In an interview with io9, Young Wizards series author Diane Duane talks about her latest book, learning to build video games, and explains her love of science.
An entire generation of speculative fiction fans know for her Young Wizards books, a long-running fantasy series firmly grounded in scientific reality. She's also one of the more highly regarded Star Trek novelists of all time. But her latest is a bit different, a near-future SF thriller about the cutthroat video-game business. Her hero is Dev Logan, the Jobs-like CEO of multi-billion-dollar gaming goliath Omnitopia. His life is pretty sweet: His employees adore him, his MMORPG is the Facebook of the 2010s, and his baby daughter is adorable.
Unfortunately, his former business partner has morphed into an arch-nemesis and someone is plotting a massive DDS attack, right in the middle of a huge new product rollout. Plus, something weird is happening deep inside the game. We talked to Diane Duane about the new series, her deep devotion to science, and the possibility of a restructured So You Want to be a Wizard. Spoilers ahead!
What inspired Omnitopia as a setting? Why an MMORPG?
I've always been a bit of a geek, and I'm probably what you'd call an early adopter. When MMORPGs started getting the wind under their wings a few years back, I started wondering where this technology would wind up. Around the time World of Warcraft really took off, it got me thinking: What new technologies might come along and completely change this paradigm?
At the same time, there were the first steps toward virtual gaming, and I wondered what happens if you put these together. What happens if you take a massive online world and hook it up to a genuinely working virtual experience that doesn't require giant helmets or something else that keeps reminding you that you have a body? I began looking into synesthesia, in which you experience one sensorium contaminated by elements of another. You smell colors or feel tastes. Some early research I had seen suggested feedback from the optic nerve could contaminate other sensoria, and I thought if you have that—a world where all of the senses are easily spoofed by one—then you've got something you can play with.
After that it was just a matter of trying to decide what kind of world would be fun to play in. And because I'm greedy, the answer is: All of them! It made sense to me to give your players as much leeway as possible. If they want to play within the structure of the game the way you've set it up, that's fine. But wouldn't it be cool if you could also let them build inside your platform? And obviously, they'd pay you a little something for the privilege, but it's only right you should pay them if their little piece of your platform works well.
The near-future is tough—maybe this will happen in 5 years, or maybe there'll be a big game-changer. Did you find that especially challenging?
The near future is one of the places I live in my day-to-day life. I'm routinely looking over the horizon, trying to figure out what's next. The only point it became an issue was when I sat down with my editor at DAW and tried to figure out what year this was. It turned into kind of a juggling act.
And at the end of the day, it's fiction. I made this up. This is based on on a vision of the world I've been developing over a couple of years, and as the execution continues, God knows what it'll turn into. And you know what? It's still fiction.
You said you're an early adopter—are you an active gamer?
I don't play so much as build games. About 10 years ago I wrote Privateer 2: The Darkening for Electronic Arts. It was their first foray into interactive entertainment. They were almost trying to do choose-your-own-movie, with game modules to help you determine your path. And that left me with a very clear sense of how to structure a game. The EA people taught me an incredible amount about the structure of building computer games in general and this kind of interactive, flow-dictated game in particular.
And I certainly keep a close eye on what the field is doing. I have lots of friends who do game, and where necessary I pick their brains.
A good bit of the book centers on decisions and problems Dev faces in running Omnitopia. Why did you choose to set so much in the board room?
I had no choice with that, because once you choose a CEO as a major point-of-view character, you have to spend time in his world. But also, setting up the situation at the end of the book—not to spoiler too hard—but leaving him with a game that's a little more proactive than he originally intended, you have to understand the creation through the creator. You have to understand him what it is about him and the way he structured his game that makes it possible for the conscious Omnitopia to become what it does and who it does. If this game has a human or humane quality, some of that has to do with the structure its builder bestowed on it.
There's some suggestion that Dev might almost be too nice. But I think as things develop, we may see him get harder-edged. Beforehand, it was still just a game. But now it's become something very powerful and very vulnerable that demands his protection, because nobody else is capable of doing this job. I think we'll see him getting a bit more ruthless as we continue.
