RPGs for Writers, Part I

This topic comes to mind because I’m currently spending a good deal of time writing short stories for the world of Avar Narn and have also just started GMing a roleplaying game in the same setting.

I’ve always had a love for both roleplaying games and for writing, and I’m convicted that my experience in one medium has influenced (if not shaped) the other. If, like me, you’d like to be a professional writer–particularly, but not exclusively, in the fantasy or sci-fi genres, I highly recommend that running roleplaying games becomes part of your curriculum of self-education. The reasons are myriad, videlicet:

Roleplaying Games Have Heavily Influenced the Modern Fantasy Genre

When watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, I amusedly observed a certain dialectic that had formed between Tolkien’s works and Dungeons and Dragons (and also the Warhammer Fantasy setting). D&D most certainly drew heavy inspiration from Tolkien (though a look at Gygax’s Appendix N shows that that’s far from the only source). The idea of pointy-eared elves, stubborn dwarves (or dwarfs, if you prefer) and long overland quests all originated in Middle-Earth but found a new home in D&D and its derivatives. Likewise, Games Workshop’s much-beloved Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy began as an close spin-off of Tolkien, and closely associated with Dungeons and Dragons as well (Citadel miniatures where sculpted and cast for D&D use before they ever had their own setting and style).

In the past few decades, D&D (and again, Warhammer) has become as much a part of mainstream culture as Tolkien has (look to Stranger Things or the fact that D&D got its own movies–however awful they might have been). The tropes of D&D now often stand alone, indebted to but moved beyond the original source material J.R.R. provided.

And so, in a strange reversal, I find several points in Jackson’s films that seem to be inspired far more by the over-the-top “epic” fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons than by the rather low-magic setting of The Lord of the Rings books. A few examples: stone giants attacking one another as the Dwarves and Bilbo  traverse the mountains, Legolas skating down the trunk of an oliphaunt, the boar-riding in the Battle of Five Armies and some of the action-oriented scenes involving Tauriel (who is far more a product of modern gaming than of Tolkien).

What this tells me is that fantasy roleplaying and wargaming have become so ingrained in (at least gamer-) culture that we know look back to the original inspirations (Tolkien, Vance, Lord Dunsany, George McDonald) through the lens of the tropes and ideas of these more-modern creations.

It’s not just the fantasy genre where roleplaying games have had a hand in shaping pop culture. The horror game Vampire: The Masquerade had its own TV series in the 90’s (called Kindred: The Embraced and produced through Aaron Spelling’s production company–find a copy if you can!) and certainly has had a hand in the 21st century vomitorium of vampire novels, TV shows and movies (True Blood, Twilight, etc.).

My point is this: to borrow a quotation from The Music Man, “You have to know the territory!” I’d wager that there are more people who have played D&D than who have read The Name of the Wind or Mistborn: The Final Empire, though both are of a vastly-higher literary quality than any RPG I’ve run or played. There is a certain fantasy mindset that D&D and other games engenders that leaves people with certain expectations (R.A. Salvatore’s sold a lot of books, after all). I’m not encouraging you to emulate the tropes of D&D in your own fantasy works (for the love of God, please don’t!), but you need to know what readers’ expectations and assumptions might be so that you can prey on them (in a completely benign literary sense, of course).

Practice Makes Perfect

In my experience, there are few harsher critics than nerds, and that’s a good thing. Every one of us has our own ideas about what tropes, genres and ideas are cool (or kewl) and which are lame. I love it when nerds find ways to call one another out: “You like Star Trek? How lame! There’s only Firefly.”

Practicing storytelling in front of a tough audience will help you to hone your skills, and RPGs provide a prime opportunity for this. Serious roleplayers (and a discussion of serious versus casual roleplayers merits its own post–but let’s say for now that both are categories are full of respected and valued people) will call you out (or complain behind your back, which is always easy to check on) if your characters are flat or your plot is full of holes. Even those players who prefer to avoid confrontation (in real life–they often play some of the bloody-mindedest characters!) will be happy to help you improve your skills if you ask.

