A sense of place

Saw this post from a great writer on Twitter, who has written several novels over the past few years, usually set in various parts of Mexico. It got me thinking about the sense of place in fiction, about the places that I have set my own stories over the years.

I think most writers locate their fiction either in a place they have been, or a place they’d like to be. Almost no one writes about where they are. 

Some of my stories are about places I’ve lived, that I know intimately–the American Southwest, for example, some parts of the east and west coasts of the USA. But I write about those places when I’m safely gone from them, and they cannot draw me physically back.

The rest of my stories are not about places I’ve lived, but about places that live in me. Sometimes because I long to go there,to a place I’ve never seen and may never see with my own eyes. Sometimes because it’s a place that haunts my imagination, for reasons I cannot fully explain.

Regardless, I am never writing about any place because I feel that I own it or because I’m entitled to lay claim to it. I’m never the authority about any place I’m writing about.

I am a visitor to this planet–not its conqueror.

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Rumination on Homeworld: Cataclysm

Fascinating in-depth analysis of the Lore elements of Homeworld: Cataclysm, one of my early games. The video is produced by Lorerunner, who seems to be working on a series of video game analysis pieces of similar depth–those who care about games as art should definitely support his work.

For those who have not already heard this long ago, Martin Cirulis and I were a writing team in the late 1990’s, and between us we wrote the background fiction and campaign scripts for both Homeworld and Homeworld: Cataclysm (now available and re-titled as Homeworld: Emergence). 

For those who wonder whether writing and Lore (aka Narrative Design) is a critical feature in game development, please note how many people group Homeworld, Cataclysm and Deserts of Kharak as a trilogy, and note that Martin was also the writer of the background fiction for the recent Expedition Guide for Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.

The background fiction and narrative design that goes into a project is often described as “fluff” or window dressing when planning or developing a game. But world building is an art and a craft, and how well the job is done makes a critical difference in how the audience receives and processes a novel, a film, a game or a television show.

The structural design of the Homeworld universe–language, culture, history, etc.–was done and done well years ago. Thanks to that strong foundation, that universe can support any number of vivid and engaging games based on the adventures of people that are easy to identify with and care about.

The only sad thing about this video, from my perspective, is that Lore Runner is clearly a gamer who cares very much about the art of games and about Lore in particular, and he still has no idea who wrote the background fiction for the games he loved as a kid, or why “researching the Lore of Homeworld” was not an issue for the team who made Cataclysm.

The work I do can be critical to the success of a franchise for years–but it is very hard to be properly credited and cited for that work. Something should be done about that, don’t you think?

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We are Live!

My team launched our tabletop board games division today, with our first crowdfunding campaign. We flipped the switch at around 1:00 pm, Pacific time; eight hours later we are over 11% funded, which is not bad for our first time.

For those interested in minis for the Sword of the Stars universe, and people who just plain love my team and my work, and for people who just love innovative board games with a lot of interesting choices and custom dice–this game is for you.

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The Dying Traditions of SF

Bit of foorforah in science fiction social media lately, as some of the great Grandmasters of the field spoke out against safe spaces in SF social gatherings, characterizing them as “segregation”. Harsh words were spoken and dire promises were made notably by CJ Cherryh and David Gerrold, both heroes of mine whose work influenced my life and thought a great deal as a child.

The fact that Grandmasters in their 70’s are threatening to boycott conventions that prioritize the comfort and safety of POC creators and fans, or who provide mini-events that allow POC nerds to build community and support…truly saddens me. And let’s face it: Old White People Bashing Safe Spaces is not a great look on anyone.

I honestly don’t know where and how things went wrong. In the summer of 2016, I returned after many years to Vanguard, which is the oldest extant gathering of SFF fans in Seattle.

When I first attended these parties, it was 1989 and I was 19, recently moved to the city from the sticks in Colorado. I boldly invited myself to the party because it was held at the home of Vonda McIntyre back then, and I had gone to see her speak at a conference in my tiny, crappy uranium-mining home town. I was new in town, I knew who she was and had heard of Vanguard. And of course, Gods help her, she was listed in the phone book…

Anyway. In the late 1980’s, vanguard was truly a rockin’ party. People from all walks of life, drinking and talking, listening to music, and talking about politics and science fiction passionately. I was standing in that living room when I first heard about the Tiennamen Square Massacre. It was the sort of party where William Gibson could drunkenly kiss a dumb country girl on the mouth, because he was already the God of Cyberpunk by then and could be utterly charmed that a girl would hit on him without knowing who he was.

