Trying something new. We’ll see where it goes.

SCENE—A deep, muddy trench beneath a gray sky. Barbed wire curls along its lip. We can see no further than a few feet in either direction, owing to the overwhelming gloom. Everything glistens slightly with moisture and rot. In the midst of this stygian tableau crouch two SOLDIERS, mired up to their shins in muck. They lean on their rifle butts, visibly exhausted.

SOLDIER ONE—D’you ever dream, Saunders?

SOLDIER TWO stiffens and sits up a little straighter. Caked in filth the two are almost identical, but there are a few differences: SOLDIER TWO has scraped as much of the mud from his face as he can and is either clean-shaven or too young to have any sort of real beard, unlike his companion. His helmet is unwisely in his hands rather than on his head for the moment. He turns it over and over as he considers the question.

SOLDIER TWO—I’d sure like to.That would mean I felt safe enough down here to get any kind of shuteye at all. All the waking and sleeping is getting kinda … muddled up in my head, if you take my meaning. Before Mess yesterday I looked about and there was a rat the size of donkey pulling straight for me, barreling down the trench like his tail was lit on fire. Went up like smoke before he could reach my throat, but boy! For a moment or two there I thought I’d just about had it!

SOLDIER ONE—Mmm. Fair chance that wasn’t a dream, kiddo. I’ve seen ‘em big as alsatians. Remember the one Jenkins stabbed to death last February? Thing had to weigh sixty pounds, easy. I’d say you probably just got lucky and the big bastard spooked and changed his mind before tackling you. Easier pickings around here than a living man.

SOLDIER TWO—You’re right, of course.

SOLDIER ONE: Damn right I am. (He smugly tries to light a cigarette that refuses to catch).

SOLDIER TWO: I just keep thinking about what it was screaming at me. You ever heard of something called the Plague Brigade?

SOLDIER ONE stops swearing and fussing at his smoldering cigarette.

SOLDIER TWO— (thoughtfully, more to himself than SOLDIER ONE) It sounded like it was speaking Nightmare, but it all happened so fast I couldn’t be sure. And why in heaven’s name did it have the head of Ma’s favorite china doll?

SOLDIER ONE has now turned completely around and is staring at SOLDIER TWO with open worry, cigarette dangling forgotten from his lip. SOLDIER TWO stares back levelly.

SOLDIER ONE: You, uh. You told anyone else about this rat, lad?


SOLDIER ONE: Good. For pity’s sake, don’t!

What In-Progress Looks Like

So I’m a firm believer in transparency of process. Stories and books can and do go through a million iterations before they hit the presses, and first drafts are most often garbage. That is, I am told, the purpose of first drafts, to be hot steaming August rat fuel.

I’m currently working on a novel, and lemme tell you, this shit is hard. It’s a completely different muscle from short fiction. 30,000 words in and I have no fucking clue where I’m going, where we may end up, or if this thing I have spent literal years of my life wrestling with will turn out any good in the end. But, y’know, we’re 30,000 words in, so turning back now is probably a bad idea.

It is here, at roughly 120 pages in, that I have decided to stop and post an excerpt, just so you can see what a flaming mess a first draft is. I won’t say I’m sorry, but I will say you are free to flee the area without any hard feelings.

Listen. D’you hear that sound? That rustling, like the wind stirring linen on a line? That low flutter, those wingbeat gusts flattening the grass as they pass over yonder?

Gossip, my doves. There’s no catching it once it takes flight.

A tinker says he saw a Sister of the Golden Eye leave the Temple more months back than he’s got fingers, and he’s had so much to drink he ought to be seeing in triplicate. Hunters coming home from the deep woods bring back rabbit and doe and tales of this same Sister spotted traveling north, towards the desolate places where grass and game run thin. Much, much later, a grave’s grass length of time has taken root and now it’s a herb-woman saying she’s spied the Sister riding back south with a child, a gangle-legged brown-skinned slip of a thing no older than a ten-count.

Could you see the ears? her customers ask. Has another come so soon?

The herb-woman shakes her plaited head, scattering rosemary needles every whichaway. Nay, nay, she says. Was towards dusk, and the wee thing was so shaggy-headed with such a tangled black thatch of curls it’s a wonder they could see at all from underneath it. But why else would the Sister have gone to fetch a foundling from the Desolation? Why else if it wasn’t time, and just in the nick of time to boot?

