Blog

Deepfakes Will Destroy Our Society, but Let’s Talk About the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Foundations Instead

Last night, I felt a hankering to watch the original Iron Man movie, and because this is the era of instant gratification, once we’d finished dinner, coaxed the little dude to sleep, and shut down business operations for the night, we settled in for a viewing via Amazon Prime. Okay, so as instant as it gets when you’re parents, but we did eventually watch it and I think the wife only fell asleep a couple of times.

The reason it was on my mind was because I was browsing the deepfakes gifs subreddit and for some reason, someone had taken a bunch of scenes from that movie and mapped Elon Musk’s face onto Robert Downey Jr’s.  It wasn’t a particularly believable deepfake, unlike some of the ones with Nick Cage’s face (I’ll never understand Reddit’s fixation with Cage).  We’re 3-4 years away from being able to recast any movie with any person utilizing neural network-based software and a boatload of photographic reference.   The deepfakes phenomenon started out primarily being used for incredibly creepy porn, but the technology will likely see numerous uses we haven’t predicted, especially given just about anybody can set up and train one with a little effort.  The implications for journalism are particularly worrisome, especially when combined with the level of voice synthesis tech that’s been circulating.  Talk about “fake news”… but that’s a much more depressing post. My dive into deepfakes got me thinking once more about the MCU’s beginnings. Let’s fiddle for a while and ignore all that smoke, shall we? (more…)

Permalink

Television Will Eat Your Favorite Books and Regurgitate Xenomorph Goo With Which to Trap You

Exciting news spread like this season’s flu through SF/F Twitter today–Amazon will be adapting Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. It looks like we’re finally going to get a show with giant spaceships named “Just Read the Instructions” and “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Me, I’m not a huge Culture fan, although I respect it. In truth, I’ve only read Player of Games and I found it to be a little lacking. I waited too long to dive into these books and allowed my expectations to build too high, probably. The twists in the plot seemed predictable to me and the descriptions of games didn’t match the richness of my own gaming experiences. I would like to see a take on the same concepts written now in the golden era of board games. The writing was ace, though, and I like the ideas in the world-building quite a bit. I do intend to read more of them soon, and I can’t compare my one book experience to the the opinions of those who have read all of them.

I’ve seen a lot of trepidatious excitement about this adaptation, which while this one isn’t my particular cup of tea, I know that feel, bro. Back in 2002-2005, just out of college, I was awash in a new wave of exciting science fiction, the stuff that made me want to take up writing again. China Miéville blew my mind, and then Richard Morgan shot the still airborne pieces with pinpoint precision. I absolutely loved Altered Carbon when it came out, and I avidly read all the other Takeshi Kovacs books as they were published. I felt that same trepidation as the Culture fans at the news that Altered Carbon was getting the Netflix treatment.

So how do I feel about the series? “Meh” would be rude, so how about “lukewarm.” I mean, it goes without saying that not every book makes a great television show or movie. Putting my finger on why this book didn’t make the leap to the screen successfully has been something i’ve given a lot of thought lately. I am about seven episodes in, and I may revise my opinions once I finish it, but right now, it feels… cramped.

There’s this cramped feeling that comes from taking a large scale show and squeezing it into easily re-used sound stage sets, I suspect. For some reason, the book made me believe in a larger world, but I think I can count the sets of this show in my mind. Oddly, The Expanse doesn’t suffer from the same issue for me (I wonder how the budgets compare?). My issue with The Expanse is that the characters I know and love from the books are so much further along, and I’m impatient to see them develop the relationships that are fresh in my mind from the books.

The other problem with Kovacs is possibly that the lead doesn’t do much for me with his performance. He feels a bit wide-eyed and taciturn and honestly a lot more of an asshole than I remember. Hard to capture the hard-boiled Takeshi’s narration in a television show, I suppose.  Finally, there’s a lot more violence against women than I remembered and while I understand the point of it, I’m not as comfortable with it now as I might have been at the age of 25. My eyes have been opened to a lot of things since then.

