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Author: John Scott Tynes

Why Smartphones Are Bad for Writing

I began living a novel today.

At a bookstore I stumbled across an old paperback horror novel about Satanic skullduggery called The Druid Stone by Simon Majors. And I thought, “Hmm. Simon Majors sounds like Simon Magus, the folkloric occultist/wizard from the Bible. I bet that’s a pseudonym.”

And at that moment this should have kicked off a globe-trotting adventure novel in which I sought to uncover the truth behind this mysterious author and learned what mystic secrets he had laced into the pages of his book, all while I was being pursued by agents of an ancient conspiracy.

And instead I pulled out my smartphone and in twenty seconds learned that yes, Simon Majors was a pseudonym for Gardner Fox, a prolific comic-book and fiction writer from the last century.

And so the novel ended, scarcely after it had begun.

This is why smartphones are bad for writing.

Incursion R&D: The Daisy Chain

For my current fiction project, The Incursion, I have done a lot of research into particle accelerators, topological quantum computing, microscopic black holes, and other topics. It’s fun stuff, with the caveat that my project is science fiction and I’m cheerfully extrapolating well beyond what science says is possible.

One of the fundamental concepts in my project is that the Superconducting Super Collider was actually built instead of being canceled in 1993. This in turn accelerated the discovery of the Higgs Boson by twelve years and led to the spontaneous creation of microscopic black holes, which even at 40 TeV speed could only be possible if there were more dimensions than we know exist — meaning the SSC also proved the practical existence of higher dimensions!

I’m wandering even further ahead of the science here by positing in turn that the ability to create microscopic black holes, on a structured and repeatable basis, led to a new form of quantum computer that used these black holes as a computational medium. A particle would enter the black hole and the Hawking Radiation that was emitted as the black hole collapsed a fraction of a moment later would provide the result of the computation. Essentially, we could now perform calculations across dimensions at incredibly high speed.

Structuring what was effectively a quantum computer made of millions of microscopic black holes that each existed for such a brief time as to be non-existent to conventional physics was beyond any mathematical capability we possessed. A data-carrying particle would need to be passed from black hole to adjacent black hole, passing its state through the black hole to a particle in a higher dimension via quantum entanglement, and then allow itself to be modified by the ensuing Hawking Radiation emerging from the same black hole as it collapsed before being pulled forward by the gravity of the adjacent black hole without actually being consumed, while new black holes at precise coordinates would have to be continually created to replace those already collapsed. This was known as the Daisy Chain.

The solution turned out to to be creating a very simple black hole quantum computer that would self-expand. Starting with a small set of black holes within the accelerator ring, the quantum computer could calculate the next set required to extend the system. With that additional set, its increased capability could then calculate the next set. Iteratively, therefore, the Daisy Chain could build itself into a dense mesh of black holes created over and over in the same locations around the accelerator ring until the computational power was beyond anything previously achieved. A built-in limiter in the algorithm prevented the calculations from creating a Daisy Chain bigger than the ring that contained the system.

At least, that was the idea . . .


Introducing The Incursion

By Ich weiß es nicht at the English Wikipedia project. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Bomazi., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16945351

In 2018 I will launch The Incursion, a new fiction podcast in ten chapters. Learn more here.

I’ve been working on this project for most of 2017. I’m eager to tell this story in a new medium, one based on performance and on the intimate relationship between storyteller and listener.

To get updates on the project, please subscribe to future blog posts using the form on this page.


My new virtual reality ghost story, Séance: The Unquiet

Today my team at Holospark released a free preview of our current virtual reality project. Séance: The Unquiet is a ghost story in VR for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets. The preview is now available for download from the Oculus Store and from Steam.

This project is not a videogame. It’s very much a movie that uses virtual reality as its native medium. We built it using the Unreal game engine with a lot of videogame tools and techniques, but all in the service of delivering a cinematic narrative.

About VR Cinematic Storytelling

I’ve written a series of four blog posts on Gamasutra sharing what we learned:

Part One: Composition

Part Two: Music & Sound Design

Part Three: Character Presence

Part Four: Anatomy of a Scene


The excellent VR industry website UploadVR posted a really thoughtful look at what we’re creating:

Séance: The Unquiet is a harrowing ghost story focused on you

We put a ton of work and experimentation into reaching this first preview and I’m very happy with the results.


