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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Tade Thompson and Rosewater

I was so happy to have Tade Thompson come on the show! Rosewater is a book with a very interesting history. It was first published by small press Apex in 2016, and was a finalist for the Joseph W. Campbell award, and took first place in the NOMA awards for African works of speculative fiction. Tade said his initial plan was "I will  just make stuff and publish it wherever" but then he found he needed an agent because it was too much. He got an agent and sold the book to Orbit, which is why it's out again now.

Tade says he's not a big plotter. "I'm a pantser. I launch myself off into space and hope something will catch." At the same time, he says, "I rewrite really seriously."

I asked him about the genesis of the Rosewater concept, and he said he had the telepathy idea in 2011 after reading an article about conjoined twins who shared a brain and could hear each other's thoughts. He didn't want the telepathy in Rosewater to be hand-wavy, tough. He wanted an actual explanation, a conduit. When he asked himself why such a conduit would exist, the answer came out thusly:

"It was aliens."

Rosewater is an invasion story.

Tade told us that ideas on their own are not enough. He has to find the character. He said he wrote fifty thousand words before he realized he was writing in the wrong point of view. Some characters and events from this 50K words have survived in the final book, as backstory.

The character of Kaaro was based on 3 people Tade used to know. He's the right point of view to use because he can explore the entire idea.

Cliff asked if the 50K was canon. Tade said it was. None of the worldbuilding in it was discarded.

Tade gave us perspective on his view of himself as a pantser. "I don't dive in until I have thoughts for a long period of time." He says he doesn't start until he's already sure of where he's going, and the rules of the world. Generally, he says, he gets a character first and then builds the world around them. In The Murders of Molly Southbourne, he got the character first. In this book only, he got the wolrd first and then the characters. Any story must have both.

He describes himself as having a "video game mentality" in world creation. Not everything is rendered immediately. He follows the character and renders what is necessary. Once a character has seen it, it becomes real. Wherever the character goes, they are a kind of god, creating the world as they go.

I asked Tade why he felt Kaaro was uniquely appropriate as a point of view character for this story. He explained that Kaaro can be followed in first person, but because he can read minds, he makes us omniscient.

Other characters in the book were not Sensitive. In a book not about psychics this would be head-hopping.

Tade said that by making this choice "I made the reader also a mind reader." Kaaro himself is an unsavory character, and by following him, the reader is complicit. You have a bit of sympathy for him as he is affected by what goes on.

After drafting the book he made a network diagram of character links, showing who is connected to whom and why. The main character must have a link to most other characters.

Tade said, "My writing is exploratory." He wrote almost the whole thing before asking if he was in the right point of view.

I asked him how the telepathy works (SPOILERS!). Aliens have manufactured a fungi-like microorganism and seeded Earth with it over millions of years. This creates a network of organisms that connect to sense organs on the skin, and deliver the thoughts in the brain via the nerves into the air. This was how the aliens learned about Earth in preparation to invade. A side effect was that 1% of humans could access these data and extract data from people around them. Kaaro is the absolute best at it.

Rosewater is the name of a city that sprang up surrounding an alien biodome near Lagos, Nigeria.

Tade said the casual reader wouldn't notice, but he couldn't set a story "bang in the middle of Nigeria" because it would be too easy to create offense. Therefore he created a new city just outside Lagos. He restricted the language to Yoruba because "that's the language that I speak - I can make fun of my people if I want to." It's not just language, of course, but also culture.

Paul asked Tade how he acclimated readers to the environment. Tade explained, "I didn't want to acclimate them to it. I wanted to alienate them." Apparently this led to a massive fight with his editor. Tade doesn't think every aspect of the narrative should be understood. "If you're going to read a story about aliens... you cant understand everything."

I asked him if he knew the answers to things that readers would not be expected to understand. He said "I am God; I know everything. I know the color of their underwear..."

Characters, though, don't need to know everything. Tade leaves room for the reader to extrapolate because he says the best worldbuilding is in the reader's head. The writer must access that by giving hints for the reader to work with. "I will not put signs to everything." He wants to give just enough clues, and not talk down to the reader. That's the one thing that will make him throw a book across a room.

Kat asked, "Do you feel your own experience [as Nigerian, as POC] has colored the book?"

"It matters, definitely," Tade said. "I don't think a white person could write a book like this. My relation to aliens is completely different from what a white Englishman may have." The colonized people of our world are the only ones who have actually had contact with aliens in history - abducting them, experimenting on them, and taking their resources.

How a writer treats aliens reveals a lot about that person's subconscious. If you think alien hordes must be pacified, or if you think of them as not individuals, that shows what you think about people who are not like you. Even a "romp about aliens and space without politics" is political, because it shows that the author believes politics can be removed from a story, when it can't. Oppressed people acknowledge that politics is inextricable.

He said an annotated version of Rosewater would be larger than the book itself. All of us wanted to see it anyway!

Kat asked about the response Tade got from African readers. He explained that the African Speculative Fiction Society voted it for a best novel award. No one has written a negative review from an African perspective. Tade said he suspected it was possible that people might want to challenge him but have insufficient facts to do so, and so had chosen not to.

Tade told us he doesn't identify as a member of a particular group, and thus doesn't consider himself part of the Afrofuturist group. He says he's proud of being Black African, but "I don't see the idea of me being black as linked to being a writer." People are still finding the way to understand the word "Afrofuturist" and what it means. Meanings change over time. "I won't say my work isn't Afrofuturist." Tade is savvy about the history of the term, and thinks it helps critics put works in context, but wants to ask "Who does this definition serve?" He says he's not convinced it's a useful category for him and his work.

I asked Tade whether there was special research he had to do for this book. For most of the book, his life of experience was enough, but he said he did have to look up photosynthesis because our understanding of how it works had changed. He had already been following mycology because he's a doctor, and has to know how fungal infections work. He did use a book on caving and spelunking because some people explored in the alien.

Tade told us that his earliest career choice was that he wanted to be Spiderman. He prayed to God when he was little that he could grow up to be Spiderman, but explained that when he realized that wasn't possible, he figured the next best choice would be to draw him, and wanted to be a comic artist. But, he said, "You don't tell African parents you want to be a comic artist." He was interested in bodies and other things, so he went to medical school, but came out of medical school not knowing what to do. He used the throw a dart at a map method to decide what to do, and ended up going to Samoa. He was the only doctor on one of the four islands, and worked there between 1998 and 1999.

He says he has a feeling he will still write a graphic novel if he can find the right one to do, but he wants to give it the respect it deserves, and suspects he won't be able to do it without gutting one aspect of his current career.

Book 2 in the Rosewater series will come out in March. He has had all of it planned for quite some time, and gave outlines of his plans to Orbit all the way to the end of Book 3, but explains that this isn't the end of the Rosewater story, only a convenient stopping point. "I will never be a Robert Jordan," he says, because he can't write the same thing again and again or he gets bored. All three Rosewater books are done. He may come back to this storyline but he'll have to do something else first. "I will do it as long as I am interested." He says the writing will reflect the boredom of the writer. "We'll know when you phone it in."

Thank you so much, Tade, for coming on the show! Rosewater is a fascinating book, and I hope you will all have a chance to enjoy it.


Proxemics (~personal space) and Body Politeness

At the start of this hangout, we decided to use the word proxemics, as suggested by Kat who proposed this topic, instead of just "personal space." "Personal space" is a more limiting concept. Proxemics are systematic and can be studied. They are indicative of hierarchy and culture. We are trained in the ways to interact appropriately with our bodies. We develop specific expectations of boundaries and proximity.

There are plenty of linguistic and sociological stories of people being "chased" by someone who continues to step into their zone of personal space. Sometimes it's intentional. Sometimes the "chaser" just feels the other person is too far away to have a personal conversation with.

How close is the one-on-one distance for conversation? Is it the "I can touch you" distance?" Is it "I can touch your crossed arms"?

Kat pointed out that when we interact with shopkeepers, we don't usually think about how far we are expected to be from the counter. Do we need to stand far enough away that we can point to things under the counter? Should we be leaning on the counter? How about our interaction with merchandise? If we're buying fruit should we be able to touch it? There's certainly an unspoken contract of gentleness if we do, so we don't damage the fruit and then reject it. Kat told us about a New York shopkeeper who was horrified when she handled the fruit at the stand.

In passport lines, there is the counter with the passport checker, and then a line painted on the floor some distance away where the next person is expected to stand while waiting.

Where do you stand when in line for an ATM? Certainly far enough away that you can't look over a person's shoulder.

Cliff talked about how when you hail a cab, in the US you generally sit in the back seat, but in Israel it's considered impolite not to sit in the front.

People feel weird about being a chauffeur for their friends. There are different rules about where to sit in a car depending on what social group you are from. Working class will tend to put the men in the front and the women in back. Middle class will tend to put one couple in front and another couple in back. Upper class will have a man driving but seat him beside the woman from the other couple. And I mean, who puts two couples in the same car? Don't we usually take separate cars?

When fannish people hang out with friends, couples will often split up to catch up with the people they haven't spoken to in a while. It may look gender-segregated depending on the arrangement, but that's usually not the intention.

