February 2013

Jeanne Thornton


An Interview with Leonard Richardson

The early Leonard Richardson short story "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs" introduced speculative and science fiction readers to the art of Martian dinosaur motocross racing. It also introduced readers to a major talent, one whose work blends aspects of Neal Stephenson, G. K. Chesterton, and P.T. Barnum (probably not in totally equal measure), and one who, with his debut novel Constellation Games is among those who are working to casually reinvent what it means to publish novels in the Internet age.

Richardson is a brutally smart man, one with loads of tech and Internet savvy: he's worked at the intersection of publishing and the Internet through early blogging, the online SF anthology Thoughtcrime Experiments, and the social media literary-quote-sharing service Findings; he's co-written two of those O'Reilly books with the intimidating animal covers about web functionality (I do not understand these books, but probably could if I tried, given the author's relentlessly lucid and charming style); his website features no less than fourteen Dada-themed web applications that combine different datasets into fun and novel forms, including a Dada Mega Man villain name generator, a Dada Shakespeare sonnet generator, and a William Burroughs cut-up version of Jim Theis's novel The Eye of Argon, updated every five minutes, while you wait.

This is perhaps why his entry into the world of novel-writing with Constellation Games marks not only the appearance of a really, really good book -- the story of a first contact event with extraterrestrials as seen through the eyes of a late-twenties Austinite man-child with an eye toward becoming the first retrogaming blogger to write about the extraterrestrial equivalent of, say, Missile Command -- but of a uniquely savvy online publishing style. Richardson's novel, originally published by email serialization over the better part of a year, is told through blog entries, Borgesian reviews of fictional video games, at least two working Twitter accounts live-blogging the events of the novel, and at least one fan-made implementation of an extraterrestrial video game about keeping souls in the afterlife through Pong mechanics, as well as a novel-length running commentary on the novel as it was being published in serial. Throughout all of this, he has good and wise things to say about understanding across cultural lines, motivation and dedication, and the cultural analysis of that terrible specter of modern entertainment: the digital game.

Thus I was delighted to talk to Richardson about Constellation Games, the complexity of writing a novel for full Dickensian serialization in the twenty-first century, and the intersection between web technology and modern fiction publishing (plus the space program; the possibility of meaningful contact between sentient beings; the pros and cons of the city of Austin, Texas; and, like, Twitter).

The publication process of Constellation Games was somewhat unorthodox, with the book being slowly serialized by email some months in advance of its actual publication. As one of the readers of the serial, I remember it felt surreal not to get a new chapter of this book every Tuesday after it was finished, and realized when I looked back that I'd been slowly reading this book over most of a year. What was that like for you as the author?

I'm really glad I was able to sell Constellation Games as a serial, because that's how I wrote it, and that's how I workshopped it (an event which my writing group has declared will never happen again). But every time a chapter came out, I panicked, because everyone had a week to think it over and figure out what the next plot twist was going to be. TV tropes introduced me to the concept of "fridge logic." You'll buy into something ridiculous on TV as long as you're engaged with the story, but when you get up to go to the fridge, you realize it doesn't make any sense. Well, during the serialization, that trip to the fridge lasted a week. I was really afraid people would just realize that the story didn't make any sense. Fortunately, the only really bad plot hole was one I discovered myself while writing the episode commentary, and it's been fixed. So if you read the book now, you know it's been stress-tested.

What was it like to write what must have felt like another novel's worth of commentary about the novel that most readers were reading as they were in the process of finishing the novel? What was it like to see people responding to that?

I wanted to treat the serialization like a TV show. Lots of showrunners do podcasts about their shows. John Rogers puts up a commentary on his blog for every episode of Leverage. I wanted that kind of audience engagement. As I found out in my fits of panic, a big part of that engagement is the audience matching wits with the author. It was a big thrill to take part in nerd debates about something I wrote. At the same time, the commentary is about 40,000 words, and that's 40,000 words I didn't write on another novel. So, I don't think I'll do that again, even though it was a lot of fun.

