Tags: worldbuilding

books

Book Review: The Kingdom of Women

Choo Waihong’s The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains absolutely fascinated me, because it’s a sort of memoir/ethnography of the Mosuo people in Yunnan province, who are one of the last remaining matrilineal groups on Earth - and that matrilineal heritage is fast eroding as better roads, radios, and televisions bring the dominant attitudes of the rest of China into Mosuo homes.

However, the book is not about this erosion, but about the matrilineal culture as it still existed when Choo first visited the province. (She soon had a second home built there and began to visit often.) This is a society with no marriage: men and women both live in their mother’s home until the mother dies, and then the sisters found their own homes and their brothers continue to live with them.

People of both sexes can have as many lovers as they want; the men come to visit their female lover at her house. (All women receive their own room upon coming of age, to give them privacy for this.) Many people do eventually settle down to a stable relationship with a single axia, but the man continues to live in his matrilineal home and the children’s main male influences are their uncles, not their father, who may in any case be an axia who their mother dispensed with long ago.

And, because the basic building block of the family is the matriline, the Mosuo have none of the emphasis on female purity/virginity and total fidelity in marriage and accompanying male jealousy that bedevils patriarchal societies: there’s no need to ensure that the husband is the father, because there are no husbands and fathers don’t matter.

I found this all just about as delightful as Choo does, which makes me worry that we may both be gazing upon the Mosuo with rose-tinted glasses: any society has problems, surely. Although Choo does take up the question of whether Mosuo society devalues men the way that traditional Chinese society devalues women, and concludes that it doesn’t, certainly not to anything like the same extent; men don’t contribute to continuation of the matriline, but they as individuals are still valuable parts of it.

There were times when I wish that Choo went into more depth - I would have particularly liked to hear more about Mosuo attitudes on homosexuality, although I realize this may be a difficult topic to get info about. The one time Choo asks, her friends basically laugh the topic off, and there’s only so far you can push without getting rude, and after all they are her friends and not research subjects.

Aside from its intrinsic interest, I think this book is a fabulous jumping-off point for worldbuilding for a fantasy novel: it gives you the bones of how a matrilineal society can work, and you could build any number of different societal bodies off of that.

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How to Be a Better Dictator: Introduction

To the illustrious President Snow:

Thank you for joining our correspondence course, How to Be a Better Dictator! As usual when someone buys our How to Be a Better Dictator course (Platinum Pack), we sent an observer to tour your domains, and we just wanted to let you know how impressive we find your already existing dictatorship.

Your luxurious Capitol is a stunning monument to your nation’s greatness, as well as your own modest refusal to create a cult of personality. We didn’t see a single statue of you in the place, let alone a chorus of schoolchildren singing your praises.

Your brilliant strategic thinking is also on full display in your wise decision to separate different industries between the districts, forcing each district into dependency to all the others - and, of course, to the Capitol, the hub through which all this bounty flows. Divide and conquer, President Snow! Divide and conquer.

And nowhere is your adherence to this important maxim more evident than in the crowning stroke of genius in your reign: the Hunger Games. We swooned at the beautiful marriage of ancient tradition and modern technological advances in your gorgeous update on the Roman gladiatorial games.

Given the excellence you’ve already achieved, we applaud you for deciding to sign up for our course. Although your loyal aides are doubtless to dazzled by your genius to see any room for improvement, you in your wisdom and modesty realized that even the greatest of dictators always have more to learn.

Your first lesson will arrive next week in a discreetly wrapped package, designed to obscure its true nature from the simple folk of the realm, who derive great solace for their belief in their leader’s omniscience. We look forward to working with you!

Yours ever,
The Society for Improved Dictatorship

ETA: This is the beginning of a series, building off this post, which asakiyume asked me to expand in return for her donation to the ACLU.

I'm going to try to update it every Sunday till it's done. Next week is going to be either "People Are Sheep" or "Freedom('s Just Another Word)," depending on how many sheep comparisons I come up with. (The sheep def. come out of this better than the people.)

