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.



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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!



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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!




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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Friendship

Because the previous week's discussion had concerned attraction, I started out this hangout with the loaded question posed in When Harry Met Sally, whether men and women can be friends. Answer: of course they can, unless you are trapped in a gender-essentialist heteronormative culture which assumes that men and women are polar opposites (and also men will always be tempted by sex even when it's antisocial).

What are the great friendships of genre fiction? We thought of Frodo and Sam, but there are some class difference issues that make that relationship more like lord and valet. We also thought of Sherlock and Watson, but interestingly, when Watson is female as in Elementary, you do tend to get pressure to make the relationship more romantic. I proposed that the relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven is a really interesting friendship because it strays toward the romantic but remains platonically intimate and even draws back from a level of psychic intimacy.

Paul asked, "Why do we want to convert non-romantic relationships to sexual relationships?" The answer is probably cultural.

In Bujold's work, Lady Alice and Cordelia are allies and friends. Women are projected as lone wolves while men are part of communities.

Genre has a lot of backbiting and competition built into its fabric, including a lot of zero-sum assumptions that make friendships difficult to maintain. If you support someone, that doesn't have to detract from your own chances. If you have similar status to someone else, it doesn't necessarily have to lead to contention. The idea of the wingman is a weird permutation of friendship that drags it toward relevance to the romantic realm.

Can you have a friendship between members of two different cultures? Certainly you can - but it might not mean the same thing to both people.

I talked about how Rulii, a wolf alien from my Allied Systems universe, has difficulty with the concept of friendship because he understands it as interdependence without rank. His people think of rank as central to life and inextricable from it. What do you do if you can't tell relative rank? In his world, you struggle.

Kat pointed out that racialization harms friendships in racially biased cultures because it makes mutual trust harder to achieve.

There are a lot of uses of the word "friend" that imply different levels of engagement. There's the Facebook or other social media friend. There's the acquaintance. There's the intimate platonic friend. The apparent flatness created by this single word, and the lack of further vocabulary, makes it harder to talk about different kinds or levels of friendship.

Would you discuss bias with your friend? Would you help them move? Would you care for their family members? Would you spend time with them? Would you call them on bad behavior?

Morgan said she'd like to imagine a language which had more words for friendship than we have. The only issue with that is that you'd run into the author effort of teaching new vocabulary to a reader. Sometimes it's worth it for a story, and sometimes it isn't.

Children also have different ideas of who friends are and what the word means. One can be friends of one kind with a friend at school, and another with the child of a friend of one's parents. Adults, meanwhile, struggle with the platonic versus the erotic. This confusion is taught early, when boyfriend/girlfriend aspects are ascribed to platonic relationships between children.

Morgan mentioned a child who had been having a tough time with a friend and said, "Maybe we should just not be friends until after naptime." This is similar to not entering stiff negotiations until after eating.

Resarch on kids' play suggests that kids spend a lot of time approaching other kids and asking to play with them, and despite the ease you might expect, they fail about half the time.

What kind of environments provide the kind of social interaction that fosters friendship in your society? What kind of restrictions on interaction are placed on different social environments that might make it more difficult to make friends?

Kat mentioned that there are societal expectations saying you should make friends within your gender cohort, your geographic cohort, and your age cohort. She explained that marginalized people might not be able to make friends in this environment, and might have to wait to find affinity groups, possibly later in life. Some friendships are forged on the battlefield.

As an adult, have you closed off your world to new friendships? How would you?

Social events like fandom and conventions may promote friendship because of shared affinity/interests. Most people find nerdy circles in their late teens and seek out these contexts.

Kat mentioned how knitting groups might seem welcoming on the surface but sometimes every member has known the others for 20 years, and all conversation is about what they already have in common. So even choice of topic might be a way to exclude someone new from a friendship circle.

Society sets up certain types of interaction contexts, like school. Once you have left those contexts, it may be harder to find alternative ones.

Where do interactive opportunities occur in your world? What kind of environments encourage interactions that might lead to friendships?

Reaching out to others is not easy. It's a risk, always, but especially for marginalized people. It's also a risk for people who can't read social cues easily. If you are autistic and have difficulty interpreting words or gestures, it doesn't mean you don't want friendship - but friendship does become more difficult to achieve. You have to figure out the right words and the right faces to make. There are lots of important ingredients that go into being able to reach out to someone. What might those be in a fictional world?

I brought up the question of reciprocity in friendship. Do we take turns paying for lunch? That's one kind of question. But reciprocity is not always accomplished in the "same coin," as Kat said. Kat told us about a panel she participated in where someone argued that rich and poor people couldn't be friends because of reciprocity. However, it's perfectly possible for people to achieve reciprocity by giving from where they have a surplus. Fairness is not always the same as equality. You can even exchange emotional processing for physical work.

Freedom to set what kinds of things you are willing to exchange is important.

Kat talked about friendship as occurring in "silos," where making friends between the silo groups is really difficult or impossible. "If you can't set out cutesy sandwiches, you can't eat them." What does it take to create fairness if you can't use easy models of reciprocity?

There are two different models of friendship between groups. One is, "I don't see you as a member of this other group," which erases difference. The other is "I see you as exactly who you are and value that."

Do we need a better model for friendship?

As we get older, we live lives full of obligation, and we have less time to do the things that migth foster friendship.

Power relationships can be a huge problem for friendships as well as for romances.

I talked about a friendship I'm writing between a Varin nobleman, Pyaras, and a police officer, Veriga. There are rules that tell us what we can talk about in particular contexts, and if those hadn't been broken, and broken by people who were entitled to break them without consequences, the two would never have become friends.

Kat pointed out that there is a "magical sidekick problem" with marginalized people. A friendship between a privileged person and a less privileged person might be seen as unequal and the friend reduced to a sidekick. The privileged person in the relationship might see the other as a friend but might not perceive the things that the less powerful person is holding back, which prevents them from feeling like the friendship can be deeper. Marginalized people have to be careful and can't share some things because it might lead to reprisal or the end of a friendship. This is how you can have someone who says "My friend is a member of X group and I have never heard that."