Tongues flap. Tales spread. Accounts are passed round from hand to hand until they tarnish and lose their shine. It takes a good hard firsthand polish from a goose-matron to give them back their luster.

There she was, just stirring the pot and wondering whether or not it was going to decide to rain—praying for the former and betting on the latter, for it was getting on to that time again where the people’s prayers fell thicker than raindrops—when in through the front door of her cottage burst a girl, knobbly-kneed and shabby-dressed, all legs and arms and hair like a crow’s nest and great big golden eyes peering out from beneath that put you in mind of an owlet’s. Straight into the goose-matron’s face she had looked, this strange little creeture, and whatever she peeped there must have disappointed her mightily, for she had promptly burst into such a fit of sobbing you would’ve figured her heart cracked in half. All of this in the time it took to stir widdershins, and the poor goose-matron so startled she nearly dropped her wooden spoon straight into the cauldron.

And then—may blight strike every randy gander and laying goose in her flock if it wasn’t true, strike every bird stone dead the eve before market day—who strides in behind this unfortunate child but a Sister of the Golden Eye, a blessed Sister of the Temple of the Talon, and then the goose-matron DID lose her spoon. Her face was hidden behind one of those wooden masks they were always wearing, carved and painted to look like wild birds (this Sister’s was done up something like a nightjar, the kind Mam had always called a goat-sucker) and small, she was, but you could just feel the power pouring off her, like a banty hen fluffed up beneath her garb.

My apologies for the interruption and the intrusion, miss, this sainted banisher of hungry shadows says. Imagine that, would you now? A Sister of the Golden Eye apologizing to the likes of her! Once on a blessing day what seemed a thousand years back the goose-matron’s Pa had lifted her atop his shoulders so she could see a procession of them pass as they made the rounds of the nearby villages, but none of that lot had spoken, Griffin preserve her. My charge got away from me. Wild as a fox kit, this one, but she meant no harm by it. Wipe your nose and say sorry, Sparrow.

It was lucky breaks that no bats had taken roost in the goose-matron’s mouth, for sure as anything her jaw was swinging like a cellar door. The girl had stepped up, snot-stained and streaked with dirt and all the fire in her eyes gone, and she did as her minder told her to. That seemed to satisfy the Sister, who gathered the girl up in her robes and swept back out the way she had come without so much as a by-your-leave. Them’s of the Temple of the Talon didn’t need to by-your-leave anybody if they didn’t have a mind to and you could pretty well guess they knew it. Even her apology had been a generously given mercy.

All of that would have been strange enough on its own to make the goose-matron think she’d dreamed the whole thing, if not for the tear stains on the cobbles and the tracks in the path to her front door. But none of that was the important bit. No no, the important bit was what she’d seen peeping out beneath the girl’s hair.

Was—was it, her audience would ask, leaning closer, barely daring to breathe—

Oh, aye. As sure as the bushy brows above your eyes. Feathers. Her ear-tips were as feathery as a wren’s bottom. They’ve got another one, and make no mistake of it.

Listen. D’you hear that sound? It would be rather hard not to, now, for it’s all the people talk of far and wide. A new Griffin’s Child is coming. Ring the bells and rattle the bones. Gather your sick and your dying, your hopeless cases and your rootless lepers. Or don’t bother; they’ll surely gather themselves, streaming along the road to the Temple like refuse before a floodwave.

She is coming. Feral shadows banished for another generation, the clock rewound so tight you can hear the springs creak from the strain of it. She is coming to read the stories that will stitch the world back together, and everyone runs for a bucket the way they would hearing thunder after a long drought.

ONLY HARMLESS IS A NOVELETTE, or: Eligibility Post 2018 Good-Time Rockafire Explosion

I’ve been swaying back and forth on making this, as every single year my skin crawls and my gorge rises and my chills, they multiplyin’ as awards season approaches and I feel obliged to do the seasonal song and dance of self-promotion, which for me is less a dance and more a painful flailing ailment not unlike St. Vitus. I hate talking up my own work, and I hate making a dedicated post about it even worse. Is there anybody out there I haven’t already gibbered frighteningly at about the stuff I published this year? Isn’t this what Twitter is for? Does anybody even read blog posts anymore?

