Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Making Up Words - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

Making up words is one of the most wonderful things about working in science fiction and fantasy. Have you heard the word gargantuan before? That came from Jonathan Swift. What about the word grok?

Why do we make up all these words? Well, as one of our discussants said, sometimes English just doesn't cut it! (And sometimes we can make English even better! Lillian invented the word hemomancy on the spot...)

I described how in my story At Cross Purposes I had been happy to use the word "purpose" to capture my aliens' conflation of art with purpose, but that I had a much harder time finding a word that would successfully describe the principle of twin relationship, which included both a feeling of closeness and a feeling of conflict or pulling away. In the end I invented the word apfaa to do the job.

We agreed that in general when writing in English, it's a good idea to use English as much as you can until you can't capture something critical to the story. If it's a horse, or a rabbit, there's hardly any point in calling it something else. I mentioned that a reader had criticized me for using the English word "grouse" in Cold Words - but I had done it as an intentional translation of a bird that had the same characteristics as a grouse. So author choice is involved, and readers don't always agree on what is needed! (Grouse may also have been too non-generic a bird for that reader.)

Sometimes the words we make up are in English. For example, we can create compounds that give a sense of meaning without too much familiarity. I mentioned my own word "tunnel-hound," and another discussant mentioned "lizard-lions." Another good one is "ornithopter," used in Dune, which uses morphological play within the word to suggest the novel meaning, and also gives us a great sense of how the machine works. You can also use conlangs for made up words, but it's a good idea to think through the underlying structure of the language, both phonologically and morphologically, if you want to do that.

You can also borrow words from another language. One discussant mentioned that Theoden means king! Tolkien was very literal with a lot of his names, using translations of elvish or of other languages. Make sure, though, to check the meanings of the names or words you pick to make sure they don't mean anything nasty in another langauge! Lillian mentioned working with a culture based on Vikings and using Old Norse inspirations in naming. I mentioned how Janice Hardy used words from Afrikaans to name some of her characters - and how this did throw off some Dutch-speaking readers.

The feel of words we create often comes from onomatopoeia, which has some universal characteristics across language, such as the association of unvoiced consonants and high vowels with small things, and voiced consonants with larger, heavier things. The resemblance of the created word to existing words in English can also give it a "feel." We talked about the name Voldemort, and it turned out that I and one discussant had parsed it differently! She had thought of it as vol-de-mort "flight of death" where I had parsed it as volde-mort "wanting death." There are certainly lots of possibilities! I named a character Nekantor, which for me had some associations with death - "necropolis" has that "nek" sound, for example. However, I didn't want it to be explicit, so I didn't use the full morpheme "necr-".

Glenda talked about looking for a name for a social group that didn't quite fit with the concepts of clan, family, or house. She was looking for root words in other languages to help. Raj mentioned naming some catlike creatures "skald cats" because they were found by Norwegians, but having their appelation change later to "tregols" meaning forest gold.

If you decide to use existing Earth languages, do your research. Japanese people making up names in Japanese won't do it the same way that an English speaker would. Learn from Anime; research actual meanings; Lillian suggests looking for real names in credit lists from Anime or other foreign films.

Words from Earth languages bring context in with them, and that means baggage. Watch out for cultural appropriation. You don't want to slap on the trappings of a language or culture without honoring the core, so watch out for stereotypes. Similarly, if you are using the cultural details of a particular group but don't use the language, that comes across very oddly, as if you are trying to erase the language.

You can't always anticipate how people are going to pronounce the words you make up. Words have a visual as well as auditory aspect.

When making up words, consider having multiple terms for things that might be named differently by people in different social groups. Think about honorifics, endearments, curse words. Especially when you are applying names to a social group, consider how they will be named differently by people who relate to them in different ways - insiders, the government, outsiders, people who hold them in contempt, etc.


Thanks so much to everyone who attended! It was great to have you. This week's discussion will be tomorrow, Wednesday, November 18, 2014 at 3pm Pacific, and we will be discussing Hobbies and Craftwork. I hope to see you there!




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The Culture of Sports with Tim Wade: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

Sports! How many fictional worlds have them? Not so many, considering how important they are in the real world. A lot of people make fun of Quidditch, but it's actually a pretty stellar example of a sport in fiction, given that she thought through the players' roles, the rules, how to cheat, etc.

