Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Alien Senses - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

So, what are we talking about when we say, "Alien senses?" Alien senses can mean the senses possessed by aliens on another planet, or it can mean senses possessed by creatures on our own planet, which we do not possess. It can also mean senses possessed by no creatures on our own planet or on any other!

Raj suggested for example that we consider the mantis shrimp, which has incredibly complex eyes with sixteen color-receptive cones (the Oatmeal has a great introduction to this badass critter). Butterflies, which have the ability to see UV light and colors beyond our perception, have only five, and humans have three. To butterflies and bees, flowers have "targets" that are visible only in UV light. Thus, these creatures perceive the world in a way very different from us.

Imagine the consequences of that type of vision when you are writing. You have to describe what the world looks like. Our color words are pretty limited. Worldwide, we can see patterns in the way that different languages describe color. A language with only two words for color will have light and dark. A language with three words will include light/white, dark/black, and red. A language with four will include blue/green. Five will include blue and green...and then it gets much more complex from there. These patterns have to do with how our eyes work. Once we get beyond the range of visible light, however, we tend to base our words on existing ones - like ultra-violet, and infra-red. Eye function and brain function are involved in the perception of color. Brian pointed out that orange was considered a form of red until the fruit came to Europe.

How do you describe what is beyond our language's capacity to describe? You can take the usual approach and base the concept on an existing word, or you can take the approach of creating a new word and teaching readers what it means.

Glenda pointed out that even our existing senses are more complex than they seem. "Touch" is actually several things: perception of temperature, roughness, pressure, etc. An alien population might easily separate these things out as separate senses.

You may have heard the story about Eskimos having 100 words for snow. Well, first off: it's not true. However, it is trying (badly) to capture something that happens in language, which is that when certain kinds of categorical distinctions are important, people create words for them. So let's say that in order to be safe outdoors, we need to be able to distinguish between a type of snow that is easy to walk on, and one that is easy to get lost in; we may have a distinct name for each type. Similarly, categories that exist in language can cause people to be more attentive to particular types of distinctions, such as different shades of blue in Russian, or gender in French and Spanish, or stativeness in Japanese (whether something happens in an instant, or is ongoing).

If you are going to try to teach people words in an alien language, you need to make sure that you put structure into the story to support those words and make them as easy as possible to learn and memorize. Essentially, you are creating vocabulary. Children can learn English vocabulary (or vocabulary in any other language) by hearing it in context, because language is very very redundant, and the surrounding context of a word will contain all sorts of cues to its meaning. Make sure when you use an alien word, that you make those cues available in the same way.

You can also redefine existing words by changing the context surrounding them, or blend words with each other. Redefining contexts around these words is the critical ingredient for success here.

Raj suggested that it might be possible to have a sense that perceived time as a persistence of vision, as in the painting "Nude descending a staircase" by Marcel Duchamp. It would be interesting to explore how a limited persistence of vision might divide time into chunks and how that would influence the culture of time.

Glenda pointed out that even though a people might not have the words for magnetism or electricity that we do, the concept could still exit among them. I mentioned how my aliens in "The Liars" had a magnetic sense, but they didn't understand magnetism as such - they spoke about what kind of information was transmitted via magnetism rather than talking about magnetism itself. In fact, we talk a great deal more about what we see, i.e. content, than we do about the qualities of vision itself. The fact that we have eyes and they generally work in a certain way goes without saying (in most contexts, but not all!).

Che suggested that an alien species might require the presence of others in order to communicate, such as in a symbiotic relationship.

We discussed synaesthesia, the cross-mixing of senses. In humans it is very subjective, but in another population it might not be. It bears some similarity to the perception of pitch and tonal quality as having shape amongst musicians.

We spoke about onomatopoeia, which bears some similarity to the perception of tone as having shape. There are commonalities in onomatopoeia across the globe, linking the shape of the mouth and sound quality with larger or smaller, heavier or lighter things.

Sign language gives a similar sense of iconicity - the sense that the gesture-words represent actual things - but this can be something of a trap, because the icons used will not be generalizable across cultures or even across time. For example, the sign for "boy" looks like touching the bill of a baseball cap, while the sign for "girl" references the strap of a bonnet. Anyone not aware of those hat styles will not feel that the signs are at all iconic! In fact, it tells us a lot about when the signs were invented.

Simplicity in language is another type of trap. If you perceive simplicity, then likely you are just missing the place where complexity exists. This is exactly what I was working with in "The Liars," because I wanted to problematize the concept of the aliens who speak a very simple language. Humans perceived the Poik as having a simple language because they did not possess all the same senses as the Poik did, and therefore missed a major component of what the language expressed.

One could imagine that sensing pressure changes could be an interesting alien sense - or a sense of topology.

The idea of alien sense is not just for science fiction. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the earthbender Toph turned her magical ability into a special sense to compensate for her blindness.

We also spent some time talking about sensory differences that already exist in human beings, and how those can have a huge influence on people's ability to interact in the world. Autism often involves special sensory sensitivities, or ways in which senses are processed differently by the brain. This is worth exploring further.

We also felt it would be valuable in an alien environment to consider why a particular sense might have developed in a population. Is the environment murky, making vision less of a priority? Or consider dolphins, whose channel of communication is the same as their major perception channel - how would that change the way they perceived the world?

We left this discussion feeling like there was a whole lot more we could have talked about! Thanks so much to Brian, Che, Glenda, Morgan, Raj, and Reggie for joining me!

Join me this afternoon at 3:00pm Pacific on Google+ to talk about Names, Titles, and their Social Significance!

Here's the video:


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Come see me at FogCon this weekend!

This convention zoomed up on me before I knew it, but I'm super excited! I'll be appearing at FogCon this weekend, at the Walnut Creek Marriott. I hope to see you there.

Here's my schedule:

Friday, March 6,  3:00 pm Salon C

Tenses for Time Travelers and Other Abominations of Language

Travel to a strange place -- learn new words for animals, foods, and activities at your destination and along the way. Travel in a strange conveyance -- learn new words for fuels, travelers' pastimes, and social structures. How do invented words affect the reader's experience of an invented world? What strange manglings of language feel natural and atmospheric, and what just doesn't work?

Friday, March 6,  4:30 pm Salon C

When your Traveler is my Colonizer

Themes of travel, exploration, and colonization are intertwined with one another in genre fiction and are often glamorized as "classic adventure". But every colonist is also a colonizer. What happens if we remove or subvert the "colonial gaze" when we look at these stories? Which stories offer a post-colonial perspective or critique of the ideology of exploration and colonization? How does a modern fan best interact with the more old-fashioned and unreformed examples of this staple of genre fiction?

Friday, March 6,  8:00 pm Santa Rosa


I haven't decided what I'm reading yet, but I suspect it will either be "Lady Sakura's Letters," or "The Valiant Heart." There are some other great writers in this group, so come and hear us! It should be a great time.

Saturday, March 7,  3:00 pm Salon A/B

Embracing "The Other"

Fantasy and Science Fiction have a long history of asking us to empathize with the Other -- the alien, the fae, the one who Isn't Like Us. Sometimes that "not like us"ness is done really well, and other times it's easy to see the human culture under the rubber "alien" suit. How can we present cultures we are not part of with depth and respect? How can we avoid writing yet another *Fill In The Blank Human Culture Not the Author's* With Purple Scales story?


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Parenting - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

Parenting is a funny topic in science fiction and fantasy. Many stories seem to avoid it altogether by killing off all the parents! I have also seen quite a number of stories where a woman goes on the run with a baby, but doesn't seem to have to deal with any of the normal things that babies do (or that women's bodies do when they have had a baby recently).

Reggie said she really likes to see healthy parent-child relationships in fiction, and many times, such opportunities are lost. Just because the relationship is healthy doesn't mean there is no conflict; we can have conflict with people even though we are on the same side! Glenda pointed out that close relationships mean vulnerability, and that always means great storytelling opportunities.

