Friday, February 5, 2016

Culture Shock: A Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

When we started our discussion on Culture Shock, I pointed out that I wanted to look at various kinds of culture shock - not just that experienced by travelers, but also that which can happen in the workplace, or in marriages between families, etc. As it turned out, the discussion went to some interesting places but didn't quite cover all of the things I'd been thinking of. We'll have to come back to it again!

I spoke about the culture shock I experienced during my first visit to Japan, when I was living with a host family who would tell me to do and say things but not explain why. I had to bathe at particular times, and say "osaki deshita" when I came out. It took me some time and independent research to figure out what exactly was going on! Unfortunately, one of the things I learned was that this particular host family had been trying to take advantage of my presence to make money. The reason it took me so long to realize this was actually culture shock - I was just assuming that any discomfort I suffered (as when I was not allowed to heat my room against the cold) was due to my lack of understanding of cultural details.

Cliff told us a story about a coworker, a woman from a traditional Muslim community where men aren't permitted to touch women who are not close family members. She became very upset when a coworker tapped her on the shoulder. This was problematic because she had kept her expectations for touch behavior unstated, and they didn't match the culture of this Silicon Valley company.

We talked a bit about social casual touching, which (along with personal space) often has complex rules and boundaries that are extremely firm and can be very upsetting to people - but differ widely across cultural communities. Sometimes the rules are religious and sometimes they are more widespread across the culture.

Cliff told us about a situation from his work in progress, where arthropods have difficulty interacting with a human merchant when the research the human has done is insufficient and the negotiation goes wrong. The arthropods have very strong rules about communal vs. individual behavior, and again, there is unfortunate boundary-crossing.

I mentioned that very often in science fiction - and certainly there are a great number of salient examples from Star Trek - the aliens' motives and requirements are made light of or considered quaint or funny. I believe that to be a common error in the way these things are treated, because cultural differences can have life or death consequences.

Politeness can be a big problem because the base assumption is usually that "if you're not polite, you're being intentionally offensive." The consequences of rudeness or even cultural awkwardness can be serious and long-lasting.

Morgan told us about the Ukandir people in her work in progress, where keeping track of bloodines is really important, and a person who has not done this is treated as shocking and becomes ashamed of not knowing.

I mentioned that in our world, bloodlines and the policing of them are incredibly important to people's life outcomes, as with the "one drop rule" to determine whether a child is considered a member of the white or black communities. In this case, it has long been a life or death matter.

Culture is strange, because it is arbitrary on many levels, yet real in its structures and consequences.

Cliff returned to the idea of making light of alien cultures, and pointed out that (especially early) Star Trek was based in many ways on the idea of American exceptionalism, where it suggests that the crew has the best point of view and other cultures are based on something not valuable. In other ways, though, it uses its aliens to reflect aspects of our own culture metaphorically. It can get people to look at their culture from the outside.

I spoke a bit about my story, The Liars (Analog May 2012). It featured a cultural system that had many problematic aspects, but the worst problem arose when that system was pressured by human action, which made the problematic parts worse. In the end the humans could only remove themselves to try to make things better.

We also talked about unexpected consequences of historical decisions. China's one child policy has led to an overpopulation of men, and stigmatization of second children. It has also led to loss of vocabulary for complex kin relationships.

We agreed that there could be cross-generational culture shock, because older people are often offended by younger people's language. Glenda remarked that "long-haired music" before the 1960s referred to classical music, and Morgan noted that "golden oldies" are defined differently by different generations.

The idea of culture shock is a really great tool for authors working in speculative worlds. Much of science fiction depends on creating culture shock in the reader. A point of view character who is a stranger to their environment is a terrific tool, also. This has been used in many stories, including Shogun. A stranger gives you the opportunity to explain the rules in naturalistic settings. If there are no real outsiders, you can still have characters come from different cultures or subcultures within the story. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar does this very well, as do many historical novels. Jane Austen immerses you in a culturally distinct world. Ursula K. LeGuin also uses the technique of using a contrast of cultures, neither of which is like our own.

