September 17th, 2014 § § permalink
I’ve frequently had fans (I have fans!) tell me “I love your books but I have a hard time explaining them to people.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this! My books aren’t much like what people picture in their minds when they think “fantasy novel.” I have skyscrapers and deathless kings and law wizards and offshore banking and jet pack dragonflies and zombie field labor and water utilities and all sorts of crazy stuff. I wrote the Craft Sequence in part because I had ideas I didn’t remember seeing before, and I wanted to get those ideas out of my head so they could nest in other peoples’ brains and remake all their gray matter into juicy gooey Idea Stuff, I mean, um, hold on a second, I wasn’t supposed to write that out loud, I’m sure I left my notes around here somewhere.
Whenever I hear a fan say that sentence, though, I get a touch nervous—because in publishing you hear over and over again that “word of mouth sells books.” Word of mouth is only part of the story, of course: money spent on good marketing sells books, innovative approaches to distribution sell books, booksellers sell books, etc. But word of mouth does, certainly, work. Now, the Craft Sequence is selling well. It’s just that, if readers have trouble explaining to people what this book they’re excited about is, it might be harder for them to convince other people who’d like the books to read them!
Fortunately, I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue. Fact is, back when Three Parts Dead first hit stands I spent hours pacing back and forth debating what I’d say when someone asked, “what’s your book about?” I have one-line pitches and thematic notes. I can talk about my books in front of a room of people and walk out with them excited.
So, at the risk of sounding like a goof—and why should that phase me, I write books with wizards in them?—let me share the stuff I say.
Basic: I say some version of this sentence at least once in every panel: “The Craft Sequence books are set in a postindustrial fantasyland: gods with shareholders’ committees, necromancers in pinstriped suits, and soulstuff as currency.”
For Law, Finance, or Business People: “It’s your job, only with wizards.”
For Hardcore Genre People: “Phoenix Wright (or Wolfram & Hart, or whatever your favorite legal reference is) meets The Dragons of Babel.”
For People Who Communicate Solely in Hollywood-esuqe X-Meets-Y Elevator Pitches: “It’s LA Law with wizards.” (Or “meets Harry Potter,” for those with a more severe case of the condition.)
For Magic: the Gathering people: “It’s what would happen if House Dimir controlled the Azorius Senate.”
For People Who Dig On Theory: “Late-millennial market capitalism envisioned as a soul-siphoning necrocracy.”
Bonus: io9 compared the books to secondary world cyberpunk fantasy, which is pretty damn cool.
So far, none of my books has had a straight white male protagonist; the lead in my most recent book is transgendered. I’m writing a world here; it’d be a damn limited one if all my characters looked, spoke, screwed, and identified like me.
Three Parts Dead
Basic — “A junior associate at an international necromancy firm is hired to resurrect a dead god.” (Bonus points: this is the pitch that actually found me an agent!)
For Law, Finance, or Business People: “It’s about bankruptcy law, only the entity in bankruptcy protection is a dead god, and the attorneys are necromancers.”
Two Serpents Rise
For people who’ve seen Chinatown: “Dammit, Jake, it’s fantasyland.”
For people who haven’t seen Chinatown: “A risk manager for an undead utilities magnate tracks down terrorists poisoning his city’s water.”
(Also, politely invite them to a screening of Chinatown, unless of course either of you has a moral objection to Roman Polanski. And honestly, if your only exposure to California water issues is Chinatown, you owe it to yourself to read more. The early chapters of Cadillac Desert are a good start.)
Full Fathom Five
Basic — “There’s this island where they build gods to order—but the gods are dying, and a priestess wants to find out why.”
For LFB people — “Offshore banking as a professional mystery cult. Plus there’s a really funny bit in here about The Economist.”
For Theology and Philosophy people — “There’s a long argument about creation myths and existentialism in the heart of an extinct volcano during a break-in.”
Choice of the Deathless
Honestly, this one seems to take care of itself. “Interactive necromantic legal thriller—you’re not the bad guy, you’re just his lawyer!” In the form of a Lone Wolf-style interactive choose-your-own adventure.
I’ve written screenplay-format trailers for Two Serpents Rise and Full Fathom Five. Maybe these will be helpful to you, maybe not!
The covers themselves are excellent: here’s Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five.
So there you go! I don’t know if this will be helpful at all. Regardless, now the resource exists! I may add to this over time.
In other news—the Ghostbusters post escalated quickly! Among other things, there was a great conversation about it over at Metafilter—including an excellent post by Charles Stross on Lovecraft. Stross observes that my representation of Lovecraft’s worldview along Apollonian / Dionysian lines doesn’t include HPL’s materialistic shock as a writer working at the moment science revealed the world to be much bigger, older, and more complicated than we’d ever thought before. Go check out that conversation.
Also, there’s a good chance I’ll be blogging more frequently over at Tor.com in the near future! Never fear—I’ll not leave you in the lurch. My Big Scheme is to post a little more multimedia content on this site as compensation, although I’m not sure what that would look like.
September 10th, 2014 § § permalink
Ghostbusters is the best comedy ever made about the limits of the Lovecraftian worldview.
The movie’s back in theaters for its 30th anniversary, and Steph and Dan and I went to see it last weekend. It’s perfectly structured. Desire lines are clear scene by scene. Act breaks are sharp and propulsive. Every payoff is set up early in the film, including Mr. Stay-Puft. The film even bothers to make sure we know why ghosts are appearing at this particular point in human history—the dead rise as Gozer approaches.
I remembered this movie being funny, but a lot of lines that skipped over my head when I was a kid bit deep this time—Tully’s “You’re the Ghostbusters? Who does your taxes?” (Honestly, everything Rick Moranis says or does on screen is hilarious.) Young Max also didn’t appreciate the sheer amount of damage the Ghostbusters do to the hotel in their first outing. I got the joke of Slimer dodging neutron beams, sure; I didn’t have the running cost-of-repair tally in the back of my head. The cake they blow up used to be a prop; now I know that cake. I’ve been to weddings with that cake. Its explosion is a lot more than an excuse to shower people with frosting. It’s a wonderful, visceral, hilarious film, with a great soundtrack, and y’all should go see it in theaters while you have the chance.
