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World Building: Naming places

I hate naming.

Here’s the full disclosure: I’ve been a pseudo-literary writer for a long time. I’ve tackled fantasy on and off, mostly in abbreviated longer works, because I find that the genre lends itself better to bigger stories. It does because I’m a dedicated, if not particularly great, worldbuilder.

Recently I’ve begun moving into the outlining phase of things (when not distracted by Diablo 3), and this has reminded me how much of a slog worldbuilding is to me. I’m a characters and relationships guy. Thrust back into the world of dealing with my protagonists (I’m playing with multiple perspectives, if only because I liked them before I read Game of Thrones), I feel much more natural. I make networks of relationships, identify themes, create antagonists (who, of course, are more complicated than that. One of the benefits of multiple perspectives), figure out how multiple perspectives can work (for instance: in the first Game of Thrones, every PoV character is together at the beginning. New characters are introduced only when new, important factions appear, and the character had always been featured prominently in previous chapters), and do plot stuff. This feels natural.

Naming places, though? Not natural.

My big trouble is naming the antagonist nation to the north. Their language is a combination of Slavic and the sounds of Mongolia. They bear elements of both cultures, as well as French (clearly, world-building is combining influences until things are unrecognizable). They’re rather important to the story, so they need memorable names, but it’s hard for me to conceptualize what they should refer to themselves as. It’s gotta be punchy, of course. It’s got to be a name people can remember, and one that doesn’t sound stupid.

As it is, I’ve three named and defined countries (fortunately, one of those is where the story actually takes place). I’m a little worried things resemble Italy too much (I’m drawing on a lot of the history of the early 20th century in Italy, before and after the first world war), but that’s okay: there’s plenty of different influences, and if people can stick so closely to English history, certainly I can go off the rails with Italian history.

Here’s the thing, though: very little of this matters too much in the first third of the story. I know it’s coming, of course, but the first part of the story’s going to be smaller and quieter, to establish the local conditions. This is not a novel of nations, but rather of a particularly contentious one, one fragmented, healing from war, and falling quickly into others. I’m more interested in the local landscape than I am in the multinational one, except for setting those things up.

The personal journeys of my protagonists are more important. I’ve got a half-dozen characters who I really like, and their stories are the most important ones to me. And that’s the part of the story I have best: their hopes, dreams, aspirations, loves, hates, and rhythms. They’re character I love writing about, who do things that I often disagree with. They’re in awkward situations: a theme of the novel is that characters are stuck inside old machines that are vestiges of a dying way of life. They’re fighting becoming obsolete, which I feel is a very modern theme. They’re realizing no one has any answers, that horrible things are going to happen, that they are powerless to stop them. The ways they react to this problem vary individually, but it’s a theme.

See, these things come easier to me than naming. What the hell to call Napoleonic France with the hat of WW1 Germany by any other name?

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World Building: Building a Religion

Yesterday, today, and probably tomorrow, I’ve been building religions.

Here’s the thing: I’m obsessed with religion, with mythology. I love them. I love ancient gods. But, more importantly, I like thinking about religions coming into contact with one another. It’s much of the reason I’m writing a “modern” fantasy world: I want to be able to focus on issues more relevant to the modern reader than the nature of heroism, monarchy, et cetera.

Religion is important to me. I’m a lapsed Catholic, which has made me think about the topic for years and years. For over a dozen years I thought some man in Rome had authority over me. I look around my country and I see people who believe they’ve accepted an invisible, silent god into their lives. They follow this god’s opinions on matters political, personal, and social, and they do horrible things in this god’s name. Good things, too.

As a human being, I am an agnostic. I believe there’s probably some sort of higher power. Or, rather, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one. But, by the same token, I’ve never not been me. I’ve never seen beyond myself, into an afterlife. I don’t know what to expect.

So, in a lot of ways, making religions isn’t about making gods: it’s about making governments. It’s about looking at religions and asking, “Why do they exist?” They exist to help people sleep at night. They exist to explain natural phenomena. They exist to exert control over the lives of people, good and bad. They exist to tell people that they should be living their lives a certain way, and that they should be listening to certain people and ignoring others.

In my world, I’m creating three major religions. They correspond, roughly, to the Greco-Roman tradition, the Christian tradition, and the Muslim tradition. Obviously, things are different. The difference is the Greco-Roman springs directly from actual, existent magic. There’s magic in the world, and these gods are the gods behind these magics. They physically exist, not as divine beings but instead as powers someone can see. More important to me is seeing how these gods, who are the oldest, influence the lives of individuals: how their hopes and dreams are crafted by these seventeen divines. The order in which this cosmology was created, around campfires and in homes. How they interact with other religions.

The other two religions, meanwhile, grew out of other traditions. One of them is keeping the traditions of modern monotheism while also having multiple gods (though far fewer). The question becomes: why would someone throw aside the Old Gods in favor of new ones? The third religion is different, still: it sprung up far away, on a different continent, and has emerged less as a religion than as a natural order of things. I’m taking cues from Buddhism, from Islam. This religion emerged naturally, but why would people prefer this way of thinking, especially in a world where the supernatural is visible and obvious?

