Books – City of Saints and Madmen

City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer, has been labelled ‘avant-garde fantasy’.  It is.  The city is the star; Ambergris is a violent and gothic-romantic ecosystem, the inhabitants of which live in a fearful symbiosis with the deeply mysterious ‘Greycaps’.  These underground dwellers were initially displaced by the founders of Ambergris from the much older city that it grew out of.

The Greycaps give a Lovecraftian edge to the tales of the city, silently malign landlords living in a world beneath the city’s people, the balance of power shifted emphatically after their initial genocide at the hands of Ambergris’s founders, with an event known as ‘The Silence’, that shattered the collective psyche of the city’s denizens, leaving behind a fragile society with a black hole where its heart and soul should be.  This book feels like Lovecraft-meets-literary fiction, and while not quite as dark as the master, its emotional canvas is broader, a playful black humour mixing with the horror in its veins. Continue reading Books – City of Saints and Madmen

Richly blending achievements may cause loss of sleep!

Over the years I’ve been addicted to a number of games.  These include all the MMOs I’ve played, Championship Manager, Civilization, Elite, Just Cause 2 and Test Drive Unlimited.  And this was proper addiction, you know:

  • “Oh shit it’s 4am, oh man, not again.”
  • Five hundred calories a day on weekends (crisps, tea and chips)
  • Tips and strategy bookmark folders and printouts
  • Home made keyboard overlays
  • One game at a time, months at a time
  • Wife having second thoughts..

I’ve wondered what is common to these games that are in quite different genres yet cause such an immersive consumption of my time. Continue reading Richly blending achievements may cause loss of sleep!

End Day

“Sit down son.”

Jerry’s mum and dad were on the sofa opposite him.  This was his End Day, his sixteenth birthday, and so the day he would be told how long he had to live, the day the law said he had a right to know.

His mum was biting her lip, her knuckles were white with the ferocity of her grip on his dad’s free hand.  His dad held up the piece of paper the government sent three weeks after Jerry was born, but his fingers were trembling, and tears sprang from Jerry’s eyes as he began to accept that their trembling grief was like the rumbling of a train that was about to smash him to ruin. Continue reading End Day

Show don’t tell

I spend some time on an internet writing forum.  There have been a few forum threads that have exploded over the titular writing maxim.  One post in particular is based on some advice Chuck Palahniuk had written somewhere: ‘you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires’ (quoted from the forum post concerned).

So, it continues:

‘Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him”, you’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned (sic) there, again.”’ Continue reading Show don’t tell

Books – Wool

Spoiler free.  Rest easy…

Hugh Howey is in the enviable position of the author who self-published with a good enough book, got a buzz going and then took off into the stratosphere – publishing deal! film in the offing!  I’m delighted for him.

It reminded me afresh that all the self-marketing in the world isn’t going to help a story that doesn’t drag the reader in and keep them there.  It also made me think that perhaps the books that break out from the ocean of self-published novels are the easy reads; great plot, transparent prose, a speeding train of mildly pleasurable distraction well worth a couple of quid.  I’ve yet to hear of work that is squarely literary fiction that has also broken out and gone gangbusters, but I’m happy to take some recommendations if I’ve missed anything. Continue reading Books – Wool

Books – The Old Ways

The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane is a book about walking country paths.

I know, that’s what I thought, and I only bought it because writers of the stature of John Banville named it as one of the books of the year on its release last year.

But then I started reading it, and I was blown away by the writing.  He writes, near the start, of paths:

“Paths were figured as rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to weird morphologies, uncanny origami.” Continue reading Books – The Old Ways

Worldbuilding part 2: It’s a kind of magic

This blog post gives an overview of my very physical take on ‘magic’ in the world of Snakewood.

Now, inevitably, with a fantasy novel, you’re likely to have some sort of ‘magic’, something to make it fantastic in the purest sense.

For Snakewood, perhaps because of my conceptual struggle, as a materialist, for magic, I wanted what was magical about my world to be rooted in it somehow, to be earthy, tactile.  I didn’t want some hand-waving and lightning bolts and flames springing out of nothing or great waves of force from mere gestures. Continue reading Worldbuilding part 2: It’s a kind of magic

Love and brains and language games

I’m going philosophical in this post, so those of a disposition sensitive to pointless armchair theorising look away now.

I’ve long been interested in Philosophy, but particularly interested in the brain, the most complex thing in the known universe, as far as I’m aware.

In this post I want to explain why I think the mind is the brain and that love is indeed ‘just a bunch of neurons’.  To do this I need you to imagine that you have a PC, and that its hard disk drive has stopped working.

So, now you’re sat at a desk boiling with frustration, thinking “Why isn’t my PC working?”

There are a number of explanations, you think, but there are more you’re probably not considering.  Imagine that there is some kind of ‘ladder of explanations’ from the subatomic, through the ‘physical’ to the personal and social.  It’s a kind of ‘system hierarchy’. Continue reading Love and brains and language games

Worldbuilding part 1 – how prevailing winds shape history’s winners and losers

How to create a convincing fantasy world.

That’s the question I’m sure all writers in the genre wrestle with at the outset.  You can get lost in it.  All such writers I’ve read on the forums I frequent vary in how deeply they imagine the setting for their story, prior to banging out the chapters.

Most fantasy is set in a faux-medieval context, as is my own first proper attempt, Snakewood.  But once you’re in a position to build the world itself, how do you go about it?  How do you tie it all together so it makes sense?

Thankfully I’d read a book, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, that gave me both an elegant theory for why the course of human history has gone as it has, but in doing so also gave me a way of determining the economic and cultural topology for my own world. Continue reading Worldbuilding part 1 – how prevailing winds shape history’s winners and losers

Books – The Stress Of Her Regard & Sum

The Stress Of Her Regard – Tim Powers

Byron, Keats and Shelley – check.

Vampires – check.

Life or death adventures through London, Venice, Rome and the Alps – check.

As with the other Tim Powers novels I’ve read (The Drawing of the Dark, On Stranger Tides and Last Call), The Stress Of Her Regard pits a hopelessly outclassed protagonist, here Michael Crawford, against various supernatural forces in a clever weaving of Powers’s research and love of the classics, myth and folklore into the lives of the three great poets mentioned above.

He’s been called ‘the apostle of gonzo history’, which alludes to the fact he can weave a fiction in and around historical characters or places, as writers like Hilary Mantle and Ken Follett do with such aplomb, but that fiction is riotously supernatural. Continue reading Books – The Stress Of Her Regard & Sum

Design your own difficulty – how LOTRO lost its soul

I’ve wondered for a while what the use of analytics in driving game design would mean for games.  There are clearly massive benefits.  But along the way I think there are casualties, particularly when it comes to the uniqueness of a vision a designer has for the experience they’ve created.  The only time I’ve articulated it was in relation to LOTRO, on their forum a while back.  I’ve edited that commentary below:

I spent a lot of time in Turbine’s version of Middle-Earth, The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), from the beginning onwards.  But, around the time the Enedwaith expansion landed, I found myself less and less engaged with the game.  I couldn’t articulate my concerns for a long time, until the developers released the Fornost Dev diary, outlining their re-imagining of the defining quest cluster for characters around the level 30-40 mark, via the grouping mechanic, the Instance Finder. Continue reading Design your own difficulty – how LOTRO lost its soul

Do readers care about grammar?

“Surely if incredibly high sales of authors who don’t close edit their books teaches us one thing, it’s that in some parts of some genres editing is less important to readers than other factors…..the point about self-publishing is that every type of reader can find books that are for them so long as we stop putting actual or implied pressure on authors to conform to some kind of fictitious paradigm”

Dan Holloway, of the Guardian, wrote this in the comments thread here.

I confess I’m rather staggered.  The conclusion appears to be that paying close attention to one’s grammar, among other things, is a fictitious requirement if we’re selling books ourselves; something we ought not worry about unless the readers we’re reaching for tell us otherwise. Continue reading Do readers care about grammar?

Books – The Intellectuals and the Masses, The Dying Earth trilogy and Little, Big

I’ll share my thoughts and recommendations here of great books I’ve read.  Here are three I’ve read recently, I’ve not read a bad book in a while it seems ;)

The Intellectuals and the Masses – John Carey

“The tragedy of Mein Kampf is that it was not, in many respects, a deviant work but one firmly rooted in European intellectual orthodoxy.”

So, I’ve spoiled the ending, but this conclusion was persuasively argued by John Carey throughout his series of essays collected in this volume. Continue reading Books – The Intellectuals and the Masses, The Dying Earth trilogy and Little, Big

Why Guild Wars was the best MMO

I never played World of Warcraft (WOW).

It could be a fatal caveat to the bag of opinions that follows, but, as Rushdie said of Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld, WOW “fills the sky” where MMOs are concerned.  It must be acknowledged, a tip of the hat to the naked emperor from here onwards, as well as a stick to beat me with if I generalise incorrectly in what follows.  Check this out from Andy Gavin for a thorough look at WOW. Continue reading Why Guild Wars was the best MMO

The final full stop.

The final sentence of Snakewood approached, already in my head, and I’m looking at the words unfold like I’m on a train thundering off the rails and over the cliff. Continue reading The final full stop.