(4) Tue May 01 2012 09:27 Constellation Games Author Commentary #23, "Trust Us, We're Expert Systems":
I do believe it's time for a super dark relationship chapter. That's
what I believed when I wrote this, anyway. Clearly I was eager to keep landing the body blows on Ariel after chapter 22.
It's always sadder when characters bring about their own destruction than when someone else screws them over. In the second draft this episode was a little less of a
downer, because while Ariel was living in coffee shop exile he had a
great idea for a mobile app he could write very quickly and sell to
recoup some of his losses from the last chapter. So all the awful
stuff between him and Dana and Jenny still happened, but at least we
ended on a positive note. Who needs that, right? Just hang tough.
I cut out the "mobile app" subplot because it added a lot of story
complexity for no real benefit. Ariel's already working on a software
project, so why add another one? He puts out a press release for it
next chapter, but I just turned it into a press release for the
Sayable Spice: Earth Remix demo. Works fine.
I'll talk about the proposed app after the miscellaneous
commentary, because this week's is a little light and next week's
will probably be huge. (Spoiler: Tetsuo comes to Earth.)
Oh, and here's last week's Twitter archive.
- Not really happy with the chapter title. I like the joke,
but it barely fits the events of the chapter.
- "They make cradles in all sizes." is probably my favorite Jenny
line in the book. Jenny's comedy is more context-dependent than Ariel's or Tetsuo's. Like,
I think her most memorable line is (are you sitting down?):
- The scene with Dana went back and forth between being "real life"
and being a blog post. This meant that Dana went back and forth
between being "Dana" and being "Svetlana", and she and Ariel went
from frankly discussing what happened in chapter 22 to maintaining
the fiction that there was a fire. Except I forgot to change that
last one back. So Dana still says "lost in the fire." I caught this
very late in the publishing process and asked Kate to fix it by
putting "fire" in scare quotes.
The blog post portion got truncated to what Ariel writes in the
coffee shop afterwards. For the third draft I decided he's smart
enough at this point not to air his dirty laundry with Jenny on his
- I coulda turned the business AI trojan into a whole separate
story, but it's just a little
bit of exposition showing Dana Light's odd view of what constitutes
"human behavior". That's life... a-life, that is!
- No one [told me they] noticed the reference to the Slow People in Her's chapter 21 monologue. Which is good, I didn't want you to notice it. I think if you did, you'd stumble in your reading and it would wreck the scene. I want it to be a situation where you go back and find it later and it BLOWS YOUR MIND, MAN.
Originally that was the book's first mention of Slow People, but that's no good, so I backdated the subplot where Krakowski asks Ariel to listen for word of them.
You'll find out who the Slow People are soon enough, I got other plot threads I gotta take care of.
Okay, about that mobile app. One thing that barely shows up in
Constellation Games, but was very important in "Vanilla", is
the contact audit. To sponsor an ET for an American visa (as Ariel
did for Curic and Bai is now doing for Tetsuo), you need to register
with the BEA as a contactee. You're supposed to do the same if
you have any prolonged or repeated contact with ETs, although the
Greenland Treaty is quickly making that unenforcable.
All registered contactees need to come in to their local field
office twice a year for a sit-down interview about all the ETs they've
encountered over the past six months. It's generally a formality; the
point is to make contact with ETs a pain in the ass and, on the
margin, discourage people from having anything to do with the
Ariel's mobile app idea was a "contact manager", a way of taking
the pain out of your contact audit. Whenever you meet an ET you just
take a picture of them—something you were going to do
anyway—and enter their name. Then your contact audit is
effectively just a slideshow.
In the second draft, Ariel's key business insight was that although
relatively few people really need this app, a lot of people want to
be the sort of person who needs it, so they'd buy it
aspirationally. Clever idea, but not really necessary for the story, so out it
That's all I got. Tune in next week for the TETSUOUS continuation, in which Ariel will say "Jesus Christ the great moral teacher!"
Image credits: Tim Patterson, Doug Kline.
← Last week | Next week →
(6) Tue May 08 2012 09:07 Constellation Games Author Commentary #24, "Homebrew":
Tetsuo's back, and he brought exposition! This week we take a break
from beating up Ariel, and just startle him a lot while he's
This week's Twitter feed is almost entirely devoted to Tetsuo's
first day on Earth. Today also marks the start of the Great Microblog
Bonus Content Migration. Prior to this point, Ariel's feed was where it
was at. But Ariel's now too busy to tweet a lot, and he'll stay busy
until the end of the book. Tetsuo's feed will be
picking up the slack, chronicling his adventures on Earth and showing
what the other characters are doing as the focus of the novel tightens
around Ariel. If you're following Ariel but not Tetsuo, this is the
week to get on the Tetsuo Train (patent pending).
(NB. I won't be setting a Twitter profile image for Tetsuo because the default image is a much better depiction of him than anything I could come up with.)
Speaking of Twitter feeds, here's
last week's. And before we get started, some extratextual comments:
that the paperback is out, you can get it from your regular source for
and Noble or Amazon,
or order it from a bookstore through Ingram, or is there any chance a
bookstore might proactively stock it based on the radioactively
glowing Publishers Weekly review? I wouldn't depend on it, but that would be nice. Note that the paperback is the only
thing you can get from your usual source—bonuses are only
available from the C&G
store, and the ebook edition won't be out until serialization
wraps up at the end of July.
