Long Live the Queen (Insomnium #7) is out today. The episode is available directly from this site in PDF, ePub, and Mobi formats. It’s also available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Google Play and Smashwords.
But it’s not quite home.
Her family relocated to Oregon shortly after Katie left for her sojourn and moved across the country into a strange house Katie has never even seen before this night.
Katie walks up to the front door. Despite having left a message on the family’s answering machine, no one arrives to greet her. A hastily scrawled message is attached to the door. Samantha, Katie’s young sister, has written that she has left home and asks not to be followed, and especially not to tell their parents.
As Katie, you must explore the house, discover the artifacts that have accumulated during Katie’s missed year, and piece together the mystery surrounding her absent family members.
Gone Home is immediately recognizable as they same kind of exploration-narrative-game as Dear Esther, but some crucial differences set it apart.
The largest difference, I felt, was that Gone Home provided much more interaction than Dear Esther. I have long been suspicous of interaction in this new genre of game, but Gone Home handled it well. The rewards for interaction and exploration are enrichment and increased understanding of the characters and their world.
Gone Home did not fall into the obvious pitfall of multiple narrative paths, which would have significantly weakened the storytelling.
If you disliked Dear Esther for being too cerebral and lacking more traditional story telling elements (explicit conflict, vivid characters, etc.), you should definitely give Gone Home a try. Samantha and both parents are exceedingly well realized and well voice-acted.
The game feels like an interactive, modern version of the epistolary novel. We experience Katie’s family members’ lives via the artifacts of human existence that lay strewn about their home. Although it may seem odd that certain pieces of it are behind locked doors and in hidden passages that just happen to lead you through events in chronological order, that was a small suspension of disbelief to achieve the richness and vividness of the story’s characters, especially Samantha, whose senior year trials and tribulations will be immediately recognizable to anyone who experienced an American high school in the nineties.
For your next rich narrative experience in gamish form, look no further than Gone Home. I personally hope to see this genre expand and thrive.
I don’t know what it is. Something must be going around.
This morning I walked to work. I had some books to mail out, and the post office is halfway between my home and my workplace, so I decided to enjoy the trek under the Space Needle despite the rather brisk air that rolled into Seattle last night.
I neared my workplace and passed a construction site. A female construction worker stood at the edge of the street beside a dump truck, holding one of those traffic signs that can be flipped between ‘Slow’ and ‘Stop.’ As I approached and while I walked past, another construction work stood atop the truck yelling at her. And I don’t mean upset, or reprimanding her. I mean yelling. Berating. His arms were all over the place. He was frantic. And he persisted.
I reached the far end of the block and looked back. He was still going. She was alternating between engaging him and trying to ignore him. Cars were flying past her.
My face flushed and my heart pounded in my chest. I walked back the half block, and called out across the street. “From my perspective, that looks an awful lot like workplace harassment! I suggest you let your coworker go back to doing her job of keeping you from getting run over.”
I am lucky that I now work at a company where, by and large, coworkers treat one another with respect. That has not always been the case. I know what a toxic workplace can do to a person’s soul.
This brings me around to our community of writers. The online world has become rich with communities. There are communities for hobbies, for professional skills, for self-help, and on an on. Every human affiliation or interest imaginable has a community online.
This is a wonderous application of technology. I interact with speculative fiction writers from other parts of my country, from Canada, from England and from Australia. I can have a real-time video conversation with someone eight thousand miles away and in a different hemisphere. That is mind-bogglingly incredible. For the first time in human history, we can interact and empathize with other people who live in very, very distant parts of our world.
And yet, the power that enables us to have amazing connections also enables the reverse.
The internet, for all its glorious connectivity, is also rather anonymizing. By removing the human face, the hurt expression, the obvious sadness that our words inflict upon others, by making that reaction happen in the dark, hundreds or thousands of miles away across datastreams and wifi, it makes us humans even more prone to stomping across one another’s feelings with digital words than with spoken ones.
On the same day that I witnessed the abusive construction interaction, I came home from my day job to discover that a very prominent science fiction blogger had taken it upon himself to skewer a published author for the opening paragraphs of his extremely popular novel.
Now, I agree that this blogger is allowed to share his opinions about an author’s work. We should be honest with one another. But the part of his post that was really offensive, that really filled me with all the moral and ethical outrage of the construction scene from this morning, was where the blogger posted a statement to this effect:
“Normally, I don’t write this kind of stuff in public, because I’m aware that it can hurt authors’ feelings. But in this case, the target of my attack is rolling in so much money, he can soothe his ailing heart with the balance of his bank account if he needs to.”
This is unacceptable.
I grew up in a small town in northwestern Illinois. For those of you not familiar with the geography of the Midwest, Chicago is in the northeast corner of the state. My town was small. Very small. And surrounded by corn. Miles and miles of corn.
Growing up, I did not relate to my fellow Midwesterners. I looked down on their general disinterest and disdain for intellectualism, and their bigotry. That latter element became especially irksome when I turned thirteen. I came to be told on a daily basis, in no uncertain terms that who I was was unacceptable. I didn’t belong. I never really had to begin with.
I moved on with my life. I moved up in the world. I had always been good at computers and coding, so I worked my way into the software industry and settled down on the coast as an urbanite. For many years, I looked back at my hometown with disdain. “I’ll show you all!” I roared mentally back in time.
And then one day, not too many years ago, it hit me with all the subtlety of a ton of bricks to the head: there were elements of Illinois I missed. And I missed them badly. Everything I am, everything I’ve achieved, everything I’ve become, is because of where I grew up and the people there who nurtured and guided me, not in spite of them.
So, when I heard that Chuck Wendig was writing a young adult dystopian novel whose setting was s bizarre intersection of rustbelt America and steampunk, I bought my copy straight away.
Did this novel speak to me? Did it meet my expectations and then exceed them? Yes, yes, and overwhelmingly yes.
Our protagonist is Cael McAvoy, a late teen living in the small Heartland town of Boxelder with his parents and sister. Cael is captain of a salvage crew. They fly their hovercraft over the fields of corn, searching for wrecked craft and salvaging parts from them. Cael has a competitor in this task—the Boxelder mayor’s son. The two of them couldn’t be more competitive.
Cael is driven by a single motivation: to attain money, fame and fortune, and thus escape the miserable toil that awaits him in factories for the rest of his life if he fails.
In the book’s opening scene, Cael wrecks his own hovercraft trying to one-up his rival, and the crew finds themselves stranded amongst the corn.
This corn is everywhere. Genetically modified too many time to be resilient, it has evolved into an invasive species, growing where it’s unwanted, even destroying trees and other plantlife. The corn is everywhere.
Cael and his friends make a discovery not long after their crash—a secret garden of wholesome, delicious fruits and vegetable, somehow fighting back against the corn. Cael sees opportunity.
Cael and his friends’ families live in grinding poverty. The Heartland is portrayed throughout as an extremely classist society. Cael and his friends are at the very bottom. Above them are the mayor and a the local police (called “Babysitters”).
Above them all, literally, are the Empyreans. In a brilliant play of social satire, Wendig has this world’s ruling class living in cities that literally float over the Heartland in the sky (see this Wikipedia article if you don’t get the reference).
Also a brilliant, and much more disturbingly true-to-reality social commentary, are the descriptions of the Empyrean’s treatment of the Heartlanders over the last couple of generations. Schools and libraries have been shuttered. Health care is non-existent. Heartlanders must “fend for themselves,” “be self-reliant,” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” though of course, the people in power do everything they can to maintain the status quo—there is nowhere for anyone in Boxelder to pull their bootstraps up to.
The Empyreans clearly believe that the Heartlanders are not much better than animals, and a truly laissez-faire socio-economic system is shown for what it is: an oligarchy of the power-hungry who have interpretted their privilege as a sign of superiority, rather than what it is: the result of a fair portion of greed and ton of dumb luck.
Cael, his friends, and his enemies are exceedlingly well drawn. Cael’s struggle to make something of himself, to escape the tedium he sees as the trajectory for his life, was all too familiar, and very convincingly drawn.
The mashup of futuristic technological equipment combined with Midwestern ethos was handled with aplomb. It felt very much like an inverse Jetsons—technological power and advancement all turned against the common man, all gone horribly, horribly wrong.
This element could have easily fallen flat, but everything from the genetically engineered corn with its pollen drift storms, to whole cities evacuated and sealed in plastic bubbles were spot-on metaphors for the plight of struggling Midwestern towns as our country’s broken economic systems suck more and more money and resources up into our major cities.
