This is a guest post by Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock, creator of VR horror RPG Left-Hand Path.

In the discussion of my last post, Philippa Cowderoy and Geoff Hart brought up an interesting question around esports in VR. Will e-sports in VR ever become a thing?

I was actually there at the start of the dawn of esports as a whole - I ran "News From The Front", a website which covered the competitive Quake scene back in 1996. (It may actually have been the first dedicated esports news site in the world.) And more recently, I've gotten back into PvP games and esports with the game DOTA2, which has consumed an enormous amount of my time over the last year or so.

And, of course, I'm a virtual reality developer by trade - my first VR game, the horror/rpg Left-Hand Path, left Early Access and entered full release last Friday. I should stress at this point that I don't have a professional dog in the esports race: I'm mostly interested in creating single-player experiences, often with heavy RPG bents. Whilst Left-Hand Path is certainly difficult, inspired as it is by Dark Souls, it's not PvP, and my next major game will probably also be a single-player experience. So I have no financial interest in pushing the whole VR esport concept.

Nonetheless, the esport question is fascinating to me. In five years, will we be seeing the equivalent of The International in VR?

We're further along than you might think

Well, in actual fact you could have watched this year's International in VR. DOTA2 has had a VR spectator mode available for some time. It's not quite ready for prime time yet - I still prefer the big-screen-with-snacks approach to DOTA game watching - but it's evidence that VR's advancing on the esport thing much faster than you might think.

In fact, there's been an esport tournament in VR in just the last week.


People sometimes ask me why I'm so keen on VR - keen enough to drop a 20-year career to move into it - and I always give the same response.

"I get to make worlds".

That's... quite the sales pitch. And I don't mean "making worlds" as a novelist or even a filmmaker (my former career) does it. I mean creating worlds you can walk into, explore, interact with, and get murdered by hideous creatures brought back to life by the blasphemous rules of the magical place you now inhabit.

(My creative approach - latest output of which is the VR horror/rpg Left-Hand Path - definitely tends in a certain direction, and that direction is deep, complex magic systems and disturbing consequences therof. Plus I was really inspired by Dark Souls this time around.)

And if I was speaking to someone whom I suspected might have watched Star Trek - you know, about 80% of the population - I might follow that up with "basically, I have a holodeck".

Horror On The Holodeck

If you don't know - the "holodeck" was the invention of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ostensibly a recreational tool, it could conjure in perfect detail any environment its user could dream of. For plot reasons, the utility's obvious - as Wikipedia says,

From a storytelling point of view, it permits the introduction of a greater variety of locations and characters that might not otherwise be possible, such as events and persons in the Earth's past, and is often used as a way to pose philosophical questions.

(Wikipedia: Holodeck)

(Also, for storytelling reasons, it bugged out more often than Internet Explorer 6. I'm pleased to say current VR tech, including Left-Hand Path, doesn't have quite that problem.)

Ever since its introduction, a lot of people have regarded the Holodeck as the ultimate goal of games or virtual reality. A tool that can create a completely convincing world in which you can be anything you want to be.

The new wave of VR is a huge step in that direction. By "The New Wave" here I mean the Vive, the Oculus Rift, and - if reports are to be believed - Microsoft's Mixed Reality. Phone VR with no positional tracking or motion-tracked controllers is not the same thing at all, and should really not be taken as a representation of current VR. If the VR system doesn't allow you to get up (using your IRL body, not a controller), walk around a bit, and pick things up with your hands (mediated by controllers like Oculus Touch or the Vive wand) I would argue it's not "real" VR, and it's certainly not what I'm talking about here.

But there are still plenty of limitations to it, and you may well be listing them in your head as you read this.

"What? Lol. It's not anything like a holodeck. You can only walk about six feet! You can't feel objects, there's no wind, there's no smells, you've got a damn great cable attached to your head, and the other characters are just computer game NPCs!"

All true.

But for how much longer?


This is a guest post by Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock, creator of VR horror RPG Left-Hand Path.

I've always had a problem with Arthur C Clarke's Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.".

