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Monday, April 29, 2019

Scaffolding SFF Vocabulary in Context

We started this episode by talking about what constitutes genre vocabulary. There are many different kinds! Names of characters, names of places, names of tools or gadgets or totally invented things. The question I wanted to ask was, how do we help readers understand the unknown words we present them with?

We began, though, by taking a step back to the underlying premise and talking about reader expectations. Cliff pointed out that readers of different genres come in with different kinds of expectations about how much mental work they will have to do. Some are looking for a sense of wonder and difference and figuring out the world after being thrown in the deep end. Others are not. Cliff cited Anthony Burgess' book A Clockwork Orange as an example of a book that uses a lot of Russian and made-up words with no glossary.

Kat brought up the idea of things that are taken for granted within a genre: for example, concepts like replicators, airlocks, or faster than light travel. She argued that if we try to explain these things, then we lose core genre readers.

Thus we arrived at the topic of explanation. Explanation definitely does have a role in allowing readers to understand unfamiliar terms we put in a text, but it takes up a lot of space, and some people can find it either unnecessary or patronizing if it's done badly.

Another thing we can do is take words our readers already know and repurpose them. Kat's example was that she uses "matter box" instead of replicator. But even "replicator" makes use of a reader's previous knowledge of the word "replicate" to form part of the explanation of what the object does.

It's worth giving some thought to whether you are writing specifically for an audience that has a lot of experience with science fictional terms, or whether you are writing for an audience without such experience.

The word "ansible" is widely understood in communities that have read a lot of science fiction. It's a device that allows instantaneous communication across interstellar distances. The word was coined by Ursula K. Le Guin in Rocannon's World (1966), and has been adopted by other writers since then.

The science fiction genre can on one level be considered a language community. Texts and discussion of those texts contribute to an overarching genre conversation that keeps getting contributed to by new writers, readers, and viewers. Kids are coming in with different vocabulary these days from the kind of vocabulary kids came in with in the past (because science fiction is less niche than it used to be, and also because language change is awesome).

When do you explain a thing? A good time to do this is if it's central to the story, and important to know to follow along. It may be clunky to do it directly, however. It can be done with different levels of obliqueness. Conflict between characters can help explanations to fit in when otherwise they would seem intrusive.

Think about what kind of experience your audience is looking for. Do they want comfort? Do they want discomfort? Do they want to feel like an insider, or an outsider? The more alien or fantasy vocabulary you use, the more you create distance between the reader and the story. How a reader responds to that distance will depend a great deal on expectations.

Charlie Jane Anders in her book The City in the Middle of the Night uses a technique where she uses English words but then redefines them in the book's text so that their definitions are particular to her world. It's similar to the way a "cat" in Welcome to Nightvale was not actually a cat. This strategy relies on familiar vocabulary to create a sense of familiarity for the reader, but then undermines it in specific ways.

One way to use English words in an unfamiliar context and mark them as not having a meaning that matches the default real-world expectation is to give them a modifier. A catlike creature in your world might be referred to as a cave cat or a shadow cat.

It's also important to consider what is familiar to the protagonist vs. what is familiar to the reader.

I was working with the concept of vaccination in my book, but didn't want to have a lot of real world contextual baggage come with it, including the fact that the word vaccinate comes from the word cow in latin (cowpox was the first type of vaccination). What I decided to do was backform a word starting with the familiar word inoculation, and call vaccines "inoculants." This is what I would call a morphological decoding strategy. You use pieces of words that people are familiar with and know the meanings of, but recombine them in grammatical yet unfamiliar ways.

Both Star Trek and Star Wars have used this kind of strategy, as when they call an elevator a "turbolift" in Star Trek, and laser guns "blasters" in Star Wars.

Another form of context that can help readers grasp the meaning of a word is to place an unfamiliar word into the context of a very repetitive phrase. "You're an utter ________" tends to set up an insult no matter what fills in the blank. Similarly, "I was absolutely __________ed last night" suggests drunkenness regardless of the word you choose. Keep in mind that in order for this effect to work, your reader has to have heard the phrase and associated it with this context before. Cliff mentioned the story "Bobby pulls a Wilson"in which "pulling a Wilson" means royally screwing up, and then later Bobby encounters Wilson, who doesn't really understand why is past actions have become such an insult.

