What a Twist—Real Life, Directed by M Night Shyamalan.

February 5th, 2014 § 4 comments § permalink

We live in a twist ending world.

I feel like the mid-90s through early oughts were the Golden Age of the Twist, but even though they’ve receded a bit from their M Night Shyamanence in the last decade or so they’re still a huge part of the modern writer’s toolbox.  Some of the great all-time cinema moments are twists (and if you don’t see the spoilers coming hot and heavy in the next few minutes I suggest you leave now and go somewhere pleasant, preferably with a beach, good surf, and no wi-fi).  Think about it:


These moments are needles stuck into our heads.  I love their power.  I’m a bit of a twist junkie when it comes to storytelling.  And yet…

Twists do rob us of drama.  The end of Usual Suspects feels brilliant the first time you watch it, and on the mandatory rewatch where you snag the clues that were “there all along”—but on repeat viewings you (or I) come to feel that on some level Keaton’s relationship problems, McManus’s general psychosis, and Benicio Del Toro’s tragic quest to make himself understood in an uncaring universe don’t matter.  The gang starts off manipulated but unaware.  At the half-mark they learn something about the extent to which Soze’s playing them, but they can’t do anything about it.  When they finally discover the truth, they die and the movie ends.  In a way the whole thing is a single dramatic beat: Soze tries to trick the audience as well as Keaton’s crew and the FBI, and succeeds.  One magic trick.  It’s a brilliant trick!  I love The Usual Suspects, and whenever I learn a friend hasn’t seen it, I’ll scurry off to schedule a viewing party—because while the trick itself loses its spark when you know how it’s done, there’s a pleasure in watching someone else fall for it the first time.

But it’s a very different experience from watching a film that uses pure dramatic storytelling, like Thank You for Smoking or The Fellowship of the Ring.  (Confession: the only other thing these movies have in common far as I can tell is that I’ve seen both of them an embarrassing double-digits number of times and thus can talk about them from memory.  Maybe I’ll add Newsies into the mix later for good measure.)  Characters in these stories have desires,  try to achieve those desires, and succeed or fail because of opposition or internal weaknesses, and it all matters.  These stories may surprise us, but the surprises don’t tend to eclipse the rest of the story.  Journalist Heather Holloway (played by Katie Holmes, and after TYFS and Mad Men can we maybe retire Holloway as an ironically significant surname at least for a few years?) turns out to be sleeping with Nick Naylor (okay, maybe I should just let these names go) in order to write her hard-hitting expose on the man and his industry; this is a surprise but it doesn’t abrogate their relationship so much as cast it in a different (exploitative, vicious, sexy) light.  Ditto with Boromir’s betrayal at the end of Fellowship.

I’ve read hard-hitting indictments of the drama-sapping twist (and of all storytellers so lazy as to employ it).  But…  Okay, so twists can rob stories of the potential for drama.  If so, why do we use them?  In a marketplace with a billion stories competing for our attention constantly, why would a storyteller ever use a device that forces them to make their stories less dramatic?

Maybe the answer’s purely market-driven: viewers are more likely to inflict stories with twists on their friends, so they can talk about the twist.  I don’t like that answer, though; I don’t know anyone who thinks about storytelling in this mercenary a fashion, but hell, maybe those people do exist!  Maybe there’s some creepy evo-psych hardwiring that makes sharp twists hit us harder.  But that way lies tautology & madness (“we like it because we do”) so let me recoil.

The answer like is the one at the very start of this article (What a twist!): “We live in a twist-ending world.”  The world, our friends, our families, our societies, our histories, our preferences, and even our own minds really aren’t what we think.  They’re bigger, weirder, and deeper.  We’ve become so used to the revelation that Strange Things are Afoot at the Circle K that we’ve come to expect it from our stories, too.  Our history is wrong—the cowboys aren’t the good guys, the Indians aren’t savage, the High Middle Ages were cool but really didn’t contribute much to burgeoning Afro-Eurasian civilization (outside of some awesome polyphonic chant), Jefferson was… not a saint.  The Aztecs sacrificed human beings, sure, but some scholars feel that contemporary European states (I mean contempary with the Aztec empire here) executed more of their own people overall.  We think Coke tastes better than Pepsi unless we don’t know which one we’re drinking.  We think we’re angry when we’re sad.  We think we’re hungry when we’re thirsty.  We think we’re oppressed when we’re the oppressors.  Our friend who seemed happy when we last spoke threw himself off a bridge.  We drink because we want to, only we don’t.  So when someone shows us, on screen or in a book, a window into a world where characters take dramatic action on false premises only to discover their errors too late, we say “oh, yeah, I know exactly how that feels.”

If that’s the reason, though, then it informs the kind of twist we as writers should be preparing.  A good twist doesn’t just yank the audience’s chain.  A good twist should reveal the world in which our characters live to be bigger, deeper, and more complicated than we initially supposed, confronting characters and viewers at once with the limits of their perception.  The twist isn’t so much that Vader is Luke’s father as that, holy shit, this oppressive Imperial evil is intimately connected with Luke, the Jedi, and by extension everything we thought was good.  The enormous dragon of Charles Foster Kane was, at some point, an innocent happy boy on a sled—which breaks open both the myth of invulnerable irredeemable Charles Foster Kane, and the myth of the sacred innocence of happy little boys on sleds at once.  Jack contains and conceals Tyler (or vice versa) in exactly the same way that the fluorescent middle-management cube farm contains and conceals the will-to-power of late millennial manhood.  (And womanhood, and personhood in general, but Fight Club is more concerned with manhood and IIRC white manhood in specific.)

