Research! Or, How to Avoid Lazy Worldbuilding

One thing writing the first Exile Clusters book taught me is that my worldbuilding needed some fleshing out. Despite having noodled around with bits of this setting for more than 35 years (seriously, I have notes dated 1980) a lot of things about it haven’t been written down. A lot of what was written down earlier has changed, as both I and my sense of this world have matured. So one of the things I’ve been working on while beta readers take another pass at The Frozen Past has been pulling these ideas out of my head and writing them down. Another part has been doing research to flesh out some of those better ideas that have come along.

Lazy worldbuilding in SFF has really started to tick me off, and generally boils down to stuff that simply Doesn’t Make Sense. These are things about which I’m unable to suspend disbelief within the bounds of the story at hand. I’m not talking about things like getting the details of computer hacking wrong (which applies to almost everyone besides Chuck Wendig and Walter Jon Williams, who get it mostly right). Nor about breaking the rules of science, which is true of most space opera. I’m talking about fundamental ways in which the world behind the story is put together that defy reason. Stuff that would be easy to get right with a little research.

So – I’m trying to avoid that in my own writing. And since I’m postulating a future history in which few of the people who escaped [REDACTED] came from the “First World”, that means my universe is populated with people from outside the US & Europe. Peoples from South America, Africa, South and Southeast Asia predominate the Exile Cluster.

One of the points really impressed upon me during the SFWA sessions at the Baltimore Book Festival last September, and in an earlier conversation with Tobias Buckell, was that you need to do research about peoples you’re not familiar with if you want to depict them accurately, plausibly, and respectfully. I’m extending that to my worldbuilding as well. I want my characters to reflect a plausible image of a future projection of the cultural mashup I’m building. I also want the world they inhabit to occupy a reasonable “probability cone”. In other worlds, crafting the future history that won’t show up directly in the books in a way that makes what does appear seem plausibly organic, and furthermore a plausible outcome of today’s world.

This leads me to my preparations for writing the second book in the Exile Clusters, bearing the working title “The Shadowed Web”. TSW is set on a world populated by a mix of West Africans and Vietnamese. In my original visions, the West Africans came primarily from Nigeria. Why? Well, what I knew at the time is that Nigeria has a huge population, around 180 million. It’s got oil which has brought it wealth, at least until the crash in oil prices in recent years. Africa has huge economic growth potential, and Nigeria seemed like a place where that might come from.

And then I started digging in. What I found is forcing me to rethink a little bit, but is also driving some new ideas into how my future history developed.

Nigeria has a many, many problems. A lot of these are fallout from the colonial era in one way or another. Others come from the kleptocracy, or government by theft, that has dominated most of Nigerian history since independence in 1960. Deforestation, the encroaching Sahara in the north and the prospect of ocean rise in the south, pollution of the Niger Delta from oil spills and other oil-extraction-related problems are just the beginning of the environmental issues. Corruption is rampant, as is poverty. Extreme religiosity impairs rational problem solving and fuels interethnic suspicion.

All that comes from one book, Noo Sari-Wiwa’s excellent “Looking for Transwonderland”, the travelogue of a diasporan visiting her ancestral home.

How do I take a group of peoples in these straits and make them one of the groups that gets off Earth in sufficient numbers to become one of the foundational blocks of the Exile Cluster’s peoples? How do I integrate these people’s histories, traditions, and viewpoints into the cultural mixing bowl I’m creating in a way that doesn’t come off as Western condescension?

I’m working on that. Meanwhile, I’m hitting the books.

On Being a First-Time Hugo Voter

I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy a long time – most of my life. I think I encountered the 1970s reprints of the Heinlein “Juveniles” when I was 11 or 12, along with Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot”, but I’d argue that a lot of the children’s books I read were really science fiction, just aimed at a younger audience. I’d certainly been interested in science and space since I was really, really young – four or five. Some of my favorite toys were the “Major Matt Mason” line of astronaut action figures.

