July 30th, 2014 § § permalink
Hobbits don’t speak English.
We read their speech in English, sure, but the language in which Bilbo et. al. talk Longbottom Leaf bears little relationship to English as spoken in Tolkien’s day, let alone ours. We read a representation of that speech in English—that’s to say, a translation. And though I wouldn’t put it past Tolkien to have a detailed grammar of Western Common salted away in his papers, he wrote his manuscripts for the most part in English. So we have pipeweed and second cousins twice removed on the mother’s side, and birthday parties and country gentlemen turning the ripe old age of eleventy-one.
Translation, done right, is brilliant and difficult, but when done even a little wrong it can break the meaning and cultural associations of the source text. My favorite example: there’s an old Chinese sport / pastime that features prominently in Ming Dynasty fiction, which most modern translations render as “football.” Now, think about Ming Dynasty football. Have a vision in your head of what that would look like? Does it feature Ming Dynasty Pele or Peyton Manning?
Yeah, well, you’re both wrong. The term translated “Football” here refers to a game in which folks stand in a circle and attempt to pass a leather ball from one to another without using their hands. We’re talking, basically, about hackeysack as played by 15th-century Chinese gentlemen. I don’t know why American translators shrink from calling a hackeysack a hackeysack—except maybe that (a) it stinks of modernity (in much the same reason you can’t name a character in historical fiction about 11th century England “Tiffany” even though people back then were named Tiffany), and (b) it summons up weird cultural associations, mostly of skinny dreadlocked barefoot prep school boys kicking the sack with weed smoke heavy on the air and Widespread Panic playing in the background. (I guess that might be Mumford & Sons these days? I AM NOT COOL.) Now, I think those cultural associations are informative and interesting, but I’m not a professional translator and apparently there’s been a consensus of translation—but the consensus means uninformed readers of translations that describe the sport as “football” will have a picture of what’s happening in the story that’s as vivid as it is incorrect.
Language is weird. And it gets weirder in subcreated or “secondary world” fantasy, in which, ostensibly, neither English nor any of the hundreds of tongues it’s mugged for grammar and vocabulary exist. Do you like your secondary-world steampunk gentlemen to wear purple ascots? Then you’d better take care that your world has a Royal Ascot Club, because that’s where the word comes from. Anyone ever eat a sandwich? Where does that word come from? What do your characters drink? Wine comes from the French, rivverrun roundabout from Latin. Whiskey springs from a Gaelic source word, lager is German, vodka’s Russian, aqua vitae is Latin rendering of the meaning of the Gaelic, aquavit has similar origins but refers to something else entirely.
And of course, the physical correlates of all these linguistic artifacts have their own cultural significance! The ascot has the social connotations it does because of accidents of history—and the same’s true of spats, the necktie, golf, swing music, slam poetry, minstrels, druids, scotch, pinstripes, sagging pants, the zoot suit, the miniskirt, blue jeans, sequins. We could try to shuffle the significance of these symbols, but it’s rare to pull this off without utterly confusing the reader. We could try to invent new symbols whole cloth, but that way lies three-page descriptions of the significance of various characters’ modes of dress. Which is great if that’s the kind of book you want to write! But it’s a particular kind of book, meant for a particular audience.
The closer we get to a modern setting, the more we have to deal with modern words and concepts and frameworks: Dumpster’s a brand name, as are Kleenex and Xerox and Polaroid. Jazz is jazz because history. It’s easy to claim we see these things as complex and contingent because the modern world is complex and contingent, but I wonder if, say, 14th century France didn’t seem every bit as complex and contingent to people who lived there. There probably would be fewer brand names, sure, but it’s not as if fashion and prejudice are original to the 20th century.
There are many ways to deal with this in writing fantasy, and they’re all right when used well. One’s to use new language for old stuff with old connotations. That’s cool, but occasionally confusing. One’s to use new language for new stuff with new connotations. That works too, though it’s so easy to mess up by creating a world that’s too simple and too complex at once. (Readers may not be amused if, once they learn the seventeen new words you’ve asked them to, they realize your culture is a stripped-down analogue of Western European medieval feudalism. Then again, they may! Certain writers can make drying paint interesting. If you can get away with this, I doff hat and ascot alike.) One’s to use old language for old stuff with new connotations, a nice trick—one of my favorite examples that works is the position-swap of haute and rest stop cuisine in Samuel R Delany’s Babel-17, in which coq au vin is simple spacer fare, while burgers with French fries and ketchup are the height of elegance. It works because it’s funny, but even such a sharp writer as Delany has to spend half a scene in a very tight book highlighting the change. Another path is just to use existing words for existing stuff with existing connotations where it works, because readers know what a suit is, and they know what a cocktail is, and you can waste a disgusting amount of time trying to explain that a Fantasy Dark & Stormy is, you know, a Dark & Stormy—time that would be better spent building character, developing conflict, accelerating tempo, deepening tension.
