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@lantis…and Others On the Way

Rudy Rucker and I have been writing stories of surf-jerks Zep and Delbert since the mid 1980s, beginning with “Probability Pipeline” which appeared in George Zebrowski’s Synergy series in 1988. It’s a series, but we treat them like episodes in a comic strip, so not much carries over from one story to the next, other than the characters. They have changed over the years, but not much.

(Above is Jeremy Bennett‘s awesome Asimov cover illustration done especially for “The Perfect Wave.”)

This summer we had the chance to hang out together for a couple weeks, and started talking about doing another. Each one of these seems a little crazier than the last, and we had a lot of fun writing it. The end result just sold this week to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (which published the previous two, “The Perfect Wave” and “Watergirl”).

It’s called “@lantis.” I will post more when I know the publication dates. (For the complete series, don’t forget “Chaos Surfari”…the only one to have a band named after it!)

I also finally finished the latest tale of Gorlen Vizenfirthe, the bard with a gargoyle hand. I wanted to do one substantial story that would round off the series so that I could put it aside, maybe collect all of them in a single volume, give those who’ve been following the series over the years a sense of closure. I might come back to it eventually, either to continue Gorlen’s story or plug some gaps in between the existing tales, but for now it seems a good time to put it aside and make room for completely new ideas. This one is called “Stillborne.” No news yet on where or when it might appear.

And finally, a very short story called “Vanishingly Rare,” emerged almost out of nowhere. Well, not exactly. I spent much of last year going through my papers, preparing to pack them up for donation to UC Riverside’s Eaton Collection. Out of that mass of notes, I pulled one self-contained fragment that had been intended as a piece of a longer work to be called (at last retitling) The Secret War of Photographs. I doubt I’ll ever do the long work at this point (the fragment was dated 11/26/90, so it’s probably past its expiration date), but I did hit on a way to turn the fragment into a complete short story. I will post when it has found a home!

 

Twisted: I Alone Am Escaped From the Floppies To Tell Thee

I sent several 5.25″ floppies to a service that scoured them for salvageable files. Most of what they found were documents of little interest or which I already possessed on paper.

This very short piece called “Twisted,” featuring Charles Dickens as an “eye in the sky” breaking news reporter, is the one exception.

I don’t remember anything about, but it seems quite self-contained and self-explanatory. The world was perfectly fine without it, but I’m happy to have rescued it.

Twisted!

 

Afterthought Overkill

[file dated 11/6-11/9/98]

Preface: This appears to be an expanded version of the “Day After Shipping” document, that was being written simultaneously. Ah, word processors, with your copypaste function making document provenance baffling. It incorporates big pieces of the other document, but is wrapped and shot through with a fair bit of new stuff. I think this was probably written to be presented at a CGDC Roadtrip—a smaller, local developer’s conference. I added “Anyway, as I was saying” sorts of things that made it sound more talky. But I don’t believe I ever got up and gave the talk. I recall I was on a panel about narrative in games, and might have spewed small chunks of it then, however.

Deep breath…

***

When I was about twelve years old, sometime around 1972, I wrote a few pages of a science fiction story about a futuristic form of entertainment. About all I remember is that it featured huge banks of lenses projecting holographic images into the middle of a round stage, and that the audience participated in the performance somehow. I recall making a big deal out of the futuristic-sounding words “three dimensional”—as if everything in 1972 were actually two dimensional, and we’d have to wait another 50 or 100 years for the third dimension to kick in. The story was supposed to be about this new entertainment industry, but since I don’t recall ever inventing any characters or conflicts or anything that might actually happen in the story, it didn’t get much beyond the planning stages. Read More

Writing For Half-Life

(File dated November 9, 1998)

PREFACE: Another file from the same disk with the Nihilanth sketches, this one, if it is to believed, written the day after we shipped Half-Life. I do believe it because the file’s creation date is indeed November 9, 1998, and I am not l33t enough to know how to fake that sort of thing. The title of this file was “CGDCTALK” but I don’t remember ever giving a talk anywhere until years later, after the success of HL2. It might have been published somewhere (perhaps near Geoff Keighley’s piece on The Last Hours of Half-Life), but if so it was probably edited, and there might be some value in the unedited braindump. If this was indeed written right as we shipped the game, then I would not be surprised if it conflicts with things I’ve said in decades since. But the guy writing this little article was there, and his memory is much better than the old guy writing this preface, so I’d be inclined to believe him over me.

