The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente
And now, some of the most famous authors in the English language show a side that you probably never knew about — and Catherynne M. Valente uses that side to build up her latest novel, The Glass Town Game.
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:
So let’s say you’re a geeky kid, like any other geeky kid. School sucks, your siblings range from pretty okay to deeply annoying, everyone’s always telling you what to do and when to do it when all you really want to do is read your books and play with your action figures and maybe log on to your favorite multiplayer game.
Now, let’s say you’re a geeky kid who’s going to grow up to be one or two or three of the greatest geniuses of English literature, and you live in a Yorkshire village in 1828, and electricity is only a thing inasmuch as some American fooled around with a key and a kite awhile back. What’s a precocious, highly competitive pre-teen to do?
Welcome to Glass Town, perhaps the world’s first massively multiplayer offline text adventure. Meet the mods: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell. You may know them better by their last name: Brontë.
You see, when the Brontës were kids, and not yet idols of literary fiction, they were exactly like nerdy kids are today, and invented a huge fantasy world together, complete with every worldbuilding cliche we know so well: every prince’s lineage was meticulously recorded, every horse had a backstory, every villain had an ancient grudge to twirl his mustache around, every city had a precise encyclopedia entry listing population, imports and exports, historical battles, and famous citizens. There was even a magic system worked out, invented and curated, naturally, on the monasterial Island of Philosophers. It may be strange to think of the writers of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as your average Dungeons and Dragons playing adolescents, but they were exactly that—except they did it long before you ever heard of it. Long before it was cool.
The four of them, not only Charlotte and Emily, who you will have heard of, but Anne and Branwell, who you may not have, created the fantasy worlds of Glass Town, Gondal, and Angria, and peopled them with a cast of thousands. (Anne also wrote excellent books, but they are less blusteringly romantic and more iron-jawed feminist, and so do not get gushing film adaptations. Branwell, unfortunately, went down another, yet tragically traditional hipster route—he got fired from his job for sexual harassment and ended up having to move back home, where he became addicted to heroin and died quite young.) They wrote hundreds of stories in their private universe, full of a child’s understanding of British politics, Yorkshire fairy tales, Shakespearian plots, an obsession with Arctic and African exploration, and, growing up in the shadow of the Napoleonic Wars, battle after battle after battle. The main players in these sagas were a set of wooden soldiers their father bought Branwell for Christmas, which his sisters immediately claimed as communal property and used to act out their sagas, much as children today can play with their Skylanders aciton figures, then plug them into their consoles and watch them have adventures onscreen. But of course, the Brontës had no screens beyond pieces of paper. It hardly mattered. Geeks are geeks, and geekery is timeless.
Being the geniuses they were, however, these geeks took it a step further. Their fantasy world was downright postmodern. They invented in-world publishing houses and made two of the wooden soldiers into editors that printed magazines for the people of Glass Town, magazines that the Brontës completely laid out and wrote themselves under a number of different bylines, even going so far as to have inter-columnist rivalries. When 11-year-old Branwell invented an obvious Mary Sue by the name of Young Soult the Rhymer, the greatest poet of all time, 12-year-old Charlotte immediately began a brutal sniping campaign, writing scathing reviews of Young Soult’s work, calling it rubbish and analyzing it mercilessly line by line. They wrote histories of Angria, and then created other historians to contradict the “accepted” narrative.
And when Branwell, as young boys love to do, got tired of his poetry being trashed and turned to his favorite games, gleefully blowing up castles and forts and ships and camps, murdering every main character in a daily bloodbath worthy of George R. R. Martin, Emily and Anne invented an elixir of life to bring everyone back to play another day, virtually inventing the Continue screen long before Atari was a pixel in the mainframe’s eye.
In a small playroom in a Parsonage at the top of a hill in Yorkshire, four children created an utterly complete universe to rival any speculative fiction writer working today. You can’t even call it just fantasy—some of their characters go to space.
I was captivated by this, not by how cute it is that such fancy famous people made up stories about their dolls, but by how incredibly modern the Brontë children really were, when we think of them as these miserable Gothic maidens on the moor, never cracking a smile. We have so much of their Glass Town writings, still, today, available to read at the click of an Amazon button, and it truly is extraordinary work. I doubt any MFA program would turn down what Charlotte and Emily produced before the age of 13. You can see the beginnings of the writers they’re going to be, the characters they’re going to create, little baby Rochesters and Heathcliffs and Berthas and Janes. You can see them struggling against the women and men they knew they’d have to be when they grew up. You can see them trying on the adult world for size.
But I saw in them what I see in every kid I’ve ever met—the fierce loyalty and obsession to the games they play, online or offline, the imaginative hunger for other worlds. I wanted to make Glass Town a real place, that they really traveled to, and had adventures in, I wanted them to confront their creations, not least because the Brontës are so bloody post-post-modern that they actually did write about visiting their world and confronting their creations in 1828. Charlotte even wrote about dreaming that she herself and all her siblings were just characters in a novel someone else was writing.
I have loved the Brontës since I was a child, and when you love someone, you want to make their dreams come true.
But more than the Brontës dreams of visiting their fantastical universe, I wanted to make every child’s dream come true. Because there are moments, when you are young, and up in your room playing and thinking and imagining and wishing, when there is nothing in the world you want more than for the world inside your head to become the real world that you live in.
Hell, there are moments when you are old when you feel that way.
I didn’t want to write one of those novels where famous writers didn’t actually write their work, they just went to a magical place and recorded it. I know all to well that making worlds is hard work, and those plots always bothered me. I wanted to write a novel where somebody made a world so well, worked their toys so tirelessly, that it became real. And that’s what this book is.
The Glass Town Game is my gift to any kid who played so long and so hard that it felt more real than real life, to anyone who used to be that lonely, nerdy kid at the top of the stairs, making their action figures have epic adventures day after day that they could never hope to have. The history doesn’t matter. The famous name doesn’t matter—it’s never mentioned in the book. What matters is what every kid knows matters—the game, man.
So suit up, log on, and press start. Glass Town is about to get real.