There is now legislation surrounding car seats and seat belts. When I had kids, I had to get used to driving while both of my kids sat in the back seat because of those laws. My personal rule would have been to fill the passenger's seat first and the back seat afterward.

Cliff asked how a self-driving car might affect seating. Initially there might be a need for a driver to be a backup, but eventually one might get to limousine or stagecoach seating style.

Coaches are fun because sometimes the driver of the coach bangs on the ceiling to alert people to what's outside.

What are the differences in social distance in rural versus urban areas?

Do people travel in litters with a footman? What are footmen even for (this was my question)? Kat explained that when you are traveling in a high carriage, someone needs to bring a set of steps so that you can step down out of the carriage in a big dress. A footman can also help with packages.

How close are servants allowed to get? Maybe very close, but then they turn away their faces or avert their eyes to create distance.

We often see "we must share the same air but I'm going to pretend you don't exist."

How do friends walk together? It's probably gendered. Is holding hands okay? What about arm in arm? Hip to hip? Arms around the shoulders?

Worldbuilders should think about what we are trying to convey with the way people physically interact, and what that says about ourselves. A narrator making comparisons can reveal a lot about themselves, and not just the characters.

What is adequate size for personal quarters? A rich person on a cruise ship may be impressed by the "tiny space" they have. Do we expect to have any of our own space? Should we?

Should you sleep sitting up? Standing? Curled up? How many people sleep in a bed? Paul mentioned how at one point the Three Musketeers were all lying in the same bed eating.

How do people in your world put space between genders? Do they?

When land folk go to sea, there's a big change in the use of space. What are the challenges if someone is disguised as another gender? Kat says there wasn't necessarily much communal nudity. Is menstruation an issue? Possibly not, since if you're not eating enough you may not menstruate.

Kat brought up the question of public and private spaces. If you are in a restaurant, are you eavesdropping on the table near you? Is this polite or not? Can you take an empty seat at a table partially occupied by others? The answers to these depend on many factors.

Do you get your own plate of food?

Do you get your own bunk or sleep in shifts?

If your aliens are arboreal, do they get to claim a tree branch as their own?

Cliff told us about World Out of Time, in which a 20th century guy wakes up in a new body in the future. There are no doors, living conditions are hivelike, and there is no privacy. The etiquette is not to look. It turns out that this was a test conducted by the people who awakened him, to see how he would react.

Did Frank Lloyd Wright design without inside doors?

Sometimes we run into stories where social rules are reversed in order to slap certain readers, or titillate readers. We have to keep in mind that the author may be aware of, or may manipulate, reader gaze.

How close can you be to people you are not interacting with? What are the rules of proximity in the subway? New York subway versus Tokyo festival subway?

How do people line up (queue)? There are different styles of waiting in a line depending on where you are. SF, Chicago, Tokyo, Beijing, Bangkok, India... Population and culture and deference rules interact.

How do people deal with others who are obviously homeless? How far do they stay away?

Kat pointed out that rules of standing in line include how much space to leave between yourself and the person ahead of you, how many people can stand at the window at one time. What about cutting or jumping in line? Can you leave the line and return to your same spot?

Cliff pointed out there are a lot of rules about who you are allowed to interact with. Can you ask someone for a cigarette or a light? These rules change over time. How apologetic do you need to be?

Having a dog is considered an icebreaker in social situations. So is pregnancy - people seem to feel it's okay to touch pregnant women when they wouldn't dare touch them if they were not pregnant.

Do less "representative" people have to spend time serving as ambassadors to their group? This is one of the reasons why POC safe spaces are so important. It's also why author/actor guests get green rooms to hide in. Some people feel entitled to enter POC space as a result of dominance and privilege, including touching hair and clothes. No matter who you are, velvet can be construed as an invitation to intrusion, as can flip sequins. What do people in your society construe as nonverbal consent to touch or otherwise invade space?

Children need to be socialized into proxemics rules. How do adults react to violations? How do they instruct?

How do you get someone's attention? Are you allowed to touch? Where?

Women and men in Judaism or Islam have a no-touch practice outside of family. What is verbally appropriate?

Kat said that gem traders have particular expectations of touch. How do you seal a deal with a handshake if you can't touch?

Greetings have all kinds of rules. Do you kiss? Kiss on the cheeks? Do you hug? Do you shake hands? How does a greeting differ when delivered to a stranger, a shopkeeper, a friend? How are the layers of intimacy defined? Do you touch? Maybe your language use changes - how?

Who is allowed to start a conversation?

How are children allowed to get attention? Touching? No touching? Do you poke? Do you clear your throat?

Different kinds of activities, such as dancing, have unique proximity and touch rules as well.

We discussed the "smart dress" project where women went to nightclubs wearing a dress with sensors that could detect where they were being groped. Data are useful to validate subjective experience but should not be necessary as proof.

Thank you to everyone who attended. This was a fascinating discussion.


Alex White and A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy

After I had spoken with Alex White not too long ago about A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (edge, not end!), I was thrilled to have them back on the show to talk about the sequel, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy.

We pick up the story at the point where the Salvagers, as Alex calls their main characters, have gotten a legendary warship and revealed a horrible conspiracy. The Salvagers are now famous... and then they get accused of being crisis actors. Alex pointed out that it wouldn't have been possible to write this kind of plot before the last few years; it's become more plausible now that people are familiar with these exact arguments.

Alex designed a conspiracy cult, and in our conversation they told me they wanted something more toxic-masculine for it, but the universe they've created leans hard into ridding itself of stereotypes, so that wasn't sustainable. Initially, though, the idea for the cultists came from college-age boys from wealthy families, before in the writing process they became representative of everyone.

At this point our heroes are off the grid enough, and rich enough, that they can go after the cult and expose its activities.

Alex described a nationalistic air about the cultists, who are linked with a "money mill" which creates money for the bad guys. The plot of this book therefore revolves around secret infiltration, heists and galas. Yes, the gala includes masks. There's a space station called "Masquerade" where you can maintain anonymity for business dealings, and people there wear masks all the time. There are only five thousand masks - designed to look like animals - and if you want to go there, you are required to have one. In addition to the masks, people wear holographic cloaks and their voices are changed so as to hide any gender. (When I asked, Alex said it was not very much like Canto Bight from Star Wars because it's not a casino.) In the station at Masquerade, everyone's apartment is sovereign territory, so there isn't much violence in public, but there's murder in the apartments. One of the masks has flaming antlers dripping with gold medallions - I loved that description. Alex described it as sumptuously lavish and borderline ridiculous. The point of conspicuous consumption is to lord it over other people.

In A Bad Deal..., the main characters go all over the galaxy, and they get to spend enough time in the places they go for the visits to be more than superficial. There's a lot of exploration of the possibilities of the galaxy. They go to the center of galactic finance, also. In that center, there are IGF accounts, which are bank accounts you can access if you have the password, without need to identify yourself.

Paul asked how Alex avoids the one-biome problem, where main characters must visit so many places that each place tends to be constituted with only a single type of climate. Alex told us they reject that idea completely, and also the recurring pattern where every place only has one type of people. It's too easy to fall into shorthand for describing other races. If there's a large planet, it's assumed to have every biome. If there's a large population, it's assumed to be very diverse. The exceptions are hot worlds and ice worlds.

Alex says, "I know the rules and I break them."

Fast travel in this galaxy is accomplished through the use of jump gates. Incorrectly plotting your course will kill you. Very few civilian ships have a jump drive, because they are so expensive. Alex has invented a fuel used for jump drives called "eidolon crystal," which is made of solid magic. It's "the oil of this universe." It's graded on purity, and you have to use the correct size crystal. Alex based this system on the system used for diamond grading, which they learned about long ago when they received a VHS from Tiffany and Co. about how to know diamonds.

Alex says, "Unlike diamonds, eidolon crystals are actually rare."

Jump gates are controlled by a neutral cartel. The cartel's control of the gates can't be broken because if you try to stop them, they just cut you off from all gates. The cartel gets rich from tolls - and in book 1, paying the tolls was difficult for our heroes, but this time, they are rich and can go where they like. Alex said that they estimate the cost is something like the cost of putting a MAERSK container on a ship. In their view, if you come up with a real world analog, it's more plausible and you don't have to work as hard. (I agree.) Some major industry players have regular accounts with the gate cartel. There are a lot of possible stories about the gate cartel which haven't yet been told.

Paul asked Alex what other things they want to write. Alex said the next couple of books are ready, but they would really like to write about side characters like Checo de Santos, who has the sculptor's mark, a magic power that allows them to pull on their own bones and flesh to change their appearance or that of others. Checo would definitely have a side business in plastic surgery. Because the marks develop very early, around age 2, Checo probably has no memory of what their face is supposed to look like. There is a group called The Fixers, and if you contract with them, they agree to rescue you from whatever heinous circumstances you find yourself in. Checo themselves drifts around without an institution to protect them.

It is not possible to have the same mark as a family member.

We asked Alex about their process for deciding how technology and magic mix. They said they loved JRPGs when they were young, and these games have no difficulty integrating magic and technology. It's part of their fundamental premise that such things would coexist. Alex wanted magic that was scientifically usable. Much like science, people will use it even if they don't fully understand it.

There were a few serious rules, such as Watt's law from electrical engineering, that Alex used.

There is a lot of consistency in the system. Alex says they want the rules to be so clear that readers can guess what will happen on a page just before they write it... but not too early. They say that a good mystery makes you feel like you solved it about 5 pages before you are handed the solution. They hate it, by contrast, when "Merlin-style" magic stuff happens randomly, or when magic is based on the idea that a person might not be trying hard enough yet. Alex doesn't like the idea that there might be limitless ability to convert will into magic power.

Paul asked what works have magic systems that Alex likes. They said role-playing games, because they like systematic magic. They described trying to read Dragonlance as an adult, and finding the turn-based language there overly systematic. Paul described it as "you can see the dice rolls" on the page. Alex called it "the book I needed in middle school."

Alex really likes to explore the practical aspect of magic. They say, for example, that the arsonist's mark is not very useful. You might get stuck in the military, but even there, it's not super-useful to throw fireballs. Magic doesn't get busted out every ten minutes, either. When you're young, you want to magic up the place. But Alex compares it to how adults typically don't climb stairs for no reason.

Some forms of magic are inherently unethical. There's no good way to torture and kill.

Amplification technology can magnify magic power. Suddenly the fireball you can cast becomes huge. They describe the differences between magical marks as creating a caste system. Some marks are worth lots of money. Datamancy, which allows you to instantly correlate and get answers from any database, can get you rich. Even within the group of people who possess the same mark, there is diversity, as in other social groups. There are lots of common, easily recognizable marks. You only get one type of mark, and having no mark (called Arcana dystotia) is vanishingly rare. People are spiritual about their magic, and afraid of losing it.

There is a type of gas that suppresses magic effects. People are scared of getting caught in it and losing their power permanently.

Alex compared magic to a sense of smell. We don't think about smell but we smell things all the time. "Now imagine you use your smell to authorize your bank account." The magic is used as a form of biometric identification, because your mark is as unique as your handwriting, even if you have the same mark as someone else. It literally involves writing. You focus magic in your fingertips and write something. Technically, you could write with your feet, or through a prosthetic. In the future of this universe, machines can also help you cast magic.

Alex says they're working on the end of Book 3 right now. There are some very wacky ramifications of all the magic! It's fun to explore the logical limits of the system. The magic system is fairly mature because they developed it while working on the Gearheart podcast.

Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show! It was a pleasure to hear all your ideas, and we can't wait to hear about your next book.


Monday, December 17, 2018

Awards Eligibility, 2018

It's that time of year where we silence the inner voices that demand modesty and announce to the world what we've done this year that we hope you think was awesome.

I had one novella come out this year, "The Persistence of Blood," which appeared in Clarkesworld in March 2018. You can read it here. Gardner Dozois, in his final Locus review column, called it one of the best stories of the year so far (and made me cry). It's sociological science fiction, and for the curious, it's set in the same world of my forthcoming novel, which will be out from DAW in 2020.

Teaser summary:
After nearly dying in childbirth, Varin noblewoman Lady Selemei refuses to bear any more children. She and her husband attempt to pass legislation which will allow women to "retire from their duties" if their lives have been endangered - but when everything goes wrong, she'll have to fight alone to protect her own life, and those of her daughters.

The other project I've been working on which is awards-eligible is Dive into Worldbuilding, my hangout show, which is eligible for Best Fancast Hugo. I deeply appreciate how many people support the show through weekly attendance at the hangouts, through subscribing to my YouTube channel, and through my Patreon.

Thanks for listening! I'm grateful for your friendship and support. Here's a picture of the cake my son made for me when "The Persistence of Blood" came out:


Sunday, December 2, 2018


This hangout occurred during the week when the Camp Fire was making air quality so bad in the San Francisco Bay Area that many people were wearing N95 masks for their daily routines. At my house, we had started to use the garage as an airlock, going into the garage first and closing the door before opening the door to the outside. It seemed an appropriate time to talk about air.

So as not to start the hangout in an entirely somber way, I started before we went on the air by playing the delightful Sesame Street song, "Air."

If you are worldbuilding, it's a good idea to consider the quality of the air. Obviously, we were thinking about this because of large-scale wildfires, but lots of environments have smoke of various types, or smog. And then of course there's outer space, with all of the complications of exoplanet atmospheres.

Here on Earth, there are websites like that can let you track your air quality anywhere in the United States. I also remember checking air quality when I was a kid in the 70's and we were in Laguna Beach, trying to decide whether to go to Disneyland for the day.

Kat grew up in Los Angeles. She said if you could see downtown, it was a good air quality day. Smog hurts your lungs, and burns, and is an orange-brown color.

What happens if there is a fire in the hall of a spaceship? How do people respond? How much smoke is there, and where does it go?

What if you had air as a part of local cuisine, like wafts of herbal steam, or scents to go with your meal? In our world, we have oxygen bars, though they aren't trending. Vaping and smoking could also count as "air cuisine" in their own ways (dangerous, of course).

Cliff wondered about aspects of air in fantasy worldbuilding. If you went through a portal from sea level to the top of a mountain, would you get the bends?

On Mars on a hot day, you could walk around without a space suit... except that the air pressure is so low you would get bubbles in your blood.

In science fiction, we like to pay attention to atmospheres. Both Star Trek and Babylon 5 (and others) have featured alien characters who needed to bring their own special atmospheres with them inside a special suit.

Cliff noted that the dust storm in The Martian wasn't strictly plausible because it would not have high enough air pressure to do damage.

It's a good idea to consider alien world atmospheric temperature and pressure.

In Mistborn, the volcanic ash in the air was part of the worldbuilding.

Kat mentioned that we should talk about how the environment smells, because smells are often neglected.

Paul encouraged us to ask "how do smells and sounds carry?"

Cliff wanted us to ask, "How do space ships smell?"

The smells of cities are often striking. They can smell of tropical flowers, or rotten mangoes. The smell of wildfires burning in California will be different from the smell of burning in Australia because of the composition of the forests. Sagebrush smells very different from eucalyptus. What is the smell of the campfire like? If it's smoky, what kind of smoke is it? We certainly have the ability to pay attention to special smoke types when we do mesquite barbecue or other cooking.

How damaging is the smoke? After 9/11, the smoke was full of asbestos and noxious chemicals. Paul told us he smelled it, and the scent was "disquieting."

In underground environments, air can also be important. We often see that a breeze is used to indicate the presence of an exit. If your city is underground, as with the City of Ember or with Varin, how are people breathing? How is the city ventilated?

We talked about the Thai soccer team who had been trapped in a cave by a flood. How long can they breathe? This question was extremely important in determining what methods could be used to rescue them.

Oxygen affects fires. In the age of the dinosaurs, there was more oxygen, so it would be far easier to ignite a fire. In the carboniferous era, where our coal deposits come from, there was a high level of oxygen. Fires were very large, and so were bugs.

Cliff noted that giant space bugs come with side effects.

Paul said you need a huge oxygen producer in order to have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, because oxygen reacts so easily with other chemicals.

Morgan remarked that air quality affects communication, because sound waves need air pressure in order to travel and to be detected. Silt in water or particulates in air can reduce visibility. Kat remarked that misty places can have visible air that is still okay for breathing.

We spoke a bit about the caves of Lascaux. Cliff wondered how you would make the paintings without bringing fire into the cave, and what kind of light you might have. I went there summer before last, and highly recommend it. The original caves have been closed since 1963 because of damage. One kind of damage was caused by algae that grew when light was introduced to the caves. That one was easy to fix. The more difficult one was a white film caused by damage from carbon dioxide. The damage was caused by all the millions of people who wanted to see the paintings, and ended up exhaling in their presence. Now they have a full-sized replica of the caves that you can visit, and they also have a workshop where the various sections of the caves are exploded outward and you can watch visual projections on them to see in what order the drawings were made. It's fascinating.

Star Trek had an episode where the air in a cave made humans become angry.

The Oracle at Delphi breathed venting gases which caused her to have visions. Natural gases can alter behavior. Many volcanic vents have been seen as gates to Hell.

In the War of the Worlds, black dust was used as a weapon.

If you use any kind of combustion indoors, it's important not to have bad ventilation because the products of that combustion can kill you. Kat mentioned that people have been killed by using combustible heat in a boat and tightening the hatches.

There is a Korean myth that if you sleep with an electric fan blowing across you, you will die. In Europe, people believed that disease was caused by miasmas of bad air.

Lake Nyos in Cameroon has carbon dioxide eruptions. Carbon dioxide is heavy and will flow along the ground, so when it erupts, it causes death in the entire surrounding area. Not even the flies are alive to live in the dead bodies.

How much air movement are you accustomed to? Is wind vital for your continued existence? What are you okay with having in the air? Is incense important in your culture?

Air can also be a terroir for yeast and bacteria, as we spoke of in our hangout about what kinds of foods you would be willing to eat. The Bay Area supports a form of yeast that develops a great sourdough taste. This can conflict with other things like natto bacillus.

