Monthly Archives: October 2013

Ender’s Game, Profit Participation, Box Office

Folks are asking me whether I think this report that Orson Scott Card will see nothing from the box office gross of Ender’s Game is accurate, some of them, I suspect, hoping that his not making additional monies from the film means they can go see it without feeling guilty about tangentially supporting Mr. Card and his less-than-very nice positions regarding gays and lesbians.

Leaving aside the fact that the story is nicely timed to target die-hard SF fans on the fence about seeing the film, which is something one might wish to consider, and fully acknowledging that, regardless of my professional knowledge of the film industry, I have not seen Mr. Card’s film contract and am thus talking straight out of my own ass in terms of actual facts, some thoughts:

1. It wouldn’t surprise me if in fact Mr. Card sees no additional direct income from the film. Writers of a film’s source material (whose names are not JK Rowling or something similar) are often paid upfront and/or offered token “net” points (which will never be realized because no film in Hollywood ever gets out of the red, thanks to imaginative accounting) and/or have at best some clauses that offer an additional set payout if certain box office benchmarks are met. It’s entirely possible, and even probable, that Mr. Card’s contract is structured so that he’s been all paid up at this point.

(Alternately, it’s possible that he previously did have some profit participation and that it was determined by the powers that be that this would be bad PR for the film, so they bought out his profit participation. Be aware that a) possible here does not mean at all likely, b) I am going to reiterate my position of talking out of my ass here.)

2. Yes, but what about Mr. Card’s producer credit on the film? Isn’t that indicative of gross points? If he was an actively participating producer, i.e., engaged in the day-to-day production on the film, it might. On the other hand, if the producer credit was given as a courtesy and/or for Mr. Card’s shepherding of the film through its famously drawn-out development period, he might have simply gotten a check and some more net points. Not all producers on a film are equal.

3. Regardless, Mr. Card appears to have been paid very well for his participation in the film up to this point — the article suggests he’s earned more than a million dollars to date, a sum which strikes me as entirely likely. Even if he does not directly make another penny from the film, he already has more than enough in his pocket.

4. Likewise, the novel of Ender’s Game is doing exceedingly well at the moment — it’s number one on the New York Times paperback bestseller list, as I understand, and it’s likely to continue to do very well through the rest of the year regardless of how the film does. Mind you, the book does very well anyway; it sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year, year after year, and has done so for decades. Other books in the Ender series also sell very well perennially. Mr. Card does make money from the book sales, even if he does not benefit from the film.

5. Thus it should be noted that if one is planning to boycott the film Ender’s Game to punish Mr. Card financially, the boycott has already failed. Mr. Card is already benefiting from the massive exposure the film has afforded his book and his work. 2013 is likely to go down as one of Mr. Card’s best years, financially speaking, even if the film adaptation of his book tanks.  At the very best, solely from a financial point of view, a successful boycott of the film would be for Mr. Card the difference between a massively financially successful year and an absurdly massively financially successful year.

Likewise, unless Mr. Card has been exceptionally foolish with his money to this point, even if he never sold another book in his life from today, and no one ever made another movie from his work, it’s entirely possible he’s still financially secure for the rest of his life, given the totality of his sales to this point.

This is not to suggest people who are boycotting the film (or Mr. Card’s work in general) are wrong or foolish to do so; as I’ve noted before, people should follow their conscience with regard to what entertainments and which creators to support. Mr. Card, however, is likely not suffering financially for it.

6. Variety projects that Ender’s Game will finish out the weekend with $27 million in domestic box office. That seems about right to me, given the time of year and the reviews to date, which have been good-to-mixed. I think Variety’s guess is actually slightly high; I’d guess between $20 million and $25 million.

This also suggests that the film will probably end up somewhere between $60 million and $90 million in total domestic box office, which seems to me about right as well. I also suspect it will do about 2:1 business overseas, which means globally I suspect the film will make between $180 million and $300 million. It has the advantage of not having any strong direct competition this week (the only other major opener is the animated film Free Bird, which skews younger). It’s going to get hammered (sorry) by the new Thor film in its second week.