This may have something to do with my career for a long time involving both magic and technology. Magic's a perennial fiction obsession of mine, and my media of choice have always been highly technological.

Most recently, I just released Left-Hand Path. It's a Virtual Reality game for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive - obviously fairly technological - whose central conceit is that in it, you learn the skills to cast spells. And I don't just mean you select spells from a spellbook and then press a button: I mean you have to learn the gestures necessary to create the magic, and on occasion go through a complex system of ritual magic to create the effects you desire, flipping through your grimoire to remember exactly how you summon your ancient powers.


Now, all that makes for a great game. There's a sense of accomplishment as you learn to use the powers of magic to your advantage and remember how to cast the "Vis" spell as something nasty is closing on you. There's a sense of discovery as you learn more about the world, the way magic works, and find powerful new spells. And there's a sense of pant-crapping terror as you realise that the things your new ritual summons to eat your foes will cheerfully eat you as well.

(Fun fact: horror games are more intense in VR, by some margin. So terrifying, in fact, that I added a "Low Terror Mode" recently, after reading a significant number of people saying "I'd love to play your game, but I absolutely won't, because it sounds way too scary.")

Now, none of that description of magic sounds very much like the technology I use in 2017.

I don't have to imprecate dark and terrible forces in order to use my PS4, unless you count Sony's latest privacy policy. My lovely new iPad is famously intuitive, not a quality one would ascribe to The Lesser Key Of Solomon.

But.

And this is a big but. (I cannot lie.)

None of what I describe sounds like the consumer tech that I use. That's not so much the case for the other technology I interact with.

And I think that distinction - and the points where Clarke's Third Law does still apply - may explain a lot about why technologists are increasingly becoming hated in many circles.

First, an apologia for a technical complication ...

So, with previous books I've been in the habit of writing up my crib notes and blogging them around the time the book comes out in mass-market paperback and the ebook price is cut accordingly, which is traditionally twelve months after the hardcover publication date. However, we live in interesting times and the mass market distribution channel—used for small format paperbacks in the USA—is decaying (it died in the early 90s in the UK). Upshot: there have been no mass market paperback editions of my books in the USA since about 2015, although the UK market still gets small format trade paperbacks (which everyone thinks is a mass market release).

"Empire Games", the first book of the trilogy of that name, is published by Tor in the USA (and Canada) and by Tor in the UK (and EU, and Aus/NZ). Despite their similar-sounding names, these are actually two different companies within a sprawling multinational (Holtzbrinck Publishing Group), and although my US and UK editors work together, they're publishing through different distribution networks (because, historically, books weren't a valuable enough wholesale product to ship internationally). This is why the ebook price drop and small format paperback have already happened in the UK, but the ebook price cut and US trade paperback of "Empire Games" are delayed until December 5th.

(There are no current plans for a mass market release, despite which Amazon.com are optimistically saying that you can pre-order one for delivery on January 1st, 2099. And book 2, "Dark State", is due out on January 11th in the UK and January 9th in the USA.)

As it's the seasonal affective depression time of year and I always get slammed around the winter solstice, without further ado, here are some crib notes for "Empire Games". Spoilers ahoy!

Empire Games

Attention, British readers: Empire Games just came out in small format paperback today, with a price cut from the big trade paperback. The ebook edition also got a whole bit cheaper: Kindle edition here.

(The US paperback/cheap ebook will be along a bit later, because Tor UK and Tor USA are actually different publishers with different schedules.)

On the low blogging tempo ...

I'm grappling with a tight deadline: "The Labyrinth Index" is due with my editors at the end of the month and I've still got one third of the book to go. (It's going to be a little shorter than the last couple of Laundry Files novels, but on the other hand, they've been growing alarmingly. The first short novel, "The Atrocity Archive", was 76,000 words long, while by "The Nightmare Stacks" and "The Delirium Brief" they were pushing close to 140,000 words. This one isn't exactly short, but should come in at around 100,000 words—in other words, about 300 pages.)