Brewers are very careful about the air in their breweries.

I wondered how space suits would affect what might grow on your skin. You wouldn't want to share space suits with another person.

Cliff mentioned how in Babylon 5 there were carrion eaters who smelled bad. Apparently even in our world, you smell like what you eat.

Some smells are considered neutral and some are not. Racism plays into this. Some people try not to have their homes smell of curry, or of grilling fish. Some smells are on the edge of not being okay, like vinegar.

Onion air makes you cry. It might help if your knives are sharp, or if the onions are cold, or if you use a special slicing technique.

Cliff said one of our friend Mary Anne's recipes had a step that said, "stir until you start coughing, then do the next step."

Dry versus humid air can have quite a number of effects on your body. When it's dry and 117 degrees Fahrenheit, it stings your eyes and you squint as you go out. When it's below freezing, the air is also extremely dry.

Damp cold feels colder than dry cold. Ash and smoke can make the air colder.

When humidity is high, you can feel the air. It can feel soft, or like a smothering blanket.

Thank you to everyone who joined me for this discussion. It was very interesting - and fortunately, we have since had some rain, so the terrible air conditions have eased up. I hope to see you all soon at another hangout!


Travel and Time

What is the relation between travel and time? We wanted to talk about the passage of time, our sense of it, and how travel affects it. When you travel a long distance, it can affect how you perceive time or where you are on the globe. If you travel very quickly, it can distort your sense of time.

And it's always a good idea to draw attention to the question of long fantasy voyages on horseback, which often treat horses as perpetual motion machines (they are not). There are a great many resources available for how to treat horses well in fiction, including Judith Tarr's work. Laura Anne Gilman's Devil's West books have wonderfully realistic portrayals of horseback travel also.

Very few of us have a concept of what it means to have no roads. Travel takes an extremely long time. Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman involves a trip during the ice age, and it's dangerous and slow. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness also features a realistically portrayed voyage across ice fields.

Kat mentioned the "flatlander car culture" problem. If you live on the flats, travel is far more predictable in timing than if you live in a hilly area. In those areas, you need to think more about barriers. When there's a stop sign right at the crest of the hill and you are driving a manual-transmission car, you might wish you were an octopus! Different people might plan where to put their vehicle differently depending on whether they want to haul up or down the slope with a large purchase. Road traffic conditions vary widely, as do weather conditions. Minnesota has terrible icy snow in winter, and lots of construction when it's not winter. Californians tend to get in lots of road accidents during the first hard rain of the rainy season, because of oils getting lifted off the roads.

Even "no roads" doesn't always mean the same thing. No road across the tundra is quite different from thickets, forest, or jungle. If you follow animal paths, that might be easier, but it might also lead you to a mountain lion.

Cliff mentioned how in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, they had to travel on foot along highways for hundreds of miles. Cormac McCarthy's The Road involves cannibals that live on the road. The hobbits in The Lord of the Rings have to get off the road to avoid attracting Nazgul.

When there is a convention in the suburbs, there are often a lot of barriers to pedestrians. Fences and walls can cause problems. There can be a shortage of pedestrian crossings, or just tons of tons of cars. Sometimes, as in the Briar Rose tale, you can see your destination but you can't reach it.

We often speak in writing about the "Show, Don't Tell" rule, but it's tricky when there's not a lot to show. What do you do when you are stuck in the doldrums, or the road goes straight for eight hours?

Paul spoke of isochrone maps, which use color coding to show how far it takes to travel a particular distance. Changes in technology have led to compression of these maps, as the time required to travel the same distance has shrunk.

Cliff mentioned how space travel is influenced by our history of tales about the Age of Sail. For some reason, the time it takes to get from planet to planet is awfully similar to the length of time it would take to get from port to port. In real space travel, it takes three days to get to the moon. New Horizons probe took years to get to Pluto.

In action films, travel time has shrunk. In the original Star Wars film, the people on the Millennium Falcon played chess because they had to pass the time while they traveled. By contrast, in The Force Awakens, they seem to be zipping about in minutes.

In Star Trek the original series, sometimes they would be months' travel away from home. Although their ability to travel quickly went up in The Next Generation, Star Trek Voyager played with exactly the question of how long it would take to travel back if there were some mishap.

Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, he used a concept of Zones of Thought. Depending on where you were located physically in the galaxy, your ability to travel and your ability to think and innovate would change. Most people live in the Slow Zone, but there is also a zone called the Unthinking Depths, and another zone of maximum speed and complexity. It was a metaphorically very cool idea.

Kat mentioned that traveling physically might make you feel like you had traveled to a different time period because the rate of societal change in different areas varies widely. On the coast of the United States, a thing might be considered normal, but in another region that same thing might be considered futuristic. I have heard many people say they feel like going to Australia feels like traveling backward in time because of subtle differences in the way society works there.

There was a time when, if you traveled across the ocean, you weren't going to be able to be in touch with your loved ones except by letter. Communication distances have really changed as we went from telegraph to pay phone to easy long-distance to global phones in your pocket.

Stephen Baxter wrote a story where Earth developed fractured time zones. At altitude, time moved faster, while at sea level, it moved much more slowly.

The slow boat to China is gone. A voyage to Europe no longer takes weeks; it takes hours.

Phone calls are cheaper, but some people still cut off conversations. People adapt more slowly and lag behind technological change. Binge watching of shows has become possible only quite recently, but it is already starting changes in the way we tell our stories in visual media.

The time delay required for the sending of messages can play an important role in your plot. Ann Leckie presented situations in which people would receive messages about what was happening at a distance, knowing that whatever had happened was totally impossible to change because the message had taken hours to arrive.

Kat added that people watching things they can't affect is something that has happened many times in history. In the Napoleonic wars, there was no way to communicate across the field of battle. The existence of spyglasses meant you could see what was happening, but couldn't necessarily do anything to fix it.

Cliff mentioned that the plot of The Martian was based on travel times. The novel illustrated the concept of orbital launch windows, etc. and helped to drive the plot.

Time zones, as in the ones across the United States, have not always existed. We created the construct of "___ o'clock." We've developed a global culture of dividing time into certain units. This uniformity is not the same for distance. There are different ways of measuring time in different religions. Lots of religious holidays rely on lunar calendars.

Our time concepts are based on our planet and our sun. In space, though, those limits don't hold. If you are working on Mars rovers, you work in sols, or martian days. There's also a delay between a command being generated on Earth, and the Mars rover's response.

We often assume that travel will be smooth, but lots of accidents can happen. Flat tires, accidents, plane crashes, etc. etc.

In the book Hyperion by Dan Simmons, there was an instant-portal system of transport so successful that you could build a home that had different rooms on different planets. If that system shut down, then your family in the next room could suddenly be separated from you by light years.

Morgan noted that people aren't always anticipating the worst. If you drive a car, you are aware that you could run out of gas, but it's not always top of mind.

Kate said if she could do instantaneous travel, she would. Kat said if she could open a door and hvae fresh Meyer lemons, she'd be interested! Howl's Moving Castle also had a door that opened into different locations. Teleportation has been used in a lot of stories, both science fiction and fantasy.

Mohenjo Daro had no transit space, so all buildings were smack up against each other with roof hatches.

Kat mentioned a floating sampan culture where you would have to step on someone else's space to get from one place to the other.

In American Sign Language culture it's more rude to stop and wait for a pause in conversation before walking through the conversation space. Instead, people just say "excuse me" and walk through so they won't have to stand eavesdropping.

If you live in a habitrail culture you learn what not to look at, what to ignore and what to pay attention to.

Jet lag is a function of travel speed. If you travel slowly, your body simply adjusts as you go.

Kat talked about the age of caravans, and that during this age cultures changed slowly. There were intermingled spaces between culture, and no hard lines. The southern border of the United states is permeable. Carved dead spaces are not normal. She suggested the Age of Sail may have led to an increase in racism because you could travel a far distance without experiencing the gradual cultural change.

Kat said she'd like to see a near light-speed travel story mashed up with a fairyland Rip Van Winkle tale.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, December 4th at 4pm Pacific to discuss Personal Space and How to Be Polite with your Body. I hope you can join us!


Thursday, November 8, 2018

What You Would Be Willing to Eat

There was some question at the start of this discussion of why we decided to call it "What you would be willing to eat." Essentially, the focus of this discussion was not food in general, but what things we consider edible vs. not edible, appetizing vs. not appetizing, and why. Kat immediately pointed out the "cute taboo," which says that we don't feel like eating animals we consider to be cute, like dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. There is also the sentience taboo - don't eat things that are sentient. This depends, of course, on how one defines sentience (which would be another whole discussion).

Apparently you taste like what you eat, and this means that carnivores taste bad. Perhaps piscivores are ok.

Then we launched in to talking about unusual things we had eaten, and what that was like. I had crocodile chili, and found it almost fishlike in texture. Apparently domestically raised crocodiles eat a lot of chicken. There are some specially formulated foods intended for atypical pets like "crocodile chow" "monkey chow" and "ferret chow."

Kat told us she's trying not to eat octopus because of the sentience question.

