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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!

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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.

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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.