I'm not sure when people who are getting bonus stories and USB keys
will be receiving them, so lemme just tell you this now. For our
mutual peace of mind, I ask that you hold off reading those stories
until you finish the novel. "Dana no Chousen" takes place after the
novel; "Found Objects" casually blows two of the Part Three reveals;
and "The Time Somn Died" is, in my opinion, actually incomprehensible
unless you've read the whole book and know a lot more about Ashley and
the Constellation than you do now.
You can read "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans" anytime, even though it
"takes place" after the novel. It's got basic spoilers like "Tetsuo
still teaches at UT Austin", but guess what, I just spoiled you on
Finally, an obligatory reminder: although has been an instance where the
week's chapter didn't show up in the web archive, the emails are
consistently sent out every week, and if you didn't get a chapter it's
almost certainly in your spam folder.
Now on to real commentary. I wrote the contact event as a positive
catastrophe, a shocking world-changing event out of nowhere which is
absolutely wonderful. These days a catastrophe leaves a maelstrom of
frantic Internet communication in its wake, a stew of information and
guesses and wishful thinking and propaganda that slowly settle into an
agreed-upon set of facts and opinions and crackpot theories.
This process has been happening in the background throughout the
novel. You've only seen glimpses of it (the bits that Ariel
contributes), but it's very important, because that's how I've been
controlling the flow of the worldbuilding: flooding the zone with
misinformation and letting the truth precipitate out when I'm ready to
use it dramatically.
There must be CDBOEGOACC games about Ragtime and the Slow People.
But I can't tell you all this stuff at once. There'd be no space for a
story. My Creative License-ish solution is there's lots of
information about this stuff once you know where to look, but no human
consensus about what information is accurate. It's a mess of
half-assed opinions mixed up with misinformation and conspiracy
theory, with no way of judging the truth of the matter. (Bai will
complain about this next week.)
It was easy to control the flow of information early in the novel,
when I had the world's governments working on my behalf. In "Found
Objects" Jenny has a hard time getting some basic information, because
that story takes place during chapter 5. But with the Greenland Treaty
in effect, the half-life of secrets has declined dramatically, and the
worldbuilding is starting to flood the story.
But I still have control over one thing. Ariel is the
narrator. There are secrets he has to keep, details he considers
unimportant, and one thing he just doesn't want to tell
you. Eventually he'll figure out the central mystery of the book, and
he won't tell you that either. (Don't worry, I won't leave you
hanging.) With Tetsuo blabbing all the stuff the Constellation played
down in the first half of the book, Ariel's scheming and obstinacy and
fear of embarrassment are my secret weapons for maintaining a
relatively even pacing.
That was the big-think piece, now for the misc:
- One of the big reasons I rewrote the press release, instead of
cutting it along with the rest of the contact manager subplot, is
it's the first explicit statement of what all the ETs with Greenland
Treaty visas are doing on Earth. They're copying stuff. The way
Curic scanned Ariel's college notebooks, and the way all the Ip Shkoy
computer games and hardware were put into the CDBOEGOACC.
- I love the press release's self-loathing and final descent into
madness, and how easy it is for Dana to "fix" it. That's basically
what I'd write if I had to write a press release.
- I don't think "you fucking chiselers" fits terribly well (it's
left over from the "contact manager" app, which cost $0.99), but it
was a darling I couldn't bear to kill.
- Thanks to A.K., registered medical marijuana patient, for
coming up with the brand name of Jenny's pot. The legalization of marijuana in this universe was established back in chapter 6. Completists will also want to check the microblog archive for chapter 8.
- You got that Tetsuo doesn't buy Ariel's story about the house
fire, right? But he's not pushing it. Good, we're on the same
page. Also, you got the "little computer people" reference, yeah? I
knew I could count on you.
- I had a definite personality in mind for Tetsuo on Earth, around
humans other than Ariel: the elderly European professor in a 1930s
movie who flirts shamelessly with every woman he sees under the
understanding that nothing will come of it. Like if Bela Lugosi's
Dracula wasn't a vampire, just a really suave guy.
As you'll soon see in Tetsuo's Twitter feed, the "nothing will come
of it" understanding does not hold for Alien women.
- Even in the near future, I don't think a consumer phone-camera would be sensitive enough to make possible the constellation-recognizing app Ariel uses here. It's a cool idea, though. All it takes is a little... Creative License.
- We get our first gameplay glimpse of Temple
Sphere. Longtime readers may remember (but readers who just
picked up the paperback are more likely to remember) that Ariel
reviewed Quexx, TS's game-within-a-game, way back in chapter
2. The prequel Ariel worked on is Recoil, which also showed up
in chapter 2, as the game that made
of Ariel. It's the Marathon to TS's Halo.
In the second draft this was the first scene that really made use of Ariel's prior work for Reflex Games. Reflex becomes very important as early as next week, so I went back and backfilled it a bit, notably by adding the scene at the Reflex office in chapter 5.
- The handheld computer on the cover of Constellation Games
is a replica of one owned by Dieue the Four-Fisted. You can see his
name on the back cover, written in solder. If you get "Pey Shkoy
Benefits Humans" you'll be able to transliterate all the script on
the cover—it's either words that show up in the book (like
"Dieue"), or it's English written in Pey Shkoy script.
- As a bonus for commentary readers, I'm telling you straight up
that you're not going to get a lot more solid information about
Ragtime than you get in Tetsuo's initial description here. A lot of
mysteries will be resolved by the end of the book, but not this
one. I do have an explanation for the mystery, and if I write a sequel
it'll probably go in there.
Because I don't explain the mystery, my whole writing group said I
should cut Ragtime from the novel. Fools! The mystery is what's
important. But for some reason readers didn't see it that way.
