So Arisia was a big, busy, beautiful mess of a weekend. I didn’t make it to all the panels I intended, I accidentally ended up in sessions that were awesome, and John Scalzi made me cry (in the good way).
I am not going to even try to cover everything, but here are a few highlights from this past weekend:
Nonstandard Paths to Magic
Honestly, I thought there would be more discussion of cool non-Latinate, non-Hogwarts, non-Western magic systems, but it was mostly a series of thought-provoking questions about the assumptions we make about magic, how it works, and who uses it. Some of my favorites:
- Is magic transformative? If so, how does it change the user? How big are the changes, and how much of that depends on where in society the magic user starts?
- Magic as ‘spiritual technology’ – do you have to believe in the tools to make them work?
- How does magic-as-mystery (Tolkien) stack up against magic-as-textbook (Sanderson) and what are the strengths and weaknesses of each? When can you get a magical solution to a non-magical problem, or a non-magical solution to a magical problem (haul that ring to the volcano and throw it in, ’cause nothing else will unmake it!)?
- Do you always need the good/evil dichotomy, when referring either to magic or to the people that use it? Where is the line between them, and is it the same for all people in that system?
- Standard magic almost always comes with a price; should it? Is it a human thing, to feel like things ought to have a price attached? [and a corollary not discussed in the panel, but which I want to explore now: what if magic were an exhaustible resource, like fossil fuels, rather than renewable/constant/growing like the Force?]
Shifting the Language of SF
If you’re not super into the geekiness of language, scroll on. I *am* into the super geekiness of language, and there were points when I wanted to just throw up my hands and ask what the Klingon word for ‘surrender’ was. (I don’t actually think there is one, come to that. Klingons are not into surrender.)
This panel ranged wildly all over the discussion of language, from why you shouldn’t try to write dialect out phonetically, to the poetics of rhythm in language from different time periods, to what English might sound like if the Normans had never invaded (apparently you should read ‘Uncleftish Beholding‘ if you want to find out).
Here are a few of the panelists’ suggested ‘shortcuts’ to making your language not sound like 21st century English (with or without Tumblr-speak, a variation on netlanguage they didn’t get around to discussing, but I heard used by panelists in other sessions, because language):
- Take an element of your speculative fiction (McDonald’s takes over the Western world and thus this fiction is all about fast food and consumer culture) and incorporate the ticks of that existing ‘language’ to create your new McPolitics, McFashion, and McTech.
- Make it sound like a historical period instead. Have your aliens speak like Shakespeare, or your warp field engineers write reports like Fitzwilliam Darcy.
- Use a poetic meter not standard to English (hexameter instead of pentameter). Caveat: Do not ever make your characters speak in rhyme, or your audience will hunt you down, if your editor doesn’t do it first.
- Consider what the street slang of your alien/future tongue sounds like, as well as the cultured spaceship captain’s commands.
- Mess around with the ‘easy’ grammar; change up prepositions, use synonyms not common in daily speech, use similes that don’t exist yet (“Your hair smells like freeze-dried rheolene fibers”). Use only the 1000 top words in the language and build the words you need additively like German does (‘glove’ translates to ‘hand-shoe,’ and no, I am not making that up).
Complexities of Voice
This built really nicely off the above language panel, and also one I went to on character interactions, which was a little basic but still interesting. (One did get the feeling that some of the folks in the audience asking questions were young, and as interested in getting ideas on how to interact in real life as they were trying to get their characters to talk to each other.) The best tips from this panel:
- Read your work aloud. Have someone else read it aloud. Can you tell the characters apart?
- Use styles that suit the kind of character you’re building. Think about levels of formality, slang and syntax, long sentences or short ones, incomplete thoughts or run-ons and tangents. Put all that info in your character cheat sheets with eye color, favorite food, and all that other background you need.
- ‘Borrow’ a real-world person for your voice (may want/need to ask permission, if you know them personally!) or ‘fancast’ your characters with appropriate actors. Does your character sound like Alan Rickman? Maggie Smith? Will Smith?
- Avoid infodumps and mansplaining. Even if it ‘sounds’ like your character, very few people get away with talking in paragraphs.
- Find and then listen to/read the stories and conversations of people who come from the background you’re trying to write. The Smithsonian, NPR’s StoryCorps, and the Library of Congress are all good places to start for free oral history sources.
Other random bits of awesome:
- Hearing the geek-folk group Murder Ballads sing “The Ballad of Captain America’s Disapproving Face”
- Listening to John Scalzi read hilarious excerpts from some cool new projects we’re forbidden to talk about, and then hearing him read “Raising Strong Women,” which is the part where I cried. (So did he.)
- I bought one of Julia Burns Liberman‘s beautiful abstract story/watercolor paintings (looks awesome in my dining room!)
- Saw an incredibly cool wood-turning demo by artist guest of honor Johnna Klukas
- Got a great list of recommendations for places to read speculative poetry (and some specific poems/poets to follow) from the folks on the “Speculative Poetry is Awesome!” panel. You can find a bunch of those recommendations collated on Twitter under the hashtag #poetrypanel (though some of the tweets seem to have disappeared? If you click through to AJ Odasso’s individual feed, they’re still there)
So how did you spend your long weekend?