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What I’m Looking for in GAME ON!

Okay, writers–the post you’ve all been waiting for: “What is this guy looking for in the submissions, and what will give me the best chance of selling him a story?”

So here’s what I want, and (perhaps just as important) what I don’t want–but one caveat! I am speaking only for myself here. My co-editor, Tony Pi, will have his own thoughts on what he’ll be looking for. But he has great taste, so I’m sure we’ll end up with some really hard choices between the best-of-the-best stories.

What I want

  • Stories that follow the theme, obviously: In GAME ON!, we’re looking for unique science fiction and fantasy takes on games, game playing, and games in culture. A game or games—real or imagined from across all of time and space—should be central to the story in some fashion.
  • Stories that look at how games and gaming reflect or comment on character and or society, history, etc. The story should be about a character or characters, not just the game. Think of the game as a lens.
  • Bonus points for unique/unexpected takes on theme. Surprise and delight me with your creativity and cleverness! I’d really love to see takes on the theme that I would never have thought of in a million years.
  • Real world games. I went over some the other day. And if you think of ones I missed, so much the better!
  • Amongst real-world games, I welcome authors writing about non-Western games and little-known games (for example, games popular only regionally, or games from the past that aren’t played much anymore, such as the card game Whist from the 18th and 19th Century, or the ancient Egyptian game of senet from ~3100 BC). What’s unique that you can bring to the theme? Show me something no one else is going to.
  • Made-up and invented games from both science fiction and fantasy perspectives. I’m especially keen on seeing these! Stories could take place in our world (or a version thereof), in the far future, on an alien planet, or in the deepest magical forest or most exotic fantasy setting. What games do aliens play? What games entertain the fey? And what do they show us about those cultures and creatures?
  • Clever takes on proprietary games that we can’t use by name for copyright and legal reasons. Riff on a game we all know! If you send me a well-written, engaging story that is a wink and a nod to, say, Monopoly or Clue but which cleverly never references anything that could get us served with a cease-and-desist letter from Milton Bradley, you will definitely have my attention. Look at Matthew Johnson’s story “Heroic Measures” from his collection Irregular Verbs and Other Stories for a story that is clearly about Superman without ever mentioning Superman. It is an example of a wonderfully written, character-driven story that pulls this trick off beautifully.
  • Action and adventure and a sense of wonder are most welcome. But also give me characters I care about and who I can live the story through.
  • We will probably be getting a lot of fantasy—which is great! But I’m definitely going to want to include science fiction in this collection, so that might increase your odds of acceptance (given SF will likely be a smaller pool). Send me stories that are anywhere from “soft”, more sociological science fiction to “hard”, nuts-and-bolts of physics type of science fiction.
  • I really hope to find some humorous stories that make me laugh. Bonus points if the story makes some clever commentary or makes me think.
  • A positive outlook. This doesn’t have to be true for every story, but I’d like it at least a ray of light here and there in the collection. We’ve all lived through a lot of real-world downers over the last number of years and while I like a good sad or melancholy ending as much as anybody, I do find myself drawn especially to something hopeful or positive or—dare I say it?—stories with a happy ending.

What I don’t want

  • Anything that would be traditionally considered a sport. So no football, no rollerball, etc. Editors’ discretion will trump any argument here about what does or doesn’t count as a sport, thank you.
  • Stories that center around the same specific games our anchor authors have chosen.
  • Stories that are just thinly veiled explanations of how to play a game, even a made-up one. The secret is you don’t really need to know much about the rules of a particular game to have a story that involves a game. See my related post about the game Strategema in Star Trek: The Next Generation for an example. We want character, and plot, and conflict, and action, and change. Will leave the rulebooks to Hoyle’s.
  • There’s the potential for a lot of “space chess” or “fantasy poker” type stories, so if that’s your plan, okay, but it had better be The Best version of such a story ever written because we’ll only take a max of one of each. Likewise, with traditional playing card games of all kinds—we won’t want to fill the book just with stories about Hearts, Bridge, etc. And one of our anchor stories is already about euchre, so…
  • Dark or horror stories are fine but be warned: I’m not going to be super receptive to exceedingly violent stories or stories focused on gore or splatterpunk. But give me creepy, unnerving, unsettling stories that make the hairs on the back of my next stand up and make me not want to turn out the lights before bed? Yes, please!

GAME ON!

– S.

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How Star Trek: The Next Generation Got Science Fiction About Games Right

I’m in the middle of reading submissions for the GAME ON! anthology that I am co-editing with Tony Pi. While we’re getting some great stories, I’ve begun to see a pattern in some of the stories that aren’t grabbing me.

