Poised on the threshold of a lifelong dream

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 11 5 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. 🙂

If you want to read more of my thoughts about game design, storytelling, and a bunch of other things, before I was flummoxed by this meteor of awesome, Jeremy Jones was kind enough to interview me for Clarkesworld Magazine. If you take a gander I’d love to know what you think.

Taking the Psychopath Test

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.

A tribute to Piers Anthony, Xanth, and interactivity in fiction

I write this today to set you all free.

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.

I love Xanth, and I will never apologize for it.

Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

For those who haven’t heard, Diana Wynne Jones passed away early yesterday morning, in hospice after a resurgence of illness.

I joined the DWJ mailing list last year, after thinking of writing to her and hearing that she was ill. In August she had stopped chemotherapy and radiation, so it seemed only a matter of time — but through the fall she rallied, seeming to go into remission, and we could subsist in the fantasy that maybe something magical would happen and we wouldn’t lose her at all. But when the message headed just ‘DWJ’ came in yesterday morning, I knew what it was before opening it, and like the day Marion Zimmer Bradley left us years ago, it was as if the world became a little more quiet, a little less bright.

Diana was one of those authors whose work and life loomed so large that it’s difficult to know what could possibly be said about her, other than that if you haven’t read Howl’s Moving Castle or the Chronicles of Chrestomanci you should go out and read them right now. (Those of you who follow “books about gryphons” should absolutely go read all of the Derkholm books right away.) Her work was boundlessly imaginative but warm as a hearth at the same time, and you knew going into one of her stories that even if everything wasn’t quite going to be all right in the end, it would be true.

Howl’s is probably her most well known work, and not just because of Hayao Miyazaki’s transformation of it (which I like more as time goes by, though when it first came out was struck by how very different it was from the Howl I knew). In a way it was like a crystallization of her many stories, intricate and puzzling but wild and beautiful at the same time. And Howl himself is a character for the ages. In him, and in Diana’s other stories, you can see how she is perhaps the only author who could look at J. K. Rowling’s work and say “I think she may have picked up a few things from me”, and make you think — you know, she’s probably right.

Also well known is the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a classic romp that no fantasy writer or reader should be without. In it you can see her thorough dedication to the cause and craft of fantasy itself. One of the things I have always admired about her was how involved she was in the culture of fantasy, how interactive, how thoughtful. And, as a writer, how she never stopped growing. The Pinhoe Egg came out just a couple of years ago, and it was as bright and heartfelt as anything she wrote two and three decades earlier.

She was one of the great masters, and her magic was a special one. I will miss her.

PS – The Guardian has a thoughtful and excellent obit here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/27/diana-wynne-jones-obituary
PPS – And this is beautiful, from Neil: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2011/03/being-alive.html

"City of Shadow and Glass" at Bull Spec

Happy Valentine’s Day to all! Hope you did something nice tofor someone you love.

“City of Shadow and Glass”, very short cyberpunk vignette, is available in the current issue of Bull Spec, which is excellent and you should order right away, not because of my story but because it regularly provides great speculative fiction in a high production-quality format, and is an honest-to-strawberries indie initiative with local (North Carolina) roots and good people. In a world with a truly appalling quantity of garbage conveyed by postal mail, Bull Spec is something I read cover to cover as soon as it arrives.

There is a sample of Issue 4 available for free in a pretty neat little web gadget, and because “City of Shadow and Glass” is so short, you can read the whole darn thing there if you like, as well as bits of other features, including a terrific interview with Lou Anders.

There will be more later. There is always more later. Hope you all are well and onto a great week.

"Us against them", Saturday's violence, & self awareness

I try to keep track of my own biases. I also try to root them out when I find them, but consider certain judgment to be a basic biological element of human function, never fully overcome (nor maybe should it be). And I’ll admit that the first thing I thought when I heard about the eighteen people wounded and killed today in Arizona was “how many people have to die before the far right stops calling for violence in their constituency?”. And maybe with Sarah Palin’s retraction of her infamous crosshair map from her website today we have part of that answer.

But the harder truth is, Palin’s popularity and the response of a growing minority to these calls for violence are part of a larger trend. Crime and violence generally rise in a recession; the country’s economic woes are complex; our population is higher than it has ever been. Subsequently the challenges the country faces are larger, people are feeling them directly, and, as Einstein said, you can’t solve the problems of the present with the same level of thinking that created them. We are in need of a lot of new solutions, fast.

The rejection of the government, or the overall pushback toward a system that is at the wheel of a lot of trouble, should not be a shocking development. It is certainly reprehensible and foolish to call for violent acts against other human beings as a first line solution in my book. But the larger development is the rising voice of a number of people who have a very realistic and more rational objection to the concept of large government, and this reaction is indicative of larger forces at work in a world changing with ever-increasing acceleration.

The “us and them” is the part that genuinely frustrates me, even if it, too, is possibly an inevitable conclusion in any high stress situation. I seem to see it everywhere lately, in my professional life, in national politics, on the world stage. And I have trouble seeing how, although it might drive short term “victory” of a sort in cases of immediate survivalistic objectives, in larger scale it winds up being anything other than deeply counterproductive and damaging. And the use of labels to immediately dismiss the humanity of one group of people or another is genuinely disturbing.

To close with a counterexample, I offer this amazing story coming out of Egypt by way of Ernest Adams: Egypt’s Muslims attend Coptic Christmas mass, serving as “human shields”.

I think back to Obama’s “One America” speech at the convention in 2004 and how much it moved me, and wish that we could ratify again our shared global intent for peace and the eradication of suffering. And I wish for Rep. Giffords’s fast recovery, and for peace for the families of those injured and killed.

Beautiful Things

I’ve been sitting on this awhile, though some of you know this already, or have kindly pointed it out to me. 😉

First point of order, though, is introducing Kiba, also known as Kiba The Wonder Pup, seen here and in my icon. She is a “goldendoodle” (Golden Retriever + Poodle) and comes to us from Dee Gerrish in North Carolina. Mac has always loved other dogs, and we’d been making do with him getting his buddy fix at EveryDog Day Care, but now he has a puppy of his very own. She is unbearably cute and has therefore been appointed my new Chief Marketing Officer.

Following that, Kiba instructs me to say: In case you didn’t know from copious posting on other forums (fb, twitter, the usual), my first fantasy novel (!), SWORD OF FIRE AND SEA, was picked up by Pyr Books in May and will be published in June 2011. As you can see from the tweet, Editorial Director Lou Anders (of much fame this year and others) describes it as “Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion meets Avatar: The Last Airbender”, and more recently has been throwing in a dash of Final Fantasy, which suits me swell.

And now its gorgeous cover is viewable by all, courtesy the heroic efforts of Lou and Prometheus design staff (would love to use specific names but don’t yet know if they like being publicly credited!). It’s been amazing watching this come together and I’m beyond thrilled to be able to share it. The artist is Dehong He, a digital artist from Singapore who works by day on MMORPGs. He was perfect for a bunch of reasons, first of course being his phenomenal talent (you can see more of his artwork here). Beyond that, I’ve always loved the vibrant style of Asian MMO art, as well as the unique way they show humans — faces, costumes, everything. Being multiethnic myself, to me their art is distinctly international in a way much western art is not. I’ve also always been an anime fan, and know that there are many anime fans who also read fantasy, so have wondered if a cover that “speaks” to anime fans with its art style would recognize that crossover more.

Needless to say I am entirely biased, but assume my current “omg” level to be in the gazillions, so if you scale that down for bias this is still really awesome. Here is the link to the Amazon page (where you can zoom in and see a larger version), and without further ado:

If I have anything to do with it I’m sure you’ll be seeing it everywhere soon… 😉

Story of a grapevine

When we moved into the new place, we didn’t know that a grape arbor came with it. At first glance back in March it appeared to be a tangled mess of mysterious dry vines, long abandoned. By the time we moved in it was decidedly not dead, but covered in several feet of thick green leaves and runners that were trying to eat the house. In August, there were grapes — small tart green ones, perfect little translucent spheres that steadily grew larger where the sunlight found them.

We share the grapes with the squirrels, the birds, and one large black-eyed opossum, all of whom are Mac’s mortal enemies, according to him fit only for the noose. They pluck individual grapes from the bunches and often take a single bite only to throw it onto the ground, so now the patio is covered with lumpy raisin-like discards. Now that the season is winding down, a small army of ants have moved in to feast on the grapes where they’ve been scored and punctured by tiny claws and beaks.

Grapes are mysterious. The animals know when to pluck them, responding to some signal so far invisible to us. Size isn’t it. Color isn’t it. Some of the small ones are astonishingly sweet; some of the largest ones lemon-sour. Or maybe the animals don’t know, and that’s why we have raisins all over the yard. But they all have a grassy spice to them and thin, delicate skins, easily pierced to shed their juice like little globes of liquid sun.

But they aren’t regular and they don’t come easily, even without the local gardeners. The grapevine doesn’t really think of itself as food, and so invariably the best bunches are buried deep between tenacious vines or pressed against the arbor. As the season deepens they show their age, speckled with brown spots, frequently spaced with individual grapes that have given up the ghost and are in the process of spreading a rather pretty blue mold to those around them.

Finding a perfectly ripe grape is an extremely rare event, and as soon as you’ve eaten it you’re tempted to eat another, but chances are it’s not as good. The best have certainly gone to the birds; the soundest bunches we took were not quite ripe, being slightly sour and so passed over by the squirrels. And in a way we are as wasteful as they are, for how we sift through them, discarding the raisins and the half-bitten fruit, being attracted primarily to the ones that are whole and beautiful. And somehow it is intrinsically human that no matter how delicious the final harvest, you can’t help but think of how good it might have been — if only it could have ripened longer, if only the sun would have hit it in just the right way, if only life were a little more clean.

An attempt at a quick post: user-generated content and game developers

I frequently have game-related things I want to post about here (and writing-related things, and science fiction-related things, and…), but rarely feel like I have the time to post thoughtfully, so this is an experiment in writing something off the top of my head just as it occurs to me.

The concept of “user-generated content” has been a buzz-word for a good long while, and it can be perceived perhaps as just that, or maybe it’s something more significant, our inevitable yet exciting slide toward Hamlet on the Holodeck (and the “holodeck” is something that comes up often in any online world discussion)… because of the convenience of the business buzz term (UGC), we’re now beginning to accept in a major way that as we make advances into online space, one of the deepest drives that we have as people is to create, to shape that space for ourselves and not “merely” inhabit it.

But no one’s managed to create a truly workable, accessible UCG-friendly area yet. Second Life isn’t it. Metaplace isn’t it (sorry Raph). Thus far, properties that have made UGC their core mission have not been successful.

Maybe it’s technological limitations, the idea whose time is still not come. Maybe it’s what Will Wright says about The Sims and Spore — that people don’t really want to create, they want the illusion of creating — the illusion of the creative act in the same way Guitar Hero is the illusion and not the reality of musicality.

But I think there’s something else to it, and I also don’t mean to diminish the deep difficulty in creating a user-modifiable space with accessible tools — if it were easy, someone would have done it. The secret sauce balance between UGC and sticky gameplay — the core broad inspiration that hooks a player and makes them feel compelled to create in this space — hasn’t yet been found, though perhaps The Sims has come closest.

Again, though — something else to it. I suspect that game developers are uniquely inhibited in creating user-friendly user-generated-content… generators. We’re so used to forcing a system to do what we want no matter the barrier that it becomes very difficult to squeeze our brains into the experience of, perhaps, the one thing we can’t envision — a person who doesn’t have that immediate burning desire to bend a completely unreasonable tool to their will. And so we wind up creating only slightly less unreasonable tools rather than tools that are actually inviting and intuitive.

This is actually something that I love about designing games for kids. Kids will not give you a single inch. If you do something stupid, you don’t get away with it — they don’t stick around to see if you fix yourself. They tell you that you’re being stupid and they walk away. This applies in fundamental game design, in UI design, in art and in concept — in every dimension. It is a phenomenally educational experience for a designer, to make something for a kid you don’t know, who has no reason to cut you any slack.

And it’s also why we can learn from the web, why we need to reach out to marketing-minded folk and usability experts, because product marketing has learned an awful lot about how to track user behavior and dropoff rates, and what stems the tide. It has been abundantly clear for some time now that the future of online games is not in trapping a consumer through flashy advertising into traveling to a store and buying an expensive box — it’s in online lowest-barrier access. And that means we don’t have them shackled into stubbornly enjoying our product the way we do if they’ve already purchased a retail box — we have thirty seconds to five minutes (in the excessively patient) to differentiate ourselves significantly enough from our competition to keep them clicking. They need a reason in the first gut-check five seconds. Our hooks need to be better. Our content needs to be better. We need to stop thinking we can be sadistic and get away with it, that we can make the game entry process some sort of esoteric and bizarre hazing rather than a welcoming overture that compels and inspires.

So that’s your fast post. Have a great weekend, all!

"Why Your Game Idea Sucks", an interview, and other publishing updates

Hallo again all — I am still behind on comment replies to the Mac Attack!, but am on a plane again tomorrow so wanted to post this quickly.

“Why Your Game Idea Sucks”, a short-order article I wrote for the Escapist a couple of weeks ago, popped up in my google alerts yesterday. By the time I got to it, it already had about 25 comments, and now it’s up to 87 or so. Comments range from “brilliant” and “the most truthful thing ever written about game development” to “how dare you” and “a pointless article”, so I suppose YMMV.

Comparison inevitably arises between something like this and Josh Olsen’s highly contentious “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script”, and ensuing Harlan Ellison shenanigans, which I suppose is fair. Olsen’s piece went up coincidentally the same day I got the green light from the Escapist, which made me groan. But thankfully a lot of people are reading the intended humor in the title and finding that it’s less acerbic and hopefully a bit more helpful than Olsen’s was for many a “butthurt nerd”. In all seriousness, I had some anxiety with the piece, because I do think it’s a valid criticism that releasing something negative into the world doesn’t reap a good result — but the proof is in the pudding here that people really don’t listen when you tell them some things nicely.

But that’s enough about that. I have also gotten wind that “Darkest Amber” will be running in the next issue of Electric Velocipede, debuting at World Fantasy, which is conveniently near home this year. It is a cyberpunk smashfest and those of you strange enough to be familiar with the Black9 world may recognize some homages.

But that’s not all! Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play, containing my super-long “Sideways into Truth: Kierkegaard, Philistines, and Denying Death Through Video Games” as well as a coveted intro written by Henry Jenkins will be hitting shelves digital and otherwise this coming February.

You should also check out “Of Shifting Skin and Certainty” by [info]justinhowe in the most recent Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the very excellent “Between Two Treasons” by Michael DeLuca, aka [info]boonofdoom, a continuation of his terrific centaur stories.

Finally, [info]charlesatan was kind enough to request and then write up a very thoughtful interview with me on his Bibliophile Stalker blog. It is going into my profile as a general whowhat?! link. 🙂