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Monday 30 April 2012

What is Frankenstein's monster made of?

How do you create a monster? Victor Frankenstein isn’t telling. The excuse he gives, eminently reasonable in light of how things turned out, is that he wants to prevent others from rediscovering the process. We're not sure if he's giving life or restoring it; we're left in the dark as to whether it involves sparks or smells or both. A possible clue: recounting his early influences, Victor mentions Paracelsus and other practitioners of alchemy and occultism. Benjamin Franklin and Luigi Galvani don’t get a look in.
“I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? […] I collected bones from charnel houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. […] The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation.”
As John Sutherland wrote in his essay “How does Victor make his monsters?” there is nothing in the original novel that says the monster is a patchwork of body parts from rifled graves:
“It remains unclear whether [Victor’s] motive has been research into primal tissue, or the kleptomaniac filching of limbs and organs with which Fritz’s midnight forays in the films have made us familiar.”
Fritz (the inimitable Dwight Frye) is of course a creation of the movies; in the novel, Victor has no assistant, hunchbacked or otherwise. The location he chooses for his second laboratory is a tiny island in Orkney, and he goes there alone. Unless he brings with him a stack of coffins, we can safely assume that no corpses are harmed in the making of the second (female) monster. Certainly the island’s population cannot provide Victor with raw materials – there are only three cottages, one of which he rents. No cemetery or morgue is mentioned, supporting the theory that he constructs or even grows the bodies before animating them.

Mary Shelley may have drawn her inspiration for Victor from her husband’s enthusiasm for amateur science. Three or four years before Percy Shelley met Mary Godwin, his friend T J Hogg described his room at Univ:

“Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags and boxes were scattered on the floor and in every place, as if the young chemist, in order to analyse the mystery of creation, had endeavoured first to re-construct the primeval chaos. The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air-pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope and large glass jars and receivers, were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter.”
It seems that Victor is a (bio)chemist, not an engineer or physicist. The only reference in the original text that justifies the leaping, coiling, thrilling bolts of electricity that arced above Colin Clive and Boris Karloff is where Victor says, “I collected the instruments of life around me, so that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” The rest of the passage describing the monster’s birth is tragic rather than climactic. He seems to slip reluctantly into the land of the living, and Victor has no exultant shout of “It’s alive!” His mood is one of anxiety, hopelessness and disgust.

Disgust is a big part of Victor’s relationship with the monster, a disgust evidently born of self-loathing. Novels are not literal, of course, so we need to remember that on another level the monster
is Victor – the side of him that leers with “a ghastly grin” when he shapes the female creature’s flesh under his hands. Victor even describes him as “my own vampire, my own spirit let loose… forced to destroy all that is dear to me.” He is a proud, lustful, physical creature who makes a stab at pretending to be civilized. As do we all.

And what about that grin?
How exactly is it “ghastly”? There’s no spare part surgery in Mary Shelley’s book; if Victor isn’t a physicist, still less is he a surgeon. And, however Shelley envisaged the monster, she surely meant him to be stranger and more disturbing than Robert De Niro criss-crossed with catgut sutures:
“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.”
I don’t think an actor in make-up is going to cut it. People who encounter the monster react with fear and loathing – not, “Look at that poor chap,” but “Kill it! Kill it!” He must be terrifyingly deformed. In my version of the book, his skin is grown on frames similar to the ones that Victor’s cousin/fiancée uses for needlework, and that skin is literally transparent - a bug that Victor decides is a feature, as it will make it easier for anatomists to study the internal organs of his creation.

My Victor is a chemist and physicist - not terms that were actually used in English until the mid-1800s, but it’s all in a sense a translation. He studies a little anatomy, and later has the chance to practice surgical techniques under the tutelage of Dr Robert Campbell. (If you convince Victor to do that, it means he is able to make the second creature far comelier than the first.) When we meet him, he’s collecting guillotined heads – but not to bolt onto his monster. He just wants to study the structure of a larynx so that he can replicate it:
“I need the small cartilages of a human voice box – a very intricate structure, much too time-consuming for me to build by hand. If I can find one fresh enough, chemicals can be used to stimulate its growth to suit the creature’s scale. Or perhaps I’ll use it to make moulds in which I can nurture bone cultures. There are a thousand excruciating details like this.”
Soon after, Victor talks about the monster’s brain:
“The structure of the brain is far beyond my power to replicate, so I implanted tissue from the brains of several unborn children, bathed in certain internally secreted chemicals that appear to stimulate growth, and grafted this to a fully developed brain stem. Thus the creature will be born with an infant mind, but the mind should mature at a greatly accelerated rate. As to the nature of its thoughts and feelings – they may be like yours or mine, or they may be something entirely new.”

“So it will learn?” you (it's an interactive novel) may ask Victor.

“It is learning already. The brain is active, though sleeping as in the womb. Perhaps it can even hear what we're saying.”
I have provided more details of the monster’s creation than Mary Shelley did. Readers today will expect some flesh on the bones. The story has become very familiar, from books and movies and plays, and so it’s necessary to push a little if it is still to have power to surprise and shock, but hopefully I’ve kept some of the ambiguity and mystery. I want you to read into the creation process your own private horrors. James Whale made the moment cinematically exciting, but in doing so he lost the most important aspect of Victor’s solitary act: the fact that it is unbearably sad and rather squalid. The desperate loneliness of the staring animal eye, the sudden intake of breath, the reflexive shudder – all for something that can be achieved more wholesomely outside the workshop of filthy creation.

Frankenstein is published by Profile Books and coded for iOS by Inkle Studios. Now on sale in the App Store.

Sunday 29 April 2012

Dave Morris interviewed on The Gothic Experience

I'm over on The Gothic Experience being interviewed by Dale Townshend and Padmini Ray Murray of the University of Stirling. It's nice and long, a two-piper by Sherlockian standards, and if you're interested in the evolution of gamebooks (in one branch of descent, anyway) then do check it out.

The illustration is by Misti Hope Wudtke and used here as it is marked as a licence-free image on Google.

Friday 27 April 2012

Frankenstein's monster is on the loose

If you've been dropping in on this blog recently, you can hardly have missed the news about my reboot of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Is it an app? Well, yes, but "enhanced ebook" might be just as good a term. This is not a thing with sound effects and pop-up play with tricky lighting and swirling fonts. It's a book. A literary experience. You read it, interacting in a choose-your-own type way, only instead of picking which door to open or which dragon to fight, you're having a dialogue with Victor Frankenstein.

What's it like? You don't need to go by my opinion - here's what others have been saying:
"Stunning." - Tim Harford
"Very clever." - Professor John Sutherland
"Nicely done." - Stephen Fry
"A nuanced take on monstrosity... Extremely poignant." - Dr Dale Townshend
But why take their word for it? Anyone with $4.99 and an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch can see for themselves. And quite a few have already: it's at #2 in UK books and #13 in the USA today. You can get Frankenstein from the App Store in the UK here and US here.

Thursday 26 April 2012

When is it right to reboot a classic?

Like most writers, I could probably use more exercise. And I wouldn’t get even as much as I do if not for Luke Navarro and Kevin McGill, who host a books podcast called Guys Can Read. It’s easy to spend an hour listening to Luke and Kevin, and then you look up and realize you’ve run ten miles without going anywhere. With them, workouts are (almost) fun.

The idea behind Guys Can Read is to look at books from a guy/geek perspective. If you’re worried that means they only review genre stuff, not a bit of it. They might discuss an SF novel, but they’re just as likely to be talking about Steinbeck or Dickens. What they care about is great storytelling, and I haven’t yet heard any of their shows where there wasn’t at least one really profound insight that made me pause my MP3 player, slow down the treadmill, and have a good long ponder.

This morning, with glorious sunshine beating down on southern England, I couldn’t face a couple of hours in an air-conditioned gym, so instead took Luke and Kevin for a walk around the verdant lanes of Great Bookham. They were talking about Sherlock Holmes, and how the BBC television version in particular may have seemed like a terrible idea to purists, but has actually turned out to be a very good way of making the characters relatable for a modern audience. (And, sure, I apologize for using the word relatable, but this stuff does matter.) Asked which was best for a modern audience, the Conan Doyle originals or the Moffat/Gatiss revamp, Kevin didn’t miss a beat before replying, “Sherlock, hands down.”

