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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Portraying Children

The first thing to know about children is that they are complex, and they vary widely. It's important never to standardize one's expectations about them. One of the things that can happen is that child characters will be oversimplified because they are "only children." Another thing that can happen is they are portrayed as tiny adults, which again, they are not. The behavior of children differs greatly between cultures, and within cultures, and even within single families.

One of the reasons I was interested to talk about this topic on the show was that the protagonist of my forthcoming novella, "The Persistence of Blood," has five children who range in age from 19 to 2. It was an interesting challenge to keep them all present and active in the story in age-appropriate ways. The youngest, Pelli, is in the two-word stage of language development. This is actually a tiny bit on the late side for standard language development expectations... but remember, expectations are restrictive. Some kids experience the same language stages at very early or very late times relative to the expectation, especially if they have siblings who might talk for them. Restricting myself to the two-word stage for Pelli was helpful because it kept me from accidentally making her language too complex. At the same time, I had to put some thought into how she would express ideas, because a two-word child's thoughts can be quite complex, and they are very creative about how they use their language resources to express those thoughts.

As with anything else, it's important to do your research. Observe children in realistic environments if you have the opportunity. You can also watch shows like the reality show Fetch with Ruff Ruffman, which can give you a picture of how smart and capable 6th-graders are.

Che mentioned the show Kids' Master Chef. Sometimes you get giggly kids who just really like to cook. Sometimes you get unusually quiet and mature child chefs.

Shows like these are non-representative samples, of course. But so are protagonists!

Che mentioned some characters she enjoyed from reading middle grade books, such as a character with social anxiety who gets another character to act as a go-between even though the go-between only speaks two words at a time. She also has seen characters who never stop talking and characters who run over others.

Cliff mentioned the question of appearance. Some kids look like their siblings and others do not. In fiction, we often see the idea of a changeling child taking on the question of fitting in with the family or not. He also pointed out that when it comes to portraying adopted children, genre fiction has a mixed record of success. I had recently read this article, where a family discovered via commercial genetic testing that one of its members had been accidentally switched at birth. The question of genetics versus environment in the development of a person always leads in interesting directions.

This is why, now, they put wristbands on babies and have special alarms that go off if you try to leave the floor.

When we look at babies in fiction, easy babies are overrepresented. Che said that sometimes the baby was treated more like a prop. Babies can be easy or difficult based on a ton of different factors about their health and behavior. My own daughter cried a lot when she was tiny because of a milk allergy; when we got her off milk products, she was much happier!

The baby in Dan Simmons' Hyperion was definitely better than a prop, but we did notice she was a very, very low-maintenance easy baby. Babies tend to make themselves the center of things. Lois McMaster Bujold had a case of a baby who was born and people were trying to kill it in a coup. There are all kinds of complications to having a baby in a story because they are so helpless and vulnerable and prone to crying when they need things. If you have a child that needs to be saved, it will change the story a lot if it's in utero, or if it's in some kind of uterine replicator, or if it's been born.

Morgan remarked that sometimes "sleeping through the night" means sleeping for a five-hour stretch, not for a full 8 or more hours.

We also spoke about nursing. Babies have to learn how to nurse effectively, even though they are born with a sucking reflex. And they nurse a lot - my son nursed for 45 minutes every two hours, 24 hours per day, for his first month of life.

We remarked that the parenting style we were discussing was one where the parent follows the child's need. Very often in fiction, you find regimented parenting styles... or parents who ignore their kids so the kids can go off on adventures! How do parents actually interact with their children? What does the story look like when that relationship is in place?

How do you portray how parents evaluate kids? Does the protagonist ever hear criticisms of their parents' parenting style? Has the child been traumatized? How is the child expected to recover from that? Do others judge their progress within their hearing?

Cliff talked about the movie Coco, where the child protagonist is about 10-12. It features how the child fits in with family expectations, and his role as an individual within a community. We get glimpses of the title character at age 3 and age 100. The boy protagonist was trying to figure out what his connection to the family was, and what it meant. Cliff said it led to a discussion with his children about who they might like to bring back from the dead - a light discussion of a heavy topic.

