Yes stories are formulaic. No that’s not a bad thing.

imagesSome years ago I had a friend who didn’t believe recipes had any place in the kitchen. He would start cooking a meat pie, then decide it needed some fruit. Too sweet? Add some paprika. Maybe it’s not a pie after all. Now it’s a desert. Cover it in honey! I’m not joking. My friend valued originality above all. People enjoyed his parties, but never for their cuisine.

It’s amazing how many writers try to write this way.

Wired For Story by Lisa Cron is an interesting book. It pulls together a lot of well researched information about the connection between storytelling and neuroscience. And guess what? The latest insights of science are showing us that stories are waaaaaaaaay more important to how humans think than most people realise. Stories aren’t just idle entertainment. Stories are, quite literally, the way we think.

(Writers have suspected this for a long time, and researchers like Brene Brown are proving just how important the scientific study of stories can be.)

How often have you heard people dismiss a story for being formulaic? How often have you done it yourself? But when it comes to storytelling, our cultural obsession with originality does us little or no good. The great formulas of storytelling, like great recipes, exist because our narrative tastebuds respond powerfully to that combination of story flavours. The task for the writer isn’t to toss away the Hero’s Journey , five act structure, or any of the beautiful formulas for great stories from history, but instead like a great cook, you must flavour them slightly differently for the palates of modern audiences.

Wired For Story is a remarkable foundation to build a great understanding of storytelling upon. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Why does literary fiction hate genre?

Literary fiction is an artificial luxury brand but it doesn’t sell. So nobody benefits by fencing it off from more popular writing.

It’s always a problem when one of literature’s big beasts wanders off the reservation into the badlands of genre. The latest to blunder through the electric barriers erected around the safe zone is two-time Booker prize nominee David Mitchell, whose new book Slade House is undeniably a haunted house story. Or, as the Chicago Tribune put it, his “take on a classic ghost story”. As if the thousands of genre ghost stories written every year by horror writers weren’t also one individual’s take on that classic form.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

When it comes to fighting monsters…why the bat?

Jennifer Brozek’s new YA series, the Melissa Allen trilogy, features a young female protagonist who carries a baseball bat when she’s fighting monsters. In this special guest post, Jennifer explains why Melissa named it Mister Bat, and how it became a repeating factor in all three books. While most people might think a baseball bat is an unusual weapon for a young lady, Melissa has her reasons.


Why would a nice girl like Melissa favor a baseball bat over all other weapons when fighting monsters? It’s an easy enough question to answer on the whole. Melissa is a young teenager who loves baseball. At the start of the book, she’s unable to play but she still has her named weapon of choice. It is a talisman for her and a source of security—like a blanket, only more protective and less apt to hurt her accidentally.

While some would argue that a gun would be a better weapon, guns run out of ammunition. They are also noisy, illegal to carry in some states, apt to be taken from the owner and used against them, or have the weapon owner accidentally shoot themselves with it. On the whole, in a situation with monsters, the bat is a better choice. No loss of ammo and a sense of familiarity. While it could be used against Melissa, it’s not a long distance weapon, thus running away is still an option.

There’s another reason Melissa loves her bat. Her favorite fictional hero, Deroga Darrington from the Dare Files uses one. They are silent, effective damage dealers, legal, and easily replaceable. Melissa is well influenced by her love of Deroga, constantly referring to him and his gritty, sage advice.

The real question is: why wouldn’t a young woman want a baseball bat for protection? Or an older woman for that matter? I have a lovely aluminum bat I keep near me while I’m at home. It isn’t a named bat, but it is still a comfort nonetheless.

Never Let Me Leave is available from Amazon now.

You can follow Jennifer on Twitter.

There is only one choice for the new World Fantasy Award

Most readers of this blog will already have read the news that, after a long debate within the community of fantasy writers and readers, H P Lovecraft is to be replaced as the face of the World Fantasy Award. Not everyone is taking the news gracefully, not least critic S T Joshi who performed an epic flounce, returning his World Fantasy awards and asking never to be nominated again!

I have no intention of rehashing the Lovecraft debate here, it has been had and decisively won, and my feelings on old HP are already on record. The really valuable discussion now is what we replace the existing trophy with. It’s interesting because it cuts to the heart of a very important question for fans and writers of the fantastic – what IS fantasy?

“Fantasy” as a category of storytelling means many things to many people. Even putting aside his explicit racism, Lovecraft was a poor choice as the “face” of a world fantasy award because he represents only a narrow – very narrow – range of fantasy’s broad meanings. But, this isn’t just Lovecraft’s problem, it’s equally true of ANY single author. (And, I would argue, any single iconic fantasy character.) For this reason I also do not support Daniel Jose Older’s widely popular nomination of Octavia Butler to replace Lovecraft. Fantasy contains many great writers, none of whom should be the face of the award.

I also understand the general reluctance of many to embrace any of the prototypical fantasy symbols – wizards towers, dragons, unicorns etc and onward. Dragons definitely have profound significance in epic fantasy, but mean very little in horror, for instance. I’d have no problem collecting a dragon shaped WF award one day, but understand that others might feel differently. However, I do think there is one iconic symbol of fantasy that can stand for the entire field.

The portal.

The portal connecting one world to another is more than just a staple of fantasy stories. Yes, a magical gateway opened by a sorcerer, and CS Lewis’ magical wardrobe, are tropes within their respective narratives. But the importance of the portal to all fantasy writing reaches much further than that. In The Rhetorics of Fantasy writer, critic and academic Farah Mendelsohn makes a compelling case that all fantasy revolves around the relationship between reality, and the created fantasy of the story. In a sense, whether a portal is explicitly presented or not, all fantasy is about the act of moving through portals between worlds. It seems to me that when we ask what fantasy is, the portal is the most universal of answers.

How would a portal be represented as a three dimensional trophy? There’s really no end of possibilities for skilled artists to explore. It could take a traditional form as a magical gateway, the more horrific image of the shadowy doorway (how many horror stories turn on a decision to walk through the wrong door?), or a more abstract form as a circle or ring.

If you’d like to see the portal chosen to represent the field for the World Fantasy Award then please spread the word, link to this post, and please leave a comment if you have thoughts to share.

The awesome power of science fiction’s megastructures

The imaginary constructions of science fiction fill us with awe at their alien vastness. Which have you explored, and what was the most overwhelming?

Sci-fi fans call it “sensawunda”, that awe and amazement that the best science fiction stories can inspire in us. The entire world felt it recently when scientists declared that observations of a distant star might have revealed an alien megastructure. Did inhabitants of the KIC 8462852 star system encase their sun in solar panels to harvest energy? Or was this our generation’s canals on Mars moment? The sensawunda effect is so powerful that, even with scant real evidence, we are swept into believing.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

Gus. A case study in Sad Puppy ignorance.

The Sad Puppies are, once again, frolicking in my twitter feed after WIRED magazine’s take on the 2015 Hugo awards was republished in an extended form. It’s a good read, followed by the usual tail of comments with members of the Mad Harpies “movement” publicly humiliating themselves by repeating the same old tired excuses for their bigotry.

Among the comments was this gem from a “Gus”, who chose to publish on a public forum a rather revealing insight into the ignorance of the Bad Guppies. I’ll just drop it here for you to read in full. The bold is a quote from the article , the italics are Gus “rebuttal”.


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably the first sci-fi novel, was a monster story that explored the ethics of technological advance and the responsibilities of parent­hood.
Only a brain-washed product of a US humanities department could ever come up with such nonsense. The sole purpose of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was macabre entertainment, as entertainment is the sole purpose of Sci-Fi: when I want to be preached to, I go to church. The puppies, of course, are right. A good story that sells well is what counts every time. Thank God, we no longer have to rely on Hugo and its gang of prim PC hypocrites for suggestions. There’s plenty more where to find a good read. And neither is “Frankenstein” (1818) the first sci-fi novel. There have been many before, for example, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift (1726), “Adventures of Baron Munchhausen” by Rudolf Erich Raspe (1785), or “The Blazing World” by Margaret Cavendish (1666), and plenty more going all the way back to “Arabian Nights” and the Japanese tale of “Urashima Taro” (720) that talks about time travel.


I wish I had an effective emoticon for side eye, and I’m not going to lower myself to inserting a gif here, so I will simply ask you to imagine me giving Gus all the side eye. Where to even begin?

