My Muse is a Sorcerer

I love villains. Always have.

So maybe it’s not a surprise that what I started with, when writing THE OUTSIDE, were its villains.

When I was just a lowly undergrad, I ran an online D&D campaign for my friends. Among the player characters in the game, played by a friend I’ll call Virgo, was a Lawful Evil changeling sorcerer named Akavi.

I loved Akavi immediately. He was intelligent, perceptive, stylish, suave, better at problem-solving than everyone else, and utterly ruthless. Akavi was my type.

Online gaming gave lots of opportunity for side plots and general character drama. Many players took advantage of these opportunities, but Akavi did it fastest and very quickly ended up with his own personal plot – a series of complicated schemes that the other characters, for the most part, weren’t aware of.

I started my D&D game with a fairly detailed world, and several sinister groups that could rise to be main villains if the players were interested. A couple of rapacious mining companies were introduced (it was a steampunk game), but their machinations didn’t get much momentum going. Another company showed up mysteriously overrun by Lovecraftian monsters; they’d been messing with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know as a way of speeding up production.

Akavi, being a Lawful fellow, looked into this company’s paperwork in detail. They weren’t wizards themselves, so he wanted to know who they had hired to perform the magic. To answer his questions, I came up with a new villain on the fly – a half-elf wizard named Evianna Talirr.

Ev and a few minions of hers turned up a few more times. But the campaign’s big bad guy turned out to be Akavi himself. My game had fallen in the trap of too many side plots. Akavi had secretly aligned himself with evil planar forces; meanwhile most of the other characters had gotten into a secret plot of their own, which diametrically and actively opposed Akavi’s.

When the truth came out and everybody suddenly but inevitably betrayed each other, Akavi fought back hard. Stopping him became the party’s biggest mission – all the more fervently because they’d trusted him at first.

By the end of the 3-year campaign, Virgo had become my co-Dungeon Master as we worked together to come up with Akavi’s evil plans for the party to foil. He wound up spearheading a planar war, trying to end the world, and dying in the process – twice.

It was pretty epic, and it ended on a high note, with the evil defeated.

But in the following years, I still couldn’t get Akavi out of my head.

I liked him too much. I had a crush that wouldn’t go away. Virgo missed playing him, too. And we still hadn’t worked through a plot I’d been looking forward to – the conflict between Akavi’s evil-but-Lawful forces and Ev’s transcendent cosmic-horror Chaos.

I’d spent enough time on Ev to develop her view of the world a bit, and to give her a take on cosmic horror that wasn’t quite like what I usually saw. But she’d never really threatened the characters directly.

Trying to run a sequel game, just Akavi versus Ev, didn’t quite work. He’d gotten too evil at some point, and playing him without a proper set of heroes in the mix was just depressing.

So I had another idea: I would write an Akavi book.

One problem: Akavi and Ev were both very entrenched in the mythology of their D&D world, and I was way too proud to write D&D fantasy with the serial numbers filed off.

So I asked myself: “Of the genres I’m comfortable writing, which one looks the LEAST like high fantasy?”

I settled on space opera.

With Virgo’s blessing and collaboration, I started playing with ways to translate the things that made Akavi and Ev who they were into science fiction. The D&D gods became soul-eating superintelligent computers; the magic most crucial to the characters was replaced with super gadgets and modern mysticism, and the rest of the D&D magic system was discarded altogether.

Both Akavi and Ev changed as they adjusted to the rules of this world. Akavi became more buttoned-down, less likely to go haring off on some manipulative tangent for the hell of it. Ev became more tragic and more human. A few NPCs also made the transition, with varying levels of change.

I knew I also needed a hero, someone with a strong heart and good intentions who could get caught in the middle of this conflict without losing themselves. Eventually I found that person in THE OUTSIDE’s Yasira Shien, who I had to generate from scratch.

THE OUTSIDE is now garnering praise for its morally complex characters, its suspenseful plot, and its unusual take on cosmic horror tropes. But its first inspiration came from somewhere humble, even a little silly – it came from the crush that I had on my friend’s D&D character.

Never let anyone stop you drawing inspiration from an equally silly, unlikely place.

THE OUTSIDE playlist!

I secretly make a playlist on Spotify for any longer work I write (as well as other things in my life). I don’t write to music the way many people do. Instead, when a song reminds me of the story I’m working on, I add it to the list, and then I fiddle around with the song order until it feels like it cohesively tells the story. Then I listen to that playlist when I need to think about the story or get excited all over again for what’s inside it.

This also means my playlists are pretty specifically quirked to my (profoundly unsubtle) musical tastes and personal associations that may not make sense to other folks. But I’m happy to share them anyway. Here’s the music that will forever make me think of THE OUTSIDE:

(Mild spoilers below.)

  1. Within Temptation – “Why Not Me” [prologue; Nemesis]
  2. Amaranthe – “Afterlife” [angels and the setting in general]
  3. Nine Inch Nails – “Right Where It Belongs” [Yasira; or maybe Ev, at the corner of the frame, addressing her]
  4. Tarot – “Ashes to the Stars” [Akavi and angels generally]
  5. The Scarlet Pimpernel soundtrack – “Falcon in the Dive” [Akavi, tasked with finding Ev]
  6. Vangelis – “Mythodea”, movement 3 [~*~flying out of the galaxyyyy~*~]
  7. Rihanna – “Russian Roulette” [Yasira]
  8. Nine Inch Nails – “The Hand That Feeds” [Ev; I’m also really fond of the transition between tracks 7 and 8]
  9. Visions of Atlantis – “Passing Dead End” [Ev’s official theme song]
  10. Nine Inch Nails – “The Great Destroyer” [Yasira]
  11. Evanescence – “Whisper” [Yasira, in very dire straits]
  12. Christina Aguilera – “Army of Me” [Yasira, improbably]
  13. Avantasia – “Lost In Space” [Yasira again]
  14. Amaranthe – “Electroheart” [Akavi and Elu]

You can listen to the whole thing below:

Autistic Book Party, Episode 55 and three quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Polenth Blake, “Hello, World!” (Patreon original, 2017; I read it reprinted in Transcendent 3)

[Non-neurotypical author] This quite adorable story is about an AI sent on an uncrewed mission to Mars, caring for a breeding population of guppies. As it gains awareness and independence, the AI becomes attached to the guppies and decides to prioritize their safety and wellbeing over the original mission objectives. I really love the careful, conflicted way the AI communicates with mission control, complying with the chirpy and deferential style of speech that its programmers expect while diverging more and more from their dehumanizing (de-guppifying?) goals. Many autistic readers will be able to relate. [Recommended-2]

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R.B. Lemberg, “A Splendid Goat Adventure” (Patreon original, 2017)

[Autistic author] This humorous epistolary story is set in Lemberg’s Birdverse universe. Marvushi e Garazd, an irrepressibly impulsive pupil of the Old Royal (who we first saw in A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power), sets out on a journey to research a rumor about magical goats. What they eventually find is… not quite goats, but it is a delight, as is Marvushi’s narration throughout. [Recommended-2]

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Andi C. Buchanan, “Girls Who Do Not Drown” (Apex Magazine, Issue 115, December 2018)

[Autistic author] A powerful story about an isolated island and the seemingly limited possibilities for girls and queer youth who grow up there. Every girl in Buchanan’s story has to one day go into the sea – metaphorically or literally – and risk drowning, sometimes at the hands of a glashtyn. When a closeted trans teenage girl sees a glashtyn, her own struggles and worries about the future come into full focus. There is suicidal ideation in this story, but the ending is a hefty punch of hope. [Recommended-2]

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Sunyi Dean, “-Good.” (Flash Fiction Online, July 2018)

[Autistic author] A tense, careful piece of flash fiction about an abusive relationship and a cloning technology which could make the abuser immortal. The way the narrator has been worn down, trained not to resist or object, is depicted with unusual clarity and sympathy; in its context, the hesitant ways in which she does resist have the feeling of heroics. The title, once its meaning becomes clear at the end of the story, is a master stroke. [Recommended-2]

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Robin M. Eames, “the body argonautica” (Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction!, September 2018)

[Autistic author] I was extremely remiss in not including Eames’ poem in my previous DPDSF post, as I somehow failed to notice that they were autistic. “the body argonautica” is an absolutely kaleidoscopic, nearly hallucinatory love poem between two disabled people and it definitely deserved to be mentioned in that prior post, sorry. [Recommended-2]

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Julian K. Jarboe, “Estranged Children of Storybook Houses” (Hypocrite Reader, December 2018)

I’ve mentioned before how changeling folklore has modern echoes in much of our current rhetoric about autism. This fabulist tale, set in a universe where fairies are considered a scientific fact, illustrates my point perfectly – and draws it to a very satisfying conclusion. Be mindful that violence against children is portrayed. [Recommended-1]

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Yoon Ha Lee, “The Chameleon’s Gloves” (Cosmic Powers, 2017; I read it reprinted in Transcendent 3)

[Autistic author] An art heist story which, as one might expect with Lee, swerves into something bigger, darker, and military. It becomes apparent partway through this story that it takes place in the same universe as the Machineries of Empire series, though much earlier; the hexarchate has not yet arisen, and the Kel, rather than being one of several factions working together to control a society, are some sort of autonomous spacefaring mercenary group. This doesn’t make them any less interesting or less deadly, though, as they bring the protagonist’s past back to haunt them. [Recommended-2]

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A. Merc Rustad, “This Is A Picture Book” (Sub-Q, November 2017)

[Autistic author] A piece of interactive metafiction that will make you go WTF DID I JUST READ?! – but in a good way – and rethink what is actually going on behind the pages of books. [Recommended-2]

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Rivers Solomon, “St. Juju” (The Verge, Jan 2019)

[Non-neurotypical author] A quiet hopepunk story in which fungi are slowly reprocessing the trash of human civilization. Two queer women living in a small enclave, where an understanding of ethics is required for legal adulthood, must choose if they will stay in their enclave’s relative safety or strike out on their own. I really like the way Juju, the protagonist in this story, struggles with the state of the world – things are clearly better than they were, yet the oppression of the past and the ways it is replicated in the present still weigh on her. Juju might be autistic or might have some other related non-neurotypicality, but her uncomfortable ruminations and insecurity about the way she communicates are familiar to me from some my autistic friends, and I really like the way her lover accepts her as she is. [Recommended-1]

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Bogi Takács, “On Good Friday the Raven Washes its Young” (Fireside, April 2018)

[Autistic author] A dark and heartfelt piece of flash about deep-sea aliens and street violence. The narrator is (probably) not autistic, but their body moves atypically and they are visibly intersex, which leads to awful treatment from the bigoted inhabitants of their colony. (It should be noted – as Bogi does carefully, in eir story notes – that all of this awful treatment is #ownvoices.) The narrator not only survives, but finds a delightful (if ominous) ending by using their own skills and agency. [Recommended-2]

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Xan West, “Nine of Swords, Reversed” (self-published novelette, December 2018)

[Autistic author] An established-relationship BDSM romance between two genderfluid disabled witches, one of whom is autistic. Both partners have multiple disabilities, and they face an impasse in their relationship caused by a complex interaction of these disabilities as well as trauma, gender, and magical issues. The moments of non-sexual, service-based intimacy in the story are very sweet, and I really liked the scenes of Dev (the autistic partner) using visual colors and patterns to calm xyrself. Once Dev and Noam are pushed to address their relationship issues, they talk everything out so carefully and correctly that it almost feels unrealistic to me. But this remains an #ownvoices story written from a place of deep caring, addressing the kind of nuances in relationships between disabled people that an able-bodied author would never be able to fathom. A lot of autistic romance fans will enjoy it very much. [Recommended-1]

THE OUTSIDE release day!!

THE OUTSIDE, my debut space opera novel with queer autistic characters and cosmic horrors, releases TODAY!

You can get it immediately from your online or in-person bookstore of choice. Here’s a blurb:

Super-intelligent AI Gods rule the galaxy. Their algorithms determine the rewards you reap before and after death. But the Gods give and the Gods take away. And Yasira has never been good at Gods…

Autistic scientist Yasira Shien has developed a radical new energy drive on board the Pride of Jai that could change the future of humanity. But when she activates it, reality warps, destroying the space station and everyone left inside.

The Gods declare her work heretical, and Yasira is abducted by their agents. Instead of simply executing her, they offer mercy – if she’ll help them hunt down a bigger target: her own mysterious, vanished mentor.

With her homeworld’s fate in the balance, Yasira must choose who to trust: the Gods and their ruthless post-human angels, or the rebel scientist whose unorthodox mathematics could turn her world, literally, inside out. 

Advance praise for THE OUTSIDE has been plentiful and effusive. Here’s some. And here’s a list of purchase links. Happy reading!