to be real.

There is a very common trope, in fact, of the world in which gods and magic are real. If you live in that kind of world, do you extrapolate from it at all? Do your teaching tales take a metaphorical form when magic is real? Would a place like our world be mythical to them?

When you are working with a type of story, often what you see is that there is a prototype form that the world or story takes, based on a shared set of features - but not all of those features are always shared. Thus, it's possible to avoid European defaults and still have a story with the same power and flavor as a fairy tale.

Thanks to everyone who participated! I hope you will join us tomorrow to talk about body modification and worldbuilding. We'll meet at 10am Pacific on Google+.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Personal Titles (Honorifics, etc.): a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

We had an interesting discussion. Titles include things like the Japanese suffixes for names, including:
-san on names, and also on professions when you don't know a person's name
-chan for intimates, usually young women but not exclusively
-sensei for teachers, doctors, dentists, and artists.

In English we have Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, Ma'am, sir, and (I hear) Mx.

If you don't know someone, what do you call them? Honey? Sir? Ma'am? In Japan, you usually use a kin term that approximates their age and gender.

There are also professional titles. Doctor can be a profession, or it can indicate the completion of a degree. Whether people use the title "Doctor" after they have earned it depends on public perception of its use - and this is something to keep in mind when designing titles in a secondary world. Lawyers in our world don't use the title "doctor" though they have earned the academic equivalent. Using a title can create a social distancing effect, even as it creates a certain type of respect. Whether you drop the title or add it creates a different effect depending on the title.

Another important question to ask is how you get a title. How is membership in this social group awarded? Is it hereditary, like "Your Highness" or "Your Majesty" for kings and queens? Is it awarded by a king or queen, like "Dame" or "Sir" the knighthoods? What about Baron, Count, etc?  Do you get this title because you are married?

Who is entitled to award titles? Is it a "God-given" title requiring a religious figure to award it?

The details will vary depending on the world and its cultural influences.

Morgan told us about her title system, which has a special name for the Ruler, one for the Ruler's Spouse, the Heir, and then family members not in the order of succession. A title tells you about relationships between people in this world.

Titles often come with strong associations, such as the word King, which should be used with care if you don't want all its associations to come with it. Mayor has a very specific definition, as does Governor. I made up my own title, Alixi, for city rulers in Varin, because that position doesn't fit with the associations of either Governor or Mayor.

There are also military ranks and titles. These can be defined differently depending on which branch of the armed forces you are talking about. Titles tend to be conservative, in that they reflect the social order and authority of the past.

Ms. came to be because of a demand for a title that did not have the marital implications of Mrs. or Miss.

Varin uses caste names that come before the first names because they used to be titles.

Many military titles came from French. In fiction we often see Captain or Lieutenant. Sometimes we see Roman ranks like Decurion or Centurion.

If a group of people gets conquered by another people, they will often be forced to use the conqueror's titles.

When you choose a term different from the expected one, in fiction, what you are doing is telling the reader to be on the lookout for differences in the social relationships.

Thank you to all who attended! Here's the video:


Monday, December 7, 2015

Dive into Worldbuilding meets Tuesday 1pm Pacific

This is just a note to remind everyone that we have a guest author joining us this week. Author Megan O'Keefe joins us to talk about her new novel, Steal the Sky! We'll meet on Tuesday, December 8th at 1pm Pacific.

I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Idioms (and Proverbs): A Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

My thumbnail makes this look like a lively discussion! (It was.) We spoke about idioms - expressions, or words that come in clumps. "Let the cat out of the bag," "What the ____" "sick as a dog" etc. These are generally things we say that started out as metaphors or similes, but at this point have become contextualized to the point that their content is almost meaningless. The phrase has meaning as itself, but loses its idiomatic sense and becomes literal if you try to change the words.

Apparently the phrase "pulling my leg" in English, meaning when someone is attempting to fool you, translates in Spanish as "pulling my hair."

Che told us about The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, in which people studied proverbs and acted out stories behind the proverbs. There were originally specific contextual meanings behind things like "eat in the east; sleep in the west." A story behind each one.

This reminded us, of course, of the Star Trek episode "Darmok" in which the alien language is entirely composed of opaque idioms and the literal is meaningless. We discussed that for a while, since it's one of my favorite episodes and I wrote a story using it as inspiration.

In a fictional world, you can make up your own expressions, or alter ones from the real world to fit. I mentioned two from my Varin world: "A rock roof is safer than a blanket," wrote itself but has no parallel in our world, while "out of the dark" is a variant on "out of the blue." A reader needs context in order to understand an idiomatic epxression.

If you run into a spot in your narrative where you instinctively want to put an English idiom, but it doesn't fit, think about what the secondary world context might support. Watch for contextual mismatches.

Morgan mentioned "feathers in the wind" as an idiom suggesting that gossip can't be captured.

Our capacity to understand metaphor helps us to understand idioms.

Che mentioned "blood adds sauce to the meal," which depending on context could mean "fresher is better" or "you have no taste."

My own character Rulii says things like "only the scavenger doesn't expect to find his meat still struggling," and "are your teeth sharp enough"?

Each idiom can have meta-implications.

Che mentioned how real world proverbs are often used to teach. "If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas" "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

You can have similar proverbs in your world.

Glenda talked about how you need to know the story behind "sour grapes" in order to grasp all the implications. This led us to talking about canonical stories. Are they religious stories? Folk tales?