But despite reading prodigous quantities of science fiction and fantasy over the years, I’ve never voted for the Hugos before this year. The Hugos, for those who don’t know, are arguably the premier awards in science fiction and fantasy, named for Hugo Gernsback, the founder of many early pulp SF magazines and a major figure in early SF/F fandom. I won’t get into the background (see the explanation at the Hugo site here) but the nutshell version is that they’re voted on by the “members” of the World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon, which actually moves around from city to city and host convention to host convention each year.

So that was one big reason I’ve never voted – you had to either attend the WorldCon, or purchase a “supporting membership” that didn’t give you attendance privileges, but did permit you to vote for the Hugos. And while I’ve been attended many gaming conventions going back to Origins in 1982, I’ve only attended one science fiction convention, ever. I knew about the “supporting membership” thing, but for a long time was hesitant to drop a $60 or more simply to vote on the Hugos.

I didn’t realize that the number of people who actually voted on these storied awards was small. Really, really small. As in 1000 or less each year, out of the millions of people who enjoy science fiction and fantasy. That data point, plus two other events, pushed me over the edge to pay the fee to LonCon3, the host of this year’s WorldCon in London, and vote for the 2014 Hugos.

The first was the outcome of the 2013 Hugos. I’d actually read three of the five nominees for Best Novel: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (one of my all-time favorite authors); 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, who’s best known for his Mars novels; and my favorite of the pack, Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, his debut novel. The winner turned out to be one I hadn’t read, John Scalzi’s Redshirts. So I picked it up and read it.

Now, I like John Scalzi as a human being. I read his blog regularly and follow him on Twitter. I like a lot of what he’s trying to do in making science fiction approachable, and in promoting diverse voices in the field. I’ve read several of his books.

But Redshirts wasn’t the best novel that year. Not by a long shot.* And that led me to digging around and discovering just how few people actually vote on these things.

The other event that prompted me to vote was the publication of Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancilllary Justice, which is flat-out one of the most inventive-yet-accessible science fiction books I’ve read in a long, long time. The protagonist is simultaenously a warship, the warship’s complement of soldiers, a unit of those soldiers, and an individual soldier. It’s a really remarkable feat of writing, but the book isn’t solely about this gimmick by a long shot. (Clearly, I’ll have to post a more complete review at some point.) It’s an excellent book, the best I read last year, and definitely Hugo-worthy.

So I decided that it was time to stop sitting on the sidelines, so I paid my $40 to Loncon 3 in time to submit nominations, and you can bet Ancillary Justice was on my list. (I also nominated The Incrementalists, Abbadon’s Gate and The Great North Road.)

The short list of nominees was released on Saturday, so I’ll be doing my best to read most** of the other nominated work prior to voting. In recent years the publishers have made these works available for the Hugo voters which should save some $$.

* I didn’t read Seanan MacGuire’s (writing as Mira Grant) book Blackout, but having read four of the five, my ranking would have been Throne of the Crescent Moon, then 2312, with CVA in a distant third place, trailed by Redshirts.

** There is apparently a novellette written by a person who is reliably described as a misogynistic, racist asshole, both in person and in his writing. I don’t think I can bring myself to read that. We’ll see; it promises to be in the Hugo Voter Packet.

Forest Moons and Warrior Races

Like any genre, science fiction and fantasy have their share of cliches and lazy shortcuts taken by creators who haven’t thought through their universes and the people who occupy them. One of the best known staples is where an entire world, usually one that supposedly supports human life in a near-shirtsleeves environment, has its surface completely covered by a single type of terrain. Star Wars is famous for this of course – the “Forest moon of Endor”, the desert planet Tatooine, the swamp world of Dagobah. But George Lucas isn’t to blame for this trope; they appeared in science fiction long before he came on the scene. I’m sure writers have a variety of reasons for coming up with them, such as being deliberately silly in the mode John Scalzi used in Redshirts. But if one is striving for something plausible, you need to put at least some minimal effort into world-building.

A similar shortcut which has come to bother me more and more in recent years is that of treating entire societies or populations as monolithic constructs. Now this way can lie some perilous ground, so I’ll say up front that I’m not talking about obviously racist drek such as we’ve seen through much of human history, impugning negative characteristics upon those not of the same ethnicity, religion or caste as oneself.

Rather, I’m talking about the notion that one can have an entire race composed of nothing but “noble warriors”, which seems to be the most common. Or dedicated scholars. Or ruthless traders. Or… the list goes on.

