Category Archives: Fiction

Feu de Joie: Session 2 now online

This is a bit belated, but I’ve uploaded Session 2 to Feu de Joie (

The walls start closing in a bit on our Tester.

If you are interested in supporting the continued development of this serialized interactive fiction project, check out my Patreon page ( Thank you!

Alan’s Very Very First AWP Conference

I have no idea how I’ve managed to not go, for all of these years? But consider it’s in Minneapolis this year, how could I not? The good news is that there’ll be a Small Beer Press sponsored reading and party (slightly) off-site with Kelly Link and Amalia Gladhart (translator of Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar)

Thursday, April 9, 7 -9 pm

1315 Harmon Place, Minneapolis

more details

If you’re going to AWP, please drop by and say hello!

Feu de Joie (new serialized interactive fiction project begins!)

So for the last few months I’ve been hunkered away getting a new project started, and the first installment is now live.

It’s a work of serialized interactive fiction, with regular installments (give or take a little leeway considering I have three year old twins and a full time job). Here’s the description of Feu de Joie:

“A freelance QA specialist has started archiving an unusual project online that he has been working on. A mysterious company named BUCOLIC ehf, a “digital literature publisher”, is developing an interactive version of Lord Dunsany’s collection of essays about World War One, Unhappy, Far-Off Things. (Lord Dunsany is probably best known as the fantasist who was an early influence on Lovecraft.) Each essay in the collection is being tested as a “Session.” But something is not quite right with the first one.”

So I’m really excited about this as it gets off the ground, working with a completely different cadence (both creative and publishing) than I’m used to.

I’ve also started a Patreon to help support this project. It is the first project that I’ve done where crowdfunding seemed to make sense, and Patreon seemed like a perfect fit for episodic content like this. It also gives a way for supporters interested in the project to deepen their involvement with it in some cool ways. Check it out if you’re interested.

Reading in Chicago

So next Tuesday I’ll be in Chicago reading at the Tuesday Funk Reading series with other fine folk. I’ll be reading a short piece from the latest collection.

7:30! If you’re in town swing by!

The Apocalypse Project

(This has not been tested. This is ‘just writing.’)

  1. An apocalypse is a revelation, an unveiling.
  2. Joseph Donahue writes that apocalypse is “a literature of complete yet coded protest against worldly domination structures.”
  3. No one will need to have written before—in fact, the Project gears itself towards those not initiated into writerly subcultures. If one has been ensconced in writerly culture, knowledge will have to be unlearned.
  4. The Project should be in no particular place, no center, no retreat cottage out in the woods.
  5. No patrons, no benefactors.
  6. What do we find in each other’s eyes? In each other’s voices? In our hammering away at a keyboard, finger to letter? The feel of a pen in our hands when words are crossed out, the sound of the strikethrough?
  7. When we die, we cease to be able to write. At some point, we will write and read our last words. The horizon is finite. It is difficult to remember this.
  8. This involves seeing clearly (discernment) and then acting upon it (volition).
  9. Anathema: personal “development” and “fulfillment” as the end goal.
  10. The core group of the Project is the Meeting.
  11. The Meeting can take place anywhere.
  12. Ideally each Meeting should include 5-10 members, called Participants.
  13. A regular Meeting Place and time should be decided upon. Every other week is encouraged.
  14. The Meeting should have some of the trappings of a writing workshop, but it is not a writing workshop. On the outside, it will look like a combination of a writing workshop, a cell, and a support group for neoliberalism.
  15. Every Meeting should begin with food, drink and socialization.
  16. Next in the Meeting each Participant spends a couple of minutes talking about what they have seen/discerned in the last two weeks: anxieties, triumphs, expectations thwarted, feelings of helplessness, etc. as it relates to the social fabric that all Participants find themselves in, that of late capitalism and a neoliberal surveillance state.
  17. The rest of the Participants should listen attentively and give support when needed and asked for.
  18. There is no fixed self.
  19. There is only the illusion of self brought about by our interrelations with other people and our interactions with their desires.
  20. Creating an apocalyptic work is akin to creating a living organism.
  21. Capitalism thrives on its own constant death and resurrection. Every crisis is an opportunity for capitalism’s advance.
  22. The goal is to have the living organism of the apocalyptic text live, die and resurrect alongside capitalism.
  23. After the interpersonal sharing in the Meeting, the Participants should each read aloud the works they have worked on since the last Meeting.
  24. The work should be of an apocalypse.
  25. There is no critique of Participants’ work inside the Meeting.
  26. The Meeting should avoid the use of medical terminology for cultural malaise.
  27. The Participants should be localvores. There should never be national or international Meetings. The expenditure of air fuel is not worth it. Every writing conference which involves wan poems of personal expression have on their pages the exhaust fumes of 747s.
  28. The apocalypses between the Participants should be that of a Chain: able to be linked together, but able to live apart, like the Participants themselves.
  29. Each Participant’s apocalypse should unfurl the limitations of the conceivable.
  30. Verse drives concentration. Prose drives.
  31. The texts should be unacceptably open.
  32. After the reading of works, Participants look for opportunities to stitch the various works together.
  33. The works should scroll together.
  34. At the same time, the works should act as a complex, a compound organism.
  35. If any dues are to be collected, they should be solely from the Participants to buy snacks, and/or to publish the works on a regular basis, whether that be in print or in a shared space such as online, streetlamps, etc.
  36. The work should only be published under the Meeting’s name and location. At most, only first names should be acknowledged.
  37. It is unclear what will be unveiled from the Project. But its meaning will shift within the fabric of capitalism until a rupture becomes evident.
  38. The Participants write out the future catastrophe into the present; if all goes dark in the future, it must go dark for us while there is still light.
  39. If the darkness grows stronger—on account of our species’ inability to see—then this Project will allow us to see the darkness before its reckoning.


news: Cryptophasia and “Wildfires of Antarctica”

I’ve been very busy. I’ve also been doing a social media fast/sabbatical/what-have-you, which has been really great, and has given me a few less things to stress over. I’m just getting more and more weary, and wary, of the capability of rapid-fire social media discourse to really solve too many problems.


