Monday, August 13, 2018

Laura Anne Gilman and Red Waters Rising

It was a real pleasure to have Laura Anne Gilman back on the show to talk about the third book in her Devil's West series. She has visited us twice, once to talk about Silver on the Road, and once to talk about The Cold Eye, so it seemed only fitting to find out how the trilogy ended up!

I just love this world that Laura Anne has created, because it's so deep and complex, and feels so true. It's an alternate American history in which the entirety of what would have been the Louisiana Purchase was never owned by either the French or the Spanish, but is being protected by a being known as "the devil."

The identity of the devil is not super clear. Physically, his appearance fluctuates from one set of features to another.

Laura Anne tells us that she has a set of short stories coming out which explore the question of who the devil is a bit more. The stories include "Crossroads," "Devil's Jack," and "Boots of Clay." There will also be a new short story and a new novella.

She says she doesn't like spelling things out.

In the books, it feels like the devil has always been there, protecting the Territory. He's recognizable by his eyes and his voice, which don't change.

I asked Laura Anne if she did a lot of research for this third book. She says, "There is always more." She wasn't able to do boots-on-the-ground research in Louisiana because of flooding, but she was able to use memories of a trip there many years ago.

Even one of her editors tried to tell her that the town she describes in the book was in the wrong place for New Orleans - but as she informed him, "It's not New Orleans, honey." It's Baton Rouge, directly translated as Red Stick. The city that corresponds with New Orleans is the Free City, which is not a part of the Territory. She knew that the city would exist, but it wouldn't necessarily be French. Spanish and Portuguese sailors who jumped ship would have lived there, as well as escaped slaves, traders, freebooters, and pirates. The location would be one not owned by anyone, but would hold the keys to the river. Laura Anne told us she was thinking of Thieves' World and Sanctuary when she designed it.

The law of the Territory is entirely based on the Agreement, which was made between the devil and the native peoples of the Territory. Across the river in America, people say that if you can get across the river, you can be free so long as you abide by the Agreement.

I asked Laura Anne about how she found the idea for the Agreement. She explained that she had to figure out a way that the devil could restrict settlement and protect the people of the Territory. It started out nebulous, but when she wrote the novel she had to codify it, because if you have to retrofit, it's a headache.

The Agreement needed to be simple, and vague, to be effective. The idea of it is that if you come into the Territory, you are a guest there.

Essentially, this is anti-manifest destiny fantasy. The whole point of the Agreement is to force people to behave themselves.

We talked about magic sources. Laura Anne says they are not animist, but that animic magical power exists in everything. It's easy to use it up, and easy not to hear it. Isobel is good at listening. The magic comes from various sources. The "bones" are the earth and stones. Water, wind, and silver (the "blood") also have power. Each of these sources of power has its own strengths, and different uses, and awarenesses. There are also talking animals who are spirits who speak for the Territory in different ways.

Western (canon) stories tend to get too discrete in their systems of magic. This world treats magic as a whole with many different aspects.

I asked Laura Anne what the devil is. She says she has a very good idea, but she isn't telling.

The character of Gabriel is very interesting, and has a special relationship with water. He is a dowser, which means he can sense water. This keeps him and Isobel alive a great many times. It also comes with drawbacks, since water is mercurial, more fluid and less caring.

Isobel is a "bone child," which means she is connected to stone and to earth. In this world, it is said that flesh comes from water and stone, but only stone cares.

Gabriel is running away from himself in many ways. He tried to run away from the Territory, but once you are part of the Territory, you can't leave.

Different people are tied to different aspects of the Territory, and each pays a price. Magicians are tied to wind, and have great power, but at the cost of their sanity.

Isobel is coming of age during all three of these books, and figuring out what she has become. Gabriel has been in denial and pushed down the question of his identity for 20 years. He is having a midlife crisis. He's in his late 30s or early 40s. (By my calculation he's at least 36.)

In Red Waters Rising, the question of water and of Gabriel's power and identity becomes urgent. Water is a constant throughout the books, but usually Gabriel has been dealing with creeks or small rivers. In this book, he's dealing with the Mississippi itself, one of the major sources of magical power.

Laura Anne says that people often try to imagine Gabriel and Isobel into a romantic relationship, but their relationship is not at all romantic. It's more complex than that. They start out as strangers and become road companions, then teacher and student, then peers. In the end, Isobel becomes his superior in some arenas. Their evolving relationship is the spine of the story, as is Isobel's evolving relationship with the Territory.

In these books, a problem is not necessarily a thing that can be defeated.

In Red Waters Rising, there is mention of the previous Devil's Left Hand, who died before Gabriel was born. They remember the story in Red Stick, but we never hear exactly what happened. Some readers apparently think, "Why should we bring this up if we're not going to follow it?" Laura Anne says this isn't a loose thread, but "fringe." Things in this world are not neat.

This book concludes the story begun in Silver on the Road, but there will be a novella, "Gabriel's Road" coming out to follow Red Waters Rising, in which Gabriel is finally dealing with his issues.

Laura Anne told us she's under contract for two more books. One she's working on now is an alternative 1774 American Rebellion, the story of a young woman who should have gone back to learn Old Country magic but is held back by the unrest, in Massachusetts. It's about how the village in Massachusetts deals with the unrest, with magic being used against them, though if they use their own magic to defend themselves, their neighbors would turn against them. She says she takes inspiration from the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe. Characters at different points in life are coping with secrets, abilities, and responsibilities. The book is a standalone.

Laura Anne says, "I tend not to write the same thing more than twice. I would probably lose my mind."

She is also working on a contemporary Americana Fantasy in which she has made up an entirely new magic system, "AGAIN." She says the science of creating a magic system is integral with creating the story.

I also asked Laura Anne what it was like working with the various different languages that appear in the Devil's West books. She calls it "the worst best mistake I ever made." She needed there to be a lot of languages that her characters didn't necessarily speak. She was fortunate in that she had native speakers to help, but she ran into people who would say, "This isn't accurate Spanish," and she would have to reply, "It's Portuguese." There are sections where Isobel has no idea what's going on. This is in part why she brought trade sign into it. Native groups often shared signs. Laura Anne says, "It was complicated, and given my druthers, I'd never do that again." However, it wouldn't ring true if there were only one or two languages. There are even Inca people who are still around.

Did she make her copyeditor cry? She says she has a whole folder of emails about Red Waters Rising, and that there was a lot of whimpering. "I was going to say I'd broken him in, but I may just have broken him."

How did her writing process change with a real map (as opposed to a fantasy map)? Laura Anne emphasizes that you shouldn't need a map to understand the story. When writing the Devil's West, though, she had a huge map on the wall with the whole trail followed by Isobel and Gabriel. Laura Anne says too often people feel the need to go back to the map in a thick fantasy. In Vineart War, she worked with a map of real places in Europe and Africa, but the idea was that it was so long ago they didn't have names.

She made sure that in the Devil's West books, they never eat stew. There's no chuckwagon, and no time to put a meal together. Soaking beans in a bag while riding is something real riders do. Laura Anne says she learned to build a rabbit trap, and read a lot of wilderness survival guides, prepper guides, and even used summer camp experience (cooking over an open fire, navigating without a compass) to help flesh out the experiences of the characters in the books.

Thank you so much, Laura Anne, for joining us and sharing your insights! Thank you also to everyone who attended. I highly recommend the Devil's West series.


Friday, July 27, 2018

Public Institutions

I was surprised by this discussion, because the further we went into it, the more different kinds of public institutions we discovered! It's interesting to think how many services can be provided by a government, and what it might be like if those services were not provided publicly.

The first thing I thought of, naturally, was libraries. Public libraries have lately been under attack, but were a fixture of my childhood. On the other hand, we don't typically see public libraries in genre fiction. The libraries we see are usually private, or belonging to an educational institution like a university.

Wouldn't it be fun to see someone get a magic book on interlibrary loan?

Police and constabularies appear quite a lot in fiction. Less often do we see speculative firefighting, though Paul mentioned Sean Grigsby's Smoke Eaters, which features firefighters opposing dragons! In cities, firefighting is critically important. It can be dicey. When it's not run publicly, it can be run by competing private companies, but this sometimes can lead to people lighting fires so they can be paid to put them out! It's a pretty good idea to have firefighting be a public service.

