Category Archives: Weird Things

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Horror – just not scary any more

Whereas Victorian writers could rely on repressed sexuality to generate unease, today’s horror and fantasy novels put sex on the front cover. But the best new examples of the genre still bring up the things we don’t like to talk about.

When Bram Stoker penned Dracula in 1897, Eastern Europe was still remote for most Britons. But Jonathan Harker’s tortuous overland journey to Transylvania would today be a short hop on a budget airline. And Count Dracula, as both a Romanian immigrant and wealthy foreign plutocrat, would be attacked on arrival first by the Daily Mail for taking our jobs, and then the Guardian for forcing up property prices in the capital.

The fear of foreigners that fuelled Dracula is nothing today but a tabloid scare story, putting it alongside the other great fear of Victorian society – sex – which has also been reduced to mere page filler. Mina Harker doth protest too much when the sexy Vlad Dracula turns up in place of her dowdy solicitor husband. Today’s horror heroines, like vampire hunter Anita Blake, are just as likely to screw a vampire as slay them.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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The troll reviewers targeting women writers

Online abuse reminds us that while technology is upgraded, human qualities of jealousy and bitterness are not.

It may contain some passages judged by one Amazon customer to be “brilliantly written”, but that isn’t enough to spare Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road a two-star kicking. The reason? Byrne has committed a political sin in presenting the scientific reality of climate change – or according to this customer “a fantasy future where it turned out that Global Warming fanatics actually got something right”. Worse yet in this user’s eyes, Byrne’s depiction of women fighting back against male violence makes her guilty of misandry “thick enough to plow”. Climate change and gender politics, two hot-button issues for reactionary conservatives who have found a new outlet for their hate speech – online reviews.

Negative book reviews are a reality of life for all professional writers. And the proliferation of user-generated reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads make readers’ opinions just as important as those of professional critics. But for authors like Byrne, politically motivated reviews are easy to spot. “There’s an unmistakable tone,” Byrne says. “And if they’re using condescending or otherwise gender-coded language, that’s a dead giveaway.”

Read more @ Guardian Books

Fighting Fantasy

How Fighting Fantasy beat traditional stories

In the three decades since Fighting Fantasy began, games have changed our concept of story forever.

When I was 10 I wanted, for a brief period, to be a professional Fighting Fantasy player. I was so fascinated with the now-iconic green-jacketed gamebooks, emblazoned with the legend “Thrilling fantasy adventures in which YOU are the hero!”, that I hatched a plan to make playing them my job as a grown-up. The market for professional gamebook players never materialised, but fantasy gaming has become big business. If I’d chosen to hit the Magic the Gathering pro tour, or joined a videogame clan I might have stood a better chance.

What made Fighting Fantasy so addictive for my 10-year-old self, and for a generation of geeks around my age, was the combination of two things we love with a passion: stories and games. I’m fascinated by the way in which the massive growth of gaming in the 30 years since Fighting Fantasy was first published has changed how we think about stories – so I was very lucky to grab some time with one of gaming’s most influential figures, Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Fighting Fantasy, founder of Games Workshop and lifetime president of Eidos Interactive, the company behind Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.

“I started playing games as a child and never stopped,” Ian says when asked about his own passion for games, which started with classics like Monopoly and chess, then war games and board games before he discovered Dungeons & Dragons in his 20s. “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to turn my passion for playing games into a business of making them.”

It was Dungeons & Dragons that helped fulfil that ambition. Games Workshop purchased the UK rights to the cult role-playing game in 1975, which established the company’s mission to make progressive games for core gamers, and led in turn to the immense success of the Warhammer franchise in the 1980s. Dungeons & Dragons established an entirely new paradigm for gaming, one that brought story and character into games as never before. “In many ways paper and pencil role-playing creates a much deeper gaming experience than many video games,” Ian argues. “The narrative is made up as the game is played out rather than along a predetermined arc written by the games designer. This unstructured format of role-playing on the big screen of the imagination can’t be bettered in terms of unique user experience.”

It was on the big screen of the reader’s imagination that the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks played out. Ian and co-creator Steve Jackson wrote the books in a second-person present style, with branching story narratives and a dice-based game system bolted on. “Fighting Fantasy gamebooks empower the reader, who felt the anxiety or joy of being fantasy heroes themselves – they lived or died by their decisions. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” And a lot of people did exactly that: more than 17m Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were sold, in 28 languages. And Fighting Fantasy is still going strong, with Chinese translations launched very recently.

“There are thousands of traditional books which are of course brilliantly written and have incredibly exciting storylines and thought-provoking philosophies,” Ian continues, as we talk about the differences between traditional novels and interactive fiction of the kind pioneered in Fighting Fantasy. “Yet traditional books have a linear storyline and sometimes a hero which the reader may or may not relate to.” The appeal of a gamebook then is that it allows the reader to be at the absolute centre of the story. The idea of a thrilling fantasy adventure where YOU are the hero is more than just a clever marketing line, it’s central to the success of Fighting Fantasy and a very significant part of how games have changed stories.

The techniques Fighting Fantasy employed to put you at the heart of the story became standard in the burgeoning videogame industry. “In the early days of computer and videogames there simply wasn’t enough available memory to include a compelling story, let alone graphics, speech and music. But today that’s all changed, and storytelling has become an important and integral part of a videogame.” Graphics are near-photo-realistic, characters more believable, and professional writers are transforming the experience of story-led games such as Deus Ex and Mass Effect. But first person action and branching story narratives are still the standard ways of telling stories.

Are we becoming a game-culture? Fighting Fantasy gave a generation of readers a first taste of what games can bring to stories, and the videogaming industry has gone on to take gaming from the parlour and make it an absolutely central part of contemporary life. Gamification has become the trend of the day in the world of marketing, with companies such as Zynga and their game Farmville exploiting our hunger for games to hold our attention and sell us products. In her super-insightful TED talk of 2010, game designer and academic Jane McGonigal asked if gaming could help make a better world, arguing that an estimated 1.5 billion “virtuoso” gamers represent a massive untapped resource of expert problem solvers just waiting to … solve all the world’s problems! Games put us at the heart of the story, in a world where very often we feel far out on the edge.

That was once the traditional role of novels as well, but increasingly stories are also reflecting our hunger for games. Game of Thrones charts the power struggles between warring families in a medieval fantasy world, with each new chapter like a new move on the chessboard of Westeros. The Hunger Games has cashed in on our thirst for competition and its consequences in our daily lives. Perhaps we’re becoming aware that in a world where everyone is the hero of their own story, the inevitable outcome is an ever more competitive society, and we demand books and films that reflect this reality.

I finish my conversation with Ian Livingstone by asking him the Desert Island Discs question for gamers; if he was stuck in the grim far future of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise, which game would he take to keep himself entertained? The writer of Fighting Fantasy has more than 1,000 boardgames and thousands more videogames, but there’s only one choice for a true gamer. “I would probably play chess because it is the ultimate pure game, and I will always be able to improve no matter how long the war goes on.”

Originally published on Guardian Books

A digital renaissance for the science fiction short story

A man wakes up from a car crash to find that he is an “electric ant”: an android programmed to believe it is human. At home he uses micro-tools to open up his own chest and discovers a tiny spool of tape inside. Punching new holes in the tape makes new objects appear in his world, obscuring a section makes the world disappear. The android cuts the tape, and hears a rushing wind as all reality is revealed to him.

The contradictory concepts at the heart of Philip K Dick’s 1969 short story The Electric Ant have fascinated me ever since I first read it 20 years ago. It’s the capacity of the science fiction story to get us thinking about intriguing concepts that gives the form its punch. Today, the short-story magazines that helped to popularise science fiction are all but gone. But a new generation of online magazines has taken their place, and is transforming the genre again.

Read more @ The Guardian.

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The future is queer

I spent most of my youth being told to get a haircut. As a boy of slight build who usually had hair down around my shoulders, I looked a bit too much like a girl for the comfort of the home counties. Society gets angry when gender roles are blurred, precisely because those roles are a fragile act put on with clothes, hairstyles and makeup. If they weren’t enforced, clearly defined gender roles would not exist.

I take comfort in the idea that most of the young men telling others to get a haircut today are rushing home to play at being buxom dark elf warrior maidens in World of Warcraft. Gamer culture has gained a bad reputation for misogyny, but it seems male gamers are more than a little curious about playing out female gender roles. It makes perfect sense. The real world enforces gender roles, but virtual worlds let gamers express the feminine parts of themselves that don’t fit in with their masculine identity.