What is the role of a parent? In our world we see parents as helicopters, parents as friends, parents as authority figures. Parents can have many roles at once. What are the roles that parents play in your world?

Often times, children are completely avoided. "No, there are no children in this town, just don't ask why." But the presence of children reveals a lot, and even tiny moments observing interaction with children and how they are taught can be terrific for a story. In my story "Let the Word Take Me" I made sure to include children and to show them being taught to be social creatures, because I had felt that was a major missing piece in my understanding of the Tamarians in Star Trek: TNG's "Darmok."

If you're looking for inspiration on how to create unusual family structures, animal species can provide excellent models.

Glenda mentioned a story in which a species laid its eggs in the ocean, but they were not officially considered young (i.e. children) until they survived to a certain age. Even in our world people disagree about when a child is officially considered to be living. What kind of beliefs are there in your world about the beginning of life?

Children are sometimes deliberately used as a bridge between cultures, because of their ability to learn different cultures and languages. Alan Dean Foster had a community where humans and grasshopper-aliens were raised together to try to get past instinctive fears between the adults. Sheila Finch examined the assumptions behind having a child go and learn an alien language in her story "Out of the Mouths."

Glenda encouraged us to ask questions like, "Who is the nurturing parent?" Is it a parent, or perhaps a grandparent?

How do children learn to speak? Do they learn from their parents, or from others? Do they learn from adults at all, or from siblings?

Do parents take care of their children in a particular place, such as a homeland? Does the extended family stay together? What is the expected size of a family?

Family size can depend on a lot of factors. Spencer noted that in a small isolated village working at the subsistence level, it's common to have big families with lots of interbreeding over years. Culture can influence family size, and so can sources of income and food.

Do kids get the chance to be kids? Before child labor laws, they really didn't. These days, teens can "be teens." But in earlier times, older kids had a big role in raising younger kids. Also, children died a lot more often. There was no such thing as retirement, meaning that people could benefit from spreading out their children over a long period of time.

In current America, there are a lot of children being raised by daycare providers and by teachers because their parents are too busy working. Think about the link between local climate, available jobs, and the role of children.

Is there birth control? Just answering that question alone will tell you a lot about family structure and parenting duties.

Cultural traditions about parenting change slowly, but they do change.

Who is licensed (socially) to give advice? Many people feel very free to give advice to anyone who is pregnant, or to the children of others. On the other hand, some people feel that only they should interact with their own children in any disciplinary manner. Reggie asked what we would do if we saw a kid running away from a group, and the parent hadn't noticed. There are distinct taboos surrounding the interaction between children and adults who are not their parents. When is it all right to touch children? To speak to them? Is it all right to try to control their behavior, and if so, when?

What does it mean to be "good with kids"?

Among parents, there can be a shared unspoken bond of parenthood. As parents, we know we've been through that initiation. We have a shared, esoteric knowledge of sleepless nights and trials unfit to be spoken of at the dinner table. Raj suggested there is also a secret society of grandparents - which I can totally believe!

Reggie noted that family dynamics are more commonly explored in literary fiction rather than genre. However, we all agreed that we'd love to see a whole family sent on a quest! We've seen the family in the wagon train looking for a new home. We've seen them looking for new jobs in a new city. Why not give them something fantastical to do? We could put a family group on a space ship, escaping a scandal, etc.

It was a really great discussion. Thank you to everyone who attended. Join us this afternoon at 3:00pm Pacific to talk about Genre and Description!

Here's our video:


Monday, February 23, 2015

Thoughts on How People, and Characters, Plan Ahead

Yes, people plan ahead. Perhaps not all of them have five-year plans written out, but they often have a vision of what is to come. The future. If you're writing about characters, it's worth asking whether they are thinking ahead, and how. And if they aren't thinking ahead, why aren't they?

I've heard it said that in science fiction, people don't do a lot of thinking about the future. It's probably true, and likely happens because people in science fiction are often in the future, so the author hasn't done a lot of thinking about the future of the future. I have a feeling that "future" in this context refers to grand visions of new technologies or changes in society. People in science fiction do tend to have a pretty clear idea of what bad thing will happen if they don't get their job done, or what will happen if the Romulans invade, etc.

We think ahead in different ranges. What to do for the next few minutes, what's on the schedule in an hour, our plans for next week, during the next year, when I grow up, or what the next century or millennium might involve.

Things that are predictable and assured tend not to be given a lot of thought. Unless you're starving, you don't have to give a ton of thought to where your next meal is coming from. You'll generally give it some more thought if you're responsible for cooking it yourself. And if you enjoy cooking, that might inspire you to get some more dramatic ideas. If you're just showing up at the usual place for dinner, and eating the usual things, you might save your thought for other more important concerns.

If you have a few things to do, you might think ahead to plan the order in which to accomplish them. If you have a lot of things to do, you might make a list because it's too much for your brain to handle at any one time. Your list becomes your place for thinking ahead, while you keep your mental focus on the tasks at hand.

Stress is one reason why people do less thinking ahead. A to-do list reduces the need to think ahead more than a little bit. The more extreme the stress, the less thinking ahead you'll do. Say you're in a sword fight; you are going to be thinking about the next parry, the next move to stay safe. You won't be thinking about where to go to lunch afterward, because if you do, you're likely to lose. If you're climbing a rock wall, you have to think about where to put your hand next, where to put your foot next, and where to anchor yourself. Distraction leads to a fall.

This is a pretty good reason why you wouldn't want to put anything but short-term planning ahead into a fight scene, or a flight scene.

I remember when my first child was a baby. I experienced a strange time distortion, in which a period of ten minutes could feel interminable, but weeks would fly by. This was an effect of the stress of learning to deal with my baby's needs. When a child is crying and you are trying to console them, heal them, or otherwise find the answer to fixing their situation, there's no room in your head to envision even the remainder of the day. Only in retrospect do you have any sense of the way that time is passing.

Be careful with the medium- to long-term planning in baby care scenes, too.

Other things can cause a suspension of planning. Sending out a message and waiting for the response can cause someone to stop planning ahead, because they won't be able to act on whatever the message was about until they hear the answer.

Uncertainty can cause a person to stop planning. Say a character loses their job; the lack of income can cause them to suspend existing plans that required money, and to stop planning such things in favor of planning how to get a new job!

From my own life, I think about sending out stories on submission. I tend to stop planning sequels for a story that's on submission, particularly if I'm uncertain about whether it will sell. Some authors fall prey to the temptation to stop planning ahead altogether, but you can't give into that. Don't stop writing - if you feel too uncertain about that path, just plan and write other things.

I'm sure there is a great deal of individual variation in the way people plan. Some people are constantly planning; others just go with the flow and plan when necessary. People who are natural planners may get very frustrated when they encounter uncertainty. Being able to start planning again will be a relief for them. Some people may resist any need to plan, and figure that reacting to things as they come will be the best approach.

It's something to think about.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Haralambi Markov: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

By a happy coincidence, we were able to have Haralambi Markov (who let me call him Harry) visit on the very day that his story, "The Language of Knives," came out on! (spoilers ahead, so read it if you haven't yet!)

Harry told us that the focus of this story was on the relationship of the characters, and that felt like a new direction for him, since creating secondary worlds has in the past been front and center for him. He explained that he learned this world through the act of writing about the death ritual that is featured in the story. The story led to an understanding of philosophies and practices that implied things about the larger world. He didn't use names for the characters because he wanted the story to feel universal. The story was initially drafted in a single day during his second week at the Clarion writers' workshop.

The story is told in second person, "you," and I mentioned that I felt the most successful second-person narration is used to create a mystery about the protagonist. Harry agreed with this, explaining that he wanted to create a story about a gay couple but omit the gender of the protagonist, who is an undertaker reminiscing about his life. Harry explained that he wanted to put this character in the position of having roles traditionally given to women, and to challenge those assumptions. One interesting thing that happens in the story is that we start not knowing anything about the character's gender, and then as we read on, hints start to come in that it's not a woman. By the end of the story, we discover who this character is.