Now, perhaps this will in fact be the case in some sort of truly alien socieity. But what experience teaches us – or should – is that socieites are made up of individuals, and that those individuals, and subsets of the larger population, are going to have differences of belief and of experience that are going to result in differences in attitudes, in customs, in outlook.

Sure, broad similarities are possible and sometimes have bear out in the real word. Just within the United States alone we have the uptight East Coast versus the more laid-back West Coast. Miami has a completely different pulse and vibe than Orlando. The differences in things considered “normal” by my wife’s family in south-central Pennsylvania and by mine in central Maryland, barely 100 miles apart, are sometimes surprising.

Big populations, societies numbering in the billions or trillions, make these kind of silly shortcuts even more problematic. If we see so much variation among smaller groups in our daily lives, how can one make those kind of sweeping generalizations about whole species? And that’s before you get into the acutal needs for individuals to to fulfill all the myriad functions which an actual functional society requires. Who takes out the trash in your noble warrior race? Who cleans the toilets? Who builds their houses, heals their wounds, drives their busses? Clearly, all those people filling those roles are going to have different motivations, different views of what is important and what is not.

And yes, some cultures are going to prize some attitudes and features more so than others, and some cultures are going to enforce their norms with more rigidity than others. But again looking to actual human experience, these tend to be cultures which are more closed, less engaged with the world or with those from outside their culture. This is as true of the Japanese as the Amish. But even here, we find exceptions.

So if you’re going to try and sell me on a story, or a fictional background for a game universe, and you pull out these hoary old cliches, you’d better have something else up your sleeve to compel me to pay attention. Because for good or ill, I’m going to judge your work, and in this case, I’m going to find it wanting.

Allegiant – Violating the Covenant of Consistency

I’ve recently been reading Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy at the behest of my son Ben, who thought we should read at least the first book prior to seeing the movie. I’ve made my way through the first two, but now, about 120 pages into the third book, I’ve hit something which not only broke my disbelief suspenders, it’s thrown me out of the story so badly that I’m not sure I want to finish it.

I’ve had other issues with these books as I’ve made my way through them the last few weeks. Most of what’s bothered me are artifacts of sloppy world-building. It’s really hard to get a handle on just how big the factions really are, and how big the factionless population is. And when I step away from the story of the main characters and try to visualize the society in which they live, things just don’t add up. Dauntless only accepts 10 new initiates a year? All of Abnegation can fit into the meeting room at their headquarters, and yet Tris never knew Tobias, despite both of their parents being leaders of their factions? The factionless don’t get food except from Abnegation and Amity charity, and squat in unused structures, but yet they work all the scut jobs? Why would they perform all that essential labor without getting something in return?

Roth’s descriptions of Dauntless training also clearly display a real lack of any knowledge or understanding of military or martial arts training. Two weeks to make soldiers? You can barely learn the minimum essentials in 9 weeks of basic training, and that includes a host of things Roth leaves out: tactics at any scale from individual to unit; movement under fire; first aid; weapons maintenance; patrol techniques; and a host of other things you have to know as a soldier. Of course, if you’re just going for “Thugs with guns” then two weeks is probably enough.

I’ve also not been pleased that the major villains so far have all been members, past or present, of the Erudite faction, the one which prizes knowledge and inquiry. Consciously or unconsciously, Roth displays a real anti-intellectualist and anti-learning bias.

Then there’s her lousy science. If you’ve got wet-nano technology such as she describes the various “serums” possessing, and the ability to perform research and development along those lines, there’s a host of other supporting tech you’re going to have access to.

But when I pushed those aside and followed the exploits and struggles of Tris, I found the story to be fairly engaging in the first book. The second, Insurgent, was more of a struggle, suffering a bit of “middle book syndrome” along with lots and lots of angst, but at least Tris has some good reasons for her angst (namely, she’s suffering post-traumatic stress).

The third book, Allegiant, starts out briskly, at least compared to its immediate predecessor. But about 120 pages in, Roth drops something that – for me, at least – is a deal-breaker. Without getting too spoilery – Allegiant hasn’t been out all that long – Roth reveals something about a character from the first book that should be flatly impossible, given the society she’s described so far. Readers can forgive a lot of implausibility, as long as the implausible world maintains a high level of internal consistency with it’s own rules. Roth and her editor break that covenant in Allegiant, and that drags all the other sloppiness up to the surface.

I think I’m going to put this aside, and get back to Kameron Hurley’s excellent “Bel Dame Apocrypha” cycle; I’d put the second of those books, Infidel, aside in favor of Divergent. It’s shame that Hurley, a far better writer than Roth, isn’t landing multi-million dollar movie deals for her vastly superior books.

The Universal Principle

By which I mean, of course, change.

Change has been much on my mind of late, for reasons both good and bad. New responsibilities in my day job. A beloved aunt passes away. Some friends and family members experience good fortune, while others struggle with depression or lose their homes to fire. And beyond the small circle within which my own eyes can see, larger currents are at work, manifesting everywhere from the exciting experiments in on-line journalism to the “hollowing-out” of the job market as automation & technology consume the middle-skill tier of jobs. New discoveries come hand in hand with the re-awakenings of ancient hatreds. We all get older, and entropy inexorably has its way with our bodies, and sometimes our minds.

Change is inevitable.

Change, by its very nature, disrupts; and people being people, some handle it better than others. And it is true that for some, a given change can be negative in its impact. It’s hard to find the upside to losing one’s home, or a parent, or your means of livelihood. Yes, yes, silver linings can sometimes be found, but there are times when all that change serves up to you is a giant helping of Suck.

But sometimes, what some feel as a negative impact is actually to the greater good. Power shifting from the hands of the few to the previously powerless is a good thing, whether that’s the fall of a kleptocrat in Ukraine to a segment of people no longer being able to deny basic rights to a minority.

It is important to distinguish between these two, I think, to understand the difference between the unequivocally bad, and the bad-to-some which is really good. To recognize that losing your ability to dictate to others that they must believe as you do is not persecution. That being forced from the position of a singular voice to being one voice of many may, in fact, be more just than the prior state of affairs.

It’s also important to recognize that those larger currents at work can render the solutions of yesteryear invalid, and that rather than insisting on dogmatically applying them, we need to look at the facts of actual practice. The economic solutions to the problems of the 1970s may not apply today, for example; when we see austerity failing dramatically overseas, perhaps it’s time we put it back in the box.

Change throws us around and disorients us, which makes it all the more important that we face the facts, assess the evidence. The pace of change is accelerating, at least for now, and we will need to examine closely our old attitudes and responses to see if they will help or harm. For example: if we do indeed reach a point at which the work of maintaining our society only requires 20% of our population – something more conservative than the most extreme predictions of those forecasting the rise of automation call for – what do we do about conflation of work with moral worth in this country? If there  simply aren’t jobs for eight of ten people seeking them, are those two in ten truly superior? Or only superior in fortune, of birth or otherwise?

Dealing with those who cannot handle change well is something I’ve had to think about lately. This has ranged from “How do I support this struggling friend, wrestling with a True Bad Thing?” to “How do I engage these people refusing to acknowledge the changing landscape of technology and business so I can protect my employer and our customers?” to “Do I dare respond to this person expressing a view which angers me regarding a social issue I care about, knowing that he or she has no clue that they’re talking about a world that no longer exists, or never really existed in the first place?” My search for answers continues.

Roger Zelazny once wrote that universe constantly throws bricks at us, and that sometimes the pace at which the bricks are thrown speeds up for a time. We seem clearly to be in one of those periods now. May we all weather the brick shower, coming out better on the other side.

“Stand in the door!”

Beginnings and endings have been much upon my mind of late, though not in the maudlin way that one expects the stereotypical middle-aged guy to indulge in. With that in mind, this is something I’m beginning; a place to practice getting the thoughts out of my head and into the world. An exercise in writing discipline. A place to vent, to expound, to pontificate, and maybe once in a while speak a little wisdom.

The title, by the way, is the command given by the jumpmaster to the first person in line to exit the plane during parachute jump, at least in the US Army circa 1982-84. 

Greenlight’s lit. Time to go…