***

When I started working at Valve, Half-Life was almost finished. It would be on sale for Christmas. If I was lucky, I would get to put in a few weeks of touch-up work on the story, and then get on with a far more detailed storyline for our second game. That was in July of 1997. Read More

Mathoms from the Lambda Files (c. 1998)

PREFACE: For the past few months, as part of my post-retirement purge, I’ve been organizing papers, rummaging in drawers, going through the basement, getting rid of moldy paperbacks, looking for the occasional piece of debris worth saving. At the end of the process I ended up with a stack of 3.5” floppies, so I bought an external floppy drive to see if there was anything on them worth saving. Mostly they held back-ups of old manuscripts and story fragments from before I joined Valve, but on one disk I found several documents from the summer of 1998, late in Half-Life 1’s development, when I’d been working on the game for a year.

The first one is called “Finale” and appears to be an attempt describe the whole final sequence, which makes it pretty clear that we didn’t have an ending built yet. Another interesting thing is that it ends with a third-person cut-scene view of Gordon Freeman. As I’ve stated before, we only committed completely to first person when we realized we didn’t have time and resources to do a good job with third person views. Resource constraints forced our hand and gave the game its strict first-person integrity. It was all very seat-of-the-pants. Read More

Charles L. Grant: Restless in Silence

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In September of 1974, age 14, I bought my first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction from a newsstand. This was one of the first times I encountered short fiction live, as it was happening, rather than from one of the relatively stale collections stocked in the library or supplied by the Science Fiction Book Club. I discovered in that issue the latest stories by several young writers I had never heard of: Tom Reamy, Michael Bishop, and Charles L. Grant. The cover was inspired by Bishop’s dreamlike planetary adventure, “Cathadonian Odyssey”; Tom Reamy’s “Twilla” featured a striking glimpse of a genie’s enormous schlong; but it was Charlie Grant’s “The Rest Is Silence” that struck me most deeply. (Well, I confess I do still think of that genie dick from time to time.) I did a lot of my reading, back then, in the back seat of cars, with the freeways of Southern California gliding past; and I still remember how the bright hot afternoon was pierced by a moment of dark chill and stillness as I reached the end of the Grant’s story.

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From that moment forward, I sought and devoured every one of his tales, wherever I could find them. A couple dozen Grant stories appeared over the next few years, in various magazines and anthologies, and I read most of them. They were all beautifully written, lyrical, more occupied with atmosphere and character than with the shocking effects of many other writers at the time, who were trying to one-up The Exorcist in the gross-out department. His distinctive titles suggested poetry as much as genre horror: “When All the Children Call My Name,” “A Glow of Candles, A Unicorn’s Eye,” “The Dark of Legends, The Light of Lies”…

As he shifted his energy into writing novels, his output of short fiction dropped off dramatically. But Grant’s influence was already in effect on my own writing. Among my ambitions as a writer of horror and dark fantasy, I now valued the quiet chill of Charlie’s work, and always looked for opportunities to emulate it.

Grant was often compared to Ray Bradbury, perhaps because he wrote a number of stories that focused on childhood in ways reminiscent of Bradbury’s own nightmarish stories of youth; and no doubt Bradbury was a huge influence. But his work reminded me more of Rod Serling. Not the Serling of the science fiction twist, but the author of “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” who drew deeply from the hearts of haunted people. Serling and Grant were both veterans, both marked by their wartime experiences, and I wonder if this is one of the reasons I found something similar in their work. As far as I know, Charlie never wrote openly of his time in Viet Nam or used it as a setting for fiction (I would love to hear otherwise), but there is no question the stories sublimate his experience and come from a darker place perhaps than Bradbury’s Midwestern carnival idylls. Both wrote of death, but while Bradbury’s prose seems ultimately innocent and scarcely scathed, Charlie appeared to know much more of the wounded, of how one lived with scars and struggled on through injury.

In the summer of 1977, after a week at a small wooded lake in Oregon, I came home and wrote an aimless, atmospheric story about weird things in the woods. Its wordy title, “A Peaceful Summer by the Lake of Shadows,” marked it as something written under the spell of Charles L. Grant. That October, I carried the manuscript with me to the Third World Fantasy Convention in Los Angeles, and late one night, in a smoky hotel suite, I introduced myself to Mr. Grant and asked him if he might read it and give me feedback. I believe I must have written him some fan letters by this time; but even so, he had no particular reason to accept the manuscript. Still, he took it with him, and a few days later sent it back to me with some notes. I no longer have his reply, but I know it was a gracious one, even as he gently let me know that I had a long way to go.

Around this time, he announced the creation of the Shadows series. The ultimate validation for me at that time would be to know I’d written something worthy of inclusion in the volume. I almost certainly pestered him with multiple submissions, although it couldn’t have been many, since I was just heading off to college and my own writing tapered off to almost nothing for a few years. It wasn’t until he was reading for Shadows 6, with the series well-established, that I sent him a very minor short story called “Sneakers.” Charlie seemed relieved that he could finally justify publishing something of mine, and despite the very un-Grantish one-word title, you can see his influence in the way very little is seen directly, and most is told literally through whispers. I always hoped to sell him something more substantial, but I was moving away from horror at that time, in search of my own voice. (And apparently Charlie liked the story a bit more than I realized, because while looking through old boxes of books, I discovered that he’d troubled to include “Sneakers” in his Best of Shadows anthology…a fact I had forgotten until yesterday.)

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Years later, I wrote a story that in retrospect seems a much better example of the Charlie Grant influence: “Cell Call.” Charlie was certainly much on my mind around the time I wrote “Cell Call.” He was gravely ill, and his health was a topic of much concern among the community of writers and fans who admired him. I had never gotten to know him beyond our early correspondence, but I was glad to join others in writing to let him know how much his work had meant to me. I hope he received many such letters.

Despite my love of his work, I read only a few of Charlie’s novels. Around the end of the Seventies, he moved away from short fiction, commencing a prolific period of writing novels under several different names in addition to his own. This was the time when I was drifting away from genre in general, so I read fewer horror novels, including Charlie’s. But though I return again and again to read horror from every era, it is still those stories of the mid-to-late Seventies that strike me as the purest, finest examples of his work. While most of Charlie’s novels languish out of print, I note that editors continue reappraising and collecting his short stories in such volumes as Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant (2011), edited by Stephen Jones.

Even so, “The Rest Is Silence” is still fairly hard to find. It was nominated for a Nebula Award the year it came out, but it is not in the last few collections of his best work. This strikes me as an oversight. It’s time to go digging into my boxes of old magazines. It’s time to appreciate Charles L. Grant anew, before the silence settles in completely.

Won’t you join me?

…let me just…catch…my breath…huff!

It started with scanning my old stories, posting them here on the site, a week or two basically stuck at the scanner forgetting there was an outside…then the discovery that using Abbyy FineReader on a set of old PDFs led to far cleaner OCR versions than similar software had generated a few years ago, making the task of converting my old novels to ebooks seem no longer insurmountable…and stumbling upon a method for generating my own cover art…then, just over a month ago, I uploaded the first of my old books to the Kindle store.

The process is a blur now that it’s behind me, and most of the weight of task-dread has been lifted. My books are back in print. Sort of. They are available for Kindle only at this time, and will probably remain that way for a while. Kindle offers a free app that allows them to be read on your PC, iPad, iPhone, etc., but I understand that some people simply prefer a nice bound book, and others refuse to pitch a dime into the Amazon slot.

The process of learning just the basics required to produce a reasonably professional, clean and readable Kindle ebook was exhausting and frequently frustrating, especially when it came to getting the logical Table of Contents working–and especially because I changed from PC to Mac halfway through the project. There are still some tweaks I’d like to make to the current editions, but I’m going to let them (and myself) stabilize for a bit. There are typos to track down, and some formatting I’m not very happy with. Eventually I will add more stories to 400 Boys and 50 More. Eventually I might give The 37th Mandala another light pass to touch up some prose that bugged me (the first time through, I wanted to simply reproduce the print editions without doing any revisions). But I have to think about whether it would really be worth the time and energy necessary to tackle the learning curve for Nook, Kobo, and other forms of ebook. Since I don’t read on those platforms myself, I am hesitant to offer editions that I haven’t fully checked for quality. I have several Kindle-kin devices and was able to inspect my books a few different ways, and on each one I discovered unique problems. I can’t imagine what might go wrong on devices I’ve never used.

As for print editions, my reluctance about shipping a product in a form I haven’t mastered is heightened multifold. At least I can patch an ebook if I detect a flaw. Do I really want to subject paying readers to my clumsy first attempt at print on demand? I feel like the low price for the ebooks reasonably reflects the amount of craftsmanship that went into their production, quite apart from the issue of whether the stories themselves are worth the cost. But a bound book is another matter.

Perhaps the presence of these editions will catch the attention of an actual publisher at some point, and there will be interest in bringing them out once more (or, in the case of the collection, for the first time) in a print edition. Or perhaps when I’ve recharged a bit, I’ll get motivated to tackle book design myself; although I think I’d rather use that energy to start moving forward again with some new projects. You know…ones I don’t necessarily have to self-publish.

If you have picked up any of these books, I am grateful and gratified that they have found homes again, and an audience. As aways, if you spot any typos, please use the contact form and let me know!

 

400 Boys and 50 More

My first collection, the final entry in the Laidlaw Self-Rediscovery Series, is now available for your Kindle or Kindle app for $3.99 (that’s less than 8 cents per story, some genius mathematician informed me).

400 Boys and 50 More!

A few people have told me they didn’t know they could read Kindle books on their phones or tablets, as well as on their PCs. I’m here to inform you that you can. It’s a perfectly pleasant experience however you manage it!

I am posting the introduction below.

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INTRODUCTION: 400 + 50 = 51

This collection contains 51 stories, well over a quarter of a million words, written over approximately 40 years, and assembled by the author, which is to say me, a fan of commas, and also afterthoughts. Most have been previously published, but apart from the occasional appearance in an anthology, they have never been collected in whole or even in part. Recently I made them all freely available at my website, marclaidlaw.com, rescuing numerous texts from paper and various obsolete electronic media; therefore it should be considered that this ebook exists mainly for the convenience of those who don’t particularly enjoy reading from a website and prefer the traditional, old-fashioned electronic book experience just the way Nikola Gutenberg intended it.

 
The decision to choose 50 additional tales to accompany the titular “400 Boys” is largely but not entirely based on my desire to have another zero in the title. Who doesn’t love more zeroes? I could have (and probably should have) included fewer stories; and with a bit more wincing I could have added several more. At the moment I’m on the verge of talking myself into 400 Boys and 40 More, a far more felicitous arrangement of numerals; or maybe I’ll settle in for another viewing of The 400 Blows (a title a much younger me once suspected a much older Truffaut had stolen from him). But no! My resolve is firm. 50—I mean 51—it is!

 
For now anyway.

 
Since this is an ebook, and essentially software, I intend, laziness permitting, to continue patching the collection, adding more recent stories without altering the title (though I will append a changelist). I suppose it’s possible that someday the title may have to be changed to “60 More” and then “70 More”; and in some distant future, provided I remain productive into a rich immortality, “Infinitely More.” But for now I’m sticking with 50. Which is to say, 51. I already have some ideas about 52 and 53.
Since my goal was to collect most of my stories in one place, and to exert thereafter very little editorial judgment, I decided to group them more or less in the order they were written and/or published. I have no particular thesis or argument to advance that would be strengthened by presenting them in any other sequence. The weakness of this approach is that the early stories are naturally weaker than the later ones. I have made no attempt to hide this structural defect. I trust that by arranging them by decade, I’ve provided a hint to the reader of what they are likely to find when they wade in at any particular point of their own choosing.

 
I include here no collaborations, since those have mostly been available in the collected works of my partners. I include no tales of Gorlen Vizenfirthe, the gargoyle-handed bard, since I intend to collect those separately as The Gargoyle’s Handbook (“Hello, publishers! All serious offers entertained!). Nor will you find any stories I can’t bear to reread. While I had initially planned to present a “Compleat Laidlaw,” ultimately I could not bring myself to exhume a handful of lackluster stories which well deserve their current obscurity. A few I am not especially fond of were spared excision on account of kind words spoken in their defense by others over the past few decades, but no one has ever stepped forward in favor of “Buzzy Gone Blue” or others nearly as embarrassing. There is one very recent story, “Roguelike,” which I had intended to include; but it depends on typographic gimmickry, and given my limited self-publishing skills, I could not ensure it would hold up on various devices.
While providing a bit of context for each decade, I have mainly refrained from commenting on the individual stories. On my website, where these stories also appear, I have been adding occasional notes as anecdotes occur to me. You might look there for further illumination.

 
May you find here whatever it is you expect of me. If your minimum expectation is a quarter of a million words, most of them legible, prepare to have your expectations exceeded!