So: after selling the book I wrote a new scene, the final Ariel/Tetsuo
scene. That scene will call back to this chapter's conversation under the night
sky, how Ariel freaked out about Ragtime and how Tetsuo reacted. If
I've done my job, that scene will change the way you look
at Tetsuo. Look for it!
The beefiest commentary yet? I'm not going back to check. Instead I'm looking forward, to next week, when Tetsuo will say, "What were you smoking? Perhaps it was crack!"
Image credits: Tim Patterson, Matt Lancashire, Mark, Doug Kline.
← Last week | Next week →
(7) Wed May 09 2012 12:53 Constellation Games Spoiler Conversation:
I don't know how much traffic this will get, but now that the paperbacks are being sent out, I'm setting up this post for readers of my commentary posts who have read the whole book. Here you can comment on and ask questions about the chapters that haven't been serialized yet, or the novel as a whole. So have at it! I'll compile anything interesting that comes out of this and include it in the appropriate commentary posts.
Sun May 13 2012 10:05 I WILL FLY:
My in-laws gave us a sheet-feed scanner, so I've been scanning a box of my old school stuff, saved for posterity (which is now) by my mother. I'll be putting the prize of the collection online tomorrow, but in honor of Mother's Day I wanted to share this thing I drew in 1985, which was too big to scan so I took a picture:
It's a drawing full of mysteries. Some of my drawings were labeled, either by myself ("Triciratops") or by Mom ("helicopter"), but I don't know what that thing hovering above the ocean is or what inside the ocean is saying "I WILL FLY". (Maybe another flying fish like the one on the left?) I do know what's with the diacritical marks. I think the spelling book we used (probably Basic Goals in Spelling--I remembered it used "snurks" to refer to words not spelled as pronounced) taught us to mark up words that way to indicate their pronunciation.
Happy Mother's Day!
(3) Mon May 14 2012 14:11 A Time Machine And Other Poems:
Among my recent childhood scans were a number of books, written in pencil and bound with staples and tape. One of the earliest is a six-page chapbook of poetry called A Time Machine and Other Poems.
For the first time ever, I now present A Time Machine as it was originally intended to be seen: on the Internet. I wrote these poems sometime between the ages of 6 and 8, and I'm much happier showing them to you than the poems I wrote when I was a teenager. I think you will see that certain themes have been constants in my writing my entire life.
A note on the text: The poems were originally formatted as free verse, but they're clearly not free verse, so I reformatted them. I've corrected the spelling throughout except in one case where it was ambiguous. Strangely, there is no poem called "A Time Machine".
A Time Machine and Other Poems
Written and illustrated by Leonard Richardson
A time poem
There's no such thing as a time machine.
Even so you may sometimes wonder
If you could hear ancient thunder
If you could see an ancient beam.
If you could swim in an ancient stream.
So build a pretend time machine if you please.
And go and feel an ancient breeze.
The dinosaurs have died
The dinosaurs have died you see.
Even in the great big sea.
So when you're swimming in the sea,
Beware of dinosaurs, you and me.
Tyrannosauruses are red
Tyrannosauruses are red
Allosauruses are blue.
When you're near them,
Run away to. [sic]
How did the dinosaurs die out?
How did the dinosaurs die out?
Was it a whale with its spout?
No one knows for sure I know
But in a time machine I will go.
Other books in this series
- Better Homes and Gardens
- All About Dinosaurs
- What Can You Do?
- I Saw a Dragon (and I mean it!)
Oh man. That "whale with its spout" line gets me every time. And the first poem's ABBAACC rhyme scheme is pretty nice.
I'm sure I wrote the "Other books in this series", but the only one I still have is Better Homes and Gardens ("WITH QUESTIONERES AND CHECKLISTS!!!). It's nowhere near as good as A Time Machine—like most magazines, it's full of padding—but it does include the immortal line: "Now buy the stuff you don't have." Better Homes and Gardens has its own "Other books" list, which promises a fifth book, Computer Games—also lost to history.
(3) Tue May 15 2012 09:24 Constellation Games Author Commentary #25, "The Infiltration Path":
I accidentally wrote a lot of this commentary as chapter 24 commentary, because the ambivalence scene really wants to be part of
24. It may have originally been in 24, but I had to move it out because there was too much stuff in there already.
One bit in the final chapter is presented out of order, but there's
it's still chronological from a certain standpoint. Here in chapter 25, I just
wasn't a good enough writer to present the events of the novel in
strict chronological order. I don't know why this sort of thing bothers me so
much. (Actually, I do.)
I'm tired of getting interrupted every week to write the commentary, so last week I made them my main project. I've completed commentaries up to the end of chapter 33 (but haven't chosen the images, which takes a while on its own). After chapter 36, there will be some short commentaries on the bonus stories and "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans", and possibly one more on the book as a whole.
If you've read the paperback, the spoiler thread from last week is still open for your questions and comments. Here's last week's Tetsuo-licious Twitter feeds, and now commentary:
- Could it be that Tetsuo's excitement about being on Earth is
starting to wear off and he's now experiencing culture shock? That's
the most likely explanation, but I don't want to admit it, because I
designed Tetsuo to handle culture shock better than any other
character in the book. Not immune, though. According to Americans
I've talked to who've lived in Japan, there's a cycle for these
But Tetsuo's also mad at Ariel in particular for being a hick. This
was strengthened a lot in the third draft. Ariel's misconception
about Curic's ambivalence wasn't originally cleared up until a Curic
scene in chapter 26. But there's absolutely no way that misconception
could survive a conversation with Tetsuo, and no way Ariel wouldn't
bring it up as soon as he could talk with Tetsuo.
