On Sunday, as on Saturday, there were often several sessions I wanted to attend scheduled at the same time; this hadn’t happened as much on Thursday and Friday. The ones I chose were
- The lack of technological progress in fantasy
- What writers need to know: physics and space travel
- Gods, religion and atheism in the genre
- Using science in fantasy writing
- Ensembles in YA
- Invented mythologies in SF
With even further distance from the convention (I am writing this on September 2-7) I am increasingly finding that some of my notes no longer remind me of what was said, so these notes are less complete than they might have been had I written them up earlier.
The panel started with several challenges to the notion of progress, starting with questioning the conflating of technology with progress. The dominant culture has seen history as the great deeds of great white men, and see the current world as the pinnacle of progress, and earlier cultures as inferior. But megalithic constructs would be very difficult to build even with modern equipment. Ancient China had sandpaper, and one ruler had a magnetic door that would detect iron weapons (he was eventually killed by a lead-weighted lute). The Roman era had the amazing Antikythera device , a complex mechanical astronomical calculator.
There have been instances of regression, such as Easter Island; someone mentioned Jared Diamond’s work, which many geographers view and reject as “environmental determinism.” There was also the “Samurai freeze” where Japan rejected western technology for many years. Societies with slave labour, or plentiful cheap labour, might not need much technology.
Fantasy becomes science fiction if there is too much technology, but there are overlapping tropes. Exploration of what it means to be human could contrast with androids, or with tree spirits. The Chosen One trope is similar to the Two-Fisted Engineer.
A few comments that didn’t lead to a lot of discussion:
- Acceleration of change is associated with rivalry, of which war is a subset; these circumstances are the source of some interesting stories.
- There can be societal progress even while technology is stable, and in fantasy there can be magical progress.
- Stories leave out much; they can’t be as intricate as real life. A story focuses on character and plot; the focus may be off of progress.
- Stability is legitimate; Tolkein rejected technological change.
There were several recommended books, some embracing change.
- N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, starting with The Fifth Season
- Barbara Hambly’s The S ilent Tower
- Fonda Lee ’s contemporary novels
- Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South
- Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside
- Ian MacLeod’s The Light Ages
Joe Haldeman said that storytelling matters most; he may have been the one to joke that the main thing to know is never open the door. Later someone said you really don’t want to know too much if you want to enjoy movies.
The first thing to know is Newton’s laws of motion, and that momentum is conserved. There were bad examples: using an assault rifle on a pendulum, and curved trajectories (there is no drag in space). Babylon 5 Star Furies got the physics right, with spinning on their axis to attack enemies approaching from behind.
Inventions don’t work right the first time or without funding. The trope of the most recent invention being exactly what is needed is also unrealistic. Iron Man 1’s debugging of the suit was good.
Vacuum is an insulator. Things don’t freeze immediately, but via slow radiation. If something goes wrong with heat management on a spacecraft you may starve while freezing slowly, or have the ship slowly turn into a sauna.
Space is really big, “bigger than you can pay anyone to imagine.” Mechanisms introduced to have stories happen faster are unrealistic. Faster-than-light travel is equivalent to time travel. At 75% of the speed of light there is significant friction from individual atoms.
With respect to learning more: Oxford University Press has many short books introducing many topics. You can consult Wikipedia and Stackoverflow on the internet, and also consult with experts (who you should pay for any nontrivial interaction). Someone expressed nostalgia for the “rubber bible” (the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics originally from the Chemical Rubber Company), now in its 100th edition).
Short comments that didn’t lead to much discussion
- Rick Cook’s Wizard’s Bane used programming ideas to manipulate magic.
- Quantum engtanglement can be used for cryptography but not to pass information faster than the speed of light.
Most SFF religions are based on real-world ones; Lois McMaster Bujold’s Challion series is distinctly different. There are Quintarians who believe in the five gods: father, mother, son, daughter, and bastard, the latter of whom keeps the religion dynamic, avoiding both chaos and stagnation. Quadrenes don’t believe in the bastard. People might primarily worship a different god at different stages of life.
