Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Worldbuilding By Committee

Here is an AP news story I found on Yahoo. Look it up. It's relevant to the point here.


It sent me scrambling through my collectible Hardcover SF looking for one of my favorite books because I couldn't remember the author's name (probably a pseudonym and I probably knew it some years ago; might be Murry Leinster as he had many bylines used only once or twice).

The article is about Australian Scientists who have observed a species of octopus that collects coconut shells from the ocean bottom, selects ones broken in half, and carries them back to a specific spot, then constructs a shelter between two halves.

This shows tool use. There's a cognitive function revealed by the collecting for LATER USE. The octopus gains no shelter from a half it is in the process of carrying. It's only later that shelter can be provided, after manipulating two halves.

It doesn't sound like much, but the news story says that the octopus is among the most intelligent invertebrates, and this is a new discovery of tool use. I don't know how long its been considered "intelligent for an invertebrate."

I stared at this article in astonishment, vividly remembering one of my favorite books (from back in the day when there were no female characters in SF except as victims).

THE LOST PLANET by PAUL DALLAS (1956) is the novel, and there are a couple of used copies on Amazon.

Try this link.

The Lost Planet

The Lost Planet about a young boy who goes with his father to a planet where there are non-human natives who look like the octopus. They have an amphibious civilization. The boy makes friends with the child of the native ruler, and that changes the course of the relationship between the planets. Yeah, it's an old story, but this is an old book -- and one of the many influences on me.

At the time I read this book, nobody had yet told me that if "he" could do it, that meant "I" could not because I'm a girl. So as far as I was concerned I was the human making friends with the alien and fixing the mess the adults made of things.

But that's not what I remember about this book. I don't remember reading any OTHER SF novels that used the octopus as the model for an alien species.

And now it seems we've observed tool use by several octopuses.

Where is the SF written today that's predicting such impossible things?

Well, folks, TWITTER may be the place where you'll find such bold thinking turned into SF/F.

No, I'm not kidding. This is for real. It's here. It's now. You're invited.

For more on twitter, social networking, and how Web 2.0+ is changing the business of being a writer (an SF prediction of yore), check out my prior blog entries:




So here is the latest installment on the impact of Web 2.0 and beyond (are we up to 4.0 yet?)

Last Friday afternoon, I participated in a twitter "chat" with a publisher who has asked a group of writers to build a world for a shared world anthology and then write stories for the anthology.

Twitter chat works like this.

On the right of your Twitter browser window there's a slot called search which searches all tweets posted on twitter, even those not from people you are connected to (i.e. people whose tweets you see) or people who are connected to you (people whose tweets you don't see but who do see your tweets).

You can search the whole public stream of twitter for a certain keyword, and then see a list of posts with that keyword. As new posts with that keyword appear, the list of posts you're looking at flows before your eyes, and you see whole conversations.

So tweeters invented "hashtags" and twitter accomodated them as keywords. A "hash" is the # mark, and "tag" is a word related to the subject somehow.

Now all kinds of domains are offering twitter utilities that make this "chat" function easier. I am exploring hootsuite.com

So this publisher who is on twitter as @DavidRozansky ( http://www.flyingpenpress.com/ ) has been running #sfchat as a Friday afternoon feature for some time, where his authors chat.

He's been playing with hashtags to create different streams of conversations, and came up with the idea for creating a shared world anthology via twitter hashtag chat. He named this chat-stream #sfchatworld, and held the first meeting Friday afternoon.

I hadn't attended the previous chats he'd held, but this concept (collaborative worldbuilding) was irresistible (see my Web 2.0 posts to see why it hooks me so). The working chat was to last only 2 hours. I cleared my schedule!

David Rozansky has posted the raw chat log at:

Right in the middle of this, when it got really creative, one of the chatters piped up with the suggestion that we enable this discussion as a "Wave" on google wave.

Google Wave may be the advent of Web 4.0, but it's still in beta and works irregularly for me.

People jumped on that idea of using Google Wave with JOY. A few minutes later the enabler called for people to give their google wave addresses and started a Wave where people could side-chat the chat.