Peanuts: The Inner Life of Marcie

This article by Kevin Wong is the best thing I’ve read about Charles Schultz’s Peanuts in years:

For many years, I thought that Marcie, the bespectacled, book-obsessed girl in Peanuts, was Asian American. It wasn’t just about how badly I wanted an Asian American in my favorite comic strip; it was about how much I identified with her. Through Marcie’s various story arcs, Charles Schulz depicted the struggles of a shy person who learned her self-worth by reaching her breaking point.

I read a lot of Peanuts when I was a kid and then again when Fantagraphics began reprinting the entire series. It’s a remarkable work and I think one that people find many different paths into. Taking a fresh look at Marcie and realizing where she and Pepperment Patty fit into the context in which they emerged in the strip gave me fresh appreciation for Schulz’s work.

Thought for the Day

“All of nature in its awful vastness and incomprehensible complexity is in the end interrelated — worlds within worlds within worlds: the seen and the unseen — the physical and the immaterial are all connected — each exerting influence on the next — bound, as it were, by chains of analogy — magnetic chains. Every decision, every action mirrors, ripples, reflects and echoes throughout the whole of creation. The world is indeed bound with secret knots.”

Grandmother Fish: A child’s first book of evolution

This lovely new picture book for children is a scientifically accurate and utterly charming explanation of natural selection. Specifically, it explains to a very young child how all life on Earth is related.

The author is Jonathan Tweet, a veteran tabletop game designer with a passion for science and education. The artist is Karen Lewis, a brilliant illustrator and animator. Together they have crafted a lovely and inspiring book that gets kids off the couch and acting out the adaptations which distinguish each major leap in the tree of life that leads to you and I.

Jonathan and Karen have been dear friends of mine for many, many years. They raised the funds to do this project through Kickstarter and have just received the printed books. Jenny and I have our copy and the final result is breathtaking. Karen’s art is luminescent and the text is delightful.

Our daughter Vivian immediately read through the book, acting out the action words just as Jonathan intended. Of course she is seven and a half years old and well beyond picture books, but she still loved it. And then she read the pages at the back, intended for grown-ups or older children, which present information about evolution and adaptations in simple language usable for answering a child’s question.

It’s a lovely book, a worthy book, and a heartwarmingly sweet book about science, family, and the beauty and diversity of life on Earth.

You can learn more and order your own copy here!

Delta Green: Extraordinary Renditions

Delta Green: Extraordinary Renditions coverI have a short story in this new fiction anthology from Arc Dream Publishing edited by Shane Ivey and Adam Scott Glancy. This project began as a stretch goal for a Kickstarter we ran a while back to fund Dennis Detwiller’s short-story collection Delta Green: Tales from Failed Anatomies. We set out to raise just $3,000 to publish the book and ended up raising more than $30,000, which went to fund a whole new anthology of original stories from eighteen authors. This new book, Delta Green: Extraordinary Renditions, is now available as an ebook from Amazon, RPGNow, and Apple iBooks.

My short story is called “The Lucky Ones” and it has had quite a journey. I wrote the first draft in 2012 intending to include it as a capstone to my collection Delta Green: Strange Authorities. It features Jill Sanders, the main character of the first story in that collection, “The Corn King,” and I intended it to wrap things up for her and for the collection. But the story proved difficult. I couldn’t crack it for some reason, and in the end I put it on the shelf and published the book without it.

When the Kickstarter for Dennis’s collection came along and the publisher  invited me to contribute a story, I decided to take it up again. I threw out my old draft entirely (originally entitled “Sinecure”), started over from scratch, and this time everything clicked. The result is a story I’m particularly pleased with. It’s inspired by a true-crime story about Fairfield Pond in Connecticut, where I situated the family home of Reginald Fairfield in the world of Delta Green.

But it’s also inspired by my own life. The story is about a woman who has retired from Delta Green and left that entire world behind, but cannot escape her past. When I left Pagan Publishing in 2002, the company I’d founded when I was nineteen years old, I also left Delta Green and roleplaying game design behind. In the years since then I’ve remained a co-owner of the Delta Green IP and reviewed the projects that Arc Dream has published, but I haven’t had the time or the passion to contribute new work until this story. As Michael Corleone complained, Delta Green keeps pulling me back in.