Firstly, is Gus actually asking us to believe that Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the famed early feminist icon, daughter of philosopher and political activist Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of romantic poet and political radical Percy Byshe Shelley, close friend of paramilitary revolutionary Lord Byron, and author of  seven novels (many science fictional) and innumerable other stories, essays and letters, all of them revealing a life of deep engagement with political and social issues of gender, class, sexuality and more, that this same Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus (a subtitle explicitly invoking the mythical act of stealing fire from the gods as an opening rhetorical reference to the risks of scientific endeavour) as, and I quote, “the sole purpose of…macabre entertainment”? Because I would suggest, on the basis of all available evidence, including every single thing ever written about Frankenstein, that Gus is in a minority on this one. In fact, I will go so far as to say that he is utterly, absurdly and idiotically wrong.

Secondly. Does Gus then go on to place, alongside Frakenstein : A Modern Prometheus by early feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the novel Gulliver’s Travels by famed polemicist, essayist and, yes, political activist Jonathan Swift, as examples of entertaining scifi stories written for the sole purpose of entertainment? Because I hate to break it Gus, but while Gulliver’s Travels may well be a “good read”, it absolutely does have a message. Google is your friend Gus, look it up.

Wherever Had Herpes gather the whining about “message fiction” is endless. Stories should only entertain, and not contain any kind of message, apparently. Reading old Gus’ words, it becomes clear how these clowns arrive at such idiocy.

They are ignorant.

These are the kind of people who can read Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus by early feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and not notice all those messages flying past their ears. Or, likely, they just haven’t read it at all, and are the very particular kind of stupid that can believe that they, and they alone, know the “sole purpose” of something they haven’t even read.

There is a name for this kind of stupid. It’s ignorance. The people who don’t know, and don’t want to know, and ignore anything that challenges them, even when it’s explained in the simplest way, those are the ignorant people. And they’re ignorant, above all else, about science fiction itself, a genre so full of messages that even its most ardent fans can’t agree on a proper definition to hold them all. Gus is a good case study in Sad Puppy ignorance, look out for its signs in everything they do.

The Reengineering of Fantasy

Look. I like Conan. If stories let us play out our secret fantasies in widescreen technicolor, then clearly there’s a part of me that longs to be a muscular barbarian, crushing my enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. While Robert E Howard’s original Conan stories aren’t quite as good as the epic John Milius/Oliver Stone movie that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom, they are still gems of pulp fiction well worth reading.

Conan’s rippling pectorals have proved a suitable fantasy vehicle for generations of geek boys, but the macho white male is only the fantasy ideal for a minority. As Lisa Cron argues in her excellent Wired For Story, the power of story reaches far further than mere entertainment. Our brain thinks in stories, but when stories don’t reflect our lived experience and our sense of identity, our brain will often reject them.

Read more at Guardian books.

Open Thread : How can writers protect themselves from social media?

As some of you will know, I took a week week long sabbatical from social media last week. I’ve done this four times this year, each time for one to three weeks. For reasons I’ll come to, I find it essential.

I love social media. Twitter is my favourite platform, it connects me with hundreds of wonderful people whose friendship I value hugely. I also use Facebook, Google+, Instagram and a number of others. I also, for reasons I will come to, hate social media.

Like any professional writer, I have to be on social media. My work as a journalist means I need to keep in touch with developing stories, for which social media is essential. Much of my freelance consultancy work revolves around helping businesses use social media, so I need to stay in touch with these platforms as they evolve. In short, I am on social media a lot because it’s immensely useful to me in many ways. But for reasons I will come to, I hate that I have to be on social media.

Why do I hate social media?

Creativity requires focus. Social media, as we’re all fully aware, breaks that focus. It does that in obvious ways, with constant notifications that we train ourselves to constantly be checking. But it’s the less obvious ways that are more pervasive. For every positive debate on social media, there are ten futile conflicts. Like it or not, the kind of continuous presence writers have on social media makes not being drawn into those conflicts extremely problematic. And those conflicts are symptomatic of something worse. It’s what I’ve started thinking of as the social media Crab Barrel effect, wherein social media tends to drag all its participants towards a median level of wisdom or understanding on any topic.

As a creative of any kind the crab barrel is, of course, exactly the thing you have struggled to escape.

We need social media as writers, but we also need to protect ourselves from social media. Your thoughts on how are most welcome.

Won’t somebody please think of the billionaires!

As levels of inequality continue to sky rocket, the plight of the rich is getting worse by the day. We’re not saying it’s as bad as what orphans, women, people of colour, plague victims, the undead or supermodels who marry short rockstars have to go through…oh wait maybe we are.

 by Richelle Richenstein

The poor get poorer while the rich get richer. And not satisfied with winning at that game, the poor also hog all of our attention with their “suffering“. But when rich pricks bleed, do they not…wait. Hold on. Yes. No. I think.

So. On a wet Wednesday morning I Ubered a Humvee driven by a former Navy SEAL that put in the lowest bid to escort me past the attention seeking poor who would no doubt try to disrupt my attempts to expose the suffering rich.

First stop, Wall Street. “It’s hard,” Said Trent Ahole, a 36 year old hedge fund manager cum crossfit instructor. “My bonus this year was an embarrassing seven figures. I couldn’t even tell my girlfriend because she’s a Buddhist. So instead I just bought her a Tesla X.”

Too Many Teslas. It’s a problem all billionaires can empathise with. Andy Hoskowitz bought his 5th after selling his tech start-up, Bangr. “We set out to disrupt the personal services industry.” Says the 50 something as we luxuriate in his penthouse jacuzzi. “Because of me, no man will ever have to fear being overcharged by a call girl or rent boy again.”

Where would society be without such entrepreneurial spirit? I meet with Amanda Du Port in one of her show case fashion stores, where she shares her experiences of the hatred so often meted out to the rich. “Try telling a mother of three the layoffs won’t come into effect until AFTER new year. They won’t show the slightest gratitude. That’s why I never go to the Asian factories…talk about harshing your buzz.”

“Being rich is just like winning at monopoly. You sneak money out of the bank, make up the rules as you go, bully the other players until they stop calling you a cheat, and then build a bunch of hotels.”

“I’m intensely relaxed about people getting desperately poor.” A senior British politician tells me ‘off the record’. “But it does rather clutter up the streets with bums, whores and filthy, thieving children. That’s what’s so great about gentrification… all those chain coffee shops. Too expensive…the stinkos can’t even go in ’em!”

Inheritees have been known to compare their lot to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. “All I do, day after day after year after year, is Lear jet from one claustrophobic five star resort to another, forced to pose in humiliating designer dresses by my paparazzi oppressors.” Madrid Travelodge texts back to my question, along with an accidental upskirt photo of her knickers.

To paraphrase Kermit T. Frog, it’s not easy being being tanned, toned, slender & Very Fucking Rich. If the poor are reading this, I hope they’ve learned that lesson by Reading My Words. If you’re rich, I’m here to let us all know, we are not alone comrades!

If you have too much money and are suffering under the sheer weight of al that cash, the author offers to help relieve you of your terrible burden.

A sci-fi history of Mars

Mars has always been, as cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote, a “mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears”. For the ancient Greeks, the red dot in the night sky was an aspect of Ares, god of war, who unleashed conflict when the balance was lost between Apollo – god of reason – and Dionysus, god of the irrational and chaos. This conflict between Apollonian reason and Dionysian chaos has been projected onto Mars ever since.

Read more @ Guardian Books

The Player of Games : why learning to win at games can make you a loser

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks makes a powerful argument for peace as the ultimate strategy.

Incredible thanks to my patrons for making this essay possible. And to my beta readers, in particular Sarah Imrisek and Joshua Newman, for challenging my arguments.

Games have always been seen, to a greater or lesser extent, as models of life. Monopoly makes its social metaphor explicit; he who owns the most of London wins at capitalism. Chess has long be called the “game of kings” because its dynamics are a close parallel to courtly intrigues and human politics. Poker is favoured by gamblers and economists alike, both professions that study the interplay of probability and human psychology. It’s a commonplace assumption therefore to say that people who win at games tend to win at life.

Games as models of life took on a new importance in the 20th century with the development of game theory, a branch of mathematics pioneered by John Nash, whose life and work were popularised in the movie A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes Nash schools his math nerd friends on the dynamics of chatting up girls; never talk to the most beautiful girl first because her less attractive friends will then reject you. Nash’s insight was that human relationships and transactions could be understood as a game, a game in which those who understood the “mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision makers” would have a major advantage. You may not know it, but the principles of game theory are today a driving force in economics, politics, military strategy and many other areas of modern society.

“Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars.”

The marketing industry quickly adopted game theory. When you’re persuaded to buy a new Mercedes by a barrage of advertisements, it’s your tendency to value objects as symbols of status in the game of life that is being exploited. This marketing technology reached its apogee in the late 2000’s concept of “gamification”. If you’ve ever found yourself returning to the same supermarket, petrol station of coffee shop again and again to fill up your loyalty card, you have been “gamified”. Reward Schedules, Behavioural Momentum, Countdowns and Disincentives are just a few of hundreds of documented “game dynamics” that are now routinely employed by marketers to capture your attention and manipulate your behaviour. Games evolved these dynamics to keep you playing, now businesses employ them to keep you shopping.

