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.

BOOK BOMB! Time to help a great author in big trouble.

April 10th, 2013

Many of you know Dave Wolverton, though some of you may know him by the name David Farland; he publishes SF under the former name, and fantasy under the latter. He goes to conventions all the time, he teaches classes and headlines seminars, he sends out daily emails full of writing advice and encouragement. He does more for the SF/F writing community than any two other writers, but now it’s our turn to help him. Last week his 16-year-old son, Ben, was in a longboarding accident that broke most of the bones in his body, including his skull; he’s been in a medically induced coma ever since, and while the prognosis for his survival is good, the medical costs will be astronomical. Like many authors, Dave has little to no insurance.

It’s time for us to step up and help.

Today, Wednesday April 10, we are book bombing Dave’s book NIGHTINGALE. The idea behind a book bomb is that everyone buys the book from Amazon on the same day; beyond the obvious benefit of giving Dave some money, buying the books all in one big blitz spikes the book’s Amazon ranking, raising its visibility and generating even more sales, giving Dave and Ben even more money. Nightingale is a wonderful YA fantasy which Dave self-published as an ebook, and this link goes to the Kindle edition. The link also includes Dave’s Amazon Affiliate ID, which sends Dave 7% extra beyond the initial purchase–in fact, EVERYTHING you buy on Amazon after clicking that link (until such time as you click somebody else’s Affiliate link) will send Dave 7%. Buy a few other books, and he gets 7%. Buy a chair or a computer or a kitchen set, and Dave gets 7%. Keep this link handy, and click it often, because Dave and Ben can use all the help you can give them.

I don’t do a lot of book bombs, because I want to save them for a really good cause. This is a really good cause. This is our chance to stand up and help a man who has dedicated his life to helping others; this is our chance to give a horribly wounded young man a life of his own, unburdened by millions of dollars of debt. Buy NIGHTINGALE, and encourage all your friends to do the same. If you don’t have an ereader, buy it as a gift for someone who does; if you want to help more, buy Dave’s other books in hard copy. Keep them for yourself, or give them to friends, or donate them to your library–just buy them, and buy them today, and help with this book bomb. Spread the word, share the link, and make this happen.

Let’s see how high we can get that ranking.

The FRAGMENTS Book Tour!

January 24th, 2013

It’s book tour time! Fragments comes out in just a few weeks, and I will be back in the States for a quick signing tour. I’m not doing as many events as I normally like to do, mostly because living on a different continent has made that difficult, but the events I am doing are going to be awesome. Read on!

March 5, 6:30pm: Peerless Book Store, Alpharetta, GA
How could I do a tour without hitting one of my favorite stores ever? This is my only eastern stop this time around, alas, but it will be awesome.

March 6, 7:00pm: Provo Library, Provo, UT (Sponsored by King’s English)
Home again! This event will be big: not only is it my home town, but it’s the first stop of a Harper Dark Days tour, featuring a massive group of incredible authors–Debra Driza, Claudia Gray, Lauren Oliver, and Kiersten White with a special guest appearance by Brodi Ashton. Now you understand why they’re doing it in such a big venue.

March 7, 6:30pm: University Books, Seattle, WA *U District Location
The second stop of the Dark Days tour.

March 8, 6:30pm: Barnes & Noble, Clackamas, OR
This is our Portland event for Dark Days, held in Clackamas because…why not? I’ve never been to Clackamas. Come one and all.

March 9 — Double the Events!
10:00am: Tualatin Public Library, Tualatin, OR **location changed**
4:00pm: Eugene Public Library, Eugene, OR **location and time changed**
We’re canvas the state of Oregon so thoroughly they’ll never know what hit them. This is our final stop on the Dark Days super tour, so come see the whole group.

March 10, 3:00pm: Borderlands Books, San Francisco, CA
Have I told you how much I love this bookstore? Borderlands is the only store I know that is constantly, tirelessly improving itself. It is somehow physically better ever single time I go, and I go once or twice a year. Come spend your Sunday afternoon with us!

March 11, 7:00pm: Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego, CA
My final stop on the tour, and another of my favorite stores–I didn’t hit all my favorites this time, but the ones I did are spectacular. Come say goodbye before I wing my way back to Germany.

