A Writer-centric View of SpoCon 2012, Part 4

by syaffolee

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3


(Left to right: Maggie Bonham, S.A. Bolich, Rosemary Jones, C.J. Cherryh)

The “World Building II: People & Cultures” panel was attended by Rosemary Jones, C.J. Cherryh, S.A. Bolich, and Maggie Bonham. (AQ is an audience question.)

Moderator: What are the most important things about creating a race of people?

CJC: I start with a pen or pencil sketch. Once I was amused when I was accused ripping off Avatar. But they should have checked the dates [because mine was earlier]. You should make things harmonious. Chicken eggs are shaped the way they are because they have to come out of chickens. There are limits in what you can accommodate. Assume that it’s a compact form and that it folds nicely or you will have problems. Or design it differently. It could be biologically compatible with humans or have a different ecology. I had a race of methane breathers who were not compatible. Start with pen and paper but have “wickets” that they need to pass through to be logical.

RJ: I like using Chinese folklore. I look mostly at culture rather than races. If you live in a large city, someone needs to take the garbage out. I write about NPC characters. The support systems can be fascinating. If you have a magical graveyard, someone needs to build it, maintain it, and rebuild it. A lot of it comes out of our culture and other people’s cultures. Read about how people manage it before rather than now. They’re without electricity, but they use solar power in Uganda to power cell phones – a lot of the world isn’t hardwired. Other parts of the world skipped steps that we went through. So when building subcultures, think about those moments. What if we turned left than right? What if we do things we don’t do any more? Steampunk asks these sorts of questions – what if dirigibles really worked?

SAB: Culture arises from the environment around you. The sea is different from a mountain. Culture is driven by day-to-day interaction with the land. There are certain adaptations with animals and people. What does it do to drive culture? Is it outside or inside the mainstream? That will affect how they interact with everyone else around them. Is magic accepted or not? How will they survive? How does food, houses, clothes, and people look like? Europeans don’t look like Africans and there’s a reason for that. So look at the environment for how they live and their technology level. Build the world around the environment and how people react to it. For river dwelling people: how do they get things? How do they build things? And what do they trade to get it? Many things go into the culture to get it to thrive. Now, very few people know how to make everything themselves, so who else is needed for it?

MB: I agree. Read Guns, Germs and Steel to see how environment shapes humanity. Anyone interested in world building should read it. I also read esoteric stuff like An Edible History of Humanity which is about what kind of food people ate. There are also ancient recipes, information on how people ate, Craigslist, and newspapers. There was an article in The Guardian where one of the first recipes was eating hedgehogs. [Note: The article was actually in The Daily Mail.] I consider survival important, so understand where the food comes from. You can’t have a few farms to support a huge city. Or a fortress with many armies. Because how are you going to feed them? You need crops, people who work it, water, and transport. Empires can’t make and do everything. Even closed empires like ancient Japan still needed some trading. When creating a society, have a scene and concept and build the world around it. Then ask questions: how is it done? I wrote a scene where a character died and another character is burying her. You can’t just leave bodies on battlefield because of disease. So who gets conscripted to burying people? It’s detail that you don’t think about unless you’re a writer. Don’t necessarily put all the details in, but you as a writer needs to know. You need to have a money system and the knowledge needs to come across pages.

RJ: In science fiction and fantasy we generally talk about huge moments, but there’s also the mundane. They recently dug up notes near Hadrian’s wall and we got a feel of the correspondence that said something like…

CJC: Mom, send socks.

RJ: It gets chilly up there and he wants socks. These are the moments you can put in fantasy. Who’s going to send socks to your soldiers? Are there even socks? The lovely thing about the human race is that we come up with so much weird stuff. Like the funeral stuff in King Tut’s tomb, there’s a whole industry to bury dead people. Ancient Egypt was not a subsistence level society. They had money to spend on stuff and bury dead. The Romans are a good example. Society is stable and they go to Pompeii for vacation. You can find souvenir Pompeii perfume bottles. You can find Roman cups in a shipwreck and at the bottom is scratched “This is Joe’s cup”.

CJC: Sometimes you can get some crazy stuff. In Turkey, in Asia Minor, I went to a village which had a shiny tractor. But the villagers only used it to pull a drag board on the threshing floor. They had done the same thing by hand for hundreds of years. Progress is not a neat thing. Things survive because it’s traditional. We do things that are not exactly logical because our parents did it and that was the way we learned. Logic is not universal. Logic was developed by a certain extent by the Greeks for solving problems. The Greeks and Romans saw in straight lines. But there are cultures that don’t see in straight lines. You put things in line because it made your parents happy. So all these things get passed without words. It’s implied with your parents approval.

SAB: Progress doesn’t go from here to here (except maybe the internet). We have a million phrases that refer to horses. So you have to get rid of them if you create a new world with no horses.

CJC: There are no birds in my Foreigner world.

SAB: These phrases still linger even though city dwellers don’t know anything about it.

CJC: “Aback” is a sailing term.

MB: The phrase “hell to pay” is not paying hell but putting pitch at the bottom of the ship.

CJC: The Romans had difficulty having ships staying together so they roped them together and put pitch in. That’s why they needed to put them to shore to drain.

RJ: In early navigation, they had a sightline sail because they didn’t want to stray from shore.

AQ: What book would contain all these terms?

RJ: A dictionary of phrases?

CJ: Patrick O’Brian.

RJ: The multi-volume Oxford dictionary.

CJC: You can check the Discovery Channel. Don’t believe what they say about the Romans, but they’re good about the Celts and Visigoths. In America it is poorly covered.

RJ: South America, China, Ghengis Khan, and barbarians can give quirky story ideas. The Great Wall didn’t work to keep out the Mongol hordes because someone bribed them. It’s a desolate place so you want to take the money and get out of there. Think about this. Also there are mildly good people and mildly bad people.