Games have leapt from the parlour to the big screen, as computers have replaced board games with the high resolution spectacle of modern video games. Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars. By even the most modest estimates, video gaming is the world’s most popular entertainment. But all that gaming isn’t just a distraction. We are, as a society, becoming experts in the dynamics of gameplay. Game designer and commentator Jane McGonigal argues that videogames are training a generation of “expert gamers”, masters of game strategy with over 10,000 hours game play experience, an army of high level problem solvers ready to reshape society as an Epic Win.

I call the pervasive influence of games in today’s world “ludification”, derived from the Latin term “ludus”, meaning game or play. While gamification implies the many positive applications of game play in today’s world, ludification reflects on the problematic aspects of that same process. Ludus means game, but it also means deception. Games seem to offer a model that allows as to triumph over many of the problems the world throws at us. But while it’s clear that games can make us winners, too often we overlook how they also make us losers.

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

The Player of Games is the second novel in Iain M Banks’ science fiction sequence the Culture. Banks’ science fiction novels fit loosely into the genre of Space Opera – epic adventures and battles fought between the stars. As a story The Player of Games sits well alongside novels like The Hobbit and Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy; a comfortable, somewhat naive human is forced to journey into a strange world and discover their true self. Like much of the best science fiction, Banks’ work also reflects on the real world, and as the title suggests, games are at the centre of the allegory that Banks weaves.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is the Culture’s most famous game player. Board and card games, as the Culture is oddly lacking in computer games, despite being a super advanced galaxy spanning civilisation. Gurgeh’s life, in common with all citizens of the Culture, is utopian. He lives in a beautiful estate on an “orbital” artificial world. Nobody in the Culture works, unless they get bored. There is no poverty, sickness, violence or indeed any real suffering of any kind. There is no discrimination, people can change their gender or any aspect of their identity however they wish. This utopia is made possible by Minds, artificial intelligences who do all the real work in the Culture, an issue that is central throughout the sequence.

Gurgeh faces one of the few problems imaginable in a true utopia. In a world of absolute equality, how does a human satisfy their need to be special? Gurgeh’s solution is his mastery of games. While citizens of the Culture can have anything they want, Gurgeh’s status as the greatest living player of games is uniquely his. However, Banks hints that this makes Gurgeh something of a throwback, a man too rigid to even swap his gender (Gurgeh has always been male and only sleeps with females) who needs to win dominance over others to feel complete. In another world, perhaps even in our world, Gurgeh might have been a great general or king, a business leader or CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But in the Culture, he’s simply a player of games. Famous, but ultimately no more significant than any other individual.

The Minds that govern the Culture have their own hobbies. The nature of the Minds is explored in all of the Culture novels, but it’s enough here to know that they are benign rulers, who will basically do anything to make human existence comfortable. Minds have unique personalities, but they all have vast intelligence and, importantly, a rather wicked sense of humour. As they continue to explore the universe, the Minds often turn up less advanced and usually more brutal alien societies. While being largely pacifist, the Culture does frequently intervene to make these alien civilisations less awful. In fact, the Minds rather enjoy the vastly complex thinking required to tinker with an entire society. It’s a rather entertaining game to them.

“Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play.”

The Empire of Azad is one such alien civilisation. Despite stretching over a few hundred star systems, Azad has somehow managed to retain an Imperial political structure. Banks argues that Imperial systems are deeply inefficient, so civilisations that expand beyond their home planet nearly always transition to far more utopian systems of government. The Azadians have maintained their deeply unjust Imperial system for one important reason: a vastly complex game called Azad, from which the empire takes its name. Azad is used to determine who governs the empire. The game provides the empire with stability by making sure the most competitive and ruthless individuals wield power. The cost, as we will explore in more detail, is that Azadian society is a deeply unpleasant place to live for anyone not in this ruling class.


Azadians come in three genders – male, female, and apex. Apices wield all power, while males and females have been selectively bred to lower their intelligence. Poverty is widespread in the empire, and lower economic classes can be beaten or killed by the rich without consequence. The many alien cultures conquered by the Azadians are enslaved. In one moment of The Player of Games we are told of a conquered alien being shaved of its fur, in an image that echoes the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people. Later in the novel we discover that the empire has secret broadcasts seen by its elite, broadcasts of live sexual humiliation, rape, torture, and the mass murder of children. Aspects of the empire are glamorous, intoxicatingly so, but Banks leaves us in no doubt that it is a fundamentally horrific place.