Read more @ Guardian books.

 

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Are we already living in the technological singularity?

news has been turning into science fiction for a while now. TVs that watch the watcher, growing tiny kidneys, 3D printing, the car of tomorrow, Amazon’s fleet of delivery drones – so many news stories now “sound like science fiction” that the term returns 1,290,000 search results on Google.

The pace of technological innovation is accelerating so quickly that it’s possible to perform this test in reverse. Google an imaginary idea from science fiction and you’ll almost certainly find scientists researching the possibility. Warp drive? The Multiverse? A space elevator to the stars? Maybe I can formulate this as Walter’s law – “Any idea described in sci-fi will on a long enough timescale be made real by science.”

Read more @ The Guardian

Self-publishing: is it killing the mainstream?

Brenna Aubrey self-published her debut romance novel At Any Price on the Amazon Kindle on 9 December 2013. One month later At Any Price had netted a total profit of £16,588. Aubrey’s success is far from unique – 2013 was a breakout year for “indie authors” led by the phenomenal success of Hugh Howey. But Aubrey is among the first in a wave of authors to do what, until very recently, would have been unthinkable; turn down a $120,000 (£72,000) deal from one of the big five publishing houses and decide to do their job herself.

Read more Self-publishing: is it killing the mainstream? | Books | theguardian.com.

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Forget Iron Man-child – let’s fight the white maleness of geek culture

Fantasy has become a sandbox for immature masculinity. What kinds of stories could we tell if our writers tackled the hard truths of male identity and privilege?

The coming year threatens to be another period of white, male heroism in geek culture. Another summer of superpowered men in the cinema. Another year with only 4% of video games having female lead characters. Another year where a list of 30 hotly anticipated fantasy novels lists only seven by women, and only one by a writer of colour, where a science fiction shortlist with two women out of five is greeted as some kind of victory.

Money is the bottom line in the uniform white maleness of geek culture. The entertainment conglomerates that produce most of this content fear the female geek because they might disturb the profit margins. Boys buy more toys. And so the evil eye of corporate marketing departments is fixed upon them.

Read more @ Guardian books.

Wheel of Time village

Does the Wheel of Time deserve a Hugo award?

The Wheel of Time began turning in 1990. Initially planned as a trilogy, by the time of author Robert Jordan’s death in 2007 the series had grown to a mighty 12 volumes. Working from Jordan’s notes, Brandon Sanderson added a further three volumes of eternal struggle. This sprawling fantasy epic has gone on to sell some 44m copies in north America alone, with global figures estimated as closer to 80 to 90m. That may be about a squillion times more than every Booker prize winner put together, but The Wheel of Time remains oddly unacknowledged beyond the fans that adore it.

Read more @ Guardian Books

The sci-fi you will be reading in 2014

Science fiction has arguably been the mainstream of pop-culture since the internet displaced TV at the centre of our lives. The younger, geekier internet audience is living in a weird, complicated world, and sci-fi provides the metaphors that let us talk about it en masse. Young audiences aren’t stupid, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn’t killing the box office just because it’s the latest teen sensation. It’s how a generation growing up in the ruins of late-stage capitalism are articulating the experience. And SF today is articulating an ever wider range of experiences.

Read more @ Guardian Books

War Is Peace

Which dystopia are we living in?

It seems a bit rough to accuse modern Britain of being a dystopia when it’s also such an excellent source of tea, roast dinners and well-tailored clothing. But then the really disturbing thing about any dystopia is that for every Winston Smith resisting the machine, there are thousands of content consumers quite happy with Big Brother.

Read more @ Guardian books.

Five science fiction novels for people who hate SF

The genre’s denser stories can seem rebarbative to ‘general readers’, but these books tell immediately relevant, compelling tales.

Science fiction is all around us, from clandestine electronic surveillance to robots taking our jobs, from death-dealing drones in the skies of Pakistan right through to the second industrial revolution unleashed by 3D printing. It’s more than a century since writers began charting the technological dream of human civilisation we now live in, but some readers are still put off by a writer who reaches into the future, a novel with a spaceship on the cover.

Read more @ Guardian books