I was, believe it or not, the second player to arrive.
(Well, not really. But there were just two of us.)
The only other person to greet me after waking up and making my way over to the original meeting room was Martha. Like yesterday, she was laying on her stomach and propping herself up from her elbows, reading. The book was different, and much, much thicker, with a gloatingly smaller font. Immediately beside her, there was a messenger bag filled with books, the bag overstuffed to the point where the flap couldn’t properly close over them. Unsurprisingly, Martha seemed to have used all of her personal item space on reading material.
She didn’t wave me over or greet me with an ice pun, but she did do a very unMartha-like thing as she tilted her head up and looked at me.
After calling my name, Martha scampered up to her feet quickly, bookmarking her page and turning to greet me. She looked chipper, which was… weird. Based off the one day I’d known her — a long day, in fairness — she was not a particularly chipper person. I vaguely remembered once or two occasions where she’d come across as less monotone as she usually did, but I wasn’t sure if her suddenly switching away from that was in my best interest.
Did I need to be concerned?
“…Good morning, Martha.”
“Good morning! I’ve been waiting for you. By, Dorothy told me that…”
She took a breath, stopping herself.
“Well, you’ll probably want to get caught up first.”
“Caught up on what? Did someone…”
She shook her head.
“No, no. Not yet. They all just sort of… went on ahead.”
“They’re exploring right now?”
The agreement that had been made last night was that we’d all go to bed after dinner and explore The Facility together in the morning after reconvening in front of our rooms. I hadn’t been naive enough to expect that no one would go off in spite of that, but everyone?
“Um… no. They’re still sleeping… most of them, at least.”
I took a glance at the clock on the wall, double-checking the time. It said 09:19, which matched up to the time shown when I’d checked my bracelet before leaving my room a few minutes earlier. Considering that we’d gotten back to our rooms sometime around eleven, that was more than a healthy amount of sleep.
Seeing the confusion on my face, Martha explained.
“A lot of people didn’t go to sleep last night… in fact, exactly half of us. Everyone but you, me, Strait, Soso, Dorothy, and the Brigade ended up exploring last night and not going to sleep until about several hours ago. The eight of us are up now, save for Dot, who went back to bed anyway. I caught her right before she went back in her door, and she brought me up to speed on what happened.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, that’s… that’s what they decided to call themselves. Quote, Dent, and the doctor. I’m not entirely sure why, but that’s what they told me. In actuality, it was the… Truth Brigade, but… well, I’m not calling them that.”
“I’m not sure how aware of it you are yet, but they got very buddy-buddy yesterday, especially during the period when you were out. I’m not sure they ever stopped talking to each other once they got going with it. I wouldn’t expect them to split apart that much, barring a Sludging.”
She snapped her fingers together, recalling something.
“Right, the other thing. They settled on the groups last night. They’re just tentative at the moment, but Dot said that Caroline wanted to have something prepared, and no one chose to argue. Since I’m here alone, clearly we’re being fairly liberal with it, especially since Lu and Joyo made it clear they had no intention of taking it seriously, but they went off the principle that it’s better to have some group accountability with alibis than nothing.”
“…Okay. What’s the split?”
“Four groups of four, so it isn’t easy to Sludge people, going off the two person Sludging restriction. The first is Soso and the Brigade. The second was Polycarp, Dot, Caroline, and Claim.”
God, that sounded like a party.
“The third is Hold, Lu, Zeezrom, and Joyo. And the last is you, ZB, Strait, and me.”
“I’m guessing ZB insisted on going along with me?”
Martha nodded. I barely resisted the urge to sigh.
“Supposedly, no one besides Strait was that willing to be in a group with her, and I would’ve fought it myself after hearing about how they distributed everyone, but Dot told me…”
She looked me in the eyes, hers almost shining.
“You’re a writer, right?”
Not counting the escalator leading from below or the mysterious “ONLY 14” door, there were six doors directly connected to the room with the giant dome. As of last night, I’d only gone into the Dining Wing and the Health Wing (just briefly, for the bathrooms), but there were four more: Recreation, Tech, Nature, and Soft (whatever that meant), all six arranged starting clockwise in that order.
Martha was eager to have a conversation with me about my work, but I’d insisted on moving out of the first room before we started. I didn’t have anything against discussing it, mild embarrassment aside, but being in a group of two for any extended period of time seemed like something worth avoiding. I’d framed it as me wanting to avoid a scenario where someone popped out of their room and managed to snipe us with a gun they’d found, and that was a legitimate concern of mine, but I was equally worried about Martha.
Thankfully, she’d taken no issue with my request, even if she did seem to pick up on my suspicion towards her. She was either an understanding pragmatist or a liar; as she led me to where she said the others were gathered, I hoped for the former. As we rode the escalator and entered the Tech Wing, I kept at a distance slightly farther than I might’ve normally had while following someone, readying myself to dodge and run if I needed to. If she noticed my apprehension, she didn’t say anything.
The Tech Wing, much like everywhere else I’d seen up to that point, opened up with a long, long hallway. It trumped the others I’d seen, and it differed in that it had turns, changing directions three separate occasions, left, right, and left again. We passed three doors on our long journey to the end of it — most notably one marked as The Computer Room — but we didn’t stop until we reached the room at the end, The Movie Room.
It opened up to another hallway, but a much smaller one, dark and with softer walls. It resembled the type of opening a person would expect to find after entering a movie theater screening room. It didn’t betray those expectations, and walking inside we found a room indistinguishable from one in any upscale movie theater, a dozen or so rows of plush fully-retractable armchairs spaced out comfortably away from each other in front of a giant screen. They were watching that famous anime movie about a young girl who gets trapped inside the spirit world. They weren’t very far into it, in the middle of the scene where the girl watches the little soot monsters toss coal into the boiler.
In the fourth row, to my relief, I saw five of them sitting down next to each other, The Brigade, Strait, and Soso, all but the last seeming awake and engaged. As we climbed down and approached their row, Quote and Corn turned to see us arrive. After having noticed us, the doctor pointed a remote to the screen and paused it, the lights above turning on automatically. I saw Soso’s eyes flutter open in response, and she turned to her side, burying her head away from the light and apparently trying to get back to sleep.
Strait waved at us.
“Hey, guys! Morning. Want to watch with us? We’re not very far into it, if you’d like us to start over.”
“By and I just wanted to find a safe place to talk, if that’s fine. We’ll be in the Disk Room.”
“That’s super suspicious, but okay! Have a good time.”
With Strait’s blessing, Martha led me forward to the front of the room, opening a door placed to the side of the screen, about where an emergency exit might have been located inside a typical theater. It led to a room about the size of a large walk in closet, and Martha shut the door just as Corn unpaused the movie. I noticed, right before the others were blocked from sight, a large box on the otherwise unclaimed seat next to Quote.
Three sides of room’s walls were made up of shelves, all of which were stuffed to the brim with jewel DVD cases. There were easily thousands upon thousands of films that I could see from a glance, more than a fair representation of any conceivable genre plainly visible and available for public use.
Other than the movies and wall-shelves, the room was mostly devoid of furniture, a sole mini-folding table set up in the center. While I mindlessly fingered through some of the slasher movies on display, Martha set her bag down on the table, tapping me on the shoulder while wearing another wide smile.
Thankfully, the walls were thick enough to completely block off the sounds of the movie, which set us up perfectly for a conversation. With the only entrance to the room being another that currently had five players in it, I didn’t need to worry much about being Sludged during our talk, either from Martha or a potential intruder.
“So, what do you write, By? Dot said that you wrote fiction professionally, but she wasn’t willing to get into the specifics. Do you make your entire living off writing?”
I gave a small nod.
“Wow. And you’re young, too. When did you did get published?”
Yeah, D had been wrong. Lying would’ve been the way to go.
“I, um… didn’t.”
Her smile dropped a bit.
A little more.
“You ever heard of web serials?”
“Conceptually, the term serial is sort of vague, but it generally refers to any situation where a piece of fiction is distributed over time in segmented installments, as opposed to being released all at once. Depending on how open you’d want to be with the interpretation of that, you could theoretically call any regular book series a serial, but that’s not typically what it’s meant to refer to. Most serials publish on the level of chapter to chapter, not book to book, though it does vary.”
