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Thursday, May 25, 2017


This was an interesting hangout where we barely scratched the surface of this topic, so we'll have to go back to it sometime! I proposed it because I have children of my own, but also because I'm working on a piece right now where the main character has five children ranging between the ages of 2 and 19 years. I suppose you can imagine how complex it is to think through the developmental levels of all five children, and how they would react differently to plot events!

One thing that probably seems silly on the face of it, but which bears mentioning, is that not all children are child geniuses! Especially in SF/F, the category of child geniuses is drastically over-represented, possibly because it functions as a form of wish-fulfillment. Characters like Artemis Fowl, Andrew Wiggin from Ender's Game, and Manfred Manx are deliberately set up with incredible powers of mind and no parental oversight. We observed that one of the nice things about Harry Potter was that he wasn't great at everything (it makes sense, given his reputation, that he shouldnt - if he were good at everything and came in with an amazing reputation, I imagine he'd have been pretty insufferable). On the other hand, our discussants observed that the genius child usually appears in science fiction, while in fantasy you typically find the child of destiny, the child with power. Harry Potter, while not overwhelmingly powerful, is most definitely a child with a destiny. In fairy tales, you find that often the simple child is special. We agreed that you don't often find that played out in the SF/F genres more broadly.

When you are working with a story that has children in it, ask yourself: whose perspective do I tell this story from? Why? If you are using a child's point of view, ask, "What tools does a child have?"

Patsy noted that in The Hero and the Crown, you get magic when you grow up (or become a teen). This is similar to the way mutant powers develop in the X-men. A fascinating and different view comes from Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, where the child becomes a brain ship.

I mentioned the baby in Dan Simmons' Hyperion. Simmons gestures at the father's care of her, and maybe the father has an AI baby carrier or something to help him, but the baby's portrayal doesn't really involve the kind of care that babies so young require.

Children vary. The importance of this fact must not be underestimated. It's also helpful, if you can, to observe real children in interaction rather than relying on portrayals of them in media. The average trend is that they can sit at 6 months old, begin to read faces at 9 months old, and start to walk around 1 year. Some children crawl earlier, but others learn to crawl at the same time as they learn to walk, and some learn later (or even not at all!). Some babies love to put everything in their mouths, but others don't. Some are super-grabby, and some are not. Some climb everything they can find, and others don't.

When you have children, strangers will observe how you raise your child, and judge you. Often they will try to change how you raise your child, even if they don't have any experience with children themselves.

Kids get sick a TON. Especially when they have just entered a new social community like a preschool or a kindergarten, they can spend weeks at a time being sick (and making their parents sick).

Interestingly enough, people who have actual experience dealing with children and their idiosyncratic needs don't judge our parenting as much as non-parents who are coming from a stance of ideal, and totally hypothetical/stereotypical parenting.

I mentioned that kids will learn the words you use with them first. So if you don't want them to say "no" to you, then don't say "no" to them. Kat brought up that when we don't raise children to say no, sometimes they don't learn to enforce healthy boundaries. This is true inasmuch as a child should be able to refuse things to their parent, so that they can refuse things to other people also. My initial comment was more about the use of the specific word "no" than about the idea of refusal in general; I used explanations for my refusals to allow things as much as possible.

Patsy told us that she has a developmentally delayed child who uses augmented communication. There are a ton if different ways in which children can vary, and variation in the pace of development is one major one.

Parents are generally responsible for the path the child takes to becoming an adult. There are risks here. Don't threaten a punishment you can't reasonably carry out. Don't offer to let the child make a decision if you can't respect their choice.

Expectations for children are culturally based. Parents don't always interact with their children the same way. In some cultures, children are expected to participate in group activities in relatively sophisticated ways. I remember reading about how children are included in First Nations celebrations and learn very complex dances. There are also cultures where children don't learn language from their parents, but from siblings and older peers. Toddlers, while inexperienced, are already people. It is said that full cognitive maturity is reached at age 7, but we keep developing more subtly until about age 25. Thirteen is considered adult in many cultures, and is an age of independent social inclusion. Adulthood rituals are really important. The expectation is often that some will fail the trials. Independence increases risk, but also increases the child's ability to participate fully in society. The idea of the "teenager" is a recent cultural concept. Many cultures have apprenticeships that begin quite early.

Independence is relative to the expectations of society, and often relies on community support. I read an article about how small children in Japan are expected to be able to go to the store by themselves, or commute on the train by themselves. However, as Kat explained, they receive a great deal more support from the surrounding society. There is less of a perception of stranger danger, or police vs. community tension. The more dense population means there are more eyes on them, and thus more safety for children at young ages. We segued onto the New York City free-range kids movement. A car-centric culture is more hazardous for children.

We also talked about the idea of fostering children to other locations. This happened in Europe, and has also been depicted in fiction (as in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books).

One interesting question to ask is, "When is a child's counsel accepted in group decision-making with adults?" Another is, "When are kids listened to (and taken seriously)?"

Kate made some observations on sexism and its influence on the perception of women. Sexist culture causes us to expect women to be adult but infantilizes them at the same time. Men are sometimes portrayed as children so they can be construed as deserving of women's labor. Kat remarked that in these cases, whiteness trumps gender, in that black women are almost never portrayed as childlike.

Scandinavia has education for children specifically geared to teach them about gender differences.

It's important to ask "Who is marginalized and who is not? Does this have to do with class, caste, economics?"

Kate noted that black women of age 13-14 are given the message "we don't want you to reproduce but you can't get contraception."

Children can learn a lot by watching older siblings go through trials and learn life lessons.

We talked a bit about the concept of "The Talk." What do parents feel are the dire topics that they have to make sure to sit a child down and give them a talk on? Sex? Death? Some cultures are far more protected from death experiences than others. This leads us, of course, into how important it is to think about how your world deals with birth and death and other major life events.

If you are working with animal-based aliens, learn about the way that the animals you're using deal with offspring, birth, and death. Also consider whether the species you have chosen is one that raises its offspring or leaves them on their own. Is there metamorphosis? How does this intersect with our concept of childhood?

Thank you to everyone who attended for your contributions to our discussion.

Our next session will be this coming Monday, May 29th at 10am Pacific, and we'll be coming live from the BayCon convention, discussing Dystopias and Utopias.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Megan O'Keefe and the Scorched Continent Trilogy

As I open this hangout report, I would like to express my deepest thanks to Megan O'Keefe, not only for appearing on the show again and for being an amazing author, but for battling on through the technical difficulties that must have made her feel like she was talking to herself for an hour. Essentially, Megan couldn't hear any of us, so we had to write our comments and questions to her in the chat bar, and also try to read them aloud so that they would be audible on the video. Thus, if you watch the video, you will surely see the side effects of this difficulty. Google software updates often have unexpected effects on the quality of our recording! The good news is, they typically don't last long. I've also purchased a special microphone (thanks so much, Patreon patrons!) to improve the quality of my own audio.

Megan O'Keefe has appeared once before on the show, when she spoke about her book, Steal the Sky, the first book of the Scorched Continent trilogy. It's always great to have an author return and talk about the process of expanding and deepening a world for further books.

Megan told us that she feels the amount of worldbuilding for long and short pieces is similar, but that with the short pieces, not as much of that worldbuilding work gets to show up in the text. Thus, she finds that being able to expand into a trilogy was fun because it allowed her to explore and reveal more.

One of the things featured in the story is a prison. She asked questions like, What do you do with people who don't contribute to society? Do you rehabilitate? Do you punish? Do you cast out? In many societies, being cast out meant you would die. The culture of the Scorched Continent trilogy wanted to rehabilitate some people, punish the worst, and keep some for cannon fodder.

Megan told us she did internet research on the history of prison ships. Apparently the largest prison barge in the world is in New York and is still functioning! She had planned to have her main character break out of a prison ship, but this character likes to blow things up, and that would have done more damage than she wanted to the ship and lots of other people. In the end she chose to use a prison island, with Alcatraz as a model. In fact, you can find blueprints for prisons on the internet, and look at Google Earth aerial views of prisons. You can find historical blueprints of places like high schools, and think about how they plan for things like crowd control. There will be a quadrangle in the center, and everything around it will be modular for ease of construction and ease of blocking things off. I asked her if she'd ever played Prison Architect, and she had heard of it, but had not played it while researching this book.

Megan describes the world in her trilogy as quasi-Victorian but combining a mishmash of settings. It bears some resemblance to the Renaissance because Leonardos are popping up. While exploring, the people find a continent with a magical resource that will allow them to build airships. The seas are rough, but the gaseous element, called selium, is controllable by telepathy and brings about a technological revolution.

Apparently, book 3 is the planned end of the series, but Megan is working on a novella. One of the novella's main characters is a gentleman con man, and another is his friend and emotional caretaker. Megan says she designed it as a love letter to P.G. Wodehouse and his stories. It's a fantasy romantic comedy, but no magic actually appears in the novella. Megan is planning to self-publish this, so keep an eye out for it.

In 19th century prisons, like Newgate, there was experimentation on prisoners - some medical, some psychological. In the world of the trilogy, the Whitecoats experiment on magic users to try to explain why magic works.

The magic system of the Scorched Continent world is a resource model, where powerful people try to control the resource - selium - and thereby control the magic it makes possible. This influences dictatorships, diplomacy, and trade. Selium is a gas pushed up from volcanic activity, and the people of this world are originally from another area of the planet where volcanoes are now dormant.

Whenever you have a situation where the people who can handle or manipulate a resource are specialists, where only some people can make it work, those special people will be in demand. The craftspeople themselves are a resource to be controlled. In Megan's world, telepaths become a resource, and this leads to human rights issues.

Next paragraph contains a spoiler for the selium-telepathy link:

One of the characters can see the selium molecule at a microscopic level and detect it in people's bodies. Some people have it pass through the blood-brain barrier. Even when people don't actually know how something works, there has to be a common cultural explanation for why that thing works. Do they think a substance is in the air or the water? The permeability is genetic, but the gas causes people to develop a disease called bonewither with long exposure.

If you are a rich merchant family in this world, you don't want your kids to have the selium ability. That restricts your job. It's especially a problem for the sole heir of such a family. People are pushing back to try to take control, hiding their abilities. Revolution is brewing.

Velathia is the source for the primary government because their volcanoes were dormant and they came up with workable sailing technology, that allowed them to spread through the islands.

The Katari lived on the Scorched Continent first, and they have a more relaxed relationship with selium. However, their society was smaller because of the extent of the badlands. They were taken over by the Velathi. Colonization is an issue in all three of these books. One character is an agent of the indigenous people. People born on the Scorched Continent are loyal to it, and don't identify as Velathi. They also have technology, and that gives them the ability to push back.

The magic of selium is finite, because selium is non-renewable. Megan shared with us some of her ideas for the far future of this planet. She thinks selium will cause global cooling, and that tectonics of the planet will slow. She told us she's having fun imagining the kinds of pressures this would put on the people of her world.

Megan, it was a pleasure to have you on the show! Thanks for letting us in on the intricacies of your world (and for being patient).

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at a special time: Wednesday, May 17th at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern. We'll be speaking with author John Chu. I hope you can join us!


Friday, May 12, 2017

Working Animals

Humans have employed animals in jobs for millennia, and also do so in fiction, so we had a good time with this topic. Dogs are used for herding cattle, herding sheep, fighting off wolves, hunting on the ground, hunting under the ground, etc. etc., but they are not alone. There are also horses, cats, companion animals, and many others. And in fiction, cats don't just hunt rodents, they also help solve mysteries! (They do, I swear.) We figured that the dragons in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books also counted as working animals, since they are saddled and bred and used to combat Thread. We couldn't decide if the horses of Valdemar counted as working animals or as independent sentients.

We talked a bit about pets. The pet-owner relationship is culturally defined and differs across the world. Kat told us that the difference between food for humans and fodder or feed is very distinct in Japanese, and that it would be very strange to consider a pet a family member in Japan. Obviously, pets are often considered family members in America. This may have to do with people wanting to nurture and play the role of a parent. We played around a little with the idea of humans being pets for another species.

It may seem a small step from pet to emotional support animal, but from there you can step to service animal, and a service animal is a hardworking animal indeed. There's a likelihood that a service animal might be considered family even though it is working, while a herding animal probably would not be. It seems in some ways similar to the distinction between a human nanny, who is often considered part of the family, and a gardener, who is not by virtue of the difference between their work environments.

We spoke a bit about horses, and had an important reminder that as authors we really need to consider the food and water needs of working animals in our stories.

Kat speculated that if you had cows in space, you might capture methane emissions for fuel!

We talked a bit about using sentient animals in stories, and how those animals might manipulate things (with toes or lips). I mentioned the sentient elephants in Lawrence Schoen's Barsk.

Kat encouraged us to question the assumption of human sovereignty in interaction with animals. If you were to run into alien animals, would enslavement and colonialism be your approach, or would you choose companionship? What would it be like if you had not developed the kind of co-evolutionary relationship that humans have with Earth animals?

The basis of the working animal relationship appears to be the concept that "the thing that animal is doing could be useful to me."

Going on the basis of that, the concept of working animal could potentially be expanded. We wondered if the shai-hulud worms of Dune could be considered working animals. Honeybees might be considered working animals in some sense, even though we don't have a mammalian relationship with them. What about sugar ants?

We also had questions about animals like chickens. If a chicken lays eggs for you, is it a working animal? Or is it a food animal (would you eat it)? Would geese be working animals? Where is the border between the abilities of the animal and its substance?

We also looked at the question of why we work with some animals and not others, like goats vs. deer. Goats climb, while deer jump. Some animals are not easily tamed. A lot of it also has to do with their attack and defense characteristics. Hares and rabbits are very similar visually, but rabbits can be tamed and hares can't. Behavioral differences can also be critical.

Llamas and donkeys are definitely working animals. They are not only employed as burden-carriers, but often as guards for other animals. Llamas guard milk goats from pumas in Pescadero, California, and donkeys in France guard ducks from foxes.

What are the characteristics of humans that might make them useful to another species? Community building? Curiosity? Could we be perfume harvest animals?

Larry mentioned pigs and truffles. When you use pigs to find truffles, you have to distract the pigs so they won't eat the truffles. Some truffle hunters use dogs, which would not be interested in eating the truffles they found. Here is a link about truffle-smelling dogs. Apparently farmers who use pigs for truffle-hunting sometimes lose fingers! Retriever dogs are trained not to eat the birds they retrieve. Fishing cormorants have rings placed around their throats to keep them from eating the fish they catch.

Falcons also are working animals. They are parallel in some ways to the fire lizards in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books.

There are a lot of different animals with relationships to humans, and it's interesting to speculate about how those relationships could be expanded, shrunk, reversed, or mimicked with alien species.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017


This seemed like an appropriate topic for spring, because of the prevalence of spring allergies! People can be allergic to all sorts of things, like milk, hormones, metal, pollen, etc. There are contact allergies, inhalation allergies, and ingestion allergies. At first glance, it seems like allergies don't feature much in fiction, but examples will crop up as you think about them. One of the first we thought of was Daniel Jackson in Stargate, who has hay fever.

Sometimes allergies are portrayed as jokes. Daniel Jackson's is - jokes like when they send a box of tissues through the gate and receive a reply "send more." There has also been an instance on this show of the cure to a disease being an antihistamine.

In Shira Glassman's Mangoverse, the queen has food sensitivities.

Allergies can also be found in literature for children, which might be a place that hard-core genre readers aren't reading a lot. Sometimes it takes the form of "You can't have adventures because ____".

Allergies can be very serious, utterly life-changing, and life-threatening. Something like asthma could totally change your plot. Food allergies could feature in a story about first contact.

There are some allergies in Star Trek. Kirk was allergic to eye medication. Jedzia Dax had a kind of juice that would make her spots itch. Wesley was allergic to a pain medication.

Reggie speculated that you could write something really interesting about an amphibious world where humans needed life support because they were allergic to everything.

We remarked on how our memories elide things from our familiar narratives, as when allergy situations occur but we don't notice them. This link has a truly impressive list of contexts in which allergies appeared in Star Trek, most of which I had no memory of.

Do we need something to be a pivotal piece of the main plot in order for us to remember it?

Climate change is causing people's allergies to get worse.

People who are terraforming a planet should be expected to have allergic reactions.

One novel that takes on the question of allergies in an interesting way is Mira Grant's Parasite, discussed at this link. A company has engineered parasites that keep people from having allergies and provide other benefits, but which have certain terrifying side effects...

Symptoms of allergic reactions can range widely, including hives (urticaria), itchy eyes or hands, nerve pinches, systemic inflammation, neuralgia, chronic pain, eczema, in addition to runny nose, asthma, and sneezing. Reggie knew someone who had a dairy allergy misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia. Che mentioned that allergies can also have emotional side effects. They can even cause malabsorption of other nutrients.

People can also be allergic to metal. Some people have super-corrosive sweat, such that they can even leave fingerprints on stainless steel. A study on it can be found here. When the metal breaks down in contact with the skin it can cause painful rash.

We discussed the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that an increase in allergies may be caused by a reduction in the number of pathogens that our immune systems have to deal with. The immune system doesn't "have enough to do," the hypothesis goes, so it attacks odd substances. Lower allergies in certain groups of humans have been linked to exposure to parasites. People who are exposed to pigs, or even to some pets, will have fewer allergies.

There was a period when my own kids were small when doctors would advise parents not to expose their children to certain types of foods until a certain age - strawberries until age one, for example. The purpose of this advice was to reduce allergies, but it was later found that this advice had the opposite effect.

Serious allergies have been treated with controlled exposure to the substance the person is allergic to.

Another possible effect of an overactive immune system is autoimmune disease.

There are a ton of story ideas that came out of the discussion:

What would first contact be like if humans were allergic to the species they're encountering? We hypothesized that intermarriage would be out. Kate said the aliens would think "humans make exploding sounds and emit liquid in mist form." Reggie remarked that it would be very easy for some people to spin an adverse reaction as intentional harm. We imagined what a fantasy epi-sword might be (as opposed to an epi-pen). Kat thought of a context where a person recognizes an allergic reaction but meets resistance when they try to stop it because of a clash of medical practices. A society more advanced than ours would consider our medical practices barbaric. What if a potter were allergic to clay? Che noted that she knows a dollmaker who is allergic to resin and does her work in a hazmat suit.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion! Today's hangout meets in one hour to discuss Children; I hope you can join us.