We have a lot of phrases that are idiomatic, or semi-idiomatic, or at least predictable enough within particular language communities to help support novel words. Even preposition choice can be a part of this strategy.

Any language also tends to retain phrasings that don't necessarily reflect current behavior. Take for example "I hung up" which is still used to describe ending a phone call even though telephones no longer require that anything be "hung up" on the wall to end the call. "Call" itself used to mean going by someone's house to speak with them, not just engaging with them by means of a technological device. Language phrasings of this nature can be hard to notice and may end up dating your work. (I would argue that's not necessarily a problem.) William Gibson's Neuromancer is still influential today but he names amounts of data which these days seem laughably small. This is one of the risks of setting a story in "the future" as though there is only one future. Pat Cadigan invented something called "hit and run" parties... in fact, they came to exist later on, but were called "raves."

There is no such thing as "the future," only possible futures. Those futures are influenced by, but not determined by, the stories we write about them.

We had a laugh at how much science fiction and fantasy stories assume humans drink coffee, or substitute fantasy or SF words for coffee. The word "tea" is more broadly assigned in our world (it applies to a wide variety of hot water infusions, and not only to those made with camellia sinensis), so has a little bit more flexibility.

Thank you to everyone who participated in our discussion! Dive into Worldbuilding meets again tomorrow, April 30th, 2019 to discuss Drawings, Paintings, Photos, Videos: How we capture images.  I hope you can join us!


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Caroline Ratajski

It was really great to have Carrie on the show. I'd just seen her on the last Friday night when we both read at the inaugural meeting of the Parallel Lit SFF reading series, which meets in the East Bay (check out the link for details).

Carrie told us her favorite genre is atmospheric horror. She explained that she's not into blood and gore, or thrillers, but prefers the Shirley Jackson-style psychological and moody form of horror. She also said that she tries to end her work with hope when she can. She said her favorite part of writing is atmospheric description. She loves to "roll around in these delicious environments," such as the slow decay of an elaborate mansion.

Currently, Carrie is engaged in a novella project on Patreon, a horror retelling of The Secret Garden set in space. The main character in The Secret Garden is the sole survivor of a cholera epidemic; the main character of The Untended Rue is Lennox, the sole survivor of an outbreak of what amounts to space dysentery.

I asked Carrie about a reading she did at FogCon from this early section of the book, where she talked about the people going into the space station and discovering all the dead bodies. She explained there are so many ways to describe bodies. She's a huge fan of Caitlin Doughty, who runs the vlog "Ask a Mortician." Carrie describes her videos as wonderfully researched pieces about her work as a mortician, including mummification methods, and how people deal with the emotions of death across cultures. It turns out that the question "what is the oldest mummy" has quite a complex answer. It's also complex to determine who owns human remains after a certain period of time. Caitlin describes states of decomposition and gave Carrie the idea that dead bodies act like acids. A dead body left out can disintegrate and decay things around it. The stomach is full of hydrochloric acid which is contained by mucus and enzymes the body produces. When you die, the acid gets released and affects its surroundings.

Carrie told us she wanted to have a developed enough space environment but really concentrate on the messy human interaction that came with it. She spent time thinking about murder in space and what would happen in a space station. The materials used to make the space station might not hold up to having a body decompose, and you might learn an expensive lesson if a body decomposed while hidden and, for example, depressurized a part of your station.

Our discussant Kate found this particularly interesting and brought up the fact that the moon mission used ships like "tin foil." If you were to put a body closer to the outer skin of a ship or station, the evidence might freeze-dry.

We asked Carrie how she was approaching the social aspects of The Secret Garden. She said that she was focusing on the family situation specifically, and the metaphor of the garden left to rot being like the way grief causes harm when it goes unaddressed. The character of Mary, who is Lennox in the retelling, has a lot of angry frustration, and has to learn how to form connections with people. She does have a cousin who is believed to be ill. The character of Dickon in Carrie's novella is genderflipped and expanded to give her more layers.

I was quite fascinated with the form of translation that Carrie is using when moving from the original book to her altered retelling.

Carrie explained that in the original book, she felt Dickon came across as a concept or role, someone to show the way but who was not entirely grounded. Therefore she's working to make her new Dickon character more grounded. She wanted her to be on the space station for a reason, working on a garden of food intended to supplement more "modern methods" of providing station residents with lab-grown protein. The plants in the garden are also a wealth display, because algae or bacteria would be cheaper. Kat noted that this recreates the issue of socioeconomic disparity we see in the original book.

