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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Jessica Reisman and "Bourbon, Sugar, Grace"

We were joined by author Jessica Reisman to talk about her story at entitled, "Bourbon, Sugar, Grace," and also about her novel entitled Substrate Phantoms. She was brave enough to come on while still jet lagged, and we had a terrific conversation.

I asked Jessica what had come first as she was composing "Bourbon, Sugar, Grace" - the main character, the plot, or the world. She told me that the main character, Fox, had come to her first. In an early draft, Fox was on the train during an accident; in the version, Fox comes to the wrecked train well after the accident occurs.

The story takes place on a mining planet, where the people living on the planet have been abandoned by the mining company that brought them there. The planet itself is inhospitable, requiring atmospheric assistive technology, so that people can only rely on breathable air in certain small regions, and outside those regions they must rely on "oxygen filaments" implanted at birth. These oxygen filaments are a finite, "critically limited" resource.

The planet has been mined past the point of stability, and become what Jessica calls "a geothermal lacework." This results in "gurges," which are basically eruptions of the planet's mantle material. It is one of these that causes the train wreck.

The name of the main habitation zone is Drumtown. It features living structures with algae lattices that enhance air quality. The filaments are what allow people to leave this area.

I asked Jessica where she did most of her research for this story. She said that she probably did the least research on the mining aspects of the story, but she did look at imagery of mines and read first-person accounts from miners. She also relied on knowledge that she'd gained while doing research for a previous book into mineral structures.

She said she did more research about how to construct habitations in inhospitable environments, including living buildings, cities where buildings are living things. She also researched vertical farming and water reclamation.

There are several tiers in the society on this planet. You have people who are higher up in the mining corporation - executives, scientists - and then you have miners and techs who make up most of society. The miners and the techs got together to form co-ops to give them relative independence from the corporate oversight, a little like unions. The train takes people between the mines and the different settlements.

In the story, Fox gets sent out to salvage something at a request from a scientist, and is given a scanner that indicates when it detects the object a bit like a geiger counter. Fox herself doesn't know what she's looking for, which I found interesting.

One of the interesting and delightful things about the story is the way that Jessica contrasts the vitality of people's lives with its fragility, and the sense that disaster could strike at any moment. Both of Fox's parents are alive, and they are both referred to as "moms" even though one of them is physically male. I remarked that it's really refreshing to see parents in a story. Jessica told me that they were really important, because she wanted there to be a sense of community to contrast with the way the society itself was abandoned by its corporate overlords. Vibrant, yet tenuous. Jessica says, "that's us."

She says she is fascinated by cities and by what people accomplish when they come together. The community coming together leads to enhanced chances of survival.

Morgan remarked that the idea Jessica used of a farther-off settlement that got fewer services, reminded her of her own road, because she lives at the end of it and her area is always last to be paved or plowed. It was similar to the way the train ran in the story.

Che asked if Jessica was planning any sequels. Jessica told us she doesn't have any pre-planned, but she likes the family a lot, so "it could happen."

After that, we talked a bit about Jessica's novel, Substrate Phantoms, which came out about a month ago. It takes place in the same science fictional universe, but at a much later time. It's "way far future SF." Jessica told us she takes inspiration from C.J. Cherryh, Samuel L. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Tanith Lee.

In this universe, the interstellar society is called "The Aggregate." People live on planets, on stations, and on ships. They travel via "spin drive" or "wave space," also called "the substrate."

Jessica told us that far future SF is "my happy place." She's more daunted by near future SF scenarios. She likes to take all the cool stuff that she's read and the science we have now, and extrapolate them.

She told us she really hopes to avoid a "white universe" or "monoculture universe." Diversity is very important to her portrayals.

She calls her work "social science fiction space opera," and she says she loves to get into different cultures and art. This is a future that hasn't kept the worst aggressiveness of our current cultures. Women do "whatever the hell women want." Problems do arise, however, from splinter religious groups and from general-purpose greed. The novel centers on Termagenti Station, and the inhabited planet Ashe. It involves "planet shaping," or terraforming.