Thank you to everyone who joined in the discussion. I thought it was really interesting and explored some difficult and fascinating territory.




#SFWApro

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Attraction

This topic started out as "Attraction, Affection, Love," but we had to scale back because each of those really deserved its own hour!

I thought of bringing the topic up because I'd seen an online post remarking "this book mentions breasts 41 times!" So often when people want to write about feelings of attraction, they go to the default of male gaze, i.e. the things we traditionally talk about in order to invoke the sense of attraction for males. Paul noted, "White cis male... for many people, they think wrongly that it's only white cis male writers."

But we shouldn't, particularly in secondary worlds! People are products of their worlds, and gendered gaze is not necessarily a part of those worlds.

Women are typically not obsessed with their own breasts, or at least not with their attractiveness. Morgan said, "Carrying the freaking things around takes most of our attention."

What has happened is that female breasts have become iconic, a symbol representing attraction in narrative. You can choose what to describe, and how, and the stereotype should be fought because attraction is far more interesting and complex than just "boobs."

I mentioned how when I was working with otter aliens in my story, "At Cross Purposes," they had unusual ridges and shapes in the skin between their eyes and ears, something they called "brow character." One of my alien characters mentioned how another had "masculine brow character" in an appreciative way.

We really aren't constrained in what characters find attractive. They can find  non-physical things attractive.

One important question to ask is this: Are our characters attracted to something that is under the control of the object of attraction? Choosing to admire something under a person's own control will reduce objectification.

In some ways, it's easy to do aliens. We find alien forms of attraction used in Star Trek, but at the same time, we also find "boobs." This is largely because of the perceived audience of the show, and wanting to cater to their expectations. We should examine how to satisfy expectations and question how to do it differently.

Faces and figures can be attractive.

Paul asked about the societal level. He mentioned a Fritz Leiber story that took place in the post-nuclear ruins of New York. The clothing had changed, and women wore masks, which was a development that had followed the habitual wearing of gas masks. The uncovered face was a center of attraction. There was also an appearance of a woman with a naked chest who nevertheless had her face covered. This is interesting to break down because it does work on the question of attraction... and yet still caters to the stereotype and the perceived desires of the cis-straight male reader.

Ann Leckie has people wearing gloves in her books. This is always talked about as a matter of propriety and good manners rather than an explicit center of attraction, but it's still an interesting alternate choice.

In Implanted by Lauren Teffeau, electronic implants can mean that hand contact is intimate and involves exchange of personal information, so hand contact is avoided.

You can usefully point out a social rule by featuring one person who doesn't conform to the rule, and showing other people's reactions to them.

More things can be attractive than can be spoken about. We don't typically talk about how attractive a person's smell is, because that is perceived as a very intimate move and would be creepy coming from a stranger.

Morgan pointed out that men sometimes talk negatively about a woman's attractiveness, which also involves objectification in that it says "you are not someone I want to do something to" rather than "...do something with."

Some negative talk is to be avoided because it's perceived as rude. Negative talk can be favored in order to avoid jinxing someone's good luck, however.

What are you expected to say about someone you find attractive? Should you say anything at all? Should you say less the closer you get to them? Some cultures value saying less rather than more. What if there were a group of people who got more talkative the more intimate the situation?

If you show a society where a woman wearing no shirt is considered unremarkable, you might be doing it for shock value with the audience. Alternatively, you might be doing it to show a thorough change in the values of that society. The difference will show in how you write about it. I prefer in a discussion like ours to talk about how to portray fundamental differences in how a society thinks.

Morgan talked about the "border condition," which is a helpful technique for pointing out differences. Whenever you put a person in a new place and show them exposed to people and values they are not familiar with, you can more easily see how those people and values work. She talked about a situation where the rules of introductions were different. In the man's home, you wait to be asked for your name before you offer it. In the woman's home, you expect someone to offer their name before you can interact with them. This causes problems!

If there are different attractions, or other forms of different expectations between members of a couple, you can run into trouble.

To this point, we had focused a lot on a heteronormative view of attraction. However, there are obviously other views! Keep in mind that not everyone in a society is going to be expressing attraction the same way. In our society, you have the question of how being LGBT has been unsafe. That lack of safety means that communication about attraction has to work differently. It can be tricky to find out.

It's also worth looking up the terms demisexual and demiromantic. Some people need to have a deep platonic relationship before they feel any romantic or sexual feelings.

I pointed out that there is a strong pattern of homophobic talk which implies that a gay person is attracted to everyone they see, and not only that, but that they will act on that attraction in an antisocial manner. This is a way to portray gay people as dangerous, but obviously, it's not at all accurate or fair. A similar narrative, but with a different function, appears in rape culture. This narrative implies that men are attracted to every woman they see and can be expected to act on that attraction in an antisocial manner, BUT instead of being used to demonize men, the narrative is used to criticize women who become victims of rape or harassment.

It would be a mistake to expect that everyone in any society has the same standards of attraction.

I mentioned how the artisan caste of Varin is the only group to use makeup. They use it to convey messages about their openness to romantic approach. To paint the lower lip means that you are being professional, and you paint it in a color that is appropriate to your particular profession. To paint the upper lip in addition to the lower means that you are potentially looking for a relationship.

Of course that made us think of Star Trek and the planet Risa, where you carried around a statue (the Horga'hn) if you were interested in the undefined but intriguing "jamaharon."

Our society lacks unambiguous boundary markers - though the use of headphones has become one way to indicate lack of interest in romantic approach!

What would it be like if you had a society based on mandrills, whose body parts change color to indicate sexual readiness? Would that be the same as interest?

The human species is more ambiguous, but there are gestural ways to communicate physical attraction.