It’s not just a question of putting the characters in a present-day setting. The recent movies also managed to make people care again about Holmes and Watson, and they did it (like the TV show) by letting character drive the storyline. As Luke and Kevin point out in their show, the breadth of knowledge with which Holmes astounded Victorian readers doesn’t look quite so impressive now we have Google, so it’s important to find new ways to make us gasp at his genius – and to see how being that kind of remarkable genius affects him as a person.

But, more than that, nowadays we want stories that take us on a journey of discovery through characters and relationships. J J Abrams did more to develop the core Star Trek characters than had been attempted in three TV seasons. It wasn’t just an intriguing science fictional problem, or even a challenge of morality and courage. It got personal. And suddenly these characters mattered again.

Not every old story needs a new telling. Nobody need rewrite Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations; they’re just fine as they are, and still selling strong. The rip-roaring rides of yesteryear, though, do tend to date (look at John Carter) . More generally, the problem comes when an old, much-loved story was built around the motor of plot or high concept. Then, over time, the grand idea becomes familiar – too familiar. Those works “escape the bonds of literature and take on a life of their own”, as Erica Wagner said in The Times recently of Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein. When the surprise value of the core idea is already disseminated into public consciousness, and if the work has no real development of character to give the story structure compensatory support – that’s when you need a reboot.

And that’s where I came in with Frankenstein. What a powerful idea it is. An ingenious, driven man creates artificial life. It has become almost the defining archetype of runaway science – never mind that it’s not actually a novel about runaway science, at least not in the original 1818 version.

But that was then. Take a look at it with the core idea extracted. There’s very little expatiation of character, still less actual character development. Victor Frankenstein is highly strung and brilliant, but those are just ticks in the boxes of a form. Despite spending the whole novel inside his head, we barely know Victor well enough to recognize him at a party, as we would Lizzy Bennett or Long John Silver, unless he came over and talked to us about creating life.

The Mary Shelley novel hardly concerns itself at all with personality. We are introduced to Victor’s friends and family as types. He has “a great friend”, Henry Clerval, who is “of singular talent and fancy” and who invariably “exerts himself to amuse” while expressing “the sensations that fill his soul”. We are shown very few concrete scenes between him and Victor. There is no banter. The relationship never changes. Henry exists – as most of the characters do – merely to tell Victor not to mope quite so much.

This is why you’ll find a lot of people who have read Mansfield Park or The Pickwick Papers, near-contemporary works, but not so many who’ve done more than dip into Frankenstein. I hadn’t read it myself before I began working on the interactive version. And I didn’t want to stick it in a modern setting and get sidetracked by stuff about cloning, but I did feel that it needed a complete overhaul on the level of the characters. How they feel about things, and how the events of the story change them, is given much more emphasis in my version. For instance, when the monster finds a hat and a bag full of clothes, he ventures out at sunset and waves to a farmer on the far side of a field. And the farmer waves back - which, as you can imagine, is a pretty big deal if you’ve only ever been chased, persecuted and pelted with stones.

At 155,000 words, my Frankenstein is more than twice as long as Mary Shelley’s. Partly that’s because, in an interactive book, the reader weaves through different story threads and necessarily doesn’t get to read everything. But even a single read-through of the interactive Frankenstein should produce a longer novel than the 1818 version. In much of the new material you’ll get to know Victor, and observe (and influence) his relationships with his father, his fiancée, and the monster. You’ll understand his friendship with Henry, and you can see how that develops as Victor changes under the pressure of old unburied demons closing in.

It is the old story remade - as stories have been throughout history, in fact. It’s only in the era of publishing that we started to think of them as something to lock down. My intention in remaking Frankenstein like this is that you’ll be able to come to it with the fresh interest and wild surmise of those readers of 1818 who opened the pages to find something both modern and timeless. Now you tap your fingers on the glass instead, but otherwise little has changed.

Frankenstein is published by Profile Books and coded for iOS by Inkle Studios. Look for it here on the App Store. And you can hear it discussed on Guys Can Read here.

