Tag Archives: research

Right on Paper: Research for Writers

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Last week I was walking home after work, thinking idly about Nine Worlds and the sessions I’d enjoyed the most. I realised that I’d enjoyed them because I’d learned interesting and relevant things that I couldn’t have got from anywhere else. I learned from a London Met police officer, an urban architect, and a disease statistician, applying their specialist subjects to the realm of geekdom and world building. That’s writing gold, and only really available from talking to the right people.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I said to myself, “to have a whole bunch of those ‘right people’ in the same place, sharing their hard-to-reach genius.”

“Well, yes, everwalker, it would,” myself replied. “But you’d need to know who right people are – ”

“I know some of them, and I know where to find others.”

“- and you’d need to know how to organise an event.”

“That’s literally what my day job pays me for.”

So I ran it past my Official Sanity Checker, Dr. Nick, who kindly abandoned his previous position of ‘no more projects until you’ve finished your dissertation’ and succumbed to the lure of talking about spaceships to an engaged audience.

As a result, I am extremely excited to announce Right on Paper – the first in what may (depending on its success) become a series of research seminars for writers and the randomly interested. Taking place in London on 3rd February 2018, there will be lectures from the likes of hackers, medieval weapons experts and vets, all designed to give helpful tips and inspiration for creating your fictional worlds. The British Fantasy Society are very kindly endorsing the event, with discounts available for their members.

There are only 40 tickets available, so get them before they’re gone!

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Nine Worlds: Space is an Ocean

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If you’re writing the kind of story where spacecraft are a central feature then you probably want to put some thought into their design. But even if they’re just serving as a location or backdrop, you can jar your readers’ immersion with a spaceship that contradicts their expectations too badly.

Space travel in science fiction often draws parallels with the sea; fictional spacecraft often feel a lot like ships; to the point where that’s entered the popular consciousness. We’ll talk about some of the aspects naval architects consider when designing oceangoing ships, and how you can use them to invent spaceships that feel like they match the feel of your setting.
Speaker: Dr. Nick Bradbeer

This talk was given by my dear friend Dr. Nick, who was a little concerned that there wouldn’t be much of an audience as it was the first session on Sunday morning after the late-night disco. There was, of course, standing room only. Silly Dr. Nick. 🙂

Is Space An Ocean?

The developing design of spaceships in fiction can be directly linked to our changing perspective of space. We originally thought of space as being basically a bit like air, and all the spaceships looked a little like planes or rockets. That changed in the 60s with the advent of Star Trek (correlation, probably not causation), when we started to think of space as more equivalent to water. (Disclaimer: this is purely in literary terms. The scientists continued to be factual about it.) That shift in thinking fundamentally changed the way we talk about spaceships in our stories. For a start, they became ships. They gained large crews, decks, command centres on the bridge, and cannons. Laser cannons, sure, but still.

This was, I think, the underlying point of the talk. Spaceships of the kind we write about in SFF aren’t possible – at least, not yet – so you as the writer get to decide the medium you’re designing them for. You build your own rules, however close to actual physics they end up being, and follow them. 

Designing Your Rules

Technology has four distinct phases, and you need to decide which phase your spaceships are in:

  1. Experimental: ridiculously expensive. The world can afford to build one of these. (e.g. International Space Station)
  2. Governmental: very expensive, affordable only by governments and mega-corporations. (e.g. space programmes)
  3. Commercial: expensive, but within the price range of most corporations. (e.g. planes)
  4. Personal: affordable by the average individual. (e.g. cars)

Your setting should have some form of technology at every phase of development, otherwise the setting won’t feel developed or developing.

You also need to consider the Mohs Scale of SciFi Hardness. How far do you want to bend physics? If you’re ignoring real physics, it’s still good to have consistent rules of fake-physics within which your technology operates. (Otherwise, just call it magic and be done with it.) Dr. Nick is a fan of the One Big Lie approach, wherein most physics is normal but one law is breakable or one piece of technology is impossible, such as the FTL (Faster Than Light) drive which makes it actually possible to travel between star systems.