Carrie said she really doesn't want Dickon to be a "magical peasant." She described The Secret Garden as "baby's first gothic romance," with the isolated sprawling home on the moors. With the way that it's isolated, and the way you could get lost and even die if you were caught outside, it seemed to her a lot like a space station.

I asked Carrie what the seed of germination was for this story. She told us she started The Untended Rue for a very personal reason. She had had a fallow year during 2018 and didn't realize she was ill with Graves' disease, which has anxiety as a side effect, and she was feeling she was terrible at this. So now she's decided to go back to stories that she loves. She told us The Secret Garden was one of her favorites. "I did laps on that book." She would read to the end, flip it over and start again.

Carrie told us she wanted to have her story have the same heart of "pushing the boundaries of civilization" but leave behind the problems of the original. The space station Lennox lived on was out on the edge of occupied space, and people living there wanted to be on the edge and have a lavish lifestyle out in the darkness. Our discussant Kat thought this sounded like The Secret Garden meets The Masque of the Red Death.

Carrie told us that Edgar Allan Poe is definitely one of her influences, though she hasn't referenced him specifically.

She has been working on the character of Lennox's cousin, asking "How do I make this kid the brattiest kid alive but still redeemable?"

She says this story has allowed her to rediscover what she loves in writing, and the Patreon is a space where she can be a little more self-indulgent.

We asked how writing a chapter every two weeks for an audience affects her writing process. It does put certain limits on her. She can't revise anything that came before. She needs to give events a runway, wants to avoid writing a specific year when events occurred, etc. She has an outline, and she has an outline of how the characters should interact and grow over time. She also has a sense of how she wants the garden to develop, and what she wants the climax to look like.

Carrie described this as the "fanfic model of writing." She used to write fanfic, so it works for her. The response of the audience buoys her. She says this has all the advantages of fanfic, and also The Secret Garden is out of copyright, so that saves a lot of trouble. Patreon is a good vehicle for serial storytelling. Carrie said she wasn't reinventing anything. The original book was also a serial that was collected into a book. Carrie explained that she is not echoing the chapter structure, but following the narrative beats pretty closely. Lennox does meet her cousin in secret. She does have a somewhat combative relationship with her maid, though in the retelling, the maid is not Dickon's sister.

I asked whether Carrie had a sense of how long the whole story would end up being, and she said, "I always think things will be done faster than they are." Initially she was estimating 12-15 installments, but now she says she doesn't know how long it will take. So far, she's quite happy with the pace. When you work online, there's less of a limit on length.

Carrie has numerous other projects she works on, including game reviews. She wants to continue to revisit old stories looking for a new take. She also streams horror games. She told us that when she has to speak for hours at a time, she uses a carefully softened voice to protect her vocal cords. She uses past vocal training to protect her voice, and told us she's an engineer in her daily work so she doesn't talk much.

One piece of literature she really admires is House of Leaves. She told us how she loves the way it plays with structure, especially the labyrinth chapter, which sends you into a series of footnotes and endnotes (like a labyrinth) while the characters explore a labyrinth.

A lot of her writing lately is exploring issues of trauma and healing. Carrie said that  a lot of literature puts too much emphasis on the trauma part without giving space to the healing part. There is a way to cope. She wants to deal with all different kinds - death, being rejected for who you are, complicated grief and cross-generational grief.

It's always fun, she says, to ask "How spooky and decaying can I make this house?"

Carrie loves Star Wars because it has an environment that feels very lived-in. We speculated that she could start a new genre of gothic and decay in space, and she said "that would be lit." Kate suggested that's one of the things that makes The Expanse work, and Kat said it was why she forgave Firefly for its fail.

Carrie suggested that we have developed disillusionment in the idea of the bright gleaming future. We carry our same baggage as people, and that will always complicate things. Gadgets break. Why don't lightsabers or Star Trek message pads break?

Carrie says she often asks, How intensely realistic do I want to be? She thinks a lot about air circulation and waste management and other hidden topics. For things like faster-than-light travel, though, she handwaves so long as it doesn't break the story. She doesn't approve of swords that never chip, and appreciates the way Sansa in Game of Thrones is always thinking through how to feed an army and dragons.

