So Gene Wolfe Got Me Thinking About Connecting With Stories…

If you’re a science fiction & fantasy person, you’ve maybe heard of Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun. It’s a four-part series, tracking the story of a dude from a guild of torturers in a future world, but one degraded into a fantasy-style medieval setting. Armor and swords and whatnot. The reason I bring it up is kind of interesting.

Give me a second here. There’s a larger point about why we stop reading books after a page or two, and why we keep going.

Anyway, people in the know brag about this series like it’s Tolkien or the Bible or Dickens. They go on and on, writers whom I respect very much and who should know dregs from riches. If they say it’s worth the read, even though it’s dense and uses esoteric words that look made-up but are actually in the dictionary (when you bother to look and don’t just skim past hoping they’ll make sense in context), you figure you should give it a shot. Well I did. Four times.

Four separate times, I tried to start reading the first book, Shadow Of The Torturer. “It’s mind-blowing”, they said. “A masterpiece”. I had not found it to be so. In fact, I tried some other Gene Wolfe books (in the library so I wasn’t blowing money on things I expected to hate) trying to see the big deal. I couldn’t do those either. So I figured this dude just isn’t the beans for my java and moved on.

Let me put just a little flesh on the bone before we move on here: The opening scene seemed to me to have some typical fantasy-trope band of misfits at a gate of some kind, whispering about how to get inside. Or something. The word choices were exotic, the descriptions dense, and I hate plain-vanilla bands of misfits doing fantasy thieving stuff. It’s. Been. Done. I honestly never got anywhere with that first book because it seemed like tired content, done in an unnecessarily obtuse style.

I listen to a lot of disparate things when I go running at the lake. Seriously, it’s all over the place. Here’s a good one, if you’re into Harlan Ellison, a collection of all his Sci Fi Buzz appearances called ‘Harlan Ellison’s Watching‘. It’s great to hear him rant or get excited about something, then have the ability to fast forward with a Google search to see what became of it.

But I came across these two intelligent, informed gentlemen, discussing at length one of my favorites…a set of pieces collectively called Viriconium by M. John Harrison.

Here, just click this one to listen to these two, it’s hypnotizing: Books Of Some Substance with guest Brett Campbell of doom metal band, Pallbearer.

I’d never heard of ‘Books Of Some Substance’, nor have I listened to anything from a doom metal band from Arkansas (and likely never will), but Viriconium‘s one of the great ones. That’s a life changer, at least for me. It gets in my head. I can’t read it without it changing how I think, how I choose my words. Harrison’s a genius at mood-setting, at impressionistic fiction, at sending your mind off to flights of fancy. Maybe not of telling a story – he’s not great at that. But otherwise, a true work of art there. These two gents had a fascinating chat about Viriconium, so I heard them out on that count. And towards the end, when these two had completely won me over with a rich, insightful conversation that encourages you to think maybe they’re not all Snapchat-addicted neanderthals out there, the doom metal guy mentioned Book Of The New Sun.

Well crap. He said if you really like Viriconium, you’ll like that one too. He said it’s set in the far future where the old technology is literally a toe-scratch below the dust and shards of decaying cities. He said it was amazing.

So I took a fifth go at Gene Wolfe’s supposed masterpiece. I kept an open mind, telling myself this isn’t a piece of Dungeons & Dragons fan fiction or a bajillionth clone of Tolkien, that the exotic words can be skipped or considered in context without constant jaunts to the dictionary, that this very intelligent, insightful doom metal person who held a series I cherish in such high regard was telling me to give it a chance because it holds some of the magic that Harrison’s work does. He earned my trust, so I dug in with as open a mind as possible.

And honestly, it’s pretty good. They weren’t D&D-style thieves at all, but apprentice torturers. That scene was short and not at all what I thought it had been. They were young trainees basically, and this was going to have elements of coming-of-age tales. It’s super easy for me to connect with coming-of-age tales, especially when they hint up front at the great heights to which this person will reach (as this book does). I like to examine their choices, to question whether I’d make them as well, to see where external factors advanced their cause and when they seized their own fortunes alone. I saw this after a few chapters, beyond where I’d stopped those previous times.

The word choices remain exotic and annoying, but they add flavor and atmosphere, which was his point I imagine. I understand there will be an element of the unreliable narrator as I proceed, so I’m on the lookout for nonsense he pitches at me. We’ll see how that goes.

My point today is just to hand you a few links you might find interesting, and to suggest that our preconceived notions of what a book is about can throw us off the rails, that our impatience and lack of attention span can cheat us of some great tales, and that when you find reviewers or podcasters or other folks whose opinions you trust, maybe listen to them with an open mind.

If you’re into Gene Wolfe’s works, shoot me a note and let me know what you think. I’m anxious that this series will fail me at some point, but so far so good.

Till next time, guys.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Commissioning A Cover With Fantasy Illustrator, Omer Tunc

Many of you have asked what’s going on with the deckbuilding wargame we’ve been working on at Grailrunner. Thanks for the interest, guys – it’s hard to make a splash. We’re glad to hear somebody out there is pumped to see the final product. If this is news to you, take a quick detour here to see what that’s about.