One challenge of portraying children is being aware of the child's environment. What do children pick up on about the things that happen around them? Where does their attention go? It may not go to the places adult attention might go. Some kids will pay very close attention to where they are while riding in the car. Others will not notice where they are at all. Some kids are hyper-aware of social things, like the social rank of everyone in a room. This may have to do with growing up in a complex environment where there were risks to not tracking everyone's mood and relative power position.

How we use language influences what we pay attention to.

In fiction, the stressors on characters are often extreme things like war or apocalypse. We find ourselves not just having to depict kids, but to depict them in situations of extreme stress. How do children find ways to "keep it together"? What mechanisms do they use to cope?

Kat mentioned that in the case of child refugees, or children in abusive homes, some become beautifully cooperative, while some freak out and become non-cooperative. Reading refugee memoirs can give you insight into this aspect of real children's experiences and help you portray them more accurately.

Disney movies contain a lot of traumas like parental death, threats and coercion by adults. Adults are often villains in the form of mean or racist teachers, neighbors, etc. Bullies are also often antagonists in stories with child protagonists.

Children get socialized very differently, and this has a huge influence on their behavior.

Children go through growth spurts both mentally and cognitively. They will get very hungry and sleepy (sometimes one after the other) and then have sudden developmental changes. This often gets neglected in fiction, but it's important to remember that children change a lot. In our family we used to say, "The only constant is change."

Thanks to everyone who attended. The first hangout of 2018 will occur at our new standard time, on Tuesday, January 9th at 4pm Pacific. We'll be expanding on the topic of Birds. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Social Norms of Contagion

I always knew this one was going to be interesting! Basically, this hangout looked at the ways that people think about contagious disease, and how that affects their behavior (or not). If your base concept of contagion is that diseases float around in the air, your approach to protecting yourself will be very different from what it would be if you believe that diseases are carried in water, or if you believe they are transmitted from person to person in bodily fluids.

Back in the time of the plague, there was no germ theory, and so it was impossible for the people to recognize where the dangers of plague actually came from. Only later did people realize it was transmitted by fleas that were carried by rats.

There is still a myth/urban legend in South Korea of "fan death" - it suggests that if you leave an electric circulating fan on all night you will die.

In Japan, people believe very strongly that you must keep your core warm. Kat described how her dad had a belly-only sweater. Apparently, a chilled gut is seen as lying at the heart of many ailments including digestive problems, though it has less to do with contagion.

We did remark, though, how common it is in Japan to see people wearing medical face masks. The idea is that if you have a cold, you wear a face mask to make sure you don't give your cold to anyone else. In the US, though, people tend to imagine that face masks are only for people with quite serious diseases, and a Westerner will be inclined to think that the face mask means someone is dangerously ill. Meanwhile, the Japanese person is left wondering why Westerners will just hack and cough without covering it, thereby putting others at risk of contagion.

There has been an interesting change in behavior in the last several years in the US. Back when some of our discussants were kids (including me), we were taught to cover our mouths with our hands if we had to cough or sneeze. Now, however, that advice has changed and people are told to cover their mouths with their elbows. You can tell if someone has been exposed to children if they have learned to sneeze in their elbow.

People of Japanese descent in the US have been known to be horrified at the way that people here continue to do things like shake hands during cold and flu season.

I learned, back when I was first teaching, that germs can live for quite a long time on paper. It meant that I was catching all kinds of colds just from grading my students' work. At that time, hand sanitizer was not a widely available product.

We discussed how current US culture tends to place heroic value on coming to work when you are sick, when in fact it is one way to make a lot more people sick at your work! Why can't we shift the culture so that if you are contagious, you don't go in? Some kinds of institutional decisions, like giving personal leave days rather than vacation vs. sick days, may contribute to pressures for people to come into work while sick.

We talked about the concept of the miasma, meaning a zone of air that could make you sick. If you were looking out for miasmas, then posies (flower bouquets for your nose) or plague doctor masks might seem like a good approach to protect yourself.

