Tag Archives: world building

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.

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Nine Worlds: The City in SFF

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Panellists discuss the architecture of SFF – how cities are represented and how they can flavour a story. The discussion will range from the dystopian feel of cyberpunk urban jungle to the various flavours of fantasy as well as examining how real world cities are seen in fiction.
Panellists: Amy Butt, Jared Shurin, Al Robertson, Verity Holloway

Welcome to my favourite session of Nine Worlds 2017, by some considerable margin. I wrote twice the amount of notes for this panel that I did for any other, and came away buzzing with ideas.

It’s worth citing credentials for this one. Amy Butt is a practicing architect and architectural design tutor at Brighton University; Jared Shurin works for a creative agency and has been involved in marketing projects ranging from book launches to the renovation of Battersea Power Station; Al Robertson and Verity Holloway are writers whose books are focused around cities. The question they started with was how do the spaces we occupy help to inspire and engage, but the conversation got considerably deeper straight off the bat. Brace yourselves, because I’m about to go on a bit. 🙂

The Metaphorical City

First off, the panel used the term ‘psychogeography’ which I hadn’t heard before. Apparently it means the impact of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. This is something that played heavily into the whole discussion. There are power dynamics to how you move through complex contested spaces, which we’ll go into in more depth below. The panel took psychogeography a little further, though, to talk about how built spaces have rights to us (not just a behavioural impact) – something which can be overlooked. Environmentalism is a prime example. Parks and rivers have a claim on our duty of care, which we often fail to live up to. How does this then feed back into the psychogeographical impact those spaces continue to have on us? It’s a slow downwards spiral.

This suggests the city is a spiritual entity – something William Blake strongly bought into. He wrote a considerable amount of poetry about the spiritual version of London (which he called Golgonooza), essentially saying it had a soul. This has been an enduring idea throughout history, actually. The Romans believed every place had a guardian spirit called a lares; the Ancient Greeks believed the physical and spiritual aspects of a place had different names (the river at Troy, for example was called Scamander for the water and Xanthos for the spirit); both Old and New Testaments talk about territorial spirits (possibly fallen angels) with responsibilities over certain geographical areas. There’s tons of polytheistic religions that assign individual spirits to physical areas. If you think of the city as a living entity, something with a soul, how does that impact design, usage and atmosphere? Does that change how people live in it, or how you write it? Does it change how the city itself evolves? As one of the panellists said, “a place doesn’t exist purely in the present. There’s also what it wants to be, and what it used to be.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that because there’s not just one version of the city. There’s the version we see, and the version other lifestyles see. There’s always someone serving coffee at 5 a.m. at Heathrow Airport, for example. What is their city like? How do they get to work before public transport is running? Where do they get their breakfast before the cafes are open? Cities never sleep because there’s always part of the population awake. That means the city is multiple places simultaneously, all of which feel and operate very differently.

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This makes them challenging to write. We consume books and stories in an orderly, linear way – utterly unlike living in a city. It’s almost impossible to capture that feeling on the page. This is a very similar sentiment to the one made in the ‘realistic characters’ podcast two weeks ago, which lends weight to the idea of a city being alive. So perhaps the best way is to let the two entities explore each other, and thus throw light on both complex creations. It’s therefore just as important to write convincing spaces as it is to write realistic characters.

We can use the built environment as a metaphor for the cultural setting. Walls and doors, for example, can tell us a lot about local attitudes towards privacy, security, politics, economics, class structure and relationships. A single constructed geographical feature is able to demonstrate multiple cultural layers. Genre fiction can also use the built environment to socially critique the real world in this manner. Culture generates architecture, after all, and fictional architecture can be used to explore non-fictional uses.