Upshot here is that Vanguard in the 1980’s was a place where you engaged with Life, and the World, in all ways possible. 27 years later? Vanguard literally consisted of four (very) white people who showed up slowly over the course of an evening and chatted awkwardly about whatever, while waiting to see if anyone else would show up this time.

The modern day equivalent of 19-year-old me and her friends were utterly absent from this party. Only one person there was under 30, and he was only there because he was my date, and he was meeting me there at the end of the evening after he finished his set at a comedy club.

At some point, the Old Guard of SF fandom in Seattle must have utterly lost touch with any source of new blood. They stopped connecting with younger people, they stopped recruiting younger people, they stopped regarding people under 30 as peers and making them comfortable and welcome. They got old, in the negative sense of the word.

And to put it bluntly–that’s why the party is dying. And it’s why whatever valid contribution this older generation of fans might have to make to the field is being lost.

I find this sad and I regard this loss as significant. After talking to the Old Guard for a few evenings, I can tell they still have hugely exciting ideas and a lot to share about art, music, politics, life, and science fiction. But they’re not sharing that information, those ideas. No one is there to have that conversation.

Maybe that’s because the Old Guard isn’t interested in a conversation–an open and respectful exchange between peers. Maybe they’re only interested in lectures, delivered by them, to an obedient audience of whippersnappers who they imagine have nothing of worth to say?

Any community dies when it stops embracing its future. How much more stark are the death throes when that community was FOUNDED on embracing the future?

How ironic is it that the Old Guard are being left behind by the future?

Of course, there are still rockin’, happenin’ events in Seattle fandom circles. The semi-public version would be the brief summer season of promotional events for Clarion West. There are also private, invitation-only parties for the very coolest of the cool kids–I wasn’t invited to any of those, but I heard about them second-hand. The people who host them aren’t listed in the phone book.

All I have to say at this point is that we all have a choice. The difference between SF that has a future and SF that is going to become a bloated corpse floating in the Sargasso Sea is going to be the active participation of non-white creators and fans. The active participation of openly queer, trans, and disabled creators and fans.

Old School Fandom called itself progressive and prided itself for tolerating marginalized people–New School Fandom celebrates and centers them, at least occasionally, and it is stronger for it.

Anyway. I have no final answer to the question of where things broke down or how they can be fixed. I do think that both sides would have to care more than they do about community to heal the breach, however.

That’s true of all the expanding chasms in our society, between races and ethnicities, between religions and philosophies, between young and old, between rich and poor.


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Boys Will Be Aziz Ansari

Embroidery by Shannon Downey

I see a great many people in my social sphere sharing links and talking about the recent Babe article about a date with comedian Aziz Ansari. There have been some truly egregious, tone-deaf and worse-than-pointless opinion pieces in the media on this subject: I’m not going to link to them. Here are some good ones:

Aziz, We Tried to Warn You ~ by Lindy West

Not That Bad ~ by Katie Anthony

Speaking solely for myself? I am sometimes amused by the stories that are juxtaposed in a given news cycle. The two most talked-about pop culture events this week were Aziz Ansari and the Tide Pod Kids, and my summary of the two was this:

It is a thousand times smarter for a child to eat a plastic packet of laundry detergent than for an adult to defend bad consent practices.

So please, if you’re a friend of mine…spare me the rhetoric about “innocent mistakes” and “poor bumbling nerds” when it comes to Aziz Ansari. And many other men of his ilk.

Please, learn to understand and accept that the vast majority of men are not “innocent bumblers”. People say “He didn’t mean it” because that’s a standard script to cover and minimize abuse in this culture, and both predators and victims use it. Some men have learned to weaponize the common stereotypes about men, and now they use them as a duck blind for sexual assault and coercion.

It’s not bumbling. It’s gaslighting.

Aziz Ansari is 34 years old. He has claimed to be a feminist. He says that he “listens to women”. HE HAS WRITTEN A BOOK ABOUT DATING. And he was on a date with a girl significantly younger and less experienced, only 22 years old.