If you are using idioms or proverbs in your world, you get more metaphor, and a bit of historical linguistics folded in. There's an opportunity there to have real events give rise to an expression that becomes idiomatically opaque later.

Che mentioned that if you are looking for idiom contexts, there are lists available on websites for people studying English as a Second Languge (ESL). Is there a character in your story who is a proverb-using person?

You can look for ideas in books of proverbs from other countries.
More detail and examples can be found in the video:


Nancy Hightower and The Acolyte: A Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Author Nancy Hightower joined us to talk about her new poetry collection, The Acolyte, which she told us she wrote over the course of 10 years! These poems deal with loss, despair, and hope - many of them in a Biblical context. Nancy said she had wanted to revisit the Biblical stories, treating the characters in them as real people.

She says she "tried to listen to the unspoken narratives." "Where do you have to be emotionally," she asked, "to nail somebody's head to the ground?" That is just what one of the Biblical women does, saving the nation in the process.

I asked Nancy why some of the poems have Biblical quotes preceding them and others do not. She explained that the more well-known verses aren't quoted because they are familiar to more people, while more obscure ones are quoted. In addition, the verse that precedes the poem "She" serves as a trigger warning for the gang rape that occurs in the verse and poem. We briefly discussed the purpose of an envoi at the head of a piece.

She said everyone talks about Moses going across the sea, but no one talks about how he's not able to go into the promised land. In this sense, all of the poems are about breaking expectations for how the Bible content will be treated and discussed. Bible verses tend to get used in very restrictive ways, and her worldbuilding choice was to frustrate the usual sense of narrative closure - the sense that "those stories were only good for one thing."

There is a fascinating temporal hybridization in these poems. Some are focused on the events of archaic time, but others bring in glimpses of our modern era as well, such as the story of Sarah, which brings in an evocation of the modern struggle of fertility as well as the events of the ancient time. Nancy told us that Transformations by Anne Sexton influenced how she talked about things. Nancy particularly wanted to give more of a voice to the archaic world. She says the political re-reading of these stories is too flat and cliché., and that we don't give that world enough weight or validity. She wanted to treat these people as characters beyond their traditional flat portrayal.

I asked her about how she decided which poems to include. She spoke a bit about her own spiritual journey. Her father worked for three televangelists, one of whom was Jim Bakker. She says that she came through the experience more full of doubt than surety, but that this was part of the strength of her faith. She relates to characters who wrestle with faith as a result.

I asked her about her use of poetic language, and how poetry is different from her prose writings. She says there are different mental modes for each style. Poetry is image-driven and "collapses the journey." She says poetry can be intimidating because you can travel so far in just a few lines. She described poetry as giving a strange feeling like they're the strongest surreal portal into other worlds, bordering on uncanny and maybe even violating if you're not ready.

I also asked her about how much she went by gut feel and how much by analytical technique. She says the first draft is intuitive, while you hammer it from a story into a poem. She said she drafted "Tamar" in one sitting, but "Leah" took three years. You have to find the best way to collapse it. You can travel great distances in 12 lines, and you must do whatever is needed to collapse that distance.

She said "Tamar" is her favorite. Tamar had two husbands die on her. She married Onan, but Nancy says the verse about him spilling seed on the bed is not about masturbation. Most importantly, she says, Tamar totally alters Judah's personal narrative, from the point where he sends his brother Joseph to be enslaved, to the point where he offers himself up.

Nancy likes pulling in multiple narratives and letting them reflect on each other. She sees these poems as falling between literary and genre. They are not as abstract as some. She explained, "I could have written these as mini-stories," but then she said it would have taken pages, and required a lot of backstory. To be a portal into the stories of the Bible it had to be shorter and more disorienting. She aimed for these poems to be dark and uncanny, and not evangelical. Narrative is comforting, she says, but poetry less so.

I asked her how she chose the title "The Acolyte." She said that the original title was going to be Slow Journey, but then the poem by that name was removed from the collection. The name "The Acolyte" is more liturgical, and taps into the sacred, tying it in to a liturgical world, but that these are not liturgy. The gothic cover features an apocalyptic scene with an angel who is not at all comforting. An acolyte is someone in training. I had the sense that perhaps the reader was the acolyte. Nancy didn't disagree. "I do want to change the paradigm," she said.

One thing she wants to look at is "what happens when you are un-chosen?" Ishmael is thrown out but sees the angel. Leah is un-chosen, trapped in a loveless marriage. Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth. Jeremiah. People in exile. Nancy suggests that this may because the postmodern mindset is one of exile. People will ask "Where do I belong?" "How do I stay in the story if I'm the un-chosen one?" She wants to continue to explore this and see where it goes.

Nancy says that people often come to stories with an emotional expectation, but to poetry with an intellectual expectation. With these poems, she expects people to be emotionally engaged, even gut-punched. She also says "something within me is in each poem." High poetry is very abstract, "close to heaven." She wanted to use the expressive medium for unexpected consequences.

Nancy, thanks so much for joining us and giving us insight into your work! If you'd like to hear more detail, do watch the video below. We'll be meeting today at 10am Pacific on Google+ to talk about Fairy Tales, and next week we'll be joined by guest author Megan O'Keefe, who will tell us about her new book, Steal the Sky. Join us!