These days, anti-vaxxers have been creating a situation where the instance of dangerous contagious diseases is going way up, and in fact, there are different kinds of measures that must be taken to protect from each different disease. It's not just germ theory in general, but depends on the property of the particular disease. Thus, your behavior will depend on which diseases you've learned appropriate quarantine protocols for. The protocol for lice - avoiding sharing hats and brushes or combs, and avoiding head contact - is very different from the protocol for measles, which can remain  in the air for hours after a contagious person has walked through it. This is why the clinic will say "if you suspect measles, don't come in; wait outside."

We also spoke about bedbugs, which have become very chemically resistant after all the years people have tried to poison them. They are still vulnerable to heat, however, and so people have developed anti-bedbug ovens to heat their things. We heard about one person who wrapped their couch in heat-insulated blankets and saved it by baking it.

This brought us to cooking. Cooking is highly useful because it kills bacteria which can cause disease. Apparently, new protocols for food safety were put in place at WisCon after a famous incident where norovirus (an awful stomach flu) was passed catastrophically through the convention-goers. These protocols included keeping food at safe temperatures.

Khaalidah mentioned that bathing too much can hurt good bacteria that protect us. We talked a bit about the gut biome. Kat noted that eradicating the gut biome is very bad for us. The biome in the stomach is not the same as the one in the lower intestine.

At that point in the discussion we turned to the question of how to tackle the question of social norms of contagion in stories. You might encounter them in historical fiction, but they can also occur in science fiction and fantasy.

  • Are there artifacts that were invented to protect from disease that have persisted in your society? 
  • Are there aspects of social etiquette that have grown out of disease concerns? 
  • How do the layouts of buildings and cities reflect this? 
  • Where do you put wells so they will be safe from sewage contamination?
  • What do your people do when they sneeze? Is there a phrase to say? Is it ignored?
I mentioned that there's an incidence of contagious disease in my novel that inspires people to start wearing gloves, and that thirty years later, they are still wearing them as a fashion item. Ann Leckie also did something with gloves, where the people of the Radch consider un-gloved hands to be obscene.

Kat mentioned how in Japan it is believed that the ground outside is dirty, so there is a quarantine area (the genkan entry area) built into each home, and people store their shoes there. This belief was brought to the US by East Asian populations, and thus has led to changes in architecture. There are also strict rules about what you do with plates, knives, and chopsticks. Passing condiments is not an expected social behavior in Japan.

In the US, we can have mud rooms which bear some similarity to the entryways of Japan. Inside, though, the US typically has people walk barefoot, or wear socks, maybe socks with grippy bottoms, whereas in Japan you wear slippers (and a special pair of slippers for the bathroom).

Work/repair people used to walk straight in wearing their boots, but now they typically use boot covers when they come into a home.

Khaalidah mentioned that in a Muslim home, you might pray in any room, so no dirty shoes are allowed in the house.

We spoke briefly about the fact that many religions have strict cultural practices surrounding the preparation of food, and that these may have arisen from particular health threats during the time period when they were first established, and persisted thereafter as a form of religious identity - as Cliff put it, how to distinguish "us" from "not us." This question of belonging can then have serious consequences, up to and including death.

Fear of disease is often used as a tool of oppression against people considered Other. It's easy to say "those outsiders are disease-ridden so you should stay away from them." This has been used against nomadic groups in our world. Outsiders can sometimes be blamed for contagion because they don't follow the local norms of quarantine or washing, etc. 

Hygiene is often built into religious practices such as salt purification or washing before coming into a sacred space.

Hand-washing before meals is a widespread measure against the spread of disease.

Nail polish hides what is under your nails and some religions forbid it. Khaalidah told us it also prohibits ablution, which is why it is not accepted in Muslim practice.''

Khaalidah told us about Muslim hygienic practices. There are ablutions with the five daily prayers. There is also a ritual bath to be taken after sex. There are blessings to be had in washing your mouth, especially when fasting. There are ablutions to be done before touching the Quran. One washes private areas as well as hands after using the toilet.

Moors brought the idea of a septic system and hygienic habits to Europe.

The religious origins of a hygiene practice can be lost over time while the practice persists. Kat noted that taking off shoes made particular sense when inside floors were made of tatami, which is heavily degraded by grit... but it persists even with non-tatami floors.

Beauty standards are also influenced by health issues, as when syphilitic beauty marks were admired, or when consumption-like waifish weakness became a value. This is also a class issue.

