Worldbuilding

This week’s episode of the Writing Excuses podcast is on a highly interesting topic: how to insert worldbuilding into character viewpoint, and why is this a good idea. Essentially, we are talking about worldbuilding that happens without it being explained directly on the page. The approach is great because it avoids blocks of explanatory text and permits detail that would otherwise not be easily included. It allows the writer to add emotional responses to worldbuilding elements, highlight (mis)conceptions about the world based on character background, describe underlying elements of conflict (not everybody sees the world the same), and produce a rich narrative with hints of mythology, history, political opinion, religious beliefs and so on beyond those directly relevant to the plot.

As a reader, these are all things I want to know, but I don’t necessarily want them spelled out as general narrative where they can feel clunky and slow. I would quite like to know what the people in city X thinks of the people in city Y, if this varies with social standing or age or occupation or something else, if the assessment is fair and if it is based on history, geography or beliefs. I would, however, get quite bored if the writer listed these permutations outright. Give me an overview for sure, but then feed me the details within the story, let me experience it first-hand through the characters when and where it happens. The politician from city X can use swearing that offends the dragon-tamer from city Y, who might respond in kind with a disparaging reference to the history of X, which differs entirely from how the same history is depicted by the politician, and both of them have probably built parts of their identity on these differing accounts so you bet there will be arguments and misunderstandings and wonderful, wonderful drama.

In short, I can guarantee I will be much more intrigued if the history, geography, conflicts, politics and beliefs of the world are woven into the characters as well as the plot.

Go listen here:

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard When you’re defining your world for the reader, some voice in the text must speak those definitions. This episode is about how we use character voices—their dialog and their narrative view points—to worldbuild. What do they see? How do they perceive it? What are their favorite jokes?… via 14.5: Viewpoint as Worldbuilding — Writing Excuses

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Toil and Trouble

Out of all of Shakespeare’s works, Macbeth is my undisputed favourite. With its gloomy themes of madness and murder, it is pretty unbeatable for those of us who favour the tragic plays over the comedies. That said, the reason I love Macbeth over the other tragedies, excellent though they may be (I have a particularly soft spot for Antony and Cleopatra), is Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth, the conductor of events, the instigator, the menacing presence, ambitious, ruthless, murderous. What is not to love? Only one thing: she more or less disappears in the third act. In the end, even her demise is off-stage, in what could be described as a disappointing end for the initial, and arguably true, villain of the play. Macbeth’s subsequent madness and additional murders notwithstanding, his actions are a consequence of hers, his path was set by her, his rise and fall is down to her. And yet, she fades from view.

I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, we lose sight of one of the most tantalizing characters in the play. The sleepwalking scene, her last, is fantastic: the Lady Macbeth, candlestick in hand, rubbing her hands in anguish, her speech jagged, disordered, not even in verse. It leaves me wondering what we are missing out on in not letting her full story play out.

On the other hand, there is a poetic justice in her diminished visibility. The motivation of Lady Macbeth is power and influence. She wants her husband to be king. She wants to be queen. What could be more fitting than to have her punishment be erasure. The villain who is willing to get blood on their hands to feed their ambition, not even there for their final scene.

“Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen,
self and violent hands: i.e., her own violent hands.
Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life”

And so she is gone, one of Shakespeare’s most interesting women, though she reappears under different guises in a plethora of other works. Jezebel, Ellen Tigh, Mrs Lovett, Cersei Lannister to name a few. Repackaged and resold, often more ruthless and more cruel than the main character. After all, the villainous tendencies of the puppet master ought to outweigh that of the puppet. Particularly if the schemer is a woman, and women are meant to be nurturing and kind. Thus Lady Macbeth, in all her unfeminine, power-hungry glory, is the she-spider, the sociopath, the would-be baby killer, and the nastiest character on stage both because of what she is and because of what she is not.

“I have given suck, and know
how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
have done to this.”

It is not only the character of Lady Macbeth that is echoed in other works, but also the third act disappearance. The Ladies Macbeth typically die before the final showdown. They have to, in most cases, being the greater villain of the piece. A story with Lady Macbeth still standing is not a finished story.*

Or they used to have to die.

The Ladies Macbeth of late, such as House of Cards’ Claire Underwood, are almost just as likely to take over the reins themselves (contrast with her earlier counterpart Elizabeth Urquhart). Lady Macbeth no more, we get President Macbeth. Toil and trouble looms ahead. The puppet master is on the throne, and we should all be afraid, very afraid, excited, very excited.

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* Also, the Lady has to die before we start wondering why on earth she is not the main character.

 

Reading challenge 2019

It’s that time of the year again – time to reset the reading challenge. The challenge is mostly to remind myself to keep turning the pages in between all the other things life throws at me, making sure it is not postponed for holidays, drowned in work or forgotten amidst other tasks.

It’s a modest aim this year: 25 books, a little less than one every fortnight. Perfectly doable, maybe even a bit underwhelming. Still, when it comes to reading challenges, I prefer the focus to be more on the ‘reading’ (as in, keep doing it!) and less on the ‘challenge’. Twenty-five books will be just fine for me.

This year, I’m starting out finishing off the excellent Mythos (Stephen Fry) which I’ve been nursing for a little while, then moving on to The History of Bees (Maja Lunde), Strange Weather (Joe Hill), The Boy on the Bridge (M.R. Carey) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) for a dose of horror(ish) tales. I’ve got Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes lined up in non-fiction alongside the Philosophy of Evil (Ondskapens filosofi, Lars Svendsen) and Six Degrees (Mark Lynas). Some of these, I’ve already started, and some are shiny and new. I look forward to every page!

 

 

Science/fiction: 10%?

“It is estimated that most human beings only use 10% of their brain’s capacity,” says Morgan Freeman’s character from a lectern in Lucy. It is a widely-believed myth, oft repeated, both in science fiction and in self-help literature.

So do human beings only use 10% of their brain capacity? I’m afraid not. This is one that falls squarely in the fiction category. The myth even has its own wikipedia page. Considering how many times it has been debunked, it’s surprising how persistent it is. And if it is not 10%, then it is 35% (or some other random number below 100%). The truth is, however, that most of the brain is in use most of the time.

Here’s a summary in 3.06 minutes, which also covers some of the superpowers in Lucy:

 

Now, is the reverse true? Could you get by using less of your brain? Yes, sort of, in some cases. Plenty of people live with reduced brain matter (it is a common consequence of aging, after all), without any apparent problems. If the reduction happens over time, the tissue that remain can often compensate nicely. But you’ll still use most of your remaining brain most of the time.

Science/fiction: Brain stimulation

I am a neuroscientist and physiologist, which means I get to look at a lot of brains and try to figure out how they work. As I am also a writer, I thought I would do a few posts on my particular brand of science as it applies to science fiction. To start it off, I would like to begin with an email that I received today, inviting me to a Brain Stimulation symposium (which I will not attend, but that is beside the point).

Brain stimulation is a thing. An actual thing, used in therapy and research. In its most basic form, it involves introducing a specific amount of electricity to a specific part of the brain, depending on what you want the result to be. If this sounds like ‘wiring up’ a human brain to a machine, it is because that is what it is.

The methods for doing this vary. We have external devices and implanted devices, and they operate on different principles, have different limitations and different risks. However the basics are much the same: introduce an electric current in a specific part of the brain to make the neurons in that part of the brain do what you want them to do. This typically means either exciting or inhibiting the neurons (which can, for simplicity, be thought of as turning them on or off).

Deep brain stimulation is an invasive method. It requires surgery. It is the younger and more advanced cousin of the much older electrical brain stimulation that has been used to target surface areas in the brain with various degrees of success since the mid-1800s and uses electrodes embedded deep in the brain. The surgically embedded electrodes are connected with insulated wires to a stimulator, which is usually implanted somewhere just below the neck. The stimulator controls the electrical impulses to the brain, and its settings is calibrated by healthcare personnel (or anyone with the access, know-how and equipment).

Deep brain stimulation is used in the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease and chronic pain. It will  not cure the disease, but it can take away some of the worst symptoms and improve the lives of these patients. Not without risk, of course – brain surgery is no walk in the park – but it is effective. For what else can it be used? Deep brain stimulation, depending on the regions it is implanted, might alleviate major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, although the jury is still out on how well it works. That is not to say it is not possible – it might merely be a case of finding the right targets and the right stimulation frequency.

Also, it does not have to be electrodes. A slightly more futuristic type of deep brain stimulation based on optogenetics is being developed. Optogenetics is a way of controlling cells (often neurons) using light. The brain’s neurons can be inserted with light-sensitive probes. This is often done using a manipulated virus, carrying the probe, which targets a specific group of cells. The modified nerve cells can now be stimulated by exposing them to light – effectively turning them ‘on’ and ‘off’ with a light switch. This technique is in use in animals, and can be powered and controlled using wireless radio signals. Different wavelengths of light can then be used to target different inserted light receptors in the cells, giving different types of response.

A less invasive method is transcranial magnetic stimulation, where a magnetic impulse is sent to a part of the brain using an external device. The change in magnetic field causes a change in electric current in the brain (which is, of course, the stuff of neurons), and hey presto: stimulation. This method is not invasive in that it does not require any surgery, but it can only penetrate so far into the brain, so its influence is limited to surface regions (as opposed to deep brain stimulation).

How far can this be taken? Can this control someone’s behaviour, or be used to manipulate someone? Well, possibly. To some extent at least. Stimulating motor regions of the brain, which are involved in controlling our movements, can trigger movement. It is possible to record signals from one person and transmit these through, for example, transcranial magnetic stimulation, to the motor regions of another person, making them do the movement of the first person. Like a puppet.

Stimulating an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens has the potential to ‘turn off’ addictive behaviour, such as compulsive overeating, at least in animals. Similarly, targeting a region of the brain called the hypothalamus can create rage in experimental animals. In humans, stimulation of the amygdala (which is an area of the brain associated with fear processing) can trigger aggression and rage. Also, there is at least one case where stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus (often targeted in Parkinson’s Disease) caused a patient to show new, manic personality traits1, which went away when the stimulation was adjusted. Can it be used to ‘turn off’ aggression? Yes, so it seems2. So it is currently possible in humans, if rare (only by accident, or in severe medical cases), to alter personality using brain stimulation.

What about complex ideas? Can these be created or transmitted? Could you make someone agree with you politically or make them aggressive towards a certain group of people? So far, no. In theory, it should be possible, given enough knowledge about how the brain operates. It would be the same principle as recreating a motor response in the example above, but likely involve a range of brain regions (including areas associated with decision making, emotions, attention, and so on) and different stimuli (excitation, inhibition) in a precise pattern over time. That is the theory. In practice, we currently simply don’t understand nearly enough about the brain to reliably describe, much less recreate, the activation patterns of complex thoughts or behaviours using mechanical contraptions. That is still the realm of (dystopian) sci-fi.

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References:
1. https://jme.bmj.com/content/35/5/289.long
2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878875012006742

Book review: The Hunger

I recently devoured (pun intended) Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, which is a fictional account of the Donner wagon party trying to reach California from Illinois in 1846. For those unfamiliar with the story, the non-fictional party of settlers ran into bad relations, bad decisions and bad weather, which resulted in the unlucky stranded group eventually resorting to cannibalism. A relatively unpleasant piece of history, yet Alma Katsu manages to put an even more horrific spin on the tale.

(Some spoilers ahead).

