Happy Wednesday! My blog is behaving a bit oddly, so if you’re seeing this post, it has been coaxed into cooperation at least for the moment. And with that, I give you:
Click to enlarge.
Cover art for Shield of Sea and Space, the third and final volume in the Chaos Knight trilogy (being that rare bird, the epic fantasy adventure that begins as a trilogy and stays a trilogy). It is, of course, by the marvelous Dehong He, upon whom I can never seem to shower enough praise. If you can believe it, the Chaos Knight is the first book cover series he’s done, and each volume has been more stunning than the last. When this one trickled out via a Pyr catalog earlier this year (I’ve been holding it while the title treatments were worked out — Jackie, the trilogy’s designer, has always had her work cut out for her figuring out how to stick text on top of such living, dynamic illustration as this), it was amazing to see book bloggers pick it out to gawk over the art.
So this is it: for me the beginning of the end of a life era. I can’t imagine it having a bigger bang than this stunning cover. Look upon it, ye mighty, and — well, you know. 😉
I am in debt as always to the wonderful production team at Pyr, and to Lou Anders for taking a chance on this series and maintaining Pyr’s commitment to fine fantasy artists. If you’ve followed the trajectory of fantasy art covers in today’s age of Photoshop fix-ups and dwindling cover budgets, you’ll understand how remarkable it truly is, and I will always feel humbled by how they’ve transformed this stuff that came out of my head into stunning artifacts that speak the language of another world through their every detail.
It’s truly an honor to have another cover from Dehong. I understand he’s been very busy with Time Voyager (and their MMO coincidentally titled Chaos Gate!), so it’s especially fortunate that he was able to make some time for Andovar. 🙂
Poking my head in here since it looks like Goodreads has approved my giveaway — must have missed the email!
On Halloween entries will close, so get it while it’s hot! Three copies up for grabs.
More news… soon. 🙂 The game is afoot! Also, in Andovar news, this past week I received the countersigned contract for Shield of Sea and Space, which means: IT’S A TRILOGY!!!Lance of Earth and Sky comes out April 2012, and I turn in Shield in June.
But I know you’re really here for giveaway details. Let’s see if this works!
It’s been awhile since I last wrote for the Escapist, so I’m glad it appears I haven’t forgotten how to do it. “1988: the Golden Age of Game Piracy”, went live today. Many thanks to Paul Reiche for providing insights; in addition to his actual quotes, his perspective pivoted the article away from a first draft that had a rather different tone.
I had intended to post about the article with some “bonus features” in the form of a section that was ultimately removed (rightfully) for being too academic. Maybe I’ll post that another time, since I’d really like to know whether I was properly applying some economic theory.
As you might gather, Russ is moving on from the magazine, and while I’ve worked with a great number of wonderful folk in the last five years, I don’t think any of them would disagree that Russ’s departure in particular marks the end of an era.
My first article for the Escapist back in 2006 was a rather impetuous call to arms for the modern game industry, when the E was quite a different place. It had almost none of its current features and was instead “purely” focused on what would become its “feature” articles; there was a beautiful graphic cover and full spread art for each feature. Even then, in the magazine’s youth, I thought it was a tremendous honor to write for them, and over the years I do believe they remained the best and most thoughtful source of game journalism in the US. They aimed to set a standard of excellence, and Russ was a big part of that success.
Joe Blancato and Jon Martin (both also by now departed) made my introduction to the magazine, but Russ was the consistent editorial steady hand on the wheel throughout — even, interestingly, when he’d moved on to fresher pastures to grow the magazine’s new video content. Where many game magazines have a very well-intentioned but limited tunnel vision view of the industry and the market, Russ had a worldliness that gave the magazine breadth and, I think, greater relevance. He published some tremendous stuff, and as the magazine grew and changed — even when it transitioned away from some of the thoughtfulness and cultural forward-thinking that had first earned it my loyalty as a reader and a writer — I always respected his ability to ride the leading edge of a wave that made new careers even as it destroyed many others.