Che mentioned the position of a public medical examiner. Does that person have to have any medical qualifications in order to serve? (It depends on where you are) Che recommends the Poisoner's Handbook for good information on poisons.

Coroner is a publicly paid job.

City Hall and other government positions are public, obviously.

What would speculative Animal Control look like? Che wants to see a speculative Parks and Rec.

What if dragons were a protected species and animal control needed to move them?

What would city exterminators look like? What would they have to deal with?

What kinds of health services are public? Which are not public? What effects does that have?

What is the public role in transportation? Is there such a thing as Caltrans? Are road crews run by a governmental body? How is it different if people are responsible for the upkeep of their own sections of road? Kimberly told us about how it works in unincorporated areas. If you want to upgrade the road so two fire trucks can pass side by side, you have to enlist all of the neighbors to contribute.

Lately, we've seen the phenomenon of techbros trying to reinvent public services like taxes...

Sewage and water are public utilities, as is electricity.

Che told us about the bluegreen algae bloom which has caused toxins to enter the water supply in Salem, Oregon. This can be contributed to by fertilizer in farm runoff. Cyanotoxins that result from the bloom are dangerous to children and old people, and to pets. There are water-filling stations available where you can access well water for drinking.

Public water standards are important for public health! Keeping/getting sewage out of drinking water is critical. Even the Romans understood this.

Kimberly mentioned that in very small communities, there are some tasks that get assigned to different families or groups each month, and there are other activities like barn raising that require a whole community to come together.

Preppers are people who are trying to get "off the grid" so they don't have to rely on institutions.

At the Exploratorium in San Francisco, they have a display where you can pedal to generate electricity to run different kinds of lights and sounds. It shows you just how much effort is necessary!

There are many places in the world where utilities are not reliable. You can have electricity at some times of day and not at others. Some places lack infrastructure. Some lack resources.

The solar panels on my own home are connected to the electrical grid, and if the power goes out in my neighborhood, my own power will also go out in spite of continued solar generation. When I was little, my dad built a solar collector and used it to heat our hottub. It was heat-based, not electrical, so was not connected to the grid at all.

Street sweepers are run by cities. Garbage collection is arranged by cities. People who clean storm drains are hired by the government. Trucks that water public trees with gray water are also run by the government. Parks and playgrounds are publicly funded.

Che remarked that Central Park in New York used to have sheep meadows and public livestock areas.

In Santa Cruz County (at least) they have teams of goats that the fire service uses to clear brush and eat poison oak, to keep fires from becoming as dangerous.

Cliff suggested someone should write a story with goats with fire hats and coats, and GPS tracking. What would the Department of Goats be?

If you are ever working in an offworld environment like a ship or space station, you have to pay special attention to air quality and radiation control.

The Port Authority is also an important publicly run group. It deals with import/export and logistics. It would be a major concern for space colonies!

Earth has an Outer Space treaty that was signed in 1967. It treats space like Antarctica and limits military use of space, and exploitation of space resources. People who want to mine asteroids are lobbying for changes. The Office of Planetary Protection is trying to keep Earth microbes off Mars, etc, and reduce space junk.

There are some kinds of tasks where government has an enormous advantage over private corporations.

The TV show The Expanse has different governments competing.

We are used to thinking of government as at odds with industry, but that is not necessarily the case.

Public money for art is really important.

Customs is another group run by the government. It's really important to quarantine people and animals to protect against diseases, parasites, etc. Cliff remarked that Alien is fundamentally about not following quarantine rules. Kimberly noted that in Andromeda Strain, the protocol wasn't enough.

The CDC is a public institution. Where is it in the zombie apocalypse? Well, apparently they did release zombie apocalypse guidelines...

The military is also a public institution. Compare it with mercenaries and local militias.

The courts of kings and queens are famous for funding the arts and giving us classic art and music we still appreciate today.

Who gets funded and why?

Does the government fund science? What about magical research, as Paul suggested?

Does the government fund universities? What is a public university's obligation to the community that supports it? One thing is open libraries.

There are also teaching hospitals, and dental and cosmetic schools.

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion! I hope it gives you plenty of ideas for your fiction.



I thought this was an important topic to raise on my show because there are too many stereotypes of old people in fiction, and too few older protagonists. I really enjoyed the discussion.

Morgan pointed out that aging is a process. If you don't acknowledge the process, you don't get a sense of someone's life arc. There may be many different kinds of changes involved in this process: doing more as well as doing less. A person can have increasing levels of skill at some activities even as they are not able to participate in others.

We should think about the full range of changes that can happen with aging. Coming of age is a very common story topic, but we don't tend to look at protagonists in other parts of their aging process. There are some people who perceive genre fiction readers as young, and this may affect the kind of storytelling that is happening.

One good example of an aging character is Masterharper Robinton from the Pern books of Anne McCaffrey. He had a very interesting and complex story. Quite often, we can find that older people in stories are being seen through the eyes of younger people. Lois McMaster Bujold also has great portrayals of older characters. We often talk about how speculative fiction affects childhood or adolescence, but it's far less common to show the point of view of older poeple.

What are the things that make you realize you are aging? Is it gray hair, physical creakiness or pain, shortness of breath? If you are working with aliens, what other things might it be? When we are in the process of aging, we don't always step back to consider our current age.

Kat suggested we consider some of the things that people say when they are older, including, "You'll be more certain of yourself when you're older." Older people may comment on changes in technology, like, "Everyone thinks the Mach 4 blaster is so cool now..." Older people have observed changes in fashion and technology. They have also observed changes in language usage.

Common tropes of aging include the magical old person, and the aging mad scientist striving for immortality.

Older people may try to put off life-changing things - like, say, hip replacement surgery - and then later decide it would have been best to have them done earlier.

Damon Knight wrote a short story called The Dying Man about a man in a society of immortals who begins to age.

I really loved the character of Moana's grandmother.

Older people may appear in stories for children because children are accustomed to seeing their grandparents. They are certainly present in literary tales and in fairy tales.

We could explore aging and regret, but we don't necessarily need deathbed confession tales. We could explore aging with and without grace. We could consider the stories of patriarchs, matriarchs, or gender-nonbinary-archs!

Morgan said she's tired of seeing older people representing stodginess, prejudice, and bigotry. It's dismissive of people who did not have those qualities in age, or who were simply ahead of their time.

Kat made the observation that we assume a kind of generational character, and that it may be connected to the fact that we educate in cohorts.

There is diversity among older people.

The physical appearance of age differs widely on the basis of health, wealth, ethnicity, and other factors.

What do older people understand or remember that younger people don't? What are the buggy-whips and walkmans of your world? What do older people learn that we don't necessarily expect them to learn about new technology? What are the things that older people may not have heard of that they might have to catch up on?

Where do we get the idea that older people can't learn new things? Does it take more learning cycles as you get older to learn new things? Do you necessarily care about whether you learn a thing, and does that affect whether you learn it? (I think the latter happens at all ages)

There are such things as "health windows," or age ranges when particular diseases are most likely to make themselves known. This may contribute to certain people vanishing from public sight within a particular age range as they are not as likely to be healthy and out and about. It can contribute to stereotyping.

Kat remarked that the effects of aging on you socially depend a lot on your society. Are you to be discarded? Or are you to be venerated?

Morgan mentioned differences in infrastructure that might affect the lives of older people. If it's more difficult for an older person to drive at night, does that mean they can't go places at that time? Are there any alternatives to cars? How might other accommodations for disabilities etc. affect the movement of people (both disabled people of all ages, and older people)?

What are older people asked to give up? Che mentioned driver's licenses. Giving such things up can be very difficult because they mean giving up a level of independence.

Kat returned to the question of access with questions that are useful for more groups than just aging populations: In the world we've built, who has access? Who doesn't? Why?

If a society is mostly based on nuclear families, we may not encounter many older people. If we don't encounter older people, we may marvel at them or fail to understand them.

How does a person's age affect the way you describe them?