But, leaving the theater, all three of us kept saying one word in particular: heart. We all mentioned how much heart the movie had, how modern films we’d seen recently seemed heartless by comparison. But what is this strange, ephemeral “heart”? The Potter Stewart test is, as always, unsatisfying—we know it when we see it, sure, but what is it that we’re seeing? Why does Winston’s “I love this town!” at the end strike home, even though the question of whether he loves this town or not is never raised in the movie before this moment?
As usual, I’m kicking about a theory.
Ghostbusters is obviously taking the piss out of horror in general. But while the busters’ typical enemies are ghosts of the Poltergeist persuasion, the Big Bad of the movie, a formless alien god from Before Time summoned by a mad cultist-cum-art deco architect, is basically Lovecraftian. From Gozer’s perspective—or the perspective of the Gozer cultist—human beings are small mammals clustered close to the firelight of their pathetic “reason,” etc. etc. etc. Standard Lovecraftian spiel. The skyscraper (and by extension New York and all human civilization) is the illusion. Scratch its skin and you’ll find a heartless alien reality beneath.
But Gozer loses. And the shape and consequences of his loss undercut the Lovecraftian dichotomy between apparent reality and actual horrifying reality. In Ghostbusters that horrorscape isn’t the truth either—it’s a mistaken interpretation of an underlying world that’s gross, evolving, playful, social, compassionate, and way more interesting than the dry surface layer.
Bear with me here. We first meet Venkman as he’s conducting a fake test of psychic ability as an excuse to hit on a co-ed. Venkman subjects two students, a young man and woman, to the old “tell me what picture’s on this card that you can’t see” test. Each wrong guess earns the guesser a shock. Venkman indiscriminately shocks the male student, even when he guesses right, and never shocks the female student, who guesses wrong every time—then he flatters the girl by talking up her extensive psychic gifts, and parlays that into a date. Reprehensible, sure, but more to the point, reprehensible in a particularly Lovecraftian way. The test is an illusion. The guy administering the test doesn’t believe it has any value. He’s out for his own advantage, or even just for his own amusement, and his motives are opaque to his victims. The students are flattered or hurt according to his whim, but the world in which they think they’re living—the world in which the test is valid—is an utter fabrication. That’s their circle of firelight. Their very belief in the test protects Venkman, who has ultimate authority so long as they keep playing. This opening scene’s a joking restatement of the Lovecraftian (and Gozerian) horror worldview.
But ultimately, the Lovecraftian dichotomy is shallow and unsatisfying. We find Venkman’s advances on the female student pathetic, not rakishly transgressive. Thank God, Ray pulls Venkman out of this little game and drags him into the real world, in this case the NY Public Library, which for all its neoclassical solidity is being disrupted by a ghost who scatters the imposed order of the card catalog and sprays slime all over the nice dry paper. The ghost is an antic element breaking open this Big Bloodless System. This sequence also demonstrates how incompetent Venkman is in situations where he doesn’t have complete control—he condescends to the librarian who discovered the ghost, and utterly fails in his attempt to communicate with the spirit itself—but he does at least learn that there’s a gross, consequential world out there beyond pointless gamesmanship.
Right after this peek under the covers, we see Venkman caught in a higher-stakes version of the bloodless cruelty game he played on the students—and in this case he’s the victim, having been bureaucratically outflanked. His funding’s cut, and he’s thrown out on the street. Again, we see a basically Lovecraftian situation, where the weaker party’s illusions of fairness or rule-following have no bearing on actual outcomes. But, as a result of their recent experience, Venkman and Ray decide that rather than remaining in the winner-loser world they know, they’ll push one level down—into the gross uncertainty of the ghosts.
This pattern of opting out of traditional dichotomies and spaces repeats throughout the film, and each successful opt-out requires the Ghostbusters to embrace discomfort, awkwardness, and play. When the Ghostbusters buy the firehouse, Venkman’s attempt to negotiate the agent into a lower price is undercut by Ray’s pure enthusiasm for the building. Ghostbusting takes a lot of visual cues from plumbing and firefighting, dirty jobs that deal with gross systems beneath built reality that folks generally try to deny exist—but when the Ghostbusters are called to a high-class hotel, they go in through the front entrance, rather than the tradesman’s door, even though they look ridiculous on the red carpet in their jumpsuits. Each of the three initial Ghostbusters has a wall of doctorates, but even when they have enough success to wear suits and ties, they keep the jumpsuits and rubber gloves. When EPA Guy storms the firehouse to shut off the ghost trap with an electrician and a police officer in tow, what could have been a traditional Ghostbusters vs. Authority conflict becomes a three-way negotiation between EPA Guy, Electrician and Cop, and Ghostbusters, with the Electrician and Cop represented as distinct from either party, and the Ghostbusters appealing not to the professional class (EPA guy) with whom they share more common background, but to the working-class folks (cop & electrician) with whom they’ve come to have more in common. When the Ghostbusters get arrested, rather than playing up the “emasculated middle class dudes in prison” trope, the film shows us prisoners gathering around Egon’s blueprints, genuinely interested in the story being told. On a practical level, even the ghosts themselves, the movie’s core, are neither physical nor ethereal—they’re a slimy in-between.
Then, at the end of the movie, the Ghostbusters are subjected to another version of Venkman’s test. Gozer, the Big Bad, asks them to choose the form of their destruction: another game that exists purely for Gozer’s amusement. They try to refrain from choosing at all, but they can’t—inaction is not an option. Fighting Gozer in his chosen form—Mr. Stay-Puft (a brand icon! talk about bloodless symbols against which we play a game we can’t win!)—doesn’t help them, because their resistance is part of the game of their destruction. Instead they need to attack the game directly, by destroying the system from which Gozer derives his power—in the process making themselves radically vulnerable, in this case to Egon’s prediction of the “very bad” consequences of stream-crossing.
We can chart this same evolving relationship with the world through Venkman’s three instances of personal contact with authority—first, when he buys into the academic system, he’s powerless against the Provost. Second, when he meets EPA Guy, he doesn’t play into the game, so he has a little power, but rather than transcending (or undercutting) the game he fights it—leading to the catastrophic release of the ghosts later. Finally, when the Ghostbusters meet the mayor, Venkman’s ready to deal, and more importantly, to play. He doesn’t impress on the mayor the futility of his (the mayor’s) position, or play for advantage. He offers the mayor an opportunity. Hell, he does more than offer the mayor an opportunity—he offers Lenny an opportunity, addressing the mayor by his first name, as a human being rather than an official.