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Physics, schmysics

Form & Function

Generally speaking, the more mature your technology, the more aesthetic freedom you have in design. When the tech is experimental, the aesthetic tends to be quite function-driven and practical. As it moves towards the personal, freedom of design creeps in. There’s also a correlation in Sci Fi between aesthetic freedom and soft science: the less applicable real-world physics is to the setting, the more freeform the spaceship design tends to be.

There are, however, several aspects of function which will impact design:

  • Role: what is the payload and performance of the ship? Does it need to be fast, durable, stealthy, carry cargo, carry crew, etc? Is it offensive or defensive? Does it carry smaller fighters? (More on that below.)
  • Sizing: this is the balance of weight, space and power. Again, more on this below.
  • Layout: does it take off vertically or laterally? Are there lots of internal subdivisions (the ability to compartmentalize air is often useful)? Does it need to be cramped into as little space as possible, or is this completely irrelevant (like Star Wars Star Destroyers)? Do you want to separate your living areas from your engine areas, or not? What is the traffic flow of people like?

A note on fighter carriers: these only work if the fighters are actually useful, otherwise you’re putting a lot of resources into something unnecessary. Fighters are useful if they carry out a function the carrier can’t, like operating in a different element such as a carrier ship with fighter planes. In space that isn’t applicable, so the fighters need to have a different difference to the real world. For example, as long-range scouts if the technology for scanners is only short-range, or for torpedo delivery if weapon tech is at a level where torpedoes are a sensible battle option.

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Magic tech: where form and function completely ignore each other

Size Does Matter

When working out the balance between weight, space and power, there are certain weight groups that need to be considered. These include structure, drives, personnel, power and heat, and payload.

Structure refers to both the external hull and the internal integrity. Is it shaped like a ship or a rocket? Does it need reinforcing ribs internally? Ribs make things look solid – they’re often used in spaceship design where they aren’t strictly needed because it’s such a strong aesthetic.

Drives refers to the method and speed of propulsion. Does your ship have a small thrust and build up speed slowly (microthrust), or lots of thrust which builds up speed very quickly but is far more fuel-intensive and potentially painful for your crew (torch ship)? The speed of travel is really important for your wider setting – it impacts politics, interplanetary communications, warfare, cultural spread, and a host of other things. In the RPG Traveller, for example, radio waves can’t travel any faster than ships, so everything works in the same way as it did in Earth’s Age of Sail. Ships are relied on to carry messages, and no communication can outrun the fastest ship.

Personnel refers to the number of crew on a ship and therefore the amount of space they take up. Technology miniaturizes but people don’t. They need places to eat, sleep, wash, exercise and breathe (yay, life support). They also need to be shielded from the radiation typically found in space.

Power and heat refers to the amount of heat given off by the engines and various other systems, which will vary depending on the ship’s function. Venting heat into space is super-important if you don’t want your ship to explode, so external radiators are an important and often-overlooked feature.

Payload refers to the weaponry. Does it need fuel of some kind? Does it need ammunition? Does it need recoil space? How big is it, how many people are required to operate it, what is the range capability?

Defying Gravity

How are you creating artificial gravity? It isn’t something you can just turn on with the flick of a switch – it depends on your ship’s drives and style of propulsion. If you have low-thrust drives, they will only create a weak gravity. If you have really high-thrust drives, they run the risk of flattening your crew.

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Most sci fi ships create gravity by spinning in some way. Either the whole ship spins on it’s lateral axis (or, more excitingly, the vertical one, known as the Tumbling Pigeon), or the habitation part of it does in a ring or compartments around the ship’s core. If none of your ship spins at all, the creation of artificial gravity might be the One Big Lie in your setting.

And Finally, Air Ships

Ships are dense. Air is not. It requires a LOT of air to lift a very very small, very very light ship. Get the proportions right. The airships in the 2011 Three Musketeers movie need not apply.

