Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Gestures: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

This was a great little discussion, made more fun by the fact that we could visually wave our hands at each other and make faces over the video link!

We talked about body language and gestures. It's important at the start to recognize the difference between habitual gestures, and iconic gestures - iconic gestures having a particular and specific assigned meaning, similar to what you get in sign language, which is fully iconic.

There are a lot of cross-cultural differences in both gestures and sign language. Greetings differ widely across the world. Do people bow? Do they shake hands? Often you will find that a gesture like shaking hands has a long history. Shaking hands was a way to indicate that one's weapon hand was empty. Bowing is something that we see even across species, and it may have to do with the instinctive link between height and status - as Brian said, "how much you can oversee." In this day and age, it can be very finely tuned to social meaning. In Japan (at least, and possibly in other countries as well) you tune your bow to be lower than the bow of a person whose status is higher than yours (someone older, or a year ahead of you in school, your boss, etc.).

Gestures work in concert with auditory language, and are particularly useful over long distances, which is why we see things like semaphore.

Obscene gestures are a type of iconic gesture that always comes up! However, these vary across cultures as well. A gesture like "thumbs up" which is innocuous to Americans may not be so innocuous to Greeks, for example. Then there is also the kind of hand sign that can be used in a friendly way in one community, yet be interpreted as a gang sign by another community (due largely to racism in this case). There is an example of cross-species misinterpretation of body language in one of Piers Anthony's Xanth books, where the protagonist is communicating with a spider through a piece of talking spiderweb on his shoulder, and the spider interprets his smile as aggressive, and raising his fists as friendly.

Thumbs up, hook 'em horns, read between the lines, middle finger, finger dragged across the throat, bite the thumb, thumb from chin or nose...

Body language is connected to emotion, but it can be ambiguous.

Reggie mentioned how feather-fluffing in parrots can either indicate comfort or alarm (pretending to be big!), and it's just a matter of degree to tell the difference. Cats puff up, show their bodies side-on to look bigger, and hop with their front legs splayed out when they are alarmed. By contrast, the slow closing of eyes can be a sign of affection. In both dogs and cats, direct eye contact is interpreted as aggressive, and this can be the case for humans also.

I mentioned how I researched canine gestures of various sorts (puppy hunger gestures, play gestures, surprise gestures, etc.) for use with my canine-inspired protagonist, Rulii, in the story "Cold Words." [Note: this story is going to be reprinted soon in Forever Magazine, editor Neil Clarke. So look for it!]

Morgan said that it would be interesting to have a creature that looked like one kind of animal but behaved like another.

If you were to look at shapeshifters, would their gestural language follow their form, or would they be stuck in between human and animal communications systems? Would some of their gestures be carried across from one form to another?

Inside jokes, gestures, and secret handshakes are another good example of gestural communication. Kicking someone under the table, finger against the nose.

"Nudge nudge wink wink" is an odd one because people have stopped actually doing it in favor of just saying the words for it.

Air quotes are interesting in that they function to change the meaning of words that are being said.

Sign language has regional variation. It also has slang. Across the world, different countries typically have distinctly different sign languages. I loved this video of Swedish sign:

Dogs and wolves do not use quite the same gestures for communication.

Che had the idea of creating intelligent velociraptors, and imagining gestural communications for them based on toe claw position, etc. How would reptile gestural/expressive communication differ given that they have so many fewer facial muscles? How would cephalopods' incredible muscularity and flexibility influence a form of gestural communication?

Thanks to everyone who came and participated! I'm sorry that I'm unable to hold a hangout this week (4/22) but I will keep in touch about next week. Our next author guest will be Malon Edwards, who will join us toward the beginning of May (date still to be confirmed).

Here's the video:




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Monday, April 13, 2015

A post about Loud Voices which is not about Civility

I have something to say about civility.

Except it isn't really about civility. I'm just going to start as if it were, at the beginning.

Civility, the surface: Isn't it nice? Isn't it easy when everyone is polite and quiet? Yay! Nothing is going wrong! (Except it's not; I'll return to this.)