This is a type of horror novel that I particularly enjoy. First of all, it is slow burn, with increasing levels of tension. It starts small, with a few incidences highlighting the upcoming strife, the unpleasantness of some of the characters, the loneliness of the landscape. There are hints of what is to come, suggesting that the best course of action is to turn back, but these are ignored and dismissed. By the time the party, dogged by urgency at the approaching winter, takes the fateful shortcut that will leave them stranded, the tension is high and there are too many personal stakes in place preventing better decisions to be made. It is utterly believable, with each little step towards the end resting on established human faults much more than bad luck. For me, horror works best if it is slow to start: like the frog in the tepid water, being brought to the boil (although the fable, if useful, has been debunked). Too much pressure too soon, and I will not believe it if the characters do not turn and flee. The gradual, sinister change, however…

This is especially believable when paired with Katsu’s eye for character. Each member of the party carry not only their (more or less) meagre belongings but also the weight of the past. All have a reason to be on the wagon train, and these reasons are optimistic and opportunistic only on the surface. Underneath, there is tragedy, fear, scandal and hate. All of this pulls together to create a stifling, unnerving atmosphere, and leads to mistakes that will cost the group. As a reader you can see it coming – observe the moments where less strained minds might have made a better call – yet the errors seem unavoidable given the history and shortcomings of the characters. Consequently, as the story unfolds, the eventual fate of the wagon train seems almost predetermined. This is a story that is as much about human mistakes, poor leadership and relationships collapsing under increasing pressure as it is about external monsters.

Speaking of monsters: they are cheap. It is easy to have a monster come in from the dark and wreak havoc. It can rise from its Black Lagoon or the Pacific, be a remnant from an ancient civilisation or a bog-standard curse, and it can be perfectly entertaining as-is. However, to me it can never be fully engaging on its own. I like the interaction between the monstrous outside and the monstrous inside – how humanity mirrors the scary things out there. In short, I want my horror stories to be about humans. And Katsu does this terribly well in The Hunger. Every peril on the page echoes with character flaws introduced in detail from the beginning. It is stellar writing. A nod should also be given to Katsu’s eye for historical detail. The facts of the tale are there, as are the facts of the time.

Given the source material, it should come as no surprise that there is a fair element of gore in the novel. Gruesome though it is, it never seems overdone, and the language is precise and almost clinical at times:

“Several unexpected items lay discarded in the snow: a pocket prayer book, a ribbon bookmark fluttering in the breeze.
A scattering of teeth.
What looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin.”

“…but by the time they caught up to her, the teenage girl had already killed the baby and was devouring her liver.”

It is highly effective, and it’s there from page one. I’m ambivalent about prologues – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t – but in The Hunger, it feels right. The prologue sets the stakes, and within a few paragraphs of chapter 1, we have been shown the vastness of the land as well as a first whiff of things to come. Again, it’s excellent writing and the reader can almost smell the disaster looming, long before things even begin to look bad. This is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in a long time. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Last year’s list this year

Last February I wrote a blog post listing a handful of dystopian novels. It’s been almost a year and a half, and I think a further update is required. This time, the list is not one of recommendation, but one of personal consumption. These are the books that I think I need to read this year. I’d be happy for any further recommendations in the comments.

  1. They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (Milton Mayer). “Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany – not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted – or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusion.”
  2. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Timothy Snyder). “History can familiarize, and it can warn. Today, we are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to totalitarianism in the twentieth century. But when the political order seems imperiled, our advantage is that we can learn from their experience to resist the advance of tyranny. Now is a good time to do so.”
  3. Shake hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda (Romeo Dallaire). “It took me seven years to finally have the desire, the willpower and the stamina to begin to describe in detail the events of that year in Rwanda. To recount, from my insider’s point of view, how a country moved from the promise of a certain peace to intrigue, the fomenting of racial hatred, assassinations, civil war and genocide. And how the international community, through an inept UN mandate and what can only be described as indifference, self-interest and racism, aided and abetted these crimes against humanity – how we all helped create the mess that has murdered and displaced millions and destabilized the whole central African region.”

Wish me luck.