Monday, July 6, 2015

Silvia Moreno-Garcia: a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary

It was wonderful to feature the fantastic Silvia Moreno-Garcia on the show! She came by to talk to us about her novel, Signal to Noise, a story featuring friends in Mexico City who cast spells with vinyl records. Part of the novel takes place in 1988 and part in 2009, with very interesting results.

Silvia told us that she grew up in a Mexico City neighborhood, and had always "wanted to [write] something that had to do with sound." She is a third generation radio person, so her first attempt was writing something to do with a radio station, but it didn't work to her satisfaction, so on her second attempt she decided to do something with vinyl records, focusing on her neighborhood. Most of her research, she says, was fact checking the years of particular songs and music, what was on TV, and what people were wearing.

Brian asked how she went about portraying the emotional content of the music without actually giving people the ability to hear the songs, or being able to use the song lyrics (copyright forbids this). Silvia said that some people might already remember the songs, but others might be curious enough to pursue their questions and research the songs. One of her readers actually put together a playlist of songs from the book! (Here is Silvia's playlist.) She says she wants people to work with her, and go with her on the journey of the book. She asked whether the era of the internet has caused music to lose some of its magic because it can be accessed too easily. She told us she wanted to put four words from a song somewhere in the book, but ended up having to take them out due to copyright issues. Translation from Spanish adds an extra complication to these issues.

For some of her research, she told us she went to her dad, who she calls "the actual music fanatic." He owns hundreds of vinyl records. She spoke to him about the mood of the era, and his favorite bands, especially things from the '60s and '70s. She also looked at old photos of her mom, who she says was post-punk, pre-goth, with black clothes, chains, and big hair. The ability to look back at Polaroid photos, she says, "helped ground me in the moment." She also looked at album covers.

I asked her about keeping distinct voices between the two time periods she used. She said that it wasn't too hard, since the past time period used different points of view, and gives the impression that it is happening in real time, while the present period is a mystery confined to the protagonist Meche's point of view. The novel is built so that the present timeline informs the past and vice versa, even though the two time periods progress chronologically.

I asked her about her tendency to face things like pain and death head-on, without shrinking away from it. She approached the question by talking about how people try to take control of their lives. She said, "I'm not the only one who stared at the soap trying to move it with telekinetic powers." And she said she wanted to hit someone in the head with it. She described the frustration of growing up, especially on the wrong side of the tracks. She says that most people want to think they were better than they were. People have power struggles and crush each other while they are young, but this also happens even among adults. Silvia says, "I think books should be about truth."

I remarked on the fact that some reviews of Signal to Noise have described Meche, the protagonist, as "not likeable," but some have really loved her. Silvia does not think characters have to be likeable, and cites Game of Thrones, Hannibal, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Madame Bovary as examples of highly successful work without likeable protagonists. She remarks that we are more likely to accept unlikeable characters who are men. Women are who they are: difficult, with lots of different facets. I compared Meche to Sei Shonagon, the diarist of Heian Japan, in that part of what makes their stories come alive is the pure attitude that they radiate about the things around them.

When asked about her book's magic system, Silvia said, "There is no magic system," and describes the idea of magic systems as "a very Western way of seeing the world." She wanted magic in her book to be organic, where knowledge is passed on orally and there is no school of magic. She compares it to cooking, or folk magic in a Latin American sense. She didn't want "a magic system." The only rule is, "there are no rules, per se." She says that often people like linear organization, but it's more messy and chaotic in her world. I asked if she would compare it to the Magic Realism of Latin American authors, but she felt that was too restrictive. At this point people have a very strong view of what magic realism is: it takes place in the past, and is very rural. Hers is more modern and urban, but doesn't fall into the category of "urban fantasy" either.  "By naming it, you end up almost kind of killing it." Signal to Noise ended up with 6 or 7 different classifications!

Silvia says she has always struggled with labels, especially when it's a question of putting a book on a particular bookshelf. Getting put on a "Latin American" bookshelf would be too dismissive. Virtual shelves help diversify the placement of books, but browsing becomes very difficult. Bookstores and libraries are much better for that.

