Robert Jordan and Character Design

April 30th, 2014 § 10 comments § permalink

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

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

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

The characters did that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award!

April 19th, 2014 § 12 comments § permalink

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

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

Without further ado, the full nominee slate:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 16th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

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

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

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

Choice of the Deathless Nominated for XYZZY Awards!

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

Fan Art!

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

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

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

Board Game Updates!

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

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

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

Captain America and Commodity Fetishism in the MCU

April 9th, 2014 § 8 comments § permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jedi Econ, Sith History

April 2nd, 2014 § 10 comments § permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Interviews, The Poker Analogy, ICFA, Vericon, and TV Tropes!

March 19th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

Lots of stuff for you all this week!

To start off—the excellent Mur Lafferty hosted me on her podcast, I Should be Writing.  Thanks, Mur!  The interview is here, and is great.  Alas, though, it was cut off right at the end.  Basically the only thing missing is a longwinded analogy I was about to launch into about ideas, poker, and writing.  Twitter-person @tamahome02000 asked for the end of the analogy, so here it goes.

The Poker Analogy

Ideas are like the hole cards in poker—in Texas Holdem you’re dealt two cards in the hole, your private hand no one else can see, and five cards to the board, which everyone else can see.  All players try to construct the highest hand of five cards from any combination of their hole and the board.  In this analogy, the “board” is all the aspects of writing to which everyone has access: the current state of the English language, the publishing market, trends in your chosen genre, whatever.

So you think, ah-hah, to win at writing I just need THE BEST IDEA POSSIBLE.  I will never commit to a board unless I am holding the nuts.  One of the funny things about Holdem and writing alike, though, is that the board develops over time—you first bet without seeing any board cards.  After the first round of betting, three of the five total board cards are revealed.  After another round of betting, you see the fourth, and after the third round, if anyone’s still playing, you see the fifth.  The best idea you could possibly have in the first round—pair of aces, say, the most valuable hand you can build with only two cards—might not intersect at all with the board.  Your buddy went in with Ace-8, but the flop gives her two more eights and there’s nary an ace to be seen—and hell, even if you do crack an ace on the turn, your three of a kind will lose to her eights full of aces.

Because in writing, as in poker, success doesn’t result from an idea (hole) or circumstance (board).  You need both of these, sure—but success results from play.  Let’s go back to our Ace-eight example earlier.  You can’t see your buddy’s hand.  You play super conservatively—you never commit unless you have, let’s say, pair of kings or better.  All night long.  Your buddy, you know, plays a little loose—and plays a wider range of hands, among them Ace-eight.  She sees the flop with you, and it’s, say, 4-8-8.  She bets conservatively; you commit more, thinking she has a pair of kings, and she re-raises, and all of a sudden you start thinking, shit, she has the eights.  But does she really?

And so on.

As poker players go I’m something of a sieve through which money flows, so let me cut to the point: you can always be outplayed, even if you have the best hole cards in the game.  Which is just to say, the better a player you are, more you can do with the cards you’re dealt.

Which is not to say that hand composition doesn’t matter!  Good players aren’t afraid to fold, as Kenny Rogers reminds us.  But they’re not afraid to play, either, and where some people might see garbage, a good player sees opportunity.

And the only way you become a better player, of course, is by playing.  So if you’re sitting at the keyboard thinking, gosh, if I write this idea down then it’s gone and I will never have any more ideas ever ever ever, well…  you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot.  The more you hesitate, the less progress you make on your own art.

Look for the right ideas, sure.  Sometimes the perfect idea hits you like a bolt from the heavens.  Sometimes it doesn’t don’t.  A good writer can do something awesome in both cases.

Oh yeah and success.

I have very little idea what I mean by ‘success’ above.  I don’t mean making money.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald died poor and drunk.)  I don’t mean being published by the Big However Many We’re Saying They Are These Days.  (Contemporary equivalents of the Big However wouldn’t publish Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Ulysses, or Howl.  Virginia Woolf self-published most of her work.  Though don’t think that invalidates Publishing, either—it worked for Faulkner, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Edith Wharton and Ralph Ellison.  Pace Frank Baum, there are many roads to the City, though see above as to the question of whether any of these roads is paved with golden bricks.)  I don’t even mean showing anyone your work, though I caution folks against taking the Emily Dickinson route.  I might mean writing things worth reading; knowing you’ve made something that scares you, or makes you proud, or sends a message, or fights a power, or tells a truth, or mourns what’s lost.  I might mean being able to write things worth writing.  Though we can’t stop there: we’re in Tautology Country!