What do you do if you have no Earthly time measurements?

Do aliens perceive generations the way we do? What does it mean for aliens to age? What characteristics do people elect as salient to indicate age? Wrinkles, gray hair, long teeth? Other things?

Kat said she'd like to see someone take on a story involving people who age artificially to fit in with an age-centered culture.

Morgan mentioned that in younger people, aging is aspirational. However, in our society, once you hit 29, it becomes undesirable, leading to people pretending for years that they are 29. People do many things to try to stay in the culturally identified ideal age window.

When we talk about characters' actions in a story, we generally expect those characters to "get things done." If a character is 20-something, how can they know enough to get those things done? What is the age of maturity in your society and why?

Look at aging across different cultural groups in your society. How does it differ between the poor and the rich? Who gets to be old because of access to health care etc? Who has the food and comfort necessary to have a long life?

In my Varin world, the nobles might be expected to live longer because of their increased access to food, comfort, money, and health care, but their inbreeding means that they don't have as many older people as you might expect.

What kind of views do people have about sun exposure? Stress?

How do grooming and fashion expectations change as you get older? What are the grooming and fashion codes to indicate a particular age?

We thought of Howl's Moving Castle, a story which treats aging in a very interesting way.

Kat said she wants to see a world where one's mobility increases as one gets older instead of decreasing. Aging could work really differently among aliens.

We talked about the concept of "elders." It's a term I've generally seen associated with indigenous groups, but we want to make sure that we don't exoticize our concept, since it does exist across multiple cultural groups.

Who are the productive members of society? What does "productivity" mean?

Do we respect or disrespect accrued knowledge?

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion. Next week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, July 31 at 4pm Pacific and we will discuss Culture, and how it changes and reinforces itself. I hope you can join us!


Monday, July 23, 2018

Rebecca Roanhorse and Trail of Lightning

I'm so thrilled we could have Rebecca Roanhorse on the show to talk about Trail of Lightning! This is an exciting book and the advent of a really cool new world that you should totally check out.

Rebecca told us that she describes it as an indigenous Mad Max Fury road. It features an exciting adventure through Navajo country after a climate apocalypse. You'll discover gods, monsters, and heroes of legend in a story featuring Maggie, a monster hunter.

I asked Rebecca where this idea was born. She explained that indigenous representation is very important, and she wanted to see a story where gods and heroes were in North America instead of Scandinavia or Ireland, etc. She also wanted a native/indigenous protagonist, a main character grounded in culture. The story takes place entirely "on the reservation" and uses some tropes of urban fantasy. The post-apocalyptic setting felt natural because, Rebecca says, "we're headed there anyway."

In terms of the mythologies referenced in the book, Rebecca says she kept it very Navajo. It's important to keep in mind that not all native/indigenous stories are for public consumption. The advantage of working with Navajo material is that it's a very large group with fifty thousand members, and many stories already out in the public consciousness.

One of the stories Rebecca references is the story of hero twins who are monster hunters, and brothers in the Navajo way. When I asked her if she could type in names to the chat so we could understand them better, she said no, because she wasn't using a Navajo-friendly keyboard. However, the great news is that she had such a keyboard for the book! I'm personally excited to learn more about this. The book contains a lot of untranslated Navajo words, in Navajo font. Rebecca explained that she has a friend who is a native speaker, and that writing the book gave her an opportunity to learn some Navajo, which was wonderful. The Audiobook will have an indigenous narrator with a pronunciation guide, so it should be authentic as well (yes!).

Rebecca told us that she lived on the Navajo reservation for 2 years. She is not fluent but worked with non-English speakers, saw signs, etc., so she was surrounded by the language. It was also spoken by her in-laws.

I asked her about her monsters, but she said that would be too spoilery, so you're just going to have to read the book...

I asked Rebecca to tell me about her research process. She told me, "this is the culture I live in." She also asked for stories and looked at the book Diné Bahane by Paul Zolbrod, which tells the Navajo creation story. She interpreted stories poetically. The stories themselves vary from area to area. Since the reservation is huge, they differ from the northwest corner to the southeast corner.

Part of the post-apocalyptic material comes from the NoDAPL protests and the "pipeline wars," in which people and companies have infringed onto tribal land, as in Bears Ears monument and other locations. Trump is trying to move the land out of trust into a place where it can be alienated from the tribes. Rebecca says, "We've been there. We know what the dystopian government looks like."

Cliff asked Rebecca how she navigated the blend of fantasy and near-future science fiction. Rebecca said she'd been influenced by Ilona Andrews, and thought of this book in many ways as Urban Fantasy, but that everyone kept saying urban fantasy was dead, and post-apocalyptic was more marketable, so although the book contains elements that might fit into multiple genres, that was the way they ended up marketing it. The story grows from a culture that doesn't do a lot of distinguishing between fantasy and mythology, and tends not to use category boxes but to think of things as enmeshed within culture, so they ring true to their authors and readers.

Rebecca told us she has four books planned. Four is a magic number in Navajo culture. Book 2 is done and in the midst of copy edits, and she knows what will happen in book 3, and has an idea for book 4.

Book 2 will involve a post-apocalyptic girl gang on a road trip along Route 66.

Rebecca says she likes to visit tropes we are already familiar with but with an indigenous flair. The decisions people make, and their ways of thinking, are Navajo.

I asked her whether the books involve any other indigenous groups. She said that Book 3 will encounter the Pueblo people. There will be race-based city-states. We may also encounter Penitente, who have had hispanic-focused descendants in New Mexico for hundreds of years.

I asked Rebecca what kind of technology was still functioning in her world, if any. She said technology is not big. She notes that technology on the reservation is "not what you think it is." When she lived there there was no running water, and an electric generator. In the book, things that look like deficiencies become advantages because indigenous people are less reliant on existing technological systems.

At that point we spoke about Rebecca's Nebula Award-winning short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)" This is a story that brings up a lot of very difficult questions. Kate said she was inspired to ask, "Would I want to be a part of this selling of my culture?"

People really like the protagonist in that story. He's someone who is trying to get by, and not get caught up in political conversations. His culture is a commodity he's willing to sell, but on some level, he's lost touch of what his culture is.

Rebecca points out that we're all complicit in the selling of culture, and that there is a fine line between good guys and bad guys.

The twist, of course, is that going through the story is in itself an authentic Indian experience. Rebecca says that this is why she put it into second-person narration. The story had been flat and dull when it was in third-person narration. She had been reading "The Tiger's Daughter," a story narrated in second person, and was inspired to try it. She wanted readers to feel the commodification of Indian culture.

The last thing we spoke about was the amazing cover art for Trail of Lightning, by Tommy Arnold. Rebecca got to have some input on the design. She wanted no feathers, no braids, and no buckskin. The results were amazing.

My deepest thanks to Rebecca Roanhorse for coming on the show and giving us some insight into her work! Now, everyone go check out this amazing book.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, July 24 at 4pm Pacific to speak with Alex White, author of A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. I hope to see you there!


Monday, July 9, 2018


Dance is so much fun, and such a cool topic. One of the main things you may run into in fiction is how to make it relevant to your story, but fortunately, there are a lot of ways of doing that! Dance has social meaning, and personal meaning, and cultural meaning, all of which make it a really awesome thing to integrate into your worldbuilding.

Dance features in a lot of fairy-tale type stories, like Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella, etc. Che mentioned the book Aria of the Sea, by Dia Calhoun, which is about a ballet school. There was a story in Asimov's where children with perfect foot turnout were cloned so they could be great ballet dancers. (It was told from the point of view of a police dog protecting an aging ballerina).

Cliff mentioned "The Funeral March of the Marionettes" by Adam-Troy Castro, in which aliens called marionettes or spiders have a yearly dance in which 100,000 of them dance to the death. The story features ambassadors watching the dance and discovering a human dancing in the group. Most of the choreography is implied.

Choreography is an interesting issue, because you want enough of it to give a feel of the dance, but lengthy descriptions of choreography will feel very clunky. It's actually similar to action scenes of other kinds, like fight scenes and sex scenes. You need to figure out why it would be important to include choreographic details, and connect the significance of those details to character development and the overall dynamic of the scene.