More complicatedly, how would they react in the modern day? Religion is difficult because this world features a fairly recent (last 400 years) catastrophe, which severed the world. I know world-altering events have a tendency to shake people’s faith; how would this change how people viewed the Gods, real or imagined?

It’s an interesting challenge. It’s taking me quite a bit of time to build this cosmology, and I’m hoping it pays off.

A Clash of Kings, and other fantasy ramblings

I’m reading a lot of fantasy recently. I’m doing this because, as some of you are no doubt aware, I’m taking another crack at “the novel” this summer. The novel, obviously, being a terrifying, monolithic form. I’ve written in it before–a couple times–but have never been even remotely satisfied with the results. I’ve tried a sort of noirish modern fantasy novel (which I like in theory, and might want to revisit, someday) and an urban fantasy novel, but neither really clicked with me. This time, I’m trying something a little different, a little more political, with a more modern setting.

Not so much inspired by George R.R.R.R.R. Martin as by my history studying World War One, but it makes a fine segue.

If I have a problem with George R.R. Martin, it’s that it always feels like something is happening. Let me explain: it feels like real life rather than a story. Something is always happening, but nothing is ever a story. It’s just the lives of characters.

This makes it fun to read, but it also makes it a soap opera: everyone’s just doing their lives. No one really has an “arc” to them. It’s a book about bad stuff happening, which is fun to read but doesn’t really have a point. That’s the thing I miss the most reading it: A Clash of Kings was just there. It was a book that added to the narrative Martin was telling, rather than telling us a good story in and of itself. That’s my big problem with it.

For instance, each Star Wars film (the good ones) tells its own story while building a master narrative. There’s saga-long narratives–Luke and Vader–but each individual arc has its own stories. Clash of Kings has its own individual arcs–Theon being a little asshole, Stannis falling apart–but neither is resolved, and every other story is just a piece of a story. It’s because of the structure: each character, by the end, will probably have their own 500 page book arc. These are pages 100-200 of those arcs. Nothing happens.

It’s a structure I like, though. It’s a structure I am probably, reluctantly, aping. It’s what I’m most nervous about: as you build a world, you see all your influences coming through in it, and you’re terrified of going too close to one of them. Martin is kind of the opposite: he’s not a big influence (except in that his books showed me, “This thing you like: people will buy it”) but I feel like an outsider could look at my prospective novel and say, “He took the ideas of Game of Thrones, moved them to an analogue of 1910, added a lot more weird shit, and did Game of Thrones again.” I don’t know how ludicrous that sounds, because I’ve not written it yet. But I keep pushing it away from that.

It’s tricky. The “main” character, who’s called Esme in my head but probably will end up with a different name, is this complicated, extremely proficient character who’s also being rendered obsolete by society at an extremely young age. She knows all this stuff about history, which is tricky because I’m having to build up a whole history to great detail: she doesn’t just know that someone invaded the city she’s in, she knows exactly who, exactly how they did it, and it informs her every action. She’s taking parts from myself, of course, but also from other fictional characters who have inspired me, like every character in the novel is, and it’s hard to balance who I want her to be with what I can’t let her be (someone else). It’s important she strikes the right note because she’s the centerpiece character of the novel: she’s not more important than everyone else, but her fingers are on every pie, so to speak. She’s one of the few characters who has an intense opinion about everything that happens, not just a throwaway one. Everything will connect, of course, but she has the most complete vision, and I’ve got to figure out how to let her have that without being a “cheap” character.

In a lot of ways, I’m drawing inspiration from my favorite series, the Wizard of Earthsea books. I recently reread (between A Clash of Kings and recently starting the “other” modern fantasy series, Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind) my favorite book in the series (by far, really) The Tombs of Atuan, and I spent the whole of its 145 pages (seriously!) marveling at how downright flawless it is. If you demanded me nominate one book, ever, as my favorite, this is it. This is the one. It is the book I could reread every month. As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfect.

Whereas the first book in the series hasn’t aged particularly well–it’s still good, but the story, a boy finds he’s a wizard, is impatient, wakes great evil, becomes wise, and quells it, it’s quite the brilliance it used to be–Atuan is better than ever. It takes a strong character, said wizard, places him in a position of weakness, and instead tells the story of a girl forced to serve great evil. It’s an interesting novel because it carries the theme of the books–Ged fighting against the impossible evil–and breaks it down from a new light. It gives it perspective. And as a book, it’s rarely triumphant. It’s basically a quiet man fighting against evil represented in a woman held under evil’s sway, and she wins, not he. He does remarkably little of substance in the book, but his presence makes a difference. It builds up the previous book, and establishes for the future, while telling its own independent story.

