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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Fábio Fernandes - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

It was fabulous to talk to Fábio Fernandes, who joined us all the way from Saõ Paulo, Brazil, by the magic of modern technology! He kindly taught us how to pronounce the name of his city, so definitely check out the video for that, if you've been curious.

Fábio is very active in science fiction. He started by telling us of his editing work with Future Fire Magazine and with the Postcolonialist anthology We See a Different Frontier. He's been working trying to increase the visibility of new science fiction authors from other countries, and spoke highly of Lavie Tidhar and Aliette de Bodard. He also attended Clarion West. His work has appeared in Perihelion SF and other venues.

He has been writing in English for the last 10 years, but in Portuguese for the last 30 years! He wants to show the English language audience that there is more out there, and more in the world. He's been in anthologies since 1996, and in 2000 published a short story collection, and in 2009 his first novel. Four years ago, he says, he stopped writing in Portuguese.

He says writing in two or more languages "calls you to do a rewiring in your mind."

He says that in Portuguese, science fictional subjects get treated differently. In Brazil, there is not so much hard SF. He enjoys the work of Alastair Reynolds and Kim Stanley Robinson.  He says, "you check what is being written now in English to keep up." Brazil is very strong in Urban Fantasy, not Magic Realism as he finds many people often expect. 95% of the market there is only in Portuguese.

He works in a hard science fiction world, set about 2000 years in the far future. Many of his stories are parallel in this same universe, and he is working on a novel called Obliterati. He explores the world and problem-solves through telling stories. Humankind in his universe once colonized several stars, but then an invisible enemy appeared and destroyed most planets. The stories occur about 20 years after this destruction, when humans are living inside asteroids, in miners' communities and outposts.

Humanity has no organized military forces in this universe, because he says you don't take these things for granted. There are researchers and scientists trying to make a living. The humans were not anticipating aliens. Humans found they needed a surveillance mechanism, so they created cyborgs called "kinocchio." The word comes from "kino," movie, and "occhio," eye, in Italian. The cyborgs move among humans, recording events, solving disputes and problem-solving without a military. They serve as arbiters, and are featured in the story Mycelium. Their alien enemy is attracted to, and traces them via electronics, so they develop biotech instead, a form of fungally-transmitted telepathy.

He told us about a story called "Nine Paths to Destruction" which is the last in the series and told from the first-person point of view of a Buddhist monk.

The human population in his universe comes largely from Southeast Asia, India, Brazil, and Africa. He asks, "How can they thrive in space?" and tries to build things in without being "fanatic about them." This includes religion. He told us about a character named Jorgenson, the first transwoman to be Pope. She comes to this position because she is trying to revive the Catholic church in space after its destruction, giving people a way to survive spiritually as well as physically.

Fábio says, "I'm trying to create a universe where people can be the most human they want to be." He doesn't want to see any more Captain Kirk figures in science fiction. He told us that he really likes The Expanse and had to be careful not to overlap with it.

We also spoke about language. Fábio says, "I'm also a language geek," which of course made me smile! He's studied Latin, Greek, and Japanese, and likes to read books in other languages including Italian, French, and German.

In his Obliterati universe, he wanted an organic evolution of language. He looked at languages like Catalán and the Caribbean Papiamentu for inspiration. Catalán, he says, is like a mix of new Romance languages and old Latin. He is planning to go to Barcelona in November to learn more of the language, which has fascinated him since he was a teen. He told us Papiamentu came from Curaçao and Suriname, the former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. It uses a mix of Portuguese and Spanish sounds. To him it sounds like "Papu"= "chat" plus "-mento"= formal, making it a sort of "formal chat." He says it is so close to his native language that it is hard to speak. This makes sense, because it's easy when two languages are so similar to slip back into an earlier learned pattern.

He is creating a language for the Obliterati universe that combines a lot of different Earth languages including indigenous ones. One language he's mixing in is Yoruba, because a number of Yoruba speakers went to Brazil, and lots of words from that language got mixed in locally. The language he's creating is called "Mistureba," a Brazilian Portuguese for "a mixup of things" that he said wouldn't be comprehended in Portugal.

He told us that he got along fine linguistically when he visited Portugal. Apparently the Brazilian telenovela shows are popular enough there that people have started comprehending more words from Brazilian Portuguese!

I spoke briefly about pidgin and creole languages for reference, since the languages he's working with here are creole languages. A pidgin is a collection of words that becomes the lingua franca in a place where a lot of different people come together speaking mutually unintelligible languages. They gradually come to a tacit agreement about which words are most useful and comprehensible to all, and use those, but it doesn't have a strong grammatical structure. A creole language develops when a second generation is born to a group speaking a pidgin language. The children learn the pidgin natively, and their natural language systems create a more fully realized grammar for the language, turning it into a creole.

Fábio remarked that in TV and literature colony planets seem always to have everyone speaking the same language. If you are working with non-English languages, it becomes a conundrum for you to write a story for the benefit of the reader, because you have to write it in English.

He says he is amazed that people can handle orcs and elves but not blacks or female protagonists. It's a similar problem with languages. People can speak many languages - hundreds, in fact.

He told us he really liked Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao, and also Dune by Frank Herbert for how they worked with language.

He wants to provide this new language, Mistureba, through hints in his stories. Some characters in the novel, Obliterati, speak only Mistureba.

This was a fascinating discussion and ended too soon! I hope you will take advantage and check out the video.

Fábio, thank you so much for joining us! I'm really glad our technology allowed us to connect successfully. Today we meet at 10am Pacific to discuss Worldbuilding Under the Radar. I hope to see many of you there!


Monday, March 21, 2016

Social Media - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Our first observation at this hangout was that we were using a social medium! Also, that the pluralization of "medium"/"media" was getting iffy with language change and we were liable not to be utterly strict in its usage. We spent a bit of time talking about how to define a social medium. Parameters can differ, and our modern technological definition of social media is not the only usable one.

We listed a few modern technological social media, like Facebook, Google+, Twitter... Morgan also suggested Livejournal. We asked ourselves if blogs could be considered social media. They do allow for comment and response, but are not as active as the ones that constituted our core group.

Social media allow for instantaneous communication over distances, but also allow for an audience that is far larger than a single person. I characterized Twitter as being like "a cocktail party the size of the entire world."

Social media in our modern sense generally allow for both mass and individual communication.

Historically, what were the roots of social media? We talk about letter-writing, which could be a very swift method in the era when a community had both morning and afternoon post. However, the post has changed drastically since that time depending on location.

What kind of message you send depends on the properties of the medium. And that generally means language.

Morgan mentioned how social media provide a mask for people, which leads to both good and bad outcomes as masking can.

What gets communicated over social media will depend on the speed and the size of the message. The Storify service grew out of Twitter restrictions.

Twitter's length restrictions also influence speech and written language. The acronyms and abbreviated spellings are a natural response to a 140 character limit. Also, any service which provides a thumbnail image of the sender (and most do) is likely to promote subject-dropping in English, which normally requires sentences to have subjects.

We often see types of code coming out of social media. Hashtags are an example of a very effective type of code that has a special function.

We also talked about tweeted novel queries, and how horrid it would try to be to get a novel description down to 140 characters. The elevator pitch is bad enough! Query letters are also challenging because of their length requirements relative to the totality of a book.

Che brought up the important point of how social media change what we make public. What is "public"? Are your Facebook friends all "friends"? This kind of language use actually leads to a change in the meanings of words. Privacy is a huge issue. Social media act like a sort of public lottery, where you can't necessarily tell what is going to pop out and become known by all. What goes viral? Some people think they know, but you can't always tell. Another privacy question comes up with parents who share information about their children on social media. They might accidentally contribute to doxxing of their children.

Companies who host online support groups or chat groups can decide suddenly to make ostensibly private information public.

The historical root of social media argumentation would appear to be serial editorializing arguments in newspapers.

It's also important to keep in mind the pitfalls of a written medium that preserves people's contributions. As it is often said, "the internet is forever."

Accessibility is a potentially big problem with social media. It's easy to assume that everyone has access to it, but in fact both distance and finances can contribute to a lack of accessibility. The "room" doesn't contain everyone, and we shouldn't assume that it does.

We talked a bit about the language difference between Facebook and Twitter, and why I personally find Twitter interaction so exhausting. It has a lot to do with conducting multiple conversations at once.

In cyberpunk, the online realm or the computer realm are often portrayed as worlds with their own internal landscape. Che said she wants to see science fictional captains tweeting things like "OMG planet!" In fiction, people often send messages instantly. There are also cases of hive minds, or unified minds like the ship minds in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice. We don't often see people in science fiction sending cat videos, however!

It's important to remember that not all of our linguistic interaction is message-sending. A lot of it is affective politeness speech that helps to maintain relationships, and cat videos etc. on social media are a lot like the affective politeness of that medium.

Finally, reach and involvement are key factors. Part of the reason it's hard for new social media to succeed is that they have to have an overwhelmingly strong reason why people will want to use them. One of the major properties that gives success to a social medium is the sheer number of people able to participate in it.

As is true with many of our discussions, I felt like we barely scratched the surface with this one. Again, this week's hangout will occur on Thursday, March 24 and we will be speaking with author Fábio Fernandes. I hope you can join us!


Roles in Government - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

We've spoken about government before at Dive into Worldbuilding, but this week we decided to talk a bit about what kind of roles you can find in government - in other words, what kind of people work there. Whenever you're designing a government, knowing what its structure is is pretty important, but then again, so is knowing who makes it work.

How are laws made? How are people chosen? Where are the forces that might cause corruption?

The go-to form of government for a lot of epic fantasy is the monarchy. In this case, you are usually working with a hereditary monarch. It's important to understand what kind of rules define who is next in line for the throne, and how people might be able to influence succession. It would also be good to know what exactly the monarch controls (and what their resources are).

Who are the monarch's representatives? Does anyone complement or counteract the monarch's role?

Research on real monarchies is obviously a great way to get ideas that aren't totally generic.

Single powerful rulers, like dictators, are easy. Not easy, but less complicated to manage than large governmental systems. You still need to figure out what their enforcement strategies are, though. Who are the enforcers? How are they controlled? Why do they follow the monarch? What constitutes the rule of law in your system? What are the consequences of changing the monarch?

Then there is the question of staff. Bureaucrats are part of many government systems, and deserve to be explored. What are taxes, and how are they collected? Is it just sending your buddy out with a club and a sack to canvas the town? We mentioned the Tudors, and how Cromwell was bureaucrat #1. People in the system can skim off money, so no one should have both the books and the key to the treasury. How do you make people pay?

I mentioned Yes, Minister, because it clearly showed (and made jokes about) the elected officials, the appointed officials, and the staff. A person who has been around long-term can have considerable power just by virtue of the fact that they are not constantly having to re-learn their job. That person becomes the arbiter of "this is how things are."

When we look at a congress, they too come with staff and interns. If you have elections, who is running the elections?

I mentioned my Varin government system, because it is a mixed system with a seeming monarch who is in fact elected by a small group of fifteen people out of a pool of twelve candidates. The biggest trick if you have a complex system of government, and a complex system of succession, is to keep readers' focus on the story. The government structure can't be what the story is about! It's easy to get distracted by structure, but you have to keep the focus on people. Who are the people involved, and how are they hurt or helped by the structure, and by the events?

My discussants recommended House of Cards on Netflix.

I mentioned the Iroquois system, which is definitely worth looking into and which had significant influence on our own system of government. One unusual feature of it is that women picked the representatives for each tribal group.

Scale changes a lot of things. Small population, or small population of the government itself, means that there is more influence for individuals.

No matter what structure you choose, ask yourself, "What are the points of influence?" Sometimes you find things like a culture of ratting out neighbors for favor from the powerful.

Is there a secret police body where no one knows who is actually a member (as in Perdido Street Station)?

Are there fake or puppet elections?

Is the government run by a person, or by an AI?

The belief that government will function as advertised is very important. When lack of confidence intensifies, you tend to get revolutions. If you are going to have elections, you have to have confidence in the results of that election.

It's important to note that government can be very reliable for privileged groups, and very inconsistent or even actively harmful to marginalized groups.

Politics tends to favor the top, and to favor the government players.

Thanks as always to my wonderful discussants. This week's hangout will be on Google Hangouts on Thursday, March 24th at 10am. We will talk with author Fábio Fernandes and learn about his work. I hope you can make it!


Friday, March 11, 2016

Kelly Robson and Waters of Versailles - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary (with spoilers!)

It was great to talk to author Kelly Robson, and to share her excitement about her Nebula nomination for Waters of Versailles. At 18,600 words, the piece qualifies as a novella (for anyone thinking about the Hugos). She told us she'd been hoping it would be shorter, because novellas are so hard to sell. It bounced at a couple of venues before acquired it through a personal connection.

I asked her what the original kernel of the story had been. She told us that she'd been inspired by reading historical nonfiction for fun - specifically a book called The Sun King by Nancy Mitford. She followed that book up with the book Versailles by Tony Spaworth, which she described as less "juicy."

In these readings, she became fascinated by the water system of Versailles, which featured flush toilets in the year 1738. She said that thousands of people were living there, and this led to much squalor; water distribution was "a huge problem."

This interest of hers combined with her experience writing a wine column for Châtelaine magazine, where she learned the language of people passionate about wine and fine living - she says there's a bit of that in the story as well.

The main character, Sylvain, is a manly man from the southern Alps. He wants to be in Versailles to take power for himself, but can't respect the shallow, lazy people. In reading the story, I felt there was a sense of tension between the power of the rich aristocracy and the power of his home, which includes the power of nature as embodied in the nixie who appears in the story.

The historical context of the story, Kelly told us, was that Louis XV has returned to Versailles, which is not in good condition. Sylvain when he arrives takes the waterworks for his own by bringing a nixie from the glacial pools of the Alps, and getting her to force the water to flow. The nixie is a child - bored, mischeivous, and not wanting to do what she's told. Kelly told us that once she watched a two-year-old for 36 hours and it was utterly exhausting!

Sylvain puts a lot of energy into being a courtier, maintaining his social standing, and appearing where he needs to be (like attending the king's waking, keeping lovers, etc.). He also works to put pipes in to expand the plumbing, which runs from cisterns on the roof down to the toilets. The first toilet goes to the king, then one to his mistress, etc. Everyone wants them. Kelly chose to refer to these toilets as "thrones," a delightfully impudent word choice. Sylvain has to deal with the fact that the king's cat has taken over his "throne," and he needs a new one; also that the bored nixie keeps targeting him with drips.

We spoke about the sex scene that opens the story. A fun way to approach a sex scene, Kelly says, is to have something else going on. In Sylvain's case, this something else is getting away from the drips. I personally considered this opening scene to be something of a metaphor for his whole problem, as it concerns Sylvain's difficulty getting into privileged spaces while maintaining his plumbing!

Kelly told us about some advice she received at Orycon 2012 from the estimable Steven Barnes. He said when you get a story idea, you usually get either a character or a problem. If you get the problem first, you should ask, "Who is the absolute worst person to give this problem to?" And if you get a character first, then ask, "What is the worst thing that can happen to this person, and how can I make him do it to himself?"  According to Kelly, it was this advice that really changed the story and made everything about it work. It was also something that changed her writing generally. She says she now also puts quite a bit of work into scene craft, so every scene has its own hook, and conclusion, and she considers what the scene's role is in the story.

I asked her about the story's title, and she told me "the title was always there." So was the story arc. She knew about the beginning and the end, and a few points in between.

Louis XV, the king in the story, "had mistresses up the wazoo," so Kelly took advantage of this to add complication to the story. The way that the king maintains his relationships - all of which are tainted by power - disgusts Sylvain. Sylvain himself maintains a relationship with a lady-in-waiting named Annette, which starts as shallow but becomes a bit deeper. Kelly thinks it's unusual in that the two of them don't end up in a romantic relationship. The father-child relationship is more important in this particular story.

I asked Kelly about her choice of the Alps for Sylvain's origin, and she explained that she is from Jasper, near Jasper Park in Alberta, Canada, and loves the mountains. Her love informs Sylvain's yearnings.

Kelly would like to write more in this world. She is planning a novella about Annette. This is a world where magical creatures are known to exist, and people believe in human-animal hybrids. The nixie is part salamander and part human, and it's hinted that the king's lineage is not 100% human.

She told us that she made up the songs that Sylvain sings in the story. This brought us to the interesting question of how an author builds and maintains trust with the reader. The use of specific real details forms a strong foundation that is really important in speculative fiction, where readers are asked to believe many totally made-up things.

Kelly also mentioned the workshop Taos Toolbox and recommended it highly. As she said about writing, "It's a solitary pursuit, but you can't be solitary all the time."

Kelly, thank you so much for joining us, and good luck at the Nebulas! Next week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, March 16th at 10am Pacific, and we will take up the topic we had to cancel a week ago, Social Media. I hope you can join us!