So, I posted this picture of myself with ridiculously large, Bono-like sunglasses on Twitter and noted that if I ever decided to make a solo album called The Life and Times of a Pretentious Wanker, it would be the cover photo. And, well. A fellow with the Twitter handle of “Johnny Magnum” decided to take me at my word and added a few graphic elements to the picture. The resulting “album cover” is, in a word, perfect. It almost makes me wish I had an album of music to go with it. Maybe after the novel is done.
In the meantime, this is a fine time to remind people that I do actually have an entire album’s worth of electronic music, and it’s right here. It already has a title, alas.
It’s a large print edition of Redshirts, in a library binding and everything. I’m not 100% sure but I suspect this is the first book of mine in large print (the Hugo award may have helped it get into the format). At the very least it’s the first book of mine that I’ve seen in the format. I think it’s kind of neat, personally.
A double-header of new books and ARCs today. These were ones that came in before I headed off on the JoCo Cruise last week. On Monday, I’ll catch up with some of the ones that have come in since. In the meantime, some excellent stuff here. See anything you like? Tell me about it in the comments.
“The Big Idea of Finn Fancy?” Finn asked. “Let’s do it! Time to get all introspective, Mork from Ork wrap-up style.”
“Fine,” I replied. “For this book, the big idea was simply to have fun. I –”
“Hang on. That’s your standard answer. But let’s get real here, shall we? This is the BIG Idea, so let’s talk about what that really means. I mean, you did turn forty shortly before writing this book.”
“Uh, yeah?” I said, shifting uncomfortably in my chair.
“Well, this book is about a guy who’s banished from our world as a teen in 1986 and comes back in 2011 as a forty-year-old. So first, let me ask, what band’s playing on your computer right now?”
“The Smiths, but –”
“Uh huh. And what’s the last game you invested serious time into?”
“Well, Shadowrun on my Genesis emulator. But — do you have a point with all this?”
“I’m just establishing some context here. Along those lines, let me ask what made you a fantasy junkie? What do you remember most fondly of those books you read growing up?”
“Um, I guess a sense that the author geeked out as much about the magic as the reader, that they were having fun. Not that they were trying to be gritty and hardcore. Not that they were trying to be especially clever, or ultra-realistic, or exploring the metaphor. I mean, some books had layers and seriously dark and ugly moments of course. But I just imagine the authors were mostly grinning ear to ear and saying ‘this is frickin wonder, baby! This is magic!'”
“Funny, I don’t remember Hitchhiker’s Guide having magic.”
“No. That had humor. Humor was also a big draw for me. Adams and Pratchett, obviously, and the Xanth novels, they were clearly having fun. But I also love the humorous characters in serious fantasies as well. The rogues and the rascals, the imps and the wits.”
“And of course you were a sucker for romance.”
“Uh huh. So, now, flash forward, you’re sitting down to write Finn Fancy Necromancy, and –?”
“Well, I was pretty burned out from previous writing projects. I didn’t want to jump right back into months of constructing another epic plot spanning multiple points of view and the fate of nations, I didn’t want more deep research. I just wanted to write. And have fun.”
“So, I faced a blank page, and wrote a guy narrating in a humorous voice while a magical meteor plummeted at his head.”
“Nothing. Then what?”
“Well, then I had to ask, why? Who was he? What story can I tell from here that will be dramatic and have tension and suspense of course, but above all, one where I can just have fun writing it. So I set it in our world, but made him be an exile from the 80s, added a misfit cast of supporting characters he could interact with, and wrote it in first person with a humorous voice. Basically, I focused on the things that I enjoyed reading in fantasy — magic, humor, and relationships — and the things I enjoy personally. I deliberately set up the conditions of the story in favor of me just having fun with it.”
“And there wasn’t anything deeper?” Finn asked.
Finn sighed. “Like how, in this book, I’m worried about where I fit in, what I really want to do with my life. I’m looking back on the dreams of my youth and pondering my future. I’m questioning what is best in life, and it certainly isn’t to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women.”
“Well, yeah,” I replied. “But that’s natural for your character. You’d been absent from our world for twenty-five years.”
“Riiight. For me, the forty year old child of the eighties. Okay. Fine, then mind if I ask you a question about me now?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“Why the heck did you write me as a necromancer?”
I blinked. “Uh, well, what’s wrong with being a necromancer?”
“My biggest skill is I can talk to the dead! Woo-friggin-hoo!”
“Hey, you can also rip the souls out of people.”
“No, I can’t. You created me half-trained and nowhere near strong enough, remember?”
“Oh. Sorry. I might be thinking ahead a few books. Still, it gives you room to grow, something to look forward to, right?”
“Uh huh. Wizards, now they’re awesome. They’re, like, the Swiss army knives of magic users. Lightning, magical shields — Zeke, that ex-enforcer you stuck me with? He can even pee fire like a flamethrower. Not something I want to watch, but still, if you knew you were going to be throwing sasquatch mercenaries and angry leprechauns at me, a power like that might have come in handy. Just saying.”
“Dude, I’m sorry,” I replied. “I just thought the lone wizard bad-ass was well covered territory. Besides, I decided to make this a story about your family, not just you; and a family of necromancers just worked better.”
“Oh. Yeah. Thanks so much for that. Were you reading books on torture psychology when you came up with that brilliant idea, Oh Master of My Fate?”
“Um, no,” I said. “I was binge-watching Arrested Development.”
“Lucky me. You couldn’t have given me your family?”
