Fantasy world-building sometimes comes under fire for its pedantic attention to detail at the expense of pacing or prose style. Do descriptive passages clog up the narrative needlessly, when reader imagination should be filling in the gaps? Where does that leave the landscapes and cultures that are less well represented in the Western genre: can world-building be a tool in subverting reader expectations that would otherwise default to pseudo-medieval Euro-esque? If fantasy is about defamiliarising the familiar, how important is material culture - buildings, furnishings, tools, the organisation of social and commercial space - in creating a fantasy world?
Mary Anne Mohanraj (m), Tobias Buckell, Kate Elliott, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Victoria Donnelly, Ellen Kushner
Victoria: archeologist; archeology very similar to worldbuilding, "we make up a lot of stuff"
Kate: writer, proposed panel based on Tor.com post; known for being "worldbuilding dork"
Tobias: born in Caribbean, write SF novels, lives in US Midwest
Rochita: writer from Philippines, live in Netherlands, make habit of destroying status quo
Ellen: writer from New York
Mary Anne: born in Sri Lanka, came to US when 2; lives in Chicago
Mary Anne asks Kate to summarize premise of argument to start off
Kate: "I'm well-known for brief short pieces of fiction" /joke. Wrote essay in part in response to Mike Harrison's comment, many years ago, objecting to worldbuilding. Fine if prefer streamlined stories, but. Comment in _Guardian_ about Moorcock who allegedly just pulled things out of his imagination: but don't _just_ do that, imagination fed by things you're familiar with. Lack of worldbuilding = implying default dominant status quo. Too much worldbuilding that slows down story is craft problem, not intrinsic to worldbuilding. Need to build truly speculative worlds.
Mary Anne: Samuel Delany, "the unmarked state," if you don't specify identity aspects of character up front, people will fill in defaults. Sometimes will override by author's traits or good cover photo. (Of course defaults are cultural.)
Mary Anne con't: asks writers to talk about their worldbuilding.
Tobais: existing narratives have momentum all their own, fighting against reader narratives can be very hard. Editor recently put out call saying "no politics", huge assumptions about what politics is (i.e., anything that makes me uncomfortable). Political assertions become invisible to some when present in stories, like _24_ and "torture works." Example from SF: far-future space adventure where characters go on shopping break in space station and use credit cards in stores . . . 300-400 years in future. But deeper re: culture, history too.
Mary Anne: when reads Tobias' work, notices Caribbean inflections which unusual in the genre.
Tobias: (well, since you ask me to talk about myself . . . ) Use form of dialect in short fiction, complicated because use _a_ form and render in certain way. Not phonetic, tried to do and most of white beta readers thought was being racist: "people who talk like this are dumb." Even though characters were rocket scientists. So use standard English spelling but change the grammar. Challenges people's expectations about what see on page. Twain once asked why use dialect (Dante too, everyone who writes dialect has been asked): because it's what I hear around me, this is the way people speak. Swimming against idea that English is one particular thing. (Victoria?: it's political.) Yes, didn't expect to be political writer, just thought it would be fun, but turns out writing black people in space is deeply political act because got hate mail for it.
Rochita: references Reading SF While Brown panel at Nine Worlds: what it's like when constantly inundated with literature that's default-white.
(Mary Anne: first year writing, 20 short stories, 19 had only white characters, didn't notice for years.
Tobias: was just in Caribbean, writers showing me their novels, all same thing.)
Rochita: decision to populate the world with POC & come from Philippines = political, placing presence there that was absent, which does make some readers uncomfortable because status quo has vanished
Ellen: loved Kate's article. First unsure belonged on panel, but then realized do: all novels in what looks like medieval Europe, but interrogate history via small curious cultural things, most well-known is _Swordspoint_ universe: queerness and bisexuality not radical. Agree that write the worlds we truly believe. If not a very good writer and writing something that you don't really believe but think is correct, will show. Comes from her subconscious, building world she is comfortable in. [*] Challenge is to interrogate assumptions in way that (redeems? didn't hear) our fear.
[*] Is this a writing process thing or a lack-of-understanding thing, or both? Rooting societal prejudices out of your mind is _hard_, yo, seems like kind of a high bar to clear.
Kate: yes, what getting at when wrote article. Tries to put people in her stories as the ones weren't in before: and who those people were got bigger and bigger as perspective opened up. Have noticed massive preconceptions about who lived in Olden Times, who was important, who could do things. (Comment on blog post that said women aren't in fantasy novels because 99% were illiterate pregnant peasants. So went out and wrote story about such a person who went out and did things.) So need to worldbuild a little extra to explain to readers what different.