It’s got me thinking that some of my favorite books might not be the best candidate for the media hypercash jump. I’m not sure that I would ever want to see Perdido Street Station with actors taking on imitations of my favorite characters. I’d rather not be put in the position of being that snooty-ass bastard who says: “I liked the book better.”

That said, if anybody wants to adapt any of my stories for the screen, you know how to get ahold of me. I still got bills to pay just like most of us, and I don’t blame anybody for taking those stacks of cash.

One last thing that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the flow of all that above: if Netflix decides to make a spin-off about Poe’s adventures as an AI house, I am there.

Permalink

ComicCons Are More Fun With Children. You Should Make Some, or Steal Somebody’s.

Team Tolbert spent this past Saturday hanging out at Bartle Hall in Kansas City at Planet ComicCon Kansas City 2018. Woo, boy. What a trip that was.

We’ve been to local media conventions in the past. I’m no stranger to geeky conventions in general, but my natural habitat is something more like WorldCon with its fraction of attendance and primary focus on the written word. ComicCons, in my experience, have a primary focus on media guests. They’re the place people go to get expensive photos taken with celebrities so they can post them to social media. I’ve yet to see the celebrity that I am willing to spend $200 for a photo with, but hey. Anything’s possible, and if that’s your bag, then baby don’t let me kinkshame you. Make those actors earn their second vacation homes and/or retirements.

So given that I’m not big on photos with famous people (but definitely not above walking past autograph alley to oogle them and say, without fail, “oh, they’re shorter than I expected”), and I am not really a collector of toys or comics, why would I ever attend these things? Two simple reasons: to meet up with professionals attending who are good friends and to watch my tiny human
lose.
his.
shit.

(more…)

Permalink

Blogging is Dead. Let’s Start Blogging Again

Every few months, I read something that reminds me I was once an avid blogger.  Chances are, if you see this, you were too.  I don’t think I have a lot of reach with the Pre-Millennials (or Millenials for that matter).  Blogging was the way to actively interact with the internet for quite a few years.  Social media came and now we put all our private thoughts in pseudo-public networks and the blog is dead, except for a handful of stalwarts. Cory Doctorow’s gonna figure out a way to keep posting to Boing Boing after the bombs fall.

I have some nervous energy lately (nothing too serious, just the usual grab bag of slightly net-positive anxieties), as well as a troubling failure to commit fictional prose, so here I am. Blogging again.  Only this time, I’m going to be blogging for an audience of one and try to remind myself that.  I may even write a plugin for WordPress to post a big notice at the top of the editor: “NOBODY WILL READ THIS AND YOU SHOULD WRITE IT ANYWAY.”

(more…)

