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
lack of technological progress in fantasy
writers need to know: physics and space travel
religion and atheism in the genre
science in fantasy writing
mythologies in SF
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
- 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
- Stability is legitimate; Tolkein rejected technological
- N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series,
starting with The
- Barbara Hambly’s The
Lee’s contemporary novels
- Elizabeth Gaskell’s North
- Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside
- Ian MacLeod’s The
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.
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.
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
- The Annals of
Everyday Life series of
resource books, covering the 15th
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.
- Leigh Bardugo’s Six
of Crows (but those characters could be adults instead of
- Michelle Segara’s Queen
of the Dead trilogy from DAW; Touch
was mentioned specifically.
- Ian Banks’ Consider
- Becky Chambers’ Long
Way to a Small Angry Planet
- Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven
- Religion is practice, how people conduct their everyday
- Cosmology is how the world works.
- Mythology is a sacred narrative telling something about how
the world came to be.
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
- 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
- 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
- It is problematic to exoticize an active religion; there
probably aren’t any practitioners of the ancient Sumerian religion
- 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
- In Mary Gentle’s Ash
archaeologist finds a site that contradicts the story he told at the
History of Burgundy
- The Bene Gesserit in Dune
– they were engineers of mythology.
- Richard Garfinkle’s
- Q in Star Trek
is essentially a god but no one worships him; that world is