I thought it might be helpful to those of you planning on submitting to share that insight now—so you can write the best story you can and one that we will hopefully buy for the anthology.

Games But No Characters?

The stories that aren’t working for me are, in many cases, stories about a game and not about the characters playing the game.

Oh, there are characters in the stories, certainly. But they’re only there to move the pieces around the board, deal the cards, or click the buttons on the controllers.

While games and game playing must certainly feature in the stories we will accept for GAME ON!, at their heart, the stories we will publish will be character driven. Think of it as the difference between a story about a game versus a story that involves a game.

A Story That Gets It Right (Write?)

As a writer myself, I sometimes find it hard to wrap my head around editorial advice like that.

So, since I’m the editor this time, I thought it might help to offer a concrete example of a story that does a good job of involving a sci-fi game as a way to better understand and illuminate character.

That story? An overlooked (and, in my opinion, classic) episode from Season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Peak Performance.”

Through the lens of a futuristic game of strategy, we get character and conflict and action and change. And–as you’ll see by the end of this article–one secret of its success is that the writers understood you don’t need to tell us much about specific rules or how you play to tell an effective story that involves a game.

(PS: While I think I do a good job in this piece of drawing out insights from this episode, do yourself the favor and set aside 44 minutes to watch the whole episode on your streaming service of choice. While there can be some real clunkers in Season 2 of Next Gen, I promise you this is not one of them.)

“Peak Performance” (TNG: S2E21)

The A story in the episode involves the Enterprise taking part in a war-game simulation under the watchful eye of Federation observer and famed strategist Sirna Kolrami, as a way to prepare for an eventual confrontation with the Borg. That storyline is mostly focused on how the crew divides up and prepares for the battle simulation.

But the B storyline—what I really want to focus on—is particularly driven by a game and how it affects the characters. This storyline involves Data’s loss of self-confidence after he is beaten in a game.

Before starting the war game simulation, Commander Riker challenges Kolrami to a game of Strategema. Kolrami is a third-level grandmaster of this futuristic game of strategy and is impressed by Riker’s “audacity” in challenging him. He accepts, noting that playing the game with an opponent of such “limited dimensions” can be “diverting.” This helps set up Kolrami as both arrogant and self-assured (though not without reason) and as a contrast to Data’s own self-doubt later.

The challenge takes place in Ten Forward, with a large audience. Worf informs Riker that he has wagered heavily in the ship’s pool that Riker will take Kolrami past “the sixth plateau.”

Data is intrigued by the Human urge to compete. Dr. Pulaski and La Forge suggest that Data challenge Kolrami to a game of Strategema. Both of them would like to see Kolrami’s smugness taken down a notch.

Riker’s game against Kolrami, however, will do nothing to blunt the alien’s cockiness: it is over almost as soon as it begins. Kolrami wins in a matter of moments and by a large margin (100-23).

Riker gets his beard handed to him at a game of Strategema by Kolrami

Later, Kolrami challenges Data to a game of Strategema (after Dr. Pulaski goads him into it). Their game is more evenly matched, but Kolrami again wins quickly and handily (100-81). He offers Data a rematch. Deanna Troi consoles Data as Pulaski is amazed that Data was beaten.

While Riker describes Kolrami as “the best ever” at Strategema, Data—and his crewmates—are all baffled as to how mere flesh and blood could beat Data’s positronic brain.

Data, who is supposed to be the acting First Officer during the war game, retreats to his quarters, certain that he is damaged in some fashion. He’s convinced he will be a liability during the exercise and removes himself from bridge duty.

Troi tries to counsel him to learn from his mistakes. But Data has performed a diagnostic of his systems and found that he has made no mistakes, and therefore his deductive capabilities should be questioned.

Pulaski later tells Data that he should rebound from his loss rather than sulking and licking his wounds. But Data is still concerned about giving unsound advice.

Here we see the “Yes, but…” and “No, and…” try-fail cycles of fiction that ratchet up the tension.

With both Troi and Pulaski unable to fix the situation the viewer is left wondering: is Data actually broken? If not, how is he to be convinced to return to duty in time for the war game?

It falls to Picard (naturally) to give him a pep talk and snap him out of his funk. In doing so, Picard utters one of the great lines in all of Star Trek (and one that, I personally think, holds up to any of the great lines in English drama and literature):

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

With Data back on the job, the A storyline then plays out.

Troi and Data theorize about how ‘Captain’ Riker, commanding the 80-year-old starcruiser Hathaway, will approach battle strategy in the upcoming simulation.