The pacing was handled well, too. The book rises to a crescendo at the end that had me flipping pages to see how the characters’ turmoil would be resolved. By the end, I was rooting for Cael’s family and friends to survive, and for the Empyreans to suffer and die. To be perfectly clear, Chuck Wendig has crafted characters so believably hateable, that a pacifist wanted them dead. Bravo.
And perhaps the reason the villains struck a nerve with me was because I feel as though I was the Empyrean for a while. I was so angry and bitter at the parts of my youth I didn’t like, that I couldn’t see the parts were so valuable to me, so wonderfully essential.
I wish Cael all the best. Going into book two, he’s got a whole new set of problems to face, and I’m sure a new host of Empyrean villians will rear their ugly heads.
I’m definitely looking forward to reading the trilogy through to its conclusions. Though I may live the life of an Empyrean now, deep down, I’m a Heartlander through and through. Thank you, Chuck Wendig, for reminding me once again of the value and importance of that heritage.
You can find out more about Chuck Wendig and his writing on his blog.
Abigail Boyd Lei lives in Seattle, Washington in the thirty-first century. Life on Earth, at least in North America, during this time period is harsh and unforgiving. Abi’s family—her parents, her grandmother, her three siblings, and herself—live together in an apartment where they must share a lavatory with the rest of their floor.
Despite growing up in poverty, Abi has done well for herself. She has a job at the Seattle Public Library, and her supervisor is a kindly man who recognized her talent at a young age and put her on a track to be able to study library sciences.
The arrival of the Kiposi changed all of that.
Before Earth regressed into its impoverished state, colonists were sent out into the stars. One such group of homo sapiens sapiens colonized the planet Kipos in a nearby solar system. Over time, their genome changed in response to their new environment, and the people of Kipos became genetically distinct from the people of Earth. They became homo kiposi.
While Kipos appears to have less poverty than Earth, at least on the surface, the homo kiposi have another problem. Their genome is becoming unviable, and the birthrate has dropped dangerously low. With an influx of fresh DNA, they estimate their society will die out within generations.
And so the people of Kipos return to Earth, asking for volunteers who are willing to travel away from thier homes and set up new lives on Kipos.
Naturally, Abi struggles with the decision to leave, torn between familial duty and the hope of a better life. Eventually, she does decide to take the journey across the stars, and this is where her real adventure begins.
Other Systems can be divided into two distinct segments thereafter. In the first segment, Abi is brutalized, and her basic humanity is stripped away by her captors. In the second segment, Abi escapes slavery and joins an interplanetary survey expedition. The people she works with become her second family.
The characters are well drawn, especially the members of the survey expedition Abi joins. The relationships Abi develops there are the true heart and soul of the novel. The crew learns to reject racism and love Abi as a person, even the members who are wary of her at first. Watching those bonds build while Abi simutaneously throws away the shackles of her past in genuinely endearing.
I have no doubt that fans of dystopian fiction will appreciate the vivid details of thirty-first century Earth and Kipos, but the depictions of those societies left this reader with too many nagging questions.
Even if Earth has too many people and two few resources (which explains many people living in very close quarters), why has the economy reverted to exploitative industrialism, with the majority of the population eeking out slave wages in factories? Why is Kipos society as rigidly socially stratified and fundamentally racist as seventeenth century Europe? The original colonists came from Earth. Even if the written history was altered, how was the entire population’s empathy and emotional development subverted so uniformly?
If a ravaged woman came to my door and told me she’d been raped by someone in my apartment building, I would be able to take her to a hospital and tell the police the details of her captivity. I would not worry about violent retribution against my person or my property, even if the perpretrator was rich and powerful, because I live in a society where law and justice in these matters is largely unforgiving. We have grown as a society to a place where justice is applied more evenly across all social strata.
I have difficulty imagining that one thousand years of history would subvert human socio-emotional and judicial development along these lines.
Again, this is just my reaction based on my value set. The world Guizzetti builds is consistent with the parameters of this type of dystopian setting.
If you’re interested in hard science fiction with a strong female protagonist and compelling characters, or even just a space adventure across vividely-depicted alien worlds, you need look no further than Other Systems.