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Monthly World-building Seminar: Introduction

As I’ve worked on this blog and on my writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that my special skill is world-building. It’s not only one of the hallmarks of what I see as my style of writing, but an interest I can and have explored even outside of writing.  There are many writing and literature blogs on the internet, and I’ve long struggled to find my niche.  At this moment, I think my best option is to specialize in world-building, a topic covered in breadth by many others, but rarely covered in the depths I intend to plumb.

I’ll choose a topic every month, with wide enough application to support a lengthy series of posts approximating the following format:

  1. The first post with be a broad introduction to the topic with an idea of what inspired me to pick it.
  2. The second post will be a general exploration of how it applies to the real world.
  3. The third post will be a general exploration of how it might be applied to fictional stories.
  4. The fourth post will be an explanation of how it applies to the triad of fiction: character, plot, and setting.
  5. The fifth post will be a successful real-world example of the concept, covered in-depth.
  6. The sixth post will be a second real-world example, of a failed application.
  7. The seventh will be an example of the application of the concept in fiction, preferably of a short-form work.
  8. The eighth will be an example of the concept in a long-form work.
  9. The ninth post will be an example of a failed application in fiction.
  10. The tenth and final post will be a conclusion of the seminar, possibly some writing prompts, and some questions to keep in mind when writing future stories. And the next topic!

I’ll have at least a partial list of individual topics in the intro post, some reading assignments(though they won’t be necessary to understand and enjoy the seminars, I’d say they add a lot of nuance), and some exploration of my inspiration.

The intro will always be on the first day of the month, and the conclusion on the last day.  The posts in between will on average be two posts a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Feel free to comment, suggest  topics, and in general let me know if I’ve done anything wrong, or right.

The first official topic, starting in June, will be History and Narratives: Putting the “Story” Back in “History”.

The first unofficial topic published on a shortened schedule in May, Technology and Inequality: Understanding Your Setting

 

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Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Fantasy, Technology, and Inequality

World-building is essentially creating the setting for your story.  What many people don’t think about consciously is that the setting has possibly one of the strongest effects on a well-told story, even compared to the plot and the characters.  What is a plot-hole except a failure to match the plot properly to the full range of possibilities inherent in the setting.  What is bad characterization except a failure to have your characters react properly to the setting?  The interaction of the characters with the setting is what creates the plot on a basic level.  You can’t have a restoration of the rightful monarch(read: farmboy hero) without having a monarchy, a false ruler, a rightful ruler, and someone who wants to change the status quo.  Those are all elements of the setting, and when you start the machine of the setting ticking, it inevitably creates the conflict that drives the plot.  You can start planning story with any of the three elements or a combination thereof, but essentially you are using abductive reasoning to tie all the elements together.

Now that we have that premise out of the way, the actual issue I want to talk about here is what technology is and what effect it has on a society.  In particular, how does technology affect the gap between the rich and the poor.  In order to explain these effects, I’ve found that the metaphor of a lever works particularly well.  Both literally and figuratively.  Technology is the lever and individual human ability is the force that’s being applied.  Now, a lot of people like to say that technology raises the standard of living in the sense that the rising tide lifts all boats.  Which is true to an extent.  Anyone with a lever can do more than someone without.  But, because the most privileged are starting ahead in terms of the force they can input into the system, their output is always going to be greater.  Assuming two people of equal skill and ability, the poor man can never catch up to the rich man.  If both men have access to the piece of technology, they both advance, but the rich man advances farther.

Here’s a simple mathematical example:

One man has 100 acres.  Another man has 900 acres.  They can both produce 10 bushels of wheat per acre, which totals to 10,000 bushels.  The gap is thus 8,000 bushels between the rich man and the poor man.  Now say we introduce a machine that increases productivity per acre by 50%.  The first man can now produce 1,500 bushels of wheat.  The second man can now produce 13,500 bushels of wheat for a total of 15000 bushels. The gap is now 12,000 bushels.  Technology has brought up both men’s productivity, but it has also widened the gap between them.

The rich man can now afford to sell his products more cheaply, because he’s moving a higher volume, so customers buy his wheat and the poor man loses out.

Further, greater technology allows a leader to actively organize a larger power base, whether that involves an army, a workforce, a company, or resources. The greater the level of tech, the wider the reach of a given company.  national chain businesses, for example, flourish better in a high tech world, while individual small businesses tend to fair better in a low-tech world because competition is less and it’s harder to synchronize business and products and suppliers.

Other factors excluded, a world with higher technology is likely to include wider inequality, even if the lowest level may have a higher standard of living on average than in a world with less technology.

Now, there are more kinds of inequality than economic inequality.  A common topic in military discussion, whether fiction or otherwise, is how the disparity in technology might affect tactics, and even lock a given force into certain tactics even though they may not be effective in the situation.  It also affects composition of forces.

For example, while better technology may mean an average soldier for one group is worth some multiple of soldiers in another group, the extra expense means that of two groups of relatively equal resources, the group with the better military tech will often maintain fewer soldiers to make up for the expense.  The hope is that the better efficiency will make up for that, but it does leave holes open for the less advanced group to attack from another angle.  You can hope to split the opponent up, ambush them, make use of terrain or inherent flaws.  And the opponent may prefer tactics that leave them open to strategies they don’t have experience with because the technology is considered “inferior”.

This also applies to population.  For most of the periods involved in fantasy, higher technology leads to greater population density.  (Eventually you hit a peak, where the bottom of the standard of living is pushed so high that birth rates drop; this can be tied both to gender equality and technological advancement.)  So a country with higher tech levels has more people, giving them an extra economic and military advantage.  Magic may follow the same pattern depending on the style of magic in the world.

More population means you can occupy more territory, raise more food at the increased level, have more minds working on further advancement, etc.

Finally, we have the difficulty of living outside the system but near the same standard of living and level of technology.  The greater the technology, the more integrated it is into the society, the more you need specialization of labor to keep things going.  So an individual or small group can’t maintain self-sufficiency equal to someone in the web of society as easily.

The simplest example of the influence technology can have on the setting and thus on the plot and characters is steampunk.  Theoretically an entire genre based on the technological level of its setting,

Look forward to further entries in the Technology in Fantasy Seminar this month.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Fantasy, World-building, Writing

 

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Happy Puppies

I haven’t blogged in awhile, for various reasons, none of which involve any decreased interest in speculative fiction or any of my other common topics.  Mostly, I’ve just been doing other stuff that serves those same interests: game design, writing, more writing, working on machine translation, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence software.

I don’t have any major plans to become as active on this blog as I once was.  However, I do intend to still post occasionally.  Perhaps once a month or so, if nothing drags me back to it because of its sheer awesomeness.  Do consider this a “dragged-back” post; do not consider the reason the sheer awesomeness of spec fic.  I’m writing this post for a much more depressing reason:

Sad Puppies.  I love puppies.  Not as much as kittens, but they’re still pretty adorable.  I don’t like it when they are sad.  I wish we could all just be Happy Puppies.  In furtherance of that goal, I have a few things to say about the recent Hugo Awards Slate Voting Controversy, henceforth to be referred to as the Sad Puppies (Incident).  That’s not a value judgement; it just seems like the most people will recognize it without a drawn-out explanation o my part.

So, a few important points:

  1. No one should ever be sending death threats to someone over their political opinions.  Nor rape threats.  Nor creepy anonymous phone calls.  Not to left-wingers, right-wingers, or any sort of -wingers.
  2. In general, the politics of an author are unimportant when judging a book.  If the politics of the book itself (or any other form of writing or story-telling) make you squeamish, fine.  Don’t read it; don’t buy it; don’t vote for it.  But don’t attack the author based on their politics, or their book’s politics.  Not unless they’ve been actively user their author persona to promote those politics.  Still don’t attack them.  Follow Rule #1.  If they open the door by posting politics on their blog, feel free to go there and debate them.  Dislike them as people. Decide not to buy their books.  But don’t drag the spec fic community into it.  Don’t actively campaign against others buying their books.  Don’t actively campaign for them, either, if you don’t like them.  Campaign for what you like, and leave the hate out of it, either way.
  3. I’m politically left.  Possibly even a socialist.  I read plenty of right-wing-slanted stories.  I even enjoy some of them.  I read books by politically-right authors.  The same goes for the left, if we insist on dragging politics into it.  I think some books on both “sides” are great.  I think the majority are mediocre to readable, and I think some books on both “sides” suck.  That’s a separate issue from whether I was the target audience for a book.  I can like some things about a book and hate others.  Maybe it had a great plot but poor prose.  maybe it had deep characters but I hated their politics.  Maybe I thought the politics were tolerable but they hit me over the head with them too many times.  Maybe the book sucked, but I was the target audience so I cut it some slack. (never too much, good writing/story always trumps politics).  maybe it rocked by I was not the target audience so I was a bit more critical of it than I otherwise might have been.  We’re all biased in one (or many) way(s) or another.  Maybe I liked some books by an author, but hated others.  I disagree strongly with much of the politics of OSC.  I still liked his Ender books, and his Gate books.  I hated his Seventh Son books.  Partly for political reasons, partly because I just didn’t like them as stories.

I’m absolutely against what the Sad Puppies are doing.  But I totally believe that they’re telling the truth, or their interpretation of it as far as some of the treatment they received.  I don’t thik they chose the right response.  I don’t agree with their vision for “real” or “proper” Speculative Fiction.  But that doesn’t excuse bad behavior on the part of the Happy Puppies.  Criticize them for their actions, not their politics.  Criticize them for bad quality writing or story-telling, not for their politics.  Criticize their politics.  Challenge their views.  But don’t attack them.  Don’t call them names, don’t threaten them.  (What qualifies as name-calling may differ among groups.  Sorry.)

Better commentators than I have already talked voting policy to death.  Good luck to everyone at Worldcon.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2015 in Sigh

 

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Getting Your Priorities Straight

I’ve had a great time working on this blog.  It’s been loads of fun, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’ve met some great people.  I really appreciate everyone who’s read and commented here.

