Monday, January 28, 2013

Speculative Spotlight: To The Moon

It's the last Monday of January, which means it's time for this month's Speculative Spotlight, in which I share something that I deem to be a worthy representation of awesomeness in the world of speculative fiction. Today, I'm going to be talking about To The Moon, a fantastic indie game for Windows PCs.


What's the Story?


Today's entry came about in kind of an interesting way. When I initially sat down to write this, the "spotlight" was going to be on something else entirely. I got about half of the article done at the tail end of a writing session, then decided to call it quits for the day. Later that night, the video game addiction centers of my brain began churning and marched me over to the computer to satisfy the cravings. Being in between games at the time meant it was time to try something new, and my game of choice for the night was chosen randomly from a swelling list of games on my hard drive that I've gathered from sales and bundles over the last couple of years but for some reason never got around to playing. The one I ultimately chose was a little adventure by Freebird Games called To The Moon.

As soon as I finished playing, I came back to my blog and shelved everything I'd written previously so that I could write about this game instead.

Why It's Awesome


To The Moon is a point and click adventure game at its heart, but its visuals and overall feel also hark back to the old school Japanese role-playing games of the Super Nintendo era. The music, graphical style, and text-based dialogue are all straight from the golden age of 16-bit gaming. If, like me, games of yesteryear like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy were a prime source of enjoyment for you as a child, then this one will be striking at your nostalgia chords from the moment you boot it up. But its real magic lies much deeper than the surface trappings of presentation; what will reach out and take hold of you is the charming story.

You play as Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts, who work for a company that specializes in memory implants, fulfilling the dying wishes of unfortunate people on their deathbeds. Using a special machine, they're able to replace the patient's existing memories with a new choice or desire, allowing them to die free of regret. They do this by "entering" the subject's memory and traveling as far back as they can to implant the desire at a very young age. Their technology simulates the results of that single choice, thereby altering an entire lifetime of memories. The catch is they're not able to jump all the way back to the patient's childhood in one leap. They have to start with his most recent memories and work their way back, experiencing several significant moments in his life, but in reverse.

You join Rosalene and Watts in their attempt to grant the dying wish of a man named John Wyles. With his life nearing its end, Johnny wants to go to the moon—but doesn't know why. As you travel through the highs and lows of this man's life, you unravel that mysterious desire, learning more about him and the choices he's made with every leap backward in time. I must admit I'm struggling to describe the story any further than that, as I fear I'd spoil the magic, but you eventually come to know Johnny even better than he knows himself, as you witness the things he's loved and lost over a lifetime.

I can say with confidence that To The Moon has one of the best storylines of any game I've ever played, and I believe it can be enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers alike. Seriously! There's no complex control scheme to wrap your head and hands around, no hand eye coordination required. For the most part, the whole thing can be played with just the click of a mouse. Also, its retro graphical style means pretty much any machine should be able to run it. And it will only cost you ten bucks. So what are you waiting for? Play this game.

Image courtesy of Freebird Games

Monday, January 21, 2013

The My Favorite Martian Bloghop

It's been quite some time since I participated in a bloghop around these parts (unless you count the Insecure Writers Support Group), but this one seemed right up my alley, so I thought I'd join in the fun. Hosted by The Geek Twins, the My Favorite Martian bloghop asks its participants to delve deep into the collective mind of the science fiction genre, grasping across literature, film, comic books, video games, or any other medium home to alien reverie. Thus, I am tasked with the practically inconceivable burden of choosing one alien character from the entire genre that I feel embodies the awesomeness it has on offer.

Worse yet, the alien being of my choosing does not actually have to be a Martian. This widens my pool of characters to choose from considerably. I mean, the Star Trek universe alone contains something like four hundred (!) different species of alien life. How am I ever going to choose one race, let alone one character within that race, from all of science fiction as my favorite alien? Impossible, I say! It cannot be done! And yet, I must. Toward which corner of the multiverse should I cast my gaze?

Warp Speed, Engage


We've already mentioned the wide selection that Star Trek has on offer, and I am definitely a fan of Gene Roddenberry's universe. Who doesn't love Mr. Spock, after all? He's more than just a pointy-eared space elf; he's a walking battlefield. Beneath his cool exterior, his human and Vulcan halves are constantly at war with each other, an endless struggle between logic and emotion. If that's not fascinating, what is? Then again, that might actually be a good reason not to choose our favorite Vulcan science officer for this entry, as I'm sure someone else will.

So who else among the Trekian droves? Klingons are an interesting species, if not a little Orcish. The "proud warrior race" thing has grown a little stale these days, but our Klingon friends were one of the early archetype examples, so they get a perpetual pass, in my book. And then you have Lt. Worf, who has his own duality conflict going on, having been raised by puny humans. But you know, he's just not doing it for me today either—afraid not, Mr. Worf. Your mating rituals intimidate me.

Damn you for being human, Picard! You'd have made this so much easier if you'd had a rubber forehead like the rest of the cast. I'm afraid I must turn my search to another universe.

May The Force Be With You


The next obvious choice would have to be Star Wars then, wouldn't it? Like our previous candidate, Lucas's universe comes ready-made with hundreds of alien species to choose from. And having rejected Trek, it's only right that I give the galaxy far, far away equal consideration, since they've been at each other's throats for decades. Can the rebel forces sway my heart in their battle against the Sith?

As diverse as the Star Wars cast of aliens is (technically every character is an alien, even the humans), there's really only a couple of characters that spring immediately to mind as worthy candidates for this bloghop. The first would have to be Yoda. I'm pretty sure this Jedi Master was responsible for the entire development of my moral compass as a child. But alas, I'm afraid he suffers from the same problem that keeps Spock from taking it home. You're just too popular, little guy.

Then you have my next favorite alien in the Star Wars universe, Chewbacca, whose Wookie language I make a point in practicing every morning as I get out of bed. He, too, comes dangerously close to "obvious choice" territory though. And on top of that, as cool as it would be to have a giant man-bear-dog-thing in your company, a large part of Chewy's appeal is dependent on his proximity to Han Solo. Take his scoundrel buddy status away, and he's just a speck of fluff amidst a sea of furballs.

There Can Be Only One


I'm running out of options here, not to mention reaching the upper limits of my length threshold on this blog, and still I've yet to choose my favorite alien! If the overpopulated galaxies of Star Trek and Star Wars don't yield results, where can I turn? Alien? Stargate? The Thing? Mass Effect? Argh!

That's it, I can tarry no longer. There has to be an alien out there that represents a worthy pinnacle of awesomeness—one alien character who outshines all the rest in every way. I must choose! The answer is just outside my grasp. Yes! I can feel it!

The winner is . . .


PIZZA THE HUT!

I can't believe it took me so long. Has a more tragic, compelling character ever been written? May we all aspire to such greatness.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Submitomancy: Not Just a Copy Cat

A couple of weeks ago, following the announcement that Duotrope was going paid, I shared a list of free alternatives that might suit the needs of writers who'd ultimately decided not to pony up the cash they were asking for. The reception I got was awesome, as that entry ended up becoming the second most popular thing I've ever posted (thanks in no small part to Jim McDonald sharing the link on Making Light/Diffraction and all of you intelligent, attractive, generally good-smelling people tweeting it around). But there was one unfortunate downside that I noticed while compiling that list: while all of the sites I'd gathered were fantastic resources, none of them could serve as an all-in-one stop for market listings, response stats, and manuscript tracking. You'd have to mix and match a handful of them for that, which obviously isn't as convenient.

Fortunately, I was able to make a couple of additions to that list after I posted it, as new projects were brought to my attention that can serve as the one-stop-shop we all hoped would come along. One of them is an intriguing proposal currently seeking funding on IndieGoGo called Submitomancy, but it aims to be more than just a replication of the familiar model. To learn more about this ambitious project, I invited Sylvia Spruck Wrigley to stop by and tell us about Submitomancy, and what makes it more than just a carbon copy of other manuscript tracking sites.

Take it away, Sylvia!


Manuscript Tracking Is More Than Just Submissions


Submitomancy’s basic service is quite similar to existing submission tracking systems. The free service has to give users a reason to submit their data and share the results, so that was an easy decision. But when it comes to the subscription services, I knew I wanted to provide manuscript tracking, which goes a step further.


Here’s two key points: My interest in a manuscript begins before it is completed. My interest in a manuscript does not end because it has had a single sale.

Obviously, a manuscript has to have some meat to it before it’s worth paying attention to; I’m not going to enter every bizarre idea I’ve ever had. But once I’ve taken the time to outline a story and start drafting, if I have a real feeling for the plot and how long it will be, then for me, the manuscript exists in potential. I may not finish it on the spot, but I want to find it again when the time is right.