Were you inspired by a particular company or entrepreneur as you were writing?
Not as such. I was looking at some of the corporate structures I saw while working at Electronic Arts. But beyond that, I wasn't looking at anything specific. And it's very funny to hear people who've read the book say that it's just like Microsoft and Apple. And I sort of sit there and say, yeah, but no, but then again... There is that certain quality of the loose, easy-going, jeans-wearing guy versus the uptight corporate mogul. If that happened it was unconscious.
Speaking of the Young Wizard books, how does your fantasy work involve your science fiction, and vice versa?
The science is always at the root for me. Originally, I thought I'd go into astronomy. When I was very young, a family friend gave me a subscription to Sky and Telescope and I was hooked. Unfortunately, I hit the math and bounced. So I went to nursing school. As it was, I became extremely well-grounded in the physical sciences, and then I just spent years reading science for pleasure. That may sound bizarre to some people, but Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan had something to do with it—when you grow up in the golden age of two of the great science popularizers of our time, it's very hard not to get the message.
But that groundwork remains very important to me, and it's always come with me in the fantasy work. There is a rule for fantasy writers: The more truth you mix in with a lie, the stronger it gets. Certainly for a science fiction writer—and God knows I did enough Star Trek to know it has to be more than technobabble—you have to know what you are talking about. As a result, I did about 3 months worth of research in hyperdimensional physics for my first Star Trek novel and included a bibliography. One of the people I cited now uses that book as a teaching tool in his classes at Princeton.
But as for switching gears between the two, I think they're both parts of the same spectrum. In fact, for my money, science fiction is just a subset of fantasy. All fiction is a subset of fantasy, and science fiction is just a kind that's a little more persnickety about its definitions. I prefer Sprague de Camp's old definition, that a science fiction story is merely a human story with a human problem and a human solution that could not happen without its scientific content. Now, if you just plug the word fantasy into the gaps, the cloak covers so much more of the ground that science fiction easily fits inside.
Do you find it challenging switching from writing for young adults to writing for adults?
I'm not sure there are as many differences as people believe. Obviously, there are attention span difficulties, increasingly with adults but certainly with kids. The material these days needs to come in smaller bites. One of the things I've got on my plate at the moment is to go back to So You Want to be a Wizard and restructure it for the twenty-first century. We'll be offering an e-edition sometime next year. The bones are good, but cosmetically it's showing thirty years' worth of wear.
But I'm not sure I differentiate. One of the main differences working in YA for me is simply controlling the vocabulary. Certainly, YA has become a lot edgier over the past decade. The Hunger Games could never have been published 20 years ago. Topics that were verboten are being explored with greater ease. And in some ways, from the YA writer's point of view, this makes it easier to do whatever you want. But then the question becomes, do I necessarily need to do what everyone else is doing?
And yet, at the same time, the temptation is always there. I'm working on a proposal for a series that would be the Young Wizard books turned inside-out morally, in terms of power for the kids involved. Because every now and then, you want to flip the punch card over, run it backwards, and see what you get.
Finally, Omnitopia Dawn is the first novel in a new series. Without giving too much away, where do you want to take the story?
Right now, I'm in the midst of work on the second book, Omnitopia: East Wind, which has a lot to do with the growth of computing power and potential intentions for computing power in the East, particularly China. Things get a little darker in this one.
It's always a challenge, because you don't want to lose the fun. The second book is unusual in terms of the humorous stuff that starts happening, especially with Omnitopia's newly introduced mesocosms. We now have 12 different versions of Elizabethan Earth, and the book opens with a sequence in which Smithfield Market in London is invaded by break-dancing Martians. And it just gets more like that, because at the end of the day, people are coming here to play. Whatever problems poor Dev Logan has—his game is alive, the Chinese are after him, people are trying to destroy his company—he has to keep his eye on the prize. And that's having fun playing and making sure all the people he's invited into his world are having fun playing, as well.