Without outsiders, portraying a culture effectively is much harder. This is especially true for short stories, where there is less time to let people learn the alien culture.

Morgan told us how her shapeshifters were more tolerant of nudity before and after shifting than the non-shifter population.

Cliff and I talked briefly about how there is culture shock between parents (especially new parents) and non-parents.

We really enjoyed the discussion and plan to take it up again.

Next week, Wednesday, February 10 at 10am Pacific, we'll be joined by author Andrea Stewart, who will tell us about her work. I hope you can come!


Friday, January 29, 2016

Inheritance - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Inheritance is a surprisingly rich topic in worldbuilding and storytelling. The plot of King Lear depends on it, as do all those stories about the third son going off to seek his fortune, and all the ones about dynastic struggles and lines of succession.

You can inherit property, titles, land, and so much more.

It's hard to talk about inheritance, at least of titles, without involving issues of gender. The British crown recently changed its rules to include girls more directly in the succession, but when Queen Elizabeth took the throne, it was because there were so few boys in her generation of the royal family. There have been similar issues with the Japanese Imperial family, where the Crown Prince and his wife have had a daughter, and she is their only child.

Empires and crowns often have issues with trying to prove an unbroken line of succession, due to the idea of the divine right of kings and emperors. The Imperial Household Agency of Japan is known to have forbidden archaeological research because of its interest in preserving the image of an unbroken line stretching back to the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Glenda pointed out that gender is critical to the idea of patrilineal vs. matrilineal inheritance. Morgan noted that in orthodox and conservative Jewish populations, one's identity as a Jew is inherited matrilineally.

In an agrarian society where there is a benefit to having many kids to work a farm, there is a natural problem that arises when you talk about inheriting the land, because land can only be divided so many times.

Morgan brought up property and monetary assets. Assets that have named beneficiaries are relatively straightforward. If there's a will, these will be distributed according to the will. But what constitutes a will? What if there is no will? Will money be distributed by the state, and how? Will the State eventually inherit the money if there are no living heirs?

Morgan told us how she had worked through the inheritance rules of her secondary world. Kenehar has a system most like us. If you are a business owner and you die, the partner will inherit the business. However, Kenehar has been invaded by the Ukandir, who work based on houses. The title of Head of House is inherited by bloodline, but the Head doesn't own the house's assets, and property belongs to the House. Imposition of the Ukandir laws over the Kenehar system lead to complications. Morgan told us that people who leave the Ukandir houses and make money from outside jobs can still have their assets appropriated by the house if they die. Disinheriting someone from a house meas that you never existed as part of it.

I spoke briefly about inheritance questions regarding the throne of Varin, my own secondary world. In Varin there is no blood line, but the Heir is selected by successive votes of a fifteen-member Cabinet between candidates put forward by each of the Great Families.

How does an unfit ruler become ruler? By blood inheritance? Or by some other method?

People often compete for an inheritance. Lots of movies have that as part of their premise. The Aristocats is one of those; Who Framed Roger Rabbit? another; All of Me yet another.

The role of Executor is crucial. Is that person named in the will? Someone needs to be in charge of distribution. Sometimes people can show up with false wills, or less-than-recent ones. How can you tell which one is valid? Must there be witnesses to a will, or a notary? Think about what happens if there is no legal will. What happens if there is a letter but it's unsigned?

In the Mystery genre you see a lot about inheritance and wills. Another question that comes up is the rights of the caretaker. What benefit, if any, accrues to the person who took care of the deceased through their last illness? Did the deceased recognize that person and their efforts or not?

The will of the deceased is not necessarily just. The will may have conditions intended to influence the behavior of heirs from beyond the grave, such as requiring a relationship with the guardian of the assets in order to maintain access to them.