What about non-physical attraction? When we have things in common with someone, that can be attractive. The alignment of interests indicates that we'll be able to experience the pleasure of talking about our favorite things. That should be considered a form of platonic attraction.

The word "attraction" itself is context-loaded and implies a physical component.

We don't have good word tools to say "be my friend" because direct approaches of that sort tend to be considered improper once we reach a certain age. Interestingly, a clip of Doctor Who shows the new Doctor asking "Will you be my new best friends?"

Che remarked that it can be hard to make friends as an adult.

The congoing scene often involves making friends as a result of shared interests.

Thanks to Paul and Morgan and Che for coming to the hangout! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will again meet on Thursday. We'll meet Thursday, September 13th at 4pm Pacific to discuss Friendship. I hope you can join us!



#SFWApro

Monday, September 3, 2018

Mimi Mondal

I was excited to have a chance to meet Locus Award winner and Hugo nominee Mimi Mondal at Worldcon this year, and thrilled when she agreed to come on the show. We talked about a world that she has been working in, in which features something called the Majestic Oriental Circus. Her use of the word Oriental is deliberate, and a hint of the early 20th-century semihistorical setting.

Mimi told us she has worked in this world on and off over a long time, starting when she lived in India. In India there was not a large market for science fiction and fantasy, she says, and at the beginning she was unsure whether to write a novel or whether to write a short story to "test the waters."

Mimi attended a college writing workshop in 2008. She told us that by that point she'd written the beginnings of several novels. The world of the Oriental Circus stayed with her. She started writing vignettes about characters in the world with no plan. In the first published story about this world, the circus was part of the backstory. The story took place in an underground jazz cabaret club in 1960's India. It was one of those murder mysteries where everyone looks like a suspect and no one knows anyone else's background, and the police haul them all together for questioning. Some of the characters in this story had been affiliated with the circus in their past.

In 2013, Mimi wrote a self-contained story in the circus. She calls it her "most accepted story," because it was published by Podcastle, and got her into Clarion West and into an MFA program.

I asked Mimi about the intersection between her stories and the science fiction/fantasy genre. The connection is actually quite fascinating. Mimi says she reads a lot of history and likes it. There was a big flourishing circus scene in India from the 1890's to the 1930's. Circus as a form was developing all over the world. In India, it took in many traditional performers. It has a Steampunk aesthetic to some degree, but is later than the Victorian period, because the values of the Victorians trickled into the colonies later. Mimi describes the circus as a very interesting social space, breaking traditional structures. There is space for mystery, and she uses it to explore Indian folklore. There are nonhumans here, pretending to be human. In the circus environment, you don't ask questions because no one else is normal either. If you worked in an office, you would need paperwork, but the circus is not even grounded in one place because it travels. She started writing a long sequence of events, "chunk by chunk." Her focus is on using parts of Indian mythology that are not well known. While she was writing these pieces, she was learning craft skills and working on her awareness of gaze.

The question of gaze is an interesting one. Mimi told us about how there are distinct differences in the expectations of Indian and Western readership.  A murder mystery relies on what audiences take for granted. If it doesn't, it's not a good mystery. Her murder mystery story got rejected by some US magazines who said "this mystery is not working out," but it sold in India, where people said, "this mystery is very cool." As she learns to control gaze, she says, she's considering rewriting the story so that it will work for US audiences.

Next, Mimi told us about her story, "The Sullied Earth, Our Home," which was recorded by Podcastle. She said it was a story that helped her realize how theoretical things can fall into place when you are not thinking about them. It features a person telling a story to two children. This format allows for a degree of explanation about the world etc. because the person is telling the story to two circus kids who are new and don't know the history of the place.

Mimi says she grew up reading Indian magical realism, including Salman Rushdie. In these works, a lot of the background history isn't on the page, and you are just expected to know it.

One of the hurdles Mimi faced was that of people in the US not understanding. In her MFA program, the others were all American. She discovered that they would read historical aspects of the story as if they were secondary world aspects of the story. Because they had no idea of the actual history, they would call it Steampunk. Mimi explains, "My world is quite close to the primary." But at this point she writes it with the awareness that it is a secondary world.

In the West, people are so familiar with fiction based on the Medieval history of Europe that a lot of the world has already been set up, which spares people a lot of work.

There are certain stereotypes of what a god would be like. A local god from India doesn't necessarily resemble either an American god or any of the Indian gods we are familiar with.

Mimi told us about some things she has noticed as an editor, while looking at the history of South Asian science fiction and fantasy. She looked up authors from Pakistan, India, and the UK and US, and discovered that many works don't translate from the home country to the UK and US audiences. Some authors, faced with this difficulty, choose a particular audience. Mimi says she always tries to reach both, explaining that "a large number of my old friends and contacts are back in India." She says she ends up looking at Salman Rushdie's technique, even though she doesn't like his perspective. She says he has a lot of mansplainers in his work, and infodumps. It's hard to separate the perspective from the craft, but it's worth trying.

Mimi used to work at Penguin India, and explains that they did so many books, all in English. The numbers don't look large because the books are half the US price, but the number of books is huge.

Mimi told us she doesn't write her fiction in Bengali or Hindi.

Paul asked Mimi if her editing had influenced her writing. She told us that it has made her writing slower. "I write a line and then I look at it for five days." She has done comparative analysis on her own stories, going back to a story of hers that was accepted and comparing it to the rejected stories, asking what it was doing structurally that the rejected stories weren't doing. She says she has definitely improved as an editor, but that it's hard to say if it has changed her writing.

When choosing details to include in worldbuilding so the reader isn't confused, it's important to ask what to explain, and what not to explain.

In her Circus world, nearly everybody is the Other in one way or another. There are lots of people meeting for the first time.

In each of her stories in this world, Mimi writes from a single first-person perspective. The point of view character has a sense of what is normal from the inside of their head, but when you run into them in another story told from another point of view, it turns out they are weird as well. She says this is like hidden mirrors, and talks about bringing out the parameters of an unreliable narrator. Flipping the narrators provides a different perspective, even though the stories themselves stand alone and they are not parallel narratives of the same event.

We also spoke about her story, "The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall." In this story the narrator comes from a group of people who used to live in the trees. This character sees city-dwelling humans as "ground humans." City people are weird to her. In the story, her son alienates everyone in their tribe and then disappears. She is not the kind of person who has ever been alone in the world. Her son is not very nice for abandoning her. Mimi explains, though, that she has a novelette forthcoming at Tor.com, which is from the son's perspective. The son left and joined the circus. Mimi says "clearly he forgot to say bye so he's a jerk," but he does learn a lesson. He loves people and hurts them for toxic masculine reasons. He holds on to old-school masculine codes of honor which don't work very well. He doesn't think of himself as a bad person.

Most of us are good human beings, she says, until there's someone in our lives we don't care about.

We asked Mimi if she was planning to collect these stories into a book. This is indeed the plan! One of her plans was initially to start with short stories and then stitch them together into a novel. However, when she was at her MFA program she tried to write them into an overarching narrative, and found lots of elements didn't match up. She says that Hinduism is such a large religion that it has a great many diverse practices that somehow stick together, but are not necessarily internally consistent. She has struggled with that question of consistency. These characters, who are struggling and trying to survive, don't really have a common goal. Many people expect a consistent magic system, and get thrown off if the framework gets violated.

She says the feedback she gets from a lot of fantasy readers is vague. They will say something doesn't feel believable, but it's hard to tell what that means.

She says many science fiction readers believe that anything outside a very narrow norm must have a purpose in the story.

I told Mimi that the way she describes her magic system reminded me of the magic systems of Nnedi Okorafor and Laura Anne Gilman, which are not highly regulated and internally consistent, and work wonderfully without needing to.

She told us that her point of view characters don't have to know the logic of the magic they are using. She says, "I borrowed a lot of lessons from Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson." A lot of SFF from non-western cultures, she says, is very close to magical realism. Gabriel García Marquez doesn't have a magic system. The historical events in these stories are things you can look up if you want.

Mimi theorizes that the further you get toward secondariness in a world, the more it will become important structurally to have a consistent system.

Mimi told us a story about a plan she had for a new novella. She did a chapter by chapter outline so the world was consistent and narrative tension was spread out. She intended to do a free write thereafter, but it worked badly for her, because she lost the feeling of joy. That lack of joy will show in the text. She said, "It turned into homework for me. The story does not have any spontaneity left."

The Circus stories didn't work out as a single narrative at her MFA, but they did work as a story collection.

Thank you so much, Mimi, for coming on the show! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, September 6 at 4pm Pacific, and we'll talk about Attraction, Affection, and Love, and how we talk about them. I hope you can join us!




#SFWApro

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Concepts of Time

"Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so."

That was how we started our discussion on concepts of Time, which turned out to be lots of fun and quite wide-ranging.

The perception of time is often quite subjective, but the measurement of time is culturally dictated.

I recalled when I was a child and had trouble understanding how to use a calendar. The use of a wall calendar can seem quite intuitive to adults, but it requires some underlying assumptions that are not in place with children. Adults tend to have figured out how to keep track of what day of the week it is, and usually have some sense of how deep they are into any given month. Both types of information are necessary to pinpoint "where we are" on a calendar and identify the day of the month, and thereby get connected up to the right reminders. Phones are nice because they keep track of both time and date on the basis of outside infrastructure!

How do you tell one day from another? Religious observations can create a sense of differentiation, as can school, work, and other habitual activities. How do you tell one week from another? Japanese has words that describe different sections of the month. Something like Advent can help you keep track. What other indicators might you use?

Cliff mentioned "Repent Harlequin..." in which time was revoked from a person's life if they were late. It was a tyranny of time. He also noted that when he was little his teacher used to write the date in numerical format on the board, and he watched it change but it never meant anything to him.

Teaching kids to tell time is a culturally important activity but it is also far more challenging than just learning numbers. What the numbers mean is not necessarily clear. We often assume experience that children don't or can't have.

There are many different types of calendars. Some of these are: Mayan, Gregorian, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese. Some groups use more than one type of calendar at a time.

Different cultural groups don't necessarily agree on when the day starts. Does it start at midnight? At sunset? At sunrise?

Different things on the calendar are considered important by different cultural groups.

The French Revolutionaries invented their own calendar, which is not used today.

I talked about "baby time," which is how a new parent's perception of time gets distorted. The minutes and hours feel like they are very long, but the weeks fly by. Having children also made me feel like I had "restarted time," because at a certain point in my life the years became so similar it was hard for me to tell if I had done something 3 years ago, say, or 5 years ago. Children provide a distinct form of time cue, both visual and developmental.

Boredom can make time stretch. Dread can make time stretch, or contract. Adrenaline can cause our perception of time to change, a phenomenon which is often shown in movies using slow-motion action.

The 6 Million Dollar Man's super-speed was rendered in slow motion. The Bionic Woman's speed was rendered by showing her in fast motion.

When you tell a child it's going to be "one more minute," how does that affect their learning about time?

People have often tracked the passage of time by watching the sun, stars, and moon phases. On the sea, people have used the stars to navigate, as well as time tracking.

Earth's rotation is actually slowing down very gradually. In the time of the dinosaurs, a day was only 21 hours long.

How do you tell time in space when days are not the same length? Martian days are called sols, and if you are working on the Mars Rover, you measure your time in sols as well.

Vernor Vinge in his books used seconds as a measurement to create a widely applicable time system. In this system, a kilosecond was one of the measurements. Some fictional time systems have run on the basis of the operations of a computer system.

In Cliff's Martian Steampunk story, Mars had to run off Greenwich mean time, which caused plenty of trouble.