As I gave what amounted to a mini-sermon on the history of my chosen medium, Martha looked like I had shot her dog. Sensing her lack of enthusiasm, I paused a few times to give her the chance to tell me to stop, but she didn’t choose to take it. Since I was already committed, I just decided to throw myself fully into the swing of it, hoping I’d get too lost in another tangent to worry about being embarrassed.
“Serials didn’t start on the web; they’ve actually been around for a long time, although never with anything close to the amount of popularity as traditionally published books or stories. The first wave of serialization as a way of publishing stuff really took off in the early-1800s or so, mainly in England. The printing press had been around for a long time by that point, but industrial age advancements vastly ramped up the ability of publishers to print out large amounts of material in record speeds, and that made things like daily newspapers and works of mass serialization seriously feasible for the first time. It became common for Victorian authors of the day to release books parcel by parcel, and many writers began to reach wide success via that method, Charles Dickens probably being the first famous example.”
I scratched at the back of my neck while stopping again, hoping that she’d either tell me to stop or show the slightest bit of interest in what I was talking about.
She did neither. I pressed on.
“The trend quickly started to spread to America and a lot of the rest of the world, and for a good while, it was a very well known and acceptable way of becoming a published writer. Many people would write books or stories first in serial format, later editing and collecting them together to publish as whole works. There’s something of a history of people neglecting to mention it, but a ton of famous classics we still cherish today were originally released serially: All Quiet on the Western Front, Crime and Punishment, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers, Anna Karenina, and a whole bunch of the Sherlock Holmes stories, just to name a few…”
Still stone-faced. Oy.
Which one of us was being weirder? It was her, right?
It had to be her.
“Serials were a big thing for a long time, but they saw a huge dip in popularity a little after the turn of the 20th century, and by the time the 50s rolled around they were hardly even around anymore, regular books, radio, and television sort of pushing them back out of the public consciousness. That lasted until the Internet came around… but even that wasn’t enough to propel them back into full popularity, at least not instantly. The net allowed authors to release content with a lower barrier to entry than anytime in history, and that was great, for the most part, but most people were still fairly apprehensive about letting themselves get invested in stories written on WordPress blogs.”
Why couldn’t she say something? A tiny nod, anything… God, I didn’t need a panel’s worth of cheering, but anything to confirm that I wasn’t tangentializing to a brick wall…
“Early on, there were a handful that were popular enough to eventually get traditional publishing deals — two I can recall even got movies, in fact — but web serials themselves were very much a culturally unknown phenomenon for most of their existence. Even established pro-writers who tried to publish stuff that way were mostly met with failure; Stephen King cancelled an experimental serial about halfway through due to lack of interest. It still made, like, half-a-million dollars over a few chapters, but I guess that’s a failure when you’re Stephen King.”
Humor was just as ineffective as everything else, Martha still as cold as ice.
(ZB was starting to infect my metaphors.)
“Web serials got a little more popular over time, mainly due to a handful of excellent writers trying out some freaky experimental stuff and a few various oddball niche-interest groups that couldn’t find much appealing content in mainstream lit, but they never got much more than a peak at real success. Before 2020, there were probably less than a dozen people making a livable income from it.”
“And what happened then?”
“Well, I started writing my first serial several years before that, and began writing my second one… oh, maybe late 2018, I think. I got a big boost of success sometime the next year, mainly due to a recommendation from a random Internet celebrity, but even then I wasn’t any bigger than most of the other larger serialists at the time; for me, we’re talking about a readership of maybe around a few thousand, max.”
“So your serial was the one that broke the barrier to mainstream success?”
“Oh, god no. That was… that was somebody else. There was one writer at the time who’d gotten closer than anybody to doing that, and he’d been writing for something around a decade at the time. Long story short, he got a TV deal. That was like, three years ago, and even though the show’s been taking forever to come out since then, the news was enough to give his serial national attention. When it was greenlit, it was planned to break the record for the most expensive season of television ever made, and I’m fairly sure that it’s on pace to actually do it during filming right now.”
“And with everyone wanting to read the original during the wait, that gave serials attention again?”
