Two quick things:
- I contributed to Bygone Bureau’s Best New Blogs of 2010. The other contributions are great, and the blogs they describe (most of them new to me) sound stellar—but it’s worth checking it out for Sleepover SF’s layout and illustrations alone. That’s some bespoke design right there, and it’s beautiful.
- My digital/occult mystery Annabel Scheme is now available for the Kindle. I think it makes a particularly good Kindle read—it’s short and, you know. Kindle-y. It also makes a great spontaneous Kindle Gift, nudge nudge, at a mere $3.99.
There are many invented scenes, places, characters, and events I love in my friend and colleague’s novella Annabel Scheme, but my favorite invention is probably the fictional MMORPG “World of Jesus.” An online VR game set in Palestine at the time of Christ.
Here’s why I’m writing about it. Read Write Web has a short write-up of virtual ancient worlds, mostly created by libraries, museums, and universities:
When the first immersive 3D games came out, I asked a programmer if he knew of anyone who had used that technology to create a Virtual Ancient Rome or Virtual Ancient Athens. I loved the idea of walking around in a place whose current face was changed out of all recognition from its golden age. He shook his head. Creating virtual worlds was way too time consuming and required too much specialist knowledge and so was too expensive. A virtual Rome wouldn’t create the profit that Doom did.
Fast forward a decade and the programming necessary becomes easier to do and the number of people who know how to do it have increased substantially. The costs involved in creating a virtual world have decreased at the same time that academic and scholarly institutions have become much more willing to invest in it.
There are terrific settings here: Rome, Athens, Tenochtitlan, and Beijing’s Forbidden City. But — and I think this is surprising — no Jerusalem. No World of Jesus.
For those who haven’t read the book, on its face, the game’s name sounds like a clever zinger, like something that would be the punchline to a joke on Futurama or at a relatively hip Bible Camp. But what I think Annabel Scheme does particularly well is pushing past surface details and cute references to dwell within its two worlds, the technological and the spiritual, taking both of them seriously. I can’t think of any better manifestation of that than “World of Jesus.” The character who plays the game believes in this world and his place in it: his religious faith and his technological faith are one and the same, turning a mechanical ritual into treasures in heaven. And so we believe in it, because it’s a reflexive, self-allegorizing move too: for the reader, the fictional San Francisco of Scheme and Hu is just as much a virtual world, with its own enticements, traps, rules and ways to break them, as “World of Jesus” is for them. Dreams within dreams, virtualized virtuality.
It helps that Robin brings some of his most evocative and affecting writing in this chapter, too, as his AI narrator Hu becomes “embodied” for the first time in the world of the game:
The first thing I noticed was the light.
My eyes opened in a small, simple house with wooden shutters, and the light was peeking in through the cracks, picking up motes of dust in the air. I’d never seen anything like it. Are there motes in the real world? Scheme’s earrings didn’t show motes.
In World of Jesus, you could choose between looking over your character’s shoulder or through its eyes. I saw myself from behind, then spun around: I’d chosen the girl in silk.
Then I switched to see through my own eyes. All I ever did was look over Scheme’s shoulder. I wanted a new perspective.
The door opened automatically. Outside, the sun beamed in blue-gold through a scrim of tall cedars and fell in wide bars on a dusty, stone-paved street. Everything looked… mildly medieval. I had a feeling that this Jerusalem was not historically accurate.
I lifted my eyes to the sky, and it felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. It was probably just my eight processors all seizing up at once; I wasn’t built for this. Grail servers are optimized to process gobs of text, not 3D graphics, so the carefully-crafted World of Jesus was a new exertion.
I didn’t care. That sky. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. White curls and wisps dotted the glowing blue bowl. I couldn’t do anything except stand and stare.
A voice crackled: “Hu, is that you?”
I turned. It was a woman in a simple gray tunic, with red hair just like Scheme’s.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said—and realized that I spoke like everyone else.
Let me tell you something: I think that if a game company were to make it, and do it well, “World of Jesus” would be a smash hit. If you wanted to get your Warcraft on, you could play as a centurion and slash-and-hack Persian armies and crucify dissidents. Or you could be a Jewish rebel fighting to overthrow the Romans. Maybe you’re a female disciple, fighting to retain women’s leadership roles after Christ’s death. Or you’re a regular person: a tax collector, a fisherman, a falafel merchant. An online RPG that doesn’t necessarily have to be about how many people you can kill. (See: “A four-year-old plays Grand Theft Auto.”)
Many faiths, many ages, many games within games. Or if you wanted to play in story mode: what a story!
One of my favorite moments in Annabel Scheme is the party thrown by a mysterious musician known as “The Beekeeper”:
If you had electronic eyes and night vision—I had both—you would have seen slips of paper passing from person to person. On each slip was a phone number. Each one was different, and there were a dozen circulating in the crowd. Each wandered and blinked like a firefly as kids used their phones, torch-like, to illuminate the number, then passed it on. Here and there, then everywhere, they were dialing numbers, switching their phones to speaker-mode and pushing them up into the air like trophies.
The buzzing was coming from the phones. It was a low, rhythmic drone. At first you couldn’t hear much, but apparently, if you put enough phones on speaker all at once, it starts to get loud.
So that was the trick: There were no speakers because the crowd was the speaker. The bees did not sound so far-off now.
Scheme clenched her teeth. “This is hurting my face.”
Suddenly it stopped. The graveyard fell silent. It was a field of pale arms thrust to the sky, swaying like seaweed. Kids were bouncing silently on the balls of their feet. Waiting.
Then there was a count-off, a tat tat tat tat and then the music started and it was everywhere, megawatts of power flowing out of every palm and pocket. There was no focal point, so bodies were pointed in every direction, ricocheting and chain-reacting. Kids were losing it, jumping up and down, colliding and cuddling in the dark grass.
The music had a clear beat, but it was warped and scratchy, like someone was tuning a giant radio. Snatches of singing would ring out for a moment, then decohere. There was a trumpet that pealed from somewhere very far away…
The music was coming together as kids followed their ears. If your phone was buzzing with bass, you joined the bunched-up sub-woofer section. If it was sending high notes sizzling into the air, you joined the line that snaked around the crowd’s perimeter. The music worked its pattern on the crowd. It was both amazingly high-tech and totally pagan.
The first question I had after reading this was — I wonder if Robin knows about Zaireeka, the Parking Lot Experiments, or the other stuff that The Flaming Lips tried in the late 1990s?
I still don’t know. But I was reminded of that perplexity today reading this interview with Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson that’s all about the amazingly high-tech and totally pagan crap that the Lips tried before exploding with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. Complete with YouTube videos, several of which were new to me.
If you were taken with either (Scheme or the Lips), try both.
I’ve got a Significant Objects story-let up today! Check it out here; get some more context here. There’s a very strong indication that it has something to do with the mysterious disappearance of Annabel Scheme… can you spot the clue?
I’m launching a program today that I’m really excited about. The idea is this: I wrote and printed Annabel Scheme; it’s out there in the world, people are reading it, and I’m getting good feedback. Cool. But I have to say, what I really lust after—maybe irrationally—is like… Annabel Scheme fan-fic. Images of Scheme herself, or Sebastian Dexter or Jack Zapp, by some kid at deviantART. Tracks from the Beekeeper’s server. Remixes, reimaginings, and reboots!
I’m under no illusions; this is asking a lot. People want to appropriate and remix the pantheon: Batman, He-Man, Sherlock Holmes. Who cares about some new story that’s only existed for two months and only a few thousand people even know about?
Economists talk about using well-designed incentives to correct market distortions or to encourage a certain kind of development. But to my knowledge—please tell me if I’m wrong—nobody’s ever released a piece of work under a Creative Commons license with much of an incentive attached. Usually it’s just: “Hey, do something… with this… if you want?”
So, I’m experimenting with a Remix Fund for Annabel Scheme.
There’s an important dimension to the fund that I really like, but am having a hard time explaining clearly: You can pitch an idea that you yourself want to do, of course, e.g. you’re an artist and you want to draw a portrait of Annabel Scheme and you’d like $400 for your efforts. But you can also pitch an idea that you’d like someone else to do. It could be a friend of yours, of course; it could also be someone whose work you admire, e.g. another writer you dig, a webcomic creator you love.
This is a bit tricky, obviously, because, like, don’t the creator get any say in the matter? Of course they do: if an idea pitched on someone else’s behalf gets the green light, I’ll email them and explain what’s up. I actually have a theory that this could be a powerful message to get: “Hey, out there in the world there is someone who’s a big fan of yours, and they set it up so that you could do this mini-project and get paid for it.” I don’t know; maybe it will be too out-of-the-blue. “Wait, what? Who are you? Annabel WHAT?” But I’m hopeful, and I want to try it out, because that’s the only way we’ll know for sure.
Anyway, this is fair game for Snarkmarket readers, obviously, so check it out.
In 2010, every media budget should have a line item for remixes!
Increasingly, I’m convinced that no media is successful or even complete until it’s been transformed or extended. I know this is not super-controversial—it’s sort of the Creative Commons party line—but it turns out things don’t transform themselves! A lot of media gets CC-licensed and then just sits there.
I’m also influenced by Henry Jenkins’ notion that the most successful fictional worlds (Star Wars, Harry Potter, and so on) are not so much straight narrative stories as they are “platforms” for people to build on. You need a central story to get people excited about the platform in the first place, but then you also need lots of hooks for them to extend it, both formally (movies, comics, video games) and informally (fan-fiction, fan films, art). The central story is like the iPhone; the extensions are like the App Store! (And P.S., the platform-worlds aren’t all robots and wizards. Ulysses is a platform, too.)
Okay so, I’m a long way away from building a platform on that scale, but it’s fun to sort of “act it out,” even at this stage. Thus, when patron-guests arrived at the Annabel Scheme launch party, they were presented with a piece of evidence from Scheme’s collection. The evidence was all dated and tagged in ziploc bags; it was all very strange.
The mission: come up with the story behind the evidence. There was a Narrative Evidence Research Database collection station set up, off to one side of the party, to capture these stories. Here’s a taste of what people recorded:
I have to say, it is unreal to see other people saying “banana box” and “Sebastian Dexter” and “Annabel” on camera. It really is the next level. Somebody reads the book, enjoys it, even tweets or blogs about it: awesome. I mean, just really wonderful. But somebody acts it out? Sublime.
There’s more to come on this front—I’ve allocated $1000 from the book’s budget for a remix fund, and next week, I’m going to post a form where people will be able to submit pitches. After that, the book’s patrons will all vote on their favorites, and those projects will get funded. Hey: things don’t transform themselves.
Our own indispensable @SaheliDatta points to Slate’s takedown of the proliferating book-trailer genre. The column is skeptical of book trailers, but I tend to find them charming. I remember loving the idea when I first ran across it, and now we’ve got several exemplars of the form, like the Little Prince Pop-Up Book trailer:
I like the way book trailers attempt to light up your expectation for a printed page by teasing you with an entirely different sort of temptation. A good book trailer is like good food photography. I don’t think of the primary seduction of a meal as being visual, but a well-done food photo evokes everything non-visual about a meal — taste, scent, texture. Similarly, I don’t typically think of the primary seduction of a book as being its atmosphere or aesthetic, but this is what a good book trailer (or animated book cover) evokes — the environment the book will create around you as you read it.
Obligatory Miranda July link. Obligatory Miranda July book trailer: