Altered Perspectives: the awesome anthology I’m helping put together

April 17th, 2014

I finished my book! Or at least the first draft, but still: I am very happy. And now that it’s done it’s time to move on to the next project, which is what I’m here to tell you about today.

My brother, the illustrious Robison Wells, was diagnosed a few years ago with a severe panic disorder, was has since blossomed (or perhaps ‘metastasized’ is a better word) into depression, agoraphobia, OCD, and a whole host of other mental illnesses that make it impossible for him to live a normal life. I could talk about this for hours, and in future blog posts I will, but for now I’ll limit it to two main points:

1) Rob’s illnesses have put him into a lot of debt. He writes books, and they are excellent books, but this is not exactly a lucrative profession, and a panic disorder does not work well in an office environment. Watching Rob struggle with disease and debt made me want to do something to help.

2) Mental illnesses are WAY MORE COMMON than most people think. In the US alone, statistics suggest that most of you know someone with a psychosis, and all of you know someone with depression. If you don’t, look harder–you probably know two or three. This is a big problem, and we as a culture and society are not doing nearly enough to help. An American with a mental illness is ten times more likely to be in prison than in medical care. This needs to change.

I wanted to do something about these problems, but I didn’t know what. It was Brandon Sanderson, a good friend of both Rob and I, who came up with the idea: “let’s do an anthology,” he said, “full of authors who know Rob, and use it to raise funds. First we can pay off Rob’s debts, and then if we get enough interest we can keep going and try to help other authors with similar problems.” I thought it was an awesome idea, so we did it. And we put a cool spin on it that I think you’re going to love.

I am proud to announce the science fiction/fantasy anthology ALTERED PERSPECTIVES, which is kind of like a bonus DVD full of deleted scenes and alternate versions of some of your favorite authors’ books. Check out this amazing list:

Ally Condie, the foreword
Dan Wells, the introduction
Annette Lyon, An unpublished chapter from her retelling of the Finnish fairy tale, THE KALEVALA
Aprilynne Pike, TBA
Brandon Mull, Deleted scenes from BEYONDERS 2
Brandon Sanderson, five completely rewritten chapters from THE WAY OF KINGS, where Kaladin makes the opposite choice of what he makes in the published novel
Bree Despain, an alternate ending to THE LOST SAINT, and an alternate beginning to THE SHADOW PRINCE
Brodi Ashton, the first chapter from her YA novel about an unwilling alien fighter who has to rescue the boy she loves
Claudia Gray, a deleted scene from A THOUSAND PIECES OF YOU
Dan Wells, the original John Cleaver free-write that inspired I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER
Erin Bowman, a deleted scene from TAKEN
Howard Tayler, a creative non-fiction story about life with mental illness
J Scott Savage, three original chapters that led to writing FARWORLD
Jennifer Moore, a deleted scene from BECOMING LADY LOCKWOOD
Jessica Day George, a deleted scene from PRINCESS OF GLASS, where the main character plays poker with a witch
Josi Kilpack, the original opening scene to TRES LECHES CUPCAKE
Kiersten White, an original short story, set in a dystopian, sci-fi world
Larry Correia, a deleted fight scene from SWORDS OF EXODUS
Lauren Oliver, two deleted scenes from PANDEMONIUM, plus a hilarious scene about the plotting process
Luisa Perkins, a short story, “Seeing Red”–a modern-day retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.
Mary Robinette Kowal, deleted scene from VALOUR AND VANITY (the scene was cut because readers thought the scene was trying to depict depression)
Nancy Allen, bonus scene from BEAUTY AND THE CLOCKWORK BEAST
Robison Wells, an epilogue to FEEDBACK and the VARIANT duology
Sandra Tayler, a creative non-fiction piece called “Married To Depression”
Sara Zarr, a story featuring characters from one of Sara’s previously published novels
Sarah Eden, “Farewells” for LONGING FOR HOPE and HOPE SPRINGS
Seanan McGuire, The original opening for DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON
Shannon Hale, “Ravenous,” a previously unpublished scifi short story
SJ Kincaid, the original first chapter of VORTEX, before it was entirely rewritten

You’ll also get to read personal essays and comments from each of the authors, explaining their own connection to mental illness and the many ways it’s changed their lives.

This anthology goes up on IndieGoGo on Monday, April 21, where you’ll be able to buy it in hardcover or ebook, along with a ton of extra perks like manuscript critiques, dinners with your favorite authors, and the ever-popular “die horribly in one of Dan’s books.”

We,re really proud of this anthology, and I’m incredibly grateful for the hard work and amazing kindness of the authors who helped make it a reality. I hope you love it as much as we do.

Entitled: The Disney Princess One-Word Title Game

April 5th, 2014

A few days ago I mentioned on Twitter/Facebook my dislike of the new Disney movie naming pattern: instead of just giving the movie the same name as the fairy tale it’s based on (ie, “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” etc.), they’ve started using one-word titles like Brave, Tangled, and Frozen. Brave is an odd case because Brave was a) not based on an existing story and b) a really stupid title. The character was, indeed, brave, but that’s not what the story nor her character arc were about: she was just as brave in the beginning as she was in the end, so calling the movie “Brave” is about as descriptive as calling it, say, “Celtic,” or “Redhead,” or even just “Girl.” Tangled and Frozen upped the game by using their title to underline–in a cutesy way, of course–the exact emotional obstacle the main character needs to overcome. Rapunzel has severe mommy issues and feels tied down to her old life? Combine that with the hair motif and call it Tangled. The Ice Queen is emotionally stunted and needs to learn how to break free? Combine it with the snow motif and call it Frozen. So yes, they’re more clever than Brave, but they’re way too on-the-nose. You can’t just call out the exact theme of your story, reduce it to a past participle, and call it a title.

Or can you?

As a matter of fact, that is EXACTLY what we’re going to do! I joked online about retitling “The Little Mermaid” in the same style, and was flooded with delightful suggestions, including everything from Beached to Silenced, with plenty of awesome non-past-participle answers thrown into the mix (I suggested Speechless, and my brother-in-law made me laugh out loud with “Shellfishness”). So, that’s what we’re going to do: retitle all the Disney princess movies with one-word titles that wear the character’s main arc, or the movie’s main theme, as clumsily on their sleeve as possible. For the purposes of this exercise we are looking ONLY at Princess movies, so no Aristocats or whatever, and we are imagining a world in which each princess is actually the main character of her movie (in other words, your title for Aladdin will be about Jasmine, because if they made that movie today that’s exactly how they’d do it). You get points for describing the character, extra points for describing the character’s arc, more extra points for incorporating the movie’s visual theme, and even more extra points for making me laugh. Past participles are preferred (mostly that means ‘words that end in -ed,’ but there are exceptions), but don’t let that stop you from laying down a gem like Shellfishness. You can rename one or all, and enter as many times as you like, and–why not?–I’ll pick a winner and give them something awesome. Probably a book, or maybe a T-shirt, or maybe I’ll name a corpse after you in the new John Cleaver. MAYBE ALL OF THE ABOVE. The winner, by the way, will be chosen by me, based on whatever criteria I so desire. I can do whatever I want, because the title of my own personal movie is “Empowered.”

Without further ado, here’s the list of movies:

The Core Set:

Snow White
Sleeping Beauty
The Little Mermaid
Beauty and the Beast
The Princess and the Frog
Brave (because seriously, it needs a new name)

Princesses Disney tries to forget about because their movies are dumb:

Eilonwy (The Black Cauldron)
Kida (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)

The BEST Disney Princess, who is totally a princess, even in-world, but who doesn’t get included in their marketing because even their marketers know she would never be caught dead in a lame-o Disney Princess product:

Megara (Hercules) (I kind of have a thing for Megara)

Other movies it might be fun to rename in this style, even though they’re not about princesses:

Alice in Wonderland
Peter Pan
One Hundred and One Dalmatians
The Sword in the Stone
The Jungle Book
Robin Hood
The Brave Little Toaster
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Lion King
The Hunchback of Notre Dame

And why not? Disney owns this now too:

Princess Leia (Can you even imagine the Star Wars trilogy remade as a Disney Princess franchise? That sounds so terrible that I CAN’T HELP MYSELF I WANT IT RIGHT NOW.)

Welcome to Science Fiction! Here are some of my favorites for you to read next

March 3rd, 2014

I’ve noticed something over the last few years, talking with readers in person and online: in YA, people tend to use ‘dystopia’ as a general label for all science fiction. Not everybody does this, of course, but a big enough chunk of the audience that it stood out to me. This makes a lot of sense, when you think about it, because the average YA reader had never really read any science fiction before UGLIES and THE HUNGER GAMES came out and took over a market previously dominated by fantasy. I wrote a guest post for The Sci-Fi Chick, presenting a very brief history of dystopia, and explaining how I think the Partials Sequence fits (and doesn’t fit) into it, but today I want to do more. If you’re a YA reader who loves dystopian books and, through them, has become a science fiction fan, awesome! Science fiction has one of the greatest books around, and you’re in for a treat. Here are some of my favorites, to help you step out into the wider world of science fiction.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
We’ll start with a YA book to help ease you into it. I assume you’ve already heard of Ender’s Game, even if only for the movie; this is one of the best science fiction books of all time, and I would argue one of the best ANY books of all time. A super-genius six year old is forced into space combat training, horribly manipulated by everyone around him, and tries to figure out who he wants to be and how to define his own morality. It’s a book that celebrates intelligence, and approaches kids on their own level, and I’ve read it three times and loved it more with each one.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Another one to help ease you in to the wider genre, this is a straight-up dystopian novel about a world where books are outlawed, and the government floods the people with a constant stream of television and other media to keep them stupid and complacent. Ray Bradbury is one of our greatest SF writers, and if you love books and/or dystopias–and if you’re reading this I assume you love both–you owe it to yourself to read Fahrenheit 451.

Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Now we’re getting into some non-YA, non-dystopia (by most definitions) novels. If you only know Starship Troopers from the movie, forget it; the book is completely different in almost every way imaginable, aside from the names of some of the characters. The starting point is similar to Ender’s Game (bug-like aliens have attacked Earth, and now we’re training soldiers to go out and fight them), but from there it diverges into a completely different story, chronicling not a command school but an infantry boot camp. It’s partly a war story, and partly a philosophical exploration of what war is for, and why we fight, and why even an enlightened society might never be able to stop no matter how much we want to.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
This is the first of a five-book trilogy (that’s not a typo), and that description alone should give you a sense of the completely silly, ridiculous, hilarious nature of the series. A man named Arthur Dent discovers that his best friend is an alien, who helps him escape the planet Earth right before it gets blown up to make way for a hyperspace bypass. It’s funny, sometimes side-splittingly funny, but it’s also brilliant and inventive and surprisingly poignant in places, exploring everything from loneliness to friendship to the meaning of life (and the universe, and everything).

Dune, by Frank Herbert
This is my favorite book ever. It’s kind of science fiction, and kind of space fantasy, and kind of a political espionage story, and kind of a masterclass in theoretical ecology. The desert planet Arrakis is the source of the most valuable substance in the galaxy: a drug called Spice, that lets users see the future. Harvesting it becomes a deadly game of politics, religion, and warfare, and I love EVERY SINGLE DROP of this book. One of the early scenes is a dinner party where nobody trusts each other, and the conversation they have is as thrilling as any fight scene you’ve ever read, and it only gets better from there.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
A group of Catholic monks, deep in a desert, dedicate their lives to finding and preserving the last surviving fragments of an ancient civilization: ours, hundreds of years after we destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war. This book is told in three different sections, spanning almost a thousand years, as the post-apocalyptic survivors slowly rebuild a world, discover our lost secrets, and try to avoid falling into the same tragic pattern that killed us the firts time around.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson
This book hit the bookstores like a cannonball, changing everything people thought science fiction was or could be, and has probably influenced more of the modern genre and society at large than anything else on this list. A hacker-for-hire is paid to break into a secured file and find the identity of a mysterious figure, in a journey that takes him around the world and into orbit and back again, uncovering one world-changing secret after another. This book was so far ahead of it’s time that it still feels prescient, even thirty years later, and the writing itself is poetic and beautiful.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The main character is named Hiro Protagonist, a samurai hacker who delivers pizza for the mob, and if that doesn’t make you desperate to read this book I don’t know what will. It’s a mind-blowing cyberpunk where governments have disappeared and private corporations rule the world, and an archeologist has discovered a language so ancient and powerful it can actually be used to infect a human brain like a computer virus. Trust me, you’ll love it.

The Mirage, by Matt Ruff
This the most recent book on my list, just a year or two old, about a parallel reality just like our own, but with one thing flipped: Iraq is the world superpower, and the USA is a squabbling collection of religious extremists. The prologue begins with Christian terrorists crashing airplanes into the World Trade Center in Baghdad, and just in case that wasn’t already fascinating enough, a few chapters later the Homeland Security agents investigating this find a copy of a newspaper from our world, explaining it as a Muslim attack on Manhattan. I’ve rarely ever read a book this audacious, starting with that basic premise and following the rabbit as deep as it goes.

Flatland, by Edwin Abbott
In contrast, this is the old est book on my list, written by a schoolmaster in 1884. It’s both a science fiction story and a mathematical thought experiment, telling the story of a two-dimensional person who slowly becomes aware of other dimensions, and what their existence means for him. This book made me think about the world beyond what I can perceive in a way I never had before, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s incredibly short, practically a novelette, and you can probably read it an afternoon.

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick is one of the greatest of all SF writers, and while some of his other novels are more famous (his most famous is almost certainly Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which the movie Blade Runner was based), this one is by far my favorite. A narcotics officer goes undercover to investigate a drug called Substance D, with effects that mimic schizophrenia, and over time realizes that the drug has broken his mind in half, and he is in fact investigating himself as both officer and dealer. It’s not only a great SF story, it’s an incredibly personal look at the author’s own experiences with drug addiction and mental illness, and presents those kinds of mind-altering effects from an insider’s perspective I’ve never seen anywhere else.

The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
Think of this as a single story split into two books: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Together they’re kind of like a far-future SF version of the Canterbury Tales, with a group of pilgrims visiting a mysterious planet and, each in turn, telling their own stories of why they’ve come and what they hope to learn. My favorite of the flashbacks comes in the second book, but all of them are wonderful, and together they add up to an epic story of humanity’s past and future and potential for greatness.

Contact, by Carl Sagan
Most people know this one from the movie, starring Jodie Foster as a SETI scientist who discovers a real message from aliens. The book does a lot of great things, including it’s incredibly plausible description of how our society might actually react to a message from outer space, but that’s only a part of it. The core of the story, the thing that makes me love it, is the way it presents the search for extra-terrestrial life as a parallel to religion and an expression of personal faith: we know that something’s out there, something bigger and greater than ourselves, that might help us to understand our world and our life better. This is the most spiritual look at science I have ever read, and I love it.

These are some of my favorites, and only a very small sampling of the amazing science fiction literature just waiting for you to discover it. What about you: what are favorites?

Some Quick Thoughts on Net Neutrality

February 24th, 2014

Last night I posted the following on Twitter:

Every anti-net-neutrality article said this would never happen: … THIS IS LITERALLY THE FIRST THING THAT HAPPENED

In the last 16 hours that’s been retweeted more than 350 times, and rising quickly. That’s not a huge deal, as famous people retweets go, but it’s a lot more than I typically get, and that’s kind of cool. The problem is, there’s so much more to the issue of net neutrality than can be contained in one snarky tweet, especially on an issue that continues to evolve. My own understanding of the issue continues to grow, even in the last 16 hours, and my thoughts are no longer perfectly aligned with the thing I keep getting quoted for. This post won’t be retweeted as much as really pithy thing I said last night, but I’ll feel better knowing it’s out there.

Net neutrality, put as simply as possible, is the idea that Internet Service Providers have to treat all net traffic the same, just like all phone service providers have to treat all calls the same: you can’t, for example, purposefully make one group’s service worse or less far-reaching than another’s, just because you don’t like them. This is a good thing, and none of us question it on phones, but when it comes to Internet some people (mostly ISPs) want the rules to work differently. In their defense, a lot of their rules already work differently, and when net neutrality was officially struck down last month it was because the FCC had pulled some classification shenanigans that made their version of it illegal. I’m not here to debate the legal grounds of the current situation, because I don’t understand it in full, and neither do almost any of you: we’re not tel-com lawyers or FCC officials, and while we may passionately defend the version of the story that we think is correct, that’s not the same thing as actually being correct. What I do believe is that net neutrality, whatever we have to do to make it work legally, is vital to the future of the Internet, which makes it vital to the future of everything. That’s not an exaggeration.

The people who support net neutrality often do it with some version of this: “If you let ISPs control the flow of information, they will do so in a way that serves their own ends, and not their customers.” That’s the basic version–most of the time it’s more of a scare tactic:

“Tel-com companies could hold certain websites hostage, demanding more money to let people access them.”
“Tel-com companies could influence elections by artificially hampering one candidate’s web traffic and availability.”
“Tel-com companies could artificially limit your access to certain web content unless you pay a premium fee.”

I call these scare tactics, but some of these things have already happened; the last one, in particular, started happening within hours of the net neutrality decision, with some ISPs purposefully throttling certain web services, including access to competitors. Let’s say you’re on ISP X and don’t like it, and want to switch to ISP Y; it’s now harder for you to get to ISP Y’s webpage through ISP X’s network, because they made it harder on purpose, because they don’t want you to leave and it’s legal to screw with you, so why not? To put that in perspective, imagine picking up an AT&T phone and trying to call Verizon, only to discover that AT&T decided your phone is not allowed to call a competitor. That sounds insane on a phone, but that’s where we’re headed with ISPs.

That’s why I freaked out when I read that article about Netflix, because it seemed like a clear case of an ISP (Comcast) shaking down a content provider (Netflix) for money: “you’ve got some really great content there, buddy, it’d be a real shame if nobody could access it over our network. Pay your protection money or we can’t be responsible for what happens next.” Let me reiterate: that kind of behavior is now legal, and it has already happened in small scale, and I full expect it to happen in large scale, probably sooner than we think. I suspect that I jumped the gun a little in this particular situation, though: Netflix is a massive force on the Internet, accounting for anywhere from 28-33% of all Internet traffic in America. Yes, you read that right. Let that sink in, and then ask yourself how a company like Comcast would possibly risk offending a company that powerful? They desperately want that traffic–providing service to Netflix is, in a very real sense, 33% of their business model. If they throttle it artificially, their customers will go somewhere else, somewhere their Internet access is not suddenly reduced by 33% for no good reason. So really, companies like Netflix are probably safe for now; this deal with Comcast is more likely an attempt by both companies to work together and try to get that 33% piece of the pie even bigger, though upgraded cables and servers and data centers. They need each other.

But they don’t need everybody, and I don’t think I’m being an alarmist when I say that we’re going to start seeing these big ISPs strong-arming smaller companies, and customers, in ways both subtle and direct. I don’t think this is a good thing. I want net neutrality reinstated, through whatever means are both legal and ethical. But I also wanted to clear up this particular point, since it irked me to have made such a broad generalization, including some facts I later learned were faulty, in such a public way.

The “Writing Advice” post that I’m just going to point people to from now on

February 20th, 2014

A friend of a friend wrote to me today asking for advice about writing. I don’t typically have time to give personalized advice, as much as I’d love to, but this was a good friend, and I thought it might be a good chance to put my “aspiring author advice” thoughts down in one central place. If you’re a writer, or you want to be a writer, this is my very basic “how to get started” guide.

Note that some of this info, particularly the bit about cons, is specific to my home state of Utah, but the principles can be applied no matter where you live.

I wrote this for a man named Justin, who at the ripe old age of 32 decided he’d been wasting his time in marketing when his real love was writing. Whatever your age or gender or geographical location, it’s never too late for now.

Dear [insert your name here]:

The good news is, your story is common, and your solution is more or less what you already know it to be: write a lot until you’re good at it. I’ll be saying a bunch of other stuff in this post, but it all comes down to that. Write a lot until you’re good at it.

The other good news, and arguably the best news, is that you can make a living as an artist. Dave Wolverton told me that in college, and I realized–like you–that no one had ever told me that before. Our education system is not designed for artists, it’s designed for people who sit in cubicles and earn salaries and get retirement benefits, and that’s fine if that’s what you’re into, but artists have to make their own way. So let me reiterate: you can make your own way. It’s scary and it’s hard and it requires so much more effort than just going to work and getting a paycheck, but you can do it and it’s worth every hardship.

Don’t feel like you’ve wasted time in law and marketing and such, because there are very, very few writers in the world who got that way by studying writing academically. Anyone can learn writing just by reading a lot and then trying it on their own. By studying other things, you’ve filled your head with stuff to write about, which is often way harder. Look at how many “mainstream” novels are about literature professors who want to write books: there’s a ton of them, because those guys write what they know, and that’s all that they know. Take the time to study new things and learn new awesome stuff, and then you’ll have more to write about. I started in marketing and advertising, just like you, writing brochures and websites and stuff for a long parade of health and beauty companies (and one scrapbooking company), and right now my agent is shopping around a science fiction novel I wrote about a health and beauty company that destroys the world. The more you know, the better, so hooray. Particularly if you have a family and a house and all kinds of other stuff to pay for, having a “real” job before the writing takes off is pretty much requisite, and I worked that marketing career for eight years, writing in my off hours, before I finally started selling books at a level that allowed me to quit and start writing full time.

What advice can I give you? The first thing is to point you to my podcast, Writing Excuses, which I do with three other authors (Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler). It’s completely free–I’m not trying to sell you anything–and designed for aspiring writers, with fifteen-minute episodes on everything from dialogue and plot to editing and talking to agents. We’ve been doing it every week for years, and there’s hundreds of hours of it posted online, and frankly there’s not much I can tell you that isn’t already presented more usefully there. Jump in on the current episodes, cherry pick the archives for your favorite topics, or just start at the beginning and try not to get overwhelmed.

Second: check out your local writing scene, looking for conventions, conferences, writing groups, and so on. Depending on where you live, and what genre(s) you’re trying to write, there are a ton of options out there–far more than you think, I can almost guarantee. Go to your local bookstore or library and ask if there are any writing groups that meet there; if they have a bulletin board, start your own group and post a notice. Do a quick Internet search for writing conventions, or SF conventions that might have a writing track. If you’re in or near Utah you’re in luck, because there’s a ton of stuff: CONduit, LTUE, LDStorymakers, Writing for Charity, Salt Lake City ComicCon, and more are all fantastic places to meet other authors. Wherever you are, there’s bound to be some kind of local (or near-local) convention. If you’re writing SF or fantasy, also consider WorldCon, World Fantasy, and Writing Superstars, though those are going to involve much more expense and travel. If you’re really serious and have the time/money to spare, considering signing up for Clarion or Clarion West, or some of the similar conventions out there, which are intensive, multi-week writing workshops with big-name authors teaching the classes. A cheaper option, if you can’t make any of these in person, is to go online to a place like NaNoWriMo’s website and start clicking through their forum to find the one for your region; it might be kind of sparse this time of year, but in the fall it will fill up with like-minded aspiring authors, who often do local meet-ups and might be interested in joining a writing group.

Third, and this is a big one: allow yourself to write a bad book. Don’t insist that your first or second or even fifth book be perfect, because they won’t be–give yourself the chance to try new things and screw them up and learn from your mistakes and try again. Your first book will teach you how to write your second, which will teach you how to write your third, and so on and so on until your books are as awesome as you’ve always wanted them to be. I didn’t get published until my sixth book, and like I said earlier it took me eight years of working other jobs before I got to that point. Nothing worthwhile is free, and if you want to get good at something you need to work at it. The good news is, if you invest the time and effort, and really give it a sincere try, it will pay off. I see it happen every day.

I include this last section because I know people are going to ask about it: is it better to go traditional publishing, or self publishing? You’ll hear a lot of stuff on both sides, but the only true answer in my opinion is this: it’s better to not limit your options. They both have their ups and they both have their downs, so don’t worry about which one is better and just do everything. Write as much as you can, try different genres, try different publishing models, try all the new things you can find until you find something you love that works for you. “Write a lot until you’re good at it” applies to the business model just as much as the craft.

I hope this helps. Good luck, and please keep in touch. I can’t always write big advice essays, and I have a policy against reading people’s manuscripts–I used to do it, but I just don’t have the time and had to force myself to stop. What I can do, though, is cheer you on and exult in your successes. And if you have the chance to say hello at a con or a signing or whatever, please do. I’d love to shake your hand and share a…well, I don’t drink, so how about some hot wings?



The RUINS book tour!

February 10th, 2014

These events have been in my calendar for a couple of weeks, but I thought it would be a good idea to collect them all here in a single post for ease of reference. RUINS is the climactic finale of the Partials Sequence, and probably my favorite book in the series, and it comes out March 11! My physical tour will be limited, because that’s also the same time FRAGMENTS comes out in Germany, and I’m kind of flying back and forth to cover both. I do have a handful of awesome US events planned, though, so if you’re in the neighborhood come say hi!

March 17: Atlanta, Georgia
Books For Less – North Point
6:30 pm
(I think this is technically Alpharetta. This is a new location for me, but it’s run by one of my favorite booksellers, and he always does a great job with events.)

March 19: San Diego, California
Mysterious Galaxy
7:00 pm
(My brother, fellow HarperTeen author Robison Wells, is joining me for this one. This is a great store, and I tend to get people from as far as LA at these events, so if you’re anywhere in southern California please drop by.)

March 21: San Francisco, California
Borderlands Books
7:00 pm
(How much do I love this store? It’s one of the best in the country. Rob’s joining me for this one, too.)

March 22: Portland, Oregon
Powell’s – Beaverton
2:00 pm
(Don’t forget, this is the one in Beaverton, not the one downtown. It’s also in the afternoon, not the evening, so don’t miss it! This is a great store and tends to have a pretty big turnout with great Q&A. Rob will be with me at this one as well.)

March 25: Orem, Utah
Barnes & Noble
7:00 pm
(This event will be a full blown authorpalooza, brimming over with some of Utah’s best SF, fantasy, and YA authors. I don’t know the full guest list, but it’s guaranteed to have plenty of awesome folks.)

March 26: Salt Lake City, Utah
Weller Book Works
7:00 pm
(The final, triumphant event of the tour. Rob will be with me, the crowd will be huge, and much awesomeness will be had by all.)

Vikings, and Historical Accuracy

January 31st, 2014

Yes, sorry, this is two “rant about TV shows” blog posts in a row, but this is bugging me. My problems with Almost Human last week were mostly based on the writers not trying very hard to make up a new, imaginary world, but my problem with the History Channel show Vikings is in some ways opposite, and far more damning: the world they’re portraying is not new or imaginary, but they’re getting it wrong ON PURPOSE.

Historical fiction is hard—it’s far away the genre I read most often, but it’s not something I’ve ever written, or am likely to write, because the level of research you have to put into it is insane. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what we think a viking is, but how many of you could describe, right off the top of your head, an authentic viking meal? Outfit? System of government? How much do you really know about their economics, their level of technology, or their day-to-day lives? The image we have of vikings is a very modern, romanticized one, and if you’re going to write a book or make a show about them you need to know these things. And yes, you can be forgiven for some inaccuracies, because a lot of what we know about the vikings is shaky at best—they kept no real written records, and most of what’s recorded about them was written a few hundred years after the fact, and usually by someone the vikings had attacked. These kinds of accounts are inherently, purposefully biased. If you get something wrong because of that, well, that’s okay. We understand.

What bugs me, though—and it really, really bugs me—is this quote from Michael Hirst, the creator of the show, in an interview with the NY Times: “We want people to watch it. A historical account of the vikings would reach hundreds, occasionally thousands, of people. Here we’ve got to reach millions.” Let me say that again just to let it sink in: the creator of the show has deliberately chosen to get his facts wrong, because he believes that getting them right would turn people away. You see, there are many, many facts about viking culture, and the cultures they raided, that are NOT lost in history, that are verified by well-known evidence, and this guy has apparently decided to screw that crap because historical accuracy would ruin his show. This, I assume, is why his vikings live in frame houses instead of viking longhouses—a type of house so synonymous with vikings that they’re in the houses’ name. No one would ever watch a show about people who live in longhouses! Don’t be stupid! He had to put them in frame houses because he wants to reach millions of people, and that takes some sacrifices.

What else has he sacrificed in the name of viewership? Everything we know about viking government, for one thing. Vikings lived in a very democratic society: one man was in charge, but only because the rest of the men trusted him to lead them successfully, and if he failed in his job, they stopped following him and followed someone else. The vikings in the tv show live in some kind of feudal autocracy, beholden to an Earl (played, I must admit, with deliciously slimy aplomb by Gabriel Byrne) who orders them around and screws everything up and contributes nothing valuable to their society. Real vikings would throw that guy out on his ear—if he doesn’t lead the raids, he doesn’t get to lead anywhere else—but the tv vikings kowtow just like, well, like the feudal English warriors that the writers are presumably more familiar with. This error, honestly, I don’t suspect is a fault of their research so much as their storytelling: we’re so culturally accustomed to stories about oppressive rulers, especially in the last few years, that it was simply easier/flashier/more topical to write a show about one man fighting back against a tyrannical government. They could have put in the time and effort to come up with an equally compelling story about egalitarian viking politics, but they didn’t want to, and as a fellow storyteller I can kind of see that—it’s lazy, but it’s a good story, and that counts for a lot. But it drives me up the wall to hear them excuse their laziness by saying it’s the only way to make people watch. The hell it is. Don’t blame us because you couldn’t be bothered to come up with an authentic viking story for your viking tv show—that’s all on you. Write a good story and we’ll be there for it.

The list of historical inaccuracies goes on and on. They depict what is considered to be the start of the “Viking Age,” kicked off by an attack on Lindisfarne (accurate!), using advanced navigational tools (accurate!), but they bury it in a story about how that’s the first time the vikings ever discovered the saxon islands existed (woefully inaccurate by several centuries!). When the vikings pillage the Lindisfarne monastery (accurate!), they meet a monk who speaks norse (plausible! But completely nonsensical in their proposed world where the norse and the saxons didn’t know about each other!); the monk tells them his land is called England (inaccurate by almost a hundred years!); they run afoul of the local king named Aelle (inaccurate by about seventy years!); they fight Aelle’s men in a shield wall (accurate!), but rely on archers instead of spears and axes for most of their attacks (inaccurate and ridiculous!). At this period of history (approximately 793 AD, given what we know about Lindisfarne), the kingdom that would eventually become England was still split into four mini-kingdoms, and the one the vikings hit first was called Northumbria, and it was not nearly as clean or as advanced or as unilaterally Christian as the show depicts it. The process that united these kingdoms began with Alfred the Great, who is allegedly slated to appear in season two of the show despite the fact that he wasn’t even born until 849, and wasn’t king until 871, and that the entire purpose of his rule was to create England which their version of the show has already done, and that he still didn’t manage to create it until his grandson Athelstan finally united the four kingdoms under a single ruler in 924. What are they going to have Alfred do in 793? Make up some kind of crisis to separate the kingdoms, so he can reforge them again? The more they try to conflate these different elements of history, the more inaccurate they’re going to get.

And you know what? It all comes back to Michael Hirst’s lame excuse. They could tell an accurate story if they wanted to: they could depict the Vikings, and the Northumbrians, and the clothes and the buildings and the rulers and everything else, completely correctly if they wanted. It would not be any harder or more expensive than the show they’re currently making. And they’ve chosen not to do that, and that’s their choice, but to blame it on the viewership just gets me so mad. What kind of audience is he imagining that would refuse to watch a show because they call it Northumbria instead of England? What’s so amazing about his laughable shield wall tactics that’s going to expand their audience from thousands to millions? Why should we trust a show from a man with so little faith in real history he thinks he has to screw it up on purpose or no one will watch?

I complained about this on twitter, and many of you agreed, and many of you said “I don’t care, that show’s awesome.” And you know what? The show is awesome, and I’m enjoying it, and even though I sit there and point out all the inaccuracies to my wife while we watch it (a habit I get from my Dad, who does the same with World War II movies), I will probably keep watching it. But my plea to the universe, or at least to the makers of TV shows, is the same now as it was with Almost Human: yes, your show is fun, and yes, it’s entertaining, but can’t it also be good? Can’t you get your science/history/laws/physics/whatever right? Do I really have to ignore hundreds of years of well-known history just to enjoy your show?

Can’t our entertainment be awesome AND great? Why should we settle for less?

Almost Human, and Writing the Future

January 22nd, 2014

I discovered this week that Almost Human was on Hulu–I don’t know why I didn’t just assume it would be, but I think I mostly forgot the show existed. I knew it was coming, because “Karl Urban stars in a TV show about android cops in the future” is the kind of thing that will inevitably show up on my radar long before it airs, but since I don’t live in the US I never saw any commercials for it, and it eventually just faded from my mind, and by the time it actually debuted on TV I’d forgotten about it. So score one for advertising, I guess, as I suffered for the lack of it. Anyway. Learning about this show is important to me, because I just sold a cyberpunk trilogy to HarperCollins, and it’s always good to know what other people are doing in your genre. Almost Human is not technically “cyberpunk,” but it’s near-future, and that ends up hitting a lot of the same notes. So I watched it.

It’s…kind of terrible.

It’s also kind of awesome. Karl Urban I have loved in pretty much everything I’ve ever seen him in. I think he’s fantastic. Michael Ealy, who plays his android partner, I’ve never seen in anything before, but he’s similarly fantastic, and the banter between the two of them is the best part of the show. They have a wonderful buddy cop vibe, with a surprising amount of humor, and the best scenes in the show are invariably the two of them in their car, driving to or from a case, just chatting and arguing and ribbing each other. This all works perfectly.

The problem is pretty much everything else on the show.

(Let me preface this entire discussion with a pre-emptive strike against the inevitable comments that the show is fun, and really not that terrible: please realize that “really not that terrible” is one of the worst recommendations you can possibly give to anything. We live in a world surrounded by thousands of years of collected knowledge and art, and I think it’s a painful waste of my time and yours to spend it on something that’s “really not that terrible.” Do we really want to make our entertainment decisions using a scale that only goes from “terrible” to “really not that terrible”? Isn’t there room for “good” on there? Or maybe even “awesome”? I have, at most, three or four hours in a day to spend consuming media, and that’s being generous and losing a lot of sleep; I could watch a TV show that’s fun but kind of lame, or I could watch one (or a movie, or read a book) that’s fun but also awesome. I know which one I’ll pick.)

Almost Human has some basic problems that all cop shows have (terrible cop procedure, blatant disregard for actual law, implausible detective work), and some characterization problems (the token women are underutilized cutouts, ironically far less developed and human than the android), but the things that really bug me are the science fiction aspects. By which I mean: there are virtually none. My attitude about this is weird, and I recognize that, but here’s the thing: in movies, I’m willing to give SF the benefit of the doubt, and in TV it goes the other way. If I’m looking up movie ratings on rottentomatoes, for example, and I see an SF movie hovering around 75%, I know that I can add at least 10%, maybe more, to my own personal enjoyment of it, solely because it’s SF. Being SF means I’ll like it more than an equivalent non-SF movie. With TV I’ve realized that I have an opposite standard–I expect TV SF to be good SF, and to give a good showing in the genre. An SF cop show has to be better than a non-SF cop show, or I’ll hate it. Maybe this is because of TV’s excellent history with SF (Star Trek, Cowboy Bebop, Battlestar Galactica, etc.), or maybe this is because movies are more acceptable as style-over-substance spectacle (Star Wars, et al.), or maybe it’s simply because TV has entered such a golden age of excellent writing (Breaking Bad, Justified, etc.) that I hold it to a higher standard. Maybe it’s just because adding SF to a TV show gives me extra nits to pick: Castle is a fun show with terrible cop behavior, but Almost Human is a fun show with terrible cop behavior AND terrible worldbuilding. I don’t know.

Regardless of my weird differences between movies and TV, though, I know straight out that my biggest complaint about Almost Human comes from the fact that it’s a genre I work in, and it’s doing it all wrong, and that bothers me as a professional futurist. The worldbuilding in Almost Human is awful, and for two main reasons: it doesn’t feel like a plausible projection of the future, and it doesn’t hold together as a consistent setting.

First: Almost Human doesn’t feel like a plausible projection of the future. Let’s start with phones as a great example. Some of the people in the show have these neat little video phones that project on their hands, and others have slim little cell phones, but that’s all they are: phones. No one ever checks the Internet on them, no one ever uses a hands-free headset or earpiece (except the scientist guy), and no human ever uses them to stay connected to the net in real time. My 12-year-old daughter has a prepaid smartphone without a data plan, and she’s more connected than anyone in this show. The main android will occasionally do things like issue speeding tickets wirelessly, or access a database with his head, but it’s a rare thing, and he has to stop and make a big deal of it. Consider the episode where a hacker kills people on FutureYouTube: there’s a scene where the cops find a woman with a bomb around her neck. While the android defuses the bomb (talked through it by the scientist over the phone, instead of just downloading bomb defusal information from the police database, which all by itself sets this movie 100 years further in the past than it wants to be), the other cop asks the woman to describe her attacker. They look the guy up later, but why wasn’t anyone looking him up right then and there? I’ll concede that the writers are not imagining a future with Google-Glass style wearables, which I think is wrong but whatever. Why weren’t the people listening back at the precinct jumping on normal Google to find this guy? Why didn’t the cop look him up himself on what I have to assume is an Internet-capable phone? Forget near-future predictions–we have the technology TODAY to have found that guy’s online profile and started tracking him down before the bomb was even defused. In a show that at least gives a head nod to police drones and tracing technology, they could have found this guy and had him under surveillance within minutes, or explained in one line of dialogue that he’d used his hacking skill to hide from them. Instead we wait, like cavemen, and then find him instantly an hour later when we bother to look him up.

While we’re talking about the hacker episode: what is going on with the Internet in Almost Human? Token Female Cops 1 and 2 have a clunky conversation about how the bomb videos are appearing on “the darknet” (a term the writers obviously don’t understand), and talk about bringing in a cybercrimes unit, but why is there not already a cybercrimes unit, or at least a cybercrimes guy, on the force? In 2050, is there seriously nobody in the whole police station capable of tracking down the IP address of a live video with thousands of viewers? Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a half-hour cop comedy, has one line in one episode about hiring a teen hacker to help with their online security, which all by itself gives that show a more believable prediction of the future than anything Almost Human has ever done.

I’ll continue griping about their use of technology in my second point about inconsistent setting, but let’s finish the first point by mentioning the sheer non-futuristic nature of the show in general. There’s an episode about drugs that has exactly three futuristic elements: a subcutaneous listening device, a magical drink that turns you into a GPS locator, and the androids themselves. That’s it. The drug isn’t real, but it isn’t science-fictional either, it’s just a green drink that makes you high and kills you, and honestly I’m being very generous counting the subcutaneous wire, too. Turn the magical drink into a radio beacon, give the cops a magnifying glass and a forensics bag, and that entire episode could take place in the 80s. The episode about artificial hearts has a little chip that could exist today; the YouTube episode combines 10-year-old Internet technology with a bomb-around-the-neck trope that’s older than I am. The magical sniper bullet episode, while kind of ridiculous, at least posits two science fictional technologies (the magical sniper bullet and the memory scrubber) and then crafts a story that couldn’t exist without them. That’s awesome, I admit, and the fact that the most well-developed SF is from the most recent episode gives me hope, but not much: it turns out that the sniper bullet episode was actually the second one written and filmed, right after the pilot, which means the SF writing has been getting worse over time, not better.

Someone on twitter, when I started complaining about this, described Almost Human as being a projection not of modern technology, but of 80s technology; it’s the same future imagined in movies like RoboCop. This is actually a fantastic description of how the show feels, right down to Karl Urban’s silly name and Road Warrior car. Someone else linked me to an io9 article positing that this 80s feel was intentional on the part of the writers, as kind of a retro-future period piece, but that I don’t buy for a minute. Too much of our current technology (web cams, bitcoins, surveillance drones) is creeping in; if they were actively trying to recreate the future as we saw it in the 80s, there’d be less of that and more of other things, like virtual reality and Asian influence. I find it far more likely that they decided to make an android show, gathered up all the near-future elements that were already in the public consciousness (ie, RoboCop and the rest of the stuff from the 80s), and called it a day.

Now: onto my second point about creating a consistent setting. They haven’t. The world the characters live in is almost identical to our own, for one thing, with the obvious addition of androids; there is no meaningful way in which daily life would be any different for them than for us, if you don’t count Karl Urban randomly murdering robots in the middle of the street with no repercussions. The Internet functions the same for them as it does for us (though they seem oddly less connected to it, as mentioned earlier), and in more or less the same ways. Where is the Internet of Things? In 2014 someone has already hacked a fridge, and connected devices are going to get more prevalent, and that’s going to change the way we live. Where are the self-driving cars? Where’s the wearable tech? Almost Human takes one or two science fictional ideas per episode, uses them in the service of some very run-of-the-mill cop stories, and then drops them. This is not what the future will be like, folks. We used to think the future was all flying cars and hoverboards, but even Back To The Future 2 was smart enough to recognize that the real impact of the future will be in the smaller things that change the way we live from day to day–things like Mr Fusion that turns garbage into energy, or a food rehydrator that sits on your counter like a microwave. Real world futurism is about things like smartphones, which aren’t just small computers, they’re disruptive technologies that have changed the way we work, play, and communicate. They have a meaningful and measurable impact on society. None of the technology in Almost Human, including the androids, has an impact on anyone.

Consider one tiny, throw-away FX shot in the magical sniper bullet episode: Karl Urban is in an anger management class, and we get a quick overhead shot to establish that they’re all sitting in a circle, and there’s a little drone hovering across from one side to the other. I can’t tell if it’s a drink tray or a garbage can, but wow–that’s a real technology, plausibly projected into the future, and I got really excited because I use drones a lot in my cyberpunk. How will drones be used in the future? We already have things like the Roomba, and that kind of servant-robot has a huge possibility of becoming a disruptive technology that changes the way we live. If drones are common enough that they can be used as drink trays or garbage cans, what else will they be used for? How about cleaning or laundry drones in people’s homes? Drones that walk dogs? Camera drones in populated areas? How about surveillance and security–if I could get a little hover drone to follow my daughter around and tase anyone that tried to attack her, I’d totally do it. Or how about a roving database, since the cops don’t seem to have Internet phones? Even if they don’t have them in the field, they could have them in the station: little computers that follow them around, looking things up, projecting things on screens or walls. That’s kind of what the androids do, but since energy usage is obviously a concern (at least in the one episode where it mattered to the plot), drones would be a more efficient way of conserving it. Drones have so much potential, both in the real world and in science fiction, that they should have a huge impact on the world, but just like the energy shortage the show uses them only when it wants to, without any regard for how that technology would actually change society.

Another example: the same magic bullet episode showed another one-shot technology when the android walked in front of an advertisement and it started talking to him. Yes, they stole this one wholesale from Minority Report, but I do think it’s plausible: once advertisers figure out how to identify you, whether by retinal scan or smartphone locator or an RFID on your credit card, they’re going to start approaching you directly. They already do it on your computer, and it’s only a matter of time before they do it in other arenas as well. Researching for a novel the other day I looked up a compression pump on Google, to see what the PSI was; Google remembered this, and added that data to the profile it keeps of me, and the next time I logged into facebook I had an ad in the sidebar for compression pumps. As part of my search I clicked on an Amazon link, curious about the price; I was logged into my Amazon account at the time, so it saw and remembered, and a few days later Amazon emailed me a list of amazing deals on compression pumps. Targeted advertising is everywhere online, and you can bet good money that as soon as they know how to extend that reach into the real world, they will. How long before I walk into a hardware store, get recognized by its software, and a little screen pops up offering me a 5% discount on compression pumps? They could even have a drone fly in to lead me to the right aisle, and answer basic questions about PSI and maybe try to upsell me on some nozzle attachments. This is not crazy, out-there futurism, this is right around the corner, and it’s going to change the way we interact with the world…except on Almost Human, where it’s only used in one scene to help the characters figure out a clue, and then it never happens again to anybody.

The problem, of course, is that Almost Human isn’t trying to build a science-fictional world, they’re trying to tell cop stories with a science fiction twist. The plot is king, and the setting (and most of the characters) are after-thoughts. It’s the difference between looking at a mystery plot and thinking “how can I add some crazy tech in here,” and looking at a piece of crazy tech and thinking “how will this change the change the way my characters live and think and act?” Start with the first one and you get a fun cop show that kind of looks like SF, from a certain angle; start with the second, and you get a great SF show in which you can tell all the cop stories you want. It’s a subtle difference, I’ll grant you, but as a fan of SF I think it’s a very important one. I can’t watch Almost Human without seeing all the holes where it could have done something great and didn’t bother. I will probably keep watching for a while, because the two lead characters are legitimately great, and I want the show to succeed. I want it to grow into itself and become the awesome near future show it could be, and that means we need to support it now so it doesn’t get canceled. But there’s a vast horde of good and potentially-great SF on TV right now (Sleepy Hollow, Person of Interest, etc.), and my genre loyalty only goes so far. If the show reaches a point where its good points (two characters) are outweighed by its bad ones (everything else), I’ll give up and watch something else.

By the way: in writing this, I realize I’m setting a pretty high bar for myself with my cyberpunk series. I can’t whine and moan about their SF and then turn around make the same mistakes. Going full circle to the beginning of my post, this is why it’s so important for writers to also be readers/watchers/listeners of everything in their genre. You need to keep your finger on the pulse, and know what other people are doing, and think about how you can do it differently or better. My take on the near future was already very different from Almost Human (I have no androids, for one thing), but analyzing how I react to the show, and what I like about it and what I don’t, and most importantly why, has already helped me to see my own work in a new light, and see where the weaknesses are that I need to shore up. My series doesn’t even come out until Fall 2015, so I’ve got some time to work on it. I’ll do my best to make it as awesome as I can.

Eldritch Horror

January 6th, 2014

My kids (with some strong hints from me) gave me a copy of Eldritch Horror for Christmas. It’s the newest in Fantasy Flight Games’ massive line of Cthulhu mythos games, and is presented as a kind of updated/streamlined version of Arkham Horror, which despite many recommendations I have never played. I’ve had the chance to play Eldritch Horror a few times over the past couple of weeks, though, and I absolutely love it. I love games that tell a story–I like winning, but I consider that secondary to the experience of playing a game, and nothing improves that experience for me like a really great story. This is one of the reasons that I love Last Night on Earth so much: it has so much flavor, and creates such a strong narrative as you play it, that you remember it long after, almost like a good movie or a book. Games that create this kind of situation, that put you in a place not just to play a game but to experience something cool and dramatic, are the reason I love gaming. Eldritch Horror has this in spades.

The board represents the entire world, in the classic Lovecraftian era of 1920/1930, and in that way kind of resembles Fortune and Glory, but with a strong horror focus and a game engine that’s much deeper and more polished. Each player takes the role of a specific character, and you work together against a scenario: one of the Greater Old Ones is starting to awaken, and you have to work together to find the right clues, solve the right riddles, and save the world. There are a ton of random encounter cards, and a great assortment of characters that each play surprisingly uniquely, making each game different even when replaying a familiar scenario.

I could go into specifics, but really there’s no better recommendation I can make than simply recounting one of the standout story moments from my last game. I was playing solo (it’s a fantastic solo game) with two characters: an investigator and a psychic. The investigator was great, thanks to an early ally that gave him a big boost exploring cities, and he’d managed to accrue a lot of great equipment–balanced by a few Condition cards (like ‘Debt,’ ‘Hallucinations,’ and so on) that represented the high price he’d paid for his power. The Conditions are fun, because there are several different versions of each, and you never know which one you get until a game effect tells you to flip it over and see what happens. Maybe you’re in debt to some mob thugs, who’ll come and break your legs, or maybe you’re in debt to a warlock who wants to steal some of your sanity. It’s a great system. The psychic, on the other hand, had stronger willpower than the investigator and stayed a little more pure, but as a consequence struggled for a lot of the game. We managed to solve two of the three mysteries required to stop Yog-Sothoth from waking up, but time was running out, and I needed more clues–I was desperate for clues. How desperate? I got the chance to find out when my investigator took a boat across the Atlantic, following a lead from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, and halfway there ran into some mysterious creatures with the information I needed. They offered to share it, but only for a price: two clues in exchange for a Dark Pact. A Dark Pact is a Condition that could potentially devastate me, up to and including just killing the character outright, but I didn’t need to worry about that, right? The odds that the next big event card would trigger the pact were extremely small, and even then I had to roll incredibly poorly for anything to happen–and even if my investigator died, who cared? With those two clues my psychic could cast the spell I needed and win the game on literally the very next turn. I had this game in the bag. What could a little deal with the devil hurt me?

End of turn event card: trigger the Dark Pact. Oops. Well, no matter, I probably won’t roll a…oh. Oops. Looks like the mysterious creatures are calling me in to fulfill my half of the bargain. Still, no worries, because even if I die I’m fine, so let’s flip the card over and see what I have to do….

My investigator has to sacrifice ANOTHER character. Not himself.

The investigator’s dangerous flirtation with the forces of darkness has led him too far! He’s made one too many shady deals, and now it’s time to pay the piper. He betrays the psychic, losing his very humanity in the bargain, and the dark gods laugh. I struggle desperately for another couple of turns, solving the final mystery just a fraction of a second too late, and Yog-Sothoth awakes. He repays my poor investigator with a dragon to the face (a Hound of Tindalos eats him), which is a fitting punishment for such a fallen wretch, and though I still get to keep going with new characters it’s simply too late. Yog-Sothoth devours the world, and all is lost in madness.

I know several gamers who would hate to lose the game on what is essentially a random effect like that, and if that’s you, I’m sorry. This game is not for you. I LOVED it. I’ll remember that fateful decision and it’s soul-crushing repercussions for years to come, far more than a good hand of 7 Wonders or a clever bit of action timing in Agricola–both games I love, but for different reasons. Random effects by themselves can be onerous and frustrating, but random effects coupled with rich storytelling and tense situations are the stuff of pure drama. It’s all about the experience, and if you love games that give you a thrilling experience, definitely give Eldritch Horror a try.

My Essen Report!

November 5th, 2013

I went to Essen last week! And since I bought a ton of games, and played a ton more, and since I desperately owe you guys a blog post, I think it’s high time for a rundown of the show.

“Essen” is the nickname for Internationale Spieletag, a board game fair that takes place every year in the town of Essen, Germany. Did I say “a” boardgame fair? Because it’s really “the” boardgame fair—the biggest in the world, and by far the most important. Three massive halls of a gargantuan convention center fill up with game companies, game retailers, hobby shops, demo booths, rabid fans, and eager designers trying to promote their games, pitch to publishers, or both. PAX and GenCon might be bigger, but they also have a much wider focus. Essen is tabletop games, pure and simple, with four solid days of nothing but games, games, games.

(And of course bratwurst, because this is Germany, and that’s the quickest, cheapest meal to grab while on your way to more games.)

I’ve wanted to go to Essen for years, but last year was the first time it was financially feasible—since I live about three hours away now, and 60 Euros for a train ticket is a lot cheaper than 1200 bucks for a plane. I talked my friend Will, a fellow game geek I’ve known since second grade, who happened to be studying in Oxford at the time, to come and join me, and I loved it so much that I immediately planned a return trip. This time I got a hotel room early (landing me with a much better one) and managed to convince my friend Nick, from my old game group in Utah, to pony up the $1200 and join me. I also brought my 10-year-old son, because he happened to be on vacation most of the time—I had to get him excused from one day of school, which is no small task in Germany, but we did it. The three of us headed up and made our plans.

I’d been watching the various Essen previews on BoardGameGeek for a while, so I’d already concocted a list of what I wanted to see while I was there. The first stop on the first day was Portal Games, for a game I’d actually preordered: Legacy: the Testament of Duke de Crecy. I bought this one sight unseen, based solely on the previews, and I was not disappointed. This ended up being my hands-down favorite game of the fair, so I’ll save my description of it for last.

After that we wandered a bit, taking in the sights, and we ran across another game from my watch list: Rokoko, though I got the Eagle Games version so the box says “Rococo.” The only place we could find that was running a demo of this one was Pegasus Spiele, their German publisher, and their booth was a crowded morass, so I bit the bullet and bought this one, again, unplayed and untested. This was worth it to me, though, because I got it with my two daughters in mind; they love to play games with me, but they really get tired of how many “daddy games” have fighting in them, and Rococo is about making dresses for a fancy ball. I brought it home and played it with them (12yo and 7yo), and it was a major hit, so well done. The 7yo isn’t likely to win anytime soon, but she can play it easily, and the game is still fun for me. I recommend this one highly.

Day one also saw the purchase of my other favorite game from the fair, and probably the wackiest, most out-there game I’ve played all year. I dropped by the Repos booth to pick up the 7 Wonders: Wonder Pack, and saw that they were running demos for Rampage, another game from my watch list and from the same 7 Wonders designer, Antoine Bauza. He was already one of my favorite game designers, and Rampage cemented this status more firmly than ever. Put simply, it’s a game where you set up by building a city out of cardboard tiles and little wooden people (as shown here), and then the point of the game is to KNOCK IT DOWN WITH GIANT WOODEN DINOSAURS. This is already cool, but what makes it so great is that the mechanics behind the destruction are classically Euro-gamer, with careful management of actions, and scoring based on set collection, and all kinds of “respectable” gaming tropes…it’s just that in this case, the actions are things like flicking your dinosaur across the table to move it, crokinole style, or picking it up and dropping it on a building full of tasty wooden meeples. It is equal parts ridiculous and awesome, and just as much fun for adults as it is for my 5-year-old. Huge kudos to Bauza and his co-designer, Ludovic Maublanc, for even attempting this insane balancing act, let alone pulling it off.

While I spent the fair looking for games I could play with my kids, my friend nick was on the prowl for space games; he’s a huge fan of Twilight Imperium, and we playtested five or six similar titles looking for something that scratched the same itch but in a short time frame, and/or a better sense of focus. He really loved Quantum until a string of bad dice rolls killed it for him, and kind of liked Theseus, but not enough to pick it up. All of these brain-burning space games were wearing on my 10yo’s patience, however, so when an eager demo-er at some random booth offered to show us a kiddie-looking dungeon crawl game, we said yes as a concession to my son. That’s how we stumbled onto Super Fantasy, a game I’d never seen from a publisher I’d never heard of, which Nick and I both bought about 40 minutes later. Despite the kiddie-looking art, Super Fantasy has some of the most clever, tactical, hack-and-slash gaming I have ever played. It uses dice as action points, allowing you to allocate them however you want each turn. You only get six, but say you need to move, kill a monster, and pick a lock on a chest: how do you divvy them up? Can you afford to risk two dice on the attack, or do you need three? The game handles special abilities, experience and leveling, treasure, equipment, and so on in the simple, elegant way that other dungeon crawlers like Descent have always tried for and missed the mark, and yet without sacrificing any fantasy flavor. I especially loved the way you charge up abilities and then spend them. Such a great game, and with phenomenal support: the Red Glove website posts new maps and scenarios for free, and there are two expansions coming in the next few months. If you like fantasy and dungeon crawls, definitely check this one out.

My last purchase of Day One (yes, this was still all Day One) was Luchador!, a little dice game from my watch list that had some of the best demo staff at Essen. You can tell a good demo from two factors: they control the length of the demos (so the tables aren’t tied up for hours), and they make the games look fun. The Luchador! demo guys were REALLY getting into it, which not only attracted a big crowd but helped everyone, even if they weren’t actually playing, figure out how the game worked. Fun little touches, like having to high-five your team-mate in a tag-team match, and shouting out the countdown when you try to pin somebody, go a long way. This wasn’t a groundbreaking game by any means, but it’s fun and short and portable, and that fills an awful lot of niches for a guy with five kids. It’s simple enough for my 5yo, which is a nice bonus, plus there’s a lot of cool Lucha Libre flavor, including wonderful descriptions of each character’s special moves. Some of the Mexican culture bits are awkward, like the name “El Cobra Vuelo,” which doesn’t really work, but that’s more than made up for by names like “Ay! Dolores,” which you’ll have to trust me, is hilarious.

How did we spend our first night? By playing Super Fantasy, obviously. Seriously, guys, it’s an incredible game.

Day Two saw a distinct lull in the purchasing frenzy, mostly because we’d already hit most of our watch list games and were now on the prowl for something new. I wanted to love Countdown: Special Ops, but it had some weird logic problems and didn’t really hit the “careful planning caper team” sweet spot I was hoping for. I really wanted to try out Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games, but every time I went by they said “we’re demoing that tomorrow, come back,” and eventually they ran out of tomorrows. Exodus: Proxima Centauri was easily the best space game we tried all weekend, but they didn’t have any promos and Nick was pressed for space in his luggage, so he resolved to just pick it up after he got home. Why was Nick pressed for space? Because our one major purchase of the day was a big one. A significant subset of Essen games are miniatures games, and we often found ourselves stopping to admire some jaw-droppingly gorgeous minis only to demo them and realize that the rules are terrible; it’s almost like the rules are an afterthought, as an excuse to sell the figures. When we finally stumbled onto Dropzone Commander, we were shocked and delighted to realize that the rules were every bit as awesome as the minis. It’s an “epic scale” game, meaning that the infantry are about 10mm high and come five to a base, with the main units being tanks and air support; the game focuses on rapid deployment and redeployment, and it plays fast and smooth while still having an impressive amount of depth. They offered a starter set with two basic armies, but Nick went whole hog and bought a “large army” bundle for each of the four factions. They threw in some templates and two massive terrain sets for free, and we walked away with a hefty pile and a serious airline baggage weight limit problem.

I don’t think I bought any games on Day Two, though I did break down and buy my son a foam sword from the Mytholon booth. I did find three of the Lord of the Rings Adventure Packs I needed, and in English even, but I didn’t have enough cash on me so they promised to hold them so I could come back the next morning. I hit an ATM bright and early on Day Three and swung back to pick them up, and they gave me too much change; when I pointed this out and gave their money back, they gave me two free Munchkin promo cards, in German, which I will happily mail (and possibly write on, with John Kovalic’s permission) to whoever can give me the most compelling reason in the comments.

Day Three was another flurry of buying, but tempered by learning that some of my watch list games were delayed in production, and thus unavailable at the fair. The main one in this category was Sultaniya, which I was really excited about, but oh well. The first purchase of the day was Tokaido: Crossroads, the expansion for another Antoine Bauza game. I also picked up the special promo character. I got the base game, Tokaido, at last year’s Essen, but despite the stunning art the game itself was too simple to really enjoy with anyone but my 5yo and 7yo; they love it, though, so back I went to keep the collection complete. The new one adds some more depth, but I don’t know if it will enter my adult game night rotation yet. Still, though—that art is incredible.

Another game with incredible art is Ace Detective, from Passport Games, which I’d been eyeing all weekend in its little back corner of Hall 3. It’s a storytelling game about noir detectives, where you chain cards together and weave a cooperative story about a murder investigation, with the added fun of being able to place “evidence” on different suspects to see which one is guilty at the end. It’s kind of a combination of Once Upon A Time and certain parts of Android, but more focused than the former and far more playable than the latter. The best part, though, like I said, is the art: the cards are made with original paintings—and sometimes original quotes—from Black Mask magazine, an old pulp detective rag that gives the game a delicious noir flavor. We finally got to demo it on Day Three, and I snapped it up right after.

Nick wanted to play some of the more complex games, like Nations (which I loved) and Amerigo (which was being demoed very poorly by Queen Games, so we never got a chance to play it). I was having fun—we even got to talk to Rustan Hakansson, a co-designer of Nations, and he signed Nick’s game when he bought it—but my son was getting restless again, so we made another goal to play absolutely anything he thought looked cool. He must have been in an archeological mood, because we tried Relic Runners (which he and Nick both liked more than I did) and Escape: The Curse of the Temple (which was another Queen Games title, so we had to literally force our way into a demo game. They REALLY need to control their demo space a little better). Escape has been out for a while now, long enough to have two expansions, but I’d never heard of it until Mur Lafferty recommended it last month at VCON. It’s a real-time game, with the same “10-minute CD” thing I loved in Space Alert, but instead of brain-burning puzzle-solving it’s a mad dash through a ruined temple, trying to lift a curse and escape before the CD stops and the temple collapses. It’s a fantastic group game, because there are no turns and no down-time—you’re literally just rolling dice like mad, flipping tiles and moving little gems and trying to coordinate with the other players in ten breathless, chaotic minutes. I bought the game, both expansions, and all three Essen promos (plus the free promo), so I guess you could say we liked it :)

Our last stop of the day was the AEG booth, where I had an appointment the following day to pitch my card game to two of their design guys. AEG’s one of my favorite game companies, so I wanted to make sure to give myself time to play their stuff instead of just pitching and running. The two I was most interested in were Smash Up (which debuted at last year’s show, but I never played for lack of time) and Canalis (which is part of the Tempest line I spent all my time last year playing :) ). Canalis, I must admit, immediately turned us off due to the game art; the other Tempest games are gorgeous, but Canalis just didn’t seem to fit, and we (foolishly) lost interest. (But stay tuned, because we’ll get back to this in a minute.) Smash Up, on the other hand, looked great and seemed to play well, plus they were stupidly cheap, so I grabbed the game and the Cthulhu expansion (the other expansion was sold out), and we headed back to the hotel to play some games.

Day Four was shorter than the others, and I had some stuff to do off-site, so we only spent a few hours at the fair. Nick basically just went from booth to booth all morning, getting all the free promos he could find, and then we dedicated our entire afternoon to AEG. At last year’s fair an AEG guy had explained the Tempest line to us, and my friend Will and I both thought it sounded like a good setting for a heist-themed card game I’d been noodling around with. This year, armed with a year of playtesting, a fancy prototype, and an appointment for a pitch meeting, I was determined to wow them with my game. Because I was determined to be there on time, we got there almost an hour early, and since there was nothing else to do we sat down to a demo of Canalis. I noticed it was designed by Philip duBarry, who’d also designed Courtier, which was my number one game from last year’s fair, and wondered if I’d been too hasty in passing it off. Barely five minutes into the demo, Nick and I looked at each other in embarrassed surprise—this was one of the best games we’d played all weekend. Canalis combines card-drafting and resource-shipping and road-building (well, canal-building) in a deeply tactical, absolutely cutthroat game of city management, carefully balancing screw-you mechanics with long-term planning and a hint of randomness. It was AMAZING. If not for Legacy, duBarry might very well have designed my favorite game of the fair two fairs in a row. I bought it instantly, and Nick and I played again as soon as we got home.

My pitch session went well—the AEG guys didn’t LOVE my game (or they have very good poker faces), but they liked it, and wanted to take the prototype back to show everyone else. My focus on a heist/robbery theme was, they said, not a perfect fit for Tempest, which is more of an intrigue setting than a criminal one, but they started pitching ideas for how to retheme it before I could even offer any, so I take that as a good sign. We also discussed the possibility of just keeping the modern heist theme, which thrills me, because that’s one of my very favorite genres and it’s grossly under-served in the game market. What we did not discuss, but which would make me APOPLECTICALLY HAPPY, would be a retheme into AEG’s stellar Legend of the Five Rings setting, replacing my factions with samurai clans, and the heists with various forms of battle and court drama. Obviously, at this stage nothing is set in stone and they haven’t bought the design and I have no claims on any of their intellectual properties, so don’t quote me and don’t hold your breath. I will reiterate, though, that the pitch session went well, and I have high hopes that something will eventually come of it.

After the pitch, Canalis in hand, we returned to our hotel and camped out in the game room (a conference room dedicated to open gaming, because the city really rolls out the red carpet for the game fair). We gave a shot to Nick’s one blind impulse purchase, The Fallen City of Karez, which might have the worst rulebook ever written. The game is semi-co-op, which is Nick’s favorite thing, and it has a lot going for it in general, but it left us feeling kind of blah. We hope some further plays will reveal hidden wonders, but as it stood Nick was bummed he’d bought that instead of leaving room in his luggage for Canalis.

Our other play of the evening, bringing us full circle, was Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy. This is a game from Michiel Hendriks, a first-time designer, which he shopped around for three or four years even after winning a game design award for his prototype. Kind of puts a damper on my high hopes for my very first pitch session, doesn’t it? The game is simple and beautiful: you play the head of a family in pre-revolutionary France, arranging marriages and forming alliances and guiding your family through four generations of glory and honor. The gameplay is simple and incredibly intuitive, with the best melding of flavor and mechanics I’ve ever seen in a game. You could literally teach people how to play simply by describing the theme behind it, which is an astonishing feat. There’s even a single player variant (a big plus for me, stranded so far from my game group) where you play the game backwards, piecing together a family tree in a kind of genealogical puzzle. The game is deep, fun, flavorful, and eminently replayable. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and it wins the Dan Wells prize for “Best Game of Essen 2013.”

Will I be back next year? I would love to, but it will be tricky. I’m moving back to the US in August, and probably flying to WorldCon almost immediately after, which dries up the budget for transatlantic flights pretty soundly. That said, it’s my favorite con of the year, and it would take a minimum of convincing to make me throw budget to the wind and fly over for one more go. And if by some miracle I have a card game coming out (wildly unlikely, but you never know) I’ll be there with bells on.

And that’s my Essen report. Just over 3500 words, which would be an awesome word count for NaNoWriMo, but a tad long for a blog post. Even one of my blog posts. I promise I won’t wake you wait three months for the next one.