Sharing: February 18, 2019

A rundown of what I’ve been up to recently.

What I’m Reading: The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. They’re fun middle-grade books about the demigod children of deities in the Greek pantheon. Percy Jackson is sometimes painfully slow on the uptake—I’m on Book 3 (The Titan’s Curse) and he still hasn’t got it through his head that EVERYTHING HE ENCOUNTERS IS SUPERNATURAL…but because these are middle-grade books, I’ll cut him some slack.

What I’m Listening To: Audio versions of the Goddess Wars books by Kendare Blake. You might consider these a dark YA counterpart to Percy Jackson. These books too feature characters from Greek mythology, including gods and heroes, but in a much grittier context. Gods are slowly dying in horrific ways, and those who still survive are at war each other. Interesting but nasty.

What I’m Playing on the Tabletop: One reason I’m reading the above books is because I’m running a campaign of Scion (Second Edition) from Onyx Path. Players portray the half-human/half-divine children of gods; our group includes children of Thor, Loki, Kali, Lugh, Winonah, and Cheeby-aub-oozoo. This is part of a continuing campaign that’s been going for more than ten years, having spun through multiple game systems including D&D, Ashen Stars, Mage: The Awakening, and more.

I’m also part of a group play-testing a tabletop RPG that I can’t talk about. Maybe eventually…

What I’m Playing on the Computer: Sunless Skies, a game where you fly a Victorian locomotive through otherworldly landscapes. I’ve reached the point where I don’t die too often, and therefore can follow the story-threads of my crew. It’s an odd but compelling little game. I got it on Steam.

What I’m Writing: The novel I’m calling PROJECT TECH-BRO, and a short story for an anthology that will be published in 2020. I will definitely say more about these in the fullness of time…but not yet.

Self & Character Sheets

I said I was going to write about meditation, but some tweets I saw on Twitter have aimed me in a different direction: the concept of no-self. Since this is a tricky thing to get your head around, let me come at it from an angle I understand better than Buddhist philosophy: role-playing games.

In Dungeons & Dragons, you portray a character who’s represented by a list of numbers and descriptors. One of the numbers represents how strong your character is; another how healthy or wounded you are; and so on. You also have a list of skills you’re good at, a list of what you’re carrying, perhaps a list of spells you know, etc. All this information can be written down on a few pages which are jointly called your character sheets.

Other role-playing systems also use character sheets. Different games have different information on their sheets, depending on what’s important in the game—a game about superheroes needs different information than, say, a game where you play a pirate or a spy—but all RPGs distill a character down to a page or two of attributes.

Games have to work this way because games need rules, and the number of rules needs to be small enough that people can actually remember them. Inevitably, then, games simplify life, and character sheets are severe simplifications: you can’t really sum up a complete person in a few pages.

More generally, every representation of a person is a simplification. For example, a 400-page novel is just a long character sheet. With subtext, a novel can suggests depths that aren’t explicitly on the page, but it’s still small in comparison to actual life.

Even a very long novel is short compared to a lifetime. I just took a look at audiobooks of War and Peace, and they run between 60 and 70 hours. That’s a lot of reading, but it’s still less than three days. A good novel makes you feel as if you know the characters exceedingly well, but you don’t actually “live” with them very long at all.

Now back to “no-self”. My personal take on this is that your idea of who you really are is just a character sheet. It’s a simplification that misses so much, it blinds you to reality. It’s always off-base. The truth is that we’re constantly changing; right now we may be angry but thirty seconds later, we’re wondering what we’ll have for supper, and then if there’s anything funny on Twitter, and so on.

This isn’t just a symptom of modern distractibility—the Buddha talked about it 2500 years ago. The human condition is that we change from second to second. Even scientifically valid personality profiles like the Big Five are only another type of character sheet. They may be useful in some contexts (just as character sheets are useful when you’re playing a game), but they aren’t the unchanging truth of who we are.

So what is the truth? How do we get at it? The answer isn’t finding the “right” character sheet that will encapsulate our “self” correctly. The answer (according to the Buddha) is to give up trying to find an encapsulated self at all. Just pay attention to your body and mind in this moment…and in the next moment…and in the next. Avoid trying to make a character sheet of who you “really” are overall. Just know what’s happening in the moment.

And that takes us back to meditation…which I really will try to talk about next time.

{Image of Stormbringer character sheet in German from Ingo Willms, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D from Wikimedia Commons}

“Friends” in SPAAAACCCCE!

The Bundoran Buddies Bundle offer ends soon, so if you haven’t already grabbed it, snap it up fast! In the meantime, let me talk about one more story in Organisms, my contribution to the bundle.

John Joseph Adams is a great editor who currently heads up Lightspeed magazine and Nightmare. He has also edited a number of story anthologies, including Federations. He invited me to submit a story to Federations and the result was “The One with the Interstellar Group Consciousness”.

Adams wanted stories dealing with large interstellar societies like the Federation in Star Trek, or the many many empires that are found in a gazillion works of science fiction. When I heard what he was looking for, my mind immediately leapt to the idea of telling a story about such a society itself, not about people living in such a society. The story would be told from the society’s communal viewpoint, ignoring what might happen to any of its citizens. People may come and go, but groups have a life of their own.

So what kind of story could I tell about an interstellar society itself? As the title of my story might suggest, I wrote a sitcom. (Side note: the episodes of the sitcom Friends were never given names on screen, but the scripts were always given titles like “The One Where Ross Got High”, “The One with the Boobies”, and so on.) So my story, “The One with the Interstellar Group Consciousness”, is basically a silly sitcom episode, except that the characters are vast societies rather than individuals.

It’s a love story. It ends with a wedding. And the Borg.

Sharing: Booklife

For the past week, I’ve been reading Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer. I’ve been aware of this book for quite some time—it was published in 2009—but I didn’t get around to reading it until now.

I deeply wish I’d read it earlier. It’s full of so much valuable advice on managing a writing career, it would have helped me immensely with things like PR, career planning, time management, maintaining one’s sanity, and much more. It’s already spurred me to tweak my writing process in several useful ways, and it will certainly inform my future publicity activities.

Even though it’s now a decade old, the book is hardly dated at all. Partly that’s because the writing life hasn’t changed as much as you might think in the past ten years. Some of the balance has changed—MySpace has sunk while Twitter has risen—but the issues are still the same.

What’s a good use of your time and resources? What isn’t? How should you think about interacting with the public, no matter how you end up doing it? Those are the types of questions that Vandermeer looks at. They’re important and relevant to whatever media ecosystems exist now or in the future. Specific details will change, of course, but if you think things through systematically, you can cope with whatever comes along.

So I strongly recommend Booklife to anyone who’s thinking of a writing career. It’s not a how-to-write book, although it includes some useful tips and references. It’s a how-to-handle-a-writing-career book…and as I said, I wish I’d read it a whole lot sooner.

Our Genre

This is yet another post about the short stories in Organisms, the collection of stories I contributed to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. This time I’ll talk about “Three Damnations: A Fugue”.

In most bookstores and libraries, books are separated by genre. The three biggest genres of fiction are Mystery, Romance, and Li-Fi (often just called “Fiction”, although literary fiction is clearly just as much a bounded genre as any other—it has its own quirks, conventions, and unspoken assumptions just like any other genre).

So after Mystery, Romance and Li-Fi, what’s left? Sometimes Science Fiction and Fantasy are split into separate sections, but often they’re shelved together. These days, Horror is blended into the SF/F section; there was a time a few decades ago when Horror had a section to itself, but I haven’t seen a separate Horror section in ages.

So Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror are often combined into a single entity. This is more than just an oddity of retail; SF/F/H are often seen as comprising a single unified field of literature. Most web sites and blogs that deal with one of the three will deal with the other two as well. The same thing holds for publishers, especially the larger companies: any publisher who publishes one of the three probably publishes the others too.

Some people fiercely object to the notion that SF/F/H is a single thing. Such people draw a hard line between Science Fiction and Fantasy. Then they put individual works of Horror on one side of the line or the other. (“Alien” is Science Fiction. “Dracula” is Fantasy. Et cetera.) Many readers only read Science Fiction or only read Fantasy. The same goes for writers writing.

But many writers write all three of SF, F, and H, switching freely between them. Many readers do the same. And many stories are resistant to pigeonholing. Despite physicists playing around with blue-sky ideas, faster-than-light travel still seems to be scientifically impossible…whereas unicorns (i.e. horses with single horns on their noses) are just a gene-splice away. I sincerely expect that real unicorns will be created in the next fifty years. Yet any story with a unicorn would be shelved in Fantasy, whereas any space opera with FTL would be shelved in Science Fiction.

For myself, I consider Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror to be parts of a single thing. I call it Our Genre: the Genre of Geek/Nerd culture…the Genre of comic books…the Genre of RPGs and many many computer games.

This gets me back to “Three Damnations: A Fugue”. I decided to write a single story that explicitly combined all three aspects of Our Genre. For Horror, it has a haunted house and obsession; for Science Fiction, it has time travel and obsession; for Fantasy, it has a magic grove and obsession. The story presents all three sides of Our Genre, by means of three characters who just can’t help themselves making the same bad decisions, over and over again. They aren’t nice people, but I like the story quite a bit.

Damon Runyon and Me

This is another post about the short stories in Organisms, the collection of stories I contributed to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. This time I’ll talk about “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings”.

There’s a backstory underlying “Clean Sweep” that I may turn into more stories someday, or even a novel. It starts from the idea that an alien race might make sophisticated servant androids that outlive the race itself. After all, it’s quite possible that humans could make intelligent machines that last a long time. If humanity itself then dies off (e.g. through a pandemic), the machines will still be programmed to act servants, even if they have no one to serve.

So I imagined a set of ageless “ideal servants” created by a long dead alien race and still roaming around the galaxy looking for masters. They can change their shape into anything that would make a master happy. Similarly, they change their personalities too. The changes happen automatically—the androids aren’t consciously aware of what they’re doing, they just change physically and mentally to be whatever their current master would find most suitable.

You might think that these androids would be general-purpose servants, able to do anything…but I thought it would be more fun if they specialized. Perhaps there’d be an Ideal Accountant, an Ideal Valet, an Ideal Secretary, etc. There’d also be an Ideal Sexual Partner, because of course there would.

This led to a question: “What would happen if this ideal found its way to Earth?” I could see people fighting to possess it, and the poor android forcibly kidnapped by a succession of ruthless owners. To make the conflicts more extreme, I envisioned it falling into the hands of a mobster. This would lead to a blood gang war as various gang leaders tried to grab the android for their own.

So my first attempt at the story was very Quentin Tarantino. It was pretty damned sordid, and it didn’t work. But it had one interesting trick—it was told from the viewpoint of the guy called in to clean up after all the bad stuff happened. This was basically the Harvey Keitel character from Pulp Fiction. He had a “big picture” view of the story which let him figure out what was going on.

As I said, the Tarantino version of the story didn’t work. But I thought the underlying set-up was good, and I liked telling the story from the viewpoint of a “cleaner”.

How could I tell a similar story without it being ick? Simple answer: Damon Runyon.

Runyon was a reporter who hung out with gangsters in the 1930s and 40s. His most famous work is Guys and Dolls, a collection of short stories that became the basis of the famous musical. Many of the folks Runyon wrote about were killers and very bad people…but his quirky writing style somehow made them seem charming rather than psychotic.

I love the way Runyon wrote, so I decided to steal it whole hog. I rewrote the story in Runyon’s tone of voice, and this time it worked really well: funny and sweet rather than mean and dark. As a result, “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings” is one of my favorite stories.