WorldCon 2016: Political worldbuilding in science fiction

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.


Panellists: Bennett Coles, Christopher Kastensmidt (moderator), Ken Liu, Ada Palmer, Mari Kotani

Joined in progress …

KL: I’d recommend Malka Older’s Infomocracy.

AP: Historically, monarchy is attempted repeatedly. Even after the French Revolution there have been two monarchies. There have also been failed attempts at democracy. There was a Polish city that became a haven for heretics. All of this successive change creates layers of symbology.

KL: Narratives of the past inform the future. The ideal of the Roman Republic is the basis of modern democracy but the reality of ancient Rome was nothing like the ideal.

MK: Godzilla is a political movie at heart. It grew out of the horror of Hiroshima. Now we have Fukushima.

CK: What about the process of political worldbuilding? What makes it effective?

BC: The vast majority of any worldbuilding will never appear on the page but you have to work it all out. Wars are started for reasons. Those reasons could be economic, religious, political, or ideological. Battlestar Galactica is such a political story. Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers from this question: what if our heroes are fighting on the wrong side?

KL: You have to explore and categorize the problems of your milieu. How does political technology, like lobby groups, solve some of those problems? What other problems do they bring to bear? Look to history. Coups d’états are not used in the west (why not?), but other countries elsewhere in the world have them all the time.

AP: Work out more political detail then you need. Compare the world two centuries ago to the world that exists now. The structure of a family has changed over time. The family used to be not just the extended family, but also the servants. Then the nuclear family became the dominant domestic arrangement. Extend that into the future. Sometimes not mentioning something is telling. If there is news from every country but America—what happened?

BC: You have to be consistent. You have to know your world well enough to accommodate creative change. Starship Troopers has fascist trappings.

MK: Shin Godzilla. Shin means this Godzilla is true or new. It’s a katagana character, not a hiragana character. Disaster in diaspora stimulates nationalism.

KL: In “Folding Beijing,” the city itself is a metaphor. There are three dimensions, one for each class. The largest class is the useless class. By journeying through the three dimensions, the protagonist gains a deeper understanding of the way things are. He finds hope without change.

AP: The Gundam series was a way to discuss WWII. Gundam Seed was the same for 9/11.

And that was time.

Next weekend, it’ll be April and time for another next chapter update.

Until next I blog, y’all be well, be kind, and stay strong.

WorldCon 2016: Alienbuilding

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.


Panellists: Caroline M. Yoachim (moderator), G. David Nordley, Ctein, Larry Niven, Sheila Finch

Joined in progress …

GDN: To build aliens, you have to start with the system, planets, and so on down.

C: When it comes to the aliens themselves, a top-down approach means psychology first.

LN: I’ve created aliens with handles on the skull. Humans have bilateral symmetry on the outside. Inside, not so much. An alien can have two dominant arms for fine manipulation, or one extra-muscular arm for heavy lifting. Why not a dwarf elephant with two trunks and fingers on the trunk-tips?

SF: It happens all at once for me. I have an image of the alien. I take a step back and consider what environment might have produced it. Then, I develop the psychology and language. The metaphors used are linked to physiology.

C: I’m happy to steal if it works. I have a species I based on puppets.

CMY: Do you have to balance strangeness with relatability?

GDN: I’m not bothered by aliens that have commonalities with humans. Our basic drives are all the same.

C: There are special, species-related characteristics. Will aliens have religion? Will they be acquisitive? Are they into body augmentation?

SF: Corvids are acquisitive.

LN: I ask myself, what’s the weirdest thing about an alien? Then I extrapolate back.

SF: Sentience and self-awareness have been proven to exist in animals.

C: One notable characteristic of humans is that we build. If there’s an advanced species out there that doesn’t build, what do they do?

LN: What’s the process of adapting humans to their environments?

CMY: What pitfalls do you see? What are your pet peeves?

GDN: Characters that don’t have survival value.

LN: There was a story based on a hospital station—everyone got sick. [Mel’s note: not every disease will attack every species by the same vector. Zoonosis is not common on Earth. And then, there’s immunity.]

SF: Plant aliens that aren’t done well. Sequoias, for example, would have a chemical intelligence.

C: When the physical worldbuilding isn’t related to the story. If it’s all about the display of worldbuilding prowess, it’s essentially scenery.

CMY: When all the aliens are the same, are they truly “alien” aliens?

GDN: Silicone and oxygen might be able to produce something similar to DNA and RNA. Truly alien aliens are difficult to figure out physiologically and biologically.

SF: With truly alien aliens, their physiology becomes the story. It’s all about explaining how they function.

And that was time.

I’ll have one more WorldCon 2016 session to share with you this month, and it’s more worldbuilding (are you sensing a theme?). Next weekend: Political worldbuilding in science fiction.

Be well, be kind, and stay strong until next I blog.

WorldCon 2016: The art of worldbuilding

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.

Panellists: Peter Tieryas, Carrie Patel, Luke Peterson (moderator), Amanda Downum, Greg Bear


Joined in progress …

GB: Edgar Rice Burroughs was the first worldbuilder. He delved into culture and economics. Read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.

LP: Where do you start?

AD: Use the character as the starting point. Develop the city, country, and world around them. Move outward to weather and so forth.

CP: Ask, what does the society value most and what does it fear the most?

PT: If you see a movie with a good story but bad effects, it’s ok. A movie with good effects but a bad story is just bad.

GB: I work from the top down. Sometimes a complete vision of the world will take years to form.

LP: How much do you need to know?

GB: I’m an English major.

CP: You don’t need to tell your readers everything. What’s important to the story you’re telling?

AD: Have a friend ask random questions and build your world or research based on that.

PT: sometimes the best research is done by people who have no expertise.

AD: Find someone who doesn’t read your genre. That’s the acid test.

LP: How do you set your limits? When do you stop?

AD: It’s hard to tell. When you’re drafting, it’s okay to leave some things undefined for later. Get the bones of the story down first.

CP: You might have to dive back in, mid-draft, if you write yourself into a situation only worldbuilding can get you out of.

PT: Hitler exempted artists, and later scientists, from war. It was dark material I had to research for my book. I didn’t want to continue, but I needed to get a grip on the story.

CP: Does the research or detail of the world tell the reader something about the character or the plot? If not, it shouldn’t be in there.

And that was time.

Next week, we move from worldbuilding to alienbuilding 🙂

Be well until then, my writerly friends, and work to make your dreams come true.

WorldCon 2016: The dark side of fairy tales

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.


Panellists: Ellen Datlow, Brooke Johnson, Erin Wilcox (moderator), Sandee Rodriguez, Dana Cameron

Joined in progress …

DC: Fairy tales are the intersection between the known and the unknown in a way that other stories aren’t.

BJ: Tone is the defining quality. It’s a sense of magic realism or normalized magic. I’m currently reading the Turnip Princess. It’s meant to be read. Oral storytelling. Fairy tales are mythic, grand and meaningful, larger-than-life, and yet the things that happen are everyday occurrences to the characters of the story.

SR: Folk tales have the element of reality. Fairy tales have no sense of history.

DC: Domesticity is addressed in fairy tales.

EW: There’s a marked different between fairy tales intended for children and those intended for adults.

ED: Modern retellings add sex. The originals were dark enough, though. Look at Hansel and Gretel—they were going to be eaten but ended up stuffing the witch in the oven.

BJ: Fairy tales were cautionary.

EW: In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim says that the reader divines whatever they want from the fairy tale. What is it that scares you most? Is it that your parents didn’t want you?

DC: Fairy tales were didactic, warnings. What happens when you go out into the world alone? There are only a handful of clever, successful kids who survive. There’s a tale about the young servant of a king, He discovers how the king became so wise—he ate a white serpent. The kid tried it and goes out into the world. He’s kind and curious and eventually becomes a wise king himself. I took the basic tale and moved it into space.

SR: Reading dark fairy tales to young kids beneficial. The story is internalized. They imagine what they would do in that situation. How would they escape? It develops creativity and problem solving skills.

EW: Do fairy tales need to be sanitized? Should they be?

BJ: Disney sanitized everything. Snow White is about persecution and stalking.

ED: Tanith Lee sexualized fairy tales. You can retell fairy tales over in different ways. Hans Christian Andersen had a thing about sacrifice and death. Look at his versions of The Little Mermaid and The Little Match Girl.

EW: Fairy tales from all over the world overlap.

DC: I read Japanese fairy tales when I was eight. There was a boy who drew cats. His drawings came to life at night to save him from a rat demon.

EW: In India they don’t really have fairies, but the national epics are being adapted.

BJ: Tiger’s Curse has Indian influences. It didn’t appeal to Disney. I’m drawn to the dark tales. I write tragic stories.

ED: Read Bullfinch’s Mythology, The Illiad, The Odyssey. Myth isn’t magical enough.

DC: Fairy tales often have bittersweet endings because you can’t go back.

And that was time.

Next week, it’s time for my next chapter update 🙂

Be well and stay strong until then, my friends.

WorldCon 2016: Generation starships

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.


Panellists: Pat Cadigan, Gregory Benford, Mark W. Tiedemann, Brenda Cooper (moderator), Jerry Pournelle

Joined in progress …

GB: We can work out the engineering problems. The people problems, we can’t.

JP: We have to have some form of artificial gravity. Currently, interstellar travel can only be accomplished by accelerating half way and then decelerating the other half. The Fermi paradox says there might be one civilization, not planet, not planet with some form of life, but one civilization, per galaxy.

PC: People choose to live in habitats orbiting Earth. They don’t have artificial gravity. The solution could be epigenetics. Adapt the body to life in space. Once you pass a few generations, the privations become irrelevant. Then we have to face the challenges of exploration and colonization of new worlds. We’ve faced some of these problems before. The prairie skies produced agoraphobia. When the generation ships land, people will be totally freaked. We’ll need to regulate space and noise.

BC: There was a 100 year starship symposium at which it was posited that generation ships would have to have a military-like social structure.

MWT: I don’t see why we’d want to do that. It would work, but not without the benefits that make such a system worth it.

GB: That might be the wrong analog. If you have a pool, you need a lifeguard. The army has a purpose in the larger community. A genration ship is a community.

JP: The Melanesians who settled Hawaii knew they were going on a one way trip. A worker who works, lives, and never leaves Manhattan might as well be on a colony.

PC: If we have habitations around Saturn, it’s too far away for help to get there in the case on an emergency. It would have to be a regimented society. They would have to constantly be checking their equations, their plans. They would never want to be doing something for the first time.

MWT: The personalities of the volunteers will influence what happens on the ship, and in the colony.

BC: What would people on the ship do for fun?

GB: What does anyone do? Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

PC: Even the frivolous pursuits would have to be engineered.

MWT: I think virtual reality would be a major component.

BC: How can you teach generation after generation order and discipline and then expect innovation and creativity to emerge at the destination?

JP: That’s what novelists are for.

And that was time.

Next week: The dark side of fairy tales 🙂

Thanks for stopping by. Hope you found something of interest or entertainment.

Be well until next I blog.

WorldCon 2016: Mining history for the future

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.


Panellists: Dana Cameron, Jennie Goloboy, Jack McDevitt, Robert J. Sawyer, Renee Collins (moderator)

Joined in progress …

RJS: Alternate history does what science fiction does, but takes a step back in time rather than looking to the future. Jean Auel’s novels and Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle are examples.

RC: What are we mining history for?

JG: History is a great way to see how things could have been, “if only.” What if Shakespeare lived in Native North America?

DC: There’s a hashtag: #whatshouldhavehappened  It gives us a great opportunity to look at our tropes and culture through the lens of the other.

RJS: History teaches us the rate at which events happen. You can see the cause and effect in retrospect.

JG: The thing about historians is that they’re always looking at what’s different between then and now. There’s something inspirational about the possibilities of change.

DC: The rate of change is faster now, though.

RC: The contrast and comparison is fascinating.

JM: Another approach is that we are the past. What do people in the far future think of us?

RJS: Science fiction is the literature of human contingency—Robert Charles Wilson. We engage in thought experiments. How could things have gone differently?

RC: What are the advantages of using history as the basis for science fiction?

JG: Usually science fiction and fantasy writers get the details right.

RJS: In my Neanderthal Parallax series, I researched heavily in paleoanthropology texts and journals. I looked for the more interesting theories. One of them was that Neanderthals didn’t have religion. My Neanderthals did.

DC: Coming from my background, I had a difficult time writing alternate history.

JG: It’s worldbuilding, not a mistake.

JM: Science fiction writers have an advantage. We can manipulate time. We value history.

And that was time.

Next week, I’ll be transcribing my notes on generation starships.

Be well and stay strong until then!

WorldCon 2016: Nifty narrative tricks

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.

Panellists: Jo Walton, Mary Robinette Kowal, Steven Gould, James Patrick Kelly, Elizabeth Bear (moderator)


Joined in progress …

EB: It’s not all about creating an engaging character.

MRK: People want the familiar and the strange. So, a familiar emotion with a strange activity, for example.

JPK: Before you write, walk into your character’s room, their car, their locker. In describing these places, you find stuff you can use later in the plot.

JW: Characters are something I could write well before I could do anything else (dialogue, description, etc.) I decide that this is the story I am telling and this is how I’m telling it.

EB: You have to figure out what makes the character someone readers want to spend time with. Give them a goal. Give them agency. Give them something, or someone, to love.

SG: If you want to show how a technology works, show it when it breaks down. Added benefit: it frustrates your character, it’s a setback.

MRK: They need to have a sense of their own competence, or lack thereof.

EB: Add conflict.

MRK: Action is reaction. That’s something from theatre. Map out the easiest path to the character’s goal and then deny it. Conflict is not necessarily a fight scene.

JW: A character desperately needs a bathroom. Everything they say and do will be coloured by this desire. If a character is making dinner, discover everything in the course of that day-to-day action. Including backstory this way becomes seamless. There has to be a sense of jeopardy, but it doesn’t have to be a battle for life and death at every turn.

JPK: You want to have conflict everywhere, but it all has to relate to the plot. Keep an eye on your main conflict. It’s a through line. From the beginning to the middle, it’s a one way door. The same goes for the middle to the climax. There’s no going back.

MRK: The stakes must be personal and specific to the character.

JW: Unless you can make the reader care about the character in jeopardy, it won’t work.

MRK: Focus indicates thought. Everything has its own breath and rhythm. Pacing can be controlled by how long the character’s attention lingers. [Mel’s note: Mary then removed her boots and demonstrated what she was talking about in a tour de force of shoe puppetry. I wanted to take a picture, but couldn’t tear myself away from the spectacle—it was that AWESOME!]

JW: Pacing is one of the strongest indicators of genre.

JPK: When I was at Clarion, they didn’t have the money to make a copy of every story for every participant, so one copy of each was posted in the hall. If you look at a piece of writing and you see solid blocks of text, you probably need to break it up. A story needs to breathe and so does the reader.

JG: I think of it in terms of pixilation, granularity. If you increase the resolution, you increase the pacing.

EB: One common misconception is that starting in medias res means starting with a blood bath. The reader has to care about what happens to you characters.

JPK: Another common failing is not having a denouement.

JG: Being too coy with the reader, or telegraphing everything.

MRK: If you include too much backstory, try getting deeper into the point of view character.

JW: A lack of description results in too much fuzziness. Either the character, or the world, is not in focus.

And that was time.

Next week, I will be writing my first next chapter update of 2017 (yay—crazy Kermit arms) and then I’ll return to WorldCon reportage. And, of course, in the meantime, you can expect more great curation on Tipsday and thoughty Thursday.

Happy Chinese New Year!

And be well until I see you next 🙂

WorldCon 2016: The steampunk explosion

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.

Panellists: Carrie Vaughn, Jeffrey Cook, Laurel Anne Hill (moderator), Gail Carriger, Nina Niskanen


Joined in progress …

GC: The term steampunk emerged in the 70’s as an evolution of cyberpunk. The first iteration was dark. Then, steampunk became an aesthetic and finally, humour worked its way in. Whimsy was a reaction to darker iterations. It romanticizes the Victorian era and deals with the class system and double standards of the era. The historical time period was actually very chaotic.

NN: The interaction with class is attractive to both writers and readers. Science fiction doesn’t typically feature a lower class.

CV: The current wave of steampunk is deconstructive.

GC: It’s subversive, commenting on colonialism and class.

LAH: It’s a reinvention of the Victorian age. There was a great excitement then with the industrial revolution and technological advances. People want to recapture the excitement and inspiration of that time.

NN: In Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End [about a man recovering from Alzheimer’s disease who has to renegotiate a world that’s advanced technologically while he was ill], computers have no serviceable parts.

CV: There was an anxiety about science. Frankenstein expresses that fear that we will not be able to control what we unleash.

GC: That was the dichotomy—can technology solve all our problems, or will it cause them?

JC: Rockets were being developed at the time, but the inventor also supported women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math].

LAH: The anxiety about science was a reaction against putting all of humanity into a box.

CV: There was a hope and drive to fix things socially as well. Technology wasn’t the answer to everything. Now there’s an environmental aspect in steampunk and that’s a reaction against our disposable society.

NN: Steampunk has avoided painting Victorian London in a “dirty” light. Historical accounts relate that at times there were seas of horse shit in the streets.

CV: Steampunk outside of Victorian Europe are appearing as a reaction against colonialism.

JC: You can have clockwork in 5th century Japan. You can do a lot within the genre. It’s not just the comedy of manners and history heavy stories. There’s more of a spectrum to be explored.

And that was time.

Next week, we’ll delve into some nifty narrative tricks (with shoe puppetry!).

Sending out a huge hug to all my American friends. Stay strong, speak out, and always, keep telling your stories. Sweet Jesus, we need them.

WorldCon 2016: Humans and robots

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.

Panellists: Kevin Roche, G. David Nordley, Brenda Cooper (moderator), Walt Boyes, Jerry Pournelle


Joined in progress …

KR: They have built and programmed competent bartending robots.

GDN: There’s an S-curve with any technological development. If you picture the letter S and start from the bottom of the letter, robotics is at the first upsweeping curve.

WB: Google is the largest robotics company in the world. Boston Robotics sells services in robotic hours.

JP: With regard to artificial intelligence (AI), every time we started something that looked like AI, people said nope, that ain’t it. Unemployment is higher than the statistics report. In the near future, over half of jobs will be replaced by robots or other automation. The unemployable won’t be visible. They won’t be looking. We’ve not lost jobs to overseas corporations, or not as many as we think. We’ve lost jobs to automation. The “useless” class is on the rise. Look at it this way, an employer saves an employee’s annual salary and spends maybe 10% of it to maintain a robot doing the same work. They’d need one human to service 20 robots.

BC: How do you assign value to human work?

WB: In 1900, the second industrial revolution saw farm workers move to the cities and the factories. The real issue is a philosophical one. We’ve been assigning value to people by the work that they do. A corporate lawyer has, subjectively, greater value than a garbage man. What happens when automation and artificial intelligence replaces both?

KR: When workers are underpaid, the social contract bears the cost. Increasing the minimum wage and increased automation are exposing the dirty little secret. People need to be valued differently. Teachers and artists, in particular, can’t be replaced.

GDN: The top level docs of our society assign value to every citizen. The big question is how do we realize that? The recession has meant fewer tax dollars dedicated to the arts and infrastructure. We have to have the social conversation.

JP: Will advances in artificial intelligence implement Asimov’s three laws? Drones don’t use the three laws. IBM created an AI that beat a human at go [the game]. They took two machines, programmed them with the rules of the game, and let them play each other. After ten million games, they could functionally beat anyone. If you ask a robot to stop humans from killing each other, what’s to stop the robot from coming up with the solution to kill all humans? We have to proceed carefully.

KR: Watson won Jeopardy. Its job is to parse huge amounts of information and look for patterns. It’s humans who decided to test the system by putting it on the show.

GDN: Right now, computers are still, by and large, working on bookkeeping tasks. As we get to the point where we have to consider the three laws, we have to be cautious.

WB: We have to expand out definition of robotics. We have the internet of things with programmable thermostats and refrigerators we can access through our phones. Though still imperfect, we have self-driving cars. We need to figure out how to program morality.

GDN: Human beings don’t consistently make the same moral choices. Fuzzy logic and data sets would be required. Positronic brains would have to deal with potentialities.

KR: We don’t have an algorithmic equivalent for empathy.

And that was time.

Next week, we’re going to explore the steampunk explosion 🙂

Until then, be well, be kind, and be awesome!

WorldCon 2016: Class and equality in fantasy and science fiction

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires clarification or correction, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com and I will fix things post-hasty.

Panellists: Jennie Goloboy, Jennie J.R. Johansson (moderator), Eleanor Arnason, William Hayashi

Note: Terra LeMay was scheduled to participate in this panel, but could not make it. Agent Jennie Goloboy graciously agreed to participate.


Joined in progress.

EA: Barbara Jenson said that economy and society cannot be separated.

WH: It’s useful to use familiar tropes to reach your readers, but be wary of stereotypes.

JG: The cultural pressure to categorize people opposes the personal feeling that it’s wrong.

JRJ: You have to question it, though. It’s a useful tension to explore.

WH: Look at how other authors have addressed the issue. Young adult novels turned movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Frank Herbert’s Dune. Asimov’s Foundation.

EA: Melissa Scott writes about marginalized characters. Science fiction under-represents the working and middle classes.

JRJ: Marie Lu’s The Young Elites explores issues of class.

JG: What do class and equality look like in the future?  If we extrapolate from current trends, there will be more automation, shorter attention spans, but more independence.

WH: Robert Heinlein pitted the working class against the upper class. It’s a common trope, but it’s realistic. The 1% versus everyone else. Where does hope come from? In Snowpiercer, society at its worst is contained in a train. They’re the last survivors. It’s a microcosm.

JG: Young adult science fiction has focused on the dystopia. What about utopias? Utopias contain the seeds of dystopia and vice versa. But it’s not so simple.

WH: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is hopeful.

JG: There are the working, middle, and upper classes. Are there any others to explore?

WH: Why not transcend class? It’s a spectrum.

JRJ: It’s easier to look at issues in another society, a fictional society, rather than to look at our own.

JG: A reader might say, “I identify with Katniss, so I must be a good person.”

WH: Why do we focus so much on dytopias?

And that was time.

Next week: It will be my December next chapter update and my 2016 year in review post.

Happy New Year (calendrically speaking), everyone!