Kate talked about how dance is a language with meaning, and communicates something. When we describe in narrative, we often focus on what is being conveyed rather than how many millimeters an eyebrow was raised. You can describe the dance physically, as well as describing what it means.

We have many reasons for dancing, including just-for-fun, for social reasons, and for ritual reasons. Father-daughter dances at a wedding, or group dances like the hora at weddings, have specific kinds of significance beyond the choreography of the dance.

You can dance for yourself, for a specific other partner, for the purpose of cementing community (as with weddings, funerals, mass courtship, etc.), for performance, etc.

Many dances have a codified repertoire of motions. Noh dance, hula, and ballet are examples of these.

Culturally embedded movements can be exoticized. Be aware that such movements occur across all cultures. We don't want to exaggerate Otherness unless it is an explicitly recognized facet of the point of view character.

What is the performer feeling? What is the audience feeling?

Does describing the movements distance you from the narrative? It depends on which point of view you are describing from.

You can describe the music, the tempo, the legs, arms, eyes, face, fingers, etc.

Kat mentioned Lois Bujold's mirror dance. What is described? One character can be teaching the other.

In The Sound of music, there is a scene where Maria dances a traditional Austrian dance with the Captain, and it represents how their relationship is changing.
In Little Women, there is a ball. The focus in this context is not on choreography but on the social meanings being conveyed. Slippers, how tired people are, who is asking whom, etc.

Stardance includes choreography of a zero-g dance.

As the writer, we get to decide what is important to convey about the dances in our stories.

Clothing for dances can vary a lot, particularly between practice and performance.

Some children learn to dance by standing on their parents' feet (either facing them or facing outward, depending on the dance). Some learn by watching. Some children can learn at a surprisingly early age.

Think about where people get taught to dance. Do you go to a dance school? Do you simply attend public functions and get taught by people there? Do you mirror someone's movements? Do you watch as a bystander? Do you stand behind the dancer you're imitating?

There is specialized language associated with different forms of dance, and depending on the dance's origins, this language can be imported from another language. Ballet, for example, has its roots in France, and the words we use to describe its moves are in French even though they have been imported/converted into English.

If you are writing a historically based story, it's really valuable to do research on the kinds of dance used at the time, its origins, its moves, and the language used to describe it. If you try to use an anthropological voice to describe it, you'll typically be using an outsider viewpoint.

Some dances are not permitted to outsiders. There are limits to how much of this kind of dance can be witnessed and described. This applies to some extent to geisha and also to Native American and other traditions across the world. In the story "Time Considered as  Helix of Semiprecious Stones" by Samuel Delany, the singers' activity is not allowed to be described; one could treat dance similarly.

Cliff told us about his experience learning Argentine Tango. When he was learning it, the ratio of men to women was 100 to 1, so most of the men learned by dancing with other men.

We thought it would be intriguing to have an ambassador to an alien species learning to dance... or to have the negotiations executed by means of dance.

Kat pointed out that many of the words used to describe physical motions, like gyrate, writhe, etc. are loaded with (potentially problematic) connotation. Depending on the dance tradition you are imagining, its origin and its place within society, that could also be the case for you... or not. But it's important to pay attention to how these value judgments adhere to our descriptions.

Different dances emphasize different body parts. Some entirely ignore parts of the body. Irish dancing focuses mainly on the feet. American dances usually don't assign any significance to the movement of the eyes.

Kate urged us to think about how the dance grows out of a culture, and how it in turn influeces that culture.

Morgan pointed out that precision is necessary for some dances but not others; some dances rely on joyous chaos.

Call-into-center dances are another type of dance. How do you know if you are allowed to take the center spot?

What is the appropriate social context for the form of dance you are exploring?

Cliff told us that capoeira originated with enslaved people in Brazil, who needed a way to defend themselves but could also keep the defensive purpose of the movements secret by describing it also as dancing.

Kat talked about how Eastern European dances were sometimes a form of physical training for young men. The Ukrainian and Russian dance traditions are gender-segregated, and extremely thigh-intensive.

Kate pointed out that there can be important gender differences in how people are allowed to dance.

African dance draws energy from the ground. Ballet relies on the sense of floating on air.

What else might dance be a form of training for? Can we imagine spaceships dancing? Can the motions of caring for someone become a dance?

The sequence of moves is critical to dance, but may be more or less restricted.

Che told us about a news article she'd read about a dance in Japan that was to teach people what to do in a tsunami.

Kate told us how when she went to Africa, she had to teach without speaking, so it came out like dancing.

You can enjoy dances without knowing the forms of symbolism that they employ, but if you are designing a dance and intend to depict its practitioners as coming from inside the culture, you should really know what its symbolism is.

How does disability affect dance? There are differences in mobility, but you can dance in a wheelchair or with almost any other form of physical restriction. Kat noted that where dance is valued, people find a way to do it regardless of difficulty. Be very careful to do your research if you want to deal with questions of how disability might affect dance.

We do make assumptions about how one's physiology might affect one's ability to dance.

Does your dance have the expectation of a special floor (like ballroom or flamenco, for example)? Does it require a stage?

What is the overall style of the dance? Stately? Chaotic? Measured? Stiff? Flowing? A dancer's physical movement can vary greatly on and off the stage. What areas of the room are considered appropriate for which kinds of movement? Is the center for fancy moves, and the outside for fast movement? Or are the edges safer for beginners?

Think about the negative space formed by a dance.

Are you supposed to interact with your audience? With other dancers? Why or why not?

Dance schools have subcultures.

Dance can be a form of acceptable touch in low-touch cultures.

Do you need to have a minimum number of people for a dance to be performed?

How do you manage crowding? How do you manage appropriate or inappropriate touch when there is crowding?

Some dances can be deliberate to send a political message. Some dances can have built-in instructions on how to do the dance (hokey-pokey?)

Some dances start out as scandalous but then over time grow to be considered conservative.

Thank you to everyone who attended this wide-ranging discussion.

Dive into Worldbuilding meets today at 5pm with author Laura Anne Gilman to talk about her Devil's West series. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, June 26, 2018


You should be thinking about garbage. If you're not, the world you're designing will have some serious flaws. Wherever people are, there's the possibility that they will leave things behind. In fact, it's one of the main ways we can tell that people have been in a place - looking for their leavings. Midden heaps featured shells, useless bones and broken pottery. These days we might see lots of plastic packaging. Leaf packaging, or plant fiber packaging, might last less well because it's biodegradable. There are also packages that are reusable, like tins or Japanese furoshiki cloths. (One of the reasons why we have so much packaging is because it is a method of advertising.)

Kat noted that in Japan there is a lot of packaging material, but the recycling there is very picky and precise, into as many as 28 recycling categories. The more you separate, the less work it is to recycle.

Neal Stephenson has written about molecular-separation recycling. That takes care of a lot of waste and renders it utterly unrecognizable! Star Trek replicators are similar. If you have a "matter box" that creates things for you, how do you feed it and with what?

If you have garbage that you want to get rid of, what do you do with it? Incinerate it? Render it into slurry? Separate it? Compost it? There are also ritual ways of handling trash.

If you can fabricate things with a replicator, it would mean you didn't have to mine for coltan or similar substances, or even recycle.

Do we care if something was made mechanically or biologically? Astronauts can't really afford to worry too much about the recycled water they drink and where it came from...

Spaceships sometimes will jettison space debris. Space makes a good environment for cryostorage of noxious ingredients.

The climate of the region you are working in will influence how garbage looks, feels, and smells. If it's humid and hot, you will get a lot more stink!

I described my own garbage sorting containers, which are large (above waist-high) plastic rolling bins: a smaller black one for trash, a large blue one for recycling, and a large green one for compost (including meat). In my area, this varies by municipality. The green waste is offered as compost by my town.

We talked about old galvanized steel trash cans, which are almost entirely unused in my area at this point.

When I lived in Tokyo in the 1990s, we were expected to put our garbage out onto the side of the street in plastic grocery bags. This meant it was very easy for crows to steal food out of the garbage.