Creative blogging soaks up the same writing mojo as book-writing, and I don't have much surplus this quarter. I'll have some crib notes for you in a few weeks when Empire Games is released in small-format paperback (that's due on December 5th in the USA, but October 19th in the UK, because Tor USA and Tor UK are different companies and run on slightly different release schedules: yes, the ebook price will drop at the same time). And I'll see if I can find a guest blogger or two. And of course, if something happens that causes me to foam at the mouth you'll read about it here ... but don't be too surprised if this place is unusually quiet for the next month.

Part of it, I will admit, is news fatigue. John Scalzi already said this thing, so I don't feel the need to repeat every word of it here, but in a nutshell: it's really hard to think myself into an ebullient and entertaining frame of mind this year, which is a necessary precondition to writing escapist fiction. The news is unmitigated crap right now. Our rulers are either morons and criminals (the White House), or being run ragged by a clown car full of idiots (the Brexit cheerleaders, whose latest wheeze is to decide that anyone bearing news of economic woes in the brave new Brexit uplands is clearly a saboteur because nothing can go wrong and it's time to fire the Chancellor for revising growth forecasts down). The climate is turning deadly (how many hurricanes this season? Has central California burned to the ground yet?), and maniacs are waving nuclear dildos at each other again. There is no respite from the bad news, other than to turn the news off completely or subsist entirely on a diet of successful rocket launch videos (checks clock: there's an hour to go until the next SpaceX bird goes up, then a couple of days to the next) and happy puppies.

Oh, and next week I turn 53. I don't generally have crises on birthdays divisible by 10; I defer them for 2-3 years. For example, on turning 30 you can still kid yourself you're in your late twenties; at 33, this isn't true any more. Now I'm nearly 53 I can't really kid myself I'm not middle-aged. Given that we live in a culture that venerates youth and ignores or discounts age, that's also calling for a bit of adjustment (notably learning to kick back against the little voice in my ear whispering "you're an old has-been" and "you're past it" and "your best work is behind you: you're coasting on fumes now" and say "fuck you, I'm going to prove you wrong"). In fact, it's calling for so much adjustment that I don't have much spare energy for anything else.

So ... what I guess I'm saying is, I've got a tight deadline to hit and work is actually much, much harder than usual right now because the emotional environment is toxic, and us creatives need, if not happiness, then at least light at the end of the tunnel. But work is the one thing I can't allow to slide. Excuses are not permitted: I've got a tight schedule to meet if I'm going to take a sabbatical for a couple of months around the end of next year, and I'll slack off when I'm dead.

That's it. Talk among yourselves or feel free to ask me anything (just be aware I might not answer until I've hit my daily word-count target). I'm outa here; back in November.

I don't often make exact predictions about the future; that's not an SF writer's job, and it's really easy to get egg on your face. Howver, here's a prediction:

If Donald Trump is still president, US astronauts will return to circumlunar space around July 16th, 2019 ...

(Apologies for blogging so infrequently this month. I'm currently up to my elbows in The Labyrinth Index, with a tight deadline to hit if the book's going to be published next July. Blogging will continue to be infrequent, but hopefully as provocative as usual.)

Remember Orwell's 1984 and his description of the world ahead—"if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever"?

This is the 21st century, and we can do better.

This is an open-ended question.

Forget Donald Trump; Trump will almost certainly be gone by 2020 and quite possibly by 2018. (In fact, any comments which mention him will be deleted unless they have a very good point to make about the effect of flooding on Houston. You have been warned.)

What I'm interested in chewing over is the effect of losing a major city—the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the United States—to a weather event that is already the worst in 800 years (with, potentially, worse to come) and flooding due to rainfall that will almost certainly exceed 100 centimetres in a week.

What happens next? Lessons in flood defenses and disaster mitigation? Changes to urban planning regimes? A major economic crisis (I'm guessing they just lost the Port of Houston, the busiest port in the USA in terms of foreign tonnage and second-busiest by overall tonnage, not to mention Houston's economy having a GDP on the order of $450Bn). Mass homelessness and destitution is a no-brainer: is this also going to destabilize the secondary insurance markets? What are the global consequences, outside the USA?