Sports are a cultural phenomenon in our world. In some places, sports are associated with class, as in England where soccer is considered a lower-class sport and cricket an upper-class sport. In some places, sports are associated with race, as in South Africa where soccer was considered a black sport, rugby a sport for white Afrikaners, and cricket a sport for whites of English descent.

Sports are a means of cultural interchange. Some companies will have sports events together even when they will not maintain diplomatic relations. The Olympics are a huge deal across the world, particularly in smaller countries where all the medals are given more value.

Piers Anthony featured both sports and games in Split Infinity, and he also had the Unolympics. Jack Vance has sports in his work. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game has the battle games, which are a kind of sport. And of course J.K. Rowling has Quidditch. One of the things that makes Quidditch special is how she weaves it into the characters' lives the way that real sports would be woven into our own lives - and at the same time, uses it to amplify the social and magical conflicts occurring in the book.

Where do you find a sport if you are looking to put one in your world? Glenda noted that many sports evolve from survival skills, such as hunting, shooting, running, etc. Archery is a big deal in Robin Hood! Ask yourself: who are the participants? Who are the spectators? How do people become invested in the results of sports competitions? Are there coaches? Organizers? How do people make money on sports, and where does that money go? Are there animal-based sports like horse or dog racing? Are there fighting sports?

In our world, sports took on a new significance and its current institutions developed in the late 1800s.

We discussed pod racing from The Phantom Menace. This was a sport that missed a chance at greater significance because it failed to connect the stakes of the races to the economy and social structures of the world it was a part of. It came across as too frivolous, and though the crashes were spectacular, the risks seemed relatively distant.

Raj asked what kind of sports would exist among non-competitive aliens. What might shape their leisure activities, and would they be considered sports? Can you remove competition from the premise of sports? Would achievement be sufficient as a core drive?

Sports bring people together who wouldn't ordinarily interact. It can bring people together across socioeconomic status, and across nations.

Sports have their own language. In addition to the way that sports announcers speak and the puns used in newspapers, the language of sports in our world becomes a way for men to communicate with one another emotionally when direct talk about emotions is heavily discouraged. Is it any wonder that sports become so important as a social outlet for men?

We spoke about sumo, which has its origins as a competition that occurred during religious festivals at Japanese temples. While it has now moved out to become a national phenomenon with special venues of its own, the sense that the ring is a sacred space has been maintained. This idea of the playing space as sacred has influenced the sport of baseball in Japan as well - Japanese baseball players will be thrown out if they ever spit on the field.

How does technology mesh with sports? It's very important in measurement. Instant replay has become quite important! Are sports centered around schools? Are sports events something that working-class people attend when they are not working?

In our culture, athletes are often considered heroes or paragons. Do we watch them because of this? Is it a desire to watch heroes perform? Athletes become a prestige class. Do they also become a protected class who can do no wrong? Sports have benefits for bodily heath and also for confidence in the workings of one's body.  Measurement in sports tends to create the idea that sports involve meritocracy - and to some extent they do, but we only have to look at Jackie Robinson and the struggles of female athletes to see that merit is not the only measure.

Do sports provide an outlet for aggressive feelings, or do they enhance aggressive feelings, or both?

Are athletes abused by the institutions that make money off them?

What kind of social conflicts arise around sports? In our world sometimes parents will fight one another in the stands over the results of their childrens' sports games.

Different sports have different cultures of toughness, rules of speech, etc. In rugby, only the team captain is allowed to speak to the referee. Soccer players tend to be good-looking - is it because they are on TV, or because they can't bump heads? Is there a perceived proper body type for each particular sport, or for positions within the sport?

Athletes come in all sizes and shapes, even though our stereotypical perception of a healthy body is much more limited. Different sports require different kinds of fitness and body type. American football requires explosive power but not sustained stamina. Soccer and Australian Rules Football require sustained running.

Gambling is inextricably linked to sports. Sometimes it drives sports; fantasy football would not exist if not for gambling. Betting goes way back to the roots of sports in history.

Another good question to ask is "who are you competing against?" Another team? Your own previous measurements? Golf and bodybuilding are very individual sports where you are not really competing directly against another person. What are the judging standards? Do they lead to problems?

Thanks to Tim Wade for joining us to talk about one of his favorite topics, and thanks to everyone who joined us for the discussion!




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Monday, November 10, 2014

Doing things that matter - a big change comes to Dive into Worldbuilding!

I've been thinking a lot about how important it is to do things that matter - things that make a difference in our community of SF/F writers and readers. There are many of them. Speaking up for people who are being abused is one. Combating the suppressive cultural institutions that silence people and keep them from their full potential is another. Participating in a community that questions itself and renews itself, and keeping eyes and ears open to others' viewpoints, as well as to documented evidence that might run counter to one's own gut impressions, while participating in public discourse.

Recently, it's been brought home to me how all of these goals are not necessarily aligned with one another.  The discussions surrounding Requires Hate have created a constant demand to "take sides," but there isn't just one simple set of sides in an intersectional world. Our statements and actions cannot be extricated from our identities (and our construed identities). There is no way I can find to make a statement about her attacks on me, or her use of social justice language, without having my intent - or my unintended effect - cause more harm somewhere than good. For what it's worth, I believe today's post from Jim C. Hines, Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes, effectively parallels many of my thoughts.

So I've decided to take a different approach, and ask myself a larger-scale question:

What kind of change do I want to see in the world as a result of all our struggles over the last several years? I want to see more diverse voices showcased and valued in SF/F.

In my own writing, I'm doing my best to portray diverse voices and cultures. But in the grander context, my efforts feel small. I may help representation in fiction this way, but this struggle is not just about that. It's also, critically, about supporting real people in this business who have diverse and fascinating viewpoints that might go unheard. I'm not an editor, so I can't advance these writers and their voices by buying stories. But I do have my own project: Dive into Worldbuilding!

Beginning in December, Dive into Worldbuilding will become an ongoing showcase of important, diverse voices and perspectives in SF/F.

For those of you who may not be familiar with it, Dive into Worldbuilding started when I discovered that Google+ allowed video hangouts. I started getting together with a few of my friends to talk about worldbuilding topics. This turned into a much more official thing very quickly. I'm grateful to all of the participants and special guests who have come to share their viewpoints and unique insights.

The goal of Dive into Worldbuilding was always this: to discuss worldbuilding topics from a cultural and linguistic perspective that went beyond the superficial, and to hear many different people participate in the discussion and share their views. At this point it has become a long series of YouTube videos and topic reports that I've written up, which you can find here. I've also been lucky enough to have special guests who are experts in particular areas of worldbuilding come and talk about their work.

Now, I'm going to take that further.

During the month of December, I'll be having three specially scheduled guests to kick off my new model, and I'm very excited. Please note that the scheduled times are chosen by the guest authors:

Aliette de Bodard  Wednesday, December 3, 2014 10am Pacific on Google+

Maurice Broaddus   Sunday, December 13, 2014 5pm Pacific on Google+

Joyce Chng   Thursday, December 18, 2014 5pm Pacific on Google+

During the weeks of Christmas and New Year's there will be no hangouts. However, in the new year, I plan to feature at least one author per month who can give us special insight into the worlds they have created, their own worldviews and special expertise. I will announce these guests here and on social media as I'm able to schedule them. Guest authors will be specially scheduled, but the remaining weeks of the month, we will meet at A NEW TIME, 3-4pm Pacific on Wednesdays, to discuss various other Worldbuilding topics. As I have done to this point, I will write up each hangout after it occurs so that people who wish to scan the discussion without watching the video can do so.

To me, worldbuilding has always been about trying to go beyond, to ask deeper questions. Deep investigation of our own world and its complexity is critical to being able to create unique, fascinating fiction. In my own way, I hope to amplify the voices and visions of more people in our field, and I hope you can join me!

If you wish to participate as a guest author or as a discussant, you can contact me in the comments here, on Google+, Facebook, Twitter (@WorldbuildDive or @JulietteWade), or Ello, and we will make the necessary arrangements to get you in.



This week, please join us on Google+ at 3pm Pacific, Wednesday, November 12 to discuss Making Up Words! This should be a fun one - I hope to see you there!





