Addictive Entertainment Products: What Can We Learn?

I know, man. Anybody trying to figure out what Grailrunner Publishing is all about must get dizzy skimming through these eclectic articles ranging from wargames to popular fiction and movie reviews, and begging for graphic design advice. But check out the nametag – we simply seek to inspire.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

That’s the point of us…giving people building blocks and inspiration to escape everyday life and politics and digital propaganda and to just be happy and dream. So today it’s a psychological model analyzing how they make certain products addictive. Crazy, right? Our hope is you dig this book and its HOOKed model, see how it might help you design something you’re building or thinking about, and that you thrive in that. But use your new powers for good, not evil. Cool?

For us, we’re putting out science fiction books and a tabletop wargame line with a branded merchandise line. It will help to have something concrete to think about as we learn this model from Nir Eyal, as described in Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products. What this model offers is a way of thinking about WHY we engage with products at all, what triggers us throughout our day or week to go back to those products, and why we keep going back…or frightfully, why we might NOT return to those products.

1 & 2: Internal & External Triggers

Check out the diagram at the top of this article. It’s a loop – hopefully you see that. Starts at 1, with an internal trigger. One clear example Eyal gives is a fitness app where the designers latched onto that awkward moment when you might step into a gym or workout room and not really know what to do…which machine to go to. If you’re uncomfortable enough, you might even connect that ‘dumb’ or ‘confused’ feeling with the act of going to the gym and just stop going. That’s an internal trigger – the feeling of wanting to know what to do.

A buddy of mine told me once the hardest part for him in quitting smoking wasn’t the nicotine or taste, it was the social aspect of going out to the smoke pad at the top of the hour and networking with people…hearing all the gossip from all levels of the company. For him, the internal trigger was the top of the hour and that itch to talk to some people.

When I think about the Salt Mystic wargame we’ve been designing for a few years now, the internal trigger we’re targeting is the desire to escape into a science fiction world…the itch to laugh and talk trash with friends over a tabletop without complicated rules and lore getting in the way. More simply – the desire to dream up a story.

The external trigger piece Eyal identifies, labeled as 2 in the diagram, is how the user actually gets to the product. With the fitness app, maybe it notes your GPS location as being in a gym and flags you with a suggestion. Maybe your GPS watch notes that you haven’t moved in a while and flags you to do so, or connects you with friends through a Garmin app who encourage you to go for a run because it’s been a while. The point to remember here is the product is trying to establish a link between that internal itch the potential user feels to do something, tied to a core drive or interest, and an access point to the product.

In our case, we have no intention of building a digital tool to intrude on your life. That actually drives me crazy when my iPhone puts up those irritating red notifications on various apps. It stresses me out, so all that noise is turned off and I’ll look at the phone when I feel like it. However we’ve been spending time thinking about how to connect a desire to escape from the daily grind and dip into fun sci-fi weirdness to our Salt Mystic offerings versus all your other options. We feel like unique and striking aesthetics, memorable and relatable characters, and certain easily understood anchor points in the main storyline will help. I’m specifically thinking about the difference in lore between what you might see with Magic: The Gathering and Warmachine (complicated, confusing, not terribly relatable) and the wild success of Game Workshop’s Warhammer 40k Black Library where every single book begins with the one-page synopsis explaining the world of 40k, the Emperor Of Mankind, and the key point all of this pivots around. It gives you an easy anchor to orient yourself in the world of the game.

In fact, this very point decided it for us that there HAD to be a sourcebook and not just a rulebook to illustrate the key building blocks of the Salt Mystic world. That stuff was designed to be memorable and different, immediately recognizable as a science fiction backdrop with a western feel. We also leveraged this idea of an external trigger to decide there HAD to be a digital version of Salt Mystic available in Steam’s Tabletop Simulator, to make the game as accessible as possible. External triggers in Steam, social media, or on sites like Drivethru RPG when you’re trolling for something to do with your friends would hopefully catch you with the aesthetics and cool technology, if not the description of the game mechanics.

3: Action

I’m talking high level now about just getting someone to play the game, though there are applications within the game mechanics where we’ve also considered this point Eyal makes in step 3 – taking the simplest possible action expecting a reward. As an explanation of what this is driving at, consider the fitness app example we talked about before. The simplest action the user might take is to just click on the recommended workout the app suggested, much like you might click on a recommended video in Youtube. Doesn’t take a lot of thought or consideration, and there isn’t much at stake here given that you either ignore the workout suggestion or skip to another video. Still, it’s a simple action the user can take in hopes of getting something in return.

What are they hoping to get in return?

It’s to scratch the itch from step 1 of this model: the internal trigger. But it can’t be annoying with tons of setup and fiddly bits and long complicated rulebooks, twenty different tie-in stories you need to know, and a bookshelf full of expensive codex books needed to really play properly. A simple action, man….trying to scratch the itch.

4: Variable Reward

I’m fascinated right now with a show called Gold Rush: Whitewater that does an amazing job illustrating Eyal’s overall point behind step 4 – the variable reward. Think of the creepy old lady at the casino tied up to a slot machine looking for that adrenalin rush of the blinky lights and tink-tink of the coins dropping. Think of an exciting poker game where sometimes you draw a great hand and run the table, and sometimes it’s just a losing hand. In the Gold Rush show, those poor guys have terrible days where they get absolutely nothing done but jerry-rig some redneck equipment they should have planned and purchased beforehand, and some days they draw gold out of the water like it’s M&M’s. It’s a dopamine rush, hoping to see what comes up.

Social media has entirely nailed this, haven’t they? You troll through a feed on your favorite app, and you might be bored for a few posts, but quickly scroll to something striking that the almighty algorithm has decided you’ll love. They’re lighting off your dopamine every time you see something interesting or sexy or funny or that scares you or that pisses you off. It’s a variable reward because you never know what you’re going to get.

In the game environment, we knew we needed to have the players draw their characters rather than set them up like traditional wargames for this very reason. Drawing a card each hand is exciting. It’s variable. Sometimes you draw well. Often you don’t. And it matters to some extent how well you play, but there’s also a luck component. In that event, you’d better think on your feet! We went nuts with this variable reward element in designing the solo version of the game and the solo dungeon crawler we included in the Sourcebook.