And, as we’ll further discuss below, running a roleplaying game is a very different animal from writing a story on a page. Notice that I called it “storytelling” above–GMing a game is storytelling without the same rigor of grammar, syntax and style of the written text (although it is full of its own set of nuance and stylistic conventions).

I’m a firm believer that style and substance are inseparable in writing (particularly in fiction, when words must evoke a feeling or atmosphere as much as describe events, people and places), but that doesn’t mean that improving the substance by itself–which is possible in some ways at least in the RPG medium–won’t make your writing better as a whole.

Working on the Building Blocks

Outlining a plot for written fiction is a tough task. Making sure you don’t leave any gaps or loose ends, that the narrative flows up and down in drama and tension and that both the logic of events and the characters move in believable ways prove daunting, to say the least.

What can help with that? Having developed characters whose own motivations and personalities suggest the plot and push the story to its conclusion through seemingly-inevitable (but often surprising) actions. Well developed settings that intrude upon the narrative, providing both obstacles and the means to overcome them. Situations that arise organically from the nuance of the setting, creating plot hooks. And, of course, sometimes it comes to a whole lot of creative pondering, brainstorming and working back and forth through the plot as currently written.

Skillfully creating characters, setting and ideas for the beginnings of a story before attempting to sketch out a plot is more efficient (and artistically successful) than starting with a plot and pigeonholing characters and events into it.

As a (good) GM, what are you responsible for: creating memorable characters in an evocative setting and letting the plot develop organically (and often chaotically) out of the intervening actions of the player characters. In other words, creating all of the building blocks for a strong plot and then letting it go, responsively building events and scenes from the characters’ preceding actions.

This is difficult to do at all, much less to do well. But so is writing, and you didn’t decide you wanted to take up writing because you thought it would be easy and relaxing. You decided to take it up because it’s demanding and rewarding and, dammit, you’ll explode if you don’t get some of your ideas out of you and onto paper.

Creative Juices

Because the plot of an RPG develops through the back-and-forth between players and GM, you can only go in with strong building blocks (characters and setting) and a vague idea of plot direction, because no plan will survive contact with the enemy–er, players. The spontaneity demanded of a good GM means that you will have to develop your ability to improvise, synthesize and dramatize quickly and meaningfully. If you become able to do those things well on the fly, just think about your abilities when you’ve got time to sit down and slowly develop and rework a story.

Alongside this, the worldbuilding aspect of roleplaying is, potentially, far more extensive than it is for typical fiction. Tolkien’s example aside, the fiction writer really only has to do enough worldbuilding as will appear “on-screen.” You only need as much culture as will influence the plot and characters, as much geography as suits the story, as much depth as bolsters the fourth wall.

This is not true of a roleplaying game. If your characters wander to the edge of the map (or, more likely, the edge of the scene) and find blank space, they’ve lost all sense of immersion, and the most important aspect of a profound roleplaying experience has been lost–probably never to be recovered. Because of player agency, you need to know what is (or at least, what could and what could not be) on the other side of that hill, what the heretofore unnamed NPC’s life is like if the characters somehow decide he’s more important than you originally intended, what the foreign cultures that the players’ characters may hail from are like. Your worldbuilding has to be far more complete, because the players are not sitting captive in a movie theater exposed only to what appears on the screen–they are holding the camera and may turn it unexpectedly at a whim.

Is deeper worldbuilding always better? No, not necessarily. If you’re writing a standalone story based more on an idea than a setting, it’s probably a waste of time to go into the kind of detail a roleplaying setting demands. But, on the other hand, if the setting itself is part of the fiction you want to weave, why not become adept at doing the thing right?

Go to Amazon and search for books on worldbuilding. If you search well, you’ll find far more books written for roleplaying games with deep discussions of worldbuilding than those for writers. More to the point, you’ll often find the works with “games” in mind deeper and more developed than those with “literature” in mind. This is admittedly changing as Tolkien-esque worldbuilding (along with fantasy map-making and conlanging) becomes more mainstream, though I’d argue that this is another facet of my first point, that roleplaying games have pushed certain aspects of fantasy to the forefront.