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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Economics of Resources and Magic: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

Economics is one of those topics that should never be skipped in worldbuilding, whether in realistic fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc. It's such a basic underpinning that a world will feel flimsy without it. You've got to know where resources come from, and why the rich people in your world are rich. Do the rich people own land? Are they merchants with good connections?

Think of the English impoverished nobility, a concept I always struggled with when I was a kid and simply associated noble with rich, without actually understanding the underlying economic issues. You have nobles trying to get money by marrying merchants, merchants who want to buy into a title because it gives them political or social legitimacy, etc. There are lots of very specific consequences, which we spoke about more than once in the course of the hangout. Maintaining appearances is a really important one, whether that be conspicuous consumption, or simply having a few expensive things to allow a person to "pass" in a critical interaction, such as someone who wants a bank manager to take them seriously. When there is a general sense in a society that poor people are not worth engaging with, it's critically important to consider what those people can do to get themselves looked at differently.

What is money like in your society? We get used to seeing paper money, but lots of different things have been used for money throughout history (rice, rum, etc). If the government makes too much money, you get hyperinflation, which actually first appeared among the Mongols! In designing my Varin world, I have spent quite a bit of time examining the different ways that different castes look at money and its value, as well as the ways in which they use it.

Reggie has a system based largely on items that can be traded. Landed people there tend to be okay because they have things to trade, but shopkeepers end up in trouble, because they don't produce anything, and not everything they have is necessarily useful at any given time. Hunters always have things to trade, but the underlying identity of the items restricts their utility as trade goods (one of the reasons why people have moved to money systems). Glenda mentioned that old country doctors were often paid in chickens!

If you're dealing with currency, you don't necessarily have a single currency controlled by the government. You can also have guilds, each with their own currency. Which currencies are reliable? Or you could have lots of small interconnected kingdoms with different currencies. How sophisticated are the means of payment? Is it all cash? Is there such a thing as banks, checks, credit, debit, etc?

One of the really critical things that can grow out of understanding how people are paid, and in what form, is a sense of how the social system works and where crime arises, and why. I spent a bunch of time working out how different members of the Varin undercaste would be paid, and when I did, it really changed everything about how I understood them. The trash workers, who are paid in cash, are naturally subject to attack by thieves who wish to make off with such an easily reusable form of money, so they band together into gangs to protect themselves. The prison workers are paid almost no cash, but have their housing and clothing and food paid for by their employers, which makes them into a sort of undercaste "impoverished nobility" - because they are taken care of, but they are trapped in their situations with no ability to flex to circumstance. The crematory workers are paid in housing and clothes, but not food - and they receive cash, because it's not a job most people want to do. The association of their work with death makes it so that nobody wants to steal their "death money," but at the same time, they are something of a pariah class even inside the undercaste. The real value in exploring this kind of thing in detail is that critical story elements like crime and the need for self-awareness in the street, for different social groups, is motivated and explained on a really basic level, and the world's sense of reality is immeasurably enhanced.

Small details of economics lead to enormous consequences for the success of your worldbuilding.

Genre, anything that takes us away from the realities of our own world, makes a great vehicle for questioning how we do what we do. It allows us to move outside our assumptions and privilege groups. Research on our own world, and its cultural subgroups, is super valuable here.

One of our discussants mentioned a real-world situation in which the women of a local society would make their own form of money using leaves and rubbing. It was a handicraft fit in between other tasks, and as such had value. Large ones would be worth more, and they would dry out and become tradeable. The system was dying because exposure to external money systems was undermining belief in the currency.

Currencies are all about belief. We discussed a real-world situation where some economics professors were able to bring hyper-inflation under control in Brazil, by creating a second currency whose value was constant while the other currency's value fluctuated. By paying people in the stable currency, they were able to create a real sense among the public that the currency was stable, so when they finally converted to it, the hyper-inflation problem stopped.

We also talked about magic as an economic system. Magic is a resource, and if it's not used properly, you can end up with Magic Inflation. If magic has no cost of use, and is too easy to use, it ends up being used all the time, to the point where nothing you can do magically will have any value because it's all just to common and easy! What is the price of magic? This question can not only be practical, but an incredibly good driver of conflict in your story. A great example of magic used as an economic system is in Janice Hardy's The Healing Wars. Reggie told us about her work in progress, Spectra's End, where magic can't be counted on because talents are too random and can't be replicated; when people with a magic skill die, their ability is lost and people have to fall back on real world solutions.