5: Investment

This step 5 in Eyal’s model is the buildup of something the user can own that gets them to be invested, to add some switching costs so they’ll feel kind of bad if they leave. In the fitness app example, maybe you’ve added your workout data or your run times and pulse information. If you stop using that app, it’s gone and you’re starting over. With a game like Gloomhaven, you’re working through a campaign so there’s loot and additional abilities you’re picking up along the way that make it crazy to stop. Gamification researcher and speaker, Yu Kai Chou identifies something called “The Ikea Effect” whereby you value something because you’ve spent time on it. Gabe Zichermann identifies “The Endowment Effect” whereby you value something simply because it’s been given to YOU and no one else.

Quick anecdote on that Zichermann example:

Took my wife and kids to a Medieval Times restaurant and show once (reluctantly) and noticed how genius it was at the jousting tournament for them to randomly group the crowd into two sides and assign us our knights – one guy was blue and one green, or something like that. They called our knight “our guy” constantly. Some random dude whose face I couldn’t even see was assigned to me. And within moments, we were cheering like crazy for him to win. Because he was ours. That’s the Endowment Effect.

Anyway, the idea Eyal is presenting in this final step is pretty key. If the user isn’t invested, they’ll move on to other channels whereby they can scratch their itches. And that’s the reason we study this kind of thing. And to be honest, we’re still stuck on this point with our work. This is an opening for us in Salt Mystic – we know that. Maybe campaign books make sense, where you take your characters through scripted adventures and level up along the way. Maybe a sideboard mechanic makes sense, where a mystery deck is laid out alongside the battlefield with which you can level up. Maybe you have secret packages inside the War Marshal decks you only open up after you achieve certain milestones.

I don’t know, man. There’s a lot of ways to take that one. What do you think?

Anyway, that’s the model and some thoughts on application. Hopefully you find it interesting enough to go pick up Eyal’s book and read it for yourself. Fascinating stuff. If not, then just go watch Gold Rush: Whitewater. That’s entertainment.

Take care, guys. Till next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

How would you design a wargame box?

Ugh. Bad news. The artist I was trying to snag for the packaging for the upcoming Salt Mystic tabletop game is swamped. If you’re not up to date on what I’m talking about – catch up here. Everybody’s got a day job, and his is art director at a game publisher. I only found out he was taking occasional freelance work in the last few weeks and tried to pounce, with no dice. I’m a little bummed about that because he’s amazing, and his style would be perfect for the tuck boxes the game’s card decks will come in.

We agreed another time maybe. If things work out well, we can possibly bring him in for some premium cards in volume two or something. Stay tuned, I guess?

But now I need packaging designs for two card deck boxes that sizzle and pop, that highlight what the game is about and communicate its unique lore or technology and how it differs from Star Wars or Warhammer 40k or whatever. Needs to be clear about being science fiction, but feel kind of like a cowboy image…striking and adventurous, but at a glance clear what sort of game we’re talking about.

No pressure at all.

And the image needs to fit in this template:

If you download the Basic Rules and take a peek at pages four and five, those two dudes are the point of these decks: War Marshals. Tough guys, to be sure…devious and fast with their ball lightning carbines….but also tactical and strategic geniuses at commanding their factions. The two tuck boxes need to highlight their respective War Marshal very prominently. Then I’ll need space on one side for introductory game wording, some exciting blurb about the lore, and a little copyright and legal stuff.

Saw this packaging for an upcoming game based on The Witcher that really impressed me:

I suppose the thing that struck me most about it was I have had box designs for Magic: The Gathering decks in mind – with shades of blue and green and glowing eyes, hovering magical glyphs and whatnot. But none of that makes sense here, not from the aesthetics or elements of the Salt Mystic worldbuilding, not from the standpoint of looking different on the shelf, and also just to distance from other card games.

But these Witcher: Old World graphics pop big time for me. I like the coloring, the dramatic lighting and smoke, the sense of danger and action. It’s eye-catching and intriguing. So I took a stab at something like I thought my ideal artist might have come up with (the guy who’s too busy), and with this box in mind. That’s the image at the top of this article. Now I’m just kind of staring at it, letting it soak in to see whether I like it. I’d need to fade the edges and fade to black more at the bottom of the box, as well as include a dramatically dark field for the back of the box for the wording and logos.

So I would I rather be writing? Because that’s what started all this?

Yes, I would rather be writing. But none of this world will exist without the visuals and an exciting way to engage with the stories happening in it. Gotta do it, man. Gotta do it.

Looking for thoughts on packaging here – what do you think?

But until next time…

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

There’s Just Something About Getting Your Barcode…

I know I’ve told this story before, but just hear me out for a second, okay? I’m excited and you need to just be cool about this.

How did all this start?

A few years ago, my birthday was coming up. I told my kids and my wife they had to suck it up and play Dungeons & Dragons with me. And though I had no idea really how to play exactly, and didn’t have any materials to play it with, I was gonna figure that out as I went. Sounded fun to me.

Not so much for them.

I picked up a starter set and forced my wife, Lisa into the local gaming store to get some miniatures or whatever to try and keep everyone’s attention. I had some grand notions of the last Kraken egg and a countryside inn with mechanical walls closing in on us, some puzzles and whatnot. Was going to be amazing (which it, in fact, was though that’s a different story).

But I saw some guys playing something in back of the store – luscious green grassy hills modeled on a tabletop with steampunky robots charging across a hill in full-on battles. Some dudes were intently staring at the setup and commenting on spells and strategy. Dude at the register described their wargame as “like playing really complicated chess with robots” or something like that.

And as is typical of me, I dove deep into how to make my own terrain with foam and flocking, how to model lakes with resin, found Luke from Geek Gaming on Youtube (who’s hilarious), and generally found out about a ginormous world of wargaming with Games Workshop, Privateer Press, and Wyrd among countless others. And around that same time, I had this weird yet amazing dream of a months-long ongoing wargame set up on an antique gaming table downstairs in a mansion’s lower level, where I stepped down into a luxurious Victorian era game parlor. Basically, I was inspired. And that usually triggers me to do something creative with the new building blocks I’m piling up.

Didn’t Thomas Edison say all you need in order to invent is an imagination and a pile of junk?

Oh, Brian. What did you do?

