10* Experiments with World-Building (that aren’t Ursula LeGuin)

One of the first books I read that really impressed on me what the powers of world-building could be was Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. As a rough analogy to Haldeman’s experience in the Vietnam War, the novel depicts a near-future in which a distant, interplanetary war is unfolding. Earth soldiers are shipped to the front through space travel, but due to the effects of relativity, when they come back home, much more time has passed for the people on Earth than for the soldiers. The novel follows a series of distant battles with encounters on Earth that are estranging, both for the protagonist and for the reader, as decades pass on Earth while mere months pass for the protagonist. It’s elegant in its premise: less than instantaneous interstellar travel means increasing disjunctures in personal experience with a quickly-changing society. As a world-building technique, it means that there’s a logic to the universe–even if there are aliens, space ships, and weapons of interstellar mass destruction.

A map of Earth that points conventional understandings of north to the bottom, making the south the top of the map. It’s an elegant disruption of accepted aspects of our world. It’s borrow from “Why Is North Up on Maps?

In working on this list, I set a few rules for myself. First, it couldn’t include Ursula LeGuin. That’s not because I don’t like her work (I do!), but rather that it so often gets talked about that it obscures a lot of other, often more recent, work that’s just as good. Second, it needed to not already be included in one of the syllabuses for my Human Futures class or discussed in Theory for the World to Come. Third, it needed to stand alone as a short story or novel–meaning no multi-volume series (which excludes tons of great stuff, but none of it could viably be taught in a college class). Fourth, it needed to be focused on the United States. That was mostly to limit the sample size and make it possible to actually compile a list with an ending–I encourage experts of other national traditions to compile and share their own lists. And, fifth, it needed to be based on one fundamental and identifiable change or premise from which everything else followed.

This last rule is borrowed from Hal Clement’s “Whirligig World,” which describes how he set about building the world that Mission of Gravity takes place in. That world, which he named Mesklin, was characterized–no spoiler here–by its severe gravity, relative to Earth’s, because of the planet’s oblate shape. When astronauts from Earth find themselves stranded there, they come to rely on the local inhabitants to help. Most of what the reader experiences is from the perspective of Barlennan, a ship’s captain who is embroiled in the rescue efforts of these stranded humans. Through his relationship with a human helper, the reader comes to understand how the planet’s oblate shape affects gravity, weather, species and their evolution, and social structure. It all spawns from Clement’s initial experiment in literal world-building, which many of the texts below diverge from in that they assume an Earth-like world with small and large changes mapped onto a world similar to what the reader already knows.

I don’t want to spoil any of the following, so I’m leaving my descriptions of the stories relatively vague–and in some cases not revealing what the central change is, particularly if its revelation is integral to the plot. I’ve tried to group them thematically in case you’re interested in treating the list a bit like a syllabus.

In Stephen Graham Jones’ The Bird is Gone and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, what might be thought of as a relatively straightforward social–and specifically legal–change leads to a cascading series of effects. Jones imagines a near-contemporary United States where the government has ceded back most of the middle of the country to Indigenous groups. Robinson posits a change to the size and structure of corporations leading to a more communitarian ethos. Both texts are interested in how these legal changes lead to new ways of relating to one another, although in Jones’ book its more explicitly tinged with the racialization inherent in American settler-colonialism. They’re both, maybe not coincidentally, very fixated on ideas about property.

The feminist speculative tradition of imagining a world without men, which starts in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, flows through Alice Sheldon’s “Houston, Houston, Do you Read?” (writing as James Tiptree Jr.), and continues with Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed” and more recent work, is variously fantastic or scientific, relying on women finding new ways to reproduce without men. In each case, getting rid of men–accidentally, deliberately, or violently–opens up new social possibilities for the women who remain, which range from changes in gender roles to the entire structure of society. In many cases, men are the visitors to these men-free societies, and the narrative is told from their perspective as they struggle with realizing that they’re useless in the new social world. They also offer stinging rebukes of patriarchy and heteronormative social structures, and bring assumptions about American gender roles into stark relief.

Experiments with human consciousness, which are well represented in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” play with the idea of small changes in human capacities having profound effects on the structure of society, and, ultimately, what it means to fit into the category of human. In both cases, assumptions about what the human is and can be are disrupted by something novel, questioning, in Dick’s case (no surprise), what sanity is and, in Chiang’s case, how human cognition shapes the worlds we live in. (In many ways, this is my favorite subgenre of world-building, and I recommend Steve Shaviro’s Discognition for its engagement with this strain of work.)

Encounters with aliens are by their very nature experiments with world-building as storytellers develop whole worlds populated by a species that is influenced by different social and environmental rules, but there are aliens who are more and less human and who are governed by more and less human rules. One of the best encounters with the alien, notable for the alienating alterity of the aliens involved, is Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Ostensibly a sequel to his more popular Ender’s Game, most of Speaker for the Dead follows a family of xenoanthropologists (although I don’t think that’s what they’re called, since it would basically be an oxymoron) as they attempt to unravel the symbiotic interconnections of a group of species on a distant planet. The rules that govern life there are different than those on Earth, which reveal the anthropocentric biases of human administrators in their assessments of what needs to be done on that foreign planet. In a very different vein, Rivers Solomon’s The Deep imagines a more terrestrial kind of alien, born from the adaptation of escaped slaves to aquatic life. It’s based on a clipping. song, which is an homage to Detroiters Drexciya‘s electronic music. Solomon’s novel imagines a form of life that is haunted by its humanness, but is ultimately something quite different. Taken together, they offer a beginner’s course in Afrofuturism and a challenge to the often obligatory whiteness of speculative world-building. (Thanks to Elizabeth Fein for this suggestion!)

I’m technically over 10 entries if you count Haldeman and Clement. There’s a ton more (see below), but this set of stuff gives a pretty good sense of the parameters that people work with in trying to spell out the repercussions of sometimes subtle, sometimes enormous changes and their effects on a shared world. At their best, they posit a cascading set of changes that alter everything from individual subjectivity to forms of social relations (especially kinship structures), to forms of labor and governance, to planetary politics. Bad world-building usually makes no sense when it’s closely scrutinized.

I’d love to hear about people’s other favorite built worlds and the kinds of traditions they see unfolding in them. Suggest your own in the comment section below.

*Here’s me cheating–this is the list of stuff that I’ve used in classes that I’ve found to be especially effective helping students understand world-building: the first five minutes of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the first half of Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Greg Rucka & Michael Lark’s Lazarus series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Darmok” episode (Season 5, episode 2). Check out the syllabuses for Human Futures for even more.

We’re Having a Generational Transition Problem…

That’s Luke and Yoda, from “The Last Jedi,” watching the original Jedi temple burn to the ground. My apologies if that’s a spoiler in any way.

There was a moment when a senior faculty member and I were talking in a shared departmental office — just catching up really. The faculty member was talking about their daughter, who recently had a child, started a career, got married, and bought a home. The senior faculty member said she was “finally getting it together” in her early 30s. And it dawned on me that my senior colleague was basically talking about me. I was the same age as their daughter, in a similar place in my career trajectory and personal life. It made me suddenly realize that part of the generational transition problem I was seeing in our institution and the academy more generally, was that Baby Boomers were in the position of handing things over to people that were basically their children’s age (thanks to a series of hiring freezes in the 1990s and early 2000s). When my senior colleagues looked at me, I realized that they were seeing their children or their children’s friends, with all of their career and personal foibles. Why would they hand off to those children, especially something precious like their career’s work of institution- and discipline-building?

I’ve watched senior faculty — nearing retirement — at several institutions basically sabotage departments, programs, and centers that they’ve built rather than anoint and mentor younger faculty to take the reins. For the last several years, I’ve been trying to think through what I’ve seen in the university, particularly around the transition from an older generation of scholars (mostly Baby Boomers) to people of my generation (Gen Xers, although I think I’m on the tail end of the spread). Why not hand off rather than let things fall apart?

It comes in many forms. The benign neglect of not having faculty meetings to talk about necessary changes to the curriculum as faculty retire. The secrecy — if not outright denial — about faculty retirements and when they’ll happen. The gatekeeping that insists on junior faculty consulting senior faculty with the classes they want to teach or improvements they seek to make. The lack of actual mentoring on the part of senior faculty toward their juniors. The deliberate ambiguity about institutional expectations and opportunities, spanning everything from tenure requirements to the availability of resources. And then there’s the more aggressive and deliberate actions that some faculty take: spiking junior faculty’s tenure cases, arguing against diversity hires as unmerited, withholding access to resources, and running centers, programs, and departments aground rather than help steer them in a new direction.

It’s hard not to see some of this behavior as a function of the changing demographics of faculty hires, including shifts in representation of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, disability, but also a greater diversity in the institutions that are producing Ph.D.s. Visions of what the discipline of Anthropology (and probably every discipline) are and will be are changing, sometimes radically. I can imagine that for many senior faculty, seeing these changes occur is alienating, and, for some, deeply distressing. Which all has me thinking that part of the generational transfer has to be some collective ego work: labor to help make evident to senior faculty that their lifetime of contributions to the field are vital, and also work on the part of younger faculty to articulate visions of Anthropology (and other disciplines) that redevelop the canon to acknowledge the generations before us while developing supple visions of the disciplines that build upon their pasts, address present needs, and develop livable futures.

Taken from the Louvre’s archives, that’s the image from an ancient Greek vase depicting a relay race (between naked Greek men, to be specific about it).

Years ago, a senior faculty member I knew well retired as soon as he could. His rationale was that he had spent the last 30+ years trying to build a specific vision of anthropology, and after decades of frustration with the institutions he was a part of and the colleagues he had, he was just done. He could have coasted for several years, teaching a set of courses he cared about, but he preferred to cut himself loose from the institution, travel, and write. I really admired his graceful exit.

Before that, a group of senior faculty I knew (different institution, different time) were dealing with the demographic and institutional shift among the faculty by thwarting junior faculty efforts to hire even more diverse faculty. It was only when a couple of the senior faculty broke ranks — acknowledging that the department wasn’t really theirs to build any longer — that the junior faculty had enough of a quorum to make the hires they wanted to. One of the junior faculty described it all as a problem of grace — that some people couldn’t manage the intergenerational transfer gracefully.

I’ve recently become aware of way more younger faculty quitting their academic jobs. Maybe this always happened, and I didn’t see it. But I know personally of several faculty in tenure track jobs (some tenured) who have either quit without a job lined up or have made a calculated exit from academia. And the internet is littered with additional examples. It’s hard for me not to see people driven to quit as responses to institutions that they don’t see futures in — and feel like they don’t have the mentoring or support to make a livable institutional future. Somehow I have a hard time seeing quitting as a form of grace.

The problem with both my impulse to interpret my senior colleague’s actions as one of gracefulness and that junior faculty’s similar impulse to interpret a lack of grace on the part of senior faculty is that it places the onus on specific faculty to behave in particular ways. If we’re going to navigate this intergenerational moment generatively, it’s going to be through collaboration, not individual choices.

That all said, I’m not sure what the right way forward is. I do know that universities are decidedly conservative institutions, and that incrementalism is probably the only sustainable way forward. What might that look like?

Develop sustained dialogues between junior and senior faculty. That might be through workshops or conference panels, or, locally, by having faculty give guest lectures in each other’s courses or discuss their work in seminars. Having a regular space to come talk about ideas, one’s scholarship, and one’s place in the field keeps lines of dialogue open. It also makes it clear that whatever else is happening, there’s a relationship that’s being maintained between people who recognize one another as scholars (even if they might disagree as respected experts).

