Before my wife gifted me a copy of her book Life in Code for Christmas, I’d never heard of Ellen Ullman despite her long, impressive career as a programmer, software engineer, and author. Turns out, I’ve been missing out on one our the sharpest and most insightful writers on tech, culture, and feminism. Ullman is witty and broadly experienced, and has a terrific voice that flits between amusing and professionally rich without batting an eye. I know who Ullman is now, and, boy am I sorry it took me so long to find her.
(And major thanks to my wife for putting in work and research to find an absolute GEM of a book.)
Life in Code is a collection of Ullman’s essays ranging from the late ’90s to days after the 2017 US presidential inauguration. Posited as an auto-biographical account of her experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry and culture, Life is Code is also a biography of technology and web culture over the past 20 years. It’s a detailed, real-time look at all the mistakes we’ve made as we’ve chased the ghost in the machine and the allure of fast, endless capital at the expense of privacy and social safety nets.
As 2019 tipped into 2020, readers started compiling their lists of the best books of the decade. I thought long and hard, but the only book I had any certainty about was the decade’s best: a debut novel from Erin Morgenstern called The Night Circus. With a tenacity matched by few other books, The Night Circus has not left me since I first read it years ago.
The Night Circus is a classic novel that will sit on the highest shelf of my bookshelf, right next to The Hobbit and The Shadow of the Wind. … There’s magic in this novel and it deserves to be read by anyone wanting to be reminded that there is more to life than meets the eye.
Usually when I liken a book to two all-time classic, the comparison begins to show its age as the days, weeks, and years pass?—but not so with The Night Circus. If anything, the comparison seems more fair to me now than it did then, especially after having read Morgenstern’s much awaited follow-up, The Starless Sea. Like Tolkien and Zafon’s novels, The Night Circus is a book for the ages.
This was a lighter year of fiction for me as I focus on completing the first draft of my novel project, The Thousand Shattered Gods, with just one piece eligible for “Best Short Story.” I am also personally eligible for “Best Fan Writer” for the reviews, essays, commentary, news coverage, and other non-fiction work I produced for Tor.com, Barnes & Noble SFF Blog, Uncanny Magazine, here on my blog, and via Twitter. I also had notable (but ineligible for “Best Fan Writer”) work in Kotaku and EGMNOW.
Rewind 26 years, and you’ll find me and my best friend bundled up in our jackets sitting on our school playground about an hour before the bell rings. Breath is fogging in front of our faces. We don’t notice. The tips of our fingers are cold. We don’t care. Our eyes are glued to the boxy grey devices in our hands. Through a tiny 4.5″ screen, we’ve been transported wholly to Koholint Island.
We’re playing The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy. It’s an adventure I’ve never forgotten.
Though it’s been a while since I’ve done a round-up of my recent work, that’s not for lack of writing. I’ve got a couple of reviews, a retrospective of a video game I’ve been waiting to play for over 20 years, and a round up of books perfect for fans of Japanese RPGs.
It feels like hype for Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel about necromantic lesbians, bone citadels, rockin’ adventures, tantalizing mysteries, wicked sword fights, and many, many reanimated corpses has been building for YEARS. It was earlier this year, however, when it really started to catch my attention. Isabel Yap, who’s been championing the book since its earliest days, popped onto Twitter and blew my socks off by callingGideon the Ninth “the closest thing to a JRPG in novel form.”
As an older millennial, I grew up in a post-Chernobyl world. I’ve been aware of the incident for my entire life, without ever knowing the truth of it. I knew Pripyat from a few video games I’d played—its mystique as a ghost town overshadowing the reality that tens of thousands of people had their lives uprooted and never truly destroyed because of the disaster at the nearby nuclear power platn. An equal number of people have died (and continue to die) because of the accident. This happened in my life time, while I was toddling about my home, searching for crumbs and toys, but it always had the feeling of a far-off myth or something out of a storybook. Living in Canada, I had the privilege to know about it, but not know about it.
HBO’s Chernobyl was released earlier this year to rave reviews. I thought I knew about the Chernobyl incident because I was vaguely aware of how nuclear reactors operated (thanks to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011) and how government bureaucracy led to the disaster being worse than it should have been. I thought back to Call of Duty. I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down for watch Chernobyl—written by the guy who wrote Scary Movie 3 and The Hangover Part II, no less—but I walked away from the absolutely pitch perfect first episode reeling, unable to fall asleep. It was dark and bleak, angry, hopeless, terrifying.
Yesterday, my epic article about the influence of the Golden Age of Japanese RPGs (from the SNES to the PlayStation 2) went up on Kotaku, and it’s been a blast seeing so many people reach out on Twitter and message boards to tell me about their similar experiences. I spoke to several SFF writers, such as Scott Lynch, Tamsyn Muir, Peng Shepherd, and Troy L. Wiggins, about their experience growing up as gamers and how that’s influenced their popular SFF work.
The final version of “How Japanese RPGs Inspired A New Generation Of Fantasy Authors” clocked in at a weighty 5,500 words, but the original draft was over 10,000 words long before we started whipping it into shape. And, even then, there was a TON of great content from the authors I interviewed that didn’t find a home in the piece. They didn’t fit into the overall narrative, they were too much a divergence from the main path, etc. So, I wanted to use this space to pull a few of those stories forward and given them the home on the Internet they deserve.
If you haven’t already, go and give it a read, and then come back here for the juicy outtakes after the jump.
Over on Kotaku (!!!, what is my life?), I’ve got a longread the explores the connection between the new wave of SFF writers and the influence of Golden Age Japanese RPGs (from the 16- and 32-bit era, like Final Fantasy 7, Chrono Trigger, Suikoden 2, etc.) I’ve been working on it for a long, long time and I’m so proud it’s finally out there for everyone to read.
When I think back to my childhood and teenage years, when my literary tastes were being forged in the crucible of youthful emotion and impressionism, particular scenes come to life: Sam carrying Frodo up Mt. Doom. The Reaper chasing Wil Ohmsford through the Westland. Marle hugging Crono on top of Death Peak.
Most fantasy readers won’t need a reminder of what books the first two scenes come from (Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks), and most Kotaku readers won’t miss the reference to the classic Japanese role-playing game Chrono Trigger. And for some, all three of those works are of equal importance. Today’s fantasy novelists are just as likely to have been inspired by JRPGs as they are J.R.R. Tolkien. For some authors, Celes’ performance at the Opera House is just as much of a storytelling touchstone as young Simon fleeing Pryrates beneath the Hayholt.
It was an absolute pleasure to chat with various SFF writers about the topic. When I first started conceptualizing the piece, I had this vision of me showing up on Twitter like a naked dude at a graduation—everyone staring at me funny because I was the only one writer inspired by Golden Age JRPGs. Based by the overwhelmingly positive response on Twitter, this is obviously not the case.
I had to cut A TON of content from the interviews and first draft, so check back soon for a post featuring some of my favourite out takes that didn’t make it into the final article.