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Two Reviews – The Opium War, Ms. Marvel

Hello, friends!  It’s another crazy week over here at the Gladstone House, as I rev up on the next Choice of Game.  (More details about that in the near future.)  In the interests of pressing on with game writing, I can’t take the afternoon I usually would devote to blog composition—so, instead, here are a couple reviews.  I’ve been reading more this last month, and I’ve returned to Goodreads to track my books.  Hit me up over there if you’re interested in seeing what I’m up to.  I try to keep my comments on books short and sweet, but these got away from me a bit, so… here I am.


Julia Lovell’s THE OPIUM WAR

Lovell’s well-written and masterfully researched THE OPIUM WAR undercuts much received wisdom about the War, its causes, and its effects.

For example: Lin Zexu, the Qing official celebrated for seizing and burning illegal shipments of British opium in Guangdong in 1839, is commonly described as an anti-opium crusader; Lovell makes a good case from contemporary sources that Lin was in fact a driven Qing official hoping a successful resolution of the opium problem would lead to his being promoted to a position from which he could achieve his final goal of improving grain shipments to the capitol.

Or: the standard line on the financial situation underpinning the Opium War is that the British were running a heavy trade deficit with China (England needed tea and silk, and wasn’t offering much in trade except silver), and so started shipping opium from India. This turned the deficit in the other direction, and China started losing immense quantities of silver on the opium trade, thus destabilizing the national economy—so the Qing government outlawed opium and dispatched Lin Zexu to break up the import market. But, Lovell points out, opium imports rose dramatically after the war, and yet the Qing economy remained stable. Turns out the silver pinch the Qing felt in the 1830s was brought on by a contraction in global silver supply due in part to revolutions and unrest in South America and Mexico, which produced something like 80% of the world’s silver at the time.

The book’s full of little turns like this, opening the standard narrative of the war like a dreamcatcher to reveal new sides and perspectives to the history in question. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite so much if I didn’t have a reasonable background in the “received history” of the struggle, from books like Jack Beaching’s The Opium War and (for more general information about Western trading and missionary activities) Jonathan Spence’s To Change China.

Lovell’s account is strongest in its primary focus on the First Opium War. She covers the Second Opium War in a bit of a rush—focusing on a few highlights like the sacking of the Summer Palace, in comparison to her archival depth on the First War—and her chapters on reactions to the Wars jump around a great deal in time. I don’t think this is a problem, exactly, but it may be confusing to readers unfamiliar with 19th century Chinese history. That said, her final chapter, tracing the evolution of modern China’s history / propaganda industry post-June 1989, is a brilliant summary of her book’s themes.

The Opium Wars were important and weird. A handful of expats, missionaries, and drug smugglers cheated, shot, and conned their way to conquest. The technological disparities between the British and Qing war machines in 1840 were so great that many of the military conflicts in this book read like Independence Day. If you want a terrifying vision of what contact with technologically advanced aliens who think of themselves as “the good guys” would look like, this is your book. (Another of Lovell’s compelling inversions: her argument that the Yellow Peril narrative is at root fueled by British / Western anxiety and guilt over the one-sided indefensibility of the Opium Wars.)

Midway through reading this book, I decided to look up what happened to Jardine & Matheson, the import-export business formed by the two arch-warmongering drug smugglers of 1840s Guangdong who were prime instigators of the Opium Wars. Turns out their firm still exists. There’s a website. Its Board of Directors includes a man named “Lord Leach of Kildare.”

Reality is a strange and terrifying place.

G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, Ms. Marvel: vol. 1

A proposal: stories (or, generally, texts) can be represented as three-dimensional, even four-dimensional, shapes in the noosphere. Critical perspectives are two-dimensional planes intersecting these texts. A critical perspective’s reading of a text is the outline formed by the intersection of text and critical plane.

Let’s imagine a text that is, in three-dimensional form, a round teakettle. Some critical perspectives on that text are the equivalent of a plane cutting straight through the teakettle’s base: their reading on the teakettle is that it’s a circle. Some perspectives / projections are closer to a plane bisecting the teakettle along a line of lateral symmetry through handle and spout—in which case anyone who’s seen a teakettle will recognize the kettle’s side-on silhouette.

Some critical perspectives produce readings that are more—let’s say, informative?—about certain texts than others. Readers with the kind of critical perspective that reads a teakettle as a circle may think “this is just a circle, like all other circles. We’ve seen circles before! Why are people so excited about this one? Why, this other text over here is a complicated labyrinth! And that one’s a star!” While readers with the critical perspective that reads a teakettle as a teakettle may think “A teakettle! Thank God! I’ve wanted one of those for decades!”

I think Ms. Marvel is a teakettle.

By which I mean: comparing nothing but its use of superhero genre tropes and language to other uses of superhero tropes and language, much of what’s being done here has been done before. (As a tale of a nerdy working-class teen random-chanced into the superhero life who fights local supervillains, Ms. Marvel vol. 1 is telling something close to The Spider-man Story.) But that critical perspective is like the perspective that reads the teakettle as a circle. It doesn’t remotely capture what’s going on.

Other critical perspectives reveal dimensions to which few mainstream superhero comics aspire. Kamala Khan is a working class first generation immigrant girl from a Muslim family in Jersey City, in a far more realistic social milieu than Peter Parker’s, including frankly but compassionately drawn fault lines of race and class and faith. Ms. Marvel vol. 1’s domestic relationships also move in directions that shouldn’t feel fresh, but do: both Kamala Khan’s parents are alive! Neither of them understands her, but they both mean well! Her brother’s a complicated guy trying to figure out his own faith and place in the world! In fact, all her friends and family are struggling with their own identity issues! Who cares if the story’s similar to Spider-man’s from a pure genre-language angle? In fact, the straightforwardness of the story’s use of superhero genre language lets all these other fascinating elements hang together. “Round” turns out to be a great shape for a teakettle!

This circle-teakettle issue pops up again and again in critiques of books and stories that take the genre as a foundation to explore topics under-explored by traditional genre narratives. The standard protest goes something like, “this story doesn’t use the language (or tools, if you want) of this genre in new ways—it’s not reading the genre back to itself—therefore it’s doing nothing new.” When in fact, the work in question is doing new things. Many new things! And it *is* reading the genre language back to itself, in ways that may not be visible from a genre expert’s critical perspective.

(Sidebar: this same complaint is often leveled against, e.g., literary writers who deploy genre tropes, and a similar response applies. The book may operate in dimensions for which the “how is this using genre language in new ways” critical perspective is poor or irrelevant.)

As of its first volume, Wilson’s Ms. Marvel builds fresh and well-told stories off a strong foundation of genre language. Also, the art in this book is beautiful.

Readers, Earning Out, and Thanks

My first book came out two years ago. Many books come out each year, but this one was mine, dammit, and I was excited! I wanted to tell cool stories, do crazy things, and make magic happen.  I didn’t know if anyone would read my work—I mean, I had high hopes, but those and two bits won’t buy you a coke these days unless you go to Sam’s Club and that’s too much tangent for even me to sustain.

A few weeks ago, this came in the mail.


Nothing on this check matters except for that little “Roy” in the memo line.  These are royalties for Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise, which means those books have earned out of their advance.  This is amazing news.  Let me write that on its own line.

This is amazing news.

The general accepted wisdom on advances (as I’ve heard it anyway) is that if you earn out, great!  But you shouldn’t expect to earn out—the advance is the only money you should ever count on receiving.

So, earning out is a Big Thing, folks.  It means my publisher was justified in the risk they took on the first books, and will be more likely to want to publish more, which is great, because I have more stories to tell, in the Sequence and out of it.  But this isn’t really a thing I’ve done, so much as a thing you all have done.  Everyone who read the books, who reviewed them, who bought copies for their friends, who checked them out of the library, who came to a signing or said hi at a convention—thank you so much.  I love this job, and I can only do it because you care, because you read, and because you spread the word.

Also in this cool vein: my story A Kiss with Teeth landed in Some of the Best from Tor.com, a Tor.com reader poll listed Full Fathom Five as one of the best books of 2014, and then their critical roundup included it as well!

Here is an animated .gif to express my feelings about my readers:



Happy holidays, y’all.

How To Convince Your Friends to Read My Books

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 DeadTwo 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.

Robin Williams

My parents took me to see Dead Poets Society in theaters when I was four or five.  The story, as I remember it, is that we were stuck in the middle of the theater when they realized Neil was about to commit suicide, and they couldn’t get us out before it happened without pissing off the rest of the audience.  I was pretty shaken by the experience, to hear them tell it.  I don’t remember the story from inside my own head.  It’s a tale that’s been told to me, and I might be telling it wrong today.

I didn’t have much television in my life growing up.  I’d say “any,” but we did watch the Olympics, and the news on election nights, and somehow I saw a few episodes of Duck Tales and Ninja Turtles (I think we got VHS tapes via a Pizza Hut reading challenge maybe?).  My main exposure to TV was when we’d travel south to visit our family in Tennessee.  My grandparents had cable, and I stayed up in their den downstairs until three or four o’clock in the morning, when the old George Reeve Superman serial aired.  To reach Superman, though, I had to watch six or seven hours of old-school TV.  Those evenings are a mash of Mary Tyler Moore and the Dick Van Dyke show and I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched in my memory, all of which shows were great—but the very occasional episodes of Mork and Mindy had a different flavor.  Even that young I could see something weird and sincere and strange was happening on screen.

My sister and I were big Disney kids.  Because we weren’t allowed to watch videos or TV but loved the musicals so much, we made (with Mom and Dad’s help!) audio tape recordings of the soundtracks, so we could color or read or build legos or whatever and sing along.  Aladdin was a special favorite—”How about I call you Al?  Or maybe just Din?  How about Laddie?”  We weren’t always the best at common cause, my sister and I (sorry, Hal), but we came together on those recordings.  (We’d do the same later, older, with the BBC Radio Lord of the Rings adaptations.)

My father-in-law worked for Disney while Aladdin was being made, and apparently when Robin Williams came in to audition for the Genie, the script had the Genie pop out of the lamp, say a sentence or two, and jump straight into “Never Had a Friend Like Me.”  The whole post-lamp monologue, the Ed Sullivan joke, the Scottish bit, “Do I look different to you,” “He Can be Taught!” all that stuff, Williams ad-libbed based on the few lines he was given.  He got the part, of course.  They let him ad lib off the script for the whole movie, and the animators matched their drawings to his performance.

And then there was Good Will Hunting.  Boston has, as of my writing this, made the bench—you know the bench I mean—into a shrine.  There’s a reason for that.  To be honest, that movie probably let me project myself a little too much into the main character—but that turned out okay, because it was also a movie about how being smart (or thinking you are) might get you noticed, but isn’t enough to make a you a man.

