Bluescreen Early Access: Overworld!

January 25th, 2016

In the world of Bluescreen, Overworld is one of the most popular sports: a virtual reality video game that combines elements of several different esports and MMOs. I like to describe it as a combination of League of Legends, Counterstrike, and City of Heroes, but unless you’ve played those games you have no idea what that means. Today I’m going to tell you, but first I let us feast our eyes upon this glorious image:

cherry dogs action

The art, as always, is by the inimitable Santo Ibarra.

I remember very clearly what got me interested in esports in the first place: I was reading an article about world travel, where it said that professional video game players were now officially eligible for athletic visas. This felt to me like a profound milestone–if virtual athletes are legally considered equal to physical athletes, that’s a strong sign that the electronic world is truly melding with the real world. I started looking into esports, and what they entailed and what their culture was like, and it fascinated me. I was living in Germany at the time, so as I learned more about League of Legends (one of the biggest esports in the world) I started to follow the European leagues and championships. (My favorite teams, if you’re curious, are Fnatic and the Lemondogs; I think the Lemondogs have broken up by now, but I named my book’s team the Cherry Dogs as an homage to my first esports fandom). I admit that my initial opinion of esports was low–it looked like video games with all the fun sucked out of it–but that’s because I didn’t understand it. I tend to play video games in a very loose, slipshod way, running around and doing whatever; kind of like a kid on a playground just kicking a ball all over the place. And that’s plenty fun if that’s what you want, but a whole bunch of kids all kicking a ball on a playground at the same time isn’t the same thing as a sport; if you organize them, designate which ones are goalies and forwards and defenders, and define the rules and a way to win, suddenly those random kids become a soccer team, and the unstructured play becomes a sport. Once I realized that esports were the same way, and that the restrictions were actually there to provide structure and focus, it got a lot more exciting, and I was hooked.

As I started to assemble my own fictional esport, I drew from the ones I liked the most. League of Legends (and other games like it, called MOBAs) have two teams of players making progress back and forth across a map, gaining and losing territory, with defensive turrets as both a hindrance and a marker of progress; it had combat, exploration, and teamwork, so I threw that in the blender. I also wanted something far more visceral, though, since virtual reality lets you get right down in the action, more like a first-person shooter game such as Halo. I used to play a ton of Counterstrike back in the day, so I borrowed some elements of that–teamwork, gear loadouts, variable maps, and some of the terminology all went in the blender as well. I was building a fun game, but it wasn’t there yet, and I realized that I was missing a key element: my own characters. What would Marisa love about a video game? I thought long and hard about it, and decided that a key feature for her would be customizability–there had to be a way to personalize your game, or your character, in order to really grab Marisa’s attention. That’s when I pulled in City of Heroes, my favorite (now defunct) MMO, in large part because of the options to customize your character and–more importantly–your costume. It was a superhero game, and the costume creator was amazing, and I would spend hours and days just building new characters, or building alternate costumes for existing characters, and have as much or more fun than I did actually playing the game. Now that I was designing my own game, with an unlimited imaginary budget, I made the costume creator INSANELY customizable, able to generate almost any look, shape, and design you want. Want to play a lithe forest warrior with magic arrows? Done. A giant rhino-warrior who can turn invisible and summon parrots? Done. A psychic chipmunk with seven hands and the ability to swallow enemies whole? Weird, but done. Maybe I went a little overboard, but I gave my imaginary game six classes, 72 powersets, more than 20,000 possible character builds, and an essentially infinite variety of costume options.

Most of the time the Cherry Dogs use game avatars that look nothing like themselves (well, except Sahara, who’s always in character as the online brand she’s created for herself), but every now and then they put on their “team uniforms” and play like you see them in the image above. You can also see their call signs, which are like the usernames or gamertags they use to identify themselves.

We’re so close to the book launch now, folks. SO CLOSE. What amazing new preview will I give you next week? Tune in and see….

Bluescreen Early Access: Jaya!

January 18th, 2016

As I created more characters and put together the group of friends at the core of this series, I knew that I needed all five girls to be different from each other, and in meaningful ways. Marisa is our prototypical hacker; Sahara is the fashion-focused queen bee; Fang is the obsessive gamer and Anja is the wild card. All of them are breaking some kind of stereotype, and that’s on purpose, but it left me with no girl characters who acted (if you’ll permit me the term) “girly.” So I created Jaya Tagore:

jaya page

A word like “girly” has a lot of baggage, and the entire concept comes under fire a lot these days. Part of the purpose of this book, in fact, is to show teen girls doing active, awesome things instead of just wearing pretty dresses and pining over boys. The issue over girly-ness comes to a head, in my mind, with LEGO. You probably remember the massive brouhaha that arose when LEGO came out with their Friends line a few years ago: “Why,” people asked, “can’t girls just play with the normal LEGO spaceships and pirates and whatnot? Why do they have to have their own line of play sets that build stupid pet shops and hair salons instead of awesome tanks and robots?” And They kind of have a point, or at least they would if LEGO were somehow restricting girls to ONLY play with the pet shops and hair salons. Demanding that either gender conform to some kind of clich├ęd pigeonhole would, indeed, be wrong.

But here’s the thing: that’s not what LEGO was doing. They weren’t restricting either gender from doing anything, they were just adding a new option to their range. My daughter looked at the Friends toys and said “Finally they’re making LEGOs for me!” Her preferences are the opposite of everyone who was complaining: she thinks tanks and robots are stupid, and pet shops are hair salons are awesome. She thinks cute little LEGO girls riding cute little LEGO horses are the greatest thing our civilization has ever produced. These “girly” LEGOs are every bit as creative and challenging and constructive as the other sets, and yet people were attacking them because of their theme. They were well-meaning people–let’s be clear about that–but without intending to do so they were attacking my daughter along with the LEGOs. They were saying that because she (eagerly) conforms to the “girly” stereotype, she was somehow being a girl incorrectly. And I don’t for one second believe that to be true.

The problem with cute LEGOs, or pretty dresses, or pining over boys, or anything else we consider “girly,” lies not with the choice but with the word “girly.” Loving pet shops and hair salons is every bit as valid as loving tanks and robots; we only fail when we limit those choices by demanding–or even assuming–that only one gender will like them, or is allowed to like them. And I, without meaning to, had fallen into the same trap, and in my effort to make my characters seem cool to one of my daughters I had completely excluded the likes and preferences of my other daughter. If I was really going to show the full spectrum of what a girl could be, I needed one who loved pretty dresses and cute puppies and fancy flowers and so on.

And that’s Jaya: she giggles, she gushes over boys, and she loves pretty things. She’s also an adult (21 years old, where most of the other girls are 17), a college graduate, and a tech support specialist for Johara, one of the largest telecom companies in the world. She lives in Mumbai, knows the other girls only through the Internet, and speaks about a dozen languages (Marisa sometimes jokes that Jaya speaks English better than she does). She also struggles with depression and other mood disorders, and has two implants designed to monitor her neural state and dispense medication as necessary. She’s mature and sophisticated and frilly and froofy and intelligent and “girly” all at once, and she’s awesome.

Now you’ve met all five Cherry Dogs! Next week, let’s take a moment to meet them all in their Overworld avatars….

Bluescreen Early Access: Omar!

January 11th, 2016

We’ve talked about the Marisa Carneseca, and we’ve talked about her Overworld team, and we’ve talked about her friends, but what about her enemies? She’s made plenty on her own, poking her nose in the parts of the Internet where it doesn’t belong, but her greatest nemesis is one she inherited from her father–an old, bitter feud that’s carried on to a second generation that doesn’t even understand it. The Carneseca family hates the Maldonado family, and vice versa, and Marisa is trapped in a gray area with the youngest Maldonado, Omar.

omar page

Image, as always, by Santo Ibarra.

Omar is one year older than Marisa, and their lives are wildly different: Marisa is the poor, tech-obsessed, daughter of struggling restaurant owners, while Omar is the rich, business-minded son of a powerful crime boss. But one central mystery ties them together: when they children, still too young to understand what was going on, they were in a car accident. Marisa lost her arm, and Omar lost his mother, and if anybody knows what happened or why they were there in the first place, they’re not telling. Ever since that day Marisa and Omar have been raised to hate each other, and forbidden to talk to each other, but when Omar starts dating Anja he and Marisa finally start to get to know each other, and they don’t understand what the big deal is. But a lifetime of distrust is hard to overcome, and Omar just feels untrustworthy….

Omar’s entire family has been groomed to help in their father’s “business.” His oldest brother is a cop, ensuring that the police don’t get too close to the Maldonado’s illegal activities; his other brother runs the family’s Internet presence, too damaged by the car accident to feel comfortable in public. Their sister is practically royalty, spoiled rotten and used as a social figurehead, wining and dining the Maldonado’s various business associates. Omar, recently graduated from high school, is using his natural gifts for charm and cunning to act as his father’s front man, the silver-tongued devil who talks fast and makes deals and helps keep the business itself running smoothly.

Omar is roguishly handsome and effortlessly charming, but you don’t grow up in a motherless crime family without a little emotional baggage. Marisa and her friends trust him for now, but how long will it last?

Bluescreen Early Access: Fang!

January 6th, 2016

It’s 2016, and distance is becoming less important–we communicate through phones and the Internet more than we do in person, and more of our social lives become digital every day. By 2050, in the world of Bluescreen, distance is practically meaningless. You don’t even have to pull out a phone anymore: just think it, and your djinni can connect you to anyone, anywhere in the world. Marisa has friends right there in LA, like Sahara and Anja and Bao, but she also has close friends on the other side of the planet, and even though they’ve never met in person they’re virtually inseparable. Say hello to Wong Fang, from Beijing.

fang page 2

Fang is younger than the other girls by a couple of years, but she is by far the most obsessed with Overworld, and she and Marisa have been on the team together longer than anybody else. Fang is…well, maybe I need to explain a little bit about Overworld. It’s a virtual reality game, which is basically just a mashup of my favorite video games all blended together and turned into a sport. Imagine League of Legends crossed with City of Heroes crossed with Counter Strike–you move across a map fighting minions and killing towers and trying to blow up the enemy’s base, but you’re down inside of the action, running and jumping and everything, plus you get to customize your powers and appearance down to a ridiculous degree of control. That’s actually how Marisa and Fang met–Fang was looking to start a team, and Marisa had just gotten famous for some of her costume designs, and they started talking. Just like a sport, each player has a position: soccer has Forwards and Defenders and such, and Overworld has things like General and Sniper. Fang is the Jungler, which basically means that she sneaks around in the sewers underneath the map killing monster and hunting other players. Why is it called a Jungler if they play in the sewers, especially considering that most maps don’t even have jungles or sewers in them? The kids in 2050 have no idea–those are old, old terms from back when their grandparents were playing games, and they’ve just stuck around in common usage.

The thing about Fang is that she’s kind of two people–online, playing Overworld, she’s a stone-cold killer and a boisterous, irreverent jokester. She eats, sleeps, and breathes Overworld, and a passable coder, and she loves getting involved in the schemes and trouble the other girls drag her into. Offline, though, she’s quiet and shy. She doesn’t know how to talk to people face-to-face, and prefers to live as much of her life as possible in a virtual reality instead of a real one.

As a writer, it was both fun and challenging to write a character who never appears in person–fun because it was different, and because I got to find cool new ways to keep her relevant to the story even though she’s all the way on the other side of the world. The challenge came from the fact that keeping her relevant was way, way too easy–distance really is meaningless, like I said, and if Marisa was ever in trouble for any reason her friend Fang was right there for her, always, anywhere. Writing a world in which communication is so constant, and everything is always connected, really kept me on my toes and helped me see the future–and the present–in a new light.

Who should we talk about next week? So far everyone’s been friends, so how about someone they don’t really trust? How about the other half of the big, mysterious feud at the center of Marisa’s life: Omar Maldonado.

Bluescreen Early Access: Bao!

December 28th, 2015

bao page 2
The world of Bluescreen is full of variety: rich and poor, old and young, honest and criminal, cybernetic and aggressively technophobic. Today’s preview is wildly different from the others we’ve met, and a bundle of contradictions all on his own: say hello to Bao Behar.

That awesome image is, once again, from the artistic wizardry of Santo Ibarra.

Bao met Marisa several years ago, when they wound up in detention together at school; Marisa had been caught trying to hack the school computer, and Bao had been caught straight up stealing from the front office. They realized that they each had a skillset the other lacked, and from that initial rule-breaking team-up they forged a strong friendship that has become, if Marisa’s being honest, maybe even a little stronger than her friendship with Sahara. Despite their closeness, though, his life is significantly darker than hers, and in many ways he lives in a world completely different than hers. Marisa’s family, after all, has the restaurant, and with it a more or less steady middle class income. Bao’s family has nothing, and lives on the meager scraps he’s able to steal in his double life as a digital pickpocket.

Bao was born in the bustling city of Novosibirsk, where his Chinese mother had married his wealthy Russian father. Mr. Behar was not a very good man, however, and when Bao was barely three years old he and his mother found themselves out on the street, forced to survive as best they could. Bao learned how to break in to back doors and windows, how to lie and steal and misdirect, and how to stay invisible in a world of constant surveillance. After several years of scrimping and saving he and his mother were able to flee to LA, where she met and married a loving Chinese man with two twin girls of his own–Jin and Jun, just a few years younger than Bao. Life was good for a year at most, when suddenly Bao’s new stepfather was injured in a factory accident, losing not only his health but his job as well. Once again Bao was forced back into his old schemes, stealing food and money where he could, but LA was a very different place, and his methods had to adapt: virtually nobody in LA uses cash anymore, or even physical credit cards, so picking pockets was not option. Instead, Bao’s come up with a way to hang out in public, high-traffic areas and skim micropayments from tourists; you use your djinni to buy a hot dog or a magazine or anything else in his vicinity, and a couple of extra cents will find their way into one of his many fake accounts. It’s hard, and slow, and dangerous, but in a city where nulis have already taken most of the jobs, it’s all he can do to keep his family going.

One of the things that’s makes Bao such an excellent thief and infiltrator is that he doesn’t have a djinni–and not just because of the cost. Almost everyone in the city has a djinni, from the rich to the homeless, because they’re simply so easy to obtain and install. Bao is different. Bao doesn’t have a djinni because he doesn’t want one, and that makes him one of the strangest people in LA.

A djinni is not just a computer or a phone, it’s also your wallet and your keys and your ID. When you go to a store it reads your djinni, figures out who you are, and offers you deals and helps you pay. When you go to school it reads your djinni, checks your schedule, makes sure you’re always in the right place, and forwards and manages your homework for you. Public transportation reads djinni IDs to know when to stop and who’s getting on; your own home reads djinni IDs to unlock and open your door for you, and if your djinni isn’t working you might be locked out until a technician arrives. Djinni’s make the world function, and trying to get by without one makes virtually everything in that world harder. But…if you can somehow manage to get by, having no djinni is the greatest thing a thief could ever ask for. The world treats you like a ghost, but sometimes you want to be a ghost. If a building doesn’t recognize you as a person, you’re free to move through it with impunity; if a security system is designed to make sure the wrong djinnis stay out of the wrong places, having no djinni at all is like a free pass. Sure, a human security guard watching the door could stop a djinni-less person with no problem, but if everyone has a djinni anyway why bother with a guard? Bao uses this loophole to come and go as he pleases, and when Marisa’s hacks require a personal touch he’s always there to help.

Bao is a bundle of contradictions: a hi-tech luddite, a digital pickpocket, and a living ghost. He has a horrible past but a cheerful demeanor. And he never trusts anybody…but he trusts Marisa with his life.

Tune in next week for another member of the Cherry Dogs: the greatest assassin Overworld has ever seen, Wong Fang.

Bluescreen Early Access: Anja!

December 21st, 2015

You’ve already met Marisa and Sahara; now it’s time to meet the third girl in the trio. Ladies and gentlemen: Anja Litz.

anja page

Anja grew up in Germany, the daughter of Jochen Litz, a top-ranking executive for Abendroth, one of the largest drone and nuli companies in the world–and in the year 2050, a megacorp that successful is more powerful than most nations. While Marisa and her family are barely scraping by, Anja is unbelievably wealthy, and now that they’ve been transferred to LA, her father hates it when she hangs out with her hooligan friends from Mirador. Unfortunately for him, Anja loves pissing him off almost as much as she loves Marisa and Sahara.

Anja is the wild card in the group. No, that’s not going far enough: Anja is the wild card in any group. She’s the one who’s always running off to try new things, or push new boundaries, or break new rules just because they’re there and need to be broken. She believes in change for change’s sake, which makes her fantastically curious and adventurous, but also sometimes drives her to do things she doesn’t even want to do–either because someone told her not to, or because she thinks it’s time to break out of some perceived rut (even if that rut is as simple as “I haven’t done anything stupid in a while, let’s shake things up”). She was the kind of kid who’d destroy her favorite toy just because she didn’t want to get too attached to anything, and now that she’s 17 she’s teetering on the line between “fun to hang around with” and “dangerously self-destructive.” In my head I think of her as a cross between Starbuck, Tony Stark, and Boo from Monsters Inc.

While Marisa specializes in hacking software, Anja is the expert in hacking hardware. If you ever need someone to modify your nuli, overclock your tablet, or jailbreak your djinni, Anja’s the one to call. She loves getting inside of some new piece of tech and tearing it apart, figuring out how it works, or how to make it better, or how to make it do something it was never intended to do. She can mess with your autocar or rewire the computer that runs your house–and heaven help you if you leave your cybernetics on their factory settings.

This obsession with hardware even extends to her fashion sense: take a close look at the picture above (by the inimitable Santo Ibarra) and you’ll see a variety of cables coming out of her hair. Almost everything a djinni does is wireless, but for some applications–like virtual reality–you’re transferring so much data so fast that you need a cable, so most djinnis come with a plug-in port at the base of your skull, called a headjack. Anja has a special djinni called a Huckleberry (that’s a nickname; it’s actually an HKL, for Hong Kong Limited) which is hugely modular and modifiable, and comes with a huge range of data ports. She likes to keep all of her cables plugged in all the time, and braids them into her hair as a way of melding body and machine.

Anja’s constant drive to try new things and to hell with the consequences frequently gets the group in trouble, especially when she shows up at a party with a new digital drug called Bluescreen…but then I guess I’d better stop talking before I spoil anything :)

Join me next week when we meet another of Marisa’s friends: a street thief name Bao Behar. Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Bluescreen Early Access: Sahara!

December 15th, 2015

Last week I talked about Marisa, the main character in my new series, called Mirador. Today we get to talk about Marisa’s best friend, Sahara Cowan. I’ll skip the long preamble and get right to the awesome character portrait:

sahara page

The art is, once again, by the amazing Santo Ibarra.

Sahara is one of my favorite characters in the series. Where Marisa is a hacker and a programmer, Sahara is a celebrity–or at least she wants to be. Her greatest goal in life is fame, and she has three main areas where she pursues this. First, of course, is Overworld, the virtual reality videogame she plays with Marisa. An Overworld team has five players, who play five specific positions, just like any other sport; Sahara is the General, who leads the team and calls the plays and coordinates all the action on the field. This is a great fit for Sahara because she is always in charge, even off the field. One of my great epiphanies in writing the series was to make Sahara the leader rather than Marisa–I assumed Marisa would be kind of the Queen Bee character, because she’s the main character of the series, but letting her take a social back seat to Sahara just made everything work so much better. Sahara loves the spotlight, and she loves speaking her mind. Marisa will often come up with the crazy ideas that carry the group forward and get them out of (or into) trouble, but it’s always Sahara who makes them happen, using everyone’s talents like the mastermind in a heist movie.

Sahara’s second path to fame is her vidcast. You see those two little thingies flying around above her head? Those are camera nulis, and they follow her everywhere, recording her entire life and streaming it to a real-time 24-hour video feed of Sahara’s life. Her vidcast is pretty popular–not enough that she gets recognized everywhere she goes, but enough to pay her rent and keep her dreaming of some major breakout moment that will make her a star. One of the things she loves about her friends are the constant trouble they’re always in–tangling with digital druglords is dangerous, but it makes for great viewing. Sahara is, in many ways, the answer I came up with when trying to imagine the future of privacy and social media: in a world where the sky is filled with nulis, where even the cars are watching you, and where everyone you meet has a computer in their skull, privacy just doesn’t make sense any more. Some people try to fight this, but Sahara embraces it, and lives her entire life online for everyone to see.

By the way: someone asked me last week if “nuli” was taken from Bernoulli, a famous physicist and mathematician. That’s a cool explanation, but nope. Nuli is an anglicized corruption of the Chinese word for slave, and has become standard (in my series) as shorthand for any kind of domestic or commercial robot. If it shoots you, it’s a drone, but if it folds your laundry or picks up your garbage or delivers your mail, it’s a nuli. I looked at a lot of words, trying to find the perfect one, and nuli was just such a great fit for what we wanted. I liked the connection to “null,” because they are not remotely intelligent or self-sufficient, but more than that I liked the sense of history in it. The word “robot” is based on an old Czech word for “slave,” and nuli is just the Chinese version of the same thing. It feels like an advancement of a familiar concept, plus it helps to underscore that the world of Mirador is wildly international, and dominated by Chinese ideas and culture.

Sahara’s third path to fame is through fashion. You can tell from the picture that she’s dressed much more elaborately (and provocatively) than Marisa; Marisa wears jeans and T-shirts and whatever it takes to get the job done, but Sahara wears fancy dresses with crazy flaps and folds and intricate patterns. She even has a kind of wacky floral bustle in her portrait, which I love. Fashion was another area where I really tried to sit down and predict the future; Go online, or on Pinterest, and look up “cyberpunk fashion,” and you’ll get a whole lot of black–cloaks and hoodies and goth-y, grungy, almost post-apocalyptic clothing. I wanted the clothes in Mirador to have a little more variety to it. A friend of mine is a fashion designer, and we had some long conversations in person and online trying to figure out what these characters should be wearing. One of the things she pointed out is that we already have, in the real world today, 3D-printed clothes; extrapolate that 35 years into the future, and every home could have a clothes printer right there in the bedroom. You find something you like online, you download it, and you’re wearing it in minutes. Not only does this make high fashion more accessible, but it makes complicated patterns and layers–once the hallmark of wealth, because they’re so hard to create–trivially easy to reproduce. That’s a world where fashion trends move so fast you can’t rely on major designers to do it for you–if you want to stay on the edge, you have to start tweaking those patterns you download, and maybe even designing your own stuff from the ground up. That’s what Sahara does. One of her fondest dreams is to see a dress she created on somebody else–that means people are not only watching her vidcast, they’re liking her stuff enough to steal it. And there is no greater honor in the world of fashion than having your ideas stolen.

There’s a lot more to Sahara than I have time for here–she’s emancipated from her parents, she loves math and accounting, she’s a lesbian–but you’ll have to read the book to find out the rest. For now we’ll just say this: she lives in a little apartment over Marisa’s family’s restaurant, right in the middle of the Mirador neighborhood in LA, and is one of Marisa’s only friends. Two of their teammates live on the other side of the world, but next week we’ll talk about the third LA local: the wild and crazy troublemaker Anja Litz.

Bluescreen Early Access: Marisa!

December 7th, 2015

Bluescreen CoverI am so excited about this.

Seriously, SO EXCITED.

I have a new book coming out in February–not just a new book, but a new series. It’s another YA science fiction series, like Partials, but this time instead of a post apocalyptic dystopia we’re diving into a cyberpunk world full of digital drugs, professional gamers, and computers planted in people’s heads. The series is called Mirador, and the first book is called Bluescreen, and it’s launching on February 16 from Balzer & Bray. And I am more excited about it than I’ve been about a book in a very long time.

Cyberpunk is one of my favorite genres, and I’ve always wanted to write in it. In very general terms, cyberpunk is near-future science fiction that focuses on things like the Internet, virtual reality, and human augmentation–cybernetic implants, mind-altering computer programs, and that kind of stuff. The roots of the genre lie in books like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and the Budayeen books by George Alec Effinger, as well as anime and manga like Ghost in the Shell and Bubblegum Crisis. More recently we’ve seen a lot of American TV shows delving into cyberpunk themes, like 2013’s canceled-too-soon Almost Human, about lifelike androids trying to fit into human society. The TV show Person of Interest is kind of a proto-cyberpunk story about the early beginnings of a cyberpunk world, and the birth of a self-aware Artificial Intelligence. These stories use flashy technology and gritty crime stories and thrilling adventure to talk about some very basic, personal, thought-provoking questions: what does it mean to be alive–does an AI or a clone count? What does it mean to be human–does someone rebuilt with bionic technology lose touch with their humanity? What value does the real world hold, if a virtual reality can be made to seem infinitely better? When machines are doing all our work, and computers are making all our decisions, what purpose do humans have left?

The Mirador series takes place in the year 2050, in a sprawling Los Angeles that’s become larger than some states. Cars drive themselves in an endless web of activity, and above them the sky is filled with nulis–private and commercial drones that carry out a million little tasks that keep society running. China and India have surpassed the US as economic superpowers, and Mexico is strong enough that the border is essentially open, and in fact many people head south across it to look for work. Almost everyone has a device called a djinni implanted in their brain, which fills the role of a computer, a phone, a TV, a GPS, a game console, a wallet, and even a key ring; when you come home your house reads your djinni, recognizes you, and opens the door, and when you go out in the city the stores that you pass do the same, checking your djinni ID against a database and sending you real-time sales offers customized to your purchase history. Everyone is connected 24/7, and life is even more online in 2050 than it is now, and distance has in many ways become meaningless–maybe you live in Buenos Aires, and your best friend lives in Lagos, and you both go to a virtual school in Tokyo. Or maybe you’ve lost your job to a nuli, and you can’t afford to move, and you end up selling designer Russian drugs behind the bodegas in East LA. In some ways it’s a paradise, and in some ways it’s a hell.

Our main character is a 17-year-old girl named Marisa Carneseca, the second child of a large Mexican family in an LA neighborhood called Mirador. She’s a computer geek and kind of a gray-hat hacker–she doesn’t go out and destroy other people’s systems, but she’s not really saving the world, either; she’s just having fun, joyriding around in her digital world the same way her grandparents used to cruise around their city in cars, showing off and testing her limits and exploring the shadows. Her great obsession is a videogame called Overworld, a virtual reality MOBA-style game that’s become one of the most popular sports worldwide. Marisa plays on a team called the Cherry Dogs, and her four teammates–Sahara, Anja, Jaya, and Fang–are also her best friends. One of the things I love about Marisa is how connected she is: so many YA characters are on their own, with parents who are missing or dead, and only a handful of friends. Marisa has nosy parents, pushy siblings, and a whole world full of people who can use their djinnis to reach her anytime and anywhere–and because her phone is literally inside her skull, she can’t just tell her parents she didn’t have it with her when they called. She’s cheerful and frustrated and angry and loving and incredibly fun to write about. You want to see another picture of her? Of course you do:

Marisa Carneseca

That image is by Santo Ibarra, an artist based in LA that I met through DeviantArt. We spent a month or two this year talking about the characters, sharing early drafts of the book, and figuring out exactly how each character would look. Then Santo created a portrait for eight of the characters in the book–all five of the girls on the team, plus three boys they hang out with–along with a couple of other illustrations you’ll get to see later. I’ll be showing you one of these each week until the book is released, so buckle up! It’s going to be awesome.

One final note before I end this week’s preview. You’ll notice in that picture that one of Marisa’s arms is metal; this is not a sleeve or armor, it’s her actual arm, or rather it’s her prosthetic arm replacing the one she lost as a child. You see, when Marisa was two years old she was in a car accident–which is super weird, because nobody’s ever in car accidents anymore. There are a lot of questions about this accident, actually: the car belonged to Don Francisco Maldonado, the crime boss who runs Mirador, and who hates Marisa’s father more than anyone in the world, so…why was Marisa in it? And why had Maldonado’s wife disabled the autopilot, attempting to drive herself? The mysteries behind that accident, and the bitter family feud that lies at the heart of it, are tied into more aspects of Marisa’s life than she realizes….

I love this series. I love these characters. I especially love Mexico–I used to live there, and it was wonderful to be able to put that into a book. And, of course, I love the story of Bluescreen, which I haven’t even talked about yet. Come back next Monday for another Early Access preview, and I’ll spill some more details.

I wrote a new thing

December 4th, 2015

A while ago we did a crowdfunding campaign to help my brother get out from under some of his student and medical debt, and one of the perks I offered was called Official Fan Fiction. Whoever bought it could choose one of my books and I’d write a story where they got to be in it. I was totally expecting someone to want to hang out with Kira Walker, or get murdered by John Cleaver, or maybe go on date with one of them, but the actual request was way more interesting. A group of gamers got together and requested that I write their GM into the world of my dark historical farce A Night of Blacker Darkness.

Blacker Darkness is a ridiculous book, if you haven’t read it. It’s most famously about vampires, but more broadly it’s about intense passions pointed in absurd directions. The characters are thieves and poets and gravediggers and morticians and every one of them wants something desperately, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it. That’s not the kind of thing you can just casually throw somebody into and make it work, but I had an idea. Years ago I’d started a short story about a man who goes into a police station and reports his own murder–not one that’s going to happen soon, but one that already happened, and no one will beleive him. I couldn’t make the story work, but I loved the idea of it, and I thought that idea’s dark, death-obsessed tone might work well in a farce about a mortuary.

So I wrote a scene where a man goes into a funeral home claiming to be dead and attempting to arrange his own funeral, and I liked it so much that I turned it into a full novella, and now you can read it. It’s called A Pear-Shaped Funeral, and you can buy it on my website. If you haven’t read Blacker Darkness it’s there too, down at the bottom of the page. Both are, at this point, ebook only.

You’ll see some other ebooks and short stories of mine up there as well, and I’ll be posting more throughout the month.

If I were in charge of the new Star Trek series

November 5th, 2015

So: I’m kind of a huge Star Trek geek. When Disney announced a bunch of new Star Wars movies I was ecstatic, but when CBS announced a new Star trek series I went BONKERS. I pulled out all my old board and card games, read through some of my old RPG books, and reinstalled some of my favorite Star Trek video games. And, of course, speculated endlessly about how the new series might work, and what it would focus on, and who would be on the crew. This speculation has absorbed an unconscionable quantity of my time this week, so as a defensive measure I’m going to publish it here, and get it out of my head, and then it will be your problem instead of mine, and I can get some actual work done.

I warn you that this post might get long.

The first and biggest question, obviously, is “Will the new series be part of the old continuity from the TV shows, or the new continuity from the recent movies?” We could talk about the various merits of each for hours, but I think it comes down to two basic facts:
1) The show is coming from CBS, not Paramount, so the rights they own are exclusive to the old shows.
2) Cinematic universes are the law of the land in Hollywood these days, and it would be foolish of any media producer NOT to take advantage of Star Trek in that way. Star Trek was doing Cinematic Universe storytelling decades before anyone else, so why stop now?

How do we reconcile those two facts? With a new show that builds on the existing shows, but can cross over to the movies if and when they want to. So there’s our first creative guide post. It’s honestly not really much of a constraint: at minimum, we can do a show that ignores the movies completely and then just link them together with time/dimensional travel when we decide a link is necessary. On the other end of the scale, we can make time/dimensional travel a major theme of the show, crossing into the Abramsverse and the Mirrorverse and so on all the time. My solution is somewhere between the two extremes.

Next we look at diversity: the original series was shockingly diverse for its time, not accidentally but purposefully and aggressively. Star Trek had the first televised biracial kiss, and indeed Uhura became a major Civil Rights icon. In the second season they added Chekhov, a Russian character, as a specific rebuke to cold war paranoia and the American hatred of the Soviet Union. “The future is a place where we can all get along” was one of, if not the, primary theme of the show, embedded deep in its DNA. Following that kind of model in modern America means pushing the envelope just as much in 2015 as Roddenberry did in 1967. I interpret that to mean not just a racially diverse cast, but finding diversity in other areas: who are our modern Soviet Unions, and how can we showcase them? So there’s our second creative guide post.

Lastly, before we dive into the actual concept, is our final creative guide post: hope. The original Star Trek leaked hope from every pore. Many of the episodes were bittersweet, and some outright tragic, but at its core it was a show about discovery, teamwork, and problem-solving. Modern media is much more grim and gritty than it used to be, but I think the pendulum is slowly starting to swing back toward hope again, and I want the new Star Trek series to reflect that. The success of The Martian shows this shift in our attitudes, and in fact that entire story is a direct homage to Star Trek’s vision of the future: people are fundamentally good, and when the chips are down the entire planet can come together to accomplish something great, using science and innovation to explore outer space. You can see this spirit of hope all over the place in modern media. Our superhero movies are about standing up for what’s right and making the world a better place; our dystopian books and movies, for all their darkness, are about fixing the problems we see in society. Even our post-apocalyptic nightmare movies have happy endings these days, and if Mad Max can finally get a happy ending I think we all can. American culture is finally starting to crawl out of our post-9/11 depression, and our storytelling is no longer about surviving but rebuilding. Our world isn’t perfect, and we still have a lot of problems to solve, but we’re actively trying to solve them. I want our new Star Trek series to reflect that.

So, taking all of that into account, here’s my pitch for a new Star Trek series.

STAR TREK: MERIDIAN

In 2387, as shown in the recent movies, a supernova destroyed the seat of the Romulan Empire. This forced them into a choice: to integrate with the rest of the galaxy, like the Klingons did in a similar situation so many years ago, or to start a war in a desperate bid for resources and supremacy. They chose war (partly inspired, no doubt, by the fact that new-movie Spock apparently caused the supernova with his wacky Red Matter), and for 24 years the galaxy has been wracked with conflict and torn to shreds. Old alliances crumbled, new alliances formed and fell, and all that was great and glorious about our vast space-faring civilizations was tainted or outright destroyed. Now, at the turn of the 25th century, the war is over by mutual accord: no side won, and everybody lost. The survivors use the uneasy peace to try to pick up the pieces and move forward.

nova classOur show follows the USS Meridian, a science vessel that was repurposed during the war for courier duties, supply, and search and rescue. I’m basing this on the general idea of the Nova Class, though of course we would want a new ship design to mark the new series. With the conflict over, the Meridian has been tasked with surveying the damage, reporting back, and helping out where possible. The crew consists of two distinct groups–the ones who served on the ship during the war, and the new wave who was assigned there when it received its new orders. Much of the character drama comes from their attempts to reconcile their differences and come together as a team. I don’t have names for the characters yet, but I do have dream casting suggestions for all of them.

Old Crew:
angela bassetCaptain: a human science officer played by Angela Basset. She hated the war, and the things it required her to do, but she did them anyway because they were her duty. Like the ship itself, her specialty is science; before she went into command she was a researcher, specializing in geology, ecology, and planetary survey, and she is thrilled to now be back in a scientific role, cataloging the vast reaches of space that have become, post-war, as unfamiliar as they were when the first Federation ships explored them centuries ago. She is a devout Muslim, and uses this focus on peace and discovery to keep herself focused. Her best friend aboard the ship is her first officer, who has served with her for years. She also feels a strong connection to the new helm/pilot officer, as they are both still haunted by the horrors of war. My plan is to make her a direct descendant of Uhura, and set up a potential movie cross-over that way. This might mean she has a little Vulcan blood, depending on how the movie decides to play out the Uhura/Spock relationship. Angela Bassett is absolutely my first choice here–she has a fantastic sense of presence and authority on screen, and could bring both gravitas and heart to the captain’s chair.

hiroyuki sanadaFirst Officer: a Cardassian tactical officer played by Hiroyuki Sanada. With the Klingon Empire fighting only for themselves, the Federation turned to the biggest ally they had left: Cardassia. Over the years they formed strong ties together, and shortly before the end of the war Cardassia joined the Federation officially. Now that the war is over, certain factions within Cardassia want the “alliance of necessity” undone, but others are happy to stay together. This character is a contradiction: duplicitous and underhanded with his enemies, but fiercely loyal to his friends. He and the captain have worked together for a while, and respect each other greatly. He has sharp conflicts with the new communications officer, a Bajoran who holds on to the old animosity between their people. He doesn’t trust the new Security officer, probably because she’s just as sneaky as he is. I love Cardassians dearly, especially the way that they looked like outright villains in the beginning and were eventually revealed to be just as noble, and with just as much potential for both greatness and evil, as any other species in the galaxy. With characters like Garak, Dukat, and the glorious arc of Damar, Cardassians are one of the most well-developed species in Star Trek, arguably the most well-developed, and I want to play with that potential here. A Starfleet Cardassian who embraces both Damar’s heroism and Garak’s cunning is a character I’ll follow to the bitter end.

paula pattonDoctor: a half Klingon, half Vulcan xenobiologist played by Paula Patton. Someone suggested a klingon/vulcan doctor on Facebook, and while I changed the casting I love the idea: someone calm and soft-spoken, but ready to explode when pushed to the edge. I think Paula Patton could kill this role, contrasting stately elegance with righteous fury. I want to break away a bit from the standard Star Trek trope of mixed race, which always shows them as struggling with an inherent conflict of identity: am I vulcan, or am I klingon? This character is comfortable with both, following the less common Vulcan decision to ignore the banishment of emotion (a ritual called Kolinahr) in favor of a more balanced acceptance of emotion and logic as equal forces. In many ways her klingon side helps to keep her vulcan turbidity in check. She has found new friends among the incoming crew of scientists, particularly the gregarious exocultural officer, and they serve as nice foils to each other: one warm and calm, the other effusive and bubbly. Her greatest personal conflict comes from their Romulan liaison.

ajay naiduEngineering: a Trill engineer played by Ajay Naidu. He’s been with the Meridian for several years now, in two different host bodies, and held her together through thick and thin. He’s not about to abandon the ship now that she finally gets to do what she was built to do, so he specifically requested to stay, and to bring his spouse aboard now that wartime restrictions have been loosened. This body is the Trill symbiont’s fifth host, and its first male, and while he’s determined to make things work with the previous host’s husband, the changes in circumstance–both physical and situational–create big problems the couple has to deal with. He takes to the new communications officer and the new security officer quickly, the former because they get along as buddies, and the latter because her empathic abilities help him to understand his own emotions better. In the future, the new host may even become attracted to one or both of them. I toyed with the idea of using a new kind of alien, instead of a Trill, partly just to be new and also because I think that Trill hosts are kind of an easy button for stories about gender identity, and well-trammeled territory for Star Trek already. I wanted to try a little harder. The more I thought about it, though, the more I loved the opportunities a Trill presents us for telling stories specifically about gender transition, which is an area that Star Trek has only hit in passing. The very first Trill story was about gender transition, but that was one episode, and then Jadzia (and Ezri) were both devoutly female, with most of their “previous host” stories focusing around the humor of a young, attractive female being friends with old grizzly warriors. This character gives us the chance to dig into something deeper, including fully fluid gender spectrum, and the various ways that he, his husband, and the entire crew can react to the changes. So I’m keeping him a Trill :)

New Crew:
ki hong leeAstrometrics: a young alien genius played by Ki Hong Lee. Every show needs a new alien–something we haven’t seen before, who can show us a reflection of ourselves in a new way. This character comes from a species that is, for lack of a better term, emotionally cold-blooded: they can’t regulate their own emotions, and instead take on the general emotional state of whatever situation they’re in. Kind of like an empath that only works one way, but I don’t want to get too Counselor Troi-ish with this, and instead want to play it as something that is primarily negative, like a crazy space version of bipolar disorder. He’ll surround himself with happy people, which will make him happy, but when something goes wrong and the people around him get sad or scared or depressed, he follows along, without any control over his own emotions. When he’s alone he becomes emotionally inert. This can be treated with medication, which is the only way he made it through the Academy–surrounding himself with a bunch of stressed-out science students made him an absolute basketcase, but the medication and proper social therapy helped, and his natural genius allowed him to graduate at an exceptionally young age with a massive array of mathematics degrees. He’s eager to be out on the Meridian, his first assignment, and see in person the kinds of things he’s thus far only studied in theory. Because of his emotional issues he finds numbers and theories to be simple and comforting, and spends long hours studying. He avoids the more emotionally volatile members of the crew, like the exocultural officer and the helm/pilot, and he doesn’t like who he becomes when he hangs around the darker, more intense characters such as the security, communications, and the XO. That leaves him with precious few friends aboard the ship, though he does like the doctor and the engineer. The net result is that he is drawn to the Romulan liaison, who seems to genuinely like him; the fact that he likes the Romulan back is, for the captain, the first and best sign that the Romulan might actually be trustworthy.

jewel staiteInterspecies Relations: a Bolian exocultural specialist and counselor played by Jewel Staite. She loves people: helping them, talking to them, getting to know them, being needed by them. She’s an extrovert in every sense of the word. Her field of study is primarily cultural, lying in the realm of “soft” science, but she has a passing familiarity with physiology and anatomy as well, particularly in how they relate to interspecies social interaction. She has become friends with the doctor, but tends to clash with the captain over disagreements in how alien contact situations should be handled–she will almost always side with her own feelings over Starfleet regulations, trying to help people no matter what the rules and the complicated web of political treaties says they can and can’t do. She’s kind of like a really bubbly female Captain Kirk in that sense, with just enough of that Kirk-like ego to be very angry when she suggests a course of action and the captain decides to do something else. Jewel Staite would be fantastic in this role, even covered in blue makeup and a bald cap, showing all the cheerful optimism of Kaylee from Firefly, mixed with all the self-confident ego we’ve seen from her in roles since.

diane guerreroHelm: a Human navigator and pilot played by Diane Guerrero. This is her second assignment: she graduated the Academy with top marks, looking forward to a glorious career as a pilot, but it was the height of the war, and in her first few years of service she went through absolute hell. She comes to the Meridian with a chip on her shoulder and a bad case of PTSD, which she does her best to hide from the others because she doesn’t want to admit her own weakness. Her previous commander will be an ongoing villain in the story, always trying to lure her back in to some of the more war-crimey stuff he got her tied up in before. She likes the communications officer, responding to his similar vibe of bitter anger, which doesn’t help her relationship to the XO. She also finds a kindred spirit in the security officer, whose “the end justifies the means” attitude seems to validate her own past actions and assuage her conscience. The captain is kind of trying to take her under her wing, which will be a huge boon if she ever decides to accept any help.

mitch pileggiCommunications: a Bajoran operations officer played by Mitch Pileggi. Loud and lovable and intense and determined and bitter and kind of a misogynist. He’s the Robert Baratheon of communications and sensors officers, grizzled by war and full of larger-than life stories, the first to buy a round for everyone in the bar, and the first to mouth off and mutter insobordinate things in the back halls of the ship. He doesn’t like the XO, and is in fact pretty racist against Cardassians; he doesn’t like the captain, and thinks he should have his own command by now. He gets along great with the engineer and the exocultural officer, and is a kind of father figure for the helm/pilot officer.

sela wardTactical: a Betazoid security and weapons officer played by Sela Ward. Most of the Betazoids we’ve seen have used their psychic powers to help people, but this character is all about manipulation: it’s her job to keep the ship safe, and she’ll do it any way she can, no matter how underhanded. Her empathic abilities make her an amazing negotiator and interrogator, finding all of her opponents’ mental pressure points and pushing on them with expert skill. Her tactical philosophy is simple: win before the fight starts, and she uses mind games and long-term plans to make this happen. That said, when it’s time to fight, she can fight with the best of them. She clashes with the XO, because they’re too alike to trust each other, but they do often see the wisdom of each others’ plans, and make a great team when they have to be. She works hard to earn the captain’s trust, but she does it so manipulatively that it’s hard to believe her motives are pure. The truth is that after so long, and after stepping over so many lines in the war, she doesn’t know how to come back to normal–she is in many ways just as damaged as the pilot, but she hides it so much better, even from herself.

Unofficial Crew:
matt bomerLiaison: a rogue Romulan gone AWOL from the Empire, played by Matt Bomer. They pick him up in the first episode, and distrust him instantly, but eventually realize that he can be valuable as a guide when dealing with areas the Romulan Empire occupied during the war. He is sneaky, manipulative, and full of secrets, but he’s also incredibly useful and has never actively betrayed them. They keep him around, but restrict his access aboard the ship, allow him no weapons, and work behind his back to figure out more about his past. Much like the doctor, he is a contradiction: a fun-loving scoundrel and a deceitful game-player; a loyal friend and a traitor. Everyone will instantly suspect him of divided loyalties, and the obvious move is to make him a member of the Tal Shiar, the Romulan intelligence agency, sent to monitor this Federation ship as it moves uncontested through former Romulan space. I want to avoid this precisely because it’s so obvious, but on the other hand it’s a great story, and I think we can use the audience expectations against them. We’ll make him a former Tal Shiar officer who was part of something terrible–a massive plot by certain factions of the Empire to break the peace treaty and win the war once and for all–and who went AWOL in a specific effort to stop that plan before it could go through. He doesn’t dare to tell the Federation, for fear that news of the treachery will re-ignite the war, so he has to solve it himself. This makes him act secretly and suspiciously, constantly trying to nudge the ship toward a location or situation that will allow him to do what he needs to do. He’s playing a constant mind game with everyone on the ship, but on the other hand he is a good person, genuinely trying to save the galaxy in the only way he knows how, and so the astrometics officer feels good around him, and the security officer knows something’s going on but can’t find any hard evidence of evil or betrayal.

So there you have it.

This is my proposal for a new Star Trek series. A group of people damaged by the past, but trying to work together to make a better future. They’ll explore, they’ll build, they’ll rebuild, and they’ll leave the galaxy better than they found it. They’ll use science to solve physical problems, and diplomacy to solve personal ones, and friendship and trust to solve their own problems aboard the ship.

Now I just need CBS to make it :)