Learning Narrative Structure from Video Games

My first brief hit of gaming was Super Mario Brothers in 1993, at my Granny Griffin’s neighbor’s home in the lush green world of Tipperary. I was five and in my hand was a small gray box with a cable, like an umbilical cord that connected me to a television. I made the small red and blue dots on the screen move. I was bad at it. I was vaguely aware that there was another world in there and that I traveled through it somehow with the red and black buttons under my tiny thumbs. I wanted more.

Adam down the road had a Super Nintendo. Steph, my best friend, she got one for her Holy Communion. I was devout, kneeling before televisions in my friends’ houses, leading digital men over holes in the ground. Collecting mushrooms, collecting stars—just think about that for a second. Collecting actual stars. Reading had already taken me wild by the heart but this—this was something different.

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Five Books Featuring Weird Spies

It’s a grave cold night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets. Alleys fill with mist. A flashlight casts a ghostly glow in a back office of a supposedly-deserted government building. Figures with obscured faces meet in the shadows of a parking garage. This file doesn’t exist, and I’m certainly not handing it to you now. In fact, this building won’t be here tomorrow. Besides—who’s to say you haven’t dreamed this entire conversation?

Two great truth-seekers arose from twentieth-century fiction: the noir detective and the spy. They live in similar worlds: murky and high-contrast, full of suspicion and distrust, peeling back the skin of consensus reality to reveal the worms beneath. The spy and detective have their differences, though. Most of the time, you can trust the detective. She’s here to right wrongs, to find murderers and bring them to justice, or at least try. The spy’s motives are murkier. It’s unclear whether she’s out to save anyone except herself.

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Trapped in a World They Never Made — Howard the Duck and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The 1960s was the decade of the secret agent: James Bond, Our Man Flint, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Danger Man, The Avengers (the British TV show, not the American super-team), and so on. Marvel decided to cash in on this trend by taking the star of their World War II comic Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos (which debuted in 1963), aging him 20 years and making him a colonel, and putting him in charge of the Supreme Headquarters of International Espionage, Law-enforcement Division, or S.H.I.E.L.D. for short. (It was later changed to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate.)

The 1970s was the decade of wackiness: mainstream comics took their superheroes into different places, from martial arts to horror to blaxploitation to just plain crazy. One of the particularly crazy ones came from Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik, who gave us the world’s most obnoxious funny-animal character in Howard the Duck, introduced in a Man-Thing story in a 1973 issue of Adventure into Fear.

Both characters developed cult followings, the former due in particular to the iconic, stylish artwork of Jim Steranko, the latter due to just being totally batshit. Both were made into live-action films that did not live up to their cult status even a little bit.

[“Any questions?” “Yeah, where are my pants?”]

Series: 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

The Gods and Spirits (and Totoros) of Miyazaki’s Fantasy Worlds

There’s a moment in Hayao Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro that’s stuck with me since I first watched it a decade ago. Satsuki Kusakabe is searching for her missing sister, Mei. Looking for help, she sprints towards the huge camphor tree where the magical creature Totoro lives. She pauses for a moment at the entrance to a Shinto shrine that houses Totoro’s tree, as if considering praying there for Totoro’s help. But then she runs back to her house and finds her way to Totoro’s abode through the tunnel of bushes where Mei first encountered him. Totoro summons the Catbus, which whisks Satsuki away to where Mei is sitting, beside a lonely country road lined with small statues of Jizo, the patron bodhisattva of children.

It’s Satsuki’s hesitation in front of the shrine’s entrance that sticks with me, and what it says about the nature of spirits and religion in the film. We don’t really think of the movies of Hayao Miyazaki as religious or even spiritual, despite their abundant magic, but some of his most famous works are full of Shinto and Buddhist iconography—like those Jizo statues, or the sacred Shimenawa ropes shown tied around Totoro’s tree and marking off the river god’s bath in Spirited Away. Miyazaki is no evangelist: the gods and spirits in his movies don’t follow or abide by the rituals of religion. But the relationship between humans and gods remains paramount.

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Neil Gaiman Reads “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

In December 2016, Neil Gaiman did his part for Worldbuilders charity with an atmospheric reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem, “The Raven.”

In honor of Poe’s 209th birthday, we’re pleased to share it again! Join Gaiman below—surrounded by candles, a flickering fire, and wearing the coat of a murdered prince of Stormhold—to celebrate this quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…

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Starting with the Womb: Octavia E Butler’s Dawn

I first found Dawn, about fifteen years ago, in my local library. I hadn’t heard of Octavia Butler. I’m not sure why I picked Dawn up. It was probably the post-apocalyptic blurb; I’ve always been drawn to stories about the end of humanity as we know it. I hadn’t yet realised that what I liked about those stories was often the fact that they are really about beginnings, too.

Dawn is absolutely about a beginning, and how painful that can be. Butler makes hundreds of brave choices throughout the book that still stagger me, and defy traditional writing advice. That’s obvious from that first section alone, Womb, with its introduction to Lilith Iyapo, one of the few survivors of a terrible war on Earth, saved and also kidnapped and drugged by an alien race called the Oankali.

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Series: That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Aristocratic Necromancy: Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

I couldn’t help but read Reign of the Fallen, Sarah Glenn Marsh’s epic fantasy debut, alongside Rati Mehrotra’s Markswoman, another debut epic fantasy novel published on the same day. Both books have as their protagonists young women with special skills—Mehrotra’s an assassin from an order with telepathic skills and quasi-magic, quasi-technological swords; Glenn Marsh’s a necromancer capable of raising the dead nobility of her kingdom back to their facsimile of life, and thus preserving both their changeless ruler and their connection with their families—who are faced with challenges to the stability of their worlds.