Exactly who was supposed to behave more like a compassionate, worldly adult in this scenario? The older man who trades on his image as a feminist ally? Or the dumb kid who went on a date with a celebrity because garsh, he’s famous and claims to respect women?

Frankly, I am very weary of the constant drumbeat of “Boys Will Be Boys” in this culture. When does it EVER end?

When a male is a toddler or a small child, he hits people and pushes them down. We smile and nod and say that it’s natural for boys to be more aggressive.

When he’s an older child, he teases and bullies other children. He expresses his budding interest in girls by hurting them emotionally and physically and touching them without permission. We tell the girls he’s attacked that he’s “paying attention” and that his assault “means he likes you”.

When he’s a teenager, he’s “awkward and fumbling” and his early dabbling in rape is written off as “growing pains”, “drunk teenage hi-jinx” or “adolescent lust”.

As a GROWN ASS MAN IN HIS 30’S he goes on a date with a 22-year-old and he’s “making innocent mistakes” and “doesn’t know any better”.

As a middle-aged man he’s “having a mid-life crisis”.

In his 60’s and 70’s he was “raised in a different time”.

There’s always an excuse, always a reason that everyone and everything but the man himself is to blame for his actions, and their consequences.

So please, tell me…at what age is a man EVER responsible for what he does?

How he treats women?

How he makes them feel?

When is a man supposed to know that sexual pleasure is a collaborative process, a thing that people build together–rather than something you take for yourself at someone else’s expense?

When is a man supposed to know that when your partner doesn’t say “Yes” enthusiastically, it means “No”?

When is a man who claims he listens to women going to actually DEMONSTRATE that he listens to women? At what age can we expect him to stop making “mistakes” that send young girls home in a cab crying and wanting to vomit?

Seriously. I’m dying to know when boys are supposed to become men.

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Mensch As Fuck: One Year Later

In December of 2016, I made a New Year’s Resolution about my reading habits. I decided to spend a year reading the genres I loved–science fiction, fantasy, horror, comics–but avoid reading those genres as written by people with the majority worldview.

Instead of reading mostly white authors, I would spend twelve months deliberately seeking out authors who were People of Colour. Instead of reading solely able-bodied authors, I would try to spend twelve months reading books and stories by people with disabilities. Instead of reading mostly straight authors, I would try to spend time reading books by queer authors.

This is not to say that I never read and enjoyed any fiction before by a writer who was not Privileged in Every Way! I had read and supported a few POC authors, one or two queer authors, perhaps a disabled creator here or there. The difference in 2017 was my commitment to focus for a full year on ONLY those voices. To let them dominate my book shelves and reading list for twelve full months.

Now it is 2018, and time to sit back and reflect on what I’ve learned.

Short answer? Spending a year reading #ownvoices fiction has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. It is the best gift I’ve given myself in many years.

In 2017, I read many great authors for the first time.

Nnedi Okoroafor, the author of the Binti series, Who Fears Death? and The Book of Phoenix, Akata Witch and Akata Warrior.

N.K. Jemisin, the author of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy and the Broken Earth trilogy.

Octavia Butler, one of the mothers of modern science fiction.

Kai Ashante Wilson, the author of two brilliant novellas set in a world that inevitably reminds one of Gene Wolfe and Samuel R. Delaney.

Junji Ito, one of the greatest masters of horror in the world.

And a great many others, honestly–more than I can list in one post.

My first impulse when I started the Mensch As Fuck Book Club was to publish reviews of these books as I was reading them, to share my journey and the unfolding of consciousness as I learned and grew. But my first few queries were ignored or fell flat, and I decided that I didn’t really need to share this work publicly. It was something I was doing for myself, after all, and well worth doing regardless of whether anyone else noticed, cared, or subsidized me. 

2017 is over, of course, and now I have a choice.

Was a single year enough?

Have I accomplished everything I set out to do?

No. Honestly, I don’t think I have. In most cases, I haven’t even read all the works of a single author! It’s harder than it used to be to read the complete works of an author. 

At any rate–I think I’m going to stay on this path.

In 2018, I may pick up a few more books by straight white authors, if I’m genuinely excited about their work. But for the most part I think I am going to continue to focus on voices that the world has tried to muzzle, muffle or deny. 

I might share more thoughts about books I’ve read, or the books I’m currently reading for research. But in general, I am still doing this for the love of reading and for the healing impacts of excellent fiction from an original and unexpected point of view.

Reading these books is changing me in ways that I like. I feel more optimistic and hopeful than I have in a long time, and more inspired to write about people who share my own identity, problems and passions.

If you’d like to join me in reading great fiction by marginalized voices in 2018, the Facebook Group still exists and is going strong. Anyone who’s a Mensch is most welcome.

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There Can Be More Than One

I have nothing bad to say about Oprah. I think she’s an inspiring person who does a lot of things well. Including speeches.

That being said, Sarah from SF is dead on with her comment above. It is INCREDIBLY toxic to frame Oprah’s excellence this way–solely in terms of bashing some other woman.

Please stop doing this. Forever.

Stop behaving as if there is not enough awesome to go around, and trying to convince every woman who can Do A Thing that we are all Duncan MacLeod and every other woman who can Do The Thing is the goddamn Kurgan.

There can be more than One.

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Gothic Science Is Back!

Illustration credit: The incomparable Bernie Wrightson, creator of the best illustrated edition of Frankenstein of all time.

Many years ago I was a volunteer instructor at an alternative school in North Vancouver, the Windsor House community. I taught a number of subjects, but my most popular class by far was a series of workshops called Gothic Science.

The former administrators at Windsor House have now founded a new educational community called The Learnary, and invited me to offer the Gothic Science class once more! My first workshop is about Bugs: why do we fear them enough that they appear in our horror movies? What is cool and interesting about them? How have humans battled them, tamed them, and learned to live with them over the millennia?

Anyone who lives locally in the lower mainland of British Columbia is welcome to attend the class on the evening of January 23rd, 2018. The cost is $20, and includes a vegetarian meal for attendees. I will supply some fun coloring pages, suitable for artists of all ages, and I’ve always enjoyed the questions and interactions with the audience at these workshops. It keeps me on my toes.


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Now that everyone I know has weighed in with the same opinion, I’ll state my Unpopular Opinion of the year.

No, you’re all wrong. ALL of you!
The hoi poloi and I are right.
Bright, the new urban fantasy blockbuster from Netflix, was not at all a terrible movie.
You just hate it for being beautiful. *sniffle*

I saw it over the winter  break. It was a fairly standard Will Smith vehicle and a workmanlike “buddy cop” movie–the science fiction equivalent was Alien Nation, many years ago. Full disclosure: this was another movie that I very much enjoyed. The film and the television show both entertained me enough that there is an homage to Alien Nation in Sword of the Stars, in fact–Alien Nation is the reason that Hivers love cheese.


Hivers love human cuisine, especially the products of fermentation. Now they make their own brie. It’s a lovely pale jade color and tastes divine.

Bright follows the formula for Buddy Cop stories note by note almost perfectly. Whether you love or hate this movie SHOULD depend almost entirely on whether you find the formula for Buddy Cop movies to be tolerable at all.

If you normally would consider a movie like Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Company, The Man, Miami Vice, Die Hard etc. to be an honest day’s work or forgettable-but-fun popcorn fare, and you’re throwing a shit fit about Bright being somehow terribly written or badly acted?

Something was gone wrong with your grey matter.


Maybe everyone should take this film as an invitation to look at the formula for the Buddy Cop genre a LITTLE more closely. All Buddy Cop movies take a very problematic view of race, and present a very unrealistic vision of how the world works. But the fantasy world of Buddy Cop movies is a popular fantasy, a fairy tale that appeals primarily to lower and middle class white people–and we are apparently the majority population in North America.

A lot of Bright‘s most problematic elements are inherited from its form. The Disney film Zootopia has a lot of the same problems in its depiction of racial violence and conflict–not just because it’s a Buddy Cop movie with “mismatching investigators” who learn to care about each other and work together, but particularly in the way it seems to assign the blame for discrimination on the choices or “biological nature” of the victims.  Predators in Zootopia are victims of discrimination because they were actually PREDATORS, biologically speaking. Orcs are victims of discrimination in Los Angeles because “they chose to serve the dark lord” in the past, etc.. This kind of racism built into the foundations of the world should never get a pass, or be stated without opposition. 

The other problem some people will have with Bright is that it’s a Shadowrun movie, although sadly it does not credit the developers of Shadowrun or any of the other works in its lineage. And Shadowrun is to Tolkein and Dungeons and Dragons what the Sex Pistols are to Hall and Oates, or the Ramones are to the Osmond family.

Shadowrun has always been more hip to its own bullshit than other versions of modern fantasy. Shadowrun makes the subtext of more “genteel” racism and classism in traditional fantasy games and novels into a visible, contested reality. This game is the stained wife-beater tank top underneath Tolkein’s crisp white linen shirt.

A Shadowrun setting is a gritty urban fantasy milieu full of open hate, stereotyping, and resistance. Fear and loathing in in Beverly Hills. A night of blood and hell-fire in Compton. A film where the orcs are an oppressed minority and the rich and powerful elves are framed as creepy at best, terrifying and evil at worst–just like real aristocrats.


You can’t be too rich, too thin, too immortal, or have ears too goddamn pointy.

Personally, I like it. It appeals to me for the same reason that punk rock once did: it gives voice to my working class white rage, which is complex and even sometimes melancholy. It is Noir in its framing of upper class whites as the enemy, and that feels true to me and always has.

I don’t expect everyone else to magically change their minds, but this is why I think that you’re all wrong, and the unwashed masses and I are right. I look forward to more “supernatural police dramas” and more wet eldritch fire dropping from wands which are described as “a nuclear weapon that grants wishes”.

The future looks Bright to me.  you can catch it on Netflix.


Creepy elf chick is creepy. Never warmed up to this character. Never trust an elf.


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The Changeling

I finished reading this novel over the weekend, and it is just a killer.

Victor LaValle is one of my favorite discoveries of the last year. Everything I’ve read from him thus far has been brilliant. This book in particular has some dizzying reversals of plot and tone, which definitely keeps you reeling as a reader. I would recommend it for its masterful handling of plot alone, but it’s also a wonderful example of a novel that navigates the horrifying mythic landscape of northern Europe extremely well, particularly the British Isles and Scandinavia. The witches, fairies, goblins and trolls of ancient fairy tales find new life here, and it is wonderful to see.

A warning for the curious: this book is a true fairy tale, of the Elder Kind. It is a tale for adults about childhood and parenthood–not a tale for children. It is never wise to mistake the one sort of fairy tale for the other, although the two are cousins.

This novel is dark, bloody, and violent. It features genuine chaotic magic, the kind that is rare to see and exacts a terrible price from human beings. There are monsters both mundane and supernatural. It is a classic story about the fae: the hapless hero must pierce illusions, learn to tell friend from foe, separate love from selfishness and vanity, have faith and humble himself in the presence of mysteries he does not understand, in a world that seethes with hostility and lies.

It is also one of the most beautiful stories about fatherhood that I have read in recent memory. The text explicitly evokes other beautiful stories about fatherhood as well, both in ancient and modern literature. One of the MacGuffins of the plot is a signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, as an example.

The primary magical text of the novel is a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, Outside Over There. Several characters throughout The Changeling are haunted by the opening lines of that story. It begins “When Papa was away at sea…” and concerns a girl named Ida, who loses her little sister to the goblins. The kidnappers replace the human child with a Changeling, a golem carved from ice…but the magic around the creature is powerful enough that even the child’s sister cannot initially pierce the illusion, and gathers the cold thing in her arms to say, “I love you so.”

The real world issues that this story touches upon are many. Postpartum depression and infanticide. Toxic masculinity and patriarchy, and how they twist the script of love for a woman or a child. The invalidation of women and their experiences and beliefs, as well as the threats to their safety. Fatherhood in all its forms, specifically the shattered bonds between flawed fathers and their sons. The survival necessity of friendship between men, particularly black men. The dangers of social media, particularly the oversharing habits of the “New Parent” in millennial culture. The permeability and vulnerability of our homes and families in the digital age.

It’s a rich, rewarding book, and I cannot say another word without spoiling it, so I won’t.

Highly recommended. Read it for yourself.



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