27 Feb

Reading List – Voices From Chernobyl

My typical reading selections rarely fall in the “uplifting” category. In talking to fellow gamers and writers I’ve also learned that I read far less so-called “genre” fiction than what is typical for someone who often enjoys writing in the science fiction and fantasy fields. Instead, I spend a lot of time on non-fiction and “not genre fiction.” (As usual, I don’t want to get into my thoughts about labels for fear of digressing too far.)

Voices from ChernobylI just finished Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster and, if you have any doubt at all, this book does not fall in the “uplifting” category either. I find uplifting and moving to be two very different things. It might occasionally have an optimistic moment, at least relative to what surrounds them, the book is more notable for such a raw presentation of human emotions and vivid look at human perspectives, not only about disaster and tragedy, but also about self-delusion and grim necessities. Continue reading

18 Dec

The Next Big Thing

Mayan's Next Big Thing
All this assumes that the Next Big Thing isn’t just the end of all the things.

Everyone prefaces these sorts of things with “I don’t do chain letters BUT . . .” So consider mine prefaced as well. Jeff LaSala was kind enough to tag me in this chain that I think was begun by Elaine Cunningham. (Chain letters always make me think of the telephone game that starts at one end of the classroom as “I’m finished with our big stone calendar” and ends on the other end as “The calendar has predicted the date humanity is finished!”)

The idea behind the Next Big Thing is to answer 10 questions about a work in progress, and then tag 5 more writers who do the same thing the following week. I like the idea of promoting some good people. And a little self-promotion never hurt anybody, I suppose. My lead project for 2013 is a novel. –gasp– I’m always working on multiple things, but this is receiving the lion’s share of my efforts. Continue reading

3 Jul

Off-Topic Tuesday: Altering the Fabric of Reality

Someone should tell the people in their singularity-proof bunkers that it’s OK to come out now…

When my wife catches me watching a particularly in-depth show about subatomic particles, or when she looks over my shoulder at a diagram of supergravity, she only asks questions to be polite. I can’t really blame her. Either that stuff is “your thing” or it’s not. But the best question she ever had, during an episode of “Through the Wormhole,” was simply, “How does any of this affect my daily life? If they make this discovery [the Higgs boson], what will that mean for me?”

My answer was spectacularly vague. After all, I’m not a scientist, I just enjoy listening to people who are explain to me what they do. But, to summarize, I explained that it’s a discovery that leads to innovations down the road, creating technology that potentially benefits us all. Like I said: spectacularly vague. Ultimately, it means a lot more to the scientists than it does to me.

Yellow-ass, long neck giraffe.
Once you’ve got unified field theory all wrapped up, listen to Violent J’s advice, and “take a time out, open up ya mind and then peep the giraffe.”

Yet the Higgs boson is going to have huge implications for my daily life, just like most startling scientific theories. It’s not because I think that scientists intend to use their newfound knowledge to create an Apple product that’s “cruelty free” and incorporates exciting new Bacon Port™ technology. Generally, I assume the first thing science attempts to do is to try using the technology to make something explode, preferably in a rival country. Then they try to eat it. If that doesn’t work, they shrink wrap it and sell it at the Dollar Store where it can blow the minds of juggalos nationwide.

Alright, maybe those aren’t the implications I’m looking for. But every time a scientist says, “this could mean x,” I immediately say, “What if it doesn’t?” And then I begin writing a story in my head. If the scientist says, “this certainly means x,” I automatically take that conclusion and run toward the extreme possibilities born of that notion. Good science makes for good stories, and strange science makes for better stories. Despite what the world’s fucktards skeptics had to say about it, the only singularity caused by turning on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider was due to crushing density of ideas that appeared in my head at once.

Setting aside the three obvious uses –it explodes, it’s edible, or it’s a children’s choking hazard– for a moment, there’s so many other great possibilities. An excellent novel, The Light of Other Days, takes a remarkable technology, a wormhole capable of transferring data instantaneously, and illustrates a great many unintended (and unexpected) consequences. Side effects fascinate me. The “repurposing” of inventions fascinates me. When this sort of thing happens, either with real or fictional technology, I can’t help but marvel at it.