So I had to rip out the explanation of ambivalence, move it to
chapter 25, and port it from Curic to Tetsuo. And while Curic's
attitude towards Ariel's misconception was (and will be) "what did I
expect", Tetsuo gets angry.
- The ambivalence thing is my little trick on you, dear readers. The
Brain Embryo games are ninety million years old! They were produced
by a society that clearly had huge problems. Don't assume they're
representative of modern attitudes. In this respect, moving the
ambivalence reveal to chapter 25 is a big win, because it immediately precedes another problem with a video game's outdated assumptions:
- In chapter 18's Brilhantes 5 review, Tetsuo showed himself
to be extraordinarily naive about the cultural context of human video
games. By chapter 33 he understands it about as well as Ariel
does. This chapter, 25, contains the inflection point in the process:
Tetsuo's horrifying experience with Temple Sphere, a
best-selling game about genocide, a game for which his friend shares
indirect responsibility. This is his Ev luie Aka's Ultimate DIY
Lift-Off, and the Temple Sphere scene mirrors the chapter 12
scene where he walked Ariel through Ev luie Aka.
- One reader mentioned it was odd that Tetsuo doesn't know what the
Tools of Justice look like, since he has the strategy guide right
there. The official explanation is that Tetsuo wants to experience the
Tools in-game and hasn't looked at the strategy guide yet. The
unofficial explanation is that the scene with the strategy guide
originally took place in chapter 27 (there's a different strategy
guide there now). I moved it here so we could take care of all the
Temple Sphere stuff in one scene, and so this scene would have
a payoff instead of just being interrupted by Ariel's mom.
- The potted plants on a warship are a little tribute to the mood of Keith Laumer's Retief stories. No reason the warship can't look nice!
- "There's already a video game about ports" is my in-world nod to Portal (see chapter 12 commentary).
- "It's not a tumor!" is another goofy reference I worked into the
story just because I could. I feel dumb even pointing that one out,
but I have a hunch that "it's not a tumor" is kind of an
America-centric reference. (It's from Kindergarten Cop;
specifically, the trailer for Kindergarten Cop.)
- In a few chapters you'll find out what is the deal with Ariel and
Jenny. By that I mean, "why aren't they fucking". Look how they
bicker! It's embarassing, like watching Garak and Bashir go at it. So
what's the holdup? you ask voyeuristically.
I originally wanted to leave this unresolved. I don't think a
platonic friendship is a "thing" that needs "explaining." But people
demanded explanation. So, I told myself that if I could think of an
explanation that wasn't a total cliche, I would put it in the
story. And... I did think of one.
Enough about that for now. I bring it up because up to this point
I've kind of wanted to let you think the explanation might be that
Jenny's lesbian. But the "pretty-boy who cuts himself" line in this
chapter puts a stop to that.
(The pretty-boy in question is Josh Rogan, who's mentioned in this
week's Twitter feed and never again. Although next week's feed
implies Jenny has been putting things up Josh's butt. And no, that's
not the explanation.)
Now for all you loyal commentary readers, it's time for the first ever Constellation Games deleted scene. Early in the
second draft, this chapter ended with Ariel and Tetsuo on the
commuter train to Ariel's parents' house in College Station. I'll
present the train conversation and then explain why I cut it:
"Do people ever ask you what your real name is?" asked Tetsuo. "When
you tell them your name?"
"No," I said, "but I'm not a space alien who took a Japanese name."
"It seems very rude," said Tetuo.
"What is your real name?"
"Why do you ask me the instant I tell you I don't like to be asked?
Tetsuo Milk is my real name."
"What was your name before you learned a human name to change it to?"
Tetsuo made a reluctant sound and then said "Don't transliterate that
in your blog."
"That's pronouncable," I said. "Why'd you change it?"
"We always adopt local names on contact missions," said Tetsuo. "We've
got to prove we're the most adaptable species in the universe. We're
pretty conceited, honestly."
"Hey," I said, "that's our schtick. Humans are the most adaptable
"According to who?"
"That's just how it works. Everybody's the best at something. Farang
are the strongest, Barbarians are the fastest, Her is the creepiest.
Humans are the most flexible."
"Are you designing a role-playing game?"
"Better me than somebody who doesn't know basic rules of game
"Everybody thinks their species is the most adaptable," said
Tetsuo. "It's like patriotism. You like the Longhorns, your parents
like the Aggies, who's to say who's right?"
"Those are football teams," I said. "Patriotism is for countries."
"Well, you get what I'm saying."
It's a pretty funny conversation, which is why I present
it now, but I cut it because it has serious problems and
I make better use of its ideas later on:
- See above re: Tetsuo's journey towards understanding human
games. At this point, Tetsuo absolutely does not know enough to make
the connection between Ariel's species-essentialist attitude and the
character creation tables in RPGs.
- But Ariel should have seen enough variation within ET
species (compare Tetsuo to Ashley to Charlene Siph) to start to
question this attitude, or at least not say it to Tetsuo's face.
- This scene introduces the idea that Tetsuo doesn't want the
general public to know his native-language name, which is good
stuff. But as soon as chapter 28 it becomes clear that there's
absolutely no way he would tell Ariel, either.
- I think it's realistic for people in a multispecies confederation
to feel patriotic about their species, the way you might have a
favorite sports team. But I really doubt Tetsuo buys into the
patriotism thing, for the same reason it's unlikely Ariel actually "like[s]
the Longhorns". In chapter 28, you'll see this idea
presented from the perspective of someone who did buy into it, and
it's more effective there.