Now honestly, if there’s a call for submission for lusty pirate zombie stories under 5k, I pretty much know without looking if I have anything that fits the bill. I don’t need software to help me do that.

However a lot of anthologies and magazines have much vaguer themes. And I have a lot of stories that I might finish, if there was an exciting opportunity for them.

Ignoring stories on submission, I probably have 20 that are trunked which could be rewritten, and probably another dozen that are unfinished. The point is that if there’s a call for novellas about near-future science fiction, I want to be able to quickly narrow down my current manuscripts by genre (science fiction) and length to see if I have anything that looks like it might be a match. I want to see those trunked stories and unfinished stories because if one seems like a good match, then that’s what I should be working on next. It’s giving me motivation to finish.

For finished stories looking for a home, I just really want the process to be as painless as possible. A search engine can only give near matches: there’s no accounting for style or language for a specific market. For the first search on a new story of a popular length, I’ll get a number of markets that aren't quite right. With Submitomancy, I can place a star next to the best matches, markets where I really feel the story has a chance. The next time I search to see where that manuscript can go, I’ll see the stars I placed last time. This means that having spent five minutes initially considering which markets are best, I don’t have to think about it again, they are right there for me. But because I’m not just working my way down a list, I’m also seeing new markets and additional opportunities where my filters have changed.

Once I’ve chosen a market to submit to, my manuscript data means that it is easy to create a cover letter. At a click of a button, a basic letter is created which includes the market name, the manuscript title, wordcount,  genre and my most recent (or favorite) three sales. This is available for me to copy and paste into a form or email where I can customise the letter or send it straight out - but the repetitive bit is taken care of.

If I receive an acceptance, then we explode fireworks and space kittens for everyone.  But that’s not the end of the story. There’s a whole new set of information that needs tracking: pay rate, contract received, payment received, publication date, exclusivity clause. I can set up a notification to alert me when I can send the story to reprint markets which I can find using a new filtered search.

I’ll also be able to see at a glance which sales are completed and whether I received my money. And at the end of the year, I can see exactly how much money I made from short fiction. OK, I don’t need that function, actually. $43.72 not including the free cupcake I got at Eastercon. But THEORETICALLY, it might be important.

I’d like Submitomancy to add value with alerts and badges and social networking between writers but at it’s core, it’s about manuscripts and how to make them work harder.

If there’s enough interest in Submitomancy then I’ll be refining the details with the Early Access subscribers. But the way I've designed the system, it is only as good as the people who use it. That’s why I’m exploring this with you as a no-risk project for all of us.  If you think you’d enjoy being a part of Submitomancy, then please support the campaign and tell your friends.

http://www.indiegogo.com/submitomancy/

A big thanks to Sylvia for stopping by. The more I read about Submitomancy, the more anxious I am to try it out when it goes live. It honestly sounds like a dream come true for short fiction writers. If you agree, consider visiting the link above and supporting the campaign.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Dwarves

It's the first Monday of the month year, which means it's time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. This month, you have my axe. We're talking about Dwarves.

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The myriad realms of fantasy that authors have populated over the decades have introduced readers to all sorts of otherworldly beings and creatures. But dwarves, much like their elvish rivals, have become something of a cliche calling card for the genre, from lighthearted fairy tales like Snow White to sprawling Tolkien-esque epics.

While many of their charms and quirks can vary wildly from story to story and author to author, it's usually pretty easy to recognize a dwarf when you see one, as these short, beard-sporting, pickaxe-wielding mountain folk often steal the show.

Their boiler plate status in the genre isn't the only thing dwarves have in common with elves. They also share similar roots in Germanic folklore. Many of the traits we identify with typical depictions of dwarves in fiction are lifted straight from the dvergar of Norse mythology, who were skilled miners and metal-workers. These Norse dwarves lived underground, and were said to have forged the magical weapons of the Æsir and the Vanir, including Thor's famous hammer, Mjölnir.

It was from these old tales that J.R.R. Tolkien drew inspiration when crafting the races of Middle-earth. His dwarves clearly wear this lineage on their sleeves, forging great halls beneath mountains, where they mine for precious metals and horde the spoils of their efforts. He also infused his dwarven race with cultural markers influenced by the reading of modern and medieval texts regarding the Jewish peoples, chiefly their diasporic history and the struggle to reclaim their ancestral home. He even created a dwarven language that is largely analogous to the Semitic languages of our world, especially Hebrew. Makes you wonder why they all have Scottish accents in the movies, eh?

I'll try not to go on and on, but then what would an entry on dwarves be without ad nauseum reference to Tolkien? As I've pointed out again and again in this series, it was his work that forged a great deal of the perennial tropes at play in epic fantasy. When he passed away, the authors he influenced were not content leaving the ideas he left behind unexplored.

Beginning with the colorful cast of The Hobbit and continuing in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien's dwarves set the mold. If there is any one archetypal dwarf toward which all others in the genre strive, his name would have to be Gimli, son of Glóin.

I've done a bit of my own toiling in fantasy, but I've tried to stay away from most of the typical tropes of the genre, especially fantasy races like elves and dwarves. As such, I have no Gimli spawn to my name thus far. I'd certainly never rule anything out though. One of the fun parts about fictional archetypes is the opportunity they provide to play around in a genre you love, twisting and turning well worn cliches into something exciting and new.

In the mean time, most of my interaction with the dwarvish folk happens in video games these days. As a medium, games have always been more forgiving of genre cliches, and many RPGs lovingly embrace the cheesy paradigms of their tabletop roots. And that's just fine with me. As tiring as it can be to read the same characters over and over again in books, booting up a video game and driving an axe into an orc or two will never get old.

Recommended Reading:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams
Discworld by Terry Pratchett

Recommended Viewing:
The Hobbit
The Lord of the Rings
Snow White and the Huntsman

Recommended Gaming:
Dragon Age: Origins
The Elder Scrolls series
Dwarf Fortress


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

IWSG: Knitting Parachutes


It's the first Wednesday of the month year, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

This month's quote comes from one of my favorite authors, which is not even remotely distinguishing, since he's practically everyone's favorite author. I'm talking about one of this generation's biggest speculative rock stars, Neil Gaiman.

Like many fellow nerds, my first introduction to Gaiman's work was the DC/Vertigo comic series The Sandman, which stands to this day as one of the greatest works of graphic storytelling of all time, in this humble writer's opinion. But he's perhaps better known for the bestselling novels he went on to write afterward. Works like American Gods and The Graveyard Book have garnered Neil Gaiman multiple awards and a massive following. During a talk at UCLA a few years back, he said this:

"Sometimes writing is like jumping out of an airplane and hoping you can knit a parachute before you crash."


And thus, one of my favorite quotes about writing was born. He was primarily referring to his personal writing process (I believe it was in response to a question about whether he uses outlines or not), but I think it beautifully captures the spirit of wordsmithery as a whole. Think about how much of what we do requires that obligatory leap of faith from heights we didn't even know we could reach (often followed by the frantic search for a ripcord that doesn't exist). Even the simple act of sitting down to write in the first place is a blind plunge into the unknown. It requires shutting out other parts of the world that perhaps deserve your attention, setting aside time from the rigors and responsibility of your life to entertain the notion that you have something to give to the empty page. All the while, that little voice prods at you, reminding you of the 'real life' things you could be spending your time on, accusing you of arrogant navel-gazing that will amount to heaps of nothing in the end.

These words also capture the sheer urgency for success that many of us feel. The more we try to ignore that nay-saying voice, the louder it gets, and the only thing that will shut it up for good is achieving the goals it tells us we'll never be able to reach. So we clamor for them, strain for them against the weight of the world, and the closer we come to that ripcord, the faster terra firma seems to be rushing up to meet us. I absolutely love what I do, but the self-imposed pressure of my writing career is far more oppressive than any hard-assed boss at any 'real life' job could ever hope to be.

So what do we do about this free fall we're in, then? How do we address the rapidly approaching ground in such a way that doesn't result in a resounding splat? Well, as Mr. Gaiman suggests, we get our knitting needles moving. That parachute isn't going to appear spontaneously—we can't wish it into existence. The only way we can spread our wings and float gently across the finish line is through hard work and perseverance. Staring back at the comfortable airplane we leapt from or looking down at the possibility of our impending doom are both exercises in frustration and futility. But if we buckle down and put in the kind of hard work that begets success, we will find that success, one way or another. It's easier said than done, and there's no telling how long we'll have to work at that parachute, but the only guaranteed assurance of failure is resignation.

And I don't know about you, but I'm not quite ready to resign. So I'm getting to work on my parachute. Care to go skydiving with me in 2013? It's a long way down, but the view is fantastic.