In rural areas, sometimes you will see burn piles where people are incinerating their trash.

There are a lot of different ways to handle garbage, but figuring out the details of what is not wanted, what can be reused, and what happens to those discarded items is really key to getting the world right.

Kate told us she remembers when they used to collect horse poop in San Francisco, and people would show up with their car trunks lined with plastic to take the manure home to use in their gardens. Che noted that zoos also sell their animals' waste for fertilizer.

E-waste can be worth money because it contains small amounts of rare elements.

Kat said that in Sydney, there is a tradition of putting unwanted items out for other people to take Imported things would be more valuable for re-use. In the US, leaving things out is considered littering, even though we have started having a freecycling culture here as well. Kat remarked that her black friends refuse to do porch retrievals because of the risk of attack or people calling the police on them.

In the West, and particularly in America, we are trained to think of things as easily or instantly disposable. When you live on a houseboat, as Kat did, you can't just toss things. As with hiking, it's trash in/trash out, and leave only footprints.

Kat pointed out that in some cultures, trash can be turned into treasure. Sometimes, instead of stitching a hole closed, people will embroider a hole closed. Broken dishes can be repaired with gold.

Sometimes in stories, the hero will have nice new clothes, while the villain will have clothes that are cobbled together. This is stereotypical but not universal.

Is recycling considered a virtue in your society?
Are you allowed to repair things?
Do people sell spare parts, or is obsolescence planned?

There used to be traveling tinkers who would repair pots and pans and other items. That art has largely been lost. Corporations have a vested interest in you wanting to buy new things.

Repair cafés are a modern trend, as we recognize our global impact and turn more toward reuse and repair. There are also tool lending libraries.

Garbage-processing technology is an important piece of this puzzle. Is it done by machines? By people?

"Mud-larks" were children who used to pick up trash and bones and sell it to the ragged bone man. The ragged bone man would collect rags that could be made into paper, and bone that could be made into glue or into bone china. Bone china was 20-40% actual bone. This ties into the tradition of the poor making things for the rich.

Brian remarked that there are a lot of curse words and insults connected to garbage.

Poor or low-caste people tend to end up processing garbage because the job tends not to be valued. What would happen if it were valued? That could potentially lead to some interesting stories.

City of Ember put a lot of focus on recycling and reuse because it was cut off from the surface. (We noted, though, that canned food does not tend to last 200 years).

In The Gift Moves, battery trees were fed with garbage and grew batteries as fruit. The society was gift-based.

In Star Wars we saw the garbage compactor, and we saw trash being jettisoned. Did some of it get blown into the sun? Also, Rey is a garbage-picker in a very post-apocalyptic environment on Jakku.

If midden heaps are key to learning about the past, losing them means that there can be problems for reconstructing that past. You can lose them under water with changing sea levels. If you had 100% recycling, there would be no records left. Other forms of data about a society can also be lost over time due to damage of various kinds. Our recovery technology is improving, however. We only used to be able to dig out bones and learn from them, but now we can analyze the dirt surrounding them to see what was there.

If there is dust and grit on your floor, do you sweep it outside? Perhaps, if there is dirt outside. But perhaps not, if you are in a large building. In that case you might put it in with food waste.

What do you do with broken clothing? We need to return to a culture of turning it into rags, rugs, etc. Don't use a new dishtowel to mop the floor!

Cliff mentioned that in Michael Moorcock's Revenge of the Rose there was a world with long parallel hills which turned out to be made of garbage. The hills were created by cities on wheels which circled the planet and cast their garbage to one side.

Kim Stanley Robinson dealt with waste in a generation ship in Aurora. The ship needs 100% recycling, and the balance failed because there was no molecular rearrangement. Even the International Space Station imports things. What happens in a bio dome or other closed system?

Wall-E was intended to be a cautionary tale about the risks of not dealing well with garbage. The ship in the movie was not intended to be a generation ship, though it ended up becoming one.

In CS Friedman's The Madness Season, insectlike aliens conquer Earth, and they have hollow asteroid ships, where they put their garbage on the surface of the ship.

This was a really interesting discussion. Thank you to everyone who participated!


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Auguries/Telling the Future

People have been interested in telling the future since the beginning of human societies. In fact, astronomy was one science that led to people being able to tell the future - to predict the movements of the stars! But there a lot of less scientific ways to predict the future. In Japan, you can go to a shrine and pay money to shake a box, out of which a stick will fall with a message on it. When you report that message to the shrine attendants, they will give you a piece of paper with your fortune. Many different cultures have ways of casting omens. There are also many fictional scenarios that involve predictions of the future. The first one that occurred to me was the way that people cast omens in Ann Leckie's trilogy.

You can read entrails. Cliff mentioned that Roger Zelazny wrote a story where a dude that had been disemboweled to have his entrails read started critiquing the reading as he died. (Yikes!)

In fiction, the author is in control of the fortunetelling. You can decide whether the fortunetelling will literally be true in your story, and whether what is foretold in Book 1 will come true in Book 2, etc.

Prophecies are a mainstay of the fantasy genre.

Fortunetelling traditions exist all over the world.

What are the signs of being an oracle? They vary from culture to culture, but often a fortuneteller will have specific identifiers.

Priests can sometimes foretell. So can TV psychics.

Roma people are often portrayed (stereotypically) as fortune-tellers. There's also a "new-agey" form of fortune-telling that involves muddled cultural appropriation from various sources.

Often an oracle is a person who lives/works out of a particular place, like the Oracle of Delphi.

Sometimes people will tell the future by interpreting the behavior of birds. This was one of the methods used in Hild by Nicola Griffith. You can read bones. In Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, people use the i-Ching because everyone believes in its influence. People also read tea leaves, or look into crystal balls.

Science Fiction is sometimes perceived as being predictive, but often what happens is that it becomes inspirational, and thereby brings about aspects of the future that it imagines.

One of the basic ideas of fortunetelling is this: We can be informed by chaos and chance.

A key question to ask for your fictional story is, "Does the augury come true?" You can also ask, "Do the characters think the augury is true?"

Che asked, "Could a computer be a fortuneteller? What if there were something called OmenApp?"

One major science-fictional work which involved prediction of the future was Asimov's Foundation series. It had data-based augury. The author was then able to play with which aspects of the prediction came true and which did not.

Astrology and numerology involve ways to predict the future.

I speculated that you could "read" the fallen hair from a baby's first haircut and try to tell the child's future on that basis.

Going to an oracle often brings trouble. What if Oedipus had not gone to the oracle at all? What if someone asked, "Why are you going to the oracle? You don't need that kind of trouble in your life!"

In the Percy Jackson books, every book has a critical prophecy that must be interpreted but can't be truly understood until the end. Mistborn involves the question of what happens if the prophecy doesn't come true. What if the chosen one doesn't do the job and a friend has to do it?

In Dune, the Bene Gesserit "seed" a prophecy which isn't exactly a prophecy, but a cultural idea that will help them have the influence to put someone into power far later down the line, historically.

I mentioned Steven Universe. The Sapphires have the power to tell the future. I was particularly intrigued by the flawed Sapphire who had the ability to "foretell" things that had already happened. It seems like it would be a useless skill, but in fact she has been able to do some very helpful things and defeat my expectations. (I always love having my expectations defeated in this way.)

There's an instance of fortunetelling in Babylon 5 that viewers can watch play out over the course of the series.

Context is really the key to figuring out the meaning of prophecies, and as authors, we have a lot of ability to control that context.

Che would like to see someone avoid their fate.

Jim Davis once set up a situation where a version of Garfield was given Pandora's box and chose not to open it.

We talked about Chekov's "gun rule," which says that if you put a gun on the mantelpiece at the start of the story, that gun will be shot before the end of the story. This isn't always the case, but the attention we place on certain objects or events in a story is usually important in some way. Typically it's a good idea not to put irrelevant things in a story, which is why we tend to think the things we encounter will have relevance.

Our interpretation of prophecies relies a lot on our ability to sift through the context of our lies and find places where it is relevant.

We agreed that there is very likely to be some form of fortunetelling or augury in a world, so it's worth thinking through how people think about it, and how people do it.

In Krull, a cyclops gives up his eye to see the future, but only ends up knowing the moment of his own death.

Chuck Wendig's character Miriam Black can predict other people's deaths by touching them.

I highly recommend the story "Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders, which involves two seers falling in love.

Thank you to everyone who attended the hangout! It was a fun topic to explore. Dive into Worldbuilding will meet next week on Tuesday, June 19th and will feature Nebula Award-winning author Rebecca Roanhorse. I hope you'll join us!


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Kelly Robson and "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach"

This hangout looks twice as exciting now that Kelly has gone on to win a Nebula in the meantime (for her novellette, A Human Stain)! It was a pleasure to have her on the show to talk about her recent novella, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.

Kelly started out by telling us about how critical economics was to this story. She's passionate about economics! (And so she should be; worldbuilding without economics is flimsy.) She calls it "the physics of worldbuilding." She told us that when she was first writing historical fiction, she began with medieval settings because it seemed more straightforward to manage, but that since then, she's branched out into greater challenges. In this story, the historical portion is set in Mesopotamia!

I asked Kelly about where she found the entry point for this story. She explained that she and Alyx Dellamonica had just moved to Toronto when there was an exhibit about Mesopotamia at the Royal Ontario Museum, and they went to it four or five times. One of the things she learned there was that in 2000 BCE, Mesopotamia had a complex, centrally planned economy. Kings, priests, and priestesses kept a handle on how much grain was grown and distributed.

Kelly was also excited to learn that there was a king named Shulgi whose job was killing monsters. This was an official duty of his job, and he possessed weapons designed specifically for monster-killing. As she told us, "They knew there were no monsters." She asked what it must be like for this king who had this very specific duty and had never done it. How do you deal with that problem?

The second plot thread she told us about was the idea of someone with octopus arms for legs, which she had always liked. As it turned out, the story ended up being a "coming of age" tale for an old woman, finding her purpose.

Kelly said she really wanted to work with a future Earth that could have a connection with ours, but is not hours. One of her major inspirations in designing it was the book Debt: The First 5000 Years. One of the major points it makes is that we have this idea that barter was a standardized practice, but there is really no evidence for it in the anthropological/archaeological record. The book questions the existence of this practice that has been so mythologized, and illustrates how economic systems actually work, which is far more complex. The concept of debt is central to how humans interact, even on the level of courtesy and favors. It's not just about coins but about how we live together.

In Kelly's far future, all you can buy or sell is people's time. The giant companies are professional services firms. She named the primary company in the story after an environmental consulting firm that belonged to friends of hers. Robots do all manual labor, and everything is automated. Everything in a services firm happens because people make it happen. Robots must be programmed and designed by people. The year is 2267, and in a post-scarcity environment, the only thing of value is people's time.

People do not live on the surface of the planet in this world because Kelly decided she didn't want land to be something of value. In this version of history, climate change caused humanity to retreat underground because it was too difficult to deal with the bad weather, etc. The other advantage of the underground environment to Kelly was that it was a completely managed environment and you have to manage  your own waste. In comparison, our world makes it difficult to see the consequences of all the decisions we make (as when we drop trash on the ground).

The "Manhattan of this underground environment" is a place called Bangladesh Hell. Everything is cool there, and celebrities are there. Even there, it's a managed, closed environment. The word Hell is used in the Chinese sense, meaning just that it's underground. Kelly said she chose this to play with people's expectations.

The main character, Minh, is 83 years old, and working on reclaiming the surface. When she was a toddler in Sudbury Hell (Sudbury being a real place with underground pits in Canada), the world was having pandemics in a public health catastrophe. Minh lost her legs to a form of ringworm, which is why she uses the octopus prosthetics. Her generation is called Plague Babies. All of them had horrible medical interventions as children. There was a generational exodus, when the plague babies decided they want to get away from the doctors and colonize the surface.

Another key character, Kiki, is 23 years old, from the generation referred to as Fat Babies. They are perfect tank-gestated healthy human beings. Their bodies are not giving them abnormal problems. They were birthed by the Plague Babies because of the need for more people to feed the people-time economy, but the Plague Babies are still rugged individualists who want to do it all, and don't want to give up anything to the kids. It functions as a kind of parallel to the relationship in our world between the Boomer generation and the Millennials.

Here are some questions Kelly asked, which are great questions for any worldbuilder: What does our society see of value? What history do we have? What kind of generational values do we have? Kelly remarked that you can see these kinds of things in pseudo-hipster cartoons from the Regency era as well as in our own time. Kelly notes that as a member of Generation X she feels sandwiched between the antagonistic Boomers and Millennials.

I asked Kelly whether she had done a lot of research for this story. She said, essentially, no - but in fact a lot of her research had been done before she had the story come into her mind. She read the David Graber book three times. She simply reads nonfiction for pleasure, and nonfiction informs her understanding of how the world works. Kelly describes herself as a systems thinker.

I asked Kelly about the corporation that features prominently in the novella. The time travel corporation, TERN, is essentially the antagonist here. Kelly said it was a bit of an answer back to Connie Willis' approach to time travel, which she absolutely loves but thinks is unrealistic. Kelly made sure to stipulate that you can't influence the present by changing the past.

Kelly told us that she would love to time travel. "I would die to do that," she said. "I'd cut my legs off."

In this story, time travel is just for historical research purposes.

The different dwelling-places of the future setting she creates are called Hives, Habs, and Hells. They are essentially like city-states that compete with each other in quality of life. They compete to draw people to their area. Bangladesh Hell has the cool factor. Sudbury Hell has more space. The surface habitations include Iceland, Cuzco, and Calgary.

Other economic units include universities, vocational training entities, and think tanks. TERN is a division of an evil economic entity.

There is also such a thing as a "private bank." Private banks are actually people. If you are a genius who makes a unique contribution to society, the world government will let you act like a bank, and when you die you become a think tank, or a university, for as long as your economic principal exists. She created this concept because she wanted to make sure she could show that some people do make a difference. It also gives people something to strive for. "Someday I could be a private bank..."

TERN controls time travel, and is allowed to do so by the World Economic Council. They are worried about losing this control, so they are secretive and tell lots of lies about their technology.

Minh is a fluvial geomorphologist, or someone who studies how riverbeds change. (Kelly clearly loves the name of this line of work!) Minh also does snowpack management. She lives in Calgary, which is a self-contained Ziggurat habitat. The people there are trying to live lightly and restore the bow river valley. They have been working on it for 60 years and still have much to do. Minh planted a glacial seed in the nearby mountains. They have constructed wind baffles around the mountain to guide rain to particular valleys. Now, the river flows into the city and all of the water gets used. They want to make it so that some water remains to flow onward and support another city. Minh loves rivers and loves mountains, and will die doing her work.

Kelly said that while working in Vancouver she learned a lot of ecological restoration stuff.

We recommended to her a book by Simon Winchester called The Map That Changed the World, about William Smith and how he discovered the geological formations underlying England when he was traveling around trying to help people find coal. At the time there was no systematic way of finding it, but everywhere he went, Smith saw the same 15-layered structure in the earth, and helped people to systematize what lay under the ground.

Che asked why Kelly wrote a novella when she had this much worldbuilding to work with. Kelly said, "I don't know how to write a novel." She wanted it to be the story of Minh, and focus on "The most important thing that ever happened to a person, or that a person ever did." She said it would have to be a different story to be a novel. She told us she is currently writing a sequel featuring Kiki as the main character.

By the end of the story, Minh has learned the thing she'd been missing: that people matter, and not just to the economy, but to her personally.

I asked Kelly whether she had intentionally juxtaposed the concept of monsters with the design of the time-traveling characters, and she said that she hadn't done it intentionally, though she loves the idea of animal-human chimeras, which she also used in her story, Waters of Versailles. I asked this question because of the way that Kiki changes her appearance during the story, which makes her appear more mythological (SPOILERS are coming!).

In the story, Minh and Kiki have to win the work by responding to a Request For  Proposal (RFP) for sending scientists into the past to research the rivers and inform future restoration efforts. Kiki freaks out because she's an administrative assistant and is so excited at the idea of a non-boring project. She gets on the team writing the proposal. Kelly explained that she has done a lot of proposal writing, and that "you are going to win it by offering the client something they didn't know they wanted." In this story, the amount of stuff you can transport in the time machine is limited by volume. Because Minh is small and can fold up her legs, and another of her friends on the team is a little person, they would be able to maximize the volume they can bring back. Kiki wants to be on the team but is too big (she's 6 feet tall)... so she cuts her legs off, and gets a set of high-tech goat leg prosthetics.

Paul noted that Kelly's decision not to let the past influence the future solves some problems. He asked her how she came up with her theory of time travel. Kelly said she needed the time travel to behave in such a way as to allow her to tell the story she wanted to tell. She wanted to have its effect be only on the characters' experiences rather than the world. When you go to the past, there is no way to do damage. The question is what it does to you. Thus, she chose the simplest form of time travel where there would be no paradoxes that might cause trouble. The time travel timeline collapses as soon as you leave it, but it's still an interesting thing to do. The idea is thus that you can't keep going back to the same timeline, since it's gone the moment you are no longer in it. Kelly told us that if she could go back in time, she would cure Jane Austen and let her continue writing the book she was writing, then take the manuscript home, return to the same moment, have Austen read it and continue the work. She said that after 30 or 40 trips you could have a new Austen book! However, it would be a lot like a Groundhog Day scenario, and be incredibly tedious to figure out what you needed to do for the desired result.

Thank you so much for coming on the show, Kelly! It was a fascinating discussion. Everyone look out for Kelly's sequel to this story (which she's currently drafting), called, "Time, Trouble, and the Lucky Peach."

Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 4pm Pacific to discuss Auguries and Predicting the Future. I I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Building Back Histories

This topic is another one I thought would be important for any list of basic worldbuilding topics. Essentially, it amounts to, "How did we get to where we are?"

When we are working on telling a story, the question of the past often springs up. Sometimes, we want to work on it before we even get started. Sometimes, we create an elaborate account of the back history of a story and none of it appears directly in the story itself.

Keep in mind, though, that nothing you do to understand back history is ever wasted work, because the things we know change the words we use when we write a story. Chances are, the words you use will reflect your understanding of the back history even if you aren't explaining it.

I asked each of the discussants about experiences they had with creating back history for their stories. 

Kat told us that she had explored one key event, what she called "a catalyzing thing in culture," which helped her with a story about a near-future Earth. She'd gotten stuck in the front-story because she didn't have enough information about what had happened earlier. Ethnography and history are important so that the pieces of your front story can fit together, and make sense in relation to each other.

Morgan said she likes to look at something in her front story and try to explain how she got here. She asks: "Why can't I explain it? Do I dislike what it [background] would have to be? Does it not make sense?" She says it's very easy to get caught up in a character's backstory. Once you know the background, what does it change? Can you use background to make your story make sense and be believable?

Cliff told us that backstory is like scaffolding you use to build your story, and then you take it down. Tolkien did it for his own enjoyment. Cliff himself wants to have the minimum scaffolding required to build. He spent time with his novel universe "bouncing around" for years, figuring out what was going on with the people at the top of society, but it never worked. Then he started working with the people at the bottom, and the story came alive. He says when he's working with a short story, he usually starts with an image, and has to figure out what it means. Backstory fills itself in as he figures this out.

Kat made an important point, which is that sometimes you can get so much data in your head that it's hard to set it aside to write the story. There is a danger in getting too enraptured by worldbuilding.

Here are a few basic questions to ask:

How did this character get here? Why is the character motivated this way? What are the background conditions needed for the story to work? 

Cliff is opposed to "killing momentum" by asking too many questions.

How much do you really need to know? The answer to that is very individual. Morgan feels she needs to know more, even though all the research may not go into the story.

How relevant is the backstory? How important is it that we understand why things work the way they do?

Kat told us about her sensitivity reading work. She explained that she has seen thousands of words invested in a work by people who have never asked about the premises or setup of the story. When it comes to critical social underpinnings (like for example racism and sexism), maybe some stories don't need to be told if the writer doesn't understand the context in a nuanced way.

I personally made a number of back history extrapolations once I decided that my Varin world was going to be racially diverse. I had to find a way to explain why people who lived underground, and all on the same continent, would show variations in appearance. This led me to an extensive backstory about the people's arrival in this location from another place where they had been spread across a much larger geographic area, but united by a shared religion.

As Kat remarked, monocultures shouldn't be considered forbidden, but we need to understand why non-diverse places are not diverse. Some cultures have grown up in isolation, like indigenous groups before contact with outsiders. Even in a monoculture group, there will be subgroups, however. Think about what kind of subtle differences might seem important in that context. 

In Europe, when Catholicism was widespread, there were all sorts of schisms and disagreements, heresies, etc. There will always be complexity in human groups. Think about the places where people will identify differences. Any time a single social group contains only individuals who run entirely true-to-type, you will have a problem with lack of realism.

Several of our discussants recommended this article: Race: The Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre. It brings up really important issues to consider when embarking upon a fantasy project.

Any time you have more than one character, you need to have variation. Character backstory is a bridge to worldbuilding. Consider the relationship between a character's personal history and the history of their world; the two are intertwined.

We talked a bit about naming. When you have characters in a story, in general people tell you to have their names start with different letters... but what if they don't, because their identities were established in a different story and now they have met? Kate remarked that in some cultures (read: America and others), people with the same name get numbered. Some cultures distinguish between two people of the same name with epithets like "the unready" or "kinslayer," etc. We don't tend to see quite as many epithets in science fiction as fantasy, but there's no reason a writer couldn't use them. 

You could consider providing family trees for the characters in your book, if it helps to clarify.

Putting together timelines can be a helpful technique. "How long ago did it happen" is a question whose answer can vary depending on which story you are writing at the time, and where it falls on the world's timeline. Story X can be 30 years before story Y, while story Z is 25 years before story Y, which makes it five years after Story X. These relations can be important to track.

Kat asked whether she would need to change her timelines due to cultural characteristics (possibly). Different groups track time in different ways, and create different structures to organize events. 

Kat recommended the Father Brown Mysteries, because they have a lot of amazing detail about Catholic histories. They provide enough information for people who don't know the history, and not too much for people who already do know that history.

It's always a good idea to think through what we do or don't need to include. Basing these decisions on our sense of who constitutes our audience can be critical.

Ask: What does your character care about? How much do they care about it? How does this affect the actions and the plot? How deeply in sync is this person with their surrounding culture, and why?

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. I hope to see you at Dive into Worldbuilding next Tuesday at 4pm Pacific!


Monday, May 14, 2018

Henry Lien and Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword

It was absolutely fabulous to have Henry Lien back on the show! I'm excited to see the world of Pearl rolling out in novel form after we had such a great discussion about his story, "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters," which appeared in Asimov's in 2013.

Henry joined us to talk about his new novel, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword, which he describes as a direct sequel to the previous story.

The world of Pearl is a secondary world in which Henry invented an art-sport that combines figure skating with kung fu. He first developed it at Clarion when instructed by Chuck Palahniuk. As an exercise in empathy and attempting to write something outside his own experience, he tried to enter the world of teenage girls, and examine girl-girl dynamics in a high-pressure setting, with talented but misbehaving girls prepping for an exam for an Academy.

The new book has been summarized by some as "Harry Potter meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Ice," but is a lot deeper and more complex than that description would suggest. It deals with issues of immigration and crossing cultures even as it has tons of fun with its characters and their sport. The main character is a newcomer to a place that in her eyes appears to be more culturally advanced. Henry examines how one's identity splits during the journey of immigration.

This story is set in a fantasy world very different from ones we have seen before, so that we don't ever know quite what to expect. It draws cultural markers from China, Taiwan, and Japan, and uses elements of the region's history, including interactions between the different cultures. Henry said one of his goals was to create a world where you feel like you know it but when you engange in it in detail, it's super-different from ours.

