FALLOUT 4: The Dude Abides, the User Interface is, uh… Scruffy.

In late November, a cryogenic chamber deep beneath a post-apocalyptic Boston suburb cracked open to disgorge the Dude. As in Jeffrey Lebowski. Just don’t call him Mr. Lebowski. “El Duderino” is also acceptable if you’re not into that whole brevity thing. I have a tradition of using the protagonist from The Big Lebowski as my inaugural character for any new Bethesda-style sandbox game; I use the Dude’s moral compass to guide my roleplaying decisions, and generally the Dude wanders amiably, leaving peace and freedom and the smoldering corpses of assholes in his wake.

You might think I should have used light brown rather than gray hair. That's just, like, your opinion, man.

You might think I should have used light brown rather than gray hair. That’s just, like, your opinion, man. Though I mostly agree.

The Dude brought pure water to the Capital Wasteland. The Dude crushed Caesar’s Legion at the Battle of Hoover Dam. The Dude also served as Archmage of Skyrim, and even took down Mehrunes Dagon, though the character modeling of Oblivion was not really suited to the task of capturing the Dude’s proper hirsute glory, and he ended up looking like a scruffy, red-cheeked Billy Bob Thornton. The Dude… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough. Let’s talk about the game.

I. ATOM BOMB, BABY, LOADED WITH POWER…

You can judge that I have generally enjoyed Fallout 4 from the fact that the Dude is currently level 90-something, which represents well over one hundred hours of play. It was more or less inevitable that I was going to enjoy it, even if it failed to innovate in any department, simply because I go weak at the knees for everything this style of game has to offer. I no longer really have room for MMOs in my life, but vast single-player lotus-eating experiences promising hundreds of quests, hundreds of locations, hundreds of NPCs, hundreds of secrets and items and systems to learn… well, pass me some more of that delicious lotus, please.

Give me tunnels and wrecked buildings and hidden bunkers to prowl, let me painstakingly scour every shelf and bucket for useful junk, and I am yours indefinitely. I loved the interconnected metro system of Fallout 3, and I loved the multitude of dungeons in Skyrim. One of the triumphs of Skyrim was the lovingly handcrafted feel of those dungeons, and Fallout 4 builds solidly on this tradition. The landscape is littered with story hints, puzzles, clues, thoughtful tableaus, visual jokes, and easter eggs– here you see the site of someone’s accident, here someone’s tragicomic scheme gone wrong, here someone’s heroic or pathetic last stand.

This astoundingly detail-obsessive play area joins with the game’s brilliant mock-1950s production design to create what I think is its strongest feature, a vivid and all-encompassing sense of atmosphere. The back alleys of Boston are lonely and threatening, the wilderness is eerie and mist-haunted. At one point I exposed the Dude to a great deal of radiation simply so I could have him stand on the tip of the USS Constitution’s prow, high in the air, and watch the majesty of a crackling green wasteland storm rolling in across the city. The game certainly doesn’t fail to deliver a sense of wonder.

There are other things to love, to varying degrees. Fallout 4’s selection of companions is genuinely interesting, usually well-written, well voiced. The game’s new iteration of Dogmeat is possibly the finest useless dog simulator ever programmed. Dogmeat is endearingly animated and will carry a ton of junk for you, though the way he darts across the landscape, runs away from you when you need him most, stands exactly where you are trying to build things, alerts enemies, and blithely sets off traps can be wearying.

Nearly all the old familiar enemies have been given makeovers; ghouls are sneakier and more flexible. Molerats burrow and attack like fuzzy submarines. Even the lowly bloatfly has ceased to be a pinata containing trivial amounts of XP. Enemy use of cover in firefights is gratifying– gone are the days when “charge at the player in a straight line while blazing wildly” was the only attack strategy a raider gang would adopt. Certain changes are a bit much, however. The blindingly fast juke-and-sideslip animation ghouls occasionally use to throw off the player’s aim is straight out of that fucking Remo Williams movie. How did radiation-crazed feral corpses learn that? Seeing a 12-foot-tall Deathclaw use it is even sillier.

C'mon, guys, it was goofy enough when Joel Grey did it in Asian make-up. Who the hell taught Sinanju to Deathclaws?

C’mon, guys, it was goofy enough when Joel Grey did it in Asian make-up. Who the hell taught Sinanju to Deathclaws?

II. HUNTING TREASURES AND SPRINGING TRAPS IN THE RUINS

I’ll meander through some additional praise and ruminations, then commence the airing of grievances. Those uninterested in dissection of the minutiae of Fallout 4’s gameplay might consider skipping straight to section III, which features bitching and yammering of more general interest.

Gunplay is very satisfying, more akin to New Vegas than to Fallout 3. There are occasional issues with certain weapons blotting out the screen when you attempt to aim down their barrels. Weapon customization, like the junking and crafting system in general, feels like a decent but incomplete start to something that could end well (DLC, don’t let us down)– too many weapons currently have too many glaring holes in their customization options. I’d love to see a Gunrunner’s Arsenal-style DLC or patch liven this situation up, and add more weird super-science/scavenged tech options to boot.

Melee combat is less well-served; the limited attack animations provide for nothing like the visceral and fluid hack-and-slash simulation than Skyrim did, and nearly every enemy in the game is far too quick with a punch or butt-stroke that will halt your attack animation and start you over from scratch. Melee stealth characters are the least happy of all; despite the profound damage multipliers they can stack up, the game appears to have no provision for silent stealth removals. Even a master of infiltration kitted out in specialist stealth gear can alert an entire building full of enemies by sticking a knife into a sleeping guard’s throat. That seems contrary to the spirit of the perk investment required to build such a character.