Dr. Nick has kindly shared his slides here, and is on Twitter here.

Next week: how to horrify your audience.

Nine Worlds: The Mathematics of Zombie Epidemics

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The flesh-hungry shambling horrors of George Romero and beyond are clearly no simple virus. That said, there are many ways in which a zombie outbreak behaves much like a disease outbreak, and epidemiologists and statisticians have spent more than a century modelling such incidents to better understand how infections spread.

In this talk, I shall outline in layperson’s language some of the foundational concepts of these mathematical models for the spread of infection, and explore how they operate when the specific properties of a zombie-virus are assumed. How long can humanity survive? Can we actually fight back and defeat the horde? And how exactly can we mathematically account for Rick Grimes?
Speaker: Dr. Ric Crossman

I attended this talk in the excellent company of Andrew Knighton, and we two historians hid at the back whilst the mathematically inclined got their undead equation-groove on. Honestly, whilst I found the talk absolutely fascinating I got lost in the algebra about halfway through. Dr. Crossman very kindly sent me his slides though, so hopefully where my notes stop making sense, his original content will see you through.

The SIR Model

There are, unsurprisingly, existing models for measuring the spread of transmissible diseases. They were first developed in 1915-17 by Sir Ronald Ross (who discovered that malaria was carried by mosquitos) and Hilda Hudson (who used maths to revolutionise aircraft design during WW1). The theory was named Kermack-McKendrick after some chaps who came along in the 1920s and formalised it, because history’s like that. It’s also called the SIR model, after the three values involved in the equation:

  • S – number of Susceptible people who could become infected but aren’t yet
  • I – number of Infective people who could pass on the disease (carriers, but not necessarily infected)
  • R – number of Removed people who aren’t infected and cannot pass on the disease (immune, recovered and developed resistance, dead of disease, dead of other factors)

At any give point in time, S + I + R = N where N is the total number of population. In short-term models (which is usually the assumption for zombieism) the value of N doesn’t change because the spread of disease is too fast to allow for reproduction.

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Move slow, spread fast

Rates of Infection

There’s a number of speed factors to take into account. The first is rate of contact, which measures the proportion of total population encountered by one person in a set unit of time. In other words, how many people in your village do you bump into per week? To spread the infection, you need both a Susceptible and an Infective person at the meeting. You also need to know what percentage of the population is Susceptible. If you give the rate of contact the value of ß, the equation looks like this:

ß x N x I x S/N = ß x S x I

The second speed factor is the rate of removal – the proportion of infected people who stop being Infective per unit of time. Let’s call that ∝. The higher the value of ∝, the faster the disease runs its course.

The Bubonic Plague

In 1666, the village of Eyam in Derbyshire totally quarantined itself during the Black Death, hoping that would spare its population of 350. Since the plague was carried by fleas on rats, that didn’t work out so well for them but it did provide statisticians with a useful self-contained example of epidemic spread. The records of disease progression look like this:

Date (1666) Susceptibles Infectives Removed
Mid-May 254 7 89
July 4th 235 14 101
July 19th 201 22 127
August 4th 153 29 168
August 19th 121 22 207
September 4th 108 8 234
October 20th 83 0 267

Data therefore puts the infective period at 11 days. So ∝ = 1/0.3667 = 2.73, and we can work out from the table that the rate of contact was ß = 0.0178. (Honestly, this is where I got lost and I’m taking those calculations entirely on faith since I don’t understand how they were reached. If you do, feel free to explain in the comments!)

The Rick Grimes Effect

Let’s now apply the equation to zombies. For that, we need to swap I(nfectives) for Z(ombies). They don’t recover or die – they have to be destroyed. That means the rate of Zombies becoming Removed is heavily dependent on the number of S(urvivors).