In Peasprout Chen's world, tabloid headlines are delivered by birds in a delightfully innovative way. This world uses Chinese characters, which can be written in the grass script style as a continuous line. Henry noticed that his birds will follow him around, so he decided that he would have someone in the city skate the pattern of the characters on the ground while birds follow them overhead, essentially resulting in the birds tracing calligraphy in the sky. Grass-style calligraphy, which is an actual cultural thing, and actual bird behavior from our world, combine to create a completely alien result. In this way, Henry uses familiar building blocks to create a world that is unique.

We asked him how becoming a bird person changed him. This is a very sweet story! Henry told us about how he had rescued the birds, all of them small parrots. He calls them "an alien race that we share this Earth with." Birds are very sensitive to the environment, and their triggers are consistent. He compared some of their reactions to PTSD reactions. They are very idiosyncratic. Henry said, "It made me learn to love something I don't fully understand." You can appreciate the nooks and crannies even if you can't see the whole thing. 

Kat remarked that she's discovered a surprising number of figure-skating writers and editors that she hadn't previously heard about. 

Henry said that when he was researching figure skating and kung fu, he discovered that they have three characteristics in common: each is intense, lyrical, and punishing. Injury is always waiting for you, and can shut you down for weeks. There's a lot of drama in these sports that can be very appealing to writers.  The Olympics features brutal dramatic judgment where the athlete trains for four years to perform for two minutes, during which any error is catastrophic. Stakes are high, and the focus on age and performance is intense.

Henry talked about his own experience studying wushu, and explained that he came into classes with "hubris" based on his own general fitness and how strong the other people in the class looked. He made it quite clear that he'd been wrong about this! His 19-year-old lithe partner would "kick my butt every week." He feels that both figure skating and wushu reward the ways that women's bodies move.

The setting of Peasprout Chen is a city made of a non-ice substance called pearl. The fact that everything is made of pearl means that parkour can also be woven in.

He told us a bit about the backstory of the novel. There is the mainland empire of Shin which is kind of like China but not China; there is the island of Pearl which is kind of like Taiwan but not Taiwan, and then the land of Eda in the background which is kind of like Japan but not Japan. In this world, the male population of Pearl was destroyed in a war. A failed courtesan from Shin fled to Pearl and teamed up with an older woman famed for her ugliness. This older woman had discovered a substance that could be manipulated to make ice-like pearl. Together they created the city, and the courtesan invented the sport of Wu Liu to allow them to turn their disadvantages into strengths. The name "wu liu" combines the first half of "wu shu" (kung fu) with the second half of "liu ping" (figure skating.)

Henry put special emphasis on the idea of turning everything upside-down. We are told that our bodies and our identities are disadvantages, but those things should be turned upside down and turned into advantages.

On Pearl, there are no wheels, and no shoes. Dragging things around is considered primitive. Everyone learns to skate as soon as they can walk. The people are xenophobic and consider the outside world barbaric.

Cliff observed that if you were kicking people with blades, that would be cool for war but for a sport would lead to some pretty serious injuries. Henry agreed and said that there is always the threat of real danger with this sport.

Henry explained that he loves rules. School is an environment girdled all around with rules to keep people from misbehaving, so it's a setting he loves to work in. Students at the wu liu school are not allowed to do any moves outside of class, or they will forfeit their next examination. This is a key element of the plot of Peasprout Chen

In particular, he says he wanted a fantasy world with no magic. George R. R. Martin consulted with him on aspects of it. Everything is grounded in real world experience, including the constant threat of injury that has grave consequences for the students. Even a bad wrist can knock you out. Henry himself got injured at one point during his training because he had become frustrated when another student did a kick the first time. Henry tried the same jump and tore his hamstring; he said it looked like someone had cut him. 

Danger creates good stories. Ambition is a characteristic required by the sport.

Henry quoted a line from Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell: "Don't talk to me about magic. It's like everything else: full of setbacks and disappointments." If this is the way your work seems, then whenever you achieve something, it feels like a huge accomplishment! Peasprout Chen's life is full of cultural landmines and danger, but when she does something cool, we cheer.

I asked Henry what elements of the world had been developed between the initial Asimov's story and this novel. He said a lot of it was what he had developed with George R. R. Martin. He took a look at the structures that made the society and the city work, like food delivery, money and insurance. You need to understand these mundane things.

"If pigs could fly, bacon would be expensive."

Thus, it's important to explore the mundane consequences of fantasy things. How do people tell time? How are they called to class? How would people of their technology and sensibility go about building things?

Henry said he'd ended up with a 100-page encyclopedia, but that it was joyful to write. He knows that at dusk, when the sun goes down, the rich go home and the poor take public transport, while kids go fare-jumping by hanging on the back of a tram. Little things in this world, he explains, are very real to him. After writing in it so much and being "a hermit" in his habits, he feels he knows the world of Pearl better than ours.

If people have glasses, where are they manufactured? If there's no green space, how is food distributed?

Henry told us about his agent, Tina DuBois, and his editor, Tiffany Liau, both of whom he greatly admires. They helped him to think hard about questioning the usual generalizations, like "girls are more relational." This is commonly claimed, but is not universal. Not every girl wants that out of life. There are social forces that cause women to need to figure each other out, but some still say, "I'm busy here." This is the case for Peasprout Chen. Henry said he thought very hard about her because she resists relationships, and is not really ready for them. She decides her own place in her world.

Henry says he's very grateful to the people who nurtured and inspired him in his writing process, and most of them are women. They helped him portray the characters realistically, with variety and intensity.

Tiffany Liau, Henry says, is a genius with plotting. She had zero problem with the all-Asian cast with some LGBT characters; she said, "Let's make it a page-turner." Henry believes that the style of an editor can be as distinct as that of a writer, and put a unique stamp on the writing.

He was inspired in part by Kelly Link, because she writes across genres and for different ages. She helped him perceive genres as constructs with porous borders. Henry said that if you don't impose those limits on yourself, the world might not be as resistant as you think. The language can be beautiful even in a book for young people, and you shouldn't dumb it down.

Tina DuBois, Henry's agent, was the one who said, "Do you not realize what's special about this? The star is the voice, the main character." Henry explained that he hadn't been able to realize this because the character was too close to him, which made it hard to see. He also said that Kelly Link had given him some really important encouragement when he finished his first three chapters.

Our discussant, Sally, remarked that it wouldn't be right if a figure skating plot did not include LGBT characters. Henry said it's possible to think of figure skating as a non-binary sport, given that it requires both grace and strength. It draws a diversity of athletes who each approach this balance in a different way. He noted that even in point-based sports like basketball, fans still talk about the grace of the athletes, and deeply appreciate it.

Kat suggested that people who are less inclined to mix grace with brutal intensity will move to sports other than figure skating. There's no padding for people who are learning the beginner jumps. Only if you get to a very advanced level will they put the skaters on a rig to help them with spectacular jumps.

Henry said that he never got over how alien figure skating felt. It seemed an arbitrary idea for a sport, to him, and the experts in it seemed they were from another planet.

Cliff asked Henry if he felt he was a substantially different person after writing Peasprout Chen. Henry said, essentially, no. He said that people sometimes think their lives will begin once they publish their first novel, but it hasn't happened to him. There are gradations of change, perhaps, but he can't see it. He hates the promotional part of being a debut novelist, and says he's always doing things outside his comfort zone.

He said the most amazing thing that had happened with his debut involved a song he had written for New Year's celebrations at the Academy in the book. He researched, and managed to learn the Apple Garage Band suite of Chinese instruments in order to compose the song. Then, Idina Menzel sang it with him at his launch party! He rented a small taiko drum so he would have something to do with his hands, learned to drum for 10 straight hours before the launch party, and played it while they sang.

Henry says he's just finished Book 2 of the series, which he calls "My favorite book of all time." It's called Peasprout Chen, Future Champion of the Battlebands. He's currently working on Book 3.

Henry, thank you so much for coming on the show! This world sounds like it's expanded and developed in truly amazing ways, and everyone should go check out Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.

Tomorrow, May 15, 2018, at 4:00pm Pacific, we'll be joined on the show by author Kelly Robson, who will be talking about her climate-change and time-travel mixing novella, "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach." I hope you can join us!