Magic users become targets when their talents are in demand. You can build economic connections between armies, kidnappers, magic users, healers, and merchants in this way. Glenda talked about the "gilded cage" - where a magic user would have everything she/he wanted, but not be able to escape obligation to someone who needed those magical skills. They could also be asked to do things that are distasteful or immoral.

Consider also the money vs. time equation for your society. Who has money? Who has time? It's hard to be a person with both, and even for those people, they may be paying in some other form.

Thanks to everyone who attended! This Thursday's discussion, on 11/6/14, will be The Culture of Sports, so I hope you can come talk with us about it. Remember, Daylight Saving is over so keep your eye out for 11am Pacific Standard Time. See you there!



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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Illnesses, Ailments, and Medicine: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO


It always feels a bit odd to me to come into a hangout with a smile saying "Let's talk about Illness!" but that's what we did last week.

Illnesses and ailments often get oversimplified in worldbuilding - a sort of "massive plague or nothing at all" situation. It's not as though no character has ever been portrayed as having a cold/flu (Glenn Cook has done it), but that minor ailments and physical inconveniences tend to be treated as unnecessary and distracting. Meanwhile, in real life, people get sick and have to deal with it.

In fiction, must illnesses and ailments always be plot-related? It's certainly possible to treat them in an unnecessary and distracting way - but it's also possible to do this well. We all agreed that the events that occur in books should have consequences, and illnesses should be no different.

I talked a bit about the situation in my novel, For Love, For Power. The noble caste is severely inbred, so every family has at least one person with something slightly wrong (heart condition, hyperthyroidism, mental illness, etc.). Furthermore, they are all deathly susceptible to viruses that for other castes would be more like the flu. In this book, all of these things are part of the larger picture of the caste's decline, and so including them was very important.

Often in genre we have quests and big tasks that must be performed, which would be hampered by illnesses and ailments.

We don't often see dental problems, vision or auditory problems in fictional worlds.

Pat pointed out that treating yourself for an illness is pretty rare. It's important to ask, "Where are the doctors/healers/midwives?" Kameron Hurley's Beldame Apocrypha was mentioned as a great example of a book with hedge witches. Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake also features a healer. Janice Hardy's series The Healing Wars features an entire economy based on magical healing and the taking and giving of pain.

I pointed out that First Aid kits were an invention of the great Clara Barton, and so it's worth thinking about what kinds of things people might carry with them for healing purposes. Ointment? Are there any first aid-related movements in this world that would make kits available?

There's also a lot of history in which people are treated for illnesses and the treatments kill them. People used powdered mummies to ward off plague - but some of those had died of plague, which only spread the plague further. You still see weird treatments today, many being propagated via the internet.

People believed in miasmas and humors and didn't understand the functions of organs. How much knowledge about the human body and germ theory is present in your world?

Reggie mentioned her own work in which she has village healers who help when home remedies don't work. They sometimes use magic, but sometimes use herbs and potions, etc. I liked the idea of a multi-pronged solution to health problems.

Pat mentioned that she's working with the idea of a disease that causes a disconnect between a person's recognition of faces and their feelings about a person. She said this would lead to a delusion that everyone had been replaced by impostors, and cause a paranoia plague.

Take a look at your world and its health care resources. Are those resources scarce? Which ones are? Who gets good care and why? Is it all about money? Can you trust people in the hospital to take care of you, or will you get turned away for social reasons?

People might want to restrict medical care for the "wrong sort" of people, but contagious disease makes that a ridiculous proposition for public health.

Pat brought up that if you get medical care, you might be incurring obligation or an ongoing relationship with the person who provides that treatment. You might have to pay off bills after death, or be obliged to serve someone for life.

What is the situation for mental illnesses in your world? Is care available? Are the illnesses well understood? Are there limitations on care? Is there a stigma associated with mental illness?

What about drugs? Are there controlled substances? What does drug addiction look like? The substances used will depend on the time period, as will the kinds of medicines used for the treatment of illness. Opium and laudanum were used at a certain point. In Tintin we see chloroform and quinine used constantly. The Romans used poppy seeds, and the native American Indians used willow bark. There is also a wide world of poisons out there. People didn't learn how to tell reliably whether someone had been poisoned until the 1920's. There are also medicines that people have used to treat people which will actually be more harmful than helpful (such as mercury).

It can be exciting to see people figure things out about what makes an effective medical treatment. Medical experimentation can be cool, or it can be scary, or both.

We didn't even get a chance to get into all the details of cultural practices surrounding health and health beliefs before we ran out of time!

Today's hangout topic is going to be Economics of Resources and Magic. We'll be on Google+ at 11am Pacific today. I hope you can attend!





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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Research - Applying it to Fictional Worlds: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

Last week we talked about Research - and found that it wasn't nearly as dry a topic as many thought coming in!

We started off talking about optimal research methods. There are substitutes for finding a person who is an expert on your topic, having a conversation and asking questions - but none are nearly as good, especially if you are dealing with cultural details. If you're going to be using Wikipedia, it's a great first source but you need to find contrasting sources, given that it can be inaccurate and/or tampered with.

If you are going to be dealing with a culture from an outsider's viewpoint, you might have an easier time. Most research sources turn out to be outsider viewpoints. Finding insider viewpoints is much harder. This is why conversations with real people can be great. However, if you're looking for something historical, it's good to go back to literature of the time to look for details. Putting yourself inside the viewpoint of a character who is unlike you can be hard. Research helps, but there is also an imaginative leap involved. Sometimes this leap is easier than others. If your narrator is the same as your character, there can be more challenges involved.

Primary sources (journals, recordings, etc.) are great resources for research. So are documentaries, books, and non fiction books.

Reggie mentioned that physiology impacts point of view. Research on Earth animals can help with this kind of detail.

Personal experience in a subculture or field of study (like Jay Werkheiser's expertise in Chemistry, or mine in anthropology and linguistics) is a great resource.

How much research should you really do? We hypothesized a fictional world with two moons, but had various viewpoints on how much research should be done on how two moons would affect worldly details like climate, tides, etc. If there will be no mention of any phenomena linked to the two moons, it makes sense not to go into great research detail. However, different story markets like to see different levels of research accountability (Analog, for example, would definitely want you to know about the planetary consequences of double moons).

Science fiction can seem to be a genre requiring more research than fantasy, but that's mostly an illusion. J.K. Rowling did an enormous amount of research when she was putting together the Harry Potter books, on everything from etymology to witchcraft, etc.

Accuracy in small details can be a great treat for experts among your readership. Easter Eggs!

It is easy, however, to get lost in the process of research to the detriment of the story. Keeping a strict criterion of relevance is very important to stay focused on your story. Research topics can grow out of a story, but stories can also grow out of research topics as well.

Worldbuilding, and the research involved in it, is different for novels and short stories, but not as different as one might imagine. I referenced my post about story worldbuilding being like walking through a house looking out windows, while novel worldbuilding involved leaving the house and knowing about what was outside.

As an example of intensive research by an author, I talked about Stina Leicht, who did years of research on Northern Ireland and the Troubles before (and while) writing her series The Fey and the Fallen. She even took lessons in Irish Gaelic. That research shows - in spades - in her work.

When you are working in a secondary world, it's often helpful to write short pieces set in various areas of the world as a form of research. Research on general scientific topics can be very helpful, but applying it to the secondary world requires a different mindset. I find myself doing mini-ethnographies of different social groups in my Varin world, for example.

Some more great sources include:

Libraries
News
Nonfiction books (read widely!)
Children's nonfiction, for topics we have very little experience with
Public lectures and interviews (radio or podcast)

Thanks to everyone who attended! Here's the video:



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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Elysium by Jenn Brissett: a Dive into Worldbuilding (interview) hangout summary with VIDEO!

First I have to offer a big thank-you to Jenn Brissett for coming and talking with us about her book! We discussed Elysium, which will be coming out very soon from Aqueduct Press.

Since the book features a very layered and complex reality, I started by asking about her process of discovery in learning about it. She explained how it grew in complexity as it went on, and she had to be very careful about keeping it under control! She starts writing beginning with the character, and the story, and then she builds out and creates the world based on that. She says it's much like the way that cities are built, organically.