The panel broke this down in an interesting fashion for the different genres:

  • Fantasy is things that will never happen – cities that can be extreme metaphors and social critique
  • SciFi is things that might happen – cities that explore what would be necessary to bring that future into being, or avoid it
  • Horror is things we don’t want to happen – cities that showcase the dark spaces where things don’t work or aren’t safe

Certain areas of the city have acquired tropes as a result, particularly in the horror genre. Suburbs are frequently shown as psychologically evil, for example, where everyone is watching all the time but no one speaks out. High rises are the modern castle, impenetrable for anyone unfamiliar with the space. That makes them perfect places for illicit activities, safe from surveillance.

Victorian mental asylums are a particularly interesting example. They were originally intended to be wonderful spaces that solved the mistakes of past hospitals. Verity Holloway’s ancestor was heavily involved in their design and she’s seen letters that he wrote in which the importance of soft towels and large windows was heavily emphasised. They used concrete because it was the cutting edge of construction technology, not knowing that it retained smells and damp. Despite all their good intentions and efforts, they failed – they failed so badly, in fact, that the meaning of the word ‘asylum’ itself was changed.

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Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Southgate, London – designed more like a spa than a prison

The Evolution of Architecture

In contrast to Blake’s approach, the architect Le Corbusier considered the city to be more of a machine with every individual house operating as a single cell or cog within it. He designed his buildings to be almost uniform – lots of white walls and no decoration – to encourage uniformity in living. “You became a more useful human being because of the way you slotted into the city.” His fascist politics were a key driver to how he designed buildings.

Political intent has always had an impact on urban development. It dictates patterns of behaviour and styles of living. If houses are designed with limited storage, it encourages minimalism; if they are designed with small kitchens, it increases the chances of people eating out a lot. Similarly, structures and areas getting run down is a political statement, whether deliberate or through neglect. It tells the occupants that nobody cares about those areas, which suggests the residents and the things that happen there are equally unimportant.

Cities are constantly renewing and rebuilding. They are inherently environments where things get broken down and changed. Sometimes this is a deliberate attempt to obliterate the past; sometimes it’s done to prepare for the future, and those preparations give a strong insight into what the future is believed to involve. This de/reconstruction isn’t just on the physical environment, either. Human relationships and interactions are equally disrupted as a result. The Grenfell Tower disaster of June this year left over 100 families homeless, and plans were made to rehouse them in various locations around London. The survivors were dismayed by the prospect of having their community broken apart. Many of their living styles were dependent on remaining in that area. They had children at local schools, for example, or family carers living nearby.

One of the problems with Grenfell Tower was that it wasn’t fit for purpose, and that’s a common issue with built environments. There’s an increasing trend amongst contemporary architects to try and tackle this problem by using Virtual and Augmented Reality whilst designing. It enables them to explore the space and how it might be used, looking at evolving society requirements. It also allows them to take influence from fictional architecture – there’s a fascinating article on DesignBoom about fairytale urban designs, and what they tell us about the interplay between people and space. This includes some serious questions about identity, privacy and access.

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The Great Wall of America by Carly Dean & Richard Nelson-Chow

Urban Identity & Privacy

Let’s start with access. The high rise castles mentioned above are a great example of how public access to private areas can be controlled. There was discussion about police access to trouble-spots in high-rises, and how in certain places they just don’t bother because they can’t control the ground. That’s individuals limiting access by public entities. On the corporate side, it gets a bit more Huxley-an.

There’s a large number of pseudo-public spaces – areas that appear to be public until you transgress the invisible rules and are excluded. These are mostly controlled by corporate entities, and you are incentivized into certain lifestyles or jobs in return for access. This isn’t new – gentlemen’s clubs are the classic Regency-era example. Now we have semi-private gardens and member’s bars. There’s no particular basis for reason in these invisible rules, they are simply put in place by the controlling entity. There’s no essential modern difference between ‘you can’t eat meat on Fridays’ and ‘you can’t eat sandwiches here’. Corporations become the arbiters of behaviour and morality, allowing us only the illusion of choice. We are managed into a position where spaces push us into the role of either spectators or consumers, because the corporate architecture funnels us into that behaviour. Even our social lives are corporately owned and data-mined by social media corporations like Facebook.