Thank you so much, Carrie, for coming on the show and for this incredibly interesting and entertaining chat! Good luck with your projects. Thank you also to everyone who participated.


Thursday, April 11, 2019

Where We Sleep

Where we sleep, and how, depend on a great many factors. Species is one! Aliens or animals will sleep differently from humans, and that's worth mentioning when you are dealing with SFF worldbuilding. Even for humans, though, there are a lot of different factors that enter into the question. Socioeconomic status is important. So is culture, and architecture, and climate. How we talk about it and how we feel about it also differ a lot.

Is the question of where we sleep an appropriate topic to speak about? Why or why not? Is it intimate? Is it shameful?

In Doctor Who, the Twelfth Doctor once encountered a room which was only made of bed, and struggled to understand it.

We acknowledged that where one has sex is a relevant question, but not a question we wanted to delve into in this hour. Paul could imagine that it would be possible for a culture to think it was inappropriate to have sex in the same place where you sleep.

In Babylon 5, the Minbari don't believe in sleeping on your back because they think it would invite death, so they sleep on angled platforms that humans find precarious.

We don't all sleep lying flat! Some people have slept in bed closets that create a closed wooden space to help keep people warm while sleeping. Good for cold climates, but they might not allow you to lie full length. Some people sleep in recliners.

Ventilation preferences vary widely for sleepers. Is it considered acceptable to have air blowing on you? Is it considered dangerous?

Cultural rules can be very complex.

Do babies co-sleep with their parents? This is an enormous, hotly debated topic that differs greatly across the world, and people are often eager to argue for their view.

What happens if you don't have "your own side of the bed"? Some people don't feel attached to the side of the bed they sleep on. For some, they do feel attached to their location relative to the bed. For others, it's less the position on the bed that's important and more their position relative to surroundings, like a window, or a bathroom. Some people want to sleep with their head facing in a cardinal direction, like north. People who use CPAP machines to help them breathe need to be near an electrical outlet!

Do you sleep with your pets? This question is another one that can rouse strong emotions in people. Would characters in a fictional society sleep with pets? Why or why not?

How hard is the bed? Is it preferable to sleep on a plush mattress or a board, or something in between? Why?

What if you had bat people? What if you walked into their home and they had a rail intended for sleeping?

Kat has a multi-species café that she writes about that asks a lot of questions about how to accommodate different species' needs. She says it's much easier to do visual storytelling, i.e. to imagine a movie or something, than to describe all its features verbally. Who is there? What do they need? What does the café provide?

How long do you expect to sleep at an uninterrupted stretch? Three hours? Eight or ten or twelve? Can the sleep come in multiple sessions? Is there a distinction between a night's sleep and a nap? A siesta?

What happens to our beds when we are not using them? Do they get put away for the day in a closet, like Japanese futons? Do they get used by someone else who is sleeping in shifts?

How much privacy do we expect while sleeping? Do we expect our sleeping activities to be segregated by age or gender, or by other factors?

Kat asked, what if you had sentries who slept because during sleep they were more sensitive to ambient sounds, and while they were awake, they were expected to be focused on a particular thing/activity?

Think about what it's like adjusting to an unfamiliar sleeping place. Why would it be like that? Would it be like that for your fictional people?

Do you need sentries at home? Why?

Do you prefer to sleep in light or darkness? What happens if your sleep cycle doesn't match with that of the planet you're on? What if you're in the Arctic during summer?

People in NASA or JPL who work with the Mars mission have to work on Mars day length, which is an interesting challenge.

We tend to believe that the day is divided into segments of a particular type, but if all parameters are open for consideration, it would be possible to change the nature of those segments a lot!

Kat compared life on the space station to life on a boat, which she's very familiar with. It has some very interesting similarities.

The International Space Station experiences about 20 sunrises and sunsets per day.

Is the species you are working with diurnal, nocturnal, or crepuscular?

How uniform is the cultural expectation of daytime? Are there people who prefer to be awake at night? Kat mentioned that she was reading that some Pacific peoples began their day at moonrise because that was the best time to fish.

Babies have weird sleep schedules and can be very unpredictable. A being with a small stomach will wake up hungry quite often!

Kate mentioned that some medieval people would go to sleep at 5pm in the winter when it got dark, then spend some time awake in the night, and then sleep again before morning.