I’m self-deprecating about my work; I still feel like someday soon somebody’s gonna wake up and realize they’ve been paying me for this shit and then it’s off to Imposter Jail breaking rocks for the next thirty years. Worse, I am very very lazy, and blog posts require more effort than rattling off BUY MY BOOK on social media. But here I am, and if you’re reading this here you are as well, so I guess we might as well go on a magical temporal journey through the year’s output together before a video of a kitten arsonist distracts your attention or mine or HEE HEE HOW DOES IT HOLD THE GAS CANISTER WITH ITS LITTLE PAWS–

Okay. Right. What did I write this year?

THE ONLY HARMLESS GREAT THING (NOVELETTE, 17,200 words, Tor Dot Com Publishing): Hey, remember my little book that Tor published in late January of THIS YEAR? 2018? The year that is still going on somehow? The year that will always be going until we all die? It’s eligible for Best Novelette in pretty much every award going. Because it’s a novelette. There has been some understandable confusion on this matter because it was released as a hold-in-your-hands dead tree book under’s novella project. Do not let that fool you, as the Sad Elephant Book is something like 300 words too short to technically count as a novella. Under certain rules it could still slip in even if it was miscategorized as a novella, but my WORRY is that the confusion is going to split votes and kill my chances completely. Which would suck.

I don’t mind not making the ballots. Shit happens. Shit is forever happening; it’s whatever. But if I don’t make the ballots because half the people voting thought it was a novella and the other half knew it was a novelette (because it’s a novelette) and that wee little technicality sinks my battleship, I will be very cross indeed. So: NOVELETTE. NOVELETTE. It’s not quite a mop and not quite a puppet, but maaaan.

Novelette. Spread the word. If you see someone calling it a novella, fly down squawking and get tangled in their hair.

THE TALE OF THE THREE BEAUTIFUL RAPTOR SISTERS AND THE PRINCE WHO WAS MADE OF MEAT (short story, 7,000 words, Uncanny Issue #23): Man, y’all REALLY love dinosaur fairy tales. I love you all for loving dinosaur fairy tales. This has not a chance in several hells of entering the short story ballot fray, already a perennially packed field jammed with much more deserving, less ridiculous entries, but if your heart demands that title be jotted down in one of your slots for the sheer ridiculousness factor alone, it’s a short story published in August 2018. It wanted to be a novelette as well, but just missed the mark.

NO FLIGHT WITHOUT THE SHATTER (novelette, 8,000 words, Probably the best thing I’ve ever written. Extinct animal ghost aunties, climate change, and the logical endgame of the Anthropocene. A novelette, because I am apparently incapable of writing anything shorter than 7,000 words these days. Nobody read it because it dropped the week of WorldCon–a week after Three Raptor Sisters had already captured everybody’s moist, bloody hears–but I’m mentioning it anyway because it’s as eligible as the other two and deserves a chance just as much, dammit. I’m a sucker for the underdog, or under-thylacine, if you will.

(Although if you gotta pick one to put on your Novelette ballots, make it Only Harmless, as the chances for that one are waaaaaaaaay better. But you don’t HAVE to pick. You could stick them both on there, if you had an empty slot and were feeling generous.)

Thassit. Vote your heart, as always. If you put any one of these three on your ballot I’ll be eternally thankful for the thought, not least because it’ll make me feel less crabby about how bad I am at making these eligibility posts every damn year.

2018 In a Nutshell: Help! I’m In a Nutshell!

Uh, damn, been awhile, hasn’t it?

So The Only Harmless Great Thing launched back in January, and the reception has been everything I could have hoped for and more. People have been incredibly kind. I got a good review from frickin’ Warren Ellis. It looks like I’ve probably already earned out, six months in. You can’t ask for much else from a weird little 96-page novelette about an alternative timeline where elephants function in place of Radium Girls. Thank you so, so, so much to everyone who has read, reviewed, recommended, and otherwise been massively supportive of my first book. Without y’all I’d just be telling stories to my dog.

But time rolls merrily on, and so too hopefully does my career. Wonder of wonders, wake the kids and call the neighbors, I’ve actually been productive this year in the wake of the book. Three stories sold! Possibly four by the end of the year!

- “No Flight Without the Shatter” is probably the best thing I’ve ever written, and also quite possibly the most depressing (sorry in advance). It’s about found family, endlings, endings, changes, and saying goodbye. Indrapramit Das calls it “a gorgeous song of extinction, conducting the voices of those lost in the anthropocene apocalypse into a moving farewell that’s also about memory, survival, and hope.” I am weirdly proud of this one. Please read it if you get a chance & can handle the sads.

- “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” is a … slightly less serious affair. It is, as the title states, the story of three beautiful velociraptor sisters, a stupid prince composed of protein, and a slightly more clever witch-princess. I wrote this for Uncanny’s Dinosaur Issue and the response has been overwhelming. Who knew people would react so strongly to dinosaur fairy tales? It has garnered some extremely surprising fans. I’ve been suggesting folks read it immediately after No Flight Without the Shatter, much the way Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro were originally released as a double feature.

- “A Bird, a Song, a Revolution” sold to Lightspeed last month, and I am so thrilled to be back with the market that pretty much launched my career. It’s a little story about history, and art, and how the art we make can foment revolution. Look forward to it some time early next year.

- Provided I can meet my deadline I’ll have a story in Do Not Go Quietly: An Anthology of Victory in Defiance, a collection of stories about resistance and revolution curated by Apex Magazine editors Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner. No idea what shape it’ll take yet, but you know it’ll be angry. And look at the other names on that ToC! Fran Wilde! Cat Valente! A. Merc Rustad! Rebecca Roanhorse! Seanan McGuire! Please back this Kickstarter!

Plus there’s this novel I need to finish, which will happen some day. Eventually. Maybe. I’ve thought about starting a Drip or a Patreon to post snippets on, but I doubt anyone would be interested in my shaggy bits of cast-off WIP. Enjoy the finished stuff; it’s all free (except TOHGT, obviously) and all waiting for you out there. Go! Read! Enjoy my fresh-squeezed word juice!

ONLY HARMLESS Review Roundup!

So it’s three months and 100 days until The Only Harmless Great Thing drops on January 23rd. I am already having anxiety dreams. I have already been having anxiety dreams for a month now. People tell you you’ll be nervous, but they don’t mention the low-level simmer of “oh god the New York Times is going to pan me or Publisher’s Weekly is going to skin me or maybe they just won’t care and honestly which would be worse” that sets in when your have an imminent book release peeking over the horizon like a moon that may be a space station with a death ray at its heart.

That said, there are moments that alleviate the nail-biting and most of them have to do with early reviews, of which TOHGT has already gotten a handful. Link roundup below!

- A really almost embarrassingly glowing review from Shana DuBois over at Nerds of a Feather that I was pretty certain was being sarcastic until I realized that no, no, she really did love it that much. Every time I get a review that good, some part of me assumes sarcasm. I don’t think that will ever go away completely.

“This novella is not typical anything. It is not a standard scifi adventure, it isn’t a literary gem, it isn’t any one thing because it is everything. There is not a single wasted word in this treatise of perfection. Sometimes you read a novella and lament it is not book-length. The Only Harmless Great Thing could only ever be what it is and Bolander nails it. 10/10.

- The wonderful Alasdair Stuart also gave it an equally glowing assessment in a review that utterly knocked the breath out of for me for several days. I swear I don’t owe him my soul. Not for this, anyway.

This is an astonishing debut in this format from an astonishing writer. It seethes with rage and love and knowledge. It demands to be read. Listen to it.

- Sharp-as-a-new-tack Will Shaw also really (mostly) dug it, and (this is really, really fucking important to me and I’m wondering how many reviewers will catch these themes as well as he did) noted the FILTHY SOCIALIST OVERTONES of solidarity that glue the book together.

This final act of compassion, this insistence on solidarity in the face of fatal oppression, is fundamental to the book’s success. The Only Harmless Great Thing is bold, cutting, and exactly what science fiction needs to be right now.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is available for pre-order wherever you purchase your booklings. Please buy my filthy commie elephant book so I can continue to write & sell stories about whatever crazy crap pops into my head and makes me angry.

