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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Marshall Ryan Maresca and An Import of Intrigue

Author Marshall Ryan Maresca joined us to talk about his latest book, An Import of Intrigue. He explained that this is the fourth book he's written in this world, and the second in the series - he's got two series going on concurrently, and a third series will be coming out in March! Wow.

The fantasy world we spoke about is called Maradaine after the largest metropolis in it, though the nation itself is called Druthal. Druthal is a parliamentary monarchy, because Marshall said he didn't just want to copy and paste a British monarchy. So they have elections and parliament representatives. He wanted to keep a "street-level" perspective on this world.

Series one is The Thorn of Dentonhill followed by The Alchemy of Chaos, and they feature a magic student who becomes a vigilante. The second series is The Murder of Mages followed by our featured book, an Import of Intrigue, which involves inspectors investigating magical murders.

I asked Marshall about the magic system in his world. He said it wasn't logical; that some people were born with magic but that it wasn't genetically predictable. It usually manifests at thirteen years old or so, and the mage must be trained. Mages are pressed into training at a "circle," or a legally defined society of mages. If you are not trained by a circle, you are outcast and can become a target. In this world, trusting magic is new; two hundred years earlier, mages would be burned at the stake!

Minox, one of the main characters, is an uncircled mage. He was adult when his powers manifested and was already working in the constabulary. You can't be circled and in the constabulary at the same time, because circled mages distrust the constabulary, thinking they will be locked up for disturbing the peace. Minox has to be careful with his use of power because he's not fully trained. Marshall says he's a bit like a bull in a china shop. People at the police station call him "jinx" and don't trust him.

The other main character, Satrine, is an excellent inspector but unconventional. They respect and like each other, and each one gets point of view time. Book 1 only had two points of view, but Import of Intrigue has more points of view. Marshall says point of view is an element of trust with the reader, because you must be honest with the reader. Part of the point of having multiple points of view was to show that these characters have a life outside of their jobs.

I asked Marshall about the maps that accompany the book. He designed them himself, and says he worked on maps while thinking about the book. He's made maps of the city, of the country, and of the world. He creates them with photoshop. He started working on them more than twenty years ago, so he says there are lots of photoshop layers!

Maradaine is located by a very large river estuary, in a very protected port. There are islands before you get to the sea. Culturally, it's got a lot of people who have traveled from other regions, and it even has a neighborhood of foreign enclaves. He worked on linguistic background for five foreign cultures. 

"Trade" is what he calls the language of the Druth culture. It's a small piece of what was once a larger empire, and the language is shared by all the other regions which were once a part of this empire. Trade is rendered in English in the book. Marshall says he has a friend who is studying linguistics who helps out with particular linguistic aspects of language design. The first step for him is deciding on the phonemic inventory, or the list of all the different sound concepts used in the language, or "all the sounds I feel like I can make." He thinks about how to express those sounds in a consistent way using English letters, because he wants the languages to look different from each other, and also not to resemble particular Earth languages. Then he moves on to the distribution of sounds and the rules affecting them.

Marshall really enjoys linguistic work. He told us about a different project in which the main character's culture has three different languages contributing to its basic vocabulary, which he says causes weirdness.

An Import of Intrigue includes a pronunciation guide in the back.

The Fuergan language comes from the east of the Keiran empire.  It uses aspirated sounds like hr and hs at the starts of words - mostly names and a few nouns appear in the book. This is a language with many complex familial terms that come from a system of complex marriages. A Fuergan noble is the murder victim, and the Fuergan mourning ceremonies are featured. This language is foreign to the point of view characters. Marshall described it as a copyediting adventure trying to get all the languages correct and internally consistent, but says at least he can ascribe it to character error if anything comes out not quite right. He has extensive notes on language and transcription rules. Different cities have to reflect the language rules of their area.

Morgan asked where he starts with the language. Marshall said he starts with the country names. He names them first, and then uses those names as a basis to inform the language concept.

Druth history and language change also factor into the language. Pockets of the original pre-Imperial Druth language still persist in the form of place names. These names tend to resemble French a bit more. He created them first, then backformed the language from them. We agreed that one of the traps of conlanging (creating new languages) is over-regularization of the language. He said he was always frustrated that the Bajorans of Star Trek only ever seemed to eat hasparat.

Because he uses points of view who are outsiders to these foreign languages, he can do more with those languages in the book.

Culture and language navigation are the key to solving the mystery. It's a puzzle he created deliberately. The writing that accompanies the body is Lyranan, and the Lyranan language uses structured logograms where rotation of them changes their meaning, so each block of symbols can have four possible meanings. The Lyranans who read it weep at the poetry but find it impossible to translate with its full import. On the other hand, the knife with the body came from somewhere else!

It was great to have Marshall Ryan Maresca visit the show - thanks, Marshall! The book is out, so go find it and explore all of its coolness.

Dive into Worldbuilding will resume on January 4th, 2017 at 10am Pacific. Our author guest for January will be Laura Ann Gilman, who will be talking to us about The Cold Eye, the sequel to Silver on the Road, which she discussed with us this year, here.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016


We had an interesting discussion of friendship. The word "friend" can be used for many different kinds of relationships. Acquaintance, classmate, just people you frequent, or very close friends, or Facebook friends, etc. Hangouts and Skype increase the list of who we can be friends with. You can be friends via letters or emails, too.

Is your appearance (i.e. face to face meeting or video) necessary for a friendship? We said no. You can develop a friendship via other means (telephone, letter, email). If the appearance gets added in later, it can sometimes cause surprise or a feeling of disorientation, as I described when I first met my email/phone friend Janice Hardy face to face.

Is friendship a commodity? Sometimes it can seem that way. It appears also that Middle Grade fiction requires the author to take a stance on friendship.

Tight narrow age groups, such as in school grades, tend to restrict friendships. Siblings can cause you to make friends across age groups. These restrictions relax once you are outside of a heavily age-stratified social environment.

Who are you allowed to be friends with? This is an interesting question, because lots of people try to restrict their children's friendships on the basis of various factors such as race, class, gender, or even caste. Can men and women be friends? Of course they can - the very asking of that question reflects negatively on the beliefs of the person asking it (I'm looking at you, Harry). Sometimes you can feel forced into a friendship because your parents are friends with someone else's parents - or sometimes those friendships can become an unexpected gift.

In some cultures, there is a sense that neither of the two members of a friendship has higher rank than the other. In others, that is not the case. France has the formal and informal pronouns vous and tu, and they used to be used based on status even within a friendship, but the criteria for their use have changed and now are more indicative of solidarity rather than rank. Japan has the concept of senpai and kohai, which usually indicates age or year in school. The senpai is older or more experienced and has things to teach the kohai.

Sometimes people try to control their friends by making them compete for favors.

Can you be friends with a parent or a direct caretaker? Perhaps, or perhaps not, depending on the cultural definition of a friend and the nature of your relationship. Maybe, as in some cultures (e.g. a culture in the Kalahari), you can be friends with your grandparent before you can be friends with your parent, because it skips a generation. The degree of control that the parent is expected to exert over your behavior has a lot to do with the answer to this question.

How well do you keep in touch with friends? Can you be friends in one context and not in another? What kind of contexts?

What can you discuss with a friend? Are there topics (like politics or religion etc.) that you avoid in order to keep the friendship? How much trust do you have? Do you feel safe with your friend? What can you talk about without suggesting romantic interest?

You can create an echo chamber in a group of friends who all agree. At the same time, this can be a safe place for people to air their feelings. Whether it's potentially harmful depends on the link to evidence.

Sometimes friends can argue about things they agree about, exploring nuance or carefully defining terms.

Where can you talk with friends? Hallways? Stairwells? Restaurants?

Do you live with friends? How does that change your relationship? How do politeness expectations differ? How do you negotiate the maintenance of your shared environment? Is there a place you can go if you have to be alone because you can't stand it any more? What impact does that have on the others?

How do you get  your basic-level psychological needs met in a friendship?

Do you have an obligation to air grievances against a friend? Some friends expect each other to "read minds" and have the other person notice that they are disgruntled. This can lead to friendships breaking up.

Power and money complicate friendships.

Would friendships be stronger in an empathic or telepathic society? Would they be fewer?

I talked about the question of friendship in my story "Cold Words." Because rank is so important to the alien Aurrel, the alien protagonist Rulii has great difficulty understanding the word friend and struggles with his relationship with the human Parker throughout the story. Each one has things to offer the other, and each one admires the power of the other, so neither one wants to take a dominating stance. It makes Rulii feel as though the relationship is uncomfortably intimate. The Aurrel define the relationships of "huntmate," a person who shares a goal or project with you, and "littermate," a sibling, and "consort," or boy/girlfriend/spouse.

Needing companionship is adaptive, because people can survive better in groups. Vulnerability is important though it also can cause trouble.