But my favorite parts of the scientific shows I watch, and the books I read, are the parts that effectively say, “…and we don’t know anything past this point.” To me, that’s the sound of a starting gun.

18 Jun

Review – Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero

Foreshadows CoverI like clever ideas, but they can be difficult to execute. Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero caught my attention because it was a book with a soundtrack. The collection of short stories is accompanied by an album with tracks that coincide with each story. (I’m going to just assume people still use the word “album.”) Each story also leads off with a black and white illustration. That means that between authors, musicians, and illustrators there are quite a few names associated with this project and, collectively, they execute this clever idea well.

Some of those names will certainly be familiar to folks in various circles, gaming circles among them. Jeff LaSala, who edited the collection, wrote The Darkwood Mask, an Eberron novel for Wizards of the Coast, as well as a number of other short works (including a great many contributions to Dungeons & Dragons Insider). Keith Baker, creator of Eberron and a more than a few sourcebooks for the setting, contributes a story to the collection as does Ed Greenwood. If you play D&D and don’t know who Ed is, go Google him; it’s ok, I’ll wait…

Obviously, these are the names that immediately jumped out at me. But there are plenty more great writers among the nineteen stories, each bringing their own vision to the dystopian, near-future setting that is Foreshadows’ shared world. And while it is to be expected that some stories will resonate more with a reader, whether it is a particular author’s style or simply the plot chosen, that’s to be expected when you have a range of authors side by side. Put average writing next to exceptional writing and you can’t help but notice. That said, however, I was entertained throughout the entirety of the book.

The world of Foreshadows steadily becomes a character in its own right and, for readers like me who can embrace a setting as much as a protagonist (or antagonist), there’s a real pleasure in unearthing another piece of the place with each story. As a cyberpunk setting, it clearly has certain expectations to meet (cybernetic body modification, immersive VR technology, AI’s and robotic constructs) and Foreshadows meets them, at times in obvious ways, but sometimes it forges ahead in unanticipated directions and presents something new.

Thematically, it also ranges over a great deal of ground. The stories explore the impact of technology as it races ahead of our own humanity and what that means for morality, spirituality, and our shared experiences and very nature. In some ways, there is more Frankenstein than Neuromancer here. And, rather than the typical atheistic future we’ve grown accustomed to in the genre, the book draws on several theologies (and mythologies) as it unfolds. Remove (most of) the fantasy elements of the Shadowrun setting and the place becomes eerily familiar (but in a good way). Without a doubt, the setting certainly lends itself to further exploration.

Not being a music critic, other than knowing what I like, I can’t point to one thing or another in the music and offer much in the way of constructive input or know “what the kids are calling it.” It’s a futuristic-sounding collection of predominantly instrumental synthesizer tracks. (Yes, I said “future-sounding.” If you’ll notice, I just pointed out that I’m not remotely a music critic.) I will say they would make excellent background tracks to a gaming session, especially in the same cyberpunk future that the book itself offers. At times I found the music immersed me in the “feel” of a story faster than I read the words on the page. But, at other times, I would be so drawn into a particular story that I failed to even register the music.

Reading something tied to its own music was definitely a different experience and, overall, I would say it was a positive one. Of course, I’m the sort of person who enjoys background music while reading (and writing) rather than someone who finds it distracting. But the book provides no “listening guide” or “rules” for the accompanying music, other than to assign a track to each story. A reader is clearly intended to find his or her own way and I like that because then it doesn’t infringe on how you read your books.

For more about Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero you can check out the book’s website. You can pick up a digital copy at BAEN here. or you can get a print copy (and accompanying CD) from the Very Us Artists store here. For fans of the genre, and particularly gamer-readers within the genre, I recommend checking it out.

3 May

Minor Divination: Reese’s Paradox

No Bulettes Allowed.
“Sci-fi only. Please take your fantasy and get out!” Artwork by Jeff Dee

I prefer science fiction. There, I’ve said it. I can provide no account of why, at least no more than I can explain my love of lobster. It would appear I’m just wired that way. I read far more science fiction than fantasy and I certainly prefer science fiction to fantasy in the few movies I go to see. I draw the line at television, however, where neither genre ever succeeds in engaging me enough to hold my attention for more than an episode or two.