I’m not entirely pleased with Fallout 4’s iteration of the perks system; apart from the fact that some of the granularity and flexibility of the old skills system feels missing, I find the new system hamstrung by curious omissions. There are no shotgun-specific perks, far too few energy weapon perks (the one specifically governing radiation damage is a poor bargain, considering how many enemies treat ionizing radiation as air freshener), and some of the more specialized perks hardly seem worth the opportunity cost. Damage resistance perks, in particular, seem to scale poorly considering how high those ratings now run in the game, and the lack of general mobility perks (run a little faster, jump a little higher, etc.) was a weakness of Skyrim I’d hoped might be corrected.

I also greatly preferred the traditional critical hit implementation of previous Fallout games, in which critical hits were baked into the combat system and would occur at random (influenced by player stats and perks). Fallout 4 turns them into a sort of meter-filling minigame, and not a very diverting one at that. I find the system totally uninteresting and could count the number of times I’ve used it on one hand.

Bugs and inconsistencies do intrude on the play experience, as seems the inevitable case with Bethesda games. For example:

• V.A.T.S. is less buggy than in, say, New Vegas, but that’s hardly a high bar for a game to fling itself over. I haven’t been put off much by the slow-time effect; what have been frustrating are the occasional lengthy pauses once I’ve selected an action (letting bad guys get in a few more shots, occasionally to mortal effect) and the lag time following an attack execution, during which I’m stuck watching the enemy recoil, die, etc. and cannot take cover or run. This is vexing when a pack of ghouls or a super mutant suicider is sprinting toward me. And there are occasional flat-out bugs, most frequently one where my character will mime the use of a Stimpak rather than make an attack with the indicated weapon. That’s always good for a laugh.

• At one point, I had a random encounter with two identical versions of an NPC, each holding a gun on the other and arguing about which was the real human and which was a synthetic replacement. I used the Dude’s conversational prowess to trick the synth into revealing itself, at which point it became hostile to me and was gunned down by its real human counterpart. All well and good, until a few days later, when the two twins respawned in a different location and were both immediately hostile to me. Three days after that, they appeared again, chasing me across the trading outpost at Bunker Hill, and they were flagged such that when I returned fire the entire area became hostile to me. This is the sort of seemingly minor goof that can rapidly spiral out of control in a game with so many variables.

• More glaringly, I discovered that the ultimate Railroad quest line becomes critically bugged if one has killed any of the named Brotherhood of Steel NPCs; at the point the player discovers that the BoS is about to break into the Railroad’s HQ and attempts to warn them, the “warning” dialogue with Desdemona never becomes available, and the only way to resolve the situation short of console commands is to re-enter the Institute, initiate hostilities to blow your cover, and pick up with the Minutemen version of the endgame. That’s sloppy as hell… when the Dude had decided the BoS were a threat to liberty rather than an asset, it seemed a natural thing to stroll over to their airport base and shoot it up a bit for fun. In so doing, I killed named NPCs that would lock me out of the Railroad endgame hours later. This isn’t akin to expecting the storyline to hang together if I strolled onto the Prydwen and took out the commanding general of the BoS; these were NPCs on the ground who could have easily become caught up in random firefights as I operated nearby. You hate to see a structural failure this big at this level of play.

• The recurring “help a settlement” quests for the Minutemen are also problematic as hell. For starters, it’s annoying to be given no chance to turn these quests down. They’re assigned automatically after speaking to Preston Garvey (sometimes even for merely approaching him!), which you have to do if you want any XP for the previous quest(s) he gave you. The “kidnapped settler” quests often have a timer attached AND they physically remove a worker from the settlement in question, so even if you’d rather be off exploring or furthering another quest line, you’ve got a limited window in which to play babysitter for these hapless idiots. Of course you can leave them hanging, but if you’ve got any investment at all in doing well for your settlements or with the Minutemen, that option is a no-go.

The logic and scripting of the recurring quests is sadly slipshod. Consider Sanctuary Hills, the home base of the Sole Survivor, the home base of Preston Garvey and the reborn Minutemen, the very first settlement in the network of safe havens protected by the Minutemen. Yet when the settlers there have issues, they repeat the same dumb script used all over the Commonwealth– “Are you from the Minutemen? We didn’t know you’d actually come! We didn’t know you’d really help us!” Seriously, pretend electronic person… you live in Minutemen Central! Next door to the commanding general of the Minutemen! He handcrafted the bed you sleep on! And you somehow didn’t think the Minutemen were real? There’s no Bed Fairy, motherfucker… the Dude went into radioactive ruins and battled raider gangs to make you that nice comfy mattress!

• Speaking of making mattresses, the new settlement building system is ambitious, diverting, and severely undercooked. Following on my complaints with the Minutemen quests, it’s worth noting that the building system doesn’t seem to interact with them at all. You can ring a settlement with twenty heavy machine-gun turrets, enough firepower to turn a platoon of super mutants into aerosolized quiche, and its inhabitants will still be kidnapped or have their food stolen by low-level raider gangs. What the hell’s the point of protecting your farmers behind expensive walls of automated death if the wasteland equivalent of playground bullies can still shake them down for their lunch money?