Jared Shurin, who is a self-styled American immigrant, observed that he can clearly see places where the class system wields even more power over space. Fox hunts, for example, go wherever they like with scant regard for the occupation of public or private spaces.

As an individual, your experience of the city depends on routine and other people. If either of those things change, your city changes. On a personal note I recently changed dance studios, moving from Liverpool Street to Borough. That means I now take a meandering walk through side-alleys that (when it gets dark earlier) will feel distinctly less safe than the bright lights and busy streets of Liverpool Street. The atmosphere of my routine has changed as the bits of city I visit changed.

Then there’s the issue of privacy. The UK has a higher percentage of CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world. How does that impact our patterns of behaviour, our psychology, just knowing we’re being watched? Al Robertson conjectured that it was a major contributor to urban paranoia: “Everyone’s watching everyone else but no one’s talking to each other.” Yet, despite this constant scrutiny, cities remain places where you can get lost. There’s a weird dichotomy between surveillance and invisibility, and the gaps allow people to reinvent their identity or become completely anonymous.

The spaces of a city, and the life within it, is created by people constantly moving through – either from one place to another, or from an old state to a new one. The population is often transitory but the city endures. As (I think) Robertson said, the measure of London citizenship isn’t where you’re from because everyone’s from somewhere else. What makes you a citizen is what you contribute, which brings us back to Le Corbusier’s idea of ‘useful human beings’. This is a very different dynamic to old villages inhabited constantly by the same families, who belong to the place by dint of occupation rather than contribution.

So how do we make these transitory, changing, controlling places our own? We write about them.

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Or draw them, of course

Next week: the mathematics of zombie epidemics

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.

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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: How to Think About Historical Fiction

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Historical fiction is the orphan of genre criticism, with a low-to-invisible scholarly profile despite its expansive reach, popularity and cultural penetration. Yet of all the major branches of genre fiction, it has always sat closest to the what we would now understand as the poetics of fan fiction, going back to Greek myth’s fictionalisation of the cultural memory of the Mycenaean world. It is possible to argue that fan culture is actually the superset of what scholars do: that historical engagement with the past and the interpretative narratives that we construct to compensate for its inaccessibility are themselves forms of unacknowledged desires for the unattainable other on the far shore of time.

Dr. Nick Lowe, Dept.of Classics, Royal Holloway University

I hadn’t originally intended to go to this talk but the one I’d planned to attend was completely full and this was just across the corridor. I’m so glad things played out that way. Dr. Lowe is a fascinating and energetic speaker, and a huge Greek mythology fanboy. My dissertation, way back in the day, was about the development of story themes from Ancient Persian epics into Ancient Greek ones so I went to chat to him after the presentation. It turned out he knew my old tutor and we geeked out together about how great the man is. Which was all kinds of awesome.

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The Macrotext of Historical Fiction

The stories of Greek mythology are the first shared universe that we have record of. They were shared far beyond Greece (which wasn’t much more than city states until around 400 B.C.) to Macedonia and on (courtesy of Alexander the Great) into the Persian Empire. It was a rebootable, retconable corpus of stories which contemporary audiences were deeply engaged with and expert in. All the known poets and playwrights of the era created their stories within this shared cultural property. It was, basically, early fan culture. This creates a pressure towards the democratisation of created ownership. The mythological world belonged to no-one and everyone, and everyone could create within it.

History itself has become a macrotextual setting. Historical fiction measures the gap between what we claim to know and what we desire to know. It also contains nostalgia over unacknowledgable or inexperienceable concepts, such as imperialism, immoral sex, etc.

There’s no truth in history. It’s all competing theories. ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

The past is the macrotext, historical records and academic analysis is the corpus of canon works, and historical fiction is how we try to measure the gaps.

Remembering History

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Definitely more fiction than history

Homer’s Iliad was the first piece of historical fiction on record. 500 years after the events of the Trojan War (or wars – archaeology suggests that the site we believe Troy was located, now called Hislarlik, suffered multiple wars over a relatively short time frame), the Iliad was an attempt to recreate the end of the Mycenaean era after a dark age when literary skill was lost and much of history forgotten.

We can’t date episodic memories in order, without writing them down. Human memories don’t work like that. The Iliad started life as a number of episodic oral poems which were stitched together to create the epic. Chinese and early Greek historiography, which ostensibly moved away from fictionalisation and towards reported fact, used episodic or fragmented stories in order to piece events together. Herodotus then used epic poem structure to try and revolutionise how history was remembered.

Early Chinese historiography was generally formed out of commentaries in annals. They weren’t sweeping narratives – that’s very much a Western tradition. The West “founded their history in drama whereas all other cultures of historiography are founded in lyric”.

Narrative structure, with first person retellings, are repeated throughout Western historical documents. This suggests narratological and ideological common approaches perpetuated down the ages. It also demonstrates a need to have an embedded character viewpoint in any story. This, combined with the Western understanding of story structure, forces it into similar shapes, which then become tropes.

Retelling History

You only need to read the first thirty books on Alexander the Great to realise the writers aren’t reading each other. Apart from Mary Renault, which everyone reads.   ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

Despite this macrotextual setting of world history, there’s massive potential for inconsistency. We can’t truly know what that world was like, so everyone interprets it differently. The repertoire of emotions is partly culturally constructed, so a historical novel written in 1950s Britain will inevitably differ hugely from one written in 2010s France. The past is another country and characters should behave as culturally appropriate, which is to say different from now. It’s hopelessly naive to think we can trust contemporary accounts or later academic analysis to give anything close to the true picture.

Historical fiction therefore allows us to experience many possible versions of the past. It also shows us how narrative structure pushes us to think about historical culture in certain terms, and how established events can be interpreted in wildly different ways.

Next week: heroism and morality in genre fiction.

Nine Worlds: Feedback Loops & Transmedia Storytelling

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Two academic talks: “The Afterlife of the Dalek Emperor – Spinoff material, canon and intertextuality in Doctor Who” by Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens, and “Roleplaying games: transmedia studies and producer/consumer relationships” by Allen Stroud.

Okay, so this blog post won’t actually be about that, exactly. Whilst I am a Doctor Who fan, it’s in a fairly casual way. I don’t know the original series or the wider verse, and Moore and Stevens clearly care way more about this stuff than I do. So mostly this blog post will be about Allen Stroud’s paper, with the occasional Moore/Stevens comment thrown in where relevant.

Consumption & Creation

At its simplest, transmedia storytelling is the use of multiple media channels to tell a story, be they books, TV, film, radio, audiobooks, comics, graffiti, semaphore or smoke signals from distant mountain tops. Different media requires the story to be told in different ways (it’s hard to get the complexities of internal dialogue into smoke signals, for example) so the nature of the story alters depending on the channel in use. 

The consumer’s (the term ‘reader’ isn’t always applicable here for obvious reasons) experience of the story is still usually linear. You mostly consume a story via different formats consecutively, rather than trying to take in multiple channels at once. But transmedia storytelling means that the narrative itself isn’t necessarily linear. It’s fragmented, with lots of different perspectives and potentially lots of different starting points:

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Reproduced by kind permission of Allen Stroud

  • Multi-linear transmedia narrative means that the entry point can be anywhere and the story should still work.
  • Fragmented narrative means that the consumer must collect all the pieces of the story in order for it to make sense.
  • Layered narrative means each piece of chapter will stand alone as a single story but the more the consumer experiences, the more information they have around the story and therefore the greater their understanding.

The consumer therefore starts to make choices (knowingly or not) about what content or chapter is consumed in what order via which medium. With layered narratives, they have to put in ‘more than non-trivial effort’ in order to engage with the story, such as codes, seeking out more chapters on other channels, and so on. This is called ergodic literature.