I do a bit of all the above, and certainly there are other methods; the final one I listed is a favorite when I’m feeling cheeky or want to cheat in a slip of smooth exposition-free characterization, but it has weaknesses. Sometimes a Gin Mule will just throw people out of a story. And I don’t mean by, you know, a mule made of gin. Though that would be theoretically possible in a fantasy novel that contained, say, boozeomancers.
Hm. Boozeomancers. (*Makes note.*)
Anyway! To my mind this is one of the core fascinations of writing secondary-world fantasy: the creation of a working language and system of social connotations distinct from our own yet within our own, a sort of linguistic virtual machine. Tolkien walked these lines very well. He knew just when his characters should say “Namarie,” and when “I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest!” Sometimes the challenge feels an awe-inspiring. Sometimes it feels like kickboxing in a straightjacket: inherently limiting and on its face pointlessly difficult. But if you can pull it off, you’ll look so damn cool.
July 23rd, 2014 § § permalink
I have many essays for you this week!
As per usual, I am roughly speaking all over the internet writing stuff for FULL FATHOM FIVE’s launch. I’m hearing lots of great noise about it, too—my favorites being notes from people who say the book has encouraged them to think generatively, to break out of imaginative ruts. Little could please me more than hearing that.
After a crazy launch / convention week, I’ve finally got back into stride on Book 5. This morning I wrote three scenes that have needed writing for a while. Pretty soon I reach the All Hell Breaks Loose segment of our adventure, not that All Hell hasn’t been breaking loose already—but Our Heroes are in a slight calm before the storm. Seven plot cards remain (Or six?), but that could be anywhere between 15 and 30,000 words, probably closer to the later given that one of the cards basically says “THERE WAS A FIREFIGHT!”
So yeah, that’s what’s up with me lately.
First order of business: I’m signing this evening at 7 PM in the Framingham, MA Barnes & Noble, so if you’re in the region get thee to the store!
Second order of business: listening to me talk about things! What kinds of things have I been discussing around the internet? Well, to date…
- Place as Character in the Craft Sequence! (Featuring dragons and other strangeness) on The Qwillery
- First Drafts Suck, an exhortation on Chuck Wendig’s blog about the relative quality of basically every first draft I’ve ever written or seen, with few exceptions.
- Of Meat Hooks and Desire, being a discussion of why action sequences sometimes, but not always, accelerate a story, and an application of action scene technique to subtler pacing. It makes sense. I swear. Hosted by the estimable Brian Staveley!
- Tangled Up in Heroes, an essay on Bob Dylan, the Indigo Girls, heroism, and diversity in story.
- And, on Tor.com, my answers to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, which is about as cool as it sounds.
- Oh! And, for your listening pleasure, I was a guest on Fran Wilde’s Cooking the Books podcast, in which I discuss food and Full Fathom Five, and provide an excellent recipe for Chinese-style fried egg and tomato.
Third order of business: surprise! I’ll be participating in an AMA on r/Fantasy Thursday afternoon / evening. Bring your questions! I will answer them! My answers may be neither correct nor complete, but I’ll probably have some scotch at my side, so I’ll have that much going for me at least.
July 16th, 2014 § § permalink
First things first: JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE TO GO BACK IN THE, um. INTERNET. I have a new short story out today on Tor.com! For free! Go read it!
Still here? Why?
Okay, fine, you probably want the low-down on the events of yesterday’s crazy awesome book launch!
Well. It was great.
First things first, I have essays like all over the internet now. I stopped by Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog to talk about My Favorite Bit in Full Fathom Five. On SF Signal, I stop by Sarah Chorn’s Special Needs in Strange Worlds column to discuss how I used to cheat on eye exams, and (more seriously) the relationship between disability and worldbuilding. And more to come!
Yesterday culminated in an amazing reading / signing / million dollar bash at Pandemonium Books and Games. Here are some pictures from the event, courtesy of Amy Eastment!
And here’s another one, more serious:
There was wine. Much good craic, book signing, and board game purchasing (I am now the proud owner of Mage Knight? We’ll see how that turns out.) ensued. Also ice cream! As a result I’m a bit staggered today, but making progress toward normal, non-release-addled human engagement.
Be well! Enjoy the short story! And the book, for that matter.
July 15th, 2014 § § permalink
THE BOOK EXISTS. IT IS ON SALE. I AM TALKING IN MY INCREDIBLE HULK VOICE.
You can find it on shelves! You can find it on the internet! You can find it anywhere and everywhere!
… Okay, maybe not everywhere. But still.
Read this glowing review (Liz Bourke at Tor.com)! Or this glowing review (Tammy Sparks at Books, Bones, Buffy)! Or this other glowing review (by Dan/i/el at Intellectus Speculativus)!
Or read this cinematic-style trailer I wrote for the book!
Want signed copies? Order them here! Or come see me this evening at Pandemonium Books and Games, at 7pm!
Me, I’ll be busy collapsing in a corner somewhere. Or baking cookies. Cookies are good.
Though I should probably wait to start baking cookies until I stop being all
But, you know, for now:
July 9th, 2014 § § permalink
As I write this I have one week before FULL FATHOM FIVE hits shelves. Time’s ticking down until you all read my strange book about false gods, nonprofit funding difficulties, slam poetry, golems, and murder. Fun stuff!
We’ll celebrate the launch at Pandemonium Books and Games in Central Square on Tuesday the 15th, at 7 pm. In the days leading up to that, you can best find me at ReaderCon, New England’s premier convention for People Who Read Stuff. Most likely I’ll be working up the urge to tell Samuel R. Delany that I really really enjoyed Dhalgren.
(You ever have one of those feelings, like you just read this masterpiece and want to talk to the author about it, but you feel like a dolt trying to do so because the book came out like thirty years ago and they’ve heard it already? Then again, if thirty years from now someone comes up to me saying they read and loved Full Fathom Five, I’ll fully expect an “Achievement Unlocked” dialogue to appear, so maybe I shouldn’t sweat it so much.)
If you’re wondering what I will be up to at Readercon, then have no fear! Schedule is here—and weirdly Friday-loaded:
Friday July 11
1:00 PM G The Difference Between Magic and Science . Max Gladstone, Lev Grossman, Andrea Hairston, Kenneth Schneyer (leader), J.M. Sidorova. In an interview with Avi Solomon, Ted Chiang proposed that “The difference between magic and science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.” How can we complicate this statement? Are there magic systems that are entirely impersonal, and if so, are they indistinguishable from science and technology? Is science only possible in an impersonal universe? How do we make allowances for the personal applications of science and the impersonal applications of magic, and where do the boundaries between them lie?
2:00 PM F When the Magic Returns. John Chu, Max Gladstone, Daryl Gregory, Lev Grossman, Victoria Janssen (leader). The “return” of magic into a mundane world is one of very few ways in which we see fantasy set in the future. Why is this? What makes fantasy and futurity so incompatible? Why is the return of magic so often associated with apocalypse, while its banishment is usually the consequence of scientific or industrial progress? From Aarne-Thompson tale types like Richard Corbet’s “The Fairies’ Farewell” to Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, panelists will talk about the ways in which magic-as-technology can be explored.
6:00 PM E Autographs. Felix Gilman, Max Gladstone.
8:00 PM CL Kaffeeklatsch. Max Gladstone, Lev Grossman.
9:00 PM ENV Reading: Max Gladstone. Max Gladstone. Max Gladstone reads excerpts from Full Fathom Five, his next novel (out July 15.)
Saturday July 12
1:00 PM CO The Shiny, Candy-like Zombie: Commoditizing the Undead. Scott Edelman, Max Gladstone, Catt Kingsgrave, John Langan, Sarah Langan (leader). On Twitter, M. John Harrison wrote about the appeal of zombies: “You can hate them without feeling wrong. You can kill them like eating sweets. Then you’re hungry again & you can kill more. They’re fully dehumanised. There’s no off-season, no moral limitation. They’re the *enemy*. What’s not to love? They’re what we really want.” So do we like zombies because they’re the consumer-friendly, ambiguity-free face of implacable evil? Are they, in fact, the most perfectly commoditised monsters?
So, basically I’ll be trying not to look like an idiot in front of a bunch of very smart people, including Lev Grossman and Felix Gilman. Yipe. Wish me luck!
The lead up to con and launch, as usual, has involved psychic heavy lifting—writing of essays, trying to say smart things on the radio with people, etc. (To wit, check out this interview I did with Justin Landon and Tabitha Pabkins for tor.com’s Rocket Talk podcast!) Mindwise I’m a bit short on surplus analysis, but here’s a rundown of recent consumption:
EDGE OF TOMORROW. It’s great. Tom Cruise gets shot repeatedly in the face for Buddhism. Emily Blunt is excellent. Action scenes never gratuitous, always comprehensible—no mean feat when your bad guys are amorphous metal squidmonsters. See in theaters if possible. I saw it twice in one day. It was a very hot day, but still.
THE RHESUS CHART. Charlie Stross’s Laundry Files continue their long and awesome build. The latest installment is worth reading the four preceding volumes—though I don’t think you have to. CHART contains both the funniest moment and the strongest gut-punch in the series so far, at least by my lights. Also there is a vampire investment bank. No, I mean, like, there are investment bankers who actually drink people’s blood. I’m not being metaphorical, they have sharp teeth and cannot go out in daylight, and- oh, just read it, it’s excellent.
THE FIRE NEXT TIME. James Baldwin, and yes I’ve never read this before. You should if you haven’t yet. It’s about a hundred pages, brilliantly written, and Vital Reading, especially for US-Americans. Makes me want to reread Ellison’s (Ralph, not Harlan) INVISIBLE MAN, but that’s a bigger project for a later day. Harrowing and intense. As necessary now as when it came out.
WAR FOR THE OAKS. Emma Bull. A trip to the wellspring of modern urban fantasy (as a marketing category I mean, technically Lankhmar is urban fantasy, but that’s another panel). Remarkable how much this book is about cities and bands and love and sex as opposed to Faerie Magick; there’s capital S Sorcery here, sure, but music’s the heart. Watch for a garden party illusion contest that (unless I’m very much misreading it) throws a glove to the whole fantasy genre, in the kindest way.
ECLIPSE: RISE OF THE ANCIENTS. I wrote about Eclipse back in winter, but this was the first game I’ve played with five players and all the new expansion material. Rise of the Ancients massively improves (to my mind) the tactical picture of Eclipse by dislodging the slightly overpowered missile boat build from its throne and altering (via warp portals) the game’s topology to prevent hyperspace turtling. If you don’t know what those words mean, just play this game. Further endorsement: bearded guy with cute bulldog puppy saw us walking to our game, came up to us: “ECLIPSE my favorite game EVER, I love it so much!” Don’t doubt the bulldog puppy. Or disappoint it. Or else it will come for you wif its cute ickle TEETH and sweet JAWS.
(I like board games and I kind of idolize the SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN folks, so I’ve been thinking about reviewing board games around here more frequently. Not sure I have sufficiently broad experience with games to be able to review them, though…)
Meanwhile, on the TBR pile:
THE CAUSAL ANGEL, Hannu Rajaniemi. The Quantum Thief was one of my favorite books of the last few years. I look forward to seeing how he finishes the series!
MY REAL CHILDREN, Jo Walton. Nuff said.
THE KILLING MOON, NK Jemisin. A long overdue read. Looks wonderful and weird. First few pages very tightly written.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR, Anthony Beevor. I know more about the Opium Wars and the Taiping Revolution than I know about The War. Time to fix that. If I ever want to write that God Wars novel, it would help to know how a war that reinvented the technology of warmaking was fought.
And that’s all I have for now. Go listen to that podcast. Or enjoy your summer. Or buy my book. Hopefully all of the above! I’ll see you here next Tuesday, for *drumroll* Launch Day.
July 2nd, 2014 § § permalink
It’s really hot. Especially in my house. If you look at today’s Somerville weather report (and it’s Tuesday, by the way, for those of you playing along at home—I don’t write these posts day of if I can help it!), you will find a number. That number is irrelevant. Humidity and lack of air conditioning and post-fencing heat exhaustion mean I don’t have to care what the weather service says. This is the actual forecast.
Fortunately I spent some of the day in SPACE.
My friend Kendric’s in town. (And, may I take a moment to say—this season, no well-appointed young gentleman would dare be seen around town without a Kendric Tonn original oil painting. So there.) In his perpetual quest to separate your humble correspondent from his already nonexistent free time and discretionary budget, Kendric brought a tackle box full of X-Wing Miniatures. So far, we’re two dogfights into the week, and my internal polls show a distinct amplification of enthusiasm.
I’m not going to say anything here that the folks on Shut Up & Sit Down didn’t say in their review of the game, but there’s an odd chance that some of you may not be reading Shut Up & Sit Down, so I’ll have to shoulder the burden. The X-Wing miniatures game is a lightweight yet robust game of dogfighting around an asteroid field. You assemble a squadron of pre-painted plastic miniatures, gather your friends, and zoom around your dining room table executing barrel rolls and Immelmans, activating (or switching off, if you’re insane) your targeting computer, and generally having a hell of a time.
Now: I’ve played this game on a computer. I played it back when it was Rebel Assault, and Rebel Assault II. I played it when it was TIE Fighter. I played it on my Performa 6100/60, I played it on my friend Ian’s Sega CD, I played it on the tank-sized ThinkPad my high school rented me for a year. I played this game on the GameCube once or twice. And yet…
This afternoon, when the temperature was Oh God and the humidity was Why Would You Build Your City in a Swamp, my two TIE fighters and my Interceptor (piloted by Baron Soontir Hand-Me-My-Wallet-It’s-The-One-That-Says-Bad-Mothafucka-On-It Fel, natch) barreled through an asteroid field pursuing Kendric’s sole remaining Y-wing; his desperate pilot played asteroid slalom to deny me firing arcs while snagging corner shots with his ion turret. We weren’t even playing the theme music, and we were both there.
We’re wired to project ourselves into objects: give a woman a hammer and her brain’s model of her body expands to include the hammer. And when given a small, beautiful, high-quality TIE fighter of molded plastic, with a little heft to it, and simple rules that let me translate desires through that model into strategic action, adventure, tension, story—I slide into the cockpit, and I’m in space.
Which is a pretty cool place to be.
And “cool” is exactly what I need right about now.
June 25th, 2014 § § permalink
In May I became a headcanon necromancer.
To explain: last month my parents visited, and brought a few old friends along.
Those of you who aren’t geeks of the comic-shop variety may not recognize these white boxes, but those of you who are probably felt a distinct pang of nostalgia and lost wages just now. This is my comic collection, such as survives. Plenty of Dark Horse Star Wars in here (the whole Tales of the Jedi arc!), not to mention the Indiana Jones comics and, of course, Iron Man.