You also have a spike in death rates from non-zombie factors, due to apocalypse chaos. There’s a lack of access to medical facilities and supplies, food shortages, and an increase in human-on-human violence over contested resources. So you can go straight from S ⇒ R without passing Z. And, of course, the Removed can come back. So the movement of population looks like this:

SIR

Reproduced with kind permission from Ric Crossman

We also need to add a factor for the proportion of Susceptibles who die of natural causes (∂) and a factor for the proportion of Removed who rise from the grave (µ). We also need to change the rate of removal (∝) to just account for zombie elimination rather than recovery. To calculate the rate of removal (aka zombie slaying, which as previously mentioned is determined by the number of survivors), the equation is as follows:

ß x N x S x Z/N = ß x Z x S

 

This assumes that ß always results in the elimination of either the Zombie or the Susceptible.

Achieving Equilibrium

Equilibrium is when all forces are in balance and the rates continue at a constant pace. There’s two kinds of equilibrium environment:

  1. Stable: when the system is moved (i.e. a factor is changed temporarily or the environment changes), equilibrium restores itself at roughly the same place
  2. Unstable: when the system is moved, equilibrium completely collapses

The only stable equilibrium achievable in a zombie apocalypse is the removal of all Susceptibles. In other words, humans die and zombies inherit the earth. Quarantine is just delaying the inevitable because the moment it fails – and many many media have proven that it will – the environment becomes unstable.

What about regular zombie culls that become increasingly effective with experience? Well, there’s maths for that too. The trouble is that the rate of infection gets the zombie population back up to the same or a higher level between each cull, so again you’re just delaying the inevitable.

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Thank you, Dr. Crossman, for this graph of hopelessness

As Crossman said, if Rick Grimes can’t take out all the zombies in one cull he’s just wasting everyone’s time.

So there you have it, folks – when the zombie apocalypse happens, there’s only one possible way for the human race to survive, and that’s to have babies faster than zombies.

Next week: the principles of designing spaceships

Nine Worlds: Women Write About War

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A talk about the depictions of warfare in SFF books written by women in the 21st century.
Presenter: Marina Berlin

I actually went to this after misreading the blurb and thinking it was about women’s accounts of war from inside the conflict – my bad. But Berlin has some really interesting points to make about the way women depict war, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with all of her conclusions. She did make the important disclaimer that everything which follows is only applicable to Western story traditions. Doing some research into how it compares to non-Western traditions would be a fascinating project.

Tropes of Writing War

There are some common themes to what happens to people fighting in a war, in stories:

MEN WOMEN
Form close bonds of brotherhood through shared experiences Typically lone warriors – they’re usually depicted as being unusual/unique, locked out of the standard military unit, which isolates them
Boys become men by facing up to responsibilities Secondary roles – they aren’t the heroes so minimal character growth
Men become broken – loss of innocence, and an inability to function properly in society post-war Victims of violence – loss of innocence through violation, not observed trauma

These are all the tropes we expect because it’s how the classics portray them – classics primarily written by men. War is often depicted as being primarily a story about men, with women as peripheral characters to the manly violence going on.

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I image-searched ‘war’. There were more pictures of horses than women, and none of women fighting, even in modern photos or computer game stills.

War as a Female Opportunity

Berlin used two primary texts to illustrate her argument: Temeraire by Naomi Novik (which I’ve read) and God’s War by Kameron Hurley (which I haven’t).

In Temeraire, the British Aerial Corps fighting in the Napoleonic War has a lot of female officers because the largest and most important dragons flatly refuse to be commanded by men. Women are therefore drafted, and operating in company amongst a military unit. Not only is the war not being used to lock them out, it’s the reason women are being given equal responsibility as a result of it. The war creates a story of equality.

In God’s War, a young man emigrates from one side of a conflict to the other as a refugee. He moves into a strongly matriarchal society which expects all men aged 16-45 to be serving on the front line whilst the women run the country. The hero therefore finds himself marginalized and vulnerable – something made particularly clear in a scene when he’s sitting in a train carriage on his own and the two female train guards start aggressively flirting with him. When his female travelling companion returns, the guards immediately apologize to her for unwittingly trespassing on her turf. She doesn’t think twice about it – he is badly shaken. Sounds familiar, huh? Hurley uses war as an excuse to explore everyday effects of a gender-led society, but with the power dynamics flipped.

