Novel Completion Queries, Day Five

Is the novel finished? NO

Today’s question: What year of your education do you remember as being your best — “best” for whatever metric you like (most enjoyable, most academically successful, most memorable, etc, or any combination). Choose any year between kindergarten and the completion of your formal education.

My answer: I’d say it was my third year in college. I was well-established at school (i.e., I knew people and people knew me), I had friends I really enjoyed being with, I was editor-in-chief of the newspaper, which was a job I really enjoyed, and I was focused on being there, rather than having to think about what was going to happen next, which is to say, graduation and getting a job and so on. I had a really good time of it, I have to say.

You?

Novel Completion Queries, Day Four

Is the novel finished? NO

Today’s question: Cheese or beer. You must choose one. When you choose one, you are never allowed to have the other again. Which do you choose? (Note: no “cheese made from beer” or “beer made from cheese” loopholes allowed.) Explain your answer if you wish.

Yes, it’s a hard choice. It’s supposed to be hard.

My answer: I don’t drink alcohol at all, so this one is easy for me: Cheese, please.

You?

Novel Completion Queries, Day Three

Is the novel finished? NO

Today’s question: Assuming the ethical considerations could somehow be squared away, would you want a monkey for a pet? That’s a monkey, not an ape (don’t have apes as pets. It’s a bad idea.)

My answer: Having a questionably domesticated animal with opposable thumbs in one’s house seems fraught with complication, especially when you’re lazy, like me.

Your thoughts?

Novel Completion Queries, Day Two

Is the novel finished? NO

Today’s question: Name a favorite song in a genre that you don’t typically listen to.

My answer: “My Friend (So Long)” by DC Talk, in the Contemporary Christian genre:

Because it’s a pretty sassy song in which (as I understand it) the band addresses the accusations that they sold out by becoming popular in the mainstream — the album this song was on showed up in the Billboard Top Ten, which in the 90s was a nice achievement (and still is, actually). I’m definitely not the Contemporary Christian market demographic, but this song’s attitude and presentation always worked for me. Among more contemporary bands, I could see someone like Muse doing a song like this.

You?

(PS: If you link to a video in your answer, it’s possible your comment will be punted into moderation automatically. Don’t panic, I’ll check in every once in a while to release moderated comments.)

The Big Idea: Brian Upton

It’s fair to say that Brain Upton knows about a bit about video games: He’s the co-founder of games studio Redstorm Entertainment, was the lead designer of several games there, and currently works at Sony. It’s also fair to say that Upton has thought about what game design means more than most people ever will. The result of both that experience and that theorizing is The Aesthetic of PlayUpton’s here to explain how this book differs from other treatsies on game design, and why it matters.

BRIAN UPTON:

The Aesthetic of Play exists because I was unhappy with other books on game design. They were good at explaining the mechanics of playable systems – how to build fun levels or write interesting rules – but they were not so good at explaining how meaning emerges from the experience of interacting with those systems.

The idea of meaning-making with games is important to me because I believe that games have tremendous untapped artistic potential. Many designers are groping toward something bigger, and recently there have been some games (Journey, Portal, The Last of Us, to name a few) that have hinted at the possibilities of the medium.  But we’ve been held back by the lack of a critical methodology. We’ve tried to adapt literary theory to our purposes, but it’s been an uncomfortable fit. (If you’ve heard of the “narratology/ludology wars” you know just how uncomfortable a fit it’s been.) Books are made of words, and so the meanings they generate are often easy to articulate. But games traffic in the ineffable. A great game can change us, but it’s frequently hard to describe exactly what the change was, or how it came about.

So The Aesthetic of Play began with me sitting, alone and dissatisfied, at a table at the Game Developers Conference in 2008. I was thinking about a future talk I might give about meaningful play, and I sketched out a rough set of diagrams to help me organize my thoughts about how players experience games. Instead of concentrating on rules and interactions, I focused on players’ moment-to-moment intentions and beliefs: What did the player think was happening? What moves did he think he was making? Or even … what moves was he making without thinking? Over the course of several months following the conference, this player-centric model of game analysis gradually coalesced into a set of design heuristics – a list of “rules for interesting experiences” that was significantly different from the “rules for interesting systems” that most game design books teach.