Disturbance, level 1: People complain politely about injustice. These are generally ignored, and no action taken.

Disturbance, level 2: People complain about injustice loudly, angrily, perhaps impolitely. These are dismissed as emotional, angry, ugly. If they cite actual evidence, they are told that they would be listened to if they were more polite, but under the circumstances, no.

Disturbance, level 3: People threaten one another with death or violence. These people are breaking the law. I imagine this can be something people resort to without thinking in cases of extreme anger; it can also be used as a deliberate strategy to cause fear. Without a lot of corroborating information, it's hard to tell any one person's motives (though I will note that in several cases this corroborating information does exist). I think cases of threats are pretty straightforward, though I have yet to hear of any instance in which someone was arrested for them. Called out, in detail, though, yes: see the Laura J. Mixon report on RH. These actions should be stopped and it is highly appropriate to call them out and ask for them to do so.

Next, we filter all this through the idea of "my team" and "your team." Ideally, we shouldn't have to do this. Should we ignore level three disturbance just because someone is on "my team"? I don't think so. Ignoring a person's threats when they are publicly recognized as being on one's own team is wrong. Trying to separate oneself is... understandable, if a bit ex post facto.

Let's look at level 2, though. A lot of level 2 discussions devolve into name-calling and other expressions of anger. A lot of people justify their own name-calling and anger by saying "the other team is also doing it."

I hear people saying "my team"'s expressions must be righteous, while "your team"'s expressions are unjustified, pointless, uncivil. This is clearly an issue that needs to be resolved with evidence. There is thus an important role to be played by people who are going to take evidence and do an analysis. Sturridge is one of these people. So is George R. R. Martin, here and here.

I also hear people saying that all raised voices are the same, and should be weighted equally in the call for a return to civility.

I disagree. It comes back to evidence.

"I feel bad because I imagine I deserve more" is NOT an accurate description of the messages on both sides.

Correia and Torgersen obviously feel bad because they imagine they deserve more. (They cloak it in a lot of language about the state of the genre; George R. R. Martin's post above dissects those arguments in detail.) This, despite the fact that they have achieved all kinds of empirically measurable success. It's because they can't have the feather in their cap that they have decided to cry out and co-opt the voting system for the Hugos.

Women, people of color, and LGBT people feel bad because they have been materially oppressed. There is a lot of evidence for this. A simple statistical look at books published in SF/F, books reviewed, voices mentioned in articles about the triumph of genre, etc. will show the clear, longstanding dominance of straight white males. This is not even mentioning sexual harassment, racist or homophobic behavior and constant microaggressions online and at conventions. (Or the constant tide of same in everyday life outside of genre careers!)

These people feel bad because they have been hurt, over and over, historically and in modern times, in ways that materially damage their lives and careers. And it continues every day.

I've spoken about these issues with people for a long time. I've shared the evidence, over and over and over.

I have even had one-on-one private conversations with people in which I laid all this out, only to be told that my premise cannot be accepted. Naturally, it is frustrating when my efforts fall on deaf ears. I think people who have any inkling of the history of religious persecution should realize that historical events cast a long shadow, and if we are using logic, that should make it pretty obvious that things like slavery and abuse and disenfranchisement of women are not cleanly taken care of in one swoop, but by a long, long process of protest, anger, argument, all of the above. In this process, "civil" voices play a role, but they are never, ever sufficient. (This is of course giving the benefit of the doubt on underlying questions of whether people actually deserve equal rights, which applies only to a subset of the Puppy crowd.)

One thing that really gets me, though, is the way certain people refuse to accept the existence of injustice as though it were an intellectual premise, rather than the everyday experience of millions of suffering people. To that, add the way that people suffering literal tortures across the world are held up as object lessons to attempt to "show" us that what we suffer means nothing.

Just because your non-functioning computer is a "first world problem" doesn't mean that it doesn't infuriate you; how much worse, then, is the abuse constantly heaped on women, people of color, and LGBT people who are daily abused and killed in this country, and then told they should be grateful?

Don't try to tell me that these people simply "feel bad because they imagine they deserve more." Being treated with respect as a human being is not a feather in anyone's cap. It is a fundamental human right. Being chastised for actions others perceive as hurtful does not begin to compare. Publishers are not turning away saleable work simply because they disagree with an author's political views. The world of our genre is getting larger and larger - more authors, more work, more fans. Naturally, that means a lot of different kinds of people exploring SF/F in lots of different ways. I've always seen SF/F as being about looking at the world in different ways, exploring, etc. There are lots of ways to do that, and there's room for everyone who can find a readership. But there are the same number of Hugos, so logically, as the field grows there are more non-Hugo-winners. In any case, that latter category always included an overwhelming majority of people.

If you've been in a position to live your life without a societal system constantly working against you - and by that I mean without anyone telling you how cute you are when you are angry, or constantly interrupting you, or paying you less than your male coworker doing the same job - without anyone calling you a thug for reacting to mistreatment with anger, and without feeling like you might die every time you are anywhere near a police officer - feel lucky. Realize, however, that the silence of civility is only helping to hide you from a larger reality. You were meant to feel comfortable in this system, as it was designed by people like you for their own benefit. Nonetheless, it is still pulling the wool over your eyes. There's been lots of research on this; go read it.

If you are only just now realizing the world isn't all about you, welcome. We've been in that place this whole time.


Note: I have turned on comment moderation. Use evidence.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Autonomy, Individuality, and Identity: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

This was an interesting discussion, which we warmed to as we went. I explained that I wanted to look at all kinds of definitions for autonomy, so we started out by talking about group mind and hive mind concepts. I talked about the Tines, from Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the deep, a wolf pack species where each pack is a single individual, and if the pack is reduced to three or fewer members it becomes non-sentient. We spoke about this for a while because of all its intriguing implications, particularly for things like finding new members when one is killed, and how an enemy's stranded member can get adopted into the group to keep its sentience maintained.

Glenda drew a parallel with something she had read, where there was a hive mentality, and the larger the hive, the more intelligent it got. 20-30 members would be rudimentary, over 100 would be intelligent, and over 1000 would be super-intelligent.

Morgan mentioned In the Company of Mind, which dealt with the idea of multiple personality syndrome, one body containing multiple people. This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman is also a really interesting treatment of that and other mental states.

We also talked about cultural focus on individuals versus the group. The cultural tradition we generally call "Western" focuses on exceptional individuals, and glorifies things like vigilantism (through superheroes) and rule-breaking. This is not the case across the globe. Other group entities like clans, families, etc. can be much more important in different contexts. Those contexts offer interesting types of conflicts when people are torn between their own desires and the group's expectations.

What is the nature of a group's influence? We talk about peer pressure as though it's a bad thing, but when it comes to larger cultural trends, an enormous amount of pressure from the surrounding group can be considered normal. What are the needs of the many? How do they measure up against the needs of the one? (Yes, Star Trek was mentioned.)

It seems like in all kinds of stories, the world needs to be saved. Brian mentioned that he's very tired of the stakes always being absolutely enormous. In a way, it's hard to care about the world - that is a very nebulous sort of conflict. However, we can easily believe people wanting to save individuals. A story needs to set up stakes on the individual level as well as the larger level. Caring about particular individuals can also be a good motive for antagonists. Dropping all other concerns to protect one person can lead to evil acts, as can protecting someone from a perceived danger.

Ask the question: What motivates people to save the world?

In our society, we can feel like we have more individual choice than we actually have. Our choices have consequences in the social sphere, and many stories don't engage deeply with the question of those consequences. I mentioned the movie Emma which began with a spinning sphere, seemingly celestial, that turned out to have the names of the homes in the village written on it. In our world, especially in small communities whose members all know each other, acting out socially can lead to huge social problems. This includes schools! You don't necessarily get to escape family expectations either. The antagonist in Sailor Moon gets told, "You can't just do whatever you want." As babies, we start with very little sense of the requirements of groups, and all our own needs; we grow into a sense of the larger group as we get older and are taught.

