Immediate Gratification: The Joy of Improvisational Creation

I spent the weekend at Total Confusion 28 where, in addition to general merrymaking and running a Mutant Future duology called Out of the Fridge/Into the Freezer (I will post about that some day soon), I engaged in my third annual attempt to take the (regional) crown of Iron GM. For those not in the know (and too riveted to click the provided link) Iron GM is to tabletop role-playing games (primarily Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) what Iron Chef is to cooking: given a limited amount of time and a collection of disparate, secret-until-it’s-go-time ingredients, you are tasked with creating a convention scenario (you’ll note that the very idea of Iron GM  breaks a lot of those rules) on the spot for real live gamers instead of a panel of professional judges.

 

The whole concept of Iron GM appeals to me. Much of my writing is performed similarly: when I feel the need to create but I can’t muster up any good ideas, I solicit my friends to throw random story elements (settings, protagonists, challenges and so on) at me and then I force myself to write with those elements, finishing a story of between 1000 and 2000 words in an hour or two. The result is always a little rough around the edges, but more often than not, I find that I usually really like at least the concept of the story, if not the particulars of the prose or pacing (two elements that I believe require real polish to get right). Iron GM scratches a similar itch for me, but with one spectacular addition: an audience. Sure, a flash fiction as previously described can garner some atta-boys and “Likes” from friends, but the people at the table in Iron GM are strangers by requirement — at least at the time of the game; some of those players turn out to be lifelong friends.

 

Gamermastering a tabletop role-playing game is one of the most rewarding, if ephemeral, creative undertakings I know. It comes in second to writing simply, I think, because the written word lives on after the act of creation and may even see a much larger than originally intended audience. It might even live forever (for varying definitions of “forever”; even Gilgamesh hasn’t been around forever, since we’re still going on). Bust, as stated, it beats writing on the “immediate gratification” metric, since it requires a group of people to appreciate it (these people happen to be co-authors in this undertaking, of course, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this post). Many game masters meticulously craft worlds, study rule books and prepare adventures before they actually sit down behind the screen and begin play. I have done that on occasion, but I have always preferred running by the seat of my pants. I prefer a relatively “light” rules set, one that is easy to bend to my will without getting bogged down in fiddly bits (which, of course, makes D&D 3.5 a terrible choice, thereby making it a brilliant choice for competition). That is not to say I don’t like rules. I think they are essential to provide a structure where the players feel like they have agency in the game and a way to measure how “fair” the game is. Having to look rules up in the middle of play brings everything grinding to a halt, so fewer rules with consistent implementation serve my purposes better.

 

This is in no small part due to a very important and, frankly, fun aspect of improvisational GMing: the players define the game as much as I. There’s an adage among game masters, paraphrased from improvisational theater: say, “Yes, but…” Players who have a toolset in their hands (i.e. the rules as they relate to their character) and a clear sense of agency (based on the choices you put before them, either implicit or explicit) enhance any game, especially an improvisational one since, well, I might not even know where I am going with this thing. Granted, this is slightly less true during the Iron GM competition, if only because there is a time limit and part of the grading is based on whether the adventure was completed to satisfaction. Two years in a row now, time has run out for me in the boss fight finale.

 

There is a dark side to the immediate gratification I get from improvisational creation, especially the flash writing that I described above. For me, the act of completion, of seeing a story through to its end, is the real joy. To have created such a thing fills me we a sense of accomplishment. But also as I stated above, the real work is in the polish, the cleaning up of the inevitable failures of such a speedy creation: inconsistencies of plot and character, clumsy prose, ideas only hinted at that need fleshing out, and so on. That stuff is hard and, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, I’ve already rolled over, smoked a cigarette and am ready to go to sleep. I have countless (I mean I have never counted them, out of fear of disappointing myself) first draft short stories desperately in need of revision that I have never gone back to simply because they are, emotionally for me anyway, “done.”

The Too High Bar

The very first story I remember writing was a fantasy. I don’t recall how old I was, although I am fairly sure I was under 10 because I had not yet discovered Dungeons and Dragons, but I do remember writing it in one of those black and white covered composition books. Nor do I recall anything of the story itself, except that it was about a champion on a quest to slay a dragon. Strangely, I do have a very specific memory of writing it, particularly at a moment when I described how the dragon’s eyes “glew” with fierce light and my mother corrected me that it was “glowed.” I recall arguing, as well, holding up “blow” and “blew” as evidence that she was surely wrong. I do not remember whether I changed it. I wish I still had that notebook. I would like to know more about what I wrote, perhaps even uncover what it was inspired by. I imagine that nothing had so great an influence on that story as the Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon, which was my first exposure to Tolkien.

 

I love fantasy, especially the “Tolkienesque” kind, with elves and dwarves and heroes and Dark Lords and all the other trappings. I love Tolkien’s work in particular, but to be honest I am not that discerning at times. For example, to my shame The Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies are as close to my heart as is Lord of the Rings. Not because they rival the good Professor’s work in skill and craft, of course, but because of where they landed in my formative reading experience. In gaming, both table top and electronic, that flavor of fantasy is by far my favorite. All that said, I find that I have a difficult time writing fantasy. As I just began rereading The Lord of the Rings again — the mark of great literature is, I think, that one can revisit it again and again and always find something both meaningful and new in it, because the great works are able to speak to us across the changing landscapes of our lives — I think I finally hit upon why I have such difficulty with writing fantasy:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien.

 

In particular, I will never be able to craft a world in the way that he did, with its deep history and complex languages. The fact is, I am far more interested in storytelling than world building. The problem is that the definition of fantasy for me, what makes great fantasy so rich and powerful, is a great fantastic world that is complex, cohesive and real feeling. That is what Tolkien created in me with his work, and now when I desire to write a fantasy, to tell stories about champions hunting evil dragons, I cannot help but see how thin and brittle the world in which I place that story is. The bar Tolkien set is too high for me to reach and so I often do not try at all.

 

What I found I prefer, as far as world building is concerned, is to take something familiar, whether it is our own world or the typical medieval fantasy world or any other archetypal setting, and season it with the unfamiliar. When it comes to fantasy, though, this is something that is all too common and I dread the idea of being another terrible Tolkien imitator, making Middle Earth with cat folk, for example. Unfortunately, I believe some stories belong in certain genres and are best told in those genres, which leaves me at a loss sometimes when I have a story to write that is absolutely, unequivocally a fantasy story. A world of knights and ogres and wizards and dragons brings with it a host of implicit qualities that aid the author in communicating with the audience, conveying meaning easily while offering accessible opportunities to subvert assumptions. Every genre is a toolbox with which the writer builds a story with the help of a genre savvy audience. To feel a genre closed off from me, especially one I so love, because of my own inadequacies is, to say the least, unpleasant.

 

This is a limitation I do not feel with other genres. If I have difficulties with any other genre in this way, it would be hard science fiction and that is only because I am not a scientist or even an engineer and therefore do not know a lot of things I should know in order to write such a story. Even so, I do read a lot of science and have access to the Internet, so I have those two tools — knowing which questions to ask and where to go about finding the answers — which usually suffice for any given story I am likely to want to write. There is no equivalent in fantasy, no way to Google up a long and detailed history of a particular region so the singular chapter the protagonists spend in the place is as real and convincing as life outside the reader’s window. Instead, I find myself relying in writing on a skill that has served me well in game-mastering table top role-playing games: treating the world like an old time Hollywood movie set, all veneer and no substance. That works when at a table, helping players navigate a monster riddled maze or dragon-haunted badlands. Players see through that sort of thing and don’t care because they are engaged in the game itself; readers are not so forgiving, I don’t think. Or, at least, I am not, which brings us back around to the problem itself:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien. The bar is too high.

Teledildonics: Sex and Futurism

Quick Edit: First draft was a little on the harsh side. I don’t know John Aziz or his work. That said, I still hold the linked article is not very well written.

 

Over at The Week writer John Aziz discusses (poorly) the emerging field of teledildonics. For those without their finger (or whatever) on the pulse of sex-tech, teledildonics is what Geordie LaForge might call web enabled sex toys, designed for use by individuals on opposite sides of an internet connection — which could be in the other room or in orbit.

Aziz says

It’s easy to condemn such things as weird or bizarre.

And I’d say that’s for good reason: Hooking up via vibrating plastic accessories attached to an internet-connected computer is clearly not the most obvious way for two people to be intimate. It is rather like a Rube Goldberg machine: an extremely complicated solution to a simple problem. Why go to such trouble to create virtual sexual experiences when real-world sex is possible without all the technology getting in the way?

In addition to being insulting, the above is obtuse. Why go through the trouble? Perhaps because a spouse or lover is separated by geographical distance. Perhaps because that lover has a medical condition that prohibits intimate interpersonal contact. or, perhaps, because it is fun to do something a little different — you know, some of the same sorts of reasons people include non-tele-dildonics in their love lives.

Aziz notes the importance of “porn” in advancing technology (though he fails to qualify that as “consumer technology” which is a relatively important distinction) but then steps over the line to suggest its inevitable powerful impact on robotics. Futuristic sex robots are not likely to push the technology in the same ways as video buffering, however. The adult industry as refined technology and applied it to consumers in new ways, but high end R&D is outside that industry’s purview. Sex robots won’t arise from the adult industry, but may well overtake it when lifelike androids become standard in our culture (which may never come to pass, of course).

Ultimately, sex with robots arises from the same place of desire as does sex with prostitutes: it promises (however unrealistically) to be both novel and to fulfilling in a way that sex with a partner (as in an equal) cannot be because partnership demands both familiarity and equitibility of pleasure. Sexbots would, one assumes, be whatever the user desired and also do whatever the user desired — like picking a girl up out of the lineup of the Bunny Ranch but with none of the human (or legal) restrictions).

More likely than the emergence anytime soon of the sexbot will be the integration of teledildonics into the adult industry. The convergence of cam girls and teledildonics seems not just inevitable, but natural. How it will be construed in regards to anti-prostitution laws is an open question and certainly one worth exploring. Include the ever-inching-forward technology of virtual reality and the future looks bright for both the long distance relationship and the virtual sex worker.

The Distraction of Imitation

Recently, I picked up from the library The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. I have a mind to give writing for the tween/young adult audience, just to see if it suits me. Having read most of the Harry Potter series, as well as a number of older suggested books like the Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, I chose to read Percy Jackson & The Olympians  because of its popularity. After all, how better to understand the genre than to examine its principal examples.

 

The problem is, as I read The Lightning thief, I am distracted by its similarity to, even apparent imitation of, the Harry Potter series. Lest there be any confusion, however, I am not suggesting that Riordan’s writing is bad or a simple pastiche of Harry Potter. The prose is clear and fast paced, the characters distinctive if not especially deep (so far), and the reliance upon Greek mythology an interesting counterpoint to Rowling’s fairy tale inspired magical world. Rather, the tropes — which existed well before Harry potter, but were so perfectly distilled in that series — are constantly pulling me out of the narrative.

 

Harry was an orphan whose parents were killed when the villain came to kill Harry. Percy’s mother was killed when the monsters came to get Percy. Harry’s Aunt and Uncle; Percy’s step father. Hogwarts; Camp Half Blood. Slitheren; Ares’ cabin. Hermione; Annabeth. Ron; Grover. Lightning scar; lightning.

 

Of course, things don’t line up perfectly, but the point is that the presence of these tropes makes the genre glaringly obvious. YOU ARE READING A 5TH GRADE BOYS FANTASY ADVENTURE BOOK, proclaims the sub-text, so loudly and rudely that the actual-text gets drowned out. It is especially problematic in literature, because unlike film or comic books, say, where there may be striking visuals or other effects to distract you, all there are here are the words. Like a dream or a hazy memory, you build in your mind the world of the book from the lumber of your experiences, including previous entertainment you have consumed. This means that no matter how different the flavor (Greek mythology versus fairy tales) the tropes summon up the structure of the other. (Note that all of this is easily reversible if you are of a generation where you encounter Percy Jackson before Harry Potter; as an old tabletop gamer, I have many a times shuddered upon hearing how D&D stole X or Y from World of Warcraft.)

 

All that said, while these similarities are a distraction for me, I do not know they are actually a problem. They may, in fact, be a feature. Those tropes exist and become tropes for a reason. They must speak to the intended audience in a way that they do not speak to me as a jaded old adult. In fact, a quick survey of YA fantasy series summaries suggests many of these tropes are nigh prerequisites. I am forced to wonder, then, where do books that buck these trends fit in — in libraries, on kids’ bookshelves and on the Goodreads and bestseller lists.

 

For my part, I will finish The Lightning Thief and perhaps move on to the following books if I find Percy a compelling, if familiar, hero. I will read some of the other books touted regularly as great examples of young readers/adults lit, and I will write that story that is burning at the back of my brain — whether or not it fits the tropes so apparently prevalent in the genre. I can only know if the genre is a good fit for me by experimenting with it, after all.