It’s an influence I’m not shying away from. I tug away from the aggressive noise of Game of Thrones, and am sticking to the genteel horror of Atuan, as well as the rugged emptiness of Hemingway and the impulse of heroism in fantasy in general. I’m taking my own life influence, too: smart characters living in a world moving too fast for its own good, barreling towards destruction, watching decades-old social structures come crashing down. In essence, I’m writing fantasy because it allows me to address everything I’m concerned with in my writing: I’m making a world I have to have, to tell the stories I have to tell.

The unintended consequences of creativity

I’m extrapolating, here, on a post made by cool dude/fellow Nightmare Mode writer Dan Cox over at his blog. Because I think it bears repeating.

A couple months ago, I read “On Becoming a Novelist” by John Gardner. I disagree with a lot of things he says, of course (we are very different types of writers), but I highly recommend the book to those of you who want to write fiction. It’s nuanced, intelligent, and it teaches a lot of important lessons.

The big one it taught me was how not to be “productive”.

There’s two competing impulses in the young writer’s mind (at least in my mind): that my work is utter garbage, and that my work is amazing. More usually the former, though the latter is more destructive. I write a short story and I say to myself, “This is tripe, I’ve wasted all this time,” and I get into a funk because I’ve wasted so much time!

What Gardner’s book teaches, most importantly, is that this is okay. Writing is a long climb. This guy, who wrote a ton of novels and works before he died young, didn’t get published for years. He traveled with a stack of novels, typewritten, in a suitcase. And, while we don’t write the same, he’s a pretty excellent writer. No one succeeds immediately, but that’s not the impression people get: people get the impression that Hemingway was always Hemingway because, well, that’s the only time they ever knew him. They see failed writers like their grandfather, who worked for the railways for forty years and wrote stories on the side, and they see Hemingway, and they place you with the grandfather: why haven’t you given up yet?

Well, writing’s a building process. I do a lot of writing without getting paid a cent for it. I write 2000 words on a not good day. On a good one, I’m going towards 5000. But there’s more than that: I’m also editing myself, editing others, learning how to market myself and my work, and absorbing media so that I can understand it better/write more exciting thing. Not getting paid for what I do is, frankly, immaterial: people probably shouldn’t pay for the work I’m doing. If they’d want to, that’d be lovely, and I keep putting it out there, but I know it’s not the best I’m capable of. So I write to get better. I write to walk down my own words, to find more stories I want to tell.

It’s hard for other people to understand this, of course. For the past few decades we’ve gone through a major shift in the perception of “writing”. It’s perfectly crystallized in Mad Men where Pete Campbell, an accounts executive, tries to write copy. He does a shit job of it, but the next episode he tries to get a story published in a high fiction magazine. The average person views writing like Pete Campbell: anyone can do it, and don’t have to work too much at it. It’s just putting words together. Their first short story would be good enough to be published, and they can sell products as well as someone who actually knows their shit. It’s why major modern websites would rather pay web developers than writers: anyone can crank out content. A computer can do it.

This isn’t true, though. Anyone can put words together, but only someone whose practiced their craft and honed their voice can do so enjoyably. You notice this when you watch young writers: they see their heroes writing conversationally, and they try to write like they talk. It falls apart. Writing like you talk is damn hard. Of course, a lot of young writers also have more of the other half of the writer’s view of their work: they think it’s amazing. And for some it’s hard to knock them out of that mindset. It was hard for me: I’d spent years in school praised for writing better than other people that I had no impetus to improve. It took me a while to realize that I had to really work at things to succeed. It’s only then that it struck me that I had to “waste time” to write well.

It’s hard to think, in the modern day, that the secret to something, the secret to writing is to take your time, but it really is. You have to do it a lot. You have to fail a lot to succeed. I’m falling down hill after hill now, but one day I’ll be where I want to be. And it won’t be at the pace I, or anyone else, wants it to be achieved at.

Let’s have a think about Game of Thrones

I have not posted for exactly a month, which is about how long it takes a normal person to fight their way through George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The first book, not the television series or all the books in The Song of Fire and Ice.

It’s a book I bought six months ago. It didn’t grab me immediately, and I stopped before Bran fell. So, pretty early. It didn’t grab me. I picked it up again about half a month ago, and I finished it this time, being much more “into” fantasy at this point. I was goaded into it by one of my housemates, who absolutely loves the series to the point that our wireless router is named after the Stark’s ancestral home. Ironically, I have another housemate who utterly hates the series. Fun times.

I fall in between. I like the concept: a grand fantasy epic drawing more on political intrigue than on mystery. I like how he tells the story: there’s little emphasis on world building because we can imagine a typical medieval setting. The characters are, all told, nicely drawn and pretty human. It’s a good story, a good world, and it is fearlessly told: Martin does bad things to good people all the time, and most impressively he doesn’t paint the “villains” as bad people. In fact, the character most people identify with is one of them. Handy, that.