It pulls Jill Sanders back in too, and an old acquaintance or two, with typically grim results. I really love how this story turned out and I’m grateful to plant one last flag on that sad and alien landscape. I hope you enjoy it, too.


Zombie Ant Fungus: Latest Research

In 1995 I read a book called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology by Lawrence Weschler. It introduced me to the amazing Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, about which you can read more here, but also to the world of fungi that turn their hosts into zombies who live only to create more zombies.

There are a surprisingly large number of examples of such fungi. But the general pathology is the same: an insect consumes fungal spores and gradually alters its behavior to make it a better distributor for the next generation of spores, such as by climbing up a tall plant and clinging to the underside of a leaf so that spores fall onto the ground below. Then the insect dies, the fungus keeps growing until it bursts out and generates spores, and the cycle continues.

Ants infected by this fungus sprout horns. The fungus grows until it actually ruptures the carapace, then keeps growing until horns form and those horns in turn release the spores.

It’s a fascinating scenario. I’ve read more about this and related fungi over the years, and used it as the basis for my campaign setting Horns in the Hill for Robin D. Laws’ Hillfolk. It’s also the foundation of my young-adult novel Magonia’s Shadow, which I’m currently working on.

So in late 2013 when an actual scientific research project to study a zombie ant fungus showed up on Experiment.com — a sort of Kickstarter for academic science  — I was an enthusiastic backer. Dr. Charissa de Bekker proposed to study the genetics of how the fungus manipulated behavior in carpenter ants.

After a great deal of time and effort, Dr. Bekker and her colleagues have published their findings. You can read their entire paper for free online as well as a shorter summary article written more for non-scientists.

My interest in this work is, of course, from a creative perspective as a writer and game designer. As soon as the paper went online, I combed through it for fascinating and even creepy tidbits about this fungus and its lifecycle.

Here are my favorite bits:

  1. Dr. Bekker found that the fungus manipulates the ant’s internal body clock. All infected ants in the experiment manifested their climbing and biting behaviors at the same time of day, and died at the same time of day, basically acting in unison.
  2. The fungus produces alkaloids that mimic neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Similar alkaloids are produced by the ergot fungus which famously infested rye crops in the middle ages and caused mass hallucinations in humans among other symptoms. Therefore it is conceivable that the fungus induces hallucinations in the ants as well.
  3. The fungus changes its secretions over the course of its infection of the host. When it’s time to send the ant climbing up to its final resting place, the fungus secretes different proteins to trigger the desired behaviors. The specific biting behavior, in which the ant bits into the leaf and holds its jaws shut until death, is nothing like typical ant behaviors. Dr. Bekker found specific enzymes created by the fungus that can manipulate neural pathways known to impact both locomotion and mandible operation. In short, the fungus has evolved an incredibly specific vector of attack on the ant to result in this unusual behavior.
  4. Infected ants stop following the chemical trails laid down by fellow ants and which typically guide their journeys in the forest. Instead they stay closer to their colony, awaiting their fate. They become antisocial.
  5. The fungus generates enterotoxins that kills cells and atrophies muscles. The ant gradually weakens, slows, and dies helplessly, unable to move. After death, the fungus keeps growing out of the corpse in the form of horns emerging from the head.

I’m grateful to have the opportunity to support this scientific research. And the results are nothing short of amazing — this fungus is a seriously advanced piece of genetic technology.

I expect to incorporate some of these concepts in my novel Magonia’s Shadow. Speaking of which, here is a relevant excerpt. The book is about a community whose culture and belief system have been shaped by a long-term fungal infestation:

      Marla saw them first. She went to check on her father when he slept late one morning and saw the first little growths emerging from underneath the fresh moss. She carefully removed the poultices and there they were: the red, moist buds and sprouting tendrils crowning through.

      She started, stepping back quickly in horror. Of course she had seen the horns before on older people in the community when their time was coming. But to see them starting to appear on her own father, unmistakable and raw, was shocking.

      There was no turning back.