In fact, the building system interacts very poorly with the “attack on a settlement” events in general. I deliberately tested this using an attack on the Abernathy Farm– after fast-traveling there, I stood back and watched as one of my aforementioned walls of automated death mulched the offending raiders in about three seconds without my assistance. I then reloaded the game and ignored the attack until it was too late, which resulted in several dead settlers and a field of burned crops. This sort of inconsistency is frustrating, to say the least.

Frustration is a constant theme of the building system. The structural pieces tend to fit awkwardly into the existing landscapes, which cannot be leveled to allow flat and even floor placements. Some existing features or buildings can be removed completely to make way for your vision; the same features at other settlements cannot be touched. Arranging and fitting settlement pieces is a cumbersome process and only a few elements snap together seamlessly. Most damningly, the system bugs out at frequent intervals, randomly causing water supplies, beds, or settler populations to vanish entirely. These things are restored when you take the time to personally visit the settlement in question, but this becomes another intrusive little chore eating into your time with the game.

What’s the appeal of arranging the fine details of electronic dollhouses if the game won’t even properly take care of them when you’re away?

III. PLEASE JUST LET ME MAKE MY DAMN SANDWICH IN PEACE

In this last section, I’ll try to explain where I feel that the roleplaying and user interaction elements of Fallout 4 have gone a bit off the rails, in one relatively trivial fashion and two more serious aspects.

When the player initiates a conversation with most NPCs, they first respond with a canned flavor line. This is universally true of vendor NPCs; after hearing the pointless chat line, the player must initiate conversation again (within a narrow timeframe) in order to call up the functions menu. To give you a visual example, here’s that menu for Trashcan Carla, a vendor who wanders the northwest portion of the map:

"Do I look like a woman with a burning urge to buy 30 Bloodbug probosces?"

“Do I look like a woman with a burning urge to buy 30 Bloodbug probosces?”

Certainly, one can press a key to speed through the superfluous dialogue options, but this is occasionally risky (especially with previously unmet NPCs, as you could accidentally agree to a dialogue option without reading it first) and at any rate secondary to the point– why is this speed bump there at all?

My contention is that I, the player, know perfectly well what a vendor NPC does. I’m activating them to buy or sell items. Yet the design of Fallout 4 places a pointless hiatus (“Back again?” says Carla, “Time to trade?”) between me and that vending. Even after that, it offers conversational options completely orthagonal to the reason the vendor NPC exists. Look at the four possibilities on Carla’s menu above:

BARTER: Yes! I want to buy and sell things!
NO: I changed my mind. Please go away.
DIAMOND CITY: Ask Carla about a specific plot point she can speak of.
UNSURE: Tell Carla… that you don’t know why you clicked on her.

Wait, what? What is that fourth option doing there? Why is it taking up conversational space? Why did a voice actor record lines for it? This is weird enough to qualify as a piece of avant-garde theater; Vendor NPC as written by Samuel Beckett. Click the vendor NPC to tell them you’re not sure if you want to use them as a vendor NPC!

A more serious issue is the substantial reduction in information the player is given in Fallout 4 concerning precisely what their character is about to say. Previous games would give you a list of complete dialogue options before you selected one; if you hovered over “Stick a radioactive corn cob up your ass, you two-timin’ sonofabitch” and clicked it, then that’s exactly what your character said to the NPC in question. Fallout 4 not only maps dialogue options to the diamond shape of a console button pad (so there are never more than four available), it abbreviates them, and what you see on screen may have surprisingly little to do with what comes out of your character’s mouth.

Here’s a fine example from very early in the game:

Leave vault. World strange. Talk small. No context. Why for?

Leave vault. World strange. Talk small. Context gone. Why for? Where go?

What the hell does “no food” mean? I have no food? I want no food? I need no food? There’s no food around here? And how about “get food?” Does it mean that I want to get food, that I should get food, that the player and the NPC should go get food together, or that the NPC should go get some food and bring it to the player? Even with context from the rest of the conversation, puzzling this stuff out can be a chore.

Here’s another well-known example, from a conversation involving Diamond City journalist Piper, in which the player may elect to “support news” or “hate newspapers:”

Freedom of the press is cool and all but if your paper doesn't carry Bloom County you're just fucking dead to me, Piper.

Freedom of the press is cool and all but if your paper doesn’t carry Bloom County you’re just fucking dead to me, Piper.

Now, what actually comes out of the voice actor’s mouth if you choose “hate newspapers” is “Newspapers just like to stir up trouble.” That doesn’t strike me as a particularly hateful line. More like a suspicious one, moderately antagonistic at best. As I see it, if I as a player am in conversation with an NPC who has described herself as a reporter, admitted to owning a paper, acted like a muckraking journalist in front of me, and wears a fucking newsboy cap with a little paper chit sticking out of it that says ‘PRESS,’ if I select the conversational option “hate newspapers” it’s because I want to be an unmitigated cast-iron jackass to her, not give her a minor nudge. If I could have seen the complete dialogue options in advance I’d know what I was letting myself in for– the abbreviations force me to guess, and the criteria by which I should guess are arbitrary.

These textual abbreviations might be perfectly acceptable if the game would consistently offer a matrix of intentions– “be placating,” “be friendly,” “be threatening,” and so forth. But it does this only intermittently. If you’re endeavoring to roleplay in a certain manner, or improve your standing with a specific NPC, getting a surprise setback from one’s dialogue choices is not amusing. I know there are already mods in existence to provide the full onscreen text of dialogue choices, but this isn’t a mere aesthetic tweak or preference. This is a fundamental gameplay system which should be more or less down to a science by now.

Last, and perhaps most questionably of all, Fallout 4 also features “idle” dialogue for NPCs when you leave them hanging in the middle of a conversation, and here’s where I assert that someone has really failed to grasp the paradigm of player/screen interaction. As I see it, when I leave an NPC in the midst of a conversation for five minutes, it doesn’t actually imply that five minutes has passed in the reality of the game with my character standing there, mouth agape, saying nothing. What it means is that I, in the REAL world, am making a sandwich or using the bathroom, or something similar, and in the game environment zero time has elapsed. To have an NPC repeating a snotty or threatening line like “I wish you’d pay attention, this is important,” over and over while I’m doing my goddamn chores doesn’t add flavor or aid immersion. Indeed, it damages immersion by intruding on the player space at a time when the player is clearly not willing or able to respond to the game.

Think about this– it’s a single-player game that actually yells at you when you walk away from it at certain times. If I wanted that sort of fucking pressure, I’d just go back to MMOs! The whole point of a single-player game is that it should work for ME and not intrude on my ACTUAL SPACE. A game that keeps poking me to remind me it exists is not something I ever wanted or needed. I’m sure this seemed like a perfectly innocuous flavor feature when it went into the game, but innocuous is the last thing I’d call it.

Serious qualms and criticisms aside, Fallout 4 is a vast and infinitely tangled yarn-ball of radioactive adventure and furious kersplodery that delivers precisely the sandbox I was hoping for. I’ve still got my fingers crossed for smarter, sharper execution as Bethesda moves on (Elder Scrolls VI, come to daddy and consume his life), but I can forgive a great deal of stumbling in exchange for mostly not screwing up the core elements of something I find frankly hypnotic. It could have been shockingly great, but “pretty damn good” is nothing to be too sad about.

The Dude abides. I sure hope he makes it to the championships. Guess we’ll have to see what happens in the DLC.

Karthain!

I promised that if the CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE: STEAMPUNK VS. ALIENS Kickstarter broke $4,000 I’d offer up a copy of my official map of Karthain from The Republic of Thieves. And I do mean my map, since this time around I actually got out my technical pens and tried to re-conjure my old drafting skills. This is scanned from an original piece about 10.5 x 15.5 inches and I’m mostly very happy with it… not quite pleased with the fiddly bits at the edges and a few tiny details, but it does its job and it’ll be in the books on both sides of the Atlantic.

Click on the image to get a much larger version.

I have plans to redo my maps of Tal Verrar and Camorr by hand, taking what I’ve learned from this project to (hopefully!) improve significantly.

Returned From Readercon

Last weekend was Readercon, and it was mostly excellent. The con was hit at a very late planning stage by the news that both the pub and the lobby area of the hotel would be out of service, but you really had to see it to believe how thoroughly those areas of the building had been un-made. They weren’t merely taped off, but sealed away by blank white walls like something out of a movie, and the con’s traditional central gathering space was turned into the functional equivalent of a long scenic corridor in an old Doctor Who episode. The folks behind the con did a damn fine job of steering everything right past this obstacle, and there was a bumper crop of room and hallway parties to compensate.

I wish I could be as lavish with praise for the actual staff of the hotel, some of whom were angels and some of whom seemed overtly annoyed by all the hungry, paying customers who had the nerve to actually ask for things. Service at the one functional restaurant was lacking… and I can’t emphasize enough what it takes to drag those words out of me, as I waited tables myself for several years and have a preternatural degree of sympathy for those who wield aprons and order books. We often joke about how convention hotels and bars never seem to heed the warnings they receive about fannish hunger and thirst, but seriously, this wasn’t the hotel’s first rodeo with Readercon and while the restaurant food itself was usually lovely, the service (especially the bar service) was several distinct flavors of inadequate.

It probably seems ungenerous to harp on this, but Readercon has a thick and well-attended panel schedule, tightly time-managed by the con staff, and it’s also a place where dozens of agents, editors, and authors are holding business meetings at any given time. Agents, especially, often have appointment after appointment, hour after hour, and the need to chase down restaurant staff with IR cameras and hunting dogs for basic functions like getting a check really throws sand in the machinery of maintaining a professional schedule.

So, other than waiting for drinks and bills, what was I doing?

Friday, Elizabeth Bear and I shared a Kaffeeklatsch, which is German for “authors share embarrassing personal stories with more people than they ever expected to see in the room.” I stumbled through a long, revealing tale of something I’m really not proud of from my teenage years, when I applied my talents to a prank that caused unexpected emotional grief. Oh, Stainless Steel Rat books, you never warned me there’d be such ethical quandaries!

Saturday, my first panel was “A New Mythology of the Civil War,” also featuring Mikki Kendall, Dennis Danvers, Ronnie Stott, and Howard Waldrop. I think we did a fine job pounding the Lost Cause mythology into the dirt (not that this was difficult); anyone who can insist with a straight face that the American Civil War was not about slavery from the first angry word to the last shallow grave is lying or deluded. There wasn’t a heck of a lot to say, more’s the pity, about trying to carve a new counter-mythology in spec fic because we don’t really have an evolving major tradition of Civil War fiction at all, apart from the Twilight Zoney mechanistic approach (anachronistic technology is brought into the war by time-travelling assholes and hilarity ensues). There was some interesting stuff about the similarly mechanistic fixations of a lot of steampunk and the urge to play with airships and gatling guns while trying not to look too hard at the social tapestry and the actual, individual lives of millions in bondage and the sick culture surrounding them. I think we could have kept going for another hour, at least.