There are friendship bonding rituals and procedures. How would another society define those?

Do friends have nicknames for each other?

Thank you to everyone who attended. Today I'm interviewing guest author Marshall Ryan Maresca about his new book, An Import of Intrigue. Next week on December 14, we'll be discussing in-groups and how they are defined, and what kinds of names and habits they have to mark themselves. Join us!


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ken Liu and The Wall of Storms

Multiple award-winning epic fantasy and "silkpunk" author Ken Liu stopped by the show to talk about his new book, The Wall of Storms, which came out on October 4th. He said that writing this second book was a challenge because while he'd had unlimited time to write the first book, The Grace of Kings, he had to complete this one in only a year.

He said that he did have an outline, which he spoke of in terms of "islands to sail to" in both the figurative and literal senses. He said that he had copious notes which helped a lot, and that he know what kind of book it needed to be.

He had a really interesting answer when I asked him about how he went about fleshing out his outline. Ken is super interested in epic narratives, and foundational narratives, and he said that he was particularly interested in how foundational narratives have different meanings for different groups of people over time. One example he gave was the foundational narrative of the United States, which includes a statement about "self-evident truths." At the time it was written, he noted, the narrative didn't include African-Americans. He noted that now is another time of change for the foundational narratives of the US. These are stories that we live as well as stories that we tell.

Ken sees The Wall of Storms as an illustration of the way foundational narratives change. He compared Book 1, The Grace of Kings, to the Oddyssey and the Iliad because it featured larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things and ended with the foundation of a new order. Book 2, The Wall of Storms, is a re-reading of the original narrative bringing in the voices of the poor and women who had less of a role in Book 1. They enlarge and revise the narration.

Ken points out that The Wall of Storms begins with an incident where events from Book 1 are being told by a storyteller. However, the way the story is told does not match Book 1. Mata Zyndu is idealized into a resister to the new order, and changed in a way he would not recognize, just as we revise Greek and Roman narratives.

There is another scene where Kuni Garu's children are called on to evaluate the story of Princess Kikomi, and his daughter Théra gives a new reading for the story. Her teacher welcomes this challenge.

Ken says, "The series in a lot of ways is very meta."

The narrative he creates is very complex. Ken says human beings are narrative-driven, not data-driven. "We don't write some optimization function" for our lives, but we create stories about them that make sense to us. This is one reason why stories are powerful. They define our notions of justice and fairness. This series features repeated uses and misuses of narrative. In Book 1, the gods' play is misused by a human to achieve his ends, and this happens quite a bit in The Wall of Storms. Jia, the new invading leaders, the children, and the soldiers are brave or not brave depending on the story they imagine themselves to be a part of.

Ken says this kind of "meta," self-conscious writing can feel a bit distancing, because it reminds people they are reading a story, which can affect immersion. However, it reflects his own thinking about stories.

He creates complex plots using a wiki of detailed notes about characters, plot, geography, history, dates, food, timelines, etc. One of the things that was new in Book 2 was that he tried to break it up by writing certain chapters in close point of view through letters, pseudohistories, and indirect interior monologue. He wanted to create the feel for a different type of book - one which dealt with second generation political realities rather than a larger-than-life, almost mythic history.

I asked Ken about changes in the character of Jia. He told me that the shift in her character was planned. Book 1 doesn't have a "place" for everyone in it. His plan required that women and other points of view assert themselves in Book 2 to deliberately "blow it up." Jia is constrained in BOok 1, but is growing by the end in her goals and ambitions. It's not clear if she is a hero or a villain, and he says it's "natural" not to know how to take her. It has to do with the question of how we understand history. In The Wall of Storms, the official view of Princess Kikomi accepts the destruction of her reputation, but Princess Théra tries to recover the truth. Jia reveals her motives but in ambivalent ways. She should be a believable, powerful politician who is not likeable. Ken says there is too much emphasis on people being likeable. Jia is one of the most important points of view in the book. Ken designed her to be respected.

I also asked about the character of Zomi. She is one of a new generation of charaters, and Ken describes her as an indication of the success of the new regime and its idea of meritocracy. She comes from a humble background but rises by dint of talent and education to become a powerful figure. In other ways, though, this narrative gets subverted. She had luck in finding a teacher who would advance her. Is that cronyism? Is the promise of social mobility by education an illusion? There are parallels to this in the real world, and the answer to those questions is not clear. Ken says the examination scene is one of his favorites, because he wrote it like a battle scene. He says, "Some of our most defining moments are exams." Zomi criticizes the regime but at the same time is an example of its success. She says there are hundreds of others like her who were not advanced, and asks how anyone can claim the system is just. She critiques the system that she benefits from.

I asked Ken about what kind of advances he made in his "silkpunk" technology. He says that the technology "progresses apace both in peace and in war." He described progress as a kind of poetry. Epic poets don't memorize, but build from a basic outline using tropes and phrases in an improvisation. Engineers have a storehouse of techniques that they improvise with. Technology relies on discoveries that can be harnessed. People learn about new forces and physical phenomena. He wanted this to be low-magic fantasy, where magic is restricted to artifacts and to the gods. The engineers are like the wizards, performing great feats of wonder and amazement. At the end, he says, the nerds and geeks are heroes because new tech "saves the world." Engineers who defy the status quo find new ways to win.

I remarked on how in several places Ken relies on bare dialogue to do his worldbuilding. The risk here, as he describes it, is falling into "As you know, Bob" dialogue where two people converse pointlessly about something they already know. He says he prefers to do infodumps straight as infodumps... but he also says, "I enjoy reading science papers for fun."

One of his favorite scenes is a discussion of tax policy between Kuni and an advisor. Even tax policy can be a lot of fun if explained in the right way. People talk about things that are relevant to them. There are even places where they talk about the foundation of the Dara writing system, and how it enables conversation and inhibits literary production.

Ken says the whole idea of the gods is big in The Wall of storms. It reflects the way gods change, as when Roman and Christian belief systems incorporated practices from the pagan systems that preceded them. This isn't often portrayed in fiction. The Dara gods were not native to the area, and changed with their migration. In this book we see invaders bringing new ideas and the gods responding. Where the truth of the gods lies is left deliberately ambiguous.

At the end of our discussion, Ken brought to our attention a new anthology called Invisible Planets from Tor books. This anthology features contemporary science fiction from China (post 1990s). It's the first English language collection of such stories, and he says it offers people a chance to discover how different and how interesting science fiction is in China.

My thanks go out to Ken for this fascinating discussion! Thanks also to everyone who attended. Next week we will meet on December 7 at 10am Pacific to talk with guest author Marshall Ryan Maresca about his book An Import of Intrigue. I hope you will join us!

To support these hangouts and Dive in to even more Worldbuilding, please visit my Patreon.


Monday, November 21, 2016


We got together a couple of weeks ago to talk about prosthetics. There are more prosthetic things than you might expect, of course, starting with the pirate's peg leg and the Captain's hook. If you define a prosthetic as any artificial addition to the body, that covers quite a lot. People have prosthetic teeth, or insulin pumps, or cochlear implants, chemo pumps or glass eyes.

"Prosthetic" in the context of movies or theater can also refer to makeup that significantly alters facial features. In fact, in Star Trek, there were a number of instances when the crew got their faces surgically modified so they could hide amid an alien population distinguished by its facial shape.

In our real lives, we run into prosthetics more than we realize. A lot of them are low-profile. Che told us about meeting people with prosthetics at the gym and at a writing retreat. I first met a man with an artificial leg when I was a kid. I also had a friend who used prosthetic hands. Artificial joints are now more and more common, and they also count as prosthetics. Here is a video with an animated sequence showing how knee replacements work.

You may also remember the Bionic Man and Bionic Woman. Both of them had superpowers given to them by their artificial (prosthetic) parts. Ghost in the Shell involves someone with a total body replacement. Darth Vader also is largely defined by his prosthetics.

In our real world there was a controversy surrounding runner Oscar Pistorius, who was given extra height and bounce by the running blades he wore in place of feet.

What can be offered will depend on the technology level. Who makes your prosthetic? Is it the saddle-maker? If you have an amputation, who has done the amputation? Do people have the ability to take a mold of your leg, for example?

An episode of Copper featured someone who had lost a leg in the Civil War.
Star Trek Deep Space 9 had an episode where a man had a partial, and then total, brain replacement.
Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy has a prosthetic leg in it, but that prosthetic is worn only so long as the person has not yet grown their leg back.

Our current technology allows us to use biological scaffolding to grow bone, and also organs. Also, rather than a doctor or other special manufacturer being the sole source for a prosthetic, there are instances of people 3D printing their own prosthetic limbs, particularly in the case of children who will outgrown those limbs.