Only problem is, I had barely paid attention to Google Wave. I didn't know what it was or how it worked or why it might be useful, and I didn't have the credential they wanted to sign me into their Wave, nor know how to get that credential (except I knew someone had to invite you to be a beta tester), so I continued to read and comment on the twitter thread.

At the end of 2 hours, the group of creative, well educated, amazingly talented, and broadly read folks had come up with the charcoal sketch of a "world" that they could build together and all find stories to tell within the boundaries of that world.

Here's the deal.

The worldbuilding chat sessions (another on Friday Dec 18, 2009) were started by David's invitation to about 60 writers, and they were open to anyone else on twitter. Since for the most part, our cryptic tweets went to all our followers (often over 1,000 people apiece), a number of non-participants watched this process, and a couple ducked into the thread to say it was very interesting. You can come watch the second chat session. Follow @DavidRozansky for the announcement of the hashtag, most likely #scifichat or #sfchatworld

David Rozansky intends to select from submitted stories so that the anthology he's creating will end up about 50% established professionals and 50% new voices.

The concept is that we collectively will create the world, then anyone who wants to submit to it will send him a story. When the world has been created, the story-length and anthology length and other terms will be determined. Just participating in the worldbuilding and submitting a story does not mean your story will be accepted. This is a "real" publisher, with the usual stringent standards.

So having seen that this suddenly created world-by-committee was actually something I could write a story in, and having "met" via twitter a couple of the very lively participants, and particularly one who apparently likes all the stuff we focus on at alienromances.blogspot.com (Star Trek, Marion Zimmer Bradley, C. J. Cherryh, Katherine Kurtz, etc etc) @PennyAsh then I decided I'd like to attend the next chat and keep up on the conversation. I'd like to frame a story that would dovetail into PennyAsh's story seamlessly, so they make a pair.

So on Sunday, I fished out the invitation to Google Wave that my friend Patric had sent me some weeks ago (it ended up in google's spam trap! they trapped their own mail!), and flung myself into Wave.

I still don't understand Google Wave well, and my display (it displays in a window in your browser) flicks up and down wildly, or won't respond to scrolling, sometimes doesn't accept my entries, and I type ahead of the cursor about two lines. It's slow, balky, and everything you'd expect of a beta version (which this is and google makes it clear they're working on it, so report problems but don't complain).

Google Wave does have some features that will make it an excellent collaborative tool, though. You can not only edit your own entries but you can edit someone else's entries after they've made them.

You can add a comment directly under someone's comment to make an exchange that makes sense, rather than the usual chat where every comment comes after the previous one even if it refers to one 10 comments before. You can do that on some blog comments lists, such as on Yahoo Buzz. But this is the first time I've seen it in chat (I generally only use AIM and IRC).

So a "Wave" is a constantly moving document you create on the fly, more like a mural than a thread.

Patric told me nicknames for the cells that contain your comment, and for the comments, but I don't remember!

Patric tells me the Wave stream's data resides on google's server, not your computer, so that's why you can cross-edit. This is a powerful concept that will probably spread. But I have broadband cable, zippity fast service, and still this thing lags beyond usefulness.

And yes, Google is much in the news for invasion of privacy, and apparently this is one of those invasive tools they are inventing.

So no matter what happens with the shared-world anthology (which doesn't have a title yet), I've gained a new dimension to my social networking.

The problem with that is simply that it is yet one more thing that soaks up time.

But if Google Wave takes over, everything we do on social networking will be gathered together.

I've been wondering if Google Wave works better in Google Chrome. I've been using firefox because I found IE8 absolutely unusable (probably because of my antique computer).

So now there is a public Google Wave inventing a shared world in which many authors will participate. You can check for the summary of this new world that's being built. The summary is called #sfchat on Wave. The discussion wave is called Contact List For

They're both public at the moment, but don't ask me how to access them. I'm not sure how it happened that the shared worlds chat appeared before my eyes!

See? Isn't that exactly what the boy hero of The Last Planet experienced upon debarking at his new abode? ADVENTURE! And a new chance to make cool friends. He had no idea how the spaceship worked.

The Shared World

As for the World that's the product of a committee, so far it lacks a certain cohesive polish, but it's broad enough to work within.

If you read the raw transcript linked above here, you will see how the different writers were pulling in different directions until the editor saw a consensus building and declared this or that element accepted.