Where I struggled with the book was the writing. Simply put, Martin is pretty ordinary as a stylist, and I think that’s giving him more credit than I’d like. I don’t remember a single passage from the book as better than workmanlike. Sure, it’s hard to be impressive in an 800 page book, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Martin’s got a grand plan, I’m sure, but the book featured altogether too many stories, too many characters, and too many ideas that didn’t need to be present. In the beginning, especially, this is a problem: Martin spends about half the book setting up events that would eventually happen, skipping between stories that are all in their first act, all in different places. Around page 200 I wanted to give up, because everything was just a mush of people and places. I didn’t care about a lot of the characters. I liked the characters everyone likes (Tyrion, Jon, Arya, even Dany) but the other chapters tired me out. It’s hard to care about fictional politics when you barely know what’s happening and when the writing isn’t stellar.

That said, it got me towards the end for plot reasons. Characters made decisions I didn’t expect. Martin was rarely cheap or gratuitous (sure, there were a lot of breasts and a lot of beheadings–one of my major problem with the man’s writing–but he never lingered on things for effect) and the story picked up. I was invested, not through writerly trick but by the fact that I’d read this many pages. Which is a trick, in and of itself.

Also, my favorite character was Tywin Lannister, and I assume this is a sign of some strange mental defect. The scene at the end with him and Tyrion was my favorite in the book, because here’s this man making decisions and you understand them without getting inside his head. My biggest issue with the writing was how much Martin used, “He thought this needed his attention. It was important.” Every time I read that I shook my head. Because come on, how lazy can you get?

I’m excited to read the next book, though. I probably won’t immediately: I’ve got some other books (Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue; Patrick Rothfuss’ fun imitation The Name of the Wind (p.s. he has the goofiest Wikipedia picture; I look like him, a little bit, with beard); Ben Marcus’ insane “Notable American Women” (I ADORE books with the author as narrator, for no reason); and some other book I’m less excited about because I forgot its name). But I’m getting to Martin.

I also want to play the Board Game. You know, the big, betrayal filled one.

Wasting time

I had something of a mini-ephiphany the other day.

Here’s the thing: everything I do in my life involves writing. On most days I’m hitting 2000 words, at least, and I’m feeling pretty bad about it.

The thing I realized is I probably only have around 3000 in me a day. And that’s tricky. When I’m aiming to write some sort of post a day (and I was), that’s a thousand words, at least, off the top. Throw in editing, throw in the fact that most of my posts get completely rewritten once before they go up (this blog is a blissful exception) and I was getting to the point where, on most days, I didn’t have the energy to invest in what’s important: fiction, writing articles that have a chance of being noticed for the right reasons, and thinking compelling thoughts about art.

So here’s where I am: I’m going to write less, but write better. If I write an article, I want it to be on the level of my best work, like these three pieces. This came about from a discussion I had with a member of my writing group: basically, if I’m not really going to be making a whole lot of money from doing this, then fuck, I want to do work I can be proud of. Even more than that, I want good clips on the internet. I want to hit things out of the park, rather than just hit a lot of doubles.

In a way, my change on this side of things is inspired by my erstwhile EIC at Nightmare Mode, Patricia. She writes very few posts, but they’re very good posts. She’s gotten in a position to be noticed by a wild audience (read: Kotaku). I write a lot of pretty shitty posts, and, honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised no one cares about my plethora of mediocre posts. I need to write incredible ones. Instead of gestating them over a couple of days, I need to give them time, I need to work in lots of interesting references, and I need to make them incredible.

I look at posts like these ones , which are very capable, and I think, god, I could have done these so much better. I read them and I see exactly what I would have changed.

In short, I want to treat this with the same seriousness I treat fiction. I’d rather write six posts a month if it means they’re six incredible posts someone’s going to pay me money to write than twenty nobody’s going to care about. To add to this, by increasing the conceptualization and research cycle’s length, I’m putting myself in a position to do more and better fiction, which I feel like is my true calling. The games writing is a goal, certainly, but it’s not the one that will leave me most fulfilled.

So, yeah. I’m prioritizing differently. Fewer posts, better posts, better usage of my time.

What I’m working on

Okay, so I’ve been tweeting occasionally about a project I’m formulating, and I feel it’s a good time to talk about it in its preliminary stages.

As a person, I have two serious interests: games and fiction. Sure, I love music, and I love sports, but those two are the big ones. I love stories. I love writing them, I love reading them, and I love playing them.

I’m also a struggling games writer and fiction writer. Neither has taken off in a big way. In both I feel very much like I’m just writing for my own improvement, rather than for any specific gain. So, I thought, why not combine the two? I love writing fiction, and I love writing about games. Why not write fiction about games?

So here’s the deal: I want to write a book, probably of very short novel length, about video games. I’m going to structure it along the lines of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; that is, there will be a frame story featuring an advocate and a skeptic, followed by numerous stories told to elucidate the advocate’s point of view to the skeptic. In many ways Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams will be more inspiration, because it shows how a tribute to Calvino can work in a serious setting.

