Thursday, June 19, 2014

DESTINY: A Future That I Don't Own, Part 1

The odyssey began four years ago.

An email came looking for me.  I didn't recognize the author, but there was a friendly tone attached to a Tor account.  So I took notice.  Eric said that he was an editor working for my old publisher. But this wasn't about my novels, no. He was contacting me with the possibility of doing work for another company.  The prospective employer wasn't in the book business, at least not directly.  What the company was building was a very specific product with science fiction overtones.  Did I have any interest?

Interest is an easy reflex.  I gave Eric my phone number.  And then I calmly warned myself this would never pan out.

That takes the pressure off, the sense of unavoidable failure.

And here's another relaxation trick:  Strangers on the phone aren't real.  Discussing feelings and business with human beings can be difficult.  But sharing the same words with a conspiracy of software and electrons dancing along copper...well, that’s a lot easier game.

A voice called, and he said that he was Eric. And after some forgotten pleasantries, the voice asked if I knew anything about the game industry.

Like Monopoly?

No, he was thinking about video games.

I had played a lot of Civilization, I confessed.

He wondered if I’d ever played a shooter game called Halo.

The name sounded familiar.  At least that’s what I told him, trying to be polite.

What about Bungie?  Did I know that name?

I thought of bold young men, bare-chested and leaping off bridges.

No, he explained. Bungie was the company that invented Halo, and after buying their freedom from Microsoft, those bare-chested boys were inventing a new game.  And for some reason or another, I was on the short-list of SF authors who might fit in.

Again, I told myself that this would never work.

And then I asked for details.

Which Eric couldn't give me.  He said that he wasn't the person to do this.  Because he didn't know that much.

Who did?


So I had to talk to Joseph.  Except first, I had to deal with a wave of non-disclosure forms.  It makes a man feel special, putting his signature to a venture so important and so mysterious that it wears a special code name.

Knowing nothing, I was suddenly part of Tiger.

Joseph called.  Or some synthetic voice born from a digital ocean.  Really, anything involving the game industry should be looked upon with suspicion.  At some point, the fakes are going to rule the flesh.  That much is inevitable.

Anyway, Joseph called.

Eric had implied that there were five candidates for the position.

But there weren't.  According to Joseph, there was me, and if I said no, then the others would get their calls.

A salesman's pitch or truth?

Probably a little of both.

He gave me nuggets about the embryonic game.  He said that we should meet.  I might have been a bit wishy-washy about when I could travel to Seattle.  My daughter was still in elementary school, and my wife worked most evenings.  But right away, Joseph claimed to be eager to fly to Lincoln and meet with me.

It was spring, 2010.  I steered Joseph to the best hotel--a newish Embassy Suites across the street from the downtown Y.  He flew in late at night, and we met the next morning in his embassy suite.  Very friendly guy, but with a x-ray laser focus on the assignment.  His equipment didn't play with the room’s television, so using the small laptop monitor, he showed me concept art and schemes from Tiger.  A gamer would want to know about the functions of playing, the weapons and rewards.  Not me.  I loved the artwork and I was curious about the aliens and worlds, but I kept warning him that I didn't know anything about any of this game stuff, and don’t count on me to ever play it.

But I wasn't being hired for the game part, no.  I was going to help them with Story.


Sketched out before me was a future history, complete with a timeline and illustrations.

On my own, I would never have written this history.

But I could appreciate its roots and vision.

Bungie had cobbled together a complicated universe, vivid and immediate in places, barely born in others.  I was introduced to monsters and heroes, big god-like objects and transformed versions of our familiar local worlds.  This was a shooter game tied to an epic.  There were continuity concerns and an overarching story to put together, and a lot of my questions were answered with admissions along the lines of:  “We haven’t quite figured that out yet.”

After a full morning, we broke for lunch.

The Oven, a downtown Indian restaurant.  Nice time.  And I learned a lot about games and movie making and the like.

Then back to work.  Except poor Joseph was dealing with a man in his 50s, and I was getting over a head cold, and even on my best day, I can’t focus on someone else’s dream for eight hours straight.

The info dumps had their effect.  And I was pretty obviously out of fuel.

So our meeting ended early.  But I was interested, even a little passionate about Tiger.  Joseph flew home, and some pleasant negotiations followed.  An agreement was made about pay and duties, triggering another wave of non-disclosures, along with contracts defining who-owned-what from my work.  (Hint:  Bungie.)  And then as summer began, the relationship was consummated with the delivery of a laptop--the first laptop that I had ever used.