War is essentially a story about a society in extremis. Berlin argued that female writers  choose different aspects of that social conflict to explore than the traditional male-focused stories. I felt Berlin was over-generalising here, actually. Novik and Hurley present really interesting social dynamics, no question, but there’s plenty of female writers that don’t take the road less travelled and plenty of male writers that do. The important point is that you can tell stories about war that focus on any kind of narrative and any kind of character – don’t pick the lazy option.

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Taken from the Rejected Princess’ blog, which lists a ton of historical female fighters

Female Fighters in Real Life

Historically, there’s been a tendency across most cultures to repress the reports – and sometimes even the existence – of female units in war. The first instinct for any society has been to try and restore ‘normality’, as defined by its pre-war state, which means pushing women back into their previous roles. Women then have to deal with PTSD alone, whilst having it minimized or ignored, whilst trying to reintegrate into a society that doesn’t recognise how they have changed.

This has led to a seriously inaccurate belief in the historical role of women in war. There’s a fantastic essay by Kameron Hurley called We Have Always Fought, which looks at the role of women in stories vs what actually happened. It’s a fascinating essay, as well as being very engagingly written (and contains llamas) – I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go, read it now. I’ll wait.

Done? See how important it is to really look? The power of stories over reality is immense and we as writers – like Spiderman – have a responsibility. And, as Hurley says, someone has to move first. It’s started to come up in multiple media recently. There’s been a flurry of interest around things like the Russian Night Witches (who are all of the awesome), and that’s fantastic. But it needs to keep going until it becomes the norm in our stories. Don’t be lazy. The llamas will thank you.

Women in war

We can put flowers in our hair and be badasses simultaneously – these things aren’t mutually exclusive

Next week: building realistic characters

Nine Worlds: Classical Monsters in Popular Culture

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Greek and Roman mythology has given us some of the most memorable monsters and creatures – centaurs, harpies, the Minotaur, etc. But what do those monsters mean when reused in modern popular culture? What can we say about how they are depicted? These questions and more will be discussed by three experts on classical monsters.
Panellists: Dr. Tony Keen, Dr. Liz Gloyn, Dr. Amanda Potter, Dr. Nick Lowe

I heard Nick Lowe talk last year and thoroughly enjoyed his style, so I was keen to see him in action again. I have to confess, though, that I didn’t stay to the end of this session – partly because the room was freezing, and partly because the conversation wandered off into the realm of Monstrous Barbies which is distinctly less interesting to me. There were some good ideas before I left though.

The Evolution of Monsters

Monster Theory states that they are a personification of contemporary fears. The trouble with that otherwise-attractive theory is the pervasive popularity of classical monsters like Medusa, the sirens, etc. They can’t be called contemporary by any stretch of the imagination, so why do they persist?

The panel likened monsters to orchid root systems – something that goes underground and spreads, surfacing in receptive environments. They then adapt a little to those new environments. This requires less evolution than if they remained culturally pervasive and changed constantly. It also means that you get a wide range of regional variations on what is essentially the same monster.

They theorized that it’s not really the monsters which are changing – it’s what they’re being used for. In classical myth, monsters were there as something for the hero to overcome – they weren’t creatures of horror stories, but of action stories. It’s only in recent times that we’ve given them a metaphorical role. Basically, the Monster Theory is a new idea that only applies to new interpretations.

There’s been a couple of other takes on monsters, aside from horror:

  1. Rationalized – they aren’t monsters, they’re aliens / humans acting horrifically / exaggerations of what actually happened
  2. Sympathetic – we misunderstand the monsters’ drives/nature or they are cursed and therefore pitiable (and potentially rescuable)
  3. Eroticized – this applies particularly to female monsters, on which subject a bit more later
Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909 (oil on canvas)

Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert James Draper, 1909. Sirens were creepy bird-women, Herbert, not sexy fish-women.

