8 Sentence Sunday #5: The Aethercraft

For this week’s “8 Sentence Sunday,” I wanted to share one of Voi’s big, exciting moments in my WIP. It’s probably the most “dieselpunk-y” of my snippets so far.

As a pilot, Voi gets to fly a very experimental plane known as the “aethercraft” that was designed by her newest employer, Captain Neverri. After the basic mechanics of this craft are explained to Voi while they stand in a hangar, the captain reveals it to her for the first time.

This is what she sees.

The Snippet

No one spoke as Voi drew near to examine the machine.  She found herself holding her breath in reverence; surely Colonel Snipes was correct in comparing it to one of Ramboit’s controversial abstract masterpieces.

Its polished metallic body was exceptionally streamlined and much flatter than that of an ordinary plane.  A gentle bulge ran along the length of its almost nonexistent fuselage, which was smoothly riveted to conjoin with its swept-back wings so as to seem comprised entirely of wings.  Here, within this bulge, was also a cockpit enclosed by a clear canopy—perhaps an acrylic construct, Voi guessed, knowing the captain’s penchant for innovation.

Propped up low on its landing gear, the aerocraft reminded Voi of a slick, thin manta ray—like the ones her mother used to take her to see at the Aquiriem du Habour Tuccila in Tryste as a girl.  So sinuously crafted were the wings that Voi was very much left with the striking impression of a work of art…if she dared venture that far in her opinion of a metal aerocraft.

Well, the captain certainly has an eye for aesthetics.

What do you think?

What kind of aerocraft does it look like Voi is getting ready to fly? Can you tell some things that might be different in Voi’s world as compared to our own? Also, is there anything new you can infer about Voi’s character–her attitudes, beliefs and such? (I feel like I’m writing a lesson plan or something, haha.)

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Portraying Cultures & Peoples In Speculative Fiction

Normally I only post on Wednesdays (every other), but…I came across a blog from a writer who was new to me and she had a very interesting article that really got me thinking about some things.

I was actually doing a search on Twitter for other writers who are into the dieselpunk aesthetic and found Sophia Martin’s blog by happenstance.  Not long ago she wrote a post on dieselpunk–which, of course, I couldn’t resist.  Though, there’s a whole lot more packed into her post than explanations on what dieselpunk is.

Sophia asks some really thoughtful questions, I think, that could easily apply to all sub-genres of speculative fiction.  A substantial part of her post regards the problem of Orientalism, which she describes as “the representation of [non-western] cultures (most often Middle Eastern, but it’s just as valid for various Asian areas as well as any other part of the world where people are predominantly brown, in my opinion) through the filter of western ideas, desires, opinions, prejudices, etc.”  It has a negative connotation because these portrayals of non-western cultures tend to be heavily romanticized, prejudiced and/or grossly exaggerated.  Sophia also lists some examples of where this has been done, namely in movies.

I started writing up a response to share some of my thoughts, but then I realized it was practically going to be an entire blog post in itself, haha.  So instead of making a ginormous post over there, I decided to just blog about it here in a question-answer format.

Sophia Asks Writers:

“How do you portray a culture respectfully while simultaneously making it mysterious, sinister, and, in many cases, somehow mystical?”

I actually think this is part of the problem: (1) some writers try too hard at attempting to portray an entire culture rather than the individuals that contribute to it, and (2) they automatically settle for lumping an entire culture into “good” or “bad” categories.  The problem is that real-life cultures, like individuals, are way too complex for such simple treatment, so I don’t see why it should be any different in fiction that aims for at least some measure of verisimilitude.

When writers attempt to do these things, it tends to get especially hokey when they develop gross caricatures to represent cultures or focus too much on certain (often superficial) aspects of characters and take things too far—i.e. the writer harps on the same point over and over again in attempt to establish the “otherness” of someone/-thing: “He had an Italian nose…” (Which I think is a terribly lazy description, btw!)  Then the reader starts thinking: “Okay pal, you mentioned his nose several times in the first, second and third chapters.  How many more times do we need to be reminded of his ‘Italian’ features?  What is this obsession?!  We are capable of remembering details, you know.”