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/570428.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
books

Catching Fire

I got halfway through Catching Fire and WHISKY TANGO FOXTROT, I had to stop for a breather because Collapse )

Ahem. On a different note, I feel the strange urge to give President Snow How to Be a Better Dictator tips, because he clearly needs some help in this department.

And by “better” I definitely mean “capable of holding onto power indefinitely despite being evil,” not “actually being kind of a good ruler” tips. This poor man, he walks into Katniss’s house and is all “let’s speak honestly with each other,” and then he actually does it like a rank amateur. All the best dictators lie like rugs, President Snow. Get with the program.

Anyway, in the course of speaking honestly, President Snow strongly implies an ultimatum to Katniss, and later on he lets her know that she’s failed. President Snow! No! You never tell your political enemies that they have failed and are powerless putty in your hands until they’re actually walking down the hall to the firing squad! Until then, keep dangling shreds of false hope in front of them and make them jump through hoops like porpoises. Surely that’s amusing in a tedious sort of way.

At all times, keep this maxim in front of you: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” You want to minimize your subjects’ freedom, you’ve got to make sure they’ve always got something to lose. The revolutions come when the bread lines get too long, President Snow.

And this is really his problem: he’s all iron fist and no velvet glove, when that soft fuzz of lies is what makes dictatorships function. You want to prevent revolution? Then you need buy-in. You need your subjects to believe the system offers them something.

Why present the Hunger Games as what they actually are - a terrifying reminder of the wealth and power of the Capitol and a punishment for recalcitrant districts - when they could be rebranded as a glorious opportunity for district bonding and social advancement? Make people root for their own district tributes! Set up tribute training centers in each district! Smile as parents fight each other for the chance to train their children to die gory gladiatorial deaths, because a win in the arena is their best and maybe only chance for social advancement.

(I get why Collins wanted the drama of selection-by-lottery, but as long as volunteers are allowed, I really think that every district no matter how poor would be training tributes. Sure, the poor districts’ tributes are going to be kind of like the Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings, but they’re still going to give it their best shot.)

And all that intra-district bonding will have the glorious side effect of making all the districts loathe each other. Encourage that. To you all the districts may be indistinguishable conquered colonies, but don’t let them realize that. Play up their differences. Get them to direct their hate at each other. Divide and conquer, President Stone. Divide and conquer.

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/569564.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
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Book Review: Carry On

I finished Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, which I very much enjoyed! It starts off a bit slowly - not in that it’s boring; it’s interesting all the way through, but in that the plot slowly gathers propulsive force until it takes off about halfway through (I think about the time that Simon goes to Baz’s house for Christmas), and I was reading along and reading along and the big confrontation was coming AND THEN I HAD TO GO TO WORK NOOOOOOOOO. I wanted so much to finish that I almost convinced myself to go in late, but I couldn’t quite manage it.

Anyway, I liked the book a lot. I’m particularly partial to the world-building - and I think upon reflection that it is mostly criticisms of Harry Potter’s world-building that Carry On is building on, not specifically criticisms of the seventh book; it’s just that I saw many of these criticisms after book seven came out, I think because the release of the final book made it clear that, say, the Problem of Slytherin was not going to be addressed in the text.

I think it’s doing something different with it’s world-building than Harry Potter is, so it’s not quite fair to say one is better than the other. Rather, they’re going to appeal to different people (or to the same people but for different reasons; I love the first few Harry Potter books, after all).

Harry Potter is much heavier on whimsy and sense of wonder: the magical world is clearly very dangerous, but it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone wanting to opt out on that basis, because the magical world is just so awesome and the danger, generally speaking, feels like boys’ own adventure danger: more exciting than scary. It may be deadly, but it’s not traumatizing. (This is the general tendency in the worldbuilding, not an absolute, because there are moments of genuine pathos: the scene when Harry sees Neville’s parents in St. Mungo’s comes to mind.)

Incidentally, I think this is the reason why the “but he’s a trauma victim! Of course he’s cranky!” defense of Capslock!Harry in book 5 has always fallen flat to me. Previously Harry bounced back from everything like a rubber ball, and just in general, realistic trauma reactions aren’t a high priority in Hogwarts world-building.