After completing rounds of playtesting in print & play format, then on Tabletop Simulator in Steam, we went live with the volume 1 deck at MPC last year. The product at that link is a gorgeous, premium stock starter box complete with two full faction decks. It was an experiment in the economics and setup of products like this for us, and we also wanted feedback on the art and presentation. Now we’re in round 2 of revising the product based on that feedback. The original version will remain available for now.

Two player starter deck on MPC

Which brings us to the point of today’s ramblings. Omer Tunc is his name. And if that’s new to you, then follow this link immediately! He’s an incredibly talented and kind freelance illustrator and artist living in Izmir, Turkey. Should you need any fantasy or science fiction artwork commissioned, here’s one of the great ones! I’ll tell you how it went with me.

The world and lore behind Salt Mystic is intentionally unique, with distinctive technology designed to stand out from blaster pistols, massive Warhammer 40k armor, screaming robed Jedi, and generic spaceships as you might find overflowing the racks at Barnes & Noble. It’s the opposite of trying to look like we belong there alongside them – we believe in what we’re doing as something NEW coming into the world. We’ve jokingly called the aesthetic “computronium and leather: science fiction with a western feel”. Anyway, that means we need art, and striking impressive art at that! You can’t work with stock images when the things you’re dreaming up don’t look remotely like what you find on Shutterstock or Adobe Stock.

We realized we needed a premium rulebook and source book for the expansive lore and background material, swimming with beautiful art to immerse players in this world. The little accordion-style brochure in the starter box tells you how to play, but it doesn’t make you feel the heat of the arsenal ships burning. You can’t hear the sizzling of a gunslinger firing up his ball lightning carbine behind you. We wanted that. And that’s been the time spent in quarantine, which is a story for another day. Seriously, this is going to be a gosh-a-mighty steam shovel to the imagination (I stole that phrase from Stephen King!).

So I trolled around endlessly on Instagram and Artstation, looking for works that had the majestic backgrounds, striking poses and interesting coloring…contacted several of them to gauge interest and pricing…and generally made a nuisance of myself as I learned the economics and logistics of commissioning art like this. And believe me – there’s not a big budget here to work with. Like almost none. But let’s work a miracle, yeah?!

I narrowed the field to Omer and a couple of others, and believe me – the final decision was easy! Most folks I contacted (via their contact links) are less than $1k, generally around $550 to $750 (USD). That’s for full rights to a single work. You can trim the price down if you’re just looking for single-use print rights. Also can negotiate a bit, which you absolutely should. But my point with Omer isn’t pricing. It’s talent and professionalism.

Here was the briefing I provided (along with some reference images):

  1. Game is a science fiction theme, with a western feel. Single character on cover image should be wearing a cowboy-style, frayed leather coat and facing away. No cowboy hats though. The mood I’m trying to convey here is a rugged adventurer exploring something, but ready to fight.
  2. Character must be wearing a weapon unique to the source material (I can provide source images for reference from multiple angles). It’s an illuminated metal gun worn on the forearm like a shield would be.
  3. Somewhere on image must be a blue-green glowing gateway and stairsteps (like a subway entrance stepping down into the ground, only sparkling and glowing). Again, I can provide source images for reference.
  4. Book is 8 inches tall by 10 inches wide. Will be approximately 100 pages (not final yet). I’m looking for a striking image for the front cover, but the general color and feel should stretch to the back. There can’t be detail on the back because of the back cover text. I’m thinking some hazy majestic mountain scene with big statues, but again I’m super flexible on the background.

We went back and forth just a little, but I got a black and white sketch in my email the very next day. It was better than anything I could have done on my best day. It was amazing, apart from the giant statue referenced in item 4 above, which I suggested in my response looked a bit too much like something from Lord Of The Rings.

I commented as such, and (like a big dummy) suggested “more of a conqueror from long ago”, thinking in the subject material’s imagined timeline and not actual historical conquerors. That’s my bad – I confused the issue with that bone-headed comment, and got back a giant Roman soldier in the distance.

But again, it was the very next day that I got the second version. Cheese and crackers! This guy is fast.

Generally, the emailing was quick. A couple more reference images, and we got on the same page about the statues in the distance – very much what I had in mind!

All along, Omer was patient and responsive with minor edit requests. Gave me exactly what I asked for, rapidly. Even when I was vague (“some kind of machinery on the gateway masonry, so it doesn’t look too fantasy”). Once we agreed on the design (which one of the above would YOU go with?), I got the full color version in my email.

And it was gorgeous. We’ll save the final for another day. But you’ll love it.

Most artists I contacted use Paypal for payment, but apparently it isn’t available in Izmir, Turkey. Wire transfer was easy enough though. Totally painless process, I mean.

And that was my point today. Go see Omer on Instagram here. Go check out the Patreon page here.

Let’s support folks like this…true professionals who love what they do and are good at it. Till next time, guys. We’ll keep you posted.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.