Collaborate intergenerationally whether in writing or funds-seeking or conference planning. I don’t doubt the first two of these can be hard, but it might be a site where very deliberate mentorship can happen. Working on panels for conferences together (or local workshops) can serve as a way to introduce each other to networks of scholars with shared interests.

Share writing. Writing is so central to the profession, and, for better and worse, people’s relationships with their work. Sharing writing, often without the pretense of needing anything like feedback, is helpful to keep lines of communication open, but also to help develop expanding networks of connection between scholars across generations.

Create structures of care, which can range from the occasional check-in email, a meal or drinks, or even home visits if you’re familiar enough. Some of the best, most humane interactions I’ve had with other faculty have been in one-on-one meals or drinks — not dinner or department parties — and they’ve produced some of the most lasting scholarly friendships I have with people more senior than me.

I’ve been very deliberate to pitch these suggestions without presuming that invitations need to come from juniors to seniors or vice versa. Kindness is the rule, and building a sustainable future depends on actors across generations working together to have something to hand off to the generations to come.

Other ideas? Other good experiences? Please post them in the comments.

The Mentoring Compact

Faculty mentoring of graduate students is one of those things that is rightly the subject of recurrent conversation; there are good mentors and bad, lack of clarity in faculty expectations and student responses, sustainable and deeply-broken models of graduate student training, all of which seem to perpetuate themselves (often unreflexively). The faculty who are best at mentoring recognize that it is a dynamic process, and that not one model works for all students, and, moreover, that the process of mentoring students leads to new techniques and understandings of the process. Sometimes it takes graduate students to precipitate some faculty growth. That all said, this is what I’ve learned in my eight years of graduate study and eleven years of working with graduate students, which I offer as a two-sided compact, what students should do, and what faculty should provide:

That’s Yoda on Luke’s back — maybe as a metaphor of the interdependency of mentor and mentee?

Students: Keep lines of communication open with your adviser and committee. If you’re a graduate student, don’t wait for your adviser or committee to contact you. Instead, make a regular practice of keeping people up to date about what you’re doing and how things are going. I make this suggestion because I’ve found that when things start to go poorly for graduate students (during grant writing, dissertation research, dissertation writing, job seeking, etc.), many students take to not communicating with their committee, often, it seems, out of fear of communicating that things are going poorly. If you send your adviser a monthly email keeping them abreast of what’s happening, it keeps lines of communication open and ensures that when difficulties arise, there’s already a channel open. (Other committee members might receive email every four or six months.) Just answer these three questions: 1) what have you been working on?, 2) what problems have you faced?, 3) how have you addressed those problems? (#3 is a good place to ask for help, if needed.)

Students might worry that sending advisers and committee members emails obliges them to respond, thereby creating unnecessary work for faculty, but it’s okay to preface emails like this with something along the lines of “There’s no need to respond to this email; I’m just writing to keep you in the loop.” Most faculty, I’m sure, will take the opportunity to not respond, but know that faculty are keeping students in mind when they receive emails like this.

(I’ve thought about writing a contract with graduate students, part of which would give them an automatic out of the advising relationship. For example, if you’re my advisee and I don’t hear from you for six months, then I assume I’m no long your adviser. I’ve watched students struggle with taking faculty off their committees, often because the lines of communication between faculty and student are troubled. But I’ve not gotten to an actual contract yet…)

Faculty: Have guidelines for responding to student emails. I tell my advisees that I’ll always respond to an email within 24 hours (unless it’s the weekend or I’m traveling); if I’m a committee member, it’s no more than 72 hours; if I’m just some random faculty member, it can be up to a week. If it’s an actual emergency — and I can do something about it — I’ll break these guidelines. If I’m going to be running late because I want to be thorough in my response, I always make sure to send an email to that effect. That said, I try and abide by a minimalist email policy and send as few emails as possible (if only to have a very clear and direct chain of communication). Only when students start working on their dissertations do I give them my phone number, since I assume that before that the kind of help I can provide is largely bureaucratic (i.e. email and meeting based).