That may sound like a goodbye speech, but what it really means is that I’ll be posting less on here than I used to.  Probably once or twice a month at the most.

This is for several reasons:

  1. I made a commitment to my friends review blog, where I’ll be reviewing various speculative fictions books in many genres.  I’ve posted several reviews there already, and I encourage you to go check them out.  If you like Young Adult books, my two co-reviewers each review about the same number of those a month as I do spec fic books, so definitely check that out.  Most recently, I reviewed Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds with my co-reviewer Marisa Greene.  In about a week, you’ll be able to read my reviews of Richard K. Morgan’s The Dark Defiles, the third and final novel in his Steel Remains series.  Here’s the blog: http://notesfromthedarknet.wordpress.com/
  2. I’ve decided to spend more time actually writing books.  High/Epic fantasy has been becoming more popular in the YA field, and many of my projects fit that category, including my current WIP.  After that, you might get to see some reali, live chimney-punk! ;)
  3. I’ve found less and less to write about on here as time goes by.  Part of this is that I’ve said a lot of what I have to say on some subjects, such as world-building.  And part of it is that more general topics, such as genre and writing mechanics have already hit their third cycles on some of the blogs that started out around the same time I did.  Many of those blogs have even stopped posting at all.  I’ve been less active commenting on other blogs for that reason, which means a large decrease in traffic here, as well.

The Chimney is still my home on the web, and will be for the foreseeable future.  I’m not closing it down, and I hope I never do.  This change has already been occurring over the past year or so, it’s just not been official until now.  Once my schedule settles down, and I get into the groove of writing prose, I’ll probably be back to posting here more regularly, especially since writing actual manuscripts really gets my creative and research juices flowing.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging

 

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Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.

 

Spoliers:  It could have been better.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Reviews

 

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Now with Book Reviews! Sort of…

A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog.  It’s mostly just for fun.  But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it.  I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try.  Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.

I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney.  I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much.  If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.

 

Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

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Boys Don’t Read: The Making of the Myth

Something I’ve always been interested in is what makes someone a reader.  In general.  But something much more personal to me is the issue of reading and boys and why boys don’t read.  That’s the conventional wisdom.  But I only started hearing it after I was already a rabid reader myself.

(A quick note: I’m a guy.)

And I found it incredibly frustrating, because it didn’t match up with my personal experience.  More than that, it didn’t match up with what I saw of my friends, either.  And I think that’s an issue that has to be addressed.

I’m writing this post after having stumbled across a book blog called Stacked.  Specifically, a series of posts they had about boys reading.  As I read this series of posts, written primarily by adult women, and often citing Michael Sullivan, I became increasingly frustrated.  The posts were full of claims that boys don’t read, boys do read, but they read thus, boys’ brains work like this which is why they read this.  Not a single one of these claims matched my experiences as a young reader.  And I admit, I may have been an outlier.  (It’s useful for understanding my comments here to actually spend the ten or twenty minutes to read those posts first.)

But I have no reason to believe it’s anymore likely that I was the outlier and Sullivan the average male reader than the other way around.  It’s a common problem in scientific research to take your personal opinions and experiences as the norm.  Anyone who’s taken a serious class on research or statistics will have heard about anecdotal evidence–essentially, here’s how it was for me, that must be representative of the wider reality.  I have been guilty of relying on anecdotal evidence myself many times.  But in this case, I don’t believe I am the only one.

One of the primary claims made in the posts is that boys have a “rules and tools” thought process.  The common cliche about asking for directions gets cited.  And much is made of this being an inherent cognitive attribute of men vs. women.  Personally, I think it’s more of a cultural imposition.  We tell boys what the proper male behavior is, and punish them for not modeling it, and then we claim it’s an inherent biological trait.  It’s not.  What really bothered me about these posts was that they spoke as if all boys ever followed these specific in-built patterns.  That’s a pile of crap.  I have no doubt that these are trends among large cross-sections of the men and boys in Western society–whatever their supposed basis.  But they are not the only trends, and I’m not even convinced they’re the most common trends.  But they offer a simple way to view the differences between girls and boys in terms of behavior and educational performance, and so people desperate for an explanation glom onto them.

And I want to suggest that for that reason, they may be doing more harm than good.  If you tell boys this is how they are, full stop, then anyone who hasn’t yet been inculcated with these patterns is forced t re-evaluate themselves.  Are they doing something wrong?  Are they weird?  Should they be acting differently?  And that more than anything, pushes more and more boys and men into these patterns of thinking.  It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The short version here is that people need to learn to acknowledge that the world is complicated and cannot be reduced to simple binary patterns.  It sucks, and it’s frustrating, but it’s true.  And trying to force the world into those patterns, especially as concerns cultural, societal, or any human sphere can lead to exactly the harm you hope to counteract.

 

 

As a result of these issues, I don’t often share my reading with my friends and family offline, because I’ve been told that that’s not proper behavior.  And if boys tend to engage in reading in isolation, then it’s only these false dichotomies we have to blame, and nothing inherent in their make-up.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in atsiko, Gender Issues

 

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