Mary Anne: see Kameron Hurley, We Have Always Fought.
Mary Anne con't: In these conversations always get a bunch of marginalized writers figuring out that they want to write characters that represent their own selves, process of decolonialization. But other side is that not just for people from marginalized groups, we've all been colonized by these particular narratives, look around and world is much more complex than that. More writers have been taking that up.
(Ellen: shout-out McHugh's _China Mountain Zhang_)
toss to Victoria.
Victoria: exercise with 1st-year students, write a story that's a day in the life of someone, even just one page. Students think will be easy at first, but really struggle with, because once the person opens eyes in story, making so many decisions about everything, especially when only have very few material objects to build story out of. First thing need to realize as archeologist is that will never be able to do that, can never make perfect story. Have to decolonize brain and realize own assumptions, otherwise take your life and make it pre-history (or whatever). Can never fully do, but has to try.
(Mary Anne: even just writing about Sri Lanka in 1940s, sure got things wrong, little technological details shift so fast.)
Mary Anne to Tobias: since can pass for white, how does that inflect people's readings of your works?
Tobias: usually don't talk much about race on panels because muddy waters, so to speak. Mixed race, light not white. Spent first 15 years of life in Caribbean, but grew up on boat, so outsider then too, but half family various shades of brown. Way people read me is very complicated: US, race is very binary (and lots of pressure to identify clearly as one or other), not so binary in Caribbean. Does get excluded from many POC lists, tries not to be upset about that (but have heard that some people have taken off lists because "not really"). Tiring to have to spend so much time qualifying what I am, nice to go home and have accent, have people understand immediately. But also given tremendous amount of freedom. (Weirdest part: because look white, people feel very comfortable saying things to me that wouldn't say to visibly-brown people . . . )
Mary Anne: tells story I find very uncomfortable about trying to convince Benjamin Rosenbaum that he can come to POC dinner at WisCon because his skin is dark enough, and how he then went around WisCon asking people if he was a POC and all the white people said no and all the POC said sure. Uh, I know nothing about Rosenbaum's ancestry or history other than that he is Jewish, which Mary Anne mentioned, so this is not a comment about him, but there are people from Mediterranean Europe (southern Italy etc.) whose skin is as dark or darker than mine but in current US terminology--and Mary Anne grew up in the US--that doesn't make them POC/non-white/racial minorities. And also if skin color is what matters then Tobias wouldn't be POC? So that was . . . weird.
And after _that_, despite Tobias saying that these discussions are very difficult and painful for him and he tries to avoid them, Ellen is extremely excited about panel on defining racial identities based on Tobias & Mary Anne's comments. (A) Oh goodness save the moderator of *that*; (B) there is a distinction between "I would like to listen to what people are willing to say about a difficult topic" and "I really want people to parade their hard-won insights and pain for my edification!" (or, more crudely, "dance for my entertainment!"), and despite my positive overall opinion of Ellen, the comment came off much closer to the latter.
Okay, going back to the panel in progress:
Mary Anne to Kate: writing multi-racial worlds more (Kate: no, always have), what kind of reactions do you get for that?
Kate: has done consistently across career, but as white writer, get questioned less about this than writer of color would. She gets cookies for even remotely-okay job. Spiritwalker trilogy (Afro-Celtic dominant culture), one of interesting reactions is that "just threw darts at a board." (Rochita asks who protested.) Most protests re: Creole from white women (though not sure as many white men reading, as had girl on cover).
Rochita: Nalo Hopkinson says, because so underrepresented, always so excited to see, interesting that white people take umbrage on our behalf
Tobias: Bruce Sterling's _Islands of the Net_, first 1/3 set in Grenada, not perfect, one big mistake about dialect (not sure whether it was in-character mistake, but no, everyone doesn't speak in dialect to tourists as affectation!), but such a profound moment to see my family represented in a novel, and scales-from-eyes moment that had been looking for all life and not finding
(This was clearly a very important story and I appreciated it. But I don't think, and I don't think Tobias would say, that the fact of representation relieves writers of the responsibility to do well by cultures not their own. To be personal for a moment: sometimes I'm grateful for crumbs, and sometimes I'm angry at only getting crumbs, and sometimes that happens at the same time.)
Mary Anne: see a lot of anxiety from writers about Internet falling on head, but this is the thing: you will get something wrong, accept it. Internet may fall on your head. We all have to learn how to accept this gracefully: thanks, sorry, will do better next time. No-one is immune from it.
audience: self-identified white straight male reader: this isn't a binary question (implication, I think, was that it was a sliding scale): how much do you want me to be accepting diversity as normal and how much want to be noticing and questioning my assumptions?