Gurgeh is, through a series of machinations plotted by the Minds, sent off to, quite literally, beat the Azadians at their own game, which he duly does. The emotional charge of the story turns on Gurgeh’s own transformation from game player to fully rounded human being, as he is taught the ultimate inhumanity of a society based on games. Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play. The allegory is completed when, in the story’s denouement, we learn that while Gurgeh has been making his moves, the real “player of games” are the Minds who have manipulated him into this quest. Mind’s that are machines, but who demonstrate that even a machine can choose to act humanely.


Which of Mr Banks’ two imagined societies seems more realistic to you? The utopian vision of a galaxy spanning Culture where humans live lives of pleasure? Or the empire of Azad, where a privileged elite of the most ruthless and cunning oppress and exploit all others? I suspect that, if answering honestly, most of you believe that Azad is more like human reality than the Culture. A brief glance at history shows humans repeating all the same sins as Azadians, over and over again.

Which society would you rather live in? I hope for your own well being that you answer the Culture. But again I suspect many of you will say the question is overly wishful. Whatever we might rather, the real world is like Azad. There are rules, and hierarchies and winners and losers. The world is a game, and given the options, you’d rather be a winner.

Welcome Azadians!

The ludification of our world is the triumph of the desperate hope and belief that we can, we will, indeed we must, be among the winners. And it’s a process driven by primal fears. John Nash, the father of game theory, was a profound paranoid schizophrenic whose fears were so powerful they manifested as crippling delusions. If you saw every human as a player in a game, driven by a selfish agenda, capable of any deception, as Nash’s game theory suggests, you’d be crippled with paranoia as well. Maybe you do. Maybe you are.

“the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history”

It’s hardly possible to look at the marketing industry’s cynical adoption of “gamification” as anything but the most scurrilous form of manipulation. Yes, the human desire for status and various other psychological traits are easily gamed to sell us everything from Coca-Cola to Coco Chanel. But what good does this do for anyone? Seriously, tell me, because I’m totally unable to think of anything.

Video games could conceivably produce a generation of super skilled Epic Win problem solvers. If game designers like Markus Persson (Minecraft) or Jenova Chen (Journey) are any guide this might happen, but it will be despite the best efforts of the vast industry that ahs made games, for all their potential, into the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history. If Gamergate is any measure it seems more likely that videogames are training an entire generation as vacant minded hyper-consumers, entirely lacking in both critical thinking and basic human empathy. Ideal citizens of the empire of Azad.

But let me put it to you that Bank’s allegory is more hopeful than you suspect. The Player of Games, the Culture and Azad are a fiction. But the two tendencies that they represent – towards competition and violence on the Azadian side, or towards cooperation and peace on on the Culture side – both exist within the human heart. And they are both necessary to our health and happiness. The real question is how we balance them.

At the climax of The Player of Games, Gurgeh plays a final match with emperor Nicosar. This final game of Azad is played over many days, and for high stakes. Gurgeh’s victory ultimately, as the Minds of the culture calculated it would, topples the entire Azadian empire. But how Gurgeh wins is where the story’s real meaning hides. While Nicosar deploys his pieces as an Imperial army, Gurgeh shapes his forces in the peaceful model of a more advanced civilisation. And over time, Gurgeh’s peaceful society simply absorbs and overwhelms the attackers, and turns them toward peace. Gurgeh wins the ultimate game, by learning not to think like a player.

Its been my lived experience that expert game players are no better at life itself than anyone else, and are often worse. The man who whips his kids at Monopoly isn’t necessarily winning at being a dad. Chess players when they involve themselves in real world politics, like Gary Kasparov’s disastrous tilt at Russian president Vladimir Putin, seem to have learned no transferable skills from the game of kings. Economists proliferate everywhere, just as priests did in earlier ages, and everywhere their influence touches our economic problems rapidly multiply. Games it seems are not particularly good models of reality at all.