Any population must be diverse and variable. If we didn't have people who preferred different times of day and different kinds of activity, society would not function as it does.

Morgan mentioned that people who prefer to be awake at night may be trying to avoid the overwhelm of daytime stimuli.

Can you sleep with a lot of noise? What kind of noise?
Can you sleep without weight on you? With a sheet? A blanket? Can you do without? Would you struggle if you had to sleep without weight because of heat?

The adaptations that people make to sleep in particular climates, such as loose-weave cotton blankets or bed styles or even sleeping times, can be lost when people move into a diaspora. Korea has something called a mink blanket designed specifically for very cold winter nights. Quilts are also regional, though they have become something of an international art form at this point.

Do we sleep with clothes on? What kind - socks? Hats? How different are our sleeping and waking clothes? Do you have money for different sets of sleeping and waking clothes? Are you allowed to be seen in clothes you have worn to bed? How old are children allowed to go out in public in their sleeping clothes?

Are people culturally permitted to sleep in public places? What kind? Can they sleep in restaurants if their parents are nearby? Do sleeping children require a sentry?

What kind of pillows are there? There are lots of different kinds in our world: buckwheat, foam, feather, synthetic fiber, etc. What is the shape of the pillow? Do other species want to have their heads supported when they sleep? What about other body parts?

What do you do with your tail, your hair, your beard when you are sleeping?

Do we sleep in nests? Pillow forts? Hammocks?

What do you do when there are a lot of people in a very small space? Do you have a capsule hotel or sleep in a drawer? Do you bunk? Do you have scheduled bed-sharing with others? Is your bed your private castle, or do you just have a pillow and blanket that belong to you, which you keep in a locker? How would high-density sleeping arrangements change family structures?

Do you have to re-form or reconstitute your bed every night?

Do you sleep wedged in a crack like an octopus? Do you velcro your body or your sleeping bag to a wall in microgravity?

Kate talked about a book called "All Yesterdays," which talked about what dinosaurs did when they were not hunting. How did they sleep, and where? How do ostriches sleep? Some birds have feet that reflexively grasp the branch when they sleep.

If you were on a multi-species space station, could your workplace be the kind of environment another resident might want to sleep in?

Many species are territorial about sleep. It's a vulnerable time, so we tend to go to ground, or want to sleep in a locked place.

What would happen if you felt you were in privacy for sleeping but another species was able to perceive your activity because they had enhanced or alternate senses? What is private to humans may not be to animals or aliens.

Do you want to sleep in an elevated place? How elevated? How much overhead space do you want? What is claustrophobic to you?

Is there a particular smell you need to sleep comfortably? If you were a hamster, you might appreciate the leaf litter smell or the cedar shavings of your people...

Odo from DS9 would sleep in a bucket.

Do your people have any legends, superstitions, or traditional narratives about where sleeping should happen and how? Do they "hit the hay" literally to even out the bed surface and get rid of bugs?

Thank you to everyone who came and participated in this discussion. Dive into Worldbuilding will meet next week on Tuesday, April 16th at 4pm Pacific. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, April 3, 2019


This was a great discussion! The topic was suggested by Che, who was listening to an audiobook recently and got to thinking about what governments, cultures, and countries choose to memorialize. Sometimes it's people, sometimes it's events...

You do see monuments in speculative fiction, but perhaps not enough. They are incredibly useful worldbuilding tools! They serve as cultural memory, or as propaganda, or even just as landmarks. You can find anything from plaques to statues to towers.

Paul said his research suggests that as early as 12,000 years ago, people started building decorative or ceremonial structures of very large size. We know about the pyramids of Egypt, but in fact, similar constructions began as early as the neolithic. One of the striking things about this is that there must have been some kind of agreement to pool the labor required to pull together the resources required for such a construction project. Some things must have taken generations to build (like the cathedrals of Europe, which we mentioned again later in the discussion).

What motivates us to create monuments? Is it that we strive for a sense of immortality? Is it that our communities value focus points? Perhaps it's that people value the feeling of coming together for a large-scale project, or that we appreciate something that symbolizes our community.

It may be in part that people need things to do, especially if their labor is tied to their income and ability to eat. In Egypt, because of the seasonal flooding of the Nile, there were times when people couldn't farm. Why not build amazing things instead of sitting around?