(Fight Club’s a weird movie, by the way, and I don’t mean by the discussion above to suggest that I agree with everything it says.  That’s for a longer article which I may never get around to writing.  But I think it uses the twist well by opening new depths for its world.)

That kind of twist, when it works, not only mirrors the weird and unsolved nature of our existence, it confronts protagonists with the kind of challenge we all face with disturbing regularity: some number of things I thought I knew are wrong.  What should I do in this situation?  What’s moral?  What’s practical?  What’s sane?  How can we move forward?

It turns out that the galaxy-spanning empire you’ve been fighting is actually your own galaxy-spanning empire.  Your father built it for you.  What now?

And—this being why I love Star Wars—the story refuses to let the protagonist get off so easy as “frustrate his plans and end it all by jumping off a building.”  Nope.  Luke survives to ask himself what he’s going to do next.

So may we all.

(By the way, if the topic of this post interests you at all, run, do not walk, to your nearest store and buy a copy of Sara Gran’s Clare DeWitt and the City of the Dead, a trippy and philosophical mystery novel that is all about this sort of thing.)

Sacred Kingship in Fantasy (and the Wolf of Wall Street)

January 22nd, 2014 § 7 comments § permalink

As a fantasy writer, I have a chip on my shoulder about monarchies.

There are good reasons for this!  It’s pretty weird for fantasy lit to embrace a form of government that, when it survives at all in the modern day, tends to fall somewhere between a charming affectation and a confusing throwback.  So many books about rightful kings and the return of a grand  sovereign who will Fix Everything.  So many destined heroes and heroines.  Blood royal by the gallon.  And to make matters worse, some fantasy novels consume hundreds of pages taking nuanced and risky political positions like “serfdom is bad” or “maybe some people who are not aristocrats would be good at governing,” which seems to me the political equivalent of singing the Welsh longbow’s praises to the 1st Infantry Division.

Now, the genre’s been veering away from this rock.  The Lies of Locke Lamorra and The Name of the Wind, both wildly successful in the field, have hardly any kings at all.  China Mieville’s fantasies engage with 19th-century through postmodern modes of oppression and government.  The Shattered Pillars is in some ways a restoration-of-the-King fantasy, but one of the central noble characters has explicitly rejected any path to the throne or to aristocratic power generally, and the other spends a lot more of the first book wanting to save his commoner girlfriend than he does thinking about Ascending to the Throne.  Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo isn’t concerned with medieval kingship.  Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death isn’t either, though it’s a postapocalyptic fantasy and doesn’t belong in the same category as the others I’ve listed here.  I have my necromancer-lawyers in a fantasy analogue of late-millennial capitalism.  But still, the issue of kings arises.

I’ve wrestled with this question on and off for years, and this year I ended up on a panel called Why Root for Monarchies?, moderated by Vanessa Layne.  I went in raring for revolution—and then Ms. Layne mentioned that she approached the topic from her background in Jungian analysis.

At which point a lightbulb clicked on in my brain.

Because stories are dreams, in a way.  And we are everyone in our dreams—father, mother, kitten, needle-toothed-monstrosity.  (At least, this is an interpretive framework I’ve found useful.)  When we’re writing about kings, we’re writing about ourselves as kings of ourselves.

Because we are all kings, aren’t we?  Or queens.  Reigning monarchs, whatever our gender.

By which I mean: we stand in the center of our own minds—of our awareness that fills the universe we know (by definition).  The decisions we make every day shape that universe.  When the monarch of our mind is diseased, warped, evil, then the land—the mental land, the soulscape—twists and decays.  When the monarch of our mind is just, upright, generous, and kind, the land calms, and flourishes.  Possibilities grow.  New life enters the world.  Nothing can live in the land of the evil king because the evil king allows nothing to live there—nothing surprising, nothing beautiful, nothing that can flourish or transform or challenge.  The good king welcomes, and so allows growth, transformation, and the full richness of the world.

So a certain kind of spiritual kingship story can be profoundly democratic.  Most of our talk about the Campbellian monomyth and mystic kingship misses this critical point: if the monomyth is an initiation ritual, it’s a ritual which all members of society must undergo.  It’s not something special, a secret marker for kings or tribal leaders; all adults of the tribe walk this path.  To reach adulthood is to be Luke Skywalker, or Arthur, or Aerin-sol.

And when I say all members of society I do mean all.  Monomyth discussion can get weird and gender-essentialist for historically contingent reasons—but I don’t see anything gendered about the need to achieve generative agency in our own minds and lives.

This same kind of logic shows up in Vajrayana Buddhism, too—tantric meditation refigures the adept as an enlightened divine being in the center of a mandala-palace.  Every single adept.  Initiations are large ceremonies: thousands of people are all being told at once, “Envision yourself as a divine being at the center of the universe.”