Thank you to everyone who participated! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, December 20th (tomorrow) at 10am Pacific to talk about Birds. I hope you'll join us!


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Awards Eligible Fiction from 2017

I have one piece of awards-eligible fiction this year: "Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth," a novella which appeared in Clarkesworld Issue 127. It's on the Nebula Awards Recommended Reading List (thank you!) and is eligible for the Hugo and the Nebula. Click on the picture below if you'd like to read it.

Gardner Dozois reviewed it very positively, here.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Birthdays and Coming of Age

Of course, we started this hangout with the birthday song. Actually, we didn't sing it, but we talked about how widespread it is and how many variations it has internationally (and locally). Tip: don't direct-import the birthday song into a secondary world!

Kat told us that she saw an Australian book of birthday cakes which featured a lot of possible birthday cakes she described as "attainable," unlike many of the art cakes we see these days. It's very easy to make the mistake of expecting a pattern of sameness to hold across English-speaking cultures. One of the things that was considered obligatory in this book about Australian birthdays was "fairy bread," or bread with butter and rainbow sprinkles on it. Another was the game "pass the parcel," where you wrap something up in a lot of layers of wrapping paper and pass it around to music, and people unwrap one layer at a time when the music stops.

Different social groups may have different songs they use for birthdays, like the "Birthday Dirge" in fannish circles.

The ceremony of blowing out candles is very common, but it must come at the end of the song, not the beginning or the middle.

The idea of celebrating a birthday is relatively recent. In Catholic countries, traditionally one would celebrate a Saint's Day, or the day dedicated to the saint with whom one shared a name. One might also celebrate the day one had been baptized. Kat said that when she was in Tahiti, the French-speakers there would wish her happy saint's day on Saint Katherine's Day.

Kat also brought up the topic of Japanese birthday-counting. Before Westernization, all Japanese birthdays were celebrated on January 1. You were also counted as 1 year old when you emerged from the womb, so it would be possible for a baby to be born on December 31st and be counted as two years old at the age of 2 days. She speculated that in a society where age is important and relative age is important for social interaction, that might help to create age cohorts. Kat also noted that the Chinese Zodiac year changes on January 1 in Japan, so everyone born in the same calendar year would be the same sign. Japan had a base-10 calendar for a long time, so tens and twenties are important.

When you live in a regularized and secularized system, it's easy to forget that holidays and rest days were also celebratory.

We asked where we had seen birthdays in secondary worlds. The example that came most immediately to mind was Bilbo Baggins' birthday party at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring. Hobbits also had the tradition of giving gifts, rather than receiving them, on a birthday.

Cliff had the idea that one could have a particular birthday celebration for coming of age, at which the present given by the oldest female relative would be a dagger.

In the case of outer space science fiction, calculating age and birthdays can be complicated. Which planet forms the basis for the time system? Does each have its own system? What time system is used in interstellar space? Vernor Vinge's solution was to have everyone count their age in seconds. Shauna suggested that the human body clock might be used as a basis for a time system. Kat noted that a shipborn character might measure time by "orbits" or by repair cycles on the ship clock.

Some cultures have traditionally not celebrated birthdays until the child reaches a certain age when it is more likely to survive to adulthood.

Facebook birthday announcements are inadvertently teaching us about the planetary day because of the way people get birthday wishes a day early from places in Asia. Larry Niven's Ringworld featured a person who spent his 200th birthday teleporting around the world to enjoy the entirety of it.

I spoke a little bit about birthdays in my own secondary world of Varin. In the Varin nobility, survival is not at all guaranteed, so the traditional birthday greeting is, "Congratulations." The seventeenth birthday is an important one because it marks a child's introduction into political life for boys, or into marriage elegibility for girls. The other important birthday is an early one, usually between 2 and 6 years of age, when for the first time the child is certified by a doctor as being healthy enough to join in social life. It's called a "confirmation," and one of those parties appears in my forthcoming novella, "The Persistence of Blood."

Ask: how do these people choose the age of majority? What do they base it on? Is it at all affected by developmental differences between the sexes?

Different societies have different ideas of what it means to become an adult. They also have different concepts of how precious children are, and different ideas of what kinds of developmental and social milestones are important.

Jewish adulthood happens at age 13 (with the exception of Orthodox Jews who have a boy's adulthood at 13 and a girl's at 12). Puberty is often what people identify as what makes you a grownup, but not always. Cliff noted that the concept of adolescence is relatively recent. Puberty rites exist around the world. In the Jewish case, the age of adulthood is important for ceremonial purposes, like joining in a minyan, a group of 10 or more adults. You can participate as a member of a minyan if you are over 13. You also have ritual responsibilities, which is why in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah you lead the whole service.

Puberty and adulthood are not necessarily strongly linked everywhere. You may need training to be an adult, or you may need to have achieved something particular.

In the US, you can vote at age 18, which is the age of consent (though not in all states), but you can't drink until 21 and you can't rent a car until age 25. Being able to drive a car is a huge rite of passage in the West.

What kids are allowed to do independently has been scaled back in some regions. In some places, very young children are expected to be able to get across town on public transit by themselves, or to stay home alone. In other places, parents would be blamed for allowing them to attempt it.

The movie Kiki's Delivery Service has a young witch moving out to live on her own for a year at age 13, which always astonished me.

There is so much more we could have chatted about! We'll have to take up the question of Coming of Age again sometime. Thank you to everyone who participated. Today, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet at 10am Pacific (in 25 minutes) to talk about Portraying Children. I hope you'll join us!


Monday, December 4, 2017


When I think of advertising in fiction, my mind goes straight to the futuristic dystopias like Blade Runner, where the ads were the height of buildings, and Minority Report, where ads would register your identity via your eyes, and advertise directly to you. Firefly/Serenity also had advertising jingles, which were used as a trigger for River because they could appear anywhere without notice.

Jingles are interesting because they are most effective when they are incredibly hard to forget. Too many of us remembered the Oscar Meyer song, and the list of Big Mac ingredients, from our childhoods. Che said she thought that they had gone out of style in favor of pop music, but we could still think of what we called micro-jingles, like the very brief Nationwide jingle, or the Intel Inside series of four notes, that are in current use.

I created a fictional scenario that falls into the category of the future dystopia with advertising in my story, "Mind Locker." In that story, everyone had augmented reality with internet in their heads, and the slums of the city were hidden from citydwellers by a layer of virtually projected advertising.

To take it back to the opposite end technologically, we can look at fantasy scenarios where taverns have signs hanging out front, and where vendors sing songs or have calls to hawk their wares.

Che told us how in the Rome HBO series, there was a town crier who shouted out the news, and interspersed the news with an advertisement for a bakery. People in the city could apparently pay him to advertise their bread.

If you are running a business in a fantasy or science fictional world, what would be the optimal method to get the word out about it? You don't necessarily know who the interested people are. If you get the word out, that means you get more business, which means you have more work to do. What is the economic system into which your business fits?

We could think of more fictional scenarios with very little advertising, or a great deal, than with a middling amount of it.

Businesses are always looking for better reach, new and better ways to reach consumers. There's an insidiousness to advertising, also, because it can be extremely manipulative, selling a lifestyle, or a feeling, or making you feel as if your life is incomplete without a product that you don't really need. This is one of the reasons why it can be illegal to advertise certain products to children.'

In our world, consciously navigating advertising can require a lot of self-awareness and smarts.

There are three things going on here.

1. Actual need. There's a product someone is making, and another person needs to have it for life, and they need to find each other.
2. Cultural narrative. There is a product that becomes part of a significant cultural narrative of value, which then results in people feeling they need it for status or inclusion, when in fact they would not die without it.
3. Manipulation. This is the further extreme of the cultural narrative scenario, when people are convinced they need a product when obtaining it will harm them, either literally or by denting their means to do other things that are critical for their success.

A lot of ads tell tiny stories about how with this thing you will be healthy, or happy, or have something else terribly important.

Cliff spoke a bit about ads that target children, because he has had to explain to his twins that "they are paying this woman to pretend to be enjoying this toy." Ads can be disguised as an enthusiast making a video.

We spoke about viral marketing, like the case of the Chewbacca Mom. In her case, this was a spontaneous video of someone enjoying a product, and it turned out to be such a winning endorsement that it made a huge difference for the product and the company involved, who then turned around and rewarded her - sort of a backwards way of advertising. Not quite the same, but closely related, was the joke that KFC hid on their Twitter feed, which got news when a person discovered it, and the company then rewarded that person.

Amazon reviews are an interesting question here, because some are endorsements, and others are paid advertising masquerading as endorsements.

I brought up the idea of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. When a person's actions are motivated from the inside, they are called intrinsic. This is what was going on with Chewbacca mom. The excitement of a person in a TV ad for a product is motivated by external reward, and is called extrinsic. The two are quite different in their effect.

This is one of the reasons why learning about persuasive language is very important.

If you are setting up advertising in a fictional scenario, ask:

What is appropriate for whom, and when?
Who benefits?

Are there worthy projects that people should support?

Is your society a capitalist society, or is it not? Advertising will be markedly different in those two different models. State advertising overlaps with propaganda. We also have propagandizing advertisement, as when we have ads for July 4th barbecue items which are meant to evoke childhood, patriotism, but can also evoke fear of others, and fear of invasion.

Music is often used in advertising to evoke scenarios that the music was originally connected to, such as musicals.

We get a peek into other cultures when we watch advertisements from other cultures. This is one reason why advertising can be such a useful tool for worldbuilding. It shows cultural narratives and ideals. In the new Bladerunner, the ads had progressed.

Brian Buhl asked what kind of responsibility is associated with advertising. Capitalist ads can be dehumanizing. Is there legal regulation of advertising to avoid this?

In the US, lawyers and medicines didn't used to be able to advertise. Cigarette ads used to appear on TV. The Joe Camel character was made illegal because it was deemed to have been targeting children. Such ads were moved to Asia because there are no such laws there (predatory companies will take advantage of such things). Cliff noted that there has been a significant change in culture, where his dorm used to have a cigarette machines, but now such a thing would be unheard of.

In the Hunger Games, previous winners of the games were used in advertising. The Hunger Games was all about its survivors and their prizes, and their product endorsements.

We have the Superbowl, which for many people is more about the advertising than it is about the game. Companies will spend millions just for a thirty-second spot.

Advertising is both a window into culture, and a driver of culture.

I explained an ad I had seen in Japan for a type of bread that was perfectly square and white and an inch thick, and so fluffy that when you pinched one corner it would spring back. As an American I found it unappetizing, but it did reveal what qualities many Japanese people associated with ideal bread!

Thomas' English muffins used to have ads that were historical dramas about how sad people were when Thomas left England. They were selling Englishness to Americans.

Advertising can also be a hotbed of cultural appropriation. There are lots of ads featuring people in costumes that portray them as stereotypical Others. They can therefore be used in worldbuilding to show who is oppressed. Cliff mentioned a 1970's ad featuring a crying Indian, who was in fact not even portrayed by a Native American actor. It was an attempt to tie the idea of the noble savage into the idea of not littering. Don't Mess with Texas was also an anti-littering campaign, but the phrase has moved away from that limited context into others because it was so well tied to Texan self-image. The "I <3 NY" ads were actually an ad for upstate New York and New York City, but they are now used in far more contexts.

Here are some important questions to ask: Who owns the default narrative? Who is being advertised to? Who is allowed to be mocked? (Different countries target different groups.)

Ads can reveal social strife. There have been recent examples of extremely racist ads out of China (a black man going into a washing machine and coming out Chinese) and the US (a Dove ad showing a black woman removing a brown shirt and turning into a white woman with a pink shirt).

There's a lot more to this topic than we could cover in an hour, but thanks to everyone who attended and made for a lively discussion!


Spencer Ellsworth - Starfire: A Red Peace, and Wilderness Survival

Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since childhood, and he's been a literary agent, and he's joined us as a discussant... and now he's got three short novels coming out from, so I was really excited to feature him on the show. The novels of the Starfire trilogy are A Red Peace, Shadowsun Seven, and Memory's Blade.

The story is a space opera, set ten thousand years in the future in our galaxy at the end of a long war against giant space spiders that eat planets and suns. Humans used genetically engineered soldiers against the spiders, and now those soldiers have overthrown the Empire and decided to kill all humans. There's a mysterious peace with the spiders which essentially consists of "we can coexist with the spiders until we bump into them."

The main characters are a smuggler who decides to save humans - she's genetically engineered, but her parents escaped the life of soldiers, and a soldier who is realizing the nature of the unconscionable orders he's being given. The soldier has a drug problem, in part to cope with what he's being asked to do.

Spencer says this has a similar tone to the X-men, inasmuch as it has an echo of real issues but then a lot of wacky stuff. People in his books read comic books about a folk hero who is a space sheriff. Spencer hints that this person is not as made-up as he appears.

The genetic engineering mixed human DNA with that of a legendary, supposedly extinct race called the Jorians, whose empire was disrupted by the spiders. Many legendary things are attributed to the Jorians, such as terraforming. This universe has a history.

Spencer says the stories are less hard SF and more "fantasy in space," with a Dune-ish flavor.

I asked how many humans there were, and Spencer said they were a despised upper class, who were proud of having pure human DNA, a sort of pedigree. He says the idea was inspired in part by the Russian revolution, in that there was a sympathetic resistance with a good cause, but as with Lenin, the winner turned ruthless. The concept of a war that depends on a disposable soldier class, he said, was inspired by the separation of soldiers and non-soldiers in the US. The soldier character was inspired by conversations with Spencer's dad, who treats PTSD in Marines. Spencer noted that in World War II, soldiers spent about 40 days in combat zones, but that the number is much higher for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans.

Spencer said that writing on commission nearly broke his brain the first time. He wrote and threw away the beginning of Book 2 several times. "Beginnings of middles are challenging." He explained that it helped to know what kind of story he was telling. Book 1 is a chase story, Book 2 is a caper/infiltration story, and Book 3 is a story of spectacular battles. Having that structure was useful, because the stream-of-consciousness approach wasn't working. The characters have to get out of a space prison... but why? There's a giant space tick that comes to ships and sucks the air out of them, and is therefore full of air pockets.

Spencer says, "you have to get to the point where you're playing and having fun."

Brian asked whether Spencer plots (outlines) more or whether he does discovery writing. Spencer explained that he has been plotting more. "The more I write, the more I plot... I'm sort of a born-again plotter... If I have a really tight plot I can produce a book on deadline."

Cliff asked how Spencer expanded the world as he wrote books 2 and 3. Spencer said that he re-read Book 1 and looked for places to expand. Some places he seeded deliberately, and other places he just threw in. For example, he never explained how faster-than-light travel worked. He looked for holes, and places where people might like to learn more.

He also worked with the idea that "the glorious resistance is broke." Book 2 leveraged that with the idea that an offer for "letters of credit" would be meaningful for some, but worthless for others. Spencer said he was reading The Expanse while writing book 2, and he wanted to have some bare minimum of scientific accuracy, like with artificial gravity. It made him want to try to explain with a bit more rigor.

At this point in the conversation, we moved onto the other topic that Spencer had wanted to discuss, that of wilderness survival. He told us that as a snotty teenager he'd gone to a wilderness camp (a good one). He then worked there on and off for five years in college. It was in Arizona, so the environment was desert. It was based out of Mesa, and often they would circle around a town but try not to let any of the students know there was a town nearby. There were tarantulas (but only the Vegan kid was brave enough to pick them up). A kid ate a scorpion (apparently it tasted like a really sour shrimp).

We asked Spencer what you think about when you're worrying about whether a character will survive in a wilderness setting. The main issue is that food and water will run out. In civilization, we tend to eat a lot more calories in a day than we need to survive, and so people in the wilderness will eat a lot less, but may expend a lot of energy trying to get enough to eat. Fish and game take a while to clean. Making a bow or a boomerang for hunting is hard, and requires a lot of trial and error. Living on roots and berries is "not much." Even in the height of berry season, you have to eat a LOT of berries, or a LOT of leaves, to get enough to eat. Spencer says, "never turf a character out in the desert without a knife." You need a knife to make a spoon.