Toward the latter part of the hangout we talked about boundaries and bodily autonomy. Different cultures have widely variable rules about touching, eye contact and personal space. Is there a culture of touching in your world? Do people hug strangers? Brian noted that in England, people don't hug even in private. In Eastern Europe, boys commonly hold hands - but in America, they don't. There is more hugging in the Western US and in California than in the rest of the country.

There are strict rules about touch in classrooms. Do you hug teachers? Does a teacher need autonomy? Does the teacher need to refrain from touch in order to stay free of suspicion? What happens in Kindergarten when you have kids with less self-control and lots of affection? We felt it was problematic to make a blanket prohibition on touching, because that actually avoids engaging with the complexity of issues of consent, etc.

Che mentioned how at some conventions you can wear buttons or signs to say how open you are to interaction.

Sometimes you need to be touched. Infants need hugging and touching or they fail to thrive. I had an experience myself when I moved to Japan where I hadn't been hugged or touched in a month and I started feeling very despondent.

In Japan, you typically stand at bowing distance rather than handshake distance when you are in a conversation with someone.

If two people disagree on the amount of personal space they need, a conversation can turn into a chase. The person backing up can feel very threatened.

Thanks to everyone for engaging with this challenging topic! Join us today at 3pm on Google+ to discuss Gestures!

Here's the video:



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Monday, March 23, 2015

Deborah J. Ross and The Seven-Petaled Shield: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

We were very fortunate to be joined by author Deborah J. Ross, who came to talk to us about her wonderful trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. She told us that it was inspired by an exhibit of Scythian art that she saw, and was a way for her to branch out beyond the tired tropes of pseudo-Celtic and Western European fantasy.

The Scythians were nomadic horse-riders in the central Asian steppe. They had shamans called enarees who, among other duties, would be asked to test the truthfulness of any charges brought against someone in their community. Enarees were men who wore woman's clothing and occupied a cultural niche in between the men's world and the women's world. One fascinating thing about them was that they kept the Romans at bay for hundreds of years.

Deborah began by writing four short stories set in a fantasy version of the Scythian world, known as Azkhantia. She wanted to write a novel, and found the right additional axis of tension when she realized she's referred to a place called Meklavar as "where witches dwell." She then expanded Meklavar into a society based on very ancient Judea. The Meklavarans have a very old written scripture, and literacy is very important to them, as is the knowledge of languages. Any given Meklavaran will typically know 3 or 4 modern languages and 2 extinct ones. Their magic is based in the scriptural stories.

She elaborated on this using parallels from the real world, where echoes of earlier goddess-based religions remain in scriptures of the traditions that followed them. She was also inspired by the tale of King Solomon's seals and the genie. When something has been pent up - something that needs very badly to stay pent up - we can forget things, and wind up in trouble. In The Seven-Petaled Shield, the empire of Gelon goes after Meklavar, and accidentally releases an evil genie.

The story focuses on the viewpoint of women, in part because she didn't want it just to be "Lord of the Rings with a twist." In this world, the solutions to problems can't come by the sword.

The "Seven-Petaled Shield" of the title is a set of seven magical jewels. Six of these occupy the points of a six-pointed star, and the seventh lies at the center. Each jewel has a different kind of power associated with a particular attribute (courage, strength, etc.) The six brothers with the jewels were magically linked and were able to defeat the evil power of Fire and Ice, which was made up of incompatible elements left over from the creation of the universe.

The story begins with the siege of Meklavar, in the person of Tsorreh, the young second wife of the king. Deborah explained that she wanted Tsorreh to be young, but old enough to be educated and have strong cultural heritage. She is part Mekalavaran and part Isarran (Isarre is something like Phoenicia.) In the siege, she chooses to save the library, saving the things that make her people unique. Just before she and her son flee, she inherits the central gem of the shield, which changes her power and perceptions. Her biggest strength is in making friends and having compassion.

Deborah wanted to make sure enemies were not demonized, and she wanted to explore how to resolve conflict in non-violent ways.