But Reign of the Fallen opens with a brilliant first line and a gorgeous sense of voice.

[“Today, for the second time in my life, I killed King Wylding.”]

A Tale of Tiny Artistry: Thumbelina

During a recent cold spate here in Florida, various creatures—largely but not just iguanas—fell out of trees and onto people’s heads. (No. Really. Sometimes Florida can be a really strange place.) Or missed people’s heads entirely and just slammed down on the ground, stunned. Looking very very dead—until, that is, the weather warmed up, allowing the (surviving) iguanas to start to move again. That all mostly happened south of me—here, the main Strange Animal Reactions to the Cold consisted of two squirrels conspiring to empty the bird feeder again—but the stories ended up reminding me of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “Thumbelina.”

What, exactly, do weird animal moments in Florida have to do with a famous Danish fairy tale? Well, simply enough: the same thing happens in “Thumbelina”—only with a bird instead of an iguana.

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What Star Wars Learned From Literary Fiction

The original 1977 Star Wars film is often credited with creating the modern blockbuster: a popcorn-fueled thrill ride that is a feast for all the senses. Before it became known as Episode IV: A New Hope, Star Wars set the template for popular film, from the tight three-act structure to the bombastic film score to the broad strokes of heroes and villains against a visually spectacular backdrop. The commercially driven films that it spawned became densely packed with groundbreaking effects and audience-thrilling action.

This is precisely what makes The Last Jedi, the most recent film and source of the most recent controversy in the franchise, such a wild departure. It’s true that the movie is, like the preceding entries in its canon, very much a Star Wars film: there are space battles and aliens and shootouts, along with lightsaber battles and a John Williams score. But in many ways, it deviates from the original template more than any other Star Wars movie to date, even when compared to the boldly different The Phantom Menace.

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Snuggled Up With Spaceships: The Best SFF Comfort TV

Television is getting into a lot of heavy stuff lately, as well it should. But sometimes we just need to watch something that’s like the small-screen equivalent of an old blanket, or a warm cup of cocoa—something familiar and soothing, where we know all the beats and could tell you about the characters’ histories as if they were our oldest friends. That’s where comfort viewing comes in.

“Comforting” means different things to different people—maybe it’s about the humor, or the imagery, or the perfect resolution of one perfect scene. But we’ve all got shows we turn to when we need to scratch a certain itch, to push just the right buttons, or just, simply, to feel better. Here are some of our picks for the best comforting SFF television—share yours with us in the comments!

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C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith Stories: Pulp Hero vs. Cosmic Horrors

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

There was a day when magazine racks were far larger than they are today, and choices were far more varied. If you wanted science fiction adventure, you could read Planet Stories or Amazing Stories. If you wanted stories with science and rivets, you could read Astounding Science Fiction. For Earthbound adventures you could read Doc Savage Magazine, Argosy, or Blue Book. And if you wanted horror stories, your first choice was Weird Tales. The stories in that magazine ranged from the pure horror of H. P. Lovecraft and the barbarian tales of Robert E. Howard to the planetary adventures of C. L. Moore, and her protagonist Northwest Smith. But while the adventures of Northwest Smith might bear a superficial resemblance to those you would find in Planet Stories, there were darker themes lurking beneath the surface.

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The Armored Saint Sweepstakes!

We want to send you a galley copy of Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint, available February 20th from Tor.com Publishing!

Myke Cole debuts the Sacred Throne epic fantasy trilogy with a story of religious tyrants, arcane war-machines, and underground resistance that will enthrall epic fantasy readers of all ages. (If you’re in New York City, catch him reading from the book tonight at 7 pm at KGB’s Fantastic Fiction series!)

In a world where any act of magic could open a portal to hell, the Order insures that no wizard will live to summon devils, and will kill as many innocent people as they must to prevent that greater horror. After witnessing a horrendous slaughter, the village girl Heloise opposes the Order, and risks bringing their wrath down on herself, her family, and her village.

Comment in the post to enter!

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States and D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec). To enter, comment on this post beginning at 3:30 PM Eastern Time (ET) on January 17th. Sweepstakes ends at 12:00 PM ET on January 21st. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Tor.com, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Up, Up and Away: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Self-published several years ago to next to no notice, Senlin Ascends has a second chance to enrapture readers by way of its wide release this week—and enrapture them it surely shall. If you liked The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, consider this your ticket to some equally fine times.

Incredibly creative in its conception and no less confident in its crafting, Josiah Bancroft’s dazzling debut concerns a couple on a honeymoon that goes to hell in a handcart when their destination of choice disappoints. This pair, though, haven’t popped off to romantic Paris or plotted some vibrant adventure in Venice: rather, they’ve travelled to the Tower of Babel, a monolithic column in the middle of Ur said to be a “great refuge of learning, the very seat of civilisation” and the source of any number of wonders.

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Resistance is Futile: Peter Watts’s “The Things”

Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at Peter Watts’s “The Things,” first published in the January 2010 issue of Clarkesworld. Spoilers ahead.

[“Mutinous biomass sloughed off despite my most desperate attempts to hold myself together: panic-stricken little clots of meat, instinctively growing whatever limbs they could remember and fleeing across the burning ice.”]

Series: The Lovecraft Reread