I talked about the most morally repugnant thing I have ever eaten, which was a spread made from the sake-marinated cartilage of a whale's nose. I ate it in a circumstance where I was the guest of a professor in Japan and didn't feel I had the option to refuse. (It was awful.)

Kat said she had a bout of psychosomatic nausea once when, 24 hours after eating it, she learned she had eaten dog.

Kangaroo is more commonly eaten than we might imagine, because it is a cull animal. This is the result of colonialism, which pushed the dingo predators back into the deserts, and provided kangaroos with large amounts of cultivated wheat and other grains for food. You can't domesticate kangaroos because they are "basically, boxing deer." Australia sometimes says it's the only country that eats its coat of arms, because they eat both kangaroo and emu.

Kat mentioned that her comfort food is often viewed with suspicion. Nattoo, fermented soy beans, gets flak here and also in some regions of Japan. However, it's not that terribly different from stinky ammoniac cheese. It's very easy to make cheese sound disgusting.

It's worth thinking about the ways in which we talk about foods, and what we do (consciously or unconsciously) to make those food choices seem "other" or somehow unappetizing.

How can people refuse food and enforce their boundaries without being rude? That differs from culture to culture and might be somehow special in your fiction.

We talked about the Wendig sandwich, which involves mayonnaise, peanut butter, and pickle with the possibility of onion, bacon, and cheese. People often react to this description with disgust, but it's not that far off the Thai dish satay with peanut sauce and pickled cucumbers. It's all in how you think about it.

Kate noted that if you are not in Earth's atmosphere, it changes your taste buds. You also get a stuffy nose because with no gravity, nothing can drain. The result is that astronauts like spicy food because they can enjoy the flavor. Many astronauts request foods based on their country of origin.

In science fiction, people seem enamored with the idea of food pellets or generic all-nutrient sludge. This appears to come from exploring the idea of food as fuel as opposed to food as a social and multisensory experience.

Paul said he wouldn't go for the pellets because it would be too boring, and he likes eating.
Che said she'd like to photosynthesize. Kate hypothesized that you might end up overfed in the tropics, especially if you were accustomed to 9 months of darkness in the north.

Some families have a set of six meals they eat constantly, in order. Some people eat more seasonally. What that means depends on where you live.

It's important to draw distinctions between indigenous foodways, immigrant foodways, and colonizer foodways. The colonizer approach is to take land and force it to grow food that originated 100+ miles away.

We don't really know all the nutrients that go into our food, which makes a challenge for realistic hydroponic growing.

Kate asked, "Whose food gets sent to space?" Kat asked, "what level of stinkiness is acceptable in an enclosed space?" How do we balance practical technology and cultural priorities?

Kat pointed out that in the Meiji era, the Japanese thought butter smelled bad.

Everyone assumes their own diet is neutral.

Paul said that it helps you to keep an open mind if you are born and raised in an area where lots of different foods are available.

People decide whether foods are appetizing based on flavor, but also based on texture. Kat pointed out that if a vegetable food is slippery, that means it has a high protein content. She also said that the bacillus in nattoo is different from that of sourdough yeast, and it makes it hard for her to do sourdough in her kitchen.

Che talked about a story, Silver Spoon, in which a kid goes to an agricultural high school, and there was a rule that if you had had nattoo in the last week, you couldn't make cheese.

If you are a sourdough baker, the air in your kitchen will be imbued with sourdough yeast. If you move, it will be overpowered by the local yeasts of the area you  move to, which causes the sourness of the bread to change. The yeast combinations in San Francisco and Finland make great sourdough, but this is why you can't take them somewhere else and expect the same flavor!

We talked about salmiaki, a sour salt-flavored licorice from Finland. We also discussed Vegemite (yeast spread) and umeboshi (salt-pickled plums), all of which are "difficult" foods. In Japan, umeboshi is considered a universal cure-all, usable on wounds etc. Li hing mui is popcorn with an umeboshi/licorice flavor.

I told everyone about when we encountered the liqueur called "genepi" in the French Alps. It's an infusion of artemisia, which is a plant in the same family as absinthe, but it tastes herbal, more like basil or rosemary than licorice. It's also very powerful.

Root beer is another very complex and distinctive flavor that not everyone enjoys, and it comes in a great variety of recipes. So is alcoholic beer, which would require a whole hour of discussion in and of itself.

Sometimes people have trouble with the idea of green drinks, but there are a great many of them. Mattcha tea is one. Kale or wheat grass drinks are another type of green drink, and so are mint drinks.

Kat mentioned that she makes maple bacon marshmallows, and Paul immediately volunteered to have some.

Some kinds of medicine have very distinct flavors, like cough drops or Robitussin.

Jägermeister is a flavor unlike any other.

All of these taste traditions and judgments are based in our world cultures. We gain associations with flavor based on our own experience. Some cultures use rose flavor in their food, and in fact, before the advent of vanilla, it was also very commonly used in the US.

I mentioned a violet-flavored tea I had tried, which tasted like soap when I tried it without milk, but with milk tasted like the candies called "violet pastilles." Kat said she likes black tea with rosebuds.

This was a really fun discussion, and I think it made everyone hungry! Thanks to everyone who participated.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sean Grigsby and Smoke Eaters

It was a real pleasure to have Sean Grigsby on the show! He's the author of Smoke Eaters, one of the most high-concept novel ideas I've encountered. It's basically "firefighters versus dragons." I was eager to hear how, as a firefighter himself, he'd approached depicting the firefighting realistically and not just on the basis of speculation. Sean told us he was surprised how many internet references to firefighters are actually romance- or erotic-leaning, and assured everyone listening that that's not what Smoke Eaters is all about. He also remarked that there are an astonishing number of stories involving firefighters who turn into dragons. The whole shirtless thing doesn't make a lot of sense when you're trying to protect yourself from fire.

Sean told us he's been a professional firefighter for eight years. He didn't get into it via volunteer fighting, but was fortunate enough to be paid right away. He started out working in a small town in Arkansas, and then from there moved to a department in Little Rock.

The Smoke Eaters of the title are people who have the ability to breathe smoke, even dragon smoke, like air. They have high heat resistance, though they can still catch on fire if the fire touches them.

Sean told us he came up with the idea while going through Fire Academy for the second time when he moved departments to the big city. He says, "My writer mind is always working." The instructor at the Fire Academy referred to firefighters as "modern-day knights," which put him on to the idea.

In the book, Sean asks, what would it be like for someone at the end of his career to have to give up retirement because of dragons? The main character in the book, Cole Brannigan, is on his very last fire call, and all is going smoothly until a dragon shows up in the basement of the building.

Sean chose the name Cole because it sounds like "coal," and the name Brannigan because Francis Brannigan wrote the book on fire and architecture. Most deaths in fires are caused by building collapse. They say you are supposed to know your enemy, but when you are fighting fire, your enemy is at least as much the building as it is the fire itself. After Smoke Eaters came out, Sean was contacted by the family of Francis Brannigan, asking whether the main character had been named after their relative. Sean's first reaction was "don't sue me!" but in fact they were thrilled to see Brannigan referenced.

Firefighters often refer to each other as "The Brotherhood." This group does include women firefighters. It's a family, says Sean. Many don't get along, but it's a culture these people have shared since Revolutionary days in the United States.

Smoke Eaters is set in Ohio because the first fire department was in Ohio, and Sean's agent was looking for a book set in Ohio. Part of the process of finishing the book involved toning down the swear words! However, swearing is a big part of firefighter culture. Sean had to find a balance between keeping it real and not kicking people out of the story with too much swearing.

This book is a cross between the real world and fantasy on several parameters. Sean told us that some people have described it as Urban Fantasy, even though he never had any intention of writing to that genre. He leans toward science fiction, but not hard science fiction. "I really wanted to mix things up," he said. He set it in the future because he wanted the characters to have an easier time fighting the dragons by using things like lasers and laser swords and foam.

Perhaps this is the inception of the #Foampunk genre...

The book deals with questions of PTSD and other health issues faced by firefighters. Firefighters have a high rate of cancer because of exposure to toxins in smoke. There is a lot of interesting realism built in.

I asked Sean about the wraiths that appear in the story, and when he had the idea for them. He said he saw them in his head before he started writing the book: an ashen landscape with a terrifying ghost floating across the wastes. He decided they drew dragons to certain areas. When a dragon kills someone, it creates a wraith, which attracts more dragons to the area so they can mate. In the book, there are wraith-trapping guns invented by Canada.

Sean gave us a few hints about Book 2, telling us it includes a phoenix as well as wraiths and dragons. He told us Skyrim was a big influence on him, particularly the dovahkiin who have the soul of dragons. This is part of the inspiration of the Smoke Eaters. He wants to explore the history of the Smoke Eaters' DNA.

In Smoke Eaters, Cole realizes he's a Smoke Eater when his team is killed and he loses his air mask. That's when he breathes in the smoke and doesn't die. The Smoke Eaters find him, identify his power and take him against his will because there just aren't enough Smoke Eaters for them to be allowed to opt out.

Sean calls this book "not totally post-apocalyptic but close." I think readers will likely feel like it's thoroughly post-apocalyptic.

