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spooky action at a distance

a SFF & IF review

IF review: voice and cohesion in “Birdland”

Birdland, by Brendan Patrick Hennessy, is playable here: http://birdland.camp/

(Birdland is another Twine game, but a much more complex and multi-branching one than most of the Twine I’ve played so far. It has a statistics system, where the choices that the reader makes have a direct influence on what further choices they will be able to make. I note that it has enormous replay value, something that is new to me in IF that I’ve read.)

There’s been a whole lot of press and positive buzz about Birdland, and I am not likely to be original in my effusive praise of the thing, but I have been having a lot of thoughts about the nature of the interactive part of interactive fiction, especially after my experience with First Draft of the Revolution, and Birdland is an example of something I’m still struggling to articulate: how to manage character creation and ‘game’ elements while keeping a consistent narrative voice and a cohesive sense of the protagonist’s personality.

So this is less of a review and more of a meditation on style.

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FEATURE: awards season recommendations

It’s the time of year when awards nominations are announced: when a community comes together to honor the most notable writing and achievements of their members, when people ask for reminders on social media about what exactly constitutes a specific award category, when conversations about biasing voting are held. I’m talking, of course, about the XYZZY awards, the IF community’s annual celebration of the year’s most innovative text pieces.

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INTERVIEW: Max Gladstone on “Choice of the Deathless”, “City’s Thirst”, and the Craft universe

Today, Spooky Action at a Distance brings you something slightly different! We sat down to chat with Max Gladstone, John W. Campbell Award-nominated SFF and IF author, creator of the Craft Sequence novels (Last First Snow is the latest), Choice of the Deathless, The City’s Thirst and Bookburners. Below, he shares his thoughts about writing in the Craft universe for Choice of Games, what interactive and linear narrative share in common, and crafting choices with meaningful impact.

Thanks, Max! We appreciate it.

The Craft Sequence universe spans both interactive fiction and non-interactive fiction. What’s it like writing in the same world in two different formats? Do you think of interactive fiction as being a separate genre from non-interactive fiction?

Max: “Genre” is a very interesting word in this context—interactive fiction is a different form, for sure, and the stories crystalized around that form have developed their own genre markers.  Think about the “Bioware RPG”: there’s the form of action RPG, a meld of real-time combat scenarios and “out of combat” talk in which most choices are made through a conversation tree.  Then there are genre markers—like the way the games hinge on the navigation of party relationships and the development of romance.  Those genres are kind of… orthogonal to what we think of as genre markers in non-interactive fiction, if that makes any sense?  It doesn’t really matter whether the game has spaceships in it or not—is the game fundamentally about love, or blowing things up?  Or something else entirely?

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REVIEW THEME #2: Writing in Games; Games in Writing

Games about writing; writing about playing games. The second themed review exchange. Two rec lists; two reviews.

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SFF REVIEW: design structure in “21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)”

This week’s story is “21 Steps to Enlightenment” by LaShawn M. Wanak. Published February 2014 in Strange Horizons, it can be found here: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/20140203/steps-f.shtml

Continuing last week’s theme of “elaborately structured speculative fiction with numerals in the title”, Wanak’s story immediately sank its hooks into me when I discovered it.

Coming to—or re-entering—the world of SFF very late, I’m aware there’s a lot of great fiction out there that I’ve missed and which generated a lot of buzz when it was published. Most of of my access to pre-2015 speculative fiction comes in the form of deep diving into the bibliographies of authors where I’ve found something I loved; sometimes, though, I find myself leafing through old issues of Clarkesworld and Tor and Strange Horizons.

Which is great, because sometimes you find gems like “21 Steps to Enlightenment”. It’s a piece of magical realism which explores the idea of spiral staircases that simply appear in the world, and that hold dizzying epiphanies at the tops for their climbers. Mostly, Isa narrates, in a series of vignettes and meditations, her own experiences with these structures. How they’ve affected her, how they affect other people. And slowly, the story of her family unfolds; the complex telling of a generational history.

I’ll confess from the outset that I love these sort of deliberate, separated structures.

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SFF REVIEW – achronism and agency in “Seven Cups of Coffee”

Today’s work is A. C. Wise’s “Seven Cups of Coffee”, published here in the March 2016 issue of Clarkesworld: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/wise_03_16/

I knew I wanted to write about “Seven Cups of Coffee” from the moment I finished it; I’ve been returning to its exquisite structure in idle moments for several weeks now. The interplay of precise anchor points and looping, loping temporal shifts is a brilliant speculative fiction example of what I gravitate to within interactive fiction; the mechanic wedded seamlessly to the thematic, unable to see seams or scars. But despite my interest in narrative design, and my impression of this story as a well-crafted whole, I found “Seven Cups of Coffee” difficult to speak of precisely.

Looking back, that shouldn’t have surprised me.

Wise’s piece is a time-travel tale; it’s a story of a woman who, rejected by her family for being a lesbian, and driven by economic deprivation, agrees to a mysterious stranger’s offer to travel back in time to act as a “cleaning woman” – in fact, committing murder to order. The innocuous phrase allows our narrator to convince herself that she is simply arranging an accident for her target instead of ending a specific, individual life. Haunted by the murder, the narrator returns to attempt to halt the events she set in motion; instead, she falls in love. Again and again, our protagonist tries to change her lover’s fate. Again and again, she fails.

That’s the chronological version, at least. Far less striking when I tell it that way.

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IF REVIEW – travel & the iterative self: “Detritus”

Playable for free online here: http://maryhamilton.co.uk/detritus/

Mary Hamilton’s “Detritus”, like last week’s game, is written in Twine – but unlike “Solarium”, “Detritus” is not using Twine to tell a story so much as to experiment with the creation of a self – which, of course, is a kind of story in its own right.

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REVIEW THEME #1: spies, deception, and disguise

Spies, deception, disguise: our first review exchange. Two rec lists and two reviews.

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Spooky Action At A Distance – Welcome

Welcome to Spooky Action at a Distance, an IF/SFF review. This blog is a joint project between Arkady Martine and Cat Manning, covering exciting new writing in the disparate-but-overlapping narrative circles we love and work in. There’s so much cool stuff being published in both speculative and interactive fiction right now that it can be easy to miss exceptional, exciting work.

Cat: Arkady and I have had many conversations about how speculative fiction and interactive fiction speak to and can influence one another profoundly and productively. Interactive fiction takes up many of the same themes that SFF is interested in, and SFF plays with structure in ways that feel distinctly new. Even so, we aren’t yet really talking to each other as creative communities. We can learn from one another.

At the same time, we both became aware of the real need for more short SFF fiction and interactive fiction reviews — places to have conversations about the abundance of excellent, compelling, and diverse SFF & IF being published today. However: both of us are writers, and there are genuine ethical arguments against reviewing in the same space one is writing in. I don’t believe that this always has to be the case, and I’ve reviewed interactive fiction before while writing my own — and Arkady reviews for Strange Horizons (though mostly novel-length work.) But it was a concern we were both aware of — and combined with our growing interest in having our communities talk to one another …

… we came up with the idea of working together on an exchange: a review trade where we each explore the rich offerings in a field which we’re interested in or enthusiastic about, but isn’t our primary genre.

Spooky Action at a Distance comes from the idea of quantum entanglement — how two particles can interact in such a way that the state of each particle cannot be described independently. They don’t touch, but they mutually influence each other across a distance. Interactive fiction and speculative fiction both have porous boundaries. Our fields are constantly being redefined: as we create and innovate and complicate genre boundaries. Arkady and I want to acknowledge and explore the common threads in IF and SFF — it’s well past due.

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