“Pretty much. The writer edited and published a traditional version prior to that, but the fact that it was originally a serial wasn’t lost or ignored in the way that it was every other time a serial managed to receive some type of popular adaptation. The fact that the guy had a few other finished serials to read probably didn’t hurt things, either. The rest of us have been feeding on the success he shone on the medium since, including me, since I happened to have a moderately popular one at the time of the boost. We’re sort of in the first golden age of web serials right now, and I think most people in the community are expecting another big boost after his show finally airs come Spring.”
She’d tossed me one or two questions, but her tone still wasn’t particularly jubilent.
I felt a little defensive.
“It’s not… it’s not a perfect medium. I’ll acknowledge that. The nature of serials might encourage writers to ramble on more than they would otherwise or go overboard with cliffhangers, but I’ve seen a lot of literary and entertainment value come out of stories that couldn’t really exist in any other format. You can’t walk up to any publishing company and show them your million word long D&D session or time-loop epic or superhero tragedy and expect not to get laughed out of existence. I guess self-publishing is an option, but that’s even tougher to find any audience with, and you miss out on a lot of the communal aspects that serial-writing offers. I’m doing mysteries, and that’s different, but-”
“By, I’m not…”
Martha interrupted me, only to stop herself and take a moment to breath.
“By, sorry. I’m not trying to come off as judgmental. It’s just instinct and resting bitch face. I’m, um…”
She forced a smile.
“Look, I’m… I’ve always been really into reading. Ever since I was a toddler, basically. I can’t write, and I don’t have any interest in it, but I love digging into a good book. Reading literature and discussing it with interesting people might be one of the only things that makes me truly happy in life. But, well…”
She exhaled again.
“I used to be sort of a snob about it, and a small part of me still is, deep inside. Growing up, I was something of a… I guess ‘literary purist’ would be the best way to describe it. I only liked reading stuff that most people would think of as deep literature, and I had a very strong tendency to look down on anyone who went against that. There were entire genres and mediums that I just sort of saw as worthless… honestly, if you’d came to me and described what you just did to me when I was fourteen, I would have written you off as immature. I had a lot of… very, very strong opinions about what made for a good book, and they weren’t very well founded.”
“Um… but not anymore, right?”
“Well, to an extent, yes. As a whole, I still prefer to read books that would for the most part get categorized as high literature, but I’m not instantly dismissive in the way that I used to be of anything that isn’t. I used to think that all sci-fi and fantasy and young adult stuff was schlock — and a lot of it is, don’t get me wrong — but a lot of it isn’t, and it isn’t fair of me to declare that it all has no value just because it doesn’t meet my exact tastes. I’ve read good YA novels, as much as would kill high-school me to hear me admit as an adult. I try to view things on a more holistic level than I did before, if I can, and that goal keeps expanding my boundaries, little by little. Just over year ago, I didn’t think graphic literature was worth taking seriously either, but then somebody on the Internet convinced me to read Maus and A Contract With God, and hey, I was wrong about that too. For me, I guess web serials might just be the next step in that. Here…”
Before I could respond, she held a finger up and turned to the table, dumping out all the books from her messenger bag and spreading them out.
There were some that were familiar to me: Indignation from yesterday, along with Walden and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, both of which I’d already read. (I loved Christie just about as much as any mystery writer was legally obligated to, but come on. What a load of bullshit.)
There was more I hadn’t heard of: Augustus, by John Williams, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, and Orlando: A Biography, by Virginia Woolf, among others.
Most of the fifteen or so additional titles were also unfamiliar to me, written in other languages (one was either Italian or French, but I wasn’t sure which), with a few definitely in Spanish.
The only other one I could pick apart from a glance was Moby Dick, which made me stifle a giggle. Thankfully, Martha didn’t hear me do it; she probably would’ve gotten the wrong idea. Admittedly, I wasn’t always the most mature person in the world, but I didn’t go bursting off into laughter just because I saw a funny word. (I wasn’t Zettabyte.)
I just happened to know a lot about Moby Dick, and it was sort of a reoccurring inside joke between me and my Dad. Amelia Earhart was to my thirteen year old self as Herman Melville was to my father; he’d written his Master’s thesis on Moby Dick in particular, and Melville himself was something of a hero to him. Being an English teacher, my Dad pushed me to read a lot as a kid, and as soon as he felt I was able to he’d thrusted me towards the white whale in hopes that I’d become just as much as a Melville-fanatic as he was. I didn’t, but it did influence me in more ways than I might’ve cared to admit. Four semi-forced readings of a book that large will manage to influence a person somehow.
