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Category Archives: Themes

Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Background

In my last post, as sort of a prelude to the complex topic I’d like to discuss here, I talked about ways to create fantasy cultures based on real cultures and the advantages and disadvantages of this method.  I’m going to start out this post by talking about such counterpart cultures again, but this time, I’m going to focus on the difficulties of creating a truly original culture and how the common use of counterpart cultures undermines such attempts.

 

So, counterpart and generalized Earth cultures make up a great deal of the fantasy landscape.  The exert an enormous influence.  On both the types of stories that are common, and on reader expectations.  I’m going to talk about reader expectations first.

Readers expect certain things when they pick up a book.  These are based on the cover, the blurb, the author.  But also on their past experiences with the genre.  If they’re used to parsing and relating to stories and characters in a pseudo-medieval European setting, they’re going to have difficulty relating to a character in a different setting, because setting informs character.  Also, writers and readers in the genre have developed a set of short-cuts for conveying various forms of information from the writer to the reader.  A reader is familiar with the tropes and conventions of the genre, and writers can and almost inevitably do manipulate this familiarity in order to both meet reader expectations and violate them without going into a wall of text explaining the violation.

Both the writer and the reader of high fantasy have an understanding of the concept of the knight.  Or at least the version in Europa, our faux medieval European setting in which so many fantasies take place.  So when a writer introduces a character as a knight, it’s shorthand for a great deal of information which the writer now does not have to explain with long info-dumps about the history of European chivalry and feudalism.  There’s a strong tension in fantasy between world–building and not info-dumping, because for the most part, info-dumps get in the way of the story.  You don’t want to drop craploads of information on the reader all at once because it interrupts the story.  But you need them to understand the background in order to put the story in context.  Why would a fighter give his opponent a chance to ready himself and get on an equal footing when the stakes of the battle are the conquering of the kingdom?  Because his culture holds honour as one of the highest moral values.  Would sneaking up behind him and stabbing him in the back be easier, have a higher chance of success, and not put the kingdom at risk?  Sure.  So would shooting him with an arrow from behind a tree.  Or two hundred arrows in an ambush as he walks through the forest.  But it would be dishonorable.  And then he might do the same to you.  The same reason why parley flags are honored when it might be so much simpler for one side or the other to just murder the guy.

People do all sorts of dumb shit because it’s “the right thing to do” or perhaps because due to complex cultural values or humans being shitheads, the short-term loss helps uphold a long-term gain.  The tension between the obvious solution in the moment and why it might be foolish in the larger context is a powerful way to drive conflict in the story.  But teaching the reader larger context is a heavy burden when they don’t have any real previous understanding of it.  By using Europa as our setting, we get all that context for free because the reader has previous experience.

The same goes for any sort of counterpart culture.  Rome or Japan have a large collection of tropes in say Western English-speaking society.  Readers will be familiar with those tropes.  So if you want a bit of a break from knights and princesses, why you can take a quick detour through samurai and ninjas.  Or legionnaires and barbarians.  Sometimes these are just trappings on top of the same style of story.  Sometimes these new settings and tropes introduce new things to the story that are really cool.  But because even then, audiences have less exposure to various renderings of these tropes or perhaps the real history underlying them, they can be even more stereotypical or empty than Europa fantasy.

And even in terms of world-building they can do the same.  The writer has to communicate less technical detail to the reader and they don’t have to world-build as deeply because they have less need to justify their setting.  When you just know that knights and princesses and stone castles are real, even if you don’t know how they work exactly, you don’t worry so much about the details.  When something is clearly made up and not based on real Earth history, the questions about how things work and would they really work that way given the frame the author has built can become more of a suspension of disbelief killer.  There’s a joke that some things are just too strange for fiction.  Sure they happened in real life and we have proof.  But in stories, most people most often expect a sort of logical cause and effect and that if a thing happens, it has a good reason based in the story or world-building.  If something could happen once in a thousand tries based on sheer luck and it happening in your story is an important plot element, readers are much less likely to suspend disbelief than if it happens 754 times out of 1000 in the real world.  So your world-building needs to make some sort of logical sense to the reader if you want your plot to hinge on it.  And when you have the weight of genre history behind you, readers are far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt than if you’re the first person doing it ever.

And that’s why fantasy counterpart cultures are so popular.  We know from Earth history, our only referent of a real history that actually occurred, that the things thus depicted (sorta, kinda, if you squint a bit) really did occur and function in a world rigidly bound by physical laws.  Unlike a world bound only by words on a page written by one dude who probably doesn’t even remember the six credits of world history he took in high school.

And as a very meta example of my point, I have now written two long posts full of info-dumping that I’m demanding you read before I even start talking about what I promised to talk about: how to overcome all these hurdles and actually create unique and original worlds and cultures for your fantasy story.

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Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.

 

Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.

 

Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.

 

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Human Conception: From Reality to Narrative

Psychology textbooks like to talk about the idea of “roles”: gender roles, professional roles, class roles, etc.  This is merely one instance of the greater process of human understanding.