Experiencing loss is universal.

We did ask the question of whether using second person narration is a "gimmick." In the case of this story, it isn't - it's used very effectively to break down boundaries between the reader and the protagonist, and also to create a screen over certain types of information about the protagonist's identity. It's almost as if we're standing too close to see everything. Harry said he felt first person narration (I) can be too melodramatic, and third (he/she) too distant, where second (you) is more open as a channel to emotions.

We talked about the focus of the story on parts of the human body. Harry explained that he'd had this idea for a while - the idea of turning a human body into a cake - and had been waiting to find the right story context for it. He says we don't talk enough about our bodies, or about sex or death. These taboo topics are very important. He wanted to deal with the physical handling of a dead loved one. In this secondary world society, there is less of a stigma placed on death. Harry spoke about his own experience with the death of his uncle, and about how he was given a chance to touch and kiss him during the funeral. This brought home his thoughts about fear of death, stigmas and taboos. He feels we shouldn't be so afraid of facing death, and that the dead should be shown respect and given a proper send-off.

Many things that are traditional are not explained. Closing off communication in this way is problematic.

In a sense, he says, the story uses death as a vehicle for the characters to think about emotions that are more difficult to deal with than death, suffusing the story with conflict and a sense of the dysfunctional relationship of the characters. The story features parent and child dealing with the death of the parent who was the child's favorite. Death is something we deal with within the family. So is dysfunction. The story deals with these things and about the regrets people feel for what they have and have not done.

Harry explained that this was a really important story for him, because for a long time he shied away from writing gay characters. He doesn't see gay couples portrayed in a positive light very often. Gay people are often portrayed as very tragic or very funny. Too often, gay people either have tiny roles, or are done wrong, or don't get a happy ending. The dead parent in "The Language of Knives" is portrayed as having been very "macho," very masculine and heroic, deserving to have a daughter from the gods. There was some wish fulfillment in the story, and some effort to widen the conversation as well as to inspire others. He emphasizes that there is no one single right way to portray gay people, but in this story he was showing what he'd like to see.

Things got very interesting when I asked him about the horror genre, because Harry doesn't consider himself a horror writer (and I'm perfectly willing to admit that it's a genre I avoid, so I'm not an expert!). He views horror as making people feel frightened. Instead, he simply wants to face difficult topics such as cannibalism, mutilation after death, flesh and its meaning. "This is all we have in common," he said. It's important to explore what is grim and difficult. This involves blurring genre lines, sometimes using horror vocabulary or dealing with monstrous transformation. He calls his writing "weird fiction" for its strangeness and moments of horror, but views it more as transformative, quiet and emotional.

We also spoke about another one of his stories, "The Woman Who Wanted to Play Miss Havisham." This story is set in a financial dystopian version of Bulgaria, in a future scenario where it has been converted into a theme park, "The Land of Classics" in which cities have been rebuilt to resemble historic cities and the people are cyborgs who believe they are the characters they have been designed to play. A forthcoming story, "The Infinite Proposal," is also set in this world. By contrast to this, "The Language of Knives" is not intended to incorporate any existing Earth culture, but to create a society as a playground for exploration.

He said he'd like to write more about Bulgaria, but that some aspects of it are difficult to work with, such as naming conventions. One Bulgarian habit is to nickname by adding -e, such as nicknaming a person named Ivan as Ivane, which gives the name a softer feeling. He finds, though, that people sometimes ask if those are two different characters, or whether Ivan is a nickname.

Working with marginalized groups as characters is very important, but must be done with caution. People often ask writers to justify why they are doing it. There is also the difficult question of whether a person who doesn't belong to a culture should be able to write about it. We should strive to approach these cultures and issues with respect, to do them justice. We must handle them gently.

