Working my way through Sheri Tepper’s The True Game. It’s a big novel, and for a week or so I was bogged down in the middle, but then I thought, okay, I’ll try reading one or two more chapters. It started to pick up.

Tepper is one of the SF writers whose work I genuinely enjoy. Sometimes it’s a bit slack, a bit goofy, but most of her books are very rewarding if you stick with them.

What I like about The True Game is its generosity of invention. To be a bit more specific, one could say “generosity of image and incident.” Maybe the best fiction of all kinds has this, but in SF and fantasy it seems almost a sine qua non.

Terry Pratchett has it, in spades. I recently read Jingo. Even if you’ve read a lot of his Discworld books, you may be startled to find Lord Vetinari riding around in a small submarine with Corporal Nobbs and Sergeant Colon. I certainly was. And then Nobby Nobbs in harem drag … Pratchett keeps the kettle boiling.

My own fiction is hobbled, I think, by a craving for plausibility. I want things to happen in the story in a way that they could really happen. This leaves me, all too often, chained to the humdrum.

Maybe the goofiness of Doctor Who is helping unchain me. That would be nice. Meditating on Tepper’s gifts helps too. The first half of The True Game reads like straight fantasy — we’ve got shapeshifters, necromancers, telepaths, witches, and a thoroughly Medieval social system. But Tepper writes SF, not fantasy. Halfway through the story, it becomes clear that there’s an SF underpinning for this seemingly fantasy world.

It isn’t a very firm underpinning. A writer who insisted on plausibility would tear it apart and try to build something more structurally sound out of the same materials. And almost certainly end up with something far less interesting.

A crabbed and stingy writer is no writer at all. Generosity is the storyteller’s gold standard.

Driver, Putter, Wedge

Since almost nobody actually reads my blog, I figured I’d tell the whole story without too much tiptoeing through the tulips. The story is, I’ve been asked to write a review of the new Steinberg/Yamaha music production suite for Keyboard, and I’ve spent the last two days trying in vain to get the driver software to produce a steady stream of audio output from the computer. Hours of wasted effort; no results.

I want to emphasize that I believe the Steinberg/Yamaha team when they tell me they have hundreds of users using this set of hardware and software, and nobody else has encountered this particular problem.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Jim Aikin had unique experiences of the music technology kind. Sometimes the experiences are the result of user error. I could tell you a few truly embarrassing stories. Other times I’m just Read more


I’ve been thinking I’d like to teach a class this fall in writing interactive fiction. The public library doesn’t seem to be interested, so my next thought was to rent classroom space at the local arts center.

This center is in a building owned by the recreation and parks district. The building is leased by the local performing arts organization, a non-profit. Seems like an ideal venue — but there’s a wrinkle. They want me to have $2,000,000 in liability coverage. They have to see a copy of the policy before they’ll rent me the space.

I checked with a local insurance broker. Their business policies are set up for storekeepers and such — people whose businesses run 10 or 12 hours a day, 52 weeks a year. I don’t have that kind of cash flow.

I also don’t have that kind of exposure to risk. A 2-hour class, once a week for three months, is not a very risky proposition. But insurance companies aren’t set up to calibrate their rates for that kind of activity. They’ve got the insurance products they’ve got, and if you want Read more


Talking with a friend today about compassion. Her view is probably closer to Tibetan Buddhism than mine.

Seems to me compassion ultimately boils down to an awareness of how it all is. By “all,” I mean life, death, the universe, and everything. I also think one needs not to be caught up in one’s own drama in order to have compassion. If I’m busy interpreting “how it all is” in the light of my own boring little drama, I won’t have compassion for others.

The idea “I’m nobody special” is part of compassion.

John Donne said, “No man is an island.” That sums it up, as does the old adage, “Walk a mile in my shoes.”

An essential problem with the conservative world view — the reason why conservatives lack compassion — is that they view each individual as an island. You can see this very clearly in the work of Ayn Rand, who is a sort of sage among Read more

Things Being What They Are

Today a question came up on about writing descriptions of objects. I realized I had some slightly more than half-baked ideas about this. Here’s how I look at it, in a nutshell:

1) Visualize the object clearly. Notice the color and texture. What is it made of?