I didn’t know Robin Williams as a standup performer—until college, that is, when it seemed everyone I knew loved his Live on Broadway special.  Normally people telling me something’s funny is the kiss of death: I don’t know why, I just don’t like being told I’m going to laugh.  I sat down to watch the special thinking, eh, well, at least it’s only—


I’ve laughed that hard three times in my life.  Each time I thought I was gonna die, because no way any oxygen was reaching my brain.  I’m talking about laughing so hard you can’t do any crunches the next day.  The golf bit.  The golf bit!  “Fuck croquet!  I’m gonna take the hole and put it hundreds of yards away!”

Six years later I was teaching in southern China, and I was alone in the way you’re only ever alone if you’re in a foreign country with only one other person for hundreds of miles around who speaks your native language natively.   (We had local friends, but there’s a difference.)  It was a tired, hot late spring day, and my teaching partner and I found a  copy of Good Morning Vietnam at Honest Bob’s Totally Legitimate DVD Shop on the corner.  Neither of us had seen it.  Sure as hell felt like that movie had seen us.

A few years later, after I moved to Cambridge, my friend Rachel pushed our group to watch Williams’ Inside the Actors Studio episode.  James Lipman struggles for something like half an hour to get a single question in edgewise.  The rest is Robin Williams and the audience.

And that’s not touching Mrs. Doubtfire, and Jumanji, and Patch Adams, and oh jesus how could I forget Hook which I bought the comic of so I could enjoy it again in those days when we didn’t go see things more than once in the movie theater, and.  Well.

A friend today told me that it seemed, for kids our age, like he would always be here.  That’s true.  His death is like your favorite uncle’s death—even less possible than your father’s, in a way, because if your eyes are open you know your parents are mortal before you leave their house.  The family you see seldom, though—they seem like they’ll be strong forever.

But I think there’s another reason Robin Williams seemed like he’d always be here.  He tapped into something that has always been here and will endure as long as we’re a species that deserves, in its better moments, to call itself human.  Naming this “something” is hard, but naming’s my job, so I’ll try: he was—is—hilarious, and at the same time possessed of a dignity so profound he never needed to assert it.  Blake sings songs of innocence and experience, but he aims higher—toward a second, greater innocence that has endured and transcended experience.  Higher innocence is the realm of the sacred fool, and for me Williams’ characters, by and large, are fools in that sacred mold.  He doesn’t laugh like someone ignorant of the world.  He doesn’t laugh like someone who knows the world’s shit, either.  He laughs, and gets us to laugh, because even though we have ample evidence the world’s a shitty place, the big joke is that it’s also charged with the grandeur of God.

I’ll miss him, and savor what endures.

I wish I could just leave this post here, but I need to do some housecleaning.  As of your receipt of this message, I’m on a plane for London, there to attend the World Science Fiction Convention, see wonderful people, and just incidentally see what happens with the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award that I’m nominated for this year eek.  Um.  Ignore that last bit.  Anyway!  If you happen to be at WorldCon, I’ll be on a number of panels.  Here’s my schedule on the WorldCon website, and I’ve updated the events page too.  I have a blog post for next week queued up, so you won’t experience any loss of coverage, but I won’t be around to chat, so please stay civil in my absence.

Godzilla in the Desert of the Real

To Americans, Godzilla seems like the ultimate out-of-context problem.

An out-of-context problem is a problem you don’t know you should be worrying about.  You’re a savvy functionary in Tenochtitlan, engaged in all sorts of high-level political chicanery, you know the three marriage alliances you want your house to make in the next year, etc. etc., when all of a sudden these bearded corpse-looking guys show up.  Genghis Khan is an out-of-context problem for late 11th-century Russia and Eastern Europe.  Perry’s black ships are an out-of-context problem to 19th century Japan.  Butch and Sundance’s “Who the hell are these guys?” is the out-of-context problem question.  (Though of course out-of-context problems don’t need to be guys, or sentient.  Plagues, shifts of climate, and meteor strikes also qualify.)

So far, so good: What could be more out-of-context than a skyscraper-sized giant lizard?

But the degree to which a culture (or a reader embedded in a culture) sees a phenomenon as out-of-context depends on how comprehensive they believe their own context to be—or, to put it another way, how permeable the world’s boundaries seem to that reader.  One of the fascinating things about Godzilla’s first appearance, in 1954, is how in-context he seems.

In 1954’s Godzilla, nuclear testing has driven the eponymous giant monster from the deep.  H-Bombs have destroyed his habitat, scarred him, and (probably—it’s open to debate) given him the ability to breathe radioactive lasers.  When Godzilla makes landfall, the Japanese treat him as a threat, which is natural: blundering about in a storm he’s already destroyed a small village.  Who knows what would happen if he were to strike Tokyo?  But the film also takes seriously the objections of an elder scientist: this creature is a miracle, and should be studied, not fought.

Each attempt to destroy Godzilla only makes the problem worse.  The military makes a coastal fence of electric barbed wire (which doesn’t work), blasts him with tanks (ditto), and harasses him with fighter jets (which at least serve to frustrate him).  Godzilla wreaks unknowing and tremendous havoc on Tokyo.  At the end of his rampage, the entire skyline’s ablaze.

If you haven’t seen the first Godzilla film, you can get much of the same effect by imagining the plot of Independence Day, minus Will Smith and the Anthony Daniels muppet: weird being shows up, starts wrecking shit, is neutralized by scientist with miracle cure.  But 1954’s Godzilla is missing something else from ID: the supernatural terror of the Other.  Godzilla’s conceived in purely scientific terms (however ridiculous), and he’s even presented as being a (marginal) part of Japan’s history and culture, having been worshipped by island villagers throughout the medieval period.  Nor is Godzilla mindless or motiveless.  Both Godzilla puppet and suit are enormously, sometimes comically expressive—at one point, Godzilla approaches a radio tower with a Kermit-esque expression of consternation.  “What’s this doing here?”  If Godzilla stomps on people that shoot him, well, wouldn’t you?