Harry is thinking about expanding the world of "The Language of Knives" into a novel. In this world there would be people whose skins are in color, like the colors of the rainbow, because he wants to dissociate from the traditional associations we make with skin colors in our own world.

Harry, thank you so much for joining us and telling us about your work and your worlds! Thank you also to all of those who joined us for the discussion. This afternoon's hangout topic will be Alien Senses. I hope you can join us!

Here is the video:


Friday, February 6, 2015

Guest post: An event for Georgia writers

Janice Hardy, author of The Healing Wars series, has attended the event below and says it is a great event for networking and feeling like part of a larger community of writers. Consider going if you are in the area!

Looking for a Fun Kidlit Writers' Conference? Give Springmingle a Try

Springmingle '15 Writers' and Illustrators' Conference will take place on March 13-15, 2015 in Decatur, GA, in its brand new Decatur Library venue, where attendees can enjoy the sites, shops, and restaurants of Decatur throughout the conference weekend. They have a fantastic line up this year for writers and illustrators of all levels. Every session, every speaker, every moment is designed to help writers and illustrators improve their work. Meet editors and agents from industry-leading agencies and publishing houses—and the friendliest, most supportive colleagues one could ever hope to find.
This year's conference faculty includes: Giuseppe Castellano, Art Director at Penguin Young Readers Group; Karen Grencik, Literary Agent/Co-Founder of Red Fox Literary, LLC.; Elise Howard, Editor, Algonquin Young Readers; Bill Mayer, Award-winning Illustrator; Meg Medina, Award-winning Author; and Neal Porter, Publisher, Neal Porter Books, imprint of Macmillan Children’s Book Group.
Attendees will find nearly a dozen workshop sessions, including:
·       101+ Reasons for Rejection: Literary agent Karen Grencik covers the most common reasons a manuscript gets rejected, and how writers can avoid that fate.
·       Writing La Vida Loca: Young adult author Meg Medina discusses cultural identity and writing fiction for young readers at a time when diverse children’s literature is critically needed. 
·       Traditional Picture Books in a Digital Age: Publisher Neal Porter gives an in depth look at visual storytelling and learn how character development, story structure, and the almighty page turn still matter in a time of ever-decreasing attention spans.
Visit our website for a complete listing of workshops:
This conference offers a variety of sessions about the essentials of writing and illustrating for young readers. Learn the basics, or study advanced topics including how to sell and market your work.
Add more value to your Springmingle experience with these one-day optional sessions on Friday, March 13:
The Writer’s Intensive with Author Meg Medina: Mining for Stories. Join Meg Medina as she leads you through exercises to access your memories and find your authentic voice, story lines, and characters. Register for just this one-day program, or combine with Springmingle for a full weekend of learning and networking.  Cost: $75.
Illustrators' Day. Attendees will gain a deeper insight into the day-to-day inner workings of a children’s book art department. Neal Porter will share tales and tips on how to make an illustrator's work appealing and visible to gatekeepers of the daunting, and often infuriating world of children's book publishing. Guiseppe Castllano will discuss what his art department looks for in illustrators and what methods he uses to find them. The segment will also cover best practices in being a freelance illustrator. Cost: $75.
Manuscript or portfolio critiques. Register for formal critiques by February 8. Cost: $45. Free, informal peer critiques will also be available at the conference.
Advance registration is required and spaces are limited. Membership to SCBWI is not required. Early bird tuition is $195 for SCBWI members, $235 for non-members, or $215 for students. After March 9, registration is $275. For those from outside the Decatur area, a limited number of discounted hotel rooms are available at the Courtyard Atlanta Decatur Downtown/Emory,
Not a member of SCBWI? Join for just $85. You’ll gain access to important industry updates, be eligible for contests and awards, and receive a bi-monthly magazine filled with useful information. And you’ll be part of the largest organization for writers and illustrators of children’s books, with 22,000 members worldwide.
Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tools - a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary with VIDEO

Tools was a topic that surprised us with its richness - after all, tools can be for work, for daily life, for eating, and range from the simple all the way to the most technological. Tools can even be designed to make other tools! We thought of blacksmiths, seamstresses, fashionistas, tools for knitting and for jewelry making. Tools for painting and for drawing - there are incredible ranges just in the specialist tools of artists.