As you read this, I’m traveling to the airport to fly south for the International Conference on the Fantastic Arts.  I don’t think I’m on any programming, but if you’re there, say hi!  I plan on bringing one suit and an assortment of brightly-colored short-sleeved shirts, because new spring in Boston is about as spring-y as new spring in the Borderlands (which makes Canada the Blight I guess?) and I won’t get to wear anything flower-printed in my hometown for another month at least.  I’ll be returning from ICFA on Friday, though, so I can be a guest at….


Vericon is Harvard’s student-run convention, and looks to be crazy this year—the con isn’t terribly large, but they have an all-star cast of literary guests.  Here’s my schedule, though you really should check out their website for more info.


10am – 11am – Selling Your First Novel – M.L Brennan, Luke Scull, Saladin Ahmed, Max Gladstone – Writing it is difficult, and when it’s done that’s when the trouble really starts. How do you sell your first novel in today’s market? – Lead by Shuvom Ghose (Sever 113)

11 am – 12:30pm Panel on Interactive Media – Max Gladstone, Luke Scull, Patrick Rothfuss – So, this panel is geared towards discussing the challenges and advantages of story-writing for media other than the printed word. How does having to deal with player interactivity affect story? How do you tell a story in conjunction with music and visuals? Those and similar questions will be the focus of this panel. – Lead by Ore Babarinsa (Sever 113)

BOOK SIGNING — You should all come to my signing of course, but some other people are signing whose presence just might be worth your attention, and by just might be worth your attention I mean absolutely come to this signing oh my god look at these people.  All of these events are at Harvard Book Store in Harvard Square!

Patrick Rothfuss : 1pm – 2pm
Jo Walton & Scott Lynch : 1:45pm – 2:15pm
M.L. Brennan, Saladin Ahmed & Max Gladstone : 2:30pm – 3:00pm
Luke Scull & Greer Gilman : 3:15 – 3:45 pm

1pm – 2pm – Seen One Elf, Seen ‘em All – Saladin Ahmed, Scott Lynch, Max Gladstone, Shira Lipkin
How do you get away from codmedieval Europe fantasyland? There’s am exciting recent trend towards more original kinds of fantasy worlds, ones drawing on other cultures. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this new approach? – Lead by Carl Engle-Laird (Sever 113)

3:30pm – 4:30pm – Worldbuilding Panel – Patrick Rothfuss, Saladin Ahmed, Scott Lynch, and Max Gladstone
This panel focuses on crafting a setting, and how one actually builds the story. Further, it’ll also touch on influences, both literary and culture, for your writing, as well as what you think goes into your work. Lastly, It’s also an opportunity for guests to ask you about details of your worlds, and discuss the things off the beaten path in your works. – Lead by Carl Engle-Laird
(Sever 113)

8pm – 10pm – Milk and Cookies -Lowell Lecture Hall – This is totally optional, so if you’re exhausted by this point, feel free to return to your hotels and rest. That being said, if you want to do any sort of readings of your own work, or even just share some your own personal favorite works, please participate! To explain the concept of Milk and Cookies, it’s a HRSFA/HRSFAN tradition where we all get together and share short stories in a circle (or in the case of Vericon, several circles), while sharing snacks, particularly the eponymous milk and cookies.

TV Tropes!

And, because I have no regard for your personal productivity—turns out there’s a Two Serpents Rise page over at TV Tropes!  *sniff*  I’m so happy….

Happy, and as you may have guessed from the above, busy.  That’s all for this week.  Have a great few days, see you this weekend maybe, and catch you on the flip side!

Deus Ex Savings Time

March 12th, 2014 § 3 comments § permalink

[Advance warning: this post may involve nostalgia.]

I never realized how weird Daylight Savings Time was until I returned to it.

The People’s Republic of China does not have such a conceit.  In fact the PRC doesn’t go in for much American-model timefoolery at all: no time zones either, and a land mass comparable to the US, makes for 2pm solar noon over Lhasa, and the occasional 9 am sunrise.

I lived in rural Anhui for a couple years after college, which I’ve mentioned before.  If you chase back into the darkest recesses of this blog you will see some travel notes from those days.  This isn’t the post where I talk about the cultural experience of living abroad, though that’s a rich topic—I made friends, improved my Chinese, saw my world from outside itself, taught cool students, ran past water buffalo in the rain, learned taiji, climbed around ancient abandoned towers, drank tea in temples, learned to cook and to play mah jiang and work through local politics, etc. etc. etc.  There’s so much to write about all that, it’s hard to fit out my mouth.  Fortunately I wrote a great deal down at the time (and I really should go back and re-read those letters…).  Anyway.

My housemate and fellow teacher Wyatt and I shared a hastily-built apartment in an old plaster-and-concrete school building—a few rooms that used to house biological specimens in formaldehyde until a gang of students shattered the jars in the Cultural Revolution.  Apparently the specimens were counterrevolutionary.  Or the teacher was.

We had wall-mounted heater units, space heaters basically, and no insulation.  I’d never slept with so little separating me from the outside world.  In winter, the apartment was cold and damp; we wore sweaters and fingerless gloves and drank whiskey to keep warm.  The heater worked, but not brilliantly—the heat focused on our desks, and it was much more effective at drying out our throats than at toasting up our rooms.  Still, by having heaters at all we were living in comparative luxury set beside our students in their dorms, and for that matter many other teachers—which reinforced our desire to use the heaters as little as possible, opting for more elegant local solutions like heated blankets and thin-walled mugs of perpetually refilled tea and glass-and-felt-and-iron heating elements set on our desktops.  In our second year we didn’t use the wall-mounted heaters at all.

Damn, this started to turn into the uphill both ways story.  Anhui ain’t Boston—it’s warmer in winter even than Tennessee, so the absence of heat, while uncomfortable, wasn’t a huge issue.  And anyway my point isn’t the chill, it’s the proximity to the outside world.  When the solstice approached, it came devouring inch by inch—we watched seconds of sunlight slip away like sands running down an hourglass.  Then, the sun fought back from the darkness.  We felt it on our faces and in the air—and, of course, we saw it.  Minute by minute, summer regained the field.  And when the sun set at seven for the first time in months, we knew how the victory came to pass: we’d watched every second as the flower bloomed.

I’ve missed that since my return to the States.  I don’t live as close to the outside as I did then—that’s not advisable in the Greater Boston Area, among other things, though we do keep the heater low in the winter and lack air conditioning which is a much bigger deal for the southerner in me who grew up seeing central air as basic a household need on par with a front door.  I’ve been in New England five years now and every year the sun dies.  It sets at four and change p.m. on the solstice, and then we start winning our way back from Hell.  The battle goes well—you mark victories off in quarter-hours, oh my god the sun didn’t set until quarter ’til five today, and then, and then.

One day in early March, you wake up and find you’ve been fiat-awarded an hour.

If the year is a story, this is deus ex machina at its most blatant.  Just as the Hero emerges from the Underworld, Ceres descends from on high with a longwinded speech about how farmers something something agricultural work day something else, and all of a sudden the quest is much less urgent.  Oh, turns out an earthquake wiped out Sauron’s army and broke his tower.  Still, might as well chuck the ring into the volcano just to be sure, amirite?

Can’t be too careful.

This is not a legislative proposal.  This is not a Call to Action.  At best this is a bit of nostalgia coupled with a gentle reminder: there is a living world beneath the concessions of our clocks.  That’s where we all live.  And while we’re forced to render unto Clock what is Clock’s, maybe we should remember there’s more to the story of our year than Daylight Savings Monday.

Time and the Sword — Also, Sword & Laser Interview!

March 5th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Time works differently when there are swords involved.

I don’t mean by that the old “everything moves in slow motion” adrenaline-pumping effect associated with true oh-shit-I-will-die-in-the-next-ten-seconds panic.  That kind of adrenal time-dilation goes away after your first few minutes on a fencing strip, if you ever feel it at all—a modern fencer is as safe as anyone in history ever has been when menaced with a blunt blade.  The blade’s made to bend, not pierce.  You, intrepid D’Artagnan, are  wrapped in kevlar-reinforced armor and wear a ballistic-test mask that makes the sport almost completely unmarketable due to the fact that all players appear to be transformations of the same white-jacket-and-cheese-grater 3d model.  (I guess we could maybe wear different color socks?)

No, I mean that time is more flexible.  Controllable.  Traversable.  Amenable to influence.

We’re conditioned—especially those of us who grow up in the US-schools environment—to waiting for the next stimulus from the outside world and responding accordingly.  We don’t often think about adjusting the tempo of the world around us; email comes in and must be answered.  Walk sign turns to little dude and the street must be crossed.  Onions are browned, garlic must be added.

Fencing, though, puts you on equal footing with “the outside world”—reduced and concentrated on the strip in the form of some dude with a sword.  The outside world wants to stab you.  The outside world moves in patterns—maybe it likes a 1-2 disengage for example, or  advance lunges.  The outside world not only knows how it wants to attack you, it knows how you’re likely to respond to its  attack, and as a result it knows how to set traps.  And so on and so forth.  If you limit yourself to pure reaction, you end up frantic, at the mercy of the outside world’s time, and that’s a loser’s game.  Give the outside world enough time, and it will skewer you.  Sometimes it will skewer you on accident.

Fortunately, you have a sword, and can reclaim time for yourself.

For example: I have a tendency to retreat when I’m in a bind—say, when I’ve been caught in a parry.  I’m a reasonably athletic guy; I can retreat very quickly, and most of the time get myself out of danger.  But that “RUN AWAY!” move is pretty limited: among other problems, it only works at one speed (as fast as possible!), which makes it easy for a smart opponent to incorporate into his (or her) game.  Once I start the move, I have very little control.

But if, instead of running away, I stay in the bind—well, then things get interesting.  Held as I am in a parry, I can nevertheless choose how and when to try my next attack on a different angle.  I can sense when my opponent begins her (or his) riposte, and perhaps catch her in a bind of her own.  I can begin infighting (basically trying to find a way to stab the other fencer even though we’re way too close for proper stabbing) immediately, or I can create an extra beat or two of room, waiting for my opponent to make a mistake.  I can build tension by drawing out an action, or I can break it by pressing rapidly for advantage.  An simple change presents me with a huge range of options for shaping time.

Now, I don’t think the message here is “commit to the attack”—since part of the reason I feel like I see more options by staying in the bind is that I’m not just listening to instinct.  Staying in the bind, I feel like Frank Herbert’s human being in the trap; by suppressing the animal response (“move as fast as possible to save myself!”) I’m able to see a whole range of other options and approaches to time.  It’s possible that a fencer whose natural tendency was to bull-rush into engagements might see more options if she were to retreat instead; I don’t know.  I’m no coach.  I barely know which end of the sword goes in the other guy.

But I think this sense of time control applies beyond the martial arts.  It’s easiest to see there, because the whole outside world gets reduced to the form of our opponent—but the same issues apply to ethical dilemmas, to email, to love and poetry and boardroom meetings.  How do we instinctively respond to stimuli?  How can we open up more options for ourselves?  How can we create room to play about inside our own lives?  In a way this is just another face of the karmic determination issue to which I’ve returned again and again over the last few weeks.  (Fence for social justice!)

Tempo, by Venkatesh Rao, is a great book on this very subject, if you want to read the musings of someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.  Or, you know, you could get yourself an epee and find a gym!


A few postscripts!

1: I was on the Sword & Laser podcast last week!  The show is totally cool, I had a great time, and you can see it here now:

2. A while back I posted a link to this piece of killer fan art for Choice of the Deathless, by Piarelle on DeviantArt.  I may have mentioned back then that I love fan art—there’s no feeling like the sense you’ve inspired someone to create something awesome.  Someone must have wanted to ensure I had a great week, because a couple days ago designer Glinda Chen sent me this amazing piece based on Two Serpents Rise.  Thumbnail below, click through for full glory:


Isn’t that awesome?

Hope y’all are having a great week!  See you around.

Two More Craft Sequence Books!

February 26th, 2014 § 5 comments § permalink

The big news hit Publisher’s Weekly on Friday: Tor Books has bought two more novels in the Craft Sequence!  So, after Full Fathom Five, I get to play more in this world of creepy lawyers, boss skeletons, existential uncertainty and gargoyles and undead gods.

The first of the pair is done already—in fact, this morning I finished the fourth draft, a bit ahead of schedule.  With luck this means I can start the next book earlier, maybe even write some short fiction in the meantime.  I got a great title suggestion for a Craft Sequence short story at Boskone, and I’m eager to write something that goes with it.

Based on this deal, in the coming years you can expect from me, on the fiction front:

FULL FATHOM FIVE, due out this July, in which a priest who builds ‘idols’—fake gods primarily used for sacrifice avoidance—breaks the rules of her order to help out a friend and investigate a deal gone bad.  I’m especially excited for FF5 because it pulls together characters from previous books; this is going to be a much bigger element of the Craft Sequence moving forward, tying together prior installments and crossing story-streams.

LAST FIRST SNOW, as the (working) title suggests, is set a bit earlier along the series timeline, and shows the older generation’s history.  Dresediel Lex teeters on the edge of a knife, riven by protest over controversial zoning legislation, while a younger Elayne Kevarian confronts a tangle of conspiracies, revolutionaries, personal demons, and dead gods.

After that, I think we’ll revisit our friends in Alt Coulumb, and see what trouble they’ve made for themselves in our absence.  (Hint: it’s probably quite a lot.)

Outside of that I have SEKRET PROJEKT #2, as well as [REDACTED], on my plate.  Hopefully I’ll be able to give you less censored news about those in the near future!

In other news, I was going to write a bit here about rules, writing, and the martial arts, but as I was brainstorming I realized that you should all just go watch this clip from Enter the Dragon again:

Have a great week!

Die Hard and Fairy Tales

February 19th, 2014 § 13 comments § permalink

I think Die Hard might be a fairy tale.

Let me back up and offer context.  At Boskone this weekend, which was amazing by the way, had a great time and thanks to everyone who came out and said hello, I participated in a panel about fairy tales with Theodora Goss, Miriam Weinberg, and Craig Shaw Gardener, and  was thrillingly outclassed in academic knowledge and depth of study.  My brain’s been firing in unaccustomed directions in the aftermath.

Tolkien says myths and legends are about superhuman figures (gods and demigods respectively), while fairy stories tell of human beings who encounter magic.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about kingship, psychology, and the Wolf of Wall Street—and debate in the comments expanded to the question of how the psychological and narrative symbol of monarchy was endorsed by, and endorsed in turn, actual monarchy.  To carry forward a thread from that discussion: the hero of the standard Campbell myth is privileged.  His job—his hereditary job—is to repair the world.  He is safe when he descends into the underworld to reclaim fire, because that’s what he’s supposed to do.  It’s almost as if fire was stolen in the first place so the hero would have something to descend and reclaim!  Rising from the grave, fire in hand, the hero fixes the problems of his world, and ushers in a New Order.

But the fairy tales I know don’t tend to have such explicitly “positive” endings (if we want to call the ascension of the Year King and inauguration of a New Order positive—depends on the king, I guess).  You can turn Hansel and Gretel into an Underworld Journey story, but the kids bring nothing out of the forest save one another.  Little Red Riding Hood straight up dies in many old versions of her tale.  The bride in Mr Fox escapes with her life.  One of the early Goldilocks versions ends with Goldilocks impaled on the steeple of St Paul’s, which, ow.

Contact with magic in an initiation myth may be terrifying and bloody, but it leads to power, grace, and a cool new sword.  Level up!  Contact with magic in fairy tales, on the other hand, does not necessarily ennoble.  There are Cinderellas, sure, but just as often survivors escape with nothing but their own skin and the knowledge they almost lost it.  To use a framework I’ve employed earlier—myths are badass.  Fairy tales are hard core.

Or to put it another way: in our modern understanding, Campbellian myths are about knowledge, while fairy tales are about metis.

I’m stealing this word, which is Greek for ‘cunning,’ from James C Scott’s book Seeing Like a State.  In the book Scott discusses how a certain kind of “high modernist” knowledge can lead to policy that optimizes for one easily-defined and desirable metric while ignoring the broader consequences of this optimization.  Easy example: when thinking about your career, it’s easy to optimize for ‘highest salary’ without realizing until too late that you’ve become a nervous wreck, deeply depressed, morally bankrupt, substance addicted, etc.  (Wolf of Wall Street, again.  Maybe Breaking Bad too?)  Scott’s examples are more societal, for example discussing how 19th century scientific forestry optimized short-term lumber yields at the price of creating forests that did not work as forests (and as a result collapsed after two harvests, taking the market with them).  High modernist knowledge, then, is a specific way of knowing that assumes the ability to manipulate independent variables.  Metis, by contrast, is a way of knowing that’s sensitive to specificity and on-the-ground reality.  Metis is the infantry commander’s situation awareness, vs. the general’s view of units on a map.

These two ways of knowing are linked to distinctions of class and political power, in much the same way as are myths and fairy tales.  To the king-mythic hero, the world can be manipulated, transformed, and saved by using or gaining knowledge / power (mystic power in stories, political power in actuality).  To the fairy tale hero, or often heroine (much more often a heroine in fairy tales than in initiation myths, unless I’m forgetting something), power (mystic or political) is beyond our control.  Sometimes (say, in Cinderella) those who possess power want to help us; sometimes (Hansel and Gretel, Mr. Fox) they want to hurt us.  Sometimes even ostensibly benign uses of power —for example the fairy who curses the prince in Beauty and the Beast—turn out to be the source of the protagonist’s problems. The fairy tale protagonist must learn to survive in a world shaped by others’ whims.  The initiation-mythic protagonist must learn to exercise unknowable power to control (or save) the world.  Whatever else is going on in myths and fairy stories (and I think there’s a lot more, it’d be foolish to reduce them to just this aspect), these types of tales see power from either side of a class line.

I’m reminded here of John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, which is beautifully written and haunting, though I think it has a problem with women.  (That’s another essay.)  David (main character) wanders through a fairy tale world that has been (spoiler) perverted by the existence of a king.  The regal initiation myth structure in BoLT is in fact a cruel trick played by the Bad Guy to distort the world of stories.

But if this is the case—if class dynamics are a key ingredient of fairy tales—then we have a wealth of unrecognized modern fairy stories:

80s underdog action movies.  Story structure classes talk a lot about Campbell, sure, but really Die Hard is a fairy tale.  Little John goes into the woods of LA looking for his lost wife, encounters a wicked nobleman who wants to do (bad stuff) and has to defeat him by being clever, strong, and sneaky.  The whole movie opposes high modernist knowledge—Gruber’s “plan” and the building’s super-security—to metis, here in the form of John McClane’s beat cop street smarts.  The first Lethal Weapon also fits the bill—Murtaugh and Riggs wander into the woods, also of LA, and end up fighting rich and powerful noblemen in order to survive.  Their opponents?  A paramilitary conspiracy, complete with grand schemes, political authority, and all sorts of high-tech equipment.  Basically any of the “fight the big boss” stories, including Enter the Dragon, can be thought of in this way.  Oh!  And let’s not forget Alien and Terminator, both of which oppose a working class woman—a trucker in the first case, a waitress in the second—to sexual creepy-crawlies and the technocratic military-industrial complex.  (Which sometimes doubles as a sexual creepy-crawly; Ash trying to choke Ripley with a rolled-up girly mag is one of the most skin-crawling scenes in Alien, at least to this viewer.)

(Sidebar:  This notion of power disparity also may explain why Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who as a fairy tale has never quite convinced me, since New Who mythology sets the Doctor up as a being of unknowable power himself, which makes it hard to evoke that fairy tale aesthetic.)

Our mainstream, tentpole movies have turned to myth rather than fairy tale recently—Captain Kirk becomes a Destined Hero rather than a guy trying to do his best against impossible odds.  That’s not a priori a bad thing, stories and life both change after all, but when everyone’s a damn Destined Hero the pendulum might have swung too far.  I wonder how we could recapture this older dynamic.  Maybe I should slink off and write an 80s action movie for a while.

Some unrelated current-eventsy notes:

1. SFWA stuff: I agree with Nora JemisinJohn Chu, et. al. about this petition fiasco.  The SFF community, and SFWA in specific, should be a place of support, friendship, cooperation, understanding, and action.  We should be stretching our imaginations, and applauding and supporting others who stretch theirs.  To the extent those two sentences don’t describe the community or SFWA, we have more work to do.  Doing this work, and talking about how to do it, may hurt.  Most work does.  But that’s not the same as oppressing and censoring people.  So, count me in with the insect army.

2. If you have any interest in Star Trek whatsoever for the love of god run don’t walk and download John M Ford’s The Final Reflection.  It’s bloody brilliant.  A Boskone panel convinced me I should read Ford’s work; the Star Trek novels are most widely available due to some rights and will-related madness which if I wrote about it here I’d just write a scream for the next few thousand lines.  I’m reading How Much for Just the Planet soon.  Whenever I find a new author I like this much, I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new universe, and not in the Species 8472 way.

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