We spoke about the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This monument was built for Napoleon, and completed in 1836. Not only was it intended to honor Napoleon for his victories, it was also meant to evoke the monuments of Rome. Monuments can mimic other monuments! People have built obelisks in mimicry of other obelisks that they stole from other cultures. And then there was the pyramid of Sestus - built in Rome by a man who wanted his death to be memorialized like the deaths of the Pharaohs.

Monuments of this nature are expensive to build. Not only is there the expense of the materials required - there's also the cost of the labor involved, and the opportunity cost of having so many people diverted from labor that might otherwise contribute to a food supply or local economy.

How do people decide to make this kind of investment? It's easy to think of times when a person (or people) in power commanded the investment from people who would either benefit from the employment, or couldn't choose to say no (or both). Was this always the case?

When you see the Argonath in the Lord of the Rings, what do they make us think? We are invited to think about who built them, and when, and why. We're also invited to consider how that kind of power and expense can be expended... and then the original purpose of the effort can be completely lost. (In notes we exchanged after the hangout, Cliff mentioned the poem "Ozymandias," which also examines what happens when the underlying motivation for a monument has disappeared. If you haven't read this poem, click through the link here, because it's awesome.)

What motivates monument-building? What would motivate it in your world?

Is it useful to focus an economy on something decorative? What is the value of such a symbol? Such a project?

Morgan pointed out that in the area of video games, people's desire to create better art has driven the technological advancement of the computers on which the games are run. Monument-building can drive the creation of new technologies of other kinds as well - maybe a new style of arch, or new techniques for creating a building. Someone has to have come up with the idea of flying buttresses!

Paul talked about the development of the Egyptian pyramids. Originally, the Egyptian peoples of the era built tombs called mastabas, which were just thick flat layers of stone over the burial site. Then they started stacking mastabas of decreasing size on top of each other, resulting in step-pyramids. Then they tried to integrate the mastabas with each other. At first this didn't go perfectly, resulting in structures the Bent Pyramid. Finally they ended up with the pyramids as we see them at Giza.

When your society is building something that takes generations, there will be developments in technology over time. You can see this in the architecture of Rouen cathedral in France, where the two towers were built in two different styles because they were built four hundred years apart (when I checked this, it became clear that the later tower and just the topmost story of the older tower were built in flamboyant Gothic style, while the lower parts of the older tower are in a simpler style. Photo is here, and you can get information about the Saint Romain Tower as well as the Butter Tower.)

When people build monuments that deliberately imitate or echo past monuments, they may be trying to evoke a sense of the majesty and grandeur that people associate with the past glories of powerful societies.

As you're worldbuilding, think about what you are evoking about our own history, because resemblances between your monument and ones in our real world will influence how readers react to that monument. Think also about whether your world is evoking its own past.

I spoke about a sort of monument from my Varin world, the main building of the Pelismar University, which is the basis for the insignia of the Kartunnen caste. This building was designed to imitate the canonical "university," which in the world of Varin means the first university ever established, before Varin even existed as a nation. The Kartunnen are not aware of this resemblance because the story of the first university has been lost - they can only track it back as far as the construction of the Pelismar University itself.

Morgan mentioned that MIT has an iconic building at 77 Mass. Ave. that has become associated with the university's identity.

This brought us to the idea that certain places become symbolized by their monuments. It's incredibly unusual to see Paris used as a setting without any use of the Eiffel Tower as a visual cue to the location. In the larger context of narratives about places, it is extremely common for one or two specific monuments to become emblematic of that place. It would even be hard for people to recognize the location if those iconic images did not appear.

We wondered what the symbol of New York was. Is it the Empire State Building? (It was at one time.) It certainly was the Twin Towers before they fell. Is it the skyline itself, even though the skyline changes? Is it the bridges? How about the Statue of Liberty?

What symbolizes the cities in your world?

People build monuments to memorialize battles. They build statues of people like founders, or heroes (even though most cities don't have a single founder!).

Geneva has a clock of flowers that symbolizes the city (as well as the Jet d'Eau). Frankfurt, Kentucky also has a flower clock.

Some people take the Glorious Leader approach and fill their towns with images of the person they want standing over the people. When you put up the statue of a leader, you can end up having the issue of people pulling the statue down when the leader falls. Such an image becomes symbolic of the power associated with it and can become the target of revolution and political change (and vandalism!).