This Is All The Internet’s Fault.

A Cautionary Tale

There’s a corpse in Ras’s bathtub. That’s not important, at least not currently. Here is what is important: the toilet paper roll is empty, stripped as naked as the aforementioned body in the bath, and Ras has just taken what may very well have been the largest, most explosive shit of her life.

Her universe has suddenly winnowed down to the bathroom and all its assembled objects: a dirty sink, a clawfoot tub, a corpse. The toilet paper roll, which is–again–empty. All of the towels are in use elsewhere. Ditto the shower curtain. That leaves Ras with very few options. Not the bloodstained trousers currently pooled around her ankles–she’s not a fucking animal, Jesus, c’mon–and not her mangled hand, the reason her nice new pants are all bloodied up in the first place. There’s not much time left, but she’ll be damned if she leaves this restroom in a state that would make an elderly poodle blush.

That gives her just two other options: the shower mat (cornflower, just as frayed and nasty as all of its kind) and the actual cardboard tube the toilet paper used to happily exist on. The corpse is beginning to make a high-pitched, uncomfortably wet noise, like air escaping an improperly-sealed plastic bottle. It’s pretty easy to guess what comes next after last night’s adventures. After the vindaloo, but before the screaming? That part. Yeah.

Cardboard tube it is, then. People used to wipe their asses with corncobs. When you think of it like that, it’s a step up, really.

Ras has the tube unattached from the dispenser and halfway to its final grisly destination before the better, less disgusting solution hits her. Why not just hose off in the shower instead? She’s got time, right? Last night it took something like five minutes from that wet noise until the hatching. She’ll be quick. In and out. Like a boss.

Gingerly she climbs out of her bloody trousers. Slowly–carefully, very carefully–she steps over the lip of the bathtub, trying not to use her bad hand at the same time as she’s trying not to step on the poor bastard crumpled like a used kleenex against the cold white porcelain beneath her. He never even mentioned his name. Ras feels a pang inside, although it might just be more indigestion. Vindaloo and fear are a bad mix.

The showerhead burbles lukewarm water. The corpse’s uncorking noise continues to grow in pitch. It doesn’t take long to get clean–at least, Ras doesn’t think it takes that long. But here’s the thing about time in bathrooms: it doesn’t work like time anywhere else in the world. You think you’ve been in the shower five minutes, but really? Five hours, if you’re lucky. Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in the bath and look what happened to him.

So the water’s barely switched off before the stalk is hatching from the corpse’s head.

Ras is surprised, and Ras is terrified, but Ras is also CLEAN, and there is very little as liberating in the world as getting clean. She sails back over the side of the tub like her head is on fire and her ass catching. She briefly catches a glimpse of herself in the medicine cabinet mirror as she sails by–eyes as big as saucers, black hair streaming like a comet’s tail–and then she’s past, grabbing the only weapon she can think of: the heavy porcelain lid of the toilet tank, underside slightly damp with condensation.

I should have just gone to the goddamned bodega and bought a cheap roll there, she thinks, bringing it down on the parasite with all the strength she’s got.

Trail of Deader Still

I like to occasionally post snippets of the Trail of Dead sequel just to prove to people that, yes, I am still working on it, and yes, it is still pretty goddamned angry. Somehow I think it may be getting angrier.

Somewhere above the jagged treeline there are moons, stars, planets where the weather is controlled by committee and the food is sown in plenty and going hungry getting poor growing tired is a story you tell your doe-eyed dewy-cheeked uterine slough to make their genetically perfect little faces scrunch up in bedtime night terrors. Monsters live in the dark, my meaty tit-polyp. They look like us, but they’re not. Some of them sell their bodies for money instead of fucking over other people. When they screw, nothing comes of it but a good time and extra laundry, because—here approaches the real horror, darling discharge of my dangling dingus—they can’t even afford to print new clothes every goddamned day. If a storm blows in they might all drown, and then who has to clean the bodies and pump their lungs dry and check if their consciousnesses are backed up? Who auctions off the ones too fucking poor to hire salvage crews to locate and reload those scraps of personality? Who sells synth shells down by the seashore? Why, their local planetary governments, of course! And what a fuckin’ disgrace it is, that decent from-the-womb-splatted human folk have to help pay for any part of that wretched swarm’s upkeep. Monsters, sweetest dumpling squeezed cunt-stained and screaming from mine nethers. Use your riches like a shield and the good fortune of how you were made like a sword and hire a bootheel to stand on their necks until the squirming chokes, slows, stops.