I’d like to report that it was a state-of-the-art beast.  Isn't that what you’d expect from a triple-A company?  But no, it was a low-powered plastic fellow that gave me fits and then died.  But the next machine proved far more capable, although I managed to screw up the power cord and expense out a replacement.  And there were unending issues with security codes.  My machine kept forgetting where it was and who I was, requiring help from invisible IT people.  But at least I had the means to write, and Joseph and nameless others seemed happy enough with my efforts.  Mostly, my job was to contrive SF reasons and suggest plot twists and then invent settings for the far future. Oh, and I did a lot of work on the central villain too.

It was a fun, lucrative summer. My head was happily dancing with an unexpected partner, aiming at goals that I would never have imagined without prompting.

Aliens and high-tech and magical-tech wrapped around the future of mankind.

Then with summer done, I climbed aboard a primitive Boeing jet and went west to see the Bungie boys, and a very few Bungie women.


While at home, seemingly every day that summer, I would sign onto the network to talk to Joseph and get various warnings. Apparently Bungie had epic parking problems.  People were always leaving their vehicles where they shouldn't be, and helpful photos came with the threat of being towed. If this was my vehicle, I read, then I’d better get it out of there, preferably ten minutes ago.

Funny.  A piece of me was always checking for the blue CRV.  Wouldn't that be something?  My car decides to drive all night, on its own...well, that isn't the most unlikely future, and probably in another 10 or 15 years.

But I digress.

The parking problems were solved just before I reached Seattle.  I was put up in the usual Bungie hotel, but the company itself had left for larger quarters.  The hotel driver--a nice retired military man--drove me to the new address.  But he had never been to these offices, and he didn't know where I should go.  It was raining, of course. And it was early in the morning by game-industry times, probably before nine.  But I had a Starbucks in sight.  I thanked him and got a Vendi, and then I made an inadequate search of the nearest office building.  Bungie wasn’t advertising it’s suite number, that much was apparent.

What to do?

The rain kept coming.  I was dressed for a Nebraska drought.  But a couple young fellows in t-shirts were marching my way, holding their own Vendis.  The Seattle rain was a cliche, and they looked like cliched gamers.  I approached and threw out some names, and one of them said, “Joseph?  Joe?  Yeah, we’ll take you right up.”

The Bungie headquarters used to be a multiplex.

It’s been gutted and remodeled.  A small city could survive with just the electricity streaking under the false floors.  The main room is a huge space wearing darkness, save for the little lamps down below, and the giant monitors.  Think of Jack Bauer and 24, fighting terrorists. There were a little more than a hundred workers, if memory serves.  (There’s more than five hundred now.)  For the next two days, I was shown videos and charts, and game design was explained, and I learned that I would never master anything important about the care and feeding of games.

Everybody was very busy.

Every meeting had to be squeezed between other meetings.

I met people.  Jason, for instance.  I had lunch with people.  But it wasn't until a big lunch with Jason and others that I got a half-clear sense of why I was hired.  It was because of my Marrow universe, in part.  They liked the Great Ship quite a bit.  I had sensed as much long ago. But what surprised me was the passion for SISTER ALICE.  Alice Chamberlain was a long-ago invention of mine, a character who ended up serving in five novellas, all published in ASIMOV’S SF.  Later, I pulled those stories together into one novel.  But the book was crippled with a lousy stock-style cover--not the fault of the illustrator, I heard subsequently.  SISTER had little push in the market place, which also hurt.  Plus as everybody knows, story collections fail to sell.  And when an author’s sales drop, he is finished in the business and must be killed.

ALICE was one reason why Tor Books gave up on me.

Yet my Bungie fans didn't see failure.  They had found an author with a strong visual sense and a gamer’s taste for colorful violence.

Alice Chamberlain, a goddess who builds living worlds, earned me work with Bungie.

I’m riding a future that I never would have imagined.


Specifics.  I can’t talk specifics.  What I have done for Bungie, or what I am doing now.

There are legal reasons, and more importantly, there are the ancient needs of a writer to keep the twists out of easy view.

And frankly, there’s only so much that I truly know about the game.

Which is called Destiny, by the way.

I wrote a lot of words.  Invented scenarios.  Built explanations for the beautiful, often ill-matched images that I had seen.  And I used voices of game characters too.  With my own work, I often forget the details, particularly after several years.  (Did I write that?  If you say so.)  Most of what I have done in my professional life has been left behind.  That’s the way of creativity. Purposeful carnage. It's that way in books and in bookkeeping, and it’s even more that way with Bungie.  I had to write things that were good enough for me, but then the words had to pass through others too.  Writing for Destiny was like landing on Omaha Beach.  A lot of your best soldiers had to drown in the surf, without any sense of drama.

After all the security pitfalls, I had one sweet moment of revenge.

At the mentioned lunch, people asked about Marrow and the Great Ship and what would happen next.  Jason asked.  Did I have plan for the epic?

Of course I had a plan.  A very clear plan, I lied.

(Now I do, pretty much.)

Anyway, in a loud voice, I asked if they’d like to hear my secret plan.

Boys in t-shirts leaned across the round table, waiting.

“First,” I said, “you need to sign nondisclosure forms.”

That brought laughter.

And a nice distraction. Because in the end, I escaped from having to tell them anything significant.


What else can I mention, while revealing almost nothing?

Let’s try this:

During my Seattle visit, almost four years ago, I saw various mock-ups of a central character in the Bungie universe.  The character was always round, but with different exteriors and interiors. Different sizes and set in various points above the earth.  And out of all those possibilities, there was one piece of artwork that just sang to me.  That’s what I told Joseph.

“This is the one that gets my heart pounding,” I said, or words to that effect.

And that happens to be the direction they went.

I don't know if I had any role in the final decision, or if like minds move in the same directions. Either way, the Traveler floats close to the Earth that it protects, enigmatic for now and maybe for always…

Sunday, February 23, 2014

One Chapter Before Breakfast

(What follows was originally written for an ASIMOV'S blog. Sheila Williams bought my novella, "The Principles", but she thought that her readers might appreciate a little explanation about its background and its logic. Unfortunately the magazine's blog is delayed. And that's why I'm publishing it here.)
My personal history is vague, particularly to me.

I once wrote an alternate history about Christ.  The central premise was that the Lord and Savior was born female instead of male, and two thousand years later, a young woman lives in a world both radically changed and perfectly familiar.  I'm not much of a file keeper, and my minimal records include the date of the first sale and its publication history.  If compelled, I could generate a rough timetable about when the story was written, and if I read it again, I could offer up informed guesses about why I did this and that.  But most of the past has vanished to me. This happens with most of my work.  I am enthusiastic and driven while focused on a project, but I usually divide my time between several stories at once, and once a story sells, I walk away. At least until the galleys come around.  Which brings me to one good reason why I'm an exceptionally lucky writer.  After several months of distraction and forgetfulness, reading my own work feels rather like reading it for the first time.  I have come across a tale composed by someone very much like me, but not quite me, and hopefully, not too much of it sucks, and maybe I even like it.

That earlier story is called “The Boy”.  According to my website, it was published in ASIMOV’S SF more than a decade ago.  But besides a few mental images and the general tone, the story was written by a stranger.

But not the premise, however.

On the face of it, Christ is an unlikely fascination.  I don’t attend church, save to help marry and bury people.  I can’t remember when I wasn't agnostic.  Which is not the same as being an atheist, I should mention.  To me, atheists are as rabidly certain as any good Baptist.  There are no burning opinions about God in my soul.  I believe in nothing but my own deep ignorance about deities and the various hierarchies in our vast universe, and that’s how I have been for all of my half-remembered life.

Why would a skeptic care about God’s daughter and a history transformed?

Maybe it’s because I live in a complicated, often dangerous world--with the emphasis on the words “I live in”.  A few dead prophets left behind institutions, and those institutions have endured for centuries, outlasting nations and entire languages.  Indeed, successful faiths are often responsible for the creative destruction of nations and languages.  Each religion has its rules and a deep hold on society.  That first story, “The Boy”, offered a glimpse of a matriarchal society and the critical business of sex ratios.  But I couldn't let it go.  What I wanted to explore was something more sweeping and thorough, except in those places where I focused hard on the boring and splendid aspects of 20th Century life.

Think of this novel as a kind of bar bet.  Two guys sit in a tavern, and both of them happen to be me. One of me challenges the other, saying, “How about this?  A chapter a day, every day of the week.  Quick chapters and minimal plotting, and let the ramble lead you where it wants to go.” And the other me agrees to the challenge.  Why not?  We’re talking about a chapter before breakfast.  How hard could that be?

The beginning date is lost.  But I remember crawling out of bed in the dark, grabbing coffee before slipping into my basement office before the rest of the house was awake.

This was after the spring of 2006.  The dog had died; nobody needed to be walked.  For several months, I held to my goals, building a hundred chapters, give or take.  There might be an old CD carrying the earliest draft, and who knows what lives on various flash drives?   The routine was pleasant enough, like the bus man’s holiday, and it was all very part-time, right up until that one morning when my various story threads connected with each other, on their own, and this steady patience suddenly took a hit of meth.

There is a strong dose of autobiography to the story.  Which is to say that I was doing what a lot of middle-aged authors do.  Studies show that the third decade of life produces vivid memories, some of the most intense that we will ever know, and why not make your past work for you?

Life in my twenties was brutally ordinary. I was teaching myself to write.  I paid bills by working in a factory.  Relationships didn't last.  While I was writing the novel, I scrupulously avoided using bad dates and lost girlfriends, but what I tried to capture, with every chapter, was that endless ripe sense of possibility.  In my early twenties, every woman was a potential mate.  Every pleasantry exchanged at the college library or in the grocery felt ripe with possibility.  Will this be the one who matters?  Will this be the one who knifes me in my sleep?  What’s more, the world during the late 70s and early 80s was exceptional.  The Cold War was endless, gasoline was scarce, Iran held hostages, and there were plenty of reasons to doubt that any of us would survive to the end of the week.

The novel found life, and I began writing the novel again, from the beginning.  And my energies grew tenfold.  One chapter was written before the house woke, and several more chapters came after the house emptied out.  The book was one big file, and then two files, each as hefty as a stand-alone novel.  Then I started a third file.  My favorite writing feels like reading.  I had a sketch of what would happen, what should happen, but the story has its own momentum and little surprises, and sometimes huge surprises. I stood aside, watching events unfold.  Soon I was working all day on the project.  I would go to bed wondering what tomorrow’s first and second and third chapters would reveal.  Eventually I started a fourth file, which had to be the last.  Near the end, I would wake at four in the morning, contemplating actions and inactions from people who were vivid to me.  Nearly 350,000 words went into an epic drawn around ordinary lives, and it was great fun, and for me, the joy and passion of that experience won’t ever be duplicated.

Not in this reality, certainly.

When it comes to history, I’m an agnostic.

I don’t believe in history.

Not that I can’t enjoy reading a good story.  And of course I accept the premise that Alexander was great, and Winston Churchill definitely led an interesting life.  But with a background in science and confidence in my total ignorance of Creation, I save my respect for the idea that we don’t really know shit about the past.

Armed with laudable skills and every scrap of data, the finest scholar can invest her life in the seminal history on a single past day.  Yet in the end, sitting on her death bed, she has no business pulling the priest’s ear to her mouth, saying, “I know what happened on Calvary Hill.”

A thousand libraries don’t hold enough data to resurrect the past.

Witness accounts.  Bureaucratic records.  Forensic evidence as well as the informed sensibilities about human nature and human foibles.  These supply useful slivers of data, but the picture always remains incomplete.  Maybe someday, in a dust-free superconducting alcove on the fourth world circling Alpha Centauri B, we’ll find a thorough recording showing the earth as it stood two thousand years ago--a data ocean devoid of gray margins, invulnerable to interpretations.  But even then, the heart of history remains unknown.  One video showing every person in the world, coupled with every act and word, still falls short of Truth.  We still need to see inside every head, urges and memory weighed with precision, as well as all of those electrochemical factors that don’t resemble rational thought as much as they do the hard tossing of many, many dice.

This is how much I distrust history:

Take a perfect picture of the past.  Create a model of reality both ridiculously honest and utterly convincing.  Then let those inherent motions push into the future.  Run the simulation one billion and eleven times.  We’ll begin with the day when a virgin claims to be pregnant, and I predict nothing.  Nothing but one billion and eleven new histories.  The dice are tossed.  Little differences vanish, while other little differences become giants.  The prospects of duplicating any one of us, complete with our same first loves and the same credit card numbers, remains out of reach.  But maybe ten of these worlds will duplicate our world, complete with Christianity and a Cold War.  And however unlikely it is, perhaps one of these billion worlds will end up being very similar to the world that I invented while writing “The Principles”.

When I say I don’t believe in history, I'm boasting that I don’t believe in any single story. Life is random noise and little turns, and every day is a sandwich made from dumb moments and brilliant insights.

What I believe is that Sandra West is inevitable.

And even though I have spent a surprising portion of my last seven years thinking about Sandra, I know precious little about her.

“The Principles” is a novella published in the April/May 2014 issue of ASIMOV'S SF, and has been teased free from a much larger book.

Quentin Maurus lives in the matriarchal West.  Christianity and its offspring rule Europe and the New World as well as large portions of Africa.  Meanwhile, Asia is dominated by a second religion.  At first glance, the Maimuns might remind the reader of Muslims.  This is common mistake.  And the standoff between civilizations has a Soviet-versus-US feel.  But again, that’s an error made by many readers, sometimes including the author himself.

Maimuns began with a religious prophet who claimed to be the son of god.  He didn't die young and he wasn't martyred, but In many ways, his faith is a closer analogy to modern Baptists than are the Christians in the woman-led West.  Maimuns are unapologetically patriarchal.  They are aggressive and quarrelsome with one another, and after thirteen hundred years of war, they are ready to go to war with their female counterparts in the West.

Likewise, the West looks at every man with grave suspicion.

Two civilizations have divided the earth between them.  Queensland and Europa dominate one hemisphere, Persia and Greater Mongolia the other.  Each side has its own calendar, its own clocks.  Science is shared, but with deep restrictions.  Technology is roughly at the stage that we inhabited by 1980.  Perhaps computers aren't as powerful, but both sides have spent enormous capital and hope on space missions, including giant rockets and lunar bases and the Mongolian mission to Mars.  The World’s War was fought in the 1940s, resulting in a draw. There was a Vietnam, recently ended, but that tragedy was born from rather different reasons than our Vietnam.  And because each of these civilizations has one vast, unbeaten enemy, governments and churches are willing to do anything to maintain religious purity.  This is why there are no Mormons, and there never were any Shakers, and even mainstream churches are unified by convention and shared purpose and two thousand years of fear.

In Quentin’s world, almost every young male is drafted at eighteen, serving his government for ten years.

Quentin wasn't drafted, and that was a blessing that kept him safe, and it was a curse that left him profoundly alone.

In the Western word, a substantial portion of the male population is in prison, and most free citizens, male as well as female, embrace that level of incarceration.  Add to that the missing millions who are sitting on the borders of Asia, guarding the Armistice Line, and also the fact that women prefer to give birth to daughters...well, you might expect a young man like Quentin to have a busy and very happy social life.

That is, if you didn't know anything about Quentin Maurus.

Or his maladjusted world.

When I began writing “The Principles”--that is, when I was yanking obvious threads out of the big original story--I discovered one major blunder.  The original novel was told in a first-person POV, and the results weren't as effective as I hoped.  So that was one of the larger matters:  I freed myself from Quentin’s voice and Quentin’s need to be at the center of every scene.

For the last several months, most of my daily work has centered on reweaving the original novel into a 3rd person narrative.  Plus tweaking and slicing where I saw fit.

At least one more novella is coming from this work.  And a finished novel.  And there’s no telling when either will be done.

As for other warnings/asides to readers:

Extinction events might seem inevitable, but they’re often anything but.  I had fun changing the available species on this other earth, two thousand years divided from ours, including blue pigeons and bamboo bears and a rather robust population of hominids too.

Critter names and object names were approached with the spirit of a translator.  I preferred to find words that capture some essential quality about a bird or automobile, and how their world looks at them.  Hopefully my translations hold clear meanings for readers as well.  But since I’m working with a language that doesn't exist, I think I’m entitled to a little more leeway than we allow real experts and Google software.

And finally, a little warning about thunderbirds.

I grew up with dinosaurs.  When I was eight, dinosaurs were giant lizards that lived inside my imagination.  But it was a mistake to name the animals after cold-blooded reptiles.  They are not reptiles, and the wrong name infects the expectations of readers and believers, no matter how wise they might be.  In Quentin Maurus’ world, a brilliant Mongolian paleontologist uncovered some of the first fossils, and he correctly recognized the resemblance between chickens and these giant bones.  Because of that, my protagonist has a life blessed with two great gifts:  He doesn’t have to worry about fighting in a foreign war, and he grew up knowing that wingless birds the size of buildings used to run wild across the world.

Of course not fighting wars is the bigger gift.

But as Rebecca Christ might say, holding a different history in your head is transformative.