Students: Do what faculty ask you to do. One of the recurrent sources of frustration voiced by faculty who work with graduate students is that students come seeking advice, faculty do a lot of work in making suggestions and providing feedback and resources, and then students don’t follow through by doing what faculty ask them to do. Even if you think the suggestion is off base, it’s better to do the work than to avoid it; showing a faculty member that you did the work and proving that the suggestion was insufficient or off base is a clearer demonstration of the paucity of a suggestion than not taking the suggestion seriously. If you can’t do something, it’s so much better to explain why you can’t than to just not do it (which open lines of communication can facilitate). If an assignment (or job task, like grading) has a clear set of instructions, follow the instructions as provided. Again, it’s better to show the paucity of the instructions by following them than to let faculty think you’re just lazy and trying to find workarounds.

Faculty: Be clear in your expectations and provide instructive guidelines. When I have teaching assistants grading for me, I provide them with very clear rubrics to use; when I am helping students generate reading lists, I’m very clear about how many items should be on it, and what kinds of things those readings should be (e.g. books, chapters, articles, etc.). I find that being very clear in my expectations helps students immensely, and that when they don’t follow the instructions I’ve provided, I can point to the instructions as the basis of our next interaction (see below). I try and take notes of my conversations with students and provide them with a copy of those notes after the meeting (either in writing or via email) so that I know we’re on the same page.

Students: Give faculty lead time to prepare themselves for what you need. There’s very little I find as frustrating as someone else’s deadline being imposed on my work schedule. Having students give me something they’re seeking feedback on shortly before the due date is a case in point: if you want careful reading and generative feedback, I probably need a week to fit it into my schedule and make sure I give it the time it needs. Preparing faculty for upcoming deadlines and the prospect that you’re going to send them something ensures that you get the attention you want. This might be something to communicate in a monthly email (e.g. “I have a fellowship deadline at the end of the month and plan to send you the application in two weeks.”), and is definitely something to give people at least a week or more to prepare for. If it’s big — like a dissertation draft — give them a month or more to prepare for it.

Faculty: Tell students what their windows of opportunity are. I’m pretty regimented in my work planning, and I imagine most faculty are. Because of that, I know — roughly — when I’m going to have more or less time to give students feedback, set up meetings, etc. At the beginning of the semester, I try and give my students a sense of when these windows will be, and try and set up deadlines around them. For example, when I know a student is going to be sending me a dissertation draft, I let that student know when I’ll have a week to dedicate to reading it and commenting on it. If they miss the window, I’ll still get the work done, but I’m clear that it will take me a little longer than if I have it in the window.

Students: Plan to educate faculty on standards and policies. This is especially true for faculty new to your institution or in other departments than your own: faculty tend to not know what the policies are that dictate student lives. If you can provide them with written documentation (i.e. from a graduate student handbook), it can go a long way to clarifying faculty expectations of your work. If standards vary from policies, then you also want proof of that (e.g. if the graduate handbook says comprehensive exams comprise 100 texts but everyone actually does 75, bring some recently defended comprehensive exam reading lists to talk through). Faculty may not vary from the policy as written, but if there is an emerging norm, you’ll want them to know about it and have proof that it exists.

Faculty: Provide a prompt for the material basis for meetings. I find that having some kind of written product to talk through with students makes meetings feel much more productive than not having something to focus on. This can be a dissertation proposal, a grant application, a reading list, an annotated bibliography, an article manuscript, something you’ve both read recently, etc. Having something to focus on ensures that the conversation is well focused and there’s a direct outcome of the meeting. There can be small talk too, but having a clear work plan for you and the student helps to make sure that there are deliverables and that the student has the feeling of being materially supported.

Elsewhere, I’ve provided some guidelines for thinking about how to compose a dissertation committee, and what the overall professionalization timeline might look like given today’s academic job market. The latter might be especially helpful in thinking about the material basis of meetings and to provide a trajectory for the mentoring relationship (at least during grad school). Other tips? Insight? Post them in the comments.