FULL FATHOM FIVE in Stores Today!

July 15th, 2014 § 5 comments § permalink


Front Cover Gif

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:


FULL FATHOM FIVE Appearances at Readercon

July 9th, 2014 § 2 comments § 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.

At Least Space is Cold

July 2nd, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

It’s hot.

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.


Headcanon Necromancy: Old Comics, Iron Man, and Ru

June 25th, 2014 § 5 comments § 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?)

clone club

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.



FULL FATHOM FIVE—Book, Events, and More!

June 18th, 2014 § 3 comments § permalink

But by “more” I mostly mean “Book and Events”—wait, hold on, before you leave LOOK AT THIS:

Front Cover GifIsn’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!




BackCoverIf 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.”

It’s real.

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.

Front Cover Gif

I have a book.

Also, Godzilla.



Spelling with Gene Wolfe

June 11th, 2014 § 4 comments § 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.

Dungeons, Dragons, and the Joy of Being Bad

May 21st, 2014 § 7 comments § 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.

It’s great.

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.

Full Fathom Five Trailer!

May 14th, 2014 § 6 comments § permalink

Last week Tor.com posted the first five chapters of Full Fathom Five, my next book, due out July 15.  This is obviously great!  Go ye forth and read.


Look, maybe this is just my inner millennial talking, but I do wish books had a better equivalent of the modern trailer—something that gave you a sense of the overall story in a single package complete with aggressively edited footage and dialogue that isn’t actually part of the final feature.  Book trailers exist, of course, and some of them are great, but that’s not what I mean.  Film and print are hugely different media.  It makes sense to take a finished movie and cut together a trailer, but creating an audiovisual book trailer that actually works is a process of adaptation all its own.  Harder, even, since a trailer-creator has to take the textual world of the book and recreate it in visual language in three minutes or less.  AV book trailers suggest that the movie of the book actually exists, and try to sell that.

(And, let’s be honest—a proper AV trailer for one of my books would cost, and if you think I have cost-in-italics kind of money lying around, you obviously haven’t read John Scalzi’s deal size descriptions.)

My solution: I have written a book trailer for your entertainment, in screenplay format.  (I did this with Two Serpents Rise last year, too.)  Warning: in proper trailer form, this contains spoilers, and is only tangentially representative of the actual book.  Read it through, close your eyes periodically, and envision the future with the limitless budget of your imagination!

Just don’t expect any of this dialogue to be in the final cut.

Magic Systems and the Wizardsroman

May 7th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

Last week The Guardian published one of those laments for the death of the novel that seem to be contractually mandatory for writers at a certain stage of their career.  (Or at least a significant option—at page 73 on the Book of Life you find the prompt: “Do you lament the death of the novel?  TURN TO PAGE 44.”)  Anyway, I won’t link the piece because I’m not here to engage with it beyond tipping my hat to recognize that Will Self, the author in question, committed a random act of genius when he referred to a Certain Kind of Fiction as the “kidult boywizardsroman.”

He meant this as dismissive wit, sure, but the phrase crystallized a number of long-suspended thoughts about magic, and especially magic systems—which crystal I’ll try to share with you today.  Be careful, though.  It’s fragile, and tends to crumble.

Magic is an awkward subject for fantasy writers, which might seem strange since it defines the genre, especially by contrast with SF: you have wizard books, and then you have spaceship books.  (Though my personal favorite are the wizard-spaceship books.)  But some authors believe magic is best left as a mysterious and grand force, while others believe magic only works when rigorously systematized.  I’ve heard passionate arguments on both sides.  Without systems you have no dramatic tension!  Systems sap wonder!  That’s why I love boywizardsroman—which might be better rendered as wizardsroman since there’s nothing inherently male about the form.

Bildungsroman means “formation story”—it’s the tale of a person learning the ropes of the society in which she finds herself, and growing to social prominence.  (Or utter failure; Jude the Obscure is a bit of an antibildungsroman, following the accepted form in reverse.)  If we go with Joseph Campbell and accept that the Hero’s Journey monomyth represents an inner voyage toward self-acceptance and initiation into society, then the bildungsroman is the outward mirror of that inner journey.  Levin in Anna K. staggers toward manhood—and inside, he’s chasing the Firebird.  Ulysses isn’t quite a bildungsroman, but it operates on the same theory: let’s assume the Odyssey happens on a mythic dimension inside its real characters.  What is that story?

If monomyth’s the lining and bildungsroman the jacket, then magic, on the inner level, represents no more & no less than the ability to operate effectively in the outer world.

Thinking about magic in this way explains the irresolvable conflict between system and mystery.  It’s nothing more (and nothing less!) than the constant pull-and-tug between phenomena and internal state we feel as we wander through life.

Let’s say you’re unhappy at work.  Do you need a better job, or a better attitude?  Sometimes one, sometimes the other, right?  Depending on circumstances.  The answer to your malaise might be “manipulate social networks and economic systems to find a new job.”  Or you might realize the problem’s inside you.  Maybe you’re unhealthy.  Maybe you’re drinking too much, or not sleeping enough.  Maybe you need therapy, or a vacation, or a night playing board games or jamming on the porch with friends.  Maybe you need to do a lot of bucket work before you have any idea what’s wrong.

Some problems we face trying to survive in the world are systematic and logical.  On the inner Hero’s Journey level, we represent those issues (and our struggles with them) as attempts to master a magical rule-set.  Other problems can’t be simplified to a ruleset (if I just do x I’ll succeed professionally / get the boyorgirl / stop crying myself to sleep); they’re the domain of mystery magic.  We rarely understand the entire system at work for these problems; at best we have a few observations.  (Iron repels fairies.  Vampires can’t cross running water.  An exact one-in-a-million chance is a sure thing.  To fly you only have to fall and miss the ground.)

At this point maybe you think I think the system / mystery question is best answered on a story by story basis.  Is your story about problems of systematic manipulation, or internal logic—is it about plot, or character to introduce a couple more terms into the discussion?  Build your magic accordingly.  But that dichotomy’s as false as any.

Because plot is character, character is plot, personal is political and vice versa.  External problems always have an internal effect.  If you’re unhappy with your job—why did you take this job, or why haven’t you changed it yet?  If you have unresolved anxiety issues, how are those affecting your life, and the people around you?  Some very rare and special books can do plot without character, or character without plot, and not suck.  Most can’t.

Which is why I think the best book-magic combines system and mystery.  Ursula K LeGuin’s Earthsea stories, for example, have sharp rules for magic.  You need a little talent to use it; that possessed, you need to learn the True Speech and the secret names of things.  You can’t lie in the True Speech.  If someone learns your true name they have power over you, and can prevent you from transforming into things.  Etc. etc. etc.  Except… there are dark powers and strange gods in the Archipelago that operate without words, mages’ minds throw shadows, dragons can lie even in the Old Tongue.  There’s a dry land beyond the wall of death, and what that’s about nobody knows.  (At first.)  We have rules enough for the external problems, and mystery enough for the internal.  And, true to form, the problems LeGuin’s characters must resolve are internal and external at once—issues of identity and initiation twinned with dark dead gods in an underground labyrinth.

Pat Rothfuss, in the Kingkiller Chronicles, even creates (at least) two interlocking magical systems—one of which has clear rules for plot mechanics, and one of which follows the True Speech pattern, showing characters coming to terms with their own identities and expressions in the world.  His correspondence magic is great for Solving Plot Problems, but it offers no answers to internal questions; Naming, on the other hand, cuts to the heart of the series—the question “Who is Kvothe?”, which I suspect Chronicler or Bast will have to answer by Day 3’s end.  Rothfuss also plays with epistemology and mystery in the Adem sections, and especially in the (hilarious) discussion about Man-Mothers, in which Kvothe tries and fails to prove to a partner that men are involved in the conception of children.

It’s easy to forget how much mystery Robert Jordan bakes into the magic of the Wheel of Time, too.  The One Power’s described quite exactly, but its use and summoning remains messy and mysterious—especially given how much time characters spend overcoming internal blocks and confronting grief and guilt in a mystical context.

Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, which might at first glance seem firmly on the “mystery” side of the equation, actually contains a surprising amount of systematic detail.  Sure, we never get a lecture on the underlying mechanics of faerie, but by story’s end we’re comfortable enough with its rules to understand how Polly chases Tom into the fairy queen’s court, and even the story-legalese Polly exploits to save them both.

I could keep going, and there’s a lot more to add about the connections between the bildungsroman and magical instruction, but I’m hovering at the (mystically determined) limits of blog post length here.  So: magic is life!  Long may the wizardsroman flourish!

Also, runes are cool.

Robert Jordan and Character Design

April 30th, 2014 § 10 comments § permalink

I can’t be objective about the nomination of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time for the Hugo Award for best novel.