What about time zones? Time zones are relatively recent invention, and Paul noted that on their borders they get a little weird. It means we have to be accustomed to specifying which time zone we are in when we have an arrangement to make (like Dive into Worldbuilding!). What if there were no time zones? If it were the same numerical time across the world, sunrise and sunset would be at very different hours across the world, as would work hours. You would always know the time across the world, but you wouldn't necessarily know what the time meant about what people would be doing.

"Zulu" time is linked to Greenwich mean time.

24 hour clocks are used in many places across the world. In France they are used for official scheduling but not for casual discussions of time.

There tends to be a cultural standard for when people are expected to be awake and to be asleep.

Before time zones, everywhere had its own time, and you had to look to a central indicator like the town clock tower to see what local people understood the time to be. The development of rail made synchrony necessary.

Morgan pointed out that time perception might also be influenced by longevity. Vampires, who are long-lived but started as human, would likely perceive 24-hour days, but their perception of years would be altered. Anne Rice handled this quite well in Interview with the Vampire, when her characters would lose track of decades. They lived in one endless night, but they had human time perception.

What about long-lived aliens interacting with humans? Vernor Vinge's skroderiders had no short-term memory and used carts to help them with that. Tolkien's ents took forever to have a conversation and thought everyone else was hasty. In Robert Forward's Dragon Egg, people lived on the surface of a neutron star, and the high-gravity field meant that time went faster. Black holes and faster-than-light travel can lead to temporal paradoxes.

Tools for timekeeping: calendars, clocks, watches, shadows, megaliths

Musical time is another form of time measurement. Language has its own time measurements as well (syllables and morae).

On a planet without moons, how do you measure time? Do you have such a thing as a month? I mentioned the meme I had seen on facebook about an early calendar that was a bone with twenty-eight scoremarks. The text said that this had been called "man's first calendar," but in fact perhaps it should be "woman's first calendar." One could use cyclical body processes like periods to help keep time.

What happens when artificial intelligences perceive time? Ann Leckie does an interesting job with that in her books. Frederik Pohl had a virtual reality space with uploaded humans, and talked about how "meatspace" was very slow. People who had been uploaded would create an avatar to speak for them, step away to do other things and then come back at the end of the interaction.

Some calendars are anchored by major historical events. The "seasons" in N.K. Jemisin's broken earth series are time markers, and each one is named for a terrible thing that happened during the upheaval. You could imagine a village that had been attacked by a dragon calling that year "the year of the dragon." (There's a very different kind of year of the dragon in the Chinese zodiac cycle.) In the Dragon Age universe, what they had planned to call the Year of the King became the Century of the Dragon. The Japanese calendar counts years based on who the emperor is at any given time, and concurrently counts years in the international standard. The international standard, of course, counts time based on the birth of a religious figure (approximately). The Jewish calendar counts from the creation of the world, which it calculates on the basis of the descriptions of the generations in the Bible. Rome counted years since its foundation as a city.

Why would you pick one of these or the other? Sometimes it may be arbitrary/intuitive, but sometimes it might be for a particular reason. In my world of Varin, the years are tracked from the start of a particular ruler's reign. This got started because someone in history thought it was important to obscure the actual number of years that the society had actually existed. In The Left Hand of Darkness, in Karhide, the current year is always the Year One, and everything else has to be recalculated on that basis. The Shire has its own calendar.

Sometimes a calendar will have "extra days" at the end of a year. The Aztec calendar had five days at the end of the year where you weren't supposed to do anything. We have leap years where we add an extra day.

Let's think about hours, minutes, and seconds. Why do we use a base-60 system for measuring time? I actually learned about this from one of my kids' books, and it's really cool. We often think of base-10 as intuitive because we have 10 fingers. In fact, base-60 is intuitive for the very same reason. Imagine that you are going to use your right thumb to point and count. Start by pointing it at each of the knuckles of your fingers on your right hand: you will get to 12. Then multiply those 12 by the 5 fingers of your left hand, and you will get 60!

I talked about designing the time scheme I use for Varin. I decided they gauged seconds on the basis of the fluctuation of a star that they were able to observe, and then worked through doubling. The weird result is that Varin minutes have 64 seconds and Varin hours have 64 minutes. The day is about the same length as ours, so they only have 22 hours. People immediately told me this would be very confusing. And it would, except that I never actually mention the details of how their time system works. Varini will talk about forenoon and noon and afternoon (noon is 11 o'clock). The only thing that should stick out to people reading the book is that people tend to estimate minutes in multiples of 4 instead of multiples of 5.

If you are working in a secondary world, make sure you think through how people talk about time. There are a lot of non-numeric ways to refer to it.

You know when "dinnertime" is. But the hour at which it occurs depends on the country you live in, and your age. At my college it was 5pm. In France, it's 7:30pm or later. In Spain, it's generally 9 or later. This can vary widely.

Paul remarked that in his childhood he used to have a snack at 8pm, so he'd call that snacktime "eight o'clock," as in, "What's for eight o'clock?"

There are analog ways to measure time as well as digital.

We often use spatial metaphors to talk about time.

Cliff pointed out you can count time with a metronome. You can also count musical time based on your breath, as they do in gagaku, where the Taiko player is the one who provides the time guidance for other members of the group.

You can use a drummer to time the use of oars.

Tonya told us about a story she wrote where a person could time travel if they had a photo to focus on to take them to that time (and developed an addictive habit of visiting a dead girlfriend).

Overall, this was a fast-moving and fascinating discussion. Next week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, September 6 due to Labor Day and my husband's birthday. We will be discussing Attraction, Affection, and Love (and how we talk about them). I hope you can join us!




#SFWApro

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Who is Valued in Society?

This is a vital question to consider any time you are working with a secondary world... or even if you are working with our own world. The answer is generally quite complex.