The Portrayal of Monsters

Nick Lowe pointed out that there’s very few canonical texts which deal with actual monsters, or put them directly on the page. They exist on the fringes of literature, especially in the Greek epics, where it’s just heroes retelling monster stories or vague references to challenges overcome. This may well be where the horror element first crept in – as soon as you can see the monster, it ceases to be scary so it seems logical that much of its power to horrify came from its original vagueness.

When media became visual, monsters had to change as a result. Ray Harryhausen, the movie SFX stop-motion pioneer, completely transformed the way we see monsters. For a start, he domesticated them. Universal’s monster films in 1960s America, combined with the popularity of Dr. Who in the UK, sparked renewed interest in monster culture and presented them in stories targeted at children. The narratives weren’t there primarily to terrify, but to entertain. In a way, it was a return to the monster’s original role.

Technology has driven the way monsters are seen in modern narratives, moving from make-up and suits, through stop-motion animation and puppetry, to CGI. The monsters with enduring power are the ones all forms of tech were able to portray convincingly. And as the tech has evolved, so the power to terrify has returned. Visual media is very powerful for getting inside our heads, and glimpses of a CGI predator are way more terrifying than glimpses of a bad prosthetic in a Welsh quarry.

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*hides from irate classic Whovians*

The Gender of Monsters

The majority of classical monster are female in some way. Charybdis, of Odyssey fame, was a whirlpool – notably lacking in either gender or genitalia – but she still gets firmly defined as female. This is a result of the classical framework of the world, whereby civilization was considered male and the wild was female. There’s also a whole bunch of things around power dynamics, which the panel didn’t touch and deserves its own blog post at another time.

Modern problems with gender characterization of the monstrous has encouraged us to make monsters more sympathetic (but not, you’ll note, to change their gender). There’s also ways of talking about gender issues that express themselves through sympathetic monster origin stories – such as the rape of Medusa – which has resulted in a certain amount of reclaiming the female monster. Examples cited included Maleficent and Wicked, where a central message is that ‘it’s alright to be yourselves’. This has led to reopening the discussion on defining what is monstrous – something Mary Shelley began with Frankenstein back in 1818.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, still ahead of the curve 200 years on

And that’s where I got too cold to stay. Next week: women write about war

 

Nine Worlds: Police and the Supernatural

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Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series both look at the theme of the modern British police service with a supernatural twist. This panel aims to explore the ways in which the police are portrayed in urban fantasy. What do they get right? What do they do wrong?
Panellists: Sarah Groenewegen, Caroline Mersey, Laura Manuel

This is the first session I went to at the Con, and my second-favourite. It has very direct relevancy to my current project, London Under, as my primary narrator is a DI in the London Met. As Laura Manuel is an Intelligence Officer in the Met, I ended up mainly writing down what she said. She gave me permission to quote her, though, so don’t worry!

Authenticity in Fiction

Peter Gant from Rivers of London is what’s known in the Force as a ‘gobby probby’. He’s an inexperienced know-it-all, which works fine on the page but wouldn’t go down well with officers and experienced PCs. He never interacts with real officers during the course of his career, as he goes straight into a special supernatural unit. Laura reckoned he wouldn’t last five minutes in a Metropolitan Response Unit.

Policing across the world changes constantly. You can be right at the time of draft and wrong by publishing. There really isn’t much you can do to get around this, unless you invent analogues of systems and departments that would reasonably be expected to change at different rates. There are so many departments that this is an entirely reasonable approach – Laura said she’d been in the Force for eight years and still discovered new teams on a weekly basis.

Getting access to training courses and computer programmes takes time, because the police are under-resourced. Officers also don’t have time for two-day training – ‘you get one day if you’re lucky’.

When you walk into a police building it’s permeated by the smell of pot noodles and takeaway curry. There’s always a cupboard that’s been turned into a snack shop, with an honesty box. Surveillance teams will always be in tracksuit bottoms.