2) When possible, combine two or more senses. If the player is holding the object, mention the texture or weight in the description. (This can be overdone. Strive for variety.)

3) Think about the object’s history. Who owns it? Is it new or old? If old, is it well-kept or ill-used? Is it expensive, or cheap?

4) What’s unusual or striking about it? (In my opinion, there is never a good reason to write a description that reads “It’s an ordinary couch.” This type of thing is rather common in under-written games. It shows the author’s lack of care or lack of imagination.)

5) If the PC has a definite character, consider including a bit of attitude in certain of the descriptions. Not all of them, certainly … but if the PC is a hard-boiled detective, we would expect him to have a complex attitude about his revolver, or about his bottle of whiskey.

6) However: Attitude is not a substitute for physical description! The old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” applies well to descriptions of objects. A “description” that tells us only what the PC thinks or feels about an object is not helpful at all. Writers sometimes do this sort of thing, I’m sure, to avoid mentioning the parts of things or adding adjectives, because implementing parts and adjectives is extra work. So — how many corners do you want to cut?

William Carlos Williams said (of his poetry), “No ideas but in things.” I feel this is a useful principle to apply to IF. Most of what the player will encounter will be things, so the story’s depth or texture will depend to a considerable extent on the descriptions.

Prior to the descriptions, of course, is the question of what things will be included in the model world. Williams was talking about that too.


In theory, I have a filing system. In practice, stuff tends to pile up. Especially in the region of my desk. Receipts for things that I no longer remember buying. An opened package of D batteries. A printed-out copy of the Pachelbel Canon, transcribed for cello.

None of this stuff is urgent enough to require attention. (The bills go in a very definite place. They never get lost in the stack.) The problem is, after six months or a year has passed, I’m surrounded by clutter. Clutter causes a psychic drain. It’s distracting, but at a subliminal level.

Dealing with the clutter is a chore, because it means making dozens of choices about where to put things. I have many well-organized stacks of sheet music, for instance, but there’s not a stack where a copy of the Pachelbel Canon would naturally belong. So where do I put it?

Near the bottom of the stack, I found a short story I wrote six months ago, that I’d forgotten all about. You’d think I’d have a file for short stories in the filing cabinet, wouldn’t you? Ha. All that stuff is on the hard drive. But this printout has some scribbled edits on it, so I can’t just throw it away. I have to deal with it. Most likely, I’ll put it back on the table and start a new stack. Where it will soon get buried again.

I’m starting to see advantages in the hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Imagine no possessions. Imagine no need to keep receipts. Imagine no need to dust.

Metaphors Be with You

Lately I’ve been feeling rather at loose ends. Adrift. Unfocussed. Craving something, but unsure what it is.

And there you have four different metaphors with which to describe an internal condition that does not in fact partake of any of them. Nothing in me is untied. I am not in a boat on a body of water. A reduction in the acuity of my optic sensing system is not implicated. Hunger is a physiological state, not a mental one.

This is how consciousness and the intellect work — by means of metaphors. Lately I’ve been re-reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. He inspects this type of mental process in some detail.

The Greeks of the Iliad were not, according to Jaynes, conscious. Not in the way we are. They experienced urges to action as coming from outside them — from the gods.

One common term for what I’m experiencing is “depression.” A mild depression, to be sure, but a real one. It might be fruitful (another metaphor) to acknowledge that the term “depression” is itself a metaphor. A depression is a low place in the ground. It may be boggy. The view is restricted. Climbing out may be laborious. It’s a pretty good metaphor, isn’t it?

Following Jaynes’ view of the ancient Greeks, another word to describe how I’m feeling would be “dispirited.” No invisible spirit is whispering in my ear to stir my limbs to action.

If Jaynes is correct, this may be a nearer description of what actually happens in the brain. The impulses that lead to action begin in the unconscious. After they become conscious, we can say “this is what I felt.” But in truth, “I,” the conscious mind, is not where the impulse originates.

You’ll note that “stir,” “nearer,” and “impulse” are all metaphors … to say nothing of “whispering in my ear.” Writers use such concretizing metaphors as a matter of course. (“Concretizing” and “course” are metaphors. So is “matter.” When something is “of course,” the literal meaning, from the Latin cursus, is that it’s on the racetrack.)

Being dispirited is a problem for which the solution (a metaphor) would surely be spiritual. For an atheist, this realization is awkward (another metaphor). But worth meditating on, I think.

Not, I hasten to add, that I’m planning to start believing in the Big Spook. But I do think religion arises in response to and satisfies a genuine human need — or perhaps several of them. A person with a firm religious faith would, I take it, seldom become dispirited.

For Further Reading

Skimming through the latest copy of Locus (a leading magazine for science fiction and fantasy writers) always makes me want to rush out and buy about 20 books. Because I’m on a budget, though, I tend to get novels from the library instead. This is a less-than-ideal solution, for several reasons.

First, having a well-stocked library of recent titles just feels nice. Gazing at the spines on the shelf helps one feel randomly inspired.

Second, there are times when I might put down a book before finishing it (usually because I’m displeased with it, which often happens) — but three months later I might want to pick it up again and give it a second try. If it was a library copy, this becomes a chore, so it’s less likely to happen.

Third, underlining passages and scribbling rude comments in the margins.

Hmm … if the average cost of a novel is $20, and if I can read 50 novels a year, that’s $1,000. Can I afford to spend $1,000 a year on a long reading binge? Yeah, that doesn’t seem excessive. Maybe I’m being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

The downside is that, as noted above, I tend to start reading novels, get disgusted or just bored, and put them down without finishing them. There’s some buyer’s remorse in thinking, “God, I wasted $20 on this tripe???”

Plus, it’s not like I don’t already have a bunch of books. I could re-read a lot of Poul Anderson, Philip Dick, Sheri Tepper. Stuff I read 20 or 30 years ago and barely remember. Oh, well — it’s nice to have options.

The Pull

Thinking vaguely about writing another novel. Not sure I want to go into the gory details of why I’m thinking about it.

Having written half a dozen novels (two of them published) over the past 25 years, I have at least an inkling how to set up the process. I have a writing room, which can easily be cleaned up … but here’s the problem. The computer here in the writing room is connected to the Internet.

I have this little Internet addiction problem. Nothing huge — I’m not on Second Life, I don’t do gambling sites, nothing like that. But I’m constantly checking my email and a newsgroup I participate in, plus I’m playing a few games of go on Dragon Go Server. Might check a few news headlines during the day. And then there’s Facebook.

All this stuff is way too convenient as a distraction. It’s a productivity suck.

I could unplug the Ethernet cable, but plugging it back in is way too easy.

I may end up writing on my laptop while sitting in my easy chair in the living room. (Since I live alone, there are no distractions in the living room.) But I’m not sure about the ergonomics. My forearms tend to rest on the front edge of the laptop while I’m typing, which is an invitation to tendonitis and other nasty problems.

Not sure where to go with this; just noticing the problem.

Interactive Stories

As paper gives way to electronic forms of information delivery, the potential audience for interactive fiction is going to grow. But for a potential audience to turn into an actual audience, we’re going to need some interactive stories that are seriously compelling.

Those who are already IF aficionados will, at this point, cry, “What about ‘Anchorhead’? That’s compelling! What about ‘Slouching Toward Bedlam’? What about ‘Spider & Web’? What about …” and so forth. But if “Anchorhead” was truly a compelling experience for a larger audience, wouldn’t it already have found a larger audience?

Fantasy about vampires and werewolves is huge right now. So where are the newly minted interactive stories that can go toe to toe with a book by Laurell K. Hamilton? Why do we have to keep talking about “Anchorhead” and “Photopia”?

I started thinking about this because the teen librarian at the local library isn’t excited about having me teach a class for kids in how to write interactive fiction. Okay, her budget has been cut; I understand that. Maybe I need to Read more