“No,” I replied. “I couldn’t do to my family what I do to yours.”
“Nice. Okay, there is one area I do wish you’d made us more alike though. Did you have to make me a virgin?”
“Well, you had been out of your body since you were fifteen,” I said. “And you do know this is going on the internet, right? Anyone can read it.”
“Bat’s breath.” Finn sighed. “I miss the days when everyone just used their Commodores to play Zork and write bad allegorical fantasies with Paperclip.”
“Not everyone did that,” I said. “I think that was mostly just dorks like you.”
Athena, driving herself to school for the very first time. A strangely melancholy moment here. On one hand, now I’ll get to regularly sleep in on school days for the first time in over a decade. On the other hand, my brain has started this song on a loop.
The Nebula Award nomination period ends on February 15, and the Hugo/Campbell Award nomination period is well underway, and several other awards are in their consideration periods as well. Which makes right now an excellent time for fans of the science fiction and fantasy genre to make their recommendations for books, stories, art, movies and TV shows, fanzines and podcasts to nominate for this year’s slate of awards.
And so, here’s have a thread to make those recommendations. I’ve done this for a few years now, and every year it offers up recommendations worth considering when the time comes to make one’s own award nominations.
What and how should you recommend? Here are the thread rules:
1. Please make sure that what you’re suggesting, work or person, is actually eligible for awards consideration this year. Generally speaking that means the work was published (or otherwise produced) in the last calendar year (i.e., 2014); for the Campbell, it means someone who has been professionally published in the SF/F field in the last two years (2013, 2014). If you’re not sure what you’re suggesting is eligible, please check. Otherwise you’re wasting your time and the time of everyone reading the thread for recommendations.
Also, it’s helpful if, when making a suggestion, you identify the category the work would be eligible for; so if you were going to suggest a novel, writing “Best Novel: [name of work, author of work]” up front would be awesome. This is especially useful in short fiction categories, where there are short stories, novelettes and novellas.
With regard to the Hugos, here’s a list of current categories (The Campbell Award for Best New Writer is not noted there but is present on the Hugo nomination form). However, this thread is not just for Nebulas and Hugos. Feel free to recommend for other awards as well. I would particularly note that SFWA also has a YA award called the Norton. So YA/MG recommendations would be useful here as well.
2. If the work you’re suggesting is (legally) readable online, feel free to provide a link, but note that too many links in one post (usually three or more) might send your post into the moderation queue, from whence I will have to free it in order for it to show up. If this happens, don’t panic, I’ll be going through the moderation queue frequently today to let posts out.
3. Only suggest the work of others. Self-suggestions will be deleted from the thread. This should not dissuade writers and creators from recommend other people’s work, of course. Please do!
4. Don’t suggest my work, please. I’ve already posted here about what of mine is eligible; this thread is for everything else.
5. The comment thread is only for making recommendations, not for commentary on the suggestions others are making or anything else. Extraneous, not-on-topic posts will be snipped out of the thread.
6. Likewise, please don’t cut and paste lists and slates from elsewhere. This is about your recommendations, from the things you have read/viewed and enjoyed and wish to recommend to others.
There you have it.
And now: What do you recommend for science fiction and fantasy awards this year? Please share. The more people know what’s out there, the better the overall field of nominees has the potential to be. Thank you!
This is me playing Celebrity Artemis, as the captain of the USS Redshits (not a typo), with Steve Jackson as my engineer, Wil Wheaton at the helm, JoCo Cruise intern Joel Pattison on weapons (with every other intern pestering him), Ted Leo on science and Mikey Neumann on communications. Everything goes to hell very quickly, and it’s worth watching the whole thing to see the utter chaos that goes down, but if you must scan through for the highlights, fast forward to 12:00, where Ted Leo dramatically (and awesomely) drops the mic, and to 14:20, when I strangle Wil Wheaton; keep watching to see what I do to his corpse.
Seriously, I am a terrible starship captain. Never let me captain your ship.
For contrast, here’s the first ship of evening, captained and crewed far more competently by Jean Grae and friends:
And here’s the ship crewed by the Royal Carribean folks, who were, quite frankly, utterly amazing in how into it they were. It was like watching the UK version of The Office in space:
When you’ve written a half million words in a world of your own devising, it’s okay to stop, look around, and take stock of what you’ve wrought. Thus does Brian McClellan look upon his works in the Powder Mage Trilogy, here on the release of the final book in the series, The Autumn Republic. Take it away, Mr. McClellan!
As the final book in the Powder Mage Trilogy, The Autumn Republic is the climax of a five hundred thousand word epic fantasy. By now many of you are familiar with the sorcerers powered by black powder, returning gods in an industrialized world, and a nation caught in a world-class conflict. These are all the big ideas of the series, but now that I’ve reached the final book I need to stop and examine what this story is really about.
One of the biggest tropes of epic fantasy is that of the fool: the young farm boy or neglected orphan who learns of his destiny and goes off to fight the good fight, gaining wisdom and experience along the way. It’s the very first trope I wanted to throw out when I started this trilogy, and doing so gave me Field Marshal Tamas—a living legend, a man at the very height of his power who decides that, for the good of the people, he will overthrow his king and send the nobility to the guillotine. Promise of Blood opens with this revolution and the entire trilogy deals with the ramifications of one man’s action against his government.
Without Tamas, the conflict that takes place in the Powder Mage Trilogy would never have happened.