Aaronovitch gets the attitudes and sense of humour in the Met right, as well as their likely approach to encounters with the supernatural: ‘we acknowledge the Department of Weird because it’s necessary, but don’t like to talk about it because we don’t understand it.’

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The Department of Weird

Policing the Community

Robert Peel’s Principles of Policing was brought up, which I hadn’t considered before, and the emphasis on the police’s connection with the communities they serve. Would this include supernatural elements of the community? There was some discussion over how the legal system would need to be adjusted to account for that – would the Dangerous Dogs Act cover werewolves, for example? I believe there were several volunteers to get involved in the legal restructuring, should that eventuality come up!

That said, there is a tension between police and the community – something which came up in my favourite panel, The City in SFF, which I’ll post in a few weeks. The Force acknowledges that they can be bad at providing explanations and descriptions of what they’re doing, and this silence can provoke tension. Sometimes it’s caused by operational imperatives – any explanations risk alerting the suspects, for example – but sometimes things just slip through the cracks. They are, as mentioned above, under-resourced.

After the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 – a watershed moment in the treatment of racially motivated crimes – the Met called all the black officers on the Force together and gave them three days to come up with guidelines and proposed legislation for the Met to use in tackling institutional racism. None of those officers were given any kind of training or guidance, because there wasn’t any to be had. The Met made the assumption that, because they were black, they would know how racial crimes ought to be treated. They didn’t have any other recourse at the time. Laura reckoned that, if the police ever encountered the supernatural community, it would probably be handled in a very similar manner. The Met would assemble a bunch of supernatural officers (or civilians, if there weren’t any officers), and say ‘tell us what we need to know and do in order to regulate you.’ [Which sounds like an awesome story set-up.]

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Police encountering the Supernatural…

Diversity in the Force

The gender balance in the Force is shifting; POC less so, but there is slow progress. As a whole, homophobia isn’t a problem (except for asinine individuals, which is the same as normal society). There’s a huge police presence at Pride, widely publicised. The Met judges people on a single criteria: ‘don’t break the law and you’re fine’. That said, senior officers continue to be ‘very male, very pale, and very stale’, although it was pointed out that three of the most senior law officers in the country currently are female.

Laura said that she’d love to see more roles than homicide detectives in stories. Non-PCs and officers play a critical part in modern policing. For example, analysts are wizards [which I totally want to do something with]. They are police staff but not constables or officers – they’re police civilians. They have access to multiple systems, all of which are complex and none of which are interconnected, and can bring information across systems together in a matter of hours to predict emerging trends of crime, patterns of behaviour, etc. A lot of police work is heavily intelligence-led, and that is delegated to analysts. There can be tension between officers and police civilians, often stemming from a generational gap (most analysts are young). The analyst needs to become part of the team somehow.

taking a pledge

There’s also the issue of managing trauma and mental illness. The stuff they have to deal with takes a toll, even if you’re just reading the reports rather than on the ground. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to deal with the worst of what people can do to each other, and then go out for a cheerful drink with your mates or tuck your children happily into bed. That mental resilience, and the coping mechanisms required, deserve respect.

 

 

Next week: classical monsters in popular culture

Nine Worlds: The Chinese Don’t Do Sci-Fi?

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China and Chinese aesthetics have been borrowed by the West as a sci-fi setting and McGuffin for years. Native Chinese science fiction, however, has remained relatively unregarded until very recently. Yet it has existed for over a century. This talk is a history of Chinese sci-fi and specualtive fiction from the turn of the twentieth century through to the present. Discover the influences of China’s unique history and culture on key themes and voices, from its first dawning to contemporary works.

Xueting Christine Ni

Disclaimer: I know basically nothing about Chinese history, literary, politics or culture. I know a tiny bit about the mythology, and I do mean tiny. If I make any mistakes in this blog, I sincerely apologise. Everything Xueting said was fascinating and my note-taking couldn’t always keep up.