I started with Iron Man in the Heroes Reborn era. Cue more geek disbelief—that storyline, basically Marvel’s Ultimates reboot a decade-plus early, guiding a handful of characters back through their origin stories—isn’t held up as one of Marvel’s shining moments, but it did provide a good on-boarding point for a young fan. And in spite of confusion about pocket universes I followed Iron Man back from Heroes Reborn into mainstream Marvel.
See, the Heroes Reborn universe was this insane pocket dimension created by a god-child to protect his parents and their friends from Evil, Omnipotent Charles Xavier by the mighty magic of Rebooting. Or something. [Non-geeks you can start reading again here. -everlovin' ed.] Point is, eventually the characters trapped in this pocket dimension escaped—to find they’d been declared dead for some time in the “mainstream” universe. Which isn’t such a problem for, say, the Incredible Hulk (HULK SMASH PROBATE COURT)—but is a Big Biden Deal for an international mogul like Stark comma Anthony. In Tony’s absence Stark Industries has been acquired by the Fujikawa Corporation, an enormous zaibatsu; Tony’s all but penniless. Which is a good look on Tony Stark, to be honest. He’s at his best when scrounging. (IN A CAVE! FROM SCRAPS!) Tony builds a consulting business, which is great. And he meets Rumiko Fujikawa, heiress of the zaibatsu that bought his company.
I was a kid, and I haven’t re-read these comics in a while; I’m not saying Rumiko Fujikawa is the best-drawn character in Iron Man history or anything like that. Maybe she was really problematic in ways I didn’t recognize back then (I was, what, fourteen? and unkissed in rural Tennessee). But as a kid reading Iron Man, I thought she was awesome. No superpowers, but she was fierce and rebellious and not evil and wore cool clothes and had a good sense of humor and liked to dance and, well. She dated Tony, which was also interesting, though I didn’t think that relationship was going anywhere—she was into him physically, and he was into her, and they had the super-rich thing in common (though Tony wasn’t so super-rich any more), so good for them until they broke up up. It seemed to me, at the time, like a relationship two adults might have, if one of the adults was a recovering alcoholic superhero and both had net worths in the quintillions.
I stopped reading Iron Man a few years later; Marvel underwent one ubercrossover too many. When you live in rural Tennessee a forty-five minute drive from any comic store, and you’re the child of two high school teachers and work a pizza job for spending money, you can only deal with so many “GET AVENGERS MEGA-ANNUAL #77 AND ALSO THESE NINE RANDOM FANTASTIC FOUR COMICS OH AND THIS SEVEN YEAR OLD X-MEN ISSUE AS WELL IF YOU WANT TO HAVE ANY CLUE WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE, TRUE BELIEVER!” bits before you give up. I went to college, which didn’t help; the only series I collected in floppy form while at school was 1602. (Still missing one issue of that run! Gah.)
I’d skim an Iron Man collection once in a while to see if Tony was still Tony. Didn’t see Rumiko anywhere, which seemed as it should be. They were a horrible long-term couple; eventually their differences would pull them apart. Somewhere in the Marvel Universe, Rumiko was maybe struggling with her brother for control of the Fujikawa Empire—or had thrown herself 100% into aid work, trying to do the Jeffry Sachs bit, zipping around the globe with Marvel Universe Bono. Hell, maybe she went back to school, or ran for parliament. Or the entire Fujikawa Empire finally pissed her off and she’d left to practice her asanas in an ashram or twirl fire poi in Phuket. Maybe she was secretly Deadmau5, or half of Daft Punk. Or both of Daft Punk! (Clones?)
When the long boxes arrived, I reread a few issues of Iron Man. “I wonder what ever happened to Rumiko?” As if wondering the same about a high school classmate you haven’t seen since graduation. “It’s a shame I oh wait we have the Internet now.”
So: Google search.
Some of you who’ve played this game before know what comes next. Quoth Wiki:
“Rumiko is murdered in Invincible Iron Man vol. 3 #87 (October 2004) when she is attacked by an Iron Man impostor named Clarence Ward.”
Damn. Right in the gut. I felt sick.
Who the hell is Clarence Ward? I ask the Internet, furious. What kind of situation gave rise to Rumiko’s death? How did it work, dramatically? Are we dealing with a Book 6 of Locke and Key situation here, something tragic and personal and intense? There’s no proper Wikipedia page for this one, but Marvel Wikia supplies the following one-line summary of Ward’s entire history:
“Clarence Ward used a stolen armor to kill nearly all of Stark Industries‘ board and Rumiko Fujikawa.”
A villain of the fucking week. Further internet research suggests Ward’s motive was “pissed at Tony for stuff.” Dude has three total all-time appearances according to the web, which means he’s less significant to the Marvel Universe than Fin Fang Foom.
Yeah, I know, comics do this. Gail Simone started the Women in Refrigerators site to highlight this precise issue, of horrible fates befalling characters who happen to be (1) in comics and (2) female. It’s a big problem. Much digital ink has been spilled. By the time I became aware of the WiR website, and the fact that this was an endemic issue in comics generally, I’d been out of collecting for half a decade, so I cheered from the sidelines, and offline. In fiction I’ve fought my own version of the good fight, by thinking very critically about murder, rape, and assault in my own work, and by reviewing manuscripts and encouraging fellow authors to think deeply as they deal with squicky stuff.
I am not saying all stories need to be shiny and happy. Quite the opposite. Violence has consequences. To switch Starks for a second: I have no idea what’s going on in Game of Thrones these days, but Ned Stark’s death matters, for plot purposes and, much more vitally, for his friends and family. People, and readers, deal with the trauma of Ned’s death; the series stands in its shadow. That bit of violence has a powerful effect on the narrative world—it endures, and refuses to be ignored. By contrast, I’ve read big thick hardcovers of more recent Iron Man comics, and it doesn’t seem like Rumiko’s death endures in anything like the same way.
Which is where headcanon comes in, the wonderful world of decisions I make about other peoples’ stories. I never read those Iron Man issues, and what’s more, they don’t seem to have had a long-term effect on the narrative world of Iron Man or the Marvel Universe. Which means I don’t need them to have happened. Far as I’m concerned? Tony and Ru broke up. It sucked for them both, but them’s breaks when you date a recovering alcoholic superhero who has a crush on his robot suit. Rumiko moved on. She’s in parliament. Or a band. Or an ashram, or she’s lying on a Phuket beach, or taking a honeymoon in Goa with her wife who she met when she lost to her at baccarat. She has problems of her own. She has her own story to tell, and that story has nothing to do with superheroes.
It’s not a permanent solution, nor is it political. It works, though, until something better comes along.
Besides, a bit of necromancy never hurt anyone.
June 18th, 2014 § § permalink
But by “more” I mostly mean “Book and Events”—wait, hold on, before you leave LOOK AT THIS:
Isn’t the cover beautiful? Don’t the designs, drawing, and expression all work so well together? Doesn’t the ink glisten fuliginously?
If fuliginosity isn’t enough for you, check out all these people who say nice things about me!
If you can’t read, you probably won’t be able to parse this blog post. But if you can’t read from jpgs but can parse text for some reason—say, perhaps, you’re a robot—in the upper left we have Elizabeth Bear: “I’m having Max Gladstone killed. He’s too good already to be allowed to live. If this is early work, the rest of us are out of a job.”
And Brian Staveley: “A story in which characters jump off the page as though they’re real people, every one of them ready to gut you or con you, nurse you back to health or steal your dreams.”
Look—I don’t kvetch much on this blog or in public. But this was a tough book to write. Nothing’s easy, but damn. So seeing this as an actual, honest-to-goodness BOOK, with, you know, PAGES—this is a good feeling. And I’m really excited for this one.
And you get to read it in just under a month. You can, in fact, preorder it right now—from your local bookstore, from Barnes and Noble, from Amazon, from anywhere you so choose! (Actually, pre-orders help a lot—since pre-orders help stores determine how many copies of the book they want, which in turn determines how many copies of the book the publisher prints. Buy early, buy often! Or borrow from your local library. As you will.)
Also, starting this weekend: CONS and SIGNINGS!
June 20-22: Fourth Street Fantasy in Minneapolis, MN. I’ll be on two great panels: Shifts in Historical Narrative, at 8pm on Saturday, and Influence, Tropes, and Prior Art at 11:30 am on Sunday. Come see and say hi!
July 11-13: Readercon in Burlington, MA. I’ll be on two panels Friday, back to back and on similar topics: The Difference Between Magic and Science at 1:00pm, and When the Magic Returns at 2:00pm. At 9:00 pm that evening, I’ll be reading, maybe from Full Fathom Five, maybe from my forthcoming tor.com story, maybe from something else entirely. Come see!
July 13: Barnes and Noble in Burlington, MA at 7:30 pm. As I’m given to understand it, Hizzonna Paul Park, Brian “the Estimable” Staveley, Felix-motherf***n-Gilman, and I will be playing either QI or Numberwang at the Burlington Barnes and Noble. Madness may ensue. Strike that. Will definitely ensue. Come for the madness, stay for EVEN MORE MADNESS.
—–July 15: FULL FATHOM FIVE LAUNCH PARTY! at PANDEMONIUM BOOKS AND GAMES at 7:00 PM! This is Launch Day. It will be Awesome.
July 23: Barnes and Noble in Framingham, MA at 7:00 pm—I will demonstrate the mysterious caffeinated arts!
August 14-18: WORLDCON! I’ll be at LonCon 3 having a grand old time and not at all thinking about the Campbell Awards oh my god it is a competitive slate this year isn’t it well at least I get to share it with such excellent people!
And then probably more cons to follow!
I have also, shock and horror, updated my events page with the information above! Watch out, world.
I have a book.
June 11th, 2014 § § permalink
A few weeks ago Gene Wolfe helped me win a spelling bee!
Well, to be more precise—I was on a team that, with Gene Wolfe’s aid, won a spelling bee. And, as my editor would be the first to tell you, I was the dead weight on the team. Madeline Miller and her husband Nathaniel Drake did Atlas’s share of the lifting; I contributed in the sense that the person lounging at Atlas’s feet eating grapes and occasionally making remarks like, “welp, that sure does look heavy” contributes to the whole sky-upholding business.
The event in question was the 25th Annual First Literacy Corporate Spelling Bee, a charity spelling competition held every year to sponsor First Literacy, a Boston-area adult literacy and education charity that does excellent work. Madeline, Nat, and I were all on a team of local authors sponsored by State Street—we wanted to prove our worth.
Some background: Nat and I bonded over reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series several months before. For those of you who don’t know, BotNS has a number of virtues, including but not limited to its, shall we say, eccentric vocabulary. Wolfe builds a strange and intoxicating far-future world in surprisingly short books in part by referring to common but futuristic objects in the World of the New Sun with words that are technically English, but so obscure few readers will ever have seen them before. We recognize the words as words, but we don’t often know their referents, which leaves Wolfe room to pour new meaning into them without the standard SFF language problem in which a word like, say, steed is overburdened with alternative meanings because you want to use it to refer to telepathic flying horses or whatever but it’s also just a word that means mount, so maybe you change that initial s to a capital letter, but that’s a touch inelegant, so… Etc.
By far the most accessible example I can think of in Book of the New Sun is destrier, which as many of you probably know is a term for a medieval warhorse. Unless you’re a serious horse person, though, or a serious medieval person, you probably don’t know offhand (no Wikipedia! that’s cheating.) what a destrier’s characteristics were. So, as you read Book of the New Sun you slowly assemble the attributes of Wolfe’s destriers from context: they’re something like twenty hands high, have razor sharp fangs, armor plating, and canter at around 70 miles per hour.
The spelling bee worked in rounds: six teams to a round, with the six champions competing in a final round of six. Unlike in a standard microphone-and-spotlight spelling bee, all teams were challenged at once: each team wrote the challenge wordout on a whiteboard, then held it up for judging. Each team had two “hit points” (I know, this was a very forgiving bee)—you could miss a single word without being eliminated. When it was time for words to scored, their proper spelling was revealed via PowerPoint presentation, so the audience could tell which teams had succeeded and which failed. (Cue Chopped! snare drum.)
After each round, the unused words flashed by as the PowerPoint advanced to the next round. So, curious, we watched, trying to get a sense of what words might be forthcoming. And there, flashing past after the third or fourth round, we saw, in foot-high letters: felucca. As in the type of boat, which pops up regularly in Book of the New Sun, including in this passage (from Urth of the New Sun): “Feluccas and caravels with all sail set appeared to ride at anchor in the midchannel.” Gene Wolfe strikes again!
Nat and I applauded fiercely. The rest of the audience no doubt thought we were insane. But still: a Gene Wolfe word! In the wild! Never in a million years—not even in a spelling bee—had we expected to see that.
We won our round, and progressed to the final. Whereupon, four words in, we were confronted with the following challenge.
It sounded like: “Ooo-lon. A type of Polish cavalry. Oooo-lon.”
Nat put it together first. His eyes went wide as silver dollars and he wrote on our slate:
As in: “I remembered the uhlan who had appeared dead until I touched his lips with the Claw, and who now seemed to me to belong to the remote past; and I remembered the man-ape, with his stump of arm, and the way Jonas’s burns had faded when I ran the Claw along their length.” (The Sword of the Lictor.) One of BotNS character Sevarian’s earliest miracles, and one of the myriad types of soldiers referenced in the battle scenes of Citadel of the Autarch. Uhlan.
We didn’t win on that word—but we were the only team other than the perennial spelling bee champions from IBM (who I must believe are Wolfe fans as well, or else Final Fantasy Tactics people) to spell it correctly, and IBM had misspelled an earlier word—which meant we were the only team on the board with both hit points remaining. We won soon after, due to attrition.
Attrition, and Gene Wolfe.
So, Mr. Wolfe, who I’ve never yet met but one day hope to: my hat is off, sir. My hat is off to you and your wacky, weird, and wonderful thesaurus.
May 21st, 2014 § § permalink
With a three-word phrase I will repel everyone who doesn’t need to read this article.
Dungeons & Dragons.
Still here? Great. Strap in for alpha nerdery. My magic mirror just corrected that to ‘herders.’ I’m not sure whether that’s ironic.
Dungeons & Dragons is due for its fifth edition, which is actually its seventh edition or something, and to make matters more complicated they’re taking cues from Prince of Persia and Thief and Star Trek and Godzilla to just call the new edition “Dungeons & Dragons.” I usually feel about the same way about this sort of number-eclipsing shenanigans as Yahtzee, but considering the up-till-recently alternative name was “D&D Next,” I think we’re moving in the correct direction. At least this title doesn’t give me bad flashbacks to Pepsi Max or New Coke or LSD Extreme.
Forget I said that last one. Straight edge! Anyway.