There was a Twilight Zone episode where anyone who wanted to inherit part of a considerable fortune had to wear a mask for 24 hours, and that mask was a hideous reflection of their inner character. Over the 24 hours their face became molded to the mask so it was permanently that way. Conveniently for the story, the deceased was right about the character of the heirs, but what if he hadn't been?

We also mentioned Trusts, which make for a delay in inheritance.

Regents can get in all sorts of trouble! Look at what the Steward of Gondor did: the position became a hereditary rulership because the kings had disappeared, but there were big problems when the kings returned. This thought made me ask, "What if the regent or steward is good and the heir is bad?" What if you wanted to get rid of the heir in order to protect the kingdom, but your ethics couldn't let you kill them? Could you send them away? Could you groom a different heir to be a good person?

Some interesting issues came up right at the end, such as the relationship between the ruler and the culture of a kingdom, and whether the culture would sustain itself if the hereditary succession of the ruler was broken.

We also spoke about cases where Native American people object to scientists studying the remains of their people and what their legal rights are when they are not necessarily directly related to the deceased.

We also asked whether cultural heritage could be a form of inheritance.

By the end of our discussion, we wanted to make sure to talk about this topic again!

Next week we'll meet at 10am on Wednesday, February 3rd to discuss Culture Shock. What happens when you move into a new culture, or convert to a spouse's or other new religion? I hope you can join us!


Friday, January 15, 2016

Isabel Yap - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

This week we had author Isabel Yap join us! After reading two of her stories, Milagroso at and The Oiran's Song at Uncanny Magazine, I was quite surprised by a comment that she'd made to me when we spoke privately about her worldbuilding. So I started by asking her how she defined worldbuilding, and wasn't surprised when she said that she thought mainly about secondary worlds. She noted that worldbuilding panels at conventions very often feature secondary worlds. She describes herself as comfortable with contemporary fantasy, using a modern setting with a few changes. She has tried to come up with new worlds.

I explained the definition of worldbuilding that I use in my hangout series, that worldbuilding has to do with the creation of a world on a blank page. She said she appreciated the more expansive definition. She likes to go about presenting our world in a different way.

She told us that she has a background in fan fiction. The fun part there is that you get to use canon. Other people have done the heavy lifting of creating the world, she says, and thus words and character names evoke a whole lot. Working in original fiction, the task is different. "They are coming to my world completely cold," she says. "How can I get them to care?"

With fan fiction there is a kind of co-creation between the fan and the work. Isabel likes to ask "what ifs" about a story, and do character sketches and backstories, etc., for example: what would happen 10 years after the Hunger Games? She always asks herself if this would make sense in the context of canon.

She says even during this time she was always writing original stories, too. She notes that as a reader growing up, you don't see much short fiction. She says she wasn't aware that such things get published, and wasn't conscious of any need to publish them. She remarks that in short fiction, every sentence really matters.

Isabel told us that she wrote "Milagroso" during her stint at Clarion in 2013. In week 1 she'd written a story about two hackers traveling around the world, but had received feedback that there was no sense of setting in it. She decided, "I'm going to show my class that I can write setting." That, she says, was the first driving factor behind the story, while the second was instructor Nalo Hopkinson. Isabel told us, "I wanted to write a very Filipino story." This was important, she says, because she grew up with the perception that "no one will really get it if I write about my life." However, Nalo made her feel safe because they were both writers of color.

She described the research she did for the story, which features a festival she hadn't attended herself, but which several of her friends had attended. She spoke to high school friends and watched YouTube videos about the festival in general and about how to make kiping, which features prominently. She was very happy when the story was well received by her classmates. She describes the setting as almost like a magical setting, but taking place in a near future which is very like the present.

Glenda asked if it mattered whether the description featured things that were "real" or not. Isabel responded by describing the difference between the reactions of Filipinos to the story vs. non-Filipinos. She said that the Filipinos were more likely to say "I know exactly what you're talking about," while non-Filipinos unfamiliar with the festival were more likely to remark on the emotional impressions of the description. Isabel said she was thrilled when her sister really "got" the story.