There was a recent video in which Robert Downey, Jr. delivered an Iron Man-style prosthetic hand to a little boy. A lot depends on what you can afford.

The cutting edge of current prosthetics is controlling them with brain waves. This would mean, ideally, that the prosthetic was rendered invisible... but while it's good to be able to manipulate a false limb in the same way that you manipulate your other limbs, it's not necessarily good to have it be invisible. Websites like have beautiful prosthetic limbs that are more about being visible and interesting/beautiful than invisible.

One of the critical questions to answer is how to reduce the burden of an injury or birth defect both psychologically and physically.

Artificial limbs can be normalized by having people who use them present and visible in society. Tammy Duckworth is an example of a high-profile woman (now a Senator!) who uses prosthetics because of her war injuries.

People don't always use prosthetics in response to injuries. Sometimes they use wheelchairs. Sometimes people keep service dogs to help them also.

Morgan mentioned a science fiction novel where a surgeon amputated his forearms to use his phantom limbs in surgery. The book was called Flesh and Silver by Stephen L Burns. Almost Human also featured a character with an artificial leg. I heard a story from real life about a man who was placed on house arrest with a GPS ankle bracelet but was then discovered at a robbery... because the GPS ankle bracelet had unwittingly been placed on his artificial leg, and he had left it at home.

Thanks to Che and Morgan for a really interesting discussion. Again, Dive into Worldbuilding will not meet this Wednesday (the day before Thanksgiving) but we will resume again November 30th with a discussion of Friendship. I hope to see you there!

Please consider supporting my Patreon for more worldbuilding goodness!



Most people have teeth, but they tend to fly pretty low under the radar in fiction unless we're talking about fangs. Vampire movies where the vampires brush their teeth are comedies.

Tooth care varies widely across the world and across history but gets little attention in fiction. In some places, people clean their teeth by chewing on sticks. We have toothbrushes, that used to be made of wood and boar bristle (like some hair brushes) but are now made of plastic. We also have electric toothbrushes and water pik machines that shoot water really hard at our teeth. Just walk into a US grocery store and you'll see a gazillion choices of toothpaste.

In Farscape, they used grubs to clean their teeth, a bit like hippos and birds. I'm sure there was a deliberate science fictional gross factor involved.

Poor tooth health can be associated with lack of money. This recent article talks about the stigma of poor tooth health in the USA: .

Tooth health is very important. In the US, orthodonture is seen as very important. This isn't the case across the world, but having straight teeth contributes significantly to better tooth health through life in part because it makes regular dental care easier. Removing wisdom teeth is a very common procedure. There is a luxury in not having to think about our teeth.

Tooth health is also a form of public health. The fluoridation of drinking water was a revolution in tooth health, according to both my dentist and this CDC website where you can read up about it:

Generally, main characters don't have tooth problems. Sometimes we see them in movies like Castaway, or Affliction with Nick Nolte, or even in Dances With Wolves, but they are rare. Dr. Who did mention that Shakespeare's breath was horrible. In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum mentions that he has nine (in the video, I misremember it as four). This may be in part because they are so personal to us. It was even difficult for us to start this discussion, because everyone's first reaction to talking about dentistry was to shudder.

George Washington is well known for having only one of his own teeth left by the time he became president, and using dentures made of metal and hippopotamus ivory. It's no wonder that people didn't smile much in pictures of themselves!

Of course, one thing that adversely affected tooth health was the easy availability of refined sugar.

Dentistry dates back to 7000 BCE.

We speculated that one could have aliens or fantasy creatures with rodent-like teeth, who would have to engage in constant gnawing.

Humans also have deciduous teeth, and the dentistry performed on them is different because they are not permanent.

A lot of dentist equipment looks like torture devices, especially in the 1800's. Dentists were also barbers in the early years.

Diet has a huge influence on tooth health. Ancient Egypt generally had good tooth health.

The evil dentist is a trope. We sometimes see endondontists, since root canals are very famous procedures. Orthodontists are even less common. Gold teeth do show up in fiction, however.

Sometimes people put off going to the dentist for so long that by the time they go, the situation is catastrophic. This can be self-fulfilling.

Tooth care in Japan is very different, and teeth are valued differently, even though toothbrushes and toothpaste are largely the same. The dentists I encountered there were much less interested in helping patients keep their teeth than the ones in the US. A Japanese friend of mine who came to the US perceived the US approach as overzealous, a bit like a mechanic who wants your money, and so finds problems where none exist. Snaggle teeth can be considered cute.

Cultural value on teeth changes over time. Back when I was a kid, tooth whitening was not something anyone did. Then people latched onto it, and suddenly there was pressure to have whiter teeth, and to use all kinds of products.

The Maya would inset jade into their teeth.

The Ferengi in Star Trek would sharpen their teeth, and there was an episode where the Klingon Worf buys a tooth sharpener from a Ferengi.

Some human cultures have filed patterns in their teeth or filed them to points. Over a person's lifetime, their teeth will wear down and their gums will recede.

If you are working in a secondary or alien world, think about where references to teeth occur in the language. "Like pulling teeth" "hen's teeth" "long in the tooth" are just some examples from English.

In ancient Japan, married women would blacken their teeth using a dye created by putting iron filings in tea or sake.

Teeth are very personal to us. Should you show them when you smile? That's a very personal question. Should teeth be straight? That can be a significant source of embarrassment. We use super-white teeth as a symbol of vanity, as when you see the gleam coming off someone's teeth in cartoons. Tooth-baring can be a particular form of communication. Tooth pain is also very personal, maybe because it's in an orifice (as Che said) or because teeth are in our head, very close to our perceived seat of consciousness. Our teeth also affect our speech.

The tooth fairy is a very old tradition. In France, children are visited by "la petite souris," or the little mouse (this mouse appears in Rise of the Guardians, but really should have been a female mouse).

What if alien teeth were affected by different substances than ours? That would depend on what kind of bacteria were able to damage them, and what they consumed.

Thanks to everyone who came and discussed teeth with me! There will be no hangout this week, for Thanksgiving, but we will resume the following week.

Don't forget to visit my Patreon for worldbuilding links and prompts and more opportunities to worldbuild with me!


Monday, November 7, 2016

Non-Auditory Languages

A great many of us are accustomed to auditory languages, but those are not the only languages around. Not by a long shot!

Linguists use the word "channel" to describe the different ways in which linguistic information can be transmitted. The auditory channel is only one of those. There are also olfactory, visual, and tactile channels - essentially, a channel for every sense.

Sign languages are a really important form of non-auditory language used by humans. It's important to note that American Sign Language is its own language, and not at all the same as Signed Exact English. When working with signs, it's easy to think that signs are more iconic than auditory language, but if you look across international sign languages (they differ for different countries around the world) each one has its own iconicity. The idea that a sign is iconic is common, but how each one is iconic is culturally based.

Sign languages in fiction are a challenge to work with. In fact, any non-auditory language will risk being overwritten by our auditory impressions of the language the story is written in.

Language change is universal, and occurs in semiotics and in gesture, and in sign languages, over time.

A language like American Sign Language has its own grammar. Grammar doesn't take the same form in non-auditory languages that it does in auditory ones. It still categorizes, however. It still does the basic job of grammar, which is to create shared context where none currently exists. In the same way that onomatopoeia imitates actual sounds, sign languages can do really cool things to indicate the manner in which actions are performed. It can also use locations in space as ways to refer back to antecedents.

In my 2016 story, "The Language of the Silent," which I wrote with Sheila Finch, the sign language was created as a language of rebellion by the people who used it. There was a slave population who wished to coordinate their rebellion, and therefore they designed a set of signs based on the auditory language they spoke, and this turned into a full-fledged language they could use. I based my idea for this language in part on the way that Hebrew was revived as a full-fledged living language for the Jewish people in Israel.

Readers who use auditory languages as their native languages will come into a story with a base-level assumption that the language used will be auditory.

Other options are color based languages for cephalopods who can change their skin color. Morgan suggested pheromones making a language.

Auditory languages have the property that they are strung out over time, because there are limitations on the way speech sounds are created and how they can be created in succession. Visual languages are less held back by time limits. You could imagine a language where color suggested emotional content and pattern carried grammatical information. A bioluminescent creature might have a finely tuned sense of color.

Languages have to solve particular types of problems, like how to convey passage of time, how to indicate relative position, etc. They can solve these problems in different ways. You could use the relative balance of two different olfactory chemicals to create change that would convey information.

Helen Keller used a tactile version of English to communicate when she was unable to use the auditory and visual channels.

It's important to realize that humans don't communicate solely on the auditory channel. We communicate simultaneously on multiple channels including the visual (gesture, facial expression), olfactory (pheromones), tactile, etc. We can communicate by telephone, though, because the major burden of grammar falls in the auditory channel. Tone of voice is not the same as speech sounds in conveying grammar, but it still plays an important role, and it can appear strange when it is missing.

Disability affects language of all types. You could imagine a disability possessed by a cephalopod, for example (as Morgan is doing).

Deafness is not just a disability. It is also a language community with its own culture. This is why it's so complex to propose to give hearing to people via cochlear implant. Its effect can be to allow people to hear auditory language, but it simultaneously endangers the culture and language of the Deaf community.

It is a mistake to assume that a channel problem equates to a mental, cognitive, or emotional problem. For example, if we are unable to make or to understand facial expressions, this can be misinterpreted as a mental problem, as if we have diminished capacity for a rich inner life. It's too easy to assume that because a piece of expected evidence is missing, that the internal life itself is also missing.

In The Liars I created a language that was only partially conveyed on the auditory channel. So much of the language was conveyed on a magnetic channel that humans could not detect that the humans concluded that the Poik were cognitively diminished, and this contributed to discrimination and exploitation.

Ask yourself how important the various channels are, and what kind of information each is used for.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Author Nisi Shawl, Everfair

It was a real treat to be joined by author Nisi Shawl, who spoke with us about her novel Everfair, which just came out on September 6th. I asked Nisi to tell us about the origins of the novel concept. She told us she was at World Fantasy Convention in 2009 and was placed on a Steampunk panel. She told us she'd always wondered why she didn't like Steampunk because it had many element she enjoyed, and she finally decided that she hated it because of the premise that all Empire is glorious, and colonialism is the way things ought to be. She said, "I wanted to make it better." So at the panel, she proposed to write a Steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo.

Everfair is just that - a Steampunk alternate history set in the Belgian Congo. I said that didn't sound easy to do, and Nisi agreed it wasn't easy, but that was partly why she did it.

One of the challenges she described in researching the book was that because so many millions of people died, there was not a lot of material available on the indigenous experience in this region at that time. Nisi described wanting to be rigorous in her science. She asked questions like why dirigibles float and what is used for propulsion. She described herself as using science as an approach to the world in which you test how things work.

Much of her work is classed as Fantasy or Horror, but to her, there is less of a division with Science Fiction than most people perceive. Everfair includes a person who can project her consciousness into cats, and plays with the properties of gravity, etc. She compared her approach to the Memoirs of Lady Trent, and to Octavia Butler's Fledgling.

She told us that her research combined internet and print resources, with the internet serving as a scout.

She put a lot of emphasis on music and food. She says she likes to work with music playing in the background, in part to set up continuity between her writing sessions, so for this book she set up a Pandora station with music from Kenya, central Africa, and migrants in north Africa. She discovered that much had been carried over to Cuba and other regions.

She composed a national anthem for Everfair, the country in the story. It's a utopian experiment created by African American missionaries and European socialists who buy land from King Leopold of Belgium and set up a refuge. Naturally, there are tensions with indigenous people.

She did grapple with the magnitude of the project, but decided "I was the person who was going to be able to handle it." She says she would be very interested to hear perspectives on her story from people who are descendants of the survivors of this terrible time in history.

We talked about her use of multiple Point of View. She uses eleven viewpoint characters in this book, and says "That's a lot." When I asked her about how she constructed the voices of the characters, she told me that many of them were modeled on actual historical figures of the time, such as Colette, E. Nesbit, and George Bernard Shaw.

She told us about the character of "Tink," a man named Ho Lin Huang who had no precise real-world analog, but was inspired by historical accounts of King Leopold bringing in Chinese people to build a railroad between the coast and the navigable sections of the Congo river. At a certain point they had had enough of the poor treatment they received and struck out for China - and though they never made it there, you can still find Chinese cultural influence in areas of the Congo today.

I asked her how she tracked all of the various points of view and she said "with a legal pad and a pen." She tried to make sure everybody had their turn on the page. Everfair, the country itself, was the core backbone of the story rather than any single character.

We talked about layers of meaning in the story. Nisi said that back when she was a hippie, she was actually the least political. She told us her character Lisette du Tournier says, "If you don't talk about politics, you don't talk about anything." Politics is a viewpoint, one of the lenses through which to view the story. The visceral and the sensual provide another viewpoint, and the emotional still another. Having multiple points of view helps with triangulation on the part of the reader, where the reader can construct their own judgment based on witnessing the events in different ways through the different points of view.

The book covers a thirty-year period. This means sometimes the gap between points of view is a year, but other times it's just a few minutes.

Nisi said when she constructed the voices of each character, she tried to "imitate what their literary voices would have sounded like" in the text of the book (and this is evident from the very first page). Colette, she said, was easy because she could look directly at her writings. King Mwenda and Tink were filtered through European anthropologists' viewpoints and transcriptions of their voices. There were also some mashups, such as the character Rima Bailey, who was a mashup of Zora Neale Hurston and Josephine Baker. She didn't actually sound like Zora Neale Hurston, Nisi said, but like the voice of someone Zora Neale Hurston would have transcribed in her anthropological work.

The voices came to her pretty naturally, and she had help from her critique group to weed out anachronisms and anachronistic effects. The latter can occur when a word was actually used at the time, but is so heavily associated with aspects of our modern world in the head of a reader that it can throw them out of the narrative even though it would be appropriate. Managing reader expectations is a really important task here. There's also the question of culture: some things would be anachronistic for one culture, but not for another. Nisi said, "I have to be convincing" in how the cultures interact, so she also watched out for things that would be "against place" as well as "against time." A lot of cross-cultural interaction happened over prehistory and history.

In one scene, Nisi's character Daisy looks at a "repeater," which is an early Victorian pocket watch that chimed. She had to make sure distinguish it from the antenna of the same name. In another scene, the character Rima Bailey describes "kissing someone's kitchen," and Nisi chose not to explain that meaning of "kitchen," which is the back of the head between the neck and head. She says this is a sexualized area. If you aren't familiar with the term, then it may seem ungrounded, but if you are familiar with the term, the story in that spot will feel even more deeply grounded. On the basis of this, she chose not do explain, but just to support use of the term in context.

Nisi told us she was quite faithful to history in many places. Hives of bees attack invaders in the battle with France, just the way they did in real life. There was an actual British commander who wore women's clothing into battle; she has a character who does this. His choice meant different things to the Brits under his command, who saw it as eccentric, from what it meant to the indigenous people, who revered him for bucking gender norms.

Nisi says she has had many thoughts for a sequel since she finished the book, but because it covers thirty years, she says, "I can't do another thirty years." She's thinking about looking at other places in this world, and starting to write stories to help her explore. She's also looking at things like the struggle between sustainable and non-sustainable energy sources (petroleum vs. palm oil). There was a huge solar collector in the Egyptian desert between 1913 and 1916, but the British scrapped it for planes.

She imagines that a sequel would look at the worldwide struggle against imperialism, and that peoples across the globe would see the philosophy and structures of Everfair and be inspired to get rid of their oppressors.

Nisi mentioned that she had taken inspiration from Fordlandia when she was thinking about how to try to have happy things happen in the Congo. Fordlandia was a capitalist experiment focused on rubber manufacturing in South America, and there is a lot of documentation about it.

Nisi says she reads a lot of Victorian literature and was always attracted to the myths and legends of Africa.

We also spoke briefly about Writing the Other, a book which Nisi Shawl co-wrote with Cynthia Ward about how to write from the perspective of people who are not of your own demographic group. It's a hugely valuable resource that Nisi said also helped her to write characters in Everfair. She and Tempest K. Bradford will be teaching a live version of Writing the Other on November 6.

Thank you so much for joining us, Nisi! (Now I really have to go and buy Everfair!)


Saturday, October 22, 2016

A place, and a project, close to my heart (funded, with 60 hours to go!)

This is Capitola.
Specifically, it's a view from the top of Depot hill down into the Capitola Village, with just the tiniest peek of Capitola beach. Many people know this place from the perspective of tourists, but this is where I grew up. It's magical to me.
That's why I was really excited when Jason Batt approached me about writing a story for the anthology Strange California. It was the perfect opportunity for me finally to bring together aspects of my real life story with my work in speculative fiction.

As my setting, I chose Capitola and its yearly Begonia Festival. We used to go to it every year. We'd participate in the sand castle contest, and go see the Begonia parade on Soquel Creek. I always loved making big, serious sand castles (they were big and serious even when I was seven). I also loved watching the begonia floats move up and down the creek. One night, after the festival was over, one of the floats came unmoored and floated all the way up the creek to the back of our house. We were having a party with friends, and we all went down to the water and climbed onto it and took a ride before coming back home. My mom says I was about five years old. I just remember the float being SO BIG and still covered with so many flowers.

The protagonist of my story, "If It Were Meant to Last," is a bit older than I was, but she understands how magical these events are. And she gets sucked in. Sand, water and flowers are more than they seem. They are momentous and powerful.

In part because my story was so deeply emotional for me, and in part because I love my home state, this anthology means a lot to me. It's being funded right now on Kickstarter. We only have five days left, so please take a look and pass it on to your friends! My story appears alongside stories from some truly amazing authors like Seanan McGuire, Chaz Brenchley, Laura Anne Gilman, Christie Yant and Tim Pratt. I really want to see this made real, especially since the art will be done by the awesome Galen Dara.

Capitola will always be a part of me, and I really want to share it with you.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Charity vs. Justice

We tackled this topic first by talking about how charity is defined. Often it's defined within a religious context, but not always. It means kindness, and helping the less fortunate. It can mean donations of money, goods, or time. Volunteering is a form of charity in many cases.

One of the special features of charity is that it's kindness without the expectation of reward (other than spiritual). People are given tax deductions on charitable donations that can muddy the waters here, but in general, charity makes a far bigger benefit to the recipient than it does to you.

There are organizations whose mission is to perform charitable works. This is different from an individual doing acts of charity. Some charities gather used clothes or household objects and distribute them to the needy. Some, like Heifer international, use donations to provide animals to people around the world who could benefit from having those animals attached to their households. There are also organizations that allow you to personally sponsor individuals in other countries.

One of the big questions with charity is always "who do you help?" There is an element of individual choice involved, but then, how do you choose? What criteria do you use? Do you try to determine if people are worthy?

Is it because you have some kind of personal connection? Sometimes people support cancer charities because they know someone who is affected by the disease. Sometimes the connection comes through an institution like a church or a synagogue.

In a fictional world, what form does charity take?

In our society (modern US), there is a huge value placed on being able to care for yourself. How do you perceive your own opportunities? Do you consider the world just? Would you agree with the premise that what people have is what they deserve?

Foreign aid is often spoken about as charity, but it often comes with strings attached, requiring employment of US companies. The country exerts control over the recipients of the aid.

We then talked about when charity becomes problematic. Charity has a value; partaking of it can have requirements. The control involved is resented by some people. Colonialism and cultural hegemony can get involved. Sometimes you can't partake of charity unless you "are good." How is that good defined?

We talked about tzedakah, which translates as "justice." You are supposed to give a percentage of your crops or income to the less fortunate in your community.

The idea of community is really important here. The community itself has value, which means its members are inherently worthy of support. The question then becomes "who counts as a person"? What defines community membership?

What happens if people are suffering, but their suffering is invisible? This can easily happen because of distance or because of privilege, i.e. the ways in which we don't share experience with everyone around us. There is no way to be perfectly aware of all suffering. This can include elderly people who can't work, or disabled people.

We talked about equality of opportunity, and what that meant. I mentioned the comic of the baseball game:

If you look into it, you'll find a lot of variations on this image with different discussions of the issue. For one thing, this assumes the presence of the fence, and it also assumes that everyone wants to watch the baseball game. In real life, we don't know what everyone needs.

What are the basics for healthy community life? Roads, schools, electricity, water. We have seen in Flint, Michigan, how lead-poisoned water changes everything about the way that people lead their lives. The complexity of a civilization, and its culture, change what it perceives as necessary for the basics of community life.

What kind of charity is seen as most appropriate, or most righteous?
What is the basic minimum for participation in your society?

What happens when a person is "bad"? We have things in our society like the disenfranchisement of felons. If someone has committed a crime, do you strip them of rights? Is that just? How do you make sure innocent people aren't stripped of those rights?

What makes a worthy member of the community?

We also asked, "Is health care a basic right within a community?" Is the burden of health care on the individual or on the community? If a person has a broken leg, that might appear to be individual because it doesn't affect very much about other community members. However, if a person has measles or any other contagious disease, other members of the community are definitely affected. We can also think about how a person's injury/illness affects the people in their web of normal daily interaction.

How do you establish the rules of a community? Religious prescriptions are one way.

I found this article interesting, about the amazing independence of Japanese children. What is going on here is not so much self-reliance, though, as the basic assumption that a child can rely on the community to keep them from running into trouble.

People depend on one another even in a world like Mad Max.

Evolution has many examples where the existence and behavior of a group allows evolutionary success even though the individual wouldn't necessarily have that same success. (Ants, for example).

We referenced our earlier hangout on Corruption, because any kind of system can suffer abuses, and charitable systems are no different. There are charities who don't give all their money to charity. There are individuals who abuse charitable relationships. There are people who game the system to get more aid than they need. In these cases we have to take a look at how abuses fit into the larger life of the community and how the problems with these abuses balance with the larger achievements of the charitable system.

Thank you for a fascinating discussion!


Wednesday, October 19, 2016


We had a good discussion of hair. Sometimes hair is thought of as a simple thing. Do you have short or long hair? Hair is our personal style choice... but it's also more than that. It's a form of self-representation on both the personal and cultural levels, and as such, has a lot of complications.

Take for example the question of short vs. long hair. This is complex because it's associated with gender roles (long=feminine, short=masculine) and sometimes with religions (like Sikhism where people don't ever cut their hair). Starting with the gender question, you have cases like that of Felicia Day, who was attacked online after she got her hair cut short. Some people clearly think that short hair implies a rejection of men, and some go on to feel that women should be punished for such rejection (assuming of course that it actually is rejection and not just a personal choice). We do talk about some kinds of short haircuts as "butch," implying that they are short and masculine. Our gender presentation is an important part of our personal identities. For men there was the question of the military haircut vs. the Beatles haircut, which started out as quite scandalous even before the Beatles grew their hair all the way out long.

There's also the question of lack of hair. There is an entire industry based around bald-shaming. Patrick Stewart has spoken about how difficult it was for him to accept his baldness, which came on in his teens.

When my family went to Colonial Williamsburg, we encountered the role-players who spoke to us of very different attitudes about hair - in particular, shaving all your hair off so you could wear a wig. In the late 17th century, wigs were super-fashionable. If you were a girl, whether and when you shaved your hair for a wig was up to your father. Brian noted that in the UK, judges wear wigs, and it's a holdover from this era. Barristers sometimes wear the wigs in crown court. Class is definitely a factor involved in the decision.

In America, wigs can be worn for fashion or they can often be worn when people have lost their hair due to cancer treatment. There is definitely a baldness-acceptance narrative around chemotherapy, which is different from, but has some parallels to, the question of baldness as it's dealt with by men. In general, women who lose hair or who have thinning hair get much more shame and trouble for it.  In many cultures, a woman's hair is considered her crowning glory (in the context of male gaze!) That is connected with the idea of covering hair as modesty in certain religions.

Essentially, there are a lot of critical things at stake on our hair: personal identity, cultural identity, virility, attractiveness, and social standing.

Geisha have very specific hairstyles that are held over from the Edo era in Japan. These are not the same as Japanese hairstyles from the Heian period, when it was the fashion for noble women and their attendants to have hair that flowed all the way beyond their feet. It was also important in this time period to wash your hair on an auspicious day.

Sikhs are not the only group that doesn't cut hair. For them it's a religious observance. Some Native American groups don't cut their hair either.

Some hairstyles have to do with professions. The tonsure is a haircut associated with the historical identity of Catholic monks. The topknot began as a hairstyle of samurai in Japan, but is still worn by sumo wrestlers.

Different kinds of hair have different properties and can be styled in different ways. I mentioned the film Kirikou et la Sorcière because it portrays a community in Africa with a wide variety of hairstyles uncommon to straight-haired populations. Another story where hair has a special role is Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, which just won the Hugo for best novella.

Hair can be high-stakes as a result of racism. Black people have sometimes been suspended from school or fired from a job because of wearing dreadlocks (there is an ongoing court case about this right now). There is huge pressure for Black women to straighten their hair in order to look orderly or "professional," but it's a double-standard trap. The hair becomes an excuse to enact racism. Words like "messy" or "inappropriate" can hide underlying racist motives.

I mentioned using hair in a couple of my works - first as a social distinction between aliens in Cold Words, and also as evidence of personal conflict in my novel.

In fiction, hair can be critical to your character.

Different genres can have more or less tolerance of description of things like hair and clothes. This is related to gender bias.

In the military and police, there is starting (gradually) to be more acceptance of different culturally based hairstyles.

Beards have become an issue in the Israeli Defense Forces because ultra-orthodox beards are permitted, but beards are not permitted except in that specific population.

Hair does not have to be a major plot point in order to be used to advantage in your fiction.

Thanks to everyone who attended! 


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Invasive Species

Invasive species are species that travel, come into a new ecosystem, overly thrive and then damage the other ecosystem. We don't apply the term to species that travel and fail. Examples include rabbits in Australia, cats on islands who kill birds, goats, rats, and snakes, all of which have caused damage.

We did note that humans are the most invasive species at all. We are often the ones who bring damaging species into an ecosystem as we travel.

Sometimes invasive species are introduced purposely but have unintended consequences, as when cane toads were brought to Australia in an attempt to control the bugs in the sugar cane fields.

There are other instances when the travel of species is not considered a problem. I mentioned the Columbian Exchange, which caused potatoes, tomatoes, and cocoa to spread outside of the Americas, and diversified food without causing huge disasters.

Plants can be invasive. Kudzu vines, bamboo, and pampas grass are examples of problem plants. Eucalyptus trees were brought to America because they grew fast and people hoped to use them to make railroad ties, but they brought a soft-wood species rather than a hard-wood species. Now those trees are all over... but are generally not thought of as damaging.

When you bring a foreign plant into a new ecosystem you can get the "silent forest effect," which is where none of the local insects or birds are able to interact with the foreign species and so the ecosystem's diversity becomes suppressed. This has happened sometimes when forest-planting charities have planted non-suitable trees.

We asked, "Would we survive on another planet? Would our crops interact well with bacteria and fungi?" I mentioned the case of Chris McCandless, who was poisoned when he ate the wrong kind of grain in the wilderness of Alaska. Che suggested that we might not survive unless we terraformed from the ground up.

Whales eat krill which in turn eat phytoplankton, but if you try to remove whales from the web so you can use the krill yourself, you forget what the phytoplankton survive on, which is the fecal plumes of the whales.

Sometimes we don't realize what impact a species can have on its ecosystem, and only discover it later after it has been lost and then reintroduced, like wolves in Yellowstone. What would happen if beavers returned to California?

What if a species on another planet died out but could somehow be replaced by a species from our planet?

What if you introduce something invasive accidentally - should you bring something else to keep it under control? What kind of trouble would that creature cause? What kind of research might prevent the problems?

Two stories that deal with these questions are "Contaminated" by Jay Werkheiser (Analog) and the novel Archangel by Marguerite Reed.

As a group, we had seen instances of invasive species less often in fantasy in science fiction, though the phenomenon happened as soon as sailors would start landing on islands with things like goats that endanger tortoises, rats that endanger insect or bird species, etc.

The water buffalo is an invasive species in Australia. Australia has many examples of harmful invasive species in part because it is a (large) island that separated off from the other continents very early. People who traveled did so without any concern for people already living there, and even less for animals already living there.

In my current novella, I'm working with a transplanted species called haali (a flower bush), but it is not invasive, needing tending in order to survive. I mentioned how when I was weeding in my yard over this winter and spring, I left some areas wild in order to preserve the insect population of the yard. Morgan said she had deer in her yard!

There are wild parrots in Britain (more invasive) and a flock of parrots in SF that seems relatively stable. They affect the grape harvests.

Mint will take over your yard. Blackberries are a scourge from Northern California up into the Pacific Northwest, and gorse is a problem in Oregon.

We imagined what it would be like from a dragon's perspective, seeing humans as an invasive species. We also wondered what ecological effects would have cascaded from the genetic engineering of fire lizards into dragons on Pern.

If you took invasive species into fantasy, they might cause change in magic systems as well as physical ecology.

We saw invasive buzzy cute critters in My Little Pony. There were also green Smurfs.

Morgan suggested that it would be interesting to consider the introduction of magical species where there was no magic, which made me think if the changes in Jeffe Kennedy's novel world. You could easily see a magical imbalance grow out of that.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Next week, on October 19th, we'll be discussing Social Class and its values. Our next guest, Marshall Ryan Maresca, will be joining us on November 9th to talk about his latest novel. More on that soon!


Monday, October 3, 2016

Author Carrie Cuinn, Semiotics, and Worldbuilding without Visual Imagination

Author Carrie Cuinn joined us for a fascinating discussion. What would worldbuilding be like if a writer had no visual imagination? Carrie described to us how she had perceived herself as quirky adn different from everyone else, but only later realized she had a condition called aphantasia, which means she has no visual imagination. She is in fact participating in a study at the University of Exeter on this very subject. It's a more common condition than you might think.

So what are writing, and reading, about if you can't visualize? They are about meaning rather than images - and that brings us to the study of semiotics. Carrie notes that we should not trust Dan Brown to inform us on the subject. It's actually a school of philosophy, and one of her favorite sources is in fact Umberto Eco. Essentially, there is a language of iconography, which is how you put images and objects together.

Carrie introduces this concept by talking about Renaissance paintings. If such paintings featured small dogs, that would mean loyalty, for example. There was a deliberate symbolic significance to the inclusion of this image. She also encouraged us to think about the various features we associate with US images of the Virgin Mary, who is an icon archetype. It's about more than these simpler associations, however. The clothes (or hats) someone wears have meaning, etc.

Semiotics is culturally constructed and contextually based.

Often, Carrie says, people will write a story and give a person clothes or food but not think through the subtext.

Even the significance of an action like wearing a kimono to school will be vastly different depending on where the person lives, what kind of event (or not) she's attending, and what year it is.

When you're working in a secondary world, you have to consider two layers of semiotics: the secondary world semiotics, which are internally referential, and the real-world semiotics that the reader will be inclined to detect.

Ask yourself is something you include is appropriate to the context. Make sure you have knowledge about that context. Make sure you are saying what you intend to say.

Writing without visual imagination depends on you knowing the properties of an object, which you can do without seeing it with eyes closed.

Carrie says she only rarely describes people. She told us about a story she'd written where an editor asked her why the protagonist was a white male when everyone around her was a person of color. In fact, Carrie had written this character as a person of color appropriate to the context, but because she hadn't described the protagonist, the editor had filled in the identity of that protagonist with the cultural default. Internal point of view can remove you from the visuals of a character [my note: avoid mirror scenes!] quite a bit, but certain kinds of cues are needed by certain readers.

Carrie feels that with skin color, either none of it matters or it all matters - that we should describe light and dark colors with equal frequency. In context, objects and clothes also become very important. Carrie says she creates the semiotics of the secondary world, but if it runs counter to the defaults of our own world, she makes sure to explain it. She also told us about a workshop she was part of where a student had submitted a flash story involving the arrangement of dinner forks (fish, meat, vs. salad forks). Some people who read the story didn't look up the manners and rules surrounding the placement of silverware. They could enjoy the story, but those who took the time to look up those rules got more out of the story.

Carrie wrote a story where a weird owl appears - it's got long stork legs and a crown. In fact, it's a demon called stolas, who is a prince of Hell and has special knowledge in science and astronomy. She leaves it there as an Easter eggs. She says she leaves Easter eggs like this "in everything I've ever written."

Much of our knowledge - of symbolism, etc - is subconscious.

Carrie said when she watches movies it feels "like two people are speaking at the same time" because of the explicit messages of the dialogue and the implicit messages of the imagery. When she edits, she catches extra layers of mean (intentional or unintentional).

You may catch a lot subconsciously from a painting that comes from a familiar culture, like the French painting of freedom, but critics at the time had explicit knowledge of the significance of particular details of appearance, clothing, who is present, physical position, etc. in such a painting.

The more distant you are from the origins of an image, the more you will be inclined to overlay the meanings taught by your modern culture onto it. People who "discovered" Troy or Stonehenge did just this. The discoverers of Egyptian tombs didn't understand what they were seeing. They thought "Oh, how primitive," and only later did they realize this was language and culture from a different time period.

When you see ruins (in a story, a movie, or in life) you have history in front of you. You may not immediately know what it means, or which room was the kitchen, or what you did there. It's useful, as in Tolkien, if you have a three thousand year old person who knows exactly what it meant.

Carrie feels that food needs to be more of a quest, because people have historically done a lot of work to procure food. She also notes that if you find shells eighty  miles from the seashore, they may not have special significance, but may have hopped there via normal trade routes.

It's interesting to write a story where the reader knows the meaning of the symbols but the characters don't. That includes stories like Planet of the Apes, or The White Mountains, or anything containing ruins of things from our own time. (Of course, there are many other options, too).

You can apply archaeology to almost anything, even if it's relatively modern. Carrie told us about a dig that took place in Vinland, New Jersey on the old location of Welch's Grape Juice factory. Just a couple of things they learned were that the kitchen wasn't attached to the house, and that trash was buried in the back yard.

Carrie says she loves to yell at the show Ancient Aliens, because it's a great example of people overlaying their own interpretation of context and applying it. The people on the show ignore scholarly writings about the meaning of the things they are seeing, and just make things up. This is one reason to be very careful about research if you are, say, a white person from Chicago trying to write a story about ancient India!

Carrie pays attention to how people dress on the news, or on reality shows. Clothes can give hints about genre and character. She says in the genre of noir, a woman wearing a tight dress and sensible shoes is usually a secretary, while a woman with a tight dress and non-sensible shoes is usually a femme fatale.