Back in Rome, the statues of Emperors were re-purposed - the faces would be re-sculpted to match the face of the current Emperor. Buildings can also be re-purposed, and they may not lose all the features of their previous purpose. This is a really great way to give a sense of history in a created world.

You can google ugly or weird monuments.

There are monuments to pets in different countries, such as the Hachiko statue in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, or the relaxed cat statue on a bench in Turkey.

Any monument can be considered ugly. The Eiffel tower was very controversial at its inception, as was the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre, though they have become iconic since. The statue of quetzalcoatl in San Jose is not universally loved either (I love it, though!).

Then there are the instances where monuments destroy what preceded them, as in the case of the Seven Grandfathers formation, which was destroyed to create the sculptures of Mount Rushmore. Sometimes people who have done immense harm are memorialized in statues. The Glorious Leader statues can be an example of this, but so can things like the statue of J. Marion Sims, which was quite recently removed from a New York Park. He was memorialized for his contributions to gynecological science, but in fact his advances were made as a result of experimentation on enslaved women. There was a wave of monuments to the Confederacy built well after the civil war whose purpose was to remind a segment of the population that the power in the region belonged to people who wished them harm.

If you have two populations coming together to live together, how does this affect their monuments? Is it an invasion or colonization, where old monuments might be removed? Would new monuments be put up to interact with or accompany the old? How do monuments form a part of the symbolic narrative surrounding the convergence of these civilizations?

Are your monuments intended to be destroyed and rebuilt in a cyclical fashion?

Which monuments get neglected? When did people stop caring about them or knowing the stories behind them? How much forethought is given to the future care of a monument while it is being built? The eternal flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier is an example of very explicit maintenance of observance at a monument.

Don't forget that fountains can be monuments! Water features can be monuments and sometimes simultaneously be used as drinking water.

Thank you to everyone who attended the discussion. We will meet again next week on April 9th at 4pm Pacific, topic TBA.


Monday, April 1, 2019


There are a lot of different types of competitions, but we started with one that is a favorite of genre authors - the competition for succession to a seat of power. This is something that occurs in a lot of stories, including N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Frank Herbert's Dune, and many others. Such a competition happens in my forthcoming novel, but I wanted to run it in such a way that it would not be a battle royale or a bloodbath!

Cliff mentioned that in the Ottoman empire, assassination was the way to go to assure succession, and that it must have been weird knowing all your siblings and half siblings would have to die for you to achieve power.

In Jenn Lyons' The Ruin of Kings, there is a battle royale that happens in a prescribed space, so the king can't choose the Heir.

Kat wanted to see a story told from the perspective of someone who is not wily or strong and is stuck just waiting for someone to off them - the story of the non-victor. In this vein, "I, Claudius" was mentioned, as was Pillars of the Earth. An interesting story might involve someone saying, "Screw you, I'm just going to live as long as I can." In the Vorkosigan novels, everyone thinks they can co-opt Miles or his brother. Kate felt that a Peter story would be amazing. Cliff mentioned The Goblin Emperor, in which an unexpected heir turns up because everyone else was killed in an airship accident.

Historically, Henry IV became king of France when the previous king had no heir, and they had to search back along the genealogy and back down again to find someone who had blood relation to the royalty. They found Henry IV in Navarre and told him he was the king of all France.

Much is implied about a society by the kinds of competitions they set up - both for power successions and for other purposes.

Kat wanted to see more exploration of cooperative games as opposed to winner-take-all games. What would a world look like if it were based on cooperation and measured by cooperation? Even D&D has an us vs them mentality.

When you are looking at a siege, it's easy to think about how the people who are trapped might get supplies, but make sure also to consider how the besiegers get their supplies.

There is a large-scale assumption in narrative that we have to have competition, particularly antagonists.

Our sense of competition is often gendered. How do competitions designed by men or boys differ from those designed by women or girls? Would there be differences with non-binary gender?

Cliff told us that Babylon 5 featured coexisting competitive and cooperative philosophies which ended up striving against each other.

Do we need to have competition in order to foster excellence? How else might it be done?

Competitions often create pressure to divide groups by different criteria, and the selection process can be a site of shaming.

In classes, we tell people to do group projects without teaching them how to do group projects.

We ask companies to compete for bids on government projects without considering how competition encourages people to cut corners, which harms results.

Not all stories require people to compete against one another. We also imagine adventure stories that pit people against their environment, etc.

Why don't we have more stories about seed growers?

Cliff said he liked hacky sack because it was a cooperative game. He noted that Stephen King's The Stand involved people who were trying to build community. The show Jeremiah talked about trying to rebuild civilization after an apocalyptic disease.

Paul mentioned that the game Dead of Winter requires players to cooperate to win. He also mentioned that Spirit Island, while it has colonial tropes, has spirits working together against colonial invasion.

Kat talked about the game Terraforming Mars, which is not cooperative, but in which people can find themselves inadvertently contributing to each other's success. Settlers of Catan, she described as "let's go invade this place with individualistic goals." Monopoly is clearly competitive, and was originally designed to teach the evils of capitalism, but was interpreted by most in a non-satirical way. It's essentially "Gentrification, the game."

In Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series, the alien species called the Oankali does not have a competitive drive but an acquisitive one. Butler specifically examines the ins and outs of these differences. It does feature xenophobic humans, and the Oankali have a dodgy sense of consent. It's not posited as a utopia. The Oankali's critique of humans is that they are both intelligent and hierarchical. The story plays into fears of someone taking your germ line.

Dune has a grand game competition. The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge has a foot race. Game of Thrones has a lot of bloody battles. Nine Princes in Amber also centers a competition, but the pursuit of the throne changes to a larger project.

What it would be like if a potential leader were required to have a 5 year, a 50 year, and a 500 year plan?

Paul recommended Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire.

Romance often involves competition in the form of rivals for a relationship. Why not have that become a three-way relationship?

Kat said she's seeing more poly stories, but none that have made a major splash. Kate mentioned that there were such relationships in Sarah Gailey's hippo stories. Kat said Laurell K. Hamilton has some non-monogamy. There is an audience for fiction that features such relationships but perhaps less of one at the publisher level.

We all felt we would love to see "Cozy Marvel stories" where the day to day life of Marvel superheroes got explored.

At that point I brought up The Hunger Games. One of the reasons I feel this is such a brilliant series is that Suzanne Collins gets readers deeply invested in the outcome of the games, and then points out that readers have become complicit with the viewers of Panem. There is a tension between rooting for the hero and indicting our sense of competition.

The book A Player of Games by Iain Banks features a person paid to go and disrupt an empire. In this story the winner fo a game competition becomes Emperor. The book critiques the notion of competitive games. At the end, you find yourself wondering who won and who lost, what is left for the empire, and whether the intervention was good.

Competitions are not all one versus one. They can be one versus many, or many versus many. Many times, competition is not equal or simple.

Ritual combat is a way to simplify a larger competition, but it has drawbacks.

Many competitions are rigged. Either the competition itself is skewed so not everyone has an equal chance, or entry to the competition is limited.

Cliff recommended the book Interface by Stephen Bury, talking about electoral politics in the United states and how it functions differently from what we are told. He said he found it very disturbing. Stephen Bury is a pseudonym for the writing team of Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George.

We touched briefly on the question of competition in writing. Are we competing with each other? This question's answer depends a lot on the gatekeepers of canon. Marginalized people can be told that there are limits on the number of stories about their issues, while mainstream people get fifty slots for the same kinds of stories. Outside the mainstream, people thus get forced into competition. If you are visible, you end up doing emotional labor. Are you allowed to be just "a writer" or are you slotted into a niche?

Genre culture can be very competitive because of the limited number of slots for writing workshops, awards, etc. It often runs along socioeconomic lines. Money should always flow to the writer, but we are often called upon to make investments in our careers like paying for workshops, or even developmental editing etc. If you have limitations on your free time, this can also become a factor, when workshops run for long periods of time.

We didn't even have a chance to do much about science fiction and fantasy sports! Sigler has a football-based novel with aliens. Fonda Lee wrote Zeroboxer. Matt Wallace has a book with wrestling martial arts. Run Time by S.B. Divya and Achilles' Choice also came up in this context. We wondered whether people are still publishing sports stories, and whether demographic changes have influenced this at all. Kate Elliott has sport in Court of Fives. J.K. Rowling created quidditch. In DS9, aliens play baseball.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, April 2 to discuss Monuments. I hope you can join us!