Spencer has eaten rattlesnake, and apparently you have to eat the ribs. You can eat crayfish in this area of Arizona - apparently it's an invasive species there which causes problems, so no one will mind if you eat them.

After a few days, you will be exhausted from low calorie intake, and low level of carbohydrates. Spencer explains that this is why people settled down to make bread when they could.

Making a fire in a wet biome is hard. You need to learn the tricks to find dry wood.

There are five different uses for a yucca plant, but those don't apply in another biome.

Spencer doesn't watch wilderness survival shows. There are wilderness skills meetups that you can join to learn more (linked here). Gary Paulson books have a lot of good wilderness survival information. The film Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford shows some wilderness survival skills. Brian Dolton recommended The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea, which looks at people trying to survive as they cross the southern border of the US.

Che asked how much you have to carry to survive. Spencer observed that in the medieval setting typical of fantasy, people had parasites anyway, so they just drank the available water anyway unless they were near cities. Carrying water is very heavy, so it's a good idea to carry a filtration device. Spencer says "Dry camping is a scary endeavor." "You wake up dehydrated, and have to hike dehydrated." He said if he had kids in his survival group who complained of headache or stomachache, he would tell them to drink 2 canteens of water and see how they felt. A backpack would probably have to weigh 50-60 pounds if you wanted to have enough calories to feed you for the week. Spencer explained that you can compact some of that if you have a lot of oily foods. He said someone like Tolkien's Aragorn probably carried a lot of rendered-down fat. He would probably either just eat it, or use it to cook his roots and berries because of the amount of calories he would get from it. He would probably also carry dry, flat bread if he could find it, but would want a type that would not mold easily. "You want a complex carbohydrate source if you can get it." Tolkien's invention of lembas bread makes sense because he was a veteran of World War I, and would have understood about the need for calories. Spencer said that when he was running his wilderness group, they would make sure to have sunflower seeds and powdered creamer for the kids, because they were nice and fatty. "If you are writing fantasy, you can invent nuts." "Any fatty nut is going to be beneficial," but they are most appropriate in a dry environment because in the damp they will sour and sprout.

Spencer said that in the scene where Aragorn walks up to the camp with a deer, "that would be the next 30 hours of Aragorn's life, trying to figure how much nutrition he could get out of that deer." He'd have to strip the meat off and build a smokehouse to smoke it. He'd want to eat as much of the organ meat as possible and also smoke as much as he couldn't eat. He'd also have to render the fat and process the hide. "The ringwraiths probably would have caught him in the probably 30-40 hours he'd have to spend processing the deer" before it could spoil. Spencer said it's also possible they just ate as much as they could and then left the rest as waste, but he would be mad at them for it. Brian added that the wagon trains that crossed the US would shoot a buffalo, eat fresh meat, and then leave the carcasses.

Spencer said it's important to remember that indigenous ways of life are usually sustainable, and colonizers' ways are usually not. The killing of animals would be done very carefully to keep the herd above the population threshold needed for it to stay the same size over time. The arrival of horses changed this, however.

It's hard to be a vegetarian in the wilderness. If you're hungry you will need to kill something. You can smoke fatty meat, but it's better to render the fat and then eat it.

Cliff asked how long it would take to fix the food from a midsize animal, and Spencer said two days if you have to smoke it, scrape the hide, eat the organs, and render the fat. He suggested that if you're in an alien planet scenario, you can use handwavium for your smokehouse. Che asked if one would build a smokehouse on wheels and somehow bring it with you. Spencer said in the Pacific Northwest, there are fishing sites where people would build a smokehouse. People with horses and carts can bring tools, but if you put a clay oven in a handcart, it will crack if it bounces.

Calories are the biggest issue for wilderness survival. Clothes will also degrade. Spencer said you can shave bone awls out of solid bone, and they end up about 3 times the size of sewing needles. You can use sinew from animal tendons or from plants like yucca as thread.

Spencer, thanks so much for joining us and letting us feature your work and your specialty! This was quite fascinating. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, December 6 at 10am Pacific to discuss portraying children. Then, on December 12, we'll be joined by guest author Rebecca Kuang! I hope you can make it to these discussions, and as always, please consider supporting the show on Patreon, here.