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.

The Crimson Pact, Volume 5

August 5th, 2013

A few years ago my friend Paul Genesse started working on a fantasy/SF/horror anthology with a cool, shared-world premise: there was a world invaded by demons, and a righteous army that sought to destroy them, except when they finally banished the demons they learned that they’d been tricked: getting banished was the demons’ plan all along, as they were now spread throughout the multiverse, ready to wreak their havoc on a wider scale than ever. The stories in the anthology are all about demons, in any world and setting you can imagine, all linked by this central concept. It was a great idea, and I wanted to contribute, but it was right in the middle of my work on the first PARTIALS book and there was simply no time.

The good news is, the anthology was so popular he did another one. And then another one, and then another one. Now at last he has compiled a fifth and final volume, packed to the brim with demon-y goodness (or, I suppose, badness), and I’m delighted to say that I’m in this one! Hooray! Volume five pulls it all together, tying up some of the serial stories (Larry Correia and Steve Diamond, for example, have been telling a multi-part, intertwined masterpiece over all five volumes), and bookending the origin story with a climactic and terrifying finale. I am honored to have my story, about a twisted source of manipulation and madness, as the first chapter in the book.

The great thing about The Crimson Pact series is that while they’re connected, they stories are designed to stand alone. You don’t have to read them all to appreciate one, and you don’t even have to read them in order. Paul has even gone so far as to reprint the origin story from volume 1 here again in volume 5, so if you want you can just buy the one volume and get the whole story. My story in particular you can read and enjoy without knowing anything about the Crimson Pact at all.

It’s fantastic fiction, some of it dark and scary, some of it action-packed, all of it thrilling. And there’s a LOT of it–the book is huge. At $4.99 for the ebook it’s an absolute steal, and the hefty print book is still a deal at around $19.00.

What are you waiting for? Buy it today, and join the doomed glory of the Crimson Pact.

League of Legends and the world of e-sports.

July 12th, 2013

I’m a big fan of video games, but one game that I’d never been able to get into was League of Legends–not so much that game specifically as the entire genre it belongs to. If you’re not into video games, don’t worry: I’m going to talk about writing, but first I have to set this stage. All you really need to know is that League of Legends is part of the MOBA genre–Multiplayer Online Battle Arena–in which teams of players fight through a Warcraft-style map and try to destroy each others’ base. It’s based on real-time strategy games, like Warcraft and Starcraft, but you only control one unit and you don’t have to build anything–you just fight.

Part of the reason I’d never got into this genre was that it seemed so intense. Some people play games for the challenge, others for the thrill of player-vs-player combat, but I’m a very casual gamer, who plays to relax, and MOBAs don’t really lend themselves to that style. When I’d see people talk about fine-tuning their timing or their team strategy or their clicks per minute I’d lose all interest, not because that’s a bad way to play but because it’s not what I tend to look for in a game. But on the other hand, I live in Germany now, far away from my friends and my old game group, so I’m always looking for ways to play with them online. When I saw that several of them had gotten into League of Legends I groaned and whined and re-installed the game anyway, and forced myself to try to figure it out purely as a way of spending time with my friends.

By coincidence, at this same time I was preparing a pitch for a new series–it remains unsold, so don’t hold your breath–with a main character deeply embedded in Internet culture. It’s a near future crime story, kind of “hacker Buffy in an cyberpunk Justified,” and I’ve been having a blast putting together the world they live in and the way their advanced technology has changed things. I tried to extrapolate how pervasive the Internet will be in the future, how connected we’ll be, how automated our world will become. One of the little details I wrote for the main character was that she paid for her extravagant Internet and energy bill by freelancing as an online privacy consultant, helping people keep their private data private. It’s a neat detail, and it says a lot about the world, but it’s boring. I couldn’t imagine any exciting scenes about consulting; certainly no action-packed ones, and not even any tense or suspenseful ones. Not a great choice for my heroine.

The confluence of these two events–League of Legends and cyberpunk outlining–was that I stumbled onto the world of e-sports, a multi-million dollar industry of professional video gamers. In some parts of the world, e-sports are already more popular than real sports. Fifty years in the future, if our culture becomes as embedded in the Internet as I predict in my book, I figure they’ll be even bigger. So boom: I made my character a professional gamer.