Sometimes the people of a region will turn some important symbolic landmark into a tourist thing to attract money to the region. So a show like Ancient Aliens can help a region because they can help get the message out that the government needs to recognize the importance of a particular site.

Carrie has some semiotics-related links on her blog, as for example a semiotics primer for writers, part 1, and a semiotics primer for writers, part 2.

Consistency is important. The rules are yours, and if you know what things mean, your readers will start to pick up that meaning. The hard part is to figure out why it means this to you. It's a good idea to study a place, to talk to people in that place, and to read about the place. Write a draft, she says, and then edit it. Find knowledgeable friends and then listen to their advice. Carrie says, "If you mean to be offensive, own it," but if you hear from a friend that something you've written has an offensive meaning and that is not your intent, then change it.

Everything relies on context, and each person's context is different.

This is one of the reasons that academic writing dedicates time and words to defining the terms that they will use. It gives them a chance to refer back to the context of the meaning and try to establish shared context.

Every person who will read your story is from 1 to 6 degrees of separation away from our context.

One reason it's easy to offend people is because you don't know what you're saying. Watch international movies made by local people, she suggests. She recommends the first season of Cleverman.

Go through your manuscript and look for anything visual (there will be a lot!). Each one is an opportunity. Characters will react to those things, adding judgment to the situation.

Carrie, thank you so much for visiting the show to share your experiences and insights!


Friday, September 30, 2016

Come see me at Convolution!

I'll be appearing at Con-Volution: The Age of Monsters this weekend on Friday and Saturday at the Hyatt Regency SFO in Burlingame, California. Come and talk to me!

I'm going to try to schedule a reading, too, at some point, but that's not set in stone yet. I hope to see you there!

Here is my panel schedule:

Worldbuilding: The Monstrous Element

Friday 21:00 - 22:30, Parlor 2021 (Hyatt Regency SFO)
Including monsters and inhuman creatures in your fiction Worldbuilding.
Steven Savage, Juliette Wade (M), ElizaBeth "Lace" Gilligan, Melissa Snark, Garrett Calcaterra, Anne Bishop

An Aviary of Beasties

Saturday 12:00 - 13:30, Parlor 2021 (Hyatt Regency SFO)
The dragon and the pegasus are well-known to Western fantasy readers, but what other creatures lurk in the skies? The Manananggal of the Philippines, the Kongamato of Zambia, the Ahool of Indonesia, even the legendary Thunderbird of North America... Let's move past the common and explore the full range of airborne mythological creatures from around the world. Why are we so enamored with things that fly?
Juliette Wade (M), Gregg Castro t'rowt'raahl Salinan/rumsien Ohlone, Lex Rudd, Trish Henry

Fear of The Other

Saturday 20:00 - 21:30, SandPebble B (Hyatt Regency SFO)
 Horror from previous generations draws much of its power from the fear of the Other. In some cases the other is an unknowable being, a cosmic terror, but just as often it's not, referencing instead more mundane distinctions between us and them. How problematic is the use of the Other to engender fear? Has fear of the Other led to some of the challenges genre faces today relative to inclusiveness and equality?
Lillian Csernica, Juliette Wade (M), Garrett Calcaterra, Gregg Castro t'rowt'raahl Salinan/rumsien Ohlone, Sumiko Saulson


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Hats and other headgear

I love a hangout where I can try on hats!

We had a good conversation. Hats can serve for protection from sun, rain and wind. They also can be fashionable. Certain forms of headwear have religious significance, signifying humility, or indicating that a woman is married. Bridal veils are a specialized form of headwear. There are also special hats that indicate one's status or occupation. Helmets are also a critical form of headgear.

We noted that some metal helmets were designed to be usable as washbasins or cooking pots.

Some forms of headwear indicate one's membership in a social group. Some, like bishop's miters, are meant to stand out and indicate a very different status.

There are also special meanings attached to certain kinds of headwear that would ordinarily just be considered fashion, as when people use the word fedora to indicate a certain type of attitude or behavior.

I showed off some of my hats. One of them is an Akubra, which is an Australian brand of hat felted from rabbit fur. It's very effective at keeping off the rain. Beaver fur was felted for similar reasons.

There were historical periods where just didn't go out without a hat. The 1960's back to nature movement did change that in the US.

A hat presents you the way you want to be presented.

A baseball cap maximizes visibility while maintaining shade.

Winter hats keep you warm to differing extents.

We wondered what the rationale was behind the propeller beanie, and guessed it was something fun for kids to play with.

We talked about the b'nai mitzvah, the round cap made up of triangles with seams. They can be made of suede or fabric, and you can buy them in bulk for special events like bat mitzvahs.

I shared an image of a number of different scarf-like head-coverings that are used by women of religious groups across the world.

We also talked about tricorns. In the Monster Blood Tattoo series by D.M. Cornish, she jokes bout her main character losing hats.

We also talked about Sikh head coverings. Turbans take different forms but are apparently some forms of the religion require them for both men and women.

We talked about Mad Hatters, and the mercury that was used in making the felt, that led to the mercury poisoning.

We asked whether wigs could be considered a head covering. Depending on the time period, they were more common than natural hair.

We noted that many, many animals and birds have died for the sake of hat-making.

We spoke about the feather headdresses of Native American cultures like the Sioux, the Cree, the Cheyenne, and others. These and many other forms of headwear have very specific cultural significance, and shouldn't simply be adopted for fashion purposes.

We mentioned fascinators, those little tiny hats that sit askew on the head as a woman's accessory. They are ornaments, and often feature feathers and jewels.

We wondered whether hoods or cowls counted as headwear (but reached no definitive conclusion).

We also talked about an idea that grew out of the discussion of feather war bonnets, i.e. legitimacy in wearing a particular piece of headwear. Is it really your uniform? Do you belong in it? This question is very important and causes many problems in fiction (and reality!). Think, for example, about crowns - the wearing of crowns (as opposed to tiaras) is very restricted, and one's claim to the crown (literally and figuratively) must be legitimate. Even royalty do not wear crowns all the time because they are very heavy.

It was an enjoyable discussion. Thanks to everyone who came.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Traveler of Worlds

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro told us that he started out writing essays and reviews of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He's now a prolific author of short stories, and has published thirty stories since 2008! He says he likes to experiment in his stories, and to work from specific guidelines. Traveler of Worlds, which came out a week ago, is a book of interviews he conducted with author Robert Silverberg.

Because he has written in Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper fictional universes, I asked him what it was like to work in other people's worlds. He told us about a story he wrote for the The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty: The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes's Nemesis, and says it's impossible to learn all of the things that have done in the case of a world like Sherlock Holmes, because the world has been so mined by others. That means you have to have a specific approach. His was to reread the canonical stories that featured Moriarty, and to research the main ways  he's been portrayed, including novels and popular spins on Moriarty. Then he tried to come up with something really bizarre and make it look natural.

He said he was inspired by the Nathaniel Hawthorne story about a man who leaves his home and lives in a house nearby, watching how his own life unfolds without him in it. He redid it as a Holmes-Moriarty story, and says the plot arose from trying to make the two worlds work together. He asked "How does the story have to end?" and "What is the character's journey?" and the world portrayal arose from that. In his story, he imagined that all the stories about Holmes and Moriarty that occurred after Reichenback Falls were actually flashbacks (life flashing before their eyes) in the minds of the two characters while they were falling from the waterfall. That meant that Moriarty had created a world for himself, and aspects of that world had to show him that something larger was wrong.

In the case of a story he wrote for the Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper stories, he ended up making it science-fictional. Alvaro says that the commercial properties featuring Jack the Ripper are tame, and he wanted to get away from the legend and back to the brutal reality of this "nauseating character." He looked at newspaper clippings and articles from the period, as well as canonical stories and notes. He then blended this with an aspect of contemporary society he finds just as horrifying: the corporate interview. He says that he really connected with some recent articles which described the characteristics required for top corporate positions (like CEO) as corresponding closely with the characteristics of sociopaths and pscyhopaths. The story therefore featured different versions of Jack the Ripper murders, each from the perspective of a different sort of Jack the Ripper character - and [SPOILER!] these were all different people experiencing the stories as part of an interview process for CEO of a company. His intent was also to make readers wonder about how similar they themselves were to Jack the Ripper.

Alvaro is very good at creating conceptual mashups!

We then talked about his story, "WYSIOMG" which will appear in October in Cyberworld. The title is an acronym for "What You See Is Oh My God," bringing together the early concept of a graphic user interface with modern slang sensibilities. The story is a cyberpunk story. Alvaro says that there are many features of cyberpunk, such as tech, implants, cutthroat corporations, neon, and rain, that are mostly superficial, but that it's also important to include a degree of "stylistic audacity." He notes that postmodernism and cyberpunk arose at the same time.