In the end, Cole does feel an inner calling to the job he's been forcibly recruited to.

Sean says he likes putting mystery aspects in all of his books. In Smoke Eaters, it's the question of why dragons are appearing more and more often.

I asked Sean to give us more detail on the specific experiences he'd had that he incorporated into the book. He said that he really brought in the camaraderie, and sometimes brought in specific things he's heard people say, like "That's not worth two dead flies." He wrote in a scenario in which a woman overreacted to a turtle in a bathroom to reflect weird non-emergency 9-1-1 calls. He says firefighters who have read the book have given him their vote of confidence.

In the technical areas, the book is quite precise. Sean considers the book science fiction, and brought in a lot of fire science. He checked his sources. He told us about The Art of Reading Smoke by David Dodson. You can learn a lot about what a fire will do by looking at the volume, velocity, density, and color of smoke. The eye is drawn to flame, but especially in a structure fire, smoke is more informative. It tells you what the fire is doing, and what it's about to do. If you get thick black smoke, it might mean you're about to get flashover, which means that everything in the space will reach ignition at the same moment... including you, if you are in the room.

Sean says he gets swamped with fire questions. He does like feeling useful to his author community. He also made a connection with Scott Lynch, who was a volunteer firefighter. When Scott followed Sean back on Twitter he thought, "this is the greatest day of my life." Sean admits, "I snoop on Twitter." He likes to see what people are saying about his book. He likes when people say it's like a better Reign of Fire, because he loved Reign of Fire and had the video game.

On June 4th next year, the sequel Ash Kickers will come out. He was worried about missing his deadline, but he turned the manuscript in before Worldcon. He says the ending of the book is divisive.

Sean also has another book out, Daughters of Forgotten Light. (There is no "the" in the title.) The idea for that book popped into his head when he was out running. In the far future, Earth has brought on a new ice age, and enviroshields have been put up to keep the cold at bay. The United Continent of North America has technology that others want. The government decides to allow people to sell their children either to the military or to a prison planet called Oubliette. This was a name he picked up from the movie Labyrinth.

On this prison planet, there are three motorcycle gangs: the Daughters of Forgotten Light, the Ons coalition, and the Amazons (who are cannibals). People who live there are generally called Dwellers. There is a fragile truce between the gang when a new shipment of supplies arrives which includes a baby. Who gets the baby? Sean says it's very grindhouse with a late 70's-early 80's Escape from New York vibe.

Sean says he was trying to get away from the soft-core porn aspect of many women in prison films. He wanted real people with bigger concerns.

In all of his books, Sean portrays as much diversity as possible. He doesn't treat it like window dressing because he says "this is reality." Sean said his mom told him, "All the characters are women? I don't think it's going to get published." We're glad she was wrong. Sean says there are plenty of books where the characters are 99% men, so "why can't I do that with women?" He says there is a lot of his own personality in Lena. Our discussant Paul agreed that she is "deeply described." He compared the book to the movie Doomsday.

The major motivator for people in this book is hunger, since they have no way to get regular food. They receive shipments of a nourishing mono-food called "mana" that tastes terrible. Some of Sisters is very gruesome. "I get visceral on some things," Sean says, but he could not show violence against children.

I asked Sean if there was a climate on Oubliette. The prison colony has a fabricated atmosphere contained by a force called "The Veil." There is a hyperdrive gate where all shipments come in. He thinks of it like a snow globe, or like a plate with a dish cover. It's invisible until a shipment arrives. The colony also has a core which maintains their air and processes waste, etc. It has an interesting origin - this was a city in space that the rich had built for themselves. It was meant to be a refuge for them and keep people out, but instead it was seized by the government and used to keep people in.

They use "Sheila" as a term of endearment. Sean explained that he lived in Australia for six months.

A lot of his villains are politicians. The mayor of Parthenon City in Smoke Eaters wants to replace people like police and firefighters with robots.

Sean is also writing a new book called Robots Don't cry, a 1940's style crime noir with a city divided into the robot side and the human side. The plot begins when a human is found dead in the robot half of the city of Vomisa (Asimov backwards!). He's currently in edits with this book and has yet to send it to his agent.

Many thanks to Sean for coming on the show! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, October 31 to talk about Travel and Time. I hope you can join us!



Friday, October 19, 2018

Time Travel

This discussion was unlike any previous discussion of time travel I've ever had, in a very good way. We've seen a lot of stories that involve people who say "I've come from the future" etc. But what is time travel really about? What can we do to make it more interesting?

Morgan said that "time travel is essentially about do-overs." This isn't the only thing it's about, but it's certainly a major driver of a lot of time travel stories. It seems that no one can resist meddling, trying to fix things so they are the way you think they should be. A lot of these tales are cautionary, however, and discourage meddling in the end. Morgan asked, "Why do we do that instead of fixing things going forward?"

Cliff mentioned that going forward had been the topic of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and that in fact the way it involved a trip into the super-far future had distinguished it from every other time travel story he'd read.

Kat noted that in time travel stories, we don't tend to send characters from the present into the future, but instead we write science fiction, which sends the reader into the future. She mentioned Urashima Taro and Rip Van Winkle as examples of time travel narrative. Urashima Taro leaves home and when he returns, everyone he knows is dead. Rip Van Winkle sleeps and an enormous amount of time passes. She sees the message of this as "once you leave, you can't go back."

Different cultures have different concepts of time. This would suggest that there should be different ways to approach time travel. Sleeping is certainly not the same as vehicular time travel!

In Erik Flint's 1632 project, an entire village time travels back to the end of the Hundred Years War.

Kat talked about the show Timeless. She says that from the perspective of a person of color, there is a huge problem in that gigantic things are missed. She feels a deep hunger for redress, but stories of redress for past racist atrocities aren't told. She mentioned that black male friends of hers have said "I'm not going back to 1950." Any story that takes you back to the "Age of Exploration" is taking you back to the "Age of European Invasion" from a different point of view, but the viewpoints we see tend to be very white and Western.

Octavia Butler's Kindred takes a very different approach, Cliff noted. In this story, a black woman is subject to involuntary time travel, and whenever she goes back in time, she must rescue a white slave owner who was one of her own ancestors and without whom she would not exist.

Another problem that Kat pointed out is how Americans find it easy to believe that Blackness is fungible, i.e. that any person of dark skin color could easily step into any context in which other people also have dark skin color. There is a tendency to lump together all dark-skinned peoples as black even though some are Southeast Asian, or Australian Aboriginal, etc. etc. A 20th century black man would be an outsider to a tight-knit family-based community culture in sub-Saharan Africa.

What would happen if you dropped a Quechua among the Athabaskans? How would you write it? Would it work?

Are we unthinkingly assuming that being white makes a person somehow acceptable to another culture they might be dropped into by time travel? The perception of whiteness as somehow a cultural default contributes to this assumption, but likely also causes us to fail to identify critical conflicts that might arise.

How would time travel work if the protagonist was a devout member of an Orthodox religious group? Would that create more continuity or acceptability?

If we had a helical concept of time, that might make time travel more plausible, because you could travel to a time period that bore deep resemblance to our own. The idea of linear progress permeates a lot of time travel stories, but is very limiting.

Having a climate with four seasons influences our sense of time, but might also influence time travel.

Even a multiverse, which introduces complexity, maintains the underlying concept of "time lines."

Would people who time travel explain they were time travelers? How plausible is that? Would they be seen as witches? Or as travelers?

Cliff mentioned Leo Frankowski wrote about a character named Conrad Stargard who was a Polish hardware engineer and traveled through time to help Poland win a war they had lost.

Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a classic example of a time travel story.

Cliff also mentioned that in the Talmud there's a story about Honi the Circle Maker who encounters someone on the road planting a carob tree for his grandchildren, and then Honi falls asleep like Rip Van Winkle and encounters people when the carob tree has grown. There is an interesting sense in this story that society has not changed after 70 years, but that there are always cycles of grandfathers planting trees for their grandchildren.

A couple of examples of modern, intricately plotted time travel stories are The Time Traveler's Wife and The Anubis Gates. These appear to have been plotted in advance, and in their visions, the flow of time is fixed.

Time travel stories often ask the question of predestiny. Can we change fate?

Kat thought it might be interesting if we told a story about how people tried to inhabit time differently by cloning themselves. She argues that Western stories lack context. What does it mean to not know a culture? Our times are also unmoored from the time periods around ours. What we perceive as the current time era varies depending on people's access to technology, for example.

Stories about the past are a little bit like time travel. It would be hard for modern people to function in an era with coin-operated telephones. These days many people don't understand why the "hang loose" hand gesture symbolizes a telephone.

One aspect of time travel that is not often dealt with in depth is language change.

If you rewatch Star Trek IV, you discover that it's aimed at people who live in a very specific time period. These days we *can* talk to a computer, so the effect of Scotty doing it is very different.

We talked briefly about Outlander, in which a person from the World War II era goes further into the past. It was interesting to note that the technology difference between Claire and Jamie is smaller than between us and Claire.

Once your technology relies on principles that we can't sense (like invisible radiation), is it harder to go back to less sophisticated methods?