What it gives me is the ability to practice writing very short fiction, micro fiction, a field that’s taken off in the past few years. It gives me a chance to focus exclusively on craft, something I really want to do. There doesn’t have to be plot, because the individual plots are: I start playing a game, and write about the best thing I think of while playing it. If I play Final Fantasy for the NES and begin to think about the characters’ roles in the group, well, I can write that. I’m not bound by the facts like I am in games writing, but instead by how I imagine things to work. I can tell stories, very short stories about the reasons we love games. Around this I can tell a longer frame story which I’ve already begun to develop. That’s not the important part, though.

Where my trouble is is in scope. What kinds of games do I want to write about? Classic games, naturally. I want to write about games someone could realistically pick up and enjoy. And I don’t want them to fall into the realism trap that modern games do, because they I’m just talking about things that have been fleshed out by the designers. I want games where there’s room for me to imagine.

As such, I’m limiting myself to the “big three”: the NES, the SNES, and the Genesis. I’m considering other platforms, but honestly I know so little about them. And here’s the thing: I’ve already got a journey of discovery awaiting me. I’ve played pretty much every SNES game worth playing (with only one SNES title on my list of possible games being one I’ve never played: EVO: Search for Eden), but the Genesis and NES have plenty of unplayed titles for me to search. For instance, here’s my list trimmed to “Games I haven’t played”:

Sweet Home
Solomon’s Key
Legacy of the Wizard
Journey to Silius
Rygar
Metal Storm
Gargoyle’s Quest 2
Over Horizon
Guerrilla War
Ufouria
Dragon Quest IV
Little Samson
Solstice
Salamander
Crisis Force
Starflight
Warsong
Light Crusader
Flink
Shining Force (I know!)
Crusader of Centy
Streets of Rage 2 (Yes I know)
Herzog Zwei

That’s a lot of games! I love it as an excuse to explore titles I otherwise would never play, but it’s a lot of hours of games there. I’m not sure I want to take on whole new systems.

But honestly I’m excited. I’m not envisioning it being a massive project: big, certainly, but fifty 1-2 page stories about video games I want to play anyway is a great alternate project. At worst, I’ll have written a lot of valueless fiction I can publish on the internet. At best, I can try to self-publish it, make a little bit of money, and use it to BUILD THE BRAND. Eww.

So, final point: I’d love recommendations for more obscure games I can play. Especially things like shmups. I don’t play a lot of those, and I have little knowledge of them. Or if someone can direct me to a good primer on the best games for “alternative” consoles from this time period I’d be grateful. Also, just if you think it’d be an interesting project. My goal is pretty much to do one or two games a week, so it wouldn’t be done until the fall, but I’m trying to pace myself. It’s a fun little project, and I need one of those. xD

Stingray Sam is not a hero

The benefit of a personal blog is that I can make self indulgent posts and not feel bad.

For example: the above scene from Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut is my absolute favorite scene in any movie ever, and its sequel, Stingray Sam, is perhaps my favorite movie.

Let’s start at the chocolatey beginning.

The year is 2005. I’m a first year at Hampshire College*, and I’m going to the college’s massive nerd orgy science fiction film club, Excalibur, to make friends. At the time the club’s screenings were being run by a good friend of mine, Chris Sommer (who is now my housemate), and he showed some of the weirdest fucking movies. I mean, Scanners, while a good film, is hardly standard science fiction film canon. There was definitely a strong David Lynch fetish my first semester.

So it’s Fall Break, early mid October, and Chris doesn’t have a movie to show. (This is an apocryphal retelling. I have no idea if this is how it went down, but it’s how I recall him saying it happened.) So he goes to the sadly now closed Pleasant Street Theater and rents a little movie called The American Astronaut.

It’s at this point that I recommend you go to your torrent site du jour to pirate this fucking movie. And watch it. It’s not on Netflix, and you’re not going to buy it yet. So just pirate it. Here: if you don’t want to do this, and are sold on my favorite movie ever already, then skip the next couple paragraphs. I’ll say “PINEAPPLE” when I’m done with the spoilers. If you want more convincing, read on for my summary of the first ten minutes.

The American Astronaut begins with a three minute spacewalk to kind of mediocre sounding garage rock. No words, just a man in a big spacesuit skipping across Ceres, the moon of Mars (“It is a lonely town,” the crawl says, unless I’m mixing it up with a different movie). He enters a bar located in the middle of nowhere. He makes a business deal. Some menacing looks are exchanged. It’s black and white. It’s boring, awkward, and we’re all thinking, “Let’s just get out of this film right now.”

Then the scene happens. The top scene. If you’ve not clicked on the youtube video yet, fucking do it. What happens is the main character goes into a bathroom stall (for poopin’), and two men come in and sing him a fabulous song.

It’s at this point we realized A.) this movie is a musical and B.) this movie is the zaniest thing in the world.