Rhye strides through the night, the mud and the mosquitoes and the darkened houses scattered sagging on either side of the road like bone-tired old men who have outlived all their buddies. She does not look up at the sky. Fuck the sky.

More Big News: “The Only Harmless Great Thing”

Life just keeps on getting weirder, doesn’t it? Here is how conversations with me generally go these days:

YOU: “So, how are you?”

ME: “Well, the world is a dumpster fire filled with hungry, angry ghosts and we may all be dead before this time next year, but on a personal and professional level? Pretty damned well, my friend. Pretty damned well.”

YOU: “I understand entirely, as this is the way of the world. Allow us to nod knowingly at one another over the State of Things.”

And it is entirely true! Our country continues to eat itself in a way that would make a gore manga artist blanch, but blessedly the one thing I can worry slightly less about is myself as a developing writer and a working human being. Which is all a long-winded way of saying that 2017, while resembling a clown car plowing head-on into a truck filled with gangrenous dicks, is also the year I finally sold a book.

Because of course it is.

The book’s title is The Only Harmless Great Thing, and it will be released by Tor Dot Com Publishing in 2018. It will be a Real Book Made Of Dead Pulped Trees, which also rather terrifyingly means that for the very first time, you will be required to pay money before you read something I wrote. I am not at all entirely confident that a lot of people are inclined to hand over the sweat of their brow for my disjointed word flail, but that may be why I’m a writer and not a book publisher–I don’t judge the quality of the sausage or the demand, I just grind the bejeezus outta that mess of pig parts. My editor on this project will be the fabulous Marco Palmieri, a fine and talented gentleman I’ve been wanting to work with for actual, factual years.

I’ll keep anybody who cares to know updated on release dates, pre-order links, cover art, and all that other stuff that is relevant when you are publishing an actual goddamned book holy jesus fuck how did I suddenly get here? Shockingly for me, it’s an angry little thing, filled with righteously pissed women, an elephantine Greek chorus, and an ingrained disgust for capitalism’s machinations.

I dearly, dearly hope you’ll take the journey with Tor Dot Com & I in 2018, provided we’re all still alive by that point. Fingers and trunks crossed!

Nebula Finalist Frenzy, or: IT HAPPENED AGAIN WTF BBQ

So. Uh (isn’t this how these always start? Am I honestly so creatively bereft that I can start out a blog entry no other way than sputtering?):

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” my thousand-word rage bark published in Uncanny Magazine, is a finalist for the Best Short Story Nebula. Again, to everyone who put it on their ballot: holy shit, thank you so goddamned much. I was helping clean up after a family funeral when I got the call, so to say that I needed that good news is a grave and frankly insulting understatement to the gift you all handed me. I didn’t expect to get on the ballot last year. I figured it was probably the last time I’d be within six city blocks of a ballot for a long, long time, if ever. Is being a finalist again so soon intimidating? You’d better fuckin’ believe it, buster. Is trying to figure out how I am going to follow this up absolutely bowel-twistingly terrifying, the fear that I’ll never write anything else worthwhile once again lurking at the edges of my internal narrative like a shadow beneath a 1 AM streetlamp? DING DING DING.

It isn’t going to win. I give so little fucks about the fact that it isn’t going to win. I am going to lose to the best–my dear friends and my peers–I am going to go home with a nifty pin and niftier certificate, and I am going to love every minute of it, just like last time. This is further than I ever saw myself getting. This is, like, Voyager probe levels beyond where I ever saw myself getting. I’m honestly just enjoying the hurtling through space bit. The view from out here is great! Flying away from the Earth at extreme velocity is something I highly recommend trying these days.

Meanwhile awards season continues, as the world burns down around us and the mad emperor capers and plays his kazoo, and thus I am obligated to mention that “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” remains eligible for the Hugo ballot (closes March 18th! Supporting members don’t even have to attend to submit, although Helsinki is rad as hell) and the Locus (April 15th! You don’t have to do, uh, pretty much anything to vote on that one). The Hugos have been what polite circles would call “a spluttering sphinctal shit-blizzard” the past few years; at the very least I’d love to be on a final ballot for that fine old rocket that didn’t make me want to bury in face in my hands and throw up through the gaps in my fingers like a baroque bile fountain.