I understand folks’ discomfort with the series’ nod, but somewhere in my heart of hearts I’m still the kid who got passed a copy of Eye of the World by a friend in Scouts, burned through the first few books in a month and waited desperately for more.  I read The Shadow Rising in a single day.  My Dad and I spotted the books on Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman’s library shelf during a recorded interview—I read them so often Dad could recognize these books out of focus by the color of their spines—and when I met Thurman in person I asked if he was a fan (he said they belonged to his wife—I wonder if his daughter, Uma Thurman, yes, that Uma Thurman, ever read them?).  I wore out at least two copies of TEotW before my folks decided we should ditch the cover entirely and laminate the first and last pages and binding glue with packing tape.  And while I bailed on the series after Winter’s Heart, I can’t ignore the WoT’s role in my development, alongside other treasures I don’t talk about as much on this site, like the Star Wars EU, Heroes Reborn Iron Man (and the subsequent twenty issues or so, until I lost the plot in some Marvel Uber Crossover Event or other), and the Fantasy Powers League.

Lots of people credit Jordan for the creation of the modern magic system, which may be fair—though I think you have to look a lot earlier than Jordan for that, and anyway his magic system, much as I love it, is a bit smoke and mirrors.  Explain how balefire works with reference to the five-element system, please.  Or Traveling, for that matter.  Or Skimming.  Jordan’s real genius in magic system development (and, I think, the key to making any sort of magic system work) was to present a system that looked complete but fuzzed out enough around the edges to allow speculation, and to let him keep surprising readers without seeming cheap.  But honestly, the magic wasn’t what kept me reading for, gods, 10,000 pages.

The characters did that.

Jordan was shockingly (though unevenly) good at character design.  By that I mean: I haven’t read a Wheel of Time book since college, and I can name—just did, actually, in another window—thirty-three separate Wheel of Time characters without breaking a sweat or reaching for Wikipedia.  Thirty four.  Thirty five.  These characters aren’t just cyphers with names attached, either: almost all of them pass the Plinkett Test.

The Plinkett Test comes from an early scene in the hilarious and cutting Red Letter Media reviews of the Star Wars Prequels, in which kayfabe film reviewer-cum-world’s most horrible human Harry S. Plinkett challenges his friends to describe characters in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace without reference to either (a) physical description or (b) capabilities (like if they can jetski, or do wicked backflips while channeling the True Power or whatever).  His friends, of course, fail miserably for The Phantom Menace—but breeze through the same challenge for characters from Star Wars: A New Hope.

And it’s amazing how many WoT characters pass this same Test: angst-ridden but fundamentally upstanding guy who always wondered what was over the horizon.  Brash, cocky kid out to have a good time in spite of bad circumstances.  Hard worker who would have been perfectly happy staying home.  Bright-eyed but practical and eager for adventure.  Furious, traditional, neurotic, repressed and fundamentally suspicious of the outside world.  Stoic, weather-beaten, determined.  Merry and sly, hiding dark secrets and deep tragedies.  Wise and distant, always a few steps ahead.  I could probably go several layers deep into minor characters without losing those of you in the audience who have read Jordan.

These summaries are simple and evocative—that’s why I said ‘character design’ before, not ‘characterization.’  Character design asks for elemental simplicity; characterization asks for complexity, for the fission and fusion of elements under pressure.  Aaron Diaz of Dresden Codak has a great (and mildly NSFW) post about character design that everyone who writes, especially in genre, should read—he talks about how characters in comics should be distinguishable from one another even on the basic level of their component shapes, and how readers should be able to tell characters apart even while they (the characters, not the readers) are stark naked.

These concerns are just as important for writers as for artists; the shape-level differences in Diaz become differences in voice—both the narrator’s and the character’s.  The recognizable-while-naked angle is another version of the Plinkett Test, repurposed for visual design.  Jordan’s characters endure due to their passage of the Plinkett Test—we could recognize them naked.  (And we’re often asked to.)

Now, look, I’m not claiming Jordan is the Lord King God of All Literature.  It’s been a long time since I last returned to Randland, while I can’t stay away from Damar, or Dunnett’s Scotland, or Zelazny’s worlds.  The design of female WoT characters often gets blurry around the edges, and Jordan tends to repeat himself on a prose level (especially when it comes to character actions used in place of dialogue tags—instead of Marlowe’s cigarettes, Jordan had sniffs and braid pulls and arms crossed under breasts, the last of which I actually used once in Three Parts Dead as a not-so-subtle callout to The Wheel of Time)—and after book 6 the series did start to feel like it spun its wheels one too many times and I’m sure I’d see issues galore if I re-read the books starting with Eye—but…

There’s a reason I devoured these books back in the mists of time.  And it’s a credit to the strength of Jordan’s character design that I feel I could pick up again where I left off in spite of ten years’ interruption, and revisit old friends.

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