This is also the point at which the consumer can start to contribute, which can lead to issues of content ownership (and this is where my notes from Moore/Stevens become relevant). Does fan-made content contribute to the creation of a wider story universe, and a dialogue between consumer and creator? Or does it represent a risk to IP rights? In the Doctor Who universe, the writers apparently need to keep a strict provenance of ideas and steer very clear of incorporating known fan ideas in order to avoid IP challenges. This obviously impacts their options on where they can take the story (as described in TV Topes’ article on Ascended Fanon, which gives multiple examples of this actually happening).

Working in Expanded ‘Verses

When you have multiple people contributing to the same story you end up with an expanded universe, or intertextuality – dialogues between different media within a single wider setting. This in turn leads to an external body of knowledge, or referential code, which builds up the distinctive features of that setting and allows consumers to fill in assumptions without always explaining them.

Take Bram Stoker’s Dracula as an example origin text. Modern vampire stories have to acknowledge stakes, garlic and so on because consumers already have that body of knowledge around the expected setting.

In a way, this gives power back to the consumer – the popular definition of the setting becomes more powerful and important than the reality or the origin text. At the very least, the expectation has to be acknowledged before it can be subverted.

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Legally, expanded ‘verses can be problematic. In a collaborative franchise project who actually owns the IP? Do individual writers own individual plotlines and characters? If so, how do you ensure continuity? In the Doctor Who ‘verse, where this used to be the case, the wider story ended up with unresolvable contradictions. So should the franchise own everything? Is that fair on the individuals who are actually creating the story?

Macro to Mega

There’s a couple of handful terms for thinking about this stuff, and framing it:

  • Mythopoeia is “the weave within the story narrative primarily designed to project depth.” So, hinting at a wider universe which this singular story doesn’t have time to go into. Lies of Locke Lamora is a good example of this.
  • Megatext is “a shared subconscious catalogue of familiar themes in a genre.” We’re back to Bram Stoker and garlic, stakes, etc. with this. Where the theme of the setting is something widely known by the audience and written in by multiple non-collaborative authors who collectively build up a knowledge base.
  • Macrotext is “the guide for a specific fictional world, the frame work through which a large project of multiple outputs can be devised.” The worlds of Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and so on. Any specified universe which ends up being used collaboratively and which therefore requires some consistent record.

Stroud made the point that macrotexts can be ‘mutable’. There will always be corners of the universe that haven’t previously been detailed and which can therefore be added to. This in effect keeps such fictional worlds alive and evolving. The trick is to avoid contradiction with established facts, as that’s how you break a devoted reader’s immersion. Which is where databases like Wookieepedia come in.

Next week: transformative works and the colonisation of historical space, which has more stuff on macro text and shared universe creation.

Nine Worlds: Foreign Languages in Genre Fiction

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A discussion of how and why real – not invented – languages are used in science fiction, fantasy, horror and historical fiction, on page and screen. How accurately are they used and does verisimilitude matter? What assumptions do authors make about their audiences’ linguistic competence and identity?

Katrin Thier, Catherine Sangster, Simon Trafford

I loved this panel. I’ll state that now, for the record, because I took a lot of notes and might be about to go off on an enthusiastic rant. Much of what was said falls firmly into the ‘oh my god, that’s so obvious now you’re explained it’ category, but it mostly wasn’t stuff I’d thought of before.

Languages, like so many things in culture (colour is another prime example), are almost always used in literature to call up particular associations. They can alienate the reader or evoke particular emotions. They can demonstrate a difference in culture, social strata or education. In one period of British history, for example, the poor spoke English and the rich spoke French.

How to Use Language in Fiction

If you use a real language and you get it wrong, there are people who will notice. As with any poorly researched detail, this is how you lose or even antagonise readers. Google Translate won’t cut it. Find someone who can actually speak the language, or make it obvious that it isn’t correct (like the Latin in Harry Potter). Bear in mind that a lot of languages have sounds, letters and grammatical structures that English doesn’t. It’s very easy to get it wrong. That said, there’s a general assumption of monolingualism in modern audiences, meaning you need to use fairly basic markers to identify a foreign language. This will inevitably impact the accuracy.

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Gallifreyan doesn’t even use the same method of writing

Don’t have foreign characters sprinkle bits of their own language into common speech. This isn’t realistic. If they’re going to drop back into their mother tongue, make it a whole sentence. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the reader can’t understand what they’re saying – the characters don’t have to understand each other either! You can always have one character ask for a translation, or an explanation of pronunciation if it’s important. Alternatively, you can have written translation devices so the listening character doesn’t understand the conversation in real-time but can review a report later. Biological translators, such as the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, are also a neat way around it.

If you’re using multiple languages and want the reader to be able to understand them all, one easy way of doing so is to use different fonts to denote different languages. Bear in mind, though, that not all editors and publishers like this. It also creates a variable look which might throw the reader out of immersion so think hard before you take this route.

Creating a Language

There’s a difference between a constructed language (such as Sindarin), and a fake language (such as Dovahzul) which mashes exotic sounds together without an underlying structure. If you’re going to use the language in any way extensively, a constructed language is a better bet.

What language tree would your created language come from? What associations does that bring about the culture which uses it? Remember that it needs to tie in and impact your fantasy culture (see the mention of German and Japanese two weeks ago). Also remember that insults and idioms tend to be culturally specific. In the past, I’ve looked up insults native to the particular culture I’m using as a base and translated them, which has given me some nicely unusual turns of phrase as well as that slightly exotic association.

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You can go much further back than this. Language trees are awesome maps of history.

Also, remember that, when you’re creating genre fiction, you’re not creating in a vacuum. The influences on you are also familiar to your audience. If you co-opt Klingon, there’s a good chance they’ll notice.

There’s no agreed models for how to transcribe non-standard varieties of English (such as Scottish). As a writer, you need to achieve a balance between authenticity and comprehensibility. Personally, I don’t like reading literal pronunciations on the page – I think the reader has to work too hard to understand what’s going on and what the accent is, which throws them out of immersion. If you can make it clear with use of vocabulary and idiom, that’s much smoother.

Examples & Associations

Welsh was used in The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper to evoke mystery and ancient magic. There’s a psychological association with something alien but not foreign, which is very hard to achieve otherwise.

Mandarin was used in Firefly to signpost a new / future developed culture and history. It showed natural bilingualism as a common thing, even for uneducated characters. It was also a handy way of getting around the real life censors! The problem, however, is that it called up connotations that weren’t then fulfilled – read Frustrations of an American Asian Whedonite to see some of the traps of using a real world language without following through on the implications.

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For an English-Mandarin culture, there’s an odd lack of Asian people in the Verse

Latin is the archetypal dead language, even though it’s not that dead! (Still actively used in science and medicine, for example.) There are a number of entrenched attitudes towards it, which always condition how we feel about the thing it’s being used for. Firstly, it’s indivisible from Western culture, easily recognisable and doesn’t need to be explained. By using Latin, you are making a very strong statement about the background culture. It is a status language which carries ideas of antiquity (both classical and renaissance), education (law, medicine, science), and religion.

In Harry Potter, ‘low’ spells such as cleaning have a Germanic base; ‘high’ spells have a Latin base. There are strong status implications, and possibly also gender ones. Interestingly, the two spells which use a Greek base are both healing spells. There’s apparently a fascinating essay called Ancient Tongues in the Wizarding World by M.G. DuPree which is well worth a read, but I’m afraid I couldn’t find an online link.