Data formulates the premise that based on previous examples of Riker in combat he will employ unorthodox strategy. (NB: This actually does tie nicely into the way Riker eventually defeats the Borg at the end of the next season—but that’s a nerdy deep dive for another time…)

Then we get to see the war game: a surprise from the Ferengi, a bit of Klingon guile, and some unorthodox strategy from Riker that helps wrap up the A story.

We then get the conclusion of the B story: a frenzied game of Strategma, already in progress in Ten Forward.

Well, it’s frenzied for Kolrami, anyway. Data is as cool as a digital cucumber. He has taken Kolrami up on his earlier offer of a rematch and this time the android is holding his own.

As Data’s crewmates cheer him on, we see the scores ticking upward rapidly—each player passes the 33,000-point range.

Then Kolrami slams down his controls and suspends the game. He resigns in a huff. “You have made a mockery of me!” he shouts and stalks away.

The crew is elated.

Data explains that he formulated a new premise for playing Strategma and adopted some unorthodox strategy of his own. Instead of playing to win the game (which would be Kolrami’s intention), Data played for a stalemate.

By passing up obvious avenues of advancement and simply countering Kolrami’s own advances again and again, he was able to avoid both defeat and victory and prolong the game.

Data says that though he had not strictly defeated Kolrami, he should be able to challenge him indefinitely.

Roll credits.

How Strategma Illustrates Character

So, what’s the B storyline in this episode really about? It’s about Data’s loss of self-confidence and how he gets it back. It’s about character. It’s a classic Man-in-a-Hole plot (err, Android-in-a-Hole?)

What is the story not about? Strategema.

That doesn’t mean Strategema isn’t important to the episode: it’s the lens or the crucible through which we test and learn about the character of Data.

But what we don’t spend much time learning about in this episode is how to play Strategema. Here is everything we know about Strategema from dialog and context in the episode:

  • It is a 3D holographic game between two players
  • You play it using sensors on each finger (a surprisingly tethered game for the 24th Century…)
  • It has Grandmasters of various ranks (e.g.: third-level grandmaster, etc.)
  • First player to 100 wins…unless the score remains close enough that they must keep playing
  • The game involves something called the “sixth plateau” (and so, presumably, a first through fifth plateau as well)
  • No game has ever gone as high as the one that Data and Kolrami play

That’s it.

And why? Because that’s all we need to know about the game for it to shed light on the character of Data and his crewmates. Do you know how to play? Do you care either way? Of course not! And that’s because the story isn’t about the game; it’s about what we learn about characters through the game.

This isn’t to say that a fascinating story can’t be written that’s more specifically about the rules of a game. But, on the whole, stories that are just thinly veiled explanations of how to play a game, even a made-up one, just aren’t that interesting.

Using a game or games to illuminate some aspect of a character or characters is going to yield a more satisfying story—and one with the best chance of finding a place in GAME ON!

If you have a character-driven story about games, game playing, or games in culture, you can submit it here. We pay SFWA pro rates, we’re open until Dec 31, 2022, and we take up to 3 submissions per author.

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Categories of games to consider for GAME ON!

“Okay, so your upcoming anthology’s theme is games and gaming,” I can hear some people say. “But, like, how many games can there be? I can only think of, like, five or six. What other games are there even?”

I’m so glad you asked! Part of what inspired the idea for this anthology is the golden age of games and gaming that we’re living through.

Livestreams of Dungeons and Dragons games with millions of views. Board game cafes and YouTube channels dedicated to board game playthroughs. Augmented reality games about chasing imaginary creatures with our smartphones. Massive video game “e-sports” played for huge cash prizes. More than simple past times, the games we play tell us about ourselves, our culture, and our times.

So, in preparation for this anthology, I started thinking about the kinds of categories the games we play fit into. More than simply listing the titles of as many specific games as we can think of, defining games by type and category should hopefully inspire you to think about what game you want to write about but what kind of game you want to write about, and what that kind of games tells us about ourselves.

Here’s the list that I came up with–and bear in mind, it may be (is almost certainly?) incomplete, or you might quibble with where I put some particular type of game. That’s fine! Make your case and expand my horizons with the story you’ll send me 😉

Also, please note that while these are all types of real-world games, the broad categories should help you think about invented games you might want to include in your story, whether it be far-future science fiction or a story set in the court of the king of Elfland. And don’t be bound by these! If you can come up with some alien game that defies these categories, so much the better! We want to see them all.