PINEAPPLE

I fell in love with this movie. We all fell in love with it. It was, to put it plainly, the best thing we’d ever seen. It was ridiculous, but it was a wonderful combination of old thymey science fiction and off the wall comedy. It’s barely even a comedy. It takes itself too seriously for that; really, you only know it’s a comedy once you find the song “Girl with a Vagina Made of Glass” towards the end of the flick.

The thing was, The American Astronaut was destined to be one of those blips on the radar. One of those movies that you love and then goes away, because its creators never would make anything else. The Billy Nayer Show, the band primarily responsible for the film’s creation, hadn’t made another full length (we’ll get to this) and in 2005 we didn’t even know if they still existed. This was a one of a kind treasure.

So we got ourselves illegal copies from the internet (because it was so fucking out of print) and we sat on it.

Then it got to be 2009. Chris was graduated for two years. I’d just graduated, but the two of us (and three of our closest friends) had just moved across the street from the college (where we still reside). One of my better friends at the time was Zach, who had just taken the reins as headman of Excalibur. He asked, at the beginning of the year (we still went, of course. Free food is free food), what movies people wanted to see.

So I suggested The American Astronaut. My reasoning was airtight: this was a movie two people in the audience had seen. We both swore up and down that it was an incredible film. One of us had been a signer for Excalibur, and the other (me) hated most movies.

Zach hemmed and hawed over the film. He didn’t want to show it, because, quite frankly, a no name film didn’t drawn the crowds. Fortunately, that year Excalibur got a massive influx of attendees, same as it had the year before, and the lecture hall was packed nearly ever night. Finally, Zach relented, over October break four years after it had first shown.

Now, by this point I had utterly forgotten the movie. That was the best part: Chris and I both swore by it, but god knows we didn’t remember it. So we got the same novel experience twice. The same lull, the same incredible kick to the face. And everyone else loved it. It was one of those moments of awesome critical vindication, right up there with when I convinced my girlfriend to play Mother 3 and she loved it. People were singing the songs, remembering all the best parts, it was great.

It’s around this time that I heard about Stingray Sam, the mythical sequel to The American Astronaut. Just recently released, too! This I bought, day and date.

Both these movies are relatively similar in terms of basic plot: they’re both musings on the nature of friendship, on our connections as human beings. The difference is this: while The American Astronaut has a lot more serious art film in it, Stingray Sam is pretty much a zany comedy from moment one. While AA begins with the serious space walk, Stingray Sam begins with a lounge singer, with girls in garish bikinis dancing in the background.

To be honest, Stingray Sam is more fun but less good. The American Astronaut is perfect: I couldn’t change a single second. I wouldn’t. Stingray Sam, meanwhile, is about it’s incredibly over the top songs, its memorable exchanges, part noir terseness and part utter ridiculousness. It’s not the most efficient film, even though it only runs 60 minutes. Well, it’s pretty efficient. I’d change maybe 5 of those minutes, and I’d probably add ten. But that’s not the point! The point is, both of these movies: comedy gold.

In fact, I would say you, yes, you, owe it to yourself to go watch The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam right now.

Final aside: I forgot to mention two other short films, Man on the Moon and The Ketchup and Mustard Man. The aforementioned Zach got them for me for Christmas one year, and it is the second best gift anyone’s ever given me. The Man on the Moon is a pre-internet web series about a lonely heart banished to the moon, while the Ketchup and Mustard Man is basically a thirty minute long Primus music video. It’s incredible.

*we’re called first years, not out of a Harry Potter sense of whimsey but because roughly half the students take more than four years.

Some thoughts on the new gameswriting establishments

Anyone following video game news in the past month has no doubt heard of both of the placeholder named (but totally going to be called that) Vox Games and The Penny Arcade Report. If you haven’t, well, after years and years of status quo at the top of the gameswriting food chain, now we’ve got two new types of sharks. And I’d love to say some words about them.

These two sites are connected by a common thread: they both want to supplant quantity for quality. Sites like Kotaku, Joystiq, and IGN work not necessarily off novelty but off of brand loyalty and endless streams of reposts. Sure, all these sites (particularly 1Up and Kotaku, though Joystiq might be going in the same direction) have made inroads into providing better, more frequent feature content, but they are still, at heart, sites devoted to the endless news cycle. “Here’s five screenshots of Popular Game X!” is their most common type of headline: the endless repetition of news and media.

There’s been deviations from this, of course. I’ve always loved Destructoid because they weren’t so focused on churning out news rather than on having strong, opinionated, well-voiced content. You can tell a Destructoid post from another site’s, and that’s brilliant.