She began with difficulties in a relationship between characters, and then swapped genders, and then as she went it became a memorial to New York. Thematically, it began to explore aspects of the experience of 9/11. A lot of what really excited her was being able to dig in and explore broadly, to see how far the story could be pushed in various directions.

In the book, she creates an amazing sense of constant flux and change that gives readers a sense that the ultimate reality behind the story is not what readers are seeing in any single piece of the story, but of a much deeper significance. She uses as a unifying theme the history of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his relationship with his lover Antinous. This image of deep loss to the point of insanity functions as an anchor for the story, and the story revisits that loss over and over in different forms, which she refers to as a "spiral narrative." The idea of revisiting loss over and over connects deeply to the feeling of New York after 9/11. People disappeared for various reasons, but loss was everywhere; it connected with Jenn's own experiences of running her bookstore and having clients disappear without any knowledge of what had happened to them. It also connected with the fact that memorials of the event cause people to relive the loss and trauma every year. Brissett explained that the 9/11 connection flowered out of the book naturally. She describes New York as a "city of renewal." It has renewed itself many times.

Brissett explained that the way the theme of 9/11 blossomed naturally out of the book, as an aspect of it but not the primary focus, was one of the true strengths of science fiction as a genre, that "there are so many aspects of life that you can explore." Authors end up finding things subconsciously that they have layered into the scenarios they have created. It's important to be able to explore real issues in a non-real way. I said that science fiction and fantasy are like playgrounds where we can play with dangerous stuff without hurting people as badly. It's a unique way to address difficult issues that people need to process. The book itself is an examination of love and loss in a larger context than just this single event.

Brissett is very detailed and specific about sensations and emotional connections in her writing, and it's one of the strengths of the book that keeps readers tied into the story in spite of all the flux. She talked about the switches of genders and character relationships etc. She described each piece as ending when the person gets to the part where the mourning process begins. It switches "just when you're getting a chance to absorb the blow," creating a rhythm within the story.

She uses index cards to do her planning. This was a book where she had planned gender swaps from the beginning, but it changed as the writing continued. The index cards helped her to look for options among the ideas and images she'd come up with, and find the most natural place to go next inside the story. Playing with the parts felt like playing with the puzzle. She described enjoying particularly when the two characters both became children.

She described her next book as being based on the story of Demeter and Persephone. Elysium uses all kinds of relationships - male lovers, female lovers, father and daughter, father and son, brothers, etc. She is saving mother and daughter for the next book!

There is an interesting pattern of repetition within the book as well, recurring images that draw connections across the different iterations of the loss scenario. Brissett said she enjoyed rewriting song lyrics for the book. She did get personal permission to use a poem by Saul Williams as a tribute to the world of hip-hop "before it was hip-hop."

Brissett describes her book as a struggle, a deliberate sort of controlled chaos. She wanted the feeling of chaos, but also a feeling of control. I noticed that there were a lot of things people didn't understand, and had no hope of understanding - an interesting contrast with stories that rely on the idea of solutions to problems. We like to have a feeling of control but we generally don't know on a certain level, and we just have to deal with it. She described finding someone to love as the most important thing to do in life.

I asked whether there was particular recurring imagery that she wanted to share her thoughts on. There are elk, owls, etc. and many images of wings. She described wanting to show nature invading a computerized space. She's fascinated with the idea of how quickly cities would degrade without people maintaining them, and also the idea of animals that appear in an urban space like New York. She used many images of wings to explore the idea of flight as well as having a different perspective on the city from above.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story was not just the gender-swapping, but the way that each scene changed the social structures and rules of the societies around the main characters. Brissett described doing research on the Vestal Virgins in order to create one of the worlds she uses in the scenes within the book. She deliberately wanted to switch power structures over what one sex can do, and one sexuality can do.

There is a very interesting reversal in Elysium of the normal pattern in which readers keep track of what changes between one scene and the next. Because so much changes between scenes, on a large scale the reader ends up tracking the patterns of stability in the book - the patterns of what does not change.


I wish Jenn Brissett all the best with her book launch! Go pick up Elysium by Jenn Brissett when it comes out this year from Aqueduct Press.


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