Monday 23 April 2012

Frankenstein: the SFX interview - part four

The fourth and final part of my SFX interview with Stephen Jewell, in which we discuss my interactive version of Frankenstein, which was released in interactive form on April 26 by Profile Books.

Stephen Jewell:
“Are you reinventing Mary Shelley’s original story for the present day, or indeed for your specific audience?”
I’m not sure that I know yet who the audience is. Certainly I didn’t write it only for gamers and science fiction fans. It shouldn’t be a tribal thing. This is a really timeless novel and it ought to be accessible to anybody who enjoys a great story.

Having said that, I did take the whole structure apart and completely refit it. For example, the events of the novel take place in the mid-1790s, and at that time you’ve got the French Revolution – a nice parallel of how a cocktail of repressed passions, radical concepts and social exclusion can give rise to a monster, yes? That was too good to pass up, so instead of gadding off to university in Germany, Victor is gathering the material for his work in Paris right at the height of the Terror. For a start, it gives him a lot of guillotined heads to choose from.

It’s not just the guillotine bits, though. All the way through, this new version is bloodier and more explicit than the original. Modern readers are generally more switched on to science fiction tropes, even in mainstream entertainment, so I can go a little further with the stuff that the novel glosses over. The characters are more fleshed out now, and their relationships and motivations are murkier. There’s less abstract telling than in Shelley’s version, it’s more cinematic and visual. And more intimate.

Character drives action, action develops character. Henry James advised authors of this over a century ago, but in the literature of ideas the lesson has often been forgotten since. Why not have both great ideas to astound the mind and compelling stories to move the heart? Think new versus old Doctor Who, or J J Abrams’s reboot of Star Trekthat’s how SF is stepping up to the plate now. Today’s audiences want to see how the characters are changed by what happens to them. This has led to a more visceral kind of storytelling than used to be delivered in old-style science fiction, where the underlying ideas could be fascinating but often in a cerebral way that it was hard to get excited by.

What I’m saying is, if you think you already know the Frankenstein story, you’re in for a big surprise.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth

If you live in Scotland, tune into BBC Radio at 13:15 on Monday for The Book Café, where I'll be discussing my forthcoming Frankenstein interactive novel with Dale Townshend of Stirling University. Listeners in the rest of the United Kingdom can hear it later in the week on BBC iPlayer.

There's also a review of Frankenstein in Monday's edition of The Independent, a British newspaper. And, in case non-UK readers are feeling left out, Frankenstein is one of the books being discussed by Luke Navarro and Kevin McGill on this Tuesday's Guys Can Read podcast.

Frankenstein will be published for iPad and iPhone on Thursday, April 26, by Profile Books. It's alive!

Saturday 21 April 2012

Fantasy comes in many flavours

In his Guardian column recently, Damien Walter lamented the scarcity of interesting new weird fiction. Buy me a coffee and you’ll hear me saying the same thing, but Mr Walter went further. He invited readers of the column to send in their own self- or independently-published novels.

While people like me cower at the thought of a million genre novels being published every year, there’s Damien Walter throwing open the floodgates and standing smack in the way of the oncoming torrent. I can only salute such bravery (a tricky manoeuvre to carry off, incidentally, while simultaneously scurrying for the safety of high ground). He will be remembered.

Personally I’d push the Dalai Lama under a bus rather than read a single trilogy of the G’nar’gh empire or the steampunk adventures of Algernon Blackwood, wendigo hunter. So it is my awe of Mr Walter’s fortitude that leaves me shamed and chastised by his comment in today’s
Guardian that “those writers who make a critical understanding of fantasy part of their work create better stories than those who remain […] ignorant of it.”

The irony is that I do read a fair bit of lit crit, just not in the field of fantasy. In fact, I barely even read fantasy fiction. Given that fantasy is my bread and butter, and stung by Mr Walter’s parting words as he sank beneath the deluge, I scooted over to Amazon and bought Farah Mendlesohn’s book
Rhetorics of Fantasy. At 336 pages it may take me a while, but already I’m intrigued by the core concepts. In essence, Ms Mendlesohn defines four categories of the fantastic. There are portal fantasies (Narnia, The Lost World), immersive fantasies (Game of Thrones), intrusive fantasies (War of the Worlds), and then there are liminal fantasies.