Even the destruction 1954’s Godzilla causes is treated as knowable by the film and its characters. There’s no supernatural awe of the disaster itself, no fetishization.  Nurses and doctors use Geiger counters to conduct triage on children.  Fireman put out fires.  Construction crews rebuild.  The nation assembles a massive children’s choir to mourn the dead.  The knowable monster creates a knowable tragedy and people respond in a knowable way.

Which should come as no surprise given the date of the film.

Just before Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, a fashionable young woman on a bus utters a critical line of dialogue (which I’m re-creating from memory here, so give me a small break on accuracy): “If I survived Nagasaki, why should I worry about this?”  World War II wasn’t exactly kind to the Home Islands—while there was no land invasion of Japan, bombings both nuclear and non- left their scars, especially in Tokyo.  The city’s immolation in the 1954 film carries distinct echoes of the real damage nine years previously.  The destruction Godzilla incurs is not alien—every one of the film’s speaking characters is old enough to remember the Tokyo bombings.

Compare, then, Godzilla’s 2014 appearance on American screens.  Godzilla is not presented as any sort of understandable phenomena—he and the MUTOs are remnants of an earlier age of monsters, pieces of nature beyond human control or comprehension.  Godzilla and the MUTOs barely interact with human beings for most of the movie, focused instead on their own battles.  We don’t see any effective evacuation of Godzilla- or MUTO-targeted areas—in fact, we see a number of excellent shots of Americans going about their daily business as if utterly unaware of a giant monster threat, until, say, their casino is can-openered by a preying mantis the size of Disneyland.  The monsters, and the damage they do, are presented as firmly outside the American context.  Godzilla’s appearance, and the MUTOs’, is a sudden intrusion of a wild and incomprehensible reality into our fantasy-land.

I’m reminded here of Slavoj Zizek’s essay “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” written in the wake of this millennium’s great American out-of-context problem, the 2001 World Trade Center bombing.  In the essay, which I hope I’m not going to butcher in my attempt to summarize, please read it for yourself—anyway, in the essay Zizek observes that for people around the world, images of destruction and civic violence are real—things that happen in their context.  Americans, by contrast, tend to experience violence as something that happens (a) elsewhere, like, over-oceans elsewhere and (b) in action movies.  These two locations tend to blend together into “stuff that happens on the other side of a television screen.”  So, for Zizek as of this essay written more than a decade ago, the choice confronting Americans in the wake of September 11 was: either to accept that this sort of thing truly happens, everywhere, that tragedies we reflexively consider fictional were in fact real, that we are all part of the same world living with the same set of concerns—or else reclassify our very own reality as a kind of action movie, and start acting accordingly.

In place of the 1954 Godzilla’s overtones of war and tragedy, the 2014 filmmakers try, in their own way, to demonstrate this dynamic confrontation between reality and fiction.  Godzilla 2014’s constant cuts from first-person observations of monster action to news footage—coyly interrupting city-crushing smackdowns with cuts to the same events shown on CNN half a continent away—are a clever use of this same “media-tion” of reality.  The most important narrative element of the early monster fights is not the fight itself, it’s the moment when the CNN report about that fight draws San Francisco viewers into the world of the monster.  (No matter how disappointing it may be to cut away from that first bass-rumble punch.)  Unfortunately for them, the American people in Godzilla 2014 follow Zizek’s latter path, at least at first—they believe they’re in a movie about fighting giant monsters, and act accordingly.  The US military in the film continues to think that giant monsters are a problem to be solved with nuclear warheads, despite ample evidence that nuclear warheads only make this particular problem worse.  If Our Heroes were in, say, Pacific Rim, this would be a perfectly logical solution!  Their trauma has pushed them into the wrong movie.

It’s for this reason that, pace laser breath, the film’s real emotional climax is a strange, quiet, almost silly interlude in the final battle.  Our Hero, a US Navy Lieutenant who we’ve followed off and on through the kaiju chaos, is fleeing down the streets of a city under monster attack.  Godzilla’s thrown through a building mid-fight and falls into the street.  Our Hero turns, looks up—into Godzilla’s eyes.

I kid you not.  They share an honest-to-God moment amid crunching steel and falling glass.  Due to the magic of cinema, that beat probably lasts five seconds, but it exists.  Godzilla is there.  Our Hero has seen him, and been seen in turn by him.  The whole movie relies on the degree to which that moment lets Godzilla into our main character’s, and by extension our, world.  There’s even a brief instant when Our Heroine gets the same level of contact.

(If I may be insane for a moment, I even think the movie goes a step further, by equating Godzilla, in plot logic terms, with Bryan Cranston’s character in the film.  Cranston’s character, Our Hero’s father, is a conspiracy nut investigating a nuclear disaster that he thinks was caused by monsters.  He, Cranston, SPOILER ALERT dies in the first monster attack—killed by the giant bugs Godzilla later fights in the movie.  Godzilla shows up immediately after Cranston’s death, with a mind to hunt down and kill the bugs. Cranston’s soul might well have transmigrated into Godzilla.  There’s even a slight resemblance, though I acknowledge that I’m getting into Epileptic Trees territory here:




All of which makes the movie stand out, especially when you think about the tendency of American horror, creature features, etc. to use the out-of-context Creature as a sin-goat upon which to hang our anxieties and fears.  (The Shark in Jaws is a perfect example, which point I steal with joy from Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.)  Godzilla 2014 gives us a monster tailor-made for our fears—it comes from abroad, and from the past, and from nuclear power, and was a victim of American military aggression during the Cold War, but it also stands in for global warming and climate change and Nature Pointing Out The Folly of Men—but then the movie includes the monster in our context.  It connects us to the kaiju.  Even if you think my Bryan Cranston theory’s nuts, that shot of crossed eyes in a collapsing city stands on its own.  Nor is Godzilla the only inhuman force with which this movie gradually brings us to understand and sympathize: the insectile MUTOs also have recognizable motivations and drives—to reproduce, as well as to defend and avenge their young.  The giant insect-nuclear warhead courtship scene was the most touching relationship I’ve seen on the big screen so far this year.