A Feel for Narrative

There are plenty of books on “proper” narrative structure. You can find formulae for stories in any kind of genre you can imagine. Plenty of theorists or writers will tell you that there’s only a limited number of dramatic situations (sometimes so few you can count them on fingers and toes) that get recycled from story to story.

Theory is well and good, and I don’t intend to argue with any particular formula or convention here. However, there’s more to plot than the mechanics of dramatic beats and intervening beats, of a rising action and a denouement. The best narrative is like a rollercoaster–it goes up and down, sometimes twists suddenly to the side, gathers momentum or slows, and sometimes, just sometimes, curls back on itself or hangs upside down.

There are even successful stories that in many ways should be described as lacking a plot–Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, for instance.

Of course, roleplaying games without plots really don’t work except for players fastidiously (perhaps narcissistically) concerned with their own characters. The point is really that plot must be felt as much as coldly planned.

Running a roleplaying game (well) requires the development of a keen sense of narrative structure, when to rise, when to fall, when to zig and zag. This relies on a sense of mood and audience as much as “rules” of plot.

Sometimes Rules Help to Control the Fun

By this, I do not mean that a novelist should create roleplaying statistics for all his characters and then have them roll against each other to determine how the plot moves. But, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, a lack of consistency can destroy the suspension of disbelief.

Rules in (good) roleplaying games are designed specifically for consistency–to constrain the possible results and ensure that two similar situations have similar odds of resolving in various possible ways. For a game, this is in part a matter of “fairness,” though the best roleplaying games (I find, and so does John Wick–the game designer and roleplayer, not the Keanu Reeves hitman) are patently unfair in ways that mimic real life (and may or may not be codified within the rules). Regardless of origin, though, the consistency of the rules contributes to the consistency of the world, which contributes to willing suspension of disbelief. Nobody likes a hypocrit; even fewer people like a hypocritical fiction.

The “mundane” rules necessary to roleplaying games are unnecessary in fiction writing–logic can help a writer determine when a character dies of thirst without the need to roll dice or consult charts. On the other hand, certain aspects of speculative fiction–particularly systems of magic and superscience–can benefit from a codified rulesystem that ensures consistency. This does not mean that the fiction writer needs to create a mathematical resolution system for these aspects of a fantasy story, but the principles of creating a well-realized and consistent magic system for written fiction and a workable magic system for a roleplaying game overlap so significantly that experience handling one will certainly help with the other. Speaking from experience, the complex systems of magic in the Avar Narn setting are deeply nuanced and influenced by my own inspirations from and criticisms of magic as portrayed both in fiction and in RPGs (I’m looking at you, D&D; your magic is stupid and lacks the fantastic).

Jim Butcher, author of the wildly successful Dresden Files, helped translate his fictional magic system into RPG rules through the FATE-powered Dresden Files RPG. Given his frequent references to roleplaying games in the novel, it’s clear he’s a fan, so I can’t help but wonder if his roleplaying experiences shaped the way he thought about magic for his setting.

To rag on D&D (and its derivatives) again in this section, sometimes a roleplaying game can tell you how not to structure your world. From a standpoint of game design, I have a lot of bones to pick with Dungeons & Dragons (level- and class-based systems, character growth based on violence, etc.), but the worst of it is that (probably more through players’ fault than the games’ writers) the rules of D&D are usually scene as the physics of the work, rather than the rules attempting to model the physics of a fictional world. What I mean by this is that, if the rules say that something is possible, or even vaguely imply that things should work in a certain way, or the history of those rules carries with it such an implication, then some players assume that the rule trumps all logic and narrative coherence. Hence jokes of leveling up by pouring boiling water on an ant mound (millions of 1XP kills, right?) and far less funny arguments between player and GM about the results of some seemingly ludicrous action supported by the black-letter reading of the rules. This experience may be an artifact of my own biases and agenda when running a roleplaying game, but D&D does seem to be susceptible to this occurrence more than any other game I’ve ever run.

Still, there’re several lessons here. First, you’ve got to be aware that the rules can cut both ways, whether codified in RPG mechanics or simply narrative restrictions–if something works once, you can’t complain when it working again hampers the story you want to tell. Second, as mentioned before, audience expectations must be managed carefully. If you’ve indicated to them in one scene that your story or game is going to be zany and over-the-top in its fantasy tropes, readers or players will be confused and upset when later you try to make things too gritty.