This led me onto a really interesting conversation with Simon Trafford after the panel. What about using other dead (deader) languages? I don’t speak Latin but I have used the one language I do know – Akkadian (aka Ancient Persian) – in my writing. How does that work? We decided that the more esoteric the language, the more work you have to do to explain where it comes from and set up the associations you want the reader to make. You do, however, have much greater freedom in defining those associations. Latin is instantly recognisable but you’re locked into working with the reader’s understood connotations.

Next week: women in SFF publishing.

Nine Worlds: A Whole New World

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Economics, geography, infrastructure – it’s the background stuff that, like concrete breeze blocks, comes off as the dull, uninteresting graft of world creation. But what makes it come alive and make sense for the reader? What makes people care, and what makes a fictional culture viable?

Edward Cox, Al Robertson, Stephanie Saulter, Chris Wooding, Genevieve Cogman, James Barclay

I’ve talked about world building before. It’s one of my favourite parts of storytelling. This panel covered a fair amount of familiar ground. I’ll recount most of it but I won’t go into in depth discussion because I’ll just end up repeating myself. Also, for the most part the panellists didn’t offer tips so much as a list of questions the writer needs to ask themselves.

2011-MAR-Worldbuilding-vladstudio-300x228Getting started

Will your world be similar to something the reader is already familiar with – either based on an existing culture, or an AU version of history? Or will it be something completely new?

When setting up a culture, all the details should interconnect. It needs to be internally consistent. Remember that every detail will have ramifications on the rest. For example, the language in Germany and Japan fosters a culture of listening, because their grammar structure means sentences don’t make sense until the end.

Scarcity of resources is very important, and the work-arounds of your cultures to this scarcity is what makes the world different. Scarce resources impacts trade, economy, social structure and status, international relations, and so on. As one panellist said:

Writing fantasy worlds is about logistics.

Also, and this is a point Dr. Nick made in our panel later, don’t muck about with physics. If you’re going to break natural laws, break one, make it explicit, explain it, think about the ramifications, and then leave it alone.

The world as a character

Creating worlds is not that different from creating characters, and they are intrinsically linked as the characters should be a product of their environment. Similarly, both should have some kind of growth arc, especially if the plot focuses on momentous events.

One of the panellists suggested that your plot is an inevitable consequence of your world and character building. The world influences the character, the character reacts to the world, and that’s your plot. I’m not wholly on board with this idea, as it smacks a little of the plot progression also being inevitable and therefore predictable. It also raised questions in my mind about character agency and free will.

Place names is a good way to give character/flavour/insight to the local culture. It tells a lot about what people consider to be important or notable, without having to actually spell it out. One of the most valuable skills in epic fantasy, according to the panel, is learning how to transmit information without explaining it. It’s all about implication and evocation.

Think about clever, different and powerful ways to impact information, in a way readers don’t realise they’re being told about history or economics. Preferably a way that also advances the plot. For example, Stephanie Saulter had to explain that there was an economic slump in her culture, leading to a shortage of jobs, so she set a scene in a job centre where people were literally fighting over work.

To map or not to map?

The panel diverted into quite a long discussion about the value of providing maps for the reader. Several of them were quite strongly against publishing maps, on the basis that it locks the writer down into inflexibility. As Saulter (I think) said:

The author reserves the right to have a better idea.

One panellist suggested that, if a map is provided, people can just look at it. If there’s no map, the reader has to visualise the journey and that means they are immediately more intimately engaged with the fictional landscape.

On the other hand, maps can help avoid unnecessary exposition. When the characters need to get from Point A to Point B, they don’t need to have a clunky discussion about where Point B is or how to get there. The reader can just look at the map.

If you’re using a real place as your setting, make sure you use a map as a writing resource. If you get details wrong, knowledgeable readers will notice and immediately switch off.

And, one final point on the subject of providing maps for your readers: remember that maps can be in-character inaccurate! If you can have an unreliable narrator (of which, more on that in a few weeks), there’s no reason why you can’t have unreliable resources.

Next week: the development and role of SF&F.

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If you do have a map, pay for a proper artist. The world isn’t really made of hexagons.