Have you ever read scifi or fantasy so amazing you wish it was real? On a slow Saturday night, do you put on a balaclava – errr, I mean a Space Ninja Hood, grab the ax – not ax, Thunder Wedge – you keep just inside the backdoor, and do the samurai shuffle around your darkened apartment, sniffing out rogue Klingons? Of course you don’t. Me neither. [ahem] Well, let’s just imagine we were that lame. It would be a pretty unsatisfying way to delve deeper into the imaginary worlds created by the mad geniuses we love so dear: Herbert, Tolkien, Rowling, etc.. No doubt, reading is still gonna be the purest way to explore these works. It leaves us free to imagine the ideal versions of these worlds, unspoilt by our reindeer-themed balaclavas. Yet other explorations are not completely out of reach.
Depending on your current level of fandom, some of these things may already be very familiar. Many are games of some sort. A game is a way to become a character in the story who makes choices of consequence. That’s kind of a no-brainer. But they aren’t all games, and they are of varying levels of commitment and immersiveness. This list is arranged in ascending order of immersabilitiness, from “just click this” to “gather 200 of your closest friends….” It’s Summer: do something rad.
1. VanDerMeer – Southern Reach Trilogy – Not really a classic (yet?) but this guy has either won or been nominated for all the main fantasy awards and won 3rd place in his Pinewood Derby race in the Cub Scouts (false, probably – I made it up). He is best known for City of Saints and Madmen, and – along with his wife Ann VanderMeer, is responsible for writing/editing several top-notch sci-fi compendiums, like Steampunk, The Time Travelers Almanac, and Sisters of the Revolution. Nerd Power Couple. The Southern Reach trilogy has been compared to Lost, which is mostly a good thing. They are ominously titled Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. You can actually participate in the world of these novels through this on-line text/image game thing. I’ve tried it, and it makes me uncomfortable. Within 5 minutes, I got my in-game colleague in trouble with our bosses. Sorry, dude. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him, but I’m gonna feel really bad if he just disappears – I mean, it wasn’t even that big a deal, I was just answering a question, and – gah – 5 minutes and I already might be the villain in this thing – sonofabitch –
2. I don’t have to say much about Douglas Adams and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but you may have forgotten about the funky little text-based game they made. You can still play it. It has the same weirdness and sense of humor as the books. Start here with the original, and you’ll notice links that lead to more recent versions of the game.
3. The great Harlan Ellison wrote a disturbing Hugo award winning classic called “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”. It’s about the psychological torment of the last few extant humans by a computer. Naturally, they made a game out of it. You can download this soul wonker for about 1 buck and wallow in the horror. That’s a lot of value.
(Sidenote: Ellison did a signing in a bookstore I worked at in college. He spent HOURS hanging out with customers and staff, long after he was technically obligated to be there. Then he left. Then he came back about 5 minutes later, not with a machete, but with a couple bottles of champagne for staff, and said something appreciative and gritty. Swell chap. He’s buddies with Dean Koontz, who also used to come in occasionally, but would always have to hide from his adoring female fans. Oh, hang on… maybe I’m thinking about James Ellroy. Shit. Yeah, it was Ellroy. Awesome dude, but Ellison was cool, too.)
4. Another award winner, Andrzej Sapkowski is the Witcher novels guy. He’s a lot bigger in Europe than the U.S.. The latest is Sword of Destiny, plus there are comic books and The World of the Witcher, which is a sort of guide to that universe. Here’s a website about him (first, learn Polish). Or if you are lazy and don’t want to learn Polish, here is the Wiki. The Witcher is a sort of monster-hunter/wizard. It’s pretty much something I would have made up in junior high school, but my guy would have a bmx bike and eat a lot of cheetos. This guy is the real deal, and though it sounds like Dork Mecca the stories have subtle characters and the complexity of folklore. But all that depth won’t stop you from being him in this game.
5. Zombies seem to be edging vampires in the Gawd-Enough-Already category these days, and you can’t even do much with a zombie besides shoot it in the head. Vampires are better. From ancient legend to Bram Stoker, Anne Rice to Twilight, Lost Boys to Blade and much else besides, the realm of the undead-and-loving-it is deep and variegated. You can screw up your psyche by doing vampire shit all by your lonesome, or you can join these guys. This Republican senator did. Weird, but – oh, I don’t know – let he who doesn’t want to run around in a black cape throw the first stone (Dracula, Darth Vader, Zorro, Storm, Nazgul, Jon Snow, Grim Reaper, Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, BATMAN, Benedictine monk – you could do worse than a black cape). They’re just variations on a theme. These vampires even do charitable fundraising. Highly commendable. Also, highly amusing. Picture Nosferatu hosting a raffle for the local Webelos den.
6. The Dresden Files from Jim Butcher are your best option if you can’t decide between noirish grit and wizardly fantasia (a more common problem than you’d think), because they are both of these things. Problem solved. It’s Harry Potter meets Raymond Chandler. Pretty sweet brew. With a few versions of an RPG and a LARP on the way, there are choices to be made, the first of which should be to observe the Seven Laws. Beyond that….