Just a few items:


I released the new version of my Twine game Cryptophasia. It’s a little piece (with actually a fair amount of branches) I did for an interactive fiction mini-competition called ShuffleComp. It’s a “broken space opera” of sorts, and also involves Vienesse tortes, ASMR, and the limits of language. This second version also has chiptune-esque music from Ivy Baumgarten…when I came across it I was thrilled since it seemed to fit the game perfectly, and I’m really pleased to be able to use it. (You can play the game online or download it; an Internet connection is still preferred for the latter).


My story “The Wildfires of Antarctica” was also a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award, for best short science fiction of the year. It was an honor to be nominated. If you want to check out the story, it’s either in my collection Tyrannia or in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy that just came out from Prime Books. It’s a story about art.




Solarium wins Best Story Award

The XYZZY awards ( showcase the best of interactive fiction in a given year–with voting open to all–and is one of the longest-standing set of awards for indie gaming. And my 2013 game Solarium won in the Best Story category! Lots of other great games that are finalists–check them out. Thank you to my beta testers and players.


On the Minnesota Book Awards

I wasn’t able to find a place to publish this essay about the Minnesota Book Awards and their lack of science fiction and fantasy (or, really, most other genre) works. So I decided to put it up here. Enjoy.



by Alan DeNiro


This weekend, the finalists for the 26th annual Minnesota Book Awards were released. As with most other years, I wonder if this is going to be a year when the pattern is broken. But it’s not.

What is that pattern? There have been only two books of adult fiction nominated over the last decade that could be considered science fiction, fantasy or more broadly non-realistic: Alicia Conroy’s nontraditional short story collection Lives of Mapmakers in 2007, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s high fantasy novel Paladin of Souls in 2004.

That’s it. And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem because the Minnesota Book Awards presents a skewed version of  the literary culture in the state, and goes forth with events, celebrations and resources (such as grants to bring MBA winners to libraries) that ignore any books that aren’t in the here-and-now. Even the Popular Fiction/Genre category of the award, which should be a mix of (as the eligibility requirements note) “mystery, detective, fantasy, romance, graphic novel, and science fiction”, is almost every year composed strictly of mysteries and thrillers.

Of course, literary realism is its own genre, full of its own conventions and meta-structures. Which is not an indictment against it; however, seeing realism as the only game in town (or the state) is toxic for the literary health of a community. It privileges one form of storytelling as a default mode of expression against which all others should measure. And this is the case no matter what the publisher is: whether it’s a straight-up science fiction and fantasy press or a literary press offering something more cross-genre, experimental, or off-beat.

This annual ritual of proudly showcasing to the residents of the state a “completed” puzzle—even though a few of the pieces are missing—particularly hits hard because of the thriving and longstanding science fiction and fantasy community within the state. With active readers and fans attending conventions such as Minicon, CONvergence, Diversicon, and several others; two science fiction bookstores in town; and a host of writers plying their craft within the borders of the North Star State; there’s a deep disconnect at work here. Moreover, in the 21st century, teenagers and millenials aren’t really paying attention to rigid genre distinctions. They will read anything they can get their hands on. To only allow non-realistic fiction in young adult and children’s categories is to subtly highlight that such endeavors are “just for kids.” But as these people grow older, they aren’t going to migrate to reading fiction solely about the north woods, cabins, and prairies, however great they may be.

And what’s more, I’m sure writers and readers of romance novels and graphic novels could make a similar case with their own beloved books.

Some would say that all of this is a moot issue, that it’s better that these two worlds don’t mix. But I’m interested in seeing bridges created between the two, and to have different forms of literature in conversation with each other. If the purpose of the Minnesota Book Awards is to “showcase the tremendous literary talent and output of writers, illustrators and book artists in our state,” it should actually make an effort to be more inclusive of the types of books Minnesotans are actually writing and having published. If you’re going to have a $45 per ticket gala and “outreach” to the community with reading guides, posters and bookmarks, it’s helpful to not pretend that an entire mode of literature simply doesn’t exist. Otherwise, I’m not sure if the nonprofit that runs the Minnesota Book Awards is actually serving the readers of the entire state.

on one’s own work

just two scattered thoughts on the discussion about end of year self-promotion/”hey this work exists!” posts about stories for awards. I’m pulling this from a Facebook thread (and as a starting point for this, I agree with pretty much everything here):

1. one of the reasons I think this is more relevant now for short fiction at least is that there ISN’T a Big Three anymore; 15 years ago it was easier to (rather cavalierly) miss what was happening in the smaller venues. But what’s “small” anymore? Pieces from small and mid sized presses have a legit shot to be nominated for awards. There’s potentially a lot more room for lots of different voices. I say “potentially” because those factors of structural disenfranchisement based on race, class and difference still haunt the field.

2. It’s lonely work whether you promote yourself or don’t. The loneliness isn’t really going to change much. There’s always going to be an private interplay of ‘I want people to read my work!’ with the public “Uhhh, hey, read my work?” to varying degrees. Basically a good rule of thumb is to do whatever makes you Be Less Miserable.

I am not particularly skilled at this.

Welcome to the Club

It’s hard to know how to either quantify or qualify universalism, because so many communities make a claim to at least a cultural universalism that obscures interconnections with other communities. Truth (although the word “truth” is rarely used) becomes the cornerstone for an enclosure for–to put it in vernacular–a fandom. This also includes the fandom of a professional or semiprofessional activity, a fandom of making: books, games, short films, whatever.

The truth claim is a limitless resource (endless fields of possibility–newness and surprise and innovation).

The time/attention paid to a given subject of a fandom/subculture is a limited resource (the sorter’s dilemma, particularly in the early 21st century). There is only so much one can get to.

These two work in a push-pull to mark differences between different truth claims. And in the realm of personal attention, there are of course winners and losers.

In the business world, they call it “siloing”. Vertical structures of knowledge–which then lead to control and access toward certain lexicons about that knowledge. Which in itself can be gatekeeping.

Of course the difference between apprenticeship and overspecialization needs to be emphasized. The former, a knowledge and practice of a craft; the latter, a way to control a larger narrative as to what’s important and thus cultivate barriers.

Trying to move between subcultures can create a situation where your credit is only good at the company store of a certain genre or field of expertise. And I do think that social media can exacerbate this issue; where people have a larger quantity of information to sift through, time becomes an even more precious resource. This might be slightly tautological but I think it has the possibility to accelerate overspecialization as a way of “standing out.”

Here’s a few examples of what the hell I’m talking about.

Pro tip: You see this in poetry a lot, since poetry has little else except cultural capital to traffic in, so various poetry communities create exotic mechanisms of exchange, much like a variance swap in finance.

This is more of an inverted example but when Jeff “I Assassin Down the Avenue” Tweedy or Billy Corgan or whatever semi-famous musician wants to publish a book of poetry, there is no apprenticeship to speak of. This is an example of a press using famousness as a way to garner any type of attention for a book buyer (both on the level of a reader and a bookstore). And, well, fair enough–one can understand now-defunct Zoo Press trying to grab the brass ring with Tweedy (this is the press, you’ll remember, that didn’t pick a winner for a contest but kept all the money). Even Faber and Faber (re: Corgan) needs to gain any advantage they can. This however requires the world pretending that Jeff Tweedy is a poet. I mean, yes, in a technical sense, sure. But in terms of the hundreds of other poets out there hunched over laptops, churning away at a vocation and life-calling. None of this is to disparage Tweedy’s talent as a musician and songwriter, by the way. But cutting to the front of the line happens all the time because it’s easy, and most people don’t care–because of readers’ overspecialization in things that are Not Poetry.

With fiction, you see this push and pull on a macro scale with the endless “genre vs. mainstream” discussions that still go on. (Still.) There are still some arenas (like the Minnesota Book Awards!) that treat realism as normative, yet at the same time show attention to literary works that use genre tropes. Actual SF/F genre stories can still create bewilderment. This is why you will find, say, an MFA program that will kinda accept work and writers that traffick in “weird” fiction, but only of a certain type, ones that accept and not question the truth claims of the subculture and that does not contain spaceships therein. It has to be weird in the right ways; i.e., in ways that reflect the tastes of “realism subcultures” of the literary world. (You will find this in different reading strategies: to grossly generalize, a person in the genre and an AWP goer can read the same science fiction story in very very different ways.) Conversely, the SF/F field can sometimes (although not always) be reluctant to embrace interesting work that, while clearly SF’nal or fantastic, doesn’t push the correct buttons (scientific, mythopoetic, or otherwise). A complaint you might hear is: “this literary writer didn’t know how to world build!” Which might not have been what the writer was interested in; but again, we are dealing with a game of expectations when there is limited time to parse through differing writing strategies. And it goes beyond mere tropes–it is ultimately about world-view, or even an ideology as to what the purpose of writing is in the first place.

Before this devolves into yet another session of “Hey, why aren’t there more things written that I like?“, it’s important to ask: Why does this matter anyway? For me, two things come to mind. it First, frustration when I see different subcultures reinventing each other’s wheels. From a post on a somewhat different issue, Emily Short here talks about contemporary game designers from the persepctive of the interactive fiction community:

I see the value of our past. At GDC I heard more than one talk that presented as new information observations about choice, consequence, narrative, and puzzle structure that have been well-discussed here for nearly two decades. There is a great deal of experience and craft knowledge about IF that deserves to be carried forward from this community, not lost, even if the community itself is changed beyond recognition.

This is a great example of “apprenticeship” (the care taken in craft, accreted through many different people as a form of collective knowledge) as mentioned before. Taking the time to go into the “archives” of another culture does take time, but it can be immensely rewarding (and humbling).

Secondly, it sucks to be ignored. It sucks to be ignored when you think you have something to say. It sucks having to prove yourself and to jump through hoops that have little to do with the cultural endeavor at hand. Again, this isn’t about not learning the ropes and one’s craft–that does take time, and patience. I think it’s more about opportunity to begin that journey in the first place, and recognition that people who are “outsiders” have their own skills and talents to offer. And that it’s important to encourage younger writers not to overspecialize, to be able to wander, to not have an action plan and an “official website” and a chipper yet PR-focused Twitter account right out of the gate. In fact it’s okay not to have any plan at all–aside from doing exactly what you love, which might not be one single thing at all.

So in the midst of this, what would an actual universalism look like? Is that even possible? How do we make this subcultures more porous? And how do we innovate in our writing without having to rely on a (modernist) paradigm of avant-garde rupture, or a postmodern paradigm of denying that there are truth claims in literature, however provisional they may be?

LATE EDIT: I know I have to unpack more what I mean by “universalism”, or a “truth process” for that matter. Bear with me.

Tyrannia is out, and there’s a lot to be thankful for

Well Tyrannia has finally come out officially, while in fact I was recovering from hernia surgery. So I’m doing a bit of catch up. But I wanted to thank the people (in the spirit of the week) who helped make the book possible. I’ve written the stories but any book is truly a collaborative effort as a physical (and digital) object.

    My wife Kristin for being the first listener for many of the rough, rough versions that these polished stories eventually came from.