Of course, the first thing we might think of is royalty. I think Americans are particularly inclined to romanticize royalty. Perhaps we kicked out King George III and became wistful. Kat remarked that many in the US at the time of its inception were not on board with all the aims of the Revolution, but wanted to knock George off the top and move up to become royalty themselves. How can we tell that Americans have this attitude toward royalty? Well, we can see it in Princess merchandise, in thousands of "rightful Heir" narratives, and all sorts of places in our culture.

Then comes the question of "nobles" and nobility. Does every noble think they have it in them to become a king? In Western European history, if you had weapons and armor, and/or you could direct people wearing armor, you would have power. This kind of wealth and power tended to be passed down through heredity.

One of the ways that kinghood/emperorhood is maintained is through the idea of divine blessing. It's not restricted to kings and emperors, but takes a more generally applied shape in the idea of prosperity gospel, where if you are rich it means you must be blessed or deserving.

How do you tell if someone belongs to the ruling class? One way is to look at the kinds of things they can get away with, including behaviors, patterns of dress, etc.

Who has restrictions on their behavior? What kind? Who controls how prosperity is allocated? Who gets to say who stays in the area? Who monitors the borders?

Sometimes historically there were holidays when the roles of servants and nobles were reversed. This might be a cool thing to introduce into a story world. In the Japanese obon season, in a particular region of Japan, there was an event where samurai had to stay indoors while others had a mass dance. Look for days set aside to subvert expectations.

I asked the discussants if we could try to tease apart power and societal value, as they are not always congruent. Artists, for example, may not have much power, but might have a lot of societal value. Japan even has a program designating artists as national treasures. In European history, Jews were restricted from owning land but were allowed to have monetary wealth. Since feudalism was based on land ownership, this restricted them from possessing power in some ways, but obviously not others.

Courtesans might not have any family power or traditional propriety, which means they might have influence but no security or direct access to power.

Power can be connected to age, gender, and many other possible variables. Patriarchy places value on men.

Make sure to consider formal and informal power. Also consider the difference between having the power to control your own life, and having power over others.

Bureaucratic gatekeepers can be lowly in their systems, but have the power of gatekeeping.

How many people's lives can you affect? Who can thwart you?

Checks and balances in government are supposed to counteract the unbridled use of power.

Who grants power? Is it God? Who has the power to take your power from you, how, and why?

Unions can create power where before there was little.

Who is admired? Are people valued for the services they provide to society? For membership in a particular social group? What do celebrities provide?

We must remember that once (and in fact, still) there are people who are assigned monetary value as though they were goods rather than people.

Whose children are protected?

Capitalism places a monetary value on people based on their productivity.

Kat encourages us to think of cherishing, or emotional value, as separate from other forms of value.

People who deal with garbage get marginalized in society, but this function of theirs is key to a healthy community. There can be people in a society who are vital but not valued.

When we tell king stories, we don't necessarily tell the stories of others around them. We tell the story of Frodo, but not of Sam.

The actions of heroes are not what make society function. Societies are complex, and without key pieces they would fall apart.

Outsider stories are not the same as the stories of people who are devalued. We have many stories telling about how wayward outsiders are taken into the community. Aragorn goes from an outsider to a king, not because he understands the people but because he is predestined.

There is power in violence. If you have no muscle, but you have guile and charisma and you can command people with muscle and weaponry, then you can command power. If you have no guile or charisma, but you have a lot of violent power, you may be able to command people but you have to at least be able to persuade people not to kill you while you are sleeping.

There is power in language - in oratory and in discourse. What role does it play in society?

Mutual protection societies tend to work best on a small scale, where people can check on each other and make sure they have an understanding of one another's needs.

In a secondary world, where do you introduce changes into a system of power? I talked about my otter aliens, who thought of art as the primary driver of life. In some ways, this could be compared to the way art was used for prestige in feudal Japan (even though I didn't use Japan as a model).

Potlatch is a phenomenon based on linking societal value to generosity, one's ability to give away things. It's a different basis for judgment.

Take a look at the excesses of the powerful and how they lead to revolution.

What kind of ostentation is permitted? What is suppressed?

Is there a distinction between old money and new money? What are the appropriate manners associated with being rich? How do those differ between groups? What is "style"? What is "culture," and what is "good breeding"?

Sometimes if you have enough money you can buy yourself a noble title. Money doesn't necessarily buy you social prestige, though, and you can be genteelly impoverished. Nobles have sometimes sold their daughters for cash.

The Gilded Age in the US involved a lot of people trying to use their money to become noble, and forge a form of nobility after the old forms of it had been rejected.

If you control a resource but don't have money, how much power do you have?

How do you decide which characters are pulling strings, and which ones are being pulled and don't know it?

The ruler Ventenari in Terry Pratchett's Discworld has a lot of power, a lot of money, and a lot of authority. He wants things to work and doesn't really care how. He has Vimes to keep things functioning.

If a character is lacking something, do they have enough power to access it?

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. I think a lot of interesting things popped up, and I hope you all find they give you ideas for your worldbuilding.




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Monday, August 27, 2018

Culture - how it is reinforced and changed

I enjoyed this discussion, which got better and and better as it went along. I wanted to pick it up, because we often hear people talk about bias (for example) as something that will disappear along with an older generation, when in fact any cultural phenomenon gets taught to the next generation. It is transformed as it is taught, but it sticks around. The way that culture changes is similar to the way language changes over time.

By culture here, we mean daily practices, manners, and values.

In any culture, you can hear people say things like "that's not how we do it." Sometimes the membership in the group of "we" is very clear, and sometimes it is less clear. Sometimes these messages about what is or is not done in a culture are delivered explicitly, and sometimes, as Kat noted, they are delivered implicitly.

Whether a person is allowed to deliver power statements implicitly actually is part of the power phenomenon itself, and reinforces who has the power. If people are being vague about whether they have power over each other, think about who is protected by that vagueness. Does the culture itself value vagueness? What would it mean to force someone to be explicit? Sometimes, being forced to exert power in an explicit way can be interpreted as a loss.

