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Monday, January 30, 2017

Laura Anne Gilman and The Cold Eye

After having Laura Anne on the show to talk about Silver on the Road, and reading the book, I was keen to have her come back to discuss the sequel, The Cold Eye. So it was great when she agreed to join us!

These two books are part of The Devil's West, which includes this novel series and a number of other stories she has written. It's an alternate history with magic, in North America. The divergence point is that the Louisiana Purchase was never acquired by the United States because it was protected by a man (entity?) known to all as The Devil, who lives in the town of Flood and runs a saloon. The best description of the genre here is probably magical realism. Everyone in the book accepts that things are slightly magical.

The main character, Isobel, grew up as an indentured servant in the Devil's saloon, but at 16 years old, she got to decide what to do with her life, and because she's ambitious, she takes a job with the Devil. He sends her out into the Territory as his Left Hand - a sort of enforcer. The first trip, featured in Silver on the Road, is a learning experience. Isobel is helped by a companion and teacher named Gabriel. Of course, things go terribly wrong. In the second book, she has better learned to control her abilities and understands her responsibilities better. Laura Anne describes this as the heroine's journey. Isobel is not battling against external forces so much as learning to work with the world.

The magic in this world is unpredictable and organic. It's also not called magic. It's often tied to particular creatures that carry it, like buffalo and snakes, etc. The farther you go in the world, the more you learn about the different skills people and animals have, and how to react to them. There are people who have skills but don't want to be in the Territory. Whether you have skills often has to do with how many generations you have lived there. The Territory is under pressure from the United States, which is known as a place of street lights, technology, and universities.

Laura Anne told us that the whole thing was born out of a writing exercise. She discovered this world's outlines by writing a short story called Crossroads. She says that every time she writes a story in the world, it leads her to new discoveries, different aspects of the world and its magic. For example, there are people called Devil's Jacks, who have gambled with the Devil and lost everything, and ended up bound to him. He plays them like cards. They are here and there in the Territory, doing their jobs, miserable. What she learned about them revealed more about the characters.

She says there are still areas she hasn't visited yet.

She says she's working on a piece called Boots of Clay, which features a Portuguese Jewish community who live in the Territory because they were fleeing intolerance. They interact with the native people and there are some culture clashes. (It's a golem story). This story will appear in a successfully Kickstarter-backed anthology called Lawless Lands.

"The only story I think I'm never going to tell is how the Devil came to the Territory," Laura Anne says. She says that's because it feels very fluid in her head. The Devil changes what he looks like, sometimes from moment to moment, even with people he knows best. To write a story like that would tie it down in a way that feels wrong to her.

The agreement that allows everyone in the Territory to coexist is fluid. Laura Anne describes it as "Don't be shitty," but it's up to the Left Hand (Isobel) to decide if you are breaking it. It's not always logical. This is not a world that lends itself to a World Bible. Laura Anne says she has an idea of what powers the magic, but it's organic and resists identification. The magic/medicine has elasticity.

In fact, in this world, the word "magic" is a pejorative term used by outsiders. There is still a lot of superstition about "magic."

The time period featured here is between 1801 and 1803 during the term of President Jefferson. Laura Anne says she tries to keep all the politics outside the Territory as the exact politics of that time period.

Many people think Old West when they see her books, but this is earlier in history, before the invention of rifle barrels. The guns people carry are blunderbusses and flintlocks. Fights are much more likely to be conducted with fists than with knives or guns. When they were marketing the book, they tried to avoid the "Weird West" label even though it is weird, and west, because there are no gunslingers, hardly any prostitutes (she deliberately avoided them), and no railroads.

It's a very difficult period to research. History is well documented east of the Mississippi river, but the research on the west is "not in English." Native stories of the area are very different and nonlinear, with a different sense of time and a different storytelling logic.

I asked her whether there were any world-exploration spots where she had to push hard and maybe make up some things. She said that there were, and these occurred on Book 3 when the story moves to Louisiana. It's a very different region, and the Caddo confederacy occupied that region, but the confederacy was a lot of small tribes banded together over a large region, and some of them disappeared leaving no information. She had to use best guesses. Tribal names are not necessarily the ones that the tribes themselves used, because there is no record. She was frustrated because she had to use second person narratives, and other people's photos, rather than reading about these people in their own words.

Laura Anne says she wants to talk about Alaska also, and that there will be good research material there.

I asked her how she went about raising stakes across three books without blowing the top out of the story. Her answer was to keep survival as the basic stakes. This is the era of Manifest Destiny in the United states, so the threat to the Territory is consistent. She also keeps focused on Isobel's personal journey. In Book 2, Isobel must deal with what she's become. She has become adult and needs to make really hard decisions. Book 3 has her dealing with those decisions. Laura Anne insists that Isobel is not "getting darker," but that she has more weight on her from one book to the next.