The Future of Entertainment?

While I’d prefer to avoid making decisions based on the commercial aspects of writing, it is worth considering that there is good work for writers to do in emerging media. Video games are becoming more and more concerned with strong storytelling and literary elements–see The Witcher 3 (in my opinion, the best video game made to date, particularly on the storytelling front).

With the impending boom of virtual reality, I think that we can expect a corresponding boom in second-person storytelling in ways previously unavailable to writers and storytellers–except through roleplaying games. Responsive narrative crafted through alternatives of player agency marks an opportunity to tell multiple stories through the same outlet, to examine issues from multiple perspectives and approaches in literary style, and to leave a more powerful impression on the audience than words alone (possibly–I’m willing to accept the possibility that technology will never surpass the power of raw imagination).

Without all the visual and haptic special effects, roleplaying games already do this. I know gamers who have had experiences in roleplaying games that have changed them as people, so powerful was the narrative created at the table. In that sense, a good roleplaying game has the same potential to effect change as a good novel–albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale.

Conclusion

So, have I convinced you, dear fellow writer, that you ought to consider picking up an RPG rulebook, getting some friends together and playing a game? I hope so.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore some different RPG rulesets, systems and settings to think about when selecting which game to play. In the post after that, we’ll talk about the benefits and drawbacks of using the same setting you intend to write in to run roleplaying games.

RPGs for Writers, Part III

Having offered up some game systems to use if you’re going to take the dive into roleplaying, let’s talk now about the bigger question: should you use your own beloved setting for your game? I answer the question with a categorical “maybe.” Here’re some of my experiences to illustrate the ups and downs.

Can you let go of your baby?

This is the hardest part of using Avar Narn for roleplaying games. I’ve spent years thinking about this world, developing nuance and atmosphere and thinking about the kind of stories that take place here.

No GM’s plan survives contact with the PCs. My players do not always get Avar Narn. Sure, they understand that it’s a gritty fantasy setting where magic is as dangerous as useful, sinister forces wait in the shadows but “regular” people are just as likely to be monsters as some demon-spawn, but that’s not always enough. When you play a roleplaying game, there need to be some rules–not just the mechanics of the game, but an agreement (implicit or explicit) between GM and players about what sorts of things happen in the setting. Avar Narn is very different (perhaps by design) than the high fantasy you’d find in a typical Dungeons and Dragons game. Characters in Avar Narn may have supernatural abilities and great skill, but the setting is not one of over-the-top action or near-invincible heroes.

When your players don’t meet your expectations for how stories go in your setting, when they unintentionally misunderstand or intentionally reject some of the narrative constraints of your setting, you will naturally be disappointed.

There are two ways to handle this, I think. First, you let go of some control of the setting. What happens in your games doesn’t have to become canon in your world and may still reveal to you important things about your setting–or give you new aspects about your world to explore. This is easier said than done; I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished this approach and I’m not sure that–at least at this point in my creative life–I’m able to.

The alternative, and it’s a harsh one, is to train your players to respect the narrative “rules” of the setting. Were I to do this with Avar Narn, my players would lose characters on a regular basis, because recklessness or foolishness (or perhaps even a really bad run of luck) would get them killed. They’d eventually come to understand what I (or if I’m to shirk responsibility, the setting’s rules) expect, but at what cost? If I cast my net far and wide, I could probably find enough players comfortable with this to run a game, but I think that some of my regular players would (understandably) drop out because that kind of game doesn’t meet their expectations of what roleplaying games should be and do.

This issue is tough to navigate and can easily lead to either you or your players (or both) being disappointed. Beware.

Work or play?

Serious fiction does not always have as its goal being fun in an obvious way (bear in mind that this is different from being enjoyable–think of catharsis, the emotional experience of terrible events that can be left behind at their conclusion and the intellectual satisfaction of a story well told even if not felicitous). If your roleplaying game is not fun, you have a problem–few players want only the sort of parenthetical enjoyment previously described.