Make no mistake—this is still an action movie, which the 1954 Godzilla really isn’t.  And in that respect it’s more conservative than, say, the giant monster movie that I imagine takes place in the aftermath of Cabin in the Woods.  But even so I think what we’ve received here is pretty remarkable.  The 2014 Godzilla is a movie that, for all its flaws, allows us to connect with the monsters, rather than styling them as Enemies from Beyond.  (I loved / continue to love Pacific Rim, and / but it’s structured around a basically Lovecraftian message: Weird Stuff will come to you from Beyond, and when it does, kill it with fire, if you can.)  If only more movies did the same with their characters—human as well as scaly or chitinous.

Most of the movie’s other flaws (and there are many) are standard-issue Godzilla problems, though Our Hero and his hapless family are far worse than the mortals of the ’54 Godzilla.  Allowing for that mess, though, we’re left with a giant monster movie that nudges us, however gently, toward the real.

And I think that’s pretty cool.

Also, come on—doesn’t he look like Bryan Cranston at least a little bit?

Happy Birthday to Me!

Hi Internet!  It’s my birthday, so while I’m not exactly taking the day off—I’m busily plugging away on the fifth book in the Craft Sequence—I am going to be excusing myself from usual overthinking-pop-culture blog duties to spend time with family.

In the meantime, may I suggest you check out this blog post I wrote on tor.com in which I apologize for the numbering system of the Craft Sequence?

(By the way—it’s Tuesday as I frantically type these lines, and I’m going up to visit family in New Hampshire; if I can get WiFi access in NH, I’ll post something here about Godzilla 1954, Godzilla 2014, permeable social membranes, and Slavoj Zizek.  If I can’t get WiFi, you may have to wait a little while for your weekly perversion.)

EDIT: Apparently, in my incipient middle age (I turn 30 tomorrow?!) I have lost the ability to schedule WordPress posts accurately. My birthday’s the 28th, but early congratulations are always welcome!

The Tractor Story from ICFA. Also, Vericon fun!

Greetings Earthling carbon units.  I am a digitized uploaded echo of Max’s consciousness, which is still in traction after ICFA and Vericon.  I have been instructed to inform you all that he had an excellent time, and / though he is still somewhat unhinged as a result of sleep deprivation.  Do not fear, however: he endures, recovers, and grows stronger through a combination of espresso, dark magic, exercise, and metal.

Current exhaustion is irrelevant, however, compared to the general excellence of guerilla poolside readings, hot tub luxuriation, good food with excellent people, wonderful readings, far too many cocktails, books and signings at ICFA, Smallworld (with Saladin Ahmed and ML Brennan and the Durdands, & Pat Rothfuss looking on; Saladin crushed us all with a vicious combination of Stout Skeletons and Merchant Humans), and some of the best panels it’s ever been my / meat-Max’s pleasure to participate in.  Different in many ways, Vericon and ICFA were amazing, and it was a pleasure to attend both.

Hugo Reminder 

If you’re voting for the Hugos this year, we only have a few days left so I figure it’s fair to sum up my eligibility: I’m still eligible for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer award this year; Two Serpents Rise is eligible for the Best Novel category, and Drona’s Death is eligible for Short Story.  If you’re not voting for the Hugos this year, let me offer you some non-voting reminders so you can get in the spirit: the discursions in Hugo’s Les Miserables are not as irrelevant as they seem at first glance, and if you liked the musical you really should read the book sometime.  Also, an early film version of The Man Who Laughs was a primary inspiration for the Joker’s character design.  Anyway!  Enough Hugo.  On to Tractors.

The Tractor Story

The International Conference on the Fantastic in Art this year shared convention space with a John Deere brand meeting, and of course, being writers, we had to do something with that in true Heian garden-party fashion.  Evidence is hazy on who proposed the initial idea, but after a few drinks poolside a number of us including Fran Wilde, Ilana Teitelbaum Reichert, and Emily Jiang embarked on a flash fiction contest with a John Deere theme.  Ellen Klages agreed to judge.  The prize: a John Deere hat.  And so without further ado, a brief adult language warning, and many apologies (among them to Kenny Chesney), allow me to present the contest winner: my story, Sam Ogilvy’s Lament.

Sam Ogilvy’s Lament

 by Max Gladstone

She thinks my tractor’s sexy.

And she don’t even think it for the right reasons. A kind of attraction I’d understand: he’s a sharp John Deere chassis with top-shelf Yoshida trinary brain and 16 nanometer mag field resolution to guide its little critters as they unsalt the chem-fucked earth. Cleans and plants a field ten times faster than the A-230. One season with him and some of Grampa’s old high pasture what hasn’t sprouted shrub in years can carry a crop to term.  Keep him away from over-fucked soil and he’ll run forever. Apple candy green, with shiny canola yellow stripes and highlights. He is some machine, worth every drop of sweat it’ll take to earn him off.

But that ain’t what gets her. I mean, she respects him—her folks’ farm’s just two miles over, and she knows from good equipment. When I got him, at first I thought that’s all it was. She walked over that morning, fresh and full in Daisy Dukes and sweating from the sun, and looked all the way up to me on the back of that John Deere and asked for a ride. I asked him, and he said fine, so I had her climb on up and she straddled him and held the touch ‘trodes and I said take him for a spin, and climbed down to watch them roll to the old mended pasture fence and back, her whooping high and long as the sun rose.

And watching her holler with her head back and hair streaming I had some unchristian thoughts, I tell you.

She thanked me. I said she could come see him any time. She smiled and said she’d take me up on that.

“Sam,” he said once she was gone and we got back to work, “your friend is a fascinating person.”

“Irene?” I was happy about it then. I thought, she’ll be by regular to see the tractor and who knows what might happen.  “Yup.”

But she took to coming by in the evenings long after work, just settin’ in the barn talking to him, crosslegged in overalls on the floor by his big wheels. I snuck up on them once to listen. “A cookie?” she asked.

“A madelene is a kind of cookie, from the writer’s childhood.  Our parents would have used chocolate chip. Of course there’s no chocolate now.”

I tried to joke with her about it one night, but she gave me that angry frown makes her lower lip stick out like a ledge. “Fred’s third generation hipster. His folks were trapped in Brooklyn after the Big Seal. He ain’t ever seen proper stars but through those camera eyes, and when they plug him out of the Turk he goes home to a three-room apartment he shares with fourteen guys all high on federal dope. We never had to live like that and it wouldn’t hurt you to show some human feeling, Samuel Ogilvy.”

“Don’t see where his books come into it, is all. They got us into this shit in the first place. He should want to learn from us ‘stead of thinking he knows best while he flies the bugs and fixes the soil.”

“Not all those books were the problem. Some of them, if anyone had listened, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. And Fred is learning from you. You know he started a rooftop garden? They’re getting tomatoes off that. Real ones. Fruit of their own hands, not from Turk-for-Food or anything.”

“Well color me fucking impressed” was I guess the wrong thing to say, because when I did she looked at me like I’d grown a third eye and then she stormed off.

I felt bad about that. Fred and I didn’t talk for a few days. Thursday night, though, the stars were bright and brilliant out the window, a high clear sky with the Milky Way as real as a dusty road.  And the pair of them stood out in the back field: him huge and still green even in the starlight, and her with one hand tender on his wheel.

I went to join them.

The night was cool and the kind of dark that has light in it. At first I thought she must have moved around to his other side, because I couldn’t see her.

Then I saw something move on top of him.

I heard the generator’s whine, and a soft moan I’d hoped to hear elsewhere. Human body ain’t got much metal in it—but enough for a 16-nanometer resolution mag field to touch lightly.  Or less than lightly.

She didn’t holler. She was trying to keep quiet. After a while, she laughed like falling rain.

I left.

But I’ve got to thinking: there’s this old field up past Grampa’s we own but haven’t plowed in twenty years on account of the soil’s too chem- and critter-fucked. Try to work it and I’ll break the bugs the tractor uses, brick the thing and end up stuck with a bad loan and a long wait for my next. Have to go back to the old A-230. But the A-230 don’t read books, and hell, without that new John Deere maybe Irene and I could work.

Besides, the A-230’s that same pretty shade of green.

<The End>

Giant Super Mega Post of News and ARCs and Schedules and Board Games

I’m giving the OMNISCREED 4000 a break for the week, since there’s some cool stuff to report from Casa Gladstone.  First, roll tape!


Last Friday I sent in the final page proofs for FULL FATHOM FIVE, the next book in the Craft Sequence.  And the same day, I received a few of these beauties. The cover looks great—I’m amazed by Chris McGrath’s ability to come up with powerful work that somehow fits with the series.

I’ve received enough questions about the cast list that I think I might need to spoil it in advance.  So far, all I’ll say is that FF5 does feature the return of some old familiar faces from Two Serpents Rise and Three Parts Dead, facing brand new problems.  You’ll like it a lot more than they will, I promise.

Launch day’s July 2014.  Watch this space for more news and possible giveaways.


If you haven’t yet become a member of WorldCon (this year, it’s LonCon 3), then you should do so before Jan 31 if you want to be able to nominate people for the Hugos and the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award.  Curious as to how?  I’ve presented my argument, and easy-to-follow directions, here.

As for folks who are eligible this year for the Campbell Award this year—I’m in my second (and final) year of eligibility.  I’ve been nose-to-grindstone this last year when it came to reading new stuff, and sadly most of the new stuff I’ve read won’t come out until 2014!  That said, you should check out Wesley Chu and John Chu— Wes writes action-packed alien madness, and John writes heartfelt worldbuilding-heavy SF.


If you have a brief commute and like hearing folks talk, why not hear me, John Anealio, and Patrick Hester talk about books, tiaras, and neat stuff?  Here’s the link.


Someone over at Apple thinks Choice of the Deathless is cool.  If you haven’t played it yet, give it a shot. It will scratch the Craft Sequence itch and tide you over to summer.


I’m at Boskone next month!  Check out all these things I’m doing.  I’m looking forward to everything, but the “Writing Fan Fiction for Kids” event should be a hoot.  Plus, Mur!

Writing Fan Fiction for Kids with Mur Lafferty and Max Gladstone

Saturday Feb. 15 10:00 – 10:50

Campbell Award winning authors Mur Lafferty and Campbell nominee Max Gladstone introduce kids to writing fan fiction for children.

Mur Lafferty, Max Gladstone

Urban Fantasy in Transition

Saturday Feb. 15 12:00 – 12:50

Urban fantasy has a long history within fantasy literature, but it’s certainly gained new prominence recently. How has the definition changed over time? What influences have helped to shape urban fantasy? How far back into the literary past does urban fantasy reach? How might it evolve in the future?

Leigh Perry (M), Christopher Golden, Melinda Snodgrass, Mur Lafferty, Max Gladstone

Gender Roles in _Doctor Who_

Saturday Feb 15, 13:00 – 13:50

The characters (Companions, foes, etc.) in TV’s _Dr. Who_ have included men, women, and “other.” How have they all conformed to “expected” gender conventions? Discuss notable breaks in tradition, giving examples (this will not be graded.) Note: you may also include Captain Jack and the Doctor’s Wife.

Laurie Mann (M), LJ Cohen, Carrie Cuinn, Julia Rios, Max Gladstone

The Enduring Power of Fairytales

Saturday Feb. 15, 17:00 – 17:50

What is it about fairytales that holds the imagination — and can it survive a few tweaks? Fantasy is rife with retellings of myths and legends, but why are today’s authors and screenwriters so radically changing classic fairytale characters (as in _Wicked_) and/or even outcomes (as in _Once Upon a Time_)?

Theodora Goss (M), Mary Kay Kare , Craig Shaw Gardner , Max Gladstone

Who’s in the Attic, What’s in the Basement, and I Don’t Know Is Under the Bed

Sunday Feb. 16 13:00 – 13:50

A panel discussion of the things that give us goose bumps, send chills down our spines, or otherwise scare the daylights out of us.

Gillian Daniels (M) , Darrell Schweitzer, F. Brett Cox, Paul G. Tremblay, Max Gladstone

Reading by Max Gladstone

Sunday Feb. 16 14:00 – 14:25

Guys I will read so much stuff you have no idea.  Can I read an entire book in twenty-five minutes?  I don’t know, but maybe you are interested in finding out!  I sure am.



Want to conquer the universe?  Uncover strange alien technologies?  Dispatch Dreadnaught fleets to crush your friends and intimidate your enemies? Become an ancient race of inscrutable monolith-builders who hover implacable and distant above the carnage?  Or just play a race of crazy plant-people?  Want to do all this in the form of a beautiful, elegant board game that does not require twelve hours to play?

Enter Eclipse: A New Dawn for the Galaxy.  Eclipse is a Finnish game, further support for my theory that Good Games Come From Places With Nasty Winters.  (A corollary to my theory that Good Ice Cream Comes From Hot Countries.)  You and your friends play human and / or alien factions spreading their hands / tentacles / pseudopoda across Known and Unknown Space. Each of you starts with a teeny civilization, confined to one corner of the galaxy.  You win by accumulating the most Victory Points (natch)—a semi-secret currency that can be gained by developing territory, engaging in diplomacy, winning battles, building monoliths, and developing high-level science.

Admittedly this sounds exactly like the kind of game we made computers to play: tons of bookkeeping, addition, micromanagement, and related nutjobbery.  But the designers took the existence of computer games as a challenge, I think: “How can we” (they seem to have said) “make a board game this big without making the players once think, I wish I had a computer to do the math for me.

The answer is elegance.  For example: each player has an “upkeep track” consisting of circles covered by little wooden “influence discs”.  To take an action on your turn, you move an influence disc from the upkeep track onto the action you want to take.  This reveals a number, which is the amount of money it costs to keep your civilization out of bankruptcy this turn.  Generating more money?  You can take more actions.  But watch out—you spend the same influence discs to control star systems.  As a result, your sprawling star empire costs a lot more to control than a small, focused colony cluster.  Depending on their income, civilizations can be paralyzed by their own bulk.  Some technologies give you more influence discs; in the event of bankruptcy you may have to remove discs from your colonies, effectively giving up control of an entire star system—which might be great, or horrible, depending on your goals.  I can’t remember the last time I saw such a simple mechanic with such complex implications.  It was probably in Advanced Civilization.  And that’s just one aspect of the game.  Combat, colonization, and technology research are every bit as elegant, and all mechanics interlock.

Speaking of combat, I love how this game represents interstellar warfare.  Spaceships are big, expensive, and slow.  As a result, combat between players is rare—but each exchange is fraught with import.  A battle swinging your way or your enemy’s may not outright lose you the game, but it may radically alter the direction of play.  Going to war puts your civilization at hazard.  You may win big.  You may collapse.  In my group’s first game, my friend Dan built a Maginot line of starbases at the last possible minute to stop Vlad’s hyper-cruisers in a Second Battle of DS9-style omnifracas which devastated Vlad’s fleet and indirectly won Dan the game—though it could have gone either way.  So.  Much.  Fun.

There’s a lot more to love: the aliens all have subtly different mechanics than the humans, which skews their play in cool new ways.  Since each action requires an Influence Disc, even bookkeeping stuff like upgrading your starship becomes frought with dramatic import—since by choosing to do it, you’re choosing not to do something else which might be really important.  There’s chance enough to skew the game in fun new directions, but not so much chance that skill becomes irrelevant.  And all this gets done in about 30-45 min. per player.

Also, and I cannot stress this enough: you can win by seeding your territory with inscrutable 2001-style Monoliths.  What are you waiting for.

(Also the publisher has killer customer support.  The game I received was missing a few minor pieces, and they sent replacements even though they are in Finland.  That seems above & beyond to me.)

Karma, Privilege, and Hungry Ghosts

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few weeks about privilege as a karmic phenomenon, and enlightenment as a pursuit of social justice.

Let me try to define ‘privilege’ in its social justice sense, for those who aren’t used to the term.  Your privileges are advantages you have that most of the time you don’t even see because they’re too ingrained.  If you’ve ever thought “so when I make the account registration page I can just ask people to tell me if they’re male or female”, that’s privilege—for lots of people the answer to the question ‘what’s your gender’ is so complicated and contextual it borders on offensive.  (This can be true for whole cultures, so this statement also is pretty heavily culturally privileged.)  Saying “well I worked hard in school so I got good grades on the SAT” displays other kinds of privilege—class privilege (kids from higher classes display lots of advantages on standardized testing) or ableist privilege (some folks’ mental conditions make standardized testing much more difficult for them).  “I love shopping in classy clothing stores—you get so much respect from the salespeople”—class privilege (I mean, obviously, right?  The word class is right there in the sentence), racial privilege, cis privilege, etc.  (Even the examples I’ve chosen here give you a sense of my privilege ecosystem: technocratic, classist, male, etc.)

So when Andy makes a statement that fellow-traveller Babs thinks is conditional—dependent, that is, on Andy’s position within the world—Babs can say “Andy, you need to check your privilege,” and (ideally) Andy can look back, realize how the the truth of his statement actually depends on who he is (his position, orientation & velocity in the world) in a way he didn’t realize, and think, “oh, right, my understanding is limited and I am now more aware of this and will remember it in the future!”

I think this is a great concept.  Taken in the right spirit, it can help people be aware of their advantages, and live more lightly and compassionately in the world.  But I’ve struggled to roll it into my daily psychology in healthy ways.  I don’t know if other people have this issue, but it’s easy for me to fail over from “I’m aware of my own respective advantages” to “I am fundamentally broken and I should regard all my thoughts, words, and actions with such suspicion that I am reduced to a mute paralytic ball.”  Which smacks, to me, of interpretations of doctrines of original sin that have prompted more psychological pain than good works in the minds of my friends who were raised in them.  So, how to walk the line?

Now, let me try to define karma as used in the Buddhism I grew up with / around, for those who aren’t used to that term.  There’s this World Religion 101 sense that karma is Fate kicking you in the metaphorical ‘nads for something you did in a past life—which isn’t the way that term’s used in the Buddhism I know.  That 101 version of karma says if your life sucks now, it’s your fault and you should just stop sucking so bad in the future.  The version I learned says: karma is social and physical cause and effect through history.  We’re all the products of decisions made before our time—by our parents, and their parents, and the guy who cut us off in traffic and made us pissed so that when we got to work we were rude to the manager who then was a dick to the fry cook who then burned all her orders so everyone got horrible tips all afternoon and Brenda ended the month five dollars short on her electric bill.  And so it goes.  Our every action vibrates off in all directions, affecting people we hate and love and have never met.  Best/worst part?  We are, ourselves, in our identities and in our actions, the product of karma—our every deed and choice is, at root, a response to stuff that’s happened to us before.

The Buddhism I know (and I’m pulling threads of this from Vajrayana and Mahayana and Theravada and Chan, so the notion’s pretty widespread) says: faced with such a crazy situation, our response is—must be—to wake up.  To seek freedom.  To become aware of all the ways in which we are constantly being produced by and bearing karma, the ways we inflict suffering and make choices not because we want to, but because (our background / our current condition / our psychological problems / our own blindness to the true nature of society) made us into a person who makes those choices.  Karma is a state of being unfree—you think you have free will, but actually you’re stuck doing the things karma tells you to do.  When you’re awake to the ways in which your actions are predetermined, you can act as a dampener for these karmic vibrations—when you become aware that suffering is being enacted through you, you can stop it.  You can save people “downstream,” calm the network, and improve conditions for everyone.

See how these concepts connect?  Then you’re smarter than me, because it took me a long time to get this far.

I thought for years that the Buddhism I knew was weak on social justice, because all that stuff about karma and suffering looked very psychological to me.  If you wake up in the way I’ve described, you feel better about your life and you’re nicer to people around you, and what does that change?  Well.  It changes a lot when you think about privilege as a karmic phenomenon.

Privilege isn’t pre-existing.  It emerges from history—infinite vibrations passing through these webs of karmic connection from the beginning of time to now, billions of choices conditioned by animal fear or by other choices made earlier.  We don’t realize that the life we live, the way we think, is oppressive, in part because the oppressions from which we benefit (and which are inflicted upon us) are the result of other people’s actions which themselves were karmically determined.  We don’t realize that we are the hungry ghosts, wandering around devouring one another’s entrails.  Waking up to that reality, we can stop inflicting unthinking damage on those around us, on our societies, and on ourselves.  And we can come to common cause in the struggle to wake up the universe as a whole: to damp the reactive flows of karma, the unconscious infliction of pain, and live a life of freedom and joy.  

I think this means that Buddhist mindfulness techniques can be a huge help in recognizing, and defeating, our own privilege, and in preventing ourselves from inflicting harm on others.  The same metacognition that lets a meditator recognize “this is an emotion” and let the emotion go, or that “I am thinking now” and stop, can be used to wake up to our own privilege and our defensiveness of that privilege, and to stop inflicting reflexive harm.  By being aware of our, and everyone‘s, karmically determined nature, not only in reflection but in real-time (in the middle of a conversation, say), we can meet others as fellow sentient beings rather than as puppets of our ancestors’ fears.

And as we reach for that goal, we can also start to work toward the bodhisattva vow: toward the liberation of all sentient beings.  Which is a big thought, and this is already a long blog post, so maybe I’ll just leave the essay here for now.