It all started with a just simple robotic unicorn. We thought the necromantic giant squid, brooding in his mountain top monastery, was behind it all. No one—no one, not even the Wise—was prepared for the true terror of the Loafer Conspiracy and Darth Weasley. Worlds within worlds, worlds without end. But through it all, looming Lovecraftian existential dread. This is not my beautiful wife! This is not my beautiful house! Well, how did I get here?
I’ll tell you how: the Tor.com Crowd-Sourced Storytelling panel at BookCon, featuring Fran Wilde, Seth Dickinson and Lawrence M. Schoen, hosted by yours truly!
The Crowd-Sourced Storytelling panelists are part of “Tor Books class of 2015,” debut authors that Tor is excited to present, and earlier in the week, they had already gotten whimsical at the “Would You Rather: SFF Edition” panel hosted by John Scalzi. The panel was primed and ready to go when I got them. It’s hard to capture just how the series of events went down—you can’t bottle lightning, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try. If you want to play along at home, you can try this MadLib I made!
In Lawrence M. Schoen, we had a former psychology professor, hypnotherapist and founder of the Klingon Language Institute. Qapla’ batlh je, Lawrence! He’s the author of Barsk, a story set after humanity’s extinction, featuring genetically uplifted elephants speaking to the dead.
Have you ever wondered who writes the little pieces of worldbuilding scattered throughout video games, hidden in item descriptions? As a Dark Souls fanatic and Skyrim fan, I know I have: well, Seth Dickinson worked at Bungie on Destiny doing just that. You’ve been reading all about The Traitor Baru Cormorant’s tale of intrigue and betrayal here, I’m sure.
Fran Wilde? Besides writing about science-fiction and fantasy for Geek Mom, Fran has a Masters in Interaction Design and Information Architecture as well as a Masters in Poetry, or as she puts it: she’s a code-poet. Her novel, Updraft, is about a city of living bone in the clouds, and a girl who flies amidst the towers and dares to question the capital-L Laws.
Together, they fight crime! (Or tell crowd-sourced stories, at least.)
Springing into action based on the audience suggestion of a robot unicorn, Lawrence turned the tables by making our cloven-hoved mechanical friend…a shoe store employee named Bruce. Bruce specializes on lacing shoes, but when the store begins to sell only loafers (on an audience nudge), he’s out of luck. Fran took over with his unemployment, and just when depression was setting in…suddenly, ninjas attacked, forcing him into weaponized robot unicorn mode. Weaponized, eh? Seth jumps on that, as Bruce is employed by the government as an agent of justice.
Or at least he calls it “justice,” but the things Bruce the weaponized robotic unicorn are called on to do leads him to question “violence in the service of the state.” This blossoms into a full-blown existential crisis, as Bruce wonders if, as a robot, what the rules he lives by even mean, and if he can just reprogram himself. A unicorn can only be touched by a virgin…but virginity is just a construct of the patriarchy!
Which is when Lawrence revealed that this has all been part of Secret Agent Loafer’s plans! A suggestion from the audience, Secret Agent Loafer is the sinister mastermind who planned this from the beginning, since back in the day when Bruce was a young colt. He gave him his first cyborg parts, he subtly altered Bruce’s life to guide him into the shoe wear industry…and then replaced them all with loafers. Secret Agent Loafer is a meta-ninja, who sent the ninjas to bring Bruce into the fold of the government agency. He created a crisis of self to make our robotic unicorn protagonist vulnerable to brainwashing and reprogramming!
To free himself of all these spiderwebs, and at the prompting of an audience suggestion, Bruce sets off on a quest for wisdom. Bruce sets off to find…the necromantic squid, which Fran explain lives at the top of a mountain. Why! Why did all of this happen, what great purpose is behind it all, that’s what Seth wants to know How! How did a giant squid get on top of a mountain, Lawrence asks. “It’s a mountain squid,” Fran replies. Of course, Bruce and the Squid fall in love, and though Bruce sprouts wings from his back after finding enlightenment, they fly to the ocean, and then below, and Bruce becomes, as Lawrence put it, the first weaponized underwater robotic unicorn shoe selling secret agent. (Your humble narrator may have missed an adjective or two in there…)
From there, we shifted scenes to talk about…the audience’s new suggested topic, a flatulent buffalo. Seth starts with a paean to methane and a North America filled with buffalo, to climate change and zoos, as the last flatulent buffalo is kept in captivity solely as an example of archaic biodiversity. Until one day, for unknown reasons largely related to audience participation, an elephant was transformed into a flatulent elephant! Though, as Fran tells us, this one expels nitrogen, and the dangerous combination of gases ravages the earth, killing everyone besides the two of them.
Everyone, that is, besides the noseless love child of Darth Vader and Ron Weasley. An evil so evil that, like Voldemort, we dare not speak it’s name. An evil that, like Voldemort, it…doesn’t have a nose. Which as Lawrence explains, is probably how this Ginger Dark Lord survived the flatulent buffalo. Seth questions if Darth Weasley serves a higher power, if he breaks the fourth wall, and Fran reveals: the red-headed Sith Lord is…Secret Agent Loafer! As the necromantic squid reaches for from under the waves with undead magics to raise all those killed by the farting buffalo. The zombies lurch across the land, with the sinister call of…”shoez…shoezz…SHOEZ!”
The morning ended with a vignette about a dating service for wizards and familiars. Fran took up the role of the matchmaker, negotiating the possibly homicidal history of Seth’s familiar with Lawrence’s mixed message magi. It was a bit of quick witted banter; a cross between Gilmore Girls and Harry Potter as well as a fitting conclusion. The group really hit their stride, and by group I mean not just the authors but the audience at BookCon as well. They were, as Buckminster Fuller would have put it, the trimtab. The crowd-sourced element really added creative chaos; there’s no way anyone could replicate these stories…which is all part of the fun.
Mordicai Knode wrote a Star Wars parody called “Shoe Wars” when he was in elementary school, so this hit close to home. Thanks to Marco P. for pictures of the event. Find Mordicai on Twitter or Tumblr!