Jessica says that she doesn't use traditional chapter structure. The novel begins with a haunting on the station. I asked her about languages in this world, and she said that people mostly used "standard trade language," but that she has "reams and reams of notes" on religions, beliefs, art, mourning rites, curses, magic, economics, and other topics. She describes herself as taking existing things from our world and making mosaics with them. She wants to honor existing things, and also examine how they change.

The main character in the novel, Methian, is a bit like a movie-maker, because he works with virtual reality technology. He's a story coordinator, doing a documentary exposing corruption in his own family. As you can imagine, this leads to trouble!

Jessica has invented a type of interactive sculpture for this world, and "holoboxes" that play little stories. It's fun, but also work. There's a mural on the station that tells a story central to the beliefs of the system's inhabitants. There are clubs, sports, and restaurants. Jessica told us she enjoys considering the differences in worldview between people who live on ships or stations and those who live on planets, which they refer to as "gravity wells." Her concept of "spin drive" is built hand-wavingly on the idea of quantum spin and the concept of wormholes.

Jessica, thank you so much for joining us! It was a pleasure to learn about your work. Remember that for the next three weeks, Dive into Worldbuilding will be hosted by Che Gilson. This week we'll meet on Wednesday, June 21 at 10am Pacific. The topic of discussion will be Bribery.



I started this hangout by recommending a book my husband and I had been reading, called Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. Some of the amazing tidbits I mentioned from the book include how the servants had to remove all the ribbons from the children's clothing and iron them every time they did laundry, and how someone was in charge of making sure the yolks of fried eggs were centered. The book covers more than just what servants were asked to do, however; it also talks about how the World Wars changed things like the role of women, the availability of manpower, and the economics surrounding the hiring of servants.

The issues surrounding servants hired by the British in India were somewhat different. In India, only certain castes of people could be hired for a job that involved cleaning bathrooms. Different castes were assigned different duties. Also, a British woman was sued by one of her male servants when she hit him with a piece of toast. I urge you to go back to the book for the detailed original versions of these stories.

There are generally ranking systems within the population of servants - some have more power, and some have less.

Kat asked whether it makes sense to have servants in a world where magic or technology is being used for labor-saving. Brian suggested it would be odd but interesting if wizards or magic users were employed as servants because they could get work done.

I talked about some of the complex issues surrounding hiring someone to help in the household in this day and age. Why does it feel different to hire an electrician or a plumber than it does to hire someone to clean the house? Wages are a factor. So is the gendering of labor.

Domestic labor tends to be gendered. Is hiring also gendered? What are men expected to do? What are women expected to do? How are tasks assigned?

In the book Tom by Dave Freer, a cat turns into a human servant. This brings up a lot of interesting issues.

Black Adder took on some of the questions about servants. What are the issues surrounding robot servants?

Brian got a bit more detailed about how there is a class structure within the servant population. He told us that the cook ran the kitchen, and the butler ran the household, and they were the rulers of their domains.

Are the most disagreeable tasks paid well because nobody wants to do them? Or are there populations forced to take on these duties because no one else will hire them for better?

People who are doing hard labor sometimes make a lot of money. This has happened in science fiction with stories of asteroid miners, for example, but it tends to be very male-biased. Wendy told us about a book she wrote, Confessions of a Female Safety Engineer (Wendy Delmater).

Women's work is often devalued.

People can learn to ignore other people who are present in a room. Servants tend to be an ignored population.

Kat brought up some fascinating issues about our cultural expectations. When we walk into a store, who might we guess is a customer, and who an employee? There are many stories of people of color who are unjustifiably guessed to be employees of a store because of racial bias. Black men are sometimes assumed to be valets. These people are sometimes pushed past, or asked to do service.