This, then, is the world-view Ghostbusters offers in place of the Cthonic duality. As in Lovecraft we have a surface world of institutions, with a horror zone beneath—which, if you read human history, is not far from the truth. Many bodies lie buried beneath our marble facades. But if you press through the marble and the rot—which takes work, humility, courage, and a sense of humor—you’ll be able to connect with living breathing human beings.
It’s no accident, then, that the film progresses from shots of New York architecture to shots of New York people. We grow from the opening shot of the New York Public Library to the closing shot of the Ghostbusters emerging into a joyful crowd meant, I think, to represent all New Yorkers (whether or not the casting directors accomplished that is another question entirely). To be even more specific—that opening shot pans down from the New York Public Library’s unpainted neoclassical facade to focus on a stone lion—a powerful symbol, yes, and ominous, but also sort of quirky and weird. What does the lion have to do with ghosts? Until, at the Act III transition, we see a stone hellhound, shot to echo the lion, break open to reveal the actual squicky fleshy hellhound beneath. There’s our Lovecraftian transition. Exterior appearances of classical strength and power hide horribly squamous realities. But, in the film’s resolution, the hellhounds break open again, with exactly the same special effect no less, to reveal Dana and Tully—breathing human beings beneath the squamous stuff that ate them.
As per usual, I don’t claim there are no grounds on which one could take this film to task. (Gozer’s initial appearance plays right into the “Horror is Androgyny” trope, for example.) But it does chart a path from professional denial of (and even participation in) the horrors and weirdnesses of civilization, toward comprehension and defeat of those same forces—passing through the facade city of everyday life and the horror city of Lovecraftian panic to discover the human city beneath.
“I love this town” indeed.
September 3rd, 2014 § § permalink
Greetings Internet! It’s been a crazy summer, and an especially crazy August, on this side of the keyboard. My thoughts are so fragmented today, following a weekend of sun, biking, and theater, that I’m having a hard time composing them into a single monolithic SuperPost of Ineluctable Justice. Let’s go line-by-line.
- Choice of the Deathless, my necromantic legal thriller, went live on Steam this Labor Day weekend, which is VERY EXCITING! If you already own it, still click through the link so you can see the closest thing anyone’s ever made to a trailer for my books. If you’re not a game-playing person, this may not mean much to you, but Steam is the main electronic distribution platform for computer games these days. This means my demon lawyer interactive fiction is now available for purchase on the same service as big triple-A video games like the Mass Effect series. We’re doing very well over there at the moment, which is great! My favorite quote from a brief scan of the (overwhelmingly positive) reviews (not that I read my own reviews what are you implying): “I helped a Goddess, encouraged a Demon to become an artist, died….ended up as a skeleton and still got the girl!”
- NB, there’s a pretty broad range of romantic options in CotD, and you don’t need to romance anyone. Just to be clear.
- The Great Gatsby joins the long, long list of books I missed in high school that I think I appreciated much more upon ultimate reading as a result. I skipped most of the American Lit curriculum in my youth by, basically, reading lots and lots of Shakespeare, which I think may have worked out for the best. Going back to works like Huckleberry Finn and Gatsby, I’m impressed by their subtle viciousness. I can think of a handful of sentences in Gatsby which don’t sit like a knife-blade in the palm. Almost every statement drips with irony. Having not read the book in high school I can’t say how I would have found it then, but I expect I would have arrived at the standard “American Dream” interpretation, which is not at all what I got out of this pass. I read from a copy that had survived a charmingly gormless highschooler’s annotations—there’s a big WHY??? next to Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose. More thoughts later. For now: Nick definitely has sex with the photographer, the green light’s a cooler image in full context than when taken as a general stand-in for American Dreaminess, Jordan Baker is still the coolest (even if she cheats at golf, though we only hear allegations about that), & I’ll now start referring to all my Bay Area people as midwesterners.
- Yes, I just read The Great Gatsby for the first time.
- Honestly, you don’t have a classic of world literature which you haven’t read?
- I’ll admit it’s kind of embarrassing I let it go this late, since it’s only a hundred eighty pages. But what a hundred eighty pages.
- Also read this year for the first time: Mrs. Dalloway!
- On the literary analysis front, the latest Feminist Frequency video essay about feminism in video games is out, and makes for good watchin’ if you’re interested in the application of critical techniques to video games. I’m glad the Games: ART??? debate’s dead enough that we can start treating games as art: transcending candy-like consumption to regard games as a focus for critical analysis, through which we can understand ourselves and our culture. Ms. Sarkeesian’s punching hard, especially in this most recent essay, which focuses on video game representations of violence against women. Hard is how you’re supposed to punch. That’s why we call it punching, not acupressure.
- One more piece of Guardians of the Galaxy thought: the Howard the Duck tag is a not-so-subtle nod that Disney’s doing the new Star Wars movies, isn’t it? Howard the Duck, for those of you who don’t know, is a Marvel character. His precise nature is not important for this argument. He was, however, made into a famously horrifying movie which was, and here’s the kicker, produced by George Lucas. In fact, Howard the Duck is Lucas’s first-live action producer credit after Return of the Jedi and Temple of Doom. So, we have a big overwhelmingly cool space opera which, as Michael Underwood’s been saying on Twitter, is the best Star Wars film in thirty years. And at the end, where Marvel / Disney typically leave their “next big film” tag, they’ve referenced a property famously associated with Lucas—and which Lucas has handled, um, let’s say less than perfectly. They couldn’t put lightsabers in the tag without including them in the universe and inviting a call from Patton Oswalt’s lawyers, but Howard the Duck? Easy. I read Howard the Duck’s appearance as a sly note to the audience: “Hey, you guys like this film? Think about what we can do with Star Wars.“
- I may be overthinking that last bullet point. But that’s practically my job, so, you know.
- In divine necromancy news, it looks like Detroit’s bankruptcy is entering its final stages.