I’ll be in North America a few other times throughout the year, most notably the Writing Excuses Retreat in June and Vcon in October. I’d like to hit WorldCon and/or DragonCon, but I’m not holding my breath. Most of my events this year will be in Europe, and I’ll start announcing those appearances soon, including Germany, France, England, and as many others as I can manage.

If I’m in your area, please come say hello! I will deface your books and ask for good restaurant recommendations. AND, if I’m in the mood, I might read a little snippet here and there of some of my upcoming projects. It will be awesome.

I’ll see you soon.

Roleplaying Games With My Kids

January 11th, 2013

I’ve been an avid roleplayer ever since junior high, when I somehow stumbled on the game “TMNT and Other Strangeness” at the comic shop by my house. My brother and I played a ton, made new characters a WHOLE ton, and quickly started expanding into other games like Heroes Unlimited, Rifts, Toon, and so on. I never got actually got into D&D until college, when 3rd Edition came out, but since then I’ve had one game group or another meeting almost every week for the last fifteen years. For a while there I was in three campaigns at once–Pathfinder, L5R, and a wacky homebrew by Brandon Sanderson–and still couldn’t get enough. It’s one of my favorite hobbies, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the day when my own kids would be old enough to play with me. I’m delighted to announce that this day has finally come.

When we moved to Germany, roleplaying was one of the many things that we left behind. I tried to convince my three gaming groups to drop everything and move with us, but they apparently have “jobs” and “families” and whatever, man, I don’t need them anyway. We’ve talked about trying to play over Skype or Google+, but even that’s not a great option thanks to the 8-hour time difference. My kids, on the other hand, were eager to jump in to Daddy’s favorite hobby, so I poked around for a good game to start with and, when one of the Grandpas asked for Christmas suggestions, quickly offered up “Marvel Heroic Roleplaying” from Margaret Weis Productions. My kids are avid superhero fans, even (and perhaps especially) the girls, so a game where you get to play as known heroes seemed like a great gateway into the larger hobby. I should point out that we’ve attempted some other games over the past year or so, and the one gap my kids still have in their roleplaying foresight is the idea of power balance: ask them to come up with their own character concept, and they’ll toss a ridiculously overpowered Mary Sue wish fulfillment monstrosity every single time. Even when I explain to them that weaknesses and limitations are what makes a character interesting, they still go a little crazy; one of my daughters created a superhero named Snapmind, who can do, be, or make absolutely anything in the entire world, instantly, except she has to snap her fingers in order to do it. Sounds super balanced, right? So yeah. Lets start by playing with pre-existing characters you already love, and go from there. We’ll get to the “create your own characters” part of roleplaying when we’re ready.

“Marvel Heroic Roleplaying,” or MHR, is a very simple, narrativist system, which is game-theorist-speak for roleplaying rules that focus on storytelling, from both the gamemaster (called the Watcher in this case) and the players. Every RPG is about storytelling, but a narrativist game takes it further, removing or lessening some of the standard considerations about power and “realism” (ie, the game does not try to simulate certain aspects of the real world like distance, ammunition, and so on). In MHR you take actions by rolling a big pool of dice and then choosing the best results, but the number and type of dice are controlling directly by your ability to tell a good story. If you say “my character punches the bad guy in the face” you might get three or four basic dice, but if you say “my character rips up a lamppost, swats away the thugs, then wraps it around the supervillain like a rope,” you get five or six dice, with more sides on them for potentially bigger numbers. There are rules to govern some of the more theatrical skills and powers, like whether your character’s actually strong enough to rip up a lampost, but for the most part that’s it: you tell an awesome story, and then awesome stuff happens. Combine that with well-known superheroes like Spider-man and Wolverine, and you’ve got a perfect game to play with my kids. Probably any kids, honestly, but my kids especially.