That kind of focus is too narrow, imo.  There should be many different aspects about a culture (cuisine, gestures, common verbal expressions used, customs, etc.) and yes, even an individual (quirks, speech pattern, thoughts, beliefs, etc.).  Of course, within the confines of a novel, you can’t list too many of these aspects or else it gets out of hand–yup, that elusive art/design principle of balance.  Still, these aspects should be given ample thought by the writer, and I think peppering–no, that implies superficiality–placing them into a story over time, preferably at different times, and refraining from putting too much focus on any of them in any given scene (unless a plot point hinges on them for some reason) would help alleviate this problem.

So how do you make a culture seem mysterious to a primarily western audience?  Study non-western cultures (especially rare ones)–which may include interviewing and interacting with people from those cultures–to inform your portrayal of said cultures in stories set in our world.  Or, in the case of secondary worlds, use that gained knowledge of other cultures as inspiration in order to derive new ones that will then, hopefully, seem “different” to your target audience.  (Easier said than done, right?)

Those are my amateur-writer thoughts, anyway…

(You know, author Kameron Hurley actually writes some really good posts that are related to this, namely her worldbuilding posts (see Worldbuilding 201: Normalizing the Absurd for an example).  I really think this lady knows what she’s doing and talking about when it comes to creating and successfully portraying unique cultures.)

Sophia Asks Writers:

“But how do you write about exotic lands without othering those people the main characters, who by nature of being dieselpunk characters will be westerners, will encounter there?”

Well initially, when anyone encounters something (or someone) that is unfamiliar to them then that something will automatically be “other” until they can get past the newness and are able to accept it as just another aspect of their reality–or, in the case of fiction, the story’s reality.

But that’s the whole appeal of adventures like in Indiana Jones or Star Wars and lots of other speculative stories.  Viewers/readers are always being introduced to new worlds, characters and cultures that may be very “other” to them, but hopefully, after having experienced the entire story through the eyes of the locals (characters), they’ve gained a better understanding of these things (assuming they’ve been accurately portrayed to begin with) as well as an appreciation for them–lessening the “otherness” and bringing about a sense of familiarity.

Also, I think you could still write a main dieselpunk character(s) who isn’t a westerner, per se, in the same way that there can be Asian-influenced steampunk, for example.  It’s just not typical to see here in the West.

And then there’s the potential for racism—which, if it’s an important part of a story… I mean it isn’t really bad to incorporate it if you’re going for some realism, but it’s different when it stems from a character rather than the author, if that makes sense…  But yeah, I won’t even get into that right now, haha.

In the end, I think all of this comes down to, well, (1) knowing what you’re talking about in the first place, (2) learning how much focus to put on any one thing in a story and (3) figuring out how to tastefully and artfully balance all the elements of your stories—kinda like art.  Though, like with art, measuring the success of the execution of these things is pretty subjective, so what works for you may not work for others and vice versa…

So yeah, those are my thoughts. 🙂

What Do You Think?

Have you encountered Orientalism in your writing projects, or seen it in fiction you’ve read/seen?  How can it/should it be addressed?

Setting Reflects Character Reflects Setting

Last week Sue Healy wrote a post about the connection between character and setting, which I thought was interesting.  To demonstrate how settings can reveal different aspects of people’s characters, she put up two chair portraits painted by Vincent Van Gogh portraying fellow artist Paul Gauguin and also himself then asked readers to imagine the character of the users of the chairs in the paintings based off their observations.  It makes for an interesting study.

I liken this to interior design (which was my field of study, for those who don’t know).  I think a good designer or decorator will have a knack for being able to study their clients and intuit what sort of things they like by using tools such as interviews or the observation of their existing spaces (if possible).  Emily Henderson is especially good at this, imo.  On her HGTV show Secrets From a Stylist she interviews her clients, in part, by placing an array of various objects before them and asking them to choose some.  She then asks them to explain why they chose those objects.  (Usually she is doing this with two people who live together and are trying to find a happy balance between their differing styles.)  Emily can then use this information to help her determine their unique style, which she even gives names for; some of her most recent style prescriptions have been titles like “Graphic Antique,” “Retro Polynesian Kitsch,” or “Untamed Modern Funk.”  (It never ceases to amaze me what crazy names she manages to come up with each week.)