Well, to begin with, I spent too much money buying cool stuff. Expensive hobby, that one. And I spent an inordinate amount of time scraping mold bits and learning you have to wash the miniatures before trying to glue them together…and I found that I not only suck at painting things, I don’t enjoy painting things. Also, the rules are too long and complex and hard to remember. And honestly, apart from just thinking somebody’s robots or whatever looked cool, it’s a bit fluffy to pick a side in all these battles.

It also struck me that the long, winding stories of many of these wargames on the market are hard to relate to. They seem cool in concept, but as you dig in and try to understand whether it would be fun or exciting to live in that world, at least for me the answer was often – no freaking way. Sounded miserable. I’m more into escapism than that.

And it struck me that trading card games like Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, Keyforge, Doomtown and others make rules so easy to remember because they’re largely printed right there on the cards…unique and every-changing as you draw them in the game. I don’t care for the ongoing storylines of any of those properties either, mind you, as they’re just as dense and noisy in many cases as the wargames. But there was something about the idea of cards here…

So I built a game of my own.

I had to learn digital art including modeling, kitbashing, texturing, and lighting and composition. I had to learn Photoshop, Indesign, Substance Painter, and Blender. I had to learn about graphic design principles. I had to figure out Tabletop Simulator on Steam and how to draw interest from people in play-testing a made-up game either virtually or for those few blessed souls willing to print and play from your website. I had to beg my wife and son to play games on the living room table, and to be patient when some weird rules conflict happened that made nonsense occur. I had to interview people who’ve done this sort of thing, including artists and game designers and writers. I had to study countless exotic rulebooks and Youtube tutorials on existing games to see what works and what doesn’t, and spend time in gaming stores talking to people about what would be cool and seeing what looks great on the shelves and on the tabletops…especially to see what draws people into this sort of entertainment.

And it’s just about done, guys. We have a barcode now. Awesome.

A barcode on the completed cover always makes me feel like it’s getting real. Something huge is happening. The ISBN is official, ready on the Salt Mystic: Sourcebook And Core Rules. Fully formatted versions for both print and ebook are uploaded and under review for final processing. The website is laid out for the game, clear and with visuals that pop…even a viewer to scroll through the available cards. A free ebook for the core rules is prepared with an eye-popping cover. The aesthetics are turning out to be coherent and theme-appropriate, engaging. Some great feedback on that so far. And the cards are almost ready in final form.

I’m reaching out to one particular artist whose work blows me away to see if he’ll design the tuck boxes for the two decks we’re launching with Volume One. Cross your fingers – he’s great! That will pop like nothing I could hope to do. We’ll see how that goes.

So please just keep an eye out here and send positive thoughts our way. We could use the attention and interest. Any questions you have, or suggestions, let me know.

And just take a look at that barcode!

Anyway, till next time. Dreams are engines.

Be fuel.

Phase IV And Hellstrom’s Hive: Am I Bugging You?

You can’t possibly hate ants as much as I do. One time I remember my mother-in-law ordered enough mulch to cover her entire property on the hottest day of the summer, and she got me to agree to spread it for her (solo). Then she took off with my wife and kids to go shopping. I had plucked a clump of weeds and was still holding it as I said goodbye while they were driving away, and my arm lit up in pain like it was in flames. Looking down in a panic, my entire arm was swarming with black, pissed off ants. Not gonna lie, it hurt a little bit.

Anyway, there’s an excellent creepy and innovative movie from the 70’s you need to see, should this have escaped your attention till now. It’s called Phase IV. If you like weird ambience in your science fiction, a creepy foreboding, and a threat that’s a little different from your typical madman, alien, or undead beastie, this one’s for you. Here, we have a temporary research facility set up in the Arizona scrublands to investigate some intelligent ants. The guy in charge is a bit unstable, and that escalates quickly. The other guy is our everyman, who wants to apply game theory to try and communicate with the buggies. A girl joins the cast when her farm is toasted in the escalation.

So maybe I do hate ants, but this movie utterly fascinates me.

The bugs build towers, observing the observers. That’s how things really get started here. And that is just a bizarrely entrancing idea. You’ll get your fill of some memorable scenes: a nightmarish swollen arm, reflective towers slowly heating the research dome, and some spooky visual communication from the ants (a circle with a dot inside…what could THAT mean?). In fact, that visual communication was the only thing from the entire movie that I recalled from when I was a kid and it came on the television one Sunday afternoon. It’s that creepy.

You’re unlikely to guess the ending. I didn’t. It makes some sense after you think about it. I won’t spoil that, but you should absolutely give this movie a try should your personal aesthetic be able to cope with a slower pace and less gruesome violence.

What made me think of this flick is I recently finished reading Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert for the second time. You know Frank Herbert from the excellent Dune series. He wrote more than that though. People really should dig a little deeper into that dude. He was incredible. So let’s talk about Hellstrom’s Hive.

Herbert unleashed this odd little masterpiece in 1973 in Galaxy magazine under the title, “Project 40”. Here’s how it begins:

Words of the brood mother, Trova Hellstrom. I welcome the day when I will go into the vats and become one with all our people. (Dated October 26, 1896)

One thing I love about the Dune novels is the chapter-opening quotes from Paul or whoever that side-swipe you with these fascinating insights or inspiring ideas but are really just infusing flavor and context. I really look forward to those. Hellstrom’s Hive offers quite a bit of this, much of it from something called ‘The Hive Manual’ and also from the originator of this new organizing principle for social order, Trova…grandmother to Nils Hellstrom who currently runs the show.

Here’s part of the wikipedia description so you get the gist of what’s happening here:

Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist, is a successful film maker and influential scientific advisor with strong political ties. Living and working with a small staff on a farm in rural Oregon, he attracts the attention of an unnamed government organisation when documents are discovered that hint of cult-like activities and a secret weapon project.

It is revealed that the farm is situated above a vast system of tunnels and caves, hosting a hive-like subterranean society of nearly 50,000 specialized workers. Hellstrom, thanks to advanced bioengineering, has been the appointed hive leader for more than 100 years. He is completely convinced of the superiority of the hive and its abandonment of conventional morals and ethics: sexuality or violence, indeed, any individual action, is rated strictly whether it strengthens or weakens the hive as a whole.