The point of view he uses in this story is somewhat unusual. Alvaro says "worldbuilding is building the world as it is experienced by the character." His main character here comes from a poor background and was sold on using products which damaged his brain, something Alvaro does not consider a disability but a feature of his perspective, represented by his prose stylistics. He says that the story was inspired in part by a news story about villages in Spain being up for sale; in this story, the empty villages have been colonized by poor people who have found their way there from a worse place. He looked at genetic engineering, drones, and the use of information in the future.

I asked Alvaro to talk about the difference between character voice and narrator voice. The easiest way to identify narrator voice is if the story is not in first person - as in the Jack the Ripper story when the narrator was not first person and the reader is dealing with known events. The introduction of the consciousness of the character changes the voice. Alvaro says "everything betrays writer voice" on some level. He often thinks about the aesthetic he is trying to achieve in a story. If you look at writers from before the 20th century you often see longer sentences and formal language, so he used that in the Jack the Ripper story, but made style changes based on the four point of view characters. In the case of WYSIOMG, he used a cyberpunk aesthetic. There are many mentions of future technology, and the character's viewpoint uses run-on sentences, altered grammar, and mixes languages a lot. These stylistic features are meant to capture his multilinguistic background and also his brain injury.

Alvaro told us he was born in Madrid, so his use of Spanish in the story didn't require any research, but he did research on Brazilian Portuguese to capture that aspect of his character. Cyberpunk often uses existing words in a new way (including compound words) and I observed that internet language is also changing sentence structure.

Alvaro told us about a story of his in the forthcoming anthology This Way to the End Times, called "Prayers to the Sun by a Dying Person." This one required a lot of research because it was set in India as the future "crashes into the present." He said he looked deeply into linguistic questions, but also religion, culture, geography, rituals, etc. He takes the question of cultural appropriation very seriously and wants to use the material he learns in a way that is respectful yet innovative, and makes sense.

"Sometimes you spend the longest time on the smallest things," he said. He went back and forth over several drafts about whether to include a brief explanation of the word "ghat" in his first sentence, where the woman was sitting on a step by a lake. In the end, he took the explanation out. Alvaro says "get on with the story; just make it so the reader has enough."

I asked him about Traveler of Worlds, which has been available for about a week. Alvaro explained that he had been paired with Robert Silverberg for a project called When the Blue Shift Comes, where he wrote the second half of a piece with a very particular style that often makes direct address to the reader. Alvaro had to emulate that style "and have fun." The project went well, so Alvaro asked Silverberg to do a book of interviews about how he feels about things other than science fiction and fantasy. The key to successful interviews, Alvaro says, is making sure you can create a safe environment where someone feels they can talk about anything, and not to ask clichéd questions. It sounds like a really neat collection, and gave Silverberg a chance to talk about his early childhood as well as to analyze the work of some non-SFF authors. It sounds really cool.

Alvaro, thank you so much for coming on the show! Now, everyone go check out Traveler of Worlds...


Monday, August 29, 2016


The idea behind this hangout was to talk about the abuse of large systems - schools, bureaucracies, universities, governments, and judicial systems. Sometimes problems with these systems can be caused by individuals, and sometimes the entire system can become biased in its operation because of the aggregate effect of a lot of small oversights or problems. Corruption can be a really good story problem, or an element of worldbuilding, or both.

Sarah mentioned the idea of normalization of deviance. Within a particular system, certain kinds of errors or biases can repeat and may eventually be perceived as normal by the people participating in the system. She mentioned the Challenger disaster as a case where this had occurred, but it immediately made me think of cases where sexual harassment has become normal within an organization.

Complex systems are self-perpetuating, so common abuses that are not sufficiently restricted by the structure of the system will self-perpetuate. Any action within a system simultaneously perpetuates and changes it.

Some examples of corruption we thought of:

bribes - how corruptible are individual people?
loopholes in law - who is looking for them, and what will they do when they find them?
nepotism - do you have friends or relatives in high places who will act inappropriately on your behalf?

There are a lot of examples of corruption in shows like Boardwalk Empire, mafia-related stories where the police are in someone's pocket.

It's important to note that nepotism was once considered normal.

What constitutes a conflict of interest is socially defined. There are many reasons why a person might encounter conflicting motivations in a position of power.

Che said that bribing and jockeying for inheritance or power in government are common plot elements involving corruption.

You can also see corruption in religious hierarchies, and some of these have doctrinal implications, like when the Catholic church makes changes in the system by which the Pope is selected.

How much influence can a single person have within a complex system? One example of such a person was the clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. She was one person, but because of her structural position as an elected official, and the support of other elected officials, her influence was widespread.

We talked about assassins - mostly because the concept of an assassins' guild is so (ridiculously) common in fantasy. Do such things actually exist? Apparently there were two real world examples (total) and they may have been questionable. Hassan i Sabbah and the Hashishin order provide the origin of the word "assassin" but they might be considered terrorists in today's parlance because they were killing for political, social, and cultural reasons.

Let's assume for a moment that you are going to put assassins in your world. You need to think through some aspects of their operation, such as:
1. How does someone find out they are there?
2. How does a character contact them?
3. How does a character pay them?
Other useful questions include "Is there a recognized organization of them?" and "Does everyone (or every family) have one of their own?" and "How does the presence of assassins interact with general rule of law in this society?"

If a society is very chaotic, or if there is corruption in the police, maintaining the presence of assassins might be much easier.

We spoke about Star Trek Into Darkness, which involved an interesting situation where someone did the wrong thing because they were desperate to save a child's life, and thus torn between duties. If you are thinking through a character's motivations, ask how much that person will be punished for wrongdoing, and what the reward for action might be.

Think it through systematically, step by step.

There can also be corruption in magical systems, and the consequences for that can be highly variable. We felt that corruption in the medical system made a good analogy.

Morgan noted that you can learn to practice medicine, but often people have innate and restricted ability to do magic, which might mean having to tolerate the evil or inappropriate behavior of a person because they cannot be replaced.

How replaceable are corrupt people in your world? Can you impeach them? Can you get rid of them if you don't catch them in the act? Do you have to vote them out? Will a corrupt person's friends and colleagues defend them?

How do you go about changing the culture of a system?

Elections are designed as a built-in way to have a revolution, but they can be influenced by redistricting and gerrymandering. People within the system aren't always selfless. There are shades of gray in good and evil, and awareness of problems. You have to acknowledge that, and build in methods to counteract abuses.

Weird laws can sometimes arise as a result of particular people's behaviors - nobody would have thought of abusing the system in that way until one person did it, so now we have to have a law against it. Complex systems of laws always act in concert with the societal system of manners and decency, and when the latter breaks down, the law is often not enough.

We briefly discussed the difference between the American democratic system of "checks and balances" and the Australian system which relies more on elections to oust people who have done things that the electorate doesn't like.

Without built-in standards and methods for change, a system will be brittle. With those built-in methods, it will be more robust.

We talked about the Demarchists in Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe. Specifically, we talked about the idea of AIs that might analyze what people want and then organize changes for them behind the scenes. How would they decide what the people want? How would they make decisions between what is best for the system as a whole and the desires of people within the system?

Of course, people do vote against their own self-interest for many reasons. One virtuous reason is in the interest of the larger society.

There is this interesting, and very common, idea that a person who doesn't want power is the best person to wield it. This is why we see so many farmboys becoming kings in fantasy fiction! It's also why Douglas Adams wrote about the mysterious de facto leader of the universe living incognito in a shack somewhere.

It's also important to note, though, that the desire for power doesn't by definition exclude the possibility of goodness. Complex systems are not inherently bad, and neither are relationships of mutual benefit between people. The payment of money in return for changes in legal policy, or quid-pro-quo, is corrupt. However, people and institutions can give money in support of a candidate because they share a mutual interest in the policies that candidate pursues, and that is perfectly ethical.

Transparency, or the ability to expose parts of the system and its operation to examination and judgment, is absolutely critical.

When a system tends to create entries and pathways to success for a particular type of people, a marginalized group can attempt to use those entries and pathways, or can attempt to create its own entries and pathways. Either approach has drawbacks.

We want to advance people we know because we feel better able to judge their merit.

My final note was that it's important to differentiate between different kinds of power within a system. Power could be "I have the power to pay my bills," or it could be "I have the power to inflict terrible hardship on others." The degree of power possessed by an individual due to position within the system, relationships with others, etc. etc. will help you to determine how far their influence will be felt, and how much damage they can do to people with less power.

Thanks to everyone who attended! Remember that this week's hangout, on August 31 at 10am Pacific, will be an examination of POV characters as representatives of their worlds. I hope you can join us! Contact me on Facebook or Twitter @JulietteWade if you would like to enter the discussion.