On your side of things, will using your setting to run a game feel like work? C.S. Lewis was once asked by a young lover of theology whether he (the young man) should go to seminary. Lewis advised that the young man ought to consider whether making his profession in something he loved my deprive him of the joy he found in it. So much for “do a job you love….” But there’s a point here–a roleplaying game may sometimes require creativity on demand, which is not always the best kind of creativity in worldbuilding and writing. If you find yourself forced to enter your setting rather than doing so for the joy of it, you may find yourself hampered in progressing in your writing and the creation of your world.

Doubling Down

I started with the negatives I’ve experienced in running Avar Narn games. Let’s now turn to some positives:

If you’re running an RPG set in the same setting in which you want to write, the work you do goes twice as far. Planning your game will tell you new things about your setting, working on your setting and stories will give you ideas you can use in your game.

Further, the improvisational nature of roleplaying games may help you stumble onto unexpected ideas for the furtherance of setting and stories–your players may stimulate you to unlock untapped creativity for your world.

Constructive Criticism

While by no means a market-study or a scientifically-valid survey, your players’ feedback will help you to revise your setting by identifying what’s working and what’s not. In particular, RPG players tend to be quick to point out internal inconsistency–the death of a fictional setting.

Indulgence

I have to admit that there is a deep joy that comes from diving into your fantasy world rather than viewing it from a remove. I readily defy the idea that fantasy is mostly (or even much) about escapism, but there a happiness endemic to humanity closely attached to creation and experience, to the exploration of something other than what is. (If that sounds like escapism to you, I’d argue that there’s a difference between retreating to a fantasy world to avoid reality and diving into a fantasy world for the joy of experiencing that world regardless of its comparison to reality).

There are few other ways to participate in your world in such an intimate way. Indeed, I’d say that if your inclinations are towards worldbuilding itself rather than storytelling, you’ll get much more enjoyment from running roleplaying games set in your world than you would from writing stories about your world. If you’re like me, do both when you can manage and reap all the benefits you can.

Storytelling Plus

Why do we create fantasy settings? As I mentioned above, there is a deep human need to create, and you may well feel that you have no choice in the matter–you are pregnant with ideas that must be born (to use a Renaissance analogy). Then there’s the natural desire to share things we love with others, to get them to experience the same joy we have from something.

Here’s perhaps where roleplaying can do something no other storytelling medium can–you can immerse your players in your world with second-person fiction, letting them experience your ideas in a way far more intimate than traditional writing.

If you subscribe to Joss Whedon’s statement (about Firefly, if I remember correctly) that “I’d rather create a show that five people have to see than one that fifty-thousand people want to see.” (I’m paraphrasing and the numbers used may be off, but you get the idea). That is to say, if it’s really about the art itself (that we could all bring ourselves to such true virtue!), you may well find more satisfaction in running a game for a few people than writing for the masses.

Conclusion

While I recommend that speculative fiction writers at least try roleplaying games to see how the genre helps them with their craft, I see justifications both for and against using your own narrative setting for those games. If, like me, you have trouble relinquishing artistic control, you may be better of using a different setting for your games. In so doing, whether you use a published setting or a new creation of your own, you’ll learn things that you can readily apply to your spec-fic setting.

If you can let go a little, or especially if you enjoy collaborative creativity, you may well find a deep joy in running games set in your world that enhances the other joys your setting provides.

 

Review: Pawn

Pawn by Aimée Carter

Audible Narration by Lameece Issaq

We find ourselves at some time in the near future, after the fall of the United States led to the rise of the Hart family as the dictators over an America subject to economic collapse and resource shortages. As a result, all citizens take a test on the day that they turn seventeen. The results of the test determines their number—one through six, with sevens being reserved for the Hart family—which thus determine their futures. Fours occupy the middle class, with fives and sixes serving as the administrators of the government and management of production. Threes serve as skilled or semi-skilled labor in maintenance jobs and other services needed to keep the country operating. Twos live in poverty, working those jobs too dangerous or taxing to give to anyone of a higher number. The ones—well, let’s just say that no one wants to be a one. The availability of goods and services is restricted by a citizen’s number, and those who break the law or attempt to buck the system are sent “elsewhere.”