You’re catching this, right? Fifty thousand people are living like ants underground, many of them mute and neutered, being bred for specialist skills like engineering or subterfuge or building. They operate in many ways on countless pheremones and are incredibly sensitive to mood and emotions. If the hive has a disruptive element in it, the disruption swells. And they can’t afford too much disruption, because the hive feels pressure already to swarm. I mean…is it not just fun and naughty and weird to even just discuss all this? Everybody’s naked and smelling each other. They keep stumps of people just for reproduction. They recycle bodies to lump in with the food supply. It’s really well thought-out and internally consistent.

Herbert was inspired by a super strange quasi-documentary about insects and survival called The Hellstrom Chronicle. I watched that one once, on Youtube or something. It amazes me what people will produce, and what I will sometimes watch. You probably shouldn’t spend your time on that one. Maybe just skip to the book Herbert wrote after watching it. He told Tim O’Reilly in an interview that his notion with this novel, in thinking about the worst type of civilization imaginable, that it would be a peculiar type of tension to twist things around and make outside civilization the villain. So here, we have the secret group named only The Agency and their shenanigans trying to spy on and ultimately invade Hellstrom’s hive.

So anyway, that’s what I wanted to toss your way today…a buggy grouping of interesting worthies to enlighten and amuse you. If you wind up partaking in either (or if you fondly recall one of them), let me know. I feel like my taste in entertainment sometimes drifts a bit into the esoteric. Just me?

Till next time, guys. Dreams are engines.

Be fuel.

Books To Avoid…And Why I Bailed On Them

Look, I try and keep it positive and optimistic around here. I do. Mostly, as anyone who stops by to visit any of the Grailrunner waystations on the internet or social media will tell you, I focus on things that inspire us. I especially (and incessantly) harp on inspirational engines within speculative fiction. It’s my jam.

But sometimes I need to vent. And I need to warn you away from some potentially very irritating literary experiences. Since this is all subjective, you probably love at least one of these books and think I’m a Neanderthal for feeling otherwise. That’s cool, man. That’s cool. But these suck. Really.

Let me tell you how the highlighted suck gallery went for me, in reverse order of my irritation level.

5. Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.

I periodically dip into heavier literature (and outside of science fiction or fantasy, my usual haunts) to sharpen my writing, to expose myself to the towering figures of literature and scientifically dissect what makes those books tick. It’s a great exercise, as it has been with Moby Dick, with Hemingway (all of it, man…I’ve read all of it), Dickens and Faulkner. I picked Dostoevsky as an experiment because of how highly Harlan Ellison spoke of him. This one, I went with because it seemed to offer me some nuanced character studies, piledriving into a supposedly blowout climactic event (patricide by four brothers) that resulted from those character traits, and the fallout of that event. Now, it strikes me that this setup, should that be the case as I’ve outlined in the preceding description, then I could learn quite a bit about crafting plots driven by character flaws or quirks, and possibly about how to foreshadow and set ominous thundercloud mood to lead to the blowout.

That was the thought, at least. But what a cheese fart this one was! Sorry if you’re a professor who’s dedicated your life to it or whatever. But this book is super tedious, flat and uninspiring.

I admired the early chapters, with alternating introductions of the individuals and clear characterization. But it went on and on. It just went on and on and on, with nothing seeming to have any consequence. The big event wasn’t clearly foreshadowed (at least for me). There was no ominous mood as I’d expected. Not even the supposed angelic and innocent brother meant a thing in the world to me. I hated all of them. It was a chore to keep going, till I eventually wondered if they’d ever get around to knocking the old man off. So I bailed.

4. Lord Tyger by Philip Jose Farmer

If I told you there’s a book, written by the guy who dreamed up the masterwork Riverworld series, that conducts a thought experiment speculating what would actually happen should someone be raised by gorillas like Tarzan in the jungle….would you think that sounds awesome?

The idea is a British millionaire hires a couple of dwarves to raise a British aristocratic boy in the jungle like Tarzan, simulating some of the key events of Burroughs’ Tarzan books because of his love for them. And things go differently than he’d planned.

It struck me as a fascinating idea for a book, and I had some wild ideas of what might play out like the books and what would obviously go south. More curiosity than anything, I tried it. To be honest, I didn’t bail and actually finished the book. It was painful, but I made it through. What kept me going was the same curiosity of what would be done with the idea, and definitely NOT any skilled storytelling or characterization.

The lead character is overly obsessed with his penis, and it gets really monotonous and cartoon-like how many times we have to see that play out. I get it, monkeys touch themselves and maybe sleep around. I get it. But can’t we move on to something else?! It drives the plot sometimes. It’s entirely ridiculous sometimes. And it keeps coming up (no pun intended). Nobody is interesting, nothing makes sense, and I yawned through the climax. Avoid this one.

3. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Not sure why, but I have a deep fascination with the psychology that led up to World War One, that kept it escalating and stagnating, and that resulted from its fallout in the couple of decades afterwards. It’s incredibly rich, picking all that apart – at large scales, understanding trends and behaviors of large groups, and also at small scales reading the biographies and journals of key figures that fought in the war. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann struck me as a great option because it’s so highly praised, and supposedly was going to offer me a hotbed of the different moods and psychologies of people of that time, but in the setting of a health salon high in the mountains.

Reading this book feels very much like talking to a sickly aunt who won’t stop going on about the parts of her that hurt. And her cough, do I think that’s serious. And her swollen toe, should she get that looked at. And she’s so tired…

The lead figure isn’t sickly, but visits his cousin who is recuperating at a sanitarium in the Alps. And he meets people and stays, and he has breakfast and he has lunch. And he has dinner. And he tells you in detail what he ate. And no one is interesting, at least in the first fourth of the book I managed to read. You can see how little patience I have for stories that lead nowhere, for characterizations without some sizzle, and for aimlessness. This book seemed to go absolutely nowhere, and at the very point I threw it physically to the floor was at least the fifth time he was explaining what they were serving for the next meal. Avoid this one.

2. Settling The World by M. John Harrison

Nobody loves Harrison’s Viriconium series like I do! His mother wouldn’t love it like I do. It’s genius. Read that one. Please, God, read that one instead of Settling The World. In Viriconium, you get a true masterwork of mood-setting, of fascinating ideas to inspire, of interesting people, of a world you’d care to visit, and of the most maddeningly genius wording and phrasing you’ll encounter. Anybody who writes should treat Viriconium like nitroglycerine. A true brilliant white-hot piece of literature.

Much of everything else he’s written comes off as comparatively weak and confusing to me. Light is an exception, but its sequels are muddled streams of consciousness. Settling The World is a set of speculative fiction short stories. I don’t even know how to summarize it, because I can’t tell at all what’s happening in some of these tales. It’s seriously bad. Pages in, I had to ask myself if there was anything at all that was clear to me. I read a summary of a story I’d finished on the internet to see what it was about. Isn’t that funny? There are people in this world that can read jumbles of words like some of the tales in this collection and tell you what happened, even though you read the same story and saw none of that. And I saw none of the brilliant word-slinging which draws me so much to Viriconium and Light. With those books, there are moments when I’ve had to set the book down and just marvel and ponder at what I’d just read…descriptions and phrasing that pop with a life of their own and send your mind reeling.

I honestly have enough grief in my life than to read stories that I have to research afterwards to understand what happened and come off as bland as these. I set it as number two because I know what Harrison can accomplish and he fell short here.

1. War In Heaven by Charles Williams

This one made the top of the list because it presented itself as a story about the Holy Grail. I’m literally ALWAYS in for a story about the grail. I mean, this is “grailrunner”. That’s kind of…for a reason, you know? Here, we have the description from Amazon:

“Williams gives a contemporary setting to the traditional story of the Search for the Holy Grail. Examining the distinction between magic and religion, War in Heaven is an eerily disturbing book, one that graphically portrays a metaphysical journey through the shadowy crevices of the human mind.”

Williams was one of the Inklings, that little Oxford literary club that gave us J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord Of The Rings) and C.S. Lewis (Chronicles Of Narnia). If this guy hung around with those two, who could produce towering mythic works such as those, then he would potentially speak and think along the same mythic lines. I’ve written here about the power of mythic storytelling. That can change your life! And here, I’m told he’s going to potentially apply such mythic storytelling techniques to the eternal grail myth, in a contemporary setting. What on earth is NOT to like about that?!

Unfortunately, this reads like a boring, slice-of-life trip to the general store to buy a pound of flour. Even a dead body found in the opening pages is portrayed with the weight and significance of a paperweight. I got possibly a fourth of the way in before bailing. Where was my updating of mythic figures like Arthur or Merlin? Where was my ominous doomsaying warning of consequences? Where was that curious, inspirational sense of questing and seeking perfection in body and spirit that I get from classic Eschenbach or De Troyes? Where was the mystery from those original grail tales, that leave you breathlessly marveling over what the bleeding lance means, and who the maidens are in the processional carrying the mystical platter?

Nope. Just nope. Maybe it got better. I’ll never know. Pass on this one.


And that’s the roundup for this little venting session. I hope it wasn’t overly negative. I finished Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun, all four parts, for those who’d asked what I thought. Definitely worth the experience, though not one of my favorites. There’s a distinct sense of importance as you read those books, like the early seasons of Game Of Thrones, wherein every word people speak seems to have weight and grant some vague insights. Events here make far more sense after the fact, in reflection, and often what you thought happened actually played out differently than you’d thought. Yeah, there’s a place to spend your money.

Anyway, let me know what you think. And if I poo-poo’ed on one of your faves, maybe drop me a note on what you liked about these books I consider stinkers. Maybe I could feel differently and try again if you make sense.

Take care, guys. Till next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

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.

Why Harlan Ellison Hated Star Wars (and let’s pick that apart)

When I was a kid, I read everything H.G. Wells put on paper. I loved the way his mind worked, the moods and ideas. He didn’t always hit the mark, but it was white-hot when he did! I went through a Hemingway phase in college and read all that he wrote. Maybe we’ll chat about that another day. I’m making my way through another writer now, which will be quite the feat if I manage it given how much the dude worked over his extensive career in fantasy, science fiction, film critique and essays.

I know, guys. I get it. If you’ve been around here a few times at Grailrunner, you’re maybe tired of hearing about Harlan Ellison. Be cool – genius was talking and we need to listen. He said something in one I’m reading now that we need to talk about.

Anyway, here’s this one you should pick up if you’re a child of the 70’s or 80’s (or want to understand your parents better):

Let’s say you remember what it was like to see Gremlins for the first time (and to peek through your fingers), or to stand in line to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture when it finally opened (and you left with a disappointed frown on your face). Let’s say you recall pointing your finger like a blaster barrel at passing cars on your way to see Star Wars for the bajillionth time saying “Pew Pew”. And some of the drivers got it, and pretended to be shot.

Yeah. Awesome, right? If this isn’t ringing bells for you, stick with me here. I’ll get to you.

Anyway, this book collects many of Harlan’s film reviews across multiple decades, so the material is dated and grumpy and sometimes talks about films you can barely find even on Amazon. I especially appreciated the late 70’s and 80’s reviews, just to hear a different take on what I lived through. Some of his opinions are noise, some are brilliant. He’ll turn you on to some amazing finds which you’ll never have heard of. But one particular rant he made stuck with me. That’s why I’m here with you now. Let’s talk about this.

I knew from old Starlog magazines when I was little that Harlan Ellison hated Star Wars. I just never really knew why. Here’s a guy whom I consider one of the finest writers in the English language, any genre, and he despised a transformative, breakthrough, blinding light of genius like the original Star Wars: A New Hope. What gives?!

Here’s how he opens a segment he calls “Luke Skywalker Is A Nerd And Darth Vader Sucks Runny Eggs”:

Badmouthing Star Wars these days is considered a felony; on a level with spitting on the American flag, denigrating Motherhood, admitting you hate apple pie, or trying to dope Seattle Slew.”

Then he proceeds to do so. He mocks the “return of entertainment” being crowed by critics of this amazing film. After a bit of philosophizing about the role of science fiction, to ask and answer “What If” questions, of the importance in the genre of staying internally consistent with an internal logic that can’t be irrational or nonsensical since you’re asking the reader to suspend disbelief, he says this:

“But Hollywood doesn’t understand that. They make films – like Star Wars – that are nothing but The Prisoner Of Zenda or some halfwit wild west adventure in outer space.”

Ugh, he sounds like a grumpy old man who forgets how much he rejoiced at the escapism of Thief Of Baghdad and Buck Rogers movies. A bit contradictory, the old master, given how wistful he got reminiscing about his Saturdays dreaming in Ohio movie theaters, swashbuckling. But let’s leave off the fact that Ellison loved escapism when it had a slightly naughty factor and he was experiencing it, but that he rarely if ever WROTE escapism. That’s not my point here.

Ellison gave these examples of science fiction movies done right: Charly, 1984, The Shape Of Things To Come, Wild In The Streets, The Conversation, and A Boy And His Dog (of course). His point with A New Hope was that it wasn’t a “people story”, that it was all glitz and style and effects with cardboard characters:

“For all of its length, for all of its astonishing technical expertise, its headlong plunge and its stunning effects, at no time can one discern the passage of a thought. It is all bread and circuses. The human heart is never touched, the lives unexamined, the characters are comic strip stereotypes.”

So there we have it. One of the premier fantasists and science fiction writers of all time, poking at the notion of these characters in A New Hope being thin, unexamined, of the film saying nothing about the human condition. All glitz, no soul. That was his problem. Now, I’m the guy who laughed and almost cried when Darth Vader tossed the Emperor in the pit to save his son two movies later, so I entirely disagree. But let’s pull the thread a bit and see how George Lucas would respond. There’s an important tension here, which is my point in fact.

If you don’t have this one, go get it. I’ll wait for you, just get it coming in the mail and come back here. Done?

In this brilliant collection of quotes and background material, George Lucas says, “I knew from the beginning that I was not doing science fiction. I was doing space opera, a fantasy film, a mythological piece, a fairy tale. I really thought I needed to establish from the start that this was a completely made up world so that I could do anything I wanted.” That was the whole point of the famous tagline: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

And here we have the tension I was talking about. One more quote from Lucas, and it will nail this home:

“I had a longtime interest in fairy tales and mythology, that sort of thing. I had decided that there was no modern mythology. The western was the last American mythological genre, and there had not been anything since then. I wanted to take all the old myths and put them into a new format that young people could relate to. Mythology always exists in unusual, unknown environments, so I chose space. I liked Flash Gordon as a kid, the Republic serials. It was the only sort of action-adventure thing that I came across as a kid that I could remember. So I got interested in that. I went and actually talked to the people that owned the rights to it. They said they weren’t interested. And I thought, I really don’t need Flash Gordon to do what I want to do.”

Where Ellison saw thin, cardboard characters with no depth, Lucas saw intentional personifications of mythic archetypes. Myths have power because of how personally we relate to something common to us all, something we understand biologically and not with our minds.

Go get this one too, one of mine.

I dig deep into this notion of the crucial difference between intricate, fleshed-out characters as we’ve come to expect from our fiction, and that of mythic archetypes who must be judged by a very different and heartfelt standard. When Ellison sees a Darth Vader as a juvenile cartoon of evil, Lucas saw the embodiment of frightful wickedness, a figure of the dark to which anyone of any upbringing or culture could immediately relate and fear.

So here’s what we do with this. Anyone taking a crack at this writer gig has this choice. Be precious and surgical with your characterization and give your peeps layers of complexity, which is expected and will likely be well-received. We want our people interesting and new, to have difficult and relatable problems that tell us something. It’s cool, and that’s a choice. Yet you could also pursue a timelessness, crafting a story with mythic power and larger-than-life embodiments of archetypes. Seems necessary to me, that someone is doing this.

Or, of course. The third option. Strike the balance and do both.

Thanks for your time, guys. I need to get back to these Ellison movie reviews. He’s pissed about the scene in Temple Of Doom when the raft goes over the cliff and stays upright to land Indy, Willie, and Short Round safely on the water.

To be honest, I remember that bothering me too…

Book Recommendations For The Misfit Imaginations

I’ve got four gifts for you. Maybe. It depends on your imagination.

Do you ever feel like you just seem to enjoy things nobody else does? I mean, you read reviews of a movie you utterly despised and a train of folks are raving about it (Wonder Woman 1984, for example)? You troll the Barnes & Noble or Amazon recommendations, and it’s bland tripe. Again. You hit the used bookstore and come out empty handed. Again. That’s my deal, man. But things turned my way recently, and that’s what I want to talk to you about.

I worry sometimes I have a misfit imagination. I just can’t get pumped about orcs and dudes with swords and super complicated future empires chocked with outlandish aliens. And lesbian vampires don’t do it for me. If they did, I’d be all set, for sure. Then I read something by Borges talking about infinite libraries, or Barrington Bayley describing empires across time, anything at all Harlan Ellison wrote (I’d read his grocery list), and I thrill over it all. Huge…freaking…ideas, and I don’t need them explained. I really dig the notion of a fantasy conceit, the weirder the better, and seeing how a good wordslinger extrapolates on what that would mean.

So recently, I came across a handful of goodies I’m going to recommend to you should any of the above resonate.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clark

I mean, this one just starts with a dude in a world entirely comprised of an infinite mansion loaded with mysterious statues, that floods sometimes. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about; it’s genius. We stay with the somewhat confused, but kind-hearted and gentle narrator and eventually puzzle all this out…what the place is, what that weird old man is doing, who’s evil and who isn’t…all that. My point though, is I’m presented with an engrossing, enigmatic fantasy conceit and things proceed from there, as I imagine they would, should that infinite place be real.

I loved it and swallowed the whole book in a couple of days. That’s rare for me, man. I’ve got the attention span of a mosquito and no patience for crappy dialogue or a dull first few pages. This one’s the real deal, and you should get it immediately.

That is, if you’re a misfit too. Just stick with me here.

2. Pfitz by Andrew Crumey

Here’s one that I should hate, but wound up in my top 10 of all time. I mean, I’m a science fiction and fantasy guy who appreciates a great battle if it’s done well. I love space ships, sure! Who doesn’t? How’d this get in here?

So there’s an 18th century prince seeking his own immortality by funding a massive operation to develop on paper an entire imaginary city. Whole. Not a bit of it exists or will exist. He’s just paying legions of artisans and engineers and writers to dream it all up on paper. The larger story we follow in this cotton candy treat of a book is that of one of the cartographers working on this project, who’s sneaking peeks at a co-worker (biographer) that’s caught his eye. The dude she’s dreaming up a biography for has apparently gone missing, and there’s murder and mystery and performing bees.

Not kidding, I’ve read this thing twice. Also super rare for me to do that, if it isn’t something by Arthur Clarke or an Elric book from Michael Moorcock. I love the idea of the excruciating detail of a fake city and all its history and people. I love the intrigue and slow unfolding of what happened to Pfitz. And I feel like I’d really like to walk through the halls with these people and flip through the stuff they’re working on.

It’s a slow burner, like Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. Crumey isn’t going to smack you over the head with somebody suddenly hopping in bed with somebody or exploding something to keep your attention. He has respect for you, and he thinks you’re smart enough to stay with him.

3. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

I know. If you’ve been to see me here before, you’ve probably heard me rave about Gormenghast. I won’t pretend it’s the first time I’ve tried to tell you that the first two books of this trilogy rank among the finest pieces of literature ever written. Dickens level, in my opinion. And you can draw comparisons to Dickens, if you’re into that sort of vibe.

Weird, British names like Prunesquallor. Oddball, grotesque people like a morbidly obese lady surrounded by owls. A massive estate the size of a city, with a history that seems like a character unto itself. The birth of the new lord of the estate, which should be a great joy. Yet there’s a figure of incredible ambition among the sweltering kitchen staff, aspiring to greatness in a legacy never meant for him.

Oh man, the atmosphere alone! Just that, and this is a great piece of imaginative literature better than most everything on the first few pages of anybody’s Kindle. Yet that Gormenghast estate, sprawling impossibly for miles and with slate Hogwarts-style rooftops that rise forever…it’s just a beautiful kind of crazy.

4. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

I can’t say anything yet about any sequels to this one, as I’m not that far. I’ll tell you though, this is one of the great ones. It’s the thing that got me writing this article.

Imagine a Tower Of Babel in something like the early 20th century, and a young couple from a rinky dink town have saved up to go see it for themselves. The Mister is a humorless and awkward schoolteacher. The Missus is an innocent, wide-eyed beauty younger than him. Nobody knows why she’d marry this guy. Yet here they are, arriving by train to see the mighty tower where no one has even mapped its top. Maybe it doesn’t even have a top.

Each level is a kingdom unto itself. The market at the base is huge and busy. The higher you go, presumably the crazier things will get. Some of those people up there have never been to different levels. It’s impressive. You have to watch yourself, though, as there are thieves and conmen everywhere.

He loses his wife in the crowd by page three. And he finds out quickly there’s an entire wall of placards and letters for people who’ve lost loved ones in the mighty crowds for years, if not forever. It happens. Often. So he heads into the tower to find her.

If you’re at all like me at the beginning of a new book, you’re ruthless and brutal and impatient. If some kind of hook hasn’t happened, if nobody is interesting, if somebody says something predictable or stupid or political, you’re out. Too much else competing for attention, right?

Not gonna be a problem here. I saw reviews beforehand saying it dragged and there was too much description with nothing happening. That wasn’t my experience at all, but as I said above with some of these others, this is a slow burner for your mind. It tickles and soothes you. It makes you think.


So there’s four recommendations for you. See what you think. Send me your own. I could keep going on this, for sure, and I’m curious whether you have some little nuggets I’ve missed that are out of the mainstream maybe, but also awesome.

Take care, guys. Be cool.

Till next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Want To Meet A Futurist? Let’s Talk To Karl Schroeder!

Karl Schroeder’s latest novel, Stealing Worlds

Welcome back to our ongoing Inspirational Creator series. We kicked the series off with Jeff Grubb, longtime fantasy writer for D&D among others, which you can read here. We continued with Stephen Gibson, artist and game designer, and creator of the weird western tabletop game, Grimslingers which you can read here.

This week, we’re chatting about the future (and Mennonites) with Canadian science fiction writer and futurist, Karl Schroeder. You’re going to like how his mind works, this is a fellow who can dream big.

1.    My dad described once how he used to jump a fence in his Brooklyn neighborhood and stare at the sky from the roof of his school, dreaming of places he’d go. That sends my mind reeling. Paint us a picture of you as a boy – what got you thinking about the future?

I grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairies in the 1960s—200 miles north of Minot, North Dakota. In one of my book bios, I wrote “Karl used to walk outside and stare up at the sky, wondering what he might be able to see if those pesky Northern Lights weren’t in the way.” But seriously, my dad, who’d wired his Mennonite village for electricity when he was a teenager back in the 1940s , had made a career in electronics, and Brandon is a university town. Dad and I watched the moon landings together, and Mom, who was a science fiction reader as well as a published author herself, introduced me to the YA adventures of Andre Norton. Norton’s books are perfect YA gold, and they got me hooked on SF.

I started work on my first novel when I was sixteen, and finished it when I was seventeen. I didn’t publish that—or the next eight I wrote—but I kept on going. It only took me twenty years to become an overnight success.

2.    So moving to Toronto around the birth of the internet seems to have helped you hit your stride. What impacted you the most about that writer’s circle you helped form and lead, The Cecil Street Irregulars?

Our approach at Cecil Street was pretty no-nonsense—an attitude we inherited from Judy Merril, who inspired the creation of the group. The Irregulars have always been highly regular, meeting once per week for several decades. You were expected to produce. You were expected to read submitted manuscripts, and give a thorough and useful critique. So with a membership that fluctuated between six and ten, we managed to have at least one story to workshop every week. Often we had three or four. The work was constant, and that’s what made it effective.

We were also peers. Judy helped start the workshop, but she didn’t stick around to be a guru. She said you can’t become a good writer by studying under an established one—you just become a mediocre copy of that person. Artists need to develop their own unique identity, and you can only do that by studying with people, rather than under them.

3.    Hemingway used to say of writing, “Just write one true sentence.” Harlan Ellison said, “Write about people; that’s all there is to write about.” Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.” What’s the Schroeder one-liner on how to write impactfully?

I’d say, “Be prepared to reinvent your process every time.” Every story is different, and I’ve found it much more useful to approach each project with a quiver full of techniques, tricks, and methods, rather than the preconception that I know what I’m doing. Beware of ever saying, “I know how to do this!” You know how to write your last successful story; you don’t know how to write the next one. The process of exploration might take you to first-person narrative, present-tense, a 7-point plot outline, free verse, cut-ups, collaboration, pantsing or a detailed outline. I try things, back up, throw out entire drafts; I wrote something like seven versions of the first 100 pages of Lady of Mazes before I was happy with it and kept going. I don’t have a philosophy or follow any particular theory—I have a toolkit of philosophies and theories and try things until one works. Because no single theory or approach is ever going to exhaust all the possibilities of storytelling.

4.    You have to strike an interesting balance between thinking meaningfully about realistic futures and making entertainment that will sell. Tough line to walk. What’s your creative process?

My original touchstone for writing science fiction (which is primarily what I do) was that the wonderful and possible is always cooler than the merely wonderful. So, I’ve always tried to achieve the same effects as fantasy but using hardnosed science. You can see that most clearly in my novel Ventus, which reads like a high fantasy adventure for the first couple of hundred pages, then slowly mutates into hard science fiction as you learn that the “magic” had a physical basis all along. Reality’s a better source to mine for the fantastical than the imaginary, believe it or not. So, in the Virga series, I was able to create a fantasy-like world of steampunk nautical pirate adventures, complete with broadsides, sword fights, betrayal and treasure hunts—but because the stories are set in a world without gravity, they’re completely fresh. There’s nothing like Virga out there, and it’s because I used the (potentially) real to reinvent something normally considered fantasy.

And then I got a design degree in 2011. It’s in Strategic Foresight, so I’m a card-carrying futurist, but design thinking was an important part of the program. I’ve applied design principles to my writing ever since. This has opened up new possibilities because now I know how to play with constraint as a creative tool. For example, for my novel Lockstep I set myself a design constraint: have a Star Trek or Star Wars-like space opera milieu where the characters can fly to another star system, have adventures for a month, and fly back to find that only a month has passed back home, without using faster than light travel, wormholes, or any other hand-waving magical technology. Of course such a requirement looks impossible, but that’s where design comes in. I managed to solve the impossible problem not by trying to address it head-on—if you do that with an impossible problem such as how to go faster than light, you end up with an impossible solution, like an FTL drive that violates physical laws—I did it by reframing the problem into one with a possible solution. In this case, if you look at the constraint, it’s really not about how to go faster than light, but rather how to have a society like the ones in faster-than-light space operas. And that’s a completely different kind of problem. The solution to it is the lockstep, a system of synchronized hibernation beds that keeps everybody on the same schedule. The whole civilization sleeps for 30 years, wakes for a month, then sleeps for 30 years. Weird, but it turns out that the experience of someone living in the lockstep is the same as if they lived in a Star Wars universe with FTL. So, problem solved—by design rather than science-y handwaving.

As to “creative process,” as I said in the last response, I have no process. I have a suite of processes, because each project will have its own best approach.

5.    What are some ideas or concepts or people that are particularly inspiring to you right now, and why is that?

Answering this one’s fraught with danger, because I’m likely to sound ridiculous. I get most of my ideas from philosophy, mostly ontology, which I project back into technology, setting etc. So if I said I’m really really excited by the idea of acausal constraint, would that make sense? Basically, I don’t start with technology—I don’t play the “what if you had a raygun that dissolved people’s underwear?” kind of speculation; and I don’t start with science as such, usually. I rarely do the kind of “what if a buried tectonic plate suddenly scraped its way to the surface and formed a new continent in the Pacific Ocean?” science thing. I’m interested in the implications of scientific discoveries, so right now for instance I’m puzzling through the meaning of the Bell Inequality, which demands that at least one of the following be true: superluminal communication (and maybe that’s what entanglement is), superdeterminism (which would mean that nothing could possibly be other than it is), or the third option: that realism is false. This last seems likely—so we apparently live in a world where there are real things, but no Reality that’s the sum of all those things. And I’m trying to figure out how to write about that. I think I can do it, but again, not by approaching the idea directly. (And of course the real challenge is to make it exciting, and a story about real people and real consequences. Another design constraint.)

6.    There’s been a bit of turmoil in 2020 as relating to politics, violence, the pandemic, and economic disruptions. Are we going to make it? Why or why not?

Depends on the “we” you’re talking about. I’m Canadian, and Canada is doing pretty well at the moment. Globally, more than a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in the past twenty years, so the experience of most of the human species has been quite positive for the last generation or so.

That said, the planet is facing unprecedented crises. The one that matters most is climate change, but even it is a solvable problem if you think in design terms. The problem is not in fact how to “solve” climate change; we know how, we know all the solutions. The issue is how to get them implemented. And that’s a governance issue. So governance, particularly on the global level, is what we need to focus on. So there, the design problem becomes, “how do we turn governance into a solvable problem?” Answering this question provides a great opportunity for new science fiction—and real-world activism.

In other words, if you frame climate change as a problem, you will look for particular kinds of “solutions”—which don’t exist or can’t be implemented because of how you’ve framed the issue. But, for instance, climate change has given us the greatest business opportunity of the 21st century: renewable energy and the smart grid. If you want to become a billionaire and save the world right now, you can do it by going all-in on solar, wind, and storage. That’s not a problem, that’s an opening for new wealth creation; and that wealth creation enables a kind of governance because it creates new power blocs and new interests.

My latest novel, Stealing Worlds, is all about this process of reframing, and the power of it. We’re in a dire situation, but it is also humanity’s moment of greatest opportunity.

7.    What are you working on these days and what’s the best way for people to connect with you?

You can find Stealing Worlds, Lockstep, The Million and other recent books on Amazon or in your local bookstore; if you want to read a free excerpt from Stealing Worlds, visit  

I’m doing some foresight work that I can’t talk about, but it’s fun, and I’ve got several short stories coming out this fall. Meanwhile I’m reimagining what a Solar System-level civilization would look like; planning new adventures in my Lockstep/Million universe; outlining an entirely new kind of time travel story as well as a new take on secret societies; and I’m daydreaming about solar airships under the midnight sun. I’m having fun, and coming up with new ideas far faster than I can write them down.

Karl, you’ve been amazing and fascinating! It means a lot to us to hear about your early days, your process, and what it’s like to make a living dreaming. Very cool.

Best of luck with the upcoming work! We’d be honored to bring you back again sometime. You’re the very picture of our tagline here at Grailrunner.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.