Some cultures value bluntness, but generally only when it occurs in people with power. This can be gendered, as when bluntness is valued in men but not in women in certain cultural contexts. Only empowered people can be direct.

This question is one that Kat has examined in her work on etiquette for social justice. She often looks at who gets to say whether something is allowed, or whether it is not allowed, and who has to stay silent. This strategic use of silence and indirectness can mask where the power lies.

Just because you instruct someone in how your culture works does not necessarily mean you have power. Governesses and tutors teach the scions of the powerful how to behave, but are proxies and don't possess that power themselves.

If you are writing fiction, think about who is setting norms, what kind of norms they are setting, and who is enforcing those norms. Each of these may differ based on subculture.

Someone may not have authority, but may have protection from those in authority. It's possible for a person to have a public personal of weakness or delicacy, but use power.

Who decides what is taboo? What are you allowed to assert? What about people who advocate violence politely - are they somehow more normal or acceptable than those who advocate it rudely?

How are people taught explicitly about gender roles? How are they taught implicitly? Are there fairy tales or other stories that show normative roles?

People in very early childhood may be predominantly exposed to their nuclear family, which may have norms that are not typical of the surrounding culture. In some families, girls cook and boys eat, but in others, boys cook and girls work. How much does the immediate family influence a person's behavior? How much does it change the influence of the larger culture?

How is cultural change perceived in a culture? It could be seen as an aberration. It could be seen as linear, or cyclical. It could be perceived as a process of order dissolving into chaos, or order emerging from chaos. It could be perceived as progress, or as decline.

The media we consume reinforce cultural expectations. This will be the case in fictional worlds as well as the real one.

Language changes by being used. So does culture change in its enactment.

A movie such as Black Panther makes a statement, and also sets an anchor in a place where other cultural properties can build on it.

One of the things that can make worldbuilding seem fake is the lack of subcultures. Another is making no distinction between people who are privileged and people who are not.

There are a lot of possible pressures on art and technology, not the least of which is the availability and distribution of materials, so privilege is an important factor in who possesses technology or makes art of particular types.

I spoke about how new research in language acquisition has made use of principles of chaos theory. Here's an example article showing that usage. The first place I encountered it was in the book Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop.

Whether people live with animals is a part of culture. Culture is reflected in language, and they change in interlinked ways. Sometimes there are giant culture shifts, like the one that led to "he" pronouns not being considered universal in English. Right now many people are asking the question, "Do pronouns get assigned by external observation or by the people being referred to?"

Sometimes a culture will make certain kinds of practices illegal, or make it illegal to depict them in particular types of media. The Hays code in Hollywood made it so you could not depict a mixed-heritage relationship. It meant you could not show homosexual relationships, and could not show people in bed together. Laws are generally designed to prevent change from happening, to reinforce old practices.

Change has also occurred in the history of science fiction. Kate pointed out The Expanse as an example of a media property where the future involves more than one group of people.

Claiming that a particular depiction is "political" is an attempt to stop cultural change.

We took a look at two words used to describe inappropriate behavior. When that behavior is part of our own culture, we tend to talk about things as "rude," as part of a system of politeness, civility, and ethics. On the other hand, when we are talking about Other cultures, the word "taboo" is more commonly used. Whenever we take the word taboo and use it to describe aspects of our own culture, that reflects an attempt to decolonize our language use.

Individuals can influence culture if they have significant networks of people who follow their example. Fashion is an example of this. So is technology. So is language, as when someone like George I can mispronounce "Thames" as "tems" and cause the whole country to change its pronunciation.

Appropriation of ideas from other cultures, or ideas from marginalized groups, can also create cultural change. At the same time, it can be problematic depending on whether the other cultures or marginalized groups are recognized and rewarded for their contributions.

Here are some questions to ask about your world. What would you call "hard power"? What is "soft power"? What does each of these things change? How do you create power? How do you control your own environment? What are you allowed to influence?

In Bujold, the ruler can dictate, but is put under the tutelage of an outside.

How does a marginalized person exert autonomy and influence?

It's important to have diverse representation along various parameters in characters and in authors. Kat told us she wants to hear the story of the prince's groom. Morgan says she wants more stories about teachers, which examine the question of having power without respect.

Who do children learn from? How do they learn from them?

Kimberly put us onto the question of people who don't fully grasp their own culture, or don't fit in. Why don't they fit in? What aspects of culture do its people struggle with?

Narratively, it's easier to write outside points of view because it allows you to explain things explicitly.

The story Shoes-to-Run by Sarah Genge looks at a situation where cultural change happens. When someone defies convention, do you expand the category of who can do a thing, or do you change the definition of the person who has achieved that thing?

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. Dive into Worldbuilding meets tomorrow, 8/28/18 at 4pm Pacific to talk with Mimi Mondal. I hope you can join us!




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Friday, August 24, 2018

Alex White and A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

I loved our discussion with Alex White. Alex's new book, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, came out on June 26th, so it's already available for you to check out!

It's about a race-car driver who has had to give up racing after witnessing a murder, and a washed-up treasure hunter who go to hunt down a treasure ship at the edge of the universe.

Alex says the thing that makes this universe distinctive is that there's magic: everybody has a single spell they can do that they are born with. There are all kinds of possible spells. Some have to do with fire, some with shadows, some with teleporting, etc. Not all are extremely powerful. Alex says it's like how people are generally born with legs, but not all of us run marathons. Some spells are as simple as "you can make anything glow." Destructive magics are not very useful on a daily basis. As Alex says, "You can throw a fireball, but why?" Some of the magics are hyper-useful. The one called the "mechanist's mark" means you can psychically interface with machines. This power is possessed by all race-car drivers because you would not really be able to compete if you didn't have it.