Thank you so much for joining us, Silvia! It was a fascinating discussion full of ideas to explore. This coming week we will be joined by Usman Tanveer Malik, who will speak to us on Google+ this Wednesday, July 8th, at 6:30pm Pacific. I hope you will join us!

Here's the video of our discussion:


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Death and Funerals: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

We talk about quite a few subjects here at Dive into Worldbuilding that involve cultural taboos. As it turned out, death was a topic that took us a bit of time to warm up to - but became incredibly rich and interesting once we got rolling.

I remarked that before germ theory was widely accepted, death appeared to be something that "just happened," but that afterward, it changed so that death somehow became a kind of surrender, or failure. It changes the way we talk about death, but also contributes to the overtreatment of people who are terminally ill, and to the view of people who accept death as quitters. In Little Women, one of the sisters just seems to fade away and finally die. In The Tale of Genji, a character will be there one day and then will just be gone the next.

Infant mortality used to be far more common than it is today. The idea that parents should not bury their children, while compelling, is relatively modern (unless perhaps you are speaking about adult children). Glenda told us that her mom was born in 1910 and was not given a name because they thought she was not going to live. Morgan told us she'd heard of a culture in which babies are not named before 3 weeks of age because it is seen as making them more likely to die. In Grimm's fairy tales you see people named "No man"/"no name" There were cases when children hadn't yet been named and then the parent had died, so they ended up either nameless or searching for a surviving parent to try to get named.

Morgan brought up the question of rituals to dispose of dead bodies. In New Orleans, bodies are buried in mausolea because if they were buried the water content of the soil would cause the coffins to resurface. The mausolea are also a way to show off family wealth. Pyres are another method, as is cremation in a special location. Sky burial meant hanging up a body to be torn apart by carrion birds and carried off. Funeral cairns are another tradition, as are coffins, or simple burial with or without a marker. Apparently, in China there was a tradition of burying a body for a year and then digging up and keeping the bones. In different places in the world you can also find cities of the dead, or places where bodies are interred in wall alcoves for a period of time, then the bones removed and built into structures. The Sedlec Ossuary of Kutna Hora is a dramatic example of this.
In some traditions, the ashes resulting from cremation are scattered. In Japan, the tradition of removing bones from ashes with special long chopsticks is directly related to the prohibition of handing food directly from one pair of chopsticks to another. Newer approaches include scattering the ashes in a beloved place, compressing them into diamond, burying them in a capsule that will germinate a tree, or even mummifying them.

In Victorian times, you will find portraits of families where one family member is deceased. Because of the novelty of photography, it was the first time you could have a remembrance of the dead person through a photo.

Funerals are important because they gather people together and re-establish social connections after a member of the community has died. Whether these are joyous, acrimonious, or tense events depends on the people involved as well as the culture in which they occur. We spoke about funeral-related films like The Funeral, a dark comedy by Juzo Itami, and Departures (mentioned by Che). In many cultural traditions there are practices intended to keep evil spirits away. In Judaism, there is the kaddish prayer, and the kaddish ritual for preparing the body. In the Inca culture, bodies were often prepared in a seated position and decorated. Caves have sometimes been used for interring bodies. Some weather conditions are more conducive to mummification than others (dry weather conditions in the Andes and in early Egypt certainly were). More elaborate mummification rituals probably were developed over time. Some monks in Tibet self-mummify in a pose of meditation and are viewed as being in a meditative state from which they may eventually wake. Mummies are revered.

What are bodies being prepared for? It's a good question to ask if you are working with a secondary world. Is there another world they are supposedly traveling to? Do they need to lie in state and be viewed by the public?

Do people who prepare the body loot the body? There were instances in Victorian times when people would sell the clothes, rings, etc. of the dead person because they could not count on the deceased's relatives to pay them. Sometimes a body would be sold to medical students.

In some traditions, people would put coins on a body's eyes or tongue to pay the ferryman who took their spirit to the land of the dead. This could also have functioned as a sort of indirect payment to the people who buried them.