    The writing group that I was a part of that included Kristin, Lena DeTar, Dave Schwartz and Haddayr Copley-Woods. Tons of great and thoughtful feedback for many if not most of these stories.

    The magazine and anthology editors who took a shot on many of these stories, including (but not limited to): Sheila Williams, John Klima, Susan Groppi and the Strange Horizons editors, Chris Barzak and Meghan McCarron, Jessica Crispin, and Doug Lawson. Actually I think that’s everybody. These blog posts are incredibly improvisational, in case you haven’t noticed.

    Gavin and Kelly and Jed and the rest of the Small Beer crew, copy editors included. Working with them has always been a joy and a true collaborative effort.

    Kevin Huizenga for the killer cover.

    The indie bookstores, particularly the local ones here in the Twin Cities, who have been supportive of local writers such as myself throughout the years. Special shoutouts to Magers & Quinn, Common Good Books, SubText, Dreamhaven, and Uncle Hugo’s.

    My day job. I work at a great ad agency that’s always been supportive of my writing endeavors and chooses to treat employees in a manner that doesn’t suck out their souls. Pro-tip: This is a good thing.

    My son and daughter who are turning two on Monday, which I absolutely cannot believe. Perhaps that’s a longer blog post, but I know that being a parent has, for sure, changed me as a writer–and putting them first has made me a better person. They are also hilarious.

    Readers. Readers, readers, readers. Without audiences for books–without that ongoing conversation–writing would be a very lonely craft indeed. So anyone who’s bought or lended one of my books, thank you.

    And I know I’m missing a lot of people: those in colleges and universities who have invited me to speak and teach, everyone involved at the Twin Cities Book Festival and Rain Taxi (I started writing for Rain Taxi in 1999! Seriously!), my family and wife’s family, all my writerly and nonwriterly friends…well, you get the picture. I’m incredibly grateful.

Solarium design notes

So the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition is over, and Solarium placed 6th out of 35 entries, which I’m very pleased with. I’m very gratified by the positive feedback and constructive criticism the game received. I thought I’d delve a bit into the making of Solarium–which ended up being similar to the gameplay texture itself. (A lot of half-starts and backtracking!)

There are probably going to be some spoilers, so if you haven’t yet, feel free to play it.

I’ve been knee-deep in alchemy research for several years now, and I think the first hint of a game structure came about from seeing a more-or-less Jungian “mental map” of alchemical processes. It was in the book What Painting Is by James Elkins (which is fantastic), and included a diagram from Edward Edinger. (Here’s an example of a similar diagram with Calcinatio at the center.) Now, I certainly don’t take Jung part and parcel, and I know that alchemy’s spiritual underpinnings were overplayed by Jung (ignoring the substances and real work inside a laboratory–at times he lost the chemistry of it). But naturally my eye was attracted to this and thought, “wow, this looks like a CYOA structure!” I didn’t do anything with it for a long time, though. I had fiddled with Varytale to tell an alchemical story, but nothing really came of it (first false start: superimposing an alchemical map across a map of North Dakota, and using that as the basis for a sequel to Deadline Enchanter. Maybe some day). When I came across Twine for the first time in the fall of ’12, one of the first things I did was to build this map out (with aforementioned North Dakota cities, believe it or not). But that ended up stalling too. Probably not really knowing what I was doing in Twine didn’t help. It was really only when I started gaining more confidence in using macros and stylesheets in Twine (with Corvidia and We Are the Firewall) that I really had the tools at my disposal to tackle that alchemical map again (which kept nagging at me. In a good way.)

Around the summer I started doing research into the Cold War, in particular with the United States’s covert operations, and what I found there really blew me away. I knew some of it, rather vaguely, but digging into the specifics of Project Solarium and MKUltra were indeed eye-opening. In a weird way, it makes some of the government shenanigans in, say, the X-Files appear tame: this was the real deal. The government was ruining lives indiscriminately, cavalierly, and widely. All in the name of anti-Communism. Indeed the spectre of Communism became an almost implacable force; in the dark, the highest commanders of the United States were swiping at shadows, and then being terrified when the shadows wouldn’t yield.

What I think drew me into combining the alchemy and the Cold War into a story was two things: (a) the “alchemy” of the nuclear age. The terror of nuclear annilhiation was very real in the early Cold War. And terror is part and parcel with alchemy. Strip away the 20th century Theosophy and New Age-isms and you find that alchemy is a high-risk venture, full of wild inversions of meaning (Even more so in a much more Christological world than the one we live in now). And the transfiguration of radioactive elements in order to cause mass destruction seemed part and parcel with alchemy.

This image didn't make the final cut for Solarium, but I was struck how this diagram of an H-bomb explosion mimicked alchemical symbolology.
(his image didn’t make the final cut for Solarium, but I was struck how this diagram of an H-bomb explosion mimicked alchemical symbolology.)

(b) The national security report that came from Project Solarium, NSC 162/2, explicitly mentions American spirituality as part of the anti-Communist arsenal:

…the American people must be informed of the nature of the Soviet-Communist threat…and of the need for mobilizing the spiritual and material resources necessary to meet the Soviet threat.

From there it was a quick hop and step to imagine an archon who tried to trick the United States into striking the USSR first with nuclear weapons.

Well, not really.


The first real draft of this had Annalise, and the major players within the Solarium conference itself, and the protagonist as an Anglican priest, yet the conference itself was front and center. Narratively, though, the alchemy was not really present in the game; much less the alchemical map. It moved more or less linearly from the beginnings of the conference, the introduction of the major players of the fourth committee (text which I used in truncated form in the final game), with the choices presented to the protagonist whether to go along and trust the archon). But…that felt much too static.

Pulling out the Twine map of the alchemical processes, and starting from a different vantage point, it didn’t seem like it would work to have Project Solarium front and center. So I decided to make the apocalypse in the past, that the unspeakable event had already taken place, and that our protagonist was in a search for Annalise. The alchemical machine that he found himself strapped to was going to have a much, much different mechanic: having a fixed amount of time to read (much shorter!) passages of text and to make a choice, or else be dumped into a central “clearinghouse” area of text that described the actual bombs dropping. Well, the problem with that from my perspective was that this was a really complicated story with a lot of players, and that it wouldn’t really do justice to the story to make the game quite such a pressure cooker (with that said, I’m really fascinated by Twine’s possibilities with timed events, and I really want to experiment with them in the future).

So the action became much more contemplative, drawing out the story bit by bit, and various elements came into sharper focus: the back mythology, the immortal body jumping, the possession of Eisenhower, etc. When I had written out the bulk of the story, it was only then that I added the element of the various alchemical elements creating blockages. Mostly as a pacing mechanism (a la the Metroidvania design principle), but also as a sense of extraction of cost; that these elements were literally being created out of the blood of the protagonist in order to allow her (formerly him) to move forward in the story. And I had hoped that the asking of the four major questions in crucial areas of the narrative carried enough weight, in order to make the player feel like there were serious-enough consequences about the information she or he was sifting through.

The ending itself was a whole other matter, one which took a good three revisions. This included having a double of the protagonist (in James’s now-dead form) being grown in a tank in the basement, being fed by memories. In the end, Annalise did make her appearance, and the protagonist was offered the choice of alchemical symbiosis with Annalise, or to continue on in the world. It was in these end parts that a few more…uncomfortable moral questions also crept in; namely, the nature of James/Annalise in the first place, and whether they were really making things better, or worse. The protagonist, I don’t think, had been fully self-aware of how deleterious his body-hopping could be. But perhaps that unsettledness would be yet another factor in the final choice for the player? (Though, even that’s not quite cut and dried: there are two main choices, but three reasons for each of the choices, each of which would have hopefully given an orientation to the choice itself. But based on the questions answered in the main bulk of the text, it was entirely possible to have the second choice not listed, and have three reasons listed to make the first choice. If that makes sense.)

The Annalise-as-Jesus twist (if it could be called that) was an 11th hour change. As often happens with my stories, sometimes characters jump center-stage and demand to have more of their story told.

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t want this to be a ‘gotcha!’ moment, but one of complicated emotions and thoughts and yearnings about the characters’ relation to the divine. But a lot of the backstory of these creatures–aside from pseudocanonical works like The Book of Enoch–was definitely informed by reading a lot of theology of late. Particularly “death of God” theology and the works of Christian mystics. There is a fair amount of Simone Weil deep, deep in this game. Without wanting to open the floodgates on this topic, I grapple with these issues–and fears–a great deal in my own life, and I think subliminally or not, some of those themes made their way into the game.

Finally, one of the last things I did after beta testers’ suggestions was to “seal off” the narrative passages that were already visited and which would not yield anymore brand-new text down the line. Which was kind of a pain. I’m sure someone with more programming experience would have found balancing the various if/then conditions a lot easier!


A quick note about these: most of these I pulled from the Library of Congress images database, an amazing repository of public domain images. And there was a wealth of material from the 50s, when the military-industrial complex was starting to document everything it touched. Originally the plan was to have an image with each panel of text but–it was a design and time choice not to pursue that to the ends of the earth. I did want to include a few more images from 1950s ads and propaganda to balance the images of nuclear test sites and abandoned buildings. Like this amazing one:


Like, whatever that means, it can’t be good.

On Twine

I do want to say one thing about the use of Twine; one complaint that I heard a couple of times was: “I would have enjoyed this more if it had been written as X.” “X” being: a static piece of fiction or a parser game… As a general rule,I don’t think it’s productive to really respond and nitpick about bad reviews (and I’ve gotten many of them! Face-melting ones, even.), but I hope that this will be talking more of a general aspect of craft which might provide some insight into one person’s creative process.

Every writer is different, but for me, the tools themselves can’t really be separated from the tools used to tell the story. There is no Platonic ideal of Story for me that is just waiting to be expelled into a particular form. And Solarium, whatever its strengths and faults, can’t be extracted from the palette being used to create it. In this case, the interlinking boxes of Twine. Those little boxes and the links between them are inseparable from the writing; they provided the shape for the writing, how the characters were revealed to each other and the reader, and really the flow of the narrative itself. (And the difference between writing in longhand and using a word processor IS there as well; it’s just a bit less pronounced because the final aim is similar for both: creating a linear story.) And yeah, books are made into movies all the time, but those are adaptations. Often imperfect, messy ones. Any reworking of Solarium into a different medium would have to be a similar form of adaptation. Finally, the use of the javascript macros such as replacing text on the page, or cycling through text also allowed a lexicon to be built that became inseparable from the story I wanted to tell.

I don’t think these different forms of storytelling have to be in competition with each other. I firmly believe that writing interactive fiction has made me a better “static” fiction writer. (If you want to read a story of mine for free from my most recent collection that might fit the bill in this regard, here’s “The Philip Sidney Game“.) Having a heightened awareness of spatiality, readerly pacing devices, and empathy for the reader as another human being on the other side of the page/screen–those are writerly muscles that take practice to pull off well, sometimes years of it. Working in various forms of writing help cross-pollinate the imagination, and hopefully lead to jumpstarting a new story in the tool that best suits it. (And I know the talk of writerly muscles makes it sound laborious–well, it can be at times, but if it isn’t joyous as well for me, there’s something missing.) There are, of course, real life issues that can impinge–having two-year-old twins has kind of put a damper on my novel revisions for the time being. But with reasonable expectations firmly in hand, I’m really excited by the amount of tools that are available to writers now.

And I do hope more writers in the SF/F/lit communities that I’m a part of take advantage of these tools. I think interactive fiction is a fantastic meeting-ground for writers and gamers of all types to congregate and trade ideas. And I’ve been very grateful for the IF community’s response to Solarium, and the really thought-provoking feedback it received.


Cold Open:

When I read this year at Wiscon, I went first. We were reading at Michaelangelo’s, a coffee shop near the hotel. I decided to read a poem–a long one that I wrote the previous year called “Blood Up to the Bridle,” a very personal (and apocalyptic) poem about my childhood, awkwardness in fitting into various communities (writing and otherwise), becoming a parent, and lots more that hopefully defies summarization. Anyway, it seemed of a moment, and to try something new, I did it.

I got interrupted about thirty seconds in by a gentleman in the back, with a group of 3 friends, essentially telling me to shut up, that he couldn’t hear the person sitting right next to him, and what the hell was I even thinking. As if the 50 people assembled there just happened to wander in, like he did, and that a public reading was so beyond the pale, so beyond what he ought to be privileged to experience on that day. The nerve. He was quickly shouted down by many stalwart audience members, I looked at him and told him I didn’t care, he spoke to management, was rebuffed, and then he sat back down. I continued. I had to continue. After another five minutes they all left. I was shaking. When I got to the point in the poem about my wife and I going to the Czech Republic for IVF, I was nearly crying.

It was a worst case scenario for a reading–I mean, right?–and I keep thinking back to it, even though I’m not viscerally upset about it anymore. But I sometimes wonder whether this is what writing is in contemporary American culture: an annoyance at best. I’ve heard anecdotes online of people who doodle in sketchbooks on buses or trains, or writing down and observing things on public transport, being accosted by police. “What do you think you’re doing? What seems to be the problem here?” And then of course, there are the “free speech zones” at public events like national political conventions or big monetary summits, which do little else to remind you that the powers-that-be have the power to not be afraid of you.

Contemplation or public utterance: the incredibly shrinking voice, the incredibly shrinking space that the voice carries. It’s difficult for the writer enough, hard to stare back at an audience, let your voice carry, treat the proceedings of a reading to be less boring than your average, well-meaning mainline Protestant church service. It’s hard to notice the world around you. It’s hard to step out of the con, or the AWP conference room, or wherever.

But simply being present in space and time with one’s writing is important. Not in a way of self-aggrandizing one’s own accomplishments (such as they may be), but to meet people where they are. The readership. There are no grand illusions about conversion here–I highly doubt that the man who interrupted me thought much about what had happened the next day (with someone so angry, it seems likely that there were a lot of impositions by other human beings that would occupy him). No, it is just as much for the writer’s sake–to be affected by other people when daring to read aloud.

And to let the dice land where they may.

IF Comp begins

The 19th Annual Interactive Fiction competition has begun. Judge and play games (a minimum of 5 games need to be played). Most can be played online. Noted without commentary: I’ve entered this year with a game made in Twine called Solarium. It’s always a fun event and I’m happy to take part in this (as I have every…six years since 2001).

upcoming readings and events

With the new book Tyrannia coming out very very soon, I have a few events coming up. First off, last week I read and sat in some classes at Minnesota State-Moorhead and had a great time. I read “Walking Stick Fires”, mainly because I wanted to read a story from the collection that had a (mostly?) happy ending. So there’s that. Fargo-Moorhead is actually an interesting area, kind of a crossroads of the old frontier mentality and new world of oil money. It was a vibrant downtown with a lot going on. Moorhead proper still looked like it still was figuring out how to move forward and claim some sort of identity, for what it was worth. But on the way home I drove back the long way, through Detroit Lakes and came across a neat little bookshop in Wadena. Wadena was a weird mix of empty storefronts and some really interesting experiments in pavement culture (a teen cybercafe, for example).

Anyway…the big launching event for the book is the Twin Cities Book Festival! I’m really excited to launch this book here since I’ve been to nearly every Book Fest since it first launched and have volunteered in some capacity or another at most of them. This year I’m tying in a reading/presentation/cyber-thing with my interactive “game novella” (made in Twine) that I released a few months ago, We Are the Firewall. I definitely have seen that as a digital ancillary to the stories in the book, so it should be a fun pairing and very participatory. I’m also hoping to rope in social media without making it seem too, well, “new for the sake of the new.”

That will be Saturday October 12, and I will be there ALL DAY. In some capacity. Fried or not. But it will be awesome. Tricks up sleeve, etc. etc.

I’m also doing a reading with David Schwartz and Kat Howard at Dreamhaven for the Glitter & Mayhem anthology. My story “Unable to Reach You” has appeared in that fine anthology. This will be Tuesday, October 15th at 6:30pm.

Finally, I’ll be reading at Subtext Books in St. Paul (the old Common Good, underneath Nina’s), which will be the evening of Nov. 13

All these events are in my appearances tab. Hope to see you around soon!

role playing games and multiplicity of narratives

When I was playing red box/blue box Dungeons and Dragons in the mid-80s (the Basic and Expert sets), being 11 or 12, and rather isolated, I often never had enough people to play a session of D&D in precisely the way that it seemed meant to be played: several players, each controlling one character; and a Dungeon Master. PCs and the Dungeon Master controlling the NPCs. Often, though, it was myself and another friend, that was it. So we had to improvise. It’s kind of the equivalent of “ghost runners” in baseball, when you have to pretend imaginary people are on-base when you are shorthanded (something we also did, by the way!) I would often play more than one character, and I would make an honest attempt to keep a veil between them, to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to keep them as separate entities. Or, if I was DM’ing and had to play a character, I would be extremely careful not to give my character any special favors as the narrative was flowing around the party of characters, usually trudging through a dungeon.

Red Box D&D

I began to wonder recently, did this type of performance lend itself in some way to my (much) later interest in trying out different modes of narratives? Each story has to be improvised according to its needs, so I don’t think there can be much of a blanket statement. But…even though the “stories,” such as they were, were purely hack and slash at that age, there was a sense of performance and growth of the character. I had an inner vision of each character that was separate from the narrative we were navigating through.

Similarly, I think it might have helped with delving into characterization later on (much later!), and treating each character as an indivisible unit within a story. More than that though–being a DM is something of a metafictional conceit. In the interplay between player and character, the DM acts as something of an interlocutor an author who cedes control to the story itself (as pushed forward by the players’ control of the characters). Perhaps it was this balancing act that excited me about the possibilities of story–well, at any rate, it was good practice for thinking of story as a blending of various component parts, “plot” being the last important of those parts.

We Are the Firewall released + design notes

I’ve released a “game-novella” that I made in Twine called We Are the Firewall. It’s set in a dystopian near-future Minneapolis (and the Republic of Georgia) and has about a dozen interwoven point-of-view characters. It’s definitely of a piece thematically and style-wise to many of the stories forthcoming in my new collection Tyrannia, and the point-and-click aspects of the gameplay allowed me to dive deeper into a setting in a much different way than with “static” fiction.

We Are the Firewall cover

(Very vague spoilers ahead)

For one thing, it should be noted that this is not “Choose Your Own Adventure” (or CYOA). There’s no way to affect the outcome of the story; only in how you experience it in following the various paths of the story. I had been struck a few months ago by a comment that Emily Short had made on her blog (which I tried to find but couldn’t! Well, I hope I’m not misremembering it too badly) that interactive fiction doesn’t have to be choice based fiction–that the two often get confused (or let’s say intertwined in interesting or not so interesting ways). Deadline Enchanter also played with this idea of choice, though much more linearly, and more on the side of “player complicity” (since the game is mimicking an “implementation” within the game world).

We Are the Firewall definitely isn’t linear! But its non-linearity is at the service of narrative. That at least is the guiding principle. I have had the idea of telling a story something like this for awhile, with a big cast of characters set in Minneapolis, and some of the passages (heavily edited in most cases) are years old from an abandoned novel project. The often-recurring “framing” passage, for lack of a better term–the (Fire)Wall of Adjectives–is one of these passages of text.

Aside from Twine itself, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story the way I wanted it too without many of the macros created by Leon Arnott. The click-throughs to replace text, and the timed replacement, disappearance, and insertion of blocks of text allowed We Are the Firewall to have the textured quality I was looking for.

For sure, having lots of blocks of text appearing and disappearing with little or no volition on account of the player was something I debated throughout the creation of the piece. But the reason I left that mechanism in was that, in order to tell this story, I wanted to create an experience of interacting with this world that paralleled living in this world.

Because this is a near-future world of stratification and distraction. People from different social classes rarely interact with each other; half of the city (Nordeast) is walled off, drones are controlled in anonymous warehouses (or one can have a “working vacation” and help control a drone while fishing up north), and the only place while acts as a “village green” is the educational first person shooter Math Frag.

More than that, though–aside from these physical and virtual barriers, this is a world in which people really aren’t paying attention to each other, even people they care about. The information overload is much more complete (though also breaking down according to class lines: the ultra-wealthy have implants directly into the eye, the upper middle and “aspirational” classes have “smart” glasses or goggles and the rest have, well, phones). So this is a text medium in which the characters are overloaded by text. Mimetic fallacy? Well, sure, but so be it. To be sure, there’s a tension there between “just telling the story” and creating blockages in the story that replicate how the characters navigate their world. To put it another way: I remember ten years ago how I would be startled at someone wearing a Bluetooth headset barking orders to it, or have a conversation with, seemingly, no one. That has become really normalized for me, but if I think about it, it really is a peculiar phenomenon. We have become adept at filtering out the “noise” from other people. Sometimes scarily so.


So essentially what I tried to do was the extrapolate out the acceleration of this “noise”, particularly as they would often take textual and not merely aural forms (from the bombardment of text from eye implants or smart glasses). Junk forms (a lot of the most-rapidly disappearing pieces of text I lifted and remolded from random Google Groups searches of long-abandoned discussion threads). In that sense, this is nothing new–a lot of the best “social” science fiction from the 50s onwards utilized this effect. I’m thinking off the top of my head Gateway by Fredrick Pohl, which was set on a hyper-commercialized hollowed-out asteroid. And, heck, go back farther to the origins of the novel itself, which often took epistolatory, “found object” forms. But that is probably worth another post. Anyway, the ability to texture the narrative this way gave me access to an extra set of tools dealing with time itself. I should say as well that my hope is that the Wall of Adjectives would be able to be approached and read across multiple playthroughs, and there are screens later on of it that are more or less static.

Whether it works or not is up to the reader/player, but I hoped to create an accretive, accumulating effect by having to go back into the narrative over and over, plumbing different perspectives until they would combine into something of a whole. An imperfect whole but a whole. So the narrative is one of stitching-together rather than breaking apart–and that stitching is the “game” part of game-novella. In that sense, despite how depressing a lot of it is, I wanted the bringing together of different characters–ones who may or may not have encountered each other before, or in a completely different setting–and at least create the possibility of people in this stratified society to meet and break bread (or have a drink or song) together. To make interacting with the characters a way to not only move the story forward, but to have them gain strength from each other. There is a very specific trio of characters in We Are the Firewall that are coaxing this outcome out as well, and they too have their own stories.

I tried to create variety in what types of interactions were on each page. Some were only text; some had only timed events; some I considered a kind of a cyberpunk advent calendar. And some had combinations of each effect. The intersection of the individual page and the individual character. For someone like Harlan, a drug-addicted musician who thinks he is much more revolutionary than he actually is, clicking through his cliches reveals the hidden contexts of his vagueness. For someone like Rosaria, a former soldier dealing with both cancer and PTSD (in the midst of a failing vet health care system), clicking through her memories of firefights keeps going deeper and deeper, into layers and layers of hell. And so on. As usually happens, some characters surprised me about how insistent they wanted their stories told; people who I considered natural villains revealed strengths or vulnerabilities that I hadn’t even fathomed. The Twine medium let me adjust this on the fly. It really is a fantastic storytelling tool, and it is literally getting better every month, as more people build in more functionality. The breadth of stories and games made with it just over the last year is truly astounding.

If you have any interest in leaving a tip for the game, please consider donating to Mercy Corps’ efforts to help Syrian refugees.

two things on “Walking Stick Fires”

An audio reading of my Asimov’s story “Walking Stick Fires” is now live as part of the StarShipSofa podcast.

Also, the issue where my essay on SF and “exhaustedness” appears–in which I talk about the creation of “Walking Stick Fires” in fact!–is now online as a free PDF on the Cascadia Subduction Zone website.

How to Succeed at Writing inside the Upper Middle Class

Be a writer. Opportunities exist. You will be rewarded.

Youth is important at first, especially when you are young. Those ambitions will serve you well in college. Your precocity–especially if you are a man–gives you a natural base for success at writing. Precocious ideas become an extension of maleness. But DON’T WORRY–even when you get older, being older becomes important.

Move to different cities. Experience them. Only go to the Midwest, however, if you go to school there or are invited to speak. And then get out as fast as you can. Use acronyms like “LES” in your biographical statements.

Go to conferences. You will be invited. Others will have to pay–and they have the money to pay, and even though you have the money to pay too, it will be better for you. Confer with others. There is a restaurant inside the hotel. Often there is more than one restaurant inside the hotel. There is a health club. If you write, they will pay. You will go places. You will go to other countries. Trans-nationalism is the world’s greatest gift to you. You will talk about your writing. There will be a reception. You will stand and talk.

Perhaps you will even write about your travels. This can make its appearance in your next book. Always look ahead.

You can always change the names.

Eventually people will listen to what you have to say. Eventually people who have written less than you and published less will ask favors of you. Assess these judiciously. Consider “favor” as a limited natural resource, like zinc or tungsten. Extract it carefully. But appear humble about it! And never forget the balance of accounts. One of the best ways to exchange favor is to teach. The students will come and go. But it’s the conferences themselves that remain, year after year, as your closest compatriots. Flirt. Exchange promises. Drink. As the years pass it almost appears like the same gin and tonic is in your hands, an everlasting cup. Everyone is getting younger, and soon it’s time to go to bed.

And when you die, you can know that you have succeeded. You will have the material to prove it: a few chapbooks, a couple of out-of-print books from defunct presses, the author copies still in an unsealed box in your garage, preserved like an Egyptian tomb.


Sergey Brin, in a recent discussion of Google Glass, noted that smartphones are “emasculating.”

Let’s look at a more or less standard definition of “emasculate”. (I generally hate arguments by pedantics who pull out dictionary definitions as a kind of proof text for an argument, but I think this is worth it).

1. Make (a person, idea, or piece of legislation) weaker or less effective.
2. Deprive (a man) of his male role or identity: “he feels emasculated because he cannot control his sons’ behavior”.
3. To deprive of virility, to castrate.

A few things jump out at me here–it’s not much of a stretch to tie this thought, at least implicitly, to a kind of subliminal misogyny, in which a fear of (social, technological) castration can be invoked in order to create buzz for male early adopters. This is the tech field we’re dealing with after all! I’m reminded of the semi-mythic recent rise of the “brogrammer”.

This is the same smug certainty of any early adopter-speak; to try to lure men into being more virile through, er, glasses (made by FOXCONN, let’s not forget) strapped to one’s face. Here’s a good example here of the breathlessness and pliancy of a mainstream tech-press organ framing this not in terms of information, but desire: YOU WILL WANT GOOGLE GLASS (I mean, seriously, this is almost a parody on the levels of the rock journalist going to Ozymandias’ palace in The Watchmen). But this righteousness is compounded by the product itself:

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.


It’s the coolness of cyberpunk with all of the Gibsonian creepiness stripped out (or at least, they are trying to strip it out), coupled with the voyeurism of the X-ray goggles sold in the back of comic books in the 70s.

That glee of being able to see what others cannot see: THAT is what is “virility” for the brogrammer-esque adopters who want to have Google Glass.

To have a form of technognosis.

Indeed, it probably goes without saying this is a real sf’nal moment: a kind of dystopian, disruptive surveillance technology being unleashed not in the pages of Analog, but in press releases, SXSW and TED talks.

It’s a true cyberpunk moment very different from smart phones, because of the closeness of the interface. (In fact I’m sure that the idea for this had to have popped up first in a SF magazine decades ago, before the possibility of it could have been even dreamed of.)

When Gibson presented this “virility” in prose in the Sprawl stories–the diamond-cut sentences, the cockiness of the cyber-cowboys–this was hardly presented as a tableaux of joyful consumption, but rather one of deep alienation, suspicion (between the characters and each other, between the characters and corporations), and even decay, “lost under superstructures of muscle graft that their outlines weren’t really human.”

But, well, we are at a somewhat different juncture now. It’s hard to know where this is going. But when we as a society have been making incredibly slow progress in ridding ourselves of misogyny in the public sphere, Google Glass is kind of a platonic ideal of an adolescent male fantasy brought to life, an almost cartoonishly dehumanizing piece of technology that posits its users as literal super-users, upsetting a power-balance through the spectacle of “augmentation.”