In short, I expect this film to be solid (and profitable in the long run) but not stratospheric in terms of box office. It’s likely to be a double, not a home run. If Ender’s Game ends up markedly south of $20 million for the weekend, then I think it would be reasonable to suggest that the controversies around the production and Mr. Card had had an effect. If the films clears $30 million for the weekend, that raises some interesting questions, too.

7. Let me note, as I have before, that I am not an entirely disinterested observer in the box office success of Ender’s Game. My book Old Man’s War is currently set up at Paramount. If Ender does really well, then that’s likely to be a positive for any eventual green light on my book; if it flops massively, then, well, that’s probably not the best thing for me. Mr. Card (whom I have met and had a pleasant time speaking to) and I have diametrically opposing views on a number of political subjects, most notably same-sex marriage. I fully support the choice of any person not to see Ender’s Game based on their feelings about Mr. Card. I also, and for entirely selfish reasons, hope the film does not flop.

Update 11/3/13: Ender’s Game ended up as the #1 film for the weekend, with an estimated weekend gross of $28 million, slightly higher than Variety’s estimate (and somewhat higher than my estimate). It did not flop.

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

Sometimes reality reads like fiction. And then that reality can inspire fiction. Just ask Max Gladstone about this, and how recent yet almost unbelievable events gave him the the impetus for at least two books, including his newest, Two Serpents Rise.

MAX GLADSTONE:

Do you remember the day the gods died?

You must.  I mean, five years or so back this grand cataclysm tore through an immaterial plane of existence adjacent to our own.  Every few days, it seemed, another ostensibly immortal being that took sustenance from the faith and work of its followers and priests died.  Those that survived starved themselves lean.  Afterward, as the world sunk into recession, the surviving immortals withdrew to Olympus, hoarding the remnants of their power and licking their wounds.  To this day we fault them for their retreat from Earth.

Oh, and let’s not forget the part where a bunch of hardworking folks who communicate in arcane jargon derived from ancient languages spent thousands of billable hours raising fallen deities from the dead.

At least that’s how the 2008 recession and its aftermath looked to yours truly, a half-crazed fantasy novelist recently back in the US from a few years teaching in the Chinese countryside.  That bit of extra distance meant that on returning I read America like a genre book—trying to make sense of the world from clues I was given as I went along.

And the world’s pretty strange, when you think about it for a second.  What’s the Kool-Aid Man but a totemic representation of a vast, inscrutable, and horrifying reality?  What is an org chart but a mandala made with PowerPoint?  Mickey Mouse’s many tentacles spread from Hong Kong to Provo, Utah, and His castles rise over foreign lands.  Don’t even get me started on Collateralized Debt Offerings and Special Purpose Entities.

I couldn’t think of another book dealing with the weird magic of the modern economy, so I decided to write one.  Well.  More than one.  I like telling complete stories in independent books—but as I fleshed out the idea I realized that what I really needed was a mosaic, a number of books showing different angles on a complex reality.

The fact that this approach let me live out my huge writer-crush on Terry Pratchett was a pleasant coincidence.

The first book in the Craft Sequence, Three Parts Dead, came out last year—the story of a junior associate at an international necromancy firm who’s trying to resurrect a dead god.  The main character in that book, Tara, is a fledgling necromancer, which gives her status and power in the world of the books, so long as she’s willing to bill crazy hours and steer clear of certain moral judgments about her less savory clients.

I wanted to change things up a bit with my next book, Two Serpents Rise. I decided for starters to show the world through the eyes of a character with less power.  Caleb is a risk manager for a water utility run by an undead god-killing wizard.  Caleb has skills of his own, and he’s good at his job, but he can’t raise zombies, throw fireballs, or peel off peoples’ faces when needs must.  He’s stuck with his wits, his fists, and some limited ability to manipulate the magic around him.  Where the world looks more like a fantasy setting for Tara, for Caleb it’s a horror setting—he’s a small guy trying to chart his course through a world full of forces that could crush him if they noticed him.

Unfortunately, some of those forces have him in their sights.

I also wanted to show a city living with its past.  In Three Parts Dead, the main characters wanted to raise a dead god before His death affected his city. Stopping crisis was the point.  Two Serpents Rise takes place in a city where the gods have been dead for a while—kicked out, in fact. And their world went on.  The sacred ball game became a spectator sport.  Real estate speculators converted temples to art galleries and office space.  The physical world became an object of exploitation and manipulation, rather than the subject of a relationship with the divine.  Most people like it that way.

Most.

But even though the gods of Caleb’s city died a long time ago, their followers remain, and the dead have a nasty habit of sneaking up on you.

So that’s the Big Idea—an interpretation more than a ‘what if,’ an attempt to make sense of confusion by recasting it, and to do so in a way that let me play with zombies, lich kings, feathered serpents, and deep magic from before the dawn of time.  Because it’s good to have a point, and it’s good to have fun, but it’s better to have fun and a point at once.

—-

Two Serpents Rise: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Why I Wear What I Do

This very interesting essay on the financial choices of the poor got me thinking about what I wear and why I wear it. Which caused me to haul out the camera and take a picture of what I was wearing today. Today, specifically, I am wearing the following:

A blue polo shirt, which I got at JC Penney. It’s the house brand polo, and I think it cost me $20 or thereabouts;

A pair of Levi’s 505 Regular Fit Jeans, which cost around $40;

Fruit of the Loom underwear, not from the Breaking Bad collection, which I think are like $15 for five;

No shoes and socks at the moment, but if I were wearing them, they would be standard athletic socks ($10 for 10 pair) and the casual brown shoes I bought at Sears about a month ago for about $60.

And that’s it, unless you include the wedding ring; as a rule I don’t usually wear other jewelry or accessories.

What I am wearing today is generally representative of what I wear on any day, both for work (writing and also making appearances) and for just existing. Occasionally I will swap out the polo for a henley or a t-shirt (if I am at a convention and/or not planning to leave my house that day the latter is more likely), but the Levi’s tend to be a staple, and I tend to wear jeans for more than any other type of trouser. I do have suits and other more formal clothes, but I wear them rarely.

Why do I wear what I do? There are several reasons.

1. I am by no stretch of the imagination a clothes horse, nor do clothes really interest or engage me beyond the most cursory way. So I tend to buy clothes that are basic, non-flashy, easy to find and replace and, to a certain extent, status-neutral (which actually means “generically North American middle-class”).

2. With that said, I dislike being a billboard for clothesmakers, which means when it comes to shirts in particular, I actively avoid clothes with brand identifiers on them. This tends to direct me toward house brands, which also have the advantage of generally being cheaper.

3. With that said, I do have one strong brand preference: Levi’s. This is entirely due to early childhood brand indoctrination, since in the world of late-70s, early-80s Southern California elementary and middle schools, there was a definite hierarchy of jeans, which went: Levi’s, Lee, Wrangler and everything else (hot tip: Don’t get caught dead in Tuffskins) (There were designer jeans too, but those were for girls, and there was an entirely different hierarchy there).

As an adult, I recognize this brand identification is largely garbage, but at the same time I still can’t bring myself to put on a pair of Lee or Wrangler jeans. So well done, Levi’s marketers.

4. This get-up has been the basic male uniform for every job I’ve had as an adult: Journalist in the early 90s, AOL minion in the mid-90s, and freelance writer/author from 1998 onward. Additionally, in the business circles I currently frequent — publishing, tech and film/TV — the jeans-and-polo look works just fine, especially because in each case there I am identified as a “creative,” and creatives are given credit if they show up in clothing without obvious food stains on them.

There is a whole discussion to be had here about why “casual” is the standard uniform for all these industries (short form: it’s intentional sartorial messaging from these industries that they are status-less meritocracies concerned only about contribution, not class or other social hierarchies — which, incidentally, is contemptible nonsense) but I will avoid going too much into detail about that at the moment and simply note that since it works for my own clothing choices, I’m happy it’s there.

5.  Indeed, because this is the basic uniform for a middle-class male and several high-value industries have adopted it as a standard look, short of events where formal business wear is explicitly requested or expected, as a middle-aged, generally non-skeevy-looking white dude, this look it gains me entry to almost everywhere I want or need to go. Conversely, almost anywhere I am, no one would argue that I didn’t have a right to be there.

I know this is true because this is my experience in the world. I go to meetings in this get-up and am taken seriously; I go out to meals in this get up and get a table. If being more dressed up is expected, I will do so; clothes are not my thing but I know enough to dress well when I have to. But on a day-to-day basis, this look, coupled with society’s baseline assumptions when it comes to race/gender/class, works for me I’d say 95% of the time.

6. And that other 5% of the time? Well, here’s the thing with that: I don’t have to care what people think — which is to say that other people’s negative social judgment of me based on appearance is almost entirely immaterial to how I get to live my life. This is also due to race/gender/class signaling; some of it is also due to my personal situation and me being who I am as a person.

Now, as it happens, I am interested in when people look me up and down, take in the sartorial gestalt, and make choices about how to respond to me based on it. I think it’s fascinating, and frequently amusing, and sometimes I have fun playing with it. This is particularly the case when, from time to time, I go out looking like a slob — unshaven, hair askew to varying degrees, wearing a some crappy t-shirt — and lose the advantages of the “middle class casual” look.

But it’s well worth noting that the reason I find it interesting and amusing is that by and large it doesn’t have any real negative effect on me. My systematic and personal advantages mean that nearly all disadvantages posed by someone judging me on my appearance are temporary and light. This is also why I find it amusing to post deeply unflattering pictures of myself online (see the one to the right as an example); I don’t have to worry about the negative side-effects of doing so. People who actually are judged on their appearance, and for whom that judgment will have a material effect on their life, don’t have the same luxury to be unconcerned as I do. What’s interesting and amusing to me is a matter of stress and anxiety for others.

A much shorter version of all the above is that I can put on $120 worth of clothes and shoes and be taken seriously almost anywhere I might want to go. So that’s what I do. Not everyone gets to do it. These facts are worth thinking about.

The Big Idea: Richard Kadrey

Short intro: Richard Kadrey is one of my favorite contemporary dark fantasy authors. Dead Set, his newest book, is excellent. It’s also a little bit different than some of his other work, for a couple of reasons. Those reasons? Kadrey explains below.

RICHARD KADREY:

Dead Set is a new kind of book for me. I’ve never written a young adult novel before and before a friend pointed me to authors like Holly Black, my memory of what passed for young adult when I was a kid was something kind of soft and not very sophisticated. Then I read some of the good modern stuff—like Black’s Tithe and some of Neil Gaiman’s work–and it was a reading kick to the head. As I waded into the dark magic, tough situations, and screwed up families I thought that I could have a good time exploring this new territory, so I took the plunge.

There’s another reason I wanted to try Dead Set, too. I write a lot about guys. Guys with power and attitude. My Sandman Slim series is about a magician with vast physical and magical power: James Stark has escaped Hell, come back from the dead (more than once), kicks angels’ asses, and pals around with God and Lucifer. Basically, he’s a guy with a lot going for him. A young adult book seemed like that perfect place to look at a character with little to no power. Up popped Zoe, a sixteen-year-old girl with a recently dead father, little money, and a mother who, like Zoe, is finding her way back from tragedy. Sixteen seemed like the perfect age for my protagonist. A fascinating, frustrating time where you have so many adult responsibilities, but so little adult power.

Dead Set was also a place to explore new mythologies. Over six books, Sandman Slim has developed enough backstory and mythological complexities that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of who I’d killed and who was merely maimed. I needed breakdowns of the magical beings in James Stark’s world. Who his friends and enemies are. Where has he been and what did he find there? Keeping these things straight is sometimes fun, but Sandman Slim’s world, however complicated, is just one world. I wanted to write about other places. Writing Zoe’s story let me do that.

Zoe’s story starts simply. In the year since her father’s death, her life has fallen apart. The insurance money didn’t come through, so she and her mother lost their nice home in the suburbs and had to move into a crappy apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Zoe has left all her friends behind and has to attend a new school where she doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t fit in. Worst of all, her dreams have become haunted.

Before the move, Zoe’s dreams were the one place she felt happy and safe, playing like kids behind her family’s old house with Valentine, her “dream brother.” There, she could forget about her screwed up life for a while. Lately though, the black dogs have appeared, following her through empty streets of her dreams.

While cutting school one day, Zoe wanders into a used record store. Music and old punk bands had always been a big part of her family’s life and when she sees the shop, she can’t help but go in. Inside, she discovers a secret room in the back, one most people can’t find. There, the records are unlabeled and when Zoe holds one up to the light it seems to have a beating heart in the center, with veins and arteries branching away. Emmett, the store owner, explains to her that these records don’t hold music, but human souls—her father’s soul among them. Zoe can have the record and take her father home, if she’ll pay the price. Ultimately, the price forces her to visit a dark city where the dead are trapped forever, unable to go forward or back. She wants to save her father, but quickly realizes she also has to save herself. My editor and I have described the book as a punk Wizard of Oz with dead people instead of munchkins.

As some of you might have guessed, I’m not young and I’m not a woman, so… how did I write the book from a young woman’s point of view? I started my writing career as a journalist, which means I know how to research. I approached writing Zoe the way I would any subject I wanted to know more about: I read up on the subject and most importantly, I went to the experts. Women. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by smart women. My wife is my first reader. My editor, agent, and publicist are all women. I went to friend’s daughters and to young women I’d gone to for book advice while writing Sandman Slim (I don’t keep up with anime the way I used to. It’s nice to know people who do!).

That’s the basic story behind Dead Set. I wanted to try something different and I wanted to get my work in front of new eyes. I wanted to explore new worlds and I wanted to write something that both young adult and older readers could enjoy. And I wanted to find out if Zoe took the shadow man’s offer and what she did with it.

Everyone is sixteen once, both strong and weak, adult and child, focused and confused. I remember all those things. Some parts of Zoe weren’t hard to write at all. The lost family that’s trying to find its way back to shore. The scars that everyone gets in life: the ones you get from exploring the edges of what you know, plus the deeper ones you pick up in the places you know you shouldn’t go but can’t resist. I wanted to look at all those things again and I wanted to do it with someone as smart and resourceful as Zoe.

The land of the dead is a hard place to get to and even harder to come back from. Zoe is frequently in over her head, but we’re all over our heads more times than we’d like to admit. It’s what you do there and how you fight your way back that defines you as a person. And ultimately, that’s Zoe’s story.

—-

Dead Set: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Wesley Chu

The good news: That novel, the one you’ve been working on for years, has sold! The ambiguous news: Now they want you to write a sequel! Quick! Uh, yay? What happens when they story you’ve painstakingly handcrafted over time suddenly has to sprout a whole new storyline? What then? It’s something Wesley Chu had to consider with his latest novel, The Deaths of Tao. Here’s how he dealt with it.

WESLEY CHU:

I’m not what you’d call a long term planner. As in if I know I’m going to a buffet for dinner, is it a smart thing to eat a burrito at 3PM? (Hint: I never say no to burritos)

This was especially true when I signed the deal for my debut novel, The Lives of Tao, with the ill-tempered automatons at Angry Robot Books. Before the John Hancock even dried, I was confronted with having to write a sequel in less than a year. Now, at the time, I didn’t think very far past the epilogue of the first book. I always thought of it like The Truman Show where Jim Carrey just takes a bow and exits stage right in an invisible door, and then the credits roll. The director calls everyone together for the martini shot, and then the grip crew starts dismantling the set.

So, what is the Big Idea for the sequel The Deaths of Tao then?

Well, what happens after an epilogue?

See, sequels are tricky things. People who enjoy The Lives of Tao like it for specific reasons. Maybe they think it’s funny, maybe they like the action, or maybe they enjoy Roen the lovable loser’s late coming-of-age story. So the question is, should I keep the fun train rolling and write a similar novel, or should I venture out into the unknown and move in a completely different direction?

A significant portion of the first book was focused on Roen’s training and his transformation from an out-of-shape loser to a svelte agent drafted to fight the evil Genjix in the Quasing War. By the end of the book, he had grown to become a competent and confident field agent.

So for The Deaths of Tao, should I train him some more, like level him up to a Bond-class badass agent and follow a similar path that Lives took to give readers who enjoyed the first book more of what they liked? Or do I turn up the heat, have all hell break loose, and see what Roen’s melting point is after I’ve broken all his favorite toys?

Then it occurred to me: I learned two very important lessons from playing World of Warcraft.

  1. Leading a guild is one of the best teachers for project management training. Nothing prepares a person for leadership like corralling a bunch of immature gamers hot for epic loots.
  2. Playing Warcraft requires a player to hit max level first, and then the player goes raiding.

So what do I do with Roen? I had leveled him up to max in The Lives of Tao. In The Deaths of Tao, I take him raiding.

There’s my Big Idea.

It’s been a few years since the events of first book and everything has changed, mostly for the worse. Roen is no longer the bumbling loveable fool still trying to figure out how to throw a punch and tail a suspect without being caught. He’s now leveled up into a badass with a chip on his shoulder fighting in the thick of the Quasing war.

He’s got his work cut out for him, though. The Prophus have been getting whooped on every front and are in danger of losing the battle for influence of the US government. Coupled with the Genjix controlling the Chinese government, the Prophus are nearing complete capitulation. To make matters worse, the Genjix have a new secret plan that just might kill every living being on this planet.

They’re okay with that.

There’s also a new baddie in town by the name of Enzo. A product of their eugenics Hatchery program, he’s young, brash, and brilliant, and he’ll make sure you know it as he kicks your ass.

Roen will have some help. Jill, his love interest in Lives, has her own Quasing now and is fighting the Genjix on the political front, trying to stave off their takeover of the US government. Not all is peachy with their relationship, though. War is terrible and tends to mess up a couple’s relationship. The two will need to figure out how to work things out and raise a child, all while fighting for the very survival of humanity.

At the end of the day, this is what Roen Tan signed up for in The Lives of Tao. He’s leveled up; now it’s time he goes raiding.

—-

The Deaths of Tao: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Fall and Frost Shadows

Got outdoors with the camera this morning for some pictures before all the frost had melted off from the yard. Fall is a pretty time of year around here. Click on the individual pictures to start a slide show.

Ten Additional Things I Have Done That You (Probably) Haven’t

Continuing an occasional feature on this site. Previous installments here, here and here.

1. Been hit by a car (specifically, a Ford Pinto), breaking my leg

2. Written award show banter for a successful comedian (this one – he was the emcee for some AOL-specific awards in the 90s; I was AOL’s in-house writer)

3. Received an animation cel from Don Bluth (from Thumbelina)

4. Caught a living fish in my front yard (I released it into the nearby creek)

5. Inspired a weapon in a video game (that I did not have a hand in creating)

6. Had one of my adult teeth come in twice (right incisor, if I remember correctly)

7. Invented a pie

8. Received 11pm phone calls from Harlan Ellison, twice

9. Made out with a girl on the porch of a National Historical Landmark (this one)

10. Had a painting I commissioned appear on a popular television show (frame from said episode)

Have your own list of ten things you’ve done that other people (probably) haven’t? Add the list into the comment thread (or write them on your own site and add a link).

Prepping For the Dinner Party

My daughter has planned a dinner party for some of her friends for a while now, and tonight’s the night for it. To that end she’s developed a four course menu, secured all the ingredients (some of which you see here) and is even now cleaning the house and doing some early prep work with marinades and other such things. My wife is acting as chef’s assistant, while I have the duty of gopher, running about to get things Athena discovers she needs but didn’t know she needed until that moment. It’s family effort.

This will be Athena’s first dinner party, and she’s excited. I’m excited for her, and will note that she is far more ambitious at 14 than I was. I wouldn’t have thought to put on a four-course dinner for friends at her age. I think it’s pretty cool that she has. I’m proud to be her gopher for the evening.

The Big Idea: T.L. Morganfield

From Aztec mythology to Clarion West to NaNoWriMo to The Bone Flower Throne, the first of a series of fantasy books. How did T.L. Morganfield get from one to the other to the next? She’s here to guide you through the process.

T. L. MORGANFIELD:

I’m an Aztec geek; whether it’s history or mythology, I devour it all. It’s a love affair that began in college and has taken over my fiction writing life. It gives me immense joy to immerse myself into that world, digging up the forgotten treasures and intrigues, and finding voices and figures my high school history and English classes never bothered to mention.

Like Quetzalpetlatl, the most famous woman no one knows anything about: the woman the gods used to ruin Mesoamerica’s greatest hero.

If first learned of her at Clarion West in 2002, while researching for my week three story. I stumbled upon a university website dedicated to academic information about the god Quetzalcoatl, and there I read my first telling of the life of the legendary Toltec priest-king Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl: after growing up in exile, Topiltzin avenges his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle and establishes the kingdom of Tollan, where he defies the gods and outlaws human sacrifice. To discredit him, the dark sorcerer god Tezcatlipoca gets him so drunk he sleeps with his own sister, and Topiltzin leaves Tollan in disgrace.

I immediately knew this was a story I wanted to explore, but it felt too complex to tackle at the time. As the years passed, I learned that was just one version of Topiltzin’s life–in fact most tribes in Mesoamerica had their own version, each as different as the next–but that particular telling always lingered at the back of my mind. Topiltzin’s sister in particular intrigued me: she had a name–Quetzalpetlatl–but she only appeared in that version of the legend, and disappointingly, she had no history beyond that one mention of Tezcatlipoca using her against Topiltzin. Who was she, and what had her life been like before that fateful end? Why did Tezcatlipoca choose her, and what became of her after all that? None of that was answered.

Those questions led to a four-year journey through many failed drafts and false starts that eventually became The Bone Flower Throne (and the two books to follow). It started as a novelette, and though I received the best personal rejections from both pro and semi-pro editors I’ve ever gotten, it just wasn’t right for anyone. One editor suggested the story was better suited to novel length, so I spent two NaNoWriMos expanding it out into a first draft.

Yet even then, I continued running into the same issues as the original legend: Topiltzin is a bigger-than-life figure, revered as much as the god he’s named after, and Quetzalpetlatl had no motivations that didn’t forward his agendas. Two years and 200k words later, the story was still his, and she was just as manipulated as ever. I had to start all over, and rethink everything.

One of the troubles with Aztec mythology is that it’s a jumble of indigenous thought and Christian gloss, thanks to the Spanish priests who first recorded them in writing; they often added their own spin to the tales, to demonize the native culture and justify the atrocities committed during the Conquest. Taking that into consideration, I zeroed in on what seemed the most “Christianized” aspect of the original narrative: that committing incest with Quetzalpetlatl was the source of Topiltzin’s downfall. It’s a bit of a curiosity, for Aztec royal genealogy shows marriage between close blood relatives being fairly common, at least among the nobility: Cuitlahuac, the second to last emperor, married his niece after her father Motecuhzoma the Younger died at the hands of his own citizens, and after Cuitlahuac perished of small pox, his predecessor Cuauhtemoc married that same girl, his nine-year old first cousin. And none of that was considered peculiar to those involved.

But I couldn’t just cut the incest all together; without it, Quetzalpetlatl doesn’t even appear in the original myth–it’s the only reason she exists. So I needed to turn that aspect on its head.

Initially I was very hesitant to explore a consensual incestuous relationship between Topiltzin and Quetzalpetlatl, for it would surely drive away some readers–and it made me uncomfortable the first time the thought occurred to me. But once I let go of those reservations, the bits and pieces that hadn’t worked before started clicking into place. And when I asked myself about the underlying “why”, all sorts of doors opened, allowing me to fold and transform the mythology in new and unexpected ways. Quetzalpetlatl could now be an active combatant in the conflict between Topiltzin and Tezcatlipoca, rather than just a tool the bad guy uses against the good guy, and I could open the ending up to a whole different set of conflicts that didn’t rely on her being a victim. Instead she would define her own role in Topiltzin’s legacy, and her story would reach far beyond the end of the original legend.

Was it a good choice? When reviewers admit they wanted Quetzalpetlatl and Topiltzin to end up together in spite of their own strongly negative feelings about such relationships, I have to think it pays to put aside our own cultural expectations and explore new routes with an open mind, even when they might make us uncomfortable.

——

The Bone Flower Throne: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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Seriously, October, WTF

Snow. On October 23rd. Seriously, that’s just not cool, y’all. My memory on this may be faulty, but I suspect this is the earliest in fall that it’s snowed at my house since I moved to Ohio in 2001. The good news is that it’ll probably melt by the end of the day, since it’ll get up to about 50 degrees. But still. Some things are just not right. October snow in Ohio is one of those things.

Video Game Update: New Name, New Sneak Preview

Hey! You remember that I’m working on a video game with the Industrial Toys studio, led by Bungie co-founder and Halo co-creator Alex Seropian, right? Sure you do. Well, I have two really tasty tidbits for you now to catch you all up.

First: The game, formerly known as Morning Star, is getting a name change:

The game is now called Midnight Star. Because it’s darker and moodier and stuff, and better reflects a critical aspect of the game. And also for other reasons too: Industrial Toys’ Tim Harris explains some of the logic of the name change here. Also,  here’s the updated Web site for the game, in case you’re curious.

Second, the folks over at IGN.com has an exclusive sneak preview of Midnight Star, including some hands-on commentary on the cool and (yes, I will say it) innovative gameplay. I’m happy to say IGN’s writer seems impressed:

Midnight Star has been designed to be played with just one hand, while still providing plenty of depth for core gamers to sink their teeth into. This is no easy task. The result is a wholly unique gameplay experience. It might best be described as a cross between an on-rails shooter like House of the Dead, with traditional Halo-style weapon depth. But the truth is that direct comparisons to other shooters, either on PC/console or mobile, all tend to not tell the full tale.

It’s no joke. I am not exactly an unbiased person here (I did the overarching story for the game as well as editing the gameplay scripts and writing the accompanying graphic novel, now called Midnight Rises), so fact that in what comes next. That said, I’ve been playing the latest builds of the game and holy crap is it a ton of fun. I’ve been on FPS player since back to the days of Marathon (coincidentally created by Alex), and this game has nearly everything I love in shooters, done in a way that respects and works with the mobile platform. I’m having a blast playing it. I die a lot. But then I play it some more. I can’t wait for you guys to get to play it too.

In the meantime, however, check out the preview on IGN. It’s going to make you want to play it right now. This is a good thing.

And Now a Word From Pope Francis, On the Matter of Ideology

“[F]aith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements…

“The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh? Already the Apostle John, in his first Letter, spoke of this. Christians who lose the faith and prefer the ideologies.”

(Note: That last link is to something I wrote — me imposing my own editorial point of view.)

Pope Francis is not perfect, nor does he have the all the same moral and social concerns that I do (not to mention the same religious perspective), nor do I agree with him or his Church in all their positions. But in many ways I find him to be a genuinely remarkable Pope; one I see speaking of the sort of Christianity that I think is closer to the humility and grace of Jesus than one often sees in the world. He is, I truly believe, a well-timed and well-needed Pope. I hope he is heard.