So, am I giving monarch-apologist fiction a free pass?  No.  The spiritual self-rule I’m talking about (which by the way also plays nice with Christian theology; if you think what I’m describing sounds awfully prideful I humbly submit to you Augustine’s discussion about standing upright in The City of God, not to mention Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor scene from Bros. K) is the absolute reality; secular kingship is the shadow that reality casts on the cave wall.  To play in this territory, stories need to guide the reader away from the shadow, to the reality.  To make Arthur a secular Christ, storytellers gave him a mystic birth, a wizard advisor, draconic signifiers, a magical sword, tragedy and destiny and the Holy Grail and Green Men and all the like precisely because these things were weird.  These are symbols that Arthur exists in the realm of the sublime, of the archetype—White’s “Island of Gramarye” where you and I shall fare.

The funny thing is, because of their success, these same symbols have become so common as to be seen to define a world in which they make sense.  Rather than pointing us away from the cave wall, they posit another cave wall with a slightly different topology and physics.  When the reaction to the phrase “this is a magic sword” is not a feeling of wonder and awe—of being invited into the sublime by an object’s presence— but instead the question “is it more, or less, magic than that guy’s magic sword?” then I think it’s safe to say we’re back from the clouds and rooted once more in the mundane world, no matter how many wizards are whizzing about.

I don’t mean that rules-based high fantasy cannot evoke the sublime; it just has to evoke the sublime in such a way as to signify that something outlandish is taking place even by the standards of an outlandish world.  The Lord of the Rings does this well.  So does Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry.  So do Ursula K LeGuin’s Earthsea books—Earthsea’s magic is systematized, but by pressing around its edges LeGuin turns us again and again to the sublime.

And, of course, it’s possible to deal with these questions without any literal monarchs whatsoever!  Which brings me to The Wolf of Wall Street.

Wolf presents two opposed versions of adult manhood: Jordan Belfort, introduced riding a white Porche getting a blow job from his supermodel wife, and Patrick Denham, the FBI agent investigating Belfort for fraud.  Belfort’s character is presented as a secular monarch of US culture.  He has the castle, the millions, the everything.  Denham wears a decent suit, and rides the subway to work.  His scenes are tinged a slight gray, with washed-out colors.

Wolf of Wall Street, I think, is a brilliant depiction of the Wasteland of the Evil King.  In Belfort’s world, no one is old.  In Belfort’s world, no one is wise.  In Belfort’s world, there are no black people except for his female housekeeper.  In Belfort’s world, women exist entirely for sex and money laundering—and (this is my favorite bit) he’s not even any good at the sex!  Sexuality defines his physical life and the few times we see him get busy, he’s horrible at it.  Like, fourteen-year-old-boy-in-back-of-Dad’s-Camero, “um-shit-where-does-this-bit-go” horrible.  And at the apex of Belfort’s anti-initiation, the moment of grail-finding in a spiritual kingship narrative?  He finds his Grail, the ur-Quaalude, consumes it and transforms into an infant, unable to speak or walk or even crawl, in one of the best sequences of physical comedy I’ve ever seen in a movie.  For all the lushness of his surroundings, he inhabits a blasted land.  (Come to think, he’s just as bad at drugs as he is at sex!)

The few scenes which we don’t see through Belfort’s eyes we see (with one brief exception) through Denham’s—and these are the only scenes where the movie shows us women who aren’t airbrushed supermodels.  Near the end, we join Denham on the subway; a silent, unsensational minute or two of film in which he reads the paper, sets it down, and sits alongside the usual inhabitants of a New York subway car, old and young, of a range of body types and skin colors and styles of dress and affect.  No one talks, but they are there, being themselves.  No one needs to serve anyone.  The scene transcends in just how uncanny it feels, how different: how much it shows Belfort’s fantasyland for the husk it is.  Denham is the sacred king.  Belfort is doomed to himself.  And the film’s last shot indicts us for how hungry we are for secular kingship, and how little we understand the sacred variety.

In sum: the Monarchies panel reminded me of a symbolic role kingship plays in stories that I’d forgotten.  The role is complicated, though, and it’s not about kingship so much as initiation, ascendancy, and adulthood—about becoming.  Shiny hats might help get the point across, but shiny hat and throne are only trappings of a deeper reality.  The reality deserves our striving.  The trappings don’t deserve much at all, really.


(All that said—I had an awesome time at Arisia.  Great panels, great questions, great thought.  Still recovering, but that’s to be expected.  Thanks to the whole con team, and especially to Shira Lipkin, who organized the Literary track!)


Awards Season, and Arisia Schedule!

January 8th, 2014 § 4 comments § permalink

Here’s a great, and also weird and interesting, thing about science fiction and fantasy: anyone (with a little money) can vote on the Hugo award, the flagship award in genre.  I’ve written before about why I think that’s incredibly cool, and the old logic still applies: it gives final responsibility for what we want the genre to look like to the people who read books and watch TV and play games.

Now, it’s not free to vote in the Hugo Awards, which sucks because there are plenty of folk who want to vote but can’t afford it.  Still, the franchise is cheaper this year than it was last year—for about US $40, you can buy a supporting membership to this year’s WorldCon, which happens to be LonCon 3 in London.  The supporting membership doesn’t let you actually attend the con, but it does let you nominate works, and vote.  As an added bonus, all supporting members receive the Hugo Voter’s Packet: electronic copies of every nominated work.  In practice, this means five or six novels, novellas, short stories, and graphic novels, and that’s just to start.  Even if you’re thinking of this as a purely financial transaction (which you shouldn’t, because authors don’t get paid for the works they submit to the Hugo Voters’ Packet, but still), you come out well ahead on the deal.  It’s a great way to discover new writers, and to encounter works you might have missed.  I discovered Kim Stanley Robinson through last year’s packet, and now he’s one of my favorite writers in genre.  (Seriously, 2312 is absurdly great why aren’t you reading it RIGHT NOW?)


Anyway, if this sounds good to you, follow the directions below!

1. Before January 31, 2014 buy a “supporting membership” to this year’s WorldCon.  Here’s the relevant page!

2. You will receive a Hugo Voter PIN.  This is what you’ll use to nominate folks for awards!  Be careful, though—sometimes the PIN email gets caught in spam filters.

3. Once you have your PIN, and Before March 31, 2014, go to this page, enter your name, your voter PIN, and click “next.”  Then fill out the form, click submit, and you’re done!

Stuff That’s Good and You Should Totally Vote For It

Let me start with the Blatant Self Promotion and get that out of the way—this list counts for the Nebula awards too, by the way, if you happen to be a member of SFWA:

  • This is my second, and final, year of eligibility for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award.  I was nominated for it last year, and that was a huge honor.
  • Two Serpents Rise is eligible in the Best Novel category.
  • My short story Drona’s Death is eligible for Best Short Story.
  • My game, Choice of the Deathless, may theoretically be eligible for Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form.  Maybe.

Obviously I’d be pleased if y’all thought I was worth a nomination in one of these categories.  That said, there was a ton of great work published this year.

For novels, this year saw the publication of The Shattered Pillars (second in Elizabeth Bear’s awesome Central Asian-rooted fantasy series), and Republic of Thieves (the Gentlemen Bastards return!), and Ancillary Justice (The Left Hand of Darkness meets Dune, sort of, and it’s great), and Bleeding Edge which, well, it’s only sort of science fiction and Thomas Pynchon really doesn’t need the help but I’d be tickled to bridge the genre gap by nominating Pynchon of all people for a Hugo award.  Not to mention the books I desperately need to catch up on: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, MaddAddam, Something More than Night, The Golem and the Jinni, The Accursed, The Lives of Tao, the most recent James SA Corey book, etc. etc. etc.

Comics (or Best Graphic Story): I’m in love with Hawkeye, Saga, and Chew at the moment.  There are certainly other projects out there that merit attention, but I’m putting those three on the nomination ballot without a second thought.

As  for Best Dramatic Presentation: basically you should just go read Andrea Phillips’ post on the subject, because she nails it.  If you don’t want to click on the link (and why do you hate links, really?  Meditate on that.): she argues that this is the time to nominate a game for Best Dramatic Presentation.  I wholeheartedly agree.  An immense amount of creative genre work is being done, today, in interactive media.  Ignoring that is just silly.  This was a great year for games with speculative elements, everything from The Last of Us all the way to the mad mad mad-fest of Saints Row IV.

And on a completely unrelated note: Arisia!

I’m on… um.  A staggering number of events at Arisia next weekend.  If you’re in the Boston area, drop by!

Friday, Jan 17, 7:oo PM—Autograph: Gladstone, Grant, Linzner — Writing, Signing — 1hr 15min — Autograph Space (1E)

Autograph session with Max Gladstone, April Grant, and Gordon Linzner.

Saturday, Jan 18, 5:00 PM—Rebuild of Evangelion — Anime, Panel — 1hr 15min — Revere (2)
3 out of 4 of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies have come out in Japan. It is a very unusual remake that starts veering away more and more from the beloved series that it comes from. Are they improvements on the originals or a confusing money grab? What do people expect from the anticipated conclusion?
Max GladstoneJames T Henderson JrPJ LeterskyRichard Ralston (m)

 Sunday, Jan 19, 10:00 AM - Interactivity in Fiction — Literature, Panel — 1hr 15min — Faneuil (3W)


Fiction has never been a static experience, but we’ve recently gained whole new vocabulary for talking about its interactive aspects, and a generation of readers are coming of age who have never not known explicitly interaction-centered entertainment in addition to more traditional fiction. What are some of the techniques creators in other media are using to put more and better narrative into their interactive works and what, if anything, can authors learn from their attempts and techniques?Heather AlbanoErik Amundsen (m), Max GladstoneForest HandfordCarolyn VanEseltine

1:00 PM - Reading: Garrott, Gladstone, Grant, Odasso — Writing, Reading — 1hr 15min — Hale (3W)

Authors Lila Garrott, Max Gladstone, April Grant, and Adrienne J. Odasso and will read selections from their works.
Lila GarrottMax GladstoneApril GrantAdrienne J. Odasso

 4:00 PM Why Root for Monarchies? Class and Fantasy Lit — Literature, Panel — 1hr 15min — Faneuil (3W)

Most of us come from democratic nations and don’t have a fancy title. As history classes taught us, most of our ancestors fought the tyranny of monarchs and aristocrats. But when it comes to fantasy literature, people seem to love protagonists who hold titles or become queens and kings. Why do we root for the aristocrats? Why aren’t more fantasy protagonists truly from the lower classes and stay there? Where are the fantasy revolutionaries?
Mark L AmidonStephen R BalzacMax GladstoneTanya HuffVanessa Layne (m)

5:30 PM - Spirituality in Fantasy and Science Fiction — Literature, Panel — 1hr 15min — Faneuil (3W)

The Chronicles of Narnia are famous for, among other things, incorporating many of C.S. Lewis’s Christian beliefs. But did it inspire its readers to be more religious? Are there fans of fantasy and science fiction who look to their favorite works in times of crisis or to inspire their faith (or, possibly, lack there of)? What works of literature have people in fandom, whether Christian, Wiccan, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, or none (or all) of the above, found formative to their beliefs?
Erik Amundsen (m), Max GladstoneKate KaynakDaniel José OlderSuzanne Reynolds-Alpert

7:00 PM So You Think You Can Write a Fight? — Literature, Panel — 1hr 15min — Griffin (3E)

Come find out how viable your fight scene really is. An experienced panel of talented authors, martial artists, and maybe one hapless would-be victim will take your quick fight scene and act it out while our esteemed panelists help you work out the physical and literary kinks. Please no epic wave battles.
Stephen R BalzacKeith R. A. DeCandidoGenevieve Iseult Eldredge (m), Max GladstoneNicole L. MannMichael McAfeeMark Millman

 Monday, Jan 20, 10:00 AM — This Book Looks Nothing Like My Ren Faire! — Literature, Panel — 1hr 15min — Adams (3W)

Especially since the success of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a large number of secondary world fantasy series have been set in worlds that greatly resemble pre-industrial Western Europe. Many fantasy novelists are now creating worlds that draw inspiration from other global cultures. This panel will discuss works by writers such as Nnedi Okorafor, Saladin Ahmed, N.K. Jemisin, and David Anthony Durham and why these non-Western settings are so important.
Vikki Ciaffone (m), Max GladstoneNisi ShawlBrian Staveley

 11:30 AM — Stick with It! Complex, Rewarding Literature — Literature, Panel — 1hr 15min — Burroughs (3E)

Most of the time, the SF we read is easy enough to get through; however, at times, we’ve picked up or been recommended a work of SF only to find it more than we bargained for. Not a tedious read, but rather an epic journey, fraught with trials and tribulations yet eminently Worth It. What favorite works of the panelists’ are difficult to get through, but ultimately worth the read? How does one make the reading of one of these diamonds more feasible without losing any of the effect?
Lila Garrott (m), Greer GilmanMax GladstoneDennis McCunneySonya Taaffe

 Whereupon I then collapse in a heap of jelly.  But it should be fun!

One Year behind the Keyboard

January 1st, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

It’s been a TARDIS of a year: fast-moving, far-traveling, yet much bigger on the inside than I would have expected back in Jan of ’13.

Three Parts Dead came out a little over a year ago; I didn’t know what to expect, and like a genius started writing my next book the day before Three Parts Dead hit shelves.  Because Essays!  Travel!  Reviews!  and Airplanes! are all perfectly conducive to the germination of a novel.  I put fingers to keyboard, sure, but I threw out the first 20,000 words I wrote, and the next 20,000 too.  But the third 20,000—those stayed up.

Mostly.  I still deleted half of those and added another 10,000 or so, but the point is, they worked for a start.  The ensuing book was one of the hardest drafts of my life, but  eight revisions later, I think it’s the best book I’ve written yet.  Different, but then, so’s everything.

Meanwhile Three Parts Dead was very well received, for which thank you all.  The book was nominated (or got me nominated) for a few awards, including the John W. “NOT A HUGO” Campbell Award; I thought I’d been to cons before but there’s no con quite like WorldCon.  I can’t wait to go back this year.

(Three Parts Dead, by the way, is now $2.99 on various e-Book stores—if you’ve wanted a copy for the e-reader of your choice, no time like the present!)

So, yeah.  Tours.  Awards.  Two Serpents Rise hit shelves back in late October, and people seem to like it as much as Three Parts Dead.  Excellent.

In terms of creative productivity, last year I wrote a bunch of stuff:

  • The next Craft Sequence novel, Full Fathom Five, coming July 2014.
  • The Craft Sequence novel after that, which I’m tentatively calling Last First Snow—this one isn’t under contract from Tor yet, which is completely fair since they have two unpublished books of mine under contract.  But I’m really excited about Last First Snow, and can’t wait to share more of the plot with you.  It’s a return to Dresediel Lex, yes, but to the DL of the past.
  • Choice of the Deathless, a novel-length choose-your-own-path type text adventure game available for iOS, Android, the Kindle Store, the Chrome Store etc. etc.  Reviews for this one have been very positive, and the title’s been a bestseller for the publisher.  If you haven’t played this yet, it’s only $2.99—follow this link to find the game on your platform of your choice.

I also wrote a number of blog posts, including this one about how the humans of Star Wars are actually ginormous bees.  I even received threats of fanfic written in Giant Bee Star Wars Universe.  No such fanfic has materialized, but I go to sleep every night with my fingers crossed.

‘Tis the season to make long lists, so let’s talk standout artistic experiences from 2013.  (If you don’t really care what art I spent this year consuming, just skip to the bold text at the top of the next paragraph!)  I wrote a lot this year, which means I spent a lot of time listening to music, specifically stuff with beat and without intelligible lyrics.  Nomad, by Tuareg guitarist Bombino, was a huge help; I wrote an entire novel while listening to Clint Mansell’s soundtrack for The Fountain.  Not to mention the Pacific Rim soundtrack—perfect for fight scenes.  As for video games, 2013 was the year I became a Mass Effect-er (approved term?), and also the year in which I started forcing people to play through the first 20 minutes of Saints Row IV, because fun.  I played catchup on reading for much of 2013: Wolf Hall, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Witches Abroad, Bleeding Edge (in which Thomas Pynchon decides that Neal Stephenson’s been horning in on his territory enough and decides to horn back).  Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts is the Mongolian fantasy novel that I’m so glad exists , and I have no idea how I’d never read Barry Hugharty’s Bridge of Birds before.  Movies and TV…  Well, if I pretended I knew what I was talking about in this realm I’d look like an idiot.  I saw the first episode of Breaking Bad over Christmas?  Um.  Oh, and I loved Iron Man 3, in which Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Shane Black fused with A Long Kiss Goodnight Shane Black and absorbed some superhero DNA.  And The Raid, oh my god.  Comics-wise—if you like comics and you’re not reading Hawkeye and Saga and Chew, please, why?  Do you have a reason?  You should have a reason.

So that’s enough plugging.  Here comes 2014!  What does that mean for me?  A few convention appearances, on which more soon.  I’ve spent the last two days breaking story for a self-contained novel and am STOKED—both by the novel and by the breaking process.  After I write that book I have another Craft book in mind (really I have another 10 or so Craft books in mind, but one’s front-runner), and Choice of Games is interested in another game from me.  I have a comic project inching toward completion, and I really would like to try my hand at a screenplay this year, to stretch my legs.  With luck this’ll be a growth year for me.  I’d cross my fingers but they’re still crossed for Star Wars Bee fanfic.

And speaking of growth, I’ve been debating what to do on this site.  I’ve tried  many times to adopt a 3x or 5x/week posting regimen, and what tends to happen is: I start, I’m going strong for a week or three, and then I disappear for several months until I return for some crazy neat announcement.  This is a Bad Practice.  Not fair to y’all, really, and psychologically problematic for me, since I keep thinking “damn Gladstone you should post something to your blog” at inopportune times, like in the middle of a fencing bout, while cooking dinner, or—and this is the real killer—while I’m trying to write a book.  That ‘post’ button hangs overhead like the Sword of Damocles, which is not comfortmaking.  So here’s my plan.  This year, I’m going to post on my blog once a week.  Every Wednesday afternoon, I’ll have something here.  Might be a cool essay.  Might be an announcement.  Might be a video.  Might be a magic trick.  (Probably won’t be a magic trick.)  I’ll have ‘em up noonish, so you can go watch the week’s Zero Punctuation, then drop on by.  That way you get stuff to read, and I can use this blog as an outlet for everything I think about that isn’t wizard-lawyer-related, while at the same time robbing the “Max you really should post something to your blog” gremlin of its guilt-ammo.  Gremlins are helpless without their ammo.

So that’s me, and that was 2013.  Awesome year.  Thanks to everyone who moved through it with me.  And—onward into the new era!

Choice of the Deathless—in time for Christmas!

December 17th, 2013 § 4 comments § permalink

UPDATE: The game is out!  Download it here!

Unlike MC Lars, I have not been touring everywhere  to give this world joy.  To the contrary, I’ve stayed put with my nose to the grindstone for joy-generation purposes.  It’s been a fun grind though and fortunately I have nose to spare.

Here’s why I’m excited: this Friday we launch  Choice of the Deathless, the Craft Sequence adventure game.  Take on the role of a young Craftswoman or Craftsman in Tara’s world!  Deal with demons!  Depose gods!  Make partner!  Pay off your student loans!  If you dare.


This is your chance to see how the undead half lives.  I mean, it is technically possible to make it through the game without becoming an undead skeleton wizard, but why on earth would you want to?  You might miss glandular emotion a little, but let’s be honest here.  Unstoppable law-lich or fleshy human being with a chance of achieving love and redemption?  I know which I’d choose.

Especially since skeletons can still drink coffee.