Another World

Chinese fantasy is mostly set in the romanticised past of Chinese history, rather than creating new fantasy worlds.

The Chinese culture has been borrowed from extensively by the West to create futuristic otherworldly cultures. It’s “an alien culture without stepping onto a rocket”. This goes both ways – medieval Britain in classical Chinese 20th century literature is used in a similar manner.

The Politics of Sci-Fi

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Kehuan Shijie, “SF World” – a Chinese SF magazine

At the beginning of the 20th century there was a massive flair in SF writing, as the government pushed a ‘save the country with science’ agenda. This was repeated in the 1980s, when the country was forward-thinking and had stable development. One of the masters of the genre was a chemistry graduate – “science was important“.

In between these two periods, the country was too unstable to have much luxury for SF, due to war, invasion, and the change to a republic. As a result, a lot of SF writing has strong social and political commentary, both local and global. In China, the level of censorship was often a strong indicator of how much good work was (is?) being produced.

The Cultural Revolution had a huge impact on SF plots. The genre was used as a way to reclaim history and allow the readership to come to terms with the past. War and revolution brutally severed the link between the ancient and modern periods of Chinese history, and SF tries to form a bridge between the two distinct cultures.

The early tradition of SF set stories in the wider world, either to avoid insulting the homeland directly or as a reflection of China as a bit-player in global politics. Modern SF is far more likely to be set in China itself, suggesting either less concern about the consequences of critique, a new confidence in China as a dominant player on the world stage, or a more immediate preoccupation with matters at home.

The 80s single-child generation is now nearing their thirties, and this is having a massive impact on both modern Chinese culture and SF themes. That generation is currently having to care for their parents and grandparents without any siblings to share the burden. At the same time, the strong sense of community that flourished in a state-owned culture has been nearly obliterated in the current privatised, corporate culture.

Similarly, many graduates are currently unemployed. There is increasing social stratification, leading to a huge gulf in living standards (particularly in cities, where slums are growing rapidly). The overpopulation crisis has led to jobs, schools and living space all under pressure. This is reflected in the current trend of ‘Angry Young Man’ stories (see below).

Themes and Characters

Super-Robot-Girl-2015-1

Super Robot Girl, a 2015 film

Near future tech is very popular, especially virtual reality and robotics. AS more factories and restaurants employ robots in reality, the Chinese accept them as a fact of life. SF stories often explore the positive aspects of this, rather than Asmiov’s more doomsday approach. Bio-engineering is also popular. Altering bodies to fit ideals or achieve immortality has been a constant throughout Chinese history. There is a cult of conformity, adjusting looks and lifestyles in order to fit pereived ideals, and near-future science can enable this desire.

Not much is said about characters that break the rules and are removed. The reader is left to draw assumptions, based on history and cultural expectations. This speaks volumes.

The ‘Angry Young Man’ is a popular modern archetype, railing against the system with a certain sense of naivety. This character type is generally written by post-80s writers, who play heavily on themes of consumerist greed, tech advancement and commercialism leading to near-future dystopia. These anti-heroes tend to act as a lens of ‘realism’ for readers, rather than doing anything to change the situation. They are commentators, not actors.

The past is idolised, and almost portrayed as otherworldly. This tension between old desires and history, and new innovation is very obvious in modern SF. There’s still a desire for mysticism in the age of robots.

Lost in Translation

So why hasn’t Chinese SF been translated into English? One reason is that there’s frequently a direct and strong critique of Western politics, which Western readers might well find unpalatable. The USA in particular is a big target for Chinese dystopian futures, which isn’t especially popular with the Americans.

Western readers also generally lack a strong understanding of the history and culture which informs Chinese SF plots and characters. That makes it harder to engage with the stories at the right level.

If you’re interested in trying some, however, the following three authors were recommended as good starting points: Lagrange Graveyard by Wang Jinkang, The Fish of Lijiang by Chen Qiufan, and A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia.

Next week: using foreign languages in genre fiction.