Types of games to consider include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Board games (e.g.: checkers; chess; go; ludi, etc.)
  • Card games (traditional games like poker or Hearts, as well as collectible card games and deck-building games like Magic: The Gathering)
  • Carnival games (e.g.: skee-ball; Crown & Anchor; etc.)
  • Casino-type games (e.g.: roulette; craps; slot machines, etc.)
  • Children’s games (e.g.: Snakes and Ladders; Mouse Trap; Sorry!; etc.)
  • Cooperative games in which all players need to work together to win (e.g.: Shadows Over Camelot; Pandemic; etc.)
  • Dexterity games (e.g.: billiards; pinball; Jenga; Operation; Twister, etc.)
  • Economics and strategy games (e.g.: Monopoly; Settlers of Catan; RISK, etc.)
  • Games of chance (e.g.: dice; Bingo; etc.)
  • Game shows (e.g.: Wheel of Fortune; The Price Is Right; The Batchelor; The Hunger Games; etc.)
  • Games of skill (e.g.: backgammon; mahjong; etc.)
  • Memory games
  • Role-playing games (Dungeons & Dragons, LARP, etc.)
  • Trivia games (e.g.: Trivial Pursuit; Jeopardy!; etc.)
  • Video games (everything from Pong, to VR, to augmented reality games, to “e-sports”)

You can submit your stories by clicking here. We pay SFWA pro rates, we’re open until Dec 31, 2022, and we take up to 3 submissions per author.

GAME ON!

– S.

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Interview with the editors of the 2022 ZNB Kickstarter anthologies

As of this writing, the 2022 ZNB anthology Kickstarter is 50% funded! This is fantastic after only a week. Thanks to all who have backed.

Want to know more about these anthologies and ZNB Books? Well, I and some of the other editors were guests recently of ConTinual, the online YouTube convention that never ends. We were talking all about the 10th anniversary of ZNB, the upcoming anthologies, and what we’ll be looking for when considering stories…but only if the Kickstarter funds!

If you haven’t backed yet click here. The earlier you back, the more bonuses you get!

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Our Kickstarter goes live! Anchor authors revealed!

The Big Day has arrived–the ZNB Books 2022 Kickstarter has launched! We’ve got just 30 days to hit the goal so that not one but FOUR fantastic new science fiction and fantasy anthologies can come to life.

As I mentioned before, the volume I’m co-editing with Tony Pi is called GAME ON! and focuses on games and gaming in sci-fi and fantasy. You can find all the details about the call right here.

I’m also thrilled to announce the incredible line-up of anchor authors Tony and I have secured for GAME ON! Here they are, along with the games(s) they’ve chosen to write about:

Aliette de Bodard – Mạt chược (Vietnamese mahjong)
Author of seven novels, numerous novellas, and dozens of short stories, Aliette has won multiple Nebula, BSFA, and Locus Awards, and has been nominated for multiple Hugo Awards.

Eric Choi – Video gambling
An aerospace engineer by day, a SF writer and editor by night. He is the first recipient of the Isaac Asimov Award (now the Dell Magazines Award) and has twice won the Aurora Award for fiction and editing.

James Alan Gardner – Solitaire/homebrew kid games
Author of 10 novels, winner of multiple Aurora Awards, multiple Asimov’s Readers’ Poll awards, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and multiple nominations for the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Ed Greenwood – Dragon social games
Elminster himself! Ed was the original creator of the Forgotten Realms game world (which he later sold to TSR). He has also authored more than 40 novels in and out of the Forgotten Realms setting, as well as dozens of D&D game books and adventures, as well as countless short stories.

Cat Rambo – Euchre
A Nebula Award winner, and with multiple Locus Award nominations, Cat has published novels through Tor and WordFire, and short fiction in venues like Tor.com, Asimov’s, and Analog, amongst others.

Sean Williams – Hide-and-seek
Author of 65 novels and 6 collections of short fiction, Sean is the winner of multiple Ditmar and Aurealis Awards.

Melissa Yuan-Innes – Haunted house game
An emergency room physician, Melissa’s novels have been praised by The Globe and Mail, CBC Books, and The Next Chapter. Her short stories have won the Writers of the Future Award, been finalists for the Derringer Award for the world’s best short mystery fiction, and been shortlisted for the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award.

I’m sooo excited to seeing what stories these authors produce for the anthology and I hope you are, too! Go and back the Kickstarter right now to help ensure the anthology funds and we all get to see these stories.

GAME ON!

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I’m editing a new science fiction and fantasy anthology!

Been sitting on this news for a while: I’m thrilled to announce I’m going to be co-editing (with my friend and evil twin, Tony Pi) a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories for Zombies Need Brains!

Our theme for the anthology is games and gaming in sci-fi and fantasy. I’ve had this idea for a while and we have some FANTASTIC anchor authors lined up already.

But there will also be an open call! We want to find as many great stories from new and up-and-coming authors as we can. My very first publication was a pro-rates SFWA-qualifying sale to an anthology from DAW Books and I would desperately LOVE to be someone’s first professional sale.

For the writer-types out there, check back here frequently in late August and early September for a series of posts about what I’m looking for when buying stories for the book and some insight into what I think makes a good game-themed story.

ZNB anthologies are all funded through Kickstarter and our anthology will be just one of FOUR that you can get all together when you back the campaign. In addition to our volume, there will be anthologies focused on dragons, solarpunk, and enchanted works of art!

You can get a reminder of when the campaign kicks off on August 15th by clicking right here. If you’re excited by these themes then we need your help to ensure the Kickstarter funds, or else none of the books will happen. So sign up for that reminder and tell a friend who you think would be interested.

GAME ON!

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Ancient Egypt in Technicolor

To see them today, you’d think that much of the art and architecture of the ancient world was, well, pretty dull. Lots of beige stone and white marble.

You couldn’t be more wrong. The ancient world was absolutely awash in vibrant colours! And nowhere is that more true than in the art of ancient Egypt–especially in their temple art.

Well, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is determined to correct this historical ignorance by helping bring the weatherworn sandstone of the Temple of Dendur back to the glory of Antiquity.

Don’t worry! They’re not going to paint it. Oh, no. They have something far more high tech in mind.

Using projection-mapping technology (or, more fancily called “spatial augmented reality”), visitors to the Met can now glimpse what the Temple of Dendur may have looked like in its original, polychromatic glory more than 2,000 years ago.

Egyptologists working at the Met have reconstructed a plausible idea of what the scene on the temple’s south wall, in which Emperor Caesar Augustus in Pharaoh garb presents wine to the deities Hathor and Horus, looked like in full colour.

Pretty rad, right? Now image Karnak like that!

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The Wrong Take-Away from Cyberpunk Fiction

It’s a pretty reliable trope of cyberpunk fiction: not only are corporations people but in the future, they’ll be governments. I’ve even used this idea in my short story “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” (available in my short story collection) in which a multinational conglomerate buys a small African nation so it can run its affairs as it sees fit.

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But what if you read those stories not as a warning, but as a blueprint?

Well, it looks like that’s what the lawmakers in Nevada did. Because they said, “Hold my beer!” to William Gibson, and have proposed legislation to establish so-called Innovation Zones (nowhere wholesome is ever called a ‘zone’, ammiright?) to jumpstart the state’s economy by attracting tech firms.

According to the AP, the zones would permit companies with large areas of land to “form governments carrying the same authority as counties, including the ability to impose taxes, form school districts and courts and provide government services.”

What could go wrong, right?

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Perseverance Landing on Mars Today (We Hope)

NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to land in the Jezero Crater on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021.

When Perseverance gets the signal, it will jettison its spacecraft and plunge into the Martian atmosphere at twelve to thirteen thousand miles per hour. When the drag slows the rover enough it will cast off its heat shield and deploy the biggest supersonic parachute ever sent to another planet.

While this is similar to the landing approach of the Curiosity rover, Perseverance will use brand new technology–Terrain Relative Navigation–to land. While the rover is descending on the parachute, it will be taking images of the surface of Mars and determining for itself where to land, based on what it sees.

Once Perseverance has figured out where to land, it will jettison its backshell and parachute, and fire the rockets of its descent stage. This rocket backpack will lower the rover to twenty meters off the ground and deploy the skycrane cables to lower the rover gently to the surface. Once Perseverance touches down, the descent stage will cut loose from the rover and fly away to crash at a safe distance from the rover.

All this takes place during what NASA calls the “seven minutes of terror,” which is how long it takes to get from the top of the atmosphere of Mars to the ground safely. Because of the time delay in getting signals from Mars (it is a loooong way away), we won’t know whether all this has gone off without a hitch until after it has all taken place.

Finger’s crossed.

You can watch live starting at 2:15pm Eastern on NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s YouTube channel. Touchdown of Perseverance is expected around 3:55pm Eastern.

This kind of stuff is my Super Bowl.

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5,000-Year-Old Crystal Dagger Found Buried in Spain

No, this has nothing to do with the next Indiana Jones movie

Archeologists in southwestern Spain have discovered a cache of incredible weapons made of rock crystal. Dating back to at least 3000 BCE, these weapons include 25 arrowheads and a stunning crystal dagger that would have taken enormous skill to carve.

Found as part of grave good in the megalithic tomb site of Montelirio tholos, the dagger was found with an ivory hilt and sheath. Measuring nearly 8.5 inches long, it’s similar in shape to other flint daggers of the period.

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