During the story, Tsorreh's son Zevaron believes that his mother has been killed, and becomes consumed by desire for revenge. Deborah explained that she drew on her own experience of her mother's murder to explore his character. In the end, she says she is the person she wants to be, and not defined by that experience. Her journey to healing is reflected to some extent in the story. She also looks at how people come to believe that "your pain will be over when X is destroyed."

There is love in the story, though Tsorreh's first marriage is political. Deborah says almost all her stories have love in them. The meeting of Zevaron with the Azkhantian warrior Shannivar was one of her earliest imaginings for the story.

Deborah placed the emergence point for Fire and Ice at the northeast corner of the steppe. She therefore did a lot of research on Mongolian life. Horses and camels are very important to the people there, and friction between clans is far less because just staying alive in this environment is so difficult. The culture as a whole comes to support the border clans who are those who clash most often with outsiders.

Deborah describes Shannivar (for whom the second book was named) as a very clear viewpoint character, easier to write than some of the others. She was excited to see Shannivar illustrated on the cover of the book as Asian, wearing clothing she could reasonably fight in! Shannivar's place in the Azkhantian culture allowed her to explore the question of how the culture might reasonably balance women fighters with the need for family and child-raising, as well as the need for a high birth rate. In Azkhantia, men and women are pretty equal until they are teens -they all ride, shoot, hunt, etc. Then they can participate in a ritual called The Long Ride, which is a status-raising activity. Once they have killed an enemy in battle, which is a prerequisite for marriage, women come under more pressure to settle down and take part in more settled activities like raising children and making felt for tents. Shannivar, however, is not interested in marriage because she wants glory.

One fascinating element of the story is how both Shannivar and Tsorreh experience love, but in neither case does that love hamper their drive or their power to achieve what they want.

Reggie asked, "How did the finished story diverge from your plan?" Deborah said that she knew the characters would have to find the various pieces of the shield, but initially had no idea how that would be accomplished. She had also put a lot of importance on a prophet character who bore some resemblance to Jesus - but he ended up being less important in the final draft.  Shannivar's story was initially the last third of the book, but Deborah decided she needed to develop the details of Tsorreh's captivity. She wanted everyone to have internal journeys as well as external. Shannivar was given more room to develop from a talented girl to a war leader.

Deborah told us the moving story of her friend Bonnie Stockman, who was her best friend and taught her a lot about horses, helping her to develop Shannivar's relationship to her two horses. Deborah dedicated the book to her, but Bonnie became very ill before the book was to be released. DAW printed a single 8.5"x11" copy so that she could see it before she passed away. Deborah had very glowing words for DAW's relationship with her and their willingness to get her involved in the choice of her own cover art, by Matt Stawicki. She would like to see The Seven-Petaled Shield turned into an ongoing series - and so would I!

Thank you so much, Deborah, for coming to speak with us about your amazing books. Here's a link where you can purchase them.

And here's the video of our discussion, if you'd like to learn more!



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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Names, Titles, and their Social Significance - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

When it comes to worldbuilding, and getting a read on where people stand in the world, nothing is quite so useful as a name or title. There's an incredible diversity of name types and title types out there, each one bringing with it a lot of information - indeed, potentially an entire setting.

Take "king," for example. What comes into your mind when you read it? A lot is going to depend on the name that follows. King Henry - puts us straight into England, and probably gives us a historical time period associated with a particular King Henry. King Midas - well, that one takes us to Greece, and to Greek mythology. King Terandi - a name people don't know was probably fabricated by the author, and thus puts us into a fantasy setting, but also will tend to set up an expectation of a medieval setting. King Niall - this one will depend on how many people know about the historical King Niall. The associations of "king" set up expectations that are so strong, they can be difficult to guide or defeat in situations where we don't want people thinking "medieval England." Thus, we can pick a different title to flag differences. In "Cold Words," I used the title "Majesty" (used as a noun in the same way as king, rather than as Your Majesty) to indicate a kinglike ruler without bringing in the usual associations with the title. The difference in the title acts like a flag, telling readers to expect something a little out of the ordinary.

Reggie mentioned that in her world of Spectra's End, there are Benefactors and Chosen, but only Benefactor directly serves as a title preceding the name, whereas Chosen go by first names without any title preceding them.

Titles tell us where people stand socially, and what their perceived social function is. As such, they are incredibly useful.

The use of names is also very informative. Using first names often implies solidarity or even intimacy, and can sometimes indicate that one person has power over another. Glenda mentioned that in her world, people are stratified by age, and so the formal terms of address depend on the age group a person belongs to.

What do people in your world call people they don't know? In Japan, people will often call strangers by kinship names depending on what generation they perceive a person as belonging to. An old person might be called "grandmother" (obaa-san) or "grandfather" (ojii-san), a person not quite old enough not to be offended by the implications of that one will probably be called "aunt" (oba-san) or "uncle" (oji-san). Young people will be called "big sister" (onee-san) or "big brother" (onii-san). By contrast, English speakers tend to use words like "sir" or "ma'am." There are also plenty of alternatives to these, but they tend to have a range of social implications. Who would call an unknown man "Mister"? Who uses the words "Miss" versus "Missus"? Who uses the title "Ms."? There are also appellations like "hey you," "man," or "dude," which are used with varying frequency and have interesting social implications. Sometimes the usage of phrases like these indicates a particular regional dialect.

If you will be making up your own set of titles, as Morgan is (she explained the meanings of Sena, Ser, and Per), then it's important to give those titles contextual support. Let readers know what they mean by putting them in a surrounding scene with characters whose relationship is pretty clear, and maybe add a little uncertainty or conflict to give your characters an opportunity to internalize their choice of titles and what they might mean.

This kind of contextual support can also be used to change the significance of words that people already think they know, like when an alien or foreign person reacts unusually to the word "friend," etc.

It's a good idea to look up kinship terminology throughout the world for inspiration.

I explained that in my Varin world, people have individual names (like first names) and caste names. However, caste is supposed to be the most important thing about them, so the caste name actually comes first. My character named Tagaret who belongs to the Grobal caste is therefore known as Grobal Tagaret... to anyone outside his caste. Within the caste, everyone assumes knowledge of their shared caste status, so they don't use the name at all. Instead, the noble caste divides itself into twelve extended Great Families, and so within his caste, Tagaret is known as Tagaret of the First Family. The caste names are also used as appellations for people when you don't know their names, because every person not in the nobility is required by law to wear a mark showing their caste identity. Therefore, if Tagaret meets an unknown person on the street, he'll look for the castemark and call them by caste name accordingly.

We also spoke about social context in which solidarity is expected. In this kind of environment, the informal title or name becomes the unmarked option, and the formal term becomes "marked." Therefore, if a person uses the formal term, it's an indication that something is wrong - an insult, an intent to hurt, etc. It's a distancing move. One example of this is when an angry parent calls a child by their full name. Anger causes the parent to reject sweet loving nicknames and distance him/herself from the child.

Sometimes people refer to one another in a particular way because of identity and underlying relationship, but other times people will be influenced by the formality or social rules of the surrounding circumstances. You can choose a term of address in order to invoke a particular relationship between you and another person. People will invoke the relationship that is most relevant to the social terms of the interaction. Glenda mentioned a home-schooling parent who had the children call her Miss Page during class time to make a distinction between contexts.

Some contexts call for a job title to be used as appellations, and others do not. This varies across cultures.

Certain family names can become associated with particular social classes, caste identities, or other socially significant information, such as when one says, "She's a Rockefeller." Last names can tell where you are from, how people might expect to treat you, or what your job is. Sometimes a society will try to erase social distinctions, such as undercaste membership in Japan, but the signs of that distinction will remain in the last name or in the region the person is from. Ethnic differences are often visible on people's faces, but there is yet another layer of identity and possible bias wrapped up in what that person's name is. Glenda mentioned Polish and Irish names.

We spoke about the name changes that occurred when immigrants came to the US. These name changes sometimes happened voluntarily - to try to fit in deliberately - and sometimes they happened involuntarily, when the immigration officials chose to alter names they had difficulty pronouncing or spelling.

Reggie told us about her last name, Lutz, which is a traditional German last name - except that in her family her surname used to be Luzzi, and it got changed.

We spoke briefly about choosing baby names, and what significance they are perceived to have. I encouraged people to go and research that on their own. Sometimes people change their own names, often for reasons of disconnection from the past, from the family, or from a previous self/body. In some cultures, there are childhood names and adult names. Ursula K. LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea had an interesting system, where you had a childhood name, and then were given a True Name as an adult that no one would actually use, because that would give them power over you. Instead, you would have people call you by some common name. Miyazaki's film Spirited Away also uses the idea of stealing someone's name. Names have power, and that goes through a lot of fairy tales, such as Rumpelstiltskin, etc.

Join us this Wednesday, 3/18/15 at 3pm Pacific on Google+ to talk about Autonomy!

Thank you to Che Gilson, Emily McKinney, Glenda Pfeiffer, Morgan Smith, Reggie Lutz, and Brian Dolton for attending. Here's the video:



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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Genre and Description - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO


Description plays a big role in worldbuilding, but the role it plays can be different depending on genre. Does your description indicate a technology level? (SF) Does it leave a clue? (Mystery) Does it suggest a state of mind? (Literary) Or does it do all three?

Does your description satisfy reader expectations which are heavily influenced by genre? A reader coming in believing s/he is going to find one thing may be confused by another, and end up not engaging with the book.

For one thing, the interpretation of metaphor varies widely across genres. If someone "fades into the wallpaper" in a mainstream book, it's metaphorical. But in a science fiction or fantasy book, it could be literal!

Is your description setting up a particular type of expectation, like that of a medieval setting? If your setting doesn't match that expectation, you need to take steps to defeat it as soon as possible. This is why I always mention electricity early on in a Varin story. Otherwise, people fasten onto other cues in the description and get confused.

Character expectations are a good way to get readers to set their own expectations correctly. Morgan spoke about having a character who is accustomed to wood and brick buildings without plumbing suddenly encounter a room in the upper town with a marble bath and plumbing. Readers might find such things unremarkable, but the character can teach them to find them remarkable.

Point of View is absolutely critical in helping to determine how something should be described. An outsider, stranger, or traveler is a really great point of view to use to allow you as a writer to describe and explain things that insiders would not notice. You can have a point of view character experience the bizarre as normal, or the normal as bizarre. Setting up what the POV character perceives as normal is an important step in starting a story, because it allows strange events to attain their proper resonance. Jumping straight into action isn't always the right idea, especially in a world very foreign to the reader. In secondary worlds, relying on the reader's perception of what is normal can cause descriptions to fall flat or seem inexplicable.

Genre readers expect to geek out over different things. Science fiction and steampunk readers often love their gadgets. Romance, historical, and steampunk readers love to geek out over details of clothing. Some genres feature lengthy fight scenes, either person-to-person or ship-to-ship (on the sea or in space!). Some genres consider descriptions of furniture, or of food, to be very important.

Noticing is a critically important phenomenon. If an author describes something, that generally means that the character has perceived it. They may also have noticed its presence. They may not understand its significance, however. Glenda brought up the general rule that if the character doesn't have some reason to notice something in his/her surroundings, the author shouldn't describe it. However, seeing something and not understanding its purpose or significance can be done well. Say the character sees a key; they can potentially misunderstand it as the key to the desk drawer rather than to a safe deposit box. Someone can look for X on the desk, and move Y out of the way... and Y becomes important later.

I described an exercise I experienced in a class, where we were all asked to describe the professor doing something for about 30 seconds. Though all he did was bring a book in and set it on the desk, everyone there described it differently. Terms of address were different; how they described the book depended on how well they saw it and whether they had read it before; how they described the desk was similarly variable.


My thanks to everyone who attended!

Next week we will be joined by special guest Deborah J. Ross, who will be discussing the worldbuilding in her new trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield. I hope you can join us!

Here's the video:






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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:




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