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Tuesday, November 21, 2017


There are quite a number of stories based on the character of a child genius, such as Ender's Game or Spy Kids. We were talking about prodigies, where the person's abilities are extremely different from what one would expect for their age. Social difficulties often play into a story like this. Genius kids may or may not appear in a controlled environment. But the idea that a genius would have social difficulties is its own stereotype. Kat opined that the character of Wesley Crusher ruined the child genius category.

Precociousness doesn't just mean intellectual genius. It implies a child being more advanced in some way. Sometimes it implies they seem older or more sexually mature. It's always about children, however. It is erased by adulthood.

We spoke about the movie Shine, about a precocious but abused boy who was a brilliant pianist in Australia. This brought us to questions about genderedness and the ways in which emotional intelligence is not expected of certain people. The expectations for precocious girls are different. They are not generally allowed to be socially disconnected like boys. Che told us that Mozart's sister had been more talented, but no one cared. Girls are often told to hide their exceptionality. Girls in history have become warriors often have done so because it's the only way to escape the box of societal expectations that you have been put in.

Expectations are a key factor here. Precociousness implies a disparity between expectations and performance. Girls who became motherless were expected to take on adult roles in caring for the family, but were not considered precocious for doing so. "Little man" means something very different from "little woman," which is most commonly a way to belittle one's wife.

Prodigies can grow up and still be exceptional.

Kat brought up the question of what happens when you were a child prodigy but you aren't any more, and what effect that might have on your psychology. What happens if you lose your magic? (In fantasy, this could be literal.) We spoke briefly about IQ testing and how it sets up expectations that may be toxic. You could be precocious but being treated that way might lead to worse things later.

Kat told us that she was able to access a "walled garden of education" because of being identified as precocious. It was a safe haven for her, and useful as she dealt with identity issues. She benefited from being pushed instead of stifled. Testing allowed this to happen for her. When she reentered the mainstream, she felt pressure not to make other people feel bad. There was an expectation to underperform for other people's comfort. Kat told us that in her case, this was exacerbated by gender and racialization.

Morgan asked, if you are brilliant and ADD, will you get support for your intelligence?

The idea of "potential" is an extremely loaded one.

Culture tells us that everyone should expect to hit particular milestones by a certain age. You can be labeled, to your detriment, for being either faster or slower than those milestones. Human development is not a smooth process, and it happens in "growth spurts" both physically and mentally.

The cultural system has inertia. We compared it to the way clothes are made off the rack, basically by making assumptions about people's size at certain ages. In earlier eras, people had smaller wardrobes that had been specially fitted to them. We have lost the idea that custom-crafting for non-elites exists. The fit of clothes is an indicator of class.

Intellectual precocity interacts with class. The more money you have, the more flexibility you have. School funding in the United States is complicated, and the richer you are, the more access you have to specialist educators that people in poor areas don't have.

The idea of a child being precocious can also be weaponized, or used against them. Tamir Rice was killed, and police justified his killing by claiming that he looked mature. Age perception of black people among white people is skewed. White people tend not to recognize the signs of age in non-white people. Young black children are perceived as older, while privileged white people are described as "finding his way" into their 30s. In the case of young girls, people often conflate the onset of puberty with the ability to give meaningful consent. Can children consent? Precocity can be deliberately assigned to victims to protect their harassers and rapists.

Neoteny, or the appearance of childlike-ness, is generally associated with big eyes, rounded features, and the things we might term kawaii or chibi (from Japanese).

We argue that the intellectually precocious child should be given access to adult spaces, and therefore that same word is adopted by people who argue for access to the sexually precocious.

Authors should aim for nuance in their portrayals.

Sometimes portraying a child as precocious allows the author to argue that they were predestined for some fate. Sometimes authors don't do sufficient research about children and their behaviors. Twelve-year-olds are not tiny adults. Sometimes making a character a child genius is about wish fulfillment. Children are often portrayed in fiction either as overly intelligent, or as under-intelligent. Moral of the story: do your research! Meet some kids if you can.

Thank you to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet tomorrow, Wednesday, November 22 at 10am Pacific to discuss Birthdays and Coming of Age. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, November 8, 2017


The first thing I think of when I think of performances in SF/F is the bard in the tavern. However, there are a lot of different kinds of opportunities for writers to put performances in their fiction. I personally used an orchestral concert as an important element of my novel on submission, because of the way that art is subversive and boundary-crossing. I modeled it on the real historical events surrounding Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, where a lot of concertgoers walked out during the performance because they were so scandalized.

We talked a bit about puppetry, specifically about the French Guignol puppet shows, and English Punch and Judy shows. They can be quite revealing of history and social biases. They are forms of on-the-street public performance where you donate to the players as you leave. Modern Guignol shows do sometimes have to be scheduled in inside venues where they sell tickets, but this is a relatively new development on top of a longer history of street performance.

When you are thinking about what kinds of performances to feature in your fiction, ask yourself, "Who attends a performance here? What class are they? What are the expectations for audience participation? Is this type of performance high- or low-energy?" Puppet shows often expect more audience participation, while orchestral concerts tend not to invite audience participation.

Our discussant Shauna Roberts told us quite a lot of interesting information about the history of orchestras. She told us that in the 1700s, orchestras were less professional and the musicians were not as good, perhaps as good as high-school musicians now. The groups were often smaller. Sometimes musicians would hire someone to show up to the rehearsals for them, and then end up coming to the final performances and sight-reading the music. The composer of the piece might be composing and revising up till the last minute. Instruments that were played might not be highly evolved. The other really key element was that the audience was usually hearing a piece of music for the very first time, because the piece was composed for the event. Orchestras in this day and age are basically playing "orchestra's greatest hits." At this point in history, it was more like improv or jazz, where you make it up as you go along.

Things changed a great deal when it became possible to record performances and hear them more than once. A change may also have occurred when sheet music first was able to be printed. One way in which sheet music has evolved is that composers have increased the detail they provide for musicians in terms of tempo and dynamic changes, etc. In the olden days the music was written without much detail and musicians would ornament.  This somewhat parallels the way in which dramatic plays have changed to give more stage instructions (since the very simple instructions of Shakespeare, for example).

Possibly the biggest change that occurred with the advent of recordings was that before recordings, each orchestra had its own style. People would seek out particular orchestras to hear those styles. However, after recordings orchestral styles converged and orchestras became less distinguishable.

At this point we moved away from orchestras. I spoke a bit about Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which is an amazing place to visit and is full of performances. There are pantomimes where you watch a show and can yell at the actors. There are violins or other instruments people play for you at dinner. And there are also full-scale historical reenactments that you can participate in.

Mimes are cool. They get a lot of ridicule these days, but they are essentially silent storytellers, and get a lot of flak these days because it became popular to imitate (badly) the mime of Marcel Marceau. My family went to see the mime troupe Mummenschanz, and we were amazed by the performance. One of the things I noticed about mime is how active the role of the audience is in interpreting the meaning of what's going on.

Shauna mentioned that in the novel Never Let Me Go, there is no emotional or facial information, and all of it must be provided by the inference of the reader. (Yes, the reader is a very important participant in the meaning of any book).

Cliff talked about a play called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, where there are thirty plays, and the audience says numbers and the performers do the performance that corresponds to the numbers. Also, someone orders pizza.

We have this concept of the "fourth wall" between an audience and a performance. Would a performance in a fictional society have this same concept? How would they relate to it? In Western theater and Noh theater from Japan, the fourth wall is generally inviolate. In haunted houses, performers interact directly with the audience.

The context of a performance matters a great deal. Cliff explained that in India pre-1947 in the Raj courts, a musician's role was to play in the court. It was essentially a palace job, full time. After independence, the social context changed, and musicians started giving performances with tickets at a fixed time. This was a tough transition for many reasons, but its influence on performance was that it cut down on the sitar ragas that could be played.

When '78 records came into use, it created pressure for songs to be short. '78s were clearly the Twitter of musical recordings.

Recordings separate the context of recording from the context of listening.

Opera could once only be seen live in the theater, but it can now also be seen in recordings and even in movie theaters.

