How to get a literary agent

April 12th 2016

Posted by: in: From the Author, Non-fiction
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There are probably loads of places on the internet to go to for advice on this – but someone came to me and said “Simon, you’re old and have been doing this writing thing for a while now. How do I go about getting an agent?”

And lo, it was true. I am old. I have been doing this writing thing for a while now. So I replied, then thought. “Actually, I could post this on t’website.”

So, without further ado, here is my non-definitive and possibly inaccurate guide to getting a literary agent. Any suggestions and amendments via the comments welcome.

 

 

 

Firstly, well done. Actually finishing a novel-length work makes you a writer, as opposed to an aspiring writer. It’s not an easy thing to see it out to the end, so kudos for getting this far.

Secondly, and importantly, realise that this probably won’t sell. Mine didn’t. Neither did the one I was writing while I was hawking the first one around, but that one did get me an agent. The one I was writing while he was hawking the second one around did get picked up. So, after a pause, start writing the next one. All the things you’ve learnt writing the first one will be applicable to the second one, and if by chance, you do get some interest in the existing ms, you can say (and agents and publishers really want to hear this) that you’re half way through another. They don’t want an author who’s only got one book in them: they – and you – need to play the long game.

Now, to attract an agent is a rare and difficult thing. So you have to give this your best shot, because each time you send it out, it will be your only shot with that particular agent, with that particular work.

Make sure your ms is polished. Whatever structural flaws it might contain, it ought not have any spelling, punctuation or grammar errors. Because nothing says n00b like a spelling error. In practice, this means that at least one other competent adult will have gone through the whole ms, marking corrections and making suggestions. Which you’ll then apply.

Most agents don’t want the whole ms in paper form – I only see actual paper at the page proof stage, which is the last bit before publication, and even then, not always, so don’t worry about printing stuff out. What they’ll probably want is a covering letter, a synopsis, and the first 3 chapters/10k words.

The covering letter is one side of A4, with your contact details, title, genre, and length of the story (for a novel, at least 80k, preferably between 80-110k, though with fantasy, there’s a bit of elastic at the top end, even for a first novel), whether it’s a stand-alone or part of a series/trilogy, and anything that might indicate relevant experience – journalist, copywriter, medieval re-enactor – or celebrity status. That’s it. They don’t need to know your life story.

The synopsis is your sales pitch, so treat it as such. Sweat blood over this, because if it sucks, they’re not going to read the sample. The less sucky it is, the more chance there is that they’ll read the sample. I’m genuinely bad at synopses, and my agent despairs of me, so we’ve done quite a lot of work over the years on making them, if not good, at least workmanlike.

A synopsis shouldn’t be your story. It should be a story about your story, about how exciting things happen to interesting people, and how the protagonists react to those difficult events in different ways. I write mine in the form of:

  •  Intro – thematic feel and overall arc
  • Set-up – the world as it is in the beginning
  • Trigger – how the protagonists get involved in the story
  • Ascent – what happens when the protagonists get involved in the story
  • Bios – short paragraphs about the protagonists, their hopes and fears (and not what they look like) as they progress in the story.
  • Climax – what happens in the build up to the denouement
  • Pitch line – your story is awesome because it’s like X with added Y for the Z generation, for fans of A, B and C.

A synopsis is a work of art in its own. It needs to be as exciting as your actual story is. Seriously, spend time on it. And get it in on two pages of A4.

Then the first three chapters. Make sure these are utterly error free. And make sure they are the first three chapters, not chapters 8, 12 and 18, because they’re the most explosiony ones. It doesn’t have to be all fireworks, but if it doesn’t grab from the start, then it’s not happening.

So that’s your package. All you need to do now is find the right agents to approach. This is another difficult, and separate job. Sorry about that.

You need to identify: agents who accept adult fantasy (not all do), who are also open to submissions (not all are). Agents are looking for reasons to reject a submission. Don’t give them one – that means tailoring your submission to exactly how they want it formatted and sent.

The ones that are most likely to accept a new author are: those who have just started and are building up their client base, or have just hired someone new to expand their client base. Older, established single-person agents are less likely to be looking to take on new clients, because they already have sufficient authors to keep them busy and paid.

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Two weeks till the train leaves

February 4th 2016

Posted by: in: From the Author, News and Updates, The Books of Down
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First stop, Down Station.

This has been a long time coming. A change of publisher, a change of editor, a change of direction: if I’m trying to constantly challenge myself as a writer, I’m doing it the hard way, it seems.

I’ve wanted to write a ‘proper’ portal fantasy for a while, and now I’ve done it, it’s inevitably not quite like anyone else’s. A portal fantasy is, for the want of a better definition, the pitching of ordinary people into an extraordinary environment. I can check both those off: Dalip and Mary, Stanislav and Mama, are just regular folk, doing their daily jobs, when they discover the entrance to Down. And when I say ‘discover’, it’s literally that. They open a door, and there it is.

Because Down is not Narnia, or Barsoom, or the Pliocene, I have to chase them over the threshold. Down is a world with a conscious magic woven into every leaf, rock and blade of grass. It’s a terrifying, beautiful place, full of danger and wonder. Neither do they find themselves alone, which is altogether more perilous. Down Station is the beginning of the story of how Down sits alongside our world, and their fates are intimately joined together. The story continues in The White City – which, because this is publishing, I’m doing the edits for now, while thinking about launching its predecessor.

I could give you all kinds of spoilers and teasers. Let’s not do that. Here are some reviews:

This is a very fast paced book, with intense moments of danger as well as being full of wonder. There are so many things to discover in Down not only geographically but historically…Morden has written a book full of mysteries that are just waiting to be discovered. (Fantasy Book Review)

Down Station is a fun and interesting read which I zipped through in no time at all! (Books By Proxy)

The world is an interesting and well realised one. The central characters are believable and feel entirely human (though I would like to see more of the supporting cast in the sequel). The plot rattles along nicely, and kept me enthralled to the last page (Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews)

Once again Simon Morden takes the fantasy genre and moulds it wonderfully…What makes Down Station so great is the immaculate pacing and the way character shapes fate for each of the well-drawn main characters (The Sun)

And a few from Goodreads:

The story was a kind of fantasy that I rarely see, very Robin Hobb-ish, and by the end, some of my questions were answered, and I had a lot more and GOD DAMN IT I NEED BOOK TWO.

This is an interesting read with a great new world to immerse yourself in, it is fantastical and thrilling, a great book to add to your fantasy/sci-fi shelf.

Overall, this is an excellent, fast-paced, and satisfying read, and I’m very much looking forward to reading more of Mary and Dalip’s adventures in Down.

Which are all nice. It is, of course, not everyone’s cup of tea – as I discovered with Arcanum, fantasy readers are sometimes quite conservative in what they’ll accept as fantasy, and if it’s too different to what they expect, they’re not going to like it. I’m going to warn you now: Down Station is different. At times, it’s startlingly different. It’ll keep you guessing. It’ll surprise you. It won’t give you all the answers, and the answers it does give are often replaced by better answers later on.

Obviously, I want you to buy it, read it, love it, and talk about it to your friends. That’s because I want this story to entertain as many people as possible – and starving in a garret isn’t a great way to go. But if I was going to go on and wish for one further thing, I’d say this: I want this story to breathe. I want you to imbue Down with life, to think of the rarely-opened doors as you pass them by on the street, to wonder what you’d do in Down and what you’d become. Because that would be brilliant.

I came across a quote from the theologian Frederick Buechner: even though he was writing about this world, it sums up Down so perfectly, I wonder if I hadn’t been subconsciously channelling him.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

One last thing: don’t forget the signing at Forbidden Planet in London on the 20th February with me and Tricia Sullivan, between 1pm and 2pm.

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Love and Fear in Down

January 11th 2016

Posted by: in: From the Author, Metrozone, The Books of Down
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One of the philosophical concepts I had to consider when writing Down Station was that of Libertarianism. Down has a great deal of space, and natural resources, and people are free to do whatever they want, in that they are literally free. Down has no government, no imposed order, no unifying code. Down is – deliberately so – a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which anything can be written.

And given that abundance, and given that space, it could reasonably expected that people would individually or in small groups, set themselves up and live free lives, unfettered by a morass of rules and restrictions. Down is made for liberty.

One of the practical criticisms of Communism is that it doesn’t allow for human nature: that, having taken away the incentive for personal gain, no one will do the necessary grunt work, resulting in an impoverished, collapsing society. The only way thereafter to ensure that the farms keep harvesting and the machines keep turning is coercion. In other words, fear.

It’s also a practical criticism of Libertarianism. Having elevated the concept of personal autonomy to be paramount, there is an inevitable conflict between personal autonomies. Human nature, being what it is, will again result in an impoverished, collapsing society. Fear of the other – the non-aggression principle being as much use as a candle in a hurricane – is the only law.

There are, I believe, two reasons to … I’m not even sure what the word for the concept here is, since experience tells me that my ethical standards are the product of both my choices and my upbringing, and that’s the same for all people, at all times … I’m going to go with ‘follow a set of moral rules I have not wholly designed for myself’. So, sorry, sociopaths.

One is fear. It could be a social fear – shame – that leads compels me to fulfil my obligations. It could be judicial fear, the fear of personal or financial sanctions, that means I keep the law to avoid prison. It could be a more visceral, violent fear, that pain will follow if I don’t comply to an order or expectation. Fear is a powerful incentive, but only applicable if I think you can carry out your threat. If there’s no chance of sanction, there’s nothing to stop me from doing whatever I want, should I wish to do it.

The other is love. Love works all the time, even when there’s no one looking. Love is not an overseer. Love leads me to follow the Golden Rule (expressed positively as ‘Do to others what you would want them to do to you’) far more effectively and completely than fear ever will. Mutual respect for the other person, philia, and the urge towards charity, agape, are the cornerstones on which we build our communities.

I can imagine a communist society that’s inspired wholly by love. I can (with a greater stretch) imagine a libertarian society that’s inspired wholly by love. The problem with both of these is that humans are not generally wholly inspired by love, and those of us who try to be, are not all of the time. And even in the post-scarcity environment that say, the Freezone aspires to, communism is much more likely to be successful than libertarianism. The Freezone acknowledges our natural urges: that’s why there is human governance, and that it is exercised in tandem with an all-seeing AI.

My personal view is that libertarianism is just as capable of crossing the event horizon as communism. Human nature will produce a Somalia or a Congo as readily as it will Stalin’s USSR or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. But we don’t even have to go that far to see that those who have lost their fear of consequences act out their ambitions on the streets of our largest cities: libertarians don’t seem to be moving to those places we consider ‘lawless’.

There are nuances here: considering the nature of minarchies, and ‘night-watchmen’ states alleviates some of the problems, but still leaves the fetishisation of property rights unchecked, and that the only right of the poor is to starve to death.

Down, while not a paradise, had the potential for a new start. That it turned into a brutal, unforgiving world is not its fault. It’s ours.

 

 

Down Station, the first book of Down, will be published by Gollancz on February 16th 2016

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Look upon my works ye mighty

November 10th 2015

Posted by: in: From the Author, News and Updates, The Books of Down
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Now to return you to our regularly scheduled updates…

Firstly, an apology: it appears that the ‘comments’ part of the site is broken, and has been broken for some time, possibly months. I don’t have the permissions to delve under the bonnet to try and fix things, so I’m going to have to find someone at Little Brown to sort this for me. I’ll post again when it’s done.

Secondly, writing. I’ve been busy. Really busy. So I’ll break this down into bits.

Down Station: you’ve all seen the spiffing cover, designed by the wonderful people at Blacksheep. I’ve gone through the page proofs, sent everything back, grabbed a couple of the uncorrected proof copies at GollanczFest in Manchester (more on this shortly), and it’s ready to go. The publication date is set for 18th February 2016. Think of it as a late Valentine’s gift.

The White City: the sequel to Down Station is written, and the manuscript is with my editor. At some point, probably before Christmas, I’m going to have his response, and then I’m going to have to sit down and forge the best book I can from the somewhat ragged draft I sent in. It’s all part of the process. And there’s still no map.

At the Speed of Light: what? What’s that? I’ve written a novella. A hard – diamond hard – SF novella of 35,000 words, doing pretty much what it says on the tin. I’m hawking it around at the moment, but people I’ve shown it to are saying nice things about it. All the technical details in the story are, as far as I can tell, correct.

The Alchemist’s Dream: I’m sorry, I’ve written another novel, entirely unconnected and pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It’s a cross between Jeeves and Wooster, and Holmes and Watson, and Arabian Nights. If you wanted to classify it, and I’ve no idea why you would, it’s a historical but fantastic fantasy entirely without magic. Or swearing, which is a bit unusual for me, but I wanted to try and tell a story using all the traditional story-telling elements, including places where you can boo and hiss at the villains, cheer the heroes and slap your thighs to your heart’s content. So while it’s not all entirely serious, it still is. I wanted to have fun, and I did. Hopefully, you will too.

The Alchemist’s Dream, the board game. This is the last, I promise. When I started the book of the same name, I realised I needed to invent a board game to go in it, as it’s pivotal to the story. So I did. Then it got a little out of control, and I ended up with an actual board game, with rules, fully playable, and I’m commencing beta-testing it shortly. I’ll post more about it shortly too.

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New Greenbelt talk posted: What then shall we write?

September 1st 2015

Posted by: in: From the Author, News and Updates, Non-fiction
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After living feral in a field for a week, I’m back, clothed and in my right mind, and I appear to have committed art. Or at least art criticism. What then shall we write? looks at three brilliant books – The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It also contains some guidance – they sure ain’t rules – for writing about faith and the faithful in fiction and, inevitably, all the answers I come up with involve hard work and uncomfortable choices.

But it does contain this sentence: Truth, in fiction, is an almost unbearably terrible weapon.

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Progress: not just a name for Soviet-era spaceships

June 16th 2015

Posted by: in: From the Author, News and Updates, The Books of Down
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I have been officially busy, and progress (not this kind of progress) has been made.

Firstly, a correction. Phantoms at the Phil is on the 3rd July, and not on any of the other dates previously advertised. Today was going to be the day I started writing my story. I’ve been enveloped in a cloud of post-book exhaustion, so will start tonight. Or tomorrow morning. Honest. Tickets usually sell out, so get in while the going’s good.

Secondly, I have done made a book. The White City (being the Second Book of Down) is wholly extant at 97,000 words*, and while parts of it are eye-poppingly strange, I think it works. Some of the plotting is deliberately audacious, not so much as to challenge you, dear reader, but to stretch me as a writer – being comfortable isn’t a place where I want to be. It’s off to the agent, and subsequently to the publisher. Down Station (being the First Book of Down) is scheduled for release on 18th February, 2016, and The White City will probably follow a year later. Or maybe sooner if a slot falls free. I have seen a rough cover for Down Station, and it’s gorgeous. So it’s definitely happening.

Thirdly, I am at Greenbelt again this year, and will be talking about writing faith well – using the examples of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I appreciate that last choice is a little risky, but bear with me, it’s brilliant. The talk is currently scheduled for Monday afternoon in the Literature tent. I also note that me and AL Kennedy (also appearing) share an agent. Hopefully we can meet up and compare notes about how fantastic he is…

Fourthly, the second-ever Gollancz Festival is now extended to two days, and I’m provisionally booked in to be in London on the 17th October.

That’s about it so far – keep well, keep safe.

 

 

* eagle-eyed readers will note that on 13th April, I said The White City was just over 30,000 words. Two months later, I’m at 97,000. I’m quite pleased with that.

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The David Gemmell awards, and looking forward

April 15th 2015

Posted by: in: Arcanum, From the Author, News and Updates, The Books of Down
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While Monday’s post dealt with the past, today’s looks forward, because, you know – science fiction and all that.

I’ve already mentioned that Arcanum wasn’t submitted for the Clarkes, despite being in the very strictest sense, an utterly SF book. It has, however, been submitted for the David Gemmell Awards, which is decided by popular vote. I am very aware of my place in the food chain, and there are proper fantasy writers on the list who outrank me in every way. All I’m going to say here is that it would be nice to make the shortlist, and for that, Arcanum needs votes, which you may deliver here. If you’re looking for heroes, then Peter, Sophia and Frederick aren’t such a bad bunch to emulate.

Down Station has a publication date, which is February next year – that means a whole year without a book. It does give me some time to both recharge the batteries, and more importantly, write. The White City (being the Second Book of Down) is progressing, and will be done by summer. After that, there are a multiplicity of options, but only one of me to do the work. Despite that, I already have two books in hand, so I do need to choose wisely.

I’ve agreed to do a couple of short stories: one ghost story for the perennially popular Phantoms at the Phil event, which is performed, live, by the authors, to a full house in Newcastle’s Lit and Phil library; and another for an anniversary anthology. Short stories were what I started on, and I find writing them a peculiar kind of joy. On one hand, they’re bloody difficult to pull off, on the other, the satisfaction when you manage a really satisfying ending is out of proportion to the length of the thing.

On a slightly sideways note, I returned from Eastercon to find a royalties cheque waiting for me. For Another War which, after 10 years, has earned out its advance. That, comrades, is playing the long game.

Next year, as well as Down Station, will see me crossing the pond to be Guest of Hono(u)r at InConJunction in Indianapolis. Which will be … interesting. I’ve never been a GoH before, anywhere. I’ll try not to blot my copybook between now and then, or at the con itself. I’ll take advice, because I don’t want to make n00b mistakes, but it’ll still be me no matter what. You’ve been warned.

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How did we end up here?

February 10th 2015

Posted by: in: From the Author, Metrozone, News and Updates, The Books of Down
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It’s 2015, and I haven’t posted anything yet this year. For which I apologise, because it’s not like things haven’t been happening – a lot of stuff which isn’t appropriate to share, because Internets. But in and around all the disasters and set-backs and frenetic busyness that’s going on, writing is still a thing.

So: Down Station, being the First Book of Down, has leapt over the hurdle that is the editorial stage. We’re now onto the copy-edit, and as soon as I know the proposed publication date, I’ll let everyone know. It is, reasonably said, a strange and wonderful story. If I was going to describe it in a sentence, I’d call it ‘a grittily realistic fairytale’, and I trust that’s going to be enough to intrigue you to want to read it.

The White City, being the Second Book of Down, is in the process of being written. I’m about a fifth of the way through, and it’s shaping up very nicely.

Both Down Station and The White City are going to be published by Gollancz, who are ‘my new publisher’.

What does that mean for Sam, Maddy, and the rest of the Freezone crew? I’m not sure yet. I have an extant first draft of Petrovitch 5, The Edge of Space, so yes, there is more to come, I just don’t know when. There will, with luck and a following wind, a sixth following on from that.

I am officially booked to read a new ghost story at the Lit and Phil’s ‘Summer Phantoms at the Phil’ evening, on the 19th of June – as opposed to last year, when I was (literally) the last-minute stand in. You’ll get a new ghost story, too. I have Ideas already.

I’m also going to be at Eastercon again – no news yet of panels etc, but feel free to come and say hello.

That’s about all for the moment. More as it develops.

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Back… to the Future!

September 13th 2014

Posted by: in: Arcanum, From the Author, Metrozone, News and Updates
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(Obligatory popping eyes and pointing! Great Scott!)

Things have happened since I last wrote here. So, in some vague order not necessarily related to importance…

Amazon are still having a hissy fit with Hachette. My post, “Don’t buy my books from Amazon” still applies.

Greenbelt, which I didn’t speak at, but did volunteer for (hi-vis jacket and yet more pointing), was brilliant, even the rain-sodden Monday. Owen Jones gave the best rabble-rousing speech I’ve heard from a socialist since Tony Benn. Jonny and the Baptists were excellent (note to all – Farrage (to rhyme with garage) now means the liquid left at the bottom of a bin after two weeks of hot sun). Hannah Nicklin’s one-woman play, ‘A conversation with my father’ was thought-provoking and heart-warming in equal measure. Folk On were, as ever, fantastic. Even the Communion service on Sunday morning, an often hit-and-miss affair, was solid and memorable. Mpho Tutu gave the address, and the music – country flavoured from father and son Hummon – exactly right. The dragonflies were a bonus.

Loncon 3, aka WorldCon, was surprisingly enjoyable. I say surprising as I don’t tend to do very large crowds well, and there were around 10,000 attendees. My panel didn’t quite break out the pitchforks and burning torches, though excellent moderator Janice expelled one member of the audience, and my BeerKlatsch (like a KaffeeKlatsch but… oh, you know the rest) seemed to entertain. As I said on the Book of Face: we drank, we fought, we made our ancestors proud. Probably not much else you can ask from a con.

I have redecorated the dining room. It even looks quite nice.

I have changed publishers. (Hah! Didn’t see that one coming, did you?) For entirely pragmatic reasons, and not because of any falling out with anyone from Orbit, my next two books, and hopefully beyond, will be published by Gollancz. This does affect the next Petrovitch book (#5 – The Edge of Space) in that, while I hope that Gollancz will pick it up, it is not one of the two books I’m under contract for. I’ve just completed the first draft of the first of those. I’ll shortly begin book 2 of what will hopefully be a trilogy. More on these at a later date when I’ve had time to draw breath.

I have an entry in the SF encyclopedia. I think that means I’m now part of the furniture and you can’t get rid of me.

I wrote something about Arcanum for printasia.com. Arcanum continues to divide opinion into three: the ‘worthy effort but ultimately fails’ camp, the ‘WTF is this science crap doing in my epic fantasy?’ group (and boy, do they hate it when that happens…), and the ‘towering work of staggering genius’ crowd, who are obviously my favourites. It’s still the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it, and I’m immensely fond of both it, and the characters in it – even the horrible ones.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbgfQ48hWuY

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Two weeks later…

February 12th 2014

Posted by: in: Arcanum, From the Author, Reviews
Tags: | | |

So, time for a recap.

Arcanum is launched on a mostly-unsuspecting world on Jan 28th. This is not greeted with universal acclaim: there are rumblings in the nether regions about how (and I quote) “I thought this would be a book about magic”. Weeeel, yes and no. More on this in a moment.

As of now, Amazon.co.uk has Arcanum with 3 5* reviews, and on Amazon.com, 1 5* and a 4*. Which isn’t bad. Arcanum is also the Mysterious Galaxy Out-of-this-world Original pick for February. Which is also not bad.

I have a book launch/signing at Forbidden Planet in Newcastle upon Tyne this Saturday (15th Feb), 1-2pm.

Now comes the rub. Friend and colleague (and esteemed script writer) Philip Palmer tweeted last week: “Reading Simon Morden‘s Arcanum – not just a fantasy novel but a glorious hymn to the miracle of science”. Cheers, Philip. That’s pretty much the cat out of the bag.

Okay. Take a deep breath and say it with me: Arcanum is not just a fantasy novel. It’s not, to quote one of the Amazon reviews, about “a merry band of heroes in search of a MacGuffin.” Firstly, the band of heroes aren’t particularly merry, because there’s very little to be merry about – having dodged one existential threat, they find themselves facing another, and this time no amount of fancy footwork will get them out of trouble. Secondly, there is no MacGuffin. Or rather, there is a MacGuffin, but it’s one the heroes have to make themselves, literally forging their own victory out of nothing but ideas and hope.

Arcanum is about politics and social order and religious pluralism. It is also, at its beating heart, about science, both its practice and its philosophy. So you could argue that Arcanum is science fiction – it’ll be interesting to see whether or not it’s considered for any of the SF prizes (like the Clarke Award, hint hint), even though it’s not the first thing you’d point at and say “that’s science fiction”.

Arcanum has wizards and warriors, elves and dwarves, giants and unicorns. It portrays a world in which magic is not just possible, but has been the pre-eminent source of power and authority for centuries. It is also a glorious hymn to the miracle of science. Who says you can’t have both?

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