Basically, a much better scene in chapter 28 killed off this
scene. Let's let it rest... in peace.
Tune in next week for the family reunion, during which Tetsuo will say, "Your brother's not a turtle."
Image credits: Thomas Deusing, Dave Herholz, NASA, Maureen Didde, Flickr user Perro Viejo.
← Last week | Next week →
(1) Fri May 18 2012 12:54 ASINs that Spell Words:
In the past year I've learned more about Amazon's ASIN product identifiers than... well, probably more than the median person wants to know, but not more than I want to know. One thing I've learned is that the ASIN for a print book is the same as its ISBN, but the ASIN for the Kindle edition of that same book is an Amazon-specific code. And where ISBNs are all numeric, non-ISBN ASINs tend to contain letters. Which means in theory you could have a Kindle book (or other Amazon product) whose product identifier was obscene.
Well, enough chitchat, let's look at some books whose ASINs end in five- or six-letter words! Courtesy of an Amazon site map and a word list:
(1) Mon May 21 2012 11:33 118 Fifth Avenue:
Marcel Duchamp's readymade urinal Fountain plays a small but important part in Constellation Games. As I was writing the commentary for the chapter where it shows up, something started nagging at me. Something that had been bothering me for a while in a low-key sort of way.
It's well known to Duchamp fans that ol' Marcel bought the Fountain urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works at 118 Fifth Avenue in New York. That's the story, anyway; I don't really trust anything Duchamp says about his readymades, for reasons documented elsewhere in this weblog. Anyway, the thing that's been bothering me is: what's at 118 Fifth Avenue now, ninety-five years later? Can you still buy a urinal there?
Probably not. Over the past hundred years all the plumbing supply stores have been pushed off Fifth Avenue and onto the side streets. But maybe there's an ABC Carpets there that sells overpriced toilet lids or something. I decided to go check.
The stupid thing is, I pass 118 Fifth Avenue all the time. It's right near City Bakery and the Union Square farmers market. But I never bothered to figure out which building was 118, until Saturday, when I went out with my camera and verified that 118 Fifth Avenue is now a Gap Body.
To the right you can see the same building in 1911, when it was the iron works. (Presumably just the showroom; the NYT says the factory was moved to New Jersey in 1902.) The facade clearly hasn't changed since then. Here's a Google Street View link that tries to copy the angle of the 1911 drawing.
Gap Body is exactly the sort of disappointment I was expecting, so I'm not really disappointed. I am glad to know exactly when I'm passing that little bit of art history. And here's a free idea for all you up-and-coming artists: buy a readymade tank top from that Gap Body and present it as a sequel to Fountain.
PS: this 2010 post on Ephemeral New York talks about statues atop 118 Fifth. Those statues are actually across the street, atop 91 Fifth, currently a J. Crew. This confused me greatly while I was out there, so I want to put an explicit correction on the web.
Image credits: Alfred Steiglitz,
J. L. Mott Iron Works, yours truly.
(2) Tue May 22 2012 09:02 Constellation Games Author Commentary #26, "Everyone With Cartoon Violence":
This week Ariel faces his greatest self-imposed challenge yet: getting along with his parents. Let's listen in, shall we?
Actually, before we shall, I have some good non-novel news. I've sold my story "Four Kinds of Cargo" to Strange Horizons! Look for it late this year. It's not a Constellation story, but I think fans of the book will like it.
Here's last week's extensive Twitter feeds. I retconned one of Tetsuo's posts because he mentioned his cocktail experiments, which don't happen until this week. And now, a bulleted list:
- As far as I know, Tetsuo's observation about the air freshener in this chapter is the only explicit acknowledgement that Constellation Games takes place in the future. You'll notice there's no year on the dates in the blog posts. Even within the commentary I was going to play coy about the exact year, but I'll just tell you that it's 2015. That's the only year that's consistent with Ariel's age, the dates of holidays, the American election cycle, phases of the moon, and so on. I typed
cal 2015 more times than you'd believe while writing this book.
I didn't give the year in-story because of something I noticed with "Mallory". That story officially takes place in 2007, but because the year isn't in your face, it could be as late as 2010. The only jarring 2007 detail is the clunky pre-iPhone cells. Not naming a year gives a near-future story a few years of "this could be now" and a few years of "this could be the recent past". Things don't generally change that fast. My hope is that this phenomenon buys Constellation Games enough time to make it to the actual 2015 without becoming dated.
- The original title for this chapter was "Second Chances". That fits pretty well but it's a reference to the fictional sitcom from chapter 16, which no one remembers by this point. "Everyone With Cartoon Violence" doesn't fit terribly well (it would be a better title for chapter 28, and I actually thought I'd changed it), but as a string of words it can't be beat. I'm gonna say the "Cartoon Violence" is a reference to Ariel's Ninja Turtles story.
- I've noticed it's common for someone not to get along with their parents even though their parents are perfectly nice people. I don't really understand it, but I suspect I would if my father had lived into my adulthood. Anyway, I tried to depict that phenomenon here, without taking sides.
- Tetsuo's a little light on the "worse than Beatlemania" details, but hopefully you're starting to see why there's no port back to Constellation space right now.
- Lots of the Slow People stuff mentioned here (especially the making of backups) is dramatized in "The Time Somn Died". The next few chapters lay a lot of the groundwork for "Somn", and I'm not going to point it out every time.
- Random influences: Ariel's parents' house is closely modelled after the last house my mother lived in. The Ninja Turtles story is made up, but inspired by conversations I've had with Lucian Kahn. The chummy narrative voice of Your Quiescent Achievement was inspired by WWII-era military "Pocket Guides".
- My phone's bootup message is "This is Your Quiescent Achievement."
- Ariel's dad's line about Ariel being an unreliable narrator was originally "The neutrality of this story has been disputed." It's his only line in the novel.
- Very early in my worldbuilding, Ariel had a younger sister named Britomart. She probably would have been in this scene, but given that Ariel's dad has one line and Raphael only shows up in Ariel's stories, more family members are totally unnecessary. But I wanted to mention Britomart as one more example of how terrible Ariel's parents are at naming kids. Let's say they were like "Ariel if it's a boy, Britomart if it's a girl."
- "I don't think it has much in common with the Internet" is, for me, Curic's Crowning Moment of Awesome. An odd choice? Perhaps, but consider the following. Curic's overlay just deployed a secure interplanetary communications network under the guise of shiny toys for humanity, and she's not even interested in the technology. She just needs an open communication channel to do her job. It's "the net interprets censorship as damage" taken to an extreme.
I wouldn't call it "awesome", but I also love how good Curic is at pushing Ariel's buttons here.
Is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains,
Let me remember thee what thou hast promised,
Which is not yet perform'd me.
- I really hate it when people put disclaimers in their apologies. Stop it! If you're still trying to have the argument, you're not apologizing.
- Curic never lies to Ariel. But in retrospect, it's good I had to change it so we heard the truth about ambivalence from Tetsuo (see last week's commentary). There'd really be no reason to trust that information coming from Curic.
And I say Curic never lies to Ariel, but the third draft went through a phase where she did, and it's possible I never took that out. So I dunno!
Before I go, a little bonus deleted snippet from the Ariel/Curic conversation, which might be of interest:
"The mature thing to do is to send for help before you end up
like the Inostrantsi."
"The Inostrantsi are still around," I pointed out.
"The Inostrantsi reproduce by budding," said Curic. "They didn't have
much genetic diversity to lose. They're also immortal, so the
surviving individuals had good memories of pre-collapse society. Let's
not push our luck, Ariel."
Okay! Good commentary, everybody. Tune in next week for Tetsuo's first college lecture, during the course of which he will say, "I'm sorry, I just assumed there was space travel."
Image credits: Azmeen Afandi, Brian Sterling, yours truly.
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(1) Fri May 25 2012 11:25 Crazy the Scorpion: A cooperative card game:
I've been having a great time with a card game Beth Lerman and I invented, a game which I'm calling "Crazy the Scorpion", for the same reason "Exquisite Corpse" is called what it is. If you want a less interesting title it can also be called "Newsworthy".
Crazy the Scorpion is based on the "fun variant" of Man Bites Dog invented in 2010 by Kevan Davis, Holly Gramazio, and myself, but it's even more fun, and replayable to boot. I've tested it with two and three players. It should work with four, but probably not more than four. It plays in 20-30 minutes. I'm releasing these rules, and the print-and-play cards (see below) into the public domain.
Update: In 2013 Kirk Israel and I made a browser version of Crazy the Scorpion.
To play Crazy the Scorpion, you need two decks of cards:
- A copy of Man Bites Dog.
- A stack of Trivial Pursuit cards.
Trivial Pursuit cards should be easy to find--in my experience, the Trivial Pursuit family is the single most common board game find at thrift stores and yard sales. You can also use Once Upon a Time cards or red Apples to Apples cards (not playtested).
Man Bites Dog is tougher to find, but I've made a print-and-play deck of 128 headline words. I constructed the words by looking at a news site, independently of Man Bites Dog, and the words are optimized for Crazy the Scorpion and not Man Bites Dog, and you can't play Man Bites Dog with my deck anyway because the cards have no point values.
The goal is to construct a 5x5 magic square of headlines, out of headline cards and Trivial Pursuit answers. The best way to explain the game is with a...
Sample of play
I start the game. I draw the Man Bites Dog card "SCAM", and a Trivial Pursuit card with these answers:
- "Judy, Judy, Judy"
- Eva Peron
- The Montreal Canadiens
- A pen
I lay down the cards like so, and designate the Trivial Pursuit card as the "Gopher" card.
The headline reads "Gopher Scam". Other legal layouts include "Scam The Montreal Canadiens" and "A Pen Scam". Anything that could conceivably be a headline in any universe. I could have laid out the headline horizontally or vertically.
Now it's your turn. You draw the Man Bites Dog card "DEVOTED" and a Trivial Pursuit card with these answers:
- Abraham Lincoln
- A goalie
- Elizabeth Hurley
You lay down your cards like so, and designate your Trivial Pursuit card the "Abraham Lincoln" card:
Now there are two headlines: "Devoted Gopher Scam" and "Devoted Abraham Lincoln". Other legal placements would create headlines like "Gopher: Scam A Goalie", "Devoted Gopher" (created by placing "Devoted" above "Gopher"), and "Scam Prancer Devoted".
"Gopher A Goalie" is an illegal placement: it would put two Trivial Pursuit cards next to each other, which violates suggestion #1. "A Pen Devoted" is also illegal: it would rename "Gopher" to "A pen", violating suggestion #2.
Now it's my turn again. I draw the Man Bites Dog card "DRUGS" and a Trivial Pursuit card with the following answers:
- Somewhere over the rainbow
- A quantum
- Dennis Rodman
- Rob Roy
I lay down my cards like so, and designate my Trivial Pursuit card the "A quantum" card:
Now there are six headlines:
- Devoted Gopher Scam
- Abraham Lincoln Drugs A Quantum
- Devoted Abraham Lincoln
- Gopher Drugs
- Scam A Quantum
Among other legal moves, I could have formed "Devoted Gopher Scam Drugs Dennis Rodman" instead.
Halfway through my third turn, we might have a nice 3x3 magic square that looks like this:
Or, in textual form:
|Abraham Lincoln||Drugs||A quantum|
Forming these six headlines:
- Devoted Gopher Scam
- Abraham Lincoln Drugs A Quantum
- Judge A Net Tourist
- Devoted Abraham Lincoln
- Gopher Drugs A Net
- Scam A Quantum Tourist
(More likely, that early in the game we wouldn't have a magic square at all. But this makes for a better illustration.)
By the end of the game we'll have headlines like "The Ladybug Judge A Net Tourist, Charlemagne Blasts" and "Nicotine-Devoted Abraham Lincoln: Judge Buckminster Fuller's Movie."
Now I think you're ready for the...
The goal is to construct a 5x5 magic square of headlines. Or, for the adventurous, a 6x6 square. Players take turns drawing two cards (one from each deck) and placing them in a grid. The game ends when the magic square is complete. The game may end in the middle of one player's turn.
When playing a Trivial Pursuit card, the player names the card after one of its answers. The card is considered to have that name for the rest of the game.
Each played card must be orthogonally adjacent to at least one card already played.
The game is better if you follow these suggestions, but in specific cases you might get funnier headlines by breaking them.
- Man Bites Dog cards should not touch other Man Bites Dog cards, and Trivial Pursuit cards should not touch other Trivial Pursuit cards. You want to get a nice checkerboard pattern.
- Don't rearrange, rename, or remove cards once they're played.
- Headlines must make some kind of sense at every stage. This is more a requirement that you come up with a story about each headline, than an admission that there's some sequence of words that cannot conceivably be a headline.
The Man Bites Dog cards are full of words that clearly belong in headlines, but which (for the sake of generality) include no details. Trivial Pursuit answers are disconnected references to newsworthy topics. Combining them yields sentences that feel like real, specific headlines, but make no sense whatsoever.
(3) Tue May 29 2012 09:46 Constellation Games Author Commentary #27: "Friend Codes":
Hey there. Let's talk business!
Back when the serialization launched, people were really curious about
our business model, but that curiosity didn't lead to thousands of
subscriptions. The stuff I've been working on since--the commentaries,
the in-character Twitter feeds--has proven great for engaging with
fans but not so great at getting new people interested. This makes me
worry that Constellation Games is on track to be the kind of book
that has dedicated fans and gets good reviews (here's the latest: "presented so well that it is now quite hard to imagine first contact going any other way."), but never becomes the hit I was hoping for.
That's not too bad for a first novel, but I'd like to do
better. There's one more inflection point approaching in the book's
life, a point where some marketing could make a big
difference. Sometime in early August, once the serialization has
finished, the ebook will be released, and unlike the paperback, the
ebook will be cheap. Setting the prices is Kate's job and not mine, but I imagine it'll be around $5, the current cost of the base package. My hope is
that this will put Constellation Games into impulse-buy
territory for when someone hears "hey, there's this novel about alien
I'm bringing this up now because I want your help. We've got some things lined up like a radio guest appearance, some things that might or might not pan out like a bookstore appearance, a whole lot of things we tried to set up but didn't happen for whatever reason. I want your ideas of people I can contact who might be interested in talking with me, not about the book but about related interesting topics.
This is not "like us on Facebook" type crap. I hate that sort of promotion and I don't think it works. I want to set up the situation that makes me want to buy someone's book, where I hear/read them saying interesting things and then, hey, they have a book out. You've seen the sort of stuff I write on this weblog. If you know someone who might like to talk to me on their podcast, or host something I wrote, or a game I made up, or a dynamic dada assemblage, or whatever, let me know and I'll get in touch with them. I don't know if anything will come of it, but it's worth a shot. Let me know in comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can suggest conventions or faraway bookstores, but I'm trying to get the word out without travelling a lot or spending a lot of money—likely a futile task, but the one I've chosen. (I also don't like going to conventions.) Also, my experience on both the sending and receiving ends indicates that the vast majority of emails of this kind are simply ignored, so let me know if I can/it'll help to mention your name when I email whoever you're suggesting.
Okay, business is over, time for ars gratia artis. Here's last week's Twitter feed, and here's the latest commentary:
- Everyone hates BEA Agent Fowler. You hate him, Ariel hates him,
and Krakowski hates him. So Krakowski did what Ariel would do, if
Ariel were a really talented bureaucrat instead of a really talented
programmer. He got Fowler transferred to the ass-end of nowhere. You're probably happy about this. I made Fowler a huge jerk
specifically so you'd be happy when he got the shaft. But it worked
You know the bit in The Phantom Menace where the
protagonists are being chased by a big fish,
who then gets eaten by an even
bigger fish? If there's one thing I've learned from writing this
novel, it's that if you make that first fish a big enough jerk, it'll
take a while for readers to notice what the second fish is doing.
- Tiny detail I'm way too proud of: Krakowski refers to Curic as "he."
- City, In Darkness has a name inspired by (but is otherwise
unconnected with) Hunter, In Darkness, Andrew Plotkin's IF
remake of Hunt the Wumpus. And the "Stinky Soda Factories" in
the Wii version were originally empty lots, just because I couldn't
think of anything. SSFs were suggested by Kirk. The game as a whole is a more game-like version of Animal Crossing.
- After selling the book I heavily rewrote the "lying" scene between Ariel and his mom, for a couple reasons. Most importantly, when
coming back after some time away from the manuscript, I found myself
much more willing to be mean to Ariel.
And this is an incredibly mean scene. Unfortunately a full grasp of
its meanness requires that you come back to it later, when you know
what's going through Ariel's head. I generally try to avoid
that. It's fun to write, but most people won't go through the book
twice, so it's not too effective. But the scene is mean on its own,
and its hidden depths will start paying off as early as next week.
- Up to this point, the Constellation equivalent of Star Trek's replicator was called the Repertoire.
As of the "lying" scene, it's just the repertoire. It's gone from an
amazing new technology (the Web) to something accepted as part
of the landscape (the web).
- Tiny notes on the lecture: I like the idea of an actual device
called an intuition pump. (In real life it's a type of thought experiment, coined by Daniel Dennett.) And Tetsuo's not very optimistic about the
job prospects for the students he's teaching.
Not much commentary this week, but we do have the second of three
deleted scenes. This would be a "real life" scene if that
distinction existed back in the third draft. As before, first the
scene, then the explanation as to why I cut it. The scene opens with Ariel having biked back to Jenny's house from the train station:
September 20, evening
Waiting outside on the stairs outside Jenny's apartment. Working
on Sayable Spice: Earth Remix. Back in Austin, Tetsuo back at
Bruce's house. Downstairs, the clank of a bike lock. Jenny comes up
the stairs and she's real sweaty and happy.
"Hey," I said. "How was your weekend?"
"How long you been here?" she said. "You should have called."
"Eh, forty-five minutes. I'm hacking. It's fine."
"Weekend was great!" said Jenny. She drew keys from her bicycle
shorts and unlocked the apartment door. "I took my nephew into
"How far out did you go?"
"Well, first we stood in line for eight hours. But surprisingly
even that was fun. Eddie and I played drawing games on his smart
paper. Then we went up, we did a couple orbits, we buzzed the ISS,
came within like ten feet of some other tourists from China, and
I reclaimed Jenny's couch with my ass. "That's not very far," I
"Far enough, Ariel! It was the best experience of my life! It was like
being in this beautiful glass womb and seeing the whole Earth
"Oh, wow, maybe I should try it."
"Dude, have a smoke before you go up. The merry-wan-ha. Don't give
up on space travel because of nausea."
"It's not just nausea. It's this feeling of emptiness. Like..."
Jenny stood behind the sofa and clapped her hands onto my
shoulders. "All right then. What shall we do for dinner?"
about this stuff
"Can we do pork-stuffed lobster with cheese sauce?"
"Sure, I think we got a couple lobsters in the crisper. Right under
the filet mignon. What's your problem, Ariel? Your folks don't even
"I'm so much like them that I feel this need to differentiate
myself from them. We all do it. You became an artist, Raph became a
"Well, differentiate yourself by chopping some green
beans. We'll do stir-fry."
The other two deleted scenes were added in the second draft, but
this one was added in the third draft. I like this scene, but there's
no reason for it to exist. It doesn't do any worldbuilding or
character development that isn't done elsewhere. I originally wrote it
to foreshadow developments in chapter 30, but as I suggested when discussing the lying scene, foreshadowing is
overrated. It's just an easter egg for people who go back and reread. That's worth a sentence, not a whole scene.
Plus, this easter egg confuses more than it clarifies, and there
already are easter eggs for chapter 30, e.g. in chapters 2 and 17. So
I cut the scene, but I (tenatively) still consider it canon.
That's it for this week. Don't miss the exciting chapter 28, in which Ariel's descent into madness continues, to the extent that Ashley is forced to say, "I don't wish to mate with you!" [We really need to talk about these misleading previews. -Ed.]
Image credits: NASA, Chris Lott, Flickr user mecookie, NASA.
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(2) Tue May 29 2012 10:18 Constellation Games Spoiler Conversation #2:
Here it is, the sequel to the last spoiler conversation, which went pretty well but whose comments are now closed. If you want to talk or ask about the ever-shrinking portion of the book that's not covered in the commentary, do it here.
Tue May 29 2012 13:35 Beautiful Soup 4.1.0 and
Due to the contigencies of fate I get asked a lot of questions about bad HTML. Recently I noticed a problem cropping up which I haven't seen discussed much: documents with mixed encodings. This is typically a document that claims to be UTF-8, and mostly is UTF-8, but which contains bytestrings that only make sense according to some other encoding, usually Windows-1252.
I'll stop beating around the bush: sometimes otherwise UTF-8 documents contain Microsoft smart quotes. This isn't terribly common, but when it happens there's been no easy way to convert that document to Unicode... until now. Beautiful Soup 4.1.0, released today, adds the method
UnicodeDammit.detwingle(). This method converts a mixed UTF-8/Windows-1252 document to pure UTF-8, allowing you to run it through
UnicodeDammit() and get Unicode.
I'll let the documentation give the details. In theory I can expand
detwingle() to handle other pairs of encodings, but UTF-8/Windows-1252 is the only one currently supported. I'm imagining adding support for other popular encoding pairs, maybe EUC-JP + Shift JIS. But I'm not imagining writing that code, just incorporating patches from other people.
If you're ever in this situation, try it out and let me know how it works.
Beautiful Soup 4.1.0 also includes a bunch of medium-level bug fixes, and a major refactoring of the search code that will hopefully have no effect whatsoever on the way searches work.
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