They are a priority in Carry On (at least in comparison to Harry Potter). Simon Snow and his friends Penelope and Agatha (and his nemesis Baz) are starting their final year at Watford, and after nearly a decade of magical brushes with death, they’re all fraying and frazzled, bitterly aware that they’re not likely to survive to the end of their schooling.

And the darkness is much closer to the surface than it is in Harry Potter - although the darkness is definitely there is Harry Potter once you start looking. Carry On simply makes it explicit. The tensions between mages and magical creatures are obvious from the beginning; the fact that the political system is corrupt to the core is obvious, if not from the first pages, then quite quickly as soon as we get out of Simon’s POV. (Simon is almost tragically naive, but it’s fairly clear that this is the result of careening from one crisis to another so swiftly that he doesn’t really have a chance to think through the larger situation.)

The magical world doesn’t feel as insular as Harry Potter’s: the students are aware of and use modern technology - and this despite the fact that, except for Simon Snow, all the mages in this world are to the magic born.

(I think one of my favorite examples of this is the time that Agatha starts complaining about people making up a spell to make stuff stick to the walls. “This is exactly the sort of thing I’m sick of,” she complains to herself. “Like, just use some tape. Why come up with a spell for sticking paper to the wall. Tape. Exists.”)

I did not expect to like Agatha as much as I did. She’s the character who would really rather not be having adventures at all, thank you very much, and usually I don’t like that character at all (they tend to gum up the narrative). But with Agatha I could totally feel it; their adventures did not sound fun and if I were Agatha I too would probably be gloomily moping about the magical ramparts thinking about how I’m probably going to have to fight yet another fucking dragon when really I’d rather be reading. (Or riding horses, in Agatha’s case.)

And I think one of the things that I find most interesting about the world-building in Carry On is that the narrative allows space for this reaction - the rejection of the magical world - without trying to force it on you. It just presents its world and presents different characters having different reactions to it and lets the characters have their feelings without signposting any particular reaction as right, and I think that’s really nice.

***

And I also think that Carry On is a sign that I should start that Harry Potter reread I've been thinking about for a while. Perhaps once I've finished the Betsy-Tacy books? I think that a reread of Harry Potter could fill a similar bedtime reading space in my life.
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Zootopia

I went to see Zootopia, and you guys, it's totally awesome and you should totally see it, I had a wonderful time. The plot is not the best - it has the problem I have with a lot of movie mystery plots, which is that the clues basically fall in the heroes' laps, because the running time is simply too short for anything else. I loved the characters, though, especially rabbit Judy Hopp and fox Nick Wilde's enemies-to-reluctant-buddy cop schtick; I'm such a sucker for buddy cops. And also the secondary characters, Judy's worrywart parents (strangely endearing for all that they are horrified, horrified, horrified by their daughter's plan to become the first bunny cop in Zootopia), and the chief of police, who is a total jackass but hilarious.

But what really got me is the WORLD-BUILDING, because you could just see the filmmakers and animators sitting down together and having a grand old time hashing out, say, the logistics of living in a city with citizens who range in size from giraffes (15 feet) to hamsters (3 inches). Near the beginning, for instance, our hero Judy Hopp (off to the big city to become Zootopia's first rabbit cop!), gets on a train with three doors: one for big animals, one for medium size animals, and one for the itty bitty rodents.

AH THAT'S SO CUTE. The whole movie is just so cute like that, but unobtrusively cute (for the most part: there's a scene where Judy has to chase a suspect through a special rodent enclave and EVERYTHING IS SO TINY AND CUTE, OMG, they have hamster tubes between the buildings like pedestrian overpasses!): it's a side effect of their aesthetic, which is effusively detailed with incidentally adorableness. There are just so many little details and they're all so fun, like the scene where Judy catches a bootleg movie dealer and he's selling Disney movies - except they've all been revamped so they're animal themed (and I'm so sad I can't remember any of the puns right now, they were so cute), so Frozen is about otters, for instance.