Premise:  Reality is infinite and almost infinitely complex.

Premise:  Human beings–and their brains/processing power–are finite.

Question: So how do humans manage to interact with and understand the world?

A human being takes a subset of reality, and creates a rule from it.  A system of rules for a given topic becomes a model.  A group of models is understood through a narrative.  Our conception of the world, both physically ad intellectually, is comprised of a series of narratives.

Similarly, when we consider ourselves, there is a process of understanding–

Person -> Perceptions -> Roles -> Ideals -> Narratives -> Identity

–where “person” is a reality whose totality we cannot completely comprehend. When we consider others, we trade out the idea of Identity with the idea of a Label.  Now, a person can have many labels and many identities depending on context.

This goes back to the premise that we cannot understand everything all at the same time.

It is possible to move from the Label/Identity layer down into narratives, roles, and perceptions.  But no matter how low we go, we can never understand the totality, and this is where we run into the problem of false roles, false narratives, and false labels.  The vast majority of our conceptions of other people are flawed, and the other person would probably disagree with a large portion of them.  And so we have misunderstandings do to our inability to completely conceive of the totality of a person (or the world).

 

So, we take the facts we have and try to find what’s called a “best fit” case.  When you graph trends in statistics, you draw a line through your data points that best  approximates the average location of the points.  The same is true when we judge others, no matter on what axis we are judging them.  We look at our system of roles, ideas, and narratives, and try to find the set of them that most closely fits our perceptions of the person in question.  Then, we construct our idea of their identity from that best fit.  In this way, we warp (slightly or egregiously) the unknowable totality of reality as we experience it to fit a narrative.  Because our system for understanding and interacting with the universe is only capable of so much, we reduce reality down to something it feels like our system can handle.

The reason that certain character archetypes and narrative trajectories are so popular is because they match the most easily understandable roles and narratives.  Good vs. evil is easy for our  simplified system to handle.  It’s much harder to judge and therefore arrive at an “appropriate” emotional response to grey morality.  Because humans and the cultural sea in which we swim impose a localized best “best fit” on our collective consciousness, as writers we can learn about these best fits and cleave to or  subvert them for our own purposes in our writing.  We can pick where to deviate in order to focus our attention and our chances of successfully getting across our meaning.  Just as we can only handle a certain complexity in understanding reality, we are limited in our ability to deviate from the norm successfully.  Thus the  commonly re-quoted “You get one big lie” in regards to maintaining suspension of disbelief.

 

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Scalded by Steampunk

So I dropped into my blog reader today, and the number one topic of conversation seemed to be that steampunk sucks, is boring, is shallow, is revisionism(fictional revisionism, the horror!), is a commercial sell-out, is crap, is shit, is tiresome, is over-hyped, is racist, is colonialist, is adventurist, has not one really powerful story to its name, etc.

And then I saw that one of the people saying this was Charlie Stross, and I almost cried.  Because I love the books Charlie Stross writes.

And then I stopped and thought:  “People are getting worked up over a fucking sub-genre of fiction.”  Why?  What’s the point?  You don’t like steampunk?  Great.  Enjoy whatever it is you enjoy, but why attack a genre that’s never done anything to you?  Either write something better or move on.  Isn’t there some new Tolkien clone somewhere to bash?  Horrendous glorification of the middle ages and all that?

If speculative fiction was a house, steampunk would be the leaky boiler pipe in the basement.  Don’t stand in front of it and you won’t get burned.  Maybe you find it annoying.  Well, I find it annoying when people turn down the high while wearing a jacket indoors.  Tolkienesque fantasy could fit that metaphor very well.  But there are four other people in the house who agree, so I suck it up and move on with my day.  I don’t accuse them of oppressing the working class.

I’ve read some great steampunk, some good steampunk, and some shitty steampunk.  The latter category is much larger than I would prefer, but 90% of every genre is crap, so why the need to jump on one poor little sub-genre over having a few shity books, or books that disagreed with your politics by having a few noblemen protrayed in a positive light?  Nobody is making you read this, and I don’t know very many other readers or writers who would prefer to live in the 19th century because they loved the last steampunk story they read.

 
 

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Atsiko’s Speculative Fiction Alphabet

There’s a lot of material out there about writing, but most of it is general: how to use adverbs, dialogue tags are bad, mix up your sentence length.  Then there are less general posts and articles and discussions: race and ethnicity in fiction, how to design a magic system, how to world-build, three act stories.  These things get a lot of traction and a lot of focus.

What don’t get a lot of focus are more specific issues of plotting.  Tropes, plot devices, themes.  So, for the next little while, I’ll be exploring these less-appreciated elements of fiction.  And since this is a spec fic blog, I’ll be exploring their applications in that genre.  There’ll be more than one post for each topic, so think of it as a series of miniseries.  I hope you’ll find something useful in these posts.