The second story we discussed was The Oiran's Song. Isabel told us that it also involved a lot of research because it is historical fiction, even though its not set at a specific historical period. She had always wanted to write about a soldier and a courtesan, but the story didn't really start coming together until she learned about the difference between an oiran (whose duties include sexual ones) and a geisha (more of an entertainer). Studying the history of the role of the oiran helped her pick the approximate historical period, and she then had to decide roughly which war she was depicting. She read a whole book on the Floating World (the world of artists and courtesans in Japanese history). She also got some inspiration from a couple of manga series. She wanted to show the oiran breaking down and feeling her life was hard... but "Spoilers!" she said, she is also an assassin and a demon! She describes the story as personal and triggery.

Pat asked if the oiran were still around, but to our knowledge they are not - the geisha and the maiko remain, however.

I asked if she had a particular world she preferred to work in, but her preference is for discovering new things, and writing in our own world, which feels quite natural. We discussed how difficult it is to write about people whose experience is not the same as ours. She feels nervous, she says, not writing about Filipinos. "I'm going to mess up this American..."

She mentioned the critical question that many writers face, where they can't travel everywhere in the world and wonder if that should stop them from writing about something. She says it shouldn't, but that one must make sure to be careful and do research. She is comfortable working in Japanese settings because she consumed a lot of Japanese media growing up, and studied Japanese starting in the 6th grade. She also spent 3 months studying abroad in Tokyo, which gave her an interesting perspective on the relation between the narratives featured in media and the reality. In the case of shojo manga, she says, it's remarkably close.

She urges us all to check out Filipino Speculative Fiction, which is a strong anthology series, and also The SEA is ours.

Isabel is currently working on a project called The Hurricane Heals series, taking the story of 5 magical girls, but instead of setting them at the typical age for maho shojo stories, they are 25 and dealing with the reality of adult lives in the US. Apparently one of the stories features a monster showing up at a strip club in the middle of a bachelorette party. She wanted to work with the magical girls trope, but make it more realistic.

We briefly discussed how authors consider different kinds of things "realistic." Isabel told us about looking at things like Power Rangers and asking "but how would that actually work?" When does it hurt? When is it tiring? Pat added, "Who gets to wash out all the bloodstains?" These works (like Power Rangers) have a narrative format so familiar it becomes invisible. It is interesting to ask what happens when those elements become visible.

Isabel says, "I do have a perverse love of the painful stuff."

Another thing she is working on features two handsome young men (bishonen) in space. She also is working on a secondary world fantasy that draws on Filipino myth, complete with some interesting gender flipping.

Isabel, thanks so much for joining us and talking about your work! We'll be looking out for it. I hope you will all enjoy the video below. Join us next Wednesday at 10am to talk about Inheritance!


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Announcement of change: this week's guest is Isabel Yap!

This week, on Thursday, January 14th at 8pm Pacific (that's pretty late for East Coast folks, sorry), awesome author Isabel Yap will be joining us to talk about her writing and her worldbuilding. She is the author of Milagroso and The Oiran's Song, and I'm really looking forward to learning more about her worlds.

Make a note of it, and join us on Google Hangouts!


Friday, January 8, 2016

Hospitality - a Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

We had a great time discussing hospitality, which has a lot more consequences in a great many more stories and experiences than it might appear at first glance!

Hospitality, of course, is that thing where you invite people into your home - or welcome people to a place you control, as when you find people entering airline "hospitality suites." Hospitality can be voluntary and involuntary. When British Royalty are coming to your house,  you don't have any choice but to be a host.

Cliff noted that Hospitality drives many sections of Tolkien's The Hobbit, as in the opening when the dwarves arrive and Bilbo is forced to deal with them. Also, in Game of Thrones, many events are set in motion when the king's court shows up at Winterfell. A large portion of Nicola Griffith's Hild is driven by the fact that the king and his court must move from place to place, eating the hosts out of house and home as they go. Hospitality is also a key issue for Shakespeare, as in King Lear. It's also critical to many plot points of Wagner's Ring Cycle, and in Dante's Inferno there's a special area of Hell dedicated to people who have been traitors to their guests.

People who fail as hosts are often marked permanently as evil people. When hospitality fails, bad times are coming.

There are hospitality holidays. These include Halloween, where you are supposed to prepare for strangers to come to your door and demand candy, and Passover, where you are supposed to invite people to come in and join you for your meal. There are hints that Christmas also used to have a strong hospitality element associated with caroling, as in "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" where the carolers demand to be taken in and fed.

Hospitality rules have changed in modern life, but they are still critical. The Syrian refugee crisis is about hospitality.

In general, the more isolated and dangerous the location, the stronger the rules that say you have to help one another, and take people into your care.

The Christmas story is about a failure of hospitality that landed Mary and Joseph out in the stable. The Bible and the Torah are filled with hospitality-based stories. In the Torah you can encounter angels who disguise themselves as guest. Even older traditions have similar stories, as when Odin (Wotan) travels in the form of an old man to test people's hospitality.

Such a test of hospitality is essentially a test of the host's moral character. As such, you as an author could do a lot with hospitality to indicate the characteristics (good or bad) of your protagonist. After all the dwarves have arrived and been taken care of, we end up feeling quite strongly that Bilbo is a good guy.

Morgan mentioned international student exchanges as a good example of a hospitality-based activity. Adoption is also a form of hospitality.

In Star Wars, Lando is a bad host and has to make up for it.

There are also stories about dishonest guests. Vampires must be invited into the home, but once there, don't carry out the traditional duties of guests! They are predators taking advantage of hospitality rules.

Morgan noted that in cities, it can be risky to take people in. This leads to culture clashes where people coming in from desert (or forest) environments expect hospitality but can get none. There are circumstances in cities where people end up sitting in dangerous or unsafe circumstances because asking for aid might be worse.

Conflict can also come from different cultural expectations surrounding the roles of host and guest. In the Netherlands, the host is supposed to serve food until the guest stops eating; in Japan, the guest is supposed to eat until the host stops serving. This could make a Japanese guest in a Dutch home rather uncomfortable!

Hitchhiking is a form of hospitality. There are stories about ghost hitchhikers, and predatory supernatural hitchhikers.

Rules surrounding the host's role vary based on circumstance. When guests from far away come to visit, do they stay at your home? They most often do at ours. When we have gone to Europe, friends have often hosted us in their homes. However, when we go to Japan, we typically get help from our hosts finding an inn not from the house, because the houses are too small to accommodate extra residents.

In Japanese history, there was another twist on hospitality, where the Shogun required his vassals to live with him for half the year. This kept local leaders from consolidating their power in their places of origin and from conspiring with each other against him.

In English history, feudal lords would gather in London to play politics and display wealth. As in the Japanese example, this expenditure for travel and showing off was good for the king, and bad for their own power.

We also talked about fostering. When children were fostered, they could be hostages or brainwashed (conditioned?) by the hosts as well as being welcomed. There are instances of this in Game of Thrones, and also in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books. The Pern example was particularly interesting because of its association with craft guilds. Fostering served to keep skills from dying out in the isolated locations where they were practiced.

An Irish king called Niall of the Nine Hostages kept women of his subject kingdoms hostage in his court, and also used them to spread his DNA through the population. This would mean that rape was involved, as a breach of hospitality.

Some stories have featured travelers expected to sleep/have sex with a host's female relatives.

In Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro, much of the plot revolves around the lord's attempts to have sex with Figaro's fiancée before they can get married. We talked about whether Droit du Seigneur was a real thing, or just a rumor.

Slave traders can pose as hosts who then drug and chain up their guests and sell them.

Morgan brought up the question of the purposes of hospitality, and its limits. Passover hospitality is for a meal, not for an indefinite period. There is also that expression "guests are like fish - they smell after three days."

We discussed the question of children moving back in with their parents, how college was expected to help kids (in America at least) transition out of the home, and how children moving back in encounter the tricky situation of not quite being a household member, not quite being a guest.

Boarders are often called "paying guests" so they lie close to the borderline as well.

Bed & Breakfast places are sometimes hotel-like, but sometimes are also instances where people invite you into their homes.

There are a lot of potential plot and conflict ideas that can grow out of the expectations surrounding hospitality. I hope you have found this discussion interesting!

Thank you to everyone who attended. I hope you enjoy the video.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Body Modification - a Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

I recommend this video for brainstorming because of its broad-ranging discussion.

We had a fabulous discussion on body modification. We started out with its modern meaning, talking about people who inject saline solution to change the shape of their faces, or the man who has tattooed himself to look like a lizard and had a crest inserted in his head to make him look less human.

However, there is a whole lot more that could be considered types of body modification. For example, foot binding in China was a very dramatic historical form of body modification, and things like castration to make a eunuch or castrato would also count as body modification. Cliff suggested that even circumcision might also be seen as falling under this category. Che mentioned that the Maya aristocracy shaped their heads by tying their babies' heads to boards, and also as adults inlaid their teeth with jade. Scarification and tattoos are found all over the world, and also count as modifications.

Very often, body modifications have an important social meaning. They can mark membership in a religion or other social group, and they can also mark changes of status (such as gaining adulthood or seniority).

We asked, "Do temporary changes count?" Henna tattoos are associated with special social circumstances, but fade with time. Hair style changes may not count because they are too easy to change.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox had a third arm added to his body. It's arguable whether his second head was added or original.

Neck stretching, which occurs among the women of the Padaung people of Burma as well as among several groups in Africa including the Ndebele, is a form of body modification. We discussed whether the neck was actually stretched, and whether the rings could be removed.

We noted that some of these body modification practices were intended to show that a person was aristocratic, and some were specifically geared to render a person unable to perform labor. Foot binding was one such practice, as was the growing of very very long fingernails. There have historically been various ways of marking oneself as being outside the working class.

Tattoos have in the past (and in the present, for some jobs) been a problem for people seeking jobs in the US. Cliff mentioned that his wife had a belly ring, but as a doctor, she received pushback from patients who didn't feel it fit the stereotypes of what a doctor should be like.

Our thoughts on body modification also took in modern beauty modifications, such as breast implants, botox injections, and even extreme dieting. Weight changes aren't necessarily permanent, but there remains the question, "What are you willing to do to your body for a job?"

Body modifications may also be coerced, such as female genital mutilation. But what about unintended modification? Does the damage done by coal dust count as a body modification? What about the sun damage sustained by people who must work all day in the sun?

We also talked about teeth, including the straightening and whitening of teeth as well as more unusual things like sharpening, etc.

There are also medical modifications, as when people get a pacemaker implanted, or get an artificial knee or hip. Morgan told us that her husband had had cataract surgery, and now his eyes glow in the dark.

In science fiction, many body modifications have been cybernetic as well as mechanical. Cliff recommended I, Cyborg by Kevin Warwick. In the book, Warwick talks about having cybernetic implants put in that allowed him to trade neural signals with his wife, among other things.

This led us to the idea of prosthetics, especially the modern thought-controlled ones, as a form of body modification. Do these things, which are attached to the outside of the body but function as body parts, count as body modification? What about exoskeletons that allow paraplegics to move, and may be brain-controlled, but are not actually a part of the body? A wheelchair is not considered a part of the body, but it does form an important part of a person's identity, as do other forms of mobility or functionality aids.