This works so well for the books, I can’t even tell you, but it’s not a side of gaming that I know anything about. E-sports is also, as you can imagine, the polar opposite of my personal gaming philosophy: it’s like the difference between going jogging in the morning and joining a track tournament. And yet for some reason, the idea of writing about super competitive video games totally got me into playing them. Where I used to be annoyed by the specific strategies, now I’m completely fascinated by them; instead of finding the specialized roles restrictive, I find the limitations they put on the game to promote real creativity. E-sport games have positions that the players have to play, just like football or baseball or any other game–but in e-sports they do it with magic spells and giant swords and dragons and monsters. It’s awesome.

I still don’t PLAY the game with a pro-mindset, or anywhere near a pro-level, but I’m having all kinds of fun learning from the inside how e-sports work. And, more importantly, defining the fictional parameters of the game I want to put in my books. The game won’t show up often, but it will be there. If any of you are League of Legends players, look for me online and help me research–my username is, as you might expect, TheDanWells.

I’m doing a Reddit AMA tonight!

July 2nd, 2013

I’m very excited to announce that I’m doing a Reddit AMA tonight at 7pm, CST. Come one and all!

1) What is a Reddit AMA? If you’ve never heard of this before, or you’ve heard but haven’t known what it meant, Reddit is a massive Internet message board, and AMA stands for “Ask Me Anything.” Basically it’s a chance for you and the entire Internet to interview me, live, about whatever fool thing you want to ask me. Books? Sure. Games? Absolutely. My favorite color of psychedelic sheep? Why not?

2) Where is this awesome AMA? Right here.

3) How does one participate in this AMA? The website is free, so if all you want to do is watch and read my answers, follow the link at 7pm CST and watch the shenanigans begin. If you want to ask me questions, all you need is a Reddit account, which is also free, so hooray. This link takes you to the thread where the interview will take place, and people are already posting questions; if you have something to add, just pop it in there and I’ll answer it tonight.

4) Wait, don’t you live in Germany? Yes.

5) So while it’s 7pm CST for the rest of us, it will actually be 2am for you? That is all too true.

6) So you’ll be punch drunk and hallucinating from sleep deprivation all through the interview? Quite possibly.

7) Sweet. I’m definitely watching this. Sweet.

Many thanks to Steve Drew for setting this up, and Mark Aaron Smith for putting me in touch with Steve via this incriminating photo. I will see you tonight!

Some Dan Wells Short Fiction

June 22nd, 2013

Two years ago I started a specific effort to try to teach myself how to do short fiction, since it’s not a skill I’d really worked on before. I had some expert help from friends like Mary Robinette Kowal, and a lot of false starts that never went anywhere, but I do think I’m getting better–at the very least, I was able to sell some stories, so at least somebody thinks I’m getting better. Here are two that I’m particularly excited about, with more to come in the future:

The Butcher of Khardov
I’m a big fan of games, and a year or two ago I threw myself headlong into building and painting (and occasionally playing) the Privateer Press game Warmachine, a steampunk-y miniature wargame with great models and a fantastic backstory. There are several armies in the game to choose from, each with a host of cool, flavorful characters, and I was instantly drawn to the Russian-inspired kingdom of Khador, and particularly to the crazed warrior Orsus Zoktavir, a semi-psychotic super-warrior haunted by some horrible event in his past. About a year ago Privateer started a new fiction initiative, hiring awesome genre authors like Larry Correia and Dave Gross to write stories about their game characters, and you can imagine my delight when they contacted me about filling in some of the tragic backstory of Orsus Zoktavir. How did this expert warrior become a crazed berserker? What led him to the massacre that earned him the nickname The Butcher of Khardov? And down at the root of it all, why did he name is axe Lola? I had a devilishly good time reaching deep into this guy’s past to dredge up old horrors, invent some new ones, and present it all through the eyes of a mind fractured by loss and hatred and guilt. It’s a dark story, and a sad story, but also a high-octane butt-kicking story, all rolled up into one: magic and monsters and giant robots and paranoid hallucinations and all the things I love to write about. Orsus is a great character, and I had a great time writing about him. You can find my novella here and/or here. It’s worth noting that Howard Tayler has a Privateer novella as well, coming out sometime in the next few months; I’ve read it, and it’s awesome.

A Knight in the Silk Purse
My editor for the Privateer project was Scott Taylor, and after working with me on that story he offered me another opportunity I couldn’t refuse: a spot in a shared-world anthology set in a cool fantasy world first explored in the Kickstarter-ed Tales of the Emerald Serpent. What attracted me to this idea was, again, a fantastic character: Kalomir is a sort of reverse Elric, an evil necromancer kept alive by a sentient and benevolent sword that forces him to wander the world doing good. I can’t give you much info on this story yet, because we’re still putting it together, but the shared-world nature of the storytelling has been a fantastic experience so far, in particular the chance to work with people like Juliet McKenna–the two of us are intertwining our stories a bit, which is a new thing for me, but very fun to play around with. The Knight in the Silk Purse anthology is still being Kickstarter-ed, so if you want to read the stories–and I assure you that you do–drop a few bucks on it.

The BookSmash Challenge

June 18th, 2013

So HarperCollins is doing a cool thing, and I wanted to let you all know about it. The idea is that ebooks could be so much more than they are, but so far nobody’s really figured out what that’s supposed to be. Right now we’re basically treating ebooks as print books, and the experience of reading them is more or less the same, give or take a few trade-offs. Aside from a couple of minor things, though, like changing front sizes and such, no one’s really leveraged the idea that this is a new technology with a lot of new possibilities. Maybe you like ebooks as they are–a lot of people do. But maybe you have an idea so brilliant, and an implementation so amazing, that we’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.

Which brings us to the cool thing. The publishing industry doesn’t really know what to do with ebooks, but maybe you do. Maybe you have some brilliant idea about what an ebook could be, or should be, and you’ve just never had a book to play with to put your idea together. Well, now you can use mine, and if you use it well you can win a bunch of money. HarperCollins has created the BookSmash Challenge as a contest to see what people can do with ebooks, and they’ve released the full digitial assets of some of their books, including my PARTIALS, for you to do whatever you want with.

There’s a whole press release, which I won’t bore you with, but there’s the salient part:

Submissions will be accepted between June 6, 2013, and September 5, 2013, via http://booksmash.challengepost.com/. They can be developed as an app, enhanced book, or other digital reading experience, and should be available to readers on iOS and Android platforms, as well as across the web. Judging of the digital products will be based on originality of idea, implementation of idea, and potential impact.
 
From the eligible submissions, there will be four prizes awarded: Grand Prize, Runner-Up, Popular Choice, and the HarperCollins Recognition Award. A group of judges, including entrepreneur and author of Curation Nation Steve Rosenbaum, entertainment industry veteran Paul Vidich, co-founder of N3TWORK and former Apple Executive Erik Lammerding, and CEO of LiveDeal, Inc., Mike Edelhart, will review the entries and select the Grand Prize and Runner-Up winners. Additionally, the projects will be posted to the ChallengePost online gallery this Fall, where members of the public will be able to vote for their favorite submission for the Popular Choice category. Lastly, the HarperCollins Recognition Award, a non-cash prize, will be awarded to a participating large organization. A total of $25,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to the creators of the winning projects.

Sound like fun? Go for it. I’d love to see what you can do with PARTIALS, so let your imagination run loose. An app? An enhanced ebook? Something we haven’t even considered yet? Time to make the future.

Art and Life, Imitating Each Other

June 6th, 2013

PARTIALS, and it’s sequels, are primarily about Kira and her personal journey through the post-apocalyptic world. In designing that world, my editor Jordan Brown and I did a lot of background work (a LOT of background work) to explain exactly how and why the world ended, and where RM came from, and where the Partials came from, because it was important for us to know in order to present the world correctly, but a lot of it wasn’t directly relevant to Kira’s journey so it never came up in the books. You hear hints about it, but you never get a full description of exactly what happened and why. This makes the books stronger, I think, because they keep the focus tight and personal, but we still wanted to use that other info. Eventually we came up with the idea of creating a bunch of in-world documents, ‘collected’ by the conspiracy theorist/hermit/crazy person Afa Demoux, cataloging the fall of the human race. This is similar to what we did with the book trailers (which, you may have noticed, are also part of the Afa Demoux Archive). Most of those documents were slipped into the back of the trade paperback edition of PARTIALS, but some of them are floating around online.

The top document at that link is a United Nations resolution mandating “human-like emotion” in artificial sentients. The background behind this is hinted at in the books, but here’s the full story: America got involved in a very long and deadly war in the Middle East, eventually centering on Iran and resulting in catastrophic losses for all sides. This war made heavy use of drones, with increasingly complex intelligence, which Jordan and I thought was a nice guess at where things were headed in the real world–keep in mind that we were doing this back in 2010, before combat drones were as overwhelmingly prevalent as they are today. As drone attacks increased in 2011 and 2012, Jordan and I both cringed at the news and patted each other on the back for calling it correctly; such are the confusing emotions of writing science fiction :)

Okay, back in the fictional backstory again: several years after the war in Iran, fighting the infamous Isolation War in China, the drones were back in action and causing more and more problems, for the same reasons we see them causing problems in the real world: they don’t distinguish friend from foe the same way a human does, and have a tendency to cause a lot of collateral damage, including the loss of innocent life. In 2049 the UN addressed the question directly and decided that any battlefield combatant, particularly one with artificial intelligence, must have some kind of real, human emotion to govern their decisions. To quote the document: “A human soldier seeks war as a means of protecting human life; a construct seeks only the completion of military objectives. While it may be possible to ‘program’ certain failsafes and behaviors into a machine or artificial species, it is simpler and safer to remove the problem completely by imbuing that species with the necessary emotions and ethics to keep itself in check. … They should be able to identify a child, for example, not just as a non-combatant but as a precious life and an object of love and protection. Our constructs will not be heartless killing machines, but thinking—and more importantly feeling—individuals.”

Jordan and I saw this as the final piece of the puzzle leading to the creation of the Partials: the world needs soldiers, but doesn’t want to risk humans, and can no longer bear the consequences of amoral drone technology, so they turn to the burgeoning field of biotech and build the perfect soldiers. The Partials can not only fight our wars for us, they can protect innocents on the field of battle, make ethical choices about combatants and prisoners, and wage war not as indifferent killers, but as a means to a peaceful end. That seems like a great idea, but this decision is also the beginning of humanity’s downfall. Look at it from the Partials’ point of view: we built them to love humans, and then told them to kill humans. We built them to love us, and then when they came home to us from a successful war we treated them like subhuman garbage, marginalized and ignored and oppressed because we refused to see them as equals. In trying to separate ourselves from the consequences and responsibilities of war, we sowed the seeds of our own destruction.

But! This is where it gets cool and/or scary. Back in the real world, Jordan and I were patting ourselves on the back, delighted that we’d not only come up with a cool story idea, but based it on a some real-life events and politics. Then, in April of 2013, the UN started down the very same road we put them on in our science fiction book. This document is not one of mine, it’s a real one from the real UN–not a resolution yet, but a report about the ongoing use of combat drones. Some of the vocabulary is different, of course–I called them “fully-artificial drone combatants,” and the UN calls them “lethal autonomous robotics”–but the idea is the same. Artificially intelligent weapons are replacing human soldiers on the battlefield, and they are making questionable or outright unconscionable decisions, and the world is upset. Whether you call it warfare or “extrajudicial execution,” we are seeing what happens when we send unfeeling machines out to kill people, and we don’t like it. In a haunting echo of my fictional UN statement, this real one declares that “They raise far-reaching concerns about the protection of life during war and peace. … robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings.” Did you feel that deep, rumbling shift in your brain? Because your entire world just changed. Things that used to be science fiction–like robots having the power of life and death over human beings–are not science fiction anymore. These things are real, and real governments are dealing with them in real situations.

This is one of my favorite sections of the report, because it illuminates the unsolvable moral web at the heart of this issue; I’ll present it to you in two halves: “Some argue that robots could never meet the requirements of international humanitarian law (IHL) or international human rights law (IHRL), and that, even if they could, as a matter of principle robots should not be granted the power to decide who should live and die. These critics call for a blanket ban on their development, production and use.” This sounds pretty reasonable, right? Nobody wants robots running around just killing whoever they want to (or whoever their programming tells them to). Banning robotic weapon systems seems like a good idea. But now here’s the second half of the paragraph: “To others, such technological advances–if kept within proper bounds–represent legitimate military advances, which could in some respects even help to make armed conflict more humane and save lives on all sides. According to this argument, to reject this technology altogether could amount to not properly protecting life.” That’s the gut-punch, because this ALSO sounds completely reasonable. By banning robotic weapons you are forcing human soldiers into the line of fire, inevitably resulting in human casualties. If we can prevent those casualties we should, right? No one would argue that we should willingly risk more human life. Except we just did, in a roundabout way, in the first half of this very paragraph. Both sides of this argument have really, really good points.

The best answer, of course, is to just not have anymore wars, but until you can convince all the tyrants and dictators and terrorists of the world to abide by the same principle, that’s not a feasible option. The next-best answer, then, would be to have robotic drones replace our soldiers (thus fulfilling one half of our unsolvable quandary), but governed by human compassion and judgment (thus fulfilling the other half). This is the answer my fictional UN came to, and the real UN is headed in this same direction in their report: “Decisions over life and death in armed conflict may require compassion and intuition.” And thus the first step toward Partials, in whatever form they eventually take, has been made. In the real world.

If you share my fascination with this kind of thing, I encourage you to read the entire UN report, even if only to experience the brain-melting collision of science fiction and reality. It continues to blow my mind that we have literally reached the threshold that stands at the center of so many science fiction stories; by developing autonomous robotic weapons, we’re setting the stage for the Terminator, or the Matrix, or any number of apocalyptic science fictional scenarios. Think I’m overreacting? The UN doesn’t. We’re giving machines the power and freedom to kill us, and we’re barreling forward so fast our decisions can’t keep up with our own technology. I’ll close with the most chilling line in the report:
“If left too long to its own devices, the matter will, quite literally, be taken out of human hands.”

The Superman Problem, and my bet with my brother

June 4th, 2013

So there’s a new Superman movie coming out soon, and this has prompted many conversations about “The Superman Problem.” I’ve talked about this on Writing Excuses before, and it sums up as this:

“If your main character will always make the right decision and can always defeat any bad guy, your story is boring because it has no tension.”

Here’s the thing about The Superman Problem: it’s a complete and utter fallacy. No character actually has this problem unless they’re being written poorly. The best writers will always find ways to put their characters into situations where there is no clear “right” choice, and will strive to pit their characters against conflicts and obstacles they can’t easily overcome; this applies to Superman just as much as it applies to anyone else. Yes, Superman can beat up any villain–so what? Is every good story in the world solved by the main character physically dominating everyone else? If we truly believe what our mothers tell us about violence never solving anything, Superman’s ability to punch bad guys is arguably the most useless super ability ever; a good Superman story, like a good anyone story, will test his wits, his judgment, his will, his emotions, and so on. In The Dark Knight, Batman was able to beat up the Joker with no problem, but nobody complained that that made the story bad because the story wasn’t about beating him up, it was about order and chaos and self sacrifice. Just because the Superman movies haven’t really done that before doesn’t mean they never can, it just means we’re still waiting for a movie that treats the character as intelligently as the comics do.

One of my favorite Superman stories is the graphic novel Kingdom Come, about a hypothetical future where super-beings have gotten completely out of hand, becoming more like roving gangs than heroes, and Superman tries to restore order. Sure, he can beat them all up if he wants to, but that’s exactly the point of the story: he doesn’t want to spend his life beating people up. He rounds up all the supers and puts them in a giant prison, and then…what then? Does he just keep them locked up forever? Does he kill them? What if the humans decide to kill them–does Superman beat up or kill the humans in retaliation, or maybe even pre-emptively? Is it even Superman’s place to make these decisions? This is not a story that can be solved by violence and domination, because those are the problem, not the solution; the story isn’t asking if Superman has enough power to stop the bad guys, it’s asking how Superman should use his power in the first place. These are questions the human race has never fully answered for itself (where is the line between safety and freedom? Between punishment and reformation? Between leadership and tyranny?), and just because Superman always tries to do the right thing doesn’t give him any magical answers the rest of us don’t have access to. Most of us always try to do the right thing, and we still  manage to be flawed, conflicted, fascinating people in spite of that.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that Superman is a deeper character than most people give him credit for, and that the upcoming movie will be walking a tightrope between awesomeness and crappiness. I have high hopes that it will be awesome, but it’s just so easy to get him wrong.

Tangential to this, in a Twitter discussion about the movie, my brother (who considers the Superman Problem to be insurmountable) (because he is foolish) declared that the only way to make Superman interesting is to take away his powers. Obviously I disagree, but he has the weight of movie-based evidence on his side. The previous Superman movies have all relied on kryptonite and other tricks as a way of weakening Supes, trying to solve the Superman Problem from completely the wrong direction–take away his powers and suddenly you can put his life in danger, or stop him from beating up a bad guy, or whatever. The comics don’t rely on this nearly as much, but for the movies it’s pretty much standard procedure. Being eternally optimistic, I bet my brother that this movie wouldn’t do that: that it would solve the Superman Problem the right way, by making the core conflict something that can’t be solved by punches. Sure, there will be fighting, but there will also be more: a cloudy moral quagmire, an impossible choice, or something similarly unsolvable to create the real tension of the story. I don’t know what this will be yet, but based on the trailers I expect it to focus, as Kingdom Come does, on the nature of power. They won’t take away his powers because his sheer overpowering-ness will be at the heart of the conflict.

So: Rob took my bet, and to make it interesting we wagered a cool 20 bucks. Since he actually owes me a couple thousand dollars at the moment, this is less interesting than you might think, but neither of us are really gamblers anyway. The exact terms of the bet are these:

1) The final arbiters will be Rob and I, based on our own viewing of the movie.

2) If the movie has or mentions kryptonite that’s not an automatic loss; it has to actually be used to drain Superman’s power.

3) We’re only counting powers he displays in this movie. Just because he’s not likely to fly around the world backwards and reverse time in a grotesque deus ex machina doesn’t mean I lose the bet :)

4) Only actual, in-story power loss counts. If the writers conveniently ‘forget’ a power during a key scene, fabricating artificial tension by, for example, having him punch something that could much more easily be laser-visioned, that’s different. What we’re looking for is a specific point in the movie where Superman is weakened by the loss of a power he’d already used.

The bet is really a separate issue from the Superman Problem, but I’m curious to hear what you think about both of them. Do you think I’ll win, or my brother? Beyond that, do you think they’ll solve the Superman Problem? And what are your opinions on the movie in general, or the trailers? Personally, I’m delighted they’ve broken away from the “evil real estate agent” nonsense they keep getting into with Lex Luthor, using Zod and Faora instead. Based on the most recent trailer it seems like they’re presenting the movie as less of a superhero story and more of an alien invasion story, which is a really cool direction to take it.

Chaos and Control

April 29th, 2013

When I wake up in the morning I usually spend 30 minutes or so getting my kids off to school, and then I climb back in bed for a bit to surf the web and check my email and twitter–yes, yes, the glamorous life of a self-employed author. Because I live in Germany, I’m several hours ahead of America, which makes twitter and facebook kind of interesting: I’m six hours ahead of the East Coast, nine hours ahead of the West Coast, and eight hours ahead of the bulk of my friends, who live in Utah. In general, this means that they’re already asleep (or at least logged off) when I get on the morning; I’ll usually catch the the last few posts of my West Coast friends in real time, but everything else is weirdly time-delayed. I read through a static back-log of media while America sleeps, and then we get a good laugh when my phone starts beeping and chirping during dinner–about the time my Utah friends get to work in the morning and start replying to what I’ve written.

That’s what normally happens. Last week, during the Boston manhunt, things went a little differently.

Thanks to the time difference, I rolled out of bed and started checking twitter just about half an hour after the shooting started; I saw the West Coast crowd post their “holy crap what’s happening in Boston?” tweets, and jumped on google to see what was going on. I quickly found and subscribed to some good Boston twitter feeds, including the MIT grad student who live-tweeted the police shootout. Despite being a few thousand miles away on the other side of an ocean, I was there for each new attack, each new bomb, each new speculation. I had all three of my computers going at once, collecting every bit of data I could and redistributing the parts that seemed important/dramatic/accurate. More than once I thought of Oracle, the DC superhero who perches in her secret eyrie, watching everything and sharing it with her team. It was scary and exciting and I couldn’t look away; I stayed in that office for the entire manhunt, my eyes glued to each new post by ABC news or the Boston police or random citizens who put up a picture of armed soldiers prowling through their backyards.

And then Boston finally woke up, and the bombers still weren’t caught, and the police/government took the major step of locking down the city. The details trickled out in what seemed like a very wise progression: stay away from public spaces. Don’t use public transit. We’ve closed public transit. There could be bombs anywhere, so stay at home. We need everything clear so it’s easier to find him, so stay at home. Business are closed. He’s armed and dangerous and desperate, so everybody stay at home. At one point in the day I linked to a photo of downtown Boston, eerily empty, and said that it was spooky and surreal, but hard to call it an overreaction.

And here’s the point of my post today: I don’t know if I believe that anymore.

What was the final count on the lockdown? A million-something people confined to their homes? 33 million dollars lost from closed businesses? I can see both sides of the argument here. On the one hand, the lockdown was arguably a ‘success’: no further civilians were hurt, despite the very real danger. The last time the police saw the final bomber, he shot them with automatic weapons, threw bombs at them, and actually drove a car over his own brother in a mad dash to escape. That’s a dangerous fracking guy, and you don’t want to mess around with that. In hindsight, yes, it turned out he was too wounded to move and spent the day bleeding almost to death in a stowed boat, but we didn’t know that. If he’d been healthy he could have done almost anything, and if the city had been full of people then ‘anything’ could have resulted in a lot more innocent deaths.

On the other hand, you could argue (and many people have) that excluding the general population actively inhibited the search. It was a civilian who first described the bombers to police; it was civilians who helped comb through reams of marathon photos to identify them; it was civilians who very famously spread the word on twitter, staying more current–and often more accurate–than the actual news. Most tellingly, at the end of a long, frustrating, fruitless day, when the police were ready to give up and finally lifted the lockdown, it was civilians who stepped outside, looked around, and found the hiding bomber within the first five minutes. I’m not saying this to deride the police in any way–they did an amazing job in a terrifying situation. But there simply weren’t enough of them to look in every nook and cranny in an entire city.

I can’t help but compare this situation to the much-derided TSA, which has practically become our cultural shorthand for ‘over-the-top security that curtails freedom without actually doing any good.’ In the years since the TSA was instated to catch terrorists, they haven’t caught a single one–every terrorist caught on or around an airplane during the TSA’s watch has been identified by civilians. Every one. The Boston bomber hiding in the boat was the same basic thing: civilians found him, and then the authorities stepped in and took it from there.

There are a lot of conclusions we can draw from this, and a lot of questions we can ask. The first conclusion: security is more effective when civilians are drawn in and made a part of it than when they are excluded. History has proven this, current events have proven this, it seems pretty well proven by now. Which leads us to our first questions: why does the government/police/whoever keep trying to exclude the most effective part of security? Why do they insist on doing everything themselves? Most importantly, why are we, as a society, so content to surrender our involvement, our control, and our freedoms?

But let’s look at this from the other side. It’s very easy for us to look back at the Boston lockdown and say that it was an overreaction, because nothing happened. After the initial shootouts nobody else was hurt, no more bombs went off, and we spent the entire day hiding from a guy who was hiding from us. We can say it was an ineffective policy and an unnecessary precaution because it doesn’t hurt us to say so: the entire city of Boston could have gone to work that day and been fine. But what if there had been another bomb? When the bomber heard police outside his boat he greeted them with a long burst of automatic weapon fire–what if that had been the guy who found him? What if it had been kids? What if he’d actually been wearing the suicide vest they thought he was? If the police hadn’t locked down the city, and the bomber injured even one more person, this entire conversation might be reversed, and instead of calling the lockdown an overreaction we might be calling for the heads of whatever government official failed to protect us.

Which leads us to the Big Question, not just of this event but of security in general–of our entire modern world: How much death and damage and we willing to accept in our pursuit of freedom?

Let’s look at marathons: we now know that a pair of kids, properly radicalized, can set off some bombs and kill three people at a marathon. Does this mean we stop holding marathons? Of course not. But what if it was ten people? What if it was twenty? What if it starts happening more often? We can only attach so many precautions to an event as big and public as a marathon before a ban or another lockdown become literally our only remaining options. Are we okay with that? How far are willing to go, and which side of the issue will we come down on: no more freedom to run in a marathon, or no more freedom to walk through the city and watch one?

Let’s look at lockdowns: we now know that we can confine a million or more people to their homes in order to catch one bad guy. Should we do this again? How dangerous does a situation have to be to justify placing one million people under house arrest? How many times can we do it before people get sick of it and rebel? Which world do you want to live in: a world where nobody gets hurt, or a world where you can make your own choices?

I don’t have answers to these questions. People have been asking them for thousands of years–finding the line between chaos and control is the fundamental question of society as a concept. Asking these questions and hypothesizing different answers is the reason I write science fiction; it’s easy to look at the PARTIALS sequence, for example, and see that a huge part of it is my own attempt to play with these ideas and probe the different scenarios and explore different methods of chaos and control. Nobody in PARTIALS or FRAGMENTS is really a villain, just characters trying to do their best in a situation that has no easy answers, using methods that other characters find abominable. How far is too far? How much is too much? Which is more important: our survival, or our lives?

The only thing I know for sure is that we have to ask these questions, and we have to think about our answers. We have to talk about it. We have to challenge what we do and say and think to see if it actually stands up to scrutiny. We have to question our methods and our leaders to make sure they’re really the ones we want. We have to examine and evaluate our goals to make sure the things we’re pursuing are really the things we want to achieve.

The Massive Fiction kickstarter

April 15th, 2013

We launched this last week, but that was also our big time to push for Dave Wolverton’s son Ben, with the book bomb and the donations and whatnot, and I didn’t want to overshadow that or dilute your attention. A friend in need will trump my own stuff every time, and since the book bomb was a crazy success that turned out to be time very well-spent–you bought so many of Dave’s books that we spiked the Amazon ranking on books we weren’t even bombing, and drew enough attention that I saw a few news stories floating around. Good for you.

But! I don’t want to forget about Massive Fiction, because it’s pretty awesome. This kickstarter has my name on it, but it’s the brainchild of my friend Marion Jensen, a writer and teacher who’s always looking for cool ways to use new media and reach new audiences; he was using twitter to teach history lessons before most of us even knew what it was. Massive Fiction is an exciting writing tool/program/opportunity based on the idea of scaffolding: teaching someone how do to something by doing all the big stuff for them, allowing the learner to focus on the smaller stuff until they get their feet under them. It’s like those special instructional airplanes, where the teacher can fly the whole thing from one seat, taking off and gaining altitude and all of that kind of thing, and then passing the controls to the student so they can practice the basics like “flying in a straight line.” Inside of the scaffold, the learner has both freedom and safety, and the ability t master one skill at a time while still working on a full-size project.

The classic scaffolding opportunity in fiction is fan fiction: when you write a story about Star Wars or Harry Potter, for example, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done for you: the world is big and rich and fully realized, yet still open enough for you to add your own twists; the characters are well-developed and familiar, ready to be dropped in to your own cool new situations and adventures. Fan fiction is a great way to get your feet wet as an author, and a lot of the professional authors I know have gotten their start there, but the problem is that you can’t then go on to sell or publish any of your work, because you don’t own the legal rights to any of it. That’s where Massive Fiction comes in.

The idea behind Massive Fiction is simple: Marion, my brother, and I will create a shared world designed for aspiring writers to use as a playground, donated to the world to be used by whoever wants to. You’ll be able to read our novellas, study the backstory, and then write your own stuff and use it in any way you want. Backing us up, and helping to expand the shared world, are a bunch of other writers, including awesome bestsellers like Kiersten White and Larry Correia; because it’s a kickstarter, there are stretch goals with even more cool authors.

I could keep talking, but Marion made a video that explains it all better than I can:

As for the details of the world we’ll create, I don’t know yet; something fantasy or science fiction; maybe something familiar like urban fantasy or near future, maybe something wild and huge like epic fantasy or space opera. We have a lot of ideas, but we haven’t pinned anything down yet. The stories we write and the world we create will be free and available to anybody, whether or not you contribute to the kickstarter–but the project won’t happen at all unless the kickstarter funds. There are a lot of authors involved with this project, and we want to be able to pay them adequately for their time. (For example, I have three full novels to write this year even without Massive Fiction, and I’m not even the busiest writer on the project.) We love to give back to the community as much as we can, but we can’t always do it for free. Help us make this awesome idea a reality.

If this sounds cool to you, contribute. Whether you’re an aspiring author who wants to write, an interested reader who wants the stories, or a wealthy patron who loves investing in the arts, renaissance royalty-style, this is a wonderful project that can use your help. Check out the donation levels and the cool rewards and jump in, and then spread the word to everyone you know; the more people who donate, the better the project will be.

I’m really excited about this, and I hope you are too.