On the heels of that confession, however, I should continue by saying that when it comes to roleplaying games I settle in most comfortably with fantasy. Dungeons & Dragons has remained my touchstone game since I first started playing RPG’s. When I think of gaming in general, I revert to a fantasy mindset. It might be rooted in the fact that D&D was my introduction to RPG’s and thus I’m a creature of habit. It could just as easily be as inexplicable as my love of science fiction stories.

Peanut butter in chocolate.
“Nice going! Now we both have to make Sanity checks!”

But my passion for the two genres in equal measure in separate directions would seem to lend itself to mashups of style. It doesn’t. A player in one of my groups is perpetually trying to sell me on bizarre settings. The exchange is a typically quick and brutal: 1) he accosts me with an absurd notion such as dragons in space or cowboys casting spells, 2) I roll my eyes and declare his words an abomination. (Despite the frequency of these exchanges, we remain friends.) I explain that when I was in the tiny, poorly stocked hobby shop in my old home town I saw the Spelljammer boxed set and grew physically ill at the very notion it conveyed. I want to scream with a certainty only my imagination can provide, “Magic is terrestrial!”

Of course, I am a complete and utter hypocrite. Second to D&D, Shadowrun is one of my favorite settings. And even it won me over after a glowing recommendation from someone else. Prior to that, I saw a troll carrying a gun, rolled my eyes and, per usual, declared “abomination.” Now two of my bookshelves actually bow under the weight of Shadowrun material. (In my defense, I will point out that magic remains terrestrial.)

Still, Dragonstar and Spelljammer hold no appeal for me (to my friend’s continued disappointment). And its nothing against the quality of the material. I’ve read it. I’ve genuinely enjoyed it. I just don’t want to adventure there. And, finally, I think I can offer an explanation for this particular personal taste. It goes back to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Be warned: there are (30 year old) spoilers ahead.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
It’s a spaceship. Also, Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

When I read S3 in preparation for running it, my mind was blown. I was young, relatively new to D&D, and had barely scratched the surface of what was possible. The idea that I could present the characters with something entirely unfamiliar to them, while simultaneously being tropes that are utterly familiar to the players, astounded me. It proved to be an incredible adventure. But the replay value suffered. Once you know you’re on a spaceship, know that you’re collecting keycards, and know you’re toting a laser gun the excitement fades a little. Still, we frequently played it, often as people decided it was time to forcibly retire a character.

More importantly, though, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks offered itself as the exception. Greyhawk wasn’t littered with spaceships (well, not too excessively anyway). I knew I could continue to explore a fantasy setting after that weird, (literally) experimental weekend in the Barrier Peaks. Eventually, the science fiction equipment would lose power and turn into curious metal junk and my character would go back to worrying about lost caverns and whatever the drow where up to hanging out with the giants of the Crystalmist Mountains…

My hypocrisy made landing my recent contribution to D&DI, Dungeon #201 on DTRPG that much more important to me. Nods to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks were important to me, but I wanted the integration of the adventure to function as the exception that the old AD&D module was. I loved the old adventure but I didn’t want to deliberately “corrupt” a fantasy setting with space ships and blasters in my ode to it. Instead, I wanted it to be a bizarre backdrop for the continued machinations of the existing fantasy villains.

If the setting speaks to the players, they can continue to pursue that version of the world. The other Dungeon and Dragon articles of the month all support that idea of integrating and exploring that strange new world. And they present it piecemeal so the DM can approach it from a variety of directions and set hooks that the PCs either bite for or pass up. I recommend giving all of them a read, because whether they fit your setting or not, they are all incredibly well done:

For me, the gradual approach is also the best approach. I like exploration in my fantasy games, but I like charting my own course. If I don’t want to begin a five year mission to explore strange new worlds, I don’t have to. I can take the fight to the illithids in the Underdark (where they belong) but, after a few too many rounds in the tavern, maybe I’ll mention how I’m pretty sure I fought their ilk on the moon. Patrons will laugh nervously and excuse themselves. But who knows? Maybe I’ll start to wonder what else is out there…

27 Apr

Kickstart the Weekend: Supporting the Big Guys

Ogre Designers Edition
Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, yadda, yadda, yadda...

I’ve been paying attention to Kickstarter a lot lately. After all, it’s rapidly turning into the engine that drives “the little guys.” Projects and visions that could never have been realized before get that critical nudge they need. But I think it’s still important to bleed, sweat, and cry… the people willing to do those things are the people capable of producing something truly worthwhile. They are the ones passionate enough about their idea that will chase their dream while they live off a sack of rice, discount beans from the ethnic aisle, and a single precious bottle of sriracha… or some other thing that’s less specific than that random example that I totally just made up.

Having watched the rise and fall of gaming empires, from outside and within, the process is unmistakable. But the public’s reaction, even prior to the fall, is also unmistakable. Before the fall, the public is already crying foul and demanding blood. And they aren’t looking for the good blood that’s shed in the creative process mentioned above. With torches and pitchforks they are demanding “what we had before” while simultaneously decrying their once favored company for “not making something new.” It’s a double edged sword and now the rabble wants their single edged swords again. Meanwhile, the sword factory is struggling to remain solvent while trying to meet the contradictory demands they are faced with.

In a recent discussion thread about the Ogre/GEV Kickstarter, a critic was declaring that it was somehow unfair of Steve Jackson Games to use Kickstarter in attempting to deliver their product. Somehow, this was taking money away from the newcomers to the industry that Kickstarter was somehow “intended for.” I would argue that the idea is to bolster the efforts of any publisher or artist who needs to counterbalance the risk he or she would otherwise be assuming on their own, risks that potentially stand in the way of ever even starting the project. It’s a tool for the little guy to investigate the market and see if there is a reasonable amount of demand; it’s also a tool for the big guys to say, “you said you wanted this, so put your money where your mouth is.”

I support ideas that I like. And I can’t always do it financially, after all the cost of rice has actually gone up over the past decade and I’m going to need a new bottle of sriracha soon. Sometimes, as much support I can throw behind something is some “free advertising” here. But I’m cool with that because I’ve then had people tell me, “I’m glad I saw that, I’m backing that one thing.” To me, it’s not important how big or small the idea, or the company (or single figure) behind it is. I want the big guys to stay around and succeed because I like what they’ve done for me. Lots of people did, in fact. That’s how they got big.

No more ziggurats!

Shadowrun Returns has already hit their goal. They’ve crushed it, in fact. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think they no longer deserve any attention. They deserve attention because I’m excited about it. I want to play this game. And Mitch apologized. Thanks, man. We’re cool now.


I also heard there's a goat eating a diabolic contract...

This caught my eye because of Jared Von Hindman’s art but I like it because it’s something out of the ordinary. In gaming, there are so many cultures to draw from but we keep resorting to the same handful again and again. I’m warning you, the next faux-Scottish dwarf I meet gets fed to a dragon. (Oh, and this isn’t Kickstarter, it’s indiegogo, but I think you’ll see that you’re dealing with essentially the same structure.)

Win at internetting.

And, finally, someone has made a game about the internet that truly reflects the noble characters that lurk reside there. The temptation to put what I want onto a card or two is currently endangering my hard-won good karma, but I tell myself it’s better than wading into the forums and attempting to make my points through reasoning and logic only to get dragged down by the undertow of ignorance. Or something like that.


24 Apr

Off-Topic Tuesday: 100’s of Unbroken Bindings

Like all writers I have an opinion on the digital world of books and publishing. In fact, I have a number of opinions on the subject, some of them even conflicting. And I don’t have time for all of them in a single post. But I’m certainly not going to rage against the pixilated word and call the printed word the Always-and-Forever King. There’s really no point in swimming against the electron tide. But, before I welcome the glowing digital page with open arms, I have to say a tearful goodbye.

I love my books. But it’s completely irrational. It’s a love born of habit and a need to collect. And I’ve loved things for far worse reasons. It’s nothing that does genuine harm, it only entrenches the bad habits I should be trying to overcome to employ a new system. The digital world already has that system in place, waiting for me, but I need to truly embrace it and, eventually, find a way to love it.

The “system” I’m talking about is how I make use of the books after I’ve read them. I would never get rid of books; they would be enshrined on a series of ever-swelling (and ominously bowing) bookshelves. They were placed in particular places, occupying spaces next to other books that were mentally linked in my mind by themes, characters, subject matter, or even sometimes a single turn of phrase that struck me as tied to another book. When I looked at one of my shelves I could see a network of connections between them, based on what other books were near them. It all helped me remember what I read in a specific book and how it related to everything else I’d ever read. I almost never, ever read the same book twice.

The books were also grouped by memory in terms of what I was thinking when I read them and the reasons I read them. The positions were specific enough that I could use them to jog my memory when I was trying to remember something as I was writing. I would either walk over to the shelves to scan the spines of the books or later, when the shelves were moved to occupy my office, I would just turn around in my chair. Enough of the shelves were familiar enough that they functioned as a memory palace of sorts, and as I imagined the spines of the books I could recall what was on the tip of my tongue but escaping me.

All work and no play...
"What do you mean you 'neatened up' my bookshelf?"

There were other habits beyond the precise placement of things. I don’t crack the bindings of books when I read them. (The name of the website is a play on this quirk that I receive no end of ribbing over from friends and family who know my reading habits.) I don’t dog-ear pages (and believe that people who do are savages). And, because I always have a backlog of new arrivals, new books are placed just as specifically as the books that have already been read but, to indicate their unread status, are pulled out from the shelf. A former girlfriend once thought it would be a very sweet thing to dust and neaten my bookshelves and, in the process, pushed back all the books. Needless to say, I was… distraught. I could appreciate the gesture but I made it a point of explaining the basics of my “system” to anyone else who got near the shelves ever again.

You may have noticed that a great deal of this discussion took place in the past tense. In an effort to push myself towards the digital, I conducted a serious and somewhat painful purge. I kept only about 170 previously read books, limiting myself to only very specific items. The rest were delivered box by heavy box -as if my memory palace was being torn down brick by brick- to my local used bookstore.

About a third of the books allowed to stay were sentimental enough to warrant keeping: my original copy of Heart of Darkness, an autographed copy of Russell Banks’ Continental Drift, my old copy of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, Lightning on the Sun by Robert Bingham (who I discovered was dead upon reading his biography after finishing the book and eager to track down more of his work). A lot of them remain from formative years, as a person and as a writer.

[amazon-carrousel height=”200″ width=”600″]372fb692-384b-4852-ac98-df782fe91a0a[/amazon-carrousel]

Another third are poetry books. This, I suppose, is my nod toward the sentimental. I like my poetry to exist in books. The precise arrangement of words on a page seems to physical demands beyond the mutability of electronics. It’s a matter of personal preference but reading poetry on a digital device feels somehow silly in a way that nothing else does. I’ll spare you any more on this sub-topic other than to say when Adrienne Rich passed away this year, I was glad I had books to page through rather than a screen to swipe at.

The remaining books are nonfiction reference books. Keeping those was more an economic decision than anything else. These are the books that actually need to be cracked open for me to find whatever obscure idea I’m trying to recall. Replacing them electronically would be expensive and some might potentially never be put into an electronic format.

And of course there is a shelf of “pulled out” books, the last of the physical books to be read before I make the formal Digital Switch. It’s a backlog of 119 books but I expect to be through about half of them within the year. As their numbers dwindle, I feel a strange kind of sadness. It’s as if I’m watching the impending end of an era in my office every day: some rough, digital beast slouching towards my memories.

But occasionally I put off the biblio-pocalypse by picking up a stray book at my local used bookstore, The York Emporium. Besides, when I shop there I get to visit my old books now residing on new shelves. They’re easy to spot. They’re the ones with smooth, flawless spines.