And then things got weird.

It was my wife’s fault. She’s a professor of music history at UCLA and she’s interested in songs, both old and new. Songs are a hard thing to be interested in if you’re a music history professor because they’re seriously under-theorized. If you study symphonies (for example) there’s a huge body of scholarship you can draw on that’s directed toward how symphonies operate as systems. But songs are so simple that there’s not a lot to be gained by that sort of structural analysis. You can catalog the chord progressions in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but that doesn’t get you very far toward understanding why listening to a Beatles song is so powerful.

As my wife and I talked to each other about our work, we slowly came to realize that I was answering many of the questions she was asking. The same methods I was using to analyze player experience could also be used to analyze listener experience. In fact, they could be used to analyze any sort of aesthetic experience.  I’m not a musicologist, so I didn’t feel comfortable writing up our observations in musical terms. But I do know a fair bit literary theory, so I wound up translating our conversations about aesthetics and play and music into a methodology for close reading of texts. Basically, instead of trying to adapt literary theory to analyze games, I invented a new way to use game design to analyze literature.

All of this came together in the first draft of a book near the end of 2010. At the time it was called Gaming the System (which I can see in retrospect was a horrible title). I sent it off to MIT Press, my first-choice publisher, and was rejected. It was a “revise and resubmit” though, not an outright “no”, which was encouraging. The editor said he liked a lot of what I’d written, but that the manuscript felt like two books stitched together. He had a hard time understanding how the heuristics of game design related to the analysis of narrative.

Fixing this problem was hard. I could feel the connection between the two halves of the book, but I didn’t have the language to articulate it. So before I started revising, I spent several years researching philosophy, neuroscience, and semiotics in order to construct an explanation for how these seemingly disparate ideas are linked. This deep dive strengthened the book in unexpected ways. Not only did I rewrite the entire manuscript from start to finish, but I wound up adding four new chapters exploring the philosophical ramifications of this approach to thinking about games and art.

The final draft of The Aesthetic of Play is as much about epistemology as it is about games. It uses play as the starting point for investigating how we exist as thinking creatures within an unfolding universe. It explores how a tendency toward play is an unavoidable byproduct of a particular epistemological stance – we don’t play to learn; we play as a consequence of being able to learn. And it shows how adopting this model of aesthetic reception offers surprising insights into narrative questions – why certain plot structures work better than others, for example, or how foreshadowing functions.

I realize this probably sounds ridiculously ambitious for what started as a simple book about game design. I didn’t set out to write a philosophy book, or a narratology book.  The manuscript just went in that direction because I couldn’t figure out any other way to answer the questions I found myself asking. My wife is happy though. We joke that I gave her a critical theory as a present. The two of us are currently collaborating on a book about play and music. It’s not clear yet where that book is going either, but we’re certainly asking ourselves some interesting questions.

—-

The Aesthetic of Play: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book page at MIT Press. Follow the author on Twitter.

Novel Completion Queries, Day One

Is the novel finished? NO

Today’s question: Talk about your first serious crush. It can be someone you knew, or a celebrity crush. If someone you knew, do you still know that person?

My answer: It was Karin Woo, back in 7th grade. I was obnoxious to her, she would shove me into my locker, it was lurve (at least on my end). We became pretty good friends later in life. I still know her. She’s awesome.

You?

Security Certificate Alerts on Whatever — Don’t Panic!

Every once in a while I get an email or other notification from someone about their browser (usually Chrome but occasionally Firefox) warning them that Whatever is insecure and asking them if they really want to continue onto the site. In the interest of quelling concerns and also not having to write this up every single time it happens, let me tell you what’s going on.

1. Whatever is housed on WordPress’ VIP service (and happily so) at scalzi.wordpress.com; the address whatever.scalzi.com maps there.

2. Whatever’s security cerificate, however, is to the wordpress.com domain, not the scalzi.com domain.

3. So, if you’re directing your browser to use https, it may throw up a warning letting you know the domain doesn’t match.

So, the URL isn’t being hijacked — unless you see on the warning page that the security certificate is going somewhere other than wordpress.com.

I’ll look into seeing what can be done about figuring this out. In the meantime, if you are getting these warnings, here’s what you can do.

1. Use “http” rather than “https” when you put in the URL (note this is nominally insecure) and you’ll be taken to Whatever without fuss.

2. If you see the security certificate for the site is from wordpress.com, go to the advanced settings and click through, it’ll be fine (and your browser will probably remember your preference in the future).

3. Alternately, if you use https, substitute “scalzi.wordpress.com” for “whatever.scalzi.com” and you’ll be taken to Whatever without any security alerts. Note that once you’re there, the URL will show up as “whatever.scalzi.com.” Mapping is wacky. This works for sub-urls as well (direct links to entries, etc). Update: Note that IT folks in the comments say that when you’re punted back to whatever.scalzi.com, you’re being sent back to the site without https enabled.

Update: 4. Another option I just enabled it to access Whatever via a shared SSL Encryption setup. The URL to use is: https://ssl.perfora.net/whatever.scalzi.com (it will also work with individual entry URLs). Note using this will strip out insecure elements of the page (usually things like embedded media).

Hope this helps.

Bart Blauser, RIP

I’d like to take a moment here to note the passing of Bart Blauser, who was Krissy’s uncle, earlier this month, and whose life we celebrated yesterday at a memorial service with family and friends. Pretty simply, Bart was a fine example of “salt of the earth”: A good and decent man who loved his family and friends, enjoyed working the soil in his garden and farm, who worked hard and who, in my experience, treated everyone with kindness and friendliness. He also threw an excellent July 4th party every year, complete with pig roast, volleyball and a late night fire, around which people would gather and bring guitars.

There’s more to him than those things, of course, but those things are enough to give you a glimpse of why there is one less good man on the planet, who was loved, and who will be missed. May his spirit rest well.

Best Dad Ever

So this happened tonight:

And thus:

Oh, yeah. Best dad ever.

New Books and ARCs 3/13/15

Been a busy week for new books and ARCs because, well, some weeks are like that. But on the other hand, it’s also been an excellent week, and today’s installment is no exception. See something you’re interested in here? Let me know in the comments!

The Next Month (or so) on Whatever and Social Media

So, I’m in crunch time on The End of All Things (which truth be told is running just a tiny bit late, which annoys me because deadlines are a thing I usually hit) and April is my Month O’ Travel™ this year. This will mean things for Whatever and my presence on social media for the next few weeks. Let me outline them for you.

From 3/16 – 3/29: Deeply limited posting here until the book is done. What I will likely do is what I’ve done in the past, which is, if the book is not yet done, to leave you with a question for the day that you may discuss amongst yourselves while I’m writing away (comment threads will still be moderated, although possibly not by me). There will also be Big Idea posts during this time.

Likewise during this time I will have almost no presence on Twitter and other social media until the book is done. Crunch time, folks. Book’s gotta get finished.

3/29 – 4/12: I will be in Australia, on Australian time, and busy with travel and two separate conventions. I’m likely to be posting here, but probably less than when I’m at home, time-shifted at that, and contingent on having access to wifi. I will probably be on Twitter more frequently, and again, contingent on wifi access.

4/13 – 4/20: In Los Angeles, doing business, attending the LA Times Festival of Books and slacking off when I’m not doing either of those two things. Again, less posting than usual here, probably, and you’ll probably see me on Twitter more.

4/21: Back at home! Hooray!

Also for those of you keeping track of it, the 2015 edition of the Reader Request Week will be April 27 – May 3. A little later than usual, but see schedule above.

And now you know what to expect here for the next few weeks.

The Big Idea: Catherynne Valente

For the fourth book in Catherynne Valente’s wildly acclaimed and bestselling “Fairyland” series, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, the author has made a slight change in the nature of the protagonist. And just why did she do this, and what does it mean for the world she’s created? We’ve got the answers for you today.

CATHERYNNE VALENTE:

Long before the fourth book in the Fairyland series came out, I knew I’d be writing this essay. I looked forward to it. I may be a silly person, but I am not a silly author, and I knew very well that The Boy Who Lost Fairyland would be a giant elephant in the room—an elephant in the series. There would be a Question most would be too polite to ask. Those are my favorite kinds of questions.

So here I am, present and accounted for, ready to ride that big beautiful elephant through the sofa set and the good curtains.

Cat, why, after three books about one plucky female protagonist that most readers think is pretty swell, would you suddenly start writing about a boy? And baseball? With a short title?What’s going on? Have you been replaced by a mirror universe Cat?

I think you can see by my lack of goatee that I am, in fact, this universe’s Cat. I have not lost my mind. Nor my protagonist. Do not be afraid. September has not decided to go on a coffee break. She is very much present and active in the fourth installment of her story. I will never give my girl up. But sometimes a story is bigger than one protagonist.

The simplest explanation is that I didn’t know how else to tell this part of the story than by moving the camera onto someone else. I never want to write the same book twice. I always want to do something new, something that shakes up the previous books and my own writing comfort zone. And I’d wanted to write about the Changelings for ages. Since the second book I knew that they’d be the key to the resolution of the whole series. The fourth book was always going to be the Changeling book, because those kids wanted to be heard.

The thing is, we’re all Changelings. Every child and every adult. We all feel alone sometimes, like no one can understand us no matter how hard we try, like we come from somewhere else and everyone has life figured out but us. Some of our bodies don’t match our hearts. Some of our minds don’t match the world around us. Some of us are isolated because of what we look like or how we talk or a thousand other reasons. We’re all the stranger in the house at one time or another.

And kids quite literally are Changelings. They are brand new. They don’t know the rules. They came from somewhere else and are making some stab at being a hero in this new land. Ever wonder why it’s such a common fantasy for kids to think they must be adopted? It comes from this feeling of not fitting into the world at hand. They are full of impulses they don’t understand and the world constantly tells them not to follow those impulses—but it’s plainly impossible not to. Everything is bizarre and magical and unbelievable because childhood is a foreign country where a child can only learn the language and the customs slowly, and with a lot of mistakes. And because the human world really is a bizarre and magical and unbelievable place. Part of the reason children love fantastic literature so much is that to them, it’s not really fantastic. It accurately reflects their experience—they’ve been dropped into a world of wonder and power, a world in which they are helpless, but growing stronger every day.

Adulthood is not very different, honestly.

So book four was always going to be a Changeling book. But for a long while the protagonist was female, because that was the nature of the Fairyland series, and the dominating mission of the series was to write about a girl who embraced the magical world rather than rejecting it, as Dorothy and Alice had.

But as I planned out the book, I turned it over and over in my head. There is more to feminism than turning the focus from boys to girls. We’ve presented so many new literary roles and places for women in the last few decades, and that’s been a huge part of my whole mission statement as an author. But boys need new roles and new places, too. We encourage girls to take on the mantle of the male hero—and I wanted to encourage boys to take on the mantle of the female hero, as well. A boy hero can be gentle and artistic and bookish and afraid of the world—and still be a hero while staying gentle and artistic and bookish and afraid of the world. He can be friends with girls without it being weird. He can wear weird clothes and his mother’s jewelry, he can have beautiful penmanship and talk to his stuffed animals well into middle school, and those can be heroic attributes just as much as punching and running and yelling and swinging a sword. Sure, I gave him a baseball. But it’s what you do with a baseball—and what it does to you—that counts. And maybe, just maybe, boys in the real world will find it a little easier to be gentle and wear jewelry and be friends with girls and ask their librarian for a book with Fairyland in the title.

September will be back in the driver’s seat (quite literally) in the fifth and final book of the series, The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home. The Boy Who Lost Fairyland is the story of Fairyland itself, and what it gets up to when September isn’t looking. Hawthorn the Troll and Tamburlaine and Scratch the gramophone and Blunderbuss the scrap-yarn combat wombat will join Saturday and A-Through-L and the Marquess and the Green Wind to make one giant king rat of a tale—a tale that couldn’t be told without every single one of them.

In the meantime, come be a Changeling with me, and I promise we’ll make some fine trouble together.

—-

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

RIP, Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett in Bologna, 2007. Photograph by Federico Giacanelli and used under Creative Commons license (original here)

It’s being reported that Sir Terry Pratchett has died. Which means that it’s a very sad day for lovers of fantasy and science fiction. Sir Terry (which I will call him here rather than “Pratchett” because, hey, have you been knighted?) had been dealing with Alzheimers for some time now, and his public journey with it, I think, did more to demystify the disease than anything else has in recent times.

More selfishly, he was the co-author of one of my favorite fantasy books of all time: Good Omens. I love that book insensibly.

I met Sir Terry only once and that fleetingly, but that encounter left me with a good story to tell, and I will share it now. It was at the 2004 Worldcon in Boston, where Sir Terry was the Guest of Honor. He was on a panel called “Looking Backward: the 20th Century,” along with Esther Friesner, Craig Gardner and me. I was definitely the junior member of this crew — Old Man’s War had not been published yet — and in retrospect I vaguely wonder whose idea it was to put a complete unknown on a panel with the convention’s GoH (whoever it was — thank you).

The discussion was far-ranging, and because we were talking about the 20th Century in the past tense, we started talking about what future archeologists would make of the century, with the notation that trash heaps were invaluable for acheological purposes; after all, everything everyone uses sooner or later is turned into trash. This prompted Sir Terry to note that archeologists in Jerusalem very recently came across two thousand year old cloacae (i.e., latrines), which, because they were in an anaerobic enviroment, their contents were perfectly preserved from when they were, uh, deposited, two millennia ago.

To which I replied, “Holy shit.”

And for which I was rewarded with still the largest laugh I’ve ever gotten at a convention, much less a Worldcon.

Mind you, the reason I got a laugh that large was because hundreds of people filled a room to see Sir Terry, not me. But for that moment, I got to share. And if memory serves, Sir Terry gave me a little duck of the head after I said it, as if to say, well played.

It’s one of my favorite moments of all my time in science fiction and fantasy, and it would not have happened without him. For that alone, he would be forever enshrined fondly in my memory. It is not that for that alone that he is fondly enshrined there.

My good thoughts and condolences to Sir Terry’s family, friends and fans. He is not replacable, but we were gifted by the time he was here. May his memory, and his writing, be a comfort to all.

Note to Businesses Following Me on Twitter

Please, please, please don’t just drop an ad/PR bit for your product into my tweet stream. One, it’s not nice, even if you didn’t intend not to be nice. Two, an ad/PR bit sent cold to my tweet stream will likely get you muted or blocked because you’ve shown me that you consider me a mark, which I don’t appreciate. Three, if you do it to enough people other than me, then you’re spamming. Which will likely get you blocked and reported by a number of people.

Which is to say that your ad/PR pitch will fail, which is the opposite of what you want.

This does not mean that your business account can’t tweet at me or talk to me — I get that all the time, and mostly it’s fun, and indeed a good corporate Twitter presence goes a long way with me (see: here, where a nicely laconic response to my frustration with a company’s product was on my mind when I bought the replacement product, also from that company (the replacement product works just fine)). But there is a difference between conversing with me — even while promoting your product — and just dropping an ad/PR pitch into my tweet stream.

If you’re a company who is hoping for me to promote a product of yours, via retweet or mention, first, read my policy on retweets, and second, outside of retweets the best way to reach me in terms of product awareness is through email. Yes, lots of businesses and publicists already do this, you won’t be alone. Dropping an ad/PR bit into my Twitter stream doesn’t work because I will mute it. I don’t mute PR pitches in my email. Email is where the pitches are supposed to be. In fact, I even have a publicity policy.

(Don’t send ads to my email, however. Those will just get shunted into the spam folder.)

In short: My tweet stream is not for company ads or pitches. Don’t make me mute or block you, it’ll just annoy the both of us. Thanks.

The Big Idea: Genevieve Valentine

So, how does one go from the swirly, chiffoned world of pageant dresses to the corridors of international diplomacy? In Persona, the journey is neither as strange nor as difficult as it might seem. Author Genevieve Valentine is here to explain why.

GENEVIEVE VALENTINE:

Once a year (or whenever Donald Trump remembers), they hold Miss Universe in a photogenic city, where photogenic ladies line up for swimsuit shots and candid footage of them laughing and embracing and loaded interview questions. And, somewhere between the golf outing and the evening gown competition, they hold a parade of national costumes.

The spectacle is sublime: the National Costume segment is particularly amazing for fans of sartorial patriotism and/or fans of watching people trying really hard to sell an awkward concept. (This isn’t just the fault of the inevitable collection of halfhearted capes; a few years ago, Holland sent its contestant out with a windmill strapped to her back, and America, one of the biggest repeat offenders, sent an actual Transformer across the stage last year.) Of course, some of the contestants decide to stick to more direct interpretations of national costume, and from saris to bunad, it’s a beautiful parade.

The trick is: It isn’t up to the contestants, is it? The national costume designer was selected by committee long before that contestant came along; she’s just the walking hanger on which it needs to be fitted. These contestants are a big deal to many countries, of course, and have to undergo all the usual rigors of being subjected to competitive public presentation, from swimsuit competition to interview answers. Even the pageant calls them ambassadors –  ambassadors who have to keep a flawless complexion, procure identical noses, and remain a size 2. They still have to take responsibility when pageant politics leaks into the real world (this year, Miss Israel appeared in a Miss Lebanon selfie and Miss Lebanon caught scandal for allowing it), but their actual power, of course, is – literally – slim.

Still, after reviewing the Miss Universe costume contest for a year or two, the question seems unavoidable: What if the world had made room for a celebrity culture of statecraft? What if the pageant never stopped?

The answer, of course, is that those who can’t deal openly would deal in the shadows, and get angrier by degrees. To me, one of the most interesting aspects of a spy story has always been how it overlaps in form and function with more visible statecraft; how, almost by default, everything that happened at royal courts were a series of spy novels overlapping. Every cabinet meeting was Operation Witchcraft; every marriage was a political contract; every public appearance was a chance to state your intentions and an obligation to reaffirm your alliances. (And what you wore did half the work for you: Red for England, blue for France, black and white to catch the eye of the queen. It’s a system that’s grown with us onto the red carpet: white for the virginal and young, black for the vampy, every premiere a chance to chat to the press that’s been instructed to be nice, and to reaffirm your alliances.) The idea of hitting the red carpet and grinning for cameras on your way out from negotiating someone’s death sentence is hard to shake.

Turns out it was so hard to shake, I wrote Persona, which folds not-quite politics into a not-quite United Nations with some not-quite celebrity culture to go with it. Suyana Sapaki, the delegate of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation, is a C-lister by diplomatic standards: the country’s still young (an uncomfortable marriage of two disparate states out of desperation to protect natural resources), and it’s had a little trouble, and Suyana is constantly at war with herself about how much to give in to the publicity machine – if that would even help; there’s no knowing if it will until you’ve already given in. And this is before she gets shot.

As it turns out, there isn’t any pageant in Persona – not technically – but there are definitely recognizable elements, right down to a glamour shot of Suyana standing amid the rainforest green, clearly meant to look approachable and absolutely unable to manage. (I’d never imagined we’d get a real-life version of that shot that so exactly captured the mood I imagined; the photo looks, if you discount her expression, exactly like the endless scrolling list of swimsuit shots on the official Miss Universe site. If you count her expression, of course, the game changes.)

There’s no shaking the inherent comedy of Miss Universe, which has managed to become its own real-time example of a good idea taken by commercialization to its logical conclusion. (This year’s national-costume winner, Miss Canada, showed up as a hockey game. Yes, the whole game. But some of those dresses were statements of pride, and some were just plain statements, and they’re all a reminder that those who control the image control the story; Suyana knows it, too, if she lives long enough to use it.

—-

Persona: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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