The character of Boots Ellsworth, the tresure-hunter, was born without the organ that allows spellcasting. In this world, it is functionally a disability. She requires custom technology to allow things like inputting passwords non-magically. We talked about how it was similar to the way N.K. Jemisin's books hypothesize an organ that allows orogeny (the sessapinae). Alex said it was a change suggested by his editor. This organ is called the cardioid because it creates a heart-shaped bloom of magic in the brain. It was named after the heart-shaped pickup pattern of a microphone.

Alex thinks a lot about the question of disability because his son is disabled, and his spouse suffers from MS. He observes that society creates disability by not creating appropriate accommodations that can allow everyone to access everything. When you have the right assistive technology, you can do whatever you need to do. In the society he has created in A Big Ship, 1 in 5 million people lack the cardioid organ, which means the problem is so rare that the society generally doesn't think about the possibility of this problem.

The protagonist of his novel Every Mountain Made Low also has a disability. Loxley is autistic and lives in a dystopian Birmingham, Alabama. She is undiagnosed because no doctors would bother to come around to do the job.

The character Blue from Alien: the Cold Forge has a late-stage terminal disease that resembles ALS. She uses a telepresence robot with a direct brain interface. The book asks questions about how you would survive a xenomorph outbreak if you had limited mobility. Would other people save you? What kind of morality do we associate with rescuing the healthy? Blue doesn't just want to survive, she wants to cure herself.

Alex explains that his goal in storytelling is to "sell you a twinkie and feed you a steak." He likes to hide a moral or political issue inside something that's fun. There are also queer issues in Alien: The Cold Forge, with a canonically queer protagonist.

Returning to Loxley, we talked about the setting in which she lives. It's called The Hole, and resembles an early 1900's Birmingham, with magic and a lot of mining. Alex says, "All of my settings are kind of exacerbated. I just kind of turn it up." Strip mining and coal mining have turned Birmingham into a crater with nine "steps," something like Dante's nine circles. The forge and foundry are located on the ninth level. The poor live down in the crater close to the forge, while the rich live up in Edgewood, where you can see the surrounding farmland. Loxley herself lives on the seventh level, where she works as an apothecary, gardens, sells weed, anything to make a buck. The country is run by a group called "The Consortium," which is something like the Edison and Westinghouse corporations. The general technology level is around 1980's, and there's a communist cold war, but nothing newer than a teletype.

Loxley has community members but only one true friend. When that friend is murdered, she wants revenge. Alex strives for a feeling of the South in the is book, including its racial tensions, code-switching, and economic disparities. People end up screwing each other over for something that is "frankly not that great." Loxley is a medium, but Alex is careful not to connect this with her autism. All of the women in her family have been mediums, but not all have autism. Ghosts don't communicate with the living, but they can put them in danger. They only stick around while the body is rotting, and don't stray far from their corpses. Loxley realizes her friend has been killed when she encounters her friend's ghost. Then she learns that Edgewood people were involved. Loxley has severe social anxiety and sensory processing issues, and is afraid of guns. She will have to make friends and experiment with new things in order to achieve the revenge she desires.

Alex says he doesn't like characters who are always the best at everything. Loxley can garden and play violin. He jokes that he wants to see booksellers create an Autistic Gothic Horror section in stores. He likes characters with a bit of Southern flair, and didn't like how Firefly treated Southerners.

I asked Alex about his research sources, and much of the material comes from his life experiences and those of his friends. This includes attitudes toward autistic people that he's seen growing up with his child. He says, "the cultural baggage we drag around we assume is the right way to be." This gets translated into things like Loxley's boss telling her how to live, saying "I know a spinster who will police you," and robbing the vulnerable of their agency. Even looking people in the eye is cultural and not universal.

I asked him also about his research sources for A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. He said the magic/tech blends were influenced by recent games, and that Cowboy Bebop had influenced some of the action sequence writing. He asked, "what is the worst goofy thing that can go wrong?" That's the first question he asks, he says, when writing an action sequence. He told us about his podcast, The Gearheart, and said that this novel was a spiritual successor to the podcast, occurring 800 years later. Alex spent a lot of time running D&D there and getting to know the world.

One thing Alex said was important was that all the planets could not be monocultural. The fact that so many fantasy races (such as those in D&D) end up being racist caricatures is a real problem. If you took a goblin with goblin characteristics and made him a human, "you'd have a scandal on your hands."

One thing Alex said he didn't really ask in this particular book is "How racist do you make everybody?" He told us that he chose to lean into "my voice is not really needed there as a white guy" for this particular setting. "If I imagine an entirely new setting, would I imagine black people on the bottom again? That would be crappy," he points out. "Let other people write about that; they will do a better job than I will."

Alex explained that he also completely normalized LGBTQ in the setting. He said, "I don't see how we could get that far in the future without dealing with it."

Your magic spell in the Big Ship universe has a role in determining your place in society, as wehn all the drivers have the mechanist's mark because others can't compete. Someone with the hotelier's mark can clean anything, and have it smell vaguely nostalgic to the person who uses it. This is really useful for medical or high-tech manufacturing. There are lots and lots of different types of magical marks. There is a lot of variation also along he gradient of power. Someone with the arsonist's mark might be able to throw a big fireball if they are very powerful, or even create a star... but on the low end, they might be able to keep warm, or light a cigarette.

He chose the word "marks" because the magic spells are glyphs traced with the fingers. The size of the glyph added to the power of the caster determines the strength of the effect.

Interestingly, the closer you are to someone genetically, the less likely you are to have the same mark. Everyone knows this. You don't know what spell someone can cast until they cast it. The sculptor's mark allows people to change their own shape. Some people use it to make themselves unnaturally beautiful and make lots of money. People of the shieldmaster's mark inevitably go into the military.

I asked Alex whether he was planning to write more books in this universe, and he said, "As many as they will let me sell." Right now there are three. He says it could be satisfying with five.

Alex makes music in his spare time, and likes making soundtracks for his books. The Gearheart podcast has its own soundtrack. Look online for the tracks that accompany Every Mountain Made Low and A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.

Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show! Everyone, go look for these books!



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