- Whaling is deeply weird. More on this at a later date. In the meantime, I leave you with the notion that at one point not too long ago on a historical timescale, the global economy, and all forms of machinery, depended on human beings going out into the deep ocean in tiny boats for four years at a time to hunt things that looked like this, only TWICE AS BIG:
And that’s all for the moment! More, deeper thoughts next week. Maybe about Gatsby. Or whales. Or whatever strikes my fancy in the meantime.
August 27th, 2014 § § permalink
Much has been said about the Elgin Marbles. But it was not until I toured the British Museum myself that I understood their true significance, and especially that of the Acropolitan Metopes. In fact, these sculptures, “acquired,” according to the British Museum’s website, during Lord Elgin’s stay in Athens, are the greatest surviving resource about the venerable, long-lost art of Centaur Wrestling.
Centaur Wrestling is referenced in passing in many classical texts, and catalogues suggest that central episodes in the lost Aetheopis and Nostoi prominently featured this art, but the Metopes go beyond reference or description to provide the foundational principles of Centaur Wrestling, which must have formed the basis of meditation for practitioners of all levels of the art.
Kalliphrenos knows that centaurs, while very dangerous in front, cannot turn at the waist as readily as humans. As a result, centaurs are very vulnerable when grabbed by their jaw. Kalliphrenos is especially clever, here—the centaur has been stabbed in the back, and wants to pull to the right, while Kalliphrenos pulls its jaw around to the left. The centaur sure is in trouble now!
Kakiphrenos, on the other hand, is trying to knee this centaur in the groin. Unfortunately for Kakiphrenos, centaurs keep their reproductive equipment between their rear legs. Looks like Kakiphrenos is in trouble—hopefully his eye gouge will be enough to break the centaur’s hold on his windpipe! Unfortunately, Kakiphrenos seems to have forgotten about the centaur’s rear-hand weapon. Oh no, Kakiphrenos!
And here, Kakiphrenos is in even worse trouble! He thinks he’s safe because he has a shield, but even though he’s blocked the attack of the centaur’s right arm, the centaur has a wine jug in his left hand—not to mention two plunging hooves about to drive straight down into Kakiphrenos’ unprotected midsection! Remember, friends: centaurs have four attacking limbs when confronted head-on.
Ariston is doing very well! Rather than letting the centaur bear him down, Ariston has waited for the centaur to rear—then stepped in between the centaur’s hooves to punch it in the face. Good work, Ariston!
Kakiston, on the other hand, tried to retreat from the rearing centaur—but he did not look behind himself first, and has tripped over a wine jug! Based on the condition of this carving, it’s hard to tell what the centaur himself is doing, but things don’t look good for Kakiston.
Castor has tried to punch the centaur from a crouching position—but he is out of distance to land a solid hit against the centaur, and his crouch has made him vulnerable to the centaur’s plunging hooves!
Pollux has a better idea: he has kicked out the centaur’s leg, then leapt upon him from behind. The centaur is trapped, and looks to be in very serious trouble. Go Pollux!
The comprehensive nature of this guide to centaur self-defense suggests an ulterior motive for Lord Elgin’s appropriation of the Marbles. Perhaps, given centaurs’ propensity for attacking royal marriages, Lord Elgin believed the royal family of the United Kingdom was at risk. Is there a secret centaur population in the United Kingdom? Certainly it would explain the existence of the Horse Guard—what horses are they guarding against, anyway? Surely a clear and present centaur threat would be a greater incentive to Grand Theft Acropolis than “well, you know, they just looked so pretty I had to take them.”
Regardless, I suggest anyone who plans to wrestle a centaur in the near term consult the Acropolitan Metopes. I know of no more comprehensive resource on the subject!
August 20th, 2014 § § permalink
Guardians of the Galaxy remains on my mind, perhaps because I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write.
I mentioned in my second-but-last column that the movie is basically the greatest-hits summary of a short tabletop RPG campaign. In the comments and on Facebook, Anise Strong-Morse mentioned that the parallel extends to character creation in a merits/flaws system like the old Storyteller ruleset, or any number of house rules for D&D or WEG. She imagines the process going something like this:
“So, Anna, about your character…”
“You said we could play any weird alien we could think up.”
“I did say that, but you have to admit this is a little nuts. Super-stretchy limbs, the ability to regenerate from total bodily destruction, fireflies, you can bring people back to life by poking them with a sharp stick—”
“Not just any sharp stick, it has to be my finger.”
“And then there’s the damage shield orb thing.”
“It makes total sense for plants to be able to do this stuff! Plants can regrow from cuttings. And they can grow, which covers everything else.”
“…. Conceptually, fine. But you’re way over point buy budget.”
“Did you read the flaws section?”
“There’s a third page?” Beat. “You can’t talk.”
“No, see, he can talk, but he can only say the one thing.”
“I am Groot.”
“Anything sounds silly when you say it in that tone of voice.”
“You want to spend the entire game introducing yourself to people?”
“Look at it the other way: if I can only say one thing, it might as well be an introduction.”
“If I let you do this, that’s all your character can say. For the entire campaign.”
“I might buy some of the disad later with XP. But basically, yeah.”
(I’m not super-current on my RPG design, but seems to me like we’re seeing merit/flaw systems less than we once did. FATE, for example, prefers to handle merits/flaws by combining them through Aspets, which is a brilliant idea I think. A properly-handled flaw was always an advantage from a story perspective, since it lets players pull the story in their direction. So if I’m Despised, I have a built-in subplot and more points to spend on Wikked Sweet Samurai Swords? Where do I sign?)
Thinking about GotG as an RPG campaign dovetails a bit further with my recent about campaign design and worldbuilding. See, fed up with not roleplaying enough in recent years (too many of my old gaming buddies at least moonlight as adults these days!), I inspired a small group of GMs I know to start open campaigns for our extended circle of friends. Pitches included a King Arthur game, a Spycraft game (or a Mutants & Masterminds game cleverly disguised as a Spycraft game), a Baldur’s Gate game, and my very strange postapocalyptic space opera Warring States period concept, in which the PCs are all space Mohists. The other games are up and jogging now, which is great because I get to play in all of them! My Space Mohist setting, though, still crouches by the starting blocks, sorting out its shoelaces. That’s for the most part ‘coz I spend my worldbuilding points on books (and interactive fiction!) these days, but there’s an extra difficulty: prospective players don’t know the world enough to riff.