We also talked about multi-tools, of which the Swiss army knife is probably the best known. Believe it or not, these have been around since Roman times at least (see one here). Some of them have been quite ornate. Recently I had seen a bracelet-style multi-tool, which was pretty awesome.

We spoke about how important it might be to carry your own tools. World of Warcraft and other video games let you carry oodles of stuff with you without ever showing you lugging it around or letting it interfere with your ability to fight, but this would not be the case in real life! There was a reason why tinkers and tinsmiths often had wagons.

Knife sharpeners are tools. In China you had portable tea-making tools. There are food-making tools of all varieties (Williams Sonoma etc, anyone?). Knives are tools. Ovens are tools.

Questing brings the need for tools into focus. You want the right tool for the right job; you don't want to be chopping firewood with a sword (as Rutger Hauer once pointed out to Matthew Broderick). Are you carrying an axe with you? Why the heck didn't Aragorn have a backpack? Make sure you think this stuff through so your characters aren't depending on a magical bag of holding.

You can make soup in a leather bag by inserting hot rocks. This has also been done in baskets.

Che pointed out that if you are traveling with a group, you might have a chuck wagon dedicated to all the things you need. However, Brian noted that when you are only eating beans and coffee, scurvy might be a problem.

Pliers are very useful tools for all sorts of tasks, like removing cactus spines from prickly pear fruit, or bones from fish.

We talked about tools that have changed society. The wheel is one of these. The horse collar made it possible for horses to pull much more efficiently. Horse shoes were also a huge advancement, as were yokes, and paper. The cotton gin was a very specialized machine but it made a huge difference to the efficiency of cotton production. The radio. The telegraph. We geeked out a bit about pneumatic tube systems used to deliver messages in banks and stores. Apparently, this method was attempted as a way to move train cars, but it didn't work well because of the difficulty of maintaining a seal around the outside of a train car. (Brian suggests you look up Brunel's atmospheric railway.) Cable cars are a pretty nifty tool for getting around, either in San Francisco, where they are trolleys, or in Europe, where they are cars that take you up to the top of tall mountains. Other tools that have made a huge difference in culture are washing machines, vacuums and crock pots, and other tools that made home life more efficient for women who were unable to employ servants.

Sometimes the maintenance of tools can be as time-consuming as the original chore.

Threshing and grinding grain started being done by hand, then by animal, then by water wheels, then by mechanized mills. You will often find such technological progressions occurring in history; think about how they might have happened in your world.

Obsolescence of tools is an interesting issue as well. Some things don't last long because their function stops being useful to people, or because they are supplanted by better tools. Computers become obsolete very quickly. Other tools, however, have staying power. Forks, for example - or an even older tool, the knife.

Some tools are useful only to small pockets of people, such as the minidisc which was really helpful for radio broadcasting but didn't take off for the general population. Vinyl records are still used by small groups of people though they are no longer the going medium for music storage.

Some tools are considered showpieces for conspicuous consumers, like cars, watches, or handbags. Keeping up with the latest technology takes money.

Do you repair things, or replace them?

Is the tool something the average user can understand, or is it understood only by people with elite knowledge? Cars used to be repairable by a user with some training, but cars with internal computers are beyond the capability of average users to repair, and self-driving cars would be even less under the user's control.

I mentioned how in Varin, technological knowledge is being lost, so changing a lightbulb is easy, but if the timing module for the day and night lights goes out, they have to go to the university to find someone who can build another one based on documentation.

Think about how the tools your people use fit into their environment. Is the environment very wet? Then you might need different materials to make your tools. Is your ability to access tools limited, like, say, if you are on a space station? Or do you have a 3D printer? What material does such a printer use, and how much of it have you got?

Thanks to everyone who came for their insights and lively thoughts.

Here's the video: