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: Mythology as the basis for speculative 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: Ada Palmer, Jeffrey Cook, Sheila Finch (moderator), David Farnell, Katie Daniels

SF: Joseph Campbell said that myth and metaphor are the language of dreams. How important is myth in speculative fiction?

JC: The basis of myth is exploration and explanation.

KD: Myth is what endures.

DF: Myth is the story. Science is the vehicle. Even hard science fiction follows mythic patterns.

SF: It’s easy to see the hero’s journey play out in fantasy.

AP: At one point in Jo Walton’s The Just City, a Platonist explains a spaceship to aliens. Myth helps us conceive of alien concepts and means of communication.

JC: Useful myths are universal. They allow us to understand other cultures.

KD: We may have to define most useful. Are we talking about Prometheus or Jason and the Argonauts?

AP: The most useful myths can invoke craftsmanship, finesse.

DF: Do tropes emerge from myths? If you’re writing about Japanese mythology, it’s helpful to dig into the literature and not restrict yourself to what you see in manga.

SF: Jung said that myth conveys a sense of the numinous. They say something different to each person.

DF: Here’s one Japanese myth: the weaver goddess and a cowbird fall in love and stop doing their respective jobs. The Emperor of Heaven separates them, but allows them to reunite in the rainy season. It’s very Romeo and Juliet.

Q: 2001 and Star Wars are myths in their own rights.

AP: Some myths are devoid of awe. Others are full of it. Myths are the metaphysical reality of a world.

Q: What are some of the main themes of myth?

DF: How to deal with death.

JC: A quest of favours. [Mel’s note: In order to achieve the story goal, the protagonist must provide each character who helps her with something they want or need. Things generally get more complicated, and more humorous, as the story progresses, and the series of favours can even be a chain, with the satisfying of one favour being dependent on all the others before. Sometimes the favours cannot be granted until the ultimate goal is accomplished, and then everything falls into place.]

AP: Look for the big questions. Why is there evil? What is death?

And that was time.

Next week: Oceans, the wettest frontier.