That last one is a little trickier than the rest. It’s also the most interesting. Liminal fantasies are those where the fantastic element is part of the normal universe and, though they may not like its effects, everybody seems to just accept it: Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis”, for example. It’s the kind of fantasy you find in dreams and fairytales. A movie example would be Guy Maddin’s
Careful; in novels, Steven Sherill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break; in short stories, W F Harvey’s “The Beast With Five Fingers”.

All of magic realism could arguably fit into the liminal category. There, of course, we are supposed to recognize the fabulosity and artifice of what we’re being told. I don’t think it’s intrinsic to liminal fantasies that they need to recognize their own fictionality in that way, simply that when literary fiction does include fantasy, it is most likely to be liminal fantasy.

Most fantasy stories belong to more than one category. Harry Potter begins as a portal fantasy but later becomes intrusive fantasy. The Lost World (what is the plateau if not a portal?) has its little bit of intrusive fantasy in the form of the pterodactyl egg that Challenger brings back to London. Raymond E Feist even wrote an immersive fantasy with a portal fantasy element, in the form of a rift leading through to Tsolyanu. I mean Tsuranu.

In my graphic novel series Mirabilis, the fantasy at first is intrusive; but, as the green comet draws nearer to Earth, people first begin to accept the reality of previously imaginary things and later, by midsummer, to treat them as though they have always been there. (I even wrote exactly that, in my first draft of the Mirabilis storyline ten years ago. For the month of June: “Liminality; it is as if magic has always been part of everyday life.”)

Frankenstein could have been an intrusive fantasy. If Mary Shelley had treated the story in that way, it would have read more like something written by H G Wells. Instead, in the original Frankenstein novel, almost nothing is made of the science fictional element. The monster’s existence doesn’t impact on the world at large, only on Victor Frankenstein’s own life. If not for Captain Walton’s encounter with the monster right at the end, the whole book could be read as the imaginings of a highly unreliable narrator. And even Walton’s tacked-on testimony doesn’t quite banish the suspicion that what we have been reading is not an SF tale about creating life, but that immemorially potent fable, the Return of the Repressed. Like the best kind of fantasy, Frankenstein finally reveals itself as a disturbing conjuring trick in which the question, “Is it supposed to have really happened?” is the least interesting of all.
Dave Morris's interactive retelling of Frankenstein is published by Profile Books and coded for iPhone and iPad by Inkle Studios. Look for it from April 26 on the App Store.

Friday 20 April 2012

The wisdom of crowds

Ulule is one of those crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo where a publisher can raise investment for new projects from the people who are best placed to judge whether there's a market: the customers themselves. And this month, Megara Entertainment are looking to fund a French edition of the Sokara supplement to Greywood's Fabled Lands RPG.

Megara have set a total target of €1500, and as I write this they are more than a third of the way there. Depending on how much you invest you can get a bunch of goodies to thank you for being one of champions of Sokara. For more information, take a look at the Sokara page on Ulule. Don't delay - the offer only lasts until May 17.

Monday 16 April 2012

Frankenstein: the SFX interview - part three

Continuing the interview with Stephen Jewell of SFX magazine about my Frankenstein not-quite-gamebook, due out on iPad and iPhone on April 26.

Stephen asked,
“Why did you choose Frankenstein for your story?”
Mainly because Frankenstein is one of those novels that everybody thinks they know but that few people have actually read. It’s such an amazing idea, and a gripping story, and it still has power today, but we need modern retellings to help us find a way in. How do you feel about Frankenstein? Probably that it’s kind of dated and that its claim to fame is that it inspired stories like Blade Runner, Terminator, Robocop – and Archetype, to take a very recent example. Yet it is the original and genuine, it’s just that we’ve lost touch with it because of the stodgy old-fashioned prose. And by the way, I am not intending that as a blanket criticism of 19th century literature, which I love. But Mary Shelley is no Jane Austen or Emily Brontë. And if, because of that, people aren’t reading Frankenstein, that’s a shame and I want to fix it.