Constellation Games is, on the face of it, a book about game design across species. So how much practical experience do you have with game design? Have you ever considered making any of these games? (I ask because selfishly I want to play A Tower of Sand.)

I have less experience than I thought I did. A long time ago, I wrote some text adventures and a game called robotfindskitten. Robotfindskitten is pretty popular, as such things go, but it's barely a game. It has no real mechanics. Ariel mentions a game called The Long Way Around, a game where you're trapped on an alien planet and you have to build a spaceship to get back home. I love that concept. I put that in the novel because that's the game in my head. And after finishing the novel, I wrote a proof of concept for a very similar game. I got the basic engine working. It's sort of a roguelike version of Minecraft. You can walk around, harvest plants and replant the seeds, chop down trees and turn them into furniture. I stopped working on it at the point where I had to stop fussing with the game engine and come up with some real mechanics. I think that's telling. I'm good at coming up with game concepts, but I don't have much practice fleshing those concepts into real games. Fortunately, when you're telling a story, it's better to stick to the basic concept. The first draft of Constellation Games described the games in a level of detail that stopped the story from happening. I don't think any of the games in the novel would work exactly as described, for the same reason you can't actually talk to any of the characters. I made up just enough of them to give the illusion of solidity. (Except for Gatekeeper, a really simple game that has actually been implemented.)

What's your opinion of retroblogs dedicated to nostalgia for old games? Given that the book is formally based on the structure of, say, Chrontendo, you must have an opinion. I'd also love to hear you talk about video games that have meant something to you.

Traditionally, when you write a book about first contact, you can always get some comic relief from the aliens lacking a point of reference for some aspect of human culture. For the aliens in Constellation Games, it's nostalgia. They don't have nostalgia. It's something they were told to expect from human-type civilizations, but they have a hard time dealing with it. They don't understand Ariel's bizarre longing for Super Nintendo cartridges that have been abandoned in landfills. That's the attitude I wish I could take. I do share Ariel's nostalgia for old games and old stuff, but I distrust it. It's easy these days to live in the past and not do anything new. That's Ariel's situation at the beginning of Constellation Games. By the end he's learned to build something new out of old parts, which is also my technique for keeping nostalgia under control. I don't think it's a good use of time to read or write the 3000th list of the top ten NES games. On the other hand, I am a huge Chrontendo fan, because that show covers everything. I like seeing the stuff I feel nostalgia for pass by in an endless stream of terrible games that no one remembers. It really helps me put the history in context. Video games that meant something to me... The two big games for me when I was a kid were Planetfall and Rogue. They're both games about loneliness, which was my defining emotion as a kid. And if you combine Planetfall and Rogue you get my The Long Way Around-type game.

I'm interested in what you think about the relationship of video games -- whether it's the culture of video games, video gameish narrative tropes a la Homestuck, or just the social effects of video games relative to the social effects of novel-reading -- and fiction. Accepting that it's inevitable, what's your reaction to the slow creep of game metaphors into our fiction, or even into our daily lives? (For example, I have to believe there's a bank now that lets you "level up" your credit card once you've earned enough points, that uses this specific metaphor. There ought to be.)

Games and fiction are both great ways of manipulating people. We choose to be manipulated. I can write down a description of something that never happened and get an emotional response from you. I can set up a little feedback loop and get you to chase it. That feedback loop is the interesting feature of a game to me. It makes the player complicit in the fictional events of the game -- something you don't get with non-game fiction. Buying into the fiction game requires a belief that it's a good idea to complete the feedback loop. Otherwise, we wouldn't be playing. So we're primed to respond even if the game inserts something super manipulative and gauche into the feedback loop, like a demand for money.

As I see it, games take metaphors about dreams and storytelling, metaphors traditionally found in fantasy, and turn them into things that can actually happen to you and me. You can actually have a game like the tales of Scheherezade, which spins off recursively into sub-games. People do get lost in game-space, addicted, and never come out. And there's something new, something not generally found in those old metaphors: the story itself is a thing that wants something from you. Probably your credit card number.

Do you think the kinds of people who read novels tend to be the kinds of people who play games? Is it even useful to talk about these as separate groups of people anymore?

This seems like a question you could answer objectively, and I don't have the answer.

I'm an Austinite, and the fact that the story's set in my city delights me. Why Austin?

Austin is a liberal city in a conservative state. The stereotype of an Austinite is of someone who likes weird things just because they're weird. That's Ariel: a neophile surrounded by neophobes. Everyone else is afraid the aliens are going to destroy humanity, and Ariel is trying to get access to their Bittorrent site. I did have an idea for a bonus story about Tetsuo Milk making trouble at the first post-contact SXSW, and that story would have had to have a scene at Bruce Sterling's house. It could still happen.

I don't know whether this is the most likely scenario for first contact with extraterrestrials. But do you prefer this as a scenario for first contact? Or do you have another scenario that you like better?

In terms of realism, no, Constellation Games is not realistic. I think the most likely scenario for first contact is that we overhear some signals, and the ETs have died out by the time our reply gets there. Or vice versa.

In real life, I think the Constellation scenario would be great. I wanted to show humanity getting the best imaginable first contact scenario and still finding a way to screw it up. Dramatically, I'll like any first-contact story that doesn't involve humans and aliens trying to kill each other. I think that's goofy. (That said, the novel I'm working on has a setting of humans and aliens trying to kill each other. It's pretty goofy.)

I have to believe that some of Ariel's feelings about the space program and its slow decline in the twenty-first century are your own. Could you talk to some extent about this, and about your feelings regarding the space program and its utility generally?

We see a decline because as human beings we focus on human spaceflight at the expense of unmanned spaceflight. The unmanned stuff -- satellites, space telescopes, space and planetary probes -- is a lot more cost-effective. But human spaceflight lets you imagine yourself in the traditional science-fictional role of the space explorer. It's very powerful emotionally. Ariel's emotions about spaceflight are definitely mine. As with games and fiction, it's really easy to use space to manipulate people. The Mars mission in Constellation Games is a cynical PR move. That doesn't mean the accomplishments or the emotions are fake. (We also perceive a decline because the American flagship of human spaceflight -- the Space Shuttle program -- is over, and the next one -- the Orion program -- hasn't launched anybody yet.)

Without spoiling: at the end of the book, the generally agreed upon "main character" and another important character of another species reach a moment of almost total nonunderstanding regarding some very basic things. Leaving aside the issues this poses for eventual first contact, I'm wondering about your level of cynicism regarding how human beings can understand one another and communicate with one another.

It's clearly not impossible. We've probably got so many crazy Tetsuo-like ideas and assumptions about each other that we could spend the rest of our lives identifying them and correcting them. So... a medium level of cynicism?

Finally: I know you're working on other books. Are you considering publishing them in a serial sort of way as well? What's your view of the world you're going to be publishing into in a few years (or fewer, your readers hope) when the next book is complete? Do you see it as being essentially the same mix of print books, ebooks, and mysterious hybrid online experiments, or do you see it as skewing in some specific direction? What publishing world would you like to be publishing into?

Constellation Games had a single point of view and is very epistolary, full of Ariel's blog entries. (The first draft was exclusively Ariel's blog entries, but I quickly discovered that as Ariel got into more and more trouble, he sensibly stopped posting details of his personal life to his blog.) The novel I'm working on now is not written for serialization. It's one of those books that switches between three or four POV characters who start out with nothing in common but who get shuffled together by fate. I don't think you could keep that kind of story in your head if you had to wait a week between each chapter. Dramatically, I think Constellation Games worked great as a serial. Commercially, I think it might have done better as a normal novel with a single release date and a single publicity campaign. There's no way to know. There was a lot of interest in the concept of the serial, but that didn't translate into a ton of subscriptions, because who am I? I'm a guy who writes tech books. Looking at my royalty statements I can say that the future will skew ebooks, at least for the stuff I write. As experiments go, I'd really like to crowdfund a book. But I've done enough research into crowdfunding projects to know that's not something I should do right now, with all the other projects I have going on.