CJC: Some people will cheat and game the system.

MB: Everybody, regardless what character or society, if it is a human-like society, everyone has motivation. Usually self-interest. It can be as simple as get food and procreate.

CJC: But one problem is with the concept “I”. In some ancient cultures, “I” is more like “we”. It’s like being married where you can’t distinguish the wife from the husband and it’s more like a collective. In ancient cultures that were isolated by grass, sand, or sea, they haven’t dealt with anyone else. So to enter into mindset of others who don’t think it – then they can’t cope because it’s “weird”.

MB: When it’s a closed society, like Japanese society, they’re aware of things but still there’s “us” and “them” in certain groups. I have a friend who’s half-Japanese and half-American who went back to Japan. She accidentally made gaffes and the women there were angry at her for not doing things properly. They assumed you knew the etiquette and proper word choice.

CJC: In Iceland, if you’re planning a raid, you send them a notice that you’re doing it.

RJ: They’re still hiring people in Iceland to ask if it is okay to build buildings in certain places.

CJC: One general advised his enemies where he was invading and nearly got himself killed.

RJ: In battle sequences, someone usually comes by and shocks everyone with new technology. Like stirrups. There are little technological quirks, but not all of them are battle quirks. Mali used to lose 23% of their crops from pests, but they could stop it by covering the crops with plastic bags.

CJC: That’s also the reason that barley and alcoholic drinks were due to ground storage pits.

RJ: No matter what civilization it is, they’ve discovered something to intoxicate people. Once discover it’s fun.

CJC: It transitioned from religious to recreational.

RJ: You can have civilization and introduce coffee. Suddenly you have a composer who can stay up all night. Bach was a coffee addict.

SAB: There are changes civilization. The eastern European population became more well fed when they discovered New World crops.

CJC: But there was also monoculture. The potato blight led to cannibalism.

MB: That was a result more from English politics.

SAB: Society is can be static, but then someone invents something like the steam engine, and it sends ripples throughout.

MB: But it doesn’t change automatically. Gunpowder. Not everyone went to guns. They used gunpowder for mines and castle sieges.

AQ: What if you have a story where several years have passed and the technology has advanced suddenly? In Avatar, the first series had swords but in the second series, they suddenly got radios.

CJC: What’s the delivery system?

MB: Do they have factories to help them survive?

SAB: You need a whole support system for advanced technology.

MB: In The Planet of the Apes, why was it a primitive society but they also have automatic weapons?

CJC: I would love to see a modern automatic weapon using gun powder. In my Foreigner series, the humans lost the war and had to give their technology to their opponents. One of the technologies nearly turned over is the cell phone. The keeper of technology realizes what the cell phones will disrupt. Things get circumvented. Look at what modern technology does and what it lets loose on the “hen house”. Before we hand out a supposedly benign technology to another society, we should ask: how can it screw it up?

AQ: Eric Flint wrote a book about giving people in the past new technology. There are people arguing about it.

AQ: Starting in 1500s, there were firearms, but then the shoguns banned them for 200 years. But it was a rigid society.

RJ: China also tried to do this. Japan is unique because it’s island. There was opium trading. The British traded it for tea since they were addicted to tea in England.

CJC: Some Americans argue about other countries, why do they not do a, b, or c,? You have to consider how their borders are drawn. England by geologic accident had iron. If you talk about resources on a planet, not all of them will have a Canada where meteors come down and deposit minerals. There are people running around looking for circular depressions for minerals. So when considering your society, how many times and where they’ve been hit by asteroids? Or does the planet have no metal core?

AQ: What about the galactic core? There are problems with radiation and concentration of metals. More radiation means more mutations.

CJC: I recommend the program “How the Universe Works”. Start with the early ones. It has technical detail. Also similar programs on the ancient world. My family are genealogy buffs. In the microcosm of individuals, why and where do they move? The reasons may not be what you thought.

RJ: We tend to focus on things like the steampunk movement. I started to look at weird and wacky cultures in this country that were artificially propelled. In my book City of the Dead, one of my ancestors carved gravestones in Chicago. The story came down in the family that he was paid a little money to carved in Chicago and then had it shipped to New York. But when we looked at a picture of it, it looked like cousin Tommy. So he probably looked at himself to carve it. Look for those people in your family and build the story.

CJC: Each of us are compounded of many stories. Use your imagination. Where did things come from? People came to America from religious upheaval in Europe or the Black Death. It’s not just persecution. Maybe they also just had money to get out of town.

SAB: In Albion’s New England and the Sea, they looked at different cultures, houses and what they ate. It’s an interesting book for American culture. They all spoke English but they came from different parts of England so you see different cultures develop in one culture.

RJ: If they don’t get along with people at home, they left.

AQ: What about religion in culture?

CJC: In the hearth based religions of the Romans and Japanese, the two cultures are remarkably similar in strange ways. But sometimes things get set up. An ancestor religion could become a ruler cult.

MB: One of the things religion is used for, if you don’t have science, is to explain how things occur. They make up stories about the stars, why the sun crosses sky, why the seasons changed, why Uncle Ed got eaten by a bear. Why good and bad things happen.

CJC: They hope to change the universe.

MB: It’s to tell them they aren’t alone in the universe.

AQ: What about the introduction of technology? There were cargo cults in the South Pacific. They saw planes with goods coming to a runway, so the natives knocked down trees and hoped the planes came to them.

MB: That’s superstition.

RJ: Why does the hero jump over the cliff? It’s not logical. Religion can drive people to do things completely against their self interest.

MB: Even if it seems illogical and doesn’t make sense, it will make sense in certain circumstances.

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Stay tuned for Part 5 on world building don’ts.

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