So, as Leah would say, tip your hat, folks; the times they are a-changin’. There is little doubt that the Escapist will remain a powerhouse in game media for many years to come, and even less doubt that Russ will go on to even greater adventures. But among other things, Inside Job, the quality of life column I wrote from 2007-2008, wouldn’t have existed without him, nor, I’m sure, would many of my feature articles. I am a better writer as a result, and I will always think back on the production of each — even when edits and deadlines plus a “real” job resulted in all-nighter catatonia — with great fondness.
This is a very quick post to call your attention to Thalnarra, who waits for you in the magical land of ebay! Thalnarra is one of Melody Pena’s Windstone griffins, hand-painted to look like your favorite gryphon fire priestess. In many ways Thalnarra is the centerpoint of Andovar as a world; I hear frequently from readers that she was their favorite, so it’s amazing to see her “in the feathers” here.
Melody did such an incredible job. If you’ve ever seen a Windstone in person you know that photos don’t do them justice, even when the photos are amazing (there are more in that album, and on ebay). I want to gush about this for thousands of words, but I also want you to actually read this and then click right over to the ebay auction and try your luck.
Honestly. If you had told me five years ago that Melody would be painting one of her amazing griffins to look like a character I’d invented, I would ask you to share whatever you were smoking.
Stay tuned next week for a post about the making of Thalnarra, and to congratulate her new owner. 🙂
For those of you kind and intrepid and incredible folk who have been interested in signed copies of Sword of Fire and Sea, here are some answers!
First, you can come to the next signing, which will be July 23, 2011 at Borderlands Books in San Francisco. If you can’t make it there, I’ll be at Westercon July 2-4, Dragon*Con September 2-5, and World Fantasy Con October 27-30. I may be adding a couple of more trips; when I have them finalized I’ll be updating this page with them.
Secondly, you can order signed copies anytime from Mysterious Galaxy! Mysterious Galaxy is a fantastic independent science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror bookstore in San Diego (my hometown!). They’ve been around since 1993 and have been keeping genre alive and building one of the best genre fiction communities in the country.
I have many memories of peeking into Mysterious Galaxy’s windows (there’s a Japanese restaurant in the same center that my family has been going to for years), so it was particularly awesome to “launch” Sword of Fire and Sea there officially. And despite it being my first signing, I don’t know how you could ask for better support: they advertised the heck out of the event, and Maryelizabeth provided terrific advice over facebook before I came down. Patrick and David were wonderful throughout, making sure everything ran smoothly and providing a convention’s worth of stimulating science fiction and fantasy conversation in just a couple of hours.
So there are your answers! Go forth and buy books from a terrific San Diego institution! There are more photos from the signing on the Andovar facebook page (but you’re already a member there, right?), and on Flickr.
Kiba, fresh in her summer coat, says: shop from sources who put good things into the world!
Looking for answers? Dianetics, The Secret, The Seven Deadly Foibles of Unrepentant Sociopaths? The revelations that you seek are in Ecco the Dolphin.
Produced by Ed Annunziata and developed by the international Novotrade International team (later Appaloosa Interactive), the first Ecco the Dolphin came out early in the age of Sega Genesis. Dolphins and whales in general were high on the mainstream consciousness through the 70s and 80s, with Songs of the Humpback Whale debuting in 1970, the first human-recorded sounds of whale communication, and going on to sell a multiplatinum thirty million copies in the following decades. The record burned through our hominid brains, a universal call for the sacred mysteries of nature, and it’s a short hop from there to the illustrative work of Robert Wyland, whose depictions linking whales and far galaxies look like concept art for Ecco.
What makes Ecco really stand out, though, is that as a game it was so phenomenally well crafted. And, like most exceptionally well made video games, it contains the secrets of the universe.
I unpacked the Sega Genesis (not my family’s original — a used system picked up on ebay a couple of years ago) for a little book launch party this past weekend, and as inevitably happens when I’m left alone with a Genesis, when the party was over I fired up Ecco II: The Tides of Time.
I’ve played this game many times (though admittedly rarely all the way through). This time around I was struck by two things: 1) the flow and progression of this game is actually completely brilliant; 2) how in the world did they get away with shipping a game that was so incredibly hard?
Realization #2 is perhaps what Tides of Time in particular is so well-known for, which is unfortunate. The game is hard. But the best games are. The very best games are the ones that are brutally hard but don’t allow you to put them down. This is a delicate, stunning balance, an invisibly momentous achievement — the challenge pushes you to your absolute limit, but with every play you feel yourself getting just a little bit closer. You never, at any point, truly feel that you can’t win. And riding that knife-edge of balance and challenge is wickedly difficult. How the team managed it in the wild west of this still relatively early console development I have no idea, but there is something magical about this period in game history, something that produced genius. Although Ecco II is my go-to has-everything game, if you put a gun to my head I’d still have a hard time telling you whether it, Phantasy Star IV, or Sid Meier’s Pirates! Gold should be declared king of the Sega Genesis.
But in spite of all that, I couldn’t help but marvel at how really rather absurdly difficult even the first few levels of Ecco II are. I cruised through the first two, marveling again at the challenge and simplicity of the vibrating-crystal puzzle in the third level — and by the time I hit my first failed run at “Sky Tides”, I was developing some serious respect for my twelve-year-old self for having the tenacity to beat the game. I was also astonished that I’d done it. I went up against the “Tube of Medusa” a round dozen times before I stopped, in astonishment, and wondered how in the hell anyone managed to push through these levels.
That was when I googled “Tube of Medusa” and found these brilliant play-through videos. I watched the end of the game first, partly because I didn’t know that’s what it was (it was the most popular video — doubtless for the thousands of people who played but never finished the game). And then I went back and watched from the beginning, cackling to myself with glee when he thought the crystals puzzle was difficult. And when he thought “Skyway” was a pain. And when he died over and over again for the next entire video against “Sky Tides”. And when he went up against the Medusa, died, and found himself rolled back to “Skyway” and completely lost his shit. If you’ve ever played any of the Ecco games you owe it to yourself to watch these videos.
The videos themselves are a tight illustration of this frustration-challenge-triumph progression that is so well done in the Ecco games (the first two anyway — I loved the story of Defender of the Future, but just never quite bought the 3D interpretation of Ecco). The games drive you absolutely mad — but you keep playing, not out of some deeply planted masochistic impulse, but because the game is persistently telling you: just a little longer. Just try one more time.
And this gets to the heart of one of the most powerful lessons that games as a whole teach.
Games, especially physics simulators like Ecco, are encapsulated constructions of our perception of the nature of reality. We simulate the rules of the universe in small packages in an attempt to understand how it works, how we work. The artistic insight and understanding achieved through games is therefore an insight that emerges from the process of experiencing the simulation — a core truth about our experience of life itself.
There was no doubt in my mind that as a kid I absorbed deep and powerful things from Ecco. The sheer beauty of the game was an insight all on its own — the way its music and physics feel and graphics lull you into this trance-like flow state. And this beauty and flow is emphasized again through the game’s mechanics, which require such a precision of movement and reflex that it cannot be conscious. In playing the most difficult parts of Ecco, you will bang your head again and again if you are distracted, or too self-conscious. You succeed when you let go, when you let reflex take over, when you are absorbed in the game.
Ecco II could not be what it is without its incredible difficulty. And it makes me wilt a little inside to think that games like this would have an awfully hard time being made and published in today’s market. Ecco’s difficulty did repel many gamers, who weren’t sufficiently hooked through the opening to rise to the challenges it offered. (To this day, if you google Ecco what you’ll find are a lot of gamers complaining about how hard the game was, which they translate to “it sucks” — and then wonder today why games are so much easier than they used to be [and then complain about that].) But another point of interest for me is that I often find that some of the most brilliant, creative, and inspiring young women I know today loved Ecco as a kid. It spoke to something in all of us, something so powerful that it made us beat a game that to this day is infamous in the history of stupidly hard games.
So here, in short, are critical lessons that Ecco teaches:
1) Fail. Fail a lot. Then win. Every success book will tell you this, but Ecco actually shows it to you. The problem with the books is that their message often reaches us as patently false. Sure, the people who “win” at various things in life almost always have a long string of failed attempts behind them. But so do the people who continually fail. The critical variation here is: fail a lot, but get just a little bit better every time. That is how you win. And that just a little bit better is the sweet taste of success that gives us courage in
the face of failure.
2) Paying too much attention throws you off your game. You need to let go and release your intuitive mind. First you strategize, but when you perform, you let go. An astonishing amount of fail comes from over thinking.
3) Explore. Sometimes the thing that you’re looking for is tucked away in a corner that you’ll only find if you’re thorough and meticulous.
4) Know your tools. Think ahead. If you take the time to map out your surroundings and develop a plan, you drastically up your odds.
5) Go slow. If you rush into the unknown you will almost always die. Going slow and keeping control — cultivating disciplined patience — gets you where you want to go faster than rushing, even though this is unintuitive.
6) Analyze your failure. You can sometimes brute force your way through a challenge by sheer luck, but if you stop, take a breath, and think, you can usually observe something about the way your environment is behaving in reaction to your attempt that will be the key to your success. There is always a key. There is always a secret. And the faster you acknowledge and alter your mistakes, the faster you succeed.
7) Master your emotions. The thing that makes most challenges seem unwinnable is your own reaction to the challenge. Adrenaline is only productive in certain situations. Most of the time it just gets in your way. Breathe.
These seem like simple things when they’re listed and told, which is the nature of lessons. You can rarely effectively absorb them from a list or a collection of words. But a game allows you to experience the lesson, to perform the metaphor, and so many of our intrinsic learning systems kick in as a result that the realizations are hundreds of times more powerful.
If you listen through those youtube videos, you can hear Hidenozuke going through this process, which is fascinating and fun.
I do wish he’d do a run-through of the first game. Though any reasonable physician, I suppose, might not allow it.
I’ve been thinking about this blog post for a long time, and thinking about the subject for even longer. But as is often the case with such things, a picture gives you the important information faster. 🙂
And in case that’s not clear enough:
I have author copies, they are beautiful, and the book is available on Amazon now, though at the moment there are only 115 2! left in stock.
Kiba, as you can see, is quite excited.
Nothing I could say would be even remotely adequate. I have memories of walking through the aisles at Crown Books at ten years old and thinking about how amazing authors were. I remember being midway through a fantasy book once and being suddenly existentially struck by what an amazing thing a book is. That we think of it as a finished object, a thing, but what we don’t consciously wrap our minds around while reading is how every word put down is a moment in another person’s life, that each page and collection of pages is a chronology of experiences, probably multiple experiences, days and weeks and months of hard work and pure invention.
And now I have one, and, perhaps in part because I work in games I am unusually aware of the number of people that go into this (and yet I’m not as aware as Lou Anders is, who actually works with them all). In Prometheus’s case, right around fifty hardworking people who all touch every book at some stage of its production. Which basically multiplies the complex work of the story, refines it, polishes it, makes sure that every moment of your reading experience is a crafted one, carefully considered. They did a hell of a good job.
It’s obvious, I think, from my shield-banging about sustainability and organic food and conservation activism that I am a pretty passionate environmentalist. My tax return so attests. And I love technology, and I love what it’s doing to the experience of reading. But crafted objects like this, touched by so many people, delivered to you, the reader, are what will keep paper books around, at least for the next while. And though I am biased (ridiculously biased!), this one is a treasure, and I am humbled to have it. If you seek it out (or if I throw it at you — cough), I hope you enjoy it too. And if you do, or even if you’re just interested and haven’t taken the plunge yet, I’d love if you’d consider joining the party on the Andovar World Facebook page, where there will be info, links, giveaways, and more. 🙂
Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test is an enthralling read for anyone who is even the slightest bit odd. (And if you’re reading this, chances are I mean you.) It’s a wild ride, a Philip K. Dickian roller coaster through some of the darkest crevices of human behavior, spiraling out into the macro-levels of societal power structures and human history, and then back into the minutiae of everyday people living lives with the greatest intentions of normalcy. And in its way it is an act of torah, in the universal sense — a paean of love for humanity, of love that looks closely and does not flinch.
Be warned that if you go in and go deep you will probably go a little crazy. And perhaps the great honesty of the book is that it dives in deep here as well, pushes you to reflect on your own crazy, and the expanded crazy of the greater semi-conscious social system that we live in.
It will make you think about your friends, your enemies, your coworkers, your family. I know people who are capable of violence. Some of them great violence. You know people like this, too — maybe you even are one. One of the questions at the heart of this work is one asked by dystopians for centuries, and yet one that seems to get sharper with every increase in our civilization and technology: where do you draw the line around what kind of abnormalities should be eliminated from society, by imprisonment, by medication?
To draw that line is to say that we have found the pattern. We want so badly for there to be a decisive list, for there to be labels and boxes, for things to be clean. We are pattern-seekers. Patterns make a chaotic world comprehensible, they lull us into functionality. And so ultimately, we need books like this, the world needs books like this, that peel back the skin of reality and have a good sticky look inside, to challenge the artificiality of the psychological borders that keep us safe. And as all truly well designed things are, it achieves a life of its own by being entertaining, by taking us from Douglas Hofstadter’s Strange Loop to Bedlam to Mississippi industrial ghost towns, from Wall Street to the brainstem of psychiatry to mass murderers, from Scientology to DSM IV, from opulent Florida mansions to four-year-old children being treated for bipolar disorder.
In the end, once we have gone through the wormhole of inquiry and emerged onto the far side, changed, the concluding question is: if there were a “normal”, truly, would we want to be it? Even considering the consequences of the vast systems around us, their need to contain us, to statistically filter out danger and potential disruption?
Hopefully, the answer remains no. Hell no. My cold dead hand no. God is dead no.
And yet, being the social animals that we are, it is inevitable that we try. And that’s okay. And also a little bit crazy.
By way of disclaimer, and to start the story, as many of you already know, Piers Anthony did me the great honor of reviewing and blurbing Sword of Fire and Sea. My brief email interactions with him were part of a process I went through after selling Sword that helped convince me I was not a charlatan, and that this whole lifelong-dream-of-book thing was actually happening (and would not kill me).
I actually started a letter to Piers many years ago. In 1999 I sold my first short story to James Richey, who has also co-written a book with Piers, and was publishing his anthology Enchanted Realms through Xlibris, one of the earliest print-on-demand publishers, which Piers had invested in as part of his long and awarded efforts to put more power and control in the hands of authors. When I sold that story, I wrote the first half of a letter to Piers, and planned to write the second half when I sold my first novel. Last year I sold the novel — but life had happened, and my original “time capsule” letter was nowhere to be found. I wrote him anyway, explaining what had happened — and tell this to you all as context for how Piers and his work have been inspirational to me for a very long time.
And now Xanth fans are discovering that blurb, and supporting my work as a result. It’s astonishing and humbling. I had no idea just how many Xanth fans were out there — the answer is, on Facebook alone, tens of thousands! And they, too, love Piers Anthony’s work with a passion, from Xanth to Incarnations to the Mode books and beyond.
Like many readers, and especially writers in the modern genre fiction communities, it is peculiarly difficult to get people to admit that they read and enjoyed dozens of Xanth books. (You all know who you are.) As I’ve dug into this, interesting patterns emerge: male readers are more likely to connect with the Incarnations books, while more traditional, older readers of fantasy and science fiction recall A Spell for Chameleon or The Source of Magic. Source was my first Xanth book and my first genre fantasy (which I picked up — you might want to sit down for this — because it had a griffin on the cover), but through these informal surveys I’ve concluded that I’m part of another generation of Xanth fans, one that connects most with the “third generation” characters from Isle of View, Demons Don’t Dream, and the infamous The Color of Her Panties.
It’s easy to think of any of a dozen reasons to dismiss Anthony’s books, and especially Xanth. Piers himself is notoriously cranky, a self-identified ogre, which gets people incensed (I find him robustly and admirably opinionated); the books were and are outrageously popular, which offends the edgy self-conscious nerd culture of fantasy and science fiction; and, probably most fundamentally, there is something about puns that cause people to go instantly into dismissal mode. They are silly; children love them; neither of these things should cause them to be denegrated, and yet they are. We assume for some strange reason that because puns are so entertaining to children that they must be easy. To anyone who seriously thinks this, my advice is: try it. It’s not as easy as it looks. Because it feels effortless, it feels easy to dismiss — but that very ease is its genius, and it is in fact very hard.
Piers, through Xanth, also had an extremely close relationship with his fans, insofar as one can when one has thousands upon thousands of fans. When I was young — quite young, ten years old or so — I wrote him three letters, and he replied to each. This is rather astonishing and is an example of how he was ahead of his time. Now it is expected that an author so interact and cultivate their fans, and as I understand it a few years ago a critic even referred to Anthony’s Author’s Notes as “blogging”.
The majority of the letters Piers received about Xanth he has always said were suggestions for puns that should go into the books. This started early in Xanth’s history and is actually quite important. It emphasizes how the world itself was always interactive — another way in which he was ahead of the curve. As a kid I sent in a pun — “see weed” — and promptly forgot about it, until my younger brother excitedly told me that I had gotten a credit in Faun and Games. I suddenly remembered that long-ago letter, and how I also thought that Grundy the Golem should get together with Chet Centaur and some reverse wood and use Chet’s shrinking ability in reverse, so that he could be full size with Rapunzel — but I digress.
Now that I am embarking upon my own professional novelist career, such as it is in the modern novel market, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it was that made Xanth so powerful. And how it was that a writer with such powerful idea stories — because if you look back into Piers’s earlier publications you see intense old school idea stories of the stuff that science fiction was originally made — could live so long in a world that seemed so comparatively simple. But the extraordinarily clever thing about Xanth is that it is not simple at all. It engages with the fundamentally interactive bones of story and plays with us as readers. It constantly dances between expectation and reversal. There is a deep, whimsical logic to Xanth — a childlike logic of our hearts, one that fulfills our abstract expectations while surprising and delighting us (a breadfruit tree that grows loaves of bread, cherry bomb trees, the concept that everyone is born with a completely unique magical talent). There is a resonance with my binge-reading of Oliver Sacks — a resonance with symbolism and the metaphorical thinking that is actually far more natural to us than “realism” is. And oh, man, if you only knew how complicated the cognitive processes that produce these patterns are! It is the stuff of the wildest, most complex science fiction.
Xanth also captures one of those obvious but strangely elusive qualities of a fantasy world in that it is a place you want to go. I printed up the beautiful painted map of Xanth from its mid-90s hardcovers when I was a kid, put it up on my wall and dreamed of what I’d do if I ever went there (survey says: track down Magician Trent and get him to turn me into a winged centaur). And he did this not once but multiple times, from the fractal worlds of the Mode books to the amazing dual scientific and fantasy worlds of Proton and Phaze from the Apprentice Adept series. Those books in particular I suspect will become increasingly classic over time, powerfully symbolizing as they do the tension in our modern world between the technological and the pastoral.
For years Piers has, in asides, lamented that he has never been appreciated by critics or awards committees (though he does have quite a large pile of Hugo and Nebula nominations). And without question this hasn’t hurt him in the marketplace. Readers love his worlds, and that is one of the highest compliments in our craft. What he has created will live long past his mortal shell and the memories of a list of award recipients.
But these are the lessons that remain hard to learn: just because something is “fun” does not mean it is “simple”; just because a ruleset is “intuitive” does not mean it is “easy” (especially to create!); and just because an audience feels compelled to interact with a form does not mean that it can be well made by a committee. In fact, the opposite is almost always the case. And it takes both great skill and great enlightenment to reach out and become vulnerable to one’s audience, and to ordain their ideas by making them a part of the work.