I believe that by recasting it in an interactive format, which allows each reader to find a route through the story at their own pace and to focus on the things that interest them, that it can come to life again and reach a wider audience than would ever dream of picking up the original book. The fact is that Frankenstein is an amazing, mind-blowing story with a really rich subtext of repression, alienation, exclusion, the divided self, and hidden desires. If you’d never heard of it and it came out as a movie tomorrow, everybody would be talking about it. It would be the media event of the year. That’s what I’m aiming to recapture with my version: the excitement and even the shock that audiences felt when it first appeared.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Hey, monster, leave that kid alone!

If you live in the United Kingdom, you might want to pick up The Observer newspaper today as it has a review of my interactive Frankenstein novel. To be honest, the reviewer loathed it, but when it comes to being talked about, I'm with my fellow Magdalen alumnus Oscar Wilde: there's only one thing worse...

The review does make a specific complaint about not being able to affect the story. That's actually a misconception on the reviewer's part, so I'd better set the record straight. The scene she mentions is when the monster encounters Victor Frankenstein's little brother, William. In the original novel, he strangles the boy. In my version, that outcome is not at all inevitable. However, it isn't based on an old-style gamebook choice: "Strangle the boy Y/N?" Rather, all of your choices affect the monster's alienation, as well as Victor's empathy towards other people, and his trust in your counsel. And those hidden factors influence where the story goes. That means that certain decisions may seem unavoidable when you reach them, but in fact you have been shaping your destiny all along.

This is fundamental to the style of interactivity in Frankenstein, because choices have long-term consequences. Who, after all, makes an arbitrary spur-of-the-moment decision to kill in cold blood? "Would you like to strangle the boy? And do you want fries with that?" Certainly the monster is not that kind of dispassionate Ripley-style murderer. It is his entire history that builds to that moment, and when it happens (if he does kill the boy, that is) it should be with a feeling of, "Oh God, what have I done?"

I am looking forward to people talking about their individual experience with Frankenstein (available here). "The monster murders people because Victor tried to destroy him," one will say. "Nonsense," says another, "Victor didn't try to destroy him; he tried to save him." "But the monster gets the blame for murders he doesn't commit," another will say. It's that Rashomon what-really-happened effect that Orwell talks about in his essay on historical truth. Thus, Frankenstein is built on a form of interactivity that allows outcomes to be surprising and yet inevitable - and that is what we should ask of all good stories.

Friday 13 April 2012

Lord Mortis has risen! (again)

We're interrupting our series on the forthcoming Frankenstein book to bring you the latest news of another great gamebook app, the iPhone version of Megara Entertainment's visually stunning Keep of the Lich Lord, which aficionados of the gamebook genre will be aware was originally published as Fighting Fantasy #43 back in 1990. This is a thoroughly revamped edition, with new material by author Richard Hetley, who has relocated the action to the world of Harkuna.

If you're experiencing a slight sense of déjà vu, that's because, yes, I did already post about the new Lich Lord app. But that was the iPad version; more people have iPhones - and if you don't, I'm sorry, but we are trying to make sure that all the rest of our gamebooks will come out on all platforms. (And anyway, iOS is best, so there.)

There's a review on App Advice here, and you also get a sneak peek at this fabulous picture by the awesomely creative Maria Nikolopoulou, one of Megara CEO Mikael Louys's team of talented Megarettes. At $4.99 Lich Lord is cheaper than the original book was over twenty years ago - and now with the addition of almost a hundred brilliant full-colour illustrations. And this weekend you can get it at the special price of 99 cents. Yes, 99 cents. So why are you still reading? Go get it here (UK) and here (US)!

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Urbane fantasy free on Kindle

A universe away from the Gothic tragedy of Frankenstein, never mind the swashbuckling epic adventure of Fabled Lands, there is the tradition of urbane (sic) fantasy pioneered by Saki and Lord Dunsany. Such stories usually belong to the category that SF academic Farah Mendlesohn calls liminal, in that the weird elements are presented as matter-of-factly as waking up to find deer crossing your back lawn. That wyvern perched on the chimney pot opposite may be no less alarming than a tiger on the loose from the zoo, but it's no more peculiar either. We all know how easy it can be to stray over into the Twilight Zone.

If urbane fantasy is your cup of Earl Grey (dash of lemon if you don't mind, old chap) you can pick up a free Kindle copy of A Minotaur at the Savoy (US edition here) until midnight on Friday. This little volume, as regular readers will know, is a tie-in with the world of the Mirabilis graphic novel, fleshing out the background by means of fifty tall tales woven around the postbag of the Royal Mythological Society. For example:
Dear Prof Bromfield and Dr Clattercut

Recently I was taken by a friend to a restaurant in Fitzrovia. As we were settling down over whisky and cigars after the meal, I glanced at the menu and noticed that the à la carte listed
Dodo Véronique. Intrigued as I was, I had by this time already put away a dozen oysters, the onion soup, a smoked haddock dish, two helpings of beef wellington, a lemon soufflé, a plate of almond biscuits, a bottle or two of Chateau Yquem and three large brandies. Also, I’d had a bit of a gyppy tummy earlier in the week, so at that stage I really didn’t feel up to fitting anything else in. I now rather wish I had, as I went for a bit of a walk to see if I could find the place again and there’s no sign of the street. I remember it had a little blue sconce of flame over the door, and a sort of curtain of ivory beads to keep the fog out. My friend has gone on a trip to Venezuela so no use asking him.

Sincerely, Edward Plunkett, The Attican Club, Pall Mall

Dr Clattercut replies: O rara avis in terris!

Prof Bromfield: Latin? You’ll have lost most of our readers right there, old man.

Dr Clattercut: I merely remarked on the pang of missed opportunity. Who knows how long before Mr Plunkett will again find himself in a restaurant with dodo on the menu?

Prof Bromfield: I doubt if there’s honestly any cause for regret. From what I hear, dodo is a tough, gamey sort of fowl. No use cooking it like chicken. Dodo meat is more like what you’d get on a year-old pheasant: tough if served pink, and dry if overcooked. Much more sensible to put it in a curry or a spicy Mexican dish. A Véronique sauce would be all wrong. There’s your explanation, Mr Plunkett – you can’t find the restaurant because it’s gone out of business.

Dr Clattercut: Perhaps the words of another rare bird, the Swan of Avon, will offer some consolation: “Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.”

Monday 9 April 2012

Frankenstein: the SFX interview - part two

Today, the second of journalist Stephen Jewell’s questions for SFX magazine about my interactive version of Frankenstein, gorgeously designed by graphic-and-code digital-era typesetters, Inkle Studios, and published by Profile Books.

Stephen asked,
“How will your Frankenstein differ from reading or viewing other films and books of Frankenstein? Also, how will it differ from traditional video games? Would you call it an e-book as such?”
It is a book, but it’s certainly not just another ebook. How is it different? Well, comparing it with games first of all: in a game, typically your interaction is mostly with the environment and your goal is to solve problems. That’s a huge over-simplification, but bear with me. In Frankenstein, you’re interacting with the character on a very personal level and your goal is to forge a relationship with him. You do get to influence how things turn out – by making suggestions to Victor Frankenstein, for instance – but you’ve got to gain his trust, and in any case he’s a free agent. He won’t always do what you say.

Looking at the novel, the thing there is that the original book can be pretty off-putting. It’s a great concept but it’s difficult to wade through Mary Shelley’s prose and all those long agonized Goth-boy monologues as Victor tells you how hard done by he is. And for modern readers that tends to leave you on the outside looking in. You don’t connect, which is why a lot of people only know the story from movies. The novel is hard going.

The new version is very much more personal, emotional, and immediate. Instead of the long, telling monologue in Mary Shelley’s original novel, my goal has been to set up a dialogue with the main character. You get to know Victor Frankenstein a lot more. You can really engage with him and find out why he’s doing what he does. And you should come away feeling like you’ve experienced the story immersively, right there along with Victor.

Friday 6 April 2012

Frankenstein: the SFX interview - part one

Last month I completed the manuscript of my new interactive version of Frankenstein and in very short order, thanks to the coding brilliance of Joe Humfrey and Jon Ingold at Inkle Studios, the thing was a working app that could be shown to journalists. The scoop went to Stephen Jewell at SFX magazine, and he has kindly given permission to run my answers to his questions in a series of blog posts in the run-up to Frankenstein’s release on April 26.

First question: Stephen asked,
“How did the project come about?”
I have a company with Jamie Thomson called Spark Furnace that specializes in the overlap between stories and games. Jamie and I between us have got forty years’ experience in books, videogames, TV and movies, so whenever possible we like to pick projects that can draw on all of those. We’ve been talking to publishers about interactive stories for quite a while, and Michael Bhaskar at Profile Books is one of the few who really gets it.

So the next question is how do we de-ghettoize it – because we’re acutely aware that a lot of people just tend to dismiss SF and fantasy and games as not worth their time. We wanted to make the literary snobs sit up and take notice, so how better to do that than by punking up a beloved classic? (That’s meant ironically, by the way, as I kind of am one of those literary snobs.)

Having agreed that was the approach we wanted to take, we made a list of about two dozen books we felt could really get a new lease of life from the interactive treatment, and it turned out that Frankenstein was everybody’s first choice. Then what looped the loop for us was that Michael knew the guys at inkle, who have a markup language that lets us write the kind of gamebook we used to do in the ‘90s and their engine turns it into an iOS app. So it’s a perfect storm of technology, content, marketing and publishing.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Talking to the character

Media Bistro has some advance news about my imminent Frankenstein book app. As I've previously said, I usually avoid the G-word (as in gamebook) with regard to this, so as not to give the impression that it belongs to the fantasy adventure genre that, for historical reasons, seems almost to have come to define gamebooks. But I'm hoping that it will appeal to people who like both gamebooks and regular novels:
“It’s a literary experience where the reader can explore the text, creating a unique and personal experience of this rightly world-famous work. As the plot unfolds, you will develop a personal relationship with the main character. That’s why we’re describing it as interactive literature – it’s a truly new kind of novel for the digital age.”
If that whets your appetite, you'll be able to see it for yourself in just three weeks' time. In the interim, the Trollish Delver has some inside info here.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

For what we are about to receive...

In case you haven't heard, the gamebook extravaganza of the year is happening over on Stuart Lloyd's blog. All this month, he's celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first Fighting Fantasy book that started the ball rolling with a series of posts and interviews including Lone Wolf, Choice of Games, Tunnels & Trolls, Destiny Quest... and too many others to mention. Your best bet is to start here and pop back every day for at least one new post (usually more) packed with information and insights about the gamebook medium.

There's actually going to be a short interview with me in there at some point. I ought to confess that, when I answered Stuart's questions, I thought everyone's replies were going to go into one single post. In fact there are more than thirty posts in the series - a lot more - so I probably could have gone into a bit more detail. And normally it's so hard to shut me up, too. (I know, I know: the "A to Z of blogging" theme really should have tipped me off, but I don't live in this world, I'm only visiting...)

Now, can anyone say where the picture comes from?

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Fear itself

If you enjoy games like Alone in the Dark and Call of Cthulhu - both of which Jamie and I have spent many a happy (and happily terrified) evening playing - then you will love Megara Entertainment's Arcana Agency iOS gamebooks. The first (AA: Prologue) was published a couple of years back to critical acclaim, but in the meantime Megara have been sidetracked with projects like Fabled Lands and Keep of the Lich Lord. Now comes news of a new instalment in the series, written by Paul Gresty and with art by the talented Megara team.

There's an Arcana Agency Facebook page where you can see the new release taking shape, with great concept art and story snippets to whet your appetite and curl your tentacles, like this one:
The Mystery of the Walking Corpse
Just as Arcana Agency is ready to close for the weekend, Humphrey Brown and Tom Shanigan are called to the morgue of New York Cornell Hospital. One of their bodies has disappeared – apparently getting up, and walking out of the hospital by itself...
The picture, incidentally, is by Faiz Nabheebucus and shows Amber Giles, intern at the Cornell Hospital. "The Mystery of the Walking Corpse" is just one of several cases lined up for the new app. Jamie and I have had a sneak peek at the storyline and it is really something. Now... how about an Arcana Agency RPG?