In many cultures, people have been buried with grave goods. These can include flowers, beads, weapons, statues of items they will need in the afterlife, and even a terra cotta army! They might be buried with living people who are supposed to accompany them (like their wives). They might be buried with a favorite toy, or with food for their journey. The common idea seems to be that grave goods "go with" the person's spirit.

In Japanese temples and cemeteries you often see statues of the god Jizo adorned with red bibs.

Romans would make death masks of their ancestors.

In Japan, a Buddhist family will often keep an altar somewhere in the house, and will keep pictures of ancestors in this location.

What is the color of death? Is it black, as it is in the US? Is it white (China)?

What do people wear to funerals? How long do they mourn, and what does that mean?

We ended up at the end of our discussion with lots and lots of questions, so we'll be taking this topic up again this week, on Thursday, June 18th at 3:00pm Pacific. I hope you will join us!

Here's the video:


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Natural disasters: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with lots of disaster videos!

Natural disasters made for a great hour's chat! We started out talking about how different regions are susceptible to different kinds of disasters. California is known for its earthquakes. Oklahoma is known for tornadoes, and Florida for hurricanes (less well for sinkholes!). Some kinds of disasters can be predicted, and some can't. For some, you only get a very short warning. In regions that are susceptible, children are taught how to respond to keep themselves safe.

Technology has improved the prediction of many kinds of disasters. Tornadoes are somewhat predictable, though their precise path is not. Tsunami can now be predicted by a few minutes. Earthquakes are far harder to predict (I've never actually experienced an earthquake after an earthquake warning).

In earthquakes, you want to stay away from bookshelves (any loaded shelves really) and glass. The strength of the earthquake is measured by the Richter scale, but the effect of the quake depends on your infrastructure preparedness. California has building codes that minimize the effect of earthquakes. Other regions of the world do not, and experience far more destruction and loss of life. Tall buildings can be designed to sway, both in earthquakes and in hurricanes.

Brian noted that in the Netherlands, houses are not built on foundations, but on anchors. Floodwater raises the house with air tanks. The Netherlands also has tide barriers.

On the Gulf coast, houses are often built on stilts, with garage and storage on the ground floor in case of floods.

We made a list of all the types of disasters we could think of (and I'm sure we missed some): earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado, tsunami, volcanic eruption (lava, explosion, ash), sinkhole, blizzard, landslide, mudslide, forest fire, asteroid, explosive sinkhole, lightning or severe thunderstorm, large hail, polar vortex, drought, ice storm, sandstorm, dust storm... We even thought of a fictional disaster: Thread, from the Anne McCaffrey books!

This video, "A Day in Pompeii" is an incredible dramatization of the destruction of Pompeii by the volcano, and I highly recommend it:

A volcanic disaster also features stunningly in the Firebird sequence of the film Fantasia 2000:
Disasters of this kind have an enormous effect on an area, and preparedness for them has an enormous effect on the culture of an area. Anne McCaffrey did an amazing job playing out the cultural consequences of Threadfall in her books, and N. K. Jemisin's book The Fifth Season deals with seismic disasters that befall humans so regularly (in this secondary world) that everything about their life has changed.

There can be different perspectives on disaster. Lava falling into the sea encourages the development of new life forms, fire helps certain types of tree seeds to germinate, and specially adapted organisms survive in calderas and geysers.

Che recommended the disaster movie Reign of Fire. We asked whether The Wizard of Oz could be called a disaster movie (probably not, but it features a tornado rather prominently!).

What is the impact of a disaster? Is it like armageddon? Are there techniques to mitigate it? In a sandstorm, do you have special fabric to keep the sand out of your face (nose and mouth)?

After a disaster, people have an instinct to reach out to their loved ones and friends to check up on them. When I was a kid, the phone lines would get all tied up after an earthquake. These days we have the services of social media, as when Facebook set up a site where people could check on victims of the Nepal earthquake. Often, people are urged to text rather than call.

I also highly recommended the following documentary, by ESPN, called "The Day the Series Stopped" which explores the 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. Please be aware that some of the images are graphic.

One of the interesting things about a disaster that forces you to hide or hunker down is that you can't tell how bad the damage is until you come out and start getting in touch with people.