Wendy mentioned that she was sometimes assumed to be a secretary on her construction sites, and so she started wearing a hard hat. This is a useful way to flag one's membership in a different group, but such flags are often missed or ignored when they are used by people of color, and assertiveness can be dangerous (even to life and limb). We talked about the roles of allies and what kind of consequences can present themselves if people try to be allies. It's interesting to take a character like Miles Vorkosigan and look at his class privilege, where his protections come from, where he rebels and what the consequences are, and how far he can push it without being stopped.

The social systems that divide people into subservient and non-subservient classes are self-sustaining, and reinforced through explicit punishments.

A lot of fantasy and science fiction still holds onto the idea that one's blood is where one's quality comes from. What are the features that define nobility? Are they white features? Can you be cast down into servitude and still be rescued because of your blood?

Service is skilled work, and not something easily learned by people who have been cast down.

Who "deserves" service? Do people take pride in their inability to do certain things in your world?

We talked briefly about the metaphors people use to talk about their pets. Are cat owners servants to their cats? Are they parents to their cats? What are the implications of these metaphors? The two are not compatible, however, unless we decide we are somehow servants to our children.

There is a power relationship here. It's always important to dig down to the power relationship and ask where it arises and what its consequences are.

Jane Austen's work dealt with the impoverished nobility, and put money and class into conflict in fascinating ways.

The position of nanny is fascinating and can be fraught. Do you really want to use your parenting skills as a nanny, to put yourself into a service position relative to someone else's children? Is a nanny considered a member of the family?

Where are the lines drawn between family, servant, skilled consultant, and laborer? These are vitally important questions in any secondary world.

We also spoke briefly about publicly funded respite care for the disabled, and Patsy shared the experience of her son. Her son's developmental assistant becomes like part of the family. In Canada, the government pays for these services. The United States has some public services like this, but they require a lot of management. Kat encouraged us to ask who in this relationship would be perceived to be of higher or lower socioeconomic standing. Is there a societal expectation of who is allowed to have care or not? Is race involved? Are other factors involved?

Thank you to everyone who attended for a fascinating and dynamic discussion. For those interested in the video, we had some audio balance issues; I apologize for those.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Dystopias and Utopias (at BayCon)

This was Dive into Worldbuilding's first ever live show at a convention, and it would not have been possible without the help of the terrific BayCon tech folk and also my friend and fellow discussant Kimberly Unger, who helped make sure everything connected and worked with a minimum of feedback or other difficulty.

We spoke about Dystopias and Utopias because that was the theme of the BayCon convention. The layperson's definition of a dystopia is a society in which everything is going wrong and everyone suffers; a utopia is the opposite, a society where everything goes right and everyone benefits.

If a dystopia is a society that involves oppression and misery, then are post-apocalyptic societies dystopias? They quite frequently involve oppression and misery, but there's a sense that much of this is due to outside forces. It's pretty clear that the Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic scenario, and is definitely classed as a dystopia, but what about Mad Max? Where is the borderline?

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie definitely portrays a dystopia, and so do The Handmaid's Tale and  1984.

Kate brought up the most critical question, however: "For whom?" A society that is utopic for one group might easily be dystopic for another. Who counts in this society's equations?

Che said that dystopia gets more air time, and dystopias are certainly popular today. Why are they so appealing? Very likely it's because of their resemblance to our own world and the social problems we grapple with today.

Star Trek was written as a utopia, which makes it unusual. However, Star Trek plots often involve the utopic Federation society intersecting with dystopic societies on other planets. Are there problems in utopias? Does that stop them from being utopias? There are quite a few examples of ostensible utopias that have problems, including Demolition Man.

How would you maintain your utopia?

We mentioned the existence of the language Esperanto. It is not the only language that was designed for the purpose of promoting human unity; there was a period in history when it was commonly believed that if we all spoke the same language it would bring humanity together.

Sameness is something to be wary of, however. The portrayal of some utopias makes them seem unnaturally uniform, and in fact there are quite a number of dystopias designed around the idea that too much sameness is unnatural. It's important to draw a distinction between commonality, and sameness. Sameness might seem great as long as it is our sameness, a sameness we feel at home in, but human diversity is such that no sameness can really last as a societal model.

Morgan noted that "utopia" means "no place." The word when it was invented acknowledged that there is no such place.

Since people are different, they imagine utopias differently. The male version of a feminist utopia is not really like what a utopia would look like if it were written by a woman.

What would a blended positive society look like? Tonya suggested that there might be pockets of small states.

Here are some examples of utopian visions:

Coleridge and Southey's Pantisocracy - they imagined their own little utopian place in North America but ignored indigenous people and servants. (Thanks, Patsy)

Everfair by Nisi Shawl (which we discussed here on the show)

Utopia by Thomas More

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Some of us argued that the society in The Handmaid's Tale would be perceived as utopic by the men who ran it.

Kimberly suggested that The Matrix has an interesting mention of utopia, where the machines say they set up a "perfect" society but no one was happy with it.

Che mentioned hippy communes, and the idea that automation will free us from drudgery.

Another question that came up was, "What happens if there aren't jobs?" Our society sees work as necessary, and capitalism relies on the idea that a person gets supported on the basis of their work contribution, but if there is no need to work, what do we do? This is one of the reasons why people are experimenting with Universal Basic Income. Does societal support make people lazy? Most of us argued that it does not, and there is scientific evidence to suggest this is correct. Our culture over-values work for profit. We imagined that if people did not have to work in order to live, to eat or to be healthy, there would be a lot more art in the world. There would be a lot more gardening. The idea that laziness results from lack of work is a cultural mythology.

Some shows portray people as being captivated by video games and becoming sloths. People who criticize video games often don't understand their value and what kinds of useful things they teach.

We spoke about YA literature dystopias. Apparently they almost went out of style at one point, but then they came back. Fighting the powers that be is a big concern for young people, as is finding  your place in society. So is changing the world.

Kate noted that teens hear a lot about what jobs are available to them, but only a few, like doctor, lawyer. "There are a gajillion jobs outside the approved lifestyles" that you never hear about.

Deborah said that she was encouraged to be a doctor or lawyer, and said her sister wanted to be a judge but skip the part about being a lawyer. She said she's thought a lot about what different choices she would have made if she knew all the options she actually had. One of her preferences might have been to be a radiology tech.

Dystopia creates a narrative of limited choices. Always ask, "Who are the people you don't see?" There are people who are working at night doing pest control in restaurants, for example. Some jobs are invisible. Cooks are behind the scenes but they have power.

Kate says we tell the stories of the pilots, not the soda-machine fillers.

Do we have systems that recognize diversity?

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed portrays a socialist utopia, but still, if you are not part of the mainstream, you are not valued.

What does it mean to be a contributing member of society?

I recommended the book Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner (I referred to it as Lunch, oops!), which talks about women and their unrecognized contributions to our economies.

Starship Troopers portrayed a utopia in some sense, but all those people had to have kids and send them off to die.

Does utopia mean finding a way to appreciate everyone's contributions?

Morgan asked, "What does it take to convince people that life is not a zero-sum game?" If everyone gets something, does that make it no longer valuable? Must rarity be linked to value? What kind of inherent value is there in things?

What are the costs of existing in society?

Kate noted that you may not know what you need.

If you are an author, how can you write well about things you don't really understand? You can't know everything about everything. How can you write about economics well? What about chemistry? Patsy noted that she goes deep into research on DNA, for example, and she says ".002%" of what she studies will end up on the page.

I mentioned Zilpha Keatley Snyder's book Below the Root, which is a flawed utopia.

Che mentioned how problematic it is to think of native peoples as existing in a sort of "primitive utopia" which was a view many colonialists took.

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion. I really enjoyed it, and I hope we can run the show at a convention again sometime.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sex Workers

I'm really glad we got to take on this topic because so often sex workers in fictional settings are reduced to stereotypes. We were super lucky to have Liz Argall join the discussion alongside Kat Tanaka Okopnik.

I told everyone that the first time I ever remember seeing a sex worker was when my family drove into Amsterdam when I was twelve. I woke up just as we hit the red light district and the first thing I saw out my window was a woman in a store window wearing a teddy. It was a big surprise! But it was clear to me from that moment that sex workers were not viewed in the same ways, nor did they operate in the same ways, all over the world.

Back when we first spoke to Laura Anne Gilman, she mentioned trying to avoid brothels in her book Silver on the Road because she didn't want to fall into the same Western stereotype.
One of the stereotypes, of course, is the "prostitute with a heart of gold." One of the discussants mentioned that Firefly hung a light on that when they named an episode "Heart of Gold." Kat expressed concern that there was whitewashing of people of color when it came to sex work. She wondered whether avoiding featuring brothels was erasure or respect.

Che remarked that in the territories of the West before they became states, there were lots of brothels because there were no laws against them. There was a hierarchy of racial bias, though, with the white brothels at the top making the most money, and black women or Chinese women making less. Kat said she'd be surprised if there were many Chinese women because at that time the Chinese exclusion act meant that it was very difficult for Asian women to immigrate to the US unless they were "safely monogamous." This indirectly led to mail order brides.

Liz is from Australia, where sex work is legal and sex workers have their own advocacy group called the Scarlet Alliance. She told us that because sex workers had accumulated financial power, they (the Seattle underground) actually played an important role in the rebuilding of the Seattle downtown. The sex workers said they would help so long as prostitution was legal and taxed. Some sex workers get so much money that they are given a pass in society. She told us a "Bob" was a woman dressed as a man in order to access male privilege.

Where sex work is legal, sex workers have power and control over their own sexuality. Where sex work is illegal, the "police become pimps" because they get to decide what to turn a blind eye to. In general, corruption goes down in places where sex work is legal.

Empowerment, economics, and gender roles intersect in complex ways.

Another stereotype to avoid is the magical sex worker stereotype. Similarly, a sex worker does not have to have a traumatic origin story.

Liz told us that once she got a chance to visit a friend when she was going to work. She was intrigued to go because she was an author! So she got dressed up and they stood her in a corner. She got a tour of the brothel, and was shown where the condoms were stored and audited (you have to check that they are being used and that they are up to date). She learned how inspections work. One lady she knew sold her car so she could move to be with a guy, and then the guy abandoned her. She liked having sex and wanted to earn money. She said the key was to pretend to have as fantastic a time as possible.

Kat said that in San Francisco there is a community of lap dancers. Many of them are single mothers, because the job is lucrative and takes place after hours. These women are not out on the street, or junkies; they figure "I like having sex and might as well get paid."

Try to avoid having the only female character in your book be a prostitute. Yes, this has happened.

Liz remarked that in general as a woman if you dress up fancy, you are seen as a person and potentially seen as bold and attractive. If you don't dress up or are considered too old, etc. you are basically invisible.

Kat said I should hang up a giant blinking sign that says "GO TALK TO SOMEONE WHO CAN HELP YOU WRITE THIS WELL."

Not all prostitutes are women, of course. Some of the issues surrounding sex work get even more complex and dangerous if you are talking about male prostitutes or trans prostitutes. It is easy for people to be victimized if they have no legal protections. Liz remarked that there are always legal and illegal forms of sex work. She told us about the Fyshwick warehouse district of Canberra, Australia, where you knew you could go to find sex workers, porn, and fireworks, or maybe a used car. Kat says in the United States you tend to find exotic dancers, fireworks, ammunition, and peaches (fruit) lumped together.

Under regulation, in what Liz called a "regulated parlor," there are strict rules about the conditions under which the sex work takes place and what surrounding activities people can do. A contract sex worker shouldn't be doing laundry. The client has to lie on his back, and must shower first. The sex worker has to be on top so she can disengage at any time.

The Miscellaneous Workers' Union has been fighting to be taxed so that its members can get financial advantages afforded to other unions, such as getting mortgages.

Street work puts a sex worker in a much more dangerous situation.

If you are a person who comes from a wealthy background, it's easier to step away from lucrative sex work. It is a vulnerable profession with no health insurance and no retirement. If it is your lifeline because you are poor, it's much harder to say no to a job you don't want.

Of course, the topic of sex robots came up. This was tricky because both Kat and Liz pointed out from the experience of the people they knew, a lot of sex work is about human intimacy, not just sex. It can be about finding a sympathetic place, someone to listen, or just touch. There is emotional labor involved. In some ways they felt there should be training for sex workers in counseling, and opportunities for them to debrief from their experiences.

So where do sex robots come in? Why are they so common (even in Guardians of the Galaxy)? Why do they seem so often to be female?

Kat pointed out that the planet Raisa in Star Trek is gender-balanced.

Liz said that less humanoid sex bots might be interesting. There is a problematic conflation of Asian women with sex robots because of our view of Japanese robotics. A Scandinavian approach would be very different. You could have a pod which would be the opposite of a sensory deprivation pod. There is one in the movie Sleeper.

Australia has laws on the books about sex crimes that apply to Australians no matter where the crime was committed. They are based on anti-slavery laws and are applied to sex crimes by Australians committed in Asia. For example, if your passport is taken and you therefore can't say no, that's considered slavery and the person who takes the passport will be punished.

People anthropomorphize sex dolls. There is a certain weird similarity with the story of Pygmalion. One of our discussants mentioned that she had read a creepy short story where Pygmalion's statue comes to life and he doesn't appreciate it, but starts seeing a piece of marble on the side.

One thing that came out of this discussion of sex robots is that it's really problematic to conflate sex work with robots that do sexual things, because it validates the dehumanization of sex workers.

Remember, sex workers can say no.

As a group we agreed that we would like to get rid of the trope that says once you are paid you can't withhold consent.

In an area as sensitive as this, it's also really important to use your terminology carefully and accurately. A courtesan or an escort is not necessarily a sex worker. People often assume that sex will follow, but often it is not part of the deal. Geisha are not about sex either. If a geisha's clients want to have sex with her, that has to be separately negotiated from her other entertainment skills (music, dance, socialization, etc).

There is a tendency in Western society to assume victimhood and take agency from people doing this sort of work.

Being outside the bounds of polite society is not equivalent to wretchedness. There is lots of potential for coercion. It's important to think through where taboo boundaries lie, and to think about whether a violation of taboo is happening consensually or non-consensually, because the two are very different.

Always remember that there is no such thing as "I have learned the rules." There is no uniformity, especially when you are looking cross-culturally. The subject of sex work is sensitive and should be depicted with great care and research.

Thank you to everyone who attended. Special thanks go to Kat and Liz, for being willing to share the stories of their friends. This was a fascinating discussion and I learned a great deal.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

John Chu

We had a delightful conversation with author John Chu about his short stories. We were coy at first about using the full title of one of the stories, but in the end it's important to get it right, so the story was called, "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Tradeoffs for the Overhaul of the Barricade." John told us that he kept wondering if people would make him change the title, but that in the end people don't tend to do that as much for short fiction!

I remarked that his stories seem to focus a great deal on relationships. John explained that "I steal shamelessly from the improv playbook." He says that his experiences with improv deeply influenced his writing. When people think of improv, he says, they often think of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" and other short-form improvisation. However, he explains that there is also a long form of improvisation, and within that context there is less of an expectation to be funny. The aim is to capture an emotion, with real stress on creating a sense of relationship.

In a way he describes as counterintuitive, the idea is not to think about plot. He quotes Samuel R. Delaney as saying, "Plot is an artifact that the reader creates in their mind."

When improv is done badly, the focus is on fixing a problem that has been posed. However, it's good when you can explore how the people involved attack the problem.

John says "I get accused of not writing speculative fiction a lot." This is because his stories are not often directly about the speculative element that he chooses to include. He mentions Max Gladstone talking about Superman stories, and says that the canonical question of "can he super his way out of this?" is boring, while far more interesting is when he's doing super things, but the core question of how he gets out of it requires something different.

