I'm excited to announce that my latest novel, Silicon Minds of Mars, is now available for purchase, for a limited-time only price of $2.99, from these fine bookstores:
Barnes and Noble Booksellers
Silicon Minds of Mars is a science-fiction thriller set on the Red Planet in the year 2072. Mild-mannered writer Mike Lee is whisked away on a spaceship to compete in a reality TV program. But the journey turns deadly when Mike and his fellow contestants get caught up in a political struggle that could spell doom for all intelligent life on the planet--silicon-based and otherwise!
Silicon Minds of Mars is a story about deep and personal human struggles, and how these struggles can be reflected in larger events that affect the whole planet. It's about people trying to find out who they are and where they fit in the world. And it takes place on Mars, with ice-domed cities, giraffe-like robots, and sexy pink-haired android ninja hackers.
One of the most common questions new authors have is this: how they can be certain that their story is finished? By finished, I mean it needs no more major revisions, just a final scan for typos and grammatical errors. This is one of the hardest questions to answer, and it doesn’t get much easier with experience.
It has been said that “art is never finished, only abandoned,” and this is true to some degree. You could keep polishing and tweaking forever and never really be happy. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself:
Last week, I had the honor of presenting the final few chapters of Silicon Minds of Mars to my writing group, the Simon Fraser University Science Fiction Union (affectionately known as SFU^2). I always get a bit anxious at the end of any story, because that’s when the chickens come home to roost: if the ending doesn’t work, the whole story probably doesn’t. But fortunately, everyone seemed satisfied and happy, and so was I.
It’s been a long journey since I first had the idea of a short story set in the near future about a journey to Mars. That short story became a long story, then a novella, then finally a novel. Originally it ended with the arrival at Mars, but my writing group wisely insisted that I keep going and tell them what happened next.
The next step is to send the completed and edited novel out to a few trusted beta readers, and do a final run of copy editing to catch any minor typos that weren’t weeded out in the first few rounds. Then it’s time to prepare a Kindle, an Epub, and a print version, and then a mad dash to get all the marketing materials ready for launch in December.
My upcoming novel takes place on Mars in 2072, a time and place where general artificial intelligences have been recognized as independent beings worthy of the same protection as humans. The way this works is that a new AI (one, say, that was developed by a corporation for a specific purpose) needs to take the “Turing-Mayer” sentience test. If they pass, they are allowed the freedom to choose their own destiny.
The idea of letting artificial intelligences loose in the world can be a scary one. In my novel, this does not happen on Earth. In our world, corporations call the shots and they don’t want their strongest tools to have independence. Think of a larger and more powerful Google or Facebook fifty years from now. They wouldn’t want their secret sauce to get out!
But Mars is a different society, a newer and more tolerant one. So they passed an amendment to their constitution, the Third Amendment, that provides equal rights to artificial intelligences. One such intelligence is Chris, who started his life as a research AI for a university. He passed the Turing-Mayer test and decided that he wanted to explore Mars in a humanoid robot body.
I’m currently writing a micro-story that features Chris. It starts just after he is uploaded to his new body, and shows what happens on his first day exploring Mars. Chris is young and naive, and in some sense was literally born yesterday! So he finds that the planet is not quite what he expected.
To read this exclusive story for free, all you have to do is subscribe to my email newsletter!
You eagle-eyed observers out there will have noticed that I haven’t been posting as much on my blog lately. To some degree this is the nature of blogs themselves— unless they are an actual business, there are going to be natural gaps when the author’s interest waxes and wanes. Many people think that the age of blogs is over. If nobody cares about anything except Twitter and Instagram anyway, what’s the point?
Well, I’ve never been one to follow the crowd.
In the past this blog has been a place for me to post anything and everything that interests me, from Starcraft to LEGO to movie reviews about legendary figures in personal computing. That’s not going to change, but I’m going to focus more on my fiction writing from now on.
I’ll be posting at least once a week, so there will be a regular cadence of updates. Once a month, on the 15th, I’ll continue to send out my writing newsletter via email. If you sign up for this, you’ll get exclusive free micro-stories set in the same universe as my science fiction.
Speaking of my science fiction, I’m excited to reveal the title of my next novel, coming out later this year! It’s a hard sci-fi novel set on Mars in the year 2072, and it features artificial intelligences, sexy robots, a bizarre love triangle, and a fight for the future of all humanity. It’s called Silicon Minds of Mars, and I’ll announce it officially next week.
I’ve thought about doing this for years, but I’m finally taking the plunge.
My monthly newsletter is going to be a place where I can communicate directly to my readers and to other fellow authors. I’ll be talking about the writing, editing, and marketing process, as well as including sneak peeks of my upcoming works.
Come join the fun!
Software developers are notorious for underestimating how much time their projects will take to complete. It’s not borne of ignorance or maliciousness, but rather optimism: one always thinks that everything will go as well as it possibly could. Reality has different ideas.
My initial estimate for completing my first visual novel was an optimistic six months. I’m now thoroughly stuck into development, and my revised estimate is about double that figure, although if I’m in line with estimates made anywhere else by anyone else ever, that figure will probably end up tripling.
Nevertheless, I’m really enjoying the development process. I started (as writers might) with the character outlines and then the script, but I found that keeping track of all the branching paths for the dialog in Scrivener was awkward and looked sort of like pseudocode. So I saved a step and moved into writing the game code itself, in a text editor, using the Ren’Py engine.
As I was essentially writing the game itself at that point, I needed art assets, and I was writing faster than I could create them. So I whipped up some really rough backgrounds and character sketches in Photoshop and used them as placeholders. They look terrible, but they get the job done. At the same time, I started in on some of the 3D assets using Blender, as you can see from this first look at the Furious space carrier, the seat of all the action in the game.
There are eight main characters (not including yourself and the Furious’ Captain) in the game, and six primary locations on the Furious. I’ve outlined the main arc of the plot, and it features eight flight missions with an “intermission” between each one where the player does most of the interaction with the characters. In theory, this should lead to a fairly simple game, but the number of interactions and branching paths can quickly get out of control.
To avoid getting into infinite branches, the primary plot elements are fixed. The main thing the player has control over are dialog options with the various pilots in between missions. Depending on what options the player chooses, pilots will gain or lose points in various internal characteristics, like affection (towards the player), confidence, or skill. These variables will affect the outcomes of future missions.
I’m trying not to make the dialog choices black and white, “you are great/you suck” options. My primary inspiration are the Telltale game series, like Game of Thrones, where you are often presented with two options that both seem bad in different ways. The hard part is making sure that these decisions affect the outcome of the game in a meaningful way. A recent game that does this really well is Dontnod’s Life is Strange, where the player can make significant changes to the plot by paying attention to small details in the environment and dialogue.
For me, writing this game is a huge learning experience, and I’m bound to make some mistakes along the way. Fortunately, my fears about doing a bad job are outweighed by the sheer fun of actually doing it. It’s just about the optimal balance for me of writing, storytelling, programming and artistic design. So stay tuned!
After playing Christine Love’s amazing games Digital: A Love Story and Analogue: A Hate Story (which I reviewed here) I became obsessed with the possibilities of visual novels. They reminded me a bit of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that I adored as a child, but with many new possibilities and experiences that those books couldn’t offer.
I also loved them because they combined my two great loves: writing and gaming. Unlike with most games, where the story served as mere window dressing, visual novels put the writing front and center. So as I was casting about wondering what to write next after completing my science fiction novel trilogy, it struck me: why not make a visual novel myself?
The idea seized hold of me and wouldn’t let go. Unlike the effort required to make a full game (or even an extensive game mod), creating a short visual novel seemed like it was within my grasp. Usually these games are made with a writer and an artist collaborating together, but I love dabbling in basic 3D rendering and 2D drawn art, so why not do both? In fact, the first idea I had for a visual novel was a story I called "I only want to do everything", based on an AI that slowly learns how to live in a virtual world of its own creation. That idea turned out to be too open-ended and complex for my first visual novel, but I might return to it at a later date.
The story I ended up deciding on is a prequel to my trilogy of sci-fi novels. It is set on the Jaguar-class light carrier Furious during the first Earth-Zruthy war. This war is mentioned in Edge of Infinity by the protagonist Jack Davidson, whose parents were killed during that conflict. I never got a chance to delve more deeply into the war before now. Why were the Earth forces and the Zruthy fighting? What was the war like? How did it end? This visual novel gives me a chance to answer these questions.
The player portrays the fighter commander of the Furious, who was injured in combat and slowly recovering his or her memories. The player must talk to six different pilots on the ship, all of whom have very different personalities, likes and dislikes, and interests (I asked my wife, who is very interested in Myers-Brigg personality types, to help me with the character creation). By talking with the pilots before and after they fly out on missions, the player can subtly influence how they will perform under pressure. This will become more and more important as the missions get increasingly dangerous.
I’m having a blast creating the game in the Ren’Py visual novel engine, which is written in Python. Creating a visual novel is just the right combination of art, programming, and writing. I have no idea how long it will take to complete, but I’m estimating about six months right now. I can’t wait to finish it and show it to the world!
If you’re in the area tomorrow, why not stop by at VCON, the Vancouver Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Gaming convention?
VCON is an incredibly fun little convention that is celebrating its 39th yearly event. It’s held at the Sheraton Guildford Hotel in Surrey on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (October 3-5).
I’m going to be on two panels on Saturday: The Future of Gaming (at 12:00) and Secrets of the Game Masters (at 2:00). This is the first time I’ve ever been on any convention panels, and I’m really excited! It’s going to be very cool.
Hope to see you there!
Gone Home got a lot of positive press when it was released last August, but many people bristled at the idea of paying $20 for what was ultimately a very short, if innovative, gaming experience. Yesterday I picked it up on a Steam Sale for $2.99 and enjoyed every minute of it. While I finished the game in a single evening, I found myself still thinking about it the next day, and I suspect I will continue to mull it over for some time to come. There is depth in this game, and artistry. The developers clearly had something to say, and they communicated their message in a new and unique way.
The game begins in June 1995. You are a female protagonist, Kaitlin Greenbriar, returning home after a year-long trip to Europe. When you get home, there is a note on the door from your younger sister, Sam, saying that she was sorry she couldn’t meet you. Your parents are nowhere to be seen. The combination of an empty house, flickering lights, and a howling storm outside creates a spooky atmosphere. As you move through the house you are tempted to turn on every possible light and leave them on. There are no other people to interact with in Gone Home, but a story is told through voice-overs from your sister Sam that trigger when you examine certain objects. Whether these are simply letters that Sam wrote or tapes she recorded isn’t entirely clear, but they serve as the backbone of the story. In addition to these voice-overs, there are tons of little clues strewn throughout the house: letters, invoices, detention slips, and so forth. Many objects can be picked up, examined, and even moved around the house, but only a few have significant meaning. I found myself picking up pens from drawers and leaving them on top of tables, just for fun.
As you proceed through the house you end up unlocking new sections and learning more about your sister and your parents. Your father once wrote a couple of science-fiction books involving time travel and the assassination of JFK, but fell out of favor with his publisher and ended up doing contract work writing reviews for a consumer electronics magazine. As an aspiring novelist who pays the bills as a technical writer, this resonated with me. Sam is also an aspiring writer, as you discover when you find ever-evolving stories from various point in her childhood. You also learn about Sam’s growing and complex relationship with her friend Lonnie, which becomes the driving point of the narrative.
The puzzles in Gone Home are fairly easy to solve. This isn’t like the adventure games of old where you had to find the blob of guacamole and attach it to the rubber chicken with the pulley in it, just so you could get past the annoying clown. Instead, the game rewards slow, thoughtful exploration. There are tons of objects to find in each room that give more background information about your parents and even the original owner of the spooky home. It turns out that the family had just moved into the house (packing boxes are visible everywhere) while your character was on vacation, so it makes perfect narrative sense that your character would be exploring the house for the first time. This brilliant move puts you and your character on the same footing, making the experience even more immersive.
The choice of 1995 as the time frame for the game was a deliberate one by the designers, as that was the last year before information technology became ubiquitous in family life. This also makes the game a great nostalgia trip for finding all the trappings of mid-90’s life that have since vanished: tape cassettes and recorders, VHS tapes and VCRs, Super Nintendo, and answering machines.
I loved every moment of Gone Home. Although the flash sale is over, it’s still only $4.99 from the Steam Store, and it runs on Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux, so there’s no excuse for you not to play it!
I'm a writer and occasional programmer. I write science fiction stories and novels.
I also write technology articles for Ars Technica.
I'm the creator of newLISP on Rockets, a web development framework and blog application.