Kat remarks that we've forgotten how previous generations lived. Recreating that involves a daunting amount of research.

I remarked that immigrants and expatriates carry with them the culture of their homes as those homes were when they left. If you depart, and you don't have great communication with your home afterward, how can you stay connected to the flow of culture and language?

Kat told us that the Japanese language she learned as a child, she learned from her mother who had left Japan in the 1950's. So to many people it would taste old-fashioned. Kat knows songs from her mother's grandmother.

I would be interested to see a story in which someone goes back in time, but can't return to exactly the same moment they left from and becomes disoriented.

Kat described how she lived in Australia for a year, and at the end of it she wanted to return to her previous neighborhood near Lake Merritt, but there had been a gentrification explosion and suddenly she could not afford it.

Remember that at any given time, attitudes in different areas of a country aren't uniform. A person in one place may have a sense of self or general attitude that a person in another place held 30 years ago.

People who move a lot may have a chopped-up sense of time. There are also people who are disconnected from the news during key events (like 9/11) and those people can feel like they need to catch up because they've become dissociated from the general flow of their cultural history.

I mentioned that there are at least a couple of cases of people who age backwards. Benjamin Button ages backwards but travels through time in the usual manner. The wizard Merlin is described as living his life backwards through time, so he knows the future.

Cliff talked about the book Cryptozoic by Brian Aldiss, in which travel to the distant past was easier than travel to the more recent past. There's no need to assume that travel to any point in history would be equally difficult.

Aging was one of the issues that got discussed during this topic, because of the way travel through time might cause you to encounter people you knew at different ages. We remarked that aging works differently for people of different phenotypes and racializations. Sometimes this leads to an assumption of extended innocence, and sometimes to an assumption of early maturation which can put people in danger. Lifespan also differs depending on our wealth and access to health care. Our concept of how old a character looks can change over time. You will have a different view on life if you think you'll die at 35 vs. if you think you will die at 90.

Because of the recent advent of the new Doctor on Doctor Who, we carefully avoided talking about the show for most of the hangout! We didn't want to give spoilers. The show is very interesting, though, in the way it deals with the futility of empire, from the perspective of a someone who watches civilizations rise and fall.

Some more time travel stories: The Cartography of Sudden Death by Charlie Jane Anders, Six Months, Three Days, also by Charlie Jane Anders, and Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this hangout! I was really glad that we were able to talk about a familiar topic in some new and interesting ways.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Continuity and Consistency

This was an interesting topic. Although our first thought was that continuity and consistency would naturally apply to gigantic worlds with lots of works in them, it can also be applied on a much smaller scale.

What do we mean by continuity and consistency? It means that an author keeps track of the details of their world, everything from underlying principles to tiny details, and doesn't change them for no reason in the middle of a story, or in the middle of a series. Kat brought up an interesting question, however: what if you have been writing in a world and you discover that you have done something problematic, such as being unintentionally racist or sexist? How much value should you place on consistency versus the desire to change the world so it is no longer problematic?

In fact, there was a lot more to the question of consistency than I expected going in!

Background research is often a factor in consistency. If you are referencing aspects of the real world, or using principles of the real world, sticking with those is generally valuable. Remember, though, not to get too bogged down in research (research can be a black hole).

Morgan mentioned the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which makes some good points about doing pastoral fantasy well, such as "don't write horses as if they were cars."

When you look at the work of Tolkien, it's not entirely consistent in every aspect, but the languages are very consistent, because as a linguist he cared deeply about having them work.

Star Trek has been going on so long that staying consistent is difficult.

Our discussants felt very strongly that they wanted to see honesty from creators about whether there is continuity in a universe's timeline. If you have had to change it, talk about how you had to change it. If you haven't changed it, talk about why. Just don't change it and then claim it was always this way.

Kate told us about an experience when she wanted to write a story set somewhere in a larger world, but in order to write it properly she had to toss out continuity with a previous piece she had written.

It's important to remember that writers often write what I call "exploratory drafts." These are story drafts where you write along and learn more and more about the world as you go. What this will mean is that the way you portray the world by the end of the draft will be different from the way you portrayed it when you first started the draft. Yes, you will have to go back and rewrite the beginning so that the world works the same way at the start as it does at the end. We all commiserated on how often we had to rewrite opening chapters. Sometimes you will write six different stories, and then realize it would work well if they were all in the same world, and have to revise them so they are consistent with each other.

Keep in mind that it's not a problem if you are writing an exploratory draft! Most of us become better writers as we go.

Kate talked about how difficult it must be for showrunners to keep consistency across the episodes of the shows they create.

Kat pointed out that one solution to discontinuities and inconsistencies is to say that you had an unreliable narrator. Confining the viewpoints that you use is a good tool to keep you from being overwhelmed by a very large world. However, it's easy to fall into clichéd patterns of which point of view to care about. Kat said she wanted to see Pratchett done from the point of view of someone minor like Dibbler's first client of the day.

We digressed a bit into the issue of point of view. The question of whose story to tell and how to tell it, and why, is very important. The right viewpoint can make the difference between a story working and not working. There can be various different ways to zero in on the right viewpoint character - goals, the results at the end of the story, whose arc organizes the timeline better, etc.

Kat mentioned reading a story called Tung Tung Summer, told from the viewpoint of a little girl. The viewpoint constrains everything so much, she said, that the tech does not have to be described in detail. The little girl misses adult complexities as well, which leaves them for readers to infer.

The critical link between point of view and consistency is that individual people's points of view make a really good tool for limiting the need for consistency.

[at this point in the hangout, I lost continuity due to a drop of my internet service! Ordinarily I wouldn't mention it, but it seemed relevant here.]

Our desire to see continuity and consistency in our stories has increased. One societal factor in that increase, Kat explained, was the difference between episodic media watching and binge watching. We are now able to watch entire sequences of thirteen or more episodes in a few sittings, which makes it much easier for viewers to detect problems.

Kat noted that comic book readers are very forgiving of inconsistency so long as you make the context of the inconsistency clear - such as "this is an alternate universe" or "this is a reboot," etc. There are multiple Spider-mans. Star Wars has also morphed, she says, but we're not wanting to admit it.

Kat mentioned a detail from fanfic history, called being "Jossed." It was when you had written a continuation of a timeline in a media property, but then the creator of that property took the storyline in a drastically different direction, leaving your fanfic as a discontinuous stub.

You could think of various versions of the Gospel as fanfic.

What do you do when you run into a disparity? You can do a reboot, conceivably. However, once the story is out in the public eye, it's never a good idea to deny that the error exists.

I mentioned how our discussion with Maya Bohnhoff was relevant to this topic, as she spoke to us about writing in shared worlds using world bibles and other people as resources to maintain consistency.

One way to keep track of your world is with a world bible, or a single place where you keep all key continuity information. You can take notes on a character's eye color, or the most popular food in that town, etc. etc. It is a good idea to note how exactly to spell unusual names or made-up words.

You can use a glossary in your book. Kate pointed out that it's a good idea to indicate somehow that the glossary is there, so people don't struggle through and then realize the glossary is there afterward.

Kate also described being disillusioned for years with Frank Herbert for using French and calling it something else. The books of Thomas Covenant also stole from another language.

Please, get a sensitivity reader for any real-world language material!

If you can, keep spelling things the same way between your different editions.

On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that things are messier in real life. People do change names, or change the spelling of their names. They can have their names re-spelled or changed by other people such as immigration officials or teachers. Town names can change over time, too.

Keep in mind that East Asian countries have different naming schemas for family names, individual names, etc. Kat told us that she named her son after someone who had five different names over the course of his lifetime. Especially among indigenous and colonized people, who gets what name is really important.

Language and culture are inextricably linked, a fact that Morgan emphasized. Research both when you are making decisions about your world.

Kat pointed out that Tolkien made some hard choices early in his process, and was mostly consistent with how the languages worked. When we draw on Myth, though, different regions will often spell the same name differently.

I then turned the discussion in a different direction by talking about overzealous concepts of consistency. How strict are the rules of your world? If they are too strict, you can have a different sort of problem. Culture is not a monolith. People are not necessarily honest about their motivations, culturally. Culture is full of subcultures, and sub-subcultures.

Kate noted that people in a story don't necessarily know what the rules are. She recommended the book the Golden Key by Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliott, and Melanie Rawn.

A great point that came from Kat is that we can't underestimate the power of hypocrisy, incongruity, and discontinuity. What people say is going on isn't always what is actually going on. If you have too much consistency, you end up with Camazotz, or at very least an uncanny feeling. Hypocrisy exists on both the individual level and the societal level.

It's always important to ask where you are writing the story from socially. Ask if your character is meeting the right kind of strife. Sometimes people are portrayed with a form of privilege that doesn't match the structure of the world. Privilege, and the lack of it, are very complex, and often oversimplified in fiction.

Can you write a world where problematic stuff like bias is handwaved out? It has been done, but drastically narrows the story frame.

Who you choose to portray is very important. Who is a POV character? Who is an NPC? It's problematic always to tell prince and princess stories.

You want to know what you are doing, and do it on purpose.

Don't forget that even what is pretty vs. nonpretty is culturally different. Whether prettiness is an important characteristic is also cultural. Kat explained that beauty standards change drastically pre- and post-colonization. Beware of centering your standards in a particular cultural spot. Rock 'n' roll, which is considered classic now, was once considered quite scary. Acknowledge this. It has been considered provocative and terrible, so don't call it wholesome and then criticize rap.

The future is here, says Kat, but it's just unevenly distributed. Class is a factor. Beware of too much consistency in the speed of cultural progress. What year do you live in really?

Thank you to all of you who participated in this discussion. Today at 4pm we'll talk about Time Travel. I hope you will be there!


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and The Antiquities Hunter

It was a real pleasure to have Maya on the show! This new book of hers, The Antiquities Hunter, is her "first dive into mystery/crime/detective" novels. It follows Gina Suzu Miyoko, a tiny Japanese-American woman as she tries to figure out who is stealing antiquities and selling them north of the border on the black market. She said that several people asked why there was no dead body in the first chapter, but she points out that antiquities stealing is not a victimless crime.

This book features a fictional version of our world. It's different from a lot of Maya's other work, which has been mostly science fiction and fantasy but included some alternate history and steampunk. The archaeological digs she's depicted up to this point were on other planets! There, she says, she could use the tools of archaeology as she pleased.

In this book, she got to explore some substrates of our world she hadn't seen in depth before, including the workings of museums, auction houses, etc. These places have a patina on them, but there's dirty work underneath.

Gina Miyoko, the protagonist, has interesting parents, each of which is into a particular type of magic. Maya says this is where a certain fantasy element comes into the book. Gina's mom works as a folklorist at San Francisco State University and is really into Russian Orthodox magic, always giving Gina lucky charms, and even blessing her motorcycle! Gina's father's world is Buddhist. In the end, it's left ambiguous whether the magic is really operating or not. Another character in the book is a park ranger of Hopi background who is the one who draws Gina into the mystery of stolen antiquities. For him, the process of finding antiquities thieves is very personal.

I asked Maya about her research process. She said this book took a very long time to write. It started with the character of Gina. Gina's mom, Nadya, was initially in psychology, but then later changed to folklore. Maya did research on Russian Orthodox magic with the book "The Bathhouse at Midnight: A Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia." For the archaeological aspects, Maya drew on Archaeology Magazine, where she found a lot of information on National Park Service Agents. There was a story about a woman with a family who was in the field conducting sting operations on antiquities thieves and black market dealers. For the background of a character named Rose, Maya looked at black market antiquities that showed up at Sotheby's and the English Museum, like the Elgin Marbles (a set of marble statues that once stood in the Parthenon). Maya also had questions like, "What is it like to go to a Police Academy?" and "How are police departments structured?" which she got answered by police officers she connected with in online chatrooms. She also explored questions of what happens when jurisdictions collide, how departments work together, etc.

There were other important questions to answer as well, such as, "Do cell phones work on the Yucatán Peninsula?" As it turned out, people couldn't use regular cell phones bout would have to use a special GPS phone. There are also lots of legal details surrounding the international organizations with researchers at the sites.

I asked Maya whether she did research all at once or spread out over time. A lot of the work came in from previous research she had done. Most most of the rest came in her initial research.  She will get a core idea and get excited about it, stop and drag in research until she feels confident. The last step post-editor was requesting some more depth on a few specific topics - things like helicopters and how many passengers they can hold, how much weight they can load, etc. and details on weaponry and the motorcycle named Boris (a Harley superglide 1983). There were also details on specific artifacts.

Maya told us there were a lot of Easter Eggs in the book. One tense scene takes place in the underbelly of a pyramid in Chiapas. Maya hinted that "knowing about weapons will help you identify a new problem." At the same time, she emphasizes, research is a "deep pool you can dive into and possibly drown." You want to have a layer of basic research, then a layer of more specifics, and then a last layer of tiny details.

Balance is important. You don't want to overdo your research, but you don't want to restrict your audience to people who don't know better. Maya told her that with her science fiction and fantasy, former Analog editor Stanley Schmidt would say she had too much detail and to back off. You don't want to confuse - but you don't want to be implausible, either. It bothers Maya when she runs into something that would never happen in a real police department, for example. Make your story credible to those who know, and not overwhelming to those who don't.

Maya said it was helpful to use touchstones - a number of things that people understand, so they don't feel lost when they are walking in. Then you can fill in alien or fantasy details around them. People know the word "pyramid" so there's no need to describe it in detail. But as for how you get inside the pyramid? That requires detail like "there was an opening blown in it."

Paul asked how her process on this book differed from her work on Star Wars. Maya told us that was more difficult because some information was not available, or had less accessible sources. Star wars has essential guides to the GFFA (galaxy far far away), DVDs, an in-house encyclopedia. Maya's partner on her Star Wars novel was Michael, who had been writing in this universe for a decade and was an expert. Most of Shadow Games happened on Banistar Station, which had appeared once in a comic book and not many people knew what it was. They had to draw conclusions like, "nobody's in a space suit so there is breathable air." At a certain point, though, you have to decide what the answer is because there isn't an answer out there to find. The stuff you make up might be rejected, however. You research the canon and try to extend it using individual experts as helpers. Maya suggests that people not use Wookiepediea unless they are willing to chase down the original sources.

Even though some public perception appears to be that if you make stuff up it requires less research, fantasy actually requires about three times the research over the real world, according to Maya. This can be a problem for aspiring writers who think they can make anything up in a fantasy world. Maya says, "This isn't fantasy, this is chaos." In fact, it's not the case that there are no rules. You get to make up the rules, but then you have to stick to them. If you don't, there is no way to judge the importance of events, or even sometimes what things look like. There is no reasonable hope of making good hypotheses.

I mentioned the relatively chaotic magic systems used by Laura Anne Gilman and Nnedi Okorafor, but pointed out that when you are working with a system like that it can be a more demanding process for the writer than having strict rules (rather than less demanding).

Maya mentioned magical realism, which has different kinds of demands. She mentioned Tim Powers' world, where there is magic system 1 and magic system 2, and the two turn out to coexist and clash with each other, but everything converges within the story line.

Managing reader expectations is very important. If you foil readers' expectations once or twice, it's really cool. But if you foil them too often, there comes a moment when reality refuses to play, and readers will put the book down. They become desensitized and disengage, or simply lose the thread of the narrative.

When a writer doesn't tell you what's in a room, for example, and then suddenly says that the protagonist "picked up the sword," it's not helpful. Maya has done a lot of editing and ghostwriting, and run into situations where a writer will decide mid-scene to have an object there. Ok, so we're in a mountain Arabian desert cave, and suddenly there's a writing desk? With a shelf and a book?

Watching how sometimes people forget to fill stuff in helped Maya learn a lot about what she wanted to put in. She says, "I need to let the reader know what a treasure room in Chiapas looks like" rather than have "deus ex writing desk."

You also don't want to forget what month it is. Sometimes an editor will write time notations in the margins, like, "on Friday," or "one week later." You want to remember what time of year it is for the purposes of weather, etc. You can also try to match the time of year to the mood of the story. "Thank god for our devices," says Maya, because they let her ask things like "What's the weather like in Tel Aviv?" and "What's the weather like in Chiapas in this season?" Weather affects the story!

Maya told us about a book she read where there was a literal countdown going on, and it took three chapters to get to a particular point, yet only an hour and a half had passed. You have to be careful about spending too many words on too little time.

Maya suggests if you want to make stuff up well, you should study Science, History, and Psychology. That way when you make stuff up, you'll be using solid pieces to do it.

Truth is less credible than fiction. Maya once researched the questionof how long it would take for a human in a dark place to lose their sense of sight. The answer is less than five years. Then if they resumed having sight, it would be a different sort of struggle because the brain would lose the talent of processing and integrating sight information. She tried to write about it but was told that it wasn't plausible.

Coincidences happen in real life all the time, but in fiction they are deemed too convenient. The name Tiffany was quite common in the middle ages, but if you use it there, you won't be believed because it is so common in our own age. Knowing what names were popular in a particular time period is useful information, but may go against people's expectations! Also, a lot of people will have the same name in real life, but it's a problem if they have that in fiction.

Writers will sometimes populate a culture, and grab names from different world cultures. This is not a good idea! You will end up with a character with a Hawaiian name, and one with a Scandinavian, with no reasoning behind it. Yes, you can have more than one naming style in your world, but come up with why.

Maybe you have people coming from two completely different language groups. They will have markedly different naming strategies. Tolkien was very consistent in his world because he was a linguist.

If you are using a real-world context, learn how names really work in the country of origin of your character. This is important. In Spain, you have a christening name followed by your mother's first surname followed by your father's first surname. You could make up a culture that uses this system. You could have one that uses name, family, clan names, or a name from the father's profession, etc. The more real world knowledge you have, the better you will do at making stuff up, at achieving richness and depth. If you want it to feel like a real world, you need grounding for odd elements.

Thank you so much, Maya, for coming on the show and giving us your insights! Thanks also to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, October 9th, 2018 to discuss Time Travel. I hope you can join us!