That eldritch power, however, rests solely in your hands–and believe me, friends, your hands have already done me more than enough of a good turn this year. Again, from the bottom of my salted and burned little heart: thank you.

The Last Guardian

So. I played through The Last Guardian. As you might expect from someone with two Team ICO tattoos, I have some thoughts.

I have a dog, a Border Collie, named Murphy. Murphy and I understand each other better than any other dog I’ve previously lived with, whether because of his breed or the time we spent doing agility together or just because we’re a good personality match. Working with Murphy is not like training a dog. It is more like trying to bridge a communicative gap with an alien intelligence who desperately wants to please, depending on his mood that day and whether or not he’s mad at me for some perceived personal slight. It doesn’t feel that he’s less intelligent, really–it’s just that his world is completely different from mine. He might as well be from a planet made of synesthesia.

Fumito Ueda has managed to convey that unique relationship to an almost spooky degree in The Last Guardian. I’ve already seen complaints from reviewers about your giant cat-bird-wolf being ‘stubborn’ or outright ignoring commands to the point of shrieking, controller-throwing frustration. I played through the entire game in roughly 12 hours, and not once did I have a problem getting Toriko to do as I asked–so long, that is, as I was giving him the correct commands. As on the agility course, if the animal misunderstood something I was asking for and got confused, the problem was usually one of communication and lay entirely at my feet for somehow mucking up a gesture or a spoken word. Lots of positive re-enforcement (pets, food barrels) and clear commands equaled a perfectly amiable catbirdthing experience.

And that is the minor miracle behind The Last Guardian. Team ICO/GenDesign managed to create an animal AI so realistic and so beautifully, lovingly realized that the exact same rules apply working with it as they might with a real live animal. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and nothing else will probably come along to top it any time soon. Ueda seems to understand animals and the natural world as few hands working in the games industry–any industry, really–do. More importantly, he respects what animals are. Even at its most sentimental, the game never forgets that this is a big, powerful, potentially deadly wild thing, who can (and occasionally does) knock you across the room when he’s in pain or scared or fighting mad. We forget the animalness of our animal companions at our peril. They are not babies. They contain multitudes, and some of those multitudes will kick your skull into a hammered mess if spooked.

It’s not a perfect game, don’t get my breathless adulation wrong. The camera occasionally flips its shit and zithers into a hellish netherworld behind the scenery or inside Toriko himself. You are constantly fighting to keep this goddamned thing upright as it gently drifts to a perfect vantage point which which to examine the underside of a virtual rock. The platforming elements are solid, but unforgiving; point your cute kid in the wrong way while jumping for a rocky outcropping and he goes sailing leftwards into the void sans parachute (this is not a game for people with a real and present fear of heights). And the barrel physics. Oh, God-Jesus have frickin’ mercy, the barrel physics. As mentioned, I never had any frustrations with Toriko, but I was very close to calling down a plague of extended development times on the next seven generations of Team ICO’s progeny during the two barrel physics puzzles. I want my catbirds realistic, my tattooed moppets easily controllable, and my barrels not fucking rolling, bouncing, and careening, thank you and goodnight. Swearing happened. The words FUCKING BARREL PHYSICS!!!! were bellowed at a volume that probably had my downstairs neighbors mightily confused.

But here’s the thing: past a certain point, you just don’t care. The controls are finicky, but Toriko is rolling happily in a puddle, all four sets of talons merrily raking the sky. The camera needs a therapist and some sort of prescription medication and quite possibly a young priest and an old priest, but there’s a point where Toriko nudges the kid and the kid giggles and gently scolds him and they are ALIVE in there. They are alive and you care about what happens to them and no other game can touch that experience.

If animation is the illusion of life, Fumito Ueda has the wizards at Disney and Pixar beaten in a way that would have a referee stepping in with an alarmed expression on their face. It required nine years of gestation because it took seven days to make the world and two more to dream up and breathe life into a thing that exists only in our dreams.