And they've clearly put so much effort into the animation: I read somewhere that they had animated 43 (or maybe 63? A LOT) of different kinds of fur for all the animals, and you can really tell just looking at it, it's such a beautifully detailed movie. The attention to detail reminds me of Big Hero 6.

And I also thought that the filmmakers did a great and sensitive job depicting prejudice in Zootopia, because they've clearly put so much thought into the prejudices that might grow up with all these different (and in some cases, formerly antagonistic) species living and working together: it draws on analogies to real-world racism and sexism, but at the same time it doesn't map precisely onto them, because Zootopia is so different from the world as we know it.

For instance, it's Judy Hopp's species, not her gender, that makes people doubt her ability to be a cop, but at the same time I don't think it's an accident that she's female, and her struggles to be taken seriously as a cute li'l bunny mirror women's struggles to be taken seriously in the workplace. But there are also interspecies tensions that draw more clearly on the history of racism, like Judy's comment to that it's okay for a bunny to call another bunny cute, but if someone from another species does it, well... Or Judy's parents warning her that foxes are inherently untrustworthy, and indeed this seems to be a common prejudice; there are no foxes on the police force.

You could go into this in a lot more depth (and I'm sure someone has), because the movie does a ton of work with this sort of thing. It's really a joy to watch a film where the film-makers have taken such pleasure in designing the society they're telling a story about.

I'm not sure I'd want a direct sequel to this movie, but I would definitely love to see more stories set in the same world.
books

100 books, #9: The Woman in the Wall

Patrice Kindl has a new book out! Keeping the Castle: A Tale of Romance, Riches, and Real Estate, which the blurb describes as "I Capture the Castle meets Pride and Prejudice," which basically means it's going to be the Best Book Ever.

At least, I hope so. I've often been disappointed by Kindl's books: they're always fun, but often ultimately unsatisfying. I keep reading them because I adored the first book of hers that I read, The Woman in the Wall, and always hope that the white lightning will strike again.

The Woman in the Wall does pretty much what it says on the tin: it's about a terribly shy girl who is so mortified by the prospect of attending school that she builds a network of secret passageways and rooms in the walls of her family's Victorian mansion, and lives in them for years.

My friend Emma lent this book to me years ago, and her mere description of it so enchanted me that I all but shooed her out the door so I could start reading. The book, with its cozy, slightly formal narration, vivid characters, and dream-like ambiance, did not disappoint.

In my room I almost felt that I had become a part of the house. I could hear its heartbeat, the rumble of its pipes, the creak of its timbers. Sometimes and overwhelming love for the house would well up inside of me so that I wanted to cry. It loved me too, I could tell. We were necessary to each other; I protected it against the ravages of time and creeping dry-rot, and it sheltered me and gave me strength.

I loved it because it was strong, but I also loved it because it was blind and mute and deaf. It had no eyes to see me or ears to hear me or tongue to scold me. It did not judge me, it only held me close in its arms and rocked me gently to sleep through the long silent nights.


There's a strong whiff of magical realism about The Woman in the Wall. Nothing technically magic happens, but the book keeps blithely positing implausible things: an unaided seven-year-old building secret passageways; her family failing to notice that said secret passageways are slowly gobbling up the house; the fact that Anna disappears into the walls for seven years and her mother makes no concerted effort to get her out.

And one simply accepts them, because clearly in this little corner of the cosmos, that's simply how the world works.

What The Woman in the Wall taught me is that logic is a limited lens through which to read books. There are certain books in which the rationality of the plot or the setting are important. A murder mystery shouldn't have plot holes so wide you could drive a truck through them, and a fantasy novel that purports to make serious points about real-world politics has to have a political system that makes sense.

But there are also books where complaining about the lack of this kind of rational realism is completely missing the point. The point is the ambiance, the feel of the story: the world works on a kind of dream or fairy-tale logic, and as long as the characters' psychology is - not rational, because people are rarely rational - but plausible, or understandable, then the story can be completely satisfying despite plot holes the size of aircraft carriers.

