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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!