Thank you to everyone who joined us for this discussion. It was a fascinating one.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Malon Edwards: a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary with VIDEO

Marvelous guest author Malon Edwards joined us last week to talk about his worldbuilding, and we had a great discussion! When I advertised the hangout, I told everyone that he works in a steampunk alternate history universe, but that is only partially true - the universe is actually even cooler than that. Malon gave us some insights into that universe and how he came to be writing in it.

Malon explained how he discovered his inspiration after moving to Canada. He'd been writing science fiction but really wanted to write something about himself and his culture. Then he discovered Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, which was the first time he'd ever read science fiction or fantasy set in a major city. He also mentioned taking inspiration from Octavia Butler's Parable series. He decided he wanted to write something set in Chicago and steeped in black culture.

He began by researching the history of Chicago, and learning about Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Hatian man known as the "Founder of Chicago." Malon said he felt a connection with him because of some French Caribbean background. He also has some background in Mississippi and New Orleans, including Louisiana Creole speakers. This his vision was to create a Chicago steeped in Louisiana Creole... but the language has died out and is very hard to research. Therefore, he moved instead toward Haitian Creole, which he was able to research in part through an excellent website called Sweet Coconuts.

In the alternate timeline he has designed, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable stayed in Chicago and became the mayor. The first story he wrote in the timeline was deliberately steampunk, because he wrote it for the SteamFunk anthology. That story is called Mudholes and Mississippi Mules. However, he designed it as part of a much longer timeline, spanning more than a century. It progresses from steampunk at the start of the timeline, through dieselpunk and up to cyberpunk.

Some fascinating aspects of the steampunk end of the timeline include devastating bombs that have been dropped over America, and polio running rampant. Young victims of polio get treated by "steampunk surgeons" who replace their failing organs with clockwork parts. The character known as Petal McQueen has a steam clock heart in her glass chest, and a boiler that runs on coal dust, which produces healthy dirt (as opposed to the dirt ruined by the bombings). Her dirt fuels the rebuilding of Chicago. In later portions of the timeline, Petal gets mythologized as an Earth Mother figure, Bel Flè. She can also create resources like gold, steel, coal, etc.

Chicago then becomes a city-state, and in the dieselpunk story "Into the Breach," there is a war between Chicago and the state of Illinois, which he says is a metaphor for some of the current situation. Chicago is a David to the Goliath of Illinois, and with the city reduced to nothing it must be rebuilt by hard work.

At the cyberpunk end of the timeline, the rich are able to raise their dead children from the grave by uploading them into androids, but they must then "re-up" the child once a year to keep them alive. It's a nightmarish scenario in which corporations use parents' grief to extort money from them.

Malon describes cyberpunk as his love, and mentioned loving Neuromancer by William Gibson. Tying these different subgenres together on a unified timeline allowed him to fit his existing steampunk story with his love of cyberpunk.

Family and family relationships play an important role in his work. He told us a bit about his family history, and how he's often lived in places away from his family. He lived in Japan for 3 years, and Montana for 2. He's accustomed to that distance, but misses his family and honors them in his work. He said his sister got him into writing.

I asked him if he speaks Haitian Creole at this point, and he said no (though reading his stories, you can't tell!). He took four years of French. He described worrying about reading his Shimmer story The Half-dark Promise at Ad Astra in Toronto, but said in the end it went well. He relies on intense research for his use of the language, and has worked in concert with the website owner. He says, "I stay away from Google Translate" unless he needs just a basic gist of what is going on. He highly recommends the Sweet Coconuts site for their audio resources and their lessons.

One of the discussants asked whether he was ever tempted to do Voodoopunk, but he said no. He feels it's important to be really comfortable in the language and culture required, and doesn't feel he knows enough Louisiana Creole. Also, his family takes voodoo/vodon very seriously, and he didn't want to wreck that. He has mentioned some African deities before, such as Mami Wata, but emphasizes, "I have to be really comfortable." That also means not culturally appropriating, which can be really difficult at times. He says he has to "write around what I don't know and make it believable and not make it ridiculous." Code-switching is a real challenge, so he keeps the sentences simple so that people who don't know the language have the best chance of understanding. He mentioned role models Junot Diaz and Daniel Jose Older who he says handle code-switching really well.