RPG settings, I’m realizing, work like melodies do in jazz—which is to say, they are common foundations players spin in service of their own goals. Sometimes you’ll play the melody as it lies on the page, but that’s a beginner level; when you’re Andy Statman you can perform a version of the theme from Rawhide so tight and discursive and transformed that non-jazz persons might catch at most a snatch of the melody. I can build an Arthurian knight in my sleep; character creation for the Arthur game was me spinning Mallorific (that’s the adjectival form of Mallory, right?) quest stories on a walk to the gym. Alternatively, if I’m playing in Baldur’s Gate I can make a dwarven barbarian librarian, because I know what’s possible in the Forgotten Realms, and what’s impossible—and as a result what’s funny there.
Proposition: the ideal RPG setting is a place players already know, or almost know, which doesn’t have a closed story. By which I mean, while I know in the abstract that some people do set RPGs in Middle Earth proper, I’ve never encountered a Middle Earth game, and I don’t know anyone who’s run one, in part because—where would you fit more story in the world and age of the Fellowship? Tolkien does a good job of telling the Middle Earth story in Lord of the Rings. Babylon 5 has a broader universe, but still by the end of that show’s run I feel like we’ve seen the story that universe wanted to tell. Star Wars, by contrast, makes a great RPG setting because everyone knows it and it’s huge. Even if we ignore the EU and all but the first three movies, we have a galaxy-spanning civil war, a criminal underworld, and several thousand years of implied history. Plus, laser swords.
Or, in the almost-but-not-quite category, The Forgotten Realms is close enough to Middle Earth that you can onboard a new player by saying “fantasy with elves dwarves and hobbits,” but it’s distinct in important particulars—including the lack of a closed central plot arc or a single force of monolithic ontological evil.
My proposition: as a GM you want worlds your players already know, with a twist or two to keep things interesting. “Old West with zombies and magic.” “Pulp action, Maxwell Grant-style.” “Tentacles.” “Mission Impossible.” This is important because players’ sense of possibility space informs their evaluation of options, risks, and opportunities. This is why systems are important. It’s more important for players in a D&D game to know that magic is routine and cheaply accessible to PCs than it is for them to know that Ulfgar Rubberduck leads the Flaming Ankle of Baldur’s Gate. (Or whatever.) If you’re playing a Mission: Impossible inspired game, and you want it to surprise your players by having your villain turn out to be superpowered, it helps to have a setup where superpowers aren’t part of the possibility space.
Want to know the single most terrifying experience I’ve ever had as a gamer? “Max, we’re playing a Vampire game. Character creation is simple: just make a human using the standard rules.” Want your players to feel the horror of the World of Darkness? Want them to spend every session jumping at shadows, terrified of a goodnight kiss or a passing chat? This is how you make that happen. I’d played Vampire before; I knew the rules, I knew what was out there. My character didn’t. Poor bastard.
I think this sheds some light on the common, but to my mind weird, injunction in the fantasy community against submitting work that “feels too much like a D&D game.” That advice confused me for a long while; what is “feeling too much like a D&D game”? I mean, obviously you don’t want wizards running around talking about how they’re out of spell slots for the day (unless you’re Jack Vance), but what else could this mean? Maybe that new authors should avoid fellowship stories? That would seem an odd injunction considering how core these stories are to geek culture. But if the caution is really “don’t write me a story that gives me only the familiar; don’t be the jazz player who walks on stage, plays a standard, and does nothing with it,” then that makes total sense to me. Fantasy readers read a lot of books, so we tend to be more like the jazz connoisseur who appreciates transpositions and subtle variations and off-the-wall half-sensible references—but in games, where it’s important to have every player on the same page, we tend to stay closer to the melody.
(Not that there aren’t wonderfully inventive RPG settings! But the best of those can have their core concepts explained in less than a sentence to the right player group. Sigil is the city at the center of the D&D multiverse. RIFTS is postapocalyptic Earth with mutants, magic, and giant robots. Spelljammer is Orcs in SPAAAAAAACE. In Timewatch, you’re the time police and you police time. When the core concept’s twistier than that, you need a very particular player group, willing to follow you into a sourcebook or three.)
Which may be why Guardians of the Galaxy seems so much like a gamer movie, compared to, say, a syringe-full of pure dystopian SF like Snowpiercer. Snowpiercer’s about worldbuilding: we the audience polish this sooty mirror of a dystopian world until we see how it reflects our own; neither main characters nor audience understand their environment at first, and even by the end many mysteries are left pregnant in the text (Bong Joon-ho gives us enough information to deduce Tilda Swinton’s character’s backstory, for example, but IIRC never underlines it, even with a flashback). By contrast, Guardians, like a good RPG, expects us to know what it’s doing, even relies on our knowledge. One review—I think it was Annalee Newitz’s on io9—mentioned how much mileage the film gets by using our familiarity with space opera as a foundation atop which Gunn and team build, using a combination of 70s music, Footloose references, and general doofus earthlingness. Sound familiar? You and your fellow players have been here before. You know what’s possible, roughly, and what’s not. The GM will throw some particular worldbuilding your way (a mining station inside an enormous space skull! Singularity gems! Nova corps!), but your job as a team is to take this thing people know, and have as much fun with it as you can manage.
August 6th, 2014 § § permalink
Like the rest of the US internet, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy this weekend. It was enormous fun. My wife and our friend and I walked out of the theater, ran through the standard talking points (soundtrack! dancing! raccoon! guns! Groot!), and by the time we hit the pavement experienced a particularly gamer-geek epiphany: we’d just seen the greatest-hits cinematic version of a tabletop RPG campaign. The GM planned for three sessions, probably, but character creation pushed the first session late so they broke after the arrests. Then: prison. Mining station. Final confrontation. We’ve played this game, or pieces of it. Halfway down the sidewalk to the subway, we’d decided which members of our core player group would play which Guardians.
The ease of “casting” the film got me thinking about the community of geeks, and the particular shape of stories we love, and the reason my wife and I have spent the last month hooked not only on board games but on Shut Up and Sit Down’s reviews of board games. Put on your off-the-wall speculation hard hats, because I don’t know if this will make any sense. I might end up introducing Yet Another Useless Taxonomy that says more about the contents of my skull than about any kind of objective reality; if so, apologies. It’s been a long week.
Most important caveat before I continue: geekfolk, nerds, fen, whatever your term of preference for people who walk out of Guardians of the Galaxy hashing over character stats or discussing comics continuity or picking at the film’s politics, we’re people first, and as a result like stories that appeal to people in general. Right? Deep traditional plot structures work just as well on geeks as they do on everyone else. Die Hard may be a fairy tale, but it’s also a straightforward conflict plot, and (practically) everyone likes Die Hard. It’s not a geek film. It’s an everyone film (or at least a lot of people film), and most geeks are part of everyone. Ditto, say, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or Casablanca. Killer movies, nobody would argue otherwise, but not particularly geeky movies.
Some visual and worldbuilding elements are certainly typical of geeky cinema: science fictional eyekicks, magic, punchings, folks in spandex. But many movies and TV shows embraced by my particular corner of the universe—like The Usual Suspects and Oceans 11 and The Blues Brothers and Leverage and The Muppets and Rent—still trigger that Geek Rush in spite of their lack of a clear SFnal element.
I think geeks like fellowships.
We like Getting the Band Back Together. Or just “Together” in the first place. We like watching people bond and achieve greatness despite their personal conflicts. Spock and Bones may snipe on the Enterprise bridge, but we know each would lay down his life for the other. Firefly presents a band of criminals and fugitives bound tenuously together by fate and mutual advantage, and forges them over thirteen episodes into a crew, through betrayal, murder, and the healing power of heavy weaponry. Mike Nelson and his robot friends mock films from the front row. Han and Chewie and Luke and R2 and 3PO and Leia all stand on the dais. You have my sword. And my bow. And my axe. And my railgun.
The fellowship as a concept isn’t original to Tolkien; mythology and folk tales contain many examples, from the corps of supernatural pilgrims in Journey to the West to the Peers of Charlemagne and the Knights of the Round Table. But geeks seem to have a particular hunger for fellowship tales, especially in cinema. Iron Man? Cool, but we’re really holding our breath for The Avengers. The Phase 3 Marvel movies have succeeded based on their ability to build micro-fellowships around each lead—Winter Soldier gave us a full Cap-verse of spies and super-people, and I think much of the reason Shane Black did so well with Iron Man 3 is that he’s the past master of buddy cop movies, which along with heist films are mainstream outposts of the fellowship genre.
Fellowship storytelling looks quirky compared to the standard Western character / conflict model. Now, I’m just a plain simple hyperchicken from a backwoods asteroid, never been to film school or anything like that, but as I understand it conflict plots rely on characters wanting different things. Everyone in The Maltese Falcon wants the bird. Conflict plots feel pretty simple once you know what you’re looking for: Cindy wants her rifle back, Jo doesn’t want to give Cindy her rifle, what happens next? On a plot-arc level, the Central Antagonist wants something big that Our (Gender Indeterminate) Hero wants to keep from him, or Our Hero wants something the CA won’t give her. That conflict is the two hours’ traffic of our stage, or in this case screen.
But the main question in a fellowship story isn’t “will the protagonist succeed in accomplishing her goals despite the efforts of the antagonist” so much as “will these people come together and stay together?” Guardians of the Galaxy is a perfect example. Setting aside Marvel Comics continuity and considered on their own merits, the villains in GotG are a bit standard—and that’s okay! Ronan the Accuser has Generic Space Bad Guy Personality Disorder; he reminded me a lot of the Deep Space Thulsa Doom villain in the Chronicles of Riddick movie, right down to his ‘necroships’. Thanos’ henchman in this film actually speaks in Emperor Palpatine voice, while being a creepy wrinkled robed holographic head no less! The movie certainly sells us Ronan as a threat, don’t get me wrong, but Gunn and team are smart enough to know Ronan is as much a MacGuffin as the Infinity Stone—even more so in some ways, since the MacGuffin’s classic function is to give characters something to want in tension with one another: Revenge. Survival. Escape. Getting paid. Family. Groot.
Oh, and in case you think I’m being too hard on poor Ronan, I venture that he’s cut from much the same cloth as Sauron in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien shows us more of the particular brand of threat Sauron represents—a world in which slavery to power usurps all bonds of fellow-feeling, love, and friendship—but Sauron is plot engine more than character. He creates conflict among the Fellowship: how are we to stop the Shadow? Go over the mountains or through them? Use the ring or destroy it? Chase Frodo and Sam or Merry and Pippin or go direct to Minas Tirith? Enlist Gollum as a guide? Shun him? Kill him? Sauron offers the main characters an occasion for conflict—as a MacGuffin should.
(The bandits in Seven Samurai are similarly blank, IIRC; Akira Kurosawa knew that though they might be the picture’s “antagonists” in a traditional sense, they were emphatically not its point.)
At its best, and so much of it is ‘best’, Guardians of the Galaxy is a great movie about fellowship: making friends, watching out for them, falling in love with them, having sloppy drunken fights with them, fucking up and apologizing afterward, valuing them for themselves (“This dumb tree, he is my friend!”) rather than for the bounty they represent or their ability to help us reach our goals. Our Heroes get not one, not two, not even three, but at least four big “we are” moments—the palaver on Yondu’s ship, the “friends” scene, the conversation with Groot, and Quill’s invocation of the team name—and they sell each one brilliantly.
(I want there to be a strong “we are” moment for each character in the fellowship, and I’m wracking my brain but still haven’t remembered one for Gamora. Maybe the Kevin Bacon line in the dogfight? If she didn’t have one, that’s a bit of an oversight I think. In general I found myself wanting the script to give Gamora a little more to do, though Saldana does an excellent job with her. Also, the “whore” line just landed wrong, I thought, esp. given how sexuality wasn’t an open issue between Gamora and Drax. Anyway! Onward!)
Now we reach the part of the essay where I bite off a lot more than I can chew, because I’m going to Speculate about Geek Culture in a broader sense. Fellowship-hunger seems to transcend cinema. I defy you to find a geekier pursuit than Dungeons and Dragons, which is basically Fellowship: the Game. We follow individual people on the internet, but we fall in love with groups of them. Part of the joy of watching, say, the Shut Up and Sit Down team review and play board games, or the Loading Ready Run team do sketch comedy, is that of seeing cool folk who care about one another hang out together.
For the most part, I think this is great. Modern life can be pretty damn atomizing and alienating. If a cultural (or subcultural) emphasis on fellowship develops in response to that atomization, if we realize that we’re better people when enmeshed in networks of friends, relatives, and lovers than we are when wandering in the Black Forest waiting for God to scream in our ear—then so much the better.
Which isn’t to say fellowship is The Big Answer to Everything! Fellowships can have problems, and setting fellowship as an ultimate value can lead to weird second-order effects, like sweeping problems and even crimes under the rug in the name of stability, or confusing criticism of the fellowship for betrayal of it: well-intentioned critics are cast into the outer darkness with the unnamed Rohirrim, if they’re lucky. I just learned about the Geek Social Fallacies last week; they’re part of the danger I describe, though I’d like to expand that danger to include, say, cases where some people who think of themselves as members of the ‘gamer’ fellowship perceive analysis of e.g. sexism in AAA titles as an attack on the fellowship.
That said, I think fellowship stories at their best address these very problems by showing groups wrestling with their identities and goals, even as the heroes of traditional conflict plots wrestle with their adversaries.
Maybe that makes sense. Maybe not.
In the end I guess all I’m trying to say is: Guardians of the Galaxy! Soundtrack! dancing! raccoon! guns! Groot!
But wait, there’s more!
I still have a new book out. It’s really good.
Also I have a new essay on io9.com, in which I talk about fantasy, liberation, and the closed-platform future.
Also out recently: Revolution 60, an iOS game in which a team of nanotech-enhanced Charlie’s Angels-esque secret agents in a day-glo neon near future steal a rocket so they can steal a space station. But the true danger may come from within! Or, you know, from the special forces personnel who happen to *occupy* said space station at the moment…
Great combat system, a multi-axis embodied morality that has more to do with loyalty, compassion, and professionalism than abstract good or evil, an excellent all-female cast, a sense of humor, and a fair dose of robo-ninjas riding motorcycles on a space station—if you like what I like in video games, you’ll like this.
Also, Giant SpaceKat, the developers, are a Boston local all-female indie dev house. Hooray for the home team!
And I have a WorldCon Schedule! But my hands are tired, so you’ll have to wait a day or two on that. Rock on!
July 30th, 2014 § § permalink
Hobbits don’t speak English.
We read their speech in English, sure, but the language in which Bilbo et. al. talk Longbottom Leaf bears little relationship to English as spoken in Tolkien’s day, let alone ours. We read a representation of that speech in English—that’s to say, a translation. And though I wouldn’t put it past Tolkien to have a detailed grammar of Western Common salted away in his papers, he wrote his manuscripts for the most part in English. So we have pipeweed and second cousins twice removed on the mother’s side, and birthday parties and country gentlemen turning the ripe old age of eleventy-one.
Translation, done right, is brilliant and difficult, but when done even a little wrong it can break the meaning and cultural associations of the source text. My favorite example: there’s an old Chinese sport / pastime that features prominently in Ming Dynasty fiction, which most modern translations render as “football.” Now, think about Ming Dynasty football. Have a vision in your head of what that would look like? Does it feature Ming Dynasty Pele or Peyton Manning?
Yeah, well, you’re both wrong. The term translated “Football” here refers to a game in which folks stand in a circle and attempt to pass a leather ball from one to another without using their hands. We’re talking, basically, about hackeysack as played by 15th-century Chinese gentlemen. I don’t know why American translators shrink from calling a hackeysack a hackeysack—except maybe that (a) it stinks of modernity (in much the same reason you can’t name a character in historical fiction about 11th century England “Tiffany” even though people back then were named Tiffany), and (b) it summons up weird cultural associations, mostly of skinny dreadlocked barefoot prep school boys kicking the sack with weed smoke heavy on the air and Widespread Panic playing in the background. (I guess that might be Mumford & Sons these days? I AM NOT COOL.) Now, I think those cultural associations are informative and interesting, but I’m not a professional translator and apparently there’s been a consensus of translation—but the consensus means uninformed readers of translations that describe the sport as “football” will have a picture of what’s happening in the story that’s as vivid as it is incorrect.
Language is weird. And it gets weirder in subcreated or “secondary world” fantasy, in which, ostensibly, neither English nor any of the hundreds of tongues it’s mugged for grammar and vocabulary exist. Do you like your secondary-world steampunk gentlemen to wear purple ascots? Then you’d better take care that your world has a Royal Ascot Club, because that’s where the word comes from. Anyone ever eat a sandwich? Where does that word come from? What do your characters drink? Wine comes from the French, rivverrun roundabout from Latin. Whiskey springs from a Gaelic source word, lager is German, vodka’s Russian, aqua vitae is Latin rendering of the meaning of the Gaelic, aquavit has similar origins but refers to something else entirely.
And of course, the physical correlates of all these linguistic artifacts have their own cultural significance! The ascot has the social connotations it does because of accidents of history—and the same’s true of spats, the necktie, golf, swing music, slam poetry, minstrels, druids, scotch, pinstripes, sagging pants, the zoot suit, the miniskirt, blue jeans, sequins. We could try to shuffle the significance of these symbols, but it’s rare to pull this off without utterly confusing the reader. We could try to invent new symbols whole cloth, but that way lies three-page descriptions of the significance of various characters’ modes of dress. Which is great if that’s the kind of book you want to write! But it’s a particular kind of book, meant for a particular audience.
The closer we get to a modern setting, the more we have to deal with modern words and concepts and frameworks: Dumpster’s a brand name, as are Kleenex and Xerox and Polaroid. Jazz is jazz because history. It’s easy to claim we see these things as complex and contingent because the modern world is complex and contingent, but I wonder if, say, 14th century France didn’t seem every bit as complex and contingent to people who lived there. There probably would be fewer brand names, sure, but it’s not as if fashion and prejudice are original to the 20th century.
There are many ways to deal with this in writing fantasy, and they’re all right when used well. One’s to use new language for old stuff with old connotations. That’s cool, but occasionally confusing. One’s to use new language for new stuff with new connotations. That works too, though it’s so easy to mess up by creating a world that’s too simple and too complex at once. (Readers may not be amused if, once they learn the seventeen new words you’ve asked them to, they realize your culture is a stripped-down analogue of Western European medieval feudalism. Then again, they may! Certain writers can make drying paint interesting. If you can get away with this, I doff hat and ascot alike.) One’s to use old language for old stuff with new connotations, a nice trick—one of my favorite examples that works is the position-swap of haute and rest stop cuisine in Samuel R Delany’s Babel-17, in which coq au vin is simple spacer fare, while burgers with French fries and ketchup are the height of elegance. It works because it’s funny, but even such a sharp writer as Delany has to spend half a scene in a very tight book highlighting the change. Another path is just to use existing words for existing stuff with existing connotations where it works, because readers know what a suit is, and they know what a cocktail is, and you can waste a disgusting amount of time trying to explain that a Fantasy Dark & Stormy is, you know, a Dark & Stormy—time that would be better spent building character, developing conflict, accelerating tempo, deepening tension.
I do a bit of all the above, and certainly there are other methods; the final one I listed is a favorite when I’m feeling cheeky or want to cheat in a slip of smooth exposition-free characterization, but it has weaknesses. Sometimes a Gin Mule will just throw people out of a story. And I don’t mean by, you know, a mule made of gin. Though that would be theoretically possible in a fantasy novel that contained, say, boozeomancers.
Hm. Boozeomancers. (*Makes note.*)
Anyway! To my mind this is one of the core fascinations of writing secondary-world fantasy: the creation of a working language and system of social connotations distinct from our own yet within our own, a sort of linguistic virtual machine. Tolkien walked these lines very well. He knew just when his characters should say “Namarie,” and when “I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest!” Sometimes the challenge feels an awe-inspiring. Sometimes it feels like kickboxing in a straightjacket: inherently limiting and on its face pointlessly difficult. But if you can pull it off, you’ll look so damn cool.
July 23rd, 2014 § § permalink
I have many essays for you this week!
As per usual, I am roughly speaking all over the internet writing stuff for FULL FATHOM FIVE’s launch. I’m hearing lots of great noise about it, too—my favorites being notes from people who say the book has encouraged them to think generatively, to break out of imaginative ruts. Little could please me more than hearing that.
After a crazy launch / convention week, I’ve finally got back into stride on Book 5. This morning I wrote three scenes that have needed writing for a while. Pretty soon I reach the All Hell Breaks Loose segment of our adventure, not that All Hell hasn’t been breaking loose already—but Our Heroes are in a slight calm before the storm. Seven plot cards remain (Or six?), but that could be anywhere between 15 and 30,000 words, probably closer to the later given that one of the cards basically says “THERE WAS A FIREFIGHT!”
So yeah, that’s what’s up with me lately.
First order of business: I’m signing this evening at 7 PM in the Framingham, MA Barnes & Noble, so if you’re in the region get thee to the store!
Second order of business: listening to me talk about things! What kinds of things have I been discussing around the internet? Well, to date…
- Place as Character in the Craft Sequence! (Featuring dragons and other strangeness) on The Qwillery
- First Drafts Suck, an exhortation on Chuck Wendig’s blog about the relative quality of basically every first draft I’ve ever written or seen, with few exceptions.
- Of Meat Hooks and Desire, being a discussion of why action sequences sometimes, but not always, accelerate a story, and an application of action scene technique to subtler pacing. It makes sense. I swear. Hosted by the estimable Brian Staveley!
- Tangled Up in Heroes, an essay on Bob Dylan, the Indigo Girls, heroism, and diversity in story.
- And, on Tor.com, my answers to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, which is about as cool as it sounds.
- Oh! And, for your listening pleasure, I was a guest on Fran Wilde’s Cooking the Books podcast, in which I discuss food and Full Fathom Five, and provide an excellent recipe for Chinese-style fried egg and tomato.
Third order of business: surprise! I’ll be participating in an AMA on r/Fantasy Thursday afternoon / evening. Bring your questions! I will answer them! My answers may be neither correct nor complete, but I’ll probably have some scotch at my side, so I’ll have that much going for me at least.
July 16th, 2014 § § permalink
First things first: JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE TO GO BACK IN THE, um. INTERNET. I have a new short story out today on Tor.com! For free! Go read it!
Still here? Why?
Okay, fine, you probably want the low-down on the events of yesterday’s crazy awesome book launch!
Well. It was great.
First things first, I have essays like all over the internet now. I stopped by Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog to talk about My Favorite Bit in Full Fathom Five. On SF Signal, I stop by Sarah Chorn’s Special Needs in Strange Worlds column to discuss how I used to cheat on eye exams, and (more seriously) the relationship between disability and worldbuilding. And more to come!
Yesterday culminated in an amazing reading / signing / million dollar bash at Pandemonium Books and Games. Here are some pictures from the event, courtesy of Amy Eastment!
And here’s another one, more serious:
There was wine. Much good craic, book signing, and board game purchasing (I am now the proud owner of Mage Knight? We’ll see how that turns out.) ensued. Also ice cream! As a result I’m a bit staggered today, but making progress toward normal, non-release-addled human engagement.
Be well! Enjoy the short story! And the book, for that matter.
July 15th, 2014 § § permalink
THE BOOK EXISTS. IT IS ON SALE. I AM TALKING IN MY INCREDIBLE HULK VOICE.
You can find it on shelves! You can find it on the internet! You can find it anywhere and everywhere!
… Okay, maybe not everywhere. But still.
Read this glowing review (Liz Bourke at Tor.com)! Or this glowing review (Tammy Sparks at Books, Bones, Buffy)! Or this other glowing review (by Dan/i/el at Intellectus Speculativus)!
Or read this cinematic-style trailer I wrote for the book!
Want signed copies? Order them here! Or come see me this evening at Pandemonium Books and Games, at 7pm!
Me, I’ll be busy collapsing in a corner somewhere. Or baking cookies. Cookies are good.
Though I should probably wait to start baking cookies until I stop being all
But, you know, for now: