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.

Nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award!

April 19th, 2014 § 12 comments § permalink

Hello world! I’m jutting my head out of my shell for another big announcement: I’m nominated for the 2014 John W Campbell Best New Writer award!  Kermit flails abound!

I was nominated for the 2013 JWC award, and had a wonderful time—met great people, made good friends, and helped form the first Tiara Club.  (We even got Ben Bova to wear a tiara!)  I’m really, really excited to meet this year’s fellow nominees, and for the general madness which I’m sure will consume and constitute LonCon 3.

Without further ado, the full nominee slate:

  • Wesley Chu
  • Max Gladstone
  • Ramez Naam
  • Sofia Samatar
  • Benjanun Sriduangkaew

I’m honored to be on a list with these folks, great writers all across the range of Stuff We Do and Are in Genre.  And since this is my second (and last) year of eligibility, I think I need to figure out how to get a tuxedo to London. :)

Yes, I used an emoticon on my blog.  There’s a first time for everything!

Also, there’s a lot to love on the Hugo slate this year.  Great writing and podcasts about the genre (the Skiffy and Fanty Show, the Book Smugglers, Justin Landon, Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley, A Dribble of Ink), wild short fiction (John Chu! Sofia Samatar!), novels (Ancillary Justice! Neptune’s Brood!), editors (Liz Gornisky!!), I could go on and on and on and…

Plus, the part of me that will always be the thirteen-year-old boy who read The Shadow Rising in 24 hours is really, really happy that the Wheel of Time Series got a Best Novel nod.  I know it makes things weird…. but still.  Eternal thirteen year old joy.

No idea whether I’ll be posting again on Wednesday, since I’m (a) on vacation, and (b) unlikely to come up with something witty to say in the next four or five days that isn’t CAMPBELL AWARD!!!!  If so, I’ll be back in a week and a half.  Rock on!

Choice of the Deathless: a XYZZY Award finalist! And Fan Art! And things!

April 16th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

I’m in the middle of a, um, let’s call it moderately insane work cycle—writing one book at the same time as editing another, which should be possible in theory but involves a lot of gear-grinding and clutchless shifting in practice.  Both the next two books will be really good if I can bring the writing in line with my vision, though.  Y’all are in for a treat.

Interesting corollary: I seem to have become a better writer since mid-March, which was the last time I edited the next Craft book.  Or I’ve become a more exacting editor, one or the other.  What this means line by line is, I spend hours pacing and grumbling about a thorny issue of rhythm or rhyme; not the most pleasant experience, but the only way to get work done to spec and to standard.  Fortunately I have rewards in store once I hand in this manuscript: Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions, Hannu Rajaniemi’s Causal Angel (which comes out around my birthday!), and Jo Walton’s new book.  I’d include Elizabeth Bear’s The Steles of the Sky on that list but I’ve already read it, HA HA HA—which is no excuse for you, if you haven’t.  GO FORTH AND READ.

Anyway! All of that was a lead-up to saying that I lack brainspace for deep criticism this week.  Roll Cool Stuff Reel instead!

Choice of the Deathless Nominated for XYZZY Awards!

The annual XYZZY Interactive Fiction Awards were held at the beginning of the month, and Choice of the Deathless, my Craft Sequence choose-your-own-undead-legal-career-and-try-not-to-get-murdered game, was nominated for best setting and best NPCs!  It was an honor to be nominated, especially as someone coming from pretty far outside the modern IF community.  I didn’t win—I know it’s sort of funny to be announcing my nomination after the awards are in, but unlike the Hugo Awards, it doesn’t cost anything to vote in the XYZZYs which means vote mongering is a huge risk and I wanted to avoid any appearance of that—but I had an excellent time, and damn is there good writing in the IF scene.  It’s wild to discover work like Tom McHenry’s Dick-esque Horse Master, Porpentine’s game of abuse-survival-and-angel-fighting Their angelical understanding, and her equally insane subversive gut-punch ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III (If you’re going to play UBTIII, by the way, and you should, there’s one puzzle for which you’ll need this file).  I haven’t had enough time to play all this year’s XYZZY finalists, but I will, and you can bet I’ll have a close eye on the nomination list next year.  The full list is here.

Fan Art!

Deviantart user Piarelle hooked me up with some more fan art based on Choice of the Deathless—here’s a picture of R’ok, looking awfully polite for a demon mantis, and here we have a mild (but super cute) spoiler for a couple romantic endings of the series.

After all, just because you’re a skeleton doesn’t mean romance is out of the question.

And no, I’m not going to link to the relevant Oglaf comic. :)

Board Game Updates!