And The Woman in the Wall is just such a book. If you want to read a lovely, cozy story about houses, and the comfortableness of inanimate things - and slowly embracing the messiness of human relationships, through Anna's budding epistolary romance (epistolary! Who can say no to that?) and her friendship with her sister - then this is the perfect book for it.
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The Bartimaeus trilogy

My college roommate adored Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy.

“They’re awesomely awesome!” she said.

“I wrote to the author and he wrote me back and he DREW A BAT on the letter!” she cried.

“And they’re sitting right on my shelf, sparkling iridescently and BEGGING TO BE READ!” she exclaimed, fixing me with a meaning gaze.

Naturally, I didn’t get around to reading them until after graduation.

And boy am I sorry, because we could have had awesomely awesome discussions about the Bartimaeus trilogy. These are excellent books, a brilliant antidote to the SECRET MAGICAL CREATURES syndrome I ranted about yesterday. The plotting is tight, the pacing fast, and the wizards out in the open in a world that is all the more compelling because it’s explicated mainly in throwaway comments. (The story is set in an alternate British Empire, which helps ground the reader.)

But though the setting is exquisitely rendered, it’s the characters who make the books awesome. There’s the eponymous Bartimaeus, of course, whose snarky voice and discursive footnotes lighten the narrative and provide it much of its forward motion. And then there’s Kitty, a member of the Resistance. Stubborn, idealistic, and angry, Kitty provides a necessary counterpoint to both the world’s grimness and Nathaniel’s...Nathaniel-ness.

Though the books are called the Bartimaeus trilogy, it’s really Nathaniel who is the center of the books. Bartimaeus is four thousand years old and not going to change any time soon; Nathaniel is the emotional center of the novel. He’s idealistic, honorable, and brave to the point of foolish heroism - and man, is he an asshole.

He’s not an anti-hero. He’s a hero so imbued with irritating qualities that you occasionally want Bartmaeus to drown him in a bucket. He’s touchy, ambitious, untrustworthy, vain, and even more arrogant than his not-inconsiderable abilities warrant. He believes wholeheartedly in the rightness of rule by magicians, even as he realizes that the current magician government is venial and corrupt.

It’s just that the ruling magicians need to be more competent than the current crop. The ruling magicians need to be people like, say, Nathaniel.

I love the narrative for neither downplaying his faults nor trying to excuse them (e.g., “he’s only a jackass because he’s so sensitive!”). His vices are such that he’s only intermittently likable, and they’re intertwined with his virtues. But he’s always interesting, and he’s clearly a product of the world he lives in.

Stroud, bless him, has followed his premise - “There are wizards who can summon demons!” - to its logical conclusion: “Obviously they’re going to rule the world. And they’re going to do it badly!” Stroud’s Britain is as rife with violence, back-stabbing, and oppression as a Cold War spy novel. Demonic vigilance spheres spy constantly on the commoners, the members of government eye each other suspiciously, and the threat of death and torture hover like smoke.

But I never felt that Stroud was killing characters to demonstrate that he’s one of the awesomely dark and edgy and gritty cool kids. Dark is a byproduct of the world-building choices he’s made, not the point of the story.
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SECRET MAGICAL VAMPIRE ELVES

I have a pet peeve in fantasy books. Actually, I have lots of pet peeves in fantasy books, which is one reason I don’t read very many of them any more. But one of my biggest pet peeves is worlds that are exactly like ours - except with SECRET EVIL WIZARDS.

Or secret vampires. (Twilight, I am looking at you. Also Buffy. And everything Amelia Atwater-Rhodes has ever written, and in fact probably nine-tenths of vampire fiction.) Or ANY creature that has super-awesome super-powers yet has inexplicably opted to hide itself because, uh. Because?

And no, “regular people find magic frightening and therefore kill wizards/vampires/whatevers” is not an acceptable explanation, at least assuming your magical beings have powers that are actually good for anything, which they usually do, because weak powers are totally boring. You know why mobs managed to kill witches historically? Because the witches didn’t actually have magic.

A pitchfork-wielding mob is not going to take on a being with magical destructive capability roughly equivalent to an rocket-launcher. If they are stupid enough to try, they will lose, and their wretched descendants will pay tribute to Mr. Magical Vampire Elf forever and ever.

My exasperation ratchets up ten-fold if the author is trying to sell his/her world as DARK, man, DARK. You want to convince me that your wizards/vampires/secret magical beings from the black lagoon are dark? BRING THEM OUT OF HIDING.

They have astonishing powers and little to no conscience! Obviously they’re not going to hide! They’re going to blow up anyone who irritates them and use their powers to take over the world!

And “there aren’t enough Magical Vampire Elves to rule the world!” is also not a good excuse to send the vampire elves into hiding. You just need enough Magical Vampire Elves to stock the upper echelons of the aristocracy (which is tiny) - the lower aristocrats, the day-to-day civil servants, can all be human collaborators.

Sure, maybe if no one believes in magic, magical beings will be able to get away with things on the sly. But you know how they could get away with even more things? How they could get away with all the things? BY BECOMING DICTATOR FOR LIFE/UNLIFE.

Secret magical beings are always in danger of being found out. It’s like being a mob boss; you may have wealth and power, but it’s contingent on not getting thrown in jail. Magical beings who actually make use of their powers and take over countries? They’re like Stalin, man. They can do whatever they want and no one is ever going to stop them.

And that’s so much darker than magical vampire elves skulking in dark alleys.
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More about Titles

A follow-up to the title post before, because people brought lots of interesting suggestions.

visualthinker suggested occupation based titles, which I like, because a profusion of titles suggests a status-conscious society and because they give the world texture.

Some things (Judge X, Officer Y, noble titles generally) can be transferred as is, but doctors and religious figures don’t transfer directly and mages—well, we don’t have mages, so there’s nothing to transfer.

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The larger problem with this suggestion, I think, is that professions do need to be fairly highfalutin before the get a title. “Farmer John” or “Street-Sweeper Jane” sounds like a children’s book. Also, how do you deal with people whose professions you don’t know, or those too young to have professions? There’s still a need for a courtesy title.

ochre54 suggested mother or sister as a courtesy title (and I would add daughter, to be used for children), which I like, provided it doesn’t confuse the readers about who is actually related to whom. Plus it comes with a ready-made set of male counterpart terms.

On the other hand, sister really does sound like nuns—I might even want to use it for nuns. I may not call them nuns as that suggests habits and abbeys and so forth, and I’m really thinking more like the female equivalent of Buddhist monks, in a “they travel around and live humbly and a lot of people have a short period of monk/nunhood when they’re young” sort of way, not a kung-fu action movie killer monk way.

Back to topic. Maybe I can just have social equals refer to each other by their last names, like British books, which I always thought was so cool.

girl_called_sun suggested adding suffixes to the last names, which I also think is cool, but I have gobs of stuff to say about names and suffixes/prefixes (names, as you may have guessed, occupy a lot of my brain) and this post is already approaching tl;dr territory, so I’ll write about that later.
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Titles

Here’s a question: what’s the appropriate honorific title for a middle class female in a semi-matriarchal fantasy society?

Miss and Mrs. have an unfortunate baggage of patriarchal associations. I think you could make an argument that changing titles on marriage doesn’t have to be patriarchal, as it’s awfully useful to know at once whether your new acquaintance is married, but if you do you have to have similar a similar change for men, as their marital status will be just as important.

Which means you’ll either need to revive the use of “Master” to refer to young men, which will be confusing given that fantasies tend to use master in the guild master, master mage, old-man-with-awesome-skills sense, or invent a new term, and it would really be less confusing to have just one title for females instead of two titles for both males and females.

Unfortunately Ms. is right out. It’s too modern for a fantasy, even a quasi-Victorian one.

The Russians use first name + patronymic as their formal mode of address. Patronymics won't work, of course, but following the Russian example by eschewing titles altogether is a possibility—although I don’t think it sounds formal enough to English-speakers.

The other possibility is to use “Miss” as the catch-all title, which does have historical antecedents in the American South. It may confuse people (that’s probably unavoidable no matter what I do, though) and it might not sound respectful enough, which is a bigger problem.