As for Vox and the PA Report, I don’t feel either is 100%. That’s good, though: 100% would mean the rest of us should just quit and fight for the winner’s scraps. Though honestly, the PA report is very, very close. I’ve really enjoyed much of the work they’ve put out. I also really like “The Cut” feature. Sure, I’m biased as hell because they’ve highlighted something from my site , but I am allowed my biases. And as an idea, it’s brilliant: my favorite feature on sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun is the collection of links, and this makes it dynamic and constant. Someone writes a good feature, and it’s immediately highlighted for a larger audience. Sure, they haven’t done many from “critical” sites (us and Kill Screen are the two “small” blogs cited, and KS isn’t that small), but that’s fine. It’s still a lovely feature.

And I don’t want to say I quibble with the content. I don’t. Ben Kuchera’s a fabulous writer. The thing is he’s not a writer with a particularly profound, show-stopping voice, and Vox is killing the journalistic voice category. They’re both going for generally the same idea–replace a reliance on churnalist news with interview features–but Vox, by nature of having so many more people, is putting out better work. The PA Report has one man writing five or so feature interviews a week, which is a really impressive output, but Vox, by nature of numbers, can have each of its more than half-dozen writers write two or three big, fat articles a week and produce an epic amount of content. And each writer has more time to work on each piece, so they’re better just by nature of time. The fact that the PA Report is hanging around with such a titanic presence is praise enough: it’s David vs. Goliath, and David’s not gone down yet. In fact, David’s produced about as much truly memorable, fantastic work as Goliath has, which is terribly impressive. The best of Vox (this killer article on Sol: Exodus, which did the very, very rare and made me buy a game I’d never heard of immediately after reading it) and the best of PA Report (this surreal interview with David Jaffe) would end a fight to the death in a bloodbath. They’re pushing the boundaries of Games Journalism (not necessarily games writing: they are pushing how we report the news) to new heights.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Vox’s killer layout. So I am. This counts as a transition.

Here’s the problem I have with both sites: the soul. I was talking with Adam Harshberger of Pixels or Death (got a piece up there, supposedly today; look for it!) about what the ideal games site would look like, and we kept touching on something that neither Vox nor the PA Report caters to: voice. Style. Our most cited site was Bill Simmons’ Grantland, which is about sports and popular culture. The thing is, you could put any post from Grantland in front of me and I would know it’s a Grantland post. Even more, there’s a style to it that is unmistakeably theirs. It’s even more apparently looking at sports site The Classical: this is not only a website catering to a specific audience, but it’s designed to really appeal to their sensibilities. It’s a cultural thing, above all else. These posts are dripping in a culture.

The closest video games sites come to this unified culture and voice is Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which, like Destructoid, has gone a little downhill in the voice aspect. Their present staff is definitely British, but it’s missing that snarky super-cool indie kid sensibility imparted by Kieron Gillen and Quintin Smith. It’s still my favorite video games site, and I love reading it every morning, but its cultural center has shifted to something a little bit more British rather than a universal “Fuck the man” sentiment. The culture’s the reason I obsessively click on Shut Up and Sit Down every morning even though I play board games maybe once a week: the voice is just outstanding. Something like The Dice Tower cannot begin to compare to that, because it seems so bland.

I’ve gone off track here (or maybe I made my own track), but that’s what I miss about Vox or the PA Report: I miss this unified sense of style. I’ve laid it out in much, much more detail in emails, but my vision for an ideal site would feature a cast of writers with similar sensibilities, more than just a variety of extremely talented ones.

(Here is a massive, paragraph length aside: as much as I love the writers on Nightmare Mode (y’all are the best!), this is the point we violate the most violently. Even in the editorial staff, our needs and desires are INCREDIBLY different. Patricia loves pieces that, to send a shiver through my liberal liberal arts college bones, are socially conscious. Fern loves analysis, and gets mad when something isn’t breaking a game down into its component parts. And I just want a good story. I don’t think we’ve all agreed on a piece being brilliant…well, ever. So we have writers we’ve recruited who cater to each of these things. So we have NOWHERE NEAR a unified voice. And if we tried to, we’d have to each get rid of 2/3rds of the staff, pretty much. Which I would never want to do. That’s why this is, at present, a hypothetical pipe dream.)

The other important thing: an art direction. Someone with a sense of visual style. An artist. Someone to create a visual culture complementary to the written culture. Have a clear editorial vision in terms of how our ideas are presented. Because while it might have worked four years ago, “producing more thoughtful content than everyone else” is no longer a good enough hook. There’s a million sites producing thoughtful content. Look at the variety of content on Critical Distance! They cite ten different sites a week, and rarely repeat too many week to week. Vox and the PA Report have succeeded because of their approach to thoughtful news, which is an idea not common in the marketplace, built on the idea that founded our wave of blogs (thoughtful feature content rather than “Would You Date a Gamer Girl?”). And I feel like the next iteration of video game features content will focus on style.

Because we’ve gotten to the point where we can hit the content out of the park consistently. There’s so many incredibly talented people working in this field right now that even sites that don’t get tens of thousands of hits can have people who are just so excellent. Just using Nightmare Mode as a handy example, we’re full of people who I’m surprised haven’t been scooped up by bigger fish because they’re just so good at what they do.