Next up was “The Uses and Values of Realism in Speculative Fiction” with Elizabeth Bear, John Crowley, and Rose Lemberg. After the usual ten minutes or so of trying to engage all our conceptual motors and define our terms, I think we settled into a rich and lively discussion. Coming from my perspective as a pretty staunch lover and repurposer of classic sword-and-sorcery, I have a tendency toward a fairly defined and physiologically grounded notion of “realistic.” Crowley was good about yanking things back to the broad picture from time to time… what world were we discussing? What rules, what reality? We touched on modes and expectations, on the pressures of genre, on why things like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” work beautifully on their own terms and fail completely to integrate with the structures of SF/F, where we expect meaningful “thens” for our if/then statements. Rose Lemberg was pretty sharp, and carried off the night’s trophy for pithiness when she suggested that readers shaken by A Song of Ice and Fire could find relief in something less cold and onerous, like Crime and Punishment.

My last Saturday panel was “The Xanatos Gambit” with Jim Freund, Yoon Ha Lee, and Jim Macdonald. We discussed the hell out of the titular gambit, the sort of multi-layered scheme someone sets up with a variety of outcomes, all of which are ideally beneficial to the schemer. I think we lost a tiny bit of traction and opportunity by being too literal about this; the history and theory of schemes that are not purely win-win is a wide, deep river we barely dipped our toes in, but what the hell. I still think we rendered very fair return for the brain cells engaged in listening to us. We did discuss the history of the trickster/schemer figure at some length, generally agreeing that we were less interested in the notion of trickster as cosmic balance or theological compulsion than we were with the notion of the self-interested plot hatcher. We touched upon the transition of the role over time, and how the once-popular “unironic rake who rapes his way across the story” had lost a lot of traction in the public consciousness due to the fact that some of the human race is trying to grow the hell up. We didn’t get to talk much about one near-exception I had wanted to cite, Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever, the greedy egotist who inevitably ruins life for himself and nearly everyone he encounters in a world-spanning epic of poor life choices.

Saturday night, Amanda Downum and I made our own series of amusingly poor life choices as we tied more than one on at various room parties, especially those hosted by the generous Bracken Macleod and Marco Kloos. Liberal application of spiritous distillations helped ensure that we didn’t get to bed until Stupid O’Clock, with the threat of Amanda’s 9 AM Sunday Kaffeeklatsch hanging over us like Poe’s goddamn pendulum. Bear and I arose shakily, determined to show solidarity… actually, I exaggerate. Bear was pretty stable. Amanda and I were the delicate ones, and after the Klatsch I actually had to go cling to the bed awhile longer to make the universe stop spinning.

I was mostly recovered just in time for my last panel, “Pining for the Fnords: The New Nostalgia,” also featuring Elizabeth Bear, John Benson, Andrea Hairston, Liz Hand, and Richard Killheffer. I think there was a bit of a troublesome dichotomy in the panel description, as I don’t find Scalzi’s Redshirts to be of a piece with Walton’s Among Others, and I don’t find the sense of ‘nostalgia’ allegedly evoked in those books to intersect with the other half of the discussion prompted by Paul Kincaid’s jeremiad… but it wasn’t my show alone and once we got up to speed we flew along at a nice clip.

This panel featured one of the stranger interludes of my Readercon experience. Bear had just finished discussing the attractiveness of the genuinely old-fashioned “get out your slide rule” puzzle story, and how it could be at least perfunctorily invigorating to play with the style of story where the audience is invited to do the math or science along with the characters in that quintessential 50s way. Then we both cheekily lamented the march of technology as a bar-raiser for narrative trouble, using our cel phones as an obvious and immediate example. I mentioned something about how many of the books and films of the 20th century revolved around the plot device of not being able to find or contact other people (the example I used was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and how a society where nearly everyone carried the equivalent of a Star Trek communicator at all times made this harder to pull off.

So, that’s what we were lamenting… not our damn cel phones themselves, invaluable tools that they are, but the NARRATIVE CHALLENGES improving technology poses. Even the lament was very tongue-in-cheek; it’s not a bad thing to be forced to stay on one’s toes as a writer.

A short while later, the panel opened up to the audience for questions, and a very… forceful gentleman asked us why we were afraid of technology. We all replied pretty forthrightly that we weren’t; he had the wrong end of the stick entirely. The guy then went on about his work developing, as he put it, the apps and technologies that will define the next five years, and asked why science fiction writers were all afraid to use the most cutting-edge technologies in our work, as according to him, leaving out the last fraction of the newest developments was tantamount to writing fantasy.

We got very energetic in responding to him, and he asked “Why are you all so threatened by my question?” which was a response classically symptomatic of a guy fixated on flogging a point rather than listening to what other people might have to say about it.

Well, to you, guy in the audience, if you’re out there, we weren’t “threatened” by your question. Your question (which I have since learned you threw at another panel before reportedly leaving the room in a huff) wasn’t “threatening” in the slightest. What it was, was predicated on a whole series of false assumptions, namely that:

A. All science fiction writers are the same, part of some club or hive mind that collectively shirks or embraces the things it will write about. What you’ve actually got is a diverse conglomeration of thousands of individuals each with a different degree of technological experience, a different set of interests, and a different range of access to the freshest information. Not to mention wide variations in the amount of plain old effing time we can apply to our research and our work. I mean, how comprehensive a survey of genre fiction can you really have made if you don’t get this?

