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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!