I’m going all the off topic here. Here’s where I’ll sum up and get out of here so I can write something else. Someone’s going to come along one day with a blog with six writers with very similar values, at least one person who’s only concern is visual culture, and they’re going to make a hell of a lot of noise. Because it’s not only about the words anymore, not really: it’s about culture. It’s about telling people your theories about video games while they’re on a website that makes them think about all the awesome experiences they’ve had as part of this culture.

What makes science fiction?

The books I’ve read recently have coalesced into a thesis in my head: how do we define science fiction? What makes a book science fiction, as opposed to any other of the plethora of genres? What differentiates it from literary fiction?

The two books in question are two recent titles: How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu and Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot. Neither of these novels follows the traditional “science fiction” paradigm: there are no aliens, no deep delves into the nature of the sciences, and while there are fantastical elements they are decidedly not the focus of either text. Rather, they tell human stories, though they do so with varying degrees of specificity and success.

Both these novels run kicking and screaming from science fiction trope while simultaneously embracing them by rejecting the notions of classical plot. Science Fiction Universe does this better than Blueprints, primarily because it creates a much better defined space for action to happen in.

It’s one of the most difficult parts of a science fiction novel: creating an internally consistent, logical location for story to exist in. In a world where reality is different than our own, we need to have rules established, or else we will get lost in a string of nonsensical actions. Science Fiction Universe takes place in a parallel dimension where all science fiction stories occur, where the laws of physics were only mostly installed so that wacky shit could happen. Blueprints takes place in a future Earth during “The Age of Fucked Up Shit”; you can tell what that means just from the name.

Despite being half the length and tackling a much more different concept, Science Fiction Universe manages to concisely establish its world view. As a novel, I couldn’t recommend it more highly because it’s so utterly efficient. Setting is espoused at the same time as back story is laid out, and we readers are thoroughly placed into this alternate dimension. Further, its conflict is micro: rather than a world-shaping incident, Science Fiction Universe breaks down everything into one concise, intense conflict that shines its path with the focus of a laser beam.

This would be the moment to mention that these two books feature perhaps the two best opening sentences I’ve read in years. Yu’s begins:

“When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself. “Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.“

While Boudinot’s:

“The world was full of precious garbage.”

Their difference in topic represents the split between the two, despite each being compared very rightly to Charlie Kaufman’s films. Yu’s focuses on a very tight moment: the moment where he shoots himself. It colors the novel. It’s the first sentence, but it’s not referenced for a fair while because merely its existence makes the book stronger, more ominous. Boudinot’s, meanwhile, is trying to tell the story of so much garbage. It’s a long book, and it has a lot to explain to you: guns named after corporations, private armies, a sentient, apocalyptic glacier, wars between humans and cyborgs, and networked nanotechnology. Five protagonists, whose stories rarely intersect for more than a few minutes.

Blueprints has a much higher rating on Goodreads because of its ambition. Book nerds love ambition; it’s unfortunate that I’m a story nerd, otherwise I feel like this would be my favorite book. It has huge ideas, but it doesn’t have the run time to deliver on its promises. Rather than tell one satisfactory story it tells half of one and fragments of others and doesn’t offer up that “tying together” moment that it so sorely needs.

Because I love the characters! I love the world Boudinot’s created. It’s utterly, incomprehensibly brilliant. It has a singular problem: as you watch the page count dwindle, you realize that there’s no hope that these things will come together in a meaningful way. You finish the book and you feel like you missed something—you want to read it again, just to see, but I’m fairly confident I didn’t. People do things for internally consistent reasons, but we are never privy to that consistency. The curtain remains drawn incredibly tight, not letting any secrets slip, and we don’t get inside of anyone’s head. No one makes sense to us.

I recommend it incredibly highly to book nerds, to obsessive compulsive types: it has more mystery, more world than any other book. The problem is it doesn’t know what story it’s supposed to tell. And as a human being, my love is stories: I want to see people follow an arc, and I want to reach the end and understand more about the human condition. The world is window dressing: it might be lovely, but it doesn’t define the characters. Science Fiction Universe places us into a world where stories happen; Blueprints gives us access to this fantastically detailed place and says, “There’s no story to tell here,” even though it’s obvious there is one, just off-screen. I want to read that story. I want to know the whys that Boudinot keeps jealously guarded.

In the end, here’s what I take from the difference between genre and “literary” fiction: literary fiction is at its most forward concerned with telling us a story about people. Genre adds the flavor of different types of stories, different types of tropes. Literary fiction gives us just the meat with salt and pepper, while genre adds on spices, sauces, and other flavors. Without a good enough protein the sauce feels wasted, too decadent for regular consumption; of course there are people who will eat chocolate and only chocolate, but it’s the substance that stands out the strongest. That’s the literary element: give me more meat, flavored with genre, and I’ll fall for your writing.