Situations and comedies

So apparently this book, the fantabulous tome The Gates of Vienna, qualifies as literature. I know that because I was asked to talk about it and other things I’ve written and designed at a literature festival.

If you don’t believe me, check it out here:

I don’t often think of The Gates of Vienna as literature. I think of it as a funny story in some new format that I haven’t quite come to grips with and that ironically don’t have a lot of time to write for these days. I could imagine this being a curse of a sort of success. Well, I could tell myself that at any rate.

At the festival I attended a really fascinating workshop on sitcoms. Sitcoms are, I often need to remind myself, “Situational comedy”. They have a fairly common format, are almost always a half hour long to watch and as far as I know only on TV. The session, by one Deborah Klika, was about “Rereading the Sitcom” as a form of literature and how sitcoms work. Most of us, myself included, just think of sitcoms as fun, fairly mindless half hours of TV you watch at night. This is largely true, but they are indeed a form of literature and art. High art if you ask me. In fact, I would argue Seinfeld is probably the pinnacle of American art in general, but that maybe is another blog post.

The interesting thing is one of the primary things making a sitcom a sitcom is a small cast of characters who never change. That is, their “emotional stasis is reestablished.” And as the writers of Seinfeld were credited with saying, “no hugs, no learning”.

This was always the intent really with The Gates of Vienna, and I’ve often described it as Curb Your Enthusiasm during a 17th century siege. To show that the stories and the people populating and taking us through them are all the same, whether in the mid-90’s or the 1680’s. 

Sample of the point of view character - Valvasor

I'm writing, I really am. These points of view for The Gates of Vienna take a while. There are spreadsheets! Dates, times, maps, all of that. When you're writing a thing like this, and one that needs precise latitude and longitude, there's loads to sort out. How long would it take to walk from this mountain hamlet to this obscure Austrian village? Anyhow, here's a bit of whats coming up with The Gates of Vienna.

The Baron vs. the Bakica

Bojanci, White Carinthia 17 Jul 1683

Valvasor was a kindly looking man prone to moments of prolonged and intense study producing squints and wrinkles. He considered himself elegant and learned and carried himself as such, relishing in the fact that in Carniola and the frontier, the Slovenians and Croatians had not much of an idea about much besides farming, the odd war, going to mass and schnapps. To them he was known, he assumed far and wide of course, as Janez Vajkard Valvasor.

It was schnapps that brought him to Bojanci to seek out the famed Uskoki who were said to brew it in severed Turk heads. He had in his times previously being assigned to a unit in the frontier, met and led the odd Uskok or someone who came from one of their valleys, but he had largely never spent any time with them.

The Uskoki, “The ones who leap”, were originally from the seaside town of Senj in Croatian speaking lands and had taken to piracy quite well in times past. As they were under the auspices of the Emperor in Vienna, they were cheerfully allowed to harass, sink, maraud, plunder, pillage, dishonour, castigate, embarrass the otherwise do whatever they fancied with any ship, boat or galley flying the Ottoman flag. They enjoyed this for almost a century, attacking and plundering Turkish vessels and taking to beheading in particular. Being, he imagined, of a robust nature fit for the humour of the sea air and crags, nooks and outcrops of the arid and barren shoreline; they took the job very seriously.

The Turks were keen on raiding for slaves up and down the Adriatic, and the Uskoki were very aware that there may be Christians on board, either slaves to be in transit or pressed into service on the ships. They then began roundups on board, gathering anyone who looked like they might be Turk on deck and proceeded to have them drop their trousers. Circumcision to the vehemently Catholic, God-fearing Uskoki, was not only reprehensible physically, but a quick identifier for those of the Mohammedan persuasion. Those that were circumcised were promptly liberated of their other heads which were piled neatly like canon balls.

It was reported that on one particularly foreskin-less capture the question of Jews was brought up. They apparently invented the practice of circumcision, the Muslims taking the practice from them, and were deemed potentially responsible. During this particular debate, mid-slaughter on a captured Turk slave galley off the island of Cres, the captain of the mission decided to honour his name day, his favourite and namesake Saint Robert. The only appropriate way he decided that lovely, sunny and good-winded June day, was to behead any Jews just in case.

During an unusually dry summer of piracy, the Uskoki started plundering Venetian ships, driving the already tenuous if not outright hostile Venetian-Habsburg relations to the brink of war. Vienna responded in turn, and they were banished inland and made to settle in the area of Bela Krajina, or White Carinthia. There they turned their Turk-killing skills to raids across the border into Bosnia and nearby Ottoman-held territories and as regular foot soldiers in the employ of the Emperor.

They never gave up their love of beheading but did manage to pick up the skills of the Carinthian schnapps making to tide them over. In Ljubljana reports soon followed of an incredibly potent schnapps brought up from the Uskok region and sold in dank back rooms after border clashes with the Turks. It was known as “glavovica”, or schnapps likely of plum origin, “made in heads”.

Valvasor, seeing this rare and expensive schnapps available for the first time, and having lost a bet on his Pythagorean proofs, bought round upon round of the stuff. Days later after paging through his journals, he could see the drunken scribbles of a man extolling glavovica and how he could see through time. He realised he had no hangover at all two days later and was just a bit still drunk and decided to seek the legend of glavovica. This search would mesh perfectly in theme with a planned expedition to the region to investigate reports of the štriguni, or the local variant of the undead. This is how he found himself in a small, stone cottage on a sweltering July day in the hamlet of Bojanci, extremely drunk with an 85-year-old woman.

Writing for a book that doesn't necessarily end

Ordinarily, when I tell people about The Gates of Vienna, I explain it regarding what the story does. Now I’ve been asked to speak at a literature festival, which, besides boggling my mind, has flipped how I need to talk about it, which is what it means for writing.

The Gates of Vienna was always intended as a story, not a software demo. However, that story was to be enabled by technology. That’s because not only do I write things, but I also design how people use software for a living. The two things, story and the design of how you read it, were to co-exist peacefully and symbiotically in one big hug of an experiential thing. A lot of that experience is for the person writing.

The Bastion platform essentially allows you to create books that are worlds that don’t necessarily have to start or end that distinctly. This was deliberate.

I like to consider myself a designer and an author. This takes a lot of time. So the author side of me told the designer side of me to figure out a way to have this comedy about a 17th-century siege inside a thing that I can keep on adding to when I get to it. Since nobody is paying me just to sit and write, unfortunately, this was a big deal. The designer side responded by looking at how stories are structured with scenes as a base unit and how you could reconfigure how people could read this. You can add scenes wherever you want because there is no real beginning and end, there are just multiple, overlapping timelines.

Bastion fundamentally flips how literature and stories are written because of the format of the book. Most of the time the format of a book is very rigid. We’ve had to accept that you write stories for a format that is a single, paper-based container that starts on page 1 and ends at the back cover. It should have a table of contents, maybe an index and a bunch of pages about copyright in the beginning that no one reads. If that isn’t enough for the story, you make another book. That is what we’ve understood to be a book. That’s it. For centuries it has been like this. I figured it was time for a change since the old way wasn’t working out for me.