Into this situation comes “extra” (second child) seventeen-year-old Kitty Doe. She has just taken her test and had her result, a three, tattooed and scarified on the back of her neck as with all other citizens. She has orders to travel from Washington, D.C. to Denver, where she will serve in sewer maintenance for her entire life. She struggles to find a way to ignore her fate, hoping to hold out for at least a month so that her boyfriend Benji can take his test and they can figure out a way to stay together (it being expected that Benji will be a six).

By a strange twist of events, Kitty finds herself inducted into the circle of the Hart family, where she becomes a pawn in the interfamilial strife of the family’s members. As a result, she discovers that little of what government tells the citizenry to ensure their docility is true. She has a choice: fight for the people or go along with her puppetmasters to ensure her own safety—and the safety of those she loves.

Pawn is a young-adult (read: teenager) novel. As you’ve probably surmised, it bears a striking resemblance to The Hunger Games—post-apocalyptic America ruled by a dictatorship, a female protagonist with a feline-sounding name being forced to choose whether to become part of the system or struggle to end it and, of course, questions of romance and love with several potential suitors. I believe that this also coincides with much of the Divergent series, but I know too little about those works to be sure.

I would say that Pawn is slightly more adult in tone than The Hunger Games, as early in the story Kitty seeks to sell her virginity to the highest bidder at a brothel in a plan to make ends meet until she and Benji can find a more-permanent solution to her “three.”

I found Pawn to be an enjoyable read (or listen, as the case may be). Kitty and the members of the Hart family are well-developed, with complex and sometimes conflicting motivations sometimes driving them to do the unexpected. Over time, as Kitty discovers them, we learn the history and secrets of the Harts, seeing just how deep the deception, manipulation, and spite goes. The close proximity of the themes and general thrust of the plot to The Hunger Games series ultimately does not detract from the novel, as plenty of unexpected plot twists and a focus on character interactions gives Pawn a different place within the subgenre of (perhaps Feminist?) Teen Dystopian Drama that both works occupy.

The politics of the nation and the far-reaching consequences of the actions taken by Kitty and the Harts remain largely on the outskirts of the story, almost a MacGuffin to drive the more important familial politics upon which the story turns. By keeping things focused on the personal conflicts, the story manages to largely brush aside its lack of development of a believable setting.

My only other significant criticism is that Kitty’s male “love interests” (it should be mentioned that the romantic subplot of this novel provides an undercurrent rather than a central force) remain less developed than the other characters. Lennox Creed, who plays an essential role within the plot, never really gave me enough to understand him or believe his motivations. Benji proved even worse for me—Carter writes him such that he is uninteresting and of little consequence to the story except as someone who Kitty desperately wants to protect. The fact that Issaq voices him as an oafish dullard doesn’t help.

The characters of Lennox and Benji are forgivable if they are meant to serve as a critique of the writing of female characters by male authors in similar tropes of fiction (i.e., the need to save the girlfriend, who appears to be entirely helpless to take care of herself). I can’t be sure, however, that such a pointed critique was intended and that they are not simply sloppily written.

Pawn remains at least moderately interesting throughout its twists-and-turns, though I will not be spending any time on the rest of the series. For a teen audience, I think that this is a solid book that bridges the gap between the “classic” literature that most of us studied in high-school and the ultimately more interesting works of fiction we read in high school on our own time (instead of what we were supposed to be reading for class) or found in our adulthood.

Review: Under the Amoral Bridge

By Gary A. Ballard

Audible Narration by Joe Hempel

A cyberpunk backdrop of 2020’s Los Angeles sets the stage for Under the Amoral Bridge. This novella follows the exploits and misadventures of one Artemis Bridge, a former hacker-cum-fixer linking seekers with hard-to-find or not-so-legal goods and services, all the while trying to stay above any ethical quandary about his profession by never touching the goods or services directly. When a piece of information that could determine the results of the first election in Los Angeles since corporation Chronosoft purchased the right to govern the city, Bridge knows that he’s unwillingly been inserted into a game of life and death.