I played my first game with the Eclipse expansion packs (Rise of the Ancients and Ship Pack One) this Sunday; the Alien Homeworlds make sub-six player games much more interesting, and the new player races are warped in cool ways.  Right now the Syndicate seem powerful—but some of that may have just been chance.  Also, if you’re interested in spaceship fighting but can’t afford a three hour playtime, permit me to suggest Quantum, a sorta-4X that’s massively customizable, replayable, and portable, and evokes the spirit of a Vorkosigan Saga-esque space opera story better than anything I’ve ever seen.

What do I mean by that?  Quantum is a game of moving dice-ships (a very cool mechanic—d6s stand in for spaceships, with higher-number dice moving further while lower numbers pack more of a punch in combat) around the map, trying to muster the right combination of ships to orbit and conquer planets before your friends do.  Each of the six types of ship has its own special ability—and critically you don’t get to control what ships you deploy.  Each time you build a ship, you roll a die and decide where to place the resulting “spaceship” on the map!  On your turn, you’ll find yourself surveying a tiny and dispersed fleet composed of ships you never would have chosen, desperate to stop your fellow players from winning—or to conquer a new planet of your own somehow.  Whatever solution you find, it’s likely to be some insane combination of special abilities, luck, and lateral thinking, the kind of mad edge-case victory I love in the Vorkosigan books but rarely see captured in 4X gameplay.  Somehow Quantum gets you there 90% of the time, in explosive and kinetic fashion.  And all this in 45 minutes a game!  (Though they’re like french fries—you can’t have just one…)  If this sounds like your kind of thing, I strongly suggest you check it out.

And that’s all I have for you this week!  Be well, and if you’re in Mass. dress warm these next couple days.  April’s taking that whole “cruelest month” reputation to heart.

Captain America and Commodity Fetishism in the MCU

April 9th, 2014 § 8 comments § permalink

The Marvel movies have an interesting relationship with Stuff and Things.

Steph and I went to go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend, and loved it.  (I’ve whited out all spoilers in this essay, by the way, unless you consider the fact that Cap uses his shield in this movie, the Black Widow uses her sting, and the Falcon uses his wings to be spoilers.  Which you shouldn’t.)  As we walked to the train afterward, Steph mentioned an aspect of the action scenes I’d missed—the care with which the action directors made sure we knew where Cap’s shield was at all times.  She’d pointed this out after we saw Thor: The Dark World as well—how the action scenes were shot so clearly that we knew at every moment, without fail, where Thor’s hammer was.

Back when we saw Thor, I believed this was a sign of the high quality of action direction in the MCU.  And the direction is excellent: nice long cuts, coupled with coherent cinematic storytelling.  I’m a huge Thor movie fan, but even if you aren’t, you have to admit that the final action sequence in The Dark World—in which Thor, his adversaries, and his helpers are using cracks in the world to jump seamlessly between London and a couple alien worlds—holds together miraculously.  And I do mean miraculously: scenes like that are built to make no sense, yet this one did.  In order for an action sequence starring Thor to hang together, we have to know where his hammer’s hanging.  (So to speak.)  But seeing the pattern repeat itself in Captain America has me thinking there’s more at work here.

All of the Avengers of the MCU movies so far have objects that stand in for them, items they literally or figuratively become.  Tony Stark is the most obvious: I am Iron Man, he proclaims at the end of the first movie, identifying himself with the armor in his own eyes and the eyes of the world.  And he repeats the claim in the third movie, despite having spent most of the film outside of the suit.  Odin’s magic even reifies this association for Thor, via inscription: “Whosever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”  Thor’s attempt to earn his own identity—his kingship—back is synonymous with his attempt to earn the right to bear his hammer again.

Captain America was transformed by the super-soldier serum, sure, but that transformation made him super-Steve.  The shield makes him Cap—as is repeated over and over in the comics, where the shield stands metonymically for the entire Captain America identity.  When Steve stops being Cap, he’s said to be putting down the shield; when he starts being Cap again, he’s taken up the shield once more.  “When you’re going to war,” as Steve says in Winter Soldier, “you have to wear a uniform.”

Even supporting heroes in the Cinematic Universe have their own objects: the Widow’s stings, the Falcon’s wings, Hawkeye’s bow.  (And Darcy’s camera!  And my axe!)  The Hulk is the one great exception to this rule, though I think he actually supports the argument in a twisted way: because his power is internal, it’s presented as confusing and terrifying, and Hulk himself as only a borderline hero.  Also, the Hulk itself is (in movie and comics alike) presented as a sort of psychological object for Banner: an entity on which Banner hangs his own damage.

Heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe identify themselves with a totem—and action sequences spin around this identification.  The shield is Cap on a basic level; when he sets it aside he’s setting aside much of his own power, even if he’s still super-Steve without the shield.  When the movie wants to establish that the Winter Soldier is badass, it doesn’t have him beat Captain America in a fight—it has him grab the shield.  In Iron Man 3, we follow the destruction and reconstruction of Tony’s armor with baited breath.  In Thor 2, the hammer’s location matters.  Sure, these characters are still strong without their stuff—but the movie cares when the stuff goes away.

Marx discusses a concept called “commodity fetishism,” which (and I’m pretty shallow in Marxism, so I’m probably going to get some of this wrong) is the process in capitalism whereby social relationships among people become coded as economic relationships among things: we say oranges or oil are becoming more valuable, or that craft beer’s cheaper than it used to be, when in fact we mean that people need more oil or there was an orange blight or there are a ton of folks smallbrewing in our neighborhood.  We talk of investments as “growing,” when that simple word actually refers to a complicated social reality.  Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America discusses how societies that come into contact with capitalism for the first time tend to find this fetishistic process pretty weird, and associate it with magic and sorcery—Columbian rural farmers, when introduced to capitalist agriculture, developed myths about how one could, by dealing with the devil, plant money in hope that this money will grow, a practice which only strikes outsiders as strange because the would-be devil worshippers weren’t going about it the right way, using savings accounts, mutual funds &c.

I wonder if something like this is at play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s focus on objects and on heroes’ relationship to them.  (Batroc, in Winter Soldier: “Is there a man behind the shield?”  Or Tony Stark’s “I am Iron Man” at the end if IM3.  Or the question of who Thor is when he doesn’t hold the hammer.)  Heroes project themselves onto symbols. But are the heroes more, or less, than their symbol?  To what extent have human beings allowed themselves to be coded into symbols—and to what extent can they reclaim their own identities from the symbols into which they’ve been coded?  Steve’s actions at the end of the Winter Soldier’s final fight try to show us that Steve matters, with or without the shield—by setting aside his symbol, he tries to show the Winter Soldier that he (WS) is more than the symbol into which he’s been shaped.  Of course, Steve takes up his shield again at the movie’s end, for all the… well… the other stuff that happens with shields, the Shield, and SHIELD.  (Though in a sense I suppose *SPOILER* Steve’s demanding that Fury give up his SHIELD….*END SPOILER*)

Actually, now that I think about it, this loose theme unites the Second Phase of the Marvel Universe.  Phase One movies were all about the creation of symbols: armor, hammer, shield.  Phase Two movies, on the other hand, tend to be about reclaiming the human properties from these objects.  When Tony’s suit’s disabled, he must learn to re-apply the same ingenuity that created Iron Man—reclaiming himself from the suit.  Thor doesn’t need to reclaim himself from the hammer, but he does have to walk away from Asgard and his throne in order to follow his heart.  And Steve, Sorry, SPOILER ALERT AGAIN decides that to connect with Bucky, he must set aside his shield and all defenses—and, not coincidentally, disband SHIELD at the same time END SPOILER.

Alyssa Rosenberg’s written eloquently about the MCU’s engagement with the drone program—with the degree to which the movies turn on the distinction between human heroism enabled by technology, and raw drone warfare.  The Iron Man suit at its worst is dronelike, and the climax of IM3 involves an awful lot of Iron Man suits that I can’t refer to as anything but drones.  Thor’s hammer is a similar tool of wielded but nevertheless semi-autonomous technological destruction; so’s the technologically-enhanced super soldier, seen from a particular light.  The drone’s a special case, I think, of this larger issue: how we put ourselves into things, then forget that those parts came from ourselves to begin with, and struggle to recapture them without a clear sense of what’s been lost or how.

These movies, in addition to all their sweet action, chart the ever-more-complicated line between human and machine, between tool and wielder, between creator and created world.  I don’t know if the Marvel filmmakers intended to build a seven-picture cycle on commodity fetishism, humanity’s alienation from heroism and its attempt to reclaim that lost ground, but I think they’ve done so.

(And then there’s Zola!  The bad guy who actually became a thing!  Aaaaaah it’s all coming together!)

There’s more to write here—a lot more—but if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I have to go buy the Trouble Man soundtrack.

Jedi Econ, Sith History

April 2nd, 2014 § 10 comments § permalink

While drinking the other night, a few friends and I argued the merits of economic history.  Star Wars entered the picture.  It was super effective.  You have been warned.  Read further at your own risk.

On the one hand, economics is a great lens through which to view history.  If we define our metrics properly we can trace the rise and fall of nations, peering at patterns behind and beneath the “Great Men”—plagues and surplusses and farming innovations become as significant as which Caesar won what battle.  And if we’re careful, we can use economics as a foundation for discussions about how human life and society have changed (or stayed the same) down millennia.

Thing is, as Mal Reynolds might say if he was my thesis advisor, there’s an awful lot of ‘if’ coming off that plan.

(Now I’m envisioning a Firefly version of the Academic Coach Taylor tumblr.  Someone go make that, please?  Anyway.)

It seems to me (and I am neither a professional economist nor an academic historian here, so take this whole column with the world’s biggest grain of salt) that this approach has a pretty big potential pitfall.  Our choice of metrics is shaped by our historical and cultural position, which other ages and places by definition didn’t share.  Imagine you’re playing checkers in one room, and your friends are playing chess in another.  During a lull in your checkers game (maybe your opponent takes a long time to move), you get up and ask your chess-playing friends how their game’s going.  Assume for a second that you know so little about chess that you can’t even hum the chorus of “One Night in Bangkok.” How-does-little-horsey-move territory, here.  You’d probably ask questions based on your own experience of checkers, which seems similar on the surface; How many pieces have they taken?  Has anyone promoted a piece yet?  What’s the greatest number of pieces they’ve taken in one move?  Some of these questions will be answerable; some won’t; many will have answers that don’t correlate to ‘success’ in the game in the way you’ll assume if you only know the rules of checkers.  And, critically: you’ll never ask a question about check, or mate.  You’ll not see forks, or board influence; you’ll be utterly confused the first time someone castles.

The modern metropolitan depends on her salary.  So we might be tempted, when comparing her position in society to her forbears of a century prior, to compare salaries or bank balances.  But salary-dependence is a more or less modern phenomenon—up through the late 19th century, the US was primarily rural, like everywhere else, and wage income wasn’t as vital a yardstick of economic security.  In fact, the relative ease of homesteading and farming functioned as a kind of national basic income or unemployment insurance: employers had to compete for labor with the everpresent risk their employees might decide, “screw this job, I’ll go farm instead.”  (See Economix for more on this theme.)

Or, consider Star Wars.  Let’s assume the movies are a historical narrative.  It’s pretty clear that we’re seeing Jedi Holocron history, since the most important bit of data about Galactic politics at any given time is “what are the Force users up to?”  From the perspective of the Jedi Holocron, the Empire’s moment-by-moment policies don’t matter.  What matters is that Palpatine and Vader are in charge, and they use the Dark Side of the Force—that Vader betrayed and murdered Anakin Skywalker, that the Emperor hunted the Jedi to extinction.  Non-Jedi related issues are mentioned as an afterthought.  We hear the Imperial Senate was dissolved, but never learn what that means exactly; we know nothing about the galactic economy save that smuggling’s a thing people do, and people care about spice.  But we do know exactly what’s up with the Force users.

Which is the reason the audience feels such whiplash when The Phantom Menace’s opening crawl features a dispute over “the taxation of trade routes.”  All of a sudden we’ve been dropped into an entirely different historiography, using different metrics: a money-and-trade story, rather than a Jedi story.

That whiplash is the problem, not the subject matter.  There’s a commonplace among critics of The Phantom Menace that taxation of trade routes is inherently boring, which is just wrong—Dune is a gripping space opera that turns on equally abstruse points of politics, economics, and ecology, while huge chunks of Dorothy Dunnett’s plots turn on issues as apparently dry.  (Both the first two Niccolo books can be read as slow-burn setups for elegant economic assassinations.)  Hell, the West Wing’s best moments are about precisely this sort of economic and bureaucratic issue.  But the Holocron telling the story seems neither to understand nor to care about the taxation issues in question, or  the Trade Federation’s goals, save to the extent they’re playing catspaw for the Sith.

I’ll go a step further: the Trade Federation’s antics are no more comprehensible to the Holocron than the Jedi’s actions would be to a non-Jedi economic or military historian.  We see occasional glimpses of this disconnect when ordinary citizens offer their perspective on the Jedi, the Sith, and their place in Galactic history: Han Solo’s evocation of “hokey religions and ancient weapons,” Admiral Motti’s “You don’t frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader,” or even Tarkin’s “You, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion.”  For most folks, the Jedi are weird, unknowable, and not the point of the story—we the viewers just assume they are, because we happen to be watching a tale told from their perspective, focusing on issues they think are important.

So, imagine the narrative an economic historian of 200 ABY would compose about the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire: a tale of peripheral revolt from a crumbling metropole, rapacious provincial governorship, and eventual rebellion leading to a military coup, which was defeated in turn by an alliance of conservative Senators with peripheral military strongholds—a story in which the Jedi figure as prominently as the soothsayer who warns Caesar to beware the Ides of March, and in which the Sith are as relevant as the Thule Society (that is to say, a creepy footnote, but a footnote nonetheless).  Such a historian might well regard as frippery any claim that the Rebellion was “about” Jedi or Sith.  Obviously the contrast between droid and clone means of production and force projection was the far greater issue at the time—not to mention vital and hotly contested questions of provincial taxation and trade.

Which is not to say the non-Force historian is wrong!  Just that, if he spins his theories in front of a Sith Lord, he runs the risk of getting force-choked.  And may that be a lesson to us all as we cast our gaze on history: be careful about our angles of analysis, lest the past strangle us, or shoot us full of Dark Side lightning.


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