B. That what you were asking was within the scope of the panel, and the panel’s ability to efficiently engage with it in the time remaining. There’s this thing that happens when a subject is broached that is orthagonal to a panel’s description or ponderously tangential to its actual focus– the moderator says, “Look, we really can’t go into all that,” and everyone moves on.

C. That failing or refusing to feature the absolute latest in cutting-edge real-world tech invalidates the act of writing speculative fiction.

So, we weren’t threatened by your question, sir, may the gods of technology bless and keep you. We didn’t have the time to try and shake you out of all your presumptions, and we knew it, and frankly it wasn’t our responsibility to do so. If you wonder why people get het up when you don’t appear to want to listen to them, it’s not because your questions ring too fiercely for mortal ears to hear them. I hope that helps.

Other than that, I got the chance to briefly sit in on the “Teen Violence, Teen Sex” panel, which was of interest to me because The Republic of Thieves features, in case you didn’t already know, both teenage violence and teenage sex, written to frame some issues of consent and false idealization that I think sex in SF/F has at times been prone to. A good discussion was developing when I had to sneak off to other responsibilities.

One thing I will say, in response to the frequent observation (and hell, I’ve made it too) that our culture seems far more comfortable with gruesome fictional violence than it does with consensual fictional sex, is that there is one rarely-discussed reason for author squeamishness that has nothing to do with prudishness or presumption or lack of awareness. It is merely that an author writing a sex scene may be in more danger of revealing actual facts about their intimate self and their kinks and preferences than they are at any other time in the writing process; the art of writing honestly and with feeling and vigor threatens to expose much about the person behind the keys. Mitigating or preventing that exposure is a hard skill to learn.

Whether you realize it or not, you will actually learn some real things about me and my experiences from the sex scenes in The Republic of Thieves. It has taken time for me to become comfortable with that, and I will never feel any need to apologize for taking that time.

Anyhow, that was Readercon! No more public appearances for me until GenCon in Indianapolis, August 15-18.

In The Wake of MAN OF STEEL: A Timely Proposal

The lights dim… the screen flickers to life…

EXT. CALAIS COAST OF FRANCE – DAY

The cliffs of Dover are faintly visible on the horizon. A GERMAN GENERAL addresses a group of WEHRMACHT STAFF OFFICERS. As he begins speaking, a pristine Nazi flag snaps in the breeze behind him and the ominous shapes of dozens of HE-111 BOMBERS growl past overhead, toward the English side of the Channel.

GERMAN GENERAL
Gentlemen, England is on its knees. Her convoys are swept away. The Americans are too preoccupied by the destruction of their carrier fleet at Midway to send the British anything but prayers.

FLASH – DARKENED COMPARTMENT WITHIN A SINKING SHIP

Men screaming in the smoke-laced compartment as water rises rapidly to their chins.

GERMAN GENERAL
The Royal Air Force… no longer exists.

FLASH – LONDON CITYSCAPE –DAY

Big Ben is a shattered ruin, prominent in the foreground, as smoke rises in a hundred columns over a blackened and tortured city. German aircraft are flying away in leisurely formations.

GERMAN GENERAL
Moscow is a graveyard. The Fuhrer has released the bulk of the armies of the East to our command and given us our orders. By the end of this summer, 1942, we will be standing on the British Isles and we will be looking across the Atlantic… to our next target.

FLASH – WARNER BROS. LOGO

FLASH – DC COMICS LOGO

EXT. PLEASANT TROPICAL ISLAND COAST, OFFSHORE — NIGHT

A team of shadowy men are paddling a rubber boat toward the beach. The silhouette of a GERMAN U-BOAT rocks gently on the waves behind them.

YOUNG MAN WITH GERMAN ACCENT (Voiceover)
Herr Leutnant, what is this place? How can it not be on our charts?

EXT. PLEASANT TROPICAL ISLAND BEACH – NIGHT

A team of GERMAN SOLDIERS is briskly setting up a perimeter, while a GRIZZLED NAZI LIEUTENANT consults a map and compass. His ADJUTANT, the young man of the voiceover, stands nervously beside him. The scene is lit by the Lieutenant’s smoldering cigarette. Another shadowy shape can be seen at the Adjutant’s feet.

GRIZZLED NAZI LIEUTENANT
(Languidly) Who cares? We’re here to put it on the charts. And to find out how we can make use of it. I think we ought to start with a more… persuasive conversation with our American guest, don’t you?

The Lieutenant laughs and kicks the shape at the Adjutant’s feet. The MAN ON THE SAND (Paul Walker), who now comes into focus, is wearing a torn olive drab U.S. Army uniform and his hands are cuffed behind his back. He is unshaven, hollow-eyed, wary but not entirely defeated. The name patch on his uniform shirt reads TREVOR.

ADJUTANT
Herr Leutnant! Someone’s coming out of the jungle!

The German soldiers raise their weapons, and the Lieutenant peers into the darkness. We follow his gaze and see that a LONE FIGURE IN A HOODED CLOAK is standing just outside the darkened treeline, a few yards inland from the beach, watching the men.

LIEUTENANT
It’s a woman. (Shouting to his men) Bring her down here!

CLOAKED WOMAN
Strangers, you must leave. To trespass here is death.

LIEUTENANT
Really? And who are you to threaten us?

CLOAKED WOMAN
I’m not threatening you. (She pushes back her hood, revealing that she is DIANA (Jaimie Alexander)) I’m trying to protect you.

LIEUTENANT
From what?

DIANA
From me.

LIEUTENANT
Oh, good. A crazy woman. (He gestures, and his men begin to jog up the beach toward her) Don’t bother being gentle with her, just–

CUT TO

Steve Trevor scrambling backward on the sand, eyes wide, jaw hanging open. The sound of submachine-gun fire and screaming fills the night. The beach and the water behind him are lit by the pale staccato flashes of gunfire. Loud wet thumps, intercut with the high-pitched noise of razor-sharp metal slicing through the air, tell the story of the unfortunate German soldiers. Flying weapons and debris hit the sand all around Steve.

CUT TO

Diana, looking down toward Steve from a few feet away. She slides an ornate sword of pale metal back into its sheath.

STEVE TREVOR
Jesus! Lady, I’m, ah, I’m not exactly here by choice!

DIANA
You were their prisoner?

STEVE TREVOR
Yeah, I, uh, look… can you maybe see if there’s a key to these cuffs on one of the men you just–

Diana pulls Steve to his feet, spins him around, takes the handcuffs carefully in her hands, and snaps them apart as though they were made of paper.

STEVE TREVOR
Ahh! Well… (shakes the busted cuffs onto the sand) I guess that works, too.

EXT. THEMYSCIRA CITY –DAY

A beautiful eye-in-the-sky tracking shot of the Amazon city in the heart of a verdant jungle, a beautiful place that is please, god, not once again directly stolen from DINOTOPIA like every other fucking movie since THE PHANTOM MENACE.

DIANA (Voiceover)
We will bring your news of the outside world to my mother. I give you my countenance to enter Themyscira.

STEVE TREVOR (Voiceover)
Themis-er-what?

INT. THEMYSCIRA QUEEN’S COURT –DAY

HIPPOLYTA (Claudia Black) stands flanked by handmaidens and advisors, including ARTEMIS (Rosario Dawson), MALA (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and PHILIPPUS (Angela Bassett). These women, as gorgeous and intimidating as their surroundings, are backlit by slanting shafts of golden sunlight.

DIANA (Voiceover)
This man speaks of empires… empires of steel machines dividing the world between them! How can we live on in perfect peace while millions of innocent people die?

CUT TO

Diana walking stridently beside Hippolyta, who looks less than charmed with her daughter.

HIPPOLYTA
The world of men broke with us. Now it must wear the chains of its own failure. We cannot interfere!

DIANA
Cannnot or will not?

FLASH – ATLANTIC OCEAN – DAY

The mighty battleship TIRPITZ fills the screen, German naval ensign flying prominently, her guns blasting smoke and fire toward the audience. Behind her we can see a long gray line of German battlecruisers and destroyers, fading into the distance, thundering away with their guns.

HIPPOLYTA (Voiceover)
You know nothing of the outside world!

DIANA (Voiceover)
And what happens when there’s nothing left in the outside world for me to learn about?

FLASH – AN AUSTERE BEACH UNDER OVERCAST SKIES — DAY

German soldiers march in lines past craters and ditches filled with the bodies of British and American soldiers. Allied flags lie tattered on the sand, next to the smoking wrecks of Allied tanks and equipment.

CUT TO

EXT. THEMYSCIRA QUEEN’S COURT –TWILIGHT

Diana and Mala standing on a balcony over a lantern-lit courtyard, looking down at Steve Trevor, who paces below, looking frustrated.

MALA
Why are you obsessed with this man?

DIANA
It’s not him. It’s what he represents.

MALA
And what do you think he represents?

DIANA
A second chance for us. To break this exile and be what the world needs us to be.

FLASH

GERMAN PANZERS race through a war-torn wood. Smoke boils into the red-tinted sky behind them.

STEVE TREVOR (Voiceover)
I can’t lie to you, Diana. We’re not winning this war. We’re running out of time and we’re running out of hope.

DIANA (Voiceover)
My people won’t aid you. Gaea help me, my people are wrong.

CUT TO

INT. THEMYSCIRA QUEEN’S COURT –DAY

Diana arguing with Philippus, whose arms are crossed. Several handmaidens stand watching at a respectful distance, looking shocked.

DIANA
I’ve come for the weapons that are my birthright.

PHILIPPUS
I guard them for a queen’s heir. Not a girl who wants to go adventuring on a fool’s errand!

DIANA
Then I’ll see you in the arena.

PHILIPPUS
For the love I bear you and your mother, I will break you like a little girl before her very eyes.

FLASH- Diana and Philippus, in suitably bad-ass ceremonial armor, walloping the ever-loving bejeezus out of each other. The earth trembles beneath their feet.

DIANA
I’ll accept your apology for that. (Flexes arms and cracks knuckles.) When you wake up after the fight.

FLASH – Diana’s hands lifting a gleaming golden lariat from an ancient wooden display case.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: IN AN ANCIENT PARADISE

FLASH – Diana’s arms, as she buckles on a pair of sleek golden bracers.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: A WORLD WITHOUT HOPE

EXT. CALAIS COAST OF FRANCE – DAY

GERMAN GENERAL
The operation is SEA LION! The beginning of the end for all the Reich’s surviving enemies. Frankly… they have nothing left with which to oppose us.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: FINDS A CHAMPION TO STAND IN ITS DARKEST HOUR

INT. THEMYSCIRAN FORGE CHAMBERS

Molten metal and sparking fires light the scene as stern, sculpted female blacksmiths pour and hammer with a clear sense of purpose.

DIANA (Voiceover)
I can’t wear the sigil of my house while my mother refuses to bless this mission. I’ve requested new armor, in the colors of your cause, for inspiration’s sake. Do you have any suggestions?

FLASH – Brief glimpse of ribbed armor in the traditional red, blue, and gold.

STEVE TREVOR
You know, ah, my people have a legend about a woman named Godiva…

DIANA
Oh? What’s this legend?

STEVE TREVOR
On second thought, forget I said anything.

EXT. – BEACHES OF SOUTHERN ENGLAND – DAY

The German General, hunkered just off the beach in a mud-spattered overcoat, is yelling into a field telephone while all hell breaks lose in the background. Hundreds of German troops are moving off the beach, shells are bursting overhead, and the sea is dark with landing craft and naval vessels.

GERMAN GENERAL
What the hell do you mean you’ve lost contact with ALL of our forward Panzer elements?

SMASH CUT – EXT. – EDGE OF A FOREST IN SOUTHERN ENGLAND – DAY

British and American troops crouched side by side behind makeshift barricades watch in awe as a vast dark shape rolls toward them out of the smoke and red fire of brutal combat. Tracer bullets streak past in the background. We soon see that the shape is a GERMAN PANZER IV TANK… rolling to a grinding halt. Standing atop its chassis is Diana. She has torn the tank’s turret out of its housing and, as we watch, she steadily lifts it up over her head while smoke and flame boil out around her legs. She is wearing her dark cloak, but as it flutters and flies we can catch a solid glimpse of Wonder Woman’s armor, bracers, and circlet beneath it. Diana shrugs the tank turret off to one side, where it lands with a thunderous crash. Diana looks at the men briefly, posing in the smoke and flame like the UNIVERSE’S OWN MAXIMUM BAD-ASS. Then she grins ferally and leaps twenty feet into the air, looking for her next target.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: WONDER WOMAN

Beat… music crescendoes and ends.

INT. – COLD AND IMMACULATE OFFICES SOMEWHERE IN THE THIRD REICH

A NERVOUS NAZI OFFICER stands before BARONESS PAULA VON GUNTHER (Tilda Swinton), who is wearing smoked glasses and an incredibly chic gray and black ensemble that perfectly mimics the scheme of Nazi uniforms, while having not one single uniform feature. Her hair is ice-white and she wears gray leather gloves that can only be described as the pale color of crushed dreams. She is dwelling on some ominous piece of scientific apparatus cradled in one hand like Yorick’s skull.

NERVOUS OFFICER
We don’t understand, Baroness von Gunther. This woman… she’s not human!

BARONESS VON GUNTHER
There’s nothing you need to worry about understanding, Herr General. Science has given you tanks and aircraft and submarines. Surely my science will give you the means to defeat a single woman.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: THIS SUMMER

…and the lights rise again, on a room full of movie studio suits

WRITER: So, that concludes my, ah, presentation. Superhero films have cleaned up in recent years, there’s still lots of jazz from the Batman and Superman films, it’s got a lot of that retro and alternate-historical fashion to give it a grounded feel, and it’s got some steampunky super-science, and I think the cast could just kill… plus it leaves lots of room to bring in Circe in the sequel, maybe with Morena Baccarin for the role…

SUIT: Look, thanks for your time, but it’ll never work. Women just aren’t interested in comic book movies.

WRITER: Actually, the MPAA’s own theatrical market statistics show that movie attendance is essentially a dead heat between men and women and has been for years now, and comic book movies audiences are only a shade less balanced…

SUIT: Well, sure, whatever, but everyone knows guys don’t want to see female leads in, you know, stuff like this.

WRITER: Right, because that little Hunger Games flick was a renowned mega-flop, in the tradition of other notorious bombs like Aliens, Terminator 2, Silence of the Lambs, the Twilight saga...

SUIT: That Salt movie with Angelina Jolie didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

WRITER: Uh, it nearly tripled its production costs in global box office and a sequel has been greenlit.

SUIT: Yeah, but Catwoman

WRITER: Catwoman was a box office turd. So was Green Lantern, but nobody ever suggests it failed because it was an onscreen sausage-fest.

SUIT: But Brave

WRITER: Also tripled its production costs globally, and that was a mediocre flick for Pixar.

SUIT: Yeah, look. This is a nice try, but we just gotta pass, kid.

WRITER: Look, seriously, female participation in comic book culture and its associated media spinoffs, which is where the real money is, has never been higher. These women are passionate, pre-aware, and ready to line up and throw money at a project like this. There would be lines to the horizon if you would just quit fucking around and muttering about how the female audience is weak and the male audience is self-absorbed, and build something for that audience to cling to like a treasure. This is the preeminent female comic book hero in HUMAN HISTORY, and you can’t find the guts to even TRY?

SUIT: Look, maybe we can find the money for a budget next year, if you can retool it as a Johnny Depp vehicle. But to be perfectly honest with you, we’re tight at the moment. We’ve already lined up $100 million to do Zach Galifianakis’ Aquaman.

WRITER: There aren’t enough desks in the world for what I want to do with my head right now.

*****

(Apologies to screenplay formatting, which I have brutally trampled on while writing this. -SL)