Tell me what happens next. Let's compare notes.

So it's time I faced facts: I've been writing this blog for seventeen years and it is getting bloody difficult to come up with stuff to say. (At least, right now.)

My usual book launch promo stuff last month was derailed totally by family circumstances (that won't recur). I really don't feel like kvetching about politics, either the ongoing UK-specific slow-motion train wreck that is Brexit, or the equally bizarre theatre of the absurd and evil that is the current incumbent of the White House. The global neo-nazi resurgence might be another angle, but I'm not the ideal person to write a "why Nazis are bad, 101" for folks who haven't already got the message—I'm not patient enough and the subject strikes much too close to home for comfort. (I grew up attending a synagogue with older members who had numbers tattooed on their arms; I'm pretty sure that if I lived in the US right now then I'd be a gun owner by now, and stockpiling ammunition and escape plans.)

These are dangerous times in the anglophone lands, and worse is coming; the UK seems to be rushing headlong towards a private debt crisis (largely due to nearly a decade of misguided austerity policies, but with insane ramping of student loan debt on top) and the economic uncertainty induced by the Brexit-triggered recession we're entering isn't helping ... and the Tangerine Shitgibbon in Chief seems to have decided that, in comparison with a short victorious war with North Korea, sending the US army back into Afghanistan is a vote-winner.

Against such news headlines I don't much feel like prognosticating about the near future right now.

I'd like to be able to take comfort by speculating about how things might have turned out differently in another time-line, but that's not so good either. Imagine the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election results were flipped: where would we be now?

Hi! Apologies for the long hiatus. I've been kind of preoccupied, with a funeral in the family and then a world science fiction convention in Helsinki, but I'm finally home and trying to get back to some semblance of normal.

In the meantime, some news:

If you're in the United States and read ebooks, The Rhesus Chart is currently discounted to $1.99. (The link goes to Amazon.com but it should be the same price on iBooks and the Google Play store and Kobo. It's probably also at this price in Canada, but not in the UK or Europe--different publishers in different territories.) If you haven't tried the Laundry Files, this book isan entrypoint: why not give it a try?

Tonight, August 16th, I'm appearing at the Edinburgh Book festival with Nnedi Okorafor, Jo Walton, and Ken Macleod. We'll be at the Studio Theatre from 7:15pm; it's a ticketed event from the main book festival box office.

And on Friday August 18th, I'll be back at the book festival for a discussion with Nalo Hopkinson, Ken MacLeod, and Ada Palmer: we'll e at Bosco Theatre (on George Street) from 6:30pm, and again, it's a ticketed event.

And finally, the big news: my space opera, Ghost Engine, is being rescheduled for 2019; instead, July 2018 should see publication of The Labyrinth Index, the ninth Laundry Files novel! Publishers will be Orbit in the UK and Tor in the USA (this being the New Normal for the Laundry Files). This change has been in the works for a few months, but I didn't want to pre-announce it until I had it nailed down. (In a nutshell: Ghost Engine was too ambitious to finish on my original schedule, and The Labyrinth Index was growing more and more timely, until they just crossed over.)

This post is inspired by a real-life issue I'm dealing with, and there are so many possibilities, I figured it would make a great early August chew toy for the group.

The basic issue is adaptation to climate change. If our global civilization isn't going to shatter under the strain of increasingly weird weather, it's going to need to massively adapt. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, I'll use the mundane example of my household in San Diego, where we're committed to partially decarbonizing over the next 5 years. We've already got solar panels, we're going to get an electric car (a Chevy Bolt, because I don't want to wait three years for a Tesla 3), and we plan to get a wall battery for storage and to remodel our house so that everything runs on electricity. We're looking at vaguely around $100,000 to go partially decarbonized (it won't be total decarbonization until we get rid of the other car, which we need for hauling stuff every week.). There are ways to cut these costs, like using electric Uber cars and the like (mass transit would be lovely too, if only...), but if all of San Diego County's 3.3 million people were to spend $100,000 per household to decarbonize, that's somewhere north of $100,000,000,000 to decarbonize the homes of this county alone (not the businesses, just the homes). Spread over enough time, $100,000 is doable for my family, but costs need to drop by at least an order of magnitude for mass decarbonization. The point of this example is that decarbonization can't be about just retrofitting existing systems, it will have to create new, cost-effective systems. Just depending on families to invest more than most make per year into retrofitting existing lifestyles is too expensive. That's one big root of the climate change crisis.

For every expensive crisis that comes along, though, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of scams, schemes, and bad ideas to take advantage of it. And that's your early August chew toy: come up with some of these schemes, figure out what ordinary citizens can do to counter them, and then speculate on what happens as a consequence of the counter. Want to play? I'll warn you, it's a bit like making sausage.

Why isn't Conan a Mary Sue?

Because one of his legs is both the same like Dumarest and Dr Who and Roland and the screen Wonder Woman, he faces worthy opponents and perils and victory is often bitter sweet.

I wrote about this at length for Black Gate (still no Hugo, but we now have a World Fantasy Award, by the way). If you dialled back the opposition and, say, had Conan settle down in Tolkien's Shire to protect the hobbits from the fallout from the Ring War, then he'd suddenly be this all-travelled, super-cosmopolitan, uber killing machine; an embarrassing Mary Sue (using the looser definition of the term*). The same goes for most competent characters who protagonate. It's the plot that makes a Mary Sue, not the character.

This is because plot is character...

History: is it about kings, dates, and battles, or the movement of masses and the invisible hand of macroeconomics?

There's something to be said for both theories, but I have a new, countervailing theory about the 21st century (so far); instead othe traditional man on a white horse who leads the revolutionary masses to victory, we've wandered into a continuum dominated by Bond villains.

Consider three four five, taken at random:

Mr X: leader of a chaotic former superpower with far too many nuclear weapons, Mr X got his start in life as an agent of SMERSH the KGB. Part of its economic espionage directorate, tasked with modernizing a creaking command economy in the 1980s, Mr X weathered the collapse of the previous regime and after a turbulent decade of asset stripping rose to lead a faction of billionaire oligarchs, robber barons, and former secret policemen. Mr X trades on his ruthless reputation—he is said to have ordered a defector murdered by means of a radioisotope so rare that the assassination consumed several months' global production—and despite having an official salary on the order of £250,000 he has a private jet with solid gold toilet seats and more palaces than you can shake a stick at. Also nuclear missiles. (Don't forget the nuclear missiles.) Said to be dating the ex-wife of Mr Y. Exit strategy: change the constitution to make himself President-for-Life. Attends military parades on Red Square, natch. Bond Villain Credibility: 10/10

Mr Y: Australian multi-billionaire news magnate. (Currently married to a former supermodel and ex-wife of Mick Jagger.) Owns 80% of the news media in Australia and numerous holdings in the UK and USA, including satellite TV channels, radio stations, and newspapers. Reputedly had Arthur C. Clarke on speed-dial for advice about the future of communications technology. Was the actual no-shit model upon whom Elliot Carver, the villain in "Tomorrow Never Dies", the 18th Bond movie, was based. Exit strategy: he's 86, leave it all to the kids. Bond Villain Credibility: 10/10

Mr Z: South African dot-com era whiz kid who made a fortune before he hit 30. Instead of putting his money into a VC fund he set his sights higher. By 2007 he had a tropical island base complete with boiler-suited minions from which he launched satellites and around which he drove an electric car: has been photographed wearing a tuxedo and stroking a white cat in his launch control center. Currently manufacturing electric cars in bulk, launching absolutely gigantic rockets, and building a hyperloop from Boston to Washington DC. Exit strategy: retire on Mars. Bond Villain Credibility: 9/10 (docked one point for trying too hard—the white cat was a plush toy.)

Mr T: Unspeakably rich New York property speculator and reality TV star, who, possibly with help from Mr X, managed to get himself into the White House. Tweets incessantly at 3AM about the unfairness of it all and how he's being persecuted by the false news media and harassed by crooked politicians while extorting fractional-billion-dollar bribes from middle eastern regimes. Has at least as many nukes as Mr X. Rather than a solid gold toilet seat, he has an entire solid gold penthouse. In fact, he probably has heavy metal poisoning from all that gold. (It would explain a lot.) Bond Villain Credibility: 10/10

Mrs M: After taking a head-shot, M was reconstituted as a cyborg using a dodgy prototype brain implant designed by Sir Clive Sinclair and parachuted into the Home Office to pursue a law-and-order agenda. Following an entirely self-inflicted constitutional crisis and a party leadership challenge in which all the rival candidates stabbed each other in the back, M strode robotically into 10 Downing Street, declared herself to be the Strong and Stable leader the nation needs, and unleashed the world's most chilling facial tic. Exit strategy: (a) Brexit, (b) ... something to do with underpants ... (c) profit? Bond Villain Credibility: 6/10 (down from 8/10 before the 2017 election fiasco.)

I think there's a pattern here: don't you? And, more to the point, I draw one very useful inference from it: if I need to write any more near-future fiction, instead of striving for realism in my fictional political leaders I should just borrow the cheesiest Bond villain not already a member of the G20 or Davos.

42033cc7af08ce78dab5e38bf346b4b7cca4bfba89cd9a3e1ec81de2ad2ebfbb.jpg

I learned this from Robin Hobb, though I'm pretty sure she didn't realize that she was teaching it to me at the time: there is no extra credit in science fiction. 

By which I mean, one of the things that I do, that other writers do, that people in various other fields probably do too (though I don't have direct experience of that) is that we make extra work for ourselves because of... I don't know, acculturation probably that if we JUST WORK HARDER and are teacher's pets and volunteer for extra labor that somehow we'll get better outcomes. This is superstition, really--because publishing is an enormously unpredictable and random business where quality is not always rewarded, and a lot of things can go wrong. And like anybody who makes their living off a capricious and dangerous environment (actors, fishermen) writers are prone to superstitions as a means of expressing agency in situations where we're honestly pretty helpless. (Nobody controls the hive-mind of the readership. Oh, if only we did.)

Now, by extra credit, please note that I don't mean the things that I consider part of baseline professionalism in a writer: turning in a manuscript that is as clean and artistically accomplished as possible, as expediently as possible, and working with your editor to polish and promote the resulting book. What I mean is raising those bars to unsupportable levels, such as: "I will turn in a completely clean manuscript so that the copyeditor has nothing to do!" and "I have a series of simple edits here, which I will resolve be rewriting the entire book, because then my editor will be more impressed with me."

Spoiler: The copyeditor will have stuff to do, because part of her job is making sure that if you break house style you're doing it on purpose. Also, your editor will probably be a little nonplussed, and possibly sneak a pull out of the bottle of Scotch in her bottom drawer, because you've just made a lot more work for her.

Other manifestations include: "I must write forty guest blog posts today!" and "I must write at least twenty pages every single day to validate my carbon footprint!"

(That latter one is the one I tend to fall prey to, for the record.)

I see it a lot among women writers especially, probably because we feel like we constantly have to validate our right to be in a space that is only intermittently welcoming, but it's certainly not a gender-specific problem. 

And the thing is... it just isn't so. You don't have to do a pile of extra credit work. It doesn't help, and might in fact be detrimental--to your health, your sanity, and eventually your career. It's possible to out-produce your readership's appetite; it's possible to out-produce the publishing slots available to you; it's possible to fuss yourself so much over tiny details that don't actually matter that you add years to your production schedule and die broke in a gutter, or talk yourself out of finishing the book entirely.

They're never perfect. They're just as good as you can get them, in the limited time available, and then they're done and you learned something and the next one can be better, you hope.

And nobody's going to bump your 4.0 up to a 4.2 because you did a bunch of homework you didn't actually need to do to get the finished product as good as possible, and also out the door.

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