Bridge reminds me vaguely of Lenny Nero in the film Strange Days (one of my favorites and one of few arguably mainstream films in the cyberpunk genre). While Nero’s character gives you a man of some conviction struggling to survive an increasingly corrupt world—with a likeable personality to boot—Bridge simply is. He’s not sardonically witty enough to amuse the reader with his cynicism, too self-interested to hold our interest as an exemplum of the “man against the world” theme, and too petty for us to pay him much respect. After meeting him in the world of this novella, I find him an ultimately-forgettable example of the all-too-common lowlife hustler that appears in cyberpunk.

Had Under the Amoral Bridge been written and published in the 80’s, I would probably find it more difficult to be so hard on the story. But, the book first appeared in 2009. Coming so late to a genre so well-explored in print, film, anime, roleplaying games and video games, a modern cyberpunk book needs to bring something new to the table. I’m not saying that no one can write good cyberpunk anymore (Richard K. Morgan wrote Altered Carbon, a masterpiece of both cyberpunk and noir, in 2003), but we’re well past the point of using a plot arc known by wrote with a cardboard façade of corporate control, ubiquitous technology, topped with a healthy dose of paranoia, slapping it all together and throwing it out like it’s something special.

Looking at Amazon, the book enjoys pretty positive reviews, so I ought to defend my general lack of enthusiasm for the work. I discussed the flatness of the protagonist above, but it’s the rigid and predictable nature of the plot that really gave me fits.

Cyberpunk descends in many ways from noir: the gritty feel, the moral ambiguity, the selfish motivations of the bad guys, the protagonist who we cannot expect to succeed. This doesn’t mean that every cyberpunk story must be a mystery, although many are—again Altered Carbon comes to mind, as does Snowcrash. The best writing within a genre uses the conventions of the genre, but not rigidly, and not always expectedly.

Instead, Under the Amoral Bridge follows convention too closely, making everything feel caricatured. As I stated above, the cyberpunk background of the story feels too canned and too well-trod, coming across like an original Star Trek set piece that will topple if pushed too hard. To be fair, there are a few places where convention is toyed with: the role of the “femme fatale” (if this story really has one) is a relatively unattractive woman who only truly steps into the role when masked behind her net avatar—there’s interesting stuff about identity that could have been explored here, but the opportunity is lost. Then there’s Artemis’ bodyguard, affectionately referred to as Aristotle. He’s a large black man with a penchant for philosophizing and as much brains as brawns, both of which seem to be considerable. I can’t help but think of him being played by Ving Rhames as the story plays through my mind. Aristotle is by far my favorite character in the novella (perhaps the only one I actually liked), and his relationship with Artemis has enough nuance to break away from being a half-hearted twist on convention (as most of the other minor tweaks throughout the novella come across).

Ultimately, the story plays by the numbers, remains relatively predictable to the end, and contains plot “twists” that the characters themselves should have been able to see coming. This culminates in shameless exposition by the bad guy at the end to make sure that the reader gets what’s happened—even though it’s already painfully clear to everyone except Bridge himself.

The work leaves a bit to be desired stylistically as well. In particular, I found myself often distracted by the use of the passive voice where just a smidge of effort could have crafted a stronger sentence. That said, the craft of writing proves exceedingly difficult, and a less-skilled wordsmith can be forgiven if she tells a powerful and satisfying story. The author skilled in technique but without solid storytelling skills is not so lucky. I see a potential in Ballard to rise to the occasion, and it is quite possible that his later works prove that he has improved his technique and storytelling, but I have only read this small part of his corpus.

In full disclosure, I found that the narration of this book on Audible lacked as well, and that might have contributed to my rather harsh assessment of it. The narrator mispronounced a few words, and his accents and voices for characters failed to bring them to life, only adding to their cardboard cut-out feel.

Overall, this is not a bad book. But neither is it extraordinary in any way. With a world so full of amazing works of fiction (and more created every day) and lives so bereft of time in which to enjoy them, I have to recommend picking up something else before Under the Amoral Bridge, unless you want to continue in the Bridge Cycle (currently a four book series) in hopes that Ballard constructs something more grandiose upon this rather plain foundation.