Instead many of the great victories of the last century have gone to those who, like Jernau Morat Gurgeh, play by the rules of peace. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent politics succeeded in freeing the entire Indian sub-continent from British rule. Martin Luther King’s insistence on peace as the path towards civil liberties for black Americans triumphed over violent strategies deployed by both sides of the conflict. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s compassionate use of Peace and Reconciliation committees averted the potential of horrific bloodshed in post-apartheid South Africa. Wherever you look, progress is made by those who refuse to play by old rules of violence and bloodshed. And where those rules are still asserted – in Iraq, in Syria, in North Korea and elsewhere, human suffering only multiplies, nobody wins and we all lose.

Did the violent Azadians lead to peace, or to infinitely more skilled players of games in the Minds of the Culture? Ultimately they are one and the same thing. What the Minds understand is that peace is a far more powerful strategy than violence. It’s a lesson we could learn ourselves, with a glance at our own history. Instead the ludification of modern society continues our losing strategy of turning to violence as our first and last resort. Violence might win on the limited scale of a chess board or a Call of Duty map. But in the vastly more complex space we call reality, violence loses again and again. If games are to fulfil their great potential in the world, they need to choose winners who play the strategy of peace.

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REVIEW – The End of All Our Labours

The End of All Our Labours

Will the world end in fire? In ice? Or grey goop?
A review of The End of All Our Labours by Potassium Cockburn.

I am, on the issue of humankind’s near future, an optimist. As humans we have a historic tendency to predict the worst, and yet our history has been one of steady progress. But there are without doubt more horrifying future scenarios for us to fixate our doom mongering imaginations on than ever before. Climate change of course, and the population shifts and resource wars associated with it. New weapons of mass destruction that make atom bombs look like pea shooters. An almost infinite array of biological terrors, bacterial horrors and viral nastiness all stemming from garage kit genetic engineering. The End of All Our Labours, a near future science fiction novel by the pseudonymous Potassium Cockburn, makes this shopping list of familiar apocalyptic possibities its starting point and, with great imagination, conjures a few hundred new ones.

Manoushka “Manny” Duval is a neuter, a gender and sex identity still hard to hold even in the war and poverty ravaged near future Cockburn depicts. But Manny is among the fortunate. Well educated, implanted with the sensory augmentations neccesary for high level work, born of immigrants who escaped the refugee camps and favellas to which most people are condemned. Manny worked those camps, saw the death and disease up close, but now lives in the towers and dome communities of the upper classes.

However, The End of All Our Labours introduces us to Manny when their life has been literally torn apart. From a tiny cell Manny relates the story into a speakeasy recorder, addressing interogator Mr Deebs. The reader learns of a seeming terrorist plot to break through the walls between dimensions, and the utter chaos of a world where every apocalypse scenario has arrived at once is hinted at. But Manny can remember very little; Manny’s augments have been programmed to block all knowledge of the “Proprietary” research which they were contacted to undertake.

The nature of that programme mutates throughout The End of All Our Labours. A byzantine recruitment programme, that satirises today’s corporate culture of non-disclosure agreements and proprietary intellectual property, lands Manny a highly paid job with the Gardiner corporation on a project lead by Mr Gardiner himself. But what begins as a scientific effort to save a doomed humanity soon shifts as plots within plots enmesh Manny in a far more radical scheme. The programme shifts again as the augmented reality the researchers work within becomes central to the story, and we begn to suspect that far from being a mere researcher, Manny has been drafted as the unwitting research subject.

The End of All Our Labours is clear on one thing. The real threat facing humankind is humankind itself, and the twisted knot that is human consciousness. Cockburn neatly subverts one of the key tropes of the apocalypse story, where the rational mind of the scientist ultimately triumphs over the irrationality of humankind by, for instance, engineering the cure for the killer virus, or switching off the rogue AI. The End of All Our Labours presents scientific reason as just another layer of self deception and delusion fuelling human chaos. Around this thesis the novel plunges into a tumult of multiplying realities and overlaid dimensions.

Like much of the most interesting science fiction, The End of All Our Labours is part thesis, part fiction. Cockburn’s style is dense and challenging, weaving essay and argument through the thoughts and observations of its main protagonist, often sacrificing character and story for ideas and philosophy as it pursues its central obsession – can our world be saved? The author makes very few compromises in chasing the answer through a maze of human madness. That makes The End of All Labours, particularly in its opening sequence and densely self referential final third, a challenging read. Readers who step up to Cockburn’s challenge to match the author step for step will get much from the argument they together unfold.

This review was written as part of my paid review programme. You can find more information here.

Writer. Columnist for The Guardian. Writing teacher.


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