Thanks for the ships, Melville!

click through for source

click through for source

Despite my landlubber life, I’ve always had a fascination with books about the sea. Maybe that’s part of why I love Melville so much.

It’s not surprising, then, that one of the earliest inventions of the world of Aerdh were the pirates. I’m certainly not the first person to write about a spec fic pirate  society, and I won’t be the last. The pirates of Aerdh figure heavily in the plot of The Search, the follow-up to Ariah that I’m currently writing.

For someone who loves worldbuilding, pirates are inherently fascinating. What does it mean to create a society that is inherently a society of outcasts? What sort of mores do they hold? For a society to survive, it has to last more than a generation, which means that children must be born and raised into it. What are the people indigenous to that way of life like? How do they see the world? How do they justify that their culture is, by definition, parasitic–for them to prosper, they must prey on other cultures. And what about the economies that spring up in the pirates’ wake? What are the moral grey zones there?

I’ve written about the pirates before, most notably in Cargo. One of the major secondary characters in The Search is a pirate king–defining the scope of his influence and how he wields it is enlightening. The Search is building out pirate culture above and beyond what was seen in Cargo, and I’m having a wonderful time exploring it.

Beyond the idea of the pirates themselves, with their potential for outlaw justice and redemptive arcs and sanctuary for marginalized individuals, there are the ships. Melville, in his books, used the microcosm that is life on a ship to great effect. I think I was always taken with that, with the way that ship life pens you in with a very limited number of people in a very proscribed amount of space. Ships are truly tiny little worlds of their own drifting through the maw of pure natural force.

Such a strange thing, and such a raw thing, and how could you not then forge such deep relationships with your crew? How could they not become your family? No one ever has neutral feelings about family. You only ever love them dearly or hate the sight of your family. Imagine spending all that time working a ship with someone you can’t stand, who annoys the shit out of you, but you know your life is basically in their hands. It’s maddening. The psychology of ships is insane. So, I keep coming back to them in my writing.

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Sex as Worldbuilding

A couple of days ago, I read Karin Kross’s recap of the Sex and Science Fiction panel that happened at SDCC. From Karin’s recap, it sounds like the panel was equal parts thoughtful1 and irritating2. In any case, the recap got me thinking about the role sex plays in my own writing.

Just narrowing the scope of this post to sex, the act itself, and how that has occurred in my fiction, I’ve tried to explore it in ways that mirror the way sex is used Ariah_FrontCoverOnlyin the real world. Which, yes, often sex is an expression of love. Or desire. But many times, sex is divorced from both of those things: it can be used as a weapon (either literallyy or figuratively). It can be used transactionally, economically. Sometimes these uses blend together, and you can’t separate one from another.

Sex for love and desire happens often in my writing; my characters tend to be sexually and romantically agentic people. Yay for them! That’s why Ariah was classified as a romance, after all3. But here are some other ways sex has appeared in my fiction:

Matters of Scale coverMatters of Scale” touches obliquely on the issue of sexual addiction. Both “Matters of Scale” and Ariah explore the intersection of sex and magic with regard to shapers, for whom sex is complicated—consent is tricky because they essentially black out4. Some shapers self-medicate with sex to escape the constant noise of their magical abilities, just like some real-life people use sex to keep anxiety or depression or other demons at bay.

Cargo is one of the very few places I’ve written about sexual violence. It’s a topic I write about infrequently, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s triggering and it’s often written about flippantly and inappropriately. But it does happen.

Cargo also introduced the Aerdh-pirate concept of tethers, or captain’s concubines. CargoMy current work-in-progress, The Search, is exploring the nuance and nature of tetherdom in greater detail. This is sex as transaction, or at the very least implied sex as transaction, but it’s not coercive. The Search is going further, too: what would a brothel that is not coercive and exploitative look like? What would a sex worker-run brothel look like?

All of these elements were as plot-driven and plot-driving as the romantic and lusty bits. All of these elements, I think, were also key to include from a worldbuilding perspective, as well. It’s false to think of sex one way. It has always been a flexible part of human nature, used and abused and traded in a hundred different ways. Hopefully one day we won’t abuse it anymore, but I think we’ll continue to trade it (hopefully ethically—because I think we can trade it ethically). At the very least, unless you’re writing in a utopia, your world needs to include all the permutations of how sex occurs.

1Wesley Chu

2Nick Cole

3Ariah was published by Love, Sex & Merlot, the Romance imprint of the Zharmae Publishing Press, not its fantasy imprint (Luthando Couer).

4I am coming to realize there is likely a whole separate post in this.