Moby Dick, in theory, was a novel about a man who tries very hard to kill a whale. In practice, it’s about six-hundred unnecessary pages of outdated, inaccurate whaling terminology, biblical references, dream sequences, soliloquies, philosophical interludges, and whatever the hell else Melville wanted to try cramming inside his gorgeous mess of a novel.
But all that was good, and damn good. Melville stood as the king of tangents, and as much as I didn’t get it as a bored preteen, it influenced me a lot as writer once I tried my hand at the art myself. Space Attorney (up until the ending, and I didn’t think about the ending unless I had to) wasn’t written in any special convention-breaking way, but I tried to ape that constant tangential writing-style of Melville’s once I began Ionia of Illumination, thinking that it might translate well to serial format. It sort of did — if my readers were anything to be believed — and Ionia of Illumination ended up as a very disjointed and oddly connected work because of it. Sure, it was a cheap trick to keep the reader’s attention between the actual bits of story, but it worked, right?
IoI was written in the first-person, and Ionia herself was written as the type of character who floated around from thought to thought in order to justify my writing choices, not always quite able to focus. I tried my best not to make Ionia too much of an author-insert, but we did definitely share that habit of getting off track easily, so it wasn’t too hard of a mindset for me to get into.
(Had I been writing a traditional story in a book, I might’ve gone the David Foster Wallace route of jamming footnotes down the reader’s throat, but due to the potential annoyances of implementing something like that in an online format, I settled for abusing parenthesis instead. It didn’t look the sexiest, but it got the job done.)
“Here, By. Let me ask you a question. How do you feel about references?”
“You mean in a work of fiction? As in mentioning another work in your work?”
“Um… it depends, I guess. It can be fun to give little shoutouts to things, but it might be something to be weary of. If you make a reference and a reader doesn’t get it, it might leave them in the dust a bit. I’d probably avoid it, if possible.”
“See, that’s what I used to think too, but…”
She tapped near the mole under her left eye, in thought.
“Look at it like this, By. In the next room, what’s the name of the movie everyone is watching?”
“Oh, Spirited Away?”
“Yeah, that. By, you’d agree that most people in first world countries probably have at least heard of it, right? I’m the farthest thing from a person with any knowledge of or serious interest in film, but even I’ve seen it twice.”
“…I would guess so. It’s pretty universally recognized as one of the greatest films ever made, and it’s the type of thing that doesn’t really appeal to any single group in particular.”
“Right! So, say — and I’m talking purely hypothetically here — that we were in a story, or a novel, or a web serial or whatever. If an author was trying to describe what the others are doing in the next room, how should she go about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like… the thing that they’re watching. With the knowledge that most people reading would probably have at least enough knowledge to recognize Spirited Away by name, should they say it directly? In terms of literary conventions, is it more appropriate to say ‘They were watching Spirited Away’, or is a writer supposed to be more vague? Maybe, to be more inclusive, a writer might say ‘They were watching a Miyazaki film,’ or ‘They were watching that famous anime movie about a young girl who gets trapped inside the spirit world’. Maybe just, ‘They were watching an animated movie.’ Do you think that any of those options are inherently better or worse?”
“…It’s not something I’ve put much thought into. From an accessibility standpoint, I guess one of the latter options would be preferable, but I don’t think you’d need to go the vaguest possible extreme, especially with something like Spirited Away. Again, a lot of people know it.”
“Okay, okay. So say it was something waaay less people have heard of, like some snooty foreign film they played twenty years ago at Cannes. What then? It if didn’t really have any relevance to the work, do you think the author should even mention something like that? If web serials are the way you make them sound, I’m guessing you don’t have a problem with a few extra unnecessary details, at least sometimes. Is it wrong for an author to have some of those extra unnecessary details be references that they know a lot of the audience isn’t going to get?”
“…I mean, kinda. On top of everything else, adding excessive references, especially contemporary ones… that dates it, doesn’t it?”
She snapped her fingers, smiling.