Spaces As They Pertain to Characters

When it comes to writing about our characters and getting to know them, I think writers can take a similar approach.  In a way, we are the designers of not just our characters’ surroundings but their entire lives; what tremendous freedom (and responsibility)!  When getting to know your characters, I think it can be fun, and useful, to try different things like interviewing them (really) and seeing what kind of answers they give back.  Who knows, you might even discover some of their quirks in the process!  (As an example, by using another method mentioned below, I learned that my protagonist dislikes certain rigid, cold and metallic objects–which actually affects her character beyond issues of setting but also in her interactions with certain personality types.)

A Room with a View, by Alexei Butirskiy. I wonder what kind of person might live in this space?

Some questions to consider of your main character(s), especially, might be:

  • What kinds of things are in your bedroom?
  • What are some of your favorite objects in your house, and why?
  • What things don’t you like about your home?
  • Can you alter those things to better suit your tastes?
  • If you can, why haven’t you?

People in real life have the power to shape their surroundings; so do your characters.  Put another way, settings can reflect the character of their users.

One thing to keep in mind, and I’m sure you can relate to, is that sometimes people just get stuck with things they don’t like in their surroundings and are forced live with, given the circumstances; we can’t control everything.  (Therein lies an opportunity to create tension or conflict, however big or small.)  In this way, settings have the power to shape the habits and attitudes of their users, or characters.  (Maybe a homeowner or tenant has to jerk some of their doors in special ways for them to open during especially humid and/or hot parts of the year, when a material like wood can swell.)  In other words, characters can sometimes reflect or respond to certain aspects of their settings.

Setting reflects character reflects setting; it’s a two-way street!

If your story doesn’t actually ever take place in any of your character’s homes, however, you could always use this approach for the important public or nonresidential spaces in you story’s world.  Consider the function and look of the space but also the nature of the users.  You can ponder on or ask questions such as:

  • Who uses this space?
  • How do they use it and for what purpose?
  • Does the space work well for them?
  • If it doesn’t, how does this effect the user(s)?

Ever been to a public space that just bugs you for some reason, even if you’re not quite sure why that is?  (Maybe the lights are too bright or too dim, or the colors are too exciting for the purpose of that particular setting; maybe there isn’t really any color in the space to begin with and you find this depressing.  Perhaps it is even the people who maintain this space that bug you–poor customer service, sparsity of available personnel, etc.)  I bet you people who design spaces for a living think about these things all the time!  It’s their job to improve spaces, after all, and to do this they need to understand why they don’t work in the first place.

Problematic spaces can create obstacles and negative experiences.  In the story world this translates as possible sources for tension and conflict.  These can be used in just about any setting, provided there is a need for environmental conflict to begin with.  Otherwise it might not make sense to draw attention to the nonfunctional or negative features of a space.  Though, maybe your protagonist is rummaging around at nighttime looking for clues in an old attic and the lights aren’t always working properly or the structure itself is unsound.  You never know if or when that subfloor might give out!

The interviewing approach isn’t the only way to get these answers out of your characters.  You could also just take the  “discovery writing” approach and become the observer in the sense that you’re learning to “see” what it is your characters surround themselves with or are surrounded by.  (Personally, this is my preferred method because I feel I get more natural results.)  Stick ’em in a particular room or space and let them roam and idle about, just to see what details pop out at you most or come naturally to you.  You could get a potential scene, or at least a scene idea, out of this exercise.  I know I certainly have!  (Granted, this isn’t exactly observing, as you are continuously filling in details arbitrarily and “designing” the space as you go, but the focus is on learning to envision the spaces your characters use.)

Don’t Just Stop There!

Okay, so you’ve figured out your characters’ settings, but how do they matter in the actual story?  Designers can rely on tools such as paint, fabric and other materials as well as structural components to give life to their concepts and ideas; writers simply have words.  How, then, can the words you choose to describe your characters and their surroundings work to your advantage so that the setting becomes not just a prop but a tool for complementing, amplifying or providing contrast to your characters?  I have some more thoughts on this, so I’ll save them for next week.

How important is setting in relation to your characters?

Is it something you consciously consider as you write about them?  Also, what kinds of exercises have you done in the past to better get in touch with the settings in your stories?