Mary Ann: depends on context; mainstream Chicago versus future universe in which Sri Lankans had over
Tobias: in terms of exploration of literature, don't succumb to cod-liver theory of fiction. Some people try his books and say I don't like, therefore I'm not reading any more fiction by diverse authors. Readers should draw wide net so find fun things within that.
Ellen: all of this is the behind-the-scenes talk, but our job is to make you enjoy it, shouldn't be medicine at all.
Kate: goal isn't to sledgehammer diversity, but to embed it and normalize it so it doesn't register until later
Ellen: uniquely privileged as SFF authors
Victoria: this is why details that choose to embed are so important, for example see the casting debates about people not realizing that characters aren't white
Mary Anne: the colonialization effect is really strong, read Wizard of Earthsea as a kid and didn't notice explicit statement of skin color; Rue in _Hunger Games_
audience: how to balance what's true to you with market considerations
Rochita: talked about this at prior panel! Doesn't write to reader expectation, if worked hard as reader to meet the status quo, then about time the status quo should adjust to me and my mindset.
Tobias: very strange experience when first started trying to publish, editors expected mixed-race person from Caribbean to be writing magical realism, kept getting editorial responses: not at all what expected, would you like to write a magical realism novel? Three times had editors tell him that would love to publish novel about Caribbean person with magical talent who came to the US.
Mary Anne: MLA panelist said that have to write arranged marriage novel and get it out of your system. Little bit true, so overwhelming and sometimes really do need to get out of system. Impressed that managed to avoid.
Tobias: fought kicking and screaming. 13-year-old at heart, want explosions.
audience: from India, problem with UK friends not understanding cultural contexts that Indian readers get
Rochita: have to consider in mind who am I writing this story for? She writes for herself, and for Filipino readers, and then other readers are a bonus. (Okay to have economics as a reason for who you're writing for!)
Tobias: sometimes have to make peace with different readers getting very different things out of story. "Toy Planes", about Caribbean nation sacrificing to create space program: people from developing nations get that it's about "we're coming up there", but one editor called it a "cute little comedy story". (Mary Anne: such a heartbreaking story!) Hard part is matching market to story and to that decision.
Mary Anne: want to echo Rochita, wrote _Bodies in Motion_ in grad school, advisor opened meeting after draft: "So you're writing this for white people. Is this really what you want to do?"
Ellen: every single piece of fiction is read differently by different people, cannot underscore enough. Up to you to decide what's important enough if want to make clear to the maximum audience.
Mary Anne: also just recommend people who do it well. _Junglee Girl_ by Ginu Kamani has great story about differences between urban and rural.
audience: talking about representing different living cultures; for Victoria, has representing dead cultures been done well?
Victoria: _Ancillary Justice_, Leckie been clear not just Romans in space, but clear interplay there, and brilliantly done because echoing it but not trying to make it perfect; or GG Kay, with that fantasy element that is very useful get-out-of-jail
Tobias to Victoria: most common mistake?
Victoria: hugest one: _LotR_, people talk about Tolkien's medieval history, but it's actually Anglo-Saxon not medieval! Mixing clothing, weapons . . . but if do it well, doesn't matter. Going back to story-writing exercise: positive thing take away from that, is that can figure out quite a lot starting with people's purpose: if poor person in agricultural area, know that shape of day is going to be around taking care of crops etc.
Mary Anne: still learning more about all of these ancient cultures, recent article about modern ideas of busy-ness and how hunter-gatherers had way more leisure time than people assume
Tobias: ObShoutout to medievalpoc (yes, I am aware there are good-faith criticisms of the historical scholarship there that don't involve vile personal attacks on blog's author); growing up on sailboat, knows that there was lots of travel, exploration and voyaging is why we like this genre, we are a cosmopolitan species
Ellen, Mary Anne: shout-out to _Hild_
audience: to Victoria & rest of panel: key elements of material culture that want to see in worldbuilding?
Victoria: more abstract, how people use their space: private v. public is incredibly cultural, has a whole lot of other hooks for assumptions: family, economics. Personally likes finding small personal things, especially in non-mass-production context.
Kate: social space & material culture are the basis for people's daily lives. Can start with who's King and how many soldiers, or can go to: basic kinship patterns, how do people conduct trade, how are they eating? (and lots more): don't have to put all in the book, but will come out in how people interacting with each other
audience: does living history talks, hard time to persuading that ancient people weren't stupid!
And that was time. So that was interesting in bits and frustrating in other bits; not as good at the prior panel.