“That’s it, By! See, that was one of my obsessions, back when I was a literary purist. Timelessness. If a work of writing is truly great, the thinking goes, then it’ll provide the same experience to anyone who reads it, regardless of if they read it the day of publication or five centuries later. Because of that, I used to look down on books with excessive references. Timelessness was achievable with references too, yes, but not too many of them, and not if they were ones from the era the book was being written in.”
She paused, smiling and shaking her head again.
“But that’s… true timelessness, you know, it’s not possible. Pieces of writing are always going to be reflections of the era they are written in. Authors can mitigate that, and maybe they should, in certain ways, but a work isn’t necessarily better or worse just because it takes steps to prolong how accessible it might be to people in the future. Part of being a reader of stuff in the past is putting in the work to understand the cultural context that inspired the text. Here, look.”
She picked up a worn extra thick paperback off the table, pushing it into my hands. It was in Spanish, and I hadn’t made the connection at first, but I suddenly recalled the title from a long forgotten Spanish class.
“El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. Just Don Quixote for most, but it’s more fun to say the full title like that. Have you read it?”
“Uh… no. We read a small selection in a high school class, but I don’t remember too much past the core concepts. Guy reads too many fairy tale books and goes insane, to the point where he thinks that he’s a heroic knight, right? It’s supposed to be the first modern novel, if I remember correctly.”
“That’s it in a nutshell. It’s always been my favorite book, but when I was undergoing my transformation to a less uptight reader, it changed my perspective a bit. I was rereading it for the upteempth time, and I realized that Don Quixote isn’t really timeless at all, at least going by the weird conception I had of timelessness back then. Here…”
She flipped to a section very early on in the book, pointing to it.
“Just a few chapters in, a bunch of characters who are concerned for Don Quixote’s mental health go to his house and start burning all the books they think made him go nuts. They sort out his massive library and mention all the books they want to keep and get rid of directly by name, explaining why for each one. If someone today was reading it in an edition without footnotes, they’d miss out on a good chunk of the subtext, but the entire chapter is basically just a giant excuse for Cervantes to directly shit on a bunch of real books he didn’t like. Is it timeless in the sense that it’s accessible to people who aren’t familiar with those books? Not at all; but it’s still really, really funny, even just knowing the basic idea of what he’s doing. I doubt even a tiny fraction of the millions who’ve read Don Quixote throughout the last four-hundred years have also read Felixmarte de Hyrcania, but that doesn’t take away from how funny it is that the author essentially put his entire story on hold so he could take a metafictional potshot at it.”
“Hell, The Divine Comedy is considered by many to quite literally be the greatest piece of fiction ever created, and it’s essentially an entire three-part epic dedicated to doing the exact same thing; in a lot of ways, it’s just Dante rambling in verse about how everybody he disagrees with will be tortured forever.”
“…That makes enough sense.”
“And I’m not saying that I think writers should just go full throttle on references either; just that having them there, even excessively, doesn’t in itself render a book valueless. There are a lot of instances where you can totally damage a book’s worth by adding references; like, if someone started off a book by making jokes about Internet memes or something, you’d probably be safe in stopping right there. But that’s my rule- probably. If I want to be an open-minded reader — and I do — I need to acknowledge that I can’t be as quick to dismiss entire bodies of work just because of small little nitpicks I don’t like about the author’s style. Good criticism focuses on wholes, not parts. ”
I might’ve known someone with a similar rule.
“…But still, references are a tool to be handled with care. A plot that relies on references; that’s always going to be a recipe for disaster. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it, but there’s this one YA book I read some time ago, it’s just a literal list of…”
She shook her head.
“Whatever. Say, since you seem to know your stuff, By… if I wanted to try out a web serial, could you give me a recommendation? Again, trying to expand my horizons, so to speak.”
“Sure. Any preference on genre? If you don’t mind either way, there’s one in particular that I’m just nuts about, if you wanted to-”
“No genre preference, but as a precursor, nothing with too much gore, if that would be alright. I totally acknowledge that works with excessive violence can have literary value; I just don’t have the stomach for it. I’ve tried small chunks of Bret Easton Ellis and McCarthy, and they had such beautiful bits of prose, but… Christ, I almost lost my lunch. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to read The Road, but…”
“Sorry for interrupting, my bad. What were you going to recommend?”