The television show Star Trek featured quite a lot of performances, but most of them were of European classical orchestral music. Many of us would have liked to see more different selections!

Some types of performance have a fixed canon, like Noh and Kabuki, and Gagaku. Shakespeare also has a fixed canon. Noh uses masks for its characters. In all of these cases, the historical language gets preserved in the performances.

Performances aren't always short. Kabuki performances last all day, and people picnic in the audience. Shakespeare plays also used to last longer, with more songs.

Do people talk during a performance? In a nightclub, they do. In a concert hall, they don't. Dimming the house lights was a technological development that allowed organizers to signal the need for silence.

Movies made performances available to the masses because they were so much cheaper to run.

I also mentioned that there is a new type of performance out there - the YouTube video. Performers like Markiplier and Jack Septiceye are playing games, but also performing comedic improvisation.

Many fictional works have thought about the role of virtual reality performances and holograms. People like making art with whatever technology is available! Fahrenheit 451 had a participatory play that happened at home. Star Trek had the holodeck.

What kind of behavior is accepted during a performance? Talking? Eating? What is rude? Dinner theater combines eating and watching a performance deliberately. What is polite?

A church mass could be considered a type of performance with audience participation, as well as a ritual.

Cliff recommended Adam-Troy Castro's Marionette stories as doing something unusual with performance. They feature one hundred thousand aliens who all dance until they drop dead, and an instance of a human dancer joining in.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Today's hangout will feature author Spencer Ellsworth. We'll be meeting in 40 minutes. I hope you can come!


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What We Do at Different Times of Day

This was a lively topic! I started out by clarifying what I meant by it. We have a lot of daily practices, most of them everyday things, that we do at particular times of day (and not at other times of day). Since everyday cultural practices are some of the details that really make a fictional world pop (or even a version of the real world, actually), I wanted to spend some time talking about this.

Che immediately thought of the practice of avoiding drinking alcohol until after 5pm. Kat mentioned the Japanese practice of having a bath before going to bed and contrasted it with the American practice of getting up and jumping in the shower. The Japanese practice makes a lot of sense because buildings don't often have central heating (they generally heat room by room), and so it works really well to heat up your body and then tuck into bed. Kat said, "you are your own hot water bottle."

And then, of course, there's tea time! Americans tend to have tea with breakfast (if they drink tea) and sometimes lunch, but my Australian husband likes to have it midmorning and midafternoon. Kat said in her house teatime was morning, afternoon, and evening before bed. The movie Astérix chez les Bretons (in French) makes a joke about the early Breton soldiers not wanting to fight at teatime. Astérix likes to make jokes so that the cast of characters is responsible for all the historical things like the ruins of the Roman coliseum and the fact that the Sphynx has no nose. Another discussant pointed out that between Astérix and Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bear, they've invented all the things!

Morgan mentioned siestas. They tend to happen during the hottest time of day, and be dependent on local climate, as Cliff observed. They have led sometimes to stereotypes about laziness from colonizers arriving from outside the climate zone. They also happen in Spain. In France, stores traditionally closed for two hours during lunchtime. Thinking through climate helps you to worldbuild in more than one way, because it provides setting and also traditional behaviors. Cliff called it "double worldbuilding."

What reasons do we have for scheduling things at particular times? This is a good thing to think through. Climate obviously enters in. So does the age of the person involved, as with naptimes for children. Culture teaches us assumptions about how brains work, but can also fail to take neurodiversity into account, as well as culture differences in a diverse society. Some people like a fixed schedule.

Meals also tend to be culturally influenced to take place at particular times of day - and not always at the same times of day. What are the meals called in your society? Which meal is the biggest? Is there a "second breakfast"?

Kat noted that clocks tend to be normalized. Bank workers still work at different times from shift workers, however. Technology level has a lot of influence on what time people do things, because an agrarian schedule is very different from a factory one. If you have no electricity, it limits the kinds of things you can do after dark. Cliff also noted that people have things they schedule at different times of year, especially when they are growing food.

Clocks regulate shifts. The sun regulates life, but it is also constantly changing. Cliff pointed out that when you are working on a ship, the schedule tends to be four hours on, four hours off. Kat noted that someone has to be on lookout all the time.

Time is a convention, and it is often run on the basis of some group's behavior, and disseminated mechanically. Local time in the middle ages was determined by the church bells of the town, rung by the clergy. The days would be divided differently as the days changed with the seasons. Days are also measured differently by different groups. For example, the day begins and ends at sunset for the Jewish and Islamic communities, whereas by the clock it begins right after midnight, and for some communities it begins at dawn.

Cliff spent some time telling us about sitar playing. Many of the musical pieces, called ragas, are to be played only at particular times of day. Some are for early, mid, or late morning. Some are seasonal. One can only be played during the eight minutes of sunset. Practice gives you a bit more flexibility, but it's ideal to practice the sunset raga in the evening. It's perceived to affect health like bad medicine if you play them at the wrong time. There is another raga called bhairavi, where once you've played it you can't play anything else. Sometimes sitar players have set up special concerts at unusual times so concertgoers could hear a different repertoire. Sometimes teachers will give music lessons on Sunday to teach morning ragas. The differences between these pieces have to do with the scale of notes used, the pattern for ascending and descending, and various motifs. Cliff says morning ragas tend to have more flats. In general, the ragas have different "vibe" to them, having something to do with the rhythm and aesthetic.

Kat remarked that there are also American songs that only get played at certain times of day, such as reveille and taps. Lullabies are for bedtime. There are wake-up songs and work songs.

We considered for a minute or so the difference between a song intended to evoke a particular time of day (musically) and one that is only to be played at a particular time of day.

These patterns definitely also exist in Western culture. People have very strong opinions about hearing Christmas music out of season. There are rituals associated with certain times of year, and not all are religious. When do you eat pumpkin pie?

When are prayers supposed to be? At sunrise? Bedtime? Five times a day? Before or after you eat? Do you change them depending on what you're eating? Are there special times of year when you pray differently?

Ask questions about the practices of the people in your fictional society.

The example of Second Breakfast in the Lord of the Rings movies was wonderful, because it was used for both worldbuilding and character development. Cliff remarked that in science fiction, highly regimented use of time is often associated with fascistic societies like those of A Wrinkle in Time, Metropolis, or "Repent, Harlequin, said the Ticktockman." The phrase "making the trains run on time" is directly associated with Nazi Germany.

Timekeeping is both personal and communal.

Discussions are ongoing in various contexts about whether Daylight Saving should remain a part of our yearly scheduling. People have circadian rhythms that get messed up with Daylight Saving switches. In addition, studies of teens have shown that they are more effective at studying if they have been allowed to wake up later in the morning. Is there any form of circadian variation in your world?

We do have flavors we prefer at particular times of year. Pumpkin spice is apparently followed by gingerbread and then by peppermint.

Kat remarked that in Japan there is a deep understanding of the culinary calendar. There is, for example, a particular day in the summer which is the right one for eating a bowl of eel on rice. She told us that for relatives of hers, Thanksgiving and July 4th made sense and were comforting because of the predictability of the food offered on those days.

There are seasonal beers in different countries, including the US and Japan (and others).

Japan also has seasonal rice, as when they serve rice from the newly harvested crop. There are also things to add to rice for different times of year.

Bûche de Noël is a cake exclusively for Christmas. In Japan, every festival has its own unique wagashi (candy).

Beer is not a good thing for breakfast, I imagine because it intoxicates you before you have to work. Is there a cutoff time for coffee? In the US some perceive there to be one, but in Europe it's very common to have espresso after dinner.

What time do you eat dinner? Kat said in her family, her father was a gardener, so he'd work until dusk and they would not eat dinner until 8pm. In the circus, though, one might have dinner between two evening shows.

 Cliff said that certain activities are reserved for "liminal time" in between other activites. In an initiation, it's common to find dramatic changes of schedule. A break from the comfort of the known has a strong effect on character comfort.

There is a lot more one could talk about here (jet lag, for instance), but I think we covered a lot in a short time. Thanks to everyone who participated.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Wednesday, November 8 at 10am Pacific, and we'll be talking with guest author Spencer Ellsworth about his new book series, and about outdoor survival. I hope you can make it!