 

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Education in SFF

This article in the Globe and mail is something that I’ve been saying for a long time, though perhaps not where many people could hear it. I used to read over a hundred books a year during elementary, middle, and high school, but for the most part, class reading was a chore. I got through it because I already enjoyed reading and could bust through the assigned reading in the five or ten minutes before the bell rang to start class.

I’m a radical devotee of the “work isn’t fun” philosophy, and when it comes to learning, this sort of forced curriculum can be devastating to students–both good and bad. That’s not to say I don’t support education, but we need to rethink the ways in which we provide this service.

I think science fiction is one genre in which we can explore the theme of education with enthusiasm and intelligence, and I wish we had more stories out there doing this. If anyone knows of such a story, please send a link my way.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2010 in atsiko, Themes

 

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Societal Expectations and Real World Cultural Baggage in Speculative Fiction

A few days ago, I posted a quote that expressed a rather negative view of our current system of education  (in American and around the world).  First, I’d suggest you watch the anime mentioned in the title of the work from which the quote is excerpted: “Kare Kano”.  This show was also known as Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo in Japanese, and “His and Her Circumstances” in English.  It really gives you an understanding of where the quote is coming from.  Of course, it’s 26 episodes or about 12 hours long.  So, I also hope to elaborate on that in this post and the ones that follow.  You won’t be required to watch the anime to understand the post.  That would be ridiculous.  But I still think it would help.

Now, you might wonder what this has to do with writing science fiction and fantasy–or anything else, for that matter.  The answer is “nothing”.  And “everything”.  It also might have something to do with fact that I’m researching for a near-future SF story dealing with education and society.  Bear with me.

Every society has two important things that make it what it is: expectations and acceptations.  Expectations are pretty obvious, the things one is expected to do to make it in society.  In the modern world, these often include education, occupation, and reproduction.   Acceptations are a little more complicated.  They are culturally wide-spread opinions on what are “acceptable” deviations from the norm.  Being a child film star instead of going to normal school is an acceptation of modern American(US) society.  Becoming a drug dealer is not.

It doesn’t really matter in practical terms what an individual believes, because social pressures are usually strong enough to override individual opinions..  But it most certainly matters in personal terms.  Being forced to conform to a blanket set of expectations can be very damaging to a person.  For instance, in modern America, there is still a great deal of prejudice towards homosexual orientations.  Society expects that a man will pair up with a woman and have children.  When individuals deviate from these expectations, there are consequences, generally negative, in response to those unaccepted actions.

But think about this, there are also ways to positively violate societal expectations.  If someone drops out of college to join a rock band, there would normally be negative reactions, but if they become wealthy or famous or both, suddenly everyone is praising them.  Sort of the old “I’ll show them!” ideal.  But even with numerous examples of this, the negative perception of such behavior still exists, because “normal” people cannot do these things.  You might call these exceptions.  If one drops out of school and becomes a wealthy prostitute or pimp, even that “success” does not justify their deviation.

That’s how it works in the real world.  And on the surface, that’s how it works in fiction.  Especially mainstream, earth-based fiction.  But what about speculative fiction?  All too often, we drag our baggage along with is into stories ostensibly set in other worlds, dimensions, countries, even if the natural expectations and acceptations would normally be different in those settings. 

On the one hand, it could be argued that the whole point of fiction is to explore our own issues.  But I would counter that that doesn’t require us to transport all of our 21st century Earth attitudes into past or future worlds.  You can still address contemporary issues in fictional settings.  All it takes is a little imagination.  And I know the spec fic community—and the writing community in general—has that.

It’s actually a very common discussion topic on web-based spec fic communities whether or not that ham-fisted projection is acceptable in good fiction.  If we look at contemporary foreign literature (and this applies not matter what is “foreign” to you), we can see that these authors can write a story in which we sympathize with character issues that don’t derive exclusively from our own culture.  Look at how popular Japanese cultural exports are in America.  An enormous number of manga, anime, and light novels are translated both officially and unofficially into American English.  Is Japan a radically different culture?  Not in the modern world.  But they do have a different set of cultural expectations, acceptations, and exceptions.

When writing a story, it’s very important to consider what is “normal” within that setting, and what is exceptional or discouraged.  It used to be that people from the lower classes were discouraged from pursuing higher education—or any education at all.  It used to be in our culture that music was a special activity, for a small number of people, and now it’s a part of most curriculums.  And before that, it was a community activity.

These sorts of societal pressure have an enormous impact on us as people, and the same should be true for characters in your story.  Examining and exploring these issues before you begin to write can cut down a great deal on the clichés common to many spec fic stories, such as the plucky princess, the genius peasant,  the scholarly whipping boy, the child seer/mage, and the feisty girl thief.  Assuming they don’t fit in the context of the story, of course.

And, of course, for those characters that do fall outside of the mold, it can create a more deep and realistic sense of tension between them and society.  And it can open up a wide array of themes for the story to explore: gender, age, race, class, etc.

 

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