Some specifics: this is a text-based choose-your-own-path adventure of the “You wake up naked in a trackless desert with a hangover.  You: (a) hunt for water (b) arrange stones into the shape of an S.O.S. (c) Call upon the Dark Gods and sell your soul for passage to safety (d) wait can you run option c by me again?” variety.  Each choice you make affects your character’s statistics, which are then checked to determine success or failure.  Some of you may remember game books in the Lone Wolf style—this is sort of in that vein only with necromancer lawyers.

The game goes live Friday, and don’t worry, you’ll be hearing plenty about it from me on that day.  But I wanted to give y’all a heads-up.  If you want an email reminder, may I suggest my (very infrequently used) mailing list, or the more commonly updated but less Max-specific list over at Choice of Games?

Some other news:

  • For those of you who want a more Tabletop-friendly game experience, I have good news.  A couple weeks ago at Anonycon in Connecticut we ran a number of Craft Sequence tabletop games, in Dogs in the Vinyard, Fate, and D&D Next.  Excellent times were had by all.  I should have some system-agnostic information about how to game in the Craft Sequence soonish, once I figure out the best way to represent the Craft itself…
  • Tabitha of My Shelf Confessions loved Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise—and today she finally succeeded in tying me up for an interview.  Read our chat-slash-torture session over on My Shelf Confessions!
  • SIGNED BOOKS: If you want a signed copy of Three Parts Dead or Two Serpents Rise, but didn’t make it to any of the signings, you’re in luck!  I’m working with Porter Square Books to sign books by mail-order—order from them and we’ll make sure a signed copy gets your way!

That’s it for now—but I’ll be back in the near future.  I have more chaos to inflict.  I mean.  Um.  News!  News.  I have more news to… provide.  Possibly.  Also chaos.

Full Fathom Five Cover Reveal!

November 21st, 2013 § 13 comments § permalink

Hello, friends and neighbors! I have emerged from the Editorial Mines, covered in word-dust, to share with you the cover for my next book, Full Fathom Five.  Get ready:

Full Fathom Five


Awesome, non?  This is a draft of the cover—text isn’t final yet, for example—but I love it.  I’ve pushed the story into new territory—this book is the Craft Sequence by way of Black Diamond Bay, featuring new characters as well as a few returning favorites from Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise.  Skulduggery, slam poetry, offshore banking, spy shenanigans, the nightmare telegraph, and more.  On the island of Kavekana, caught between the gods that rule the Old World and the undead wizards that rule the New, a defrocked and godless priestess struggles to save her career—and her soul. Coming this July!

Monday Night Linkstorm!

November 11th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I continue to be Everywhere on the Internet.  In case you missed it—

I did a swing of articles on ThinkProgress last week which were a lot of fun!

In the non-ThinkProgress universe, here are a couple more posts:

  •  Building an Analogue World, or: writing fantasy novels if you don’t live in a castle, on All Things UF
  • Mosaic Worldbuilding, in which I talk about the power of perspective in writing—because not everyone’s the good guy, but most people think they are.

More of a recap on the Enigma Signing tomorrow—oh, and, cool new thing!  If you’re in the Wellesley area, you can come see me at their Fresh Voices Author Night this Thursday, Nov. 14!

Two Serpents Rise All Around the Internet

November 1st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

We had a great time at the book launch Tuesday!



Plenty of volumes sold, and great questions asked, including “Will you show the rural side of the coin in these books?” (Yes) and “What creatures won’t we see in the Craft Sequence?” (Elves.)

I’ve been hosted liberally around the internet in the last few days, too!  Consider the following essays a peek behind the curtain.  You may never recover!

For the next week, I’m also guestblogging over at ThinkProgress!  So far my posts have included:

Because when life hands you a platform, why not use it to promote work you love?


October 29th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

As of today, TWO SERPENTS RISE, my next novel, is available wherever books are sold.  I’m a bit overwhelmed.

I spoke with Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress about the book, magical economics, the Craft Sequence, and other insanity—the interview ended up being really great, and you should check it out!

I also dropped by SF Signal to write about how “You got your fantasy in my science fiction!” and vice versa.

Books, Bones, and Buffy came out with a great early review of the book, which I’ll stick up on the wall with PW’s Starred Review, the review where Locus compares me to Tolkien, and the bit where the RT called it a “stellar, engaging read.”  Because this process is scary, y’all, and it helps to be reminded that some folks think I’m getting it right.

So why wait? Buy the book today on AmazonIndieBoundBarnes and Noble, or Powell’s, depending on your personal preference.  And if you want a bit of a teaser, I assembled this TWO SERPENTS RISE TEASER TRAILER SCRIPT, which if you read it should give you a decent movie trailer’s worth of an idea what you’re in for.

Thanks so much, everyone.  Happy reading!

Star Wars: A Long Time Ago, in a Hive Far Far Away?

October 21st, 2013 § 11 comments § permalink

There are no humans in Star Wars.

This should be obvious from the title card.  We’re a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.  Human beings evolved on this planet, Sol 3, over the last sixty million years or so depending on how you count.  If we don’t want to go all “Chariots of the Gods?” we have to throw out the notion that the people represented by human actors in Star Wars movies are in fact human.  They’re something else.

Why represent them as human?  Let’s assume that the Star Wars movies are dramatizations of real history: that Luke, Leia, Han et. al. actually existed in a galaxy long, long ago (etc.), and that George Lucas accessed this history via the Force and wanted to represent it on film.  Star Wars tells the story of a dominant-species empire arising from a pluralistic society, then being overthrown by courageous rebels and warrior monks.  Lucas had to cast this drama with human actors, and the obvious choice was to use unmodified humans to represent the most common species.

While convenient, this approach does present one problem: watching the Original Trilogy, we assume that the ‘humans’ of the GFFA (Galaxy Far Far Away) are biologically and sociologically identical to Sol 3 humans.  When obviously they’re not!  In fact, I think a few important context clues present a very different picture of the dominant race of the Original Trilogy.

Gender is the most important clue.  The Original Trilogy has a shortage of women when considered by the standards of a two-sexed mammalian species.  Leia is the most prominent female, and the only one to feature in all three movies.  Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma also have named speaking roles.  Aside from these three, I can’t think of another definitely-female-definitely-’human’ in the series.  In RotJ Leia describes her mother, who is obviously a queen.  These females all possess at least local political and social authority.

Family is a second important clue—or, rather, the absence of family.  With one notable exception, people in the series don’t talk much about parentage.  No non-Force sensitive male ever describes his family, if I recall correctly.  Han, Lando, Wedge, Biggs, Tarkin, Dodonna, and so forth, all might as well have sprung from the brows of their ships.  In six+hours of film about war, I would expect to see someone to drop at least a single reference to parents of some sort.  The lack of strong family ties suggests that parenting relationships are much less close for most GFFA ‘humans’ than for Sol 3 humans—which in turn suggests large brood sizes, short gestation periods, young ages of maturity, or all of the above.

So we’re looking for an organism with large brood sizes, young ages of maturity, short gestation periods, and relatively few fertile females who naturally assume positions of social and organizational authority.

Here is my modest theory: the GFFA’s ‘humans’ are in fact sentient hive insects, organized around a single queen, a handful of fertile males, and a horde of infertile female soldiers.  For parsimony’s sake, let’s assume that Force sensitivity in this species is possessed by fertile males and females, and that male actors used to represent non-Force sensitive characters are actually representing infertile females.

This explains a few things:

  • The Emperor’s Reproductive and Political Strategy.  The Emperor, a fertile male, has  replaced the old Queen, substituting the use of clone warriors for ‘normal’ biological reproduction.
  • The Horror of the Clone Wars.  The true horror of the Clone Wars thus becomes clear.  They’re not just wars in which cloning technology is used.  They’re wars in which the fundamental structure of the ‘human’ species is inverted: wars in which queens are killed, hives consolidated, and clones take the place of biological reproduction.  Wars about the use of clones instead of queens.
  • The Deal with Jabba’s Humanoid Slaves.  Doesn’t it seem weird that a presumably hermaphroditic gastropod should be so fascinated by displaying captive females of another phylum in bikinis?  The Hive Insect theory makes this habit a clear and calculated display of dominance, communicating to ‘human’ visitors that Jabba is to ‘human’ queens as queens are to drones and soldiers.  (This also suggests that Jabba’s interested in twi’lek girls because they look like ‘humans,’ but may be easier to come by—giving his character a bit of extra complexity, since he wants to communicate dominance to his followers in this way but isn’t able to do more than pretend until Leia comes along.)
  • Why Kill the Jedi?  I mean, sure, kill the old ones, but wouldn’t it be easier to convert younglings than wipe them out?  Well, drones in the absence of a queen naturally rear fertilized eggs into new queens.  If Palpatine is trying to destroy queen-dom, he cannot permit the existence of any drones who are not perfectly loyal to his New Order.  Conversion is apparently a brutal process.  Vader survived it; Luke might survive it.  Perhaps no one else did.
  • What’s with all the Death Stars?  It isn’t hard to annihilate all life on a planet from orbit.  If you’re in orbit, you’ve already done the hard part—just tractor some rocks into the surface.  Obviously a superweapon is nice to have, but why not build just the weapon and the shielding system?  That would be cheaper, certainly.  It seems that the superweapon is only part of the purpose of the Death Star—the Star is in fact an artificial hive, built as the perfect environment for the Emperor’s new clone-based society.

Admittedly, this doesn’t explain what’s going on between Leia and Han.  It’s possible that Han is in fact a drone and doesn’t know it—he is phenomenally lucky, after all, which suggests Force sensitivity.  On the other hand, it seems reasonable, given the importance of queens, that some sort of queen-soldier pairbonding could occur.  This may even be the sort of relationship that the Emperor is intending to replicate with Vader.

So that’s a theory.  I mean, what’s more likely—a Galaxy Far Far Away full of psychic alien super-bees, or one in which you can cross thirty solar systems and run into three women with speaking parts?

DISCLAIMER: I love Star Wars.  It rocks.  And precisely because of this, it’s fun to tweak.  Obviously, the above argument only refers to the OT; the EU features a much broader range of characters and situations, and I don’t want to be responsible for creating a consistent interpretation of the prequel trilogies.  (Though just off the top of my head, Naboo-’humans’ do seem to fit with Hive Insect theory.)

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