If you're studying worldbuilding, you might want to look carefully at the point where I commented on the difference between world building and adding the societal and social tensions that would generate conflict and characters for a story.

Worldbuilding doesn't have to be the first step in writing a story, and in fact rarely is.

So many of the people diving into this exercise went right to stories they wanted to tell, and perhaps characters they were already writing that they thought might have an adventure in this "world" and wanted to do what I always do, build the world around the character and story.

But "worldbuilding" is a very different exercise than "storytelling."

A "world" doesn't have "a conflict" or "a theme" -- a "world" by definition has all conflicts and all themes within it, or it's not a world.

And yet, all the writers participating in this chat seemed to have their own story trope in the forefront of their minds as they suggested parameters for the "world."

Often "world" and "setting" were confused. The World includes all the Settings you can put stories against.

People wanted to start by inventing themes, motifs, (and one person even did contribute a REFRAIN that I can use that the editor grabbed onto -- "I'm tired of Jupiter" and someone contributed graphics on the Google Wave thread with "I'm tired of Jupiter because" and that went around through the twitter chat.)

So again, read the raw twitter feed to see all the different ways creative minds approach the charcoal sketch phase of writing a story.

It's all helter-skelter and criss-crossing dance steps, but you can see that most of these people actually have perfected their own personal ways of going about this.

"Worldbuilding" can be likened to dressmaking. What we were doing last Friday is the line-drawing sketch for the dress. What we'll be doing next Friday is very likely creating the tissue paper pattern that will be mass produced and handed out to contributing writers to create stories.

Finding the social and psychological and cultural CONFLICT, the THEME, the CHARACTERS, and even the specific SETTING, is very much like hunting through bolts of material and racks of notions for the specific colors and styles to generate a specific dress from this pattern. (you could make a wedding dress or a nightgown out of the same pieces of tissue paper).

If this shared world anthology works out, it could become something totally new, and could contribute that element I asked for above, the exploration of the edges of the laws of science, the extrapolations -- the "what if; if only; if this goes on" revealing the next 50 years.

Yes, you've seen many successful mass market paperback shared-world anthologies, often with big name writers participating. I was present when some of those shared-worlds popped into existence, effortlessly, during well lubricated SF convention conversations among writers and editors who knew each other.

But this Twitter thing has brought together people who barely know each other except by twitter-@ and have not all been trained by the same editors. They work in disparate media, and many have screencredits and music as well as a variety of podcasting projects behind them.

The "Art By Committee" label pretty much originated with the film industry as a way of novel writers scoffing at the thin, childishly over-simplified results of a story-in-pictures.

And it's still true that deep, complex, nuanced, incisive stories painted on a truly broad canvass, still do better in text than video. (that may be changing real soon now!)

Video and text story-telling seem to me (futurology here) to be evolving along a converging path. When I read The Last Planet I was already living in a world where novel type stories could be told on screen. To me, TV and text had to be used together to really tell a story. We saw that world start to emerge when Star Trek fans launched fanzine fiction, mostly stories that explained the contradictions we saw on screen.

Those contradictions were mostly just mistakes that happened because of the haste and budget limitations of a TV show, but an SF trained imagination could explain them given enough text words to elaborate. We reveled in dueling one explanation against another, generating whole splinter universes.

This twitter chat process I participated in on Friday was just like what a hired team of writers would go through when creating a TV show from scratch. So far the parameters are broad enough to accommodate stories from every genre ever invented or criss-crossed into another genre, except that because the "world" is set across the galaxy in the system of a gas giant and its moons, and involves at least one (probably more) alien lifeforms, most readers would force the stories into the SF genre. But today's audiences are more sophisticated. I don't think the audiences of the near future will assume that just because it's set in space, it's SF. Or just because it has a vampire in it, it must be horror.

If done right, this anthology could become a webisode series, or even a TV series, or video game using all media to tell a multi-faceted story. Each medium could add what it portrays best, all under David Rozansky's very capable hand.

We are participating in the birth of a new entertainment medium with new uses for our million year old skills.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. First, for the record, I'm honored and I'd love to do a story to dovetail with yours. I have my main characters and I'm looking forward to the culture building chat Friday.