This thought led us to cochlear implants, which have raised very complex cultural and identity questions in the deaf community. Are these, and medical interventions like artificial ear bones, worth considering body modifications?

And what about genetic modification? To cure disease, or to create particular traits? If you were to alter the genetics of your child, what would you be doing to their identity? Would these changes be permanent? In Iain Banks' Culture books, people can change their gender.

We argued that humans have done rather extreme genetic body modification on a lot of different animal species, including turkeys and dogs.

Cliff mentioned a story he'd read where children were accompanied by adults whose bodies had been modified to be child size. Other stories we've read have had people modified to breathe underwater, or breathe nitrogen (other atmospheres), etc. Lois McMaster Bujold had people adapted to microgravity with four arms and no legs. Neuromancer featured a large number of cybernetic and other modifications, while in C.S. Friedman's book This Alien Shore, the first faster-than-light engine had made dramatic genetic alterations in humans so that they had now become significantly alien to one another.

Che remarked that one sees body modification mostly in science fiction rather than fantasy. What would it look like in fantasy? Che mentioned a story where someone had been punished by having the arms of the baby she killed magically grafted to her head. She also recommended the Monsterblood Tattoo by D.M. Cornish, where monster organs grafted magically into human bodies gave them particular powers.

Glenda mentioned the idea that eating the heart of a lion will give you a lion's strength, and this took us to the idea of magic potions. Magic potions might change your body's attributes, whether permanently or not.

This got us thinking that taking steroids was a form of body modification, if done over a long period. We also talked about medications and other techniques used to make genetically small people taller.

Cliff suggested that Gollum was modified by the One Ring, and so were the Nazgul, but we noted that in fantasy, complete transformation is more common. One of the brothers who were transformed into swans did end up with one wing after he was changed back.

I was really impressed with the range of topics we touched on, and hope these will get you thinking for your own projects. Thanks to everyone who attended!

Our next hangout will be in the new year on January 7th at 10am Pacific, and will be hosted on the Google Hangouts service if possible. I will keep you updated on how our technology is changing to the best of my ability. Our January guest will be Charlie Jane Anders, who will join us to talk about her book All the Birds in the Sky at a time to be announced.

I hope you all have wonderful holidays!


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Megan O'Keefe and Steal the Sky: A Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

We were joined by awesome debut author Megan O'Keefe, who spoke to us about her book, Steal the Sky, which will be out in January! As she described it, Steal the Sky is about a con man and his best friend who try to steal the airship of a mean lady. Things go sideways and they get involved in a coup...

This is an adventuresome book! So we dived a bit into the worldbuilding that Megan had put together.

The first thing we talked about was this substance called "selium," which she says can be pronounced either with a long or short "e." It's a gas with special properties, mined through "firemounts" - volcanoes, in other words. It exists in the earth's crust and bulges up in hot magma areas. It's mined by "sel-sensitives," who are magic users attuned to this particular substance. These magic-users can control the selium in different ways, depending on their level of skill.

Megan said she was "allergic" to the Aristotelian concept of elements, i.e. earth, wind, fire, water.

Selium is used for many things in this world, one of which is for lift. Some of the sel-sensitives can just move the gas; others can change its colors or do more destructive things with it. The miners are not sophisticated users. Sophisticated users are seen as dangerous and pogroms are used to get rid of them. Also, overuse of selium magic leads to a disease called bonewither.

I asked Megan how she explored the selium system and discovered new things about it. She said that if a person can change the color, why couldn't they change the texture, or other things? The underlying backbone of the system needs to be known to the author, but mysteries can be left for readers.

Megan told us about her research. She studied geology in college, so the geological research she did for the book was a refresher. She looked up upswelling. She created an Australia-sized continent with lots of volcanoes, where the earth's tectonic plates are moving slowly - more slowly than the one over Hawaii. There is lots of spreading, and there are earthquakes, though none occur in this book. The seismic activity does have some mythological implications for these people.

Socially, she said that the native Katari people of this land were pushed off by the Valathean Empire, who sent them off to less seismically active areas. There is a belief that they can take back their land when certain conditions are met. The Katari are more accepting of sel-sensitives. Sel-sensitivity is not genetic, but is caused by the environment, ingesting the groundwater, etc. However, Valatheans thought it was genetic. The story takes place three generations after the conquest, so those Valatheans who live on the Scorched Continent have a new identity. Of course, the Valatheans gave the continent that name. Their own area of the world is jungle-y. Megan says that the city where the story takes place is like a frontier outpost, with a degree of lawlessness.

In fantasy stories, Megan explains, often characters develop powers they shouldn't have, and people come to get them but they are saved by revolutionaries. In the case of this character, nobody saved him, and he was experimented on. Eventually he got away from them, and now he cons and harasses them to release his anger and get back at the people who hurt him.

Another character in the story is Ripka, the female protagonist and watch captain. Her motive is to care for things. She grew up low-income and watched refugees from the war come through. She's facing tough moral decisions. There is something of the feel of a Western to the aesthetics in this book, including the sense of expansion and the desperation and hope in the city.

The two ethnic groups, Katari and Valathean, are on the cusp of full integration. There is some friction between these groups but as yet the Empire has a stranglehold. Megan told us she got a lot of her inspiration from England's trade empire, and influences from Portuguese and Dutch history.

She told us there are "two and a half" points of view. The "half" is a Katari who shows up every five chapters. It's not clear if she's a bad guy because she has complex motivations and is seeking revenge in complex ways.

Overall, this is a secondary world fantasy, with a world not related to earth.

I also asked Megan about the flight of the airships. These are like sailing ships with a wood body and sails... except that the typical sailing ship wouldn't work well in the air because it would have no way to steer. Selium provides the lift, but the ships also have ailerons and propellers and flight control surfaces. Megan says she got her research for this from her own experience as a private pilot. There are no dirigibles, but "fliers" look something like Chinese or Nile river barges with buoyancy sacs above them. Note: they still have ailerons!

The Scorched continent has a monsoon season. This causes more bugs, while more water animals start coming in from the coast. Animals in this world include marsupial rats, goats, rock cats (the size of savanna cats). There are poisonous bugs and aggressive, softball-sized bees. Also, giant spiders the size of your hand!

Rajnar asked about volcanic vugs, the pockets where gemstones form. Apparently, in this world selium can form into stones under the proper circumstances. There are extremophile creatures, but they are not (yet?) encountered by the characters.

Megan told us that people in this world wear glasses. That has some technological implications. We asked, "why wouldn't they then have telescopes?" However, a lot of different technologies come together to create something like a glass bottle or a pair of glasses or a telescope. Faience glass, which was made in Egypt, did not involve the kind of grinding technology necessary for a telescope. It's also tricky to get glass to be clear (rather than translucent). Megan told us, "For me, everything follows something else. They [the people in this world] want to read longer, but why? What is important to them?"

I asked about the Black Walk. This is a method of capital punishment unique to the city featured in Steal the Sky. Normally, people will go around this volcanic area - a hot aquifer covered over with a layer of shattered obsidian. People who are stripped and asked to walk across it will quickly lose their shoes and then their lives, being cut and then burned to death.

I asked Megan if she had a favorite thing about this book. She said it was the friendship between the protagonist and his best friend. She said it was special because it was a really solid friendship, despite being tested multiple times. In particular she said she felt that friendships aren't usually given enough weight and importance, that they are treated as too fragile in many stories.

There are also sequels coming up! Book 2 will take us to a southern coastal city with different cultural mores, and different architectural style... and an island prison off the coast, while Book 3 will give us a peek into the Valathean Empire. Megan says she also has novellas planned.

Thank you so much for joining us, Megan! It was really fun to explore your world and your worldbuilding process. The book will be out in January, so look out for Steal the Sky...