Thus, in "...Barricade," the question is not whether the characters can fix the barricade, because if they don't, then their civilization ends. Ultimately the story is about the relationships of the characters, and what kind of decisions or sacrifices the characters make.

I asked John what comes to him first in a story, the speculative element, the relationship, etc. and he said that it depends on the story. He describes himself as "a walking collector of useful information." So as he's going through life collecting all sorts of tidbits, he finds that every so often a number of them will come together into a story.

His story entitled "Hold Time Violations" was inspired by walking into a T station and finding that the public announcement was out of sync with the train. That alone is not a story, but a setting. It's the idea of things being out of sync, and then he takes that and applies it to the characters.

In the case of his Hugo award-winning story "The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere," John says he spends a lot of time defending why the literalized metaphor of water falling on you from nowhere is actually speculative fiction. In this story, water falls on you when you lie, meaning that the implications of a lie are not just emotional. John says that some people can read the entire story and never realize that the water is literal, in spite of lots of physical description of the water and cues to the way it feels to the characters.

I asked him how he goes about creating the setting and surroundings, given how important the core relationships are to the story. He doesn't worldbuild in advance, but describes it as "discovering things as I write." Often, he says, the story ends up being about something different by the time he's done. He works from the inside out, asking, "what does this scene need?" John talked about George Saunders, who spoke about how good sentences have a rhythm. You just keep adding in words to make beautiful sentences, and it ends up creating a world.

John says he steals shamelessly from other writers. Samuel R. Delaney's specialty is to visualize and immerse in a setting full of specific detail. Delaney was one of John's instructors at Clarion writer's workshop. John clearly remembers his reading was a description of buttering toast, and felt really long for just being a description of buttering toast, but years later all his classmates remember that description of buttering toast.

Because John is not someone who builds the world in advance, most comes out as he writes in an organic process of co-evolution. He goes back and outlines after creating a first draft to keep the story from being unstructured. Sometimes he does research as an intermediate step. He says "I try not to research while I'm writing." He says you want your work to have truth to it. He often finds himself drawing on his collection of "useless" knowledge.

I asked him about his recent story in Uncanny, "Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me," in which the main character goes through all sorts of extreme body modifications to make himself bigger and stronger. John said that because he's 5'6" he's continually asked himself "How do I be taller?" This question features in the story. Some of the story elements are extrapolation, but he did look up the name of the surgery that extends the length of bones. It's useful for people with legs of different lengths, for example, and not just cosmetic.

Another element of the story is special drugs that make the main character have bigger muscles. John explains that he doesn't do steroids, the same way that people who write mysteries don't murder people. He does lift weights. Crossfit, he told us, is starting ot have a steroid crisis. He looked into things like this and turned it up a couple of notches.

For one of the scenes featuring a break-in, he chose a specific instance from the news as a template; it was the raid on Osama bin Laden's house. The exterior of the building was essentially that same house.

I asked him if he ever studied psychology for relationship inspiration, and he replied, "I probably should study psychology." His knowledge of relationships comes from personal experience, but is generally not autobiographical. "I have friends and I listen to all of them." He also gets ideas from reading, news, and other sources. He says that one of the principles of improv is to take inspiration from whatever happens around you.

Connie Willis has been known to say, "My characters do what I tell them to," but John says "You have the tail, and you have the dog, and it's not clear which part is the tail and which the dog."

John says it's important not be too attached to anything you write. Really cool ideas, if they don't match with one story, can later be used in another story, so cutting is not a tragedy.

He always finishes his stories. He describes his ethic as "I'm going to finish this story even if it kills me." He says that finishing gives you practice in finishing. Some stories write themselves, but he said that "The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere" was like "having to do a root canal on a stranger." Some of his stories have never seen the light of day, but they are finished. John says, "I'm a better writer because I finished them."