Tamas was not originally meant to be a viewpoint character. My original plan was to tell his story from the point of view of his son but I quickly became enamored with his character. How often in fantasy do we get to see the narrative from the point of view of a man who answers to no one? The wise man well into his journey instead of the naive youth at the beginning of his?
What, I wanted to know, would bend or break a man like that?
More than anything else, The Autumn Republic is the tale of Field Marshal Tamas coming to grips with his own legend. He is powerful, driven, already immortalized on the pages of history. He has spent decades planning the revolution that opened the trilogy and he is fully committed to it, willing to become history’s villain for the greater good. Willing to sacrifice anything for his goals. Or so he thought.
Tamas may be an old man, much further along in his hero’s journey than some whippersnapper fresh off the farm, but that does not mean that his journey is complete. His ideals have been corrupted by old wounds and a quest for vengeance, but he still has the ability to regret, grow, change, and adapt to fight the new challenges thrown in his path.
First, look at that:Lock In is finalist for an Audie, in the Science Fiction category. Sweet! The graphic here notes Wil Wheaton as the reader (plus a full cast for “Unlocked,” which was included in the Lock In audio package), but the finalist notation in the “all finalists” press release (pdf link) also includes Amber Benson, as it should, because she turned in a terrific version of the novel. I don’t know why she didn’t make the display graphic but obviously I wanted to make sure I noted her, and her contribution. If the book wins the Audie, a big chunk of that award will belong to her. Congratulations to her, to Wil, and to all the other authors and narrators in this and other categories. Awards are fun.
With that said, four quick notes regarding awards:
1. If you’re a SFWA member, the deadline to nominate for the Nebula Awards is this Sunday, February 15th. Get to it, folks. Your former president thanks you for your cooperation.
2. A reminder that Hugo nominating is open for about another month, so while you have some time on those, if you’re planning to nominate, it’s a good time to start thinking of your nomination lists for categories.
3. On that note, tomorrow I’ll put up my post for people to list the works/people they think merit award consideration this year. Which will hopefully give you some excellent things to read while you think about who and what you want to nominate.
4. I’ve been asked off and on if I have any thoughts about the various dramas surrounding science fiction and fantasy award nominations this year. Aside from the occasional Twitter snark, no, not really, except that it’s tiring and mostly pretty silly and I’m not sure why I would want to think about any of it very much. I know what I plan to nominate this year, and I’m nominating because I think the work is (and/or the people behind the work are) worth the artistic consideration. If you’re nominating this year, I suggest you do the same.
The folks at the Audie Awards asked me if I would be willing to announce the finalists for the Fantasy category of awards, and of course I was delighted to. The Audie Award, for those of you not aware, are the awards given out for excellence in audiobook achievement. This year, the finalists in the category of Fantasy are:
If for some reason you’re having difficulty seeing the image, the finalists are:
Cress; by Marissa Meyer; Narrated by Rebecca Soler;
The Emperor’s Blades; by Brian Staveley; Narrated by Simon Vance;
Hawk;by Steven Brust; Narrated by Bernard Setaro Clark;
The Queen of the Tearling; by Erika Johansen; Narrated by Katherine Kellgren;
Words of Radiance; by Brandon Sanderson; Narrated by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer.
The Audie Awards will be given out May 28. Congratulations to all the finalists in Fantasy category, whom I have had the honor to announce, and to all finalist in every other category as well!
Who will your heroes be? How and why are they as they are? Amy Bai gave serious thought to these questions when writing Sword, and found the answers for her through a most circuitous path.
I grew up, as so many of us did, on Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault, and Disney; on destiny and good girls with shining hair, golden boys on tall horses bending over them to save them with kisses; on the wickedness of evil stepmothers and the last wishes of dying kings. I believed in the power of enchanted swords, wise old mentors, fate, and the deadly secrets of the spinning wheel. I never doubted that the serving girl was disguised royalty and that someday her prince would come. I knew that gentleness and kindness won you the help of the furry woodland creatures, that beauty was worth more than confidence, and that if you waited patiently and were good, if you suffered with grace, you would be swept out of an ordinary life into jeweled-encrusted slippers and true love.
As I got older, I found myself princes more well-rounded than Gallant and Charming—Will Stanton, Cefwyn Marhanen, Rand al’Thor, Frodo and Aragorn, Bastian and Atreyu, King Arthur and Lancelot. They saved the kingdom, defeated the big evil, and changed the world: they lived large.
I was twelve when I discovered Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, and my world opened up. There was destiny and magic, dragons and world-ending threats, and hey presto! there was also a girl protagonist who wasn’t passive, graceful, decorative, or a damsel. Aerin-Sol’s power had nothing to do with beauty, and she neither waited for nor expected a rescue. She worked for what she wanted. This is much, much more of a thing now than it was then, thank frak, but for an early-90s tween living in an isolated rural town in Maine with a teensy library, it was a Big Deal of the mindblowing variety. I still reread The Hero and the Crown pretty often, because I am obsessive that way, and damn if I don’t get that same little thrill of vicarious power every time. Girl fighter. Girl ruler.Girl hero.
So all things considered, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that when I finally mustered the courage to try writing novels, this kind of story was what came out.
By that time I was a veteran of the sort of undergraduate writing workshops where you begin by talking about theme, then move on to some more theme, and bring it home with a really deep discussion about theme… and along with a diploma and a lifelong partner, I’d emerged from college with a vague sense of shame for my love of fairy tales and SF/F. When I started Sword, I had a handful of ideas and absolutely no clue what I was doing. (I’d love to say this process has undergone a vast metamorphosis since, but alas, several hundred thousand words later, I think I’ve just gotten more comfortable with the initial state of confusion.)