We took the shiny new Christmas present RPG book on our big vacation last week (which I have not yet blogged about, but I promise I will), bought a big old handful of dice from a hobby shop in Prague, and started our game one night in a Dresden hotel. I was playing with just my two oldest, 11 years and 9 years, and for their characters they chose, perhaps inspired by the eastern European vibe of the vacation overall, the two Russian superheroes in the book: Black Widow and the X-man named Colossus. I proposed a story about investigating a mysterious factory, because I’d worked out what I thought was a neat story, but they both immediately rebelled and demanded something more exciting and world-threatening. The factory idea would have eventually become world-threatening, but no matter; they wanted something more immediately flashy, and that’s fine. The game is there to have fun, so I asked them to propose some ideas of their own and figured I could wing it. We batted a few scenarios around, and at one point I proposed a time-travel idea: a villain tries to take over the world in the past, when there are no superheroes to stop him, and Black Widow and Colossus get sucked back in time and blah blah blah. My son said that time travel stories are lame, probably because his sister loves Doctor Who and he wanted to be contrary, and I said that I thought it would be fun because we’d just spent a week looking at medieval castles and stuff, and this would be an opportunity to play around with them in our game.

Instantly, and in perfect unison, my kids’ eyes lit up. “I know exactly what we should do!” My daughter cried. “I know exactly what you’re thinking!” said my son. I figured there was no way they were thinking the same thing, but I was amazingly wrong. Almost like they’d rehearsed it beforehand, they shouted together: “We go back in time, and Black Widow gets kidnapped by Elizabeth Bathory!” You see, one of the places we’d stopped on our vacation was the ruined castle of Elizabeth Bathory, and the kids had been enthralled by her story, even making up elaborate plots and movie pitches in the car. They thought the idea was the best thing ever, and I was down for it, so we dove in, and spent the first night getting their feet wet and learning the rules: they flew a jet, they dodged some lightning bolts, they got sucked through a portal, and ended up talking to a farmboy who couldn’t figure out why they were dressed so weird. The same two children who’d been convinced that the story would be lame unless the entire world was horrifically imperiled were now having the time of their lives just trying to figure out what they should say to this medieval farmboy, and how much they should reveal about themselves, and so on. We had a blast, and we spent the last few days of the vacation making jokes about “What year is this? I’m from the FUTURE.”

Our second game session was last week, when they finally got the chance to meet Elizabeth Bathory, learned that at least one other person was sucked through the time portal (THE PLOT THICKENS), and started to wonder if maybe Elizabeth Bathory wasn’t nearly as bad as they thought. They got into their first real combat, did some very clever, cinematic things, and ended on an exciting cliffhanger. The kids are getting really good at this, and I’m a very proud papa watching their little storytelling minds churn out one cool thing after another. Our next game session is tonight, and it’s going to be a doozy. This is seriously one of the best hobbies ever.

The FRAGMENTS book trailer is here!

January 3rd, 2013

When PARTIALS came out the publisher wanted to do a book trailer, but my editor ( Jordan Brown) and I didn’t want to do a normal trailer. This was a chance to do something weird and cool, and Jordan and I are all about weird and cool, so we hit on the idea of ‘found footage.’ Instead of just telling you about the story, we’d give you a new piece of it that you couldn’t get anywhere else–actual film or video from within the world of the book. 

That first trailer was a corporate video from ParaGen, the company that created the Partials, presented as a stockholder video telling ParaGen’s investors all about how much money the Partials would make them. There was nothing about the story or the characters, but the message of hubris came across loud and clear: this was a society playing God with the powers of life and death, and they were ripe for an apocalypse. 

Now we have a trailer for FRAGMENTS, the second book in the series, and we’re following the same tactic, with a different flavor. Pride was the perfect story to tell in the first trailer, but things have changed now: we’ve already met the Partials, we’ve seen the differences between us, and we’ve seen the world fall apart because of them. FRAGMENTS isn’t about the pride that ends the world, it’s about the hatred and fear that stops us from rebuilding it, and so our new book trailer is about that fear, and the irreconcilable differences it created–and nothing says irreconcilable differences like a political ad.

Here for your pleasure is another bit of found footage from the boundless files of Afa Demoux, archivist of the end of the world.

Mental Health Care, Mass Murder, and So On

December 17th, 2012

When I went on tour with THE HOLLOW CITY this summer, a book about schizophrenia, I started each signing and event with my personal feelings on the current state of mental illness care and treatment in the US. I won’t repeat the whole speech here, but I’ll give you the short version: it sucks. Mental illness in American culture is stigmatized, poorly diagnosed, and inadequately treated. This needs to change.

Caveat: In this blog post I’ll be talking primarily about dangerous mental conditions, and I want to say up front that it is not my intention to stigmatize mental illness further. The vast majority of mental disorders are not inherently violent, and the people who suffer from them need help, not fear or mistrust. Statistically speaking, everyone reading this post has at least one person with a mental disorder in their immediate family–it is a part of our lives that we need to embrace and study and deal with instead of sweeping under the rug. That said, some mental conditions, when untreated, do result in violence and danger, and we need to deal with those in the same open-minded, positive way.

A person in prison is five times more likely to be mentally ill than someone on the outside. This suggests one of two things: first, that people with mental illness find it difficult to live within the standard template of American society and end up breaking rules and laws. This is true, in the sense that we have built a society designed for people whose brains work in a certain way, with very little wiggle room for anyone else, and very little help offered to those who don’t fit the mold. Second, it suggests that people in prison are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness now that someone is paying close attention to them. This is also true, and suggests a further, much more important point: diagnosing and treating mental illness before it becomes a problem will help to keep these people out of prison in the first place. It will help them feel comfortable in, and function productively in, the society at large.

The most damning part of this situation is that it’s not accidental. Most mental illnesses, properly dealt with, won’t require legal intervention at all, but the dangerous ones will–and the treatment process for dangerous mental disorders in America literally relies on the prison system as a standard step in the procedure. Countless parents and spouses and children, trying to get a dangerously unstable loved one the treatment they need, are told the same thing: “we can’t do anything until he or she commits a crime.” Worried that your father might be sliding into violent dementia or psychosis? If he refuses treatment–and he will, because denying the problem is one of the common symptoms of dementia and psychosis–then there’s nothing you can do until he actually becomes violent and hurts somebody, at which point it might very well be too late. Worried that your spouse is becoming dangerously erratic and paranoid? Worried that your child might take his own life? My family dealt with a loved one (whom I will not identify) a few years ago who had become clinically depressed and suicidal, to the point where he needed constant care, but he literally could not get it–we had to wait until he tried to kill himself, hope that he failed, and THEN we could get him help. In our case we never had to go that far because his depression developed into an eating disorder, and we were able to get him committed to the hospital for malnutrition. But not every family has that luxury, and even then, we were only able to get him the help he needed when his life had been physically threatened. All of the mental threats, all of the underlying causes, were completely meaningless from a legal standpoint.

On one hand, you can see where the law is coming from: our legal system stands proudly on the principle that we are innocent until proven guilty, which expands into the principle that we can only be convicted of crimes we’ve actually committed, not crimes we think about committing. The same people who won’t throw you in jail just for talking about killing your boss also won’t throw you in a treatment facility just for talking about killing yourself. This system works for crime because it gives us the freedom to choose, and then holds us accountable for our choices; this doesn’t work for mental illness because mental illnesses very specifically attack–and often destroy–your ability to make informed choices. We’ve created a system that refuses to deal with the more dangerous facets of mental illness until they’ve already caused problems, when we should be focused on trying to prevent those problems in the first place. Worse still, once those problems have been caused, the people who caused them are more likely to be lost in the criminal and prison system than to receive any of the counseling and treatment they need. For a country that calls itself the greatest nation on Earth, that’s a pretty damning spot on our collective conscience.

My brother has been struggling with mental illness for a few years now, and wrote a very powerful piece in reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings that you should all read. It’s important to point out that Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Sandy Hook incident, did not have (at the time of this writing) a publicly announced mental disorder, but the signs are clear that he probably had clinical depression at the very least. Testimonials from his father and his school counselor show a long history, of joyless, friendless, lifeless life. We can talk about gun control all we want, and that’s definitely a conversation that needs to happen, but banning guns wouldn’t have prevented this massacre anymore than access to guns caused it. Guns certainly made the massacre more effective and deadly, but they didn’t cause it; it was caused by a severely disturbed mind who had nowhere to go and no one to help him, who made a very bad decision that could have been avoided with the right care and attention. My heart breaks for the children and teachers who died, and for all of their families and friends, but it also breaks for Adam.

I might be losing some of you here, because nobody wants to sympathize with a man who murders children, but I can’t help it. The more we learn about his life, the more tragic he becomes–and no, this does not excuse his choices. I’m not trying to excuse him, I’m trying to understand him, and why he did what he did, and figure out how similar events can be prevented in the future. America has a mass murder about every six months, on average, which makes this one horrific and shocking but, sadly, right on schedule. Sometime in the next five to eight months we will have another. Tightening our security standards for gun ownership might help reduce the body count of future massacres, but it won’t stop them from happening; without semiautomatic weapons close at hand, Adam Lanza might not have moved on to the school, but he most likely still would have killed his mother and himself. We should not consider that an acceptable alternative.

If we want to stop this kind of thing we need to look at the root causes–not just at the weapons or the decisions to use them but the people who make those decisions in the first place. We need mental health care to be available, accessible, and unstigmatized, so that Adam’s school counselor has some resources to work with the next time he identifies a teen with obvious pain and trauma. We need somewhere people can go when they know they have a problem, and we need some way of dealing effectively with people who refuse treatment even though everyone around them can tell they have a problem. We need some way for people like my brother–a successful, well-intentioned family man who recognizes his problem and does everything he can to treat it–to be able to afford the treatments that help him and every one of us live normal, happy, healthy lives.

Do we really want to call ourselves the greatest country on Earth? Then let’s start acting like it. Support mental health care. Support people with mental illnesses. Spread the word, share your love, open your hearts. Find someone struggling and help them. We can do this.

My Troubled Relationship With The Lone Ranger Trailer

December 14th, 2012

I love westerns. I love them dearly. Some of my favorite movies of all time are westerns, pointing specifically at The Searchers and the modern remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and then down among the “movies I love but aren’t top 10″ there are too many to list. There’s something very powerful to me about westerns, possibly because I grew up in the American West, but also because they are perfect venues for stories about morality. The Old West was a unique situation in world history, where modern, civilized people were thrown together in a barbaric and uncivilized place–the same open emptiness that gave them freedom also took them away from law and society, and the best Westerns deal with this contradiction head-on. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presents Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne as opposite sides of this coin–one representing law and the other representing violence–and makes the very complex, even tragic point that while law may be better, it can’t exist without violence. Out on the plains and miles away from civilization you can have as many laws as you want, but they’re not going to matter unless your local police have more guns than your local criminals. This is true everywhere, and at the end of the day all law extends from the threat of violence, but westerns are an almost perfect venue for exploring that concept in detail. In a western the social pressures are different: people are good or bad not because society is forcing them to be, but because they are making the conscious choice to be so.

I love westerns so much that I am often tempted to write one, and in fact I have several westerns in the back of my mind, waiting for the day that I have enough time in my schedule to write something I probably won’t get a lot of money out of. Western movies are on the rise, but western books, as a market, are still incredibly hard to sell. When I contributed to the Monsters and Mormons anthology I wrote a western novella (albeit with zombies and superpowers), which was fun, but it didn’t really sate my appetite so much as whet it. I want to write more. But there’s another big reason I haven’t taken the plunge, much more important than the money, and it’s this: I don’t know how to properly portray the Indians.

Even that word is bad–Indians–but the trouble is that I don’t even have a really solid fix on a sensitive alternative. I’ve been told, by a Native American, that we should say “Native American” because “Indian” is insulting, but I’ve also been told, by a different man from a different tribe, that we should say “American Indian” because “Native” is insulting. My research online suggests that the second guy’s opinion is far less common, and “Native American” or just plain “Native” is the accepted terminology, but the mere fact that there’s a difference of opinion makes this a very hard question to answer. And this isn’t even the problem with writing a book–if I were to write one I would just use the specific tribal names and be done with it. The bigger problem is how to present them as characters and a culture. I don’t want to use the old excuse that “everyone thought of them as savages, so it’s okay to portray them that way,” but I also don’t want to get so involved with showing their side of things that it takes over the story, but I also don’t want to just ignore them. They were a huge part of life in the old west, and their story deserves to be told, but it deserves to be told properly, and I’m just very leery about my ability to do that.