Many thanks to John for joining us! This was a unique conversation because it's been really unusual on the show to dive into the experience of someone who doesn't worldbuild in advance. However, a lot of people do it, so it was super helpful to get a peek at John's process. Thanks to everyone who attended.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

City Animals

When we spoke about working animals, Kat suggested that we talk about City animals, so we took it on! Kat started by noting that she wonders what future archaeologists will think when they find the bones of animals in the midst of our cities - whether they might speculate that people interred large rodents in their walls for religious or other reasons, etc.

The issue is that our cities are full of animals, but we generally ignore them. Pigeons, rats, cats, dogs...and that doesn't count insects like cockroaches and bedbugs.

One issue that Che raised was that cities have expanded into the territory that animals previously occupied. Some animals can't remain when that happens; others can. There are foxes in London, for example. Leopards appear in some cities in India to hunt feral pigs. Singapore has a lot of wildlife. You can find deer in the suburbs in California, and moose in Canada. Coyotes also live in cities. Peregrine falcons actually thrive in city environments. My dad once had a peregrine falcon nesting outside his office window in Chicago... and sometimes he would see it feeding its young live pigeons! Singapore has river otters ever since they reduced pollution in their rivers. San Francisco has sea lions. My own town has raccoons, skunks, and possums - we used to have a wooden deck, and they nested underneath it (though sequentially, not all at once). Raccoons are cute but destructive, skunks are stinky (we used sand covered in coyote urine to encourage ours to move on), and possums are actually a great way to get rid of ticks. Squirrels didn't get mentioned in the hangout that I recall, but they are all over the place in my area.

Humans have this odd expectation that the boundaries we draw are official, and that other creatures won't cohabit with us. Except, that is, the ones we want to cohabit with. Cats came into our habitations because cohabiting with humans allowed them to eat mice and rats that were attracted to our garbage. We create conditions that attract animals, and then predators are attracted to those animals.

Some animals end up in cities because they are brought in as pets and then abandoned. People flush exotic animals like piranhas, alligators, and snakes down the toilet and they end up living in the sewers.

My friend, author Janice Hardy, has an endangered turtle that lives in her back yard in Florida.

The urban density of rats is far higher than the country density of rats because city conditions encourage them to flourish.

Morgan mentioned that in her area of upstate New York, she has less trouble with deer than cities nearby because there is more room for the animals to move away from human dwellings and find food outside the proximity of humans.

Kat said that cities have a simplified food web as opposed to higher biodiversity in wilderness areas. Apparently the highest density of peregrine falcons is actually in New York City, because the buildings are basically tall "cliffs," and they can easily find hot updrafts from the streets. There are also lots of pigeons to eat. We speculated that would make the city a dangerous place for snakes.

Crows are incredibly densely populated in Tokyo, Japan. They are also quite impudent, and will snatch food from your hand if you carry it around with you. Their population grows because Tokyo doesn't have room for sturdy plastic bins for trash, so people put their trash out in plastic bags that crows can easily rip through. The trash bags don't get picked up until 8 or 9 am because trash workers often have to take the train to get to their workplaces, and trains don't run all night.

Kat told us about a city in Thailand occupied by monkeys. The windows there are covered in iron bars, and no one walks in the street. Kat saw a monk who carried a slingshot, and a monkey snatched the remains of a bubble tea from Kat's daughter. "We expect to be at the top of the heap," she says, "and it's disturbing not to be there."

Che says we're making animals smarter by making them defeat more and more complex methods of protection for our food, etc. I told everyone about a raccoon that came through the cat door in my childhood home and started washing cat kibble in the cat's water dish.

My current town has a lake where geese, ducks, terns, seagulls, egrets, herons, and other waterbirds like to hang out. Some of them are coming from the marshlands on the other side of town.

In the Australian town of Geelong, sometimes you find koalas who have walked from tree to tree and ended up in the middle of the city by accident.

In a post-apocalyptic setting, what kind of animals would co-habit with humans? Would animals be very angry?

Rats and cockroaches would have big die-offs without humans to support them.

We speculated about what would happen if octopi became pests. It would be very hard to octopus-proof!

This was a fun discussion. Thanks to everyone who attended!