In spite of the confusion, I’m glad I didn’t know how to outline a book back then, because I’m almost certain I would have censored myself. I’d have edited out the influence of all those well-loved fairy tales and books, spent the entire first draft trying to recreate everything I’d been taught to value about words up to that point, and the end result would probably have been something along the lines of the world’s worst Great Gatsby fanfic.
Many long nights, the thunderous arrival of the ebook, a vast shift in the publishing industry, and a complete rewrite later, what I arrived at was a coherent story, and also an homage to everything I love to read… but most of all to that amazing moment when I realized that heroism and agency weren’t the sole purview of men.
Gender flipping of genre tropes is hardly a new thing: it’s been done badly, done well, and done better than I could ever hope to do it myself, but one thing I personally don’t think it will be anytime soon is done to death. (If you’re wondering why, just visit VIDA’s site and take a look at the numbers there. Enough said.) So when I decided that Sword required a twisted nursery-rhyme-turned-vague-prophecy and three reluctant and/or outright disgusted heroes, it was natural to me that the Sword of that prophecy who guides the hands of men and commands the army, and the Crown who harbors all their hope and also rules a kingdom should be my two female main characters—while Song, a Bard who has the more traditionally feminine role of easing their sorrow with music, emotional stability, and a lot of snappy one-liners, would be the brother and friend of my two ladies.
Natural, because those were the stories that spoke loudest to me; natural because I could see me in them. And natural because although years and countless improvements in gender equality have passed since I read a book with a girl hero for the first time, it’s still more likely that in the movies I watch and the books I read, I’ll be expected to identify with a sidekick or a love interest, rather than a hero.
A couple of years ago, Subterranean Press released a “super bundle” of short stories and non-fiction books from me, perfect for completists who want to get lots of stuff of mine for a nice, low price. SubPress has revived the super bundle for a limited time with three new works in it: “To Sue The World,” a short story set in the Redshirts universe (those of you who saw me on that book tour will remember me reading it with Wil Wheaton, Paul Sabourin and other friends); “Lock In Lost Chapters,” featuring two chapters from a previous (and unreleased) version of the novel Lock In; and The Mallet of Loving Correction, my second collection of Whatever entries. All for $8.99, and all DRM-free.
Why release it now? Because Subterranean Press wants to give the proceeds to a local non-profit: A fencing studio (that’s the fencing with swords, not with, uh, fences) which is looking to upgrade its facilities and programs. I can get behind that, so I’ll be donating my share as well. So, it’s a chance to get a lot of cool stories at a good price while helping folks.
Here’s the whole list of contents for the SubPress Scalzi Super Bundle:
To Sue the World (an original, very short Redshirts story available nowhere else)
Muse of Fire
Mallet of Loving Correction
Lock In, Lost Chapters (available nowhere else)
How I Proposed To My Wife: An Alien Sex Story
Judge Sn Goes Golfing
Questions for a Soldier
The Sagan Diary
The Tale of the Wicked
The God Engines
You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop
My stories begin with people. People from all walks of life, people in unlikely circumstances, people that I can’t get out of my head. An old man, stroking the head of his robotic dog. A young girl, befriending a man made of glass. A husband, obsessed with the furnace his wife maintains on their claustrophobic space station.
My great delight in the sculpting of character means that when I was first working on the stories that would later make up my collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks, I didn’t intentionally set out to tackle any ideas of Great Meaning. Mostly, I set out to write about people who were confronting ghosts, odd golems, alien invasions, hordes of murderous bees, flying circuses, and talking gardens. All of these situations were all interesting to me. I cared intensely about my protagonists but I didn’t yet grasp what their stories had in common. My characters came from so many different backgrounds, were evenly split between men and women, ranged in age from twelve to their seventies, lived on different planets and existed in different eras (sometimes millennia apart).
Basically, I wasn’t sure my little band of narrators was united by any Big Idea. But hey, they were all living inside their own self-sustaining story pods, so what did it matter? They had rations in there. They had oxygen. They were fine trundling along their small orbits alone.
Then a few of the stories got picked up by magazines, and a few others won awards, and I started to think about putting them together in a collection.
Now, to me, the best story collections are often—I’m going to date myself here—like great mix tapes. The mix tapes your closest, coolest friend made for you in high school. The voices on the tracks may be wildly disparate, some of the songs may scream in thrash metal and others may whisper to you in velvety jazz, but that juxtaposition is part of the appeal. Placed so improbably back to back, well-selected songs speak to you in ways you don’t expect. All of a sudden you’re looking at your own complicated jumble of perceptions from a new perspective.
I wanted my collection to work like that ideal mix tape. I gathered my stories together and panicked. I despaired. I stacked and shuffled, trying to find a way to make all the seemingly disparate narratives fit together in such a way that the sum total would take on Lofty Overtones. Finally, I realized that the only way to make any progress toward a book was to stop trying to paint apples to look like oranges. I decided I would simply do my best to polish each individual story and damn any thematic union between them.
It was only then, as I released desperation and re-immersed myself in the individual narratives, that I began to see the Big Idea peeking out of all of them. The unifying factor was coming out of character, of course. How had I missed the pattern?
The grieving couple in “Tiger Bright,” who inherit a big cat and devote themselves to the animal’s care.
Ed, the Korean War veteran and traveling salesman in “Storybag,” who quickly becomes protective of the very strange item that appears in his magical sample case.
The artist in “The White Chalk Road,” who manufactures an entire world in an effort to make it home to one fiercely-loved old dog.
My protagonists have a tendency to be isolated—by war, by work, by sickness, by life on alien planets, by their own neuroses. But over and over again, these characters were trying to climb out of isolation, to make contact. Sometimes they could only manage a small wave from a long distance. Sometimes they stood screaming directly into each other’s ears. Sometimes they missed the potential for communication entirely and went sailing out into some weird stratosphere, raving. But the point is that they were all battling to communicate, to build connections, to form relationships.
The idea that humanity is defined by our need to connect to one another, that we all, every one of us, require at least one meaningful relationship to hold us together. That’s the Big Idea and the unifying theme running throughout the stories in The Thing About Great WhiteSharks.
There are a lot of other ideas here, too—about animals, and what they mean to us, and how both strange and familiar they are. About violence. About humor and wonder, and how we should never stop looking for either one. But the very human need to make contact—that’s what drives all the rest forward.
This book about ghosts and golems and aliens and robots and bats and sharks is really about people.
First off:Whoa, that cover. It’s awesome. And the cover tells some of the idea of Shutter, by Courtney Alameda. She’s here now to explain what, and why, and how in the end a story may be worth a thousand pictures.
Ideas don’t strike me. Characters do—at least figuratively.
When people ask me about the idea behind Shutter, I point to the novel’s protagonist, Micheline Helsing. I met this pint-sized exorcist/photographer in a dark, dilapidated house, frozen on a stairway. She held a Nikon camera as one would a handgun, its long telephoto lens pointed at the ground, her attention trained on the landing, sweat plastering her blunt bangs to her forehead. Together, we listened to the footsteps—slow, wooden creaks—coming down the hall on the second floor. The violet light her ghostly quarry emitted grew stronger, brighter, and more brutal with each step.
I thought: There’s someone I haven’t seen in YA before.
Micheline’s ability to capture a ghost on analog film is nothing novel: It’s been done in film and video games. The belief is found in several religions across the globe, and is a mainstay concept on popular ghost hunting shows. The older I get, the more I realize most ideas aren’t new or individual in and of themselves, really. To misappropriate John Donne a little, no creator is an island entire of herself. The things we read, watch, and consume all have an impact on our subconscious mind. It’s up to us to determine how significant that impact becomes in our work.
So the game was afoot: I had to devise a fantasy construct for either Micheline or her camera, one I hadn’t come across in my reading, viewing, or gaming experiences. I started with the ultraviolet ghost and worked backward in my research, discovering first that there are species of birds and insects capable of perceiving ultraviolet light. Later, I found that some human women are born with an additional color cone in their retinas, allowing them to perceive millions of variations in color the average eye cannot discern.
I’d found my construct: These women are called tetrachromats, and one percent of women would have the ability to see this broader range of color.
The tetrachromats in Shutter see the auras of the undead in a color spectrum: The slower, longer wavelengths of light—reds and oranges—represent the lowliest creatures, shuffling zombies and the like. The bestiary moves through the entire spectrum, representing a vast number of undead creatures unique to Micheline’s world. The ghosts, of course, are made of nothing more than violet energy and light, the shortest and fastest wavelengths visible to the human eye.
I brought in the Van Helsing legacy on Micheline’s insistence. She’s a stubborn sort of girl, a lesson I would learn again and again over the course of writing the novel. But the Helsing connection gave Micheline a legacy to shoulder, as well as an illustrious, rich history that I mined for both Micheline’s character the three boys who are her dearest friends and hunting companions. But like the camera, I realized that I wasn’t the first to reimagine the Van Helsings in a modern age—in fact, aside from Sherlock Holmes, Dracula has been portrayed in film more times than any other figure from classic literature. There are books, video games, and even Japanese manga in which Van Helsing or his descendants figure prominently.
I differentiated my Helsing Corps by making them an integral part of everyday life in Micheline’s world, a sort of police force for the supernatural or undead. My father was a police officer in the San Francisco Bay Area, and so my childhood was saturated by police stories, thrilling ride-alongs, and a basic knowledge of police procedure. With that model in mind, it became easy to imagine Helsing “reapers” responding to emergency calls and patrolling the streets at night, keeping their neighborhoods safe from the undead threats lurking in the city’s abandoned places.
Better yet, the Van Helsing legacy allowed me to connect a YA novel to a piece of classic literature—and my greatest hope is that my work might inspire a young person or two to seek out the source material. Shutter is not a re-telling of Dracula, but much of Stoker’s work provides the underpinnings for my own: The unbreakable friendships between Micheline, Ryder, Oliver, and Jude are meant to mimic the ones shared by Van Helsing’s own hunting party. Crosses still have power in Micheline’s world, and she shares her religious beliefs with her famous forebear. The otherworldly vengeance that provides the basis of the plot has much to do with the events of Dracula, but saying much more than that would spoil the novel.
As I move forward in my work, I specifically look for projects that follow this model; things I can tie back to my literary godparents, both classic and contemporary. I particularly like taking tired tropes and twisting them until they remember how to breathe, or until they get so bent out of shape, they look like something readers haven’t seen before.
But most of all, I wait to see someone like the girl on the stairway with a story to tell.
* I stand on dry land, I feel like I’m swaying. This is what a week and a day on a boat will do to you. It happens every time I come back from the JoCo Cruise. It’s a little weird, but it’s also kind of nice. Like the most innocuous hangover you can have.
Also, I only gained a pound on this trip. Considering the unfathomable amount of food I ate on the cruise, this is well nigh impossible. I must have a tapeworm. Either that or constantly walking up and down stairs actually burned some calories. I suspect tapeworm, however.
* I’ve been on the JoCo Cruise three times now, but this year was the first year I was “on staff” — I was a featured guest as well as running the brand new writing track on the boat. And yes, it made a bit of difference in how I experienced the cruise, in mostly positive ways. I like being busy and I like entertaining people, so programming a writing track with nine events, all of which I participated in one way or another, kept me from being bored — which would have been a possibility this year, as unfortunately my family was not able to come on the cruise with me. It also meant I got to know the performers better, because I was able to integrate many of them into writing track events. And it meant I was able to mix with the Seamonkeys (the self-applied term for JoCo Cruise attendees) a bit more as they came to events, and then sought me out to comment on them. It was fun! And I had fun doing it.
* More importantly (for me, anyway), I think the Seamonkeys had fun with the writing track in general. This being the first year, we threw a bunch of things against the wall to see what would stick. And as it turns out, almost all of it stuck. An event on bullshit in which four writers made up “reasonable” answers to ridiculous Seamonkey questions? Jam packed into its space and a huge hit. A panel on comedy at 9am in the friggin’ morning, on the last day of the cruise when everyone was partying until 3am the night before? 80 people showed up for that. I mean, I’m not gonna lie: at that hour I don’t think that I would have showed up for it if I wasn’t on it (and I would have missed out, since the panel, with Rhea Butcher and Hari Kondabolu, was fantastic) The enthusiasm for the writing track events was pretty cool — and made me feel relieved that I actually helped to add a positive to the cruise.
* My favorite event of the writing track, if I had to name one, would be the songwriting panel, which featured Aimee Mann and Ted Leo (who were on the ship performing as The Both), John Roderick and Jean Grae. With a line up like that, all I had to do as the moderator was get out of their way and let them talk, which I mostly did (the one time I didn’t, I ended up violating my “all questions must be in the form of a question” rule, which was deeply embarrassing). It was in many ways a perfect example of what a panel event could and should be: Four people with a vast range of experiences in their field, coming in from different and diverse angles, in conversation with each other, for the benefit of the audience. It’s hard to see how it could have been better. This was closely followed by the comedy panel, and then the bullshit panel, because, well. That one was just silly fun.
* But enough of the writing track! What about the rest of it? Well, as always, the JoCo Cruise Main Stage line-up was terrific, the usual combination of people I knew I already liked (JoCo and Paul & Storm, The Both, Pat Rothfuss, Matthew Inman, John Roderick and Merlin Mann) plus people I didn’t know I liked yet (Jean Grae, Rhea Butcher and Hari Kondabolu). I like that the folks running the JoCo Cruise do this — drop in new people doing awesome things outside of my usual scope of interests, because then it means my usual scope of interest expands (additionally, they get a thumbs up for bringing in new performers who are diverse in their awesomeness, because that’s a thing worth doing too). All the main stage shows were a blast; in terms of sheer entertainment value to one’s dollar, it’s difficult to see anyone giving a better ratio than the JoCo Cruise.
* The year’s Watkins Award (given to the new performer who just blows everyone away, named after Sara Watkins, who last year made everyone else step up their game with her show) goes hands down to Jean Grae. She didn’t just make all the other performers step up, she made the audience step up as well — she didn’t let them just sit in their seats but made them get down in front of the stage and move and take part. And they did! Because she was just that good. Runner up was Hari Kondabolu, who was almost giddy that he could make a Jonathan Swift reference in a joke and nearly everyone in the house would get it. Yup, it’s that sort of crowd.
* One disappointment of the cruise was that we didn’t get a lot of one of our featured performers, Opus Moreschi, because the poor fellow developed appendicitis on the second day and had to be taken off the ship for treatment. However, his spirit hovered over the entire cruise, like the benevolent, sarcastic ghost of someone who wasn’t actually dead but who had rather experienced the joys of Caribbean-style surgery — which is just like surgery elsewhere except possibly they give you painkillers in a hollowed out pineapple with little paper umbrellas in it. The details are hazy, honestly. The point is that Opus is now okay, if roughly two ounces lighter on a permanent basis, and we missed having him among us. Come back on the cruise, Opus! Next year we’ll work on your liver!
* Also one personal bit of mopery was that for various scheduling reasons, Krissy and Athena could not come on the cruise with me, so I was sad that I would be alone, so alone, for the cruise. I mentioned this to friends when I landed in Florida to get on the cruise, and it was pointed out to me that Sara Scrimshaw, who is stage manager for the JoCo Cruise, was also sans spouse for the duration of the cruise (Joseph Scrimshaw staying at home to, oh, let’s say, fight crime). And so it became that Sara and I pledged ourselves to a week of being each other’s “salt spouse,” a special personal relationship valid only on the seas, in which we did various (but not all, you dirty-minded people, sheesh) spousy things, such as go to dinners and beaches together, make sure sunscreen was applied, and generally check in on the other. And it was good!
And then Opus’ appendicitis hit. Opus brought his friend Linda Abbott on the cruise with him, and after he was taken off the ship, he encouraged her to stay on the ship and enjoy herself. The problem was she knew almost no one on the ship, and none very well. So I was asked by the JoCo folks (and also, I was inclined because I chatted with her a bit at dinner one night before Opus had to leave and found that she was a delightful human being, and I was personally concerned for her) to be available to hang out with her, bring her to dinner and generally keep her entertained — a prospect which was made easier, I should note, once it was clear Opus was going to be okay. Naturally I had to clear this with my salt spouse, who assured me that she was often busy, so it would be more than fine if I took on another salt spouse.
And so, on the waves of the Caribbean, I was happily saltypoly with Sara and Linda, who as it turned out were crazy about each other as people as well. Since they both live in the same town in the real world, they have plans to become totally be each other’s best friends forever now, which of course I approve of, not that it matters what I think, back here on the land.
Now, all of this sounds very silly, I’m sure, and of course it was. I was surrounded by friends and I wasn’t alone, and I was having a good time. But anyone who is has been happily married for a while knows the little bit of sadness that’s there when your spouse isn’t with you. Hanging out with Sara and Linda and doing the little kindnesses for each other that come naturally with long-time relationships and friendships made the cruise happier for each of us. And the good news is that back in the real world, I have made a new friend in Linda and have become better friends with Sara, and they have become friends with each other. And that’s a lovely thing.
* Tangentally related, did I mention I married some people on the seas? No, not the “salt spouse” thing. I mean, I actually officiated a marriage ceremony. Turns out that two of the seamonkeys brought a marriage license on board were planning to simply sign it on the cruise, in the ship’s chapel, with some friends around. But then it was decided that a small ceremony would be nice, and someone remembered I was a minister in the Universal Life Church and asked if I would officiate. And I thought, sure, why not. But then one thing led to another and instead of a small ceremony with the two in the ship’s chapel, among a small circle of friends, I married the two of them on the stage of the ship’s main theater, in front of hundreds of Seamonkeys, with Jonathan Coulton standing for the groom, Molly Lewis standing for the bride, Jean Grae singing for the couple, and the Monarch of the Seas giving her blessing to the whole affair. For something that was literally thrown together at the last minute, it came together pretty well.
* Oh, and I strangled Wil Wheaton. This happened during Celebrity Artemis, in which the JoCo performers do a late-night session pretending to be the bridge crew of a starship, usually whilst drinking. I was a captain this year, and decided to be the most incompetent captain possible. Which earned me quite a lot of snark from my helmsman, Wil Wheaton. Continually demoting him all the way down to “scullery lad” did not stop his haranguing, so of course eventually I had to murder him, on stage, in front of hundrends of witnesses, and then kick his lifeless corpse, which was then eventually dragged off the stage. I also made Ted Leo quit his Science Officer position in frustration, and in doing so he did the best “fuck all y’all — with science!” soliloquy perhaps in the entire history of the world. It was brilliant, and I want to be Ted Leo when I grow up. And then, being Ted Leo, strangle Wil Wheaton.
Despite all of that, we were not anywhere near the funniest Celebrity Artemis crew. That went, hands down, to the crew of Royal Caribbean staff who came in and schooled everyone on how to do drunken fake starshippery. Seriously, they were at a “I think I may be peeing myself because I’m laughing so hard” level. You can’t compete with that, you can only stand in awe. That said, I had to follow those guys. Thus: murdering Wil Wheaton. It seemed the rational thing to do at the time.
* And so on. I could tell you about the amazingness of the final concert, or how the clear affection between Aimee Mann and Ted Leo took their already brilliant set to another level, or how Rhea and Hari nailed their spotlights, or how Jim Boggia made “meow” the Word of the Cruise, or the amazing acapella interns, or how David Rees made Taylor Swift the cruise’s unofficial mascot, or the pleasant constant buzz of the gaming track and the gaming room (sponsored by Steve Jackson Games!) or how Seamonkey Gavin Verhey became as unto a god by being left behind on St. Kitts and somehow managing to get back on the ship in Haiti, which has never happened before in the history of Royal Carribean, or any other number of moments.
But I think you get the gist: This was a great year for a cruise that, in my experience of it, has always been great. If you were on it, you know. And if you weren’t on it, there’s always next year, and you should go.
Behold the Independence of the Seasand the Grandeur of the Seas, the two Royal Caribbean ships docked at RC’s private resort of Labadee, in Haiti. People noted, once they got out of the darkish corridor created by the towering presence of the two ships, that the Grandeur looked kind of small compared to the Independence. They were not wrong, but it’s also worth noting that the Grandeur is longer, taller at the beam and grosses more tonnage than the Titanic. Also worth noting that the Independence is not Royal Carribean’s largest boat; that distinction belongs to the Quantum of the Seas. We live in an interesting age, we do.
This is likely to be my last post until sometime Monday, as today is packed with events and tomorrow is packed with travel. See you on the other side, folks.
First, the relevant information and linkage:Midnight Star, the video game for which I created the overarching story and whose development I otherwise contributed to, is up and now available worldwide on iOS in the iTunes store. The game is free to play, with the ability to make in-app purchases (the game can be played without them if you so choose, however). The game is a science fictional first person shooter game, designed specifically for mobile platforms and how people use them. I’m fantastically proud of this game. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun. Try it!
Second, some longer thoughts about the game and how I came to be a part of Industrial Toys, the team that made it.
I love video games. I’ve played them since the Magnavox Odyssey days, when a console was a big chunk of plastic with two knobs, that you used to play Pong (or whatever the non-trademarked version of the game was). I’m particularly fond of first person shooters, games in which the point of view is your very own head, and you wander around the game maps, taking aim at all the creatures who are hell-bent on killing you in some shape or form. These games have been a part of my entertainment and imagination for decades, and I always wanted a chance to make one, one day.
Fortunately for me, I know Alex Seropian, and Alex Seropian knows me. Alex, in case you don’t know him, co-founded Bungie and co-created Halo, which is a game that, unless you’ve spent the last decade in Amish splendor, I’m almost certain you’ve heard about. But even before Halo Alex and Bungie were making great games — I remember many a long evening playing Marathon, one of the earliest first person shooter games for the Mac.
Even if all Alex had ever done was Halo and Marathon, he’d go down in history as one of the primary architects and influences of the modern era of video games. But as it turns out Alex isn’t interested in being an “influence,” he’s still interested in shaping the industry. And in this case he was thinking about was first person shooters and mobile platforms.
Video games don’t exist independently of their technological platform, and — provided you wish to have a successful video game — you have to take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the platform you’re using. You can port games into different platforms, of course, but when you do that the game still comes with the legacy of that previous platform; it’s an adaptation. That process can be done well or poorly but it’s still an adaptation. Likewise, a game can be made for a platform, but if the designer is thinking about it using old design metaphors, it’ll feel like an adaptation — it won’t take advantage of what that new platform can do.
There are a fair number of first person shooters on mobile devices and tablets these days. Many are adaptations from console or PC games; some are designed for the mobile platform but use design and control elements derived from console and PC platforms. What Alex wanted to do — and what he co-founded Industrial Toys to do — was to create games that had mobile computing at the core of their design philosophy: Make a game that is meant to be mobile, in other words, and takes advantage of how people use their mobile devices today.
What does that mean? In the case of Midnight Star, it means (among other things) that you can control all aspects of the game with one hand: You can shoot, block, reload and do other actions through pointing, swiping and pressing — in other words, all the actions you already do with your mobile devices, at this point almost instinctually. It also means that individual encounters in the game are quick to get into and quick to get out of — because we use our mobile devices in bursts, when we’re in line to get coffee, while we’re waiting for friends, when we’re on the subway on the way to work, and so on. You can fire up the game, have a blast for a minute or two, put it away, and then catch up again when you have another spare minute.
These are only two examples of thinking mobile first; there are others you’ll discover as you play the game. The point is that Midnight Star isn’t just on your phone or tablet — Industrial Toys (Alex, Tim Harris and their entire staff) made it for your phone and tablet, and for you, when you’re on your mobile devices.
Which I think is pretty cool. When I’m playing a video game, what I don’t want to be doing is fighting with the tech platform or the controls of the game; I want the game to suck me in and make me a part of its world. That doesn’t happen without smart people thinking deeply about game design. Industrial Toys is packed with people who do just that — and have applied it to my favorite genre of video game to boot.
So when Alex called and said, hey, we’re making this game, do you want in on this, my response was pretty much you had me at ‘hello.’ What, make a first person shooter with the guy who had created two of the best and most significant shooters in the history of the industry? Yeah, let me think about that. Let me think about that real hard. Saying “yes” to this gig was one of the easiest professional decisions I’ve ever made.
We’ve been working on this game for a couple three years now. Most of my part of it was early on, in the initial worldbuilding and character creation. Alex, Tim and everyone else knew what they wanted to do with game mechanics, and my job was to give them a story to hang all the cool stuff on. We ended up doing so much worldbuilding for the project that we simultaneously developed the graphic novel Midnight Rises, which came out last week. I wrote Midnight Rises directly; Midnight Star’s dialogue and other bits were written by folks on the Industral Toys team with me coming in to do editing, to give character notes and to otherwise offer advice and thoughts. The universe that both Star and Rises exist in has whole lot of me in it, and it’s very cool to see the thoughts that I had in my head turned into a game I really like playing.
Creating the game was also a satisfying work experience. When I write novels, it’s just me and a keyboard; I’m responsible for every choice and every line. With Midnight Star, I was part of a team and not the head of it — Alex and Tim had those jobs. My job was to help make their job easier, and to give everyone at Industrial Toys something that would make the game they wanted to create better. The ego in this project, in other words, was in making sure I did my part as a team member, not just in showing off my writing chops.
It’s easy to be the person who wants to drive the bus. But the thing was, writing and worldbuilding are only a small part of this overall project, and there are a lot of other things about the project that I can’t do, aren’t qualified to do and frankly shouldn’t do. This would be the case with any video game I might ever make, not only this one. If I ever wanted to write a video game, at any point — a video game that I as a gamer would like to play — there would have to be a team of people with whom I would work.
And the fact is I got really lucky with the team at Industrial Toys. The shop is packed with people who are, simply, spectacularly good at what they do. It’s a great thing when you can do work, hand it off to people, and trust them to make something amazing with your work as part of it. My role in making Midnight Star was big to me, but the truth of the matter is I had the easy part. It was the team in the shop who made it happen. I get to call it “my” video game when I talk about it, but believe me when I say that “my” video game is really about so many other people, all of whom I can’t thank enough for allowing me to take part in the ride with them.
Finally: people, I can’t wait for you to play this thing. Dig the cool art by Mike Choi and Prashant Patil. Groove to the score by Serj Tankian. Thrill to the game architecture and play by Alex and his crew of game nuts. Every time I fire the game up, what I mostly think is, how cool is this. I would play the hell out of this game even if I had nothing to do with it. This is very very close to the game I always wanted to make. And now it’s here.