So far, Malon has written only short stories, in part because he edits as he writes and really wants it to sound right.

Malon, thank you for joining us!  We loved learning about your vision.

Here's the video:


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Domesticated Animals - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

We had a lovely time talking about domesticated animals. As expected, we started with cats and dogs. Some people question whether cats have been fully domesticated. The evolutionary history of both species is intertwined with ours, but quite different because of the different advantages the species brought. Cats were good at exterminating vermin, and dogs were hunting companions. Given that the cats didn't have to interact as much to fulfill their useful function, there was less interaction and less change in the cat species.

We noted that not all people consider cats and dogs to be pets, where they are coddled and treated often as family members or children. Mennonites and Amish primarily consider cats and dogs to be work animals, and have a more distant relationship. The working relationship changes the way we interact. How does one interact with an animal one later plans to eat? That question was taken up in Charlotte's Web, certainly.

Glenda talked about the roles of domesticated animals as workers, food, or pets; they can also be producers of raw material. Silk moths have been "domesticated," to a point. Though they can't interact with us the way mammals do, they have been bred for their silk and have become unable to fly, so they depend on human husbandry to keep them alive.

Brian talked about how our emotional attachment to pets has led some people to seek out exotic pets. However, there is a difference between taming and domestication.

We discussed the experiment in fox breeding that took place in Russia starting in 1959, started by Dmitri Belayaev. They took docile, human-loving foxes and bred them together, and also bred together hostile foxes, and then tracked the results. It was dramatic, had some interesting side effects (including pied fur!) and took place over relatively few generations.

Glenda said that taming often involves the persistence of juvenile characteristics.

Raj pointed out that many animals appreciate touch, even fish, though we tend to anthropomorphize them a lot less.

Cats meow to each other less often than they do with humans, and they meow at a similar frequency to babies' crying. We also discussed purring among cats - apparently panthera cats can only purr while exhaling!

We discussed the wildly different phenotypes of dogs. Their physical characteristics and temperamental characteristics have been deliberately altered so they fit with the work they have been intended to do, like fighting rats or even badgers in their burrows, or hunting in various ways, etc. Herding dogs have had their hunting behaviors re-purposed into herding behaviors. Sight hounds use their eyes to identify prey, and use speed to catch them; scent hounds are slower but "dogged" and use their noses. This led me to talk about some of the evolutionary history that I built into my story "Cold Words" and how I let behaviors etc. influence culture and language.

We talked also about more unusual domesticated species. Brian imagined an armadillo pulling a plow. We talked about llamas, which are very good at carrying loads and climbing steps. The solutions that you find for problems will depend on the tools you have available, and these will include your working animals. Wheels were inappropriate for the Inca, since llamas were able to handle the stairs easily. Weaving and cabling were used for a lot of solutions to problems in Inca culture because there was no enormous forceful animal to enable a lot of building heavy bridges, etc. We noted the Inca also had an advanced knot language used for many purposes including record-keeping.

Bison can't be domesticated, but buffalo can.
Here's a great picture of the oxen at Colonial Williamsburg:

Reindeer can be domesticated, but they are not suitable for riding. The body structure of an animal is critical to whether it can bear sufficient weight to be used for riding. Things got a little weird there for a while; we talked about people drinking reindeer urine with hallucinogens in it (people will do all sorts of crazy things!).

We recommend the books 1491 and 1493 for discussion of the Columbian Exchange.

We speculated a bit on whether it would be possible to domesticate octopi or dolphins... or whether it would be possible to keep humans as pets (probably not too well).

And here's the video!


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Link: Anatomy of a Regency Letter

I just had to share this link here, because it's so rich in information for people working with the Regency period, but also has great potential to inspire worldbuilders. Did you ever want to know about paper sizes and folding? Check this out!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cat Rambo and Beasts of Tabat: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

It was great to have Cat Rambo visit us to talk about her new novel, Beasts of Tabat, out now! Her first move was to teach us how to do name-tags on the hangout - thanks, Cat! She actually teaches a lot of her own writing workshops, so I encourage you to check those out, here.

Beasts of Tabat is Cat's debut novel. This world has appeared in her works before, in such stories as "I'll Gnaw Your Bones, the Manticore Said," but now's our chance to truly dive in! As she describes it:

1. Intelligent magical creatures exist in this world, and the economy of the world depends on their bodies and labor.
2. There is a New Continent. The Old Continent was destroyed by sorcerers, which means that sorcerers are feared.
3. Every year there is a ritual battle between Winter's Avatar and Spring's Avatar. The outcome of this battle has literal climatic effect - if Winter's Avatar wins, there will be six more weeks of winter. These avatars are chosen from the population of gladiators. Gladiators are famous people in the world of Tabat, and their adventures are chronicled in the Pennywides, a form of serial literature that Cat likens to the work of Dickens. The Pennywides are cheap to produce and get passed all around. The people of Tabat are generally very literate. Propaganda is used by political players.

Cat explained that the four books of this series are influenced by the works of Thomas Burnett Swan, which deal with mythological creatures' daily lives. Cat turned this into an opportunity to look at the culture of oppression, which gives the book an intentional brutal element. She points out that whenever you have one group oppressing another, you see two seemingly conflicting trends: one, to infantilize those being oppressed, so that you can consider them children and act on their behalf ("for their own good"); and another, to demonize the oppressed people, so you can create a sense of fear which then justifies violence and unfair treatment ("for our own good").

Cat told us that early versions of this book had twelve points of view! Narrowing that down in order to increase the cohesion of the first book led to a lot of the material being repurposed for the second book, which is why she says the second book is so far along in its progress toward completion.

Beasts of Tabat has two main points of view.

The first is Bella Kanto, whom Cat describes as experiencing the world in "Advanced Mode." She is a gladiator and a resident of Tabat. She is also the Avatar of Winter, and people resent her because she has so many fans who follow her adventures in the Pennywides, and because she's so successful as a gladiator that they've been having long winters for quite a while!

The second is Teo, who experiences the world and the city in "Beginner Mode." Having someone in beginner mode is always useful because they notice things that are normal and unnoticed by others. Teo is a shape-shifter, i.e. a sort of magical creature, but is able to pass for Human, which introduces complications into the identity politics and oppression.

Cat says she doesn't want to co-opt the struggles of oppressed people in America, but wants to engage with these questions and talk about them in a constructive way.

Tabat has three moons: Red (the big one), White (the medium one) and Purple (the tiny one), all of which appear on the cover! She's done a lot of nice work integrating that aspect of the world into its culture. Thus, months are of three different lengths: "purple months" are about a week, while "red months" and "white months" are a bit longer.

There is a temple that worships the moons, and it represents the status quo of people following traditions. There are also Trade Gods, who are the representations of economic forces. Humans are able to wield magic, and a critical distinction is drawn between wielding magic and being magic. Some human magic depends on the magical energies of the beasts. The moon temple magics are of a lower level.

I asked her to talk about politics in her world. She said that the two largest cities were established at the same time. A deal was made that the southern city of Tabat would be ruled by the Duke and his family for 300 years, and then would move to an electoral system. The book is placed chronologically right at the point when the Duke's reign is expected to come to an end - which makes for some fascinating instability! Cat says the last book ends with "cataclysms and cannons."

Cat has been working on this project since 2005, and it has been a long process. She's been writing a series of short stories that all fit together in this world, and the novel concepts and timeline grew out of them.

Cat spoke a bit about writing process. She says if you are writing, or thinking about writing, then you are making progress. Cat herself likes to offer writing exercises in her classes, and sometimes she participates in them herself. She finds teaching to be a huge benefit to her.

She also spoke to us about Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), where she has been an officer for many years, so if you are curious about the organization, you can listen to what she has to say about it or click through the link here to see SFWA's website. Cat noted that the SFWA blog is always looking for material, and pays 6 cents a word, while the Bulletin pays 8 or 15 cents per word.

Cat, thanks for coming to the hangout and talking with us about your exciting novel!

Here's the video: