This is How You Lose the Time War

In this novella by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar, Red is a covert agent in a war raging across time. She is advanced beyond what we can comprehend as mere 21st-century readers, able to transform into whatever shape is needed, blending into any time and place, subtly adjusting the strands of causality to build new futures in a constantly shifting multiverse, the way generals build battlefield positions on the field of war.

One day, Red finds one of her carefully-laid plans foiled, and a playful message waiting for her from Blue, her counterpart on the opposing side. A rivalry takes shape, and from it, a romance. Attack and counter-attach across time, punctuated by ever more elaborate (and personal) coded messages.

Structure

For most of the book, each chapter follows one of these agents on a mission to a new place and time. Never enough to understand the purpose exactly, or the larger framing of the time war. Then, the text of a letter from one agent to the other. The next chapter, the point of view swaps.

I wondered at first how long the structure could sustain the story. However, the times and places are varied and tantalizing without being entirely clear, and the slow shift from rivalry to romance is believable and satisfying.

There is also an additional mystery woven throughout — an unidentified seeker that follows Red and Blue from chapter to chapter, studying and absorbing the correspondence they believe to be carefully hidden or destroyed. If they are found out, by their own superiors or the enemy, they will both be undone. Eventually, the back-and-forth structure does break down, and it’s the mystery of the seeker that comes to the fore and carries the story to its conclusion.

Respecting the Reader

In proper time-travel fashion, the story wraps around and through itself, as we discover that the characters are far more intertwined than even they knew. The authors make the wise decision to not go too deep into the details of time travel or the complexities of rewriting timelines across parallel universes. It mostly avoids, through obscurity, the inevitable inconsistencies that tend to bring out the worst kind of overly-pedantic reviewers.

The book doesn’t dawdle around, explaining the exact nature of the war, the two sides, or even the agents. We are thrown into a strange world head-first (many, in fact), and expected to keep up. We know that Red’s Agency faction uses advanced technology and bold tactics, and Blue’s Garden faction uses advanced biology and subtly turns the enemy’s strengths into weaknesses. And that’s enough.

I Feel Seen

The book has, at this point, won pretty much all of the best awards a sci-fi novella is eligible to win. Still, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like it was tailored to me.

I was delighted to find references to strategy in the game of Go (atari and lack of liberties). Granted, Go is probably more popular in the West than ever before, but it still feels like an obscure hobby. The characters also discuss Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison, a favorite of mine and the best book that I have ever discovered in a Little Free Library. I don’t expect these things to resonate with the average reader, but they further endeared the story to me.

To Summarize

This is the best book I’ve read in 2021, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes sci-fi, time travel, romance or people who discover what really matters to them, and do everything in their power to protect it. The writing is ornate without being overwrought. The story takes some unexpected (but not unreasonable) twists and turns. It’s a quick read, but feels exactly long enough.

It is, in short, quite good. Go read it.

Five Things I Learned from The Clan of the Cave Bear

I mentioned in my previous Razor Mountain post that I was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. A portion of Razor Mountain follows a pre-historic tribe, and Cave Bear is one of the few titles I’ve come across that is set in a similar time period, albeit in a different part of the world.

The book gave me some things to think about as far as prehistoric settings go. There were aspects of it I really enjoyed. However, the book also had a number of small issues that, taken together, made it a frustrating read for me. Today, I want to dig into those things, and try to discover what I can learn from them to improve my own writing.

The Clan of the Cave Bear is written mostly as straight historical fiction, with a few fantasy elements. The protagonist of the story is Ayla, a Cro Magnon (early modern human) child who loses her family in an earthquake within the first few pages. She is eventually rescued and comes to live with the titular Clan of the Cave Bear, a Neanderthal tribe that was displaced by the same earthquake and forced to search for a new cave. The Clan have only rare interactions with Ayla’s kind, who they call “the Others,” but end up adopting her.

As Ayla grows, she has to deal with the challenges of integrating into the Clan as an outsider. Though her body is noticeably different, the conflicts between her and the Clan are primarily differences in worldview. Auel drives this conflict with the fantasy element of the book. The Neanderthals of the Clan possess ancestral memories that are passed down through generations. They rely on the experiences of previous generations, as well as their own, to navigate the world around them. Auel paints the Clan as a slowly dying race. Their long memory keeps them in a rut of tradition and limits their ability to adapt to change. Ayla, as homo sapiens, lacks their racial memory, but is more adaptable and quick to learn. She chafes under the heavy tradition of Clan life, and constantly seeks out new skills and new experiences.

Lesson #1 — A Little Verisimilitude Goes a Long Way

Auel does a tremendous job constructing a believable world filled with detail. Ayla learns rudimentary medicine from her surrogate mother, the tribe’s medicine woman, who expounds on dozens of plants and their uses. The variety of animals and their habitats are also important to the Clan’s survival, and described in great detail. The tools used by the clan, how they are made, and how the go about their everyday tasks are all carefully thought-out.

I don’t know much about plants, let alone their medicinal properties, but I’m betting Auel did quite a bit of research to get the details right. She didn’t have to name all the plants, or go into detail about which ones are used to treat different ailments. The story could be told without those details. But these are things that the protagonist is learning, and things that her adoptive mother is intimately familiar with. Those details help the reader to feel what she’s feeling by learning about this plants as she does.

There is no limit to the level of detail you can include in a novel, but at some point, it bogs down the story. The trick is finding particular places to add that detail that help the setting feel more like a living world, without getting lost in the weeds.

Lesson #2 — Perspective is Powerful…and Dangerous

The story starts with the child, Ayla, losing her family in an earthquake. Although the story follows her and ostensibly shows her perspective, it becomes clear very early on that the narrator is distant, wiser than this child, and has more modern sensibilities.

Brush close by the upstream banks quivered, animated by unseen movement at the roots, and downstream, boulders bobbed in unaccustomed agitation. Beyond them, stately conifers of the forest into which the stream flowed lurched grotesquely.

As the story goes on, the narration veers into scientific terms to describe some of the animals and their less ferocious descendants in modern times. The narrator is not anchored to any character’s perspective. It’s not anchored in the time period of the story.

Some of this is personal taste and fashion in fiction writing (this kind of third-person omniscient perspective has fallen out of favor in recent years), but there are some clear downsides to this style. As a reader, it’s hard to feel close to Ayla when the narration seems to be separate from her. The occasional digressions into the more scientific and into far-future times pull the reader out of the here-and-now of the story. Jumping from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another in the same paragraph puts the reader at a distance to both of those characters.

This style of writing allows the reader to know what everyone is doing, what everyone is thinking, and any of the past history or future ramifications. It gives the author the power to show anything they want, at any time. The cost of that power is the distance it puts between the reader and the characters and current action.

Lesson #3 — Don’t Break Your Own Rules

Auel makes it very clear that the Clan are people with traditions. In fact, they are trapped in those traditions. Their ancestral memory is such a guiding force that they cannot adapt to change. This is stated repeatedly. When Ayla joins the Clan, she is constantly going against their norms and traditions. It is the cause of almost all the conflict in the book.

Ayla talks, laughs, and cries, all strange things to the Clan, who feel emotion, but experience no physical tears or laughter, and rely on their very limited vocal capabilities to augment a much richer sign language. Ayla hates being subservient to the men of the Clan, a social structure supposedly easily accepted by the women of the Clan. She secretly teaches herself to use a weapon, something that is strictly forbidden to women by Clan tradition. She observes rituals that she should not see. These are things that the clan believes could bring down a sort of spiritual cataclysm on them. In short, by the end of the book, Ayla has completely upended the social and religious order of the Clan.

And yet, time and again, the repercussions are limited. The laws are modified. The punishments are made less severe. The supposedly unadaptable Clan adapts constantly to her presence.

That’s a perfectly fine story structure. It’s a classic “stranger comes to town” style of plot. But it doesn’t make sense to draw so much attention to the Clan’s built-in unchageability when the rest of the story is going to go on and show them adapting every step of the way.

Lesson #4 — Characters Need Goals

Ayla certainly does a lot throughout the book. She is constantly in the midst of conflicts. This action and conflict drives the story. However, there were several points were I got the sense that the story just wasn’t going anywhere. What I eventually realized was that I didn’t know what Ayla wanted.

Most of the conflicts that come up are due to Ayla acting impulsively — doing something without thinking of the consequences. Sometimes she’s completely unaware that there will be a problem. Almost none of it involves her choosing a goal and acting in pursuit of that goal. In fact, the only instance I can think of is when she flees the Clan in order to protect her baby, which she believes they will force her to kill (it looks like her, rather than a Neanderthal baby, and is thus considered “deformed”). I don’t think it’s coincidence that these chapters were the most compelling portion of the book for me.

The other characters are also mostly lacking in goals and desires. They could mostly be boiled down to “support the status quo,” or “help Ayla with all this trouble she’s in.” There are two exceptions.

First is the leader of the Clan, Brun, who wants to be a good leader and take care of his tribe. He is often the one who has to make hard decisions about the conflicts around Ayla, and always tries to do what is best for the tribe.

Second is Broud, the son of Brun. He is the most goal-oriented character in the book. His goal is to make Ayla’s life a living hell.

Lesson #5 — Give Villains Some Good Qualities

The clear villain of the book is Broud. As a child, Ayla ends up stealing some of his thunder at an important Clan ceremony. From that point onward, he takes everything she does as a slight. Interestingly, because he hates her so much, he is the one member of the Clan who is completely intolerant of her transgressions, while the others come to accept her.

Broud is essentially the cave-man version of the 1980s “asshole jock” movie archetype. He’s selfish. Everything he does is to honor himself and gain status. The only thing he fears is his status being diminished, and only because it might prevent him from eventually becoming the leader of the Clan. He is not only cruel, but derives sadistic pleasure from that cruelty. He shows no particular love for his family or those who ally themselves with him.

The climactic end of the book comes when Broud is made leader of the clan, at which point he becomes a literal maniac, screaming and ranting. Without the looming threat of his father blocking his ascension to the throne, he immediately does everything he can think of to hurt Ayla. When Ayla and the others complain, he forces the Clan shaman to essentially excommunicate her, a spiritual punishment that the Clan views as literal death.

It’s certainly easy to manufacture conflict with a character like this, but it feels like such a caricature. Sure, he’s easy to hate. That’s his only purpose. But couldn’t he have loved his family as more than just status symbols? Couldn’t he have actually wanted to make his father proud? Couldn’t he have had some redeeming features to make him feel human?

I know plenty of people who love villains like this, so it still comes down to personal taste. I’d rather see a villain who is understandable and relatable. A villain that, were the story shown from a slightly different perspective, might look more like a hero.

Every Book Has Lessons

Even though The Clan of the Cave Bear wasn’t for me, I don’t consider it a bad book or regret reading it. I think the language of pop media criticism has become really, unfortunately black-and-white, where people talk about books, movies or music as being good or bad. We all have our own tastes, and a book that might be great for someone else just won’t hit right for me. Criticism is about justifying your opinion about art, and even a justified opinion is still just an opinion. From an author’s perspective, that’s nice, because it means readers may dislike some or all of your book, without making it a “bad book.”

In any case, I learned a lot from The Clan of the Cave Bear. By thinking about the things I didn’t like, I can work on excising those from my own work. It was useful to see a perspective on writing a story set in pre-history, and I have no doubt that it will influence me as I continue to work on Razor Mountain.

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — Fallen London

Albert, the Prince Consort, lies on the threshold of death. Facing the loss of her true love, Queen Victoria cuts a deal with the Masters of the Bazaar. They will save Albert, but in exchange they will take the Traitor Empress, her consort, and all of London to their domain deep beneath the Earth. The Neath.

Years later, when you come to the vast underground cavern that contains Fallen London, the Empress and the parliament remain, but it is unquestionably the Masters of the Bazaar who rule the city. The city is changed but recognizable, twisted and reconfigured around its new heart: the mysterious Echo Bazaar. Londoners are resilient, and have come to grips with the strange situation, including the fact that death is now a mere inconvenience — as long as you don’t venture back up into the sun.

Fallen London is a web browser game more than a decade old — an incredibly long run by the standards of such games. Thanks to its art style, its reliance on text, and a steady stream of improvements, it doesn’t feel outdated. It is by turns comedic and dark, and overflowing with Victorian sensibilities and literary references.

Gameplay

The gameplay elements are simple. You create a character, and this character has attributes. They may represent skills you’ve picked up, items you’ve acquired, or connections you’ve made with people and organizations. In general, they represent who you are, and what you can do.

Your character, at any given moment, is in a location. You draw from a deck of cards called the opportunity deck. Your opportunities depend on your attributes and where you are. Each opportunity gives you an illustration, a few paragraphs of text, and usually a choice. The outcome will often depend on your attributes and plain luck, and you may gain or lose something as a result.

Unfortunately, Fallen London came of age in the heyday of FarmVille-style mobile games, with energy mechanics that limit the number of actions you can take before you must wait (or pay) to recharge. You cannot binge Fallen London without paying. That said, it’s designed around brief play sessions, and I don’t think the energy mechanic detracts too much from the experience.

Story

The gameplay is not really the draw of Fallen London. It’s merely the engine for dispensing story. Players have stayed with the game for a decade because of the masterful environmental storytelling, interesting characters, and deeply interwoven plot elements.

There are hundreds of unique characters in dozens of locations within the city. There are centuries of history buried (literally) beneath London, including the ruins of other cities previously stolen from the surface world by the Masters.

You can venture out into the cavern, across the Unterzee. There are strange islands and distant shores. Hell is a real place, populated by bureaucratic and seductive devils. In Polythreme, inanimate objects spring to life.

Above all, Fallen London is a game of mysteries. The rewards most valued by the playerbase are not currency or items. They’re new stories that reveal why things are the way they are in this slightly steampunk, cosmic-horror alternate history.

How did the Gracious Widow come to run a vast smuggling empire? What exactly are the bumbling, Cthulhu-esque rubbery men, and where did they come from? Why do the Masters of the Bazaar steal cities and bring them to the Neath?

Content and Costs

The bulk of the content in the game is free, and there is enough to keep new players busy for months. Additionally, there are seasonal stories that appear for a limited time each year, sometimes with little additions. The developers also release a new story each month, with new locations and opportunities.

The game makes money primarily by selling these monthly stories. Players can purchase a $7 monthly subscription to automatically get all the new stories as they come out, but old stories must be purchased individually for around $5 – $25 each, depending on size. The subscription option also doubles your energy pool.

See You in the Neath

Whether Fallen London pulls you into its story or not, I think it’s a great game for writers to check out, to see just how literary and story-centric a video game can be. It’s a master class in the looping and branching techniques of interactive fiction.

If you like cosmic horror, steampunk, Victorian mystery, you’ll probably find something to enjoy in Fallen London. It’s a weird and living city, deep as Vandermeer’s Ambergris or Miéville’s New Crobuzon. I find myself getting pulled back into it every couple years.

In fact, I created a new account as I was writing this. So if you need an acquaintance in the Neath, let me know in the comments. We can exchange letters, insult each other for our own gain, or take turns attempting assassination.

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — “What Remains of Edith Finch”

Video games can be many things. They may be about building empires, stacking oddly shaped bricks, or finding misplaced princesses. Most often, they’re about rather a lot of shooting and blowing things up. Games can be simple or juvenile, and they can certainly have bad writing. For these reasons and many others, games tend to get a bad reputation among the literary-minded.

In this series, I want to highlight a few games that care about story. I want to try to prove to the skeptics that some games have something to say, in much the same way that a good book does. These are games where you can’t die. You don’t need twitch reflexes or a deep knowledge of 900 pokémon. Instead, these games work hard to build deep characters and a compelling narrative, and pull you into their world.

So, if you’re someone who loves books and hates games, consider giving one of these a try. You might just be surprised.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Edith Finch is a young woman returning to her childhood home. She is the youngest of the family, and the last one still alive. As she explains, the Finches believe they are the victims of a curse. Few of them die of natural causes. Instead, they seem destined for strange ends, whether their lives are long or cut tragically short.

As the player, you guide Edith through the Finch house, a seaside mansion that has been built-upon and expanded over several generations, a bit like the Winchester House. You quickly discover that the rooms of the deceased Finches have been sealed off, untouched, like little museum pieces. As you open those rooms up, you get glimpses of each person — visions from their perspective, enhanced by Edith’s narration and her journal entries, filling out her family tree with whimsical sketches. You begin to piece together the history of the Finch family in all of its joys and tragedies.

Each room in the house, each person, is revealed through a unique experience. Each is delightful in a different way. They range from eldritch horror to peaceful meditation. From the simplicity of flying a kite or swinging on a swing to navigating a living comic book to vignettes of a camping trip seen through the viewfinder of an old camera.

The uppermost rooms of the house are stacked in a teetering tower. They are a promise made in the opening moments of the game, as you first approach the house. They are the most recently-built rooms, the ones once occupied by the people most important to Edith. She will have to climb to the apex and come to grips with the legacy of the Finch family.

This poignant anthology of stories about death ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. The purpose of the journal, the narration, and the title all come together to deliver a clear message: it’s your life that defines you, not your death.

Getting the Game

What Remains of Edith Finch is a game by Giant Sparrow. It’s available for PC (from several providers), as well as Nintendo Switch, Xbox and Playstation.

Review: Art Matters, by Neil Gaiman

Art Matters is a quick read, with few words and many pictures. The pages are small. But it is not a little book.

It contains four short essays, the words all hand-scrawled in capital letters alongside Chris Riddell’s lovely little sketches. The format is raw and straightforward. Neil’s tone here is conversational, even a little conspiratorial, as he lays out things he firmly believes about words, the creative process, the importance of fiction, libraries, and reading – not just as an escape, but as a force for fundamental good in the world. He makes his case compellingly.

“You’re finding out something as you read that will be vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

The illustrations enhance the text in subtle ways, sometimes drawing attention to particular words and phrases, sometimes adding a little more meaning than the words would have alone. There are many little Easter eggs for those who have followed Neil and Chris’s other work, and there is just the right mixture of deadly seriousness and whimsy, putting me in mind of Shel Silverstein’s best work.

The book is good, in part, because it is so small. You can comfortably read the entire thing in a sitting, or a single section in a few minutes. It’s not a great epic, to be traversed over many too-late nights of “one more page.” It’s a plate of tasty morsels, to be savored for a few minutes at a time, again and again over the years, until it weaves itself into your mental fabric.

“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be…was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”

The best section, “Make Good Art,” is the largest and final portion of the book. It was originally a commencement speech Neil gave in 2012. You can watch him give it here (although without illustrations).

“Make Good Art” is a bit biography and a bit advice from an excellent and successful writer. It contains enough wisdom that every time I read it I take away something useful. It’s a good refresher, a palate cleanser, and a reminder of what’s important.

In short, it’s a great little book.

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do…make good art.”