Che asked whether she has plans beyond these three books. Laura Anne explained that Isobel's apprenticeship is done at the end of Book 3, and more material has yet to gel. She intends to keep writing in the world, however. She says she's intrigued by the question of how Marie became the Devil's Right Hand. There are many characters here, and many points of view.

I asked her specifically about the fascinating cultural clashes she deals with. She explained that they grow out of her background in American History. Western European settlers were not the full story. Spain and Portugal sent people. So did the French. The Native American peoples had thousands of communities with completely different cultures. There were Jewish people, and escaped slaves. There were Isolationists, or people who just wanted to move out into the wilderness and survive and maintain their lonely outposts. Then there were people who started cities because they wanted civilization where they were. There were cattle herders and farmers, who also had conflicts between them. Marrying outside one's own culture was a critical question. People were able to accept maybe one or two examples of this, but once it got to be 10 or 20 they felt threatened, as if their culture was being diluted.

One big question Laura Anne deals with is "Who gets to determine the future?" She told us she was really angry while writing the third book. None of the characters are bad people; they just want what they want and it leads to different good or bad outcomes. She says, "I know what happens to the Territory and when it happens. I'm not sure i want to write those stories. Nothing gets to stay the same, intact."

She tries to be faithful to the actuality of history in many ways. One of those is that there is no climactic battle. You realize after the fact that something has happened, and you have to deal with it. She says it's not a three-act narrative. It's about looking back at what people do and how they do it. History is key to storytelling. So is political science, anthropology - because they deal with people, cultures, and decision-making.

Laura Anne says that the best non-fiction books have a storytelling style. Liberal arts and sciences are very important. She says, "I'm not a science fiction writer [in her novels]. I just put a lot of science in my fantasy."

Last, we talked about suspension of disbelief. Laura Anne says there are two kinds. One is the suspension of disbelief of the reader, who says, "Okay, I'm going to trust you." The other is that of the writer, who bears an obligation to create a structure on which the reader can hang their suspension of disbelief. The Cold Eye starts because of an earthquake. If you take actual facts, and twist just slightly, it will still feel real.

The author has a great responsibility. Laura Anne observes that this is reflected in the way we talk about being "thrown out" of a story rather than "walking out" of it. It's the author's responsibility not to create ejection points.

Thank you so much for coming to talk to us, Laura Anne! I'm really excited to see what happens next in the series. Dive into Worldbuilding will meet this Wednesday, February 1 at 10am Pacific to talk about Colorism. I hope you can all join us!


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Physical Exercise

There's something about New Year's (probably the resolutions) that makes me think of physical exercise, so we decided to take this topic on.

Physical exercise is often considered a way to better yourself. There are the health and strength benefits, of course, but in many ways exercise is considered something morally good in American culture. What kind of person is worthy, beautiful, strong? Is exercise important to that? Is exercise key to self-reliance? Is it also a replacement for flagellation or self-punishment?

As with many aspects of our lives, social class plays into the cultural meaning of exercise. People who exercise as leisure tend to get more kudos for it than people who exercise for work (labor). There is also the question of international cultures and their appropriation, as when yoga or martial arts are adopted in the US and end up being changed. In a way, appropriation is involved in the core premise of the Karate Kid, in the question of whether karate is to be considered a cultural practice or just a way to wield the power of physical strength over others.

When you are writing about characters in fiction, are they fit? Ask yourself in what way they are fit, and how they got there. People sometimes will give their characters "superpowers," or physical abilities with no particular explanation of how they were developed. Do your characters have to work hard for their strength and fitness?

Nina mentioned how Seanan McGuire in October Day had a character with fast healing who never runs from anything, but how later when her healing isn't working she has to change her strategy drastically.

Cliff Winnig, in the lead-up to the discussion, mentioned that Michael Moorcock has a character who loses people dear to him at the end of Book 1 of a series, and then in Book 2 is depressed and out of shape and has to get his physical fitness back.

I spoke about the question of my alien character Rulii and his physical fitness, which depends on several factors - his semi-bipedalism, which means he's far better at running on fours than at walking, and also his history of military service followed by drug use and recovery, which influences his expectations for his own abilities.

Che mentioned that in middle grade we too often see the trope of "training with a cute guy."

One of the common tropes of fiction is the idea that the only thing that will keep you from being sore is more of the same thing that made you sore. Fictional stories too often ignore recovery time.

Nina also mentioned that there is a big focus on young people who can bounce back quickly. Morgan mentioned that there is an assumption that people are either able-bodied or visibly disabled, and we don't see many cases of people who are held back by invisible ailments or injuries. I'm working on a character currently who has a nerve injury that she's been recovering from for a while. It's hard to say how much it will affect her, because injuries like this vary depending on the day.

It's a good idea to figure out the physical history of your characters.

Ask how much your culture values the physical abilities of your characters. If they were injured or disabled, would they try to pass as uninjured/able?

Pedestrians are also an interesting question. Does it make sense for people to travel by foot? Nina told us that in Finland in winter, people are required by law to wear personal reflectors for walking as well as for cycling.

Some jobs cause you to be physically fit. For example, you can be a postman who has to walk their daily routes.

Exercise helps to maintain your body and stave off aging.

Exercise for major muscles provided by sports, etc. is not the same as exercise for tiny muscles provided by activities like yoga or Pilates or dance.

In a place with car culture, the form of cities changes and makes walking far more difficult. Cars need space to be safe, but that means that the form of the city is skewed toward people who have money for cars. Public transport also gives people the opportunity to do daily walking. Mass transport also often makes assumptions about people being able-bodied. This was certainly the case in Tokyo in the early 90's when I was living there and some stations didn't have elevators or escalators. Carrying on with physical exercise when you are sick can be a mistake. Carrying on with serious injury is also a problem.

Pain is exhausting and sometimes doesn't register as pain but as fatigue.

There were quite a number of aspects of physical exercise we didn't cover, including school PE, so we'll have to discuss this again sometime! Thanks to everyone who attended, and a special welcome to Nina who joined us from Finland!

Next week, guest author Fonda Lee will join us to talk about her forthcoming novel, Exo (and hopefully also her debut novel, Zeroboxer). I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Strength and Weakness

The first thing that came to mind for me when we discussed this topic was how important questions of strength and weakness can become in fiction. This takes different forms for male and female characters. I thought of Maui from the movie Moana, whose physical strength is legendary but who uses it as a cover for emotional weakness. Another character who takes on the question of strength and weakness in an interesting way is Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles.

Morgan took us away from the pure concept of physical strength with the idea that in school we should "focus on our strengths." A strength, loosely defined, can be anything we are particularly good at. But she said we should not forget to work on those areas where we are not as good.

Physical strength takes a front seat in toxic masculinity. Men are encouraged to be "strong," which often includes not showing any sign of being sick (and not getting any help until it is severe), playing sports through pain, etc.

Che remarked that playing through pain is not always a good idea. It may be helpful for arthritis but not helpful for injuries, so you have to be able to recognize what kind of pain you are feeling!

Working while sick is potentially a big problem because as strong as you think you are, you are also risking contagion for those around you.

It can also be toxic to believe that you are weak if you need someone to care for you.

Women "tough it out" in different ways. They are often expected to keep households running despite being sick; their illness tends to be ignored rather than acknowledged and pampered.

Do men and women perceive pain differently? Some research has suggested as much, but our research on pain is very preliminary, and pain is very subjective.

Back to the idea of strength as something you are good at: are you "allowed" to have more than one strength? Is there a zero-sum pie for strengths in the social context in which you move? Nerd is good at the intellectual and jock is good at the physical. This division is very common in popular narratives, and you have a few cases of "Wow, exception!" like Beast from the X-men. However, in the real world there are plenty of people who are good at both. Some families try to compartmentalize their kids' strengths to keep them from competing against each other, which means they encourage some strengths in their kids and suppress others.

If you draw your expectations from fiction you may be deceived.  If you draw your fiction from expectations you may be... boring.

The context of a science fiction and fantasy convention doesn't cause a person to leap to the conclusion that there would be a lot of rock climbers around, but I've met a surprising number of SF/F writers who climb!

Strength is also contextual. John Carter of Mars relies on the premise that John's strength is incredible on Mars because of the change in gravity. In real life, people can be exceedingly good at sports and not have what we would imagine as a typical "strong body." Here is a great link showing the body types of Olympic athletes:

We looked a bit at the concept of the Strong Female Character. The problem with many of these is that they tend to fall into the pattern of being kickass women with a lot of body strength who nonetheless are still secondary to the plot of a story (as in the LEGO movie, argh argh). Hermione is a better character, intelligent, with focus and drive and some influence on the plot. However, she is still not the protagonist. Watch out for the Cassandra: a character who has an amazing power but nobody ever lets it influence them.

It's important to realize that oppressed characters are not necessarily weak. I spoke a bit about the difficulty of creating non-POV female characters who were oppressed, and not have them come across as weak. I had to make sure they were changing events in whatever small ways they could manage.

We need to break the expectation that weakness is feminine, and also the expectation that crying is a sign of weakness. Both crying and rage are emotional steam valves, but the latter is usually portrayed as strong and the former as weak. Crying is a communication instinct, and often a healthier response than self-suppression.

Thank you to everyone who attended the discussion! This week's discussion will feature guest author Laura Anne Gilman, who will tell us all about her new novel, The Cold Eye. Join us tomorrow at 10am Pacific on Google Hangouts to hear all about it!


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In-Group Marking (nicknames, slang, secret handshakes, etc.)

I have always loved the idea of the secret handshake, but I never learned the term "in-group" until I was studying Japanese. This discussion was about how we mutually mark ourselves as members of common social groups, i.e. as insiders. The initial spark for the discussion was an after-hangout chat during which Mafia nicknames of the '20s and '30s were mentioned.

Nicknames are funny. Who actually awards them? It depends on the group involved (in our family, most nicknames come from Mom, i.e. me). They aren't titles "awarded" by the head of an organization though - they can be agreed upon by consensus of the group, or each individual (as in the case of my family) can make up their own nicknames for other members. It's not just Mafia and families, either. Sports players can get nicknames, like "The Fridge" or "Sweetness," etc.

Another thing that marks in-group members is verbal habits, which can include everything from slang to special greetings to slagging (ritual put-downs, which are known by many different names depending on the social group). In a way, it's an honor to be able to put someone down safely.

I saw a great video of a teacher who had a different secret handshake for every single one of his students, and shook hands with each of them as they entered at the start of the day (video here). Freemasons were known for having secret handshakes also.

Clothing can also be a critical indicator of group membership. School uniforms, hats, or class rings, championship rings etc. Gang colors are an example of this. So are house colors like the ones in British Schools (and Hogwarts!). Fraternities have colors, letters, and a motto.

The creation/selection of these critical membership artifacts contributes to the sense of unity among the group. Groups have their own culture of shared interest.

Ideologies are also a form of in-group. Often people recognize members of the group from among people they don't know by listening to how they talk, as when people use dog-whistle words or phrases.

We chatted also about how we recognized members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy "tribe." Sometimes it's their clothes (a genre t-shirt, for example). Sometimes they are reading a book. Sometimes they have colorfully dyed hair. Sometimes the guys have long hair. Sometimes it's several of the above!

There were codes of dress and adornment favored by LGBT people, as when there was the habit of gay men wearing an earring in the right ear. In the case of groups like this, there can be potentially dangerous consequences for exposure, so it may be advantageous for the signals to be kept secret.

Groups can be formed on the basis of a shared job (as with unions, etc.) or a shared experience. Often, you will find that mothers will bond over describing their birth experiences. This becomes more complex in the case of transmen bearing babies.

Within groups, people often try to stratify themselves. Would that be indicated by scarier nicknames? Possibly.

Che talked about the witches in her book Tea Times Three, who were ostracized by non-witches. Each one of them is named after food! We wondered whether this was a witch thing, or a sisterly thing.

A really good source of conflict might be a person who is a member of two or more different incompatible groups being placed in a situation where they have to deal with one of each, and signal covertly to more than one person at a time, in different ways. When you are writing fiction, definitely think through what kind of groups exist and how they might be linguistically marked.

The identity of a group will reflect on the way the language use comes across. A character called The Nose might be very different depending on whether they are a perfumer, someone in an elementary school, a member of the Mafia, and alien, a mean girl, or something else. It's up to the author to create those associations. Set up the context, and take your time.

Given names for children are a way they can be involuntarily grouped. People change their names for various social reasons. Geisha take a performer name, as do people like Sting. Racism sometimes leads to people avoiding "ethnic" names. Lady Gaga chose her name to be deliberately ironic and to reference the song by Queen.

In Japanese, suffixes like -san, -chan, and -sama are used differently depending on whether you are members of a shared group (-chan and -kun are for insiders).

There are often nicknames that you don't want but which you are stuck with, and it can be problematic when nicknames are used out of context. A group may have a name for itself that is different from the public name it uses.

The use of a particular term can sound different when used by people in different social groups, as when the n-word sounds different used by white people (who are associated with racist contexts in which the word has previously been used) vs. black people (who have reclaimed the word in some ways).

License of intimacy often lets you use a nickname. Sometimes, external context like being at a diner can let you use a nickname.

Thank you to everyone who attended! This was a really interesting topic, and I enjoyed talking with everyone.