I suspect (and having mentioned Yahtzee once note how Croshavian my syntax has become, wait for the scatalogia to flow any minute now) the idea behind this return-to-roots naming is to evoke nostalgia. We’re hearkening back to a simpler time when we just said Coke rather than Coke Classic, a day before all D&D players possessed three separate shelves of splatbooks and the number of editions surpassed a Troll’s ability to count. (For those of you playing along at home, Trolls have a very rudimentary counting system: one, two, many, lots.) Maybe we just want to say screw you to future genre historians. Either way, D&D the New Hotness is coming.
I’ve seen a range of responses to this. Excitement, sticker shock ($150 is a lot for three core books), gibbering terror, boredom—and confusion. “Meh. Isn’t everyone playing Pathfinder now?”
Me, I’m interested and hopeful. But to explain why I’m going to have to introduce you to what D&D means, has always meant, to me—to something it does better than any contender.
D&D, for me, was never the best fantasy action tactics game, though 4E made a pretty solid claim on being that. D&D was never the best pulp adventure game—that was old school West End Games Star Wars. It was never the best game for powergaming madness (which was probably RIFTS.). It was never the most elegant game, and in recent years a crop of indie games from Dread to Fate Core to Dogs in the Vineyard have made it fall even further behind.
This is the point where you may think I’m about to make a nostalgia play. “It’s about escaping from my middle TN high school with a few friends and a two liter of Mountain Dew.” No again. (That was what I had SWd6 and the old school White Wolf games for.)
D&D was always the best system for simulating people who are really bad at doing stuff.
See, D&D has a twenty level progression that’s so engrained in players’ consciousnesses that it will never change. (Though never say never!) High level players are unstoppable juggernauts; tenth level characters are the equivalent of most of our Lord of the Rings heroes. Fifth level characters are pretty badass. And first level?
Well. I’ve seen first level characters get trampled in crowds. A first level wizard has four hit
points, which makes a fistfight a potentially lethal exchange. Hell, with 4HP you can conceivably get murdered by a house cat. As for magic, you get three weak spells a day. The fighter may have twice as many hit points as the wizard, but that’s still not much. Aragon you ain’t. As a first level party you are playing the guys from The Hangover in a Conan the Barbarian universe.
This makes it incredibly easy for a GM to construct adventures where the players cannot win by main force. Each fight is dangerous. Being stuck in a jail cell is an obstacle. If the stakes get high, our characters have to get smart. Low level D&D characters are hard core. “The princess is locked up in the castle. She’ll be executed at sunrise. We have a sword, a spider climb spell, a few rocks, some rusty chain mail, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.” “Let’s hit it.” Players have limited resources and ply those limited resources in increasingly horrible situations.
Even better: since there are plenty of resources (monsters, traps, challenges, equipment, etc.) that are “level-appropriate” for characters of high level, you can keep throwing seemingly insuperable foes against your players at almost any level, for almost any reason. Players hack together solutions to kill dragons at level three, to unseat kings with a well-placed Feather Fall, to sneak out of a cordon by holding their breath & hopping inside a portable hole. D&D does “we’re boned” moments better than any other system. You and all your friends spend a few nights a week pratfalling through a fantasy world.
Which was why, in my opinion, the last edition of D&D (Fourth Edition or 4E) didn’t measure up. 4E was an exquisitely balanced combat game with a crunchy statistical backbone. Even first level characters could execute interesting and powerful maneuvers. A first level game with the right GM could feel truly epic. After Warlording an ally into position for a killing blow, I’ve become a master of the battlefield.
And that ain’t D&D. At least, not to me. 4E is a well-oiled machine. Your party does what it’s good at, and it’s always facing enemies designed to test it in new exciting ways. 4E characters. are built to face level-appropriate encounters; encounters that aren’t tuned properly get boring. 4E characters don’t have to rig lotteries to collect enough gold for spell components, or poke wizards with pointy sticks to distract them, or con a cave full of goblins into attacking another cave full of goblins. They don’t wake up drunk, naked, weaponless in the town jail; they don’t run out of spells and decide to distract the ogre by throwing pies at him, or try to communicate with someone in a foreign language they don’t speak and accidentally end up saying, “Don’t get up–my pants are on fire!” 4E was badass, but it wasn’t hardcore.
So now I’m playing a D&D 5 game. My friend Vlad is running the pre-gen adventure. And damn if I don’t feel like I’m playing D&D again. Our characters are drunken, borderline competent fools running around a medieval city trying to stay alive by hook and by crook. We’re taking orders from someone named ULFGAR RAVENCLOAK. We almost died in a stampeding crowd. We are really bad at basically everything we do. We mock box text. We disobey direct orders. We’ve rigged together an extortion-and-commodities trading business.
And damn if the system isn’t more flexible and elegant than it used to be! I’m playing a Barbarian Librarian, which combination of skill sets used to be pretty near impossible to implement. The game has learned something and returned to its roots at once.
There are better games for playing big damn heroes. But if you want to experience the fun of being *bad*, not in the 80s slang sense but in the sense that, say hippos are bad at flying… You might want to give this new version of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS a shot.