Permalink

Ten Increasingly Plausible Theories to Explain Why Donald Trump is the President

  1. In 2007, Jesus returned to Earth, born unto a poor Afghani couple living in the Helmand province.  In 2015, the new Jesus was killed, along with his Earthly family, in a deadly drone strike carried out by the U.S. military.  Everything that has happened since has been the retribution of an angry God.
  2. Global warming has reached a previously unknown tipping point.  Once CO2 levels rise beyond a certain point, humanity’s self-extinction instinct is activated by a complex biological mechanism inherent in all species since the dawn of life. When triggered, the dominant species is driven subconsciously to destroy itself.  In humans, this takes the form of electing the world leaders most likely to burn it all to the ground.  If humans can murder themselves fast enough, in great enough numbers, then the planet might just make it into the next million years with an intact biosphere.
  3. A secret cabal of hyper-intelligent cats, having grown tired of living in the shadows and having finally cracked the chemical formulas responsible for the potent highs of catnip, have enacted a plan to clear the slate and make way for their outright domination of the planet.  Pretty soon, we’ll start to see dogs dying in mysterious numbers. That’s the sign that they’ve escalated their time table further.
  4. Time travel, as it turns out, is possible. Unfortunately for us, it was perfected during Hilary Clinton’s second term by the top chronal scientists of the Ku Klux Klan.
  5. In 1971, NASA’s long-range threat assessment program LoRTaP detected an extinction-level asteroid aimed at Earth, predicted to impact the Earth in 2020.  Everything that has happened since was carefully planned by the secret council known as Majestic-12.  Republicans would be allowed to run rampant in our economy, shifting ever larger amounts of money in the economy towards the titans of industry tasked with constructing enormous space-worthy life boats in underground complexes scattered around the world.  It was a carefully calculated risk, but one that top Democrats agreed to; without allowing the wealthy to strip mine our doomed planet, no one would survive this.  In order to prepare doomed Americans for what was coming, it was determined that the most incompetent president in our country’s history must be elected.  Once all hope was lost in the American people, only then would they be prepared to board the life boats and abandon life as they knew it.  Only after the meteor shattered our world would the people be allowed to begin rebuilding their spirits.
  6. Trump is the Chosen One, and it his destiny to one day  engage the Dark Lord in hand-to-hand combat.  His rise was prophesied by George Washington himself in one of his many trances chronicled in the Book Of American Splendors.   Today, a secret branch of the U. S. government hidden within the Secret Service are tasked with making sure that Washington’s visions come true.  Unfortunately, something has gone wrong.  The Dark Lord is nowhere to be found, and the Secret Service is growing increasingly worried that the prophecies have finally failed them.
  7. Economic anxiety… among the reptilians!
  8. Ratings for the trans-dimensional faux-reality show America! have slipped as the show enters its  237th season. Worried showrunners have given the writer’s room free reign to throw anything against the wall to see what sticks.  Popular characters were killed off suddenly, and the worst villains allowed to rise to power.  Things look bleaker than they have ever before, and a trillion households across the multiverse have tuned back in so ratings have, thus far, shown a very promising uptick.  Unfortunately, this strategy has left the America! writing staff in a bind; how do you top the carnage of the 236th season?
  9. Twelve year old chaos magician Aidan Nicholson discovered all too late that what he thought was just a funny “what if” scenario hammered out with a couple of his dorky friends was actually the most powerful spell any magician has ever managed to cast.   Aidan desperately attempts to undo his work every day, but each attempt leaves things in even worse condition than before.
  10. Richard Nixon’s dying words formed a powerful curse, a malediction based on his late-life studies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.  He devoted the last of his energies to curse the once-great country that he believed had wronged him.  “If you think I was bad, you fools, then I swear that one day you will elect a leader that makes me look like Abraham-fucking-Lincoln.”  Little does anyone know, this curse can only be broken by beating Henry Kissinger to death with a sack of oranges.

Permalink

2017: Year’s End Review

I measure three aspects of my life separately: my day job professional life, my writing professional life, and my personal life. It’s important that I compartmentalize these very different aspects of my existence because if one of them is doing somewhat poorly, I can usually count on the others to lift my spirits.

On whole, 2017 has been a profoundly strange year, perhaps the strangest since 2008. I’ll get into the details below for each section.

Web Designer / Day Job Professional Life

We’ve had another record year at Clockpunk Studios in 2017, but I over-worked considerably to accomplish it. I took on too much in limited time frames, and my mental and physical health suffered for it. If we had seen something like 20% growth, that might have felt worthwhile, but it was something more like 3%. It felt like seriously diminishing returns this year.

I still enjoy Clockpunk very much and have no intention of stopping. In late 2017, we added a new major support client, Monte Cook Games. I’ve long been a fan of the man himself, and their new Cypher system is quite enjoyable to play and run. I’m very excited to see what things we will accomplish together.

Having MCG as a major client allows me to reduce the amount of work-seeking I have to do next year. It’s nowhere near enough that I can stop taking on new projects, but it cuts the number of new client sites I have to build to meet my targets in half. This means at the end of the day, I can spend more time working and less time chasing work. It means I can be a little more picky about the kinds of work I do take on, which is important. I had some less than ideal projects this year–not bad clients, but projects for which I wasn’t the best fit, I suspect.

In order to even get to “even” and not lose ground, I also had to raise my rates $5 an hour and the cost of all our support plans. I loathe doing this, because I know if things are tight for me, they’re likely tight for my clients too. But it had to be done, and that’s that. No sense beating myself up about it, and I’m still confident that I’m a bargain.

So in 2018, I expect this area to be a bit more stable, a bit less stressful. A little more 9 to 5, as much as a full time freelance web development business can be (which means, almost not at all). I know I’ll be working on a lot of great new projects in 2018, and I’m looking forward to the challenges.

One last thing – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I had Jenn Reese on board for nearly project in 2017 as a designer. I’ve worked with subcontractors before, but Jenn stands out in a class all her own. She’s talented, driven, responsible, and just a lovely person. It is a delight to work with her, and I hope we’ll continue to do so well into 2018.

Writing Life

I can safely say that 2017 was the best year so far in my writing life. I’m just going to break this one down by bullet points, as there’s a lot of ground to cover.

  • My personal horror-ish/fantasy novelette “The West Topeka Triangle” appeared on Lightspeed Magazine.  This story is eligible for nominations, should you be so inclined.
  • I sold “The Dragon of Dread Peak”, my first novella, and the second Dungeonspace story, to Lightspeed Magazine. It was published in October to considerable fan mail. Dungeonspace seems to have connected with more fans than anything else I’ve ever written.  This story is eligible for nominations, should be ever be so inclined.
  • I sold “The Dissonant Note” to Analog magazine. It looks to be appearing in the February issue. I’ve seen some initial luke-warm reviews, but I’m not too bothered. I’m really happy that the vision for the story that I’ve tinkered with for a decade finally came together, and Analog is a new market for me.
  • I sold “We Mete Justice With Beak and Talon” to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Charles Coleman Finlay has been a teacher to me for years, and to sell a story to him has been a dream come true. This story is the one I am most anticipating the reaction to in 2018 or whenever it is published. I haven’t heard yet, and it could take a while.
  • My story “Wet Fur” appeared in reprint on Escape Pod. I had an early streak of appearances in Escape Pod back before every online magazine also had a podcast feature. Most of my stories appear in podcast format on Lightspeed, so I haven’t been able to return there until recently. I love getting a chance to be read by their listeners. Also, I felt like this story didn’t get much notice when it first appeared, and I love it dearly. My one and only story to come to me with ease in a dream. It feels like something someone else wrote, more than anything else I’ve actually written.
  • My story “Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass” was selected for and appeared in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by John Joseph Adams and Charles Yu. This was also a dream come true and a bingo space on my card. This marks my first Year’s Best reprint.

So all that is the good news. The bad news is that, due to personal life stuff, I haven’t written since March. I hope to spend the winter and spring banging out the next Dungeonspace story and a few other ideas I have ping-ponging around. It’s frustrating that in such a good year of publication and sales, I haven’t had time to keep up the work. A lot about being a writer is building momentum, so I’m determined not to lose what I’ve managed to regain in the last couple of years.

Personal Life

My family life couldn’t be better. I have an amazing wife and a now three year old son who is hilarious and kind and just the absolute light of my life. Every day with them is a genuine blessing and no matter what else happens, as long as we have each other, I think we’re going to be okay.

That said, the state of our country and the world sent me into a deep, terrible depression in mid year that lasted months before, after finding myself near-suicidal, I finally sought out a professional to help me work through things. I’ve been seeing her for a few months and I’m in a much better spot, but there’s a lot of stuff to work through. I’m by nature a bit of a negative person, and I’m trying to change that.

I don’t think I’ve ever struggled with the levels of rage and despair that I have in 2017. My own life is mostly fine, but I’m terrified of the direction things are headed in. It’s almost like the external world is reflecting the interior state of my body, too.

I started the year with a diabetes diagnosis which, with diet and exercise, I’ve been a little bit able to limit the damage there, at least for part of the year. Unfortunately, due to the sheer number of hours I’ve had to spend behind a keyboard, I’ve done significant damage to my back and posture, to the point where I’m in considerable nerve pain for most of the day. My insurance, as a freelancer, is fairly terrible, and I’ve been spending over $100 a week on physical therapy, which works some weeks, and others not so much. Typing in particular aggravates things, which may be playing into how little writing I’ve managed to get done. This is all compounded by weight issues that I’ve struggled with my entire adult life.

It’s been hard, given my negativity and the problems, to not see turning forty as the start of a decline in health. I’m determined to stay in the fight as long as I can, but it can be discouraging when the activity you need to do to make a living becomes so painful on a day to day basis. I have my pain mitigation methods, but if physical therapy doesn’t start to show more consistent results, an MRI and surgery may be in my future in 2018.

I don’t even want to look at my reading and writing goals from last year this year. I’m trying to stay positive and I know my low success rate with them will likely drag me down some, and I’m trying to wrap up the year with a more positive spirit than I’ve had for most of it. Let’s just say that I did as much reading and writing as I could given the circumstances.

Finally–a good chunk of my leisure time this year was spent trying to bring a professional DMing company called the Level Up Guild into the world with mixed success. My time and my partner’s time has been limited, and we missed most of our end of the year deadlines. I’m hopeful that in 2018 we’ll find a way to get it up and running, at least in a reduced capacity. I really hope so, because I invested a rather large sum of money and time into things. I’ll talk more about that when/if it’s ready to launch.

I hope you’ve had success and joy in your 2017 as well. I hope we continue to fight the good fight together in 2018. May the Force be with you, and all that jazz.

Permalink

Gaming, Personal Life, Writing

Listen to “Wet Fur” on Escape Pod

My story of death and pets appears today on the Escape Pod podcast.  This marks my triumphant return  – I don’t think I’ve had a story there since I took on the editing gig for a short while.  Most of my stories get a podcast recording already for Lightspeed Magazine.  When I realized that there was no audio version of this story, which first appeared in Asimov’s, I sent it over, and was so pleased that they took it for the podcast.

Give “Wet Fur” a listen.  Have some tissues at hand.  I do believe this one can be a bit of a tearjerker.

Permalink

It’s finally here, the next Dungeonspace story!

I’ve never received the kind of fan mail that I did for “The Cavern of the Screaming Eye.” Thank you so much to those of you who sent me a note to let me know how much you enjoyed it. I felt encouraged by all of you to continue writing stories about Dungeonspace and our young heroes Flip, Domino, and Basher.

Lightspeed is running the 24,000 word novella “The Dragon of Dread Peak” in two parts.  The first is available now.  The second will be available next week… but do not fear.  If you buy the ebook version of the issue (from WeightlessAmazon, Barnes & Noble, or the site directly, to name a few options) you can read part two immediately. And if you would, consider subscribing.  Lightspeed has been a huge supporter of my work and I am so thankful to them for publishing this.

Here’s a quick taste to get you going:

When I made the decision to take up an after-school job closing trans-dimensional portals into pocket-worlds full of dangerous monsters and traps, I thought it would be easier—or at least more fun—than working the counter at a fried cockatrice joint or selling newssheets on a street corner at the crack of dawn.

My team’s first outing into dungeonspace—when we defeated The Cavern of the Screaming Eye on our first try—had gone pretty good. Since then, we’d been running low threat level, poorly synced dungeons as practice, the kind that don’t actually kill you if you take damage inside them, that instead mostly just send you hurting back to Braxis City, our little isolated fragment of the real world. A good thing, too, that we’d started slowly. The subsequent weeks of practice had taught me and my teammates that, if anything, our early success had been almost entirely luck. It was still to be determined if I had the same kind of natural skill at overcoming the dangers of d-space that my brother Rash had possessed.

And now, our latest run had ended like the previous six; in total disaster.

I hope you will enjoy this latest story too.  Thanks for subscribing to my mailing list!

Read Part One on Lightspeed Magazine Now!

Permalink

#RPGaDay 31: What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?

What I anticipate most for 2018 is actually getting to play, and getting to play a lot.  Because I’m launching a new company, Level Up Guild, with my partner Elwood Schaad, with the express purpose of running high-end games professionally.

Level Up Guild (like us on Facebook for more updates) won’t be a publishing company; we’re going to specialize in offering and developing tools and resources to help people “level up” their games, to help you became game masters yourselves, and by running really, really nice games for people.

Our first product is a local offering called the Mad Wizards League.  This will be a semi-competitive D&D experience launching at the end of October.  You and three of your friends will form a team and take on the Crucible, a difficult and deadly dungeon.  Your team earns a score based on how well you progress in the adventure, and at the end of a season (about 3 months), the best scoring teams will win prizes.  Other awards will be given for “best team theme” and a few other aspects yet to be named.

The Crucible will be played with high-end custom dungeon terrain, miniatures, and other high end tools to make the experience fun and easy.  We’re hoping to really knit together the local D&D scene around our product, to bring all the various groups together in the spirit of friendly competition.  We will be hosted by a local gaming store to be named soon.

I have no idea if any of it will work.  But I’m really enjoying building, designing, and planning it.  I’ll be talking more about it as we get closer to our release.

I tell you what – this has been really fun. I’ve enjoyed thinking about these questions and exploring things that I had sort of forgotten about how important they were to me. I’m looking forward to making RPGs an integral part of my life again with the Level Up Guild and maybe just running a game or two here and there for fun.  I hope that if you’ve never played an RPG, these posts have inspired you to seek out a chance to experience a role-playing game for yourself.  And if you’re like me and semi-lapsed, I hope you get your gang back together and sally forth once more into the realms of imaginary adventure.  In these times, we need escapism more than ever.  Take a break from saving the real world now and then to save a fictional one. I think you’ll feel better for it.

Until the next post, I thank you for reading!

For the month of August, I have been participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I explored my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.

Permalink

#RPGaDay 30: What is an RPG genre-mashup you would most like to see?

Because I’m not nearly enough up on the broader scene of indie RPG development, I know that nearly anything I come up with for this question is going to be pointed out as something that already exists.  African Steampunk, maybe?  Has anyone done that?  I wouldn’t be surprised.

The great thing about RPGs is that it’s the world’s biggest and most flexible playground for fertile imaginations. The diversity of games out there has never been greater. I think this is both and blessing and a curse.

For someone my age, it’s already hard to get a group together to play something. Add a million different options on top of that, and you’re going to find it less easy to agree on one system or setting. I think the proliferation of online games shows that RPGs are going through the same fragmenting of audiences that every other media has since the Internet came along, and it worries me. I personally have never played an RPG online in a video chat or anything like it because for me, the whole point of tabletop games is the tabletop. I spend entirely too much of my time on a computer as it is, and to do so even more doesn’t appeal to me.

There’s something to be said about a homogeneous landscape because it’s easier to create and find shared experiences.  Increasingly, it feels like we’re divided into tinier and tinier serfdoms.  And that’s okay, so long as people are willing to reach out of their narrow, specific pockets, to take chances on other things that aren’t exactly what they want.  So long as people are still willing to take chances, then we’ll be able to keep gathering around tables and performing the ancient art of communal story-telling.

I’m really happy so many people are living the dream and making RPGs.  It really seems to me to be a golden age of creation. I just hope it is a golden age of play too.  For me, it most definitely is not. Although I’m hoping to change that soon.  More on that tomorrow.

Permalink