Which brings us to the new Lone Ranger movie. The trailer looks cool–the ideal mix of action and justice and heroism that a Lone Ranger story should have–and, yes, it looks like the movie is making Tonto a bigger character and trying to make the two leads a little more equal than they have been in the past. But on the other hand, the movie trailer really screams “a bunch of white people made this movie without actually talking to anyone from the Native culture they’re attempting to portray.” Despite my complaints about not knowing much about Native American culture, I at least know enough to recognize that Tonto’s costume in the movie is a weird mish-mash of different tribes and some crazy made-up crap that looks good on camera. Tonto’s breastplate, for example, is clearly from a plains culture, but the headband is very southwest. The do-rag, of course, is pure Captain Jack Sparrow, and the bird on his head is classic “hollywood production designer” with no basis in any Native culture I’m familiar with. And, of course, Johnny Depp himself is not Native–he has said in interviews that “I guess I have some Native American [in me] somewhere down the line…Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian,” but that’s like hiring me to play a Norwegian guy: sure, my great-grandma was Norwegian, but that doesn’t mean I look, speak, or act Norwegian in any way, and have nothing to contribute to a Norwegian role that an actual Norwegian guy couldn’t do better. I suppose the point could be made that a modern Native American is so culturally removed from an 1860s-ish Native American that they wouldn’t really have anything to add in the role either, especially considering that Tonto isn’t based on an existing tribe anyway, but at that point you’re using the movie’s inaccuracy to justify its own inaccuracy, which is fairly useless ground to walk on.

I’ve written before about race-bending in movie casting, and my opinions of it are layered but generally very solidly on the “don’t do it” side. Last summer at Comic-Con I had a meeting with a big-name production company about a potential PARTIALS movie (and no, I can’t yet tell you who it was), and one of the biggest questions I asked them was if they were prepared to actually cast an Indian girl as Kira (not Native American, but actual Indian). It’s very important to me to get this right. One of the best movies I saw in 2012 was Argo, a based-on-real-life story about a CIA expert extracting hostages from Iran; it was excellent, and I loved every minute, and I think Ben Affleck deserves a Best Director Oscar for it, but Affleck also played the CIA guy, who in real life was Latino. The closing credits showed a fascinating slide show of side-by-side photos, comparing the movie characters and sets and images to their real-life counterparts, and I wanted to stand up and cheer for their amazing attention to detail…but then we got to the shot of the very white Ben Affleck, followed by a shot of the very Mexican Tony Mendez, and it felt jarring and wrong. Yes, Affleck did a good job in the role–his acting wasn’t as stellar as his directing, but it was good. But how cool would it have been to give that same role to a Mexican actor? Someone who’s sick of playing drug dealers on Breaking Bad, or gangsters in Southland, and would absolutely nail a role as a handsome, dashing, Mexican-American hero? And how cool would it have been–and this is the much bigger point for me–for a Latino kid or teen or even adult to be able to go to the theater and see this amazing movie and be presented with a hero who looks like them, someone they can identify with, someone who lets them see themselves in a leading role? I didn’t understand the real importance of this–of kids who want to see themselves as their heroes–until my daughters started asking me for more books and movies about girls. Growing up white and male I could always see myself as the heroes of my favorite stories, but it isn’t that easy for everyone else, and a movie like Argo, or PARTIALS, or even The Lone Ranger is an amazing chance to do that. I don’t believe that casting the wrong race is inherently evil, but I do think it’s a tragic missed opportunity. We should be going out of our way to find and create those opportunities, and then do the very best we can with them. And The Lone Ranger, instead of taking that opportunity, appears to have run the other direction.

I’m not saying the movie will be horrible, or even that the character of Tonto will be horrible–all I’ve seen is a two-minute trailer, and for all I know Tonto is presented as a culturally-empowering, three-dimensional hero. But I am saying that I doubt it greatly. I want to love this movie because I love westerns, and I want people to make more of them, and I love the things they can say about humanity and the exciting, iconic ways they can say them. But I have grave doubts about Tonto, and I wanted to put them out there.