7. For the scientifically inclined, you could continue Isaac Asimov’s work on the molecular properties and behavior of Thiotimoline
8. William “Moses” Gibson, following a pillar of Burning Chrome by night, has led us here to the brink of a Promised Land flowing with virtual milk and cyber honey. Well, if Oculus Rift is our Ark of the Covenant, the Facebookistines stole it, and we don’t know what they’re gonna do with it. Not til next year, anyway. There’s other stuff floating down the Nile, like Morpheus and Valve, for instance. In the meantime, you can try this DIY game with a PIC (Partner In Cybercrime) and pretend you’re Case and Molly in Neuromancer. This may require duct taping a couple of iPhones to your face, but that only enhances the palpability of the experience. Especially when you yank the tape off.
Full Disclosure: I am a VR luddite. If you get in trouble with this stuff, you’re on your own.
9. Jules Verne, HG Wells, Ronald W Clark, Michael Moorcock, KW Jeter, Tim Powers, James Blaylock, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Kim Newman, Scott Westerfield, China Mieville, Gail Carriger, Alan Moore comprise a reasonable representation of this League of Extraordinary Gentle(wo)men. Steampunk, from its forebears, innovators and developers (more than are named here), is an aesthetic and an exploration of history, science, technology, art, literature – it’s a reinvention of the world. It invites participation through an array of mediums: literature, fashion, art, invention & design, music, games, social interaction – you could even design, say, a large bookstore in downtown Los Angeles in the Steampunk vein. There are SP cafes, restaurants, bars. You can mod your vehicle or your computer. It is a well-read, well-dressed, artistically inclined community of people, 1 in 10 of whom sport a totally unnecessary pair of really nice goggles. And if you try for Steampunk but over or under shoot it, you’ll just end up in either Dieselpunk or Cyberpunk, which are both perfectly respectable alternatives. Well? What about it? Are you afraid to go Steampunk? Are you afraid to go hardcore??
Or you could start your own, I suppose, but this is a very social endeavour, so do not isolate yourself. Steampunks are typically well-read and interesting people.
IF you are a true explorer and entrepreneur, you might invent your own xx-punk. The sad news is, Steampunk seems on the wane. Probably it won’t die completely, but it might not be growing the way it once was, which just leaves room for rebirth ! ! We have suggested a few possibilities on this blog, such as Necropunk (magic) and FortranPunk (the future projected from the 70s, also known as TexasInstrumentsPunk). There is nothing to stop you and your pals from blazing a new trail.
9 1/2. or * * LIFE-ALTERING INTERLUDE * * : Speaking of the extraordinary, why not just combine forces with your like-minded friends and form your own League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Posit a time/dimensional shift/machine thing, and you can have yourself an adventuring little coterie. How about a Klingon, a nearly mad scientist, an android werewolf, an elf queen and some kinda cybernaut? Here’s what’s already been done. I don’t know what you and your group would do, but mine has cigar/whiskey nights, swaps gluten-free recipes and has saved the world 4 ½ times.
10. I confess I haven’t read Harry Potter. It’s not that I’m not interested, it’s that I am very interested. I have other things I have to read (it’s kinda my job), but I know that if I start with the HP (ditto Game of Thrones and a reread of Dune) I will get totally sucked in, and will not emerge for many, many weeks. I just can’t let it happen. (Famous last words.)
There’s also the Harry Potter attractions at Universal Studios in Orlando and Osaka, and coming soon to Hollywood. These are absolutely top-flight themed environments, and you can drink butterbeer. Or make your own.
11. No list of extra-textual possibilities could be complete without a mention of JRR Tolkien. You can build Middle Earth in Minecraft. You can get mods for Skyrim. You can go to the Czech Republic and do some LARPing with these crazy guys. Alternatively, you could LARP near where you live now. The thing about doing it with foreigners, though, is that every time they yell things, it will sound like Orcish or Sindarin or whatever. You can hear “Shut your maggot-hole, elf bitch!” when they’re actually saying “Dude, I forgot the pimento loaf!” I like that extra level of immersion. This video is probably more the norm. Long walks thru the woods, followed by enemies facing each other over a rippling stream, and they start looking at each other like, “Now? What do we do? Should we attack? What are we doing?” Until one guy (let’s pick a name at random, say… Leroy, just starts wailing on dudes with his giant Q-tip sword. Stirring stuff.
Not sure what to do? Get your butt to Imladris.
There is an imaginary universe out there to explore. Don’t fade into the woodwork. And remember, if all your friends are doing it, then you’re only a freak if you’re holding back.
Get into it, but try to keep some sort of anchor in reality. This is why you need to join or start an actual group,
BONUS: Check out this cool sci/fi-fantasy Q&A site. You can ask any random question you have and someone will (eventually) answer it.