Other examples of SFF religions included Battlestar Galactica (which includes some Mormon ideas), and the Dragon Age games. In Dune, religion is paramount, even though strongly influenced by the Bene Gesserit’s manipulation.
Anime, which is primarily secular, sneaks in concepts from Shinto and Buddhism. There is a bath house scene in one that reflects a purification ritual. Pokemon Go uses what amounts to a Shinto ritual involving kami. Kami are not gods, but rather forces of nature. Mt. Fuji is a kami. Sailor Mars throws ofuda ; Sailor Moon has the equivalent of sacred objects.
The panel distinguished atheism from absence: in many stories religion isn’t mentioned but might well be present in the background. There was some discussion of which category Asimov’s stories fell into; some thought absent, others anti. In a nonreligious book, others may take on some formerly religious roles.
Readers often don’t recognize religious references anymore, such as Christian elements in the Narnia series; they are more like Easter eggs for those who do get them. Not explaining religious elements can be a risky choice.
Fundamentally one must ask what are the religious elements in the story; they usually relate to the immaterial world. Eastern religions are quite different from the Abrahamic ones. Shinto for example has a priesthood but not an organized one. Someone asked why is there often a dark evil god, and where do the worshippers come from; someone else pointed to Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside as a good example.
Mistakes include viewing a religion as monolithic, failing to integrate the religion with everyday life, and having a good religion opposed by a bad one. Stories need nuance regarding questions and doubt.
This session made many interesting points but my notes are fairly disjointed; this tended to happen regularly with me as the days progressed. So the following summary is an attempt to pull together somewhat related things that were said at different points in the session, not in the order they were said.
There were several objections to using science in fantasy, particularly that magic shouldn’t feel like science; it should feel numinous. Fantasy breaks with scientific thinking, though things like alchemy were partly scientific. History has examples of technology being used while it wasn’t fully understood; magic could be like that.
Internal consistency is important; if magic obsoletes some technology or vice versa, the better should win out. The example was the heliograph, which is cool, but messenger birds were simpler and better.
There were several examples of amazing ancient technology, such as crucible steel and the Yaz aqueduct system, which gave wells in the middle of a desert. Roman concrete was forgotten for centuries and only recently surpassed by modern concrete; the Romans were great at civil engineering but not so good at individual-level technology. After the fall of Rome, the Empire was seen as a lost golden age, but not everything was lost: the books on medicine remained, but during the Black Death there was 100% mortality among the “good” doctors who interacted with patients, leaving just the “theory” doctors who worked with books. The Mongol invasion ended the genuine golden age of Arabic science.
There has been science fiction with magical elements, such as the spice in Dune and the psionics in the Darkover series and the dragons in the Pern series. Someone said “spaceships make it science fiction, unless it has the holy grail.”
Someone as an aside mentioned there aren’t many republics in fantasy, except with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
There were several book recommendations, including again N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series.
- Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle, starting with The Name of the Wind .
- John Christopher’s The Prince in Waiting .
- Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters .
- The Annals of Everyday Life series of resource books, covering the 15th — 18th centuries.
Humans are “band creatures” – evolved to work in small bands – so networks and relationships are natural. The reader needs to get to know the characters quickly at the start, and know them well. The writer needs to signpost whose point of view is in the forefront when you’re switching among them, and stick with one PoV for each section. It’s good to keep a capsule biography for each character to keep them straight, including their key characteristics and relationships. You meed to differentiate each character in thought, speech, quirks, talents, actions, and reactions, and make them different from you. Kate Elliot said she doesn’t plan all of this in advance, but discovers it in the first draft.
With a large group, introducing them requires multiple chapters; initially we meet one or two, then add others that have a clear relationship to what gets established earlier. For example, someone already introduced might mention a city, and the next section introduces a character from that city. It is OK to initially use some trick to distinguish them while people are getting to know who they are.
It’s important to establish characters first before they start to drive the plot, to help avoid a pigeonhole character whose sole purpose is to advance the plot. If there is a “spear carrier” background character, think a little about where they came from and what their goals are; they could have their own story, even if brief, and might become a fan favourite you want to write about in a later tale. They shouldn’t just reflect the main character.
Subvert genre tropes; roles can be an introductory shorthand, but you should build on them and add nuance. Good examples of subgenres for ensembles are heists and comedies, especially sitcoms.
You need to make things do double duty to reduce total word count (I gather they were implying this is even more important in ensemble stories than in single-PoV ones). For example, if a character does something as simple as blocking a door, that shows something about them as well as advancing the plot. You can do a lot with a couple of lines of dialog; it reads faster than other kinds of prose.
Someone asked if you should focus different books on different characters. It can happen organically, or you can plot it out in advance (accepting that you may need to be flexible and adapt as you write the successive stories); this led into a brief discussion of pantsing versus plotting. A character might “go rogue” if they are well developed (and thus ‘need’ to go in a different direction than you thought when they weren’t so well developed); this can be a good sign, but you may need to wrangle them a bit to keep going with the original story. You need to figure out what works for you, and may need to vary from project to project.
A few isolated points, in response to various questions:
- A diverse cast isn’t a story in itself, but it shows you’re reflecting reality. You shouldn’t just try to tick checkboxes; make sure they are all real people with their own goals and depths.
- There is a real effect of reader age: young people can keep track of details in their heads more easily than older people.
- We are wired to connect with other people, which should show in an ensemble.
Some book recommendations:
- Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows (but those characters could be adults instead of younger)
- Michelle Segara’s Queen of the Dead trilogy from DAW; Touch was mentioned specifically.
- Ian Banks’ Consider Phlebas
- Becky Chambers’ Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
- Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series.
The panel distinguished three things
- Religion is practice, how people conduct their everyday lives.
- Cosmology is how the world works.
- Mythology is a sacred narrative telling something about how the world came to be.
Writing mythology is harder to do than it might first seem. Myth is different from stories about the world. It isn’t an instruction manual for how to defeat the Dark Lord – unless there was once such a ‘manual’ that became fuzzier over time. Mythology is a giant game of telephone. Dragon Age presented its mythos via a collection of unreliable narrators, making it richer. An invented mythology has to add dimension and context to the society as well as serve the narrative.
There is lots of argument among scholars about mythology versus magic. There should be different ideas about how the magic people use (cosmology?) came to be (mythology?). Myth isn’t static; it changes across time and isn’t a literal history. People change different parts of the story for different reasons. For example, Santa Claus now conveys to some people that rich kids are better, because presents are associated with being naughty or nice, and rich kids get more. You need to ask who is invested in each version of the myth, perhaps having two characters with opposing narratives.
What happens to a myth when the people / society are under threat? Underground versions can surface. Different versions can be mobilized for different purposes, can drive conflict or help resolve it. There can be disagreements and gaps. Pop culture can interpret myths, for example via producing plays about them.
Some points that didn’t have much discussion around them.
- Practice (religion?), such as holidays, can arise from myth.
- You need to weave myth into your story; like all worldbuilding, it needs to be relevant.
- Idioms draw on myths.
- Science fiction simplifies mythic narratives based on biases (I wish there had been time to explore what the speaker meant by this).
- There can be generational change in myths (for example, tales about the USA’s founding fathers have mythic elements that have changed across time).
- You should read lots of mythologies, especially non-European ones.
- You can drop references to parts of the mythos in places where they’re not “load bearing” to, for example, reflect pop culture. A single reference can create a world in the mind of the reader.
- It is problematic to exoticize an active religion; there probably aren’t any practitioners of the ancient Sumerian religion left.
- People who buy into myths aren’t stupid; it is useful for them to think with, and helps them on a daily basis.
- In Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’ s Legacy series, different houses had different stories.
- In the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, the second series mythologized the first.
- In Mary Gentle’s Ash series an archaeologist finds a site that contradicts the story he told at the start.
- The Secret History of Burgundy
- The Bene Gesserit in Dune – they were engineers of mythology.
- Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters .
- Q in Star Trek is essentially a god but no one worships him; that world is primarily atheistic.